The Construction of Nature and Wilderness
Viewed as strong and pristine, nature has always been there for human kind. A view that journalists deal with every day, constructed a long time ago with the creation of the first national park in the United States.
From one of many park benches on the Malecón, a long stretch of parks famous for it´s fantastic view and visited by many tourists, Barbara Fraser ponders about the philosophical side of nature “I think this whole concept of wilderness of pristine nature is a romantic concept that doesn´t always fit reality” she begins.
In United States there is a whole movement to preserve wilderness even in areas that where not originally wilderness, Fraser continues.“Yosemite national park which was created, which is sort of the iconic park, was created by moving indigenous people out of that area so that the park could be created.” she says.
To listen to the entire audioreport with Barbara Fraser, speaking about the construction of nature, click here
“CARLETON Watkins clicked, Abraham Lincoln signed, Yosemite was “saved” and environmentalism born.” In this way the researchers Kevin Deluca & Anne Teresa Demo introduce their research of the images of Carleton Watkins and their role in the construction of the first national park in 1864, the yet so famous Yosemite in the United States. The Carleton Watkins photographs from the 19th century created an iconic image vocabulary for environmentalists and their work towards public preservation of nature, but also a way of viewing landscapes as sublime and pristine that still are present in contemporary reproductions of the West, the researchers conclude.
The nature in Peru echoes the Yosemite concept of nature. With the famous Machu Picchu, one of the objects on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and the Andes as core icons of sublime and pristine nature many Peruvian livelihoods within the tourism sector, depends upon the view. But the reality is somewhat different.
“I think there is both faces.
” Elie Gardner, multimedia journalist who both reports on cultural and environmental issues in Peru, explains further. “First of all I think that Peru is very bio diverse, she says. Explaining about the famous costa, sierra and selva (the coast, the mountains and the jungle), Elie points to the difference in the biodiversity in the country. Within each region you have large cities and rural areas. There are areas that are pristine, and touched nature, not taken care of. When you go to areas where there is a lot of people living, such as Lima, she continues, you see trash and environmental disasters everywhere “so I think there is both faces.“ she says. The tourism sector is of great importance to Peru and is constantly growing. Two and a half million visitors came to the land of the Incas in 2011. “I think that what is true is that in tourist areas they are a little bit better kept up, because they have the means to keep them up, they have staff and budgets and that’s because tourism brings in money and Peru values tourism.. “ Gardner says. But in other places, she continues, there is not as good regulation and not as many resources that is needed to keep the places in a good condition.. “
Influence on environmentalism
As a result of the Watkins photographs and the view of nature as pristine, environmental groups from the beginning focused their energy on wildlife and not the inhabited environment of urban areas. In Deluca and Demos study, some examples are mentioned of environmental groups missing major tragedies to the environment just because they happened in urban areas, as the case of the dying Hudson- and Mississippi rivers. The Watkins photos had more than one unintentional, or intentional, effect, where the greatest might be how his construction of nature in pictures has influenced environmentalism. The photographs mark the beginning of environmental preservationism and ecotourism and Watkins view and construction of nature sets the parameters of what counts as environmental politics even today.“.. Watkins’ photos cultivate and propagate an image of a sublime nature, but, to be precise, a spectacularly sublime nature reduced to a domestic spectacle, a nature both sublime and a source of sustenance for the civilized tourist.” the researchers Deluca and Demo says.For the benefit of showing nature as pristine and that it shouldn’t be meddled with, environmental organizations as Greenpeace still take advantage of the view today.
The concept of nature as pristine is a sharp contrast to the true picture of the Yosemite area. About ten years before the photos of Watkins was taken, the valley had been cleansed from indigenous people, the Ahwahneechee that had been living there for 3500 years. People who had been taking care of the environment, burning the meadows and creating the environment that the white people now decided to celebrate and preserve. Yosemite was not pristine and empty, it was emptied the researchers highlight. And by the absence of natives, Watkins is as guilty of contributing to the project of eliminating Native Americans from the wilderness in United States as the next person they argue. All in the service of a myth of pristine nature that did not exist.
“It is what do I choose to show, what do I choose to tell” Indigenous people, as in Yosemite, have always been living in the Andes and the jungle. When reporting on environment, Fraser points to the reporter’s responsibility. “I can take a photograph of a monkey in a tree that looks completely pristine, whereas I might be right beside a clear-cut. It´s what do I choose to show, what do I choose to tell, there are a lot of filters on that information that, that also need to be taken into account.”
Deluca and Demo conclude their research of the Watkins photographs by saying that the construction of pristine nature is a product of the urban, upper-class, whites. It has marginalized other cultures, to a great extent the Native Americans and their vision of nature and human-nature relations.
The creation of environment as we know it, is to a large extent the creation of a white mans tale. It is time that we let someone else tell the story of the environment.
By Katarina Wohlfart
To read more about the Yosemite national park and how it has effected the way we view nature, see
- DeLuca K.M. & Demo A.T. 2000. Imaging nature: Watkins, Yosemite, and the birth of environmentalism, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol 17 No.3, p241-260, DOI: 10.1080/15295030009388395