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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 9 Numbers 2, 3, 4 1999

Experience of Wilderness


Tony P. Murphy
Hamline University
St. Paul, Minnesota USA

Abstract.  Increasing pressure is being placed on wilderness areas. To preserve this landscape, an understanding of the meaning of wilderness is required. This interpretive research, employing the Sense-Making Methodology, examines how people make sense of or give meaning to wilderness. Twenty informants at a large midwestern university were interviewed for the study using a highly structured open-ended Sense Making instrument. Results confirmed prior studies on the meaning of wilderness -- particularly the sense of wilderness as a place for withdrawal from modern life, for physical and spiritual renewal and as a connection to the environment. In addition, the study showed that these meanings were shared by visitors and non-visitors to wilderness, suggesting that a common definition of wilderness is present in the U.S. culture. Finally, results pointed to the importance of media portrayals of wilderness as a site of meaning creation, particularly for those without direct wilderness experiences and the potential importance of these vicarious, mediated experiences for efforts to preserve wilderness.


Wilderness, as a term, conjures up a variety of images for many people. Research studies have shown that for some people wilderness may be represented by a landscape of large open spaces with a backdrop of mountains showing very little, if any, human disturbance. For others "wilderness provides quiet and solitude and is most frequently viewed as a green forest" (Heberlein, 1982, 175). Physical characteristics attributed to wilderness include "beauty, wind, and desolation" (ibid, 177), but the term also evokes both positive and negative emotional words such as "freedom, darkness, peaceful, lonely, free, solitude" (ibid.). The ability of a wilderness setting to provoke positive feelings and emotions has resulted in its use for therapy and as a restorative experience (Greenway, 1993; Hammit, 1993; Hartig, Evans, Garling, & Davis, 1993; Hollenhorst, Ernest, & Watson, 1993; Oelschlaeger, 1991). An understanding is required then "that there is a wilderness beyond...and there is a wilderness within" (Smith, 1990, 8-9).

Some writers define wilderness as a 'state of mind' (Nash, 1982) or "an island within" (Nelson, 1989) which may be threatened by the stresses of post-modern society (Greenway, 1995; Smith, 1990). To regain this 'wilderness within' people need to travel to the physical wilderness, transcending onto a higher plain of existence leaving behind the old concepts of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics. However, Sikorski (1993) suggests that the location -- a definite area of wilderness -- may not be as important as the characteristics it possesses which reminds people of their role in nature and connection to the earth. Indeed, Sikorski (1993) contends that wilderness can be located in urban settings just as in vast rain forests, and in traveling to wilderness people are on a voyage home because here "the things that are most ourselves, but that we have denied, repressed, (or) forgotten" (29) are recovered. These definitions or meanings for wilderness may have been influenced by a physical place, but one that does not necessarily conform with the stereotypical, large scale image of wilderness, by an experience in a natural setting, by the media, by a combination of all these occurrences, or by some other event.

In this article, I will examine the ways in which individuals give meaning to wilderness. Such research is not common in the natural resources community but many studies do examine managing wilderness and people's impact on this landscape. Yet not recognizing the role of individual's meaning for wilderness is an important omission in trying to conserve this landscape.

The basis for this article is an exploratory research study conducted in 1996 with university students, both those who had and those who had never visited what they considered to be wilderness. Two issues need to be considered in this article: the geographic location of the informants selected and the legal definition of wilderness used in the study. Even though the informants were located in a large midwestern university, they were from various locations around the U.S. The 1964 Wilderness Act, passed by the U.S. Congress, was used as the legal definition of wilderness. Data analysis confirms existing research and has important implications for the natural resources community.

Statement of the Problem

Within the framework of federal lands, agencies administer legally designated areas, of which wilderness is one category. These areas of land are set aside for various scientific, aesthetic and recreational purposes. It is not within the scope of this article to trace the historical development of the legal wilderness system or the people who profoundly affected the perceptions towards and development of these areas. However, the pioneering work and writings of Thoreau (1817-1862), Muir (1838-1914), Leopold (1887-1948), and Olson (1899-1982) with the establishment of federal land agencies (National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management) and environmental groups (Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, etc.) have had a major influence on the legal definition of wilderness.

Wilderness is used for a myriad of purposes by the general public from physical challenges, to reaping the psychological or spiritual benefits espoused by many eco-psychologists, to reestablishing an earthly connection. Such uses create one of the biggest problems facing federally designated wilderness -- people and people management. Researchers have examined the issue of visitor management and the landscape qualities that are expected by visitors. However, few researchers have studied the meaning that the individual, either a visitor or non-visitor to these areas, gives to wilderness in her/his life. Is the presence of wilderness, whether it is visited or not, "a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope?" (Stegner, 1960, 197). Is this 'geography of hope' crucial to the continued existence of wilderness, the fostering of a sense of place, and indeed our own survival?

The continued existence of wild places is dependent on a person's interpretive landscape of wilderness. It is the development of this meaning that will surely help in the maintenance of large scale wilderness areas. But how is this meaning created? Is it shaped by direct experience alone or some combination of direct and vicarious experiences? Previous research has not examined such questions in a comprehensive manner. It seems the focus has been on word associations (Heberlein, 1982) and characteristics of the landscape (Hummel, 1982; Hallikainen, 1993) rather than the meaning or the creation of the meaning for this landscape. Even research in the use of landscape imagery in film (Helphand, 1986) and its influence on the meaning of wilderness has not been pursued by the natural resources community. Indeed, a particular meaning for wilderness is often assumed in these studies yet the creation of this meaning is not covered. This article examines the issue of meaning creation and the experiences involved in the generation of this meaning.

It is clear that the natural resources community has been slow to examine this aspect of wilderness. Research focusing on the meaning of wilderness and the creation of this meaning becomes increasingly important as wilderness areas and all natural environments continue to come under mounting pressure. Outdoor recreation numbers and wilderness visitors continue to grow as the search for natural resources and commodities (minerals, timber, etc.) expands. Indeed this pressure has been visible since the early seventies when in some wilderness areas visitation permit programs had to be instituted to prevent over utilization of the resource. Curtailment of access is continuing to encompass many national parks, which may influence and increase visitation patterns to wilderness areas. As a result of this, conflict between the various multiple uses perceived for wilderness areas by different sections of the community may multiply. The future of wilderness will hinge on how people interpret 'wilderness,' whatever it is.

Yet, meanings alter through time-space for individuals. When examining a term such as wilderness and how individuals create meaning for this, a holistic approach to explore the meanings attributed to the term by the individual is required. This is born of the realization that the person operates not in a fragmented manner but as a unit. The person can be visualized as a:

...body-mind-heart-spirit, moving from a past, in a present, to a future, anchored in material conditions... with an assumed capacity to sense-make abstractions, dreams, memories, plans, ambitions, fantasies, stories, pretenses that can both transcend time-space and last beyond specific moments in time-space. (Dervin, 1999, 4).


This study explored the term wilderness as defined by a number of informants through their language and the manner in which as individuals they gave meaning to the term. In addition, the experiences, events, and/or people that influenced the informant's meaning given to this term were highlighted. As this was an exploratory study on the term wilderness and the influences on its meaning-making, the informants were purposefully selected. Both groups selected for the study stated that they possessed an interpretive landscape of wilderness (i.e. had given meaning to the term), however one group had visited that landscape/ place/ area which they considered to be wilderness (called visitors) while the remaining informants had never visited that landscape/ place/ area (non-visitors). In addition, this selection allowed an examination of the influence of direct and mediated experiences on the creation of meaning for wilderness. The researcher assumed that there would be variability across time and person, but that variability could be patterned if one examined situational predictions. 1

The Sense-Making Methodology was selected because of its history of effective unravelings, at least in part, of people's interpretive worlds vis-a-vis phenomenon (Dervin, 1989). While this is the first study to use Sense-Making on wilderness issues, prior studies have shown a generalizable utility across phenomenon, including community participation (Higgins, 1994), advertising research (Shields, 1994), and feminist studies (Shields & Dervin, 1993).

The Sense-Making Methodology is based on a metaphor that pictures reality as gap-filled in part, and human movement and interpretation of reality as gap-filled in part. The metaphor, thus, captures the idea of traveling through a gap-filled time-space. An individual moves through time-space cognitively, emotionally, physically "using whatever sense he or she has already constructed based on personal as well as vicarious experiences" (Dervin, 1989, 77). In this case, experiencing represents more than the total of emotions, encounters with the world, and individual's ideas; it also involves connecting meaning to various relationships with the world and naming these encounters. The Sense-Making interviewing approach has evolved as a highly structured questioning format, which is as free of researcher content as possible. The structure is based on the assumption of the ubiquitous dictate of the human state -- "movement through time-space" (Dervin, Jacobson, & Nilan, 1992, 429). Inherent in the methodology is the mandate that the interviewer listen to the informant describe the situation in which she found herself, how gaps were faced and bridged, and what ways this helped or hindered the informant. The bridges may consist of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and answers, in conjunction with the criteria utilized in the construction process. Any people or situations that may have helped or hindered the resolution of the gaps are probed. In this way, the respondent supplies all the content, real moments in time-space that are relevant to the respondent, his personal reality, and the research.

Sense-Making as Methodology for Exploring Wilderness as Process

Recent wilderness research has used a variety of interpretive data tools (biographies, diaries, journals, and more traditional research methods) (Chenoweth & Gobster, 1990; Goodey, 1982; Hanna, 1995; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Talbot & Kaplan, 1986; Tanner, 1980) to collect information about environments. For the most part however, this work has treated wilderness as a product (with objective features) consumed by participants. This has been true, even though wilderness research has pointed to process -- the inherently process oriented notions of traveling to wilderness, voyaging (through wilderness) to the "landscapes of childhood" (Sebba, 1991, 419) and the "journey as the adult self into the childhood self" (ibid.) as being equally important. Past research has also treated wilderness as a social construct but has not fully realized this emphasis.

While there exist entities (both living and otherwise) that occupy a space that has been legally defined as wilderness, this term conjures views and characteristics of the world for each person. Dervin and Clark (1989) generated a statement while exploring the construct culture which has implications for wilderness.

One restricting idea is that culture is a static entity to be preserved. A more flexible framing focuses on culture as construction, as constantly in the process of being, as something that is continually being re-invented. (Dervin & Clark, 1989., 6).

Substituting wilderness for culture within this statement frames the focus of this study: the manner in which people construct their meanings for wilderness. Past research has limited itself to the legal wilderness definition without ever considering the meaning that individuals or groups give to the term wilderness. A secondary point is the possibility of preserving wilderness as that 'static entity' within boundaries when it is clearly impacted by many natural events, including phenomena resulting from human action. Perhaps now is an appropriate time to focus on wilderness in the 'process of being' rather than, or in addition to, a product.

Research Design

The Sense-Making Instrument

The protocol for the interviews complied with the Sense-Making Time-Line interviewing approach by creating a highly structured open-ended questioning format virtually free of content other than directing informants toward their own wilderness experiences and asking them to describe these in terms of their movements (physical, cognitive, emotional, spiritual) through these situations. Questions used in the instrument arose from statements by researchers in relation to wilderness, people relating their encounters with wilderness, and personal experience. The preliminary Sense-Making instrument was circulated to individuals involved in Sense-Making research and wilderness activities for comments. Revised with feedback, the instrument was tested on additional groups. Once this was completed, the instrument was used with the informants for this research.

The instrument was divided into a number of areas which dealt with the informants' definitions of terms (wilderness, nature and environment), descriptions of wilderness experiences, impacts of spiritual and religious beliefs on the meaning of wilderness, values placed on wilderness, implications of wilderness experiences, and the impact of wilderness on their lives. Within these areas, informants were asked to identify specific moments in their wilderness experiences such as their first, last and most recent visit, their best and worst experience, whether the visits had become more challenging, and the impact of media on the meaning of wilderness. With these experiences providing a temporal/spatial anchor, each response was probed with a series of additional questions such as the major events (experiences, books, TV, movies, etc.) and/or people that influenced visits to wilderness, memories of the visit, connections with life, and the recollections/ emotions/ feelings/ experiences that were strongest about the experience.

Towards the end of the interview the participants were asked to reconfirm the meaning of wilderness and then were given the legal definition of wilderness to read and consider any correlation with their own idea of wilderness. Following this, participants were informed of the activities allowed in such areas and again asked if there was correspondence between their views and the legal definition. The methodology also mandated that the informant connect the material experiences of wilderness with their own interpretive worlds. Demographic data questions and any additional comments from the participants were solicited at the end of the interview. By following this structure, the Sense-Making Methodology allowed the researcher to be part of a personal journey with the informant. The transcripts provided the primary source of data for the research.

Informants Involved in This Study

A group of twenty undergraduate and graduate students at a large midwestern university whose student demographics match the mainstream U.S. population was selected. The chosen methodology dictated that informants be randomly selected from the university phone directory. Using both undergraduates and graduates as part of the study increased the diversity in age, experiences, and inclusion of informants from outside the local area. In a preliminary phone interview, students were asked whether they had visited an area which they considered wilderness. A group of 90 possible informants, visitors and non-visitors, was generated using this method. From this final pool, four sets of informants were created: five undergraduates and five graduates who had visited wilderness, and five undergraduates and five graduates who had not visited wilderness.

Data Analysis

Data analysis followed the regulations of the interpretive, qualitative, naturalistic inquiry described by Crabtree and Miller (1992), Lincoln and Guba (1985), and Strauss and Corbin (1990). As noted by Glaser and Strauss (1967), Lincoln and Guba (1985), and Strauss and Corbin (1990), the principal intention of interpretive inquiry is to generate grounded theory. Following the transcription of the interviews, the transcripts were returned to the participants as part of the member-checking procedure. In this way, it was possible to correct any errors in the data collection and to challenge interpretations of the data. Interviews were coded and analyzed inductively and deductively in a manner that was predominantly qualitative. A codebook was maintained for the analysis of the data from which grounded theory emerged.


Results are presented in terms of eight major themes that emerged from the data as the major factors influencing the creation of meaning for wilderness. These were: Wilderness Experiences: Memories and Constraints; Wilderness as a Universal Value; Wilderness as a Process for Gaining Perspective; Wilderness Landscape and Its Role in Meaning-Making; Wilderness as a 'Spirit-scape'; Wilderness Experienced Vicariously; Wilderness in Flux; and Wilderness and its Support. Each theme is elaborated in this section. Illustrative direct quotes from informants are inserted throughout.

Wilderness Experiences: Memories and Constraints

While all twenty informants believed that it was possible to have some sense of a wilderness experience without being in that particular setting, it was generally a pale imitation of the 'real' experience. Many believed that it was possible for media of various types (movies, books, music, photographs) and memories to trigger emotions or pleasant recollections about a wilderness trip, but the person had to have a prior experience in a wilderness setting to make that connection more relevant.

You can watch a TV show that's particularly well done, or a movie, and you can gain a sense of wilderness. But certainly not to the degree that you can by being there. (John, business major, graduate visitor to wilderness)
While the emotions generated by these images, sounds, and memories could be quite strong and vivid, they only constitute a part of a wilderness experience. Ten of the informants had traveled to what they considered to be wilderness. They believed that the type and quality of the setting had a large influence on their experience.
I think it is difficult to have a wilderness experience without being there or having experienced it previously. (John, business major, graduate visitor)
All of the visitors associated the best memory of their wilderness experiences with the landscape. Emotions imparted by the environment included relaxation, spiritual qualities, and the sense of awe experiencing the physical grandeur of a location.
The mountains are just so visually stimulating... there has to be no signs of activity... you have to be isolated from activity. (Ian, political science major, graduate visitor)
In addition, considering the amount of research on the therapeutic value of wilderness experiences, this finding was not surprising. The 'cleansing effect' or spiritual impacts of wilderness experiences were cited by many of the visitors as the major reasons for taking such trips.

For the visitors, access to wilderness areas was mentioned as a continual problem. Visits to these areas were limited by finances, proximity (distance) and time. Frank saw time as a constraint in relation to his own mortality in trying to get to all these areas:

Maybe I am reaching for higher goals... realizing my own mortality... I'm almost thirty and if I don't do some things soon, I may not do them. (Frank, (engineering major, undergraduate visitor)
Even for the non-visitors, media experiences did place a constraint on access to wilderness by the depiction of the landscape and the resultant image it created in the mind. For example, Dawn mentioned that seeing: nature can be so forceful... very destructive... and at the same time very serene and sublime did not create in her a desire to visit such places. (Dawn, education major, graduate non-visitor)
Wilderness as Universal Value

All of the participants -- visitors and non-visitors -- in the study placed value on wilderness for various reasons. It is interesting to note that while all of the informants believed that wilderness had value, 75% of them stated that wilderness had an intrinsic value. For almost 50% of the total group this value far outweighed any extrinsic value and the majority of non-visitors believed that wilderness areas should not be utilized for any purpose by humans. Dan stated that:

It is becoming more valuable to me because I'm realizing, first of all, what I think it is and the fact that I find it so beautiful, and have a desire to try and protect it. I see wilderness as having a value all of its own, an intrinsic value, not necessarily related to whether or not we can experience it. (Dan, journalism major, graduate non-visitor)
Mary (education major, graduate non-visitor) placed great personal value on the connections of life and the support systems which sustain life on the planet even though she had never visited a wilderness area. For some, talking about the intrinsic value illustrated the separatedness of humans and nature, a dichotomy which was highlighted by many of the participants. Wilderness was visualized as:
...a home to many creatures... They're entitled to their shelter and to their own environment. 'Their own environment.' That's how removed we think... it's not even our environment anymore. (John, business major, graduate visitor)
Extrinsic values for wilderness ranged from being part of the planet's life support system and maintaining biodiversity to human's extraction of medical cures from specific areas. It was also seen as a valuable retreat from modern life, as a spiritual haven, or as an area unaffected by humans. Being in wilderness allowed Frank to reflect: a spiritual way... (you have a) cleansing experience, and returning to the city or wherever, that stays with you at least for some period of time. (Frank, engineering major, undergraduate visitor)
Value for wilderness was exhibited generally by donating to environmental organizations, recycling, using environmentally friendly products, and not littering areas when visiting them.

Wilderness as a Process for Gaining Perspective

All the informants believed that experiences in wilderness allowed a reality check or a perspective to be gained on life and human existence. Michelle stated that her motivation to visit this type of environment was:

...just a chance to kind of escape a lot of the problems of civilization. (Michelle, undeclared major, undergraduate visitor)
Many of the informants believed that the pace of life was slower in wilderness, which allowed them to relax and gather thoughts. Frank summarized the motivating reasons best when he stated that:'s a cleansing experience... it sort of reminds you of the minuscule nature of your own life and what it means in the grand plan. (Frank, engineering major, undergraduate visitor)
Relaxation was the key element of a wilderness trip for another informant, however she concluded that the experience was in reality a:
...perspective exercise. It says that nature and its forces are bigger than Man. And every once in a while I have to be reminded of that. (Liz, human resources management, graduate visitor)
Wilderness experiences allowed her to witness the vastness, size and beauty of the environment and they showed her that on occasions people become enamored by their perceived control over the environment. Liz also believed that some people form a strong connection with their inner selves through the environment as: is often an easier place to think and reflect and to be in touch with things that get crowded out of everyday life. (Liz, human resources management, graduate visitor)
Karen believed that being in wilderness allows people to reflect: a spiritual way... [you have a] cleansing experience and return to the city or wherever [where this cleansing] stays with you at least for some period of time. (Karen, medical student, graduate visitor)
However, to gain such perspectives, all of the visitors believed that a person had to directly interact with wilderness.

Wilderness Landscape and Its Role in Meaning-Making

The visitor group had traveled to various areas they considered wilderness (e.g. Badlands, SD; Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, CA; Flat Tops Wilderness, CO) at different points in their lives, generating meaning for wilderness. In many perspectives this type of landscape had to possess specific physical characteristics: extreme ruggedness, wild, vast, and remote. This type of landscape gives rise to qualitative properties such as danger, loneliness, and solitude. It was these latter aspects of the landscape which seemed to be more important to the informants in this research as their physical wilderness definition altered over time when access to large western wilderness areas became limited. This was particularly true for those who did not live in close proximity to wilderness areas.

While a certain level of physical characteristics had to be present to define a location as wilderness, sometimes the visitor group would compromise on ruggedness, remoteness, etc., to attain a level of solitude. In some cases, they were willing to accept less stereotypical large undeveloped wilderness areas to meet their needs at a particular time. This was visible when the visitors traveled to 'softened' or slightly developed locations. Jason was able to separate the qualitative aspects of wilderness almost completely by using a metro park to escape his urban setting. He stated that: can create that (wilderness) feeling anywhere you go if you are good at it... You feel like you're in the wild, when you're really not. (Jason, economics major, undergraduate visitor)
Yet, from this statement it is clear that a visit to a wilderness area was necessary to help create that feeling and many of the visitors stated that for intense experiences a more rugged type of landscape was necessary. Non-visitors were less likely to compromise on the physical attributes of the landscape, probably because of the images created in their minds through the influence of the media.

Wilderness as a 'Spirit-scape'

The use of wilderness for spiritual renewal is not new. Indigenous cultures often use this landscape for vision quests. For many of the visitor group, there was a transcendence to a higher ground, a sense of deep spiritual connection that could only be experienced in this type of environment. Following her wilderness experiences, Michelle believed that: was wilderness that first introduced me to... spirituality and... I felt... closer to myself and closer to what's around me when I am out there than when I am not. (Michelle, undeclared major, undergraduate visitor)
This connection to the land increased her desire not to impact wilderness when she visited it. In addition, while she defined an area in Ohio as giving her some solitude, for that real close connection to God she had to go further west. On the other hand, Donny who had an intense spiritual relationship with wilderness, could only experience connections in a rugged setting:
There's no question that it feels spiritually fulfilling to me, to be in a spot like that [Moab, UT] and see the sun rise and to enjoy that. For some reason, I feel closer to God when I am out in a place like that. (Donny, veterinary school, graduate)
Richard had begun reading about Native American beliefs and thought that he would not understand their spiritual basis if he had not personally experienced wilderness. He also believed that a 'higher being' had created wilderness just as it appeared: he must have wanted it that way, and people made the cities and they're unnatural. (Richard, engineering major, undergraduate)
It was clear that he found greater peace and spiritual connectedness in wilderness than in cities.

Quite clearly some of the participants believed that wilderness had either a spiritual or religious influence on their life. John, who was raised in a religious setting, maintained that this had an influence on his view of wilderness. During his younger years, he believed that this type of land was present for the purposes of humans and less a manifestation of God. Teachings within his religion, which were probably typical of other western religions based on the Bible, gave humans dominion over nature. However, as he grew older and experienced wilderness he saw:

...wilderness more... as being a manifestation of God, rather than something that was put under Man's dominion. As opposed to dominating wilderness, humans could learn from it. It has its own divinity, its own spiritual quality, and there's much to be learned from that. There are lessons within... the wilderness experience, to be gained and added to one's life. (John, business major, graduate visitor)
Clearly for John, his wilderness experiences influenced his view of human relationship with nature and wilderness.

Wilderness Experienced Vicariously

An actual wilderness experience is the key factor in distinguishing the personal image of wilderness and that formed from images projected by media. Media did play a crucial role in meaning making for the informants. However, until that physical interaction occurs, wilderness remains a theoretical perspective.

Movies and TV programs which informants believed had some influence on them giving meaning to wilderness included various types of nature programs, the Grizzly Adams series, Lion King, Dances with Wolves, and Crocodile Dundee. Informants also mentioned the 'macho' and frontier image portrayed in these movies and in commercials as creating a particular image in their mind of expectations for a wilderness setting. Liz (Human Resources Management, graduate visitor) found the thought of using media to create or even show particular aspects of an experience which, to her, was aimed at removing oneself from technology and getting away from the appliances of modern life, a paradox.

Another interesting point is that some non-visitors had experiences which could have been classified as wilderness experiences, but they did not consider them as such largely as a result of the depicted media image of this type of landscape. Peter had an experience on the ocean, which he did not seem to consider a wilderness setting but yet it:

...defined wilderness... as being kind of uncontrollable for him. (Peter, journalism major, undergraduate non-visitor)
This may be a result of a heightened anticipation which was created in part by the media's or tourism board's portrayal of wilderness. In addition, most media portrayals tend to treat wilderness as terrestrial based. This is visible in nature programming, movies and even commercials where the 'macho-image' and survivalist (or frontier) aspects of wilderness predominate in large rugged mountainous or forested settings.

Wilderness in Flux

It was not surprising that most of the informants believed that their idea or meaning of wilderness changed over time. Meanings and perceptions of landscapes, people, etc., are anything but stable over time and space. An important aspect of meanings may be the expectations which people bring to a place. Generally, users (and non-users) of an environment expect certain qualities to be available in particular areas. In this research, visitors also expected certain characteristics, physical and qualitative, to be inherent in wilderness areas as opposed to other natural sites. Experiencing or not experiencing such characteristics may influence the meaning associated with that environment.

In this particular case, most of the change resulted from experiencing a new space -- a different type of wilderness -- either directly or indirectly, over time. The reaction of the participants to the new wilderness resulted from the situation in which they found themselves. Participants developed various personal classification systems as a result of direct experiences differentiating between a 'working definition' of wilderness (areas more accessible, developed, 'softened') as opposed to a strict definition (inaccessible areas, undeveloped, 'real'). However, all these environments fell under the rubric of wilderness. Peter stated that wilderness was:

...a resource... its value is almost the same as the value of a blank piece of paper. It's all in what you make of it and that people have different meanings and values for this place. (Peter, journalism major, undergraduate non-visitor)
Even though their definitions of wilderness altered over time, the informants did state that their current meaning for wilderness did agree with the legal definition of wilderness. However, when they learned of the activities which are allowed in wilderness areas, this agreement did not hold. If 'wilderness is what we want it to be,' then clearly for the majority of the informants legal wilderness does not agree with their idea of this environment. In their opinions, many of the activities (hunting, grazing, mining, recreation, and scientific research) currently permitted should be curtailed or eliminated. Michelle stated it well when she said that:
...all they seem to do is take stuff from the wilderness and bring people... lots of people in there. (Michelle, undeclared major, undergraduate visitor)
Wilderness and Its Support

Support for wilderness was strong among all the informants. This support was also seen in the values which informants placed on this landscape. No one suggested destroying it, although 10% of the group believed that human considerations should be of primary importance in land management. Karen stated that people:

...get a little zealous with their concern for protecting wildlife over what might be best for human beings. (Karen, medical student, graduate visitor)
The majority of the informants in this study also showed a pervasive lack of knowledge of the legal definition of wilderness and even that such a definition existed, but did strongly support the idea of wilderness.

Discussion of Results and Literature

The results of this research support and clarify existing findings in different areas of wilderness literature, but also raise issues not covered in the literature. The discussion here shows where the existing literature and new research correspond and where differences are found.

Wilderness did have a value, which was measured and expressed in different ways. The informants who had visited wilderness did consider experiences to be of a therapeutic nature or value. The 'cleansing effect' or spiritual impacts of wilderness experiences were cited by many of the visitors as the major influence on their trips. Similar findings have been espoused by Greenway (1993, 1995) and Hammit (1993). However, Bixler, Carisle, Hammit, & Floyd, (1994) and Ewert (1986) discussed the role of fear in environmental experiences and the impact it may have on people in this environment. For the informants in this study, fear of the wilderness or its inhabitants was not a particular issue nor did it evoke this emotion, although people did recognize the power inherent in wilderness. Yet the benefits far outweighed any disadvantages to these trips. Just as the research of Carpenter and Stewart (1989) and Clawson and Knetsch (1966) shows, the worst memories of wilderness experiences are associated with people accompanying participants on the trip, people encountered along the way, or part of the journey to/from the area and not with the landscape itself. In addition, there was a strong commonality in the term used by both visitors and non-visitors to describe these settings, similar to the word associations found in Heberlein's (1982) research.

In fact, all the informants believed that experiences in wilderness allowed a reality check or a perspective to be gained on life and human existence. This has a clear impact on the generation of meaning for wilderness. Visits to areas such as the Badlands, SD, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, CA, or Flat Tops Wilderness, CO at different points in their lives, help to create meaning for wilderness. Trips to these rugged, pristine areas allow people to escape our modern society, the '48 hour world' as Greenway calls it. Greenway coined this term from his research with people on wilderness trips where it takes approximately 48 hours to flush the human mental system of images and attachments to our everyday world. In addition, visitors to wilderness areas in this study had in certain cases transcended the psychological and spiritual boundaries in getting to know the inner self (Other) which lead to a heightened awareness of their relationship to the environment. This lead to an encounter with what Graber (1976) states is, the Wholly Other. This is defined as the essence or spirit of a greater power transmitted through natural objects. Awareness of the Other (inner self) and Wholly Other increases with the intensity of wildness and ruggedness in the landscape. The results here clearly supported existing research (Greenway, 1995; Hartig et al., 1993; Hollenhorst et al., 1993) where a person may be somewhat oblivious to her connection with nature in an urban environment, but in more pristine conditions a heightened connection is formed with that environment, to nature in general, and to the Wholly Other, allowing the development of a greater sense of place. Evert-Jan Wals (1991) concludes from his study that while experiences in nature are not imperative for learning about nature, they are important in enhancing personal growth and spiritual development. The informants in this research would seem to suggest the same.

While experiences in the landscape were important, media played a crucial role in the generation of meaning for wilderness for all the informants. The role of 'lived experience,' as Evernden (1992) calls it, helps to go beyond the theoretical perspective -- an interpretation of an image projected by some medium. Yet, the role of media and imagery cannot be underestimated, especially on the non-visitors. Movies and TV programs and even commercials all had an impact on the informants. Indeed, while non-visitors had experiences which could have been classified as wilderness experiences, they did not consider them as such. This may be a result of a heightened anticipation which was created in part by the media's image of wilderness. Francis (1987) reported that people do bring expectations with them to a place. Generally, users (and non-users) of an environment expect certain qualities to be available in particular areas. He found that conceptual differences existed between 'parks' and 'gardens' in a city environment. Hallikainen (1993) also found this with Finnish people who use this landscape in their own country as did Hammit (1993) for wilderness users in the US. The research outlined here supports this finding in regards to expectations for this particular environment. Clearly, the role of media in depiction of this environment and its influence on meaning-making needs to be studied further.

Even though many of the non-visitors believed that they would never visit wilderness, support for wilderness was strong amongst all the informants. This support was also seen in the values which informants placed on this landscape. No one suggested destroying it, although there was a suggestion that human considerations should be of primary importance in land management. Many of the informants believed that additional areas should be added to the wilderness system to increase accessibility for users and/or to create larger tracts of land for wildlife. Previous research confirms that support for wilderness is quite strong. Johansen and Rudzitis (1991), in a survey of residents in 11 US counties, found that 53% of the residents cited wilderness as an important reason why they moved to an area, 65% were against opening areas for mining and energy development, and 39% were in favor of additional wilderness preserves. In another study, Burde and Fadden (1995) surveyed residents of a county in Illinois as to their knowledge of and support for wilderness, but in particular within a local national forest. The residents did support strongly the idea of wilderness. But, the results illustrated a pervasive lack of knowledge of the legal definition of wilderness, areas designated as such, and the activities allowed in these settings. The majority of the informants in the research outlined in this article also showed a complete lack of knowledge of the legal definition of wilderness and the activities allowed there. Interestingly, informants believed that a correspondence existed between their own personal meaning for wilderness and the legal definition. However, when informants learned of the activities that are permitted in wilderness areas, they believed that their personal meanings and the legal definition no longer matched. In fact, most informants believed that their own personal meaning was stronger and should become the norm! Graber (1976) states that "inconsistencies of this type are not damaging, for the true definition of wilderness is found not in the present or absence of physical modification, but in human needs and desires" (10). Yet, such differences should be studied in more detail.

The universal values and support for wilderness lead to specific actions by the informants, the most prominent of which was contributing to environmental groups. The next was recycling, an action which the informants believed clearly demonstrated their value of wilderness. This corresponded with the research of Hine and Gifford (1991) where individuals specified contributions to environmental groups and recycling as major responses to their environmental concerns.

Conclusions and Implications

This research has a number of implications for the meaning of wilderness and its management as a legal entity within the natural resources community.

Wilderness definitions and the US culture. The similarity of personal wilderness definitions between the informants and the legal definition is important, pointing out that in our social discourse a certain meaning for this environment prevails. Stegner (1960) was correct when he stated that wilderness has become an intimate part of the American psyche, because it helped form the character of the people and the country. Perhaps it is such an integral component of the culture that wilderness is now a major tradition in this country; this landscape has become as American as 'apple pie.' This level of agreement among various definitions has an important impact on the policy toward and management of wilderness areas.

Wilderness is not an elitist commodity but an egalitarian asset. Because the definitions share the commonality outlined above, wilderness is envisioned not as an elitist commodity but an egalitarian asset. Access to certain types of wilderness may represent an elitism, but the definition of it certainly is not. Taken in its broadest terms, as defined by the informants in this study specific qualities could be separated from the physical environment, so a degree of wilderness is available to all.

Establishment of more wilderness areas is required if people are to be able to access areas without having to travel to the western states. Congress responded to this in 1976 with the Eastern Areas Wilderness Act, which designated areas in non-western states as legal wilderness. However, after twenty years it seems that this issue may again need to be revisited with more areas designated as wilderness.

Wilderness values espoused by informants and wilderness writers. All of the values cited by the informants have been documented by wilderness writers, researchers and philosophers, from John Muir and E. O. Wilson to Holmes Rolston. Clearly, wilderness being viewed as a retreat from modern life and a 'reality check' was very important to the informants. The ability of wilderness to perform this function has been documented by Greenway (1995) and many other researchers from wilderness trips. The capacity of this environment to remove a person from 'civilized living' and the 'noises' associated with it may be the first step to gaining a sense of place within nature.

Support for wilderness was very strong among both groups of informants. Some of this support was based on extrinsic and intrinsic values. However, another value has to be added to wilderness, that of large areas where the life systems of this planet can function without excess hindrance from humans. These may also be considered 'human needs and desires,' but go beyond that by allowing nature to redefine itself.

Activities to be prohibited in wilderness areas. Agreement was also clear in the negative response of most of the informants to the activities permitted in legally designated wilderness. Such activities were not in harmony with the processes which their definition of this landscape included and they believed that these should be stopped.

Intensity of experience is a function of the physical characteristics of the landscape. While particular qualities of wilderness can be represented in different types of environments, intense reactions may only be attained in specific landscapes. For example, in natural environments where quietness is available, a 'reality check,' assisting the person in gaining a perspective on her life at that point in time and perhaps how her life fits into the greater scheme of existence results. However, in more rugged environments where solitude is an important quality of the environment, the individual can cross physical and psychological boundaries to experience the Wholly Other (the spiritual connection).

Our sense of place has diminished in a mobile society such as this. Wilderness is required to allow us to gain that perspective and sense of place in the world. Fine (1992) argues that "being in nature provides a lens for experiencing reality, a deep reality (which) is cognitive, affective and behavioral" (157). Spirituality is also an important component of this reality.

Forms of media may be useful in creating some virtual wilderness experience. However, the wilderness experience is holistic and possesses a gestalt, as the informants observed, which can not be replicated by any existing media, either singly or working together. But, noting the strong preservation stance of the non-visitors shows the power of media in generating such attitudes towards this environment and should not be underestimated.

The results of this study are important to the natural resources community in that they validate existing wilderness research. In relation to wilderness experiences, environments with few people but specific physical and qualitative characteristics allow connections to be made with the natural environment. This connection allowed the informants to cleanse their minds and gain perspective. This clearly reinforces the work of Greenway, (1993), Hammit, (1993), Hartig et al., (1993), and Hollenhorst et al., (1993) on the use of wilderness for therapy and as a restorative experience. Indeed, Greenway (1995) discusses the point that when people enter such areas it takes at least 48 hours for the mind to be cleansed of civilization's impacts and 48 hours or less for people to be impacted by civilization on their return. The more intense spiritual connection is limited to a smaller set of wilderness visitors and more intense physical landscape conditions, a finding reinforced by the researchers cited above.

Support for and preservation of additional areas as wilderness espoused by the informants in this study also confirms the findings of previous research (Burde & Fadden, 1995; Johansen & Rudzitis, 1991). The results of this study, used with previous research and the works of philosophical writers (such as Muir, Oelschlaeger), does show that in the US culture a meaning of wilderness prevails. However, to be able to preserve such areas a full understanding of wilderness is required. For the participants in these studies, including this one, knowledge of the legal definition of wilderness was largely non-existent. This is somewhat surprising considering the degree of correspondence in the meaning given to wilderness. In addition, the negative response of the informants, particularly the non-visitors, to activities allowed in this setting requires further examination by agencies and policy analysts. Cultural changes through time and space will almost certainly have implications for the continued existence of wilderness and this requires further research.

Media certainly seems to play a large role in this meaning-making, an issue which has not been previously considered for wilderness. The influence of vicarious, mediated experiences in campaigns to preserve wilderness should not be underestimated. However, some questions arise: will the media continue to play a role in generating the current meaning for wilderness, or will this change over time as more people demand recreational opportunities on such lands? Will this demand be the result of media exposures to wilderness? Or will non-visitors to wilderness still favor the exclusion of humans from wilderness based on media events? These may have important implications for this resource and warrant further research.

One of the earlier points mentioned in this article was whether the view of wilderness should be changed from product to process. This is an important question and in this study it seems that the informants generally would agree that processes in wilderness (voyaging to the inner self, crossing psychological and spiritual boundaries, essential life systems) are the important reasons for maintaining such areas. Focusing more on wilderness as process rather than product in research may help to preserve more areas of wilderness and also allow this landscape to redefine itself.


1.  This article is drawn in part from the author's doctoral dissertation (Murphy, 1996).


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