Today’s almost mystical fascination with wilderness, a strong current running through all of American culture, had its origins not with Thoreau or the European romantics, but wit the Old Testament. There the crossing of the wilderness was a type of the call for humans, trapped in the illusions of the world, to come out of that Eqyptian slavery and undergo a kind of ego death before being allowed to enter into the promised land of true vision. The wilderness was understood to be both literal and spiritual, and the first Europeans to settle in New England understood this distinction. But over the generations the spiritual meaning of wilderness,a place akin to Christ’s presence on the cross, was lost. People came to believe that their being in a literal woods was enough to generate the conversion necessary to be in grace.
This book traces that declension from the Puritans through the revolutionary period, to the Transcendentalists, up to the end of the 19th century. The power of wilderness as the place where one goes to receive transcendent vision remains today, but few understand its origins.