(David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty).

(David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty)

When Howard Zahniser was drafting the Wilderness Act—which marks its 50th anniversary today—he confided to a colleague that he wished he were writing poetry instead. “If I had to do this again,” he wrote, “I would much prefer to state all this in iambic rhyming couplets or even in the sequence of sonnets.”

Zahniser drafted his bill in prose, of course, and its details, at least initially, seem prosaic. The Wilderness Act bans all kinds of motors, roads, and permanent structures from large tracts of American territory. It provides a legal definition of wilderness, as land that’s “untrammeled by man” with a “primeval character and influence.” Over the last half-century, the federal government has used the Act to preserve more than 100 million acres of land. It may be the most comprehensive, stringent land protection bill in legislative history.

We take it for granted that wild, inhuman areas are beautiful, uplifting, and worthy of protection; that the natural is superior to the artificial; and that something pristine and untouched by human hands is better than something that’s been touched by human interference.

None of these ideas, though, just emerge automatically in the depths of our modern souls. When we drink bottled water with a picture of an alpine waterfall on the label, seek out foods free of genetically modified ingredients, try to mimic the eating habits of our Paleolithic ancestors, or visit one of the country’s wilderness areas, we’re reflecting a very particular way of thinking about purity, and a very particular kind of skepticism toward humanity’s ability to improve upon nature.

These ways of thinking aren’t religious, exactly. But they’re entangled with religious stories, and religious experiences. With the Wilderness Act turning 50, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the religious roots of our fascination with primeval lands, “untrammeled by man.” After all, that fascination owes much to Romantic spirituality, mountain mystics, and the Book of Genesis. Zahniser wasn’t kidding: the Wilderness Act is policy founded on poetry.

It all starts, of course, at the beginning, with a tale of three gardens.

The first is the Garden of Eden, as depicted in Genesis. Eden is portrayed as very much an agricultural paradise, as the Biblical scholar Theodore Hiebert has pointed out. Eden’s trees are selected for the quality of their fruit. The garden needs human cultivation: “God took the man and placed him the Garden of Eden,” says Genesis, “to till it and tend it.” In a description that spans fewer than 300 words, the author of Genesis still finds time to explain how Eden is irrigated.

Eden is neither a desert nor a wilderness. When the Bible does talk about wilderness, it’s usually as a kind of testing ground: the harsh lands through which the Israelites would be forced to wander for 40 years, and where Jesus would face his Satanic test. In Isaiah, the prophet foresees a time when a voice will proclaim “Clear in the desert / A road for the Lord! / Level in the wilderness / A highway for our God!” Suffice it to say that such activities would not be permitted under the Wilderness Act.

Over time, Eden evolves, which brings us to our second garden, the earthly paradise that issued from the imagination of John Milton. In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the spare prose of Genesis and elaborates it into thousands of lines of elegant pentameter. Milton’s Eden, like that of Genesis, is watery and lush. But Milton takes the Garden and makes it a bit wilder. The agricultural details fade away. Eden, now, is ringed by mountains and dense forests, “a steep wilderness” that’s “grottesque[sic] and wild.” Eden’s river, in Milton’s rendering, has a rapid current and a waterfall. There are grottoes and caves nearby. The land is beautiful, pastoral, and poetic. Eden isn’t just a garden. It is, in Milton’s words, “a Lantskip.” A landscape.

Paradise Lost was a bestseller, and Milton’s description of Eden would, among other effects, help revolutionize English gardening, making it more apt to mimic natural forms. (In this detail, and others, I’m indebted to the work of the historian Mark Stoll). It would set off, too, a slow-burning Eden fever. In the 1790s, a certain Thomas Butts visited the poet William Blake and his wife, Catherine, at their home in London. They were in their garden, naked, reciting sections of Paradise Lost. “Come in!” Blake is reported to have said. “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!”

To Romantic thinkers like Blake, Eden wasn’t necessarily an actual geographic place waiting to be discovered (as many explorers have hoped), nor was it a kind of theological promise, the Zion to which one could return through piety and divine grace. It was, more than anything else, a state of mind—a state of mind that ran counter to the strictures of civilization. It could be discovered, perhaps, in the back garden of a London suburb. As Parita Mukta and David Hardiman write in “The Political Ecology of Nostalgia,” “During the 19th century, the search for Eden became displaced. No longer was it looked for in the form of a contemporary social and geographical reality, but as a state of being which had existed in the past of human society, and which would be resurrected in the future.”

That state of being could be found in certain landscapes. Our final garden sits in the mountains of California. Waters wend their way right down the middle. There are waterfalls nearby. It’s a pleasant park, ringed by steep mountain slopes. Throughout the nineteenth-century, poets, writers, and travelers visited Yosemite Valley and, as Stoll writes, they regularly compared it to Eden, with both explicit and implicit nods to Milton.

It should be noted, though, that the Romantic ideal of wilderness, which was later enshrined in the Wilderness Act, is in large part an illusion. The New World, after all, had been inhabited, for millennia, by cultures perfectly capable of trammeling the land. The landscape of North America was much further from its primeval state than most European settlers realized.

Nevertheless, Yosemite would also become the world’s first protected wilderness park in 1864. But it wasn’t just Yosemite that evoked thoughts of Milton in its visitors. Comparing the American backcountry to Eden, or to Zion, or to Arcadia, was a common pastime among nineteenth-century Americans. In a famous painting, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, rendered the expulsion from Eden in the style of an American landscape painting. As many critics complained at the time, Cole had blatantly plagiarized—and Americanized—some recently published illustrations, by the British artist John Martin, for an edition of Paradise Lost.

It wasn’t necessarily that Cole and others thought they had found the literal Eden. They had found a landscape that seemed to conform to their expectations of what an Edenic experience would be like: a place that seemed primeval, untouched by man, and separate from society, where the governing law was not the law of man, but a law of nature, or a law of God. This vision of Eden sounded different from an orderly agricultural paradise, tilled by Farmer Adam. It’s closer to Milton’s sublime Eden-scape, with its waterfalls and grottoes. And it expresses a very upper class, very civilized yearning for something—anything!—that seemed uncivilized.

THE URGE THAT NINETEENTH-CENTURY Americans felt to connect with a landscape untouched by the conscious working of human hands remains a force in modern society. With greater technological power, it seems, comes a greater yearning for the un-technological (the Wilderness Act, with its lengthy provisions against road-building, was passed in the midst of Interstate construction). Pay a visit to farmer’s market today, and it can feel as if you’ve entered a kind of reverse Jetsons, in which people in sleek cars, with substantial material comforts, imagine a future that looks like the past. Or chat with Paleo Dieters, who try to model their way of eating on the hunter-gatherers. These phenomena share a sense—seen in fantasies of Edenic submission; in ideas of the Noble Savage, in tune with the workings of nature; in polices that, like the Wilderness Act, ban technology—that there exists something purer, something realer, once you cross beyond the edges of human control.

Fittingly, what characterizes the heroes of the wilderness movement in the United States, above all, is their capacity for total abandon. Reading the memoirs of John Muir, it’s astonishing to realize how often Muir nearly died—trapped under a waterfall on a frozen night, after trying to glimpse the moon through the watery veil; sitting high in a tree during a mountain storm; stuck while free climbing a high cliff. Muir’s writing is ecstatic, laced with Biblical imagery and wild adventure. “Adam and Eve lose paradise through an act of choice,” writes the historian David Wyatt in The Fall Into Eden. “Muir regains it through an act of abandon.”

In a milder way, the same can be said of Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act. The son of a Free Methodist minister, Zahniser was a devout, albeit unorthodox, Christian. After a stint with the federal government, he spent the last twenty years of the his life working for the Wilderness Society. Zahniser died in 1964, just weeks before the House of Representatives passed his Act, by a margin of 374-1.

In 1957, Zahniser had a mystical experience while camping in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. “As I lay there, inspired to worship, the words from some psalm came to mind: ‘Great peace have they which love thy law,’” Zahniser later wrote, quoting Psalm 119. “It came to me—a thought—that the peace of wilderness is indeed a peace of orderliness, of law.”

Zahniser was a bureaucrat, but his epiphany isn’t all that different from Muir’s mountain reveries. Nor it is all that different, I suspect, from the search for Eden in the vistas of the New World: namely, a hope that, when one sets aside the laws of civilization, another kind of law will appear, one that’s older, truer, and better than whatever humans have devised. Eden, after all, wasn’t just the landscape of primeval innocence. It was a fine-tuned mechanism, prepared to tick perpetually, and blessed with the most inhuman—the most divine—of designs.

BY THE 1960s, ZAHNISER was, perhaps, unusual for his explicit mixing of faith and preservationism.  “Early on, the environmental movement was deeply suspicious of religious people, and religious people were deeply suspicious of the environmental movement,” said Rebecca Gould, a senior lecturer in environmental studies at Middlebury College, in reference to the budding environmentalism of the 1960s and ’70s. As we spoke by phone, Gould was feeding her flock of five sheep. Her research focuses on the growing alliances between evangelical Christians and environmental groups, “a process that began the 1990s and has continued since.”

This deepening of Christian environmental activism, much of it oriented toward climate change, can feel fresh. But, as the roots of the Wilderness Act remind us, American attention to the environment has long been inflected with religious overtones. At times, those overtones may sound more pantheistic than Biblical. But, as Gould says, “I think underneath there’s always this love of nature as part of the American story.”

In 1967, Robert Bellah wrote a landmark, controversial essay about the concept of an American civil religion. Civil religion, in Bellah’s mind, isn’t specific to Christianity or Judaism or any other faith. It is, instead, “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” that permeates the public sphere, and that help the nation make sense of itself and its purposes.

Strangely, discussions of civil religion rarely touch on the idea of wilderness, even as wilderness areas become a kind of American sacred space, with sharp boundaries dividing them from other kinds of land, and with allusive names (Zion National Park). Wilderness protection, like so many religious searches, involves a search for something permanent, with a kind of order that transcends human law. In its own way, the Wilderness Act is a legislative attempt to grapple with the idea of eternity. Dealing with primeval landscapes, and with the idea of permanent protection, Congress addresses itself to timescales that are more commonly the purview of priests and paleontologists. As Zahniser told the Sierra Club in 1961, “We are working for a wilderness forever.”

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina.