Wilderness Solitude: Beyond the Social-Spacial Perspective


The current scholarly and management approach to wilderness solitude has relied on substitute measures such as crowding and privacy to measure solitude. Lackluster findings have been only partially explained by additional social-spatial factors such as encounter norms, displacement, product shift, and rationalization. Missing from the discussion has been an exploration of the meaning of solitude and a questioning of the basic assumption of its social-spatial structure. In this paper, the concept of solitude is approached from an attitudinal perspective that emphasizes psychological detachment from society. We argue that solitude may result more from lack of management regulation and control than from low visitor use density.


Scholarly treatment of solitude in the natural resource and leisure literature has been approached from a largely ahistorical perspective. Our intellectual framework for solitude is grounded almost exclusively in the social-spatial perspective of privacy, crowding, and encounter norms. From this perspective, solitude is assumed to be either: (1) physical isolation, seclusion and withdrawal, or (2) the ability of the individual to control what, how, and to whom information about the self is communicated.

Solitude is psychological detachment from society for the purpose of cultivating the inner world of the self. It is the act of emotionally isolating oneself for self-discovery, self-realization, meaning, wholeness, and heightened awareness of one’s deepest feelings, and impulses. It implies a morality that values the self, at lease on occasion, as above the common good.

In this paper we explore the contemporary meaning of solitude in relation to wilderness. We begin by looking at social-spacial treatment of solitude that has predominated the natural resource literature. We then present a humanistic perspective of solitude and describe how our contemporary understanding of solitude is informed by this tradition. Implications of this perspective for policymaking and management are then discussed.

A Social-Spatial Perspective of Wilderness Solitude

Conceptualization of solitude in the natural resource literature has focused primarily on the examination of social conditions experienced in the wilderness setting, including concepts such as territoriality, personal space, crowding, social carrying capacity, social norms, encounter norms, and structure of the built environment (Patterson and Hammitt 1990; Shelby and Heberlein 1986; Shelby and Vaske 1991).

A Humanistic Perspective

Outside of the natural resource literature, the intellectual framework for solitude is rooted in philosophical elements of the romantic and transcendental movements, which in turn were passed down from classical antiquity. From the Greeks, Romans, early Christians, and Medieval writers, to the European Romantics and American Transcendentalists, solitude has been a powerful theme for exploring the tension between two forces: the idealization of the state and the

Be…the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans…explore your own higher latitudes…be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought…there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone…Explore thyself…Start now on that farthest western way.

The other unique element inherent in Thoreau’s solitude is found in its social-moral dimension. It is not solipsism Thoreau seeks. In his Solitude treatise he writes, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” He purposely distances himself from human civilization not to be alone, but in order to develop deeper relations with the “indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature.”

The most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object…There can be no black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature…I enjoy the friendship of the seasons…I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude. I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at one like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant…Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.

Yet Thoreau is no antique Stoic, defiant of all humanity. He had faith in human potential though little respect for the small extent to which this potential had been realized. Thoreau does not seek solitude to disconnect the self from communication with all forces external to the self. Rather than contraction from the external world into the self, he desires a moral expansion that allows the individual to find communion with the nonhuman world. “Shall I not have intelligence with the Earth?” he asks near the end of Solitude. “Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mold myself?” Like Aquinas before him, Thoreau believed that the individual and society were complimentary. He simply sought a broader understanding of society that included Nature. The beautiful irony of Thoreau’s solitude path is that it ultimately leads to this broadened sense of belonging and community.

Contemporary Perspectives on Solitude

What of solitude in the twenty-first century? In Solitude: A Return to the Self (1988), Anthony Storr draws a fascinating psychological picture of solitude and its role in the post industrial world. Never mentioning wilderness, and making only passing reference to nature, Storr argues that modern society is preoccupied with intimate personal relationships as the “touchstone of health and happiness,” and that this preoccupation is a relatively new phenomenon.

Policy and Management Implications

The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as containing “outstanding opportunities for solitude.” By including this phrase, it appears that Howard Zahnizer understood that wilderness and solitude were metaphorically bound together in the American psyche as physical and mental regions untrammeled by society. Ostensibly, the Wilderness Act counterbalances the relentless forces of “increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization” on the natural world. Yet in a deeper symbolic sense, the Wilderness Act also affirms the humanistic notion of individual will and self determination in the face of ever greater pressure to become “socialized.”


Allin, C. 1982. The politics of wilderness preservation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.



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steve hollenhorst

steve hollenhorst

Professor and former Dean: Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. Founder: McCall Outdoor Science School and the WV Land Trust.