CONCERNING THE WILDERNESS CONCEPT
Wilderness is determined by its distance from human influence. It is chaotic and dangerous, challenging human understanding of, and control over, the physical world. This invites a paradox. On a linguistic basis, the term is created through human interpretation of the landscape and therefore determined by humanity. In this case as soon as a wilderness is identified it is no longer a wilderness. If this is a little too abstract for your taste, consider the designation of legally defined wilderness areas in the US. Are spaces really a wilderness if they are allowed to exist in certain conditions, under regulation, defined by a legal document? Isn’t law antithetical to a purely wild space? Perhaps wilderness is a form to which actual worldly spaces conform to by degree.
Wild/domestic form a mutually dependent dichotomy. The yardstick for measuring wilderness requires an understanding of what it means to be domesticated. Differences in individual perception of what consists of a cultivated landscape, particularly when it is not known to what extent a landscape has been influenced, means that ideas of wilderness become relative. Consider landscapes you may consider to be wild, such as national parks in the UK. Imagine how someone living in the remoteness of the taiga would interpret these comparatively tame environments. Compare how colonial settlers versus indigenous populations have imagined the landscape of ‘wild’ continents in the past. Wilderness is not a strict concept but rather something moulded by social discourse.
Climate change and the concept of the Anthropocene – that we are in a geological epoch defined by significant human activity upon the Earth as a global system – discounts the idea that any wilderness still exists, as with this world-view nothing lies outside human influence. How far back can we take this concept? How long have we altered the landscape and hunted animals to extinction, or propagated certain species? Many landscapes we casually consider wild (such as moorland) are produced by centuries or even millennia of land management. Preserving an idea of wilderness without qualifiers contributes to the notion that humanity and nature are somehow separate, that nature is outside and above the world of humans, that we are not fundamentally intertwined. Ultimately this may reaffirm an attitude that we do not have an everyday responsibility to maintain and nurture our natural environment.
Despite issues with their worldly referents, wilderness images have a long-standing mythic power which cannot be discounted. Folklore, fairy tales and fantasy, survival narratives, and religious texts all draw upon the metaphorical energy of wild places. Wildernesses offer a weird combination of astonishing beauty and extreme threat. Romantic notions of the ‘sublime’ explore the notion of wild spaces having aesthetic value in their ability to inspire awe in part because of their hostile nature. The wilderness is a site external to society enabling both the demonstration of the height of human abilities in survival narratives like The Mysterious Island or the depths of human depravity in Lord of the Flies. It is a place both of abundant and chaotic life and of horror and death, such as in Ballard’s tropical apocalypse in The Drowned World. It is a zone of complexities and contradictions.
The most extreme example may be how a domain supposedly challenging the strength, the significance or even the legitimacy of human life can similarly be considered restorative. From Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, moving beyond society into the natural world (albeit with the promise of return) is presented as nourishing for the individual and revelatory regarding their sense of personal and human identity. While some of these departures are destructive, as in the tragedy of Into the Wild, they are haunted by the thought that even those who die in the wilderness have reached a kind of truth inaccessible to those of us who don’t experience wild places. Whether this is fanciful or profound is a matter of debate. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
Nathaniel Spain is currently completing a research MA in English studies at Durham University, examining the significance of wilderness in postmodern culture. He studied English literature with a minor in creative writing as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, and continues to write short stories. His poetry has been published by Durham English Society's magazine From the Lighthouse. He has also written reviews and articles for online cultural and current affairs publication The Despatch Box.