Terra-UK is one of the most densely populated land areas in the world. The concept of wilderness seems overly ambitious here upon our heavily burdened soils. We are sold as such a well-groomed and culturally domesticated species, at least in public, and it’s way too fashionable to tame our surroundings to a sparkling manicure. We even wash our soils down with pesticides to scrub away the wild. Every last square inch of land is property ~ accounted for and stewarded. Markets induce us to gaze upon all through neoliberal-tinted specs. Always questions of economic materialism… how does this land earn its keep? For how much will it eventually sell? How much can we pay each other for the servitude of non-human life in our stewardship? Earth is bounded and fenced, like our own mortal souls. Some now legitimately question whether there is any wilderness left at all.
Men, more often than not, have influenced the form and patterns assumed of wilderness. Women’s thoughts are less frequently aired. The why’s and the wherefore’s aside, this should never have been so. More briefly, I offer my own interpretations, and I would invite more women to contribute.
In my country, wild kin have learned to be afraid of me, and with good reason. As friendly as I try to be, my physical form represents danger and threat. The British countryside has not been sanctuary for non-human life. Huge declines in wildlife populations, extinctions and extirpations silently scream of the havoc we have caused, and significantly in the last few decades. We’ve halved the numbers of native vertebrates. Invertebrate biodiversity has plummeted. Traumas are inherited, a genetic overspill of shock, from one generation to another. Human dominion has spawned multiple genetic threads of fear and distrust. It would take much to win back this trust, especially as it may never have entirely existed. There are a rare few who gain the confidence of our non-human kin, and in their kindnesses, they are blessed and ought to be celebrated.
I do think there are remnants of wilderness, but at multiple scales. To a Violet Oil Beetle, the woodland glade is truly vast. To a Wandering Albatross, the Southern Ocean is just big enough. We have imaginations to envisage degrees of relativity. For me, wilderness is more a mental state ~ to feel wild is to experience and imagine, a complex matrix of perceived belonging (or a perception of loss). No matter what scale it presents itself, wilderness is where I come home, not somewhere I glance a visit. Moreover, my moral community extends way beyond the human, so non-humans are my kin ~ storge-love at its most tender and powerful.
There are several false premises when it comes to word-fusing “wilderness.” Some perceive it is a place inherently untouched by human hand. Yet science informs us that the Anthropocene touches all by a layer of our own techno-fossils and radionuclides. Go back. Wilderness is all about non-human life and we are outlanders? How can this be so, when we share the Earth with all biota. We are part of nature, not separate. Our presence in the wilderness ~ ourselves being wilder ~ means we can never truly be strangers. Go back.
Beasts who dwell in the wild are angry and hostile. If we dare to step deep into their realms, we become victims ~ so we mentally retaliate, sometimes before we even arrive. These thoughts manifest in all manner of ways, from the hunter’s gun to the conservator’s axe. Go in, but go prepared, SAS-style. In the Canadian Rockies or the oceans off South Africa, I realise I am more exposed to the brutalities of the food chains. But if I use all my senses, and move with a pace and frame befitting a respect for my kin, I can truly feel alive. It becomes a question of adopted endemism, a life’s process and no instant knowing, guided and mentored by skilful others one trusts and loves. There’s no war in an angry grizzly separated from her cubs, or a venomous snake simply protecting his life. Wild things are not our enemies. They are simply surviving. So we need to act with respect and care in this shared dwelling ~ the biosphere. They teach us natural boundaries, respect in all we do. Indigenous humans know this with intimacy and their culture is crafted in the skills of living (and dying). I guess they learned the hard way. All must do the same. Go back.
Finally, the wilderness is depicted as an otherwise barren place, a neglected sphere of empty desolation. It’s where we can all go, to test ourselves, to take our medicine, to seek mental victories, or fail and find our limits. Jesus went to fight temptation. But the wilderness is a dynamic and complex community first, billions of years in the making. Wild lives are interconnected, from the microbes and mycelium to the kauri trees and blue whales. Belonging is vital, and from which all flows. Learning to understand its languages, natural laws and song, Earth’s opus, is perhaps integral to something bigger than the sum of all parts ~ the Ghedeist. Yes, there is danger, doom and even death. But there is also light, as in life. Individuals matter, fluminism between all a process worthy of fierce protection. Go to the wild and you are never alone. There you will find, implicit in existence, rapturous life, passionate love, and all kinds ways to die. A wild death ~ the biological penumbra to the light-eclipse of being. The dead give life to others. Love and trauma are dihedrals in space-time ~ life begets life, yet all things pass. Far from being systems of aimless chaos, wilderness, in the individual, species biodiversity and interconnectedness, maintains a dignity and a grace.
A premise close to my own truth is that the wilderness has an aesthetic (or many), which transcends rationality. It is certainly more than ‘ease on the eye’. This truth is not that seen by an outsider ~ the painter, photographer or even poet. Their own work may be beautiful, but the truth of wilderness, instead, is the affection perceived by the lion of his pride or the pika of her purple willow herb. It is the sunlight reflected in a man’s eye as he watches his daughter climb a tree. It is the totality of the dynamic function of the living community and a pure ecophony of home.
To me, our engineered constructions are largely alien to the majority of our kin. There are some survivors, adapters, and even they are persecuted for their success, as pests. Perhaps, if the wild things truly joined us, the cities would crack under the weight of all, and those processes lost to concrete and tar would surface again and all will be well. The anarchy of love may bubble up in the same way.
But to be truly free is the choice to set one’s own limits. You can be wild and self-disciplined. I have experienced fractured moments of a feeling of freedom at certain points in life, basking on the rocks beside the River Wye in high Summer until I choose to leave, or feeling the lift from my paragliding canopy, pulling me high above the Black Mountains until I decide when and where to land. More importantly, I try to act with care, the consequences of my actions assessed for any future adjustments necessary. In real terms, my freedoms have been more of a fleeting emotion than of clear rationality. Mostly, I feel I am a good girl who should stick to the rules, but I do trespass in libertarian forays through wilder corners and canyons. To be wild these days requires a free heart and a very determined mind, but I do so wish there were fewer fences.
Back in Terra-UK, the greater our number, the greater pressure on remaining acreage to supply our needs, and the competition is fierce to possess and steward. The greater our number, the heavier the weight of Law presses down. Our innate freedoms are contained by order, the concession we make for a quieter, less violent life. In law abiding adhesiveness, society is managed and said to progress. But The Law is just another human construct, socially and politically malleable, some might even say culturally arbitrary, and not always founded upon morality or natural justice.
There’s a self governance to the wilderness which is laudable, and I think we need to participate. We can curtail our greed and limit our numbers. Above all, we may return to this mental state to find our kin and earn their trust. There is truth in our belonging ~ a beautiful Ghedeistual love. And, what’s more, I dare to call the wilderness my home.