Tag Archives: wilderness

Not out of the woods yet

How we use landscape in human metaphor bothers me. Not out of the woods yet is a case in point. As though woods are a bad and dangerous place and safety depends on exiting them. American talk of draining the swamp is another one. Wetlands are fantastic habitats and great sinks for carbon. If someone is in the wilderness, it’s not generally considered a good thing. We use ‘desert’ to stand for barren, empty and insufficient. If we call something a jungle it’s often to convey a sense of violence, and a law of might is right. Mountains are metaphors for problems and challenges.

It’s worth noting that these are all wild landscapes and evoke things not used or exploited by humans. These are the places we don’t build cities, and we tend to overlook the people who live in such areas just as we devalue the land itself. Good land, by our current habits of thinking, is land tamed to the plough or exploited for oil and other resources. Good land is working for ‘us’. Good people are inside the system, not wild things in a wild landscape. Drain the swamp and get rid of the swamp dwellers.

It’s worth being alert to this kind of language use, to avoid doing it, and to challenge those who throw wilderness words around in casually negative ways. If we want to protect our wild landscapes, we have to change how people think about them in the first place.

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Time in the wilderness

In any given week the odds are good that I’ll see deer, buzzards, woodpeckers, kestrels, rabbits, countless small birds, and pipistrelle bats, and that I’ll hear owls. I’ll see orchids in season. Foxes, slow worms, ravens, little grebe, butterflies, moths and dragonflies in season, herons, kingfishers, and rodents, are likely, but not as frequent spots. Otters, sparrowhawks, owl sightings, badgers, hedgehogs, snakes, unusual fungi and dorbenton bats are possible, but less common.

You might imagine from this that I live on a nature reserve. I don’t, I live in a town. The wildlife I see, for the greater part lives in the town as well, although the orchids tend to be more on the margins. I know where the green corridors are, and so do all the other wild things.

I know from observation that most of the human population around me is fairly oblivious to the considerable non-human population. We tend to believe that nature is away, other, exotic, somewhere else, that we are not part of it. We may believe that we have conquered nature and kept it at bay, even as the jackdaws on the roof, the rat in the shrubbery and the grasshoppers in the lawn go about their business.

The things we’re oblivious to, we tend not to care about. Rewilding is not, therefore, just about giving more space over to the wild things, but about giving ourselves over to the experience of wild things that are already sharing our environment. They are with us. We are not magically hived off from nature. The only real separation is caused by a curious human inability to see what is right in front of us.


Deep Time and the wilderness

Most of the wilderness fiction I’ve read is historical. Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, assorted American transcendentalists, – books whose authors who had the advantage of writing about places and environments that were largely unknown, unpredictable and clearly dangerous. While people still go off on adventures, exploring less known places, mobile phones and GPS make that a very different game. The places untouched by humans are far scarcer than they were two hundred years ago. And yet we have this collective attraction to the unknown, the untouched. For the greater part, fiction has replaced the wilderness with fantasy worlds, and the science fiction bid to seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly split infinitives where no one has split them before.

Anthony Nanson’s “Deep Time” is a real stand out as a piece of modern wilderness writing. It is a speculative novel, but at the same time so rooted in observation and detail, that it is able to create a sense of adventure and mystery right on the edge of human experience. Where fantasy and science fiction can tend towards the escapist, Deep Time brings us back to ourselves, to the land, to the idea of wilderness as something precious that we ought to preserve. It also, by cunning means, encourages us to look at our own time and place with fresh eyes, seeing connections and possibilities we might otherwise have missed. It delivers all of this, and more, in a fast placed action adventure plot that does not let up for some 700 pages.

I’ve head genre fiction defined as ‘everything happens and no one thinks about it’ versus literature as ‘very little happens and everyone thinks about it a great deal.’ It frequently bothers me that modern publishing often defines ‘literary’ as something dull, worthy, tediously real and lacking in pace. Very little happens. Everyone thinks about it a lot. At the same time, more creative plots and unreal settings fall into the low brow pop culture bracket, and are not to be taken seriously. Shakespeare could write about faeries, Dickens could write about ghosts and be taken seriously, but they probably wouldn’t get away with it these days.

I know that it is possible to have books with pace, action, adventure and speculative elements that are also powerful literary pieces. The quality of writing, the kind of depth that can be woven into a plot, the way in which speculation can reflect the world back more meaningfully than representation can. The unfamiliar requires us to think, to test assumptions and the boundaries of our own reality, and you just can’t achieve that by giving people the wholly familiar. Anthony Nanson has entirely proved my point, creating an entirely modern novel, with great literary depth and the kind of narrative that would readily adapt into a summer blockbuster movie. We can have books that are exciting and profound. We can have meaning and enjoyment on the same pages. We can still have wilderness, it hasn’t all gone, and we can protect what remains and recognise what we’ve got.

Deep Time is not suitable for younger readers (I’d suggest 14 and up) and I heartily recommend it as a fantastic read.

More about Anthony here – http://www.anthonynanson.co.uk/

More about Deep Time here – http://www.anthonynanson.co.uk/Deep_Time.html


Inner wilderness

I’ve read Women who run with the wolves (Clarissa Pinkola Estes) twice now and the idea of connection between wilderness and inner wilderness has been with me for a long time as a consequence. Mostly as a theory. I let myself become domesticated and mostly tame a long time ago. My creature self chafed at the bit, and frequently tried to misbehave, get off the leash, wanted to run and hide and do all the needful things that would give me my life back. But I wore the leash for a long time, and it was not wholly of my own making.

The last few years have been a time of retreat for me. We’ve lived quietly, close to nature, with not much stuff. Evenings of candlelight and soft talking. A lot of walks and cycling. I’ve not held responsibility for anything much outside my own family, and I’ve been very much caught up in the practical realities of boat life. That might seem like further taming and domestication, but it hasn’t been. I learned how to howl, and how to laugh from my belly. I learned how to grieve, and how to be angry. Bit by bit, I let that animal self express, and breathe.

I know when to turn the computer off and go outside. I know when, and how to say ‘no’ to anything that needs saying no to. As a side effect I’ve come to feel a lot more able to say ‘yes’ as well.

These last few months I’ve been out in the world again, doing events, seeing people I’d not seen for years, re-connecting. In the last week I’ve been invited to a Druid gathering, and to be on standby as a mummer, just in case. Old threads come into the new weave. I’ve worn skirts again – of necessity it’s mostly been trousers. But I’m dressing more like I did in my college days and I feel more like a me I can recognise. It’s a good process.

I can feel, in a really tangible way, the wildness on the inside waking up again. Not like it was before though. This is a wildness that knows where its roots are. The wildness of a forest tree that has deep and stable connections with its soil. The wildness of birds that know how to do all the things that make them birds and keep them alive. The wildness of my communal, sociable friend the badger, pottering about, wide arsed and badgery. Nature comes in many forms. Wildness is not all growly and in your face and shagging everything, necessarily. My wildness runs on its toes, and dances more easily than walking, and has an uncanny knack for spotting rodents. I know what I am. I know who I am, roughly, and the more I test it, the better I feel about things.

It’s been so much about having the space and quiet to get my head straight, and the support of people willing to accept me as I am, and willing to give of themselves. This week I have explored fear, again, but I’ve also stretched my wings a bit, and remembered that I have them, and listened to the owls calling at night. Nature on the inside is just as important as the nature we find outside of us, and if you can’t work with your own animal self, cannot love the mammal skin you are in and the tides of nature as they flow through your body, loving and honouring what lies on the outside of your skin (which incidentally is a fairly arbitrary place to draw a line!) is not easy either. I learned that one the hard way.