Saturday, October 2, 2021

Problematic wilderness

 The western narrative around wilderness is so interesting. Those places of 'moral confusion and despair', where Moses wandered for decades, where Sir Orpheo abandoned himself into the wilds to search for Euridice, growing his hair long, communing with the birds (possibly consuming a few too), hoping to entice the fairy king with his lute song, only to see his beloved wife pass by one day while falconing, her forearms clad in leather gauntlets, as she disappeared between cleaves of granite. Does not bode well for a woman to fall asleep under the ympe tree at noon.

This of course is all ancient history. 'For the Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, they are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.' (1) There is another quite famous couple who were driven from the garden to a harsh wilderness as punishment. In western lore, the deep forested wildernesses were home to wolves and witches; only woodsmen, hunters and abandoned children dared to enter the depths, where the trees sucked out the light. In Richard Powers' The Overstory, he writes a forest scientist Patricia Westerman walking through the thick forest to a clearing, where she thinks that these light-bathed circles 'make a reasoned argument to the loggers'. Emerging from deep karri forest undergrowth into the mossy, lichened open space of a granite cap gives me a familiar sense of psychological relief. The light, the space, the opening sky.

Millennia or centuries later, and right in the thick of the colonial project, along came the Romantics who made wilderness sexy by sublime.

Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above a sea of fog

 In Australia, the wilderness was still depicted by colonial artists and writers as a place of foreboding, of impenetrable forests and harsh interiors, peopled with Indigenous silences, malevolent swagmen and lost children.


At around the same time in the Americas, the frontiers receded into rural domesticity, prompting books such as The Call of the Wild and countless Westerns. The Romantics and early environmentalists of the Americas claimed that the wild, sublime places allowed us to be closer to God. 'I'd rather be sitting on a mountain top and thinking of God, than in a church thinking of the mountain,' wrote John Muir. So the narrative flipped from wilderness flipped from being a place of purgatory and devilry, to a place with which a man (and yes, let's do that shall we?) can commune with God. The language of false idolatry, transgression and greed that originally condemned those exiled to the wilderness was now turned on those who sought to dam it or destroy its forests: 'Vandalism.' 'Desecration'.

These days the wild places are described in tourist brochures as 'untouched' and 'pristine'. Structures are built over the granites to give visitors an engineered sense of that sublime but perfectly safe near-death experience. 'Core Wilderness Values' can be almost virtue judgements which mean the difference between being protected and simply 'managed'. 

We all know that untouched wilderness is a crock during an epoch of climate change and ecological breakdown but calling a place untouched wilderness can also define it as a place empty of human beings; that as separate beings from flora and fauna, true wilderness can only exist without the human stain. And this, to me, is where the problem with wilderness starts getting pretty weird.

Parks and Wildlife Tasmania

Advertising wilderness as pristine and untouched appeals to history's erasure. The removal of First Nations people around the world during the 19th century created 'uninhabited wildernesses' at precisely the same time as Muir was arguing for the Yellowstone National Park and the Australian John Mitchell called for a national park in the Nornalup area. 'There is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness. It is entirely a creation of the culture which holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny.'(3)

 And then, back to the fall, as Cronon writes, 'If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature in nature represents its fall.'

1. Exodus, King James Version.

2. Hanging Rock, with ceremonial dance (look closer!)

3. Cronon, W. 'The Trouble With Wilderness or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature', Environmental History, 1995.



  1. The English attitude to 'wilderness' was very different to most other continents and countries, only 200 years ago. I was born a mile a way from a small Surrey topographical feature 25 miles away from London called, 'The Devil's Punchbowl'. A local traveller called William Cobbet set out on horseback to wander around a few square miles of the locality where he was born and wrote a book called 'Rural Rides'. In it, he described The Devil's Punchbowl as 'the most godforsaken spot on earth'. He didn't get out much for a traveller.

    Gentlefolk were often sent into a pit of melancholia by looking out over scenes which we today would find breathtakingly beautiful. Many of them would take pieces of cardboard with rectangles cut out of the middle to frame and contain the view to save their peace of mind.

  2. I went to Siberia once and looking out of the train at the taiga it did seem like a wilderness in the true sense of the word.

  3. Urban jungle. A different kind of wilderness.