“Wild and free”, “wild nature”, “into the wild”, “wild spirit”, “wild animal”, wilderness. Synonymous with nonhuman, untouched, virgin and primordial. Brutal, vicious, and natural. A concept antithetical to civilisation. A realm where empathy and hate have no place. A world ruled by instincts and chaos in which a-rational forces with which we cannot negotiate, only deal with them if we can, come head to head with order and society. “Adapt or die” is the motto of the wild.
And yet, it is a world of overwhelming beauty that deeply speaks to each one of us, fulfilling some sort of yarning for a common home: as John Muir wrote in an 1873 letter to his sister, “the mountains are calling and I must go”.
John Muir dedicated his entire life to exploring, studying and preserving the wild. Perhaps this “call of the wild” also has a spiritual component attached to it – in fact, it most certainly does have. As Muir underlined: “the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Therefore, for people like Muir, engaging with the wild is not just a pragmatic and noble endeavour of following one’s passion to study nature and protect it from the expansionary development of society, but also a mystical one: in the wild (“home” for Muir), a certain type of knowledge reveals itself to those who possess the right qualities of exploring and surviving in the unforgiving realm of Nature’s forces.
The reward for this effort is constant rebirth: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn”, wrote Muir in The Mountains of California.
The concept of the “wild” seems to emanate an aura of primeval mist: its meaning appears shrouded in the mystery of existence, deep in the fog of all beginnings, the wild emerges as a solitary place of healing and might. Indeed, this was the case for many ancient cultures who viewed the wild as a mythical place, governed by various gods. How then does one access this type of wilderness in order to experience its meaning?
Guided by the spirits of nature: “Saddle your soul and let it ride / With blind eyes, you’ll surely find the way / Draw your breath in – let your thoughts fly / Let it out slowly – on winds you’ll bide”, sings Einar Selvik. In other words, the primordial wilderness is accessed ritualistically.
A ritual enables people to step into the realm of the mythical, to experience it and come out of it stronger and wiser. In this sense, the “wild” means a place of individual enrichment which society, in whatever form, cannot offer.
These rituals need not be complex or occult. Climbing a mountain, reaching the end of a forest, swimming in a lake, bathing in a river – all of these are rituals in themselves: you braved the elements, and you became one with them. Rituals never aim to “conquer” nature but to communicate with it.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and is as vital to our lives as water and good bread” wrote Edward Abbey. Some people feel this need so strongly that they decide to go “off-grid” and live outside the modern world. Heimo Korth is one such man. In 2012, VICE did a documentary about him in which Korth summarily explained why he lives in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge: “wanted to go some place where there weren’t any people” and “it is a way of life”.
Richard Proenneke is another example of someone who decided to live in the wilderness. He was American naturalist, conservationist, writer, and wildlife photographer who lived alone for nearly thirty years in the mountains of Alaska in a log cabin that he constructed by hand near the shore of Twin Lakes.
There are a couple of movies based on Proenneke’s experience, called “Alone in the Wilderness” and “Alaska: Silence & Solitude”, capturing two important elements of the wild that feed that yarning in our hearts which Abbey touched upon in the quote above. In this sense, the wild is an unforgiving, solitary and beautiful sanctuary.
This phenomenon is also present today as some young people have chosen to live in the wild, either in the mountains or near them (with more or less modern utilities around them). TheCottageFairy, Isabel Paige and Jonna Jilton are a few examples on YouTube. Through their videos, one can understand what the wild means for them: beauty, simplicity, challenges, self-discovery, contemplation, adventure, health, freedom.
The sense of venturing into the wilderness, to leave behind the world of civilisation and answer the call of adventure and risk was also the path chosen by the famous “Alexander Supertramp”, whose real name was Chris McCandless.
Chris’s story was told first in a book written by Jon Krakauer in the mid-1990s and then screened by Sean Penn in 2007. Here, the meaning of the wild is that of a rite of passage: to become a man or a woman by facing the quest of life head on.
The spirit of this approach towards wilderness was amply captured by Eddie Vedder’s cover of Jerry Hannan’s song simply called “Society”:
“Society, have mercy on me
I hope you’re not angry if I disagree
Society, crazy and deep
I hope you’re not lonely without me”
Is disconnecting from the sickening skyscrapers of steel and glass, from the dull rhythm of city life and the unhealthy consumption of information and genetically modified foods the requirement for us to turn towards our primeval home: the wild? For some people, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
We’ve already seen a few examples above. I would like to mention another well-known case: that of Timothy Treadwell who spent 13 summers among the grizzly bears of Alaska before one killed him. He saw himself as the protector of these bears and of their land, defending nature (even paranoically sometimes) from the expansion of civilisation.
“Well he cursed all the roads and the oil men,
And he cursed the automobile,
Said this is no place for an hombre like I am,
In this new world of asphalt and steel.”
Treadwell truly loved the wild, but his fate shows the perils of romanticising it: to admire the astonishing beauty of wild nature, to develop survival skills and increase your self-reliance capabilities is not the same thing as having a romantic view of wilderness. However, Treadwell believed that bears are capable of empathy and understanding, that these animals were his friends (if not family).
Treadwell’s life story, gracefully told by Werner Herzog in a documentary called Grizzly Man, reveals that behind the romantic lens and the need to get out of the modern world there are deeper, more profound inner forces at play that the wild seems to alleviate.
Of course, disappointment with and contempt for the nauseating mediocrity exhibited by society – a civilised (domesticated) world dominated by pseudointellectuals who are hungrily eating their own vomit on television, by assurances of immortal safety and laws that prevent risk taking, thus supressing the individual from becoming a man or a woman and by fear of losing this limp mental state of pleasure and comfort – are just some, albeit very important, factors in putting a person in such a position to romanticise the ferociousness and, ultimately, the carelessness of nature.
Profound internal conflicts, often related to a lack of spiritual connection with the creating Universe, also play a role. In particular, when this gap, this invisible but very real wound is plastered with values which spring from aesthetic visions, the whole situation within that individual is worsened if these aesthetics collapse in the subconscious mind: when this happens, the self no longer has grounds to recover, and one lurks in total darkness.
In other words, viewing nature as a benevolent, or friendly, place which offers some escape from the awful grip of civilisation, is a by-product of more than torment in the external world, in society: it is also the result of internal and perpetual conflict.
That is when the eyes of a brutish (but not evil) animal can seem compassionate and full of understanding: when the world of man has severed the spiritual link with the Universe and the individual failed to live out the aesthetic medicament which replaced that link. Romanticism (here of wilderness) is the response of the sensitive soul to a world without values.
However, in Grizzly Man, there is a fight between two large bears on a wet, sandy plain. The giants fight with a lot of ferocity and, in the middle of the battle, one of them defecates. That is nature destroying the romantic vision of itself, stating visually: “I am what I am, and I do not care what you want me to be”.
Therefore, although the wild can be thought (and rightly so) as a sanctuary full of meaning, conveyed through physical challenges, by learning about the flora and fauna and via meditations, it is also a world of unforgiving chaos and viciousness – but not of sadness, hate or evil.
Consequently, at least in the difficult and solitary wilderness, we are not lonely, only alone, we are not homeless, but belonging, we are not directionless, but connected with the stars above and the earth beneath.
But…perhaps the meaning of the wild is not so complicated and far from our reach. Maybe we can answer the question posed by the title of this article through simpler means: perhaps after a flight to remote mountains, or after a few hours drive to the nearest forest, or a hike on hidden trails, or possibly even during a stroll through the park or garden.
Indeed, many more people are going camping or hiking in an attempt to experience nature, if only temporarily. Some of us take this a step further and get into bush-crafting (survival skills in the wild).
Although these are admirable endeavours to reconnect with the wild, if we do not seek to maintain that connection after our trip is over, then we are just visitors and, as Gary Snyder stated: “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home”.
This sentiment was echoed by Peter W. Zapffe in his writings. In a short essay entitled, “Parting with Gausta”, the Norwegian thinker lamented:
“Nature is subdued—not defeated in battle, but crushed by machines. The visitors that step out of their cars will get the summit served à la carte, together with their steaks. They think they are entitled to this—not so much thanks to their perseverance or their love for the mountain, but merely because of the size of their wallets. […] Whether a later generation will rescue you from this degradation and remove the last rusty scraps of the dark age of technological naïveté—that we cannot tell today. Without hope, your faithful mourn. For them, your fate will be illuminated by the holy glare of tragedy: because you were beautiful, you had to die.”
Indeed, these regular visits can often have a negative impact on the wild: with resorts set up for more and more people to trample over the grass and branches, with trees cut to make room for car parks, tents and chair, with music and shouts overwhelming the sounds of birds and rivers, the modern human wants to engage with the virgin wilderness through as many comfortable ways as possible: if only the trails could be brought to us…
Maybe this is why the US Wilderness Act of 1964 defines the wild as “untrammeled by man”. This wording doesn’t reflect a romantic view of nature or “an obsession with purity”, as Boyce Upholt wrote in a recent review of Emma Marris’s new book, ‘Wild Souls’. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that what we do, even when we are in the wild, is not always natural – either wilderness is defined including humans or excluding them. If the latter, then it means we aren’t part of nature anymore and we should question what “civilisation” entails.
However, after this exploration – what does “wild” mean? Many things: a sanctuary of beauty where one finds their soul and loses their mind; a land of adventures that helps an individual become a man or a woman by braving the difficulties of nature; a mythical world of gods and spirits accessed through rituals; a fantasy-like escape from civilisation and from one’s own internal turmoil; a place to learn about animals and plants; a land of chaos and brutality, indifferent to suffering; a place “untrammeled by man”; our home.
The wild mirrors our true nature: not animalistic (instinctive – brutal and cooptative as circumstances and body dictate) but neither civilised (domesticated – obedient and fearful of risks and death). Whatever we are, in the wild, we connect with that essence of eternity, that seed of all things which dwells deep within our hearts. In the wild, we are Human.
Categories: Culture and Politics