The Rediscovery of the Wild

| 3rd October 2013
Martin Spray reviews a book that presents varied perspectives on the essence of true 'wildness' and the necessity of connecting with 'wild' nature.....
Wild things are all around us; they are on us; they are in us

I owe The Wild much. Amongst my earliest recollections is one of looking for little shiny beetles under the brickbats and bits of lumber that littered the abandoned gardens a hop and two skips from my suburban home.

I often visited this wild site. The sheen of the beetles intrigued me, and the speed at which they found the security of darkness impressed me. I wanted to know - and kept checking - that these miniature animated jewels were safe under their stones, boards, and broken concrete.

The first key issue Kahn and Hasbach draw out from the ten contributions to this book is "Is the wild everywhere?" It is! Wild things are all around us; they are on us; they are in us. Some of them, we probably cannot live without; some have a good chance of killing us. The larger ones we see; the smaller ones we normally don't: we know very, very little about their relationship with us, and tend to ignore them until they are troublesome.

That seems to me to be a Shadow Wild. It is everywhere; it is our cheering companion, our constant pest, and the reason for ‘decontaminating' spacecraft before hurling them into the aether.

The Wanted Wild is somewhat different. It is often in short supply, it may be iconic (e.g. panda, tiger, orchid), or it is simply pretty, delightful, entertaining, or intriguing (for me, such things as deer, ferns, and those shiny beetles; for a housebound friend, the urban, alien, squirrels that enliven her day). 

This is the wild that is usually meant in adverts for nature conservation, on glossy calendars, and in romantic (in the philosophic sense) TV programmes. It is the wild that is yearned for.

But, this is just one way of dividing up the world, and it is not one that is easy to sustain. If one looks around the world, there seems to be a gradation of ways, from what I would call Us-and-Them to Total Oneness.

Eugene Anderson in his chapter looks at some of the ways that differ from that of the Western tradition, and concludes that we may need to "phrase our discourse" differently, and reduce the conceived difference between Us and Them. We need, he says, to put the highest value on our continued learning, and the improving of knowledge - "emotional and spiritual as well as pragmatic and factual".

Wild things are all around us; they are on us; they are in us

Dave Foreman, meanwhile (as one might expect from the cofounder of Earth First!), is pragmatically spiritual, and is up and running with the "other Earthlings", wondering how we and they can live together.

Some approaches are offered by other contributors: for instance by ‘quantifying wilderness', a scientist's interaction with wolves (Cristina Eisenberg), by looking at the ‘Wild and the Self' through other eyes, including Zen (Jack Turner), by playing by the ‘old rules': (1) Do what you must to survive, (2) Do your best to keep your genes going (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas), and by exploring ‘a wild psychology' (Ian McCallum).

The book gives glimpses of some of the ways we are - or might be - able to face living together. One contributor is based in South Africa; the others, including the editors, in North America; most are academics. This narrowness of the field doesn't make the relating of them to each other easy - but perhaps easier than might have been.

Now, I wonder what a book with this title might be like if, say, it contained the writings of native contributors from Anderson's sample of cultures - narrow though that still is: Yucatec Maya, Nuu-chah-nulth, Uto-Aztec, Yaqui, (pre-Christian) Irish, and Chinese, as well as Uruk (Gilgamesh), the Hebrews, and the Romans.....

I don't think I, at least, am ready for that, but I feel a need to be more exposed to this wider view. It is too easy to believe that our way is inevitably the one to be on.

Two other issues the editors identify are the destruction of the wild and the need for "a nature language of the wild". Their concern is that "we're destroying the world through the use of our language", and that we must "recover the language of our experience of the wild".

An example they give, of the danger of the language we use, and the distance it puts, without us understanding what is happening - chip by chip - between what is and what seems to be, is Outback and Tundra, Falcon, Jaguar and Mustang: not aspects of wildness, but car names.

Here, images of non-human Nature have been coopted as sexy cheerleaders for technology. Of course, there is more to technology than cars. "Does technology", the editors ask, "diminish the experience of the wild?". This is a question I've recently been thinking about. As usual, I conclude "yes and no".

I used to enjoy badger-watching and night-walking, but now I simply fall down in the dark. For a few weeks, we have borrowed a night camera, and installed it in young woodland beyond the garden. We've been enthralled to watch, besides domestic cats and grey squirrels, the fallow deer, wild pigs, and up to eight badgers, which we knew used the area, but seldom or never saw.

Although part of the ‘yes' is that camera technology inevitably leads to, as it were, another hole in the ground, I will not say this has diminished my experience of the local wild! But - I now would like even more to have the real experience.

If the other general issue that comes from the book's contributors is valid, ‘self-regulation' is a defining characteristic of wildness. Again, yes and no. Wild things are not domesticated, tamed or enslaved; they act ‘naturally'; yet, surely there is no total self-regulation in an ecology in which organisms - and species - interact with each-other.

Wild could mean something along the lines of "not influenced by mankind"; but is anything; and what does this mean if one does not conceive of a distinction - a disjunction - between Homo sapiens and the rest of life?

Moreover, what does it mean if one thinks of H. sap. as being just as ‘wild' as wild boar, grey squirrels, and bindweed? I am reminded of an eighteenth century geography encyclopaedia in which native Americans were described in the same way as the region's wildlife.

However, the invitation I think the book offers - for instance in Ian McCallum's chapter, though I find that contribution rather nebulous - is to look in the mirror, to look through the facade of civilisation, and see... just another animal.

Where does that leave us? The editors offer us a mix of styles which is a little uncomfortable. I felt the need several times for more rigour in the writing, and an indication that the writer was not merely going with her or his gut feelings.

The reader, however, is given a more complex view than many other books on ‘the wild', the rediscovery of which is perhaps not as straightforward (I do not mean easy!) as it seems.

‘Wild' has a number of meanings, and what there is to be rediscovered is determined by culture. The (re)discovery of the beauty, cuddliness, or other attractiveness of (as examples) pandas, tigers and orchids, and their importance to us, comes hand in hand with a recognition of the importance of the Shadow Wild, and with the recognition, as Kahn and Hasbach put it at the end of their book, of "the mysterious primal parts of ourselves, which we can never fully know".

Martin Spray is an ecologist who retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, where he taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics. He is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation. He writes for a variety of magazines on conservation, landscape, and gardens. He has Parkinson's Disease.


Edited by Peter H. Kahn & Patricia H. Hasbach, 2013, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Paperback, £17.95 

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