Originally commissioned by the John Muir Trust Journal as an opinion piece.
© Niall Benvie 2010.
Wildness is the twist of roe deer hair caught in a barbed wire fence; the sound of geese flying high over a sleeping orange city; marestails thrusting defiantly through tarmac. It is the outward expression of the Earth’s vitality and a perpetual source of hope we erode at our peril.
Wildness matters to me. Perhaps it is even the most important thing in my life since it helps to make sense of everything else: in wildness is the preservation of sanity, where I can take comfort in my insignificance; where, in truth, we all can. Wildness is like a good friend, telling us things about ourselves that brothers or sisters may hesitate to. It makes us stronger. Of course we can live without friends– and wildness – but we are much the poorer for doing so.
Wildness occupies the crumple zone between wilderness and culture where natural process and hubris collide to throw up mountains of conflict. Most of us are generals looking the wrong way, thinking we have suppressed the enemy – wild nature – while failing to see it regroup behind us. Wildness is the envoy reminding us that we are ranged against a force far more potent – and indifferent to our fate – than we can imagine. But its voice is quiet compared to the din of our self-congratulation.
The whole process of consuming wilderness (the purest expression of wildness) and trying to suppress wildness is ultimately a self-destructive one. Wild land has always allowed us clean water, fresh air, food, wood and fibre. Too often, though, we have helped ourselves without gratitude, taking natural generosity for granted. The time to cultivate good manners in our relationship with the land, not least so that we can continue to enjoy these gifts so freely given, is rapidly running out. When the time comes, the generals will no longer be able to avert their gaze.
My own experience of wild land is often mediated by a camera but in the translation of encounter into visual image, a great deal is lost: it is the other senses that give an experience its depth of flavour. However compromised the representation of the wildness, it is still worth hurling each image at the ranks of complacent generals, alerting them to the primacy of natural process and the need to find an accommodation with it – for our own sake. This is my modest rebellion against a culture that sanctions the looting of the store of natural capital with no intention of repaying the debt. I stand alongside the stubborn marestails and incredulous roe deer.
I value wildness ahead of wilderness for the simple reason that the notion of wildness offers some prospect of reconciliation between nature and culture: the concept of wilderness necessarily excludes people from the landscape. I want to be present in that landscape and want to see others take a living from the land without robbing it. More over, as Paul Sheppard writes in his 1992 essay, A Post-Historic Primitivism, “The corporate world would destroy wildness in a trade for wilderness. Its intent is to restrict the play of free and selfish genes, to establish a dichotomy of places, to banish wild forms to places where they may be encountered by audiences while the business of domesticating the planet proceeds.” Wildness must be part of our everyday experience, not something reserved for a few, in far away places. We all deserve daily access to hope.