A recent taster for a new television series about the ‘wild’ has set me thinking about how little wilderness remains, not jut here within our crowded island but more widely across the globe. With the advances in travel and technology there are few, if any, places that we cannot reach. In turn this means that there are few places that have not, in some way, been touched by Man and our activities. Remote coastlines, unvisited by Man, are still the recipients of our waste; plastic and other refuse that has drifted ashore from the sea. Inland valleys, inaccessible except from the air, may have been contaminated by chemicals carried in the rain, a residue of industrial pollutants now spread across the globe on vast circulating weather systems.
Our relationship with wilderness is important; it defines who we are and provides a measure against which we can judge our place in the World. One of the most important components of wilderness is the sense of scale, particularly given that so many of us now live within urbanised environments. The urban environment, with its narrow streets and ever-taller buildings, has shortened horizons and, consequently, removed the opportunity for people to experience (as the novelist Wallace Stegner described) ‘a sense of bigness outside themselves’.
There is another, somewhat different, side to the wilderness that has long fascinated me; this is the sense of the wilderness (or the ‘wild’) as some dark and menacing place outside of our control. If you look at literature you will often see reference to the wild described as a dark forest or a wood, within which strange and terrifying creatures exist. The association between the ‘wild’ and the ‘wood’ echoes down through the ages from a time when our ancestors first began to clear our ancient woodlands. Both ‘wild’ and ‘wood’ are thought to have developed from the same root word ‘wald’ and the Teutonic word ‘walthus’ (forest) entered Old English as ‘weald’,’ wold’ or ‘wald’. These words were used to denote both a ‘wooded place’ and a ‘wild place’, cementing our association between the wild and the wild wood, as used by Oliver Rackham.
It is easy to dismiss the wild, the tracts of land that lie outside of our direct influence, and to think of them as waste; land that could be brought under the plough to meet our ever growing demands for food and materials. Yet the wild has a place, not just for the vast number of other species it supports but for our own wellbeing. We should use the wild to question our sense of being, to test our perception of self-importance against the bigger world outside of ourselves.