Yesterday I found myself in the travel section of the London Review Bookshop, and noticed that I was particularly drawn to books about the wilderness, and ‘the wild’. Especially Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, and this one, which I bought, and which is now sitting on the chair next to me, hoping as fervently as I am that I’ll get all my work done and be able to pay it some attention.
So far I’ve only read the first few pages of Griffiths’ book, and reviews of Macfarlane’s, especially Kathleen Jamie’s in the London Review of Books (only available to subscribers, I’m afraid). What I’ve learned from him is that the areas we consider ‘wilderness’ are often just as artificially manipulated as the rest of our habitat – even those massive expanses of land in northern Scotland, on which you could walk for a day and not see any trace of human civilization, have been documented and designated and preserved and protected by entities like the National Trust. And if wilderness is meant to be land free of the traces of human intervention, does it really remain wilderness when humans have intervened to keep it exactly as they believe it should be? (Not that this benign intervention is a bad thing – it just calls into question the very idea of ‘untouched wilderness’.)
And with Griffiths I’ve discovered an exasperation with “so many writers in the Euro-American tradition [who] would write reams on wilderness without asking the opinion of those who lived there, the native or indigenous people who have a different world for wilderness: home.”
Wilderness, it would appear, is highly subjective. Griffiths describes Igloolik hunters communicating the exact whereabouts of their prey by “describing all the rocks coupled with the wind direction”. In a landscape of ice, that you and I would consider effectively featureless, they are perfectly at home, and know where they are, where to go, and how to get there. Perhaps what anyone considers wilderness is really just the unfamiliar, der unheimlich, the strange. One person’s home; another person’s foreign country.
And although I feel slightly ridiculous even thinking it – maybe the big city has something in common with the wilderness. I felt completely lost when I first arrived here in 2005, and didn’t recognize any landmarks, or know which direction to go in. Now I know it as intimately as the Igloolik hunter knows the icecap, or as the native Australians know the songlines. Places and spaces change with knowledge. They shrink, and become habitable and negotiable.
After I’d bought the book I got on a bus with some of my friends, who were in town for the weekend and wanted to go down to the Mall to look at the Pope. And then I promptly got off again, because my Oyster card was out of money, and told them to get down at Piccadilly Circus and that I’d meet them there. Then I worried that they’d be bewildered by all the chaos around them, and not get off at the right stop, or get lost or scared when they did, and not know where to go, and miss the parade. And I thought how alarming London must seem to them. All these roads, and junctions, and shops, and people, and buses, and traffic lights – how can one possibly find one’s way when there are so many endless possibilities? I expected to find them large-eyed and lost when I finally made it to SW1, but happily they’d managed to stumble upon the parade just as the man himself was passing, so all was well.
Maybe the city isn’t so much of a wilderness. Or maybe there are just far fewer wildernesses than we think there are. And maybe I’m in need of a new one.