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.


7 Responses to “Bewilderness”

  1. EoD Says:

    “And maybe I’m in need of a new one.”

    Bloody hell, I feel that sentiment all day and every day.

    Completely sucks that it has to be wilderness versus job security, though

  2. Redbike Says:

    I am yearning to ride up the west coast of scotland. My pannier bags have been sat packed ready for months now.

  3. MarkS-BJUK Says:

    I love exploring the city wilderness, unfortunately being office based this usually only happens during my lunch break or when I have a new office to work at which usually entails me finding my way to my closest familiar place then working out a route from there 🙂

    I love the area bound by Shaftsbury Avenue, Regents Street and Oxford Street as the many backroads provide an adundance of quaint, odd and amazing shops. I’ve often spent ages staring at the HUGE selection of spirits available in the window of the shop at the Wardour Street end of Old Compton Street 😀 It’s even got to the point where I feel bored or trapped if I’m at a place which doesn’t have somewhere interesting to explore but thankfully that normally only happens when I’m not working in the City.

    A bit further afield and whilst aboard the bike I set off one Sunday morning for a ride to Box Hill, missed the turning and ended up by J9 of the M25 after finding some superb country lanes! Eventually found my way back to the A25 then followed that East until I hit found some recognizable areas and then headed home – I was training for a sportive at the time so was intended to put in an 80 miler!

  4. zero Says:

    I’ve started using a different metaphor for discovering a new city: learning a new language.
    It took me maybe 10 years to learn London properly, only 2 or 3 to learn Manchester. I feel like learning a new one soon, too.

  5. Alastair Humphreys Says:

    Rob Macfarlane’s books are awesome!
    I also think you would love

  6. Fin Says:

    Your posts are great!
    Being a courier means having a lot of everyday freedom but being broke quite often. I find myself questioning how long I should go on, i have itchy feet just to get lost somehwere, a new wilderness.

    This photographers wunderlust led him to spend ten years traveling the usa scrapping enough money to shoot film.

  7. Jon Says:

    It’s instructive to think of wildness as a lack of domestication. When humans moved from hunting and gathering to being the first farmers they not only domesticated individual plant and animal species, but whole ecosystems around them. They also began to live in larger, presumably more hierarchical communities and adopted a more settled and sedentary lifestyle. Thus, I think a wild/domestic distinction makes sense not only for plants and animals, but for landscapes and even people themselves. However, unlike cattle our DNA seems little changed from our wild ancestors. So perhaps our condition is more akin to the sad life of a chimp in a zoo than a farm animal.

    I sometimes think that couriering and squatting in the city make for a life more wild and less domesticated than anything available in the highlands. But maybe that’s just the delusion of a caged chimp.

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