Wilderness as metaphor

I didn’t mean that inner-city London is actually a wilderness.

I’ve started worrying that Jay Griffiths and Robert Macfarlane are going to come storming into this blog, and start telling me off for missing their point entirely. The streets of London might have one or two things in common with the wilds of Scotland and the Amazon Basin, but they’re not the same thing at all. You won’t starve to death, or be eaten by bears if you lose your way between Holborn and Soho, and there are maps and signposts everywhere, and so many people that someone will speak the same language as you. A friend of mine from Delhi actually commented on how easy London is to navigate, when she visited last year.

What I meant was that the fear and bewilderment I experienced – and everyone else probably still experiences – when chucked into an unfamiliar city with no recognizable landmarks to navigate by perhaps has something in common with the disorientation of being stranded in the middle of Siberia, and not even knowing which compass point is which, let alone which way to head for food and shelter. Zero’s metaphor of learning a new city as you would a new language is equally apt.

I’m still enjoying Griffiths’ book. She’s made the point that

“City walls were built as a physical boundary for the inhabitants, to protect them from the vile hordes outside, but they were also a kind of moral boundary, dividing the city dwellers from the devilish chaos of nature beyond, which was, quite literally, uncivilized. (Civilized comes from civis, a town dweller.)” (p. 41)

But she also repeatedly reminds us that human beings are essentially wild animals; that the wilderness exists just as much in us as it does beyond the city walls. And anyway, we don’t have city walls any more. So human civilization – and urbanity – are constantly undermined, subverted and ridiculed by the wildness that exists at their core, constantly reaching its tendrils through the flimsy barriers we put up to try and keep it away. Even in the most orderly city there will be chaos. The wilderness is everywhere.

And if London is part-wilderness, does that make us part-savages?


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