Wilderness is many things – a place, a condition, a metaphor, and even an idea. Rugged, isolated or untamed. Wild, desolate, or dangerous. It commands our attention and provokes a response. It always has been, and always will be, a parallel theme to the very human notions of habitation, society and civilisation. Against this, the meaning of wilderness, its value and our understanding of it change over time, from person to person, from place to place and from society to society. What is constant however, is that all people at all times need to form a personal conception of what wilderness means to them, a view of its place in relation to being human and perhaps most critically, what to do about the one unassailable fact of wilderness – that as civilisation expands, wilderness contracts.

The primacy of place in human experience is undeniable. We live, breath and move in places, limited by time and space. And yet, the existence of one place, presupposes the existence of other places. Thus the places of civilisation are juxtaposed against the places of wilderness. The two are in many ways the oppositional pairs underlying our general sense of place, or at least, two basic categories of place. Whatever our understanding, wilderness is one of those “other” places – geographic, psychological or spiritual. Wilderness is a place we can avoid, a place we can visit, or a place in which we can dwell. Our idea of wilderness grows out of the interplay that arises between ourselves and our places, informed by our experiences of its opposite, civilisation.

Wilderness thus becomes an integral component of our worldview, and because places are external to us and our constructed meanings are internal, the landscapes of our inner world are inherently connected to the landscapes of our outer world. Consequently, wilderness, either implicitly or explicitly, forms an essential component to our sense of meaning as humans. If as the psychologist Carl Jung said ‘civilisation is the rational, “purposeful” sublimation of free energy, brought about by will and intention’, then in contrast, wilderness is neither rational nor sublimated nor the product of human will or intention. Its contrariness or otherness opposes the ego-centric nature of our human individualism. As the American naturalist John Muir opined aver 100 years ago ‘most people are on the world, not in it – have no conscious sympathy or relation to anything about them’. This echoes another view of Jung’s that ‘man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature’.

Wilderness presents us with a place which is unbounded and within which we can situate ourselves and as jane Hollister Wheelwright says, ‘stretch to our fullest dimensions … superseding presumed limitations of courage, stamina, and strength’. Wilderness provides an experience in which our limited ego, can be confronted with an other that represents a greater, all encompassing and superordinate whole. As opposed to the increasingly fragmented artifacts of civilisation, wilderness presents not only a picture, but an experience of otherness and wholeness that is integrated and unbounded, chaotic and rhythmic, expansive and intricate.

As Theodore Roosevelt said ‘there are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm’. Its meaning must be experienced, and its complementary necessity cannot be denied. Wilderness, and more importantly, our relationship to it and its meaning to us individually, is a human necessity. Echoing Jung’s observation that ‘in the course of the millennia, we have succeeded not only in conquering the wild nature all around us, but in subduing our own wildness’, is Thoreau’s now famous remark that ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world’. The philosopher Richard Tarnas reminds us that ‘nature’s reality is not merely phenomenal, nor is it independent and objective; rather, it is something that comes into being through the very act of cognition. Nature becomes intelligible to itself through the human mind'[. Thus wilderness, and its elemental wildness, is intricately and necessarily bound up with our being and becoming as humans.

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Posted: September 14, 2014


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