“Something moves between me and [the mountain]. Place and mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both is altered.”
– Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
What is wilderness? Where is the wild? What makes a landscape natural? Does nature mean a pristine place, where no human foot has trod? That’s the way many of us understand it. It’s certainly the way I have understood it, sometimes still do understand it.
When we talk about nature, protecting nature, we’re usually talking about preserving something separate from humans, something outside of us. Forgetting that we humans are not (yet) machines, but living ‘natural’ beings, animals; creatures of the earth who share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and, apparently, well over 50% with bananas… And so we try to protect the natural places, decrying any sign of a human hand, be it houses or wind turbines. But that begs the question: what is natural in the first place?
In the UK, I’ve noticed quite a preoccupation with its supposedly natural ‘unique moorland landscapes’ and habitats. Bare hills, covered in heather (also, sometimes, broom, gorse), populated by pheasants, deer, sheep. But what does natural mean when these landscapes require quite intensive management to be sustained? Regular controlled burns to encourage heather growth to provide a better food supply for grouse, deer, hares and livestock. An overabundance of deer and other herbivores (due to a number of human actions including introductions and releases of new species, and the hunting of wolves to extinction in probably the 17th century in Scotland, much earlier in England) preventing new trees from taking root in areas deforested by human hands.
And the emptiness of human life isn’t a ‘natural’ state of affairs in the sense of it always having been this way. It’s a manufactured absence. In eight days of wandering these lonely places, two things have pressed themselves upon me. First, that the depopulation of the highlands is a new phenomenon. The sheer number of ruined and abandoned buildings scattered about the hills and glens makes that clear enough. Even a merely cursory glance through Scottish history is enough to confirm the truth of that observation. People have lived in these lands for many thousands of years. The fact that so few remain is a product not of ‘nature’ but of both historical and current social, political and economic forces.
Which brings me to the second thing: these places aren’t empty and ‘wild’. In Scotland, they are often the property of very wealthy private landowners. They are filled with groundskeepers and deerstalkers and the wealthy tourists who pay large amounts of money to be taken into the hills to shoot stags. Filled with people like me who are privileged enough to take two weeks out of life to just go walking, and with the distant but constant presence of those who own these vast landscapes.
Of course, Great Britain isn’t the only place in the world these trends are evident. National parks worldwide subscribe to the idea that the fewer people there are in ‘nature’, the better. Often, this aim is or has been achieved by murdering or forcibly or illegitimately removing the former inhabitants. Those who are now able to access the parks are those who can afford it. And while generally (though not universally) these parks aren’t owned privately, they nevertheless tend to be owned by an exclusionary state which provides for the already-privileged.
The point of these two noticings is, essentially, that there is more to what we call ‘nature’ and the ‘wilderness’ than simple, apparently self-evident human-nature, civilisation-wild dichotomies.
Unravelling the invention of nature, wilderness, and related ideas leads to a more fundamental issue: the incredible power of stories. When I say that words have a kind of magic, I’m being neither facetious nor whimsical. The ability to tell the story, to control the narrative, is the ability to define the shape of the world.
By defining nature in a certain way, those who write the stories of the world get to decide what shape that nature should take, who and what is included and, more importantly, excluded. They are also granted the power to make their particular story seem right and normal–in a word: natural.
Now, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as ‘nature’ or ‘wilderness’ necessarily: the things and objects we understand those words to mean certainly do exist in a material way. Some people would, and do, argue otherwise. But my point is rather that we need to be aware that we live inside certain stories which shape the way we see and interact with the world. We should be pondering who benefits and who loses because of these stories. And we should be thinking about how alternative stories can inform different solutions to the crises of environment, society and economy we face at this moment in history.
For example, could (re)establishing the commons be a tool for regenerating healthy ecosystems and healthy rural communities? How does it change the way we think about reparations and the return of land to those from whom it was stolen or unjustly taken to challenge the clear line between people and planet?
None of what I’m saying is new. There are many others who have argued a similar thing much more eloquently. But I think it bears repeating nonetheless. We urgently need new ways of living and of relating to the world around us, and I think this idea could help with that project.