What do we mean by wilderness? Some claim that the notion is misleading romanticism or simply describes a kind of museum of nature (Talbot). Can we challenge such critiques or must we abandon the idea of wilderness altogether? An alternative is to step sideways and instead of trying to answer the question posed by the current debate – i.e. what is wilderness? – we consider something altogether more puzzling: Where is wilderness? The question sounds ungrammatical and that oddness is deliberate. By pushing our language we might unhinge the heavy weight of the dualistic paradigm that dominates our thinking and flip into something less stultifying.
Where is wilderness?
I began thinking about this contribution with a somewhat simpler question in mind: what is wilderness? We might agree that ‘wilderness’ describes remote areas such as mountains and moors (Mcfarlane, 2007). Or more precisely “a natural place never controlled or altered by the hand of man” (Somerville, 2011). However, in a comment on a recent chapter of mine, the editor expressed her concern that notions of the ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ act to separate ‘us’ even further apart from ‘nature’ (Sian Sullivan, 2014). She questioned the value of the notion of ‘wilderness’, noting that many indigenous peoples have no equivalent. The green anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin makes a related point; the languages of many aboriginal peoples lack any equivalent for our word “nature” because they are “[i]mmersed in nature”, and so “it has no special meaning” (1993). Critiques of the notion of wilderness abound. Wilderness is a romantic myth, a social construction or even a tool of capitalism (various authors in Baird Callicott & Nelson, eds., 1998).
Our ideas about wilderness are inevitably founded on the notion of ‘nature’, one of the most mercurial words in the English language. Raymond Williams considers the word to be the most complex in our language, mainly because its meaning changes over time, revealing as it does so major developments in human thought (Williams, 1983). Some argue that we should avoid talking about ‘nature’ altogether. As Neil Evernden points out, our contemporary use of the word emphasizes a “sense of separation between the human subject and the surrounding field of natural objects” (1992). Anthropologist Tim Ingold concurs that ‘nature’ only exists “for a being that does not belong there, and that can look upon it, in the manner of the detached scientist” (2000). Ecopsychologist Andy Fisher, comes to a similar conclusion: In as much as “the natural world” is “a network of relationships”, it “is not a thing all, but a constant flux of interweaving processes” (2002).
If ‘nature’ is not a thing, perhaps wilderness is not a particular kind of place at all. Asking ‘what is wilderness?’ is the wrong question. I suggest we step sideways for a moment and consider what ecopsychologists call the ‘wilderness effect’ (Greenway, 1995). The wilderness effect typically describes the psychological impact of ‘wilderness’ treks lasting for more than a week. There are several aspects to the effect, but fundamentally it involves “feelings of expansion or reconnection” which Robert Greenway unhesitatingly describes as “spiritual” (1995). However, simply being in a particular kind of place – a ‘wilderness’ – is not sufficient to trigger the effect. In fact people can easily resist the wilderness effect, and Robert commented to me that psychological “entry into the wilderness is relatively rare – people I think tend to have fairly deep-seated resistance to any basic change in viewpoint, habit, value, behaviour. The body is in wilderness, the psyche is hanging on to one’s culture” (pers. comm., 2006). The wilderness effect depends on an indissoluble interweaving of bodymind and place. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests that we have “a knowledge of place which is reducible to a sort of co-existence with that place” (1962). It’s not that I am sitting in the woods – I am in co-existence with that space. Similar conclusions are widespread. In his survey of the field Gregory Peterson notes that for a “significant number of researchers … to understand the mind/brain in isolation from biological and environmental contexts is to understand nothing” (2003). Philosopher and psychotherapist Gene Gendlin is even more radical: the body “is an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). To be clear, there isn’t a typo there: Gendlin isn’t saying that the body is in an interaction, but that the body actually is that interaction.
In a conventional dualistic worldview, there is a place and there is a person in that place: I go out into some remote place called wilderness. But if we take every instance of a bodymind/place to be a unique interaction – a kind of singular event instead of a person in a landscape – where is wilderness? It’s not simply a place ‘out there’, because from this perspective notions of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ are subverted. Neither is it some kind of cultural construct or a state of mind. Max Oelschlaeger describes how his experience of self is transformed when he spends time in ‘wilderness’. His everyday self disappears: “I’ve gone across a line and become part of the rhythm of play of the cloud shadows on the mountains, the dappling of the surface of the lake by the nymphs, the trouts’ rise – I disappear into the whole phenomenal field” (2004). If we try to follow Max across the line, the question ‘where is wilderness?’ becomes meaningless. But it is only by asking the question that we are led to an edge where we might find a very different kind of answer.
Baird Callicott, .J. & Nelson. M. P., (eds.) (1998). The Great New Wilderness Debate. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
Bookchin, M., 1993. ‘What Is Social Ecology?’ In Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology, Zimmerman, M.E. (ed.) Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Available online at: http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/socecol.html. Accessed June 2006.
Evernden, N., 1992. The Social Creation of Nature. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Fisher, A., 2002. Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life. State University of New York Press, Albany.
Gendlin, E., 1992. ‘The primacy of the body, not the primacy of perception: How the body knows the situation and philosophy’. Man and World, 25 (3-4). Springer, Netherlands: 341-353.
Greenway, R., 1995. ’The Wilderness Effect and Ecopsychology’, in Roszak,T., Gomes M.E., & Kanner, A.D., (eds). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
Greenway, R., pers. comm., 2006. E-mail: Re: The “Wilderness Effect”. Ecology-Psychology@jiscmail.ac.uk. 09/10/2006.
Ingold, T., 2000. The Perception of the Environment. Routledge, Oxon., USA
Macfarlane, R., 2007. The Wild places, London: Granta.
Merleau-Ponty, M., 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Oelschlaeger. M. 2004. In Listening to the Land. Conversations about Nautre, Culture and Eros, Jensen, D. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Peterson, G., 2003. Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.
Somerville, C., 2011. Britain and Ireland’s Best wild places, London: Penguin.
Sullivan, S., 2014. Editorial comment on ‘The Knowing Body: Eco-Paganism as an Embodying Practice’, Harris, A. (in press).
Talbot, C., 1998. ‘The Wilderness Narrative and the Cultural Logic of Capitalism’, in Baird Callicott, .J. & Nelson. M. P., (eds.).
Williams, R., 1983. Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Flamingo.
Adrian Harris is a psychotherapist and researcher who has been engaged in environmental activism for most of his life. His PhD thesis explored embodied knowing (embodied cognition) in Eco-Paganism and his MSc researched psychotherapy in nature. Adrian has published work on animism, embodied knowing and the power of place. Adrian occasionally facilitates nature connection workshops and he regularly considers the relationship between body-mind and place in his blog: www.bodymindplace.org