On one of my first visits to the United States, I spent a few days in Yosemite. After walking a couple of miles along a trail, I came to a sign that read along these lines. ‘So far the walking has been fairly easy, but now it becomes more difficult. Are you ready for The Wilderness Experience.’ There are, of course, some pleasing ironies in such a sign. The use of the word ‘experience’, usually employed in advertising the most artificial of constructed environments: the Disney experience, the Smithsonian experience, and so on. Following a well sign-posted man-made trail in order to have the wilderness experience. (A little further on, another wayside pulpit advised the awed traveller to ‘Close your eyes. Listen carefully. What can you hear? Nothing. This is the sound of silence.’) But what struck me most was the use of the term ‘wilderness’. Nothing in Britain, or perhaps even in the whole of Europe, could really be described as wilderness. Wild places there certainly are: the English Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, the Alps, but none of these can properly be called wildernesses. Why? Because the mark of humans is everywhere. Years ago I saw a TV series on the British landscape; the programme on Sutherland showed that it had originally been forested, but bronze and iron age peoples had hewed the trees for fires and for smelting, thus dramatically and ineradicably altering the landscape.
The USA, by contrast, does have genuine wilderness (despite the Park Authority’s attempt to Disnify Yosemite). Yosemite, apart from a few lodges and camp grounds, probably differs little from the way it appeared to Lewis and Clark. The nomadic aboriginal peoples lived off the land in a way that left few marks. Whereas, in Britain, people have for millennia, settled all the available land, hewing forests, redirecting streams and rivers, quarrying, mining, farming, urbanising. In all these respects, then, the wild upland places of Britain only superficially resemble the genuine wilderness of the American West, or of Alaska. The lover of mountains, valleys, waterfalls, lakes, and crags can appreciate both, and may perhaps appreciate both in the same way. But that need not be so; my appreciation of the Lake District or the mountains and lochs of Scotland is suffused with an awareness of the long and intimate relationship between humans and the landscape, which has profoundly affected both.
In an earlier post, I mentioned a moment of epiphany when I first read Wordsworth’s Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey. The context could scarcely have been less auspicious. It was Christmas Day in Athens, Georgia, and I was suffering from bona fide influenza and running a temperature. I was on an exchange visit to the University of Georgia; looking round the house of the people I had exchanged with for something to read, I came across the Norton Anthology of English Poetry. Despite my distaste for some of Wordsworth’s poetry, fomented no doubt by an unfortunate choice of his poetry during my school years, I determined to give him another go, and the poem I alighted upon was Tintern Abbey. The whole poem was a revelation and a delight, but these famous lines, in which Wordsworth describes the change in his appreciation of nature as he moved from boy to adult, encapsulated my own experience in a way that has never found better expression.
There is here, perhaps, a touch of misanthropy – a dislike of humanity and all its works. This is totally absent from Wordsworth’s poetry. It is not, I think, an accident that Wordsworth, the poet who describes the old Cumberland beggar and the leech gatherer, also wrote sonnets that were a paean of praise to London.