Walking, Wilderness, and the Wild

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.

While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
   ‘The still sad music of humanity’ – that is not, and cannot be, what we escape to wilderness to find, but it is something one can find in the ‘cultivated wildness’ of Cumbria and remoter parts of Britain. While both wilderness and wildness appeal, it is the latter that moves me most emotionally. The skeletal form of the bare mountains, the mines and quarries that pock their surface, the stone walls that climb up and down their flanks, the pastures and hamlets, lime kilns and mill races that strew the valleys, the lakes that have been artificially increased to feed the thirst of Manchester – all these are an integral part of fell-walking. They do not deface nature, but blend with it, uniting humans and nature.
   For some writers, this is not the case. Thoreau, for example, in Walking, describes his wish to escape from all signs of cultivation.
Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. … My spirits infallibly rise in proportion to the outward dreariness. Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness! … Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape.

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.

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