"THE WILD PLACES resonate with the spiritual aspects of our being. They inspire us, challenge us, take us to our darkest and lightest corners. They are simply our soul and without them we are nothing!" - Posted by Heather Plesance on the "Message for the Wild" section of the John Muir Trust website.
In the account of our walk from Elvis to Presley (TAC69 pp10-12), we made a number of facetious comments about certain attitudes towards the "authentic wilderness". We've now thought about this a bit more, sharpened our views and come back to put the boot in. We must stress that we have no axe to grind with any individuals (and some to whom we refer are certainly more sensible and coherent than others). But we are bothered by the inconsistent thinking, snobbery and ill-conceived radicalism that characterises some perspectives on the outdoors.
Every social commentator dreams of thinking up a killer moniker that captures the zeitgeist and quickly passes into common parlance. So after sloans, yuppies, dinkies, swampies and so on, let us present ... the Wildernista.
The core of the Wildernista doctrine is a quasi-mystical reverence for "the Wild", which provides a sanctuary to escape the rat race of our modern world. Faith in the restorative powers of the Wild is tied to a commitment to protect it from those who seek to exploit and profit from it. All of this is underpinned by the innate authority - or the natural right - of Nature itself. Wildernistas see themselves as the moral guardians of our wild places, dictating how they should be enjoyed.
In seeking to articulate the spiritual essence of our relationship with Nature's wild places, Wildernistas have spawned some of the purplest prose ever to grace the 99p bins of Bargain Books. Amazingly, this nonsense is often held aloft as the high literature of the outdoors canon. Here are three examples:
"Great height gives you greater vision: the view from the summit empowers you. But in a way, too, it obliterates you. Your sense of self is enhanced because of its extended capacity for sight, but it also comes under attack - is threatened with insignificance by the grand vistas of time and space which become apparent from a mountain-top." - Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind, 2003, p156.
"The spirit is, I think, a collaboration of landscape forces, of light, of weather, of space, the mingled chemistry of which creates a tangible presence of nature that demands a response in those who encounter it. Respect for the spirit is the first commandment of the wilderness, and its inviolability should be the first consideration of all those who pronounce on the Cairngorms." - Jim Crumley, A High and Lonely Place, 1991, p143.
"The fulmar soared majestically above our heads, the azure ocean shimmered in front of us as we stood on the deserted beach, at one with Nature, with the gentle lapping of waves and the distant call of the curlew the only sounds. Enveloped by Wilderness, we reflected on our modest place in the order of things." - David Gray and Nick Spedding, "Shetland Mainland, Sutherland, Graceland", TAC69, p10.
The Wildernistas like to think - and like us to think - that sentiments such as these draw directly on the primeval connection between humankind and the natural world, a link so ancient that it is beyond question. But - and this is the key point of our argument - the world of the Wildernistas is a social construct. Or, to use plain language, they make it up. As the Cambridge don Macfarlane puts it in a rare moment of clarity in Mountains of the Mind (p18):
"...when we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there. We attribute qualities to a landscape which it does not intrinsically possess - savageness for example, or bleakness - and we value it accordingly. We read landscapes [...] in the light of own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory. Although people have traditionally gone into wild places in some way to escape culture or convention, they have in fact perceived that wilderness [...] through a filter of associations."
(A confession: we couldn't be bothered to find this passage for ourselves; we pinched it off the back of Colin Prior's World's Wild Places calendar for 2007. At the time of writing, this is still available, half-price, from Tiso. Incidentally, one of the co-authors of this piece is himself a Cambridge man, and the very mention of Macfarlane's name is enough to elicit a long and colourful rant. Halfway through reading Mountains of the Mind, he hurled it into the bin in disgust, so we had to find another copy to check the quotation.)
In other words, what is being venerated is not some "objective" landscape, but a wilderness idyll. The Wildernistas' depiction of landscape is just as selective and romantic as are popular portrayals of life in the Highlands, such as Hamish Macbeth, Monarch of the Glen and ... er ... Rockface.
One person's wilderness is another's bleak moorland, and while Wildernistas are perfectly entitled to idolise our mountain landscape, theirs is just one subjective view that does not deserve the privileged vantage point its proponents occupy. What bothers us is the tendency to yield this moral high ground to the Wildernistas without subjecting their claims to greater scrutiny. The cult of the Wildernista purports to represent and promote the collective good, but is just as exploitative of the outdoors as are other attitudes towards our so-called "wild places". At their most extreme, the Wildernistas exhibit disdain for, even a desire to exclude, those of us with lesser moral and aesthetic standards - the unwashed hordes who take to the hills to bag Munros, raise money for Cancer Research, chat to their mates about the fortunes of Partick Thistle, or - the horror! - pollute our sacred summits with cairns and personal memorials.
The cornerstone of Wildernista discourse is the wild place. But just how wild are our wild places? Leaving aside parts of the Flow Country (and most walkers lacking snorkel and flippers generally do), the landscape of Scotland is essentially a product of the hand of man - or, more accurately, of his axe, plough, livestock and JCB. Despite, or because of, 250 years of depopulation, even our "wildest" land is accessible by a surprisingly dense network of roads, estate tracks, stalkers' paths and the odd funicular railway. There are few hills that you can't get close to via a man-made route. And often, when you do get to the top, you find yourself sharing it with other people.
We will write more on the authenticity of the wild in TAC71, editorial indulgence permitting. (You'll be lucky - Ed.) For now, we simply ask the question: whose wilderness is it anyway? By this, we do not mean the usual rants about property rights and access legislation, but how many people can a wild place accommodate before it stops being wild? That's the problem with the radical wing of the Wildernistas. To claim the full benefits of the wild for themselves, they must deny it to others. If "wild" equals "absence of man", to enter the wild is to erode it. The family who place a bunch of plastic flowers on some otherwise insignificant pile of stones want exactly the same thing for their dear departed in the afterlife as does the Wildernista in the here and now. All of us, however innocent our intentions, are inherently selfish in our outdoor pursuits. The only way to avoid this, and the only position fully consistent with the Wildernistas' veneration of the wild, is not to go. But a vow of abstinence is not part of the Wildernista doctrine.
This, then, is the point at which a resurrected 19th-century romanticism meets the reality of 21st-century mass leisure habits. Wordsworth's "bliss of solitude" founders amid a host of Gore-Texed infidels, bagging in the breeze. Let us leave you with a different hypothesis to account for our collective love of the outdoors. In sharp contrast to the mystical tosh of our opening quotation, we turn to the straightforward wisdom of the young. Kicking off the contributions posted on the same "Message for the Wild" section of the JMT website (http://www.jmt.org/journey/messagepages/messagesyour.html), one perceptive 13-year-old named Victoria answered the question "Why do you value wild places?" by simply writing this: "I like it because it is fun and free".
TAC 70 Index