Wilderness as a place

This is one of those posts that I sat down, wrote and barely edited because I really wanted to get it out there so forgive me any errors or untidy phrases.

Today Robert MacFarlane posted an open question on twitter:

“like many, I have long been fascinated by the complex relations of “mental health” and “nature”. Where, for you, is the most interesting current research & writing (from any time) to be found concerning this broad area?”

I too am fascinated by the relationships between mental health and nature as well as the added dimension of physical health which interplays with both mental health and nature.  I was excited to read the numerous replies but quickly found myself disappointed.  Repeatedly Miles Richardson was held up as a example of current research and writing and he is someone I follow on twitter and have read some of his research.  But beyond this there were numerous anecdotes which highlighted the privilege with which many people view and experience nature.  There was an unspoken assumption in many of the tweets that nature meant somewhere “out there”, away from humans, somewhere that could be described as wilderness.  By creating that distance we not only put ourselves outside of nature but we make it impossible for some people to engage with nature.

Immediately my mind goes to those of us who can’t walk and thus require carefully cultivated paths which inevitably regulate our experience.  Hidden and undiscovered or rarely used places are considered to be more natural than tarmacked or wooden decking paths.  This means I cannot truly experience nature in the eyes of those people but I know that this isn’t true.  I experience nature deeply in my own way, perhaps more so because of my disability and limitations. Other reasons people may not be able to get off the beaten track include where they live, finances, transport, lack of information and so on.

Another common narrative about nature and mental health is that of getting away from technology.  Now, if I am leaving my house I have to either be pushed by a carer or go in my electric wheelchair.  And I am aware that the people replying probably mean computers and phones when they deride technology but my wheelchair is technology and I cannot engage with anything outside without it.  Technology is not antithetical to nature.  Like everything in this world it’s about how we use it.  Technology can help us to identify bird calls or trees, put names to the flowers we’re seeing and in that sense can help to more deeply engage us with the nature we are experiencing.  Taking photos with cameras and phones can help us see more closely and help us to slow down.

A third thread is that of how easy and simple it is to go out in nature and how foolish we are if we don’t.  Again, an example from my own life.  If I have found somewhere suitable to go and be in nature, somewhere accessible, with parking so we can take my wheelchair and not worry about the battery dying.  Say all of those things are sorted and say then it rains.  Just a little rain, no big deal; the words of many people who think nature is easy.  We whip out my wheelchair waterproof, wrangle it over me and the chair and in doing so I’ve got wet.  Assuming no more water leaks in, which it always does, I will still get chilled and probably ill as a result.  The same is true in winter, even on dry days – being in a wheelchair, not moving, means you feel so much colder than those around you and for many people with physical health issues, this has greater consequences.

Beyond that single thread of tweets, this idea of wilderness being true nature is prevalent in society and it gives us permission to ignore the nature that permeates our city, the nature which is literally on our doorstep, or ramp in my case.  Doing this deprives us of experiences but also alters how we think about conservation – it is something out there, not something in our everyday lives.

Privileging wilderness is also insidious because it has traditionally meant that female nature writers have not been able to engage with nature writing, or at least have not been granted the same status as their male equivalents, by virtue of not being able to access those places deemed wild.  The male monopoly on nature writing was challenged in the second half of the 1800s by writers such as Mary Roberts and Anne Pratt who “wrote with humour and insight about native weeds” (The Oxford Book of Nature Writing).

“What sees the stranger in passing by? A small and insignificant looking weed, covering the top of an old wall, or springing from interstices where the mortar has fallen out between the stones.  What sees the botanist in this simple weed?  An object of great interest; formed especially for the place which it is designed to fill.”
– Mary Roberts, 1845

This close-looking at the immediate environment juxtaposed with the drive to exotic and unusual that had driven men up till this point.  Instead of great adventures in search of rare and wonderful orchids, women had to find something to meet their interest nearer to home.  When we look at this through the lens of place, we see the male wilderness and the female domestic environments reflected in their writings.  I suggest that it’s possible these female nature writers were more in tune with nature than the male explorers.  To know a place intimately and deeply gives you a stronger sense of connection than you get from passing through.

“If there’s one thing that underlies the work of many women nature writers, however, it’s a sense of interconnectedness, a dissolving of barriers between nature and culture, wild lands and home.”
Vivian Wagner, Creative Nonfiction, Issue 61 – Learning from Nature

Wilderness also, often, suggests vast plains of uninhabited lands filled with large, strong feature – perhaps a mountain range.  By virtue of having 65 million people living on a 242,495 km² island, there is not much of the UK that could be considered wilderness in the sense that Americans or Canadians experience.   But is that the only kind of wilderness? Wagner cites Annie Dillard as being a wilderness writer but notes that her wildernesses are small, consisting of a wood behind a suburban house, a neighbourhood creek and a field by a busy road.  Dillard has rejected the idea of nature being confined to raging rivers far removed from roads and hillscapes which have never seen telephone poles and has found what many feel as the spiritual power of nature in her own back yard.

“The birds and I share a natural history.  It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for son long that the mind and imagination fuse.”
– Terry Tempest Williams

William’s here illustrates the power of intimacy and longevity. You can be part of a place, part of nature, part of the wild simply by being there and paying attention for a while.

“As with the work of many other women writers, Strayed’s wilderness is not separate and distinct from herself.  Rather, the larger world and Strayed herself are interwoven and connected, one shaping the other.”
– Wagner

The interesting paradox of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, is that the wilderness she escaped to and wrote about is now marketed as a route which you can recreate and experience through her experiences rather than a landscape with which you can create your own connections.

Despite everything I’ve just said about women finding alternatives to traditional wilderness, I am not saying that women do not write of the “true wilderness” but instead that historically, by focusing on local nature, women were able to break into the field of nature writing in a way that perhaps they couldn’t have otherwise.

“Ornithology and botany within the confines of home and neighborhood were considered to be fitting pursuits for woman, but solitary back-country living … and wilderness exploration … were most emphatically not.”
– Lorraine Anderson on Victorian society

I’d like to leave you with an image.

I am laying in bed, incredibly ill.  Every time I move I am violently sick.  But my bedroom window is open and through the net curtains I can hear a blackbird singing.  When I last made it into my kitchen, I saw a female blackbird repeatedly gathering nesting materials and flying up to a vent in a wall.  I do not know, but I like to think, that this is the male who was with her.

A wood pigeon coos the repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ and I am reminded of the two, with their soft grey jackets and peach breasts, that perch on my fence, day after day.  Occasionally interacting, often just coexisting quietly like an old couple in companionable silence sitting on a bench in the sun.

I cannot leave my bed, I can barely sit up to look out the window, but I am nature and I am with nature.

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