The wilderness ideal, nature writing and disability

“Mountains and disabled people have something in common, they both get stereotyped as inspirational”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

On the whole, the ideal nature person fits into the wilderness ideal which I will come on to but first I wanted to mention the one image of a disabled person in nature, and that is the supercrip.  Supercrip stories tend to be about an individual overcoming their disability through hard work and perseverance in order to do something spectacular.  There is a sense of transcending not just nature but the body itself.  This is a person who ‘overcomes’ their disability in order to scale a mountain or someone who uses a wheelchair but skis.  These people are often the exception and whilst what they do is great, it can’t be the only vision of disability within nature thinking.

Back to the typical wilderness ideal though… There is a particular body type – white, male, fit, ablebodied – who can have the elite, transcendental experience and be a bona fida naturalist.  Having this ideal means you have created the opposition, the person who is not welcome in nature.

Alison Kafer explains that there are “complicated histories of who is granted permission to enter nature, where nature is said to reside, how one must move in order to get there, and how one will interact with nature once one arrives in it”.  Additionally, not only do you need to be in the wilderness, but you should be alone and off any tracks or trails.  And people who can do so are generally cast as better nature people.

As the disabled person has been cast as the antithesis to the wilderness ideal, there are no images of disabled people in nature, let alone a stereotyped image of a ‘normal’ disabled person within nature.  This absence is referred to by Jaquette Ray as the “disability-equals-alienation-from-nature trope” in her writing.  She finds “the only place for the disabled body in the wilderness ideal is as an invisible, looming threat – symbolic rather than actual”.

It seems to me like there is a hierarchy of moral superiority with the wilderness ideal at the pinnacle of the mountain and disabled bodies at the base, unable to climb up unless they happen to fit the supercrip model.

I have a separate post planned about ableism within the environmental movement and will expand on this idea of moral superiority in that context but as a way of seeing this in action, think about this:

There is a hierarchy of species that you interact with as well as where you interact with them.  To see a rare plant or rare creature comes with more status, as do megafauna and exotic species.  This by default means that connections with more common species is seen as lesser, especially if you interact with them outside the wilderness.

Within the wilderness ideal trope, we find the narrative of technology as an antithesis to a good experience.  We are told to leave tech behind in order to have a more embodied experience, one that is more about presence but this ignores the value of tech.  Technology allows electric wheelchairs and other mobility aids to experience the world, phones include apps that enhance the experience and provide a safety net for those of us who cannot be alone without backup on hand.

Writer Edward Abbey took this rejection of technology to the extreme and positioned electric wheelchairs with cars, and both as alienating us from nature and the wilderness.  He pressed the issue by telling people to get out of their electric wheelchairs and that unless one walks, one cannot experience nature.  The only way to know nature is to move through it on foot.  Whilst Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was published in 1968, the thinking is still very present in many people’s minds.

Extending this narrative to nature writing, we are told that writing with pencil and paper is somehow better than writing on a computer or speaking into a dictaphone.  Again, this way of thinking pushes writers with disabilities out of the picture, assuming we even managed to get into the scenic nature photograph in the first place…

“There is a long tradition in ecological writing that defines people with disabilities as the opposite of environmentalists.”
– Wheeler

Much nature writing is first person and may touch on a bit of health but often as something to overcome either through nature or so one can return to nature.  Often it is a short term condition, or one at least that can be managed well.  It might be cancer or depression and this isn’t to make light of those serious conditions but there is a difference between something you can recover from and having a chronic, long term health issue or disability.

“First person nature encounter narratives generally focus on the interaction between one specific body and one specific landscape.  A narrow focus can eclipse the possibility of other body types and other landscapes.”
– Wheeler

Many nature writers talk of the personal transformation or spiritual experiences that comes when you are alone in the wild or having reached the summit of a mountain, something clearly not accessible to everyone, disabled or not.

Polly Atkin wrote in the New Welsh Reader about what has been called ecocrip.  She writes particularly about poetry but obviously what she has to say extends to nature writing more generally.

“As ecopoetics has become established, certain practices and expectations of ecopoetic process and content have also become established.  These predominantly presuppose able-bodied practitioners, who can conduct energetic field work and outdoor workshops, focusing on walking, running or swimming as both poetic process and means of connection with the wider ecosystem.”
– Polly Atkin

Miranda Cichy said that “a lot of nature writers seem to believe that you have to go our alone and on foot in order to write about it.” But this doesn’t have to be the case.  A genre needs many voices, many perspectives and disabled people can add their own experience.

“The love of nature does not require specific bodily abilities.”
– Wheeler

I have written about my own way of interacting with nature and I do hope some of the examples I’ve given help other people to feel inspired and to value their own experiences, even or especially when they differ from the norm.  Kafer affirms that “the experience of illness and disability presents alternative ways of understanding ourselves in relation to the environment.”

I wanted to end with some quotes that I find inspiring and that validate my way of interacting with nature and encourage me to share the way I see the world.

“Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation.”
– Kathleen Jamie

“Dominant stereotypes and ableist narratives tend to overlook the richly textured ways in which people may experience nature; not to master it or to overcome impairment but rather to ground oneself in the world, to know and feel part of nature.”
– Bell

“Nature writing has created this image of environmentalist as white guy who goes out into the wilderness… but there have always been culturally diverse writers and women writing about the natural world as well, bring other ways of seeing this human-nature connection – not nature as a remote place to recreate in tranquillity, but nature as a place intimately connected to human habitation, culture and identity.”
– Melissa Tuckey

“Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s laws wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.”
– Tupac Shakur

Reading

Within her essay, Atkin mentions a few ecocrip writings:

I’ve just bought all three so maybe that’ll be the basis of a future blog post.

What we call nature and why it matters

What is nature is a difficult question imbued with cultural associations and assumptions and so to limit this to one blog post, I’m considering this from a broad UK perspective.

Nature is cast as a thing out there that we must head out into.  It is a wild and tangled space complete with certain iconic creatures, preferably rare and hard to see.  It is the peaks of mountains that one must summit and conquer.

It is this view that means we so often overlook the space around us, privileging a weekend hike into nature and forget that we are nature and we are embedded within nature and we cannot escape nature.  Even in the densest city, ‘nature’ can be found, and found thriving.

We step over plants pushing through cracks in concrete, ignoring their force to survive and thrive.  We move past walls with delicate purple petals clinging on.  We don’t see the pigeon that is pecking away on the pavement.  This could be argued, because of the specific idea our cultural has created about what nature is.  So let’s start by unpicking those assumptions.

Raymond William wrote, in 1976 that:

Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.

For many people, nature is intrinsically linked with wild and wilderness and with being alone and surrounded by countryside.  This is an association which is prevalent in our culture so I do not seek to disparage those people, but I do hope that eyes will be opened to urban nature.  Increasingly, magazines, newspapers and books are speaking of urban nature with the merit it deserves and we have to remember that Britain has very few places untouched by human hands.

Stephen Moss speaks of the agricultural history of our landscape in his book Wild Kingdom; “everything I can see, all around me, has been shaped – and indeed is still being shaped – by human hand”.  We have historical land boundaries, enclosures, ruined buildings, plough marks, forests which no longer stand, trees which have been coppiced, pastures where sheep have grazed for hundreds of years… All of which are the result of human land use.  Very few parts of our country escape this, so the wild nature which many of us in the UK idolise, has not really existed for thousands of years.  Our focus on this untouched idea of nature is detrimental to ourselves – Cynan Jones notes that a fascination with far off wilderness can blind us to the local wildernesses.

And local wildness is beautiful.  Just think of the dandelion which forces its way through the crack in the pavement and persists and perseveres.  Mark Cocker talks of the overlooked inner-city wasteland where nature thrives.  He explains, whilst this “completely subverts our conventional notions about beauty in landscape… almost every other part of the country is intensely managed at a physical level and we are, in some sense, guided towards a particular intellectual and emotional response.  Even in nature reserves and national parks our attitudes are largely prescribed. By contrast, urban dereliction is entirely free of these restraints. Uncared for, unmanaged and unintentional – it is, in a way, the nearest thing to true wilderness that we possess.”

***

“We must learn to love the narrow spot that surrounds our daily life for what of beauty and sympathy there is in it.  Fore surely there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty.”
– William Morris

With the exception of the word man, I agree wholeheartedly with Morris’s sentiment. We know that in one square metre of English woodland soil you can find more than 20,000 mites, 15,000 springtails and about 1,300 maggots (Erica McAlister) as well as many other species in the soil and the space and flora above.  Many people overlook the space around us, privileging a weekend hike into nature and forget that we are nature and we are embedded within nature and we cannot escape nature.  Even in the densest city, ‘nature’ can be found, and found thriving.

By rethinking what nature is and isn’t, we can create a practice of connecting with nature that is vastly more inclusive.  It is more inclusive for people with disabilities, for people who may be financially excluded, it covers class and race and gender.  By focusing on where people are, as opposed to where they might go to, we can see that connecting with nature is accessible to virtually every person who wants to experience it.  Connecting people with nature helps more people to care about the natural world and it is ultimately an emotional connection that will help people to change their behaviour on an individual level and seek change on a more institutional level.

Of course, it is not enough to tell a disabled person that they don’t need access to the nature out there because they have nature all around them.  Of course, we still need to identify and break down the barriers that prohibit or limit access to forests, national parks, nature reserves and so on.  That will be the topic for my next blog post.

 

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.