Wilderness in three books I read

Sometimes during long days in the concrete jungle I find myself dreaming about escape to the wilds. I’m not alone with these thoughts it seems; “the call of the wild” is an ancient curse. In the modern versions there are TV shows in which people attempt to survive in the sub-arctic tundra avoiding hungry bears, on deserted Pacific atolls threatened by typhoons or in the tropical African savannah with nothing but a water-bottle and a penknife. I am reminded of the Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001), a bizarre story of a young man’s struggle to survive on a lifeboat floating in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger and a dead zebra as fellow passengers! I also recall David Byrne, the singer and songwriter in the band called Talking Heads, who is a keen cyclist and has described the joys of biking in the wilderness zones of America compared to the tame experience of discovering Europe where there are not many landscapes ”untouched by human hand.” The exceptions it seems are some regions of Northern Scandinavia and Scotland where there are expanses of moorland and mountains that haven’t been cultivated or covered in concrete. Recently, in addition to the tales by Martel and Byrne I’ve read three exciting books that touch on the theme of wilderness in one way or another.

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016) is the most relentless dissection of how people have destroyed nature (forests) that I have ever read. Her subject is the clearance of North American forests from the arrival of settlers in New France (Eastern Canada) at the end of the 17th century, to the advent of conservation movements in the same regions (particularly Nova Scotia) in the second half of the 20th Century. The fortunes of the descendants of two outcasts from France are traced through the ups and downs of the families and their timber and logging businesses, interlaced with strong themes about racism and the disappearance of indigenous Americans. Every chapter of the book echoes with the cracking of axes and the screaming of saws. There are numerous dramatic incidents in the story, which illustrate the old thesis that life in the ”pre-modern” world was ”nasty, brutish and short.” I was blown away and couldn’t do much else for ten days but read the 700 pages!

Another impressive writer is Andrea Wolf who has tackled the life story of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian explorer and scientist whose enormous thirst for knowledge led him to undertake expeditions up the Orinoco River and across the Central Asian steppes to gather evidence supporting theories that have become the basis of ecological systems thinking. The Invention of Nature (2015) is an utterly absorbing read, largely because Humboldt himself was an extraordinary character, with an apparently endless capacity to lecture, debate and write on the composition of the ”kosmos” (the title of his major work). Everything from vegetation patterns to electrical currents, from romantic poetry to the movements of the heavenly bodies, was of immense interest to him. He lived near Berlin and in Paris from 1769 to his death in 1859, just before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. It seems that Humboldt’s legacy lives on in many scientific communities around the world, particularly where a holistic understanding of nature is emphasised rather than specialisation in “disciplines” with narrowly defined spheres of enquiry.

The third volume in these thoughts inspired by wilderness is rather complicated. The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant (2005) – subtitled ”a true story of myth, madness and greed” – is an examination of a curious incident in 1997 on an island in British Colombia, in which a woodsman and conservationist destroyed a unique 300 year-old Sitka spruce tree and then disappeared. The Haida Indians in the region revered the golden spruce and the wild Pacific coast is in the forefront of the story, which also deals with the large-scale destruction of forests in North America since the arrival of the white man. The protagonist is a man called Grant Hadwin who converts from working as a logging surveyor to taking up the forest conservation cause. But his life is a shambles of broken relations and in the course of his campaigning he somehow loses his sense of direction, battles with the forces of nature around the Queen Charlotte Islands, cuts down the golden spruce, is summoned to court to be tried for his crime but then canoes into oblivion. It is a bleak story. I read a paperback edition of the book that includes some fantastic black and white photos from the archives of the loggers and timber traders as well as ethnographic studies of the Haida.

Reflecting on the scope and intrigues of these three stories – both fact and fiction – I’m glad that I’ve had opportunities to get a bit closer to some forests and the wild, albeit on a limited scale and without the drama of struggling to survive against the odds. I think of the diverse wild landscapes I’ve admired over the years: the coastline of County Donegal in Ireland, the fringes of the Sahara desert in Burkina Faso and Mali, the rainforests in Central America and the barren but beautiful Altiplano in Bolivia, etc. I’m also glad that many of the world’s wildernesses are protected as national parks, biosphere reserves and so on. In this way the urge to exert control over nature is tempered by recognition of the grandeur of the cosmos.

An easy way to view the wilds, the Annapurna range from the air.

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