If you ask some one on the street to define wilderness, chances are good they will describe a natural setting, a place with no human influence or impact, somewhere very much in place and time. The dictionary gives us much the same:
1. a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland.
2. a tract of land officially designated as such and protected by the U.S. government.
3. any desolate tract, as of open sea.
4. a part of a garden set apart for plants growing with unchecked luxuriance.
5. a bewildering mass or collection. “
We could push our person on the street deeper, and perhaps get to a definition of wilderness that includes places like the ocean, the 70% of Earth surface upon which we pursue the last commercial wild prey, and under which we have not yet meaningfully colonized. Push a little further and we might even get to the idea that outer space is the ultimate wilderness. Our definition of wilderness begins with the root word “wild” which the dictionary defines primarily by what it is not: untamed, undomesticated, uncultivated, uninhabited, uncivilized, unrestrained, uncontrolled. These words all apply to the places we think of as wild, be they officially designated wilderness areas, the open ocean, or the blank spots on the map. Twenty seven years ago Bill McKibben first published The End of Nature, a work that posits among other things that as we define nature (or wilderness) as a place beyond the reach of human impact and influence, nature or wilderness can no longer exist, because human impact is now completely global in a geographic sense due to anthropogenic climate change and the pervasive spread of air and water born pollution. In short, our finger prints are everywhere. I made the same point myself back in college, before I’d ever heard of Bill McKibben.
But what if we change our perspective and look at one of the other words used in the definition of wilderness. What if we use bewilderment as the central concept of what makes something wild?
The dictionary defines Bewilder as:
1 : to cause to lose one's bearings
2 : to perplex or confuse especially by a complexity, variety, or multitude of objects or considerations
That sort of sounds a lot like nature doesn’t it? Complex beyond our typical understanding, easy to get lost in. Humans are excellent at pattern recognition, our evolutionary survival has depended on it. From this angle, careful study of natural events and patterns meant that we were never in the wilderness, even though from our casual modern viewpoint, humans living a premodern life seem to be the epitome of uncultivated and undomesticated. They may have been uncivilized, but they were not bewildered.
Looking for and identifying patterns allows us to make predictions. Being able to predict how things will be gives us a sense of comfort (though in modern times we sometimes confuse comfort with control). If we take bewildering as the defining character of wilderness, wilderness occurs beyond prediction. Wilderness is found when things don’t fit the pattern. It is bewildering when it is 70 degrees on Christmas day in southern New England. It is bewildering when a 500 year flood comes in the middle of winter, only 23 years after the last 500 year flood. It is bewildering when there is no ice on the shore to protect your village from winter storms. It is bewildering to see a bird or fish or plant you’ve never seen before suddenly appear in your home terrain. Wilderness isn’t a place, its something that happens when you don’t know what’s going to happen.
We live in the wilderness, now more so than our Neolithic ancestors ever did. Rather than the end of wilderness, we are living a broad bewildering version of it, covered with our dirty fingerprints.