In search of wilderness…

The human relationship with ‘wilderness’ is an intriguing one.  For centuries, we have shown simultaneous apprehension and admiration for the wild, untamed Nature that surrounded our own carefully controlled environments.

From the anthropomorphic gods of ancient mythologies to modern-day idolising of big game hunters and ‘survival experts’, we have an uncanny ability to keep that which we admire at an arm’s length.  Show someone a picture of a stunning mountain range, an adorable wild animal baby or a serene tropical island, and they’ll wax lyrical on the astounding beauty, the majesty of nature, the sense of peace it creates within, rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb…  But, put that person into said picture and it’s suddenly not so appealing—there’s insects and spiders crawling around, it’s raining, that animal has teeth and claws, it’s hot, I have to pee behind a bush, there’s no toilet paper, I need a drink, there’s no food, I’m getting bitten…

So it’s no wonder that our attitudes to the protection of this ‘wilderness’ are ambivalent, to say the least.  Research published a couple of weeks ago shows that protected areas (PAs) around the world are biased toward areas that least need that protection, e.g. places with “higher elevations, steeper slopes and greater distances to roads and cities”.  The study also found that, within countries, the higher the protection status, the less likely the area was to be faced with the pressures it was being protected from.

It seems we’ll admit that we should protect natural areas and leave some parts of Earth free from our control, but we’re not prepared to give up the areas we can benefit from.  Instead, we can lock up far distant lands that we have no real need to use anyway.  Problem solved.

At the same time, we moan about the soulless concrete of our cities, subconsciously longing for the silent freedom of a lush, misty forest or the inspiration of a sky-wrenching mountain range.  Another study published recently found that PAs in the United States (and I’m sure it’s happening in other countries too) are being increasingly threatened by the “tree-change” housing boom.  People are moving out of the city to be closer to nature, but they aren’t prepared to leave the city behind.  They cut swathes through the ‘wilderness’ they came to see, moving their high-voltage power line corridors, 6-lane highways, and barren housing estates with them, all landscaped carefully with non-native, monocultured plant species.

Conquering the Himalayas. Picture: M Saunders

Meanwhile, the ‘wilderness’ that inspired this rearrangement shrinks in size and becomes more isolated.  Its animals and birds move out, frightened away by the noise, lights and pets, or simply forced out by lack of space and food.  The local creeks and waterways change, flushed with lawn fertilisers, detergents and stormwater runoff.  The area’s microclimate is altered by the new asphalt and brick landscape and its now day-lit night.  The exotic plants growing in new gardens and along roadsides infiltrate the surrounding native plant communities, which fall under the advance like a barn full of battery hens exposed to avian influenza.  The noise of a silently breathing Earth is replaced by the silence of Human Noise.

And thus passes another quiet corner of the Earth.

© Manu Saunders 2009

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