The Anthropocene: finding ourselves back in the wilderness


Reflections on the workshop on Re-wilding and Wild Desires at Wicken, 18-19 April 2013

  • Windy Wicken Windy Wicken Wind-blown participant Marcus Hall from the University of Zurich pauses for breath during a blusterous cycle ride across Wicken Fen (photo: Peter Coates)
  • Grey Sky Grey Sky Big (grey) sky country at Wicken Fen (photo: Peter Coates)
  • Cycle tour Cycle tour Bill Adams, cycle tour participant, Re-Wilding Workshop, Wicken Fen (photo: Peter Coates)
  • Big (grey) sky country with Konik horses (photo: Peter Coates)
  • Cyclists Cyclists Participants on cycle tour of Wicken Fen, Re-Wilding Workshop, 19 April 2013. From left to right: Francine Hughes, Fiona Reynolds, Chris Soans and Marianna Dudley (photo: Peter Coates)
  • Wicken lode Wicken lode Looking up a lode at Wicken Fen (photo: Peter Coates)
  • Wetlands at Wicken Fen Wetlands at Wicken Fen Reed beds and wetland at Wicken Fen (photo: Jan Oosthoek)

By Paul Warde

I came to the workshop on Re-wilding and Wild Desires at Wicken with more than a little scepticism. Not about the Wicken Vision, the aspiration to create a fifty-square-kilometre nature reserve to the north of Cambridge and engage in landscape-scale restoration. Nor am I sceptical about species reintroduction and restoration in general. But it seemed to me that these ideas had in the end fairly limited scope in my corner of north-western Europe, were often based on a simplistic understanding of the past and the prevalence of human influence within it, and sometimes on rather exaggerated notions of how much we really know about past ecologies. The Wicken Vision is, as has always been stated, an experiment, an unleashing of process, but this is not what is always understood by the idea of ecological restoration. I was interested, in fact, why people felt the need to dress this up with the word ‘wild’ at all.

As it turned out, this was also what nearly everyone else thought. Even landscape-scale ecology is a drop in the ocean – if one can mix metaphors so – of combating species loss. Re-wilders, we heard, have very different ideas of what they mean by re-wilding, and very frequently take insufficient account of people (past and present). One should at least drop the “re-“. A high proportion of restoration projects are not returning places to ‘historic’ conditions, and one of the most famous of all Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, is actually constructed on a polder. Re-wilding is full of ironies, and at times perhaps laughable: the Heck cattle more engineered than the humanized landscapes they are supposed to eradicate, Konik ponies of historically dubious provenance being imported from the east to restore England to its better nature.

After a while, wild was getting such a battering, I started to wonder: maybe we really do need this concept after all.

Early on, we discussed some meanings of ‘wild’, of which there are many. We might frame it simple as ‘other nature’, that is, non-human living things; it might be opposed to ‘domesticated’ in which case we can think of wild cattle as opposed to domesticated cattle. In a similar vein it can be opposed to ‘civilization’, and be used to describe the ‘wild peoples’, whether in some peripheral landscape, or indeed, in a typically modern usage, for people living at the heart of the metropolis. The wild is also a place, sometimes, ‘wilderness.’ In short, it runs the full range from an interior sensibility common to all of us (and variously seen as dangerous and requiring constraint, or that should be liberating and life-affirming) to a faraway place that in the age of the Anthropocene may not exist at all. Perhaps meaning many things to many people is precisely its strength.

In fact, my sense of the drift of conversation was that ‘wild’ was being used, increasingly, in a purely descriptive manner, and ‘wilding’ is simply finding spaces, interstices, where non-human nature can flourish. The mood was against the requirement that the wild belonged only to the ‘wilderness,’ probably remote places, people-free and grand of scale. This mood follows the trajectory of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, a book that begins with the far-flung roaming of anchorites to escape society, but ends with an embrace of wildness among the ditches and copses of the benign and well-populated south-east. This is in essence a repetition of Bill Cronon’s famous critique of ‘the trouble with wilderness’, where he ends up finding ‘wildness’ between the cracks of Manhattan pavements.

And I wondered – are we losing something here? And that is the emotional power of the wild, something that for us is unbridled, not in the sense of being disordered, but in the fact that we do not have control. The wild as something, whether interior or exterior, that overwhelms; that is not the same as taking delight in a sparrowhawk or a hedgehog that happens to have wandered into your garden. This sense of the power of the other and of nature is, after all, how we have mostly experienced ‘the wild’ as an idea for the last few centuries, even if it was very often a mistake, a naivety, to view putatively ‘wild’ landscapes as ‘untouched by human hand’. There is perhaps a lot to be said for living with the wild in your garden, in the sense of people becoming better at co-habiting a space with a range of other species, but this is very much still a garden. In fact, to use the more conventional language of history and the social sciences, I think the distinction I want to make is about asymmetries of power, and in the garden, people hold all the power. One may find strong emotions out between the patio and the fence, but this is very different from experiencing a wild landscape. Part of the historic notion of the wilderness, whether it was praised, or more often feared, is precisely that ‘out there,’ one senses the power dynamics are different. It is a place for caution, as much as liberation.

Thus I came away from the meeting thinking that the idea of wilderness, of a big, wild space, is really something we need to hold on to. Such a place is not neutralised by the fact that people live in it or transit it, or indeed that we deposit chemical residues or alter its climate. As we experience such places, as individuals or collectives, the power of the wild is not undone. And there seems to be no contradiction, as was forcefully stated by Peter Coates, between husbanding such spaces (if that is not too much of an irony?) and fostering the wild alongside us. In fact, such a useful distinction emerges for me in the notion of wildlife, which is something we seek to preserve and enhance in England (I will not say ‘crowded England’, because it suggests that mere human numbers determine everything, which they do not). Yet talking about wildlife in a wilderness seems completely redundant – whoever says such a thing? It is not a relevant category. Thus wildlife and the wild may be a useful distinction to maintain, as a reminder that we really need to keep the wild spaces, the big spaces, and that we do not want a thoroughly integrated world. Even one where wildlife flourishes, but is as tamed and merely charming as a Mediterranean islet.

It was Laura Cameron who posed the question: what do we want out of the wild? What do we really want? Her work has highlighted the influence of Freud on Tansley, perhaps as much on quite technical issues of system thinking as those of unconscious drives. In much of Freud’s work, such as that on the ‘wolf’, in Jungian psychoanalysis, and many other varieties of thinking about the psyche (or indeed a vast number of fairy tales and children’s stories) one can find plenty of evidence of how our storytelling has been powerfully bound up with wild places, our need both to narrate such spaces, and find locations to place stories that are important to us. A very recent edition to this canon would be Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest, bringing together British woodlands with (invasive?) tales collected by the Brothers Grimm in Germany. The wild is a place for hopes and fears, which can of course emerge from the pages of a book or a screen, but have a particular power when experience in situ. Such wilds can also, of course, go as many different ways as the imagination. They can be transgressive of social norms, but also a release from those cares (so important to John Muir), and evoke flux, contingency, serendipity, but also be places for caution, respect, care and reflection.

Hence I find myself in disagreement with my colleague Dolly Jørgensen, who gave a storming paper on how re-wilding has been an argument meaning different things to particular academic sub-groups, all with a different notion of ‘when was wild’. Dolly wanted to deconstruct some of the pomposity in such schemes, and also follow that trail to find wildness all around us; she finished with a little video shot in the surroundings of our venue, Pembroke College, with birds singing and trees and shrubbery more prominent than the buildings. It was an effective gambit, and we laughed. ‘The wild is all around us’. But actually, I think this really isn’t wild, beyond the narrowest description of wildlife. I used to have an office in that very courtyard, and not for one moment did I find it wild. Pembroke College, Cambridge is not a wild place. The power in that place rests absolutely with the people who manage it.

Bill Adams rounded off proceedings with some inspirational words. For him, re-wilding is ‘a statement of intent’ – an act to shift the baseline of expectation, and eventually ecology. It does not matter so much in that case that, as we historians readily point out, historical ecologies are always shifting baselines, and ones that involve much human action. Pointing out historical change is an important act for historians to perform, no doubt. But we do not then have to worry too much about the precise recoverability of past landscapes, even if restoration is clearly something that has meaning and value for us. What we want to recover through the wild, and preserving wilderness, is the capacity to explore the full range of our own instincts, from the meek to the unbridled. In this account, wilderness is not devoid of humans, but is a place where humans dwell and learn the power of the other, as we find in the writings of Tim Ingold. Humans have lived in places we feel to be wild as long as there have been humans, and felt that power, although they articulated it in different ways. They have been conscious of the gravity of their impact, but also conscious that there were other powers, as immutable as gravity, that demanded respect and knowledge. And isn’t this, after all, the condition of living in the Anthropocene? Not an age when wilderness is abolished and we become gods, but we discover that for all our powers we are vulnerable. The wilderness reclaims us, after all.

View the workshop programme.

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  1. Petra van DAm says:

    I find the introduction of the analytical category of power or power dynamics to differentiate wild from other types types of nature very useful.