Wildness was discovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Or rather rediscovered. It was the Romantics that did it. Of course, nature has always been celebrated in different ways across the centuries: you can see that from cave paintings, you can read it in the earliest poems that survive. But the Romantics were revolutionaries: and nature – wildness – was at the heart of their revolutionary fervour…for the romantics, wild nature – nature without thee hand of man – was what mattered. The wild world was the place to find beauty: but more than that, it was the place to find truth.
How to Be Wild Simon Barnes 2008: 118
Wilderness can mean “a place of abundance” as in John Milton, “A wildernesse of sweets.” Milton’s usage of wilderness catches the very real condition of energy and richness that is so often found in wild systems. “A wildernesse of sweets” is like the billions of herring or mackerel babies in the ocean, the cubic miles of krill, wild prairie grass seed (leading to the bread of this day, made from the germs of grasses) – all the incredible fecundity of small animals and plants, feeding the web. But from another side, wilderness has implied chaos, eros, the unknown, realms of taboo, the habitat of both the ecstatic and the demonic. In both senses it is a place of archetypal power, teachings, and challenge.
So we can say that New York City and Tokyo are “natural” but not “wild” They do not deviate from the laws of nature, but they are habitat so exclusive in the matter of who and what they give shelter to, and so intolerant of other creatures, as to be truly odd. Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. In ecology we speak of “wild systems.” When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive.
The Practice of the Wild Gary Snyder 1990: 18-19
What is ‘wildness’, and what is ‘wilderness?’ This is a topic that’s interested me for a few years in relation to mountain walking, its aesthetic and psychological experience: what do you find there, and what effect does it have? To be truly free, Snyder says, one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom. With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, an in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence (ibid 12).
The Chinese word for nature, zi-ran (Japanese shizen) means “self-thus.” There’s a clue in this. Yet for some people wilderness is little more than an aesthetic category, whereby the only meaning it has is the emotional pattern some people make with it. There is nothing intrinsic to an experience of the mountains, since they are just inert if shapely rock. What we experience is ourselves and how we feel about it, and that is not intrinsic: different people experience different things. There’s a scene in the film Trainspotting when the drug addicts take a trip to the highlands. Appalled by their vast emptiness, they go scurrying back to Glasgow. And yet, as philosophers like Lao Tsu noted in the Tao te Ching, emptiness contains fullness. This dichotomy between natural wilderness and so called civilisation is an underlying fact of life: walk far enough, and you eventually find places where energies are not maintained but exist according to the subtle but powerful rules of nature. To drive there and immerse yourself in them is more likely and convenient. Quite recently, the English Lake District was regarded with horror and foreboding, a place of threat and menace rather than beauty. Then a few people climbed the hills, it aroused the curiosity of others, and the pursuit of mountain walking has attracted substantial interest ever since.
To a large extent, the Romantics were responsible for this: Wordsworth evoked the gentler pleasures of birds, hills and even the daffodils of the Lakes, his famous poem about the latter inspired by a spring time hillside near Ullswater. Coleridge, his friend, evoked more of the wildness of the mountains and in that respect they were complementary. He took to the hills in a state of opium-induced fervour, regarding their danger as challenge and poetic inspiration. Wandering with neither plan nor knowledge, he allowed inclination and caprice to lead him as it would: on one occasion down to a notorious station called Broad Stand, one of the danger areas of Lakeland. There are accidents there every year, broken limbs and occasional fatalities. It’s a tantalising crossing between Scafell and Scafell Pike, designated a Grade 3 scramble not be taken lightly; it’s the one area of the Lake District that taunts and challenges me. I’m not a peak-bagging walker, but motivated by aesthetic and sensory pleasures irrespective of so-called attainment. However I’ve heard contrary accounts of Broad Stand, on the one hand of doom and foreboding and on the other that in dry conditions if I don’t mind a bit of exposure I could do it: the latter advice from a Mountain Rescue chap, who knew what he was talking about – maybe – because really it’s only me who can know this. And it bothers me, that I’ve never tested it.
Here it is, Broad Stand; the dangerous part is just above this area where a slip apparently sends you plummeting down a precipitous twenty-five feet. These rocks are smooth, polished, and lethal in wet conditions. Even at this point, you get some sense of the exposure down to the left:
Coleridge recorded his account of descending Broad Stand, requiring that he lowered himself down two or three platforms when he didn’t know what was below; it’s traditionally regarded as the first recorded account of rock climbing. He survived, but some others haven’t. He further exulted in violent weather, lashing his body as a kind of corollary or exorcism for his emotional state, so his tale should not be regarded as any recommendation
Wildness though doesn’t have to be of the Coleridge kind; pretty skylarks trilling in a blue sky are part of a different mood, but no less wild if you are on Scafell Pike – preferably alone, although that’s not easy to find on this popular mountain. I was there once a few years ago in late autumn, when the valleys were full of thick pea-soup fog. Walking up the steep slope of Lingmell, cloud rushed in from the Irish Sea and visibility was reduced to fifteen feet. Would it blow away? No it would not. It was settled snugly in the pockets and undulations of hill and mountainside, and like a sleeping cat reaching the fireplace had no intention of moving. I had to decide if it was worth continuing; there was no point going up Scafell Pike with nothing to see, so I reasoned that I would summit Lingmell and then come back down the Brown Tongue ravine. Thirty minutes later I was in brilliant sunshine with a pristine blue sky, and an astonishing seabed of cloud extending to the Isle of Man, Scotland, across the Lakes and literally as far as the eye could see in all directions. Cloud inversions are unusual, but not rare; although recounting this tale later a local told me she had never seen one despite living in nearby Eskdale. In a further hour I reached Scafell Pike, highest English mountain, and enjoyed it by myself. Here’s what I saw:
The sun had set at about five o’clock, and I had to get down quickly to make use of the remaining glow in the sky. However, on reaching the cloud again it was inky black; so black, it was like wading through a dream. I had to descend the rough track down the ravine, which was quite icy. The only sight navigation was what my head torch illuminated in its short and narrow arc, only useful for where to put my feet and not slip. I considered, momentarily, that should I encounter another person suddenly, or even worse some kind of beast, it would be profoundly frightening. I reassured myself that should that happen, I’d get such a massive adrenal kick I’d be the equal of any possible hostility. Grrrr, bring it on.
Fortunately, it was a track I’d used before and its curving descent around Lingmell provided literally a sense of direction: down, and gently to the right. Other than that I had no information at all on how to get down to the valley, and when I reached the flat it wasn’t over: impossible to find a path or accurate route I ducked under trees, clambered over a wall or two, crossed streams and slipped over boulders. As with the descending path I roughly knew the direction to follow, that if I just kept going I would eventually reach the road winding along the Wasdale valley and the return to my car: as solitary as I was, in the parking area. Not my idea of fun, I was thus in gloom for about thirty minutes and total blackness for the last two hours of the walk. I discovered later there’d been several collisions on the roads, which was not surprising.
I’ve had a few such encounters. Another was stumbling across a Welsh hillside in darknesss near to Cnicht, returning to Beddgelert; another was finishing the Lakeland Dale Head horseshoe in darkness again, though fortunately with moonlight: because on that occasion there was heavy snow and some hazardous ice. Even back in the Newlands Valley and on the road, it was easy to slip and hurt yourself and in the cold silence you could be in some danger.
I don’t know if anything mitigated Coleridge’s crazy wandering, notably his Broad Stand descent, in terms of aesthetic pleasure. What he described in regard to that occasion is an impending storm he had to escape, and the exhilaration of having neither control nor certain safety, but nonetheless surviving it all. He regarded such experiences as a kind of training ground for his literary vocation. To put it colloquially, he was a bit of a nutter.
For myself, the mitigating circumstances for my day up to Scafell Pike were the great beauty of the cloud inversion, enhanced by the fact that no one else was around. The dark descent was unpleasant but it does, admittedly, add another facet to the tale as I recall its details, adding a dimension to it like musical counterpoint: wild rather than tame, dangerous rather than comfortable; black, literally, rather than light.