I’ve just finished reading The Practice Of The Wild, by Gary Snyder. I found it very tedious and poor quality, largely just an emotional-narrative construct in which he blends ecology, Buddhism, native teachings and rural-anarchist politics. I ended up skipping much of it, weary of nonsensical platitudes such as “the world is watching: one cannot walk through a meadow or forest without a ripple of report spreading out from one’s passage” (19). There may be, as Snyder notes, a passage of information passed through the “system” whereby creatures are alerted to the movement of others. In fact this is obviously correct, and I enjoyed watching all the life in and around Llyn Du, the Welsh lake where I recently camped. There were small fish, newts, water beetles, silver coloured beetle-like things darting across the surface, and airborne creatures hovering nearby. I put a finger in the water wondering if I’d be able to coax a newt onto my hand as I once did as a boy – noticing, in some respect, what Snyder refers to. Would the newt sense my finger as a threat; would it notice me as a looming shadow over the water? I was curious to see if and how it would react and it did so immediately, retreating to hidden safety. But was this “watching” me? I think not. On the contrary, I was watching the lesser processes of miniscule inferior life. I’ve never read any of the Gaia literature of James Lovelock and others, but suspect a large part of it is similar nonsense: there is most certainly an intelligence in the natural world and the earth is the overall environment in which it operates, like a hard drive is where zeros and ones – the building block of digital technology – dance and combine and extrapolate into increasingly complex layers of meaning. But our capacity as humans is neither subservient to this, nor confined to it. We can recognise how the planet works and care for it, without hugging the trees.
There are though a few good ideas in Snyder’s book, as when he compares wilderness with the ‘unconditioned nature’ of Buddhist psychology, and he says “the ephemerality of all our acts puts us into a kind of wilderness-in-time” (154). Wilderness, or wildness, is both a challenging and rewarding concept to reflect on.
The socialisation process is slow and complex, occurring across many years of growth. In some respects, it’s a process whereby wildness is moulded into the conventions of acceptable and communicative civility. If a child’s life is devoid of this because of broken social environments typical of problematic urban areas, they fail to understand how society works and how to fit into it productively. With no guidance or boundaries they start being disruptive in early school years, and continue into petty and then serious criminality in later youth. Conversely, the film Nell starring Jodie Foster and the film Last of the Mohicans (one of my favourites) depict a noble wildness where people are strong and dignified outside the norms of social convention. The same dichotomy is depicted (amusingly) in the film Crocodile Dundee: Mick Dundee, who lives by killing crocodiles and wandering the outback, doesn’t understand the environment of New York.
Writer Roald Dahl once said children are constantly at war with the adult world. I think there’s some truth in that, and it underlies part of the reason for Dahl’s popularity: the gruesome, raucous, body-squishing wildness of his tales delights and entertains the young mind. It seems to me, the basis of at least some of Freud’s insight rests on both simple and obvious observations related to this theme. In early developmental years we negotiate the biological facts of our bodies, and then in teenage years the same occurs with the sexuality of the body. In both cases (food and defecation and then sexual feeling), there’s a conflict between public social life and (wild) bodily facts. These developmental stages don’t disappear; they go underground in the psyche and influence us unconsciously. I’ve never read Civilisation And its Discontents (I’ve browsed it), but I get the gist: there’s a constant irresolvable tension between Id, Ego, and Superego, experienced as background psychic pressure. This rests on bodily reality, which has a further psychic significance.
Freud also got some of his ideas from Greek mythology and The Bacchae for example, demonstrates the conflict between the Id and other parts of the psyche/civilisation.
Dionysus is a central figure in Euripides’ play as the god of wine, ecstasy, and wildness, corresponding to the Id. While the character/image lacks the purity and neutrality of the Buddhist concept of unconditioned self, it fits the same theme: the balance between control and freedom in both society and the individual mind. The play explores the question of whether the irrational can exist and be allowed within a structured and ordered space, either interior or exterior. The Bacchae depicts a struggle to the death between the twin forces of control (restraint) and freedom (release), suggesting that if the irrational is opposed or denied destruction is the result. Roald Dahl was right, there’s a constant battle with young people because the socialisation process confines the inherently wild psychic nature as depicted in William Golding’s Lord of The Flies.
In addition to finishing Snyder’s book, I’ve recently returned from the Rhinog mountains. I was discouraged for about two years, after reading they were one of the wilder parts of Wales with heathery crags, cracked rocky passages, and little or no paths to follow. The writer said you have to allow more time for the Rhinogs because the going is tough, which is not my idea of fun. Additionally, there’s a pronounced danger of getting lost. I saw this for myself, though on a beautiful sunny day where the direction was obvious and if you looked carefully there was a path – just – for most of the way. It would be a different prospect in poor visibility.
Rhinog Fawr was an easy walk, though it was certainly wilder than I’m used to. Therein lay the interest, based on the lack of clearly obvious paths. It’s a different psychological experience when you feel you’re walking across wild country – not as a desperate short cut or if you are actually lost (both of which I know about), but as the reality of the terrain. Not, also, with permutations of hazard and danger; though such would be possible if you encountered fog or dense rain in the Rhinogs.
Overall, I can’t decide how I feel about the Rhinogs. I can however say what I liked about them. Firstly, they are nicely situated between the sea and wooded lowland areas with a gentle aspect. I sometimes think the easy, rolling, lazy hills of areas like the South Downs would be delightfully soothing. Not the drama of precipice, thrust of peak or ardour of the climb, but the soft hills characteristic of southern Britain. Television presenter Jonathan Dimbleby has a house in the Downs, and I once saw him consider the play of wind and light across them as a fluid effect suggesting the nearby sea.
The views from the Rhinogs are rather nice. The hills themselves are not notably attractive, but their wildness does present you with an interesting experience. When I first encountered this in Wales, I found it disconcerting. Going up to Llyn Edno from Nantgwynant takes you along a hillside where there are no paths at all. And yet, the route is referred to in guide books and there seem to be no alternatives when you walk there. That is the clue: while you can’t orient yourself precisely in that complex area with no landmarks (without GPS), you can’t really go wrong if you watch the landscape to discern the likeliest route in the general direction you have to go. Towards the end of the hillside you are funnelled into a river gulley with no indication you’re going the right way, but it is.
There’s a subtle but pleasant sense of wildness climbing Rhinog Fawr because of the vague (but satisfactory) path. It feels explorative because you’re not walking on a track used so prolifically, it damages the hill. When you reach the intervening peak of Craig Wion, your guide book might refer to its cairn. I had to look around a little before I realised the few small stones were the cairn, implying its status rather than declaring it. Thoreau wrote of this
Vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society.
Some part of the Id corresponds not only to previous psychological stages, but also to wild environments which we used to inhabit thousands of years ago. Thoreau suggests some return to this is beneficial, and we have forgotten about its existence. Wildness – interesting to consider in relation to an area like the Rhinogs – is an archetypal theme of the psyche and mountain walking facilitates its exploration.