Wild imagination: the appeal of real and imaginary wilderness

This past weekend, Dutch news agencies reported the return of the wolf to the Netherlands, over a hundred years after the last time a wolf was seen in the country. The return of the species was much anticipated and debated by organizations such as Wolven in Nederland (“Wolves in the Netherlands”). The existence of organizations such as Wolven in Nederland, and their joy at the return of the wolf points at an underlying fascination with the wild that I’ll be exploring in this post.

While wilderness narratives proliferate, we are more aware than ever of the disappearance of the wild – making the popularity of shows like Man vs. Wild and National Geographic’s wilderness programmes, and our fascination with wild animals such as the wolf look peculiar or highly nostalgic.

Where does this fascination with the wild come from? And is it even compatible with a time of environmental crisis, with the Anthropocene?

In Wild Ones (2013), Jon Mooallem goes some way towards answering these questions. Intrigued by the many wild animals in children’s book, as toys and in films, he begins to explore, as he puts it, “the lengths to which humankind now has to go to keep seem semblance of actual wildlife in the world” (2). Quoting a paper by the government biologist J. Michael Scott, Mooallem writes that the vast majority of endangered species can only survive if we actively try to save them.

Intriguingly, this phenomenon has a name: “conservation reliance”. As Mooallem concludes, “from here on out, we will increasingly be forced to cultivate the species we want, in places we protect and police just for them, perpetually rejiggering some asymmetrical balance to keep each one from sliding into extinction. We are gardening the wilderness” (4). Similarly, wolf organizations in the Netherlands have spend the past years thinking about which circumstances are favourable to the animal’s return – no small feat in a country which has very few of the kinds extensive areas of land wolf packs need to sustain themselves.

Underlying Wild Ones is an assumption – if not voiced by Mooallem then at least by the people he encounters – that the wild is inherently important, and that we need to preserve it. The (growing?) importance of the wild seems to go hand in hand with environmental degradation. Consequently, the people trying to save the polar bear, the whooping crane and the Lange’s metalmark butterfly are trying counter environmental crisis by rescuing specific animal species. This is of course also highly problematic: focusing on flagship species such as polar bears ay lead to one-sided conservation, and the projects Mooallem describes all beg the question whether they are really about the animals – and not primarily about what people want from wilderness. As one of people involved with the preservation of whooping cranes in the US says, “It’s not a bird project … It’s a people project. The birds are an excuse for doing something good” (278).

Is the wild, then, important because it says something about us? Because it does something for us, because it makes us feel a certain way?

In Feral, George Monbiot suggests that the wild is important because it is important to us as humans – not so much because of its inherent value separate from us. When arguing for the reintroduction of the wolf to Britain, he writes “I want to see wolves reintroduced because they feel to me like the shadow that fleets between systole and diastole, because they are the necessary monsters of the mind, inhabitants of the more passionate world against which we have locked our doors” (Feral 117-18).

Interestingly, although Mooallem and Monbiot emphasize the relationship between humans and (wild) animals, definitions of wilderness tend to emphasize the separateness of the wild from humans. Mooallem repeats that it is the animal’s independence from us that makes polar bears, whooping cranes and Lange’s metalmark so fascinating – and so much worth saving.

At the same time, he is very much aware of the fact that this kind of wilderness is impossible to sustain in the twenty-first century. What we are left with is humans struggling to preserve the wild: out of a sense of responsibility for what we are destroying, but also out of deeply seated desire to see it, to be there, to not miss out on the wild. By doing so, we fall into the trap of the wilderness paradox: the wild, as William Cronon has argued, is both where we are not, but where we want to be nonetheless.

P1060544Monbiot argues that our desire to experience the wild has led to the sightings of wild cats – which turn out not to be wild cats at all. A well-documented example is that of the Sydenham Panther which attacked a man in 2005. Monbiot suggests that the sightings – of what he calls ‘the never-spotted leopard’ – tap into deeper sentiments. They activate an ancient evolutionary template in our minds which is stimulated especially by the disappearance from these creates from our environments (Feral 60).

Big cat sightings also show up in contemporary literature: in Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, “something wolf-like and huge” is killing the protagonist’s sheep – although she is unable to identify precisely what it is. In Melissa Harrison’s Clay, TC, a young boy, is sure that he has discovered the tracks of a wolf in the park. He tells his friend Jozef that there is something “lonely and wild” roaming the estate, and that this is not unusual at all: “[t]here are panthers out there, all sorts. People see them all the time. A man got bit by a big cat in Luton, taking his bins out, I saw it” (103).

Our imaginations may indeed need the wild more than we want to admit. Like many of the people in Wild Ones, we may be fighting more for the idea of the polar bear or whooping crane, for the idea of wilderness, than for the actual animal. Yes – like Monbiot suggests, the preservation and return of certain of wild animals is important for the ecosystems in which they used to live. But it are the stories of the wild – the TV shows and films, the poems and novels, even the stories of conservation attempts – that most appeal to us, and that most seem to touch us.

Some form of wilderness paradox, perhaps different than the one identified by Cronon, seems inherent to our engagements with the wild. It is a paradox between our imaginations of the wild – and our mental, psychological or narrative need – and the actual fate of the wild in the world around us. This paradox is captured well in Ted Hughes poem “February” – one of the many poems he wrote about wolves. Its opening lines describe the imaginary wolf, which has come to stand in for the absence of the real wolf:

The wolf with its belly stitched full of big pebbles;
Nibelung wolves barbed like black pineforest
Against a red sky, over blue snow; or that long grin
Above the tucked coverlet – none suffice.


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