Wildness

On September 3rd, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, establishing 9.1 million acres in 54 designated areas as protected “wilderness.” The act not only protected these regions from urban development, but also prohibited motorized and mechanized technology in large portions of these new areas. “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt,” said President Johnson upon signing the bill, “we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

The Wilderness Act was a follow-up to Woodrow Wilson’s National Park Service and Organic Act of 1916, which was itself an expansion upon Teddy Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act of 1906. These bills all sought to preserve and protect something about America, which the Wilderness Act alludes to in its statement of policy:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for the preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness…
-Section 2(a)

It appears that we care a great deal about protecting the wilderness, not just for its own sake, but for our sake. But what, precisely, is “wilderness?” Section 2(c) of the Act defines it in the following manner:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

This lengthy definition essentially defines “wilderness” as “that which is untouched by man.” It is also aligned with the etymology of the word: “wilderness” comes from the Old English “wild dēor,” or “wild deer,” with the state-descriptive suffix “ness.” The wilderness was “the place where only wild animals dwell.” On a superficial level, this is a serviceable understanding of the term, but it creates a strange paradox. Clearly, we love the wilderness enough to set aside millions of acres and billions of dollars to protect it—and here, it is worth saying that the effectiveness of the policies enacted towards these ends is irrelevant in identifying the underlying quality which could motivate such a bill. Popular visitation and support indicate that this attractive quality of the wilderness is more than merely another government program divorced from public opinion, even if insincere bureaucratic interests were found to be behind such bills. We love the wilderness, but the wilderness is that space which is untouched by humans. The definition we have created for “wilderness”—“space untouched by man”—relegates man to the status of mere observer where the wilderness is concerned, and excludes him from all participation in what it means to be wild. Is our love of the wilderness simply a tap into some perverse, generalized misanthropy? Or is there something else that is attractive about the wilderness, something which can include man, and ultimately lies within man as much as it does within the virgin forests and unclimbed peaks?

We know that man can be wild. We talk of wild men, in geographic contexts and in sexual ones; mountain men and pirates, rogues and Don Juans all live outside of the constraints of civilization. In medieval times, an “outlaw” was not a criminal by necessity, merely a man outside the sphere of the law’s protection—out of the law. In these cases, being “wild” meant being unconstrained and uncontrolled by the domination of civilization, and this can apply to humans as well as to nature. This is clearly sometimes possible, even if we believe that modern civilization is both a benefit and a byproduct of human nature.

But this may be misguided. Most of human history was not dominated by civilization. Indeed, civilization has been the exception, not the rule, where human societies are concerned. Written history generally records civilized societies because they are the ones most inclined to record their own endeavors, but most of human history went unrecorded. If civilization is simply a “relatively advanced stage of social organization,” then by definition, most of humanity is uncivilized—and therefore, more wild.

This is not to say that civilization is a bad thing, or something we would be better off without. It is merely to point out that civilization is not a necessary byproduct of human nature itself. It is something particular to certain societies in periods of time, not the default or natural state. It is therefore not an intrinsic part of human nature, which gives us reason to believe that whatever attractive quality we find in the wilderness, we also may be able to find and embody to some degree within ourselves… contrary to the Wilderness Act and other governmental definitions. The important point is that while civilization is good, wildness is also good. The ideal is to embody the qualities of both civility and of wildness, man and animal. This is the goal because it is what we are—as our attraction to wildness and the wilderness as well as to the awe-inspiring complexity of great cities suggests. Neglecting one or the other neglects a part of yourself.

The fact that the wilderness can be found in man also helps us to better understand the nature of civilization and of beauty, at least the rugged kind of beauty that we find in the wilds. The chief virtue of civilization is that it brings order and stability to life. It makes future events predictable, which allows us to plan for the future and to layer accomplishments. The construction of a cathedral or castle that takes seventy years to build would never even be started if the builder had no reason to believe that the work would continue after he died. This is the value of civilization. If you dial a number on the phone, it will connect; if you send a letter in the mail, it will arrive at the destination you chose; if you work for someone, you will be paid; if someone harms you, the law will intervene on your behalf. Predictability, stability, and order.

But the human experience of life is of something dynamic and moving, always exposed to some degree of risk, and never wholly predictable. This is how our bodies work, and it is how our relationships with others work. The qualities of civilization, if transposed onto individual humans, would be the qualities of a corpse. They are descriptors of dead things, or of things that were never alive. Perhaps ironically, abandoned houses with broken windows and overgrown grass—the early stages of nature’s reclamation—are repulsive to most people because they show “no signs of life.” Of course, there is life in the grass, the moss, the birds, and the mice that have taken up residence, but there are no indications of the kind of human life that bring joy, anxiety, love, and hatred to our lives. The wilderness, of course, also lacks this human life, but it possesses the qualities of life in its chaotic and unforgiving nature. It is the primordial, unfathomable source of ourselves, whereas the empty house is our own product. It is a dead thing. The unforgiving and harsh nature of the wilderness, by contrast, is not something we experience as “dead.” Rather, it is the mark of something alive. The artwork and myth of the great stories have always depicted it in this fashion, even when it is described in the most antagonistic and evil language. When Jesus was out in the wilderness, it became Satan. When Odysseus was wandering the ocean on his way home to Ithaca, the watery wilderness became Poseidon.

Wildness is elemental and unselfconscious. It is predictable only in the most basic manner, through a familiarity with cycles and the knowledge that you will never understand it in its entirety. It is a mystery, and this unfathomable depth is the source of the feeling of life—and beauty—that we associate with things that are “wild.”

So how would a human harness this? How might we take this understanding and glean some of the beauty and life of the wilds and apply it in our own lives? Do we have to abandon all schedules, all habits, all strategic thinking or systems of any kind? Looking at the animals of the wild, this is clearly not the case, for the most intuitive and unselfconscious animals are creatures of habit and schedule, even of strategy. Salmon swim up the same streams at the same times of year. Migratory birds fly south and then north again in a regular cycle. There is a predictability of some kind, and yet it is somehow different from the predictability of civilization. It is an emergent pattern of cycles that reach a natural harmony and equilibrium, rather than an imposed predictability decided by theory and imposed by artifice.

And although wildness does entail a greater connection to your instincts and impulses, it does not require one to become an id-machine, all desire and no self-restraint. Just as our cousins in the canine and primate world often suppress sexual or aggressive urges that are counter-productive or self-destructive, we can control ourselves in a manner that is advantageous to our long-term interests without danger of becoming excessively civilized. However, the overwhelming quantity of impulses modern man suffers must be addressed and dealt with. I will return to this shortly.

This is important for personal and aesthetic reasons, as discussed above—we find the wilderness to be awe-inspiring, imposing, beautiful, and important. But it is also important for political reasons. Without some basis for disagreement, there is no reason to disagree. If the politics of progress and social justice dictate the end of nations, greater taxes, mandatory public schooling, or whatever else they desire to further “educate” and “civilize” us, on what basis are we to disagree? Is it from instinct? From some basis in pure preference? Or is it something more academic and cognitive? Something about “economic inefficiency” or “national security?” The latter variety of disagreements cedes the supremacy of reason, from which there can come no a priori values: “reason” itself does not care about anything. On what objective basis can you prefer yourself to anyone else? How can you articulate the reasons for preferring things that are beautiful to things that are ugly? To entertain such questions is to submit to answer it in the negative. The only affirmative answer is to reject the question, and to reject such a question requires a higher authority. Wildness is that authority.

This brings me to the takeaway. I have compiled a short and basic list of strategies for reactionaries with a primitivist streak who wish to get in touch with the wilderness, in nature and in themselves. It is only a starting place, as lists are inherently at odds with the desired goal here. Still, in spite of the irony, it may prove useful as a reference, or as a tool to assist in getting out from under the control of the over-socialized, dependent, safe, and predictable world of civilization, and into an existence that is more alive and more beautiful, to others and to yourself:

  1. Spend time in the wilderness. Learn to be at peace with yourself. Go for walks in the woods or the desert, alone if possible, and get a sense of what your own mind sounds like in nature, and away from the distractions and stimulation of crowded civilization. The self-conscious monologue required to suppress our counter-productive instincts is partially the result of our environment feeding us with cues designed to create impulses, either to buy something, believe something, or behave in a certain way. These impulses are not natural nor are they very helpful, but they enslave you and domesticate you. Time away from them is time spent developing the more wild and natural aspect of your self.
  2. Take up mantra meditation. D.H. Lawrence famously said: “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” The wild person does not feel sorry for himself because he does not lose himself like Hamlet in the bottomless well of self-conscious contemplation. But self-conscious contemplation is often what intelligent people naturally do when they are bored, depressed, anxious, or posed with a difficult problem. Mantras are an ancient way of quieting that inner self-consciousness. Early music was often just a mantra repeated to a percussive rhythm of some kind, and repeating a runic poem or the Jesus prayer works in the same way. Generally, the older and simpler, the better.
  3. Be physical. Work out and get in shape. Run until it hurts, and then go a little further. Mantras help with this. But beyond the mere improvement of your own body, learn to think physically. Emulate people who are physically charismatic in how they walk and carry themselves. Interact with people—men or women—in a physical manner, whether it’s a handshake, a hug, a pat on the back, or a punch. Even how close or far away you stand is a part of this, as is how much space you take up. Physical touch is part of how we communicate, one which civilization tends to distrust because it is intuitive and contextual, and is therefore difficult to control.
  4. Shun technology. We all need technology of some kind in our lives to make ends meet, but most of the technology in our lives is basically unnecessary, if not essentially mere entertainment. Screens and notifications mess with the natural rhythms of your body, interrupt the real (physical) interactions of your day-to-day life, and fill your head with information that we have to suppress in order to escape the paralytic trap of self-conscious contemplation. Digital and social technology isn’t the only problem; industrial technology generally makes us dependent, both upon the devices (usually objects of convenience, rather than necessity; no one needs a microwave to survive), and then upon a service class who builds, maintains, and repairs those devices. The more technology is integrated into our lives, the less wild we become, and the more dependent and helpless we become.
  5. Care less. More specifically, care less about what civilization cares about. Unless you have a vested interest in the subject, there is no reason to concern yourself with the political climate of Uganda or the latest tech developments to come out of South Korea… no matter how compelling the TED talks on the subjects may look. Realistically, following points 1 and 4 will naturally lead you to care less anyhow, but if your work requires you to work on social media or politics, or if your geographic location doesn’t permit regular access to undomesticated nature, you can at least remember that you don’t have to get worked up about things you have no control over. Such behavior is pathetic because it is helpless. Better to focus on point 2, and care a little less about the world outside your ecosystem. What wild thing ever worried about those things anyways?
C.B. Robertson
C.B. Robertson is the author of "In Defense of Hatred" and "Letter to Anwei." He lives with his wife and daughter in the Pacific Northwest.