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on wilderness

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Active Child – Wilderness

We can begin to look at the word “wilderness” in several languages as lenses for insight into its meaning. In French, the word for wilderness is simply désert, which can mean both desert as we understand it – a dry, sandy, often vast expanse of inhospitable land – and more basically an uninhabited, uncivilized place in nature. At the root of this word is the Latin deserere – to forsake or abandon, from which we take the word “deserter.” With these definitions, we can read in the French conception of the word for wilderness a sense of damnation and sin perhaps attributable to the handling of the concept in Biblical texts (in English translations of which “desert” and “wilderness” are often used interchangeably). Yi-Fu Tuan writes: “In the Bible the term ‘wilderness’ brings to mind… a place of desolation, the unsown land frequented by demons; it is condemned by God.” He cites Jeremiah 25:38: “Their lands became a wilderness… because of [Yahweh’s] wrath,” and several instances in which God’s people are sent to the wilderness as punishment or must meet challenges to their faith in an environment where shaky footing holds both topographical and spiritual significance.  However, as Tuan points out, inherent to the idea of the Biblical wilderness is the concept of a productive discipline: as discipulae, or followers, of God, humans must overcome challenges which ultimately “[enable] the contemplative Christian to see the Divine more clearly, unencumbered by the world” (Tuan, 110), lending to wilderness a purifying power so valued in ascetic Christian tradition. Here the idea of wilderness, through the lens of its French and Latin roots, suggests one of several interesting aporias: in naming wilderness as désert, we identify it as a forsaken place, when in fact, as followers of God, we are called in these moments of greatest darkness to accept His presence in our lives. Thus the word désert encompasses an important Biblical theme of man’s constant struggle against the doubt that presents a constant challenge to faith.

The English “wilderness” is equally saturated with meaning. The word’s roots are in the Old English wildeornes, or literally, the place where wild deer reside. This definition appears less qualitative than the French, as it seems on the surface to be an observation-based description of the fauna present in this type of environment. But it is in “wild” rather than in “deer” that we can discern man’s clearest fingerprints. “Wild” is a word that can exist only in contrast to “tame” – as Tuan puts it, “an environmental value requires its antithesis for definition” – and thus we can mark as simultaneous its birth as a concept and our domestication of our environs. Tuan provides a thoughtful analysis applicable to the ways in which wilderness developed in the mind of the Romantics, “at the back of [whose] appreciation for nature is the privilege and wealth of the city.” He makes it clear that wilderness functions as a romantic ideal only in contrast with the refined world, and that it is “romantic in the sense that it is far removed from any real understanding of nature”. Mirroring the antithesis central to defining “wilderness” is the paradox of our projected meaning upon it. We find wilderness fascinating because of its untouched, savage quality, its self-reliance and utter lack of concern for human affairs; yet wilderness as a concept can exist only in relation to human civilization. Thus, it is clear that as an intellectual construct, “wilderness” is a key to understanding the spaces we demarcate to satisfy certain human needs for momentary loss of control. One might say that it is the fulfillment of man’s desire to feel robbed of power within the controlled environment of his own capacity to dictate the boundaries of his strength.

The word “wilderness” is a testament to the reflexive, self-dependent quality of language; a reminder that human discourse is a fragile structure of carefully assembled significance. We can locate the aporia intrinsic to the word “wild” in the contrast between the romantic freedom at the center of its meaning to us to us and the reality of its dependence upon juxtaposition with another human construct – civilization – to exist. This contradiction highlights the ways in which language is symptomatic of the classification systems that we create to define our world, and in turn to the delicacy of these synthetic partitions. It would not be outrageous to posit that classifications make us comfortable by maintaining a set distance between us and our world, and that in the same way the word “wilderness” maintains its romance due to the distance it keeps between itself and civilization, its established antithesis. These distances contribute a great deal to the functionality of language as a science and an art. Manmade systems of classifications are woven as meticulously as a spider’s web, each thread stretching towards the intersection with another that locates its essence. It is in these spaces – in distances between the moments of fastening that give us meaning – that language allows us mental expanses in which to create romance.  In illuminating the way that we have constructed language to fulfill our needs both to classify and to indulge in mystery, “wilderness” points to a deep-seated human desire to protect the romance of enigma, whether it be spiritual or environmental, in a world we continue to demystify with codification.


Written by bellaheureuse

September 30, 2010 at 10:24 pm