Wild thing


Katie Goh explores the relationship between culture and wilderness. Illustration by Matt Chinworth.

My most treasured childhood memory is of a densely thicketed copse. Trees that were so tall that I could crane my neck back and back and back and still not be able to see their leafy tops. Oaks, shrubs, ferns, brambles, and boulders: this pocket of wilderness is still there, next to my grandparents’ farmhouse in rural Ireland.

With the help of grown-ups, my brothers, cousins and I converted this piece of no man’s land into our own jungle gym. A few swings and barrels to leap from and the copse provided a childhood of entertainment that no man-made playground could sustain. Running back to the farmhouse for cups of milky tea, boots covered in mud, snot dripping from runny noses in spring, summer, autumn, and winter, that little piece of land was my childhood.

Years later, nature has remained a treasured refugee. Now, a resident of Edinburgh, a city which lives in relative harmony with Scotland’s wilderness, walks through Holyrood Park, up Arthur’s Seat, and along the Water of Leith have been paths to new decisions, choices, and resolutions.

Walking as both a physical and a symbolic movement is a well established cultural motif. In her memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed decides to walk the Pacific Crest Trail in America, from California to Washington, seeking a resolution for the guilt and grief stemming from her mother’s death. Along the journey, Strayed’s physical and emotional baggage falls away as she leaves things behind to struggle onwards. She writes that her quest to rediscover herself “had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.” 

Walking is a universally human treasure hunt. It is to seek something, whether that something is physical, purposeful, or symbolical. Films like Into the Wild, Captain Fantastic, Tracks, and the 2014 film adaptation of Wild explore the idea that to seek wilderness is an essential human quality.

These stories of self-discovery in nature are directly rooted in the eighteenth-century artistic movement of Romanticism and its obsession with the sublime, described by Immanuel Kant as: “limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot.” A thing that is beyond man’s control or imagination is what makes the natural world the epitome of the sublime, a reflection of the vast limitlessness of the human mind. 

Even now in our post-industrial world, nature has maintained this sublime quality, perhaps because increased globalisation and urban development has reaffirmed the binary that separates the urban and the rural. A place where the rules of civilisation don’t apply, we idealise the natural world as utopic. For those marginalised within society, nature can represent a space of freedom, such as the love stories of Brokeback Mountain, Call Me by Your Name, and God’s Own Country which are all initiated within pastoral settings.   

We treasure nature because it can represent whatever we need it to represent. It can be a fantasy playground, a journey of self-discovery, a sublime experience, or a queer utopia. But our most valuable treasure, the Earth, is under threat from ourselves. Climate change, pollution, and an unwillingness to seek sustainable solutions is eroding the natural world.

Perhaps in a few decades my most treasured childhood memory will be just a memory, gone and replaced by a new housing development. Our heritage is inherently rooted in the natural world. If we lose it, we lose nature’s cunning ability to reflect and embody our feelings and desires. Lose this treasure and we lose ourselves.