Call of the Wild by Leigh Markopoulos
Commissioned for a series of posters published by
Camberwell Press to accompany Witnessing the Wilderness
As a European living in San Francisco, I never cease to marvel at the scale of things over here on the western coast of the North American continent. Everything is large and larger than life: the motorway a thousand-mile long interstate highway, the sea an ocean, nature a wilderness. The prospect of this wilderness, just beyond the confines of the city, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, exerts a magnetic pull, despite the mountain lions prowling through the undergrowth and the vultures swirling overhead. Or the memory of other less savoury characters, like the Zodiac and Trailside serial killers, who took advantage of remote locations in Northern California in the 60s and 70s to dispatch of their numerous victims. Granted, this wilderness is regulated by various government bodies, and any interactions with it are limited to proscribed trails and actions, but it does stretch as far as the eye can see and it seems remarkably wild in contrast to Europe’s gentler garden landscapes.
Although at a substantial remove from the wilds of Alaska, a film that often comes to my mind when hiking less-populated trails is Grizzly Man (2005). This Werner Herzog documentary about bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell provides just about as much witnessing of the wilderness as most of us can bear (no pun intended). We revel in the freedom of the immense shaggy creatures and endure the horror of Treadwell and his girlfriend’s grizzly end equally intensely, but from the safety of our homes, this side of the civilization boundary. Treadwell’s obsession and Herzog’s voyeurism are apt metaphors for our relationship with the wild. An optimistic, Emersonian, perhaps ultimately misguided, longing for communion with untrammelled nature, versus the mediated experience that today’s technology affords. The film is at once admiring tribute and cautionary fable. And this tension or paradox has been present in artistic and literary depictions of the wilderness since grandiose notions of the wild first penetrated post-Enlightenment minds in the nineteenth century.
Of course it was all “wilderness” in the beginning, before civilization drew up the line between “us” and “it”. The designation is a purely cultural construct, whose meaning has evolved over time. The perception of the wilderness as, first, a fearsome and wholly heathen domain, and second a valuable resource, was succeeded by its Romantic apotheosis, and ultimate reification as lost Garden of Eden. According to the Bible, it was the wilderness through which Moses marched the Israelites and into which Christ was cast. Considered the preserve of Satan, it is from this unpleasant and frightening terrain that we derive the term “bewilderment”—a moral state which most Christians apparently found themselves in when faced with the choice between temptation and salvation. In fact, wilderness was for centuries the antithesis of civilization. It lurked just beyond the village, or city, a place to which one was taken or lured, and from which one seldom returned unchanged, if at all. Whatever value virgin territory might have arose solely from the material possibility that it might eventually be claimed and turned toward human ends, cultivated for sustenance or profit.
By the end of the nineteenth century, all this had changed. The distinction remained, but now everything that lay on the other side of the walled citadel seemed most appealing, most symbolic of the work of God, most promising in terms of the future of mankind. The sources of this rather astonishing transformation were many, but for the purposes of this essay it is useful to consider the impact of the colonization of America on the popular imaginary. It was the drive to conquer vast tracts of wilderness that brought European notions of the sublime into sharp relief, and in turn supported the colonial frontier myth.
Theorized first by Edmund Burke and later Immanuel Kant and others, sublime landscapes were those geographical features or places—the yawning rocky ravine, the towering Alpine range, the monstrous waterfall—where one had a significant chance of sensing the awesome presence of God, and by extension one’s own relative insignificance. America, of course, has to this day sublime landscapes aplenty. A terrible, yet invigorating sensation, the sublime inflected Romantic literary and artistic expressions to quite some degree, as is evident in the paintings of, say, Caspar David Friedrich, or the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. While there were many who might not experience the sublime at first hand, there were few who could fail to recognize its artistic manifestation, or who did not feel the power of depictions of vast forests at moonlight, or rivers churning through endless valleys.
In the US, these notions inflected also a burgeoning sense of nationalism. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier hypothesis” first appeared in his 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, but it had been part of the nation’s nascent consciousness for well over a century by that point. Turner’s thesis devolved on the argument that it was the wild West and the frontier, which were responsible for the originality and vitality of American attitudes and institutions, and not the imported European heritage, which informed rather the Eastern seaboard cities, for example. The challenges of settling the frontier were thus to be understood as a baptism of sorts, the washing away of the effete trappings of the “old” country, and the infusion of vigour and independence through the birthing of both a new nation and a new sort of person—the American.
If manifest destiny propelled settlers across the continent from East to West, surveying and mapping the landscape allowed the federal government to legalize ownership and impose taxes. While evicting the Native American Indians and early Mexican settlers, allowed for the nation to forge a pre-history of its own making. Conquered, exploited, and inventoried in quick succession, by the end of the nineteenth-century, the “Wild West” had been reduced to a touring attraction managed by “Buffalo Bill” Cody and featuring legendary Westerners from Chief Sitting Bull to Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in a number of cameos, contests, and feats of skill. The frontier might be gone, but the frontier experience could still be had, even as far away as Europe where the company toured intermittently between 1887 and 1906. In fact, the Wild West Experience lives on at Disneyland to this day. Kitted
out in a ten-gallon hat you, too, can enjoy the spectacle over a western-style dinner of chilli and potato wedges in the company of a crowd of thousands.
Of course no sooner was the wilderness contained and policed than it was missed. Its appeal grew in direct proportion to the waning appeal of industrialized city life. However, it was only the wealthy that were able to consume wilderness at their leisure, whether recumbent on estates in the Adirondacks or actively pursuing bears in the Rockies. Hot on the heels of the hardworking cattle and wheat farmers came the big-game hunters intent on reliving the experience of their rugged forefathers, bored ladies touting watercolours and journals, and tubercular children and teens in need of unpolluted air and water. This tourist trajectory thus firmly established the wilderness now became a place to protect, rather than to be protected from. But it also had to remain a place where there was as little trace of man as possible, especially if it was to succeed as a business venture. A place where one could (pay to) experience first hand the earth in its virgin state.
To this day, American cultural heritage encompasses this notion of the wilderness. And in general terms, those of us who think at all about nature or the survival of the human race would agree that privileging areas untouched by man is an important agenda. However, in this perception lies an interesting misconception. It’s worth returning momentarily to the Indians to understand why. “Their removal”, as William Cronon argues so compellingly in his 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”, “reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness [and by extension a contemporary understanding of wilderness] really is.” Despite being divested of their rights to hunt and own land and corralled onto increasingly restricted reservations, the continued presence of the Indians negates the notion of America as a previously virgin territory. In fact the assumption of virgin territory is not only erroneous, but dangerous. To quote Cronon again, “[t]here is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness. It is entirely a creation of the culture that holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny. This then, is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not.” Taken to its logical conclusion therefore, the longing for wilderness is the longing for our ultimate absence, or destruction.
In 1964, the US government enshrined this fallacy in the Wilderness Act, which decreed that:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
Despite the fact that, 50 or so years later, this definition probably rings true for most of us, the notion that we ourselves are the “keepers” of the wilderness is somewhat hubristic. Perhaps we might more modestly concede that we are the creators of a giant kind of wild garden. If Henry David Thoreau once famously declared that, “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” today we might more realistically term wilderness as the “preserve” of the world. We have defined wilderness linguistically and physically and we continue to shape it, to promote and monitor its existence through international watchdog organizations such as the Wild Foundation and at forums such as the World Wilderness Congress. It increasingly inspires our aspirations to an ideal life, and here in California is very explicitly evidenced in, for example, the thriving wild craft and back-to-the-land movements. Even within cities, which incorporate all that is best and worst about civilized life, signs of errant greenery are eagerly championed as a sign that an even better kind of life preceded us.
The restoration of this better life informs our continued search for the next frontier, for new wildernesses, whether medical, technological, or geographical. Over a century ago, extreme adventures were fantasized by Jules Verne, who in his novels proposed journeys to the depths of the ocean, the centre of the earth and even outer space. In this century, we can add to the list, “boldly [going] where no man has gone before.” It seems that we need the promise of places where we do not exist, just as much as the wilderness needs us not to exist.
Leigh Markopoulos 2013