Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wild things

I was reading an article about human efforts to control the Mississippi River in Louisiana ("Louisiana's Disappearing Coast", Elizabeth Colbert in the New Yorker, March 2019). Colbert describes the various engineering projects over the past century and some of their unintended consequences. In passing she mentions the huge imbalance between humanity and wildlife. The total weight of all humans outweighs the total weight of all wild mammals by eight to one, the total of all humans plus our livestock outweighs all wild vertebrates except fish. There is no place on earth now that has not been affected by us in some way.

So when you think about it, what does "wild" really mean? I think it used to mean the natural world unaffected by us, creatures untrammelled by our influence. Does it any more? In some ways "the natural world" is just a kind of vast zoo (or garden) where creatures have the appearance of being "wild". Wilderness is a kind of illusion.

When did this happen? In my lifetime the human population has tripled, and presumably our impact on wilderness and the natural world has increased by some similar factor. Maybe when I was a small child there was still some true wilderness in existence? Or maybe it happened before that, I don't know.

I was talking to a friend on the west coast last winter (by phone) and mentioned skating on a local pond. At first he misunderstood and thought I was talking about a skating rink on solid ground and when I corrected him he called it "wild skating". He likened it to "wild swimming" which apparently is a thing in some places. I said that I disliked swimming in pools, I would rather not swim at all if there was no natural body of water to swim in (I suppose swimming at the reservoir is an exception, but it feels like a natural body of water). He was amazed and admitted that he had never done it, and this is a man who regularly engages in extreme hiking, camping and skiing in the mountains.

It would not have occurred to me to call what I did "wild". We had a good laugh about that.

What does "wild" mean now? Is it some historical concept? Or has it changed its meaning to something a little more domesticated?


Wisewebwoman said...

We've tried to tame everything and everyone. But "taming" is too kind a word. Capitalism utilizes, exploits and discards everything and everyone it touches including nature and animals and fish.

Consumption and built in obsolescence and the attitude of "masters of all we survey" is the norm.

"Wildness" of any kind can't be tolerate. One only has to look at Everest.


Annie said...

WWW, I agree that capitalism is responsible for a lot of things, social injustice and climate change are some of its worst effects. But the biggest threat to wildness is simply our numbers: there are way too many of us and the numbers continue to grow. One of the biggest contributors to climate change is agriculture, and it is also the biggest contributor to deforestation and habitat loss. We need agriculture to feed and clothe the billions of us. We take up a huge amount of space on this planet and we use a lot of what's left to sustain us. If we could cease the use of oil over night and eradicate social injustice in a similar time frame, we would still be left with the problems of too many of us. Birth rates are falling rapidly but we won't see a concomitant reduction in population numbers in the foreseeable future. Barring an event that wipes humanity from the face of the earth, I think wildness is dead, no matter how much we love or hate it.