What is it in one’s life that allows a love of the natural world to develop? I was discussing this question over coffee with a friend: as people who put in the effort to go camping, canoeing, hiking, and generally go out of our way as often as possible to maintain a relationship with natural space, how did we develop this love, compared to our friends and peers who did not? Was it childhood opportunities to camp or go to the cottage, walk in the woods or see animals at the zoo?
I found it surprising that when I reflected on my own experience, it was not these kinds of experiences that inspired an early passionate sense of place and love of nature. The feelings and state of mind I associate with this passionate love of nature – open, alert, curious, calm, belonging, exploratory – I link primarily to early experiences in distinctly urban spaces, to the presence of wildness in these spaces.
In my early childhood, wildness was the network of gates, fencerows, driveways and alleys between properties on my block, liminal spaces at the back of apartment parking lots, beneath the spruces in the strip of untended greenery between two driveways, a muddy spot behind a neighbour’s fence and compost pile where many snails could be found, treasures in the alleyway’s sewers and puddles and trash bins, a narrow sliver between two garages where leaves would pile up over the seasons into a rich and slippery humus with its own memorable smells and shadows.
Later it was the vacant lots, factory grounds, railroad tracks, helicopter landing pads, golf courses, boulevards, parking lots, cemeteries, churchyards, bridges, building rooftops, abandoned factories and warehouses, skyscraper stairwells, tunnels for watercourses under highways, greenbelts around expressways, edges of schoolyards, building sites, alleys and courtyards.
These undeveloped public spaces, forgotten post-use industrial sites and neglected underpinnings of urban life were rich with mystery and solitude, sensory information, engaging, and yet spacious, free of expectations.
I first realized that the moon could cast shadows in an empty factory parking lot.
I learned the names of birds and plants walking along the railway tracks.
I learned how to be alone, peaceful and at home with myself, under the branches of a tree in a waste behind an apartment block.
I learned the names of the constellations from a rooftop.
I began to talk to trees in the graveyard.
In these places I developed a love and care for unstructured wild space, a relaxation with gaps of decay and change, sensitivity to the ecosystem in a sense that transcends rural, urban and wild spaces. And it is this that draws me out to the mountain and lake and forest, and this that allows me to see the world beyond questions of use and profit. To see the world as animated and intelligent, not as a series of inanimate objects for use and quantification, as tools to an end, nor merely as an indifferent Other. When nature is animated, so am I.
Love of wildness creates love of wilderness.
What is wildness? According to the dictionary, a natural state, not domesticated, cultivated, tamed, nor inhabited; lacking order, arrangement, supervision, restraint; risky, fantastic, uncontrolled.
I see wildness as the breaking down of identities. To be tamed is to be named, ordered and defined. Wildness confounds definitions of ownership, use, function, and access. Age and decay are permitted to feather the edges of identities. There is space for creative re-use, undefined use, and the tension of uncertainty. Things are left to be discovered, imagined and created. The interaction between human and natural worlds is fundamentally unstructured and animated from within, which idealized urban settings are not structured to permit – although in actuality, opportunities are everywhere.
My ability to discover wildness/wilderness is, I think, entwined with the freedom I had to roam and explore on my own as a young child, as part of what is likely the last generation of children in my culture given this liberty.
I was allowed unstructured alone time to wander my neighborhood on my own terms, from the range of a city block up an increasing scale as I grew older. Out of this I developed a sense of place, and an understanding of growth, decay, and the interconnection of the human and natural worlds. I didn’t need a designated wilderness site, because nature was not “out there” necessitating a car trip, maps and gear to access, rarefied and separate from the city. Nature was the teeming life force animating and interconnecting everything. I learned that it was inviting and awesome and vast, also messy and dirty and kind of dangerous at the same time. And so I learned how to navigate these realities.
There is an important conversation being had about what can support and integrate environmental concern and sense of place in contemporary culture. I think my environmentalism was most nurtured by the opportunity for unstructured solitary exploration at a young age, within an urban setting. So giving kids free range is one important part of the conversation. It is also worth discussing our ability to let our cities and public spaces nurture a sense of organic wildness. Fear unchecked can drive the impulse to tame all disorder, which results in a terrible loss of the interconnectedness and vitality of people, groups, urban and natural spaces.