Inspired by wilderness

Inspired by wilderness

For a long time civilisation was equated with cultivating wilderness and urbanisation. Now climate change is threatening us, in many fields – including law – the positive value of wilderness is being rediscovered and the importance of experiencing it.

Recently during my holiday I paid a short visit to Dartmoor – a large, sparsely populated area in Devon which in some places is nearly untouched by human hands. Besides a few villages, scattered houses, some prehistorical stone circles and stone rows, the only sign of human presence in the region that stands out is Dartmoor prison, a 19th century prison that is still operational today. It’s not a coincidence that it was built here: the builders were inspired by the landscape, albeit in a negative sense. In those days wilderness was still considered the complete opposite to civilisation, an ideal place to lock up some prisoners. This negative idea about wilderness has also inspired authorities to ship off criminals to other ‘wild places’ like Australia – as far away from civilisation as possible.

Taming wilderness

It’s a fact that Western society has been able to expand across the planet because it focused intensely on taming the wilderness and believed that the creation of a civilised world required ongoing cultivation of the land and urbanisation. Through the centuries we have proved to be quite good at this business of taming, and consequently, of diminishing the value of the surrounding, living land to a pleasant background decor to our human society, a decor divided by borders. And in the process many animals and plants were reduced to mere producers of our food. As is well-known – but worth repeating here – this approach has also led to the decimation of the people living in the ‘wild places’, the indigenous populations.

Wisdom of the web

We know now that these indigenous people valued the wilderness very differently from the European colonists, representing the common Western view. Native American Chief Seattle warned the ‘white men’ in his famous speech in 1851 that ‘Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’ As Native Americans naturally considered themselves part of the living land, in their view it could never be turned into an object of possession. Apparently they, and indigenous people all over the planet, did not need any scientific evidence to arrive at these kinds of insights. Not all ‘white men’ were insensitive to the Native American view of the wilderness – as evidenced by Thoreau’s Walden which was published in 1854 –, but its message only reached a wider audience from the 1960s onwards.

Trusting science

Although indigenous people arrived at their insights without any scientific evidence, with regard to dealing with climate change we prefer to keep consulting scientists, as we generally believe they are the experts in this field. They usually quantify data and put it in illustrative charts for us, like in the recent report published in the Lancet. In this article the researchers have predicted how many people will die due to climate change in the years to come. With this prediction they indirectly say to us: ‘Trust science, we are still in full control.’ But do we sincerely believe that the results of scientific research – rational knowledge – can put a stop to our wasteful behaviour? There is, for instance, as yet no decrease in the number and length of the traffic jams on our roads.

The growing appreciation of the wilderness

Today more writers than ever, with very different backgrounds, have become aware that we urgently need to reacquaint ourselves with the remaining indigenous people in the peripheries of the Western world and learn from the way they value wilderness for its own sake. Consult, for instance:

  • Thomas Berry, who famously said that ‘the universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects’.
  • Or Jay Griffiths, who lived for longer periods among remaining indigenous people in different places. In her book Wild she wrote about their lives and about their intimate relationship with the wilderness on which they depended.
  • Or the Irish philosopher and ‘modern mystic’ John Moriarty, who chose to live in a remote area in the west of Ireland, an area where – in his words – he did not see human intention and purpose; where he could think and dream with the mountains instead of thinking about them.
  • Or Arita Baaijens, the Dutch biologist and explorer who travelled for many years through African deserts and more recently through the Altai mountain range. Her long search for ‘paradise’ was eventually rewarded when her experience of the power of the sacred landscape transformed her outlook completely. In 2017 she started a project to integrate her newly gained insights into a Dutch context.

The legal contribution

There are also important legal contributions arising from this context of the growing appreciation of the wilderness. In this respect Cormac Cullinan should be mentioned, who has been struggling for many years to get the Rights of Mother Earth recognised globally. Another famous ‘earth lawyer’ is Polly Higgins who has dedicated her career to campaigning for the recognition of ecocide as a major crime and to get it eradicated. Higgins believes that if we do not change our wasteful behaviour soon, countries will start global wars over scarce resources. In her view eradicating ecocide is an absolute necessity if we want to maintain peace on a planetary scale, and law can make an important contribution to this.

A borderless territory

But to succeed it is not sufficient to limit ourselves to reading books (or watching episodes of Planet Earth!). We also need to regularly experience the wilderness, to trigger some feeling in us that we are part of a larger, untamed world – a mere strand in the web. It can make us realise that dividing lines and borders are all human made, fictional, just like possessing pieces of land. As Alfred Korzybsky said: ‘The map is not the territory’. The real country we inhabit is a borderless territory. This realisation can help us to deal better with some of our current problems, including crime and climate change.


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Van Staveren

I like this very short but strong formulation about the need to connect ourselves with nature in the way that the indigenous people do, to solve major problems and threats in our society. Very informative as well!

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