Good morning! A poem today. Earlier this week saw the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth – a poet who has, for the past couple of centuries, often set the ideological terms of the writing of landscape and nature. I’ve been thinking about Wordsworth’s particular “Romantic” landscapes quite a lot in recent months, as I’ve also been reflecting on the ideological backdrop of contemporary nature writing – particularly where ideas of “wildness” are concerned. Over the past few years, there’s been a real trend for writers using words like “wild” and “wildness” in surprisingly lazy ways. For example, in an otherwise interesting book I recently read, the word “wild” is repeatedly used in reference to the kinds of Derbyshire landscapes which are defined by dry stone walls and sheep pasture – landscapes which are the opposite of wild, since they’ve been shaped for centuries by human habitation, human labour, human management. Contemporary ideas of “wildness” often don’t reflect the lived reality of rural landscapes – but are rather a particular kind of anthropocentric projection – a fantasy which seeks to put nature in a box as either an exotic other, or as an imaginary place of origin, to which the (often urban) visitor, wishes to return, or reclaim. But why should the imprecise use of words like “wild” and “wildness” bother me?
I feel that these words and their usage matters because – in much the same way that Wordsworth used imaginative language to disguise the human labour that had shaped the working landscape he describes in Tintern Abbey – contemporary nature writers are similarly now defining landscapes through a language which underplays the human. All too often, I think, contemporary ideas of “wildness” actively ignore the profound and very complex kinds of symbiosis that exist, and which have long existed, between humanity and the natural world. Talking about rural Scotland as a “wild” place, for example, has the effect of erasing the value and importance of the kinds of sustainable, practical stewardship of our natural environment routinely practiced by our crofting and farming communities. In short, I feel that contemporary ideas of “wildness” might disguise or erase the importance of the human in rural landscapes, in ways that are neither respectful towards the communities who live and work there, nor are particularly helpful in taking urgent debates about the environment further forward.
So here’s a poem I wrote about landscapes as made places. Spot the Wordsworth echo!
This landscape is not your looking glass, not
a place to find yourself
or see yourself reflected.
Yet many make the world their mirror
As if, like Milton’s Eve, the self might only signify
Eve, your garden is not feral but a
made place, never “sportive wood run wild.”
If you don’t see the hands that cut these
“hardly hedgerows” you aren’t seeing
in your craving
to be seen.
What you call wild
is in fact a space of no beginning
whose origin’s your yen for
With our sheep or wolves
we set the terms of Eden.
Still, nature shrugs,
gets on with it.
Knowing this landscape
is made and remade
through placed stones, human bounds,
does not eliminate
In seeing the raven, I’m
the grudge it grants
to my sight.
There is comfort