The way I live now — it seems to me — is almost entirely within public and private realms. I spend most of my time in the city where everything is carved out as private or public. Inside my house is private. Sidewalks and pathways are public. Cafes and grocery stores are private but open to everyone. Public libraries have rooms where I am prohibited from entering. And so on.
We’ve been partitioning lands for centuries, for millennia, though not always successfully. So what about wilderness? Where does that bugbear fit in?
To respond to last month’s comment — thanks by the way! — I agree. Wilderness as a concept is confusing. And the concept of urban wilderness just compounds the issue. There isn’t just one wilderness is the problem. And here’s the crux of it. A lot of people consider wilderness as something separate from us humans.
Here are some examples.
In The Hunger Games, the annual Panem tournament is held in a carefully controlled environment where teenagers go to kill one another. That’s one type of wilderness. In the city, maybe wilderness is wherever nature has taken over for a while, or where it’s been so long since anybody interfered, it feels wild. The tumble of growth inside a ravine. Undefined spaces along the river.
New Urbanist theory considers urban wilderness to be human-made. Constructed places we create to look messy and layered, surreptitiously seeded and supposedly left untended as though the place was untampered with. Similar to those jeans that already look faded and roughed and well-worn when you buy them — this type of wilderness is somewhat of an illusion.
In my mind, urban wilderness is both a people place and not.
Finally, there’s the classic concept of wilderness. The realm of non-humans. In other words, anything outside metropolises and towns and cultivated lands.
Living in the city, I’ve no doubt developed a city dweller view of wilderness. For me wilderness is the fringes. Unprogrammed. Overgrown edges of industrial yards. Waterways left to their own devices. Neglected underpasses. And here’s the thing. Fringes invite fringe elements.
Here’s a story.
I met Carl a few years back. There’s a sidewalk bench on the commercial strip nearby, in front of a hip women’s boutique, a Pilates studio and a bar with a patio. Carl sits on the bench a lot, I see him almost every time I pass. Every once in a while when I pass, he’s curled up with his bum out, apparently sleeping. Every once in a while I pass and Carl isn’t there, but his name is, carved into the wood.
When Carl is there, he pretty much smiles at everyone. I always smile back when Carl smiles at me with his toothless grin. How can I resist? Occasionally I stop and ask how he is doing. One day, I will stop and ask Carl about himself, about where he has been before this bench. Where he goes when he’s not on the bench. Or simply, what he thinks of when he sits there.
Sometimes Carl is less lucid, his smile unfocussed. When he’s like this people tend to ignore him. Maybe at this point it starts to feel uncomfortable that he’s always here, sitting on this public bench, claiming it this way. Despite that grin of his, the mischievous grin of a child. Maybe Carl is a citizen of the urban wilderness. Maybe they’d rather see him disappear.
One day, I do stop and ask Carl about himself. Here is Carl’s story.
The city is a burning desert, he says. He grew up north of here, not far from the tundra. When he was five they sent him to school. He was alone in a room full of children. And then the schoolhouse turned ugly and septic. He’s fifty years old now or thereabouts, he says. No child despite the mischievous smile. I ask him if he misses the tundra. But he looks away. Where do you live now? The river, he says. And then he grins.
A few more things about wilderness. It’s free. It isn’t owned. It doesn’t stoke economic fires. It isn’t accounted for in the wealth of any nation.
Happy Earth Day.