Ah, wilderness. The very word means“the place of wild animals.” It’s a place where, by definition, as my friend the grizzly bear expert Doug Peacock says, something in it can kill you and eat you. Absent that danger, it’s something other than wild.
Wilderness is the stuff of a structuralist’s binary dreams, opposed to civilization, its antithesis and enemy. But, in truth, the wild is an invention of civilization: We recognize that the wild is wild only because we know what houses, fields, orchards, and gardens look like, the one part of our world behaving by its own rules, the other ordered by the hard work of human hands. The wild is a place that can do very well without us, while civilization requires our expelling the wild: As the Latin tag has it, you can drive Nature out with a pitchfork, but she will always return.
Nature and civilization are not exactly binaries, though. Neither are nature and the wild. Think of it as a Renaissance Italian would: The garden, construct of both nature and nurture, of civilization and the raw ingredients of the world, emerged from wildness only through our labors. Just as a child owes loyalty to its parents, our carefully cultivated gardens owe honor to their wild forebears, for which reason a classical Italian garden includes an area called the bosco or monte, a “forest” or “mountain,” an untended patch somewhere off in a corner where someone enjoying the garden’s tended beauty might wander and find an overgrown tangle of vines, a swarm of bees.
In North America, wilderness is easier to come by than in Europe. For that reason, in the American aesthetic, the garden is an island in the wilderness, whereas in the European one, the wilderness is an island in a garden, a patch of the original earth left alone in the midst of ground that has been worked, cultivated, and micromanaged down to the last grain of grit. In either instance, the wild seeks to exclude us, while the natural includes humans. If we use both “wild” and “natural” as generally approving adjectives, the former always has a sense of the uncontrolled and potentially dangerous: On its face, wild honey sounds more adventurous than all-natural yogurt, a wild river more problematic than an orchard.
It is in the grocery store and the food chain that we find the distinction between wild and natural most sharply drawn. A wild strawberry, if one can be found, will have a different flavor from a cultivated one, and an industrially cultivated one a different taste from an organically grown one. All are natural, but by degrees. Wild salmon has seen free-flowing water, natural salmon only the regulated current of a tank or pond. The wild one may have unnatural ingredients in it, thanks to all the pollutants with which we insist on clogging the world’s waters. The “natural,” farmed, hatchery-grown one surely will. And so on.
But can something be truly wild when we have invaded every corner of wilderness, natural when every habitat is besieged and every part of nature threatened? That’s a question for a philosopher—or a structuralist—and one for which there’s not much time left to answer.