The tortured semantics of wilderness


Every January I choose a word like “paradigm,” “irony,” “liberal” or “sustainability” that has attained such a vague and ambiguous definition that it has become virtually meaningless, and I suspend it from my own written and spoken vocabulary for a full year, hoping that over the months ahead linguists and wordsmiths will hammer out something solid in the way of a definition I can live with and understand. I’m still waiting on some of those words. 

Like its predecessors, “wilderness” has become so overused to describe so many places, environments, concepts and situations that it is almost meaningless. So I have selected it to be my suspended word for 2015. 

My own experience with the tortured semantics of wilderness began a few years back, while researching a book about conservation refugees, native peoples who have been evicted by global conservationists from land perceived as wilderness. I was interviewing an Ojibway woman named Bertha Petiquan in a remote region of northern Ontario being considered for “wilderness designation” by the National Parks of Canada. Bertha spoke no English so her daughter, Alyse, kindly offered to translate. 

When I used the “W” word in a question, Alyse went blank. “Sorry, there isn’t a word for ‘wilderness’ in our language, could you elaborate?” I sort of fumbled weakly for a quick definition… “You know, a wild and barren area, no humans, lots of ferocious animals.” Alyse tried that one out on Bertha, whose answer prompted her daughter to burst out laughing. What was so funny, I asked.  

“My mother says the only place she knows that fits that description is a street corner across from the bus terminal in Winnipeg, Manitoba.” 

“No humans?” I asked.

“Definitely no humans,” answered Bertha, with a wry smile, “but lots of ferocious animals.” 

So there you have it, the Ojibway definition of “wilderness.” My turn to laugh.

Over the next four years of research I met and conversed with many indigenous people who thrived in landscapes that looked as wild as anywhere I had ever been, whose language had no words for “wild,” “wildness” or “wilderness.” Naturally I began to wonder why societies populated by urbane people who spend most of their lives, if not all of them, on the streets of places like New York City, London, Rome, Los Angeles and Winnipeg do have a word for wilderness. And I wondered what exactly they meant by it, if anything.

The term we western sophisticates use derives from three old English words—“wild,” “deor” and “ness”—and thus its literal meaning is “an area for undomesticated deer.” Early English wildernesses were lands reserved for royal practitioners of deer hunting and falconry. Of course the earliest American land conservationists, who spoke and wrote lyrically about the wild places they sought to preserve, were also protecting their hunting grounds.

The Sanema, of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil, who hunt and fish on land you would swear was pristine, have no word for “wild” or any of its derivatives. However, their neighbors, the Piaroa, who live a few miles west in a forested landscape indistinguishable from the Samema’s, have a word, “dea,” which does seem to mean “wild” and is used in the construction of their word for shaman, “dearuwang,” which translates roughly as “master of [the] wild.” So culture clearly determines the semantic of wildness and wilderness. Hawaiian polynesians, for example, divide their land into two relevant areas, “wao kanaka,” the realm of man and “wao akua,” the realm of the gods. Wao akua is kept wild at all costs. And the wild doesn’t belong to man, it belongs to God. The Chinese word for wild is “ye,” which means a deserted, desolate landscape that may include deserted villages and other abandoned humanscapes—in other words, not a nice place.

What I finally figured out about “wilderness” was that it’s really a concept that does not translate well from language to language, especially from western to indigenous languages. So it’s really not the word that has to be translated, but an entire ecological ethnography. I found this to be true again in another part of Canada.

Until the Auyittuq National Park was created on Baffin Island by the autonomous government of Nunavut, there were no words in Inuktitut for “wild,” or to fit the concept of a national park as it was explained to the Inuit. So by combining what they heard from the government with what they had long perceived to be wild, the Inuit coined a term that literally translates as “a place where animals rest.” Then, after several years of watching a flood of tourists descend on the barrens, that term was replaced by one that currently translates from Inuktitut as “a place where white people come to play.” 

I recently overheard a debate in which to refine and defend his own personal definition, a local wilderness romantic divided the whole concept into two separate categories—uppercase and lowercase wilderness. Uppercase, he said, was “real” wilderness: vast roadless, trail-free areas occupied by many species, including large predators that want to eat humans. Lowercase wilderness could be found in state and national parks; as virtual or abstract wilderness, it was a cunning, managed artifice of the uppercase version designed to convince eco-tourists that they are having a true wilderness experience. The argument descended from there into such ridiculous semantic subterfuge that I walked away mumbling to myself that wilderness may not be a word at all, or a place for that matter, but as Roderick Nash concludes at the end of his 400-page tome on the subject, merely “a state of mind.” And that if wilderness exists at all, it could be as easily found and appreciated under a bench in Central Park as on the barrens of Baffin Island.


Mark Dowie’s latest book is “Conservation Refugees: The Hundred Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native People.” A version of this essay ran in the September 2014 issue of Earth Island Journal.