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This week we introduce a new column on all things wild by our award-winning freelance correspondent, Kirsteen Bell, from Duisky. Her literary passion is nature writing and this week we publish the first of her, hopefully many, Wild Words.
Where The Wild Things Are
Children’s book Where the Wild Things Are was first published in 1963 – 16 years before I was born, 50 years before my first child was born. Max is sent to his room for his cheek, and without leaving the four walls of his bedroom he discovers a sea, a forest, a gathering of wild things of which he becomes one.
Leaving aside for a moment that Max placed himself as leader of the wild things, he was imagining himself into the wild while the rest of Western society was attempting to build and engineer itself out of it.
In 1960, 78 per cent of the UK population lived in urban areas, and that percentage has consistently grown to its current level of 91 per cent, which means that the majority of people today can choose – if they wish – never to think about the ‘wild’.
But that, slightly flippant, statement raises the question of what we mean by wild. Are human illnesses that can’t be controlled by modern medicine – yet – wild? They are beyond the scope of human influence, which tends to be how we define the word.
The ‘wild’ landscape of the Highlands also challenges our definition of the word. The forests stretching up the mountains have been mostly planted for their timber since the 19th century; the vast swathes of moorland have been carefully managed to ensure optimum game numbers for hunting tourists since Queen Victoria began the fashion for a Highland season in the mid-1800s; the hills have been managed for sheep grazing since the late-1700s, and, prior to the Clearances and the creation of crofts, the clan peoples lived in townships that worked runrig and shieling systems of farming; they were able to do so on land that had been cleared of trees and worked for cultivation since prehistoric times. The Highlands and Islands were entirely populated by woodland until around 6000BC and human behaviour towards the landscape is likely to have been one of the factors that hastened this change. The hunter-gatherer approach prior to this time was based on a responsive relationship with the landscape, however the Neolithic move towards an agricultural subsistence marked the beginning of the purposive relationship that exists to this day.
If wilderness is defined as uncultivated by human hand, then our whistle-stop tour of the landscape over time shows that there is very little land here that can truly be defined as wilderness.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t all still magic. It just means that if we reposition how we see our connection to the rest of the living world we can imagine a way back into it. Where are the wild things then? The wild things are our children (definitely my children) and ourselves. We never left.