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Reimagining Wilderness

Before you start reading this, I want you to take a moment. Close your eyes, and imagine a wilderness. Where would you like to go to escape from it all?

What wilderness did you imagine? Perhaps, you found yourself in a bright sunlit forest, or under the shade of a bough? Perhaps, you imagined a water feature, a gurgling brook, a tranquil river, or a gushing waterfall. Or perhaps, you sought escape overlooking gentle, rolling hills, or sharp, jagged peaks? Whatever the contours of your imagined wilderness, I doubt too many of us included humans or human-dominated landscapes.

After all, the very definition of 'wilderness', the way we've learned and read about it, denotes natural environments that human activity has not significantly altered. As most of us have had limited experience with the wide, open ocean, I can also hazard that most of us imagined terrestrial landscapes, with the occasional waterbody. However, the marine environment should also be considered as a natural wilderness.

In this blog, I'd like to explore the concept of 'wilderness' — from the unique geography of the great outdoors to the last wild spaces as refuges for flora and fauna — to better understand how humans have impressed themselves upon landscapes, and how landscapes, have in turn, impressed themselves upon our species.


Wilderness in Literature & Art

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society, where none intrudes,

By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”

~ Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

In the late 18th to mid-19th century, Romanticism — the intellectual, artistic movement of authentic, spontaneous emotional expression — emerged as a response to the Industrial Era. As wild, open countrysides and bucolic lifestyles disappeared, and smoke-belching, metal-girded urban centres ushered in mechanical, modernised livelihoods, cultural institutions sought refuge in emotion over reason, and the senses over intellect. Poets began to express a deepening appreciation for Nature's beauty; Wordsworth's heart danced with the daffodils, Percy Bysshe Shelley wove rhymes on a cloud, and Willian Blake found heaven in a wildflower. Artists like John Constable, Caspar Friedrich and J.M.W Turner painted spectacular landscapes and seascapes, with weather elements creating a sense of drama.

In literature and art, the Romantic era highlighted the fleeting, fragile nature of the wilderness — a clarion call we need more than ever today!


Mapping Wilderness Loss

At the beginning of the 20th Century, land use studies estimate that roughly 15% of Earth's surface was used to grow crops and raise livestock. Ecosystems in human-populated areas faced pressures, yet vast swathes of land remained unaltered and undisturbed. A team of scientists started mapping the world's terrestrial and ocean wilderness, using certain key indicators of human interventions. Terrestrial ecosystems were measured as per criteria that included built environments, population density, transport networks, croplands, and pasture lands. In contrast, fishing and industrial shipping were among the indicators for marine ecosystems.

The results were published in Nature and were described as 'nothing short of a horror story for the planet's last wild places', by the paper's first author, James E. M. Watson of the University of Queensland. Human activities have altered more than 77% of terrestrial landscapes (excluding Antarctica) and 87% of the ocean habitats. To better understand these results, we need to flip the numbers; only 23% of land and 13% of the oceans can be defined as true wilderness. The data used were from 2009, and 2013 (though published in 2018) and I doubt the percentages have improved significantly since.

Image credits: James E. M. Watson et al., Protect the last of the wild. (2018). Nature, 563(7729), 27–30. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-07183-6.

Even the last remote outpost, Antarctica, holds little hope in the face of unabated tourism, climate change, pollution, the introduction of invasive species, and oil prospecting. We are truly in the Anthropocene (I'd written about the Anthropocene earlier).

So, why do these numbers read like a horror story? Lesser wilderness spaces represent a loss of biodiversity and an impoverished gene pool. Fragmented ecosystems are less capable of regulating many of the Earth’s mechanisms such as the biogeochemical cycles that maintain the balance of nutrients, the hydrological cycle and carbon sequestration. Natural, unaltered landscapes are also more resilient to climate change effects like droughts, floods, and extreme weather events, among others.


Untrammelled Wilderness

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area of the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man."

~ Howard Zahniser, the principal author of USA's Wilderness Act of 1964.

The view from Pride Rock (yes, the one featured in Disney's Lion King) over the Ol Jorowa gorge in Hell's Gate, Kenya. Image credits: Devayani Khare.

Zahniser, a keen wordsmith, intentionally chose the word, 'untrammelled' to denote unconfined, uncontrolled, unrestrained, and unmanipulated when describing wilderness. As poetic as this word seems, can landscapes and their conservation, ever truly be free from human intervention? Even cordoning spaces to allow natural processes free reign, is an intervention, even if more minimal than other land use patterns.

More worryingly, this definition of wilderness has (mis)-informed conservation models worldwide for decades. The 'fortress conservation' model, mistakenly believes that to create a 'pristine wilderness', we need to offset all human influences. As a result, we've displaced humans, mostly tribes or indigenous groups, from landscapes which they have long helped sustain and conserve. In recent years, evidence of effective landscape stewardship by Indigenous populations has overturned the Western conservation models. Yet it may take a while for more human-centred conservation practices to be implemented, and a while longer for the effects to be evident. Here's an article on why conservation by eliminating human presence is a flawed construct.


Wilderness as a Commodity

In India, like in many other developing countries, we face the repercussions of the fortress conservation model. We continue to erase humans from the landscapes they live in. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 recognizes the rights of the forest-dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers over timber and non-timber resources for their livelihoods, habitation and other needs. Yet dilutions, distractions and delays in implementation have marred this legislation, and we continue to deny the rights of tribal communities over many other landscapes. In the Nilgiris, expanding coffee, tea and other cash crop plantations displaced the hunter-gatherer, artisan, and pastoralist tribes. When tracts in north India were converted to reserve forests, the pastoralist Van Gujjar community of north India could no longer access traditional, alpine pasturelands. In central India, tribes are fighting to stake their rights over landscapes where coal and other minerals are to be extracted. The list goes on.

The Van Gujjars and their herds of sheep in Uttarakhand, India. Image credits: Bishnu Sarangi via Pixabay.

In an ironic twist, when we erased the 'human' from landscapes, we denied ourselves the chance to experience landscapes — except as a commodity. Through much of history, it would have been laughable to find people looking for remote, untrammelled landscapes for the 'wilderness experience'. Yet that is precisely what we do today, and we are happy to pay for it (only those who have time and the means, of course!) Hikes and treks incur government taxes, though there are many offbeat trails for the intrepid. We pay modest entrance fees to access geological formations like waterfalls, canyons and gorges, limestone caves, hotwater springs, and fossil parks — which barely covers the costs of personnel, with little left over for maintenance or interpretation signs. Wildlife encounters at human-free reserves with demarcated zones are pre-booked and pre-paid for, with accommodations ranging from curated-rustic to giddying luxury. While tourism often allows communities to benefit from the landscapes they live in, the experience seems more tame and we venture out to more remote, rustic outposts in search of wilderness.


In Search of India's Wilderness Tapestries

In our quest for true wilderness, we often neglect the wild and wonderful places closer to home, which may offer respite from the hustle and bustle of our lives. Deviating from my usual style, where I mention specific geological or geographical features or points of interest, I would like to speak of different kinds of wild, open spaces that may be accessible to most of us, if only we went looking. These wilderness tapestries offer a mix of wild and cultural elements and may help us navigate familiar landscapes in new, interesting ways.

The Sacred Hindoo Grove near Chandod on the Banks of the Nerbudda by James Forbes, 1782. Image credits: public domain.

Sacred Groves & Not-So-Wild Woods

There are very few primal forests left in India. What we have instead are small, sacred groves, protected by the fear of a local deity against the degradation and deforestation experienced elsewhere. Known by many names (devarakadu in Kannada, devrai in Marathi, kavu in Malayalam, bann/i in Haryanvi), these fragmented forests owe their existence to folklore. Is there a sacred grove somewhere near you? Which deity or sacred spirit resides in it? How old is it? What flora and fauna defines it?

Not quite a forest, nor quite as wild, India is peppered with mixed woods. Either a result of forest degradation or under over-zealous forestry initiatives where stands of eucalyptus or acacia were planted, these woods harbour a particular assemblage of wildlife. These may not be as lovely, dark, and deep, as Robert Frost's woods, yet I've often found sweet refuge in urban and peri-urban patches. (Here's an article I'd written on the seasonal symphonies at Avalahalli, a forest patch on the northern fringes of Bangalore). Do you know of any not-so-wild woods nearer to home? What's its history and geography? What wild creatures have you encountered there?


Meadows & Wildflowers

An oft-forgotten wilderness is the wide, open meadow — a wild field or overgrown farm, overrun with grasses, herbs, or non-woody plants, with the occasional shrub or tree. A meadow could serve as a pasture, could be swamped at different times of the year, or might be located high up in the mountains. The shola patches in the Western Ghats lie between wider tracts of montane grasslands. The bugyals of the Middle and Upper Himalayas, are traditional grazing lands, which burst into bloom in the summers. From a biogeographical perspective, meadows are intermediate landscapes, a transition landscape between barren to forested, and are vital in rewilding efforts. Go look for a grassy knoll, or follow the herders nearby to their pasturing grounds. What wildflowers are in bloom, and which winged pollinators have cultivated them? Look for droppings to know which animals graze there, and which wild creatures call it home.


Wetlands & Waterbodies

There are many types of semi-wild wetlands — an urban lake, a marsh or swamp, a mangrove patch, a sewage-fed pond, an abandoned, rainwater-fed quarry, or a temple tank — each representing a landscape shaped by water. The characteristics of the water — fresh, brackish, saline, or dirty — influence the biogeochemistry of the area, which in turn, dictates the flora and fauna that can thrive there. Know of a wetland or waterbody nearby? Where does the water come from, as rain, as run-off, or as groundwater? What seasons does it experience? What peculiar vegetation and wildlife does it harbour?

I love this long-form article, Memories of Water by Amitangshu Acharya, which celebrates the rich legacy of urban ponds.


Image credits: Ambarish Mallick via Pixabay.

Ruins & Ramparts

Another interesting wilderness, partly wild, partly human, can be found where there are temple ruins or fort ramparts. Archaeological sites, especially half-forgotten, unkempt ones, exude a charm of their own. Old ficus roots have worn their woody way through the stone, and assorted grasses have claimed every damp crevice. A place where time seems to stand still, yet the faint echoes of history whisper of fallen civilizations. India's rich, peopled history means we have numerous ruins and ramparts, exhibiting various stages of dilapidation. Sometimes, villagers nearby may remember old stories, though often, the lore is forgotten. In that sense, these sites represent a wilderness, areas that are no longer inhabited and where human activity is limited. The next time you travel or hike through an unknown landscape, keep an eye out for overgrown ruins that have been reclaimed by the elements. Can anyone nearby tell you its history? Can you decipher its purpose?


On a final note, I'd highly recommend this thought-provoking article by environmental historian William Cronon:

I'd love to hear your wilderness stories based on the tapestries I suggested, please write to me at:


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