Chasing the wild beyond the city and within ourselves
An ecosocialist ruminates on the complex relationship between humans and the environment, taking stalk of it first hand on "the extreme edge of nature"
We wanted to feel the seasons on our skin and to work and live in such a way that the hard grey lines between us and nature dissolved. We wanted to be self-sufficient, to grow all our own food and build our own house. We wanted to leave the city for the wilds. We were two young London men who fell in love and decided to return to nature.
Inside us, even in the metalscape of the city where seasons signify passing fashions, in our bodies’ dormancy, is a yearning. For some it sleeps, in others it stirs and kicks and for a few it pounds. We want to know that adventure and exploration still exists and that we ourselves might actually be able to do some of it. We need to feel that this drab world of Ikea, ipads, and immigration detention centers has not destroyed every last hiding place of nature and that we have not completely driven the wilds off the planet. We seek it out where the ecologies are thickest: teeming with layers of beasts, plants and spores. As humans we seek out the wild in the bleakest lands where fragile ecological networks scurry away from the burning sun or freezing wind.
My ancestors left the chase in my blood. I was born in the United States. One half of my family is good old West-themed cowboys and indians; the other half is the American dream of poor Italian immigrant and Puerto Rican – its own healthy mix of indigenous blood, European rape and pillage and plantation slaves shipped from Africa.
I was 18 the first time I made a concerted effort to set myself up for a wild life. I began to earnestly study rainforest ecology in Darwin, an outpost town surrounded by Australian bush and the Timor Sea. I yearned to be a field ecologist living in the wild. As it was my funds ran dry and I was forced to abandon my rooms and then shelter in a tree hammock hidden away in a patch of scrubland near the university. I fought for that terrain, an imperialist interloper, with a colony of green ants. You can tear off their bloated green abdomens for a tiny parcel of slightly sweet food. Then all my money ran out and I was forced to abandon my studies and my predatory colonialist diet.
It was Andru who renewed my quest for the wild.After volunteering on a permaculture farm in Wales where a farmer had reintroduced beavers into the ecology, he had a fire in his belly to live off the labor of his own hands, directly, in the dirt and to commune with nature.
Andru’s family are English. On his father’s side, the Vallance name comes from indigenous peasant servants taken on by Norman masters. The Vallance family’s fortunes waxed and waned. When they had money they hobnobbed with prince regent George in Brighton and then slipped back down to working class folk when all the money was spent. His mother’s people come from Notthinghamshire of hearty working class stock: his grandfather a builder, his great grandfather, a miner. Before capitalism swept up the poor of the north into the great cotton mills the peasantry would have had their own humble homes and access to common land for firewood and grazing pastures. Life may have been hard, but they could survive on the land that these people had inhabited for thousands of years.
These days people like Andru and I, who want a bit of land to grow our own food, don’t have a chance in Britain. We haven’t got the money to compete with Russian oligarchs, the Duke of Westminster and Tesco. As city boys trying to return to nature, returning to the land to feed yourself is very political.
With a budget for land that looked like a middle class family’s holiday fund we drove up and down the bumpy roads of northern Iberia looking for a patch to make home. We found a piece of land on a half hidden mountain that we couldn’t refuse and shook hands on a deal to buy it with an old anarchist peasant. This little slice of land hadn’t seen humans for around thirty years. It was overgrown, rewilded, and surrounded by humanless scrub-land hills. The squat stone structure, covered over by bramble and ivy, housed field mice, snakes and bats before that first night. We dragged the tiny broken metal-coil-couch into the middle of the dust floor away from the spider walls and huddled together listening to owls hoot and foxes scream wondering what the hell had we done.
In those glowing early days of eden we eagerly dug our way through thick foliage with sickles to discover the wilds that would be our home. We foraged for soft-fruits and mushrooms, cutting through to reach new patches of forest each day. We crapped in a bucket, saving up our wholesome shit to inaugurate our first humanure compost pile. The dumbing silence of a lightless sky of stars branded by the milky way’s thick streak, the shriek of foxes in heat and the mighty orchestra of night birds and beasts stunned us in awe. In town we bought a camping stove, chopping block and knife to found our kitchen. Dust coated and slid into everything. We breathed and slept in it until inspiration struck and we set down cardboard neatly over the dirt floor and threw some sheets and rugs over the cardboard for a make-believe floor.
But one comfort led to another. With every day’s work at building a home the wild inched further away while we weren’t looking. We installed solar panels for electricity. Water from one of our springs was plumbed into the house and we had a nice wood burning stove for winter.
The wilds, much like anything else chased, runs away. Home is it’s antithesis. Perhaps this is the key to the contradiction that separates us from the wild. When we seek to make our home in the wilds it simply moves off, deeper, farther, elusive, shy. As we pushed back bramble and bracken to make garden beds and our dogs hounded the foxes and deer ever further from our new home. Unwilding is survival.
Yet, there is still something of the wild to our lives.
To bathe, we tromp down to the stream at the bottom of the hill where there is a small waterfall pool. Many people come to visit us from the cities, to help us build and to spend some time out here, in nature, in the wild. Some of them love bathing in the cold stream at the bottom of the hill, some don’t. It may still be wild to them but to us it’s now home.
Just a day’s walk north of us, the hills steepen up and snow over in winter. The abandoned and dying villages in the mountains have hard, cold winters with more bears and wolves than make it down to our river valleys. We could continue our chase for the wild, but are we chasing? Those mountains are still someone’s home. Humans have made home in the great deserts, jungles and ice lands. Adventure tourists may chase the wilds deep into the amazon jungle, carrying cameras and diseases to uncontacted tribes, or to the far north where Sami, inuit or Siberians have lived for thousands of years. But the wild is not there, just someone else’s home.
The wild, the extreme edge of nature, seems to be the last surviving glowing embers of an ancient fire. Perhaps it is because we have changed what nature is so radically that we crave some wildness back in our lives. We’ve dug deep and changed the courses of rivers, blown up mountains and stamped factories, dams, bridges and cities in every direction. Even the great extreme wilds elude our chase. We’re collectively melting the arctics and may have just started a catastrophic poisoning of all ocean life in the deep Pacific. The extent to which we have arranged and rearranged nature has given birth to a great romantic longing for something untouched.
The wilds is one of the great romantic ideals of our time; most of us crave some sort of hint of it. In our world, where bundled derivative trading based on high risk mortgages can throw millions out of work and home and into despair we crave the romantic idea like a drug. Modern life can be depressing, difficult and damaging. These romantic ideals plague us, which of us, in some dark moment, has not dreamed of breaking off into the wilderness?
In another era of romanticism poets and philosophers summoned up naturalistic ideals. The sublime was the thing to chase when the dragon wasn’t available and the sublime could be uncovered in the wild. The dramatic peaks of the Lake District, exaggerated beyond realistic geography in romantic paintings, revel in the sublime. William Wordsworth and Samual Coleridge, the great romantic poets, chased the sublime up and down the lakes and mountains of Britain. But tours soon followed in their wake. For a reasonable sum you could take the newly laid train line to Keswick a boater who would row you out to dramatic viewing points on the lake. The boater might even shoot a rifle in the air to bang across the mountain peaks, echo across the water and heighten the sublime effect.
The poets had summoned the chase but when the people followed they were horrified. Wordsworth recoiled at the vision of “cheap trains pouring out their hundreds at a time along the margin of Windermere”. The great romantic ideal was only theirs to enjoy. Correspondingly, Wordswoth and Coleridge turned from the political radicalism of their youth to conservatism, The romantic wild was not for the poor in their eyes.
Throughout history this theme emerges unceasingly. The elite have access to the other: the sublime, nature, the wild, the forces that rejuvenate us, but the poor must be fenced out from it or the elite would lose their sublime silence and their traditional hunting grounds.
The more egalitarian our access to the wild, or the sublime, the more the wild seems to run away. Romantic era guidebooks set out specific stations where tourists should stop and collect a viewpoint, often looking at the peaks, with their backs to them, through a twisted mirror using colored foils to set the mood. In my early twenties I once chased the wild to the great Serengeti plains in Kenya where our driver threw bananas at a lazy pride of lions in a vain attempt to get them to do something interesting. The wild had slinked off long before I got there.
In response to a continuing decline in the populations of endangered species many conservationists have turned to rewilding. With attempts to reintroduce wolves to Scotland and beavers to Wales, re-wilders restore some ecological balance by reintroducing key-stone species. Some, like George Monbiot, argue that the Welsh highland farmers, who’ve lived there generation after generation, should come down from the mountains to allow Britain to have some wild spaces.
Monbiot’s call echoes the early conservationists and the creation of the great national parks. I was lucky enough to grow up traveling. When I was a child our family moved around much of the United States as well as parts of Africa and the Middle East. My parents would always take us to national parks when ever they were close by. Hundreds of miles of unpopulated wilderness: mountains, plains and deserts containing all manner of beasts from elephants and lions to bison, bears, mountain rams and soaring eagles.
What I didn’t know was that all those great tracts of wilderness from my childhood were completely fictitious. The shoshone tribe had been kicked out of Yellowstone to make the world’s first national park and so it continued from there. The Makuleke, in South Africa, were evicted to make Africa’s largest national park, Kruger Park, named after Paul Kruger, then colonial president of the Transvaal Republic. From the Hopi in the Grand Canyon to the Utes and the Arapaho in the Rocky Mountains, indigenous inhabitants were kicked off their land to make wilderness parks. The wild is not for the poor nor the indigenous. Come down from your mountains sheep farmers.
Andru and I have done the opposite. We have returned to the depopulated, rewilding highlands. The land that we’re building on hasn’t been truly occupied and used for several hundred years, although the cows from the nearby villages were often brought here to pasture during droughts. The hill is stepped into hundreds of stone terraces built over the course of thousands of years. The monks and their wine had long left our hill allowing foxes and wild boar to run wild.
Some argue that f we are to depopulate and rewild the countryside then we must bunch up into cities, in which we are fed by mega-farms on the borders of the wilds. But who must make the sacrifice? In an interview for Dark Mountain the former CEO of outdoor-gear company Patagonia now turned rewilding conservationist tells us “humans should be living more densely and leaving wildlands alone. Though you wouldn’t see me living in a city.”
Naturally, this former CEO will never have to. I suppose rewilders would have us come down from our new hill home, back into the city where we belong. Wordsworth couldn’t stop the English from visiting the Lake District but today’s rich have been far more successful in fencing the poor off from nature. This is the horrible dilemma of our class: our souls crave something wild, but if we, bunched up in our cities, rush out to take it en masse, we destroy it. It disappears. And so the within our economic system the wild, with rare exceptions, can only be something that the superrich and the elite exploit. The very idea of the wild belongs to them. We should not be in it.
But their wild is an illusion.
Colonialism is the arrogance of power. Europeans decided that a great majority of the world’s inhabitants, including the aboriginal inhabitants of Darwin, very simply did not count as humans occupying land and that most of the world was wilderness: land ready to be raped, ploughed and flagged. The wild world is our playground to discover, explore and name in our own image. When we write about our exploits in the wild we turn our quest for the absence of civilization into a description of our selves, of our chase and, in that act, betray ourselves completely. The written word is not wild. The wild sits darkly in fury, ecstasy and apathy, surrounded by more wild with no will to translate itself into English. Why, when I read an account written by someone else of their exploits in the wilderness, do I feel embarrassed jealous and inadequate? The great romantic myth of the wild plays against our egos like a dark twisted mirror.
What distorted images a twisted, tinted romantic mirror shows. The chase for the wild is a rugged, individualistic romantic fantasy. One man alone conquers the vast wilderness like Jack London in the harshness of the Yukon in northern Canada where he found the spirit to write wild-infested books. Wild was the urge that drew Henry David Thoreau away from town to Walden Pond to be a self-made man in the woods surviving by trapping, hunting and gathering. It spurred young Christopher McCandless on against the horror of his middle class privileged anti-wild to run Into the Wild, eventually to his own death. Conquerers and Explorers see themselves shining in the mirror, a mirror twisted just so to exclude their darker skinned guides. This allows the history books to say that William Janszoon discovered Australia and Abel Tasman, New Zealand and, of course, Tasmania. The distorted mirror shows truth, a twisted truth. Behind the mirror, on the side you can’t see, are the Shoshone, Makelueke, the Hopi, Utes and Arapaho. We may seek our fame in that mirror and add ourselves to the list of the arrogant. Or we can break it into tiny bits in the dust. That wild, their wild, should never be ours. It can never be ours.
And yet the only thing more terrifying than giving into the fantasy is killing it. Even if it’s nothing but a romantic fiction, it’s a key-stone to our existence. The absence of wild is horrifying: a world made completely of office blocks and factories, marketing campaigns and xantham gum. The wild is beyond preserves, beyond economics. The wild is beyond good and evil. In it lies the cold blue hatred of others, the red-eyed passion in a person’s eye when s/he kills another. Yellow from pissing ourselves in terror. We can chase the wild into senselessness, passion and fury and if we catch it we will never speak to anyone again nor never love another nor read another poem.
Before the wild we are all equal. The wild is a leveler.The wild doesn’t care how much capital you have hidden on the Cayman Islands or in Switzerland. The wild doesn’t understand that some babies are princes from their first breath. The wild doesn’t know us as employers and employees, landlord and rentiers, working class and rich. The wild doesn’t understand claims to own millions of hectares of land by people who’ve never seen one stone or fistful of its dirt. As wild children we own nothing and face each other naked and equal.
Our wild must tell no lies about humans and nature. Yes, we have brought ourselves to the point of destroying the balance in nature and nature will have to find a new balance which we might not like so much. But nonetheless, we, as animals, are a part of our wild. We have made our wild homes just as beavers make their wild dams, our wild trails and paths as wild boar make theirs. Never again can we allow this false wall between us and the wild; a wall that allowed us to kill and transplant millions of indigenous people from their homes in South America, North America, Africa, Australia and Asia. The wild, for them, is something to protect from us. For us, the wild is the untamable force that may someday overcome them.
The wild is not in the wild; it can be anywhere. If they’ve imprisoned us in cities we must bring the wild into the cities and down upon their heads.
There is plenty of darkness in the wild, and sometimes we need it’s viciousness to sober us and strengthen us, but there is plenty of light too. We can dip into the wild like a pool of epiphany and madness. Inside us we find the wild sense of injustice, the urge to the paint away the logos on Barclays bikes infesting London or smear faeces on a mega-bank’s headquarters. The urge to make a fearsome free, inchoate sound. The hatred of inequality, the inescapable urge to feel the skin of someone’s cheek while they weep.
We must grasp the wild, like nettles stinging in our hands, to transform the world so that the destructive exploitation of our ecologies and our wild working souls is destroyed. Rewilding does not need to be the anathema of the poor back-to-the-lander; it can be a part of poor people returning to the land, not a contradiction with it. The wild comes from within us; we are a part of it.
The region where we live has emptied itself of people rapidly and recently. The lands were either left feral, or pines were planted for a cash crop. Both the feral bushland and the pine plantations create the perfect food for fires in Iberia’s hot dry summers. Our own farm, surrounded by both scrubland and pines, is vulnerable; it could be burned in minutes. We often stand out on our roof and sniff the air, trying to determine how close the fires are. Rewild Europe has introduced feral horses and cows to graze the abandoned hills and mountains of Iberia reducing the risk of wildfire. They occupy the ecological niche of the old grazers, both those that accompanied humans and those from before, clearing out the vegetation in the bushland and removing the fire risk. Rewilding can be more than just romanticism; it can be a matter of survival for both us and the other species we share the land with.
We have many friends in London that ache follow in our footsteps. Some are lucky to have jobs, others aren’t but they all ache to repair their broken, fenced off relationship with nature. It’s a sore, rotten feeling knowing you’ve left loved ones behind you in the chase.
We need some modern form of the old commons, where access to the land was shared and mediated between equals. It won’t be easy, but radical land reform is necessary on almost every part of this planet.
Capitalism is an enemy of the wild and an enemy of the poor, and both of those facts are becoming more and more evident. We and the wild must make alliance. We did not want our farm to be just another dead-end escape for the weary, just another couple escaping from capitalism. We wanted to keep it a part of this world, participating in changing the world for the better. For that reason, when we moved here, we decided our farm would be an eco-socialist farm and we set out to discover what that meant and how we could play our little part.
Having thought the chase for the wild came to end we find it only came to the beginning of another wild hunt. We need to find strength from that wild sense of injustice inside of us. Each step into the wild is a social one with endless repercussions whether we realize it or not. We have an obligation to use our fortunes to help each other change the world. We have returned to the land, so should everyone who wants to. This earth should not be a mine for the rich to extract every precious last drop of profit, but a home for everyone and everything: a common treasury for everyone to share, as the diggers used to say. That kind of earth would be full of communities that intimately understand the animals and plants they live with. Such communities would be more free, more tied to the natural world and subsequently more responsible to it, and far more wild. The time is ripe for the poor to reclaim the earth: a political struggle of unprecedented size, both desirable and necessary.
In this inward looking chase for the wild we may not be discoverers like Christopher Columbus, who “discovered” other people’s homes, but there’s plenty of wild to discover inside: ferocity and love and anguish, injustice and will. We may even find something that gives us the strength to dig in, fight back and build.
A version of this article was first published in Issue 8 of EarthLines magazine, a full-colour, thrice-yearly magazine for writing which explores our complex relationship with the natural world.
Many of the photographs provided thanks to Grace Wong Photography.