A common question I’m asked is “why did you leave Canada for Scotland to study outdoor education?” Fair enough. Canada certainly has a well-deserved reputation for natural beauty and wild spaces. Not to mention it’s big.
This question, though, exposes some interesting assumptions we tend to make regarding the outdoors and wilderness. Before coming to Scotland, I didn’t realise how important my own concept of ‘wilderness’ was to my enjoyment of the outdoors. I very much took for granted the fact that there were relatively wild spaces nearby (even in Southern Ontario) and that to the north, there was essentially very little else but wilderness.
So when my classmates and I went on a canoe trip down the River Spey in the Scottish Highlands, I was a bit taken aback that I found myself not only dodging fly fishing lines and elderly white men in hip waders and Barbour jackets, but also that we were regularly passing sheep pastures, going under bridges, and stopping at pubs. Granted, I wasn’t complaining when I had a pint in hand after a long day of paddling, but myself and other North Americans were acutely aware of the different, significantly more peopled, landscape.
While helping me appreciate Canada more, I also realised that perhaps my attitude towards wilderness (and Great Britain’s relative lack of it) was a tad snobbish. After all, ‘wilderness’ is more of an abstract concept than a reality or an actual place. When does a place no longer qualify as wilderness? Is it after a road is built? A town? Does the presence of a human invalidate this special status? We humans have a great tendency to forget that we too are a part of nature, a problem that is manifesting itself in our current ecological crisis.
Yet there surely does remain a special character to those places that we choose to define as wilderness. Perhaps it is simply the fact that we are humbled by the lack of human influence, in an age where roughly 3.5 billion of us live in urban centres.
But for now, I’m going to make the most of my time in the UK and relish every chance I get to enjoy a pint in the ‘wilderness,’ however one chooses to define it.
What does ‘wilderness’ mean to you? When have you experienced it? Can it exist in your backyard?