“Will there be beer?” The meaning of wilderness in a crowded world

Photo: Dave Craig

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.

Oh hi there, United Kingdom, I didn’t notice you there. Yeah that’s cool, you can just chill in Hudson’s Bay.       

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.

Perhaps ‘sheepled’ is a more appropriate word

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? 


12 thoughts on ““Will there be beer?” The meaning of wilderness in a crowded world

  1. love this article, especially the title and the word “sheepled.” i suppose that “wilderness” has come to mean (for me) a place where the marks of human development are absent (minus my essential camping gear of course). if i’m surrounded by nothing but nature, as far as the eye can see, then i’m in the wild 🙂

  2. reading your post, I thought that it might be helpful to think like an UK citizen, so I consulted the Oxford dictionary. The most common thread in the definition of wilderness is uninhabited. Perhaps in a world of ever encroaching urban development, unihabited and thus wilderness is becoming a relative term. So – I am in the wild when I leave the city .
    Luckily, wilderness is not defined by lack of beer!

    • Thanks Ted! It’s interesting how it is often understood by heavily relying on what it is not, i.e. civilization. You didn’t mention that the OED stipulates that wilderness is an “inhospitable region,” I suppose this rules out Muldrew Lake then! 😉

  3. Another wonderful post, Patrick! We’re a camping and backpacking family, thanks to my husband! We’ve been married 23 years and have camped all of our time together. I agree with one of your other comments. Where the human mark is most absent, that is nature at it’s very best. Although, this is hard to come by, unless you’re in extremely remote areas. We live in an area where we have hiking, cycling and camping at our fingertips, and it’s great to have these healthy options of entertainment. It’s also wonderful observing the wildlife, plants and trees. It’s educational and good for the kids to grow up with. Our kids are grateful (now 20 & 16) for those past experiences. Have fun and I hope you find the beer, too! 🙂

    • Thanks Lauren, sounds like you have a wonderful family and that you have shared some great experiences together in the outdoors. I agree, it is incredibly important for children to have access to nature, but like you say, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a remote place.

  4. Hi Patrick! I came to check out your site after reading your great article on Lesley Carter’s blog. (I was also struck by the similarity between your photo of the bike leaning against a fence overlooking the ocean and a photo I took a couple of years ago on the first day of a short cycling tour I did with some friends in Umbria – bike in the foreground, dam with sailing boats on it behind.) Re: wilderness, I have to recommend the south island of New Zealand. I have only been there once but the main impression that it left was of the wild splendour of nature. It’s all mostly pretty accessible and the people are really welcoming but the landscapes have a glorious unruliness about them that’s truly impressive. It’s a long way from Edinburgh and Canada (an easily jaunt for those of us in Aus!) but it’s well worth a visit.

    • Thanks for the suggestion Alison! Would love to visit New Zealand one day. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think a place can get better than “wild splendour” and welcoming people!

  5. Great post. I had a similar experience traveling in the West of Ireland–the wilderness included pubs and sheep around every bend.

    Re: Can wilderness exist in your back yard?

    I grew up in Florida and even though it’s a fairly populated stated, the environment is so hostile I wonder how it got settled in the first place. We have so many poisonous plants, insects and critters, ungodly heat and humidity, etc. I lived most of my life in the southern part of the state where alligators regularly turn up in the back yard during mating season or when it’s dry and they come seeking water. Even here in the northern part of the state, we find a few cottonmouths roaming in our apartment complex because of how close it is to a small lake. They’re not intimidated by people and will stand their ground (even though snakes can’t stand.)

    It seems like Florida’s wildlife tolerates human presence, but is always reminding us that it can take over any time it wants.

  6. I definitely asked a similar question while on our bike tour through Europe, where we were never more than a half an hour cycle from the next food point, cafe or public washroom. It’s certainly different than our Canadian home, and I must say I often missed the solace of solitude and the (admittedly egotistical) feeling that I was the only person to find a certain corner of the world.

    That being said, I think I learned last year that you don’t need to be in a vast, pristine environment to connect with nature. Alec and I found so much natural beauty on our trip, and I felt that I could form an intimate relationship with the non-human world around me, even if we were travelling through Earth’s most urban continent. The fact that I don’t always need isolated, far-off places to have experiences like this will certainly be a lesson I take home with me to Canada.

    • Absolutely, you and Alec have certainly experienced the whole range of both European and Canadian wilderness. And you’re right, it is increasingly important to connect with nature in our everyday lives in the city rather than waiting for some idealised version of a far-off wilderness. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Caitlin!

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