As readers of the blog will know, when I’m not out and about in the hills I’m usually to be found reading about them, or reading about travels to some far-flung land. I’ve lately read Paul Thereoux’s excellent “The Great Railway Bazaar” about his exploits travelling by train from London to Asia and back in the 1970s, and I’m working my way through his equally brilliant ‘Dark Star Safari’. Reviews of these will probably pop up here in a while. But this post is about a book that’s been calling to me from the shelves in Waterstones for a while; ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey‘ by Jay Griffiths. The book centres on the author’s pursuit of wilderness and the wild in our modern world, documenting both her journey to these places, her experiences of them, and the manifest threats they face.
This is a book that’s captivated my imagination and frustrated me in equal measure, a book full of contradictions, as all good books are. I was immediately grabbed by Griffiths’ explanation of the roots of her longing to travel into the wilderness. Her epitomisation of the sterility of choices presented to us as ‘safe’ options growing up in contemporary Britain resonated with me; grow up, get a good job, get a nice mortgage on a house in suburbia, settle down with 2.4 children and be a ‘success’. I absolutely concurred with her description of this tame experience to which we’re all supposed to aspire, and the intellectual moribundity that underpins it:
“Everything was made into corridors: corridors of convention, corridors from term time to term time, corridors from school to university, corridors from sensibly studying maths to marrying an appropriate accountant. Intellectually, the corridors were supermarket aisles, tinned thought. Politically, the corridors offered one brand, off-the-shelf, rightwing views”.
This passage sums up so much of life in Britain for the majority today, and our cultural phobia of any sort of experimentation, our fear of doing anything differently, of being different, of non-conformism. I well remember being told by my first boss that it would be a waste of time studying medieval history because ‘there are no jobs in it’ and I could ‘just be a plumber’; consciously choosing to do things differently threatens conventional order, and people fear what is unusual because it casts their own choices into doubt. Lo and behold, after a lot of hard work at univeristy, I found myself a job working with all the skills learned in my medieval history degrees. But the immediate reaction from some around me to try and put me off an unorthodox course has always stuck with me. Griffiths sets her account up as a rejection of convention, arguing that wildness, by its very nature is antithetical to all forms of convention.
By extension, civilisation as we know it, with its conventions, orders, rules and laws, is entirely opposed to the wild world, to nature itself. She encapsulates this brilliantly in a diatribe against golf courses: “Golf epitoises the tame world. On a golf course nature is neutered[…]golf turns outdoors into indoors, a prefab mat of stultified grass, processed, pesticided, herbicided, the pseudo-green of formica sterility.” Reading this, I thought how apposite and fitting it was that at the apex of power in our corrupted Western world, the complete embodiment of its moral bankruptcy, arrogance towards nature, its greed and mindless stupidity, sat Donald Trump, golf course purveyor in chief.
There is a huge amount to commend about Grifiths’ writing, yet I find some of her arguments less compelling than others. The key one of these for me is Griffiths’ almost insatiable desire to try to pin all the world’s problems on Christianity, chraracterising it as somehow anti-wild, and only ever a brutal force of missionary colonialism, forever doomed to exterminate indigenous cultures. The antipathy between ‘wild’ nomadic and ‘civilised’ settled peoples is not one that can be laid at Christianity’s door; it predates both Roman and Greek civilisation, and in fact can be found at play in both ancient Indian and ancient Chinese civilisations. Similarly, to dismiss Christianity as some anti-wild force is historically and culturally illiterate; Christianity is the faith of the Desert Fathers, who deliberately left what they saw as the corruptions of civilisation to find God, and peace, in the wilderness, as did the Cistercian monks and nuns of the Middle Ages. The removal of oneself from civilisation to find oneself in the wilderness is a continual motif of Christian thought; it is why, all across the globe, retreat centres thrive; it is just such a retreat into the wilds that all Christians commemorate in Lent.
Similarly Griffith’s characterization of Christians as only ever being brutal ‘murderous’ missionaries hell-bent on enslaving and destroying indigenous communities conflates one specific chapter of one specific culture of Christianity’s history with the entirety of a movement which encompasses Roman Catholicism, the five autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Abysinnian and Egyptian Coptic churches, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists; the list goes on; myriad cultures spread out across two millenia of human experience. It also completely fails to account for the heroic and inspirational example of men like Maximilian Kolbe, a man so entirely selfless that he volunteered to take the place of another prisoner in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and the countless millions of selfless and devoted individuals who have walked the earth before and since who aspire to such an example of love for their fellow man. It also, rather more pertinently, overlooks the fact that Christian lawyers and human rights activists are being threatened, intimidated, brutalised and murdered for standing up for the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly when those rights come into conflict with drug trafficking organisations or the oil lobby.
Finally, Griffiths’ caricature of Christianity, a convenient punchbag to which any evil can be ascribed without analysis, bears no resemblance to real Christianity at all. On the one hand Christianity is lambasted for its ideas that things can be ‘sinful’ and yet one of its most important proscriptions, in fact one of the deadliest sins, is overindulgence, over consumption, taking more than you need from mother earth. Christian leaders across the globe have been at the forefront of efforts to call for environmental protections for years, precisely because, to a Christian mind, regardless of which culture of Christianity you hail from, destruction of the environment which Man has been given specifically to protect for the benefit of all life, is utterly abhorrent. The idea that Christianity is somehow diametrically opposed to the preservation and respect for wilderness and wild spaces when its values are inherently anti-consumerist and anti-individualist, is foolhardy. It also flies in the face of the example of some of the greatest conservationists ever to have lived, such as John Muir (born a Scots Presbyterian) and Grey Owl (an Anglican). In one particularly hysterical rant Griffiths states, apparently triumphantly ‘but the Christian god will never win’ contrasting it to the supposed opposing virtues of the wild human spirit. In a world run by a megalomaniac like Donald Trump, I’d be really glad to see some victories for ‘love your neighbour,’ ‘love your enemy’ ‘be humble’ ‘don’t overconsume’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. But then Griffiths isn’t really dealing with Christianity, so much as she’s projecting all of her own pet peeves onto a safe target, labelling the result ‘Christianity’ and attacking that instead.
Blaming Christianity for all the world’s problems is very fashionable (especially in Britain) and to a large extent an acceptable prejudice at present. It’s also intellectually lazy and largely without justification. This is also particularly striking given how passionately Griffiths rails against an ‘intellectual apartheid’ that we’ve created in the West, in which, full of the conceit that literacy is the only true measure of education, we’ve tended as a society to place a disproportionate value on Western thinking, to the detriment of the cultures of indigenous peoples. It’s an argument I completely agree with, and one that’s dealt with succinctly in the context of medieval literacy by Matthew Clanchy in his excellent ‘From Memory to Written Record’. Given her passionate assault on the relative intellectual sterility of the West I find it surprising that in what comes across as a blinkered attack on Christianity (almost for having the temerity to exist) she effectively perpetuates one of the key strands of this apartheid.
One of the thoughts that struck me reading this book is how unfortunate it is that, as a species, by our very condition, we cannot help but despoil the wild as we attempt to advance our future. Much as I agree with Griffith’s passionate call for a defence of the wild, and believe that society would greatly benefit from a renewal of love and understanding for the natural world, some amount of depredation against nature is inevitable. Nature has currently given us as a species the opportunity to be the apex species of our planet, but it is a time-limited offer. For hundreds of millions of years prior to our ascension to the top of the pyramid, the dinosaurs reigned supreme, yet they never evolved the capacities to enable them to build a civilisation that could avert their eventual doom.
Nature has given us precisely the length of time it takes a six mile-wide object to be gravitationally perturbed from its position in the Kuiper Belt and hurtle onto a collision course with earth to make the most of our place at the top of the tree. We have until then to develop the technologies to avoid a catastrophic impact with our planet and so secure our future as a species.
Doing this of course requires the development of complex industries, specialisations of skills dependent upon finely-honed systems of learning, and the political will to make it happen. All of this inevitably extracts a price from nature, and I don’t think humanity can realistically live entirely at one with its wild roots and still prosper as a species longer than the dinosaurs did.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn to live in harmony with nature. We should make every effort to protect our wilderness and wild spaces, to encourage our children to love and revere them, and do all we can to pass down to our descendents as pristine a world as possible.
This book will delight you, fascinate you, challenge you, inspire you, and frustrate you in equal measure. Its flaws (and there are many) lend a quality to it, in the same way that all the most interesting characters in a good novel are the flawed ones. It’s a beautiful and evocative book, and it will make you want to head out to the wildest places you know and commune with nature. I’m glad I read it.