From the Back Catalogue: Wild Things

First of an occasional blog series that revisits books from the WHP back catalogue, William Beinart introduces his co-edited (with Simon Pooley and Karen Middleton) collection, Wild Things: Nature and the Social Imagination. (2013: ISBN 978-1-874267-75-1 (HB) £65.00/€75.00/$95.00; ISBN 978-1-874267-93-5 (PB) £25.00/€33.00/$40.00)

Wild Things includes a substantial introductory essay and eleven chapters addressing cultural aspects of environmental history, focussing on different social imaginations about nature from across Britain and Europe, North America, the Caribbean and Africa.

The natural world has been central not only to human survival and subsistence but to human culture.  Folk narratives and stories fundamental to many societies featured elements of nature and non-human actors.  Natural environments played key roles in the extraordinarily diverse everyday cultural lives that have evolved around finding food and shelter. In the religious sphere animals have acted as symbols and metaphors for the divine, as well as objects of worship and a means for communication with gods through sacrifice.  Particular places, such as forests, groves and mountains have long been instilled with sacred status.  Landscapes and animals have been important subjects of art and literature across most human societies.  The natural environment has informed national identity, from Rome’s wolf-mother to the British oak and, as Lauren Derby argues in her chapter, the eating of earth in Haiti. Our collection explores such cultural representations of nature.  

The chapters focus on the way that  people have imagined and experienced nature over the last couple of centuries.   Western people have lived in increasingly urban-industrial contexts, mesmerised by people-centred religions and ideologies, and gradually more distant from daily interaction with nature, wild places and wild animals. Yet human culture was not entirely subsumed in obsession with the human condition.  There were frequent counterflows and nature remained a central concern.  Industrialisation stimulated not only modern conservationism, and new ways of seeing natural environments, but also new technologies for representing nature. This collection includes essays on popular illustrated literature, photography, film and tourism – all important vehicles for social imaginations of nature.  Karen Jones tells the story of ‘hunting with the camera’ in the Rocky Mountains. The popular culture of modern environmentalism was deeply influenced by this increasingly global visual imagination. 

Wild animals, especially predators, instilled fear in many societies. Simon Pooley illustrates how representations of crocodiles in expert and popular literature combined with local controversy about riverine deaths in South Africa to provoke fear and loathing and calls for their extermination.  Similar sentiments sometimes helped to seal the fate of wolves, coyotes and bears in other parts of the world.  More often, perhaps, nature served symbolically for more benign forces.  Raymond Williams posited that in the British imagination, the countryside represented ‘a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue’.  For American environmentalists also, from Henry David Thoreau to Aldo Leopold, nature was a benign force, a world of moral order, an antidote to excessive commodification where everything had a price. Nature lovers sought wilderness as an escape from crowded cities.

The western idea of wilderness has been sharply criticized as justifying the  appropriation of other people’s land – excluding and marginalizing indigenous people who had helped to shape the environments that became treasured by conservationists.  This line of thinking has produced a more accurate history of wildernesses and been a valuable corrective to any notion of empty lands.  It has contributed to some recognition of the rights of indigenous and local people to land that they once occupied.  Yet there is an argument to be made for the value of concepts of wilderness, of wild places and wild things as positive, exciting and universal notions.  These ideas and images are in common usage, and we can explore their complex history; this is an important purpose of this collection.

Illustration from Johannes Zechner’s chapter

Wilderness shaped by people can also inspire.  In his chapter on images of German forests in popular literature, Johannes Zechner shows them perceived both as forbidding but as central to some versions of national identity.  Tyler Cornelius explores the Columbia river as a carrier of elemental forces, a threat to human civilization and order, but also as an exciting and treasured landscape.  (See images below)

The restoration of wilderness and ‘rewilding’ is now being offered as a public good.

Images from Tyler Cornelius’ chapter

A further cluster of papers focusses on animal histories.  Sometimes, as in Andy Flack’s chapter on Bristol Zoological Gardens, animals were captives, forcibly extracted from habitats spanning the globe and translocated to feed the curiosity of  urban citizens.  Sometimes, as Daniel Allen illustrates in his chapter on otters in Britain, they were mercilessly hunted.  Yet animal histories also provide a framework to give agency to non-human species, and even individuals: William Beinart explores the way that animals became ‘actors’ – as well as game – in Hollywood films made in East Africa.   

Contributions to this volume also develop ideas about landscape, memory and identity.  Around 1800, influential German-speaking intellectuals increasingly ascribed political meanings to the silvicultural sphere. ‘German Forest’ and ‘German Oak’ grew to epitomize the imagined nature of the nation. Karen Middleton’s chapter focusses on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar where trees also became linked with nationalism after independence in 1960.  

Image from Karen Middleton’s chapter

Amy Halliday analyses a South African photographer who has captured different social identities by juxtaposing people and livestock. In the final chapter, Sven Mesinovic discusses how scientists envisaged futuristic worlds under water and in outer space.

Image from Amy Halliday’s chapter

Our chapters suggest that the diversity of social imaginations about nature has not diminished in urban society.  New technologies, especially visual technologies, have multiplied the ways in which humans can see and interpret the natural world, even when they have little direct experience of ‘wilderness’. Imagined wildness can form part of modernity and protect something of a world that stands a little apart from all-consuming human dominance.  In sum, it is important that we discover how humans have imagined nature, and think about new ways of doing so, as a route to creating space for other species and a natural world.


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