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24 July 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 2:51pm

Working at a steelworks, I realised a sense of wilderness is crucial in our busy, urban culture

By John Burnside

Forty years ago, I got a job at Corby steelworks, where my father had been employed for over a decade. Assigned to the plug mill, I was charged with scouring each hot, newly formed tube with a burst of pressurised air, before guiding it on to the cooling rack, taking care to ensure that it didn’t fall on to the conveyor at a dangerous angle, as one rogue tube did during my first week, a 20-foot bolt of hot steel flying high into the roof space before crashing down, just inches from where I stood.

That mishap was enough to teach me the only thing I really needed to know on that job: that attention is everything.

Luckily, the gaps between one production batch and the next were fairly long. When I got into the rhythm of the place, I learnt when it was permissible to go and stand by the back door, gazing out into the wide blue night, breathing the cool air and allowing my body to surrender to the pull of the distance beyond the yards; a far field that, without a doubt, was partly imagined but was also real in ways that I could not have explained to anyone else: a windy hinterland between the industrial edge of town and some primeval wilderness beyond the usual maps.

There are those who believe that some sense of that wilderness, even if it is mostly imagined, is essential to our retaining our humanity in a world that is, for most town and city dwellers, overly mechanical and far too busy. In a way, it doesn’t matter what that wild world out there is like: it could be forest, or tundra; it could be ocean. It could be on hand, a wide meadow at the end of a deep lane; it could be a day’s walk away.

What matters is that there is something, some space, where the mind can wander free, encountering the fauna, real or imagined, with whom we share this earth, and the elements that shape that shared terrain. Ideally, we could go there from time to time, to bear witness to its wonders; though some would argue that, unless that journey into the wild involves a considerable amount of walking, it might be better foregone in favour of the active imagination that every child is born with, and fights to retain, all through the trials of a modern education.

What matters in the end is simply that it is there. Its mere presence, and the quality of the responses it invokes in us, is central to a meaningful life.Whether woods, plains, or marshlands; rivers, sandbanks, or alpine meadows – what matters is that something is there, undamaged, if not quite untouched.

A culture that loses its sense of a wilderness, both beyond its careful maps and inside each human psyche, becomes dull, dishonest and inclined more to easy and entertaining fantasy than to the liberating flight of imagination. It may be, however, that we have entered an age (now rather glibly referred to as the “Anthropocene”) in which the only way to preserve that necessary space is to withdraw, deliberately and systematically, so that the woods can reclaim their footing. We need to use less, to let be, to stand back. We need to make space for the other creatures to flock and swarm and shoal and prosper.

This world has never been as beautiful as it was in that former time when the known terrain dwindled, at the edge of the map, to a wild space bearing the warning, and the promise, that “here be monsters”. Those monsters may never have been ours, but it is hard not to feel that we lose them at our peril. 

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

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This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation