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URBAN WILDERNESS - James E Garratt -

"In wildness is the preservation of the world," said Henry Thoreau in 1856 (1). His statement finds new relevance in the evolving concept of urban wilderness. For, by using the term 'wildness' (as opposed to, say, wilderness), Thoreau encompassed the free nature of any creative process: the elemental, unfettered mingling of energies from which life and hope are born. Today, with few oportunities to experience traditional 'wilderness,' people are seeking contact with natural wildness close to home, usually in urban parks, conservations areas and along city lakeshores. The quest for wildness is thus becoming, to some extent, an urban wilderness experience.

How does one obtain the urban wilderness experience? How to assess the potential for such experience in a given place? Some aspects can be measured: wildlife-viewing opportunities, species diversity, habitat variation, scenic qualities, historical/cultural associations... all are valid paramenters. But the nature of the experience remains elusive, always one step ahead of analysis. It follows, then, that the urban wilderness experience is accessible to anyone; the participant, not theory, helps define the experience in all its immediacy. However, certain forms and ingredients of the experience can be outlined.

All experience involves interaction. The urban wilderness experience can be said to require an almost seamless communication between an observer and environment. The apparently passive act of observing must become the key to full participation in that environment. The movement from passive to active observation occurs on behalf of the human participant through consequent learning and study, leading to understanding (not necessarily in a scientific sense). The environment, of course, is touching the observer a priori; by rediscovering this interaction as a living truth, the observer affirms his or her existence within the limitless spectrum of true wildness. By doing so, the observer begins to resolve a dilemma raised long ago by Izaak Walton (1676):

And for that I shall tell you, that in ancient times a debate hath arisen, (and it remains yet unresolved). Whether the happiness of man in this world doth consist more in Contemplation or action?(3)

A special intensity marks the urban wilderness experience; for the opportunities to 'go wild' are often fleeting. A working person may take a minute at lunch-hour to observe a tree, for instance. And the tree is not only seen, but dimensions of time, space, and the bonds with all Earth are glimpsed and shared as well. Instead of coffee, say, the observer is refreshed by the breadth of his/her wild heritage. Or returning home from work in evening, a person might see the moon rise over an urban skyline. The person, although apparently just 'watching,' recognizes a truth writ large in the moon's battered face: how, though possibly of violent, chaotic origin, the moon's materials have settled into a sphere - sign of an overarching way in nature. Watching the moonrise reaffirms an intimate connection with Earthly life. Serenity is given by the fore-knowledge of creative rhythms sustained through any comprehensible measure of time.

The urban wilderness experience is not limited to brief interludes. During holidays and before or after-hours the urban observer can find 'stolen days' of immersion in wildness. As S.T. Wood says in Rambles of a Canadian Naturalist (1916):

A suburban ramble will always disclose, in the margin of forest life which seems to have escaped between the builder on the one side and farmer on the other, enticing little spots...

And those "little spots,"

Almost within the street car and pavement radius, the whole growing year, from the first revival of spring life till the white coverlet is spread over the sleeping earth, may be enlivened by the beauty in which the great world renews her youth. (4)

The whole year is in season for the urban observer. Each month brings its characteristic yet always changing cast of plants, birds, insects... These "spots" or 'islands' within the city are in a sense portals. For why confine observation to a given level of integration - individual or species? Why deal only in surfaces or the 'sixty second news break'? The urban observer's awareness is invited outward without limit; he or she inhabits the wholeness of the universe.

It is the expansive perception of truth, always current in life but often denied by the infrastructures of contemporary society, that forms the heart of the 'what' of urban wilderness experience. And here we come to a certain qualification for the urban wilderness experience.

An observer's appreciation of urban wilderness seems dependent upon having a criterion. The observer must refer, perhaps subconsciously, to a standard of comparision. This criterion, or perspective, can best be obtained from the hinterlands (vicariously through books, etc?). Urban wilderness, both for itself and the observer, is predicted upon the existence of the vast northern wilderness (and perhaps, too, the frontiers of space). This hinterland wilderness replenishes all; its existence validates the urban experience. For instance, Malcolm MacDonald says in The Birds of Brewery Creek (1947):

I wonder how many inhabitants of Ottawa realize that more than 170 species of birds can be found during the year in a small area on the edge of the city. (5)

Many of those birds were stopping on their way to northern nesting grounds. Oases of urban wilderness provide essential, traditional links in the ebb and flow of life. Perhaps the most graphic evidence of urban wilderness continuity with the hinterland is seen in urban valley systems. No city is more blessed with ravine and valleylands than Toronto. River valleys such as the Humber and Rouge fan northward. They convey fresh water and oxygenated air into the city; they are also long-established corridors for wildlife travel. Deer, wolves and even moose arrive in the city from the hinterland via the valleys. The vallerys are conduits of wildness. Charles Sauriol, original champion of urban wilderness, confirms this when he hints at his own experience in A Beeman's Journey (1984):

To paraphrase Thoreau, I traveled far in the Don Valley. (6)

This continuity of urban with hinterland wilderness is another link to the universal truth of wildness.

It remains to elaborate further on the why of urban wilderness experience. Why are people willing to endure the sometimes extremes of heat, cold, rain, snow, bugs, early-risings... in short, to meet the challenges of life in order to experience wildness? The discovery of those previously mentioned infinite links suggests an answer. People want to know that those bonds are unbroken. They sense that cities such Chicago and Detroit become lifeless and die at their hearts when severed from the sustaining, fresh flow of nature's wildness. With this realization, another resolution may occur in the Waltonian contradiction of 'contemplation and action.' Equipped by observation, people may be moved to act in other arenas (ie. politics) to prepetuate or make available through rehabilitation the urban wilderness experience (7). But is the observer then acting out of self-interest alone? Or is this a direction contained in wildness itself - an answer to why, a yes to life arising from the whole Earth (thus validating Thoreau's famous statement)?

One aspect is certain. Time is a palatable part of the urban wilderness experience: rooted in the most distant past, preparing for the future, living in the present. The future is graspable within the context of living nature. Impressed by the vitality of the past in each present moment, the observer knows that as long as nature's wildness is here to experience, the observer too will be part of all time.


1. This statement first appeared in Thoreau's lecture entitled "Walking" which he delivered a number of times in the 1850s. The date referred to is 18 December 1856 in Amherst, New Hampshire.

2. The Toronto Region Conservation Authority, for instance, reports a sixty percent increase in use of urban parks over the past decade.

3. Walton, Izaak and Cotton, Charles, The Compleat Angler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982 edition of 1676 text), p. 39.

4. Wood, S.T., Rambles of a Canadian Naturalist (London: J.M. Dent, 1916), p.5.

5. MacDonald, Malcolm, The Birds of Brewery Creek (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p.5.

6. Sauriol, Charles, A Beeman's Journey (Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History Publishers, 1984), p. 41. Sauriol alludes, of course, to Thoreau's ironic comment in Walden: "I have traveled a good deal in Concord..."

7. Unique to the concept of urban wilderness is the possibility of rehabilitating and reclaiming disturbed areas. Polluted streams can be cleaned, trees can be planted, species can be re-introduced.


Copyright James E Garratt

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