Wilderness and Wasteland: The Challenge of Perspective
It was a scene of post-apocalyptic devastation. Enormous grey shapes moved quickly across the land in a haphazard formation, sucking up air in front of them and spitting dark columns of moisture out behind, like an invading army of alien vacuums. White horses darted across dark tracts of water, marshalled by a fierce wind that forced them on in irregular undulations. Brown land rose defensively out from the sea, mountainous peaks clad grey with cloud and white with snow, a wilderness and a wasteland.
Wester Ross, in Scotland’s north-west highlands, houses some of the country’s finest scenery. It is bleak, remote, barren and raw, scoured by fierce winds off the Atlantic and drenched in rain on two days out of three. It also contains what is often referred to as Scotland’s ‘Great Wilderness’, a large tract of land and loch into which no roads penetrate.
The hinterland before me was undoubtedly striking; the landscape ever changing as sun and showers clashed with prismatic brilliance. Snow-capped peaks shrouded in mist for several hours would occasionally flash like beacons, their bright summits suddenly exposed for all to see. The light danced in speckled shades of brown and red as cloud and shadow raced across the hill-sides. I could understand why people were captivated by this place and the raw, natural power it communicated.
But it also conveyed a different message, one at odds with this image of wildness. It was a wasteland: monotonous and devoid of life, a wet desert.
In many ways it was more a vision of man’s power over the natural world, than of nature’s power over man. Yet even the human histories were hard to see, the cultures and societies of centuries past extinct and long forgotten.
The Scottish Highlands were romanticised by Victorian poets and authors, most notably Sir Walter Scott, gaining the patronage of Britain’s monarchs in this era too. Such influences quickly reformed public opinion to view these bleak landscapes as picturesque, their modern emptiness as wild rather than tragic. But now the tide of that opinion is starting to turn once again.
New ecological ideas, and awareness of what the landscape could be, call into question the morality of letting the status quo persist. Should we stand by when ‘wasteland’ could be rainforest? Can we justifiably beseech less developed countries to protect their pristine habitats when we will not restore our own? Is there any way the land can benefit local people more? How best can we safeguard against climate change?
Bold solutions to these problems have ranged from mass reforestation to reintroducing wolves.
But who should decide? What should they decide? Does it really matter? For some people it is wasteland, for others wilderness; is it actually important that we achieve consensus? Whatever is decided will be decided for human conscience. It will be the product of contemporary opinions, certain to change over time.
The landscape itself will remain indifferent, the weather inclement, the juxtaposition of loch, sea and mountain imposing and grand.
[This essay was entered into the National Geographic Traveller Magazine’s ‘Travel Writing Competition 2016’ – Word limit 500 words.]