The northern lights shine at night over the snow covered hills.

Wilderness and the imagination

Jenny Kingsley is a good friend of mine. And she has just fulfilled an important requirement in her Masters of Fine Arts: she just defended her thesis. It’s not a thesis like the sort we often think of when we think of Master’s degrees. It’s a fine arts program in the department of creative writing.

So Jenny wrote a manuscript. Her genre, very broadly, is creative nonfiction. Yup, that’s right. It’s nonfiction, written artfully. Think documentary but executed with enough thoughtfulness, attention to audience and writing talent, that you might be interested in it even if it’s not about your personal weekend hobby.

Jenny has written about the arctic and her journeys there. She is, among other things, an expert paddler. As it stands, it is an unfinished manuscript, although I have no doubt that she will find a publisher. I know this because I had the pleasure of attending her defense and while I haven’t actually read the manuscript, I have listened, carefully, to those that have.

I was delighted to discover that much of the challenge of writing such a book is in telling stories about the wilderness with integrity.1 This has been on my mind lately. Many conservation organizations choose to focus on the charismatic megafauna like the baby seals, grizzly bears and bald eagles, in their public communications. From a public relations stand point I totally get this. Humans that lack biological training, after all, have more compassion, emotional connection and willingness to act on behalf of elk than they do for invisibly small fungus and such.

But at least one concern is that while these public relations strategies make sense on an individual basis, there may be an aggregate affect of these campaigns on the public’s imagination. Over the course of forty years of saving whales, could it be that we’ve constructed a lopsided, incomplete, and too simplistic image of the wilderness we’re trying to protect?2

Now this was not exactly the centre of Jenny’s defense. Well, maybe it was. It was certainly on the minds of the committee members. These academics were, in moments, shall we say, disappointed, by the portrayals of wilderness by some authors and organizations. And it seemed to me that they spent the majority of their time during her defense pressing on Jenny to justify her literary decisions in this regard.

And while Jenny has been very cognizant of these, well, literary obligations, she was broaching them a slightly different angle. It seemed to me that the challenge occurred to Jenny as a challenge to shake readers out of our common and cliche conceptions of arctic wilderness and human experience there in. Maybe my reading of this is clouded by my experiences doing communications work. But as an author (or a brand manager) nothing is scarier than the preconceived ideas that folks have about your topic (or industry or company). People jump to conclusions, they pigeon hole, they try to know you. And then they fit you, and your topic, into a tiny little box. And then they pat your head and say good girl. All of this is tolerable if it’s an acceptable little box. But it’s an absolute nightmare if it’s a box that you really hate.

Of course there is a certain amount of this that is about ego, and about rejecting a mainstream view, and about distrusting the public, and about underestimating your reader, and about dismissing others as ignorant, and about repositioning yourself in the marketplace of ideas, and about dismissing your competition or those that have gone before you. But this is also about trying to see the world as new; about making the world new.

See, in academic jargon, the wilderness is, arguably, a human construction.3 Wilderness is a human concept. Sounds crazy to some. Many would just prefer to say that human stories about the wilderness are human stories, and that human experience of the wilderness is human experience and that human thoughts about the wilderness are human thoughts. Most folks would also prefer to say that the wilderness is still real even if we can only ever think of it, while we’re thinking of it. No big deal. We don’t need a Ph. D. to acknowledge this. And we don’t need a bunch of “quotation marks” everywhere. We don’t need to refer to other people’s ideas of wilderness as “wilderness” and we don’t need to arbitrarily dream up strained cognates of this word (wyld?), and start using them instead. I do, however, like the use of the word “wild.” And, like any philosopher, I love a good distinction.

And, admittedly, it’s easy to forget that our understanding of wilderness, is just an understanding. I’ll conspicuously switch to the first person here, so I don’t offend my reader’s intelligence. Sometimes I forget that the things I think I know are just things I think I know. And sometimes I forget that the thoughts I have about the arctic wilderness are just thoughts. This is a pretty common trap for me. 4

Jenny, luckily, has escaped relatively unscathed by these academic madnesses.5 Her genre actually depends on the concept of truth. And so, nonfiction, even creative nonfiction, actually has to work and give meaning and shape to the slippery concepts of truth, integrity, and representation.6

Plus, she’s a solid story teller, a disciplined writer, a great humourist, and someone willing to earn her moments of emotionally heightened story telling. And she’s willing to talk politics, gender and privilege. Like, she’s willing to actually talk about it. Good work, Jenny.

  1. This is a challenge of writing a book on wilderness but also of defending it in an academic context.
  2. Actually, I don’t think so. I think environmentalists have pushed our business culture to deeper and broader understandings of the natural world – but it’s a fun polemic!
  3. This is not the case for all academics. This is also not the case for Jenny Kingsley. But in the humanities, and in the postmodern milieu that we find ourselves in, this is mostly the case.
  4. Of course, I also wrote a thesis centred around these debates about knowledge. Nonetheless I’m thankful to the academics, in particular, the post-modern folks that press on me to really grapple with just how much stuff I make up about the world all of the time and just how my modernist sensibilities result in such things as holocausts, colonialism and environmental destruction. Thank you.
  5. I am constantly surprised by my own academic training to find fault and to make criticism: in keeping with this training, I had one notable impulse of this kind during Jenny’s defense. At one point during her defense, Jenny said that folks that get to work and play in the wilderness are privileged. This is a partial truth, and I’m sure that she was referring to wilderness guides and folks that have the privilege to choose to work in the wild. But as I looked around the room at her defense, I saw a bunch of mostly white, middle class folks who made little outward acknowledgement of those working class folks for whom the wild is actually a place of risk, dreary monotony, and disconnect from community and family. That said, they did speak to the notion of entitlement, and Jenny has included the word “middleclass” into her preface. And since Jenny had to draw lines somewhere, I’m sympathetic with her choices. Nonetheless, the lack of attention to this issue, at her defense, left me wanting more. This is no longer a footnote! And this is probably worth another post, and it’s something I want to return to. I see this as a recurring challenge for environmentalists who want to actually connect with the outdoor-working working class.
  6. So too, does the genre of fiction, give meaning to the notions of truth and representaion, although, I believe, in less direct ways.

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  1. Hurrah for Jenny.

    And dude, I’m totally using the word “wyld” now. ^1

    1. In regards to your sub-post, finding ways to connect and someone forge common cause with people who work in the wyld is a challenge that seems to bedevil the environmental sector. They know how politically necessary it is, and most of the time there actually *are* entirely legitimate overlaps in purpose between the city greenies and the rural carhartts. But boy do environmentalists have a hard time with it. Maybe they need to learn to tell stories about the wyld that recognize that other perspective.

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