How to wild an environmental historian

Photo series showing vegetation

Editor’s note: This post is part of our new ‘Doing Environmental History’ series, in which contributors share their insights for engaging in the work of environmental history: from practicalities of research to pedagogy to big ideas about connection and collaboration.

In dappled light I balanced my hands on a large rock, pressed my palms into the dry moss covering it, and twisted my foot out from the wedge it had fallen into. Scenes from 127 Hours flashed in my mind. An overreaction in hindsight.

My foot had become stuck because of the forest. It had camouflaged a sizable gap between two boulders with a blanket of foliage that stretched and weaved over every surface as well as the air between. One distracted step as I tried to photograph a particularly beautiful lichen and I had momentarily lost my foot to the vegetative underworld. Once my leg and anxiety recovered, I continued photographing, taking stricter care — trying not to leave even footprints.

I had come to find a rainforest. It was an idea that formed out of Guy Shrubsole’s recent book The Lost Rainforests of Britain, in which he describes with awe and wonder the fragments of ancient oakwood hidden in plain sight around the UK.[1] The slither of rainforest I had found has been there since the Bronze Age, an intense dash of green across the desolate moor.

Author’s photograph of the Dartmoor landscape.
[Image Description: Photograph of verdant green landscape with low-growing vegetation, rocks, and trees in the distance. A bright blue sky is visible behind many clouds.]

After my adventure, which involved a long solo walk across Dartmoor, brief encounters with sheep and cows, far too many photographs of moss, and all expectations thoroughly met, I reflected on why I made the trip. It may have been because my research considers the idea of ‘biodiversity’, and what place is more biodiverse than a rainforest. Equally, it could have been an irresistible impulse to leave the daily routine behind — to wild myself; a process, articulated by George Monbiot, which allows one to ‘satisfy a curiosity for a richer, rawer life.[2]

But what does it mean to ‘wild’ yourself and how can it help us do environmental history? It could simply mean throwing yourself into unknown and enticing spaces defined as ‘wilderness.’ But this term is plainly problematic, infused with ideas of masculinity, romanticism, and oppression.[3] And even if you do venture out, as the titans of the discipline once suggested we do, ‘wilderness’ now seems impossible to find; the social constructions and anthropogenic architecture will present themselves audaciously. Environmental history has successfully reinvented nature.

The hunt for wild places and wild things is similarly fruitless.[4] We cannot, without concern and caveats, use the term ‘wild’ as a binary to describe beings or places. A ‘wild’ thing is whatever we make it.

‘Wildness’ is something different altogether. It is a state of being, a quality we can nurture. The term itself derives from early European words for ‘self-willed’ or ‘uncontrolled’, used in Middle English to describe plants that had escaped cultivation.[5] Perhaps this is the time for us to escape cultivation too. Instead of separating our world from the wilderness, Peter Taylor and his colleagues contend that building ‘wildness’ can create a “new consciousness; one that experiences the Earth, extends the quality of sentience”.[6] It allows us to see the astonishing in the everyday, to rediscover nature rather than fetishize or eulogize it.

To use Sjoukje Van der Meulen’s term, wildness could be built through ‘nestling’ into the ‘other worlds’ different from your own; to engage with different knowledges and contexts, and to remain open to infinite understandings and infinite embodied experiences of environments.[7] My ideal ‘wildness’ was somewhere far away from the urban maze of London or rolling hills of Surrey where I’ve called home. It was where I could be the sole visible representative of the human species, haphazardly negotiating my place within an unknown ecology dominated by other mammals and insects and plants and fungi. It was the wild of the rainforest. But what is wild to me is most likely another’s familiar — perhaps their daily dog walk. The rainforest of Dartmoor that spoke to me of ageless wisdom and vanishing ecologies was the place my Airbnb host nonchalantly ate lunch on warm days and trudged past on wet ones. She knew the rainforest well, she loved it more, and it was no longer wild to her.

After spending time with the rainforest, I began to imagine a world where the British Isles became a haven of moss-covered boulders and old man’s beard (Usnea longissimi). It was peaceful and alive. But conversations with Dartmoor locals were important reminders of the multifaceted, often tedious and frustrating human experiences of indifferent landscapes.[8] Seeing, as an example, the rainforest of Dartmoor both as a place of the extraordinary and one of the everyday might go some way to changing our approach to a field of history that has long privileged a particular type of immersion.[9] Instead of individually searching for the inaccessible and non-existent wilderness, ‘wildness’ encourages engagement with the multiple understandings of place. And to truly build up our quality of ‘wild’ we should actively embrace the paradoxes they reveal — the sublime and mundane, the comprehensible and the inexplicable, the accessible and inaccessible – as critical imaginings and material worlds that co-exist together. Importantly, we must celebrate our capacity as a community to experience both and treat both as equally valuable. The quality of ‘wild’ is personal, but it builds through collective experience.

My urban maze and rolling hills are calling to those who have not nestled into them yet, and I am sending out an appeal for new explorations: and, of course, if anyone wants to see a rainforest do let me know. We can swap our familiar landscapes and our places of adventure; it will turn us into all sorts of wild.


[1] Guy Shrubsole, The Lost Rainforests of Britain (London: William Collins, 2022).

[2] George Monbiot, Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life (Toront: Penguin Group, 2013).

[3] Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1995); Guha, Ramachandra. “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation. A Third World Critique,” Environmental Ethics, 11 (1989): 71-83; Robin, Libby. “Wilderness in a Global Age, Fifty Years On,” Environmental History, 19 (2014): 721–727.

[4] Ritvo, Harriet. “Species.” In Critical Terms for Animal Studies, edited by Lori Gruen (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2018); Swanson, Drew A. “Endangered Species and Threatened Landscapes in Appalachia: Managing the Wild and the Human in the American Mountain South,” Environment and History, 18 (2012): 35–60.

[5] Van Horn, Gavin, and John Hausdoerffer. Wildness: Relations of People and Place (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017); Haila, Yrjö. “‘Wilderness’ and the Multiple Layers of Environmental Thought,” Environment and History, 3 (1997): 129–147; Oxford English Dictionary Etymology.

[6] Peter Taylor et al. “Rewilding and Cultural Transformation: Healing Nature and Reweaving Humans Back into the Web of Life.” In Routledge Handbook of Rewilding, edited by Hawkins, Sally, Ian Convery, Steve Carver, and Rene Beyers (London: Routledge, 2022).

[7] Van der Meulen, Sjouke. “‘Situated Solidarity’: A New Curatorial Model for the European Nomadic Biennial?Art Margins; Nagar, Richa, and Susan Geiger. “Reflexivity and Positionality in Feminist Fieldwork Revisited,” Politics and Practice in Economic Geography (2007): 267-278.

[8] ‘Indifferent landscapes’ taken from Barry Lopez’s “Informed by indifference: A walk in Antarctica,” Harper’s Magazine, 276 (1988): 66-68.

[9] Sekulić, Ana. “Problems of Place: on Finding Self in Scholarship,” Environmental History Now (2021); Guasco, Anna. “Problems of Place: The Trouble With Fieldwork, or Troubling Embodiment,” Environmental History Now (2022).

Cover Image: Photo series by author of Dartmoor landscape and vegetation.
[Image Description: A photo series showing a close-up of moss or lichen on a branch; a rocky ravine with moss, ferns, and trees; and a close up of branch covered in dripping moss and leaves.]

Edited by Anna Guasco; reviewed by Emily Webster.

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