In 1991 I was the official photographer on a Raleigh International expedition to Alaska. For a long time I had dreamed of wilderness, and, as a result of my travels in the United States, of visiting Alaska. I had skiied in European mountain ranges, travelled and hiked in the South Island of New Zealand, and spent time in some of America’s great national parks. But I knew Alaska was different. In my imagination it had become a place of myth, the final frontier, the authentic American wilderness.
Through the life of the expedition my view of landscape and understanding of nature were changed. Conversations with fellow Raleigh expeditioners played a role, for as a group we were already outdoor enthusiasts primed to connect with the environment. More than that though, the experience of climbing, walking, standing – being – where no-one had been before, or at least left any trace, overwhelmed me beyond explanation.
Parts of Alaska are populated, and indeed Anchorage is a big city (even in 1991 it held half a million). But once off track the wilderness simply swallows you up. Vast territory, tiny population, little agriculture, modest forestry (relative to the area of forest), and oil and some fishing apart, not much industry.
Wild animals continue to thrive here, across hundreds of thousands of square miles, and we had numerous encounters. Of these only bears represent a real and present danger to adults; happily we failed to add to the long list of gruesome bear attack stories which are a staple conversation in Alaskan bars. Nevertheless the feeling that nature is visceral, beautiful, and also dangerous only added to the experience, especially for a group coming from the wild animal-hazard-free islands of Britain.
One day I wandered on a shallow hillside near the sea, on an island in Prince William Sound. In the far distance, snow-capped mountains rose from below the horizon. A small stream slipped between rocks and over mossy ground. Trees, plants, wildflowers prospered in the sub-Arctic summer, fed by sunlight and rain, arranged by nature, soil type, aspect and drainage. Every living thing had its place, a complex web of inter-relationships, balanced, evolved, moderated – created – by time in this unplanned garden. Not designed, effortless, a destiny unseen by humans, a sanctuary for wild creatures, a redemption for gods. Everything seemed and felt…right; and to my eyes at least, looked right. All that was growing had emerged since the retreat of the last glaciers, some of which still reached the sea not far away. If this was true wilderness it was also to my receptive imagination, a glimpse of the original paradise. Ever since, the two ideas have been indissolubly linked.
I now know my view was biased, speculative, long on ideals, short on insight, still to be matured by age. Since then I have thought more about what ‘original paradise’ might mean. And the lives our ancestors lived before the agrarian revolution, of hunter/gathering, may not have seemed like paradise at the time. Nevertheless, this when human beings lived in a sustainable way, as a part of nature. Today we have turned our backs on it, yet are still utterly dependent on natural resources to sustain our lives. I am not advocating a return to hunter/gathering. But the essence of the Alaskan experience was that the beauty of wild, undisturbed land had taken hold. I was hooked, a wilderness addict. In my mind, the very essence and meaning of life had been redefined, reset, recalibrated.
It was difficult to return home, holding these special experiences close to my heart, wanting to preserve that connection with the wild in some real way. In the years that followed, life went on, including most importantly the arrival of a family for me and Jenny. But in my view of the world the significance of wilderness has never diminished. Ever since I have tried to visit wilderness at least once a year; no easy task if your home is the UK and you are trying to reduce your carbon footprint. In my political view of landscape I remain an unreformed radical. It is always difficult for me to accept the over-worked, down-trodden degradation of Old World landscapes, the dominion of monoculture, the agri-chemical conformity, the treeless expanses of wheat, or rape… in regions of indigenous maritime rainforest such as Britain.
Still, I am British, grateful to live in a peaceful country that, undeniably, has wonderful landscape. This land has inspired artists, poets, composers and photographers for hundreds of years. The cycles of life and seasonal changes are a reminder of the amazing abundance and resilience of natural flora and wild creatures. The unpredictable weather provides an endless and enjoyable artistic challenge. While ecological damage continues (due to industry, urban sprawl and intensive farming) many schemes have successfully protected species, and habitats, and hundreds of campaigning organisations work hard to improve our landscape and ensure access so that it can be enjoyed and experienced by all. Woodland particularly is on the rise once again, with native trees being appreciated, protected and planted. This is the proper destiny for marginal landscapes, and provides habitat where wild animals and birds can be accommodated on our crowded island. All that is remarkable, and positive. But it cannot hide the fact that, as can be seen by the absence of all major predators, the UK has a compromised ecosystem in which we, the people, inevitably dominate.
Those inspirational months in Alaska, recycled into a form of restrained anger, still haunt and guide my critical observations of landscape. I know the reasons for wilderness retreat. The incredible waves of human migration and expansion that have populated all the most benign regions of the planet, pushing wild places to the margins. I know I am ‘part of the problem’.
Wilderness is to the educated urban elite a conceit, an irrelevance, an anachronism of Romanticism. I am familiar with the arguments, understand the philosophical foundations and humanist logic. But still, my intuitive self has drawn its conclusions and I am stuck with them. My heart feels there must be another way, where we cherish, respect, revere and protect all that is wild, all that is left. It may not be a matter of economics but it most certainly is a matter of soul. To preserve remaining wilderness, and to respect the rights of wild creatures for whom it is home is also to preserve our sense of what it means to be fully human, for now, and for all future generations.