I am constantly redefining what wilderness means to me. At some points in my life, it has been an undefined vision. Wilderness is a feeling, some lofty goal, instead of a physical reality. At some points I have questioned its very existence — if people have walked on all parts of the earth, is there anything wild left? At other times, I have seen it as a placeholder, a shorthand for the unknown that changes rapidly as we learn more about our environments.
The word “wild” exists to directly oppose the word “civilized,” and for much of my life I saw wilderness as the opposite of inhabited. To my early teenage self, wilderness meant isolation from people, a landscape of nature and nothing else. Since then I have questioned western civilization as a standard for human relationship with the natural world. If Indigenous people never saw this selfsame land, this wilderness, as wild, then who said it was? And for what reason?
In 2018 I moved to western Finland to pursue an education in outdoor recreation and guiding. Scandinavia is on a vastly different physical scale than the United States. While the far north of Finland, Sweden, and Norway are sparsely populated, the proximity to civilization is never quite erasable. If you climb almost any hill in the fells you can get enough cell service to call in emergency help. If you are in the middle of nowhere and walk in a straight line, you will find a road in a few days at most. Still, the concept of friluftsliv — outdoor living and recreation — is hugely popular.
So does outdoor recreation have anything to do with proximity to civilization? And if so, does outdoor recreation have anything to do with wilderness?
I spend a lot of time thinking about why the outdoor industry looks the way it does. Why do films about climbing so often center a man or a group of men who are supposedly pushing boundaries? Why are the terms “explore,” “conquer,” and “discover” so prevalent when we talk about the outdoors? These terms are callbacks to colonialism and the so-called Age of Discovery.
It is common knowledge that Indigenous peoples have lived in the lands that the outdoor industry claims to discover and explore. Why is the narrative of a solitary man so often retold, when my experience is that the outdoors are deeply rooted in community?
I do not have answers to these questions. I can barely phrase these questions in a way that does not frustrate me. What I do have is a series of discomforts with a thread through them, hinting at a bigger picture I cannot yet see.
Nature is a web of interconnected creatures that rely on one another to exist. People are a part of that tapestry. Pretending that one person’s connection to the wilderness, especially an able-bodied white man, is the pinnacle of connection to the outdoors is incorrect and harmful to many.
In my experience, wilderness — as it is taken to mean ‘a place without people’ — lets us see that life exists, thrives, and has rules outside of what we call civilized. It helps us understand that civilization is superimposed.
Perhaps we cannot settle on a good definition for wilderness because it is an inherently subjective concept, and no words or experiences we pin to it can change that. Growing up, my definition of wilderness expanded as I traveled farther north each year. Its subjectivity became clear as I saw one landscape I had called wild was tame in comparison to a new and less inhabited area.
Yet just because that definition changed for me does not mean it changed for anyone else. If I saw the wilderness in the north of Canada, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest humans, that doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t see it in their backyard.
When she’s not outside, Ebba Safverblad-Nelson (she/her) can be found with a hot drink and a book. She currently lives in Grand Marais, where she works as a wilderness guide.