JWilderness is generally thought of as an environment that opposes human culture – a large geographic ecosystem that has not been significantly modified or influenced by human activity. It is precisely for this reason that humans tend to idealize it from a distance, relishing in a notion of wilderness that is often limited to beautiful or sublime surroundings.
In my book, When I Sing, Mountains Dance, I challenged myself to present a territory (a region of the Pyrenees) using the voices and perspectives of all those who live there or pass through it. People, but also non-human beings, folkloric and mythological characters who take over the telling of the story. The narrative is woven through the speculative voices of a deer, a dog, mushrooms, ghosts, water spirits, storm clouds, and even a layer of local geologic strata.
In line with this, I would like to offer an approach to wilderness in literature that transcends that of passive landscape or backdrop of mesmerizing beauty and instead appreciates it as an active entity. An approach that aims to question the concept, to question its contradictions and to question our relationship to spaces that we take for wild. Or, conversely, one who understands wild nature to such a depth that he can only respect its wild, free and even dangerous nature.
1 Lost in the Taiga by Vasheand Peskov
This book chronicles the relationship the author established with the Lykovs, a family that had survived in complete isolation deep in the Russian taiga for more than 40 years. Peskov recounts their struggle to survive in the extreme conditions of the taiga, which often contrasts with the cheerfulness they feel as they go about their daily lives, despite the doubt that the disparity between their life choices and the orientation of the civilization awakens in them.
2 The Independents by Halldór Laxness
Laxness’s novel focuses on Bjartur of Summerhouses, a poor early 20th-century Icelandic farmer who maintains an isolated farm on the edge of a vaguely habitable world that isn’t. Wilderness here becomes Bjartur’s nemesis and the book focuses on what this violent struggle for survival and sanity in an inhospitable and cruel landscape can do to the human soul.
3 Death in the Spring of Mercè Radoreda
Mercè Rodoreda’s darkest novel is set in an undetermined time and is set in a remote, nameless mountainous region, where a village is surrounded by danger; the “caramens” – creatures no one has ever seen – or the pounding of a fierce river that threatens to wash away homes. The townspeople are ruled by primitive, nightmarish laws and rituals. The surroundings of this village are unforgiving, but such ferocity pales in comparison to human cruelty.
4 Brian Catling’s Vorrh
Vorrh, in Catling’s The Vorrh trilogy, is a very ancient forest, so ancient that it is believed to be home to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve wander with cyclops and cannibals (cannibals who lure humans deep into the forest with buckets of water and food). This forest is in itself an entity that has sentience and perhaps even willpower, and it rejects the presence of humans by driving them mad.
5 Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Moving to impossible deserts, here is an architectural one. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke summons a world of endless interior halls filled with sculpture, with open skies and tidal floods. As with The Vorrh, prolonged stay in the halls seems to have a crippling psychological effect on humans. As Piranesi, its ever-joyful main character, writes: “May your paths be sure, your floors unbroken, and the House fill your eyes with beauty.”
6 Leaf House by Mark Z Danielewski
Here’s another ready-made wilderness story. On Ash Tree Lane, there’s a house that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. In this one, endless corridors and gray stairways howl and change constantly, even treacherously, with the ultimate intention of misleading you. Those who venture there do so as explorers would, with rope, supplies, torches and cameras. The house defies logic and physics with its constant expansion, which on another level becomes an almost unmanageable mass of text in which we as readers could also get lost.
7 Teddy Bear Patriarchy by Donna Haraway
This is a great short read to appreciate how most concepts around nature and wilderness are constructed in Western thought and culture. Donna Haraway reflects on the history of the American Museum of Natural History, and its founders, patrons, presidents, and chief scholars, to understand how the inner liners of natural history and natural science are not the disciplines innocent, neutral and harmless as they appear to be, but rather, they are intrinsically linked to a historic ruling class that has imprinted its prejudices and strong political agenda into the foundations of the institution.
8 Savage by George Monbiot
Feral is a collection of essays and thoughts on rewilding. Rewilding is, in essence, an initiative that promotes ecological restoration by inviting humans to step back and leave an area to its own natural development – or culturally to its own ruin and decay – as opposed active surveillance and control over natural resources. In the context of impending ecological disasters and endemic greenwashing, the insights, case studies and first-person experiences that Monbiot shares in this book in terms of what can be done about the retreating wilderness, it’s like a breath of fresh air.
9 How many of these hills is gold by C Pam Zhang
Wilderness in the context of historic North American wide open spaces has primarily been explained through white male voices and typically focuses on macho white characters. As a result, the collective imagination associated with that time and place often ignores and obliterates other viewpoints in this white-centric American West. In How Much of These Hills Are Worth Gold, Zhang tells a story of endurance and survival during the California Gold Rush from the perspective of Lucy, a young Chinese girl. Lucy’s lyrical and immersive voice invites the reader to reflect on the stories that have been told from this time period and setting and those that have been overlooked.
ten Land of Fire by Sylvia Iparraguirre
This book begins with a quote from Melville’s Moby-Dick: “As for me, I am tormented with an eternal itch for distant things.” In Iparraguirre’s historical novel, John William Guevara, son of an English soldier and a Creole mother, tells the story of Jemmy Button, an Amerindian from the Yámana people in Cabo de Hornos who was forcibly brought in London by Vice-Admiral Robert Fitz-Roy, along with other Fuegians, in order to assimilate them into British culture. This story allows Iparraguirre to construct a reflection from the point of view of those who inhabit this supposed remoteness and to return to those who have had the “itch” to explore, and therefore to tame, name and destroy what they considered to be savage and uncivilized.
When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Solà, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, is published by Granta (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.