Thank you Side View at http://viewfromtheside.wordpress.com/ for another stunning weekend challenge: this time, not a theme, but a photograph…

We are not accustomed to vast open spaces here in England.

There is a well-worn feeling, even, to our national parks. The tracks are well trodden by affable English people out on well-organised hikes, and the advent of mountain bikes means our deer must share their wild meandering runs with blokes sporting helmets crashing through the undergrowth on wheeled things.

The Lakes and the Peaks and the Moors are all well mapped and over-visited. For we are on an island, and when the land stops the sea starts.

Anyone knows you cannot build on sea. We have 50,000 square miles, and that’s our lot. We must use our land and reserve the tamed wild spaces which still remain to us.

Before our kids, there were computer games, and Phil loved one above all others. It is called ‘Civilisation’, conceived by a gentleman called Sid Meier. And in it, you play God.

Consider: an Englishman’s greatest dream. Acres upon acres of undeveloped cyberwilderness, waiting for a civilising influence.

Phil, Reader, was that influence.

He would start in 4000 BC. Gradually he would use the game to build small primitive hamlets into huge cities: every now and then an alert would pop up saying something like: “You have discovered fire”. He might be offered the alphabet, or the wheel, or pottery.

Sometimes other civilisations would interfere and compete: and if he was good enough, Phil could bring his cyberempire right up to the present day, discovering nuclear fission and space flight.

He loved to take land from wilderness to metropolis.

Me, I love that ‘used and worn’ feeling that goes with an over-used piece of ground. The antithesis of wilderness. Perhaps, Reader, that is why I fell in love with the city of New York.

I have only spent five days of my two-score-years-and-some on the island of Manhattan. And what riveted my attention, right from the start, was the journey this little island had taken from those days, back in 1640, when it was largely an arable landscape.

Eric Homberger’s Historical Atlas of New York City tells the story of a civilisation through a series of carefully researched maps.

As I browsed the shelves in a New York bookstore, I found in its pages the beginnings of the settlement of New Amsterdam.

In 1625 Johan De Laet described what was there: “The land is excellent and agreeable, full of noble forest trees and grape vines, and nothing is wanting but the labour and industry of man to render it one of the finest and most fruitful lands in that part of the world…”

The book contains a modern map created from sources of the time of land use in 1664. Oh, the charm: a city wall and a tiny settlement with a tavern; land parcelled into small pockets belonging to people with names like Cornelius Aertzen and Abraham Verplanck.

There is a common abutting the Dutch West India Company’s farm and way uptown a “Kalck” or collect pond. There is a windmill. And in between, Reader, there is land: green, green space waiting for history to happen.

What happened to the comparative wilderness between then and now is as well trodden a path as the New York streets themselves. This island sat in a unique location, and wharves and docks sprang up on the East River, named after the merchants who built them: Cruger’s, Hunter’s, Burnet’s and Lyons’, Schermerhorns, Livingstone’s and Ellison’s.

By 1769 the streets west of Broadway were laid out. New York weathered the American Revolution badly: one native returning in 1789 called the city: “a neglected place built chiefly of wood, and in a state of prostration and decay…”

But the wharves defined the city. Business and commercial interests were never down for long. Wall Street and Broadway were given a facelift as the city became a key financial centre.

And in 1806 came the death knell to wilderness. A four-year commission laid out a simple grid of rectangular lines to modernise and extend the city, in line with plans formulated by the city’s surveyor, Casimir Goerck.

The grid was all-powerful. It obliterated forever the old paths, farms, waterways, marshes and houses. The metropolis, whatever one has to say about how well its design was planned, was here to stay.

Of course, all civilisation can falter, as Rome showed us so effectively.

There are many literary pictures of dystopia: the degeneration of a civilisation. But a very English vision is contained amongst the pages of PD James’s The Children Of Men.

It’s an ingenious plot: infertility rises until one day, there arrives a final generation: the Omegas. The country’s functions: law and order, social care and legislation- become shrunk until they are draconian and inhuman.

I remember one scene above all others: like Orwell, James says most when she is observing the detail of downfall.

It is in a beautiful old church where a Vicar is struggling to keep a semblance of routine. A deer has found its way into the place of God: and it runs around, the Vicar ineffectually trying to expel it.

But the wilderness is returning. And what a powerful image James chooses. It is not threatening; not cruel.

Wilderness is simply the next logical step in a time-honoured cycle.


17 thoughts on “Wilderness

  1. oh this was a wonderful kate-journey

    i find most of europe somewehat overwhelming with so many layers of history crowding in on me. i’m a girl for the bush, where most of the tracks are made by creatures with missions of their own, that have nothing to do with me.

    i am an african

    1. As that picture shows so beautifully, Sidey 🙂 Overwhelming is just the right word: so many years in which people have been treading the same ground. The space in your picture is alluring beyond words.

  2. I loved the Civilization type games building ancient cities and fighting wars. What history teacher would not? But have not played several years because you need old Windows 2000XP.

    1. I laughed out loud at that comment, Penny – the thought of audacious deer doing what they do best in the Cutoff…. I think they’re the right side of the sitting room walls though…

  3. I love New York City – and not just Manhattan – but all of her boroughs, and I love New York State, where two of our sons were born. I had the privilege of living in Southwest Connecticut, and took the train daily to NYC for school and other delights. My brother and I when he was 16 and I 14 used to drive to Mamaroneck, and get the train from there on into Manhattan and spend the day together at the American Museu of Natiural History, or the Bronx Zoo, or any number of places – we used to walk about on our own, and it was wonderful. I miss my connection with the city, which is why i covet each issue of “The New Yorker,” easily my favorite magazine in all the world. Even with its more recent editors in chief, it still outranks all other mags.

    I find this post of yours rather bittersweet, and wonderful.. Brought all kinds of thoughts to mind. Is industrialized civilization worth the price we have paid, and will the wilderness every forgive us for the things we have purchased at the cost of its survival?

    1. Paula, this is a disgraceful admission for a journalist, but I have never read The New Yorker. Time to do some reading. What a lovely comment: you evoke the city beautifully.
      As for the wilderness, I have a feeling it’s a tough old bird. I have watched a main trunk road, where I used to dice with death as a student, return to the wild. Very quickly, nature forgets we were ever there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s