Where the wild things (no longer) are

As far back as the 1960s, my husband remembers someone reporting that within 20 years all land on this planet will be *owned by somebody*. There is no reason to suppose the person who said was far wrong and I am sure it came to pass.

All OWNED by somebody. No more wild places.

What will this means to us, the human race, as a species, as storytelling beings?

We began telling stories about the things that surrounded us and for which we had no explanation – and which thus had to occur through the agency of something beyond and outside of us, something divine, something wild. We created gods who lived in inaccessible places – sometimes odd and made up ones, fanciful and wonderful, or real ones which were hard or impossible to get to  and therefore gained an air of mystery and mysticism, like the top of Mount Olympus. And we gave into their hands the power of the thunderbolt.

As human culture and civilization grew and our knowledge and insight increased, our stories grew and changed. The things that we knew in the present moment quickly slipped into yesterday, and yesterday slipped into history, and history slipped into legend, and legend turned into myth.
And it was all born of that wilderness that existed outside of ourselves, the things that were NOT of Man but were greater or weirder or stranger or more worthy of awe or veneration.

The stories we told our children – all the fairy tales ever told, all the fables, everything – were rooted in the wilderness. In the Wild Woods, where ancient and gnarled trees grew in the gloom of spreading boughs, never before seen by human eyes. In the empty open places of the deserts. Atop great craggy mountains wreathed in cloud.

But that was BEFORE. Before that “every inch of this planet is owned by somebody” days. That was in the days where the gods and the creatures who inhabited our myths and our legends and our fairy tales had room to live and thrive. Centaurs and dryads and rusalki and Koschei the deathless and the firebird and Quetzalcoatl and talking golden carp and the little mermaid and ifrit and djinni and flying horses and dragons and elves and witches and wizards and evil gnomes named Rumpelstiltskin who knew how to spin straw into gold. All of these, and more. They lived in those wild places where humans dared not go, and they loomed huge in the imaginations of generations of children.

No longer.

The wild places are going, or gone. There are no more tracts of forests into which no human has ever penetrated. There are no deserts where no human has ever been. There are no mountains which no human has ever climbed. We have gone to all of our wild places, and explored them, and mapped them, and conquered them, and… and tamed them.

We have gone to all the places where the wild things were. And they can hide in those places no longer. Revealed, they are… diminished. There is less reason to fear something you can classify, and sort, and put into textbooks, together with means by which it can be defeated.

We own our planet, but we no longer have a place where our minds and imaginations have a chance to escape, to play, to invent, to learn.

Perhaps the explosion of fiction of the ilk that is now known as “urban fantasy” owes something to this phenomenon. The creatures who used to be the wild ones have been driven out of their refuges and hiding places – and they have evolved to suit their new niches, the dirty back alleys of cities, the glass and steel metropolises. Our werewolves are no longer the shaggy feral creatures who came howling out of the scary night to frighten our ancestors – they now prowl the underground of our cities. Our vampires no longer live in distant castles behind high walls with creaking wrought iron gates – they are among us, and some of them (God help us) even sparkle. Even the Fae have found their way into the city lights. Everything is changing.

What does it mean to the Wild Things when the ownership of all the places which they once thought belonged to them is now claimed by us? If a human being signs the purchase papers for a stand of enchanted trees, does that human being now also own the dryads whose trees those are? Do the dryads now have to pay rent now? Does the human being who purchases a mountain and the mineral rights to everything within it also own the dragon’s hoard in the caves deep inside?

How are these bargains to be enforced on the creatures of our imagination, the creatures of the Wild? Are they really to be considered something that we can own? Has slavery returned to haunt humanity? Will the creatures we are buying and selling – in the end – rise up and fight for their rights? (Occupy The Wilderness…?) Do we have any right to fight back? What, after all, would WE do if the tables were truly turned and they came to us and told us that THEY owned the land, and therefore US?…

There are still stories here. But they are very different stories to the ones we have traditionally told. And they are getting harder and harder to hunt and find.

We’ve put the stamp of ownership on all of our wildernesses, and somehow we have thus closed the fences around ourselves. We are milling around inside those fences, thinking ourselves free, thinking ourselves mighty, while all the time the wonder and the glory of the wilderness is leaching away from us, leaving our memories, leaving us helpless and disarmed should something come up for which we no longer have the dark places of our world or our spirits to search for antidotes in.

Perhaps there is only one way left to go – up. Into the sky. Into the last wilderness of stars and space.

It is a tragedy that this last great journey of mankind will probably be undertaken with a single driving urge – to find out how we can stake our claim on these, too, and “own” them just like we now “own” every inch of planet Earth.

And maybe the last and best hope of humanity lies in the possibility that we will finally fail, and accept that we can only end with what we began – the wild places which we do not understand, and whose creatures we can invoke to frighten us into becoming bigger and better than we thought we could be.

2 thoughts on “Where the wild things (no longer) are

  1. Historical fantasy is my own particular sandbox, of course. And pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe stories really really really need to get out of the way and leave some room for other stuff. But that of course is a whole ‘nother topic – who gets to write about what?… And it’s been covered, and probably will be covered again. I mean, watch this space. I’ll be talking about LOTS of stuff like that… (Welcome to the blog, Voxx. I do believe you’re the First Footer (look that up, if you don’t know the custom…) so pull up a chair and have a glass of something. Good to see you here.)

  2. This article is resonating with me in a very real way, although I can’t quite put a finger on it just yet. But I do agree that the lack of experience with untamed nature is a serous influence on fantasy. How could someone not agree with that, when you can talk to people who haven’t wandered the woods (many, I’m ashamed to say, from my generation) or hiked into a mountain without pathways to follow? It would have to create more urban fantasy, and I think it will also lead to some real rehashing of tired secondary-worlds for fantasy.

    But, on a brighter note, I can also see the same factors as a good jolt in the arm to historical fantasy and broadening settings beyond pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe.

    Voss

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