Wild Ramblings 1


This ‘Wild Rambling’ from Hannah-Lee Chalk (Learning Manager) is the first in a series of posts from the Wild Team, sharing personal reflections about the process of developing the forthcoming Wild exhibition at Manchester Museum.

Early last March, a group of colleagues met to start planning an exhibition about rewilding. Since then myself, David Gelsthorpe (Curator of Earth Sciences), Rachel Webster (Curator of Botany), Anna Bunney (Engagement Manager), and Dmitri Logunov (Curator of Entomology), with input from our placement student at that time, Nathan Winterborne, have been on something of a journey and in this Wild Rambling I share my personal reflections on how the exhibition came to focus on wild.

When the team first met to discuss this exhibition 12 months ago, rewilding was something that I had understood to be a relatively technical concept; mostly being discussed and debated amongst academics (and on the Archers!). I imagine that this is one of those cases when, once you start looking out for something, you notice it everywhere, but it genuinely feels like rewilding has become something of a buzzword over the last year (see a selection of news stories from the last 12 months below).

We had initially been interested in rewilding as relatively large-scale efforts to restore natural habitats and ecosystems through the reintroduction of missing animals / plants so that nature can look after itself. However, as we met and attempted to put together a basic concept for the exhibition, even the task of trying to define rewilding became something of a challenge; if we followed the formal definition of rewilding, we would simply focus on the big, technical projects. However, these complex, international (and genuinely interesting) rewilding projects felt too big and distant from scale and scope of rewilding that would be relevant for our visitors: How could we also include the smaller-scale activities that fall outside of the formal definition of rewilding, but that similarly attempt to add / protect / manage wildness?

A group of people stand in front of a tree with tools and a wheelbarrow
Local residents, councillors and project partners gathered in Ardwick to celebrate the Campus Tree Planting project. (4 June 2018: https://www.staffnet.manchester.ac.uk/news/display/?id=20113)

There was definitely a point at which we felt that rewilding was too specific and, over time, we felt that a better starting point would be the much more familiar concept of wild. Unlike rewilding, wild is an everyday word that (it turns out) has a vast range of different meanings and applications: even amongst the team, wild meant very different things and had specific associations and applications for each of us. Indeed, a swift glance at the trusty Oxford English Dictionary reveals the complexity, contradictions and assumptions that surround this far-from-simple word:

wild, adj. and n.

Adj. I. Living in a state of nature
1. Of an animal (not tame, not domesticated)
2. Of a plant (not cultivated)
3. Produced or yielded by wild animals or plants, naturally without cultivated (usually inferior)
4. Of a place or region: uncultivated or uninhabited; hence, waste, desert, desolate
5. Or persons: uncivilised, savage, uncultured, rude

Adj. II. Not submitted to control
6. Acting or moving freely without restraint; unconfined, unrestricted / Resisting control or restraint, unruly, resistive, flighty, thoughtless; reckless, careless
7. Not submitting to moral control; taking one’s own way in defiance of moral obligation
8. Fierce, savage, ferocious, furious, violent, destructive, cruel
9. Of the sea, a stream, the weather; violently agitated, rough, turbulent, disorderly / Of vocal sounds: loud and unrestrained
10. Of feelings or their expression: highly excited or agitated; passionately vehement
11. Of persons: violently excited: Extremely irritated angry / Passionately or excitedly desirous to do something / Elated, enthusiastic, raving
12. Not having control of one’s mental faculties, holding absurd or fantastic views / Of the eyes or look: having an expression of distraction / Bewildered, perplexed
13. Of undertakings, actions, notions, statements: going beyond prudent or reasonable limits
14. Artless, free, unconventional, fanciful, or romantic in style / Of strange aspect; fantastic in appearance
15. Aimed wide of the mark, or at random, astray / Of a playing card: having any rank chosen by the player holding it

1. Wild animal (s); a beast, or beasts, of the chase
2. at wild, on wild: bewildered, distracted
3. A wild or wasted place; uncultivated and uninhabited land; a waste, wilderness
4. To play the wild: to behave in a careless or reckless manner, to play havoc with

wild, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2022. Web. 17 March 2022.

This complexity is, for me at least, what makes this exhibition so exciting: the apparent simplicity of wild quickly becomes a hugely rich and challenging concept when you start to dig a little deeper. If wild describes a state of nature then we’re talking about being natural, namely;  “the phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations”.  So on one hand, as a state of nature, wild is something that doesn’t include people, and likewise, if wild is not submitted to control then it would seem logical that wild is what people don’t control.

Wolf in snow next to a fence
Sawtooth wolf pup walking along the fence in Nez Perce pen, February 1996. Photograph: Jim Peaco/National Park Service (from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/25/yellowstone-wolf-project-25th-anniversary)

This conjures up all sorts of problematic imagery around wilderness; pristine and pure places that are untouched and unspoilt. Rest assured that we will absolutely be grappling with this within the exhibition, and not only will we ask whether such places even exist (and how the designation of a place as ‘wilderness’ relies on controlling access to it) but we will also address how wilderness emerged through colonial practices that sought to exclude and erase people and histories from land. On the other hand, the various rewilding projects that we’d originally been interested in most definitely involve people, with certain individuals holding a great deal of power through decisions and actions that set out to control, manage, restrict and intervene with the ‘natural’ environment.  

Sign saying 'keep out' in a marshy pond
Wildlife Conservation Area at Gronant Dunes SSSI cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Jeff Buck – geograph.org.uk/p/3353271

Wild is not a universal concept and, in fact, for many indigenous people, it is irrelevant because wild is only a useful term if you believe that humans are not part of the natural world. Wild is something that has grown out of the dominant Western view of the world, where a line is drawn between nature and culture. Not only does this reinforce the separation of humans from everything else that lives, grows and exists within a place, but in so doing, leaves us believing that we can control and manage it. Through this disconnection and illusion of superiority and power, the natural world has become something for us to use, adapt, take from and change at will.

I am really interested in how rewilding is being promoted as the solution to climate change, habitat degradation, biodiversity loss, and wellbeing (amongst many others). What feels somewhat ironic to me, is that if rewilding is just another way for humans to manage and control the natural world from a position of detachment, isn’t it simply reinforcing precisely the same problematic relationship that caused these issues in the first place? To be clear, once you start to question the WEIRD Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic – worldview that separates people from the natural world, wild becomes a hugely complex and challenging concept, and the multitude of questions and contradictions that surround wild will be the focus of another Wild Rambling so watch this space!

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