Besides, the historian William Cronon argues that there is nothing “natural” about wilderness, that it is a deeply human construct, “the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” Though I might be appalled by Marco Polo’s failure to swoon at mountains and deserts along the Silk Road, wilderness in his day implied all that was dark and devilish beyond the garden walls. The fact that I’m charmed by the shifting sands of the Taklamakan Desert and the breathtaking expanse of the Tibetan Plateau doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than Polo, more capable of wonder. It means I hail from a day and age—and a country and culture—so privileged, so assiduously comfortable, that risk and hardship hold rapturous appeal.

It probably also means I read too much Thoreau as a teenager. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” he wrote, priming me to pine after places as far away from Ballinafad as possible, like Tibet and Mars. Provoking such distant wanderlust was hardly Thoreau’s fault or intention—he himself never travelled beyond North America—but I enthusiastically misread him, conflating wildness with wilderness, substituting a type of place for a state of mind. Cronon finds the whole concept of wilderness troubling for how, among other things, it applied almost exclusively to remote, unpopulated landscapes, fetishizing the exotic at the expense of the everyday, as though nature exists only where humans are not. This language sets up a potentially insidious dualism, for if people see themselves as distinct and separate from the natural world, they believe they risk nothing in destroying it. What Thoreau was really saying was that he’d travelled wildly in Concord, that you can travel wildly just about anywhere. The wildness of a place or experience isn’t in the place or experience, necessarily, but in you—your capacity to see it, feel it. In that sense, biking the Silk Road is an exercise in calibration. Anyone can recognize wildness on the Tibetan Plateau; the challenge is perceiving it in a roadside picnic area in Azerbaijan.

Harris, Kate. Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 2018. p. 149–50 (italics in original)

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. May 4, 2020 at 2:14 am

‘Thoreau primed me to pine after far-way places’

‘Lands of Lost Borders’, a critically acclaimed account by KATE HARRIS of cycling the Silk Road with a childhood friend, this week won the C$30,000 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction in her native Canada. In this extract, Harris reports from a two-lane road ‘that twisted and stretched like black taffy across Azerbaijan’

. May 4, 2020 at 2:16 am

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