‘Wild’ used to be one of my favourite words. It was in all the songs I loved best — ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, ‘Wild Thing’, ‘Born to Be Wild’. How times have changed. Wild — once meaning brave, bold, reckless — is now yet another sanctimonious nag.
Everyone seems to want to get in touch with their wild side. Dark green is the new black. Even vulgar Channel 5 has given us Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild, in which he ‘travels to remote corners of the globe to experience extreme lifestyles with those who have left modern-day amenities behind’.
If you can’t persuade a TV company to bankroll you flying around the world, for as little as £450 you can enjoy two nights of ‘trails and day programmes’ in Essex — or ‘wilderness therapy’, as walking about outside is now branded. Then there’s the Wilderness Festival, wild dining, wild swimming; one of my dearest friends swears by the latter. But another of my dearest friends was once a keen ‘forager’ and her experience proves there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially when scrounged from hedgerows: ‘Once I foraged a lot of wild garlic and gave bags of it to all my friends. But when I got home and washed mine I realised I had picked a plant that looks like garlic when young, called “Lords and Ladies” — which can lead to swelling of the throat and difficulty in breathing. I rushed round to get them all back. A few weeks later I fell in a pond reaching for some big juicy blackberries, cutting my arms and legs — within three weeks I had a brain infection no one could explain, lost the use of my legs and had to learn to walk all over again. Every time I see something edible in the wild now I hear a voice in my head — “No foraging!”’
Even before my friend’s plight, I’d always mistrusted nature; growing up in Bristol I was never more than 15 minutes from some area of outstanding natural West Country beauty, but the only one I had time for was the one in the mirror. Most of my adolescent memories feature my mother moaning at me to ‘Go outside — it’s a lovely day’ while I preferred to sit with my head in a book.
One survey claimed that those who walked in a natural setting for an hour and a half showed lower depression levels than those walking in an urban one, which will come as news to our farmers, one of whom commits suicide every week — more than twice the national average for other professions and probably not helped by their re-framing by rewilders as rotters on a mission to poison the countryside.
‘Rewilding’ — letting developed land return to the mercies of Mother Nature — is even being crowbarred into the new-model Archers. At first it struck me as totally unfeasible that a conservative-minded old lady — Peggy Archer — would give half a million pounds to such a right-on reimagining of the Ambridge landscape, but on second thoughts it makes sense. Because rewilding is an attempt to go back in time, to before pesky people and their petty desires to have a decent standard of living caused human habitats to blight the landscape.
It’s not just humans who suffer from the retreat from urbanity. It’s also our lovely animal chums; Scotland’s largest landowners, the Danish billionaires Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen, have had red deer culled in order to plant trees. What sort of idiot prefers trees to deer? Maybe George Monbiot, who once proposed that Britain’s uplands should be cleared of ‘the white plague’ — the animals formerly known as sheep.
I like animals, but I love people — the more the merrier, all clogging up the streets and having a lovely messy time. I especially love motorways, those flamboyant and shameless destroyers of the countryside. It’s on a motorway that I feel my most extreme contempt for nature-worship, which would see us condemned to eke out our lives in one little patch, never breaking away for fear of spoiling the ecology. It’s a nice life for a shrub, but no life for a human in all our restless and complex perfection. Every day, looking at roads and buildings and vehicles, I give silent thanks that I wasn’t born into the fetid swamp of pre-industrial society to be a pathetic pawn of nature, no more important or individual than a dumb old tree.
So by all means, run along and play outside — but I’ll be staying in, reading brilliant books, surrounding myself with entertaining people and pursuing indoor games of varying wholesomeness. You can cleave to Mother Nature all you like, but thank goodness I cut the apron strings decades ago. Because I’m wild enough to understand that this obsession with the wild is little more than the hysterical reaction of misanthropes who would willingly wipe out everything that makes our modern world the wonder that it is.