Why Do We Love the Wild?

Fog spilling into a mountain canyon.

Humankind has covered most of this earth with cities and farms, villages and fields, but the idea of the Wild still haunts our legends. The idea of some vast, unknown region full of mystery and danger and wonder has latched on to our imaginations. From the Wild Wood in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to the Western Wild in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, we fear and love fearing the untameable.

My story-loving heart treasures even the word wilderness. Spoiled 21st century child that I am, I am safe from the real, unromantic hardships that pioneers faced in hacking a living out of a cold, dangerous world. I have the luxury of curling up on my bed and reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series or William Durbin’s The Broken Blade and tasting the excitement without the suffering. 

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper on historians later named “The Turner thesis” or “the frontier thesis.” He argued that the idea and reality of the frontier, a vast stretch of land open to conquest, was essential in forming the American national character of democracy and individualism, opportunity and escape. In my own words, Turner argued that the Wild, or the conquest of the Wild, shaped America. (Read an article about the thesis here). 

I think Turner’s insight is very valuable, more than even he knew. The sense of destiny, of power, of righteous and ruthless progress, along with its dark side of violence, suffering, and guilt, has settled deep in our consciousness. 

Why do we love the wild, the wilderness? Why do we love the dog but romanticize the wolf? If we have evolved to supremacy by taming creatures, building farms out of forests, and conquering landscapes through cartography, why do we love the Wild instead of hating it?

The idea of the Wild is entertaining; a character stumbling through a dark forest or cold mountain ridge tugs at our interest and sympathy. The reality of the Wild, however, fulfills a different urge: the human longing for something greater than ourselves, something to strive for, something to seek with all our strength. 

Whatever it is, the Wild is an idea with staying power. Below are some ideas as to how writers can incorporate the Wild into new stories.

  • The traditional Wild region in a fantasy land: forests, mountains, lakes, oceans, swamps, deserts, any kind of geography becomes fascinating when a writer endows it with mystery. Make your Wild region unique, though, or it will be a tired cliché. Invent ways to make the landscape frightening and beautiful – creatures, plants, magic, anything. (See Jasper Fforde’s The Eye of Zoltar for an incredible example.)
  • The Wilds of space: space is the greatest Wild because it is the greatest unknown. New stars, planets, galaxies, intelligent creatures, clever ways of traveling (like tessering in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time) can never be boring as long as they are original creative. 
  • The Wild of other spaces: create a Wild world within something unexpected, like:
  • Mirrors (like Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass and Heather Dixon in Entwined).
  • Artwork (like Jacqueline West in The Books of Elsewhere, though I’m not a fan of the occult she adds in later books).
  • Photographs (kind of like Jenny Nimmo in the Charlie Bone series).
  • Music (I’m picturing something like Fantasia, but really, how can music be a Wild space?).
  • Hearts and minds (like Inside Out).
  • Dreams (like Inception or The Matrix).
  • Stories (like Fantastica in Michael Ende’s Neverending Story).