Arctic Circle

Tromsø

Norilsk

Utqiagvik, Alaska

Lapland (Sweden)

Lapland (Finland)

Novaya Zemlya

Omolon River

East Siberian Sea

Yukaghir Highlands

That’s my browser history from around midnight Sunday night, just before I went to sleep. I was following the Arctic Circle around the world on Google Maps, looking up intriguing places on Wikipedia, then navigating on the map to whatever new place I’d found on those endless blue links. This is my new bedtime hobby: less soul-crushing than Twitter, more stimulating than Bejeweled (which, yes, I still play), and requiring less activation energy than opening a book.

I’m especially drawn to isolated, empty places. I love the Arctic, the Sahara, the Australian Outback. From space, cities and towns start to look the same (grids, beltways, bridges), but the un- or sparsely-populated world offers a kind of sheer endlessness that can keep me exploring for hours.

I’m impressed by just how much we know about these distant places. We know the exact height of Barbeau Peak, the tallest mountain on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. We know why Lake Mackay, in the middle of Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert, has a weirdly reflective, whitish surface (something about minerals and capillary action—hey, I said we know, not I know). We know the average July temperature on Heard Island, a remote Australian territory 2,400 miles from the nearest continent.

And we’re quick to turn knowledge into use. We don’t just know about Barbeau Peak; we’ve named it, climbed it, claimed it. And by we, I mean the Canadian Department of Defense and the British Royal Air Force, the kinds of groups that have made naming and claiming a bit of a habit over the last few centuries. It’s telling that the word “we” in cases like this so often refers to military groups, our impressive knowledge a byproduct of our need for security and power.

At the same time, I’m enchanted by how short these Wikipedia pages are. You can read thousands of words about Mount Everest, getting lost in the tales of tragic ascent attempts or the political tangles between China and Nepal. But the entries for places like Barbeau Peak are almost entirely storyless. We get latitudes and longitudes, the names of discoverers and researchers, and maybe a brief physical description, (“Barbeau Peak is characterized by deep and long crevasses, razor thin ridges and highly variable and volatile weather.”) but nothing else.

Wikipedia tells us that Lake Mackay “features prominently” in the Aboriginal Dreaming folk tradition, but a search for the lake on that page comes up empty. The indigenous Dorset people, who predated the ancestors of the modern Inuit, lived on Ellesmere Island for centuries—did any of them glimpse the mountain that wouldn’t be named “Barbeau” until 1967? Did they tell stories about it, like the Australian Aboriginals still tell about Lake Mackay? The “History” section of the article on Heard Island and the nearby McDonald Islands begins by noting that “neither island cluster had recorded visitors until the mid-1850s.” But were there unrecorded visitors, wandering curiously or thrown tragically off course? And if not, does that mean nothing interesting ever happened on the island? (Of course not; it’s a freaking volcano.)

These gaps reveal the fact that even the most detailed and thorough Wikipedia articles—Everest, yes, but also the United States, Michigan, the Grand River—are equally empty. We’ve found plenty to know and to use in these places, but that doesn’t mean we’ve told all of their stories. Some of these tales are lost forever, others are not ours to tell, or even to hear. If we look close enough, the whole world is wilderness.

All right, here we go. Many ecocritics get nervous about the word “wilderness,” seeing it as a way for humans to colonize the natural world both physically and intellectually. Labelling a rugged or desolate area “wilderness” throws up borders around it, implicates it in laws and treaties, and defines it in opposition to the “developed” or “civilized” areas of human habitation. It labels any humans who might have lived there as “primitive” and in need of civilization (and therefore colonization), or it romanticizes them as preserving some mystical relationship with the natural world that we have lost. It creates an otherworld of healing and escape that is in fact just as vulnerable to destruction as the rest of the planet. And it separates the human from the non-human, leading us to forget our kinship with the rest of creation. 

But what if we define “wild” not as “untouched” or “untamed” but as inexhaustible—filled to the brim with stories and histories that we can never fully know? Using this definition, cities, industrial parks, and suburban developments are just as “wild” as Russian Arctic National Park

These stubby little Wikipedia articles capture my imagination the same way Tolkien does when he references a story he never tells in full. But these out-of-reach real-world-stories have been told and lived by billions of real people, displaying the fullness of humanity’s—and God’s—creativity in a way we can glimpse but never capture. If we keep this wildness in mind, perhaps we can replace our acquisitive attitude toward creation with a kind of humble curiosity. Or, thinking smaller, perhaps each of us can remember that our own stories are no less and no more important than the billions left out of Wikipedia.

So if you’re feeling exhausted by news or social media or trying to work from home, maybe try opening Google Maps for a few minutes, zoom in wherever you’d like, and rest briefly in the strange, exhilarating comfort of the inexhaustible.

For more on the problematic category of “wilderness,” see Bill Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 7–28.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Nick and I love this article Josh! Nick has dragged me to camp out in many remote, Wilderness areas he’s discovered in Google Maps.
    You might like the movie “LION” about Saroo Brierly who spent YEARS studying google maps to find his mother and boyhood home in India. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3741834/

    Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    I love your depiction of “wilderness” here. The overflowing of stories is a beautiful concept, as well as surprisingly unappreciated. It’s something we “know” but never really consider. You have here, and shared with us your own little, delightful tale.

    Reply

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