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Every bit of unspoilt nature which is left, every bit of park, every bit of earth still spare, should be declared a wilderness area as a blueprint of what life was originally intended to be, to remind us...


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An interview with Belinda Ashton

about her book 'Connecting with Wilderness'


Where did your feelings for wilderness originate?

As a teenager, my parents sent me on a hike along the South African Wild Coast. For those few days, and for the first time in my young life, I carried all my belongings in a rucksack on my back, ate around a communal fire, and at night, after walking all day along the rugged paths of this wild and desolate coast, we would lie under the stars, watching the Milky Way glowing in the darkened skies and listening out for the owls and night-herons that inhabited the dense foliage on the river banks.

This experience changed my life. Even to this day, over 40 years later, I carry in my heart the feeling of that time. And sometimes, from out of nowhere, the smell of woodsmoke or the dankness of damp earth after a passing storm take me back, and I feel overcome with nostalgia and a longing for African wilderness. As Karen Blixen wrote: 'Here I am, where I ought to be.'

I have subsequently spent time in remote wilderness areas - national parks in South Africa and Kenya, the vast Serengeti in Tanzania, the deserts of Namibia, the Kalahari in Botswana, and, of course, my beloved Cederberg mountains. Trips to these remote corners of our world take me back to a feeling of living closely to the land - cooking on the evening fire and sleeping in my canvas tent - and where the call of nocturnal animals is a reminder that we share the land with other lives and also of our vulnerability in a landscape that is still intrinsically wild, untouched - as it was in the beginning.


What inspired the idea for your book?

The feeling for my book came to me late one afternoon when my husband and I were watching the sunset over the sea from an elevated dune in the Cape Point reserve. I experienced a sudden overwhelm of emotional connection to being there, and it was like a calling - this sense that I needed to capture what was being evoked. When I finished the writing process, I sent my manuscript to Dr Ian Player at the WILD Foundation and one afternoon he phoned me, and during our discussion, he said that he saw my book and my writing as a unique voice representing a woman's understanding of wilderness. His support and generous words meant so much to me.


What does wilderness mean in the modern world?


Can you share a few last words?

I think, as never before, wilderness and the preservation of remote, untrammelled landscapes are vital not only to safeguard natural ecosystems and the intrinsic narrative of wild lives but also for the sake of the human spirit and all that we stand to lose should wilderness and what it represents disappear. Too easily, we encroach on these fragile landscapes in the name of 'progress' - but what is progress if the essence of all that is wild, untamed, and free is gone? Where can we turn when the noise of the modern  world overwhelms our spirits? Do we only rise and heed the call to conserve these precious habitats when they are all but lost?

To me, the unspoken lesson of wilderness, in a human context, is that in looking at the complex, intricate workings of nature in all its diversity and wonder, unchanged since the dawn of time, in essence we see reflected back the image of our own selves in all our complexity, and our diversity of spirit, nature, and purpose. It truly is profound. And it reinforces a sense of our interdependence.

In wilderness, we return to a time when we knew the land and the animals as kin. We feel a sense of belonging beneath the night stars, and walking dusty trails.

Our modern world has taken us away from this feeling of being known by the land and the creatures. And the loneliness of modern times is symbolic of our alienation from a deeper, fundamental connection with the earth.

When we immerse ourselves in the wilderness, we are, in fact, returning home. And the perceivable sense of peace that we begin to experience is derived from our deeper selves breathing a sigh of relief at this homecoming.

Without a doubt, the natural world has inspired and supported the boundless possibilities of our human spirit, shaping the foundation of all that we have become; it awakens our imaginations and stirs our souls, reminding, evoking, taking us back to our deepest connections with the earth and its vast community of life.

Knowing this makes the preservation of wilderness ever more urgent.

In the foreword to my book, Dr Player wrote: "The last remaining wilderness areas on our planet have become temples of deep religious significance. In these wild areas, we communicate in a different way with the world as we walk in silent wonder."

For me, that encapsulates my own understanding and relationship with wilderness.


Click to read Dr Player's foreword

Remembering the caring, philosophical, and visionary work of Dr Ian Player, who led the wilderness movement in southern Africa. Over the years, Dr Player was so generous and supportive of my own work raising awareness around wilderness and the preservation of wild places. He was an extraordinary man of profound spiritual insight, and he left an indelible legacy. Sharing this poignant video tribute by Trevor Barrett.

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