Aims and methods

In its various meanings “wilderness” is considered to be a place without a people, nature in the raw, quintessentially uncivilized. A wilderness may be void of roads and buildings, at once the embodiment of God and the inspiration for the human soul. Yet wilderness can also include traces of humanity or at least a distinct human presence in the ways that we describe it or circumscribe it. As we look for wilderness in other lands, we realize that wilderness—in form or function—can vary quite dramatically according to region or century or language.

Whether “wilderness” is conceived primarily as a dangerous mountain to be avoided, an immense tundra teeming with migratory birds or a tropical repository of biological and pharmaceutical wealth, depends on our heritage, and such heritage is intimately linked to the words we use to describe it. Adjectives in English such as “pristine,” “primitive,” “old-growth,” “untrammeled” describe wilderness but do not replace it. Wildlife dwells in this place, but sometimes so do wild, semi-human beings, at least in the places where they can be found. Trolls, leprechauns, satyrs, gnomes, and nymphs are all semi-humans nourished by the wild, and placed there by the imaginations of people who do not live in the wilderness.

It is precisely the linguistic differences in wilderness that concern us in this exhibition. The stunning cultural heritage of Europe and the world has produced an equally varied wilderness heritage. Because language manifests culture—indeed, some say language defines culture—a linguistic map is a good way to navigate global wilderness, and may do so more effectively than a political map. Indeed every language and dialect can reveal insights into the complexity of the meanings of wilderness. Noting how these meanings may overlap across language groups and nation-states provides further insight into understanding this term and the people who live there.

Our goal in this exhibit is to offer short descriptions of wilderness in a sampling of the world’s many languages, while providing sensory corroboration of what these various wildernesses actually look, feel, and sound like. Wilderness Babel is not centrally about the history of wilderness, for that is another and larger project, yet it is implicitly historical, as all words are. As a key concept and term, “wilderness” has changed its meanings over time, taking on different connotations according to period and event, and evolving according to usage and interest group. We hope that the project will be ongoing, with regular supplements in the form of new comments or the addition and updating of entries. Raymond Williams tells us that “nature” is one of the English language’s most complex words, so that translating the essence of this nature, namely “wilderness,” into other languages may keep us thinking and contributing for years to come.

What began as a somewhat Eurocentric project, aiming at encompassing Europe’s 23 official and 230 unofficial languages, can clearly be enriched by including descriptions of “wilderness” from the world’s other languages—although expanding beyond Europe pushes the number of languages to over 7,000, depending on how one defines language. And yet the question comes up time and again: what does wilderness mean in non-English speaking places and in languages other than English?