New Book: Inhabited: Wildness and the Vitality of the Land

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Phillip Vannini and April Vannini, Inhabited: Wildness and the Vitality of the Land (McGill-Queen’s University Press, November 2021).

Cover of Inhabited: Wildness and the Vitality of the Land

Inhabited is an ethnographic journey in search of the meanings of wildness, wild nature, and natural heritage. Through an exploration of all ten of Canada’s UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites through the lens of local residents’ perspectives, the book pushes us to re-examine what it means to protect natural heritage in the name of wildness, untouched and pristine nature, and wilderness. Throughout the book we ask readers to reflect on the socio-cultural dimensions of conservation and heritage preservation and challenge our audiences to rethink the meaning of wild.

“Throughout the book we ask readers to reflect on the socio-cultural dimensions of conservation and heritage preservation and challenge our audiences to rethink the meaning of wild.”

In addition to this book, our research is documented in a documentary film also titled Inhabited. The film will be released in the winter of 2021-2022. You can watch the trailer here:

Dictionaries define wilderness as wild, pristine, and uncultivated land inhabited only by flora and untamed wildlife. Contrasted with culture and human civilization, wilderness brings to mind places where humans are excluded, remaining only as short-term visitors. For example, the 1964 US Wilderness Act—one of the world’s most foundational pieces of legislation on this matter—specifies that wilderness places are: “natural” and thus free from the effects of modern civilization; “undeveloped” and therefore not permanently inhabited by humans and devoid of building structures; “untrammeled” and hence free from control and manipulation; and rich in outstanding opportunities for solitude and “primitive” types of recreation.

Wild places are central to Canadian culture. In the words of Environment Canada (2014, n.p.): “Canadians have a profound attachment to wilderness, which is rooted in our collective history and heritage.” Ideas of intact nature and pristine wilderness as entities that are clearly separate from culture and society may have a great deal of purchase in public opinion, but are viewed by critical scholars as mere myths that are more appropriate at revealing the cultural dynamics of the societies where these ideas emerge, than actual environmental realities. Within the contemporary cultural sciences wilderness is understood as a legally-protected area that is managed and regulated by governmental departments and subject to ongoing contestation by a plurality of social agents. From this critical perspective wilderness is often synonymous with colonizing ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, racism, and nationalism.

However, the call of the wild, the “great outdoors,” and the mystique of pristine nature are as strong as ever within popular culture. Countless wilderness survival courses, outdoor education outings, therapy and meditation retreats, art residences, traditional knowledge classes, eco-tourist and adventure travel packages, and hunting and fishing expeditions parallel the proliferation of reality TV shows, films, documentaries, travelogues, and memoirs that exalt wild nature.

Wilderness may very well be a place where humans visit but do not remain, yet human physical and imaginary mobilities into and out of wild natural places are increasingly frequent, diverse, and popular. However, are these understandings of wildness, wild nature, wilderness, and natural heritage (as separate from cultural heritage) still appropriate and realistic in the present era, dubbed the “Anthropocene”? Are they respectful of their traditional inhabitants’ ideas of nature?

“Our book challenges us to no longer take for granted what nature is and what wildness means.”

Our book challenges us to no longer take for granted what nature is and what wildness means. Moved by the desire to strengthen ecological conservation while simultaneously recognize the interconnectedness of culture and nature, of social life and wild life, of peoples and pristine environments, Inhabited introduces us to individuals and collectives who live, work, enjoy, protect, study, develop, and struggle to make a living in and around Canada’s ten UNESCO World Heritage natural sites. Through their stories, actions, and experiences we ask readers to re-think the idea of wild, to re-assemble the relations between natural and cultural heritage, and to re-envision the rapport between nature and culture.

Through three years of ethnographic fieldwork, and hundreds of interviews and encounters with locals and visitors, we guide our readers us through a vast web of cultures, local economies, diverse ecological environments, old and innovative conservation policies, and diverse understandings of what it means to be wild and live with it.  

Feature Image: “Dinosaur Provincial Park” by Rodger Levesque is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
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