Tonino: What exactly do you mean by “wild”?
Turner: I mean something that is self-willed, autonomous, self-organized. Basically it’s the opposite of controlled.
You can see wildness in the movement of glaciers, or you can track it in star-forming regions in the Orion Nebula. Wildness is everywhere. It starts with microscopic particles, and it goes more than 13 billion light-years into the cosmos. It’s in the soil and in the air, it’s on our hands, it’s in our immune systems, it’s in our lungs — where there are two thousand bacteria per square centimeter! In a certain respect, much of what we consider us is in fact not us. We breathe, and wildness comes in. We don’t control it.
Tonino: You’ve called wildness “an endangered experience.”
What do you mean by that? If we’re steeped in wildness, is it just a matter of perception?
Turner: It has to do with scale. On one scale you’ve got the Orion Nebula, which is twenty-six light-years across and two thousand times the mass of the sun. At the other extreme is the scale of quantum physics and subatomic particles, zooplankton and proteins. The scale that Henry David Thoreau and the American conservation movement focus on is that of voles and coral reefs and redwoods and whales. We’re particularly interested in wildness at that scale — and for good reason — but that scale doesn’t include all wildness. And here’s the problem: nowadays very few people directly experience voles, coral reefs, redwoods, and whales. You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’ve asked my environmental-studies students how much time each day, on average, they spend in contact with raw wild nature. Thirty minutes, they say. And what are they doing then? Walking between classes. They’ve told me they look at a screen eight to twelve hours a day, on average. These kids have not spent much time hiking in remote areas. They don’t have much personal experience with wild creatures. They also don’t have much experience with isolation. These days parents can hardly get their children to participate in an outdoor program, such as a backpacking trip, because it will cut them off from Facebook for two weeks.
— Jack Turner, Chinese philosophy scholar and backwoodsman, interviewed in The Sun.