The wilderness. You may hear this word spoken often, usually by people who like to venture into the wild and explore the natural world. While it’s true that the natural world is part of the wilderness, it’s not the same.
Nature is always around us, in the form of flowers, plants, oceans, trees, and animals. When you look out your window, you see nature, even if it’s just a mountain range, an empty field, or a patch of grass. Even zoos that hold animals like cheetahs and other big cats are part of nature.
Wilderness, on the other hand, represents a deeper aspect of life on the planet that, for the most part, is untouched by humans. In the wilderness, wild animals are truly wild and unpredictable.
It’s crucial, especially for kids, to understand and respect the difference. When the lines are blurred, young humans can put themselves in a dangerous situation.
Here are some tips for fostering a deeper respect for the wilderness:
1. Avoid watching documentaries about wild animals as pets
Plenty of stories depict close relationships between wild animals and humans, such as Bart the bear and the guy who keeps tigers in his backyard in Florida. These stories us make us feel good, but they’re also dangerous.
Such relationships are the rare exception to the rule. These animals’ owners can also be injured by their “pet,” and those stories end in tragedy. Wild animals should only be respected by being seen for what they are: wild.
World-famous photographer Michael Nichols knows this well. He doesn’t simply take beautiful shots of wild animals for people to marvel over; he takes photos that raise awareness about the larger context in which these animals exist.
Nichols tells a story that raises awareness and encourages conservation. His photos are often shot remotely with robot technology and camera traps, so as to present a more objective view of these animals.
According to Melissa Harris, who’s known him for more than two decades, Nichols is more than a wildlife photographer; he’s a “photojournalist in the wild.” In March 2012, Nichols was working on a story for National Geographic about a pride of lions in the Serengeti, when his team, which included Harris, noticed something profound.
She recalls watching him go from chatting in the field to being “the most intense, focused person I had ever seen, observing and photographing these lions. I was fascinated by that.”
Nichols doesn’t impose his presence upon the creatures when he photographs them. Instead, he focuses on becoming part of the general environment, and tries to avoid anthropomorphizing the animals.
2. Maintain a healthy, respectful dose of fear
You don’t want to erase your fear of wild animals entirely. If you go camping in the woods and run into a bear and you’re not afraid, you might make a choice that could cost you your life.
That doesn’t mean you should foster an overwhelming, irrational fear of wild animals, though. Just maintain a respect that isn’t colored by wishful thinking. Seeing wild animals should make you want to keep your distance while watching them, not run up and scratch their back.
3. Visit a game reserve
Why not take a weekend to visit a game reserve and observe wild animals first hand? It’s one thing to see big cats on the television screen; it’s quite another to drive through a reserve and see how large they truly are.
Unless you have a future working for National Geographic, this is the closest you’ll get to wild animals in person. Most reserves have the rare animals everyone wants to see, such as the black rhino.
You’ll gain more respect for the wilderness if you witness a wild animal run, capture its prey, and devour it.
The wilderness is respected best when you’re an observer
I came to understand the distinction between nature and the wilderness through a conversation with a friend who has an adventurous spirit. She lived in the Alaska wilderness for several years, and shared some of her experiences … like coming face to face with bears, and observing gigantic glaciers firsthand.
This presented a stark contrast to my most exciting experiences in nature: watching birds catch and devour prey, witnessing dolphins and whales breach in the ocean from the shore, and camping in a redwood grove.
The wilderness? From my perspective, the wilderness is where nature runs free; unrestrained by any limitations, boundaries, or disturbances created by humans. You have to play by nature’s rules there.