The word ‘wilderness’ has different meanings depending on context. Dictionaries offer a range of similar meanings:
- An uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. Neglected or abandoned. A large area of land that has never been developed or used for growing crops because it is difficult to live there. (Oxford)
- An unsettled, uncultivated region, especially a large tract of land that has not been significantly affected by human activities. A barren or desolate area; a wasteland. Something characterised by bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion. (The Free Dictionary)
- A wild, uncultivated region, usually where humans do not live. Any desolate tract or area. (WordReference.com)
- A tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings. An area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community. An empty or pathless area or region. (Mirriam Webster dictionary)
From Old English used in the 13th century, the word ‘wilderness’ is derived from wild dēor ‘wild deer’, wilddēoren ‘wild beasts’, and from wildēornes, ‘land inhabited only by wild animals’. From Middle English, wildern is ‘wild’.
Reflecting on these varying definitions, I realise some of the meanings ring true particularly in relation to the land along the Derwent River between Lake Catagunya and Derwent Bridge (I anticipate this part of the River will take at least 8 days to walk, over three stages).
The sides of the River will be uncultivated and uninhabited. Its dense forest, littered with generations of massive tree falls, will make some sections relatively inhospitable. The only markers of human kind will be parts where old growth logging has or is occurring, and where the infrastructure associated with dam construction across the Derwent River has occurred and is being maintained. The area will not be barren, desolate (although I might feel desolate when penetrating some of the denser bush hour after hour), and it is not neglected, abandoned nor a wasteland. This wilderness will be rich with flourishing flora and fauna, have profound connections with the original indigenous population pre-European settlement of Van Diemen’s Land, hold a social history with the settlers who moved inland in the 1800s and 1900s, and include an occasional contemporary history with photographers, tourists and fishermen.
The United States of America has proclaimed special legislation. ‘The Wilderness Act bans all kinds of motors, roads, and permanent structures from large tracts of American territory. It provides a legal definition of wilderness, as land that’s “untrammelled by man” with a “primeval character and influence”.’ You can read more at this site. What is the Australian situation?
The Wilderness Society of Australia summarises our state-based rather than national legislation in relation to the wilderness. ‘Dedicated wilderness legislation exists in NSW and SA, which allows the nomination, assessment, declaration and management of wilderness. In other States, such as Victoria, Queensland, WA and the ACT, management of wilderness is provided for under general nature conservation legislation, with varying degrees of usefulness in terms of actually ensuring identification and appropriate protection.’
In Tasmania we have a range of legislation including the most recent Tasmanian Forest Agreement Act that was negotiated to include the requirements of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) – that is, those parts of Tasmania which have been recognised with World Heritage listing for their natural and cultural heritage that is important to the world community. Tasmania’s Nature Conservation Act talks about biological and geological diversity, and historic sites and provides regulation for our fauna (and strangely it also covers animals which do not live in Tasmania such as dingos and wolves) and flora. The word ‘wilderness’ does not appear.
The land on which I will walk has been walked for thousands of years originally by our indigenous ancestors and more recently by their descendants and European settlers. However, there will be parts on my trek which will not have had many footfalls because of the isolation and the forest density. Unless there was a purpose such as surveying the Derwent River as part of planning to build dams, sensible people would travel from Lake St Clair towards the coast via the region around the township of Ouse, or by more hospitable routes. With or without the word ‘wilderness’ being written into our state legislation, much of the inland edges of the Derwent River edge are undoubtedly genuine wilderness.