Wilderness and the Human Soul
Founder, World Wilderness Congress
(This presentation by Dr Ian Player, founder of the World Wilderness Congress and
The WILD Foundation, was presented in October, 2005, in Anchorage, Alaska, to the
assembled international delegates and media at the 8th World Wilderness Congress.
Herewith re-printed with permission of Dr Player and The WILD Foundation,
www.wild.org, from Wilderness Wildlands and People - The 8th World Wilderness
Congress, Fulcrum Publishing, in press, 2007)
A recent flight from South Africa took me over the Drakensberg Mountains,
Ukuhlamba of the Zulu people. I looked down and pondered; saw the red grass
glowing luminously in the afternoon sun. These mountains were the last refuge of the
San or Bushmen people who painted their exquisite art on cave walls and recorded the
history of our country, the coming of the Nguni people, the Boers on their horses and
English soldiers and the vast array of wild animals. By 1870 there were no San
people left they were shot and killed without mercy and with then went vast tomes of
wisdom and knowledge.
A man named Richard Nelson said: “The abandonment of ethically and spiritually
based relationship with nature by our western ancestors was one of the greatest and
perilous transformations of the western mind” Today nearly all of modern man’s ills
spring from this abandonment and this is way wilderness has become so important
because it reconnects us to that ancient world .
We South Africans can be proud that our country was the first in Africa to proclaim a
game reserve and the first wilderness area. Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-
Natal has that double distinction.
The World Wilderness Congress has come a long way on torturous paths and having
to overcome what at times seemed insuperable odds. It has now become a critically
important forum which provides a platform for many divergent views. It is important
I believe that we look at the history of The World Wilderness Congress. Vance
Martin, President of The WILD Foundation, tells me it has now become the longest
running, public, international environmental forum. This Congress was born in South
Africa in 1976 in the small wilderness area of Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu. It
was a suggestion of my great friend and mentor Magqubu Ntombela who had lead
many treks into the wilderness with me. He said that we needed a big Indaba to bring
together everyone who had trekked so that we could share experiences. He was a man
who could neither read nor write, but he was the wisest, most gracious and bravest
man I have ever known. The African people have a word for it: ubuntu.
It is fitting too that The World Wilderness Congress began in Africa. It is the cradle
of mankind. All of us here have our origin from that mighty continent, as DNA has
proved. C G Jung said, “We do not come into the world tabula rasa.” Three million
years of Africa is imprinted on the human psyche. I know from taking many
hundreds of people in small groups from all over the world on foot treks into the
wilderness of Imfolozi and Lake St Lucia how they are gripped by the spirit of Africa
and at night as they sleep on the red earth, dream their dreams, and hear the animals
and birds. There is a connection that is evoked from the depths of the collective
unconscious: the rasping cough of the leopard, the howl of hyena and the scream of
the elephant. It is an experience that has awakened thousands of people to the value
of the African wilderness, and the understanding that this was once their home, and
this inspires them to protect it. As Shakespeare says in Othello, “It is the cause, it is
the cause my soul.” And so it has become for many of us, world wide.
In 1977 South Africa was a Pariah nation, and organising that first Congress in
Johannesburg in October of that year was a nightmare, but the congress was an
undeniable success where for the first time a black field ranger—Magqubu
Ntombela—took his rightful place amongst leading international scientists,
politicians, writers and artists Bushmen - Kalahari.
It established the importance of wilderness in breaking down racial barriers in South
Africa, and the wilderness trails in Imfolozi Game Reserve were a leading example.
Magqubu used to tell the mixed groups as we sat around the fire at night, “If we are
charged by rhino or lion and blood flows, it will be the same colour blood for
everyone, even though our skins may be a different colour.”
The Congresses that followed in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and
Norway were also beset with political problems because the Congress had originated
in South Africa, and because I am a South African. I will always be grateful to those
American and international conservationists who stood by us, and ensured that the
Congresses became a forum for everything associated with wilderness. Vance Martin
knows this, because he was at the coal face from 1983.
Today, thanks to Nelson Mandela and the peaceful elections on 1994, South Africa is
the brightest light on the continent of Africa and stands poised to be a wilderness and
conservation example for all of emerging Africa. But we in the world wilderness
movement are under no illusions about the difficulties that lie ahead. The struggle for
political freedom is over in South Africa, but not in all the African states. The new
struggle is an environmental one for all our people to make wise use of the natural
In 2001 the World Wilderness Congress returned to South Africa, to a transformed
country, and thanks to Adrian Gardiner, Andrew Muir and the Eastern Cape
government, it was a phenomenal success. South Africa has proved what can be
The same is not true for other parts of Africa. I do not want to enlarge on a litany of
woes facing conservation in Africa, but the problems range from the desperate
situation of the last remaining Northern White Rhino in the Democratic Republic of
the Congo to some Parks where the game scouts do not have boots.
At the recent G8 Summit in Britain there was a focus on Africa. One can only hope
that the environment will receive proper attention because in previous aid to Africa it
did not. The G8 now has a chance to rectify it.
Whereas it is correct that the birth of the World Wilderness Congress was in Africa,
the honour for the establishment of National Parks and wilderness areas belongs to the
United States of America. It was Americans who articulated the wilderness concept
and set aside wilderness areas against what at times seemed overwhelming odds. But
the spirit of one of the greatest American Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, was always
with them. Not for nothing did he say, “The greatest sport the world affords is
aggressive fighting for the right”. Yet we must remember that Frederick Courtney
Selous, the great Nimrod, was his guide in Uganda, and the African wilderness made
a deep impression on Theodore Roosevelt, and it affected his thinking.
In my library is a book with the prosaic title of S.1176 Hearings before the Committee
on Interior and Insular Affairs of the United States Senate. The pages are worn thin
and underlined everywhere. The cover is tattered from constant use. It has been in
my possession since 1958. A most treasured book sent to me by Howard Zahniser,
the then Secretary of the Wilderness Society. In it I have written, “This has been the
bible of the wilderness movement in South Africa.” The Americans showed us the
way. It is a phenomenal story of the past, the present and the future.
One of the witnesses quoted in S.1176 was Sigurd Olsen. He said:
“In days to come, the wilderness concept must be clear and shining enough to
capture imaginations. It must take its place as a cultural force with all
expressions of man’s deepest yearnings and his noblest achievements in the
realm of the mind. It must be powerful enough to withstand everywhere in the
world, the coming and enormous pressures of industry and population.”
Talk about intimations of the future: this is it.
In S.1176 is the gripping story of the blood and guts fight for the conservation soul of
America. You realize too, that what it is expressing is the depth of the impact that the
Native Americans made on the psyche of Anglo-America. Constantly there are
echoes, and one senses their spirit in the extraordinarily eloquent pleas from some of
the most eminent Americans of their day.
I first came to America in 1964 as a guest of Metro Goldwyn Meyer, and through Ira
Gabrielson. I met Stuart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, and a man proud of his
Native American blood; he became a speaker at the first World Wilderness Congress.
Ten minutes in his company gave me a deep and emotionally moving insight into the
soul of American conservation. He reiterated that America had to be an example to
The men and women who testified for wilderness in S.1176 were heroic people, many
times going against the grain and knowing that they were up against it. They warned
against roads, lodges, hotels, restaurants in the National Parks. They knew they were
setting an example for the world and it had to be the right one. They were unafraid to
talk, determined that the Wilderness Leadership School I initiated in 1957 would
emphasize that the wilderness experience was a spiritual journey. Another witness,
Edwin Way Teale said that wilderness areas are “storehouses of wildness, and
wildness will become an ever-increasing spiritual need in the crowded tomorrow”.
We are now in the crowded tomorrow, with a vengeance. Try a Los Angeles Freeway
on what they call a quiet day.
I love America. It has always been good and inspirational for me. But I have to tell
you that an article in the New York Times of August the 29th, 2005 has caused me
much stress. It is entitled Destroying the National Parks. It refers to a document that
calls for the rewriting of National Park rules by one of the Assistant Secretaries,
which has been met with profound dismay in professional National Park circles. This
must be stopped.
Many millions of people regard national parks, forestry and wilderness areas as
sacrosanct, what difference is government to nature and human desires fit
accordingly. The Unites States started the National Park movement, and became a
leader in ethics, policy and action. It must remain so.
The wilderness work America articulated and the rest of the world has followed is
practical, political, philosophical, psychological and scientific, but at the deepest
levels there are still too few people who understand it is the work of the soul. The
lines of the psalm say it best: “Be still and know that I am God.” And it is in the
wilderness that the stillness can be found.
We have to face the fact that rampant materialism is creating havoc in our world and
wilderness areas are under threat everywhere. This has not been helped by Judaeo-
Christianity; Edward Whitmont puts it succinctly: “For several centuries traditional
theology has tended to create an absolute gulf between man and nature.” Yet the
world seems to continue as though there were no tomorrow. We have forgotten those
wonderful images in the gospels that describe John the Baptist coming out of the
wilderness “clothed with camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate
locusts and wild honey”.
For too long there has been a cataclysmic clash between western and indigenous
cultures, with the latter being the bigger loser. Sense of place and spirit of place have
There is terrible potential destruction to birds, landscapes and silence in the Highlands
of Scotland and other wild country in Britain with the proposed wind farms. The
Wilderness Foundation United Kingdom is vigorously fighting this danger. As C.G.
Jung said, “We have lost a world that once breathed with our breath and pulsed with
our blood. Did the wind use to cry and the hills shout forth praise?” A cry of
helplessness from indigenous people as a once known world is swept away.
Marie – Louise von Franz, a great depth psychologist, said:
“Western civilisation is in danger of building a wall of rationality in its
society, which feeling cannot penetrate. Everything has to be rational and
emotion is frowned upon.”
This makes the poets critically important to our cause. Wilfred Owen, a First World
War poet, said that all a poet can do is to warn, and that is why true poets must be
truthful. Poets warn us and they inspire us. Think of W. H. Auden’s words as a
reflection of ecological doomsday:
“The stars are not wanted now, put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun. Pour away the ocean and
sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good”.
Compare this to the inspiration of Herman Hesse:
“Sometimes, when a bird cries out,
Or when the wind sweeps through a tree
Or a dog howls in a far off farm
I hold still and listen a long time.
My soul turns and goes back to the place
Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my brothers”.
Fraser Darling the great Scottish biologist, said:
“To deprive the world of physical wilderness, would be to inflict a grievous
wound on our own kind”.
My great friend the late John Aspinall, the most famous gambler in Britain who
became a conservationist and who, even when devastated by cancer of the jaw,
continued to campaign and poured millions into the saving of the gorilla and other
conservation causes, said:
“I believe that wilderness is the earth’s greatest treasure. Wilderness is the
bank on which all cheques are drawn. I believe our debt to nature is total. I
believe that unless we recognise this debt and re-negotiate it—we write our
own epitaph. I believe that there is an outside chance to save the earth—and
most of its tenants. This outside chance must be grasped with gamblers’
hands. I believe that terrible risks must be taken and terrible passions roused
before these ends can be accomplished.”
We are all engaged in a momentous struggle and we owe it to the early pioneers to
honour their vision and their achievements.
This is our task in the 21st century. We need something that will stir our psychic
depths and touch the images of the soul. It has to surpass creeds and instantly be
recognised. We must learn a new language to convey the feelings of beauty, hope,
inspiration and sacredness for humanity and all other life. We need to remember the
first principle of ecology: that “everything is connected to everything else.”
And the wilderness experience is the spiritual spark that ignites the understanding.