How could we not be intrigued?
Casting an eye over some local maps from the late 1800s. Stumble and trip.
An actual place on the map.
The delineated form resembles a long-front-legged cartoon fox. We resist the urge to draw on ears, eyes, nose and a brush. Somewhat ironically, The Wilderness is represented by dotted clumps of trees contrasting with the surrounding patchwork of largely undefined white space.
A field trip beckons. Is it possible to visit The Wilderness as an actual place, rather than just as an idea? Is The Wilderness always just an idea, conjuring up clichéd images of distant rain forests, shifting desert sands or a featureless frozen tundra pulled towards a distant white edge of land and sky. What would this Wilderness look like in 2012?
On a sunny December Sunday of 2012 we set off to see what we can find and mentally attempt to visualise the area of the cartoon fox, as it is today. Our best guess is that if anything is left it may now be in the middle of a housing estate in Rosyth, Fife. There could also be a Tesco store and pub planted firmly in its hind quarters…
The above map dates from 1896 which predates the building of Rosyth, Scotland’s only Garden City. The town was built to service the Royal Naval Dockyard which began construction in 1909. The original houses were first occupied in 1915 and still stand, exuding a solidity and displaying attractive design features that would be alien to the mass, wooden boxbuilders of today. (Who would bet against the big bad wolf confronting a timber-framed flat pack?). The original tree-lined street plan also remains largely intact although you will have to search harder to find a front garden. Many are now paved over into parking spaces for the ubiquitous car.
Arriving in Rosyth, we orientate ourselves from the railway station and set off. As suspected, it is clear that the rear end of our fox, on the 1896 map, now houses a Tesco store with Cleos pub alongside. The main road through the town – Queensferry Road – dissects a later phase of house building on the other side. As we walk down Queensferry Road, there is certainly no obvious sign or hint of any wilderness. We can see some mature trees lining the side of the road but it is difficult to say whether these could be original Wilderness trees or part of the town landscaping plan. Following our noses we turn left into Wemyss Street and ponder on the name. “Wemyss” is derived from the Gaelic word ‘uaimh’, meaning ‘cave’. There are strong landscape resonances in Fife to the Wemyss caves up the coast, beyond Dysart but we guess that the linkage is more likely to be associated with the landowning Wemyss family. Descended from the MacDuff Earls of Fife, (Macbeth!) the Wemyss built their castle between what is now known as East and West Wemyss. There are certainly no obvious caves around, that we can see, but in appellation terms, the connotation of landed gentry hobnobbing with royalty sits well with the nearby Kings Road and Queensferry Road.
Walking along Wemyss Street, it does occur to us that this may be a short trip. We are surrounded by residential houses and yet looking at the map we must be walking over part of the fox’s torso mapped as The Wilderness in 1896. Maybe this is actually a walk of mourning. A wake for an idea that, for whatever reason, resulted in an area of land being named The Wilderness. We can also extrapolate from the local to the global and the sense of the Earth’s Wilderness footprint being appropriated, exploited, diminished and perhaps lost forever.
We continue to follow the sweep of Wemyss Street and start heading south when we come across a little cul-de-sac named The Woodlands. This feels better. The signs are singing. We can see trees to the East. This looks more promising – and it is.
Across the world, people have perceived forest wildernesses to be full of spirit, as if the real and visible world had an equally real but invisible world folded within it.
Jay Griffiths (Wild: An Elemental Journey, p. 53).
It never ceases to amaze how, within a few short steps, the feeling of our surroundings can change completely. Guy Debord talks of moving between zones of distinct psychic atmospheres in the city. We believe that this can also happen outwith an urban setting as described in our post on the Fife Coastal Path. This happens here. One minute we are unmistakably in a quiet residential area of a small Fife town. Our most noticeable observation is a black cat dozing contentedly on top of a blue plastic dustbin. She jumps down to greet us and walks a few paces alongside glad of the company. A few steps later and we are through that transition zone and enter The Wilderness. It really does exist.
It’s good to feel the sun today. Fingers of warmth entwine and clasp hands amongst us. The lichens on my skin dissolve into light and the ivy loosens slightly. Stretching up towards the blue, a moment held in these short, chill days. Drinking from the earth, heavy with water. Sustained.
There are movers on the path. Coming.
We enter the invisible, folded, other world of the wood. Old trees, bark encrusted with mottled green. Root formations resemble clawed, long-toed dinosaur feet. We expect them to lift free from the ground at any time.
Hollowed out stumps of wooden teeth sup on leaves and sunlight.
There is a sense of a trail through the woods but little evidence of human visitation. During our visit no one arrives. No one goes. Just us. The trees and the sound and sense of birds. We find out later that there is no through-route. You have to climb a fence at the other end to get out so The Wilderness is effectively a bounded area. No doubt this discourages the use of the woods as path of transit, but perhaps helps to retain a little sliver of embedded wilderness.
We have often found that bounded, hidden areas become covert fly tipping sites but there is remarkably little evidence of this practice. A stray carrier bag probably relates to the two empty cans of Foster’s lager tossed aside.
You can almost visualise the youngsters chipping in to scrape up enough money for their couple of cans before heading to the woods in anticipation of some bacchanalian wildness. We later find one car tyre and a bicycle frame. No white goods!
The purring murmur of running water soon entices and we follow the slope of the land down towards a wee burn.
Flowing here for many a year that’s what us wee burns do. The flow and the flux of the present moment, always existing in the eternal now. No history, no future, no time. Old Heraclitus was right you never step in the same burn twice.
Burn, stream, river, estuary. It’s all just a matter of scale.
A balloon lies trapped on the water underneath a branch. A human breath captured in time and space.
Imagine a situation where the last trace of human life on earth was the breath captured in a balloon? The most ephemeral of traces. Perhaps this is the breath of the Earth. The life-force slowly puckering, deflating, evaporating. If The Wilderness can exist in Rosyth, then why not the breath of Planet Earth?
We follow the burn through to the end of the wood, watched by the bug-eyed tree spirit. Chameleon eyes surveying, observing. Oblivious to time or circumstance.
Listening and watching the wildness of the fungi, spilling from the tree stump.
[L o s t t i m e i n t h e m o m e n t]
Over the fence at the other end and we are back in a residential street. We know that we are walking down the front leg of the cartoon fox. Appropriately, the road is called Burnside.
The paws of the fox mark the transition zone and we exit The Wilderness and track back through Rosyth past the Carnegie Institute.
Back to civilisation, the chimneys, the birds and the tags.
Appendix: The Wilderness over time
1915 – The Wilderness and our Fox are fully formed.
1926 -1927: The Garden City of Rosyth is now built. We can still see our fox although the rump has been annexed. A trail through The Wilderness is indicated on the map. Wilderness Cottage sits at the South West corner. Our best guess is that this was demolished and replaced by a new build church.
1952-1966: New residential building has dissected our Fox’s torso almost right through the middle.
2013: This is how The Wilderness is represented on Google Maps. Only a sliver of green remains – the head of our fox. The name has also disappeared but we know that however diminished it may be, The Wilderness most certainly does exist.
Now Playing: Andrew Chalk – The River that Flows into the Sands
Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey (London: Penguin Books, 2006).
Map extracts sourced through Old Maps UK