Upon returning from a recent trip to the woods I found myself thinking about the true meaning of ‘wilderness’. As a writer, I’ve noticed most of my stories take place in either remote rural landscapes or deep in the inner city. This reflects my own biography, having spent most of my adult life living in large cities and most of my youth living in back-woods Maine. Of course, Stephen King has written quite a lot about Maine, and many diverse aspects of it. Yet I would venture to say, even as a fan of his writing, that in most cases, the way he engages Maine and Mainers could be characterized as ‘Small Town’ Maine. I think he has always done this exceptionally well, and growing up in Bangor during his time of coming to prominence as a novelist would be an interesting post in itself.
However, I’ve always felt like there was something else going on in my relationship with the locale where I grew up. I’m not talking so much about the small towns, but rather the remote lakes, streams and forests where my father spent as much time as he could, and where consequently, I spent a large amount of time during my formative years.
These places had a character that wasn’t quite so state-specific. Rather, I felt a sense of losing touch with mapped geography altogether and travelling back to something primordial. Being at the winter lake and listening to the ice bend and crack through the night, being at the summer lake and hearing the coyotes wailing far off in the hills had a limitless, impersonal kind of power. When we were in these places, we did not have running water or electricity, and often ate food that was hunted, gathered or caught. As a child this breadth of land and closeness of life and death had a profound impact on my mind. We were not church-going people and the old man rarely talked about impractical things. To the extent I heard anything close to spiritual, it centered on what animals had to do to survive. However, I would stop short of saying that nature itself was ‘spiritual’; instead I would substitute ‘nature’ with ‘wilderness’. I would consider wilderness a place where independence and survival constituted what was most important, and the landscape something to be tampered with only to the extent minimally required to facilitate survival’s priorities. True, animals and human beings living in these settings sometimes worked in groups, but there was a distinct sense of independence and thrift when it came to relationships that was nothing like what one experiences in day to day life in more civilized places.
Jump cut to my move to big cities—I have lived mostly in two large cities: Pusan, South Korea, and New York, New York, and for now will focus on New York.
When I began living in Brooklyn, I felt a stir very similar to what I felt when I would go to the remotest parts of Maine. Maybe that sounds crazy, because Brooklyn is so densely populated. But it did feel somehow familiar. Perhaps one factor might have been that the neighborhoods where I could afford to live were mostly impoverished, particularly when I first moved to the city in the late 1990’s. The doorways were thick with graffiti, the lots slithering with weeds and the carcasses of old cars. Most of us are familiar with scenes like these because many American cities have their own versions of them. But what took me aback about New York was the sheer size of it. Its immensity made it feel like an urban tundra—a place uncharted and not subject to the rules and regulations common to smaller cities, towns and suburbs.
And so wilderness began to take on a new meaning for me, something that consisted of what Maine and New York had in common—the sense of mystery, the sense of lawlessness and the sense of freedom. Whether urban or rural, these landscapes possessed a certain rugged power that could enliven narrative, particularly when dealing with subjects frightening or taboo. And though the setting alone would never be the whole of a story, venturing into lands ripe for exploration increased the chance for a thrilling discovery.