On Cycling Silk’s most recent expedition, Kate and Mel write about the idea of Wasteland vs. Wilderness. Their task on this leg of the journey is to explore the complexities and challenges of conservation on the Ustyurt Plateau, which is a transboundary desert between westernmost Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, tucked between the Caspain and Aral Seas.
The Ustyurt Plateau is home to the saiga, which is a critically endangered species of antelope. Poaching is mainly to blame for this as they are hunted for their meat and medicinal purposes of the males’ horns. In addition to the decline of the saiga, the drainage of the Aral Sea (caused by intensive Soviet-era and ongoing cotton irrigation) makes this area an extreme example of human-wreaked environmental havoc. The Ustyurt and the Aral Sea are both huge stretches of “barren lands” unpopulated by people; local people deem both places wastelands.
Language carries an enormous burden of consciousness, especially when it comes to arguing for the protection of the natural world. Call a wilderness like the Ustyurt a wasteland, and who cares what happens to it? Call saiga horns medicine, and who cares about the rare antelopes that grow with them, except as a poachable source of profit? Language shapes perceptions, and perceptions shape actions, and actions shape our world. So the way we talk about wild things matters, even though wilderness itself is a concept as evasive as a saiga antelope. Like life itself, like love above all, wilderness is difficult to define; “it resists the intelligence,” to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, “almost successfully.” But we know it when we see it, when we feel it. And perhaps especially when we don’t.