“Wild” and “wildness” have been used, and overused, to describe everything from adventure parks to cosmetics companies, and because of this it has become a challenge to define the words. Wilderness depicted in overhead shots of the Rocky Mountains or in tourism ads for Pacific Rim National Park are what most people think of when asked, “what does ‘wild’ mean to you?” The answer to this question, and an exploration into how humans engage with the “wilderness,” is at the heart of Phillip and April Vannini’s third book, In the Name of Wild: One Family, Five Years, Ten Countries, and a New Vision of Wildness.
The book blends ethnography with journal entries from Phillip and the couple’s daughter, Autumn, photographs, and vivid descriptions of everything from the food and accommodations in the Dolomites to the nerve-racking crossing of a river on the “Demon Trail” on New Zealand’s South Island. The accessible prose immerses us in the landscapes and geography most people see only via nature documentaries or Instagram, while simultaneously making the reader ask necessary questions about whose land we’re on, and what draws us there.
The book’s chapters span 10 countries and 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ranging from the Galapagos Islands to Thingvellir National Park in Iceland and Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. With the help of local gatekeepers and guides, the Vanninis explore Belize’s Great Blue Hole and wrangle wild elephants near Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan National Park, but their travels aren’t simply about sightseeing and photo-ops. The gatekeepers are tasked with setting up interviews with researchers, artists, conservationists, farmers, fishermen, climbers, and more, all in the hope of the authors grasping hold of the elusive meaning of wilderness and wild.
However, the compelling question propelling the book is often lost in the vast undertaking. The interviews and insights provided by the people Phillip, April, and Autumn meet on their travels make the reader confront their own assumptions about nature and wildness, but too often the Vanninis’ ventures distract from the purpose of the project. At other times, it’s clear that the narrative is created by ethnographers, and the quantity of research muddies the intention of each chapter and the focus of the book.
Throughout In the Name of Wild Phillip and April Vannini hint at what’s implied through their research: wilderness without humans is a fabrication, and much of what we think of as “wilderness” exists because of conservation and land management. Their local sources are quick to remind them how wilderness has been commodified and exists as an escape for urban dwellers. At various points the narrative calls out for the authors to step away from their role as researchers and to insert their opinions and reflections on their own preconceived ideas of what “wild” means. (Their previous books, Wilderness and Inhabited: Wildness and the Vitality of the Land, and a documentary based on Inhabited, also looked at the nature and meaning of wild places.)
The understanding the Vanninis arrive at is that wildness is about relationship and bond, but by the end of the book, questions that still need to be answered include: How did their relationship with wilderness and wildness shift over the course of their travels? And how did this undertaking change their previous understandings of the bond humans have with nature? Autumn and Phillip’s journal entries add moments of reflection and insight that contribute necessary dimensions to the descriptions of their destinations and the interviews. The strength of the research offered in In the Name of Wild would have been augmented and enriched by the authors engaging more with their findings not just as anthropologists, but as settlers, parents, and travellers.