Church Times, September 2050
“RUB this on your arms,” the Ranger told me, handing over a pot of nostril-clearing citrusy goop.
So began my trip into the wild.
Although, in truth, the journey had started many months before, when the Church Times first began navigating the Byzantine application system for my visa to enter the great Biosphere Recovery Reserve. In the past 14 years, since more than 70 per cent of our planet’s surface was designated as an official Reserve, these visas have been notoriously difficult to secure. We were lucky (or perhaps just patient).
All of us know how important the colloquial “big wild” really is. In about 2020, our climate seemed doomed: there was a heavy toll in lives lost to extreme weather. Even when we reached the tipping point when renewables became radically cheaper then old fuels, the amount of legacy carbon meant that we felt locked into an unstoppable collapse.
But then we remembered the “forgotten” solution of forests as natural carbon sinks. And new breakthroughs proved that, if we let it, nature might manage to generate enough biomass to start regulating the climate again.
Most of us already lived in increasingly self-sufficient cities by the 2030s. So we did the unthinkable: we left the land and sea to repair itself. And today’s satellite monitoring systems reveal a regrowing Amazon delta, a repairing tundra, and newly fertile seas — as well as part-per-million carbon-dioxide emissions lower than anyone thought possible (apart from the crazy climate optimists who pushed for all of this).
BUT let’s be honest. While we all appreciate and depend on this rebound of our planet’s life-support system, the solving of climate change is not what intrigues us most about the Big Wild.
Like billions of others from Durban to Dubai or Dublin, I grew up romanticising the Reserve. Of course, I go jogging in our city parks, hike in the designated human-access national parks, and have even been to a beach, once in a while. But there are always other people, and plenty of them.
We have become a city species. We programme our 3D-printers to pop out whatever we need, then dump what we don’t want back into the 3D-breaker to close the loop. We tend our hydroponics lettuces and try to race the high-speed trams on our bikes. And, like everyone else, I obsessively plug my VR into the Geo Channel. While I’m petting rhinos, swinging with bonobos, and hunting with orcas, it feels intensely real.
But somewhere, deep down, I know that it’s not.
In those first few moments when our e-truck passed the border sensors and entered the Big Wild, I knew what reality was, and it smelt of citronella.
After driving for hours in the dense dark green, we camped in light tents. During that first night, my body recognised I wasn’t in VR before my mind truly believed it.
In our virtual world, I love to sleep in deep forests, deserts, or even on Mars. But here the sounds, so similar to VR, somehow managed to cut through my senses and deep into my limbic system. Every bird call, rustle in the trees, or shriek set my nerves jangling.
I kept reminding myself that the Rangers carry tasers for protection against the organised poachers: a scourge that is seemingly impossible to root out. But, when I heard the first undulating howl, at about 2 a.m., even the thought of tasers felt terrifyingly inadequate.
I remembered the total-liability waiver I had signed, and realised that it was more than just red tape.
That thought occurred to me more than once on this trip. And yet, at the moment when my life was perhaps most in danger, it couldn’t have been further from my mind. Our e-truck came packed with a flimsy hide: a boxy camouflaged tent. We would set it up and sit silently for hours watching the wildlife, or, more often than not, the total absence of wildlife — but nevertheless the awe-inspiring dappled sunlight on the leaves. I swear I could feel the oxygen-carbon exchange pump around me.
It was after one particularly uneventful afternoon of watching the trees, when my eyelids had started to flutter as dusk inched over us, when the atmosphere in the hide changed.
Without moving a muscle, suddenly both Rangers were on full alert. Ridiculously, I turned away from the view to look at them, before one raised her eyebrows and nodded silently outwards.
I turned to look and, like my companions, froze.
The originator of the howl I had heard stood there. A wolf. Larger, more alive, and more truly terrifying than anything virtual reality has yet dreamed up. Or perhaps it wasn’t terror, but an exhilaration I had never felt before in my urban, sustainable, life.
Dark-grey fur, ears twisting and twitching unnervingly as the rest of the beast’s body remained statue still — staring at us.
Oh yes, she knew we were there. Afterwards, the Rangers explained that this was a matriarch of the pack, old enough to remember when she and her cubs were hunted for sport.
As the temperature dropped, her nostrils shot sharp busts of condensation into the air. The fine hairs on my arm rose as she peeled back her upper lip to reveal sharp creamy incisors. My soft monkey body shivered, the flight-or-fight poisons flooding my bloodstream. And, for the first time in my life, I looked into the sentient eyes of a non-human.
And, right there, I knew. Despite our giant wind-turbines and solar cities, our airships and VR playgrounds; despite our sustainable city lives and eco-inventions; despite all our zero-carbon civilisation — I am, in my heart, still a thing of the wild.
Solitaire Townsend is co-founder of the change agency Futerra.