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Getting to the roots of wilderness : Chinese Canadian immigrant perceptions of wilderness in British Columbia Geddes, Bronwen Claire

Abstract

For centuries, Western societies thought of wilderness as a barren, desolate place that harboured temptation and sin. Over the last hundred and fifty years, a marked shift has occurred in Western perception of this so-called savage place; it has become revered, protected, and even worshipped. What was once the Devil's playground is now thought to provide a locus of spiritual regeneration and hope for the future. In North America, this pronounced shift is thought to coincide with notions of the sublime and the frontier. This study explores the perceptions of wilderness among Chinese Canadian immigrants in British Columbia, people who have been less influenced by concepts of the sublime and frontier. It examines closely the idea that wilderness today is a self-evident construct that holds across most inhabitants of the province. Instead, ideas about wilderness held by people who have immigrated from China, similar to the ideas held by early immigrants from Europe, are influenced by tradition (especially Confucianism, Taoism, and, more recently, Maoism), space (i.e. coming from densely populated areas), and language. Through this study, it has become apparent that the language and discourse surrounding wilderness in Canada is markedly different from that of Chinese Canadian immigrants. While the language and meaning of wilderness, as referred to in Western society, is assumed relatively easily for interviewees, the identification with moral and aesthetic responses common to discussions of wilderness in North America is much less likely to manifest itself. Wilderness, which represented barrenness and desolation to interviewees when they lived in China, has come to represent forests, mountains, animals, and lack of human influence. What previously had different philosophical meaning, now, in a cognitive sense, represents beauty and, potentially, a locus of spirituality. The results of this study have important consequences for decision-making in cross-cultural environments. Policy surrounding wilderness or environmental preservation may be without meaning or relevance to new immigrants, who bring with them shared meanings and relationships to nature that may or may not be incongruous with Canadian environmental policy. In facing such debates, it is crucial to understand the perceptions of various players and how those ideas are linked to tradition, language, and the geography of the familiar. It is also critical to ask - What is wilderness and why are we protecting it above all else?

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