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Rockies key in wildness project

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Five minutes is all it took.

April Warn-Vannini and Phillip Vannini joined Rockies interpretive guide Joel Hagen for a snowshoe hike north of Lake Louise, and five minutes into their walk they felt immersed in a wild landscape.

"Five minutes, that is all it took for us to feel removed from shops, hotels, and the rest of society," Phillip said. "Of course, as we continued on, that feeling became even more intense and it became clear that you don't always need to walk for days before you can feel that you are in a wild place."

More than casual tourists, the Vanninis are instructors at B.C.'s Royal Roads University — April as a post-doctorate researcher in the School of Communication and Culture, Phillip as a professor and Canada Research Chair in Public Ethnography. For two weeks they interviewed guides, writers, historians, scientists, administrators, conservationists, business owners, First Nations and other Rockies' locals as part of their five-year In the Name of the Wild project, exploring cross-cultural meanings of wildness and the consequences of naming landscapes natural, wild, or pristine.

"We are interested in studying the 'nature of wildness' and to understand the many meanings of wild worldwide," April explained. "We are also interested in the cultural aspects of wildness."

Overall, they'll visit 24 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Natural Sites, including 10 in Canada, exploring how wild natures are made, protected and experienced. UNESCO sites are defined as having superlative natural phenomena, exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance, significant examples of geological, ecological, and biological processes, and important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity.

"Some people might say these are the most pristine, wild, or purely natural places remaining on our planet," Phillip said. "Others might say that by naming these places natural or wild we are simply ignoring the peoples and cultures that make them so special."

Their project was inspired while visiting Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, which they believed to be inhabited solely by animals. They were surprised to discover 35,000 people living there.

"We were surprised by how the idea of 'wild' had been largely created by wildlife documentaries and tour operators, which somehow manage to separate human society from 'nature' by hiding people backstage," April said.

"We are not suggesting that the Galapagos didn't feel wild at times — we were simply struck by the idea that wildness is so often synonymous with the exclusion of people and the separation of culture and nature."

Spending time with Stoney Nakoda First Nation members, for whom the region has been home for generations, was significant.

"I don't know why, but when you mention Banff National Park to most Canadians, First Nations history is arguably not the first thing that comes to their mind.

"So, it was extremely important for us to spend some time with members of the Stoney Nakoda to learn about their perspective on the Park, to understand more about the ways in which their traditional knowledge is sometimes taken into account and integrated into park management, but also about the ways in which sometimes they still feel excluded and misunderstood."

The idea of wildness can mean many different things to different people living in dramatically different cultural and environmental contexts.

"We need to remember that a place like that maybe felt particularly 'wild' to us because it was foreign to us, it was unfamiliar," she explained.

When asked to name the wildest place they've ever been, most people describe places that are far from their homes, giving the impression wild is an unfamiliar, strange, even scary place, April said.

"We can't forget that equating wild with foreign is a white man's construction: it's the invention of a city dweller who feels out of place and ends up sticking a label on a place that he doesn't truly know or understand."

The two plan for their project to culminate in a book, plus two documentary videos, in addition to newspaper, magazine and web articles.

"There are social scientists who find that wildness is just an empty idea and that nature is just a simplistic notion that only exists in people's minds," Phillip said.

"And there are conservationists around the world who still believe that the best way to protect wildness is to lock every human outside of it. Research on wildness and wilderness is full of fights between these two groups of people. We are not doing this research to take sides with either of these groups, or to prove right or wrong any other interest group or ideology.

"As ethnographers, our job is not to preach but to listen, and then to share everything that we learn in a way that is respectful of the diversity, complexity, and depth of the issue."

To learn more about the project, visit www.phillipvannini.com/

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