Not even the army Landrovers had broken the ice. The puddles in the ruts were frozen solid, five or six inches thick. Some of the shallower puddles had become detached from their bases, hovering over frozen bubbles of air. These were thin enough to smash through, making the sound of a stone being thrown through a window. Beneath the ice was dust. The chalk road was dry as a desert. Once or twice a pickup truck drove past, kicking up a cloud of dust, golden in the sunlight, which was slowly dissipated by the east wind, covering the ice puddles with a thin layer of dust, desert camouflage.
I was on the edge of Salisbury Plain, following the perimeter road around the Larkhill Camp impact area. This is where the army train their tank drivers and artillery. Guns were firing in the distance in rounds of six. I could see the dust and smoke rise from where they impacted, about four miles to the south. It was the first really cold weather of the winter, the first week of February, just as the first signs of spring had begun to appear.
Between the crumpling of the shells, there was silence. Not, strictly speaking, true silence, but the silence of the plain. Curlews and finches occasionally piping up. The London to Penzance train, on the edge of hearing, down in the valley, out of sight on the other side of the ridge about four or five miles north. Silence sometimes isn’t silence, it’s being able to hear things that are usually too faint.
Somewhere on the Plain, a conservation society has released a colony of great bustards, the county bird of Wiltshire, that became extinct in the UK over a century ago. Apart from occasionally being shelled by incompetent soldiers (who are under strict instructions to leave them alone), the bustards will be entirely undisturbed by people. People say that Salisbury Plain is one of the wildest places in England, full of rare birds and lizards. An unlikely wilderness, like a contaminated industrial estate, an old nuclear testing site, a crack in the pavement.
Just as in most other places that seem wild in the UK, Salisbury Plain is managed to prevent it reverting back to wildwood. Cows graze the pitted and rutted grasslands in the summer, taking care of any birch or hawthorn saplings taking root. But there’s something else, that somehow seems more fundamental, that’s stopping me feeling like I’m looking out over a rare wilderness.
Every hundred metres or so I come to another sign warning me to keep off, to beware of unexploded ordnances, reminding me of the bylaws prohibiting my presence. And every kilometre or so is a red flag. There’s no fence, nothing actually stopping me from heading off into the head of the Plain, to take my chances with the landmines and artillery. But of course I won’t. This perimeter road is as strong as any fence, the signs as impenetrable as razor wire. It’s a Berlin Wall in my head, an Iron Curtain. But what should that have to do with the wilderness? Why do I have to be allowed in for it to feel really wild? In the USA, National Parks and designated wilderness zones are patrolled and access only granted to a certain number of people per year. The waiting list to canoe down the Colorado River runs into decades.
It’s the same as the silence. Nowhere can, strictly speaking, be a wilderness. Atmospheric pollution and anthropogenic climate change effect the whole world. Radioactive isotopes from nuclear testing and meltdowns are carried by the wind, which doesn’t stop to read the No Entry signs. And a wilderness totally separated from humanity would be the silence of a cave, a tree falling in a wood.