A somewhat technical question is proposed by Dr W of South Yorkshire who declares himself bewildered by our understanding and use of the two words ‘wildness’ and ‘wilderness’.
The Brown Advisor is not above the technical, nor the pedantic either, when it comes to it.
A wilderness is a kind of garden popular in the 17th and early 18th centuries (note 81). However I found myself turning over his observation as I fought my way through the bramble-clad wilderness at one of Capability Brown’s less well-known designs – let me just say that it is in Shropshire, before adding that the place is a wonderful coming together of those two words ‘wildness’ and ‘wilderness’, and that they do indeed share their etymology. Indeed they have long been related – both were in Watson’s mind when he wrote of Nonsuch in the 17th century: ‘The wilderness … is, in fact, neither wild nor deserted’, and it was later made again by Hirschfeld: ‘A wilderness must not be confused with a wasteland. Where barren, infertile fields of sand burn, where naked cliffs and piles of stone press against each other, where foul, stinking water creeps along, inhabited by snakes and lizards, where a wolf lurks in a hidden den waiting for his spoils, where even he is frightened by the nightly clamour of more powerful monsters, where desolate, deserted nature mourns all around and no human voice breaks the eternal silence — that is a wasteland….’
‘Wildness’ conveyed unkempt, savage and dangerous, while on the other hand ‘wilderness’ was a translation from the New Testament Greek έρημια meaning a place of desolation and solitude, via the Latin as desertum (‘Among … the strange phantasmes of vanitie … wherein the world still esceedeth, one is the invention of a wildernesse which often is adjoyned to great gardens belonging to great houses, and by a multitude of thick bushes and trees affecting an ostentation of solitarinesse in the midst of worldly pleasures’ as Michael Jermin wrote in 1639. In consequence of this isolated character, the wilderness served Elizabeth I as a hide. In fact, to return to my note 81, its solitary character was also to be found in orchards, as John Hill lamented, ‘there cannot be a more gloomy Prospect than one of the old English Orchards: Trees so close that their Tops meet, and a green Sward beneath, of no Use because spoiled by the perfect Shade…’
Finally then Dr W, while ‘wilderness’ derives from the same root as ‘bewilder’, we should not on that account confuse ‘wilderness’ as a type of garden with a labyrinth – a type of garden designed to bewilder. It will be in the interest of the inquiring reader to report that Brown worked with both – the Wilderness Pit at Tottenham for example, and the Maze at Hampton Court, but the two forms could not have been more different.