Bea hunches over the earth, burying her stillborn daughter. She’s broken with grief, even for this child she did not want, whom she couldn’t envision bringing into such a hopeless world. But there’s no time to linger, as Bea lives in the wilderness. Animals are circling, hoping to find food for their own young, and Bea’s community is about to move on. She must redirect her attention to her living daughter, 8-year-old Agnes.
“They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living.”
In The New Wilderness, Diane Cook deepens her study of the relationship between humans and the earth, which she previously explored in the short story collection Man V. Nature. Bea and her husband, Glen, are part of a nomadic community in a wilderness state. Life in the City was untenable, especially after Agnes became so ill that Bea was prepared for her daughter’s death.
“The Community” starts out with 20 people, though its numbers fluctuate as members die and others procreate. There isn’t a lot of privacy—even young Agnes is aware of the adults’ copulation—and community members know they must stick together, even with those they dislike. Community members submit to being fingerprinted, having their cheeks swabbed and other tests. They’re being studied, but for what, they can’t say.
The wilderness feels dystopian to Bea, but it’s nearly all Agnes can recall. As they navigate a changing terrain and their own emotional landscapes, Cook incorporates the whole of human experience. The New Wilderness examines our relationships to place and to others as the Community considers its right to be on the land and whether others have any business sharing the space.