At Home in the Wilderness

At Home in the Wilderness
2-1-04
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I had always loved the wilderness. I love the wilderness from my experiences growing up with many opportunities to explore and play in the woods near my home. I grew up in the Bushnell Basin near to where the Erie Canal runs through the southern suburbs of Rochester, NY. Glaciers created the basin long ago, which accounts for the many sudden hills and lowlands. Across the street from my house was one such lowland. The ground dropped down several dozen feet to a broad swath of trees and clearings that we called The Flats. (not really enough to count as ‘wilderness’ but as a child it was enough.) Every spring and fall the Flats would become a maze of flooded creeks and overgrown puddles, and all winter there would thick patches of ice everywhere. The land was not useful for farming or development and so was left to go wild with trees and shrubs, left to grow wild for the imagination and exploration of children. Once I was old enough to be outside on my own, I spent nearly every nice afternoon down in the flats. A friend and I built forts out of scrap wood. We would make a fort and then a few weeks later tear it down, move it all to another location and build again. I developed a strong sense of ownership to the Flats, not so much in a possessive sense, more like it was a gift for me to open anew each day. It feels like I spent years down there, like it was an extension of my own home.

This connection with nature runs through my whole childhood. It is a connection that I regret my own children have not had a chance to develop until recently. One of the reasons we bought the house we did is that it has a bit of woods in the back yard that opens out into a lot of woods running up the side of Poplar Hill (a steep climb, not conducive to development.) I was so thrilled to have a backyard with woods. “You see those trees?” I would grin playfully, “Those are my trees! I own those trees!” But of course, they are not really my trees. You can’t own trees, you can enjoy them and you can use them and you can love the trees, but you can’t really own them. Yet in some ways, I still have that innocent love of nature, a love deeply settled in a romantic perception and youthful experiences of wilderness.

This is not what most people think of when they speak of wilderness. For most people the idea of wilderness grew out of the basic Judeo-Christian stories of wilderness. Moses freed the Hebrew people from Egypt only to wander in the wilderness for forty years. It was a hard time and they barely had enough with them to survive. The people did not know where they were going or when they would ever get there. Wilderness appears again when Jesus goes out into the wilderness for forty days and is tempted by Satan. The Wilderness is a place of exile, a place of testing, a trial to endure. It is certainly not a place you want to be, except as a step in the journey before you can move on to better things. With these stories imbedded in the culture, wilderness is then used as a metaphor to describe difficult times on a spiritual journey, times in your life when you felt lost or abandoned.

Interestingly, there was a shift in the idea of wilderness as something to be endured to wilderness as something to be conquered. It would make sense for such a shift to take place as the western frontier of America was being explored and “tamed,” though I’m sure Americans cannot lay sole claim to experiencing this shift. The legacy seems to be that whether it is endured or conquered, people certainly do not feel comfortable with it.

Wendell Berry’s poem, The Peace of Wild Things presents a very different perspective. Not only is wilderness comfortable, it is peaceful and freeing.

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Whether it is the writings of Wendell Berry or Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, Annie Dillard or Rachael Carson, or Chief Seattle, nature writers help us to articulate and integrate our experiences of wilderness.

I recently read through a wonderful book entitled The Geography of Childhood. It is worth the price of the book just for the captivating photos at the front of each chapter. The book is a series of essays by authors Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble they present their hypothesis that children need wild places in their lives. Using mostly stories from their own lives and the lives of their children along with a sound base of theory, the authors make a compelling case. The hypothesis is not that everyone needs wild places, but that children need wild places. Children in particular need wild places for developmental reasons. Surveys claim that less that ten percent of adults see the quality of the environment as an important issue, “over ninety percent of our children feel it is the major issue in their lives.” (p 40) They are drawn to wild places like moths to a flame. My experiences and feelings about nature fit well with what these authors suggest.

Children and adults approach nature very differently. Where adults often look at nature with an eye toward the “Picturesque panoramas and scenic overlooks,” (p 6) children see what is near at hand, the little details right at their feet. In the first chapter, Nabhan describes taking his kids on a camping trip. After they returned home he writes that he was surprised when he processed the film from that trip. “When we opened up a packet of [our son’s] snapshots from the trip, we were greeted with crisp close-ups of sagebrush lizards, yucca, rock art, and sister’s funny faces. The few obligatory views of expansive canyons seemed, by contrast, blurred and poorly framed.” (Ibid)

Another manifestation of the difference in perspective is the way children seek out close little niches. All those forts my friend and I built testify to truth of that. There have been studies about how children use elementary school playgrounds. In one situation, they replaced “an acre and a half of asphalt with a diverse group of traditional playground swings and bars; structures and sitting area; and a half-acre of fishing ponds, streams, woods, and meadows.” (p 66) Then they watched the children to see where and how they played. One aspect they found was how “the natural area of the playground saw wider ranges of activities and more mixing of the genders.” (Ibid) The bit of asphalt they left was used primarily by boys for competitive ball games. This is how some of the children described the natural area: “It’s a very good place. Really quiet. Lots of kids just sit around there and talk.” “It’s just perfect.” (Ibid) Children make themselves at home in little places in the wilderness.

The book is primarily descriptive and does not speculate as to what cognitive or social developmental step such experiences fulfill. I suspect the broader a child’s sense of home is, the broader her or his future circle of care and concern can become. The authors ask the question, “What may happen now that so many more children are denied exposure to wilderness than at any time in human history?” In the preface Trimble and Nabhan suggest one answer to that.

Many young people … have no time to familiarize themselves with the names of the few plants and animals that remain in their immediate surroundings, because they are busy absorbing other taxonomies they believe more critical to their daily survival. Consider a PBS interview conducted in the wake of the Los Angeles riots of 1992. One adolescent in south-central L.A. listed a half-dozen different automatic weapons used on the street, and he was able to identify each by its sound. He did not see this as an unusual piece of discriminatory knowledge for someone his age. These were the sounds he heard, learned, and sensed to be vital to his own existence. In another place and time, he would have spoken as matter-of-factly about the calls of six common species of hawks and owls. (p xiii)

I wonder if children who do not find natural wilderness in their lives, crave it in other outlets. I make the same argument against modern watered-down children’s stories that distinctly remove all sense of danger and conflict and scary situations. Children are drawn to natural wilderness, and when denied it, they may seek out the feelings of awe and danger in more destructive venues such as street gangs, for example. As one naturalist (Frank Burroughs) said in response to the some people’s desire to have children respect nature rather than rough-house in it, “Better to let kids be a hazard to nature, and let nature be a hazard to them.” (p 9) Nature is unforgiving to be sure, but it is never malicious.

I spent two summers up at Unirondack as the camp chaplain. Each morning I would rise early and go to the side porch of the lodge or to the lakeside to meditate. Camp life can be a little chaotic for the staff. Fifteen minutes of silent stillness at the beginning of each day is what saved me. One morning I was sitting on one of the two docks at the lakeside. I went down to the water, lit a candle, and I sat. I am silent during these times, but the world around me is not. I could hear the wind in the trees, the sounds of various chirping insects and woodland birds, and the male loon. A pair of loons has owned this lake for many years. They have a nest over there by the small island among the reeds and lilies. This morning, a blue heron has flown in on the lake, which explains the awful amount of noise the loon has been making.

The heron is tall and stately as it glides low and silent across the water. It alights at the end of the other dock about thirty feet from where I sit in silent meditation. The loon is obviously upset. The loon is out in the middle of the lake making a beautiful and eloquent sound of dominance and command. The heron stands poised and unperturbed on the opposite dock. I sit, silent. The majesty of these two characters causes a humble joy to well up within me merely for being allowed to be a witness.

The loon moves closer, making a melodic clamor, and the heron opens its wings. Effortlessly, it lifts off and is suddenly drifting toward me! As if to make ready to settle down at my side, the long elegant bird glides soundlessly closer. My heart leaps, my breath catches. I see the slope of the neck, the blue tinge in the feathers, the legs outstretched, the black eye fixed on the dock, on my dock. I shift my body. Why did I do that? It nearly landed right next to me! Why did I flinch?

The heron made the slightest shift of wing and floated off to the right, a mere two feet from my shoulder. It circled briefly as the loon made his musical vociferations. I sat, breathless, as the heron sailed low over the water back from whence it came. I sat, shaken and amazed at a renewed understanding given to me of how I fit in this intricate web of life.

Yet I seem to always flinch. This is what happened when I communed with a stone as I described it last week. I felt a oneness with everything, I felt my place in the whole, yet I flinched and it only lasted an instant. Likewise, as the heron floated toward me as if I, too, belonged on the dock, a deep part of me recognized my place among the wild things, and yet some overlay of culture warned that it could not be so.

In the end we will only save what we love, and we will only love what we know, and we will only know what we experience. I invite each of you to listen for and heed that deep voice within you that cries out in recognition of a sunset or the lonely, longing wolf howl. I invite you to recognize the whisper of kinship borne on the wind, … recognize and respond.

In a world without end, may it be so.