Lessons from the Wilderness
The wilderness can simultaneously strip us of our humanity and teach us about what it means to be human. In this way, the wild compels us to consider how connected we feel to our surroundings.
That the wild emanates an incessant beckoning call is no secret. Jack London’s masterpiece The Call of the Wild is named after it. London describes his narrator experiencing the magnetic pull of the wild: “deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire ... and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why.” What’s more, London’s protagonist in this short novel is not a man, as we might assume, but a wild dog. The call of the wild is felt by human and dog alike, and by the primordial wolf within everyone.
But the modern conception of the wilderness is a paradox for us. While it’s a place of undeniable, pure freedom, a place that we are naturally called to, it’s commonly defined as a land free from the exploits of humanity. It follows that, in a sense, we are always visitors in the wild. Of course, we can travel into the depths of the wilderness, even live in it, but the extent to which the wilderness continues – because it, like everything, can be extinguished – is the extent to which humanity, we, understand its role within it. Experiencing a place that is by definition fundamentally separate from us allows for a penetrating lesson in what it is, conversely, to be human. Being in the wilderness prompts the willing towards an exploration of what it means to be a human in this world.
The silence can be totally deafening in the wilderness. A silence so full, complete and penetrating that one instinctively bristles. You become alert, ready, awaiting nothing; you start listening. The wind like a wave crashes into the canopy above and the crescendo of bird song, the snap of branches and your heartbeat, which is now audible, ring through your body like a primal orchestra. In the desert you can almost hear distance, as your ears stretch out in all directions, finding nothing. At altitude the night’s incoming voice is heard in the swelling mist.
And the wild has many voices. Herman Hesse’s spiritual classic, Siddhartha asks the reader, “is it not true ... that the river has very many voices? Has it not the voice of a King, of a warrior, of a bull, of a night bird, of a pregnant woman and a sighing man and of a thousand other voices?” Then later, sitting by the flowing river, we observe two men listening “silently to the water, which to them was not just water, but the voice of life".
Through all of the endless choral repetitions of nature, a human encased within the wild comes to know the ever-present and silent current, like a river, moving through everything. Engrossed in perennial conversation, the flora and fauna around you partake in a great cosmic waltz. The more you immerse yourself in the unadorned wilderness, the more you feel this current – the rhythmic language of the wild – move through your own body too. What was once so essentially separate becomes so essentially inseparable. And so, slowly, the threshold between man and other unravels. We should all, at some point in life, consider ourselves in this way.
You can feel totally alone in the wild too. Perhaps there is no-one else for hours and if anything happens you are totally on your own. But, of course, you are never alone. People say loneliness is felt by those that have not yet shaken the divisive shackles that tie them to their own humanity – to their sense of power derived from total domination of the natural world. You are no more alone in the wilderness than you are in a plaza. The silent connecting thread alive in the wild, coursing through everything, binds you to soil and sky. We are as much a lineage of the bark on the tree as we are from the skin of humankind.
Succumbing to this loneliness through total perceived isolation in the wilderness leads to the most important lesson I have learnt, especially as a white male born into privilege. There’s a unique strength derived from the brutal realities of the wild. As Christopher McCandless notes in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, it is important in life “not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”
The extent to which the wilderness continues – because it, like everything, can be extinguished – is the extent to which humanity, we, understands its role within it.
Imagine a world where we respect and appreciate the wilderness out there and the wilderness nestled deep within our very bones, where the masculine and the feminine beg for equanimity.
Spending time in the wilderness is humbling and it prompts a new conception of what it means to be strong and powerful. To be content, grounded and connected: this is power. While empowerment has become a defining ethos for our current epoch, illuminating oppression and underrepresentation, men, like myself, must learn the inverse of conventional power. This is power that comes from vulnerability; a power that comes from feeling like you have none. The power that comes from accepting the power of the wild, which envelopes you like a womb.
The power of the patriarchy is felt in the destruction of the wilderness. The other side, the power of the feminine, if I may, is the power gifted to you by the unadorned beauty of our wild places. Accepting the rugged beauty of the wild is reflective of accepting the same natural, unabashed beauty in each and every one of us. Fairness does not exist in the wild, yet each thing is equal; the wilderness instills within us invaluable lessons of resilience and acceptance.
Imagine a world once again in balance, ruled by the law of the wild. Imagine a world where we respect and appreciate the wilderness out there and the wilderness nestled deep within our very bones, where the masculine and the feminine beg for equanimity. I’m a rich white kid that jumped over the back fence, hearing the call of the wild. It’s the best thing I ever did. Take a moment to sit by a flowing river and listen.