A couple winters ago I wrote a post about my resonance with some of Sigurd Olson’s musings. In that post I posed the question: What is wilderness to you? And I wrote:
That’s a question I’m committed to continuing to ask. It comes across as a simple question. But I don’t think the answer is obvious or static. It sparks all sorts of sub-questions; certainly geographical and ecological ones, but also political and existential questions; personal, communal, and theological questions; questions that chafe and questions that comfort. The question is itself a wild one.
Two years later and I am indeed still asking that question: What is wilderness?
There is not a simple answer. I continue to resonate with Sigurd Olson’s reflections that wilderness is a spiritual necessity; the context of an ineffable experience of release; a bestower of perspective; the breathing space that we need in our day-to-day lives; a symbol of serene vitality in a frenzied world.
But wilderness is more than all of the beautiful things that it is. Wilderness is also a contested concept, a privileged destination, a divisive issue, a commercial gimmick, and a trigger of traumas.
In many ways, as one trained in the field of theology, I see the idea of wilderness akin to the concept of God: Liberating to some, oppressive to others, and inconsequential to the rest. And similarly, the task of setting forth an absolute definition of what wilderness is, or what it means to experience wildness, is a fool’s errand when detached from the relational gravity that draws us close to lived reality.
With my work for Renewal in the Wilderness I’m not trying to define wilderness, but to foster space to develop a relationship with wilderness.
I hope that in doing that the relationship carries over into postures and policies that embrace wild nature as inherently valuable, as well as policies that grapple with the rights and responsibilities that people have in relation to land use.
I hope that the dynamic nature of the idea of wilderness informs our capacity of imagination so that we can navigate conflict and contradiction with grace.
I hope that engaging with wilderness helps us to understand, with Mary Oliver, that: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Knowing that to be alive as human animals means that sometimes we struggle and sometimes we make nests.
I hope that through a practiced and thoughtful relationship with our own wildness we find that neither wrestling nor resting can be full-time endeavors, but that we must engage the compulsion for each.
My priority as a wilderness guide is to facilitate encounters with all sorts of wild nature, wild places, and wild ways of being so that people are inspired to live compassionate lives informed by experiences of connection and wonder.
So I’m doubling down on my commitment to continue asking the question.
And I hope that when I’m asked I can answer with Thoreau that “in wildness is the preservation of the world”, not because it’s easy to define what that means, but because it isn’t.
I hope that in our relationship with the wildness of wilderness we find a venue of formation, and that the form we take is ever more passionate about life and compassionate toward the world.