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What Does Wildness Mean to You?

Almost two decades ago, in 1999, Wild Earth journal dedicated its spring issue to the bold and sprawling topic, “Coming Home to the Wild.” Friends old and new probed the nascent idea of rewilding as both a personal endeavor and a proactive process of wilderness recovery—or, as Editor Tom Butler put it, “…from the perspective of the individual, community, culture, and landscape.” Tom began his editor’s note—aptly titled, “Rewilding Ourselves, Rewilding the Land”—with an epigraph quoting the eloquent and ever-inquisitive Scott Russell Sanders:

Wildness is the patterning power in this lavish production; it is orderly, extravagant, inventive. Wildness coils the molecules of DNA; it spirals the chambered nautilus and the nebulae; it shapes the whorls on a fingertip, the grain in wood, the planes of cleavage in stone; it regulates the waves breading on a beach and the beating of a heart; it designs the amoeba’s flowing form, the zebra’s stripes, the dance of the honeybee….

A woman with a backpack walks along a trail through a meadow laden with lupines and other wildflowers, toward snowy peaks in the distance.
Photo: Robert Long

In this particular issue’s river of words for wildness (Tom’s phrase), Wildlands Network co-founder John Davis identified several anchors necessary for securing our continent’s biodiversity, including the Forever Wild protection of our public lands and wildlands philanthropy directed at undeveloped private lands.

The lyrical voice of Terry Tempest Williams remembered folk singer Katie Lee and the once-serene and self-willed Glen Canyon for which she fought so hard, and conservation biologists John Terborgh and Michael Soulé made the case for megareserves and a scientific approach to their design.

Meanwhile, veteran wilderness proponent Howie Wolke bemoaned “too little wilderness” and “too much management,” while urging readers to approach wilderness with scientific prowess, yes, but also with soul.

…science without the aura of mystery and magic fails to grab many potential allies and can bog us down in myopic microdebate. In the final analysis, with a nod to good science, effective wildlands restoration must be as much art as science, more commitment than technique, and as much soul as research and data processing. For the true soul of all land is a wildness that in most places we shall never again know, a true wilderness of dynamic land and life far too complex for our clever but limited intellects to ever process.

Alas, these and other writers told us, there is no single trailhead that brings us home to the wild. To get there, we must follow our hearts and minds and the wild creatures who walked this land long before we did.

Defining Wildness in the 21st Century

Fast-forward to 2018, and Wildlands Network still carries the torch of rewilding with science and soul. As we embark on this intellectual exploration of “Trusting Wildness,” we seek to set our starting point and venture forward with you, our traveling companions on this wild journey. We invite you to join in on the discussion by reflecting on the following question:

When you think about wildness today, what does the term—and related terms like wilderness, rewilding, and wild—mean to you?

When you think about wildness today, what does the term—and related terms like wilderness, rewilding, and wild—mean to you?

We recently asked the above question to each member of the Wildlands Network staff, and share with you below a few of the varied responses. Throughout the year, we will return to this theme from a number of angles: What does wildness mean to you? There is no one or correct response; start from where you are, right now.

Please send us your response.

Wildlands Network Staff, On Wildness

From the Western Wildway:

To me, Rewilding—and the Wild—means to actively protect and restore an ecologically complete world, sustaining the natural unfolding of evolutionary processes and species essential for all our planet’s living inhabitants. To this end, I understand that the fate of all life lies inextricably entwined with humankind’s behavior. Our very survival depends on what Abraham Lincoln described as, “the better angels of our nature“—in this case, to developing inquiring, knowledgeable and caring citizens who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect for the Earth’s diversity of life.

From the Eastern Wildway:

I sit beneath the canopy of an Eastern hardwood forest, sunlight filtering warmly through the green leaves, enveloping me in a blanket of gold. I’m grounded atop a glacial erratic, the rough, cold surface pulling at my pants. I feel the breeze in my hair, unbrushed, unkempt. My eyes are closed. I hear the distant cacophony of birds, the stirring of dry leaves by squirrels and chipmunks, the humid stillness of the forest. This is wild. I am wild.

View looking up from the ground at the trunk and canopy of a huge tree with green leaves against the backdrop of blue sky.
Photo: William C. Gladish

A tiny, stardust speck of the universe, connected. I breathe the trees, the trees breathe me. I become a moment in this landscape’s history—a moment among the deer, the wolves, the ancestral humans, the dinosaurs—all the species that have come and gone and left no record. A moment among the species driven to extinction by floods and droughts, then rifles and saws and bulldozers, and now by a climate in chaos. Here, I become a moment among the species that are yet, I hope, to be. This place was wild once. This place was raped and pillaged for its bounty, its beauty. This place rebounds with time and space and protection. This place is becoming wild once again. I hope I will be remembered in it as a wild-doer, not a wild-taker. 

I return home, sitting now atop the concrete steps of my home, the paint cracked and peeling up in grey curls. The sky is a wide, blue expanse with cottony clouds blocking the rays of the yellow summer sun. The sky is pierced with the spires of the Victorian row-homes that line my street. I hear the hum of the traffic on North Capital, the spin of a bicycle’s tires, the laughter of neighbors down the street. My eyes are open. There is a crack in the sidewalk, where bright, happy weeds have poked their heads out to the sun. I think of the purpose, the audacity of these plants, reclaiming a piece of the world that was paved over, that wasn’t supposed to be theirs. But it is theirs. It is mine. It is ours, this tiny, start-dust speck in the universe. I breathe the trees and the trees breathe me. My eyes well with tears.

From the Pacific Wildway:

Wild is the world as it is, unmanipulated; a Western construct of the Eastern philosophies of Dao, Dharma and the like. To “rewild,” either actively or passively, is to return to our true nature, and in the case of the natural world, to allow or assist “nature” to manifest consistent with its own processes (or, in some cases, to assist by reducing/undoing the worst of human manipulations).

Trying to define wildness reminds me of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote in a First Amendment case: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it” [or, in the case of wildness—feel, smell, hear it].

Parting Words: A Wild Voice from the Past

And we close with some thoughts from early 20th century writer and naturalist, Henry Beston, who—like Thoreau before him—established his wild roots in the Boston area. The following is an excerpt from The Outermost House, first published in 1928:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.

We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, we greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complex than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’d love to hear what you think about this post! To engage with us and the Trusting Wildness community, please scroll down past the thumbnail photographs below and either (1) click “Reply” and type a reply to an existing comment, or (2) enter your thoughts in the comment box beneath “Tell us what you think!” Include your email address and your name (if you prefer, you can type “Anonymous”), and then click “Post Comment.” Your name will appear with your comment, but your email address will not. Thanks for joining the conversation.

15 thoughts on “What Does Wildness Mean to You?

  1. Wildness is a state of interdependence and interconnectedness free from dominion. Wildness is graceful and embraces paradox. It is full of new and now. It is before and beyond human ideas. It doesn’t have a home, but a range. It’s motivation for action is the instinct that arises when the mind is quiet. It uses local resources for local needs. It is unattached to the fruits of labor. Resilient and adaptive, wildness has no need to condemn others. It is a civilization beyond our own. It is a sensual intimacy with moons and stars. It is how I feel when I put down the pen and step out my front door.

  2. Thanks for these eloquent words, John–which somehow reminded me of the beautiful writings of Scott Russell Sanders. If you haven’t read his works, I highly recommend them. I hope you’re able to put down the pen and step out your front door today!

  3. We need more poetry, so here from the framed Ioway between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers comes

    The Pathless Way

    When first we pass
    this tall grass state of mind
    we’ve lost our way!

    Savanna sights of oak and prairie
    pointed out the direction home
    by places ancient with answers
    we could not leave
    well enough alone.

    The diversity of prism’s dew
    separated sunlight into species,
    perennial providers among
    the swaying stems
    so blue and green and rich with gold.

    You have to wonder why
    we drained the land of possibilities
    and plowed up our chance to choose
    the road not taken.

    Which way – NOW?
    the head, the heart
    the one sees one above the other.
    Feel my feet, they always fall
    on Sacred Ground.

    — Mark S. Edwards

    1. Beautiful, Mark—thanks for sharing. I just came across this little gem today in a book by Mary Oliver:

      The temple bell stops—
      but the sound keeps coming
      out of the flowers.

      — Bashō (1644—94)
      (translated by Robert Bly)

      1. Here is one more.

        Burning Buddha Alive

        Sincerely man,
        you see no hope?
        Not in denial of our death

        Hope is for the helpless
        as heaven and hell
        sit on this hill
        both betting on tomorrow

        Today
        Coming back to life
        I am the prairie
        setting myself on fire.

  4. Wildness is not dumbed-down, dependent, or domesticated. It is not endangered, degraded, or unsustainable. Wildness is not finite, enforceable, unauthentic, or for sale. It is not a noun. Wildness is not destined to be under the stewardship and dominion of humankind. It is not biologically altered. Wildness, perhaps, is not to be defined.

  5. Indeed, Roger—thanks for these thoughts. If a wolverine could talk (and humans could listen), I think she might say, “Wildness? Anything else is an illusion.” Please look for my next essay on the blog, as it will continue to explore this important theme.

  6. Reconnect/Restore/Rewild. Reconnect and Restore are about doing. Humans understand doing. Rewild is about non-expectation of outcome, trust, letting go, just being. This never minding liberates both the enslaved and the enslaver. A peace can be found in TRUSTING WILDNESS.

  7. Peace indeed! A contentment with how things are. A presence to the moment that makes a moment eternal. That is wild and free.

  8. Wildness is life force. It is outside of us wherever the natural system in tact, an inside of us beneath all those layers of civilization. The wildness inside of us contains our entire evolutionary history, including all the tools we’ve ever needed–or will ever need–to save ourselves. Contemplative time exposed to the outer wildness is one way to access inner wildness. Experiencing wildness is not recreation or hobby, but the key to discovering how the planet might make the best use of us.

  9. You have provided considerable food for thought by including the Beston quote in a blog which asked us to reflect on what it means to be wild. So, how can those of us who profess to value wildness demonstrate our feelings as we relate to animals? What per cent of the animals in our daily lives are self-reliant, spontaneous, self-willed, and self-regulating? Does our fear-based need to control otherness leave too little room for the unpredictable and the unfamiliar? To what extent is our huge inventory of domestic animals crowding out the few who still remain free of human stewardship and dominion? Is it time to end the practice of animal domestication? What about zoos? Is wildlife management an oxymoron? Could humans experience a higher level of personal liberation by learning to trust wildness? Does our freedom ultimately depend on the freedom of that which lives around us?

  10. Wandering in Wildness 2.27.2018 Mark Edwards
    I shared some time with a wolverine. Or, I should say my awe was returned by her indifference. With less than forty feet between us we turned only briefly to look at each other and then refocused on the slope before us. Her intention was so focused I had to look with her.
    As I moved from awe into the moment I found common ground with her. I had no agenda, no expectation, just wild walking. I would like to share her muscular makeup and coat’s colors along with her demeanor but I can’t. She will always be particular, localized and unique – this wolverine, this path, this day.
    What is this relationship we shouldn’t call the observer and the observed? Don’t misunderstand, she and I were both observing. On reflection both of us seemed to be in tune with the high alarm whistles of Marmots above us. I really didn’t need to know what she or myself were doing. I just know we were both there. We were learning from wildness, not about it.
    I had traveled from Iowa to meet a life-long friend and share Canada’s Yoho National Park. Now in our seventies we have been meeting every few years for 50 years. In that distant past we both lived in the most biologically altered state in North America. I stayed put on the front line of what I call the war on wildness. Bill moved west for more wilderness on Vancouver Island.
    Can these wild words help us understand where we are standing? The wilderness of this technological, domesticated and dominated landscape has never been experienced by us humans before. What do wildness and wilderness mean to each specific place? I believe I live in wildness here in the heartland.
    My home is an agricultural state with the richest ground in the world. Before development it was thought to have more biological diversity with its prairies, wetlands and forests than the Amazon rain forest. These soils now feed us carnivores annually with 34 million heads of livestock – mostly pigs, chickens and cows.
    The three million people who live here are surrounded by diminishing diversity for dinner. Two-thirds of Iowa’s 36 million acres have been reduced to just two annual species of plants – corn and soybeans. Over sixty percent of the corn and ninety-six percent of the beans go to feed livestock. The other forty percent of corn goes to ethanol for engines. Depending on how you define it roughly ninety-eight percent of the landscape has been altered in a few generations for our food.
    Still, we in Iowa import over eighty percent of what we eat which comes from an average of 1,500 miles away. We have lost almost half of the remaining topsoil in the last 50 years and have polluted the waterways all the way to the Gulf. We are living off the prairie’s carcass.
    I am hungry for wildness as is the living landscape in Iowa. We want something. Something is speaking to us. I believe, we humans who are still learning how to be, must pay attention to wildness for some reason, some destiny to be fulfilled. Our story, our history and our future are determined by wildness.
    Iowa lost all the apex predators within the last 200 years. And yet, annual reports of a lone cougar, wolf, bear and moose continue to be told, till they are shot. Our troubled relationships of invading ghostly spirit animals and fearful emotions are frightening. They are not like actually seeing a wolverine, a cougar or living in wildness.
    My appetite with wildness is fed here among rare rattlesnakes and common toxic ticks. They are presently the grizzly bears and wolverines of Iowa. They speak of wildness, respect and yet still offer reconciliation. They, like the disappearing birds, frogs and butterflies announce their departure with silence. Re-wilding ourselves, trusting wildness can be reparation.
    Living in the highest extinction rate in 65 million years is changing our relationship with our wildness. Why do we think we need to travel to wilderness for wolverines, to find wildness? We are making wilderness somewhere else, like visiting a zoo or aquarium. We use wildness like the panda bear, the lion to represent wildness somewhere else? Where is the wildness in us, where we live?
    Why does our understanding of wildness need to be so special, engaging, separate or so fearful as to break the false reality of control and normalness? We will starve to death if we stay in the cave of denial and control. To feed ourselves and the world, we must be the wildness where we are.
    In the winter with deep snow, wolverines primarily scavenge on carcasses of dead animals and will hunt animals much larger than themselves like moose and sheep. They aren’t picky predators and will hunt any animal they can catch. She hunts me in my dreams as does tiny ticks between my toes.
    I appreciate the wolverine, much like I do a herd of cats. If I fell over and died and there wasn’t much else to eat, I know they would eat me. The wolverine and the cats are hunters like myself. They prefer eating things I don’t, but like them, we will eat what presents itself at the right time.
    My mother when being eaten up with terminal cancer decided to not eat and ate herself to death. As I chew on this. It chews on me. Sometimes the others we are connected to or care about fall down and die. Sometimes we get eaten. The connection to wildness relieves the shame of not being in control. Being fallible we find a wondrous world fulfilling our needs – or not.
    As humans we embrace life, we grieve its loss. To grieve is Wild. It is feral feelings, the loss of light while howling with the moon. Wildness is like that. It’s the experience itself. The rituals and routines we use to shield us from the loss can move us “with” the experience of death to the present wildness of being left alive.
    Our follies, fears and fortunes aren’t controlled by thinking but by living in a wild way. You cannot eat control. Control cannot help – only being present to what presents itself to you will feed you. We all must eat something and can’t forget we are being eaten.
    We, as human beings, who can think we think outside ourselves, forget ourselves and the world are wilder than we can think. We live not in thinking but in the wildness of life with everything else, eating ourselves. We kill to live and live to die. We all are going to die. I can live with that for now.
    Grizzles might eat me as ticks swell up between both our toes. We all must eat something in this wildness of the moment made up of millions of years of births and deaths. Like the wildness in my stomach that eats the food and does so without my permission or attention, we are the same.
    It is what is alive, no matter what we think. We must know, “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.” We must give “What We Want” within the earth’s conversation of life and death. That is wild.

  11. A must read on Thoreau, Rivers, landscape abstraction and Wildness.
    Daegan Miller, “A Map of Radical Bewilderment,” Places Journal, March 2018. Accessed 20 Mar 2018.

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