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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.

13 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

        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?

Tell us what you think!