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For the Wild, 4: In Search of Wildness

Wildlands Network published For the Wild in 2017 to celebrate 25 years of reconnecting nature in North America.  Every couple of weeks, we’ll be posting a new excerpt from this inspiring collection of prose, poetry, and photographs as a special feature on our website. Please join the Rewilding Society or our Wildlands Stewards giving circle to receive a bound copy of For the Wild. Visit our Donate page to learn more.

In Search of Wildness

by Paula MacKay

Man with backpack hiking in a stunning mountain landscape of white rock and alpine conifers, with a peek at a lake down below
Hiking the Enchantments, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington. Photo: Mollie Matteson

IN HER MEMOIR about studying orcas in Southeast Alaska, Eva Saulitis wrote:

I leaned across the dash, snapping photographs, my heart pounding, a sob stuck in my throat. Finish it off, I thought. Get it, I thought. “Oh my God, oh, my God, oh, my God,” I said aloud to no one. […] Here was nature, red in tooth. Here was suffering. Here was death. Here was the black-and-white, muscled, ruthless will to survive. It was one thing to write “milling” in my notebook, to drift through the smooth ovals of water left by a diving whale and net up bits of seal fat. […] It was another to see the kill itself, to witness the true nature of my study animal.

As a field biologist focused on bears, wolverines, and other large carnivores, I find the raw honesty conveyed in this passage to be particularly moving. For years, I’ve asked myself why a city girl from Boston—and an animal lover repelled by cruelty in all forms—has dedicated her career to advocating for creatures who must kill for a living.

Growing up with a mother beset by breast cancer acquainted me early on with the life-and-death struggles inherent to nature. I suspect that my mother’s terminal illness predisposed me to seeking out wildness as a source of unity, healing, and power. I’m also convinced that my passion for wild predators is somehow linked to my quest to come to terms with suffering and death. To say more would be to pretend I understand myself better than I do.

A wild animal is governed by self-will. Since I first became involved with Wildlands Network in 1997, I have been inspired by its commitment to large carnivores as both ecological keystones and self-willed beings deserving of our respect. Co-existing with carnivores begins with embracing their place on this planet as fellow citizens who are out there simply trying to survive.

Humans are infinitely complex, like the natural world within and around us. Some see only death in the eyes of a wolf, while others find hope and freedom in the greenfire gaze. None can comprehend the mysteries of an Other, but of this much I feel sure:

At the heart of it all, each and every one of us is in search of wildness.

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