The Practice of the Wild

Something came over me in my junior year of high school in eastern Pennsylvania.  I began sleeping outside.  Every night.

I would strap my sleeping bag on my bicycle and bike in a direction for a half hour to an open field next to a forest, to a lake with a view of the hills, or beside a gurgling stream.

I kept my glasses on so I could sort the stars into their constellations before I fell asleep.  And often I woke up with glasses on.

As winter came, I layered on a second army surplus sleeping bag, and worked on getting my face hole small and on the side, so falling snow wouldn’t wake me.  It was a fine line between success and the middle-of-the-night, claustrophobic panic attacks, a definite downside of mummy bags.

During the days, in Physics class and Algebra 2, I would gaze out the window toward South Mountain as it bounded gently into the blue horizon.  In the foreground were tall corn and broad wheat fields.  On the hillside in a clearing, an abandoned fieldstone barn with it’s upper story of weathered red wood. I felt that beyond was the great wilderness of America, the trackless West, the frozen Arctic…  And that’s where I was going to live.

When, after my first year of college in New Haven, Ct., I arrived back home,  I found a local realtor’s sign in the wheat sprouts beside the road between the school and the mountain, trumpeting immediately available commercial property.  I was heart broken.  Then I was angry.

I was going to go out that night and cut the sign down.  As the day gained momentum, I decided it was too easy.  Vandalism is a bad message.  I needed to get a smart and important message out.

So then I was going to paint my own slogan on the sign, and worked all day on the language.  I even positioned the can of paint and brushes outside my house so I could climb out of my bedroom window that night to do it.  Oops, my father discovered the paint.  Plus, it came to me that painting a counter slogan was still a version of vandalism…

I ended up deciding on a vigil, a five day fast beside the sign.  I called my effort, “Midnight Sunsearch,” produced a short story about never giving up hope in the face of the destruction of farmland and beauty, lettered my sign to put up beside the road, and took my place late Friday afternoon.

I remember the sun going down, turning orange, spilling over the primal green of spring leaves and newly planted field.  Everywhere you looked, colors brimmed, and the sun was beginning to flatten as it pressed on the horizon.

That’s when the police car stopped. It was Popeye Moyer.  We all knew Popeye.  I expected him to scold me about smashing down the wheat grass. That wasn’t it.  He said I was trespassing.  I needed written permission from the owner.  Who was out to dinner, I learned, ringing the bell at the mansion a mile away, talking to his son.

I finally met up with Victor Schmidt at 11:30 that night in his pajamas.  He said, fine, I could camp out.  But nothing written until he could talk to his lawyer Monday.  Which I told Popeye when he swung by, back at the field at midnight.

It had begun to rain.

Saturday morning he had more information:  I couldn’t have my sign without a permit.  I took down the sign.

Within the hour a furniture truck drove past and lost a big box.  Soon I had employed my magic marker: “Midnight Sunsearch, a five day fast, a wheatfield celebration,” and so on.

“It’s a box, it’s not a sign” I defended, the next time Popeye came by.  It was obviously a slow weekend for crime in Emmaus, Pa.

Alas, late in the day, someone had a little fender bender in front of my quiet vigil.  This time when Popeye came, he had a partner, and I was invited to join them in the squad car.  They had brought the Zoning Commissioner.

He sat next to me in the back seat.  My parents were going to be fined $100 a day if I didn’t pack it up.  But he had more to say.

“If you were my son, you know what I’d do?” continued Evan Burien, Mr. Zoning, staring straight ahead, My heart was clawing its way up my throat. “I’d beat the living poop out of you, and then I’d pay the fine for doing it.”

How could I possibly need to throw up, I hadn’t eaten a thing for a day?

“Do you have anything to say?”  I made myself breathe.  I channeled Pete Seeger.  I made sounds with my mouth, which I didn’t believe were happeninig, this being the first time I’d ever been on the wrong side of the law.

“(sung) This land is your land,
this land is my land.
From California to the New York Island.
From the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream Waters,
This land was made for you and me.”

Everyone in the car kept their eyes straight ahead, like it was a funeral.  Mine.

In some ways, when it comes to what I most deeply care about, I feel like I’m still sitting there.  Who are these people staring straight ahead.  What is their hard silence saying to me about this land I love?  What will I say, or do, or sing when I’ve gotten their bottom line?

I suppose I’d sing a different song today, sitting in the back seat with Exxon or Haliburton or the Alaska Board of Game.  It probably should be “We are a Gentle Angry People, and we are Singing, Singing for our Lives.”  but I suspect it would be more plaintively anguished “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.”

I want to get back to this idea of the more “plaintively anguished,” after some definitions…

“Practice of the Wild” is what I wanted this talk to be called, because it’s the title of a book I hugely admire by the zen poet Gary Snyder, and because both the word “practice” and the word “wild” have figured prominently in my life.

“Practice” was a word I discovered on a reading and praying sabbatical from Philadelphia, spent in a cabin near Palmer AK the summer of 1991.  I began reading the Buddhist creative writing teacher Natalie Goldberg, a book titled Wild Mind, in which she talks about spontaneous writing as a “practice,” a spiritual discipline of keeping your hand moving, and not letting your critical internal editor in on the process.  “Fill the page, keep writing, don’t think, go, go go.”

Also I was reading the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (Peace is Every Step), whose approach to practice was simple and breathtaking.  By paying attention in meditation, by dialing in to our breathing, we can see our thoughts rising and passing, and by not identifying with them, we are free to live in a new way.  This was so simple, so effective, that it was like an earthquake, opening a broad, fresh, new world.

Why this was so striking was because, as a pastor, I’d always been drawn to spirituality, but it was always seen as a side dish, not the main course of a believer’s daily life.  But I realized you couldn’t call yourself a Buddhist if you didn’t have a daily practice, if you didn’t sit and breathe.  Suddenly, the idea of “practice” took over my thinking about our ultimate calling in life, sort of like “original sin” hijacked St. Augustine’s world in the 4th century, or “grace” did Martin Luther’s in the 16th.

About the same time the word, “wild” began banging on my door.  Whenever I’d turn my focus from first century Israel (i.e., Jesus) to America, I was confronted by the American Romantics, or Transcendentalists.  It was a cultural revolution in the American 19th century when Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the naturalist John Muir father of the Sierra Club and Walt Whitman the poet, broke loose.

They envisioned that the world is held together by a spirit that is not of the Church, and certainly not of Reason (alone), but of a direct experience of the (natural) world. (Harpers April 06, Curtis White, p 35) These Americans broke with convention and pursued life with eyes wide open, confident that they could make sense of it as they went along. They embraced the unknown, the unpredictable, the “wild.”

The American tradition has this effect on you (or used to, before the resurgence of various unchallenged ideologies like religious and political conservatism/ fundamentalism): you become pragmatic; you don’t trust dogma, rather, you trust your own common sense; you want to test ideas, to see for yourself.  And your sacrament, your touchstone, becomes unmediated experience, that is, experience of and in the wild.

I submit that the inheritors of this transcendental revelation are select nature writers of our day.  Books that have figured prominently in my life include  Practice of the Wild, by Snyder and The Island Within by Richard Nelson of Sitka, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, The Dream of the Earth by the catholic priest Thomas Berry, States of Grace by the Buddhist feminist Charlene Spretnak, and countless others

Reading naturalists awakened the voice of Thoreau in my consciousness, “I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”  It was a calling away from a focus on scriptures, religious doctrines, western history and even from books altogether, a calling into experiences, unmediated by culture and thought, as well as the earth-centered traditions, held by native peoples everywhere, who which have lived in this fashion for millennia.  In short, to see if there wasn’t a way more to connect with the “wild.”

What was exciting about the impetus to embrace the “wild” was the realization that I was going to change.  In some deep, unconscious way, those who honor the wild are perceived as “crazy,” or as irrelevant, or even as selfish.  People who love the earth first and foremost seem a threat to our culture because an intimacy with the earth can inspire a wild kind of love, a fierce motherly devotion to simple beauty and intensity which can entail a powerful resistance of those things that threaten it.

One of the prophets of this vision is the poet Wendell Berry.  His glorious, satirical poem “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” has never let go of me since someone read it for a wedding I did twenty years ago.  It goes, in part:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection

When Fr. Thomas Berry talks about “Wild” in his book The Great Work, he quotes Thoreau’s essay “On Walking,” where Thoreau writes:  “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.”  Berry calls this essay the most “comprehensive critique of civilization” ever made.

In this, Thomas Berry sees what Wendell Berry sees, that against the wild, natural realm stands a almost mindless theoretical and technological human-centered world, the most obvious failing of which is how unrelentingly it can trivialize away life.

How often we give up the exhilaration of the wild and difficult for the safety of the trivial.  Instead of an engaged life, we get to choose between a Ford or a Chevy, between “Law and Order” or “American Idol.”  We trade who we could become – loving, wise, caring, calm, and just – for what we can consume, and having chosen that route, we tender our most precious qualities – kindness, hope, friendship – to be first in the line for convenience and comfort.

Gary Snyder writes:

Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.  that is, to the “wild.”

Now, for a moment, back to the “plaintively anguished.” Back to me singing “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”  Another way to say it, why are activists of every stripe, including those trying to practice the wild, so good and so right but so sad?

This has been on my mind for a long time.  For decades I’ve been trying to encourage friends who are activists, who love the world and its creatures, as they cook for homeless people, create shelters for runaway teens and abused spouses, fight for the Arctic Refuge or struggle for votes to zone their towns.

So often the good, committed people end up losing heart.  Part of it is that truly to see something, is to love it, and to fear for it.  And this includes a place,  To love a place is a scary thing, because your love is given away to something which can change, which can be violated, ruined, destroyed.  You come back to it in a year or ten years, and what you loved is gone.  Sometimes it’s too painful to return.

A field of wheat becomes a strip mall.  Or a child you taught to read starts drinking and skipping class.  Or a close friend falls utterly out of contact.  Or a trail you ski gets a house built on it.

Another part of the helplessness is that you can’t communicate your love effectively to others, to help them see and appreciate the hope, beauty and vulnerability you cherish.

An apocalyptic litany from Gary Snyder that has worried itself into my soul for the past decade goes like this:

It is said that about a million and a half species of animals and plants have been scientifically described, and that there are anywhere from ten to thirty million species of organisms on earth.  Over half of all the species on earth are thought to live in the moist tropical forests.  About half of those forests, in Asia, Africa, and South America, are already gone.

A clear-cut or even a mile-wide strip mine pit will heal in geological time.  The extinction of a species, each one a pilgrim of four billion years of evolution, is an irreversible loss.  The ending of the lines of so many creatures with whom we have traveled this far is an occasion of profound sorrow and grief.

Death can be accepted and to some degree transformed.  Bit the loss of lineages and all their future young is not something to accept.  It must be rigorously and intelligently resisted.

When beauty or hope is violated, that terrifying knowledge hovers over you like a vulture.  This is what grief is.  Some people short circuit the grief – I know, I’m one of them – and turn immediately to anger, or passive cynicism.  However, the sorrow must not be avoided or written off.  Feeling sorrow trumps shutting down and disengaging. Feeling our sorrow helps us remember what we love, what we have lost, what we can still hold on to.  Sorrow, when it is explored, becomes a friend, and helps us find ways out of debilitating grief into healthy actions.

I’m skipping a reference here to Joanna Macy and her grief work.  If you’re interested in this, talk to me (see below, end of document).

The bottom line is this:  when you can embrace your anguish and sing, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” you know where love comes from, you know what you’re in danger of losing, and you’re ready to take responsibility for nurturing, nurturing the motherless child, or abused spouse, or homeless neighbor, or Arctic Refuge that’s depending on you for life.

So, to tie it up: I think the “practice of the wild” is a three-step, recurring cycle, in which we move through:

  1. First, an original childlike attentiveness to all the wonderful strangeness of beauty and harmony all around us, which may include a naive courageousness to boot – my “Midnight Sunsearch.”
  2. Second, we, every one of us, fall into despair at some point when we realize  beauty’s vulnerability, some people’s crazy selfishness, and the difficult losses which those who love sustain, but…
  3. Third, with luck and a deepening ability to work our love in the midst of outlandish circumstances, we emerge back where we began, with a love for wild beauty, but now with a resolute commitment to protect what might be lost and an articulate engagement in practices growing from a “wild” heart: the practices of breathing and walking, of talking together and simplifying, of laughing and of dancing, practices which ineluctably lead to justice, truth, and deep compassion for all things.

I want to end with the story about Picasso and Henri Matisse, illustrating the cycle from childlike receptivity, to adult engagement to through anguish:  When, late in life, Matisse was designing stained glass windows for a chapel, Picasso confronted him, saying: we spent our whole lives championing the new, the modern, the progressive, the liberated.  How can you further such a backward cause as the Church?

Matisse replied calmly that they had both been trying their whole lives to regain, through art, the inner atmosphere of their first holy communion, a state of grace. 27 in Spretnak

“Wild” grace, I’d humbly submit.


(Joanna Macy excursion: Of those who have worked on this approach – the ecopsychology of human experience – Joanna Macy is an important guide.  Macy emerged during the 80s as an activist resisting nuclear brinkmanship during the Reagan administration.  She wrote World as Lover, World as Self, and began hosting what would become thousands of workshops emerging from her own journey through personal despair, telling her nightmares of the wasting of the planet, dreaming of the terrible deaths (not actual) of her own daughters, guiding others through their own despair into a new land, a steady place which lay beyond trauma, a place of empowerment. She believed that when people walk into their darkness, together, they can and will emerge on the other side, stronger and fiercer.  This “despair work” is different from “grief work” in that its aim is not acceptance of loss – indeed many paralyzing environmental “losses” have not yet occurred and are hardly to be “accepted.”  Note: On Ecopsychology, see also Theodore Roszak “The Voice of the Earth”)