‘Wilderness’, it’s such an evocative word. For me, it immediately evokes daydreams of wild places, mountaintops, vast plains, windswept beaches, storm-drenched coast, beautiful nature in its unspoiled element. Our genes are programmed to love these places, to crave air and space and sunshine and rain. We need these things to thrive, to be happy. Research shows us this time and again. Yet, here in Britain this small crowded island with its cities and agriculture, for all our green and pleasantness, mountans, valleys and rivers, there is little that is truly wilderness; by which I mean, the places that nature is allowed to be, untouched, unmanaged by humanity. Almost every inch of these islands is grazed, managed, copiced, cleared or ‘protected’. Short of travelling a considerable distance most of us have very limited access to wilderness.
If you are anything like me though, you crave it, feel the ancient need for it deep within your bones and search for it as an essential source of healing. As a pagan, nature is where I find my deepest source of solace, I think of my ancestors who for thousands and thousands of years walked and lived in vast tundra and dense forest, the nearest neighboring tribe might have been days walk away. That’s not to over romanticise an idyllic existence of course, modern life brings us much comfort that I would not be without, but it illustrates the point that we’ve lived in the wilderness for far longer than as urbanised creatures. Even here in rural Leicestershire, in my tiny village of 180 people, I struggle to think of a single place I can go, certainly without getting in my car, where the horizon in every direction is free from settlement or farm building, where my view contains no field boundary or managed hedge.
In a search for the wild, perhaps for many of us, the places that we find wilderness most easily may be on the inside. We are animals after all, our humanity is just a civilised gloss over creatures who just need to eat, sleep, love, birth and screw; just as every other creature does. It is only our unique mental processes and the ability to manipulate our environment which affords us an illusion of difference. However, whilst we crave the romanticism of the wild, so often we fight it too with every fibre. We are social beings. We fundamentally need interaction, relationship and support in order to survive. We fear to be alone, really alone, or venture into the dark places of our heads where no one else can follow. Those places are scary and we avoid them, often for good reason. We fill our lives with constant interaction, facebook, phones, TV, radio. I suspect that we do this sometimes, to avoid the dark places. There is good evidence to suggest that the sights and sounds of the modern world, noise, traffic, screentime, crowds actually have abnormal affects on our brainwaves, changing our thought patterns and responses to the world negatively. Conversely, natural sights and sounds, green spaces, woodland, sky, birdsong, positively modulate and normalise our brain patterns and responses to stimuli.
How many of us can say that we have the balance right, spending MORE time in benefical environments allowing ourselves to naturally process our feelings and emotions than we do in the places, both physical and virtual, we are bombarded with images and chatter? I know that my interactions with social media for example can be profoundly damaging if I am not extremely careful, at times removing my ability to think clearly or independently. I’m overwhelmed by the detail of others lives and a level of interaction and sharing that feels to me sometimes, to be profoundly abnormal and intrusive. I am caught between the need and want to support friends and the need for peace, headspace, and solitude. It’s hard to get the balance right. For many of course, social media is extremely beneficial, relieving feeling of lonliness and social isolation, connecting people accross oceans and distance. But for others it adds another layer of complication to modern life to be navigated and managed. Or worse, becomes a sticking plaster to the things we really should be thinking about and dealing with, but aren’t.
All this returns me again to the need for wilderness. Sometimes we just need to disconnect from the chatter, let it all go, and to work out again what is authentic, the people, relationships and things that matter to us most in the real world. Sometimes in order to do that we need to be alone, to wander a little and get a bit lost. I would argue that there are times in our lives where this wandering is not only desirable, it’s absolutely essential because without it we only ever know ourselves as we are reflected in the eyes of others. To return to the wilderness even if that is a metaphorical wilderness is part of an ancient human process, when we can no longer bottle it up, button it up, suck it up, and when to continue to do so does us more harm than good.
When we need to find again a sense of self which is independent and a strength which comes from centre and not from others, getting lost can be helpful. There is profound use in stopping, sitting and peacefully acknowledging your surroundings, realising that you have no idea where you are or what to do. In the moment that you stop pushing, stop fighting, stop running, stop trying to be somewhere else, and recognise that you are lost in the wilderness, the panic and urgency is calmed and the answer emerges – for there is no other – you learn to say simply, “I’m here” and find a sense of presence in the moment. In the moment, we breathe, are able to hear the birdsong, the sea, the wind in the trees, and smell the honeysuckle when before we were distracted. In the moment, we can look for the place on the horizon where the sun rises or the side of the tree that the lichen grows to help us orientate again. But we can only do this effectively when we have the space and time to do so.
Of course few of us are ever truly alone, enforced lonliness is a terrible place to be and the point is not to permanently isolate ourselves in the quest. Having people around us, who honour our need for wilderness and support the vision quest is vital. In such a way we can be lost in quiet company, where those who understand the need will stand with you and hold the compass as it spins, or quietly watch as you smooth out the map. What is needed in the wilderness are those able to suspend their own need to locate, push, solve the problem, move, chivvy or cheer us, knowing that wilderness is healing in itself, and the process of stopping and locating ourselves is the only way to go forward. This may take time, a lot of time, but when we finaly find the courage to move again, located in the moment, the path will emerge from the undergrowth and the wilderness will return to the familiar. The clarity and strength we have gained will teach us to be less frightened of returning to the wilderness again when we need to, because we come back to the world stronger than we left it. Perhaps most importantly though, in experiencing wilderness and its capacity to heal, we learn to support the process for others, suspending our own needs, and witness quietly as they too stop and smooth out the map.