There should be a name for the emotion when you return to civilization from the wilderness, when you descend from snow melt alpine meadows to central valley strip malls, from giant ferns and old growth redwoods, to tiny garden plots between fences and driveways.
My son melts down almost every time. The first time we noticed, he was inconsolable on the drive home from Santa Cruz about losing a clump of hair from the squirrel tail he found. That morning we had woken up on redwood duff in the woods above campus, after hiking in late night in the pitch dark, acutely attuned to every sound: the creaking redwoods, the conversing owls. We realized it wasn’t about the squirrel tail, it was leaving the woods. Since then, he will predictably melt down with deep grief over the loss of a toy, or something breaking while we are packing to leave a wild space.
We took him backpacking when he was two and I have a recording of a talk I had with him, soon after we got back, in the Target parking lot. I saw him crouching in the bushes and asked what he was up to, and he replied, “Pooping in the jungle [his word for woods].” I explained to him that we only poop in the jungle when we’re backpacking, that the rest of time we need to poop in the toilet.
There is a long pause before he responds, a pause which captures his comprehension that backpacking is the anomaly and THIS, the Target parkinglot and all in connotes, is how he/we will spend the bulk of our lives. After this long pause, with deep existential sadness and rejection he says, “Noooooooo!”
I feel this.
My eyes are watering as I type this. This wilder way of life is fading. Because we too are wild animals, it is our habitat, not just endangered species habitat, that is disappearing. Wild spaces are starting to feel like a museum. Our global population increases by 200,000 each day. This is real folks, I don’t see this changing. Just as our parents (and some of the luckier of us) tell with sadness how they used to build forts in the wild space behind their homes that became subdivisions, it’s not a stretch that we will tell our grandkids about camping before there were long waitlists and lotteries due to high demand on limited preserved land, or our grandkids will tell their grandkids about how whales used to be real and it was common to see bees and suburban butterflies.
What are the effects of this loss of wildness? Francis Weller says, “The wild within and the wild without are kin, the one enlivening the other in a beautiful tango.” Wilderness reminds us that “we, too, are meant to embody a vivid and animated life, to live close to our wild souls, our wild bodies and minds. We are meant to dance and sing, play and laugh unselfconsciously, tell stories, make love, and take delight in this brief but privileged adventure of incarnation.” You belong here. You are wild. In wild spaces all the stories of separation fade away. We can howl, dance, weep, and splash. The deer don’t care about your cellulite or retirement account. You can remember who you are and why you’re here.
Nature heals. Surgery patients with trees outside their window recover faster than those with views of brick walls, and prison inmates whose cells face farmland have fewer illnesses than those with cells facing a prison courtyard. Crime rates and mental health issues are higher among those isolated from wildlife. How often have you taken your grieving, confused, stress-addled self to nature, to return grounded, connected, and clear? The truth and what matters emerges, and the rest falls away. As wild spaces become fewer, farther, and forgotten, we become increasingly impoverished: mentally, physically, and most of all soulfully.
This has been happening and will continue. The current rate of extinction is estimated to be 10,000 times the average historical extinction rates. 69,000 species have already gone extinct this year. It’s estimated we lose about one species every five minutes. This includes entire cultures and ways of being: every few weeks a human language is lost, “and along with it a nuanced imagination of a people who were rooted to a place for perhaps thousands of years… It is our spiritual responsibility to acknowledge these losses…We know and feel in our bones that something primal is amiss. Our extended home is being eroded, as is the experience of our wilder self. It is essential that we stop and recognize these losses. It is good manners to respond with sorrow, outrage, and apology at these places touched by so much loss.” (Francis Weller).
All of this would be captured in that emotion I described, when you’re taking that last swim in the river before climbing in the hot car, knowing it will all feel surreal when you’re ordering food hours later surrounded by hot asphalt, and it’s not just the temporary leaving, it’s the forever disappearing. For now that river still exists, but in this moment, as you read this, other rivers are ceasing to exist. Wilderness is going the way of unicorns and fairies. If we forget about the magic and wall off our grief, it will further fade into the realm of myths.
So please, go to the wild spaces that remain while you can. Rewild your heart. Get naked and weep. Take your children and swim and sing with them, dance with them around the fire. Inoculate them with the wilderness without and within. Gary Snyder says we will protect what we love, so remembering and teaching may slow the demise.
But even more importantly, let your love crack open your grief. It’s all there underneath it all, always. “Grief is itself a medicine” (John Cowper), and “The deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy” (William Blake). Join me. Let’s be mad and sad and wild together.
Louv, Richard (2005) “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”
Weller, Francis (2015) “The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief”