Sometimes I see those photos of people getting out of their cars to photograph bears. Or I hear about people feeding the coyotes and talking about them like they are domestic dogs. I’ve known many people who made the move to the country. My own move to the countryside was less deliberate, more of an escape from myself more than anything else. It was not really based on an idyllic idea of nature or a hope for peace. Sometimes I wish it was. At least it would have meant that in my twenties I was making some sort of deliberate decisions, but alas, I was not. I was just reacting. But, that’s another blog post, for now, I’m thinking about wilderness, and the definition of it.
Thirty years ago I was studying nature education and environmental education at a time when Julia Butterfly was suspending herself from trees, an effort to save them. I was an idealist, a white girl pissed off and looking for something righteous. It was not my best evolutionary personal development phase in terms of fashion, but it was the time I learned how to think and undertand complexity, give-and-take, and trade-offs. Systems theory was new then, and in my masters program, it was the focus. I became a student of systems and liberation theory, applying the principles to everything in my life. I was fascinated by the idea that a person might be liberated and connected in a web at the same time.
During this time, I was not suspending myself by trees, but I was interested and in awe of people of took their beliefs to that place. I was fascinated and deeply moved by the continuum of beliefs: someone talking about what they believed in and basically doing nothing about it in real life on one end, all the way to the other end, a person who talked about what they believed in and then built themselves a treehouse in the wilderness among the tallest trees in order to save them. There was a lot of space in between, and a lot of action and talk in between. I vacillated somewhere in there, feeling my way around to understand where talk turned to change, where action turned to change. I explored how things turned muddy or found clarity. Where judgments found righteousness and where righteousness found ego. I explored all ends of the continuum. And still today, this spectrum is something I find a bit haunting.
Maybe only age and reflection can give me any sense of context within a system so complex and so charged with heart, fear, and anticipation. Who knows? I constantly ponder it. But I learned then that definitions are experiential. In the same way that a system can only be experienced from the place from where a person is experiencing it at that moment. Words and their definitions, and the systems they live within are experiential. Wilderness is defined by the definer.
I live, by some definitions (mine, I guess), at the edge of the wilderness, where the phone lines have only recently been installed and where the gas lines end, where many people still have outhouses as a matter of daily life. National Forest and BLM land surround our home. Technically, I live in the urban interface zone. The wilderness is my neighbor, and a barbed wire fence separates us. But by other definitions (my own, too) that wild creeps into my daily life because the lines are not clear, and one cannot delineate human neighbors from wild lands. We manage fire, water, snow, and wind. And we take these elements seriously. We humans are not the boss, and we know it. If we don’t play nice with the water or snow, the mud and ice will knock us for a good one. I’ve shared my flock of chickens with the coyotes and the skunks on more than one occasion.
In the wilderness, there is a seriousness about survival. A set of rules that one must recognize. In the wilderness, wild is in charge. My sense of peace or calm or serenity or whatever I call it is simply existence. Once I saw a bear. It was the size of a Volkswagon Beetle. I could not get over the size of it. It was so huge. And then I thought, “holy shit, I share this planet with that amazing animal.” To this day, I still cannot get over the awe of that feeling. It was such a huge bear. I had a similar feeling when I first stood next to a redwood.
When the road to my house was so deep with mud that we had to take a 2-mile detour in order to get home, and still we were slip-sliding all the way, we just had to go around. Nothing to be done. The mud wins. There are things that just humble you, and remind me that I am not in charge. And if I forget, there’s always next April’s mud season. Or this February cold to remind me. Or June’s fire season to remind me again.