Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Wildness is the preservation of the World

In Wildness is the preservation of the World.

As I paddled down Oregon’s Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers last week, I frequently found myself recalling these words of Henry David Thoreau. Every summer, I savor my annual kayaking excursion with a friend, a rabbinic colleague. Our time on the river is always a welcome respite from the frenetic multi-tasking of daily life, and this year’s outing was our best yet: three days on a wild and scenic waterway winding through over forty miles of gorgeous roadless wilderness. By daylight, we floated down steep, pine-blanketed basalt canyons on crystal-clear water. Come evening, we set up camp on expansive sandy beaches, made dinner and conversation around a fire, and waited and watched with awe as torrents of stars poured forth from the huge, darkening sky, free of the usual blinding city lights. And I, too, experienced the kind of liberation that only the immense silence of wilderness provides, far removed from modernity’s sound and fury that, as Shakespeare noted, so often signify nothing. Worn down by our age’s obsession with speed and efficiency, I found revelation and rejuvenation in the slow, quiet rhythm of river time.

Through the psalmist, the Holy One implores us: “Be still and know that I am God.” The implication is clear: if we wish to hear the song of the Holy One, we must learn to be still. This is where wilderness is invaluable. We all need, on occasion, to escape the tyranny of our technology and the fast-paced life that it engenders. Wild places force us to unplug. When cell phones and Facebook do not work, we turn back to older, slower, and quieter pleasures: introspection, flesh and blood friendships, taking in the beauty of reation. As we shift from constant “doing” to more contemplative “being,” we re-experience our elemental selves and the depth of the natural world around us, with which we have co-evolved, in conviviality, for hundreds of thousands of years. And in doing so, we open ourselves to hearing the still, small voice of God that is so often drowned out by the accoutrements of contemporary western culture.

Wilderness is not a luxury; it is, by contrast, an essential part of who we are. Jewish tradition teaches that one who wishes to be wise should learn to make him/herself a kind of wilderness, a home of openness and stillness. In order to do this, we need the experience of wildness in the wider world. To lose wild places is to impoverish ourselves and even, as it were, to diminish God. As the Jesuit poet and priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote: What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet;/Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.