A century and a half ago American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau observed: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
In the intervening years his insights have inspired so many, from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr, also striking a chord with contemporary generations, among them Christopher McCandless, the young adventurer and seeker whose quest and agonising death is immortalised in the book and film Into the Wild.
For as long as I can remember I have been irresistibly drawn to wilderness and wildness, recognising that in the natural world where the human footprint is lightest, I find my deepest understandings and greatest peace.
It is often in places of immense potential discomfort and danger – the towering dunes of Namibia, the sun-baked and game-rich pans of Botswana’s Central Kalahari, or the exquisite icescapes of Antarctica – that I’m most profoundly moved and uplifted.
And it is when stepping across the threshold of wildness that I feel incredibly and gratefully alive, perhaps stirring something primal within me from the ancient past that lies hidden in my DNA.
I recall the fearful exhilaration of a full moon night where I almost stopped breathing as I stared into the eyes of a magnificent black-maned lion at my tent flap, only a flimsy mosquito gauze separating us. Who was prey and who the predator in this precious moment, or was it simply a reaching out between species?
My most life-threatening moments are indelibly etched when, with hammering heart, I cowered behind a tree while eight enraged elephants tusked the ground, venting their fury at a puny human who’d ventured too close. Despite the terror of the ordeal I feel incredible gratitude for the lesson and the connection with wildness that could have ended in violent death.
In recent months my footsteps have transported me on an amazing adventure stretching more than 5,000km (3,000 miles) in five countries, and yet I often yearn for something more, longing to rediscover and reconnect with wildness.
This week I answered the call and felt a great peace, accompanied by a sense of being welcomed home, as I camped in a remote canyon in Death Valley, the scorched desert notorious as the hottest and driest place in the United States. Rolling out my sleeping bag alongside a long dry riverbed, a highlight is the shooting star that blazes an incandescent trail across the heavens and momentarily illuminates the walls of the canyon.
I follow that experience with a dawn to dusk ‘medicine walk’ and reaffirm my love and commitment to humanity and all life on Gaia Earth, losing all sense of time as I become engrossed in Nature’s Newspaper, reading the comings and goings of the night in the sand. A rattlesnake has slithered past while a predator’s prints pick their way purposefully along a dry streambed. I don’t know the American animals well but feel sure these spoor belong to a mountain lion.
What is it about wildness that is so compelling?
Psychologist, psychiatrist and poet Ian McCallum offers some clues: “To my mind, human identity is always intimately associated with wild places, wild animals and what I sometimes refer to as the landscapes of the soul… those special places that invoke in us a deep sense of homecoming…”
He adds the entreaty: “As we begin to rediscover our sense of balance with Nature, may we be mindful that what we are doing is not only for our sake, but for the sake of all of Earth’s creatures as well, and that includes our children… and their children.”
I’m reading a remarkable anthology entitled Intimate Nature, the bond between women and animals, and have been excited by the insightful writings of Renee Askins, who made it her mission to return wolves to their traditional range in Yellowstone National Park.
“We sleep better and dream deeper knowing there is a little wildness nuzzling at our door,” she writes.
“Wilderness is a place, wildness a quality. Wilderness is the violin, wildness the music. Wilderness without wildness is like a Stradivarius lying on a museum shelf… inert, lifeless…”
She echoes a sentiment I’ve often felt in Africa while listening to lions, hyenas or jackals. “Something mysterious happens to us when we hear the howl of a wolf, or look into the eyes of a wolf. Something familiar is calling back to us, or looking back at us. Ourselves? Yes, but we also see the ‘other’. Something that is in us, and yet outside of us, something we know, but perhaps lost, something we fear, but are drawn toward. We recognise wildness… our own and an other’s. The ‘other’ is very important because it is through the presence and respect for the ‘other’ that we recognise and heal ourselves.
“Instinctively we know that what we do to the wolf we do to ourselves, and what we do for the wolf we do for ourselves.”