“The clearest way into the Universe, is through a forest wilderness,” said John Muir. There have only been a handful of times in my life that I have felt this connection—between myself and the Universe—and they have indeed happened in the wilds.
One of these memories was in Australia. I had been visiting my aunt who was living and working with local artists in a remote Aboriginal community in the middle of the country. We had taken a drive into the bush, turning left after 40 minutes at an old teakettle that hung on a tree branch, and then driving another 30 minutes until we arrived at an area of canyons splashed with Aboriginal paintings and the structures of old shelters (wiltjas).
It had been a brutal summer, raging at more than 100 degrees for weeks. And while there had been life in the canyons once, it had dried up, or—like the Aborigines—had moved on. All that remained was shriveled trees; spinifex grass; baked, red earth; and dust.
We were about half a mile into our silent hike when we noticed a speck far away on the blue horizon. For about five minutes we watched as it made its way toward us, until finally it came fully into sight—a tiny bird, smaller than a sparrow with red, black and gold feathers. It landed its bedraggled little body a few inches away from us on a brittle branch of a dead tree, and looked at us expectantly.
“It knows we have water,” said my aunt. And so we poured a little into a bottle cap and watched as the impatient bird hopped around our feet in anticipation. It followed us through the brush as we hiked for another 15 minutes, stopping intermittently to share our water, and splash its feathers, before flying on.
Rewilding the Earth
Unfortunately it seems the experiences we have in the wild are few and far between. The Wilderness Act, put in place in the U.S. in 1964, describes wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But those places have become far fewer. It only recently occurred to me, while talking to my grandma who is 99 this year, that, when she was born, there were 1.24 billion people on the planet. Now that number is 7.4 billion. And if I live as long as my grandma I may be sharing this planet with 10.5 billion people.
Faced with this rapid and all-encompassing encroachment of man upon the planet’s wilderness, there have been efforts in recent years across continents to reforest and “rewild” Earth. In Europe bison and wild horses have been reintroduced. In Scotland white-tailed eagles and beavers have been released. In Brazil there are attempts to repopulate the golden lion tamarin. In the U.S. and Canada bison are being brought back, and bald eagle and peregrine falcons are no longer on the endangered species lists thanks to successful reintroduction programs.
The momentum has to be continued. While the Wilderness Act has resulted in 110 million acres of land being preserved and protected, in most states it is less than 1 percent of total land.
The Path to Remembrance
We need the wilderness. It is who we are. And we have not forgotten. For all the glass and metal, cloth, noise, and circuitry with which we cloak our existence, all it takes is the sound of air spouting from the blowhole of an orca whale, or the crash of a waves against a cliff, for us to remember that we are supposed to be free, that we are wild.
“In many indigenous cultures there was no word for ‘nature’ because they did not experience wilderness as some ‘thing’ separate or distinct from themselves,” says Buddhist teacher Mark Coleman. It’s hard to imagine—now that we have become so disconnected from our origins—but in these wild moments we have glimpses of understanding, when we realize, says Mark: “Where does the sound of a robin singing and the vibration in our inner ear end?”
If we doubt that our souls remember this oneness, we need only look to the wild. George Monbiot, writer, environmentalist, and rewilding advocate, points to the remarkable story of the boar and the robin. For 700 years, wild boar had been absent from Britain. Once plentiful, they had been hunted and farmed out of existence, and the robins with whom they had a symbiotic relationship had been forced to find a different animal that would unearth grubs with its digging—the human gardener.
In 2009 in the Scottish Highlands a group called Trees for Life began a project to rewild Dundreggan, and in doing so released several boar onto the land. Within twenty minutes, the robins arrived and took up their place alongside the boar. It had been 700 years, but the robins remembered.
It is the same for us. When we swim alongside seals, come face to face with a great horned owl, or hear the call of a coyote, our own domestication falls away—we realize we have mistaken our identity. And in that moment of remembrance we let go of all the labels and the opinions, and take up our seat again as part of the whole—not apart from it. We join with the wildness. As I heard “The Forum” founder Werner Erhard once say: “Take all those opinions, all those achievements, and all the things you think you are and go tell it to the stars, and see if they care.”
It’s not that we don’t matter. It’s that what we think matters, doesn’t—and the wilderness reminds us of this every time we meet it head-on. It wakes us up. Faced with its raw, pristine honesty, we catch a glimpse of an “us” without limitations. If open, we come away knowing that the mental constructs we have built must be abandoned for us to return to that state of freedom and oneness.
Search every wisdom teaching and this is the message: The Earth and our spirit are one and the same, and we need only look to Earth to learn who we are. The growing field of spiritual ecology seeks to remind us of this. Search science and the message stays the same. In the words of Albert Einstein: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
In the witnessing of the wild, we remember and reclaim our own. When I got back to the village from the hike with my aunt I sat down with one of the women as she painted. I wanted to understand why art was so important to the Aboriginal community, and I told her about the bird. “And you remembered who you are…” She said. “And now you know why we paint the stories—to remind the young ones of who they are.”
And this is why we must try harder to preserve the wilderness—because if it is ceases to exist for the generations that follow us, not only are we denying them the beauty of witnessing a tiny gold and red bird in a desolate canyon, but we are denying them the chance to remember who they are.
Author’s note: This article was written initially for Wanderlust.com