Seeking Wildness

In The Practice of The Wild, Beat poet, Zen student, and environmentalist Gary Snyder writes of stepping off the beaten path. This metaphor brings to mind the 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who advocated for “absolute freedom and wildness,” and who strongly preferred sauntering through the woods to walking the public road.  These authors have attracted a large following among nature-lovers, environmentalists, and even anarchists, many of whom crave independence from the constraints of modern society, and some of whom advocate for “rewilding” or a return to ancestral lifestyles.  But a close reading of Snyder and Thoreau finds little support for “human wildness,” i.e., a state of being free of social constraint.  Rather, they portray wildness as a fleeting experience and use the word more as a metaphor for creativity and originality.  Once we understand this point, we find that the key to absolute freedom is not to be found in nature, but rather in the spirit of self-reliance and self-discipline – or put differently, the wild must indeed be “practiced.”

Gary Snyder

However, this message is not initially clear, because both authors play with the idea of wildness as a state of being.  Snyder’s book opens with an unconvincing effort to define wild as separate from natural.  He explains that everything is natural, by which light “there is nothing unnatural about New York City, or toxic wastes, or atomic energy.”  But then he tries to draw a distinction around wild, using a long list of examples: animals as “free agents,” self-propagating plants, land with original vegetation, sustainable foodcrops, societies whose order derives from custom and consensus rather than legislation, “proud and free” individuals who follow the local style without concern for city fashion, “far-out,” free and openly sexual behavior.  His words are intriguing, but the logic short-circuits when he goes on to link “wild” to the Chinese concept of Dao, the way of Great Nature — for now we’ve come full circle, which is to say if everything is natural, and nature is wild, then everything is wild, in which case the word has no meaning.  Similar contradictions run throughout the text:  in one place Snyder writes that “human beings are still a wild species” for the reason that “our breeding has never been controlled for the purpose of any specific yield,” but elsewhere he comments that “virtually all contemporary people are cultivated stock.”

Contemporary authors who write about wildness follow in Thoreau’s steps.  His essay “Walking,” first delivered as a lecture in 1851, opens with a powerful statement:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

The spirit is compelling, but Thoreau admits in the next sentence that he is making an “extreme statement” in order to be “emphatic,” and his premise is very questionable. After all, to draw a contrast between “absolute freedom” and being “a member of society” is to spit in the eye of Nature, as even our most primitive ancestors lived in tribes, as do our closest genetic relatives (chimpanzees) and most other species of animals, birds, and insects.

Further along in the essay we read that most people “like dogs and sheep, are tame by inherited disposition,” and then discover what may have been his real point, that the domestication of the masses is “no reason why the others should have their natures broken that they may be reduced to the same level.” In other words, he’s advocating wildness for “the others,” which presumably includes poets, writers, and nature-lovers – people who “march to a different drummer,” to use one of his most famous expressions – and of course this group includes himself, a free spirit who struggled to get along with conventional-minded peers.  The reader may be sympathetic to the argument that creative people need extra space in which to be different, but the connection to Nature or wildness isn’t clear.  Like Snyder, Thoreau does not offer a workable definition of human wildness.

Henry David Thoreau

Indeed, there is no such definition.  According to the dictionary, “wild” refers to a state of not being tamed or domesticated by humans, which doesn’t make sense applied to humans because everyone is influenced, constrained, or in some way limited by peers.

Moving past this distraction, we find that both authors make a more compelling argument about wildness as an experience.  About three quarters of the way through his book, Snyder writes about stepping off the trail.  For hunters and foragers, he explains, “the beaten path shows nothing new, and one may come home empty-handed.” In other words, to find food, you may need to go in new directions, where other people haven’t already stripped the surroundings or frightened off the game.  Then he makes a related point for mountaineers who explore remote peaks: such expeditions “put you where the unknown happens, where you encounter surprise.”  In both cases, the search for the new – whether resources or experiences – requires leaving behind the comforts of society and plunging into “the relentless complexity of the world [that lies] off to the side of the trail.”  This metaphor perfectly summarizes Snyder’s message: “Off the trail is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild.”

Image result for gary snyder
Gary Snyder.  Credit:  John Suiter

The word, “sauntering” echoes Thoreau, who wrote that he couldn’t preserve his health and spirits unless he spent “four hours a day at least, — and it is commonly more than that, — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”  In fact, traveling through the woods was his preferred mode of travel, both as a nature-lover, and as a land surveyor engaged in mapping out property boundaries.  On those occasions when his route took him through a village instead of around it, he felt “as strange as if I were in a town in China.” Once on the other side, “I am at home in the wide world again.”

Wandering in the woods was for Thoreau both adventure and escape:  “In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another.”  In contrast, he warns the reader, “If you would go to the political world, follow the great road, — follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes.”

Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead…I walk out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in.

— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

As an essayist, poet, and philosopher, Thoreau took “the old prophets and poets” as his role models, and here he used the word Nature to refer to the source of creativity and originality.  “Dust in your eyes” is a wonderful metaphor for the risk that following others could prevent you from discovering your own unique vision.  There are many other examples in the essay “Walking” that relate wildness to novelty and creativity.  Thoreau identifies the wild with the direction West, a reference to America’s frontier.  He also links wildness with great literature:

In literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is only another name for tameness. It is the untamed, uncivilized, free, and wild thinking in Hamlet, in the Iliad, and in all the scriptures and mythologies that delights us, — not learned in the schools, not refined and polished by art.

— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

These comments echo Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed that “Universal Nature” is the source of all knowledge and is revealed to people through bursts of inspiration.  Conventional thinking was anathema to him, especially the stale doctrine promulgated by his peers in New England’s priestly class.  He wrote that “whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist,” and believed that the good must always be “strange and new”:

When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; — the way, the thought, the good shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”

Where Emerson talked, Thoreau walked, which is to say he took literally the idea of seeking inspiration in Nature, a startling example of which is found in his account of climbing Maine’s Mount Ktaadin.  During the descent from the summit, Thoreau passed through a field of boulders, describing the scene as “primeval, untamed, and forever untamable Nature…something savage and awful, though beautiful.” Suddenly he experienced an epiphany, and everything – even his body and mind – seemed new:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, — that my body might, — but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

— Henry David Thoreau, “In the Maine Woods”

This is a terrific example of how you can experience wildness, even if like Thoreau you spend most of your life in settled areas.  Snyder gives us a pithy summary: “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.”

Henry David Thoreau 2.jpg

But if only the search for new ideas was as easy as stepping off a trail.  As we read deeper in Thoreau, as well as Snyder, we discover a certain state of mind is necessary before one can hope to experience the wild.  A few paragraphs into “Walking,” the careful reader discovers the tables have been turned:

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

At first it seemed that a walk in the woods was the route to freedom, but now the opposite is true:  freedom is the necessary precondition for a walk.  Put differently, you cannot experience the wild if you’re entangled with, bound to, or influenced by other people, which was a condition that Thoreau himself struggled with:

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society.  But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is, — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?

Freedom as a mindset requires that you cut off social entanglements when they become irritating, but you may also need to leave them behind even when they’re comforting, because the search for new ideas requires a tolerance for discomfort.  Thoreau makes this point when he offers a mock derivation for the word saunterer, suggesting it might come from the French sans terre meaning “without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering.”  The concept of “being at home everywhere” implies that you are not dependent on a physical structure for protection from the elements or the social comfort that comes from hanging out with family and friends.  The faint-hearted walker, Thoreau warns, doesn’t make it far into the forest before turning back for home.  Similarly, someone who depends on conventional thinking (or is influenced by peer pressure) wouldn’t likely discover new ideas.

Absolute freedom is the ability to cut connections, leave behind the comforts of home, and thus tolerate the discomfort associated with wild environments.  That Thoreau aspired to this attitude is evident in the compliment he paid one of his Maine guides, a Native American Penobscot named Polis:  “As we drew near to Oldtown I asked Polis if he was not glad to get home again; but there was no relenting to his wildness, and he said, ‘It makes no difference to me where I am.’”

Snyder, too, embraces the mindset of “being at home everywhere.”  In the Zen tradition, monks are referred to as “homeless,” which Snyder explains means “being at home in the whole universe” and then elaborates: “the condition of true homelessness is the maturity of relying on nothing and responding to whatever turns up on the doorstep.” Snyder gives us an allegorical description of what he means, and he could be referring to either an explorer or a poet:

One departs the home to embark on a quest into an archetypal wilderness that is dangerous, threatening, and full of beasts and hostile aliens. This sort of encounter with the other-both the inner and the outer-requires giving up comfort and safety, accepting cold and hunger, and being willing to eat anything. You may never see home again. Loneliness is your bread. Your bones may turn up someday in some riverbank mud. It grants freedom, expansion, and release. Untied. Unstuck. Crazy for a while. It breaks taboo, it verges on transgression, it teaches humility. Going out-fasting-singing alone-talking across the species boundaries-praying-giving thanks – coming back.

— Gary Snyder, “The Practice of the Wild”

If we borrowed one of Emerson’s favorite terms, this would be the attitude of self-reliance.

Gary Snyder.  Credit:  The Paris Review

In the Catskills, the contemporary word for moving off trail is “bushwhacking.”  The runners and hikers who do so don’t call ourselves “wild,” but like Thoreau, we’re seeking to experience the wilderness and see or learn something new.  After reading Snyder’s book and Thoreau’s essays and pondering their message, I’ve become more conscious of the tug of civilization (the promise of warm food, cold drink, a comfortable place to sleep, companionship) and more appreciative of the self-reliant attitude Snyder describes as “homelessness” and which seems to be the real key to Thoreau’s “absolute freedom.”  It’s a mindset that, for me at least, need to be practiced, which is why you’ll see me heading back to the mountains as often as I can.


Running the Long Path is available on Amazon!


Seeking Wildness

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