The Call of the Wild

And the wish never to return.

It happens every time. Once in the wild, I don’t want to return to civilization.

Civilization brings out the worst in me. Frustration, anger, stress, prejudice, the need to wear a mask, to jostle and compete. My zany, playful edges rubbed dull by work and toil. My wildness tamed.

Dullness is but another name for tameness, said Henry David Thoreau.

Nature’s allure shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, she cradled and shaped us for 99% of our time on this planet. Nature was once our home and governess; her lessons simple: harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation, and balanced competition. No need for therapy, Prozac, Ritalin or Xanax.

Environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan say it’s the visual elements in natural environments — sunsets, streams, butterflies — which reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating, but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.

Regardless, once out, I just can’t bear the thought of heading back indoors.

In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it. But alone in distant woods, I come to myself. I once more feel myself grandly related. I suppose that this value is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. — Thoreau

City life makes me envious. Nature humbles me. City life numbs my senses. The wild awakens them.

Our sensitivities and vast compendium of knowledge gained as hunter-gatherers have been lost. We’ve retained all the fears of the savannah but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we can’t find our way now without a GPS. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or the silk of a leaf have become unfamiliar. Constant exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality has blunted our sense of smell and taste. We no longer know what to eat without consulting labels. Bleared by the glaring and flickering light of screens, our sight misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us 24–7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear — with increasing doses to keep us hooked — have made it impossible for us to know what exactly to do in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored, anxious, angry, or depressed. No wonder the meaning of life eludes us.

Chocon Machacas
Chocón Machacas River in Guatemala

My fascination with the wild began at an early age. Born and raised in one of the most magical spots on earth, I had ample opportunity to commune with nature.

One of my fondest childhood memories are of my solitary trips in a tiny wooden canoe through the lowland flood forest and mangrove thickets lining the narrow brown-water tributaries that fed into ‘El Golfete’ in northeast Guatemala. They ignited, I believe, my yearning for quietude and a life of vagabondage. It was a place where my senses were spellbound. Sighting turtles, spider-monkeys, toucans, macaws, parakeets; gliding on my canoe as if inside a green concert hall filled with their animated early morning chatter; dipping my hand into the tepid chocolate-colored water and feeling the growing heat of the sun rousing the dense smell of swamp, my whole body was pervious and receptive to the atavistic arousal of all those primeval and sublime sensations. Being just a boy, I wasn’t conscious of their profound effect, and that’s the crucial point. I was feeling, not thinking. It is our much-vaunted rationality that blocks our path to intimate connection.

As we grow up, we gradually lose our embodied awareness. We become brittle and live at right angles to the land. We alienate ourselves from our primal sensuousness and begin to divide the world into spirit and matter. We commodify our aliveness. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth (from Latin mater or mother) becomes but a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.

Our heedless violence against the planet might be explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensuality.

No European who has tasted savage life, can afterwards bear to live in our societies. — Benjamin Franklin

“In pre-and post-revolutionary America, Puritans loathed the natives’ simplicity, serenity, and sensuality,” suggests Barry Spector in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City,’ “for they were aspects of themselves they had banished. Because of the grief for what they had lost, or found too difficult to recover, they demonized these virtues and proceeded to remove them from view.”

When I came of age, I cut the umbilical cord tethering me to Mother Earth and sacrificed my natural sensitivities at the altar of ego, consumerism, and societal approbation. I had to lose everything twenty years later to find my way back to enchantment. Stripped of everything, I learned to succumb to nature’s wild embrace.

“The essence of the western male mind, says author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, “has been its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world.”

If there’s ever a chance to save the wild, we must surrender to its seductive power and relearn nature’s wisdom. We must recover our lost scent.

I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. — Thoreau

I answer the call of the wild and enter its hallowed space to remember where I came from and to where I must constantly return.

Soft Fascination

More effective than Prozac or Xanax

There are days when you feel stretched to your breaking point. When nothing makes sense and nothing works out. It feels like being trapped in a snow globe full of sharp rocks being shaken by a brat. Yesterday was one of those days.

I knew it was bound to be bad the minute I woke up and stabbed my toe against the edge of the closet door. The pain was amplified by an email with the seventh rejection to my Memoir and the pre-dawn realization that my credit card debt is reaching its limit which means that, soon, I won’t be able to write full-time and be forced to find a ‘real’ job.

I tried adding my daily thousand-words to my second book, but nothing seemed good, nor worth anyone’s time, so I wasted the morning reading other people’s stuff which only helped heighten my sense of inadequacy.

Surfing for hours across the roiling pages of the Internet – my senses jarred by all the chatter, outrage, and flashing images inside this bleak, abstract landscape we call cyberspace – only added to my distress.

Dizzy and with a pounding headache, I reached for my antidote: the hundred pages of quotes and poetry fragments I’ve collected for ten years.

The poet, Robinson Jeffers saved the day:

“A little too abstract, a little too wise,

It is time for us to kiss the earth again,

It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,

Let the rich life run to the roots again.

(…)

I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers

In the ocean wind over the river boulders.

I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,

That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky.”

All this time, not once had I unglued my face from my laptop to contemplate the verdant scenery expanding in front of the screened porch in which I usually write in spring and summer. Beckoned by its peaceful countenance, I knew what I had to do.

Fortunate to be living temporarily in a house surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness, I closed my laptop and turned off my cell phone. Within twenty minutes, walking across the forest, I reached my favorite spot on the river, where it bends, almost at a ninety degree angle, bordered by a tall, sheer rock wall.

The river’s rush over a natural fall managed to deafen the overhead roar of jets, and the shrill and harrowing sounds of jackhammers, weed-whackers, and leaf-blowers with which humans blazon their dominion and relentless encroachment into the wild.

I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, waded across the other shore, and sat down, staring at the shaded deep pool carved by the river in front of me. Too cold for a swim, I thought. My clothes will get wet.

This time, writer GK Chesterton came to my rescue:

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.”   

I slid into the chill water and felt an instant current of primordial excitement. Childlike, I floated with the flow staring up at the overhead canopy which gleamed in a variegated kaleidoscope of shades of green I had never seen before. Or perhaps seen, but never apprehended. The air was honeyed by the scent of wildflowers. After swimming a few short laps, I waded across a flatter section scanning the sandy and pebbled river bottom, my eyes attracted by shimmering golden glints of rock flakes. I lay down on a sunny patch of sand with my bare feet inside the water. I closed my eyes and, soon, felt soft, pecking nibbles. Tiny, silver fish were feeding off my skin. I laid back down and turned my head away from the overhead sun. Inches away was a damselfly with a drowsy, hinge-like motion of its gossamer wings.

I did not want to return to the madhouse. All my earlier, petty tribulations had been rinsed by a simple ablution and keen awareness in this small pocket of enchantment. Did not wish to read or write one more thing about the human condition; about flourishing, purpose, happiness, or despair. The answers were crystal out here: balance, harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation. Every living thing content with just being.

Not one who takes Prozac or Xanax, this has always been my therapy for my first-world laments, and current science endorses my remedy.

Stanford researchers recently scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they walked for ninety minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street in downtown Palo Alto. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the part of our brains tied to depressive rumination. The lead researcher believes that being outside in a pleasant environment takes us outside of ourselves. Nature, he says, may influence how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan argue that it’s the visual elements in natural environments—sunsets, streams, butterflies—that reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. “Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode,” wrote the Kaplans—and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.

I headed back, wet, serene, and lighthearted. My predicament hadn’t changed, surely. The eighth rejection to my Memoir was waiting for me in my inbox. The debt had not vanished. But my outlook underwent a dramatic transformation. The perspective of my tribulations was altered by my soft fascination with river, rock-glimmer, wildflower, fish, and damselfly.

My thoughts no longer swarming like “mouthless mayflies darkening the sky,” I ended my day with a thousand words, which, while perhaps inadequate or mediocre, speak with the authentic voice of my sense of wonder.


Read the companion piece: ‘A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

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