I’ve been thinking about wildness lately. What does it mean? One of the most famous (and misquoted) Thoreau quotes is “in wildness in the preservation of the world.” Many people confuse wildness for wilderness here–but what are we missing when we think that wild is only in the wilderness? William Cronon’s essay The Trouble With Wilderness addresses the problems inherent in the way Americans view untouched forest and mountains. We essentially separate ourselves from nature, seeing wilderness as a place of escape rather than as a part of the landscape we inhabit. The entire English language is filled with different ways to voice separation. Sometimes I find it impossible to think in words while trying to fuse together nature and the human society I am a part of (see, even in this sentence I imply that they are two separate things, rather than part of the same whole).
In The Abstract Wild, Jack Turner dissects Thoreau’s statement. Upon establishing Thoreau’s interpretation of wild as “self-willed” and his view of the world based in the Greek word for beauty or order, Turner concludes that Thoreau’s quote “is about the relation of free, self-willed, and self-determinate ‘things’ with the harmonious order of the cosmos” (82). Part of wildness is that harmony is formed by both destruction and creation, and sometimes order grows from chaos.
Do we need to be wilder in order to preserve the world? If we are to reconcile the imbalance between the human and natural society, and if we are to meld the two together, then perhaps we do. Turner goes on to say, “To create a wilder self, the self must live the life of the wild, mold a particular form of human character, a form of life…If we want this wilder self, we must begin, in whatever ways we can imagine, to rejoin the natural world” (91).
Many people tend to see themselves as a part from rather than a part of the natural environment, but rarely is nature viewed with antipathy. On the contrary, there is a tangible romanticism in the way wilderness is described. Even though we are past the Manifest Destiny era, we still want to believe the west is wild, the land is endless, and there will always be open space for us to run to, if we ever find the time.
So my question is this: how do we find the time, and how do we learn to see the workings of a vegetable garden with the same wonder as we see national parks, because wild lives not only in untouched wilderness, but also in each sweet basil leaf and strawberry blossom. If we can answer this question, we can erase the void our society has built between people and nature, and live in the harmony of wildness that Thoreau wrote about. The amazing thing about finding a solution is that mine may not be the same as yours, but our own ways of walking can still lead us to the same place. My journey to wildness leads me outside, into the garden, covering my hands with soil and watching a seed fall from my fingertips, find its way into the earth, open and shoot up, and eventually sustain me. My journey also leads me to the forest where streams wind through birch, maple, and beech trees; to cold, dark lakes in Vermont and the Adirondacks; and to my front yard where a 90-year-old maple lends a branch to a swing and lets me fly.
In wildness is the preservation of the world and of yourself, for the two are inextricably intertwined. The important thing isn’t knowing the answer right away, but letting yourself delve into the adventure of finding it.