Hiding in plain beauty.

When I noticed today’s word, wilderness, in the queue along with such heavy-laden words as confess and sacrifice (to be fair, beloved and presence are lined up there too), I admit to wondering what the list’s creator’s relationship with the word is. One of darkness and fear of the unknown? Or of delight and sacred wonder?

Earlier this week, I pondered the word ‘awe’ with a similar bewilderment* wondering why we use it the way that we do. Why does the word ‘awesome‘, for instance, connote something amazingly wonder-ful and inspiring while the word ‘awful leans towards the terrible.

For human beings the line between beauty and terror is a thin one, and that line is likely crossed somewhere between Some and Full. Some wildness is awesome?… but too much is terrifying. When confronted with something that fills us with awe, that something often can make us feel humbled (notice the root in that word is the same as in the word ‘human’). We can be brought to our knees in the presence of great beauty. Perhaps to be human is to feel overcome in the presence of intensity, be it vast or deep or mighty or dark or unknown.

Perhaps it is also human nature to run from that.

So, back to the word of the day, wilderness. When I looked it up in the dictionary, I was brought to my own knees, in a way, with sadness and bewilderment, to see there in entry after entry its association with the word ‘wasteland’


Wasteland, because it is deemed ‘inhospitable to humans’, ’empty, neglected, abandoned, undeveloped, uncultivated’, as in a ‘garden allowed to run amok’. As if somehow the taming of the earth (or a person, place or thing within it) then makes of it something worthwhile, makes of it something hospitable and worthy.

Only once did the word ‘beautiful’ enter the descriptors, used with it in a sentence. Only once did the word ‘pristine’, which I associate with the word, appear, whereas wilderness for me (and I suspect for many) sings of such untrammeled beauty.

Now, I realize that the usage and meaning of words changes with time. It is likely that when the word ‘wilderness’ first came into usage, it was defined more by our fears -on that terrible side of awe- than by our wonder, at a time in the human-earth love story when we had fallen out of the right-relationship with the earth and had separated ourselves from her goodness. During those middle years, between that earlier consciousness (romanticized naively by me?) of sacred trust and reverence and our current consciousness, where there now dwell men and women like me, who long for a wise return of that primal belonging, perhaps we were simply afraid. We feared monsters and so sought to evict, control, or tame them to our will.

Oh, who am I kidding, we still live in that place, where trees are cut down because they ‘might’ fall on houses or heads, rivers are dammed because they might flood, insects are feared because they might carry disease, and children are kept indoors because there might be monsters out there.

As I write this, I sit in Urgent Care because there is a tick deeply embedded in the flesh of my rear ribcage. I’d plucked 3 others off the surface of my skin when i returned from a walk in the ‘wastelands’ near my home earlier this week. The irony of the word ‘urgent’ in response to an insect is not lost on me. I had thought not to come, as i am fairly certain my little bugger is not of the lyme-disease carrying variety, and I tend not to panic, refuse to stay inside that prison, but a small seed of fear the size of a tick has been planted in me. I know one who has been struck ill for years by its tiny bite.

Ironically, the word, wilderness, comes from the Old English ‘wilddeornes’, meaning a land inhabited only by ‘wild deer’. Today, deer run rampant because we have tamed them, tamed the landscape, stripped it of its wildness, making it inhospitable to the flora and fauna that would keep the deer in balance. These ‘tamed’ deer now harbor on their warm blooded bodies the insects that embed fear in their human hosts when they nuzzle their way under our skin.

These woods behind my home became a wasteland when the Gypsy Moth caterpillars feasted and thrived in a predator free paradise. The forest managers then decided the best response was to clear cut the forest. What was thus stripped has grown up into this thicket of wasteland in which the deer thrive. It seems to me that most of the wastelands of which I am aware are thusly created by human hands through toxic waste, resource extraction, introduction of nonnative ravaging species, the list goes on. Does that make of them wilderness, then?

My idea of wilderness is richer than that. I want my wilderness to be untouched not because it is unworthy or inhospitable, but because it is inherently worthy of dignity, and is hospitable to legion – wolf and bear, coyote and deer, mouse and tick, trees that fall and human beings that falter. I want my wilderness to fill me with wonder and awe, even if that awe can sometimes lean into ‘ful’ness, because I understand that reverence and belonging grow deep in that thin space between some and full, the wise place between naivite and fear where terrible beauty exists. I want my wilderness to keep me humble, to remind me that I am a part of something vast, of which I am something quite small.

And I want the wilderness within me to be afforded the same grace and dignity, hospitality and fullness, reverence and belonging, for all the terribly beautiful ways that I am.

And I don’t want it to be a waste.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

– Rilke, Book of Hours,

*bewilderment- from the same root, wilder (pronounced with the short ‘i’) , state of unknowing,to lead astray, lure into the wilds

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kidfriendlyyoga
    Feb 18, 2018 @ 08:45:08

    Beautifully expressed.



  2. Trackback: wilderness afterthoughts – what if we truly belong? | Emmaatlast's Weblog

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