We can try to kill all that is native, string it
up by its hind legs for all to see, but spirit howls and wildness
endures. Anticipate resurrection.
~ Terry Tempest Williams
I’d love to tell you about meetings I’ve had with animals and wilderness, but I am wary. Reading stories such as the one I am about to relate to you help me remember that not all humans are able or even willing to recall their own basic instincts when encountering Mother Earth and her wild Ones. Not all humans are willing or even capable of honoring what is wild within – the vast open spaces and richly fecund forests of soul.
Technology and urban lifestyles have left little room for soul to roam free. When seeking to reconnect with a more authentic sense of self through a wilderness experience, we need to be mindful and deeply respectful of the physical distance we must allow any creature of instinct. If we enter wilderness in order to experience that which is sacred, we need to shed our human persona and its perspectives and be willing to enter deeply into our own animal nature. This not only consists of a mixture of openness and wonder, it also provides us with a healthy sensibility which serves to protect the fragility of life, itself.
When wild creatures insert themselves into our lives whether by accident or intention, we can feel the hair prickle on the back of the neck saying Pay attention! If we ignore this, it can be at our peril. These are creatures far more practiced in the art of the dance than we twenty-first century humans, and many of us are only visitors to their world, and one from which we have sadly become removed.
Awareness that humans can be a danger in the wild does not have to instill either fear of the encounter or a manifest desire within us to prove that we are the friendly exceptions. Rather let our intention simply be to cause no harm and to respect the unspoken boundaries between species. Then let the experience unfold, if it is meant to.
This being said, what is it that compels humans into unsafe encounters in the wild? Is it innocent ignorance or hubris? What are we searching for? In May 2004, Vanity Fair ran a story about Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, ages 46 and 37 at the time of their loss of lives to grizzlies in the wilds of Alaska. Author Ned Zeman says, “Treadwell’s [story] became the latest cautionary tale in world gone animal-mad. Roy Horn (of Siegfried and Roy)…, ‘The Crocodile Hunter’…feeding the man-eaters while holding his baby.”
He goes on to mention a photographer mauled by a baboon, one frozen to death among penguins in Antarctica, another trampled by an elephant and yet another mauled by a grizzly in Siberia. But just what is the flavor of this “animal madness?” In her book My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, ecopsychologist Chellis Glendenning proposes that “because we are creatures who were born to live in vital participation with the natural world, the violation of this participation forms the basis of our original trauma [as opposed to original sin]. This is the systemic removal of our lives from our previously assumed elliptical participation in nature’s world from the tendrils of earthy textures, the seasons of sun and stars, carrying our babies across rivers, hunting the sacred game, the power of the life force. It is a severance that … was initiated slowly and subtly at first with the domestication of plants and animals, grew in intensity with the emergence of large-scale civilizations, and has developed to pathological proportion with mass technological society until today you and I can actually live for a week or a month without smelling a tree, witnessing the passage of the moon, or meeting an animal in the wild, much less knowing the spirits of these beings or fathoming the interconnections between their destiny and our own.”
Treadwell had appeared on Letterman more than once, where host David queried Is it going to happen that one day we read a news article about you being eaten by one of these bears? Treadwell had even “named” one of the grizzlies Baby Letterman. Becoming a media curiosity for his repeated forays into the wild over the years – meeting bears virtually nose-to-nose and taking pictures of them – did not necessarily earn him respect, but did give him a certain notoriety. A former drug addict, his perceived kinship with these wild spirits drove him out of that particular addiction into daring and sometimes disrespectful encounters with these giants.
Eventually it was a lack of respect for the bears’ seasonal rhythms which cost him his life and the life of his partner. Some would call this foolhardy, still the offending bears’ lives were terminated as a result of the attacks. Yet in a world of rapidly diminishing wildlife habitat and in a remote area accessible only by bush plane, one might very well question the wisdom of this action. After all, who were the intruders, the bears, getting ready for a long, hard winter, or the humans who knew better than to return when “most of the salmon (and berries) were gone … and bears who weren’t fattened up needed to address the issue before the Big Sleep?”Although, according to Zeman, Treadwell “wouldn’t harm a fly.”
We are only left to imagine how we ourselves would react if someone broke into our home and caught us off-guard and ill-prepared, perhaps posing a threat to our lives and/or those of our children. What was Treadwell searching for? Although he was perhaps inappropriate in the means by which he sought to experience something as pure and unadulterated as a slice of one of the last remaining vestiges of wilderness in our country (girlfriend Huguenard declared to friends, You haven’t lived until you’ve bathed in a river with bears!), what can we learn from these desperate attempts to reconnect to something wild and sacred in a world gone mad with asphalt and concrete? What can we learn from the bears?
In An Unspoken Hunger, author and wilderness advocate Terry Tempest Williams speaks of women and bears, “We are creatures of paradox…two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery. Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent.”
How have we come to fear the wildness within? In her well-known Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes offers, “To adjoin the instinctual nature does not mean to come undone, change everything from left to right, from black to white, to move the east to west, to act crazy or out of control. It does not mean to lose one’s primary socializations, or to become less human. It means quite the opposite. The wild nature has a vast integrity to it. It means to establish territory, to find one’s pack, to be in one’s body with certainty and pride regardless of the body’s gifts and limitations, to speak and act in one’s behalf, to be aware, alert, to draw on the innate feminine powers of intuition and sensing … to find what one belongs to, to rise with dignity, to retain as much consciousness as possible.”
Was it the brazen way in which Treadwell burst back on the scene, knowing it was beyond time to be tolerated, if not welcomed by the bears, which sealed his doom and that of his companion? Heeding the still, small voice within helps us honor the feminine force within each of us, no matter our gender. It encourages us not so much to act as to reflect, to intuit rather than to overly rely on rational capacities. To continue with Williams, “I see the Feminine defined as a reconnection to the Self, a commitment to the wildness within our instincts, our capacity to create and destroy; our hunger for connection as well as sovereignty, interdependence and independence, at once. We are taught not to trust our own experience. The Feminine teaches us experience is our way back home, the psychic bridge that spans rational and intuitive waters. To embrace the Feminine is to embrace paradox. Paradox preserves mystery, and mystery inspires belief. I believe in the power of Bear.”
Understanding that all encounters are instructive while allowing ourselves to be open and respectful toward all living things, including other human beings, enriches our existence. Exploring possibilities beyond our perceived descriptions and definitions allows us to expand our senses and diminishes our fear of what is
different or other. With common sense and a reverence for all beings, wilderness encounters can encourage us to maintain our contact with the magical, mystical realm of Creation. In this space, we may encourage our hopes and dreams for a more sane and loving world in which grace, dignity for all life and ultimately
peace may abide.