“Life wants to keep on life-ing. As hard as it can.”
I heard those words on a wilderness survival trip over a year ago. One of our instructors was talking about hunting, and the difference between hunting a wild animal and slaughtering a domesticated one. She went on to tell a highly entertaining story about someone she knew trying to kill a beaver with a frog spear. (The beaver won.)
Every year, Wild Gods takes a camping retreat. This year, as last year, we camped on the rural property of one of our members, in a Northwest forest by a river. The places we steward thank us with a sense of welcoming and familiarity: this is a place where the wild and the caretaker intersect. Artemis is a goddess of stewardship; Pan is a god of the untrammeled.
“Untrammeled” is a word you often hear in connection with the wilderness, because the phrase “untrammeled by man” appears in the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the provision for wilderness preservation in the United States. Most people probably don’t know what “trammel” means; literally, to enclose or enmesh. Yet that’s increasingly what we’re doing with our wild spaces, as everywhere else comes under human use. And those islands which are left are enclosed by that mere phenomenon. As wilderness shrinks, so do the species which can live in it. Some, like coyotes and crows, adapt spectacularly to life in human spaces: I’ve seen coyotes on Seattle streets a number of times. Most do not.
The wilderness is not a safe place, because it does not care especially for humans. By that I
mean that humans don’t rate any higher in the wilderness than does any other form of life. All of life belongs there; humanity doesn’t get any special pride of place. This is the lesson of Pan. The ancient Hellenes saw three realms: the bestial, the human, and the divine. Pan, like Dionysus, is a being who exists in all three.
As we camped by the river, shared in fruits of the first harvest, floated in the water–for Pan has associations with water too, as I shall explore here–and immersed ourselves in the forest, we took time separately and together to listen to what the world has to say when humanity is quiet, in places where humanity does not predominate. Pan reminds us that we do not exist so far from that world, despite the wonders we build for ourselves. Eventually, inevitably, the wild takes us back.