I fractured my ankle this week. It’s beyond frustrating, not least because I had a lot of hiking and camping–some of it backpacking–in mind for this summer, and now none of that is happening for at least six weeks and probably closer to eight or even ten.
It’s not that getting outside with a mobility issue is impossible–the website Disabled Hikers is a resource dedicated to doing just that–but it changes the game significantly. Though we live in a time when more options are available than ever to assist with mobility issues, the outdoors isn’t exactly designed for it. Even those places that are designed for human activity, such as hiking trails, are created with certain assumptions in mind. So while I’m grateful that there are things like knee scooters now and I’m not stuck relying on the underarm crutches that were basically the only option when I was a kid, I’m having to revise my expectation of my own capabilities, temporarily at least.
One of my favorite parts of this Homeric Hymn to Artemis is its description of Artemis ending Her hunt and descending to the temple of Delphi to order and lead the dances in Apollo’s house. I have no idea if the ancient Greeks meant it this way, but to me it evokes the wild’s entrance into human spaces, however much we might try to keep it out: dandelions pushing through cracks in asphalt, tree roots heaving up sidewalks, critters making their way into our backyards and even our homes. Alan Weisman’s The World without Us imagines how quickly the planet would revert to utter wilderness if humans were to vanish. It would take less time than we might like to think.
We have a tendency, in modern-day America at least, to think of wilderness as something that happens “out there”, that we have to go and find. Where I live in the Northwest, outdoor recreation is more popular than ever, with some parks and hiking trails becoming so crowded that if your purpose in going outside–as mine often is–is to get away from people, you have to put forth a little extra effort. But as that example perhaps illustrates, the boundary is not so hard and fast. Wilderness is less distant, and less separate from us, than we think.
In order to fully understand this–because I do not yet fully understand it myself–I think we need to reconceptualize what wilderness actually is. There are very few places left on the planet that humankind hasn’t touched. If wilderness is something separated from us geographically, then there’s basically none of it left.
But if, instead, wilderness is something that embraces us, that we are part of to some degree even when going about daily lives in spaces we have constructed for our own safety, comfort, and convenience, then there’s plenty of it, and we need look no further than just beyond our own skins.
Speak to me in the language of Stone and Moss: the brook and Fox-den know well my mother-tongue. Let us be clear: This Moor-language sings sweeter In my ear than all the songs I ever heard from angels, Clear and beautiful as they were. I tell you no lie, Not here.
Engaging with the gods of the wild means engaging with wildlife, as a part of the natural world which is not human–though we as humans have no inherent separation from that world, even though we often act as though we do, there is nothing like an animal encounter to bring home both our kinship with these nonhuman intelligences, and the differences between us and them.
The ancient Greeks had a different relationship to wilderness than those of us who have grown up with it as a form of recreation do. There are reasons that Artemis patrols the liminal, Pan incites panic, and Dionysus’s entrance into the city from the wild mountains is a time of upheaval and terror as well as joy and celebration. We push back the wilderness for our own safety and comfort, but it will come in, as sure as a dandelion pushing up through a sidewalk or a squirrel invading your attic.
Wildlife are pursuing their own stories: food, shelter, reproduction, play. Seeing them at
these pursuits is an unusual occurrence, one that few besides hunters, wildlife scientists, or determined backwoods adventurers experience. But in tracking, you can learn something of the stories that passed through a place before you came there.
Among other more practical reasons, this is why I study tracking. Realizing that the seemingly undisturbed landscape along the logging road or hiking trail is actually awash in activity is a humbling and eye-opening experience. The wild isn’t something that occurs out there. It’s going on all the time, all around us, in the most unlikely places. Knowing that an elk or a bobcat or a bear or even something as humble as a wood rat or a deer mouse was right here, perhaps just a few hours ago, brings home how we are not the only inhabitants of this world.
It’s not just for us, and it is of this that the gods of the wild remind us. Artemis is both
hunter and steward; delighting in slaughter as the hymn says, but also concerned with sustenance and renewal. Thus a goddess of violent death is also a goddess of birth. Pan is the wild, the will toward life of all that is, both the deer mouse trying frantically to escape the coyote’s jaws, and the coyote in desperate need of this tiny meal. Dionysus is both our footsteps on the earth, and the mountain lion’s; He brings the wilderness into the city, and brings us out into the wild.
When next you are in the forest, stop and sit. Breathe. Imagine who else might have been here, as recently as a few hours or minutes ago. What sign did they leave of their passing? What sign will you leave behind you?
Notoriously difficult to cultivate, the madrona tree thrives when it roots where it chooses, and does better in community with its fellows. It survives wildfire when mature and can be found in company with Douglas fir, a tree whose regenerative cycle also incorporates wildfire. Ironically, forest management techniques involving wildfire suppression have led to a decline of this tree.