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.
When Chris Cornell died earlier this year I had to put this song on repeat as loud as I could stand. The sheer feralness of it, the substrate of wild nature in both the music and the lyrics, that amazing guitar riff…Io.
I tied together
a few slender reeds, cut
notches to breathe across and made
such music you stood
shock still and then
followed as I wandered growing
moment by moment
slant-eyes and shaggy, my feet
slamming over the rocks, growing
hard as horn, and there
you were behind me, drowning
in the music, letting
the silver clasps out of your hair,
hurrying, taking off
I can’t remember
where this happened but I think
it was late summer when everything
is full of fire and rounding to fruition
and whatever doesn’t,
must lie like a field of dark water under
the pulling moon,
tossing and tossing.
In the brutal elegance of cities
I have walked down
the halls of hotels
and heard this music behind
Do you think the heart
is accountable? Do you think the body
any more than a branch
of the honey locust tree,
hunching toward the sun,
shivering, when it feels
that good, into
Or do you think there is a kind
of music, a certain strand
that lights up the otherwise
blunt wilderness of the body –
and unaccountable selectivity?
Ah well, anyway, whether or not
it was late summer, or even
in our part of the world, it is all
only a dream, I did not
turn into the lithe goat god. Nor did you come running
Recently I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It was recommended by a teacher in ethnobotany and edible and medicinal plants who I’ve taken a few classes from. Within a few chapters I understood why she praised the book so highly.
On some level many of us know that something is wrong. We know that the way we live isn’t sustainable–unfortunately “sustainable” has become a buzzword, ironically robbing it of meaning–and that we damage the Earth in ways that will take a long, long time to recover from…while meanwhile, the damage continues.
This is something that either bothers you or it doesn’t. If it does, Braiding Sweetgrass comes as close as anything I’ve read to laying out another path. Because everyone who agrees that there’s a problem is largely in agreement about what the problem is. It’s solving it that’s challenging: because, first, finding and articulating a vision of what that solution is, of what that other way looks like, is hard.
In general we have some notions about getting back to the land, about eating local and consuming less. These are generally good things to do because they help develop awareness of the bigger problem, the one that individual choices cannot solve because it is systemic.
Braiding Sweetgrass makes its case via the sciences of botany and ecology, the interdependencies of spirituality and religion, and the grief and passion of people who have seen their land ravaged and their way of life all but destroyed. It’s facile to observe that much of the argument for saving the planet is really about saving ourselves: the planet will continue to exist, probably even with life on it, long after our species has worn itself out.
Kimmerer, though, points out that in devouring our world, we are also devouring ourselves. I see it not only in industrial agriculture that produces more than we could ever use, then wastes it due to market forces; the determined glutting of markets for everything from oil to timber in pursuit of profit; but also in the grinding poverty from which people living in the richest country in the world cannot escape; the stress, anxiety, and rage within even those who by any standard are doing well; the rampant paranoia of a nation as unable to come to terms with its past as with its future.
Wild Gods is dedicated to living in partnership with the world that birthed us. This isn’t just a nice idea, but essential. Kimmerer herself asks the question: who will arrive at Hekate’s Crossroads first? Those who will save the world? Or those who will destroy it?