It was September, and the long stretch of Lake Michigan island beach was deserted except for a herd of snowy swans cruising along the shore at sunset. I had just read THE WISDOM OF WILDERNESS by Gerald May before my solo backpack trip. As I took my last swim of the season and marveled at the beauty all around me, his words echoed. Wilderness, he believed, is not just a place. It is also a state of being. The inner wilderness, he wrote, "is the untamed truth of who you really are."
May knew he was dying as he penned THE WISDOM OF WILDERNESS, a book drawn from his journals and thoughts over the last decade of his life. Drawn to nature because of his deep longing for something he couldn't articulate --- but knew was wrapped in a yearning for God --- he spent many nights out of doors in a state forest close to his home. It was here that May's life was irrevocably changed, as he learned about himself and about God's presence.
The idea of going to the wilderness to learn spiritual truths is as old as humankind. It's even biblical. Think of Jesus going to pray in the desert, or the prophets who found metaphors in creation. Many of the early church fathers and mothers found solitude and a special sort of communion with God when they set themselves apart for a time in the wilderness. Although May uses language that may be difficult for Christians to get past (for example, he meets something called "The Power of the Slowing," which he calls a feminine presence), if we put aside some of our preconceptions about God, May allows us to see how God might work through nature to teach us truths about ourselves and work healing in our lives.
Like any of us who love to be alone in the outdoors, May writes of his battle with fear. Fear of the dark. Fear of wild animals (his encounter with a bear is one of the best moments in the book). Fear of other humans who might wish him ill. Letting himself deeply experience fear has an unexpected result: gratitude.
Indeed, this willingness to let ourselves feel deeply is at the heart of the book. May, a respected theologian and psychiatrist (ADDICTION & GRACE), had spent a lifetime helping people learn to "cope" with their feelings. In THE WISDOM OF WILDERNESS, he rethinks the idea of "coping" and wonders if in fact it isn't better to feel our emotions deeply. May wants us to look deeper at our own nature. Are we awake to our lives? Are we paying attention? What are we missing? What are we afraid of?
When we allow ourselves to feel deeply, we open ourselves up to pain. And there is pain in the book. May spends a chapter looking at pain through his story of a tortured turtle, a chapter that no one will be able to read without flinching. More importantly, May is aware of his own mortality as he battles cancer. This lends a terrific poignancy to his words. When dying, one is aware of what is most important. May doesn't have time to trivialize.
As one who loves field guides and putting names to the birds, flowers and clouds I see, I particularly appreciated May's chapter, "The Name of the Eagle," although I'm not sure I agree with him completely. He believes that part of our desire for naming things is a need for power or control (or he says "subjugation.") "A…more respectful way is not to give a name but to discover it," he writes. This chapter gave me plenty of food for thought, since I consider learning the names of things a form of respect and appreciation --- like learning the names of the people you want to know better. I appreciate his challenging words, however. Although I will continue to enjoy naming things, I'll remember his caution the next time I'm poring over my field guides, spending more time looking for a name than getting to know the birds or the flowers for themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, May reminds me to be attentive --- to stay awake to my life. As he writes in the preface: "Your experience may be very different than mine. Just as you find your wilderness in your own place, you will have your own experience of Presence there. But my guess is that you will be touched and moved by Something that is in you but yet not completely you, something dynamic, surprising, and very, very wise….it is your wilderness calling." I plan to listen.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on May 23, 2006