The human race has evolved from cave-dwelling, rudimentary creatures and we have transmuted ourselves into sophisticated beings who tame Wildness into submission. Today we hold almost six times more water in storage dams than what flows free in rivers. We have converted about 50 percent of the world’s surface area to grazing land or cultivated crops. Less than 17 percent of land remains untouched by the direct influence of humans. We traveled to the moon, defined table manners, harnessed nuclear energy, learned to build bridges and skyscrapers, defied gravity and invented the automobile. Unfortunately our ceaseless pursuits for progress, beneficial as it might be on many levels, obscure the natural world ever further from our collective consciousness.
Despite the hallmarks of modern civilization suggesting a separation between man and Wildness, I believe the contrary is true and we are inextricably linked together. Childbirth is primal, labor pains seem primitive, so we harness nature with epidurals, but the fact that they exist, is a sign that we are bound to a history of Wildness. Humans come into the world as wild little creatures; every first, life-inducing breath is a confirmation that we are a piece of Wildness. It is true human babies come into the world predisposed to intelligence and emotion because of their membership to our species, but instruction and socialization is necessary to make the little baby into a “functioning,” modern person. Without guidance, a human baby will remain a language-less wild thing, as is evident in reports of feral children that make the news from time to time. We too, are nature’s children and our connection to out natural world and environment is inseverable. Sometimes it takes unexpected, extra-ordinary circumstances to remind us that our wild heritage lives on in a synthetic world.
Wildness is Beauty – The Infinite Milky Way in a Black Desert Sky
I was nineteen years old, wide–eyed, innocent and backpacking in a Neverland that was the Middle East. I arrived in Aqaba, Jordan in October 1994, by way of ferry from Hurghada, Egypt. Our first stop in Jordan was Wadi Rum, or “Valley of the Moon” in English, where hills and mountains punctuate the soft, sandy desert floor into unworldly beauty. The magnificent desertscape features imposing mountains: colossal sandstone boulders shoot up as if from nowhere, the hills rest on ancient granite rock foundations buried in the rose-hued desert sand. Sunset turned the landscape into an exquisite inferno that was scarlet skies, orange sand and deep red rock.
Wadi Rum came into Western consciousness, in large part because the valley was the desert stomping ground of T.E. Lawrence, the enigmatic British officer and author, who was stationed there during World War I to assist the Arabs in revolt against the Ottoman Turks. The landscape, which so enchanted “Lawrence of Arabia,” filled me with the same sense of wonder. We were introduced to informal Bedouin tour guides, who drove tourists around on the back of Toyota pick-up trucks, criss-crossing the rugged, breathtaking terrain. Part of the tour package was to spend the night with a Bedouin family under the stars (or in their tent if the guests so pleased.)
Bedouins are Nomad Tribes from the Arabian Peninsula and the most recent in a long line of human inhabitants in the area. Humans have lived here for millennia and a large number of petroglyphs, the oldest at minimum 12,000 years old, attest to man’s prehistoric presence.
After a long day of traversing the desert and taking in sights, smells, sounds and dust, we joined our hosts at their camp and were treated to warm hospitality and a simple dinner, eaten by hand around a massive communal serving platter. Dinner was followed by sweet-smelling shisha pipes, copious small glasses of shay (tea,) conversation, traditional songs and music. We retired when the pipes were cold and the teacups empty and rolled out our sleeping bags a little ways away from our hosts’ tents to sink into sandy nests for the night. We decided to make the great outdoors our sleeping quarters, in order to see the stars as we drifted to sleep.
I have lived another nineteen years again since then and I have never seen as big a sky and as many stars since that glorious day when I trusted the universe without a second thought. I made the rather risky decision to get on the back of a pickup truck, to drive off into the Arabian Desert with complete strangers … and how did the gamble pay off! Words, or my wanting wordsmith abilities, fall short of the sense of magnificence and grandeur the stars, the skies and black desert filled me with on that night. I felt infinitely small and wholly content in the presence of such beauty, such splendor. Not even waking in the middle of the night, realizing we have since been surrounded by our Bedouin hosts’ herd of inquisitive and shitting goats, could dampen the gloriousness of the moment. I was enveloped by nature: desert beneath me, heavens above me and goats surrounding me. I felt rolled up in a magic carpet of make-believe splendor, except that my never-never moment was real.
Wildness Is the Power of Transformation
My bus route from home to work took me through a part of London rarely seen by tourists. No Big Ben or Buckingham Palace in my backyard, but instead the ugly North Circular ring road and a massive Ikea warehouse. When I first arrived in the city, I needed to find cheap housing and ended up in Neasden. I then found a job in Colindale, another sad looking enclave in the massive expanse of London and not particularly convenient because, although near enough in miles and postcodes, I had to take two buses through these rundown, drab areas. My commute robbed me of at least two waking hours each and every workday. However, I became used to the cheap rent and very good friends with my roommates. I ended up living in Neasden for 3 years, my entire time in London. It was these inconvenient, uncharmed living arrangements that unexpectedly instigated a powerful experience of Wildness.
I worked in a travel agent call center and would often finish work as late as 11:30pm, which meant a scramble to catch the last buses home. One winters night snow started sifting down, which is a pretty rare occurrence in London and most of the time not that disruptive. I was not overly concerned and caught my first bus home as I would any normal night. When I arrived at the second bus stop, I discovered there wouldn’t be another bus. The roads were not safe. The minicab company said the same thing. Stuck. Three miles from home. Stuck. I had no choice, but to walk. I started out for home teary eyed, a little fearful and very sorry for myself.
Then, once my self-pity subsided a bit, it made way for the realization that I am amidst a winter wonderland worthy of a fairy tale. A magical veil of virgin snow was transforming the ugly, rundown oldness right in front of my eyes. My journey took me down Dollis Hill Lane where I passed Gladstone Park. Trees were white old ghosts and the lawns were vast, white plains. The soft light of the street lamps irradiated the snow, adding to the whimsy and magic. Soft snowflakes kept sifting down from the heavens, pinching my cheeks and keeping me alert. Wondrous is the fact that uncountable numbers of minuscule, infinitely delicate, fleeting snowflakes performed in unison to create the transformation. Ice crystals, all of them hexagonal and not one of them identical, poured out of the heavens like an army of magicians.
I arrived home high as a kite on the joy of beauty. It was not the first time I had seen snow, but the disparity between the usual, tired, everyday appearance of my winter wonderland and the nights’ snowy magic, as well as the canyon that was my mood swing from tears to exultant joy, caused my elevated mood. How fortunate was I to bear real time witness to the transformational power of nature!
Wildness Is the Enigma of Nothingness
Last August we were driving home on the last leg of a summer road trip, from Grand Lake, CO to Phoenix, AZ. Shortly after crossing from Utah into Arizona, we heard a loud noise, Peter said “oh, shit” about six times (we do not usually swear in front of the kids) and he pulled over to the side of the road about half a mile on after the “big bang” and just as soon as there was a safe place to stop. Our almost new Honda CR-V had a tire blowout and we, in our infinite trust in car dealerships, assumed that the tire changing kit, standard with the car, was in tact. Alas, there was some instrument missing, we were unable to change the tire and were categorically stuck. I called AAA and the operator asked where we were. I told her we were stuck on US-163 and gave her the mile marker information, which was located on a post about 30 feet from where we came to a halt. She asked me about other visible landmarks. I did a 360-degree turnabout and there was nothing but desert, the asphalt road and a mile marker. I said there were none; we are in the desert; surely the mile marker is sufficient to locate us. The friendly voice on the other side of the phone persisted and asked again and again about possible landmarks. The idea that I could not offer up one more point of interest about our location was unthinkable to her. In truth, there was much more to be said about our location, I am sure. For one, we realized we were on the Navajo Nation. I know the earth at our feet and on the horizon teemed with desert dwellers, even if they were not advertising their presence to us – the intruders in the silver SUV.
The incident and the AAA operator’s insistence on more information when the landscape was “empty,” made me realize humankind is so used to our cluttered lives with stocked up cities, homes, equipment, treasures and entertainment that the idea of perceived emptiness, absence of the discernible, is often foreign and frightening. The AAA lady was flabbergasted by the concept. I too felt uncomfortable in that place, without a means of leaving it, but I forced myself to pause and to contemplate and appreciate the utter isolation and emptiness. Whenever I come across an arid place that is also beautiful, I am reminded of the striking words of Elisabeth Eybers, a poet who wrote in my mother tongue, Afrikaans, about the arid lands of The West-Transvaal and her words roughly translate to: “God had nothing left to give this land, but the peace of completion.” I include the lines from the poem here for no other reason than that I love them.
God het geen berge of bosse oorgehad
toe Hy dié land moes maak, en kon toe net
die vrede van voleindiging hier laat.
The peace one can find in an uncluttered, “empty” landscape, void of distraction, is profound and a gift the wilderness is ready to bestow. An empty landscape promises soul-nourishing quietness and a mind at peace; commodities hard to come by these days.
It is true that we often forget about the connection we have with Wildness, because modern urban living obscures that connection. Billboards, skyscrapers and strip malls had all but replaced trees and other flora in our communities. Tarmac and concrete cover where once were sand, dirt and earth. We have swimming pools, wishing wells at Macy’s and reservoirs instead of rivers. In the manic frenzy of our existence, it sometimes takes extraordinary circumstances to drive home the realization that Wildness continues to exist around us and within us. The challenge is to always retain consciousness of our connection with nature and to cherish and embrace the Wildness that we are a part of. We have to know that in harming nature we will ultimately harm ourselves, because we are tied with an umbilical, life-sustaining chord that can never be severed. We cannot divorce ourselves of the negative impacts of a dwindling Wildness. We need clean air and clean water to be alive and Wildness is the only source. We must realize that man and Wildness are not opposing powers, but that we belong to one another, for better or for worse.
Chrisna Byck is an environmental documentary film producer, non-profit administrator, mother of two young boys and newbie writer. She co-produced ‘carbon nation,’ a film about climate change solutions and continues to work on environmental short films. Originally from South Africa, she traveled all over the world and now calls Phoenix, AZ home. She holds a B.A. Degree in English and is currently working on a Masters of Liberal Arts at Arizona State University. Her writing interests include travel, the environment, social issues and motherhood.
Photo of Wadi Rum by Daniel Case, WikiCommons
Photo of Milky Way over Wadi Rum by Elena Petrova
Photo of Urban Park in Snow by Alexander Ishchenko