When you’ve lived in one place long enough you notice how it changes over time. You see the revitalization of some previously downtrodden neighborhoods even as others slip into decline. You see old farms paved over for the sake of car dealerships and strip malls, and vacated railroad rights-of-way transformed into linear parks or public transportation lines. Progress is like that, isn’t it? Some good things, some not so good things; it’s hard to say in balance where we’re headed (although climate change is a pretty good indicator). One thing is certain right here and now, however, wild places are disappearing and with them something that we don’t even yet know how to value. Every patch of woods that’s cut down in order to build up a subdivision of new homes is a loss of connection to the natural world. Every open space that’s filled up with some new development or other is a loss of spaciousness in our minds.
The effect of this so-called “march of progress” has been like a wound deep inside of me that has never quite healed ever since the woodsy paradise of my childhood was destroyed for the sake of a sprawling apartment complex. It’s a wound that aches to this day each time I witness something natural getting cut down or plowed under. But this post isn’t meant to be a lamentation. Rather, it’s meant to be a celebration of those still wild places in our midst: the swaths of tangled brush that you just know are hiding something; the stands of volunteer trees that are almost, almost, little patches of woods; and those places where the mowing and maintenance have ceased and the process of becoming wild again has begun. You see them down in the hollows of the cloverleaf interchanges and in the little triangles of unmarketable land sitting at the intersections of irregularly shaped properties. They’re in alleyways and vacant lots and at the bottoms of back yards. They’re in easements and behind dumpsters and under train trestles and highway overpasses. But the still wild places that intrigue me most of all are down in the culverts and drainage ditches and catchment basins that have been left alone for years to do their job of carrying away whatever nature dumps on top of us. It’s here that you’ll find little ecosystems unto themselves – revealing their nature, expressing their wildness, acting as little outposts in a wasteland of development, reminding us (if indeed we allow ourselves to be reminded) of that which can never completely be contained.
I think of the human mind in similar terms. Just as nature has been paved over and built up and “improved” upon all over our urban centers, so the nature of the human mind is routinely “covered over” and “improved upon” with all of the various and sundry tasks and pastimes that we feel compelled to occupy it with: television, radio, the internet, and iPhones; gaming, sports, and puzzles; gossip magazines and diversionary literature; social media, mindless exercise, mindless work, etc. Sure, all of these have the potential to enrich our lives – if engaged in mindfully and in moderation – but as with so many things they have a sneaky way of taking over the lion’s share of our attention, paving over that which is our truest nature.
Now, some readers might perceive an inconsistency in my thinking. After all, it was only a few posts ago that I wrote about living with an untamed mind; now I’m writing about minds that are overly tamed. What gives? Actually, I don’t think there’s any inconsistency at all. We can tranquilize a wild beast, but we’ve not tamed it. We can throw a feral dog a piece of meat and keep it subdued for a time, but we’ve not tamed it. In the same way that we pave over huge swaths of the natural world without ever taming it, so we tranquilize or preoccupy the mind with an endless variety of diversionary activities without ever having tamed it. No, truly taming the mind would mean that we’ve subdued our wild beasts of boredom, impatience, anxiety, fear, isolation, loneliness, grief, depression, meaningless, and powerlessness, without relying on tranquilizer darts and chunks of dripping meat.
I was sharing a restaurant breakfast the other day with my woman friend and her two youngest daughters. They’re truly a joy to be around, and for most of the meal the girls complied with our request to keep their iPhones tucked away. As time wore on, though, their gazes began more and more frequently to be directed downward into their laps where their thumbs and minds had become preoccupied with texting messages to their friends. Anyway, we ended up having a conversation about how such constant connectivity with people all hours of the day and night potentially hinders them from practicing the very important skill and art of being alone, of being truly present with what is. True peace of mind and well-being come from our ability to be with those feelings of boredom, anxiety, fear, etc., instead of pushing them away the very instant they arise.
But such “negative” feelings are not all that we push away when we push way the “wildness” of our minds. We push away the solitude that is the wellspring of our creativity. We push away wonder for the sake of routine stimulation. We push away timelessness for the sake of fleeting and inconsequential babble. We push away the real world for the sake of that which is contrived; and as we do we push away true knowledge of the depths of who we are.
So, please, we can all do ourselves and each other a favor. Whenever we encounter one of those still wild places – whether it be somewhere in our midst or deep within – let's take the time to attend to it, study it, appreciate it, and embrace it. Those still wild places outside speak of the very nature that is our birthplace. Those still wild places within speak of that which refuses to be subdued without truly being known. Let's get to know them and come to realize that we’ve been mistaking our own face for that of an enemy. It is the face of our deepest yearning to be free.
Railway culvert by BJ Smur via:
Cropped and edited image of girl texting by JohnnyMrNinja via:
Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank