Friday, April 24, 2009

Why Wildness?

Because for most of my life I have lived and worked alone out of sight of any neighbor in the middle of hundreds of acres of forest, people often ask me, “Why do you like living out there?” I am not a misanthrope, a person who detests mankind. I not only admire the human animal above all others, but I believe over the long run civilization has made the right choices and will learn how to manage both itself and the natural environment.

Many of the people who ask why I want to live in a wild place are fellow environmentalists but of the kind who believe that the human race is at best ignorant and self-destructive, at worst, a selfish and cruel horde that pillages and plunders innocent nature. When such an environmentalist asks why I live alone, I should reverse the question and ask why he or she is not living in a wild place, enjoying a vacation from civilization and communing with the spirits of nature.

Most environmentalists feel about nature the same way they often say they feel about New York or Chicago--a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. When they do move to the country, they usually bring their domestic partners, both human and animal. Going for a walk in the woods with a dog is akin to attending a concert with a turned on paper shredder. These are often the same people who delight in drinking from clear streams oblivious to the excrement or dead bodies upstream, and who often kiss their dogs and cats who have just licked their own unbathed genitals and rectums.

I do not feel the need to drink nature’s excrement and kiss its dirty kisser exactly because I have observed it closely and thought about it long and hard. So why would anyone, including me, would want to live in a wild place without human neighbors?

My answer is power. Living here I have the thrill I experienced as a city kid entering the ocean waves for the first time. They bowled me over, tossed me around, slammed me into the sand, and spit me out in the foam. I kept going back for more. I learned to duck under the waves and to body surf on the crests, no expensive board between me and that power, something like galloping bareback.

I have come to appreciate the risks and enjoy other powers of nature—cold, wind, trees, sun, and mountains. Living with these powers and protected by few intermediaries and defenses tests our limits and defines the edges of our lives. In short, it is a way of defining who we are.

Wildness and its powers do something more important for some of us. Oddly enough the people who often find the greatest relief living in the presence of a wild power are prone to self-doubt and depression. Their personal frustrations often come from their commitment to make a difference in the civilized world. Their lack of power, if you will.

That’s how it was for me when I left my forest and served for two years as a resident adviser on housing and land reform in a Central Asian capital city of 1.5 million people. I was struggling with the language, struggling with bureaucracy there and in Washington, infuriated by the daily dose of corrupt officials, and breathing city air thick and greasy with coal smoke, car exhaust, and diesel soot.

I had the good fortune to live in a shoddy little neighborhood of old cottages instead of the tall concrete apartment buildings where the embassy security officer thought Americans should live. Every morning I got up early enough to walk outside. High above the city of Alma Ata (now Almaty), from east to west rose an unbroken wall of snow covered peaks 15,000 feet high, gleaming in the morning sun. In geological time these are new mountains, a few rifts northward toward Siberia from the Himalayas. They had been rising for millions of years. And for millions of years the snows and glaciers had been shaving them down, grinding the grit from them, cascading avalanches of mud and rock over the plains below. The city of Alma Ata and my cottage sat on a gentle slope of old avalanches. As recently as twenty years earlier the mountains had invaded parts of town with boulders and mud.

Every morning I paused to look at these mountains, to drink them in with my eyes. I grew very small beneath them. I had lived more than five decades, but my life was a nanosecond in their time. Civilization was a little bubble. Those mountains loomed above me like the crests of ocean waves. The forces that had been building them for millennia sometimes shook the city and made the glasses dance on my kitchen shelf and the light bulb swing on its cord.

Every morning I looked at the great still peaks and went on to my work with my staff and my clients. In my mind, we were like the children my brother and I were when we went into the ocean waves and locked our hands together to see if we could stand up as a big ocean wave washed over us. No matter how firmly my brother and I locked arms, sooner or later we were knocked down. My staff and I would do our best, but it would stand only afew seconds in the cosmic scheme of things. You might think it odd I took some comfort in that realization. But after all, it shrunk not only the importance of my work but the importance of my frustrations and failures.

Apart from that kind of comfort and perspective, I have no other explanation for why I like to live in a wild place. Whether the wildness is ocean waves, great mountains, or the stillness of an old forest, it tells me what Lord David Cecil’s father, the prime minister of England, once told him: “Few things matter very much, and most things don’t matter at all.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009


You’ve seen it or you can see it—the way 47 year old, beetle-browed, double chinned Susan Boyle stuffs a sandwich in her face, tells the backstage interviewer she’s ready to sing, then stumps out onto the stage of a nationally televised British talent show. She dares to confront a live audience of mainly young and hip Brits in her nondescript beige dress that covers her thick body more like a tube than a garment. Her sturdy legs protrude from below and terminate in white high heels that she uses somewhat as if they were stilts. If you haven’t watched, please do it now:

The three judges make a chick sandwich—two tanned unblemished guys flanking a sleek young blonde. Watch the guys snigger as she introduces herself. “And what’s your name, darling?” asks the youngest guy leaning back and playing with his pen. He asks her age and rolls his eyes when she says she is 47. When she says she wants to be as famous as Elaine Page, the beautiful blonde who starred in the debut of Evita, judges and audience faces wince and snigger.

By her own description she was just another Scottish woman living alone with her cat Pebbles, singing in her church choir, never married, never courted, never noticed outside her own circle of friends. Today over 12 million people have watched her sing on YouTube.

What made her an instant sensation on the Internet and British and American television? Not her sure enough good singing voice. Her real triumph was the way she suddenly and decisively smashed and shamed the smug superiority of the three gliteratti judges, the two fay, condescending back stage assistants, and an audience ready to laugh at a bush-browed, sack-of -potatoes woman who dared sing for them in a national talent show.

And what will she sing a judge asks. “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables she announces confidently to the audience that clearly pities the dreamer. Within a few bars not just her voice but her confidence and her identification with the song lift both audience and judges out of their seats. They are applauding and shouting approval. She sings on. The song is everything.

If you don’t know the song, it opens with this stanza:

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high,
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

The last lines are these:

But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms
We cannot weather...

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seems
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed.

As the applause and screaming approval die down, the older of the two male judges tells her that when she walked onto the stage “and stood there with that cheeky grin and said, ‘I want to be like Elaine Page,’ everyone was laughing at you.” The younger guy says he had been expecting “something extraordinary” and it’s clear he means extraordinarily bad.

Few people, even professional actors and singers, have ever turned an audience around as decisively as this Scottish nobody. And she did it not by acting or performing in any professional sense.

Those judges, theater people, television hotshots, and the hip audience—they all had a dream. Their dream was that they were somebody and other people were nobodies. Many of us dream this to justify ourselves, and most of us know better. Emily Dickinson once played on this theme with her lines:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Susan Boyle proved that inside every nobody is a somebody. Perhaps she reached inside of those frogs and that bog and killed their dreams. But she brought back life to their hearts.