Paradise Wild

The Practice of the Presence of the Wild

The following is an excerpt from Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature, by David Oates (Oregon State University Press, February 2003). The little essay below was originally published in winter of 1990 (in the inaugural issue of Earthlight: The Magazine of Spiritual Ecology) and has been reprinted in several places. It’s the seed the book has grown from. Enjoy! — David Oates

Chapter One: The Practice of the Presence of the Wild

When I returned to live in Los Angeles after years away, I also began attending a Quaker Meeting. That surprised me – I had not thought to be in any kind of church, ever again. But then, I had not expected to live in LA again, either. In any event, these weren’t church Quakers. They welcomed people rejected elsewhere – lapsed Catholics and Baptists, a scattering of self-made Hindus and Buddhists, New-Agers, Twelve-stepping ex-addicts. And lots of gay folk, too; so I stayed. The Quakers added a dimension to my life that, newly immersed in the sprawling city, I sorely needed.

Their worship was simple, without clergy or obvious creed. Following a meditative tradition dating from the sixteen hundreds, they simply sat in silence “in the manner of Friends.” Out of this silence someone would occasionally speak. Or sometimes not. But the silence, even when long continued, surprised me. It was full, rich with an unexpected depth and connectedness.

What I heard at Meeting startlingly echoed what I had found, by myself, in the high mountains. By that time I had stopped working as a mountaineering guide, and had taken to making long solos high up beyond trails where the summer peaks edged vast, quiet lands of rock and ice. It had comforted me, somehow, to be alone and silent up there.

Eventually I began to understand that the two experiences, seemingly so unlike, shared something essential. It was wildness: the uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Alone on a mountainside it is an obvious meditation to recognize how big the world is, and how much bigger the cosmos beyond it, and beyond that how encompassingly small the little life is that holds the beholding mind. Small and easily damaged.

In a silent meeting there sometimes comes a similar recognition. Out of the dark into which the mind descends, a becoming humility settles. There is much in that dark silence, much that is not understood or understandable. But some of it emerges during a well-gathered meeting, either to stir an individual with unexpected intuitions or to impel someone to stand and speak words that are just a little truer than her ordinary talk.

The silence is wild. No one controls it or measures it. Without this silence, Quaker meetings would be shallow talk-societies. In the silence is the depth and the profundity. In it one encounters the truth: a person is a small bit of intellectualizing jetsam afloat on a mighty and incomprehensible stream.

This is distressing news to the Faust in us. Which is precisely why it is such important news.

City folk are prone to believe that if anything goes wrong, it must be someone’s fault. They suppose that we humans control all: if someone is hurt, some official must have screwed up. It can never just be the fact that humans are mortal, and life dangerous. Skiers who run into trees blame resort operators rather than the laws of gravity. Earthquakes are followed by lawsuits.

Civilized life fosters this delusion. City lights blot out the starry sky, that insult to mortal pride. Day and night can be ignored. Weather is minimized. Edges are rounded. Health care is good enough, with a little luck, for one to go years without an obviously unsolvable problem.

What losses these comforts are! What a revelation simple hunger can be – how sharpening to the senses, how bracing to the mind. What sleepy, deluded, dull people we turn into under such a regimen of toasty quilts and surfeit. What a silly theory it is to think that all hazards are, or ought to be, marked with red triangles and registered with the appropriate authorities. How badly we need a sharp pinch now and then to bring back to us the reality: Though we try to provide for our needs, life is nevertheless both uncertain and painful. Best not to forget it.

The common thread in all these urban delusions is denial of nature as an encompassing reality. We label it “natural resource” and chop it up for raw materials. Where human desire is the measure of all things, all the world is a consumable commodity, a playpen for the infantile appetite. Or we think of it as “out there” – somewhere picturesque, maybe in a designated wilderness. Certainly not where we live.

But nature is present all the while, undeterred by our silly denial. That’s what I discovered in meeting. Sickness, accident, old age, and death remind us, eventually, if nothing else does. But the systematic loss of awareness of this reality leaves us unable to comprehend. We think there must be some mistake. It is the urban/civilized lie that humans can control all, much, or even an important part of life. Most of what counts is far beyond our reach. By limiting our focus to those few trivial elements that we can manipulate, we shrink our lives to pitiable smallness. And all the rest of the cosmos goes unnoticed. It is a high price to pay for the illusion of safety.

* * * *

If the reality of nature is as present as all that, then we do not have far to look for deliverance.

Even right now, in the midst of the city, in the confused dregs of the Dark Age of global industrialism, the wild surrounds us. The wild is everywhere, despite the city-lie. Wildness is the medium in which we live, as near as the night sky, a brush with death on the freeway, a deep breath, a dream. By learning to welcome the unplannable, the uncontrollable, and the incomprehensible as nature itself, we can refresh and renew ourselves daily. Thoreau knew what he was saying – that in wildness (not wilderness) is the preservation of the world. Tracts of unexplored or lightly-peopled land are wonderful: but the wild is within us, as well.

A few places to look:


Thoreau again, from his 1841 journal: “I have been breaking silence these twenty-three years and have hardly made a rent in it. Silence has no end: speech is but the beginning of it. My friend thinks I keep silence, who am only choked with letting it out so fast. Does he forget that new mines of secrecy are constantly opening within me?”

The Body

Almost everything about it defies will and intention. Health and ill health, equally, are mysteries. I get spooked when I so much as lay abed for a day with a cold: it makes me think of dying and of the frailty of my daily happiness. These are good thoughts. A little exercise feels as good as a walk in the woods. It is me in my body, this amazing, difficult, recalcitrant, biological marvel. Myself my own zoo.

And sex, too. What a roller-coaster it is, and how far from rational control! It seems a perfect wilderness to me, a place where one goes along for the ride and is grateful for it.

The Mind

Our cultural theory, derived from Descartes, holds that the mind alone is free and apart from nature. This is baloney: The mind itself ranges far beyond our civilized control. It is a wild place, as every night’s dreams prove. Even what we call “reason” is hidden from us. Try to trace how a conclusion arises! A sensible owner of a mind would welcome the whole thing, reason and unreason, waking and dreaming, bound and loose, known and mysterious. To explore it is, I think, to go on a vision quest.


How could this most human of artifices also be wild? Because it is an organic process that operates by its own logic. Because it uses us as much as the other way around. Because our thought and our sense of reality are built as much of language as of our own perceptions. And because it comes to us unbidden and uncontrolled. “Language is simply alive, like an organism,” suggests Lewis Thomas, a student of both biology and language.


And all the other arts, no doubt. The reason they refresh us is precisely that they go beyond the merely measured and calculated response. To dive into a poem is to go places you cannot predict or control. That is what makes it a poem. Its resonances are wacky, like those in a cavern. It talks back to you from the strangest angles.

No matter how reasoned and clipped and formalized their above-ground manifestations, mind and language possess a deep tap-root of wildness. The poet who wishes to explore there must perform an act of courage: Abandon the control our waking lives are based on. Loosen the strings that tie together the personality and make the world safe and comprehensible. Allow the carefully made whole to fragment. No one who has even fleetingly experienced the vortex of the unreasoning mind will underestimate the attempt.

The creative journey is perilous because it encounters the unknown and uncontrolled forces of nature residing deep within us. It is for this very reason that the creations of art, literature, and music are renewing and redemptive.


By my accounting, the little death. The ego comes crashing down. Plans fall apart. Goals recede, unreached and perhaps forever unreachable. Shame and embarrassment crowd out the mellow feelings of social worth and acceptance. Bereft of the social clothing, one is reduced to the basics–a poor, naked, forked animal. A beast that eats, sleeps, and thinks beneath the sun and the seasons. No longer a Controller of Destiny; now just an inhabitant, wandering among the marvels and dangers. It’s an experience we all need, periodically, lest we forget.

* * * *

There are, no doubt, many more of these potential encounters, many ways to catch sight of the wild. They are the antidote to the accelerating madness of our war-making, money-hoarding culture. Barricaded within a pretense of control, eyes squeezed shut against the obvious, brutal, omnipresent wildness of existence, the group mind of civilization, and the private mind of each, spiral into craziness… until something clicks, a door swings open, the sweet fresh air blows through, and all that energy of denial is released.

The human spirit is refreshed as it looks straight into the realities. In the presence of nature itself, the fantasy of control and the neurosis of denial fall away. Unclenched from its fist, the open palm may be crossed by what sand dollars and sweet scents – wealth that is wholly temporary, yet wholly sufficient. And utterly unpredictable. A season in the wilderness is the primal way to learn and relearn this lesson. I guess there are plenty of nature-books to tell us so, with heroes braver than us. But in between sojourns in the high country, the open sea or the wide clean desert, you and I, Reader, can daily restore the vital balance of action and acceptance, planning and improvisation. We can welcome the unknown and the uncontrolled that sweep us into such fearful, beautiful patterns.

That is the practice of the presence of the wild.

* * * * *

Read other excerpts from Paradise Wild.