I couldn’t sleep last night. The night before I’d dreamt of disease, contagion, and fear, my mind just wouldn’t settle down. I didn’t have particularly bad thoughts swirling in my head. I thought about friends, and generosity, and kindness. I thought about nature and wildness. As though I felt that if I just circled comfortable ideas, traced familiar pathways in my mind, I wouldn’t stumble into unsafe territory during the night. I circled good thoughts like a fire, warding off the darkness of fear.
More and more these days I find myself circling. During the day I walk big loops through a vacant town, and into the awakening woods. The contrast is strange – town becoming eerily quiet and empty, while in the forest a riotous spring is arriving. Dawn choruses return, one or two new bird songs at a time. Woodpeckers drum, frogs sing and quack, geese fly overhead. Flecks of brilliant green start to break through the brown carpet of last years leaves. Soon there will be flowers: bright yellow trout lilies, little white Canada mayflowers, ruddy red trilliums.
I’m finding that I need wildness more than ever right now. It is a soothing balm on the raw anxiety that frames my days. It is the fire that I circle in the darkness of this fearful time. Wildness reminds me that life goes on. That the acts wandering and observing and stretching out in the sunshine will still bring me joy as they did before Even now, when joy feels almost taboo. Wild nature reminds me that I can still seek, and find, wonder in this world.
More and more I am also looking to wildness for hope. So much of the nature I take for granted in the Northeast was once nearly lost. Fishers were gone, moose were all but extirpated, beavers were hunted to near extinction. At one time, our vastly forested region was converted mostly to fields. And yet now I can read that history on the landscape like a story from another time, deciphering old fields from forest composition, settlements from cellar holes. Oh how much things can change!
We can see human choices playing out on the landscape so directly, but the time scale is long, so we forget that the choice is still ours to make. Now, when I need hope more than ever, I choose wildness. I choose to hope for a wilder future, and not just to hope for it but to work for it, to build it. Because now I see its importance more than ever. When faced with a worldwide pandemic, people all over the world are flocking to parks and nature preserves. I am not alone in finding solace in nature.
But we cannot just turn to nature when times are hard, and ignore it when the darkness recedes. If wild places are to be the fire that we circle in fear, we must choose to care for them in times of safety too. Future generations will read the choices that we make today on the landscape of tomorrow. We can decide on the world we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren. And we can build it, by making choices that support that vision. The wild places we choose to protect today will be the fires that future generations circle when darkness inevitably rises again.