Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Wisdom of Wilderness

Gerald G. May, The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 194 pages

Gerald May, a psychiatrist and theologian, is perhaps best known for his book Addiction and Grace.   His last book, The Wisdom of Wilderness, is a personal journey covering the last fifteen years of his life.  It begins with a desire to “get away” and the call into the wilderness.   May finds a spot in the mountains where he returns frequently to experience what he labels “the Power of the Slowing.”  There, he sits by a fire, explores the landscape, and fixes huge breakfasts.   He doesn’t do any deep thinking.  Instead, he just lives in the moment.  The book is filled with humorous stories about his misadventures.  When May began this season in his life, he’s not exactly what I’d call a seasoned outdoorsman.  But he learns to just be a part of nature.   On his first night in the wilderness, he encounters a bear outside of his tent.  In addition to his spot in the mountains, he also takes his canoe to a local lake, where he explores and fishes.  The story of being dive-bombed by a pair of bald eagles who attempt to “shit” upon him and his canoe is pretty funny. 

May is a bottom fisherman, even though he acknowledges that in the hierarchy of fishermen, those who use worms are that “the bottom.”  Yet, he writes eloquently about his endeavors to catch catfish: “People who bottom-fish know a strangely peaceful expectancy right then, when whatever-it-is explores the bait, and everything is softly suspended, gently poised.  It is all so delicate.” (99)  He could also be philosophical about his fishing:  “Even in fresh water, deep bait fishing is archetypal.  It is about as Jungian as life can get.  You cast your line into dark, unseen depths and something is alive there, and it connects, and you start to bring it to the surface, to daylight, to consciousness, and you begin to wonder if you really want to see what it is.” (100)

One gets the sense that May’s call into the wilderness is preparing him for something in the future.  He learns that contemplation is not something that can be done; it’s not a task, but a state of being.  Fear, he discovers, isn’t the enemy, but an emotion that makes us more alive.  Fear may alert us to danger, but it itself is not dangerous.  He also learns about time, which we treat as a commodity, a behavior that keeps us from being fully present in the moment.

Throughout the book, May is attuned to the sufferings of the world.  Upon finding a turtle that had been tortured by humans, his anguish and anger comes through in his words.  You sense his sadness when he watches a swan drown a young duck and realizes there is nothing that can be done to save the animal.  At the end of the book, we realize what his wilderness experiences have been preparing him for, as he is struggling with the cancer that takes his life.  Even then, he can’t bring himself to hate the cancer.  He also writes about the heartache of his daughter’s struggle with drug addiction.  Although he writes that he no longer feels the call to the wilderness, it has prepared him for this last season of his life.   He even has given up fishing.  He tells about his last visit to the lake where he’d spent so much time canoeing.  He was now dependent on a motorized scooter and his canoe had been given to a son who had taken it to Florida.  

As a reader, I was left with the sense that May died having lived a good life.

“Fear, like any other strong emotion, can make you exquisitely conscious of living, perfectly aware of being in the movement.  It can only do that, however, on those rare occasions when you don’t try to fight it, run away from it, cope with it, suppress it, tame it, or otherwise domestic it.” 34

“The Power of Slowing always stills my capacity to track thoughts to a conclusion.  They simply appear, hover for a while like butterflies, then disappear.”  40

“Fear is life-energy; full bodied, rich, clean, exquisite, sweet.  When you get right down to its bones, fear is love.  Fear is made of love.  That’s why perfect love—love in its purest form—cast out fear.”  44

The basic lesson is this: Fear is not an enemy but a friend.  Fear is something good, something alive, alert and wild in us.  Fear may be a response to danger, but fear itself is not dangerous. 46

“I understand how people can become addicted to fear.  I have known some who were hooked on their own adrenaline, compelled toward danger, driven to dancing with death at the edges of life.  I doubt it will ever happen to me, for I have no desire to seek fear.”  47

“Contemplation is a state of awareness that is, among other things, wide-open and completely present to whatever is going on in the immediate moment.”  61

“When it comes to the training of young animals in the world, things are very different.  Whereas humans teachers tell children to pay attention to one thing at a time, I am convinced mother mountain lions, wolves, and other predators teach their young the opposite: not to become too absorbed in any one thing, to keep their senses open.”  64

“My hunch is that life needs 95 percent openness and 5 percent concentration and we have the proportions reversed.  I wish we could encourage our children’s natural contemplative awareness as well as their capacity to concentrate.  And I wish that we adults who have been trained-away from contemplative presence could have a teacher to show us where the present moment is.”  66

[Time] even  becomes a commodity.  Time is money, we say, and, like money, we never have enough of it; we want to spend time wisely, invest it profitably, save it wherever we can.  Like money, time is not to be wasted, lest we run out of it.  And like money, time drives us, obsesses us, enslaves us.”  70

“Nature, I think, knows nothing of concepts of time or of the present.  Nature—our own and that of the world around us—lives in Presence instead of ‘in the present.’” 71

‘[S]traight lines and right angels seldom happen in nature.” 76

“I think God respects our individual integrity and will not invade us when and where we are unwelcoming.  But that is not to say we are ever left alone, not matter how we feel, because Wisdom keeps beckoning. From inside and outside, She does call.”  84

“I understood something about our daughter’s Julie’s drug addiction.  My fishing addiction was a milder form of the same thing.  I had killed so many fish, wounded so many others, but I kept doing it. It always bothered me, but I kept doing it.”  103

“I didn’t usually go into the wild to get away from something.  Most of the time it was that familiar growing yearning and feeling of rightness that it was time to go.”  123

“Like everything, the laughter of children is what you make of it.  If you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s music.  When you’re trying to concentrate on something else, it’s noise…. 130

“Why, when everything around me is perfect, and I am immersed in the moment, do I still think I must do something to be contemplative?  It is always only by a gift that I am allowed to just be.  Left to my own devices, I will always be trying to do something—even if what I am trying to do is nothing.”  143

Recalling his ancestors:  “Although they were now mostly Methodists, they had inherited a penetrating Presbyterian hopelessness about never really winning.” 154

“But no matter how kindly we feel, we will never be able to participate in healing the world around us as long as we keep seeing Nature as something different from ourselves.”  170


  1. It sounds like a wonderful book and I know someone who would enjoy it tremendously. That last quote holds a lot of truth.. as do so many others.

  2. Problems commenting. Thanks for the review. I hope this shows up.


  3. oh man...this just made my amazon finding truth in nature and the wilderness...some good stuff too of the exerpts you shared...

  4. I love that you picked out all those quotes - a lovely book, looks like.

  5. Theroux described travel as a disappearing act, which is how I feel about going into the forest. Deep in the trees I feel hidden and safe, as I felt as a little boy burrowing under blankets in the back of a closet, or as certain little children felt in the back of an old wardrobe. There is a rightness about things in the forest that I do not feel in the world of men.

  6. Excellent commentary; you've made me feel like I've read the book.

    This kind of retreat from the everyday routine is the only way I know how to slow down time. There's also a reason why the word "wild" is embedded in the word "wilderness." James Hillman would call it growing down into life, like a tree puts down roots in the soil. It is much to be desired in one's last years.

    I was struck by these words: "You cast your line into dark, unseen depths and something is alive there, and it connects, and you start to bring it to the surface, to daylight, to consciousness, and you begin to wonder if you really want to see what it is.” This is the way Ingmar Bergman described the making of a film.

  7. Sounds like a great book! The wilderness or nature does have a way of ministering to me, too.

  8. I love that he finds living in the moment is contemplation enough. How sad his wilderness days are now behind him, but he has cetainly LIVED the adventure, which is a whole lot more than many of us can say. Beautiful review, Sage, he sounds a remarkable man.