Wisdom and Wilderness
by Joseph W. Meeker*
Wisdom and wilderness are awesome words. They inspire feelings of profound
respect, a little fear, and wonder when we recall how little we know about
them. It is something like talking about God or joy or love; most people
would rather not. These subjects are what engineers like to call "soft"
topics the kind that cannot be handily measured or readily applied
in solving problems. But wisdom and wilderness are also two of the most
essential resources for human beings both necessary to our survival and
Perhaps practical minds prefer to avoid thinking about wisdom and wilderness
because neither is subject to human management. They happen by themselves,
according to natural processes that are not understood. No educational system
knows how to create wisdom and no science can make wilderness. We do know
how to damage and destroy both of them, however, and we have devoted much
of our energy to that in recent centuries. Before we reach the point where
both wisdom and wilderness cease to exist, we should think about what they
are, how they relate to one another, and what the world would be like without
Wisdom is a state of the human mind characterized by profound understanding
and deep insight. It is often, but not necessarily, accompanied by extensive
formal knowledge. Unschooled people can acquire wisdom, and wise people
can be found among carpenters, fishermen, or housewives. Wherever it exists,
wisdom shows itself as a perception of the relativity and relationships
among things. It is an awareness of wholeness that does not lose sight of
particularity or concreteness, or of the intricacies of interrelationships.
It is where left and right brain come together in a union of logic and poetry
and sensation, and where self-awareness is no longer at odds with awareness
of the otherness of the world. Wisdom cannot be confined to a specialized
field, nor is it an academic discipline; it is the consciousness of wholeness
and integrity that transcends both. Wisdom is complexity understood and
Wilderness is to nature as wisdom is to consciousness. Wilderness is a
complex of natural relationships where plants, animals, and the land collaborate
to fulfill their environments without technological human interference.
Wilderness is a systemic complex so intricate that it often appears chaotic
to eyes accustomed to simpler contexts such as farms or cities. Whether
a ponderosa pine forest, an African savannah, an arctic tundra, or a desert
of the American Southwest, wilderness environments are natural communities
of intricate relationships and subtle interdependencies. However great the
number of species and forces, wilderness environments are integrated places
where multiplicity makes sense and complex order is evident.
There are good reasons to believe that wisdom grew from wilderness environments.
The human brain did most of its million-year evolving long before humans
had acquired the ability to domesticate natural systems. Our brains acquired
their basic characteristics in response to the conditions of wilderness
living. The more simplified environments of agricultural life have existed
for only a few thousand years, during which time the brain and its functions
have not changed the patterns of many millennia of life in the wilderness
. What we have inherited from that history a multileveled brain linked
to our bodily functions and to our natural environments is a good
instrument for comprehending the world in its wilderness complexity. We
are capable of perceiving a many-dimensional world, of feeling deeply about
it, of relating to one another and to other species in a large variety of
ways. We are also capable of analyzing our experiences and thoughts, and
of bringing unlikely aspects of our awareness into imaginative new combinations.
Apparently, we are well designed for wholeness and equipped for wisdom.
Why are not more of us wise?
Cleverness and wisdom
One reason may be that we spend so much of our lives merely being clever,
and cleverness and wisdom do not mix well. Dividing our knowledge into specialized
categories that are easy to manage is clever. Cleverness also is evident
in our tools and technology. We cleverly develop our egos at high cost to
the natural systems around us. A large portion of each of our lives is spent
perfecting our identities and leaving monuments to prove that we lived here.
We take little time for reflecting on the context of our lives, and even
less time trying to understand how the world works.
Another reason is that we have created domesticated and urban environments
that lack the species diversity and multiple relationships of natural wilderness.
Humanized environments are the only ones most people know. I always feel
compassion for the apocryphal New Yorkers who live their entire lives in
buildings and on concrete, die, and are buried withot ever coming in contact
with genuine earth. Most of us are not much better off, even though we visit
the rural countryside, where natural elements are managed for human benefit,
or national parks, where nature is experienced in a crowded campground or
displayed at a visitors' center. Such places, however pleasant they may
be, are a long way from the wilderness with its many life forms, intricate
dependencies, risks, and essential indifference to human interests.
An important ingredient of wisdom is the humility that comes from recognition
of the transhuman otherness of the world. For centuries saints have withdrawn
from human communities in favor of wilderness settings when they were searching
for spiritual insight. Wilderness is an otherness that to many people looked
like God or some cultural equivalent. Wilderness can have the same effect
upon scientists who may regard themselves as irreligious. Perhaps the sense
of awe in the face of nonhuman complexity and greatness of scale is the
central experience felt by the religious and irreligious alike. Whatever
the case, the world has accumulated much testimony that prolonged experience
of wilderness is a deepening and expanding experience for many humans.
Complication and Complexity
Human cleverness applied over many centuries in the pursuit of human benefits,
has left us with a complicated society, but not with a genuinely complex
one. The difference between complication and complexity is crucial to understanding
both wisdom and wilderness. For the past few centuries civilization simplified
the systems for nature and increased the complications of human societies.
"Divide and conquer" has been the slogan as natural processes and elements
have been isolated and manipulated one at a time to make them yield maximum
benefits for human purposes. This extends ancient agricultural practices
requiring that only one crop at a time be grown on land that previously
supported complex vegetation in its wild state, or that animals should be
bred selectively for a few characteristics and undesirable wild traits be
eliminated. Specialization depends on simplification; both have proved profitable
for humans and costly to the systems of nature.
The profits reaped from simplifying nature have been plowed into increasing
the complications of human life. Each new conquest of nature has led to
the introduction of new elements into human society. Technology multiplies
its products prodigiously, supported by economic theories that encourage
the expansion of human wants and needs. The belief in continuous growth
is part of the basic ideology of conventional social and economic thought,
but little attention is paid to the character or direction of that growth.
New elements are added almost at random, with little thought for their integration
with other elements. As Alice said of Wonderland, "things just get complicateder
Complication tends toward chaos, while complexity is highly organized.
Complexity is a characteristic of systems in which many elements are integrated
to form a whole. New parts of such systems, for example, ecosystems or higher
organisms, appear only when suitable niches and adequate resources exist,
so their presence makes sense and does not contribute to chaos. Complicated
structures tend to be fragile, as is evident in the booms and busts of modern
economies, or in the devastating impact of varying the availability of one
ingredient, say, oil. In contrast, complex systems are resilient and relatively
stable. They are constituted so their subunits, by systematic cooperation,
preserve their integral configuration of structure and behavior and tend
to restore it after nondestructive disturbances. In other words, natural
systems survive all disasters short of obliteration.
Complexity is an essential characteristic of both wisdom and wilderness
. Both are mature states, reached only after passing beyond periods of fragmentation
toward higher forms of integration. They occur as the products of accumulated
events in a natural progression over long periods of time. Planning and
managing are seldom adequate to encourage either wisdom or wilderness, for
much of their structure is the product of responses to unanticipated changes.
Error and surprise are more central to wisdom and wilderness than logical
progressions or achieved objectives. Tolerance for change and diversity
is more characteristic of them than a rigid order and commitment to rules.
The resiliency of wisdom and wilderness is, in large part, due to a capacity
to accommodate novelty into their structures. As the wisdom of Gandhi made
room for some necessary forms of violence, so do wilderness ecosystems tolerate
disruptive technological intrusions for long periods before their essential
integrity becomes compromised.
Wisdom Contemplating Wilderness
Achieving wisdom is not for everybody. The world makes good use of the
few wise people who appear from time to time, so perhaps only a few are
needed. Those who do reach that valuable state have passed beyond small-minded
perspectives that occupy most of us. Perhaps that passage is what the midlife
crisis is about. Such a crisis is often accompanied by a vision about personal
identity, the meaning that effectively ends former illusions of one's work,
and of one's relationships with people and other creatures.
A midlife change of consciousness can clear our mental decks, freeing
us from the need to be clever in the pursuit of small intrests. Clear decks,
of course, are not enough. At such a point in our lives we also need some
stimulus toward new and healthier perspectives if we hope to grow. Perhaps
the later years of life are the most important times to experience natural
wilderness, for those years are often accompanied by a readiness to comprehend
complexity that is not present earlier.
Dante Alighieri, writing his Commedia in the fourteenth century,
could have been expected to draw most of his imagery from the agricultural
Italian landscapes where he spent his life. But when Dante reached the point
at the close of the Purgatorio where he needed to describe the earthly
paradise, he saw it as a wild natural setting, not as a garden or pastoral
scene. The earthly paradise is described as "a divine forest green and dense."
Something prompted Dante to avoid the standard Christian image of a cultivated
and sunny Garden of Eden where nature is subordinated to people, and to
describe instead a complex landscape which "conceives and brings forth from
diverse virtues diverse growths."
Diversity is the clearest feature of Dante's earthly paradise, felt in
everything from the ground "full of every seed" to the intricate pageantry
that displays the entire medieval bestiary of symbolic griffins, foxes,
eagles, and dragons along with the elaborate forms of church and state on
earth and the spiritual heights represented by Christ and the heavenly eyes
of Beatrice. This Eden is not of quiet repose, but a busy meeting ground
where the processes of wild nature coalesce with those of human intellect
Dante's entire Commedia, from the barren and lifeless scenes of
Hell, through the increasing natural lushness of purgatory, and the transcendence
of Paradise, demonstrates a basic truth: the state of the natural environments
in which people live reflect the state of the human spirit. We all find
ourselves in the environments we deserve, reflecting our values and our
beliefs. Thus we find ourselves in the hells, purgatories, and paradises
of the earth-the first two likely to be of human making.
We should be instructed by this as we consider our reasons for protecting
natural settings and processes. We conserve "resources" for human benefit
and we save pleasing scenery to gratify our senses, but these are not the
only reasons. Our minds and souls have roots in the untamed processes of
nature. Preserving wilderness is human self- preservation. What better image
of old age could we hope for than the prospect of wisdom contemplating wilderness?
Few treasures are more valuable than these two forms of complex maturity.
The rest of us need to study and learn from both in an effort to enrich
our lives and our world. In the end, wilderness is nature's way of being
wise, and wisdom is the mind's way of being natural.
* from LANDSCAPE, Vol. 25, No. 1, Jan 1981.
Copyright © 1981 by Joseph W. Meeker; used