The Wisdom Page 


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 welfare.

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 them.

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 relationships accepted.

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 and 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 and spirit.

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 with permission