Contemplative Column by Staff Writer Theodore Richards
Featured in Vol.4 Issue 1 | The Spring 2015 Edition
Among the oldest stories of which there is a written record is the Epic of Gilgamesh. In it, Gilgamesh, the king of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk, encounters the wild man, Enkidu. Gilgamesh—like humanity itself—is a man in between: part human and part god, approaching immortality of never quite attaining it. In Enkidu, he finds his greatest adversary and ultimate friend. For through him, Gilgamesh encounters something in himself that he’d nearly forgotten in his pursuit of the wealth and power of civilization: Wildness.
It is possible that, in Enkidu, we are encountering a memory of primordial wisdom that predates Gilgamesh’s imperial civilization. Indigenous religion, as diverse as it is, has this much in common: it expresses the order of the cosmos in relation to the wild that lies just beyond the womb of human culture, and each—the cosmos and the chaos, culture and wildness—is necessary. Moreover, and particularly important at this moment in human history, indigenous spirituality tends to look at the world as inherently spiritual. That is, there is no clear distinction between the secular and spiritual worlds.
Ultimately, the axial traditions (these are what we think of as the “world religions” today) emerged as a way to reconcile the emerging imperial culture, less rooted in the local ecology, with the need to find the sacred in our daily lives—not merely in the temple of the imperial cult. What happened during this period of human history is that the primordial cosmology became interiorized: each individual came to be considered a microcosm; the sacred center of the cosmos was now the human soul.
This brought with it both benefits and challenges. In a cosmopolitan culture, humans needed a way to find the divine in themselves. At the same time, in retrospect, one can see how this perhaps opened the door to a spirituality that would later remove the sacred from the nature altogether. Indeed, early Gnostic and Manichaean traditions would be harbingers of the dead, inert universe that would ultimately emerge in Modernity.
For the most part, however, pre-modern humans, whether they were a part of an axial tradition or an indigenous one, remained connected to the natural cycles of the Earth. One need not tell a traditional farmer about the value of wildness. Traditional farming has always recognized the benefits of maintaining a wild edge. This is where bio-diversity is maintained, and where soils can be replenished. When one looks at the practices of industrial farming and the depletion of our soils, we can see a parallel in the patterns of industrial culture and the depletion of souls. Cultivation was indeed one of the primary metaphors for spiritual growth in the axial traditions, born as they were in agricultural civilizations. Cultivation of the soul mirrored the cultivation of the earth.
It is in fact a major hallmark of the axial traditions that the cosmos came to be mirrored in the soul within. Through the wisdom of these traditions, we begin to see that, just as the wild is important in a healthy ecology, wildness is also important for a healthy soul. It is a strange paradox that while religion has been the lens through which the human makes order—cosmos—out of the world, religion is also marked by a certain degree of wildness, without which it becomes sterile. Simply look at how, in China, the wildness of Taoist philosophy balances Confucian order; or how the love-drunk ecstasy of Sufism balances the order of Islamic civilization; or how Jesus of Nazareth exhorted his followers to be like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, breaking down sacred barriers in Israelite culture. Not enough wildness—too much order—breeds fascism. Sadly, our great religious traditions have often gone this route.
When cultivation becomes sterilization, nothing can grow. This is the great lesson we are learning in Modern agriculture, a lesson that is paralleled in Modern culture.
In only a few hundred years, since the onset of the industrial revolution, we have managed to destroy most of the planet’s wild spaces. Most of us do not realize—perhaps because we have become so alienated from farms and farming—that the industrial revolution’s impact on the way we grow food has been as significant as the proliferation of the factory and the automobile. Factory farms are now the source of most of the food we eat. Like other factories, they pollute the air and water; particularly problematic is the extent to which they are depleting our soils.
But this process could not be occurring without a deeper, spiritual process occurring alongside it. The Modern American school, designed to be like a factory—this is true not merely in the metaphorical sense, but in their very design—gives birth to the mentality that allows for the factory farm to exist. And the pursuit of wealth and growth at all costs, the religion of capitalism, rationalizes the process, allowing for decent people to do terrible things in the name of profit.
Our alienation from the wild and textured world has relegated us to the two-dimensional. Lacking depth, we spend our time in front of screens, seeking after meaning and connection without touch, without awe, without wildness. A sterile, individualized spirituality has left our souls sterile. The great threat to humanity now is the sterility of soils and souls.
One could argue that there is no greater spiritual project in today’s world than the reclamation the wild, a project paralleled by the ecological project to reclaim the wilderness. The two—the inner and the outer, the microcosm and the macrocosm—are inseparable. I have identified five reasons for them. Surely there are more.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis unparalleled in human history, largely caused by human behavior. The human relationship with the planet, of course, is determined by how we conceive of our selves. If we do not see our selves as a part of the earth, we remain apart. If we cannot value the wildness in our selves, we cannot value the wildness on the planet. Moreover, the loss of wild spaces worldwide is a major contributor to mass extinction and climate change.
Second, wild spaces teach us that we are at once smaller—because of the awesomeness of the cosmos—and larger—because we are interconnected—than consumerist vision of the human allows. The Modern mythos that defines the human focuses on our identity with the brands we can buy. We are consumers. In spite of the bravado of Modern hubris, we actually suffer just as much from a shrunken-down vision of the human. We fail to realize that, as part of an interconnected web, we are a part of a larger, more awesome whole than anything offered on the television screen. It is the very multi-dimensionality of wild spaces that allow for this sense of awe, of aliveness, so absent on the screen.
Third, wild spaces allow us to get in touch with our own wildness, and wildness is where creativity comes from. This creativity, evidenced as far back as the cave paintings, is what makes us human.
Fourth, wildness teaches us the value of diversity. There is a practical value in this. Without diversity, we lack the capacity to find new solutions. In an organism, a lack of genetic diversity can mean an inability to deal with new diseases. In an ecosystem, a lack of biodiversity can mean death. Modern monoculture has put the planet at risk; we have no solutions other than the clearly unsustainable ideas of industrial capitalism.
Fifth, wildness is beautiful. This has value for its own sake—indeed, valuing it at all means letting go of the tyranny of utilitarianism that denies that things can have value without a practical use.
So what, then, does a new spirituality of wildness look like? This, of course, is not for me, or anyone, to prescribe. But I can say that it would involve being outside more than inside; that it will involve the creative energies that wildness fosters; that it will involve new—and also very old—ways of growing food; that it will recognize our interconnectedness as opposed to our individualism. In the end, a spirituality of wildness will help us to see that it is not only the church or the temple that’s sacred—it all is.
Theodore Richards is a novelist, philosopher, and educator, and is the director and founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project. He is the author of several books, most recently the novel The Conversions, and the recipient of numerous literary awards. He lives on the south side of Chicago with his wife and daughters. Visit www.theodorerichards.comby