Finding the inner wilderness

In Insight and Experience by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

The concept of ‘wilderness’ has long been important to environmentalists, especially those of a deep green persuasion. Moreover, in recent times, less obvious non-ecological benefits deriving from such wild areas have been coming to light. In particular, profound changes can occur within the people who venture into these places.


Up until the 19th century, wilderness had exclusively negative connotations. In the biblical era, it was an inhospitable place for outcasts and mystics. John the Baptist spent his early years in the wilderness of Judea living on ‘locusts’ (often thought to have been carob beans) and wild honey. Later Christ fasted in the wilderness for forty days before being baptised by John and beginning his ministry.

In Middle Ages Europe, there were small pockets of human settlements that were surrounded by vast reaches of forest. Those areas beyond the familiar homes and fields were known in Old English as wildeornes, derived from the word wildeor, a wild beast. Outside the control of civilisation as it then stood, wilderness in the villagers’ perception was populated with dangerous animals, brigands and other hazards, some imaginary.

However, in the last century, the global spread of industrialised society has left us with remnants of wild nature surrounded by a sea of altered landscapes. For the first time in history, significant numbers of people are actively choosing to be in wilderness environments – to escape from noise, ugly aesthetics and the rat race. Wilderness is now widely seen as an asset for recreation activities and to protect the quality of water catchments serving major cities.

The modern definition of wilderness is a substantial tract of land with high biodiversity and a low population density, where the forces of nature are largely unaffected by human actions. While we automatically conjure up images of forests, wilderness areas also include such diverse ecologically intact environments as deserts, grasslands, wetlands and coastlines.

Gifts and challenges

For many years, group leaders such as Robert Greenway and Steven Harper based on the US West Coast have been taking small groups on structured wilderness explorations where there is less of an emphasis on the testosterone world of adventure, danger and physical prowess. Despite occasional hardships and discomforts, these experiences have had far-reaching positive effects on many of the participants.

After crossing the threshold into wilderness, many people experience less of the usual mental chatter as thoughts slow down and become more expansive. As they drift in a right-brain, zazen fashion, sensitisation to ones surroundings increases. Sight may become less sharply focused, taking in the full field of vision in a somewhat two-dimensional fashion. Solutions to problems that logic has failed to reconcile sometimes seem to appear from nowhere. Forgotten priorities gently re-assert themselves in a bid for attention. Often the grandeur of the surroundings will silence an argument by highlighting its comparative insignificance. A sense of wonder prevails.

In many ways, the experience of wild nature and spiritual practice (especially Buddhism) can overlap. Group members commonly find themselves entering more fully into the present moment, observing small movements as they take place. This mindfulness is complemented by a sense of merging with nature. Greenway describes our normal experience of nature as ‘dualistic’, with a clear sense of separation between a person and a living element such as a tree. Out in the wilderness, people frequently experience a ‘nondualistic’ connectedness to nature and each another that appears to have great therapeutic value.

Participants inevitably stop receiving outside cultural reinforcements and cues, causing everyday roles and stereotypes to be loosened. As cultural rhythms fade away, natural ones take their place. In everyone there is a place that has never been tamed, and experience of the outer untamed wilderness encourages reconnection with this wild inner essence. Looked at from a slightly different perspective, group members may break through layers of repression to regain contact with their untrammelled instincts. Through linking up with their forgotten inner child they can re-enter the world of their imagination.

As most of our cultural patterns are strongly patriarchal, the wilderness experience represents a shift towards a more feminine existence, both for women and men who have been denying their inner female. In this light, it is significant that in a survey conducted by Greenway, a majority of the female participants (more than double the percentage for men) felt that a major goal of the trip was to ‘come home’ to nature. Women tended to adjust quicker to being the wilderness environment, while taking longer to readjust back to the everyday world after their experience.

Other results from Greenway’s survey show how deeply people were affected by an extended trip of this kind:

  • 90% succeeded in breaking an addiction of some sort, including minor ones.
  • 77% experienced a significant life change after returning, in some area of their lives.
  • In 38% of cases these changes were still in effect five years later.
  • 76% experienced dramatic changes in the quantity, vividness and context of dreams within three days of entering wilderness.
  • 92% felt time spent alone in the wilderness was the highlight of their experience.

After such an intense, life-changing experience, inevitably the return to so-called civilisation has the potential to be uncomfortable. Survey participants described their minds in the wilderness as ‘open’ and ‘airy’, but after the return to urban culture their mental state was ‘turgid’, ‘tight’ and ‘crowded’. Some people disliked reinstating their habitual psychic defences, and had an aversion to re-establishing their earlier separation from nature and community. Others clearly saw how dysfunctional and unsustainable their way of life is and wanted to do something to change it. Depression was a common risk.

Trial and error showed that wilderness explorers received far less of a jolt if after the trip they stayed for a few days in a halfway environment that contained elements of nature and the modern world. Yoga and meditation before, during and after the wilderness encounter were also found to be very helpful. To some degree, meditation replicated the ‘nonegoic’ state encountered during their experience.

Creating natural sanctuaries

Wilderness remnants would come under severe stress if everyone descended on them, and the continued survival of these areas depends on low visitor numbers. Paradoxically, they owe their continued existence to the fact that they appeal only to a certain sector of society. If the transformative effects of wilderness contact cannot be made universally available, what is the solution?

For the many people living a long distance from such unspoilt environments, contact with nature of any kind, even a park or a street lined with mature trees, is beneficial and for some represents a lifeline to sanity. There is much wisdom in going for a long walk down the beach, or spending time in a quiet spot out of town. Toronto has several wild areas lying within reach of the centre, and many other cities have community gardens. Another possibility for urban dwellers is to let the back yard run wild or to green the balcony of a city unit.

I believe that one of the deepest human instincts is to turn a patch of land over to nature, and allow it to take its course, watching biodiversity multiply. Such a strategy can have great appeal because the only necessary intervention is to remove invasive weeds. Initially pioneer species will establish themselves, providing an environment suitable for succession by mature trees. When the earth transforms degraded paddocks into chaotic patterns of prolific vegetation, perhaps it is trying to communicate with us, if we are prepared to turn away from our ordered lives to listen.

Protecting wilderness for posterity

Although wilderness areas are irreplaceable, in the wider global arena sadly most of them still have no government protection. They can come under threat from invasive species and fire, and be exposed to human impacts such as slash and burn agriculture, roads, logging and mining. The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest remaining wilderness expanse but it is shrinking every year, and in the process carbon is released into the atmosphere.

In Australia, The Wilderness Society (TWS) is working to preserve remaining pockets that it believes qualify for state government protection. Current TWS campaigns are focusing on NSW land clearing and Tasmania’s old growth forests, especially in the Tarkine and Styx Valley. The more astute often point out that even when viewed from narrow economic parameters, ancient forests generate more revenue from eco-tourism than from forestry, with the added advantage that under such an arrangement they can be preserved for future generations. Another direction being pursued by Birds Australia, Rainforest Rescue and the Australian Bush Heritage Foundation is to avoid the messy world of politics and buy high biodiversity areas for preservation.

We tend to forget that large expanses of forest in developing countries were often populated by indigenous peoples whose fate is tied to that of their home territory. While in theory a tribe could migrate elsewhere if it became homeless, its unique culture would not survive such a transition. Currently under threat from outside forces are the Kalahari Bushmen and the Iban in the Kalimantan province of Sarawak. Like some of the American wilderness explorers, these tribal groups see little separation between themselves and their surroundings and also view them with a sense of wonder and awe.



The Wilderness Society
Rainforest Web
Australian Bush Heritage Fund
Survival International (tribal activism)

About the author
Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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