Wallace Stevens gets us started with this snippet from “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction”:
The truth depends on a walk around a lake,
A composing as the body tires, a stop
To see hepatica, a stop to watch
A definition growing certain and
A wait within that certainty, a rest
In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake …
Does the truth so depend on a walk? It’s a lovely day, sunny (a bit too warm today, even for Florida this time of year) and a breeze is gently waving the trees (fewer now on the walk, the laurel oaks planted here 40 years ago after a monster storm have passed maturity and are starting to collapse). Best things are better said (and sung) outside, where the panoply of life is far greater than our ideas for it or words to properly describe it. A legion of our best poets loved a good walk — Wordsworth, Rilke, Stevens (who never learned to drive), Bishop, Roethke, Snyder, Oliver.
In my tale, corporate dead-ends got me walking. When the dying newspaper industry decided it no longer needed my services a few years back, I was freed from a two-hour daily commute from my small town into Orlando and back. I substituted my morning drive-time with a good walk, and it eventually become an essential element of my day.
Commuting was like wedging corpuscle-like into a great silver arterial snake slithering into and back out of the city. I grumbled a lot and listened to National Public Radio. Monday through Friday I used drive-time to follow news stories that unwound for months, from breaking to the scattered irrelevance — the Oklahoma City bombing, NATO’s involvement in the Serbian-Bosnia war, the 2000 election, 9/11, Iraq War, 2008 recession, President Obama, the Tea Party, Deepwater Horizon, wildfires and hurricanes, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump: Each news event was a crappy opera in five acts, threading from radio through my ears for mile after mile and year after year of suburban slog.
Finally freed from such insinuations of the big world — and at a time, no less, when so much seems toxic — I’ve settled for softer cadences. My usual walk takes me about 10 blocks down to the lake that borders this town, up a few blocks from there (passing a two-block brake of wilderness filled with oaks) and then back: Two miles max, not a great hike nor taken with much hurry — it’s not dedicated to exercise — enough to leave the press of daily worries and at some point of the walk and slowly resume into the presence of wild mind, even in quaint and domestic surroundings.
Here at earthweal, wild is almost as frequently mentioned as hope. If the words aren’t synonymous, they are intimately related.
In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez tells us before white men, there was no more wild a state than wilderness Alaska:
In 1823, the North American Arctic was still as distant as fable, inhabited by remarkable animals and uncontacted peoples, the last undiscovered complex ecosystem on the planet. A landscape of luminous events, of a forgiving benediction of light, and a darkness so dimming it precipitated madness; of a cold that froze vinegar, that fractured whatever it penetrated, including the stones. It was uncharted, unclaimed territory, and Europeans had perished miserably in it since the time of the Norse — gangrenous with frostbite, poisoned by polar bear liver, rotted by scurvy, dead of exposure in the ice beside the wreckage of a ship burned to the waterline for the last of its warmth. (8)
Note that wild and wilderness are not identical terms. Wilderness has come to mean a conserved ecosystem, usually set aside in public lands, that you go to experience the wild. Wild is an expression of being, as Gary Snyder explains in The Practice of the Wild:
Wildness is not limited to the 2 percent formal wilderness areas. Shifting scales, it is everywhere: ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts, and such that surround and inhabit us. Deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corners. … Exquisite complex beings in their energy webs inhabiting the fertile corners of the urban world in accord with the rules of wild systems, the visible hardy stalks and stems of vacant lots and railroads, the persistent raccoon squads, bacteria in the loam and in our yogurt. The term culture, in its meaning of “a deliberately maintained aesthetic and intellectual life” and in its other meaning “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns,” is never far from a biological root meaning as in “yogurt culture” — a nourishing habitat. Civilization is permeable, and could be as inhabited as the wild is. (16)
It’s very difficult to escape the wild world, though it might seem so through the lens of meta-narratives and virtual reality. But who are we kidding? Emulation of life is merely wild flattery.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau says in “Walking,” first delivered as a lecture in 1851 and published posthumously in The Atlantic in 1862). Later in the essay he adds, “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.”
Thoreau’s word we can trust as he was a walker who loved a good saunter! It’s sacred activity, referring back to the medieval French root of the word saunter, as one going about the countryside as if headed for La Sainte Tierre, the Holy Land.
Vital is his emphasis on wildness and not wilderness. As wilderness spaces vanish, we can still preserve and cultivate wildness, treating our everyday living engagements as sacred.
What does it mean to walk in the wild, even more, to walk wildly? I suggest it is our intimacy with the landscape that allows us to walk with wild minds. It’s how place becomes sacred. Lopez refers to Amos Rapoport’s work exploring the meaning of “place” among Australian aborigines:
(Rapoport) mapped out their mythical landscapes. He understood that the stories that coalesce a tribe’s mythical background, their origin and meaning and purpose in the universe, are ‘unobservable phenomena.’ The land, in other words, makes the myth real. And it makes the people real. ((My emphasis))
The stories that unfold against the local landscape, and that give expression to the enduring relationships of life, said Rapoport, are as critical for people as food or water. The mythical landscape is not the natural landscape, Rapoport concluded, but the mythic and natural landscapes overlap at certain visible points. And the limits of the local landscape, he emphasized, are not something that can be politically negotiated, they are fixed mythology. They are not susceptible to adjustment. (296)
As we explored in the Map of History’s Mysteries challenge back in September, poetry can help uncover the overlap of our history and its mysteries in those locations where sacred discoveries are made.
What I’m curious about for this week’s challenge is the engine of that work: the walk about our personal terrain, its mythic geography and our story in it. Many of us have covered that ground before, but what about the actual transit? How many poems does it take to walk to the center of a truth? How wild must our language get in order to find that center? How did our revelations change the more wildly we walked?
Contrariwise, losing one’s sense of place through relocation — everything from a new job across town to emigration to distant shores — provides a way to see wild walking from the outsides of it. How to make a home out of a strange new place? How to worship a landscape not one’s own? What of the indigenous tribes forced on the Trail of Tears to arbitrary settlements far from their homelands — what of the lands they were forced to abandon? What of climate migrants today, their homes underwater and small welcome ahead? Are sacred landscapes visible in suburbia?
Thoreau was clear about the demands of wild walking:
We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk. (“Walking”)
For this we need to adopt another usage of French saunterer, as in one who is sans terre, without a particular land or home because wild walkers are at home wherever they go …
For this challenge, let’s go on a wild walk together. Report on what you’ve found and the lessons you’ve learned. Following are some poems to kickstart the process. And remember: Wild is everything, sweet and the bitter, hunted and prey, homeland and foreign shore and the wastelands we get lost in. Earthweal is the round to hold all walks taken. Your poems will help to give them a wild name.
Let us saunter then, you and I!
Ranier Maria Rilke
transl. Edward Snow
Already my gaze is on the hill, that sunlit one,
up ahead on the path I’ve scarcely started.
In the same way, what we couldn’t grasp grasps us:
blazingly visible, there in the distance —
and changes us, even if we don’t reach it,
into what we are, scarcely sensing it, already are;
a gesture signals, answering our gesture …
But we feel only the opposing wind.
Muzot, March 1924
WE HAVE WALKED DOWN PAST
We have walked down past
the bison who has matured into darkness
and it seems she is a day that passed.
We have walked past the houses of bones
left by the mountain lion round this curve of land,
the den of snakes by the fallen large stones
an the place water rises from earth.
I think the mountain lion left the buffalo calf alone
knowing she was holy
and others left prayer flags on the trees,
tobacco ties, each with heart.
It was the flood place of twenty-thirteen.
The path washed away and Old Mother
has no easy walking, her arm holding mine
until we find the fright walking stick.
Then solid is her step as we go to the cave
changed since the flood,
water still leaving
a pile of pine needles and twigs carried by the deluge
but new flowers blooming.
After the rain, pollen washed gold to earth
and Old Mother gathers it like a bee
into her bag. She uses it to heal,
pray, for her conversations
with the water and the sky,
the clouds and the bison.
— from A History of Kindness (2020)
DEPRESSED BY A BOOK OF BAD POETRY, I WALK TOWARD AN UNUSED PASTURE AND INVITE THE INSECTS TO JOIN ME
Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Castin shadows so frail that I can see through them.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.
— from This Branch Will Not Break
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.
Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.
The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.
Not a breath of air
Ruffles the bosom of this leafy glen.
From the brook’s margin, wide around, the trees
Are steadfast as the rocks; the brook itself,
Old as the hills that feed it from afar,
Doth rather deepen than disturb the calm
Where all things else are still and motionless.
And yet, even now, a little breeze, perchance
Escaped from boisterous winds that rage without,
Has entered, by the sturdy oaks unfelt,
But to its gentle touch how sensitive
Is the light ash! that, pendent from the brow
Of yon dim cave, in seeming silence makes
A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs,
Powerful almost as vocal harmony
To stay the wanderer’s steps and soothe his thoughts.
A WALK BLOSSOMING
The spirit opens as life closes down.
Tries to frame the size of whatever God is.
Finds that dying makes us visible.
Realizes we must get to the loin of that
before time is over. The part of which
we are the wall around. Not the good or evil,
neither death or the afterlife but the importance
of what we contain meanwhile. (He walks along
remembering, biting into beauty,
the heart eating into the naked spirit.)
The body is a major nation, the mind a gift.
Together they define substantiality.
The spirit can know the Lord as a flavour
rather than power. The soul is ambitious
for what is invisible. Hungers for a sacrament
that is both spirit and flesh. And neither.
Even love must pass through loneliness,
the husbandman become again
the long Hunter, and set out
not to the familiar woods of home
but to the forest of the night,
the true wilderness, where renewal
is found, the lay of the ground
a premonition of the unknown.
Blowing leaf and flying wren
lead him on. He can no longer be at home,
he cannot return, unless he begin
the circle that first will carry him away.
EXILE OF MEMORY
Do not return,
we were warned by one who knows things
You will only upset the dead.
They will emerge from the spiral of little houses
Lined up in the furrows of marrow
And walk the land.
There will be no place in memory
For what they see
The highways, the houses, the stores of interlopers
Perched over the blood fields
Where the dead last stood.
And then what, you with your words
In the enemy’s language,
Do you know how to make a peaceful road
Through human memory?
And what of angry ghosts of history?
* * *
Don’t look back.
In Sunday school we were told Lot’s wife
Looked back and turned
But her family wasn’t leaving Paradise.
We loved our trees and waters
And the creatures and earths and skies
In that beloved place.
Those beings were our companions
Even as they fed us, cared for us.
If I turn to salt
It will be of petrified tears
From the footsteps of my relatives
As they walked west.
* * *
I did not know what I would find
The first night we set up our bed in the empty room
Of our condo above the Tennessee River
They’d heard we were coming
Those who continued to keep the land
Despite the imposition of newcomers
And the forced exile of our relatives.
All night, they welcomed us
All night, the stomp dancers
All night, the shell shakers
All night circle after circle made a spiral
To the Milky Way.
* * *
We are still in mourning.
The children were stolen from these beloved lands by the government.
Their hair was cut, their toys and handmade clothes ripped
From them. They were bathed in pesticides
And now clean, given prayers in a foreign language to recite
As they were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.
* * *
Grief is killing us. Anger tormenting us. Sadness eating us with disease.
Our young women are stolen, raped and murdered.
Our young men are killed by the police, or killing themselves and each other.
* * *
This is a warning:
Heroin is a fool companion offering freedom from the gauntlet of history.
Meth speeds you past it.
Alcohol, elixir of false bravado, will take you over the edge of it.
Enough chemicals and processed craving
And you can’t push away from the table.
If we pay enough, maybe we can buy ourselves back.
* * *
We used to crowd the bar for Tuesday ten-cent beer night.
It was the Indian, poetry, biker and student bar
In that university and military base town.
Trays packed with small cups of beer passed non-stop
Over the counter all night.
We brought all of our thirsty dreams there
Gambled with them at the pool table, all night.
Danced with them and each other on the blood-stained dance floor
To jukebox songs fed by dimes and quarters, all night.
And by 2 A.M. we staggered out
To the world made by Puritan dreaming
No place for Indians, poets or any others who would
Ride the wild winds for dangerous knowledge.
* * *
In the complex here there is a singing tree.
It sings of the history of the trees here.
It sings of Monahwee who stood with his warrior friends
On the overlook staring into the new town erected
By illegal residents.
It sings of the Civil War camp, the bloodied
The self-righteous, and the forsaken.
It sings of atomic power and the rise
Of banks whose spires mark
The worship places.
The final verse is always the trees.
They will remain.
* * *
When it is time to leave this place of return,
What will we say that we found here?
From out of the mist, a form wrestles to come forth—
It is many-legged, of many arms, and sent forth thoughts of many colors.
There are deer standing near us under the parted, misted sky
As we watch, they smell for water
Green light enters their bodies
From all leaved things they eat—
* * *
The old Mvskoke laws outlawed the Christian religion
Because it divided the people.
We who are relatives of Panther, Raccoon, Deer, and the other animals and winds were soon divided.
But Mvskoke ways are to make relatives.
We made a relative of Jesus, gave him a Mvskoke name.
* * *
We cannot see our ancestors as we climb up
The ridge of destruction
But from the dark we sense their soft presences at the edge of our minds
And we hear their singing.
There is no word in this trade language,
no words with enough power to hold all this we have become —
* * *
We are in time. There is no time, in time.
We are in a Mvskoke village, far back in time.
Ekvnvjakv is in labor, so long in time.
She is not young and beyond the time of giving birth.
The keeper of birthing is tracking her energy, and time.
My thinking is questioning how, this time.
* * *
A young boy wrestles with two puppies at the doorway.
A little girl, bearing an old woman spirit appears
With green plants in her hands.
Twins play around the edge of the bed.
The Earth’s womb tightens with the need to push.
That is all that I see because of the fogginess of time.
* * *
I sing my leaving song.
I sing it to the guardian trees, this beloved earth,
To those who stay here to care for memory.
I will sing it until the day I die.
— from An American Sunrise (2019)
Henry David Thoreau
O Nature! I do not aspire
To be the highest in thy quire,—
To be a meteor in the sky,
Or comet that may range on high;
Only a zephyr that may blow
Among the reeds by the river low;
Give me thy most privy place
Where to run my airy race.
In some withdrawn, unpublic mead
Let me sigh upon a reed,
Or in the woods, with leafy din,
Whisper the still evening in:
Some still work give me to do, —
Only — be it near to you!
For I’d rather be thy child
And pupil, in the forest wild,
Than be the king of men elsewhere,
And most sovereign slave of care:
To have one moment of thy dawn,
Than share the city’s year forlorn.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— published in Dream Work, 1986