The Singing Wilderness blog is, as I describe here, not merely about nature, but about the human spirit. The real journey is through the wild landscape of our souls.
In addition, I am giving you a map. Follow this singing wilderness spiritual map, and you will better understand how I see the lay of the land you’ll be crossing in your visits here.
You may wonder as you start reading how this map relates to nature. It will be clear by the end.
the end of the trail
I created this map for my religion and culture class that I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The students came from all religious backgrounds, including agnostics and atheists. The map works for anyone.
Let’s look at the end first. The ultimate goal. Peace. Everyone wants peace, right? Inner peace. Outer peace. Peace on earth. But how do we get to that end? I would show my students this diagram of the final part of the map:
We know from long human experience that true peace can exist only to the extent that justice is met. Otherwise “peace” may mean little more than an absence of visible conflict.
But what is justice, and what is a just society? That in itself can never be fully agreed upon. Therefore, peace is always a goal that can never fully be reached. But we do know that the more we can agree about justice and put it into practice in our social systems, the closer we come to the ultimate goal. And we know something essential about justice: it cannot exist without truth.
But what is truth? It doesn’t take a stretch of our imagination to realize there are many disagreements about truth in our time. But wise people across the landscape of time have told us this in many different ways: humility and love are required to reveal truth.
To get from truth to justice there must be one more act: forgiveness. This, too, is something humans of all times and places have learned and forgotten and relearned, many times. Whenever we forget, we lose our way.
In the image above, those jagged black lightning bolts represent the roadblocks we put up to barricade ourselves from love, humility and truth. Which makes justice impossible. Oh, everyone wants “justice” in the sense that everyone wants “peace.” But often it is a false justice that preserves our privileges and comforts, and therefore creates a false peace. And the roadblocks indicate that we carry and perhaps even cling to fears of one kind or another. The fear of losing our comforting beliefs. The fear of having to change. And many, many other fears.
These fears almost always come from hurts we have experienced. They might be recent. They might date back to childhood. We may not even remember the source. But they fester inside us. In our efforts to heal, we often take shortcuts. We even try to prevent future hurts through pride, hate, a need to control, self-centeredness and other band-aids that make the wound grow rather than heal.
Fortunately, as a man named John and many others have told us, perfect love casts out fear. It transforms the hurts of life, heals the wounds, and therefore makes possible the forgiveness that breaks barriers to justice. Love, along with humility, also breaks through the barricades we put up against truth.
the central importance of gratitude
If love and humility are so important for breaking through the barriers that lie strewn across our inner landscapes like fallen trees, what helps build and nurture these qualities?
Gratitude. When you are grateful, you realize that you are not the sole cause of the things that make you happy and content. That means you grow in humility. In fact, the greater your gratitude, the greater your humility, because more and more you recognize your own smallness in the great milieu of life and the deep mystery that interpenetrates it. Gratitude also increases your inclination to reach outward in love.
Gratitude, in turn, is nurtured by joy. I use that term in a traditional spiritual sense. Joy is not a synonym for happiness. It refers to “aliveness,” a zest for life. So often we mistakenly contrast joy with sorrow. Its true antonym is apathy. And apathy is a spiritual scourge, while joy is spiritual medicine. Joy and gratitude nurture each other, in fact, as the double arrows show above.
the power of wonder
When you experience awe and wonder, you are filled with joy. It is a basic human reaction. I won’t try to distinguish between awe and wonder, as they are used interchangeably by many and the differences don’t really matter for our purpose at the moment. I tend to use the term wonder, or pair them.
But think about the importance of awe and wonder, or as Sigurd Olson put it, the “power of wonder.” Without it, it would be hard if not impossible to nurture joy, which in turn would greatly weaken gratitude. And, therefore, humility and love. Which would mean our barricades against truth and justice would be nearly impossible to break.
No wonder, no peace.
silence and solitude
What conditions, then, play a key role in creating and nurturing awe and wonder?
Silence and solitude, particularly in a natural setting. The sages throughout human history have told us this, over and over. Among them: Sigurd Olson. Here, for example, in his book The Singing Wilderness:
Over all was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses. I thought as I sat there of the ancient admonition, “Be still and know that I am God,” and knew that without stillness there can be no knowing, without divorcement from outside influences man cannot know what spirit means.
the nature connection
And that is how this spiritual map through the singing wilderness connects to nature. Sigurd knew that the silence and solitude and the non-civilized surroundings of wilderness provide a physical context in which you can more easily discover your inner self. Just as important, wilderness gives you a chance to feel the presence of a universal power that science can never explain but that has brought meaning central to human cultures across time and place. “Wilderness offers a sense of cosmic purpose if we open our hearts and minds to its possibilities,” he said in 1965:
It may come in…burning instants of truth when everything stands clear. It may come as a slow realization after long periods of waiting. Whenever it comes, life is suddenly illumined, beautiful, and transcendent, and we are filled with awe and happiness.
By exploring the wilderness around us, in other words, we can better understand the wilderness within.
saving the pieces
As I said elsewhere, Sigurd used the word “wilderness” broadly. He knew that nature wherever it is found has an essential wildness to it, and that many people find great benefit in “their wildernesses in tiny hidden corners” of urban areas. These places close to home, and even in our own backyards, can still give us the power of wonder and all that grows out of it. Nevertheless, he argued that our evolutionary heritage has developed mostly in the context of large expanses of land trammeled by relatively few others of our kind.
Today, there aren’t many accessible areas like this left. That was what motivated Sigurd to devote so much of his life to protecting wilderness areas, national parks, and green spaces of all kinds. He wanted to protect not only these places and the creatures that live in them. More than anything else, he wanted to protect the human spirit.
Sigurd knew the map, in other words. The spiritual map that leads through the singing wilderness. And he explored parts of it not shown in this very basic version above.
features not shown on the singing wilderness spiritual map
Let’s talk about some of these other parts of the spiritual landscape, and how they relate to the Singing Wilderness blog. Sigurd focused mostly on the left side of the map. Among the other features of that terrain, all of which are relevant to this blog, are what Sigurd often called “the spiritual values of nature.” He, and many other nature writers as well as other wise people throughout the ages, described additional areas of the left side of the map. Among them are awareness, beauty, mystery, and oneness (or connectedness).
They also further developed the golden areas of the map with such concepts as detachment, time, evolution, contemplation, epiphany, God, knowledge and self-knowledge. Ecological research, for example, and its findings relate to knowledge and truth and therefore fits in the gold part of the map. Efforts to preserve wild places and species also fit in the gold region, because in the singing wilderness way it relates to humility, love, the truth of connectedness, and the justice due not only to humans but all life.
That is enough to help you know the kinds of topics to expect on the Singing Wilderness blog. However, the basic map shown above can help you recognize how a given post fits in the landscape, and where it points. And at the bottom of posts I will identify which part of the map the post most closely fits, using the four main background colors as guides: teal, gold, cream, and brown. The ultimate goal is to build a world that is much healthier for nature and the human spirit. A world in which all beings may experience peace.