Belonging to Wilderness
Land of desertscape and amber-scented pine. Canyons carved by rain and meadows lit by flower and fire. In the Gila of New Mexico, deep wilderness still exists. Named for the river that gathers its headwaters in the heart of its land, The Gila is home to the first designated wilderness area ever set aside by our country, and the very last major undammed river in the west. It is a land of untold wildness, and untold gifts.
For a week this past month I lived in the Gila and came to know its rare facets. The javelinas that go by in packs, soft snouts to the ground. Stars that gather in a druzy cluster across a center crack in the sky. A canvas of peaks and valleys only traversed by those with wings. Hillsides quilted with dark delphiniums and the candlestalks of mullein. Life— flowing, growing, twining, sprouting, continuing. With its four gentle seasons, this place has been a sanctuary for human, and the more-than-human world, for eons. Cliff dwellings curl like shells into the hillside, dotting the river valley. Homes of clay and stone built underneath a ceiling already darkened by 10,000 years of fire. For a long time the Gila has been giving people life.
Formed from the explosion of a super volcano 30 million years ago, the exquisite power of this place echoes like memory in the bones. The Gila feels to be something from the before-time. More of a devotion than a destination, the Gila is a place that is willing to welcome you back into a remembrance of what the before-time, the all-of-time, the wilderness of being alive, can truly feel like.
One day, camping along the hot springs of the valley, I pushed my way through the willow thickets and found the tracks of single grey wolf, soft in the riverbed.
If you let it, the Gila will heap you with gifts, take you on a journey. Here are a few of the treasures I came home with.
>> Once upon a time there was no Wilderness <<
Sometimes you walk into an unknown place, a landscape you’ve never seen before, and despite all odds, you feel at home. It’s a kind of settling, a softening in your very nervous system. I haven’t felt this in many places in the world. But the very first time I drove into the Gila I knew I was home.
Nestled at the center of over two million acres of protected land, being inside the Gila (for there is no other way to be there but inside) pulls at a bone deep-knowing, like the last haunting note drawn from a canyon or flute. It ignites a remembrance inside of us.
The aching memory of a time when there was no “wilderness,” only every thing that was.
Once upon a time we lived and soaked in the wildness of the world, it was who we were and how we knew ourselves. We have forgotten, but all it takes it one swift steep in a place of wilderness like the Gila, and something rises into remembrance. Like a hot spring, surfacing from the deeper, more eternal underworld. Once you step into the arms of a world that flows on its own accord, then you will find yourself submerged into something wholly miraculous, mysterious, and comforting to the very core.
>> To Belong to the World <<
For the week I made my home in the Gila, I seemed to forget everything but the wild gifts of the day-to-day. I set up my tent by a creek whose bank grew thick with yarrow fronds and an extravagance wild spearmint. I climbed cliffsides of gamble oaks to visit with lichen-rich stones. I woke up in the middle of the night to watch the moon move inside the sky. I immersed myself in the home of the Gila, and in turn the Gila flooded me with the kind of longing that cannot be ignored.
Being in wilderness brings us back into our bodies with such force, we become aware of a bone-deep ache that lingers around our heart like seed in Fall. The ache to belong once more.
Belonging is part of the birthright of every being in this world. It is something that goes unquestioned by every other creation under the sky, except for human kind. After centuries of distancing ourselves from the web of the living world, so many of us struggle to remember how we fit in at all. In our communities, in our culture and, at the bedrock of it all, in this world.
We have lost the central gifts that arrive to all beings that are earth born. The ability to relax into being blessedly small, to see that we are held in the arms of a greater power. To know that we taken care of by free-flowing waters and free-falling fruit. To have a place in it all. At the center, all of us ache to know this once more. And wilderness places bring such yearnings to surface as swiftly as spring water.
This longing is sacred. Once noticed, longing carried us like a small stream, back into the headwaters of remembering.
To long is to remember what it felt like to belong.
To long is to let loose the marrow-deep sorrow of our separation, and begin to remember what it felt like to belong as wholly to this world as a hawk to high skies, or a wild rose to canyon walls. Like the Otherworld of the Celts, this world of belonging is not far (it is right here) but it does require us to drop everything else and learn the simple things once more. Like how to bathe in a river. Or how to suckle on rose hips and plant a new year of flowers.
We ache to recover our sense of the belonging because, at our hearts, we long to step back into relationship with all of life. And because, despite all odd, life continues to yearn for us as well.
We long, in short, to be a part of the co-creation once more.
>> Remembering the Co-Creation <<
For a long time many humans on this earth have been preoccupied with being the sole manufacturers in our environments, owning the act of creation as if it were only ours. But this is not the truth of the world, it never has been and it never will. Our world is a co-creation.
And as much as we ache to know our place again in the making of things, so does the world ache to create with us once more.
In some creation stories it is said that at the beginning of time humans and clouds and animals all spoke the same language. There was one tongue, and that one mother language made all of earth.
And to say we spoke the same language is really just to say we all knew the one truth: that we need the life of this planet, and this planet needs us. That the world is one dream, and we are dreaming it into being, together.
Once, all humans understood that the rain needs the sound of poetry, every bit as much as a forest needs the unseen network of mycelium. We understood that we were not the sole artisans of our life. But co-creators, dreaming with all other living beings in this world.
In one of her books, Sandra Ingerman, a shamanic practitioner in the southwest, talks about a time when we she asked her students a pivotal question, If every being on earth has a sacred purpose, a gift to give this world, why are humans here? She was greeted by silence. Like so many of us in this world, her students didn’t know how to respond.
I know how they feel.
All you have to do is open your eyes to see the destruction following in the wake of humanity. Pavement where once the meadows ran free. A mountain-size grave that was once an elder of rock and stone. Pipelines through sacred lands, in sacred waters. But in that moment of guilt and confusion, Sandra Ingermen asked a question that shook everyone, including this dear reader, to their core, “What if human beings are here to bless this world?”
We may not be like the ants, who bring rubies to the surface of the earth in their building. Or the prairie dogs who aerate the grasslands with aquifers. Perhaps we are not as important as all of that, perhaps our role is much humbler. But what if our gift arises from our very ability to know what it is to not belong, and so have the sacred aptitude to hold gratitude for it all. What if our role as co-creators is to bring prayers to this world. To witness, to sing, to give thanks. To create untold beauty in the simple act of being grateful to belong.
Because when you step into true wilderness, a place that has gone on in the richness of its own co-creation, realize your life has been, and always will be, in the hands of the wind and the water. In the footprints of the family of javelinas that travel with noses close to the ground. In the stars that wheel above you and make you gasp when you leave for tent for brief moments to sit on your haunches in the night.
To step into the wilderness is to see that it is a gift. It is a gift to be here on earth. It is a gift to alive. And that gratitude is the beginning of remembering how to co-create once more.
>> Be like a Child, Learning <<
To say a wilderness is a teacher is really just to say that the whole world is a teacher. And we are learning again how to be humbled and accept its wisdom and care.
The day I left the Gila I cried. Not because I was sad to be leaving, but because I had been so held. We humans can forget what it feels like, to be embraced by the world around us. But the world has never stopped holding us, even as we forget that our very lives depend on the love this planet has for our being.
Wild places are the first teachers. They show us how to live, how to be human. How to be of this world again. But, perhaps the most important thing of all is that they show us is how to re-join co-creation. How to recognize our gratitude and pray, bring a change of weather once more.
Because we have always been a part of the pattern of things breaking, healing and changing. And the teacher that is the wilderness wants to help us to remember how to be forces of regeneration once more.
And all of this is important, so important. Now, as the residents of New Mexico continue to fight off the damning of the Gila. Now, as the people of standing rocking and 7,000 others from tribes across the world gather together to stop a pipeline from being built across sacred lands, across the largest aquifer in our country.
One day I was checking out maps in the small Gila visitors center when a mainstream-looking older couple walked in. The woman went right up to the clerk and began asking him questions about the forest. How long has this been here? What kind of trees are those? When was this protected? Before he could get a word out she rushed into an explanation “As soon as we drove into this place I cried.” She seemed shocked by her own emotion, and shook by the power of it all.
I knew exactly how she felt. In the wake of all the devastation on this planet, the world has gone on, Loving us. It is enough to make anyone cry.
And so for this week in the Gila, I let it in. And maybe, in the reading of this, or in your own quiet experience in your backyard, the woods, or meadows, or sands of your homes, you can too.
In the Gila I learned that it is okay to be a child again, a child of the world. To realize that you are taken care of. To allow yourself to delight in the experience of being alive and, also, to know that it is okay to make mistakes. It is okay to have been an unconscious part of the hurt, to be unsure how to heal the world. That it is okay to go on halting steps as we go about making it right, tending all the wounds we have created on this earth. We just have to keep trying.
And it is okay, to try and try and try again until we can stand in the web of co-creation once more. The wild spaces remind us, that just by trying with the wholeness of our hearts, we bring beauty back into the world. And that the co-creation will never stop being here to welcome us home.
>> The Pitmine, The Prayer <<
On the road into the Gila, if you go by way of Silver City, you will pass what was once the largest pit mine in the world. The Santa Clarita mine. Mined mostly for copper it is a sight that makes one sick to the stomach as acre after acre of stripped land steams by your window. This is what the Gila could have been, if not protected early on in our history. It is enough to make one want to stop the car and double over.
When I was in town I stumbled across a small piece of chrysocolla in a thrift shop there. Like many stones, chrysocholla is often discarded as the by-products of mining. This piece of chrysocolla was straight from the heart of the Santa Clarita mine. I purchased it and brought with me to the forest. On a clear day I hiked up to the top of these grandfather rocks and I gave it back to the earth in ceremony.
It may seem small, but it is the small things, like the tiny ceremony of a cricket creating music from its own body, that creates the chorus that defines the night’s sound.
And so places like the Gila teach us how to follow our gut to become a part of the co-creative force of healing once more. How to set things right, stone by stone.
They remind us that we are in a time now when, even amidst the seemingly smallness of our voices, every one is needed. Our ceremonies, so matter how humble, are a part of the blossoming co-creation or a healing world.
And that the way exists. It is right here. We just have to open our hearts. Open it even wider. Be like the caramel scent of the ponderosa pines, opening in the bloom of midday heat. Or the datura blossom, so open you might just fall headfirst into the velvet folds. Be like the Gila that fans out over six hundred miles of desert.
Undammed. Undammable. Open your heart, open it even wider.
And remember. You are here to bless this world.
So bless your home with every word.