“Rewilding,” a term coined by Animá Center’s Jesse Wolf Hardin in 1976, first saw print in in 1986 in the following serialized essay. As a result, Wolf was assigned to write the Rewilding entry on page 1383, Vol. 2 of The Encyclopedia of Religion & Nature (Thoemmes Continuum, 2005). Given the current economic and social conditions, this way of being and living is more crucial and urgent than ever. I encourage you to forward this 6 part series to others, by clicking on the “Share This Post” button below. Blessings. -Kiva Rose
The Rewilding Part 6: Wild Leap
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
“Even so, the spirit voices are singing,
their thoughts are dancing in the dirty air.
Their feet touch the cement, the asphalt
delighting, still they weave dreams upon our
shadowed skulls, if we could listen.
If we could hear.
Let’s go then, Let’s find them. Let’s
listen for the water, the careful gleaming drops
that glisten on the leaves, the flowers. let’s dance
the dance of feathers, the dance of birds..”
-Paula Gunn Allen
One Fall I spent long hours at the base of the volcanic cliffs near our canyon home. Rising some 300 feet from the river’s edge, they look like the stilled froth of a once liquid mountain, of igneous flows that so long ago gulped and pulsed in glowing molten delight. They’re home to a clan of cliff swallows, amazing birds that create plaster nests out of spit and dirt, gluing them sixty feet or more up the sheer face of the rock. I was bemused by the antics of the baby swallows inside them, chirping away for all they are worth while the mothers soared in aerial displays or charmed them with bits of food from their mouths. Some of the nests were built flush to the rock, while others hung down like clay baskets in the wind.
The young swallows, wildly flapping their spindly wings, would rush around their nests in preparation for that fateful first flight. Of course, running in circles can hardly be construed as training in the fine art of flying. What they were actually doing was developing “a case of attitude,” getting up the necessary “chutzpah” to do the seemingly impossible. So high up from the ground, the test was “pass or fail,” with no room for incomplete gestures or subsequent regrets. Time and again I was startled by their mad dashes to the edge. One by one they would get up the nerve and take off into the unforgiving skies, bobbing around clumsily before catching feel of their wings and soaring away.
Every one, that is, except for the tiniest one of all.
In my life I’ve consistently championed the small kids on the playground and the runts of the litter. And I’ve been known to take risks in behalf of the littlest of the little guys: the beaten and extirpated members of other species. So naturally my sympathies went out to this last of the feathered siblings, as I cheered-on with all my heart its numerous attempts at takeoff. Again and again it would run out to the lip of its nest, but always caving in at the final second as if crippled by some unconquerable sense of self-doubt. I knew that it couldn’t remain in the warm confines of its abode forever. Sooner or later the mother swallow would cease to bring food to its hesitant offspring, and the familiar and once safe nest would ultimately serve as the agent of its demise.
Time after time it would bravely scurry forward, only to fall back again. On its fateful final try it ran all the way up on the edge, before wildly flapping its wings in an eerie attempt to regain its balance. Only this time, the little bird had come too far to turn back, and my heart seemed to stop as the bird’s momentum carried it over the side. I watched helplessly for what seemed like an eternity, the bird dropping in slowly expanding circles before finally landing with a pronounced and pitiful “thud” on the flesh-toned rocks at my feet.
A few days later, I left my precious home for yet another series of talks and workshops, doing my best to be worthy of the source and reservoir of my life’s inspiration. I remained troubled, however. What lesson could there possibly be in this failure of the “little guy,” the seemingly meaningless death of that precious baby swallow? What message could there be that might sustain me on my trip away, or help inspire the crowds of people who would be gathered to hear what I had to say?
The answer came at last, flowing clear and purposeful like the sweet-medicine river itself: Sometimes the only difference between falling – and flying — is hesitation!
I share this tale now because like that nest of cliff swallows, both our society and we personally may be at a crux, a pivotal juncture upon which ours and the greater human future depends. Certainly those myriad social forms based on denial of the abyss or most resistant to change, are the most likely to fall. And one by one, we may come to recognize the ways in which we are ourselves increasingly teetering on a precarious edge, where moving boldly forward into the unknown is terrifying, but where denial or hesitation could cost us our lives. On the other hand, awaiting our fateful leap is a wilder way-of-being as meaningful and deep as the canyon, as expansive as the beckoning sky.
In the Animá tradition, we teach that every moment is a decisive moment, not just those key times in our lives considered major crossroads like choosing a career path, or determining whether or not to stay in an unsupportive marriage. When we are fully embodied, sentient and conscious, every minute is purposeful, and nearly every act deliberate. This includes where we choose to be or who we choose to be around, and how we will act in every situation. Even resting in a hammock is a purposeful act, undertaken for rest and nourishment, for the pleasurable sensation of swaying in the breeze or the nap that will give us strength for the day’s remaining tasks… rather than our unwillingly collapsing onto a couch when we can go no further, and feeling vaguely guilty for lying down.
That said, there are some decisive moments with far more significance or far greater harmful or beneficial consequences. Certainly, that would include how we respond in times of pronounced danger, when another driver suddenly swerves into your lane, a boyfriend starts to get abusive, or a fire is spreading through the house. So too, the healthy decision to leave that boyfriend, to change a university major or face the costs of quitting school in order to pursue a life as a farmer or a father, a musician or person with a mission. And to get out of a figurative “bad relationship” with those perceptions and systems known to be ultimately abusive to ourselves or the people and planet that we love.
For increasing numbers of our kind these days, the developing global ecological and economic situation is not only amply threatening to provoke reconsideration of every practical aspect of our existence, from the ways we make money to the size and kinds of vehicles we drive… but also can lead us to the question of what matters most in life. The size of the closets or age of our clothes can seem so important in times of assured income, but as soon as that income stream slackens, keeping usable rubber on the family’s only car and glasses for the children’s eyes quickly become the priority. And if that income stops altogether, the only thing that may feel truly relevant anymore is the securing of a steady supply of food for the plate.
The progressive malfunctioning of 21st Century economic and social systems is and will continue to be a cause of pain that we would never wish on anybody… and yet like nearly all things it brings with it lessons, benefits and blessings. So long as there seemed to be a surplus of gas, raw materials, credit and funds, there was scant likelihood of a majority making any substantive changes in the way or the amount they consumed, to take into account the effects of their personal lifestyle and political acquiescence on those in other regions of the country and world, on the diminishing wild salmon that we love to eat, on the air we breathe and the aquifers that we drink from. Only when necessary or desired items become unavailable or too expensive to afford, does there seem to be sufficient impetus to maintain, mend and adapt what we already have, or to weigh the convenience of disposable products against durability of goods manufactured to last. And only when the usual means for comfort, placation, avoidance and distraction begin to fail – when all pretense of a safety net disappears – are most of us sufficiently both alerted and disrupted to abandon ill-serving habits and props, to question that rules and laws that bind us, to explore new directions in thinking or ways of doing… or to assess our real needs and plumb our dreams, then seek for once to fulfill them.
And so it would seem to be for society as a whole, generally driven to change only through necessity, the bloodied as well the bloodless revolutions, the overturning of regulations and unleashing of initiative, the thinking outside of the box and consideration of innovation, the creation of intimate alliances as well as the empowering of the individual, the purging reassessment of long vaulted values and beliefs, the trauma of collapse and possibilities that attend every new beginning. We and the society we have partnered with, now seem perched precariously on the crumbling lip of that young swallow’s daunting abyss, charged with collectively choosing between flying forward bravely and enthusiastically into the unknown, or else continuing to cling to habitual but ever more brittle and undependable structures instead.
“Again you say, why do you not become civilized? We do not want your civilization!”
It’s important to understand that abusive systems and personal disempowerment are not social aberrations that a benign evolving civilization seeks to rectify, but are in actuality some of the more unpalatable defining characteristics of a civilized paradigm as resistant as concrete to change. Indeed in the end, adamant liberty and quiet servitude, personal wildness and de-naturing domestication are not a dichotomy to be solved but a decision to be made.
Everyone, at some point in their lives, makes a deliberate if subconscious choice whether or not to desensitize, to live confined by propriety, temerity and schedule, or to subject ourselves to the unreassuring but surprising possibilities of our natural selves. To fit in rather than be outstanding. To acquiesce to outside powers in order to avoid the demands of responsibility, or else to act like and insist on the rights of a truly free person. And all too many of us have traded responsive, sensate and celebratory human wildness for the perceived comforts and distractions of the modernist, global technoindustrial paradigm that is even now defaulting on its inflated promises to us.
Which way we decide on, and whether or not we ever change our minds, depends on our criteria… and criteria is always determined by what we find most valuable. When all the support systems seem in place and the paychecks are coming in time, we may ask if a thing is “easy, legal, bankable, acceptable or fashionable.” When times are shaky, we are more likely to ask “Is it edible, practicable, salable or tradable?,” and “Is it safe, predictable, repeatable, comforting, reassuring?” Under either of these circumstance, a rewilded person or willful child is just as likely to wonder “Does it taste right? Does it sing, laugh, resonate? Is it free, beautifully and gracefully embodying its own nature? Is it real, authentic, intensely itself? Does it feed and fan, or deaden and dilute our spirit? Does it excite our potential, or cramp our personal expression and style?” And “Can you dance to it?”
Choosing the illusory security of conformity and handing over power to vested authorities can in fact be terribly perilous, making us victims of or subject to events rather than co-creators of our world and our reality. But committing to wildness, individual expression and personal responsibility can be just as scary. Discovering one truth about our authentic selves or the conspiratorial workings of political and economic systems, can call into question the credibility and intentions of every other aspect. Beginning with recognition of our unmet inner needs or the exposure of a banker’s or president’s lie, we may shift our perception enough that all kinds of inconsistencies and injustices can then be seen… and at that point we may find that the entire set of “facts” and assumptions our very lives have been based on are actually crumbling beneath us.
There are more reasons to be concerned than simple disorientation or existential alienation. The wild man/woman inside you may spook your friends, walk off the job to become an artist or soothsayer or happy-go-lucky vagrant. He or he may make decisions internally, only in the moment and from the gut, without a thought for future dilemmas or past foibles. Laugh too loud in a social situation. Tell it like it is even at the risk of discomforting others, or demonstrate untimely or inappropriate desires. They are apt to eat with their hands at times, luxuriating in the feel as well as the smell and taste and cha-cha of colors in the bowl, and to innocently expose adult duplicity by telling the truth like a child. They can be genuine and candid at great cost to career, relationships and social standing. Such wildness can admittedly result in a misdemeanor ticket for frolicking in the downtown fountain, or cause us to respond to a Summer breeze by running barefoot in the grass.
The rewilded people I know are inevitably impatient with packaging, and intolerant of closed spaces. They may get testy if placed in a room without windows, and tend to climb trees at any age. They love dirt, and yet spend an inordinate amount of time in a bathtub. They defy stereotypes and demand attention. They can be the loudest and the quietest, either gregarious or solitude seeking, or both silly and wise. They have been heard to purr or growl when they make love and bite in bed, to readily rise to defend their loved ones and indulge in every creative medium. In fact, they are mediums, venturing between the magical realms that exist simultaneously on this plane. They find it easy to say “no!”, while the rest of the time they may radiate “yes!” to experience, chance and possibility. I’ve seen them take pleasure in their aging as well as in their persistent childishness, in the passage of the seasons as well as the blooming of every flower. They’ve learned or are learning to be comfortable with their shape and scent, their most natural weight and bodily processes, and even the most easily aggravated among them seem excited to open their eyes each new day. They are thoroughly themselves most of the time, resulting in their often becoming either self employed or communal, entertainers or loners, group leaders or expatriates. They can be fiercely self disciplined, but never respond well to discipline and manipulation from others. They’re most likely uncertified and unofficial, are both understood less and paid less than other people in their situation, and might be either unreasonably suspect or exceptionally loved. They may or may not yet describe themselves as wild, yet they have broken the spell of domestication and learned to trust their feelings and instincts, have refused to continue being victims or bystanders and become participants again, have turned to their own values and knowings for authority and chosen to risk pain or censure in order to greater experience life’s adventure, beauty and pleasure.
The rewilded among us may be hard working but they don’t usually have a career. What they hold is a purpose, with their jobs being either an extension of that purpose or simply a means to fund their larger mission in life. They are sometimes street people, hunting and gathering in dumpster laden lots, or preaching their atypical sermons to the ranks of nonbelievers marching down the sidewalks to their high-rise offices. Over-managed kids who managed to run away. Disgruntled professors who quit their positions to become organic farmers and rock and roll drummers. Anarchistic primitivists and unrepentant outlaws. But they are just as likely to be rule-bucking preschool teachers trying to give their students something more than the stock curricula, like a belief in their personal vision and confidence in their power. Radical scientists escaping harmful preconceptions and overturning entrenched, institutionalized ideas. Patriots or liberators. Conservationists and activists, caring counselors and crucial community healers.
For all the difficulties of rewilding in this age of perverse denaturing – of reclaiming freedom and self reliance in an era of control, surviving and thriving through the dissolution of so much that we once counted on – it is nonetheless a choice and transition providing immediate rewards. For the rewilded, every wonderful or telltale smell is discerned, and not a single shapely cloud passes unnoticed. Sex becomes more present and wholly expressed, the kiss lingers, the hug can be an end to itself. Colors appear more alive, meals more flavorful. Acts become more spontaneous, heartful commitments and relevant relationships more satisfying. And immediately, the rewilded are better equipped to respond in the moment to shifting conditions. To make their own right decisions free of supervision, and take pride in themselves without needing anyone else’s recognition, approval or applause. To grow their innate abilities and maximize their situational effectiveness. To distinguish official lies and discern hidden realities, protect and defend themselves from expected and unexpected threats, uncover a bounty in times of scarcity, dance even in the absence of music, and yet hear music in everything.
Of course, knowing and even being able to describe the magic of the world is not enough to guarantee that we always engage it. An ecophilosopher friend of mine talks about being motivated by a sense of loss due to the destruction of the natural world. But seeing him discoursing here in this powerful canyon where I live, without adequately sensing and interacting with the unique energies of the place, made me believe his sense of loss stems as much from being caught up in his head while the wildness he writes about is calling him outside. Wisdom is not a matter of how much we know or how well we evoke, but the depth and quality of our conscious interaction. Just as the richest are not those who own the most things, but those who most learn from, utilize, savor and celebrate what they have. Not the person with the fullest pantry, but those who most fully taste what they’ve got. Life presents all its flavors only to the embodied, present and wild… only to those who dare to fully notice, feel, engage, open to and receive the palpable gifts of this world.
So often, what it takes to get us fully in our bodies and conscious beings is a personal life crisis, a combination of failed jobs and marriages, an emotional response such as professionals once called a “nervous breakdown.” Real engagement and change usually comes with the desperate reappraisal of coveted norms, when an author’s books flop more likely than when they are selling well, or when a revealing of hypocrisy undermines lifelong prescriptive dogma. So it is with cultural, economic and political paradigms, that seem to go on endlessly until the fundamental underlying principals and promises collapse. The chance for a new sustainable human society is made possible and more likely due to the widespread bank failures and resulting global recession, heightened insecurity and challenge… the societal equivalent of the traumatic personal breakdown. We may or may not be entering what the Mayan and Hopi prophecies refer to as a time of “cleansing,” paying the price for our separation and denial as forewarned by the Kogi gate keepers. But the current disruptive conditions are at the very least an opportunity for our remembering and reclaiming, restoring, re-visioning, reshaping and rewilding of self, society and place unparalleled in modern human history.
The jump we are called to make is frightening, but no more so the ultimately deadening effects of continued recalcitrance and flailing hesitation. Besides, it is our calling to attempt the impossible! And it is time to expect a miracle, even as we continue diligently working to influence the direction of change. If we are to believe in magic, in our fairy tale of a more empowered, natural self and liberatory world, then we must also believe in happy endings. Ours is the shared wild covenant, together reaping the whirlwind of heightened awakeness and sensation, responsibility and purpose… determining what in our lives and our society to let go of and which to keep, as we each take that wild leap.
(Animá Cliffs photo (c)2008 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)