This article was originally published in The Magical Times magazine in July 2013
The concept of wilderness is often defined in a negative sense by what it is not: wilderness represents an absence of orderliness and control by human beings. This failure of Nature to remain within the bounds set for it by people has been viewed as deeply disturbing and somehow indicative of some kind of moral deficiency. In the Bible (Book of Genesis), God gave Man dominion over all the plants and animals of the Earth and the taming of the wilderness and the domestication (or elimination) of wild animals has often been seen as a kind of sacred duty by agricultural societies.
What is referred to as wilderness in Britain is often nothing of the sort but rather a manmade wasteland that has been denuded and impoverished by past forest clearance and subsequent farming practices, usually over-grazing by large flocks of sheep that eat any vegetation that grows and halt natural processes such as recolonisation by trees.
True wilderness, by contrast, is characterised by vitality and abundance as plants and animals multiply until they reach a natural equilibrium. The remaining areas of wilderness on the Earth differ from those places touched and tamed by the hands of people by having complete ecosystems and food chains: a wide variety of plant life is consumed by a range of herbivores who in their turn are preyed on by carnivores both large and small. The British Isles have seen the predators at the top of the various food chains – species such as the bear, lynx and wolf – driven to extinction by the most successful predator ever to walk the surface of the planet: the two-legged one. The ruthless hunting to extinction of our large native carnivores has left Man and his livestock physically safer but, as many people are beginning to realise, spiritually impoverished.
As our material lives have become increasingly contained within safe, neat and orderly boundaries, so our spiritual lives too have shrunk and become controlled, regimented and compartmentalised. Whatever religious or spiritual path we follow, it is easy to allow the stresses and strains of daily life, of earning a living and caring for home and family, to push our practice into a convenient box, where it can be managed like the rest of our lives with the diary and to-do list.
The practice of leaving behind the daily routine, and its associated safety and physical comforts, in search of spiritual growth has a long history in both Eastern and Western traditions. The Buddha achieved enlightenment after leaving behind a life of privilege and meditating for extended periods beneath a Bodhi tree. Many prominent figures in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, such as the Prophet Elijah, Jesus and John the Baptist all turned to the wilderness for inspiration and to hear more clearly the voice of God. Indeed, the entire nation of Israel had to spend 40 years wandering in the desert after fleeing captivity in Egypt before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land.
The Native American Vision Quest is another example of this practice, which seems to reinforce the fact that the use of wilderness to facilitate spiritual awakening and transformation is not confined to a single culture or geographical location but is part of our common human experience. In the Vision Quest the quester spends time alone in the wilderness away from the community, often depriving themselves of food, drink and sleep, in order to see a vision or encounter a spirit guide that will give purpose and direction to their life.
In the Native British tradition, the practitioner of this type of shamanic communion with the Otherworld was the Awenydd, a word which derives from the Welsh word Awen, generally translated as ‘flowing spirit’, which has been described as the inspiration of the Bard or Poet and, by the British Druid Order, as ‘the Holy Spirit of Druidry’.
So we can see that the urge to ‘get away from it all’ and ‘find ourselves’ is not merely a New Age response to 21st Century angst but rather something that has been recognised for thousands of years as a prerequisite to achieving our spiritual potential. From every tradition and every part of the world the mystical experience reported by these wanderers in the wilderness is the same: an overwhelming feeling of unity with all other beings and an insight into the inter-connection of all existence.
This inter-connectedness of the natural world and the individual works both ways and, as we shall see, this idea has a long history.
In the Celtic, and many other traditions, the King was seen to personify the life of the land. In numerous cultures, in the Middle East as well as in Ireland, the King would symbolically marry the land, as personified by one of the land’s patron goddesses. If the union was fruitful and the land provided bountiful harvests, then all was well. On the other hand, a poor harvest or famine would be viewed as a failure on the part of the King or a waning of his vital powers and the only solution was that the King should die in order to be born again in a stronger and more vibrant form, just as the vegetation that grows on the land dies in Autumn and is reborn in Spring.
This connection between the life of the King and the life of the land persisted in the Western Tradition through the Arthurian imagery of the Wasteland. Here the Fisher King has suffered a grievous wound and, while he lies stricken, the land is barren. Only the achievement of the Holy Grail by Arthur’s knights can restore both the wounded King and the land to health once again.
To put this into a contemporary context, if we replace the Fisher King with our modern, consumerist society, the link between the life of society and the life of the land becomes clear. The wounds inflicted by our exploitative, materialistic lifestyles have turned large parts of the land into a Wasteland and, until the Holy Grail of a fairer and more sustainable way of life more in tune with the natural world is achieved, there is no hope for either the King (society) or the land to be made whole again.