I am privileged to live near a wood where I can walk with my family, my dog, or alone – when I have the courage. I fear the woods, see; not because of physical danger from humans or wild animals, at least, not really. I fear the woods because time in the wilderness forces me to think and feel things I normally can distract myself from.
It took me years to figure out why I resist going to the woods alone. I’m not really alone, of course – there are other people and their dogs on the trails, not to mention all the wild animals and plants whose homes I am visiting. But without a walking companion, sometimes, something rushes in, something that crushes me, so that I can’t breathe. Is it Nature’s Wall of Grief, as nature connection mentor Jon Young posits – the stark reality of the ecological crisis and my own disconnect with my earthly roots? Is it the summation of all my past grief and trauma, or a fear inherited from my ancestors? Is it whatever feelings of fear, inadequacy, or pain that I usually process in smaller, more manageable quantities? All of the above? No, no… it’s much safer to wait until someone wants to go with me.
Lately, instead of beating myself up about how hard it is to go into the wilderness ‘alone,’ I have been working on accepting the scariness and unpredictability – the wildness – of the wilderness. The wild breaks open our orderly ideas of self, society, and the Divine. Of course, this kind of change, or shattering, feels painful and scary; but the movement of a Wild Spirit brings both healing and unexpected possibilities as well. The Wild Divine in the Creation calls to the Wild Divine inside us. Perhaps the true source of the pain and fear lies deep in the struggle of my inner Wild Spirit to break free.
Throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures, the wilderness offers humanity difficult but uniquely transformative encounters with the Divine, from the escaped slave Hagar, to Moses and the burning bush, to Jesus’ preparation for his own ministry. So then, what were these ancient authors trying to say? What is uniquely divine about wildness – and when we suppress and destroy the wilderness, do we literally destroy the Divine in the process?
A dear friend of mine, Amy Durfee West, passed away last month from cancer. Before she died, she wrote about life and death, and how the powerful force of Life cannot, ultimately, be suppressed. She quoted Trelawney Grenfell-Muir in that post, who writes, “How much wisdom Christianity would rediscover if it remembered that the butterfly is not a symbol of the resurrection; rather, the resurrection is a symbol of the butterfly… The butterfly does what it does because it is part of a creation in which Life is stronger than death.” Perhaps our fear in the wild stems not only from our inability to trust in the mighty Spirit of Life, which always follows death, but also from our confusion about its Source. What if the wilderness is not a symbol of the Divine, Wild Spirit, but rather, the idea of the Spirit is a symbol of the Wild? If we can let the “Spirit” blow where it will – can we also therefore accept the tumultuous, unpredictable, dangerous Wild on its own terms, and as the old hymn says, release our fears to the winds?
I was walking the other day in those woods, a winter day after unseasonably warm rains, which had washed away most of the snow and ice from the ground. As I saw the bare winter earth, the bare branches of bushes and tall trees, at first I felt sadness, and fear. Where was the beautiful snow, to insulate the animal dens and offer tracks for the hungry predators? Climate change is real, and terrifying. Death, too, can be terrifying. But as I continued to walk, the wilderness worked its magic on me. I noticed the lichen on the trees, previously hidden by the lush foliage of summer. I noticed the softness of the decaying leaves at my feet. I increasingly saw such astounding beauty in the grey and brown landscape that it again took my breath away. Here, beneath the eye-catching ice crystals, or deep greens, or fall foliage, always here, is an ancient Elder, a Wise, Wild One. She may not be predictable. She may not be safe – we will all, eventually, die. But she is certainly wiser than I. And she is certainly Eternal. And somehow, going into the woods – the wilderness – alone – doesn’t feel so scary anymore.
at first, it looks like Death
dead grass, dead leaves
dead, gray sky
where are the ice diamonds
and soft snow blanket?
how can it compare
with Springtime abundance
at spidery huckleberry bush wrinkles
on leafy brown weathered skin
lichen age spots
and crooked branch hands
bare Winter reveals
the hidden ageless Grandmother
twinkle in her eye
the bare brush scratchy whiskers
on Grandfather’s kindly face
the loving Elder
who never dies
by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee
 Theologian Robert C. Neville describes an unpredictable, ‘Crazy Yahweh.’ See Ultimates: Philosophical Theology, Volume One (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2013), 280-285.
 Womanist Delores S. Williams offers a particularly eloquent description of this dynamic for African American women; see Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 110-114.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.