At a recent summer solstice celebration, a female friend of mine recently confided in me that during college she and her friends celebrated the solstice by painting their chests and running bare breasted through college. She said, “We thought of ourselves as so wild and free at that time!” I think she became an even dearer friend in that moment, mostly because (knowing her) I could imagine her in her natural intensity earnestly experimenting with that form of expression. Can that really count as acting wildly, i.e., acting with intensity of thought and purpose? Doesn’t “wildness” connote a kind of thoughtlessness or unselfconsciousness? I have heard from the pulpit in the past an appeal to the natural wildness of otters or sea turtles or other fill in the blank animals. They are naturally who they are—eating and taking care of their young, procreating and sleeping. They do not fret over issues such as the most ethical form of birth control or whether it is sinful to go to Starbucks or other things that human beings often worry about. Is wildness naturally opposed to intense deliberation and human effort?
In the U.S. “wildness” has a particular kind of legacy. In the foreword to Wendell Berry’s collection of essays , Bringing it the Table, Michael Pollan argues that the United States has a “Thoreau problem,” namely our artificial opposition of nature and culture influences us to conserve wilderness while we sit idly and watch our food system hurtle toward destruction. (xiii) Thoreau’s insistence that wildness consists only in that which remains uncultivated by human beings distances humanity from the world upon which it depends for its survival. “American environmentalism,” which as Pollan puts it, “historically has had much more to say about leaving nature alone than about how we might use it well” (xiv) imposes a cloak of ignorance about our origins (as natural beings) as well as that which continues to sustain us (the fruits of the earth—i.e. healthy food and clean water). Wendell Berry highlights the farm, not the woods, as the central image of reflection upon nature for farming brings together the fate of human and non-human created reality. As Berry writes, “[Nature] is not a place into which we reach from some sake standpoint outside of it. We are in it and are a part of it while we use it. If it does not thrive, we cannot thrive. The appropriate measure of farming then is the world’s health and our health, and this is inescapably one measure” (Berry 7).
Against the legacy of Thoreau, Berry insists that the wild and the cultivated are not opposed to each other, but rather the humanly cultivated, in particular, that which is well-cultivated by human beings preserves the wild within it. In well-cultivated land, wildness and human effort are non-competitive. Berry describes the careful cultivation of the land as a declining art—one that requires intimate knowledge of one’s topography within the “measure of nature” and cannot be practiced when farms grow too large in scale or when farming practices become micromanaged by large corporations without ties to particular communities (Berry 9). That which creates the conditions for poorly cultivated land, especially industrial agriculture, harms all of nature, including human nature. Berry explains, “The world, we may say, is wild, and all the creatures are homemakers within it, practicing domesticity: mating, raising young, seeking food and comfort. . . if the ‘domestic’ sheep become too unwild, as some occasionally do, they become uneconomic and useless . . . Domesticity and wildness are in fact intimately connected. What is utterly alien to both is corporate industrialism– a displaced economic life that is without affection for the places where it is lived and without respect for the materials it uses” (Berry, 69).
This insight concerning the non-competitive nature of wildness and proper cultivation (or, “domesticity”) is profoundly resonant with a robust theory of incarnational grace, suggesting to theologians a fundamental insight into Christian spirituality: the holy, the unblemished, is not that which remains free from human effort, but rather the holy is that which has been cultivated with deep care. In other words, Christian spiritual practices (and really any action) undertaken with respectful diligence, ample forethought and controlled coordination contain the wild within them—that which is given freely and generously from a source outside of one’s control.