At the end of my day today, I was blessed by the sight of a fox, magnificent in her wildness and independence, who loped across my office parking lot. She looked at me as if she had come out into civilization just for me, and then continued on into the nearby woods. For most women I know, these moments when we experience our sisterhood with the Earth are essential expressions of our spiritual selves. We are renewed, inspired, and reborn in forests, oceans, and mountains.
But, not all women are able to experience wild places first hand. Some of us live in cities and suburbs and do not have the time or money to go on retreats or vacations in nature. Perhaps our responsibilities to children or elder parents keep us at home. Maybe we or a spouse are in the military and we cannot choose where we will live. Perhaps we must dwell in a place whose landscape and neighbors make us depressed and afraid. Even though I live close to natural places, the schedule of my obligations to others means that I am fortunate if I spend an hour or two a week in a truly wild place.
I was lucky – I found my perfect home when I was in my 20s, and it was not in nature. I moved to New York City because of my fantasies of a literary life and instead found a connection to our planet, a place where I felt perfectly at home. I felt embraced by the skyscrapers. I loved the hard, straight lines of the sidewalks. Surrounded by six million people all living their lives as they wished, I was never lonely and always perfectly free to be myself and as individual and arty as I chose.
But it wasn’t only the human culture of New York City that I loved, but also the spirit of the place. If forests are earthy, and oceans watery, and the plains and deserts full of air, New York City was, to me, fire. I became convinced that somehow nature and humanity had co-created the spirit of this place so that it was more than wildness and more than humanness, something uniquely both—powerful, beautiful, and full of life. It seeped up from the concrete and out of the rock walls of the skyscrapers, oozed from the brick tenement buildings, vibrated with the steps of the inhabitants. I left 20 years ago and only really went back for a couple of visits recently and I felt it again; it was like meeting an old friend.
I learned from those years in NYC how to connect to nature, to the land, even when you are not in wildness; to not just exist till you can return to a natural place for rejuvenation, but to bask in the spirit of where you are, whether by choice or necessity. I began by expanding my idea of “nature” to include not just places that were wild, but everywhere on Earth, to see the “wildness” wherever I was. Part of doing this is seeing humans as “wild,” too, as part of the landscape and what they create as “wild” if it truly represents some core element of themselves. So, a painting or poem or building or park is an element of nature if it is an expression of that which is “wild” within us.
Of course, this isn’t always easy if where you live is not particularly attractive and doesn’t blend in with the landscape. I lived in a fifth floor walk-up which, 20 years ago, was basic housing at its most basic. The only two windows looked out on the brick wall of the building next door. The only time I was in the building and experienced nature was when I would go on the roof and look up at the sky. I had no choice but to live there because it was all I could afford. So, I expressed the spirit of the place through paint—I painted a bright red fire in the fireplace, matching the crimson rug on the floor, and the walls were a bright “Van Gogh” green and yellow. My wall decorations and bookshelf statues were colorful and full of life. My one living/bedroom was my temple to the spirit of my Beautiful City.
I also connected to the wildness of where I lived by immersing myself in other’s expressions of how they perceived its spirit, whether through art or literature or history or stories from the original people who had lived there. Over time, I built up my own “mythology” about the place, with some places becoming “sacred” to me and creating stories out of my own experiences that illustrated the magic that I perceived there. By the time I left, many buildings and parks had special significance for me and had their own special power.
But, unfortunately, we can’t always be where we feel connected and can easily visualize and celebrate the spirit of a place whether is has wildness or not. I like living in New England. I have, in many ways, done the same process here—finding my own “sacred places,” creating a home that expresses how I perceive the spirit of the place, and trying to feel intuitively what the spirit of the place is like. I have to admit, though, that I am not as at home in New England. The spirit of the place is not one that I feel an essential connection with. The people I love are here, but it is a struggle sometimes to feel as if I am “home” here.
Still, over the years, perhaps New England is not where I would prefer to be, but maybe it is where I need to be. Living in a place where you don’t feel the embrace of nature’s wildness, where you don’t feel simpatico, can also be essential for our growth. I have grown in ways that I may never have had I always stayed in New York City. I have become able to be more solemn, more cynical and less instantly enthusiastic, more likely to struggle to let my intellect be quiet so my spirit can create. I have expanded and added many more notes to my life’s symphony.
At the same time, I have shifted my focus from being an “artist” to being a “healer.” Even though I may do the same activities, the focus or purpose of them is to heal myself, or others, or the earth, rather than simple self-expression. Part of this is growing older and experiencing more, but I also think that some of it is absorbing the more somber history of New England and experiencing the harshness of nature’s face here.
If you live in a place where you feel less connected, sometimes you have to make the first move, be the first to reach out a hand to your new home in acknowledgement of the fact that it is nourishing you, even with only gravity, and despite the fact that it may not feel connected to you, either. By coincidence, I moved to my new home at a time when there was an intense battle going on to preserve the purity of a nearby body of water. I joined in the fray and, by showing my dedication to my new home, I began to feel aligned and as if I somehow came to better understand the landscape by committing myself to its preservation. While the land I was fighting for was “wild,” I think that the same would be true of a place that was urban also. So often the way to spiritual connection is action.
Perhaps a world where humans only lived in places in perfect harmony with and surrounded by nature would be ideal. Maybe that will be what the world will be like in the future. But, for billions of people, that is not the reality of their lives. They choose to or must live in urban or suburban environments that may, or may not, have natural beauty. To broaden our understand of “the wild” brings millions of people into the human-wilderness circle who might otherwise feel left out, thus making us feel part of nature, too, and deepening our commitment to it. At the same time, it affirms the web of connection between all beings and all places on earth. Can any place not be “natural” in some sense if it is still on the Earth? By finding the “wildness” in a slab of concrete sidewalk, we commit ourselves to making every place on Earth its own kind of nurturing, free, beautiful, vibrant landscape and honoring the connection of all beings to the earth, wherever they may live.