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The Wilderness Experience

This essay is the text from a chapel address on The Wilderness Experience delivered by Zahniser Institute Director Lacy Cagle at Greenville College on April 11, 2012. The presentation was one of a six part lecture series on Salvation Means Creation Healed.

Opal Creek, Oregon In his classic 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, naturalist and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote eloquently about learning to “think like a mountain” – by this, he meant developing the capacity to see the bigger picture of all of creation’s existence, and to understand our humble role in that order. In his book, he shares the story of watching the green fire go out of the eye of a wolf he had just shot; this is when he realized that killing wolves indiscriminately leads to destruction of whole ecosystems, including mountains. Deer control undergrowth. Wolves are needed to control deer populations. Mountains stay around much longer than the rest of us and know the deep secrets of long-lasting and healthy ecosystems. Mountains can teach us great lessons of that which lasts longer than ourselves, and can de-center our human perspective to view the whole of God’s creation.

We often talk about wilderness times and mountaintop experiences in evangelical Christianity, but those references are almost always understood as metaphors. Very few of us have actually spent time in the wilderness or climbed a mountain. But God has a history of revealing God’s self on physical mountains and in the physical wilderness. God gave Moses and the children of Israel ten rules for living, on a mountain, in the wilderness. Moses met God in a burning bush in the wilderness, and God prepared Israel to be God’s people through 40 years of wilderness training. Three of Jesus’ disciples witnessed God convening with Moses and Elijah and Jesus on a mountain. Jesus was prepared for his ministry, in fact started his ministry in the wilderness. In the Bible, mountains are where heaven and Earth touch and are therefore a place to meet God, and wilderness is where God prepares leaders and reveals God’s purpose for them. After testing in the wilderness, God always provides what is needed through God’s creation: a ram caught in a bush to replace Isaac as a sacrifice. A well of water to nourish Hagar and Ishmael. Manna for the children of Israel. As Director of Summit Stewards Jim Doenges notes, “biblical traditions about the encounter with God in the wilderness provide the springboard for a contemporary theology of creation as a place of wonder, silence, limitlessness, self-knowledge, grace, transformation through spiritual discipline, refuge, and spiritual haven.”

In countless ways, God’s creation has revealed truths about God’s self to humans, bestowed blessing or reprimand, and taught humans humility. We often live as if creation were created solely for us, but Genesis tells us that God created the rest of creation before God created humans, and with each creature God created, God saw that they were good. Not “good for human use.” Just good, in and of themselves. In fact, just as creation supports and nourishes humans, humans were created to tend for and preserve creation: “the Lord God took Adam and put him in the garden of Eden to care for it and keep it.”

As humans, however, we all most often live as if we thought we were the center of the universe, and that everything in creation was made only for our benefit, enjoyment, and use. We blow up mountains and cover up streams with the debris to get cheap energy to fuel our consumer-driven lifestyles. We keep animals in unspeakable conditions in factory farms in order to meet our insatiable demand for meat and dairy and eggs. We fill our lives with smart phones and Ipads and Google glasses made by children who are enslaved to mine the minerals and others who make pennies a day to assemble them. We pump billions of tons of pollutants into the air and yet refuse to believe our own culpability in more children suffering from asthma, more people developing cancer, and weather extremes and events of unprecedented scale.

We are unquestionably failing to fulfill Scripture’s first stated purpose for our existence: to keep and tend God’s creation. All the while that we’ve been creating and fueling this juggernaut of an unjust and unethical societal system, God’s books of Scripture and Nature have both been trying to teach us a different way, a way of humility and care.

If you know me at all, and some of you do, you know that I’m a passionate person and can get very riled up about social and environmental injustice. Many things during the lead up to this presidential campaign have infuriated me, and I have feared that if I had been in the same room as the people who had said or done certain things, I might have betrayed my vow to nonviolence and punched them in the face. But there are some acts so tragic that humans commit that I feel beyond the fury to a profound sense of grief and mourning. The killing of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida this year is one such example. The blowing up of mountains, covering of waterways, and pollution of groundwater collectively known as mountaintop removal coal mining is another. How can we ever even know what we’ve lost because of these senseless acts of violence?

How will we learn from others who are different than us if we won’t even let them walk alive down the streets in our neighborhoods? How will we be able to think like a mountain if we’ve blown them all up? How can we learn from God’s book of Nature if we continue to silence and kill it? How can we have a wilderness experience if there is no wilderness left?

Howard Zahniser and the Wilderness Act

I’m here today as a representative of the Zahniser Institute, an organization that through education, engagement, and research, seeks to promote ways of being, knowing, and acting that honor and lead to health and well-being for all of creation.

The Institute is named after Howard Zahniser, the father of your own Scholar-in-Residence, Mathias Zahniser. Wilderness was a very dear and meaningful place for Howard Zahniser. In fact, in the summer of 1956, Howard took his whole family, including four children, on a wilderness odyssey from July to September.

Zahniser was the champion and primary writer of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System. He conceived of the initial idea, wrote the original bill, oversaw 66 edits of it, testified before Congress at 18 hearings, built an unusually broad coalition of support, (The act, by the way, was passed in the House by a vote of 373 to 1). He died only four months before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law. Zahniser, or “Zahnie,” as he was known by his friends, graduated in 1928 with a bachelor's degree in English from Greenville College. Among many other roles, he served as the executive secretary of the budding Wilderness Society and editor of their journal The Living Wilderness, and as the third president of the Thoreau Society.

The Wilderness Act Howard Zahniser birthed was envisioned as “a law to stop the economic forces of this country from eliminating, in due course, all the remaining wilderness we had” (The Living Wilderness, 1974). Beyond its hoped practical applications, however, the idea of wilderness was deeply philosophical and spiritual. Zahniser believed, as Leopold did, wilderness is a vital tool for building citizens, and that we as humans needed to enlarge the ethical boundaries of our community, to include the land, all plant and animal life, and all its supporting interconnections.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as"...an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man..." (Section 2(c)). Many people have misread or misquoted the word "untrammeled" as "untrampled," as in not stepped on. But the word "untrammeled" means something very different. A "’trammel’ is a net used for catching fish, or a device used to keep horses from walking. To trammel something is to catch, shackle or restrain it. Untrammeled means something is free or unrestrained. So, wilderness areas are to be unconstrained by humans. Zahniser defined ‘untrammeled’ in the Wilderness Act as ‘not being subject to human controls and manipulations that hamper the free play of natural forces.’” Another word we could use would be ‘unfettered.’ That’s what humanity has done, particularly in North America: we throw our net over nature in the grids of state boundaries of the west, in our street blocks and roads, in the cages we keep wild things in.

In contrast, Howard's son Ed Zahniser views the Wilderness Act as “an urgent plea for an ethic of profound restraint... and for profound humility” and as a way to “de-center the human” in the world. Wilderness serves to de-center the human, just as God de-centered Job in his questions, “Where were you when I drew a circle on the face of the deep? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”, I’ve been focusing on the restraint and humility needed to preserve wilderness and the humility and transformation wilderness can offer us. But wilderness also offers us opportunities to develop a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty and majesty of God’s creative work.

Wilderness also offers us space for quiet and peace.

In the society we have created, our lives are continuously crowded with and clamored by noise, technology, stress. Wilderness offers a place to hear the small still voice of our Creator. Instead of surrounding ourselves almost entirely with our own creations, wilderness offers us the chance to surround ourselves with God’s creation, and remember our part in that community. President Lyndon Johnson once said, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them with a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through using it.”

Wilderness has been throughout history the location for calling people back to right relationship, both with other humans and with God. Wilderness can also draw us back into a right relationship with the whole community of life. It can be a place of transformation, renewal and redemption. But only if we allow it to continue to exist, and only if we journey into it.

Prophets come from the wilderness: John the Baptist, Elijah. As Wendell Berry has said, “If change is to come, it will come from the margins… It was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets.” Are we willing to humble ourselves and recognize the importance and beauty of all of God’s creative works – human and non-human alike? Are we willing to listen for the voice in the wilderness, calling us to humility and justice, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord? Are we willing to enlarge the ethical boundaries of our community, to include those that are different than us, both human and non-human?

Go into the wilderness, experience the Creator on an intimate level, recognize your incompetency and interdependence with the rest of God’s creation. Go into the wilderness. Broaden your conception of community and care. Be renewed and restored. Be transformed.

References The Living Wilderness. (1974, Summer). Letter from Washington: Zahnie. Ruby E. Dare Library Archives, Greenville, IL.