Outside of the city and suburbs, the natural world has a power to inspire the best and soothe the worst within each of us. It has much to teach us about the wilderness within, and about the "greater power" manifest in the sublimity of nature. In this his last work, beloved author Gerald May offers a memoir and spiritual guide which reveals the great lessons available to us when we retreat from our busy lives to the serenity of the natural wilderness
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About the Author
Gerald G. May, M.D. (1940-2005), practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology, including Addiction and Grace, Care of Mind/Care of Spirit, Will and Spirit, and The Dark Night of the Soul.
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The Wisdom of WildernessExperiencing the Healing Power of Nature
By Gerald G. May
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Gerald G. May
All right reserved.
. . . to the mountain and to the hill,
to where the pure water flows,
and further, deep into the thicket . . .
-- Saint John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle
First trip to the mountain
Summer, 1990. I'm on my way. The miles are going quickly now that I'm on the interstate with the metropolitan traffic behind me. I'm driving through hilly green countryside feeling very much alive. I notice my mind shifting from thoughts about things left undone to excitement and wonder about what I'm getting into.
I relax a little. My hands loosen on the steering wheel and I'm aware now of how tight my shoulder muscles have been. How long has this tension been in me? Certainly for months, perhaps even years. I smell the canvas of my old, long-unused pup tent in the back of the car. It's hot and I've been driving with the windows up and the air-conditioning on. Ease it, I think.
I don't know what that means, but it has something to do with the ancient tension in my shoulders, a tightness I'm so used to I don't usually feel it. I turn off the air-conditioning and roll down the windows and the warm airstream hits my face andblows my hair and I roll my neck a little. Something relaxing is happening and I love it, every bit of the feeling of it inside me. I feel love, almost romantic love for the smell of the old pup tent, love for the air messing up my hair, love for being here on this interstate. Then I see the mountains.
The Allegheny foothills always surprise me. I've traveled this interstate many times, coming up out of the Piedmont Plateau, and it's always the same: I'm driving along and the hills are not there, then suddenly, even when I know where to expect them, they appear as if they had just decided to show up. A surprise of beauty. As I see them now, though, I sense more than their beauty; it's a deep homecoming, welcoming feeling. I could swear the mountains are reaching out for me, as if they have palpable arms opening, guiding, ready to take me in. Everything in me relaxes at this. I want to be taken in. I am overcome with love, right here on the interstate, passing a tractor trailer, its diesel roaring into the wind in a great rushing whine. I'm not anywhere near the State Forest yet, but I've said Yes to a call, and I've been taken. I'm in love.
The call of wilderness is very familiar to me. In one way or another, it is probably always calling. Sometimes I have felt it inwardly as an old, familiar longing, a passion unfulfilled -- what Thoreau called a "yearning for the Wild" that no language could ever express.1 At its most powerful, however, the call seemed to have come from outside me, from some wild place and Presence -- a true "call of the wild." The image that comes to me is of a mountain forest opening invisible arms to me, inviting me to enter into its secret places so deeply and completely that I finally disappear -- and there, in soft, rich lostness, I will be healed; my own true nature will be restored. It is a familiar feeling.
Although I do not recall the beginnings of this feeling, I know it is very old. Its roots go far back in my life, their fibers touching my earliest memories: sunlight on my crib, the sacred sound and touch of raindrops, the smells of dusty fields and musty forests where I was carried by my parents, the tender brushing of breezes upon my skin.
A full memory comes. I am very young, no more than four years old. My father has taken me hunting with him. It is not the first time I have come with him, and I am proud that he brings me along. My little legs are keeping up with his strides, my small hand in his, and I feel the soft happy crunch of our walking across the hayfield in late autumn, the afternoon sun just at the top of the tree line, his wool shirt rough like his hand and his whiskery cheeks, and there is no trace of fear in my body.
I walk on his right side as always, while in the crook of his left arm he carries his twelve-gauge, double-barreled Ithaca Featherweight shotgun, its breech open so the gun bends to fit the curve of his elbow like a part of him. Our little springer spaniel -- dear God, I wish I could remember his name -- nuzzles into a brush pile up ahead and suddenly stops still. My father releases my hand and I too become still, like the dog is still, like the air, like the whole world. My father whispers, softer than breath, lips with a slight grin and barely moving, "Dog never points."
In the stillness I hear the click of the breech closing. It is a soft sound, and I love it because it is gentle and I know another sound will be coming soon, an explosion so huge and harsh that it will overwhelm me no matter how completely I expect it. Yet there is no fear anywhere, no tension, only stillness inside and out. My father steps forward once, twice, casually, not prowling, just loose, easy. I stay still. I know it is my job to remain motionless, though I do not recall my father ever teaching me so. The dog sees my father moving and moves forward also, and suddenly a giant part of the brush flops and flaps upward screaming for the air, trying to get there and the sound of the shotgun nearly knocks me over and in the after-ringing with my hands too late over my ears I hear, "Nice bird. You got you a nice pheasant, Jerry." He has turned and . . .
Excerpted from The Wisdom of Wilderness by Gerald G. May Copyright © 2006 by Gerald G. May. Excerpted by permission.
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