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The wilderness makes me whole again
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I'm reading
The wilderness makes me whole again
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The wilderness makes me whole again
Pass it on
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Articles
12 May 2015

The wilderness makes me whole again

The taste of wild berries, the scent of sunbaked pine, the sound of water lapping the shore. These bring me back to myself.

Written by Parker Palmer

This story originally ran in issue #43 of Dumbo Feather

Jack pines are not lumber trees. And they won’t win many beauty contests either. But to me this valiant old tree is as beautiful as a living thing can be. In the calligraphy of its shape against the sky is written strength of character and perseverance, survival of wind, drought, cold, heat, disease. In its silence it speaks of wholeness, an integrity that comes from being what you are.*

Douglas Wood

Every summer, I go to the Boundary Waters, a million acres of pristine wilderness along the Minnesota-Ontario border. My first trip, years ago, was a vacation, pure and simple. But as I returned time and again to that elemental world of water, rock, woods and sky, my vacation began to feel more like a pilgrimage to me—an annual trek to holy ground driven by spiritual need. Douglas Wood’s meditation on the jack pine, a tree native to this part of the world, names what I go up north seeking: images of how life looks when it is lived with integrity.

Thomas Merton claimed, “there is in all things…a hidden wholeness.” But back in the human world—where we are less self-revealing than jack pines—Merton’s words can, at times, sound like wishful thinking. Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”

My knowledge of the divided life comes from personal experience: I yearn to be whole, but dividedness often seems the easier choice. A “still, small voice” speaks the truth about me, my work or the world. I hear it and yet act as if I did not. I withhold a personal gift that might serve a good end or commit myself to a project that I do not really believe in. I keep silent on an issue I should address or actively break faith with one of my own convictions. I deny inner darkness, giving it more power over me, or I project it onto other people, creating “enemies” where none exist.

I pay a steep price when I live a divided life—feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own? A fault line runs down the middle of my life, and whenever it cracks open—divorcing my words and actions from the truth I hold within—things around me get shaky and start to fall apart.

But up north, in the wilderness, I sense the wholeness hidden “in all things.” It is in the taste of wild berries, the scent of sunbaked pine, the sight of the Northern Lights, the sound of water lapping the shore, signs of a bedrock integrity that is eternal and beyond all doubt. And when I return to a human world that is transient and riddled with disbelief, I have new eyes for the wholeness hidden in me and my kind and a new heart for loving even our imperfections.

In fact, the wilderness constantly reminds me that wholeness is not about perfection. On July 4 1999, a 20-minute maelstrom of hurricane-force winds took down 20 million trees across the Boundary Waters. A month later, when I made my annual pilgrimage up north, I was heartbroken by the ruin and wondered whether I wanted to return. And yet on each visit since, I have been astonished to see how nature uses devastation to stimulate new growth, slowly but persistently healing her wounds.

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours—need not be a utopian dream if we can use our devastation as a seedbed for new life.

*This extract from Dumbo Feather Issue 43 and has been paraphrased for brevity

Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer is a writer, speaker and activist, and the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, an organisation dedicated to creating a more just and compassionate world.

Feature image by Amandine Thomas

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