James A. Wohlpart

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“Forest Temple” by David Suzuki, Japan/ Canada

Encountering Wildness

James A. Wohlpart
United States of America

Many years ago, during a difficult time in my life, I would tell a story of an encounter with a rattlesnake. At that time, the story revealed to me the many disjunctions and disharmonies that existed in my life. It offered evidence that a life which had gone awry could return to its source, a place of relation and perhaps humility.

In the telling of the story, I explained how I had taken a day for myself, away from the commitments and obligations of family and work and the all-consuming materialism of our culture. I drove to Myakka River State Park with my trail bike and daypack in tow. I arrived shortly after the park opened, studied the bike trail map, and found a place where I thought I could spend some time in wildness, alone.

I rode for about three hours on sandy roads that meandered through pine uplands. The immense sky caused me to ache as I reflected on the many hours spent locked in my office or keeping up a house twice the size of my grandparents’ home. The sun rose and the day warmed. I ran out of water and so I headed back to the car, thinking that I would get my lunch and my daypack and retreat back into wildness to eat and nap.

As I put my bike into the car and prepared my lunch, a pair of red-shouldered hawks screamed at me from the top of nearby pine trees.

I was at a point in my life when I had thought that I had awakened and, interestingly, it was the hawk who had been an integral part of this awakening experience. I felt that I had become aware of the way in which life’s meaninglessness, its routines, its habits, the shallowness of work and a consumer culture, can overwhelm and take you under to the point where all you know is this meaningless state, to the point where the routines, the work, the consumption become a never ending cycle of feeling the void, filling the void with things, only to feel empty again. We have come to mistake this cycle for a meaningful journey, a rite-of-passage. It has become our vision quest in Western culture, where young adults roam mega-malls in the desire to become.

The hawk had spoken to me, reminding me of a time in my life when I had a direct connection to wildness, a strong sense of humility, an awareness of solitude that provided a foundation for an interrelatedness with all things, not just other humans but rocks and trees and birds and animals, the clouds, the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars.

I knew what they were saying, the hawks that were screaming at me from the tops of the slash pines above my car. “Don’t go! Danger! Don’t go!” But I was new to this listening and didn’t believe what I heard, didn’t believe that the hawks had a message for me. I packed my lunch and headed down the wilderness trail.

I walked for about an hour in a hushed forest of slash pine. The trail meandered through an understory of saw palmetto and wax myrtle and ferns. I came to a camping area and went to the most isolated spot furthest from the trail. No one was there. I opened my lunch and ate and then I lay down for a nap.

I was in the shade of an ancient live oak, one hundred feet tall with broad limbs, some of which bowed down to the ground in an elegant semblance of thanksgiving, some of which rose up like arms honoring the heavens. The wind blew through the oak, the leaves dancing in the breeze.

As I lay on the ground, I slowly drifted into a deep and comfortable sleep. I was more relaxed than I had been in years, the cares of life had fallen away and left me raw, exposed, unhurried. As I fell into this peaceful state, I was absorbed into Earth, a giant soft hand lowering me into a new realm away from the cares and worries of this life, a sacred place of stillness and peace.

I don’t know how long I slept, perhaps thirty minutes, but I awoke very suddenly, coming fully out of my sleep to a state of heightened alertness. I turned my head to the left. A fully grown, thick-bodied diamond-backed rattlesnake stared at me, some twelve inches from my nose.

Interestingly, I did not panic. A shaft of light streamed through the live oak, warming my stomach. In the time that I lay there face to face with the snake, I had a strong sense that the snake wanted to climb on my belly, curl up, and take a nap.

After a time—I don’t know how long for time had seemed to stop—I was overwhelmed with a sense of the danger confronting me. I rolled away from the snake, and stood up. From my new vantage point, I got a better look at the snake, which was over four feet long with beautiful diamonds spaced down its back.

It watched me for a moment and then slowly made its way into the saw palmettos.

The story as I told it for years was one of triumph, of a life that had gone awry because of a dulling of the senses, from work and obligations and hyperconsumption, but that was now back on track. After all, the hawks had warned me of this dangerous encounter that I was about to have.

But many years have passed since those tellings. In that time, I have read and learned much, an experience which has helped me realize how much more I have yet to learn. In my reading, I encountered an essay called “The Snake People” by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan. In the essay she explains that our Western view of snakes as a representation of darkness and evil does not fit with the view of native peoples. She notes,

Before Snake became the dark god of our underworld, burdened with human sin, it carried a different weight in our human bones; it was a being of holy inner earth. . . . In nearly all ancient cultures the snake was a symbol of healing and wholeness.

Now, when I tell the story of my encounter with the rattlesnake, I am less sure of its significance, just as I am less certain of the hawks’ message. Perhaps they were not warning me of any danger. Perhaps they were letting me know that I was not yet ready to understand this encounter with wildness, that I was still in need of healing and wholeness.

Perhaps if I had been able to lay still long enough to let the snake climb on my belly in the warming sun, perhaps for a short time I might have been cradled by this holy Earth.