“Truth is a pathless land.” – J. Krishnamurti
I started out what I thought would be my professional career exploring for new species of orchids in the mountain rain forests of Puerto Rico’s Central Cordillera. I was only an undergraduate and excited to spend two whole summers alone and farther out than I’d ever been in a wilderness. When I stood in those mossy forests on the mountaintops it seemed I had made my way out beyond the edge of the known world. Actually, the great European botanists who first penetrated these virgin tracts of wilderness a century or two earlier had that distinction. I was merely an eager university student with a National Science Foundation grant cleaning up little bits they’d left undiscovered. The tangled forests I lost myself in were hardly more than relics of a much vaster expanse that had once existed in these mountains. My scientific discoveries only amounted to a few new species of Lepanthes orchids that were mostly the discovery of my revered friend Henry Hespenheide. But the chance to venture out by myself into such wild and untouched places on a mission of scientific exploration turned out to be an outsized component of the education I received from Duke. The main discovery I made had nothing whatsoever to do with the science of botany or anything else I was taught at that great institution. I would not begin to realize how thoroughly it had changed me until years later.
Perhaps it has taken me overly long to really understand what happened. The incident was so brief and couldn’t have occupied the space of more than a fraction of a minute. But it struck down so very deep inside me that it changed how I saw things and the course my life would follow. It has taken me these several decades to arrive at a sensible and balanced assessment of that fraction of a minute so that now I might attempt to frame it in a way that doesn’t do it too much injustice.
These experiences that go right down to the bottom of us elicit something from within that rises up to meet them. And that then comprises the other side of the experience — something inside us answering as it were to the outside situation, as a dog perks up at the sound of its master’s voice. That something from within is what I experienced there in those mountains for the first time.
I was working my way down from the high mountaintop cloud forest, following a mountain stream through the rain forest that covered the north flank of the cordillera, when all of a sudden I turned a bend in the stream and was abruptly startled by a complete change in the forest all around. That summer I had been finding new species of Lepanthes orchids along streams just like this one. But when I turned this particular bend, I was assailed instead by a startling and abrupt impoverishment everywhere around. The same lush greenery was everywhere around and there were just as many trees, as well as understory plants. What was abruptly missing, though, was all that had made every step in that pristine wilderness mysterious, special, and new to me. Unlike the runaway diversity of species that had continued to so astonish me a moment ago, this lush vegetation here was devoid of the mind spinning complexity and reduced to several types of weed trees. The stream was clogged with a species of sedge (Cyperus alternifolius) introduced from the Old World that I had seen cultivated as an ornamental down in the coastal towns.
Gone was the wonder and awe, the strange sense of eternity, that had so delighted me just seconds earlier, and made me know I was in a place the likes of which I had never experienced before. I had popped suddenly out of all that. Where I stood now could be any place in Puerto Rico disturbed by the hand of man. I knew what to expect if I walked on, but did so anyway, just to confirm my suspicion. I didn’t have to go far. Some rickety wooden shacks quickly came into view. When the controlling influence of man gets even close, what is most incredible about the natural world quickly vanishes away.
But it wasn’t just everything wonderful about the wilderness that was so suddenly gone. Something inside me had suddenly and unexpectedly gotten startled. It had jumped and bolted, and I saw it, and it ran. It ran for cover. I felt small again without it – insignificant. I don’t know if someone who hasn’t spent stretches of time out alone in an undefiled forest can understand what happens as a result. It’s easy to see why the Native Americans went out into nature, away from the tribe, alone for a whole year, when the time came for their consciousness to ripen.
A second before, I had been real. Whatever conceptual formulation or narrow scientific task separated me from the wilderness, so that I felt it a thing apart, had entirely slipped away. I was no longer an outside agent, poking around objectively to find the orchids I hunted, but had become a part of the forest. I was it. It was me. Some expansive selflessness, unknowable and delectable – nothing less than a wonderful wildness, freedom, and abandon – had been drawn forth from within me by the teeming abundance and huge stillness all around. And now I had been too quickly shunted out of all that and back into my civilized self, my known self, my small self – and its utter insignificance to me was overpowering. I could recognize this small “me” as an entity wholly alien to who and what I most essentially am. I stopped in my tracks, turned around and headed back into the wilderness.
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“Dreams are our inner wilderness” – William R. Stimson
How can the above episode be any different than awakening from a very special dream to find yourself in an everyday reality that is not, in one or another way, or maybe in every way, so special at all?
It may not even always be the case with the dream vs. our waking reality as it is with the virgin rain forest vs. the cut-over area sporting its secondary growth and invasive species, that the one is actually more capable than the other of supporting the more stable and sustainable complexity, subtlety, the astonishing variety of real living abundance. It may sometimes just be that dreaming consciousness, unhampered by rigid ideology, dogma, professional training, conditioning, habituation, and the like, remains more openly free to register so much more of what is actually present all around us, and to do so in a creatively imaginative way, than is the case with the narrowly focused waking mind striving towards some particular end, or operating within imposed constraints. Still, the end result is the same – and to suddenly emerge from a virgin wilderness wakes us up to our casual acceptance of an unnecessary impoverishment just as to have been in a dream does.
It damages and impoverishes our lives, relationships, and work for us to live in an advanced civilization whose businessmen value their own inordinate greed over virgin and untouched wilderness areas, and whose overly busy scientists and teachers have ceased to allow themselves a full night’s sleep with sufficient time for the early morning burst of dreaming that occurs between the seventh and eighth hour of sleep.
Look around. The oceans are dying, and drowning in plastic as they do. The planet’s temperate climate, so perfect for agriculture and civilization, is soon to be a thing of the past thanks to the kinds of energy sources we’ve become addicted to for far too long because they seem easy and lucrative. Our coastal cities are soon to be overrun by the oceans. The big storms and wildfires keep getting more and more destructive of property and life. Those who have lost the sensitivity needed to feel the disaster coming at us could easily read all about it, if they cared to, in scientific reports that document it all too clearly, only they don’t seem to care to.
It is time we turn back, all of us, from this dystopian mess we’ve stepped into and turn back to a world that admits and values the importance of wilderness and dreaming. We need a significant measure of the wild and unstructured to return us to the whole of ourselves so that we might set out to forge a civilization more balanced and sustainable.
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William R. Stimson’s book “Dreams for Self-Discovery” is currently available on Amazon.com. His TEDx talk “What Dreams Know That We Need Today” is on YouTube. This piece is an excerpt from his new book, “The Zen Wilderness of Dreams – Chuang-Tzu Resurfaces in the East,” which is actively looking for a publisher.