Updated: Mar 8, 2022
Bill Staines wrote a song called All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir. It starts out:
All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir
Some sing low, some higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got.
For me, Wilderness is God’s choir, complete with a symphony orchestra, a moog synthesizer, bongo drums, even a didgeridoo. Although there are many beautiful sounds that come from this choir, it’s not the music that makes it special. It’s the fact that ALL of God’s creations have a place in it.
To me, we all dwell in Wilderness. Even here, even now. If you stop to think of all that is going on at this moment—in the room next door, on Ruby Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (one of my sacred places), under the icy skin of Europa (one of Saturn’s moons) beyond all of that to galaxy N243, and beyond all of that—it’s hard not to be humbled. But it is all happening, right now.
Does the Pine Squirrel know this? What about the Sturgeon lurking at the bottom of the Mississippi River? Life out there in the stars? I believe they do feel the forces of nature exerted upon them—at some level. Perhaps it is at a molecular level. Perhaps it is spiritual. Whatever it is, it is a mystery. A mystery, I think, we will never know the answer to—at least not in our present evolutionary form.
This mystery is what I am referring to when I refer to Wilderness.
Well, by now I also suspect you are thinking: This guy might have done too much LSD in college. But these thoughts started when I was very young.
My grandparents had a cabin in north central Minnesota on Big Trout Lake. I started going there at the age of one. Our family moved several times as I was growing up—following the ups and downs of my fathers career and the birth and growth of my six siblings.
I remember watching the minnows swim in absolutely crystal clear water. My Dad and I used to seine them for bait. My maternal grandmother used to take me fishing off the end of the dock in the early morning, coffee cup steaming, plaid, red wool jacket. I can see the red lipstick on her cup at this very moment. It never occurred to me to ask why she wore lipstick at 6 AM.
I can smell her lighting a Lucky Strike. I can hear the wind whistle through big Red Pines. I can see the deep blue sky. And I remember the Wilderness below the surface of the water—the huge weeds that loomed up from the dark bottom—like Jack’s beanstalk rising from another world.
This was the beginning of my personal connection to Wilderness and perhaps to everything else. It is also something I’ve always wanted to share--with my family, my friends, my children, my life partner. At some point in my teen years I realized that this natural world is being disturbed at an alarming rate. I worried about the smoke coming out of the stack in Bayport. I became an environmentalist. Environment is the issue I vote on.
Over 20 years ago I started an organization named Wilderness Inquiry. It’s a non-profit, with the mission of brining diverse groups of people together through shared outdoor/Wilderness adventure. We’re known in the biz as the group that takes people with disabilities into the wilds. While this is true, the mission is far more than that. This is what I want to talk about today.
I did my first wilderness trip with people with disabilities in 1977. I organized it to prove a political point, that people with disabilities COULD enjoy real wilderness without the use of motors. There’s a lot to that story, but it’s not the point of my talk.
My first trip blew me away. We had people who used wheelchairs, people who were deaf, people who were female, people who seemed different—at first. It was, simultaneously, one of the most difficult, yet one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It altered my life view and set me on a course that I have not veered from for more than 22 years.
In Wilderness – yes, inaccessible, unforgiving, indifferent — Wilderness, I discovered something profound. We are far more alike than different. Somehow, the awesome power and beauty of Wilderness helped us realize that despite the many apparent difference among us. And it happened quick—the first time we got lost (but, as a professional outdoor person, I will not go into that).
What happened? I still don’t fully know, but I know it’s no fluke because we’ve managed to re-create it more than 5,000 times with over 50,000 people.
Here’s what I think/believe:
1) On the first day of a WI trip, many people are surprised by the apparent diversity within the group of people they will be traveling with. Many people are uncomfortable. Let me explain. Most of you are white. I’m sure most of you do not consider yourselves to be racists. But, how many of you have ever been in a social setting where you are the only white person? I have, and I noticed it. And my awareness of it was not some intellectual understanding. It was visceral. My skin tingled. This, I think, is a very common reaction for our species. I sometimes wonder if it is common to other species—say, the Orange bellied Fisher, native to British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands, when/if it encounters its brown bellied cousins who live on the mainland. Do they differentiate based on fur color?
2) After the initial sniffing, posturing, and signaling occur in the parking lot, some big things intervene to postpone the development of a social hierarchy. Everyone has to pack, everyone makes the transition from living indoors to living outdoors, everyone’s daily routine is shaken up a bit.
3) At some point, everyone recognizes the power of the natural world they have stepped in to. It is both exhilarating, and, for many, frightening. Even experienced outdoor people are frightened at times. I certainly was when a Grizzly bear decided to visit our camp one day. But that’s another story. Suffice it to say that when you know you are no longer at the top of the food chain, it kind of gnaws on you.
4) At day 3, many people are tired and sore. They have bottomed out. This is a hugely significant day because it represents the turning point, the time when people get in or get out of the Wilderness mind set. Most get into it, in part because they really have no choice.
5) At this point, the sub-culture forms. Every group has a culture of some sort. If we’re successful, that culture is an incredibly powerful bonding experience. The differences so apparent a few days earlier are replaced by a more common understanding—a deeper recognition of the spirit of each individual.
This spiritual connection can certainly happen outside of Wilderness, but somehow Wilderness serves as a catalyst for it. To truly recognize it, we must get out of our routine. Wilderness forces us to do that—at least for people who live in the city.
To me, this is one of God’s miracles—a miracle we, as a species, have not appreciated until a mere hundred years ago or so. Even today, most people do not appreciate it because they have not experienced it—which is why, I think, we need to figure out ways to get as many people into the Wilderness as possible, figure out ways to allow Wilderness to sustain that, and quit giving the “other” side so much ammunition with our talk that people do not belong in Wilderness.
We came from Wilderness. We carry Wilderness in our genes—all of us do. Like so many genetic issues, it often takes an environmental trigger to awaken that gene. So let’s get on with it.
I wish to share with you a poem by Vietnamese Zen Master Nhat Than. Nhat Than understands the evolutionary journey we are all experiencing when he writes:
Being rock, being gas, being mist, being Mind,
Being the mesons traveling among galaxies with the speed of light,
You have come here, my beloved one...
You have manifested yourself as trees, as grass, as butterflies,
as single celled beings, and as chrysanthemums;
but the eyes with which you looked at me this morning
tell me you have never died.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Vietnamese Zen Master
We, God’s children, all of us, really do have a place in the choir.
Wilderness helps us find it.
Written in 1998 by Greg Lais