FROM THE MARSH
Here at the marsh, I keep
a close lookout for the unexpected, expecting to be surprised by nature. And though
she is stingy, making me wait and watch, she never disappoints if I am patient.
look up from my book to see a dozen wild turkeys, two mothers and their mostly
grown poults, pecking along the grass only a few feet away. The mothers are nervous
and vigilant, rarely eating and making soft noises to herd their wandering brood.
Then they all disappear into tall grasses and the trees, suddenly invisible.
fall another dozen birds, great white egrets, suddenly appeared nightly between
7:30 and 7:40 pm, around sunset, to roost on trees across the marsh. After a few
weeks they moved downstream out of my sight and then, I presume, flew south for
often materialize if I look and listen--the buck crashing through the swamp woods,
does on the freshly harvested fields or along the highway, nibbling on grass as
if no cars were nearby. One evening we looked carefully while driving east from
Richmond and my granddaughter spotted seven grazing does and finally a large buck,
standing defiantly at the edge of the woods on our country road. And one July
morning, a doe appeared, staring at me on my porch, and close behind was her equally
My soul hungers for such
glimpses, but they are increasingly harder to find, even here in the country.
Henry David Thoreau wrote of our need for the "tonic of wildness," even
asserting that "in wildness is the preservation of the world." Is that
The wild in nature can be
terrifying-the lightening that strikes, the tornado that suddenly drops from the
skies, the hurricane winds that uproot ancient oaks and sweep away low houses.
And wildlife can be just as threatening-the hidden snake the strikes, the deer
that leaps before the car, the hidden brown recluse spider that bites the unwary.
there's no malice, no evil, nothing personal in nature's wildness, and that impersonality
may only add to the horror for some people. Wild nature does not calculate our
human concerns; it is not civilized. It lives by its own laws and is "wild"
and unruly only by human standards.
is it not refreshing to glimpse a world in which human concerns and rules are
not in control? A healthy place where trees grow and animals tend their young
and stalk their prey, and humans don't profit at all? Perhaps it is worth taking
some risk to seek such a world; for me, it is.
could argue that there is no place not contaminated by humans any more, that pure
natural wilderness is dead. The very air, water, and soil that sustain life, both
human and non-human, are altered by their human taming. I would say rather that
wild nature is not dead, but sometimes it is altered and impure-and very much
There may be limits to the opportunities
to taste the "tonic of wildness" today, but many of them lie in our
own eyes. For the eye prepared to be unprepared and surprised, a wildness which
invigorates is still very much present, but often hidden. Even in cities and suburbs
there are opportunities to experience nature's healthy wildness-like beetles,
birds, and butterflies, even stubborn weeds.
we value most that which we see diminishing. Ansel Adams tried to capture a transcendent
wildness untouched by man, even as his beloved Yosemite Valley was losing much
to human presence. Thoreau stalked wildness on earth well marked by human habitation;
his beloved Walden Pond was often logged and hosted railroad tracks on its banks.
Yet he too memorialized his special moments of transcendence by recording the
truths embedded in natural facts and processes, and his words still rise above
those human marks on nature.
to such memorialized spots or other vaunted wildness areas usually disappoint.
Generally we have too little time and patience to see well. Nature is not a zoo.
The experience of wildness is not so much a place as the perception, or more precisely,
the union of place and perception with a spirit that hungers for the special nourishment
offered by the non-human world. Adams and Thoreau are among those who offer us
starting points and possibilities of vision, but this particular travel has to
be very personal.
on this marsh on the Middle Peninsula in Virginia, I live in a world more altered
by humans than Thoreau or Adams could have imagined. My presence and that of my
few neighbors have changed this place over time, although we have generally stepped
as lightly as possible. Wildness must be tracked more intently here and now, yet
the rewards of these encounters can be priceless.
Living Magazine, January/February 2008