Bring the Wilderness Into Your Life

There’s a reason we’re drawn to the wild, especially when it feels far away

One morning on a hike in my neighborhood, a massive gray bobcat emerged from the bushes and onto the trail in front of me. I dug my heels into the ground and tugged on my dog’s leash, but she was too busy sniffing a rock to notice. Some bodyguard.

The bobcat stared back at me with wide, yellow eyes, like a startled housecat. I took a step closer, but a voice snapped me out of it. “What are you doing?!” my husband whispered from behind. “We gotta get out of here!”

It’s not uncommon to see wildlife where I live, in a woody neighborhood right outside of a big city. Mostly, it’s hungry coyotes on the streets. Maybe the occasional bear in someone’s backyard jacuzzi, which always makes the evening news. But the bobcats had been coming out more lately. My husband had seen another one, but it was lying limp on the side of a highway among discarded soda cans and fallen hubcaps.

You see this in a lot of cities. Two summers ago, on a drive to my parents’ house from the airport in Houston, we passed 10 dead deer in 20 minutes. There were so many, it almost felt like a warning. How tightly can we squeeze the land around us before we destroy it all? And maybe even ourselves in the process?

“Waldeinsamkeit” is the calm feeling of solitude that overcomes you when you’re in a forest alone.

The more wilderness we lose, the more of it we seem to crave. From poems, novels, and hard-to-put-down memoirs to soothing Pinterest boards and enviable Instagram feeds, the fantasy of wandering into the wilderness is a well-documented one. We want to get lost in the woods. There’s a German word related to this: waldeinsamkeit. It’s the calm feeling of solitude that overcomes you when you’re in a forest alone. It literally translates to “forest loneliness.” Being alone in the wild brings peace, tranquility, and awe.

These days, it can be hard to find forest loneliness because everyone else is on the hunt for it, too. Hikers crowd the trails and litter it with chatter, music, garbage, and graffiti. We all want our own small piece of the woods.

Desperate to find my own forest loneliness, I once hiked so deep into the woods — up a dry desert mountain and past the chatter and garbage — that I lost track of time. I stopped to catch my breath and brush the matted hair from my face. Birds sang in the distance. Water trickled in the valley below. It took some time, but I found a bit of waldeinsamkeit. I soaked in the loneliness and swished a mouthful of water when I heard a noise. Or at least, I thought I heard a noise. Did something just rustle in the brush next to me? I squinted in its direction as though squinting would help me hear better. “Probably my imagination,” I shrugged. But the noise grew heavier. And closer. I may have found solitude, but I wasn’t alone. I turned around and rushed back to civilization, terrified to be so close to the wild but excited about it, too. Maybe there’s a German word for that.

Years ago, I heard about someone who got too close to the wild. I was on a trip to Leticia, Colombia — a small city along the Amazon river where it intersects with Brazil and Peru. On the edge of the Amazon rainforest, there is a big yellow sign with the word “PELIGROSO printed across it in red. A warning, mostly for tourists, not to go any further. The sign was as big as a movie screen. You couldn’t miss it. My tour guide said that a few years back, a tourist paid him handsomely to wander deep into the rainforest in search of an elusive black jaguar, of which there are only 600 left in the world. During their search, they came across anacondas, pink river dolphins, yellow jaguars — none of them were enough for the tourist. He decided to take matters into his own hands. One evening, villagers saw him wander into the Amazon on his own, beyond the big yellow sign. Nobody saw him again, my tour guide said, and everyone suspected something (someone?) had dragged him deep into the woods.

I wondered how much of the story was true. Or was it just a colorful way to get me to obey the sign? Either way, I’ll never forget it. But I remember the story more as a fable than a warning. Not long after the incident, the tour guide was riding his scooter home alone at night, and he couldn’t believe what he saw. It was smaller than he thought, but it was just as dark, just as beautiful. He slowed down to watch the velvet black jaguar trot down the main road before his instincts kicked in and he went full throttle all the way home. The moral seemed to be: Some things you can’t search for; you’re just lucky if they find you.

I wonder if my search for waldeinsamkeit makes me a little like that tourist. I’m not searching for an endangered jaguar, but I am looking for something increasingly elusive: a break from civilization. Or maybe more accurately, a break from being civilized. When I’ve had enough of it, I walk into the woods and ask the trees to baptize me, like a half-hearted churchgoer who forgets about god until she needs help. But most times, the divine tranquility of the forest doesn’t reveal itself until you forget you’re searching for it in the first place. We wander into the wilderness in search of awe, but the most awe-inspiring moments seem to find us instead.

In the meantime, perhaps the best we can do is find small ways to summon the wild into our day-to-day lives. Walk aimlessly. Quit a toxic job. Learn to sing, even when you’re a terrible singer. Listen to your intuition. Stop worrying about your goals. Have a thought without tweeting it. Forgive yourself for saying that dumb thing at that party two years ago. Forgive yourself for being imperfect. These aren’t wild acts in a spring-break-in-Miami sense, but they are tiny acts of defiance in an overly polished, industrialist, perfectionist world.

I haven’t returned to that trail in my neighborhood yet. When I’m on the main road and I reach the less-worn dirt path where I encountered the bobcat, I stop. It’s like there’s a big yellow sign, warning of danger ahead. If I go further, who knows what will happen? Who knows what I’ll find? Part of me is afraid I’ll run into the bobcat. Part of me is afraid I won’t.

Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, ELLE, Travel + Leisure, and Glamour magazine.

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