Wild at Heart
An Elemental Journey
By Jay Griffiths
Tarcher/Penguin. 374 pp. $25.95
The impulse to identify the world's wilderness with wildness in the human psyche runs deep. "The surface of the Earth," wrote Thoreau, "is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels." But imaginative projection with the wild is far older than Thoreau. Renaissance artists painted desert fathers acting out beside wild animals. Christian saints, like holy men in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, entered the wild and became part of it while triumphing over it. It was in the wilderness that Jesus, too, was tempted. When you step into the wild, you are tangling with your own soul's wildness. As Jay Griffiths points out in her insightful, effervescent and lavishly written new book, "As dreams are essential to the psyche, wildness is to life."
Griffiths, author of the erudite and quirky book A Sideways Look at Time (2004), is a campaigning environmental journalist and associate editor of the eco-spiritual magazine Resurgence. Wild records a long journey into wilderness and out of depression. After visiting Peruvian shamans in an Amazonian rain forest -- who treated her depression with a drink from a jungle plant and the healing wisdom of the Earth -- she began a seven-year quest for the wild through wilderness of all extreme kinds, from rain forest and desert to ocean and ice, digging insects out of her calves along the Amazon, eating whale-skin with soy sauce on an Inuit floor.
Her journey followed, in fact, the spiritual path described in the 17th-century religious poem "The Pilgrimage," by George Herbert. She goes from "The gloomy cave of Desperation" to "the wilde of Passion, which/ Some call the wold." Herbert described this wilderness as "A wasted place, but sometimes rich," and Griffiths's writing is both a hymn to that richness and a wake-up call to care about the wild at a critical time for wilderness everywhere. In the 1990s, the rate of animal extinctions became 10 times the natural one -- 100 times in tropical forests. Unless governments everywhere intervene to protect it, there may not be much wilderness around in the future to test our own psyches in. Griffiths, like Thoreau, believes that "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
She shrouds her amazingly strenuous physical journey with a rich literary penumbra. The book has a profusion of historical allusions and a fertile bibliography; the vivid, excited writing draws haunting, lovely connections among multiple cultures, landscapes and ideas.
Some readers, though, may be put off by the romantic largeness of her claims. "The ancient Greeks," she says, "believed the Ocean is where the earth ended and heaven began and the whales knew that too." Most sentences beginning "the ancient Greeks believed" derive from what one ancient Greek once wrote. Ancient Greeks lived in hugely different times and places and believed a lot of different things. What prehistoric whales once "knew" is even more unverifiable.
Humor is important to Griffiths's writing and to her philosophy. "At the core of life is levity," she says. But the way she handles levity does not serve the cause she cares about when it blurs the distinction between scientifically provable truth and imaginative sympathy -- between, for instance, knowledge attributed to ancient cetaceans and knowledge claimed by shamans you can talk to.
Conservationists struggling to preserve the wild need knowledge to be provable if they are to be globally respected. The more you know about a species, the better you can understand it and demonstrate its long-term needs to governments that prefer to allow whaling or large-scale logging. Field biologists who spend their life in the wild will turn away impatiently from comments such as "Whales, who presumably knew that the Earth was round a long time before humans, ascertained that fact, knew it was finite in area but infinite in beauty and paradisality." But many readers will respect and treasure her wide focus, the creative links Griffiths makes between erudition and geographical experience, whether of outer Mongolia or the deserts of Afghanistan, and above all her passionate engagement with her vital subject. ·
Ruth Padel is a British poet, scholar and travel writer whose books include "Tigers in Red Weather" and "The Poem and the Journey."