Wild Souls: Why Humans and Wilderness Need Each Other

Jenna Schroeter

Wilderness is not just out there, like a remote mountain range. It is also in here, in our private interiors, and in-between, along the unpredictable terrain of relationships. While there are many definitions of wilderness, I would like to suggest that wilderness is wherever we humans find ourselves vulnerable: real—and not in charge. While such vulnerability can be felt anywhere, spending time in the non-domesticated world frequently heightens wilderness experiences of out there, in here, and among simultaneously. It’s also an invitation to either meet the place with integrity and show up for mutual relationship, as nature is an undeniable (and nonjudgmental!) Other who always shows up as fully itself; or, to become defensive and disconnect from both self and place. With the first, we are more likely to enjoy the experience. To be brought beyond the edges of what’s familiar and, paradoxically, connect with true center, losing ego, discovering soul. 

Wilderness can be a place of terror and beauty, death and life, exhaustion and renewal, chaos and calm, demons and divinity, and what we find there has much to do with what we bring to it. Even with all its dangers, its refusal to be clearly defined points to an Otherness that draws many of us far from the limited mastery of institution and into the wild grandeur of mystery

One thing many agree on, though, is that wilderness in the geographical sense is shrinking. In the U.S., land designated as wilderness is a scant 2%, and due to human activity, we risk losing our planet’s remaining wilderness within a few decades. While there are many utilitarian reasons to preserve the wilds, beyond these is actually something essential for becoming soulfully human: the realization that, at our depths, in spite of ourselves sometimes, we too are wild. Not “wild” like something totally unchecked, or imitating animals; wildness looks different for each creature, and is not something that can be put on directly. Rather, it is a byproduct of a deeper authenticity. Humans, then, are “wild” when grounded in our uniqueness of true self, or soul. 

Soul, like wilderness, is impossible to define. It’s elusive, a dimension of depth and value which we can only learn to perceive and trust. Our fierceness is in our integrity, refusing to be caged or bought or other than who we truly are—like a mountain, like the sea. If psychologist Carl Rogers was right when he said that the purpose of life is to become one’s truest self, and if an authentic encounter with the natural world offers a pathway toward discovering the soul of self and other, then the preservation of wilderness is not just a nice idea but a crucial task for our time, one that would restore sacred depths to a suffering planet and a world longing for meaning and connection. 

If we allow wilderness to seep into our being, and allow ourselves to simply be within it, we might cultivate a stance that intentionally opens us to Other so that, in the words of conservationist John Muir, “we are now in the mountains and they are in us.” Rather than seeing the natural world as merely a backdrop for the human drama, this stance is attentive and respectful, reacquainting us with our environment as a subject worthy and capable of reciprocal relationship. Instead of conquering, the attitude taken by climbers who would “assault” summits and “bag” peaks, this is a stance of surrender, allowing wild nature to teach us to live from our depths. When we begin to appreciate wilderness as its own complex world, we experience nature’s agency and inherent value, which have nothing to do with human use. When we recognize the interconnectedness of all creatures, we better understand our own place in this great context of relationship—we belong to and with each other—and might even discover a passion for ecological justice. 

Here we bypass the scaffolding that all too often prevents us from making contact with the “really Real,” something we seek even as it scares us, something that leads us to reject domesticated images of God and existence in pursuit of transcendence and self-transformation. Nature can serve as a gateway beyond itself where wonder, happy insignificance, or even God—the ultimate Other—breaks in. Without the usual distractions, there is little else to do but be present, listen (to the wind, the wildflowers, the whistling marmots), and allow ourselves to be moved. Relationship 101. The more we practice, the more we engage, the more ourselves we become. When we join such vibrant, uncharted life, walking becomes religious pilgrimage, hikers become saunterers (derived from “a la Sainte Terre,” meaning “to go to the holy land”), wilderness becomes sacred ground. It is not always safe, but deep down we know it is more dangerous to not feel real, to not know Reality, to not participate meaningfully—come what may. 

If wilderness offers an essential experience toward fullness of self-in-relationship, then it matters that we strive to protect the wild in ourselves and in others, including the more-than-human world. What does this look like? The U.S. Wilderness Act is a good place to start, but it is based on management for human purposes. This reduces nature to an object and destroys the very essence of what we desire to keep wild, since by definition such species and landscapes must remain unmanageable. Without ignoring the difficult questions raised when seeking to balance human culture and ecological integrity, a deeper, more relational stance focuses not on management of the earth but of human action. Can we learn to behold, rather than control? 

For all its beauty, wilderness can be difficult to behold. Its harshness and unpredictability are frightening, so we tame or avoid. While well-intentioned, we simply cannot separate these terms from the nature of nature without also diminishing its integrity, its ability to speak to our depths, its precious glimpse, however unsettling, of the wild divine. As beholders, we trust it enough to let it all be. We participate with generosity instead of exploitation, desiring the good of the other whose own wellbeing must be honored if we are all to help each other become more ourselves in the process.

Whether in the backcountry or city, “wild” means living from the courageous vulnerability of true self, engaging the here-and-now, belonging in mutual relationship, coming fully alive, and finding ourselves profoundly at home in a world from which we had felt disconnected. For every bit of wilderness lost, for every species facing extinction, we lose something of great worth in and of itself, and something essential for our own becoming. Through protecting, restoring, and beholding, we return a much-needed element of the sacred to our planet. We might even fall in love. In this, we transcend both self and other toward a unity held together by a mysterious wholeness, as fierce as it is beautiful. The mountains, the deserts, the forests, our backyards, and the critters who make their home there already know this. It is our task to guard them from thoughtless destruction or even loving them to death, and allow them to teach us the truth about who we all are—wildly, strangely, wonderfully—together.

  • Schroeder asks: “If wilderness offers an essential experience toward fullness of self-in-relationship, then it matters that we strive to protect the wild in ourselves and in others, including the more-than-human world. What does this look like?” Design an activity or draw a picture in answer to her question.
  • Take a moment to reflect: How in touch with wilderness are you? What things make you feel disconnected? What would it take to make a deeper relationship with wilderness take root within you?

Jenna Schroeter received her Master’s degree in Couples & Family Therapy in 2016, and completed her post-Master’s certificate in Transforming Spirituality this past summer, both at Seattle University. She is passionate about helping people create lives of authenticity and meaning. An avid hiker, she loves to share the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via Instagram @jennaoutside.