The Wisdom
Of Wilderness

Experiencing the
Healing Power
of Nature

Gerald G. May
"To be alive is to be addicted, and to be alive and addicted is to stand in need of grace," Gerald G. May wrote in an earlier book,

    Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things that are not their own true desires ... addiction is a state of compulsion

May became famous by writing Addiction and Grace; "More than 200,000 copies sold," it says here on the cover. Since he was a psychiatrist, and a Christian, it as a powerful assist to those in the helping business --- for pastors and ministers and counselors struggling to instruct those who are stuck in the nasty habits of booze, drugs, and/or violence.

Unfortunately, the concept of "addictions" has been driven into the ground these many years. A trip through Google reveals not only those who are stuck on pills, alcohol, sex and gambling, but fitness, anger, video games, "religious zeal," blogs, and my personal favorite, "scent addiction." As one of my drunken philosopher friends once said, "when something becomes everything it ceases to be anything."

This is not May's fault. He is an easy writer --- easy to follow, good at bringing one around to his point of view. Moreover, in The Wisdom of Wilderness, he takes us on a spiritual journey which is a step beyond the somewhat bland Christianity of his earlier books. Indeed, before his death, he seemed to be moving into the realm of an all-embracing spiritualism that has more to do with Transcendentalism than with King James.

There is, for example, the matter of "The Power of the Slowing" --- a dramatic feeling of oneness with the trees, the mountains, the snow and, even ... crickets. He admits, somewhat shamefacedly --- and his openness is always beguiling --- that on one visit to his special wilderness area in the Appalachians, he brought along a drum. Trying to rest in the afternoon, he cursed the cicadas who would not let him sleep. That night, he took out his drum, and listening to the rhythm of the sounds they made, he found himself trying to beat out a harmony to their calls and counter-calls. It didn't work: "In the way I have learned to receive gifts, I quit trying."

    I just beat the drum, allowing my own rhythm to emerge and find its place in the overall sound. Then a wonder: I sense a change in the cicada song, a subtle shift that seems to be a response to my joining them ... It is completely dispassionate and yet strangely welcoming as if each insect in its buzzing has adjusted a tiny bit to create a space for me, for my sound.

Get the picture: This is a bespectacled, middle-aged psychiatrist, a respected religious figure, admitting to the fact that he went off one night and sang and played with the bugs in the trees of the forest; that they heard him, responded, ended up making music together. Are we going bonkers?

No. May is just a compellingly humble Christian and psychiatrist, albeit playing with stuff that might get one of his clients admitted to the looney-bin. This isn't all.

He claimed that while he was in the winter woods, he could hear snow-flakes dropping on the ground. Also, he wrote that when camping out in the woods one December, an almost frozen stream near his tent began to babble to him in voices "that seem to be made of English vowels and consonants, but not words I've ever heard before."

Later, in Wisdom of Wilderness, he tells us that he and his canoe got pulled around his favorite reservoir by a couple of catfish, and that at one time, a swimming squirrel tried to attack him and his son. See, he is saying, I'm a shrink but I am no crazier than the rest of you, with all our delusions.

§     §     §

May did come up with one delusion that left me doubting. I had recently had an operation, called a trabeculectomy. It rendered me near-blind for a month. After a couple of weeks of groping around, not being able to read, not being able (or not supposed to) drive, one night I came up with the Daddy of all Panic Attacks. I'm talking the soul-rocking, cement-mixer, thunder-rumbling, mind-squeezing, heart-robbing, nut-crunching, soul-blanching heebie-jeebies. If you know panic attacks, you know that they have magic: they pull all your strings. You may think you are dying, you may think you are going crazy, you may think you are finally, at last, going off the deepest of deep ends. No, you don't think these things: you know them.

Alone in the Appalachian wilderness, while trying to sleep, Dr. May heard the "crunching of footfalls breaking through the snow crust. I have never been so terrified," he reports: "not in Vietnam, not anywhere."

    There is nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to smell, only hear the sounds and wait and be afraid, be fear.

And the result? "I am flooded by an immense feeling of gratitude. The thankfulness feeling is overwhelming, so strong I cannot tell it from love."

    What is this? [he writes] Terror-life-thanksgiving-love-power ... Oh wonderful beauty love fear living being.

"Fear is life-energy, full-bodied, rich, clean, exquisite, sweet. When you get right down to its bones, fear is love. Fear is made of love."

§     §     §

What to say? Some of us who have found fear beating us up, a full-bore 3 A. M. bust-up. We try everything: reason, Paxil, mood-elevators, conac, meditation, self-hypnosis, prayer ... and still find ourselves calling our friends, bothering them at all hours (that's the test of friendship, no?)

For me to say that fear is made of love, to call fear a gift? It seems stretching things. Hell, it seems another mind-boggling delusion.

And, late in The Wisdom of Wilderness, it becomes apparent that May all but agrees with me. He is dying a bestial death. It's a combination of cancer of the testicles, lymphoma, and the results of chemotherapy. "There was a time," he confesses, "during that particular treatment, when I lost touch with both the sense of gratitude and the sense of Presence."

    It happened at a time of full incapacitation, when I had the strength to do nothing but lie in bed and when it seemed I would stay that way for over a month. Then I felt neither joy nor gratitude, nor any guiding Presence.

--- C. A. Amantea
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