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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Tiny Taste of Wilderness
distributed 7/17/09, 8/12/16 - ©2009, 2016

Wilderness just isn't what it used to be.

Back in biblical times, wilderness -- midbar in Hebrew -- was generally a place to be avoided. Life was hard there for people. Isaiah (ch. 35) saw it as a dry and unproductive place, hoped that the desert wilderness could bloom and become both safe and fruitful.

Biblical folk wandered in "the wilderness" for the 40 year Exodus. The people on that journey complained loudly and often along the lines of "what did you bring us out here for? So that we could die?" (Ex. 14:11) It was a "wretched place" without any crops (Num. 20:3-5). No, the Bible does not speak kindly about those empty places.

Only occasionally does wilderness get a positive reference. It is pasture land (Ps. 65:12-13), and it can be a place to hide from enemies (1 Sam. 23:14-15). The Christian environmental movement often points to the scattering of verses where Jesus went out into the wilderness -- for prayer, discernment, rest, and just plain to get away from the crowds -- as a New Testament affirmation of creation. (Here are two  examples from different theological perspectives.)

In modern times, we see a significant shift in perspective. Wilderness has become a desirable destination for recreation and re-creation. Many see those lands a sacred space, and look to them as a place for spiritual and psychic renewal. Official wilderness areas in the US are protected by Congressional action as biological and aesthetic treasures.

Our notion of wilderness has changed. From a place of desolation and death that is to be avoided, a desiccated and worthless land, we now look to wilderness as a place that gives life to our spirits and preserves biodiversity. We see it as blessing, not a curse. Our problem, these days, is that wilderness is crowded and over-used, because it is so special.

I've been thinking recently that maybe we need to lighten up a bit with our notions of wilderness. Federally designated wilderness areas, so far removed from human presence, are not the only form of wilderness. There are benefits when we start to see wilderness-ness (try saying that fast!) in less pristine forms and more accessible locations as well.

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Cherry Creek in Denver
Cherry Creek in Denver
This week, I left my office and went to the wilderness. I rode my bicycle less than a mile on city streets and sidewalks, to a place where I get a tiny taste of wilderness. I sat for a while on the side of Cherry Creek, which flows through the heart of Denver.

Next to my shady seat on a rock, the stream cascades over a shallow falls, producing an equally lovely cascade of sound. The banks are lined with a wild profusion of trees, shrubs and grasses. Flowers bloom, birds dart above the water, butterflies flutter, and there is evidence of beavers and deer.

By pedaling for five minutes, I can move from a setting of ostentatious homes and manicured lawns to a place where people are less in control. I delight in the frequent opportunity to slip away for a brief times of renewal in this spot.

Another view of Cherry Creek
Another view of Cherry Creek
Most people would not call this place by the stream a wilderness. The section of Cherry Creek that I often visit is flanked by an upscale shopping mall and elegant condominiums. Alongside the stream, there is a paved bike path that is heavily used for recreation and urban commuters. I sit beside that little waterfall, because the sound of rushing water covers up traffic noise from the major streets which lie on each side. It does take some concentration on my part to experience wilderness in this urban setting.

A few minutes at Cherry Creek can't compare with the blessed time I have spent beside Lost Creek -- which takes a three hour drive, and two mile hike into the Lost Creek Wilderness Area. (Back in the 1970s, I did biological studies and political activism that helped to created the Lost Creek Wilderness.) But the city creek has some similarities with the mountain wilderness, not just with my emotional response, but theologically.

Sitting beside the stream this week, I pondered the mental world that may been part of the biblical context. If Moses and Jesus had a different conception of wilderness than we hear today from The Wilderness Society, what did it mean for them? From my less-than-comprehensive overview of some texts, the folk we read about in the Bible might have had three categories for their landscape: (1) towns and cities where people live, (2) fields and gardens where crops are grown, and (3) wilderness being pretty much everything else. Wilderness is "uninhabited land" and "empty spaces", but can included pasture land, roads, and other elements of human presence. In modern language, we might say that everything which is not part of "the built environment" was clumped into the category of wilderness.

Why would Jesus and the disciples go out into such a place? And why do we want to go there for our spirits? The built environment -- the cities and towns and fields -- is a place dedicated to production and consumption. Getting away from that purposeful world is, in a very real sense, an experience of Sabbath. On the calendar, Sabbath is a day to stop work and production, and to rejoice in life and relationship. On the map, wilderness is a place to get away from a fixation on human purposes and achievements, to rejoice in ecological relationships and the diversity of life, and to take a break from our frantic efforts to achieve and control.

There is a purity of the wilderness experience when hiking in the high Sierras, 25 miles from the nearest road, or in the slickrock deserts of Utah, or canoeing in the Boundary Waters (all of which are vivid in my memory!). We do need to set aside and protect those dramatic kinds of wilderness. But there also is an element of the wilderness experience sitting beside Cherry Creek, next door to the shopping mall.

If we always think of wilderness with a capital W, as an exceptional and pristine place, it can take the experience out of our daily reach, and blind us to the more mundane ways that we can find that Sabbath. Perhaps, in a legitimate translation of the texts, we should think of Jesus and his followers going out to the "open space" -- the undeveloped land just outside of town. We should think of him going to the close-at-hand wilderness -- the park, the woods, the meadow, or the shore -- for some time of quiet prayer.

Following the model of Jesus, we should find places and times to go to the local wilderness. I encourage you to look around your community. Find a place that -- to your eyes and spirit -- isn't all about production and consumption, schedules and responsibilities. Locate a place that is not manicured to our notions of civilized beauty, or structured solely to meet our needs. It may be surrounded by people and infrastructure, but it can still be a place of wilderness for you.

Then go there, with some regularity. Take the time and create the spiritual space to have a bit of Sabbath, a tiny taste of wilderness. Through that experience, be renewed in your relationship with God and with the Creation.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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