The bear arrives out of the darkness—as perhaps all bears do, emotionally, spiritually—and lumbers toward the brook. There is grace in its lumber; it is silent in the snow, packed hard from caravans of deer. The bear pauses at the edge of the brook, leans forward, and drinks for nearly a minute. I know how cold that water feels; a few hours earlier, I had taken off my gloves, kneeled at the edge, and pulled my hands through the steady current. The fresh cold tickled my skin up the wrists.
This bear is in torpor, and must be hungry to be out in mid-February at 3am. After the bear drinks, it steps back, turns, and walks to the camera. The bear notices its shine, and then doubles-back and disappears into the night.
I walk nearly the same route that the bear has taken to check our wildlife cameras. We have a few set up in the forest behind our house. It started as a weekly ritual—this wondering and checking and watching—but it has now become a daily event. My twin daughters, 8, love the trek of characters. In this past week, there’s been, in addition to the bear: fox, wild turkey, raccoon, and bobcat.
At first, the bobcats surprised me—moving past the camera deep into the night, fluid and white-bright like they were a gentle fire. I soon learned that this part of New Jersey is known as Bobcat Alley. We’re in the Kittatinny Mountains, with Appalachia and its deep beauty mere miles away.
This is not the New Jersey that most people know. This is not the New Jersey that I had ever known.
The most densely populated state in America is also one of its most geographically diverse, and mysterious. We’re known for our shore points and our cities, our parkway and turnpike, but we’re also home to the Pine Barrens: over a million acres, or nearly a third of the state, packed with swamps, rivers, old villages, and folklore.
Wilderness is both myth and purest reality. It seems as if it is too beautiful or raw to exist, and yet it is existence incarnate.
I’ve lived in this state all of my life, but I grew up knowing its cities and suburbs. Now, living in the section of the state that teems with forests, lakes, and bobcats, I’ve come to appreciate other places that we have neutered through stereotyping. I never realized how beautiful my home state could be—and how in its beauty, there resides a certain mystery. A wild belief, I call it.
This belief arrives as a form of reverent awe: the same emotion overtakes me whether I am on a hike to check those wildlife cameras, or on a sunset run along an old rail-trail. Some days a little note of fear enters into that awe, as I wonder whether a coyote will scamper from a thicket, or if a bear might think my route brings me too close to her cubs. There is always reverence, though: the feeling that the wilderness is a place of deep, wild belief. This is an ancient tradition: John the Baptist, Jesus, the Desert Fathers. Saints, prophets, poets. Out in the wilderness, I feel closest to God. I don’t feel frightened of God here, exactly—but I do feel a reverent awe, or maybe even a fear, of how beautiful and tenuous this world is, despite its grandness.
I like to think this was the same way that a young W.S. Merwin felt. The poet grew up in Union City, New Jersey, where his mother read him a book about Native Americans who lived deep in a forest, and he told her, “I like the idea of living with trees all around me.”
It was a fantasy. Merwin, instead, was surrounded by asphalt and buildings. His father, William Stage Merwin, was the minister of First Presbyterian Church, “a tall, yellow-brick, turn-of-the-century structure, with two steeples, a rose window, and green carpets down the sloping aisles.” Merwin remembers his rather stern father occasionally taking him to the study upstairs of the church. While his father worked on his sermon, Merwin stared out the window, “watching the [Hudson] river, without a word, utterly rapt in the vast scene out in front of me, hearing my father muttering words of scripture (‘Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee’) somewhere far behind me.” He watched trains “crossing the river on railroad ferries, all shades of orange in the sunlight. White puffs of steam climbed out of unseen whistles and horns, the distant sounds arriving, faint and faded, a long breath afterward. I was seeing something that I could not reach and that would never go away.”
The church itself had seen better days. The building had begun to weather, and attendance was sparse. Yet young Merwin listened raptly to his father “reading the psalms and reading the Bible from the pulpit. And I was fascinated by the language. I was fascinated by hearing the psalms.” He would draw pictures while his father intoned from the pulpit, and something in the kinesthetic experience cemented the moment: Merwin “knew a lot of the King James Version of the Bible from my father’s reading—just by heart, without even thinking about it. That was a different kind of English that rang in my ear. And I was very fond of it.”
He began “to have a secret dread of the whole world becoming city. No more country. No more woods.”
Merwin did not inherit his father’s Christian faith. Although fascinated by the person of Jesus, Merwin would later be drawn to Buddhist practice. Yet he did carry something from those days spent in that old city church: “an urge to love and revere something in the world that seemed to me more beautiful and rare and magnificent than I could say, and at the time in danger of being ignored and destroyed.”
For young Merwin, growing up in urban New Jersey, the wilderness was foreign—and tenuous. Other than glimpses in literature, the closest he had gotten to the wild natural world was a trip to the country. After that, he began “to have a secret dread—and a recurring nightmare—of the whole world becoming city, being covered with cement and buildings and streets. No more country. No more woods.”
Merwin’s earliest conception of wilderness spaces was created through story and art. The wilderness was always consistent with myth, and yet Merwin thought myth “is something like the intuition of a kind of coherent sense of experience, which we can’t live without. But it is our own projection. It is real in the sense that it’s necessary. To us.” This is the trick—or perhaps the ultimate gift—of the wilderness. It is both myth and purest reality. It seems as if it is too beautiful or raw to exist, and yet it is existence incarnate.
Merwin has told an anecdote about the poet Robert Bly, who said that there was surrealism in Merwin’s poems—about flies moving in circles “around a statue of nothing.” Merwin took Bly into a room on his farm “and showed him flies going round and round and round in a circle, in the middle of the room.” We seek meaning and structure, and when they are not apparent, we project them. We seek to explain, for then we are present among the indifferent wilderness: we matter. The natural, wild world seems supernatural from a distance. This paradox creates ample tension for writers and artists.
It certainly stirred Merwin. “What we’ve done to this continent is something unbelievable—to think that one species could have done this in a hundred years,” he wrote. Merwin struck these chords as early as the 1970s. “We are living in a world surrounded by human contraptions instead of living creatures,” Merwin lamented, “and I profoundly believe this is something that can’t go on. I don’t think we can live in a completely human-made world.”
In 1976, a few years after he won his first of two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry, Merwin moved to Hawai‘i, where he studied Zen Buddhism with Robert Aitken Roshi. It is best to understand Merwin as—at least outwardly—existing with the Zen lineage of literature rather than spiritual practice. Merwin was “extremely chary” about the latter, saying, “I don’t think of this as some dazzling discovery that completely changed my life. I think that finding certain writings of Zen, or of Buddhism, seemed to confirm something that I had been reading toward for years.” Merwin’s literary Buddhism was the culmination of an intellectual and emotional route that started with the lyric but distant King James Bible coming from his father—a man he feared but would later come to respect, with resignation, and a man who was both distant and familiar to him—and was supported by Merwin’s interpretation of how the natural world was historically perceived.
Here it helps to consider Merwin as a Zen Buddhist whose worldview was formed in a Protestant-Christian sphere. “I’m not a Christian but I think Jesus was an amazing occurrence on the planet and I think we’ve made of him something that he never was or ever wanted to be,” Merwin reflected. “But there are incredible things that he said,” including the Lukan representation of Jesus’s words that “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” Although Merwin criticized some traditional Christian approaches toward wilderness, he was not in opposition to the religion. He was interested in transcendence and synthesis. “Take them away, names like Buddhism,” Merwin concluded. “I’m impatient with them. There’s something beyond all that, beneath all that that, they all share, that they all come from. They are branches from a single root. And that’s what one has to pay attention to.”
Merwin became an ardent activist, lobbying those in the writing community to pressure the American government to protect the rain forests of Hawai‘i.
Merwin paid attention to that spiritual, wild root in his poetry—and through his life in Hawai‘i. He lived with his wife, Paula, on a three-acre section of a former pineapple plantation, where they worked on “trying to grow and save endangered species of trees and plants.” Hawai‘i was a microcosm of Merwin’s vision of the wilderness: an isolated space that could be gently brought back to its premodern state. The area had been deforested in the mid-nineteenth century, and Merwin “always wanted to take a piece of ruined land and to see if I could bring it back to life again . . . to un-ruin it.” His ambitious idea to “restore Hawaiian rain forest” proved to be a real challenge. They planted hundreds of koa trees and many ʻōhiʻa trees, but most died, “either by the change in the soil or by the insects that had never been here when the Hawaiians were here.”
The flora and fauna of Hawai‘i “had almost all evolved there. There’s no other place on earth where this is true. There is still no place on earth which is as priceless a laboratory for studying evolution as the Hawaiian Islands, and they have been raped and torn apart by large-scale exploitative agriculture.” That destruction prompted Merwin to become an ardent activist, lobbying those in the writing community to pressure the American government to protect the rain forests of Hawai‘i. In a 1989 letter to the American Poetry Review, which was reprinted elsewhere, Merwin writes that many are aware of the destruction of the earth’s vast, iconic rain forests, but “few, in any state, are currently aware that there is a tropical lowland rain forest within what is now politically the United States, and that it is presently in danger of disappearing even more rapidly than the forests of South America and southeast Asia.”
Construction machines had begun to “gouge” into the Wao Kele O Puna forest, an area known for native flora and one of the places where native birds, “wiped out everywhere else in the lowlands, have managed to survive.” ʻŌhiʻa trees “were smashed, cut up, and buried in crushed lava.” Streams that crossed the land “were interrupted, filled with mud and weed seeds from the huge tires.”
Eventually, Merwin’s passionate activism and determined cultivation resulted in what would later be called the Merwin Palm Forest, eighteen acres of a protected wet palm forest at the Pe’ahi Stream on Maui’s north shore. Merwin’s dream to be surrounded by trees finally came true, and he was able to return life to a place that had nearly lost it. Merwin realized that “what are called concerns—for ecology and the environment, for example—merge inevitably with work done every day, within sight of the house, with our own hands, and the concerns remain intimate and familiar rather than abstract and far away.”
Merwin’s habitual work in the garden and forest is an affirmation of his spiritual connection to the land. The island was a fitting metaphor of mortality for him: there is only so much space to move, so much air to breathe before we leave this world. His poetry journeys along similar routes, seeking to describe the wilderness song as our inevitable hymn. He creates poems in which his narrators are drawn to nature, our best possible chance at an eternal soul. “From having listened absently but for so long,” Merwin writes, “It will be the seethe and drag of the river / That I will hear longer than any mortal song.”
We must be humble in order to meet and receive the wilderness, to hear its song. There is a slight mysticism to some of Merwin’s work; mysticism is where wilderness enters his senses. His poem “Finding a Teacher” feels much like a fable: the tale of a narrator going into the woods and finding an old friend who was fishing. The narrator asks him a question, and the man tells him to wait instead. The narrator’s question was “about the sun // about my two eyes / my ears my mouth / my heart the earth with its four sea- sons.” His question, ultimately, was about life. There was no need to answer; the asking itself was the answer. A Buddhistic sentiment is reflected in other pieces where absence becomes presence, as in “Provision”: “I will take with me the emptiness of my hands / What you do not have you find everywhere.”
Nature and time are also connected for Merwin. In “Dew Light,” the narrator walks through his garden, thinking that “when the news about time is that each day / there is less of it,” and “only the day and I are here with no / before or after.”The narrator of another poem wonders how stars hold our desires and dreams night after night, “How it was that we traced / In their remote courses not their own fates but ours.”
Despite the grandness of the cosmos and the relative majesty of the wilderness, Merwin’s life as a curator of his small space of the world—how he was able to restore the land itself back to health—is reflected in the resigned optimism of “Place.” “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree,” the narrator says, so that its roots would reach the water beneath the surface. The modern world—our lives—might end, but the wilderness will remain. He ends the poem with great pacing: “And the clouds passing // one by one / over its leaves.”
Although syntactically distant from the bounding rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Merwin’s poetry shares his predecessor’s duality of joy and melancholy. Perhaps that is how we most authentically encounter the wilderness. To see the wilderness fully and wholly, we must humble ourselves. Quiet and patient, we feel the forest’s invitation, and yet our physical communion is temporary. Like others who have faith in the wilderness, Merwin knows the wilderness will outlast us, and our machines, and our ambitions.
Merwin has written about the places “that once had been forest and had grown back / into a scrubby wilderness alive with / an earthly choir”—the wild world thrumming with crickets, birds, voles, rabbits, foxes, and the wind. He knew that he would join the wilderness soon enough, so his collected work becomes the preparation for an elegy. Oliver shows that the wilderness can be salvific; rather than a place to be tamed, it is a raw source of the divine. Eternity awaits; the wilderness is our saving preparation.
Excerpted from Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness by Nick Ripatrazone. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Broadleaf Books. Copyright © 2021 by Nick Ripatrazone.