I came of age with Eliot Porter. Not literally of course. Rather, my adolescence and young adulthood were accompanied by his books and photos. He taught me how to look. Even now, his photographs influence my writing and visual work.
A few weeks ago we were in Downeast Maine, north of Bar Harbor. Every few days we drove south, down Penobscot County way. Eliot Porter spent much time in the Penobscot region, as well as out West. Out West, his photos were panoramic. Downeast, they were more intimate, capturing a brook, leaf, or pod of berries. If memory serves me, his iconic book and homage to Thoreau, In Wilderness is the Preservation of the Earth, drew heavily from his Penobscot experience.
People tend to think of wilderness as vast tracks of untouched ecosystems. Yet in our time, there are few such places. Climate change and other forms of pollution reach the farthermost corners of the earth. Here, in North America, fossil fuel mining takes place in the midst of former wildlands. Our population has grown so large that we fill the back country with people on many weekends.
The elders taught me to treasure wilderness, and to remember there is another wilderness, the one that lies within each of us. Those vast spaces can be imposing, even terrible, in their beauty and harshness. I was taught there is another danger in focusing on the wilderness inside us: we may ignore the needs of the Planet that supports us, and the innumerable beings that accompany us. To successfully journey into wilderness requires forethought and balance.
For many, the inner wilderness seems most inaccessible, even dangerous. There are daemons within, and sea monsters, waiting to devour us. As shamans everywhere have long known, there is also the ever present threat of madness. Yet there is also the promise of renewal.
Shamans journey into this wilderness to seek aid for others, to return souls to their owners, and to accompany the dead to the other world. They travel for visions of the future, to learn where game will be tomorrow, and to correct imbalances in the world, imbalances most often created by people. Sometimes shamans travel and fail to return home; this is a always a risk.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they brought imbalance to our people in the form of illness, alcohol, and social chaos. Faced with this, the shamans and Medicine people sought cures in the inner and the everyday worlds. They were resourceful and connected to the spirits of things, and were often successful in finding ways to heal those afflicted. Yet, eventually, the sheer volume on illness overwhelmed many of our cultures, killing great numbers of healers as they cared for others. Much knowledge was lost in those dark days.
Downeast, Eliot Porter focused on the small, the everyday. He reminded us that wilderness is a matter of scale and attention, that we can find wilderness wherever we are. We can, in turn, look closely at the minutia of the world around us, journey deep into the forest, or turn inward. Sometimes we do all these, simultaneously. Such moments form a sort of vision quest.
Eliot Porter taught me that as we look through the camera’s lens, we sharpen our attention, and open to the magic of the unexpected. Perhaps, for just a moment, we discover ourselves reflected in the world around us, and are returned to primal wholeness and balance. In such moments we may know that we are the salmon swimming home to reproduce and die, the leaves settling into the litter, preparing to nurture the next generation, or the eagle that flies above the world, capturing visions of wholeness. Then we may understand that wilderness is indeed the preservation of the world, and of the soul.
– Michael Watson
© 2014, essay and photographs, Michael Watson, All rights reserved
19 thoughts on “In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World”
Deeply thoughtful piece, as ever we have come to expect of you, Michael. It is entirely in keeping with my own thoughts on wilderness, that the greatest wilderness lies between our ears … unless, like you, we choose to explore it more fully and discover our potential for spiritual awakening. Thank you for another stimulating essay.
“In wilderness is the preservation of the world” – the title says it all 😊
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Reblogged this on Dreaming the World and commented:
A few days ago I wrote this for “Wilderness Week” at Bardo. Then, the other evening, while looking at a book of Porter photographs, I saw one of the same view as mine of the tidal marsh and mountains. It is a remarkable vista.
I agree this is beautifully written and it has stimulated my thinking. I especially like your thinking about how wilderness can be found in the nature that we focus our macro photography on. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.
I meant to say “The greatest undiscovered wilderness lies between our ears”, which would make my first comment sound a lot more sensible.
The wilderness – inner and outer – is our salvation. A profoundly truthful and open viewpoint, Michael, and explored gracefully here. Thank you for this addition to our Wilderness Week and for the intro to Eliot Porter.
As I play with photography, I find it is very much like poetry … it is the sighting and citing of the infinite in the infinitismal, the spec that brings us closer to understanding the whole.
Altogether lovely post, Michael. Lovely photographs. Thank you!
I love this, “The elders taught me to treasure wilderness, and to remember there is another wilderness, the one that lies within each of us.” Yes.
Beautiful! and that Thoreau passage has always spoken so powerfully to me.
This crossroads of your personal journey and Porter’s, and then connecting it back to the land and the ancestors…
Thank you Ji Hyang. I am reminded that everything is connected to the land and the ancestors. This, of course, you know well.
Reblogged this on THE POET BY DAY and commented:
“A good essay, ” Virginia Woolf wrote, “must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.” And so it is with Michael Watson’s essays. His work is always worth your time. You will find nutrition for the spirit in every piece no matter your spiritual belief system and whether or not you were born and live in the America’s. Michael’s theraputic background combines well with his Native American sensibility and his own internal wisdom and that of the shaman’s to offer the willing reader a gentle, sensible and well-considered view of life and its events. This was Michael’s piece shared with us on The Bardo Group blog for Wilderness Week, which ended yesterday. Read on …
Thank you, Jamie. I am moved and honored.
Thank YOU, Michael. You’ve made this a richer adventure. I apologize for all the typs in the intro. I think I’ve finally caught them all. Best wishes for a lovely Sunday.
I felt like I was transported back in time when nature was respected then tainted. Spiritually influenced that dark invasion.
The inner wilderness he speaks of is so much more profound than the emptiness that some people find when they look inside themselves.
I am deeply appreciative of the introduction to Eliot Porter – my first. Balance and scale have been so grossly upset in this culture, as if we’d lost all sense of it. Mega-mania effects our cities and inwardly, our psyches. I flew over Las Vegas on my way to California and was overwhelmed by the madness. Last time I was in that area, I was in a car, driving toward Death Valley where we camped in a tent for 4 days. What a contrast! You show great understanding in your words, Michael. Thank you for sharing that with us.
Great post. I don’t have as much experience as you on some of the topics, but I feel like I get some sense of the “scale” in nature when I’m looking at insects in the forest or a garden. Beetles, ants, and other insects that are so small as to be barely visible sometimes land on my body or crawl on my computer as if I’m large enough to be their terrain. I seem to get a sense of the microcosm of the world in that, and it actually can feel humbling rather than make me feel more important. Hope this observation isn’t too simplistic…
Dear Michael, rereading this piece in ‘Bezine’ I am moved to note that most of my fellow travelers are sadly not in touch with wilderness. And how could they since they are surrounded by constant noise and chatter. I was fortunate to be raised to love and appreciate the wild and this became my portal to the unseen inner world. I find it distressing that most find the wild a frightening place. Would that I could gift the wonder that abides on the earth.