A Feeling Of Wildness

David Gessner - Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, July 30, 2007
David Gessner
Photo by Reg Saner

Nature writer David Gessner believes you don’t have to climb Everest or raft the Amazon to find wildness. It’s often found much closer to home, in our backyards and in the experiences of daily life.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: birth, death, nature
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I believe in wildness, both in the natural world and within each of us.

As a nature writer, I have traveled all over the world to experience the wild, but some of my own wildest moments have been closer to home, on the same domestic Cape Cod beach I’ve returned to all my life. In summer this beach is covered with kids, umbrellas and beach balls, but in the winter the cold clears it of people and its character changes. From the rocks at the end of this beach, I once watched hundreds of snow-white gannets dive from high in the air and plunge into the cold winter ocean like living javelins. Then, as the birds dove down, I suddenly saw something dive up: a humpback whale breaching through the same fish the gannets were diving for.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau, but people often get the quote wrong and use “wilderness” instead. While wilderness might be untrammeled land along the Alaskan coast, wildness can happen anywhere — in the jungle or your backyard. And it’s not just a place; it’s a feeling. It rises up when you least expect it.

In fact, it was while observing my own species, my own family, that I experienced the two wildest moments of my life. The first happened holding my father’s hand while he died. I listened to his final breaths, gasping and fish-like, and I gripped his hand tight enough to feel the last pulsings of his heart. Something rose up in me that day, something deep, animal, unexpected, something that I didn’t experience again until nine years later, when my daughter Hadley was born.

Before Hadley’s birth everyone warned me that my life was about to change, the implication being that it would become tamer. But there was nothing tame about that indelible moment, during the C-section, when the doctor reached into my wife, and a bloody head appeared, straight up, followed by Hadley’s full emergence and a wild squall of life as her little arms rose over her head in victory. And it was somewhere around then that I felt the great rush come surging up. Sure it was physiological — goose bumps and tingling — but it was also more than that: a wild gushing, both a loss and then a return to self.

I believe that these moments of death and life give us a reconnection to our primal selves, a reminder that there is something wilder lurking below the everyday, and that, having tasted this wildness, we return to our ordinary lives both changed and charged. So, while I’ll continue to seek out wild places, I know I don’t need to travel to the Amazon or Everest to experience the ineffable. It is here on Cape Cod, on the domestic beach where I first walked holding my mother’s hand, and where I later spread my father’s ashes, that I learned that my wildest moments are often closest to home. And it is where I now bring my daughter Hadley for our daily walk, secretly hoping that the wild will rise up in her when she least expects it.

Nature writer David Gessner is the author of six books, and his essays have appeared in Orion, The Harvard Review and other journals. He teaches creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and is writing a novel about Cape Cod.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.