Wild by Nature

Jack Turner
Alpine 2012

We owe our existence to the wild.

The wild permeates and sustains us; it is our home, though our increasingly unnatural lives, lives distracted by artifice, obscure that brute truth. The boundaries between our wild bodies and the wild cosmos are in fact imagined, and we feel the actual oneness – wander it, play with it, play in it, play through it – in the sports we love.

To drop into a crushing wave or paddle a frothing rapid, to sail into icy seas, to set forth on a sliver of ice with little or no protection – in all endeavors where there is no turning back, we expose ourselves to the spontaneity of creation and to forces more powerful than we are. The clutter, distraction, bureaucratic rules, control, management and conformity of our daily life shrink to irrelevancy. We discover what is beyond artifice – a direct confrontation with the natural world, the final exam, the blunt presentation of the self.

Evolution is an autonomous process and we are a product of it just as the butterfly and the shark are. Ecologists speak of autonomous ecosystems, though they admit they don’t have the slightest idea how to create one. Compound self-words are commonplace in science – self-replicating (DNA), self-regulation (Gaia), self-organization (the synchronized flight of birds) and self-similarity (snowflakes, river systems, mountain ranges). Ultimately, the cosmos is making itself; we’re but a minuscule part of the drama.

Autonomous systems pervade our bodies. Our autoimmune system decides what belongs here and what does not. The autonomic nervous system is not subject to our control, yet our heart beats, our lungs breathe, our synapses fire. There are ten times more microbial organisms in and on my body than human cells, and they are integrated, nested, active, self-organized ecosystems within the larger ecosystem community that is me. The late, great microbiologist Lynn Margulis recently described humans as “walking, talking microbial vats.”

We are also autonomous beings who cherish freedom, the opportunity to organize our lives as we see fit – to choose. And choice is key. Everything may be connected to everything else, but each being is unique, each event, each experience – you’ve never had it before and you’ll never have it again. But the self still must choose a path.

The wave you’re surfing? Each liter of seawater contains 10 billion viral particles, mostly bacteriophages. They kill 100 million metric tons of microbes every minute; their DNA is the most abundant on planet Earth. And your longboard is ripping right through it all. When you wipeout, you fall into them and they embrace you.

Still sucking air after the last pitch? That air contains viruses, bacteria, seeds, spores, pollen, algae, bits of spiders, aphids, beetles and mites – in addition to the innumerable particles courtesy of our civilization. The bacteria in your lungs – 2,000 of them per square centimeter – are sorting and absorbing the mess, and signaling to autophages in your cells to eat the bad guys raw.

The hand gripping your ice tool? Each carbon atom in your flesh, each calcium atom in your bones, each iron atom in your blood, each sodium and potassium atom in your neurons, the aluminum in the tool’s shaft, the steel in the tip – more carbon and iron – all were forged in the nuclear furnace of dying stars, some now billions of light-years away – and speeding farther away each moment. And yet you are still connected to them.

But still – wild, wandering play must be chosen. So act accordingly. Make the drop, leave the eddy, lunge into an irreversible move. Subvert, once again, for pure fun, the mind’s survival habits and society’s machinations.

About the Author

Scholar, author and climber Jack Turner worked as a certified American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) alpine guide in Wyoming’s Teton Range for 35 years and has served as president of the Exum Mountain Guides and School of American Mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park. He lives in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, with his wife, Dana.