Wild: the Healing Relationship Between Nature and Grief

Eighteen months or so after my mother’s death, I experienced a sudden yearning to get out of the city. The denial aiding adrenalin had worn off. I wanted to immerse myself in green space, in nature and quiet. At first it was a subtle wish. I connected the loud sounds of buses screeching to a stop along main roads somehow to my grief, as if the mechanical sound grated against my desire for solace. I became irritated by traffic, offended by the rush of people going in many directions as quickly as possible, a car horn signaling a driver’s annoyance was akin to nails down a blackboard. Then I found myself unable to find respite in the city’s natural offerings – green spaces, parks full of trees, the Botanical Gardens, the beaches – although beautiful they were also full of people enjoying picnics, having loud, alcohol fuelled get togethers, sunbaking on the sand.

It sounds like a symptom of depression, and perhaps a lack of cognitive discipline, to not appreciate the appeal and privilege of living in a beautiful city, but instead focus on its logistics – the transport loudly moving along the road; the mass of people; the noise on every street. But my mother’s death required therapy beyond sitting in a counsellor’s office. It required stillness and aloneness; a little time away from the action of the urban; and some immersion in the sageness of nature in order to become aligned with the elemental.

My experience evidences why the grieving are often, at some stage of their lifelong emotional struggle, attracted to the consoling quality of nature.”

We instinctively seek the primality of the wilderness in order to be still enough to contemplate the depth and meaning of our loss; a process intrinsic to healing and arguably made more difficult in the city context. The city is a place of dynamism and action, a place that attracts those hungry for movement and socialisation. Its virtues are many – it is a site for intellectual debate and changemaking; for education and stimulation. But for those seeking to lick their wounds after a traumatic experience such as the death of a close loved one, a bustling city can distract and agitate. The concrete and crowds can, to the grieving, become symbolic of a society unable to provide the space for those contemplating the existential.

As was the experience of Cheryl Strayed, as detailed in her runaway success of a memoir, Wild. With no experience, twenty-six year old Cheryl decided to hike the thousand mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave desert to Washington, through California, solo. Her mother had died four years earlier, and her young adult life had become a series of bad choices without the anchor of her mother and subsequent loss of her faith in the world.

While Wild details a very particular story of a young woman’s grief, it hits upon a more universal tenet (which explains its immense success and path to becoming a Hollywood film). In great detail it describes the damaged human’s need, not desire, to be in nature. To immerse oneself in the vast, frightening wilderness. To be confronted by its danger and calmed by its innate guidance. To get (gently) real about the facts of life and death. To be present in the moment. To deal with the existential questions that grief inevitably raises in the context of a rugged landscape, unaltered by man. To be forced to enter a more meditative state due to a lack of technological distraction and an increased opportunity for solitariness.

Strayed invites her readers into her impossibly reckless and demonically difficult hiking journey (she had packed dangerously incorrectly for such an endeavour) in order to show something of how she dealt with the inner turmoil of the loss of her mother. Her physical setting (a lonely path littered with rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions and record snowfall) reflected her inner one (a broken heart grappling with how to trust and understand the world around her). It was this balance between the wild of her inner and outer states that allowed her to soften her outlook and importantly, heal herself. As Strayed writes, ‘It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.’

Like Strayed, Meghan O’ Rourke, New York based writer and memoirist, lost her mother younger than most and writes openly about bereavement. In an essay published in Slate on her experiences of grieving in nature, she writes, ‘Having my sense of smallness reflected back at me—having the geography mimic the puzzlement I carry within—made me feel more at home in a majesty outside of my comprehension. It also led me to wonder: How could my loss matter in the midst of all this? Yet it does matter, to me, and in this setting that felt natural, the way the needle on the cactus in the huge desert is natural. The sheer sublimity of the landscape created room for the magnitude of my grief, while at the same time it helped me feel like a part—a small part—of a much larger creation. It was inclusive.’

Wild nature, in contrast to the urban landscape, is a place that invites the grieving to grieve. It does not seek to silence a damaged, confused heart or distract it with noise and activity.”

It allows us to be whoever we need to be – a wailing, warbling mess; a broken soul; an unshowered, unbrushed person with a lack of personal hygiene. As Strayed writes about her own journey through the wild: ‘Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amongst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I had done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.’