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I didn’t plan this—honest—but on Earth Day this part Thursday, my syllabi had me teaching nature-related literature: in one class, some poems by Andrew Marvell about gardens and, in another class, Book 4 of Paradise Lost, the book in which we first encounter earth, Eden, and Our First Parents.
Actually, that’s not quite true. We first encounter the earth at the end of Book 2, when Satan wings his way toward God’s adorable pet project expressly in order to mess it up, out of spite and revenge. Still far off, Satan catches a glimpse of the heaven he once knew, all “opal towers” and “living sapphire.” And then he spots earth, “fast by, hanging in a golden chain, / This pendant world, in bigness as a star / Of smallest magnitude.”
I always find that phrase moving, “this pendant world.” Our earth: so small, beautiful, beloved, and threatened. It’s as if Milton envisioned, three hundred years in advance, that famous, stunning photo of our “Blue Marble” home, taken during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972—a photo whose visceral jolt helped electrify the modern environmental movement.
Milton gets a lot of things wrong in Paradise Lost, but I do appreciate that sense of earth’s preciousness as well as his depiction of Eden. This Eden is no tidy, tame little garden. Instead, it’s so verdant, luxuriant, “wanton,” and stuffed with creatures that Adam and Eve can barely make their way through without getting tangled in flowering vines or tripping over leopard tails. At one point, Eve complains that “what we by day / Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind / One night or two with wanton growth derides / Tending to wild.” They can’t keep up!
Thus Milton fully affirms prelapsarian wildness. Yes, there’s harmony between humans and creatures, the weather is beautiful, life is synchronized for mutual flourishing. But Adam and Eve still live in a wild world. In fact, one could argue that Eve’s desire to tame that wildness is what sets her on the path to trouble. She proposes very sensibly that she and Adam would get more “work” done if they split up till lunchtime. Next thing you know, enter Satan, stage left.
Obviously, that little plot point is not in the Genesis accounts. But we do try to tame God’s wildness, don’t we? The story of the West is, from one angle, the story of “subduing” wild-er-ness as antithetical to our survival. Of course, we’re talking about postlapsarian wildness here, the kind in which mosquitoes spread diseases and storms ruin crops. We’ve had to push back the boundaries of wildness, creating liminal spaces between wild nature and human structure—namely, farms and gardens and towns—in order to survive in a world where wildness is not so anodyne as in Milton’s pastoral Eden.
But I wonder if our success in pushing back against the wildness in God’s natural world diminishes our capacity to tolerate the wildness in God’s nature—that is, in God’s Being. How badly we want God to be predictable, controllable, amenable always to our desires and needs. How frustrated and angry we become when God evades and defies our expectations. When God seems silent, distant, inscrutable. When God seems as cold and heartless as a stealthy predator—or as mad as a hurricane.
We testify and believe that God is faithful and loving. That’s what the scriptures say, and that is the testimony of the faithful through the ages. But that fundamental belief does not always explain the mysteries of our experience. Thankfully, the scriptures admit as much, most centrally in the book of Job. God’s behavior in Job’s story is maddening, inexplicable. So Job cries out to God, gives God a piece of his mind. But when the answer to Job’s anguished cries finally comes, the answer is, weirdly, wildness.
The divine words from the whirlwind in Job’s final chapters lift our imaginations from Job’s troubles to a God’s-eye perspective in which human beings, in the vast scheme of creation, are barely in view. Instead, God revels in the wild energies of the created earth—the springs of the sea, storehouses of hail, constellations and clouds. We enter the wilds to witness the freedom of creatures over whom humans have no control. A lioness hunts her prey, mountain goats give birth, the ostrich flaps her ridiculous wings. God is on a roll with this poetic disquisition, completely absorbed in the delights of hawks on the wing and eagles on craggy cliffs. God spends an entire chapter and a half extolling the wonders of the “behemoth” and the “leviathan,” frolicking in the deep.
It all seems completely off point. Yet as Bill McKibben points out in his succinct little book The Comforting Whirlwind, Job gets the gist. The answer, as McKibben sees it, is twofold: humility and joy. The “whirlwind” of divine speech overwhelms Job first with humility. The vast scale of creation, the deep time of God’s perspective—it’s all too much. “I put my hand over my mouth,” Job says (Job 40:4). But the proper response is also joy. Joy in the awe of God, as in Isaiah’s declaration: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Having taken a tour of God’s wild world and focused on the creatures of God, Job perceives at last how glory and terror go together.
Wildness—that is the way of creation. Creation has discernible patterns but also an element of unpredictability. We can never tame creation entirely, never “steward” the wild earth with full control and knowledge. There’s something revelatory here, something we need to see about the nature of God beyond our systematic theologies and philosophical inquiries.
“Rewilding” is a familiar word in the climate movement, and it can mean a number of things. Some people use the term “rewilding” to suggest that the earth would do better if humans retreated from taking up so much space, retreated from our high-tech ways and became fewer and more primitive. In the more extreme versions of this impulse, we are exhorted to become anarcho-primitivist hunter-gatherers—Adam and Eve East of Eden, I suppose.
In the context of restoration ecology, though, re-wilding refers to a more technical process that seeks to restore and/or protect core wilderness areas and corridors among them for the sake of biodiversity and the health of the whole globe. Eminent biologist E. O. Wilson has urged that we preserve half of our lands and oceans as wild space. Others suggest 30 percent as a more realistic or at least intermediate goal, and the Biden Administration has written that goal into an executive order on climate. These initiatives recognize that preserving wild spaces is not just about helping other creatures—it is about that—but also because we need wild spaces to thrive in order for our tamed spaces to survive.
Actually, “wild” vs. “tame” is something of a false dichotomy. So in a broader sense, re-wilding is coming to mean a deepening of ordinary people’s knowledge so that we might be better partners with the more-than-human world—better citizens of this Blue Marble, this pendant world. I wonder if re-wilding could also be a word to describe listening better to where God is moving in the world, getting out of the ruts carved by our obsessions with moralism and political identity and unrestrained affluence.
The Spirit of God—the Spirit that scriptures say brooded over the primordial waters, the Spirit that came in Pentecost wind and flame—comes with disturbance, and disturbance brings both destruction and life. God cannot be controlled or contained. Not by our human ambitions, not by the church. When the Spirit’s wild disturbance comes, do we resist? Or respond with humility and joy?