One of my gigs is that I get to review wonderful, (and sometimes not so wonderful), books. Currently I am finishing reading a very interesting book about the history and theory of fairy tales. Stay tuned because the review will be posted anon. Theory finds the structure of the fairy tale starting within a family unit (Jack and his mother, Cinderella and her step-mom and sisters, etc.) Then at some point the protagonist enters a liminal enchanted world in which there is an initiation or quest that he/she must perform. Assistance for accomplishing the task is offered by magical creatures or persons (fairy godmothers). The task is ultimately accomplished and the protagonist returns from the enchanted world back into a family environment a changed and wiser individual. Frequently, the family environment on return is not the same one from which this hero/heroine’s adventure begins but is always one in which there is love and respect; Cinderella returns to a family environment of her own family with the Prince, not with her step-mother.
The author of this book is looking at the content of the fairy tales and finding that they represent what she refers to as pre-paternalistic vs. paternalistic thought, strands of which are obvious once you think about it. The advent of paternalism is dated back to some combination of the arrival of the Romans in conquered lands and the mission of the Christian church to eradicate other forms of religious thought and observance. Pre-paternalism is marked by gender equality, a belief that there are enough resources to go around, that nature is good, and that delight should be encouraged. Paternalism, on the other hand, is marked by a fear that there is not enough, a derivative hierarchy and need to enforce social control, a sense that nature must be ¨man¨-handled to provide the resources required for human life, and that life is far too serious for frivolity. We are hearing these two positions being argued today by religious fundamentalists and by politicians as it concerns climate change.
For me wilderness represents the enchanted land present in the here and now. Before I explain what I mean I need to lay out the fairy tale form as it pertains to my story. You see, I am on a quest – a real fairy tale magical quest. I have only recently come to understand this. The quest began for me in a deep feeling that I needed to understand my roots – not my current family or even the closest 3 generations of family, but the family from as far back as I could find records. I have been engaged in genealogical research, especially genetic genealogy, to understand the cultures within which my family grew. I am studying Druidry to understand how my foreparents understood the world before the advent of Christianity. In these activities what I seek is myself.
My more recent history is that I grew up in a family that was rigidly paternalistic: fear fed the roots of all endeavors – fear of not having enough, fear of not having social standing, fear of eternal damnation. I was told by my parents to act dumb so that boys wouldn’t be intimidated, and that I should lose whenever I played a boy in sports. Christianity was militant, god was male, and women had no role in the church except for cooking and cleaning – far be it for a woman to opine on theology. Love was conditional and withdrawal of love and banishment to another physical locale were its weapons. I grew up very afraid, very needy, and very mistrustful of my own senses.
I also grew up a pathological over-achiever who had so absorbed these lessons from my family that I was as militant and rigid as they. I remember smart-assed comments made to others from my tight hold on truth that shame me now. I lived a life so out of sync with who I was meant to be that dis-ease was a recurrent theme. Of course I could not see or hear what this dis-ease was trying to get me to realize until I was diagnosed with terminal cancer. If that doesn’t get your attention then nothing will. It took some time before I was able to shake loose the tentacles of my family and fully enter the enchanted land. Fortunately, as in all other fairy tales, help was offered by the spirit moving through others to dissuade unhealthy attachments, to form new ways of seeing, and to develop new understanding. All of the activities to which I had been led worked in concert.
This enchanted land in which I find myself is most truly wilderness. We define wilderness as a place where there are no signs of habitation, no recognizable civilization, no feeling of orientation, where all is new and uncharted, mysterious and dangerous. The work of wilderness is to strip one down to the barest of essentials and to keep one in that state until an authentic experience is discerned and understanding develops from the inside (vs. being applied from the outside). Overachievement in status accrual plays no role here. Trusting people based on pedigree when in the wilderness can get you killed. To survive and thrive in the wilderness involves openness to experience and insight; a lack of ego; being able to trust intuition; being in dialogue with one’s surroundings and state; and self confidence. Don’t misunderstand self-confidence to mean ¨I know all there is to know and I am going to do it my way.¨ Self-confidence means that you trust yourself to be able to attune to the environment, to understand risk, and to make good effective decisions.
I have always loved physical wilderness. I was fortunate to be able to ride horses into the mountains alone when I was a child and visit the big horn sheep and mountain goats. When I was a young adult I would take a 4-wheel drive vehicle and drive up to an alpine lake and paint landscapes for hours. Perhaps it was the fact that physical wilderness has mystery and danger that drew me. I think it was because I only felt safe being authentic if I were in the wilderness. The wilderness held out hope and acceptance and beauty in a world that was none of these.
I am still in the enchanted land but fear has been replaced by curiosity and delight. Physical wilderness continues to be a powerful metaphor for me on my journey. I look into the mountains from my home and count the passing clouds. I wonder at the changes that occur from minute to minute. I rest knowing that I am loved just for who I am and that I am safe.