One of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen in person is Giovanni Bellini’s panel of St. Francis, sometimes titled St. Francis in Ecstasy, others St. Francis in the Desert, and in my conflated memory with Mantegna’s St. Jerome, St. Francis in the Wilderness. (Titles weren’t such a precise thing in the early Renaissance, and it wasn’t until art historical scholarship was formalized in the 19th-20th centuries that artists started to give specific, consistent titles to their works at the time they were made.) Whatever we want to call it, the painting shows St. Francis of Assisi, emerging from an ascetic cave, arms outstretched as he receives the stigmata in a moment of religious ecstasy. The painting is imbued with golden light and has all kinds of fascinating symbolism, but for me, standing in front of it at the Frick for ages every time I go there, this painting is all about the way that nature is depicted and St. Francis’s particular relationship with the natural world.
The story of St. Francis of Assisi is a pretty great one for anyone confounded by contemporary society, as I frequently am. Francis began his life a fairly spoiled son of a wealthy and domineering silk merchant. Over the course of many misadventures, travels, and hardships, he sought to escape the life of shallow, comfortable luxury for one of monastic seriousness out in nature, living in imitation of Christ. The hagiography parallels Siddhartha (the historical Buddha) really closely — he eventually finds a form of enlightenment when a ray of light calls him from his cave, and he communes directly with God, the moment of ecstasy shown in this painting. Patron saint of animals and the environment, St. Francis of Assisi has always been, for me, emblematic of the sense I have underneath everything that Nature is the Way. But it is really easy to just wander out into one’s own wilderness and never find the way back.
The thing with the St. Francis painting is that even though he’s supposed to be in isolation, maybe suffering in his desert/wilderness, it looks like a really peaceful set-up. He has a writing desk, some contemplative objects, shelter, clothing, comfortable sandals, a jug of water to drink, and by all appearances plenty of fruit and herbs around to meet his material needs. He has animal friends nearby, and he can see Assisi in the distance, which is to say he knows the way back to civilization when he chooses. His reclusion isn’t forced by exile, and Bellini painted him with a fairly bucolic, beautiful swath of the Tuscan countryside to ramble through. We don’t know if this painting is in any way representative of St. Francis’s actual wilderness, but to me, it looks more like a paradise than anything else.
So what transforms a wilderness? And for that matter, what makes a home instead of just a shelter? I’ve been thinking a lot about what gives the sense of security, safety, and stability, and where and how we find (or make) that quality in nature and ourselves. Is it taming wilderness with civilization, or is it turning ourselves back into the “soft animal of your body” that we “let love what it loves” and so always-already feels at home in nature? Do we, as humans, need rewilding, or do we just need enough time in wilderness that it becomes the more familiar place? Is wilderness simply another way of regarding everything that is not established or historical to our civilization? And once separated, living in this immediate, untamed place, what draws us back?
There are, it seems, as many kinds of wilderness (here I mean mostly symbolic) as there are ways to get lost in it, even while seeming to occupy the same life as before. Over the past few years, grief, illness, mental health struggles, a global pandemic, conflict and cutting ties with family or friends, job dissatisfaction, existential crises — or the perfect storm of all of the above — is how I found myself isolating, withdrawing, and trying to find a different path than the one I was wobbling along since the last time I set intentions for myself. It’s so easy to go into auto-pilot once you’ve made a few big decisions, and it’s rare we’re afforded inflection points to stop everything, step back, and reassess. It can be terrifying to ask unguarded questions: Is this really the life I wanted for myself? Or: When I made these choices, did I mean to end up here? But I think it’s necessary, unless we intend to stay in the liminal state of the cave indefinitely.
The wilderness where I get stuck the most frequently is within my own mind. I have a sense of the way things are in the world, and even if it breaks my heart, it gives a kind of stability that feels like a home to my thoughts. I’m naturally reluctant to reconsider or restructure the cave around my mind because, metaphorically, no one likes living in a construction site. I’m tired of apologizing for being a perpetual work-in-progress and want to accept that this is just How I Am. But of course there is a trade-off: what I have in certainty, assurance that I’m right about the way I think about things, or habit, I’ve lost in opening up to wonder, surprise, unexpected delights, or just “truer truths” about things. In other words, the cave is starting to have an uncomfortable echo, and I know I need to find my way back to the world.
I recently read The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff, which raised an interesting question that I can’t shake. (Spoilers ahead.) The protagonist is running for her life, through the wilderness of colonial-era Northeastern America. She believes she is running away from the village where she was a servant, seeking to escape disease and punishment, but surprisingly early in the book (here come the spoilers, you’ve been warned) the only man who was pursuing her is killed in a conflict with Native Americans. So for the rest of the book, she is feverishly (literally) and frantically running through the woods, trying desperately to survive, chasing this vague notion of “Up North” (and no, it’s not an enslaved woman running toward freedom, though I think the author might have initially conceived it that way). It goes on for chapters, laboriously describing her every bowel movement and urination, and then jumps forward in time to where she’s settled down in the outskirts of a civilization she can never re-enter because she realizes (Spoilers again, friends!) that she’s brought the sickness with her and she doesn’t want to spread it.
As I was reading the book, I was frustrated, thinking, “What is she running from, and where is she going?!” And realizing I was reading something closer to a spiritual crisis, the question shifted. “How will she know when to stop running?”
When I moved out of the Bronx and back to New Jersey, it was an act of self-preservation, and I don’t really want to elaborate on that too much yet, but suffice to say it did not act as the restful time of recovery I was seeking. I brought all my health issues and problems with me, and they got even worse. I had enormous losses of people I loved dearly, we all lived through a global pandemic and the catastrophes of the past few years, and I kept telling myself I just had to “get through this.” When you put yourself in survival mode, it’s harder and harder to plan for the future, to dream, or to make decisions that rely on anyone’s help. You reject any support and focus on getting through each day, locked in the wilderness and trauma of the present moment, as the idea of the life you knew before feels ever more distant and abstract.
I had, in this time, also developed an absolute terror about the natural world, which is baffling because it used to be my sanctuary. Living in a city for too long had transformed my experience of nature into pestilence and inconvenience. Going through too many natural disasters was making me fear every force of nature instead of marveling at them. Two summers ago, I had terrible allergic reactions to some mystery culprit that left me unable to use my hands, eyes, or mind (thank you, Benadryl) for months, and I dreaded touching anything that might cause that reaction again. And more than anything, gazing at the stars or the ocean or over vast distances of forest no longer filled me with joy, wonder, and peace, but rather intense, existential dread and terror. Everything in the world seemed so cruelly temporary, fragile, and destined only to break my heart. Nature was suddenly feeling extremely One-Way, marching ceaselessly toward decay and demise, and the spaces where I used to feel calm were now filled with panic and relentless anxiety.
So I retreated, further and further into smaller and smaller spaces in pursuit of control, or order, or just a safe place to hide. I think I got too comfortable withdrawing entirely and convincing myself there wasn’t anything left for me Out There, and if you are as prone to introspection and alienation as I am, that can be a precarious feeling. I have done a lot of work, let time heal some open wounds, and finally I am starting to feel, deep in my heart, that it’s time to stop running. For the time being, I am where I’ve ended up, and I have to decide what to do now that I’m here.
Instead of redecorating my cave in the wilderness, I feel like I am (yet again) starting from scratch. I had intended a short little trip into the Wilderness (metaphorical, spiritual, literal) as a hard stop and recalibration from the way things were before, and I think it’s become the only thing I know now. Like St. Francis, it is now the life before that feels strange, and I think I am actually okay with that. I tried again to make peace with nature this past summer, equipped with what I’ve called my Gardening PPE (full-coverage overalls, scratch-proof arm sleeves, a wide-brimmed hat, clogs, and gloves so that not even a millimeter of skin is exposed) and I had marginal success in a self-prescribed form of exposure therapy in the tomato beds to get past the sense that if a single bug touches me I will simply die. I am very slowly taking up nature journaling, to be more present and mindful with wildlife, to love it in the moment. I am trying, broadly, to find the beauty where so much terror has encroached, and to live more in the Here and Now without being so haunted with guilt and grief.
This is, I realize, the project of my life, and I have to decide what I am making of it. So I’ve chosen a gentler approach that is slower, a bit more remote, and above all, much more honest with myself about what I can and can’t handle. I will be trying to find more and better ways to engage with Nature and my own nature, with acceptance in place of shame and curiosity in place of fear. I am putting all my faith in nature and hoping it will help me find the way back — or even better, a path forward.