A Wilderness Guide to Grief

November 29, 2014   •   By Justin Wadland

GARY FERGUSON is no stranger to the ways that an encounter with the wild can transform a person for the better. In his 25-year writing career, he has trekked to some of the most remote places in the continental United States, followed wolves in Yellowstone National Park, and packed alongside drug-addicted teens in a backcountry recovery program. However, in 2005, after his wife Jane died in a canoe accident, Ferguson was so grief-stricken that he could no longer orient himself by his old beliefs.

And yet Jane had left him with a request that would ultimately send him back into the wilderness. In an uncanny conversation they had before the accident, she reminded him that if she died, she wanted her ashes distributed in five places she loved. The Carry Home tells the story of fulfilling Jane’s wish. On this pilgrimage, Ferguson rediscovers solace in his relationship to the natural world.

But The Carry Home is not only a narrative of personal tragedy. Ferguson incorporates the history of America’s fascination with the wild, a critique of the environmental movement, and meditations on the meanings of certain mythologies, among other fascinating topics and themes.

Recently, when he was visiting Tacoma for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Tradeshow, I had a chance to sit down with Ferguson and talk about his book.


JUSTIN WADLAND: This story begins with such traumatic loss. When did you know you were writing a book about it?

GARY FERGUSON: After the accident, I spent a year and half to two years writing what in essence was a journal. I wrote about my relationship with Jane and what had happened on the river, but for therapeutic reasons. I needed to tell the story, to anchor the reality of her life and our life together, and writing is how I’ve always done that. But after two years, the emphasis began to shift from getting it all down to seeing how it fit into the bigger narrative about how humans decide to live and to experience joy again, even after great loss.

I recently read The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder, and I was struck by the parallels between your work and his. You tell a story that in many ways embodies the principles he articulates in those essays. For instance, he wrote, "Great insights have come to some people only after they reached the point where they had nothing left."

The greatest gift Jane gave me was the request to scatter her ashes in five different areas. With the first three, I was still wrecked. I had lost my identity. I was wandering, and I had no sense I’d find my way out. But those wild places opened up the possibility of true ceremony. Ritual requires sacred time and space, and the wilderness, sacred as it is in both ways, amplifies its effects. I knew that the scatterings would rip my heart out. I fell quite literally to my knees in those wild places. I wept with my face to the ground. I felt I had nothing left.

In the grief journey, if you can find yourself in that space, you will begin to experience grace. When I surrendered in that way, I found that some kind of peace moved in to remind me that I’m part of something larger. The wilderness has no agenda and makes no attempt to offer hope. It has what I’d call a benevolent disinterest. The benevolence comes in the form of allowing us to recognize that there is dying and living, seasons, a wheel of change that keeps rolling. That didn’t mean I went home happy — but it was so important for me to get a glimmer of what would eventually come.

This book also tells of Jane’s life, struggles, and personal growth. How did you decide what details to include?

I made an exercise of asking: What would Jane want me to say? We knew each other well enough that I believed I could imagine what she would have shared. For example, I knew that she had described to her close friends and family how her relationship with the wild had helped her with an eating disorder. After going to Utah for Outward Bound, Jane decided to work in outdoor education, and she kept going back there because she felt empowered by the experience. One of the things that fuels an eating disorder is a loss of control. Ironically, though nature doesn’t allow much control, being out on the trail with a pack from morning to night is an ideal way to perceive an agency. In part, this story shows how someone as hopeless as Jane was can encounter the natural world and come out with a stronger sense of self. I think she would have approved.

Many still tend to see the natural world as a resource to be extracted and profited from. Given this cultural attitude, what’s the best approach to take? How best to defend the wilderness from your point of view?

Freud, who was no nature boy, said, that wilderness preserves in culture serve the same function as fantasy in the individual, and that if you get rid of either one, neurosis will follow. That means that the culture benefits from wilderness, whether the people go there or not. Like daydreams, wild places call forth our imaginative capacities, whether it’s fear of a bear ripping you to shreds or awe of the beauty and timelessness of the redwoods. So, of course, we should do everything we can to preserve untrammeled landscapes. These don’t have to be places as the Wilderness Act defines them — they can be parks or other spaces in towns and cities where natural processes are allowed to thrive. Experiencing that kind of environment gives us the sense that we’re hooked into life systems that depend on how generous we are with them and they with us.

We’re facing what will be the most significant game changer of recent human history — climate change — and we have an opportunity to acknowledge that we’re a part of a web. We’ve often done things assuming that nature would rebound, but we know better than that now; we know how fragile these systems are. Wilderness is a touchstone for that generative behavior that not only keeps the earth intact, but also cultivates a means for caring for a growing world. It all goes back to what the ancient storytellers spoke of: community, beauty, and mystery — those are the values that go into a life well-lived.

In critiquing the environmental movement and your own generation you write: "Our blunder wasn't blowing off the environment. It was in failing to cultivate a dream big enough to include environmental justice." What did you mean?

Ever since the Hudson River School artists of the 1830s and 1840s, there’s been this tendency to diminish the presence of Anglo culture in the wilderness. There was this notion that we had the Garden of Eden, and we came to this continent, and we screwed it up. The notion of wilderness increasingly became one where humans aren’t, especially Anglos. That has had a detrimental effect. For my generation, the baby boomers, we were too often inclined to fight for what seemed like the garden. The unsullied places were perceived as what should be preserved. I’m not arguing that it was bad to preserve them; it’s very good that we did. Yet concurrently, there could have, and should have been, an effort to ask what are the fundamental qualities of wilderness — clean air, clean water, and sustenance — and apply those qualities to urban landscapes as well. If we had sought to cultivate and sustain those things, it would have led to a more powerful constituency for not only the wilderness but for the environment in general.

The millions of people who live in the city would have understood that.

Before we can show up for the earth in the way that the earth is really requiring us to show up, we should go through a grief journey over what’s happened under our watch for the past 150 years. That grief journey should include acknowledgment of the injuries we’ve inflicted on each other — from slavery to the Japanese internment camps, to the treatment of the LGBT community, to gender bias. By grieving, we gain the chance to do better.

How do we undertake grief journeys for these larger issues? And how do we find time for such journeys, especially when they may not be directly connected to our own life stories?

It’s important to keep in mind that a grief journey of any kind begins in the head and heart. What we do as far as actual physical movement — in the wilderness or anywhere else — is simply a means of anchoring that inner transformation. So the first step on these cultural grief journeys would involve simply learning to sit for a time with the disappointment, the anger, the sadness. By going into those feelings — and, just as important, by not giving in to the urge to put narratives around them — what we’re really doing is walking through them again. In a way, it’s like holding a funeral for a piece of our humanity; and like it or not, you have to get past the funeral before you’re ready to begin weaving a brighter, more generous and generative take on life. This isn’t just some ethereal activity beyond the concern of busy people. We’re talking about something that's germane to everyday life. Only by mustering the courage to get to the “other side” of what we’ve been too distracted, too afraid to face can we become more fully conscious and mature.


Justin Wadland is the author of Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound.