“Let the wild rumpus start!”
cried Max, the brave Maurice Sendak character donning a wolf costume and gold crown in the acclaimed children’s book-made-movie Where the Wild Things Are. In this story, Max finds himself in the wilderness – a world of unfamiliar creatures, vast spaces and the darkness of the unknown. The wild forest of his imagination is a place where he is not only free but where he can be king of all he sees. Such a simple story presents stunning imagery of our human fascination with wilderness, the beautifully complex and mysterious natural places in which we concurrently feel the freedom to conquer and the fear of being defeated by the unknown.
Perhaps because this was my favorite book as a child, I grew up loving the idea of being wild. Or maybe it was the dozens of hours I spent every summer driving through the vast plains and rolling mountains of the wild west. Endlessly daydreaming from my minivan window view, I was fascinated by the idea of untouched spaces – the wilderness.
I remember the strange realization that the word “bewilder” was associated with confusion and fear, rather than its seemingly obvious etymological breakdown, “be wild-er.” I wanted to “bewilder.” Like the ancient Native Americans I read about in my Kansas history books, I wanted to ride horses bareback and wear feathers in my hair. Like Max, I thought that to “bewilder,” to escape the picket fence and bedtimes of my parents’ suburbia, could only be a good thing.
By now, I’ve dropped my 7-year-old creative license and resolved to use the word “bewilder” appropriately, but I am still fascinated by the idea of encountering my wild side, as I suppose many adventure travelers are. That is why Isla Palenque captured my senses and my imagination in such a transcendent way, allowing me to realize wilderness not as a noun, but as an action, an ability, a transformation.
The WILD Foundation’s definition of wilderness is: “the most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet – those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure.” Even the parts of Isla Palenque not in our nature preserve encapsulate the magic of the wild. This island is not one that can be tamed, which is indeed its charm. As you explore, without the ability to see the road ahead of or behind you, it seems as though the curtains of green are opening and closing just for you. As if your destiny is based on much more than your ability to put one foot in front of another and remember from which direction that you came, but on the rules of the wild. A rhythm you cannot see but acutely sense.
Trees with the spiky, leathery skin of monsters come into focus just before you put your hand on them. Interweaving cacti grow straight from rocks, looking as though they could reach out and grab you. Monkeys yell so animatedly from the treetops that you can almost hear what they are saying: “I am the ruler of this place!” Although you move slowly, the scene changes constantly, forcing you to wonder if something moved when you looked the other way. Flashes of neon green and balls of brown fur vanish as you see them, forcing you to delve deeper, almost holding your breath, wishing that you could be invisible and learn their secrets. You find yourself apologizing for moving the web of a three-inch black and yellow spider, instead of screaming as you would at the sight of its teensy-tiny relative in your Chicago two-flat.
On Isla Palenque, the meaning of wilderness enveloped me like the blackness of the jungle at night. There is something about the quality of wilderness that touches an integral, rarely-reached depth of our humanness. When we enter a world which cannot be tamed and cannot be re-created, is the savage within us released? Does a cobweb-covered switch inside of us flip when we abandon our processes and our infrastructure and our guidebooks – now relying on our instincts to realize, listen, run, breathe, rejoice and survive? Wilderness takes away our control; it reveals our barbarian origins. Our wildness is our complexity, maybe even our dark side. It’s the unknown, the truths we cannot tame. No wonder a children’s book would illustrate the idea of wilderness to explore a certain moment of human growth – we humans are truly wild, but we tame ourselves to preserve society. Like my misguided childhood logic that “bewilder” was somehow an ability, I still believe that wilderness is an ability that many of us have lost in our nests of steel and wires. The ability to approach the wild, in yourself or out in the world.
No wonder we crave respite in Panama, a country whose history is very much one of being a wilderness, in all the complications of that definition. The great Pan-American Highway dead-ends in the middle of the Darien, unable to persist any further. In the Gulf of Chiriquí lies a smattering of pristine islands without names. The pulse of ancient civilizations can very much be felt in the heart of the jungle and sensed in the hillside villages. To experience this wilderness is indeed a privilege, one I am proud to preserve and embrace. Succumbing to the quality of wilderness, is after all, not bewildering – it’s to be a version of yourself more in touch with your origins.
To be wilder. I’ll toast to that at our next bonfire dinner on Playa Palenque.