Into the Wilderness: Not so Lonely Anymore

As we adjust to this season of social distancing (or what my friend Emily Scott has suggested might be better named “loving distancing”),
I find myself thinking more about the nature of connection, isolation, and human loneliness.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the story of Nanabozho, the First Man, who was given the task of learning the names of all beings:

“He watched them carefully to see how they lived and spoke with them to learn what gifts they carried in order to discern their true names.
Right away he began to feel more at home and was not lonely anymore.” (p.208)

She goes on to describe the experience of many people today who do not know the names of non-human beings, who may not even notice the natural world. I learned a new term from her writing: “species loneliness”. The idea that we carry a deep, unconscious sadness due our separation from the rest of Creation. 

As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbours. It’s no wonder that naming was the first job the Creator gave Nanabozho.” (p.209)

This pandemic is creating the opportunity for us to become more attentive to our species loneliness, and to listen for the invitation from the earth community to become reacquainted.


It’s been a fascinating exercise to read the Bible’s story of Jesus in the wilderness while also reading Braiding Sweetgrass. As soon as I pick up Braiding Sweetgrass and start reading, I immediately start to see new layers and insights in the Scripture I just put down.

What jumped off the page as I read this week, were the roots of the human dominance that Kimmerer describes above. This Gospel text not only invites reflection on the nature of temptation and how one might resist it. This text also illuminates where the invitation of the Tempter has been accepted. The text illuminates how deeply the tendency to dominance runs within humanity, and I would suggest, how deeply it runs within Canadian settler culture in particular.

Take a moment with the text:

The Devil then took Jesus up a very high mountain and displayed all the dominions of the world in their magnificence, promising, “All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me.”

At this, Jesus said to the Devil, “Away with you, Satan! Scripture says ‘You will worship the Most High God; God alone will you adore.’

At that the Devil left, and angels came and attended Jesus.”

(Matthew 4:8-11)

The image that came to me so quickly was of the early European settlers arriving with the belief that they were being given this new dominion to conquer and control in the name of the “Christian God”. They were shown the magnificence of this ‘new land’ and they chose the path of dominance and violence – over the Indigenous peoples, over this land.

We have inherited this relationship of dominance and violence. But it seems to me that the voice of the Tempter is not as clear as Scripture makes it out to be. I don’t hear a voice in my ear promising all power in exchange for worship. But no doubt, I have been shaped by the history and patterns of humans ceding to this temptation over and over again. No doubt this legacy of dominance lives on in my own being.

And one legacy of human dominance, as Kimmerer suggests, is a sense of isolation, of loneliness – whether within fractured human community or in our relationship with the earth community. 

I found myself drawn to Jesus’ final response to the Tempter: “Away with you!” I wonder, how do I stand in love and extract myself from the legacies of dominance in my life?

After Jesus returns from the wilderness, he begins to form a community. He sends the Tempter packing and then begins to build new relationships. Inviting others into his circle of communion. Might we follow a similar process?


I find myself longing for freedom and healing from the species loneliness from which we suffer. I have places where I experience the kind of companionship with all beings that Kimmerer describes in the story of Nanabozho. For me, Loyola House in Guelph is a place where I have long conversations with trees and where I know that I am being taught and formed by the land. But I haven’t found that same experience in my urban landscape….I hope that it is possible.

So I am trying to open my heart more fully on my daily walks around the block to the plants and trees of my neighbourhood.

I’ve discovered a small stand of cedars and pines behind King Edward Public School that I am starting to build a relationship with. I need the trees to care for me right now – my grieving heart needs their rooted presence and love.

I’m waiting, hoping, that one day I’ll be able to say: “I’m not so lonely anymore.”

Reflection Questions:

  • Where do you notice the tendency to desire dominance within yourself?
  • Where do you see it in our culture?
  • Do you identify with the idea of species loneliness?
  • How do experience being a part of the earth community?
  • What kind of relationship is Creation inviting us into?

Practices:

“I sit a long time and eventually the sound of the wind in Grandmother Sitka’s branches washes words away and I lose myself in just listening – to the crisp voice of laurels, the chatter of alders, the whispers of lichens. I have to be reminded – just like Nanabozho – that the plants are our oldest teachers.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer

  • Notice a tree or plant that you can’t call by name. Return to this being each day for a week (or as long as you feel drawn to). Ask them if it is okay if you spend some time with them and share your intention with them of getting to know them. Listen for what their name might be.
    • You may also want to learn their scientific/common name and study about the plant. Notice how you approach this learning. What is driving your learning? How might this learning support building a relationship of gratitude and love with the plant?
  • Enter the story of Jesus in the Wilderness (Matthew 4)
    • What is it like to stand with Jesus as he sends Satan away?
    • Invite Jesus to help you send your own Tempter voice away – what would you say? How does it feel to stand up for yourself?

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