Experiencing a Feeling of Wildness Nature writer David Gessner believes you don't have to climb Everest or raft the Amazon to find wildness. It's often found much closer to home, in our backyards and in the experiences of daily life.
NPR logo

Experiencing a Feeling of Wildness

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12254393/12254482" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Experiencing a Feeling of Wildness

Experiencing a Feeling of Wildness

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12254393/12254482" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.

Unidentified Woman: I believe in family.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failure.

Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.

(Soundbite of music)


Today, our essay for the series This I Believe comes from Wilmington, North Carolina. David Gessner teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and he has a close relationship with nature.

Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: David Gessner has traveled to many exotic places for his books and essays on the natural world. Those travels inform his belief but do not define it. That definition comes closer to home starting on the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he spent much of his childhood and where we recorded him reading his essay for This I Believe.

Professor DAVID GESSNER (Creative Nonfiction, University of North Carolina): I believe in wildness, both in the natural world and within each of us.

As a nature writer, I've traveled all over the world to experience the wild, but some of my own wildest moments have been closer to home, on the same domestic Cape Cod beach I've returned to all my life.

In summer, this beach is covered with kids, umbrellas and beach balls, but in the winter, the cold clears it of people and its character changes. From the rocks at the end of the beach, I once watched hundreds of snow-white gannets dive from high in the air and plunge into the cold winter ocean like living javelins. Then, as the birds dove down, I suddenly saw something dive up - a humpback whale breaching through the same fish the gannets were diving for.

In wildness is the preservation of the world, wrote Thoreau, but people often get the quote wrong and use wilderness instead. While wilderness might be untrammeled land along the Alaskan coast, wildness can happen anywhere - in the jungle or in your backyard. And it's not just a place; it's a feeling. It rises up when you least expect it.

In fact, it was while observing my own species, my own family, that I experienced the two wildest moments of my life. The first happened holding my father's hand while he died. I listened to his final breaths, gasping and fish-like, and I gripped his hand tight enough to feel the last pulsings of his heart. Something rose up in me that day, something deep, animal, unexpected, something that I didn't experience again until nine years later, when my daughter Hadley was born.

Before Hadley's birth, everyone warned me that my life was about to change, the implication being that it would become tamer. But there was nothing tame about that indelible moment, during the C-section, when the doctor reached into my wife, and a bloody head appeared, straight up, followed by Hadley's full emergence and a wild squall of life as her little arms rose over her head in victory. And it was somewhere around then that I felt the great rush come surging up. Sure it was physiological - goose bumps and tingling - but it was also more than that, a wild gushing, both a loss and then a return to self.

I believe that these moments of death and life give us a reconnection to our primal selves, a reminder that there is something wilder lurking below the every day, and that having tasted this wildness, we return to our ordinary lives both changed and charged.

So, while I'll continue to seek out wild places, I know I don't need to travel to the Amazon or Everest to experience the ineffable. It is here on Cape Cod, on the domestic beach where I first walked holding my mother's hand, and where I later spread my father's ashes, that I learned that my wildest moments are often closest to home. And it is where I now bring my daughter Hadley for our daily walk, secretly hoping that the wild will rise up in her when she least expects it.

ALLISON: David Gessner with his essay for This I Believe, recorded on a beach on Cape Cod.

At our Web site, npr.org/thisibelieve you can find all the essays in our series and send in one of your own. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.