Todd Wynward: Author and Wilderness Educator

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Wanted: A New Species

Have you heard the term hoods in the woods? It’s shorthand for taking “at-risk” individuals on long wilderness trips to kick-start character change. After thirty years working as a wilderness guide, I’ve realized something: my friends, we’re all at-risk individuals in need of character change.

All of us immersed in modern culture are “at risk.” I’ve led hundreds of people on wilderness trips: the troubled, the spoiled, the entitled, the insecure, the bored. I’ve led people addicted to cocaine, and I’ve led people addicted to capitalism, comfort, and career. I’ve led people hooked on valium, volume shopping, and video games. Most people are hardwired about their habits; even with fascinating folk and scenic mountains surrounding them, it takes days for some people to stop fantasizing about home and longing for what they don’t have. For decades I’ve offered tough love to spoiled people on wilderness treks, watching them struggle, helping them grow, seeing them change. So I can imagine a little of what Moses, the original wilderness guide, might have felt as he and his God provided tough love to his ragtag band deep into the wild.

Exodus is the “charter myth” of Israel, the grounding story that gives meaning and direction to the culture. The ancient story tells us that the Israelites were enslaved in body by Egypt as the backbone of Empire’s labor force, yet they were bound in other ways too: captured in mind, soul, and tongue. Even as slaves, they had become habituated to the creature comforts they received from a domination system, few as they were—perks such as imported foods, stable housing, and meat stew bubbling in cooking pots (check out Exodus 16:3 if you want to see the original texts). They had become tame—reducidos, reduced ones—and their view of their God’s power and their own human potential had diminished greatly.

Returning to Egypt after encountering an untamed God in the burning bush, Moses saw this captive character of his people—this half-living—and was appalled. This is the best God’s people can be? Moses’s social critique was unsparing: my people need to be transformed. God’s ideal society was to be a royal priesthood of all believers: no king, no royalty, no enslavement, no domination, no inequity, no small and petty living. To embody this society—to become the God-filled people Yahweh yearned for them to become—the Israelites needed to experience some tough love, gained through wilderness detoxification, adaptation, and purification.

Seventh Graders Trekking in the Pecos Wilderness, Roots & Wings Community School. Image: Todd Wynward

Seventh Graders Trekking in the Pecos Wilderness, Roots & Wings Community School. Image: Todd Wynward

Tough Love

Moses, the primordial wilderness trip leader, explained to his flock of reducidos why God plunged them into the crucible of the wilderness: “to humble you, and test you to know what was in your heart” (this one’s from Deuteronomy 8:20). Like Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn, Yahweh and Moses were avid practitioners of experiential wilderness education. God and Moses both needed to know: did the people have what it takes? Were they willing and able to embody God’s ideal society? The only way to know was to come to the proving grounds.[i]

The tough love wilderness experience of Exodus was so foundational for the Israelite culture that it’s referred to in many other books of the Bible written hundreds of years later. It was a wild ride of transformation, and its drama can match any TV reality show. The complaining happened regularly—in fact, it is one of the constant threads of the Exodus experience. God’s enoughness in the desert was not enough for the tastebuds of the Israelites, who remembered the imported foods Egypt procured by dominating other nations. Cravings were common. The Israelites’ grumbling seems scripted by Hollywood: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4). Faced with drab rations, the ex-slaves remembered the wide variety of food they ate at no cost—no cost, that is, except their freedom. Having to fend for themselves was a harsh reality. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates” (Numbers 20:5). Freedom, it appears, was a lot less palatable than captivity.

The drama doesn’t stop there, nor does the comedy. Moses, called to lead these grumblers through the purifying desert, gets fed up. He grieves to God about the hassle. “What have I done to displease you,” he rants, “that you put the burden of all these people on me?” The dripping sarcasm of his conversations with the Almighty shout out from the text even today. “Did I conceive all these people?” he queries acidly. “Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant?” As a wilderness guide myself, I get his frustration. He was forced to be parent, camp counselor, and nursemaid, so he vents to his God like a drama queen: “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now” (Numbers 11:11-15).

Grumbling and Gratitude

Grumbling was the opposite of the gratitude God was hoping for. In fact, if the desert testing in Exodus is an example for us to learn from, then we see that grumblers don’t get to be part of God’s ideal society. After forty years wandering the desert, who was allowed to enter the promised land? Only the children born in the desert, the “non-grumblers” raised to appreciate enoughness, seemed to have the right character. God makes it clear that only those of an appreciative spirit will be able to enter the land. “No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land” (Numbers 14:23b-24).

Caleb, he of the appreciative spirit. Who was Caleb? Why did he get to enter the new country, but not the other elders? He was one of the older men by this time—one of the original gang who fled Egypt, presumably, not some young whippersnapper—but while his peers pointed out what was wrong with God’s plan and what was unsuitable about the land they were entering, Caleb cut through their complaints with an appreciative stance and a humble heart: “The land we passed through and explored was exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land” (Numbers 14:7-8). Caleb was approved by God, pleasing to God, because he’d been tested, and came through on the other side a different man.

L and R - Seventh Graders Trekking in the Pecos Wilderness, Roots & Wings Community School. Image: Todd Wynward Central Image: Learning Below the Ancients, San Juan River, Utah

L and R – Seventh Graders Trekking in the Pecos Wilderness, Roots & Wings Community School. Image: Todd Wynward Central Image: Learning Below the Ancients, San Juan River, Utah. Image: Todd Wynward

Are We Pleasing?

Moses’s repeated face-to-face encounters with God in the desert provide uncanny similarities to Jesus’ later experience in the desert. To Moses—right in the middle of deep uncertainty, discernment and questioning—God says: “I am pleased with you, and know you by name” (Exodus 33:17). Both Moses and Jesus were tested in the desert; both gained a radical awareness of their own worth and acceptance by God; both returned to lead their people into God’s vision of an ideal society.

What wisdom might we gain from these examples to guide us today? Moses and Jesus, seeking with their whole hearts to guide people into a new life and a new consciousness, are radically pleasing to God. Caleb, he of the appreciative and humble spirit, is welcomed by God into the new land. In contrast, most of the wandering Israelites—holding on to the appetites of Empire—had their hearts set on the wrong things, and God wasn’t pleased with them.

It makes me wonder: are we, today, pleasing to God? Most of us today aren’t used to asking this question. I personally believe strongly in a God of immense love, but being loved and being pleasing are two very different things. I love my teenage son unconditionally, and always will, but I am not always pleased by his actions. Sometimes his actions cause me deep pain and frustration. (He’s not always pleased by what I do either!) Yet we stay in an unbreakable bond of love. I’m guessing this is how God relates to humanity—always loving, always in relationship, but not always pleased by what we do.

And so we come back to the question: are people in today’s society pleasing to God? Have we been tested with tough love and come through on the other side better beings? Have we learned restraint and enoughness, or do we remain addicted to the appetites of Empire? Like Caleb, are we humble enough to inherit the land on God’s terms?

This era of severe global inequity and radical climate devastation is our own proving ground. It is the time for our characters—and our pocketbooks—to be tested and transformed.

Will we, like Moses, heed the call? Can we, too, walk into the desert and trust that God will teach us what to do? Like Moses, we’ll need to cultivate new traits. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us if we seek to craft a different way in a society obsessed with the American Way. To be free to follow an untamed God, we must begin to live untamed lives. We must step out of business as usual, step into the wild, and become a different kind of human.

Wanted: A New Species

Charles Darwin once predicted a species that would only be seen forty years later. Darwin encountered an extraordinary night-blooming orchid that is only found in Madagascar. He noted three important facts about this flower: 1) it bloomed only at night; 2) pollination was key to its existence; 3) its pollen was hidden improbably deep down a tubular opening. Synthesizing these three facts, Darwin predicted the existence of something yet unseen by biologists: he hypothesized that there must be a nocturnal pollinator, probably a moth, endowed with an incredibly long and narrow proboscis.

Forty years later, a night-flying subspecies of moth equipped with a proboscis nearly a foot long was witnessed feeding from the flower. Scientists named it Xanthopan morganii praedicta, the Predicta moth.[ii]

Darwin examined a mystery found in nature that was unsolvable based upon what currently was known to exist. His solution was to suggest—predict—a species not yet identified, something that could fill a needed niche.

Moses—in a very different time and place, with a very different purpose—also imagined a species not yet known. The tame reducidos who had been captive in Egypt were not the courageous and appreciative spirits who could enter the promised land—they had to be humbled, tested, and transformed. For us today, our task is the same: to free ourselves to become the people God wants us to be. In our fragile place, in our fragile time, we need to be a species not yet identified: followers of an untamed God who can manifest a kind of heaven on earth, and who can learn to coexist with the rest of creation.

Footnotes

[i] The Exodus story views the entire desert experience as a proving ground. One location on the journey, Massah, is mentioned four times in OT texts, and literally means “the place of testing.” See Exodus 17:7, and Deuteronomy 6:16, 9:22, and 33:8.

[ii] Fraser, Rewilding the World, 4.

Rio Grande Gorge near Cebolla Mesa. Image: Todd Wynward

Rio Grande Gorge near Cebolla Mesa. Image: Todd Wynward


RewildingbookTodd Wynward is an author, public school founder, small-scale farmer, and wilderness educator who has spent more than a thousand nights outdoors. He has been engaged in education reform, interfaith dialogue, and social change movements for twenty years.

He and his wife Peg try to practice an earth-honoring, society-changing Christianity in Taos, NM. His 2015 book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, is published by Herald Press. Find more of Todd’s writings and doings at taostilt.org and rewildingtheway.com.

One thought on “Todd Wynward: Author and Wilderness Educator

  1. Pingback: 42nd Featured Thinker: Todd Wynward | Thinking Wilderness

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