• Richard Murff

We All Need a Panic

The last person to attempt to lecture me about the environment was a mousy girl in skin tight jeans and a pair of LL Bean duck boots that were to pristine to be trusted. The rest of her outfit led me to believe that she was what we might call a “central-heating enthusiast,” but few environmentalists actually spend time in said environment.

The god the ancient Greeks invented to explain the wilderness was flute-tooting, man-goat called Pan – like a demonic Zamphir. From this we get our modern English word “Panic.” He possessed none of the Earth Goddess qualities environmentalists’ fuss about and contemporary wisdom held that he was at least moderately rapey with the nymphs of the forest.

This is a preternatural reflex: The ancient Greek myth of Acteon, a huntsman who sneered at civilized superstitions about the forest, is more cautionary tale than theology. Acteon took his well-trained hounds into the wood and after several hours stalking, sat on a log by a stream to rest. There in the stream the goddess Artimus was bathing with her entourage of nymphs – because that’s what the holies did back then. Acteon might argue that he should have been forgiven for sneaking a peak, he was, after all, just a man. For her part, Artimus didn’t see it that way and she was, after all, a goddess. She smote the boy, and good.

Acteon tried to flee, sprouting antlers as he went and painfully transformed into a stag. He tried to call his hounds, but could only manage a throaty honk. Unlike my dog, Acteon’s hounds took this as a call to action. The chase was afoot and unknowingly, the pack tore their transformed master to shreds.

Hardly a tale designed to promote a bucolic walk.

Further north, Europe was cloaked in forest with even the most bustling walled city a pinprick of warmth and safety in an endless stretch of dark wood. Whereas the Greeks told cautionary tales about the wilderness, the Celtic Druids (if Julius Caesar is to be believed, and he probably shouldn’t) sacrificed people in oak groves to really drive the point home.

Almost universally, from the dawn of civilization people believed that towns and cities were the human domain, the Heavens the stomping grounds of the vengeful gods, and the forest as an unsettling go-between. In later agrarian societies, the forest was associated with exile: A place no one owned where society’s failures went to live.

Unsettling, sure, but precisely the point. The wilderness is a canvas on which humans have long projected the uncertainties of their inner-selves. It is chaotic and unknown, but contemplation of the unknown often says more about the thinker than the subject. The wood is a place at once strange and unregulated, wild but also free. Since civilization grew out of the wild, it is the home of our atavistic ghosts.

Which is precisely why we need it right now. For everything else that 2020 has done, it has effectively turned the old notion of order inside out. The cities have become chaotic and unpredictable – not by the hand of the gods, but by our own. The malicious fairies of the wood have been replaced by the pathogens of crowd. The law of the jungle might not have been terribly nice, but there is a certain harmony to it, unlike the screeching clash of morons that have drowned out any sort of public conversation.

In an enlightened age, we need to remember that simply because we can’t predict something does not mean it is random. In a Woke era, we need to remember that a) coherent grammar matters and b) the world is not a zero-sum game. Nature may be a mess, but it is a well-ordered one and you have to be out in nature to see it. A mere hike or long walk won’t do: you have to be hunting something – even if it’s is just a photo or a wildflower. You have to be searching, watching.

What you are looking for is the true nature of the concept we call panic, the patterns behind the unruly chaos of the wild. Not to tame it, because that’s not going to happen. Not to find a handy repository for your urban fears and misgivings, either. Simply to see it as it is.

It is only then that you begin to recognize the patterns behind it all. Understand that you will never master those patterns and you just might realize that connection between your civilized self and, well, whatever is out there.

The only way to know yourself, in short, is to get your boots muddy.