Wild space, true forms: Bob Dylan and our inner creatures

Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel prize for Literature underlines one of the things I’ve always appreciated about him — his poetry, and the way he uses metaphor and rhythm and beauty to tap into personal and universal experience. Earlier today, I was struck by one of his lyrics whilst listening to Shelter from the Storm. It was a lyric I’d never properly noticed before —

“…I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. Come in, she said I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.”

I’ve heard this song so many times, but it hit me afresh today. (That’s one of the things I love about books, poems, songs. They themselves don’t change — you change around them. You live, and feel love and pain and make memories, and see new perspectives. And you come back to the song, or the book, and find it reflects back to you where you’ve been, what you’ve learned, and who you’ve become).

Right now, I’m thinking a lot about wilderness and nature — how we understand it, how we might protect it, how we can learn from it as individuals, communities, organisations. Today I’ve been working on developing ‘Coaching with Nature’ workshops with a colleague, reading Wild by Jay Griffiths, and learning about Viriditas from nature-loving polymath Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). I’m playing with the idea of what it means to connect with our wild, created, unique selves, and to live being led by the spirit of life.

“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars … I awaken everything to life.” — Hildegard von Bingen

And so the idea of a creature coming out from the wilderness, void of form, intrigued me. Here’s why:

1. When we sit quietly, motionless, patiently in nature, we’ve got a better chance of seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. I think the same is true of ourselves. When someone sits with us patiently, consistently, listening, we’re encouraged to be our true and vulnerable selves. We may have got used to hiding our wild self away. Maybe we’ve forgotten it even exists. But with time, and with the right presence, it can be coaxed gently out. We may not know what form it will take — maybe it’s drastically different from the form that we’ve got so used to inhabiting. Maybe others won’t recognise it. 

2. Related to that, in the U2 song Iris (Hold me Close) one of the lyrics says “Free yourself to be yourself”. To free ourselves, we might do well to step out into nature. To go into the ‘wilderness’ (like Jesus did for 40 days and nights in the Judean desert), to see ourselves reflected back at us (nature has a wonderful way of mirroring) and to come out the other side. To feel free to meet and inhabit the wild animal that resides inside us.

3. What could going into and then out of wilderness mean for community life? For our planet? If more of us were exploring beyond walls and labels, and choosing to find and live out our true wild selves, perhaps we’d be closer to a natural order — to a sustainable ecosystem, in which each individual element plays it’s unique part in a harmonious, interconnected whole.

4. Being a ‘creature void of form’ conjures up ideas of dreams, spirits and movement — of shapeshifting beings who move through body and boundary and shape. For this to be possible — to be formless — a creature must be spirit-led, and beyond physical matter. It’s the thing in us that cannot be bound by body. It is soul, spirit, and the hope in life after death. Dylan touches on the core of this being — and how it feels to be truly sheltered by someone, somewhere, who knows your creature, void of form. Someone who sees who you really are (later on, reflecting real knowing, Dylan writes “not a word was spoke between us…”) and who chooses to welcome that core and give it shelter.

Dylan reminds me why I love being in nature and wilderness — to be reacquainted with my own inner creature, and to think about the shelters that I choose, where I find belonging and where I can let this creature void of form come out.