Lost in the Wilds of Your Life

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 3:21pm
Photo by Bohari

Lost in the Wilds of Your Life

Ever been lost in the wilderness — or in the wilds of your own life? Me too! Because I get outwardly and inwardly lost from time to time, this poem by David Wagoner means a great deal to me.

A couple of years ago, I got lost hiking alone on a poorly marked mountain trail at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where I was on a ten-day silent, solitary retreat. It was starting to get dark, I panicked and began to run. Just the right thing to do when you have no idea where you're going, don't you think!

Then I remembered the wisdom in this poem, stood still, and listened. I could not tell you what I was listening to, except that it was something both in me and around me. After five minutes or so, as my fear subsided, that something told me to turn around and walk slowly back up the mountain, looking to the left as I climbed. That's how I found the trail I'd missed in my fearful run down.

For me, that story and this poem have all kinds of implications for those times when I'm inwardly lost. I'll spare you the long version of what I mean! I'll simply say, with the poet, "Stand still. The forest knows/Where you are. You must let it find you."

by David Wagoner, from Collected Poems 1956-1976

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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Dear ParkerJ.Palmer,
I want to express my deep gratitude to you for all your sharings on: on being!
Your reflections and your choices of poems have enriched my life greatly.
Whenever I have felt lost in the wilderness of my own life,
I found much comfort singing words of a psalm:Be still and know that I am God....
Blessings upon you and all your great work!
I look forward to learning more from you.
I also have enjoyed reading most of your books.

jutta, you expressed my thoughts/feelings exactly! So grateful for Mr. Parker's poems and personal sharing.

I "ditto" Jutta on this as well. There is a comfort in "being lost and found" together. :) Deep felt gratitude from Oregon.

The trees always stay put and stay home!

Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth threatening the very existence of humankind...

I also am so grateful to you and your insightful writing. Your messages are simple yet profound, and I find myself thinking of your words long after I read them. Thank you for opening my eyes to poetry in new ways. You are a gift!

Dear Dr. Palmer,
I continue to revel in the wisdom of your being as expressed through your writing. Thank you.

My home altar is called Che'ab Chaw Waral, or the place where the trees they do speak. Living so long they are wiser than most of us, and can give great comfort, in addition to advice on which way to turn. Better to be at home in the wilds of your life.

You reminded me of a time, years ago now, when I took my grandsons to a pine forest behind our home and told them to listen to the pines whispering to each other. The next summer when they came to visit again, the first thing they asked was, "Nana take us to the place where the trees talk to each other! Memories such as this are so very comforting and wonderful.

I am feeling lost this summer as I struggle through job interviews and attempt to figure out my place in "the world after graduation." I needed this. Thank you.

Thank you for posting this wonderful poem.It has been one of my favorites for more than 30 Years. I used to read it to the young people(teens) that I worked with in an environmental ed. camp in California. They were city kids, most of whom had never been in the forest,and this poem really helped them to find their way in unknown places.As we stood in the fog in the redwood forest, the silence was magical.

Thank you so much for posting this poem. I had not seen it before and just Tuesday came out of a 6-day trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It captured my emotions and feelings about the trip perfectly. I have shared it again with others and it has touched them profoundly.

Thank you. :-) Thank you.

This poem is authored by David Whyte not Wagoner.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Hi Leslie. The poem was written by David Wagoner and included in David Whyte's book, The Heart Aroused – Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.

This is a stunningly well crafted, powerful and beautiful poem. It resonates profoundly with me and my current circumstances… or perhaps with life in general.

I remember acutely a particular scenario when literally lost on Canaan Mountain in Southern Utah. As I first realized the severity of this predicament my initial gut reaction was to run. After a brief episode of panic, it took forced presence of mind to sit, take deep breaths and calm down. I was able to be still and evaluate the circumstances. This all resolved into an arduous, freezing cold night alone in the wilderness without fire or light, but I was able to survive, whereas running amok would have surely led to my demise.

In this poem the line: “wherever you are is called Here, and you must treat it as a powerful stranger” is so real and true. The mysteries of our existence are with and around us constantly, potent forces never fully perceived or understood.

This makes me think of some words I learned as a young girl which have been a saving truth: "lie gently and wide to the light-year stars - lie back, and the sea will hold you." - from the poem "First Lesson" by Philip Booth

It is not a coincidence that I encountered this blog and this particular poem that you've shared, Mr. Palmer, within 2 days of listening to Krista's interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht — Suicide, and Hope for Our Future Selves.

With a grateful, very grateful heart - I thank you for sharing this poem and for sharing your experience in the forest that day. These past many days have been the darkest for me - and along with the words carried by Ms. Hecht's voice, straight to my heart - this poem is 'grist for the mill'....a life-line.

When Daniel Boone was asked whether he'd ever been lost in the forests, he said:

"I have never been lost but I was bewildered once for three days."

I first encountered this poem in David Whyte's book "The Heart Aroused". This discovery came to me when I was in the middle of a horrendous divorce, selling the home I had built with my husband and family, leaving my place of home and at age 55, going to Gonzaga University to complete my bachelors degree . . . all simultaneously. I WAS LOST! The consolation of this poem, so precious then, has helped me through other times since then of feeling lost, frightened and alone. Thank you for re-membering me with it!


I think I must have known Parker in another life. I just found him again and again. It seems the same poems speak to us. I recently lost a long time friend, not to physical death but rather emotional death. I am old and retired now. Poetry speaks to my deeper self.My son and I spent two days reading poetry to each other. What a gift. I know him now in ways only a father could hope for.

Thanks for being there. I love this poem. I have shared it many times with my clients and students. Thanks for sharing it again.


This poem speaks so much to this adoptee heart.

Dr. Palmer.

Thank you for your request reminders to live fully in the moment. Our co-ed book club just read Healing the Heart of Democracy. This book should be required reading for all citizens of this country. Keeping the tension between individual and community needs is a missing characteristic of most of the candidates running for President. Maybe each of them needs to stand still in a deep forest for a while!

Hi, Parker. MaLes and I have been with you at your workshops here in Indiana ... moons ago. I am working with a spiritual director ... yes at age 70 ... I am retired and have time now to reflect endlessly on times gone by that I feel need to be connected more deeply with the spirit within. The latter obscured by permanent white water of constant disruptive change in the work place. I just finished a written piece entitled: My Crossroads With God. It ends with David Wagoner's: Lost. I wrote it two days ago before I read your piece in On Being. It is meant to be. The short story begins after college, my first work experience was with the YMCA of Ethiopia. One of my assignments was to train camp counselors for the first ever resident youth camp in The Great Rift Valley far south of Addis Ababa. We selected twelve young men from around the country, evenly split among Christians and Muslims, to take an 'outward bound' experience around Lake Langano. There was no map. We planned five days for the expedition. On the third day, we reached the edge of a vast shallow swamp in the middle of a rainforest. While the group set-up camp, I ventured into the swamp to find a way out the following day. After 30 minutes and a mile into the endless swamp, I stopped. I looked around. I was surrounded by a canopy of the tallest trees I have ever seen. There was no sky but glimmers of light as if inside the awe of a great European gothic cathedral. The silence was truly deafening. My awe of wonder was mixed with a sudden rush of butterflies in my stomach. The angst was driven by the thought of being lost and very alone in the wilderness. Eveything looked the same way in every direction. But I stood still. I noticed how still and clear the water was in the swamp. When I took even a gentle step, I noticed a milky cloud wafted through the water as I lifted my foot. Then I became aware of my trail that was there behind me all along. The water was so still, my milky trail led me back to base camp more than a mile away. Lesson. Yes, I was truly lost, but the rainforest knew where I was and showed me the way back 'home'. When I shared the story around the campfire with the young Ethiopians, a Muslim said Allah brought me out of the forest. A Christian counselor said God brought Uncle Norris out of the forest. There was no debate. Being lost in the awe of God's presence on this beautiful planet brings us to be 'Here'.

The David Wagoner poem is one I came across quite some time ago, and over the years it has taken on different meanings to me as my journey changed. My life started standing still in a way some time ago when I experienced a serious illness, and had to learn to step back. For a while I felt "lost" to my life, but then I found that standing still allowed me to fully be where I was. That was a revelation. People I cared about could find me. They can stop and rest with me while they gain their bearings, and I learn from their journeys.

In some way, through reading your writings, I have come to regard you as my current teacher. We are near the same age, and so much of what you write about speaks to my daily journey through this unknown part of my life. My quiet journey. Generations ago, my ancestors were Quakers. I did not know this, but I learned that as my ancestors lost themselves in their spiritual journeys, the women kept the Quaker way and passed it down. I've often been taken for Quaker but didn't understand why until recently. I am home. Thank you for helping me find it.

I first heard Waggoner's poem, Lost, when a friend read it aloud at a gathering of storytellers. It resonated then and still does. Thank you for sharing your own story.

This poem reminds me so much of David Whyte's poem, "Everything is Waiting for You"!

During the tough times in my life, I think of the children's song "In the Silence, God Speaks." "Be still and know that I am God."

Intuition, given by nature or whatever, saved me twice when I got lost in the mountains. And more I get lost in thoughts or deep hurt. Until a point when something tells me: Stop! Breathe! Look what you got! Yes...let go and let yourself be found.