Women In the Wilderness

A wild woman is a woman in her natural state.

Written By Kathryn Knight Sonntag

Angie Payne
At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. 
— Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

A shadowed understory stirs around my feet. Above, the tops of pines bow in slanted light. I stop. A metallic trill catches in the reverberation of canyon walls as Millcreek rushes in the distance. I am hiking in Mt. Olympus Wilderness, weaving with the first switchbacks of Desolation Trail. I have been here more times than I can count, ascending above Thayne Canyon before arriving at the Salt Lake Overlook two and a half miles up. This is the trail that my feet curve to in time removed; every burnished tree root, every dip and rise, every cluster of scrub oak and pocket of sweet musk, is a return to a bone-deep knowing now played out in nerves and muscles.

Crossing the threshold into wilderness pulls me out of the rhythms and realities of a culturally-mandated life. The mountains call when I am reconciling discord, pleading for assistance, or learning how to surrender. This trail answers me, assuaging angst and melancholy alike. 

Today I come seeking answers. 

I am listening for the language of women. I have struggled my whole life to speak from this place consistently, to know it, to separate my voice from the tangles of those that whip around and through me, mimicking something real but providing little substance or identity. Here on the mountain I am unfettered and free; my inner landscape stretches before.

The Archetypal Mountain 

My desire to reach the trail’s overlook is the desire to access the orienting powers of the mountain. I know the mountain as a meeting place — sometimes called an axis mundi. This space converges the four cardinal directions above the Salt Lake Valley to the west, Millcreek Canyon winding to the east, and the continuation of the Wasatch Range running north and south. The mountain orients me in space and time, marks my spaces sacred. 

For a woman to find her bearings in physical and spiritual terrain is a critical need. Revealing sacred ground, which can reside in the psyche and in the land, makes it possible to obtain a fixed point in the chaos of homogeneity. When I stand on the overlook, I am able to hold a more complete map of Salt Lake City, to understand its limits and growth patterns, to make sense of what can appear chaotic from below. When we stand on elevated terrain we become an extension of the axis mundi. Embodying this vertical connection between heaven and earth can provoke our minds to a higher plane of thought. We orient a little clearer, we feel the cosmic order of birds and of rocks, we are a part of earth’s community now.

While I have gone to the mountains for grounding my whole life, it is just within the last few years that I have understood this need to be gendered just as much as it is archetypal. Only recently have I understood how wilderness and women are interchangeable.


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Our Body, Our Home  

I pass the uprooted pine that tells me I am almost halfway to the overlook. Its trunk hangs down the mountainside at a near 45-degree angle, exposing roots that cross the trail. Large, jutting rocks and compacted earth are enmeshed in their patterns. It is a sudden revelation of the hidden. As I climb I know that femininity is a paradox, both known and unknowable. The soil is dark regeneration, death and life unfolding, unspoken language emerging. Here, in my body blood becomes milk for my babies. I am cyclical, mind and body. I, we women, ensure life will continue on earth. We are wild, not in the word’s pejorative sense, meaning out of control, but in its original sense: we strive to live a natural life, one full of innate integrity and healthy boundaries. A wild woman is a woman in her natural state.  

After ascending a series of steep switchbacks, I follow the trail as it runs along a north face into deeply shadowed green. The lushness here is a reprieve from the exposed outcrops. I’m propelled forward by my need to alchemize discord into harmony and soothe frustration. As I turn east, a deep ridge stretches out to my left. A sharp-shinned hawk cuts down through the blue sky above the trail, pausing in front of me before veering off into the pines.

How is it possible to describe what it is to be seen by a hawk? That its sudden appearance is the answer I seek? Some pulse of recognition between us releases my conflicts in meditation and strips me down to my essence. With so many blinking and unblinking eyes surrounding me I become lost in the present. Just as the pine is enough, and the hawk, in purity, I am an extension of the land.

Many women instinctively recognize in wilderness a direct connection to their feminine power. We know that continuance comes from our bodies, not only from human ingenuity. We know that it comes from harmonious living with all life: sustaining cycles and rhythms, their ceaseless struggle for equilibrium and the constant push and pull of entropy in ways so fine-tuned no human mind can grasp all of the individual parts, let alone the orchestrations they create together. We know that the power of life untamed can break and mend your heart. 

Wilderness is our body. Wilderness is our home.

Utah’s Wild Women and Wild Lands

Utah is unique by its women’s history but also by its abundance of open land. We are poised to advocate for women thanks to the legacy of our suffrage sisters. We are poised to cultivate a woman-driven and woman-defined language about land and its value, that has everything to do with building community and grounding intention for the generations ahead — keeping promises to act as wise stewards of all living things in a way innate to women and with the wisdom of our female ancestors.

In wilderness, we find the freedom of our minds, a place of restoration where all, regardless of gender, race or nationality, can share in a collective beauty and expansiveness. If we lose wilderness we lose the creative powers of our own minds. 

These are our questions to explore: How will we speak about our role in the rapid environmental changes our world is experiencing? How will we call for justice as the central voice of a harmonious, balanced society? What does the freedom of the open lands we have in abundance offer our psyches and souls? What are our tales? What conflicts and insights do we find? How do we connect our voices back to the authority and power of our suffrage sisters to move ahead, honoring a sense of place in both developed and undeveloped lands?

Cultivating Women’s Language

At the heart of my emerging voice was the belief that nature held the secret to harmony and unity, not just outside us, but inside us, no separation. 

— Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds 

The last leg from the saddle to the peak is much steeper and less defined. I am anxious for the reward of vistas: Grandeur Peak and the Great Salt Lake to the west, Gobblers and Raymond peaks to the East. Redolent of aspen groves the terrain transforms suddenly. I am surrounded by the singular white trunks of aspens filled with black, almond-shaped eyes that stare out in every direction. I am being witnessed as I am witnessing.

Photo: Angie Payne

Photo: Angie Payne

Photo: Andrew Burr

By its nature the language of women is elusive. The experience of the wild in us and in the land may be something we can never fully grasp, let alone unfold with language. Like poetry, art and  visions, it is a distillation of essence, of selves. Language transforms with time and experience, layering like sandstone in a heart and mind that understands more fully how the disappearance of wildness is our own erasure.

From the Uinta Mountains to the red rock country of Southern Utah, we can hear women’s language speaking of the mysteries of creation, in diction and syntax all but lost to the structures of modern society. Accessing our language requires journeying into wilderness, time and time again, to unfold it all in the land’s time. To trust that self answering self is the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other, we must be comfortable again with inhabiting a realm of uncertainties, mysteries and doubts. To trust that in the wildness of wilderness is the emancipation of our own souls and the wisdom of everything that lives. 

The beginning of what women in wilderness know intuitively is this: everything is connected. To build lasting community requires we honor the interrelationships of all living beings. We are learning to say that we exist to be heard, to weigh in, to change course. To speak for harmony and peace in family and community. To say we are animal, we belong to the land. To say what you do to the oceans, to the forests, you do to us. To say there are limits.

I arrive at the outlook point and find the valley down the ‘V’ of the canyon. Beyond it, the Oquirrh Mountains form a western boundary. While I stand here alone I know that the experience of the natural world ultimately teaches us about community. Perhaps this is why we as women have been told directly and indirectly for so long that we don’t belong in wilderness. The wisdom of its ranks inspire the feminine at the heart of community to return to its place as the center of stable, harmonious societies, balancing impermanence with continuance.  

Returning women to wilderness is a democratic act.

I return, and I speak of my return. I can heal myself and others with my stories of exploration — camping on Antelope Island, rock climbing in Big Cottonwood Canyon, or walking toward the liminal horizon of the Great Salt Lake on the rocky spine of the Spiral Jetty — and be set free by the language it conjures. My language empowers me to disentangle myself from cultural confines that do not know me and to leave behind the constant messaging of what I should and shouldn’t be. Uncovering my wildish nature is a revolt against claims and strictures and a call to rediscover a language separate from the characters of men, not because one is superior to the other, but because the essence of feminine expression and wisdom is necessary to our collective health and survival.


Knowing the feminine more intimately allows me to love it, to fight for it, to say, I am wilderness, we all are, to feel just as confident alone in the elements on a mountain peak as in the chambers of my home. To say to my children, to my friends, to my community, How you treat the land is how you treat women. I speak for those who cannot and what I am learning to say is that we are sacred. 

As women connected to the earth we are unyielding, fierce and full. Write about Utah’s howling land, how it changes you, how the sorcery of words alchemizes grief, depression and disconnect into vision and identity. Speak about how it grounds you in what is real. Speak about the sacred world that is you. And then hold space within yourselves. Hold space in the land.


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