- Photo by Bennett Barthelemy
As I gaze back over the 15 odd "Off The Pavement" articles I have penned for the Journal, it would seem one big theme has emerged. I might define my overall interpretation of them as something like, the necessity of being outside.So if this theme has appealed to you, then you are in luck.
This week, rather than another vicarious adventure in the play-by-play sense, sprinkled with the usual clunky attempts at transcendent illuminations, I will juxtapose these two ideas, weighing in heavy on the clunk and light on the adventure. Like everything else in life, this too will be a work in progress and hopefully inspire someone, even if that someone is only me.
This morning I gathered together a few crystalline moments in the formation of myself, my weltanschaungor world view if you will. Potentially scary for you, I'll admit - going even deeper down the twisted corridors of my thought processes - but I will attempt to stay focused and relatively less crude than is probably necessary for greatest value. I will start with a worthwhile moment from my 10-year stint as student at Humboldt State University.
Jim Dodge, noted author and curmudgeon, had just handed me back my paper, essentially dripping blood with all his red ink marks. I had just spent a half-hour listening to him explain to me my myriad failures as an aspiring writer. I knew then that I had found my academic advisor - not because I enjoy being abused, but because his scalpel was keened, cutting through fluff and excising the puffed-up tumor that had been my head, so that eventually a little light could seep in. No other professor had yet done that.
Okay, why is this important? Wilderness will not let us hide beneath false pretense. When we are forced to provide for ourselves beyond our homes, cars, guided tours, then the layers can slough away and reveal what makes us who we are, and epiphanies are much more tangible. And perhaps it allows us a place to rekindle the fading spark of wonder.
I have been fortunate enough to have some extraordinary teachers/guides, and have also been able to be one (not entirely sure about the "extraordinary" part, in my case). I taught outdoor education to kids and adults for years, and still do when I can afford it (the rewards generally do not come in the monetary sense). My goal is to be little more than a guide, adjunct to the need for individual wonder. I was a scatterer of seeds of curiosity, little packets of information about the habits of the tarantula hawk, the water cycle of a creosote bush.
I still feel that often the information is secondary to inspiring a renewed sense of wonder, which continually requires sustenance like the creosote, capable of surviving long droughts but ready to open up its leaves to take in the sweet promise of life-sustaining rain. The real teacher is the physical place, coupled with humans' innate desire to feel connected. First we need to dust off this sensor, shake it awake and then the knowledge will come in guided by our own personal passions and stick.
There is a process that one goes through in wild places, with a home carried on one's back or stuffed in a kayak. I have heard that in the military they seek to break down individuals and remold them so that they are confident and can endure. Everyone has ample opportunities for that every day. Do we need to pay a Dan Brown or a Buck Tilton-type and go to some survivalist school where we nap arrowheads and drink from puddles? Maybe. There is now a whole industry of "Wilderness Therapy." But I suspect it can happen from going on a simple walk in the woods. Crush some leaves under your boots, let the view into your heart and it will slowly happen.
Some of my heroes; Everett Ruess, Galen Rowell, Ansel Adams, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Austin, John Muir. They were authors and artists, yes, but I believe that was secondary to their need to explore and ramble around in the wilderness. I think there is something undeniably elemental and necessary for us as humans to engage in this, and I think the consequences are perilous if we don't. Cities are great things - culture, diversity - but all too often predictable and stagnant. We need the diversity and challenge of the wild.
I learned yesterday that a good friend heads to the beach when the sun comes out, say for six to 10 hours. The nude beach, where he reads, builds temporary structures out of stone, watches the sea and sky - all naked, of course. How primal, was my quick response. I need my Vitamin D, was his retort. Thinking on this it seems so natural. What if we could all do this once a month? No, I am not saying we just need to run around naked to be enlightened - think about it symbolically, too.
I signed up for kung fu classes, taught by Paul Gale, another great teacher and guide. I will attempt to paraphrase his words: Don't worry about the ability to fight - it's there. Work on balance and coordination, being centered, so that when the moment comes you can run away without tripping over your own feet. For me this meant that the culmination of these small practiced steps and meditations would prove that when faced with difficult decisions with dire consequences, the right decision will happen naturally, my body reacting before my mind has time to even process what is going on.
I believe there is a natural flow to things that we all lose touch with too easily, and wilderness is a great conduit. I have a professor friend who needs to schedule his time to be in wild places because the demands of work and family can usurp this need. If it doesn't happen at least once a month, everything suffers. So it's on the calendar. Rick Ridgeway, a top dog at Patagonia, routinely heads out on multi-day walks and is adamant about the reintroduction of large predators like grizzly, because he thinks as humans we cannot afford to loose this connection.
Another worthwhile adage to ponder: A journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step.