This is the third installment in an ongoing series on Wilderness Pilgrimage.
If you are feeling the need to have an elevated sense of personal importance today, this is not the column for you. Just stop now. This is an article about why you aren’t so special. Still reading? You’re the worst. Just kidding. Sort of.
Bill McKibben once recorded an entire day of everything that came across the air on all the television stations. He then went through the thousands of hours to see what themes emerged (talk about a veritable hell). Of the 2,400 hours of TV he combed through, he writes,
What I found… was this one overriding message: You are the most important thing on earth. You, sitting there on the couch, clutching the remote, are the center of creation, the heaviest object in the known universe; all things orbit your desires. This Bud’s for you. 1
What’s scary is that McKibben did this experiment before Twitter, before Facebook, before every other online social media device enforced this notion to the tenth degree. Yet his commentary on the problem could not be more fitting. As he puts it, “For environmentalists (as for preachers, and for those interested in social justice) no idea could be more dangerous. Not only do we need to see that we are part of something much larger, we need to feel the claims of that larger order. If our environmental problem is that we’ve gotten too large, then we need to figure out how to make ourselves smaller, less central.” 2.
We need to be humbled. Our world’s health demands it. Our own health demands it.
We can preach about how we are not the center of the universe all day long, but the truth is, until that ideal is actually felt, it cannot truly be understood. Wilderness pilgrimage helps us understand this lesson, and understand quickly. When people ask me about my experiences thruhiking the Appalachian Trail, or guiding, or on the Pacific Crest Trail, they ask me about the scenery. “Wasn’t it beautiful?” they ask. And the answer is yes. Yes of course it was beautiful.
But that hardly encapsulates the experience. The trail is hardly a giant conglomeration of miraculous sunsets, campfires, shooting stars, and banjo music. Rather, wilderness humbles you. When you are hauling a pack for 25-30 miles, day after day, or portaging 80 pound canoes through mud up to your knees, or walking for the fifth straight day in cold rain with wet clothes on your back and wet gear in your pack, wilderness pilgrimage feels anything but glamorous. It makes you hurt. Your knees ache. Your feet ache. Your back aches. You curse. You wonder why you are out there at all. To miss this aspect of pilgrimage is to miss the point.
I recently flipped through my copy of Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain,” and laughed out loud when I found pages full of mosquito guts and blood. I remembered that I had been reading this book during one of my trips in the Quetico (the Canadian Boundary Waters), when the bugs were so bad that I couldn’t escape them even when I slipped through the zipper of my tent. I spent the night slamming Merton on them, smiting the tiny bastards, and giving Merton’s monastic order “Trappist” an entirely new meaning. I did this with a maniacal laugh. You won’t understand unless you’ve spent a summer in the North Woods. There, the blackflies and mosquitoes can be hell. There were nights when they sounded like rain on my tent, trying to get to the light of my headlamp. They get in your food. They find one bit of exposed skin, and they attack it. They test your very sanity. And they remind you that you are not in charge. Coat yourself in Deet, and they’ll lick it off. Humble yourself or be humbled. One way or another, it’s coming. 3
A few summers ago I was in the middle of a thousand mile walk on the Pacific Crest Trail, and was crossing the Mojave Desert in Southern California. We got up early, planning to get some big miles in before the sun would bring the temperature to well over 100 degrees. A good plan—except it didn’t happen. I soon found myself trying to ascend an exposed mountain where the trail seemed non-existent and my world was reduced to sand and wind. The wind howled and the sand pelted my face. It got in my teeth. It was miserable. I’d take one step forward, sink up to my ankles, and then slide back with the wind, making about 1/3 of a normal step’s progress. Even if I stopped, there was no shelter and no escaping it.
Now, I had just come off a rough year in my life, where things had not gone how I had planned. And for some reason the past year and the treacherous sand and wind became combined in my mind. I got angrier and angrier as I trudged on until I found myself shouting, “I can’t control ONE GODDAMN thing,” inhaling more sand in the process. (The good about being in the middle of nowhere is people don’t lock you up when you randomly start screaming things like this). I shouted this over and over again, “NOT ONE GODDAMN THING,” utterly pissed off. And then, eventually, I found myself laughing at my absurdity and pitifulness. I began to shake my head as I said it, and instead of shouting it, I said it more softly this time. I can’t control one goddamn thing. Then it became a sort of prayer. “God, I can’t control one damn thing.” Then I ditched the “damn” to feel a bit better about my prayer life. And my prayer very much comforted me. I let go of control. I plodded on. Some things you can’t control. Sometimes it is very comforting to be humbled.
Here’s the thing… I get it.
On the one hand, I realize how melodramatic my temper tantrum on the mountain was. Of course there are things that are in our control, and of course we have an element of agency in our lives. I am also aware that some people struggle every single day and are humbled just trying to make ends meet. I am not so naïve to think that Wilderness is the answer to all of our problems.
On the other hand, I believe wild places can humble us and teach us something meaningful about God and our place in the created order. Theologian Ellen Davis puts it best in her interpretation of God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind. She writes,
What God says, in effect, is this: ‘Look away from yourself, Job; look around you. For a moment see the world with my eyes, in all its intricacy and wild beauty. The beauty is in the wildness, Job; you cannot tame all that frightens you without losing the beauty.’ God calls this man of integrity to take his place in a ravishing but dangerous world where only those who relinquish their personal expectations can live in peace. The price of peace is the surrender of our personal expectations, which are always too small for the huge freedom built into the system. The great question that God’s speech poses out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control? 4
Can you love what you do not control?
Can you love a God you cannot control? Can you take your place in a story greater than you? Can you see the beauty in the wildness?
The wild places change our perspective because they allow us to see in terrible beauty our place in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes wilderness shows us how small and inconsequential we are; miniscule, an ant on the side of a mountain, nothing, a million stars above. Sometimes, it shows us the grace of the world; quiet sunsets, a soft rain, fall leaves bursting forth like fireworks. The harsh juxtaposition of all these things allows us to reposition ourselves within a greater story, and God willing, remind us of our calling “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” not through puffing ourselves up, not by controlling what isn’t ours to control, but through accepting the good gifts given to us, responding in gratitude, and remembering that we are in the midst of a story far greater and more beautiful than we can possibly imagine.
- Bill McKibben, The Bill McKibben Reader. (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008), 20. ↩
- Bill McKibben, Introduction to The End of Nature. (New York: Random House, 1999), xxiv. ↩
- Coincidentally, I had written this section on blackflies before I read McKibben’s article regarding television. It so happens that in the same article he examines the merits of blackflies. It seems blackflies leave quite the impression. ↩
- Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2001), 140, (italics mine). ↩