This is the second installment in an ongoing series on Wilderness Pilgrimage.
A few weeks ago I joined some friends for an overnight on the Appalachian Trail. We hiked in, swam in a pond we weren’t supposed to swim in, and talked late into the night. The hiking was good, the water was more than fine, and the storytelling abounded. It was, as the prophets of old used to say, the “cat’s pajamas.”
At one point, our dear Editor in Chief asked, “Isn’t it kind of crazy that we left school and drove a couple hours and made such a big effort to come do this?”
I responded that no, this was not crazy, but in fact what we were doing is what we are designed for, and what is in fact crazy is much of what we construe as our accepted normal.
I could tell that Will was quite moved by my words. He responded, “Nate, truly you are a leader amongst men, wise beyond your years, a prophet and beacon of sanity in these troubled times.”
Okay, he didn’t really say that. Instead, my sentiment kindled a debate among the editors of The EcoTheo Review as to whether wilderness truly is essential or beneficial for everyone, or if I was instead instilling my own, bourgeoisie, privileged values on others and undermining their human experience as well as the agency of God in their lives. Don’t you wish you were a seminary student and could argue about such things over a beer? Yes. Yes you do.
I knew then that the only thing for it was to go and sit in a temperature controlled room and type in front of an illuminated computer screen for a few hours so that I could spread my prophetic vision to other people sitting in climate controlled rooms in front of their own isolated illuminated screens, urging them to leave their screens so that they, too, might swim illegally in ponds and embrace some sort of sane existence.
I’m speaking somewhat glibly, of course. In my first installment, I wrote that living away from wild places made me feel as if I can’t breathe. On one level I stand by this statement as true. I know that I do not feel whole, I do not feel right, I do not feel in touch with my God or my humanity whenever I am cut off from the wildness of Creation for long. I honestly believe that we are meant to live in frequent contact with the natural world, awed by magnificence not of what man has accomplished but by the good gifts which God has granted us since the beginning of our existence.
On the other hand, I’d do well to not speak too casually about “not breathing,”
for indeed I have never lived in a place where the air quality is so poor that people develop asthma and other respiratory illness simply by living where they do, in conditions they cannot leave, with a relationship to the natural world as foreign to them as their daily reality is to me. As Will mentioned in his first article, there are people living in close proximity to me who daily breath in the fumes of burning trash. I do not wish to insult the existence of people I do not know or to judge the lives of others that are filled with beauties and struggles I cannot possibly imagine.
I believe my ability to get to naturally wild places is a gift, and one that I feel incredibly lucky to have. My hope is for more people to be able to receive this gift, and my argument is that such contact with the natural world has the potential to be incredibly beneficial to our relationships to our Creator, to creation, to our common humanity, and to ourselves. My hope is that more people will fall in love with the beauty of the world, and that this love will translate into taking action that simultaneously protects those who do not have clean water to drink or clean air to breath. As Prophet Berry puts it, “it all turns on affection.” 1 And affection is garnered from a sense of “knowing.”
The truth is this: you will not protect something you do not love, and you cannot love something you do not know.
By experiencing wilderness pilgrimage, we begin to know creation better, even if just a little. Pilgrimage as a spiritual discipline makes us step outside our own backyards and recognize that “the Earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it.” 2It has to be experienced in its rawness. It has to be felt. Only then will we realize, as Berry writes, “there are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places.” 3 If we do not begin to see the world as sacred, we will find ourselves overrun with more and more desecrated places.
Seeing a picture of Kings Canyon on a calendar is one thing. When you actually sit by the gurgling white of that canyon’s river, with great walls of imposing granite above and trees older than Christ all around, well… that is another thing altogether. We become reverent through experience. And this need not be in a National Park. There are yet wild places within striking distance of most Americans. These places, too, are from God, and they, too, are sacred. Those who have witnessed the cathedrals of Europe would not think of throwing a chair through the stained glass. And when people actually see the beauty of the world in which we live, and actually get a love of these places inside them, they will be less likely to desecrate the world, as well.
We treat pollution with an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. When we embark on wilderness pilgrimage, however, this allusion becomes a sham.
We see that the snow melt from the mountain which we descend fills the trailside stream, which flows into the big river a few miles down the trail, which feeds the next lake we come to, which drains again into another set of streams further down (and on and on). When you know someone has urinated in the river upstream of you, it does not matter that after a mile of walking downstream the urine is diluted to non-existence. When you fill your water bottle, you cannot help but feel you are drinking piss. If more people were actually aware that their crap actually went somewhere and affected both people and landscapes aversely, perhaps they’d think twice about how they disposed of it. If people actually knew on a visceral level that their consumptive habits destroyed beauty, or that their discarded waste was being burned while their neighbors inhaled the fumes, perhaps they would change their behavior.
Is deep interaction with the natural world essential to what it means to be a human?
I don’t know that a final answer to this question will ultimately accomplish much. But I will say this much: I know what I want. I want people to fall in love with the beauty of Creation. I want that love to garner greater love and awe of the Creator. And I want those loves to translate into a stewardship that reflects greater love for our neighbors.
- Wendell Berry. “It all Turns on Affection.” (from his Jefferson Lecture, [http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture], 2012. ↩
- Psalm 24:1 NRSV ↩
- Wendell Berry, “How To be A Poet,” (found on “The Poetry Foundation” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/30299) ↩