"When the artist is alive in any person, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-impressive creature. Where others close the book he opens it and shows that there are still more pages to see..." Robert Henry
The more civilized we become , the better it is to venture into the wilderness alone. I know that the standard guidebooks advise against the practice, and precisely for the reason that it is so valuable. If you enter the wilderness alone, the books say, you expose yourself to danger. Perhaps you will lose your way, or break a leg, or suffer a heart attack, and then there will be no one to assist you. You might even die.
Of course, you expose yourself to equal danger, or worse, by riding in any car on any urban highway. You might encounter a drunk going the wrong direction at high speed, or find yourself in the path of a young executive speaking on a phone, or someone playing a highway game of chicken. Our highways have grown wilder than any wilderness. Since last summer, four of my friends have survived total wrecks and a fifth has died at the mercy of a driver with a blood alcohol count of 2.6 going the wrong way down a divided highway in the middle of the night without any lights. Still, I don’t know of any book that advises against entering automobiles for the sake of your health.
Nor, indeed, does the average driver feel any sense of imminent peril, rational as that may be. There are two reasons, I think. First frequent exposure habituates, or numbs, you to danger. I, for example, persist in giving public speeches despite the risks, of which I am keenly and repeatedly aware. Second, there is a vast difference between dangers you imagine that you can control and those to which you are helplessly vulnerable. I myself enjoy climbing mountains but tremble at the thought of mounting a stepladder. I trust the mountain but not the stepladder. If I fall off a mountain precipice, I at least presume that it will be because I have erred and not because the mountain betrayed me. I am prepared to live or to die with my own mistakes. But the stepladder wobbles; Its foothold may or may not be secure. When I ascend it, I submit to its weaknesses as much as my own. I am terrified.
It is this second kind of fear, the fear of vulnerability, that is, within reasonable limits, healthy in our lives. With respect to nature, at least, it is a fear we have largely lost. The loss goes a long way toward explaining our brutality against nature, a brutality that has pervasive consequences. We are not, unfortunately, discriminately brutal. Brutality is a poison of the human spirit -- a sin -- which manifests itself generally. If we rape the land and see nothing wrong with that, sooner or later we will rape each other too. This is why it is wrong to argue -- as it sometimes is -- that nature lovers are irrelevant escapists from the tough problems of life in society. If we would love each other, we must also love life itself. If we would love unconditionally -- which is the only kind of love that counts -- then our love will not be species-specific.
Love does not take the objects of veneration for granted. We make ourselves vulnerable to what we love. We submit to the possibility of the unexpected. When the surprise dies, so does the love. This suggests to me that there is an element of fear in love, the kind of fear that keeps us alert to the unexpected. The way to kill a relationship is to assume that you have figured it out. Once you have done so, any fear you might have had of it dissipates.
We like to think that we have got the measure of nature. Nothing, for me, underlines this pretension more plainly than the doomsday talk that attends our current infatuation with environmentalism. I have heard it announced to a roomful of apparently thoughtful people that life on earth will be destroyed by the year 1995 if we don’t improve our habits, and nobody laughed, nobody even questioned this pronouncement. It is true that we have failed the earth in devastating ways, and it is no doubt possible that we could ultimately render our planet uninhabitable for humans. But life itself has so far proved resilient and persistent, and I do not see evidence that, even in our stupidity, we are mighty enough to defeat it altogether. When we claim this power, we claim the power of God, forgetting that the power to create is greater than the power to destroy.
A book that has recently commanded much attention is entitled The End Of Nature. Its author, Bill McKibben, writing, he says, from an explicitly Christian viewpoint, [argues] that the nearly global contamination of the earth with industrial pollutants and the unstoppable warming of the earth’s climate, set into motion by our own deeds, mean that the very idea of nature has been vanquished.
Three assumptions, all dubious, underlie this question. One is the supposition that humans are not natural. We are undeniably a special case in nature, but we have arisen from it, sharing a common lineage with everything else that lives, and we remain subject to the ways of nature. To see ourselves as unnatural is to create a dichotomy that divorces us, ultimately, from the responsibility of living harmoniously in nature. The divorce was the beginning of our present trouble. A second assumption is that there exists somewhere a nature that is pure and undefiled. McKibben repeats the ancient story of Eden with a characteristically American twist: he treats what happened in the garden not as an allegory of sin , but as a picture of a world that remains paradisiacal wherever humans have not influenced it. Humans are seen, in this picture, as the solitary agents of evil in the world, as defilers of whatever they touch. They are not the beneficiaries of grace , but its singular foes: Collectively they are the Devil, driving away grace wherever they go. Theologically, McKibben’s world is one in which nothing happened after genesis, a world in which redemption is impossible. This philosophy is, at least in part self-hating. The third assumption is that humans transcend nature. Every species in some way, large or small, alters the world by its presence. If only human alterations, however, destroy nature and do so inevitably, then nature itself must be extraordinarily weak and delicate, so rigid and then that it shatters at the slightest blow. In believing this we flatter ourselves.
Our flattery takes the form of a false modesty -- oh how terrible we are! -- which is the highest kind of hubris, the hubris that insults God, who, after all, made nature.
One antidote to such pride is, I believe, to become intimately reacquainted with the larger world of the nature beyond ourselves, from which most of us have been estranged. There is no better way to strike that acquaintance than by going alone into some wild place. I am constantly impressed by the fact that even the Native Americans, for whom the closest possible knowledge of natural life was a matter of survival, believed in the efficacy of the solitary voyage into the wilderness. (To state the matter in this way, of course, puts a modern twist on it, the idea of wilderness being in the context of Native American culture [is] unimaginable.) Every young Plains Indian man was required as a precondition of entering adulthood to undertake a vision quest, a four-day sojourn in some sacred place remote from the tribal village. There, alone, fasting and praying, the young man awaited some message from nature. The message he received would give him a name, an identity, and a purpose in life. Both men and women at critical stages in their adult lives similarly sought wisdom in ritual withdrawals from society into the wilderness. The same tradition has extended into many societies and cultures. Jesus himself, you will recall, retreated for forty days and nights into the desert to meditate and pray before beginning his public ministry.
What is the value in this ancient and enduring practice? There is, of course, the value of solitude itself, which brings a perspective-clarifying distance from the confusion of every-day affairs. There is the advantage of time. Days that seem to whirl by in an indistinguishable blur, filled with to much of everything, are suddenly revealed in retreat to be long and spacious, sufficient. There is the advantage of concentration. One of the luxuries of such a solitude is the possibility of carrying a thought to its uninterrupted conclusion.
In actual practice, though, one quickly subverts these advantages. After only a day or two of solitude, one begins to impose a structure upon the experience. Light and darkness command their own schedules; household chores -- setting up and breaking camps, traveling from one point to another, fixing meals, gathering firewood -- become a major preoccupation; and very little thinking of the formal kind gets done. Thinking is a literate art; immersion in wilderness is a pre-literate experience. The hours in which one might have solved great personal or public problems become, in the fact, hours spent perched upon a rock with a pot of tea watching the sun set, listening to water lap against the shore, feeling the chill air fall as the shadows lengthen, and thinking about nothing, it would seem, in particular.
So where, ultimately, is the value in the experience? I think it lies in the act of making oneself vulnerable again. Sometimes on a cloudy night the wilderness world turns as dark as the depths of a cave or the bottom of the sea. It is impossible then to see your hand in front of your face. You lie in this utter darkness, feeling the hardness of the earth in your hip bones and shoulder blades. You have never been more aware of being entirely alone.
Across the lake a wolf begins to howl. It is not so much a howl as a wail, a long, low, lament, not languorous, but full toned and intense. The wolf has a tenor voice. It carries operatically across the lake, dies away, echoes back upon itself. You do not stir but your skin tingles. From far away comes the answer, three high trumpet-like notes on an ascending scale. A long silence, and then the wail again. And the same answer. You have never heard music like it, so haunting, so soulful. It lulls you into a dreamy half-sleep.
Later, you do not know how much later, time seeming to have vanished in the darkness of the night, you are abruptly awakened by a loud noise. It sounded about ten feet from your ear, and it was made by some living creature, a snort or grunt or perhaps a sneeze.
You sit up in your sleeping bag, your heart pounding, your mouth gone dry, trying not to breath audibly, listening through every pore in your skin. You only hear an eerie silence. You reach for your flashlight, train its beam across the little clearing in the forest where you are camped. Nothing glitters back at you; only the dull radiance of bark and matted needles and mosses gone grey reflects in the light-thirsty night.
You switch off the flashlight. It seems darker now than ever. You lie3 down again but you do not sleep. Every part of you is still alert for some further sign from the mysterious companion who has come to share the night with you. You hear every snapping twig, every rustling leaf, every lap of the water.
Later still you waken. It is light. Birds chirp in the forest undergrowth. You crawl groggily from your tent and stand in the sharp, clean-smelling morning air. Fog enshrouds the lake. The island across the way seems to be floating in it, as in a dream. You light your stove and boil a pot of coffee. A chipmunk advances warily to investigate the intrusion. You find a rock to lean against, drinking in the stillness with the coffee.
You have known the darkness of night. The fear that lurks in its shadows has stalked you, and now it is morning, and you have survived, and found peace, the peace that comes from having disappeared into the forest, from having taken a place in it, from having touched but not sullied something great and beautiful. You have been anointed with the grace of the world that god has made.
In your mind, the song of the wolves plays again, and you hear it now not as a lament but as a psalm. Keep that psalm in your heart. It will make you strong and humble, as befits us.