Saturday, July 25, 2009

Understanding Isolation in the Natural Realm


I’ve been thinking a lot about Native Americans, land, systems of organizing people, personal and collective heritage… well it’s a lot of stuff that’s not easy to list out. I’ll start with a Wendell Berry essay I read recently called The Body and the Earth, taken from his book “The Unsettling of America.”

In this essay, he talks about rites of passage, wilderness, and what it means to be human. The point of bringing all that up, of course, is to provide a meaningful critique of American culture. Rites of passage, he says, are a human tradition by which an individual faces his or her smallness (really mankind’s smallness) in relation to the created order and then comes out with a better understanding of mankind’s place in it all. Another way to say it is that one goes into the wilderness to face death and be reborn.

His point is that we don’t have any wilderness left; therefore, we cannot place ourselves meaningfully within creation. Rather than measure ourselves in relation to nature, we measure ourselves according to the manufactured world. By disconnecting ourselves from the earth, we have made it that much harder to understand what it means to be human. Thus, we further disconnect ourselves as we build a society centered on industry and information.

Reading this essay made me think about the couple days I spent in the Sierra Nevadas last summer. I’ve never understood why being in nature stirs me like it does, but part of it, I’ve come to realize, is because nature itself is counter-cultural.

Let me explain.

The environment which shapes our way of living and thinking and understanding our experiences is contrary to the natural order. Therefore, alone in nature, you have to understand yourself through a different rubric. You are not only removed from the modern infrastructure, but also the modern mindset.

The things around you are foreign. They do not depend on gasoline. They are not producing anything to market or sell. They were not put in place by a human thinking human thoughts. A tree does not measure its progress as it grows. An ecosystem does not study itself to figure how to maximize profit.

To be isolated in nature is to dwell in a realm not dominated and shaped by man's ambitions.

Technological advances in the last couple centuries and urbanization have created a world where a lot of people live their entire lives farther removed from nature than ever. We mostly live, as Berry says, in the world we have created. Basically everything we come into contact with has been fashioned by other people, most of it by some kind of business.

Just sitting here looking around my bedroom, I see products brought to me by Shwin, Dell, Work ‘n Sport, Basic, Bic, Morgan, Panasonic, Mirra, and a bunch of others. We forget that all the stuff these companies use to build their products comes from the earth, one way or another. Sometimes, we even forget this about the grocery companies!

Someone told me the other day that scientists have figured out how to grow meat! Imagine that! A slimy chunk of meat sitting under a plastic bubble in some lab, growing from the tubes stuck into it!

No wonder it felt so strange to spend two days by myself in the mountains last year—away from the sight and smell and sound of all our crazy inventions. No wonder if felt foreign to a mind shaped by such a conundrum from 23 years! We have so removed ourselves from the natural realm and the humility and wisdom it holds for us, that is feels un-natural to spend any significant amount of time within it.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Sierra Nevadas

The next couple of posts are basically adapted journal entries dealing with nature. As my own understanding mankind’s relationship to creation develops, I look back on experiences I’ve had over the last several years. (Or maybe it’s the looking back itself that develops my perspective). The following paragraphs were written in August of 2008, when I went out to California to visit my friends Dan and Rachel and go to my friend Eric’s wedding.

I spent a couple nights in the mountains by myself. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done, probably. Dan dropped me off where the Pacific Crest Trail comes real close to I-80, right near Donner Summit. He had packed me a bag and let me use all his gear. He and Rachel were having a family gathering and Donner Lake, and the pass sits right between their house and the lake. So he dropped me off Friday night and picked me up Sunday afternoon.

The first night I stayed up on a place called Castle Peak. I found a little nest thing that somebody had made underneath a pine tree. In the morning I followed the trail, which goes north along this big ridge with huge valleys on either side. The valley on the east side had lots of ridges, big open grassy fields, pine trees, and huge rock formations jutting up within it. One big hill in the middle was covered with pines that seemed to lead up to a perfect point, like the spot in a painting or photograph where your eyes are naturally drawn by leading lines. As you walked further on the trail, you could see a little lake on the valley floor, surrounded by swampy green grass, trees, and white rock faces. That’s where I camped the second night.

I climbed down through a lot of scratchy bushes, wild flowers, and chunky rocks. The further I descended, the more isolated I felt and the more I questioned each step I took. Hundreds of potential disaster situations played through my mind. “If I slip and break my leg, nobody is going to find me for a long time. I will be a stupid hiker statistic. If I’m alive when the rescue crew finds me, they’ll say, ‘You’re damn lucky, kid. You almost got what you deserved wandering down there by yourself.’”

Well, I made it down. I only realized how huge of a hole I had climbed into once I reached the bottom and stood on the rocks by the shimmering lake water. What had looked like a big hill full of pines from up on the ridge was now a mountain of its own. This side of it was sheer, white rock faces that jutted up at least 200 feet. In fact, from where I stood by the little lake, I couldn’t even see Castle Peak where I slept the night before because this rock mountain stood in the way.

I got naked and swam in the lake (what else do you do when you’re alone in the mountains?) I wrote in my journal a bit, found a perfect place to sleep, made some food, went to bed as the sky was darkening. The next morning, I climbed out. Back up on the ridge, where you could see the whole valley, I realized I had taken a very difficult and steep route. There was a trail that led up a gentle, grassy slope that sat on the backside of a steep rock face. How was I to know from way down there?

Anyway, the point of this isn’t to relay every detail of my experience. At times during these 42 hours I felt this strange sensation that I was in the wilderness, but not really. Sure, I was more alone than ever in terms of access to people. Down in the valley, the number of people within a one-mile radius of me was probably the smallest it’s ever been. And it wouldn’t have been easy to get to any of those people. However, as I perched on huge, silent rocks looking over the valley that stretched to the east, I felt at the same time that I was at home and that I was a foreigner.

The mountains around me and everything growing on their surface—it all seemed comfortable with itself. The trees were comfortable to sit in stillness and let the wind comb through their branches. The boulders were content to rest as they had rested for thousands of years. Part of me blended so naturally into this life, adopting its posture of silent reverence, taking water from the cool streams to nourish myself, absorbing the sweet scent of wildflowers and taking shelter from the sun beneath the pines.

Yet I knew that I was carrying civilization inside myself. I knew my thoughts were not the thoughts of one who has lived long in the mountains. They had been molded by modern conventions—computers, cell phones, consumer centers, the music industry, automobiles, television, ect.

But you can’t blame it all on technology. I spent a good deal of time thinking about this girl who I’m supposed to see next week who I took on a date a year ago—you know, wondering what it’ll be like to see her, making conversations in my head about what we’ll talk about, thinking of where we’ll go and what we’ll do. I spent some time journaling about women in general, and something about it felt strangely perverse, like it was a shame to be cluttering the valley with all my goofy thoughts.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Inspiration from a Child's Perspective

The last time I rode my bike from Manteno to my house, I stopped briefly at the state park. Next to the suspension bridge, I stood for a while looking at the stone memorial commemorating Rockville, a settlement established there in the 1830s. I looked down a path that leads to the bike trail, and something made me think about how exciting the sight would have been to me when I was eight years old.

When I was a kid, simple things like an over-grown path surrounded by trees and leading down a hill inspired me. The trees were filled with Indians and I was a cowboy. The trees were filled with dinosaurs and I was a Jurassic Park ranger. Things in nature were bigger and grander when I was a kid.

I remember getting stung by a bee down the gravel road from my house when my mom and grandma were picking some kind of flowers that used to grow there. There’s just a little hill where the flowers grew, but back then it seemed huge.

I remember building a fort in the woods between my grandparent’s house and ours. The thrill of constructing a shelter in a wild, unsettled place nearly overwhelmed me.

Now, the woods is just a dinky splotch of dying trees, cut in half by ComEd’s power lines that stretch overhead. The state park is just an over-trodden patch of land, full of people seeking leisure next to the river.

But as I’ve learned about my town’s history and what the land held for the Indians and the early settlers after them, I wonder which perspective is more accurate. Perhaps it takes a child-like imagination to see the beauty and wonder that time and development have slowly covered up. With that understanding, what remains of the natural order still offers a wealth of resources and lessons.