I have a distinct memory of the first night I ever spent in the wilderness. I was in the Vermont woods at the beginning of May, still early enough to be cold after dark. We were on the Long Trail, and I was burrowing inside my sleeping bag for the night. As I snuggled inside and tried to relax, I was overcome with an awareness of something I’d never faced before: that to fall asleep was to abandon myself to the noises I was hearing in the space beyond the toe of my bag. As soon as I fell asleep, I was fair game for the inhabitants of those woods, whatever and wherever they might be.
I had a similar sensation the first time I donned scuba gear and was about to scissor-step off the dive boat into the Atlantic Ocean and down to the reef below. My instructor, a world-renowned cave diver, winked at us, his students. “You’re about to enter the food chain,” he quipped.
What binds me most to the natural world is not the gauzy aura of a benign and gentle Mother Nature, but a sense that in the wilderness I am subject to the dangers, the horrors, and the disgust that live in that world to a degree far greater than otherwise. That is why I differed a bit with this article:
The idea that nature is a bittersweet and sometimes forbidding place is not, as they say, currently trending. More prevalent is the view reflected in a recent caution from the Chicago Manual of Style editors that capital-N “Nature” is to be used only to denote “a goddess dressed in a flowing garment and flinging fruit and flowers everywhere.” The comment is tongue-in-cheek, but the point is well taken. The natural world is increasingly seen as a gentle and giving realm of the spirit.
I don’t necessarily want to argue this point, because for all I know, he’s quite right. But while I certainly see the natural world as a comforting “realm of the spirit,” I see nothing gentle about it at all. Yes, the beauty of the natural world is staggering and connects me with my feelings in a primal and powerful way, but I’ve felt just as often that it was trying to kill me. I’ve photographed wildfires, breathing in the dense smoke and watching as flames thoughtlessly consumed the woodland Eden I was hiking in just the previous season. I’ve been stranded in the backcountry in violent storms, and I’ve spent a night high in the mountains with altitude sickness fighting nightmares and paranoia. I can’t say I enjoy that sort of thing for its own sake, but it connects me with my humanity in a way that nothing else does, perhaps even the exhilarating high of the natural world when it seems welcoming and lovely.
I spent some time recently with two co-religionists of nature, if you will. One of them is my partner and the other is his close friend of thirty years. We spent long hours walking in the woods and talking about our childhood experiences of nature. I heard tales of decomposing snakes being consumed by maggots, leeches stuck on wading legs, and killing and eating rattlesnakes. Not exactly the stuff of flowers and fruit, these were nonetheless the encounters that cemented a lifelong attraction to the natural world. After that discussion came the trading of “worst night in the wildnerness” stories. Fascinating, how those held so much more relish and potency than our “best night in the wilderness” stories.
Don’t get me wrong – I take the point, I really do. The natural world is simply less dangerous (and less “natural”) since overwhelming human dominance took hold. There is an sour paradox to neutering the natural world and then taking comfort in that sterility and calling it a love of nature. I co-sign this:
In fact, one might argue that the works that have brought us closest to nature have depended on a more welcoming wilderness. But another truth should be foremost in mind: that what we call nature today is a kinder, gentler, more depauperate world than at any time since at least the late Paleozoic, some 300 million years ago. Nature is not a temple, but a ruin. A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.
This is a worthy warning. I’m probably just crabby at my perception of having been accused of being some kind of a tree-hugging dilettante leaping through the forest, spreading fairy dust everywhere. But I do depart here:
It hasn’t been my experience that full-force nature directs the mind toward thoughts of positive vibrations or divine master plans. Nature itself is enough, its stories written in blood and shit and electrons and birdsong, and in this we may ultimately find all the sacredness we seem to need.
Nope, sorry. I’ve had plenty of encounters with “full-force nature” – some of them in the last six weeks. And while I ordinarily associate “positive vibrations” with something else entirely – cough – those encounters have actually drawn me further into the natural world, and to life, and to risk. Of course, I can’t deny feeling grief at the baseness and horror nature can serve up.
But I (and most of the “hard-core” nature lovers I know) am very much connected to the “blood and shit and electrons and birdsong.” In the end, I suppose I just assume that those who “romanticize” the prettiest parts of nature aren’t the ones who immerse themselves deeply within it, and for the most part they’re well aware that they’re not comfortable with nature’s sharper edges, and don’t pretend to be.