As I get older I get this feeling that I struggle with the same things in life over and over, and many of the new things I see are just those same issues in different contexts. We make progress and change scenery, but those things are our fellow travelers and we might just make peace with them. They’re old friends in a way, because jousting with them always teaches us something or gets us somewhere.
In that way, I think I’m always going to want to be somewhere other than where I am. I’ll always feel the pull to other places, and some more than others. For the last few years, I’ve wanted to be in north Florida at this time of year, near the rhythm of the ocean and the shorebirds and the color and flower of a gentle winter. But by summer I’m dreaming of the mountains. Not during May, though – that’s the one time I want to be nowhere more than where I am – as long as I’m in Indiana, where it’s dewy and the spring settles over things like a mist. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I wanted to be back here during May.
There are people who’ve attributed that longing for other places as a kind of willful dissatisfaction with the world, or a kind of petulant unwillingness to accept that life isn’t always perfect, a flaw that needs to be worked on or resolved. At times even I have gotten frustrated with myself with it, but these days I think I’m just a traveler. I have a lot of places that I love in a lot of different seasons. In early June, Indiana has settled into a harder, less ethereal green, and I’m ready to drive out to South Dakota to see the newest bison calves at Custer, and then from there head to the San Juan Islands off Washington. I’m pretty sure that, free of all constraints, I would spend a lot of time seeking these moments.
Those of us with a Calvinistic tendency to self-police might read some John Muir.
One of the differences between John Muir and me is that he quit judging himself and his own inclinations at an earlier age. On his walk to Florida, he stayed with a blacksmith in the Cumberland Mountains. During their dinner of corn bread and bacon, the blacksmith asked Muir what he was doing down South, and Muir replied that he was collecting plants.
“You look like a strong-minded man,” he replied, “and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms doesn’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”
To this I replied, “You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls. Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I’ll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies how they grow’, and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory?
Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s?”
And this after spending the Civil War years in Canada dodging the draft.
I wonder if he would have connected countless people with nature or inspired an environmental ethos if he’d been the type of person who was vulnerable to the blacksmith’s criticism. But that’s not the important question. Setting aside what the world would have lost, what would he have lost, had he stopped short there in Kentucky and taken up labor that meant nothing to him?
Next time you feel uncomfortable about your own inclinations or longings, the kind that hurt no one, remember Muir. The inclinations that form part of our selves ought never to be negotiable.