I am losing precious days… I am learning nothing in this trivial world.
I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news. – John Muir
Every year I observe two holy weeks. One is the Christian Holy Week, the densely liturgical mimesis of Jesus’ last days of mortal life. The other is an annual solo backpack in the mountains of the American West. Both are total immersions into the sacred without which my year would be incomplete.
The sacredness of the American landscape has long been a powerful theme in American thought and feeling. To see the sacred in a Massachusetts pond, a Southwest canyon, or an old growth forest is not a denial of the physical in favor of a spiritual “elsewhere,” but a penetration to creation’s inherent depth. The material is not the opposite of spiritual, but its mediation, its container.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the American landscape painters known as “Luminists” made their canvases glow with a divine transparency, while the literary circle of Transcendentalists translated nature’s otherness into language. Emerson insisted that “the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as an apparition of God … A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.” And when Thoreau withdrew from contemporary society to his Walden refuge, he found “something true and sublime,” where “the morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted.” Is not everyone who ventures “outside” seeking a similar epiphany?
I keep my walking stick by the front entrance of our home, a daily reminder that the path to God-knows-where is always just on the other side of the door. Two weeks ago I tossed the stick in my car, along with my backpack, and headed for Montana. After a couple of days hiking into the Beartooth mountains north of Yellowstone, I reached a large alpine lake, set in a rocky bowl above treeline, with splendid views of several 12,000’ peaks. From there I made a joyous ramble into the high country beyond the lake, where cumulus shadows glided slowly across immense sunlit walls. Three bald eagles circled over a stream-watered basin. Lush gardens of paintbrush, bluebells, asters and buttercups occupied the hollows vacated by melting snowfields. I dangled my legs over a precipice for a better view of the world below. I lay back in the fragrant grass to consider the radiant sky. I knew again the plenitude of summer, that timeless contentment where one feels, as Wallace Stevens felt, “complete in an unexplained completion.”
That night around 1 a.m., I got out of my tent to see the stars, but clouds had gathered since sunset, so I secured the rain fly over my tent and crawled back inside. I had just drifted off when a couple of large animals entered my campsite, their heavy footsteps awakening me to full alert. The rain fly only allowed a narrow view directly forward from the tent, so I could not identify my visitors, who were off to the side. I could only listen as they explored the camp. I heard breathing just beyond the tent’s nylon wall, a snorting sound that put an image of a bear in my mind. Was it a black bear or the more dangerous grizzly?
Then one of the creatures jumped past the front of the tent. The moon had not yet risen, so I saw only a shadowy blur. It was the size of a large dog, probably a juvenile. And its coat seemed to reflect light, even in the gloom. Could it be the white of a mountain goat, or the light gray fur of a grizzly cub? I just wasn’t sure, and I decided to remain still and silent within my tent rather than provoke an encounter by sticking my head out for a look, especially since I was now situated between parent and child, never a good thing with wild animals.
Imagination and solitude are a potent combination in the middle of the night. I breathed. I prayed. I tried to remember what I had read years ago in Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. I thought about St. Francis making peace with the wolf. I had enjoyed the wildness of the place as a spectator in the light of day. But now the wild had come to call on me directly. In the dark of night. What did it want to tell me: You don’t belong here? Your precious subjectivity is meaningless to the appetite of carnivores? What did you expect to find, so far from your human world?
Or: Be not afraid.
After a long hour and a half, the creatures departed. Just before they did so, I saw the silhouetted head of the juvenile, backlit by the rising quarter moon, pop up from behind a rock. It bleated, then vanished. No ursine growl, only a rather playful goodbye. When dawn finally came, I found tufts of fine white wool snagged on the branches of shrubs around my camp. Mountain goats indeed.
I drove out of the mountains through Yellowstone National Park, where wild animals are often visible along the paved roads – bison, bears, deer and elk. At every sighting, people abandon their cars, running toward a vantage point with their cameras and phones to collect a digital simulation of wilderness – something to keep and take back home. This commodification of the wild as consumable experience is a fascinating spectacle that only underlines our everyday alienation from nature. I can’t criticize. I did it too. I got a nice shot of a bull elk when the skittish tourists fled out of frame while I stood my ground.
But wildness can’t be adequately encountered a few feet from your car, or in short stops at viewpoints along an asphalt road. You need to go deeper, further, dwell in its otherness for a time, risk its strangeness, wait patiently until it is ready to deliver the news.