Tag Archive 'spirituality'

Jul 19 2021

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Deep Woods Solitude

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A few days ago I hiked five and a half miles into Five Ponds Wilderness, located in the western Adirondacks, and set up camp at Cat Mountain Pond. I got there early in the afternoon, hoping to be the first person there. I was. In fact, I was the only person there well into the next day.

After a quick swim to wash away sweat, I settled into a rather pensive frame of mind. This is normal for me. As a philosopher of wildness, I often contemplate existence and meaning while sojourned in the woods. The wild seems to me like the best place to do so. The wilder, the better.

With no one to talk to, all my elaborate philosophical arguments seem rather moot. The wild isn’t interested in my version of reality. It is reality. I can babble all sorts of logical theorems to myself, but that’s pointless. I can scribble down my thoughts in a journal, but my thoughts are dominated by the wild. That is, if I’m paying any attention to my surroundings, all I can do is take dictation.

Are my journals the gospel according to the wild? Hardly. There’s a big difference between experiencing the reality of the wild and being able to articulate it. After forty-odd years of scribbling I’ve come close perhaps, but deserve no cigar. There remains some aspect of the natural world that eludes me. There remains some aspect of it that is beyond words.

All interpretations of the Real are sadly lacking. The wild teaches me this time and time again. It teaches me this when the sun sets, a barred owl hoots and the hum of insects fills the forest. It teaches me this as a great wild silence settles over a still pond. All I can do is listen, and this listening borders upon being a mystical experience, for that’s all that we mere mortals can do.

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May 28 2012

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A Crazed Bushwhack

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At first I was only looking for a place to go for an easy day hike, but when I saw Bone Mountain on the map, I felt an old, familiar urge to push myself to the limit again. So I grabbed my rucksack, loaded my dog Matika into the car and headed for that rugged high ground.

There are no trails to Bone but a brook tumbles from a notch between that peak and Woodward. I tagged the brook and followed it until I was a mile or so away from the road.

As I recalled from a bushwhack many years earlier, the notch between Bone and Woodward is so cluttered with rocks and fallen trees that one can’t actually touch the ground while traversing it. Not good for my dog, so I left the brook long before reaching the notch. I started moving uphill through the trackless forest, following a compass bearing east southeast, towards a shoulder of the mountain.

Hobbled by hobblebush, sweating profusely, and stopping frequently to catch my breath, the climb was as hard as any climb can be. More than once I dropped onto all fours to negotiate steep pitches. Matika did better than me as a rule, but it took my eye to find a route up through cliff walls. When finally we reached the summit, we were both played out and running low on water. That’s when I caught a glimpse through the trees of another peak half a mile away – one that looked more like Bone than the summit I was standing on.

Bone Mountain has taken on religious significance for me over the years precisely because it’s so damned hard to reach. I’ve only been on top of it a few times, having missed it more often than not. As I sat on that false summit, stewing in humility, I realized that I’d missed it again.

The descent was long, steep, and hard on the knees. Once I had to rescue my dog from a cliff’s edge where she got stuck. After that it was a tiring slog down to the brook that took us out.  I was happy to see the car again, but just as happy to have done the bushwhack. After all, I got what I was after.


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Oct 20 2009

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Spiritual, Earthy and Wild

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There are three words that make me especially uncomfortable:  spiritual, earthy, wild.  I use them all the time, in one context or another, but always with just a touch of apprehension.  All three words are loaded – fraught with meanings given them by thousands of naturalists before me.  Might as well add the word “naturalist” to the list.  I can’t even think about myself that way without feeling like something of a fraud.  I notice plants, watch wildlife, and read the landscape while wandering through the woods, but I’m no naturalist.  Not really.

What is spirituality?  These days many people call themselves spiritual instead of religious, thereby distancing themselves from organized religions while still asserting a belief in some kind of intangible reality.  Often such people claim a spiritual connection to the earth, though it’s never clear what this means.  No doubt it means different things to different people.  Yet the word “spiritual” implies the otherworldly, the ethereal, or a force transcending the physical.  How can a skeptic like me believe that such a realm actually exists?  There is no irrefutable proof one way or the other.

Someone says “earthy” to me and a groovy, long-haired dude and his girlfriend come to mind, both wearing clothes made with natural fibers.  I catch a whiff of patchouli every time I hear the word.  That and body odor.  Is that the Grateful Dead I hear playing in the background?  Why do I feel this sudden urge to dance barefoot while beating on a tambourine?  No, I’m not that earthy.  I’ve been known to hang upside down and naked from a tree branch overhanging a brook, splashing water into my face all the while, but most people would consider that kind of behavior strange, not earthy.  Especially if there are no drugs or alcohol involved.

As for wildness, well, we all know how vague that word is.  It means a thousand different things: unrestrained, untamed, out of control, or uncultivated to name only a few.  The word “wild” is as hard to pin down as words like “truth” or “love.”   My dog is utterly tame, yet there’s some wildness in her.  Same goes for me, or am I only deluding myself?  I obey traffic laws when I drive, file my taxes annually, and know how to behave myself in a social setting so how wild can I be?  How wild is the wilderness area in which I roam when it takes an act of congress to keep it from being developed?  How wild is wildlife when it’s being managed by biologists and bureaucrats?  How wild is a gun-toting, motorcycle barbarian when he’s wearing gang tattoos?  How wild can sex be when it’s only for fun?  The wild, it seems, has been turned inside out.

Whenever I hike alone, deep into wilderness for days on end, I feel more spiritual, earthy and wild.  That is, I feel a growing bond to the physical world, as well as to something reaching beyond the senses.  I shed the trappings of social convention like an old skin, and commune with a wilder society consisting of plants, animals, rocks, forest duff, water and wind.  In the wild, mud is no stranger to me.  Blood-sucking insects aren’t either.  In wilderness, the endless cycle of life and death is everywhere around me, so I can’t help but wonder what keeps it going.  Nature?  I can’t use that word any more without genuflecting.  I am astounded by the natural world.  I am rendered mute by the real.  It is so far beyond any civilized understanding that there’s no sense talking about it at all.

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Oct 14 2009

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Trail Pounding

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Modern living is complex, frustrating, and stressful.  The trail is something else.  So every once in a while, I fill my pack with a few essentials and head for the hills.  I go for a couple weeks, a couple days, or a few hours – whatever I can arrange.  Breaking away is the hard part.  Once I manage that, I’m home free.

It’s not as much escape as it is an act of simplification.  I step into the woods and life makes more sense almost immediately.  The daily routine here in the developed lowlands is full of noise, but silence reigns in the forest – a profound quiet in which I can hear myself think.  Some people go to great lengths to center themselves.  They sit in lotus positions for hours on end.  They pray, meditate, or simply clear their heads.  I just step into the woods.  Wild nature does the rest.

Woods wandering at its best is aimless.  Trail pounding, on the other hand, usually involves some kind of goal.  I prefer the former but resort to the latter on occasion.  Sometimes I hike hard for days, clock miles and go somewhere just for the sweaty pleasure of it.  Most hikers can relate to this.  The leap from modern living to trail pounding isn’t a great one.

Most hikers pound the trail for a few hours at a time.  Some do it for a few days, or as long as they can push their bodies full throttle.  Hiking longer than that requires a different mindset.  Given enough time, trail pounding can become a way of life – no longer just a means to an end.  Then the line between trail pounding and woods wandering begins to blur.

Coming back to the developed lowlands after twelve days of trail pounding, I swore I’d never hike that hard again.  I told anyone who’d listen that I’m getting too old for this, that long-distance hiking isn’t my thing any more.  And I believed it.  But now, a month and a half later, I’m feeling physically better and mentally worse, and trail pounding is starting to look good to me again.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely understand it, but the wild has a way of righting what’s wrong deep within.  Aching muscles and sore joints seem a small price to pay for that.  There are times when pounding the trail seems an utterly senseless undertaking – usually when I’m calf-deep in mud, badly bug-bitten, and bone tired.  But I keep going back to it, month after month, year after year.  As long as the profound quiet keeps working its magic on me, I’ll keep my hiking stick close at hand.

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Aug 14 2009

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A Sacred Place

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I visited a sacred place the other day – a place I hadn’t visited in a long while.  It’s a wild and beautiful place tucked away in the woods.  Oddly enough, it’s not far from a road.  I’m sure others know about it but I’ve never seen a boot print there, much less another person.  It’s hard to say whether I intentionally sought out the place or simply ended up there.  As soon as one uses words like “sacred,” the mind unhinges from a strictly rational view of things.

A place isn’t sacred just because it’s wild and beautiful.  An aesthetic reaction to a place shouldn’t be confused with deep reverence.  I’ve made that mistake many times.  Yet you know a place is sacred when you sense the presence of the divine in it – the presence of something unspeakably real.  You know you’re in a sacred place when suddenly you sense life’s merry-go-round coming to a screeching halt.  It’s best not to ignore this signal.  As such times, in such places, the world itself is calling you.

A sacred place can be a mountain outcrop, a meadow, or a gorge along the brook.  In such a place I find it very easy pray, meditate, reflect, or simply contemplate existence.  I’ve found many things in a sacred place: morsels of insight, a good idea, a sense of perspective, sometimes even a profound sense of well being.  But sometimes I find nothing at all, and that’s okay.  What you won’t find in such a place is that self-destructive madness that some people call sin.  That’s why the word “sacred” is appropriate here, I think.

What’s that I hear?  – More rational minds are scoffing.  A psychologist tells me that it’s all in my head.  A logician points out the apparent flaws in my thinking.  Others insist that I’m just being emotional.  Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.  But none of this means anything on those rare occasions when I stand face-to-face with the divine.  At such times, I put my faith in the unspeakable, fully aware that reason has its limits.

I didn’t linger the other day.  I stayed in that place long enough only to reacquaint myself with the real.  But when I walked away, my life began anew.  When I was younger, I used to think that every encounter with the sacred necessarily triggers great change.  Now I know better.  It only signals a fresh start, similar to getting out of bed in the morning.  Yet somehow that’s enough.

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Apr 28 2009

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Wild Lilies

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After a short but intense round of writing this morning, I pulled on my hiking boots and shot out the door.  I couldn’t get to the woods fast enough.  I parked my car at the trailhead then hiked hard towards one of my favorite haunts.  There I found the objects of my desire: wildflowers of all sorts in bloom.  I found wild ginger, marsh marigolds, blue violets and various others on full display.  But the wild lilies are what really got my attention.

I dropped down on one knee next to a mixed patch of them – white and purple trilliums, trout lilies and bellwort – touching the flowers to make sure they were real.  I was astounded by their abundance. The unseasonable warmth that has graced Vermont during the past few days has brought them out a bit earlier than usual.  I enjoyed their elegance – how something so simple could be so beautiful.  I marveled at their unbroken symmetries – triads of petals and sepals convincing me that there’s a force in nature greater than myself.  Then I stepped away to continue my hike.

The daystar burned brightly overhead even as clouds gathered on the western horizon.  I smelled rain, so I turned around and hiked back to the car.  I saw two marsh hawks circling low over wetlands.  Suddenly robins appeared everywhere.  Splotches of green mottled the forested hills in the distance.  Matika panted heavily at my side, and I soaked my t-shirt with sweat as if it was summer.  I spotted more wildflowers here and there along the trail, but my head remained full of wild lilies.  Once they spring up there, it’s hard to get them out.

It makes perfect sense to me that lilies are associated with everlasting life.  That such life forms should suddenly emerge from the cold, dark earth is proof positive that chaos does not reign supreme in this world.  I find it difficult to behold wild lilies without lapsing into mysticism or waxing sentimental.

Give me a bouquet of lilies on my deathbed and I will pass away assured of something more than oblivion.  Until that day I will wander among them whenever I can, worshiping their Creator and rejoicing in the eternal renewal that is spring.  I’m a madman, I admit – mad with the simple pleasures of an infinitely varied world.  Whenever wild lilies are in bloom, nature does not disappoint.

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