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Creek Running North
July 19, 2005
"So you're saying that the wilderness is your refuge. What's the big deal? A lot of people feel that way."
"Yeah, but it just seems so trite. Like ascribing some sort of holy power to a camping trip. And I'm surrounded by people who get all mystical and woo-woo about the field sprites and devas and stuff, and it turns me off but good. What if it's just my needing to get away from people, and the wilderness is the only place I can do that? I'm reluctant to read any more into it than that."
He opened my file, leafed through it. "Well, there's nothing wrong with needing to get away from people. But on our last visit in November, you talked about your fossil hunting on the creek as a kid, and you talked about the desert, and you seemed visibly lighter. A lot of people like to go camping, but it seems like it's something else for you as well.
"I'll tell you what I think, Chris. I think the wilderness – I don't care, the desert, the mountains, the ocean – I think that for you, that's a cathedral. That's where you go to get perspective, to be reminded that there are things out there bigger than you."
"Where I don't matter."
"Yeah, and that means that the stuff that's troubling you doesn't really matter either. Not in the long run."
I look at the carpet for a while. I think that this guy is pretty good for someone who claims not to have read Thoreau. "You know, I think I know when it was, the first time I realized that.
"I was nine maybe, or ten. It was summer, and my family was camping in western Massachusetts at a place called October Mountain. Mom wanted to go to Tanglewood – there was a period in our childhood that involved being dragged to a lot of classical music concerts. So we got to the campground, which was basically a huge lawn with RVs on it, and Dad picked out a site and we set up camp.
"And by that I mean that Dad did all the work and I sat in the car with my nose stuck in some book or other. Dad told me to go fill the water jugs. I hated this job. We had two collapsible plastic water containers, clear poly with hard plastic handles. One was two and a half gallons, the other five. To fill them you had to hold them up to the faucet, which hurt, especially with weak little arms like I had. And carrying them back was the worst, the handles digging into your palms. I hated that chore.
"So I pretended not to hear him, and then I said 'In a minute!', and then when he yelled at me to get off my ass and get the water already I was utterly furious at the unfairness of it all. And he thrust the water jugs at me and took my book away.
"I walked across the campground, fuming at my evil fascist of a father, and when I got to the spigot I saw a sign next to it that said 'hiking trail.' And I passed the spigot and kept going.
"The trail led out of the campground and into the foothills of October Mountain, in a forest of I think they were birches. I hiked uphill for what seemed like an hour, pushed by the furious desire to storm away from my father. I was probably really only gone half an hour at most. The further I walked, the less angry I became, and eventually I noticed that I was starting to feel a little guilty about being gone. With each step the anger pushing me up the trail was increasingly balanced by the guilt pushing me back.
"Before long, I reached the point along the trail where the two forces were precisely balanced. There was a rock there, and I sat on it for a while. It was strange, being there. No one knew where I was, and as long as I didn't move I was perfectly content to remain. Breeze in the forest canopy, dappled sun on the carpet of moss, light playing on the bark of the I think birches. I breathed for a while, listening.
"And then I saw a bit of movement. I looked at my feet. There was a bright orange newt, the kind you see sometimes in the forests back east. I watched it move slowly toward me across the moss. It came very close.
"And then I got up, ran back down the path to the spigot, strained to hold the jugs up to the tap as they filled, and hauled the water to our campsite. My father seemed not to notice that I'd been gone much longer than the chore ought to have taken. All was well. 'Dad, I saw a newt,' I said, 'let's go back and find it again.' Dad said 'we'll all go!' and the six of us walked up the trail to the rock I'd sat on. The newt was still there, or one just like it, moist orange skin against the leaf litter."
He smiled. "Our time's past up this week. But I have homework for you. Find a picture of an orange newt, the same species, whatever it is. And put it where you can see it during the day. Taped to your monitor or wherever. Keep that reminder visible."
We had a few more appointments. The family crisis that had prompted my curiosity about my inner emotional workings came to a sort of a resolution. My benefits ran out for the year. A year or so later, my mother handed me a box of old photos. One of them was a polaroid, underexposed and indistinct. Still, it was clear enough to show the trees weren't birches at all, but beeches and white oaks. And where you might see a vague orange smudge in mid-photo, I see shiny black eyes, pebbly skin, and the fine hairs on my thin arms standing on goosepimpled end as he approached.
Posted by Chris Clarke at July 19, 2005 02:33 PM
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I love this narrative. Being able to walk right out of the anger & resentment into a larger place. I wish more of us could do that more often.
You supposedly irreligious wilderness freaks don't fool us for a minute, you know. :-)Posted by: dale at July 19, 2005 03:32 PM
Two questions, one comment.
The questions first.
Why are you giving this away for free? Have you suddenly become independently wealthy?
The comment. Chris, if you really ................ on second thought, being a man of my word, I'm not even going to go there. It's your fire, and you can throw gasoline on it if you want to.Posted by: tost at July 19, 2005 06:00 PM
No wonder you're so eft up.Posted by: Dave at July 19, 2005 06:23 PM
I'm amazed at your Dad saying "we'll all go". If it was my family camping trips with my dad, it would be "now that you've got the water, we've got to get the tent up and dinner cooked and then straight to bed because we've got another thousand mile drive to another campsite tomorrow." We'd take a week long vacation and spend one night in Maryland, the next in North Carolina, maybe two nights in Florida if we were lucky, and then back to North Carolina and back to Maryland.
When I was a little kid, we lived in Mojave. That was before all the bad stuff happened. My parents were happy, my brother was well, and we all lived together and loved one another.
The desert, and Mount Soledad, and Red Rock Canyon (and tortoises, and green rattlers, and kangaroo rats, and the X-15, and the Carbon Black plant, and the Aquaduct, and irrigated alfalfa) were all part of the transparent backdrop of our lives.
When we needed something that you couldn't buy at Safeway or Western Auto, we went to Bakersfield. There was a drugstore there that sold Crash Cars, but I suspect that my parents had their own reasons for those trips, Crash-Car-unrelated.
In the five years we lived there, we went to Los Angeles (a couple of hours away) twice. Each time, we visited Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. I'm sure there are things you can get in LA that can't be had in Bakersfield, but I'm also pretty sure that they were secondary to the offerings of Walt and, umm, Knott. My parents were lovely people.
Crash Cars and The House of the Future were memorable, but the road trips that I cherish most were those that my mother would take us on in the summer, when she wasn't teaching. My favorite place was a roadside park, with an asphault parking lot and picnic tables. I think it was on Highway 58, but I may be wrong. I'm definitely NOT wrong that it was a place where Oak Creek passed near a road that led up toward the Tehachapi Mountains.
My mother would spread her blanket on the hillside and read while my brother and I caught tadpoles in Oak Creek. Butterflies attended our efforts among grasses and trees that were dramatically foreign to the greasewood and Joshua tree plain where our rent house sat, a half-hour's drive away.
Many thanks to you, Chris, for reminding me of this, and of so much that I haven't told.Posted by: de Selby at July 19, 2005 08:30 PM
deSelby, I'm near tears reading this. Thank you.Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 19, 2005 08:57 PM
My father would only camp far away from big groups, in somewhat remote campgrounds. He had many assignments for me on our monthly camping trips, or the month-long Summer trips: I had to wade across streams, and practice casting, to practice identifying the flora, and when I expressed an interest in fly-tying, I had first to fill the pages of a notebook with proper drawings of hooks and insects.
I was never quite a satisfactory sportswoman, and his lessons often ended in a blowout with my father, when he would declare me hopeless. And then I was set free to wander, and sit under moss-draped trees, and I learned and found something divine.
That dad was something of a drunkard and an a-hole, but he did manage to get us out of LA, and up into that Queets River rain forest again and again. The beach where we lived, and that rainforest gave me some sort of sustenance that I don't think even a stable family could have provided.
Thanks for your story - sorry for hijacking your comments!
Some things are about 180 degrees opposite of what we’ve always heard they are.
I used to walk through the streets of Mammoth Lakes, California, at night, with my dogs, and one night it really hit me that my town had only about three streetlights. All the other streets were exactly as dark as the night that poured down into them. I wondered why I felt so safe there, and I suddenly realized why cities have so many street lights, and why small towns near the wilderness have so few.
With the constant bombardment of media images of dangerous bears, coyotes, wolves, etc., you’d think there would be MORE streetlights in small wilderness towns, and fewer in the places where people congregate, and where there is virtually no wildlife. But in fact, streetlights are arranged exactly opposite.
Because the realest dangers are to be found in cities, among large numbers of people. Cities are full of deadly dangers, and streetlights are REALLY there so you can see other people.
The wildlands, on the 180-degrees-opposite hand, are safe and predictable. You don’t need streetlights in small mountain towns because there’s almost nothing out there that can hurt you. You can walk around on the darkest night, and you won’t get robbed, or shot, or knifed ... and almost everything out there with a brain mouse-sized or bigger has spent the last 20,000 years or so living with humans, and will run like hell at the least scent of you.
I never liked that “I feel so small” reasoning – “to be reminded that there are things bigger than you.” To me, it sounds like the same old ugly Christian “you’re small, you’re bad, you’re nothing (and god is everything)” bullshit.
Get it out of your head.
I think you feel centered and sane in the wildlands partly because you feel SAFE.
And partly because you feel relaxed. The wildland environment speaks in whispers, drawing you in to hear better. Wildlands inspire curiosity and adventure.
Cities scream at you, pierce you, with sounds, colors, textures and the constant shrieking demands of other people’s needs and feelings. You have to clench up a great deal to keep from being overwhelmed. Cities inspire unconscious rejection and withdrawal responses.
When I walk in the wilderness, I feel relaxed, safe and connected.
But I also feel anything but small. We humans are huge and dangerous, carrying immense power with us both in groups and as individuals. When I walk in the wilderness, I think of how careful I need to be to keep from accidentally destroying something. I remind myself that everything there, compared to humans, is as fragile as kittens, and one wrong step (a careless match, for instance, or the unintentional alerting of human protective agencies) can bring death in big waves.
In the wildlands, I see myself as a caretaker. Someone larger than what I see. Someone with immense affection – and responsibility – for all of it.
When I’m out in the wilds, I feel BIG.Posted by: Hank Fox at July 20, 2005 02:58 AM
I love this post, and I love the comments.
I decided long ago that a very small, rather tame forest in California, Henry Cowell Redwood Forest, was my church. Every time I walked through it I learned something, often a parable. There's a whole definition of family and community in the way the redwoods themselves grow together in circles, supporting the falling over while growing out of them, sometimes growing together into one big single plant over the course of centuries. There are also parables for survival in the still standing lightning-struck, and in the hollow, moss-covered dwellings "dead" trees offer others.
I especially like Hank's remarks on smallness here. When I go out into a little suburban park like Henry Cowell or deep into wilderness (when I can find it), hell yes I do feel small, but not small and alone or small and separate. I feel small like a stitch in a tapestry or a single skin cell, like a salt crystal in the ocean or one snowflake in a storm -- absolutely small, but just as small as any other tiny part of the Greater Big. And it is soooooo comforting.
In the forest, the desert, out at sea or in my garden, there is not much more for me to do or be in this moment than exactly where I am, breathing and looking and feeling grateful.Posted by: Sara at July 20, 2005 07:53 AM
Thanks to all, but especially Sara and Hank. Beautiful, and oh-so true.Posted by: tost at July 20, 2005 08:05 AM
I usually lurk here at this most beautiful blog, but...
Hank Fox said: I never liked that “I feel so small” reasoning – “to be reminded that there are things bigger than you.” To me, it sounds like the same old ugly Christian “you’re small, you’re bad, you’re nothing (and god is everything)” bullshit.
Hank, I hear what you're saying. And I also hear what you say about cities, (I paraphrase) about how people, especially lots of people together, are more dangerous, physically and emotionally, than anything we're likely to find in the wild, and that that might be why our hearts open up and our minds go still and calm when we step into the green. I think you're right about that.
But for me, the gift of the wilderness has always been both bigness and smallness. I am big, in that any step off the path could take a life; I could casually introduce an alien bacteria or insect into an ecosystem that can't handle it; idly picking at the lichen on the sun-warmed boulder under my butt could destroy something that's been living since before my country was founded. I am big, in that I once spent a fascinated hour lying on a sandbank watching a frantic colony of ants move house, after my father casually plucked up the rock that had been their ceiling to toss it into the lake (my father being the man that he is, he felt awful-but was intrigued enough by the ants' response to their tiny catastrophe to call us kids over to watch-and learn. And learn we did.)
But I am also small. Floating naked on my back in the mother-warm lake at night, countless stars and the soft fuzz of the Milky Way above me, and the weight of sweet pine-scented water below, full of its own secrets and hidden life, the dark forest rustling and calling all around, I am small. How could I not be, in the face of literally incomprehensible stretches of time and distance? But it's not a small smallness. I'm not nothing. I'm still myself, here in this most perfect and mysterious place, at this particular moment in the vast stretch of possible time.
I'm small compared to galaxies and stars and planets and geological history, but that does not make me insignificant. I am loved; I matter to a minute percentage of the billions of people in the world; I matter to my cats, and to my garden. I've touched people; written things that have made them think, provided comfort, fed them, worked to make things better. Perhaps, when I finally finish school, I'll be able to contribute some small measure to the world's fund of knowledge before I die. That's more than enough for me.
God doesn't enter into it; the god of the bible looks pretty trivial next to that soft cloud of stars, any one of which might be circled by a planet, with an unimaginable being floating in its lake of liquid methane and gazing up at the Nyrthethzppp Mewmk and pondering its place in the vast universe.
There are worlds in a drop of water, in a tide pool, in a desert canyon, in a fallen log. There are countless worlds spinning around our planet; there are worlds without number lost to the past. There are worlds within worlds, and they are all full of wonders. Lucky us to be alive, and to know this.Posted by: Equinox at July 20, 2005 09:56 AM
Part of me wants to add some childhood anecdote of my own, but I feel sated by all that has been written already.
Hank, as a country boy who now lives in New York City - while I wait for an art career to materialize - your description of a city's impact rings all too true. These last two weeks, I've felt the pull to return to more rural climes, where I can "escape," as all of you do, to my church with more frequency.
Edward Hoagland, one of my favorite writers, talks about his equal love of city and wilderness. I agree wholeheartedly, as both are vital ecosystems, but I am content to visit the megalopolis; I need to be in or near the wilderness to feel whole and happy.Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at July 20, 2005 09:58 AM
Holy cow, look at all that space I took up. Sorry that got so long!
Sara, that was beautiful.Posted by: Equinox at July 20, 2005 10:09 AM
chris, this brings back so many memories of my own childhood. there is something right about feeling at home and normal in a landscape that we know intimately. these stories of yours are my favorite - the ones that come straight from that enormous heart of yours. thanks!Posted by: Anne at July 20, 2005 10:16 AM
Get it out of your head.
Funny, Hank, that's pretty much what the priests used to tell me to do with thoughts they disagreed with.
I do take your point, but for me the problem with religion was that - along with calling me sinful, worthless, etc. - it hyperinflated my importance, alleging that the entire universe was created as a way of testing me, and that the guy who created it, who was able to run a billion quasars and control people's thoughts, was nonetheless vitally concerned with whether or not I behaved a certain way. It was as if the vital force of the universe was a stalker.
The Joshua trees don't give a damn - allusion intentional - whether I live or die. I can set them on fire by mistake or malevolence, but they still don't care. And that's just the stuff at hand. I spend as much time in the desert looking at Sirius as I do at Calochortus kennedyi, and there's no damn way anything I could possibly do makes a difference to Sirius.
And yet I'm aware of all this. and that's what I find life-affirming. I can sit with Becky, or Zeke, or an orange amphibian, and communicate at least a little. What a wondrous thing!
But yeah: safety. I'm with you. I should tell the story some time about coming out of the desert, getting stuck in a traffic jam in Vegas, and talking with a gambler who loved the dingy small casinos but expressed fear about camping twenty miles off the pavement and told me I was a fool for not taking a gun.
Equinox, if you're going to write stuff like that, take as much space as you like.Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 20, 2005 10:54 AM
Equinox, if you're going to write stuff like that, take as much space as you like.
Chris, let me take up a little more space to say that you have no idea how much it means to me, for you to say that. Thank you.
Chris - you are a wonderful writer! If you ever publish a book of your essays, consider one copy sold. (and your commenters aren't far behind)Posted by: Buffalo Gal at July 20, 2005 04:26 PM
Great comment thread, y'all. Thanks.Posted by: Dave at July 20, 2005 07:23 PM
“In the wildlands, I see myself as a caretaker. Someone larger than what I see. Someone with immense affection – and responsibility – for all of it.”
Hank, if only more people saw nature through the eyes of a caretaker, the world would be a far, far better place. I hope you continue to treat the Earth with respect, and I also hope that your words and actions serve as a source of inspiration for those who don’t see with such clarity.Posted by: tost at July 20, 2005 10:17 PM
“I do take your point, but for me the problem with religion was that - along with calling me sinful, worthless, etc. - it hyperinflated my importance, alleging that the entire universe was created as a way of testing me, and that the guy who created it, who was able to run a billion quasars and control people's thoughts, was nonetheless vitally concerned with whether or not I behaved a certain way. It was as if the vital force of the universe was a stalker.”
Chris, this is a tough one, and I’ve struggled a little over whether to throw in my two cents. I’m sure not here to defend religion - there have been far too many horrible things done in its name - and any group that routinely calls its followers sinful, worthless, etc., seems more a pox on the Earth than a source of light and truth.
But if these are truly your problems with religion, why not pick one that treats people with dignity and honor, and that sees the Creator as something other than a master puppeteer? I’d imagine that there are at least a few that would fit the bill, and there’s nothing that says that you have to stick with your parent’s church.
Yet if I had to guess, I’d wager that most people don’t ground their disbelief in science, or in logic, but in fear. In short, they’re afraid of being disappointed. After all, wouldn’t it suck - wouldn’t it really, really suck - if they did believe and then, at the moment they finally kicked off, it turned out they were wrong? If all they had time for was one long, “Ahhh, shitttt!” as they faded away into nothingness. Hell, why open yourself up to the possibility of such a huge disappointment? Why, when so many religions are obviously full of crap?
A funny thing, though. If we spoke about blacks, or women, or gays in the same way that many liberals speak about the faithful, those same liberals would call us racists, or sexists, or bigots, and they’d defend the group in question against our attacks. Yet very few liberals stand up against anti-religion prejudice. Even though that’s what it is. Prejudice.
Something to think about.Posted by: tost at July 21, 2005 12:27 AM
tost said: A funny thing, though. If we spoke about blacks, or women, or gays in the same way that many liberals speak about the faithful, those same liberals would call us racists, or sexists, or bigots, and they’d defend the group in question against our attacks. Yet very few liberals stand up against anti-religion prejudice. Even though that’s what it is. Prejudice.
There is one very important difference though. Religious belief is a choice, where race, gender, and orientation are not.
It's a choice with heavy cultural programming, true. But I'm sure we all know a fair number of people who have shed that programming and changed or abandoned their religious faith. The people who choose to stay in the faith they were raised in, or who adopt a new faith, I believe must accept some measure of responsibility for the public pronouncements of their spiritual leaders, and the religiously inspired behavior of their co-religionists. As an outsider, I can have no effect on, say, Catholic doctrine about evolution. The only people who have any influence over it are the people inside, who love their church but see it saying and doing wrong-headed things. I know a lot of liberal Christians who are raising their voices these days because they don't want their faith publicly defined by the fundamentalists who have been clutching the microphone for years. They're taking responsibility for their choice to be part of a faith community, and I applaud them for it.
That's not to say that I personally approve of blanket statements about any group, including religious people, because a general statement about a group of people is bound to be inaccurate in the specific. I also think it's counter-productive to make blanket statements, because it shuts off dialogue. It's understandable, because a lot of people have been really damaged by their religious upbringing, and there ought to be safe spaces for people to vent a bit about it. It's also understandable because some religious people clutch their faith like a blankie and drag it with them into every argument, every issue, every bloody classroom and courtroom and public square. And that's getting really annoying.Posted by: Equinox at July 21, 2005 07:47 AM
All excellent points, Equinox. Any number of liberal Christians are working to change their churches from the inside out - my wife's parents are perfect examples. And with the number of people who’ve been damaged by religious intolerance, or guilt, or being told they’re bad or evil or whatever, there’s certainly a need for places to talk and vent and heal.
I don’t have any problem with that, not at all. In fact, it wouldn’t bother me if organized religion, with its greed, corruption and Holier-than-thou bullshit, disappeared forever. There’s something inherently hypocritical about folks who believe that spending an hour or two in church once a week gives them the right to judge every single person around them.
At the same time, though, there’s no reason to denigrate all people of faith. There are probably just as many kind, decent, thoughtful churchgoers out there as there are wild-eyed, intolerant fanatics, and it doesn’t make any sense to lump them all together and treat them as if they were all Pat Robertsons or all Islamic jihadists.
Nor does it make sense for people who don’t believe in God or religion - and let’s make it clear that everyone has the right to their own opinion, regardless of what that opinion is - to trumpet their views as if they were backed up by the full weight of science and logic. For that’s simply not the case. Human beings can say there’s no God, or deny the existence of a spiritual world, or worlds, but there’s no proof that their assertions hold more any more water than if they believed that their new puppy was the reincarnated spirit of their great-uncle Ralph.
So let’s keep in mind that most of us have our own ideas about the nature of reality. But barring the introduction of some sort of factual evidence - and I haven’t seen much evidence from either side so far - it might be wise to keep an open mind. And that’s something that zealots in both camps seem to have forgotten.Posted by: tost at July 21, 2005 11:46 AM
Those poor Christians ... everybody has it out for them, and they can't even worship in peace. I cry real tears every day, when I think of all they have to go through. I mean, pore thangs, being in the huge majority and all, and having control of the government of the most powerful nation on earth, and having a vast, world-spanning chain of connections that reaches into every country on earth. Having to put up with all that power, and then being forced to deal with people who don't like them, and even worse, who make catty comments.
Why, it's almost too much to bear. I guess it's just lucky that Jesus is there to help them bear up under the crushing weight.Posted by: Hank Fox at July 21, 2005 01:54 PM
All those Christians got you down, Hank? At least they aren't all evangelicals.Posted by: tost at July 21, 2005 03:32 PM