And what it means to be alone in the natural world
My youngest daughter, who is 4, and I ride our bikes to her pre-school most days. It’s a short ride through a residential neighborhood, then past an elementary school. There aren’t many cars. Usually, she chats away about this or that; I tend to ride quietly, listening, eyeing her as she strays to the left side of the road from time to time.
One morning, however, she stopped abruptly, stood astride her bike. With the affront of someone witnessing a war crime she announced, “Dad, that squirrel just crossed the street without looking both ways.”
Affront might be too tame; outrage might be more accurate, at least as far as 4-year-old outrage goes.
“You’re right, honey. That guy is going to get squished before winter,” I said. After the fact, I realized that my comment was a little harsh, but she didn’t hear it or, at least, didn’t acknowledge what I said. She was still stewing about the squirrel’s breach in etiquette.
I knew there was a lesson there; I just wasn’t sure what it was. And was it for me or her?
Unable to parse the prophesy of the squirrel, we carried on to Main Street, looked both ways and crossed over to her school.
A few days later, I went with my older daughter on a backpacking trip. We hiked into the Pioneer Mountains of central Idaho. The lakes there sit at 10,000 feet, at the base of massive, glaciated basins. The terrain in its scale and remoteness is humbling. But the stark beauty is bound to charm the most cynical of souls.
We seemed to be sharing the lake with a bald eagle and no one else. Periodically, he swooped over the lake near us, eyeing the cutthroats beneath. Those fish, blithely swimming about in water as clear as mountain air didn’t have a chance against that eagle. If he wanted to eat, he was going to eat.
What is striking about such a place is the sound of it, or, more accurately, the dearth of sound. There is no sound, save for the occasional rockfall high above or the warming morning air below, that, like a transparent river, flows up the canyons. The absolute quiet can, at first, be disquieting. But soon enough, the lack of sound—mechanical, human or anything remotely of the civilized world—calms and slows everything.
The profound quiet, too, has a way—that I can’t explain with any logic—of magnifying the scale of the mountains, sky and world beyond, making it seem bigger and us smaller. It’s a reverse foreshortening. We, in the foreground, diminish while the background expands without limits.
To be alone in the natural world—in the most pristine of moments—is, ironically, the moment at which one can feel his or her truest self. The entanglements, definitions, entrapments of civilized life are nowhere to be found. They are stripped away, and it is just you and a big wide world.
I often wish more people--children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, people I won’t ever know—might experience that sensation: to feel small and alone in a vast, indifferent, natural world. There is beauty and awe and, mostly, simplicity in that moment. It is hard to find that elsewhere. After all, how often do we see and feel this earth as it was long ago and, I hope, will be long after we are gone? Oddly, the sensation comes with a fleeting sense of belonging to something, something that endures, which, by the way, doesn’t include us. It’s a sense of belonging tempered, again, by humility.
No doubt we—and I mean the arc of human civilization—have created a remarkable existence out of a wilderness. We have found personal meaning and value through our work. Diseases have been stemmed, life expectancy extended, cultures created in which for the most part cruelty and inhumanity are taboo, if not diminishing. Still, I can’t help but think the true moments of exaltation are not necessarily in what we have civilized but rather what he have not civilized.
So, I guess this makes me a conservative, though not in the way the term has been bastardized and appropriated of late. Too often today that boils down to what I consider a self-centered approach to political calculus: It’s about me and preserving my lot. It’s myopia with consequences.
Rather, I mean conservative in the sense of to conserve, to save something for later, “to keep in a safe or sound state,” according to Merriam-Webster. Implicit in that philosophy, I think, is the notion that we are saving something valuable for someone else. It is fundamentally based on others. Whether we’re talking about the natural world, resources, prosperity or power, this isn’t all here just for us—those of us alive right now. Others will follow, and we should want them to experience some of the wonder we were lucky enough to experience.
Back with my little daughter, on a day off from school, we visited mom, who works at the local hospital. On the grounds is a healing garden—a lovely spot with benches overlooking wetlands and the mountains. Designed into the patio is a maze of sorts, red bricks that lead in a circuitous pattern, around and around, to the center of the garden. For a 4-year-old who loves puzzles, this was a Holy Grail of sorts. At one point, mom or I must have said the word labyrinth, which immediately caught my daughter’s ear. “What’s a labyrinth, daddy?
I mumbled an answer, something about a labyrinth being like maze, but, honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure. So, later, I used a writer’s favorite crutch—Google—to look it up.
Greek mythology holds that the architect Daedalus built for King Minos of Crete a labyrinth—a confounding structure of passageways meant to imprison the monstrous Minotaur (later killed by Theseus).
Like all Google searches, it didn’t end there. “Labyrinth” led me to the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, who employed labyrinths, mirrors and concepts of infinity in his writing. This, in turn, reminded me of a course on South American writers that I took in graduate school. Among others, we studied Borges. One story of his, in particular, has stayed with me for years. It is titled “Circular Ruins.”
It is the story of a man who travels by canoe to the site of burned ruins, circular in shape and surrounding a statue of some sort of deity. The deity later comes to be known as Fire. The man falls asleep, and when he wakes, he knows “his immediate obligation was to dream … He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him with minute entirety and impose him on reality.”
The man goes about dreaming nightly, holding forth in his dreams before legions of students in an amphitheater. He lectures and questions them on anatomy, cosmography, and magic. He evaluates each answer until he finally finds the one pupil “worthy of participating in the universe.”
Then one day the man wakes from his sleep and realizes he has not dreamed that night. Soon he is stricken with insomnia and for days cannot conjure his dream of the young man. Devastated, he decides to try a different approach, discarding his previous “hallucination” in favor of conjuring a man, all over again, piece by piece.
The first night he dreams the heart of the new man. Over weeks, he refines the heart in his dreams, then moves on to other organs, one by one. After a year he has envisioned the skeleton, eyelids and hair, and then the entire man. Soon he begins to see the man as his son, one, once complete, he sends away, through the jungle, to yet another temple down river, though not before he has erased his son’s memory of his “apprenticeship.”
Borges writes of the dreamer: “In the twilight times of dusk and dawn, he would prostrate himself before the stone figure, perhaps imagining his own son carrying out identical rites in other circular ruins downstream … The purpose of his life had been fulfilled; the man remained in a kind of ecstasy.”
Years pass until the man is awakened in the night by two oarsmen who tell him of a “charmed man in a temple of the North, capable of walking on fire without burning himself.”
The man is disturbed by the visage but not sure what to think about it. A long drought ensues, and fire lights up the sky of the ruins. Smoke billows. The man witnesses wild animals fleeing in panic. But he is at peace, realizing that in his old age, death is finally coming to free him of his toils.
Borges writes: “He walked toward the sheets of flame. They did not bite his flesh, they caressed him and flooded him without heat or combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.”
Which brings me back to the squirrel. It now occurs to me that the prophecy of the squirrel may be that, in fact, we are the squirrel.
In a world that’s bigger than we realize, with rules and dangers we don’t always understand, it might behoove us to look around a bit, not so much left and right but more backward and forward. Looking back we might start to accept that we’re part of a continuum of humanity—it’s not just our generation that is so special. People have learned a thing or two over time; maybe we should heed some of that wisdom. And looking forward, of course, everyone looks forward. But I mean with a long, long focus. Squinting into the distance keeps our hearts and minds focused on those to come after us. And those after that.
It may just keep us from getting squished in the meantime.