I found an essay called “The Body and The Earth” by Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America published in 1977. It is an extremely articulate and broad analysis of that “spherical network” that moves fluidly from agriculture, to Shakespeare and suicide, to sexual differences and divisions, and more. Here is an excerpt from the beginning which describes the mythic human dilemma:
“Until modern times, we focused a great deal of the best of our thought upon such rituals of return to the human condition. “Seeking enlightenment or the Promised Land or the way home, a man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair.
“Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or master or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god.
“And by the same token, since he shares in, depends upon, and is graced by all of which he is a part, neither can he become a fiend; he cannot descend into the final despair of destructiveness.
“Returning from the wilderness, he becomes a restorer of order, a preserver. He sees the truth, recognizes his true heir, honors his forebears and his heritage, and gives his blessing to his successors. He embodies the passing of human time, living and dying within the human limits of grief and joy.”
Human limits. Humility. Our struggles, our desires, our wants, our hopes and feelings of elation are not the stuff to tilt the planet. There is a rightness outside of our sphere. I like to remember that perspective each time I encounter the “world wide web” of hype and OMG! and products and extracting resources and cruelty and pettiness.
There are many different definitions of the word ‘prepare’, and all of them are about acting decisively, with a will. Make, create, be willing…take responsibility. And there are as many ways of doing that as there are people on earth, I’m sure. The ‘how’ of preparation can be accompanied by a range of attitudes.
The Boy Scout metaphor describes one point on the spectrum. “Be Prepared” is their well-known motto. What that looks like conjures an exact check list of supplies – a camping list designed to meet any foreseeable outcome. Snake bite kit? Check. Flotation device? Check. Sunscreen and thermal underwear? Check and double check. This preparation is fueled by a desire to be in control, it seems. The responses are prescribed, preferred outcomes already decided upon. “I do not want to be cold, wet, sunburned or in pain, and I am taking action now to ensure that.” That is one attitude of preparation.
Another attitude might be illustrated by The Dancer metaphor. A dancer prepares for a pirouette by checking her starting position, aligning her hips and shoulders in a grounded plié – but not staying in that position so long that it causes her to lose momentum. What really prepares her to execute a graceful turn is years and years of practice leading up to the moment of action. That seems to me to be a distinctly different attitude of preparation.
Of course, we can embody more than one attitude of preparation at a time. We can be both Boy Scouts and Dancers, among other things, and this helps us be better prepared for the unforeseen, mysterious, dynamic journey that is Life and better prepared for ventures in the Wilderness.
I recently attended a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act into law in the U.S. These preserved areas of natural lands and waters maintain a special character, “untrammeled” by man and distinctly autonomous. The wilderness is what it is. You cannot predict what will happen there, and you must rely on your own preparation when you visit. By law, there will not be any man-made structures, services, or systems that will provide for you or take responsibility for you. And the experience that you have as solitary and self-reliant can change your life. It is a deeply spiritual endeavor to go into the wilderness and learn from it.
Wilderness asks you two important questions: Are you willing to go there? Are you prepared? I think that the Way – whether that be Christian, Buddhist, or any other spiritual path – asks you the same questions. May your willing preparation and practice be a life-giving process, bringing you much happiness. Peace! – Priscilla
You might think that desert living is minimalist living. I mean, what’s out there? How do you survive on nothing? (see my post “Wilderness and the Myth of Nothing” here). Native ancestral pueblo dwellers made a lot of useful things out of the very simple materials in their environment. Like yucca fibers. They’re strong and fine. Sandals, baskets, and rope were made from them. The rest of the plant was used for even more things like shampoo and paintbrushes. Yeah, paintbrushes. They had time for art in their ‘minimal’ lives. Go figure.
Way back in February of 2012, I wrote a post titled “What’s Important?”. It was an essay describing the evolution of my ideas of “right” (as in “being in right relationship with”, “righteousness”) from the evangelical Christian tradition to a broader, Buddhist-influenced experience. It led to a string of great comments and word analysis.
My moral development has been challenged lately by the speakers, storytellers, and advocates I heard at the Wilderness 50 conference. What is “Right Ethic” or a right relationship with our planet? Where do we experience the emergence of this ethic? Does it come from the top down, imposed by authority in law? Does it bubble up from feelings of connection to places, plants, animals, ecosystems, communities? How do we evaluate our interactions with Earth? And how important or trivial is that interaction in our daily lives?
Having immersed myself in a 5-day arena of wilderness philosophy, it’s very strange to return to the Internet world and gaze on its landscape. Yahoo! news articles bombard my senses: “How to Crack an Egg”, “Romantic Move Goes Awry”, “Horse Rescued from Pool”, J-Lo, Renee Zellweger, sports teams, iPhones, who wore it best, etc. Is this what life on Earth is about? Really?! Even gazing on the more thorny parts of the landscape seems a little flat. Is death news? Is human drama relevant or manufactured? And what about the lives of the non-human inhabitants of this planet? The life of the Ebola virus, for example. What do we really care about that, other than the way that humans are effected?
What is important about Life? Just my life? Just human life? Just life that I recognize?
The keynote speaker in many of the Wilderness 50 sessions was Dave Foreman. He is a much-loved, original eco-warrior who is now 68 years old and retains the spit and vinegar of his activist days. Raised in the Texas atmosphere of Biblical preachers, he knows how to tell a story and describe a cause. He used this illustration in a few of his addresses: he visited a ficus tree, of the fig and banyan family, whose broad canopy is one of the biggest in the entire world. It stretched over his head and spread out in a space bigger than a football field. And each limb supported hundreds of leaves. A massive thing, this tree! He likened it to the Tree of Life and stood in awe. And then he realized that human beings, our species, of which there are more than 7 billion individuals, represent just ONE leaf on this great tree. That one little leaf right….there. That’s us. How important are we? How aware are we of the rest of the tree? Of how we influence it and how it influences us? Do we think about that…often? ever? Or do we pay more attention to our celebrities, bank accounts and pet peeves.