Monday, July 28, 2008

Day 9: The good in the bad

I wake up on a smooth beach bordering not the ocean nor even the river but a towering hoodoo. On the other side is a rock overhang -- flat on top but several feet of cavernous space underneath, and a rat or snake could continue the descent God knows how far through the many holes and cracks below that. The pointed rock shards on top were the only thing that convinced me not to pitch my tent in such an audacious location. I pack my things and make my way down to the wet ditch where my canoe is parked. I'll move on before having breakfast; I only stayed to camp in the badlands.

They are "bad" not because they are especially dangerous or, impossibly, of low moral character. I suppose if that were the case they would be the evillands. They are "bad" because they are not profitable. You can't grow crops in such a place, and they don't typically have any useful minerals. They certainly aren't the only kind of nonprofitable terrain. See also deserts, salt plains, inaccessible mountains, glaciers, and more. Anything you might call "wilderness", and any place that is so useless to commerce that a national park is made out of it. We protect the things no one has a reason to destroy, anyway. It's easy enough in North America to find some mountain range seemingly untouched by human hands, but you will go through a lot of trouble to find a significant untouched tallgrass prairie. Once far more common, but also far more useful.

But the uselessness of wilderness has its currency in remoteness, in getting away from it all. Oh, let's not talk about the weekend wars right now: yes, there is a value in the momentary escape from work, from ordinary life for a couple of days a week. Or, the meaning to be found in the aesthetics of nature.

Let's take a look at the more serious, long-term, "spiritual" side of remoteness. The monk who lives in a cave for years. Christ who must go to the wilderness to be "tempted", as though there were not enough temptations in the city! The ancient rituals whereby boys were made into men.

Now Jung would have it that these tribal manhood rituals were intended to sever the bond to the mother, an idea which seems somehow mysterious, and somehow wrong. The idea here is that the mother represents safety and nurturing, whereas the father represents going out into the world, and being forced to try new things. So the child, nurtured by the mother, must have that connection severed to become a man.

This seems doubtful to me because it assumes that maturity in men and women are two different things, or arguably, that this kind of psychological maturity is the sole province of men. But we can put this in a wider context, realizing that the primary forces against maturity are our many fears. So putting on the sleeve of bullet ants, getting swung by a spear through the pectoral muscles -- these don't clearly symbolize severing some kind of psychological connection to the mother. But they do seem to have a lot to do with overcoming fear -- especially the fear of physical pain.

So the monk who goes to live alone to discover truth. Why alone? Because a primary source of falsehood in our lives is the fear that truth will separate us from society. But having already been separated, what is the risk? I have already been separated, so I have no fear of separation.

Exposure to fears allows us to live a life with fewer fears.

Talking to people about this trip has been a good way to gauge what kind of things they are afraid of. What are you going to do about food? What are you going to do about shelter? What are you going to do about clothes? What about bears, bugs, thunderstorms, getting hurt, and more and more and more?

What about the birds of the air? What about the lilies of the field?

I try to respond in a way to reduce their fear. Because we should try to reduce not only our own fears, but those of others. I am not always successful.

The wilderness is an environment which allows us to face some of our fears, even some we didn't know we had. I do not need to fear being alone, because I have been alone. I do not fear pain, because I have been in pain. I do not fear homelessness, because I have been homeless. I do not fear hunger, because I have been hungry.

This is one reason fasting is a spiritual discpline.

But now I must be careful not to praise this kind of living too much. The saint who spent his life on top of a pole perhaps reached a certain sureness in his soul, but what good in the end did this do him or his fellows?

The return from the wilderness is just as important as the setting out. I have heard that in Buddhism the Buddha is praised not so much for achieving enlightenment, but for coming back after doing so. I think it is actually impossible to brutalize oneself so much as to overcome all fears, and then return as if a perfected being. So we go out for a time, to come back a little better. Fasting does me no good if I then am not able to come back and share my meal with one who needs it more.

Don't let me praise myself too much here. The wilderness is full of fears and dangers, but it does not have them all. And these are not the reasons I went out onto the river. This is only what I thought that morning, after breakfast, when I went up on the hill to look down into a crevasse. At the bottom of the crevasse, some kids in 2005 had had a kegger and burned out a section of cave, leaving a burned out keg and road signs. Somewhere above that was a nest for some pigeon, or "rock dove" as it may be called in this environment. I was too afraid to climb up into the cave alone when one handhold collapsed, and now up on the hillside the inherited Saff vertigo cut in.

There is something quite rational about vertigo. No, you know that no wind has ever swept you so far from this position that you would fall off the But when you are like this, quivering with fear, you really aren't so sure how steady your feet can be. It isn't the fear so much as the fear of fear that gets you. It is like an allergy - your system overreacts this time because it overreacted last time.

Day 9 ended: 49*54.778N, 111*34.391W

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