Paul Andersen: ‘Beyond the wall of the unreal city …’
A twig snaps in the dark woods near my camp. In the stillness of a calm night in the wilderness, it’s as loud as a gunshot. My ears are attuned to the slightest sound.
Something scratches around in the duff near the fire ring. Wavelets gently lap the shore of the lake. A faint whisper of a breeze stirs the spruce tops. I’m fully in the moment and appreciate Ed Abbey’s “Nature Prayer.”
“Beyond the wall of the unreal city, beyond the security fences topped with barbed wire, beyond the asphalt belting of the superhighways, beyond the cemented backsides of our temporarily stopped and mutilated rivers, beyond the rage of lies that poisons the air …”
I am there, in Abbey’s sacred place, alone and away from it all. I have found what Ed prescribes: “…the true world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it.”
Such was my goal in setting off last week from a trail head half an hour drive from my home on a three-day wilderness solo where Abbey set the tone.
“May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and slightly uphill. May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie. May the Great Sun dazzle your eyes by day and the great Bear watch over you by night.”
I don’t see anyone for three days, yet I have plenty of company with my restive mind. In stillness, the brimming subconscious issues a flood of thoughts that bubble up randomly. Solitude affords communion with something bigger, as Thoreau discovered at Walden Pond: “How could I be lonely; is not our planet part of the Milky Way?”
John Muir became an accomplished soloist during his thousand-mile walk. Muir exulted while clinging ant-like to the swaying top of a 100-foot tree during a raging storm. He displayed his singularity by dancing a jig before President Teddy Roosevelt on the rim of Yosemite Valley after they had ignited a tall snag into a tower of flame.
Epiphanies of the ages have been instilled in wilderness through Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Elijah. Each had a distinctly personal relationship with solitude in the most profound sense, to which I humbly aspire.
My campfire is the burning bush. My mystic sprites buzz about me in the form of mosquitoes. My animal spirit is in the guise a chattering squirrel scolding this wayward member of the human race.
The rising trout make circles on the lake and remind me of the food chain: Mosquitoes eat me. Trout eat mosquitoes. I eat trout caught with my fly rod. A complete cycle.
I don’t fish for fun; I fish for food. As two rainbows simmer in my pan, I give thanks, not to the bounty of nature, but to the fish and game folks who stocked the lake that morning while I ascended the high ridge above the lake. From the tundra, I watched their low-flying plane execute a bombing run with a live slurry of fingerlings.
My ridge hike takes me to a 13,000-foot knob with a 360-view that encompasses one-quarter of Colorado’s Fourteeners. After a scramble down a couloir to the tundra basin, I rest in the shade of a krummholz stand where I find a wad of wooly white down shed by a mountain goat. I press the soft wool to my nose for an earthy scent of the goat.
That night, I hear the snap of the twig. Within the flimsy shield of my tent I humbly offer myself to whatever night marauder visits my camp. Surrender comes from trusting the benignity of Mother Nature. As her loving son, I’m in a place that’s far safer than the tumultuous and volatile human world against which Abbey inveighed.
In the bright and sunny morning, I lean back against a log and compose bad poetry. I lift my gaze to watch the lake change complexion and texture as wind/light/shadow alter it from a smooth plate of green glass into corrugations of gray steel.
I’m fully in the moment — and alive!
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“Holding a brush and applying a splash of color here and a line there, I began seeing the world anew. I have no illusion of becoming a great artist, or ever calling myself an artist, but since painting is what it takes to open my eyes to the world, then a painter I will become in the private studio of my kitchen and the private gallery of my dining room,” writes Paul Andersen.