In the woods is perpetual youth…In the woods we return to reason and faith… I am part or particle of God.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”
Almost every religious or philosophical tradition has at least a few stories of their heroes going into the wilderness to seek answers or to seek the truth. Perhaps the most famous of these is the story of The Temptation of Jesus, and, according to Jeffrey Ryan Dickson in Deserts of Development: How God Shapes His Leaders in the Wilderness, “according to Jewish tradition, an entrance into a wilderness meant that God was preparing the individual for a new beginning.” It should not be a surprise then that immediately following Jesus’ temptation he started his ministry (Matthew 4:12-17). However, it is arguable that no school of thought lobbied more for the interaction of man and nature as a mechanism for communication with the divine, than Transcendentalism. While its heyday might have come and gone a long time ago, I think there are some tenets that are more relevant today than ever.
What is Transcendentalism?
Roderick Nash, in his legendary book, Wilderness and the American Mind, wrote,
The core of Transcendentalism was the belief that a correspondence or parallelism existed between the higher realm of spiritual truth and the lower one of material objects… Transcendentalists had a definite conception of man’s place in a universe divided between object and essence. His physical existence rooted him to the material portion, like all natural objects, but his soul gave him the potential to “transcend” this condition… he could discover his own correspondence with the divine being and appreciate his capacity for moral improvement. Every individual, the Transcendentalists emphasized, possessed this ability, but the process of insight was so difficult and delicate that it was seldom exercised. The great majority was indifferent, yet even those who sought higher truths intuitively found them in frustratingly brief flashes (85).
Nash also discusses, in the same chapter on Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau’s frustration with civilization. “By mid-century American life had acquired a bustling tempo and materialistic tone that left Thoreau and many of his contemporaries vaguely disturbed and insecure (86).” Walden was first published in 1854, and if that’s how Thoreau felt then, how do you imagine he’d feel about America in 2018? By any definition, we live in a more materialistic, more distracting and faster paced society today than ever before.
It’s also true that society has never been more secular and an even greater majority is indifferent. Although many people will say they are “spiritual” even if they’re not “religious”, very few people (whether they call themselves “religious” or “spiritual”) actually put in any spiritual work because spiritual work means a great amount of time and effort with intermittent tangible returns. Deep, purposeful work on one’s self requires a lot of discipline and effort. For a society constantly chasing the next, hippest, instantly gratifying, shortcut to happiness, making a trek into the wilderness, whatever that might mean for each person, is not a popular pastime.
I Never Considered Myself a Transcendentalist Before
Wilderness, to me anyhow, always seemed like the closest I would ever come to the Garden of Eden. Sin is something of man. Man is in civilization. Avoid civilization, avoid man, avoid sin, or at least that’s how I’ve always painted the picture even if that is not entirely true because my sin travels with me. God created Man after the Heavens and the Earth were complete. It was perfect, at least until that fateful day at the forbidden tree.
I’ve always imagined what life was like in the Garden prior to the Fall of Man. Adam conversing with God like they were old pals. I think that’s something every human being has been envious of since that time; we pray, but we really don’t hear that voice talking back to us, not like Adam did anyhow.
So, what does God sound like today? I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but there are moments, as Nash said, “frustratingly brief flashes”, where I hear God loud and clear. Right now, in my office with the window open, a swollen Coal Creek is carrying God’s voice to me. The difficult part is interpreting it. That’s why I’m envious of Adam’s conversations with God. I really wish it was easier to understand what he was saying.
As frustrating as it is to have to decipher what God is saying to me sometimes, I take an immense amount of comfort in the fact that God talks to me. Me, an incredibly flawed mortal. No matter what, when the trail gets quiet and I can hear the creek, when I am out in the woods backpacking, hunting, fishing, or whatever I’m doing, if I’m out there, really out there, going places other people rarely or never go, I hear God loud and clear. I just wish that was the case all the time, but either I am not able to drown out all the noise of humanity or perhaps the wilderness is just the place that God has chosen for the two of us to converse and it is up to me to get out there more often. If nothing else, it is a good excuse to get into the mountains more.
I would never actually call myself a Transcendentalist because there’s a lot of things about the philosophy that don’t fit me (Indian religious influence, the idealism, etc.) but I believe they were pretty spot on in their belief in the possibility of transcendence through nature and the belief that institutions often corrupt the purity of the individual (as much as one can be pure). In the wilderness we can take our place amongst all of God’s creation and, if we are alone, we can get a taste of what those first moments must have felt like before God gave Adam a partner. In those moments, we can be alone with God.
So, What Does This All Mean?
I believe that wilderness, those last refuges of land uncorrupted by man, are the closest that most of us will ever get to the Garden of Eden and that open conversation with God, at least in this life. I believe that protecting these wild places are one of our most sacred duties. In Genesis 1:26 God gives us this responsibility, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let him have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” This is our sacred duty and it is entirely a self-serving one, as it is ourselves who most benefit from the places and things were entrusted to protect. The land provides resources to make and heat our homes, the animals provide food to nurture our bodies and the places they come from nurture our souls.
People always ask me why I go to such remote places, so far away from other people and it almost always ends with, “but what if you get hurt out there?” or “aren’t you scared of bears?”. The truth is, our local parks are nice, but they don’t recharge me or fill me up with peace like the wild does. In the parks, when I pass large groups on the trail, their stereos blasting, I always wonder why people are so afraid of the quiet? Why can’t they leave the trappings of civilization behind for a few hours? I wonder what it is that they think they’ll hear that fills them with fear? Are they afraid of their own thoughts? Or is it that when their mind is unoccupied for long enough they will start to dwell on their failures and shortcomings? I don’t know, but I know for myself, I do often dwell on those things, but instead of fear, in the quiet, I find answers.
We should always be searching for the truth, just know that it may come to you by the sound of the wind through the trees or of water coming down the mountain making its long journey to the ocean. In this post-modern world, we hear more things than we can comprehend, but are we listening? Our wild places are great places to go listen, whether it’s a small issue you’re struggling with, or you’re Thoreau venturing off into the wilderness multiple times to seek enlightenment, or you’re Cheryl Strayed trying to re-set your entire life on the Pacific Crest Trail. What we have to ask ourselves is whether or not these spiritual journeys are important and whether or not it is important to still have wild places to run to for peace and quiet. If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then there is nothing more human than protecting these places.