Wilderness as the Antidote to Social Media Culture

Regrettably, I live in the 21st century.  I have always thought I belonged to another time, but things being as they are, social media is a necessary evil.  I share pictures of my child with my family through Facebook, I promote this very page through GoWild and I promote my photography through Instagram. And like everyone else, it’s a somewhat calculated and contrived persona I have created for myself.  I am not posting photos of my pasty white beer gut or rambling on and on about the difficulties in my life.  For those who don’t know me well, I live a life of joy and adventure with nothing but intellectual and spiritual pursuits.  And I do live that life, but that’s only part of the story. 

Studies show that anxiety and depression are on the rise, especially with the younger generations.  I am not sure if we can diagnose social media as the cause, but there is certainly a correlation.  When you constantly compare yourself to the carefully crafted images of your friends and media personalities, it’s hard not to feel like your life just doesn’t measure up. This is why, as a culture, we take such pleasure in seeing celebrities fall from grace.  When we find out they have drug problems or cheat on their spouse, it brings them back down to earth from the stratosphere.  

Wilderness is the perfect antidote to the virtual rat race.  Not only is it healthy to get away from your devices for a while (please, please, please do not sit on a rock overlooking a beautiful vista and play on your phone, or blare crappy music from a Bluetooth speaker), but the clean air and exercise will make you feel better.  If you do it enough, it’ll make you look better too.  When you’re in the wild, you’re faced with no competition but yourself.  No one knows how fast you hiked up that mountain.  No one knows how labored your breathing was. No one knows what else is going on in your head.  You only have to compare yourself today with yourself of yesterday, with plans to be better tomorrow.  True growth comes in competition with yourself, not with others.

My daughter is growing up in front of a camera lens.  I am partially to blame because I am constantly taking pictures of her and my wife.  This will get worse once she’s older and into the world of phones and tablets.  At least now she’s wise enough to say things like, “Dad why are you always taking pictures?”  She understands there’s more to life than being in front of the lens. This is because we make a concerted effort to get out into the wild and I only take the camera out at certain times. It’s great to document our family adventures, but it’s important to experience them and be present as well.  As the kids say, YOLO, you only live once.  Do you want to spend your time living or do you want to spend all your time manufacturing a life you wished you lived?

God, Transcendentalism and Modern Conservation

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.  

Nature as Healer

 

In the introduction to Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash states, “…civilization created wilderness. For nomadic hunters and gatherers, who represented our species for most of its existence, ‘wilderness’ had no meaning.” He later discusses how as soon as we as a species separated civilization from wilderness, we romanticized and sought out the wilderness for our spiritual needs. The wilderness was a place where Biblical figures went to talk to God or have an epiphany. Thousands of years later, many of us still desire to escape civilization to recharge, mull over a tough situation or heal ourselves emotionally and spiritually. Just think of Cheryl Strayed and Wild. Obviously now, “wilderness” doesn’t just have meaning, it is where we go to find meaning.

I am certainly no exception to this human trait. Even just a walk outside amongst the trees, prairie dogs and mallards in my neighborhood can significantly change my mood. The bigger the issue, the deeper into the woods I need to go. As I write this, I am preparing for my fourth attempt at my first solo overnight trip (first three I had to turn around for various reasons, more on that in another post). We recently moved to Colorado and only six weeks in, I quit my new job. It was the absolute right thing to do and it allows me to focus on what I want to be doing, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared shitless. So, I’m going into the wilderness to clear my head, get my mind right and in the process, face my fears. Because make no mistake, though I have spent many, many nights out in the woods, doing it by myself for the first time is going to be a little bit scary. However, everything is going to be fine and when you conquer one fear, it gives you the confidence that you can conquer others as well. 

You don’t have to go into the woods alone to have this experience. I take two trips every year with old friends and it just so happened that in 2017, both of these guys got married. Jeff and I went to the Wind River Range in Wyoming and had a great week-long trip where we mixed backpacking and car camping all across the Northern Rockies. Jeremy and I went to Alaska as usual and spent four days northwest of Fairbanks in the bush and also in a cabin near some hot springs. While I enjoy the trips I take with these fellas every year, last year’s trips were special.  We had lots of heart-to-heart talks about serious topics such as marriage, family and work. We had lots of laughs, both at situations and ourselves. We also had long periods of silence where we worked through our own thoughts. Though perhaps some of the obstacles we overcame provided the most amount of personal growth, whether that was roping up and crossing ice cold rivers, holding each other’s life in our hands or simply me walking eleven miles with fifty pounds on my back, feet bleeding, and deciding not to complain about it. 

Ultimately, whether alone or with a loved one, time in the wild, if you’re open to it, will improve you. Maybe you need a little peace and quiet to deal with a tough situation or maybe you need to challenge yourself in some way because you feel hindered in your everyday life. For whatever reason, until you cut the cord with the civilized world for at least a short time, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. The world is there to fill us with information and noise. In order to know what you have to give to the world, you have to take the time to dig down deep inside yourself.  Wilderness has been there for us since the dawn of civilization and it’s still there for us now if we need it.