Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
As a mountain runner, I write both here and my Strava about nature, and specifically wild places being the ultimate reality. Although I’m pretty sure that most people who firmly believe in a religious or spiritual value system would firmly disagree with this notion, I also believe there are larger, more persistent realities beyond the observable, four dimensional space-time we generally take for granted as the be-all/end-all of everything. All of the galaxies, stars, planets and rocky bits we have discerned comprise just 4% of the measured universe. This means 96% of the calculated mass of the universe is something unknown, and which so far has resisted direct detection here on earth – what we call dark matter and dark energy. There certainly must be something to all of that nothing, a question larger than I care to address here. So, this is not a call to debate the tenets of faith or secularism, but maybe a search for perspective in comparison between modern technological civilization and what I perceive as timelessness.
Living in the crowded Bay Area, one must actively seek higher ground to lift oneself above the desert of society and its daily grind. In response, my search for the sanctuary of wild places can be an imperative, and at times can feel like the most important thing. But this struggle to find refuge from the modern world is nothing new, and is only one tiny story in, maybe, a billion – meaning there are a billion other souls who right now may clamor for that same idea of escape. This can sometimes force that search for refuge toward more uncrowded but much higher ground, and makes the endeavor all the more difficult to accomplish. Near the end of the first “lock down”, or episode of what we call “shelter in place” here in California, we opted one weekend to make a break for high country while coastal beaches were absolutely jammed with frustrated, clueless, mask-less masses, and we found zero traffic and maybe 5 people up and away on the PCT. That, of course, has long since ended, and everything is crowded again as those masses share and spread the virus everywhere, without concern. This makes the idea of getting away all the more alluring, if more daunting, which can force our creative hand to extremes.
This provokes endless planning of escapes to simple places. And, our odd hours of activity must make our neighbors shake their heads and grumble, if they happen to wake as we load the car at 3 in the morning for that retreat to higher ground. So be it, but therein lies the rub: it sometimes feels like a gargantuan trade-off, one of either more available time with fewer escapes, or more escapes outward and away to the sanctuary of simplicity, with less available time in the end. That and being trapped in insane traffic making its way back home on Sunday afternoons. That is if one abides by a conventional Monday through Friday work schedule. This situation is not revolutionary, but does illustrate the simple math of my everyday world, and is a wellspring of mental hand-wringing. Oh how complicated the search for simplicity…
The nature of nature And when we finally make it to the wild of nature, what exactly is that simplicity, or, what is it made of? It takes only a finite number of building blocks – elementary particles combined in various ways, to account for all of the observed variety in our world. All of the trees, rocks, fungi, living bodies and dust are comprised of atoms, which are roughly one trillionth the size of a Shot Block, mostly grouped into molecules; about 100 million atoms will fit in a centimeter. Atoms are comprised of elementary and composite particles – neutrons, electrons and protons…which are themselves made up of even smaller subatomic particles – quarks, 3 of them each, and leptons. Quarks are 43 billion-billionths of a centimeter in size. All are held together by invisible fields of force that attract and push and pervade the entire universe, and those forces give these tiny things their mass. So, they’re basically empty space, which can be daunting to consider. To review: charged particles, connected, with expanses of space, proportionally, between. Simply put: particles in empty space. This is a crazy notion, except for anyone who ground their teeth to bits in school. And weirdos like me.
Simplicity really is simplicity, if you unpack reality into its constituent parts, and is only made complicated by our lens of expectation. I liken this perspective to a particle physics yin balanced by the yang of an eight second echo heard across the vastness of alpine valleys. Having this perspective can be mind blowing when you’re on the edge of space at altitude looking down upon the world, and can steal breath and reason from the moment of experience. And later, back in civilization, the gravity of that simple yet complex natural world, exerted on the mental field of my yearning, pulls me ever back toward the singularity of that impossibly distant solitude, for silent reflection. That special place is truly the greenest of pastures.
Legends Until only recent centuries, this perceived connection with and need for solitude in nature was the rule rather than the exception of escape. In 2013 Studio Ghibli released an animated fantasy drama called Tale of the Princess Kaguya, based upon the 10th century Japanese literary tale Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The story begins with a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny baby girl inside a bamboo stalk. He and his wife, who believe this being to be a divine presence, raise the baby girl as their own, and the diminutive girl quickly grows to normal size within months – earning the name “Little Bamboo” by the children of the village. Little Bamboo and the other children grow and play together, roaming the countryside and the wild places around their rural village, as children lucky enough to live near wild places will. Singing songs of nature and simple truths, with one song bearing the refrain “..birds, bees, rocks and trees…”, the narrative lends a true sense of love for the balance of the natural world and a bond with nature, a connection with those elements of nature that speak deeply enough to some of us still today, to pull us outward and away. As Willem Dafoe states so eloquently in Mountain, which describes through incredible visual vignettes the historical relationship between humans and mountains, and narration excerpted from Robert Macfarlane’s book Mountains of the mind: a history of fascination: outward and away from environments that are humanly made and controlled, to haunted open horizons and unstructured spaces…where the self can best be illuminated – and, in my own case anyway, to reveal my insignificance, and to challenge my arrogance.
But the bamboo cutter…he eventually finds gold in the stalks of bamboo, and fine silks in the grove as he works, and as he and his wife become rich, he takes the gifts as a sign to dream of notoriety, and yearns to elevate his princess of the bamboo to the status of nobility. His pursuit of social standing eventually removes the girl from her village of simple truths and nature’s beauty, thrusting her into a disconnected world of contrived status and debauched human emptiness. As various suitors lie and try to cheat their way into the girl’s heart, she becomes lonely and miserable, stifled and pulled away from her wild spirit, and she yearns for the simple rural life, for nature, that she was raised to appreciate. In the end we learn of a celestial being who resided on the moon, a female being we glimpse briefly, who so desired to experience human joys and emotions and the simple earthly pleasures of the natural world, that she broke the laws of the moon in order to escape, to be banished to earth to live in wild emotion and wonder, before The Buddha finally comes to rescue her from her sadness and take her back to the moon.
The nature of my nature There are multiple subtexts in the story of the princess, elements of which were drawn from earlier tales, and the story is not specifically about nature. But being the mud running dirt worshiper I am, these few of the many messages have stayed with me since, to resonate with the notion that the remaining wild places we haven’t yet destroyed by digging, cutting, burning, extracting, polluting and dominating – are what is left of the real world. Away from the right-angled structures, strictures, and myths that prop this whole mess of 21st century civilization up, undisturbed nature, increasingly rare indeed, surely must be the ultimate reality. This idea has clarified over my lifetime, especially as I have spent thousands hours running across our Bay Area hills and mountains, and over the past 5 years, gone to greater efforts and distances to find higher ground, or lower ground. Now semi-regularly dragging – with Rebekah’s help, the kids and the dog to peaks and ridges as high as our sea level selves will allow, or valleys as low as accessible: this search for balance between nature and our all-consuming civilization seems as integral to MY nature as my need to run free and far, and seems to know no bounds except, perhaps, time.
Truly wild places are increasingly rare – and harder to get to, to say the least, and finding them depends upon inspiration, intention and flexibility. Can you sleep in the back of the car with your wife and dog in event you cannot find a place to stay or pitch a tent as home base while every established, boundaried park is closed due to Covid uncertainty? During the pandemic, semi-wild places have been at first off limits, before barely open only to those quickest or persistent enough to grab a permit. How far do you want to drive, and how much sleep do you really need? How much is really enough, and is anything, ever, really? Lately we find ourselves driving all night in the simple pursuit of a sunrise seen from remote peaks – silly ideas that resonate with the need to cast away convention and eat in the dirt at 12,000 feet.
Think of the children I tell Cole – our oldest boy, when he is nauseated at 11,000 feet, that he is the luckiest kid in his class, and among his friends may be the only one ever to see such incredible places…which is completely lost on him until he descends to lose the nausea or the headache, and later in reflection, will only grudgingly admit to the experience being something pretty darn cool. Rebekah and I nudge them along, tug their souls gently to the higher altitudes to grant them perspective, in hopes that a little might actually stick, and that someday they might find the balance that can sometimes seem so lofty and fleeting, when our collective, accelerating culture and shrinking world begin to wear on their sanity. This could be for naught, as we lead the little ones to the well in hopes they might drink deeply…
Balance These family adventures, and the few that Rebekah and I enjoy together alone, are incredibly important, and for us allow clarity to seep in and polish the rough edges of our current pandemic reality, to soften the bludgeon of 9 to 5 survival, until it can manifest as something else, perhaps more kindness, and maybe a more civilized approach to…civilization. These moments spent up, up and away, are our ritual of awe, and our counterbalance to the noise and frustrations of the etch-a-sketch I call “culture”.
Fresh eyes In the David Simon HBO series The Wire, Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski is a young cop who in season 3 shoots and kills another officer in the line of duty after someone fails to identify themselves. The trauma completely changes him, and he decides to change his life in response, to move on and become a Middle School teacher. In a later episode, Prez speaks of seeing the world through soft eyes, no doubt with the perspective offered by the trauma of his clash with technological rules and moral decisions. Soft eyes, or fresh eyes: how do you shake things up to see the world, simply, through child’s eyes?
Through the eyes of a child, is your heart then set free ~ Kurt Philip Behm
When I was young, I wasn’t lucky enough to know the inspiration of towering summits and hostile ground as the important elements of my mental and emotional health they are today. Perhaps with over 7,000,000,000 people now stepping on each other as they scratch out a living on this shrinking globe while yearning to be free, combined with the desire for risk taking I share with Rebekah as we strive for ever greater extremes in running distance and elevation gain, this pursuit is only natural – a metamorphic response to the squeeze of everyday stress, and our own personal evolution. It certainly is crucial, and something I pay homage to in the quiet moments of my daily routine, or in the midst of the wild ones I am lucky enough to experience. Each of us has the capacity to seek higher ground, either metaphorically, or with the expanded perspective granted by raw experience. I count myself lucky to understand this idea, and to be able to run with joy in the wild, whenever possible.
The world only exists in your eyes. You can make it as big or as small as you want ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald