By Jim Miller
Every year I make an effort to find my way to the deep woods. Living in California, we are lucky to have access to some of the world’s precious dwindling areas of real wilderness, including the last vestiges of old growth redwoods.
There, if you are intrepid enough to get out of your car and go a few miles past the first markers, you can still lose yourself in the ancient forest. Take a difficult trail and, after a while, you just might find yourself alone with the tall trees, banana slugs, birdsong, and bear scat.
From a vista you might spy a lush green ocean of ferns and fallen logs bathed in ethereal light filtered through the dense canopy overhead. Inside the husk of a giant downed by lightening or flood, you discover a new universe of fungus, flowers, and thick moss whispering to you that there really is no death.
And that is a comfort because the dense groves of ancient trees and the undifferentiated wild that doesn’t care who you are can be a humbling reminder of deep time and the stark fact that you actually don’t amount to much of anything except as a part of everything.
If you are wise, the redwoods inspire an awe bordering on the religious. You feel your smallness and are moved by the brevity of your life, the lives of all those whom you love, and perhaps even the life of your species when compared to the vast span of time that preceded it. For those who are sensitive there can be a kind of existential terror that comes with such a thought but also a wonder at the fierce unrelenting beauty of life.
At the same time, if you surrender your ego, even for just a minute or two, you might find a moment of genuine transcendence, interconnectedness, and discover a sense of a greater self.
These are the musings that come to us when we unplug and allow ourselves to be unmoored. Life, death, and rebirth are in the woods. The nature of your true self is there as well if you care to find it. To be alone with a vulnerable soul in the forest takes courage which is why so many people go there without ever being there or never go at all.
In “Where I Lived, And What I Lived For” in Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes that:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Over a century later, Gary Snyder, in Practice of the Wild, counsels us that “We must ground ourselves in the dark of our deepest selves”–selves formed in part through “mountain ranges, river courses, flatlands, and wetlands.”
But Snyder notes that the forest of the self doesn’t stop at the edge of the city as “culture itself has a wild edge . . . the arts are the wilderness areas of the imagination surviving, like national parks, in the midst of civilized minds. The abandon and delight of lovemaking is, as often sung, part of the delightful world inside us. Both sex and art!
But we knew that all along. What we didn’t perhaps see clearly was that self-realization, even enlightenment, is another aspect of our wilderness–a bonding of the wild in ourselves to the (wild process) of the universe.”
Thus our culture’s continued loss of connection with the wild has its costs. Richard Louv observes in Last Child in the Woods that as fewer of our kids are exposed to the natural world, more and more of them suffer from obesity, attention disorders, depression, and a profound alienation. What Louv calls “Nature Deficit Disorder” is a real threat to the physical and psychological development of our young people, who have lost track of the dark of their deepest selves.
So while many of our leaders in Washington beat the drum in the service of selling off the commons by privatizing national and state parks, we are risking a whole generation to what Thoreau called “resignation” or existing without ever really knowing what it means to be truly alive.
For the time being, however, you can still find the deep woods. Learn how to look and listen. Enjoy them while you can.
This column is part of Jim Miller’s “summer chronicles” series based on the Brazilian model. In that literary tradition, a chronicle allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.