In the back country: A meditation on man’s relationship to nature

nature meditation 1

The seething earth, it opens up and spits us out.

This vicious child, nature never wanted us

This vicious child, a cancer burning black into its heart.

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia (pictured above and below), near Quantico, where the Marine base is. Two mornings in a row, I walked into the “back country.” At least that’s what the park rangers called it. It’s an area that, if not miles, is at least many hundreds of yards away from the nearest road or any people. I realized this is not remarkable isolated, but for an urban DC-dweller, it was enough to feel profoundly alone.

There’s something remarkably cathartic about nature, especially experienced in contrast to the city or suburbia. It evokes a sort of primeval Edenic memory. I saw beauty at all levels and from all viewpoints, from the small grey moths sent aflutter from disturbed grass underfoot and the carpet-y moss and tiny flowers, all the way to the vast expanse of the reservoir separating us from Marine territory, lined with hills of deciduous trees and brush, sky, clouds, and green glittering in the water in a landscape I’d like to paint. A crane flew by, no higher than the treetops, adding the perfect touch of disruption to the ambiance of twittering and chirping and water lapping and wind dimpling the lake.

It feels welcoming, like a big collective embrace of life, warm and calming, soul-stilling. Ah yes, “be still and know,” it says. Come weary one, and find solace, be at home. The colors are bright and lively at the beginning of summer. The cleansed air speaks to how life was meant to be. It whispers that the world should be better than the urban jungle or cookie-cutter suburbia or the dilapidated cabin I’m staying in. It echoes of a home that I have yet to find. Not where I grew up, and not where I live now, but Somewhere Else. . . ideal.

nature meditation 2

I’ve always felt it, right in front of me but always just behind the next river bend in the river or beach peninsula or mountainside boulder. Camping at Hume Lake in California’s Sequoias every summer, day trips to the beach in Santa Barbara, even driving through the Mojave Desert at dusk – it tapped into some deep-set sense of beauty and belonging. I never put my finger on what it was about hiking in the Sequoias or walking along Ventura beach in the surf that made me want to adventure like the explorers of old and drink more deeply of its beauty. I still can’t, but against the backdrop of city life and my digital workplace I sense it with more volume and clarity now.

Here on the east coast, in Prince William Forest Park, the world teems with life. It slinks between the plants as insects and fungi, every square inch of the forest, it seems, is a picture of vitality. Every puddle and fallen trunk is an active ecosystem in its own right, in balance, dancing the symbiotic steps of life together. Bugs creep and buzz; occasionally I see hints of larger, warm-blooded creatures like squirrels and deer; and beneath the lakes fish glide like shadows and sometimes burst into the world in a flash of droplets to seize some hovering insect that lingered too near the water.

Yes, nature is more vibrant than even the most densely packed, active city ever could be. It is beautiful and delicate.

But it’s also vicious and vile, and I recoil from the wood’s summer awakening. For all my embrace of beauty I feel unease and alienation. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth,” goes the fabled curse – and also needles and fangs and stingers. A mosquito comes near my ear, and I slap at the whine. I keep a lookout for snakes – the ranger warned they had been active this year. Flip flops were a bad choice. Near stale pools of warmed rain water, mud puddles on the trail, the whining grows. I forgot bug repellent; also a bad choice. At the reservoir I lay down a towel, clearing sticks that poke into my back and scattering tiny spiders and ants in the untouched grass.

I try to read – philosophy, longform journalism, the Old Testament – but every itch and twitch and buggy sound jerks me away. Sometimes a tick really has jumped on me, the bastards. Sometimes it’s nothing. But the point is that I’m not at ease, not all the way. The spiders don’t want me. The mosquitos only want my blood. This isn’t my home.

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Our relationship has issues. Nature draws me, or perhaps a better way to put it is that I am drawn to nature – the freedom of the woods calls. But nature doesn’t want me. It flees from me. It does violence against me. So many of these creatures are designed to bite, paralyze, kill. The bugs are tormentors. I curse them here just like I curse them when they are in my house. And they’re just the beginning. I need not digress into lake water, leeches, copperheads, poison ivy.

And so here in Prince William Forest Park I find a tension in my desire for beauty. In the woods I hear whispers of home yet feel profoundly misfit – on edge, discomforted. I even fear sleep in my dilapidated cabin because there’s a mouse running around and moths bumping against the shoddy screen windows. There are urban myths about spiders crawling in your mouth as you sleep. Here they seems plausible.

Those lyrics at the beginning are from a song called “Above and Below” by The Bravery. I like what it has to say about man’s relationship to nature. The seething earth opens up and spits us out. Disease saps our lives away. If nature is our Mother, she has cast us out of the cradle. But we keep venturing in to the forest, looking for new life.

Why?

Nature doesn’t want us, but that doesn’t mean she never did. The Edenic memory is in us all. It testifies that we did belong – once upon a time. There used to be harmony. The world used to be good.

I hope to God it will be good once again.

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