There is comfort to be found in the mountains, in the open air, in the away.
There’s something to it; maybe it’s the stillness. Maybe the fresh air alters our chemistry. Maybe there’s a spiritual component, whatever that means.
Years ago, before I knew how frayed the edges of my religion were, I noticed this comfort. Sometimes on Sunday mornings the thought of church was enough to make me cry, and the mountains provided a specific kind of escape, one that called to me. I didn’t know why I was so upset–even if you couldn’t name thirst you would drink water when you came to it–now I think my brain and body were rebelling against situational anxiety that I couldn’t identify as such, and wouldn’t be able to for years to come. That particular stage and script, for which I was so ill-suited, was making me sick. These things will out, somehow.
I confess I cried recently while watching Pete’s Dragon in the theater with my kids. I’ve written about wildness here before–how it’s a gift I was granted in childhood. I have a deep gratitude for it, and often wonder if I’m giving it to my own children, and how exactly to do it. Parents know this matrix of examination all too well, this thing where I think we’re okay on this front, but what about xyz thoughts make you stare at the ceiling at night. The movie, with all its beauty and wildness, abandonment and new starts, its understanding of home and companionship, has stayed in my thoughts since.
In German, I understand, there is a word for the feeling you get when you’re alone in a forest. I’m spending a lot of words to try to name the feeling of being comforted and filled by wild things. This is not nearly so elegant, and yet I learned to name the thirst over time. I’m learning to name the water.
This summer we spent two weeks in national parks, which is a curious experience because you’re right there in the wildness, with hundreds of other people. This was no backcountry camping trip. It can be pretty comical, really, but you know what was beautiful? The shared, earnest, childlike excitement over the sight of a bear, or an eagle, or the first of many bison. Adults, standing in clusters, huddled around specialized lenses that they set up before dawn, just waiting for a glimpse of the wildness. And when you catch it, it’s spectacular. You exclaim and sigh and point and smile and ask your neighbor if they see it.
You ask them if they see it, and they say yes, and you share that moment of communion.
So we followed the paved roads, hungry for sight. We walked along dirt trails; we respected and preserved. We didn’t pick the flowers, but we took three pictures of the same flower, or four. We gaped at boiling hot thermal pools–deadly, agate-like marvels. We took in the beauty of a red-rocked desert that is more harsh than the desert we live in.
And when we left, we were beauty-saturated. I scribbled memories in a moose-adorned journal: we saw a marmot frantically eating on the tundra. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins to the kids each night, in the tent. We sipped wine by the fire, or whiskey, after they went to sleep, listening to the night sounds. Silas drew the solar system in the dirt with a stick. There are purple lupines everywhere. Ricky braved the mosquitoes to take a bath in the river.
Life is now schedules and routines, and fresh back to school energy. What does it mean to commune with wildness? Is that even the thing I’m trying to name here? I only know this: when my children stop to examine the snails that emerge after a summer monsoon, or when we spent a Saturday gleefully wading in a shallow river and they caught their first tadpole, when I notice them examining the growing pecans in the backyard, or finding mama toad and papa toad in the leaves, and in all of these things see their complete engagement, I feel a type of hope that I’m seeking. I think that this is how I pray, now, if prayer can be simply slowing down enough to notice how interesting everything really is, and to feed yourself with that.
There is so much to see, to learn, to appreciate. It truly is the work of a lifetime.
I need to teach them all kinds of things, but this learning, theirs and mine, is particularly sweet.