Sunday, October 23, 2011

Connecticut Roots: A Sheltered Christian Childhood and A Place of Refuge by Moderator Bill Sherwonit

For a writer who embraces solitude, one of the benefits of doing an extended wilderness journey alone is that you have long, uninterrupted hours to write, read, and reflect. Assuming, of course, that your travel schedule is flexible enough to allow such activities. When planning my expedition, I intentionally gave myself enough time for both side trips and “weather days.” When the weather was stormy, I could hunker down inside my wonderfully dry and spacious tent, rather than get drenched, wind-blown, and chilled. There I had the option of reading excerpts from Bob Marshall’s Alaska Wilderness (I’d actually ripped out portions of the book to save weight and space; in retrospect it was a rather silly thing to do, considering some of the other hefty items I carried in my 70-pound pack) or Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey , the perfect book to bring on such a trip, given its small size and enthralling essays, stories to be slowly savored and reflected upon. Or, when the spirit moved me, I would write. And remember. I did a lot of both.

Of course if you’re someone prone to worrying, too much tent time can also lead to excessive fretting. I did lots of that, too, during my two-week trek through the Central Brooks Range.

Having a flexible schedule can present its own sort of quandary. When the weather was marginal, I often got into internal debates: Should I stay or should I go? I documented one such episode in Chapter 8 of Changing Paths :

“July 24. Time to resume my journey. That means breaking camp, something I hate to do in the rain. And it’s pouring again. Few people enjoy wilderness packing when soaked, but my dislike is almost neurotic. I suppose it’s connected to my desire for comfort, or being in control of my environment. At least my tiny piece of it. Back home, I am what some folks call a “neat freak.” Some might add, “control freak.” They’re likely the same. I need order and structure and routine in my life. That’s less true out here, but it’s not easy to let go of old, familiar patterns, as my watch monitoring demonstrates.”

I then contemplate whether I am more like Marshall or Henry David Thoreau in my approach to wilderness and life. And I consider a paradox: “I am a man who seeks comfort and day-to-day routine, yet I’ve also chosen the uncertainties and anxieties of a freelance writer’s life. And I’m drawn out of my comfort zone by an even greater need: to be immersed in wild nature. I suspect it’s a way of letting go, like meditation; a way to escape the ego, become part of something greater. It’s a way to heal, to open up to mystery, to touch – or at least approach – the divine. In that, I know I’m not alone. Many of my friends, including some who are Christians, have told me they feel the most spiritual, the closest to God, whatever that concept means to them, when out in wild nature.

“By moving into more-than-human nature, I most closely approach that threshold between the mundane world and what Eiseley calls ‘quite another dimension.’ Immersion can happen at home, in the back or front yard, with chickadees or spiders. But there are times when I have to go deeper. And there is simply no place that has touched me – or released me – like the Brooks Range.

“Given all this, I am drawn to consider the roots of my behaviors and wild desires . . . This means traveling across the continent and through decades of time, to my first homeland, Trumbull, Connecticut. There, in my early years, I moved back and forth between two great influences: the Lutheran church and wild nature.”

Part 2 of Changing Paths goes on to examine my sheltered, fundamentalist Christian upbringing and, following that, my escapes into the “natural world . . .   a place of refuge, play and healing, except my buddies and I didn’t call it that. To us it was the outdoors. Or even the outside. ‘I’m going outside, Ma’ had all sorts of meanings. It usually meant that homework or house chores had been done, which in turn meant play. And freedom.”

In describing my two primary refuges, the Woods and the Swamp, I recall the delights and mysteries – and adventures – that lured me into the nearby wilds, both with friends and alone. And I reflect: “Though a rather timid outdoorsman, I loved the outdoors. The Woods and the Swamp and even the yard were my refuge, places where I could escape family feuds and tensions and the roles I’d learned to play: the good and obedient son, the good student, the choir boy. Expectations and judgments dropped away. I could be more myself. Curiously, given my fears of getting lot in the woods, I could easily lose myself in nature, at least the judgmental self. In the community of humans, it seemed that people were always judging each other. And of course God was omnipresent, watching, watching. Being good Christians, my family, friends, and I had to set a good example to the rest of the world. The standard was impossibly high: perfection.

“Outdoors, especially by myself, I didn’t have to try. I could simply be me, while doing what I loved . . . [whether] I hunted frogs and snakes, fished for rainbows, explored the Woods, or skated across the frozen Swamp. Nature drew me out of myself into something bigger. I still can’t define that something bigger, but it had nothing to do with religion; and unlike my Lutheran God, it wasn’t judgmental. Nor did it seem indifferent. . . . I don’t know if it was nature itself or something even bigger than nature, some creative force or energy. But I felt accepted by the natural world. As a boy I sensed a beneficence that was ‘out there’ but somehow included me. Sometimes I sense it even now. I suppose it may simply be my projection, but I don’t think so.”

As I note in the book, my sense that the larger, wilder world has an awareness isn’t so different from some traditional Native Alaskan beliefs. It may also be tied to what Robert Bly describes in Iron John: A Book About Men , in relation to the “Wild Man” (or Wild Woman) who exists within us modern Westerners. In one passage Bly describes the Wild Man as a mentor, who guides us into nature and reveals the nonhuman awareness – or intelligence – to be found there. He suggests a person may even have the sense of eyes looking on, from a pond, forest or mountain. For some people, he writes, this sense of wild nature’s own consciousness “arrived early in childhood, when we were amazed by woods and gardens [or swamps], and knew they were ‘alive.’ ”

Gary Snyder, too, has touched upon nature’s wild intelligence in The Practice of the Wild , as has David Abram in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology . And in his own curious way, one that interweaves science with a sort of mysticism, Loren Eiseley surely hints of it in his essays.

Besides the Wild Man, I mention two other mentors in Part 2, both adults from my Connecticut years. First there was my dad’s younger brother, Uncle Peach. Much more than Dad (or any of my extended family’s other adults), Peach was an outdoorsman who loved to hunt, and camp, and garden. But more than anything, he loved to fish. When I was 11 or so, Uncle Peach invited me to join him and his buddy, Johnny Trotz, to go trout fishing. As I recount in Chapter 9, “Despite my jitters and inexperience, I landed a trout or two, to the ‘attaboy’ praise of Peach and John. I couldn’t have been prouder. Or happier. In a way, this was one of my few guided initiations into manhood. All of it was grand . . .

“That was the start of a relationship unlike any other I’d had, on that lasted into my late teens. Every summer for six or seven years, Uncle Peach and John Trotz and I would fish streams and lakes and reservoirs, later to be joined by my brother Dave and Peach’s two sons in what was an exclusively male fraternity.”

Yet there was a “shadow” side to Peach’s teaching and guidance: “For all that he taught me about fishing, Uncle Peach gave me mixed messages about the value of other life forms. To him, fish came in three distinct categories: game fish, bait fish, and trash fish. As with religion, things were pretty much black-and-white . . .

“As I got older, it didn’t seem right that some fish were good and others bad, just because we didn’t like their taste or they weren’t good ‘fighters.’ In the same way, it began to bother me that some people were damned to hell, simply because they’d been born into a different faith or culture.”

All this troubled me. I tried not to worry about it, but being a worrier, of course I did. Over time I began to see things less as black and white and more in fuzzy shades of gray. By the time I reached my late teens, I’d begun to question my Lutheran beliefs. And I rarely went fishing with Uncle Peach anymore. Sadly, I didn’t then have anyone with whom to share my agonizing.

My other mentor (though I didn’t recognize it at the time): Miss Anderson, an earth science teacher at Trumbull High School who put me on the path to becoming a teenage “rock hound” and eventually a geologist. “Among her gifts to me, Miss Anderson showed kindness to a shy, timid kid who [as a freshman] felt lost and scared among the throngs of strangers. . . .

“My memory of Miss Anderson is blurred by time. Or perhaps it’s that even the happiest moments of those years are edged in shadows. But what I recall is a smallish woman with short dark brown hair, high-pitched voice, and first name of Donna. She could be stern or warm, as the situation dictated, but what I remember most is her firm but gentle nature, her encouraging manner. She wasn’t the type to bubble with enthusiasm, yet I sensed her passion for earth science. Miss Anderson made the class come alive. She, in turn, noticed my natural affinity for the subject. . . . I quickly learned to identify the rocks and minerals she brought into class. I wanted to learn more.”

Through Miss Anderson’s class, I learned that people could actually made a living studying rocks or collecting minerals. Some businesses even catered to rock hounds. And there were places in Trumbull and elsewhere in Connecticut where you could find crystals. All of this was immensely exciting. Eventually I’d major in geology at Bates College and then earn an MS in geosciences at the University of Arizona.

Of course this new passion also proved troubling. Many of geology’s basic tenets clashed with my deep-seated Lutheran beliefs. “I’d always been taught that the Earth had been formed in six days and our planet plus all of its creatures were five thousand to six thousand years old. This was my truth. I’d never doubted the Bible’s creation story. Why would I? It was all I knew. Now I was being told that our planet was billions of years old. And humans had not been created in God’s image, but had evolved from the apes. How could this be?”

Initially my faith held strong. I accepted science’s version for my class, but the Bible remained my deeper truth until college, when geology and my introduction to other religions – and the first atheist I’d ever known – challenged my faith like never before. At age nineteen I had my first real spiritual crisis. But several more years would pass before I would “turn my back on the Christian church, though not what Christ stood for.” While I generally shy away from labels, it’s fair to say that nowadays I imagine myself to be something of a panentheistic pagan: one who finds and celebrates the divine as it is manifested in the many forms of nature. Or creation, if you will. And that’s a story in itself.

Some questions to consider:
  • Any wilderness journey requires hard choices about what to bring and what to leave behind. What (besides fuel, food, and sufficient clothing) could you not do without? Would books be among your backpacking essentials? Which one(s)? Why?
  • What are the ways that you escape the ego, become part of something greater, open up to mystery, or touch – or at least approach – the divine?
  • Changing Paths discusses two different experiences of “being watched” by some larger/greater entity. One involves a judgmental God, the other the nonjudgmental – and perhaps even beneficent – world of wild nature. What are your thoughts about such experiences? Have you ever sensed a larger, nonhuman “wild intelligence” in nature?
  •  What role have mentors played in helping to shape your life’s path (including your career, beliefs, ethics, etc.)?
  • How, if at all, do you balance/reconcile science and spiritual beliefs in your own life? 


Mark LaRoux said...

Hmmm....what do I bring along besides the essentials? I guess I'd bring what my relatives relatives! That is, someone to relate to and spend the time with (some more than others...). Freedom without someone to spend it with is just being alone.
And alone is OK for a while, but then it gets old. When I go hiking, walking or camping alone, I'm usually without books. On purpose. I let the land set the agenda and I'm focused on whats there, why, where I'm going, etc. The wild IS God in my view, IS the non-judgemental entity that looks upon me with what I perceive as indifference, but with what may be the greatest gift of all--bestowing upon me the ability to sense where I fit in 'in the scheme of things', unedited and sometimes harsh (sometimes comical). I'm not a fan of the 'God in the sky' as much as I'm a fan of an almost Buddhist view that God is somewhat like the 'buddha that you meet on the side of the road' and is challenging you to peel back layers of your prejudices/preconceptions and see what's underneath both in nature and in yourself, to be timeless but in a place. You have to wrestle with effort means no return. And there is a risk that needs some degree of inevitable diligence. God is no accident.
Religion issues are tough to address because they reach so many parts of our lives that we may not want to address at the time: your 'young Earth' issues, 'cornucopianism' for me, whether God is in the sky or in everything, whether/why we have 'domain' over other creatures, etc. We are all 'victims' of stories that we were taught as kids and now find unlearning them uncomfortable, like being lost in the woods looking for any familiar sign to head towards. We have just found a new story to cling on to...
I'm not sure how much more there is than that.

Bill Sherwonit said...

Wow, thanks Mark. Your comment provides lots to chew on. I can appreciate your perspective that "alone is OK for a while, but then it gets old," though I clearly embrace solitude more than you. Maybe that's one reason I ended up a writer. There's plenty of solitude in the writing life, especially when you're a freelancer. I especially love being alone when in "the wilds" (which for me is an essential part of the writing life), though these last few years, my often solitary outings have included a dog; NOT the same as having human company. I don't mean to imply I'm anti-social. As I explain in Changing Paths, "I greatly enjoy sharing wildlands and wildlife with others; and there are times when the presence of a friend or lover can deepen my appreciation of an encounter with wildlife, the grandeur of a sunset, the beauty of an alpine meadow. But to go deeper into the experience, I normally must go alone. And so I do. . . .

"Looking back across my life, I see I've always had this need for solitude from humans, which paradoxically often leads to deeper communion with the larger world. But early on, I also became a good friend with solitude's unhealthy twin, isolation. For many years I couldn't see the difference between solitude and isolation; now I understand solitude to be spirit lifting, isolation to be spirit damaging, even deadening."

I also like your reflections on religion, God, and what I would call spiritual matters. Yes, there is a lot of wrestling to be done. And while I wouldn't say we're "victims" of the stories that we're taught when young, I do believe they always remain with us in some fashion, even as we're learning new and different stories. All the stories we're taught -- or that we create ourselves -- help to form who we are, for better and for worse. I think the key is to loosen the grip of stories that do harm, or hold us back, or limit life's possibilities. That letting go is an important part of a person's growth, I think, whether intellectual, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. Yes, you've offered lots of good food for thought Mark. Thanks again.

Bill Yake said...

A few, fleeting thoughts:

Judging by the anxiety evoked by losing it, I guess a notebook would be my “11th essential.” This would be followed by camera, binoculars, and field keys for plants, butterflies, and mushrooms. Oh, also a knowledgable and humorous guide.

“Escape of the ego” is, for me, a slippery concept. Am not even sure I’d be able to identify my ego if confronted by it in a cold, dark alley, or, if I did, I’m not convinced that outrunning it would be advisable. Ego may be what keeps me hungry, and thus alive. Still, the distraction of an enormous mountain ( or three black bears hunting crabs beneath intertidal boulders ( may come close to getting my attention temporarily diverted from all-consuming self-consciousness.

And if “ego” is a slippery concept, then, for me, it’s fully eclipsed by “divine.” Quarks and blackbirds? Solar winds and bed bugs? Perhaps those wasps that parasitize butterfly larvae or the Raven with his/her insatiable curiosity, constant gossip, and irreverent hunger? I will say that yesterday, with a crystalline 360 degree view that included three Cascade volcanos, I credited Fair Weather Woman -- a well-regarded Haida spirit-being.

“Have you ever sensed a larger, nonhuman “wild intelligence” in nature?” Yes, more than sensed, actually experienced a really large group of really large, more-than-human intelligent beings:

Bill Sherwonit said...

Hello Bill, good to hear from you. And thanks for your thoughts. You (like Mark) have covered a lot of ground in your comment. Notebook and binoculars are definitely part of my own "essentials" list. Field guides are a bonus, especially of the knowledgeable and humorous sort as you suggest. As for ego, as an off-the-cuff "definition," I imagine it to be my conscious sense of self, especially that thinking part of the psyche which all too often works overtime and gets in the way of directly experiencing life and what might be called the "other." Definitely a "slippery concept" as you suggest, but I really like your description of an "all-consuming self-consciousness." That seems right on the mark.

Like you, I've had the experience of temporarily "losing" (or moving beyond) my thinking, overanalyzing self-consciousness when something in the larger world gains my full attention and pulls me "out" of myself, whether a spider, chickadee, wolf, or mountain landscape (to give just a few examples).

Anyone else with thoughts about the ego?

I love your examples of "divine" manifestations. And I wonder if there is some way that your links can be "activated" on this comment portion of the blog, so that you click on them and go directly to the sites you've provided. A question for the blogsite's manager, I guess. Or maybe I'll just have to do some cut-and-pasting.

Andromeda said...

Good discussions and I'll try not to be too wordy and address just a few of the questions.

Time alone is so powerful -- even just a short walk alone, never mind an expedition! -- but I do keep feeling the ego and hearing my own voice in my head. One thing I love about wild, powerful nature is that it can shock me out of my own preoccupations. We all have our favorite places, but for me, it's the ocean. It makes me smaller and less significant; and without a doubt, when I've been snorkeling, surrounded by amazing and unusual clouds of life; or kayaking in choppy waves; or when I've come nearly face-to-face with a whale or dolphin or even something less charismatic, like a tunicate, I definitely forget about myself for a while! On a less dramatic scale, I get that feeling just walking along an Alaska creek where salmon live -- in this case, there is a sense of time opening up, the wonder that a species has lived its own rhythms and survived for millennia before I existed, and that everything I can see all around me, from rocks slowing a current to trees shading the stream, are part of that. That, for me, is a religious feeling. I do observe a faith (Judaism) but my strongest visceral feelings of connection and effacement of self in the presence of something larger happen in nature, rather than in a building.

Mentors: any author (and yes, I would always bring along books on a trip or I'd probably lose my mind) who knows a place well and can help me pay better attention.

Bob Pyle said...

Worthy posting, Bill. I'll sound a slightly contrarian view from some of the commentators by saying that I'm not at all interested in getting away from or beyond myself when I am Out There. If anything, I want to be more intensely with myself. Leave the banal and quotidian concerns behind, sure, and that's partly solved by having no e-mail in the wilderness! But as for me and my ego, id, alter- or otherwise, I want to be fully there and aware of myself in conjunction with the woods and waters and hills and other lives.

I am also not concerned about "approaching the divine," as by my lights, everything is divine or else nothing is. I too worry about comfort and safety and mosquitoes and meals; but when attentive to all the rest, worry falls away; or that's the hope, anyway. I know from your book it can work that way for you, too, Bill.

An Intelligence out there? You bet: it's called natural selection, for me; and the laws of nature. Books to take? a book of poems by a poet I know I like but have not yet read; a good novel, for candle-lantern reading before bed; and something pertaining to the place, or the mission: on my Dark Divide hikes, it was Peter Byrne's Man, Myth, or Monster, some of the best campfire-coyote-howling Bigfoot writing you'll find, by an old leopard and tiger tracker. The one constant: get the heck Out There.

Bill Sherwonit said...

Andromeda and Bob, thanks for continuing the conversation.

First to Andromeda: I love (and perhaps not surprisingly, identify with) your reflections about the ocean and, more generally, any place or experience in “wild, powerful nature” that “can shock me out of my own preoccupations” and which “makes me feel smaller and less significant.” Your comment reminds me of what I’ve most dramatically experienced in the presence of the night sky, both as a boy and, decades later, a wild writer. One memory is especially vivid, perhaps because I wrote about it afterward. While camping in the Alaskan wilderness I awoke in the middle of the night and peeked outside the tent to discover a sky filled with thousands of brilliant stars, sparkling in deep blackness. Later, trying to recapture the moment, I recalled, “So many stars. Such immense, unfathomable distances. A taste of infinity, an escape from ego. . . . I shrink in size to an insignificant speck, yet I’m part of the glorious enormity that this extraordinary spectacle reveals.”

It’s a paradox of sorts, that this shrinking (at least as I experience it) is accompanied by a sense of opening up and being uplifted by the realization I’m truly part of something that’s grandly, perhaps infinitely, larger. In psychological terms it is sometimes called the “oceanic experience” (perfect for the examples that Andromeda gives). In more spiritual terms, it is probably what mystics (and sometimes, we ordinary folks) describe as a sense of “oneness” and connection (that Andromeda too mentions) with something larger, whether a person calls it the universe, creation, the all-that-is, or something else. This really demands a more in-depth discussion, but I’ll stop here, at least for now.

And Bob, I’m not sure that your view is that contrarian to what we’re saying. I think it’s all part of the same experience, we’re simply discussing different aspects of it. For me there is definitely a sense of “losing” – or forgetting – myself, while drawn into the larger, wilder reality. But usually the forgetting is all to brief and self-awareness is never far away. After being pulled beyond my usually narrow sense of self, I soon return to a more normal awareness, with (I hope) a deepened sense of my place in the wilds and among what you call “the woods and waters and hills and other lives.” I also agree that either everything is divine or else nothing is. Yet there are certain moments, encounters, experiences that jolt me into a deeper, fuller awareness of the divine. Maybe it’s simply that certain experiences open me up to the mysteries and wonder in which we’re always immersed, but too often fail to recognize. More on this in my final posting.

Also, your mention of the “dark divide” and Bigfoot reminds me that my favorite Bob Pyle book – and one of my favorites by any author – is “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide.” A great book, no question.

Bob Pyle said...

Many thanks for those kind words, Bill, about the 'foot book--I truly appreciate that!

I agree we're plying much the same territory. As Nabokov put it in "Speak, Memory," as well as anyone ever has:

"This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern--to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal."

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