Monday, November 7, 2011

The Necessity of Celebrating the Miraculous by Moderator Bill Sherwonit

Bill at Gate of the Arctic National Park
[Discussion topic: Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness]

To begin this final essay, I’d like to thank Anne Post for inviting me to participate in America’s WILD READ. And thanks to all who’ve taken the time to read and consider – and in some cases, comment upon – my wild musings. It’s been an honor and pleasure to join this community, to participate in this forum.

In 2008 I returned to Gates of the Arctic for the first time in several years. This time I hoped and planned to share the adventure with my sweetheart, Helene. For various reasons, she was unable to join me. So, once more, I journeyed solo into the Arctic. This time I didn’t travel nearly as far or stay as long. But again the wilderness touched me deeply. For my final posting, I’d like to include some reflections from that trip, adapted from the epilogue of Changing Paths. I’ll preface those musings with a quote from one of my chief inspirations, Loren Eiseley’s Immense Journey:

 “The world, I have come to believe, is a very queer place, but we have been part of this queerness for so long that we tend to take it for granted. We rush to and fro like Mad Hatters upon our peculiar errands, all the time imagining our surroundings to be dull and ourselves quite ordinary creatures . Actually there is nothing in the world to encourage this idea . . .”

Toward the end of my stay, I realize it’s no coincidence that I (again) brought the writings of Loren Eiseley—a scientist who believed in miracles and embraced mystery—on this latest venture into the Brooks Range wilderness. No accident, either, that life’s circumstances forced Helene to bow out of the trip at almost the last minute, leaving me alone in the Arctic wilds for 10 days. That’s not much when compared to Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness or to any number of contemporary solo journeys. But it’s enough time, certainly, to do some soul searching, re-read Eiseley’s delightfully provocative essays, and shed enough of my urban psyche to more openly embrace the wondrous wild.

Going solo into the wild raises the stakes. It magnifies and intensifies experiences, whether unnerving (a river crossing, a broken tent pole, a bear in camp) or sublime (Mount Doonerak, howling wolves, the Valley of Spires). There’s nothing like a wilderness sojourn, especially when alone, to renew or enlarge one’s sense of wonder and regain an awareness of life’s miracles—and the larger miracle that some name the universe, others creation.

Is it not a miracle to watch Dall sheep lambs hop nimbly from boulder to boulder on steep slopes that would paralyze a human mountaineer? Or to watch a tiny, pale-yellow spider, no bigger than a sesame seed, crawl across the back of the hand before dropping back into the tundra, where she and her kin somehow survive Arctic extremes?

And isn’t it a marvelous thing to walk among huge leaping walls of marble, whose calcium carbonate was laid down as sediment, then buried and, over great expanses of time, squished, fractured, and otherwise contorted, then thrust upward into the sky – all by unimaginable earth forces – and finally sculpted by glacial ice? Or to stand in a valley sparkling wildly as ice crystals are lit up by the rising sun?

Marble Tower - Valley of Spires
I know: not everyone can get into the wilderness regularly. Or would want to. But of course that’s not necessary. While the wilderness may more easily open us to the miracles of this world we inhabit, astounding stuff goes on around us all the time, in all sorts of ways. Yeah, you may be saying, I know that. But how often to you feel it with your whole being?

As Eiseley and other wisdom keepers have reminded us across the years, life itself is a miracle—as are the parts of creation that our western culture tends to consider “dead” or lifeless. And to be part of the spectacle is also a miracle. My life is a miracle. Yours too. And we need to regularly honor those truths.

Certainly it’s important that we be educated and warned about global warming, species extinctions, ocean acidification, toxins everywhere (including our bodies), the dangers and cruelties of industrial farming (or industrial anything), social injustices, predator control and other cruelties against animals, war and other violence against each other. The list of  troubles and calamities seems to go on and on, many of them tied to our species’ own selfish, reckless and sometimes horrific behavior. But we humans also need reminding now and then that to simply be alive and part of this grand experiment—or whatever you wish to call it—is indeed a mysterious and astonishing thing.

This matters because we behave differently in the presence of the miraculous. We act more respectfully, more reverently, more generously. And we’re more open to being joyful, playful, and, perhaps most importantly, hopeful, essential ways of being in these anxious, destructive, scary times, when it’s so easy to be overcome by despair, hopelessness, and paralysis. I’m not suggesting a retreat from the problems that we and the larger world face—and to a large degree we humans have helped to create. We need to keep working for the greater good, a healthier, more just and peaceful world. But we need to stop now and then to praise and embrace life.

First-hand experience of the miraculous is always best. But when that’s not possible, we need reminders. We so desperately need the words and work of people like Loren Eiseley, Robert Marshall, Wendell Berry, Robert Bly, Terry Tempest Williams, Chet Raymo, Richard Nelson, Michael Meade, Scott Russell Sanders, Gary Snyder, James Hillman, Kathleen Dean Moore, Robert Michael Pyle, Barry Lopez, Paul Shepard, and Matthew Fox, to name some of the heart-filled authors-thinkers-activists who’ve inspired and informed me.

Above my desk is a quote attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh. In his own way, he says much the same thing that Loren Eiseley does. I return to it often, especially when things seem darkest:

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Amen and hallelujah.


Wayne said...

When for any reason we can't celebrate the big wilderness, we have to remember to seek out, recognize and celebrate the small ones. Thanks for the reminder Bill.

Mark LaRoux said...

There are those of us who walk 'under the earth' also, and get to see some of the most miraculous things that few others will see (i.e. cavers)...feel free to visit if interested. The first time I entered a (deep) cave, I thought I was in the most 'unearthly' landscape known...ironic as it WAS the Earth, WAS just land 'scaped' by time and water. And yes, the miracle of life extends WAY beyond our normal senses, way down deep so to speak. I once thought about caving alone, to appreciate the solitude, but know it's a fool's errand, and not my way. I'm humbled by the below as well as the above. The immense and the infinitesmal. And yep, amen and hallelujah, Bill, amen and hallelujah. Thanks for taking us on this journey.

Bill Sherwonit said...

Thanks, Wayne and Mark. Yes, we need to seek out -- or be open to -- and celebrate the small as well as the grand forms of the "wondrous wild," wherever they may be. Remembering is indeed a big part of it. As Loren Eiseley reminds us, the Earth is an extraordinary place, but we so often fail to notice because we're busily rushing here and there, both physically and mentally. I easily fall into that trap . . .

And Mark, I love your musings about the marvels to be found "under the earth" as well as upon and above it. Not being a caver (or miner) I don't often pause to think about the wonders down below. And of course the same is true for what is found deep below the water's surface. Indeed there's magic and mystery everywhere, all the time, in "the immense and the infinitesmal." I like that.

Karene said...

I am part of the silent Wildread contingent who seldom take the time to post a comment. I appreciate your writing and thinking so much. Thank you for reminding me with your posts why I work for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The deeper values and spiritual meaning of my chosen work path gets lost in the day to day. Above my desk is a quote from YOU.

Lynn said...

Thanks for that post,Bill. The pastel hours of dawn as the sun rises here in northwestern Alaska, this is my moment's miracle. I'm looking forward to reading Loren Eiseley after this post. Enjoyed your writing on this blog. Happy Trails!

Bill Sherwonit said...

Thanks, Karene and Lynn, for your comments (and for keeping the conversation going). Always nice to hear from new voices and to learn what members of the "silent contingent" are thinking (and feeling). I greatly appreciate the thoughts and sentiments you've each expressed, the sort of sharing that brings deeper connections, new insights, & more reasons for celebration. Happy trails, indeed. And thanks again to all who've participated, in whatever way, in the Wild Read forum and community. Lots of reasons for thanks-giving.

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