My intellect bypasses the beauty of this hike I'm taking and provides a lesson on natural history. Go figure, but I am a naturally curious person. This long ridge of land was once an inland sea. When the sea receded, over time the sandstone eroded, and out of this shoulder of earth was carved this curving ravine, this green hollow of diverse life that finds this ecological niche most hospitable--ferns and mosses, succulent plants needing more water and shade, trees that grow tall and spindly because they reach to the sky for sufficient light.
Not to be outdone, my heart whispers that I've entered the womb of the earth, that down in this cupped, curved hollow the world holds its secrets close, and that they are not secrets or mysteries; rather, they are joys and wonders that any child can explain, unexpected beauty surrounding us that can be discovered merely if we take the time to look. The sky opens above us, and thin beams of light reach down, lambent and tender, and this natural beauty awakes within me correspondences I have forgotten. The fall of light quickens something inside of me, stitching together the fragments of myself, making me once again whole.
|Children experiencing the wonder of the Maquoketa Caves.|
When our world grows chaotic and we feel somehow separated, lessened or weakened by the constant, busy, impersonal cacophony of the day, we need a reminder of the greater world, that the world is greater than just humanity. William Wordsworth wrote about this in around 1802, saying that the Industrial Revolution took as much as it gave ("The World Is Too Much with Us
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Have we given our hearts away? Have we lost--or better, forgotten--our capacity to interact with the world? When we spend less time in nature, then do "little we see in Nature that is ours"? What a shame that is! The beauty and power of nature is that same beauty and power within ourselves. That is what we need to remember--that is what we need to reawaken when our spirits are depleted.
Finding our place and ourselves in nature is "humanity's oldest endeavor," according to an essay, "Our Deepest Affinity," by Thomas Lowe Fleischner
. "No wonder--our survival has wholly depended on our capacity to pay attention to the encompassing living world, full of threats, foods, and delights." Fleischner explains that "we live in a very odd historical moment" in which people are so surrounded by human-made things that we have little around us to remind us of the natural world. That is why the experience of walking out of the office and into the freshness of an approaching thunderstorm is so powerful. The untamed winds of the approaching storm give us a reminder of the greater world, a natural world sweet and rich with the promise of approaching rain, of moist, green earth. We breathe in a deep breath and feel suddenly more awake, invigorated and connected. Fleischner's conclusion is that we need nature. "The current gush of social dysfunctions--violence, depression, anxiety, alienation, lack of health in so many ways--coincides with the mass sacrifice of human interaction with nature."
Camping is humanity's "oldest endeavor"; it is a means for us to integrate ourselves into the integration of the world--that we,
either individually or as a species, are where the fragmentation and purposelessness resides. It is not that we are tone deaf to birdsong; it's more that we have taken ourselves to places where there are no birds! As Wordsworth says in his sonnet: "For this, for everything, we are out of tune." We can find wholeness in nature (and wholeness
share the same word root).
My wife calls me to the window, and a brilliant goldfinch is eating hyssop seed, the plant bobbing with the bird's weight as it eats. It is the early morning, just past dawn, and a thunderstorm has passed. After a hot, dry week, the air is cool and moist. The earth has received a rejuvenating sip of rain, and I am rejuvenated by what my senses tell me: we can heal ourselves by healing the earth. The hyssop, the black-eyed Susans, the cosmos blossoms, the zinnias, cucumbers and okra, honey bees and bumblebees, the wrens and goldfinches--this late summer haven we have created with our vegetable and flower garden is a haven not just for the natural world we have invited but also for nature within us. Sitting by the campfire should be just an extension of how we live our natural lives--a garden at home, a plant in the office, taking our lunch outside or commuting with a bicycle. The world is our home; we shouldn't keep ourselves locked away in a closet . . . no matter how nicely we have furnished that little space.
|Some basecamps are more permanent than others.|
I open the door and walk outside, barefoot. The sidewalk is a wet and cool; the grass is lush. I admire the peach tree that grows at the corner of the fence. It gave its crop of juicy peaches to us this year--peach pie and peach cobbler, fresh peaches for breakfast--and now it drinks the early morning rain, its aged limbs propped with lumber for support and protection from heavy winds, a painted wren house swinging from a limb. Yes, I live in a home on property I own, but I mean to share that property. My wife and I mean to share our land because it isn't really just "ours," if we consider all the other lives that also live with us, from the singing birds and pesky rabbits to the worms and microbes in the soil.
In his essay, Fleischner shares the results of medical studies, concluding "it's stunning how remarkably healthy
time outdoors turns out to be," that finding nature, whether walking by the ocean or in the forest, or simply going outside to cloud-gaze or to feed the pigeons, is healthy for both body and mind, a medical reality leading to "prescriptions" for wellness that include being in nature. Call it "nature therapy" or "forest therapy," we are healthier when we spend time in nature. That's why once the heat spell breaks, my wife and I will camp for two weeks by Rathbun Lake at Honey Creek State Park
, spending time walking the beach or hiking the woods. If it's cool enough, we will start a fire in the morning and sit beside it sipping tea and waking up with the world. My wifes works online sometimes while we've camped and has had the opportunity to tell a client during a phone call, "I'm talking to you, and as I speak a doe and her fawn are lying down in the shade of a maple tree thirty yards away."
|A safe haven.|
We camp in our Airstream Basecamp
, but I am beginning to realize all the nuances of that word, basecamp
. A basecamp is a safe, stable place from which we venture forth on our explorations. It is the foundation for activity. Camping is a means for affirming our place in the natural world; it's also a means for affirming who we are, a way to reconcile and integrate our quick, frenetic lives to the eternal rhythms of nature, to widen our perspective, just as our view expands when we reach a mountaintop and scan the panorama around us or when we turn away from the ocean shore and look out across the ocean to the horizon, where sky and water are one. Camping can help us find our "inner basecamp," that perspective and strategy of life that includes the healing qualities of the natural world. Perhaps this is the true meaning of the current buzzword, glamping
. "Glamorous camping" is in its essence, at least for me, not the pretty and expensive accouterments of camping; I think it's more the beautiful and priceless gifts the natural world freely provides.
It is our obligation to "camp," whether it be sitting by a campfire, watering the begonia at our desk, or standing at our window, watching the goldfinch outside eat its fill of hyssop seed. Nature is not our toy. In this human-centric world in which we now live, we need to mother our Mother Earth, to be good stewards to the land. "Always leave the camp cleaner than when you came," my dad always said. This planet is our basecamp. In order for it to take care of us, we must take care of it. For our health and wholeness, we must keep nature in our lives; we must nurture and be nurtured by the natural world. Sitting by a small campfire is not a little thing: it is the light of the sun contained by a ring of stones. It is the beginning point of that adventure we call life.
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