Share, Listen, Think

Go Outside

In Nature on November 5, 2011 at 11:16 am

Photo by Doug Stutler

By Bekah McNeel

I don’t know when I decided that I hated nature, and I don’t know what it was that pushed me over the edge. But I do remember thinking, “Everything out here is trying to kill me.” I was in college and I was wearing flip-flops in the West Texas desert at Big Bend National Park. Far from the wooded canyons and creeks of my Hill Country childhood–though even there cactus and cedar splinters abound–I had decided that nature was for ascetics.

So, naturally, I married an ascetic. A desert monk of sorts. A man who loves to be outside. And now we spend time outside. We run, we swim in creeks, we hike, we camp. I have discovered the state and national parks services. Maybe it’s my love for him, but more likely its that he is my very own “interpretive center.” South Texas wilderness needs an interpretive center. (For those who avoid the outdoors: an interpretive center is where they tell you what you are looking at and why it’s important and why you have to love it.)

For our first anniversary, we decided to take a trip to Yosemite. If I were to write a book called “How to Love Nature,” chapter one would be a guide to planning a trip to Yosemite. Surrounded by waterfalls, rainbows, cliffs, and sequoias I thought, “This is how people become naturalists.” Legend has it that John Muir actually cried out for joy when he discovered Yosemite Valley. He would devote his life to its preservation, founding the Sierra Club and battling against the reservoir that created the lake at Hetch Hetchy in the park’s NW corner. He explored every accessible inch of the place, even when accessing it meant that he had to build his own trail. We hiked some of those trails 130 years later. I get the obsession.

It’s a strange life change for me to sympathize with that obsession. Growing up, the Sierra Club was in a league with Planned Parenthood and Chairman Mao’s one child policy. Enemies of the faith. I didn’t know anything about it, but somehow it was synonymous with earth-worshipping paganism. Being somewhat at war with nature myself, I didn’t give it much thought. How bad would the world really be without mosquitoes and cacti?

Answer: terrible. For two reasons,

1) Mosquitoes and cacti are going to outlive us all. So if it gets to the point that they are dying off, well, the earth probably resembles Mars.

2) We need it all! When we eradicate the pests, we start messing with systems far outside our plans. Systems that include the Giant Sequoias, whales, cattle, and us! We cannot pick and choose our favorite bits of Creation. We need to work within the system, because we’re part of it. Do you eat meat or vegetables? Then you’re part of the system. Breathe oxygen? Part of the system.

Now, I’ve heard enough apocalyptic eco-scenarios to scare me into reusable shopping bags. What about conservation based on love rather than fear? If I love nature, then acting on its behalf becomes what I want to do. No longer is the Sierra Club my enemy. Now I’m glad for it to work and work hard. Not just so that we can survive, but so that we can enjoy surviving.

I work in a church office, where we are all about the head and the heart. I share a tiny office with two seminary students who drill each other in Hebrew vocabulary all day. It should not be surprising that I was having a hard time grasping the concept of “Fear God.” God was something that we scribbled on the whiteboard. He fit inside the bindings on the shelf of theology books. But when I peered into a violent whirlpool at the top of Nevada Falls, slippery granite beneath my feet, I was terrified by the same majestic cascade that had delighted me only a few hours earlier from a safe distance. I thought, “This is awe. This is fear.” That’s the closest I have come to understanding the fear of God. My heart was paralyzed but exhilarated. Free but trembling. There was something in the world that was beyond my control and comprehension, but here I was close enough to touch it. Close enough to see how beautiful it really was, but to be swept away if I ignored its power.

Photo by Doug Stutler

My husband the Nature Monk says that people need to spend time encountering things that make them feel small. Cliff faces, desert expanses, ocean horizons. We need a reminder that truth is less, “man is the measure of all things” and more, “what is man, O Lord, that you are mindful of him?” Less Enlightenment and more Psalms.

But treks through nature are not all grand perspective-taking. In an age of information barrage, where we have boundless productivity with minimal discomfort, there is something so right about going outside. About using all five senses to navigate. Out on a particularly grueling hike or trail run, a person must become consumed by their surroundings and how they are interacting with them. Each step down a slippery mountain pass in the rain quieted my mind because if I let one piece of my nerves be distracted from the vital task of searching for a foothold I would be in big trouble, and probably with an injury to show for it. That kind of singular focus resets the brain. It quiets the crowd of alerts, notifications, special offers, and expiration dates. I think its good for our brains to spend a few hours in survival mode. How can I do this unless I go outside? I’m not talking about a peaceful walk in the woods either. Yes, that’s where it starts. Walking without a cell phone. Nature is great for contemplation, a la Walden Pond.

What I’m talking about here though, is the wilderness. The wild. A place where environment and body collide and tasks are no longer options set against a backdrop of entertainment and luxuries. Where work is not a villain keeping us from relaxing. Being outside in this way demands that I turn off the noise and do the one thing that there is to do in this moment: take the right step or fail perilously.

It would be very Presbyterian of me to now say, “You can do this anywhere.” To talk about how your backyard can be your own little wilderness. Well, unless you live on the edge of the woods, desert, beach, or tundra, it probably cannot. You probably are going to need to work a little harder to love nature. Not everyone gets to take a week and explore Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Glacier National Park for a course in Loving the Great Outdoors 101. Many of us will have to settle for a prickly, buggy, humid whatever-state park. But my challenge is to find that piece of the world that helps you understand why people want to save it.

Photo by Hannah Amodeo

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