“Frank Fraser Darling insisted on going barefoot, year-round, on his
beloved island, on the basis that it was hard to feel the pulse of the
universe through half an inch of Commando sole, and I’m sure that he was
an even better zoologist as a result. I want to have a more articulate
talk with the land. It’s just another way of knowing myself better, and
my self-obsession insists that that’s worthwhile.”
–Charles Forster, from Being a Beast
I’ve always felt this. Even in childhood I had a connection to the land.
This notion has been with me most of my life. Though I could not
articulate it so well as Foster, I took my first steps down this path
while still a child. Running through the woods, oftentimes barefoot, the
wild imprinted itself on me. Because I was so at home in it and an
introvert by nature, I was inclined toward observation. It isn’t enough
to walk through a cathedral of pines. One must be still and listen to
the wind talking in them, feel the fallen needles, smell the rich scent
of them turning to soil – allow nature to envelope you. One must learn
to be quiet inside and learn to hear and smell and see. We’ve been told
that man is the master of the world for so long, we tromp through nature
with precisely that attitude. That is the opposite of understanding,
and it is why our comprehension of the natural world is too often
limited, viewed through the prism of its utility to us rather than on
its own merits.
One day while wandering in the Montana Rockies I encountered a mule
deer doe who was unfazed by my presence. I suspect it’s partly due to my
habit of walking quietly and that I empty my mind when exploring. I
want to soak everything in – if I’m lost in thought, I’m missing much of
what is around me. In a certain way, I become a blank canvas and let
the environment paint on me what it will. I’m convinced that this is why
I’ve had close encounters with wildlife in the past. I bring little of
the human world with me.
I spent the better part of the afternoon with her. I discarded my
shoes so the artificial flapping of my great rubber and leather clad
feet wouldn’t alarm her. She grazed quietly, drifting from spot to spot,
sun dappling her hide, ears flicking to discourage flies and keep tabs
on me. When she trotted, I’d jog as quietly as I could, keeping pace.
I’m surprised to this day that she tolerated me – we were, on average,
no more than 20 feet apart. After several hours, we parted ways
amicably, due mainly to my realization that we were miles from where
we’d met and my shoes were still at our starting point.
These kinds of encounters are what draw me irresistibly to the wilds
alone. Some of my earliest experiences in the woodlands were by myself.
As a child growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I had unprecedented freedom
and spent countless hours roaming the woods and fields. I’m not sure if
it was a more innocent time or if our family was unique in that sense.
There were no cautionary tales, no cell phones, no fear of strangers
snatching us up. For me the woods were as much home as the cabin my
parents had built.
I knew every inch of our property. The chuckle of water in the stream
that ran in front of our cabin was a constant companion. The old stone
farmhouse, collapsing and shrouded in creepers deep in the woods was a
place of mystery, the long hall of pines atop the hill was a temple, the
wind in the needles, hymns. High, exalted tones in a language I could
almost grasp, but not quite – the secret language of the universe I’m
Which is why it amuses me when people comment that I’m crazy for
going to remote places by myself. It’s the only way I know to experience
the wild unfiltered. And I’m very much at home in it. When I drive to a
place I love, it’s as though I’m molting. Shedding layers of
civilization as the miles tick by. Lately I’ve stopped listening even to
the radio. I can feel the wild calling and I can feel the city fading.
And when I step out into the high desert, the crisp air prickling my
senses and the only sound in the world, my footsteps, I’m present and
watchful and relaxed and expansive. I’m alive.
There are risks, admittedly. But my threshold for risk is
substantially higher than someone who grew up in a more urban
environment, or even someone who grew up more rural but viewed the creep
of dark forest down the mountainside as more adversary than friend.
I love silence. I love the purity of it. It feels like an embrace. I
know people who it threatens. They’ve described it as falling off a
precipice. But I crave it. By contrast, I find the furor of the modern
world overwhelming and a constant source of low level anxiety.
Cities are bubble worlds. They consume you, drag you under, offering
this thing instantaneously, that option or this or that other one or
this one same as the first but with a slight difference or color. There
are careers and cubicles and metal walls. Mountains made of steel and
glass. The underlying implication is that humans are the only things
that matter – the most important things in existence.
But out past the suburbs, where the streetlights stop and the road
stretches on into the night, where even the orange glow on the horizon
fades away, the silence waits. The world grows infinite about you. Time
changes, stretching, expanding. Its patience is greater than humanity
and will outlast us all. And for the briefest of geologic moments I will
(As published in Galaxy Brain - galaxybrain.ca)