It is not death or dying that is tragic, but rather to have existed without fully participating in life—that is the deepest personal tragedy.
~ Edward Abbey (quoted by Jack Loeffler in Adventures with Ed)
Despite having no known origin, the expression “may you live in interesting times” is considered by some a tongue-in-cheek Chinese curse. Oddly, I always regarded it as a sincere benediction. Take away the sarcasm and you are left with a simple, if profound, question: is a boring life preferable to a difficult life? Answering for myself, although there may be a point of such severe misery that a life of boredom may become preferable to a life of challenge and difficulty, to me that severity would have to be of such magnitude as to deny me altogether the experiences of nature. My entire life to date, I can say with pride, qualifies at least to some significant degree as “interesting times.”
Winters are long in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau and even more so in these parts, in the upper reaches of the series of great cliffs known as the Grand Staircase. Having had enough of the cold and starkness of winter, I decided to head south to greet the first signs of spring and to deepen my acquaintance with the lower, warmer, neighboring deserts—the northern reaches of the Mojave and the southern parts of the Great Basin.
After some hours of driving, I set up camp in a small clearing among large rocks, surrounded by patches of soft, verdant, grasses. Some early bloomers were already in flower: phacelia, chicory, desert dandelion, and tiny wild geraniums. After weeks of silence, one becomes very aware of the presence of songbirds; and after seeing almost no green plants for the same period, the scents of fresh foliage, budding creosote bushes, and damp earth, were so intoxicating that I found myself stopping every so often just to close my eyes and savor the air, a fragrant lungful at a time.
On occasion, during brief lapses in mindfulness, I became aware of the stark contrast between my immediate experience and the grim realities of climate change and the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. I try to be conscious when such thoughts come to my mind so I can dismiss them consciously with the simplest of reasons: right here, right now, none of it matters.
To those who feel comfortable out of doors, removed from manufactured worlds and from the odd rituals of the human animal, the visceral immediacy of sensations and their associated emotions and perceptions commanding the whole of one’s attention, is a defining characteristic of our experiences in the wild. For those not accustomed to such modes of feeling and thinking, the reverse is often true: whatever “baggage” they hold onto from that other world distracts and prevents them from experiencing in full things occurring in real time, including some of the most beautiful, inspiring, exciting, and fulfilling things that a person may experience—things having the power to elevate the mind, and that one may engage in physically and emotionally without barriers or delays, with no need for any leaps of imagination, without yearning for places and experiences other than those occurring in the present and within reach.
Try as you might, no matter where you go or what you do, you can never escape the things you bring with you: the things you refuse, are afraid, or feel unable, to let go of. In the words of Seneca, “your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.” Most unfortunate are those unpleasant thoughts one feels an obligation to be concerned with because others have deemed them “important” in the abstract, despite serving no useful purpose, despite being irrelevant in one’s present circumstances, and despite one having no ability to do anything about them, especially when one’s real circumstances offer much to elevate the spirit if given due attention.
Rumination is among the modes of the human mind implicated in such feelings as anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction. Regrettably, rumination has become a norm in industrial societies. Trapped for many hours in unsatisfying jobs or other preoccupations, many seek to dissociate from their immediate experience, wishing they could be in places other than where they are, doing things other than what they do. Such dissociation is often not voluntary, and may arguably be considered a defense mechanism against the demoralizing effects of tedium and boredom. When not consciously occupied with some task, the brain’s default mode network takes over and the mind drifts, most often to troubling and self-critical thoughts. On the other hand, a life rich in wild experiences and prolonged times in which one has no reason to wish to be elsewhere or to experience anything different than one’s visceral reality, with an abundance of alluring sensations and beauty to fill one’s attention; trains the mind in positive ways to find value in present experience, in the real, in the possible, without having to resort to wishful thinking. An abundance of such experiences, when properly appreciated, also consumes one’s attention so thoroughly as to leave little or none of it to troubling thoughts, ruminations, fears, or regrets. It is when such circumstances only occur rarely that some people find it difficult to, in the lingo of computing, switch contexts. Rather than let go of the mundane to make room for, and to fully experience, the extraordinary, many by default maintain an ordinary state of mind even in the face of the sublime.
Comfortable in my camp, I begin to cook dinner as I look out over many miles of spectacular desert, now glowing and vibrant in the fast-fading afternoon light—an immense panorama of sprawling rocks and colorful earth, cacti and large yuccas, creosote bushes rising from carpets of soft grasses, all reflecting deep gold under a great open sky. Around me, a number of mountain ranges stretch in succession toward distant horizons, fading into jagged bands, each a different shade of blue. I recognize some of them, but can’t name others. I take some pleasure in the fact that my all-knowing app has no names for them, either. Some are inaccessible by any road, separated from the human-made world by many miles of wild desert, some of which may never have been visited by a human or any other simian. Shortly before sunset, I notice a flock of large migrating birds flying so high that I can’t identify them without the aid of binoculars. Given the direction of their travel, I have some idea of the body of water they are headed toward, and I take pleasure in imagining their grand view.
Flowery writings about the healing powers of nature may be considered justly as platitudes by some, although such prose undoubtedly also falls within the realm of (to use another platitude) being platitudes for a reason. As Aldous Huxley noted, “Proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them.” Much scientific evidence for the beneficial effects of spending time in natural settings has come to light in recent years, to no surprise of naturalists. Perhaps less obvious is how wildness as a way of life may not only heal one’s spirit from the occasional injury, but also shape one’s attitude as to become more resilient, in some ways even immune, to the ill effects of living in “interesting” times.
Right here, right now, the world is as peaceful, beautiful, and alive, as anything I can imagine. I can see it, breathe it, smell it, taste it, hear it, engage with it physically and emotionally without fear, without concern for propriety, without guilt, without the undue burden of events beyond my control, and without concern for what may (or may not) happen at some later time in some other place. With the exception of my own belongings and the rutted two-track road I drove in on, there is no other person or even evidence of the existence of other people as far as I can see. The nearest highway is just shy of fifty miles away. Cataclysmic events may occur right now and I will not know it for at least a few more days. The difficult part is not to put oneself in such circumstances, but to train one’s mind to be at peace in them, to unplug for a time from the human mycelium and to just be a living being in a living landscape.
Night has fallen, and I stare into a vast sky dotted with celestial lights, some of which have traveled a thousand years or more to cross paths with me in this improbable place at this random time.
A concerned friend confessed to wishing someone would just say that everything will be OK. Everything will be OK. Everything already is OK. Looking back at so much beauty and meaning, knowledge and understanding, times of awe and amazement, even fear, pain, and grief, in solitude or in the notable company of humans and other beings, experienced in such circumstances over the decades of my life, I am perfectly at peace with the notion that even if my existence comes to an end tomorrow, this life—all of it—will have been OK, regardless of how the universe may continue to unfold or the trials and fate of the human (or any other) species.
So long as I am still here, still able to have such experiences, no matter the hardships, I will abide by the words of Walt Whitman: “let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”