Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fifth Week of Lent: Needing Wilderness

Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity,
an antidote to the high pressure of modern life,
a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.
— Sigurd F. Olson

There were many benefits from my first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness 25 years ago. Far from the least of them was to experience the world that Sig Olson had so beautifully chronicled in his books. He stands in the rich tradition of Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard who I talked about two weeks ago. Dillard was in the eastern forests, Leopold in the plains of Wisconsin. Olson was in what I consider one of the incredible spiritual places set aside for wilderness.

Sigurd Olson (April 4, 1899 – January 13, 1982) was an American author, environmentalist, and advocate for the protection of wilderness. … In June 1921, Olson took his first canoe trip where he fell in love with the canoe country wilderness of northern Minnesota that would become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (with his help)…. He spent most of his life in the Ely area, working as a canoe guide during the summer months, teaching, and writing about the natural history, ecology, and outdoor life in and around the Boundary Waters.

Other benefits from my first trip (and others that followed for several years) included:
  • A new and expanded experience of nature
  • Hard work to get there was a reminder of our advantages
  • Dependence and survival on community
I love being in the “natural world”. Growing up in what they now call the “Pennsylvania Wilds” there was a sense of “wilderness” that I took for granted until I didn’t live there anymore. Since then I have looked for it and found ways to be connected with it. I always knew there was much that was essential about a “wilderness attitude” or an openness to the natural beauty of the world and what it had to offer.

Sig Olson was able to express that essential need in much of his writing.
There is a hard core of wilderness need in everyone, a core that makes its spiritual values a basic human necessity. There is no hiding it....Unless we can preserve places where the endless spiritual needs of man can be fulfilled and nourished, we will destroy our culture and ourselves.”
— Sigurd F. Olson
  • “A hard core of wilderness need…”
Most of us don’t know we have that need. It may be one of the great losses of humanity’s growth into civilization. Not that civilization is a bad thing. It has allowed many great things to get done. But in our disconnect from the world of nature we have lost a sense of being a part of that world. Most of us can’t see the amazingly filled night sky with its countless stars. In many places it is impossible to even see something as iconic in the Northern Hemisphere as the Big Dipper. A 20-something young person watching the Gulf coast sunset last week turned to me with a huge grin and a sense of awe. “I have never seen such a spectacular sunset.”I hope he discovered the need for that wilderness in that moment.

I have been blessed by countless sunsets in more places than I can remember, even over the parking lot in back of our apartment or from the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. But there is something different about a sunset over an ocean or lake, the Gulf of Mexico or a flowing river. There is a power as the sun sets behind a rolling hill, a distant prairie horizon, or a rugged Rocky Mountain peak. It is at one and the same time inspiring, humbling, and downright exciting.

In my language and life I would call that spiritual. As Sig said in the quote above, our need for wilderness
  • “…makes its spiritual values a basic human necessity…”
Again, I have had amazing spiritual experiences in urban settings, including sunsets, although they more often include some interaction with other people. An experience in nature has its own unique energy. I notice as I keep writing that I tend to be talking in generalities and could even be running in circles around some central theme that is next to impossible to describe. Leopold and Dillard had that problem. Olson does to, as did Loren Eiseley who I will talk about next week. It is because there is something beyond words, deeper than insight, and broader than the horizons in all this. Poets sometimes will give us a lead. A couplet by Robert Frost may do so for what I am trying to say:
We dance round in a ring and suppose
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows..
The mystery of life can perhaps best be felt or encountered in the wilderness as we listen.
I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard.  Everyone has a listening point somewhere.  It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but someplace of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.”
— Sigurd F. Olson
"Thin places" is a theme that I have personally explored and experienced. They are Sig Olson’s listening points.
The Celtic Christians believed that there were mystical spaces, called “thin places,” where the veil between the holy and the human is traversed. A place in which the physical and spiritual worlds are knit together, and if we are so attuned, we can transcend the ordinary for a glimpse of the infinite. -Link
  • Lent is a time for us to discover our own thin places, our listening points.
  • Lent is a time to explore the spiritual calling or callings within us.
  • Lent is a time to contemplate the universe from the aspect of God’s love as the underpinning of it all.
  • Lent is a time, a season, of renewal of our inward journeys so that we may have a stronger foundation for the other seasons we have in front of us.
  • Lent is a time to develop the habit of listening in thin places in every aspect of our lives.
To resign ourselves to that influence may be the most important act of surrender we will make.

Live in each season as it passes;
breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit,
and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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