Reflections on Society from the Wilderness

StealthMoonA pickup truck sped up, it’s exhaust pipe rattling. The driver cut in between me and the car in front. Other motorists in the lane to my right blared their horns. No turn signal was employed. Another bully pushing his way through a crowd, regardless of the slushy road.

My temper flared and I cursed to myself at his indifference to the lack of space between our cars, squashing my foot down on the brake pedal, my knuckles whitening around the steering wheel, the warm vinyl molding to my fingers.

I live just five minutes outside a city of nearly 50,000 people and the greater Harrisburg metro area probably is home to about several hundred thousand on conservative estimate. An inconsiderate driver is nothing new, yet why — I pondered — did this one enrage me so thoroughly?

I settled into a funk of misery throughout the 100 mile drive between Williamsport and Harrisburg. At every light, every intersection, every merger, complete indifference by one to another. Mankind ignoring his brother for self.

My wife said to me once that the trail was the only place I was happy, so I should go there. She was wrong. The minute I open my front door to the bubbly laughter (or at times the frustrated lecturing) of spouse and child is my happiest moment.

But what she took as unhappiness in civilization, and maybe home, was really just disillusionment at how distant mankind is from his better self, the self removed from the priorities thrust upon him artificially by those seeking to use him.

Society’s Inadequacy with Nature

Setting out on the Old Loggers Path, January 2013.
Setting out on the Old Loggers Path, January 2013.

I admit I am biased. I was raised running around in forests, playing on farms, and dragged half-awake into the blurry darkness at pitch-black hours only to sit silently listening to my own thoughts and the terrifying motion of unseen squirrels in the leaf litter around me. The horror.

But I learned to love the urban jungle. Good lord, the diversity of food! And films I could never see at the suburban cinema because they don’t involve Bruce Willis, bombs and happy endings. And the people: a kaleidoscope of skin and language and FOOD and humor and music and …

FoggyMtnRiverShireAnd at this point, I realize the very same things that cause us to create such wonderful culture are the same reasons we inevitably turn our gaze inward. At some point, we fall so in love with ourselves that we forget ourselves.

We’ve become so accustomed to entertaining ourselves with the miracle of our mind that we have become disconnected from the very reasons we need each other in the first place. That is, the universe — and certainly the hard, reducing environment of the planet that sustains us — is designed to squash us, like the interstellar insects we are.

The Traffic Jam

And so, there I was stuck in traffic coming home from a four-day January camping trip. That’s right, January. Why? No bugs, no bears, no snakes, and no foliage on the trees, meaning most of the time you have unfettered views in any direction from mountain ridgelines that are a tunnel during the summer.

Yet, I return to society, where my brother in humanity completely neglects the dozens of people around him. Does that sound a bit self-righteous? Maybe. But there’s a difference between one foul maneuver on a highway, and six or seven strung together in quick succession.

From the Old Loggers Path, January 2013.
From the Old Loggers Path, January 2013.

And once home, my frustration melted away. Soon, I began to reflect on man’s inadequacy in light of my time in nature. My compass was reset, while most others have it skewed by the iron world around them.

Some of this is nothing new: we’ve become so good at removing ourselves from nature’s indiscretion at our death, that it has hollowed out our concern for the inherent togetherness that society requires in order to provide that very protection. We’ve become removed from our moral and ethical obligation to look out for one another. Things as simple as the courtesy of a turn signal, a “good morning” to a stranger. And others far more important, like feeding the person who’s hungry, care to the child who’s sick.

Obligation to each other is a necessity when people enter nature together, or in close proximity to each other. Because suddenly, we are again thrust into the tempest of the world. And she is a vicious Mother keen on teaching us hard lessons by error and attrition and death.

Brother to sister, we grasp wrists and pull each other along, even if only in emotional support. Yet, many times in direct aid by physically pulling each other from Mother’s suffocating embrace. I’ll get the water. I’ll start the fire. You’re sick, rest. You need to eat, you’re weak. You’re injured, we’ll attend to you and get help.

Carving a message on a hiking stick left behind at the OLP trailhead. An outstretched hand to a friend I never met.
Carving a message on a hiking stick left behind at the OLP trailhead. An outstretched hand to a friend I never met.

We could leave each other to the teeth of nature and man. But we don’t. In the same way that the sun’s rising and falling resets our biological clock and the sound of crickets gives us good sleep, venturing out also resets our moral compass by nature’s measure. For in those hours and days, we seek to prove that we can again conquer Mother’s abuse, not as an individual (although that would be noble) but as a species, brother to brother, sister to sister, hand in hand.

And nothing is more noble than he who stretches out his hand to pull up his sibling in defiance of Mother: no, WE will not go down in a whimper this cold night.

And Here We Are

And here I am, back in society. Every day, another struggle to quiet my unrest at the spinning compass in my brothers and sisters. I could allow this swamp to swallow me, but I pull myself from its suction and trudge on.

I could eloquently try to convince you that you too can hike 20 miles a day, and be lost in what I’ll term “the peace of nomadic misery,” but the reality is no one swims before they walk. And many of you will not love being dirty and tired, with sore feet, and so hungry that the ass of a squirrel sounds appetizing.

FireAndSmokeBut just maybe, for a moment forget those things. Instead, consider how alive you would truly feel when you grab your brother’s wrist, pull him next to you, and feast and drink together in the glow of a fire. And then fall asleep to the sound of cicadas, a blanket of stars enveloping you. Your soul and conscience clear, your compass pointing north. Why would you not want that every night?

And here we are.

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