Wilderness: Where We Meet Our Ancestors

One thing that’s very clear from the current PBS series on our national parks is that the generations before us had a love for our wild places and had the good sense to preserve many of them.  What’s also clear is that access to the wilderness is also access to significant aspects of physical and spiritual health.

The contemplation of the natural world and its relationship to the spiritual has historically taken place in wilderness settings. A significant aspect of wilderness is that it is one of the few places where we can connect emotionally and spiritually through shared values with those who have gone before: where we can relearn the lessons our ancestors learned.

We need to be reminded regularly that human community involves not only those who are living today, but also our forebears—and our descendants. The trouble is that the crush of modern life with its constantly changing technologies, its shifting social values, and its flood of information is so different from the generations past that it makes it difficult for us to identify with those who have gone before. If our ancestors left no oral or written legacy, we can only imagine what they must have thought, felt, and believed about life’s significant issues in their day. It’s in the wilderness that we can most easily avoid the distractions that only on the surface appear to make us different from them.

One way to understand this is to imagine yourself on a remote wooded ridge—say somewhere in the Ozarks. You’re suddenly engulfed by a violent thunderstorm, and while rushing to find shelter and safety, you find yourself in the company of two others in the same pursuit. Together you find a large overhanging rock ledge and crawl under it for cover. Finally at rest, you seek to begin a conversation but quickly find that verbal communication is hopeless—because the other two, due to some warp in time, are a French explorer from the late 1600’s and an Osage Indian from the 1200’s.

Because your cell phone doesn’t work where you are, it’s a mere fascination to the other two, and your iPod, while it creates a sense of awe, soon goes the way of all battery-powered devices and your companions’ wonder ceases. Your clothing, too, is a curiosity—as well as your eye-glasses. But when the storm soon shows that it is but the precursor of a cold front bringing with it several inches of snow, other modern devices, like your classic Swiss Army “knifelet,” become of little value, and the frustration of leaving that lighter in your car several miles away only adds to your distress.

What you discover is that the wild pretty much obliterates all the differences between the generations. But you are also soon delighted that you are not caught in these circumstances with, say, “important people” like Oprah, Britney Spears, or Donald Trump, who appear to have never ventured more than a hundred yards away from a light switch and whose wilderness survival understanding could well be limited to the old joke that you start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together.

I like to think that in the wilderness we meet our ancestors, because apart from our technology and heads full of technical knowledge, most of which is of little lasting significance, our common spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational needs have been the same since Adam was expelled from the Garden. Further, the importance of the health and fruitfulness of the creation is as important now as it ever was. Our earth could not—and we cannot—remain healthy without good air, good water, good soil, adequate shelter, and health-giving foods—access to which modern technology may as much threaten as provide.

Having, as most of us do, a pride of the present, we find ourselves irrationally disconnected from the past—somehow thinking that no forebear would have much to offer us moderns. Yet if we did find ourselves in a raging thunderstorm on a wilderness mountaintop, we’d quickly learn that we are fundamentally no different from any other person living today—or yesterday. The fears, desires, and temptations of the first human beings were at heart no different from ours. The wild is one of the most important venues for compelling us to recognize and then value what is most significant in life and what is common to all people of all ages.

Saint Francis, William Penn, and John Muir, in our clothes and speaking our language, certainly would prove to be far wiser and astute companions on life’s journey than Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Jacques Ellul reminds us of this in his book The Technological Bluff:

[Modern technology] causes us to live in a world of diversion and illusion. . . . It finally sucks us into this world by banishing all our ancient reservations and fears.

So among its many other values, a walk in the wild links us in an unbroken chain with all who have gone before. Valuing and preserving our natural parks and wilderness areas will permit our descendants to do the same.

How many are your works, O Lord!  In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures….  May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works—he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke.  I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.  May my meditation be pleasing to him as I rejoice in the Lord. (Psalm 104:24, 31-34)

See you outdoors!