Every so often I feel a compelling need to get myself into the woods. I feel soul-starved if I go for too long without immersing myself in the green world.
This time was a little different, because I decided to go by myself. Taking an extended Labor Day weekend, I packed my backpack and headed for the hills of West Virginia.
I spent a few years of my childhood in the state, from ages 9 to 12. After my parents’ divorce, my mother moved us to Elkins, West Virginia, population 8,000 (and declining). My father would drive the six hours from Louisville, Kentucky once a month for visitation over a weekend.
There is really nothing to do in Elkins, but it does sit on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest. So my dad broke out some camping gear which he had inherited, bought a couple of sleeping bags for me and my brother, and suddenly we were backpackers. For the next several years, we spent our springs and autumns backpacking. And thus was born my love of the woods.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I don’t think my father really had any experience with backpacking before the divorce. I wonder, if my parents hadn’t divorced or if my mother hadn’t then met a traveling salesman from Elkins, if I would have ever developed my abiding longing for wooded wilderness.
In his essay, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,” Paul Kingsnorth writes about his experience, at 12 years old, of going on “long-distance walks” with his father and camping on the English moor for weeks at a time. It doesn’t sound like he particularly enjoyed it at the time, but they were formative experiences for him. He writes:
“They were what made me what I would later learn to call an ‘environmentalist’: something that seemed rebellious and excitingly outsiderish when I first took it up (and that successfully horrified my social-climbing father — especially as it was partly his fault) …”
I admit to taking a certain satisfaction from the irony that my own environmental activism arose out of those early experiences backpacking with my capitalism-loving and Republican-voting father.
So, with the help of a guidebook, I identified a fairly remote trail to set up my campsite, as well as several more taxing day hikes that promised beautiful vistas. After ten hours of driving fro my home in northwest Indiana, I arrived in Elkins in the late afternoon. I located the forest road that would lead to my trailhead, and the trailhead itself, and headed off with my backpack loaded.
I had never been backpacking by myself, having always gone with my father and brother or with my wife and kids. This time I wanted see what it would be like to do it alone. I figured I would be more present if I didn’t have to worry about whether anyone else was hungry or having fun.
The hike in was beautiful. The trail was covered in moss and in some places the ferns on both sides of the trail touched, indicating the trail saw little human traffic, which was just what I wanted. I was feeling exuberant. This was where I belonged, I thought. This was what I needed It was only a few miles hike to the place where I decided to set up camp. Forest management rules require that campsites be set up no less than 200 feet from any trail or water source, so I had to stumble around a bit off trail to find a suitable location. I got my camp set up before nightfall and settled in.
Then the forest came alive.
Or rather, it awakened. The forest seemed very much alive as I hiked in, but in comparison to the night, the daytime forest was slumbering.
The trees made all kinds of sounds, swaying in the wind, dropping branches, acorns, pinecones, and insects. Small reptiles and small and slightly larger mammals shuffled around in the dead leaves the covered the ground. And I’m pretty sure a deer or two walked tentatively around my campsite. Compared to the daytime, it was raucous. And I struggled to fall asleep in my hammock.
The next morning, I slept in late and then went for the first of my day hikes, which involved a demanding (for me) 1,000 foot altitude gain. The view was worth it though. After that, I was too tired for a second hike, so I headed back to camp.
When the sun set, the noise started again. I thought maybe it would help if I started fire, but it didn’t. And again, I struggled to fall asleep. I grumbled to myself about the wildlife not letting me sleep.
On the third day, I set off for another day hike, which was the best part of the whole trip.
As I headed back to the campsite, I contemplated having another fitful night’s sleep. I wondered if perhaps I had entered the forest with the wrong attitude. I had strode into the forest like it was my home–and during the day it felt like it was my home. But at night it became someone else’s home. I had felt like the animals and plants that lived there were disturbing my peace and invading my space, when in fact it was the other way around.
I decided I had had the completely wrong attitude and I needed to do something different. So when I reached the trailhead which would take me back to my campsite, I knelt down. I apologized to the forest and its other-than-human residents for invading their home so presumptuously. I made an offering of water (a scarce resource for a backpacker) to the stream. And I asked permission to enter.
I was ashamed that I had not done this at the beginning of my stay. “I’m a bad pagan,” I thought. But now I had corrected things. This time when I headed down the trail toward my camp, I was confident that things would be different. I didn’t expect the forest to make less noise, really, but I expected that my attitude about it would be changed. I expected to feel more at home.
I would like to tell you that this little spiritual practice transformed my experience. That, from that point on, I existed in a state of mystical union with the forest and its inhabitants.
But that’s not what happened.
Night fell before I got back to my campsite, so I had to blunder around a little more than usual to find the spot. I thought I recognized the clearing and approached the spot where my camp was.
The first thing I noticed was that my hammock was gone. And so was everything else I had left there. My first thought was that some park ranger had removed everything for some reason.
Then I noticed the eyes. Bright silver eyes staring at me from out of the dark. There was a deer standing a few feet away from me, on the other side of where I thought my camp was supposed to be, its eyes reflecting the light from my headlamp back to me. I felt, in some irrational way, that the deer had magically taken the place of my campsite.
Immediately after thinking that the deer was in my place, it hit me that I was in her place! I thought, “I don’t belong here. … I am in someone else’s home.”
I had gone off trail too soon. I retraced my steps and eventually found my campsite. I saw then that my camp was set in the path of what was probably a regularly traversed path for the deer–which helped explain some of the nighttime noise. Not only had I barged into someone else’s home, but I had set up my camp in what would be their hallway. And then I had the nerve to complain about the noise!
Night three proved to be no better than the previous two. I didn’t know it, but there was a storm rolling in, and the wind was really wild. It felt like the forest was going to come down around me. Somewhere in the not so far distance, I did hear a tree (or a large bough) crash to the ground. Ultimately, I gave up and hiked back to my car and slept there. (This turned out to be fortuitous, because it started to rain heavily as soon as I got to the car, and I had not splurged for the rain fly for the hammock, naively believing that the weather forecast for Elkins, 30 miles away, would be a good indicator for the microclimate of the valley where I set up camp.)
I had a great third day of hiking, which included discovering a secluded waterfall. Then I headed home before the sun set.
Had I thought to bring earplugs, or to fashion some from toilet paper, probably I would have slept soundly, and I wouldn’t be writing this essay. But if I had plugged my ears, I would not have experienced so acutely the difference between feeling at home in the woods in the day and feeling like I was in someone else’s home at night. In the day, the forest and I were one. I was an animal in an animal’s habitat. In the night, I was an unwelcome human being in a bustling community of other-than-human beings.
Somehow, both of these realities were true.
This reminds me of a discussion which often arises in animist circles about our use of the word “nature,” a concept for which many indigenous cultures do not have a word, as the existence of the word itself implies that there is something that is not nature. Are human beings and our creations part of nature? On one level, yes, absolutely. And yet, there is a sense in which our creations, our artifices (read, artificial), are separate from nature–at least from wild nature. And this is true of us as well, because as surely as we construct buildings and roads and computers, we construct our selves. Somehow, we are both a part of nature and separate from it.
This experience made me think about our conceptions of divinity. For me, this is a natural association, because I locate divinity in the natural world. Are we a part of God/the gods/Goddess? Or are we separate from the divine?
Over the years of my involvement in the online Pagan community, I have had many discussions about this with people of a wide variety of theological orientations. One version of the discussion would be an argument with a “hard” polytheist, who would insist that the gods are “real” and, therefore, exist entirely separate and independent of human beings. I would respond that making separateness the sine qua non of reality is a disenchanting move, which tacitly endorses the paradigm of a reductionist science. The hard polytheist would respond that I was attempting to reduce their gods to mere “archetypes,” figments of the human imagination. I would try to explain that archetypes are not conscious creations, but transcend human consciousness, and it was for this reason Carl Jung used the terms “archetypes” and “gods” interchangeably. And round and round we would go.
The other version of the discussion would be with a “soft” polytheist, who believed the gods are archetypes and therefore they are whatever we imagine them to be. I related to this, because I came to Paganism after realizing that the Christian God I had believed in was very much a product of my own personal unconscious mind. But Paganism helped me to see that, just because something came out my head didn’t make it unreal or powerless. So I would try to explain to the soft polytheist that this kind of psychologizing of the gods strips them of their “numinous” quality, effectively “de-godding” of the archetypes. “Numinous” is a Jungian term which refers to “otherness” of the divine, its independence from our conscious will. In Jungian thought, we do not create archetypes, any more than we create our dreams. But unlike the hard polytheist, who would argue with me, the soft polytheist would usually just dismiss me.
The hard polytheists I argued with were attempting to preserve the otherness of the gods. The soft polytheists were trying to preserve their relatedness to the gods. I think both were right. And both have the tendency of overemphasize one or the other (probably in reaction to each other). Somehow, we need to be able to hold both of these truths at the same time.
What Christian theologian R. H. J. Steuart wrote about the Christian God I think applies just as well to the Pagan gods:
“We are obliged to preserve the concept of the ‘otherness’ of God [or the gods] from ourselves even though we cannot use it without distorting or at least wrongly stressing it. […] It is an otherness which not only does not exclude but positively (just because it is what it is) includes and demands oneness–a oneness, indeed, which is actually more real and intimate than what we would normally describe as identification.”
Somehow, the otherness and the oneness are both true, just as surely as I am both separate from nature and a part of it. Whether we choose to emphasize one or the other can depend on the scale at which we are looking at things–are we looking at the individual trees or at the community of the forest?–or it can depend on the time of day–I may be “at home” in the day and an unwelcome intruder at night.
I wonder if perhaps this is a quintessentially human quality: that we can feel like strangers in our own home and at home in strange places, that we can feel alone when we are together and connected when we are alone. Perhaps there is no reconciling this seeming contradiction.
In any case, I’ve learned my lesson. On my next trip into the woods, I’ll be sure to make an offering and show the proper respect from the outset … and I’ll pack my earplugs.