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. I live in Indiana, which is woefully flat and plowed. But it’s within a day’s drive of some good hiking—Kentucky to the south, Michigan to the north, and my favorite place to hike, West Virginia to the east.
I spent a few years of my childhood in West Virginia, from ages nine to twelve. After my parents’ divorce, my mother moved us to Elkins, West Virginia, population 8,000. 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 old 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 all 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 later met a traveling salesman from Elkins, WV, if I would have ever developed my abiding longing for wooded wilderness. But I think I would have found my way to the woods one way or another.
In his essay, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,” Paul Kingsnorth* writes about his experience, at 12 years old, 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.
“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 pro-capitalism Neo-Con father.
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. 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 to 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.
So, with the help of a guidebook, I identified a fairly remote trail to set up my campsite, as well as several more day hikes that promised beautiful vistas. After ten hours of driving from 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 then the trailhead itself, and headed off with my backpack (over)loaded.
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. I thought 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 to medium mammals shuffled around in the dead leaves that 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. It wasn’t just the noise. It was the feeling like people were all around me. And, of course, they were. Though the people were other-than-human.
The next morning, I slept in late and then went for the first of my day hikes, which involved a 1,000 foot altitude gain. It was a challenge for me, but the view was worth it. 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 a 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 second day, I set off for another hike, which took me to some amazing views.
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 stridden 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). 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 to myself. 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. I would like to tell you 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. In my panic, 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 an adult 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. For a second, I thought, irrationally, 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! The thought hit me palpably:
I don’t belong here.
I am in someone else’s home.
I had gone off trail too soon. So I retraced my steps and eventually found my campsite. I saw then that my camp was set in the way 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 heard a tree or a large bough crash to the ground. Ultimately, I gave up and hiked back to my car and slept there. It turned out to be good timing, because it started to rain heavily as soon as I got to the car. I had not splurged for the rain fly for my 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 felt true.
This experience relates to 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 our artifices can make us feel like we ourselves are separate from nature.
This ambiguity is also reflected in our conceptions of divinity. Are we a part of God/Goddess/the gods? Or are we separate from the divine? On the one side of this are the “hard” theists (mono- and poly-), for whom the gods, in order to be “real”, must exist entirely separate and independent of human beings. But making separateness the sine qua non of reality can be a disenchanting move, one which tacitly endorses a reductionist and alienating view of the world. On the other hand are the “soft” theists (mono- and poly-), for whom the gods can be whatever we imagine them to be. It’s valuable to appreciate that just because something comes out of our head doesn’t make it unreal or powerless. However, taken too far, this kind of psychologizing of the gods strips them of their “otherness”, effectively “de-godding” the gods.
When we overemphasize our oneness with divinity, we commit what Jungians call “inflation”, the confusion of our individual selves with the that which transcends our little egos (however it is called). And when we over-emphasize our separateness from divinity, then we commit what Jungians call “projection”, failing to see how we tend to create divinity in our own image.
The hard theists emphasize the otherness of the gods. The soft theists emphasize our relatedness to the gods. Both have grasped different ends of the truth. But each has the tendency to sometimes 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 polytheistic conceptions of divinity:
“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.”
— R. H. J. Steuart, World Intangible (1934)
And what is true of divinity is true of of nature as well—which shouldn’t be surprising, since nature was probably humankind’s first divinity. We are both separate from nature and a part of it. It is hard for us to hold both of these truths at once, and we tend to overemphasize one or the other. When we overemphasize our oneness with nature, conflating human nature with the more-than-human world, then we can get lost in a mystical sense of oneness and fail to respect the diversity of nature and the value of its individual parts. On the other hand, when we overemphasize our separateness from nature, we can be blind to the ways in which we are entangled with the more-than-human world and lose sight of how contingent upon it our lives are and how our impacts on the natural world rebound on us.
I used to wonder if perhaps it were a quintessentially human quality that we feel both a part of nature and separate from it, 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. But now I think this ambivalence is a function of civilization, of the walls—both visible and invisible, material and psychological—which separate us from the wild world, walls which have enclosed both our bodies and our minds. But the feeling of being at home in wild places still survives in us, in spite of centuries of civilization and decades of domestication, a vestige of our co-evolution with the wild world.
Even when we are feeling most connected to the wild world around us, though, when we feel most “at home”, it is important to remember that we share this home with others. In that sense, we are also always guests. And so on my next trip into the woods, I vow to be a better guest. Which means, at the very least, doing what we humans do when we are guests in each other’s homes:
Learn some of the history of the place and the people.
Bring a gift (something the residents would actually appreciate).
Learn about and respect the ways of the place (the “rules of the house”).
Walk and talk softly.
Clean up after yourself.
… oh, and I’ll still pack my earplugs.
*I cannot unequivocally endorse Paul Kingsnorth’s writing after the spring of 2020. After that time, following his conversion to Orthodox Christianity, Kingsnorth’s slide from Green anarchism to proto-fascism became undeniable. All of the quotes in this essay by Kingsnorth come from before that shift.
**Note on the picture of the fawn above: The picture was taken on a subsequent trip to the same area with my wife while we were walking on a designated trail. We apparently startled them and they were trying to hide. Once we gave them some space, they bolted for the trees, and their mother, who had also been hiding (more effectively) close by, ran after them. Other than unintentionally frightening them, no harm was done to them.
So much in this article! Just yesterday I wrote similar thoughts about “nature” and “wild”, and etiquette is such an important point. But at this precise moment it helped me to read someone working to resolve/accept the paradox of two points of view. I’m sick to death right now of online conflict between people who are on the same side. Discussing theology is one thing, but even when polite, there is so much negativity, nit-picking, and disagreeing just to flaunt their individuality. Thank you for this.