The great gift of deserted country to us is solitude, the chance to be alone before God. This gift may also be the desert’s greatest terror, however…. We are left by ourselves, and suddenly we are faced with the question of what that self really is…. The desert lacks everything except the opportunity to know God.” — David Resenberger
It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.
It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
Cheryl Strayed from Wild
All of my reading on desert and wilderness spirituality speaks of the necessity of dying to self. No one wants to do this, of course. No one wants to see the image they have of themselves—their identity and all they hold close—to be destroyed.
And yet, if they want to grow, if they want to become the people God wants intends for them to be, death is on the docket.
This quote from Kerry Walters puts it well. He’s been looking at the ideas of Simone Weil and Catherine of Genoa as they ponder the need for death. He writes of Catherine’s thoughts, “When the soul lands in the purgatorial desert, the painful process of dealienation begins. In the desert, the self progressively loses its destructive attachment to [according to Catherine] ‘the things of the intellect, will or memory, and in no manner tends more to one thing than to another. Quite still and in a state of siege, the me within finds itself gradually stripped of all those things that in spiritual or bodily form gave it some comfort.’ … Weil and Catherine, as well as may other chroniclers of the desert journey, remind us that recreation is frightfully agonizing—not because the God of the desert enjoys inflicting pain, or even because there’s intrinsic value in suffering, but because the pretender self’s alienation is so engrained. Entrenched habits are stubborn, addictions recalcitrant. Once a foothold is established, the grow cement-hard. Purgative death in the desert is violent because nothing less can crack the casing of a soul enmired in entropy.” (Soul Wilderness, pg. 81)
I know it’s not what I want to experience, and yet I also know that unless I die to the false self—the one that relishes in praise from others—I will never truly grow. I don’t want it, but I know it’s the only way that leads to true life.
The mountains comfort me with the promise that if the heat down here becomes less endurable I can escape for at least two days each week to the refuge of the mountains—those islands in the sky surrounded by a sea of desert. The knowledge that refuge is available, when and if needed, makes the silent inferno of the dessert more easily bearable. Mountains complement the desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.
A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”
—Edward Abbey from Desert Solitaire
Trails can be found in virtually ever part of the vast, strange, mercurial, partly tamed, but still shockingly wild world of ours. Throughout the history of life on the Earth, we have created pathways to guide our journeys, transmit messages, refine complexity, and preserve wisdom. At the same time, trails have shaped our bodies, sculpted our landscapes, and transformed our cultures. In the maze of the modern world, the wisdom of trails is as essential as ever, and with the growth of ever-more labyrinthine technological networks, it will only become more so. To deftly navigate this world, we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.”
Robert Moor from On Trails.
God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”
“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
From John Muir.
What most moved W.H. Auden about limestone was the way it eroded. Limestone’s solubility in water means that any fault-lines in the original rock get slowly deepened by a process of soft liquid wear. In this way, the form into which limestone grows over time is determined by its first flaws. For Auden, this was a human as well as geological quality: he found in limestone an honesty—an acknowledgement that we are defined by our faults as by our substance.” —from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
In the Desert the most urgent thing is — to wait.
The desert does not take kindly to those who tackle it at breakneck speed, subjecting it to their plans and deadlines. It soon takes its revenge and makes them pay dearly for their presumption. Instead, the desert welcomes those who shed their sandals of speed and walk slowly in their barefeet, letting them by caressed and burnt by the sand.
If you have no ambition to conquer the desert, if you do not think you are in charge, if you can calmly wait for things to be done, then the desert will not consider you an intruder and will reveal its secrets to you.
Robert Macfarlane writes, “Ynys Enlli [meaning Island of the Currents] was among the many remote places of the west and north-west coast of Britain and Ireland to be settled between around AD 500 and 1000. Monks, anchorites, solitaires and other devout itinerants began to travel in their thousands to the bays, forests, promontories, mountain-tops and islands of the Atlantic littoral. In frail craft and with little experience of seamanship, they sailed out across the dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wildness. Where they stopped, they built monasteries, cells and oratorios, dug cemeteries for their dead and raised stone crosses to their God. These travelers were know as peregrini: the name derives from the Latin peregrinus and carries the idea of wandering over a distance, giving us our word pilgrim.
It is clear that these edgelands reciprocated the serenity and the asceticism of the peregrini. Their travels to these wild places reflected their longing to achieve correspondence between belief and place, between inner and outer landscapes. We can surmise that the monks moved outward because they wished to leave behind inhabited land, land in which every feature was named. Almost all Celtic place-names are commemorative: the bardic schools, as late as the seventeenth century, taught the history of places through their names, so that the landscape became a theatre of memory, continually reminding its inhabitants of attachment and belonging. To migrate away from the named places (territories whose topography was continuous with memory and community) to the coasts (the unmapped islands, the anonymous forests) was to reach land that did not bear the marks of occupation. It was to act out a movement from history to eternity….
There [on Ynys Enlli], with the ocean extending away from them, and nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or delay the eye, the monks were free to consider infinitude.” — from “The Wild Places”
The desert is the threshold to the meeting ground of God and man. It is the scene of the exodus. You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end. — Alessandro Pronzato