Wednesday, June 28, 2017

#235: "Hiking with Kierkegaard" by Mark Liebenow

~This essay previously appeared in Chautauqua (2014).

Hiking With Kierkegaard      
The Struggle Between the Idea and the Experience of Nature: A Debate Informed by Goethe, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, the Velveteen Rabbit, and a Hike to the Top of El Capitan.

            Before dawn in late September, I stand on a bank of the Merced River, below black mountains in silhouette, and watch the river’s dark blue water flow out from the forest and surge quietly past. The undulating surface reflects glints of silver from the sky’s early light. Mist hovers in the chill above the autumn meadow. When there is enough light to see, I begin a ten-hour hike by going up the steep switchbacks on the canyon’s north wall to the top of Yosemite Falls.
            An hour and a half later, catching my breath on the canyon’s edge, I glance back at Half Dome across the valley, locate my trail, and head into the forest for El Capitan, anxious to see what it looks like from above. From the valley floor, El Cap is a smooth granite monolith that rises 3000 feet straight up. Rock climbers travel from around the world to spend days pulling their way up its vertical face; for them it’s a rite of passage. I prefer to hike over the mountains and explore the forest along the way.
            In a shaded grove near Eagle Peak, I pause for a quick drink of water, but as I look around the landscape at an elevation of 7400 feet, a strange sensation invites me to sit on a boulder. What’s confusing is that on a long hike I don’t usually stop for water because I want to get back to camp before dark. I just swing my backpack around, grab a bottle and drink without ever breaking my stride. Setting my drive to get to El Cap aside, I wait to discover what is causing this feeling.  It seems like something that I’ve forgotten or lost.
            The growing heat of the sun filters through the trees and balances the crisp, cool air of early morning. Chickadees are chirping, chipmunks are scuffling through the dirt and leaves looking for stray acorns, and the breeze hums as it twirls needles in the sugar pines towering above me. I am energized by the quiet sounds and scent of pine, and the moment feels perfect, although this doesn’t say it right. I feel physically connected to the land. This says more, but the words don’t say enough. I linger for twenty minutes letting the presence of the landscape deepen.
            I come into nature because of surprises like this, whether I’m hiking in Yosemite, canoeing among the moose in the Boundary Waters above Minnesota, walking the old prairies of Wisconsin, or poking around tide pools on Oregon’s serrated coast. Yosemite Valley is seven miles long and one mile wide, and by camping for a week I experience something of the rustic life of John Muir. Nature’s architecture has created a place both intimate and open where people can explore the boundary between self and the wilderness.
            This trip I’m also here because grief has morphed into Moby Dick at home and I’m locked in a battle like Ahab, unable to kill it or let it go. Five months after my wife’s sudden death in her forties, I’m stuck in anger, depression, and apathy, and I’m hoping that nature can help me with this.
            Half an hour later I realize that I’m still thinking about the presence I felt on the break and not paying attention to where I am. I have no recollection of the section of trail I just hiked. As soon as I began to think about what I was experiencing, I broke the fragile connection and ceased to be a participant.
            I begin hiking again, this time at a slower pace, determined to pay attention to everything around me. After moving into thick woods, I notice a bright area on the left and take a second unscheduled break to investigate, pushing my way through the brush and discovering a circular, pocket-sized meadow of dry grass with a small grove of trees in the center — a green island in a golden sea. I’m caught up in the unique setting when a deer sticks its head out of the woods on the right side. Satisfied that the area is safe from predators, it walks into the sunlight and heads for the grove of trees. I stay motionless. This deer is followed by another deer. Then another, until five does and two fawns have come out and settled in the grass.
            As I write words in my notebook to preserve the moment, I realize that I’ve stepped out of the experience again. I finish as quickly as I can, return to the trail, and slip back into the physical flow of the hike.
            The breeze travels with me for a time when it flows in my direction; then I hike with the mountain. In geologic time, the mountain is moving, although this is hard to detect today. The mountain is hiking west because of shifting tectonic plates. When I hike on the mountain, I am moving with it, flowing in the river that is the mountain. This is part of Dogen’s idea of time-being.
            The physicality of being outdoors is what I seek first because my body understands dimensions of existence that my mind doesn’t grasp. Although the physical is often dismissed as being primal, a diversion and of no consequence, my body’s perceptions are crucial for keeping me alive outdoors. It’s a direct experience because if the weather is hot, cold, or wet, so am I. And it’s sensual. When a cool breeze swirls up on a ninety-degree day, I shiver with pleasure. Every hour there are the alluring sounds of creeks and rivers cascading and gurgling around the valley. Food never tastes so delicious nor water so refreshing, and the sweet aromas of incense cedar and oak come from the woods and the meadows and entice me to keep hiking until late in the evening. 
            Invariably, when I get up the first morning, my hips are sore from sleeping on hard ground and my legs stiff from hiking too much, yet as I watch nature wake to a new day, excitement builds to go on another hike, but first I nurse a cup of coffee to get warm and stretch muscles that have tightened overnight.
            Being in the wilderness makes me feel exposed, especially when a thunderstorm rumbles in, soaks my clothes, and threatens to blow my tent away. Wild animals are roaming around killing each other for food, and I’m hiking through territory that bears and mountain lions call home. If I get too close and they feel threatened, they can easily harm me. Even what seems to be safe has to be approached with caution, yet every year people wade into the Emerald Pool on hot days to cool off and are swept by the powerful Merced River over Vernal Fall.
            If I lose this trail to El Cap or run out of water and it turns out to be a scorching day, I might be in trouble. If an ice storm unexpectedly moves in, I’m definitely in trouble because I haven’t packed the gear to deal with that. No one will be coming along to rescue me if I break an ankle. But I’ve learned from my rock-climbing friends the value of taking risks, and learned from my hikes to trust nature. I know that the animals will act like themselves and not carry grudges. This is their land. If I respect their ways, they will tolerate my presence.
            Descartes tried to give primacy to the mind, but he was wrong. We may be certain that we exist because we think, but we know we exist because of our physical bodies. We are real because we feel, the Velveteen Rabbit says, and the ancient Egyptians were wise to this and deemed the brain secondary to the heart, which they regarded as the source of human wisdom, memory, and the home of the soul. They took special care of the heart after death, while Descartes’ validating brain was diced up and pulled out through the nose. A conceptual existence abstracts us from a living experience. 
            This is the dilemma I’m struggling with on this hike — whether to seek knowledge about nature or develop a relationship with it. My mind wants to go one way, my heart the other. The boundary between them might be artificial, but I don’t seem to be able to do both at the same time.
            It’s the same dilemma with grief, whether to try to think my way through the despair and sorrow, which hasn’t worked so far, or let the emotions surge through me like a wild mountain stream before it calms to nourish the meadows.
            When I hike alone like this, I feel vulnerable, but I’m also exhilarated at being surrounded by the massive forces that created the world, and challenged to see if I can survive without damaging any of my major body parts. Taking risks pulls me out of my head, where I live too much of the time, and forces me to experience nature directly. My friend Jim Hicks feels this awareness when he sails by himself among the small islands three miles in the Atlantic Ocean off the Maine coast, needing to be attuned to everything that is happening around him, and drawing on all his skills in order to survive the shifting weather, wind, and tides.
            Loud crashing erupts in the forest ahead, and the sounds of struggle are quickly moving closer. A deer sprints past thirty feet away, his eyes wide open as he flees something behind him. It could be a coyote or bear, but more likely it’s the mountain lion that’s reported to be living in the area. This is nature’s battle between death and its ferocious resistance to dying. Yet the Ahwahnechees believed that the deer willingly gave themselves up to their arrows out of compassion, knowing that people had to eat.
            I resume hiking but now I’m riveted to every sound and every twitch of leaves, watching the shadows for the movement of tan fur, and sniffing the breeze for musky scents, trying to brace myself for an attack. I begin talking aloud to alert any frustrated carnivore that I’m here:
            “You know, John Muir was a friend of bears and lions, and he held great respect for you. I’m a friend of Muir’s. Like him, I just want to pass through your forest. And what a beautiful, noble forest it is!  I like what you’ve done with the living room.”
            I continue my nervous patter of nonsense for half an hour until I think I’ve moved out of the area of whatever scared the deer. This danger existed only as a thought until it fell into the pit of my stomach, then the fear became real.
            The wilderness remains a concept until I step into it. Until I leave the comforts of the city for the physicality of the outdoors, the wilderness remains an ideal of beauty and innocence undisturbed by human hands. At the same time, it’s also a place somewhere out there that is wild, chaotic, and deadly. It’s a curious dichotomy that bumps around in my head, but that’s how it exists until I physically cross over the boundary and sit in a forest or ford a river while its current pushes hard against my legs.
            Before I came to Yosemite the first time, I saw a few photographs and thought that I knew what to expect, but I didn’t comprehend the physical magnitude of the valley – seven waterfalls thundering down into wide, green meadows, white granite walls climbing straight up for almost a mile, mountain peaks rising to 13,000 feet, and giant sequoias nearby that are three-thousand-years old. When I stood on Glacier Point at sunset, looking at Half Dome across the canyon and watching the moon glide over the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains tinted with alpenglow’s rose and purple, I was breathless, as if a vision had appeared. I felt the unity of the land and the presence of an enormous Power behind it. 
            But what caused my reaction? Was it awe for the physical beauty of the landscape that pulled me out of my ordinary preoccupations? Did I sense I was standing in a place that the Ahwahnechees regarded as sacred? Was it respect for an ancient wilderness that has looked this way for thousands of years, or excitement that the historical John Muir once stood where I am? It was all of these, for everything about me — body, mind, and spirit — was finding something that nourished it, something that made sparks fly, something beyond my mind to comprehend and my physical abilities to conquer. I could only stand there and let awe soak in. 
            The physicality, the experience of being in nature, partners with what I think is here, the work of my mind, the idea, as well as what I sense it means, the perceptions of my spirit, the imagination, the bridge that Goethe spoke of, the connector between idea and experience. Goethe saw poetry as the bridge, a melding of thought and experience expressed in images. It’s like the sudden insight of a Zen koan that leaps over sequential paths of thought.

            How I look at nature determines what I see and the kind of relationship I have with it. If I look with the mind of a scientist, I will see nature as an experiment in process. If I want inspiration, I will look for scenic views. If I want a physical challenge, I will head for the trails. And if I want to take photographs, I will look for the incredible and bypass what looks ordinary, although Ansel Adams had different ideas about this for black-and-white photography.
            To get close to nature, I have to let go of looking for something specific because otherwise I won’t see anything else. I also have to let go of my illusions for what I think nature should be and face its reality.
            Yet looking beneath the surface of nature’s beauty is not without its risks. Mark Twain thought the Mississippi River was beautiful when he was growing up — the swirls and eddies, the reflections of trees and sunsets on the water. Then he learned to pilot ships down the river and discovered the dangers beneath those swirls, the sandbars and fallen trees that would rip the bottom out of boats. He never saw the beauty of the river again and always regretted the loss. 
            One way I nurture a relationship with nature is by observing its scientific details, noticing the differences between the chickaree and the gray squirrel, between the white Clark’s nutcracker and the blue Steller’s jay, its relative. I learn that the soft-looking, chartreuse staghorn lichen growing on trees is so stiff that I could scrub my cooking pots with it.
            I’m a tactile creature and understand best when I can touch. When I hold seven acorns in my hand, gathered from oak trees at different elevations, some that are thin and blue, one that is brown with a gold cup, and another that is fat and striped, I understand the concept of botanical diversity. When I stand on the top of North Dome, I feel the tremendous pressure stored in the once-molten rock being released in foot-thick sheets exfoliating on the dome’s outer crust, and understand more about the geology that formed the valley.
            Physical contact means there is trust. I’d also like to bridge the gap by petting a coyote, but this probably wouldn’t be wise. 
            It’s only when I hike this trail from Yosemite Falls to El Capitan that I learn what is actually here. My hike doesn’t go through empty, generic woods but through a complex and unique ecosystem filled with a variety of animals and birds that are scampering, lumbering, and flying through. The forest is thicker than I thought it would be. There are creeks that I never knew existed that are nourishing small marshes of plants and butterflies, and muddy bogs that I balance on rocks to get across. 
            There are hundred-foot-deep crevasses I have to hike down and back up, and odd-shaped erratics, left by glaciers eons ago, are scattered through the forest and stuccoed with symbiotic lichen that range in colors from black to gray to orange and green. One boulder looks like R2-D2, another like Abraham Lincoln in profile with a jaunty grin. At one point the trail comes out of the woods and goes over bare stone hanging over the side of the valley. A slip on its sandy surface could mean a fall of several thousand feet.
            Science doesn’t provide exact answers; it moves closer by approximations. Josiah Whitney, California’s state geologist in the 1860s, postulated that Yosemite Valley was formed when some massive, cataclysmic event caused the valley floor to suddenly drop 3000 feet. But seeing horizontal grooves in the valley walls, Muir theorized that a series of glaciers came through and carved the walls vertical, then he spent years tracking down the remnants of those glaciers. The intricacies of scientific details create patterns of wonder that lead me deeper into understanding how the parts of the valley are interconnected. 
            The Irish writer Seamus Heaney said the landscape molds our character and it’s where we either encounter the divine or we never make the connection. It’s out of this awareness, this literal ground of our being that comes our ability to be in nurturing relationships with each other.
            Some people come into the wilderness because of the presence they feel of the Other. They aren’t necessarily saying that nature is the ultimate Other, the Almighty of the world’s scriptures. They simply mean that nature’s Other is something much larger than their individual lives, a power they can physically see that has to be respected. 
            Muir did not believe that the awe he felt outdoors was the spirituality of God superimposed on nature’s neutral landscape, as if nature had no spirituality of its own. Rather, he regarded nature as the physical expression of God’s spiritual being, akin to Yosemite’s Ahwahnechees seeing the qualities of the Great Spirit in the different personalities of the animals and birds, and feeling this holy presence walk among them in the storms that swept through.
            Gary Snyder, a nature writer who lives in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada and used to work on Yosemite’s trail crew, speaks of interacting with this Other of nature with body and mind, seeing ourselves not as separate from the Universe but part of it.
            One day, after I hiked up beyond Vernal and Nevada Falls, I entered the highlands at 10,000 feet where the blue air was so thin that I felt lightheaded. It was an ethereal landscape of white granite above the tree line that had been scraped bare by glaciers, and so open to the sky that I thought I could reach up and touch the clouds going past. A short while later the clouds moved lower and flowed around me.
            The outdoors is where spirituality and science meet. The physicist Richard Feynman felt that his scientific inquiry into the details and intricate patterns of nature did not diminish its beauty but deepened his wonder, with the individual parts adding up to an appreciation of the whole. 
            But the Native American writer Joy Harjo wants people to open themselves to the spirit of the entire earth and sky, and connect with the natural world this way, feeling that the wonder of the whole is what allows us to appreciate the details of mountains, rivers, and forests.
            When I read the stories from the native culture that lived in this environment for thousands of years, I find a richness of insights and wisdom into the natural world that guide me in understanding what I’m encountering. The Ahwahnechees had no artificial boundaries between spirit, body, and mind, and their stories root me into the land.
            I view nature much as Muir did and experience the outdoors somewhere between Feynman and Harjo, knowing enough zoology, geology, and botany from my days at the University of Wisconsin to appreciate nature’s complexity, although I still struggle with the names of plants. When I listen to a Great Gray owl call across the hesitancy of night, or watch the delicate white crust of frost on milkweed plants melt as dawn rises, changing into dew that sparkles in the early light, I am in awe of nature again. The ancient Greek philosophers concluded that nature reveals and conceals at the same time, and that what we are always left with is irreducible mystery.
            When liminal boundaries melt away and I no longer see nature as separate from myself, I move from a subject-object relationship to a subject-subject relationship of mutuality. Jewish theologian Martin Buber called this the I-Thou relationship, a unity that involves sharing one’s whole being that is marked by caring and respect for each other. This is the unity that Snyder, a Buddhist, and Harjo, of the Myskoke/Creek nation, spoke of. This is also the heart of the Christian incarnation, and being in communion with nature by drinking the wine of its rivers and sharing the body of its land.
            In the mountains I brush up against mystery that I can’t explain, and the longer I stay the more the boundaries dissolve between nature and me. I think Muir experienced the mystical, although in the beginning of his time in Yosemite he was preoccupied with preserving and classifying flowers. It was only after he forgot his plant press one day that he looked up and saw the whole of the valley.  Muir had grown up in a strict religious household where he was forced to memorize much of the Bible. As he relaxed into the spirituality of Yosemite, he let go of doctrine and dogma and felt worship rise spontaneously from his heart as he hiked through the mountains and slept beside streams that sang to him in the night.
            Rock climbers have shared mystical experiences with me that they can’t explain, like knowing that a hold they can’t see is there. Summoning their courage, they let go, 2000 feet above the valley floor, and reach for the hold, knowing that they will fall if it doesn’t exist. Most of the time the hold is there.
            One summer I hiked up the Four Mile Trail that climbs the valley’s south wall by Sentinel Rock, breathing in the earthy smell of pine trees and warm forest duff. A small creek trickled by the side of the foot-wide dirt path. The slope was so steep that trees occasionally lost their footing and tumbled down the wall. As I climbed higher, the buildings on the valley floor became smaller until they looked like miniature log cabins. I leaned back against a tree on a rest break and watched the valley a mile below my feet, feeling like Basho, the seventeenth century Buddhist poet, hiking the trails above the ocean in the mountains of southern Japan, off on an adventure with nature to see what the day would reveal.
            My awareness at Glacier Point of the unity of the land happened in an instant. Other experiences have been a gathering of perceptions until I realized what was going on. One autumn afternoon last year, when oak trees were full of acorns and the radiant blue sky was clear, on the valley floor by a flat rock where the Ahwahnechees ground acorns into meal, my wife Evelyn and I celebrated the marriage of our friends Francesco and Molly. Afterward we walked from the shade of the woods into a rust and straw-colored meadow. The sunlight seemed diffused, as if it was trying not to shine too bright, and it lent the valley and our marriage a sense of eternalness. Ev squeezed my hand, feeling the moment, too, as we walked down to the Merced River. It felt like this was what we had been working toward our eighteen years together. And perhaps it was, because six months later Evelyn would die from a heart condition we didn’t know she had. 

            When we try to share what has moved us in nature, language can get in the way. The words we use come from the landscape where we were raised. Whether this was prairie, mountain, desert, or ocean, its rhythm became the cadence of our blood, and each new landscape we encounter is filtered through the visual memory in our eyes and the auditory canyons in our ears.  
            When I talk to friends, I often find it hard to express what my nature experiences mean in words that they understand, so I end up talking about what I physically did because it’s easier —the afternoon I watched a kingfisher on a branch over the river monitoring small trout swimming below, and drifted asleep on the warm riverbank, lulled by the sounds of water lapping against the rocks. And the nights when I stared at the brilliant, sparkling constellations and lost my way in the depths of the galaxies whirling above my sleeping bag.
            But how do I talk in concrete terms about transcendent encounters that I may not understand myself until weeks later? How do I explain the security I felt that afternoon, or the feeling that I had come home?
            Part of the difficulty in speaking about nature’s reality is that nature is not what I think it is. Two of us could hike this trail together yet have different experiences. This is Søren Kierkegaard’s concept of subjectivity, that we each perceive the world differently. We come to the valley with different personal needs, illusions, and uncertainties about nature that we learned growing up in different landscapes. If I am dealing with grief and my hiking partner is looking for birds, I will notice the patch of burned forest where the young shoots of trees are rising from the blackened soil, while my partner will see blue jays, nutcrackers, and peregrine falcons. By adding our perceptions together, we understand more of what was actually there.
            If I were hiking with a partner, we would also be talking, the day would quickly pass, and I would remember little of the trail. I want to hike at a pace that allows me to interact with what shows up. I want to hear what is going on in the woods around me, feel the land as it changes elevation, see how the forest transitions from trees to meadow and then to bare rock. 
            There is still the problem of what language to use in describing my experiences, and this has changed over the years. In the nineteenth century, religious language was the norm for describing important encounters in nature. Inspired by the philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau, Muir and his Christian and Transcendentalist contemporaries used religious terms to describe the panoramic landscapes they were seeing in the western wilderness. In 1868, Muir wrote, “This glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes . . . fails not to worship as he never did before.”      
            Curiously enough, when Emerson finally came to Yosemite to visit, Muir wanted to camp with him under the stars, but Emerson chose to sleep under a roof. Muir groused that Emerson seemed more interested in conceptualizing nature than in actually experiencing it.
            In the twentieth century, as science became more sophisticated, technical language replaced religious terms and the focus shifted from experiencing nature to analyzing it. Writers like Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, and Lewis Thomas brought the scientific view of nature to the general population.
            In the latter part of the century, a surge of indigenous, ethnic, and cultural studies, as well as the return-to-the-land movement of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, brought the voices of people who live close to the land to the forefront, and talk about the spirit of the earth returned. So nature writing is a varied affair today. 
            Some readers don’t care for detached, scientific observations. Others don’t like religious language because religions have not been kind to nature, preaching the message that natural resources exist to be used up by humans rather than shared with all living creatures. 
            The difficulty of trying to fit transcendent experiences into words is that these adventures affect many layers of our being, while words confine meanings into specific boxes. Words say that our experience was this and not that. Wittgenstein felt that language fails because of its limitations to express encounters like this. Words are only shadows of the awareness, and distance will always exist between what we have experienced and what readers can perceive through our words.
            Yet by writing about my perceptions, the hike and this forest come into being. There is a power to language that cannot be dismissed because it is not the “thing” itself. Consciousness of being is part of this, for there are matters going on in the forest that I barely sense, spirits that nudge me which I ignore as stray puffs of wind, yet my inability to perceive them does not mean that they don’t exist.
            Growing up in Wisconsin, I didn’t think about my relationship with nature in words. I just headed outside and played in the woods not far from Muir’s farmhouse. I felt more at home sitting in the trees and swimming in the lake than inside my house. Each autumn grandpa and I would walk quietly at dawn through the brown fields and listen to dry cornhusks rustle in the breeze and crows call across the solitary stillness. I learned reverence for the earth from him. 
            Out of our relationship with the land comes how we use, as well as abuse, its natural resources — where we build our homes, how we farm our fields, and how many chemicals we spread on our lawns to make them green. The reality is that we only take care of what we love. If we grow up regarding nature as a source of raw materials, then we will cut, dam, pollute, frack, and level it. If we see the wilderness as a sacred place where we find inspiration and renewal, then we will fight to preserve its wildness. 
            When I finally step out of the forest’s cool shade and into the hot sunlight on top of El Cap’s bare rock, my legs and lungs have acquired specific adjectives for exactly how high and massive the monolith is. The size of the granite complex surprises me because from the valley floor El Cap’s prow looks narrow. I’ve long dreamed of watching climbers coming up so I head for the edge, but as I begin to slide on loose gravel I think better of this and step carefully to the shade of a stunted Jeffrey pine and eat lunch. 
            Black and gray vultures soar in graceful circles on thermals that rise for thousands of feet in front of me, with Sentinel Dome and Bridalveil Fall across the valley. I listen to the wind flowing over the mountains, wrens singing the refrains of the wilderness, and think about the place of death in life.
            Rock climbers sometimes die climbing up El Capitan, yet taking the risk is worth it to them because they learn what it means to be alive. On this hike, besides the burned part of the forest, I also noticed the rockslide that buried a habitat. Not long ago I saw a family of raccoons at the side of a road where the mother had just been killed.  The adolescent raccoons huddled around her for a while with lost eyes, unsure what to do, before leaving her and heading into the woods. 
            Then it comes, like a scent on the breeze, and the insight is so honest that I accept it. Nature mourns its deaths for a moment, then moves on. Grief is not my adversary but my guide, and this is not a battle but a journey. It may be time to move on from my life with Evelyn and trust that the unseen hold in the rock will be there.
            After leaving El Cap, I follow the trail back to Yosemite Falls and make my way down the switchbacks. Reaching the valley floor in early evening, I return to the river thinking about Evelyn, Muir, and the Ahwahnechees. They are all dead, their lives remembered with love and honor, but this place that they loved, these granite mountains that inspired them that are glowing in the yellow sunset around me, these broad meadows and cascading rivers, they tell me that we are part of something that never ends.
            Yosemite’s stunning scenery calls me into stillness where I reflect on where I’ve been and where I feel led to go. The wilderness will always be shrouded in mystery, no matter how many scientific facts I learn, and each time I return, I move deeper into its presence. Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw writer, says of nature, “Here there is a feel for the mystery of our being in all ways, in earth and water. We seek our origins as much as we seek our destinies.”
            How will I share this trip with others? I will talk about everything I did and bring in my thoughts, feelings, and doubts. I will speak of the mystery I encountered when I pushed beyond what I thought were boundaries, the fear I experienced, the joy that surged when I reached the top of El Capitan, and the assurance I felt that despite all the heartaches, life still holds surprises. Somehow I will find my way through grief’s wilderness. I will find my way through.
            Taking off my shoes and socks, I slip hot, abused feet into the delightfully cold water, and breathe in the cool evening air and the scents rising from the meadow of damp earth, milkweed, and the musk of sedge from the river. I end the day where I began. The river is a little higher than it was this morning. I have changed, too, because of today’s adventure.
            I thought that I came to the valley to deal with grief and get closer to nature, and I have, but I also discovered longing, and what I long for is to play like the coyotes and celebrate life again. For months, my world has been bounded in by grief. Nature has surrounded me with wonder and reminded me that I am still part of all this. Rachel Carson said, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
            As the heat of the day cools, robins and wrens return to the meadows and talk excitedly to each other. The color of the sun intensifies from yellow to orange, then deepens to red. I sit with the elements of stone, water, and air, and celebrate the strength of the wild community we share. There are no words for the presence I feel in this moment, and I will not try to find them. This moment exists beyond words, concepts, thought. I let Evelyn go, let her flow into night’s ocean, and wait for the moon to rise and fill this great, sweet darkness with light. 


            After my wife died when she was in her 40s, I often went to Yosemite and hiked by myself through terrain where mountain lions and bears lived. It probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do because of the risk of injury and death (twenty people died there one year), but I wanted to understand how someone could die so young. I wanted to shake my despair. And I wanted to feel alive again. The long, physical hours on the trail, and the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, helped me work my way through grief.
            I also wanted to face my fear of the wilderness and do more than admire Yosemite’s beauty. I wanted to feel the thrum of its heartbeat. When I returned home and tried to share what I had discovered with friends, I found it difficult to explain the experience in words. How does one convey the depths of the wilderness, or of grief, to someone who has not experienced it? This essay was my attempt.


            Mark Liebenow writes about nature and grief, and is the author of four books. His work has been published in numerous journals, and has won the River Teeth Book Prize, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte essay awards, been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and named a notable by Best American Essays 2012. A contributor to the Huffington Post, Good Men Project and other journals, his account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. (
~Reprinted by permission of CHAUTAUQUA, Copyright 2014 by Mark Liebenow.

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