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Don’t You Know The World Says Its Name To Us?
It's all there for the taking
Once or twice a year I take it upon myself to go into the wilderness alone for a few nights. I do this because I love it, certainly; a chance to be in nature is more than enough reason on its own. But there are other things that drive me there as well. As I told my therapist the other day I think part of it is that when I go backpacking I feel completely competent, which is not a feeling I have often. I am good at figuring out what I need to survive for a few days and throwing it all together and walking as far as I need to get somewhere beautiful. I’d be worried that sounds like bragging except, again, there are precious few other situations where I am put at ease by my own skill and experience in this same way. Maybe none.
But I think the biggest reason I do it is for the chance to be shaken back into what you might call presence or awareness, which are prerequisites for astonishment. To show up more definitively in the actual world, away from the noise and demands of the digital one. Lately I’ve been desperate for excuses to put my phone away for a few hours—a jobless summer will do that to you—and simply walking out of cell range is one surefire way to stay off the internet.
Of course what you do with yourself once you’ve taken away that option is another matter entirely. There really are so many hours in the day, especially when summer is fast approaching and the sunlight sticks around until late, especially when you’ve removed the possibility of external interruption or distraction. I get this sort of nervous feeling as I embark on trips into the woods: What the hell am I going to do with all that time?
The answer ends up being pretty simple. Once you’ve exhausted all options for consuming1 your time, once you’ve gotten tired of reading your book and writing in your journal and taking pictures, all you can really do is just sit with the world for as long as you can.
Doing this you get the chance to notice things you might not have otherwise. You move quietly enough to surprise a few deer, maybe, and for a few minutes you meet the depthless gaze of a young buck without his antlers, chewing on yellow wildflowers and complicating your notions of the docility of prey animals. You don’t move quietly enough to avoid surprising a beaver, but instead of running he slaps the water with his tail, flips, turns, swims, and slaps again, doing his level best to scare you off with the best weapon he has. You see a raven completing an arc as large as the sky, calling out a message you’ll never understand in his ancient voice.
I marvel at how little of the world I understand, when I take the time to pay attention to it. Before that backpacking trip I spent a few days at a wolf sanctuary outside of Bozeman, which afforded me the chance to get up close and personal with an animal I have loved since childhood but had never seen in person. From twenty feet away you might mistake them for large dogs, whining and playing and wrestling and panting in the sunshine. Then you turn your gaze for a moment, and when you turn it back they are a foot away from you with nothing but chain link between. They covered that distance with no more noise than the wind makes in the grass. And holy mother of god, they are big. You see the jaws, longer and broader than a dog’s, and the paws that look as big as your own hands, and it’s clear you’re looking at something different. A living relic of another, wilder time. You look into the eyes of a wolf and you can watch yourself being watched. Held, even. I’ve never felt anything quite like it.
All of this is to say that if there’s anything worth seeking in this life, I think it’s astonishment, or something like it. The chance to be stunned into a more conscious engagement with the living, breathing world. You don’t have to go to the wilderness to do this; you don’t even have to go outside( though it does help.) You can be astonished by the innate gifts of your partner or your friends. I go to the climbing gym with mine and am stunned that anyone can be so strong and fearless. You can be astonished by the heightened senses of your pet, or their capacity for love, or silliness. You can be astonished by your child’s capacity for wonder. By your own capacity for laughter. By some words on a page. By a stranger’s cheekbones or kindness. It’s all out there for the taking. I hope you take it.
There’s a scene I keep coming back to from the show Deadwood, which I just watched for the first time this spring. In it, Calamity Jane, of Wild West fame, is drunkenly relating the story of a dream to her friend and lover Joanie Stubbs:
I dreamed last night I was clamoring up a fuckin’ creek bank, which is often required of a drunk. It was dark, and I couldn’t tell where I was till I cleared the bank and come face to face with Charlie Utter’s ugly mug. Now Charlie’s, as usual, on the lookout for Bill, that’s as usual too, losing at poker inside the joint we’re outside of. “Where are we, Charlie?” This could be any fucking place the last number of years. And he said: “Jane, don’t you know this is the No. 10 saloon here in the camp where Bill’s gonna fuckin’ get killed soon?” “Jesus Christ—how do you know, Charlie?”, I asked him. He said: “Don’t you know,” he says, “some point we know these fuckin’ things? Don’t you know the world says its fuckin’ name to us?”
Don’t you know the world says its fuckin’ name to us? Well, I haven’t always. But now I’m trying to listen.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I’ll talk to you next week.
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And I do mean consuming. This, not movement, is the opposite of stillness. I really believe that. You can be in motion and completely in tune and attentive to the world. Not so if you’re looking at your phone or eating or desperately seeking distraction.