Back To Nature

Gareth walking in Cumberland Island by Beth LillyThe title of this piece is a little tongue-in-cheek: humankind has developed a technological and economic culture that has transformed the world such that there is no real way to go “back to nature.” And as Thomas Hobbes once wrote, such a primitive world is not beautiful and idealistic, but rather “there is no place [in it] for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain” so the natural state is “every man is Enemy to every man” and “the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

But it is a great wonder to take a step back from our world of commerce and industry and luxury and to live a more primitive life, if only for a little while and in full recognition of it limitations. Beth and I did just this for four days on Cumberland Island, hiking into the back country with our tent and food on our back.

We walked over ten miles in the rain to get to the campsite on the coast of the inland waterway. The weather cleared enough for us to watch a gorgeous sunset as we cooked over a gas stove (no fires allowed), but it did not stay that way for long. We settled into our tent for the night as the wind and rain picked up down the river. It was cold: very cold!

There were periods of beautiful weather, and we saw much that was wonderful, but the truth I want to reflect on here is that we spent much of our time cold and wet and in pain from overworking muscles that don’t normally get to carry fifty pounds. We were wet and cold and in pain but we were wonderfully happy. Why? We have both spent a lot of time since we came back thinking about this question.

In the wilderness life is simpler. We did our planning up front – the equipment and food we brought in – and once in the back country we had only limited choices to make. When the nights turned really cold, we could only cuddle up in more clothes and our sleeping bags; when our legs ached we could take a break, but we had to keep going for no-one was coming to get us; when we were hungry we could eat, but we had to follow the prescribed daily rationing for our food. Even the activities we had available were simpler. Cooking was primitive, our evening activity was a pack of cards, and we spent most of the time just being.

We concluded while we were camping, and on reflection still feel that this is really the point. We were just being.

Daily lives are filled with looking for things, planning, seeking. We look for purpose. Even in our spiritual and religious lives we are seeking meaning. Stepping away from everyday concerns and putting ourselves in a place where we had no alternative but to just be present, Beth and I settled into the space of just being.

We are trained by society to be scared by having nothing to do. The idea of going camping without TV, with no access to cell phone or news or friends or family, with “nothing to do,” is a terrifying one to our modern American culture, but it is akin to sending the kids outdoors to play. In a manner that does not happen in the home with plastic toys purchased from the store or video games, kids (well, at least kids who have not yet become hooked to the consumer culture) who go into the woods to play immerse themselves in a beautiful way. How many of us have memories of this from our own childhood? Memories of a freedom and joy we have lost?

“Just being” brings with it an awareness and an intimacy with life that is profound and full of surprises. Beth and I were really connected with the weather, not knowing if we would be able to cook; because every item we brought in added weight to our backpacks, we knew exactly what we had with us; and we were awake to surprises and to encounters; we never knew what would be round the next bend in the path but we had to be attentive.

Coming upon an armadillo in the woods and stopping to watch it snuffle; stumbling on wild horses that turn and walk towards you, possibly with hostile intent; stopping dead in our tracks on the trail when we came across a rattlesnake sunning itself feet infront of us: these are all extraordinary experiences that are completely unlike the anything that can happen in a domestic environment. They arise unexpectedly and are entirely unpredictable in how they play out. There is risk and excitement and even danger, but that is the nature of intimate experience.

Camping is not for everyone, but there are opportunities to come closer to the experience of “just being” in our everyday lives. Rather than driving a mile to the store, we could walk; instead of spending Sunday afternoon in Walmart buying stuff we don’t need, we could go to one of the many wooded parks in and around Atlanta and go for a walk. We could choose just one day not to use technology – not to drive, not to watch TV, not to use the computer or phone. Camping is not for everyone, but it is a more intensive approach to just being that was just what I needed. We had a fantastic trip, a beautiful suggestion of a simpler life, an intimacy with not knowing. We had such a wonderful time being wet and cold and sore that we plan to do it again in the fall.

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Gareth Young


  • This ‘Just Being’ is part of the reason that I really like Soto Zen. I find it particularly interesting when on retreat and you discover the new possibilities of ‘Just Being’ with other people (without all the baggage we normally carry). It’s definitely something that does not require going camping.

    • Gareth Young

      While I share with you having had profound and deep experiences of “just being” in zen, I don’t believe the experience I’m describing is available on these retreats. Knowing at any turn one might come across a rattlesnake on the path is just one example. Lying freezing in a storm-buffeted tent is another. Actually what I’m describing describing absolutely does require hiking into the wilderness. Which is the reason Beth and I plan to do it again later in the year.

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