“We are made of divine breath and earth. Maybe this is why, when standing in the woods, on a cliffside overlooking a peaceful green valley, I have the feeling of a child having been found by his mother. After a long separation, I have been discovered well and whole.”
There is natural beauty that can be seen only on foot. It is hidden in canyons and on narrow paths found under the deep shade of mountain forests. It is beauty in detail, the scent of sage brush and the song the crow sings while I sit on a rock and eat my lunch. These are sounds and sights I will keep when I grow old and I can’t place family because my memory is lost. The call toward nature is deep in our tissue. As the preacher says, “From dust we have come; to dust we shall return.”
Journalist/naturalist Michael McCarthy tells us that “the resting place of our psyches” is the outdoors—and not, I would add, the air-conditioned, florescent-lit room. He continues with the observation that for most of human history we have been part of the natural world—“we were wildlife, if you like.” Our house may be our most important financial investment, but it is not our natural habitat. The outdoors is.
Michael McCarthy’s words take me to the book of Genesis, when God “formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” We are made of divine breath and earth. Maybe this is why, when standing in the woods, on a cliffside overlooking a peaceful green valley, I have the feeling of a child having been found by his mother. After a long separation, I have been discovered well and whole.
An REI advertisement claims that “Human beings are becoming the world’s first indoor species. We spend 95 percent of our lives indoors … in an office with a view of another office.” Our indoor life has made us restless and yearning for something we can’t put our finger on. Spending all our time inside has made us less human. We were meant for our feet to touch the earth. Our fingernails need the stain of dirt.
At 58, I feel more discomfort when I hike through the wilderness than when I was say, 30, and able to leap river rocks like a mountain goat. Now, I am less sure-footed. My knees ache when I am climbing and descending over a long distance, and the days of carrying camping gear and three meals in a backpack are nearly over. Lately, a good trail ends with a warm shower, and clean sheets on a mattress.
Still, nearly every day that that sun shines and birds sing, I am pulled to take a long walk. That’s not possible of course. Bills need to be paid and I still have years of pastoral ministry left in me. But, if for some reason my legs should become frail before I am ready, Lord have mercy on my wife. I will have to find a way not to be irritable.
Put me in a wheelchair under a large oak tree. For my sanity’s sake and that of those who love me, don’t keep me in a room where the sun won’t get in my eyes and I’ll be less of a fall risk. I don’t want to be safe; I want to be outside and happy.
My son and I passed an old woman while we hiked into the Grand Canyon last week. We were on the Bright Angel Trail, with the South Rim still about 2,000 feet above us. We were far from restaurants and parking lots, with miles to go. The woman was as slow as a snail and bent over, leaning on her walking stick. When we spoke for a moment, she lifted her head underneath her broad brimmed hat, and we saw peace.
I imagine she discovered the secret to happiness on a long walk—that her destination was where she stood. An aspen was sprouting out of a crevasse in the stone face above us, delicate green leaves against deep red rock. At our feet was a gurgling tributary to the Colorado River, a spring in the dessert. If her heart had stopped and she had failed to make it up to the top, the local news would have reported tragedy and her risky behavior. Her children and grandchildren would have fretted over what they should have done to keep her safe, locked behind doors. I, on the other hand, would have declared her final days a success.
God created us for long walks. It is a residual gift in our DNA from the days when we ran the savannahs with spears in our hands. So, if you come to see me and I am not home, I have gone for a long walk. And I haven’t brought my cell phone.