The Call of the Wild

The secret life of Me breathes in the wind and holds all things together soulfully.
– Hildegard of Bingen
Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude,
where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer,
the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is in all.

– Thomas Merton
When I am among the trees…I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
– Mary Oliver

According to legend, when the famous naturalist John Muir arrived as a young man in San Francisco in 1868, he asked for directions to “anywhere that’s wild.” He was told to head east for the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Also according to legend, when he first trekked into the mountains far enough to reach Yosemite Valley, he was so overcome by the sight of its majestic grandeur he shouted for joy.

Muir later wrote, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”

This past week I had the privilege of spending four days in Muir’s Yosemite Valley, trying, as he did, to absorb into my being the beauty and message of its wild and dramatic landscape. In this post I share a few reflections from that experience.

On our second morning in the Valley, my friend and I sat along the banks of the swiftly flowing Merced River at Sentinel Beach, with the sun shining down on us from a cloudless, deep blue sky. Even in early May, snow clung in large patches to the sides of the mountain peaks, some of which rise to over 7,000 feet above sea level.

The warmth of the spring sun daily works on the lingering snow, turning its frozen whiteness into clear streams of icy cold water that plummet in ribbons of white foam over the faces of the high, naked, granite cliffs for which the Valley is famous. That morning, even though we were quite some distance away, the air was filled with the thunderous roar of Yosemite Falls to our left and Bridal Veil Falls to our right.

A Timeless Treasure

One could loose all sense of time sitting surrounded by the seemingly ageless mountains towering overhead. I am conscious of time these days, as I never seem to have enough of it to accomplish all the things I have on my “To Do” list. In the Valley, one begins to question how one’s own obsession with time can have any meaning in light of the time span represented by the natural vista of Yosemite. According to scientists, the river flowing next to me that morning is more than 10 million years old. It played a major role in carving the narrow canyon that 1-2 million years ago filled with glaciers during the Ice Age. The glaciers widened and deepened the canyon, finally retreating and leaving behind a small lake. Eventually, some 15,000 years ago, the lake filled in with sediment, creating the meadows that today cover the floor of the “U-shaped” valley.

For me, however, there was not much to do that morning, except glance in awe at the multitude of ways spring has painted the Valley with variations of green: the dark green of the Ponderosa Pines, the slightly yellow green of the leaves of the California Oak trees, the spring green of the new meadow grasses, and, lighter still, the pale green of the newest leaves popping out on the White Alder trees that lined the river bank near us. Far away for the moment from my lengthy task list, I tried to enter into the timelessness of the moment and to let the soothing greens and warm sun penetrate my restless spirit.

Two Books of Revelation

The Christian tradition always has held that there are two sources of revelation; one being the Bible and the other being Nature. As Merton suggests in the quote at the start of this post, “God is in all.” As I sat looking up at the sunbathed pines stretching far above me outlined by the blue sky, I wondered: “Do the trees sense the Divine presence in them as I sometimes do? Do we only not know that they do because we have not learned to speak their language?”  Are we not, as Hildegard’s vision suggests, all held “together soulfully” in God? Can I open myself to that reality, not only in the Valley, but everywhere I am? If I did, would it save me, as Mary Oliver suggests?

Recently, I read about a study done at the University of Rochester in an issue of Nature’s Voice, the newsletter of the National Resources Defense Council (Jan/Feb. 2010). According to the newsletter article, the study concluded that when people come into contact with nature, even in the simple form of a tree or potted plant, they become kinder, more generous and more community minded. As the author of the article, Nancy Stoner, comments: “Past studies have concluded that natural settings make people happier and healthier, but this is the first to recognize that green spaces can make people nicer.”

So, there you have it. Muir was right. So was Thoreau, when he said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I spent the better part of a week in Yosemite Valley, and I am, I hope, a better person for it.

And with that final thought, I am going to bring this post to a close and invite you to do yourself and those you love a favor: go out and sit on a park bench or just gaze out your window at a nearby tree. However you can do it, have a wild, wonderful day!

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