May 2017

Why I don’t need wilderness

Although I tried to lift myself to the divine, my long walk in the wilderness was largely not the clarifying and spiritual experience of Thoreau and Walden, writes Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

For millennia, nature has been a place of solitude and spiritual reflection. In biblical times, Israelites wandered Sinai’s wilderness as they sought the Promised Land. Jesus famously retreated to the Judean desert for solitude and prayer in what became his final weeks. In the early Church, the Desert Fathers and Mothers’ ascetic and prayerful lives in Egypt’s Scetes desert formed many spiritual practices still used today – fasting, contemplation and monasticism.

In the nineteenth century, writer and spiritualist Henry David Thoreau immersed himself in nature living in a cabin in woodland near Concord, Massachusetts. He recorded his experience in his book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and it later inspired his most famous work, Walden: or, A Life in the Woods. Presbyterian naturalist and writer John Muir understood God through nature and ‘uncorrupted’ wilderness.

These days, spiritual retreats often involve nature. The natural world offers opportunities for contemplation, meditation and mindfulness. Features of the environment can remind us of the beauty and power of the creator.

I’m one of many who have enjoyed nature as a way of connecting to my creator. From time to time for years, I retreated to the scrub near our family farmhouse in rural South Australia. I walked local tracks to decompress, experience nature and reflect on my experiences and feelings. When I moved to the city, I regularly walked the beach or trails in the hills or surrounding bush areas.

Travelling overseas, I walked trails and climbed a volcano in Japan. I rambled trails in England, Scotland and Ireland. I explored appellations in France, beaches in Portugal and numerous trails across Spain. I hiked a glorious park in Sweden and crossed trails in Denmark.

These days, I walk the trail up the mountain that backs my suburb, or around the creek that is the feature of the nearby reserve. My walks increased as I prepared to walk part of Tasmania with two of my sisters. I trod the Overland Track for six days during Holy Week, finishing in time for the Easter Vigil.

The track was harder than I expected. The first day I ascended steep rocks with few footholds and an almost vertical chain for guidance, and wondered to what I had committed myself. Subsequently, much of the trail was rough. Parts had large rocks, many with steps taller than my knee height. Other parts were crossed with massive roots, and barely room for part of my boot. Still more track was slippery, muddy or wet, each posing its own challenge.

One of my sisters noted that hiking is a metaphor for life: it’s a journey. The pack doesn’t get lighter, but the back gets stronger. Sometimes the track is good, sometimes hard: focus on what’s in front and don’t worry about what’s further along just yet. The path may not get easier, but one becomes more adept at navigating it. After a wrong turn, go back to correct your direction. When the path is hard, remember that others have travelled it. Those who’ve walked that terrain can give advice, encouragement and support.

The wilderness was beautiful; in my first days of hiking, I loved seeing a striking waterfall or a beautiful ancient tree, or noticing a few colourful fungi or wildflowers. Different types of terrain added interest, but while an hour in the rainforest was enjoyable, hours of picking my way over steep and knotted roots was mentally taxing and focusing on my feet detracted from the wonder of the canopy.

Similarly, a steep, rocky trail up a mountain was exhilarating at first, but after hours my mind was tired of thinking where to place my poles for balance, and my knees ached from constant jarring. After hour upon hour and day upon day, my wonder reduced with every natural feature I saw. A better person than me might not have found it so, but trudging through wilderness at times became tedious.

Left to my own thoughts, I dwelt on regrets, personal foibles and frustrations, and at times drifted into melancholy. Although I tried to lift myself to the divine, my long walk in the wilderness was largely not the clarifying and spiritual experience of Thoreau and Walden. Nor was it a simple, peaceful path described by poet Pablo Neruda, who wrote “I stroll along surely, with my eyes, my shoes, my rage, forgetting everything”.

In my ordinary life, a busy family life diverts me from navel-gazing and reminds me of relationships and purpose. While I’ve never been beholden to my mobile phone (just ask my frustrated family and friends), being ‘off the grid’ and unable to contact my husband and children was a surprising difficulty. I missed them much more than I expected; not for long conversations, but to connect and realign myself with those I love and my own sense of belonging.

Part of the appeal of a bushwalk is getting away from the bustle of the everyday, the mundanity of ordinary life, the artificial urban streetscapes, and burst into nature, wildlife and fresh air. Yet as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Beauty is all very well at first sight; but whoever looks at it when it has been in the house three days?” There’s a human tendency to adjust ourselves to new surroundings. When surrounded by beauty, we forget the ugliness. Yet if we haven’t known ugliness, can we even recognise beauty?

So, though I wish my wilderness experience increased my spirituality and wisdom, I’m not sure it did. I can easily connect with my maker by viewing a sunset near where I live, enjoying beautiful music, or focusing on a flame – I don’t need wilderness. After six days in the wild, I think I’m better remaining an occasional day hiker. I would rather punctuate my life with regular bushwalk escapes, because only as contrast to the everyday, the ordinary, the artifice, can I truly appreciate nature.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.