“The days that followed were full of wonderment. The spell that was upon us continued, and all we saw was colored by its mood.” – Sigurd Olson, The Explorers
Most people, myself included, read a quote from Olson, Snyder, Leopold, Muir, or some other famous champion of the wild and are motivated to go forth and receive inspiration. We expect jaw-dropping enlightenment. Purple mountain majesties and all that.
I guess it’s not quite that simple.
Halfway through our recent trip to the Boundary Waters I became frustrated because I hadn’t achieved this preconceived sense of awe. I had been looking at water, rock, forest, and sky, and I had been expecting to see more than water, rock, forest, and sky.
I’d been expecting â€” demanding â€” to see something supernatural.
It’d almost be funny if it wasn’ t so sad.
I had been waiting to be knocked out by the grandeur of the place. Because I was waiting for it, rather than adding to it, seeking it out, celebrating it, I had no reason to hope to be awed by anything. And therefore, I wasn’t feeling awe, which only motivated me to keep waiting, to keep trying to take a longer view, to see a wider vista. And so on.
On Day 7, I wrote in my journal
…[Katie] told me maybe I should not try to be impressed by the vistas, the large scale beauty, but that I needed to get microscopic, admire the rippling of the waves, the little rocks, the flowering plum tree by the toilet. That’s my usual approach, so usual that I feel like I’ve neglected it on this trip, assumed that it and the power it holds were second natureâ€¦
We were already on our way out when I wrote this. I was kind of pissed at myself. I’d been overwhelmed by something, but it wasn’t the vistas, it was the minutiae. There were so many trees and birds and rocks and clouds that my eyes had glazed over, you might say. It’s not that I didn’t experience any moments of clarity, times when I was wowed by some small beauty. The chaotic laughter of the loons in the spring, the purple mirror of the waves at sunset, many things had resonated deeply in me. But there had been no epiphanies.
It was very frustrating to see so much that was real and not to be able to connect with it. Feeling this frustration, acknowledging it, understanding it, was a step in the process toward something else, but it wasn’t a step I wanted to deal with. I wanted to move on quickly, because what came next was surely some sort of beautiful. Hence, it wasn’t until toward the end of the trip when I felt like I rubbed my eyes and the world wasn’t quite as blurry.
When it did come, that clarity was almost as painful as the confusion I had been feeling. As we paddled out on the last morning, we saw several loons. A couple of them appeared very close to our canoe and watched us for a moment before diving back under the water. It seemed as if they were asking me, “Why are you leaving now?”
I left the wilderness with much unaccomplished, I came home incomplete. We’ve been back a week and the questions and the answers have been working on me in mysterious, sometimes painful, ways since we walked in the door. My head has felt cluttered, my stomach empty, my shoulders idle. Maybe the only significant answer I’ve found is that all these things down here felt as unneccesary when we were in the wilderness as the wilderness used to feel when we were down here. I’m beginning to grasp something new about the true importance of the wild. And I’m afraid it’s way too far away.