Wilderness is one of those words, one of those things, that shrugs an easy definition. When I trained for my Wilderness First Responder certification we defined wilderness asany context that is at least two hours removed from definitive medical care. In sacred literature wilderness often connotes images of waste and void, yet just as often wilderness is cast in sacred contexts as a place of retreat and clarity.
I went camping last month beneath the gaze of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. I was with a couple of other intrepid renewal seekers. Engaging the raw elements of the White Mountains in February requires considerable fortitude. We filled our backpacks with winter camping essentials. We strapped our boots with microspikes to avoid slips. And we set out on the icy Tuckerman Ravine Trail that leads from Pinkham Notch up to Hermit Lake. We claimed a lean-to next to the lake and shared an evening of star-gazing, poetry, high caliber conversation, and high calorie food. Before leaving our lean-to home in the morning, David, Anthony and I took a walk together circling the frozen edges of the small mountain lake. Anthony prompted us to walk slowly, imagining with each step that a flower was growing under our heels, pressing them up and pushing us forward on tip-toe. We held a precarious silence for each other that echoed our trust of the frozen lake. We explored the space of our own thoughts and observations with squeaks and scuttles as we strolled the surface of the ice.
I tried to imagine flower blossoms. But each step I took felt more like a pulling than propulsion. I visualized not blossoms, but roots. When I lifted my heels I pulled at roots. When I set my heels down the roots dug back in. I was an ice Ent that had wandered out of Middle Earth. I was a frigid instance of Socratea exorrhiza displaced from the rainforest. I was a tree trying to figure out how to walk without doing violence to my roots.
I consider myself a grounded person. I appreciate the sensation of stability that comes with being firmly situated. But movement is valuable and necessary for progress and growth. Movement requires a degree of agility that feels strange to a person of my disposition.
Whatever else it is, wilderness is strange. And it invites us to be a stranger. It entices us to become known in a fresh way. It keeps us moving. The wilderness prompts us to become new. Not brand new, devoid of residual substance of prior self. But renewed. That is why I regularly leave the familiar. I go out to find renewal in the wilderness.