Soon I’ll be on the open road heading towards the great outdoors and it can’t come quickly enough. The need to ‘get out’ is particularly strong this year and I can’t help but wonder why? Is it just simply that I need a break from the everyday pattern of a workaday life, or that I find great value in having unique experiences that travel usually offers, or is it perhaps something even more formless yet significant?
My travels in the past seven years have increasingly revolved around nature. I enjoy visiting towns, museums and landmarks as much as the next person (actually I enjoy it quite a lot), and these are generally a part of my vacations, but it’s the days where I encounter nature, really get out into it, that I find a sense of exhilaration; where I am overcome with something I can’t put my finger on.
I’m currently reading The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by British journalist Michael McCarthy, who maybe captures this feeling that arises when I’m in nature. He says, when discussing the feelings we encounter when interacting with nature,
“Some we might characterise as satisfactions, such as the cherishing of familiar landscapes; others are sharper pleasures of novelty and beauty, such as encounters with rare and charismatic wildlife. A particularly powerful feeling is the sensation of wonder, which can whisper of immanence even to intensely practical personalities.
Indeed these are satisfactions I’ve had when viewing a particularly beautiful landscape or the sense of wonder that accompanies seeing something miraculous like the Grand Canyon or a moose and her calf walking along a tree line in the distance, but is there an even greater, more powerful feeling that speaks to the core of us?
“…I have known not a few people who have encountered it. It is this: there can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only world that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy, and when I talk of the joy we can find in nature, this is what I mean.
There are for me other factors which enhance this joy of which McCarthy speaks. Nature alone can certainly evoke these feelings, but it is also with who I experience it, which in recent years is my beautiful wife, my brother, my mom and my dad. Other people are not necessary elements for the enjoyment of nature, in fact, the fewer people on the trails the better, but my family is without exception an enhancement for me. I prefer to experience nature with them alongside me; without them, it is incomplete.
The other is the idea of ‘home’. I think a person can have more than one home, and for me, I have three. The first is the place where I spend the majority of my time, living my life day in and day out; the place where I sleep and rise and leave and come back to. The second is my hometown, the place in which I spent the first 23 years of my life, the place where my parents and brother still live, and every time I return there for a visit, I feel a welcoming like no other.
My third home is in the mountains, rivers, forests, and open skies of Colorado. It is what I would call my spiritual home, a place where I go to become refreshed, to scrub off the silt of society, become a little more myself, and be at peace. I cannot be there enough. Would I feel that way if I lived there permanently? Perhaps not. Going there is what I imagine a pilgrimage to a holy site is for a religious person; if you lived at the holy site, would it sustain its powerful mystical and emotional hold over you? Perhaps not, but I’d sure like to give it a try someday, if not for a couple of months anyway.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t natural beauty all around me in my southeastern Texas town. My drive to work is one of much pastoral beauty where on certain mornings I might see some deer; last week I saw an enormous barn owl, but all that is in the confinements of a car. I don’t stop, get out, walk the fields, smell the earth, and feel the morning sun on my face.
So what is it, this feeling that comes from being in nature? From where does it come and what does it mean? There are some things in our experience that simply can’t be measured and defined, but it doesn’t mean they are any less real or significant. I hope that you have experienced this at some point in nature and that you seek it today. Meanwhile, soon I will be under the great wide sky, mountains, trees, canyons, rocks, rivers and, in a sense, home.