As I was cleaning out my office this week I came across a file containing a collection of letters, notes, and photos from my early years with the School of Lost Borders. While sorting through the pile, I realized that I participated in my first “vision fast” over twelve years ago and have been doing so each year ever since. I suppose this confirms that vision fasting has become a firm “practice” in my life. To go into the wilderness, alone and without food and shelter, may sound like a bizarre thing to do, but it serves as a sort of periscope for me; a means for traveling through the rich dark matter which lies beneath the surface.
There is something absolutely elemental about stripping oneself down in a wild landscape. To be exposed in nature, hungry and alone, arouses a remembering, both in body and dreams, of our primordial lineage – a connection to our wildness that can never be fully shed. As human ecologist, Paul Shepard, writes, even though we have become largely domesticated within our surroundings, “Wildness is a genetic state…”It is that genetic aspect of ourselves that spatially occupies every body and every cell”. In other words, we cannot leave behind our wild nature. We can only suppress it. And, when we suppress it, it usually returns and bites us hard in the ass.
And thus, this September I find myself, once again, in the Inyo Mountains, hungry and alone and wondering why in God’s name would I do such a foolish thing. Joe has joined me this time, although he is out of sight and earshot, situated on the ridge across the valley from where I have placed my tarp and sleeping bag. Four days and four nights – right here. Not much to do except wait, watch, listen and try not to go insane.
It has become so painfully difficult for me to remain still. With my dad’s dying, in addition to a heavy workload, all I did last year was move from one location to another, back and forth, and at high speeds. Although I hate it, I have become addicted to movement. When I stop moving, the devil shows up.
Particularly on this fast, the devil appeared in the form of fear – fear of pain, loss, and death. Really, ultimately fear of the wild aspect of nature that I mentioned above because to be engaged with Nature is also to recognize that she both creates and destroys, gives life and freely takes it back. This terrifies me, but it is only in the presence of death that I can truly be wild. It is only by embracing death that nature is no longer tagged as evil. To find oneself calm and unwavering within this tremendous paradox is key to being at home on this planet. This is the gift of consciousness that Earth gives us.
Shepard’s words are particularly interesting here. Speaking of those who have left the regions of the wild for a more sedentary life, he writes, “Those who fear death become politically and socially conservative and less tolerant of other species, other creed, and any deviation from their own mode of life”.
My guess is that all of our social and environmental ills can be traced to our personal and cultural fears of death. It seems essential, therefore, that we return to the place of darkness, into our own wildness, so that we may see the light.
I’ve got a long way to go…