Swallowed Up

“If he withdrew into the wilderness and listened to his inner life in solitude, he might perhaps hear what the voice has to say” – C.G. Jung

Last summer Joe and I packed up the truck and headed to Montana. Having never been there, we were inspired to visit Glacier National Park and see that big sky country. What we saw instead was a flurry of tourists, many having traveled from the eastern regions of the world to witness this mythic western landscape. I imagine that most of them, like us, were hoping to spot a grizzly bear; that image of the west that is now more legendary than real. Or maybe they just wanted to get a taste of the “Holy Other” that this part of the world imparts; the sense that there is something much bigger, more powerful, and more awesome than oneself.

My heart sank when I saw the cars and Winnebagos lined up outside the park’s entrance. I wanted to turn around immediately and make tracks to some lesser known and less loved place like Battle Mountain, NV or maybe even Trona, CA. I wanted to start a campaign that would outlaw RVs larger than tanker ships, flood lights that can penetrate the thickest of brains, and all cell phone transmitters dressed up as trees. What happened to the West? Is there any wilderness left beyond the boundaries of consumerism and convenience?

My lamentation is not new. Many folks for many years have bemoaned the end to what at first appeared infinite: land, buffalo, gold, oil, and opportunity.  Ever since white man stepped foot west of the hundredth meridian something deeply archetypal, attached to enormous greed and fear, must have been triggered in the western human psyche. Some might suggest that expansionism is driven by evolutionary biology similar to an infestation of a non-native species. Simply put, we are weeds gone ballistic.

But I don’t think that weeds fall in love with a place, or experience the immense sense of wonder that is evoked by landscapes such as Glacier National Park. Weeds don’t write poetry about mountains and rivers or sing songs to the prairies. Nor do weeds experience the range of emotions that belong to us humans. I could be wrong about this, but I doubt it.

When I was a young girl, my father took me to nearly every national park in the southwest. I was deeply affected by the wildness of these places and I always left wanting more. I can vividly remember standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon during a typical summer monsoon and being so overwhelmed by my senses that I had to restrain myself from jumping over the edge and into the great mouth of the canyon. I so badly wanted to be swallowed up by it all. In retrospect, there was something absolutely essential about being overwhelmed and taken beyond myself. It instilled in me a religious sensibility that has remained throughout my life.

Just a few days ago, on the winter solstice, the moon was also swallowed up. It was raining here in Ventura so I didn’t get to watch the full lunar eclipse, but I could imagine Luna being stripped of her dim consciousness by the cold shadow of the earth. In her book, Alchemy, Marie-Louise Von Franz compares the eclipse to the coniunctio, an event that occurs when the opposites merge in the underworld of the psyche; in our darkest and most desolate night of the soul. It is a swallowing up that can either make us go insane, or in the best case, bring about the birth of a new personality.

She writes, “If we take the coniunctio on a purely inner level, it can be said that when the conscious and unconscious personalities approach each other, then there are two possibilities: either the unconscious swallows consciousness, when there is a psychosis, or the conscious destroys the unconscious with its theories, which means a conscious inflation. The latter generally also happens when there is a latent psychosis, and then people get out of it by saying the unconscious is ‘nothing but…,’ thereby crushing the unconscious and its living mystery, or pushing it aside” (p. 164).

In other words, following an awe-inspiring moment such as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon or being shaken up by a dream, we might just go crazy, but more likely we’ll convince ourselves it was “nothing but” a dream…or an impulse…or even a bad case of indigestion.  The ego regains its superior position as soon as the eclipse is over.

“In the old days people knew how to dream. They did not have to go to sleep first” wrote Nietzsche.  Western society has lost its capacity for dreaming; for listening to the voices of the ancestors and the whisperings of the spirits of the land. The desire to be swallowed up, to loosen the ego’s grip, is still strong, but not as strong as the need to fight against it. Maybe this is the driving force behind our enthrallment with wild landscapes along with the counter-reaction to control them. The wildness of such places is so vast, overwhelming, and threatening that if we don’t retain some sense of supremacy, we fear we could lose ourselves completely.

Nevertheless, I say go to Montana, or wherever, and allow oneself to be swallowed up by all the gloriousness this wild land still has to offer to our weary and dried up souls. But while doing so, make offerings to the ancestors. Listen to the stories in the land. Pay attention to dreams. Walk humbly with the dead.

Wilderness. The word itself is music. Wilderness, wilderness…We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination” – Edward Abbey (From Home Ground, edited. by Barry Lopez).

8 thoughts on “Swallowed Up

  1. Dear one , as usual I am transfixed. I love and miss you. How I miss our hugs, conversations and eye-to-eye embraces. Your wonderings and wanderings are a balm that soothes me a bit.

    I love the Nietzsche quote. Where did you find it?

    …Just a thought about weeds.

    I feel that weeds are the poetry of courageous being . They grow where they want .They leap off into unknown spaces and they make themselves vulnerable to those with the power to destroy them . They turn up in asphalt parking lots to signal forgotten spaces, left to ungrooming. They give witness to the natural implulses to be alive.

    Perhaps they have something to teach us more linguistic beings. They have seen the grizzlies and the campers and they live on in their own voice.

    Much love, Patricia and White Dog

    • Patricia,

      I enjoy your comments here and just the sound of your voice through the words that you write. The Nietzsche quote I actually found in one of my favorite books, “The Anthropology of Turquoise” by Ellen Meloy.

      I agree with you about weeds – that do have qualities to be admired.

      Would love to see your beautiful face again. We need to make that happen. Love, Betsy

  2. Betsy, so much to sit with, ponder and feel in your words. Yes, the curse and the blessing of sheer beauty. I love your story of wanting to jump into the canyon, make it a part of your own body in what ever way you can. I used to get angry at my own eyes for they were so weak a tool to grasp the magnificence of a sunset. I wanted to wear it, eat it, become it. I thought that there has got to be a way. Surely god didn’t mean for this magnificence to be only at arms reach!
    Fiona and I have driven Glacier in early Sept – stunning! And empty!
    Wonderful to recieve your musings.
    (Come north of the 49th and we’ll venture into the land of the great bears!)

    • Greg,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my blog. So nice to know that some people actually read it! We certainly share a love of the mysteries of nature. Would love to come north of the 49th sometime. I bet it is real cold now! (I confess, that in actuality I’m a real wimp, especially when it comes to the cold!).

  3. On the paradox of one’s feeling overwhelmed or perhaps inadequate to the task of taking in the landscape, wanting instead to be taken in by it–I know this is true. Yet, having shared some of these moments and places, and having mostly been reduced to inchoate expressions of awe–I also know that something deep and true happens when the landscape is rendered poetically by a lover of landscapes. I wonder if these places blush a little bit when Betsy comes around.

  4. Betsy,

    Beautiful. Thank you for taking me home, and reminding me of what it’s really like to be there. (I do have a tendency to romanticize this particular landscape)

    I find myself wondering if your desire to turn the other way at the crowded gates of Glacier might, in some way, reflect psyche’s feelings in that landscape. Having experienced the park in the 9 months when it isn’t over-run with tourists, I have witnessed the many ways in which this landscape speaks. I suspect that it may have been speaking through you: perhaps asking travelers to leave it in peace, perhaps wishing it, too, could grow 4 wheels and speed away from those wheeled apartments and throngs who came only to admire it at 45 mph. Maybe you were swallowed up, after all, in the uncomfortable coniunctio where the human desire to be awe-inspired met a more-than-human place’s deep knowing that to remain inspirational will require protection from those who seek to be awe-struck. If so, you were tuned in enough to feel it, caring enough to listen, and thoughtful enough to offer some of its message here. For that, I am grateful, and I imagine that Glacier is as well. -steph

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