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).

Devil’s De-light

Sunset Middle Cowhorn

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.

Stone PileIt 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…

2nd Lake Sunset

“The Dwelling Place of a Great Spirit”

InyosLast week, a dream came to me in which my partner Joe and I were going camping in the Inyo Mountains. I wanted to share with him one of my favorite places on Earth. When we arrived at the 4X4 road which leads into the back country, we were halted by an enormous condominium complex that had recently been developed. Basically in the dream, I go into a panic, frantically tracking down the developer and new residents to express my concern over this intrusion; especially its destruction of precious big horn sheep habitat. In the end, and after no success convincing anyone of anything, I find myself trying not to feel the despair, but I just can’t deny it. How can I go on feeling this way? Just knowing that this type of thing happens makes me not want to live in this world.

Of course, there are many ways to interpret this dream. I could take it literally, focusing on my sense of despair over the destruction of the natural world, but dreams are rarely so simplistic. The ego tends to grab onto quick interpretations as if they were lessons to be garnered as by attending a workshop or ingesting a book. But, given that dreams come from the unconscious, they tend to be more inscrutable, often trumping the ego with their arcane messages.

Although I am distraught by environmental devastation, I have to recognize that even these hideous dream condominiums are a part of nature. As Jung so often reminds us, “So far as we can see, the collective unconscious is identical with Nature”. My dreams, and all they contain, are Nature. Perhaps, my feelings of despair are not only about the environment, but by my own tendency to devalue the dream realm of psyche’s landscape. If there is any way to tend to nature, it is to turn to the dream. Like the big horn sheep, dreams are shy and reticent creatures that demand careful observation in order to be seen. When we pay attention to dreams, we also pay attention to Nature, and to that which is much greater and vaster than our rational selves.

The Paiute People may have had some appreciation of the mysterious connection between these inner and outer realms, between the day world and dream world, when they named this landscape “Inyo”, “The Dwelling Place of a Great Spirit”. Each time I enter into these mountains I feel as if I am walking into sacred space. The expansiveness and generosity of sensual delights unlocks my mind, shakes me up, and opens me up to “Spirit” –inspiration. And, here it all is, in my dreams.


All that is Above Also is Below

The wilderness pilgrim’s step-by-step, breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on the back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind-joy” – Gary Snyder

My summers revolve around the Sierra. I need at least a week in these mountains each year to take the edge off a deep-seated craving I have for the high-country. To climb over peaks and passes, carrying all that I need for the journey, bathing in icy rivers and sleeping under cold crystalline stars, makes my DNA very happy, knowing that it has returned home to my animal self and to the Pleistocene that my body has never forgotten. And despite blisters, bruises, and burning muscles, it is here that I tap into that which is no less than spirited ecstasy. When everything slows down, memory awakens. Instinct and consciousness are no longer experienced as two polar opposites, pulling and fighting against each other’s impulse, but are linked together, inseparable, clean, and precise.

Heaven above

Heaven below

Stars above

Stars below

All that is above

Also is below

Grasp this

And rejoice.

“The Emerald Tablet”

It is no wonder that in cultures worldwide mountains are often imagined as sacred centers, as places that rise up out the ordinary, but paradoxically, return us to the mundane in an extraordinary way. To backpack into the mountains requires careful attention to detail: to each step along a rocky path, to the thunder clouds that develop over the pass, to the preparation of good shelter and food. Such simple tasks take on a numinous quality when stripped to their barebones essentialness. Even the body which falters and fails us serves as a reminder that there can be no separation from the soles of our feet to the very heights that we attempt to climb. There can be no peaks without the soulful lows.

For this reason the mountain serves as a symbol for the axis mundi – the world axis. While the base of the mountain outlines the circumference of sacred space, the axis acts as a medium between the upper, middle and lower regions. This demonstrates that the bright white peaks are inseparable from the shadowy ground below; sky is inseparable from earth, spirit is inseparable from matter, consciousness is inseparable from the unconscious. Essentially, the mountain mirrors the Self in its most starlit and sultry existence.

Taoist philosophy has long recognized this interdependence between upper and lower regions as demonstrated in the concept of Yin and Yang. Whereas the mountain is symbolic of Yang – masculine principal, phallic consciousness, spirit and light – to climb the mountain is also to encounter the opposite Yin – feminine principle, receptivity, water, mud, movement, the ebb and flow of life.

Together, the Yin and Yang make up the multiple dimensions of the mountain as we know it: the light and dark sides of the slopes, steadfastness of rock and the motion of rivers, the purity of glacier lakes surrounded by the footprints of a mountain wanderer. And just as water can become solid, mountains can flow, the two engage in a universal dance between stability and flow.

‘The Fashioner of Things

has no original intentions

Mountains and rivers

Are spirit, condensed.’

— Author unknown

I imagine “spirit condensed” is another way of expressing the mystical union between spirit and soul. Like vapor, when spirit condenses it becomes heavy, falls to earth, turns to snow, which melts into rivers that flow thick with life. In a similar fashion, we may rise in spirit, but at a certain height we become icy and cold, and eventually we must condense and return to the warmth of soul. To remain solely in spirit is to be untouchable, impassive, and transcendent. On the other hand, soul carries us down into our individual depths, ultimately rooting us in the material realm of nature. Obviously, spirit without soul is rather boring. And soul without spirit may become overly depressed.

When Joe and I returned from our backpacking trip this summer we felt the radiance and ecstasy of having spent a glorious week in the high-country at Devil’s Punchbowl and the lakes around Hell-For-Sure-Pass (Not very sanctimonious names for such majestic landscapes. Somehow appropriate). We fought against our aging bodies with burning lungs and sore knees as we hiked past towering pines, singing creeks, slick rock water falls, and glacial lakes. We jumped naked into swimming holes fifteen feet deep and gathered wild strawberries in sleepy meadows. We tasted the Garden of Eden and felt untouched by the tarnish of calendars and clocks.

But upon our return, Nature was there to great us in her fuller sense. As soon as I got cell reception and checked my messages I discovered that my dog was dying due to liver failure and that my father’s illness had worsened. The ecstasy of the mountains came crashing down and my tears began to flow steady and strong. At first, I resented being home and having to face such loss, but then I realized that this too is an essential aspect of Nature. My tears connect me to nature – my nature – just like the river that flows from the mountain.

Grasp this and rejoice.