This 1990 event established the pattern for later events and so serves as a model and template for subsequent events to articulate the spiritual values of wilderness. See the narration of the 2002 event for perspective on how the program has matured over the past dozen years. A 2003 event will take place from July 10 through July 19. Inquire for details.
Opening the Book of Nature
An Exploration to Discover
Spiritual Meaning in Wilderness
by Rachel Henderson with Elizabeth Fitzgerald
(abridged from a longer article)
Thirteen individuals trekked into the Minaret Wilderness the "Range of Light" which John Muir made famous in his wilderness writings. We were there for a special wilderness backpack retreat which would connect to lessons from creation. We had read historical writings about the "Book of Nature" and hoped to recover a practical sense of how to learn its lessons. What an adventure this could be! A feeling of excitement filled us as we anticipated "reading" from this primordial "Book." Part of the challenge would be to cut through the mental clutter of our speed-addicted, consumer-desacralized attitudes and find the path to a more fervent Christian caring for creation.
This is our story.
Tuolumne Meadows: Orientation
JULY IS STILL springtime in the High Sierras. A carpet of orange paintbrush, purple and yellow asters and a myriad of other wild flowers unfurls across the grassy valley of Tuolumne Meadows. A ring of snow-flecked peaks circle around our campground and the bubbling of snow-fed streams mingles with wind in the pines. Jagged mountain tops frame the exceptional beauty of this living temple in which we would reacquaint ourselves with the requirements of finding the sacred in nature.
Even though our orientation repeatedly stresses proper food storage, one visitor left a small bag of dried fruit inside a plastic bag, wrapped in a sweater, deep in a backpack. She thought it was too inconsequential to cause any concern.
That evening just half an hour after crawling into our sleeping bags, there was a rustling around the backpacks. A flashlight broke the darkness, then a yell, "Get away from there!" The yell set off a crashing of brush as a bear scrambled into the dark. That set off a twenty minute commotion as we examined how the bear had neatly sliced through the tough backpack fabric to grab the bag of dried fruit. This reminded us that the wilderness is not tame.
Mono Pass: Abandoned Ruins
We ate our last big breakfast near the cars. Now all of our meals will be carried on our backs. Our first day on the trail is a gradual, uphill journey alongside a clear, goose-necking stream filled with darting brook trout.
Each day has a reflection theme. Today we begin with the question, "How do we learn from nature?" To augment our reflection, Fred, our trail guide adds a phrase that will carry through the week: "Unless the Lord carry the pack, you struggle with a heavy sack." Already I need help with my pack.
By early afternoon we top Mono pass, a shallow rise that opens up to a spectacular view of the Nevada desert in the distance. Down in the valley immediately below us, rock tailings dapple the grey and green hillside, evidence that miners once worked here. The jumbled remains of an abandoned silver mine line the edge of the valley. Broken down log cabins contrast with the fragile meadow and rocky peaks. Were the men who labored in these mines heart struck at the beauty which surrounded them? Or were they too blinded by the lure of silver and the tasks before them? Whatever the case, their careless abandonment of gaping mine shafts and heaping piles of rock reflected the unconscious neglect of a child who leaves toys for someone else to pick up.
Beyond Parker Pass: On the Edge of the Mountain
This is a short and rather easy day as we ease over the gentle rise of 11,100 foot Parker pass. Our reflection theme today examines reverence. What is it? How do we acquire it? What role does it play in spiritual life?
Much of each day revolves around the demands of the trail, but the daily theme fills the corners and gives our reflection a focus. In the evening we discuss our insights and experiences and try to penetrate further into the day's theme.
As we sat around a tiny fire that night and contemplated "reverence," we were treated to the intermittent flashing and faint rumbling of a distant thunderstorm unleashing itself upon the White Mountains over forty many miles away. These unexpected displays of nature's elemental forces provide a continual source of awe and amazement. The lesson for me today is that our reverence is not for things directly, but for Jesus Christ and his presence within things. An attitude of reverence can turn every action into an act of worship. Our entire retreat is designed to imbue us with reverence for creation and one another. What powerful changes we could bring about if we could sustain the kind of respect we are developing for one another and the land.
We close the evening with prayers of thanksgiving for this beautiful land. This is a real adventure. We pray for one another, for our trip, its goals, and the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Over Koip Pass to Algier Lake
A glorious sunrise greeted us this morning. Before us is the toughest physical challenge of our trip, the steep ascent up 12,300 foot Koip Pass, one of the loftiest in the Sierra Nevada.
Right after leaving camp, we cross our first snow field. That's the easy part. Above us looms the snowy heights of twin 13,000 foot peaks. Somewhere between them, still hidden from view, lies our pass. We face what appears to be an endless staircase of switchbacks over tumbled talus. After a steady ascent that takes almost two hours, we turn a corner to see the crest of Koip pass, framed like a white-rimmed notch against a perfect blue sky. What a wonderful feeling to make it to the top! The view is stupendous.
"Everything here is so extreme," remarked Mary, a seasoned traveler from Indianapolis. "The wind is so forceful; the flowers so fragile; the water so cold; the mountains so steep; the sun is so bright!" The vagueness of indistinct relationship is not here in these high peaks. The alpine wilderness is a very absolute land.
In the midst of these extremes, we still had daily tasks: preparing meals, cleaning dishes, and an endless cycle of equipment unpacking and packing. In leaving behind urban conveniences, we learned that the wilderness lends itself to a natural frugality and simplicity. We eat less and need less variety.
During this evening's group discussion, a fierce windstorm blew up that fanned the fire and scattered dust and ashes all around us. The wind was so strong that we could hardly hear one another during gusts. Across the lake, eerily beautiful patterns danced on the surface from the moons reflection on the choppy waters. Above us an ocean of stars shimmered down. The power of the raw elements provided a backdrop for the reflective mood that deepened upon us. It was almost frightening to experience so much of the primal forces of creation.
Algier Lake: A Day of Rest
Today is a day of rest and quiet. The sun is warm and life has become pleasantly simple. We are forming our own community with its unique patterns far from civilized society.
Our focus today is supposed to be upon the devotional life as it relates to nature. In fact, the main realization is that the Lord is right here and He teaches us. We need only be receptive. Unless we empty ourselves and leave cherished concepts behind, there is no room for the Lord. This required a humility which leaves an emptiness as the huge implications of earth healing become more apparent. The admonition "Unless a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone," became very real for me today.
From the vantage of our simple mode of living it is sobering to see how far our lives have strayed from the simplicity of what life could be. As we work the stress and hurried pace of the city out of our thinking, a new clarity fills us. Up here it is easier to see that our social and ecological problems are our own creations. This clear atmosphere makes so much so obvious. Attunement with nature is inextricably intertwined with attunement with God.
Along Rush Creek
The journey is mostly downhill this morning. As we drop in elevation, flowers again become abundant and sturdy trees reemerge. They are like old friends whom we left behind in our foray above timberline.
Prayer is the theme today. This afternoon we pitched camp alongside a superbly translucent stream in which trout could frequently be seen outlined against the pebbled bottom. This is the evening when we have trout on the menu, and our fisher-folk will provide dinner.
One fellow caught a profound lesson about prayer. He could not catch a single fish and was getting frustrated. Finally he gave up trying and just prayed. He gradually worked into a place where his prayer was not for himself or any ego gratification, but just so the group could have trout for dinner. Then he caught fish. The serendipitous synchronicity between his prayers and his catches characterized this day, not only for him, but each of us. Experiences like this, coupled with the inspiration we found in these amazing mountains, lifted us into a renewed appreciation of how much we have been given as disciples of Jesus Christ and how little we usually appreciate his gifts.
The lessons are not all easy. Our evening reflection brought out our struggles to overcome individual concerns: the best place to sleep, the most comfortable pace to hike, or the hope that someone else might do the dishes. But in the clarity of the mental atmosphere, we saw our selfishness in a way that seldom happens in the city. We saw that we could not address our social or our ecological problems as individuals, but as "indivisibles."
This is a harder part of the retreat. Surrounded by the beauty of God's creation, we were constantly reminded that beauty, harmony and self-forgetting service are the way God is. This brought out a sense of the need to restore a right relationship with creation by restoring right attitudes in ourselves. We can't stop the selfish choices that are destroying the earth without moving away from our own self-centeredness.
In our search for knowledge about the Book of Nature, we are finding that it leads to a deeper knowledge of ourselves. A lot of philosophy is falling away in the practical demand to make it all work. Maybe it should not be a surprise, but we are not learning about nature so much as lessons about ourselves and our Christian walk.
Below Ruby Lake: Into the Range of Light
We are crossing into the "Range of Light," a name which John Muir gave this area over a hundred years ago. The scenery is just glorious! Ahead of us, now directly West, Banner Peak and the stiletto-sharp crags of the Ritter range tower before us.
We connect to the John Muir Trail for the first time, and find it a highway of mountain travelers. We have gone for days without seeing anyone; now we pass hikers every half hour. Some of the hikers have been on the trail for weeks. They are weathered and robust with a special glow of the mountains.
We find our campsite down and away from the trail. Snow patches surround the camp alongside a nameless stream that tumbles down from nearby Ruby Lake. Ruby Lake is a deep blue-green with a large snow-field that sweeps right into the lake, creating a beautiful azure-blue rim along the edge. I have never seen anything quite like it.
"This is a special place," wrote Elizabeth in her journal. "I experienced a depth of peace and awe there that I have never felt before.... I have traveled across Canada, throughout Europe and parts of Africa and Latin America, and yet there, beholding the 'Range of Light,' I was brought into the present moment in such a way that it seemed God was revealing Himself to me in everything."
On the John Muir Trail
A week in the mountains does wonders for toughening the body. Thin people gained weight and heavy people lost weight, making a happy medium. By now we were tired from the rugged demands of the journey. Living in the city does not prepare a person for the mountains, either physically or psychologically. I don't think we were prepared spiritually either. There is such a different dynamic in the mountains when we enter them to learn about God. I have been camping many times, but without the group focus on learning, they were such different experiences.
After a week on the trail, we have sunburned noses, sore muscles, a few blisters and assorted aches and pains. But what glorious compensation! A new glow enlivens our faces and a fresh regard for one another shines in our hearts. We have traveled through some of the most rugged and magnificent country on earth. More importantly, we have faced ourselves in our quest for the face of the Lord, and it changed us, each one. We will never again be quite the same. The lesson for me has been that the Book of Nature is the face of Christ hidden in creation.
The End of the Trail
We have learned that the wilderness retreat recaptures in microcosm the responsibilities before us as a people called to live harmlessly and benevolently, loving God, one another and the Lord's good earth.
Despite the many insights which we found, we saw that we have only scratched the surface. The biggest challenge is to apply what we have realized and there is so much.
We saw that we need each other and we need to support each other in our spiritual striving. Our inspirations were as much a product of working as a group, especially in our evening discussions.
This has been a deeply transforming week -- one that I hope I will remember for as long as I live. If anyone reads this, if you ever have the opportunity to do a wilderness retreat, do it. You'll never be quite the same again.
Rachel Henderson is the office manager for a women's shelter in San Francisco;
Elizabeth Fitzgerald teaches primary school in Vancouver, British Columbia;
The Opening the Book of Nature will provide a similar exploration from July 10-20, 2002 beginning in Yosemite National Park, trekking through the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, and culminating at Agnew Meadows, near Mammoth Lakes, California.
Only one dozen participants will be accepted. Write for details.