“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there.” –Wallace Stegner
The holidays are past, now to begin the quiet descent into winter, the chance to burrow deep into books and memory, to see if the mind, so accustomed to dogpaddling in the shallows, has forgotten how to go slower, deeper. I never make New Year’s resolutions, but my goal for 2012 is to seek out stillness, of both mind and body. The best route to that, I think, is in nature. I find immeasurable gifts in the most unlikely plot of blighted earth. My spiritual guide this year may be a mud turtle. On a sunny day in November, I discovered Eastern river cooters, freshwater turtles, basking in the sun in a nearby creek that flows into the Tennessee River. I think they are cooters, but I am vastly deficient in the sciences—they could be pond sliders. They are small, only three or four inches long, and are totally camouflaged when sitting on half-submerged limbs and logs. They are extremely skittish and always see me before I see them—I only hear their tiny plops, no louder than a small pebble, as they dunk back into the water—but if I stand perfectly still for five minutes or more, they will very slowly emerge and creep back onto the limb. I don’t know why this is so satisfying, why the sight of this tiny creature creeping like an arthritic geriatric onto a rotting limb in a stinking creek and craning his wizened neck toward the sun should be so mesmerizing. All I know is that it is very calming and uplifting.
These turtles make me think harder about what it means to live with moral responsibility for the environment. They, along with writers who grapple with difficult moral choices or point out the damage and, yes, the criminality of vain, money-inspired development will keep me mindful. The great environmentalist Wallace Stegner called this kind of writer declared enemies of their society. Stegner, who founded the creative writing program at Stanford and taught the likes of Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, and Edward Abby, said, “There has hardly been a serious or important novel in this century that did not repudiate in part or in whole American technological culture for its commercialism, its vulgarity, and the way in which it has dirtied a clean continent and a clean dream.”
I am fortunate to live in a city where bits of wilderness are within easy walks, spots that have not yet caught the calculating eyes of developers, what I like to call original dirt. Despite the fact that many of our creeks are neglected, that they are often polluted, stagnant, and uninhabitable to most wildlife, they are, for those very reasons, more compelling than traditional recreational spots. They still retain remnants of a long history, a history that I and all other humans are connected to in the most fundamental way. This little mid-crusted turtle dates back 250 million years—surely, he can teach me more about connectedness than Facebook. Stegner said rightly that we have lived too shallowly in too many places. So much of our society is focused on fun. Places that are touted as tourist attractions are usually artificially manipulated to provide entertainment, externally generated pleasure that feeds the need of illusion and not the deeper hunger for self-generated contentment. There is an imbalance between fun and contemplation, like a diet with too much sugar. To know a place deeply is to feel an obligation toward it. Maybe watching turtles is a way to live more deeply in the place I call home, an East Tennessee river valley that, like most American cities, is quickly losing its original contours, sometimes in soul-crushing ways. I am speaking of Mountaintop Removal which is happening on Zeb Mountain only an hour’s drive from here.
Stillness can still be found, but it is very hard to find silence. I feel blessed to have grown up in the remote rural community of Snowflake, Virginia, and remember the silence of those woods and ridges along Big Moccasin Creek. As Stegner says in the quote above, I will always have that memory, it serves as a standard to remind me how much we have lost in terms of real sanctuary. Lyman Ward, Stegner’s protagonist in Angle of Repose, reflected on the profound silence of his grandparents’ life on the American frontier in the 19th century, before electricity, compared to his own time. “1970,” he said, “knows nothing about isolation and nothing about silence.” His list of modern electrical conveniences has only multiplied in the forty years since; and, although our clever inventions, ever smaller and more sophisticated, may no longer smell of oil or coal and make jarring noise, each has its own buzz, hum, beep, or ringtone that, taken together, have now reached a drone so bothersome that we have had to create yet another machine, a white noise machine, to mask it.
I have always admired those for whom solitude in nature is more than just an occasional spiritual practice, who shape their lives around those moments. I have a friend who is a kind of freelance corporate psychologist. He helps ease employee anxiety due to economic or industry-based transitions and mediates departmental conflicts for small and mid-sized companies in the Southeast. Because the work is often intense and emotionally draining, he makes his own rules of engagement. He chooses his clients and his hours and will only take on contracts he can reasonably drive to. And he drives there slowly on back roads, occasionally stopping to explore places of local interest. For many years, he drove an ancient postal delivery truck that, even floor boarded, could probably not have exceeded his preferred speed of fifty-five. He would often tack on an extra day to fish some river, always tossing the catch back in. He knows intimately all the major rivers and most of their tributaries within a five- or six-state circumference and, in his many hours of solitude along their banks, has thought long and deeply about himself and his relation to them.
Few of us, though, can take credit for whatever good impulses we may have. It is possible my friend is just as self-motivated as I am, using nature as therapy, a way to calm our anxiety over the horrors of the daily news, the constant thrum and babble of people and machines, the pain of personal loss, and the guilt of simple human inability to care deeply for anything. We have reached a point in history where our guilt, often a great motivator for good, must encompass the environment. More and more, we live surrounded by disposable-everything. We are pinched and pulled at every turn by the monster of retail that invades public space, makes us feel deficient in order to sell us the things it determines we are deficient in but which turn out to be the things that leave us feeling most bottomed-out. Nature is the only true counter to the vast meaninglessness of what Stegner called our termite lives, the most visible and accessible source of renewal when we feel most hopeless. Every green growing thing, every unfolding petal and mud-crusted turtle is a perpetual marvel of the world, ever renewing proof that we are part of something greater than all of our vain and transient creations. I look forward to the new year, to seeing where these inward journeys may take me.