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The Salvation of Solitude: Responding to the Call of the Wild

Randy Jefferson

October 8, 2017

Message alerts:

1) Circuit Writer deadlines generally mean titles are given and descriptions written before messages are crafted. In case you wonder, if it seems I get a bit off track, I chose to wander where the call took me.

2) I once heard a wise person say, “We are all an experiment of one.” I took it to heart and apply it often. It certainly has application to the thoughts regarding responding to the call of the wild I will share with you. They are mine. Your responses need to be yours. But one universal I think true is for the experiment to work, you must experience it. Heed the call.

We begin. How lucky was I? The year following my birth, my family moved into the home my dad and his brothers built, a home carefully situated next to three large shade bearing oaks to the west, with a giant black walnut tree off the southeast corner, and a shagbark hickory gracing the driveway. Beyond those oaks with their massive acorn laden branches extending horizontally towards sunset was the Field. Our own grassy expanse of earth that was roomy enough for neighborhood baseball and football contests, also hosting summer games of flashlight tag and firefly catching, as well as an occasional campout under star stuffed skies. It was from the farmland bordering us to the north that I came to know the raspy cackling of the male ring neck pheasant calling his mate.  But it was the natural treasure to the east that created the bond that holds me most tightly to the wild today. The Woods.  What seemed an immeasurable expanse of mixed hardwoods with a smattering of ponds, home to wildlife and wonder. The hours spent exploring. Imagining. Seeding a personal outdoor ethic.

In my eighth year my burgeoning love affair with world of nature took on a new dimension when the Jeffersons ventured northward for the first of what would be a dozen annual car trips to NW Ontario, to the land of lichen covered rocks, pristine water drunk from cupped hands dipped into any lake, and northern pike, lake trout, walleye, and smallmouth bass that hooked me with a passion I carry to this day. The adventure of it all. The reward of physical effort in a natural environment.  As years went on, the harder the lake to access, the greater the thrill, the deeper the impact of the experience. Catching fish became secondary. That final trip before the start of football practice and my last year of college. My brother and I paddling up a small creek as far as we could go before carrying across muskeg, searching for a lake not on the map.  Rewarded by a small body of blue that had probably never floated a canoe, and an eye-popping  beaver diving below us leading us away from his sturdy log home. Romantics, we named it Lake Janie-Annie for his wife of one year and for the woman who was to be my life’s one true love.

Woods and lakes. They run deep in my blood. They are part of my core. When I hear the call for wild wandering, to them I go. The magic most often happens for me now in Sylvania Wilderness. My discovery of this gem, just into the UP, occurred in mid-September of 2001.  In need of respite from overextension and a world seemingly turned upside down, I borrowed camping equipment from a fellow church-member, roped my canoe on our car, and packed the remains of my 40 year old fishing gear. I found solitude and, dare I say, a touch of salvation. I spoke of the experience in a summer service the next year. As I prepared for this service, I looked over what I said about the lessons learned in solitude. One of those had to do with the inspiration that can come from time in the wild. For me on this particular trip, some of it was poetic. Two whimsical poems tumbled out after what I perceived to be a bear sighting. With so many scores of Sylvania sojourns since that first one, and never a bear a sighting, I wonder about what role an excited imagination played that day, but that too is part of the experience. Today seems an appropriate time to share the poems again with a new UU audience.

The first owes some gratitude to Satchel Paige, the Negro League baseball pitcher who finally made it to the major leagues far past his prime. Paige had sage advice when asked about his ability to still command his pitches at his advanced athletic age. Among the canons attributed to him, in addition to my favorite, “avoid fried meats which angry up the blood,” were “avoid running at all costs” and “don’t look back, someone might be gaining on you.”

“I Never Saw Florence”

So what would you do if you saw a bear
On the portage To Florence Lake?
Whisper “This could be trouble,” like me,
And retreat a la Satchel Paige?

For Florence may be a breathtaking sight,
And most days well worth a glimpse.
But this day my breath was already taken
By the bear whose sight was on me.

Crossing the final portage that day as the sun was completing its descent, these words came to me:

”So You Want to See a Bear”

Funny how
After you’ve seen a bear in the woods
Every dark forest object
Has round ears, a long snout, and looks hungry.

Not exactly Mary Oliver, but captured it for me.

I had forgotten one other happening from that trip that is linked to the Randy of today. Sitting on the shore near my campsite in the calm of Sunday morning I thought of this church, of the oneness we share with the interdependent web, and these chanted words learned here came out of me. (chant) The Earth is our Mother, we must take care of her…

What was a spontaneous moment sixteen years ago has become a daily reminder of the wild, interrelated, care-needing, care giving natural world. Since the usurpation of the EPA early this year, I added a new ritual to the end of my exercise routine. I take strength from and give hope to our enfolding world through the The Earth is our Mother chant, ending with the stanza of remembrance for the sacred ground, (chant) The sacred ground we walk upon, with every step we take…

Ground. Grounded. Grounding. That’s what comes from our response to the call of the wild. It’s what Wendell Berry finds in lying down where the wood duck rests. It’s what Mary Oliver feels on her  Summer Day excursion as described in perhaps her most quoted  poem . She describes being unsure of what prayer is, but knows how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass – idle and blessed. There is something about being literally connected to the earth. There is restoration. There is strength. There is balance. It’s part of our link with the ancients, to our primitive ancestors that Sigurd Olson termed racial memory, the biological attachment to nature that arises from our long evolutionary history, a history that still ties us to our Pleistocene relatives. The pull that the earth had on them flows directly to us. It’s why we must hear the call of the wild and respond to it. Our well-being is dependent upon it. We are most whole when we remain mindful of the sacred ground and find ways to stay connected to it.

I mentioned balance a bit ago. I have been conducting a non-scientific study almost every day for many years that has caused me to conclude that the closer, the more direct our earth connection, the better we are physically balanced. I do a series of balance exercises every morning.  With age, I keep adding more. Three days a week I do what I still call run. Alternate days I am on a Nordic Trac ski machine, stationary bike, or a rowing machine. On the days I run, which at my pace involves almost constant direct contact with the earth, I am much more able to hold my balance poses. I think it’s all about using earth power to build muscle memory. By extension I suspect it applies to our mental and spiritual balance as well. Testing that is not as easy, but there has to be room for belief somewhere in life, so I’ll add this suspicion to my “I believe” list.

If we desire earth connection, which really is an extension of the experience of the wild, of our vital primitive link, how do we get it? Sleeping on the ground in a tent in the wilderness is one way, but there are a multitude of others that do not require traveling to an isolated location and are equally effective. Yoga supplys us with many earth powering poses. Gardening also comes to mind. It’s also a more accessible way to respond to the calling of the wild.  While a wilderness adventure presents us with a unique opportunity to experience the awe and wonder of the natural world, it is not exclusively in wilderness that we interact with the wild. When we open our eyes and ears to it, we realize as the boy in our story did, that the happiness, the beauty, and yes, the saving power of the wild is all around us.

When you think of wild, what do you imagine seeing or hearing? For many of us in tune with being “Up North,” it’s the tremolo of the Common Loon. Aren’t some bird names strange? How did the loon get tagged as common? It must have been named by some deaf person in Florida who saw it in dull winter plumage.  Seeing it in summer glory dancing on a northwoods lake or hearing its cry slicing through the night is thrilling or chilling , not what I equate with common. The loon is a worthy symbol for wild. I’d like to propose another that’s closer to home, and might speak more to all that is involved in our seventh UU principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, the monarch butterfly.

For me, the combination of its peerless beauty, delicate grace, and improbable life story make it a top pantheon wild creature. Four generations in an annual life cycle, somehow passing on DNA that allows that fourth generation to return each year from thousands of miles of migration to the same wintering grounds in Mexico or California from which the first generation left the previous spring.  I see the monarch as a proof statement for a higher power.  It is also a proof statement of the human power to unwittingly disrupt the master plan. The decimation of monarch habitat and indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides has resulted in a desperate call of the wild for help. Our response is critical for long term monarch survival.  While you are making that earth connection, making or adding to a garden, remember monarch food – coneflowers, black-eyed susan, bee balm, New England aster; and of course milkweed, the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs and monarch larvae feed. Hearing the milkweed call several years ago, I sought out milkweed pods during the past two Falls from fellow UU gardeners Suzan Miller, Sally Decker, and Kerry Wilson. Both years I conducted an experiment in hope and faith. In February, I cut gallon plastic milk jugs in half, laid in potting soil for scatterings of wispy milkweed seeds, misted, duck taped the halves together, and placed them outside against our west facing wall. Unattended, three and one-half months later a plethora of green milkweed shoots were standing tall, ready for transplanting. I always find the miracle of the seed a bit amazing. These are especially so. For me there is a mutuality in this stewardship response, acting on our principle, in saving, we are saved.

Perhaps the wild is not just “out there,” (gesture outward), but also “in here.” (Hand to chest). We respond not just to an external calling but a deep internal one as well. Respond we must. In your way, find the salvation your experience of the wild brings. Plant a seed. Affirm the need for walking the sacred ground, (chant) hey yana, ho yana, hey yan yan, hey yana, ho yana, hey yan yan.