For anyone who has driven their car to a trailhead, hoisted on their backpack, and stepped away from the tarmac onto a path leading a week through a region cut off from help or convenience, the first sense of how big the world is and how small each of us are might feel quite familiar.
The Discovery Channel aired a documentary the other night reenacting a possible scenario of what it might have been like for the first Siberians to cross over the land bridge into the Americas. Most likely they had no inkling that in the vast continents ahead of them not another human soul existed, that they were the very first people across. At the time of the land bridge, with no sea to drown the highlands, it must all have seemed just a continuation of the Siberian land mass itself. But for me, living in the confines of crowded Tokyo, with dreams of wandering some expansive steppe with not a human figure or even a tree in sight, I envy those people no end.
Just the sheer self-reliance they exercised in order to survive in a harsh environment with giant animals that no longer exist today mocks the knowledge I have worked at over the years for my little forays into the mountains and on long distance tours. So much of what I know and feel proud of relies on highly technical materials and gadgets, almost all of which I know next to nothing about making myself. While I do possess knowledge about basic survival and could probably survive a winter snowstorm for a few days, I have never hunted, never made my own clothes, never had to slog for months on end through snowdrifts and wild, uncharted mountains. I think of arriving on the shore of a new continent, with nothing but the animal hides on my back, the hunting tools I’ve fashioned, and the lifetime of intimate lessons in animal behavior, moving in the terrain, and working in life saving cooperation with others, and realize just how far from the mechanism of living I have actually strayed. Put me in the same position and that shore would seem like a death sentence, vast, unfriendly, unforgiving, and indifferent.
In spite of knowing how inadequate my skills in surviving in the natural world are, I can’t live without nature and remain happy or fulfilled. This Tokyo world I live in gathers a sterile amalgamation of concrete, steel, and structure, excluding most of what makes the real world whole. I live here like a drone, performing my function in the hive, but otherwise useless and utterly dependent. I think back on the wonder I carried about all living things around me that filled childhood and can sense that the function of that wonder was to drink in the living world and learn how to participate in it. The wonder allowed me to learn without feeling it was meaningless or irrelevant. It must be something much like the native enthusiasm for hunting in cats and dogs, or the urge to beat their wings in fledgling birds. That so many of us have been breeding the wonder for nature and the wholeness of living within its sphere out of our experience seems to invite a kind of personal ecological death.
One day I would like to step onto a distant shore and set out across the unknown with just a spear and my companions. And feel my confidence lapping at the shores of wonder and the eternal.