Wildness and Wilderness

I have to tell you something.  The fact that I serve as minister to two congregations in the State of Alaska is proof positive that God has a sense of humor.   Let me explain this by telling you a little bit about myself.  You see, I am not what you would call an outdoorsy person.  I don’t camp, I don’t canoe or kayak, I maybe hike about once every three years and then it is very short hikes and pretty much just for social reasons. My idea of roughing it is staying in an inexpensive hotel.  I travel a lot in my work but I did fly once last year for pleasure. It was not to quiet sunny beaches or to majestic mountains.  It was to go dress shopping in San Francisco.

There is a story in our family.  My daughter was at the physical therapist’s office after a sports injury and they were chatting.  The physical therapist was making conversation by asking what kinds of physical activities Morgan did with her family.  Did we go skiing – no.  Morgan said to her, “Actually, our family really doesn’t go outdoors”.    And that is actually the truth.  We loving refer to ourselves as “Mole People” in that we kind of stay in our hole, out if the sunlight and fresh air as much as possible.  When I tell people I work in Alaska during the winter they ask if the lack of sunlight bothers me.  No – not at all.  If I were to be in Portland all winter I would not see much sun either.  That would entail going outdoors.  I can generally be found in front of a computer, in a chair reading a book, or shopping mall.  For excitement, I seek out a museum or a theater. For exercise, I go to a gym.   So as you can see, the fact that I was called to work in Alaska is pretty funny.

Yet, I recognize the pull of nature and the great outdoors on the human spirit.  Being in the presence of natural beauty has the ability to transport most all of us with a sense of awe.  It has a way of helping us to feel at one with other living beings and with the earth itself.  Being out in nature has a way of helping us to stay humble, knowing that we do not have dominion over the earth but are a part of the natural order of things.

I remember when I was an intern minister at the UU Fellowship in Corvallis.  Corvallis is the home of Oregon State University, which has a nationally recognized forestry program.  My supervisor told me that many of the older members will say that they are atheist humanists but, when they get talking, you find they are actually natural mystics.  They had a very sacred relationship with the trees and felt a connection to the trees that they just didn’t have words for.  They had a very deep spiritual sense, but it was related to the woods and not necessarily to the church.

What is she talking about – natural mystic?  Yes, that is the name of a Bob Marley song, but that is not what I am referring to – really.  First, let me unpack the word Mystic. It doesn’t sound very rational and UU, does it?  But it is a big part of who we are.  Mysticism is not about superstition or woo woo stuff.  It relates to the first of our six Unitarian Universalist sources.  The first of our six sources is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” That is mysticism. I would challenge any one of you with this one.  Have you ever been out in nature and looked out over the water, or looked up at the trees, or watched an eagle fly overhead and felt something stir inside of you?  Maybe you saw the sunrise and knew, in your gut, that it was something amazing that you did not create but were privileged to watch.  Maybe you saw the new green on the trees in early summer and felt a deep connection with and respect for the cycle of nature and the seasons.  Maybe you just know that when you are alone in your canoe, out on the water, that you are your most real and true self.   I invite you to take a moment right now and think about a time when you were out in nature and had one of those special bits of connection or inspiration. (ask a few to share)   I once looked though a very powerful telescope and saw baby stars being born out of the Orion nebula.  It was amazing. I knew I was watching something special and had a feeling that it was somehow a miracle. In the spirit of those special moments of natural mysticism,  I offer this poem of Mary Oliver

The Swan


Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?

Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –

An armful of white blossoms,

A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned

into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,

Biting the air with its black beak?

Did you hear it, fluting and whistling

A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall

Knifing down the black ledges?

And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –

A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet

Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?

And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?

And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?

And have you changed your life?

These are mystical experiences related to the natural world.  Mysticism is about knowledge that can not be read in a book or taught in a lecture, but must be experienced in order to be understood.  It is you inner wisdom, your own spiritual truth…  It is what might be called intuitive experiential learning.  Unitarian minister of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a lot about this.  In his essay, the Oversoul, he said, “Within us is the soul of the whole , the wise silence, the universal beauty, with which every part and particle is equally related …When it breaks through our intellect it is genius, when it breathes through our will it is virtue, when it flows though our affection, it is love.”

The Transcendentalist Unitarians of the 1800’s, lead by Emerson, were all over this stuff. They are kind of the quintessential natural mystics. They were a very popular group of Unitarian poets, writers, and philosophers who believed that we could transcend our day to day existence and find deeper insights and meanings and that time in nature was key in doing just that.  Trained at Harvard, but always quite a bit of a revolutionary, Henry David Thoreau, one of the most well known Transcendentalists.  He was famous his efforts to seek wisdom in nature.  He was a Unitarian writer who left behind his regular teaching job and his job as owner of a pencil factory to move next to Walden Pond to spend many quiet hours watching the birds and paying attention.  He wrote his famous book, Walden, based on what he learned.  This is one of my favorite quotes of from Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” He also said, “To be admitted to Nature’s hearth costs nothing. None is excluded, but excludes himself. You have only to push aside the curtain.”  And from Thoreau’s insights he gained during his time at Walden, he went on to write major political works on topic such as his famous essay on civil disobedience.  He may have enjoyed quiet hours in nature but they also inspired him to work for social justice.  He was a well known abolitionist and worked hard for civil liberties.

But here is the thing about Thoreau, he really enjoyed his time in nature and made good use of it, but he was not exactly living on the edge.  He basically moved to a small cabin in community outside of Concord Mass and went home to Emerson’s house when he wanted a hot bath.  Even I could tolerate that.  But think about the men called the Desert Fathers.  And just to be fair, there were also some Desert mothers, but they get a lot less press.  In the third century, Christianity was still very new.  After Emperor Constantine made it legal to be Christian and they no longer had to fear being fed to the lions – a number of sages decided to live alone in the desert.  This is where the idea of Christian Monasteries came from. People who left it all behind to be quite and contemplate. Deeply religious people would leave the city and go out into the deserts of Egypt to live as hermits. These wise folks would live way out in the desert, in caves or simple dwellings and were close to the natural rhythms of the sun and the sand and the insects.  They lived very simple lives, often giving up all their wealth to commit themselves to quiet reflection and prayer. This life was very rewarding for many and the found it to be a source of inspiration and fulfillment.  Sometimes people in the cities who needed to seek wisdom or advice would go to visit the desert fathers and seek their wise council.  And when we think of eastern wisdom, such as that from the Hindu tradition, we imagine seeking out the Guru who lives alone on the mountain top.  Indeed, many of the teachers and guides in the Hindu tradition do live alone or in small communities, like the desert fathers, but they are in the Himalayan mountains. It seems that in both the Hindu and Christian tradition, there have been wise people who chose to live close to the natural world and to become wise and insightful people.  I am sure there are many wise and insightful people in Manhattan but you just don’t hear about people moving to New York City to become more in touch with their mystical truth.  For that, folks seem to go toward a more natural setting.

Now I think about you folks in Alaska.  I don’t have to tell you that Alaska is different from most other places.  Not everything is different, but you so have a relationship with nature that is really different from the one even outdoorsy folks have in Portland, Oregon, where I come from.   There are bear proof garbage cans outside your capitol building.  I don’t know of any other state capitol in the US that has to deal with bears next to the front door.  One of my neighbors in Portland has a little pen outside in their front yard where their pet rabbit hops around eating grass on nice days.  I find myself thinking – “I hope the Eagles don’t snatch away their pet”.  Then I remember – that doesn’t happen in Portland.   I guess the point is that you folks are really much more in touch with the actual place of the predator/prey relationship than a lot of other folks. When humans don’t have guns in our hands, we are smart, slow, and easy to kill if that is what you have in mind.    Now folks in the rough neighborhoods of many large cities also have to be careful not to be killed when they go out at night. But that has to do with an aberration in the human condition – like gang kids looking for drug money.  That is related to people who are alienated from what is good and right.  In nature, being killed as prey is not about evil, it is about the way things really are – the way they are supposed to be.

I also think there is something about living in the subarctic temperatures of the interior that has an impact on a person. To stay alive in 50 below zero temperatures takes a concerted effort. It does not happen by accident.  Going outdoors in bad weather in Fairbanks is kind of the ultimate in “Fail to plan equals plan to fail”.    You must have the right clothing on your body. Even in your home, you must have some way to heat your space, be in enough wood in your wood pile or enough oil in your tank.  It reminds me of that Jack London story, “To Build a Fire” where this guy has to get his hands warm enough to strike his match so he can make a fire so he can not die in the cold.   Some days, some Alaskan folks are kind of living a more elaborate version of that story.   Staying warm is a matter of survival and takes priority over other things that might be seen as important in other parts of the country.

I think that living as close to the wild and the elements as you do here, it does change your priorities and creates a society that is – perhaps – I am not sure of the right word – less pretentions maybe.  I remember before my first visit to Alaska, I was on the phone and I was asking what kind of clothing I would need to bring with me.  I was told that many people wear boots.  I asked my honest question, “like work boots or like fashion boots”.  Then I listened to the silence on the other end of the phone for about half a minute until the answer finally came back, “well, they are kind of the same thing here”.  Also – just last week, I said I was looking for the powder room.  A kind congregational leader told me the nearest powder room was probably in Seattle.

I have found that there is a strange and beautiful spiritual gift in this way of being you have in Alaska. On some lever you have found that your life is not a right to be taken for granted.  It is a gift that you were given and it is something that you make an effort to protect and honor.  I think this not only gives a person a greater appreciation for their life, but also a sense of humility. If you are not careful you can be taken out by a mother bear or a mother moose who feels you are a threat to her young.  You may have inherent worth and dignity, but you are a part of the natural world and must respect the order of things as they truly exist.  And when you take your life seriously in this way, you may want to do something meaningful with it.  I offer you another familiar poem by Mary Oliver…The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life

I also believe how you live, it changes your relationships in some ways.  I remember a story told to me by a young Alaskan Law student. It is a story of, back in the 1950s, when they were writing the Alaska state constitution.  I guess they had been working for several hours and had kind of reached an impasse.  But someone noticed that it was time for everyone to go outside and start their cars, so the engines wouldn’t freeze.  So all the angry politicians went out to their cars, started them up, let them run a minute.  Maybe moved them a bit so the tires could change shape.  Then they all went back into Constitution Hall and they had a new perspective and were able to get through the challenging issues and write your state constitution.

I so often hear Unitarian Universalists, say that they come to the Church or Fellowship to see their friends but where they really worship is when they are out in nature.  One of my colleagues calls it attending services in the cathedral with the blue ceiling. Now I really do want you to come to worship with us every week, here in this room.  But I also want you to know that I understand this blue ceiling perspective as well.  And I need to tell you that not just Unitarian Universalists say this.  Many people of many faith traditions have said the same things.  That is part of why religious retreat centers are almost always built in surrounded by natural beauty, in the woods or by the water.  Even those in the city have lovely gardens.  When we only see things that are created by human hands, we start to think that humans and human efforts are all that really exist in this world.  In the city with a lot of lights, you can’t even see the stars and you might forget that they are there. We became out of touch with the actual nature of the universe if all we see is things of human endeavor. We start to think it is all about us.  It is when we get out into the wild, into the wilderness, where humans did not create all in their view and do not have all the control  – that is when we can be open to unique insights and inspirations.  That is when we can truly remember our place in the universe.  That is when we can be open to the lessons of the natural mystics, those lessons we can not read in a book or be told by a teacher.  Those lessons that we must experience ourselves.

May it be so.