It doesn’t matter who we are or where we live, we are drawn to nature because we are nature at the molecular level, or as the late astronomer Carl Sagan opined: “our bodies are composed of the same elements in stars …we are essentially star stuff.”
I don’t distinguish between children playing in the snow, mountain climbers, hunters, photographers, gardeners, zoo keepers, astronauts, farmers, snowmachiners, dog mushers, miners, deep sea divers, teachers and theoretical physicists seeking the subatomic Holy Grail. All of us in every walk of life, young and old, are in a continuous quest to discover who we are. We seek a connection with nature that seems to be “out there,” but also dwells deep within us.
Most of us have heard or read about the question posed to British mountaineer George Mallory before he attempted Mt. Everest in 1924 and disappeared along with his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, “Why do you climb mountains?” Mallory responded curtly: “Because it’s there.” Perhaps a better response would have been: “Because we’re here.”
Mallory’s body was found below Everest’s northeast ridge in 1999 by a climbing team led by famed alpinist Conrad Anker.
Like others who have perished on the mountain’s unforgiving slopes, Mallory was perhaps trying to merge the deeper part of his “nature” with the larger nature of our external world.
Although most of us don’t engage in anything as difficult as climbing 29,000 feet above sea level, probing the ocean’s depths or smashing atoms in the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, we’re all on the same journey: to learn who we are and unite ourselves with nature, our primordial parent that came long before our biological or adoptive parents.
There are obvious reasons we venture outdoors. They can be as simple as physical exercise, taking in the beautiful scenery and fresh air, observing and photographing wildlife, fishing and hunting, reaching an objective such as mountain’s summit or a hidden valley, or enjoying comradery with friends.
But there are the deeper reasons. We seek peace and serenity, a respite from the hectic and often burdensome world.
I think we sometimes want to immerse ourselves in an alternate reality and suspend ourselves there. Silence has a special way of speaking to us, or to paraphrase naturalist Henry David Thoreau: “allow us to hear the beat of our internal drummer.”
Alaska mountaineers have told me that the intense concentration required for technical climbing puts them in the moment—that all other thoughts drift away and they become one with the mountain. They say those are the “moments” they ardently seek.
People have asked me about what I’m looking for on my many outdoor trips. My reply these days is: “I’m continuously finding it.”
I can best explain that response by recalling a trip I made many years ago near Eklutna Lake–easy to remember because it was the day after September 11, 2001, when our world changed. It was a brilliant, bluebird day. I remember feeling guilty after the horrible tragedy that had befallen America the day before. How could I be out on a mountain ridge enjoying a beautiful day with friends immediately after such a terrible disaster? In fact, I think I remember saying to them: “It shouldn’t be so beautiful today.”
Sitting on alpine tundra moss in the warm September sun, I remember thinking that the world had definitely changed. But this mountainside remained the same. It was as if this place was outside of time, sacrosanct, inviolate from man’s destructive hand.
That is the feeling I get when I venture outdoors, and the farther into the backcountry I wander, the stronger the feeling. It is a perception of pure, absolute truth. People continuously change the civilized world, but these places in nature remain the same and true unto themselves.
Some people who live in large cities do not consciously experience their bond with nature.
They never see the stars. They do not experience the intoxicating fragrance of mountain wildflowers.
But I maintain the inclination to reach out to nature resides within all of us, and that finding that connection is essential to our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. In a broader and ultimately more important sense, it might be crucial to our future on this planet. We are stewards of our environment and we can’t do that job if we don’t maintain a close relationship with it.
Since I was a child in Seward looking in awe at the Kenai Mountains, I’ve felt the pull. I think we all do, consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps in some mysterious way, in the invisible grip of gravity, we have an inherent need to align our atoms with the stars.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank, email: email@example.com