From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than for entire societies.
– Yuval Noah Harrari from his book Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow
Rivers and streams of the North Country are at the crest of spring’s snowmelt flood, the surging current carrying along flotsam and jetsam of a harsh winter in an inexorable rush toward the channels and marshes of the Mississippi. Trees uprooted from riverbanks, a collapsed farm building swept away by floodwaters, a cow that did not survive February’s blizzard, corn stumps planted in a washed-out waterway, deck planking from a boat dock, the no-longer-graceful fox, a rubber boot, a tangle of barbed wire on a wooden post, two battered and lashed together gasoline cans, a mud-caked jacket, the skull of a whitetail deer with a patch of hide still attached, churning lumps of clay soil and sand, and the invisible pollution of sewage and agricultural chemicals — carried along by the force of the torrent.
All going with the flow. Hurrying downstream to a fated destination in a stagnant backwater.
Walking across an iron truss bridge that spans a tributary creek I see a solitary fisher working his way upstream, carefully setting his feet and using his wading staff to brace himself in the current that wants to sweep him away and send him whirling and tumbling along its rushing course. With a lightweight flyrod he casts a trout fly and lets it drift past him, through a swirl and a rippling pool, over a moss-covered stone, beneath an undercut bank. Then he strips in some line and with a turn and a flip lifts it off the surface of the water to cast once again upstream. I watch him make half a dozen casts, each one carefully and accurately placed to float across the places where a trout may be lazily lurking, waiting for a flood borne insect, a tadpole, a minnow, a crayfish.
The stream is too dark and cloudy with silt, it seems to me, for the trout to see the fly unless it drifts within a few inches of its dim vision. This fisher is unlikely to catch anything for all his exacting and practiced skills. But that is not the point. He is on a journey. A spiritual journey. He has ventured into the wonders of the natural world. And the path of that journey, each careful step and each cast, is a measure of… not defiance, exactly, but his refusal to yield to the currents of his time and place, to be carried along downstream, to go with the flow.
It would be easier for him to go with the flow, to follow the trending currents, to fit into the framework of social norms and standards that make up everyday life as it is now lived in a complicated and convoluted society. But I think he understands that to become separated from this world of natural wonders is perilous for our spirit. There is a real danger that we are at risk of becoming less human, hollowed-out, people who drift through life without simplicity, humility, compassion, responsibility, positiveness, optimism, love, and a sense of justice. All the qualities that are reflections of our spiritual being, the attributes and the virtues that engender our physical, mental, emotional, and social health. For the sake of our spirit and the benefits of those benevolent qualities of well-being, we need to reconnect with the natural world. And not only to reconnect but to enter that world and participate in its wonders.
We have blundered into the Anthropocene Epoch, the era when humankind’s manipulation of the natural world, whether deliberate or unintended, has all but eliminated the wild (I do not say wilderness because there is no longer any true wilderness). The landscape, almost all of it, is wholly man-made. Rivers and streams polluted, diked, channeled, and dammed. Prairies and plains contoured, tilled for row crops, seeded for haying and grazing. Forests and woodlands denuded, planted with second growth tree species, and tangled with invasive undergrowth. We now live in a world almost totally sculpted by the hand of humankind. Urbanization, especially the exponential growth of megacities, has hugely exacerbated the separation of our physical selves from, and all communion with, what remains of the natural world.
A symptom of our spiritual illness is the raft of passive entertainments – such as television watching and the countless types of screen time – that have become insubstantial alternatives for participating in a life of movement and action. Even the more active pastimes of organized and structured games – golf, tennis, volleyball, softball to name but a few – are predetermined with a controlled and formulaic outcome that has none of the challenging ambiguity (and therefore none of the wonder and revelation) of experiences in the natural world. We have divorced ourselves from that world, perhaps unwittingly and with no moment of awareness that we were abandoning it. But its disappearance has changed us in ways that are unpleasant and self-destructive. We are hollow, and we want to be filled again with the natural world’s beatitudes of simplicity, humility, compassion, responsibility, positiveness, optimism, love, and a sense of justice Is it any surprise that we feel a sense of unease and dislocation, the anxiety and angst of Solastalgia, the existential and emotional distress caused by the disappearance of our wild environment?
Opportunities are diminishing to go against the flow, to repudiate an increasingly structured society, to take the spiritual journey, the solitary journey. Step out of the current that is carrying you into a spiritually stagnant backwater. Go fishing. Go hunting. Go hiking, canoeing, camping, stargazing, cloud watching. Go without your cell phone or I-pad or kindle. And go without one of those horrid four-wheelers or power boats. To be silent, to contemplate, to wonder. To become human again.
More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page