Once More, into Wilderness!

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A memory of my tent site in Yosemite last September–it will look very different this week in St. Mary’s Wildernness!

St. Mary’s Wilderness here I come!

It’s across the continent from Yosemite National Park, the vegetation and scenery are quite different, and the peaks are lower, but this 10,000 acres of eastern beauty in the George Washington National Forest is calling to me to repeat a little of the Vision Quest in that western gem I experienced one year ago.

This time, I will not have the onsite guiding hand of Tomas Pinkson, blessed shaman extraordinaire, but I remember much that he taught. And most of all, I remember his wisdom, and that of Gerald May and many others, about the power of wilderness to heal, empower, renew, and (re-)orient us. There is, as Tomas and the native peoples say, medicine here that Great Power has for me.

St. Mary's Wilderness sign

On Tuesday, September 29, I will get in my car and drive into western Virginia, park my car in a designated parking area and hike a mile or two, I hope, or maybe more, seeing the sights, and finding a place to pitch my tent. I will be looking for a water source, too, although like any good wilderness hiker/camper, I will filter all water before using.

I am not on this adventure to hike as much as I am to find a spot in the wilderness for solitude, to sit and meditate, talk and listen to the trees and admire whatever may yet be blooming (probably not much) or beginning to show fall colors.

I go to reconnect with my siblings of the forest, wildlife yes (hopefully friendly) but mostly trees and other vegetation. I draw great strength and solace from the faithfulness of trees and shrubs and other plants who live without human aid.

St. Mary's Wilderness Liming_Sites_Map

Indeed, one of the complications about this is the need to be sure those of us who venture into these sacred grounds do not unduly disturb their living. The goal in the wilderness always is to leave no trace of our presence.

This brings to mind one essential spiritual practice, namely to listen and absorb without pressing our own agenda. When we walk and sit in the wild without having to make it ours we can learn that we are not the center of the universe. It is then we begin to receive the gifts that are there for us.

I discovered last year at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite that if I look with truly open eyes and listen with truly open ears I can learn much–about myself, yes, as well as about the world, and certainly about those whose space I was sharing. There is a richness, a depth to this learning that can only be grasped in the midst of wilderness; no book, nor even picture, can convey its integrity and power the way actual presence does.


It may seem strange to write about this seeking of solitude on a blog focused on building community. But for me, solitude is a re-charging of my batteries and a re-orientation to my soul, so that I have energy and clarity in community building work. It also is a reminder that community is more than human.

2014-09-11 14.56.57That reminds me of my “brother tree,” from Yosemite (pictured left), who said to me, “You do not need to see me, but you do need to remember me, to learn from me.” So I go into the national forest here to keep alive that memory and to learn from his siblings in the East (you can read about my brother here). I realize that this will most likely become an annual pilgrimage, not to Yosemite probably most years (expense and currently much fire damage) but to some part of wonderful wilderness to reconnect with my spiritual roots in God’s earth.

In the lush forest growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness I do not expect to see many specimens like my brother. He grew, like his neighbors, out of the hard mountain granite; some grew stronger and taller but many were stunted and twisted like him. That any survive let alone thrive still amazes me. The tenacity of spirit is a badge of honor and an example of courage for all of us.

St. Mary's Wilderness
An opening in the lush growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness everytrail.com

At the same time, not even this place of beauty is immune from the hardness, even harshness, of nature. Hurricane Isabel did much damage in St. Mary’s Wilderness in 2003, leaving reminders of how fragile the wholeness of nature is. And much of the area was the scene of heavy mining for iron ore and manganese into the 1960s. Fortunately, designation as a national wilderness area in 1984 is helping reverse, in nature’s own good time, these impacts. I hope my presence is healing, too, not just for me but for all who call this home.

I check my list of things to do before I leave and things to take with me, and try to fit everything neatly for a balanced pack. I remember that I am a pilgrim on journey on land where others move and have their being, and pray I will be open to all the gifts, all the wisdom, all the medicine that will bless me.

Paying Attention

I am sitting at my desk, looking out the window and ruminating about what to write, when a large black bird walks across the lawn and a squirrel scampers from our yard across the street into the woods.

Now I know what to write. These two creatures, now disappeared from my sight, are messengers, reminders that it is time I began telling of my adventures on the Vision Quest–what I have come to call my Soul Quest–in Yosemite National Park in September.

The understanding that other animals (not just human animals) and the natural world contain and share messages and truth for us is one learning from the Quest. I learned a lot from these teachers during my short time in the relative wilderness at 10,000 feet, and a primary lesson is to pay attention.Soul tree front view

Being without a watch, cellphone and internet reception, books or other devices that divide my attention from what is immediately around me in the natural world opened my eyes to what I so often take for granted–the movement of flying creatures and four-leggeds, as well as sky and water and earth, and, perhaps most of all, trees.

Trees are my special love. I grew up on a tree farm. I was not especially enamored of all the hard labor helping my Dad, but I always loved the trees (and I really liked growing flowers, too, but that is for another time).

I try not to use the word “love” when it comes to talking about things I enjoy, or like, but with trees it is the right word. I love trees.Soul tree side view

We had thousands on the farm, all in rows, plus 10 or more acres of woods, and I felt connected with so many of them. I especially felt close to the trees in our small orchard–pear, apple, apricot, and cherry–and most of all to the giant white oak, Quercus alba is the Latin name, standing majestically next to our driveway where it met the public road.

Trees are signs of God to me. Like God, they grow everywhere, or try to. They appear in whatever form is most conducive to living. They grow in the most improbable places at times, like the five-needled white bark pine, Pinus albicaulis is the Latin name, that grow out of granite in the Alpine or timberline forest in Yosemite. How trees can be rooted in granite is a mystery to me, but then how God takes root in us is one, too.

As I spent time alone, fasting, near the shore of Lower Cathedral Lake, sitting on huge granite boulders, I began to notice these trees. Some of them were soul tree side view 2tall and graceful, well-shaped conifers. Most of them, however, showed the effects of living in harsh conditions so that many appeared as dwarf trees, and others almost prostrate, almost all lacking the shape we think of as normal for pine trees.

Together, these trees became my spiritual teachers, even masters, helping me move into a meditative state and then guiding me into some deep soul truths.

One tree most captured my attention. As I share three pictures of my soul tree, I am going to pause to gaze for a while. At another time, I will write more about our encounter.