There is nothing more frightening to humans than the unknown. The dry crack of a twig in a silent forest night is enough to send our mind racing for answers, our heart pounding for oxygen. Knowing that a predator was approaching would be preferable to remaining in the metaphorical dark, for at least we could formulate an intelligent reaction. We fear the unknown because it beckons us to consider the worst possible scenario, for our survival could depend upon it. Were our ancestors to have assumed that every sound in the night was a harmless mouse or a clumsy deer we may not have arrived at this point in our history.
The unknown is also the force of Nature that we most crave to experience.
How many people would visit the forest if we knew what birds we would see, which animals we would encounter, what plants we would find, or exactly which adventures awaited us? We may have a general idea of such things before we trek into the wilds but it is the potential for surprise which leads us to return. Our journeys into Nature are rewarding and dynamic because we never know what will meet us on the path. Our love of Nature comes from the very heart of its intimate relationship with the unknown.
At the beginning of November, I left on journey to recharge my spirits and venture into the unknown. I had no particular destination in mind, only an intention to follow my heart into the wilds and seek the silence and mystery of communing with the forest. The Cascade mountains held my attention at first, so I drove in that direction. Though I found the beauty and inspirational awe I was questing for, something compelled me to drive on. Before long I was cruising down the 101, basking in the radiance of the ocean landscape. It was clear to me that I needed to spend some time near the mother waters of Earth, and I continued south toward a favorite secret camping location. For some unexplainable reason, I didn’t consciously notice the zoo of parked cars along the highway, or the myriad of people holding up cell phones and taking selfies on the side of the narrow road. I was in a zone of contemplation, reflecting on the life giving powers of the sea. This meditation was rudely interrupted by a most disturbing sight.
To my right, just out of reach of the outgoing tide, was a giant lying on the beach.
I could only begin to grasp the enormity of this creature in reference to the many people standing near it on the sand. The cars parked haphazardly along the strained highway shoulder suddenly entered my awareness. I saw the people everywhere, crossing the road with expressions spanning the spectrums of confusion and horror, awe and intrigue. In moments, I joined this audience and slowly approached the leviathan resting dead on the shore. I was unprepared for what awaited me. Some experiences cannot be shared, no matter what attempts may be made to do so. Until one witnesses the vast expanses of the Grand Canyon with one’s own eyes, it cannot truly be understood in any appreciable sense. Similarly, until one stands before a blue whale, The Giant of giants, its magnificence cannot truly be grasped. To imagine that this creature before me was once alive, that there are more of them still living, was to push the limits of my perception of life. So many questions sped through my mind about the story of this being, about the possibility of such a story existing, and about the eventual death of this largest beast to have ever roamed the earth.
I sat on the beach for some time, staring at the beached blue whale and losing myself in a wave of inquiry. A man approached me and asked if he could sit. Together, we watched a most unusual sight of people flocking from their cars to take a picture of themselves standing near a giant mass of odorous flesh. Under any other circumstance, such a smell would drive most people as far away as possible, not the exact opposite, as we were witnessing. Without breaking his glance and in a tone usually reserved for confessional booths, the stranger sitting next to me said, “I’m not sure why, but I feel this horrible empathy for it. It’s probably just a mammal-to-mammal thing, ya know. Still, I can’t help but feel guilty. What have we done?”
His statement and question hit me deep in the gut. What had we done? Was this our fault? I couldn’t deny that I felt an unusual guilt staring at the creature before me. I also felt a sorrow so deep that it defied any rational explanation. Mammal-to-mammal empathy? I’ve seen many dead mammals lying on the side of the road and no one stops to look at them, if they even happen to notice. Sure, a dead raccoon or deer may be commonplace in the city, and a blue whale hasn’t been seen on the Oregon shores in over a hundred years, but there seemed to be something more here. There was an empathy. I felt it, too.
Seeing such a being in the flesh stirred an emotional well that somehow felt ancient; so ancient it was almost alien. I could not grasp where it came from or why it was there, but I felt so horribly sad and guilty and sorry that this being was dead. What have we done?
The stranger eventually disappeared into the crowd of people and cars, as I eventually would too. Locals later informed me that the skeleton of the whale of would be preserved and displayed in a museum. On my way home several days later, I saw this process in progress, as the skin and blubber had been filleted off the sides of the whale’s body to speed the decomposition process. I wondered if this skeletal display would have the same effect upon viewers as the sight of the creature with its flesh intact, rotting on the beach. Unlikely.
At the onset of this journey, I left the warmth of my little home to find a sense of peace and connection by venturing into the brisk expanses of Oregon’s wilds. During a moment of deep felt gratitude for the aliveness of this world, I was blasted with the truth of Death. In sitting with the sorrow that a Giant of the Sea evoked, I discovered a well of compassion that I didn’t know existed. I thought I was going to find the usual sense of excitement and adventure. I thought I would be filled with happiness and love for the outdoors. But I was surprised by the unknown that nature delivered. What I found was more nourishing than anything I could have predicted. It put me back in touch with myself, with the dark truths that I was avoiding.
In that moment, I was so grateful to be feeling sorrow, for what other emotion would be more appropriate?
When I arrived back home in Central Oregon, I tried to share my experience with family and friends. Yet, I noticed each time I told the story I felt a pang of uneasiness, as if I had robbed the truth of the experience by trying to explain the fullness of its impact upon me. How can you explain the awe of the Ocean to someone who has never been there? The excitement of your first snow to the uninitiated? In trying to do it, you must crystallize the raw power of your experience into mundane words that are wholly inadequate for the job. It ends up sounding and feeling different that you remember. Soon, the magic of the memory fades. This is the moment when seeking the unknown becomes a calling we can no longer ignore, because we crave the power of being surprised. Nature awaits us once again and we venture into the wilds to find our calling, whatever it may be. This time however, you are different because you have changed since your last journey into the unknown. You carry with you more information and depth, and are thus capable of receiving even greater gifts.
So, I implore you to seek out your own mystery in the outdoors. Venture into the snow and listen to the profound silence that so rarely accompanies us in our lives. Explore the rivers and waterways to find what surprises are there. Enter your excursions with an open mind, even if you have a particular intent for being outside. What you will find cannot be imagined, but your stories will inspire others to seek the same wildness. And then, maybe then, we can welcome the unending mysterious flow of life as it comes moment to moment from a place of fearlessness and gratitude.
Thank you for joining me on this journey to the ocean,
P. S. The next opportunity for children to join us in an adventure into the unpredictable wilds will be Winter Break Camp December 28th – 31st. Hope to see you soon!