“There is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
Once again, after a long hiatus due to the complications of modern life, I had the privilege of traveling into nature’s cathedral, unwinding from the relentless demands of daily life, and drifting into the comfort of the forest womb; the embrace with the natural world, far from every routine concern, reminded me of my mother’s embrace–comforting, consoling, warm and loving–and after a time, I began to sense the rise of my battered spirit. As the serenity and stillness of the wilderness area overtook the relentless sense of chaos, and gradually lessened the normal need for the sustained efforts to keep it at bay, the flow of thoughts and waves of expression rose and fell within me, much to my delight. Although it is not without effort, I generally allow the flow to guide me, and willingly follow my natural inclinations to indulge in expressing whatever arises within me without prejudice or conscious inhibition as the surges appear and recede.
“We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does not yet exist distinctly in our idea.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
This recent journey through the woods and mountains has allowed me time to dwell in silence and solitude in what Emerson described as “the plantations of God,” and afforded me both the time and the opportunity to break through to my inner world once again. Of particular note are a number of photographs like those on this page, deliberately composed and refined as illustrations of both my writing efforts and as testimony to the scope and depth of beauty available to the discerning eye. In ways I have not previously attempted, this year I gave some advanced thought to the composition and creation of the images, conjuring in my mind beforehand what might best suggest the thoughts I was recording throughout my stay in the wilderness area, providing me with a more focused attention to specific ideas which I envisioned, based on what I was recording directly from the flow within.
“There is, in fact, a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
There’s something about “what it’s like” to wake up in the deep woods in the Alleghany Mountains that is very much “unlike” waking up in my bedroom at home. Although I generally find myself reasonably content to be waking up at all, there is a unique pleasure that accompanies the early morning hours under the forest canopy in the mountains that has always seemed to lift my spirits and ease the burdens I generally carry in a way that few other experiences seem to accomplish. The subtle sounds of nature and the stillness that permeates the very air you breathe are uncommonly soothing to the human spirit, and, for me, these signals tell me I am far removed from the daily routines of ordinary or everyday life, and that I have crossed over into “wilderness mode.”
It is, of course, not totally wild nor completely isolated from civilization per Se, since I am conducting the morning coffee ritual in a state park in western Maryland near the border of West Virginia, but I am surrounded by a natural forest landscape, complete with a host of forest creatures, abundant trees and plants, and only a few concessions to human comfort in order to allow myself to enjoy both the familiar and the extraordinary aspects of being alive and away from home.
With only a minimal nod to 21st century technology in typing these words on my laptop computer, which lends itself more readily to the constant editing I need to do, and capturing a variety of the moments of the abundant pleasures available to forest visitors with a digital camera, most every other aspect of my day requires a more human type of intervention. Everything I eat is prepared on either a camp stove or propane grill, coffee is brewed in a small percolator pot, and all perishable items are kept in coolers with ice to prevent spoiling.
It’s not Robinson Caruso or Henry Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, but it is sufficiently removed from the everyday world to allow me to focus my attention more easily on my inner experience and to engage in contemplation without the usual barrage of interruptions and distractions. Sitting here sipping my coffee, while I look out into the ocean of trees and greenery that surrounds me, is an ideal way to start any day by my reckoning, and the pervasive near-silence of the natural surroundings feels much more like total silence than any typical everyday experience.
It is particularly noticeable when I set myself to reading or writing by hand, which I still continue to do as the spirit moves me, that I am able to fully lose myself in the task in a way that normally happens only sporadically in my office at home. Removing every normal distraction and simply engaging myself in attending to these activities sometimes makes it seem like I am the only living creature on the planet in those moments. It’s not something I would wish for at length, and I also enjoy commiserating with my fellow camping enthusiasts as the opportunity presents itself, but I must admit that it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the camping experience to disconnect entirely from the rest of humanity for a short time, and to simply commune with my own thoughts and to be with myself, even for just a while
“I took a walk…the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays struggled in to the aisles of wood as into some noble hall.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
Occasionally, when I tell others about my experiences while camping, they seem to want to enumerate all the disadvantages of vacationing in the silence and solitude, not to mention sharing the experience with all the creatures of the natural environment. There are a number of concessions, precautions, and extra steps to maintain a reasonable degree of comfort while participating in life in the woods, but none of them seem especially daunting to me, especially considering the benefits which accompany the experience. Observing a modest regimen of caution and attention to safety and avoiding encounters with unwelcome forest visitors does require some effort and preparation, but having been a camping enthusiast for more than twenty years has given me a fair idea of what to do in this regard. There’s no better way to learn about these issues than to encounter them in the wild, and here are some of the main points to consider in order to mitigate the disadvantages:
1. Write up a checklist and double check all items before you depart – It’s always a good idea to write down the most essential items for camping in the woods, and there’s nothing quite so deflating as arriving at your site missing an important item. Tent campers need a way of putting stakes in the ground without resorting to looking for a rock or other heavy object. You have to bring extra socks and underwear, basic non-perishable food items, complete array of tent components, and a minimal number of kitchen items for preparing food. Keeping the remainder of what you bring along to a minimum will be appreciated when you are preparing to pull up your stakes and head home.
2. Build your campsite as though it will rain every single day – There have been a number of occasions when the camping trip became an endurance run when it rained repeatedly during the trip. Once you have experienced a week of constant rain in the woods without preparation, you will probably never do it again. It is possible to still enjoy such a visit if you prepare in advance. Suspending either a large tarp or several smaller tarps in just the right way over your campsite can divert nearly all the rain away from your tent and provide a moisture free environment for sleeping regardless of how much it rains.
3. Prepare for contingency – There are a number of situations that can develop without much notice when you are sleeping outside in a tent or even in a small camper, and anticipating such events in advance can really save you from a disastrous result when they do occur. Sudden changes in the weather are chief among those which may pose both risks and discomforts while away from home and it has to be a priority to expect these events and prepare for them. Bringing along extra dry clothing in plastic bags or sealed in vacuum packs can save you from even the biggest deluge when it rains. No matter how diligent you might be otherwise in shielding yourself from the weather, having a definite resource of dry clothing available, if needed, can restore your well-being in an instant.
4. Practice putting up and tearing down your equipment before your trip – There’s nothing worse than having to learn how to set up or take down your equipment with a storm approaching or with the sunlight waning at the end of a day of traveling. Setting up a tent is a great deal easier these days with modern tents with shock cords and flexible structure components, but if you should find yourself in a pinch for time or approaching weather, knowing what to do in advance will help a great deal.
If you happen to arrive at your campsite when it’s raining, the best approach is either to wait for the rain to stop before you begin if possible, and if you can’t wait that long for some reason, putting up your tarps over the place where the tent will go first will make it much easier to keep it dry while you build it. Most modern camping equipment is possible to set up with one person, but if you have at least one extra set of hands it can be much faster. Having years of practice has made site construction a breeze in most cases in my experience, and there have been times when I observed other campers struggling to set up alone and offered to assist. To date, I have never been turned down even once.
5. Respect the rules and be considerate of your fellow campers – Each park or campground will have a general set of rules for campers to observe and as long as you don’t ignore them completely, you shouldn’t have much trouble with getting along with the staff or other visitors. Most of the time, the rules for behavior and observing quiet hours are reasonable and fair, and in my experience, only the most blatant offenders have been asked to leave. A brief chat with the park rangers or office staff can give you a good sense of how strictly they enforce such rules, and being polite costs you nothing. Most of the time, people who enjoy camping in the woods are considerate and friendly in the main and thankfully, there have only been a few exceptions of people being inconsiderate over the years. Respecting the privacy and personal space of other campers is a must, and generally, you are more likely to have privacy and to receive invitations to visit with others if you observe this basic rule.
Almost the whole point of camping in the woods, for me at least, is concluding the day sitting by a warm campfire. There’s no other time throughout the day when contemplation and reflection are more easily accomplished, and when I am attending to the fire, I feel a strong sense of connection to something much greater than myself. Caution and common sense are the keys to handling fire in the forest, and most campgrounds have strict limits on how to behave when you have a campfire.
6. Be prepared to extinguish the fire first! — Most of the time you won’t need to put out your fire quickly, but you should be ready to do so if it becomes necessary. Have a bucket or gallon jug of water at the ready nearby, and try to limit the size of the fire to one which won’t pose a challenge to extinguish.
7. Watch for flying embers landing near your tent! — Even a small ember ash landing on the fabric of your tent can be dangerous, not to mention potentially poking a hole in the fabric. Keep all other flammable objects, including your supply of wood, under a tarp or far enough away to avoid this issue.
8. Always use the fire ring or fire pit normally available, and as a last resort, if you are not in a designated camping area, digging a hole a few inches deep surrounded by rocks can provide a basic and safe platform.
“We dream all night of those mountain ridges in the horizon, though they may be vapor only, which were last gilded by (the sun’s) rays…A township where one primitive forest waves above while another primitive forest rots below–such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
—more to come—