Wilderness backpacking is full of surprises. Out in the wilds, the margin between relentless desire and abject terror is sometimes very thin. One night last fall, I lay in a hammock listening to water tumbling over rocks in the Castor River in southern Missouri. I’d camped at a point where the creek plunges through a boulder field of pink rhyolite. These granite rocks are the hardened magma of volcanic explosions a billion and a half years old. I’d tried to cross the water with my pack earlier, but the torrent was running too fast and deep. I had to camp on this side, facing the darker part of the wilderness instead of entering it.
By starlight I watched the silhouette of tall pines atop the ridge on the opposite bank, having crawled into a sleeping bag to ward off the cold. Suddenly I noticed a campfire in the distant trees along the ridge. I hadn’t seen it before and was surprised anyone would be there. Entrance to the river’s conservation area is only feasible from this side of the water. Sixteen hundred acres of uninhabited wilderness extend beyond the horizon. But there it flickered, a light coming through the trees.
Gradually the fire climbed higher into the pines, giving me pause. It was spreading. The whole sky behind the distant trees was glowing, a forest fire apparently making its way up the other side of the ridge. I felt as much awe as fear at the time, being mesmerized by the strange play of light in the trees. But for an instant, as it burst through the treetops, I knew something was terribly wrong, a light flaring out … brighter than fire.
Then it struck me. After a week of overcast nights, I’d forgotten the coming of the full moon. There it was, in all its splendor. I hadn’t witnessed a raging forest fire, much less a numinous apparition. Yet it was both. I sensed what primeval hunters ten thousand years ago might have made of such an event: The soul-gripping mystery of fire breaking into the night.
In Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, her Kenyan house-boy awakens her one night, whispering, “Msabu, I think that you had better get up. I think that God is coming.” He points out the window to a huge grass-fire burning on the distant hills, rising like a towering figure. Intending to quiet his fears, she explains that it’s nothing more than a fire. “It may be so,” he responds, un-persuaded. “But I thought that you had better get up in case it was God coming.” This same possibility is what draws me again and again to backpacking in wild terrain…the prospect that God (that Fire) might be coming in the night.
Wilderness is a feeder of desire. It fosters my longing for unsettling beauty, for a power I cannot control, for a wonder beyond my grasp. In its wild grandeur and quiet simplicity, it attracts me to a mystery I can’t begin to name. Yet I’m compelled to write about what can’t be put into words. What sings in the corners of an Ozark night is beyond my capacity for language. But I can be crazy in love with it…scribbling, in turn, whatever I’m able to mumble about the experience.
“Through fire everything changes,” wrote Gaston Bachelard. “When we want everything to be changed we call on fire.” That’s as true of our relationship to the earth as it is of our connection with God. In our post-Enlightenment, post-modern world, we’ve only just begun to entertain awe and overcome the awkwardness we feel in acknowledging the marvels of the natural world. Rainer Maria Rilke hiked the cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Trieste in northern Italy in 1898, on what’s known today as the Rilke Trail, with its scenic view of the Adriatic coast. He wrote in his diary: “For a long time we walked along next to each other in embarrassment, nature and I. It was as if I were at the side of a being whom I cherished but to whom I dared not say: ‘I love you.’”
But we’re learning how to love again. Part of the “Great Turning” Joanna Macy describes is a growing ecological awareness of our need (and desire) to honor the larger community of life, to restore what Thomas Berry calls the “Great Conversation” between human beings and the earth. Only as we come to reverence mystery and “harness the energies of love,” will we realize—with Teilhard de Chardin—that “for a second time in the history of the world, humans will have discovered fire.”