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On the Holiness of Nature and a Week in the Wild Part 1
When my husband and I moved to Colorado, we eventually stopped attending church. It was a combination of many things that began with failed local connections, followed by the pandemic, which inevitably launched us deep into introspection and spiritual “self-clarification”.1
For the first time in our lives, we lived within view of mountains, the kind of mountains so high they make breathing laborious. When our city was in lock down (including most churches), we took to the nearby forest, cresting the front range in our new-to-us Subaru into the interior where temperatures drop quickly and summer storms appear in mere minutes. We’d attempt new trails, straining lungs while winding our way up sun-soaked paths towards frigid alpine lakes. The forest became our sanctuary, the labored breaths became our prayers, the gasps of awe, the lack of words became silent liturgies.
We’d known spiritual neglect, pandemic-induced isolation. Belonging was fraught with the heaviness of a future:unknown. But the forest welcomed, the mountains soothed, the summer waterfalls soaked sore limbs and limp souls. In nature, we felt restored.
If God is not here in the woods, the meadows, the mountain lakes, and winding trails, then I don’t know how to find God. There’s a reason, I think, that countless ancient stories of spiritual revelation and divine encounters often happened in the wilderness, beyond man-made walls and well-worn pews.
In nature, we come as we are, travel-weary, vocabularily-limited, emotionally complex. When we sink into the ground, we become one with old, old earth, return to the dust of initial formation. Every blade of grass our fingers graze contains millions of cells, every insect that flutters by possesses complicated circulatory systems, every tree root and single mushroom cap is a sign of subterranean infrastructure and communication. Nature is miraculous. Nature is holy.
Last week, I traveled with my dear friend(author of The Lord is My Courage and The Book of Common Courage) from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and the mighty Redwood National and State Parks of Northern California. For K.J., this was the start of a “pilgrimage into [her] past” to return to significant sites from childhood and “forage” for the goodness that existed and remains. For me, it was a first encounter with these sacred places, these “ambassadors from another time” (as John Steinback called the redwoods2). Since moving to San Diego, we’ve settled again into city life, this time a bit more removed from mountains than we were in Denver (though we can still see low peaks on the horizon, and the city is beautifully hilly). I have missed easy access to a nearby forest, short drives to pine-shadowed trails and snow-fed falls.
We arrived at Crater Lake an hour before sunset as the sky transformed to early evening pastels and the temperatures dipped to wintery levels. Deep snow still lined the road, increasing in depth with every switchback we rounded towards the lake’s basin. This lake is the result of the violent and powerful eruption of the 12,000 foot Mount Mazama nearly 8,000 years ago. The volcanic collapse formed a deep crater, which filled with frigid water and snow-melt, and remains a sacred place to the Klamath Tribe of the region. For centuries, Crater Lake has been a site for vision quests and supernatural encounters. I spent much of my life hiking trails, visiting natural places without knowing their stories, or paying homage to their histories. I spent much of my life limiting the sacred to manmade infrastructure, spiritual encounters to prayer closets. It is a gift to step foot onto ancient, preserved soil and revere the land, consider how the supernatural can manifest in lakes and canyon walls. God is not relegated to fellowship halls and Sunday School.
We parked the car as soon as the trees opened up to a heart-stopping view of a caldera filled with luminescent water reflecting twilight’s psychedelic symphony. We threw on hiking boots as quickly as we could lace them and scurried up a steep snow bank to behold a sunset too profound for words. It felt like time stood still and the setting sun lingered; allowing the last rays of fading light to transcend every cell, fill our bodies like the water fills the basin. We stood in a place where indigenous seekers traversed to encounter the holy, the other-wordly. But even without plunging near 2,000 foot depths or straddling dangerous rock ledges, we knew we stood on holy ground. If not for the deep snow and biting wind, I would have shirked off my boots. We sat tearfully as sun-soaked clouds transformed from fuchsia to creamsicle to violet over the seemingly untouched landscape. “This is holier than any church I’ve ever been to,” I said to K.J.
That night we made mac and cheese by lamplight, tossed in far too much butter, added Trader Joe’s elote dip for extra flavor, sipped boxed wine, and journaled until our eyes grew heavy. We returned the next day to witness the place in daylight, and walk around her rim until an early summer storm began gathering across the lake. We sat on the rim sipping extra large beers we’d purchased at a gas station and chilled in a snowbank and journaled some more. Below is an excerpt:
Blue. That’s the first word that enters the mind when standing on the rim of Crater Lake—America’s deepest, bluest lake (plunging nearly 2,000 feet into the bowels of the earth). We know water isn’t really blue, rather it reflects the light from its surroundings. Crater Lake is so deep, it absorbs the light to reflect the sky and landscape so perfectly it's difficult to differentiate reflection from the real thing. But who's to say a reflection isn’t the real thing anyway?
I’ve been living for two months now by the coast, already so accustomed to stormy horizons and angry, crashing waves. But here, the water is so placid (at least from our vantage point) it almost doesn’t look like water at all. From the height of this crater, I see no ripples, just varying shades of blue from turquoise to cerulean to deep navy. Water fills this cavern, taking on the shape of a several thousand year old caldera. This land is sacred and I hope I can honor its story by revering this scene, breathing in the pine, meditating on her supernatural waters…
There’s a storm gently gathering on the other side of the lake. I say gently because there’s still barely any wind, only subtle rolls of thunder. And still, the water is calm though KJ and I both feel the pull of emotions welling up like a spring. We are both thinking about our radically different childhoods—the good, the bad, the forgotten.
There is so much more to share about this week in the wild. Next week, I’ll share part II about the mighty Redwoods and the ethereal, fog-shrouded Northern California coastline. It’ll be a bit more of a vulnerable post and available to paid subscribers (you can upgrade your subscription at anytime and still enjoy 25% off for 47 more days here).
K.J. recently reflected on the trip and her words, as always, are stunningly brilliant + beautiful. You can read and subscribe here.
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Self-clarification is a term Abraham Heschel uses in his book God in Search of Man for clarifying and deconstructing beliefs, a practice he says should be ongoing and lifelong.
I’m always tempted to capitalize the r in redwood every time I type the word because their magnificence and grandeur warrants proper noun status (in my opinion). This doesn’t really deserve a footnote at all but it was one my mind, so here it is.