Jim and I had broken away from the other eight 15-year olds in our group and from the guide who was leading us on a hike through the Badlands in South Dakota. It was late afternoon. July, 1984.
Geology has always kind of bored me and that is what our guide was discussing, with good reason. The Badlands are a brilliant example of earth’s timeline--all its epochs laid out before one’s eyes. Or, at least I think so. Geology isn’t what I remember from that summer afternoon.
Away from the group, Jim and I walked and talked. About what, I also don’t remember. Maybe music, maybe the girls on the trip, maybe school. Typical 15 year old stuff. We hiked into a box canyon--an area with walls on it’s west, northern, and southern ends and an opening to the east from where we came.
We slowly worked our way up the walls of the canyon, the loose granular earth of the Badlands skittering out under our hiking books as we went. We used our hands as needed, portions of the climb being rather steep though never dangerous. I walked in front, Jim ten feet behind me.
We found ourselves on the western wall as we neared its top, a few hundred feet above the canyon floor.
Here, in 2018, I am reading Anatomy of the Spirit, a book by Carolyn Myss. In her Introduction, the author discusses a mystical micro-second that she experienced. She writes:
I continue to return through my own inner meditations to the feelings or sensations of that one micro-mystical second, and I still draw strength from it. That memory exists as a holy well within me that never runs dry. We all need holy wells that never run dry.
I reached the top of the western wall, my left hand latching onto the rocky edge of it first, and then my right. My feet found new holds and my legs pushed up until my head and then the rest of my torso were up over the edge of the wall looking west.
Jim was ten feet behind me and the next experience was mine alone.
The enormous orange sun blazed at the horizon, half above, half below. The flat and arid landscape stretched out before me, not a human soul in sight. As if cued by the Creator, a lone deer leapt across my field of vision. The setting sun provided the background for her acrobatics as she moved gracefully, alone in that expansive wilderness. Alone, that is, except that she was with
me. And I was with her.
Ten seconds later, Jim reached the top. The deer was gone, or at least no longer leaping. The gorgeous sun was still setting. The moment was of course still extraordinary but only that--extraordinary. The seconds after I reached the top, before Jim arrived, were mystical. Me, the deer, the land, the sun and God--whatever God may be.
That experience is one of my mystical wells. It is written on my soul and, I believe, lays at the foundation of my environmentalism and my other values regarding nature and the creatures with whom we share this planet. It lies at the heart of my desire to be in wilderness whenever I can. And, in the long stretches of not being in the wilderness, the memory of that moment--the thirst-quenching waters of that well--keep me nourished.
We each need wells that won’t run dry. Nature has the potential to offer such experiences to everyone. Young people who lack a connection to the natural world--or worse, harbor a fear of the natural world--become adults with that same lack or same fear. And, while we each may find other wells--in the birth of a child, in the first site of a true love, in a quiet moment in our religious community--without venturing into nature, we miss an enormous opportunity to find a spiritual connection to the place and the creatures to whom we are in fact vitally connected.
We are each inherently and irreversibly physically connected to this planet--breathing its oxygen, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and benefitting in myriad ways from the trillions of interactions of its parts. But our spiritual connection to the earth is not a given. In an economy that devalues nature--valuing lumber over trees, mined riches over intact ecosystems, development over habitat--and in a culture that not-so-subtly teaches a fear of it--from Little Red Riding Hood’s long-ago jaunt into the woods to today’s Naked and Afraid, River Monsters, and other sensationalist “nature” shows--we are taught to disconnect from our home.
It is incumbent upon those of us who have found mystical wells in nature to share those experiences with others and to help them find their own deep connections. For the good not just of the planet and its non-human creatures, but for each child, man, and woman whose soul will be that much more whole for the experience.