On Oceans and Wilderness – and the GREAT WIDE OPEN

 

A couple of nights ago, I watched the final episode of a multi-part video series I’ve been following on YouTube, called Great Wide Open.

It’s a little bit about sport climbing – featuring interviews with master climbers like Tommy Caldwell, Sasha DiGiulian, Renan Ozturk (who also featured in the excellent Meru documentary that I mentioned a few months ago, and did, I think, a lot of the camera work for this – which is gorgeous!), and Alex Honnold (who I first heard of a while back, when I stumbled upon the video that I eventually linked to in this post – a video which still makes my stomach turn over to watch!!!! He’s a pretty fascinating guy.)

They’re all inspiring people! I have the episode with Sasha DiGiulian bookmarked now, to show to my seven-year-old daughter. What an amazing role model for young girls she is! (For their moms too, honestly!! I don’t have any desire to climb myself, necessarily – but I find it really empowering to watch her.)

It’s also a little bit about preservation: the episode about wolves, particularly – which I liked a lot.* I enjoyed learning a little more about wildlife conservation – and being led, through that, to consider a little more deeply why the parks exist and why they should continue to exist.**

And then there’s the fact that it’s just so beautifully filmed! Yosemite (where much of it is centered) has long been on my list of places-I-need-to-see-in-real-life-someday – but it jumped up several notches after watching this series!

The series is truly worth watching for the visuals alone. Check out the trailer if you need convincing!:

 

 

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I think what I took away from this series most powerfully though was the sense it captured of the transcendent, almost spiritual power inherent in nature and wild places.

I’ve been aware for a long time that I feel this transcendence – this connection to things greater than myself, this rooted-into-the-Earth, but yet free-to-soar feeling – very strongly at the ocean (as I noted at the end of this post); that’s why the ocean is such a powerful place for me and I love it. The elemental power of the waves crashing…the tides moving…the free air…the sunshine…the sky…the clouds. It’s foundational for me in a really potent way.

Wilderness doesn’t affect me in the same way when I’m in it – and I’ve never quite understood why. I can look at images of wilderness from a more detached place (watching a series like Great Wide Open, for example) – and I’m awed by it. I’m drawn to it. But when I have a chance to actually engage, to explore, to immerse in wilderness – it’s unsatisfying. And the ocean is so extraordinarily satisfying! I’ve never understood why there is such a difference for me.

I think I might now, though. I had an insight, watching this series – a flash of clarity that feels pivotal to me.

I’m actually writing this post to explore it a little bit further.

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My insight was this: Exploring a majestic wilderness area like Yosemite is not dissimilar to doing yoga. Both involve embracing the present moment, and expanding on inner levels through physical exertion. I should thus be approaching wilderness exploration the way I approach reaching for my personal edge in a pose.

(It makes sense in my head; bear with me!)

I realized, on pondering, that, while I’ve never consciously made this connection before, I do in fact approach my time at the ocean in a very yoga-ish way. I root into myself at the ocean and I move through space there in a centered and thoughtful way. I test and push at my personal boundaries when I feel moved to do so; it’s both natural and exhilarating to do this there. My senses are deeply engaged at the ocean. My body and mind are very much in sync. My thoughts tend to flow and drift. (I get great insights at the ocean!) And the result is that I almost always come away refreshed and revitalized, in touch with myself in new and deeper ways.

And I realize that I’ve never – not ever – approached wilderness, or myself within wilderness like that. I’ve never felt free enough in wilderness to allow myself to do that. I instead tend to feel out of place and alien, and self-conscious with it – the opposite of centered and thoughtful, basically. I feel inept and awkward, like I don’t belong there.

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And the sad thing is, there’s a part of me that craves wilderness: the vastness of all of that untamed space…the majesty….the beauty…the purity. The trees, the sky, the air. Running water that glistens…cold rock beneath my fingers. The sounds, the smells.

I’ve known this about myself – that I have this craving – for a long time. When I was in high school and college, I in fact used to bounce between two strong urges: for the city (usually embodied in my head by New York City) and for the wilderness (embodied by Montana and Glacier National Park – which I’ve still only ever seen in images.) I used to dream that I had a cool apartment in Manhattan or someplace, surrounded by life and art and energy – and then a big bunch of land in Montana, with the mountains rising up and green grass and flowers spreading out in endless open space. I would go back and forth between the two, I decided. (When I saw the movie, Legends of the Fall, this Montana urge went into hyper-accelerated mode…but I was attracted to Montana even before that.)

As it happens, I never created either the New York life or the Montana one, much less the combo I used to daydream about. But I understand now that it wasn’t so much about those particular places as it was about the vibe of each on my daydreams. A place of vitality and energy and creativity versus a place of openness and raw beauty and wind and flowers and mountains. I want both in my life; I’ve always wanted both. I need both.

And I still need both – and I’m still seeking them. It’s an ongoing journey.

But my point for the purposes of this post is that I somehow, at some point, decided that I wasn’t being “realistic” in my craving for wilderness. I mean, I’m not really very outdoorsy at the heart of it. I didn’t grow up camping and hiking – and so am not very naturally adept or instinctive within that environment. And the few times I dipped my toes into that world of wilderness, I was with people who were really, really into the athleticism of it, not at all the “zen” qualities or the beauty aspects that I’m drawn to. And I was very awkward and uncomfortable within their framework.

What resulted was the feeling, within myself, that I was the problem – because it couldn’t be the people I was with. They were so comfortable and at-ease and sure of themselves in the wilderness! It must be me. I wasn’t used to this environment. It must just not suit me. There was clearly no place for me in it.

Of course, the (fictional) yoga parallel to that experience would be if I, as a beginning yoga student, with an urge to do really meditative, reflective forms of yoga, went into a really active, advanced, Bikram class – where everything was hot and everyone was sweaty, with the guys all in speedos, and the fast-paced poses way above my capabilities. And, through that experience, drew the conclusion that I simply didn’t fit in to yoga – that yoga wasn’t for me, that I had no place in that world, etc.

Wouldn’t that be a shame??! Because the reality is that there are as many different kinds of yoga and reasons to pursue yoga as there are yoga students. Yoga isn’t about other people at all. It’s not even about the act of performing poses…not really. That’s not the heart of it.

Yoga is (for me, at least) about tapping in to myself and my needs and building on that knowledge to grow. In strength, yes – but more importantly, on a personal level.

And wilderness exploration is, I think, the same. That’s the impression the interviews with those climbers left me with. It’s not about physical prowess – not really (as impressive as it is to watch people like Alex Honnold do what they do!) It’s more personal than that.

And that changes – well, pretty much everything for me, regarding the way I feel about venturing out into wild places.

So, that was my flash of clarity, watching Great Wide Open.

*

I’m thinking now that maybe there’s nothing after all superior about the ocean’s power for me. I’m thinking that possibly it’s just that the ocean is – and always has been – an accessible place for me in the way wilderness areas have not been. I’ve allowed the ocean to be this, and I haven’t given wilderness the same chance. I let social discomfort and a lack of self-knowledge (regarding my own needs in that space) slam the door shut.

So that begs the question: what might it be like to consciously cultivate in the wilderness the kind of centered, yoga-like approach I naturally take with me to the ocean? How would that feel? What would I learn? What kind of a difference would/could it make to my ongoing efforts at mindfulness and presence…and, well, everything?

I really want to answer those questions.

I’m curious now! 🙂

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I think I need to get outside and do some exploring!

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*And not just because of my feeling about wolves. I really enjoyed the ranger in this episode. He was really interesting – and so clearly committed to protecting these animals. I like knowing that people like that are there, doing the work they do.

Regarding wolves and things-wolf-related: That dream I had never has lost its potency. I’d like to do something practical at some point with this affinity and interest I feel for wolves now – but I don’t know what, beyond donating money to wildlife organizations. Which isn’t nothing…but I’d like to do something more hands-on.

That’s something I have to figure out.

**Pondering the existence of the parks in a deeper way, as I did through watching this series, made me even more grateful and appreciative of news like this and, most recently, this.

 

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