One of my favorite fictional characters is “Doc” in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row”. Not many people know that Doc was based on the real-life figure of Ed Ricketts who categorized specimens from tide pools and then sold them to schools and collectors. Ricketts was an interesting personality in his own right. His significance in marine biology can be seen from the fact that twenty species of marine organisms are still named after either him or Steinbeck (rickettsi or steinbecki). Even less well known is the fact that Ricketts’ work on the intricate and complex interactions in tide pools had a significant influence on the work of both Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, and they subsequently incorporated these complex interactions into their own works of fiction and mythology. I was interested to learn this because I have always thought that nature has something to teach us about ourselves, and that if more people could spend time in the wilderness, the world would be a better place.
Civilization enables us to constantly postpone the consequences of our actions, either passing those consequences on to others such as our parents, our community, and future generations of taxpayers, or just delaying them until the ultimate day of reckoning. The wilderness is not like that. The consequences of one’s actions there are felt with shocking immediacy, and there is simply nobody about to pass on the consequences of our forgetfulness, sloth or ineptitude. Of course, this works both ways. In normal life success or failure is often vaguely defined and/or fallibly assessed. As a result it can be an exhilarating experience to actually achieve a physical, concrete success in the wilderness.
Something similar can also be said for mental frailties. If you have a fear of heights, being alone or coming across a big furry animal with large teeth, the wilderness will force you to confront your fears in the most direct manner possible. Civilization, on the other hand, gives us plenty of opportunities to hide our fears. Afraid of heights, just avoid them. Afraid of being alone, join a club or just stay home and connect to other lonely people on the internet. Afraid of predators, just avoid politicians, especially those claiming they want to help you. But here again the wilderness seems to offer us a far greater benefit than just confronting one’s demons.
As the wilderness environment involves all the senses it would not be too surprising if we discovered that it was also a source of holistic healing. Carl Jung believed there were universal ways of organizing and understanding the world which he called archetypes. One such archetype is Sacred Space, a place pervaded by a sense of power and mystery and which is intrinsically difficult to get to. Inherent in the concept of Sacred Space, according to Jung, is the possibility of transformation, which makes change, growth and healing possible. Wilderness is just such a place. Few people can spend an extended period of time in the wilderness without undergoing some form of personal transformation. It’s easy to scoff at talk about ‘mystical nature’, but one of the most compelling things about nature is that it seems to suggest the existence of order and meaning and when the backpacker returns to normal life, among other things, he or she often carries back the thought that life is not quite as chaotic as it once seemed to be.
Similarly, in the real world we are often frustrated by the conflicting demands on our time whereas in the wilderness, what we have to do is exactly what we need to do to survive. This simpler and less conflicted way of life can lead to a profound sense of freedom and satisfaction. Soon our biorhythms revert to a more natural cycle resulting in a more ‘connected’ feeling with nature. Ricketts would have understood this. He appeared to have literally lived his life by the cycles of nature inherent in the tides. We could do worse than make room in our own electronically scheduled lives for a closer connection to nature and its cycles.
“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.” John Steinbeck, Cannery Row