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The Mountain Of Truth

November 12, 2012

Backpacking, Outdoors, Wilderness

Cannery Row

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

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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18 Comments on “The Mountain Of Truth”

  1. Childress John R. Says:

    Every time I go wilderness fishing in Alaska I better understand the lessons from Nature and try to take them back with me to civilization. Most are, like the flatworm, too fragile to survive in our speeded up world. thanks for the post.

    Reply

  2. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thank you. That’s well put. That’s why we all need to go back there more often:)

    Reply

  3. A Gripping Life Says:

    I love this post, Malcolm. I think we’re starting to see the effects of nature deprivation on humanity. As a therapist, I often wonder how individuals with different psychological disorders would fare with a big healthy dose of nature.
    Personally, if I could choose the ideal setting for myself, I would choose a location that would keep me connected with nature. I always feel better mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually when I spend time outside, in the garden, at the ocean, or walking through the marshland here in the suburbs of Illinois.
    I do think that Carl Jung’s idea of “Sacred Space” has great value. Transformation is possible when we are isolated in nature/wilderness. There’s a rhythm and a continuity that speaks to our soul. It’s very healing — the same way allowing animals to visit the elderly or those in hospices helps to soothe the souls of those suffering.

    Reply

  4. campfirememories Says:

    Thank you for this documented insight. You have nailed in a few paragraphs what took me an entire novel to impart! When grouping memories for my novel, I realized a spiritual transformation by nature was the climax and Lake Michigan was my “Sacred Space”, though I did not know this term until now. I used “a large space” as described in Psalm 18. It’s always a thrill to find others who ‘get it’, especially when they write about it, and even more so when they write so eloquently. Thank you.

    My son-in-law is the wilderness coodinator for a boarding school in the NorthWest for troubled kids. Many are transformed by the experience and some do come off their meds. His career path and the stories I’ve heard from promoting a book about camp have led me to become an advocate for children experiencing nature. I’ll be sharing your post with many people. Again, thanks. You said it very well!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nancy, thank you for these kind words. That’s praise indeed from the accomplished author of Memory Lake! It’s interesting to hear about the positive results of wilderness interactions in the boarding school you mentioned. Like you I’m a great advocate for children experiencing nature.

      Reply

  5. Michael Denny Says:

    Malcolm….thank you for a most informative and enjoyable post.

    Reply

  6. Richard Friesen Says:

    Malcolm, great quote! I will be adding it to my trading course and, with permission, substitute “trading” for “wilderness.”

    “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.”

    My experience with the current culture is that we are trying to soften the feedback loops as a “good thing.” This builds greater opportunities for the “black swans.” See Nassim Taleb’s article in this weekends WSJ.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324735104578120953311383448.html?KEYWORDS=taleb

    Rich

    Reply

  7. Mish Says:

    Hi Malcolm. Thanks for a great and inspiring post. I will start reading again. I remember when I was in college there were a lot of depressed people. I used to say that the cure was to walk the Appalachian trail. Since then I forgot the cure myself. There is one, and that is to watch a Kurosawa movie called Dersu Usala which is a portrait of man and nature. Dersu is in such complete harmony with nature that he dies when forced to return to civilized life.

    Reply

  8. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Mish, thank you this comment. Dersu Usal is definitely a Kurosawa masterpiece that is very relevant to this post and I appreciate you reminding me of it.

    Reply

  9. John (Zoli) Varady Says:

    Excellent post, Malcolm! Rickett’s has long been one of my heroes. His effect on both Steinbeck and Campbell as a (the) conduit of Robinson Jeffers’ thought was profound as scholars have recently elucidated in considerable detail. Eric Tamm’s biography of Ricketts “Beyond the Outer Shores” is superb. It recounts the story of Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, bursting into the room waving a copy of “Roan Stallion” as they were discussing ‘life’ and saying, “Forget it fellows, that guy over the hill in Carmel [Jeffers] has scooped you.”

    Jeffers position as the High Priest of deep ecology and one of Pantheism’s greatest voices is once again secure. For more info on him see: http://www.robinsonjeffersassociation.org/ or better yet, come see his house and the 40′ stone tower built with his own hands. http://www.torhouse.org/

    “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet, there are yet the mountains.”

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Zoli, I am so grateful to you for this post. I am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing about Robinson Jeffers until your email a few days ago and it is truly fascinating to learn that Ricketts also influenced this great poet, albeit indirectly. I already feel that Jeffers is a soul mate in so far as he worshipped everything wild and beautiful and I have added Eric Tamm’s biography of Ricketts to my reading list. I will also try to arrange a visit to Tor House one day with the family when you are a docent there.

      Reply

  10. Kavita Joshi Says:

    good one…thanks for sharing and for visiting my post

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. I can see from your blog that nature plays a large part in your life too.

      Reply

    • John (Zoli) Varady Says:

      Didn’t I mention earlier Eric Tamm’s wonderful biography of Ricketts “Beyond the Outer Shore?” Should have. Ricketts is indeed a fascinating character, good friend of Steinbeck and scientist who was much ahead of his time.

      Reply

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