A few years ago, I started the Shared Paths project, visiting places that inspired some of the world’s influential naturalists and environmentalists. The idea came out of my own connection to a particular wild landscape in Montana, a Place that became integral to who I am.
A Place: a physical, geographic muse that inspires ideas, emotions, thought, and wonder, threading into the interstices of your being. The landscape I know as a Place reaches north-south along the edge of Yellowstone Park in southern Montana. The country is rugged and relatively wild, slopes rising from lower drainages, building into ridges and mountains, like paths to the sky. When I walk that high terrain, it feels as if earth and heaven touch feet and head in a simultaneous connection with the immediate material reality and with something beyond all things. That Place is where I walked as a youth. That is where I walked into a heightened awareness, an empathy growing out of an extended sense of belonging: connection to Place shaped my worldview.
In my readings, I came to see how my experience reflected that of other naturalists, realizing that a deep connection with the natural world derived from a sense of Place fosters a compassionate and empathetic way of living, a desire to contribute towards a just and caring world. I came to think of this as the Ecology of Peace.
A question arose: how is it that connection to Place leads one down this path? What did others experience on this journey? It seemed a vague quest, but it pulled and tugged and eventually I set out to explore those landscapes that inspired naturalists and environmentalists; what I came to call the Shared Paths project began, the name based on the idea that by spending time in someone’s influential landscape, I could share a bit of the person’s experience and learn from their thoughts. The focus of the project is not on the person, but on their relationship with the natural world, and how that connection has shaped their life philosophy.
I set out on the journeys, ten nights each, wild camping solo in the backcountry. The first was in 2016, in the arctic-alpine of Norway, at the base of Hallingskarvet mountain, the place that inspired Arne Naess. Naess was the force behind the Deep Ecology movement, a man who cared deeply about “free nature” and human society as well. For eleven days I immersed in the place Naess called Tvergastein, exploring his deep ecology philosophy and the idea of “beautiful action” in regard to the earth: an inclination to care for the planet beyond moral or ethical demands. This was a life changing journey, a time of beauty and challenge. The journey inspired a book manuscript: The Bare Mountain
Next I plunged into the depths of Canyonland National Park, walking in the arid canyons that inspired the radical environmentalist Ed Abbey. Honestly though, I often turned to Mary Austin, another naturalist who found her muse in the desert. She provided a nice balance to Ed, a man who I found rather abrasive and not thoroughly likeable, with his drinking and womanizing. In the end, the Canyonlands trip became a reflection on “Where Ed meets Arne” – two men who came at the same ideas from different directions. That is a complexity I’m still unraveling.
My third journey was into Cairngorm National Park, Scotland, sharing paths with Nan Shepherd. Nan didn’t fit into the category of “highly influential” naturalists, as most people outside of Scotland have never heard of her, and much of her work and writing wasn’t focused on nature. But Nan’s intimate connection with the mountain landscape is truly inspirational. There in the Cairngorms, Nan spoke to me in ways that made me think about my own connection to a wild place. Based on this trip, my book in progress, Only the Mountain, explores a sense of belonging to a place, and how that sense of belonging can expand into something that … well, that takes a book to explain. The narrative weaves together my sense of belonging to a Montana landscape, my growing relationship to Scotland’s Highland landscape, and Nan’s connection to the Cairngorm mountains.
In April 2018, I traveled to the southwest deserts of the US, the arid lands that inspired Joseph Krutch, philosopher, naturalist, deep thinker. The Sonoran Desert was Krutch muse, and I spent several days outside of Tucson, walking the saguaro-studded hills and venturing to the Univ. of Arizona archives to see Krutch’ manuscripts in progress. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a safe area for a solo trek in that locale, and ended up sharing paths with Krutch in the Grand Canyon, a desert region he wrote of in his book: “ “. Krutch was a complex man, and I hope to more deeply explore his writing and thoughts in the future.
In a two part journey, I shared paths with John Muir in the summer of 2019. By luck, I had the opportunity to follow Muir’s Alaskan travels while working with Lindblad-National Geographic tours. The journey continued with a ten-night backpack in Yosemite, Muir’s words at hand.
To walk in the path of someone who was deeply connected to the particular landscape underfoot has the feel of a Zen koan: a wise person speaks to me of the surrounds, puts forth a riddle of truth while I immerse in their unfamiliar place that is somehow familiar through features of earth, plant, animal. I am compelled to contemplate, pushed, pulled, till thought dissolves into deeper understanding. Environmental philosopher Arne Naess opened numerous questions with his statement, “The smaller we come to feel ourselves compared with the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness.” What is this, to participate in the mountain? In its greatness? What do those words mean? While immersed in Utah’s Canyonlands, cantankerous, unlikeable Ed Abbey forced me to consider “the old true world of the deserts, the mountains the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains.” I pause, listen. What is this Old True World? Till I write in my journal, The Old True World: the clarity, the beauty, the complex simplicity, the simple complexity, the life, the unbounded space and time of the ancient Old True World returns me to peace. And so it goes, each time I venture out, and so I stretch, reflect, and learn.
More journeys are planned, some cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but I will venture out as soon as possible. Inspirational landscapes, inspirational people – there’s no turning back now.