2010

4 August: Fear is eye of beholder

Fear is in the eye of the beholder

Lammas or Lughnasadh, the beginning of autumn on the pagan calendar and the harvest in the northern hemisphere, is celebrated this week. West Slope peaches the size of softballs soon will be sitting on farmers’ markets’ tables, while Labor Day weekend, summer’s symbolic end, nears and with it, football, an eye on the sky for our first snowfall, and a respite until ski season to the Sunday afternoon I-70 phenomenon.

In the meantime, the monsoons have arrived, which make topping a 14’er more interesting given the potential for lightning strikes. Two years ago before climbing Mt. Bierstadt with two friends, one thing led to another, so we ended up not beginning the ascent until 7:30, violating a cardinal rule of climbing 14’ers. The climb went fine and the time on the top, since they were from Oregon, was for them even more breathtaking than the trek up the hill.

During the descent, what had started as a picture-perfect day became eventful with a black wall of storm clouds moving ominously and rapidly closer. We began to run, but before we could get to the willows, the skies began flinging hail with ferocity stinging eyes, arms, and legs. Did I mention we had left the rain gear in the car so to travel lightly? Another violation of a cardinal rule.

The rutted trail became first a rivulet then a gushing stream, so sidestepping or leaping over standing or moving water didn’t matter. In short order, instead of running we were sloshing through the flooded trail with squishy toes in water-logged boots. It was exhilarating, at least for me as my friends were both terrified of lightning, so when I proclaimed being completely at the mercy of the storm makes one feel preternaturally alive, Sean yelled, “We’re about to get f*****g killed, and you’re quoting Thoreau!”

“Well,” I laughed, “sooner or later we’re all toast, and if it’s here and now, what an incredible way to go. Besides, all there will be left of you is a charred chunk of coal.”

Being in nature in its rawest helps one to become stripped bare of pretension, self-importance, and self-absorption—“all mean egotism,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson phrases it—and in today’s society, the need for that has never been more urgent.

Being up high to observe lightning flashing below is one of the more profound experiences in nature, the reason the line “I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky” John Denver sings in our state song “Rocky Mountain High” evokes such powerful imagery. But while natural lightning is capricious, indiscriminately striking where, what, and whom it will, bolts thrown by earth’s gods and goddesses are maliciously intentional.

A question I would challenge my students with went this way: Would you rather find yourself walking alone and defenseless down an inner-city dark alley or along a trail through wolf and bear country? It helped them to begin identifying perspectives they held, particularly with regard to where their ultimate fears lie.

Recently, a man was mauled and killed outside of Yellowstone by a mama grizzly that later attacked two other sleeping campers. In a few days, I’ll be heading near there with an old friend for a few days of hiking, fishing—him, not me—and camping.

Given the tragic news, although the bear culprit has been captured, one might wonder why we’re still looking forward to the trip. But then, why not? Threats to life and limb in nature offer are less than what mankind, living outside of nature, presents. Why did the bear attack seemingly unprovoked? The campers’ food was appropriately stored elsewhere. Was she doing her feminine, inscrutable White Whale imitation? I dunno.

In his book Born to Run—more on that in a future column—Christopher McDougall posits the reason we survived as a species is that we can outrun distance-wise any animal because of our ability to pant and sweat, allowing the body to find a continual supply of oxygen and to cool itself. But other than race-day participants, we don’t run anymore. In fact, many living nearest the breast of Mother Nature spend relatively if any real time experiencing her wonders.

It is indeed a “strange, strange world we live in,” but only the world mankind has created—civilization— fails often to make sense. The world outside our door need not make sense because sense and lack of it are human aspects. In the end, it’s not threats posed by real mama grizzlies one should be overly wary of but those posed by fellow human beings dressed in bears’ clothing.

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