Wilderness Homecomings – part 1, The upside down nature of things.

This fall, I was invited by Oasis, a local-to-me contemplative prayer and spiritual companioning community, to share some reflections from my recent experience in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

This post and the 3 that follow are from that series, originally published by Oasis. You can read more from their exquisite series of Prayernotes here.

Wildnerness Homegoings, Introduction to the Series

Each year, spring and fall, (and increasingly, also, summer and winter) I take what I have come to realize are spiritual pilgrimages, north to the canoe country of Ontario. There in the spaciousness of water and sky, in the intimacy of flora and fauna, in the freedom of wilderness and the solitude of nature, I experience a deep sense of homecoming.   In that place, where the boundaries are blurred between water and sky, between myself and the other, where even the definitions of journey and destination are unclear (are we travelling from body of water to body of water across the land, or from island to island across the water?), I lose my self-consciousness, I lose myself in presence and in Love, and experience a simpler, inconspicuous and transcendent, belonging.  

This year, we were not to be permitted across the Canadian border. A deep sense of loss filled me, yet I struggled with the decision to simply supplant yet another ‘experience’. It felt forced at best, and like an unwillingness to face/be with my emptiness at worst. But after a few false starts and changes of plans, we finally took the plunge and headed north for most of the month of September. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota, 2,000,000 acres of glacier carved lakes surrounded by the trees of the “North Woods’, we immersed ourselves in a rhythm of days of paddling, portaging, hauling water and gathering wood, fire building, pitching and striking camp, and the rhythm of the season, attuning our bodies to the earth’s risings and fallings, her ripenings and decay.

These posts are just a few samplings of our days spent (quite literally) quenching our thirst from her waters

Wilderness Homegoings, Part 1 -The Upside Down Nature of things. 


.I awaken with the sun, its rising causing the dome of nylon between myself and the sky to glow, informing me that it will soon be cresting the ridgeline of birch, cedar, and spruce. I want to be with it, to witness the subtle unfolding of dawn, so I too arise, unzipping my side of the 5×7 tent as quietly as I can so as not to awaken my partner, who is fairly exhausted after yesterday’s miles of paddling and portaging. I wish to let him rest, yes, but also to savor these moments of solitude.  

The coffee, made last evening over the fire, is tucked inside the thermos, tucked inside the cozy, tucked into the corner of the tent next to my head. I hope it is warm enough that I may not have to busy myself with a fire right away, though my nose – an accurate thermometer I have come to trust through these years of canoe tripping – tells me the temps dipped below 30 degrees overnight, and that fire might be welcome. Still, I long to be still. So it will be warm enough.  

It doesn’t take many days at all for my body to sync itself with these cycles,  for the earth within me to turn towards the sun each morning and fall away from it each evening, my weary bones falling into the tent most nights shortly after sunset. (though we did make a point of staying up until after 9 a few evenings ago, to lay back on the granite point and drink in the stars, the milky way arching grace-fully from horizon to horizon over the smallness of our bodies, clinging upside down to this rock we call Earth, hurtling through space ) I ponder that word, ‘sync’, how it has come to refer to all things technological – calendars, emails, computers—divorced from the body, as I have come to experience the feeling of being in sync with her cycles out here.  

As I sip the warm-enough coffee, burrowing into my down sweater and wool cap, the water before me reflecting the morning stillness for which I have longed, the word luxurious fills my belly.  Again, I am reminded of the way the world outside is turned upside down in here. That it feels like a luxury to have carried the canoe and a 40 pound pack over 10 miles of rocky and rugged portage trails and 30 miles of water, in order to sleep on the ground in this frosty place, seems quite apparently preposterous. Yet, I know it is a luxury few experience, to be able to come here like this, to be given the gift of re-membering what human belonging with the wild earth feels like, what quiet like this sounds like, what complete darkness looks like. Even my sense of smell reawakens out here, as the rising sun elicits the scent of ripening autumn from the tawny bracken at my feet. 

As I sip, a beaver swims by. She is up late this morning, so busy this time of year, preparing for the fast approaching winter, when her lodge will be marooned in the ice. She knows this is the time to drag fresh limbs down to the lake bottom, where she will impale them into the mud so as to adequately nourish herself and her family from those stores in the coming months. I know that I too am doing the same. These annual autumn pilgrimages sustain me in much the same way as I return to the oft cold ‘real’ world, out there. 

Again, the upside down nature of reality strikes me. What is ‘real’–this wild place or the ‘civilized’ one outside its boundary? And what does it mean to be fully human? Is it the way I am here with simple, undivided presence, my mind and my body in one place, paying attention, with no anxiety about yesterday’s mistakes or tomorrow’s expectations?  Simply being – carrying only what I can on my back, nothing more – content to be a part of something much bigger than me, one of many beings, One with them.  

There seems to be no hierarchy here– interrelationship yes—but inflated self-importance, no. Humility here is simply incarnate. I hope to carry this re-membrance back home with me, where my conditioned co-dependent ego can too quickly inflate (deflate?) my presence to something more akin to duty, and I tend to carry more on my back than is necessary.  But of course, even here there is still longing—longing for more, or longing for connection, or both. We heard that in the bellows and lowing of the moose throughout the night 2 nights ago.  

I’ve come to understand through the years of these trips, that the ancients, who first attempted to codify techniques for prayer and meditation, were merely trying to recapture the intuited remembrance of what it was to simply be fully present in such a way as this, no part of one’s mind somewhere else, to simply Be, a part of Something Bigger—of earth, and water, and sky.  Before, perhaps, our heads grew too big for our bodies.  

I hear the zip of the tent behind me. Time to scoop a pail from the water’s edge, move to the circle of stones, lay some twigs —the sun laid into the cells of those twigs bequeathing its fire once again—and tend to Love. Together we will take in the day’s nourishment.  

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