The Wilderness Calls

A good friend undertakes what he calls his annual pilgrimage – a trip to The Grand Canyon – with hardly anything with him. He usually takes a backpack, some instant foods, a water filter, perhaps a change of clothing, and sets out on his week-long sojourn into the canyon.  For a week or so, there will be total silence from him – no phone calls, no texts, no human contact including with his own family. He hikes all day, and at dusk, pitches his tent wherever he happens to be at the moment.

My friend, an atheist, says this is his spiritual time of the year…….a time to wrap himself in the stillness and cease all thought. A time to just live each moment exploring the woods, and listening to nature sounds. The food he carries and the primitive cooking equipment are all he needs during this time of quiet reflection.

He has been doing this for many years now. He knows how to expertly tie his food bag in a tree above and away from  his tent, to be safe from bears and other wildlife coming in search of food. Apparently once he even cooked Pongal for some hikers from different nationalities, and they all relished it.

“I don’t need much, and I wake up to the best views!”, he says.

***

I am filled with admiration for people like this. They are able to survive on very little, and as a reward they get a star-studded sky for a roof, the rustling breezes to cool and comfort them, and the quiet refuge of deep woods. It reminds me of an old Tamil song which, loosely translated goes like this:

“The world exists for me, the flowing rivers flow for me; flowers bloom for my visual delight, and Mother Earth generously gives me her lap to sleep on

The moon rises above glowing like gold, I have a star-studded canopy at night for a roof; and my kingdom on Earth has beautiful birds who fill my silences with songs”

Really, one needs very little to feel like they own everything. Just go to the woods and see! As long as plant life heavily outnumbers animal life, we are safe. The tall trees will tower over us, silent as sages, sheltering bird life and animal life, and and quietly giving us clean air to breathe.

Every time I see an old tree, I silently pray that it will survive the human greed to “own” everything by destroying it. There are those who take pride in owning many holiday homes. Their thought seems to go like this: Do I like a place? Yes. Is it quiet and beautiful? Yes. Very well, let me clear a tract of land cutting down all the trees that grow there, and build myself a mansion to come to…….What, for a few days each year? Was the destruction worth it, simply so that you needn’t rent a hotel room for those few days? What about the hassle and expense of maintaining this “investment” property, hiring a guard to safeguard it, making sure it has electricity and running water all year round? It is far easier to save the money, and use it to travel to many places – we are but temporary residents of the Earth, and there is so much to see!

Take what you need from the Earth, and leave the Earth pristine for posterity. A person needs but one house to live in. Where will we grow crops, if forests and farmlands get re-purposed into housing plots?

Reminds me of an old Native American proverb: When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money!

***

A few months ago, during a hike with a group, we came across a stream, surrounded by small wooded hills; given the uneven terrain, the stream had some small rapids. In the middle of the stream was a rock – and near this rock, almost blending into the background was a person deep in meditation. There was a dog wandering nearby, perhaps the meditator’s companion. The sun was streaming through the trees, and there were a few dragonflies. A water snake glided into the stream – blink and you will miss it. We stood there watching for a few minutes, awed by our surroundings. Just nature at work, and total silence.

The woods teaches one to still their thoughts, and simply observe. Sit quietly and you may observe the Eagle’s nest high above ground, with a few young ones in it. Still your thoughts, and what felt like silence will suddenly teem with the chirping of crickets, and the occasional cry of a kite.

What a contrast from the world we have created around us – with highways, traffic, malls with clearance sales, houses filled with gadgets and many unnecessary things…… The Matrix, as a friend and fellow blogger called it. We are all plugged into it, creating more and more cogs in the wheel with their hands and feet embedded deeply in the Matrix.

Perhaps there is a different way to live, a better and more natural way…..Yet many of us are afraid to leave the world we know behind, to see if there is something we are missing. We maybe missing the forest for the trees….literally! Even the holiday-home builders who want to get away from The Matrix, are so ensconced in it that they try to recreate that very Matrix in their get-away place!

***

I’ve read here that every woman needs a cornfield – basically a place where she can hide from everyone in her life, so that she gets time and space to breathe. I started out hiking because of this – and found several such “hiding places” where I could temporarily suspend thought and lose myself in the woods. Aside from work stress and deadlines, women, in our roles as kin-keepers and nurturers, can get worn out in care-giving roles and all that such a role entails: biting our tongue – several times!, dealing with the same repetitive behaviors that seem incorrigible and yet need to be tackled with the patience and determination of King Vikram who dealt with Vetal, facing multiple conflicting demands and trying to balance it all…. Speaking of incorrigibility reminds me of the story of Sita, the heroine of The Ramayana.

At the end of The Ramayana, Sita is asked to prove her piety to the world in a trial-by-fire, even though she had done the same years ago. Having endured years of separation from her dear husband, and having raised her twin boys as a single parent in Rishi Valmiki’s hermitage that was her refuge in exile, she is asked to prove her piety again to the world. She is told that this is the price she has to pay in order to resume life with her husband.

Tired of repeatedly having to prove her integrity, Sita prays to Mother Earth to release her from this unending cycle of one’s truth being repeatedly tested and questioned (many stepmothers can relate to this feeling, even though the circumstances are entirely different!). Mother Earth obliges……the ground opens up, Sita steps in and the Earth closes over her. Thus Sita, the daughter of Mother Earth, has returned to her abode….. When Indian women in a fit of frustration say they want the Earth to open up and swallow them whole, this is what they are referring to.

I have an alternate ending for The Ramayana, as I cannot bear to see my favorite heroine vanish in this manner. As a writer who is admittedly nowhere near the stature of a Valmiki, a Kambar, or a Kalidasa, let me take some poetic license and rewrite the last sequence.

Sita is justifiably aghast at having to prove herself over and over to a cruel world that has put her through several trials….. To a world that is far beneath her calibre, that has demanded so much of her, yet gave so little emotionally. She has been kind,  faithful, and patient; yet she, a Goddess is being subjected to repeated trial by fire. The Forest where she was banished to, was witness to all her travails.

When Sita is put to the final test and calls out to Mother Earth in agony, the Forest obliges. The ground shakes violently, and Forest sends seeds scattering all over from its trees…… upon touching the ground, the seeds are blessed by Mother Earth to become Sita’s protectors. They sprout rapidly into trees, becoming Sita’s own forest, enclosing her protectively, away from the eyes of the world that did not deserve a Goddess like Sita. In this protective circle of trees, safe and secure in an unconditionally loving forest, Sita the Goddess lives on. Even now, when a woman at her wit’s end seeks refuge in the woods, Sita hears her prayer and gives her solace. The End.

***

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep!“*

Silence gives healing, and the trees give shelter in more ways than one. Many a weary traveler – in a manner of speaking – finds rest and refuge in these very woods. Beyond a certain point, do you ever wonder if we are simply traveling these miles for no reason? Perhaps the woods are our destination! In Hinduism, the last 25 years of life, assuming a 100-year span – are meant to be spent in the woods, in meditation and piety. Sannyasa Ashrama, where one lives like an ascetic, taking just enough from the Earth to survive, gradually detaching oneself from earthly desires and trappings, and preparing oneself for the final journey, towards the ultimate silence and deepest meditative state……


*From the poem “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening” by Robert Frost

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