What were you taught about nature and her ways?
The first messages I received about the wildness of the natural world were diametrically opposed. My mother taught me that nature is splendid when controlled in a garden or observed from the boxy windows of the house or vehicle. She would have made a fine Victorian lady. My father taught me that the wild is the only place where one can truly escape the pain and sorrow of life, and that anything one might possibly need is there. He would have made a fine pioneer.
If I believed my mother, then nature was a frightening and unpredictable place where all sorts of horrible tragedies might befall me. If I believed my father, it was paradise and my salvation from too much civilization.
I wish my father had taken the time to teach me all of his practical outdoor skills, but there were obstacles. I was bookish, dreamy, a bit awkward, and I was not a boy. Even if he had maintained the patience to teach wilderness survival to a little girl who didn’t like baiting a fishhook, it’s unlikely that my mother would have allowed such expeditions. Death had taken her first daughter, and she worried, constantly, that he was stalking her second.
I lived much of my childhood through my dead sister’s shadow, trying to find some middle ground between gaining my independence and not increasing my mother’s anxiety. A fearful, depressed, and controlling mother was too hard to bear in the end, so independence ultimately won. I left home at 18 and only told my mother what I thought she was able to handle about my life, which was mostly the acceptable highlight reel.
Relying on field guides and advice from seasoned hikers to fill in the gaps in my outdoor knowledge bank, I certainly didn’t tell her when I backpacked on a portion of the Appalachian Trail for the first time or any time that I went out into the woods with the barest essentials. I couldn’t explain the benefits of hiking and camping to someone who said, “I will not sleep on the ground when I have a perfectly good bed at home.”
But there are waterfalls that can only been reached by traveling miles into the forest on foot. There are wide vistas that can only be enjoyed by climbing, step by aching step, to the top of the mountain. There are meadows full of wildflowers and gurgling creeks and the simple comfort of a fire at night under a canopy of bright stars.
We spoke completely different languages, she and I. She craved walls and security. I craved fresh air and whatever is around the next bend.
I reserved my nature-loving conversations for my father, who understood the peace of wild things and that my soul was being hurt by too much domestication from suburban living. The outer trappings of my life looked like progress. Degrees. Job. Paycheck. Retirement fund. House. Car. Boxes all checked, but there was less and less time and energy to be outside exploring. Weekends were taken up with maintaining the lawn and the house and running errands. Then it was Monday again, and I would try to push away the feeling that my life had been stripped of all meaning and purpose. It wasn’t supposed to feel like this. I took no pleasure in any of my accomplishments. What had I won? A concrete jungle? I didn’t want it. I wanted a forest. I wanted to wake up and see trees all around me, instead of the neighbor’s back porch, the rows of privacy fences, and the asphalt leading to places I did not wish to go. Even the local nature trails had become too familiar, predictable, and heavily occupied by joggers and cyclists.
My own search for a connection or reconnection to the earth was really a search for self and identity. How a woman feels about the earth reflects how she feels about herself. Either she embraces all that is wild, unapologetic, fierce, and untamed within her, or she lives in denial and represses her natural instincts. Either she accepts that the feminine is both nurturer and destroyer, or she feels that a part of herself remains caged as she struggles to fulfill the impossible cultural expectation of flawless motherhood and domesticity. It is still shocking to some that the Goddess has teeth and claws.
Such profound realizations often occur on the cusp of the final transformation. Nearing the end of her life and unable to walk, my mother actually loved seeing photos of my hiking trips. Faced with her own mortality, she became keenly aware of all the places she would never go in this life and all that she would never see or experience. She said that my photos made her feel like she was out there with me on the trail, seeing the world through my eyes. I brought her the wild, and at last, she understood this sacred, primordial part of me and of herself and of all women.
“Go,” she told me. “Let your hiking boots take you every place that calls to you, and I’ll be with you every step.”
And she is. I feel her, and I feel the Great Mother surrounding me every time I leave the known for the unknown, the safe for the precarious, the tame for the untouched and irrepressible wildness of the world.