A Quiet Lie of Nature Writing

That morning, fog had chopped off the tops of the mountains, and then the afternoon rain, spiced with hail, hammered the roof of our house. But near dusk, sun slanted down through the openings between the foothills, and I decided to accept its invitation, following its rays like a path upward. The trail into Gregory Canyon, like most of those in Boulder, Colorado, can sometimes seem take-a-number crowded, but bad weather always clears away the mob and guarantees some return to wildness, and that evening, the fact that the local mountain lions would soon be waking for dinner did the same.

To add more edge to my adventure, I decided to nibble on one of the edibles I had bought the day before at the pot store that had opened across the street from the Justice Center. “I’m sorry, but we even card old people,” said the young man in the anteroom, before admitting me into the inner sanctum of weed. There an equally young sommelier showed me his wares and described their various effects. “Would you like to be in your mind or your body?” he asked. “Body, please,” I said, not adding that I spent too much fucking time in my mind. When I left the store I was the proud owner of a Rookie Cookie, two bags of Chill Pills, and some globby thing that looked like a dollop of cookie dough, whose name I can’t remember.

With a quarter of the Rookie Cookie in my gullet, the dying sun painting the trail in Tolkien hues, and the canyon to myself, you might think I was primed for transcendence. And I kind of was. I stared at three magpies loitering on the trail, and they squawked at me before grudgingly hopping off. A mild trippiness purred through my brain, and I liked the way my legs, trained by a month of biking and hiking, were churning up the trail, marching to their own orders. I even had a little epiphany or two—scribbling down a note about how I wanted to get back to the cave-painting roots of storytelling, to start cartooning more and writing less—and maybe even laughed out loud once or twice about my good fortune at being where I was.

But I am wary of the direction I’m steering this essay. The essay is not the day after all, not the walk itself. Lately, I have come to think of genre as a kind of literary pinball machine, with bumpers that guide you in certain directions no matter how much you flap your flippers. And the pinball machine of nature writing is always pointing me toward what feels like a sometimes-unearned profundity, a whole lot of oohing and aahing. From reading the work of many of my fellow nature writers, you would think that they, after heading into the woods, spent their entire walks thinking deeply about the world, aware of the names of every bird, tree, and toad while pondering the fate of climate change, wilderness, and humanity’s future. And of course those writers are also sometimes showered with ecstatic moments of thoughtless delight, moments when they reside in that near-mythic place, the present moment.

In fact, I would bet that most nature writers, like most human beings, spend the majority of their walks thinking about more-mundane things, like their plans and worries and things-to-do for tomorrow, and that they, like everyone else, have trouble escaping the spinning hamster wheels of their brains. They worry about what they are going to do at the office on Monday, even if they don’t have an office. They ruminate, and not just in the general way of philosophers and cows, thinking deeply or chewing the cud, but in that word’s more specific and less positive definition within psychology: the compulsive focus on negative aspects of the self. They turn inward as often as they turn out.

I am trying to tell you that if you don’t consistently react to nature with Whitmanesque ecstasy or Leopoldian scientific profundity, you’re still okay. We still like you.

I should add that I am a daily walker and that my purpose here is not to debunk the glories of walking. It is rather to reassure. When we read about the glorious ways that some minds work we are apt to question the workings of our own. We need to remind ourselves that as far as brains go, it’s tough all over. I think of the deeply troubled minister who confessed to Samuel Johnson, whom he saw as not just a wise but also a healthy man, “I am plagued by impure thoughts.” Johnson looked at the man and said: “If I were to divide my life into three parts, two of them have been filled with such thoughts.” You can imagine the relief the man felt.

What I am trying to say today is something similar. I am trying to tell you that if you don’t consistently react to nature with Whitmanesque ecstasy or Leopoldian scientific profundity, you’re still okay. We still like you. You’re just like the rest of us.

And then, maybe, if you get out often enough, you may receive little gifts. No gushing of epiphanies, perhaps, but a moment or two when you leave the creaking apparatus of self behind. If you are like most people, these moments will be much less euphoric than Whitman’s, slightly less so than Wordsworth’s, maybe something closer to the more sensible Keastian mode. But they will suffice.

I spent most of my walk in Gregory Canyon in my head, despite the way fog laced the trail and the creek gurgled with new life from the rain. But I was lucky enough to have a few sustained moments outside of myself—though, as it turned out, those moments were provided not by joy but fear. I was humming along up the trail and the light was fading and I was probably busy planning out my life when I heard a noise like a snapping stick.

That noise changed things. I suddenly noticed how dark it was. How vulnerable I was walking below those rock outcroppings. I thought, “mountain lion,” and then I thought, “I’d better start paying attention.” Thought that, instead of chewing over my problems, I’d better be listening and looking. Because you could be sure that if it was out there, that’s what that tawny cat was doing.

Of course, once I had made it down the trail uneaten, the hamster wheel started creaking again. Later, scribbling in my journal again, I understood the gift I had been given. That one snap of a branch had awakened me. It’s true it had taken the fear of death to get me there, but how nice to briefly evacuate the habitual halls of worry. How nice, whatever the reason, to be startled out of self.