Lost and Found: Observations of a Wilderness Therapist
While it may not make intuitive sense, winter is my favorite time of year in the wilderness of Southern Utah. I have spent about 18 winters in the field with the concomitant adventure that each of those winters has presented. I think the thing that I like most about winter is the clarity that it brings to every situation. There is an immediacy and emergent quality associated with winter and the necessary tasks of each day and there is little latitude for obfuscation and avoidance. There will typically be at least one late night in the field with students every week in the winter. The crisp chill of the air and freezing temperatures are strong motivation for students to remain by the fire with me and encounter themselves with the clarity that winter brings. Traveling out of the vast expanse of our field on chilly winter evenings with snow on the ground and a bright moon provides clarity of the valleys and mountains which is unlike that observed during daylight hours. A vision and direction for desired travel is illuminated and the certainty of obtaining the goal destination of travel is bolstered. On evenings such as these it is not difficult to foster a sense of accomplishment for the day’s efforts and an appreciation for those students who are finding new meaning in their own lives.
Just as the opportunity for clarity is presented on those late winter evenings, the potential to become significantly lost is just as strong in the winter as well. Many is the time when I have found myself hiking away from a group’s isolated location to return to my vehicle which would have been left at an accessible point on the road. Winter storms are good at covering tracks that were made on the hike from the vehicle to the group earlier in the day. When the clouds impede the light of the moon and snow is falling in a blizzard-like rate, misdirection in the dense woods of juniper and pinion pine is quite easily taken. In the earlier days of Redcliff I used to berate myself on these late-night wanderings for not taking a compass reading when I left my vehicle. Slow to learn, now I also continue to question my actions in not setting a waypoint on my gps. I always have a number of rationalizations as to why I failed to do either of those actions in preparation for a dark hike through the woods. I typically tell myself that I have been out here long enough that I know the area well enough that I shouldn’t get lost, but every time I get lost I realize whatever rationalizations I may have made hold little comfort. The landscape and navigation markers change quite rapidly in the midst of a blizzard. Regardless as to how it “should” be, the reality of confusion and vulnerability requires a coping response to the situation. Much like the students that find themselves at Redcliff, the initial tendency is to continue to forge ahead doing the same thing that I was doing, regardless of the fact that I was actually moving myself further from my intended destination. I have found myself wandering in circles and on occasion, moving in a direction 180 degrees away from the correct path. Without an effective coping strategy, it is quite easy to exacerbate the situation from something that was initially mildly disconcerting to a situation which could potentially become life-threatening. At that point, I must remind myself that whatever I am doing is not effective and I must disrupt the process somehow. I typically do this now by repeating to myself a verse that I discovered a few years back by David Wagoner. It is a poem entitled “Lost”.
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask it permission to know it and to be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
The first step is always to stand still. I find that to be the most difficult thing for us as humans. We want to keep the frenetic energy of the old patterns and delusions of control in place. We give verbal homage to the idea of becoming more effective humans, but we tend to stumble through the darkness with no sense of direction and purpose. It is only on those occasions where we can be still and let the direction and purpose find us do we then know how to really proceed. After those periods of blindly wandering around, the reemergence of clarity is a welcome relief. Dr. Daniel Sanderson, RedCliff Ascent Therapist