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Wilderness as Metaphor for Mystery

An essay by Board Member Rick Van Wagenen

Like many of you I walk in two worlds. I have spent my professional career as a scientist, engineer and developer of medical instrumentation - endeavors that stress both fundamental and applied knowledge. So it should come as no surprise that I often resort to facts, knowing and explaining even when I spend time in that other world - the natural world. I have taken delight in identifying and naming birds, trees, flowers, rocks, etc. and I find satisfaction knowing scientific facts about the environment. For me the unknown has usually been something to be investigated, understood, and documented. Recently, however, that has begun to change.

For many, many years I have been intrigued by the disappearance of two duos of wilderness challengers, Amelia Earhart and Frank Noonan attempting to fly across the vast Pacific and George Mallory and Andrew Irvine striving to be the first to scale Mount Everest. The loss of both teams was the subject of much speculation and no small amount of mystery over the last sixty years. Recently, new technology has made it possible to search productively for explanations to their disappearance. At first glance, this is wonderful. And I must confess a considerable amount of personal excitement and curiosity in the discovery of George Mallory's frozen body well below the summit of Everest last April. But with more thought, the experience of mystery associated with Mallory and Irvine now wanes as explorers and scientists learn more of the facts about that ill-fated climb. Concerted attempts have also been recently made to locate Earhart and Noonan on Nikumaroro Island in the Pacific. The mysterious retreats and melts under the hard cold facts determined by rigorous investigation.

Recently, I decided to stop taking fact books with me when I hike and to spend more time and effort trying to experience the mystery of the natural world for its own sake. A backpack trip into the wildness of the Uintas now becomes a confrontati on with mystery. A raucous flock of chickadees, juncos and nuthatches is an opportunity to wonder how such diminutive creatures could possibly survive the rigors of a High Uintas winter. How could they keep warrn enough to survive at 10,000 feet on a cold, dark January night? Glacial striations scraped onto rock become the wounds of earth still unhealed after twenty millennia. What creatures lived up here 10,000 years ago and did early Americans venture up here to hunt them and, in turn, to be hunted by them? Did some of those early Paleoindians die up here? Are their graves nearby? Do their spirits still call this land home? And what about us? Do we have spirits? Is there existence after death and if so, what could that possibly be like?

Night settles in and the stars come out. A small group of comrades share the meager warmth and light of a dying fire. It has been like this for small bands of travelers and hunters for more than a million years. They wonder about the existence of other beings in the cosmos. The red embers glow and die out as the Milky Way crawls across the sky. Stories are told of terrible creatures that live in the dark forest. The fire keeps them away, but sometimes the hairy beasts that smell and walk upright come and steal the children of the people. It has been like this for long before the collective memory of the clan. Are these creatures still with us today? What or who are they? The fire dies out and the cold sinks deep into the bones. The elders retreat to the warmth of their sleeping bags and their already dreaming children. Outside, noises taunt the dark stillness.

Who or what is out there? Better not to know. It is all part of the grand mystery.


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