Science, Solitude And The Sacred On The Appalachian Trail
This week, you can't reach me by email, or text, or Tweet.
This week, I'm not taking anyone's calls, either.
That's because I'm walking the Appalachian Trail — alone. And while I am, without doubt, scared of being eaten by a bear, I'll be out there looking for that most precious of possibilities: solitude.
Solitude can be hard to find in the modern world. Cities are, of course, exactly about mixing it up with our fellow humans. That's the source of their potent innovation. So, while you can find places in the city to be alone, it is much harder to find true solitude.
The difference between the two — being alone and being in solitude — is the secret many people find the wilderness teaches. Now, for a lot of folks, the idea of being alone can be discomforting — if not downright terrifying. That's understandable because we are, by nature, social animals. Evolution tuned us to live in groups and be attentive to others.
But being in the wild without others doesn't mean being alone; in fact, it can be quite the opposite.
I was raised in some of the denser regions of northern New Jersey. I loved every bit of growing up in that true melting pot of humanity. But I was lucky that my parents sent me to a YMCA day camp 40 minutes south of my industrialized home turf. That was my first experience of the wild (such as it was). I still have vivid memories of finding myself (relatively) alone in the forests around the camp. What I remember of those times is the profound sense of peace and calm that could make its appearance.
I've been searching for more of those kinds of experiences ever since.
Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of human religion, knew about those experiences. For him they were the root of "sacredness." That's a word I've written about many times before in thinking about science and "spirituality."
For me, sacredness is an experience that rises above any particular religion and speaks to those moments when we feel the essential, original and irreducible potency of life. It need not refer to anything anyone would call "supernatural" but, instead, is rooted in our very real and very natural experience of the world. In that way, it is also a root of the aspiration to do science. As Eliade wrote: "The sacred is equivalent to a power and in the last analysis to reality. The sacred is saturated with Being."
For Elide, the experience of sacredness was the source of religiousness. But that experience came before any of our modern religions. In particular, it first appeared in what we now call "the wild." In their early travels through the world, our ancestors would come to some glade or tree or cliff and have exactly the experience I had as a kid in the forests of my YMCA camp. Call it "awe" or "an overflowing": Call it whatever you want, but the wild is its first home.
Going alone into the wild is also an ancient tradition. It makes up a common theme in the class of common myths Joseph Campbell called "The Hero's Journey." Taking a long journey anywhere alone can be scary. That's also what makes it exciting.
But going into the wild alone takes us beyond just adventure. The reason, once again, is solitude. In the wild, in solitude, you're never really alone.
In part, it's all the life that's there already. The pillars of individual trees stretch back into the woods and, after a while, you realize it's the forest that's really the organism. And then there are the bird calls in the air and frogs crossing the trail. After a few hours on an extended hike, you become just another of the forests' inhabitants plodding along on your way. That experience of sacredness is enough for me.
But there is more.
When you come to a clearing where the sunlight makes it to the forest floor, or where a stream has cut a steep ravine into the mountainside, you can sometimes catch a hint of something. I don't know what to call it. Words fail. But it feels something like a root, a core, an unvoiced song of the world's own presence.
It's powerful enough to get etched in your memory if you're there with other hikers. But if you're alone — if that moment is just between you and the world — then you are lucky indeed. That is when you can understand what Henry David Thoreau, one of the first great interpreters of American wilderness, meant when he said, "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
I've been lucky to have been able to do lots of backpacking trips in my adult life. And in the last 10 years, I've become fond of solo hiking day trips. But putting the two together is a new thing for me. So I am both excited and a wee trepidatious about this trip (The bears. I have a thing about bears).
In the end, however, it's all worth it (unless I get eaten by a bear). As a scientist, I've spent my whole life trying to get closer to the world and understand its ways more deeply. That means going to the source. But there is no greater source for science, for the inspiration to do science, than the wild. That is where the sense of sacredness — that I think lives at the root of science's aspiration — lives.
So, as the great John Muir put it: "Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
Now, if only the bears have read Muir.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4
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