In the southeast corner of Minnesota is a small farm where my wife’s family lives. It’s beautiful country, with rolling hills and deep valleys. Behind their house, a bluff rises straight up, and when I was younger I used to climb it and sit on a rock with my journal and write.
It’s embarrassing to think about now, but at the time I had notions of becoming a latter-day Thoreau, giving voice to the land. I loved nature and I loved writing, and it seemed like a perfectly good idea to combine the two.
Really, though, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know what it was I loved about nature, or even what exactly I meant by “nature.” Basically, what I now realize I meant was simply “being outside.” But back then it seemed like so much more, and I was sure that by writing about what went on in the woods, I could impart valuable lessons about life.
By and by, that period came to an end, helped along by some time spent in Africa where I saw that living close to nature actually meant chopping wood and hauling water, which (despite a passing interest in Zen) I wasn’t really up for. Nature, I came to see, didn’t much care whether we lived or died, and it was only our distance, our protection from it, that let it become something revered. If nature was beautiful and instructive, it was also heartless, terrifying, and cruel. It was so many things at once, and I came to feel that that’s where its true beauty lay.