This is the epilogue to my "Enter the Forest" book.
[Nyerges is the author of “Enter the Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” and other books. He has been leading field trips into the mountains since 1974. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]
In his classic book, “The One Straw Revolution” (Rodale Press, 1978), Masanobu Fukuoka describes his path that led him to natural farming. When he was young, he had a realization that completely changed his life. It was hard for him to put it into words, but he described it like this: “Humanity know nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.” His experiences in the world seemed to verify this realization.
Years later, after contracting acute pneumonia from what he describes as “an aimless life coupled with fatigue from overwork,” he was hospitalized. Upon his release, he experienced great depression and wandered about. He collapsed on a hill overlooking the harbor, and spent the night there. He was awakened by a great heron flapping its wings and crying. His realization came back to him, and the words that came from his mouth were “In this world this is nothing at all.” He felt as if he understood nothing.
He returned to his father’s farm in the country, and began the path that led to his radical way of farming, letting nature teach him what is best, using no pesticides, doing no tilling, pulling no weeds, and -- remarkably – eventually producing crop yields the equal of conventional farmers.
Why do I go to the forest? I think of Masanobu Fukuoka whenever someone asks me that. Going to the forest isn’t an escape from the nothingness of modern urban life, but it does provide a chance to allow one’s self to come forth.
One day in late winter, we’d just finished a day of intensive outdoor training in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. We were now back at our cars, saying our goodbyes, when one woman asked me, “Don’t you ever go to the mountains just for fun?” She looked quizzically at me, waiting for an answer to her sincere question. I had to think for a moment.
“Perhaps my difficulty is with the word fun,” I finally responded. “To me, fun implies frivolity, diversion, and something not to be taken seriously,” I slowly responded. “So I rarely go to the mountains for fun. I enjoy studying nature, learning new things, expanding my ability to see the unseen, and developing new skills. These serious pursuits are my ‘fun’ since they provide me with a means to stretch my limits, to grow, to seek to find meaning in a world that sometimes seems to have no meaning. So I go to the mountains for my spiritual nourishment.” She nodded. I didn’t want to seem overly philosophical, so we said our final goodbyes and departed.
Since then, I have considered her question.
People today spend billions of dollars talking to psychologists, and self-improvement seminars, and seeking out various self-appointed “masters” who suggest they know “the way.” The reason for this occasionally desperate search for “answers” is that our society has cut us off from raw nature. The result seems to be that we have lost touch with our inherent but dormant spiritual faculties.
We live our lives cramped in houses and apartments and freeways in a highly structured organized society. We thus have lost a healing and a grounding that people closer to the earth took for granted.
I am not one who believes that closer contact with nature automatically imparts a greater spiritual wakefulness, more awareness, deeper sense of the meaning of life, etc. Observation demonstrates that people who are lazy, sloppy, wasteful, and unaware in their urban environment will practice those same bad habits when they go to the country or wilderness. Some prophets of the wilderness suggest that if we all went back to the wilderness, the world would be a better place. That’s simplistic and silly.
The unexplored wilderness that we need to investigate is within our own minds, and in the hills and valleys of the unused portions of our brains. And, in general, two things are required in order to find and to explore that inner wilderness. One is a guide – someone (or something) to point the way. Usually this is a person who has already traveled the path ahead of you. Another requirement is to get away from the patterns and paradigms of man so you can attempt to discover a natural rhythm, and so you can attempt to listen, and to see, and to think, in ways that no one could do for you.
So that’s part of what I attempt to do. I go to the hills and valleys and rivers and mountains and deserts of the Angeles National Forest and beyond to find myself, to re-awaken and to revitalize that inner spiritual part which is usually assaulted non-stop in the urban wilderness of man.
Still, for awhile, I couldn’t get her question out of my mind. “Don’t you ever go to the mountains just for fun?”
I had to think back 45 to 50 years ago when I began my treks to the mountains in earnest. Yes, back then, sometimes I did go just for fun, to pass the time, to avoid boredom, or to exercise. We walked from our home up to the hills, and explored the trails, caves, and old forgotten sites. We could walk a few miles up the street from our home, and then hike on the mountain trails to old cabin sites and ruins of the old resorts right up there in our extended backyard.
At a very early age, I began to think about life’s “big questions,” and I read books voraciously. I found some answers, but concluded that true answers are personal and can only be found through personal realization. Thus, I set out to find my Self, to awaken that Self within, as my individual quest. In a sense, I had the same realization as Masanobu Fukuoka, except that instead of going to the farm to find answers, I went to the hills.
So why did I find myself dwelling so much on the question posed to me? I suppose it is because I have drifted. In my youth, I knew that all answers were obtainable from within, if you only had the clarity to define your quest, and the patience and concentration to pursue the answers. I knew this from my own personal experience, and from an inner knowing. But, as I became more enmeshed in the adult world of jobs and bills and resumes and rents and mortgages and repairs and insurance and taxes and business ventures and organizations and worldly success and failure and politics and social issues, and on and on – well, what I think happened to me is what happens to nearly everyone, except most people seem barely aware that anything at all has happened. This external “self” slowly becomes the master, and the inner Self is forgotten.
So I go to the mountains to look, in order that I may see. I see, in order that I may remember. I remember, in order that I might Learn. And my goal is to learn one new thing each time I visit the hills. One new thing, whether from my own thinking and observation and memory, or from another person.
And as a result of being born right here at the base of the these mountains, these mountains are not only my home and “backyard,” but they have been my spiritual training ground. I regard these mountains as sacred since they provide me (and you) with the means to escape the complex artificial order of man, and to find True Self if I work at it.
That is why I go to the mountains.