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Waving Your Arms Past Your Head While Spinning in Circles

Kayak camping near Marquette, Michigan.

Jon Turk begins Part 4 of The Raven’s Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness with a discussion about the mythology surrounding the raven in aboriginal cultures. He relates a myth about Raven dropping a walnut on a man’s head and then laughing about it. The man’s feelings are hurt, so he asks Raven, “Why?” Raven stops laughing and tells the man that he isn’t mocking the man, but just ‘playing’ with him to have fun. Jon interprets the story this way:

…Ravens may drop walnuts on your head, storms may batter your canoe, blizzards may scatter your reindeer, but lighten up; nature is ‘playing’ with you and that is all. It is not to be taken seriously. The myth doesn’t offer any advice on how to control the forces of nature; instead there is a clear missive to laugh at misfortune and move on with life. (p. 210)

The passage reminded me of a man I met while sitting on a wooden bar stool at the counter of a restaurant on Isle Royale. The man, his daughter and son had hiked in to Rock Harbor from a nearby campground to get out of the cold, unrelenting wind that blew the rain sideways in face-stinging sheets. They were soaked, their faces were red, and the daughter and son huddled around their hot chocolate. The man’s swisher sweets and a bright orange GPS unit were sticking out of his fly-fishing vest’s pockets. A hotel room key sat on their table.

He asked the waitress, a young woman who had grown up on the island, “Don’t you feel like when you’re out here…” He pointed out the window and then continued, “That everything is out to get you?”

The waitress stared at him, but she didn’t say anything.

He continued, “I mean, the bugs always trying to bite you. The rain trying to soak you. The wind blowing into the shelter to make you cold. It’s always something coming at you out there.” He pointed out the window. The rain ran down the window in streams.

The waitress smiled at him and said, “No. I think of all the good things out here, like the flowers and the sunrises. There’s more of that then the bad things.”

“I guess,” the man said.

Later, he asked me the same question. At that point, I had kayaked for the last 40 days. I contemplated the question for a second, and had I read The Raven’s Gift before the trip, I might have quoted Turk summing up the European view of nature using the example of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Jon writes, “…once you fear and demonize nature you open the philosophical floodgates for the bulldozer and chain saws.”

Instead after pausing I said, “No, I might have thought that way at the beginning of the trip, but not now. Everything out there…” I pointed out the window and then continued, “Is the normal state of the world. The hard part for me now is navigating traffic, going to stores and wandering around towns. It’s the stuff in here that’s hard.” I pointed at the picture windows, the knotty pine walls of the restaurant and the cash register.

“Being in the woods is easy,” I said.

That’s how I feel, being in the woods on a paddling trip or expedition feels easier than living day-to-day life. Everything seems simplified in the woods. You wake up, eat, take down camp, paddle, set up camp, eat and go to sleep. The next day you do it all over again.You don’t need to worry about money, about making payments, about finding your place in a world where none of the puzzle pieces are designed to fit together. You just paddle day-to-day, and when something happens, you face it head on now.

I like Jon Turk’s interpretation of the raven in aboriginal mythology, because it fits within my world view. While I don’t believe that nature specifically ‘plays’ with us — it just does what it does and its spirits interacts with us within that context — I do believe that you can’t take it too seriously. Because, if you did when you wake up an hour before you normally do, because the mosquitoes trapped between your rainfly and canopy sound like an alarm clock, you’d never leave the perceived safety of your square home again.

Instead, when confronted with a natural blood donation situation, you smile, laugh a crazy laugh, get out of the tent, run away while waving your arms past your head while spinning in circles, and then laugh some more at how silly you looked while doing it. And, that’s really easy once you accept that things are what things are.

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  • Great stuff Bryan! I really enjoyed that.

  • Thanks, Bryan!

  • You seem to have a great philosophy in life.
    Obviously if one had to live in the woods (or paddle) forever I am sure there would be just as many problems as modern life offers.
    It’s one thing to be on a journey/vacation/break for a short while but it’s another to make a living “out there”.
    What you point out so brilliantly though is the “view” that one must adopt to then enjoy the adversities that nature appears to dish out.

  • Thanks!

    I suppose it’s true that living in the woods would offer problems. Trips are artificial constructs fueled by money already made and the bill paying falls on someone else’s shoulders using your already made money. The puzzle doesn’t get that much easier; for a short time you find two or three or maybe four pieces that fit together. The people that I know who live “out there” always seem to be happier, live less complicated lives and seem to be more fulfilled living them. We have many people in this county living completely off the grid without running water. I think my mind relates better to that than to all the computer time I do and towns. No doubt why I moved to a town of 1,300 that’s two hours away from even a moderately-sized city.

    When I boil it down, for me, I think what makes trips easier is that I’m living in the now, instead of worrying about the future, and I’m not letting whatever I have to confront in the now get to me. At home, I try to live in the now, but the future always seems necessary, and it gets to me. It’s a part of mindfulness that I just don’t understand and need some mentoring in.

  • Bryan, I hear you.
    You are one of the few lucky ones that can “afford” to live in a rural area.
    I am inclined to say that it would be impossible to have the whole population live in the idyllic small community: there is just too many of us.
    Admittedly most would find it terrible to be so “isolated with nothing to do” when their lives are based on being entertained but unable to entertain themselves.
    You are obviously a strong minority where your value lies in the quality of life based on wholesome rewards instead of fabricated media fed ones.
    Let me ask you a question?
    How often do you go to a shopping mall just to hang? spend endless weekends at cinemas seeing always the latest Hollywood blockbusters? or getting extremely engrossed with “Second Life” (the online game)?
    I tend to believe that you spend your time more creatively :-)
    Hence my point: only very few are happy to be away from the traps of modern life.

  • I can really relate to what you’re saying about the immediacy of life and experience in the wild. I am a wilderness guide and can say that making money by guiding people is altogether different mentally for me than personal trips. On personal trips, I come back renewed and refreshed. On guided trips I come back exhausted. On personal trips there is generally just me to make decisions and confront challenges – my relationship to the wild is uninterrupted by social discourse. There is the camaraderie of the guided trip, but there is also the serious decision making that follows my role as guide. I am always keyed into the present with a weather eye toward the future so that the trip runs as smoothly as conditions will allow for my clients.
    But, in the overall living of life, what I experience on these 2 type of trips is the difference between a vacation and a job.

  • @gnarlydog – I agree. We see people attempt to move here all the time. They sell their place in the city, come north and burn out from the isolation in a year or two. Then they move away. It’s pretty common. Considering that the nearest shopping mall and movie theater is either two hours away or one and a hour hours plus an international border crossing away, we don’t get there often. I do enjoy going to a book store when we get to a big town, and we go to the movies about once every three or four months. We live here for the outdoors. Twenty minutes away is over 1,000,000 acres of designated wilderness and Lake Superior is five minutes from my door.

    @Don – Interesting. There’s a difference for me when I guide, but I don’t experience the difference as much as you do. Guiding definately feels like a job to me, it’s work and often the clients don’t understand that, but I typically feel in the moment in a way that I feel when I’m on a personal trip verse the way I feel when I’m in town. I usually only guide day trips though.

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