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.