To get close to nature, stop the clock

ON THE OUTDOORS

Outdoors

February 24, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

While I'm out in Utah at the Olympics, we're running pieces from the book, Land That We Love, produced by four public land management agencies.

The U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation paid for this book to give real people - rather than bureaucrats - the opportunity to write about the great outdoors.

This second piece, interestingly enough, comes from someone with roots in this area. Brandon Griggs has been an arts and feature writer at The Salt Lake Tribune since 1994.

Griggs has covered everything from the NBA Finals to the Sundance Film Festival to, yes, Donny Osmond. He was a 1999-2000 National Arts Journalism Program fellow at Columbia University in New York.

Before coming to Utah, he wrote for a daily newspaper close to home in Rockville and a weekly in Havre de Grace. Despite living 2,000 miles from Baltimore, he has retained his Orioles season tickets in the hope that he will return to the area someday.

Here is Griggs' untitled piece:

"Few things in life, good or bad, should ever be hurried. Rushing through a chore, like shaving, makes for sloppy work. Rushing through a pleasure, like a great meal, is self-defeating foolishness. This is maybe most true of time spent outdoors in the amiable company of wilderness.

"Public lands can be appreciated in snippets - from a car window, say, or on a 100-yard stroll to a scenic overlook - but they can't be understood.

" `You can't see anything from a car. You've got to get out of the contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees,' Edward Abbey wrote 35 years ago, and his point is more valid in the warp-speed world of today.

"I can say this because I was the kind of drive-by tourist he deplored. My life has been spent, with few exceptions, in large urban places: Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles.

"Nature, when encountered, was something to be appreciated peripherally while canoeing, skiing or driving cross country at 70 mph. The activity - not the outdoors - was the draw.

"Even after I moved to Utah in 1994, I approached hiking on chiefly practical terms. How long was the trail? Was there a payoff (lake, waterhole, scenic vista) at its end? Would I still have time to shower before dinner?

"A hike became a macho challenge: I'd pride myself on completing it in half the time estimated by the trail guide. Climb up, snap a few photos, climb down.

"Gradually, I learned better. I spent a weekend hiking near Moab with an environmental group called Great Old Broads for Wilderness, whose members sometimes dismantled cairns to make hikers more self-reliant.

"Besides, they told me, `There's such joy in being lost.'

"The next year, a friend and I took a three-day backpacking trip on Forest Service land near Wyoming's Salt River Range, during which we saw no other hikers.

"I left my wristwatch in my truck before starting out, happy to mark our days only by the path of the sun.

"In 1998, I attended a nature-writing workshop in Bluff, where to my astonishment, notepad-toting students spent hours studying a single square foot of desert.

"Last February, my girlfriend and I discovered Snow Canyon State Park on a weekend trip to St. George. We started to hike, but soon wandered off the trails to explore caves and climb petrified dunes.

"As we slowed our pace, tiny new worlds revealed themselves: we noticed insects, lichens, wildflowers, stubborn trees growing from rock crevices. Soon, we stopped moving altogether and stretched out on a sloping rock, our bodies sandwiched between the cool sandstone beneath us and the winter sun above.

"A ghostly moon rose over a nearby ridge and we watched it in grateful silence. It was one of those moments you never want to end.

"I'm no naturalist. I don't know the names of most plants or trees or rocks I stumble across in the wild. But I know this: To gain anything meaningful from an encounter with nature, I must linger. I must immerse myself in my surroundings. And to do this, I must slow down.

"We live in a society governed by time. Our daily existences depend on it. Rarely do we go a day without checking our watches, setting an alarm clock, making an appointment. We measure athletic achievement by it, too.

"Some of us, consumed by trail running or triathlons, see the outdoors as a personal proving ground. We impose our stopwatch schedules on the clockless natural world. But nature has her own leisurely rhythms, and given enough time we'll eventually forsake ours for hers.

"I spend a day outdoors in the wild, and the past and futures inevitably yield to the present: `I must remember to call so-and-so' gives way to `Look at the colors of that rock!' `I forgot to pay the electric bill' becomes `Feel that breeze on my skin!'

"Alive to the moment, I'm both calmed and energized.

"I've felt this way on BLM land, on Forest Service land and in every national park in Utah. I've never felt this way in a city park. To lose myself (to find myself?) in nature, I need time and space.

"I need vast expanses of trees and rocks and sagebrush, without houses or cars or hordes of people to jerk me back to civilization. I need the sanctuary and solitude that only public lands can provide.

"I'm an older and wiser outdoorsman now. I stop. I look around. I listen. I relax. I inhabit my world, as if for the first time.

"As Proust wrote, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

"How long will I spend hiking this trail? As long as it takes."

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