“To those devoid of imagination a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”
As a native of the North, the wilderness has always enticed me with its immediacy. Some of my most distinct early memories are of Wisconsin State Parks during those pre-Duluth years, and once my family settled in that last great outpost between Minneapolis and the Canadian Border, it was never far away. I have fond memories of canoe trips and hikes with my dad, even if my skills as a woodsman have never come close to his, and as I grew older the woods within walking distance of my childhood home became a retreat, both to share with friends and to have my own little Walden moments from time to time. Without ever really realizing it, I grew up intimately tied to those parts of the map that didn’t have much in the way of detail.
At Georgetown, I began took on a new appreciation for those escapes, even as I dove into Washington. The late Jesuit Fr. Thomas King said it best, counseling us students consumed by fast-paced climbs up the ladder of ambition to seek out escapes into the wilderness from the restless noise of university life. Whether literal or metaphorical, we needed these moments to orient ourselves. I set out to find such spaces for myself, and while D.C. could never quite accommodate the sensibilities of a Northern Minnesotan, I certainly found a few gems during my wanderings there. My thoughts meandered with my steps, and I vacillated between intense commitment and lonely wandering, a duality that now seems extreme.
Other Catholics at Georgetown spoke of a different sort of wilderness; a spiritual and moral wilderness in which they found themselves in a postmodern world, unable to speak the language of the culture around them. I didn’t always agree with the particulars, but they had a point. We’ve lost much in our rush to embrace the newest shiny ideas, too often rushing ahead, unthinking, as we proclaim some lofty ideal that aspires to justice and human greatness. I embraced the greatest teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of those twin pillars supporting Western thought: we are all in exile, doomed to wander with no hope of permanent peace on earth. Perhaps all we could do was carve out a little spot for ourselves and live in accordance with our conscience, making peace with what we could.
After college I spent two years back in Duluth, still wandering as Athens and Jerusalem waged a silent war in keystrokes on this computer. I was never really a threat to truly go all Into the Wild; I enjoy my creature comforts a bit too much, and take my obligations to family and community a bit too seriously. My cynicism was a bit too meta to take the leap into a “finding myself” journey through the woods or some other country. But a cloistered life of letters had its allure, too, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that sort of future.
In the end, Athens won out. It’s not an unqualified victory, but it is a clear one, and the somewhat more infrequent blog posts here are a sure sign of an increasingly busy life beyond the world of letters. (Very little of my writing happens without some time to think about it beforehand.) I embrace this newfound life in the world, though I will still seek occasional escapes. They’ll come in different degrees, from runs around Minneapolis lakes to returns to the well-trodden parks of my youth to the occasional adventure into genuine backcountry. I need those moments to examine my conscience, to remind myself of my own smallness in the grand scheme of things. They are reminders of mysteries beyond our grasp, and the falleness of human nature. But mystery gives rise to wonder, and we can still aspire to something in the face of impossibility. This is the great human project in a world beyond the old philosophical absolutes, none of which can reign supreme in this new Rome.
It’s hard to find wilderness anymore in the true sense of the word. Longing for that sort of wilderness can turn into wishes for purity and paradise lost, for a black-and-white worldview that won’t ever quite do its nuance justice. Even pre-Columbian America, we are now learning, was no pristine and untouched paradise, with the natives living in perfect harmony with nature. They certainly respected it more, recognizing the broader connectedness and often believing in a spiritual unity. But they were still very conscious managers, acting as stewards of the world around them, altering landscapes to their will as they saw fit. We have much to learn from them.
Just as we are stewards of the land, we are stewards of our minds. We’ll never have complete control over them; we can’t write off the past or give rise to a new future out of nothing. But we can tend them carefully with moments of retreat from the relentless noise, and with respect for the corners of the world beyond human reason that we will never tame. This takes patience and time, and I won’t begrudge anyone who commits themselves to living in this wilderness fully. For me, though, it is a place to reflect upon everything we do in the public realm, and to make sure that we truly believe whatever it is we’re doing. We must preserve that space with our lives.