Unnatural Nature Writing

Cole Lutz and friends.

My Relationship with Nature

by Cole Lutz

Over the course of my twenty years on this planet, I’ve had an interesting relationship with Nature.  As a baby, I was perhaps closer to her than I’ve ever been since, and at the same time I was most frightened by her.  Her coldness, her wind, her thunder and lightning seemed far too harsh, and made me want to run into the warm, stable arms of my real Mom.  In the safety of my cradle I wondered at the menace of the elements—with all that power, why be so cruel?  But Nature, always moving, would in turn change my mind.  With spring came her beautiful blue birds’ symphony, flowers whose radiant vitality far surpassed anything I’d ever seen.  I tasted my first warm, breezy nights by the beech, falling asleep to her soothing lullaby of splashing waves.  I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that this heartless, volatile beast could make me feel loved as no human could.  These are the thoughts I imagine I had of Nature when I first came into the world.

Later, when I started walking, and after the initial shock of her brutality wore away, I regarded Nature with the same enthusiastic affection most kids feel—I couldn’t get enough.  I can remember my Dad rolling me down the street in my red, wooden wagon on sunny evenings in June and marveling at how great life was; later we’d shoot hoops together on my Little Tikes, before sitting down to dinner on the patio, smelling of rain fresh off the asphalt and the leather of the basketball.  I would bike around the neighborhood on my two-wheeler whenever I felt like it, and play tag with some of the older neighborhood kids.  In the spring of my youth, Nature was gentle.  Her sweet mist quenched my thirst; his warm light fed my soul.

But then school started.  I can remember balling to my Mom during the first week of preschool.  Somehow I knew I was losing something I would never quite have again.  But, I sucked it up and went.  What else was I to do?  In the beginning, I sat at my desk thinking about what I’d be doing if I wasn’t “imprisoned”.  I’d shoot hoops with Dad, play grocery store with Mom, and watch Hercules with my sister and Grandma.  But soon I learned it wasn’t all that bad.  Preschool was actually kind of fun.  I got to do arts and crafts, play with blocks, and run around the playground at recess.  And there were other kids my age who I could beat at tag! 

Soon I moved onto elementary school, and we started doing homework.  One January morning in second grade, the reality of what I’d gotten myself into finally set in.  “This is stupid!”  I thought to myself as I sat slumped in my hard, plastic chair, nostalgically watching the snow accumulate outside.  What was the point of all these boring, useless assignments…why the heck did I care who Christopher Columbus was, and why did Mrs. Nosker want me to care?  All I wanted was to play outside and have a snowball fight!!  Feelings like this would come and go over the next several years, but overtime I eventually stopped resisting, and that wild and free stallion in me went into dormancy.  Never again would I live so effortlessly in the present moment as I did in my first years, when my mind and body were still connected; my innocent joy untrammeled.  And that boundless spontaneity of childhood would come to pass, like the echoing thunder of a passing April shower…

~

Fresh Reading

 

Criss cross applesauce

Carpet smells like pee

Hips ache.  Tummy hurts.

Counting down to three.

 

Sitting on the bench

Back straight, legs antsy

Please, sir enlighten me:

Stale bread, more money.

 

The library air

feels stuffy and dead

Full of their waiting. Full of

books I’ve never read.

 

The songs of others

Ring loud and clear

But the truths you seek

Cannot be found there

 

Your answer is here

Experience it for yourself. 

You are your Guru. 

The student as well.

 

For here the air is

fresh, and the books are free.

Salvation is earned,

Not bought or decreed.

 

Where wind whips the face,

teaching tolerance for adversity.

Where night instills faith

Dance the wild and free.

 

And the raven caws

of his own accord.

And knowledge hangs ripe

On the tree of the gourd.

 

As He radiates generously

 

~

Shining Rock Wilderness

I know of no better way, personally, to learn to appreciate society than to leave it for a while.  And while smaller tasks like deactivating one’s Facebook account, or turning off one’s cell phone are helpful to some extent, in my experience the absolute fastest way to feeling genuinely grateful for our unnatural world is to abandon it temporarily by taking a trip to the natural world.  There in nature, one is confronted by the inescapable reality of his own survival.  With no safety net of central heating, a dry bed, and fresh water, he is put on trial amidst the elements, faced with varying degrees of discomfort and equal bouts of revelatory joy.  His mind shifts from the trivial passings and goings of an ordinary day in the frontcountry to the big picture realities of his current predicament.  This personal experience, more than anything one could ever hear, see, or read abstractly, teaches him the hard way why he continues to choose to live in society.

Because nature, however beautiful and alluring, however full of truth…has a dark side.  And just as soon as soon as she entices you with a hundred mile view under crystal clear skies, she will ransack your tent with hail and wind, sending you to your grave should you come unprepared.  There is no mercy in the wilderness and little room for error.  Neither is there cruelty, however; all there is is indifferent beauty and mystery.  With an attitude of mutual respect, one can leap to new heights in his natural home, which is why I go.  But it’s no place to surrender into a flimsy romantic naiveté.  Instead, I go to learn from the mountains; to find strength in solitude; and to feel the animating force of the wind— I keep the outdoors in my life because by experiencing nature’s cold, I can begin to appreciate society’s warmth.

~

Two weeks ago, I felt driven to experience a weekend out in nature.  Of course, I can’t pretend I did it with the intention of increasing my love for civilization.  In fact my desire was more to find an escape from what I found to be confining and no longer tolerable.  Needless to say, I drove off Thursday around noon to the Shining Rock Wilderness Area, a part of Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.  It is a land of forest, streams, and mountain balds that lies about a mile-and-a-half off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and is a forty-five minute’s drive from the nearest town.  My plan was to park my car at the trailhead Thursday before sundown and hike all weekend long, completing a big figure-eight and returning to my car on Monday, feeling on top of the world. 

But nature had other plans for me, as I would later find out.  I arrived at my entry point Thursday evening around sunset, at the Black Balsam Parking Lot.  I had driven from Durham for four-and-a-half hours down I-40 W and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, climbing steeply up a series of bends through thick fog, and watching the bars on my cell phone drop one-by-one until they were all gone.  On the forty-five minute drive up the Parkway, I saw no more than a couple of cars heading in the opposite direction.

Just before sunset, I took a right onto a mile-and-a-half long, potholed side road.  Behind the mist, I could make out a dense spruce forest on either side of the road, which suddenly opened up into a parking lot as I rounded a bend.  I hadn’t anticipated much company, being as it was a Thursday, and surely enough, there were just a handful of other cars parked at the foot of the trailhead.  Aside from the trees and outhouse, I couldn’t see much else because the sun had finally set behind the clouds and mist.  At 5,600 ft. I was about as exposed as one can get in terms of parking lots on the east coast.

~

Fast forward several hours to 9:30pm and my sili-nylon pyramid tarp is seizing like Reagan from The Exorcist, making the sound of a constant jackhammer to my over-attentive ears.  I’m in the midst of a powerful wind storm that appears to want to rip my tent in half.  My sleeping bag is damp from the rain that is blowing in underneath the edges of my tarp from all angles.  “Agghhhh &#^$!” I say to myself, knowing that if I don’t re-pitch the tarp, I could likely become hypothermic due to overexposure.  Begrudgingly, I get out of my warm, down sleeping bag, put on my rain layers, and crawl out into the night. 

My headlamp barely cuts through the dense mist.  It’s raining in cold downpours, and I swear the wind has a personal vendetta against me.  I glance over my shoulder and mentally send the message to whatever’s watching: “This is my house.”  I walk a little beyond my tent and take a piss for good measure.  Then, I get down to business.  I tear out the stakes from the ground, not even bothering to undo the guylines, and pound them away, through the webbing on the corners of my tent, and into the soft, forgiving earth.  “This is going up stormproof this time” I tell myself, making sure the edges of the tarp are as close to the ground as they could possibly be.  Standing up and pulling my hood out of my face, I take a look at my work.  It’s good enough.  And with newfound courage, I go back into my den. 

Of course, it ended up being one hell of a night.  The wind didn’t stop, and I didn’t doze off until around 2:30am, and only then slept on-and-off over the next four hours.  I was kept up not just by the sporadically spraying rain in my face and the obnoxiously savage wind, but even more so by my own fear.  Despite having braved countless, backcountry nights before in bitter cold, heavy snow, and whipping wind, this was my first storm by myself.  There is something indescribably discomforting about being alone amidst nature’s pandemonium.  One realizes his insignificance, and he becomes aware of his bumbling ineptness at the most basic of human tasks.

~

Sunlight was now dancing upon the dewy grass beside my sleeping bag.  Proud to be alive, I unzipped the door and stepped into the misty, ethereal air.  Nothing beats the feeling of the the gentle morning sun on one’s face after a hard night in the open.  I could see my surroundings now: I was standing in an exposed, rolling meadow.  The bushes that had looked like demons the night before seemed almost friendly to my newly appreciative eyes.  Just a few hundred yards down the trail to my North, popping into view through flying bursts of clouds, was the summit of Sam’s Knob, the mountain bald I’d intended to hike after breakfast.  I could see no other humans or animals, but I smelled a skunk I must have disturbed fooling around with my tent during night.

~

Later that morning I cooked a breakfast of oatmeal, mixed with dried blueberries and bananas, and protein powder.  I was so hungry, given the exciting night and the dinner of peanutbutter and Nut Thins I’d had before I’d left my car, that I scarfed it down right off the stove.  I didn’t care that it burnt half my taste buds.  It was delicious.  I chewed, opening my mouth to let the hot air out, and breathed in the cool wet mist.   “What a night” I thought to myself.

Afterwards, I packed up, and, taking one last look down the westward trail into the wilderness, I walked back down the same trail I’d come in on and collapsed into my car.  With a broken compass I’d crushed running around frantically the previous night, and feeling exhausted, I knew that this time around what I needed was rest, not challenge. 

So I drove down into the nearby town of Brevard and picked up a few essentials I’d wished I’d had the night before (swissmix, firewood, and Whoppers). Then I headed to the closest campground, where I treated myself to a warm shower, combed my hair, and put on fresh clothes.  That night I cooked myself a hearty dinner of tuna, oil, brown rice, sharp cheddar, and a little bit of seasoning, before turning in for the night in my car.  I left the windows cracked and opened the skylight so I could see the stars that were framed by the outstretched arms of a great Norwegian Spruce.  

Outside I could hear young kids laughing with their families, and I smelled the comforting waft of burning firewood.  There was no wind, and no rain, no fear of getting lost, and no lonely waiting for the sun to come up.  It was beautiful; feeling.  It was human

Was this the same, “disgusting and indulgent luxury” I’d judged in myself and in others just days before?—  the too-soft mattress, the over-sweetened, overfed falseness of a world that I’d longed to escape?  What made it different this time?  As I lay there inside my cozy sleeping bag, perched atop the cushioned, reclined passenger’s seat of my car, reading Walden on my Kindle, it dawned on me that “creature comforts” certainly have their place in the world.  Here I was, the epitome of a car camper, pounding down whoppers and chex mix inside my four-wheeled shelter, when just days ago I thought I’d be sleeping in open air.  The reality of it hit me: Nature is tough livin’, no wonder they built this thing called civilization. 

~

“Kiddie Narrows”

A raging blizzard is whipping wind and icy snow into my face as I trudge up the mountain in nothing but shorts and my snow boots pushing the sled.  Rudolph turns back and starts saying something to… wait, what?

Now I’m awake, spasming with full-body shivers, sleeping in a contractor trash bag and a few warm layers, no sleeping bag.  Next to me is my buddy George, snuggled like a real man in between me and Randy.  Actually there’s a whole row of us, six guys and three girls, bunched together like pigs in a blanket, sleeping in trash bags on the canyon floor.  Meet my NOLS team.

Let me explain.  It all started back in August of 2012, when I’d decided at the last minute to take the year off from Duke and have a year to take a break from thinking.  I knew I wanted to have an experience testing myself in nature after being introduced to bits and pieces of Thoreau, so I started searching.  My Mom suggested I look at NOLS; she said she’d heard good things from friends, and that it sounded like what I was looking for.  So I looked into it.  I found out there was one spot left on a three-month semester in the Rocky Mountains.  True to my nature, I hemmed and hawed, and then two days before the course started, I signed up.  “Now or never.”

The course description had said the course would be split into four sections: backpacking, climbing, whitewater, and canyons.  On each section we’d be in the field anywhere from fourteen to twenty-six days, out in the elements and learning through experience.  Other than that I didn’t know what to expect.  I’d gone hiking before on family trips, but never overnight, and never off-trail.  All I knew was that I wanted a challenge—I wanted to “live deliberately”

~

Now back to Rudolph… My team[1] of eight classmates and two instructors were a week away from graduating the course, in our final week in the Canyonlands of southern Utah.  Two nights before, we’d had a traditional sweat lodge ceremony thanks to our re-rationer Kay, so everyone was feeling pretty good about themselves. 

The day before, our group had decided to take a day hike into a Cheesebox Canyon.  It was a technical hike that required a lot of belaying.  The plan was to belay into the canyon in several stages, hike along the floor for a few miles, and climb back out where the walls were more gradual.

What happened was around 3pm in the afternoon, our rope broke.  Luckily, not while anyone was belaying.  Needless to say, this delayed us significantly, and by 8:30pm, we were just finishing our last belay down into the canyon.  Not wanting to risk it, we decided to settle down for a night in the canyon.  Thing was, we had all of a handful of peanuts among the eleven of us, and about a couple liters of water.  Since we’d only brought our day packs, we had just some of our layers, and no sleeping bags, which explains why we slept that night in trash bags.[2] 

Now, we went to bed around 12am.  It was November 22nd, and had just snowed the previous week and fallen into the teens for a couple of nights.  Luckily, the temperature tonight was hovering around freezing.  Seeing as I was the biggest guy in the group, I had the pleasure of sleeping on the end of the cuddle line.  Oh brother was it cold!

That explains the dream about pushing Santa’s sleigh I had at about 3 in the morning.  Lucky for me, Randy at that point offered to swap in for me so I could warm up, and for the remainder of the night I slept like a baby.  Apparently, I became a “furnace” for those around me.

 ~

“COLE, Rise and Shine bro!”  I look at my watch: 8am.  Time to finish the hike.  Now, at this point in the story I should inform you that the real reason we chose not to finish the hike in the dark the night before was because for the next two miles, all there was between us and where the canyon walls leveled out a bit was “Kiddie Narrows”, a stretch of several, 100-yard-long “swimming holes”, full of ice melt and cow crap[3].  What is more, the sun doesn’t hit the canyon floor until about 10:30 am, which was about the time we’d be done with it.  And it was about 40 degrees.

Thirty minutes later and it’s my turn.  Ahead of me I’ve just witnessed a series of horrific screams from my instructors and fellow team members as they plunged into the brown, icy depths.  I was one of the last to go.  “Bottom’s up,” I say to myself, jumping in in my pants and long sleeve shirt. The feeling is indescribable.  If you’ve ever taken a cold shower, it’s like that times five.  Plus the constant aroma of cow manure and the fact that my feet can’t hit the bottom.  By now, however, I feel ALIIIVEEE!!!  My body is surging with so much adrenaline that I enter a state of crazed euphoria, giggling to myself “Oh Shit. Oh Shit its COLD.” 

After about a minute and a half of swimming, I climb up the bank and into the cold air.  My whole body is numb.  I nod to my buddy, Evan, whose lips look like he just ate a whole bag of blue raspberry jolly ranchers.  This is going to be a great memory, I am sure of it.After waiting 15 minutes for the remainder of the team to swim through the first bit of water, I start getting antsy.  The adrenaline has dipped down a bit, and the cold is setting in.  So naturally, I start running ahead of the group.  I run into Nick, aka the rambunctious child, who’d decided to run away without anyone knowing and is waddling towards me with a confused look on his face.  “YEahh, uhh, Cole?  Where is everyone?”  he says to me, grinning.So Nick and I continue running ahead, trying to stay warm.  Soon enough, Randy, Nigel, and Evan have joined us.  Evan informs us that M.C. is going slightly hypothermic.  But, seeing as we all are, we keep on runnin’. 

 ~

After about two and a half more hours of on-and-off swimming, we finally hit the sun.  It feels magical.  Nigel and I climb up a bit on the wall of the canyon, take our shirts off to dry, and relax, for the first time in twelve hours. A half hour later, the rest of the group catches up, and we all climb out of the canyon together, back to camp on the plateau.  Despite it’s being no more than fifty degrees and windy, George and I choose to leave our shirts off for the rest of the afternoon, after all we were pretty badass.

 _______________________

[1] There was George, a true southerner from Austin, TX; Sophie, a raven-haired camp counselor from upstate NY; Nick, a mischievous-looking kid from Omaha, who would make me laugh harder than anyone; M.C., the wild Alabaman; and then there were the New Englanders; Mae, a feisty climber from Worcester; Nigel, the skinny Jack Black; Randy, the philosopher; and my Dude, Evan from Boston, the other tall, blonde guy. 

[2]On the instructor team we had Anne-Marie, our lead proctor from Maine, who braved the cold with us for the entire semester; and Nat, a semi-professional snowboarding bro from Oregon.

[3] Wouldn’t recommend it.

[4] Since the Caynonlands are public, cows get free roam in the flatter areas. 

Unnatural Nature
Student Wall
Feburary 2014
Perkins Library
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina