At present, I sit perched atop a rock formation a few hundred feet above a crystal blue mountain lake nestled deep in the San Bernardino National Forest. It’s a crisp, clear, autumn day. The smell of dark, rich oak; musky woodland earth; and sweet butterscotch (from the bark of the Jeffrey Pines) form an intoxicating blend, each alternating in strength and distinction with every passing breeze. The sun shines warm on the back of my shirt while the wind chills my neck, nose and hands. Winter has sent cool, fresh oxygen ahead to scout the landscape. The brisk air burns my nasal passages as I breathe in a bit too deeply. And, instead of taking the opportunity to truly enjoy my surroundings, to draw on the inspiration presented by the muse of God’s creation—inspiration to meditate, pray, write, rest; I find myself derailed, thoughts hijacked by a plastic water bottle. Here, along the woodland trail, someone has discarded a water bottle. While I want to believe this was inadvertent, an old tennis shoe abandoned on a rock a few feet back has already set my mind’s course in the opposite direction.
I place the garbage in my day pack and push ahead, trying to refocus and enjoy the afternoon. I find a secluded spot away from the main trail and begin to read. Half an hour slips by. I watch chipmunks dart blithely in and out of the rocks around me. It's cold in the shadows—the cleft of the rock where I have been sitting. I set out further into the woods in search of a sunnier site. No sooner have I escaped the solitude of my boulder fortress than I literally trip on a second water bottle; a synthetic blemish conspicuously marring the forest floor.
Now, I’ve never spray painted a fur coat or picketed the G.M. Corporation for producing gas guzzling sport utility vehicles. I don’t have solar panels on my roof. I don’t limit my wardrobe to natural fibers. I don’t post the photos of the latest puppy up for adoption at the local shelter on my facebook profile. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that...” I’m just not that guy. Even so, I love granola. I can frequently be found camping or hiking or biking. I often spend hours exploring tide pools or photographing coastal wildlife. I hate wearing shoes. I love the mountains and the ocean and the desert. I enjoy sleeping outside under the stars. (I took my oldest son camping in the inner gorge of Grand Canyon, just he and I, when he was only seven years old.) I recycle. I bring my own bags to the grocery store whenever possible...
I connect with God most freely when I am surrounded by the beauty of His creation. I’m overwhelmed by the intricacy and balance—the plenary perfection in His design. I’ve learned more of who He is and who I am in environments such as these. For a long time, stumbling upon vandalism or reckless abuse would make me angry. I’d feel robbed—somehow victimized by another person's thoughtlessness; another person's selfishness. But, anger is rarely a healthy motivator. Going deeper, I can’t help but acknowledge that the agenda behind this kind of emotion is ultimately just as narcissistic.
I could tell you that the water bottles and the abandoned footwear and the graffiti on the majestic, fifty foot rocks at the top of this trail all rob me of the enjoyment of the natural beauty around me. And, honestly, it is, for me, a bit like an air-horn in the middle of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto for strings. But, who am I that these things should be mine to enjoy? Why am I at the center of this argument? Am I the victim? Really?
Please understand, I am not advocating for the chipmunks or oak trees or Jeffry Pines (though that might not be a bad thing). And, I do see how nature is often victimized by humanity. But, how much more often is humanity victimized by itself? Today, as I sit here, I can’t help but wonder “who we think we are?”
You see, on my way here, I passed through a construction zone where crews are building a new bridge/dam over the lake. Large portions of rock had to be carved away to accommodate the new road. Metal anchors protrude from the boulders to hold the elements in place. But, perhaps most disturbingly, there is a portion of the rock facing that has been reconstructed—fashioned out of concrete to give a more “natural” look to the cliff wall along the man-made path. So, now we are synthesizing nature?
I hiked this same trail with my family a couple of weeks ago. At the top, colorful moss adorns the underside of a large rock formation. My youngest son asked me who painted the rocks. It wasn’t that he had no context for understanding the limitless colors and variations of organic life. It's just that my family is constantly exposed to the graffiti laden urban area in the valley below. He has become accustomed to the defacement and subsequent cleanup (smeared residue or patches of rolled paint) of freeway overpasses and abandoned buildings. The “tagging” at the top of the trail, around the corner from where we stood, just further confirms his suspicion that someone has painted these rocks.
When did nature become unnatural? Is our life so full of simulation that we are unable to distinguish between the real and the synthetic? Maybe someone left their tennis shoe on the rock because it didn’t seem all that wrong or out of place. After all, the last time they were sitting on a "rock" adjusting their shoe was on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland or outside the Rainforest Café that anchors the southeast entrance of the mall. Maybe the individual didn’t notice they were leaving their water bottle behind because the synthetic has become so commonplace among the natural. Is that possible? Are we losing the ability to make these important differentiations? If so, what does that say about our ability to understand ourselves and others? Are other vital areas of discernment lost on us as well—the kind of distinctions that feed our appreciation of one another? Are we able to distinguish ourselves from God? Do we want to? Using Hollywood motion picture set tricks to even out part of the rock wall along the highway is just an innocuous enhancement, right? What are the broader implications in my relationships, my education, my faith? How do we keep from becoming disillusioned or even jaded when the Divine has become so inscrutably intertwined with humanity—when the dangerously dynamic God has been replaced by a more manageable static version? The angst I often feel at the intersection of identity and spirituality expands in the vacuum created by these unanswered questions.