Alexandra Logan: Priest, Counsellor and Psychotherapist.
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
Singing in the Wilderness
I have included this as my first blog post as it speaks more to me now about therapy and where we find ourselves when we venture inside.
It was written in 2012 while on a canoe trip to The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.
Singing in the Wilderness
June 14th 2012
Where do we go to experience the wilderness inside of ourselves and the places where we got lost? Where do we go to find out what drives us, why we persist in loving people who can’t love us back, or why certain places feel like home?
When I was twenty one I made my first silent retreat. There was no television or radio, no magazines and no conversation, just scratchy blankets and fish for tea. Within twenty-four hours all my internal battles had surfaced and congregated in a place where I wasn’t known, where I didn’t need my house keys and where there was no work to do. Quickly things unravelled, like a jumper caught on a nail. I realised then that we use almost anything to distract ourselves from the hard business of living, – the business of learning how to love and be loved – and that if you want to reconnect with what’s going on in your middle, you must go to a place where everyone is going about their business without you. Sooner or later all the hidden things which have driven you will come to the surface. The story you have lived out, the relationships you have repeated, the angry hurtful moments you tried so hard to forget.
Somewhere underneath them lies the truth.
If you can wait for long enough and not flee, you can choose which bits of your story to live in and which to permanently vacate. It’s why Jesus went to the wilderness. It’s why Thoreau went to the woods. It’s why I came here.
The naturalist Sigurd Olsen called The Boundary Waters ‘The Singing Wilderness’ and he spent his life making sure it was protected for future generations, understanding
our need for the untouched space.
The ‘Wilderness Act ‘ of 1964 was his dream and it passed into a law a poetic definition
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
So, like the city where you don’t live, is the wilderness where you cannot stay.
You step out of your canoe into a world which you didn’t know was there, which is busy living, whether you are there or not – which has been busy living forever. I had never been in a place before where you can’t see any artificial light, where there are no roads, where human interference is so minimal. Paddling our canoe in a Sphagnum Bog, Mary Ellen comments that we might be the first people to have come in here this year, and that we are certainly the only people here now. Our company here is not the community of strangers, tall buildings or high art but rather the libidinous frogs, chatting and flirting, peeping and bellowing, their delight at themselves bouncing off the reeds.
Back on the lake another creature of the dusk takes the chorus. The cry of a Loon is a sound which is hard to describe, almost like a wolf or a lost child. It echoes around the lakes, the sound passing from one shore to the next until another loon responds. Loons have other noises too. A sort of yodeling chortle and a short bark if you paddle too close and get in their space. But it’s that cry which haunts you. In a falling dusk on a flat calm lake, the sun down behind the trees, it is a piece of magic straight from God – the lake, and the loons, forming one perfect note together, which only you can hear. Except of course for the dragon flies – just hatched -- abandoning their little pistachio carcasses on twigs and rocks – and the impossibly endearing beavers, nearly extinct once, a hundred years ago. Now, here in his protected space, the beaver paddles on regardless, tree branch clamped between his teeth, intent on some task that only he really knows. We see one, just before the small rapids on Little John Lake, paddling purposefully, branch in mouth, oily and dogged in his task. While he is oblivious to our presence – his hearing not being as sharp as his teeth – his focus is absolute, but as soon as we paddle too near he slaps his tail on the water crossly and disappears.
So we paddle back to the campsite past the wild rice beds and the cattails, and step out of the canoe to the smell of pine and balsam and damp earth, and sleep to the accompaniment of the rustling, chewing and rambling nighttime chorus of life, which takes some getting used to if you usually sleep in the noise of the city.
Two creatures are present by their by their absence on our trip, the wolf and the black bear, although we see their scat on the portage trail between John Lake and East Pike. They are a reminder in this beautiful and nurturing place that we are not in control, and that is why we came. Here everything seems to fit together as if it was made to be that way. Even the canoe – a most gentle and mystical form of transport – surrounds your body like a wave. It requires no engine and it doesn’t destroy anything to do its work.
“the movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores..should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth , of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves”[i]
What does happen to you when you find yourself here, in a place which is busy with life, and unconcerned with you, whether it be the city or the lake? If you are lucky your masks fall away, and you see your real face reflected in the water, as your house keys slip to the bottom of the rucksack. If you are lucky you become like Jerusalem, a thin place between heaven and earth, knowing yourself for the first time.