“The Convergence of Nature and Spirit on Life’s Journey”

The service features presentations by members and friends about those times when their personal spiritual journeys have converged with nature. Melody Haler, service leader.

Jayne Jacobs:

Young adulthood is a time of self discovery. In piecing together this presentation, I realized that nature, along with my experiences in nature, serve as a metaphor for much of my personal journey of self-discovery.

In the summer of 2013, I decided to try solo backpacking. I had plenty of wilderness experience from family trips, and felt confident in my abilities and intrigued at the challenge. However, adventure wasn’t the only appeal. I felt a desperation to get away to a place where I didn’t need to try to fit in. I was drawn to nature and, more specifically, being alone in nature, because it didn’t confine me, judge, shame me, or demand I fit into a mold of perfection. In July 2013, I went on a five-day trip alone into the high-altitude wilderness of Fishlake National Forest in Utah. I’d like to share a journal excerpt from the first day on the trail:

The only people I’ve seen so far were a few guys on horseback down near the trailhead. One of them asked me where I was headed. “No place specific; just backpacking until I find a good spot to camp,” was my answer. He said I must be really brave out here alone, and then asked me where I was from. “Wyoming.” “Ah, so you’re used to this sort of thing, then,” was his reply. Whatever. I’m not brave. Reckless maybe, but not brave. I don’t get frightened up here. I feel completely at home. Nature is so alive. Maybe that’s why I never get lonely here. In the “real” world, I’m nearly always lonely and anxious. Not so here. I wish I could stay in this meadow forever.

That trip to Fishlake was by far one of my favorites. Of course it was scary at times. I remember the first night, I woke up to a sound to the sound of what I perceived to be uneven footsteps and heavy breathing. I lay there in a cold sweat for who knows how long, convinced there was a bear outside my tent and trying to gather the nerves to look. When I finally did look, I realized it was only a bit of the tent whapping  against the ground when the wind flapped it around. The breathing, well, when I calmed down I realized it had been my own.

Every day offered a new challenge. No matter how thoroughly you plan and how well you prepare, things are bound to go amiss. For instance, I have a terrible sense of direction, as evidenced in this journal entry.

Day three. What a day! I finally made it to Blue Lake after four hours of bushwhacking and referring mostly to my compass. The map says there’s a trail, but I certainly couldn’t find one. There were bits of trail here and there, but most of them petered off after a few minutes of following them. Blue Lake is just as I imagined it, only it’s not exactly blue. It’s more turquoise, I think. Still a gem! There are three campsites that I found, but absolutely no people. I suppose it’s too early for them. I also found the ruins of an old one-room cabin about the size of a large bathroom. I’m guessing either a hermit or a miner. I know if I were a hermit, I’d choose a place like this.

At the end of the five days, I was reluctant to leave. Near the end of my trip, I tried to describe the feeling I had in that place in this entry: Everything here is intensified. Stars are brighter and closer, flowers are everywhere, trees grow with complete freedom, the sky is bluer…even dehydrated food doesn’t taste as bad as it usually does! The amount of life in nature is incomprehensible. Every blade of grass—even the soil pulses with a spirit. I can lean against a stone and feel the coolness of the granite, but there is also a heat. The stone can’t be alive, but somehow it seems to be breathing.

My pen doesn’t write fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. I don’t have the language to describe how I feel here, other than I feel at home. I love it here. I love it so much it pains me to think that I’ll have to leave tomorrow. The sun is setting now so it’s time to close. I feel like the only person on earth. I’m not lonely, though. There’s too much life here to be lonely.

I still remember that feeling of spiritual fullness. I hate to say that was one of the last solo backpacking trips where I’ve been able to discover that feeling.  In August of 2015, I decided to spend a week alone in Shoshone National Forest. When I got there, I was utterly miserable. I wanted desperately for someone to share it with, someone to talk to and enjoy it with. I was so lonely I came home after two days because I simply couldn’t stand it. Why was I so lonely? Didn’t I always say I never felt lonely in nature? Something had changed. I had changed.

….Wait, wait, wait. Let’s back up a bit. Further than those solo trips. Back to the very first backpacking trip I can remember: when I was ten and went with my family to the Bighorns. It was here my dad introduced me to a diverse circle of acquaintances. Handing me a plant identification book, he promised ten cents for every flower, tree, or bush I could find and identify. I admit the monetary incentive got me started, but a few flowers later, I was hooked. I wanted to know all of them! Yarrow, geranium, buckwheat, arnica, juniper…and the trees! Aspens, lodgepole, subalpine fir, ponderosa pine whose bark smelled of vanilla. Coming across a flower I knew the name of was like greeting a friend on the trail.

When I was sixteen, I went with my church young women’s group on a backpacking trip. As an experienced backpacker by that time, I was thrilled! I wanted to share everything I knew about plants, fire-building, orienteering, and all things camping. The girls in my church rarely had these opportunities that were usually reserved for the boys. I don’t doubt I often came across as a show-off, but I wasn’t solely interested in demonstrating my knowledge. I genuinely wanted other people to get just as excited as I was about the topic.  I was oblivious to the fact that none of the other girls were the least bit interested in knowing the name of this or that flower. I simply skipped along the trail with my colorful little identification book, greeting my wildflower friends and attempting to introduce them to my human ones. At one point, we came across some subalpine fir trees. “Hey, guys!” I beamed as I pointed out the tree. “This is really cool: The sap on this subalpine fir is highly flammable, so if you’re in the wilderness and don’t have tinder to start a fire, you can use a little tree sap…” I petered off because I was talking to myself. The girls had trudged past me as if I weren’t there. Feeling embarrassed and rejected, I kept mostly to myself the rest of the time. As much as I wanted to share, I wanted more to be accepted. As I got older, the need for acceptance led to the practice of people-pleasing. People-pleasing is a great way to smother passion and stomp out self-esteem. My thirst for approval was the determining factor in nearly every decision, including choosing a college major. Dad wanted me to pursue ecology, but I was interested in English. I compromised by going into music. It seemed reasonable since I not only excelled in music; I loved it! A year into college and I hated it. The further down the path I traveled, the darker it became. I found myself entangled in an obsession with perfectionism, feelings of inadequacy, and intense self-hatred because my best was never good enough. I loathed my talents so much I fantasized breaking my fingers so I wouldn’t have to play anymore and maybe then I could discover who Jayne Esther Jacobs really was because damned if I knew. I needed to breathe.

Nature offered me that breath. When I went solo-backpacking, I found that wonderfully refreshing feeling of freedom.

Let’s detour a bit here to discuss change. Change and Nature are inseparable companions. Nature relies on change in order to flourish and this change is often born out of painful struggle. Take the lodgepole pine. This tree needs fire to reproduce. Extreme heat is required for the cones to open and the seeds to be released. Fire is known for its devastation, but without the growth it brings, nature would droop and die.

Somewhere between the 2013 Fishlake adventure and the 2015 Shoshone National Forest trip that I left early, there had been a change in myself. I suppose I could say that, in those years, my own personal wildfires had been intensely painful and the charred remains left behind at first seemed hopeless and excruciatingly empty. Soon enough, however, new generations of foliage, embellished with insight began to emerge. For the first time in my life, I realized my desire to have relationships; to connect with others and to know myself. I could not do this if I were constantly trying to please other people and fit a mold that wasn’t meant for me. Solo backpacking trips, by this point in my journey, represented my discouragement, loneliness, uncertainty, and desperate endeavors to find a self that I didn’t know. Ironically, it took another solo-backpacking trip–the one I left early–to lead me to this discovery.

This is not to say I’ll never experience more wildfires. I’ve actually grown to appreciate them, though. Even my relationships still resemble a leveled field of charred trees and blackened boulders. Here and there are vibrant stalks of pink flowers. I know them to be fireweed, named so because they grow in places where the soil has been disturbed or a fire has occurred. For me, they offer proof that all is not hopeless; growth can occur and it is beautiful.