Winner of the 2009 NH High School Essay Contest
by Bridget Gill
“We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly…”
– Heart of Darkness
Looking out over the unending sky, I could see the cotton-ball clouds that would form by late afternoon into more ominous shapes bursting with rain. Then, I would be glad for my layers of clothes and the shabby raincoat that would keep me reasonably comfortable and dry until I could reach the shelter of my sleeping bag and tent. For now, I trudged along the top of the ridge with my companions, following the narrow path beaten by thousands of elk hooves until it dwindled, the grassy clumps overcoming patches of dirt to create a seamless layer of the tough green-brown grass. Then our group of five and a rugged instructor followed our senses, pausing now and then to pull out ragged maps and compasses. The earth spread out on all sides of us, brown hills and slate gray peaks accented by the deep green of the conifers, the blue sky streaked with faint yellow and pink even in the middle of the day. The ground disappeared on either side of our narrow way, but we could see across the gorges and deep river valleys where it pushed triumphantly up again. Far below, where the ridge drove itself into the ancient ground, a glittering light – the faultless sun reflecting off the confluence of two rivers – told us where we would camp that night. I smiled. Though I was dirty and tired, though my feet hurt from the relentless marching and my back was stiff from the weight of my pack, my mind was unrestrained, as far reaching as the clean sky.
The extremities of life affect us in interesting ways. When we are exhausted beyond anything we could have believed possible in the sanctuary of our bedrooms or classrooms, when our worries of the day consist not of our chemistry grades and SAT scores but of vague thoughts like “sit down… food… now some water… spoon to mouth to bowl and again” or if that tree will be blown down in the night, our minds somehow expand. We find ourselves contemplating not just our lives but the lives of those around us, the lives of everyone. Elizabeth Bishop, in “At the Fishhouses,” aptly describes the intersection of nature and thought: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts.” In our primal states we can understand things that were not clear before, as our minds were clouded by the rush and clutter of civilized life.
Two days before I clambered along the Elk Ridge, the area in which we cooked our food had nearly been destroyed by a landslide. Our kitchen had been set near a stream in an indent that was a small downwards spike on the map. Our tents were pitched five hundred yards to the southwest, on top of a long flat hill that made a steep, twenty foot face into our kitchen. It had been raining for two days. As we sat, a thunderstorm took a dump on our heads – lightning, great rolling thunder like two colossal sheets of aluminum siding being hurled together, drenching rain, and hail. We assumed lightning position: squatting, preferably under a tree, twenty feet from each other with our arms wrapped around our knees. I was not using this time for profound thoughts; rather, I was wondering miserably why I had left my rain pants in the tent. Subtly, building itself from a faint rumble, another noise added itself to the cacophony – so seamlessly did it meld that I did not at first realize another sound had appeared. It soon grew to an earthen rumble, a dull screaming of rocks and mud so loud it drowned out the thunder, and I realized something must be wrong. I stood nervously, abandoning concern over lightning, and saw a dead, mottled giant of a tree pitch forward into the undergrowth fifty paces to my left. Abandoning all thought, I turned and sprinted. Someone yelled “everyone up NOW!” Suddenly I was on the hill above our kitchen, agape and staring as a river’s worth of heavy brown water carrying boulders and logs crashed through the vibrant life surrounding the stream. Vegetation vanished. Rocks ripped bark and branches off the trunks of trees, revealing the tender, pale flesh beneath. A log caught itself between two trees still standing and, as if angry at this obstacle, the rush of mud threw itself over in a spray of unrecognizable water and stones. The next morning, still trees marked the boundaries of a wide highway of rocks with mud for mortar; we could look up and see the path down the mountain it had taken, a shortcut of our own trail.
The earth in its prime is undeniably dangerous. One of my friends could have died that night. I could have died that night, but fear lent speed to my feet and depth to my lungs, so that I ran up the hill and jumped two logs that lay across the path without realizing their existence below my feet. Or, if not then, my plane back to Boston could have crashed. I could have gotten run down on the street as I stepped out of the airport. Danger does not discriminate, it only changes form. The vast majority of us view the earth as dark and often terrifying, a place where we might not live to see the sunrise, because we are not familiar with its danger, and we don’t know how to survive its danger. Joseph Conrad describes the Congo through his character Marlow in Heart of Darkness, saying “vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.” Our fear of the unknown can be crippling. The prospect of great swathes of untouched forest and pristine mountains stretching before us is daunting, because the average American was not raised in that type of environment. City-dwellers know instinctively how to deal with the danger in their homes – look both ways before crossing the street is a basic phrase every child has pounded into their head from the time they begin walking. Every person knows how to survive their specific ecosystem, but every person has the capacity to learn to survive new ones as well. We as a people would not move forward if we were too frightened to explore worlds foreign to us.
It is strange to think of the earth from which we sprang as foreign, yet to many the shadows beneath tangled trees are as unearthly as the moonscape. Because of our technological advancement, scientists can tell us the exact chemical makeup of the loam mammoths walked on, but they do not know what it is to tread on that loam. Even as we are able to say with absolute surety why water striders can glide along the surfaces of ponds and how it is that maple leaves blazon the autumn slopes with fiery banners, we distance ourselves from nature with the cold eye of science. Yet nature lives, and we still live reliant on nature. There is a reason an enormous, leafy park graces New York; a reason urbanites keep rooftop gardens; a reason for flowerboxes. Nature keeps gray, metallic despair from setting in, for what is nature but life itself? We recognize the vitality held within each curving crocus. The wilderness is life on a grand scale, a rushing torrent of lifeblood compared to the tranquil streams of manicured parks. Fear is inevitable when seeing a craggy peak where you expected a knoll, but let it be an awe and respect of its power that grips you as you enter a forest, as you crest a peak and see your world stretching beneath your feet; instead of letting your fear paralyze you let it push you to explore deeper into the heart of life.
When I look at the statistics, I learn that only the smallest portions of the earth are true wildernesses, yet untouched by the human hand of industry and technology. But when I am in the middle of one of these wildernesses, I can feel the immensity of an earth that has not truly been conquered, I can feel that I am just human, a small blip, one of billions of bugs that roam the surface of this world. How can we conquer our life source? Would we not then die? Life on this earth requires an awareness of whence we have come, of the original spring of beauty and wonder and fear, or our minds will suffocate before we ever consume the last of the earth’s resources.
In the far reaches of the world it is not humans who have dominance but nature, which rules as it did in prehistoric times – freely, artlessly. Bishop, in “Cape Breton,” says “the little white churches have been dropped into the matted hills / like lost quartz arrowheads. / The road appears to have been abandoned.” The wild can still overcome the marks of man: it is wrong to say it is conquered. Though I do not believe in an all-encompassing deity, it is right to say that the earth allows us to live. The earth feeds us, shelters us. Natural disasters are more of a threat at this moment than weapons of mass destruction. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow wonders “could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?” We must be careful of where we step, lest we overstep ourselves and be left without a home.