Justin Pritchett – A Radical Phenomenology of Wilderness Spirituality

Download PDF

 A Radical Phenomenology of Wilderness Spirituality

 J.W. Pritchett
7/13/13
Babb, Montana
307-333-3682

(Click HERE to open this article in the reader.)

Justin.Pritchett@gmail.com

 Abstract:

In light of the rising popularity of wilderness psychology and spirituality and their practical applications, such as wilderness therapy, this paper articulates a phenomenologically based heuristic for navigating and interpreting one’s primordial experience of wilderness encounter. The framework is derived from the historical development of Husserl’s common sense attitude via Pato?ka’s revision and Erazim Kohàk’s radical experiential brackets. This understanding invites a subversion of the affective nature of one’s common sense attitude through an experiential bracket.

The brackets disrupt and deconstruct our common sense attitudes by allowing a space for dissonant affective elements of our experience to presence themselves to us. This influx of radical alterity incites a reevaluation of our given relationship to life the universe and everything else. The heuristic supports the subversion and deconstruction of our common sense attitudes in pursuit of a more open relationship to our life-world. Furthermore, the paper will attempt to demonstrate how the heuristic provides a language for navigating and making sense of one’s wilderness encounter.

 Introduction:

 The wilderness has attracted a great deal of attention in the past few decades. From the work of environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson to the work of religious scholars such as Beldan C. Lane, Susan Bratton Powers, and Douglas Burton Christie, and popular secular authors such as Edward Abbey, and Douglas Peacock: others the wilderness gained a voice in our culture. We have seen a dramatic rise in psychological reflection on wilderness experience and the near exponential increase in wilderness therapy- particularly for delinquent youth. Philosophical reflection on wilderness experience has begun, but is still lacking. Lots of work has shown that wilderness has near or actual spiritual significance; but what happens phenomenologically to establish that significance?

I intend to propose a phenomenological description of wilderness spirituality. Using the radical experiential brackets of Erazim Kohák and his grounding in the philosophical lineage of Edmund Husserl, I have set out to describe the experience of a spiritual encounter in the wilderness and how wilderness facilitates an encounter with the numinous mystery. Yet, the phenomenological method offers us more than mere description. The radical experiential brackets Kohák proposes, invite us into a praxis and heuristic for disrupting our common-sense-attitudes and opening ourselves to the previously unimagined alterity of the numinous. In this way, the brackets not only assist us in describing wilderness spirituality, but invite us to practice wilderness spirituality and the reorienting reevaluation of our life-world that it offers.

The wilderness has always been understood in contradistinction to culture and humanity. Hence, any wilderness oriented praxis will by necessity incorporate a significant critique of the cultural apparatus of the day. In our world, that cultural apparatus is technology and relationships of control and manipulation are typical of our culture’s relationship to its life-world. This is where I start: by establishing that technology is the common-sense-attitude of our time. I then describe the experiential bracketing of technology, established by Kohák, and conclude with an outline of the encounter with alterity in the experience between the brackets.

 Technology as Common-Sense-Attitude

In his criticism of the objectivistic approach of science, positivism, and empiricism, Edmund Husserl identifies the assumption of an objective world of mere objects factually existing “out there” from one’s self as the natural standpoint, or common-sense-attitude.[1] A common-sense-attitude is simply the assumption, or assumptions, that precede and inform our perceptions. Hence, by assuming that there is a world of things that we can objectively access, measure and catalog we characterize our perceptions before we can even experience them. Erazim Kohák, in his commentary on Husserl’s Ideas, explains that the assumptions that constitute our common-sense-attitude have such an effect on our perceptions as to produce “a low level theory rather than a direct report.”[2] By articulating the basic theoretical nature of the scientific common-sense-attitude Husserl begins his deconstruction of the scientific approach. And, for a philosophical critique of science, that is sufficient. However, since he first published Ideas in 1911 the common-sense-attitude of science has, despite extensive criticism from philosophers, religions, and scientists alike, not simply survived but grown in its commonality. Particularly since the rise of postmodern thinking and the oft-correlated popularization of relativism in all spheres of life and thinking; the objectivistic assumptions of science have served as a bulwark of certainty against the sudden onset of the “vertigo of relativity”.[3] As Daniel Taylor notes in his little book The Myth of Certainty, this desperate clinging to certainty closes us off to mystery, depth, and encounters with the numinous.[4] This commons-sense-attitude of objective certainty has not only been propagated and sustained in the realm of epistemological reflection, but has been buttressed by the immense proliferation of personally accessible technology.

The propagation of personal technology has been tremendous. In early 2012 The Pew Research Center found that “88 percent of Americans have a cell phone, 58% have a desktop computer, 61% have a laptop computer, 18% have an ebook reader, and 18% have a tablet computer.”[5] Or in a more classic metric, Nielsen found in 1975 that the average number of televisions per American household was 1.75 with over 57% of households having a single set. In 2009 the average had jumped to 2.86 and 54% of households having three sets.[6] These studies do not mean much on their own but are indicative of and illustrate how normative technology has become in our culture. The prevalence of internet access, climate control for homes and businesses, electronic banking, shopping, and socializing are all products of a common-sense-attitude that was necessitated by and is extrapolated from, the very scientific attitude Husserl critiqued. This attitude sees the world not simply as objectively accessible and factually knowable, but also as manipulatable, and appropriately manipulated. The pursuit of the technical manipulation of the objective world has, since the beginning, been implicit in the scientific project.[7] Now, rather than being locked up in a scientific laboratory, technology has brought into the purview of the common individual the ablity to access and manipulate her world in astounding ways.

The assumptions of technological manipulation are not limited to electronic gadgets but are wrapped up in the very fabric of the scientific approach to the assumed objective world. As the Catholic thinker, Gabriel Marcel demonstrates, the scientific method itself is a technology:

[The scientific method is] a group of procedures, methodically elaborated, and consequently capable of being taught and reproduced, and when these procedures are put into operation they assure the achievement of some definite concrete purpose.[8]

Marcel is clear, just as Kohák and Husserl, that technology, on the surface, is not morally problematic in itself. It is a proper use of human ingenuity for the solving of legitimate problems. But that is only in the abstract. When we look at our relationship to technology in experience, it is clearly more complex. Even writing in the early 1950’s Marcel identifies the move from our pursuit of technology for the purpose of achieving some end- he uses the example of a car used to get from place to place- towards a value of technique for the sake of technique which loses sight of the original goal. In his example the car collector who has such a ‘passion’ for his vehicles that he cannot see them as a means of transportation. We see the same relationship occurring in people who need to have the latest model iPhone and are willing to camp for days in front of the store to buy one. Or we can see it in our culture’s obsession with sexual performance, which has led to a major market of toys, performance enhancing drugs, and books promising greater technique to lead to more and better orgasms. Marcel’s definition of technology is useful because it pulls thinking about technology away from simply electronics or gadgets. Rather, thinking about technology means that we need to look at our basic relationship to the world. Technology is more than a vibrator or an iPhone, it is a methodology for maximizing a desired outcome.

This pursuit of maximized outcome in all pursuits is implicit in the technological common sense attitude.  Jacques Ellul writes in his watershed, The Technological Society, the basis of technology is “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity.”[9] We have seen this pursuit of efficiency spread from factories and laboratories into the home. From appliances to detergents, from our food to our toilet paper, and from sex and procreation to the way we die; the pursuit of efficiency and the assumption that we can invent a way to do this better is basic. It is not good enough in our culture to simply wash dishes by hand to save water, we need a water efficient dishwasher. Or in the realm of procreation, a great part of the promise of in vitro fertilization and genetic mapping is to make the process of reproducing humanity more efficient and “effective.” Our technological approach to life has become typical. The pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness has come to outweigh most other considerations.

Kohák presents a parallel description of technology. He, taking his starting point from Husserl, also begins with the thinking that ground our contemporary technology obsession: the scientific method. He argues that the scientific approach is rooted in “‘objective reality’ – the conception of nature as a system of dead matter propelled by blind force.”[10] Kohák is emphatic that this objectivistic view of the world is “the product of a subject’s purposeful and strenuous activity, a construct built up in the course of an extended, highly sophisticated abstraction.”[11] This activity is itself a technology pursuing efficient ends. Again, this is not a bad thing in itself; only when we stop seeing it as a procedure towards an end and see it as a description of reality does it become problematic:

As a methodological device, [the scientific method] is a useful and legitimate procedure. Increasingly, however, we have come to treat the construct it yields, useful for the purposes of manipulating our physical environment, as if it were what nature in truth is.[12]

Here Kohák identifies that the increasing commonality of our technological common-sense-attitude conflates the world of the scientific method with reality. This conflation of scientific method with reality develops in tandem with the technological artifacts and the two cannot be divested. Kohák goes on to counter the potential objection that our technology is insubstantial compared to the wild powers of the creation: “Our world of artifacts may be no more than the thinnest of layers covering the rhythm of living nature, but it is that layer that we confront in our daily experience.”[13] His response is clear- technology is more influential in our daily lives than the created world, because it has become the common-sense-attitude of our time. Defending this assessment, Kohák uses the categories typical and exceptional:

With the expansion of our technology, we have, in effect, translated our concepts into artifacts, radically restructuring not only our conception of nature but the texture of our ordinary experience as well. It is exceptional rather than routine for us to sit before a croft of an evening, watching the all-reconciling night spread out.[14]

The non-technological experience is now exceptional. Technology, on the other hand, is the typical experience, the assumed way of being in the world for our culture, and fundamentally characterizes our relationship to our life world.

In a passing comment, Kohák powerfully uses the example of time to show just how pervasive our technology has become: “The idea of 1800 hours on 6 June 1981 is a pure artifact, a construct imposed upon nature’s rhythm, subordinating and ordering it.”[15] The 24 hour day, the 30 or 31 day month, the twelve month year are all abstract technologies through which we perceive the time of our existence. If we did not have the technological artifact of abstract time we would never experience 7:00 AM, or NOON, or 25 December. Rather, our experience would be characterized by dawn, dusk, waning and waxing moons, autumn and winter. Yet this is not how we commonly experience time. We experience it as 9:00 AM to start work, 5:00 PM to commute home, five minutes late for a meeting, or 15 minutes early to a party. Just like the rest of technology, these constructs are useful for their purpose, but they do not describe the nature of time given in human experience. Despite being a tool, our concepts of clock-and-calendar-ordered time have become our basic assumption about our relationship to time. It, also like the rest of technology, has become our common-sense-attitude, unquestioningly characterizing our relationship to our life world.

Before the 1912 invention of technologies as ubiquitous as the shopping bag or the Dixie cup, Husserl argued that scientific objectivism’s view of the world as factually existent and objectively accessible was our common-sense-attitude. Not much has changed since then. Science remains enthroned as the primary source of knowledge and wisdom in our culture. However, it has been aided by the omnipresence of technology. Technology now characterizes our common-sense-attitude. Not only do we see the world as factually existent and objectively accessible, but also assume it to be technologically manipulatable. This technological manipulation appears in many ways, from simple procedures for attaining efficiency to sophisticated methods of changing our environment, all the way down to the way we conceive of time.

Once having established the common-sense attitude in question, Husserl’s phenomenological method calls for the practice of an epoche, or a bracketing. This procedure is at the heart of phenomenology and is the very procedure Kohák radicalizes to an experiential level.

Kohák’s Radicalization of Husserl’s Epoche

Kohák clearly takes his place in the intellectual genealogy of Husserl, attributing to Husserl the discovery of “the affirmation of the primacy of the subject, though in his full destiny and context.”[16]  With that recognition one must change one’s focus. This is the role of the Husserlian epoche. The epoche is primarily an intellectual project and yet our experience is always more than intellectual. Following this, Kohák’s radicalization is also indebted to Pato?ka’s emphasis on embodiment and the centeredness of our experience in our incarnation in the world among the objects we experience. The idea that humans do not belong in and among creation is in Kohák’s view “primordially, radically counterintuitive. Humans, notoriously, live their lives in and as their bodies whose rhythm is integrated with the rhythm of nature.”[17] And since we live incarnated in our bodies, so too are our experience and our perception incarnated. And if we are to study our perception then our bodies must be taken into account as well. Thus we have the development of phenomenology; from the study of consciousness through to embodiment and then culminating in the radical bracketing of experience fully in line with Husserl and Pato?ka:

The first task, posed by Husserl’s Crisis was that of a recovery of the ‘natural’ world of our lives, the world of good and evil, as ontologically significant. Pato?ka’s work, I believe, goes a long way toward meeting that need. The next step needs to be a recovery of the natural world without quotes, the world of nature, as meaningful, not just in conception but in perception.[18]

            In his pursuit of “nature without quotes,” Kohák develops a radical and experiential epoche. Kohák, again, follows Husserl’s lead and articulates his practice in opposition to the materialistic ontology of modern science.  Science, according to Kohák, is dependent upon the conception of the world as a mass of meaningless value-free matter. Where Husserl starts his reflections on arithmetic and ends with positivism, Kohák has a century of continued techno-scientific development and the practical use of the scientific ontology that is necessary for our current consumption of ‘natural resources’ for materialistic gratification. With the presumed death of God, Kohák points out, the creation can only be a “cosmic accident” that is “contingently propelled by blind force, ordered by efficient causality” and conveniently available for our unmitigated consumption.[19] But this is not the only foil Kohák has for his brackets.

By the mid 20th century the existential turn in philosophy had provided Kohák with another foil against which to define his version of the epoche. Husserl’s context at the end of the long 19th century, was one of confidence and faith in the human spirit and in technological progress. With the Great War, the Even Greater War, and the Greatest War that Never Happened, the 20th century was a much less optimistic place. Kohák cites Sartre, Camus, and even Heidegger in their description of the human as an embattled outsider contingently thrown into an absurd world.[20] As the epitome of the despair of existentialism, Kohák cites Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Sartre, in Kohák’s reading, argues that the world is arbitrary and humans have an arbitrary will to create their own sense of meaning in life. The material realm is at best meaningless and at worst, threatening; the meaning of life can only be seen in retrospect as one reflects on why they did what they did.[21] This intellectual climate further entrenched the scientific construct of a meaningless and arbitrary material realm. This view of life as arbitrary provides an additional counterthrust to Kohák’s epoche.

In order to establish his radical epoche in contradistinction to the scientific and existential views of his day, Kohák proposes brackets on two levels. First is the typical Husserlian bracketing of our conceptions. Here, Kohák proposes that we suspend our ontological judgments, specifically our “conception of nature as ‘material.’”[22] To radicalize his epoche, Kohák goes further to propose the bracketing of technology as our “constructs are no longer merely conceptual. We have translated them into artifacts which effectively hide the sense of our lived experience from us.”[23] It is this dislocation of our lived experience that Kohák’s epoche attempts to bridge.

Given that our perceptions are embodied and our bodies are now insulated by our artifacts, Kohák proposes a practical bracket of technology:

If the products of human techne become philosophically and experientially problematic, it is, I would submit, because we come to think of them as autonomous of the purpose which led to their production and gives them meaning. […] This is why I choose to stress Husserl’s conception of bracketing. The task of critique of artifacts appears to me strictly analogous to the phenomenological critique of theoretical constructs. […] Even so, it is not the purpose of bracketing the world of our techne to return, as Thoreau might have sought to do, to some prelapsarian, pretechnological existence but rather to restore its validity by capturing the moral sense which it simultaneously mediates and obscures.[24]

In Kohák’s personal practice of bracketing, he moves to a cabin on an abandoned New Hampshire farm and lives off the grid, lighting with candles and heating with a wood stove. The practical outcome of Kohák’s brackets is that he has reconstituted his life in order to encounter experience without technological trappings. Without culture and technology, an individual reverts to the more primordial concerns of the wilderness beyond our technological apparatus: food, water, and shelter.

Brackets are not a value judgment, but rather a recognition that technology changes the context within which we experience life and our relationship to our experience. As Kohák notes, it may be that our highly technical society “may make philosophical reflection impossible when it assumes an absolute ontological status and subordinates the moral subject to its mechanical order.”[25] The purpose of bracketing our technology is to privilege the primordial experience behind the artifacts- not to judge technology as morally bankrupt.

Kohák recounts his practice of radical bracketing in The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature. Throughout the Embers, Kohák attempts to articulate the moral principles he views as givens in the human experience of the creation. In this pursuit, he articulates a perspective on technology that views it as a link in a positive feedback loop of experience. This feedback loop misdirects our reflection so that we assume that life is meaningless unless we impose meaning and order upon it. This feedback loop is grounded on the design we build into our artifacts.

Technology of any sort is designed by humans to meet some purpose. A lamp is designed to provide light to read, or to cook, or to tie flies by- depending on the lamp. A computer is designed for word processing, gaming, internet surfing, or video editing. Each machine has a design and a purpose. A nail gun and a stapler have two distinct designs and two distinct purposes. When we experience technology we experience the design implicit in them. The more our experience is saturated with technology, the more our experience is saturated with human designs. The pervasiveness of technology, and the human designs implicit in, insulates us from “primordial” experience. Kohák refers to primordial, in this sense, to describe a situation where we experience prior to having imposed our structures of understanding, or our designs upon the experience. Hence, the designs implicit in technology change our experience, so that we experience human design rather than the primordial- that is the experience that is prior to the imposition of human structures. Technology amplifies our own sense of design and reduces our availability to alterity that wilderness offers. This is the source of the positive feedback loop Kohák attributes to technology; the more we insulate ourselves with technology, the more our experience is defined by that technology, which leads to reflections about the meaning of our experience to be defined by technology. Kohák interprets the technological culture of the west as one totally participating in Sartre’s worldview; as a life project that imposes meaning and order on the non-human world.

Kohák’s principle concern is that technology does not determine our thinking about meaning, morality, and spirituality:

Sensing the life of the forest around me, I think only a person wholly blinded and deafened, rendered insensitive by the glare and the blare of his own devices, could write off that primordial awareness of the human’s integral place in the cosmos as mere poetic imagination or as ‘merely subjective’.[26]

It is this pursuit that informs his methodological conviction of “not only a conceptual bracketing, but a practical bracketing as well, a bracketing of artifacts.”[27] The practice of experiential bracketing disrupts the positive feedback loop of our technological apparatus and clears a space in our experience for new and previously unimagined encounters with alterity.

The Experience Between the Brackets:

Between the radical brackets the wilderness experience has many common and shared characteristics. The reversion to primordial concerns of food, water, and shelter which we do not commonly concern ourselves with is a prime example. In regards to our openness to the numinous mystery, the experience of fear appears most central to the wilderness encounter and to all accounts of wilderness spirituality. Wilderness has, since Hebraic times, stood in opposition to civilization: a region of disorder and danger, and uncontrolled environment where humans do not belong. Even the United States Government has defined wilderness legally as:

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 its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.[28]

Roderick Nash, in his watershed Wilderness and the American Mind, argues that wilderness defies analytic definition, but through an etymological analysis, finds that wild beasts, disorder, confusion and wild-ness dominate.[29] As Kip Redick summarizes:

In wilderness all cultural orientation is absent and the person who wanders there becomes “bewildered.” Wilderness is a landscape where humans have not left artifacts of habitation or as Nash articulates, predominately the environment of the non-human.[30]

 Fear is an appropriate, natural, and human response to “bewilderment” and alterity. Environments where we do not have our cultural apparatus or technological gadgets are legitimately dangerous places.

The revealing of fear is important in practically all wilderness spiritual accounts. The desert fathers saw fear as central to their spiritual practice because their practice “required courage, a willingness to face one’s own fragility as well as the fragility and brokenness of the world.”[31] Belden Lane connects the harshness of landscape to one’s sense of the harshness of the numinous which undercuts typical religious optimism:

These are places where human beings have frequently encountered a God of seemingly fierce indifference […] This is the God of Abraham’s children, Tibetan devotees of the Dalai Lama, and even Scots Presbyterians who made their way to New England […] In each case their God was no less foreboding and captivating than the landscape through which they moved.[32]

The fierce indifference of the numinous and the world opens us up to an existential fear- the fear of nothingness and death. Kohák tells of a storm raging through his New England valley and the fear of an unexplained vision:

There is a sense of dark, ominous force abroad, exploding from behind the clear world of the sunlit day and the placid surface of a mind seemingly at peace. […] The vision, the moment of fear, then the exaggerated behavioral response, all that came from within.[33]

Kohák, here, points to the inclusive and self-indicating nature of fear that “comes from within.” Yet the existential fear is legitimate. The non-human world is vast, inhospitable, and indifferent. Kohák recalls a January night when the emptiness of his life-world revealed itself:

Only gradually I grew in aware of immense, intergalactic emptiness bearing down on my house, leaning against the shakes, leaning into the windows, pressing down on the frozen forest and deep into the snow. […] Only the moon remained, and the vast, cold emptiness of the space, the deep all-devouring cold, freezing all life, pressing down on me and demanding its own. Something like a panic seized me. […] There was nothing.[34]

The possibility of being nothing, of emptiness, of frigidity, and of death are all apparent in the wilderness. Our fragility and vulnerability, typically concealed from our experience by our day-to-day doings and the comforts of our social and technological life, become central to our self-perception in the wilderness. Often these fears become tied to an object, like a bear or a snake: an object which we can then avoid via a pistol or bear spray. But these technological objectivications tie us to what Marcel calls the problematic way of relating to the world. The problematic locks us into a certainty that denies the possibility of an encounter with and release into mystery.

The presence of death and fear does not, however, necessarily induce a disavowal of our common-sense-attitude. Instead, our fears tend to perpetuate and further entrench our stunted relationship to alterity by further buttressing our habitual objectivism towards our life-world. Our common-sense-attitude suggests that to be afraid is a bad thing and that one must act to alleviate the fear. Our actions, being primarily technological, are wrapped up in the objectivistic and scientific conceptualizations that we regularly indwell. Our actions, in this manner, become dictated by the fear they attempt to overcome and we become incapable of experiences that we have not previously imagined. Our conceptualization, our gadgets, and our actions, in the common sense attitude, combine to close us off to the unknown, unexpected, and non-human other, completely undermining any attempt at spiritual openness. Though this creates a potentially dire situation, we do not have to act out of our common sense attitude of technology in response to fear.

We are free to relate to fear out of openness, acceptance, and release. Existential fear is not outside ourselves. It is not an object to be overcome, but it includes and implicates us. Therefore, an authentic response to the revelation of fear cannot be one of tightening control and the leveraging of mental faculties. We cannot overcome ourselves via a property or ability of ourselves. We must respond to these mysteries through release. Or, in Pato?ka’s language, our fear warps our relationship to the truth by making us a slave to itself. An act of self-sacrifice, a giving of one’s self, disrupts the self-oriented and constrained being of technological fear, allowing us to be open to truth once again. Or, again, in Kohák’s language, we wield our technology in the aim of dissuading fear and end up making ourselves a servant to our technology. Only a radical experiential bracketing of our technological apparatus will disrupt our perceptual experience enough to open us to a previously unimagined reality. This radical bracketing consists of a refusal to rely on our technological attitude as a means of achieving existential security. The refusal to use technology as our common sense attitude creates a space for dissonant affective elements of our experience to presence themselves to us. This influx of radical alterity incites a reevaluation of our given relationship to life, the universe, and everything else.

The ability of technology to center our being-in-the-world on certainty and control is why our response to fear in the wilderness is central to our receptivity to the other and our willingness to encounter the numinous mystery. The great desert writer Edward Abbey quotes Major John Wesley Powell, the canyon country explorer:

You cannot see the grand canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through it labyrinths. It is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or the Himalayas, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task, by a year’s toil a concept of sublimity can be obtained never again to be equaled on the hither side of Paradise.[35]

Powell presents an encounter that requires one to face their fears with “courage” to open themselves to the revealing of the canyon in it labyrinths before one can gain the “sublimity” it promises.

Peacock, the figure Abbey based his infamous character Heyduke on in The Monkey Wrench Gang, gave an interview with National Geographic where he describes how and why he has come to devote his life to being around and protecting Grizzly bears:

Because you really can’t be self-indulgent in grizzly country. You’ve got something bigger than you out there, something that can kill and eat you any time it chooses to, though it seldom does. Being among grizzlies forces humility. And that’s what I needed, because that’s the emotional posture behind learning: humility.[36]

Peackock identifies the thrust of relationship between humanity and wilderness as one necessitating human humility. Our common-sense-attitude, on the contrary, is one that asserts our power and will over creation. Where human assertions of power and will are impossible, a posture of humble reception is demanded. This receptivity points towards an understanding of wilderness that transcends the physical space we find ourselves in and incorporates a more existential element. David Douglas describes the nature of wilderness not so much as a place with particular characteristics but as a way of being:

For me, wilderness depends not only upon the terrain and wildlife but upon one other quality: My vulnerability. Is this the setting where I feel less self-sufficient, more conscious of my reliance on God?[37]

The vulnerability before the indifference and dangerous otherness of the wild is a foundational element of the humility of humanity in wilderness that allows us to release our fears. So long as we continue to assert ourselves we will be unable to release our attempts to control and protect and accept the uncontrolled encounter with the numinous mystery. As Kohák realized on the night of the January moon, we cannot assert ourselves before the power of non-being. While in the moment it feels final, the bracketing of our efforts to overcome our fears does not end in submission, death, or nothingness. Between the brackets, when we are not pitted against the creation in a fit of promethean defiance, when we release ourselves from the responsibility of maintaining our own security and certainty, we are offered a new vision of being in relationship with our life-world.

Between the brackets of our common-sense-attitudes we are offered a vision of life in which we radically belong: a vision of belonging which strikes against the grain of our common-sense-attitude of technology. This vision calls into question the entire cultural imagination of civilization rising like an island in a sea of wilderness and, more importantly to our contemporary imaginations, it calls into question the singular person standing out against the mass of meaningless matter creating her own meaning. Rather, without our technologies of maintaining control and certainty, we are faced with a radical and fearful nothingness in death. This vulnerability demands a self-emptying humility that ultimately opens us to love. As Lane writes:

When people are drawn geographically to the remote edges of our world, they are carried metaphorically to the edges of themselves as persons, invited into an emptiness as exhilarating as it is frightening. Encountering overwhelming fierceness at the end of all possibilities, they know themselves to be loved in wild and unanticipated grace.[38]

Lane makes a direct comparison between the physical limits we transgress when we enter a physical wilderness and the existential limits we transgress when we enter an existential wilderness. In the history of wilderness spirituality, Lane remarks, the liminality of the wilderness pulls one out of themselves, allowing the love and grace of the numinous to enter. This sudden acceptance of love and grace is evidenced in the Buddhist-influenced Robert Kull. Kull describes a shift of release of fear in the dark, bear-ridden woods, which makes room for a fullness of belonging and acceptance:

The world was no longer a hostile alien place, but my home. No true separation remained between me and the world. After that night of inner transformation, the whole world seemed vibrantly alive, and I lived for several weeks deeply integrated into the universe, glorying in the beauty of mountains, lake, and sky. There was also Something Else out there; Something non-physical and beyond definition. I was part of that, too, and felt accepted and at peace.[39]

Kull’s reorientation from a fear of the world that nearly drove him out of the wilderness to a relationship of belonging and acceptance is characteristic of the possibilities of release into the mystery of fear in the wilderness. Integration, acceptance, glory, and vibrant life all evidence a dramatic shift in conscious perceptions of a world intent on destruction, death, and darkness. This same shift is even evident in Abbey, despite his resounding distaste for all things spiritual. He still acknowledges a life in the world beyond humanity’s:

A variety of asters are blooming along the road and among the dunes; with yellow centers and vivid purple petals, the flowers stand out against their background of rock and coral-red sand with what I can only describe as an existential assertion of life; they are almost audible. Heidegger was wrong, as usual; man is not the only living thing that exists.[40]

And though he does not deign himself to speak of love and acceptance after his near-death experience in Havasu Canyon he does illustrate a shift in perception from the midst of despair to release. After having submitted to death, Abbey looks up out of the canyon at the sky:

Across that narrow opening a small white cloud was passing, so lovely and precious and delicate and forever inaccessible that it broke the heart and made me weep like a woman, like a child. All my life I had never seen anything so beautiful.[41]

Even Abbey’s claim that the night spent under the rock overhang, after the canyon incident, despite the discomforts, rain, and nightmares, was the “happiest night” of his life points towards a shift in consciousness. I would also venture to posit that the tenderness and detail with which Abbey approaches the desert country throughout his writing, while not providing us a specific punctiliar moment of realization, evidence a recognition of a radical belonging and acceptance within the wilderness.

Kohák’s reorientation to a posture of love and grace is perhaps the easiest to identify. The entire text of Embers and the Stars is a description of Kohák’s vision of life and his life-world between his radical technological brackets. On the night of the January moon, Kohák shifts into a posture of gratefulness for “the miracle of warmth, the miracle of life, for the fullness of Being.”[42]  Throughout his text he speaks to a shift in perception that moved from a position of human action over the wilderness to human acceptance and love within the living wilderness. In a reflection on the harm that humans must bring about to survive, Kohák receives an invitation during a thunderstorm where the power of the storm and the lightening offered him a new way of perceiving his role in the world, “there comes an overwhelming, agonizing, and reconciling recognition of being accepted, being justified. Here the dweller is an alien no longer. Nature envelopes and accepts him.” He found an acceptance in the power of a storm he could not effect or avoid. Similarly, using the language of a forest clearing as a metaphor for radical experiential brackets Kohák finds the living reality of creation:

In the intimate green peace of the forest clearing […] the nature which throughout the day obligingly assumed the guise of an artifact does not disintegrate into meaninglessness. It stands out in its own being. The brook cascades over the rocks like flowing silver. The trees swings gently in the breeze. An owl hovers in the treetop over the rabbit grazing unconcerned under the protective cover of broken branches. [… Nature] is not alien to our human mode of being: quite the contrary, it is radically its kin. Though perhaps a stranger in the world of his own making the human in his humanity, […] is at home in a nature which is not yet his, subdued by him and depersonalized in it subjugation.[43]

The great takeaway of Kohák’s text is the shift in perception that is offered during the practice of radical bracketing. We are invited to no longer see the world as object for our manipulation but rather as a living world in which we belong and are accepted. This world is one we encounter and receive, full of mystery, grace, and belonging. The world is not our world to do with as we please, but it is our home.



[1] Husserl, Edmund.  Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology.  translated by W.R. Boyce Gibson. (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 53.

[2] Kohàk, Erazim.  Idea and Experience: Edmund Husserl’s Project of Phenomenology in Ideas I. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978), 11.

[3] Peter Berger, Sociology and Theology, Theology Today, October 1967 24: 329-336.

[4] Taylor, Daniel. The Myth of Certainty. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 35.

[5] Pew Research Center, “A Closer Look at Gadget Ownership” accessed 4 April 2013, available from http://www.pewinternet.org/Infographics/2012/A-Closer-Look-at-Gadget-Ownership.aspx.

[6] Nielsen Company, “More than Half of Homes in U.S. Have Three or More TVs,” accessed 4 April 2013, Available from http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/newswire/2009/more-than-half-the-homes-in-us-have-three-or-more-tvs.html.

[7] Jaques Ellul, The Technological Society, translated by John Wilkinson (New York: Knopf, 1964), xxv-xxvi.

[8] Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, (South Bend: St. Augustine Press, 2008), 61.

[9] Ellul, Technological Society, xxvi.

[10] Kohàk, Erazim. The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984), 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 12.

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Ibid., 12.

[15] Ibid., 16.

[16] Kohàk, Idea and Experience, 194.

[17] Kohàk, Embers, 5.

[18] Erazim Kohàk, “The Crisis of Rationality and the “Natural” World,” The Review of Metaphysics 40:1 (1986), 106.

[19] Kohàk, Embers, 3-5.

[20] Ibid., 4.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 22.

[23] Ibid., 23.

[24] Kohàk, Embers, 24.

[25] Ibid..

[26] Ibid., 6.

[27] Ibid., 22.

[28] The Wilderness Act, U.S. Code. vol. 16, secs. 1131-1136, (1964).

[29] Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. (New Haven: Yale UP, 2001), 1-7.

[30] Kip Redick, “Wilderness as Axis Mundi: Spiritual Journeys on the Appalachian Trail,” in Symbolic Landscapes, edited by G. Backhaus (New York: Springer, 2009), 69-90.

[31] Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), 77.

[32] Lane, Beldan C. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. (New York: Oxford UP, 1998), 52.

[33] Kohàk, Embers, 142-143.

[34] Ibid., 61.

[35] Ibid., 169.

[36] Ted Chamberlain, “Doug Peackock: Vetran of the Grizzly Wars”, accessed 11 April 2013, available from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0007/q_n_a.html.

[37] David Douglas, Wilderness Sojourn, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 10.

[38] Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 50.

[39] Kull, Robert. Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes. (Novato, California: New World Library, 2008), xii.

[40] Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.  (New York: Touchstone, 1968), 248.

[41] Ibid., 204.

[42] Kohàk, Embers, 62.

[43] Ibid., 74.

Word Count: 6769