I’ve heard it said that there are “two books of Revelation”. One is Scripture and the other is Nature.
This makes complete sense to me, as I have had the honor of living in the wilds of nature and encountering its life changing power, glory and majesty. I have opened the pages of its story that is marked by its geology and magnificent artistry in its soil, nooks and crags of rock and petroglyphs added by humans.
I had never been one much for camping or geological exploration, but a trip across the country piqued my interest and reminded me the value of learning about science in college. Most importantly, I felt the sacred presence of God and understood the transcendentalists through a chance encounter in a forest out West.
I had never considered myself much of an environmentalist before making my way across the country and never spent a considerable amount of time in nature. This trip was different, though. Nature was something I had to work through and shake hands with in order to survive. Nature was an inconvenience when it was cold and rainy. Nature was a pain in the arse when the wind blew out my fire or pelted my tent with dust, soot and rocks and literally almost blew me away in the Badlands. It kept me up at night when the elks were mating, and I heard their horrifying high-pitched screams in the dark. I often listened for the sounds of animal calls and wondered if there were other beasts of prey lurking close to my tent.
Along the way on my trip, I met people who told me where to go and advised me on what to see. I ended up zig-zagging through the middle of the country, as I looked for idyllic places to retreat and write. While I was in Yosemite, someone told me about the Sequoia National Forest. I was excited to go there. The man said, “You can see trees the size of skyscrapers” and everyone visits them. “If you want a special experience, though, I would advise you to go to the Bristlecone Forest. Very few people talk about it, but it is a wonderful place to visit. Trust me. It’s well worth the trip. You’ll have an experience there that you can’t have anywhere else”. There was that twinkle in the eye that tells you this guy means business. It was like he had an inside track on mining for magic.
I decided I could only visit one of the forests, as I was trying to get to San Francisco, so I chose the Bristlecone National Forest. When I arrived at the forest, I was awakened to the vibrant lives of the trees and the desert. I don’t know if the guy planted it in my mind, or I was really alive to the idea, but I felt a significant presence being in their midst.
They are not unlike olive trees. Bristlecones sit low to the ground. They are craggy and look like deadwood. Some have branches like pointed fingers paralyzed and frozen in time. Others look like writhing sculptures of anguish that lay horizontal and look defeated by the elements. They had little bristles of pine branches and pinecones that proved they were still alive. They are stout, not tall in stature like a sequoia or a redwood, but their antiquity harnesses a presence to the past that is unmatched in my experience.
These living entities were witness to thousands of years of life. One of the trees that died was cut and the rangers marked the story of its existence through the rings. Little decals were placed on the rings to tell you what event was taking place in history when this tree was alive. It marked the death of the Buddha, Alexander the Great, the birth and death of Jesus, and other significant times like revolutions, World Wars and the rise of other significant figures in history. As I stood and read the history of humanity in the rings of the tree, I felt as though I was visiting the grave of the dead. The tree was a tombstone to history.
The Inyo National Forest is the home to one of the oldest living species of trees on the face of the earth. It is called “The Methuselah”. It sounded like one of Tolkein’s “Ents” in “Lord of the Rings”, and I was anxious to meet it. Conservationists want it to continue to live and thrive, so rangers will not tell visitors where it lives. I had no problem with this. I found the decision respectful of life. I marveled at each tree in its own way. I speculated which one could be Methuselah.
As I made my quest to find this elder tree, I was overcome by the power of life in the desert. I sat down next to one of them and explored its feature. As I ran my fingers on its soft wood, I was in awe. It was the first time I ever felt the presence of life in an inanimate object. It was the first time I’ve ever felt compelled to hug a tree. It was sacred. It was alive. It was witness to history and although it couldn’t speak to me, it tripped my imagination and had me wondering about what ancient native Indian it had met in its day. The tree would more than likely outlive me and be witness to the lives of those who will come after me.
It was a testament to the ages. We are born, we come into being, experience life and die, but these entities seemed to defy death. Their time on this earth is extended beyond the average experience of other living entities. These trees wore the gift of timelessness in their roots.
The visit opened me up when I read the words of naturalist Edward Abbey, the “Desert Anarchist”. Abbey wrote, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread”.
There’s a man who has lived the revelation of Nature firsthand. We lean on the earth for our physical sustenance, but it fills the belly of our spirits with the manna of eternal wonder as well.