I recently read A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism by Rabbi Mike Comins. In chapter four, “Finding God in Nature”, he says:
It’s so difficult to talk about the who and what of God. Often the same words mean different things to different people, and our conversations get bogged down in contradictions and misunderstandings. But when I say that I have “God-moments” in wilderness, people know exactly what I mean.
I’m an atheist, and I knew exactly what he meant, even though I would not use the word ‘God’ to describe it.
Specifically, what came to mind when I read that was my memory of being at the summit of Pintianshan in Taiwan. It’s called ‘Pintianshan’ because the boxy shapes of the rocks look like the Chinese characters 品 (pǐn) and 田 (tián).
Pintianshan is, without a doubt, the most difficult mountain I have ever successfully summited. I have met hikers who are much more experienced than I am who, when they saw what they would have to do to reach the summit, decided to turn around and give up. I almost gave up too. It’s dangerous and scary (I did not take a photo of the scary part because I did not want my parents to see how scary it was). And of course, once I pressed on to the summit, I committed myself to going through the scary section a second time during the return hike.
But it was worth it! The view from the summit of Pintianshan is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. Pintianshan is right in the middle of the ‘Holy Ridge’ (聖陵線), which was named by a Japanese mountaineer who was completely convinced that he was in a sacred place. The indigenous people also believe that these mountains are sacred – Dabajianshan is possibly the most sacred of all mountains in traditional Atayal culture. Furthermore, one section of the Holy Ridge is known as ‘the four beauties of Wuling’ (武陵四秀). Pintianshan is one of those four beauties (the other three beauties are Chiyoushan, Taoshan, and Kelayeshan).
One of the things I thought to myself while I was at the summit of Pintianshan was ‘I can die now because I have seen this.’ This was not a suicidal thought – I had no intention of dying. Instead, I felt that there was no such thing as intention. I was so overwhelmed with the magnificence of the world that I felt myself completely submit to it, including submission to my inevitable death.
Looking back, I think the scary experience of reaching the summit of Pintianshan put me in an emotional state which made me especially receptive to being awestruck by the beauty of the landscape. As Rabbi Mike Comins says in A Wild Faith:
Statistically, I am much more likely to die from a car accident than a grizzly attack, but I’m constantly aware of potential hazards when I’m far from a hospital. Outside the human comfort zone called civilization, I am less prone to falling into routine. The risks prod me to greater awareness.
In the city, I employ a different strategy. I avoid anxiety by “forgetting” what I know about accidents. When I drive, I’m rarely thinking about driving. Neither wilderness nor the freeways are forgiving, but in the city, I deceive myself and act otherwise.
In nature, the awareness of mortality is constant. Unlike the sanitized world of the supermarket, birth and death are encountered together in the natural world. Yet most of us see beauty, not terror.
By the way, the #1 cause of death on the Pacific Crest trail is being hit by a motor vehicle while crossing a road. There is no recorded instance of a human being killed by a bear on the Pacific Crest Trail. This implies that motor vehicles are actually much more dangerous than bears.
Hopefully, at the time this post is being published, I am hiking through Washington on the PCT and all is going well with me. I’m not expecting experiences like I had on Pintianshan on this backpacking trip because I think it would be a self-defeating prophecy. But I’m sure I’m having other kinds of interesting experiences.