Every year, my group does a retreat. We find a nice spot, a campground or someone’s patch of
woods, and spend a few days hanging out, doing ritual, and enjoying nature. Sometimes that enjoyment includes things like rain (very welcome this year as we’ve been having a drought) and other inconveniences, but that’s part of being outside and, when you’re there by choice, such inconveniences are easily borne. You can always go home.
The word “retreat”, though, doesn’t strike me as quite right. Retreat suggests a drawing away, when really what we’re trying to do with these trips is step forward: out of our comfort zones, and into a world that is not made for us and doesn’t care about our convenience or ease. Most of the people who die in the backcountry are experienced. The wild does not care about us.
The idea that the world is not made for our use is a pretty radical one in America. Even though we can look with disapproval at the exploitations of our own history, it’s inescapably true that the same things go on today under different names and in different guise. And this is actually a very recent state of affairs. Humanity is a tiny blip in the duration of this planet’s existence thus far. And chances are, the planet will go on for a long time after we’re gone as a species–by our own actions or otherwise.
We retreat from that idea.
But there’s another way to think about it. To think of ourselves as just another form of life on Earth, albeit one so successful as to have forced our environment to adapt to us rather than the other way around, changes the perceived context of our existence. We start to see the dangers of how we live more acutely and immediately. Build your house in the wildland-urban interface and the danger of it being destroyed by a forest fire is equally great whether you believe in anthropogenic climate change or not. You can’t argue your beliefs with wildfire.
Embracing the wild can look like a lot of different things. It can look like engaging with gods whose provinces include wilderness and the interaction of humans with it (temples to Artemis were often located at the border of a city’s area of influence; if they were attacked or desecrated it was a sign that the city was weak). It can look like engaging with the spirits, fey or other entities distinctive to a particular place. It can look like Leave No Trace, backcountry survival skills, a habit of living as lightly as possible, or engaging in ecological restoration work. It can look like hunting your own food.
If it’s a retreat from anything, though, it’s a retreat from business as usual–both from a way of life that strives to distance itself from it real impacts, and from romanticized notions of wilderness that do not allow it its own terms in our conception of and interaction with it.
Our retreats are attempts at engagement, not at escape.