For my 50th birthday, my big brother gifted me with an arduous, high-altitude trek through the Andes. It was the most challenging physical endeavor of my life: ramshackle bridges, perilous cliffs, steep mountainsides. All of it far off the grid, and into the wild. It was ultimately exhilarating, life-changing.
I returned feeling much better acquainted with, for lack of a better term, Mother Nature. Although the presence I encountered did not strike me as gendered, “Mother Nature” resonates better than anything else.
People asked, “How was your trip?”
“I met God on a mountaintop,” I replied. “She was very nice.”
She was neither nice nor mean. That’s just a funny thing to say. The presence on the Inca trail was sentient, and I was her guest, but I daresay she did not care about the “me” that stood there. At the same time, my soul connected to this presence. All of my other attributes did not – i.e. my will, my personality, my wrung-out body. This was a first for me.
For weeks after, I would cry trying to explain. Occasionally I still do. It’s not sadness. I think it might be joy. But words don’t really suffice.
I have felt this presence again of late. Not as intensely, in part because I think I need to be hollowed out and unplugged, as I was in Peru, to connect. But during this extra time among the lush spring and summer Catskills forests, I’ve caught her essence, like a remembered dream.
In Peru, I first found her at 16,000 feet. Due to extreme altitude sickness – vomiting, dehydration, intense anxiety – I almost quit.
But once I reached the highest point of the trek, my body and mind stabilized. I gulped some water, walked around, and communed with… something. I told no one.
Two days later, we hiked to architectural stunner Machu Picchu. Eight thousand feet up, it is a must-see marvel of massive interlocked stone, terraces, altars. Scientists believe it was used as a king’s residence for only about 80 years before being abandoned in the early sixteenth century, around the time the Conquistadors arrived. Incredibly, the Spanish never found it, and within a few decades the jungle completely reclaimed it. Four centuries would pass before American explorer Hiram Bingham – inspiration for Indiana Jones – discovered it in 1911.
Many nearby Quechua had no idea it was there (they said). It took years to excavate.
This phenomenon of Mother Nature reclaiming a grand feat of human engineering is not uncommon. Similar stories surround Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, and the Great Pyramids. In both cases, archeologists needed to dig them out, beat back the embrace of sand, soil, and flora that had hidden them for centuries.
Five years after Peru, I now walk the perimeter of my property, and it appears I need to do more weeding than in past growing seasons, beneath a canopy of birds louder and more insistent than ever.
Just today, I uncoiled a stubborn Oriental bittersweet vine that was trying to consume both my lilac bush and my mudroom. Our roof is thickening with moss much faster this year, gutters prematurely choked with maple leaves.
Given the chance, Mother Nature would surely claim my home, and all within it. I’d wager it would take her ten years, tops, to completely consume my house. Clearly, I will need to battle her continuously, whether it’s vines, water, rot, pestilence. Viruses.
I know it’s nothing personal. She would – she will – take my body, too. I will then feed her, rather than take from her as I have done. Perhaps, if there are no hard feelings, my soul can dwell in her presence for a span of time, as it did for those unforgettable moments on the mountaintop.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.