BY STEFANI MUÑOZ
“Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.” —Wendell Berry
As I step out into the open sky, warmth becomes a blanket. From above, lead-like rays beat down on my skin, burning holes through my limbs. Burning, burning, burning.
It’s absolution, standing in the sun. It seeps through my skin, mingles with my blood, burns the organs in my body. It blinds my mind. Always searching. And the windows of my soul blaze bright, always bright.
For a while, I thought I knew what it felt like, the dread that accompanied the Unknown reaches of darkening night. For years I have waged wars in my sleep and come away scathed and wounded, though always stronger. I believed that I had taken a step into the wilderness and that it had become my battleground, both familiar and safe. I knew what to do. I knew how to vanquish my demons. But I guess the Unknown held no limitations when it came to sucking me under. I had become anticipation, but the Unknown was clever. It had been a mild March morning, a mundane day followed by a mundane routine, when I finally understood what it meant to really face the vacant depths of the Unknown.
I had heard, once, a story about Life and Death. It was said that Life and Death, much like the Moon and the Sun, had fallen deeply in love, despite the differences that separated them. And Life would send countless gifts to Death, in which Death would then keep them forever.
That day, Life and Death had conspired, and Nature became their accomplice.
My father became Life’s present, and Death now held him forever.
And that day, the Unknown pulled the battleground from beneath my feet. I was now blind, deep in the wilderness. And the wilderness wasn’t kind.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always been afraid of the dark.
The darkness hid things. Like secrets and whispers. It always frothed before my eyes, building thicker and thicker in places, reedy wisps of unknown things trailing the walls like feather-light fingertips. Before my eyes it moved, writhing along the empty and cluttered spaces, eating up distance until it was right before my eyes, right there. And I could feel it, past my skin and organs and blood and bone, an intent so horrifying, so true, it left me shaking. It wanted to devour me, like a starving animal.
Sleep wasn’t safe. The darkness brought night terrors. Often the darkness drove out my sanity, my breath, my very understanding of who I was. I would wake, like a half-crazed animal, knowing death lay back before me in the form of claws and teeth and hunger.
It was never a peaceful thing. Or even a predictable one. Sleep did that to people. Darkness in another capacity drowned out common sense. It also drowned out the ability to anticipate.
How could I stop it? When would it happen again? When would I sleep again?
Logical sense began to slip through my fingers, little droplets of my sanity drip, drip, dripping. My hands were empty, a puddle at my feet.
Once and a while I caught myself thinking: Am I crazy?
But then again people say that if you acknowledge, on some sort of level, that you may be a bit wrong in the head, that you’re not actually crazy at all. Some sort of deeper understanding of one’s unconscious self keeps away the crazy, I guess.
But that’s what the wilderness does to you. It makes you feel crazy and senseless. The unknown brings out the darkness from within until it occupies every aspect of your being. I was drowning in a world of light within my own darkness. And it was more than willing to devour.
It has taken me a year to navigate the wilderness and I still find myself plodding through. For a while I found myself scrounging, the darkness as horrifying as ever. The wilderness became my one true enemy and I was disparaged. Nature had become an ugly, morbid thing. The rain felt wrong against my skin; the sun burned too bright; the wind suffocated me. I would look down upon little insects on the ground. They became a smear of darkness against white concrete from beneath my feet.
I was lost and the wilderness had devoured me.
They say grief is something that never truly heals. I thought that to be angry at the very thing that had taken my father away would be the consolation I was looking for. I was out for justice I knew I would never receive.
But Nature had become a friend and Life and Death had now just become an understanding of the way of life. There was light, as the sun finally crested over the tops of gnarled trees. I looked, bewildered, as the Unknown began to recede to the edges of my vision. The landscape wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t even something that was decent to look at. My wilderness was a twisted, crooked landscape beneath my feet.
But as I gazed longer and traveled farther, it slowly began to change.
The trees began to straighten themselves out. The air became lighter and the sun not so harsh.
Now, every little life had become sacred.
I avoided stepping on the ants when I could. I saved spiders from the bathroom and brought salvation to those trapped in dusty corners. I sat with a baby skunk, its spray becoming a perfume that numbed my senses, as it lay among dewy grass slick with its blood and heaved its last tiny breath. I buried it and cried for it. And I rigorously washed the smell out of my dogs, their teeth still tinted a light pink, even though I felt they deserved it. I untangled plastic bags from trees. I always stopped for squirrels.
I now relish in the feel of sun on my skin, the cold rain against my face. I breathe the air deep, deep into my lungs until I feel as if they may burst. I touch every branch, every leaf that I pass by, enjoying the sleek and rough textures that remind me I’m alive. I advocate for clean energy. I advocate for farmers’ markets. I advocate for clean living.
I advocate for the health of my Earth, because it is the Earth that nurtured my father. I hold every life dear because I know, no matter how small, it is something precious.