I took a weekend trip to a cabin in West Virginia a while ago. I was alone, on a 2-day ‘retreat’ my wife gave me as a birthday present. It was a really wonderful gift and I was grateful for a quiet weekend with no responsibilities. I could read, walk, ride my bike, watch the clouds, catch my breath.
This felt like the first time I’d traveled anywhere alone in an awfully long time. I’ve always been with either family or coworkers, more or less. I felt just a little disoriented as I arrived at a rental cabin near Baker, WV, hauled my bag from the car, and settled in. Toothbrush in the bathroom, backpack in the bedroom, jacket on the coat rack. Done.
The cabin had an outdoor hearth on the porch. A couple rocking chairs faced it. After dinner I lit a fire and sat down with a book, a stick, and some marshmallows. I watched the sun set behind the hills and the shadows rise from the valley floor to the ridges, an orange stripe of ‘alpenglow’ appearing, for just a moment, before the land dropped to silhouette. The sky faded — turquoise, blue, cobalt, violet, magenta, red, coral, orange — and the stars emerged as everything fell dark. I sat there on the porch and listened to the evensong, the crickets and the birds, and the crackle of my fire. My shadow, with its attached chair legs, stretched behind me in the little halo of firelight until it disappeared into the surrounding black.
Eventually it occurred to me, with a little drop in my stomach, that I was really alone out here. I was not just traveling solo, but I was also alone in this holler. The cabin had a few neatly-mown acres to itself, a two-lane road nearby, and — beyond that — endless forest.
My mind couldn’t help reminding me that I was a small, hairless ape out here with no backup. It couldn’t help conjuring lions, tigers, and bears in the dark around me. In even this small wilderness, I did not represent the top of the food chain.
My host had mentioned, off-hand, that a pack of coyotes had surrounded the cabin one day when she was there. They’d been chasing her dog, who’d retreated inside.
The scene here, in my chair by the fire, stars above, was a peaceful one. I’d come here to be alone, but the vulnerability I felt in the dark surprised me. It was a visceral and instinctive feeling that had no time for my rational mind’s reassurances. It came, I suppose, from somewhere deep and old inside me.
I remembered this wonderful picture book I have on my shelf, called Journey to the Ice Age by Rien Poortvliet. A kind of natural history journal, it reflects on Poortvliet’s years exploring the fields and woods near his home in the Netherlands. Sitting in a tree stand or blind, he likes to watch the local wildlife and, sometimes, imagine what the world was like long ago. Filled with gorgeous watercolor landscapes, the illustrations gradually travel back in time, from the present day to the late ice age.
One image, near the end of the book, shows a couple of Pleistocene-era nomadic shelters beside a river on a winter night. Made of bone and hides, the domed shelters are covered with snow. They blend in with the white grassland stretching from one horizon to the other. The river is a thin gold ribbon, reflecting the twilight sky.
I remember, when I first saw this image, how awestruck I felt. How huge and empty and lonely the land looked. That vast frozen world — no cities, roads, neighborhoods, houses, streetlights. Those flimsy nomadic shelters with their little campfires inside, on their own against the dark and the relentless glacial cold. Dire wolves, hyenas, giant bears, cave lions, and mammoths roamed just outside these hunters’ thin walls.
The image got me thinking of how, for so much of human history, we’ve seen nature rather differently, and perhaps for good reason. Human society was limited, at that point, to small tribes scattered across the endless wild spaces. Nature, from our point of view, must have felt inconceivably huge and omnipotent and indifferent to our survival. The monsters of our fairy tales and myths were an imminent threat. Wolves really did come for our children.
We were vulnerable. We were often hungry and cold. We were, seemingly, outmatched.
But appearances are deceiving. All those Pleistocene monsters marching across the glaciers? The mammoths and cave lions? There’s a deep and growing well of evidence that we hunted them into extinction. The wolves that played villain in our oldest stories in Northern Europe were all but eradicated by the middle of the twentieth century.
Over the centuries we lashed out, it seems. We slaughtered our nightmares.
We overcame what frightened us, I believe, before we understood what we’d lost. We encased ourselves in boxes of wood and steel and paved over the fields and forests and lit up the nights until the dark was gone. But we couldn’t see the stars anymore. And the forests, without their predators, spiraled out of balance.
There’s a funny paradox in our species’ relationship with the night and, maybe, nature itself. We are vulnerable in the dark, prey to animals better adapted. But the night is also a place of transcendence and connection and necessary solitude.
Because our senses are not ‘designed’ for the dark, we can experience a sense of disembodied freedom there. The dark is a place for our complicated, ungainly minds to wander, without the distraction of our bodies and the day’s incessant stimuli.
The wilderness itself is dangerous. But it’s also delicate. It’s bigger and more powerful than we can imagine, but we also have the ability — conscious or no — to alter it enough that we have triggered mass extinctions and runaway climate change. The monsters that threaten us in the night are, in fact, vital to our well-being. Bears and wolves are gods of a vast world who deserve our reverence.
But that’s a easy thing to write, here in my well-lit kitchen — a sentiment maybe harder for me to sustain when I’m alone in the woods.
Nonetheless: that night at the cabin, I made myself get up, walk off the porch, and out into the cabin’s yard. As my eyes adjusted I could make out more detail in my surroundings and in the distant hills. The grass crunched under my feet. The air was cool and smelled like pine and moss. The sky above opened up with a billion stars I couldn’t see at home. I felt more aware of what was happening around me. I felt my senses kind of stretch out into the wide spaces around me and I began to feel …connected. I was alone, yes, but I was also a part of all this, the trees and the hills and the night. I began to relax.
From out here, the cabin looked like a little black box hung with orange lights. A moment ago it had felt like my life raft, something to cling to in this dark ocean. But from out here, it looked a little cramped, too bright and hot. Too enclosed. Almost claustrophobic.
Eventually it was time for bed, so I walked back and went inside. But I didn’t feel so small anymore.