I go for fierce landscapes every chance I get.
Uluṟu, in the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park in Australia. (© 2017 iStock.com/Simon Bradfield)
I’ll bet there’s a place that beckons to you. It can be anywhere, really, ordinary or extraordinary: The corn fields in Indiana. Times Square. The local mountaintop. Antarctica. The pond in Maine from your childhood. The Amazonian jungle. The roof in your apartment building. Anywhere along the ocean. The African savanna. Cafés in San Francisco. A cabin in the Idaho woods. The streets of Provincetown. The backyard in springtime.
Me? I go for fierce landscapes every chance I get.
My dreams are to find the places that are at such a high level of beauty and absurdity that I literally cannot process it. The sublime. The realm of experience beyond the measurable.
For me, it’s the lazy way to gain religious renewal. Not being prone to spiritual practice, I believe I’ve found the next best strategy—something at the edge of existence. It has to do with transformation, or maybe, to be fair, not quite transformation. I’m just shooting for a little clarity of perspective. I’m looking for groundedness, anonymity, lucidity about what counts and what doesn’t, silence and solitude, a sense of awe and gratitude. Things like that.
So I want to get out of my element.
For instance, one year I made my way to a houseboat in the American Southwest with my family. We didn’t actually know how to pilot a houseboat. We were miles and miles from anyone else, from a cellphone signal or Wi-Fi connection or any kind of landscape we had ever seen before. When we’d go ashore, we were ignoramuses amidst the tumbleweeds, the red sandstone, the lizards, and the desert’s outrageous thorns. We were utter buffoons, New Englanders at the edge of what we knew.
That’s the kind of thing that works for me: hit-you-over-the-head spirituality. I know it’s not for everybody, but here’s the kind of thing that would tempt me: the Sahara, sleeping under the astonishing stars; or volcanos in Iceland, cool brittle lava under my feet. The Amazon offers dense jungle and amazing animals that make your design sense falter, and of course Australia, where the animals are even more amazing, and to top it off you’re in a humongous red desert. The impenetrable fog on Mt. Fuji. The cold, grey, desolate fiords at the Arctic Circle. And the Himalayas, where you can hardly breathe it’s so high up there, and the unretouched blue glaciers of Patagonia—and what, flamingoes there too? Cartoonish bamboo forests in China. And desert islands, where what’s there is pretty much nothing but stark sand and sea.
In any of these places, I’m pretty sure I would not be fretting about a sock lost in the laundry or the feeling of being pulled in a million directions or a screwup with the cable company or even, if you can believe it, U.S. politics.
Of course I also love friendly ponds and trickling waterfalls, rolling hills and lovely forests, big cities and charming villages, not to mention my own backyard. And people! Cultures and languages that astonish and humble me. But a fierce landscape where there can be no words, only wonder, is, above all, my kind of place.
No doubt you’ve found your own nurturing landscapes, where your spirit thrives. Places you visit on occasion, in memory or in person, where the breathing is easier, the weights of the world diminish, and clarity and gratitude emerge. I hope you get there soon.
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The Rev. Dr. Jane Rzepka served as senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship from 1999 to 2010. She is the author of A Small Heaven: Meditations and co-author of Thematic Preaching: An Introduction. Her latest book is From Zip Lines to Hosaphones: Dispatches from the Search for Truth and Meaning (Skinner House, 2011).