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Poor Will's Almanack: January 7 - 13, 2014

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In his book, The Unforeseen Wilderness, Wendell Berry describes what happens when a person steps away from familiar ground, enters a wilderness or ventures “alone into a new place.

Negative emotions like “the ancient fear of the unknown” that come from a lack of familiarity are, he says, not the experience of the new place itself, “but of yourself in that place.”

Berry suggests that the discomfort which arises because of being out of place is not overcome by learning the place so much as by learning yourself. The experience of physical disorientation is one of “essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else.” What might appear to be a human-versus-nature encounter is actually a psychological or spiritual challenge in which the outside world is a testing ground. And once a person rediscovers balance, “learns to be at home,” then nature offers “the possibility of sudden accesses of delight, vision, beauty, joy that entice us to keep alive and reward us for living.” 

Wendell Berry does not say exactly how a person is to find self in nature; he promises, however, that the forests and rivers and mountains and prairies are key to the journey of discovery and that “they can serve as spiritual landmarks in the pilgrimage to the earth that each one of us must undertake alone.”

This is Bill Felker with Poor Will’s Almanack. I’ll be back again next week with notes for the third week of deep winter. In the meantime, look for the spiritual landmarks all around you.

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Bill Felker has been writing nature columns and almanacs for regional and national publications since 1984. His Poor Will’s Almanack has appeared as an annual publication since 2003. His organization of weather patterns and phenology (what happens when in nature) offers a unique structure for understanding the repeating rhythms of the year.