I take my shoes off and relax in the shade of hulking granite boulders, high on a ridge in the San Jacinto Mountains. A short break on my hike back down from the old fire lookout on Tahquitz Peak. Having eyeballed for a few minutes the tiny orange, lime green and brown lichens encrusting the rock behind my head, I take in the greater scene beyond my patch of shadow. All is dry and bright in the summer sunlight. The air smells faintly of dust and the vanilla sweetness of Jeffery Pine sap. A ridgeline rolls in the background haze, dotted with pines, broken by gray rock outcrops, separated from me by a dark, wooded valley. The nearer trees—the ones on my ridge—are flagged and stripped half-naked of their needles by the winds that rush up from the valley. Swallows zip through the blue sky like little jet fighters—sometimes shockingly close to my head. Turkey vultures and hawks waft on hot cushions of air. Growing in a rock crevice just beyond my outstretched legs and wiggling white toes, is a little bush chinquapin, gnarled to perfection like a well-groomed bonsai tree. And, before I can even make sense of all this loveliness, a twitchy little lodgepole chipmunk scurries out from behind a boulder. He stops near the base of the chinquapin. Now he is motionless, except for a slowly undulating tail. We stare at each other.
Here is today’s charismatic spokesman for the mountains—for the whole universe, actually—this chipmunk, come to say, “Howdy!” He’s here to connect with me in kinship and love, I’m sure of it. He is the stuff of wild nature, a part of existence that has yet to be stained by human meddling. A connection with this wildness is what I am looking for when I hike alone in these mountains and places like them. I am up to my ears in wild nature while perched on this rock. The kaleidoscope craziness of my city thoughts slows and fades to gray in my skull. What fills the emptiness is what really matters: the chipmunk, the swallows and the lichens, the feel of gravel between my fingers, the breeze and how it cools the sweat on my skin—all of it. In moments like this I gush and prickle with happiness, with excitement for the possibilities of life. I feel the rightness of everything—including my own life—tugging at my guts, like a giddy rollercoaster drop. I sense my kinship and connectivity, by way of molecules and energy, to all things. These feelings are bound up with an enduring emotion that I carry in all my days among refrigerators, cell phones, stop signs, and fluorescent lights. The only name I have for this emotion is love. I love nature.
I study the convex blackness of the chipmunk’s eye. Before he darts away, I wordlessly invite him to share in my joy and see me as I see him. I imagine I am casting him one end of a rope, the other coiled in my hand. Please catch the rope, little brother! Know me as a fellow mammal, vertebrate, and tetrapod. We are fellow chunks of the universe, temporarily aware of ourselves and each other. I love you and all that you are a part of. Please love me back.
The imaginary rope falls limp and the chipmunk is gone. All the happy feelings I radiated towards him just dissipate on the wind. I am alone and the universe does not love me. This is not how I want to feel. Unrequited love is a bitch.
What did I expect of the chipmunk? His attentiveness was driven by fear of being eaten or by the prospect of getting one of my M&M’s. His passion is his own survival; the joy of brotherhood with a big, sweaty ape is lost on him. As I have so many times before—searching the eyes of frogs, snakes, and bugs—I have made the mistake today of expecting wild nature to possess humanness. In one way of thinking, it is the very absence of human qualities that defines wild organisms and places.
The universe may not be indifferent to my being, but what about my well-being? Is it even possible that the forest critters, trees, and rivers could willfully give of themselves and offer me friendship or love? Maybe nature is without the capacity to reciprocate our love. If so, how should we feel about that?
I remember standing in an awe-inspiring Catholic cathedral in France, facing a huge statue of the crucified, bloody Jesus. I searched the painted and sorrowful eyes for some glint of empathy. It would be nice to know I was cared for and looked after. But as with the chipmunk, I felt no sense of compassion in those eyes. I have to wonder if the devout Catholics that kneel there and cry out to that statute receive some message of love that I did not. And if Jesus plays the silent game with them too, does that diminish the feelings of rightness and peace that accompany their religious devotion and love?
My teddy bear is slumped on a shelf behind glass at my mom’s house. Man, I loved that bear, even when one of his eyes fell off, even when I outgrew the need to sleep with him tucked under my left arm. I wanted to believe that Teddy cared for me too. But I knew he was just a stitched sack of cotton. Loving me, or anything, was not an option for good ol’ Teddy. Nonetheless, I benefited from the happiness and comfort I took from him. I loved him and was fully aware that he could not return the sentiment.
How is wild nature different than that statue of Jesus or my stuffed animal pal? Nature is different because it is something we can experience directly—it is the real thing, not some idea or hope. My butt and legs are getting sore from sitting too long on this granite, this piece of nature. I slap it with my hand. I feel the warmth of the air in my nostrils. I hear the birds. The object of my love is right here! Nature is not hidden behind abstraction, the way God is (if he’s anywhere at all). The important difference between nature and something like my teddy bear is that the sense of kinship and connectedness we humans feel for wild animals, plants, and landscapes is based in incontrovertible truth.
Unlike the pleading Catholic in his relationship with God, I can’t expect nature to hear me, care about me, or love me. But I can revel in the upwellings of happiness and peace that I take from nature. Unlike my childhood self in my relationship with Teddy, I don’t need to fake or imagine my kinship to nature.
Still, isn’t this unrequited love that I carry for nature, the torturous kind that slowly kills you when the object of your desire couldn’t give a shit about you? You can appreciate all of a beautiful girl’s charms, even know her intimately, but if she withholds her love… how terrible and heartbreaking that can be. If nature cannot love us, shouldn’t we be “lost and groping?” That’s just it though: if nature cannot love, then there is no choice involved. Nature does not reject or accept us. We, on the other hand, choose to love nature and that is what matters. Love of nature is not just the good feelings we have when sharing a moment with a plucky chipmunk, or while watching the Sun sink into the ocean, or when naming the stars one chilly night while floating in a boat on an alpine lake. Love of nature is a caring for wild places, for their intrinsic worth. It is the actions we take, wherever we are, to preserve and understand the natural world. Unrequited love, in this case at least, is a happy and necessary thing.