Sometimes, when life is particularly challenging and I feel consumed by troubles—bills to pay, family squabbles, an illness with my loved ones, the loss of a job or comparing myself to others—I need to step back and get outside for a fresh perspective. And once in a while the universe conspires to throw all of these at me at once. Such has been the last few months. But I have learned from getting outside and embracing nature that there are lessons to be learned with each challenge.
In boarding school back in 1975, one of my teachers led us on a deer hunt in the Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont. I was directed to walk across the cow pasture and, when entering the woods, start climbing the hill in the dark. As I entered the woods, I stumbled on a branch twisted all over the ground. At the thump of my body hitting the ground, I heard, for the first time in my life, a loud snort and then a crashing sound. I had never heard a deer snort before, so, yes, at 15 years old I got scared. What if this beast charged me? I held my loaded .30-30 and pointed it in the direction of the sound. After a few minutes, standing there in the dark, I found the courage to continue up the hill.
I hiked for about an hour and slowly the light began filtering through the trees. I sat down and closed my eyes at the base of a big maple. When I awoke an hour had passed, and I thought I ought to get going toward our appointed spot for lunch. Southeast. I reached into my pocket to retrieve the compass and found nothing. It must have fallen out when I tripped over the branch in the dark. I looked around. Everything looked different in the light. Nothing looked familiar. I realized I was lost. I had no idea which way to turn and walk. Fear began to grip my adolescent mind.
I took a moment and sat down next to a small trickle of a stream that appeared to be coming from a spring just a few yards away. I started to do something that I had sworn to never do again because it had let me down when I asked to be a first-string quarterback in Pennsylvania; I prayed. I prayed not to the God that seemed to let me down but to the tiny trickle of water and its serene drip-drip-dripping. I leaned over and scooped up a clasped handful of the pure mountain water and drank it, quenching a strong thirst brought on by fear.
The thought came to me from out of the spring, an aquatic revelation: follow the trickle. The trickle will turn into a stream. The stream will turn into a creek; a creek will find its way downhill to a river. And towns full of people, people who need water, will live along that river. A town with people who can help me. I followed that stream, which became the creek which led me to the Deerfield River, and I found myself outside the town of Wilmington, where my search party had met me at dusk. I was safe. I was found.
Some folks say that we should all worship the same God, but I think that this deity comes in many forms, all of which are the divine speaking to us in a small quiet voice.
So this spring, when I lost my job, my dog, Jack, my Maine Coon cat, Willoughby, almost my wife due to illness, and had gotten so far behind in my bills that I may have even lost a friend to whom I owed money, I returned to the God of my understanding, the Great Spirit. I spent a considerable amount of time in the early spring woods, and once again, although it was a different kind of feeling, I recognized that I was lost. Not in the physical sense but in my spiritual and emotional life. I sat at the base of a big oak and started to fall asleep.
I was awakened by a loud gobble a couple hundred yards away. We spoke to each other for what seemed like an eternity, and after about an hour he marched into sight. I harvested him with one clean shot and started the long walk home. As I crossed a small stream, I realized that at 59 years of age, I had finally found my way home, blessed with the “Give Away Bird,” a nice 22-pound wild turkey.
I may find myself lost again at some point in the future, but now I know how to navigate with faith and an understanding that, as a part of the universe, I am never really lost.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.