by Heidi Hall / Deep Green Resistance Great Basin
I was not yet two years out of an abusive relationship and a series of events had broken my tenuously recovered self into a million small shards – each one bearing a sharp edge to cut me again. He told me to shut the fuck up when he hit me in the face and I had come to the realization that the people around me, consciously or not, were inclined to enforce his demand.
My backpack was sitting in the corner. I only needed to double check my gear and organize some food for me and my best friend – a golden retriever named Oso. I understand it can be both emotionally taxing and dangerous to stand with someone who has become the target of an abusive person. I wish more humans had the courage of a dog.
Then there are the trees and the sky and the bare bones of the granite ridges and the never ending sound of running water and the trail in the morning and the simple living that comes from having nothing more than what you can carry on your back. There was a time when I thought I found solace in nature because it was impersonal. I have since changed my mind. There is a reason I feel much safer with the trees and the mountains and the water than I do with people. I feel loved. Unconditionally.
I remember walking through the forest on the canyon floor next to the river, one foot and one trekking pole after another, far removed from the physicality of hiking with thirty pounds on my back. I cried, I sang bits of songs and cried some more. I worked at putting away my anger at myself for what I had allowed to happen to my life. I became angry with those who had chosen, by their doubt or by their quiet apathy, to support the man who had abused me. I silently screamed “why?” at those who asked for my silence when they did not even know him. I yelled obscenities at a culture which told me if I were obedient he would not have hit me. I plotted the assassination of those who actually gave credence to the idea that he acted in self defense. Some may call this rumination and quite unhealthy. I was once told that some feelings need to be felt until you wear them out. I knew I could not bury this stuff. I chose to feel rather than fester.
And the trees listened. They did not shy away from my anger and tell me I was bad to feel what I felt. They did not say, “but you…” They did not try to tell me what I was really thinking or feeling. They did not try to fix me. They did not insist that my refusal to forgive the man was the real problem. They listened. And I kept walking.
We swam in the river that afternoon and napped on a slab of granite next to a large pool below a broad cascade. I caught a couple of trout to add to our dinner. The next morning we packed up and got on the trail early because we had to ascend an exposed and often hot southeast facing slope. This is stuff I understand. After more than forty years of backpacking I know what my responsibilities are.
We arrived at Bonnie Lake just around lunch time. We had camped here before, the second visit wilder than the first. The Sierra Nevada in California can boil up some real volatile weather in the summer and camping at the lakes near and above timberline may gift you with both humility and common sense if you are willing to learn. The first trip included wind blown rain and aiding the single pole holding up the flapping tarp while I cooked pasta shaped like little peace signs. The second trip involved torrential rain and pounding hail and using stout sticks to dig a canal so the water would continue to flow rather than pool up in our small dry space. We slept on one side of the canal and the kitchen was on the other side. When I went down to the lake to clean my fish there was the sound of a helicopter. I later learned that a group of runners left their cars in the late morning with the intention of running 100 miles through the mountains. They got wet, got scared and called for a ride. The previous day had also produced ferocious thunderstorms and the clouds had begun to build this day shortly after sunrise. I don’t know if the runners were paying attention. I think they may have expected the wilderness to comply with their terms. That is not a relationship – that is exploitation.
Unconditional love was often a topic of lecture in the abusive relationship. I was told over and over and over again that there was something wrong with me because I would not accept pornography as a part of our intimacy. He concluded that I did not love him unconditionally because I would not adopt his values and provide for his needs. I began to associate the concept of unconditional love with the image of a doormat or a bag in a boxing gym or my essence looking over its shoulder as if to walk away. This was exploitation. This was abuse.
On the surface unconditional love simply means love without any condition attached. But unconditional love is not powerlessness. You cannot love if you are dead. There is a self and there are boundaries. And the needs of one lover are no more important than the other.
So I went back to Bonnie Lake for a third time. That time we had wind – a wind which had me inventorying the trees around my campsite for potential falling limbs. If I were killed by a widow maker it would not be because the tree hates me and wants me dead. The rain falls on saints and sinners alike. I am responsible for my own well being and the wilderness will do what it does.There is no guile. There is no manipulation. There are no ultimatums given. There is no need to prove my love by performing on demand like a circus poodle. There are no lies to uncover. There is no insistence that I relinquish my agency to the wilderness and I do not expect the wilderness to bend to my will. And we share a love that is infinite, unconditional and impersonal.
Impersonal was the word that came to me after that third trip to Bonnie Lake. I was wondering if my continuing excursions to a location that seemed to want to beat me up was a kind of unhealthy relationship. I know people who will declare that an abusive man will abuse and it is not to be taken personally but it is really hard to see it that way when you are the one with the bruises. And then when I am in the wilderness I do not feel as though anything is directed at me – it just is. I sat beneath the tarp and laughed and napped, wrapped in my sleeping bag, through hailstorms and wind and cold even when I had wished for sun and warm.
Some people say an abusive person knows no other way to behave but the abuser does have enough self awareness to learn how to mimic the behaviors of someone who does not abuse. They know well enough to cover their tracks.They know precisely how and when to lie. They have the insight to understand when it may benefit them to behave like a decent person. Most abuse goes on behind closed doors. One will only rarely laugh and nap through an afternoon while in a relationship with an abuser.
But I am not certain how I would define unconditional love. I know it is not the gooey eyed infatuation which has one tolerating behaviors that may later infuriate. Nor is unconditional love the process of being subsumed into the life of another out of fear of being alone and unloved (as if love could exist side by side with demands and threats) I carry rain gear and shelter because I have respect for the summer thunderstorms. When I became afraid of my intimate partner I left for the last time.
Most of the time I do not believe there is such a thing as unconditional love. I also feel that in many circumstances the cultural concept of unconditional love is not appropriate. It is not appropriate to shame anyone because they they do not love someone who is abusing them. On the other hand someone who abuses an intimate partner, a friend, a child, an animal or the natural world is the one who deserves to be shamed and shunned.
Our culture insists we must forgive an abuser in order to heal from the abuse. My experience taught me that forgiveness leads to more abuse and I concluded that the idea of forgiveness being anything other than saying that what happened is okay is bullshit. I felt a hell of a lot worse trying to force myself to forgive and then felt worse than that because I could find no reason to forgive a man who battered both me and my dog. Like history and religion I believe the concept of forgiveness is a creation of the victor – not the victim. Or perhaps forgiveness is the creation of the apathetic bystander. Or perhaps forgiveness is preached by those privileged people who have never experienced (or deny experiencing) abuse and don’t want their individual little boat rocked by the waves of reality. Perhaps forgiveness is a clever tool for those who have something to be gained by making life easier for the abuser including the abuser himself. Perhaps unconditional love is no different.
So I came back to Bonnie Lake for the fourth time. I was coaxing a little breeze to ripple the water for my fishing. I spent the entire day exploring one side of the lake in little or no clothing. I swam out and floated on my back looking at the blue of the sky. I pulled out my watercolors and painted while lounging on a beach at a lake at 9,000 feet in elevation. We had a couple of large trout for dinner. That day of my life everything was very, very fine. I believe this is the kind of thing wilderness has to offer anyone who consistently practices personal responsibility and respect in the relationship. Perhaps that is also the root of unconditional love.
I used to believe that everyone is good in some hidden core of their being. I don’t believe that anymore. I think it is life itself which is good and one must love the life they have before they can love anyone or anything else. An abuser loves nothing. Their first victim is their own self.
Perhaps the love I sense in the wilderness is simply the pure joy of life. I can hear it in the water and the bird songs and the soft sounds of walking. I can smell it in the trees and the damp earth. I can feel it when I lie on a warm rock in the sun after a cold swim or when I climb to sit in a sunny spot in the early morning. I can see love in both the clouds and the stunningly clear sky and in the way the stars slowly overtake the darkness after the colors of sunset have faded. I know I am accepted as I am as long as I do no harm and in turn I accept wilderness with all of its danger and uncertainty and I offer my love – unconditionally.