I yearn to be closer to nature. Like so many of us, I live and work in the city, spend a lot of time behind brick walls, in office spaces, staring into a computer. I long for that feeling of peace and serenity, where I feel most alive and deeply connected to this beautiful pulsing earth that I am living on. My senses come alive. I long to walk in the forest, breathe deeply the fresh crisp air, swim in the ocean, lie down in a field at night and watch the stars in the sky twinkle, and listen to the rustling of the leaves.
But nature isn’t always blissful. Because with nature comes wild animals, with teeth and claws and potential aggression. I have been thinking a lot about my fear of wild animals because one of my goals is that I want to spend more time in nature, and take more adventures into the wilderness. I would like to find a way to do this alone, to be comfortable with myself on my own in nature. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I was raised in cities, went to city day-camps, and my experience with nature was somewhat limited. Unlike many of my friends who went to sleep-away camp as children and are now comfortable solo camping or portaging in Algonquin Park for weeks, I have no idea how to keep myself alive. And I am afraid of the animals.
My fear doesn’t just come from my imagination. I have had two specific run-ins with animals in my brief time in nature. In my early 20s, after I finished university, I hitchhiked out to the West Coast of Canada to live life. I had no plan, besides meditating and living in the moment and meeting kindred spirits along the way. I did WOOF’ing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) for a few months in British Columbia, where I was given room and board in exchange for helping out on the farms. I was at one farm that was situated near Nelson B.C, and the farm was surrounded by forest. By the time I was there, I had been traveling for quite a while, and I felt tired and lonely and ready to come home, although I didn’t admit it to myself. The bohemian lifestyle of traveling without purpose was difficult for the Type-A part of me that I so desperately wanted to reject. As much as I tried, the folks I met on my travels did not feel like my people. And truthfully, I didn’t love the manual labor of farming that I idealized, and I was exhausted.
In this context, I was sleeping in my tent at the farm and I woke up with a start at 4am to the shaking of my tent and the loud sound of breathing and snuffling. I looked beside me, and the shape of a bears head was under my tent pushing it up and down. I am going to die. My brief 22 years of life passes through my mind. I can’t breathe. I can’t make a sound. Finally (probably in seconds, but it felt like years), I snap out of it and yell loud and fierce: “Get out of here!”. Immediately, the bear retreats and my tent stops shaking. I’m afraid my heart is going to explode out of my chest. I lie there in silence. I don’t know what to do. I decide, after a few minutes, that I need to get the hell out of here. I hate it here. I hate farming. I get up, unzip and step out of my tent. I see the bear sitting there, about 4 feet away from me, watching me. I look him right in the eye. I feel strong and angry. I point at the bear and I yell again: “Get out of the here!”. The bear looks at me, and saunters away from me to the edge of the forest, now probably 30 or 40 feet away. As my heart races, I take down my tent, pack up my stuff, and get the hell out of that farm. I hitchhike to Vancouver, buy a plane ticket and fly back home to Toronto.
Fast forward 21 years later, and my wife and I are celebrating our 15-year Wedding Anniversary in Akumal Bay, Mexico. We have come to Akumal because we love the ocean and we have just recently realized that we love snorkeling. Snorkeling connects us to life under the ocean, and it is such an incredible feeling to silently witness these creatures – fish of many brilliant colors, sea turtles and sting rays, just living their beautiful lives in the sea. I am living in bliss this vacation – we are getting up at dawn each morning to watch the sun brilliantly rise over the ocean, and then spending 2 hours peacefully snorkeling, all before breakfast. I am so relaxed, until probably day 4 of our trip, when we’re snorkeling and we literally almost swim right into a Barracuda! We scream into our snorkeling masks and swim to the beach as fast as possible. “Did you see that? What the hell?” We find out at the beach that he has a name – Barry the Barracuda, and he has lived in Akumal Bay for many years. Barry is well known, and the regulars who come here know him well, and take underwater photos of him (this is Barry, a photo that another guest took and sent to us for our ‘souvenir’).
He’s harmless, they say (just don’t wear dangly earrings). I don’t believe for a minute that he is harmless – Barry is a wild Barracuda!
We consider whether our snorkeling days are now over. I’m not sure if I can enjoy snorkeling while knowing that Barry exists (and that I might run into him!). Maybe we should just go to spa for the rest of the vacation? Read more and enjoy the pool? But after considering our options, we decide that we love snorkeling too much to give it up. We go back in the ocean, with the knowledge (and fear) that Barry lives there. And as I continue to enjoy watching the beautiful fish and sea turtles (and boy, do I love the sea turtles), I have lost my innocence that I am safe. With wilderness comes animals, and not always the harmless ones. I snorkel with one eye out for Barry, and the strange thing is, now that I’m aware of his existence, I keep seeing him. So I keep my distance, recognizing that this ocean belongs to Barry and not to me, that I am a guest in his home, and I try to send him positive vibes (so he doesn’t eat me, of course).
These two experiences of the wild are so different from each other, that I can’t possibly compare. In the bear experience, I am completely alone and I run as far as I can – literally onto an airplane to get back to the city. With Barry the Barracuda, I feel safe enough (not being alone, knowing the beach is close by, being older and more grounded in myself) to choose to take a small risk, to live with fear behind my eyes as I continue to swim in the ocean. What I do know from these experiences, is that being in nature is not the disney experience of sunny skies and bird songs (although there are those moments too), but instead its embracing both the bliss of beauty and the heart-pounding terror of fear. And beauty and fear don’t have to be dichotomies for each other, but can be experienced at the same time. It’s not about preferring one feeling over the other, but for me, it is about being open enough to accept whatever experience is in front of me. As Pema Chodren, one of my favorite Buddhist authors writes: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.” (When Things Fall Apart – p. 71). That is the gift that my Bear and Barracuda gave to me – two fresh moments of facing my fear, being thrown out of my nest of comfort and waking up to life.