Outdoors column by Matt Dickerson: On delight and being outdoors
My wife and I love the way that certain animals play. She is especially fond of ravens, and delights to read accounts or watch videos of their frolicking. They have been known to sled on their bellies and wings down snowy hills, or repeatedly fly over big chimneys in the winter and tumble head-over-wing in the updraft. They seem also to like playing tricks on people, even when the trick has no practical advantage to them.
As for me, I prefer otters. But my reasons are the same; I love them because of their notorious playfulness. When hunting is slow, I also enjoy watching gray squirrels chase each other up and down and around trees, or leaping from branch to branch, in what appears to be a grand high speed (and high altitude) game of tag.
Of course the kings of playfulness are puppies and kittens (and sometimes dogs, and on rarer occasions cats). We have a new puppy in our house. His favorite toy is a rope with a knot on both ends. It is called “tug.” If you ask Coda to “fetch tug” — and sometimes even if you don’t ask him — he will search the room until he finds it, and then come over for a game of tug-of-war. If you stop playing, he will set tug on your lap and then grab it again, often along with part of your lap, just to get your attention.
I have also watched full-grown tigers play with huge beach balls in a zoo. And a friend of ours had a young horse who liked to play ball also, kicking it around the pasture and chasing it. Some animals, it seems, just like to play. Smarter animals especially are fond of play. Playfulness is, perhaps, a sign of intelligence.
Now I was recently reading some ancient Hebrew poetry. One beautiful poem in particular was fitting to my setting that day. I was sitting in a retreat center overlooking the Rio Frio: a clear and cold spring-fed river in a limestone canyon in Texas Hill Country. I imagine that Hill Country landscape and climate is closer to that of ancient Israel than most any other place in the United States. The unknown author of the poem could well have been describing my surroundings as she or he wrote of how the “springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.”
The retreat I was speaking at had ended 30 hours earlier, and all the guests as well as the staff had cleared out. I had the facility to myself for a couple extra days, and it had become very quiet and peaceful. Late in the day as the evening sky was turning pink, I was sitting in the main lodge directly over the water, writing while listening to songbirds in the trees outside my window. When to my surprise I heard the very distinctive sounds of gobbling, I ran to the door. Eight wild southwestern turkeys had come down out of the hills to feed near the river. The turkeys saw me and trotted off around the corner. I grabbed my camera and stepped outside to look for them. I found them around the building in the neatly mowed lawn. They were not alone. There were another 20 or so turkeys with them, along with three deer, all down out of the hills in the river bottom.
Now unlike the poet I didn’t encounter any wild donkeys, but I have seen wild mountain goats on a previous visit there. They were walking along the ledges of the canyon across the river. There are also cougars ranging those hills — the North American mountain version of the lions that prowled the hills of Israel 3,000 years ago and threatened the sheep of poet-shepherds like the famous psalmist-turned-king David.
Which brings me back to the ancient poem. If it had been written today, it might be categorized under nature poetry. But we know it instead as the one hundred and fourth Psalm in the Bible. What particularly moves me about the imagery of this poem is the delight the poet takes in nature. Like the writings of great modern nature writer Aldo Leopold, who wrote “The Sand County Almanac,” this Psalm speaks of that in nature which is useful to humans, that which has only marginal use, and that which has no real use at all. Yet all of nature has intrinsic value, and should be appreciated for that worth. Leopold himself by his own admission was not particularly interested in the economic side of conservation; he was very interested in conservation of nature even when it paid no economic dividends.
Like Leopold, the psalmist expresses a deep sense of delight in nature not only because it produces wine to gladden human hearts, but also because the trees provide nesting places for birds, and the mountains provide homes to wild goats. Trees, mountains, birds, and wild goats are all worth delighting in, even if they have no obvious usefulness (or economic value) to humans. The psalmist even gives thanks that God provides food for lions, which is an amazing expression for a psalmist in a culture devoted to raising sheep.
My favorite line of the poem, however, is the reference to the “sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures” and in particular to the great sea creature called “Leviathon,” which God formed to “frolic” in the deeps. I love the idea that some giant sea creature likes to frolic! It makes me think of whales breaching, or of dolphins I once watched surfing in the wake of the ocean ferry I was on. Perhaps I am attracted to the poem’s description for the same reason we like ravens and otters, dogs playing tug-of war and kittens with balls of yarn, and horses and tigers with beach balls. Delight and play seem to go hand in hand, and both seem to be associated with a higher order of intelligence. In some ways, delight is an enjoyment of a place or an activity that defies or transcends utilitarian ends and even perhaps rationality itself. And yet what would life be without it?
For me, at least, a big part of my attraction to outdoor sports — hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and even just sledding and building snow forts — comes down to this simple notion of delight. I think the more I delight in nature, the more I value it and honor it and am motivated to care for it. Not because it feeds me, or makes me money. Just because it’s there, and it’s good. If delighting in nature and play is good for ravens, otters, and the great leviathan, it must be worth doing for us humans. And maybe, if we humans spent more time in pure delight, it would be better for the rest of nature also.
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