viernes, 13 de noviembre de 2009

Brian Keenan on... Living with Wilderness.THURSDAY 10 SEPTEMBER 2009. By Hannah Baldock.

When I first went into the wilderness on my own in Alaska I thought I was really tough. But I soon got that kicked out of me within half a day. Because you can be tough, you can be a hard man when you see what it is and feel what it is that you are confronting. But when you don’t see it, but you feel its presence all around you that’s kind of scary because it’s bigger than you.Brian Keenan

Writer Brian Keenan was working as an English teacher in the American University in Beirut when kidnapped by Islamic Jihad in April 1986. After spending two months in isolation, he was moved to a shared cell, where he was blindfolded and chained hand and feet throughout most of his five year ordeal,of which he published a celebrated account, An Evil Cradling in 1991. In 2005 he published Four Quarters of Light: An Alaskan Journey, in which he seeks the ultimate wilderness experience during six months in Alaska, neighbouring the Yukon where Ed is spending three months alone in the wild.

Keenan has had a lifelong fascination with remote, desolate landscapes and his experiences of confinement as a hostage only intensified his desire to seek out the wilderness...

'My spiritual radar or antennae were more finely attuned to pick up on things in the wilderness that I couldn't before. I felt a lasting hunger for it. I live in the city, I am a city person. I am not a wilderness creature. I adore it, but I leave it. But if I am away from it too long I find my antenna or internal radar is dulled, doesn't pick up on things. So I go back periodically to replenish.’

His fascination with Alaska began as a small boy, while reading Jack London's Call of the Wild. 'I was born in the city, on the back streets of Belfast in a tiny house, and where there were lots of people all feeding off one another, it was a world of poverty and hardship, so maybe that's another reason why it had such an impact on me. I remember the landscape in that book. While my mates were out robbing orchards or playing football or whatever they were doing, I was having a better time, I was off in the arctic wastes, running in front of a wolf pack'.

Keenan spent six months in Alaska in 2002-2003 and this experience presented him with a spiritual epiphany, 'I was always drawn to wide open spaces, places where there were less obvious signposts of civilization to be found. Maybe it was a sense of discovery or being the first person, people not having been there before, all those things. I like great cities of course and I love going into churches even though I am not the slightest bit religious, but for me wild, desolate, empty open spaces are great cathedrals, invisible cathedrals. Something is held there, something you can perceive that is invisible, those wilds are a portal into another experience, and it's very liberating. It is not just a visit, more a visitation; an encounter with something. I don’t know exactly what it is and I don’t want to.'

With a belief that the wilderness is as much a state of mind as a place, he feels that visitors should be open to a power and mystery that reveals itself gradually,'When you go into a wilderness there is a visual landscape that can be quite entrancing. But the eye is a bit of a liar. You only see shapes and colour and form but that doesn’t really constitute the wilderness, which is almost like walking into a meditation. There is an electrifying presence of an otherness, which is very real. It can’t be seen but you feel it in an internal sense. At first It's scary, because you are not prepared for it. Then you calm yourself down and let it take you over.'

Keenan encourages visitors to the wilderness to leave their egos and urban machismo behind, 'When I first went into the wilderness on my own in Alaska I thought I was really tough. But I soon got that kicked out of me within half a day. Because you can be tough, you can be a hard man when you see what it is and feel what it is that you are confronting. But when you don’t see it, but you feel its presence all around you that’s kind of scary because it's bigger than you. It has this sense of being powerful but also being malign because you don’t understand it. But at the end of six months it had become something which was watching over me in a benign, comforting way. When I stopped being afraid of it. When you are willing to receive whatever it gives you, it's warming and comforting like a great big eiderdown. But you have to through that first stage.

Keenan prophesied that Ed would know when it was time to leave the wilderness, 'It will tell you when to leave. It always does. And you must obey it because if you don't you’re going to get in trouble. I know these Bear Grylls characters want to go out there, but there is no place for egotists in the wilderness. If you are going to get anything out of the encounter and embrace it, you have to cast all notions of yourself away. Jack London says in the far northern land he got his perspective. When you go and stay there, you have to be able to let go of your old beliefs, old goals.

And what of the solitude Ed will experience? 'I make a distinction between loneliness and aloneness. As human creatures everything in our culture and upbringing and religion tell us of sharing and validation through others. But aloneness can be deeply and profoundly enriching, as life-enhancing as communication with others. If you want to have a profound experience of what love can be, in a bigger sense, not compartmentalised into brotherly love, sisterly love, sexual love, parental love, which leaves us so fragmented, maybe that is in the huge force that hits you when you go alone to the wilderness.

Although human contact is limited or for Ed, there was none, something great can be gained from a communion with nature and encounters with animals in Alaska, 'It is the wildest place in the world. There is no other biological powerhouse like it on the planet. I went to the wildest part of Alaska where they had the caribou migration take place. I camped out and 50,000 caribou just walked past me. I stood in the middle of this huge heaving mass of snarling, shaking animal and they just parted and walked around me. They got so close to me I could feel their breath on my cheeks. The Indians have a dance where the spirit of the caribou enters the dance and at that moment amid 50,000 caribou, I could feel it happening to me. I sensed that if the caribou just walked past me like that, they knew me, and they had been with me before. One of the reasons I went to stay with the Indians in the Arctic was that they are natural environmentalists, they know intuitively how everything works together in natural harmony.

The harmony and communion Keenan talks of is not seen through a religious lens but he admits that this encounter with the wilderness is the closest he’s ever come to a religious experience. 'Entering the wilderness is entering the powerhouse of prayer because it will transport you. It will take you to places you were never prepared for. Never imagined. I brought back a sense of value and a sense of otherness that is very real and meaningful and comforting. An absolute assurance that wherever I am, I am not alone in the world. There is another world I can enter into, be part of, share. Some people call it madness, some people call it freedom, some people call it religious intoxication. I was deeply enriched by it and profoundly assured and very hungry for more. But I have to temper that hunger. You can only take what you are given.

Certainly I tend to go back there imaginatively as a jump-off place, wherever I want to go spiritually. Because there is an exchange that happens when the wilderness comes to give you something. And it depends how you handle it. You can leave the worst parts of yourself. I left things there that the Arctic winds blew away. Things that were encumbering me, the spirit of the wild came and took them away. Those kind of things you can leave behind, superfluous things.

I know when the wilderness told me to leave. I had a sense inside myself. Because I live in this life, not that life, and you have to come back and balance what you have encountered and what you have felt with the life you now lead. You can go back but don’t push it, the wilderness is bigger than any ego.'

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