The fear was real and palpable. Forty-something dads are not supposed to grow beards and disappear off into the wilderness in search of talking mountains. A sense of disapproval followed me around. ‘Are you, er, all right?’ asked a concerned friend. The breaking of petty taboos aside, I wanted to find out for myself if there was some talisman to banish the despair that crawls around the basement of the aware mind and I considered the best way to do this was to simply set out in search of it. That the culture of our modern technological and materialistic civilisation was both suicidal and insane was a given, but intuition suggested the tantalising prospect of a connection to something more intelligent if you looked in the right place. And perhaps something more intelligent than us would have an answer.
But just where was the right place? Most religions would say that it’s either inside you, or else in some numinous realm, such as heaven. Well, wherever it was, I felt that immersing myself in Nature might do the trick of coaxing it out of hiding. This raised a wider question, namely: why are we so afraid to break free of the norms imposed on us by society? It has been said that we each live our lives within a gilded cage, but the only way to see the invisible bars of this cage is to reach out and touch them. And then there’s cultural opprobrium to deal with: setting out on foot for two weeks with no plan and mobile phone is most people’s definition of insanity.
My journey started badly. On the first day I was thrown out of a shopping centre – ostensibly for looking like a tramp – and then my first night camping in a small forest beneath the flight path of planes landing at Copenhagen Airport almost saw me arrested for vagrancy by an aggressive park ranger. Being a hermit in suburbia is not easy, I discovered, even if I was only a part-time hermit. For company and stimulation I had brought with me two books. The first was Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Aurelius, a late-stage Roman emperor, was know as a Stoic philosopher and, as such, seemed to be the perfect companion for my doomer-ish quest. The second book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, was written by the American author Bill Plotkin. This book had been recommended to me and it was tossed into my backpack almost as an afterthought or in case I finished Meditations too quickly. As it turned out, both books influenced and shaped my journey more than I could possibly have imagined, and at times it felt as if I had these two wise souls skipping along beside me and egging me on with words of encouragement as I walked the soggy trails of Denmark and Sweden.
In the case of Soulcraft, the magical effect was immediate. Strange things began to happen. On my first evening, feeling somewhat despondent and wondering whether I should call the whole thing quits, I sat on a log and began to read. The book, it turned out, was about Plotkin’s own journey into the mysteries of Nature and how its radical message transformed him. As I read in rapt attention he finished the first section of the book explaining how his first soul quest vision had been of a caterpillar building itself a chrysalis. The meaning of this was clear, he stated; it represented a transformation from one form of being to another.Look out for your own caterpillar, was his message. I put the book down to reflect on the uncanny similarity of how he had felt at the time to how I now felt and was immediately confronted – to my complete astonishment – by a very large caterpillar staring right at me. It was on a long stalk of grass and illuminated in a shaft of evening sunlight. It was huge – almost six inches long – and it seemed to be waving its legs at me as if to say ‘Hello – over here!’ To say that I almost fell off my log in surprise would be an understatement, and yet this was just the first of several freakish happenings involving living creatures to occur on my journey. When I had recovered sufficiently to be able to reflect on it I took the caterpillar to be a harbinger for my descent into the realm of uncivilisation. ‘Walk this way,’ he seemed to be saying. ‘If you dare.’
I think I just might buy this book!