Finding Our Connections in Nature to the Wild and Unexpected

Rev. Zeke Pipher of Nebraska, a regular contributor to Deer & Deer Hunting and avowed outdoors nut who gets lost amid the trees, dirt and sky.

Connecting to nature — to one’s wild side — can take many paths, but the end result is usually the same: a sense of excitement and thanksgiving.

Nature doesn’t play by our rules. It makes up its own, and breaks them whenever it chooses — like the time a friend and I hunted elk in New Mexico. We were a mile from the truck, as the crow flies, when the sky morphed from a soft, safe blue to an angry, dark gray. Within a scant 15 minutes, we went from bugling for bulls with- out a care in the world to dodging lightning bolts and praying that God would spare our lives.

There was also that slow afternoon in the treestand when all nature seemed to be on break. I had been distracting myself with a giant maple leaf — stripping leaf material from the delicate spine — when I looked up and saw a sea of blue flying in my direction. About 50 indigo buntings were flying from tree to tree, moving through the forest as a complete entity. They got closer and closer, and then they landed in my tree and those immediately adjacent to me. They stayed for about 30 seconds before flittering to the next perch.

And, of course, there was the moment when the river reminded me she had a will of her own. It was a crisp November afternoon. When I crossed the second channel of the Platte to get back to my treestand, the water barely reached my knees. However, just three hours later, when the floods from Colorado finally reached central Nebraska, the cold, violent water was up to my chest. There was no way to get to the other side but to strip off my gear, hold everything over my head, and slowly creep across the powerful current.

These are just three stories. I could tell a thousand. I’m guessing you could reciprocate. If you’ve been hunting and fishing for more than a year, you’ve experienced the wild nature of the great outdoors.

The Need to Be Surprised
Some might present this unpredictable quality of nature as a reason to avoid it. For me, it’s the single most attractive thing about going outdoors. I grew up in a city full of concrete, cars and crowds of people. Cities thrive on predictability. In fact, they need it. The Department of Roads scrutinizes weather patterns in order to anticipate storms. Schools and businesses place thermostats in every room in order to keep the environment set to one precise temperature. Even the entire complex traffic light system is scientifically deter- mined based on studies of travel patterns of the human species. Little is left to chance. The more a city can predict the unpredictable, the better it can help keep things clicking along smoothly.

There is something about being surprised, about being connected in some way with nature, that so many men and women need. Some seek and find it, and others never do.

There’s nothing wrong with living in a city; but if you live around such predictability you have to work harder to find wild places. I believe that all people, but men in a unique way, need some degree of adventure, challenge and “the unexpected” in their lives. I agree with Richard Louv, “Nature — the sublime, the harsh and the beautiful — offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”

If we don’t have this occasional connection to the wild and unexpected, we often turn to vices or addictions to try to find stimulation. One movie that makes this argument through vivid, and at times dark, imagery is Fight Club. Ed Norton’s character, the narrator, works at a desk all day, and struggles desperately with boredom. He doesn’t know how to deal with his sterile, predictable life. He goes so far as to fake various terminal diseases so he can attend support groups. And then he meets Tyler Durden. Tyler demands that Ed Norton’s character hit him in the face. After some coaxing, he does and the two men have a fist fight in the parking lot. The narrator finally feels alive, and the two start up a “fight club,” giving other sterilized, under-adventured, non-wild guys a chance to experience the same adrenaline rush.

This movie makes a fascinating social commentary; many men shrivel up and die inside when they don’t have an opportunity to experience the thrill of the unexpected. The movie must have struck a nerve with men in America; several actual fight clubs sprung up in the years to follow.

In 1994, deer hunting became my favorite way of experiencing the wild. I was 23 years old and working as a graduate assistant for the Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife Department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. I lived in a tiny apartment and spent about 10 hours a day in the classroom or lab. It seemed like the only time I got to go outside was to drive to and from school. I enjoyed my work and studies, but I was drying up inside. I felt restless, like something deep and essential was untapped inside me. That’s when a friend who lived in the Nebraska Sandhills encouraged me to buy a deer tag, borrow his gun and hunt on his land.

On a Saturday afternoon in the middle of November, I hiked about a half-mile from the road and tucked into a large cedar tree that overlooked a valley and the adjacent hills. After about two hours of squirming around on the ground, I saw brown; a young 4-point basket-buck walked from behind a group of cedar trees on the top of the next hill. To my inexperienced eyes, he looked huge. I stopped breathing for a moment, pulled up the gun and made the shot. The buck ran about 50 yards before falling in the bottom of the canyon. It took me two hours to field dress that deer and drag him back to my red Chevy Cavalier by the side of the highway.

As I loaded that deer into the trunk, I felt an exhilaration that I had never experienced before. A brush with the wild had made me feel alive and thankful in a completely new way. I’ve been deer hunting for the past 23 years, and that sense of excitement and thanksgiving hasn’t left yet.

Wild Men, Wild Places
I am a wild child — a man perpetually drawn to unpredictable, rugged, challenging places and experiences. This passion fuels my desire to write these articles about hunting. It’s why I enjoy being a part of the greater tribe of deer hunters.

It’s also what recently drove me to write and publish a fable entitled, “The Wild Man” for my 13-year-old son, Aidan. I wanted to teach Aidan, and other young men, the ancient wisdom that many of us seasoned hunters have found: that the wild — while unpredictable, and even dangerous at times — helps to keep us truly alive.

— Zeke Pipher is a pastor, outdoor speaker and author. To pick up a copy of Zeke’s latest book, “The Wild Man,” visit www.TheWildMountain.com.