The Air I Breathe, by Dr. Burton Webb

May 29, 2014

Dr. Burton Webb, NNU's Vice President for Academic Affairs, has a deep love for Idaho's rugged outdoors. With an educational background in biology and zoology, he often ventures into the wilderness for backpacking and camping excursions ​for recreation, physical exercise and spiritual renewal.

The light came in slant and filtered by millions of insects floating on the invisible breeze. It was early, too early to be up and walking about, so I perched on my elbow and listened. Outside the tent I could hear footsteps erratically falling and stopping at unpredictable intervals. Next to me, my nephew snored softly, clutching his hunting knife with both hands. Slowly, and with great caution, a small doe edged her way up to our tent. She was trying to see inside but the mesh and rainfly prevented her from doing so. 

"Joe," I whispered as I gently nudged him, "Wake up, you'll want to see this." 

Minutes later Joe would rise and the two of us would battle the mosquitos as we packed up our tent and headed out into the Sawtooth Wilderness for another day in the mountains. The Sawtooths are every bit as majestic as the more famous mountains in the Northwest, but they are far less frequently travelled because there are no major vacation towns in the Sawtooth Valley, and no ski resorts on their slopes. More importantly, they are in the NNU's backyard. 

Perhaps Wordsworth described it best: "In Nature and the language of the sense, the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart and soul, of all my mortal being." In Celtic tradition these are called thin places where the supernatural intersects the natural world in a way that is palpable. I'm not talking about some new-age, flaky theology of the earth mother; no. God, in all his glory writes lines of refreshing peace along the ridges of mountains; melodies of comfort ride in the churring roll of water as it trips from boulder to eddy, and words that insects sing as sleep falls at the end of each day bring rest as nothing else can. 

Each time I wander here I find pieces of my soul. I love my family, my job, and this place I live. But, I am never wholly present in “real life.” 

Part of me is always missing. I can always be marked partially absent.

I'm still out there on the trail, walking, hearing only the sound of my shoes in the dirt below; resting and thinking about absolutely nothing; laying on the ground and listening to microscopic insects munching on the leaves above me; drinking in the still-foggy valley below while I sit on the overlook basking in sunshine; listening to the gentle rain tapping on a shelter roof; gazing at a million pinholes in the sky canopy above me.  

Such memories are sweet to me, deeply spiritual, personal, not shared by many others. 

They are with me daily—as close as the air I breathe.  


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