“And so John the Baptist appeared in the desert… [wearing] clothes of camel hair, with a leather belt around the waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
How’s that for the start of an exciting outdoor adventure? I guess you could call it a wilderness survival story. It’s also part of the Christmas story in a way. We will come back to that. But first, what about the wilderness, camel hair clothing and a diet of locusts?
The idea of survival in nature certainly appeals to me, mainly because nature itself is attractive. I have watched various survival shows and often imagined spending several weeks in the Alaskan wilderness surviving off the land. I thought about how I would do it, and also how well I would do it. Honestly, I think I could do pretty well.
That is, I could do pretty well for a few weeks – as long as I could do it in late summer during berry picking season and before the weather got really cold. And as long as I could with all my hi-tech outdoor gear and clothing: Gore-tex rain coat, Klymit lightweight, insulated inflatable camping pad with a good down sleeping bag, modern and sturdy tent , high quality hiking shoes, my Osprey Backpack, lots of Darn Tough socks made in Vermont and Icebreaker merino wool shirts. I also absolutely want my fly rod (or rods) with me and a good selection of flies (so I have a chance to eat something other than berries). And either a Jetboil stove with a lot of isobutane or maybe a BioLite stove so that I can cook with little wood chips while still charging the many electronic devices that I will have with me while I work out. to “roughen it up”. Give me a few more minutes and I’ll add some more to this list. When my list is complete, it will be much longer than a camel hair dress with a leather belt.
In fact, I spent parts of several weeks “surviving” in the Alaskan wilderness last summer, while co-teaching an environmental writing class. While camping by the ocean in Kachemak Bay State Park not far from the Grewingk Glacier, we found, harvested and ate wild peas, as well as salmon berries and black currants. One night I even managed to land a salmon while fishing off the beach. The salmon made a truly delicious meal, although it wouldn’t have provided more than a bite or two for each of the 13 of us. Luckily a passing commercial fishing boat threw in some extra salmon to add to our dinner. And the berries and wild peas would have left us pretty hungry if the former hadn’t been mixed with our instant oatmeal and the latter with the potatoes, carrots and onions we brought with us.
A week later, we had a similar experience in Lake Clark National Park, sleeping in tents in the middle of bear country an hour’s small plane flight from the nearest highway system and restaurant. When I say “sleeping in tents” I mean the students slept in tents. The three teachers slept in the cozy space of a wooden cabin, a luxury we really enjoyed on the third night when we were hit by heavy downpours. We ate red currants and watermelon berries that we found. They went well with our hiking dinners and our bags of dried mangoes.
If I had found wild honey – and a way to harvest it without getting stung – I would gladly have enjoyed it too. As for the grasshoppers, however, I’ll take a pass. Of course, a bug or two got into my mouth every now and then while I was biking and fishing. And yes, I saw Viggo Mortenson’s movie “Hidalgo” in which “Frank Hopkins” survives the aftermath of a locust swarm by eating some of the locusts. But intentionally making it a meal? Not once has this been part of an imaginary wilderness survival experience.
And it brings me back to the Christmas story and John the Baptist eating grasshoppers and wild honey while living in the desert. The accounts of the life of Jesus appearing in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark both mention these details of John’s clothing and diet. And although the wild part of John’s life only takes place 30 years after the most famous Christmas story – the part about the birth of baby Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem – John is still involved in the story as early as the beginning. Luke’s account of the life of Jesus takes us back six months before Jesus was born to the birth of his cousin John. It is this same Jean who will grow up to become the companion of survival in the desert, wearing camel hair and eater of grasshoppers, named Jean-Baptiste.
Now, those who head to the wilderness for a survival experience usually have some motivation. For some modern people, the motif is something simple, like the enjoyment of calm and loneliness, and a break from the pitfalls of modern industrial life. For others, it could prove itself, or maybe become famous, or maybe get the approval of some of those manufacturers of high-tech equipment that allowed them to survive comfortably in the wild. (My own motivation is usually a mixture of beauty and loneliness, and the kind of good fishing that often requires stepping away from civilization.)
John’s motives were different. His task in life was to prepare the world for Jesus, who was to be the savior of the world: the Creator God himself taking human form and entering into his own creation. And one way that John sought to prepare people for Jesus was to tell them to stop doing bad and to do good instead. Stop flying. Stop oppressing. Stop fooling people. Stop using power for selfish gain. Don’t make false accusations. Live contentedly rather than greedily. Share with each other and be generous.
The “them” who did evil things included many powerful government leaders (like King Herod), who used their power in corrupt and oppressive ways. And calling powerful leaders for corruption is always a dangerous thing. John’s wild life did not allow him to escape attention. Indeed, it seemed to bring him extra attention. And in the end, it wasn’t the wilderness itself that proved to be the most dangerous, but the corrupt power structures of civilization. Neither heat nor cold, nor wild animals, nor lack of food, but the king’s order of execution cost John his life. Or, we could say, John’s commitment to telling an unpopular truth is what cost him.
Even if I still dream of it sometimes, I ultimately do not intend to try a real survival experience in the wilderness. I will stick to my short term comfortable camping trips with my high tech gear, plentiful food and fishing gear. My older brother who has lived in Alaska for several years likes to point out that the Alaskan wilderness offers so many ways to die. And I believe it. Although in the end, the wilderness might not be as dangerous as I think it is. At least not in comparison to standing up for the oppressed while making the powerful uncomfortable.