Well, they don’t call them the Goodlands for a reason. They creep people out. Set against an everyday landscape, they just look strange and unnatural. Don’t go into the Badlands at night. You will see things you never before imagined. Desert and wild places are like that. Their mention most often occurs in archetypal quests, the dangerous journey where the hero ventures out to a strange land to retrieve treasure of the gods that has long been forgotten. Now that might make you want to spend some time in the wilderness.
We don’t have to go far to find badlands. We have them in Canada, notably in southern Alberta in Drumheller and Devil’s Coulee. The Indians used to call such lonely spots, the place of the Dead. Once upon a time, the entire prairies used to be vast sea plain complete with all that encompasses. There are forgotten worlds we can only imagine, and the fossil record brings life to the kind of monsters that we generally only hear about in myths and legends.
Seeing the fifty foot long skeleton of Bruce the Mosasoar in Morden, Manitoba makes Leviathan and Behemoth from the book of Job seem not so vague. Leviathan - the fearsome sea monster whose scales would repel arrows and spears, who belched forth fire from his mouth and smoke from his nostrils. How could such things even be? They seem to have been, in the badlands.
A daytime trip to the badlands can turn up some unusual treasures that require careful eyes to spot out. Most common are ancient deer incisors which look pretty much like all the other small bits of stone strewn about until you examine them up close. There are also comical finds, like fossilized dinosaur poop, which you recognize, because it looks like well, poop.
One of my most unusual excursions was to the badlands at night with my brother. It’s not the time people usually visit. You turn off your headlights to drive in under night skies. There are otherworldly aspect to this, things you don’t see in daylight. Our visit was by a full moon which can be surprisingly bright. In a landscape so barren, the animals hidden during the daylight, come out to forage. They wander around finding any scrub of plant life they can munch on. They don’t much care about human beings. And so it is that you find yourself surrounded by the strange and quiet forms of antelope and deer, huffing and snorting as they bump up against you, grazing all around as if nothing is unusual. Standing by a silent antelope under a black sky is mysterious, and unsettling.
I cannot forget the vividness of my own experience when I got lost in the Judean desert above the Dead Sea plain for three days. It is the same area where Jesus disappeared for forty days, fasting and praying before he started his ministry. It is where he was tempted by the Devil, and it is also the location of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, brought to life in the twenty-third Psalm. During my own foray into the wilderness, the most odd aspect was the many life forms that appear. It is unusual to be in the company of such things. It means that the animals have no context by which to fear humans. You are wandering around a desert plain that looks like the moon, all alone, and montain goats are walking up to you staring, wondering what kind of animal you might be. It is a scene you are unlikely to forget any time soon.
Perhaps that is why vision quests are attached with the idea of sending a young man out to such lonely places, in search of himself. He sees things he cannot to see in the day-to-day. These kind of vision quests are accompanied by fasting so as to add acuity to the senses. The participant abjures food and drink until he achieves his goal. If he succeeds he will have an other-worldly kind of vision and return to the community with some humility and the status of a man who no longer imagines he knows everything.
What does the wilderness signify in archetypal terms? It’s a place of revitalization that seeks to re-establish communion with God, a relationship we sense has been lost. It seems to be universal, that mankind goes to the wild places in order to find God. Wild places remove the everyday, and give other things a chance to be. Ancient societies have called such spots “Thin Places” because the veil separating man and things eternal is temporarily drawn back. Thin places are places of revelation.
It makes me think about the fasting portion of the equation. Fasting is prescribed in the Bible as a common accompaniment for prayer. It is a spiritual discipline rarely adhered to in modern times. There are many instances of fasting in the Bible, voluntary lack followed up by some kind of spiritual sustenance. When Jesus fasted and prayed In the Bible, he was sustained by angels with food of another sort. “My bread and meat is to do the will of Him who sent me,” he said.
A trip to the wilderness can be enlightening. It might be accompanied by fasting, as a means of seeing things differently. We might also fast, so as to dine with the almighty. It’s eating between meals, you might say. “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” the wandering Israelites asked rheutorically. It’s what can happen in the wild and lonely places if you are very lucky. Unexpected sustenance from above.