May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Sin in the Wild Outdoors, June 1997


No, I literally love the outdoors
By Gretel Ehrlich

My ninth-grade Latin teacher was fired for being a friendly drunk and for assigning The Art of Love, by Ovid. The teacher spoke Latin fluently — if such a thing is possible — and we were expected to do the same. Those were happy hours, talking about love and lust in a language no one else knew, but the headmistress fired our teacher for his licentious ways.

Since Ovid, I've been blood-hungry, agitated, ravaged by Zeus and his jagged thunderbolt. Fire has followed me. I've watched hills break into flame and seen water burn and opened my mouth to a sky erupting in ash. My body has been lifted by water-clouds and cloud-water. Transmogrified into a mirage and dissolved because it failed to give off any definitive image. I've been nibbled at by moving continents of mosquitoes until I was the last hungry soul on earth. Now, in my exhaustion, I know it's best not to think about the past, best not to think at all. Better to gouge one's gills and hackles with passion, however and whenever it arrives, and afterward, walk home and sleep.

Wallace Stevens wrote, "Of love, it is a book too mad to read." It was lust, of course, that he was writing about, one of the so-called seven deadly sins. Lust is anarchic; that's why it scares us. It threatens the proprietary control of marriage, the stifled precision of bachelorhood, and rends the smooth fabric of adulthood. When I was a rancher in Wyoming, I associated the high country with wild behavior: Sexual forays were memorable for where they took place rather than for what exactly happened. We made love in dry streambeds, in the backs of horse trailers, on the narrow ledges of mountain trails, behind waterfalls, and in the steaming arms of the Yellowstone caldera. Perhaps the volcanologist's vocabulary best describes lust's exuberant effects, with its flank eruptions, pyroclastic flows, and nu‰es ardentes. Or else lust is oceanic, filled with fluids and tears, wind-tossed, a centrifugal storm that blinds us.

Yet lust focuses and calms, and we feast — on sunlight, wine, fur, heartbeats, viola bows lifting from a vibrating high C. Lust opens out and becomes wild hospitality: Boundaries are erased. The idea of lust is the urgent, tantric, primordial notion of mixing oneself up with otherness. In Greek, copulation is mixtus, literally "mingling with the world." Lust in the dust is not just for cowboys — it's the way we live. And if we look at the way consciousness works — fusing impulses into one seamless narrative we call experience — we can understand that we're hard-wired to seek out passionate unions.

Lust, l'amour feu, can torment or destroy with fire. It is juice and speed, fearlessness and infinity, reality's reality, not the manufactured rites of weddings and divorces; but it can also spread into a more even heat, one in which seeds germinate, things grow, and compassion arises.

Loss is the propellant, the fuel for lust. We breathe in the stink of mortality. Death stands in the same door through which our loved one enters — dog, man, woman, horse, mosquito, it doesn't matter. We fly toward him, her, or it, and we swoon. Not to be feminine or romantic, but because we know life is so terrifyingly short and experience doesn't come fast enough.

At the bottom of lust is a quivering stillness. "Passion so deep it seems like none," the T'ang poet Tu Mu wrote. And so it is. Tantric union implies the union of all disparate things. Just as the thread pulls tight, it breaks; the bottom of every barrel falls out.

Illustration by Mark Rosenthal

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