Monday
Apr102017

Day 178-216: Cascabel, part 1

Two years ago in April, Tom and I rented a 100-year-old stone cabin in Cascabel, Arizona, in the San Pedro River Valley, a couple hours east of Tucson. To the uninitiated this might be considered the middle of nowhere. The nearest grocery store is 45 minutes by car, the best road here is unpaved, water is scarce, and a census might have to include cows to break 300.  It didn’t take long, though, for us to realize that Cascabel is actually somewhere, and not only that, it is somewhere special. Even after just a week we knew that we wanted to come back. It took us two years to do so, but on March 1st we arrived for a seven-week stay.


Downtown Cascabel

There is so much to say about this place—both the land and the community— that I get tongue-tied just thinking about it, so I am going to come at it through the back door. Instead of painting the grand picture, I am going to start with some humble bits, sidling up to it with a little whistle, as I have seen some people here approach a cow they needed to move.

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After having been in the desert now for the last four months, we are getting used to the "don't touch that" rule, whether it is the furry-looking cholla cactus, or the cat-claws of the acacia, or the long spikes on the mesquite trees. It seems best to just assume that rule applies to all plants and, well, pretty much anything that moves. Having grown up in the soft-and-friendly Pacific Northwest, I like to touch things, and I have to be reminded to keep my hands in my "Haydn-pockets" here.

Every Wednesday there’s morning coffee at the community center, followed by a work party at the community garden. Our first Wednesday here, the guy who sits down at our table is recovering from a scorpion sting on his foot. I am talking to someone else and can’t hear the details, but the length of his story and the size of his gestures suggest that he has been in a lot of pain.

I heard about fire ants on my previous visit, so I am careful to avoid ant mounds when I am walking. When we are visiting a neighbor here, looking at the native grass plantings he is tending in his restored pasture, I stop for a closer look at some unusually large black ants swarming in and out of a hole in the ground. "Oh, those,” he says, telling me the name, which I can’t remember now. “Don't mess with those, their bite is way worse than a scorpion sting!" Move along, in other words. Maybe over by that prickly pear cactus or in that stand of velcro grass. Or in a patch of that bristly plant with the yellow flowers that someone warned me would give me hives if I touched it without gloves.

Javalinas look like small, vertically-flattened, pointy-toed pigs that wander around in packs looking for mud. Mostly they seem interested in hiding, and the few times I have seen them it was from the rear as they ran hysterically away from me. But one woman mentions that she doesn't like to walk along the river in a place where the javelinas gather, not so much because they are dangerous, really, but because "javelinas don't have a sense of humor." Woody, the ranch's herd manager, tells a story of one angry javelina waking him up from a nap in the fields and chasing him into the stock pond. His description of the smell of the sludge he stirred up from the bottom of the pond when he fell in made me think that being bitten by the javelina might have been preferable.

After moving cows one day we sit in a little house next to the corral having cookies and cheese and I notice a good-sized spider (a solid inch in diameter with all the legs pulled in) on the wall over our host. Spiders aren't a trigger for me the way snakes are, but I think she might like to know about it so I mention it. Oh yeah. That guy is just a baby. It is deadly poisonous, of course, and moves really fast, so I am waiting until I can focus on it to catch it.

Oh, and I have now seen my first rattlesnake. I should have been forewarned, as Cascabel means “rattle” in Spanish, and refers in this case to the tail-end of a rattlesnake. Sure enough, our first night here I “discovered” a good-sized rattlesnake coiled up by the end of our trailer, and get my first lesson in snake catching and moving.

A few weeks ago most of the community gathered for a memorial service for a very dear friend of theirs who recently died. After a spacious hour of silence, meditation bells, and remembrances we sit for potluck lunch. The woman next to us asks us how we are doing here, and we tell her how much we are taken by the valley, to which she responds, “Well, with the warmer weather, you will need to watch out for the Kissing Bugs." Kissing Bugs! What? No one told us about Kissing Bugs. Turns out these are stink bug look-alikes that hide behind your cushions and come out at night to bite you while you are asleep, attracted evidently by the smell of your breath. Their saliva has a little anesthetic in it so you don't even feel them when they "kiss" you and they are able to fill to exploding on your blood like a leech. Great. Bed leeches.

The next Wednesday I am back at the community garden when someone walks by the young man who is helping with our tomato transplanting team. "I hear you got hit by a burn worm," he says in the sort of somber tone you might use for someone who has had a limb amputated. Burn worm?!? What now? Turns out these are some kind of caterpillars (also known as mesquite stinger caterpillar) covered with stinging hairs, that fall out of the trees and feel, as the unfortunate young man reported, like four bee stings at once. At least now I know how to treat it, which is to apply duct tape to the burning spot and then rip it off to pull the little stinging hairs out of your skin. This is also supposed to work with cholla glochids, though my previous experiences with sports tape make me wonder if this cure might add insult to injury.

I say all this to emphasize how amazing this place is. That even though the list of poisonous, prickly, and painful things to be avoided is longer than our trailer, I still wake up every day feeling like I have landed in paradise. Perhaps the threat of harm makes me pay more attention and take less for granted. Perhaps there is a kind of awe at the lengths things go to survive in harsh environments. Perhaps there is a longing to be as at home in this wide, arid land as the creosote bush and the cactus.

All I know is that this land feels deeply, vibrantly alive—an understated aliveness mirrored by the people who choose to live here. I have experienced a profound gentleness in many of the people here, coupled with a willingness to act decisively in service to what they believe in. There is a commitment to being partners with the land, rather than the land being a possession or only a means to making a profit. These ideals seem to arise at least in part from the desert itself, which is absolutely unforgiving and absolutely itself, while also offering an intense spiritual aliveness.

Not everyone who lives here ascribes to these ideas. There are many different faces to Cascabel, and what you see depends on where you stand and who you talk to. What is clear to us, though, is that we are here to learn—about generosity, about community working together, about how to live in challenging circumstances, and most of all about the land.

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Tom and I are staying at a ranch which is the central location for Saguaro-Juniper, the cattle-raising part of this community, and have parked our trailer amidst the welter of houses, trailers, corrals, sheds, horse trailers, trucks, and the kind of equipment and raw materials that accumulates on every farm. We feel so lucky to be here. To the west we can walk to the San Pedro River and can get to an area where the riverbed has year-round water. To the east we can walk for miles out into the saguaros and creosote bush of the desert. Our hosts are some of the original founders of this community and it has been a pleasure to get to know them and hear their stories.

This is also the location of the Sweetwater Center, the organization that I am volunteering for while we are here. I am helping with some pasture improvement projects as well as caring for two new plantings of pollinator plants. What this really means is I do a lot of weeding, which is something with which I have loads of experience. I am surprised at how much I am enjoying it. I think it feels good to just do something familiar, simple, and rote after six months of so much change.

When I am not weeding or walking in the desert with Tom, I have been immersed in the busy social life of this community. Coffee gatherings, Quaker meeting, potlucks, horseback riding, folk dancing, meditation group, writing group, road cleanup, cheese making, game night, celebrations of all sorts of things, committee meetings, mesquite-pulling work parties, conservation work, and tending the community garden all somehow get squeezed into the short weeks around here. The result of that, though, is that after only six weeks here, I have met just about everyone who lives along about a ten-mile stretch of the dirt road.

There is so much more to say about this place, but it will have to wait for another post. I am still digesting the incredible vastness of the desert, the life-giving presence of the river, the principles of the people who have been drawn together in community, and the work of the organizations that have formed around the intention of tending this valley and its inhabitants.

In a week we will pack up our trailer and move on. We aren't sure where we are headed or what the next five months will hold for us. We don't know when we might come back here. But the people and the land are in our hearts now and give us strength. We feel different after being here—a little more relaxed, a little more aware, and warmed by many memories.

Saturday
Mar042017

Day 171-177: Community  

A picture without any people may seem like an odd beginning for a post titled "community." But this picture would not be possible without the work of many different people coming together in common cause.

Most obviously, the cottonwoods below mark Sonoita Creek in the Sonoita Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservancy preserve founded in 1966 to protect one of the few remaining permanently flowing streams in Arizona. This mostly undeveloped watershed and riparian area provides crucial habitat for migrating birds and wildlife of all kinds. Trails from this site lead upstream to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds (an Audubon education site) and off into the surrounding hills.

The mountains in the distance are part of the Coronado National Forest, an excellent example of land that we hold in common. This forest is composed of at least 12 distinct mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico that create "Sky Islands"—cooler, moister pockets of forest separated by large desert basins. These forests are the remnants of larger forests that covered this area when the climate was cooler and wetter during the last ice age. If you hiked up the side of the mountain you would travel through changes in climate equivalent to travelling from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada. The mission of the Forest Service for this forest is to sustain the unique biodiversity of the sky island ecosystems and provide a variety of high quality visitor opportunities and services within the capabilities of these ecosystems.

And in the far distance, out of sight but just over the mountains, is Mexico, whose influence is felt everywhere in these southern states--in the language, the food, the history, the people. Nothing really stops at the border and the plants, animals, weather, people and culture all intermingle here.

Just a few miles away from where this picture was taken is Deep Dirt Farm, on the other side of the town of Patagonia.

I had the opportunity to work with Kate Tirion, the owner of Deep Dirt Farm, for a day with her Women Grow Food group. Kate cares for 34 acres of grassland and is integrating organic food production with habitat and watershed restoration as well as doing permaculture education and leadership training for young people. Everything you see in the greenhouse below is grown by the Women Grow Food group for their own use and for the senior center in Patagonia which provides the main meal of the day for a number of elderly people in the community. The farm is based on biodynamic permaculture principles and no fertilizer is used on these crops other than compost.

I also volunteered for a day at the plant nursery run by Borderlands Restoration, a group that is working on local community-based watershed and habitat restoration around the Mexican-US border. Borderlands Restoration greenhouses are located on land owned by Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization working to preserve local genetic diversity of agricultural crop seeds. To come full circle again, Native Seeds/SEARCH bought this land in a cooperative agreement with The Nature Conservancy, who manages the portion of the land where Sonoita Creek is located. Borderlands Restoration also has a seed bank, theirs focusing on hand-collected wild native seeds, and they grow plants for use by organizations like the National Park Service or BLM in revegetating disturbed areas.

Borderlands Restoration is also working on a project which would preserve a wildlife corridor between two mountain ranges in the Coronado National Forest, one of the few areas in the U.S. where jaguars live. This project is attempting to integrate the needs of people and wildlife by turning a bankrupt proposed housing development into a much smaller, more compact set of lots for houses while protecting a important area for wildlife travelling between Red Mountain and Mt. Wrightson. This beautiful canyon with oak-grassland habitat is part of that project.

Deep Dirt Farm is now a demonstration site for Borderlands Restoration and all of these groups are working together to begin teaching sustainable principles and leadership skills through the Borderlands Restoration Leadership Institute. Their mission is to be a project-based learning laboratory cultivating a restoration economy in the US-Mexico borderlands.

Why am I writing about all this? I don't exactly know myself. Only I was drawn here by Kate Tirion's image of community as mosaic—that each of us is a tile in a picture which begins to form as we bring our talents together. Our first job is to make our own tile shine, but the picture doesn't arise until we find our place in the whole.

I have been part of many wonderful communities in Seattle: writing and dance groups, Freedom Project, graduate school, the Hakomi training community, Fremont Healing Arts, Present Sense, our neighborhood, and friends and family. I did not go on this trip because I needed to find better communities to work with!

However, as we travel, my sense of community is starting to expand. Rather than thinking of community as an isolated group doing a specific thing, I am starting to have a sense of how all these different communities work together to create the fabric of the society we live in.  I am beginning to assume that one organization will be connected to the work of another organization, and am surprised if they don't know about each other. Then I realize that these organization may be 100 miles apart, a distance equivalent to me collaborating with someone in Bellingham or Ellensburg when I lived in Seattle—something I wasn't likely to be doing.  But somehow this level of connection is starting to seem both more natural and more important to me now. That we are aware of other people doing related work in other parts of the country. That we are able to inspire each other. That we can enhance our creativity through diversity. That we are able to share resources and knowledge. That we can support each other—mourn together when things fail, celebrate when they succeed, and provide hope in difficult times. 

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When we left Patagonia Lake State Park on Feb 23rd we didn't know where we would stay next. Friends that we met at the Salton Sea had recommended the town of Patagonia, but every time I called the only RV park in town I got the same strangely non-committal answer about whether they had available space. None of my other requests for a place to stay had panned out. As we were driving through town, I called the RV park one last time, and this time there was an unexpected availability for the night! Once in the park, the owner was able to find room for us for a week. I can't imagine having missed Patagonia, as our experience there was so rich in connection and learning. Definitely a lesson in trusting things to unfold as we go.

Tuesday
Feb212017

Day 169: Friends with trees


As I was writing my post on cottonwoods, I noticed my reluctance to say that I felt these trees were my friends. Would I appear too emotional, too fanciful? Or perhaps not serious enough—as though seriousness is what’s required to be credible.

But how are we inspired to do difficult work or make hard changes? Our feelings show us what matters to us: what we value, what we love, what gives us delight, what distresses us. And our feelings let us know what we know we are related to.

At some level, we are related to everything, but we are wired for smaller scopes—to care about and protect the immediate family, clan, or tribe. And our feelings show us who we consider part of our tribe: who is worthy of our effort to protect, who we will risk our own comfort for.


To feel friendly toward something is a recognition that our fates are linked. For your friends you wish good health and a good life. You care about what happens to them. You share their joys and sorrows. You are willing to get involved when they need support, and ask for help when the situation is reversed.

Feeling friendly toward a tree is the first step in a deeper relationship. It may be, as we say, “only a feeling”—not in it for the long haul. But if that feeling is honored, trusted, and followed, it can also lead to deeper commitment and understanding.

Saying I feel the trees are my friends, also says something about me. This morning, with that eerie synchronicity that brings things to me when I need them, I picked up the other book of poetry I brought with me—H.D.’s selected poems—and opened to some of her words about trees. Most of it doesn’t quote well out of context, but this passage from her autobiographical novel HERmione gives a taste:

The woods parted to show a space of lawn, running level with branches that, in early summer, were white with flower. Dogwood blossom. Pennsylvania. Names are in people, people are in names. Sylvania. I was born here. People ought to think before they call a place Sylvania.
Pennsylvania. I am part of Sylvania. Trees. Trees. Trees. Dogwood, liriodendron with its green-yellow tulip blossoms. Trees are in people. People are in trees. Pennsylvania.

This intermingling of self and surroundings is something I have felt since I was very young. Trees are in people. People are in trees. There is a life-hum in the least grassy hillside. Even the gnats vibrate with shared life. Every rock has a say in the world.


Not to follow this sensibility—to hesitate to say something as simple as I felt a kinship with a tree—cuts off my strength. Plain and simple, it is hiding—in a time when we can’t afford to hide. H.D.’s editor says of her work:

What [she] is discovering in the pervasive earth, wood, and water imagery is the force of her natural love for all created beings: tree or flower, wave or meadow, man or woman. Her creative powers depend upon her ability to enter into the nature of other beings, other creatures, and to feel all the world about her endowed with powers…

I could say the same about myself: My creative powers depend upon my ability to enter into the nature of other beings… This could be a call to all of us who resonate with this knowing but keep it hidden, to wake up and have the courage to be ourselves, visibly ourselves.

To make a bold statement: This feeling of friendship with life is what we need most in our world right now. And being more open about my own natural love for all created beings is what I need most in mine.


Saturday
Feb182017

Day 166: Poem for the day


I love books. As someone who has yet to acclimate to the Kindle-Age, I mean by this, real books. The kind you can smell and feel. The ones you have to struggle to hold open while you fall asleep at night. The kind you can underline, dog-ear, loan to a friend, and return to over and over again as they soften and grow sway-backed.

So only being able to bring a handful of books on this trip seemed like one down-sizing I wouldn't like. I thought I would miss my library and the freedom of having options. However, to my surprise, I have found that this limitation has been a benefit. I actually do like it—a lot.

Mostly I like being able to focus. For example, one book I brought is the selected poems of William Stafford, which I had owned for years without reading. I started at the beginning and read all the way through. One poet. One lifetime. One way of seeing the world. Then, because there wasn't another book waiting in line, I started over and read it again. This way of reading allowed his words to sink into my mind in a deeper way than usual. I am beginning to have a sense of the scope of his worldview. I can feel the change in his subjects as he aged. I can ponder the poems he wrote during his last months. I have never been good at memorizing poems, but when I read this way I find his words settling down and making homes for themselves in my mind. I often find them rising up at just the right moment, as we pass through many of the same places he wrote about. Things like these lines from his poem about Malheur:

An owl sound wandered along the road with me.
I didn’t hear it—I breathed it into my ears.

Or the opening lines of “Lit Instructor”:

Day after day up there beating my wings
With all of the softness that truth requires…

Or from “Inheriting the Earth: Quail”:

And anyway, little quail, your job is
to go out there and lose, when the time comes.

Or from “Outside”:

The least little sound sets the coyotes walking,
walking the edge of our comfortable earth.

Now I am reading Frances Mayes' Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, another book I have owned for many years and never gotten around to reading.  I brought this for the opposite reason—instead of depth, this is about breadth, a chance to see the work of many different poets juxtaposed together. Whereas reading Stafford’s body of work connected the life of one man, reading this connects many different poets speaking to each other across hundreds of years.

All this is just preamble to say that I would like to share a poem from Mayes’ book today—a poem by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly. It gave me pleasure and the kind of hope that can come from art—whether words, pictures, movement or music.

        Allegro

   After a black day, I play Haydn,
   and feel a little warmth in my hands.

   The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
   The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

   The sound says that freedom exists
   and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

   I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
   and act like a man who is calm about it all.

   I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
   “We do not surrender. But want peace.”

   The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
   rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

   The rocks roll straight through the house
   but every pane of glass is still whole.



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Spring is beginning as we work our way slowly across southern Arizona. The Fairy Dusters and the mallows are blooming, the Black-throated Sparrows are starting to sing from the bush tips, and Tom has found two Verdin nests. We spent a week at Organ Pipe National Monument, touched the border of Mexico, crossed the Tohona O’odham Nation's land, spent a week west of Tucson in Tucson Mountain Park (where the above photo was taken) and plan to head down toward the Patagonia area next. After that we will turn toward Cascabel, a small community on the San Pedro River east of Tucson that we visited several years ago, where we plan to spend the month of March. More about that later...

Tuesday
Feb142017

Day 162: Desert Valentine

This heart is best seen from a little distance!  

We send our love to all our friends and family. You are often in our thoughts and we appreciate your support in our travels. May you find peace in the midst of whatever the day brings, and may your heart be open to wonder.

And for those of you in Seattle, I hope you can see When Love Speaks, the latest play by our very, very favorite theater company, Thalia's Umbrella. See it once for you and then again for me. I am so sorry to miss it...

Friday
Feb032017

Day 143-148: Finding Cottonwoods

One of the hardest moments of this trip for me was when I learned about the destruction of the cottonwood-willow forests of the lower Colorado River. These unique riparian habitats, the ribbons of great trees following the river, were submerged by flooding behind dams, cleared for agriculture, and cut for wood to power steam ships. The land has undergone many changes at our hands, but somehow this felt like a direct hit to my heart. Perhaps it is the rarity of trees in this desert landscape. Perhaps it is the fact that so many creatures depend on these oases of water, shade, and food.  Perhaps it is simply that I fell in love with cottonwoods, that they seemed like friends.

So it was a great pleasure when we arrived at Cibola National Wildlife Refuge to see large tracts of planted trees and to realize that many of the southern refuges on the Colorado River have replanted cottonwood and willow stands in an effort to recreate that habitat.

Cibola NWR was established in 1964 to mitigate the effects of channelization and dam construction on the Colorado River in the 30’s and 40’s. Its 18,500 acres are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including wintering geese, ducks, and cranes; migrating songbirds; and native fish. In one portion of the refuge they have planted cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite as habitat for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and other wildlife.

A trail follows a mile-long loop through this planting. When I walk into the trees I am reminded of something the poet W.S. Merwin said about his effort of the past 40 years to reforest 19 acres of ruined land where he lives on Maui.

I have come to recognize that no human being can plant any forest. A forest is not made by a human being planting a few trees. It evolves as a complex society of soil organisms, and other plants besides trees. Only a forest can restore a forest—a section of forest that had once grown beside it. Our human destructions are often irreparable, like the extinction of species.
(from What is a Garden)

These plots of planted trees are not yet quite a forest. I can feel the imposition of outside order: the arbitrary square border instead of the meandering line following the water; the equidistant spacing of the trees instead of the clustering in good soil; the suggestion of grid lines instead of groves and copses.

But I can also see that, like Merwin, we are doing our best. And that is a lot. In these 36 acres, the cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite are planted in loops and arcs and bunchings that tries to recreate the diversity and variety of the forest. And it works. This place is a haven for many creatures and a delight to all my senses.

These particular cottonwoods were planted in 1999 so they are not old, as trees go. Yet they are still impressively tall. Their trunks are slender, and no matter what route their limbs take, they all tend up, creating single-pointed or narrow, umbrella-shaped crowns.  The bark is white. Or at least it appears white at first glance, shining pale in the strong sunlight or silhouetted against the blue sky.  A closer look reveals many shades of silvers and soft browns.  The young trees are smooth-barked like aspens but as they age and the trunk expands, vertical splits form in the bark, eventually creating a deeply-ridged network of vertical grooves.

After the recent rains the trees are bursting with new life.  There is great variety in the timing of their spring awakening. Some trees are still covered in the hard shells of last year’s dead leaves.  Some are just breaking their flower buds open. And some are covered already with wet-looking new leaves, like a green froth kicked up where the airy white branches meet the hard blue sky.

They are so tall it requires some help for me to see what is happening at the business-end of the branches. I feel a little self-conscious watching plants grow with my binoculars (as if bird-watching wasn’t already nerdy enough!) but this feeling passes as I see all the life that this closer look affords. The new flowers push out of their sticky calyxes like mounds of yellow-green frosting from the end of a cake tube. A low hum surrounds me from the honey bees swarming the flowers, their legs weighed down with their orange pollen sacks. Ants climb up and down the trunk. A redtail hawk rests on a branch and two owls hoot from the end of the grove, making me look without success for a nest. Yellow-rumped warblers comb the blossoms for insects. Towhees scratch in the thick leaf litter underneath. The slight wind shifts, and the breeze informs me of the unmistakable presence of skunk.

If I stand quietly for long enough in a forest I can feel the silent power flowing through it—that hum of life and energy of the whole. This reminds me of William Stafford's poem, "Is This Feeling About the West Real?" Is this feeling I have about this forest real? Listen—something else hovers out here... some total feeling or other world / almost coming forward...

Whether it is or not, this place gives me hope. That people tend these trees. That enough people recognize the importance of the network of life we live in that they planned this project. Even though a few strong men with chainsaws could cut all these plantings in a week, there is hope in the simple fact that right now they exist.

As I sit among the slender white trunks, these trees feel a little like ghost trees—a kind of memorial to the felled forests that used to line the river. I can see why trees are so often depicted as at least partly human.  Cottonwoods carry male and female flowers on separate trees, so there are girl trees and boy trees. It wouldn’t take much for me to feel like I was surrounded by people—calmer people who talked less and took their time making decisions. And this company gives me strength. With all the recent political turmoil, any hope for quiet living things is balm for my spirit.

Tom sent me a review the other day of a new book by astrobiologist David Grinspoon called Earth in Human Hands: Shaping our Planet’s Future. Grinspoon argues that we are entering a new epoch called the Anthropocene: a time when human activity can and does have planet-wide impacts. Rather than being discouraged by this, Grinspoon remains optimistic.

…our obligation now is to move beyond just lamenting the job we've done as reluctant, incompetent planet-shapers. We have to face the fact that we've become a planetary force, and figure out how to be a better one.  By seeing our role clearly, we take the first step toward assuming our responsibilities.

I think I will read his book. His ideas seem a little grand, but optimism is a necessary antidote to the fear I feel when I see our capacity for destruction. In order to move forward, we need to be able to think, and it is hard to think when you feel frightened or demoralized or paralyzed by despair. Whether the specific ideas he presents are ultimately useful, this could be as good a place as any to start a conversation.

Sunday
Jan152017

Day 114-132: Rest

In the past month and a half—spent mostly in the Mohave Desert—we have settled into a habit of hiking. Whenever we have free time, we go out first thing and spend the day wandering through washes and along the network of desert trails and roads. Sometimes we talk about what we are seeing: rocks, birds, plants, tracks, butterflies, a view. Sometimes we discuss what route to take when we come to a junction or lose the trail altogether. But more often than not, we are just walking in silence, often each at our own pace, settling deeper into ourselves as the miles pass underfoot.

This quiet is deeply healing for me. It gets in my bones. I can feel it, down in my core. As these long silent hours accumulate I can feel space opening up inside me in places that I didn’t even realize were full. I can start to see all the ways my mind keeps busy—thoughts and emotions, all the little pushes and pulls of a lifetime of experiences, the activity of life with other people. These long quiet days in the desert have made me think that perhaps the main purpose of this year for me isn’t “being open” or “learning,” as I thought before I left—perhaps the point is simply starting to rest.

A dear friend of mine gave me a book for this trip called The Relaxed Mind, Dza Kilung Rinpoche's thoughts about deepening meditation practice. I am drawn to the language of this book, as it is so different from the constant subtle pushing that is always in my own mind: that perpetual effort to achieve a goal, plan for the future, evaluate something, be more efficient, or learn and grow. This contrast is helping me see clearly the ways in which my mind is nearly always active.

When I was talking about my plans for this year with people before I left I could hear how even my best intentions had a partially false note to them. I knew that at times I was saying something not because it was completely true, but in part to justify myself or to do the right thing. The idea that the only point of this year is for my mind to learn to rest—that everything else is optional—is perhaps the first idea about it that has felt true for me all the way to its core.

I can see that this rest will make my actions more sustainable. Like a plant, I am stronger when firmly rooted in something still and solid. When my mind reaches far down into the earth for nourishment it can also stretch up into the light with flowers and fruit.

And that stillness is also where I find my source, that link to a deeper and broader wisdom than my own small perspective. In order to address the kinds of issues that face myself and the world, I need this kind of spaciousness inside me, or even my best intentions will likely mirror and perpetuate the difficulties around me. If I want harmony outside, I need to start with harmony within.

It would seem that resting would be simple. But when I see the barriers between me and real relaxation of mind, I can understand how it can be a lifelong goal. I feel grateful for my friend who understood that I needed this book, for Tom’s ability for silence and his willingness to share it with me, and for the time and space to just be alone and begin to listen past the everyday noise of my mind to the spaciousness we are all a part of.

 

          DESERT WALKING

     Blown clean by the wind
     of my future plans,
     I can feel the emptiness
     I was born to.

     Worry drained out.
     No where to go. The past
     just some grass 
     in a far field.

     That thought gone—
     just this hollow body
     making this music,
     this slow life-song.

--------------------

(After we left Lake Havasu, we spent three days at Mohave National Preserve, a couple days exploring Barstow and surrounding areas with Tom’s sister and family, then moved to Joshua Tree National Park and stayed eleven days exploring the rocks and hills and washes. We then moved down to a resort community in the Coachella Valley for showers, laundry, groceries, a haircut, and a place for Tom to get some work done. If I could only pick one place, Mohave National Preserve might be my favorite so far. It is more subtle than Zion, but I loved its wide open spaces and the varied terrain and plants. Oddly, I don't have any pictures from my time there that I like well enough to post, as I found it hard to capture its spacious, dry beauty. All the pictures in this post are from Joshua Tree National Park, except the fourth and sixth which are from the Coachella Valley Nature Preserve, and the fifth which is from Bill Williams NWR.)

Tuesday
Dec272016

Day 93-113: Desert wonderings


Under the stars at Valley of Fire

We left Zion on December 5, spent a day at St. George trying to fit in too many chores—laundry, groceries, and cleaning out the truck bed to discourage the rodent who had moved in while we were at Zion—then moved on to Valley of Fire, Nevada for two nights; then to Topock, Arizona for a week; then to Lake Havasu State Park in Lake Havasu City for six days; then farther south on Lake Havasu for Christmas. My thoughts this week are something like our travels: wandering and not staying in one place for very long. We have touched on so many new things and my mind is still trying to make sense of it all. 


Valley of Fire in the Mohave Desert

Great Basin. Mojave Desert. Sonoran Desert. These names are beginning to mean something to me. After Zion, we left the Great Basin behind, with its high-elevation sagebrush and cold winters. From there we entered the warmer Mohave Desert, the driest of the US deserts, with its signature Joshua Trees. And now at Lake Havasu we are on the border of the Sonoran Desert, the warmest desert in the US, home of saguaros and mesquite trees. We are experiencing one of the characteristics of the Sonoran Desert this week, which is that in the winter, storms from the Pacific Ocean sometimes blow in bringing widespread rains. Though the hills around us are mostly piles of dry gravel dotted here and there with a few scraggly creosote bushes, the steady drizzle all night and the low clouds slung around the mountains this morning make it easy to pretend we are back home in Seattle.

This trip is helping me realize how profoundly we alter our environments. This is not news, and I don't know why this is more obvious to me out here than it was in Seattle. In a way, when you live in a big city for a long time it can come to seem like a kind of ecosystem of its own. The streets and buildings and people begin to organize into their own system and I sometimes forget that it is all constructed. But out here where so much is still raw land, the contrast is more obvious.

As an individual I feel pretty puny most of the time. We hike out into the Havasu Wilderness south of Topock, which has no developed roads or trails, and follow the burro paths out to the jagged barren mountains of broken rock and then down to the Colorado River in one of the few places where it still runs wild. It is a hot day, for winter, and it is clear that without planning and supplies we wouldn’t last long out here. The desert feels so much more powerful than us, something that could never be mastered or tamed.


Colorado River in the Havasu Wilderness

However, when I see the miles and miles of solar grids being installed in the valley south of Boulder City, and the great towers of the power lines marching away from Hoover Dam, and the immense amount of water dammed in Lake Mead or Lake Havasu I wonder if even the desert will survive us: if we can appreciate its beauty, or recognize its inhabitants' lives as important, or really understand that we are embedded in a matrix of life on which we depend.  


Havasu Wilderness

One of our neighbors at our campsite in Topock was trading stories with another man about favorite guns and talking about a cabin he owned and how great it was to sit inside the cabin and shoot coyotes. I got nine of ‘em last year, he exclaims with enthusiasm. Our RV Park is at the edge of a small square island of houses in the desert bordering the Havasu NWR, and every night we hear packs of coyotes yipping and yowling as they hunt the bare gravel hills around town and lope through our campground. Our first night there something peed on the back window of our truck cab. I assume a coyote must have jumped up on the tonneau cover to investigate the tent we had stored there and decided to remind us whose home we were in.

Then there was the day we drove from Valley of Fire to Topock, through some of the most spectacularly disastrous country I have ever seen. I do not understand the geology of this area yet, but clearly there has been some serious upheaval and the mountains are great rifts of rock, broken and tossed into near-vertical ridges and crazily-tilted crags in every color of brown, red, and black imaginable. Everything here is dry, dry, dry. Very little vegetation, and mile after mile of bare rock and brown washes and the smallest plants eking out whatever moisture they can from the coarse soil. In the distance, down the long, bare slopes, we get glimpses all afternoon of the great body of Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam, and see turnoffs advertising boat launches in a place where I would expect only the fossils of boats.

Then around a corner we come upon a vision so surprising I don’t even know at first what it is. Lake Las Vegas, like a little diorama of a city plunked without warning in the middle of the desert. Its brilliant blue water is surrounded by glass resorts and palatial Mediterranean villas in a tropical verdure of palms and grass and flowers. A mirage? A Hollywood set? A little research and I find that, no, it is “real” enough. A several-times-bankrupt business venture, the 320-acre “lake” and surrounding development was originally the brain child of actor J. Carlton Adair, though he was not able to see it through to construction. Other developers took it over and the lake was created by building an earthen dam on the Las Vegas Wash in 1988. The ambitious project has struggled though multiple bankruptcies, lawsuits, and economic downturns. But new investors are hopeful…

Now we are further south, camped on the shores of Lake Havasu, the lake created from the Colorado River by Parker Dam. It is beautiful, it provides water to many households and farms, and many people (including us) enjoy kayaking and fishing and boating here. However, it and the other lakes along the Colorado have drowned nearly all the cottonwood forests that used to line the whole lower Colorado. The Bill Williams NWR just south of us is one of the last stretches of original cottonwood habitat left, and it's nine-mile length is home to 11 species of butterfly that no longer live anywhere else.  

Yesterday, I spot three huge rafts of Eared Grebes in the middle of the lake in front of our campsite. The lake is so big they are tiny specks even in my spotting scope, making them difficult to count, but I decide that a conservative estimate might be something like 5000 birds. I read in a book published in 1991 that Eared Grebes don't usually number over 2000 here in the winter, but then I find a December 10, 2011 report of over 5000 birds, and a December 7, 2014 report of over 30,000 birds (yes, that is the right number of zeros) on the lake, so perhaps my numbers are low. Would these grebes be here without the dam? I don't know. But I enjoy seeing them, and if I am very quiet I can just hear their whistling calls and the far rustle of their wings and feet as they move around on the water.


The Colorado River behind Parker Dam has become Lake Havasu. This is where I saw the Eared Grebes.

What we do is just as "natural" as these grebes.  We are only doing what all animals do—living our lives, looking for food and water and shelter—only we have bigger tools and a greater reach. Many creatures alter their environments to suit them. The problem is just that we are very, very efficient at this. We can kill all the passenger pigeons. We can excavate an entire mountain for coal. And we can divert an entire river like the Colorado so it no longer reaches the ocean.

It is hard to realize as I sit on the shoreline here watching these lovely grebes and the other diving birds that feed here, that this lake is one of the reasons that water has not reached the Colorado River Delta in Mexico since 1998. (See link.) Same for the wonderful warm shower I can take for free in the campground, or the cool water in my pack, or the lettuce I bought at the store.  Everything we do takes water, and unless we treat it like the precious resource it is, it can disappear.

Finding these things out first-hand hurts. I feel grief at all the things I didn't even know existed that are already gone. Cottonwoods, butterflies, pupfish, desert tortoises, whole ecosystems. And I also feel inspired by the resilience of what is here, and by the way life is continually adapting. The pain is worth it, because in return I have a larger, more inclusive view.

It is not about trying to make things stay the same. Change is happening all the time, with or without us. When you take the really long view, much of this area was underwater during the last ice age. Do I feel grief also for the lost Lake Bonneville? For the dinosaurs? And after all, we need power, we need water. I am very appreciative of both in my little home. But how much do we need and what do we use it for? How much is enough? Who decides? And who pays the price of those decisions? These are the agonizingly difficult questions that people have been worrying over for decades here, where water is scarce, and getting more precious all the time.

Perhaps not having a permanent home for now is helping me see how we are really always visitors in this world. How short our time is here; how limited our view; how much we do not know. I am inspired to respect this place I am visiting by becoming more aware of the water I use and try to make wise choices.  And I am reminded of good traits for all visitors faced with the unknown: some humility, some patience, and a little stillness. I have been reading William Stafford—who is one of the best advocates I know for all three of these traits—and his words infuse the land around me.


Pintail Slough in Lake Havasu NWR. A manmade marsh.

The earth says have a place, be what that place
requires; hear the sound the birds imply
and see as deep as ridges go behind
each other.

 

Tuesday
Dec132016

Day 81-91: Why Black Rock, Utah is NOT a National Park…

...and Zion is.

Ok, that is a cheap shot at Black Rock. After all, we didn't even get out of the car, and many things in this world are not all that interesting from a moving vehicle. But we were going south in a hurry to get out of the path of the first serious winter storm that was scheduled to hit Utah the next day (November 26.) The snow in Brigham City on November 17th that barely covered the grass blades and was gone by noon was just foreshadowing. This was the real thing. So we drove from Provo to Cedar City in one day, a long trip for us, then on to Zion the next. 

Oh. My. God.

I almost don't want to post pictures of Zion, because there is no way they can capture it. The scenery is spectacular, for sure. But it is so much more than just a pretty place. It is a place that inspires, challenges, and asks for deep reflection.

I think Zion affected me so strongly because I was unprepared. I knew it had something to do with rocks, but that was about it. I was not expecting such magnificence, and for the first few days, I swung between being breathless with wonder and flat-out depressed.

I think this intensity is something that comes with sacred spaces. When I say sacred, I don’t mean that God is more present here than in other places, as it seems to me that whatever we mean when we say God, is, by definition, everywhere. However, there are places where we become more aware of spirit and of our connection to the bigger picture. And this makes us ask questions. The big questions. Like what are we doing with our lives? And what do we spend our precious energy thinking about? And what is in our minds and our hearts? And who are we anyway?

Zion is someplace like that, and I think what its sheer canyons did for me was intensify what was already present inside me. My spirit, yes. My sense of awe and wonder, yes. But also all the sludge that I carry around, too—resentments, worries, fears. Heartaches and disappointments. All kinds of old news. I think this is partly where my depression came from. Zion helped me to see what was in my mind. All of it. And perhaps it helped me let go just a little.

I could see this the day we hiked Angel’s Landing (which after I saw the scramble we had to do at the end, I could only think of as “Angel’s Leap.”) This “hike” ends in a crawl up razor-edged ridges on slippery sandstone hung out over a few thousand feet of sheer-nothing drop off, with some occasional chains for assistance. Did I mention that I don’t like heights? Or that my overactive imagination can’t stop reminding me of what it would be like to fall? This next picture is the view down from the highest point I got to that day. These sheer cliffs were a good place to leave behind the extra baggage of any old, worn-out thoughts, so I could pay attention to my feet.

Zion also helped me drop further into poetry again. At Zion, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I went to the library and wrote. I sat outside and wrote. Even on hikes, I wrote, capturing lines of poetry that rose up as I walked. None of it seemed adequate to what I was seeing, but it didn’t really matter. It was just good to be immersed in language, to remember how important that is to me.

And there were surprises. One day after trying and trying without any success to describe the magnificence of the immense scenery, this poem came to me in a rush, almost complete. Like some gentle voice had said to me, in order to see the magnificence around you, you first have to see the magnificence in yourself.

LETTER TO MYSELF ON MY WEDDING DAY, OVER 28 YEARS AGO

Take root in the man of your life,
but grow your own branches—limber as willow,
fragrant as sage, joyous as penstemon
with its happy rockets of sunshine.
Do not be dour. There is no time
for it, no matter the circumference
of the situation or the annihilations
of morning. You, girl, are enough
and more than enough, with your dual
lungs and your long eyes and the angle
of your reflection. Stand up straight.
We are waiting for you. Take your whole
heart and fling it up, towards
the dizzying cliffs, trusting its return,
faithful as an echo, fierce as an eagle
trained for the fist. Do not put yourself
away in your pocket when he walks by,
but wave ever more broadly in his passing,
like teasel, or fescue, or wheat—
filled up with sunlight, abundant with life.

Monday
Nov282016

Day 71: At home in the world

(Note: Another post out of order--this one from November 15.)

Ever since our propane stopped working twice in the cold weather at Malheur, I have been feeling anxious about the approach of winter. We now have a new regulator, which should have fixed the problem, but the predicted winter storm that is supposed to hit tomorrow and Thursday with freezing temperatures, strong winds, and snow frightens me a little, as I am still not sure how robust our little trailer is.

Last night we stayed at a primitive campsite next to the Snake River just east of Twin Falls, Idaho. As we set up camp, I pick up the litter around the site—condom wrappers and their used contents, cigarette boxes, candy papers, beer cans, an empty bottle. After we crawl into bed a car turns into our pullout, stops for awhile with its motor still running, then drives down to the next pullout where it parks, stereo loud. Several times during the night a car or motorbike races by at full throttle on the narrow paved road leading to the campsites, tires humming over the cattle grate next to our pullout entrance. But somehow, unlike the predicted storm, this doesn’t bother me and I sleep soundly.

This morning when I wake there is a glorious sunrise over the blue-gray water of the river. Great balls of starlings flow over the sky in surging drifts. One flock lands momentarily in a tree next to me, then just as suddenly ricochets out again with a satiny, synchronized whir of wings. Across the river, just out of site over the basalt bank, I can hear sounds from a nearby feedlot—cows lowing, tractors grinding back and forth, several dogs barking sporadically. I sit by the river to try to calm my nerves about the coming storm.

As I listen to the sounds of the farm, I imagine the people out doing their chores and it occurs to me, This could be my home and this frosty morning could be just another ordinary day, and somehow this thought brings some peace. There is something comforting about realizing that any of the places we have been could be my home, and I could be here by the river on a short walk from my front door.

As I continue to listen to the invisible farm—the bawling of the cattle, a backup beeper, voices raised to be heard over the engines—I can imagine the life of the farm where I grew up, which is now run by two of my brothers. I can imagine them out in the fields or in the machine shop, taking care of the work of the day, adapting to whatever the weather brings. I imagine my father putting on his insulated coveralls to go out in the cold. I can smell the rich, cool smell of fresh earth in the fall when the fields are freshly plowed. Knowing that all the people I know and love are going about their usual days somewhere helps me get centered again. I can take a deep breath. And another. I can begin to realize that “home” is perhaps not just a place, but also a state of mind.

The question is, can I learn to be at home in the whole world? Can I learn to love it all? Snowstorms or sun, cold or hot, dusty or wet, smelling of cows or sweet sage—can I see that these are all part of life? And if I know this, perhaps I can feel at home wherever I go and whatever is happening.

This reminds me of a story the naturalist Tom Brown tells about asking his Native American mentor why he wasn’t cold in the winter or hot in the summer. His mentor replies:

“I am, but heat and cold do not bother me.“

I asked why not, and after a long pause in which he seemed to be weighing whether or not I was ready for his answer, he said, “Because they’re real.“

----------------------

A postscript: After this experience, I realized that the sounds I was hearing from the farm were of the cows being rounded up and herded into the truck to take them to slaughter. Whether something is comforting or frightening depends entirely on your perspective—what is nourishing to the owl is death to the vole. This is not to take away from the comfort I felt, only to add another dimension. Life and death are inextricably entwined.

A few days later, I ran across this poem in a collection of Gary Snyder’s that speaks to this uneasy polarity so well.

THOUGHTS ON LOOKING AT A SAMUEL PALMER ETCHING AT THE TATE

         by Gary Snyder

   Moonlight landscape, sheep,
        and shepherd watching eerie beauty

The broad sheep backs
        resting bunched up under leafy oaks
        or hid in black moon shadow,

Lives of cows and sheep—
        calf mouth that sucks your finger
        the steer that pokes his head through
        pipe iron gate
        to lick lapel, and lightly
        touch and taste
        the buttons of your coat,

Cows that trail you as you cross the meadow;
        silent sheep    slow heads turning
        solemn faces
        hooves fringed in dewy grass.

They stamp and steam in chilly morn
        and gaze at length on clouds and hills

                before they board the truck.

Wednesday
Nov232016

Day 78: Antelope Island meditation

Blue skies this morning after last night’s wind and rain, and I sit in the sun at our campsite facing Great Salt Lake.  It is nearly perfectly quiet here. If I hold my breath I can hear the faintest echo of a car on a distant road. A slight murmer of voices rises occasionally from another camp where three women are packing a tent into a car. Now and then a magpie chatters or there is a tiny tseep from a sparrow or the small flock of campground starlings passes through. But for long stretches of time there is no sound. If the salt flats and the wide stretches of rock and grass had a voice, this would be it—silence.

This silence is a palpable presence. Once I notice it, it becomes the steady backdrop to everything else. Every sound I hear falls into it like a light rain landing on the ocean.

A magpie makes a more determined squawk and draws my eye to what he is scolding—a single red-tan coyote moving in the red-tan field past my campsite as though the grass itself had grown legs and was trotting toward the water. In the distance, on the tawny hillside is a single bison, grazing. I have been told that “bison” is the correct word for this animal whereas “buffalo” is better used for Asian water buffaloes and such, but I still prefer the name “buffalo.”  I think of Janet Frame’s novel Daughter Buffalo and how different Turnlung’s long demented poetic ramblings about death would be if she had called it Daughter Bison. Sometimes the right word is the wrong one.

I draw my attention out of my thoughts and back to the landscape. Everywhere is space and more space. The brown grass fields sloping down to the flat plane of light-blue water which stretches away and away to the thinnest serrated edge of mountains. Overhead the blue sky reaches across the whole world, as if mirroring the lake below. Even the towering flank of the Wasach Mountains, with their long line of 11,000-foot peaks covered in fresh snow, seems insubstantial next to the land and sky opening out all around.

The space around me also opens up space on the inside. The constant activity of my mind—my fears and hopes and plans—dissolves into this great stretch of sky and lake and land. It is this spaciousness that has been tugging at me since the beginning of this trip, that has been half-hidden behind all the busy days. It is what I have been trying to capture in the hundreds of photographs I have been taking with my cell phone of the horizon line, wide bodies of water, and the sky at sunrise and sunset.

As I continue to sit, the space begins to fill again with daily life. The sun rises, warming the air and the back of my fleece jacket. With the warmth, the birds grow more active. Meadowlarks send their cascade of liquid notes back and forth from the tops of the sagebrush. The starlings have convened a heated committee meeting. Behind me a flock of chukars makes an escalating burbling like a pan of water slowly coming to a simmer. Two magpies pick charred remnants of food off the campfire grill, their bills clicking on the iron bars.

I am reminded of the stereopticon in my grandmother’s cupboard when I was a kid—a frame that held a piece of paper with two nearly identical photos at just the right distance from your eyes so that when you looked through it the two photos merged into one 3-D image. I used to be fascinated with how you could shift your focus back and forth to see either the two ordinary images or just the one image with its magical experience of depth. As I sit here I can feel that same shift happening inside me: how I can see in one moment my ordinary experience of life—planning and worrying and making sandwiches and folding the trailer and watching the birds—and then shift to this other experience of the silence and spaciousness that surrounds us all.

Like stereopticans, places like Antelope Island (or meditation retreats or temples) make it easier for us to make this switch. Hopefully, with enough time spent in places like this, I can also hear that silence and feel that spaciousness wherever I am and whatever I am doing—can see that there is no difference between the two pictures and the single image other than my point of focus.

--------------------

We stayed at Antelope Island on the east side of Great Salt Lake, Utah on Nov 20 – 22 and got to hang out with pronghorn antelope, bison, coyotes, mule deer, and a porcupine. There isn’t a large variety of birds here in this season, but tens of thousands of Northern Shovelers winter on the lake near the island and spend their days puttering back and forth in great rafts with their big bills in the water, filter feeding on the lake’s brine shrimp. A large flock will often take off all at once to move to another feeding area, and the sound of thousands of wings resounding like a jet engine or a distant landslide is always a thrill! We are spending Thanksgiving in Provo, Utah. Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and family!

Saturday
Nov192016

Days 51 - 67: Malheur and more

Sunrise over Frenchglen at Malheur NWR, Oregon

Days 51 – 60: We stayed ten days at Malheur NWR (Oct 26 – Nov 4) and thoroughly enjoyed spending time with a group of photographers who camp there every November to photograph the mule deer rut. Some of the best bucks this year were right in our campsite, wandering around our trailer with their necks outstretched, sniffing the air looking for that special doe. Thanks to our new friends, we got to see the herds of wild mustangs, almost get stuck in the snow on the top of Steen’s Mountain, learned more about living in Harney County, and cooked and ate our first Wamdingers. We also now have a new regulator for our propane tank (and know that it is not supposed to stop working when it freezes) and we figured out which end of the tool to use to lower the spare tire for the truck (thanks, Jeff, for reading the directions!)

Most importantly, though, is the ongoing opportunity for us to stay open to different views and experiences. Our world in Seattle had become isolated as we focused on what was comfortable to us and what we were good at. As we travel, we keep learning again and again how much we don’t know. We are humbled by the warmhearted generosity, hospitality, and help we have received from so many people. We are challenged by the different truths that arise out of different landscapes and economies. This is not to discount what is true in our own lives and from our perspective in Seattle, but rather to add to it. I hope that our hearts can expand a few sizes to be able to hold more of the suffering and wonder, discord and beauty, and incredible variety of the world.

On Nov 4 – 11 (Days 60 – 67), our adventures in contrasts continued, as we traveled to Caldwell, Idaho to visit friends from Whitman. I attended a Buddhist church (where my friend is the assistant minister) that was started by Japanese-Americans who moved there after being released from WWII internment camps. We experienced the election of Donald Trump in a town where I didn’t see a single “Hillary” campaign sign. We attended the International Students’ talent show at the College of Idaho where our friends teach and mentor, and enjoyed the energy, talent, and bravery of these young people from all over the world. One student ended his performance poem with: “Donald Trump made a mistake / America is already great / because of us!”

Sunday
Nov132016

Day 69: Something binds it all together

Something binds it all together—
forest, field, canyon, and coast.
The edges of things when we look close
are missing—our mind alone thinks whether
we use this name and not another.
Which is not to deny there's difference:
each thing is certain that it is
no other.  A cottonwood is not
a rock. A rabbit is not a hawk.
Junipers grow here and firs grow there.
The ocean eventually ends in sand.
But what strikes me more than 
the differences in land, is continuity,
the shared destiny of each stand
of trees or shrubs or lichened rock.
A great cycle of effects turns always
even in the farthest place—and mountains,
deserts, woods, and water
all together make a space where we
see both: whole and part, different and same—
the everything that transcends
each name and also gives names
their breath and flame.

---------------

We have experienced many different ecosystems already, and appreciate how this way of traveling allows for a special kind of perspective: we stay long enough to feel the unique character of a place, but move on soon enough to recognize the way it is linked to the next very-different place. Not sure if I have quite captured what is in the back of my mind yet, but I thought I would go ahead and put this out so I can set it aside and work on the next post. Click here for a small photo album of some of the ecosystem variety we have seen so far. Photos include Cape Disappointment, Skamakowa on the Columbia River, the Willamette Valley, then over the Cascades to Sisters, Oregon; Malheur NWR, OR; Steens Mountain, OR; and Bruneau Sand Dunes in southern Idaho.
Wednesday
Nov092016

Day 65: Post-election Reflection

Chickahominy Reservoir, OregonAs I reflect today about what is important for me in the midst of this election, I come back to what supports us at all times no matter who or where we are: mother earth. I am reminded of all of her different landscapes, all of her plants and animals, the variety of her soil and rocks, the fluidity of her waters, and the vibrancy of her surrounding air and weather.

Being so close to the earth this year is helping me to learn how to honor the feminine that lives all around us. Today, the day after this election, feels like an especially good day for me to consider this, beginning with my own self as a woman. To feel my inner strength. To connect to the clarity of my mind and the power of my voice. To remember that the feminine is comfortable with not knowing, with waiting, and with patience. To re-commit to compassion as the core of my spirituality. And to know that I can choose to stand up for what matters.

I am thinking of my mother today. Of my girlfriends. Of my sisters and neices. Of the teenage daughter of my friend who is just learning who she is and how she fits into the world. And I am thinking of all the men we know and love. May we all live in safety and harmony with each other. May we all have respect for each other. May we all remember our common roots.

--------------

I was planning to post a piece about our last few weeks on the road, but it didn't seem right to not acknowledge the election today, so I will save the update for later.  Right now we are staying with good friends in Caldwell, Idaho for rest and repairs. The above picture was from October 23, when we spent a couple days at this beautiful reservoir watching the many ducks and geese that use this as a stopover on their migration through the desert.

Tuesday
Oct252016

Day 17: Feeding frenzy (Who says these posts need to be in order?)

At the Cape Disappointment State Park, we did not have any cell coverage at our campsite, so in order for Tom to work he had to drive to find service. On this day I stayed at the trailer while he drove a couple miles to the jetty—a long stretch of rocks extending into the ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River—and parked at a turnoff alongside the road. From there he could hear the ocean and see some weedy sand dunes and the back-side of the jetty. He worked for a couple hours before he realized that he was hearing a LOT of sea bird chatter, as well as an intermittent "whooshing" sound that he didn't recognize. Deciding to investigate, he walked over and climbed up on the jetty only to see a mob of sea birds and amongst them, whales!—at least five humpbacks circling about in the protected water just offshore, following some unfortunate school of fish. 

After taking some photos, Tom drove back to the campsite to get me and together we headed back to the jetty, parked, and ran to the top of the rocks. Just then—with splendid story-telling timing—a whale breached directly in front of us, so close we could practically step off the jetty onto its back—that is if we hadn't been paralyzed with awe.  

And what a transformation in the bay! What had been a relatively calm scene just the day before had turned into a storm of birds. Hundreds of pelicans were crash-diving into the water, each followed by a train of indelicately squawking Heermann's Gulls all converging on the pelican's pouch as it surfaced, hoping for spilled fish. Other gulls of all shapes and sizes flapped and soared about squabbling for scraps. Cormorants dove and surfaced smoothly; grebes and ducks bobbed here and there; terns shrieked overhead. Flocks of migrating Surf Scoters shot through the throngs like handfuls of fat black darts. But most impressive was a tremendous (and I don't use that word lightly) swirl of Sooty Sheerwaters out in the open water near the end of the jetty, a dark cyclone spinning over the ocean, being fed by birds streaming down the coastline. Here, right in front of us, was a river of birds, a riot of birds from all directions, all being swept into this rapidly wheeling funnel-cloud before being spun out to land in swathes of diving, snatching, squawking, flapping rafts feeding on the fish below. How many were there? It felt like millions. It had to be in the tens of thousands. There were too many to count, too many to even think about birds as individuals, only as this giant force of nature descending on this speck of ocean. And amid the frenzy, the dark bulk of the heavy whales rising unexpectedly for a glistening moment before descending again into darkness.

All evening, as the sun set over the ocean, we watched and listened to the spectacle. The light dimmed, the school of fish shifted here and there. We stayed until it was too dark for pictures, and still birds continued to collect from all directions, drawn by the shrieks and calls of the flock. The whales made a couple passes along the jetty, then moved off into more open water. The sun disappeared behind a cloud bank. The air cooled. We walked back to the truck in the failing light, full of wonder. We had a long evening ahead of us of packing everything up in prepartion to move camp tomorrow in the predicted rain, but tonight we were happy, exhilerated just to have been here. This evening all of our hard work of the past year was worth it. To be outside, close to life—our own and that of so many other creatures—was exactly where we wanted to be.

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(This happened on September 22, but I have not had a chance to sit and reflect much since we have been on the road, and there are some experiences that I don't want to miss noting, so I will have some retrospective posts. The picture is one Tom took of the whale surfacing near the jetty. This is the underside of the head with some barnacles stuck to it.)

Sunday
Oct162016

Day 40: A pause for perspective

Before I embarked on this trip, a friend of mine told me of taking three years to travel around the world. Like me, she closed her business, left her home, sold most of her belongings. She departed her country eagerly and in high spirits, but a few weeks into her travels, doubts appeared and she began to wonder if she had made a mistake. She told herself that if she still felt this way in another two weeks she could go home. At the same time she also made plans to meet a friend farther down the road. And at the end of those two weeks she had found the confidence she needed to continue her journey.

Her story prepared me for uncertainty. Like her, I have had my share of those kinds of feelings during the last 40 days—doubt, sadness, worry, fear. I have at times felt lost and aimless, uncertain of who I am without my familiar work and surroundings. But thanks to the gift of her story, I can be gentle with those feelings while continuing to have faith in the path I am following.

As Day 40 approached, I realized that it felt like a symbolic milestone for me. I kept thinking of the story of Jesus going into the desert for forty days and forty nights to fast and pray. How at the end of those forty days he was clear enough to know who he was and what was important to him. The silence of the desert helped him not be tempted into thinking he was more—or less—than himself.

As I reflect back on the past forty days I can see that leaving behind my familiar world has brought up many things in my mind that were easier to avoid in my regular life. I can see the patterns and beliefs that arise under the stress of unfamiliarity and close quarters. And I also have the time to see that these are just thoughts, and that these thoughts are not all of who I am.

The gift of these first forty days has been the time and space (and triggering circumstances) to just feel these states of being—to simply know they exist. As I fully experience these well-worn mental pathways, I am not so upset by them when they show up. They may not be pleasant, but they are bearable, especially when I stay focused on what is important to me. I also remember that I have no idea, really, what function they play. Just as a swamp seems muddy and mosquitoey and full of smelly rot when you are in it but is essential to the fertility and renewal of the larger ecosystem, these thoughts that I would like to swat like biting flies are also part of some whole that I can only vaguely comprehend.

So today, on Day 40, as the rain hammers down on the roof of our trailer, I am taking a minute to be thankful for all of it. To realize that when one thought or another tempts me to think that it is everything, I can choose the broader view—to see this thought at home in the Whole, and to feel the peace of knowing who I am.

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(We have been staying in Salem, Oregon for the past couple weeks making several small modifications to our truck-and-trailer-home, and are just about ready to head back out on the road again. This picture is from kayaking on the Willamette River on October 12. Day 40 (October 15) was the day the Big Storm was predicted for the PNW, as the remnants of a typhoon brought high winds and rain to the area. We survived with no damage other than a few minor leaks.)

Thursday
Sep292016

Well, I can never eat corn again

Day 13: Our first night at Cape Disappointment State Park, we shopped for groceries at Thriftway and bought fresh corn, not so much because we intended to get corn, but because it was labeled Sauvie Island Corn, so was (relatively) local, and we have fond memories of birding together at Sauvie Island when we were both just learning. So in the basket they went—four ears, two for each of us—though each of us being raised on our father’s corn which must be picked in the hour before eating or it was “too old,” we did not have high hopes.

Once back at camp, I realized I did not want to boil a pot of water for four ears of corn inside the trailer (so much about trailer-living in wet climates being about managing moisture.) Well, we have wood—how about roasting? Neither one of us had ever roasted corn over a fire, but Tom suggested I stuff some butter in the husk, wrap the ears in foil, and put them on the built-in grill over the fire pit. So that’s what we did, and after about 20 minutes of turning and peeking and wondering, we had The. Best. Corn. We-had-ever-eaten. EVER! Smoky-flavored and crisp and sweet, and somehow when we bit down on the cob, the whole kernals would pop out like little nuggets of toasted delight instead of the tough, mushy, sticky things we expected from store-bought corn. Must be the roasting, I thought. That’s the secret!

So last week when we arrived in Skamokawa, Washington (Day 18) and found ourselves just in time for the Puget Island Farmer’s Market that listed “CORN” as the feature of the week, I bought six ears. Back at camp, we eagerly bustled about—making the fire, poking butter into the leaves, wrapping the ears in foil. Now we know what we are doing! This is great!

But when we unrolled the charred packages we discovered what we expected before—kind of tired, end-of-season corn, with that soft, starchy, slightly-overripe texture that mushes instead of crunching, and leaves a flock of sticky corn-skins stuck in your teeth. And not only that, but it was a little too late; the wood a little too wet; the fire too smoky; we were too tired from traveling; and the neighbor RV’er was just too loud…

Let me say that the rest of the generous bag of goods we bought at the market was amazing.  REALLY amazing, especially for September—crisp leaf lettuce, perfect brocolli, plump zucchini, tender carrots, fresh-baked focaccia and chocolate chip cookies. That market was a blessing to us in what can sometimes feel like a desert of canned and packaged vegetables. But I should have known better about the corn, known that you can’t step twice in the same river. I should have been content with what I had instead of trying to recreate a perfect evening.

This is what happens so often when we get something good. We want more of it. We want it again. We want certainty. We want control, instead of simply trusting the good graces that brought the good thing to us in the first place to bring us the next thing in its own time, unasked for and unearned, and possibly after a string of not-so-good things, but coming to us as certainly as one season after the next.  Because that goodness is all around us, and inside us. It is already there without being sought out, created, or preserved. It only needs receiving and re-receiving on its own time. Always fresh. Always unexpected. Always new.

So I will likely have corn again, as I do like corn; and really, even when its bad, it’s pretty darn good. But I might wait for awhile. And I won’t expect it to live up to that first corn-roasting experience. I will recognize that that night is unrepeatable. That though it is precious in my memory, it has passed on, like every other thing, both good and bad. I’ve moved on; life moves on. That is the way it is. Traveling like this makes that clearer to me. But the more I know this, the freer I am to step into each moment, whatever it brings, with my whole heart, and with all my feelings, just experiencing everything for what it is.

Saturday
Sep172016

Day 12: Another ordinary day

Somehow almost two weeks have passed since moving out of our house and into our trailer. The month before the move is a blur of busy-ness; the two weeks since have been spent mostly recuperating from the move (sleep is a miraculous thing!) and getting oriented in our new life.

With a venture like this, nearly everything about it is unknown, so it is easy to project onto it our hopes and our fears. We will be free; life will be simple; it will all be a grand adventure!  Or we will be wet, dirty, and cramped for the year, or robbed of all our possessions after a week.

What I am finding is that this life is neither as exciting nor as scary as it might seem from a distance. Really, what stands out to me most is how ordinary it all feels. Much of my day is often filled with the tasks of daily living. Though there is simplicity in having only what we can fit in our truck and trailer, this also means that our basic chores can be more complex than when we lived in a house.

For example, when we don’t have an electrical hookup, the solar system needs to be managed throughout the day in order to have power. It requires unpacking and setup, regular orienting toward the sun, protection from rain and theft, and packing up again and storing at the end of the day. No more just flipping a switch for power! Water is the same. We need to locate fresh water, fill our tank, make sure the system is kept clean, and carry the waste-water bag to empty it in an appropriate spot.

No showers? Then we set up the shower tent. Time to move on? Then everything we set up needs to be taken down. New town? Then we need to locate a new grocery store and find a laundromat. And then there are all the miscellaneous things: Having the right kind of change for shower tokens and washing machines; what to do with your wet towels; how to fit bulky vegetables in a small fridge; where to store our recycling until we can find a drop-off-center…the list goes on.

At first, all these extra chores felt like, well…kind of a chore! Shouldn’t I get this stuff “out of the way” so I can do something “more important” or “more exciting?” But as I have continued to slow down and relax, I am finding that when I focus on what is at hand—whether that is washing my shoes or folding the trailer to leave camp—that I enjoy doing these daily tasks. That it is pleasant to do the work of caring for ourselves, especially when we are often outside doing it.

There will definitely be time for adventures and writing and meeting people and exploring and learning. But right now it is enough to figure out how to stay fed and clean and dry. To have clothes to stay warm in and a bed at night. To have fresh water and a light when it is dark.

Perhaps this is the meaning of simplicity: to understand the importance of the basics. Food. Water. Shelter. How much work they really take to create and maintain. How necessary they are to our well-being. How damaging it is when these needs aren't met. I feel grateful for all that I have in a way that I didn't feel when I had "more." And that is an exciting adventure!

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(After leaving our house on September 5, we stayed a couple days in Seattle, then headed toward the ocean and have been exploring Ocean Shores and Westport.)

Saturday
Aug062016

Kite string

 

Making stringFor the last two weeks we have been considering selling our house instead of renting it out. The market is right, it would make the next month much easier as we would not have to do the major repairs needed for renting, and there is a certain appeal to “leaving it all behind”—putting all our energy toward the next thing.

However, all the time we were pondering this decision we felt anxious and upset. We lost the thread of our direction and started spinning in a whirlpool of indecision. We found ourselves drifting into old and highly unhelpful (!) patterns of relating to each other. We did not feel grounded in our own truth and knowing of ourselves.

A couple days ago it finally all came together again and we were able to see the decision that we needed to make: we are renting out our house instead of selling, and in hindsight I can see clearly why this is the right decision for us at this time.

Keeping the house is an important physical and symbolic tie to our community. Uprooting our lives in preparation for this journey has made us acutely aware of the value of our bonds to our community here—friends and family and place and work—especially since we are not yet moving into a new community.

Our community is kind of like the tether for a kite—the string is what allows the kite to fly steadily, and not just head off into the stratosphere or crash into the trees. This tie actually gives us energy rather than holding us back.  It is the string that allows a kite to stay aloft so long, that continues to hold it in just the right place for the wind to lift it up.

I think sometimes it is easy to miss the importance of the string. If I am not looking at the bigger context—ground and sky and kite together—I can just think it is something in the way. Something to trip over. Or something insignificant—what’s the point of this slip of cotton thread? Or something to be annoyed at as it gets its inevitable tangles. But though the bonds of love and affection and trust may be complex and sometimes hard to see, they are essential to our wellbeing. They are part of how we know who we are. They let us know where we have been. And when they are at their best, they help us to continue to fly true, showing our full shape and color.

Saturday
Jul092016

But wait...how long IS 25 feet?

So it turns out that our first parking spot for the trailer at my nephew’s house was picturesque. It was level, and looked out at a beautiful view of the trees in their front yard. It was also out of the way of the other cars in the driveway. How nice! However, HOWEVER…wait a minute!…it is too far away from the house to plug in the trailer to charge the batteries, or to hook up the water hose to fill the water tank! Lesson learned. This is the beginning of thinking about water and power in a way that I have never had to do in a house, unless a lightning storm shut everything down for a couple days.

In my mind, I want to just pick the trailer up and move it sideways a little closer to the house. But you can’t just carry a trailer around like a tent. It takes a laborious (for us beginners) process of folding up the trailer, backing up the truck, getting the tow hitch oriented and locked on, connecting the power to the truck, remembering to remove all the chocks and blocks and jacks and locks, backing into the new spot, and starting all over again. This is good practice, I think, as an antidote to the part of me that is calling me a dope for not even thinking about the length of the water hose and the placement of the electrical outlet on the outside of the house. And it is good practice. Both at the tasks themselves and with being patient—with each other and, just as importantly, with ourselves.

Because I am writing this over a month after the fact, I now know that it all gets easier the more times we do it. A year from now this will be so second-nature we won’t even think about it. Even now, only a month later, it is hard to remember what the big deal was. I think this is why it is so good for me to try things that are completely new now and then, if only to have empathy for those who are faced with difficulties that threaten to overwhelm their capacities to think and cope. A diagnosis of cancer, an accident, an injury, a loss of work, a death—and suddenly our minds don’t behave the way we want them to anymore. When I get frustrated with how hard it is for me to visualize something new, I think of my mother’s struggle at the rehab center after breaking her hip—and a possible stroke—with finding her way to the dining room. I realize that no matter how odd it seemed that she couldn’t reliably navigate the hundred yards of hallway by herself even after four months, there was no point in being frustrated with her. When my brother tried to help her orient herself by showing her the map with the red dot labeled “You are here,” her question was, How does it know where I am? After my recent experiences of being up to my neck in new information, I am starting to understand how she could think this.