Monday
Sep182017

The way it is


When I began this blog last year, I chose the opening line of William Stafford’s poem “The Way it Is” as the tagline:

There’s a thread you follow.

I knew this poem was important to me when I first read it many years ago, but I didn’t realize just how appropriate it would be for this past year. As I reflect on where I am at now, I realize that this poem puts into words what has been most important to me in our travels.

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.

********

Over the past year, we have lived in 80 different places. All of this moving around has made it clear what does change—which is pretty much everything. The people, plants, and animals all change. My thoughts, emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears all change. My relationships change, as does my personality. Weather, seasons—even the sun, moon, and stars all change, though you might have to wait awhile for that.

As Stafford says:

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

And yet, even in the midst of all this inevitable change, there is this thread.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

The thread isn’t something I can describe directly. Like Stafford, I can only assert that it exists. There is no proof of it other than the action of following it. And I can only indicate where it is by recognizing where it is not. But when I returned back to familiar people and places this summer (noting the changes that had happened there as well) I realized that the true gift of this year was this simple: that in the quiet, I could feel that thread inside me.

********

I thought I was going to do a lot of reflecting and writing on the past year. I expected to spend this month creating a thorough retrospective of everything I had seen and done and learned. But though there are many experiences for which I am grateful—seeing Zion, meeting the community in Cascabel, getting comfortable using a laundromat, living for a while around cattle and horses, learning to walk in the desert, feeling the vast expanses of the Southwest, returning to friends and family…to list just a few—I think that my retrospective is done.

It is not the breadth of my experience that is most important, but the simplest thing that can be distilled out of all that experience. And that simple thing is this:

There's a thread you follow.

Following this thread led me into this year. It led me through this year. And following my thread will take me wherever I go next. That is enough.

So in the end, all that I learned this year was already there, right in front of me, all along.

The Way it Is
by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.


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

p.s. I noticed that this was the only picture I took on our one-year anniversary two weeks ago. I guess some part of me was already tuning into the meaning of this year...and has a sense of humor...

Tuesday
Sep052017

Day 365: One year ago today...

Today (September 5th) marks the one-year anniversary since we left our house to live in our trailer. I roll out of bed for a run before it is fully light. The sun rises red into a thick haze of smoke from nearby forest fires. Back inside, I light the stove to boil water, assemble the same breakfast we have most mornings, eat without ceremony. The list of things to do today is mostly maintenance—getting ready to leave the "base camp" of Tom's parents’ house and head out on the road again: condition our dry leather boots, treat the plastic skylights to keep them from degrading in the sun, cut some new scrap wood for support under the trailer stabilizers, buy tent cord for our new awning.

I think back to what I was doing a year ago. Packing our belongings in the trailer. Putting both kayaks on the truck for the first time. Cleaning out the garage at our house for the renters. Driving away with that dissociated feeling of not having a house to call “home” for the first time since…well, really, ever.

Now the way we are living just feels ordinary. So ordinary that some days it is actually hard to remember what it was like to live in a house. In fact it all feels so ordinary that without the calendar, I wouldn't know today was meaningful.

I was disappointed at first that this day felt so anticlimactic, as I have had one eye toward it for months. But then I realized that today wasn’t actually a real milestone. We decided a long time ago that we weren’t ready to settle down again after a year, so while this is the 365th day since we drove away from the house, nothing is actually ending or beginning on this day.

More relevant milestones were when we arrived back at the farm in Spokane in June (returning to something familiar after so many new experiences.) Or arriving in Salem on August 12 (our last planned destination.) Or the total solar eclipse, which has always been the one thing on this trip with an exact, non-negotiable time. Even the day about a week ago when the moon was the same phase as when we left somehow felt more significant to me than today.

And right now, all of our attention is on preparing to leave town soon and head toward the Oregon coast. Winky has been refurbished and repaired, we have overhauled our equipment, and we are focused on moving on, not on the completion of the year.

So our one-year anniversary passes without much more fanfare than a toast at dinner. But I trust that the changes this year has brought about in us are happening inside, and like all things in nature, will emerge when they are finished, regardless of the date on my calendar. Meanwhile, we will just keep on living…

Saturday
Aug192017

Day 348: Zen and the Art of Knitting


Sometimes doing the wrong thing can turn out to be the right thing.

Many years ago my mom gave me a book called Zen and the Art of Knitting. The exact history of this gift is lost to me. I have never had the best long-term memory—and arriving on the other side of fifty hasn't improved it—but I think the book was a present for a birthday, or perhaps Christmas. If it was, though, it was one of those presents that I think even she downplayed. An I’m-not-sure-if-this-is-your-kind-of-book, but-I-got-it-for-you-anyway, kind of present.

At first I didn't read it because I often don't read books I am given right away. It takes me awhile to warm up to them. I have to live with the book for awhile before I know whether I want to open it. Besides, there is usually a pile of half-read books in line already that I need to work through before getting to the new one.

Then there was the problem with the title. While Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a favorite book of mine as a younger person, I am suspicious now of books that start with Zen and… . There is a faddishness to it that seems very un-Zen-like. And I dislike the way that Zen gets used to mean just about anything we want it to, especially something we want to sell.

And, on the other side of the coin, it seemed like a cheap shot. Really, is there anything so obviously Zen as knitting? Do I really need a whole book to tell me that knitting is everyday meditation?

So it sat unopened, moving about the house sometimes from one bookshelf to another in one of my library-reorganization schemes. Sometimes I would look at it and think about reading it, but it just never felt compelling enough. But any time I would think about giving it away, its status as a gift, especially a gift from my mother, would stop me.

So I kept it. Even through last year’s great purge of downsizing from a house to an 18-foot trailer. But now after almost a year on the road, I am doing some even deeper culling and I have been going through book-boxes with an eye to letting go.

So I pulled it out yesterday with the intention of sending it on. After all, I don't even knit these days, and my mom died two and a half years ago so I can’t talk to her about this book even if I did read it. It seemed like an obvious non-keeper.

But as I flipped through the book, looking for scraps of paper or bookmarks, I noticed that it had an inscription. Surely I must have known this? But my long-term memory was doing what it does best, and if I had known I’d forgotten. The inscription read:

Katie,

Pages 28-33 struck a special chord with me.

“... I see the hand of God in the details of my everyday existence. In my life it all comes as a package.”

The insights I have gained into the spiritual and creative benefits of knitting seem Zen-like to me in their emphasis on finding the holy spark in everyday life, in sitting still, in letting things unfold.”

Love,
Mom

More than two years after her death, this inscription in her distinctive handwriting feels as if she has reached out unexpectedly with her old warmth from whatever realm she has disappeared to. And her invitation mirrors my current thoughts with an eerie accuracy. How much of this year has been about just this? Seeing God in the everyday. Recognizing that my life is an indivisible whole. And, most of all, simply learning to sit still and let things unfold. 

I turn to the section she references, and it begins with the author sitting on her porch watching a swarm of newly hatched butterflies: The air is thick with them. They make shadows across the pad of paper on my lap. Another moment of synchronicity snaps across my consciousness as I think about the post I wrote this year about the beauty of the swarm of Ctenucha moths hatching at Madera Canyon.

Further on I read: I’ve learned to make peace with the chaotic nature of life, to sit still when upheaval surrounds me, to do nothing when nothing is required. This seems to apply to both Mom and me. I think about how Mom had to do this in the last years of her life, had to learn to really do nothing, as even knitting—something she excelled at—became too complex to enjoy. And at the same time it feels like through this book she is also speaking to me, letting me know that she understands what this year has meant to me. In this moment, concepts like past and present, or her and I fall away. Some kind of healing is happening, some kind of reorganization of my habits of thought.

At first, I feel a familiar guilt for not paying more attention to who she was. Why was I not more curious about something that she sent me because it meant something to her? Why could I not set aside my own life for a day or two to read this? But I know that my own circumstances and personality have made my struggle not so much about how to have empathy, but rather how to have boundaries. If I couldn’t see my mother, it was not because I was too distant, but because I was too entangled. With a kind of terrible irony it was her death that allowed me the room to be curious about who she was as a person, as someone apart from her role as my mother.

As I read further, I find that the book begins when the author also loses her mother, sometime in college. It begins with the author taking a trip to her ancestral country of Ireland, initially as a way to avoid her grief, but through this travel, finding solace in her interactions with her extended family.

I think if I had read this book back when Mom gave it to me it would not have had the impact it does now—that it would have just been about her. Waiting this long gave it an additional message, as though she was also saying to me, I know how hard it is to lose your mom, but I am right here still. I am always part of you, whether you know it or not. As far you go from "home" I am still there: in the people you meet, in the land you live in, in your hands and mind and heart.

Perhaps the question for me at the end of this year is, How would I live if I carried absolutely no more guilt about my relationship with my mother? If I accepted every part of it—her natural limitations, my natural limitations, the things each of us did or didn’t do—if I saw all of that as just the way it was, and knew instead the deeper connection between her and me and everything else, what would I do?

I can see now, in this ignored and forgotten book, how Mom was aware of what is most important to me—the sense of that perfection that exists right in the center of what is already. That reality that means that there is nothing you have to do or be or strive for or achieve—that what I am and you are is enough already, right now, in the midst of all of our imperfections. That doesn’t mean she (or I) always lived from this awareness, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is here, all the time, all around us, “costing not less than everything.”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

        from T.S. Elliot's "Little Gidding"

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

Tom and I have arrived in Salem, Oregon at our last planned destination of this year—his parent's house for the total solar eclipse. In the last couple months we have enjoyed time with my family on the farm near Spokane, a drive across Washington on Highway 20, and a brief visit to Seattle. Since being in Salem, I have finished reading Zen and the Art of Knitting, a book which now is a treasured reminder of Mom sitting in her favorite chair with her latest knitting project. Our year-long trip is officially over on September 5th. Now we just need to figure out what's next...

Thursday
Jul062017

A different kind of public space

Highway rest stop, New Mexico

We have seen many kinds of public land in the past ten months—state parks, national forests, BLM holdings, etc.—but not having a bathroom in our trailer has given us an appreciation for a more basic kind of public space: the public toilet and shower.

My attitude toward public restrooms—especially the showers—helps me realize how much has changed for me in subtle ways since we began. At first, the challenge of taking a satisfying shower in my flip flops in some dank, spider-infested, coin-operated, concrete cubicle pretty much cancelled out the pleasure of the shower. How do I keep my clothes dry when there’s no shower curtain? How do I know when the two minutes that my token buys is almost up so I am not left with a head full of shampoo? And what IS that in the corner..??

Now, though, I feel nothing but appreciation for any kind of shower—dank or not. And over the last ten months of depending mostly on public restrooms I have acclimated to the parade of options, from the KOA that was lined floor-to-ceiling in fake-gilt-edged mirrors, to the most basic pit toilets—hole, pit, cover, door and that’s about it.

I am not sure exactly what caused this change—probably it just comes from repeated experience—but my initial squeamishness about unfamiliar conditions has been replaced, mostly, by ease. It feels normal now to be living so much of the time in public space. It feels normal to not own anything other than the toiletries I carry with me. It feels normal to walk a few hundred yards to get to the bathroom, or to stand in line to wait at “rush hour,” or to perhaps meet someone from another country during the wait.

All of this has given me a more basic sense of connection to the rest of the human race—to the reality that we share resources and fundamentally depend on each other for our survival, especially in our increasingly interconnected social structures. Using a public toilet is a visceral reminder several times a day that the way we conduct ourselves—our "aim" in life, so to speak—affects other people.

And, oddly, one of the best things about this arrangement is directly correlated to its inconvenience. Some of my best memories are from nighttime walks when nature called at two a.m.: the brilliant stretch of stars across a black canyon; the smell of frost on the grass; the chatter of elf owls calling back and forth between the trees; or just the vast simple silence of the night, full of the life-breath of the world. I would not have had these experiences if I had been able to stumble half-asleep into my own private indoor room.

I do appreciate a well-designed shower and have developed some opinions about what that looks like. I have joked that there is a career out there for me as a state-park-shower-stall-design consultant. (A shelf! They have been around for years…how hard is it to put one in the shower so your soap doesn’t dissolve and float away!) But the trend in my thinking this year has been toward more gratitude and less evaluation. That really anything that delivers warm, clean, running water (and even the warm part is optional) is one of the wonders of the modern world.

And it is easy to get entranced by bathroom design and forget what the purpose of it is and how it is connected to the rest of the world. My favorite toilets of the trip were the simple composting toilets designed by David Omick that many people have built in Cascabel. In fact, when we stayed there two years ago, the composting toilet at the cabin was one of the things that drew me back. It was a relief to begin to see how this most basic form of "waste" could be a resource instead of a pollution problem. Likewise, David and his wife Pearl have also created a simple outdoor shower that has a natural water-saving device: they can use as much water as they want, but they have to carry every drop they use from the holding tank to the simple gravity-fed shower bucket.

This is the main thing that is making me want to settle down again—the desire to do things like have a compost pile and an herb garden, or to build some simple structures for daily living that directly connect our bodies and the land. Until then, I am grateful that we can still get along well enough as a society to have public restrooms.

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

We made a brief pass along the west side of New Mexico, but realized that we had seen so many new things by then that we needed some time to assimilate our experiences. So instead of going further into New Mexico and Colorado, after a few weeks on the Rio Grande River we angled briefly into the southwest corner of Colorado before traveling fairly directly (for us) up through Utah and Idaho to my family's farm near Spokane, WA. It felt a little strange at first to be in trees and green again, but it has been good to return to familiar landscapes and faces. While we may be getting comfortable in public spaces, we also appreciate the hospitality of friends and family who have hosted us along the way. Things seemed to work out just when we needed them, like our friend in Idaho being home briefly on the very weekend we needed a place to park the trailer for a few days in order to take a side trip to attend a funeral in Portland. Sometimes the flow of the river of life is more powerful than planning...

Lots of green things at Hyrum Reservoir, Utah

Monday
Jun122017

Day 280: What is home?

May 25: Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

In a couple weeks, Tom and I plan to be at my family's farm near Spokane where I grew up. Even though I have not lived there for nearly 30 years, I have continued to call it home, something that always confused things when we would drive from “home” in Seattle to “home” on the farm. Sure, I knew it wasn’t where I lived at the time, but it was always a more fundamental kind of home—a place that I originated from, that defined me, and by which I measured all other things.  It was a kind of center of gravity; something that you never really left.

For months now I have thought of arriving back on the farm after all of our traveling this year, as going home. But it suddenly hit me tonight, completely out of the blue, as I was in the middle of cooking a sausage for dinner:  the farm is not my home.

I am not sure I can explain the impact of this thought to anyone who moved frequently as a child. Those of you who did, got this lesson long ago.  But for someone who lived in the same place growing up, a place that was such a force of life, a place which still exists essentially unchanged today, this idea felt like a small revolution in my mind.

The farm is not my home. Yes, it is the place I grew up. Yes, it will always be part of me. Yes, there are people I love there. But it is their home, and it seems important, at this point in my life in particular, that I stop calling it mine.

Which of course raises the question: What is home? Is home the structure I live in? Is this trailer, that we have now hauled around the West to 60 different places, home? It certainly is no small comfort to have this little island of familiarity to return to each day, but is that all that home is? Is home where the heart is—with the partner that I have chosen to live with? Or with family? Or with the community of people I work and share friendships with? In the past, I have associated home with a location—a piece of land or a kind of landscape. I remember when I first moved west of the Cascades in my early 20’s how utterly lost I felt immersed in unfamiliar weather and plants, and how long it took me to begin to recognize this new place as somewhere I belonged.

May 10: Winky at Sunny Flats Campground, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mts, Arizona

This past year, though, has given me a new perspective. That perhaps it isn’t something on the outside that is home, but rather something inside myself. And that perhaps when I am in touch with this inner home, my outer home can expand. Perhaps (as I began to consider in earlier posts) the whole world is my home. Perhaps wherever I happen to live is part of a much larger whole. Perhaps this is another way to “hide the world in the world.”

And perhaps letting go of calling the farm home, and recognizing that I am a visitor there, is a step toward embracing a fundamental contradiction: that while I am at home everywhere I go, I am also a visitor everywhere I live. As my sense of belonging widens, perhaps my sense of possession can lighten. Perhaps I can learn to be a partner with the place I live rather than its master.

What I can be master of is myself. And that mastery brings with it confidence. The confidence to say: Where am I today? And to answer: Today I am at home, in myself and in the world.

Thursday
May252017

Letting Go

You think you do right to hide little things in big ones, and yet they get away from you.
But suppose you were to hide the world in the world…

--Chuang Tzu

This trip began with a death and a theft.

The death was the death of my mother after a several-year decline. When she passed away, not only were my care-giving services no longer needed, but something I had taken for granted my whole life suddenly disappeared. The resulting emptiness was freeing and disorienting. I felt like a horse who had been hitched loosely to a post for a long time and now the post was gone, and there was no guidance about the many directions I could wander off in.

The theft came a few months after that, in late June of 2015, on a trip we took to the Oregon Coast. We had parked at a trailhead early in the morning to walk to the sand dunes, and when I got back to the car, someone had stolen my bags with all of my clothes in them out of the back seat. All that was left was what I was wearing and my pajamas back in the tent. Everything that was gone was either useful or sentimental—for example, the last crocheting project my mother was working on with me before she died. But though I felt angry and sad at first, I noticed that I felt a great lightness at not having bags to carry, or having to decide what to wear the next day, or having to protect things from getting stolen. The freedom I continued to feel from this simple loss made me start to wonder what the price was of owning things. How much did I want to own, and why?

So it shouldn't come as a surprise to me that this trip is turning out to be about letting go. At first it was about letting go of physical things—cleaning out our house of 20 years and selling or giving away (or throwing out) most of our belongings. Leaving my office and our familiar surroundings in Seattle. Being separated for a time from friends and family. But I am finding that it is also about letting go of inner things. Letting go of my plans. Of strategies for getting along in the world, like being helpful, accumulating knowledge, or staying busy. Of old reactions and habitual responses.

What I feel drawn to over and over again as we travel is a kind of inner emptiness. The kind of emptiness that is not so much precursor to something else, (the space in the bell / allows it to ring) but a state of awareness in and of itself. A condition of Being completely separate from my plans and projects.

And yet it feels scary to watch birds without making a list, or to not have a plan for how we will get back to Washington, or to not be creating something. At my most doubtful, I wonder what is legitimate emptiness and what is just aimlessness. After I graduated from my master's program in June of 2011, I took a couple months off to rest before deciding what to do next. In September I started building my private therapy practice. Looking back on it, I can't remember what I did during the summer at all, while the fall is bright and clear in my memory. When I go back to my journal I see that I had lots of ideas that summer—I painted, I planned interesting workshops with friends, I took some trips, I thought about the future—but somehow that time off was not nearly as memorable as actually starting to create something that I loved.

This emptiness I am sensing now seems different, though. It is not just a void, it is actually something alive. When I woke this morning I remembered the poem I wrote in 2015 about what my work is: to guard the silence / at your center. It takes an alert vigilance to guard, and I notice that most of the time, I am not tending that silence—especially when I am feeling irritated with something or caught in some kind of mood. As soon as I begin to believe these feelings and act on them, it gets very noisy inside. If I took that poem seriously, it could be a guide for this time:

So lay aside your lists,
your plans,

and your intentions.
The silence

of this space
contains everything.

Its words
are your words.

This morning (May 1st) we are leaving yet another place that we have fallen in love with—another kind of letting go. Saying goodbye to the calming presence of Mt. Wrightson, to the Mexican jays, to the alligator junipers with their distinctive checkerboarded bark, to the Rincon paintbrush and the sycamores. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and I feel this in my gut as a kind of ache every time we leave somewhere.

But as I just feel this sadness (and let it go, too) there is an emptiness that replaces it that is expansive and full. After having over 50 different “homes” this year, I am getting used to endings. I am beginning to see that grasping onto things to try to keep them the same also creates an emptiness, but one that is fearful and lonely. This new emptiness is different. It resonates with energy. It is large enough to contain everything we have seen and done—and more. It is indefinable. And it requires trust, something that is easier said than done.

I can remember other times when I felt this kind of emptiness. When our cat Lionel died at home after a long decline, I sat with the body afterwards trying to feel what had just happened. As I sat there, I had the sense that what I considered Lionel was dispersing out into the universe. He wasn't there, and the emptiness of his passing was heart-wrenching. But now he was everywhere—in the trees and the grass and the air and the stars—and if I sat quietly, thinking of him, I could feel in that emptiness a connection to everything, if only for a moment.

Perhaps if we do not shut down when things are taken from us or when we are sad, there can be room for this. Perhaps this is one way of hiding the world in the world.

*****

This part of the trip is hard for me. We have done many of the things we set out to do. We don’t have a lot of plans between now and the end of August. In the absence of structure or purpose, I often find myself depressed. Or, to put it more exactly, I cycle between extremes: one day I feel a deep sense of awe or contentment. The next I find myself aimless and lost, unsure about myself or the point of anything.

Jim Corbett speaks to this difficulty in his book Goatwalking. He talks about these feelings as the natural result of the search for this emptiness, which he calls detachment or selflessness. Detachment requires an end to our addiction to social busyness, and in order to even see this addiction, we have to step outside of the usual social structures for awhile—which is not as easy as it might sound.

Wandering purposeless and without human companionship, one sometimes experiences emotional crises that are...similar to culture shock and cabin fever.... In the absence of socially supported identities we may discover ourselves possessed by naked demons who have the good manners to appear only in acceptable disguises when we are in polite society. During extended periods of isolation working as a sheepherder and cowboy, I discovered little of this kind of emotional conflict. After all, I was doing a job and earning a living. Each day had its work and objectives.... But in full solitude—free and easy wandering without purpose or schedule—the demons appear.

Society provides most of the make-believe that prevents one's hells from surfacing into full consciousness. But whoever leaves the world to wander alone...should be prepared to meet a devil or two, when busyness ceases to drown out the dream side.... Old wounds become fresh injuries. Unresolved terrors become immediate threats. I've come awake in the close darkness of a cloudy new-moon night, sobbing from an early-childhood rejection, so overcome with its lasting presence that I could only gradually remember my way back into middle age. I've come awake old and senile, awaiting death with dumb, motionless panic. (Corbett, p. 10-11)

Jim's descriptions of his experiences help me recognize the moods I feel for what they are and to understand how to continue to orient myself by naming them and re-focusing on the bigger picture. Without this perspective I would have headed back to something familiar long ago. But it is clear to me that this pain—though not the point—is necessary. That this breaking open is the first step in receiving the world.

*****

A few weeks ago I took a nap in the trailer in the heat of the day and woke up thinking that I was a child again on the farm and that my family was just in the other room. Then I started having sense memories of taking care of Mom at Manor Care—the smell of the building, the long faceless hall, all those blank hours in which she had to occupy herself. I felt groggy and disoriented from sleep and had a jolt of empathy for her confusion while she lived there—how difficult it would be to not be able to get up and walk, or to go outside to find your present self again. I was surprised at how fresh all of those memories still were for me, and how often these days I feel like I imagine Mom did during that time. Perhaps this is another kind of letting go—the need to let go of the past.

I think of all the letting go she had to do those last years. Letting go of her memory and her ability to make sense of the world; of her ability to walk or take care of herself; of her capacity to make her own decisions and of most of what was fun. Eventually letting go of her body and of her life itself.

When I think about this, I am pretty sure that I don’t fully understand the implications of letting go, or even what I am giving up. All I see at first are the positive aspects of living lighter along with a little collateral sadness, something along the lines of not having luggage to carry out of the car. But when I think about Mom, and I consider losing parts of myself that I consider central to who I am—memory, interests, skills, my home, my work—it is much more unsettling. I can feel the desire to clutch fiercely at these things, uncertain that what will take their place is worth it.

Then I feel the wind blow, I see the tips of all the trees move in concert like a green ocean, and I know that these trees are connected all the way back to the canyons of Utah, the sage brush of Nevada, the pines of the eastern Cascades, the great fir trees of the Olympic Mountains, and on and on. I feel the whole earth breath. I feel the pull to keep trying to understand what it means to hide the world in the world. I know there is no going back.

When you let go
you relax
open your hand—
everything falls to the ground.
You don't have to choose
any more.
This does not mean, though,
that you are bereft—
that things won't choose you.
That things with wings
won't land on your open palm,
or that little feet
won’t make the long journey
from the ground to your lap.
Just wait.
Open.
Everything
is a part of you.

------------------
Corbett, J. Goatwalking. (1991). New York: Viking.

Wednesday
May172017

Day 229: Mountain time

Imagine this.

You start by driving away from the city, into the desert. A few flat, hot hours go by. You are surrounded mostly by cactus. The only signs of water are the dry washes carved into the ground by summer storms.

Eventually, you begin to gain elevation. Cactus dwindle, replaced by grasses. There is less bare ground between plants. As you continue to climb, you begin to see more trees—short, twisted oaks and junipers that are still more shrubs than trees. Farther up, these get taller, now providing a little filtered shade. Yuuca’s outnumber the cactus. There is dry bunchgrass everywhere.

When you run out of road, you park the car and start walking. The steep trail ascends rapidly up the side of a vast, craggy mountain. You begin to see views of the valley and the city you started from in the distance. The oaks are taller, especially in the ravines, but there is still no visible water. Here there are manzanitas and little forest flowers—heuchera in the shade and paintbrush where it is sunnier. The trail is steep and dusty. The sun feels like a hot bulb suspended directly overhead. Every scrap of shade from the scattered trees on the ridges is a relief.

After over an hour of climbing you are high on the mountain. The valley below spreads away into distant haze. There are real trees here—mostly pines. The trail levels off close to the rocky ramparts of the mountain peak. You traverse a ridge then drop down into a fold in the mountainside.

As you enter the bottom of the ravine the world changes completely. For the first time in all these hot miles, a little stream gurgles up out of the ground. The air is quiet and cool. Long-needled pines and a Douglas fir tower an impossible height above you. Huge, white-trunked sycamores glow in the lighted shadows. Light-green ferns grow thick on the duffy ground. Moss covers the rocks. Even a little purple violet blooms in the stream. Sunlight slips through the leaves in sparkling patches on the water.

But most magical of all, the air above the stream is alive with wings. Hundreds of butterfly-like moths are rising up from the short stretch of flowing water in a loose flittering cloud of color and light. Each moth’s hind-wings are shiny metallic blue, their thick bodies are a soft powder-blue, and their round heads glow vivid red. At rest, with their orange-veined wings folded over their backs, they blend into the needles, but they are not often at rest, but are in constant twinkling, sparkling flight.

As I watch this swirl of colored wings, I feel like there should be music. The creek purls and trickles and crescents down over the wet rocks. The sun shines silently. I ask humble forgiveness for all the times I scoffed at fantasy movies in which the forest air was filled with fluttering, gossamer drifting stuff, as being “unreal.” This, too, feels unreal, but it is right here, moths rising and falling, tumbling and circling, landing on mud, opening and closing their wings, taking to the air again. This is also reality: as real as the long, hot walk to get here; as real as the fast, hot city in the distance.

And like most of reality it is fleeting. By the time we leave the stream late that afternoon, many of the moths have either dispersed or are stuck and drowning in deeper pools, littering the shore of the creek. Over the next weeks we see them many times in ones and twos, but never again in such numbers, even back at the same spring.

From what I can tell, these are Veined Ctenucha or Ctenucha venosa, a moth of the southwest that is active by day and whose larva feed on grasses. Why was there such a swarm of them? There must be some good reason—there always is—but I don’t know what it was. All I know is that it was memorable, as was all of Mt. Wrightson, its richness rising island-like out of the sea of desert.

One thing this trip is about, is time; and having time allows a different perspective. With this kind of time, watching a flight of moths might be the most important thing I do all day. And with time I tend toward a certain kind of watching—not observing so much for the sake of knowledge or understanding, but simply for the delight of it. The kind of watching that is a kind of homage or a prayer to what is, in all its magnificent detailed variety.

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We spent a week and a half at Madera Canyon on Mt. Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, walking and working and writing and being amazed at the incredible variety of plants, birds, lizards, and insects who make their home on this “sky island.”

Wednesday
Apr262017

A little love letter to Cascabel

   Secret cliffs stand silent in dry canyons.
   The sun stretches from horizon to horizon.
   Every rock is hot.
   Still, some places keep their names close,
   and hide plants there that love shade.

   In the mornings, mountains wake up first.
   Like cats they are alert watchers.
   The plants mostly endure.
   Contained for years they wait 
   for exhibitions of dazzling excess.

   Ants build fantastic homes in the worst soil.
   Beetles multiply even in dusty pastures.
   Snakes thrive.
   At night the toads suddenly bend the darkness
   with their wretched love songs.

   And the people? They too endure,
   holding something rare away from the wind,
   keeping watch—
   and like the bees, gather the slightest slips of sweetness
   into a golden labor of honey.
Sunday
Apr232017

Day 178-224: Cascabel finale

I have been struggling to figure out how to write about our time in Cascabel, and in the end, I have decided to keep it simple.

There is so much I could talk about. There is the community history, things like Jim and Pat Corbett’s work in the 80’s that began the Sanctuary Movement. There is the commitment of the Saguaro-Juniper covenant to conduct human activity in partnership with everything else that lives here. There are projects to restore native grasslands. There is the hermitage program which supports solitary retreat in desert wildlands. There is the community center built by volunteers from recovered materials, and the community garden with its cadre of fun-loving gardeners. There is the eclectic mix of people who live lives that are both highly independent and closely associated. Amongst those people, there is enough creativity, advanced education, and international experience to start a small college. And most important, there is the land itself that grounds everything else—the San Pedro River Valley, a rare, vital, relatively-intact, desert river ecosystem, whose miles of willow-cottonwood forest and mesquite bosques provide food and shelter for a staggering number of local animals as well as being an essential migratory corridor for many of the birds who summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Like I said, there’s a lot. But whenever I try to focus on any one of these things I find myself caught in generalizations or comparisons, or tangled in some kind of “educational” language that does not do justice to my actual experience.

So in the end it comes down to this: that both Tom and I came away from the last seven weeks with a deep affection for this place—the people and the land—that is like the bonds we feel with our family and friends. This affection comes from something greater than the accomplishments of the people or the beauty of the plants or the variety of the birds. It comes from the spiritual soul of this place—the wholeness of it, the spaciousness, the vast wild network of creatures connected to the vitality of the community.

   If I am still—
   if I let my hands rest, my heart broaden
   to the width of the valley, to the height of the mountains,
   then on to the next range beyond,
   to the cities, the rivers, the sea,
   then I too may find my place here,
   if I can stop grasping long enough
   to remember how to be vast.

   Of all the places I could be
   how did I end up here, in this moment?
   I mean in this very moment—
   at sunset, the cusp of night reaching out over the wide valley;
   the white cliffs at my back and the rangy peaks of the Galiuro Mountains
   pushed up in the distance; the whole wide green body
   of the valley laid out in-between in low rolling hills
   of creosote and saguaros; the little houses of people I know
   folded into them like nuts spotting a batter;
   and below, the cottonwoods assembled along the river
   like cows trailing loosely toward fresh pastures.
   The sky is about to reveal its stars.
   The moon is a ghost disk in the periwinkle wash.
   The barest threads of clouds mottle the air from east to west,
   and here I am—
   here I am with nothing but the wind
   and all this space
   to speak with.
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.

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

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.

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

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.

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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!