An entry in Encounters
One of the challenges of attempting a life in the margins is the sense of alienation it can, at times, produce. Granted, a life lived within the confines of society’s dominant ways and thoughts can be alienating as well—even more so, in many ways. Still, the simple fact is that in divorcing oneself of the myth of progress, spurning a great deal of material wealth in efforts toward voluntary poverty, believing that society is in the beginning throes of contraction, and limiting your intake of the newest and shiniest technologies, you tend to alienate yourself to some degree from a good many people. If, like me, this is a somewhat new project for you, then it’s likely that you’ll find yourself navigating tricky ground with at least some of your friends and family as you try to live your life in accordance with your beliefs while not becoming completely inscrutable to those you’ve known for years.
I’ve struggled with these challenges, though I’m blessed in that most of my friends and family seem to have taken my odd behavior in good stride. I suspect some of this is due to a sympathy toward my core beliefs, even if the expression of them skews somewhat radical, while some is due to the fact that I’ve always been at least a bit odd and contrary. Whatever kick I’m on at any given time is typically suffered with good nature, and for that I’m grateful.
What I do miss in my attempt to live a life of less is a partner. While I’ve done some dating over the past four-ish years that I’ve been farming, I find it a bit of a challenge to find people who understand the sort of lifestyle I’m trying to live and are either interested in pursuing a similar lifestyle or who simply are sympathetic to it, even if it’s not exactly their ideal. It’s not that I can’t find people who believe we live unsustainably as a society, but that it’s more of a challenge to find people who are interested in or are already taking the next steps of living with much less. I can’t help but feel that the term “voluntary poverty” is a bit scary to a number of people out there, though perhaps this is as much my own sense of self-consciousness as anything else.
It’s within this context that, just shy of two years ago, I found myself hiking the trail up Neahkahnie Mountain, not long after moving out here to the coast for my third farming apprenticeship. I hiked alone, climbing the mountain for the first time, shouldering a backpack with some water and food in it. It was a spring day and the sun shone, though I hiked mostly in the cool shadow of trees. I kept a steady pace with matching breath.
Hiking is something of a meditation for me. I’ve written about this before, in The Rhythm of Contemplation, but as I fall into a steady pace of hiking and breathing, my mind tends to wander and explore various corners within itself, tracing out paths much as my body follows the forest path, though not with such a singular focus. Sometimes I find myself thinking out some new bit of philosophy or insight, while other times I fall into a contemplation of lingering personal issues or frustrations. Hiking up Neahkahnie that day, my mind took the latter path. I focused in on a complex and somewhat unresolved relationship from a year ago, allowing the frustrations that had arisen from the relationship to pull me toward depression, even mild despair. Wandering through the trees, engrossed within my own mind, I felt an intense alienation and loneliness, wondering if I would ever find a settled place and a partner, good and meaningful work, a life which felt right.
I had only recently moved out to the coast, relocating for the third time in two and a half years. I made these moves in service of broader goals: learning to farm, finding meaningful work and a meaningful life. But that didn’t change the fact that each move proved a challenge, further heightening my sense of alienation and divorce from the social world, and further unsettling my life. I wanted desperately to find a place to stay and familiarize myself with, but that place continued to elude me. I wanted a partner, and she also continued to elude me. In that moment, then, out on the trail and surrounded by intense beauty, by an incredible amount of life, I couldn’t help myself from falling into the confines of my own mind, blocking out the abundant world around me and indulging in a great loneliness. I felt I might never have what I wanted. I questioned my decisions, this life I had chosen to lead.
I stared at the ground, at my feet, placing each of my steps carefully but automatically, avoiding rocks and roots and keeping a firm footing. I could see the ground, but not really—I was in my own head, lost in pity and frustration, in the dark paths that the hike’s physical rhythms had opened up to me. I imagined human touch, physical intimacy, and the longing for it clawed at me. I wanted all these things that I didn’t have at the moment, and I couldn’t see all I did have.
At that moment I looked up and ahead, along the shadowed trail beset on each side by high-reaching Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. One of those firs towered on my right, moving in close as I continued to walk along the path, its trunk deep and wide and covered in vibrant green moss. I didn’t think about it, made no conscious decision; I simply reached for the tree. In that moment of intense sadness, I turned and reached and hugged the trunk of that tree, pressing against the rough bark and soft moss, and I felt relief flood me. The tree comforted me as well as any human could have and for a startling moment, it was as real and alive to me as any friend would be. It mattered not that the tree was of a different composition than flesh and bone, a different species, in many ways an alien being.
Trees are alive, of course. They have power and spirit. They are creatures of this world, the same as humans are, the same as any animal. And yet, despite my love of them and despite my joy in their presence, I don’t tend to gain a comfort from them the way I do a friend, or a family member, or a lover. I know there are some people out there who feel that intense a connection to trees on a regular basis, but I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I’ll stop to touch a tree, to feel its bark, to rest or lean against it and I’ve even been known, once or twice, to speak to a tree, though I’ve never heard a response. Hell, I’ve hugged trees more than a few times in my life. But never when I felt the way I did that day, in that dark moment, in desperate need of comfort from another creature. I sought that tree out, not even thinking, and I felt as connected to it as I would anyone. Even as it happened, it shocked me.
I stayed against the tree for a few moments, shifting my head to place my forehead against the cool and damp moss, taking deep breaths, self-conscious enough to glance down the trail to see if anyone else was coming into view, able to see me in my arborous embrace. Thankfully, no one appeared. I was left alone with the tree and its comfort.
After a few minutes, I stepped back, placed my hand against its trunk, thanked the tree. I felt infinitely better. I did not feel nearly so alone, nearly so destitute. My loneliness and self-pity dissipated and the incredible community around me came into focus, reminding me that I wasn’t alone, even if it at times felt that way. I continued my hike, buoyed and thankful. Blessed. I stayed alert and aware of the life around me, even as I continued to think and meditate, to allocate a portion of my attention to the inside of my mind.
Since that day, I’ve stayed here on the Oregon coast. I’ve moved a few times, but each time only down the road, not to some other town or region. I’ve been building a life, integrating into the community, meeting people and making friends, establishing myself. I don’t know that I’ll stay here—it’s very possible, but not assured. I have yet to find a partner. I still find myself lonely at times, and I even occasionally question my decisions, wonder if I’m on the right path. But almost every day I’m surrounded by other life, some of it human and much of it not. That’s always a blessing. It’s always a comfort. It’s always a confirmation that I’m on the right path, wherever it may be leading. Yes, there are still human relationships I yearn for and that I hope to eventually cultivate. But they’re not the only source of comfort and connection. They’re just one amongst many.
I don’t know that I’ll ever feel such a striking and intense connection to a tree again. But I love knowing that it’s possible—that in dark moments, a greater number of species than I might otherwise have imagined can provide me deep and true comfort. I love that sense of connection, of being intertwined, of transcending unnecessary and imposed boundaries. Flesh and bone, bark and pith—it’s all the structure of life, all from the same source. It’s all connected. It just sometimes takes a dark moment to realize it.
An entry in the Encounters series
Six weeks ago, I walked amongst the red rocks surrounding Sedona, Arizona. I was in Sedona after having driven my mother there and was able to take a few days to enjoy the local landscape, to sit in the sun and read, to walk in the desert and reconnect to a place I had visited once fifteen years before, when I lived in Arizona for a year. Ever since that year, I’ve felt a connection to the Arizona desert landscape and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the chance to return to the state.
Bell Rock. Taken by Ken Thomas.
Twice while there, I walked the trails looping around Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, winding my way across the red sandstone and between the twisting Junipers, the trail dipping down into washes and scaling rock outcroppings. On February 4th, I skirted around Bell Rock and took Llama Trail, which meandered away from Courthouse Butte. I lost myself in the rhythm of the hike, my breath syncing with my steps, the landscape unfolding around me. A bounty of birds flitted about in the branches of the surrounding Junipers—which were short and squat, hunkered down low to the ground—and I would stop on occasion to watch them for a few minutes, their quick and jerky movements mesmerizing. The day was a bit cool, the temperature in the fifties with clouds passing overhead. The sun peeked out at times but proved hidden more often than not. As I traversed farther along Llama Trial, the passing clouds turned dark and borderline foreboding, kicking up winds that suggested an oncoming storm.
Climbing up and out of a wash, I crested a small hill and came out the other side of a stand of trees, looking upon a wide expanse of red sandstone marked with small cairns. Off to my right, nearby cliffs towered high, as red as all the other rock and dotted with trees. Beyond the cliffs stretched the sky—and a series of heavy clouds promising rain. I carried a rain jacket in my backpack but no other rain gear. I hoped that any rainfall wouldn’t be too heavy.
In the middle of that stretch of sandstone sat a pair of large rocks, one of them perhaps three feet in diameter and the other a bit smaller and higher. A cairn balanced upon the smaller rock. I walked over to those rocks as an increasing wind stirred around me. From the vantage point of the two rocks, I saw a series of shallow pools forming a line in the sandstone, the worn cavities holding stagnant water from the previous rain. I dropped my backpack on the ground, next to the larger rock, and then went to one of the cavities, kneeling to inspect it. A dead scorpion caught my eye at that moment, its dried husk of a body perched on the rock about a foot from me. Just as I focused on the scorpion, a rain drop hit the stone right next to it, creating a sudden and surprising, tiny burst of darkness. It startled me. I glanced up at the dark sky and then over at the cliffs to my right. There, a mist in the distance—a fuzzy opacity in front of the cliffs. Rain falling. Moments later, more rain arrived, increasing in scale and intensity. The rain patterned the rock around the dead scorpion. Ripples spread in the small pool of stagnant water.
What am I to do in places like this, at such moments? I considered this as I retreated back to the pair of large rocks, toward my backpack and rain jacket. The wind grew stronger and the rain continued to fall, insistent but not overpowering, not yet drenching. I wondered how long the storm would last and how strong it would become. I could have retreated at that moment, beating a path as quick as possible back to the parking lot, but even that would have been something of a futile effort. I had no car at the parking lot—only the prospect of a further walk back into Oak Creek and the condo at which I was staying. Furthermore, I didn’t want to retreat. I wanted to experience. What am I to do in this situation? Abandon the desert, taking shelter somewhere inside, in an insulated building in which I can’t even here that it’s raining, in which I can forget what the world is doing and instead exist in my own oblivious comfort? Turn my back on the desert when it doesn’t provide my every comfort, a perfect encapsulation of my desires? Or sit on a large rock and welcome the storm, feel the water against my skin, the wind slipping around me, and smell the wetting of the desert rock and sand? I donned my rain jacket and chose the latter, settling myself upon the larger of the two rocks, crossing my legs and facing away from the nearby cliffs, looking out toward Bell Rock, the red ground, and the twisted Junipers.
As I sat there, staring out into the desert, the wind blew hard against my back, driving rain against the back of my head. The wind and rain were cold, but not freezing. Rather than discomfort, I felt exhilaration at the power of the weather—the heaviness of the clouds above me, the force of the wind, the abandon of the rain. The water opened up the sands and the desert plants, bringing forth a familiar and comforting scent. I reveled in the fluctuating sensations the storm provided.
Rain splattered against the stretch of sandstone in front of me, creating intricate patterns on the rock. As the wind blew, it brought the rain in waves. The waves painted the rocks—a visual representation of the wind pattern. Even as I watched it, though, the sun emerged from behind the patchy storm clouds and shone down as the rain continued to fall, alighting each drop on the stone, illuminating the wind’s pattern. As more rain fell, each hit upon the rocks created a short burst of reflected light and before long I saw the wind’s pattern in the waves of light—a rhythmic pulsing of cold wind and water coupled with the sun’s light, the collaborative art of the elements. It was beautiful. It was a magic, far better than any Christmas light display.
I marveled at all this. The visuals, the sensations of the storm against my skin, the sound of the wind flowing across the desert land and through the trees, the push of that wind against my back, the simultaneous chill of the wind and rain on the back of my head and the warmth of the sun on my front. It all came together to create a weaving of contrasts, a heightening of sensation that thrilled me. It awoke and inspired. It lasted long minutes that weren’t long enough.
Eventually the squall passed. The wind calmed and the rain trailed off, the sun-accented patterns on the ground drying and disappearing. I sat on the rock for awhile, holding onto and reviewing the memory. I thought of what it meant to be out in that power and restrained fury—at how much of a presence could arise in so little time, uncontrolled by us humans but capable of so much consequence. I recalled that first surprising moment of the rain drop next to the dead scorpion, its sudden appearance at the exact moment I trained my focus on the scorpion shocking me into the present world. I thought about sitting on the rock in the storm and how it might contrast with sitting under a tree, or under a rock ledge, in a yurt where I could hear but not feel the storm, or in an open field. I breathed deep the smell of the wet desert and for a few moments I stared at the cairn on the rock next to me, wondering about the person who had made it, about their love of this particular place.
Then I slipped off my rain jacket, returned it to my backpack, shouldered the pack and continued on. I continued following the Llama Trail for awhile until I stopped, pulled a small notebook from my back pocket and a pen from my front, and wrote, No machine, no matter how powerful it makes us feel or how much destruction it lets us wreak, can make us gods. Those machines are as dependent on the wide world as we are, and if we continue to degrade our home, they will fall first—followed shortly by us.
No machine is as powerful as that small storm. No human being is as significant. And nothing we’ve ever created is worth disavowing that beauty and power and exhilaration. Sitting on the rock, in that storm, I remembered how small I am as a human on this planet and how big the world is—how huge and daunting and empowering this world is, every day, if only we’ll acknowledge it. Everything we create is a piece of that world. Everything we create is subordinate to it.
We need those kinds of storms to remind us of this. But we need them, also, to remind us that such a reality is a good thing. If we could tame such storms through our creations, the world would be a lesser place. If the world was of our making rather than something far larger than us—far more complex, mysterious, magical and incomprehensible—than it would be a lesser place. I’m happy we’re subordinate to the world and not the other way around. I’m comforted by it, in fact. It means that there will always be those moments when the world takes me over, surprises me, asserts itself in the most unexpected of moments and makes me remember who I am, where I am, and how little I know. It can be just a rain drop, at just the right moment. It can be the art of sun and wind and rain. It can be hot and cold at the same time—front and back, two powers meeting. It can be the world, finding me on a desert afternoon, out on the rocks with nowhere to go. But it’s all beauty, and power, and magic, and appropriate. And I’m thankful that I was there that afternoon, that I saw the world’s beauty in a way I never had before. I’m thankful to have been reminded in that moment of how small I am and how large and unexpected the world is.
I’m thankful for what the desert told.
This week, I took a few days to go into Portland to see family and friends, run errands, and revel in the warmest days of the year. Spring in Portland is a particularly wonderful experience. There’s little that’s better than wandering around pleasant Portland streets while the sun is bright and the sky clear and blue, providing for at least one day the warm and sunny spring I so desperately hope we get this year.
Due to my trip into Portland, though, and four hours of cleaning today as I prepare to move from my yurt to the farm down the street, I haven’t had much chance to write a new post. I feel bad that it’s been so long, so here are a couple pictures to help tide you all over until the next real entry, which will hopefully arrive Sunday night. In celebration of spring, I’m going green for these photos.
Cutting arugula in the hoop house last summer. I used to hate cutting greens, but I've long since come to really enjoy it. Arugula is one of my favorites.
This is from a 2003 trip to the Hoh Rain Forest on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. The tree would seem to be some kind of maple—perhaps a Big Leaf? Sadly, my tree identification skills are not nearly as good as they should be. I labeled it as a spider tree when I took the picture, and I love the draping moss. The Hoh Rain Forest is insanely beautiful and highly recommended, if you ever get a chance to go.
This is a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, coming out of Panther Creek in Washington, and one of my very favorite hikes. In fact, it's where I first went hiking—with my father, during a camping trip. I owe him for showing me this glorious bit of the PCT and instilling in me a love of hiking that's served me well throughout the years. There's probably no trail I've hiked more often than this one. I know it intimately and I'll always love it.