Archive for the ‘Hiking’ Category
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.
I’m in Portland for a few days of fun and may not get a chance to write a new post until next week, though I’ll see if I can find a few hours at some point this weekend to make something happen. For those who check into the blog regularly, though, I figured I could at least provide a couple pretty pictures.
I went to Glacier National Park in Montana for the first time in 2004, during a two week road trip that saw me visiting or traveling through no less than seven national parks. Most of those parks were in Utah, but I started out by kicking east over to Montana and introducing myself to Glacier.
I fell in love.
I imagine it’s easy to fall in love with Glacier, just because the beauty is so overwhelming and breathtaking, so hard to deny. It’s almost too easy. But fall in love I did, and Glacier continues to remind me of its existence to this day, arising in my thoughts now and again seemingly out of nowhere. I went back there a second time in 2004 with my roommate at the time, intent on showing her this ridiculous treasure, and have not returned since save for a couple train trips skirting along its southern border. One of these days I’m determined to go hiking again in Glacier.
For now, here are a few of my favorite pictures from those two trips.
Oldman Lake. I traipsed through some mighty deep snow to get here and at one point, in a fit of exhilaration, begin running through it as I grew near the lake. I'm lucky as hell I didn't sprain or break an ankle. I was miles from the trail head, alone, with some supplies but not a significant amount. Still, I'll never forget that run, or the ridiculous beauty of this lake emerging before me.
The Two Medicine Trail (off to the right in the picture) extending into the distance and heading toward Oldman Lake, which is at the end of a spur off this main trail. Hiking through this valley was breathtaking and there always was some wildlife off in the distance.
Yes, this qualifies as one of the more mundane sights along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Just a river--the name of which I don't know off hand--tumbling along through the mountains. I love the green of the water in this picture.
That little speck out there is Goose Island, in the middle of the large expanse of Saint Mary Lake. Give me a tiny cabin and a wood stove out on that island and I might be happy forever--or at least until I starved to death or went crazy from seclusion. I could definitely put in a couple weeks though, no problem.
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.
I love snow. It’s something we don’t get very often here in the Northwest. When we do get it, it tends to be of the hit-the-ground-and-melt variety. An inch or two is significant for us—this isn’t the Midwest we’re talking about here. So it’s a special day when we get any sort of decent accumulation.
The last two days have seen some very decent accumulation, at least here on the farm. On Sunday, I awoke to two inches of snow blanketing the farm, bringing abundant joy upon its initial reveal. A bit more fell during the day, alternating between showers of snow and graupel, creating a picture-perfect view as I sat in the main house drinking coffee, reading, and attempting to write a blog post. Yesterday, I awoke to yet more snow, with a full five inches then covering the land. The trees drooped under the weight of all this snow, their branches low and burdened. The few hooped, plastic row covers had collapsed, crush beneath the deceptively heavy, fluffy whiteness. Everywhere, the snow lay mounded and heap, the farm’s various edges and angles softened, blunted, smoothed out. As I walked from my yurt to the main house, I glanced over at Onion Peak, beautiful and glorious, its craggy rise mottled white and gray—snow and stone—and a strip of snowy evergreens midway up the peak glowing golden in a brief reveal of morning sunlight. I stood a moment, and stared, and marveled at this beauty and the good fortune of my presence in it.
In the house, I made coffee and checked the radar. A band of snow was moving toward us. Not long after that it began to fall, light at first but growing heavier. Determined to take a walk in the snow, I put on a few layers, made a fresh cup of coffee, slipped on my boots and headed out into the storm.
It took me only a moment to realize where I should go. The farm is situated on a north-facing hillside and the land extends up onto a tall, forested ridge that stretches back from Brian’s house, running above the small creek that provides our water. An overgrown path leads up and along this ridge, eventually arriving at a high vantage point with the creek below on the south side and the farm’s main house and growing fields on the north side. This is where I went. Brian had shown me the path a few weeks before and I already had hiked up to this spot once for a short bit of meditation. Being up there while the snow fell heavy around me sounded transcendent.
I climbed the path slowly, keeping my coffee cup steady so as not to spill its contents, my head down and hood up to protect from falling clumps of snow. I pushed through the reaching branches of shrubs and scotch broom, brushed past sword ferns bowed with snow—spread wide and pushed low to the ground—and knocked the snow from low-hanging tree branches as I pushed through their barrier. The depth of the snow on the ground varied from a light dusting beneath thick sections of the forest canopy to multiple inches where the canopy cleared, or where the trees were deciduous and bare rather than needled evergreens. Where the snow clung thin and light, dark green moss more often than not showed through, its color yet more vibrant in the otherwise muted landscape.
The creek, unseen, flowed to my right, providing sound in what would otherwise have been a land silenced by the snow. The trees around me towered far into the sky. Many there are old growth, a mixture of fir, hemlock, cedar and other species. They are a marvel, not least of which because there is so little old growth left around here. Most of it has long since been cut, transported, milled and shipped. Now even the lower-quality trees are being cut and pulped or shipped to Asia as cheap building material. These here, though, stood tall and steady and powerful, providing a windbreak for the farm that protects us during brutal coastal storms and presiding over the land with a majesty that can’t be overstated.
Being on that ridge, amongst those towering old-growth trees and with the snow all around me—an inch or two on the ground and an inconceivable amount in the air—I couldn’t help but feel a deep joy at the beauty of that place. I stood on the ridge and looked out toward the creek, still sight unseen below me but clearly heard. Across the way was another hill and more forest—state land as-yet uncut. Large snowflakes whirled through the air and those trees served as a backdrop nearly whited out due to the abundance of flakes. The scene was so picturesque—a variety of trees everywhere, rising so high into the air, the sound of the creek below and the snow devouring it all, the branches of the evergreens mounded down, all of it so intensely pretty—and my place in it so small and so overcome with awe that I felt close to tears, heartened and humbled. In that moment the words came to me: There is a grace in this life.
I breathed deep. Turning, I walked to the other side of the ridge, stepping carefully on the cluttered forest floor. The heavy snow began to transition to something smaller and more icy, though just as abundant. These icier flakes hit my rain coat with quiet tinks, their small sound merging with the creek’s. I stood at the opposite edge of the ridge and looked out toward the farm, into the white air, the far tree line, the simple muteness of it all and—
There is a grace in this life.
The words repeated in my head, again and again as I stood on that ridge, drifting back and forth and looking out at the snow, at the distant trees, up at the near trees, the way they stretched forever above me, and down at the forest floor, at the jumbled mess of twigs and pine needles, fallen branches and moldering leaves and mossy coverings, downed logs and mounds of duff, all of it coated lightly in snow. Across the way, on the hillside above the creek, a winter-bare ash kept losing chunks of snow off its branches, the powdery ice drifting toward the ground in a disintegrating descent. I watched this happen over and over and—
There is a grace in this life.
In that grace, in that moment, I understood something more about work. Yes, it’s habit. But it’s also responsibility. My life is immensely blessed. To be able to stand on that ridge yesterday, in the transcendence of a snow storm, in one of the most beautiful places on this planet, is a matter of grace and blessing and good fortune that is nearly incomprehensible. And, really, I have done little to deserve or earn it. I have worked far less hard than most throughout the world. I have at times been selfish and ignorant and uncaring and oblivious to the harm that I and my lifestyle does. I don’t mean this as a condemnation of myself as I do think I’m a good person, but it is a reality. It is a simple truth I think it important to acknowledge. I live a life of grace and it has not been fully earned. It’s been earned only partly—and a very small part, at that.
To not do the best work I can do at this point would be an abdication of responsibility. I find myself here, the recipient of some incredible amount of good luck, immersed in a life that, while at times challenging, is good. It’s blessed. It’s more than I ever should have hoped for, and yet it somehow is my life. At the very least, I have to show appreciation for what I have through the doing of work as good as I am capable of doing it. To not, at this point, do the work that I believe is necessary and good and will prove a benefit to myself and my community would be not just an abdication of my responsibility to this world that provides me so much, but immoral. How could I experience such joy and beauty and not feel an absolute responsibility to protect, perpetuate and bring as many people as possible into equivalent joy and beauty? How could I take my day in the snow and not feel a debt to the world—a debt that only can be repaid through good, restorative work?
I spent a day in the snow, amongst the trees, immersed in joy, and it indebted me. This too, then, is my work. I must pay back this debt, and so many others that have yet to be paid. Paying it back will take habit, yes, to engage in the necessary work, but it will also take the sense of responsibility I felt so clearly up on that ridge. This is my work for a purpose, and that purpose yesterday lived up in the trees, lingered on the ridge, and fell in the snow. It graced me, and I will repay it.
When I was young, I loved to play basketball. I played in the street, on a pair of facing hoops in the cul-de-sac where my family lived. At times, I played games with other neighborhood children, but I more often played on my own, shooting on both baskets, practicing my layups and turnaround jumpers, the fundamental off-balance three. Sometimes I did what so many children do, pretending to be in the last seconds of the fourth quarter of a critical game, my team down by one and me taking the final shot for the win. Still other times I slipped into the steady rhythm of running, dribbling, shooting, retrieving the ball, running, dribbling, shooting and so on, over and over, until my breath came hard and steady, each pull and release of my lungs a recognized necessity. During these stretches of play, my actions never quite followed the same pattern on a micro level, but they did on the macro and thus provided a steady rhythm. I would run up to the basket, make a lay up, grab the ball–never stopping–and rush out to where I imagined the free throw line would be, taking a quick, long step and flinging my body round as I rocketed off my right foot, falling back, tossing the ball at the basket and half the time nearly killing myself as I landed awkwardly on the pavement, sometimes stumbling. This was terrible form, of course, but I didn’t care. It was exhilarating and the extreme actions pushed my body–burning lungs, dripping sweat, flushed skin–to the point that I began to feel it all, to be aware of the full depth of my limbs, the beating heat of my torso.
After perhaps fifteen minutes of this physical rhythm, this tiring play, another love of mine began to assert its presence: the imagining and writing of stories. I often best constructed the plot and characters of these stories within this realm of physical exertion. As my body succumbed to the labor of play, the tempo of my breath and blood would focus my mind, allowing me to continually engage in physical activity while existing to a large degree within an internal world. The movements between baskets became automatic–the ball an extension of my body, the basket’s whereabouts a constant underlying knowledge, my musculature’s actions programmed and unconscious–and I could slip ever-further into these constructed realities, fleshing them out and devising plot points, providing myself the particular therapy of self-imagined worlds. My mind and body worked together, but toward different goals. It all happened simultaneously and provided for some of my more joyous moments as a child.
As a teenager and adult, I’ve been a regular hiker. I don’t backpack, but I take day hikes, immersing myself in beautiful places. Typically these places involve significant numbers of trees and often a good amount of elevation climb. As such, my hikes prove good exercise, providing burning muscles and strained lungs, as well as moments of turning a bend to see only more elevation gain and thinking, son of a bitch. During these climbs, though, I often find myself slipping into a steady rhythm of steps and breaths and swinging arms and there typically comes a point–if I allow for a continuous process and don’t stop too often for breaks–when the various functions of my body that serve to propel me up the path sync up into a kind of balance that suggests sustainability. It’s not that in that precision I could hike forever, but there is a stretch in which it feels that way. For a transcendent moment of time, the exhaustion of the hike becomes a fuel in and of itself and I think I might never have to slow–that I could take myself anywhere.
Of course, there’s the inevitable moment when I must stop to fumble for my water bottle or the grade becomes a bit too steep or my breath too hard and I pause, beneath the trees, and succumb to the realities of being human, being of a body that can only take me so far. And yet, those moments when everything syncs up become something particularly special–a stretch of time during which I can do some of my best thinking, my mind able to function clear and robust, undisturbed by physical discomforts because those discomforts have been elevated to a point of brief transparency.
This is not a state I can reach outside of physical activity. It’s part and parcel with the functioning of my body. In other words, it’s only in the use of my body that I can most effectively use my mind.
In 2009, when I first began to farm, I read Anna Karenina with a good friend. We both made note of a particular passage in the book: Part 3, Chapter 4. In this chapter, Levin–the owner of a farm in the countryside–chooses to help mow with a scythe alongside the muzhiks, or Russian peasants. He does so because he enjoys the work but also because he “need[s] physical movement, otherwise [his] character definitely deteriorates” (from page 248 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, linked above.) As Levin finds the rhythm of the work, Tolstoy writes that he “lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his work which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light” (p. 251).
I loved this passage then as I love it now. I find it a wonderful illustration of the phenomenon I noted above. But I also love it’s placement within the context of farming. There are certain aspects of farming that I particularly enjoy, and they tend to be the more laborious aspects. For instance, two of my favorite jobs on the farm is broadforking and 3-tooth cultivating. The former involves using a tool that looks suspiciously like a large, broad fork to aerate the soil. You place the tines in the bed you’re working, step down on the tool as you would a shovel to sink the tines down as far as they’ll go, then pull back to gently break up the soil beneath. It provides better drainage and looser dirt for the plants to grow within without actually turning over the soil and destroying its structure. The latter–the 3-tooth cultivator–makes use of a tool designed by Eliot Coleman to stir the top soil of a bed, incorporating fertilizer and compost. You do this by placing the three claws of the tool into the soil and then pushing and pulling it back and forth, keeping the tool in the dirt. It’s surprisingly good exercise, working core muscles and inspiring a sweat in short order.
These two jobs tend more toward the manual labor side of farming and I appreciated them greatly. Both tools involve rhythmic and challenging work and, given a long enough bed, they provide me a few moments of the sort of exertion-inspired concentration that basketball and hiking can provide me. There’s a certain uncomplicated pleasure in knowing that both jobs are straightforward and involve not the application of complex thinking, but of work of sufficient strength and duration. That frees my mind for other pursuits, allowing the consideration of ideas or the observation of my surroundings (or, in many cases, conversation with a co-worker.)
In December 2010, I attended a ten day course in Vipassana meditation. It wasn’t for me, for a variety of reasons I likely will write about in a future essay. It was, however, a helpful and, in certain ways, a rewarding experience. It taught me lessons, one of which being that I am not particularly adept at sitting very still and meditating. I begin to focus on every slight physical discomfort and my mind looks for distractions. It’s likely that I should spend some time working on this tendency, as it may be a challenge I should attempt to overcome. However, I also think this was the simple realization that I am often better able to think in conjunction with physical activity.
During the course’s specified free times, I would walk the limited trails on the center’s grounds. I found my time on those trails a consistent source of insight and revelation. I would walk and circle and mix up my routes a bit but still slip eventually into a rhythm of movement and breath and pulse. And in that rhythm, I began to uncover thought processes I simply was unable to access while attempting to sit motionless on a cushion, in a meditation hall. There, the process was constricting. Outside, the process opened itself, thriving on my body’s movement in and reaction to the natural world.
I gained multiple insights during that time and, after the ten days, walked away with a greater understanding of my place in the world. But I don’t think those insights would have arrived without my daily walks. Yes, the contrast between that time of walking and my time inside, trying to sit still, was a significant driver of those insights. But I still needed the physical movement to complete the picture. It was what allowed me to understand my place.
For now, this is simply a series of experiences within which I’ve noticed relations. I believe there are greater implications here–implications that I have yet to fully uncover. Perhaps a long hike would help me to discover them.
I’ve been buoyed of late by the Occupy movement. Having joined the kick off march and rally for Occupy Portland, participated in the October 15th global day of protest, and closely followed OWS for months, I saw the movement as the first real possibility in my lifetime of enacting broad social, political and economic change. As a proponent of such change–of radical change–I dared to hope that this may be the beginning of the long sought revolution, unveiling itself before my very eyes, in my lifetime, at what seemed a critical moment of history. I have, in recent years, danced around the sense that a reckoning is coming–an apocalypse of some kind, the collapse of industrial civilization–and I have wanted to see a revolution to help head off that collapse, or at least to try to work within its confines rather than fight it to the bitter end, inevitably to the still-further impoverishment of all.
Occupy slotted itself very nicely into the space in which those dreams resided. There was an intoxicating power to the way it grew and flourished, drawing in thousands and spreading across the globe, linking up with other protests, movements and revolutions, and commanding the attention of political and economic elites. This, finally, seemed to be history unfolding. It was happening.
But then, within the same time frame, I began to question my dreams of apocalypse. Much of this questioning came out of a series of posts written by John Michael Greer over at The Archdruid Report. In writing about magic and thaumaturgy, he brings to account the sort of binary thinking that drives such apocalyptic thinking, as well as its utopian sibling. Greer argues that humans have a tendency toward binary thinking, seeing “polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites.” He believes, due to its frequency, that this is “likely hardwired into our brains” and that it stems from “the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah,” sorting things into “food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on.” Today, we have the ability to go beyond such binary thinking into more complex thought processes, but a proper amount of stress can trigger our more primitive mind frame, pushing us back into binaries.
The tendency to project our timeline out into apocalyptic or utopian fantasies, then, stems from that binary thinking. Some see history moving us toward an ever-more-perfect society while still others believe that we are heading for a complete collapse–the end of civilization or, more colloquially, the zombie apocalypse. I’ve tended toward this latter mind frame, spurred on by signs of ecological catastrophe, a rapidly changing climate, the plateauing of oil production and the exhaustion of physical resources. And I do still think that we’re in for a reckoning on a global scale. Yet the idea that it’s going to collapse all at once, in some kind of fiery apocalypse–or more specifically, in some kind of sudden and complete withdrawal of governmental authority, industrial economic activity and legal and social structures–no longer holds as much sway with me.
My new found hesitancy to embrace such a concept stems, again, from recently-read writings of Greer’s. He notes that past civilizations that have collapsed have all followed a similar model, though the details of course vary wildly. However, the similarity tends to manifest itself, in Greer’s words, as a “stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.” Furthermore, in his book The Ecotechnic Future, Greer argues for a long perspective view of societies that casts them in evolutionary terms, with our current industrial civilization being, essentially, a less-evolved mutation of a technic society. In his frame, our use of technology was the evolutionary leap and our current use of it is just one early and not particularly resilient manifestation of that leap. As we deplete the fossil fuels and other physical resources that power our current evolutionary branch of society, we’ll be forced into new branchings. However, he foresees (far) future societies likely still using technology, just in more appropriate and sustainable manners.
Looking out on Cape Falcon from the beginning of the trail.
These new-to-me perspectives–of stairstep collapse and an evolutionary model overlaid on our society–has evolved my own thinking about what our future may entail. While, as I mentioned above, I still see that reckoning on its way, I see it less likely as playing out in complete and catastrophic collapse. Rather, I’m swayed by Greer’s argument that we’ll see more of a stairstep collapse and future transitional phases–though they’ll likely be trying affairs, to say the least. This shift in perspective on collapse, meanwhile, has also shifted my perspective on the Occupy movement. Simply put, I no longer think it can or will lead to the revolution I previously hoped for. More specifically, I don’t think that revolution is even possible.
If we are heading for a stairstep collapse rooted more in the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and their incredibly-concentrated sources of energy, as well as the inability of America to continue to control a share of the world’s resources far beyond its population share, then we are facing a future with no grand solution. Our course is untenable; there’s no solution to make it tenable. If there’s no grand solution, then there’s no revolutionary moment that can save us from collapse, from a series of harsh changes that we don’t want to and are unprepared to make. There are only small moments of adjustment. There are only high levels of persistence. There is only a long process of muddling through, of taking the next step not in accordance with a long-established plan, but with a deft adjustment to recently-arisen circumstances. There is only a series of moves made in conjunction with local realities, not one grand saving grace rooted in a globalized reality. There is only you, and your family, your household and your neighbor’s, the small community around you, a watershed, a localized climate and geography that is asserting itself every day as a greater and greater percentage of your total reality. That’s the only solution, and there’s nothing particularly grand about it.
My experiences with the Occupy movement have been intoxicating. They’ve been empowering. And I don’t think there’s anything surprising or unique about this. In the context of a political and economic system that has rendered the vast majority of people powerless, that voice and sense of impact that the Occupy movement has provided can be addicting. Finally, we think, politicians are responding! Finally, the media is acknowledging us, even if it’s half the time an acknowledgement made up of nothing more than spite and degradation. The Occupy movement isn’t an online petition destined to be ignored. Nor is it dispiriting, as such petitions tend to be. It, rather, engages you in a way that such easy actions do not. Instead of clicking mindlessly, you come together with like minded people and you voice your displeasure, your anger, your frustration and outrage. My experience with that was addictive–I wanted more of it! Based on the growth of OWS, I don’t think my reaction was an isolated one.
Yet, Greer once again wrote something that impacted the way I thought about this reaction. In an essay entitled “A Choice of Contemplations,” Greer writes that “The vast majority of Americans these days believe that something has gone very wrong with their country, but there’s nothing like a national consensus about what has gone wrong, much less how to fix it. By chance or design, the Occupy movement has capitalized on this by refusing to be pinned down to specific demands or specific critiques, mounting a protest in which protest itself is the central content. Tactically speaking, this is brilliant; it’s created a movement that anyone with a grievance can join.”
A particularly beautiful and calming spot along the trail.
This rings true to me. Since the inception of the movement, I’ve been sympathetic to people who have called for specific demands, but unconvinced. Ultimately, I thought the lack of demands lent the movement a great strength. As soon as demands were introduced, they could be used to split apart the movement, to discredit it, and could become a flash point for a full-fledged attack from the movement’s enemies. All of which, I think, is true. Yet the part I wasn’t seeing as clearly was what Greer wrote. The lack of demands opens the movement to anyone who’s angry, which is damn near everyone. Not all will join, but the potential is there. In that sense, the movement was primed for growth. It seems not a coincidence, then, that it grew very fast from its inception.
But I can’t help but think there’s something more we’re facing here. Yes, we have an exploitative and brutal economic order and a corrupt and ineffective political class. Yes, we have a co-opted and bankrupt media and decaying national infrastructure. Yes, we have a societal and cultural order that is propped up by the underpinnings of domination and brutalization. And God yes, we need movements against these unfair and destructive aspects of our society. But what do we do when these movements get caught up in the same system? It’s a common refrain from the Occupy movement (though by no means a consensus) that we need to rebuild the middle class and create a fair economy that provides everyone an honest opportunity for a well paying job with benefits. But let’s be honest for a moment here. The middle class America that most of us envision when we talk about this is bullshit.
It is, I’ll say it again, bullshit.
This is a class built on the exploitation of the rest of the planet: many of its human occupants as well as all its non-human occupants and damn near everything else found in the earth’s ecosystem. The American way of life consumes vastly more resources on this planet than it has population–and the planet is overpopulated. We’ve been living in a fantasy land of the exploitation of concentrated-energy fossil fuels and the destruction and waste of the planet’s physical resources, and we built multiple classes on that exploitation and waste. One of those is the middle class. It’s not as wasteful and as unsustainable as the upper class here in America, but it sure as hell isn’t sustainable, either.
I don’t see a future in which we don’t have to deal with dramatically lower wealth and standards of living. This doesn’t mean we all have to be miserable, dead or living in squalor–though I will be surprised if we get through this tumultuous next few decades without our share of chaos and suffering–but we sure as hell aren’t going to have processed foods and microwaves, TV and the internet, video games and 401k and guaranteed retirements, a country in which a tiny fraction of the population farms, massive tractors and automobiles and development strategies powered by oil, or an endless supply of cheap technological gadgets to distract us from our ever-more meaningless lives. We’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with limits and physical realities and the necessity to live with the sustainable levels of energy and resources provided by the planet’s ecosystem. The analogy is simple and has been used numerous times: we’ve run up the credit card bill and now we’re going to have to pay it off–while simultaneously learning how to live without the extra purchasing power of that credit.
The model going forward is impossible to predict in its exact details, though one could sketch some likely outlines. One reality that seems undeniable, though, is that we’re going to move away from globalization and return to localities. In fact, we’re looking at a hyper-localized future, in which we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the idea of making our living from a particular piece of land, rather than just existing on a piece of land that means nothing to us while we import our existence in from the globalized, industrial economy. This is huge. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be made harder by the fact that, over the last couple generations, we’ve discarded an incredible amount of the knowledge needed to live in such a manner. We’re going to have to resurrect as much of that knowledge that still exists, create new knowledge through lengthy trial and error, and train incredible numbers of people in these forgotten skills. And we’re going to have to do it within a compressed time frame–much quicker than such a process would play out naturally.
A stray root from this tree forms what looks like a little hobbit house door.
Over the last month or so, as these ideas have been percolating and coalescing in the back of my mind–spurred on by a variety of Greer’s writings and my own knowledge base and lifestyle–I’ve been struggling to figure out what I think now about the Occupy movement and my place in it. And while I haven’t come to a firm conclusion, I did come to one particular course of action on December 12th. On that day, I had originally planned to travel to Portland from the Oregon coast, where I’m living on a farm, and join in on the attempt to shut down the Port of Portland. As the Occupy encampments had been broken up by authorities and massive displays of force had successfully pushed the movement into a new and quieter phase, I felt the urge to join in on striking back and making clear to the authorities that the movement was not defeated–that it had not been broken under their violent repression. But as the day grew closer on the calendar, my motivations changed. The more I thought about leaving the farm to drive again into Portland, the more I wanted to stay. The more I thought about shutting down the port, the more I wanted to connect to my local landscape.
Therefore, I chose to hike on December 12th. I hiked up Neahkahnie Mountain, which is not the particular land I live on, but is a prominent element of the local geography. It was not a long hike–about four miles round trip, up to the top of the mountain from a midway point and back down to that point. It was a beautiful hike on a glorious day, the sky blue and the sun shining and everything simply far nicer than it typically would be on a mid-December day along the Oregon coast. The air was chilly, but it was no match for the body heat worked up by the physical exertion. I hiked, I observed, I experienced, I worked my body and touched the trees and stood multiple times in awe of the beautiful world around me. I felt calm and relaxed and my mind slowed but became sharper, more perceptive. This, then, was a different kind of exhilaration than the protest and port shutdown would have offered. It was something that struck me as more holistic, more calming . . . more grounding. It was a connection to my local landscape, and it was critical.
If we’re to live in a future with limited access to fossil fuels and the need to live at a truly local level, then we are going to have to rediscover the places we live. We will need to study them, observe them, become intimate and familiar with them. We will need to do our best to understand them, love them, forgive them the challenges they provide us and embrace their peculiarities. This is not a quick process. It is, in fact a lifelong process–a process ideally suited to multiple lives, even. In an ideal reality, culture would provide us the capability of understanding the land over multiple lifetimes in the form of the knowledge passed down to us from previous generations, living on the same land we came to live on. The reality today is far different. Very, very few of us have such a connection. Many of us are nomads.
The port–in its current form, at least–will not last my lifetime. Perhaps my certainty is hubris, yet that certainty remains within me. The land I live on now and in the future (which will hopefully be approximately the same) will be there throughout my lifetime and beyond. And at some point during this life of mine, I will be necessarily more tied to it than I am today. If I want to secure my future, then, and to make that future better, than I best learn the lay of that land. And every day I jet off somewhere else is another day I’m behind in that process. Similarly, every day I exist on this land but spend the day on my computer rather than out on it is another day I’m behind in that process. (Hello, today!) I need to make these days count, and on December 12th I believe I made my day count.
I don’t begrudge the Occupy movement. Rather, in many ways, I cheer it on. We need the activism. We need protest. We need people who are willing to do whatever they can to try to stop this machine as it murders our fellow creatures, human or otherwise. But I also think we have to keep a steady focus on a future beyond that machine. It’s coming down, the machine–that’s inevitable. It’s fuel is running out and its structural integrity is degrading. What replaces it is a question of high importance and whatever the answer is, it’s going to be rooted in a future reality that is smaller and more local and far more connected to the landbase and the ecological sphere within which each individual exists.
I ask people not to lose sight of that. Protest, yes, absolutely, but don’t become too addicted to the intoxicating sense of power and voice. There is a smaller, quieter, but I would argue greater power in learning your land, connecting to the creatures of this world, and figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That is the ultimate struggle of our time. The machine we attempt to stop is simply the result of our failure to do this good work. We have to figure out our own lives and how to live them better–how to live them as properly as we possibly can–if we are to craft a future better than that machine. Otherwise, when it comes to a coughing halt, devoid of fuel and falling to pieces, all of us who spent our time only fighting will no longer have an existence. We’ll be lost, and in that loss will only be chaos–the vacuum where a meaningful and connected life should be, where our new culture is searching for purchase, for the nourishing soil within which it will grow.
The view from the top of Neahkahnie Mountain, looking out over Manzanita, Nehalem and beyond.