.See the world from a 2 mile/hour perspective .
STORIES are everywhere
I hiked twenty miles with four liters of water, weighing 10.8 lb, in my backpack. The desert stared at me with its prickly smile, its flashy neon blooms, its fringy gray-green sage leaves rustling against aged, twisted woody stalks. Where was its water? How did these living things quench their thirst? Roots in sandy soil, porous, absorbing every drop of dew, spread out to hold on against drying winds searing over the landscape. I pulled my buff over my mouth to protect my cracked lips, tightened my hat deeper over my face.
The desert has always intimidated me. I come from temperate, cool climates. I don’t do “heat” well. I’m white, blond, thin skinned and succumb easily to heat exhaustion.
Temperatures were moderate when I hiked the desert. I hiked to learn, to observe, and embrace these ever increasing dry zones on our planet. If climate change is any indication of what’s to come, I may have to learn to live in the desert soon. The Armageddon of heat, drought and fire seems to be here on the west coast of America.
As I hiked, I pondered why we have deserts on this earth. An earth that can be lush, and green, with tall trees providing shade; where bubbling brooks lap at shores, and nurse the plant roots to make thickets along its banks. Where wide rivers flood the land and enrich the soil for next year’s growth. Why the deserts?
The simple explanation is: water evaporates where the sun is closest to the earth. The water is stored in clouds high above the earth. Winds caused by pressure differentials move the clouds toward a less hot area, and rain falls, creating lush forests next to deserts.
While I hiked 2400 miles of the PCT between Mexico and Canada over the last eight years, I have seen what we’ve done to our forests. I’ve walked through old-growth forest, clear-cut forest areas, mono-culture forests, diseased forests and burned forests. Just in the years I’ve walked, I’ve seen the loss of forests and I know, we don’t have time left. We need to turn the tide of loss of habitat now, or there will be more desert.
Water is life
As I hiked this time, I pondered living in the desert. I saw the plots of land, given away for minor sums of money to those who can survive on the land for 5 years. I saw the abandoned shacks and mobile homes, rusted out, plastic window coverings flapping in the hot wind, as nearby tv-disks stared empty at the sky. Without water, people can’t make it.
Stories of old tell how prophets come out of the desert. The shamans, the chosen ones, the future spiritual leaders roamed in these empty lands; they had “visions” and gained insight before returning to society to teach. I imagine hallucinations come easy under a scorching sun. You can lose your mind in the heat if you’re not careful. You must find water to survive.
I left the world of comfort, food and plenty of water behind and entered the vast stretches of sage brush, chaparral, rock and sand to test my stamina and find empty mind as I walked the miles. Who wins in the desert? The tough ones or the lucky?
Grains of sand
I was lucky. The weather was favorable. Trail angels brought me food and water; my body was strong enough to walk the sandy trail. I found relief in the shade during the hottest parts of the day; my empty mind experienced awe and wonder as surprise beautiful blooms broke the monotony of sand and sage. A full moon shone pink on the landscape. Even though I went for 5 days without water for washing, I was never thirsty. Water became my measurement for energy, not for cleanliness. Grains of sand in my ears, my nose, my shoes became the story of earth I want to save.
The average temperatures of the Northern hemisphere (Europe, North America, parts of Asia) have been much higher since 1950 than in any 50-year period in the last 500 years.
Indeed, almost all the zones surrounding current deserts are at risk. In the next decades these zones will become more and more arid, or worse, turn into deserts too.
Changing habits to save habitats
Back in the world of relative comfort and (still) plenty of water coming out of the tap, I pause when I wash, drink and water my garden. How much longer?
I want to use the insight I gained in the desert. Water shortages are a reality in many areas of the world. We can learn from others who have solved water shortages. Namibia’s capital turns wastewater into drinking water. Israel gets 55% of its domestic water from desalination plants. What will we do where I live?
My hike in the desert reminded me and taught me again that we need to change our ways if we want this planet to be inhabitable for future generations. I must reduce my water usage and change my habits. It starts with turning off the tap as I wash my hands, mulching my garden, and taking fewer showers. I will revisit and review my assumptions about cleanliness, without giving up health practices. On the trail I was fine with 3 1/2 L of water a day and an occasional bath and clothes’ washing. Compare that with 80-100 gallons a day, the average person uses living indoors! We must reduce our energy consumption to reduce the rise in temperatures and stop the deserts from spreading. Governments will not reverse the heating of the planet, our individual behaviors will. Join me and walk more, use less water, eat locally and tell your neighbor.
The sandy trail stretches itself out in front of me up the exposed ridge, a dusty carpet rolled out. At each turn, the narrow switchbacks lure me into thinking a flat stretch awaits me. Not so, each turn means another 50-100 feet elevation gain. I’m glad it’s early morning, my can-do enthusiasm still high, the breeze cool because the pack load with 4 liters of water isn’t getting any lighter. I marvel at the weight distribution of these light backpacks. The weight doesn’t pull me back or push me down, once I hoist the pack on my back and tighten the straps in just the right places; I can walk upright, I can lift my legs without struggling. I can do this despite my age!!
Hiking this first section of the season is my self-appointed job: I must hike day in, day out, with a rest day once a week. I rise early in the morning, let the caffeine do its wake-up work, and start on the day’s task. I must hike another 12-14 miles up and down, and through a desert landscape, mountainous, tree-covered sometimes, but mostly sage or chaparral covered, bone-dry, rocky ground. The edge of the wind-blown Mohave desert where I hiked its flatland 2 years ago, is to the east, Bakersfield and the hot Central Valley of California to the west.
If I succeed, I can fill in the sections I have missed to connect the PCT-line on the map into one long trail I will have hiked mile after mile. Age is playing its part. How much longer will my body tolerate this strenuous activity? When will I slow down so much that the daily mileage becomes impossibly little, and I must carry too much food, and too much water, to cover the distance between re-supplies?
A South Carolina young hiker tells me he thinks the chaparral covered mountains are beautiful. I tell him it’s relative; just wait till you get to the high Sierras for jaw-dropping beauty. I’m spoiled with the vistas I have seen, the mountains I have climbed. This stretch is more of a daily hum-drum; a job to get done.
I do enjoy the walking. As I let my body find its rhythm, the legs do their DNA imprinted work. I’m in awe of my body’s resilience, the lack of pain, the ease with which I fall into this daily effort. My thoughts recede, my eyes absorb the world around me, my brain remembers names of flowers and bushes, my being dissipates into the wide open distances with range after range of mountains resting on the earth, waiting for me to come to them and stand in the high places, find the water sources, scour for a flat place to pitch my tent. When the birds start singing at 4:45 AM, I never wake up thinking “I don’t want to do this today” or “I want to stay in bed”. I become part of this natural world; my body responds to light and sound and wants to move, relieve itself, drink, eat and see what the day will bring. The deep inner drive to find food and water, to scour the environment for shelter is the essence of a nomadic life. A life in which survival is the thing that counts. Of course on this trek I don’t have to find food, but I do have to keep moving to find water sources, move to find safe shelter for the night, away from gusty winds or a bright moon. When we live in one place, in a home, the inner drive to move becomes muted. Only a social need to connect moves us about. We may have an inner voice that tells us we need exercise to stay healthy.
These last 8 years I gave up home and hearth for periods of time, to explore the effects of living and moving on the wilderness trail, away from convenience stores, chairs, beds, readily available water spigots, electric lights, screen entertainment and artificial waking and sleeping schedules.
I’ve found my connectedness in nature, my health, my contentedness, my confidence. I’ve learned that doing with less, eating less, moving more is a formula for happiness. I haven’t made the wilderness trail my permanent way of life. I watch the through-hikers pass me by with the 5-month-long view in their eyes, the sense of newness, ownership over their lives in their voices. And yet, they too return to the daily world of cars, jobs, noise pollution, light pollution, and stress to carve out a living that satisfies.
We can learn from our experiences; distill the essence, and apply our new knowledge in the life that follows. When I come home, I keep moving daily. I find places to hike, away from noise and light pollution. I listen to my body’s food needs and try to change my bodyweight set-point to a lighter, healthier number. I find alternatives for chair sitting and sit on the floor more.
Spending 3 weeks in the outback has given me a shot in the arm. I’m vaccinated against the onslaught of society’s disabling habits. Will I get the disease? Yes, but not as severe. Will I succumb to easy temptations? Of course, but not for long. Another section is waiting for me. I will explore again as long as my body lets me.
“To damage the earth is to damage your children”, Wendell Berry, farmer and poet
Thousands are crossing the border in boats across a river into Southern Mexico. The shuttlers drop them off under cover of the jungle to avoid Mexican border patrol. The people scurry in small groups through the green and start their 100 mile walk to a place where they’ve been told there will be a shelter; a shelter that will receive them and where they can get help to travel North to the United States to find work and safety. Single young adults, without certainty, walk not knowing where their water and food will come from, while carrying their meager belongings in small backpacks. Many have a contact in the United States on their phone, that promised them a job once they get there. They nurse their blisters; they tighten their belt when hungry; they wait for the dark of night to travel. Hardship born out of trauma, poverty, and an economy based on corruption.
At the same time, thousands of young adults are setting out on their first 100 miles from the Mexican border going North on the Pacific Crest Trail. They are following a well-marked trail; they form small groups, called ‘tramilies’ (trail families) as they make their way North. Their goal is the Canadian border. They are taking a break from the safety and comfort of their everyday lives. They are taking a break from the stress of modern living to get to know themselves better. Many of them won’t get past the first 100 miles. They find out they aren’t cut out for dealing with the daily grind of walking miles, nursing blisters, fighting tiredness, monotony and uncertainty. Those who make it past the first 100 miles find a new connection to themselves, nature, the wide vistas, and the challenge the trail gives them. They carry their shelter on their back; they use an app on their phone that tells them where they can find the next camping spot, the next water, the next place to re-supply. Self imposed hardship with an edge of privilege.
For the last 9 years, I have joined hundreds of such hikers to walk sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. A hundred miles, two hundred to four hundred miles at a time. I left the comfort of home to test my endurance, to find my belonging, and to give myself a new perspective on living. Each year, it rewarded me with new insights, peace of mind, and a healthier body. On and off trail I met people who shared what they had with me; I found new enduring friendships; I learned friends are everywhere I walk and that trail angels do exist. I had a job that gave me paid time off to explore the wilderness and allowed me to come back to the certainty a steady income provides. You can say I have led a privileged life, to be able to walk in safety, with enough money to take care of my needs. My yearly treks continued into retirement.
I came to this country in my early twenties, legally, on a green card. The sponsorship and protection of an American family made this possible. I didn’t have money. My enthusiasm, my adventuresomeness, my educated brain and willingness to work is what I brought. I had what so many young adults from Middle America are attempting to get: legal entry, safety, and protection.
Rhyme nor reason governs the political patterns that affect immigrant lives. Climate change and an ever increasing world population does. Historically, countries have been able to control the influx of people pouring in from other countries by setting up check-points, requiring visas and immigration applications. Desperation makes people circumvent the official entry points. In the countries affected by floods, droughts, war and poverty, a sense of Armageddon, the end of days, causes people to make desperate moves. Walking a 100 miles for a chance of reaching safety doesn’t seem so bad in the face of violence, sex trafficking, lack of food and shelter.
Can the “haves” share? Does this vast country have room for more people, more workers willing to do (slave) labor for minimum wage in exchange for stability in their life? Of course there’s room. Will there be an end to the stream of economic, climate and war refugees? Not likely. Until the pendulum swings and we treat the world as our home and not as a collection of separate, good or bad countries we may or may not call home, we will have people trying to cross our borders. It isn’t only our attitude we’ll have to change. We need to reduce, reuse and share, so there will be enough for everyone; so that the atmosphere can produce healthy air; so water will be a life giving commodity again. As people born into privilege, into a society that protects our rights, we must share this privilege with others who are not so lucky. Earth Day isn’t one day in April, Earth Day is every day. Give back to the earth as much as you can. Share the earth with others.
If you enjoy these blogs, check out my books: "Fly Free, a memoir of love, loss and walking the path" and "Walking Gone Wild, how to lose your age on the trail"
March in Southern Oregon brings us a smorgasbord of weather. Snow, rain, hail, sun and wind vie for a place in the line-up of days. I’m a gardener. I know to plant seeds in little pots and get the little plants growing indoors. Soon, the sun will win out. I want my plants to grow while the air is still cool.
As I’m taking stock of my seed supply, gathered last summer, I ask myself, “am I ready for the new season?”. Have I ‘wintered’ enough? Have the kernels of fresh energy gathered themselves inside me? I’ve been dreaming of long stretches on the summer trail. I take stock of what my body can do.
Dreaming comes easy. Pandemic uncertainties, doubts in my body’s strength, questions of ‘why do it’, and the slow, but insidious developing hallmarks of aging, weigh on my wish to make my dream a reality.
I’ve used winter for hibernating, writing story, meditating, and exploring the meaning of things. I’ve stayed active snowshoeing and skiing, enjoying winter’s wonderland. I’ve found wonder, gratefulness and deep enjoyment in living in this place. I’ve felt relieved that the political world has swung toward sanity and the news has become reports of getting important things done, not embarrassing conspiracy theories. The days are lengthening. Still, I’m not champing at the bit to get out of isolation. I’m not eager to walk all day carrying a pack. I sense a heaviness, an undercurrent of sadness in the world we’re carrying forward. So many deaths, so much disparity in income, so much racial tension. As spring approaches, vaccinations ramp up, relief checks are mailed. “Help is on the way”, Biden says. But is it?
Staring down the Worst
Katherine May, in her book, “Wintering, the power of rest and retreat in difficult times” (Nov 2020), says: “[Since childhood] we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.”
When All will NOT be Well
This year’s transition into the new season is showing me contrasts: daffodils in the snow, new life in the vernal pools; and yet, the ground is too dry. The season of fresh growth bursting into life will be short. The sun will dry out the earth announcing another fire season.
I won’t get lulled into the hope that “all will be well”. I’m staring down the worst of last year’s experience in my garden. The growing season for the cool-loving plants is getting shorter. I now have shade cloth waiting for most of my garden beds. My life experience tells me we’re entering a (short) spring season, politically speaking; the drought season will follow the first 100 days of Biden being in office. The filibusters, the competition among powers, will take over and destroy a growing climate of getting novel, forward-thinking legislation done. Corporations are the shade cloths of the political garden. They will tackle climate change, as long as they can make it profitable. The sad thing in our world is that profit rules.
Growth is not Linear
Another 4 years and only 100 days of effective governing. Like the incoming spring bursts with fresh growth, economic growth is palpable as well. But the erratic weather patterns across the country, both climatic and political, are the heralds of power gone awry. Growth is no longer linear. As the forces of government battle each other, growth is a start-and-stop movement - with much time spent in dormancy -.
Again Katherine May reflects my sentiment when she says: “We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”
It makes me sad to realize a straight line out of poverty, homelessness or disparity, toward equality, compassion and equal distribution, won’t happen. The path meanders, makes a loop, or presents an insurmountable cliff. Nature will always be my teacher. I will hike a long trail this summer; I will make peace with the stops-and-starts of the seasons.
My aging isn’t linear. When the sun warms me and the wild winds of spring blow through my hair, a youthful bounce energizes my step. I will be ready for another lap around the season’s track.
tNearly 7.5 million people are grieving in the US as we’re reaching 500,000 Covid deaths in the USA. These are big numbers. Numbers too big to fathom. We can relate to numbers we have experienced. We’re at a loss when the numbers are outside our experiential number world.
My 4-year-old grandson looked at me with enormous eyes as I read the Grandma Gatewood’s picture book about her trek on the Appalachian trail. We discussed how long the trail was, and how much I had hiked on the PCT. He said: “that’s like a hundred miles?” Now that he can count to twenty by single digits, and by tens to one hundred, the number 100 is the limit of his number world.
My 8-year- old granddaughter thought she couldn’t take another step, so tired she was after a day on the slopes. To help her tackle the half-mile walk from the ski-lift to our condo on her exhausted legs, I asked if she thought she could walk ten steps. “Oh, easy,” she said. Ten was a small number in her world; so, yes, she could. How about 100 steps? She started walking and counting by tens and reached the condo in no time.
Numbers have meaning relative to our experience. When I tell people I’m going for a 300 mile hike on the trail, averaging 15 miles a day, eyes glaze over and people can’t relate unless they’ve walked 10 or 15 miles in a day themselves. For some, the number just means the hike is outside their reach; for others, the hike challenges them and makes them wonder if they can do it themselves.
Numbers and Meaning
I’ve seen the Covid death number steadily climb in the last months and have had an intellectual knowing that the totals are awful. I don’t know anyone I’m close to, who has died.
A half million deaths in a year because of a contagious disease is making me pause. When I do the math, it means one death for every 662 people. When I consider that equation, I know that deaths in the Iraq war for Iraqis is much higher, one death for every 250 people. In Iraq, a generation of men of fighting age has been decimated. In the US, 80% of the Covid deaths were among the 65-and-over age group.
We cannot attribute value to these numbers unless we’ve lived them. Is losing a generation of young man who could have built society, worse than losing an aging section of the population? I don’t know. I imagine that physicians and health care workers have a more feeling reaction to the numbers than I do. They’ve been on the battlefield and seen people die, one after another.
Loss isn't a Number
Losing someone close to you is painful. The age of the person who dies doesn’t change the pain and grief. We can tell ourselves that the young man died for his country, for freedom, a noble death. We can tell ourselves that losing a loved one who’s approaching the end of their life, is part of living and dying. The pain of loss doesn’t change because of what we tell ourselves. We can connect each person who dies to someone else, often a family group. Families are grieving. For each person who died of Covid, I guess at least 5-7 people are grieving. The nation - and the world - is grieving.
Bigness in Nature
My experience with the ‘bigness’ of things is in nature. When I walk 3 days through burned forest, my heart aches. Walking a week through green conifers, connects my heart with tree life. I meet the sky and the vastness of the universe when I climb above tree level; my mind expands and my heart experiences transcendence. In a year of living with Covid, I have hugged 6 people. Not having body warmth and breath near me, has created a heart that is still; alone in its experience.
What It Means
In a world of ‘too much’ - too many choices, products, stress, people - we’ve had to do without - without family, travel, jobs, eating out, or toilet paper - and we’re experiencing loss. I value periods of living ‘without’. I hike the long trail to experience just that. It opens me up to life in fresh ways; I experience life with new meaning. Considering these big Covid numbers lets me relate the number to things I know. I’ve walked for days in forest of the Pacific Northwest. 500,000 Trees in Oregon make a forest of 1200-1300 acres. If you walk 2-3 miles per hour, it will take you 65 hours, or 8 (eight-hour) hiking days, to cross a forest with a half million trees in Oregon. Think of a forest of dead people and walking 8 days to experience losing them. These are numbers the people on the battlefields of the Civil War experienced!
Finding the Equation
We cannot experience what we cannot grasp. Doing the math brings this loss closer to me. When I walk in the forest this summer, I will relate my hiking days to the Covid deaths that have occurred. I may then grasp what this pandemic means. You, the reader, must find your own equation for the loss this nation is experiencing. Only if we experience and live the loss, will we build empathy and make decisions that will mitigate a repeat.
The official quote is: “Happiness is a journey not a destination”. The current national sentiments battered by an insurrection in the Nation’s Capitol and a spiking pandemic leave little room for happiness. The journey toward a better America seems endless, non-achievable.
Travel and Pandemics
Now that travel is dangerous because of the pandemic, I read about faraway destinations. Currently I’m reading about Lake Baikal. This lake in Siberia is the biggest, deepest, purest lake in the world. The Russian people believe that Lake Baikal cannot become polluted, because it can purify itself because of its unique ecological balance. Millions and millions of tiny shrimp - Epischura - that live in the lake water, absorb pollutants; pollutants people put in the water that feeds the lake. The water stays pure, but the animals up the food chain - the animals that eat the shrimp, the insects, the fish, the bigger fish that feed the seals, called nerpas- become toxic at the top of the chain. People who live near the lake eat toxic Nerpa blubber and toxic fish. World organizations recognize that Lake Baikal is in danger. The Russians don’t see the problem.
A Democracy in peril
What do Lake Baikal’s problems have to do with America’s problems?
If you think about it, you can compare the American democracy with lake Baikal. We think our democracy is pure and will stay that way. Freedom of speech is an unalienable right for Americans. But when people are saying dehumanizing things, these words become the pollutants for our democracy. The president has been polluting our democracy for 4 years and made it okay for others who harbor hateful thoughts. Words play on emotions; emotions become opinions; opinions become conspiracy theories; theories become calls to action. Unless we break this chain of words, our journey of living in a democracy will end.
What to take on the Journey
The American lands are beautiful. To experience the beauty I hike in nature. When I go on a long trek I prepare and look hard at what I take with me. I only take what I can carry up and down mountains. To see the beauty of this country I have to live simple and rely on mental acuity and physical strength, not guns, pipe bombs and offensive slogans. What I do moment by moment, my respect for the environment and my kindness toward the people I meet, mark my journey as a positive one.
It has come to this: politicians have become polluted/toxic and are defending their vote based on conspiracy theories and saying they are representing their constituents. My representative in congress is such a man. He represents a large swath of farm and ranch land where people see Ted Bundy as a hero, where carrying - and using- an automatic weapon is seen as manly and a constitutional right. This politician bases his vote on a lie.
When I sit in not-knowing, without solutions, I witness my feelings about what is happening at this time and my deeper feelings that lay buried. The pandemic has slowed my life, and I use this time for reflection and re-organization. I ask myself, “what will we take on this journey of making America great again? Humanity and good moral values, or do we continue with competition and cunning? Do we let everyone pull themselves up by their bootstraps or do we lend a helping hand? Are we willing to do with less to save the planet, or are we on Lemming run toward the cliff? The questions that arise lead me to action.
I’m just one white-skinned, privileged person. Reduce, re-use and re-cycle is my motto. My government bonus check can go to a needy neighbor. If I’m discerning I can avoid conspiracy thinking. If I listen I may find not so obvious actions for the current situation. At this point I don’t know how to de-escalate the adrenaline addicted, gun-toting, conspiracy abiding fellow citizens who drive their big powerful trucks flying the Trump nation flag. I’m encouraged by the gestures of big companies who refuse to do business with seditionists, who close on-line accounts that spout falsehoods and violence. I ask myself, is it enough? Is it too late?
The journey of being a democracy requires us to listen. Only by showing empathy and taking well-thought-out steps forward can we break the cycle of hate. Let’s slow our lives, think before we use words and interact with others. Let’s act by calling oppressive and divisive policies for what they are.
Words and Deeds
Lake Baikal attracts tourism because of its famed purity, but not for much longer. America, known as the land of the free, could follow that route of decline. The rest of the world is watching.
We can start by no longer polluting the nation with words and deeds. We can listen to the fear of fellow citizens when we have a chance. Then the democratic journey has a chance to become a happy one and the end will be a good.
“We must learn to view everything as part of “Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement”
David Bohm, American physicist 1917 - 1992
The elections have been certified. Opposing camps are each in their own bubble and aren’t seeing eye-to-eye. Our world is as divided as ever, despite certification of election results, despite the growing pandemic numbers, despite the cry for help from the unemployed, the almost-homeless, the ones grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, or the loss of a loved one to police brutality and racial profiling.
Division weighs heavy. The sides blame or shake their head in disbelief. Maybe they suspect, fear, or know that the force is against them and deny being that force. We can’t look the other way and say, “I didn’t cause your fears, your suspicions, your evil acts; this is not my world.” The fact is this world is all of our world. We are in this together.
We conduct our business, walk through our days, share with those we love or feel affinity. Can you give to the man-down-the-street who disagrees with you? Can you keep a friendship going when you discover your friend believes in conspiracy, or believes they’re the “good guy”? Does the woman on the other side of the divide, want you in her life?
What if? What if we adopted a family we disagree with for Christmas? Gave them what they ask for - if it’s within our means? What if we shared without judging?
I received an unsolicited phone call from a woman belonging to a group of volunteers who wanted to spread a positive message with a bible verse. This woman called me across the divide, shared from a faith that isn’t mine.
The Balancing Act
When I do the Covid safe thing and hike the hills around my home, I find my belonging. I’m part of a world that is whole. Trees, grasses, moss, lichen, shrubs, insects, worms, animals, birds support each other in their survival! Too much lichen? The tree dies. No birds of prey? Too many rabbits will nibble the greenery and the grasses die. No grass? Erosion follows. You see, it all hangs together. So I hike to remind myself, to think, to find solutions.
We haven’t acted as if everything hangs together. We’ve sponsored our species - (hu)man - over plants, trees, soil and animals. We’ve cut trees - too many - and spewed toxins into the air. We are the ones who’ve created the imbalance. Is nature sending us a message? Is it necessary for the continuation of the whole that 2 million people die from a pandemic? When a rabbit population grows exponentially, because of an imbalance in nature, rabbits starve and die.
Thinking in Slogans
We’re taught to think in slogans and save ourselves and the planet. “Better to wear a mask than a ventilator” makes sense. “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. A slogan to save the planet that isn’t a solution anymore. Reduce, reuse- that’s a beginning. “Family will hang together”. Try it. Kids in lockdown doing long distance learning don’t bring families together; it tears them apart, if the parents are juggling jobs and teaching, and never get a break. “Time for Nature”. Now the hordes are descending on our National Parks and polluting the environment. If we can’t teach people how to behave as part of an ecosystem, sending people into nature leads to disaster and not a turn to “Whole” thinking.
Among the political candidates in 2020, I found only three with slogans that infer we’re part of a whole. Beto O’Rourke “We’re all in this together” Sanders: “Not me, Us”. Hickenlooper: “Come together”. (Who is coming together here though?) Others focus on America in contrast to other countries. America isn’t a separate world that stands on its own. Trump uses, “Make America Great Again”. Amy Kobuchar says: “Amy for America”. Wayne Messam, “Wayne for America”. Are these folks thinking that their loyalty to America solves the problems w’re having? Maybe, what we need is Yang’s “Make America Think Harder; it cleverly stands for “Math”. However, doing the math of the divide we’re in, doesn’t bring us together. Congress is trying with the extra spending bills, and you can see where that’s going. Not much “whole” thinking there.
Biden who uses the slogan, “Our best days still lie ahead” is on to something, because the current days are not very good. Not that it brings people together, to have a better future hanging out there like a carrot on a stick. People’s appetites for a better future across the divide are different: some want hot-dogs, others carrots-on-a-stick and they’ll fight over who gets what.
Hiking toward Wholeness
So I’ll keep hiking to experience my connection with the whole, I’ll shop locally to support businesses with disparate views, give financial support to all people who’ve suffered in the last wild fire, and I contribute to the food bank to feed people no matter what their belief, their opinion or reason they need help. The whole of this planet in this universe will bump along until it doesn’t anymore. “Share the Love” for the holidays, not by buying a new Subaru but by driving the old one that is doing just fine. I agree with Tom Steyer’s ”Climate Change Cannot Wait” and “Actions Speak Louder than Words”.
You can find the documentary on David Bohm and his search toward proving Wholeness here
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What actually happens to us when we go on a hike? This is what I’ve been asking myself lately. Sure my muscles are getting exercise, my lungs expand, my heart rate shows its ability to handle temporary stress and I come home with a tired, satisfied feeling that allows me to manage the daily stuff of life. Hiking is a stress reducer, a resiliency builder, a cognition enhancer - YES, hiking improves cognition! But is this how we want to categorize walking and hiking, as a healthy activity? Or is there more to it?
In my book Walking Gone Wild, I approach walking and hiking as a healthy pastime and encourage those of us who are on the downhill slope of living to engage in it and extend their years or at least make these later years more enjoyable. Hiking though, isn’t just walking gone wild, meaning doing it more and more, an addiction; one you get hooked on because of its benefits. It also isn’t just a gateway to going into the wild, a way to being in the wilderness. Hiking is all that, but of late I’ve been wondering if we’re missing something when we talk about hiking only as an activity; a way to lengthen our lifespan.
The word “wild” is on my mind. This last summer I went on a 3-week solo backpacking trip, hiking a section of the PCT in Northern California. 24-Hour immersion in the wild, and because of Covid I met very few people. It was just me and nature with an occasional stop to re-supply and an occasional road crossing that hinted to another world, a busy world, a world of cars, people, consuming, franticness, fear of Covid, political division. A world wild with stimuli.
Wilderness that isn’t Wild
What happens when I retreat into the wilderness? And I have to admit, a well designed and marked trail isn’t real wilderness even if the surroundings are wilderness. Forests that have grown up after being harvested by humans, aren’t real wilderness, even if we leave them alone to become wild again. Rivers tapped for energy aren’t wild, we control their flow, we protect their banks to sustain the energy industry. The “wild” isn’t wild anymore. This compromised, cultured wildness however, allows me to hike safely at my advanced age with the help of maps, GPS, light-weight gear and the advice of many who’ve gone before me. All I bring to this wilderness is my determination, my will and training and my wish to experience something I can’t experience in my daily life with a safe home, a controlled environment that protects me from heat, cold and predators.
A Cooperative World
This summer I met the trees in a way I have never before. Since there was no-one talking to me and I don’t listen to podcasts or music when I hike, the trees were my companions. I observed things I hadn’t seen before, I connected the dots between shapes, light, density, undergrowth, animals, and soil, the elements of a forest. I slowly understood the “why” of my environment. The world I hiked in started making sense. The elevation, the temperatures, the light, the rainfall or lack thereof, all worked together to sustain these trees. The bigger trees sustained the smaller ones, the dead ones the next generation, the tree’s fruiting sustained the animals. This was a world that hung together. My intellectual knowledge became intuitive and somatic knowing. The trees taught me that the world around me is cooperative and transformative.
I realized I wasn’t really part of that world; I am a visitor and at some point I go home to a shelter. I don’t offer myself up to sustain the trees, the undergrowth, the animals. I may try to not disturb the ecological balance by staying on the trail, a deep scar carved into the wilderness, by sleeping in a designated camp spot to decrease disturbance of the environment; by eating food brought from the outside world and burying my waste deep enough to not pollute the water nearby and leave little trace. But even though I may spend 3 weeks or 3 months living in the wild, hiking doesn’t make me a link in this amazingly cooperative world. Being in the wild does change me though. When I return to civilization my body is different, my perception more acute, my mind more at ease. I'm transformed.
Observing the Familiar
I’m back in my cultured, safe world. I go out for day hikes, I watch the seasons change, I admire nature as she dresses in her splendor, I climb her rocky sides and look out over the distant mountains, the valley with a river flowing toward the next river, and on toward the ocean. I’m an observer. Living in the comforts of my home, the transformation that took place in the wild doesn't last. I gain weight, I'm less flexible, my eyes don't work as well, I'm affected by the daily stimuli of news and people, less at ease.
The Covid pandemic has kept my wanderings closer to home this year. I hike known trails. The familiar vistas and landscape don’t bowl me over with awe. Slowly, it’s dawning on me that only if I slow down, listen and interact like I did on my longer hike, will I enter deeper into the familiar. I want to learn and bring the familiar home to me in a way that lets me part of the whole. Do I have the courage to slow down? Hike fewer miles, saunter on the familiar trails, listen to the wild part of this world so it can teach me what life is about, and what our place in it is? Only in the slow lane will hiking become being and will we figure out how to live in a responsive way to our environment.
Winter, the season when nature’s growth slows is here. Covid is still with us and we too can go a little slower. May we use this time to our advantage, and learn something from our familiar environment for the next season, the next political fight, this and the next pandemic.
While the morning news tells me about the polls and the last frenzy before the elections keeps the messages in my inbox coming, I look outside and see that the first frost killed the tomato plants, the peppers, basil and tender marigolds. I take a stroll in the garden to assess to frost damage. The dahlias that struggled to emerge above ground this year but eventually formed a healthy green plant, never made it to bloom as the flower heads hang in sorrow. Do plants feel sorrow? On the other side of the fence, the frost colored the leaves of the deciduous trees red and yellow and put a smile on the world.
The news tells me about 400 fresh cases of Covid in my state, 4 recent deaths, all seniors. (85,000 new cases nationwide, 923 recent deaths). These are seniors, past blooming. Did they want to continue to live? The prediction is that the pandemic will get worse as winter approaches. As a people do we have the will to turn this trend around?
Katie Mack, a PhD cosmologist, gives a lecture addressing the question: “Will the universe die?” She gives the scientific rationale and theories, nothing more than speculations about what we don’t know. The universe will continue to expand and contract. Our planet will most likely burn up as the sun gets hotter. Already the forests are burning up as the climate gets hotter. Can we avert this heating trend? Put off the inevitable for a while?
Wherever I turn there’s death. I walk and hike to talk with the trees, to feel nature breathing. It doesn’t feel as if nature is taking its last breath. I see change, movement from one season to another. I know the forests and mountains are morphing as some species disappear and new ones enter because of climate change. A nature columnist who’s been writing for the Audubon Society since the seventies, says that we have saved many species. They’ve come back from near extinction in the last 50 years, since we’ve created the endangered species act in the US.
The Sand Conference on Dying and Living brings together science and spirituality. Smart voices point out the process of transformation we call death. There’s no birth without death, no individuality without the cosmic experience, no fear without hope. We cannot have a world without disease, without death, as we have developed into ever more complex creatures. The creatures that don’t die are regenerative; they don’t have sex to create offspring. Do you want to be a worm, and live forever? Death and disease is the price we pay for living with love, emotion, and awareness. We will dissolve and return to the universe, the cosmic being.
While we need to accept our human condition we can know our connection with the greater universe. We can witness the amazing growing, expanding and contracting of forces around us, in the form of stars, galaxies, rainbows, plant and animal life, of water flowing in iridescent colors over rocks into the great oceans of our planet where plant life and water creatures live in a world of marvel.
In my newest book “Fly Free” I describe the experience of being in a state of awareness of the growing, expanding, and transforming energy this universe comprises while sitting at the feet of a master. At the time, I would have exchanged living an ordinary life for continuing to be in that state of awareness. Luckily, I didn’t get the choice and so I learned to find the perspective in living that gives me joy.
How can we be sad or fearful when we can experience joy? If we stay in touch with, and renew our awareness of our place in the universe of things, we can feel the love that permeates all that’s alive. Not an earthy, from you-to-me, me-to-you love, but an endless emerging force of energy that creates and transforms all that is. My body as it ages and disintegrates will dissolve in that energy and my narrow body consciousness will expand and fly free.
All death we see around us then is only a reminder of the force that keeps going, keeps transforming, keeps living. Living with the seasons and turning the frosted dead plants into compost is a promise for spring growth. Living fully, and taking the time to grieve when a loved one dies, to grieve the deaths that are happening around us everywhere - to be a grieving society at this time - is an opportunity to be part of the transformation this world is experiencing and find the life force that will emerge.
The deeper we sink into the darkness of the unknown, the darkness of death, the greater the change will be. Our world is experiencing a time of darkening but like after a long, dark winter, the light will come back. We may not be here to experience it but we’ll be part of that energy that keeps on changing. Knowing this, eases my days and lets me step back from the craziness of pandemic ignorers, climate change deniers, the frenzy of the political scene as if the outcome of these elections can make everything okay again. The outcome of the elections will make us sink deeper, or turn the tide, but neither change will end or make a better world. One thing we can be sure of, there will be change, always.
“Yes there is isolation
but there does not have to be loneliness”
from the poem “Lockdown” by Br Michael OFM Cap, Capuchin Day centre
The trees are breathing together. The trees are standing together. They’re not going anywhere, no Covid virus affects them and they accept whatever comes their way, even wildfire.
For two hundred miles I’m walking among them, day in, day out, alone, or better said, I’m hiking solo. Solo hiking has a unique ring to it than hiking alone. Solo hiking shows a choice, it has a notion of empowerment and being in charge. When I hike solo I’m in charge of everything I do, every action I take has a consequence - good, or bad -. No-one will reach for my hat when I drop it and walk on. When I notice it gone, I have to walk back since going without is not an option with the constant sun exposure. No-one tells me to look again when I take the wrong turn at the trail sign, and I walk on until something tells me I better look on my GPS to see how far I’ve come. No-one feels sorry for me that I have to backtrack and add 2 miles to a tiring afternoon. No-one says hurray when I make it across the river dry and safe. There’s no reward when I haul my 32 lb pack, filled with water for the night, up a steep slope and camp among the trees a half day further south of the fire that broke out that morning. My reward is I sleep better knowing that I’ve put the fire behind me. My reward is knowing my body can carry me up a steep slope when needed. My reward is that all’s well at the end of day and I can relax and sleep soundly in my hammock, possessions packed away, pack covered with a rain cover, food hanging in a nearby tree, and a rain fly at arms length in case the starry sky with its Perseus showers clouds over and raindrops fall. All’s well at days end and I trust that the next morning I will wake and do it all over again: make my morning tea, break camp, load the pack and start walking in the cool morning air, energized and curious about the day to come.
We as people develop anxiety of the unknown, the wild, by living in houses and walking on streets. This separation from the natural world creates an existential angst and cuts us off from living intuitively, in tune with our natural environment. I let the natural world teach me and connect me with my primordial existence when I go on a longish solo hike. It doesn’t happen in a day; it takes at least a week to become part of the rhythm that rules nature, to hear the silence and read its messages, to know the light in that place as it moves through the day. The silence among the trees breathes with promise, is heavy with knowledge, doesn’t harbor fear. Dappled light falls on baby trees, nurturing them to reach higher. When the light is heavy with smoke it slants sideways, yellow, sucking away the oxygen the trees so readily give. Soon the wind blows the smoke away again. Everything changes, every mile I hike, every step I take. There is an end to an endless stretch of exposed rocky trail and after I accept that the change will come when it does, the pain in my feet lets go and I can just walk balancing from rock to rock until the duff takes me by surprise and the trees reach with their limbs to protect me from the sun.
This solo hike during a Covid pandemic was especially solitary. I met maybe one or two people in a day, going the opposite direction. Some talked a while, others didn’t. After two weeks, everything around me became animate. In the morning I thanked my place of shelter. When I asked the trees questions I got answers. Looking through the hole in the lava rock I let it tell me about pouring across the land aeons ago. I sang with the rustle of dried leaves, announcing that fall was on its way. The abundance of cracked open pine cones told me it was harvest time. The light agreed and as the sun rose a little later each morning affirmed that soon it would be time to go home and tend to my harvest. Home, as in a house, sheltered from the cold weather that will come. Now that I’m home, it’s still 95F degrees during the day. The sun is still strong. Tomatoes and melons are ripening and the green beans are producing a second crop. But I know deep in my bones that the change is here. I have walked day after day digging up the strength I needed for the climbs and descends, for the long-mileage days to take me from one place of shelter to the next, one source of water to another. The water ripples, dances, keeps on giving even when I’m not walking anymore, even when I can just turn on the tap to get a drink, turn the stove knob to heat the water for a cup of tea. No daily packing and unpacking of my belongings, no bath with a cup pouring water over my dusty, sweaty body while balancing on a log at the end of day. When I step into the shower I can let warm water rain over me. I am clean and separate from the dust on the trail. Stacks of clean clothes, piles of clean dishes, an abundance of fresh food lull me into forgetting that I’m most alive when I use all my senses to guide me safely through a day on the trail. On the trail I never felt alone, even though I knew I was hiking alone. My simple belongings didn’t give me the illusion of being invulnerable. I walked with my vulnerability, just like the animals in the wild, alert but not anxious, observant but not worried, letting my strength carry me forward. As one of them, the creatures, rocks, trees and plants, I lived my part.
I’m home to write, to share what it was all about. For 3 weeks I was intimately and rudimentary alive. I hope to carry that knowledge inside me and let it seep into and enhance my daily living. Like the squirrels, I am busy putting up food for winter because the season is changing.