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
Comments and shares are always appreciated!
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.
Some hikes take you beyond yourself. My recent hike to Grizzly lake in the Trinity Alps has a wildness only imagined in fantasy stories. A place where the green is greener, the rocks craggier, the water purer, the trees taller and denser. A place where mankind hasn’t done its damage. Oh, it won’t be long before that happens. But it hasn’t happened yet. The access to the lake is difficult, enough to avert all but the courageous, the experienced, or the fools.
I consider myself an experienced hiker and didn’t give the rating ‘difficult’ much credence. I’ve done difficult in the high Sierras, on the Knife Edge in Washington, on Icelandic glaciers, in the high Himalayas, in Tibet, how bad could it be in my backyard, the Trinity Alps of Northern California?
It was the hottest day we had experienced yet, the start of summer, as we hiked out in 90F heat, our packs filled with water, food and comforts for 3 days. We started from the China Gulch trailhead with a 2000 foot elevation gain over 1.5 miles, a 14% incline, tough but doable if you go slow and steady and make frequent stops. Blow-down trees to climb over loosened up our muscles and got us into a “can do” mood. At the top of the ridge we could see snowy Thompson peak, backdrop for Grizzly lake, in the distance. Down we went, a 1500 foot drop over a 1 mile steep and a hard-packed granite slope with few switchbacks. The heat and exhaustion got to us and my legs started shaking uncontrollably. Time for a rest and electrolytes. That helped, so we moved on to the bottom of the slope where we started following Grizzly creek up; up and still more up, a seemingly endless 2000 ft elevation gain over 4.5 miles. Luckily we had stretches of shade and moments of putting our feet in the cold, rushing water. We arrived exhausted at Grizzly meadows at 7:00 PM, having completed a 6.5 mile hike in 7.5 hours! A hike that seemed so innocuous when first reading about it.
It takes skill to read trail descriptions, to listen to the story of other hikers who’ve gone before you, to ask the right questions and interpret what it means for you. When you are an experienced hiker you file the information; you know you’ve climbed up bigger slopes; you’ve done longer mileage in a day; you know your limits are fluid and you gloss over perceived difficulties.
This hike had all the elements of hardship mixed into one hiker stew. Heat, lots of elevation gain, slippery descending terrain, rocks. But it was only 6 miles in to base camp, one day of hard work before the actual climb to the lake would begin, which we could do without our heavy packs. That first night I stood in the meadow, looking at the imposing rock wall around me, watching the waterfall coming from Grizzly lake up above, drop 900 feet. I knew I had to do a rock scramble with a 1000 feet elevation gain over 0.75 miles on a barely visible trail if I wanted to reach the coveted pristine lake at the top and I wasn’t so sure of myself. Recent injuries made me less surefooted; I didn’t want to injure my old knees again, sprain an ankle or tear tissue, all very reasonable possibilities with one misstep, one awkward slide on the rocky slope. The summer sun set in rose colors on the snow above, hinting at the unearthly beauty that would await us tomorrow. I knew I had to try for the top.
Climbing mountains involves breaking out of your routine. Either you have to get up in the middle of the night to get high enough before the snow melts, or you have to mentally prepare for a slow ascend, counting each breath, each step as your lungs ache from lack of oxygen. This time we had all day to make the scramble up and back down; we had time, and temperature or altitude weren’t an issue. The issue would be way-finding and paying attention to each step, each handhold to make sure we wouldn’t hurt ourselves. When you have to pay attention for hours on end without being able to let your mind wander, it’s like having a loaded gun to your head, or as Castaneda would say, death sitting on your shoulder. Don’t look down at how far you can fall; don’t look up too far or you’ll lose heart as the chutes and rocks keep coming.
It takes mental discipline and stamina to keep the needed focus. You have to be present, take it one step at a time, one foot of elevation gain after another, and then you’re there! You got to the top! The world of an alpine lake hidden by white granite rocks, surrounded by snowy slopes, dotted with wildflowers growing out of cracks in the rocks while holding on to granite soil, shows its aqua colored water. Water that is funneled by snowmelt to a lip, to flow over a rock that sends the water tumbling in a powerful rush of foam and rainbows to the meadow below where you came from that morning. The bottom of the lake is visible and showing its innards. You’ve arrived in a place where the gods whisper in the few trees that cling to the rocky shore, where the short summer lives at an accelerated pace and produces dazzling blooms, ancient fungi and cones filled with seeds that carry the life of trees of next generations. Can I be still like a tree on a rocky slope and endure the seasons life bestows on me? I will take the image of that tree with me when I descend, an image that will help me deal with Covid, with anguish over racism, with the suffering that is happening in my “civilized” world.
I sit on the lake’s edge and draw the cirque, follow its contours with my pencil; outline the clusters of trees on its slopes, fed by runoff from the snow, each cluster following an indentation, a hollow in the rocky slopes, a place where soil can build up just enough to allow trees to take root. My hand feels the interaction between rocks, trees, soil and water, blessed by the sun as it rises and disappears. This world is bigger than mine, I touch the universal forces that keep the planet alive. Keep me alive. There is more to life than my daily housekeeping, my garden husbandry, my family’s love and my community problems. For three days I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and touched the heavens and universal forces. I have put myself in the hands of fate, and survived. Hiking has connected me with the core of living: acceptance of what is, attention to what shows itself, and love for the world’s immense beauty.
The scramble down requires attention and trust. The safe return to the meadow produces gratefulness and the hike back out is infused with happiness, cooler temperatures and the knowledge that each hike brings unknown experiences and renewed confidence.
The tentacles of my bean plants in the garden have reached the top of the tee-pee I gave them for support and are waving in space looking for something to hold onto. This wild search in space reminds me of the outcry from African-American people: driven by a strong life-force, tired of fighting the current structure, they’re breaking loose.
Natural forces affect all of us. They say nature is the great equalizer. Natural disasters, such as smoke from wildfires, floods from hurricanes, destruction from tornadoes and earthquakes affect everyone. Even though they affect everyone, some of us are better situated than others when dealing with disasters. And now we’re in a pandemic, a natural phenomenon that doesn’t know borders, race, or status.
Pandemic and Inequality
The pandemic is transforming our life, transforming our thinking. Maybe the pandemic is affecting everyone, but it’s not affecting everyone the same. Poor people, and the non-white people are afflicted 4-5x as much, because they lack safe jobs, they lack the opportunity to work from home, they lack shelter, they lack access to health care. When the police murdered George Floyd, pandemic stress and racial tensions were the perfect storm that opened the wounds systemic racism has burned into our society. A cry of pain is reaching into the sky, suffering is visible and unmistakable.
As Hanuman Goleman, founder of More than Sound LLC, says: “Racism is fundamental to our power structure and benefits white people every day. There is a lot of work to do to before we arrive at equality.”
The Examined Life
While the pandemic rages, the doors to our racist societal structure have been ripped open. It is time for white America to examine their actions, language and policies. What can a white person who has been socialized in a racist society do to answer the cry?
This is what we can do:
Building a Functional Society
So here are the basics: money, communal input, education, language, housing, and jobs, the corner stones of a functioning society. We can work on creating racial equality through these cornerstones . What can I, an elder white lady who owns a house, loves nature, doesn’t need a job and has access to affordable healthcare, contribute to do my part?
I can speak up in my city council. I can write to my representatives, support and encourage legislation that opens the doors to people of color. I can ask people of color who live here to form a council if they haven’t formed one already, and let them tell us how we can invite and bring other people of color to this region.
The Long Road
It’s a long road to make these changes. It’s been too long of a road to freedom and equality for African Americans, Native Americans, aspiring Hispanic immigrants, and Chinese escaping a totalitarian political system.
We cannot sit still or walk for our pleasure on this land without sharing it with others.
The pandemic is forcing us to shelter at home. It doesn’t force us to be silent, inactive, or non-caring. We can take advantage of the fact that there is less distraction and more opportunity due to Covid-19 to reflect and develop much needed compassion.
If the pandemic hasn’t changed your life that much, lucky you! What will you do to change yourself and make a positive change for others? Pick one thing out of the list of options and get started. There is work to do before we reach equality.
I hear the words again in my mind: “You’re hurting me, I can’t breathe!” For me the scene is on the floor of the youth correctional facility where I worked, while two or three adult staff persons had a teenager in a “take-down” hold. The words that went around among staff was often, “fake calls; as long as they’re screaming they’re OK!” The truth was these teenagers messed with staff minds, tried to outwit them in their acting out. Twelve or fourteen other teens, laying flat, face-down, hands on the back of their heads on the floor of the same room after the command, “everyone down!”, would hear what the teen said and the words could enrage the whole group, turn it into a mob.
To avoid bodily damage, they trained all staff in take-downs (including myself as a mental health counselor). They considered it a necessary part of maintaining safety and order in youth corrections, in juvenile detention, and in residential facilities for emotionally disturbed youth. I have worked in these places. I know how difficult the power dynamics are when working with disenfranchised and disadvantaged youth.
Take-down training involves positioning the youth in a hold that allows breathing and avoids kicking, punching and spitting. Youths have kicked me several times. Sometimes a shield has to be placed over the youth’s head to avoid spitting. Spitting is the weapon of disdain and threat for a youth who feels powerless. Transmitting disease is a weapon they have learned to use in their upbringing. Twice a youth has spat on me during my correctional career. I felt fear afterwards about contracting an undetected illness, aids or something that transfers through mucous. I understand the rage. And as a white woman of privilege with power over the youth’s release it skewed the dynamics from the get-go.
It was my job to build trust, to listen, to acknowledge my privilege to these youths if I wanted them to make progress in learning skills to return to society and freedom. Freedom for most of these youths isn’t freedom. Their life is tainted by race, class, abuse, drug-use and poverty; to summon it up, they are the disadvantaged.
I understand the rage our nation feels upon seeing the video of George Floyd in a take-down hold with a knee on his neck. As far as I can see, the officer didn’t use proper technique, but then again he was holding down a hefty man. Why was the other officer standing there instead of helping him in the take-down? Was it because they had to be ready for crowd control? Or were they trying to avoid a video of three-on-one that could cause rage among the public watching the scene? Were they avoiding attacks? I don’t know what the current training strategies are in the police force. The answers aren’t obvious, the methods of control aren’t easy.
The question we need to address is how to keep order and keep it humane and safe for all parties involved? In my place of work I saw the bullying from certain staff, the power plays, the intimidation. Some of the youth would cower, but most would return the challenge with power-plays of their own. During my tenure, I put effort into improving communication, building trust long before an outburst or power-play would erupt.
It takes guts to stand with a youth (or grown-up) who has just received a terrible message from home, or one who was caught in taking something that wasn’t his, and who wants to strike out to anyone, anywhere. Keeping distance without being too distant, providing safety without boxing the youths in, allowing expression of feelings without arguing or talking down to them, but listening if they need to talk. It’s a dance, and you never know where the dance will take you. Even with a youth you think you’ve built rapport, that rapport can break in an instant. Meeting such a youth/grown-up on the street to negotiate a non-threatening interaction while in uniform, as a complete stranger is a monumental task.
I’m not here to defend the actions of the officers who had George Floyd under their knee. I’m writing this piece to offer some background, offer a bigger picture. The frustration over the years of police brutality, the racism that doesn’t seem to abate is justified. Much training has to go into forming a caring, competent security force. In my 13-years in corrections I learned that people (staff) will change if they see others be successful. Very few want to use violence, but it’s all they know; or something has triggered them and they can’t access non-violent tools because they are coming from fear. It took leading by example, active-listening training, restrictions on the use of force, meditation and awareness training - all strange and new-fangled techniques for many of the security people — to turn the tide from brute force to cooperation. But we convinced many staff members and officers, and as a result the atmosphere we worked in was much less tense. As one staff member told me, “I’m no longer afraid when I go to work.” It takes time to make these changes. It became clear that the female staff were much better at using communication skills to de-escalate situations than the male staff, and they hired more women as a result. The number of take-downs decreased. It became a badge of honor to keep order on a unit with the least take-downs.
In this time of a pandemic many of us are hurting, grieving, struggling to make ends meet and envying the privileged. It doesn’t take much for emotions to erupt. I am privileged, living in my small town, in a bubble where one rarely sees violence on the street. I want to offer compassion for all parties who have to keep order and keep people safe. I live in a society that thrives to keep me safe. It’s not that way for everyone even if some politicians tout their slogans about safety for all. Many of the systems in our society, such as healthcare, social services and education are under funded and can’t address the issues of the disadvantaged. Therefore their neighborhoods aren’t safe, their way to a better life is barred. The disproportionate military spending maintains a system of dominance, not a system of building trust and safety.
I can try to shine a light where there’s division and opposition, offer a helping hand where needed. My actions will not change the world; it will not be enough, but I can count on the fact that change will happen. If we avoid extreme positions, talk with and listen to those who veer toward positions of “power over”, the world will make progress toward the change we want to see: a world where color of skin isn’t a determinant of how others treat us or how we treat others; a world in which we all can breathe freely.