Refuge in Yellowstone

“It is important to attend to the outer world and your responsibilities in it, but sometimes it is just as important to attend to the inner, spiritual world.”  words from a tarot card

These last couple of months have thrown me into the outer world–the daily news, the obsessive tweets by our new leader, everyone talking of their outrage, incredulity, calls to action.  And we must respond and resist.  We cannot let things go unprotested.  

But in the midst of all this, Ted and I found refuge in a place where there were no TVs, no radios, no newspapers, no cell phone or internet.  We silenced the cacophony for 5 days, attending instead to the earth whose heart beat just a few miles below our feet, whose life blood boiled to the surface in hot pools which melted the heavy snow and ice clogging open water and offered forage to hungry bison and elk and refuge to trumpeter swans and geese.  For five glorious days the only thing spouting off were the geysers.  We could take a breath, take in the wonder of the snowy woods where the imagination stirring snow ghosts lurked.  An angel hovering in the pines, or a snow snail crawling upstream against the current of the pewter river reminding me that it is always slow going against the current, but like a snail, we must just keep plugging along.  The forces of nature–snow falling in gale force winds–drifts blocking the trails–steam billowing in the frosted air obscuring the sights, but giving the woods an etherial other-worldly quality were all there to remind us that beyond the walls of civilization were forces far more powerful and fierce than our own greed and self-centeredness.  

Of course, we had to return home to the turmoil of the latest news, but our experience was a strong reminder to take time every day to stop obsessing over the latest outrage, the latest tweet and go to the woods –pay attention to the real tweets and songs of the birds.  To reflect rather than react.  And most importantly, to not get distracted from what we really care about.  Focusing on the reality show going on in Washington means we might take our eye off of the crucial issues here at home.  And so I have limited myself to giving my attention to what’s happening in the state legislature and making sure that our representatives don’t forget that they represent all of us.  And with Montana’s representative Ryan Zinke up for Interior Secretary, it is incredibly important that we let him know how crucial these wild refuges are for all our souls.

Hope in the Dark

“F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,’ but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other, and since it is not all good it must all suck royally.  Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.'” from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Synchronicity is a great thing.  I just happened to be reading another book by Rebecca Solnit and saw Hope in the Dark mentioned, so I found a copy and discovered it was just the elixir I needed to give me hope and a sense of purpose in these worrisome times.

Last fall I had the chance to escape the pre-election madness and drive a friend down to Jackson Hole.  A visit to the beauty of the Tetons was just the distraction I needed.  But when we arrived we found the Tetons had disappeared under a heavy veil of angry storm clouds.  And to make matters worse, our arrival coincided with a visit by Donald Trump Jr.  It seemed there was no escape from my despair.

Driving through the park, we stopped at a number of viewpoints where disappointed tourists turned their backs on the shrouded mountains, thumbing their cell phones, or taking selfies in front of the signs that named the hidden peaks.  Undeterred, we went for hike in the frigid rain, getting soaked in the process, but rather than damping our mood, the walk through an aspen grove shimmering with saturated gold raised our spirits. 

That night we were scheduled for a fundraising dinner at a local restaurant.  I pictured a stuffy cocktail party atmosphere with the retired rich and well connected crowd I have come to expect at fundraisers.  But to my delight, instead I found myself in a room of engaged and enthusiastic young people dedicated to developing a sustainable food system in Jackson.  These members of Tetons Slow Food movement were farmers, ranchers, chefs and locals who were all committed to reducing the impacts of global industrial food. They were not just railing against the devastation wrought by corporate food, not just donating money so others could do something about it, but were all actively engaged in making the world a better place.  I sat across from a fourth generation rancher who was turning the family business away from a traditional cattle operation and toward raising sustainable, grass fed beef, using the most modern methods of land stewardship in the process.  

These young activists did not expect to put Con-Agra or Monsanto out of business, but they understood what Solnit talks about in Hope In The Dark: “The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself…The counter to Monsanto Corporations’ genetic engineering and agricultural patents isn’t just anti-GMO and anti- patenting activism and legislation, it’s local farmers, farmers’ markets, seed diversity, organic crops, integrated pest management, and other practices that work best on the small scale.  A farmers’ market selling the produce of local farmers isn’t an adequate solution but ten thousand of them begin to be.” 

While the food was superb, the real nourishment of that evening was hope.  As Solnit says, “Hope and action feed each other.”  The next day I headed north towards home, and still the Tetons were shrouded in storm.  I stopped at Jackson Lake Lodge and stood on the deck overlooking the valley.  Standing in the freezing drizzle, which alternated with gropple, I took photos of the amazing palette of reds, russets and yellows that filled the valley floor, the colors made more intense by the rain.  I was alone in the cold wind, except for a herd of cow elk grazing their way along the river bottom.  My SD card was full, but I stood and watched as a rustle of willows behind the cows made their heads pop up and the branches in the willows resolved into the six point rack of giant bull.  On the other side of the cows a smaller bull approached and the big bull let out a threatening bugle.  Head down, the smaller bull tried to cut out a couple cows, but the big elk charged and there ensued a short, antler clattering battle that ended with the smaller elk turning tail and running off downriver.  The brash interloper had tried to steal the herd, but was sent packing in the end.

The drama over, I went into the lodge where everyone sat with their backs to the windows, sipping lattes and checking their e-mails.  I went into the gift shop for a new SD card and the clerk offered me one that already had 20 professional photos of the Tetons on it.  “It’s perfect for a dismal day like today when there’s nothing to take pictures of and nothing happening out there,” she said.  I turned down the prepackaged card and smiled at her. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of where you look,” I said.  As I left the park, the clouds began to lift and the Tetons peeked through.

My experience with the Teton Slow Food group has given me more than hope.  They have spurred me to take my own actions locally.  I have rededicated myself to growing and preserving as much of our food as possible, supporting the farmer’s market and sourcing as much as I can from local growers and ranchers.  But that is not enough.  I also feel like I need to do everything I can to resist the political agenda of the new administration, not by being angry, or wringing my hands over every outrageous tweet, but by supporting groups like Garden City HarvestThe Missoula Freedom Garden, and Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula.  And I’m going to become more active politically, as hard as that is for someone as introverted as me.  On inauguration night I will be attending  “An Evening Inspiring Hope and Action” with other local people hoping to turn our anger into action.  

“‘Resistance is the secret of joy,’ …quoting Alice Walker.  Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.  You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them…struggle generates hope as it goes along.  Waiting until everything looks feasible is too long to wait.” from Hope in the Dark.

 

 

New–Digital Stories

Several people have asked me to post my digital story The Pond so they can share it with friends.  You will find it under Digital Stories in the menu and I hope to add more stories as they are created.  Thanks for your interest and enjoy!  And here’s to a New Year filled with wonder, connection and a new sense of purpose.

Reflections on the Election

reflections-1The morning after the election was a heartbreaking, confusing time for me.  It was not just that my candidate had lost–that had happened before–or that the president elect would not agree with me on the issues that I consider most important.  It was not even the possibility that this man might lead the country into another catastrophic war.  That too had happened before.  No–what devastated me was the fact that I could not understand how the electorate could vote for someone who so clearly had no moral or ethical center.  Did that mean that half the country also lacks a moral and ethical center?

Needing some way to wrap my mind around this post-truth, post-values world, I turned to one of my favorite poems–one that has given me solace in the past during troubled times. 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

© Wendell Berry. This poem is excerpted from “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry”

I headed out to the pond in the backwoods.  Seating myself under the great cottonwood, I stared up into its now bare branches.  The red-tail hawk, who had raised a chick in the massive nest over my head was circling high in the sky , scanning the world below.  His shrieking kee-ree sounded like the cry my heart was making.  Because this time, I didn’t feel the peace of wild things.  I felt fear.  Fear for the wild things of which I am an integral part.

It was an unseasonably warm November day, after an unseasonably warm October, after the warmest year on record–again.  The mountains were still bare of snow.  The aspen trees, just weeks after loosing their autumn leaves were beginning to bud out, the furry white tips of the catkins emerging from their brown winter casings.  What would happen when the frost finally did come?  The pond was shrunk down, leaving a bathtub ring of decaying leaves on its shore.  Through the silvery trunks of the cottonwoods I could see the reddened pine needles of another beetle-killed ponderosa,  Our warmer winters are a boon for the pine bark beetles who are decimating our western forests and have created a fifth season–fire season, when massive forest fires eat millions of acres every year.

I thought about our next president for whom reality is a TV show, thought about him sitting in his gilded Trump tower and wondered if he was so cut off from the natural world that he couldn’t see what was happening–that he could really believe that Climate Change was a Chinese hoax, not the gravest threat to our future and the most pressing and dangerous issue.  This was not a problem you could wall out.

I thought about the people who voted for him.  I knew several people who were “unfriending” anyone who had supported Trump.  But I realized that reacting from fear, anger and hate was exactly what his supporters had done.  They saw the problems in the world–terrorism and an economy that was all about the bottom line and not about the workers, where everyone was nothing more than a consumer and their way of life was threatened by so many global issues too complex to understand–they saw those problems as overwhelming and unsolvable.  And it made the them afraid. Trump told them that he could solve those problems.  And they wanted so badly for someone to step up and do just that that they gave him their votes–and their futures.

What I realized was that they weren’t that much different from me.  I too saw the problems in the world–most particularly Climate Change as overwhelming and unsolvable and I felt defenseless in the face of global powers who were refusing to confront the reality of the situation.  I have let myself get distracted by other things, I have stopped paying the deep attention that is necessary for any relationship, and that includes my relationship with the natural world. And so I have sat back and waited for someone else to fix it.  I need to react, not out of fear, but out of my own moral center.

From Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril: page 469

“The times call for integrity, which is the consistency of belief and action.  The times call for the courage to refute our own bad arguments and call ourselves on our own bad faith.  We are called to live lives we believe in–even if a life of integrity is very different, let us suppose radically different from how we live now.  Knowledge imposes responsibility.  Knowledge of a coming threat requires action to avert it.  There is no way around it, if our lives are to be worthy of our view of ourselves as moral beings.  How to begin?  Maybe with four lists.  List 1: These are the things I value most in my life…List 2: These are the things I do that are supportive of those values.  List 3: These are the things I do that are destructive of those values.  List 4: These are the things I am going to do differently.  From now on. No matter what.”

List 1: A healthy, life affirming relationship with the natural world.  

List 2: I can begin by paying attention.  By speaking out in defense of what I love. Recommitting to this blog is part of that.  Supporting those who are working to change the way we relate to the natural world is another.

List 3: Waiting for someone else to solve the problems while I remain quiet and afraid is destructive to my values and ultimately to my spirit.

List 4: This is a start.  I will recommit to the things I already do, like trying my best to eat locally, to be conscious of how my decisions affect the rest of my community and the world, to an ethical relationship to money and how my spending and my investments support or hurt the natural world.  But this is only a start.  One person may not make a difference in the bigger picture, but “each of us, right now, at this exact moment in time, has the power to choose to live the moral life, to live a life that is indeed worth living.” Michael P. Nelson

 

Mother Tree

mother treeWhen I was a child, growing up in Colorado, I went on a field trip to the Natural History Museum in Denver.  While most of the other kids were drawn to the dinosaur skeletons, I wondered off, completely entranced by what the others considered a ho-hum diorama.  Behind the glass was a window into what lay beneath the surface of the earth.  There were the rodent tunnels and the centipedes and earth worms but what really caught my attention were the complex network of roots reaching down and branching out all over from  plants and trees.  My father was a geologist and made colorful geologic maps, so I was familiar with the idea that there were layers of different kinds of rocks hidden beneath the soil.  But until then I didn’t realize how much life was going on out of sight beneath my feet.

Fast forward 50 years and we now know a great deal more about what is happening just under the surface of the ground we tread.  Plant biologists have found that not only do roots sense gravity, and will inevitably grow down into the earth, even if the seed is oriented upside down, they also can sense, and respond to chemical signals from other plants, whether of their own species or another.  In fact, in recent years botanists have discovered that plants can signal each other, exchanging nutrients and information through their roots. Suzanne Simard and her colleagues from of the University of British Columbia have mapped out complex networks of roots, connected by mycorrhizal fungi which transmit chemical signals.  They even showed how older, or mother trees used the network to nourish their young and that they can recognize those trees who are their descendants.

Looking at this mother tree surrounded by her offspring, I could almost feel the vibrations in the earth, and as I imagined the web of connection beneath the soil, that wonder I first felt at the Natural History Museum was rekindled.