because of what we share

The studies I wrote about yesterday got me thinking: It’s useful to parse our reality into categories that help provide angles of clarity. It’s also important to integrate each angle of clarity with our embodied experience. 

Even the part of me that houses the neural pathways, on which my intellect travels and where my experience coheres, is made of bodied stuff.

My brain is a pulsing animal organ of instinct, organization, and consciousness, thirsty for friendship with the elements that make me up. My brain and the mushrooms, the woods and I, all share the same elemental composition. We are each instances of wild nature. 

This is true whether or not I am strolling along the trail by the river in the woods. Wherever I am, when I’m spinning on a cycle of frustration or self-contained woe, it helps to remember that the would-be walk in the woods would do me good not because of its abundance and my deficit, but because of what we share.

fire in your brain

There are studies that show that immersion among elements of wild nature deactivates the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that houses patterns of ruminative depressive thinking. In other words, a walk in the woods might help calm down the fire in your brain that burns the brightest when you’re feasting on self-doubt and ruminating on despair.

I’ve experienced that. When I get stuck on a thought or an emotion that isn’t serving me, or when I get fixated on trying to find a fix for everything that’s wrong with the world, I know it’s time for me, Maya, and Dillard to head out for a stroll along the Presumpscot River.

The woods by the river are great because they insist: You aren’t sealed off from the stuff of life around you. When I exhale a full breath and then draw a new breath in, I am inhaling a gift from the trees that are sighing in the wind. 

a whiff of something

When I stepped outside this morning I lifted my chin and drew breath, like my dog just now in the side yard with her snout in the air catching a whiff of something. When I drew that breath I caught a smell, and for a moment, I was awake to an animal sort of knowledge. I could discern with a wink of sensation what sort of day it was going to be.

Today the wind will play among the tops of trees and circulate to the ground and begin to dry up some of the puddles pooled in the low spots in the lawn. 

The trees will move with urgency. The trunks will sway. The limbs will wag and the needles on the conifers tussle against one another.

The wet on the ground will move, coaxed by the wind, toward the slow rhythms of evaporation.

I fell asleep last night feeling heavy about the world’s problems. I didn’t wake up with articulate answers. But I found a trustworthy wisdom in my body. The relationships between wind, water, trees, and flesh affirm the urgency I feel. They remind me also to breathe deep and honor the pace of things.

muddy soles

First the snow falls fluffy on the trail. Then with the help of frequent feet packing it down, and a little bit of chemistry, the flakes melt together and refreeze as a sheen of ice. Under these conditions my dogs Bambi their way along the trail slipping askew with every other step. And we bipeds, if not equipped with micro-spikes strapped to our boots, wrestle with the trail attempting to resist the mean collision made likely by the joint efforts of ice and gravity. That’s January and February on the wooded trails in Portland.

Well into March, micro-spike season is coming to a close. In places the trail is getting soft with mud that sucks at my boots and splatters at my ankles. At the end of the trail, just before the parking lot, there’s a brook that runs clear beneath the rough bridge that connects one bank of the footpath to the other. This would be the optimal spot to rinse the soles of my boots before climbing back into civilization. But the gravel lot at the trailhead is muddy too. My boots get caked again between the brook and my car. So I rinse them in a mud puddle and call that good enough.

Every once in a while I rinse my soul in pristine wildness. But it’s good to remember that most days a mud puddle will do. Besides, I like to carry some of the grit with me as I go.

what irks an owl

An owl the size of my fist was sitting in the tree behind the building where I park my car in the mornings. I stood awhile and gazed up at owl. We made eye contact through the branches. Owl scratched owl’s chin. I smiled. Owl was still there in the evening when I returned. 

I wonder: What irks an owl?

Owls present as so much less hurried and anxious than, say, squirrels or boiling water.

Squirrels are classy creatures in their own right, and boiling water is useful, but I take comfort that we share space also with creatures like the tiny owl who saw me yesterday.

Amidst our squirreling from task to task today, our simmering from thought to thought, may we also find moments to sit among the cedar branches, nonplussed by the business of our duties and doings.

forsythia and worm poop

Today is the vernal equinox, a moment of time situated with soggy edges between the hard ice of winter and the crisp fire of summer. Emerging signs of spring whisper to us about where we are in orbit around the sun. Our relationship to the stars presses us into the thawing earth. I've seen the buds on the forsythia by my garage became more pronounced each morning this week, and I know that the soil and the sunlight work together to orchestrate this produce. 

Lauren told me that robins begin doing things associated with their spring rhythms once they start noticing worm poop on the ground. The excrement of creatures that dwell in the earth signals change to the ones that flit through the sky.

I welcome this season of soft edges, of in-your-face reciprocity, of both/and. It reminds me that change is not an on/off switch, and that the quality of change is relative to where I am situated on this rock that’s spinning around the sun. Growth is not precise or certain or linear, but things are happening and we’re part of it all.

talking about the weather

I love talking about the weather. Not like meteorologically, though the science is fascinating. I love that when we bump into someone after yoga class or at the grocery store, once we’ve exhausted the salutational portion of the encounter and decorum suggests that a few more moments of conversation is called for: Enter, the weather.

I also like digging deep in dialogue about culture and politics and existence and passions and frustrations and fine art and blockchain and sensible shoes. But it’s good that our default filler for half-awkward conversation is to talk about the weather.

This suggests that we’re at least halfway paying attention. Our half-wild selves are noticing that the ground is getting squishy with thaw. There’s something about us that notes the feel of the atmosphere on our mammalian skin. There’s something about what we’ve noticed that suggests we should heed and discuss because, sheltered though we may be, this is the world we live in. So let’s talk about it.

favorite things

Yesterday we invited local community to stop by the office for an open house (and Lucky Charms cereal bar). I taped some butcher paper to the wall and invited guests to scribble out answers to a few questions. One question was: What’s your favorite thing about wilderness?

Some of the things people scrawled: trees, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, hedgehogs (also an internet favorite), the unknown, space to walk and think, the smell of rain, solitude, quiet, sound of the wind in the trees, connectivity.

And one guest, who looked at the montage and shared that she doesn’t resonate with warm and fuzzy sentiments about wilderness, after a long pause wrote: Transformative. 

That makes me think of something I read by Laura Feldt: “Wilderness is an ambiguous space, an arena of both catastrophe and utopia, a site of transformation, play, and reflection.”

That helps me remember that wilderness is not always friendly, but it’s good to be friends.

That has me wondering: What else do I know in my life that is beautiful and complicated?

And it has me wondering: Do I know of anything beautiful that is not also complicated?

standing in mutual awe

This week I was on retreat with the RITW Board of Directors. We spent most of day one sitting by the fireside spinning yarns about our personal purpose. Day two we spent sitting at the loom of our collective imagination to weave mission into strategy and possibility. We also spent a little bit of time considering how our operations compare to those of others, because it’s good for an organization to have a handle on its distinction. 

David Abram, in The Spell of the Sensuous, says, “We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not human.” We become who we are in relationship with beings who we are not.

I know this to be true for me when I’m standing in the yard with my neighbor Ron, watching our three dogs run, play, and skirmish.  I know this to be true when neighbor Ron tells me of the owl that was perched outside his window the other day and of the pileated woodpecker that he saw down the road this morning. 

As we stand there in mutual awe considering these sitings as gifts, I have a great gladness for my neighbors of human and non-human sorts, each like me in some ways and distinct in others. This all gives me a deeper sense of what it means to be human, and more particularly what it means to be the human that I am.

breathing for hope

At my desk here in the basement beneath the window that looks out at the fir tree I have a Ball Jar of old Berol pencils that I found last summer at a thrift store in Nova Scotia. Next to the jar there is a pink eraser and a small manual sharpener that I use to scrape pencils to a point after they’re worn down. 

There is also a clay dish on my desk, just the right size to hold a week’s worth of pencil shavings. The dish is etched with words that Barak Obama used in his acceptance speech in 2008: “While we breathe, we hope.”

The whittling away at pencils corresponds with the time that I spend whittling away at my thoughts. The grain of the wood corresponds with the life of the tree. The clay of the dish gives form to the memory of words spoken to inspire hope. 

This morning I read the news of the dozens of Muslims in New Zealand who were murdered while they gathered to pray, and it broke my heart to be so helplessly aware of the unnatural violence made possible by the collision between hatred, ignorance, and envy.

May our thoughts today press into our relationships at hand as marks of love. And may our breaths today be counted as hope for those suffering beneath the same sky in other places.

posture of curiosity

Why go to the wilderness? You can imagine that responses vary. And I’ve gathered a few over the years from folks with whom I’ve shared the trail. 

Responses vary from "Adventure!" to “Peace and quiet.” to “I have no idea.” They vary from articulated manifestos of purpose to guttural, emotional, wordless groans and prayers. They want to get close to the divine. They want to retreat from the technocratic haze of their typical days. They want fellowship. They want solitude. They want rest. They want a challenge. They want to be stronger. They want to surrender.  

I think often people are looking for something like illumination or guidance or truth.

What they often find is a new posture toward truth. A posture of curiosity rather than conquest. They become one who tracks the truth of their experience for the thrill of proximity to it, rather than one who hunts truth to attain it with taxidermic intent.

Those who find a spring of curiosity in the desert, a current of generosity on the river, a constellation of mystery in the night sky: They are the ones who have found what they need to bring back and better the world.

outside the window

You have an innate capacity for attention. That’s part of your birthright as a human, as a mammal concerned with meaning. A variety of sensations come awake after you’ve been immersed for a good chunk of time among relatively undisturbed natural areas. 

If you can’t find an undisturbed natural area, then even a disturbed one will do. I read once that Oscar Wilde defined “nature” as “a place where birds fly around uncooked”. I’m sitting at the desk in my basement beneath the window that looks up at the pine tree in the side yard, and I can hear some birds enjoying their uncooked state of being outside the window as the world wakes up.

If you can’t find a good chunk of time, then even a slight chunk will do. Looking at a cloud through the window for two minutes, you might not find the same perspective you will after a twenty minute stroll through the park, or a two day hike through the forest. But each increment of attention holds value in the process of honing your relationship with wild nature, and your capacity to soften your gaze, to let your skin attune to the pulse of the community of life around you. 

The frenzy will subside, maybe not right away or every time, but it will eventually and regularly, don’t rush it. Just take the breath at hand, look at this cloud, heed this birdsong. Just that for now.

crafty mammals with a penchant for purpose

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of embracing our responsibility as stewards of our own relationship with technology. As humans we are stewards also of our relationship to ideas. And of course, stewards of our relationship with the earth and our kindred who dwell here with us. 

Developing a friendship with wildness takes each of these relationships into account. Becoming who we are as human beings is strengthened by this multi-faceted connection to wildness. 

We seek regular connection to the elemental stuff that makes us up. We seek wisdom, as Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “from intelligences other than our own”. We find playful and practical ways to apply our presence to the rhythms of life.

Fusing together our inventive nature, our elemental nature, our spiritual nature: As humans we are crafty mammals with a concern for meaning and a penchant for purpose.

technology is not the problem

It’s easy to pit wildness against artifice, wilderness against civilization, nature against technology. But I think it’s important to point out that technology is not responsible for the spiritual drain that threatens to deplete our capacity to generate good things in the world.

Technology is the practical application of knowledge. It is a fusing of expertise with a solution. The problem is that many of the solutions on the market solve problems that are not that urgent. Others promise shortcut solutions that short-circuit the hard work of living life with purpose and vitality. But technology is not inherently problematic. The problem is our frenzied relationship to solutions.

Rather than scapegoating technology I think the more challenging approach, and one that will do more to form our spirits and benefit our world, is to embrace our responsibility as stewards of our own relationship with technology, along with wildness.

Think of tools like cameras and binoculars, like skis and bicycles, or of practices like yoga and mindfulness: these are all technologies that people often employ to cooperate with, rather than compete with, life giving rhythms. We have the agency to be creative in our relationship with technologies of all sorts.

whenever and wherever

Whenever and wherever we show up with the intention to engage the elements of wild nature, it’s vital to recognize and honor the indigenous presence and native wisdom of that place. 

As often as we seek experiences of wildness let’s not forget that wilderness is a symbol of relative unfamiliarity, and that just because a place is unfamiliar to me does not mean it’s not home to others.

As I go about my day, with feet pressing into spots on the earth that are each full of history and memory, may I remain grateful for the human cultures and earthly kin that have made homes of the places I experience in passing. 

And may my gratitude reverberate in postures of repentance where necessary, acts of reparation where possible, and a future influenced by friendship and reciprocity.

birthright of every person

I think a robust relationship with wild nature is the birthright of every person. And a lot of people today are getting short changed on their birthright through some variety or combination of: injustice, intimidation, or complacency.

Whether personally culpable or systemically obstructed, some of what needs to happen to help everyone claim their birthright:

  • need to demythologize wildness (to cut through the intimidation factor)

  • need to encourage imagination and play (to cut through the complacency factor)

  • need to proliferate simple opportunities for regular connection (to cut through injustice and lack of access)

What else? What else?

your limits are dynamic

The aphorism printed on the little paper tab dangling from the string attached to this morning’s teabag claimed: “You are unlimited.” Fortunately, that’s not true. 

I have limits. Physical, intellectual, relational, financial, and — yep — even spiritual. Which I think is what the teabag was attempting to contest: That spiritually speaking, I am unlimited. But the myth of limitlessness, while occasionally effective in poetry and pop songs, has lately gotten lazy. And, except as a crutch to prop up cults of conquest and consumerism, I’m not sure it ever had much substance to begin with.

Boundaries give substance to our capacity to relate to each other as other. 

Of course, there are such things as false boundaries, walls that we build up to protect ourselves from threats that aren’t real. It’s a great idea to deconstruct those limits. 

And a lot of boundaries are permeable, their severity in flux according to where we are and what we’re engaging, which is a good thing to keep in mind. 

Not: You are unlimited. But: Your limits are dynamic. That’s what I think. Some of us need to be more honest about our capacities, others of us need to be more generous with our limits. Most of us fluctuate from day to day between the two.

I consider the oak

In the morning I clomp down from my bedroom, feeling an overnight’s worth of cold press up at me through my bare feet as they press into the chilled wood of each stair. I tick the thermostat up a couple degrees, hear the click, and a few moments later the rumble of my furnace shaking itself awake in the basement. 

I move toward coffee by way of electric kettle and french press. I move toward breakfast by way of stove top and frying pan. I check in with all the creatures that share my warming house and, with boots on my feet now, I cross the threshold of morning routine into the oncoming day. I step outside.

The first thing that greets me outside is the scent of woodsmoke from my neighbor’s chimney. It’s delicious. I breathe in deeper, and my inhale invites a constellation of smells together in one moment. The woodsmoke mingles with pine bough, exhaust, nearby river, and salted ice.

But the woodsmoke holds my attention. I map the lineage of the smoke and of the heat that now fills my neighbor’s house. I consider the oak, it’s source. I consider the fire, it’s alchemist. Each wild element comes alive in my imagination. Then I take a sip of my coffee and its elemental narrative also unfurls with a blink.

I’m two breaths and one sip into the oncoming day and already wildness is peaking at me through the shroud of my every routine. 

Not every morning is this obvious, but wow, this one was.

Thanks for prompting this reflection:

Neighbor Dave, and Aldo Leopold’s reflection on the Good Oak in “A Sand County Almanac”

a stew of elements

Aldo Leopold said that land yields a cultural harvest. He said that wilderness is the source from which civilization has been constructed. He said, “The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.”

Wilderness and culture mingle in relationship, a stew of elements and artifice simmering together full of taste and nourishment.

Here’s the thing: There are lots of ways of being a human in relationship to wildness. And some of those ways may seem more authentic than others, more worthy, more effective. But the relationship is the point. Wilderness engagement is a picnic, not a competition.

You don’t have to know all the names of the trees, or experience all the summits, or raft down the fiercest rivers to engage wildness today.

I’m not good with chopsticks. I do my best with chopsticks, but sometimes I use a fork, or even my fingers. Whatever I need to do to experience the joy of the meal and set the food off on its journey of metabolization.


Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

not scared of the dark anyway

If you spend your days delivering care, in one form or another, to people situated on the narrow edge between crisis and just-barely-making-it, I don’t think you need the burden of self-actualization compounding your already overwhelming work. 

It’s okay if you don’t have time to pursue enlightenment. Chances are, if you’re neck deep in the muck trying to help other people stay afloat, you’re not scared of the dark anyway.

There’s no hard, fast, and final fix that you need to find. What I hope for you today is not an easy burst of illumination that pulls you away from engagement. Salvation is found in our engagement. What I hope for you today is enough space for a few deep breaths, and a dull ache of light that helps you avoid stubbing your toe as you navigate the shadows.