I write

I like to consider moments and search in them for wild elements. I look for fire, water, earth, and air. It’s all here with me now. I am here with it all. There is a breeze coming through the window above where I write at a desk in the basement. All the wild elements are alive in this moment. 

I write. Even that sentence holds enough of a moment to find wildness. The firing of synapse in my brain pushes to the page by way of my muscled fingers fueled by the blood of my body that is nourished and cleansed by my breath.

Try it. I take a sip of coffee. The steam, from the liquid that is tinged with taste and color from the seed of a berry grown in some soil and roasted by fire, wafts into my face when I suck at the glazed rim of the mug made of flame-hardened clay.

Now cast your gaze out beyond yourself. Consider who might read the words you’re writing. Where are they in relation to a window or a cup of coffee and each of the elements of wildness? Consider, with gratitude and curiosity, who might have tended the bush and harvested the red berries with their own muscled fingers?

I draw inspiration from the relational glue that welds wild elements together and crafts from them moments of life. Before the day is over I aim to do something with this awareness, to turn inspiration to action. I aim to be, myself, a constellation of wildness that contributes to life.

But first: I write, and I take a sip of coffee.

what's a retreat

I set up a table at a local pizza place the other night to promote Renewal in the Wilderness. When people came in for supper I handed out stickers. And, if they wanted, I told them about what we’re about.

I’ve been telling the same tale for four years now. I keep it short and tight at first. “We guide wilderness trips and nature retreats for people doing good things in the world.” If their eyes don’t glaze over, better yet, if their eyes spark a little, I flesh out my tale with some of the particulars.

One person, a fifth grader who had just finished up her first day back at school, looked at me with curious regard and asked, “What’s a retreat?”

Indeed.

I didn’t tell her this exactly, but something like it:

It’s a temporary autonomous zone where those closest to the centers of despair can gather with anonymity and safety to voice their doubts and express frustration. Where they can stop being part of the solution for a while, stop fixating on the fix for a bit. It’s not a threshold from one place or way of being to another, but a sort of non-place where being is suspended. The purpose is not to surge the self with a boost of adrenaline, but to heighten the senses by dulling the rhythms of movement through a day. It’s stepping out to get away from straight lines and abstractions of space. It’s getting healed by the redundancy of the natural world. It’s space to be a human animal, and not much else. It’s reciprocity with the elements. It sustains the world’s healers. And it’s where wild nature becomes a friend. Where wild places, labeled as such or not, become vital relationships. Vital and mutual.

She nodded, took a sticker, and walked away to finish her math homework.

reaching

Last eve, while we were sauntering the trail in Cape Elizabeth, a few of us got talking about the forest. About the oaks in particular, and two of them that were growing from the same source tree. I learned how they had sprouted decades ago from the stump of a felled oak, and grew together, interdependently reaching for the sunshine. Their trunks are tall and straight and their branches high up. We saw another oak, just as big around, but with branches much lower to the ground. This oak grew this way for a reason. The others took up residence in the shelter of the forest, where the canopy above them required that they reach reach reach for the sun. The low down oak grew at the edge of a field, where there was plenty of space to stretch out and find sun on a whim over here and over there.

At the pond, where we practiced the portion of the walk where we pause, a few of us got talking about offspring. Two of my friends gushed with pride about their daughters: Sprouts of selfhood interdependently gathering the nurture of life and love. Reach reach reaching to become expressions of who they are in the world.

We’re each shaped by the variety of relationships that surround us during our ongoing process of becoming. Marshes, beaches, fields, and forests. Rooted in some sort of soil. Reaching out to the gaze of the same star.

on the trunk of the maple

Yesterday I explored a sanctuary of wild nature in my area. It was new to me. There is an old stone wall, once upon a time formed by who knows how many hands and hours. It is low and mossy and it runs alongside the trail that shoulders the ridge on the western edge of the sanctuary. There is what used to be an orchard, now enveloped in the new ecology of a forest that is striving for maturity. There is a stream and the remnants of an old mill. The stream becomes a river. The river becomes an estuary.

I made my way down to the bank of the stream to see if I could find a good spot to sit. These days, I’m trying to remember to sit still for five or ten minutes at a time, even when I have trails to explore. Even when I have new trails to explore, stone walls to build, harvest to reap, grist to mill. Even when I have phone calls to make, meetings to plan, reports to write, strategies to scheme, retreats to schedule, a lawn to mow, meals to prepare, and a shower drain that’s leaking into the basement to fix. Even then, especially then, I’m trying to remember to sit still for a little bit here and there. In the midst of all there is to do, from time to time, I sit still and abide in a moment of being.

There is a pine tree on the bank of the stream that is growing straight up to the sky. I hung my pack on a broken branch on the pine. There is a maple tree that is growing out of the bank at an angle such that the trunk reaches out over the mud and the water. I climbed out on the trunk of the maple and perched for a parcel of stillness. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was mine for a moment and it was enough.

Later I made some phone calls and worked on a project. Today I’m going to find a plumber to fix the shower. I might mow the lawn. And I’m going to see if I can find another spot to perch for a little while.

sometimes

Sometimes I wish that I could be born in ten different places in ten different eras, to collect the knowledge of those experiences into my consciousness, and then put it places. Like onto the page I’m writing on now. And into the conversations with every person I encounter. And into the thoughts I think while I’m leaning on the big trees of the world. I wish that I could lean on every big tree in the world, just for a moment, to get a feel for the planet’s arboreal weight and glory. I wish that I could have a conversation with every person on earth who’s in their eighties, not to talk about anything in particular, just to say hello and how are you. 

Sometimes that’s the gravity of presence that I want to bring into my days, my movements, my relationships, my process of becoming. 

Other times I don’t feel like going out of my way to engage the world. Sometimes I walk the trail with my head down. With my thoughts crowded and heart heavy. I find a cave, or make one, and be alone in it until the stuff that matters in the world quiets and I’m able to hear again the voice underneath the world’s hoarse insistence.

Being honest about the way that the energy of enthusiasm ebbs and flows is an important part of stewarding a purposeful life. I try to let curiosity drive me when it does. But I’m learning to also let weariness play its role. Tending to weariness is crucial to the commitment of living with compassion. It’s a vital part of trusting in the possibility of renewal.

the mind ponders

My friend Frank, who has come on pretty well all of the community walks I’ve organized this year, wrote this note after we shared the trail Tuesday evening with ten other beautiful souls:

The mind ponders what the heart already knows! I am learning about this as well as the connections I share with the people, places and wildlife I encounter on these Beauty Walks. I have taken to reading Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer which are bringing back fond memories of wild strawberries, tree forts, farm ponds and the silence of a pine forest. I had almost forgotten those things that brought so much joy when I was young, innocent and unafraid. I am very thankful for this second chance and don't intend to waste it.

Frank’s offering struck me as profound. His words leave me wondering: What else do we almost forget when we fail to revisit the moments and rhythms that ground us? What else returns to us when we engage the rhythms that strengthen our capacity to connect with the stuff of our world?

Last night I put out the trash bag, the recycle bin, and the compost bucket. As I always do after managing our household waste from the week, on my way back inside, I paused. It’s my Thursday night practice to stop and look up and around, to breath deep taking in the whole of my little neighborhood and note how it’s situated at the edge of a big star-dusted canopy. To de-center myself for just a moment. To let my mind ponder what my heart already knows. To see if there is any note or sight or smell on the air that will recall for me a moment of peace, or of some other emotion. Deep breath in. Great big sigh. And a sense of content that my feet press the earth while my eyes scan the sky.

beauty walk

The sun made a lavish display of setting last evening over the flowering fields at Fuller Farm in Scarborough. A dozen of us were gathered to take our time strolling the wooded trails behind the fields. To walk a little, and find a place to sit a while. To talk a little, and find some moments of quiet. Near the spot where it gets muddy and there are boardwalks built into the trail I was near Nancy who kept blowing my mind with simple observations. Like the timelessness of ferns. And the way the fecundity of the forest — like the actual stark smell of it all — makes us prone to receive the full weight of that timelessness. Nancy is one of those people who holds a thousand powerful secrets in each smile.

I could tell you something profound about each member of our small band on last night’s Beauty Walk. They are all wonders. And it’s a wonder to me every time a handful of us gather, the way the trail draws us into itself and shapes us into a temporary community. The laughter, the buzz of conversation, the shared silence, the offering of observations, the generous way of togetherness.

This is a thank you note to my Beauty Walk community. Thank you for the dynamic ways that you show up in pockets of wildness around town. Thank you for the consistent way that you ease my spirit and compel me, after we saunter together, back into the world to live with a little less haste and a little more grace.

tangled

Lauren tends gardens at our house that grow each season. Her gardens grow produce. And they also grow, each year, in proportion to the rest of the yard. Yesterday she took some of her yield around to our neighbors, sharing from the plenty that, in collaboration with our little plot of earth, she has managed to manifest. This evening I’m taking some cucumbers to share with a group of people gathering at the Maine Audubon for a Seasonal Celebration; a gathering to celebrate where the earth is at present in orientation to the star that keeps us situated in space.

I imagine weaving some twine through and between all those things — the sun, the cucumbers, Lauren’s intentions, time, neighborliness, space, soil, and all the rest. That’s the sort of tangled awareness with which I want to live my days.

backcountry grace

This week I’ve spent most of my time in my head asking big questions and thinking big thoughts. I’ve been taking big bites of ideas that I have about the work I do and trying to metabolize them into clarity of direction, into actions.

It’s like seeking out a vista. I’ve been tugging at an incline with the soles of my boots to find a clearing where I can see the whole stretch of landscape and discern the way I ought to go. 

The vista feels important to me today. But I need to remember that there’s a difference between the big views of purposeful trajectory, and the simple day-to-day quest of tuning my next step to the trail.

The greatest challenge for me with entertaining vista-sized-questions is finding the courage to come back down and do the thing with the clarity I’ve attained. Sometimes I want to settle in where I can see everything but touch very little, rather than carry on with my project of placing dusty footprints along the whole stretch of trail.

May we each find the clarity we’re after. And then may we each find the courage to take a thousand confident steps, or a dozen, or just the next one. 

And through it all may we trust in backcountry grace, which is the assurance that straight lines are an abstraction, and that good work happens with twists and turns and grit and sweat.

slap against the surface

I remember sitting on the bank of one of the many lakes in Algonquin Provincial Park early one morning. The water was glass and much of the world was just beginning to dust itself off from a hard night’s sleep. The stillness, as audible as it was visual, was pushed aside by one creature. A loon flew across the mouth of my vision with twenty or so flaps of the wings. Loon was near enough to the water that each flap made a slap against the surface and each slap punched the stillness of the morning with a moment of action, of muscle, of momentum. 

Last week Lauren and I were camping at a secret spot we have where there is a lean-to at the end of a dirt road. There is a fire pit out in front of the lean-to and a pond fifty paces from the fire pit. And there are three moose that graze throughout the day, into the night, and early in the morning on plants growing from the bottom of the pond. When a bull moose, grazing deep in a pond that is deep in the woods in Maine, raises his funny head out of the water with reeds dangling from his mouth, and shakes off the wet, his ears slap against the surface in a way that sounds like a loon in Canada flying across a lake on a still morning fifteen years ago.

Yesterday I stood at the kitchen sink and heard the gurgle of water pour through the faucet and hit a dish I was washing. I heard the water tumble down the drain and through the pipes underfoot. Not quite the same as moose ears and loon’s wings striking the surface of stillness. But not so different either: We creatures colliding with water in all sorts of ways as we go about our days. For all that divides us and makes us distinct, there are some things at least that we share. Elemental stuff like water, earth, air, and the heat of our appetites, the drive of some purpose that keeps us alive.

on vacation

Nine days ago I set an away message on my email and let that setting be a ritual that ushered me from ordinary time into the spaciousness of vacation.

Three days in Baltimore with friends and tastes of culture. Three days in the woods, just us, our dogs, and some moose grazing in a pond. Three days at home engaged in the soothing practices of off-loading clutter from my basement, and rearranging rooms and closets and books on the shelves.

I needed a boost of belonging, some space to decompress, to declutter my busy mind, and hunker into my tender heart. While I was unplugged I tried to listen a lot. I spent time pressing pencil to paper, covering pages of my journal with sentiments and observations. I finished a book, started a couple others. But mostly I just needed to catch my breath. So I did. I took deep breaths. Lots and lots of inhalations and exhalations. I followed the billowing of my animal lungs for days and days to a place of renewed strength, composure, and calm.

From a balcony in Baltimore overlooking the harbor, from a hammock by a pond in the Maine north woods, from the driver’s seat of my Subaru all in between, and from the basement in my house durning a pause between loads of stuff: I took long drags of breath and offered them back to the world. And for a time I let that be enough of a contribution.

parcel, poetry, practice

Wilderness is political. It’s poetic. And it’s practical.

When I say wilderness is political I’m speaking of designated places. I’m speaking of parcels of space where the biotic community isn’t made to serve a single species but where each participant practices self-restrained freedom in service of the shared drive toward being whole. Wilderness areas are those where we humans, especially those of us who tend to trample, are practicing the discipline of restraint. 

Wilderness is also poetic. It is anywhere that we make friends with the untamed possibility of the world. It is anywhere that we gather confidence among the raw elements of who we are.

As parcel and as poetry the wilderness works as a context for forging community and practicing contemplation because it is free of easy absolutes. Rather than either/or, it is the realm of both/and. Wilderness is where multiplicity and nuance reign.

We go to wilderness with worn and weary souls, and with something to discover. We need space to catch our breath, and we need to hunt for resolve. We need to gather our thoughts, and we need to lose ourselves. We need some solitude, and to know we’re not alone. 

Today, independent of the degree of civilization you are enjoying or deploring, know that someone is rooting for you. And, when you need it, that there’s somewhere, someway to feel rooted.

community and contemplation

The world needs our collective commitment to community. It needs us to see value in relationships. The world needs our personal commitments to contemplation. It needs us to take responsibility for our thoughts.  

As it is, our days are more rife with disconnection and distraction than community and contemplation. 

Here’s the thing: Behind the impulse to disconnect there is something wise. There is a clarity there, a noticing of the limit of our capacity to carry the weight of the world. But what if, rather than disconnecting into loneliness and division, we would follow that impulse instead toward collaboration? toward community?

And here’s the other thing: The distractions that run rampant through our lives are more the result of an atrophied imagination than they are indicative of our moral apathy. We aren’t bad. We’re just out of practice. What if there is a way to take the stuff that drives us to distraction and channel that into playful practices of contemplation that build the muscle we need as a culture to give flesh to our moral ambition?

That would be wild.

bubbles in a puddle

Mid-storm this weekend I walked around the yard with the heavy rain hitting my skin, hot from a day in the sun. There was nothing I needed to do outside, but I ambled around my house just for the cool of it. I checked the mailbox. I made sure the gutter spouts were aimed at the drainage trays. I stood in the rain. I sat in a lawn chair in the doorway of my garage and paid attention.

There was a puddle three feet from my toes just outside the mouth of the garage. The raindrops, when they dimpled the puddle’s surface, would every so often leave a bubble in the spot where they dropped. Then subsequent raindrops popped the bubbles that their predecessors had shaped. A game of whack-a-mole. A pool of self-contained play. 

Bubbles in a puddle, both conjured and popped by raindrops: Making and breaking tiny metaphors.

I marvel at the nature of the world. It is a place of steady change. For the most part it is a nonchalant change. A change with soft edges. The way the day can crescendo with heat and humidity until a summer storm brews and breaks in the evening sky, punctuating the day with relief. I celebrate these rhythms of variance and change.

And still, sometimes I’m sorry that things aren’t forever.

Celebration and sorrow, side-by-side, are the substance of what it is to be human. These are the emotional barometers in our striving after joy and justice. Our hopes and efforts conjured and popped by shifting moments. Each of them temporal, tragic, beautiful, and worthy.

Generosity and Surrender

(a poem by Lisa Steele-Maley)

The peony blooms opened just days ago,

Soft round balls of warm pink

Sitting atop tall dark green stems.

The bulbs are clustered

but they open one at a time,

Each offering its fullness in turn.

 

Today, the large blossoms rest on the grass,

heavy with their own weight

and the added weight of the rain that fell last night.

I wonder what twine or fencing I might have in the barn.

I imagine I could create some support,

Alleviate the weight of their burden.

 

I watch an ant walk from a blade of grass

into the heart of one of the blooms,

Disappearing into the soft sweet folds.

The ant is served by the weighted blossoms.

What else might benefit?

Maybe the drooping is part of the peony’s offering,

A generous bowing to the earthbound insects

when it is done serving the airborne.

 

There is so much I do not know.

I am no longer wondering about twine and fencing.

I contemplate life and fullness,

Weight and burden, generosity and surrender,

Witnessing and honoring, beauty and decay.

The mysteries are infinite and close at hand.

Soft pink peony

Explosion of vibrant life

Rest your heavy head

the trail

There is a trail by my house where the dogs and I go as often as I remember my need for regular jaunts with nature, with my thoughts, with my stride. 

Being a year-round walker means I am allowed glimpses of the life of the trail as it cycles from season to season. The shifts are never abrupt. They are always gradual. But somehow the trail still surprises me one day each season when something connects in my consciousness and I wake to the fullness of the conditions of my environment. 

The trail is at its pinnacle of life right now. In the winter, when it’s sparse, I walk with a sense of the vastness of this parcel of neighborhood wilderness. But now it is crowded with green. And I walk almost hunched by the weight of intimacy in the forest’s felt presence. 

I say “almost” because I don’t hunch. There is still space for me to saunter in my fullness. There is still space for me to walk head high, chest puffed, face gleaming in the green-filtered light.

In this way, holding space for me, the trail is my friend and my teacher. The trail reminds me to move through my days as a pedestrian, which is a matter of pace independent of activity. The trail insists, with gentleness, that I notice the relationships that undergird our shared world. The trail invites me to pay attention, to be vast even when I feel crowded, to be less hurried and more curious. To be patient and full. 

The trail for me is less a venue for transportation and more a companion in my ever and ongoing transformation.

Being Unlocked

Each year I return,

pulled to the place

that anchors me,

knowing I can lean

on its changelessness,

no matter how burdened I am

by the cares of daily life,

weighted by losses

both new and old,

heavy with longing

for something to change.


At first

I clutch the burdens close,

somehow afraid

to let them go.

But inevitably

a moment comes

and I crack open,

undone by the simple beauty

of sunlight on running water,

the sound of wind,

a loon’s piercing cry.


It feels like a key

unlocking me,

allowing me to release

all that I carry,

drop it in the river

where it can be swept away

by those swift waters

rushing down the mountain.

They are strong enough

to bear all the heaviness

I’ve accumulated,

the weight of the world,

or at least my part of it.


It becomes

a type of baptism,

where each year

I am washed and revitalized,

given fresh strength

to get me through

until I can return

to be unlocked

and renewed

once again.

Being Unlocked

a poem by Erica L. Bartlett

my list

Yesterday I wrote that your vocation — your call to contribute to the work of making the world more beautiful, just, and compassionate — is worthy of the resources, time, and energy required to strengthen and sustain it. And I asked: If you were to make a list of the stuff that strengthens and sustains your sense of purpose, what would be on that list?

Such a list is and should be dynamic and personal. It’s also a good thing to share with others whose work in the world is worthy of sustaining.

Here’s my list, in its current form:

  • visit a friend

  • run around the cove

  • take a nap

  • people watch

  • stand up straight

  • write on a blank sheet of paper

  • eat slowly

  • organize a drawer

  • purge a closet

  • rearrange a room

  • go barefoot in the grass

  • eat a cookie

  • write a well-done list

  • have an alarm-clockless morning

  • wait before checking messages

  • cook an involved meal

  • make frozen pizza

  • light a candle

  • cuddle with pets/friends

  • say no to something

  • ride bikes

  • walk with some dogs

  • do one sun salutation

  • turn off some or all notifications

  • try not to say “should”

  • learn some local history/flora/fauna

  • drive the long way home

  • memorize a poem

  • read fiction

  • excavate an old hobby

  • get a treat

  • color

  • learn some new words

  • hum/whistle

  • make funny faces

  • browse shelves at a used bookstore

  • go hiking

  • go canoeing

  • play a sport

  • go down a slide

  • tell someone a joke

  • lean on a tree

  • splash my face with some river

  • make coffee

  • take a deep breath

worthy

I guided a half-wild retreat yesterday morning. We met at Wells Reserve and spent some time sitting and tuning our senses to the elements of earth and life around us. After that we went sauntering through the fields and forests at hand. Then, before closing out our time together with a picnic lunch, we gathered in Adirondack chairs on the eastward facing portion of the wraparound porch at the old farmhouse that is now the visitor center.

I gave a little talk about how we each have a call to contribute beauty and value to the worlds we inhabit. About how vocation exists a layer or two deeper than the roles we fill in our relationships and jobs. How it’s the soil that that stuff of identity roots in. And that our vocations are worthy of our stewardship; worthy of the resources, time, and energy required to strengthen and sustain them.

If you were to name your call, your collection of contributions, with a single word or phrase, what would it be?

If you were to make a list of the stuff that strengthens and sustains your capacity to contribute, what would be on it?

tokens

There’s a game I play. In my basement on a low table near where I do much of my writing I keep two bowls. In the bowls are eleven rocks. In the mornings on my way to write or on my way to feed the cat, whichever comes first, I move a rock from one bowl to the other depending on the following:

If I managed to get to bed by 11pm the preceding night then I move a rock from the bowl on the right to the bowl on the left. If not, I move one from left to right.

Once all eleven rocks are in the bowl on the left, I get a treat. There is no penalty for a bowl full of rocks on the right.

I made up this playful practice several months ago to help motivate me to head to bed a bit earlier than I was in the habit of doing. And it has served that function. But there’s something else, I realized this morning, that this practice does for me.

Each morning, while thinking of my bodied needs (in this case, sleep) I touch a stone. Each day holds a moment when my finger tips connect with another instance of earth, treating it as a token of my own being. This everyday practice has become for me a simple and subtle reminder of my origin, my identity, my belonging as human — as an imaginative assembly of breath-filled dust. I find this comforting. And inspiring.

Plus: I like treats.