Making friends with mountains

Between Georgia and Maine, the Appalachian Trail winds its way along the spine of the mountains, cutting through Eastern towns and highways, bringing people from one edge of their lives to the next. Between Georgia and Maine—almost smack in the middle—is Virginia—and in Virginia is McAfee Knob, an overlook that is apparently the most-photographed spot on the AT. (You may recognize it from this movie poster if you have not had the pleasure of visiting.)

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McAfee Knob is just outside of Roanoke, where I went to visit an old friend and take on the trail alongside her. By which I mean this section of it, starting in Catawba and ascending to the apex in question. The whole AT? No, though that may have to be an adventure for another time.

There is not much I can say here to do justice to the state of flow in which we found ourselves. In movement, in ascent, in a criss-crossing wind through the rocks and trees and flora and fauna, there was a sense of moving closer to authenticity, to purity of thought and speech. Our words flowed as effortlessly as a river after rain, our thoughts unencumbered by the physical and mental walls that surround us from day to day.

And we sweated. The southern Virginia summer is back, in all its humid presence, and so we sweated. In so doing, we also sweated out at least a few of the hot-blooded demons trying to drag us down—the kind that try to drag you from direction.

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When we reached the peak, we were immersed in blue and green: sky above, rows of trees below on the sloping Blue Ridge mountains. That old growth, humbled by time, was welcoming. We breathed it in: relieved, joyous. So far from where we started, and yet so at home.

This surprised me, feeling so at home, when I thought about it. Sometimes arriving at such a peak or point brings incredulity—a sudden sense of being thrust into the unknown. Yet this was one of those other times, when you arrive and something in your spirit settles down. It says you were meant to be there all along. The place seems to have been always waiting for you. You are here, or there, and you can believe it.

Maybe, perhaps, it is related to awe. Though rather than coming from a fearful reverence, it comes from a place of respect, one that acknowledges the obvious nature of a place’s beauty and majesty. In this case, that of the Blue Ridge, and the Appalachian trail, and southwestern Virginia’s beauty. It’s funny—I grew up driving through it often enough, yet so easily I forgot how striking it could be, this environment. Standing on that overlook was such a poignant reminder of what is here.

But it made me wonder: am I taking something for granted in this here that I know so well?

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I wondered, because, for a contrast, on my first trip to Utah, which was also my first trip to a non-coastal Western state, reprieve and calm were not what I would say came over me. Rather, the sheer bigness of the sky, and the majesty of the red rocks and canyons, overwhelmed me. I was overjoyed, unable to contain neither that joy nor my enthralled girlish squeals of it.

(My apologies to Dave Blakkolb, wherever he is; he had the job of driving the car in which I, riding shotgun, did so incessantly. May your ears be at peace.)

Utah is a gorgeous state (yes yes, pun entirely intended, &c.). There’s no denying that. Yet I found it interesting that, when I visited O’ahu for the first time a few years later, it was the calm that came instead. My gut instinct was a sigh of relief: the ocean met the sky, and then they both met me, and it was as if they were expecting me all along. How kind of them to be so hospitable.

So, what changed? Did anything change? Are these reactions really so different?

Yes, the overlook was a place of rest. Yet while we hiked, everything seemed eye-catching and marvelous; verdant, green, and bright. As I write this, I am reminded of an oft-passed-around quote on living as if nothing is a miracle versus living as if everything is. (Attributed to Einstein usually, but I’m doubtful about this, just for the record. I’ve spent enough time on That’s Not Shakespeare.)

It seems maybe there is a middle place of knowing the extraordinary lives within the ordinary, and of being at peace with those extraordinary elements.

It seems simple. But simple ain’t easy. Everything ordinary seems exhausting sometimes, and I wonder: do I do this? Do I let my days be intruded upon by small marvels?

The Utah experience was one of amazement, and typical awe. I was less accustomed to what the earth had to offer then, in all its shades and shapes and varieties. Yet becoming more accustomed, surprisingly, has not meant losing this sense of joy. Rather, it’s granted the privilege of being able to appreciate beauty from a place of stability. A sustainable, un-drainable place.

Do I do this? Do I live there now, even when the marvels are smaller, less noticeable?

Am I grateful to the forests and the flowers for being there? Are we friends? Do we live alongside one another, as if both of us can belong?

Is this something some of us know how to do? And if not, how do we start to learn?

Maybe it starts in this sustainable, un-drainable place, emptied of ego and full of love for what pulses with life all around us. Open to it, unafraid of it, authentic in its midst, and immersed. Inside, outside, wherever, in every circumstance.  It seems simple. Maybe it is that simple.

Acquiring fire

If you can’t start from scratch, how do you fix a broken system? How do you shift into new practices? How do rediscover a part of you that seemed lost?

These questions echoed in the back of my mind while moving through two seemingly disparate experiences last week. It started with the Arrabon conference, a time of discussing racial and socioeconomic reconciliation when it comes to faith communities as well as the community entire. A firemaking workshop followed (held by Owlcraft Healing Ways/Blue Heron), which was a time of, frankly, learning how much I don’t know, how easy it is to ignore what your intuition knows (and how challenging that makes your life), and that I am perhaps a bit more out of touch with Nature than I realized.

How do you rediscover a part of you that seemed lost – that part of you that knows we are all connected, even when your monkey mind dwells in fear that it’s not so?

I don’t know the answers, at least not out of any place of logic, but what I have realized is that “acquiring fire” is not quite it. It’s not all about brusquely seeking out that fiery energy.

What do I mean by this? The instructors of this workshop said it best – you don’t “make” fire. You invite fire to come and be with you. And this posture informs not only the lay you set up, but also the way you do so. The climate, weather, and environment inform what of the Earth’s offerings you use.

After that, all you’re really doing is creating space.

So to me, more than anything else, the act of making and tending a fire is about awareness. What materials have you been given? How can you use them to create a hospitable place for warmth and light?

What’s interesting is, the same could be said about the topic of “race, class, and the kingdom of God” that was the focus of the conference. Reconciliation is less about making an inner fire that bids one to fight injustice and more about, instead, creating space within you for that fire to catch – because the fire already exists.

It is about creating space for warmth and light to radiate from a new way of relating to people. A new way that is, actually, an old way that already exists.

And perhaps this fire is a different kind of fire than one would expect. Perhaps it is the kind that does push against injustice, yes, but from a place of understanding exactly what tools are needed to do so – the tools of narrative, of cultural context, of frameworks that are not your own. The tools of experiences from people who have already learned about this over and over again.

It is a fire that comes from a place of desiring to see the world and other people (who are not so “other,” of course) in a better way.

That’s really the only way to make these changes: a mindset of generosity. Be generous with yourself, forgive yourself for the past, and be willing to receive new experiences. Be generous with others, and what you perceive their intentions to be; be willing to make space for them and their reality in your own reality.

This seems simple but it is not always easy. For me, it is a process – a journey. But it is a journey that will be well worth making, I am certain. No matter how bruised my knuckles get while trying to strike flint with steel; no matter how bruised my heart gets in trying to strike up hard conversations.

There is a thread of love and light that draws us back to who we were, the world that once was, and I am starting to feel it draw near. Can you?

Sprouting

It would be great to be able to say that spring is sprouting, but it’s sort of been a tease (she wrote, as freezing rain pelleted the ground outside). Still, its sunny inklings have been relief, anticipating when good things can grow, both green and otherwise.

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Of course I’m clear on the climate change implications woven within such unusually warm spring-teases, but I don’t find it helpful to dwell. The problem is there, in rather bold and loud tones. But instead of ruminating, part of my plan of action is to take advantage – to use the more hospitable days to spring into a different kind of lifestyle.

(Hah. Spring. Pun entirely intended, I think.)

What I mean is: what exacerbated this warming was our all-too-human tendency to hide from (the occasionally admittedly harsh) natural world, right? We followed a habitual self-protection until it led our exploitation of her natural resources. Perhaps there are more layers than that, but let’s keep it simple for now.

What if we decided to use these changes, as they become more and more obvious, to teach ourselves to start embracing Nature? And – here’s a crazy thought – what if she responded to that?

Hope: it springs eternal.

When you are raised on a rhythm that says the supermarket fills every need, how do you even begin to sink your hands into new earth? How do you swap old measures out for new habits?

You don’t go it alone, first of all. I’ve been reading about prepping and homesteading lately. Such systems do have helpful how-tos, and frankly I understand the desire for self-sufficiency that they betray.

But I also believe that holding onto this old evolutionary must-protect-self-at-all-costs mindset can do more harm than good. My gut tells me that the way to make this meaningful is through the guidance of others — through community.

Do you start with permaculture? Or an urban garden? What about CSAs and food co-ops? There is a Richmond Food Cooperative starting this summer, but until then, I’m testing my plant-based interactions on a smaller scale, growing calendula, eggplant, broccoli, and onions out of cartons and containers into which I drilled drainage holes (did not actually drill any cartons).

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Strange’s is my source for sustainable seeds; Ellwood Thompson’sfor wheat in a first-time attempt at sprouting grains.

But it’s the Richmond Herbalism Guild that has drawn me deeply, with its heart for the gentle healing spirits of plants. Their first workshop of 2017 was a surprise find that slowly started my initiation into herbalism. I am so buoyed by the existence of an art and science that speaks to plants’ power to heal, something which seemed so intuitive yet esoteric, and is the former but not the latter.

One of their events was a guided plant walk at Forest Hill Park. The guides in question were Dave and Lena Welker of the Blue Heron Outdoor School.

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What they teach is less an ideology, and more an all-encompassing philosophy. They spoke to the idea that one could get to know plants as easily as if they were people. That so captured my attention, and I needed to learn more; next thing I knew, I was making my way to visit Dave and Lena at their home in Amherst. The hope was a simple one: to tap into their way of seeing and moving through the world.

This lifestyle (for lack of a better word) contains a great many lost practices – tracking, firemaking, and foraging, for a few – and leads to, in my eyes, a deeper realization of the interconnectedness of everything.

Because the truth is, each of us leaves an imprint as we move through this world. We do this on a physical level, yes, but also on an emotional level; in my imagination, these two combine in a colorful, crackling, metaphysical math problem that equals a web of energy. Invisible, and yet so visible, or at least palpable.

This is what we human animals do. We leave things behind. We make our marks. We carve our initials into tree trunks, dive into lakes, and build houses on old farmland. We drop plastic on the pavement, start our own gardens, and plant new trees. We pull dandelion weeds. We mark trails with cairns. And even when we think we’ve left no trace, we have left more than a few.

Each of us is more than meets the eye, and our actions, as do our thoughts and emotions, resonate with one another. We are connected.

So this time of great change – I want to embrace it, almost as if to turn it into a gift instead of a curse. Could that happen? Could we choose to leave a trace that vibrates with love instead of fear? Could we plant the seeds that need to sprout, starting now? Could we use this growth to help one another – and help this earth – be more whole?

Awe-importance

Lately I’ve been magnetically drawn to the idea that, as humans, we need to regularly experience awe: it has a positive – even transcendent – effect on our perspectives, lives, and relationships. It’s heartening to see that this eternal truth – something poets, writers, great thinkers, and outdoorsfolk have taught us through the ages – getting more of an intellectual and scientific platform.

Awe: what is it? Per this Psychology Today article on the latest studies, it can be defined as  “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.”

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Yeah… that.

In literary terms, this is what is called the sublime. The sublime is the counterpart of the beautiful. It is greatness: something bigger, deeper, and more endless than anything else.

And what is most compelling about sublimity, and about awe, is that it does not necessarily have to be inspired by something physically big. No: connectedness, too, creates awe.

I’m convinced that one of the biggest contributors to hopelessness is a shrunken sense of the world. In the context of inner depression and external oppression, it’s an apparent enough symptom. Or, perhaps it is a cause; or, perhaps it is both, causing a vicious cycle of trying to escape from that gloom and failing to, something all too familiar to anyone who has experienced either depression or oppression (or both).

But seeing and trying to comprehend anything massively sublime is enough to radically alter your perspective.

This is what happens when we see the ocean after months of being landlocked, or find ourselves beneath a deeply starry sky free of city lights. Unexpectedly, knowing that we are very small – a piece of a larger puzzle, one design element in a larger framework – somehow makes life more meaningful; more manageable.

To me, mountains and oceans have this effect every time. But this symbolic act of atonement at Standing Rock also had made me realize how much beyond-ness there is, even on a daily basis.

This week, I turned 26. The gravity of that number – of moving past my mid-twenties into the late ones – was weighty. But perhaps I let it be heavier than it was. As a symbolic act, I chose to visit the town where I effectively grew up, and absorb that energy.

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While there, I chose to walk along a favorite trail whose expansive view – and steepness, mind – never fails to take my breath away. As for the drive itself, somehow I had forgot about the way the mountains framed the journey, just peripherally but all the same, extraordinarily, too. The traffic I waded through, and the time it took to finally catch a glimpse, was well worth it. For what did I feel filling my heart but this true sense of awe, this sense that the tiny crowded spaces are not all there is?

For some reason, it prompted me to remember this poem:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Emily Dickinson

While we don’t always recognize the exact what beyond our awe, part of its compellingness is that intangible quality. We see the mountains, and cannot help but stare at every ridge and shadow, slowly comprehending, and yet never coming close to true comprehension. It comes in waves, in moments; it washes over in its complexity, but does not stay, and that is life – to continue to seek it out in completion. Someday, perhaps.

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Those miles, to me, represented a vastness that ties us together. And beyond that, the human capability of enduring even in difficult circumstances because of our connectedness to one another.

That is awe-inspiring. That is worth remembering, always.