Doing things right means living as though your grandchildren would also be alive, in this land, carrying on the work we’re doing right now, with deepening delight.
Gary Snyder (from the essay “Reinhabitation”)
Walking out the side gat, into the south hayfield to move irrigation around this morning, I passed by a gravestone. In simple letters it said, “white-crowned sparrow,” which were accompanied by a child’s drawing of a bird. Found the songbird a few months back, dead and lying in the grass. We got to it before the ants did and buried it. Two days ago we buried five baby bunnies and a young rattlesnake, in two separate graves, now marked with rocks upon which flowers have been placed.
The practice and act of living-in-place may not begin with death but it certain deepens there. You know that you have settled in a bit when during your daily chores you pass by gravestones on your land. Been here long enough and care deep enough to have burial spots.
These become places to pause and reflect on the life-and-death nature of this thing we call existence. Places to stop and bow or say a prayer or whatever feels like an appropriate acknowledgement. And these are places to remember loved ones and to “remember to remember” that lives come and go, come and go, that living isn’t separate from dying. They are also places where we all, daughter and parent alike, learn to say hello and perhaps most importantly, good bye.
I just killed a rattlesnake. It is the first time I have ever done that and likely the first time that I have killed any snake period, except for the few that I have inadvertently run over with a car. That didn’t feel good, and it doesn’t feel good today.
I found it in one of our rabbit’s cages. The doe, who we call Misty, was up on top of her nest box and nine kits (baby bunnies) were inside. The rattlesnake’s head was inches away from them. I had hoped in the moment, as my heart raced and I got a snake noose (length of pvc pipe with rope going through the middle and tied in a loop) from the shed that I had gotten there early enough to avert major heartache.
We just buried five bunnies, eyes not yet open but furred and getting cuter by the day. My older daughter cried, hard, and so did I, softly. Even though we were raising these rabbits for meat, this still hurt. Still does hurt. I am surprised by my feelings. Very sad and also pissed off. I am also thinking of how many times my kids hang out in the rabbit area and I am so thankful that it was bunnies that got bit. Emotions swirl and an ache sits deep in my chest. A gravestone and flowers mark the place where our bunnies lie and where our tears fell, moistening the dirt.
We buried the snake too. Near a tree so that its body and energy can nurture new growth. I regret killing the snake. I easily could have just put it in a bucket and taken it someplace far enough away to ensure it would not return. That would have felt better. The girls put flowers on top of the burial spot. That felt good.
I am surprised that the snake killed so many kits when it really could only eat one or two I would think. It was not a big rattlesnake – four rattle segments only – and how could it have thought to eat so many? It seems so wasteful, so gluttonous.
Then again, I think of how much I take from the earth, and how wasteful I am. Five little bunnies doesn’t seem so bad when compared with all the death and destruction that our people have wrought on this sweet, dear earth – to the earth itself, to other people and cultures, and to all the other beings that live here with us. Gluttony seems to be our way of life.
So why does this piss me off so much? Why am I so sad right now? Can’t I share this planet with others even if they seem so different from me? Don’t I have room in my heart for all beings even if it feels full to the bursting with sorrow? Why am I so rattled?
I don’t have any answers to these questions right now, and maybe I never will. I think I just need to ask them.
Annual rituals are a wonderful thing. Whether we consciously plan them or not, we all have them. For some it is an annual family trip or a reunion like my family has every July in upstate New York. For others it is a writing or meditation retreat, a sporting event or a car race like it is for my father. Whatever form it takes, we all have them and they give shape to our lives and shape the way we think and behave. How many look forward to that summer trip to the cabin by the lake? We count the days and make sure we have enough vacation time to be able to take it off. We say no to other opportunities in order to make this one thing happen, and we anticipate it. There is something comforting about returning to the same place or activity year after year. It allows us to see how we have changed, if nothing else.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Indigenous scientist that teaches at the School for Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, wrote in her delightful book “Braiding Sweetgrass” that “ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention.” Ceremony, ritual, and pilgrimage all have this flavor to them. This is a powerful reminder that the rituals and ceremonies that we engage with have a power to shape our we see and engage with the world.
Having moved to a new place a couple of years ago, I began focusing attention on annual rituals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages. It is the latter that I want to share today. For me a pilgrimage comes into being at the intersection of intention and travel, and may or may not involve ceremony. If it is repeated then it is very much a ritual also. Here in the Methow Valley there are several annual or seasonal ceremonies that we have plugged into and some that we have created ourselves – Summer and Winter Solstices, Autumn and Vernal Equinoxes, Ancestors’ Feast, Coyote Camp, and Native American First Foods ceremonies, to name just a few.
For decades now a friend has been trekking into the mountains to visit a diminutive alpine plant, called the alpine forget-me-not. There is only one place in Washington where it is found and we are lucky to have that place in our backyard, albeit high atop a rocky mountain massif. Last year, I joined this annual botanical pilgrimage and had such a good time that I wanted to do it again this year.
And so we did. He used to visit the plant around July 4th but this year we went in on June 17. Something is changing and the plants are well aware of it. Three of us, two botanists/farmers and myself, spent one night out in the mountains and countless hours exalting at the beauty of the world around us, especially the plants. It was delightful for me to be around such knowledgeable and joyful plant folks.
These alpine plants are hardy folks. They live in a rocky, thin world, where snow lingers long, winds blow fierce, and the growing season is all-too short. In a sense, the pilgrimage is about paying attention to the changes in the world around us, but it is also about honoring the tenacity of life in the high mountains, and to check our own fortitude against theirs.
Annual rituals, ceremonies and pilgrimages are also about “remembering to remember” as Robin Wall Kimmerer said. The forget-me-not pilgrimage then is a perfect way to do this. There is something different about remembering rather than “not forgetting” and I am not quite sure what it is. Perhaps it is that remembering feels more active. And remembering to remember brings attention, intention, and ceremony into being in a way that simply not forgetting does not.
We remember to observe the changes in the world around us and by doing so to notice the changes in ourselves. And we remember that there is a whole world “out there” beyond our own little world and that it is beautiful, vibrant and resilient beyond our imagination. We remember this tiny alpine plant and the beauty it shares with the world and are grateful to be here.
The girls and I slung our heavy packs onto our backs and headed out the back gate. How can it be that I live someplace where I can literally head out my back door and hike and hunt and backpack? My what privilege I have stuffed into the pack along with my tent and sleeping pad. No wonder it feels particularly heavy.
There is an ease and a freedom in heading out back to an unknown destination. No trail, no destination, no problem. We know that we would be called to the right place and that our feet would not lead us astray. I love not having to drive to a trailhead. Hell there ain’t even a trail here. We follow our own path out back and that is a beautiful thing.
We started out by hiking across an old alfalfa field, which had been part of a large ranch, when such things were the norm around here. Weedy, scratchy and annoying could be an appropriate description of it, but soon we reached what we call the “shrub-steppe,” that is the beginning of mostly native plants and natural habitat. At this point, the land rises at a 30 degree angle up to a flat, glacial terrace. Our little side valley of the Methow Valley, is called Booth Canyon and gets more “canyony” farther up. Booth canyon is hemmed in by two nearly identical terraces created by huge continental glaciers that were several miles thick in this area. We paused at our the up on top of the terrace, where we often gather during Friday homeschool days and just sit and pay attention to the world around us. We call this our “Sit Spot.”
After a short snack break, we continued up canyon, winding our way through sagebrush and bitterbrush. Not much was flowering except for some lovely little daisies and buckwheat. This is rattlesnake country so we paid attention, listening and looking as we stepped.
A bit farther on, we encountered an old two-track road that led back down to the valley bottom. It got weedier again as we neared the old ranch houses and areas where cattle grazed most heavily. Our dog was alert to something, which turned out to be a dead western racer, a bit stinky and already covered with flies. We named this road “Dead Racer Road.”
A bit farther on we neared the creek and found the campsite that we were looking for. An open grassy glade right down to the creek with nearby apple trees that provided a perfectly cozy spot, which my daughters immediately loved. We shared flowers from the shrub-steppe with this spot as a way to thank it for welcoming us in and then quickly set to trimming back dead apple branches so that we could set up the tent underneath their boughs. Before I even had the tent out of my backpack, the girls were climbing the tree and the dog was exploring the creek, lapping up its cold water happily.
A small campfire, tended by the girls crackled away as I cooked a simple dinner. The fire provided the right amount of heat to make ‘smores and, more importantly, gave the girls a chance to learn about fires and how to take care of them. We cut marshmallow sticks from an apple tree, which the girls mostly did themselves. It brought up childhood memories of doing this very same thing with my dad on one of our many camping trips. Before bedtime we made sure we put out the fire completely. They learned to check for hot spots by holding their hands over the coals.
This past winter, Maddie and I camped beneath a ponderosa pine in the snow. We called it the Sheltering Tree and that campsite, “Winter Camp.” This new spot, right on the creek, was given the name “Creek Camp.” Naming things is powerful and should not be done lightly. I feel the connecting power of getting to know places so well that we have our own intimate names for them. Our Sit Spots, the Sheltering Tree, Winter Camp, Eagle Rocks, Dead Racer Road, and now Creek Camp. These are our names for the places that have meaning to us. Come on out and visit and we’d be happy to take you to these places. They’re just right out back!
Ten years ago, yesterday, Kristin and I left Morocco, a place that had become home to us, and returned, exiles in part, to a land once called home. I remember an absurdly early departure from Tounfite, our small Atlas Mountain town, which was still sleeping and quiet except for the feral cats and dogs that roamed quiet streets looking for scraps and mostly getting scrapes. The taxi driver, who I can picture but whose name I cannot recall, loading all our belongings while we hugged and kissed and hugged again a host family who had truly become family. Many tears were shed and words failed to express our love and gratitude for these more than kind women and a place that had seeped into our very being. Transformation is a trite word to describe how Morocco, the Eastern High Atlas Mountains, the Amazighen (“Berber”) people, and this family in particular changed us.
A different, and perhaps greater, change was to greet us upon our return home.
Ten years ago, my mom was nearly killed in a car accident that she had nothing to do with. Well, actually she had a central part in this drama, but sometimes our most important role happens when we are just sitting still. She was hit broadside on the driver’s side while waiting at a stop sign. As we hurtled out of the mountains and on across the vast Moroccan coastal plain toward the airport in Casablanca, she came within an inch of her losing her life, saved by the miracles of modern medicine.
The next day, this day ten years ago, we found out this terrible news upon our arrival in New York City. Blown away and shocked would be understatements. I didn’t know what nor how to think, it seemed, during the long drive from the city upstate to my hometown. Culture shock within culture shock. We immediately began spending our days in hospitals, malls (there was a branch of public library in it), and lawyers offices. Not places anyone wants to spend much time, except doctors and lawyers I suppose, much less two triumphantly returning Peace Corps volunteers. No parade for us it seemed. Just long days and troubling affairs.
Fast forward ten years. The sound of my girls, ages 8 and 5 can be heard. Talking, giggling and the occasional high-pitched scream as they splash and play in a cattle tank that we use as a pool. It’s big enough for a kids kayak, three pool noodles and two girls (or more when friends come over). What more do you need?
It is a hot early summer day. The irrigation is spraying happily away. I hear the soft clucks and sweet chirps of our mother hen and her four week-old chicks. An ochre ringlet butterfly flits and fluts by, and a robin sings sweetly from down near the river.
I sure miss my mom and I’ll probably never “get over” Morocco. Both changed….nay, both sculpted my life in such strong ways that I cannot separate out where they end and I begin, like mycelium and tree roots. They have and continue to nourish my life in ways unimaginable and seldom imagined. Life sure is a trip and you just never know what’s going to happen. Pay attention, appreciate it and live it well.
Spring rain — Coming down on me again This hood I’ve been wearing.
~ Yosa Buson
Hobby– an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure
I have been thinking about hobbies today, which is not something that I have thought about in quite some time. Last night Kristin and I were going through some relationship cards (Gottman cards app) and one that came up was “Name two of your partner’s hobbies.”
A “hobby” is defined as an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.
This sparked a discussion not so much about our hobbies, but rather about what are hobbies and why don’t we seem to have any. Are we boring? Too much TV watching? No leisure time? Too busy working all the time for that tech company that you didn’t know we worked for?
The last one may be the closest to the truth. Our life seems just a little too full to have much “leisure time” and yet that isn’t quite it either. When we were younger we seemed to have time for hobbies or rather we had distinct work-time and leisure-time, whereas now we seem to have just one time. Being-time you could call it (which happens to be a writing by 12th Century Zen Master Eihei Dogen, called “Uji.”)
Most days or weeks I play the guitar, read and write, garden, bird watch, spend time in nature, run, hike, and the like. In the past I may have thought of these as hobbies, but now I just see them as integral parts of my life. And then there is meditation, Zen study and practice. Could I possibly think of that as a hobby or separate that from my moment-to-moment life? I don’t think so. Not possible.
And now I realize that this is how I view my “hobbies,” they are simply some of the activities of my life. Nope that isn’t quite right….they are (in part) my life. My life flows through them and they color and energize my life. Not separate from who I am and yet not exactly or only who I am. How could I call them hobbies? Many of us think of ourselves as our hobbies and create a self-identity from that partial-view of who we are. I saw partial-view because how could our hobbies be the sum total of who we are.
A mountain always practices in every place. ~ Eihei Dogen (12th Century Japanese Zen Master)
It was cold but not too cold when we woke up in our tent beneath a lone pine growing in a mountain sea of sage and bitterbrush. Snow was lightly falling from a gray sky, which muffled all noises, giving a hushed tone to the world around us. We had a small fire, which crackled and stirred, and breakfast of oatmeal, hot coffee and hot spiced cider. As we took down the tent, I asked her to help stuff a sleeping bag, which she tried but couldn’t. “She is just not trying hard enough,” I thought to myself and may have said something to that effect. Not my nicest words but also not my worst.
A bit later, I could see that she was upset and crying. I immediately felt guilty about my harsh words and was hit by a rush of shame. My mind raced between blaming myself and weakly justifying my poorly chosen words. Then I took a couple of deep breaths and stopped. I just stopped and looked at her, and then wiped off her tears before they froze to her cheeks. I just looked at her and then I listened. Often in these moments, she clams up, especially if I push her to talk, so I just sat with her and did nothing.
“My feet are cold,” she said. “Oh,” I replied. “Do you want me to warm them up?” She nodded, I took off her boots and socks and held her small cold feet against my very warm belly. As her feet came back to live so did she. “Was this why you were crying, sweetie,” I asked. She nodded again.
The wildlife biologist George Shaller once wrote while trekking in the Himalaya to study blue sheep that “The condition of ‘homelessness’ is the maturity of relying on nothing and responding to whatever turns up at the doorstep.”
We may not be familiar with this concept of homelessness whereas many eastern religions like Zen Buddhism are steeped in this idea. Leaving home, literally or figuratively, are important parts of a monks pathway, yet we can embrace this in our everyday lives as well. If I had continued to assume that she was upset because of my ill words then I would not have been able to respond to the actual moment, to what turned up on my doorstep. I may have reacted from a place of inadequacy or feeling bad about myself, which is never a great place for me to react from.
This much I know and have experienced enough times to have learned from it. Respond with openness and inquisitiveness, don’t react from fear, inadequacy or habit. By not-relying on what I thought was going on, I was able to be open to what I didn’t know, which allowed me to respond to what was actually going on. Responding rather than reacting is crucial. When I react, it is habitual and usually not very wholesome. When I respond, however, I root my action in not knowing what is going on and remain open to the endless possibilities that each moment offers. From here, I can welcome anyone or anything that shows up on my doorstep and then just see what happens. This is the mountain (myself) practicing in every place. No matter what happens, from here may I respond to the moment.