Vast and Wide

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“Vast and wide”: beyond anything we can know or understand completely, yet including within it all that we know and understand. We don’t need to look past them (our lives) for some big metaphysical insights. If we could just actually be our lives rather than try to control them, maybe we could appreciate them.
~Norman Fischer

 

Next Monday I head to Alaska for the first time, which has long held an allure for me. The wildlife, the wilderness, the mountains and the sheer size. Vast and wide, undomesticated and wild, rugged and rough are words that describe the place and the people, at least in my mind. I will be traveling with five students, aged 9-12, and one other adult, a friend. We are heading to the Arctic, to a small community nestled on the north side of the Brooks Range, the great Arctic mountain range of the north. “Flying over all the ugly stuff,” so said a friend who grew up in Homer. Only an Alaskan would say that flying over so much vast space and beauty would be the “ugly stuff.”

We will stay in the Nanumiut village of Anaktuvuk Pass, where a great people and animal intertwine – the Nanumiut, a semi-nomadic tribe, and the migratory caribou. We head up there with adventurous spirits, open eyes and excited hearts for we know not what we will encounter nor what we will experience. How is the climate changing there? How is that affecting the caribou and other beings there and how does that all impact a people and a culture? These are some of the questions that we are taking with us.

Vast and wide is how I think it will be, if I let it be so and if my mind reflects that. Can I let it be beyond anything I have read about Alaska, beyond anything that I can know and conceptualize? Will I get sucked into trying to make some metaphysical conclusions or will I simply let be the lives of the people we will meet, the animals we may see, and the snow and cold and mountains that are every bit as alive as you and me?

me? As I sit here in the Valley I now call home, a place we have lived not even a year yet, I wonder about home and what it means to be “rich.” Barry Lopez pondered the same question in his book Arctic Dreams, which will be traveling with me to Alaska. He wrote:

 “What does it mean to grow rich? 

 Is it to have red-blooded adventures and to make a ‘fortune,’ which is what brought the whalers and other entrepreneurs north?
Or is it, rather, to have a good family life and to be imbued with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of one’s homeland, which is what the Tununirmiut told the whalers at Pond’s Bay wealth was? 

Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?” 

My hope for my life is to cultivate an intimate knowledge of this place, this Valley, one that is vast and boundless. That my wealth may be marked in relationships, to both place and her inhabitants, in joy and love, peace and harmony, and in friendship and communion. I go to the Arctic to see what dreams I may not yet be able to imagine and to come back with an imagination more vast and wide than I knew was possible.

 

The Creek Flows Thick

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

It has been both cold and warm lately. I awoke this morning at 6:15 am and it was 15 degrees F outside, yet southern exposures are becoming snow-less. I hear red-winged blackbirds and Canada geese and see other signs of spring. Each day the angle of the sun increases and the bus is hit more directly by its warmth. At the same time, we’ve gotten new snow recently and I continue to enjoy the heck out of winter and especially skiing.

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

Some days ago I hit the trail behind our house and headed towards town before turning up a steep trail called Powers Plunge. It challenged my cardiovascular system and I felt like a turtle crawling up a steep bank. There were two climbs and I was tired and sweating after navigating the second and gentler of the two. From there I headed on towards town yet again, on a different trail this time, looping on around to head back home. All in all, I skied over 18 km (11 miles) in an hour and half or so. As I neared home, I crossed over Wolf Creek, pausing to gaze at its ice-bound beauty and I composed this short poem:

The creek flows thick
and solid with cold.
Over, under, around and through
Ice flowing in ways I cannot
imagine, in places I cannot
maneuver. Ice into ice,
water through water.
A ceaseless dance of change –
changing form, the formless,
the molecules remain the same.

 

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

by David LaFever

Privilege

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(From mid-February 2018)

Sitting, looking out a four-paned window at two rivers, the Methow and the Chewuch. Late winter sky – gray with brightness – and the sun coming through in a wheel of rays. Up valley a storm, dark and brooding. Snow clouds obscure Gardner Mountain, all the way down its shoulder.

I have been skiing a lot lately – all Nordic skiing on the largest groomed trail system in North America, right here in our valley. Today I skied to town from home, a little over 9 km (5.4 miles) in thirty minutes or so and immediately ran into friends. I love small towns, where everyone knows nearly everyone else. No anonymity here, but also a place where fame can turn to infamy if you aren’t careful. This means I must be responsible rather than reactive.

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Yesterday I skied with a couple of friends. We took off from the Gunn Ranch trailhead, contouring up the mountain-side and on into a forested nook to a couple of backcountry huts. Covered approximately 15 km (9-10 miles). Gorgeous, fun skiing with good people and a wonderful dog. Spectacular views of the North Cascades mountains under a bluebird sky.

Back a few weeks ago now, my friend John from Vancouver and I skied from Mazama to Winthrop, which is over 31 km or more than 19 miles on a groomed Nordic ski trails. John and I pushed ourselves and it took us 3 hours and 5 minutes. We arrived at the Winthrop trailhead, worn out and happy. I immediately started talking with some other folks and found out that they had just done the same thing. Cool, I thought. Then I found out they did it in the same amount of time as us, and noticed that they were much older than John and I. My ego deflated instantly. Bummer. Then I thought, “This means that I might be able to do this too when I am in my 60s or 70s.” Cool! All these vacillating thoughts occurred in an instant. Oh, how the ego-mind does go and take me with it!

I am very grateful for all this skiing and don’t want winter to end just yet. These ski trails along with alpine skiing of all kinds makes this such a wonderful place to live. And I feel both the need to take advantage of this, this being one of the reasons we choose to live here, and the guilt of being able to do something so unnecessary when so many are struggling to survive. I recognize the privilege that I have and carry around with me (the so-called “Invisible Knapsack”), which allows me to live a life that includes Nordic skiing several times a week in winter, and am appreciative of it. Sometimes I feel guilt associated with it, but more often I feel the responsibility that comes with it. How do I use this privilege? How grateful am I for what it allows? How much understanding of and respect for others do I engender?


by David LaFever

 

Swallowing Myself

Death has been much on my mind and the mind of others around me lately. The actual death of a friend, the continued wars and destruction that we are engaged in throughout the world (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and on and on), and the planetary decline/collapse of our biosphere that we are both cause and at the mercy of.

I will share something from my journal that I wrote about death and life recently, from January 22, 2018

I see the birds first, some bald eagles perched in tall cottonwoods, and a quorum of ravens, black splotches of feathers against the pure white snow. I then notice the carcass, ribs poking up out of the pink snow. Two adult bald eagles and a dozen ravens or more are present also. One eagle has been there at the dinner plate for sometime now, as evidenced by the rose color of its head and neck feathers. The newcomer’s feather gleam white in the luminous morning light. Death begets life in a beginningless and endless way.

We are usually disgusted by death and abhor it, although fascinated by its seeming finality and lost in our inability to comprehend it. But what if we looked at it differently, seeing it as a Great Mystery and the great gift that it is? The ravens and eagles understand the giving aspect of it, even if they don’t have the words, although I suspect the ravens know when a meal is nigh.

As I look around I see cottonwoods and pines that we once alive, but that are now among the standing dead, and the telltale signs of woodpeckers, pecking for a meal. Without the thing that we call death, there would be no woodpeckers, no eagles, no ravens and none of the beauty that these creatures offer to the world. Without the deer carcass, that some larger predator likely killed, what would these ravens and eagles eat, especially with so few salmon in our rivers?

We call it death, but when I look at it, I see life or the offering of a life at the least. The great gift that we can give at the end of our life, is our life. In this beginningless and endless place, do we simply fold back into the great cycle of life and death? Is there some other journey that we begin at that time? If we are honest with ourselves, we do not know, so we call it something to ease our worry a bit – the Great Mystery, if nothing else. Our lives too, are mysterious and in reality unknowable. We tell stories and those stories become this “I” and this “we” and both stand in for and create what we think of as “truth” and “reality.” But what is this really?

If death is death and life isn’t life, what is this? Just this….

A Jim Harrison poem comes to mind in which he decides to “swallow himself in ceaseless flow.” I like that description because it could be either life or death and what really is the difference? Here is the poem, titled “Cabin Poem”:

I’ve decided to make

up my mind

about nothing, to

assume the water

mask,

to finish my life

disguised as a creek,

an eddy, joining at

night the full,

sweet flow, to absorb

the sky,

to swallow the heat

and cold, the moon

and the stars, to

swallow myself

in ceaseless flow.

 

One last glance at the scavengers and the carcass, and I head down the road in this glistening winter palace. I wonder at the world where lines are crossed and then recrossed and where distinctions are blurry at best. And I wonder at this species, which desperately and naturally makes distinctions, tells stories and tries to make sense of this senseless and sensuous world. Even things as seemingly solid and assured as life and death, upon closer inspection, ebb and flow, ceaselessly life the rivers and tides that I love so much. I become amazed at the possibility that lies before me, made possible only when I loosen my grip on categories, on my likes and dislikes.

As I continue on, I near the elementary school and downshift as I approach a stop sign. I pause a moment, taking in and letting go the wild winter scene, before turning right to head down river on East 20.


by David LaFever

 

Swirling Delight

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Listen as she speaks to you
Hear the voices flutter through
The barriers arranged by you.
~Phish (“Water in the Sky”)

I sit in the glistening snow, sparkling in the first sunlight I can remember seeing in weeks. The warmth on my cheeks and hands, so comforting in the cold winter air, comes from so far away that it doesn’t seem possible. How could we be so perfectly situated from this everyday star? A bald eagle, wings outstretched, soars in tight circles, calls and alights in the top of a conifer as the last of its eerie echoes fade into the vastness of this place. I hear a hairy woodpecker, a nuthatch, and a raven, these friends of old from within the bare cottonwoods along the river. I hear the river too, singing its sweet song, fluid and serene. An ancient and endless voice.

As a raven’s voice croaks in the sunlight, I think about water and its importance in my life. It plays such a central part that I easily take it for granted – the food that I consume and all the products in my life, from wood to cotton to plastic, have their origin in water or close to it. As I sit in the snowy forest, I think about how much of my food is water. We are last weeks potatoes as Thoreau said, and potatoes are, amazingly, 99% water. If you have ever made latkes or potato pancakes, you will know that this is close to true.

I am water too, close to 70% and salty. Fresh and salt water mix and mingle in my body, mind and even my thoughts. I am a mass of walking, talking water. So too is the chickadee that calls from the nearby chokecherry, a bird that doubles its feathers each winter in order to stay warm and dry. I wonder how much water is in that little bird, in each of those thousands of feather. Water is life and it flows through us all, through it all.

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The river teaches me this with each bursting bubble, the sound that we call the babbling of the river. The snow too, although it seems stationary, is always moving and will soon melt and flow into rivulets, percolate into the ground and will swell the river into torrent.

As I sit in this wintry place, I write a few haiku:

The river flows on
On and on in endless sound
Taking me with it.
 
I think, who am I?
The ceaseless flow of nature
White snow all around.
 
Black specks soar above
Snow sparkles in winter light.
I sit and listen.
 
The river, the rocks
Sit talking to each other
Late into the night.

 

I stand up, stretch my stiff body and look upward into the sound of ravens, circling and swirling above in thermal delight. There are thirty or so ravens and a couple of eagles, turning together in a great gyre of feathers, bones and water eddying in the vague winter sky.


By David LaFever

Here I live, An Idle Man

A thousand clouds, ten thousand streams,

Here I live, an idle man,

Roaming green peaks by day,

Back to sleep by cliffs at night.

One by one, springs and autumns go,

Free of heat and dust, my mind.

Sweet to know there’s nothing I need,

Silent as the autumn river’s flood.

~ Han-Shan “Words from Cold Mountain, Poem IV)

 

Some photos from a hike I did up to Twisp Pass and back on September 16th, my 38th birthday. Wonderful to be alive and able to get to places like this!

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The headwaters of the Twisp River.
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Autumn splendor in the North Cascades.
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More autumn splendor in the North Cascades.
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Stiletto Peak with a lake hidden in there somewhere.

written by David LaFever

Arg, I’ll cut yer throat!

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Cold awaiting the start of the race.

A few weekends ago now I ran farther than I have ever run before and yet went no where at all. The days leading up to the race I questioned why I had signed up for it anyway, disliking the thought of running and the compulsion to do so. On the eve of the run, Kristin told me that she was proud of me for doing something challenging like this. It was sweet and yet it seemed to highlight in my mind how shallow and hollow I thought running a race like this really is. Its not like I was going out and doing something important or essential. I wouldn’t sign up next year, I thought, and would get back to just running and doing so joyfully.

The morning of the race, I awoke in the flat light of early dawn, making myself a cup of coffee and a couple of friend eggs. Birds were just waking up and the sun just cresting the ridge, when I left for Mazama where I would pick up a shuttle for the trail head where the race would begin. It was a cold morning and got all the more so as we climbed into the mountains. Rainy Pass trail head sits at over 4,000 feet and we all had to flap our arms and jump up and down in order to stay warm. Still my teeth chattered unbelievably.

The race began just in time before I froze in place and we were off mostly running single file on the Pacific Crest Trail heading northward. Up through mixed conifer trees for several miles, over small streams and into the burgeoning day. I started off slowly, not wanting to overexert myself early as I knew we had a 5 mile climb to the top of Cutthroat Pass at 6,800 feet or so. I soon picked up my pace and began passing runners when there was room enough to do so. As the day progressed, so too did my pace and as I crested the top, with its spectacular alpine vistas of snow-capped peaks, I felt exhilarated and strong. I hit the top and flew down the other side, which would be 7 miles of downhill running to the trailhead.

I ended up running faster than I thought I would or knew I could and was encouraged and uplifted by the other runners. Many were complimentary and encouraging as I passed on by and the comradery and community building aspect of the event were my favorite parts.

Ask me if I would do it again next year: before the race I would have said no but now days after the event and I think I would. One thing I learned about myself is that I don’t need the carrot of competition in order to run and I am not sure that I feel compelled to challenge myself in this way. I enjoy running for the simple act of running, especially through beautiful landscapes. For now that is enough and I am happy to be back to either running or not depending on the needs and vagaries of my day.