Remembering to Remember

Snow douglasia (Douglasia nivalis)

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.

Upper Eagle Lake.

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.

Alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris)

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.

Star Peak.

by David LaFever

Right Out Back

Setting forth, out the back gate.

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.”

Gazing down the Methow valley from 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.

Creek Camp

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!


By David LaFever

In Every Place


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.


by David LaFever

Beautiful Questions

The soul lives contented

by listening,

if it wants to change

into the beauty of

terrifying shapes,

it tries to speak.

excerpt from David Whyte “The Souls Lies Contented”

If your life is anything like mine, you have your good days and your bad days, great days and so-so days. There are moments so miraculous that you wish they would last forever and some so mundane that you hardly notice there passing. As a parent the highs are often really high and the lows full of despair. Having children seems to be the ultimate in vulnerability. I am often besieged with the insecurity of wondering if I am doing the right thing for my children followed by moments of pure bliss with a depth to love that I did not know was possible.

Last night as my older daughter was falling asleep I heard her say, “Mama, what are some of the things that you think are most magical?” And with a wisp of a pause she said, “Waterfalls, art, and paintings.” And then she said some others things, including “our family.” To say that I am overjoyed by my daughter thinking that our family is magical is a gross understatement. My heart melted at these words, not only because of the sentiment but also because she is asking such beautiful questions.

The philosopher and poet David Whyte said that what is needed in our world is to sculpt a more beautiful mind. How do we do that? He said that we do that by asking beautiful questions.

So, dear reader, what do you think are some of the things that are magical? Do you see magic in the extraordinary and the sublime, or ordinary and everyday? Is there really a difference between the two?

While we seem to always look for answers and to find comfort in them, most important of all is to just ask the beautiful questions. What is my life and what do I want it to be? What do I think is magical and where do I see it? What are the beautiful questions?


By David LaFever

Three for Winter

Mule deer, winter silhouette.

White-Eyes

BY MARY OLIVER

In winter 
    all the singing is in 
         the tops of the trees 
             where the wind-bird 

with its white eyes 
    shoves and pushes 
         among the branches. 
             Like any of us 

he wants to go to sleep, 
    but he’s restless— 
         he has an idea, 
             and slowly it unfolds 

from under his beating wings 
    as long as he stays awake. 
         But his big, round music, after all, 
             is too breathy to last. 

So, it’s over. 
    In the pine-crown 
         he makes his nest, 
             he’s done all he can. 

I don’t know the name of this bird, 
    I only imagine his glittering beak 
         tucked in a white wing 
             while the clouds— 

which he has summoned 
    from the north— 
         which he has taught 
             to be mild, and silent— 

thicken, and begin to fall 
    into the world below 
         like stars, or the feathers 
               of some unimaginable bird 

that loves us, 
    that is asleep now, and silent— 
         that has turned itself 
             into snow.


Pine Tree Tops

by Gary Snyder

in the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight.

the creak of boots.

rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know.


Tilicho Lake

by David Whyte

In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.

Step toward the cold surface,
say the old prayer of rough love
and open both arms.

Those who come with empty hands
will stare into the lake astonished,
there, in the cold light
reflecting pure snow

the true shape of your own face


Skiing to the sun

Team “Snow Flowers” at the inaugural Ski to Sun Marathon.

This past Saturday, I skied as part of a team in the inaugural Ski to Sun Relay. This event, put on by Methow Trails, is the new winter version of the long running (pun intended) Sunflower Marathon, held each year here in the Methow Valley. Both can be accomplished as a single or team relay marathon (42 kilometers, so just shy of a true marathon). Our team consisted of me (far left), my wife (middle), our oldest daughter, and our good friends John (left, argyle sweater – yes he skied in that) and Mara (far right). It was a fun event and a beautiful day to ski.

Coming across the finish line at Sun Mountain.

by David LaFever

The Way of Riding the Clouds

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The landscape and the language are the same. And we ourselves are landscape and the land.
~ Conrad Aiken “A Letter from Li Po”

 

For the second year in a row I participated in the Red Cedar Zen Community’s “Mountains and Rivers Retreat” on Mount Baker, which Red Cedar has been doing since 2000. This was the 19th time. Most years it is done as a multi-night backpacking pilgrimage to a large meadow below the azure glaciers of this hulking volcanic mountain. This year’s form was a day-hike of 12 hours and 17 miles round trip. We walked in silence, stopped and performed seven ritual ceremonies, chanted Dogen’s sansuikyo (“Mountains and Waters Sutra”), chanted Shitou’s “Merging of Difference and Unity” and exchanged water between the sea and the mountain. A pilgrimate of sorts and a “sutra-mapping” of the sansuikyo, where landscape, language and pilgrim come together, realizing unity.

Walking in silence through the deep conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest and into the seemingly esoteric words of Eihei Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master, my mind runs rampant. Thoughts like “what’s this plant” and “what the hell does Dogen mean here”, ebb, flow and mingle with mundane thoughts about home and home-life.

Dogen’s writings, particularly in the sansuikyo, encourage us to see the realization or enlightenment in daily acts, not only of body and speech but also of mind. Words matter, he seems to be saying, just don’t hold on to them too tightly. He shows us the deep truth in going beyond thought and logic but also in thought and logic.  To understand that what is happening right now, all our words, thoughts and actions, are an expression of completeness, is to see mountains and waters as expressing wholeness.

“Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness.”

The essay is divided into five parts, and we chant one section at a time at different ceremonial sites as we walk into and out of the mountains – an ancient hemlock, a headwater stream, a trickling waterfall, a mountain meadow, a rocky creek bed, and a bouldery prominence.

First stop is in decadent and quintessential northwest coniferous forest. Ancient, verdant, dripping with life. Our voices join together as we chant, raised to an ancient conifer whose bark is twisted and scarred by lightning. This ancient one’s top is broken and, with few branches with which to capture the sun’s energy, I am surprised that it is alive at all. But it is alive, erect and tall.

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The first part of the essay we read in front of this ancient and venerable teacher. Here Dogen quotes Priest Daokai of Mt. Furong, who said, “The green mountains are always walking …,” to which Dogen adds, “Mountains walking is just like humans walking…If you doubt mountains walking, you do not know your own walking.” 

Walking along the trail lost in thought, I wonder at the mountains’ walking, and my own. Do I doubt this walking? How can I doubt or not understand something that I have been doing for a very long time and that I do without apparent thought? How does this walking and the mountains’ constantly walking relate? How are they the same thing or are they? Perhaps if I wasn’t so distracted by thoughts, I would be able to see this mountains’ walking and understand my own? But perhaps the mountains too, get lost in thought, always walking, always changing.

“Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk.”

Climbing farther and ascending deeper into the mountains, we pass through unlogged, old-growth forests of hemlock, cedar and fir. Some of these trees, feet in diameter, have been standing here for hundreds of years and are a couple hundred feet tall. Drapped in moss and lichen they seem to grow not up from the ground, but out from the atmosphere filling time and space. Deeper into silence, deeper into the forest, and deeper into Dogen we go, yet my mind wands away from the present, moment by moment.

We stop where the trail crosses the South Fork Nooksack River, downstream of where it flows out of Elbow Lake. Not only do we chant the Mountains and Waters Sutra, but we also engage in a water-changing ceremony and chant the “Merging of Difference and Unity,” written by Chinese Cha’n (Zen) teacher Shitou Xiqian in the 8th Century. As the Salish Sea merges with the Nooksack, our voices join together with the sound of flowing water, becoming one chant, one sutra.

“In the light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness. In the dark, there is light, but don’t see it as light.”

At this time and place I think of this as:

 “In water there is mountain, but don’t think water is mountain. In the mountain, there is water but don’t think mountain is water.”

Each is it’s own, and interpenetrates the other, completely.

Continuing our chanting of Dogen, the sutra shifts to a focus on water. Water is water, right, and we all know what it is. It is wet and flows downstream. In typical Dogen fashion, however, he flips this on its head to remind us that what we think of as water (or reality) isn’t really water. He implores us to study the moment when “water sees water.”

“Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither existent nor nonexistent, neither deluded nor enlightened. When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it? When water melts, it is gentler than milk. Who can destroy it?”

What is this water that Dogen speaks of?  I begin to notice all the places where water flows in these mountains, trickling out everywhere – seeping out of tree roots and crevices and cascading down rocky streams. Does it only flow downwards or does it also flow sideways and upwards?

And where does all this water come from? Where is it going? Is there really an end and a beginning or is it simply an endless cycle of no-beginning and no-end? If this is so for water, surely it must be so for me as well.

Deepening our walking, deepening our mapping of this sutra, we traverse the edges of the South Fork Nooksack drainage. Cedars seem to flow down the mountainside, giant tree roots that cling like an eagle’s talons to the earth. The forest parts here and there to afford views of the South Fork Divide, Loomis Mountain and the Twin Sisters, hazy in the smoky air. We cross the divide at Bell Pass, a sweet little ponded-meadow and walk into the Middle Fork Nooksack River watershed.

We reach our next ceremonial site, a dripping, lovely little cascade where moss blankets the rocks and ferns dance in tiny breaths of wind. We lay down our packs, take out our sutras and prepare again for ceremony. Like each one before, it begins with Bob setting up the “altar” with a candle, incense and the vials of water. We all then engage in the ancient Zen dance of ritual which includes offering, bowing, chanting and dedicating.  Here it is further complicated by the tricky and often slippery ground of the mountain world, but then again, isn’t our life always a bit tricky and often precarious too?

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“Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing?”

Our next stop is at Ridley Creek, close to our destination at Mazama Park, where we exchange water and again chant the “Merging of Difference and Unity.” We are high enough in the mountains that wildflowers blanket the creek-side. Lupines and daisys grace us with their color, bringing in bumblebees and butterflies. Suddenly there is a lot of life within this life.

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“If you don’t understand the way right before you, how will you know the path as you walk?”

I have long strove to understand the world around me, which has led me to the pursuits of ecology, Zen Buddhism, and even backpacking. I love knowing what plants and animals are around me and how they interact, and why things are the way they are. However, this can also lead me into questioning everything which can be done in a judgmental way. “Why are you doing it that way,” I seem to catch myself all to often saying. So what is Dogen saying here? How are we to understand the way right before us? How are we to understand understanding? And what does this tell us about the path we are walking?

We have lunch and take rests at a place the Nooksack people called something like spelhpalhxen (“large, open berry picking place”, or something like that) and gaze up at where the icy top of the mountain usually is. We can just barely make out the glaciers on Mount Baker’s flanks through the hazy smoke, which if you didn’t know they were there you might not even notice. We engage in ceremony yet again, and continue our chanting of Dogen:

“When you take one view you see mountains flowing, and when you take another view, mountains are not flowing. One time mountains are flowing, another time they are not flowing.”

Which is the truth, where does reality lie? Is Mount Baker really there or not? Does it have to be an either/or situation? Can it be both there and not-there, can we be both alive and dying too?

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We turn and head back down the trail. It has gotten late and we take an inventory of headlamps in case we need them. Our next stop is a steep, rocky and dry creek bed at the very top of the Middle Fork Nooksack watershed. Looking down the watershed, it feels as though we are at the very top of the world. The drainage winds down, sinuous and serene through forested mountains made hazy blue by smoke. It seems as though we can see to the sea and perhaps you can on clear days. A gorgeous view that draws me in. This could very well be the abode of sages and wise ones that Dogen writes about:

“You may think that in mountains many wise people and sages are assembled. But after entering the mountains, not a single person meets another.”

What is Dogen getting at here, I wonder as we continue on our journey? It was true that we have met very few people along the trail, and who knows if they were wise ones or sages, but still, didn’t we meet someone here? If no one else, then perhaps we meet ourselves here in the mountains, and come to a better understanding of our own walking, our own true nature. So how is it that we meet no one? Isn’t the point of this trip to meet someone, anybody? “Is anybody out there,” I want to yell into the void.

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The last stop on our pilgrimage is an outcrop of rocks high above the South Fork Nooksack, looking more or less directly at the Twin Sisters range. I remember this spot from last year and the astonishment I felt when I looked around and realized how many tree species were growing together here. It’s a place of mixing and mingling where wet-loving species like hemlock and Douglas-fir meet with mountain species like western white pine and mountain hemlock, drier species such as juniper and even Alaska yellow-cedar, with its characteristic draping foliage.  A remarkable spot and I feel a sense of something special here. No wonder this is one of our spots for ritual.

“Although mountains belong to the nation, mountains belong to the people that love them. When mountains love…a virtuous sage or wise person enters the mountains…trees and rocks become abundant and birds and animals are inspired.”

I sling my pack back on and say hello to the juniper growing low over the rocky ground, touching its scaly-foliage before turning and heading down the trail. I think of my daughters and the mountains and the future of it all. How are we to best take care of our home and each other? What is this “entering the mountains”, and what does the “green mountains constantly walking” mean for us at this juncture of time and space? What does love have to do with any of it?

Love, ahh love, is the key to it all, I believe. But it is not the kind of love that is possessive, greedy, or shallow. It is a love that is simple and deep, selfless and freeing rather than controlling and limiting. It is a love that comes from the knowing that we are all connected, so what each one of us does matters.

“Free your minds and your ass will follow,” George Clinton once said, so we begin with freeing our minds which may be what Dogen is getting at with all of these words, after all. We let our minds flow freely, not resting (for too long) on anything, like the purplish copper butterfly we saw near Ridley Creek. It alighted on a white daisy for flying off again, fluttering in the mountain air. And we engage in and acknowledge relationship just as the butterfly did with the daisy. We pollinate the mountains and the mountains pollinate us.

“Because mountains are high and broad, the way of riding the clouds is always reached in the mountains; the inconceivable power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.”

Both Dogen and the mountains are showing us the way to love, generously, and that what comes from this is abundance. When we are greedy we constrict the world and create limits, but when we give our lives and our love freely, the world opens up all around us. There is reciprocity and interpenetration. Actually this is already, always happening and we are simply called to see it. The green mountains are constantly walking, and the waters flow freely in all directions, and when we come to know this, we too can understand our own walking. And be set free, not from but into our very lives.