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!
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.
It was 6 degrees when I woke up this morning. I slipped quietly out of a warm bed, put on my down jacket, grabbed gloves and a hat, crammed my feet into winter boots and stepped outside. My nose instantly hurt as did breathing. The moon, crescent-shaped, was still hanging in the southern sky and the sun had not yet risen above the eastern ridge. Snow-covered peaks glowed in first light as if some internal energy were emanating forth.
I stepped into the yurt, bowing to enter the low threshold. My breath was frosty in the cold air. I settled onto my zafu, a small, round black meditation cushion, and wrapped myself in a green, down sleeping bag. I pulled it up over my back and settled my body and breath.
Thirty minutes or so later, I exited the yurt, bowing into the now brilliant light of the rising sun. Snow-flowers, small crystals that form on top of snow, had blossomed during the night, seeming to emanate from the cold itself. They were now radiating brilliance and sparkling with pure light. It was as if they had captured the twinkling of the stars and were now sharing that beauty with the daytime world. I looked closely at these crystals, squatting to get a closer look. Each rose up, erect off the snow’s surface like a tiny sail or fern frond, and seemed to reflect every other one in a beginningless and endless dance of sparkling delight. I wondered, if I could only look closely enough, could see the entire world reflected in each one?
“A mind full of questions and a teacher in my soul.”
~ Eddie Vedder
She awoke, looked out of the bus’s tiny windows and exclaimed, “It’s real life blue sky!” Then she jumped up and ran outside to more clearly see this amazing sight!
How many days do you or I not even notice how beautiful the blue sky is? How many times do we wake up and not even think about what a gift a new day is or how remarkable the world around us is? I can speak for myself – it’s far too many days.
After several weeks of moderate to heavy smoke in our valley, it was amazing to wake up to clear skies. It was amazing to see the landscape again, especially the mountains. And it was amazing to see clouds again, just ordinary, glorious clouds!
This August has been called “Smokust” and it has been much August 2017. We think of this as the “new normal” but Cliff Mass (WA meteorologist) says that it’s actually the “old”normal” which we are just not used. Apparently, this many fires and this much smoke was much more common in the early 20th Century and before, or so says Cliff Mass (http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2018/08/northwest-wildfires-are-we-seeing-new.html).
Whether or not this is the new normal, old normal or something else altogether, we are strongly affected by weeks of smoke and it’s having its psychological and emotional impact. The impacts are not only physical, but also mental. People tend to go out less and so suffer from a feeling of isolation. We tend to do less of the physical things that make us feel good such as running, biking and hiking. And we suffer from the loss of seeing and connecting with the places that we love. It is being called the “Lost Summer”, and it does feel as though summer just suddenly ended. No more swimming in rivers and lakes, no more trips to Black Pine Lake, no hiking or backpacking. There is a great article from The Narwhal that discusses this further:
For myself I ran for the first time in weeks this morning before the smoke came back. It felt great and I connected with a promontory above the Methow River that I have not seen in weeks. I love this spot and it’s like connecting with a part of myself. In that way, the Smokust is keeping me from feeling my sense of self in this place. And that is always distressing.
So what do we do with this “new-old normal?” What do we do when our habits and passions are suddenly put on hold? And what do we do with this sense of self when the places and rhythms that define it are altered so greatly? Questions are thick like the smoke, but answers may come suddenly and miraculously like the “real life blue sky,” which is always there shining through the haze.