Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wilderness of the Mind

Wilderness of the Mind

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;  if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe  is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as  well as any manner of thy friends or of thine  own were; any man's death diminishes me,  because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

When my grandfather was 92 years old he met me in the Marble Mountain Wilderness and shouldered his aluminum-frame backpack into the woods.  In and around Haypress meadows, he marveled at the wild flowers, naming them, identifying them, remembering them, and saying goodbye.  We slept next to a fire and he warmed water from an old teakettle over the open flames and made us oatmeal for breakfast.  He had on his old leather corks and blue jeans with suspenders and a rundown full-brim hat.  I was almost embarrassed by my “fancy” gear.  His knees wouldn’t allow him to hike the ridgelines up into the high lakes.  He wanted to go see Big Elk Lake; it is where he wants his ashes spread one day.  Unfortunately, he will probably never see it again while alive, and he seemed to graciously accept that as he urged me to go on into the wilderness without him…and I did.


The Wilderness Act turned 50 a few days ago and I have been thinking about wilderness all summer as I travelled to a few of them, escaped to their half-frozen lakes, and crossed scree fields and snow banks.   When I had my 4x4 van a few years ago I was travelling to national parks and wilderness areas and I actually contacted a few publishers trying to write about all the wildernesses in America in celebration of the 50th anniversary, but I never did.  The historic September 3rd day passed without much notice by most people.  I love the history of wilderness in America.  Arthur Carhart, as a landscape architect and city planner recommending Trapper Lake in the White River National Forest to be preserved for its “scenic value.”  Bob Marshall, who died at my age, was one of the founding members, along with Leopold, of the Wilderness Society.  Aldo Leopold’s wolf’s green-fire eyes dying and his consciousness rising, a land ethic developing to “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”  Sigurd Olson, Olaus Murie, and Zahniser; Howard Zahniser who authored the Wilderness Act in 1956, struggling in Washington, toiling for 8 years to pass legislation only to die months before Johnson signs the bill.  But here it is, “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”


I do go and hike for almost two weeks by myself.  I ramble my way up and down paths and follow maps to different lakes: Monument, Meteor, Onemile, Cuddihy, Ukonom, Spirit, Rainy, and eventually, Big Elk Lake.  I photograph each flower I find to take back to my grandfather and share with him.  I stand atop Marble Mountain, remove my clothes and immerse myself in the depth of nature.  I eventually hike down back to Big Elk only to find a large group of horse packers.  I shamefully hope they weren’t watching me stand naked on the mountain.  Maybe, we are never alone. 
Wilderness is a social construction.  So much of modern human thought separates us from nature, creates false boundaries and I am beginning to grow weary of them.  I have learned to think about our wilderness areas differently.  They are no more untrammeled by humans than any other fence or park boundary.  We have them because early European settlers were very efficient at killing the people who once lived and managed this land.


It has been a long summer and school is back in full swing again.  Fall is in the nights, but not the days yet, and Chico and I hike up along the cliffs of the park to capture time lapses and write, to get away from the hustle of college students.  The haze and smoke of the valley feels claustrophobic.  We hike out to the edge of the cliffs, the sun still oppressive, but it keeps others away and we find solitude here.  Rich greens and blues emerge from the miasma in the valley, the last fires of summer, lightening relaxing.  The sun plunges behind dark clouds, and half the valley is in shadows, the other half pressed by heat, but as the sun slips down beneath the smoke, the orange glow creeps back across neighborhoods and fields approaching the cliffs again.  I watch the basking basalt for more light, watch the tones brighten.  Just as the sun ignites back onto the cliff side, I hear the whine of a drone flying above me. 
            It frightens Chico and he circles against me and looks up to make sure I am aware of the presence.  It flies directly over us, and across the canyon, turns up the north rim, and heads north.  What a beautiful piece of technology so often terribly used.


I used to worship wilderness.  When most young boys dreamed of parties and drinking, and football games, I longed for a river.  When I moved to Alaska, I would spend hours watching eagles dalliance in the thermals from the changing tides in the Karluk lagoon.  In Utah, things changed; I read deeper.  I met professors who studied these concepts in Africa, where the idea of National Parks and wilderness areas were exported at great costs to the people living in these areas.  I read Cronon’s essay, The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting back to the Wrong Nature where he challenged the long held idea by Thoreau that in “wildness is the preservation of the world.”  And me too.  I had carried a rock to Thoreau’s small cabin.  Slid on frozen Walden Pond on my belly.  I even argued with an old boss who tried to show me it wasn’t the wilderness per se.  I used to worship the old mountain men, wrote songs about Kit Carson, but I knew there was a problem.  Carson was amazing to me.  Here was a true mountain man; he could speak two-dozen native dialects, spent more time trapping and living off the western lands than any European of the time.  And yet, I once landed a canoe on Bloody Island on the Sacramento River too.  I read about how Carson called it a beautiful massacre.  It is disputed a bit, but it is true that he poisoned wells and killed livestock in order to force Navajo people into reservations.  He wasn’t a nice person.  All that time in the mountains, along streams, and living off the land didn’t make him peaceful.  The wilderness was harsh; death was imminent.  Most mountain men were never seen again.
            When I used to lead trips into Utah, I fell in love with “Abbey” country.  I thought, as Abbey proclaimed, you had to crawl on your bloodied knees to see the wilderness.  You had to sacrifice something to be worthy of such profound beauty.  But then I read more, listened deeper than the red rocks, about how the cliff dwellings were created during a time of warfare and scarcity of resources.  People fought and killed over dwindling water and food as the south became more arid.  As Roderick Nash once explained, “wilderness” was not the garden, but the savage and deserted.  Wilderness was Kurtz’ domain.  And our view of wilderness has changed.  Wilderness is a cultural construct.  As Cronon explained, culture shaped these perceptions of wilderness from Wordsworth, Thoreau, to Muir’s Yosemite cathedrals.  I have come to a place in my world where thoughts and language are not something we posses alone, but with one another.  Those deepest and most revered inner sanctuaries of our minds are not solely ours.  Muir’s thoughts, like those of Leopold and Carhart, were not their own, but a cultural movement afoot where “great men” don’t exist out there inventing ideas.  We do it.  We all do it…together.  And this divide of human and nature is killing us, as it does the oceans.  What have we learned from Rachel Carson?

We travel out into wilderness areas with all our costly technological inventions of Gore-Tex, polyester, nylon, and carbon fiber trekking poles, graphite tent poles, aluminum tent stakes, synthetic replications of down wrapped in nylon baffles and blow-up mattress…all of it made by cheap labor in other countries except for those rich few who might buy custom made bags in America.  It is almost impossible to buy an American made backpack.  There is one company I know about.  We say we are going to get away from hustle and bustle of cities.  It is a farce.  I do think there is value in self-reflection and trying to understand the way culture influences.  I think we should learn to push the boundaries of those cultures and communities—expansion, diffusion, and entropy.  And nostalgia plays a role in uniting our past with our present.  We must remember, but understand how memory is false, malleable, and amorphous.  The beauty of the land we protect gives me hope, but I am beginning to realize the real hope for a future is not in wilderness, except the way wilderness is in our minds.


The drone returns along the southern ridge, and dives along a small arĂȘte; it seems to be gliding into thermals to try and catch winds rushing up these jutting ridgelines where the entire canyon narrows.  The plane begins to dive and swirl like fighter pilots…like falcons.  It crosses back across the canyon and banks high off the other side, then dives back along the arĂȘte towards the river and zooms up the southern side again.  I am mesmerized by the piloting, by the acrobatic dance of machine and man and wonder from where the controllers watch and pilot.  When I first saw it I assumed it was on GPS coordinates as some of them are, but this one is flying, and skirts the sky and wind like a bird with such familiarity, it careens up right over a grove of digger pines, races out into an open and then begins to spin downward like eagles fucking and falling; it doesn’t stop.  It thumps to ground and there is silence.  The movements were so alive while it danced in the thermals it makes the silence gut wrenching in the way any death feels.  It is miles from where any people might easily access it.  I kind of picture Leopold watching the green fire die from wolves.  I hate watching death.  In Alaska, each day, every day, sometimes hundreds of fish, I would hold them in my arms, crash large stones across their heads and feel the spasm of life leave them and I learned to hate it.  Once they stopped moving; I could almost breathe again, swallow a bit, ask forgiveness, but I never understand whom I was asking.  The fish?  A god?  The river?  The earth?  As much as I know death is a natural part of the system, I don’t wish it upon anything, nor do I wish to hasten time. 
            I watch ridgelines to see human motion hiking down to retrieve this alien technology from alien landscapes, but how often humans have dreamt for wings.  I can only imagine the millions of years of humans watching sunsets as birds ride thermals from the emanating black rock.  Here.  Right where I am sitting, surely for thousands of years people have watched the same sun set across the same valley, as birds mock our grounded existence in a ballet of movements with the wind.  Do we do anything as graceful?


My grandfather is 97 now.  We hope he will make his 100th birthday.  He refuses to use a walker or a wheelchair and gets around on crutches.  I don’t tell him about the trips I do into the mountains now because I can see the way it disappoints him.  He tells me, soon, as soon as I get this knee, or this hip, or this leg fixed, I will be back out there.  Crutches are just temporary.  Surely, he will be back out there again soon. 

My father and I go each summer now into the woods together along with my younger brother if he is free.  This year we went into the White Cloud Mountains, east of the Sawtooth Range.  My dad usually picks the routes, and they are treacherous, long, exposed, perilous, and leading to some of the most spectacular views and fishing.  This year was no different.  We summited little known Patterson Peak, going off trail, and descended a terribly rocky scree field into a half frozen Glacier Lake.  At 62, my father is still nimble and eager and I hope I have him as a backpacking partner for another 30 years.  I know of no other person with whom I would want out there with me. We come from a lineage of people who head outside to get away from everything.  My dad has a difficult time finding people his own age that will hike and hunt, or hike and fish.  He goes with younger people each year and usually walks them into the ground. 

I often question my desire to be alone and away.  I am learning it is not the wilderness land, but wilderness mind.  Because if it is humans I am trying to escape, or human intervention I am trying to avoid, then the deception is in my own mind.  And maybe our modern society needs such deception.  We need to feel as if we can stand naked on a peak and think we are the only people to have done such events; surely I am the only person to have touched this rock, this tree; and this wildflower blooms for my chance encounter with this beauty and no one else will every witness this one moment.  Humans are explorers.  The need to explore is deep in our evolutionary and cultural history.  But where do we go now where other humans have not and why?  Or, do we focus on Leave No Trace so as to make each area feel as if no other humans have set foot here to have a fleeting feeling of nostalgia?  Must we recognize the way our privilege, class, and even race allow us to create such western experiences?  Must we realize that the equipment we use to minimize impact in one area of the world creates devastation, poverty, and environmental degradation in other parts by other people?  Do we try to coopt native skills and native traditions to harmonize with ecology?  Is this possible with the population the way it is?  Or do only a few of us get such experiences?  Do we carry people away from cities for short trips into wilderness areas and tell them the reality of the city is false, and the wilderness is more real?  Or do we acknowledge that wilderness is just another type of park, a place for tourists to go to experience one kind of reality? 

I’ll never forget hiking a long remote beach after a long dugout canoe ride along the southern part of Madagascar.  We woke in the morning to find people all around our tents, preparing for a day of harvesting food from the ocean, watching as we packed our belongings back into our packs.  What were we doing just sleeping where they worked?  Or maybe it is the little villages tucked deep into the mangrove parks in Guatemala—dirt floor dance parties in the humid heat of the tropics.  I have always loved cultures moving with the moon and tide.  I loved that movement in Alaska, breakfast to dinner, and even visitation of neighbors across the lagoon dictated by the distant pull of the moon on water.  Maybe the more you learn about how the system works, the more connected you find your life at all places and times and the less “wild” the whole experience becomes because I can sit here on a rocky outlook above the town of Chico, CA, and watch the sun set and a drone crash, and watch the city lights ignite like a sun moving through smoke clouds, and hear the death bell tolls, and see the whole thing as wild and wonderful and know that while I sat here the earth spun around the sun, the sun around the galaxy as the galaxy blasted out to the Great Attractor; we have moved millions of miles. There is always change and movement, endless and relentless movement.  Nothing stays the same and that is the real wild part of life; even the most patterned part of existence is on a path towards change.  The most untrammelled place by man is right now, in this very second.  The future, intimately connected to this moment, is endless wilderness.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Ode to Adventure

Ode to Adventure

Last night, lightning came, and with it thunder.  They say lightning is the world seeking instant balance.  It happens on the boundaries of life, where polarity crosses and temperature fronts meet; however, it is the roll of thunder I remember.  The strike fades too quickly from imagination.  Thunder happens when heated air molecules around the plasma increase in pressure and send shockwaves flying out into the world.  It rolls over you like swells in the ocean.  A group of good friends were inside the house when red alerts were issued on phones.  Tornado warning!  Every phone received one except mine.  I think I know why.  To me, it isn't a warning, but a welcoming, a bell ringing, a gathering.  My first instinct is, not to take cover, but to go outside and stand amongst it…and I did.

There is an almost mythical ad some suggest the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton once paid to print.  It read: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness.  Safe return doubtful.  Honour and recognition in event of success.”  I long for such adventure.  In my life, I don't seek hardships out, but I seldom say no.  This is what I seek in a partner too.  I realized that my greatest attraction to the last woman in my life was because I had hoped she was such an adventurer.  I had hoped she too would jump at chances to see the world.  Too often people want to travel, but they want the resort and comforts of home.  I want the adventure.

This is rare to find in people…people willing to throw the map aside, put down the guidebook, and just allow the wind to carry and the heart to guide.  In my line of work I meet a lot of people doing crazy things.  They are finding rivers no one else has run, routes no one else has climbed, and lakes tucked into alpine cirques.  There are others though, others who also do daring feats of adventure, but they lack originality.  Thousands of people have climbed Everest now.  I prefer the person who hacked his way to the top of an unknown hillside in their backyard.  Dozens of friends run the Grand Canyon, but I prefer the person inner tubing the flooded drainage ditch.  There are those setting speed records climbing El Cap, but I prefer a scree scramble to a ledge untouched by humans.  Don't get me wrong; I would love to challenge myself up Everest too.  And I would love to drink beers with friends as we paddle the Grand, and I surely hope to scrape and claw my way up El Cap one day (I need a partner for most of these).

I stepped outside last night and watched the lightning spark across the sky.  Clouds, in the yellowed light from streetlamps, swirled the neighborhood on the north end of town.  Rain came in torrents and my mind dreamed of the rivers swelling.  There is nothing more magical than watching the rage of river.  Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, winter warning, storm swells, high seas, gusts over 100 miles per hour, cumulonimbus clouds bursting up into the sky, this is nature in all glory and power.  It is this controlled chaos I love.  Not controlled by humans, but controlled by a system that accepts change and uses change to become stronger and better.  My life seems sporadic at time.  It ignites in moments across the sky and fades to darkness as quickly. 

Chico and I walk today, petals of leaves litter sidewalks, and I think about the women of my past.  I have tried to love completely, to take people as they are at face value.  I decided to start counseling myself now.  I have had only two sessions, but I like it.  My counselor asked me to visualize a landscape, and I saw a rolling hill and on this was a lone oak tree.  I met my younger self at this tree, a self before the scars of love.  I looked down at myself climbing the tree, and in his eyes were a brilliance of a clear blue sky after a storm.  This is Nathaniel before Nate.  Life was in the eyes, a spark for the love of all the beauty.  Sometimes I feel like I have disappointed that young self, like the life I once imagined seems a farce, but then I think of my friends, and the adventures I have had. 

I remember sitting amongst the swells with friends when no one else would paddle out except us.  We would sit in fear as the waves rolled over us, and cheer each other on as we dropped down into the pit, never alone.  I think about the long skateboard rides in the middle of the night.  I think about you reading stories to me at night as imaginative characters acted out across my mind.  I think about taking small v-hull boats out into the ocean in Alaska and skirting coastlines, watching Orcas porpoise around the boat, and seeing distant storms rolling in off the snow-capped volcanoes.  I think about random road trips down dirt roads to find remote beaches in Baja.  I think about trails we would hike, and the trails we have lost.  I think about looking for buried treasure or precious gems inside caves we were sure we would find.  I think about the lakes we found where we removed our clothes and screamed as we leaped from granite rocks into the hushed alpine blue.  I think about train rides across Madagascar where the engine broke down and we sat in the jungle and people emerged to sell us bananas and hard-boiled eggs.  I think about rock climbs where my fear got the best of me and when I fell, you caught me.  I think about hand-tilling the garden all day with you to plant the food we would one day eat and celebrate and drink beers.  I think about the cold kitchen floor in Germany where we slept and in the morning celebrated Christmas together with brats and beers.  I think about the flood stage rivers we have run, broken boats, and rapids with fear.  I think about the remote lakes we have fished and the photos we took holding them up to the gods.  I think about the mountain bike trails we have ridden and the crashes we have had and the blood we left behind and how you worry for me and watch me and make sure I am Ok and I do the same.  I think about our times trying to get close to bears to get better pictures and running in fear when it didn’t work out as we had hoped.  I think about driving random dirt roads without maps and coming out on the edge of the Grand Canyon and playing guitars and singing songs out into the cavernous abyss.  I think about all the times I have been lost and tried to tell you I am just a bit befuddled, but I knew where we are in the greater scheme of things and it always did work out…we made it.  I think about taking a boat through the mangroves to a small village in the jungle to attend a dance.  I think about sliding on my belly across a frozen Walden Pond, the marrow of life so deep.  I think about walking in the snowfall around a castle in the evening holding your hand.  I think about sitting in a boat and letting the tide carry us up the lagoon while we cast flies into the calm waters sipping beers and smoking weed.  I think about sitting in glacial pools listening to the ice calve, crash, and crumble down the cliff after a day of mixed rock and ice climbing.  I think about trying to paddle rafts out into the surf under the full moon.  I think about sitting in hot springs and staring at stars.  I think about all the nights in my sleeping bag, hearing your breath next to me while you sleep and dream…and me too.  I think about soccer games we played even when we didn’t have language in common.  I think about the songs we sing together around campfires.  I think about haggling for prices in markets with people in languages I barely speak.  I think about making love next to waterfalls and looking over the edge of water cascading and granite rolling and your arched body a mountain I could hermit into forever.  I think about hitchhikes with strangers and the worlds they share, the stories that pour from their eyes.  I think about the worst hangover of my life sleeping on the floor of your parent’s house in the forests outside Stuttgart with the radiant floor sucking every last bit of moisture from my body.  I think about the time the deer was sucking on the sweat of your shirt and tried to steal it and we laughed harder than I can remember laughing.  I think about being frightened with you when men with guns wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t leave.  I think about dangling from towers out in the cranberry bogs.  I think about walking the empty rafters of a roof and hammering nails while you tell me stories about war and about hunting.  I think about walking dogs together.  I think about massaging your feet while you cry.  I think about being in the waiting room while you are born.  I think about the mountaintops we have stood on together and yelled out into the wind.  I think about your poetry.  I think about the policeman’s light shining on our naked bodies.  I think about the long hikes to sit on a rock cropping above the city and watching the sunset fade behind the mountains as the lights come to life below us.  I think about getting stuck in the desert and spending all night digging ourselves out and almost giving up, but we couldn’t actually give up, so we kept digging and we got out just before New Years, and I was driving and we couldn’t stop and I was running over cactus, teddy bear cholla exploding in the night as we raced across loose sand trying to find the road again.  I think about getting stuck in the snow, and my hands freezing as we laid down sticks across the ice to try and get out because we were celebrating your birthday.  I think about getting stuck in the sand on the beach and all the strangers that came to help.  I think about getting stuck on that rock in the park and you offering a hand to help me across.  I think about getting stuck out on the river and you coming to get me.  I think about getting stuck when my truck broke down and you drove all the way to bring me a part I needed.  I think about getting stuck in our love and the silence of our bed at night.  I think about getting stuck in my mind and all the conversations we have had about love and about loss and about forgiveness.  I think about your kiss, your hug, your handshake, your smile, your laugh, and I am in love.

I look back at this younger version of myself and I tell him, don't ever stop loving.  It is the only advice I can possibly give.  Keep giving your heart to each person you meet.  They will take it.  Some will treat it with care, some will cherish it, some will throw it away, some will abuse it, some will break it, crack it, spit on it, and some will ask for forgiveness.  Some will lift your heart up.  And some will give you a piece of theirs to fill the void. 

Maybe the liver is a better metaphor for love than the heart.  With all the functions it performs, its ability to regenerate, cleanse, purify, filter, store, detoxify, breakdown, and recreate.  I liver you.  You are my liver.  Live, love, liver, lover.  Words so close to each other must mean something in this heart, this earth.

I put my ad out into the world to you all.  “Humans wanted for hazardous journey.  Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness.  Safe return doubtful.  Love and laughter regardless of outcome.”  Honest humans apply within.

The sun is out now and Chico and I walk the washed sidewalks.  But I think about the lightning still.  In the night, each flash is a bit of forever—forever in a fraction and a memory and spark. What is left is the same, but feels quieter—the dark darker—as if the world holds breath quiet and waits.  We count the distance between us.  Me too, holding my breath.  The silence is vacuous.  I endure the dark and the silence with memories of you.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Winter Breaking

Winter Breaking

Today, my girlfriend broke up with me.  So, I do what I do: I hike up on the ridge.  Storms have past and the land is vivacious with life; the tender spring flush of leaves on oaks and buckeyes open from winter, pale in their new awakening to sun.  Water pocks the valley below and reflects the myriad of colors contorting the sky as the sun falls behind the Mendocino Mountain.  I hear coyotes crying for me in the distance.  I do not do the same. 

Not because I don’t care.  I think because the better response is to feel great about the time I did have.  Whitman once said, “It may be if I had known them, I would have loved them.”

I am a romantic in life, and idealist and optimist—I won’t change.  A friend and mentor was recently telling me about some Buddhist koans—Zen riddles of sorts for meditation, things you carry around and open you up to the world.  It went: When times of great difficulty meet us, how do we great them?  Welcome.
I have been working on welcoming life to me.  I sit on a perch above the canyon and watch the light of sun fade to darker colors, the valley is awash in daylight savings time, alive, verdant, light longer, the sun arching north again.  I hear gunshots fire from the shooting range in the park.  I used to hate this sound, like the power lines crossing my view of the valley, but I’m losing hatred, working on judgment.  Welcoming.  It is difficult.

My girlfriend was so different from past women I have dated, some in superficial ways, some in the way she moved in the world.  Fake boobs, hair extensions, just opened a tanning salon, and yet, none of this bothered me.  She spoke from the heart and left the same way, strong in so many ways.  I liked the way she welcomed the world around her.  The people shooting guns below don’t shoot because of hatred, but because of love and the fear of losing it.  Power lines cross our world to light the homes of millions of families.  Prometheus bound to rock, the vultures tear at his insides as if the love could be found inside and ripped from him.  Isn’t that the beauty!  We try so hard to provide for the people we love.

I know people are different.  We all seek love differently.  And sometimes the way we love—the protection, the caring, the fear of losing, the angst of the heart—might hurt other people.  We don’t mean to do that.  Surely, if we knew them, we would love them too.

Chico and I stumble our way in the dark back off the ridge as city lights and lives ignite the darkness: this, the history of fire and love.  We get back to the truck as a man is loading his dog up into his jeep.  Chico runs over to the stranger as I quietly walk past, but the man responds in soft loving voices to my dog and tells Chico he is beautiful.  Chico can smell his dog inside the jeep.  He cries to meet the other dog, to sniff and lick, and maybe even love, but I call to him and tell him to load into the truck.  Now is not the time.  I wish it wasn’t true.