The Scope of the Land: zooming in and out to find real hope

DSC_0036When Ron and I left for our seven thousand mile road trip almost six weeks ago I knew it would change me. It’s something we used to expect from “vacations”, especially back in the day when family vacations were part of the norm and summertime promised a much needed long respite from the trials of K-12. Back in the not so long ago days when it was common knowledge that renewal was a necessary reset period that enables the hard work of childhood; we understood something about living that somehow we seem have to lost. These days we call it self-care, as if the sole responsibility lies within our own scope of action alone. In Prescott, Arizona the autumn callback to school is hallowed by the sonic return of the DSC_0146cicadas. For me back in the New Jersey suburban landscape of my youth it was the sound of the school bus. For me today, staying in the home of a friend in Santa Rosa, California while waiting on some car repairs before finally heading home to Portland, Oregon, it is the calling of my doctoral work. I am renewed and ready, but first I’ll pause to share the results of our, written with revolutions of turning wheels, grand reflective lesson plan for this particular road trip— One that could only be deciphered fully in hindsight.

DSC_0004One of the first things I noticed early on was how badly I needed the break. Even though graduate work is not physically strenuous, the all-consuming mental work is, at its core, still hard work. I already knew our bodies don’t know the difference between mental and physical stress and responds as if it is the same; and yet, there was this powerful cultural voice inside of me that forgot one important fact, I am human. I think in our nonstop around the clock modern life, we are charmed into thinking we are above and beyond anything that resides below our neck.

We spend so much time in our minds strategizing our next moves and hooked up to our varying methods of measuring our own worth that we tend to forget what is concrete, DSC_0034what is real. To be honest, I was a bit surprised that I, of all people, had fallen prey to
the trance of this modern life, the one that fooled me to imagine that I can
push my body beyond all reasonable expectations.

I was once a midwife who knew that bodies needed nutrient dense foods, nurturing care, and lots of healthy restful sleep. It’s ironic that even with my myriad of health issues I am still susceptible to this mind-over-body pair of blinders, the one that ignores my bodily needs for some culturally defined need. It screams false claims that it’s a mere personal choice of how far I can push DSC_0126myself. It insists that a strong will and hard work will pull me through all of life’s obstacles. Yet, upon reflection, most of us recognize; this is all lies. The exact opposite is, in fact, true. No amount of pushing back on the inevitable will get any of us past being a living human, alive upon a living planet that feeds us. With the smallest amount of time for reflection, we know ignoring our human needs won’t make them go away any more than ignoring the cries of a dying planet will avoid environmental collapse.
As we drove across the landscape I drank in the quietness like a thirsty child. The results were far better than any medicine. My cortisol levels dropped. I slept hard and woke up refreshed. By the time we got to the Northern lakes in Minnesota to hear the loons call beneath a full moon, I had lost weight—weight that had previously clung to my bones refusing to leave no matter what diet I tried. It was as if in the chaotic trauma of my workday stress, my body was storing up survival food for the whisper of an extended winter. When I finally found some downtime and  my body relaxed, the quiet landscape having convinced it not to worry anymore, I finally let go of the extra survival package. Suddenly I remembered! It’s not frivolous, or lazy to unwind and reflect on the world. It’s necessary to our survival and well-being. There are studies that have shown the wonderful effects of nature on our bodies. In our packed lives surrounded by nonstop input we can completely forget that we come from the natural world. This road trip changed all that for me. That it took such a dramatically long trip for me to renew is more telling about my stress levels than any other single thing.

DSC_0021Once I recovered from my civilized life, however, the first thing I noticed was how big and beautiful this country is. I noticed the water, or lack of it. I noticed the dark and the stars, and how utterly foreign it felt to reenter an urban world. Edmund Burke might have lamented over the civility lost in order to birth a conservative mindset, a mindset that seeks to define artificially imposed order, but I DSC_0030lamented over the strangely blind cruelty of dead things erupting from a landscape of living things. When we arrived at the skin of Buffalo, New York the GPS went haywire and the car overheated, as if our machines also felt the sudden increase in static and overloaded with the awkward reentry into civilization and reunion with family we hadn’t seen in well over twenty years.

DSC_0071If the first third of our trip’s purpose was connecting with the land and my own body’s needs, the second purpose was connecting with family, both blood and spiritual family. It was an odd punctuation of diving deep, recalling past intimacies and revealing current connections and realities. I could see my own children and grandchildren in the faces of my niece’s children. They, of course, share much of the same genetic history, but the likeness was striking. sunset vineyard crossingAlthough our stay was only for a night, and in some cases as the meeting continued with of other family members, even if only a mere hour or two, in each case, I couldn’t help but feel the strong connection and love bond that is woven into the fabric of our lives. Separation by time and miles is an illusion born of disconnection.

DSC_0109Stripped of our daily social commitments and vulnerable to the uncertainties of open road, each visit was an oasis mixed with unfathomable generosity, gratitude and intimacy. I felt honored and humbled by the connections we were making. Then I was reminded of something that Larry Merculieff had said to a group of Portland State University Indigenous Nation Studies students. Larry is an Aleut native taught both in the old ways of his people and in the world of academia. He told us many wonderful stories, but the one thing that stood out to me DSC_0160was the greeting his people spoke to one another, which translated into English as, “Hello my other self”. It dawned on me how this trip helped me capture the meaning of those words in my body. It resonated with me in both my heart and my head. It became apparent that no matter how bizarre and weird urban civilization seemed, once inside the circle of loved ones, everything became real again. Within us the deep connection between the macrocosm of the land and the microcosm of family grew together. What was hard to reconcile was the in-between world. If you hurt the land you are hurting my family, you are hurting yourself. The social constructs of society are DSC_0032failing both the land and the people. The social
constructs lied to us and tell us its narrowly defined economic view of the world is the only reality. I am not a stranger to the notion that money creates the world, nor the arrogance of those who believe that they make  reality in their own image even as the polar caps
are melting and forest fires are consuming the Pacific Northwest. For the love of land and life, this false notion needs to be uprooted and rearranged. How do we do this so it is the least disruptive to those we love?DSC_0079

The third braid of our trip is the weaving of both Ron and my academic pursuits in sustainability, social Innovation and education. The trip itself has been bookended by DSC_0037two significant conferences. Just a month before setting out we attended the ASLE conference in Moscow, ID. . Although I presented some of my fledgling theories on the link between gender and ecocide in a workshop, the highpoint for me, if I can call it that, was the undercurrent of devastating grief that participants were sharing about wholesale destruction of life on the planet; how helpless students felt when professors revealed the realities of climate change. I think Per Espen Stoknes captures the feeling best in his article, The Great Grief: How To Cope with Losing Our World,  And yet, it was important for me to not only understand the gravity of what was being lost, but to find my way around the hopelessness through to actions that would DSC_0081turn it around before it is too late. My grief turned to anger, like many of us who wanted to string up a long line of trophy hunters whose trite egos somehow think it is appropriate to claim the endangered. But anger like dystopias can only lead us so far. The answer I discovered was in the lovely Soil Not Oil conference held in Richmond, CA. http://soilnotoilcoalition.org/ Thank you, Miguel, for all of your hard work on this one; and for bringing Vandana Shiva to speak.
Vandana’s physicist’s ability to make connections that the so-called real world of agribusiness can’t seem to see has changed my life. The conference was packed with
Miguell and Vendanareal world visionaries like Vandana; activists whose feet were deeply rooted in the soil of the Earth. In one ten minute presentation alone I caught the reality that we really can turn this thing around. Climate change can be stopped. Yes, you heard me right. Climate change can be stopped, if we put the carbon that we’ve taken from the Earth and return it to ground. The real kicker is that it will bring health, wealth and happiness to all those we love. It’s called regenerative agriculture, and it works. The results and the proof are in.  All we need to do now is to dismantle and
rearrange the industrial agricultural model to one that works for everyone. We need to stop measuring success by the narrow-minded and finite perimeters of the commodities market. The landscape and our loved ones are far greater than that. Now that I am at the tail end of this road trip I know where I stand. My internal GPS is fully charged and the path is clear. You won’t hear anymore words from me about our dying planet. The concept of the Anthropocene is already outdated. This Earth is my home. My family depends on it. My grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren will thrive. vendanaAnything less is unacceptable. The great turning is here and now, and we all  need to embrace this reality, we need to return the carbon to the ground. It’s the only reality that matters. All the rest are distractions and lies. The lesson plan is completed, and now all we need to do is enact it. But first, do yourself a favor; take the necessary time to reflect on this, you owe it to yourself, your family and the world.

Opinel French Folding Kitchen Knife

I ate breakfast this morning on my friend’s porch in Prescott AZ. A left over piece of steak with a small omelet, fresh brewed coffee and buttered sourdough toast as I sat in the sun stretching like a sleepy dog in the non-humid, mountain surrounded wonder of this high desert. Whippoorwills punctuated waves of cicada white-noise. Breeze puffs rustled the junipers. I cut my steak with an Opinel French folding knife. We bought it in Portland just before we left – I have not had one of these knives since I was twenty four.

Karen and I are going to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in November of this year. Thanks. Everyone tells us that it is an accomplishment. I picked her up in Pluckimen New Jersey hitch hiking to the Delaware Water Gap in July 1975. We were hitched permanently before three months passed. But after only four years, with a two year old and a host of financial stresses, we had a huge fight, complete with me throwing a pot of beans through a glass window, and decided to split up.

The reasonable way to go about it (and we were very reasonable in those days; our mantra from the beginning was, “If it doesn’t work out we can always get divorced.”) was to simply sell all our stuff and separate. Of course we didn’t think about what would happen to our child – we were only 23 and didn’t think too deeply about anything back then (although we thought we were on top of it, children, especially children with children seldom are <grin>). But after that fight, we were determined to make the changes. As said, we were efficient if nothing else.

We sold most of our stuff. We calmed down. The stress abated and the extra money eased the crunch. And we realized that we didn’t need to split up after all.

BIG LIFE LESSON: Too much stuff makes stress – when in doubt, dump it. Now days I call that the major reset, back then we felt we’d shed the world’s weight; all before we’d been together five years.

It pissed my dad off royally when we sold the 76 Honda Civic he’d bought us. (Come to think of it, we did that a few more times as well.) But we were debt free and unburdened. And so we decided to take a road trip. That has often been our default position. Lost a job? Take a road trip. Beginning a new chapter? Take a road trip. Overwhelmed with complexity? Take a road trip. And so on.

I think I may have mentioned in an earlier post that our big wedding present was a North Face mountain tent complete with a snow tunnel. I also got a pair of Pivetta Hiking boots. And though I’d always been a musical geek who’d rather sit around all night and play guitar, we considered ourselves very out-doorsy and athletic. Go figure. We rounded out our camping gear with some new back packs (including a Kelty frame to carry the boy) and outfitted ourselves for the a Big Adventure.

We collected wooden utensils and a couple of Opinel French folding kitchen knives, reduced our necessaries to fit into two backpacks, taught the boy to use a toilet and bought one way plane tickets to LA. Once there, we’d hitch up the coast and visit some friends in Santa Cruz. For several weeks before leaving we practiced taking cold showers with the hose outside in our bathing suits.

Fast forward to now.

The paraphernalia has morphed, but the concept is the same. We have made similar road trips repeatedly over the past forty years. This one, a journey of many purposes is also an echo of that first adventure. And the items we’ve chosen are as important as the unfolding route. We only had a trace of a plan to begin. But providence or spirit or the highway wind has nudged us to revisit most all of the places we had been. It is humbling and glorious.

On the way through New Jersey we paused to note how different the corner was where I met Karen. Almost nothing remains. Just up the road we glanced at the spot where we were married outside at a garden by the Bridgewater town hall. We met with friends and family all along the way. Last Saturday we camped at a site alongside the Rio Grande. The only spot available was the same shelter we’d been in with the kids on Karen’s pre-Goddard quest in 93. Down the road from The Pilar Yacht Club raft rental.

When we get back home we have a monstrous amount of work to do – so in many ways this reflective odyssey is like taking a deep sweet breath before beginning a marathon. Our muscles become toned, our skin tanned; our lungs expand to hold more of the precious air and the unclouded vistas dilate before us. I knew our hearts would expand. I anticipated the goodness of it. But this trip, with all the revisits and spiral loop backs, where we meet our younger selves at each turn, is having a temporal effect. I feel younger every day. I turned twenty the year I married Karen. I will turn sixty four days after our fortieth. But time runs backward now. Every day I recognize more wonder, my eyes open wider. This road trip has become a metaphor, but I guess they always do. We quest out into our world only to realize the map is our skin. And the lines that grow are the paths we take, have taken and will take again until sundown where we get to rest by the whispering river, the brush spotted hills sliding into shadow.

 

 

 

 

And then I cut myself washing the fucking knife.