From the first section: Nature
Essay Two: Dirty Glaciers
Essay Three: Eulogy for a Pond
Essay Five: The Phone Tree
Essay Two: Dirty Glaciers
“Doubling cape after cape, passing uncounted islands, new combinations break on the view in endless variety, sufficient to satisfy the lover of wild beauty through a whole life.”
~John Muir, Travels in Alaska
On a family journey this summer I ventured by car, plane, bus, train, foot and ship to the still wild lands of Alaska. We saw the rugged and majestic peak of Denali (McKinley if you prefer), observed grizzlies and caribou, mountain sheep and fox, moose and eagles. Coming back down the Inside Passage on the Marine Highway the jagged mountains, ice-cold whale-blessed waters and emerald islands gathered around us with a deep, dark sense of wonder and mystery. There is nothing like the wilderness for restoring the feeling of relation, connection (perhaps more meaningful words than “spiritual”). Honestly, at times it seems too big–a frightening kinship with distant relatives I’m not sure I really want to know!
One can be grateful that a little over 100 years ago Theodore Roosevelt had the vision to preserve over 20 million acres of forested land in Southeastern Alaska (Tongass, Chugach and the Alexander Archipelago). TR’s expansive instincts, so infuriating to some, set aside something grander, something even our wildest imagination cannot get a hold of. And so it must be.
As we enjoyed the rather leisurely, buoyant experience, I read some of my favorite passages from John Muir in his memoir, Travels in Alaska. Since I consider Muir one of Nature’s Chaplains I once again delighted in his delight and recalled my decision a few years back to transform super-natural faith into natural delight.
Up in the northland where there is still a palpable feeling of frontier, we learned more of First Nations culture while visiting museums, reading historical pieces and speaking with Native Alaskans (we stopped for lunch in Wasilla, but the only ex-governor sightings were on calendars and coloring books). The raw emotion of the injustice done to the aboriginal people by our culture and religion was painfully present. I felt taken back over one hundred years to the time when Muir was exploring this same land. Stepping off his ship into an old Stickeen village south of Wrangell, Muir thought it strange that the missionaries were so interested in a deserted place. Before he witnessed the chopping down of the sacred totem poles by the party, he exulted in pure Muirian language: “Divinity abounded nevertheless; the day was divine and there was plenty of natural religion in the newborn landscapes that were being baptized in sunshine, and sermons in the glacial boulders on the beach where we landed.” The Scotsman of Yosemite, forced to memorize scriptures as a child, utilized the old language to express a wider, more inclusive spirituality undistracted by super-naturalism. Unafraid of immersion in the wild beauty, he was fully disgusted by the actions of those who came to that land to alter it with altars, to tame its wilderness and wild people who called it home. Thankfully it appears they were not completely successful (sure is satisfying at times to see how profoundly some ancestors failed in their efforts to impose their will and their way, isn’t it?
Our ship sailed deep into Glacier Bay. Like some living cathedral (only better), it was akin to sailing straight into a sanctuary where the roofless beauty leaves you speechless. We drew near to the Margerie Glacier with its 350-foot wall of crystal-blue ice. Unlike anything I’d ever seen, the dramatic “calving” of huge chunks of ice made for quite a silencing show. In close proximity to the Margerie is the Grand Pacific Glacier that stretches across the border from Canada. This glacier is the widest in the bay (2 miles). With frigid water below, frosty air all around, and ice shelves as far as your eye can see, you almost feel you’re inside the refrigerator/freezer of the world.
This naturalist lesson only highlights an observation. On our visit the entire ship was focused, with eager expectation, on the cracking and crumbling drama of the Margerie. This was completely understandable since the Grand Pacific, even though 25 miles long and the widest, is covered in dark rock and dirt. It is what is referred to as a “dirty glacier.” It doesn’t draw attention and just isn’t as full of sexy drama as its more spectacular neighbor. Few cameras were focused on the muddy mammoth.
I suppose it’s time to draw the connections, to make my point about “spiritual things” and ethics. For a number of years I served as an Interfaith Chaplain, first with mentally exceptional adults, then in a county jail and finally on the streets with “residentially challenged” people. I ventured into many dark, damp and dirty places to practice a presence of compassion. To sum up the experiences I might simply describe the scene I witnessed: Commanding the center of attention was business and busyness, money and work, traffic, and the frantic and frenzied scramble to get more. In this madness stood the faith community, theology and study of sacred books, ritual, tradition and great talk about something called “community.” Many stood or sat mesmerized by the drama, expectantly awaiting the next chunk of exhilarating wisdom to come sliding down from the pulpit of pastor or professor. Off to the side, rather hidden (though in full view if one cared to notice), was the very un-dramatic and ever disturbing, uncomfortable and offensive distraction of the unclean, the dirty ones. What emerged from all this mucking around in the muck was a Copernican revolution in my thinking and vocation. My Glacier Bay moment came like a cold arctic wind. What are we seeing? What are we not seeing? It makes all the difference. Seriously. We cannot practice any form of ethics without a fresh formation of seeing, of sight, of vision.
The troubling term “wild” is disturbing for a reason. This is not a place where we immediately feel a belonging, though the expansive beauty attracts and seduces our senses. But somehow we know that we indeed do belong, it is a part of us and we of it. The land is us, not merely the U.S., a bordered state or political coloring book. In seeing the wild we see if not sense our own wildness and the essential need to care for that somehow, some way.
A tourguide on the train directed our attention to the vast green open spaces and said something I thought was a joke but wasn’t: “Just keep looking out there and you’ll see things that don’t seem to fit–those are the animals.” I just shook my head in amazement at that level of ignorance. Who doesn’t fit out there? Who would perish in a very short time in this country? A local bus driver boasted that he gets an annual oil dividend check along with all Alaskans, using part of it to hunt caribou, moose and bear, and of course catch just about all the salmon he wants. He was so proud. We were so shocked. With shortsightedness the open spaces of wild beauty become what one lumber company executive called “resource inventory systems.”
An environmental ethics is needed that includes all ethical systems because the environment is our teacher, text and tradition. In other words, there can be no ethics or even spirituality without an immersion in the great classroom and sanctuary that is Nature. Muir knew it, felt it, lived it. So did his friends John Burroughs and Teddy Roosevelt. We need to listen, and get dirty; we need “dirty” ethics.
In one of the most stunning passages in his journals, John of the Mountains wrote, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars. . .still all is Beauty!” (June 26, 1875). Did Muir see the dirt? Clearly he did. Was he sensitive to the turmoil and tragedy, the disease, death and destruction on the planet? No doubt. Yet for spiritual (that is, wonder-filled) explorers like Muir there is no separation from the dirty glaciers of our existence, no disconnection from the wild beauty of our surrounding, embracing home, except in our minds. To the extent our religious traditions acknowledge and celebrate the connections, they have relevance. To the extent our “spirituality” can see and value and participate in the hidden wonders, it has meaning. If we can call any God we choose “Beauty” then maybe, just maybe, we can accept the dirt as beautiful and practice an ethic that encompasses all points of the compass, as people of the land, the ground, the dirt, the water, the grinding glaciers still carving our heavenly, better-than-any-heaven-you-can-make-up, home.
Essay Three: Eulogy for a Pond
Henry David Thoreau famously wrote about the big puddle he built his shack alongside, where he chose to make a livelihood for two years long ago. He scrambled the edges and from his scrambles came scribbled notes, dribbled on damp pages.
“Formerly I had come to this pond adventurously, from time to time. . .But now I had made my home by the shore.”
I know something of pondside, bayside, riverside, oceanside, Soundside living. I was born and soaked in the salt and the sod of this land, this rich, saturated Northwest soil. I’m no Thoreau, and this is no Walden. The puddle that concerns me sits its muddy bottom as I do on this island, on another coast, mirroring that Bostonian newer England. I write this eulogy for another tree-shaded water; another lakelet leaking life day by day.
“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of [their] own nature.”
I might call this Peat Pond, and I sometimes do, if it needs a name, and it doesn’t. This small acre of wet, fed by natural artesians, the runoff of seasonal streams―“burns” the Scots would say―is drained to be of use as a peat bog each summer. The pond becomes a ditch. It is scraped and dug for saleable soil―at least the decompositions of what life once composed here. A raft with a pump floats on the dark water, a pipe stretches to shore, jetting a spray of minute creatures in the wash high in the air. Leaky irrigation, or do the horses drink its draught? I watch each evening as the water level falls. On my sunset saunters along the shore I step quietly and alert in the green grasses. In winter months I took photographs of the frozen brown blades, the play of light and shadows on the layers of ice and snow, slanting sun reaching far out onto the frozen water beyond, where I dare not step.
This spring has attracted a steady stream of Canada geese who trespass as I do. They wake me each morning with first light and call me to appreciate the sinking sun each evening. A few weeks ago I stood still as a cedar to observe two proud geese gliding like feathered bookends off shore with six tiny goslings hurrying along between. Several nights later, three ducklings trailed their parents around the shoreline circumference.
A great blue heron (not as blue as it is great) comes and goes like a dignitary―an ambassador from a near and borderless country gliding in for the banquet.
In a late day’s warm winds, a white-crested eagle circles off the glistening waters. Passing low over my balding head it banks near enough to these banks to hear a bit of music in the feathers.
A few more cautious, alert steps and my eye is drawn upward to a large sharp-shinned hawk caught in its own skyward whirlpool, only slightly distracted by pursuing swallows, persistent, encircling.
At nightfall, the call of coyotes pierces the dark with their wild yelps. The rabbits munching, jumping and humping all around my cabin set back in the woods become a munching themselves when the light dissolves. Pairs of Barred Owls, never barred from their nocturnal hunts, enter the feasting, while rabbits, squirrels, mice, treefrogs and other invisibles climb on the plate to participate in the feast.
The cabiner of Concord, who opened, as I do, his one-room to the room of the woods, guessed that his pond may well have been named for the stony hills surrounding it―thus it became, Walled-in Pond.
I set foot here, disembarked on this isle, to shake off the walls and have fewer of them, to write, to grow a fresh livelihood, to settle a more simplified life. As the Walden wanderer I too wished to make myself “neighbor to the birds.” I wonder now if the winged ones are neighbors in need–their life, like mine, threatened with an incessant squeezing, a slow pumping away and selling off of our wild neighborhood.
As I watch the trees fall, cringe at the crack and thump of their wasted weight; as I hear the all-too-familiar whine of the saws and rumble of the dozers that never sleep; and as I watch twilight by twilight the pond fall, walled-in more and more by people building and dogs barking—I cannot help this eulogy for the land, its eye, the reflective sky, and ask: as my island of peace drains and disappears into marketable peat and timber, ringed by rusted machinery―what of the goslings, ducklings, ascending eagles, herons and hawks? What of the frogs who sing their Beethoven’s Ninth each night, and of the unseen homesteads beneath my feet? What of their island, my island, our island? What of the earth?
I wish to say a blessing, a “rest in peace.”
If I find words to say I find I must say these words,
“I’m sorry. There is no rest. This is no peace.”
We are forever walled-in.
I walk away, deeper into a shallower wood, silently turning back but once.
A season is passing. And so is a pond.
Whidbey Island, 2007
Essay Five: The Phone Tree
I called her after nine in the evening that first night in the tiny one-room, cedar-shingled cabin with the bamboo ladder reaching to the cozy loft overhead. Another dramatic relocation for the nomadic gypsy in me. When I returned to my homestate to briefly settle in the basement of an island home overlooking the bay and mountains I kept my dream of living in a cabin in the woods. Now it was a reality. Smaller than anywhere I had ever lived, its isolation and rustic nature were balanced by the new powerline (one outlet), compost toilet and well-water just a short walk away down a winding tree- and berry-lined path. I knew my wireless phone would let me say hello at best. I had checked the reception earlier and it was not good–only one bar on the screen. I called my close friend Heather from my forest hideaway and though Heather lives in Oregon and I was resettling in Washington I did not want to be on an island of isolation. I looked forward to a shared excitement and words of encouragement. She had seen me through nine moves over the years and knew exactly how it felt to finally find just the right spot to make a home.
Heather’s phone rang and I waited, knowing she was there but unsure whether she would make it to the phone in time. Her house in the Rogue River valley is so large and, at the time, it is just her with her mother, a cat named Mooshoo and an old dog named Luke. I also knew her well enough to keep in mind that she could be out in her spacious gardens watering or taking a late evening walk with a glass of chard. I began leaving a message and she picked up. “I’m here. I’m here!” she panted. “We were just finishing dinner and I wasn’t sure I could get to the phone in time. How are you? Are you in the cabin? How does it feel?” Being a great cook and baker she knew how to pepper me with questions.
As I began to tell her about the day she interrupted. “You’re cutting out. I can barely hear you.” I tried again and it was clear that my voice was anything but clear. I stood and went out onto the deck beneath the stars and silhouetted trees surrounding in all directions. “I can hear you a little better now” she said. “Yes, I can hear you very nicely” I replied. I went on with the story of my day of cleaning the old place and arranging my meager possessions in a new place. Then she laughed. “You sound like a strobe. You’re cutting out and then coming back.” So I started to repeat sentences, then phrases, then words. Heather laughed more and I joined her. For the next half hour or so I spoke in repetitive phrases and words (“I love it here–I love it here;” “The stars and moon are beautiful–are beautiful”). Even Heather started repeating words and we could not stop laughing. Finally we agreed that speaking this way was getting old very fast. I told her, “I’m gonna try to find a ‘phone tree’ and call you later in the week.” I guess she heard that because she said she would think of me and talk with me soon. Shutting the flip-phone was a relief. . .a relief.
The next day I continued to settle into my new cabin, cleaning and organizing the storage boxes trying to make every square foot count. On my list for the day, just below “clean the windows” and “bring dad’s lilac in the gator [tractor],” was “phone tree.”
I slipped into my walking shoes, threw on a hat and grabbed my little folding phone, tucking it into my shirt pocket. I set out down a forest path I had cleared in past months heading for a tree I had paused beside and pondered by the pond (well really it was a marsh, so I suppose I mused). I remembered wiping the sweat with my forty-year-old cub-scout kerchief and saying, “You would be a good climbing tree. I’m coming back to climb you.” In a few minutes of hurtling roots and pushing aside bright green, sprouting salmonberry branches I stood under the cedar. Behind a sturdy evergreen huckleberry bush I found a low, living limb for the first step up. It was an easy climb but I took some time, clearing away short dead sticks. Half way up I checked my phone: still only one bar–bad reception. I continued upward, getting the scented sap on my hands and strands of lichen in my hair.
Resting on a perfect perch near the top I looked down without seeing the ground. All I could observe from high up there was green life–trees in all directions. Not a house or a person; not a road or a light. Carefully drawing my phone from my shirt pocket I was mindful that it would be a long drop if the cell slipped from my hand. I lifted its gray metallic lid and the light illuminated the connection: three bars. I had good reception.
The call went through and I heard my sister’s voice loud and clear. “I’m calling from my phone tree” I said and she burst out in laughter. Describing the sight and feel she thought it was crazy but appropriate for me. She knew I loved climbing trees. This was a natural for me. A few minutes later I called Heather. Delighted by the call and the location I was calling from she wanted to know all the details about my move and the cabin, what she couldn’t pick up in the echoes of the other night. As we spoke, a light rain began to fall and I leaned closer against the swaying trunk. Concerned I might get electrocuted or fall Heather encouraged me to descend but I was in my element. “No, this is great. The tree is protecting me from the rain and I feel secure on these limbs,” I assured her.
When we hung up I was still hanging up there, in the natural antenna tower of the cedar. I breathed deeply and wiped wetness from my eyes–a mingling of tears and rain. I knew I could stay in touch, that I could enjoy my solitude without being isolated, that I could be reached and could make calls by reaching up and up, climbing the heights of this original, more natural, living telephone pole. The lines were open; I was receptive. As a robin, a jay and a chickadee went about their flighty business below me–below me!–, a Great Horned Owl called out from a marshy grove a little way off. I smiled, nodding, bobbing on the branch with emotion–I had never felt higher after a cellphone conversation. I had some roots in the forest and now a place in the leafy boughs to sit as I would, in the island woods, in my private phone tree.