Friday, June 28, 2013

Birnam Wood


I led a Leave No Trace (LNT) course for some teenaged trail workers a few summers ago. LNT focuses its efforts on getting visitors to public lands to visit as lightly as possible. I started the course by handing out little plastic tags emblazoned with the 7 Principles of LNT. Smart-ass Kid #1 raised his hand, “Um…like, these are plastic and we’re supposed to be leaving no trace and like, protecting the environment, so why are you giving us these?”

I was glad the kid asked. It made segueing into my personal queasiness about this somewhat twisted view of environmentalism a lot easier. I would have felt dishonest not mentioning the double-standard of ethics inherent in that moment, and better to have the student ask the question than for me to wail on and on like a disgruntled harpy.

It bothers me that we continue to separate woods and not-woods worlds, and that we treat them so differently. I own an LNT instructional DVD (came wrapped in plastic), several LNT stickers, three training manuals and textbook type publications, and a pint glass—presumably to be used for drowning my sorrows at the entire trinketry connected with leaving no trace. I think that you can get water bottles, hats, t-shirts, fleeces, bumper stickers, and I don’t care to know what else, all emblazoned with the logo. And I’m all for protecting public lands. I’m just equal opportunity world protection. But it’s high time—as storms wash cartographic distinctions away, as boundaries are eroded—that we stop pretending that protection, that awareness can start and stop at the trailhead.

Despite everyone I know having a story of some hellacious trip to the woods, I still think that most of the people who go to the woods would agree that life is better there, or at least in a calmer, deeper key. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” wrote Thoreau. In part, I think that this is why anyone goes to the woods. Life outside the woods, if we let it, becomes a maze of expectations and requirements. It feels as if our lives and choices are no longer our own. And so, when we can, if we are the people who must, we throw a few things in a backpack and run away for the wild hills and hidden woods, for deserts and oceans and jungles and any place beyond the bounds of normal life.

Almost without exception, my dearest friends are people who have sought out and known wild places. I’ve lived with many of them in strange little pocket communities tucked in among mountains and valleys and lakeshores. I know that the wild places answer something deep within myself, and I suppose that I take on faith that anyone else in the wilds, in these communities, has something resonant at their core. I love these people faster because I suspect our hearts are forged similarly. Perhaps our hearts and souls do not always match exactly—and I know that the words I grasp at barely scratch the surface of what I’m out there for—but there is a sense of  “you and I, we are seeking and finding something similar out here in the wilds, beyond straight roads and power lines and day planners.”

What I find in wildness is the closest truth I know to what holiness might be. To have a sense that personal and sweet in common with a stranger is beautiful.

And so, I’m friendlier to people I meet on mountaintops than at subway stops because I think we’re similar. Also, perhaps, because I’m meeting them in a place and in a way where I am at my best. This isn’t to say that I fall in love with and befriend every stranger on every trail, or that I don’t have bad days in the woods, or that I suddenly become an angel around stunted balsam fir trees. But I am more likely to be kind in the woods. When I start to get peeved at strangers in the woods, it helps to remember that there is a sliver of commonality between them and me. And I hate them a little less, humor them a little more. (Mostly.)

When I worked on a mountaintop summer camp in the White Mountains, we read this Rene Daumal passage to campers before they descended to their non-camp lives. The words remain in my bones: “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

It is the art of conducting oneself that gets me. I’ve been beyond lucky to have lived swaths of my life in wild places. I swear there is something better out there than pursuing the normal American Dream of dangerous and hollow consumption and the itching feeling of being controlled, and of never being or having enough.

But now, I have descended from my woods and wilds. I live in a city, although I doubt this is permanent. But, I am guided by the memory of what I’ve seen as possible, of what I have known, and I find pieces of that goodness here. I’d like to think that I put a little of that goodness into this world, too. Something as a balm against the often frustrating pursuit of cultural expectations, a wild force against the clutter and bad chaos and violence of the so-called civilized world.

In Macbeth, the three witches prophesize that Macbeth will rule Scotland until Great Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill, where his castle sits. As forests are not noted for their mobility, Macbeth assumes he is invincible and becomes a despotic tyrant—the play is Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest. Heads are rolling left and right, chimneys toppling, horses screaming, women and children slaughtered, thunder, lightning, and Lady Macbeth loses her cookies over her part in bringing on the horror. Never mind Denmark, shit is rotten and bloody and crazy in Scotland.

The Thane of Ross has a great line, when the awesome Macduff asks how Scotland is faring: “Alas! poor country, Almost afraid to know itself.” So beaten down by the powerful that the country has almost forgotten its strength. The key, I think, is the word “almost.”

Because, a few lines later—after learning that Macbeth slew Lady Macduff and all the Macduff children—Macduff assembles an army and lead them up to Dunsinane Hill to kill Macbeth. Of course, as camouflage, the army will cut down and carry the trees of Birnam Wood before them.

To Macbeth, it looks as if the forest itself has revolted as the army swarms up the hill. The trees arrive, bloodshed ensues, and Macduff relieves Macbeth of his head.

Not a traditional ecological or world-saving text, I know. But, if we could learn to be how we are in the woods, out of the woods, I suspect that a lot of the pseudo-powerful forces that seem to control our lives outside the woods would start to fall.

And so, we must try to live more deliberately, to plan and prepare ourselves for what we may come across, to live with only what we need, to be aware of our surroundings and our resources, to take time to do nothing but seek our happiness, to be silent at times and to speak our minds at others, to see beauty, to be capable in and aware of our bodies and more self-reliant, and to be as kind to the strangers at the grocery store as we would be with the strangers on the ridges. Those who have been to the summits and descended, those who know the principles of living lightly on any landscape, those who have hidden their hearts away in the woods, now is the time to come forward and live those better ways that you know are possible. You might be happier, too. I hope so. The closer I pull my life here back to the themes of life in woods, the happier I am. That I know.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

We're Gonna Win


The report from day six of landscaping is that there are a lot of weeds out there. They grow around the ornamental flowers, in the cracks of the sidewalks, up through the bark mulch. Insidious, a pain in the ass, unsightly, unplanned, and more successful than any other planting.

Life, like the truth will out, it seems. The weeds are set up to thrive, biologically, hurling their seedlings everywhere and growing crazy, snarled, impossible to eradicate roots. By and large, the beautiful annuals that are set in these decorative gardens are not capable of reproduction. Ergo, the humble would seem like the winners, the flowers the also rans.

That is the life. Here is the truth: we’re gonna win. Scratch that: we’re winning. We, the people who think that there is a better life possible than the socially isolating and climatically destructive model largely foisted off on us by mass-marketed ideals of cultural norm. You know, we, us, the “alternative,” Blue State, liberal hippy nerds.

I’d be among the first to agree that we’re not doing enough, that the world is more dangerously close everyday to a complete and utter meltdown. The increasing temperature of the ocean is now melting Antarctica from below, leading me to believe that rather than pick fire or ice as the end of the world, we may just get both. Additionally, this country’s government seems to be increasingly corrupt and asinine and unpleasant every day, and hell-bent on making a country full of rancorous, paranoid citizens who can have access to crazy guns, but perhaps less access to education and healthcare and the privacy of a telephone call, and who are managed like cattle on a strict diet of fossil fuels.

So, yes, I agree that there are some problems with the world. Often, I get so overwhelmed by the weight of all the troubles I see the world as having that I can’t figure out how or why to get out of bed, or, once up, what in the name of all that is holy, I should do with my day, with my life, in terms of mitigating the rather daunting ills of it all. Days like that, it seems that the news cycle is taunting the good people of the world that we’re all going to lose, that there is no point in going on, that the game is rigged, over, and we should just tuck in, move to higher ground, and prepare to ride out the Apocalypse.

I don’t believe that. In pockets and corners of communities, I’m finding increasing signs of life, of evidence that we are winning, that the handbasket to hell is being actively unwoven. It’s not that we’ve won, it’s that we’re moving in the right direction. I thought of this while walking from my parents’ house to the local ice cream store. Twenty years ago, the property was an active dairy. Then the farmers decided to stop farming (I hear it’s exhausting). The land was put into conservation protection, and now the ice cream store, nature trails, a corn maze, petting zoo of farm animals, a CSA, an independent middle school, and a community meeting space all share the turf, along with a few cows still browsing around the fields. This is an amazing step in the right direction!

One of the problems with the current environmental/social “Save the World” movement is that we don’t celebrate our successes well. Admittedly, the task before us is Sisyphian, and it seems bad luck and premature to throw a party for every few inches we nudge that rock upslope. It’ll be better if we can, though. This is a movement of passion, of joy, of wanting to save places and traditions and things we love in our lives. I think using that as a starting point may be a better rallying cry and battle song than fear and doom and destruction.

I attended a letter writing party last night, put on by the Massachusetts branch of www.350.org  (www.350ma.org.) As a small group, clustered in the corner of a basketball court on the third floor of a Baptist church, we wrote letters to State legislators, begging them to support divestment. In inviting friends to come along, I had an interesting exchange with one friend. He asked, if—as he believes—investments by outsiders is the smallest third of the fossil fuel companies, then what was the purpose or expected success of pressuring schools and towns and churches and any institution that can to divest from fossil fuel interests.

This was my answer:
“I like that the Fossil Fuel divestment plan stems from the Anti-Apartheid movement. It's high time for social and environmental movements to merge, and that modeling this strategy on something that worked, rather than on continuing to have the Sierra Club lobby against Exxon in Congress is likely a better solution. Or at least, a better path towards a solution. 
And here is the other piece: it's easy to grasp, it's easy to target, and so, it's easy to get people involved. We're, most of us I think, wandering around feeling lonely and frustrated and scared and unsure about what we can each do, what tiny drop in the bucket will one individual's actions make. I see divestment as a way to both get some money out of fossil fuels, and to rally the fuck out of the base. I don't know what solutions and changes will come out of all this rallying, all this sharing of ideas and the partial erasure of loneliness, but I trust, very much, that something will. 
If we can use the new, climatically empowered communities built around divesting and then start to knock out shit like government subsidies and increase fuel and energy efficiency and advocate for better public transportation and community design and all the rest that we need, then that seems like a good enough start to get behind. For me, at least. I'm feeling very Churchillian about this: Divestment is not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. But! There is so much worth sticking out a long battle FOR!!!!!”

I used to have a scrap of paper over my desk that read “What would you do if the world were saved?” I lost it, but have absorbed the idea into my litany of personal pep talks when the boulder gets heavy and the mountain steep and I become frustrated and heartbroken and terrified by what still needs to be done. We spend a lot of time hunkering down, trying to both prevent and prepare for the worst. In doing so, it seems like we’re admitting defeat, which I fear may beget defeat. But, in some ways, we’re already doing so well! It's important that we take note of that, absorb and feed off our successes. I think of the weeds, unstopped by pavement or transplanting or crowding out by showier species. So, let’s start acting like we CAN win this. And then, let’s.

(Video is from A League of Their Own, obviously.)

Friday, June 7, 2013

Pranks and Fairy Tales


There is an innocent glee about a good prank that makes the whole experience feel like a combination of a snow day, your best birthday wish ever, and discovering the secret to a magic trick. The disbelief, the wondering, the reveal, and all of this sweet mischief happening outside the bounds of expectations makes it seem as if a different reality than the one of logic and reason. Through the subversion of normal that a good prank requires, something alternate seems briefly possible.

Think of the Loch Ness Monster photos from the 1930s, or the Cottingley fairy photos of the 1910s (above, from wikipedia.) Much as my childhood nightmares were (almost) soothed by the rationale that Nessie was not real, that the photos of a dinosaur’s head and torso appearing out of murky lake waters were not real, it makes the world seem a little dull if we do not have sea monsters and fairies. I’d like some places on the maps where dragons could still lurk, where adventures with the unknown and alternate realities could happen. Where a door to something, anything outside of the normal— which can seem stiflingly dull and predictable—opens, just briefly enough that you can slip through. The fairies may be paper, the monster may be glued in place, but how lovely, for a moment, to think otherwise.

But, how would it be to live otherwise? Not that one leaves bowls of milk out for fairies (although, really, why not?) or expects witches and goblins to fly across the full moon, but that one lives outside the bounds of what seems dull, predictable, and logical. This is Robert Frost’s oft quoted “road less traveled” writ large. Which ever road one takes, we’re all heading to the same end point, it’s just a matter of how we get there, and how we go about our living these lives we’ve got, stretching through the yellow wood. That I am living now, and that I won’t always be, I find this thought not morbid in the least but rather a reminder to spend my days better.

Most times, this better-living doesn’t look like what I thought being an adult would look like. Despite all odds and evidence to the contrary, some little piece of me has had a bizarre Rockwellian vision of what adult life should be. (Also, Rockwell’s psychiatrist apparently told him that he painted, rather than lived, his happiness.) I’m now 31, which seems like a comfortable age to start thinking of oneself as an adult. Someone who should put away fairy tales and not be afraid of hoax-monsters, who should reconcile na├»ve hopes of saving the world with what is possible, who should start being a productive member of society and the economy. I should work from 9-5, find my one true love, marry him with a large diamond ring, buy a house, have some kids, vacation for two weeks a year, contribute to retirement funds, and so on. Traditional wisdom and the lore of modern American media both promise me that this combination of actions will make me happy.

I am suspicious. While many may find happiness this way, I doubt the universality of this being the only true path, of any happiness being one size fits all. It seems like a hoax, which in my mind has a darker intent than a prank. A prank is lighthearted, and makes you laugh, after that brief glimpse of the door to elsewhere. A hoax is like a methodical con, where someone more powerful dupes someone with less power and calls it a success. Maniacal laughter can ensue on one end and feelings of self-doubt on the other. This is not kind. I do not wish to participate in that sort of game.

But to go outside the bounds of expectations, I’ll gladly play that game. I have six years of advanced education and two degrees and am about to start working as a low-level landscaper. A friend recently said “You’re going to get paid to do what people do for fun in their spare time?” That’s an incredible perspective, because it is true. I feel like I’m playing a huge prank on the world, or, rather, on the systemic expectations of our country’s culture. Let others scurry off to their cubicles, leaving home early to avoid traffic on the commute, wearing pantyhose and neckties. I’ll just be here, in their gardens, planting flowers. I can't even write that without smiling, without feeling like David or Jack playing a prank on their respective oppressive giants. It's like I've gotten away with something. And whatever that thing is, heart or soul or sanity, it's priceless.

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.” Such was Edward Abbey’s advice to environmental activists at an Earth First! rally. It’s pretty good advice for everything, though—pull your heart of out the safety deposit box, use your best self for what you love, be mentally and physically active, and you will be victorious over people who are stuck in the ruts of bad systems and unkind hoaxes.

These folks with their locked hearts and desk calculators, maybe they’re not willfully bastards. Maybe they just don’t know how to believe in anything else, how to live any other way. We’ll have to lead by example, then, like fairy tales being passed down by fireside traditions until the archetypes are burnt into our bones. To subvert the crushingly dominant power structures, to exit the tired game we’re not winning, this is the greatest prank I can think of, the best trick I want to be part of pulling off. And, like any good prank, this is more fun with gleeful co-conspirators. Robert Frost, taker of twisting paths, thought so, too:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long. — You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.— You come too.

-The Pasture, by Robert Frost-

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Yoga and Montana's Tongue River Valley


I live on the line between Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts. This geography means, among many other things, that on weekend mornings, the streets are crawling with young, hip, well-educated seeming people, all wearing yoga pants/black tights and hurrying around with yoga mats poking out of their bike baskets/Timbuktu messenger bags/Patagonia backpacks.

Now, I get it. Yoga is great. Heck, wearing a pair of paint-covered shorts and a ratty sweater and intensely supervised by my dog, I just spent a lovely thirty minutes with an online yoga lesson, in the privacy of my living room. I stretched my leaden hamstrings and lengthened my cramped back and side body. And I feel much better than I did before. Similarly, I have many friends who have found enormous comfort and strength from consistent practice of the discipline. It’s helped with chronic back issues, allergies, pregnancies, pulled muscles, depression, body image issues, and a host of others slings and arrows that our flesh is heir to. So I’m not knocking yoga, itself.

But I am concerned, when I see the army of hipster yogis flocking to class all at one time because it seems like an army of sad robots, blinded to the world by an intense yearning for personal enlightenment, for personal peace. I’ve attended yoga classes on and off, and what increasingly disturbs me is how little connection is made between the practice of bodily-awareness and anything beyond the yoga studio. They look just as frantic, as stressed, as harried leaving the studios, largely, as they do streaming in.

So, what is all this glorious, heightened awareness of our chakras, our inner eyes, and our abilities to move the energy of a deep breath into heretofore unknown nooks and crannies of our bodies…what is all this for? Because the armies of Cambriville yogis I see commuting with yoga mats and canvas grocery bags seem no happier or more peaceful than their weekday counterparts running for the T in business casual. The majority of these people are rushing, yammering into their phones, and barely keeping their outer two eyes focused on the present, let alone their inner, third eye. All of this practice, all of these practitioners, and we’re not raising the collective consciousness an appreciable amount.

The problem may lie in the blurriness of the line between selfishness and self-awareness. Yoga, as practiced by the yuppies, hipsters, and hippies of my observation, seems to dance this line fairly consistently. The Deep Ecologist in my soul wants more. First you must become aware of yourself, then your community, then the wider world, until your empathy and awareness extends through everything. But these are not clean, linear steps—you can think and act a little more empathetically in the world, regardless of how perfect your crouching warrior or happy baby poses are. Thinking a little harder, practicing a little harder and more consistently about the everything beyond the body, everything to which we are a part, I suspect that this could lead to some pretty great individual and collective happiness, and possibly, greater peace, global and personal.

Here and elsewhere I have written about my commitment to the landscape that I love. If you get enough place-based folks together, it begins to sound like a revival tent sermon. Everyone bearing witness to their land, speaking in tongues and raising hands and hearts and practically swimming in the mutual love of individual landscapes.

And, to this I say, heartily, Amen and Hallelujah and Shalom and Insha’Allah and any other words of sacred peace and joy. Bear your witness, love your land, your communities, your home.

But, it is not quite enough anymore just to think of ourselves, our own lands. We’ve largely, found our voices, found the strength to speak our truths. And, having done so, the time is well nigh to listen to others, and to speak up for others’ truths. A bunch of individuals saying different things is noise—a bunch of people speaking together, this feels a little more powerful, a little more effective.

Pastor Martin Niemoller was imprisoned in two concentration camps for his vocal opposition to Nazi control of German churches. When he was released, he wrote these words:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—

because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me—

and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

A good friend of mine, Beth Raboin, wrote to me a last week to tell me about a project that she is working on. Beth lives in Billings, Montana and writes for both her own blog, walksonstilts.worpress.com, and for www.hothouseblog.org. Beth’s latest project is to go around the Tongue River Valley of Montana and find the stories that aren’t being told, the stories of the people of that magnificent landscape.

The West has a mythos of being a hard and beautiful landscape. The phrase “The West” alone inspires an admirable panoply of images of the American mythos. But the truth of the place, the true stories of a landscape that demands equal parts love and work, these are better than any fiction. And the West is not simply big mountains and cowboy hats, any more than New England is a Red Sox game, with some maple syrup on the side. Our places, wherever they are, are known and defined and held through the stories, through the human history as much as they are by anything else.

And Beth knows this. Her rationale for going into the field, for knocking on the doors of local cowboys and Indians alike, armed with her tape recorder, notebook, her irrepressible humor and willingness to listen, is because this land is under direct siege. I write a lot about how I fear something in me would die if the alpine zone or rocky coastlines of New England disappeared. And while climate change is a real and terrifying burglar, casing the security of my loved places and prepared to enter and rob me, and the world, of them, what the Tongue River Valley faces is far more direct, far more immediate.

A coal train is proposed to cut through the Tongue River Valley, to better connect with the coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. The mining area is likely to be expanded, also, ruining other landscapes that are sacred to people, that are home to a wonderful variety of flora and fauna. I’m vehemently opposed to coal as a power source, so this whole “at least the coal is American and providing jobs” line is moot, with me. There are jobs in putting up solar panels and wind turbines, and the Powder River coal seems to largely go to China, so this train has no bearing on our country’s best interests.

Beth and the stories she will collect like a magpie are tools to stop the coal train. She aims to dig in, to find the stories of the people, the stories that tie them to this landscape, to tour the ranches and burial sites, and to mine the land for its better riches. More information about this project is at the Tongue River Legacy Project’s website. I hope in my bones that a collection of stories about how precious the land is will stop a coal train’s construction. The land is being revalued through these stories, re-known, learned and shared and its pride and the power of the people dusted off. Change has come from smaller seeds before.

In this battle for a better world, these words are my best tool. Beth wrote to me, asking, essentially, to hire my guns for the campaign to save a land she loves, that I barely know. She asked because I love places fiercely. All she was asking was that I transfer some of that love, some of that awareness, out of myself and onto a different place. Try it. Imagine your most beloved landscape, with your beloved people, ancestors and descendents and the living, all on the brink of being plowed under by a coal train. Or becoming a desert before your newborn baby is your age. Or your grandparents’ graves being washed out to sea. And know that somewhere, at any given time, these things are happening to another person’s beloved. The Tongue River Valley is one such place. It is not the only one.

One of my favorite yoga poses is Warrior. I like it because it stretches my back and my legs, which, after years of traipsing around the mountains, are chronically tight. I also like the name. It is time to take the strength and dedication and peace of such practices and make them real through our actions outside yoga studios. The world needs us to listen, and to speak out.