I dreamt of bears on Friday night, having read of a black bear on Camel’s Hump who’s not afraid of humans. A popular Long Trail campsite below the summit has been shut down for the summer, and hikers are encouraged not to take the Dean trail that leads through the site. In my dream, it was five bears, not one, and they were brown, not black, all after the food in my pack.
Despite this, I was on the trail the next morning at 8:30 with my dog, Pebble. My legs fell into a comfortable rhythm as Pebble pranced and snouted along the worn path of the Monroe Trail, 3.1 miles from parking lot to summit. It felt good to sweat, to fall back into a familiarity on this mountainside that my legs first learned when I was four years old and determined to hike “by own self.” Halfway up I stopped where water dropped off a rock and crossed the trail, and I cupped my hands to catch the water and splash my face, cool my neck and the pulse on my wrists while Pebble lapped at the stream.
Sweat returned quickly as we climbed higher toward the alpine tundra of the summit, but the winds on the exposed peak cooled me and whipped loosened hair from my ponytail across my face. As Pebble and I walked the rocky top a family came up from another trail.
“Zoe! Sit down! You’re making me nervous.” I looked up to see a smiling girl around 8 slow her pace and crouch down at her mother’s call. It made me think of my mom and all the times my brother and I pushed her limits of comfort as we explored the edges of summits. Zoe was no where near an edge, surrounded instead by rounded slabs and alpine plants that traced through cracks in the rock, and though the wind pressed her back and ballooned her jacket on one side, her feet were firmly on the ground, the risk of blowing away far less than the risk of tripping on a root when they got back on the trail.
It made me think of risk and what we learn of it as children, of what we teach our children as adults. It made me think of the difference between real and perceived risk, and how we learn to be alive.
My mom was raised with the phrase you can’t be too careful, but she traded this phrase for another when she raised me, saying the greatest longing of the soul is to be free. Though it was her voice that called me away from rocky edges, she brought me to the mountain.
It would be too easy and simplistic to say that my dad taught me risk and my mom taught me safety. The two are tied together. Without risk the vitality of the soul isn’t safe, and without safety–the safety of love and trust and a web of people who support you–risk becomes riddled with fear rather than aliveness.
I am after aliveness. I am after the vitality of soul, the exhilaration of exposure, the peace of solitude.
Hiking reminds me how to find all this, how to move with it and hold myself in its presence when I am not alone on a trail. When I am alone on a trail, it reminds me that the risk of running into a bear is worth each footstep that allows my mind to wander, my heart to center, and my spirit to become more alive.
The biggest risk to life, to the quality of being alive, is not going to the mountain, but rather never going to it at all.
Summer grows roots from my feet into the soil of this land. The sun bleaches streaks of blonde in my strawberry hair, and freckles emerge like seeds on my skin.
The earth and light do their part to keep me here, though the wind blows in some afternoons and I feel the old pull of travel tug at my chest.
On morning walks with the dogs, Waylon on my back, I follow worn paths through the forest and imagine the roots of my feet rolling up and down the land like waves, loosening my body with each step so I may follow the breath of air.
Some mornings before I finish my tea, the light travels for me, and I step outside to move with the rising mist and sun rays filtering down toward the soil, whispering a single word: soften.
I remember the tug I often feel while traveling, to stop in one place and dig in, to find the veins of the land and match my rhythm to their pulse.
The morning turns to day imperceptibly, suddenly, and tasks take their place in my mind as the sun rises high into a clear sky. It’s time to tend to the fields now.
All day the light travels, bringing evening about, and we hang our tools and prepare dinner and sit outside to eat as the earth tilts away from the sun and the sky dances itself into sunset.
The air is still and my chest is quiet and my soles root into grass.
The light deepens into night, and though I’ve not left this land all day, I’ve witnessed movement, been part of the full round stretch of day and the long exhale of twilight.
Soil has worked itself deep into the crevices of my skin, along the outside edges of my forefingers, where I grab at knotweed and plantain, twist the roots of grass and pull them from beds.
It colors the half-moons of my fingernails and stains beneath the tips.
On my palms, three callouses rise on each hand, trailing from the base of the middle fingers in a slant to my pinkies. I didn’t notice their summer return until a chef-friend (with impeccably clean hands) pointed them out as he looked at the engraving of the arctic landscape on my wedding ring.
That was a month ago. Now they rise from soft valleys, blunt peaks born from hoe and shovel.
Enough scrubbing could clean my fingernails for one night, though the next day the soil would again find its place on my body.
And the callouses–what else is there to do but celebrate the mirror of mountains on my palms.
There are times when the roads of my inner landscape are covered with rocks, and my ankles feel weak, and I’m not sure which way to go, until a note of beauty strikes my ears and I gulp in the sounds directing me aright. There are times when life is so full that the smallest ounce of beauty brings me to tears.
Beauty doesn’t hide in the realm of joy. That’s it’s power–it’s ability to catch us as we stumble, it’s ability to wake us from blindness, to hold us in sadness, to guide us through pain.
There is so much beauty in this world. Why can’t we bathe in it, share it, spread it?
That’s what I’m after now, to share beauty with you all. So I share with you this song, A Clearing in the Wild, by Red Tail Ring, which struck a chord in my heart and re-awakened a longing that pulls me to the wilderness:
“let yourself go
sigh like the rapids
breathe down your body
let the dam overflow
and release the day like a thunder of sparrows
and lie in the stillness when everything’s gone.”
It’s high summer, when computer time dwindles and the fields keep me outside. I turn my posts now to frames of beauty, to moments of stillness and moments of wonder and moments that rush through my heart, beating me alive.
A certain quality of light infuses my days, and I can’t help but fall into it.
These mountains we live across from pour the evenings over us, wash us in mists and sunsets, reflect the first light of each new day’s dawn.
This is summer, this letting go of extraneous matters and responsibilities, this filling up of light, this wordless pull to the outside that quiets the core of my being.
Some days I feel more than I think.
This morning is overcast with intermittent rain, as if a shower head is being turned on and off and on at random intervals. It’s a morning I want to turn a shower on, rather than pump water into a pot, heat it on the stove, take it out to the sauna, scoop it with a yogurt cup, and pour it over my head.
On most days, I love this. I look down at my feet in the small black tub, meant by its manufacturer as an animal watering trough, and see how little water my bathing requires. I stand alone in the sauna and breathe in the solitude of an enclosed space dedicated to one thing, so different from the open circle of our yurt, where there are no lines or doors between bedroom, kitchen, living room, playroom, and office.
But today I feel the clouds moving overhead, and I can’t put into words the vulnerability and power that pushes against each other within their deep gray forms stretching across the sky. It’s a day I want everything to be easy and a day I know nothing will be if I hold to this desire. It’s a day I feel vulnerable for no particular reason. A day I feel emotion and creativity and power well up inside me from that vulnerability.
It’s a day I want to tell you that it’s okay to take pictures of things that aren’t pretty. It’s okay and good and beautiful to sit with the things that slow you down, the things that make you vulnerable, the things that for whatever reason make clouds billow up in your chest.
I don’t have any pictures for you today, just these words and the wind blowing diagonal up the field, which will perhaps reach you, wherever you are, to tousle your hair and pull you from somnambulism into presence.
A heavy rain last night, and now a cool morning. Tall grasses adorned with seed heads give indication of the slightest breeze, as they dip and swirl as if in conversation. It’s a language I can’t decipher in words, yet I feel their gentle contentment in the burgeoning sun and the drips of water sliding from their slender leaves.
There is birdsong, as usual these mornings, but I cannot tell you what birds are singing. After 28 years of living, I can identify only the songs of chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, crows and ravens. I can hear the high screech of hawks overhead, but do not know what type of hawk it is. For a few years I knew the sound of saw-whet owls and the different beats of woodpeckers, but they are memories of my memory now, and I am in need of a new lesson.
In a recent essay titled Landspeak in Orion Magazine, Robert MacFarlane writes about the deletion of nature-based words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and the way human relationship to nature changes as we lose the ability to interact with nature through language. He writes:
“A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. As the writer Henry Porter observed, the OUP [Oxford University Press] deletions removed the ‘euphonious vocabulary of the natural world—words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it.'”
A few weeks after reading MacFarlane’s essay, I heard a commentary on Vermont Public Radio, titled “Documenting the Decline,” in which Vic Henningson notes MacFarlane’s writings, and says:
“As the number of botanists declines and words relating to nature disappear from dictionaries, the evidence suggests we’re becoming strangers to the natural world, victims of self-inflicted ecological illiteracy. And when we no longer understand nature, no doubt we’ll finally stop worrying about climate change. We’ll still enjoy looking at nature, but as novelist and naturalist John Fowles noted, landscape alone is a “bare lifeless body” without the flora and fauna that give it speech, movement, and dress. ‘Without natural history’ hewrote, ‘the world is only a fraction seen. [Imagine] not knowing any flowers, any birds. [T]o so many, they are meaningless hieroglyphs.'”
It took me 19 years to begin learning the names of trees, plants and wild animals in a meaningful way. As a student on the Adirondack Semester, I was immersed in nature, and our ecology class gave us the language to enter the landscape. Six years later I took lessons in the language of Vermont’s natural landscape through the Wisdom of the Herbs School, and I opened myself to a new world of wild edibles and medicinals. I learned that the natural world is always open to us; transforming our understanding of nature from a “fraction seen” to a whole web of living beings is a matter of transforming our own relationship with the life around us. It’s a matter of opening ourselves to the wonder of learning and the mystery of the natural world.
Now I can tell you about the differences between cultivated plant varieties you grow in your garden, and how to increase your yields with organic growing practices, but on the edge of the garden the field begins, and beyond that the forest spreads like a waves over hillsides and mountains. At the chatter of a squirrel or the call of a bird, my son stops and listens, his mouth forming a perfect circle, his eyebrows lifting his eyes wide open in exclamation as he points toward the sound–Mama, did you hear that?!
I see in him our natural place in the layers of the world; how we are constantly drawn to nature, to learning those layers and becoming a part of the landscape around us, how this is wired within us. His curiosity wakes up my own, and I realize the joy and responsibility of teaching him this language. It means I have to learn it, too, and for that I am grateful.