Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Morel Envy; A Case Study

Ever since I became interested in edible fungi, the same thing happens every Spring. In early April, I start thinking about morels. I look for them weeks before I know they’ll be out. A quiet voice nags me- “This year they might come out freakishly early and you won’t want to miss them.”

They never come out freakishly early.

Also, every year I tell myself that I don’t actually care that much about morels. I tell myself there are other mushrooms I prefer- like hen of the woods, which is delicious and can be harvested readily in great quantities. Sure morels taste good, especially when sautéed in butter, but then again what doesn’t taste good sautéed in butter? I tell myself that I am better than the morel snobs out there who act as if “their” patches were deeded to them by the gods as part of their sacred birthright. I am not like them. I am generous. I have taken close friends to morel patches to let them experience the magic. For me, finding mushroom treasures feels somewhat hollow if I’m alone. I like seeing the joy radiate from a friend’s face when they stumble upon their first brain-shaped little wonder.

Of course my generosity has its limits. One must display an appropriate amount of deference if they have any hope of learning my secrets. One must demonstrate a genuine desire to learn. One must not complain about walking off-trail, over hills, and through brambles. One must show an interest in learning about trees, plants, soils, and other types of fungi besides morels. Morels are part of the forest ecosystem and one part of the system corresponds with the others. For example, I have learned that it is futile to look for morels if the May Apples are too small and the Dryad’s Saddle isn’t fruiting. Most importantly, one must convey that they understand that the forest isn’t a damn grocery store.

Just because I am open to sharing the gift of morels with others does not mean that I am above the base human emotions. I get annoyed when people I barely know ask me for hints on locations. I get more than annoyed when those people have the almighty gall ask me outright to show them my patches. After all, it’s taken me countless hours of slogging around wet forests, crawling on my hands and knees through brambles, literally circling the bases of thousands of trees to find the elusive fungi. I’ve logged innumerable hours learning about the trees that morels often associate with. I’ve learned to identify them by bark, leaves, flowers, and fruit. I’ve learned the Latin names. In short, I’ve put in the work and they haven’t.

This past weekend, I experienced another base human emotion. Morel envy. On Saturday a few of us went to a known morel spot and had a look around. We found three sad looking morels. They were brittle and covered with mold. On Saturday evening, I told myself that I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to spend my entire weekend traipsing around the woods looking for mushrooms that I pretend to not even care about. My girlfriend and I would spend our Sunday being lazy and doing miscellaneous things that we had been meaning to do for a while. Perhaps we would look the next weekend.

Then it happened. On Sunday morning, my friend Sara texted me a photo. She was holding a sack over-brimming with giant morels. Each mushroom must have been at least five inches long. There was no mold. They didn’t look brittle. They were perfect, and she had about 25 of them! She and her boyfriend chanced upon them in a forest they were visiting for the very first time. Fortune had really smiled on those lucky dogs.

My heart sank. I showed the picture to my girlfriend Katya.

Joy or smugness? You decide.

“What can we do about this?”, she asked.

“There’s only one thing we can do. We need to scrap everything and get out there”, I responded.

Our lazy Sunday got active real quick. Within five minutes we had changed out of our PJs and into our forest attire. I filled our water bottles and hastily stuffed some bread and fruit in a bag. We threw our supplies into the car and were driving. But to where?

I have lived in DC for over three years now, and know of just one reliable morel spot in the region. However, I had already checked that spot the day prior with little success. I wracked my brain to think of a location.

“Hmmm, let me think. Drive north for now. That’s our best option” I said.

Picking new morel hunting grounds on the fly is no easy task. In fact, anyone undertaking such an endeavor should make it easy on themselves and simply assume they will not have any success. I considered latitude. I considered geography. I considered elevation. Most importantly, I considered tree types.

I learned to forage in upstate New York. In New York, morels like dying white ash trees. However, I couldn’t think of many good stands of ash in the area.

The story of morels is somewhat sad. They are continuous orphans of a sort. Over the past several decades, the trees that morels like to associate with have been ravaged by this fungus or that insect. At some point in history, morels liked to associate with elm trees. However, Dutch Elm Disease virtually wiped out all of the elms. So they learned to like white ash. Now the emerald ash borer is devastating white ash trees. For the time being, however, the dying ashes still yield morels. In the Mid-Atlantic, morels also like tulip poplars, and there’s plenty of those in Piedmont forests in the region.

I remembered some small-ish ash and poplar forests out in rural Maryland that could offer some hope. We hurried there. We parked the car and I raced into the forest, Katya trailing behind me. I began dashing around the forest like a madman, scouring the base of every tree. It looked like perfect habitat. The only problem was we weren’t finding any.

After about an hour, we clambered out of a dense thicket and headed back towards the car. Katya spotted a sad, slug-eaten morel that I had just walked over without noticing. It may have been sad, but it was the first morel she had ever spotted on her own.

“I don’t even think this counts. It’s all rotted.”, she said.

“You can still take credit for it”, I assured her.

However, we both knew that she wouldn’t be satisfied until she found a healthier specimen.

“This area looks and feels perfect. There should be tons here.”, I said.

However, morels appear when and where they damn well please.

We got to the car and took off down the road. As we were driving, I remembered another nearby forest that I had visited the past Fall. I had made a mental note that there were some ashes there.

We parked hurriedly and again we were off. About three minutes in, we found some Dryad’s Saddle that was just past its prime. Dryad’s Saddle is an edible poplypore fungus that fruits around the same time as morels. It is also far more common and easier to find than morels, so it has been humorously labeled “the poor man’s morel”. I’m not above poor man’s morels. They are excellent sautéed or pickled. Anyways, it was a good sign. The time of year was right.

In my opinion, there was too much oak around. Morels don’t want anything to do with oak. “Let’s get away from this oak. We must find ash or poplar. Come on.”, I said.

We crested a hill and walked for about a half mile. I paused and noticed a river below us. Next to the river was a vast flood plain dominated by massive tulip poplars interspersed with dying ash. It was a glorious sight for two people in a morel frenzy.

We walked down to the plain. A family was fishing a few hundred yards downstream. Again, like a lunatic, I started racing around the bottom of promising looking trees. I checked four or five giant poplars to no avail. Then I noticed some more Dryad’s Saddle out of the corner of my eye. I went over to see if it was fresh, but saw right away that it was not. “We can’t even find poor man’s morels today”, I joked.

I took one step and stopped dead in my tracks. A giant gray morel, hardly visible, was hiding in the underbrush.

“Sweet Jesus I found one!”, I yelled to Katya.

She raced over and marveled at it. It was flawless. Firm, free of mold, and very large- but not so large that it was starting to deteriorate.

“How did you even see that?”, she asked?

“After a while, you just get locked in. You get those morel eyes”, I responded.

I glanced towards the family fishing downstream to make sure they weren’t paying attention to us. Couldn’t have looky-loos capitalizing on our hard work (Truthfully, most people probably wouldn’t have noticed what we were doing, and even if they did, they wouldn’t actually go out and harvest their own). Safe from looky-loos, I bent down and photographed the mushroom before harvesting it.

Here's the little beauty as she sat. 

With a new-found energy we began searching every promising tree. I found another magnificent morel not even a minute later. It was a giant blonde. We moved methodically through the forest, occasionally getting on our hands and knees to make sure we weren’t missing any in the dense grasses. Katya and I walked in parallel, she closer to the riverbank, me more inland. The next ten minutes were every morel hunter’s dream (see map below for the exact location we struck gold).

Here's where we found em'.

I found one every minute or so, and would tell Katya “Go and check that tree over there, it looks promising.” While she was searching that tree, I would find another one. This happened so many times that we began to joke that I was intentionally sabotaging her.

“There’s one. And another! And another!! Oh boy!!!” I exclaimed.

One giant tulip poplar had six perfect specimens around its base. I have found this to be rare with tulip poplars. Multi-morel fruitings are relatively common under ash trees. However, I have found that morels tend to pop up individually under tulip poplars- maybe as a pair if you’re lucky.

Katya was amazed. She was finally getting a proper morel experience and it was a pleasure to see her excitement. She found another, however, it was also past its prime. We continued on, having scoured several acres in a short amount of time. I was checking out some ash trees when I heard Katya.

“I found a real one! My first real one!”, she yelled joyously.

Indeed, she had. It was a medium-sized gray morel, and very difficult to spot for even the most trained eye. I gave her a congratulatory hug and we did a little dance.

First proper morel victory dance by Katya.

After that, things quieted down some. We found a few more, but the flood gates had closed. All told, we found about 15 prime mushrooms.

That evening we cooked our bounty in a well-buttered cast iron pan. They were delicious, and gone within two minutes. Katya and I looked at each other smiling, sharing a deep satisfaction that probably only other morel nuts can understand.

Look at those beauts sizzling away.

I have decided to stop pretending that I don’t care about morels. I’m bonkers for them, for so many reasons. They are one of the first mushrooms up in the Spring, which is nice for mushroom nerds like myself who have just suffered through months of frigid, fungi-less conditions. They only grace us with their presence for a few short weeks if we are lucky. They are really, really difficult to find, which makes finding them very rewarding. They have stymied numerous human attempts to cultivate them. Nothing else tastes exactly like morels, and they taste great sautéed in butter.

But it goes deeper yet. Over the past several years, I have been on a quest to learn as much as I can about Nature’s wonders- wonders that are still there even if most people don’t know to look for them. I am on a quest to learn about Nature’s cycles and to find my place within those cycles. 

I have found a rogue morel or two by happenstance. But I have never accidentally found myself in a bona fide morel patch. If I am standing in a morel patch, all of the conditions are just right- the season, the weather, the elevation, the trees, and the soils. While I have no control over those natural conditions, I do have the capacity to learn about them and from them. If I’m standing in a morel patch, it’s because I have put in the time, the miles, my sweat, and my blood. I have employed my full suite of naturalist skills just to give myself a fighting chance. When I am standing in a morel patch, I am overcome with the sensation that I am precisely where and when I should be. And I tell you this- I don’t spend my free time painstakingly scouring countless acres of forest because I like the taste of things sautéed in butter. I do it because if I don’t, how the hell am I supposed to match or one-up that smug Sara?*

*Note: In reality, Sara and her boyfriend are lovely people and very dear friends. However, sometimes even lovely people have to suffer for the sake of the narrative. Like the market, its in control. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Joseph's Bright Idea

I live in Washington DC. While I normally relish opportunities to disparage anything and everything about this city, it does have a few things going for it. For example, it is possible get out of it. Unlike some big cities, you can actually escape for the weekends and get to something that resembles gen-u-ine wilderness. Granted it takes some effort. You have to drive at least three hours into WV to really get away- and it takes the first hour just to drive the short five miles to escape DC proper. Of course, for city folk, rural West Virginia can be, well, an experience. Theres a popular house and lawn decoration out that way. Its a red flag with a big blue X in the center, which is filled with white stars. Im not sure what it means exactly, but Ive heard it has something to do with equality. And I tell you this- the Dems definitely dont have many out-of-the-closet supporters in those parts. However, I dont want to make it seem like all West-Virginians are intolerant. For example, on the road leading to one of our favorite camping spots, theres a church with All Races Welcome painted right there on the side of it.

If you asked me a few weeks ago, I would have been hesitant to call any Mid-Atlantic forest gen-u-ine wilderness. For anyone thats been to the West, you get it. Most Eastern forests were clearcut at some point in the not too distant past. The mountains, while beautiful in some cases, kind of feel like hills if Im being honest. When you get to the tops of those hills ahem- I mean mountains- youre far more likely to see roads, houses, and farm land than virgin landscapes. Bucolic yes, but wild? And while part of me appreciates the fact that Ill never be eaten by mountain lions in West Virginia, another part of me would gladly offer myself up as a big cats lunch if it meant the area was as wild as it once was.

However, my girlfriend Katya and I recently had a gen-u-ine wilderness experience, but not because we were necessarily seeking one. It all started because I had a bright idea.

It was early April and the weather in DC was mild. We both had a long weekend and planned to go backpacking. We looked into some hikes and settled on one of our old stand-bys- Dolly Sods. Dolly Sods is a wilderness area in the Monongahela National Forest with some unique attributes. The landscape is somewhat reminiscent of upstate New York or southern Canada. At elevations above 4000 ft., the dominant tree types are spruce, birch, and maple- very different from the typical oak-dominated Appalachian forests. There are vast meadows filled with blueberry bushes and peat bogs chock full of lowbush cranberries. There are streams and plunge pools to dip in on hot summer days.

This is what Dolly Sods looks like...sometimes.

I have seen hiking forums that describe Dolly Sods as unique in climate as well as landscape. Apparently, it snows there even in early summer, and temperatures can vary wildly from microclimate to microclimate. Until last weekend we had only visited in late Spring, Summer, and Fall. Normally we drive to the trailheads on the eastern side of the park, which is essentially a plateau at the top of a mountain. However, last weekend, we encountered something we hadnt expected. An extended section of the forest road was closed for the winter. The road was blocked some five and a half miles shy of our desired trailhead. It was annoying, however, neither one of us wanted to abandon our plans to camp out. It just meant that we would have to walk an additional five and a half miles uphill in the rain before reaching the trailhead.  Backpacking isnt always roses.

We loaded our gear, slung our heavy packs on our shoulders, and headed up the switchbacks. As we ascended, I grew more and more annoyed. The road was in great shape. There was no need for it to be closed. The rain intensified and the temperatures dropped noticeably as we gained elevation. Walking uphill isnt actually that much fun. 

Five miles uphill could mean a few more hours of this, I said. 

And thats when I had my bright idea. What if we were to bushwhack up the side of the mountain, avoid the switchbacks, cut across the plateau to the forest road, and arrive in glorious triumph at the trailhead having shaved off some serious time?

Initially Katya was dubious. The grade off-road was ludicrously steep and there were large rocks everywhere that would obviously make locomotion difficult. However, I can be convincing. We either spend a long period of time moderately exerting ourselves, or we do a short burst of extreme exertion, I said. After rounding yet another steep switchback, knowing there were many more to go, Katya became more amenable to the idea.

I scouted out the side of the mountain looking for something that was steep but not ludicrously steep. I found a game trail that snaked up the mountain. If deer use this trail, it probably isnt that bad, I said with utter conviction. Never mind the fact that deer are ungulates with hooves that have evolved to move about gracefully in wild landscapes.

I started up first. While the first fifty feet were very steep, the slope from that point on became more gradual. We occasionally needed to grab on to trees to pull ourselves up a particularly steep or slippery section, however, it was very doable. We climbed for about twenty minutes before reaching a level area dominated by incredibly dense mountain laurel thickets. We have to get through these thick laurels and over that small rocky hill before we reach the mountain-top plateau. From there we should just have to cross the plateau over some big rocks and well be at the trailhead in no time, I said.

Taking the lead, I tried to bust through the thickets in a few spots, but was repelled wholesale. I noticed another game trail that seemed like a better option. We started along the trail and found the laurels to be dense but penetrable. We reached the rocky hill and scrambled our way to the top. It was not easy by any means, but again, it was doable.

In my minds eye, everything was so clear. After cresting the hill, we would be atop a magnificent rocky plateau. We would hop from granite slab to granite slab unimpeded before reaching Forest Road 75.

That wasnt the case. Not even close.

We might has well have been on the surface of the moon. A massive escarpment of bare rock stood in front of us. There were enormous gaps between the rocks that would be challenging to cross. The smooth rocky highway I saw in my minds eye turned out to be bullshit.

I was discouraged, however in an attempt to convince myself that I should be excited, I invoked the spirit of an intrepid mountaineer- one who is able to pause and find transcendence in Natures beauty in even the harshest conditions. This is beautiful, I said. In reality, everything had turned to crap. It had become very cold atop the mountain. The wind howled at a steady 25 mph with frequent stronger gusts and drove the rain sideways in sheets, soaking our clothing. The rocks were slick and my thin-soled running shoes offered little in the form of traction. To boot, I was wearing eyeglasses and they had fogged over so completely that I was functionally blind.

Katya and I climbed over several sizable fissures to reach the base of the escarpment before carefully scaling the rock face. Baby, I know its rough but we just have to get to the top of these rocks and then we should be able to cut across to the road, I said.

Do I really have to tell you what happened? I didnt think so.

It was the moons surface still, only this time a lot more of it. Dense blueberry bushes made moving from rock to rock even more difficult, and painful. I wiped the fog from my glasses and saw that at least a mile that treacherous terrain stood between us and a tree line (which I guessed demarked the forest road). Katya stopped to don an extra pair of pants because the blueberry bushes were cutting her legs through her thin spandex leggings. It was at this point I remembered that I lived in 2017 and those fancy cell phone contraptions got GPS that tells you were you is.

I shielded the phone from the rain and looked at the screen. We were a tiny blue dot with lots of green around us. I zoomed out and saw that Forest Road 75 was about a mile in front of us. I assured Katya that my futuristic technology had confirmed what I knew all along. We were almost there. More crap.

I picked a large group of trees in the direction we needed to travel, however, it was impossible to walk in a straight line. The giant cracks between rocks forced us to walk in zig-zags, and made us focus so much on our feet that it was difficult to stay trained on our target. Katya was sure we were traveling in circles. I assured her that was not the case. In retrospect, Im pretty sure we were traveling in circles. I became increasingly disoriented and paused several times to take GPS readings. I was starting to worry that the rain was going to ruin my phone and leave it all up to my wits. In case you havent been paying attention, I dont have any.

We carefully climbed over the rocks for about an hour before finally reaching the trees. The GPS showed that the forest road was 75 yards in front of us. However, a wall of spruce, laurel, and rhododendron stood between us and the road. We looked for a way around the greenery, but our efforts proved fruitless. We would have to go through it.

I started into the dense vegetation, trying to find anything that resembled a path. Nothing. Thats when I went for broke. I used my shoulder to push apart the torturous branches and forced my way through with brute strength. My backpack hung up on everything. My glasses wouldnt stay on my face. Lacerations abounded. At one point I made it a few yards before realizing that I wasnt actually walking on the ground, but was instead walking on a mat of overturned branches and limbs a foot or two off the ground. We were traveling at the rate of about a meter a minute.

Bushwhacking takes a lot out of a person. I was positively winded and my muscles started to feel all gooey. My clothing and backpack were now dripping wet. I remember thinking that I couldnt take much more. It was just then I saw something that resembled light. I used my gooey muscles to power through the last few yards and finally broke through into open air. I took a few steps and found myself standing on Forest Road 75.

Its the road! I exclaimed. Katya joined me. We hugged and did a little dance. We proceeded on to the trailhead, still operating under the assumption we were going to camp out. It had rained so much that the trail was more river than trail. Its never good when a trail has a current Ive always said. Regardless, we started down the path, which cuts through vast meadows in the northern section of the park. Without the protection of trees, the wind buffeted our saturated bodies and we started to get real cold real fast. I was shivering. My dexterity was impaired. My fingers were pruned as if I had stayed in the bath for too long. I was worried that the forest was so wet it would be challenging if not impossible to make a fire. Our sleeping bags and extra clothes were obviously soaked. This is when I said the first intelligent thing in a while.

What if we were to just go home? I said.

Thats the only good idea Ive heard all day, Katya responded.

Yeah that wasn't happening.

We hopped and skipped down the road, rubbing our hands together to get some feeling back in them. Joy came easily as we made haste down the road. We werent fighting gravity. We werent fighting slippery boulders, gale force winds, or impenetrable forests. We knew we would be warm and comfortable that night. We got to the car and got the hell out of there.

On the drive home, Katya and I joked and listened to music. Its easy to joke when youre not hypothermic. Then I got to thinking about our ordeal and realized many things. First, we are pretty tough- physically and mentally. Some people would have panicked and/or collapsed if they were in our shoes. Second, we are adventurous. Plenty of people wouldnt have been in our shoes because they wouldnt have strayed off the road into unknown territory to begin with. Third, sometimes I have jelly for brains- not fancy currant jam or apricot preserves, but store-brand grape jelly (I for one like to blame mathematicians- it turns out the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line). 

Finally, I realized how important it was for me to have had that harrowing experience on the side of the mountain. How many chances do we get in this strip mall nightmare to feel the overwhelming force of unadulterated wilderness? How many chances do we get to feel completely vulnerable- not because we wear our hearts on our sleeves or someone shines a spotlight on our deepest insecurities- but because the landscape we are in can actually kill us? These were strange thoughts for me, because I spend so much time thinking about how I want to become more a part of the ecosystem. Over the past few years I have learned so much about how wilderness can potentially sustain and replenish us, but not so much about its occasional disregard for us, the ecosystem participants. 

However, these thoughts dont depress me. They give me hope. I often worry about how humans are destroying our precious planet. I worry that humans are incapable of being responsible stewards. However, our ordeal reminded me that Nature was here before us and will probably be here after us. People can buy into whatever nonsensical narratives they like that place humans in dominion over Nature. Humans can go on believing that Nature is there for us to exploit. Nature doesnt care. She is resilient. She is implacable. She is simply there- in all of her majesty, rawness, and occasional ferocity. Shes just there, and we can do more than take. We have the choice to open ourselves up to her enduring rhythms and the privilege to join in and make her song more beautiful still.

Monday, April 10, 2017

An Eternity in One Day

I’m beginning my 31st year today. In the past few days, I’ve often been asked what I want or what I want to do. I’ve mainly been reflecting upon the coming year, as it will be a big one; my daily life is going to change quite dramatically. I am giving myself the greatest gift of all this year, the gift of living in a way that’s better for me and the ecosystem I eventually settle in. But, I’m not going to write about any of that. Instead, I’d like to share a magical day that I had recently, the kind of day I’d like to have more often. If you know me, you’d know I rarely (if ever) have used the adjective “magical!”

I woke up feeling refreshed and ate a hearty breakfast. I stopped by the garden that Joseph and I share at a generous neighbor’s house. I sowed some carrot seeds, the ones that make beautiful purple, orange, and cream-colored carrots. They also happen to taste fantastic. I had a huge realization about fresh food about a year and a half ago after eating some straight-from-the-field asparagus at a friend’s farm. I’d never tasted anything like it. I’d just about call truly fresh asparagus a different vegetable than store bought asparagus and say the same for other vegetables. Anyways, with my knowledge of wild edible plants growing, I gathered Japanese knotweed shoots, dandelion, and Pennsylvania bittercress at the garden.

After feeling the warming morning sun and spreading some cayenne pepper over the seeded areas (to keep the other animals away!), I headed to Lake Needwood archery range. There was one other archer there, just finishing up with his recurve bow. It was peaceful at the range, just the way I like it. I was on this morning, though I hadn’t shot in a while. The arrows were flying particularly true at 5, 15, and 30 yards, guided by my hands and state of mind. The beauty of an arrow arcing from a longbow at 30 yards and hitting its mark is unbeatable. A year and change of training in how to hold the bow, come to full draw, release, and follow through was showing. Everything was flowing, though I still have a ways to go to be a master!

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Smith

In the middle of my practice, I heard a rustle and saw some deer coming out of the corner of my eye. They showed no signs of noticing me, until they sensed that I noticed them. I ducked behind the hay bale target and just watched. These beautiful and graceful creatures had been my prey months earlier, but I was now just intrigued by them. They bounced through a small patch of trees, crossed a gas pipeline clear-cut, and disappeared into the brush beyond. Was this an omen of the rest of the magic to come that day? The middle finger of my right hand started to go numb, so I figured it was probably time to wind down.

I drove down to the lake, with the rough idea that I’d sharpen my foraging skills. Many great days have come from being flexible based upon what comes, rather than trying to force the day to conform to my wishes. I had the stinging nettles patch in mind that I’d picked from the other day, along with a vague stinging sensation in my hands! Stinging nettles are my favorite green, and I love the way they smell. I got distracted by all of the plants near the road and the path leading to the bigger woods and took a nibble of a few plants here and there. I identified cat’s ear in its early rosette - another plant friend to be aware of.

Now where were those nettles? I went back to where I thought I had found them. I doubled back, and saw a small clump, but my attention was taken away by a rustle somewhere else. My senses were attuned to what was going on around me, just like I’ve trained them to do. Frogs were diving into the creek while I walked around with boots on my hurried, clumsy city feet. Didn’t end up finding that nettle patch, anyways.

A different stinging nettle patch

It was getting warm. I longed to take my shirt off and feel the sun, but I still had this feeling that I needed to get somewhere. Finally, I slowed down and took my shirt, boots, and socks off. Ah, that’s what the ground feels like! I thought about the last time I walked barefoot in the woods. Once, for a short time, but before that, never. I've been missing out! I noticed some small fish in Mill Creek. Now that I felt more connected with my surroundings, could I catch a fish with my stealth and bare hands? I crept into the creek to stand on a large rock. I stepped on a branch that I thought would support my weight - SNAP! Most of the fish disappeared. I laughed at myself but still gave it a go. A few small fish were still hanging around and I stuck my fingertips in the water. They seemed to be interested but didn’t come close enough.

I eventually moved on and that’s when I heard a SPLASH! A bit later, another. Something was going on beyond the creek bank that I couldn’t see. I walked over in my bare feet, just like I would if I were trying to sneak up on a deer. I got down on all fours. To my surprise, I saw some sizable fish, maybe a foot long. They were swimming against the current. From talking with friends who are knowledgeable about fish, they were likely a type of sucker fish. I watched them for a while until they noticed my presence and shot upstream.

I walked upstream, loving the warmth on my skin and the various sensations underfoot. I have to say I also felt a bit exposed and vulnerable. What if a snake lashed out at me? This thought stayed in the back of my mind as I tread carefully, realizing that I was equally likely to step on broken glass. My caution helped me to move slowly, which is the key to seeing more and blending in. I did nearly step on a frog or toad. Sadly, I don’t yet know the difference between the two!

As I moved along, I saw some movement and heard a squeal from the creek bank. I threw a few pieces of bark that way, assuming the creature would fly away if a bird, or run away if something else. Nothing happened. The movement I was seeing struck me as odd, but likely reptilian. As I got closer I saw the frog (or toad?), then the snake, then the blood. I felt a rush of blood to my own face. Past the initial feeling, I started thinking. Should I intervene? The pitiful sound of Frog made me feel so sorry for it. Frog’s leg was in Snake’s mouth. Frog was still fighting, pulling Snake’s body forward by grabbing any twig in front of it, but Snake would undulate and pull Frog back. I was incapable of doing anything but watching.

Can you see Snake and Frog? (center of picture)

My feelings of exposure and vulnerability crept back up. I felt for Frog. I was confused about what to do. I was suddenly aware that I could be at risk. I pictured myself as a frog. I then felt guilt as an apex predator - because, in fact, there are very few things out there that could harm/kill me. The experience awakened something primal in me - a fear that humans once had: that they were walking meatballs*, and had to be alert at all times to avoid being eaten. Snake released Frog, perhaps feeling threatened by me, and scurried away.

I walked longer, checking out trees, standing on a fallen oak, feeling the density of the wood. I stopped and puzzled at some trees with my ID book. I was enjoying the sun and the feel of the ground, following deer trails over some ridges as I looped back to where I started. I sat among some mugwort, which I looked up and saw could be used as insect repellant, among other things. I also remembered that it can be used as a bittering agent in beer, like hops. It has a wonderful smell!

As I got back to where I left my boots, some deer snorted and took off, tails flagged. I started walking through a swampy area, and vicious snakes popped into my mind again. I doubt it was even a rational thought, but I was just thinking about the small snake nearly swallowing that frog. As I write, I remember that being alert is all part of participating in the ecosystem. Things can happen out there. I could get bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, or I could get bitten by a snake. I should take caution and be prepared, but I am out there as a participant, as part of what’s going on. Things are constantly eating and being eaten. Easier to say all this when I’m hiding behind a keyboard instead of sneaking through a swamp! Again, I take both solace and a hint of guilt from knowing that I am at an advantage to the other animals out there with the availability of medical treatment, my car, and well established trails that I can always retreat to.

As I walked back along to the area where Rock Creek and Mill Creek meet, I saw a flash of white near the creek edge. Then came the quick adrenaline pulse when I saw the snapping turtle! My alert system went down as I was able to dismiss any threats. What an awesome sight: the snapper had killed a fairly large (about foot long) fish, and was standing next to it. I think Snapper noticed me, because he/she didn’t go for the fish, and slowly poked his/her head out of the water. I took that as a signal of, “stay away from my dinner!” I stayed still, and eventually Snapper lunged at the fish and took a bite. Snapper then proceeded to use its front claw to push and tear pieces off of the fish. The whole affair was just mesmerizing and I was honored to be a fly on the wall. I eventually let the turtle be and looked for those nettles one more time. No luck!

I headed back to my car nettleless, but with immense satisfaction and the feeling that I had lived and seen an eternity in one day. Many beings lost their lives out there and others were nourished. This is the kind of day I hope to have over and over: one where I immerse myself in an ecosystem and play a part. Right now, I have the luxury of opening up my senses, wandering and observing without purpose, not worrying about finding shelter, potable water, or food. I am growing and reconnecting with my ancestors from long ago, and I couldn’t be happier or more contented in those moments. If ever I was meant to do anything, this was it: to be a human animal, to immerse myself in my ecosystem, to live within it, not above or next to it. How good can I be at that? Time will tell.

*Credit for this term to Richard Adrian Reese

Saturday, April 1, 2017

My Head is a Big Old Dummy

I was at a party when a yoga instructor told me I was resistant to yoga because I lived in my head and not in my body. This was moments after she nearly laughed aloud when she realized that not only could I not touch my toes without bending my knees, but I was a few feet from it. She went on to inform me that the division between mind and body is gendered. According to her, men tend to live more in their heads and women more in their bodies. Furthermore, because I lived in my head, I was less likely to acknowledge the validity of my feelings and follow my heart.
She struck a chord and hit a nerve with her remarks. She struck a chord because I have long thought that our giant human brains, and all of the rational powers contained within, arent nearly as impressive as weve made them out to be, at least not in the context of modern societies. I sometimes wonder if our brains are oversized vestiges from a time long ago when we needed buckets of wit to compensate for our puny bodies in order to hunt mastodons and avoid being gobbled up by saber-tooth cats. Now that modern, industrial societies help us meet most of our basic needs, our brains are free to run wild, fretting about bills, contemplating our impending death, or wondering whether or not people think we're cool or attractive.

On the other hand, she hit a nerve, not because her subtext was that men are foolish because they are out of touch with their feelings. I accept that as a well-established fact. Heres why she hit a nerve. I'm the poster child for rationality. I rationalize everything to death. Im also able to think about things from multiple perspectives and genuinely find merit in several, sometimes starkly different alternatives. Some might argue that this is strength. However, as a 34-year old contemplating some major life changes, I argue that its the worst, and more likely to lead to inertia than change.

The name of our blog is In Transition, but truthfully, Im not exactly sure what Im transitioning to, or if Im even transitioning for that matter. I will say that I want to be transitioning. Ive read lots of stories written by people who have made radical life changes and had it work out for the best. Ive also read stories by people who took leaps of faith and fell to their deaths. However, its rarer that I come across accounts by people who are seriously contemplating life changes but dont know exactly how to go about it. That is a niche I think I can fill nicely.

Let me start with the obvious question. What would I like to be transitioning to? This has always been a tricky one for me, but maybe thats just because Ive been relying too much on my head. My heart tells me I should be a homesteader, a farmer, an artisan craftsman, a mountain man, a Left-coaster, or some combination of those things. Those are all real things that I can be, arent they? If nothing else, my heart tells me that I should be taken steps to get closer to those things.

Heres what I do know. Ever since I self-actualized, Ive known in my heart that I dont want much to do with the things that many people want much to do with. Ive never wanted or appreciated formal schooling or academic institutions. Ive never wanted a standard 9-5 career. Ive never wanted to have children so I could live vicariously through them. Ive never wanted religion or faith. Ive never wanted a house in the suburbs with a manicured lawn. Ive never wanted a sports team. Ive never wanted heaps of crap I dont need. Ive never wanted my precious, few years to be dominated by tedious obligations, duties, and responsibilities.

Furthermore, Ive known in my heart that I want to explore and roam. I want to play outside. I want to learn by doing. I want to use my hands. I want to constantly have dirt under my fingernails. I want to teach others about the things Im passionate about. I want my work to be more directly connected to my subsistence. I want to grow lots of produce, forage for wild foods, and hunt some game. I want to live in or near an expansive forest. I want true freedom- not the nationalistic, propagandistic brand of freedom that is shoved down my throat by the crazies running the country at any given time- but the kind that means I can wake when Im rested, sleep when Im tired, and generally do as I please. I want to make things- arts, crafts, breads, kimchi, and maybe even construct a log cabin or two with my own semi-skilled hands.

Its been fairly easy for me to avoid some of the things I never wanted. For example, it hasnt been too difficult being a sports-hating, childless agnostic in this society. However, schooling and career were/are far trickier. Despite never really appreciating formal education, I somehow wound up with a Masters degree. And despite not wanting a standard career, Im smack-dab in the middle of one- a well-paying, bureaucratic, mind-numbing one at that. I spend the best parts of any given day and the greatest number of hours each week doing things that I dont want to be doing. So what happened? Ill tell you what happened. My damn head happened.

I am just now starting to realize how sneaky my head is. Whenever I entertain the idea of doing the things that my heart is screaming for me to do, my head starts telling me why its a bad idea. It tells me that anything I feel in my heart is stupid, juvenile, extreme, rash, impulsive, and destined the lead me to penury. It tells me I should stay cautious, leave myself with as many options as possible, stay in my comfort zones, think, think some more, continue thinking, and then re-think just to make sure Im thinking about thinking the right way.

However, I am starting to understand that my head is a big old dummy. There will always be good reasons not to do the things my heart is telling me to do. In fact, in any given situation, those reasons will probably outweigh the reasons to do those things. Furthermore, straying from socially-sanctioned, legitimate ways of living may end very poorly for me. It may lead to utter penury. People may write me off as a mangy hippie, an idealist, or a dreamer. I may have great difficulty in re-entering the workforce if things as a mountain man dont quite work out. I may be crushed by a log cabin that I build with my own semi-skilled hands. I may regret everything.

How could life as a mountain man not work out for Joseph?

Despite all that, theres something else Im beginning to understand. If I dont make a change, there are things I will definitely regret. I will definitely regret spending my best years sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen or in meeting rooms acting like I care about the mundane topic de jour. I will definitely regret spending my best years in a noisy, polluted, overpriced, congested metropolis filled with fashionable urbanites who genuinely find U.S. politics interesting. I will definitely regret spending my best years as a miserable bastard, and I will definitely regret the effect that my misery could have on the people I love.

My proclivities for drama naturally lead me to think about my life and the decisions I make (or fail to make) as an epic battle between my heart and my head. For most of my life, my head has been winning. It has assault rifles and Kevlar vests. My heart has flint arrowheads and buckskin armor. Yet, it should come as no surprise that my heart is under-equipped. Im a member of a society that values knowledge over wisdom. Im a member of a society that doesnt learn from its collective mistakes. Im a member of a society that watches catastrophe after catastrophe unfold while waiting for better data or looking for a silver bullet techno fix. Im a member of a society that routinely perpetrates or quietly sanctions unspeakable atrocities against humans and the planet because rational institutions dictate that economic growth is the only noble pursuit.

Any old head can acquire knowledge, but it takes a heart to consider the relevancy of knowledge and attribute meaning and context. It takes a heart to make knowledge personal. It takes a heart to know what is moral, right, or just.

Clearly I'm no sage when it comes to following my heart. My heart journey is just beginning. And while some things in their infancy demand baby steps, Ive taken enough of those for a lifetime. All thats left for me to do is take that one giant step out of my head, reach down with knees unbent, and touch my goddamn toes.