Thursday, July 27, 2017

Not My Home

Nature is a human invention. Not too many millennia ago, there was merely our planet. There were rocks, trees, water, birds, bacteria, and mammals on our planet. Elements and organisms existed together, balanced yet always in flux, giving rise to many unique and ever-evolving ecosystems. Human mammals inhabited some ecosystems. They took from and gave back to those ecosystems. At some point, human mammals segregated themselves from their ecosystems, literally building walls, fences, and dykes to keep Nature out. Nature became something that could and should be conquered and exploited for human benefit. Our modern societies are built upon an ethos of human dominion over and separation from Nature (and non-renewable energy sources of course). Now, we take vacations to see Nature- to revel in those few remaining strongholds that human mammals haven’t yet gotten around to bulldozing, damming, or clearcutting. How is it possible in such times, that I - a human mammal – can understand what it means to find a sense of place?

Short answer - get the fuck off the East Coast.

Last week, my girlfriend Katya and I backpacked around western Oregon for a seven days. As we were flying into Portland, our approach took us just south of the Columbia River Gorge and the Washington border. The day was exceptionally clear, and Mount Adams and Rainier stood majestic in the north. Mount Hood dominated the southern skies, an unfaltering mound of rock and ice that seemed close enough to touch, yet too fantastical to be real. Thick stands of evergreens occupied every nook that roads and buildings didn’t.

Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Adams to the North.

It was my first time in the Pacific Northwest in the summer. My fellow blogger Matt and I visited the Olympic Peninsula this past February, and rain and fog were the name of the game. While in Washington in winter, we joked that if one were to stand in the same spot for too long, one would be colonized by mosses and lichens, just like the Sitka Spruce and Western Red Cedars.

We were on a vacation. Katya and I did touristy things, like eating ourselves sick at the Timberline Lodge lunch buffet. However, we mainly roughed it, sleeping in a tent every night save the last. Our travels took us from sea level to almost 10,000 feet, from high-desert to temperate rain forest, from sweltering days to frost-kissed nights, and everything in between.

A lot happened last week. We were nearly exsanguinated by a blizzard of mosquitoes while backpacking near Crater Lake. We lost the rental car keys on the trail, only to find them under our car tire- returned by two hikers who abandoned their plans to camp after encountering the blizzard of mosquitoes. A surprisingly powerful dust devil passed just feet in front of us while we were climbing up Broken Top Mountain. We trudged over multi-acre snowfields while being buffeted by 60 mph wind gusts. We crawled on our hands and knees for a half mile across the face of a snow-covered butte with a 65-degree face, wearing gym shorts and sneakers. We frolicked in glacial streams so cold our feet turned blue. Katya and I got along swimmingly. Sometimes we butted heads. We hugged each other. We hugged old-growth Douglas Firs. We lounged in geothermal hot springs. We gorged ourselves on berries in the Hood River Valley. We made a mustache and toupee for me out of lichens. Yes, we did a lot.

When life hands you lichen (usnea), make a mustache and hairpiece.

However, my most lasting impressions of our trip have more to do with people and place than things and adventures. I was born in upstate New York and now live in D.C. I have spent my entire life on the Eastern Seaboard, and more recently in cities. Similar to an addict who struggles to accept and admit to their addiction, I struggle to accept and admit to my East-Coastness, my urbanity. However, if I am to remain true, there are aspects of my personality that I must own up to. First, I am profoundly impatient- the opposite of laid back. I walk so fast everywhere that I often pass joggers on the sidewalk. While it’s hard to admit, for me it’s more about the destination that the journey. I blow by people on the streets without ever looking up, without saying hello. I commonly use “wicked” as a modifier, and cannot dream of pulling off “hella”. I grew up thinking that 1000 feet in elevation is really getting up there. I grew up being told that West-Coasters are hippie liberal potheads. I grew up thinking that any tree that hadn’t been cut down was a pretty big tree. The one time I tried surfing, I secretly hoped a shark would eat me just to spare me the exertion and embarrassment.

Like so many others, when I visited the West for the first time, I concluded that the East was, well, shit. I vowed that the West would one day be my home. How could I claim to love wild landscapes, big trees, proper mountains, and dramatic coastlines and remain in the East?

Katya and that tree just love each other.
Katya likes fruit as much as she likes trees, which makes sense because cherries grow on trees.

Katya and I experienced plenty of big trees and proper mountains last week. But we also experienced a side of humanity I seldom experience where I live. In the course of a week, we had numerous encounters with people who embodied a wildly different ethos than do East-Coasters (myself included). Not only did people say hello to us as we walked by. They engaged us in lengthy conversations. They told us about their favorite spots to camp. They recommended must-do hikes, which invariably involved 1000 ft. of elevation gain in the first mile. They shared their life stories with us – their trials and tribulations- as we passed them on the trail.

We met a hippie at a coffee shop in the town of Sisters. He told us he grew up in Pennsylvania and left for the West in his 30’s, leaving a well-paying job for a life with more freedom. At 65, he looked like Willie Nelson’s cousin- even more so after remarking that he was going camping the upcoming weekend and looked forward to having a toke and taking some shrooms around the campfire. He shared that unlike many people his age, he didn’t have investments and savings, but he was able to buy a modest house and had re-connected with his son who now lives near him. We left the coffee shop, only to meet another couple in a car- originally from New Jersey- who told us about how much they loved Bend, and recommended that we drive up to Timberline for the buffet. Shortly after they said goodbye, Willie Nelson’s cousin rode by on an old bicycle and told us if our journeys ever brought us back through Sisters, we were welcome to stay at his place.

At Paulina lake campground, we met Carole and Jeff. They were our neighbors, and had been at the campground for two weeks fishing for Kokanee salmon. Katya and I talked with Carole for almost an hour. She told us that she fled Minnesota at the age of 20 to marry Jeff, whose family homesteaded for several generations in Florence, before their land was eventually flooded when a dam was built. She told us that she now strongly identifies as an Oregonian, and that she misses the rain if there are too many sunny days in a row. Jeff was retired law enforcement. He recommended several hikes and gave us some insider tips based on his experiences in wilderness rescue. He casually suggested that we summit Mt. Hood, noting that he had done so in 76’ with his then young son, without any special equipment. He failed to mentioned the scores of people who had been killed by avalanches and hypothermia over the years. He never mentioned the fumaroles, which occasionally burn and suffocate mountaineers who fall into them. In the evening, when Katya and I returned from nearby hot springs, we found a jar of smoked salmon and a business card on our picnic table. It was a gift from Carole and Jeff, with a request that we email them after our travels to let them know which hikes we did.

While we didn't summit Hood like Jeff wanted, we did walk across the face of that bastard.

At Bagby hot springs, Katya and I discovered that we needed to pay a cash fee to use the tubs. We didn’t have any cash, so we asked the camp host if there was an ATM nearby. He gave us directions, noting that we would have to drive “about 20 miles or so”. Just then, a young man approached and said “I couldn’t help but overhear. I have ten dollars right here. You can just have it.” We accepted, though I felt awkward. The rugged individual in me felt strangely about taking a hand out. We offered him what few things we had- some kombucha and salami. He refused, saying only “You can pay me back by picking up trash near the springs and hauling it out.”

While in the forest near the hot springs, we met Randy. He looked about 50 and had a backpack full of beer. Bare-chested and heavily tattooed, he reminded me of Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He traveled with a sweet pit bull named Bonnie, who he had acquired in a recent, messy breakup. He told us he got kicked out of his house and was lost in life. He didn’t know what to do, so he just started walking around the woods with Bonnie. He asked if we believed in God. I said I have no opinion. He said he did. God existed, Randy said, because he had an experience that morning. For unknown reasons, he was compelled to bushwhack up the side of a mountain. On the way to the top, he saw three cougar dens with cats visible inside. When he got to the top of the mountain, he was wondering why he had climbed to the top. Then he realized that God wanted him to climb the mountain so he could encounter dangerous animals, yet remain safe. It was a sign. Randy was out there, but Katya and I appreciated the interaction, and his willingness to share his struggles and metaphysical awakenings with complete strangers.

We approached the hot tubs, which were large wooden barrels filled with 110-degree sulfurous water. A man invited Katya and I to join him in a tub. His name was Charles. We got the usual “where are you from” questions out of the way. Charles told us he was divorced with three children. To be conversational, I asked “What’s their mix?” Charles asked, “What do you mean their mix?” I responded, “You know, their ages and gender”. Charles look at me as if moderately offended before responding “Well, two of my children have a penis and one has a vagina if that's what you're getting at. I’m pretty sure at least two of them aren't gender-normative”. I pride myself as an open-minded person, yet somehow Charles had made me feel like a class-A bigot for not remembering to ask my question with the sensitivity that he obviously felt the circumstances demanded. Charles said that he had a sign on his lawn that read “People from all countries, color, and creed are welcome in my America”. On three occasions, he said, his conservative neighbors took down the sign. He said his children were experiencing discrimination in school.

Outside of the Mt. Hood ranger station, we met Steve and Dennis, who were birding with binoculars from a bench. They were 75-year old life-long friends from Virginia on what seemed to be their annual post-retirement adventure. Steve, who did most of the talking, said “Our wives kick us out of the house for a few weeks every year so we go all over the world.” They didn’t look a day over 55 and were emanating a palpable radiance. They told us everywhere they had gone, and everywhere we should go. Dennis told us a story about how he once saw a bear up in a tree. The branch the bear was resting on broke, plopping the stunned bear right at his feet. The bear stared at him for what seemed an eternity before strolling away. According to Steve, while Dennis came off as quiet and reserved, he was actually the risk taker. While I don’t say things like this often, they were just the cutest.

In Portland, we walked through Forest Park up to the Pittock Mansion (this was another quick hike recommended by another stranger at the hot tubs which took us up 1000 feet in a mile). One the way down, we met Debbie and her dog Humphrey. Humphrey ran up to us and licked our legs. Debbie, whom I placed at 30, had a degree in textile science and had moved to Portland from San Francisco to start a job with a major sportswear company. It was her job to match colors, making sure that two shades of black don’t clash. She explained the intricacies of matching colors when working with lycra spandex vs. cotton. She liked Portland so far, noting that she was just starting to get out and really explore the area. After 30 minutes, we patted Humphrey on the head and said “It was a pleasure talking with you” and started away. Unfazed, Debbie launched into a new volley of questions, and we ended up talking to her for another 15 minutes.

These are a but a handful of the encounters we had with strangers in cities, parking lots, and moss-draped forests. I changed in the course of a week. The first few days I was anxious to do everything, and easily disappointed by mishaps and changes of plan. Instead of settling in for long conversations with strangers, I was fidgety and eager to get back to me time. I wasn’t sure how to act once what I considered to be the socially-acceptable amount to time for a conversation with a stranger had passed. I wasn’t going with the flow or rolling with the punches. I was hella uptight- a hardcore East-Coaster. Katya, a series of total strangers, and the forest cathedrals of the Pacific Northwest reminded me of the person I aspire to be, and the adjectives I want to describe me- patient, adaptive, calm, intentional, generous with time, generous with affection, and generous with stuff. By the end of the week, I also came to understand that you can’t always be the person you want to be if you’re not in a place that inspires and replenishes you, a place you feel you belong. I finally understand what it means to experience a sense of place.

We left Portland early in the morning. The day was again clear. This time we flew over Washington state. We waved a temporary goodbye to Rainier and Saint Helens. We passed over the Dalles, then over the countless wonders otherwise known as the West. At 5:00 pm, our plane began to descend on approach to Baltimore. Golf courses, strip malls, and Mc. Mansions dominated the landscape to the south. An industrial smokestack rose high in the northern skies, an unfaltering pillar of soot-coated concrete, close enough to touch, yet too ugly to be real. This place is not my home.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Life That Feels Right

I have been profoundly lost for most of my life. Various frames, bounds, and ideologies have kept me in check and from harming myself; well, too badly at least. I did spend quite a bit of time drinking, as was socially acceptable in the early years of my 20’s, had low self-confidence, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness. In part due to these issues, I did not stop and ask, with social bounds and frames removed, “Matt, what do you want your life to be like?” I had short-term goals, but no long term vision that felt right. I was following trodden paths that I thought would lead to fulfillment and happiness, instead of living intentionally. I wish I had the awareness to be ruthlessly intentional at age 15 rather than 30, but, here I am. I’m fortunate to be untethered by debt, dependents, material possessions, and, soon, geographic limitations. I’m grateful for the very supportive people in my life that will entertain ideas that don’t fly in polite company. I’m set up to live a life that feels right.

From an early age, I excelled in doing what the adults thought was best. I did well in all of my classes; in fact, I graduated with the highest GPA in my high school class. I went to church regularly and confessed my sins. I didn’t drink until I got to college. I did torment my siblings, which I deeply regret. As an adult, I realize that the problem with doing what the adults think is best is that the adults do not always know best. I often witness adults making very, very bad choices and decisions for the Earth’s ecosystems, and also (and by extension) for their dependents. Many in my social class work jobs so that they can support their families and/or their habits. If one does that, then he/she is pretty much deemed to be successful. This is what children see, and so a seemingly endless cycle of working to support the family continues. What if that isn’t what you are called to do, at least in the modern conventional sense?

Identity crisis is what happens. I had several episodes of despair and feeling absolutely horrible. I could have learned a lot more and made better decisions if I was equipped to deal effectively with my emotions, but that was something I only learned over time. I used to revert instead to avoidance, numbing myself with distraction, usually in academic achievement. I can remember being in graduate school at Rutgers, working into the late hours of the night with toxic chemicals in a lab. One night, I looked in the mirror of the first floor bathroom as I was leaving. “Who am I?” I asked out loud. I was in miniature crisis mode. My relationship with my then-girlfriend was on the rocks. It was on the rocks because I was not ready for what I thought was the inevitable get married, get a mortgage, have kids path. I was having a crisis because on some deep level, I knew I didn’t want to be working in a lab, but was spending most of my time there. I felt out of control and trapped.

Eventually, the relationship collapsed. I was able to stomach working in a lab for a couple years longer because I was going to use my degree to get into environmental policy work. I succeeded in getting into that field. The problem is that I don’t want to do environmental policy work and never actually did. In my naivete, I did not know that it is not the world-saving work that I believed it would be. It is just a job, with meetings, cubicles, long times staring at a computer, doing things that are against my values, and professional development. Despite the fact that I scavenge and hunt for food and practice primitive skills, I spend most of my productive hours at a job that theoretically allows me to raise a family in a big suburban house or even an overpriced city property. I don’t want those things, so I will stop. My action often lags behind my epiphanies, and this is just another one of those cases. Luckily, those lags are getting shorter.

City life - oil to the river.

My life has run in four year blocks for a long time. Elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate, graduate, and now a big ol’ full time job. As I’m slowly coming up on the 4th year of the job, I know it is again time to move on. The 4 year cycles stop after this one, I declare! The difference here is that I’ve asked myself the important question, “Matt, what do you want your life to be like?” I was honest with myself, the person that can sometimes be the hardest to be honest with. I want to be a part of an ecosystem. What a simple and elegant answer! Which ecosystem? I don’t know. I wasn’t born into a healthy ecosystem, so I won’t go back there. I was born on the outer edge of suburban sprawl. I don’t currently live in a healthy ecosystem, so I won’t stay here. I live in a city, overrun with humans, noise, and pollution. I have not found my home, and so I am on a quest.

Home is not just a place, it is other beings. When I imagine home, it is a place where the other humans around are a part of the ecosystem. They have stopped talking about 'the environment' and 'nature,' because these terms imply 'an other' that humans are not part of. They are respectful and aware of what gives them life. When I am home I will be able to split wood for heating, swim in a creek, stop shitting in clean water, and plant trees. Ideally, I would be in or near a wooded area, where I could hunt and gather on foot. I can’t do any of these things where I live now, where everything is fenced, controlled, and badly degraded. What I most look forward to is learning the land, knowing all of my neighbors - not just the humans, but the plants, animals, fungi, mountains, streams, and rocks. In short, I want to reconnect with the spirit of my ancestors. This is not some hippy endeavor. This is about approaching a beautiful, connected way of life that humans have lived for thousands and thousands of years.

Gathering service berries - lucky me that city people by and large use the supermarket.

I’m through with trying to fit the visions of my future into the frame of the society that I was born and raised in. It was an exhausting and painful process, and consumed a lot of valuable time that I could have spent learning skills and becoming comfortable with more responsible ways of living. I’m no longer interested in ‘helping’ society at large, because I don’t believe it can be helped. I am interested in integrating myself into an ecosystem and helping it thrive. Industrial society is, ultimately, incompatible with healthy ecosystems. It is based upon endless economic growth, gobbling up the Earth’s bounty as fast as it is able to grow, leaving destruction and havoc in its wake. Industrial society depends on winners and losers and is based on the exploitation of all beings. I refuse to live my life pledging allegiance to such a system. Will I use it while it is around? Yes, but I will reduce my dependence upon it as much as possible. As I make my next life choices, they are based upon reconnection and reducing my dependence on destruction.