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Natural Miracles

Spring is indeed a time of palpable and visible miracles, as are the other seasons of the year. Crocuses rocket out of the ground not long after overnight snowfalls that often melt the following morning. Robins and northern flickers contest favorite spots on lawns for emerging worms and insects. It’s easier now for most people to wake up with the sunrise, and stay up past sunset again, and there’s a lot less frost to scrape off car windshields in the morning. In our own backyard, rhubarb is starting to poke out of the ground, and it won’t be long before dandelions reign over parts of the lawn for a while.

Saint Augustine had it right when he observed that “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”

Miraculously, nature shows us that nearly everything depends on chance, on timing, on inspired action or intuition, on recognizing patterns, cycles, flows and opportunities. It also reveals how much we are not meant to live this thing called life alone. We all have an important role to play. We are all part of the natural community.

Nature’s a risk taker and we are hard-wired to be so, too.

The rewards of risk-taking are universally uncertain and unknowable, yet the risks of not changing or evolving portend a death knell for all of us. We stop growing. We dig in tenaciously, hoping someone or something else will change, yet ironically and miraculously, our entire world changes once we allow ourselves the miracle of seeing and experiencing things differently.

Nature is constantly reinventing itself and changing form-think of a caterpillar en route to its becoming a butterfly. The natural world doesn’t play favorites or take sides, yet it does seem to encourage innovation and experimentation. What’s the true cost of not being connected to nature’s wisdom, encouragement, support, and infinite wellspring of creativity and possibilities?

What miracles are we missing out on in life because we perceive and believe we are too old or busy, there’s not enough time, the timing’s not right, the money’s not there, or we need someone’s permission before we commit ourselves to changing?

All you need is to allow yourself a tiny shift in perception, hope and belief. Once you take that leap, once you make an unwavering commitment, nature will always be there to meet, greet and support you, no matter where your feet are.

 

Note: An earlier version of this article, “Natural Miracles,” was first published here on my blog on April 10. 2014.

Time always seems to speed up a bit the second half of March. Nearly every day the grass does look a little greener, more plants and trees are starting to bud, English sparrows, nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees race around, and on some days, we go from 55 degrees in the afternoon to wet snow in the space of a few hours!

It’s like nature is reminding us to stay on our toes and be open to change, not to fight it or resent it. Sometimes that’s a lot easier said than done but I try to keep that in mind as time seems to especially accelerate in political, economic and other realms. Maybe it’s the bombardment of information, the 24/7 news cycle, the rapid (and sometimes rabid) response to whatever today’s headlines might be, the sowing of fear, doubt, discord and distrust, especially between people who may be a bit different from ourselves.

It’s really fucking exhausting, isn’t it? Very few profit from a vestigial scenario and narrative designed to keep people on the defensive and pitted against each other  while what’s left of the natural world and its remaining indigenous populations are targeted for resource extraction.. It’s hard to be fully present and pro-active when there’s a constant barrage of threats, negativity, and dramatic plot turns and twists. Some days, it’s easier to feel complacent and powerless, overwhelmed and defeated.

When there’s heightened chaos in the natural world, though, there’s also an opportunity for heightened creativity, for different ways to move forward. Think about how the earth rebounds and recalibrates following volcanic eruptions, such as at Mount Saint Helens in Washington State, or how forest fires in 1988 regenerated the landscape of Yellowstone on a massive scale. In our backyard, a tiny horse chestnut sapling has somehow endured the coldest winter in 40 years, with over five feet of snow so far, along with freezing rain and ice!

So let’s receive a little encouragement from spring, its reminders that anything is possible when so much anticipation, hope, renewal and creativity abounds at this time of year. We are bigger than our problems and our challenges. We are not flawed and none of us are misfits. We all belong, and all of us are needed.

Thanks for reading this. I appreciate your being part of this community and hope this in some small way encourages you to keep the faith, keep on keeping on, and rock the world in encouraging ways so others will be inspired to do the same.

Happy spring!

Montana’s romantic and rugged landscapes have always had a profound impact on people who have spent time here. Author John Steinbeck, who journeyed through the state in 1960 with Charley, his French poodle, declared “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana, it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

Nearly 60 years later, Montana can still steal your heart, open it more fully, and bring you home to your self. What attracted me here back in 1992 was the palpable feeling of being surrounded by nature, and a heightened sense of personal space and freedom. Time still feels slower and calmer here than it did where I grew up in central Virginia, or in Tokyo, Japan, where I taught English for two years in the late 1980s.

Montana is where I stopped being a restless nomad, where I put down roots, and where I got to know the landscape and my true self better. Here, cities and towns still seem to be swallowed up by a beckoning, undulating landscape, with the horizon visible in all directions. Even in mid-winter, the sun seems reluctant to depart at dusk. Lingering sunsets glow and cast their spell on all who pause to notice and savor them.

Noticing what’s happening in our natural environment is a common trait shared by Montana lovers. In social interactions, people tend to talk about what they have been doing and enjoying outdoors long before sharing what they do for work or where they live. Paying attention to the language of the landscape and nature over time fuels and feeds hearts, souls and minds in a way few other things can. I am especially thankful to be sharing my life journey with someone who also loves living immersed in nature and adventure.

There’s a place Erik and I both like to roam once we’re over Homestake Pass heading east. Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is about a 20-minute detour off of I-90 near Logan, Montana. We love visiting here in all seasons, as it reveals different gifts every time we go.

In winter, we tend to hike on sunny, drier south-facing slopes, as we did about a month ago. Bare rather than snow-covered ground predominated there, and we came across a shed rattlesnake skin impaled upon a prickly pear cactus. From our vantage point, about 300 yards away across a yawning ravine, steep north facing slopes were still deeply cloaked in winter where snows had drifted and piled up with the wind. Above us, hawks, and later on a golden eagle, silently glided and soared in search of sustenance.

On top of the actual buffalo jump, stone tipi rings jut out more prominently in winter. Stunted junipers and other wind tolerant trees flourish in places where Native American eagle catching pits once stood. Grizzly bears, elk and wolves roam not far from this still largely untamed landscape from time to time, although you’re more likely to encounter mule and whitetail deer, and other hikers and their dogs.

I love Montana and its natural beauty and bounty. It’s difficult to analyze, but it anchors and continually reminds me I’m part of something much larger than my own life, thanks to previous generations who saved, protected and were wise stewards of a place they also loved. When you care for and nurture a place it ultimately nurtures and cares for you as well.

Just minutes from home here in Missoula, there are protected natural areas where you can hear your heart beat fiercely over pulsing sounds of freeway traffic, blaring emergency sirens, and droning aircraft overhead. You can feel and hear the wind coming from great distances before it caresses you on a hot summer day, or makes you zip up your jacket on a mid-winter walk. Often, ravens ride thermals overhead, while horses graze in nearby pastures.

When you quiet your mind and ego in such places, you can remember what’s really important, and that seems way easier to do in a place not covered in concrete and asphalt. To me, my love for Montana and nature reaffirms that I am not in this alone. My wild, beating heart and soul is much needed in a world and time where many have embraced fear rather than love.

No matter where you travel in the Last Best Place, Montana’s landscapes leave an indelible imprint; their vastness and beauty have continually shaped Native American worldviews and those of more recent arrivals. Despoiling places for short-term gains and shattering environmental consequences will hopefully remain in Montana’s rearview mirror, so future generations can experience wildlands large enough for grizzlies and eagles to thrive and soar, alongside the human heart, spirit and imagination. That would be a courageous and selfless act of love, paying it forward.

 

 

In the fall of 1984, I backpacked through Asia for about eight months before taking on my first teaching job at a refugee resettlement camp in Thailand the following June. It was a heady time, full of adventures and a few misadventures as well, and through traveling in different countries, I came to learn not only a lot more about people living in other cultures, but also about walls and bridges we choose to create in our lives.

In October 1984 I entered China from Hong Kong, and for the next three months I navigated traveling in a country largely unused to solo foreign travelers. Having grown up in Virginia, I wasn’t used to crushing crowds of humanity simultaneously angling to get train tickets rather than standing in line in an orderly American fashion. Nor was I used to visiting sprawling markets where vendors would have you point to and then they’d kill what you wanted to eat, and then cook it for you on the spot!

Over a three-month period in China, I journeyed with other international backpackers. At other times I traveled solo. I became known as the American guy traveling with vegemite, as prior to arriving in Hong Kong I had been in Australia and had developed an enthusiastic taste for it. Bartering and negotiating were key to getting better deals on food and lodging, as was exchanging information with fellow travelers about the lay of the land behind or ahead of us.

Perhaps the first crack in the bamboo curtain I personally believed separated me from non-Westerners was visiting the Great Wall of China in November that year. I was traveling with a new fast friend, a fellow American, and he and I set out to do some exploring on our own there. What initially surprised me were how uneven and steep the steps could be as you walked up and down the spine of a series of walls that once stretched thousands of miles across the Chinese frontier.

Parts of the wall were cracked and decayed: other parts had been rebuilt to look as they might have been centuries ago. Built and refortified by a million plus forced laborers over nearly two millennia and a succession of dynasties, the wall served as much to keep people in as to keep intruders out. Ultimately its lifespan and purpose collapsed in the mid-1600s, when the Manchu Dynasty toppled the Ming Dynasty, when the wall fell into an even deeper extended period of decay and neglect.

Standing there, I wondered what it was like to be a citizen of the People’s Republic of China in 1984, to be largely silenced in a geopolitical chess game, to have few freedoms and opportunities compared to those I had in my own young life. My mind wandered to other places where walls had been built, such as between West and East Berlin, and the frontier between West and East Germany. My sister Nancy. as a 15-year-old, spent the summer of 1971 visiting a friend and her family in West Berlin. I recalled harrowing stories of travels with her host family through East German checkpoints to visit Austria, as well as other places in West Germany.

Around twilight that afternoon at The Great Wall,  my American traveling companion climbed a steep series of steps to another section of the wall, sat down and started playing a flute he had brought for the journey.. Time seemed suspended. The music swirled and drifted in from different directions as a still warm breeze flowed over and through gaps in the wall. When he finished playing, we both walked quietly back to the guest house where we were staying, at peace for being able to experience the Great Wall, its enormity, and its meaning for ourselves.

About a month later, in December 1984, I traveled by train to Kunming in Yunnan Province. One warm evening, while I was sitting outside a cafe reading a book, a Chinese man in his early 60s who spoke fluent English introduced himself. He inquired where I was from and why I had chosen to visit China, and we ended up talking about a wide range of topics..

Spontaneously he invited me to sit in on an English class he was teaching that night. It was hard for him to teach, though, with about two dozen middle school age kids spending more time looking back at me rather than focusing on the lesson. He was very gracious, patient and calm in regaining his students’ attention, and then he invited me to speak with everyone from the front of the room.

Walls, barriers and boundaries seemed to vanish as we had a lively, fun, and often funny exchange that lasted well past the normal class ending time. Students approached me afterwards to say thanks,  shake hands or bow in appreciation for the opportunity to connect with a native English speaker. Sparks had been lit and ignited in both directions. I thanked my new teacher friend, said goodnight, and never saw him again.

I was immersed in my element teaching that night, sensing the awesome opportunity and responsibility to be and build a bridge in a world where some people sought to construct walls instead, within their own and between other countries. Other serendipitous experiences over the next few months ultimately led to landing my first teaching job at a refugee camp for Cambodian and Laotian children resettling with their families in the U.S. I had found my purpose, doing things that helped people connect more deeply with their environment, and experience the interconnection we all share as humans on this one planet Earth.

2017 undoubtedly will be yet another year when a fearful few angle to build more walls between people. I have lived long enough to have learned that bridges more powerfully connect and strengthen us more than walls could ever do.

May this year be one in which you create, build and help others construct bridges rather than walls. Life, humanity and real freedom, as always, hangs in the balance.

Yellowstone Dreaming

A few fitful nights ago, when I was in deep monkey mind and unable to sleep, I got an intuitive nudge to re-read a story I wrote 15 years ago, “Right of Way,” and see how it spoke to me at this time.

December 2001 was the beginning of a winter I spent in the heart of Yellowstone, not far from the shores of Yellowstone Lake. I worked there as an interpretive National Park Service ranger. The nearest paved road was over 50 miles away, meaning snowmobiles and skis would be my primary mode of transport for the next three months. More than a few times during my first weeks living and working here, I wondered what the hell I had exactly just gotten myself into.

Seemingly far away from Yellowstone, out there in the “real world”, our country was still reeling from the September terrorist attacks. That winter, I had limited access to email and WiFi, my cell phone coverage didn’t work in this remote setting, and the only two radio stations I could reliably pick up were a country and western one along with NPR. The learning curve seemed so steep for all of us as to how to move forward in our lives, and how, or whether, to respond and act in the face of what had happened.

I didn’t have any easy answers then, and the same is true for the challenges and opportunities we are living with today. Looking back at what I experienced at that time, and over the last 15 years, I remember that I have navigated incredible challenges in the past that have been largely out of my control. I have also embraced and enjoyed  exhilarating and wonderful opportunities. Because of this, I am able to draw from an amazing wellspring of skills, wisdom and life experiences that serve me in the present, and will continue to so in the future.

I am still standing, and I am still an American bad ass. I bet you are, too, if you are reading this.

Don’t let fear, doubt, worry or any other form of negativity, including someone else’s, keep you from doing what you have longed to do.

Be curious instead. Be creative instead. Be resourceful, be supportive, and allow yourself to be supported when you need courage, inspiration and motivation to keep taking action, to take the next step. Act on your heart and soul’s grandest dreams and visions, rather than crawling under the covers and wishing that the world’s ego-generated nightmares and bogeymen will simply just go away.

This holiday season and into 2017, I wish you the very best in being a bad ass in hugely powerful, positive, loving and life-changing ways. Be a ripple maker in the lives of others who will be inspired by your actions and example. The world can no longer wait for us or anyone else to sit on the sidelines. We are the ones we have been waiting for and now is our time.

Wishing you much peace, love and light in the year, and years to come!

P.S. Here’s the original story, “Right of Way,” which was first published in 2002 in Yellowstone Science magazine.

Right of Way

Heading home by snowmobile a few days before winter’s longest night, I encounter a lone bull bison standing on the groomed road just south of Hayden Valley in the Mud Volcano area. He initially gives no sign of noticing me, or of being bothered by my presence. At the same time, he is probably hoping that I will just go away, in the direction from which I came, and leave him in peace. I wait, with my engine still running.

Now wary, the bull moves slowly and deliberately away from me. Yet he stays on the road-his other options are either to move off into three feet of snow to his left, or to go down a steep bank leading to an ice-covered expanse of the Yellowstone River on his right. With the comfort and mobility it offers, this narrow strip of groomed road has become a lifeline, a survival and dispersal corridor that we have both come to expect and depend on in winter.

Standstill. And we do, two lone figures facing off on this empty stretch of road. I remember the importance to wintering wildlife of slowing way down and conserving my energy, which is not so easily replenished at this time of year. The bull shakes his massive head, moves a few unsteady steps, and continues standing in the middle of the road, staring at me with his large dark brown eyes, perhaps assessing my next move.

I get the message. I stop, and turn off the snowmobile. I am awed by the silence and serenity of this moment. I hear and then feel the late afternoon wind shift its direction and velocity, and quickly put a facemask on top of my balaclava to ward off the chill. The wind and cold does not seem to bother the bison, standing silently, his thick coat of fur protecting him from the freezing wind. I hear the rapid, powerful flapping of a raven’s wings long before I see it glide slowly above us, and then disappear from this winter scene.

The bull bison and I watch each other for a long while on this gray and cloudy December afternoon, neither of us acting or reacting. For several minutes I find myself breathing in the sharp, cold air, deeply and slowly, exhaling in unison with the bison.

The bull turns and faces the bank sloping sharply down toward the Yellowstone River. He exhales deeply, as if finally deciding to move on. He swings his head a final time in my direction. Mistakenly, I take this to mean that I can pass to the right while he remains safely on the other side of the road.

Instead, in a burst of energy he jumps from the road, bulldozing his way through the deep-drifted snow to where the riverbank begins to drop off. I gaze down to where he is most likely heading, to the river, where the ice appears unstable and the route across looks arduous.

As he deliberately descends the bank, I make my own move. I start my sled and ride about fifty yards past the point where he left the road, and then stop again, cutting the engine. I glance back to see him looking back at me, then toward the ice-covered river. He steps onto it with his full body weight. I shudder, holding my breath, expecting to hear the ice give way and the bison crash through.

The ice holds. The bull ambles to safety on the opposite bank. Then he begins to move with a more rapid gait to join several other bull bison grazing in the snow about a half mile away.

This final vision remains in my mind as I also move at a faster pace to rejoin my own winter community on the northern shore of Yellowstone Lake. Snow begins to fall and swirl as I head homeward. It gradually picks up in intensity, slowly burying the landscape with a new, sparkling white layer.

That night I watch as the snow continues to fall outside my window, and ponder how this thickening of Yellowstone’s deepening winter blanket will be perceived by both visitors and residents alike. It will be greeted warmly by the many park visitors, winter enthusiasts here to celebrate the holidays in and around Yellowstone. I am less sure how the park’s bison and other wintering wildlife will perceive it, for this season presents great challenges to the animals that visit or call Greater Yellowstone home. I drift off into a deep December sleep, dreaming that in the future we will all be able to find peace, space and room to roam in this increasingly crowded place.

Who Needs A Road Map?

Several of my lifelong heroes and inspirational figures have died this year, book-ending 2016 as a time of rapid change, myriad unexpected plot twists and turns, and huge opportunities for growth, adventure, travel and transformation.

David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Gwen Ifill, Natalie Cole, and Leonard Cohen are all now gone, with another one of my heroes, Rod McKuen, passing shortly before them in 2015.

All of these people possessed an unflappable spirit and were also honest about the struggles they faced in life. From the outside looking in, they also seemed to show up every day, no matter what, and always give their best They also were talented at bringing forth the best in others, even with people they profoundly disagreed with, or who disagreed with them.

What comes next I am not sure. I cannot let fear or the unknown stop me from living my life to the fullest. I have to trust that everything is going to turn out alright. I have to keep the faith that humanity will ultimately reject fear and hate, and embrace love, compassion and acceptance moving forward. I have to do my part.
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I cannot do this alone. None of us can. But we can all hold the light and shine our love on places where fear, hatred, misunderstanding and distrust lurk, loom and hide, intent on bringing us back to the dark ages if we are not vigilant, if we are not warriors for love.

In the days, weeks and times ahead, when you catch yourself demonizing, fearing or attacking someone or something, be quick to forgive them, as well as yourself. Send them light, send them love, especially when someone or something’s driving you nuts or pushing all your buttons. Hit the reset button instead. Send them and yourself even more love and more light. It’s the only way forward.

P.S. I’d like to close with my favorite poem by Rod McKuen and also one of my favorite tunes from Leonard Cohen as covered by Jeff Buckley.

ATLAS 

Don’t be afraid to fall asleep with gypsies or run with leopards
as travelers or highwaymen.
We should employ whatever kind of wheels it takes
to make our lives go smoothly down the road.
And if you love somebody tell them.
Love’s a better roadmap for trucking down the years than Rand McNally ever made.

-Rod McKuen

 

P.S. Here’s a link to Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8AWFf7EAc4

 

War and Human Nature

Veterans Day has taken on a deeper and more personal meaning for many people this year,  given that many of us have been feeling battle weary following an election cycle that started over 18 months ago, if not even longer back in time. It’s a relief to be done with the relentless parade of political commercials and related advertising, and I wonder how much money was spent in total for this year’s campaign and electoral cycle. I suspect it’s in the billions altogether, and it’s too bad all that money cannot seem to be harnessed and channeled toward a greater good.

My dad, who turned 90 last Saturday, is a veteran of World War II. His brother Jack died in a German P.O.W. camp several days after the jeep he was traveling hit a land mine. This happened in Belgium, in late 1944. More than half a century later, in March 1999, my dad and I traveled together to the Allied Cemetery near Liege, Belgium to honor his brother’s memory, and it was an emotionally cathartic experience for both of us.

What really haunted me there were innumerable crosses remembering so many people who died in war. I thought of the collective energy, mindset and resources that it took to end this particular conflict  Standing there silently together at Jack’s gravesite, I palpably and deeply felt the loss that my Dad, his oldest brother and their mom must have felt when they received the news that my Uncle Jack, age 20 at the time, would never be home again.

I am thinking today, too, of how and on what we spend our individual and collective energies, mindsets and resources. I hope that with this election cycle now hopefully behind us, we’ll also choose to invest in healing and rebuilding divisions, rather than throwing white gas on and igniting them. I hope we will move forward by choosing to see the good and the potential in all people, and invite and include everyone at the table. We all have some room to grow and heal in these respects.

As Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address,

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Nature is one of the best places in which we all grow and heal and come home.

Let’s all take a collective deep breath, exhale, and dive in to experience nature where we live, work, play and create community.

It’s one of the best ways to bring more peace, healing, calm and lightheartedness into a world that has been hungering for it for far too long.

Count your blessings, share your gifts.

Bury the hatchet, heal the rifts.