Physical Space

One of the primary goals of my writing is to advocate for people to spend more time outside, for their good and the good of the environment. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of people from all over the world about barriers and challenges they face in doing just that. What is becoming clear to me from these discussions is the existence of a deep divide between people’s desire to be outside and the capacity of their modern lifestyle to allow them to do so. Moreover, what is increasingly described is a fundamental difficulty in trying to exit virtual space and step into physical space, regardless of whether that physical space is outdoors. Modern lives, it seems, are being led from the shoulders up, making the first natural spaces we need to step back into, then, our own bodies. To that end, a brief list for entering physical space:

– Silence or turn off your phone
– Look out a window
– Stretch
– Play a card or board game
– Cook a meal
– Stand
– Do one extra household task
– Close your eyes and breathe deeply
– Write a postcard
– Hug someone

The Sound of Silence

It’s been years since I’ve heard my own, or any other neighborhood for that matter, alive with the sounds of children. It’s not a subject much discussed, perhaps in large part due to the lack of adults outside to notice. The streets of the small city I live in are barren. On any given day I step outside to find a world more similar to the beginning of an apocalyptic movie than any of us might have imagined possible. But it is, and it’s the world we live in now, as evidenced by study after study documenting American life in the 21st Century. Suffice it to say, studies of ourselves indicate that we are overweight, lonely, inside, staring at screens, drowning in piles of our own possessions, and pumped full of drugs, pharmaceutical or otherwise. Our children, it seems, have become captives to our poor choices, and they are suffering for it. They face starting life obese, with less curiosity, attention span and motor skills than any previous generation, a predicament that is showing its impact in high rates of depression and suicide in teens and shorter life expectancies overall. A predicament, that research shows can to some large part be addressed with one simple action- send them outside. Send them out, allow them to move around and interact in real space, fill the air with the sound of them, the sound of hope.

The Tacoma Narrows

Drive west out of the Seattle area towards the Olympic Peninsula, and you will cross what must be one of the loveliest and most precariously perched bridges in the Pacific Northwest. Standing 540 feet high and almost a mile long, the twin Tacoma Narrows suspension spans seem imposing, or even overbuilt, but if you ask a local, they’ll tell you they like it that way. That’s because before the Narrows, there was Galloping Gertie, what was hailed as the ‘most modern’ bridge of its day when construction was completed in July of 1940. By November, Gertie had collapsed, having succumbed to an aeroelastic flutter caused by a 42 mile an hour wind. There was no loss of life in the incident, save for a cocker spaniel named Tubby who belonged to one of the engineers.
Now, the Tacoma Narrows stand as both a statement of perseverance and will and a cautionary tale. It’s important to remember that our control of nature is tenuous at best, and susceptible to failures of experience and imagination. As climate changes we necessarily must evaluate the dexterity and longevity of infrastructure, and try to imagine more.

20170915_122959-e1507925500262-773x1030.jpg

Playing with Fire

Building a fire in the 21st Century is a political act. Camp fires, that is. For most of human history camp and cooking fires were symbols of home, safety, and security. Today, modernity has replaced hearths with screens and kitchen fires with microwaves to such an extent that the skill of fire building itself is becoming a lost art form. In A Woman’s Guide to the Wild I argue that fire building is not only an essential and life-saving skill, it serves a clear purpose in increasing feelings of self-reliance and competence. Further, I argue that a lack of fire building skill decreases female participation in outdoor activities in general, which has negative consequences for mental, emotional, and physical health and for the environment as a whole.
What I learned after writing the book, in conversation after conversation at events and readings, is that the gender dynamic around building fires is deeply ingrained, and poorly understood on both sides- men feel obligated to take charge of fire building both to demonstrate their abilities in ‘survival’ situations and in response to female expectations, while women lack adequate training and practice opportunities and fear the repercussions of failure.
Yesterday, I overheard a millennial-aged man say this about building fires heading into the summer outdoor season. “I don’t really have any experience or training with fires. I kind of don’t really know what I’m doing at all. So, you know, every time I go to a girl’s house for a barbecue or ask a girl to go camping or whatever- I just dread it.”
It’s time to start talking to each other. It’s time to reconnect with basic skills. It’s time to build a fire.

All Troubles Are Troubles

An old friend going through a life experience that pretty much makes the rest of us feel like whiners about whatever it is we are facing had this to share with us:

‘Some days its easier than others to recognize that all troubles, no matter how trifling comparatively, are troubles. Its okay to feel that way. Its okay to recognize a broken nail as a trouble, a forest fire, a difficult to cash check, a long light, a ship wreck…etc. All troubles. All important in their way. If we try to pretend all things are insignificant in comparison to something else, we miss part of this experience. Instead, I measure troubles in the moment and honor them all before moving on.’

Validating and true. Comparison and judgement do nothing to help us down our paths. Rather, they cast shadows and lead us into the tangled brambles of self judgement, doubt, and fear. There is no way round your challenges, only through. So face them, one by one. (original post circa 2014)

late-january-015-1030x773.jpg

Roadsigns

Washington State is a place of divergent cultures, a meeting ground for tech and timber, old and new. It is a region in flux, redefining itself on a generational scale so broad that it can’t help but run against itself. For example, the northwestern corner of the state houses Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, and also the largest protected stand of old growth in the United States, the Olympic National Forest and adjoining Wilderness Areas.
One way of taking in this culture clash, and perhaps coming to understand the essential nature of a place, is via its road signs, which I did, on a recent trip to the Olympic Peninsula.
In no particular order:
‘Roddy O’s Square Dance Lessons’
‘We plant some more/for future bounty’
‘What supports habitat, houses and hospitals? State Trust Lands’
‘Poverty lane’
‘Ice and kindling/Knives and Ammo/Youth bows’
‘Blackberry Jam, 99% seedless’
Communities of ‘Beaver’ and ‘Sappho’
‘Logged 1930/1984/1986/…Next Harvest 2036 Jobs grow with trees, hand-hewn signs of timber rhetoric
‘USA’
‘Range area, watch out for livestock’
‘State Prison, do not pick up hitchhikers’
‘Loggers support Tim Fletcher, Our Future, Our Mayor’
‘Where the Mountains Greet the Sea’
‘Twilight town’
‘Edward Cullen Didn’t Sleep Here’

Year of the Artichoke

This year spring has arrived with a whimper, heralded by icy rains and hard-frost mornings, dense fogs and high winds. Crocuses sat for weeks with lonely daffodils, waiting for an early rush of greenery and blooms that never appeared and snow clung to low hills with alarming tenacity. Now, the daffodils are stooped from frosty mornings and the cherry blossoms float like snow through the air, carried by whipping winds.

I do not know what to make of this.

My mind fights back perseverations on hidden meanings of such an extended winter, dark thoughts of warnings, canaries, and the consequences of these strange and changing times. I try hard not to take each cold rain as a sign of impending doom.
And then, hope, in two small leaves. The sad artichoke I planted years ago, in a time of personal tumult and trial, the artichoke that has been eaten by squirrels, frozen solid, stomped on by the children, burned in summer heat, and generally mocked for it’s diminutive stature (it stood, at its best, just six inches high), lives.

And that, I tell myself, is enough.

20131007_134245-1-1030x773.jpg

The Affluence of Time

Recently, I have been reading about a shift in the American psyche related to how we define, and experience, affluence. Like most institutions of the 20th Century, affluence itself is undergoing a radical makeover, shifting from the mid-century model of keeping up with the Joneses, in which your collection of things, and the leisure time to enjoy, them were the primary indicators of affluence to a culture in which affluence is primarily defined by busyness.
Busyness, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the state or condition of having a great deal to do, the quality of being excessively detailed or decorated.’ Busyness, evidenced by living one’s life from event to event, by constant contact, connectedness, and a carefully curated sense of frazzled urgency. Busyness, the reliance on texts to plan or forgive tardiness or absentia. Busyness, the manifestation of Fear of Missing Out. Busyness, the excuse for everything not gotten to, especially for lack of mindfulness or self-care. Busyness, as shaped by a society whose adults spend nine or more hours a day staring into screens. Busyness, as driven by the need to purchase a consumer product for every activity. Busyness, demonstrated through stress, through checking out on people and interactions but checking in to locations and social media. The more busy we have, the more important we are supposed to feel.
It used to be called the rat race. It used to be the thing we were trying to escape, the very thing we sought vacation from. It used to be the result of analog work, manual tasks, and participation in the world around us. Now, it shields us from those things.
This year, consider eliminating busy. The small bits, social media platforms, excessive children’s parties, relationships that drain rather than fulfill you, and the big chunks, traditions that are more work than joy, things you no longer enjoy, obligations which serve no clear purpose. Practice sitting still, doing nothing, in a quiet place. Take walks. Slow down. Revel in the delicious affluence of having time.

Local Histories- Kumbaya

The last thing one might think of when considering the cultural origins of the ubiquitous hippie-camp song Kumbaya, is early 20th Century Oregon. Even if you did, it would be easy to wrongly assume that the song had its origins in regional Native American culture and was appropriated at some time for the drum circles and festivals of the New Age generation. Not so. In fact, the copyright for Kumbaya (Come By Here) has long been held by a white Pastor from Portland, Oregon, who claimed to have first heard it sung by a street evangelist in the city in the early 1930’s. In truth, Kumbaya, is now widely considered to have originated with slaves in the Southeast, speakers of Gullah, and gained popularity during the scouting and summer camp movement of the 1920’s. How did it make its way to Oregon in the 1930’s? Likely with the Ku Klux Klan, who migrated west to Oregon in droves the in 1920’s, making Eugene and Portland its national headquarters. Decades later, a new migration of liberal Jesus People would adopt the song, popularized by Joni Mitchell, as an anthem, forgetting entirely its origins and whitewashing its significance.

PC310244-1030x773.jpg

Peace Cranes

Born in Hiroshima in 1944, Sadako Sasaki was exposed to wartime nuclear radiation at the age of two. By 1955, she had developed full-blown leukemia and was placed in hospital, given less than a year to live. From her hospital room, inspired by a Japanese legend about whoever folded a thousand paper cranes receiving a wish, she started folding paper cranes in the hopes of saving her own life. Her effort, though not lifesaving, became an international symbol and movement for peace. The simplicity of her vision and the enduring symbolism of her work have rung true for generations that have read her story in Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, myself included. In these dangerous and uncertain times, I think it’s important to be reminded of the powers we grant to our elected officials- and the impact of a single voice.