Standing on the edge

Standing on this lip

of land, her endless

creativity and sheltering protection,

cluttering the space behind me,

Leaning into spaciousness

of water and of sky– comforting abyss-

where I can watch the moon ,

hidden from my view beneath that canopy,

trace her unfailing path from horizon to horizon

above this still or stormy sea

Standing on this edge

between my head with its protective clutter

– endless analysis and sheltering solutions–

and my heart

leaning into spaciousness

of Mystery and of Love, alternately comforting/distressing,

as She traces Her path across the surface of my life and then

hides

in the darkness of this moment

I plummet into my heart, receiving fear, accepting pain

To land upon a tentative raft of trust –

Manufactured from these memories

No longer Known, but longing to re-member

Will I float or sink upon this fragile craft

Of manufactured hope

As leaves fall from these trees, opening to sky

So does each solution– plan, fix, resolve, repair–

let go into compassion, relinquishing the need to know

for now

Standing on this edge of self

At this fluid intersection

of the Yin and Yang in me

Heaven and earth kissing

in one body, Fear and Love, Hope and Pain

Where head and heart are one

Wisdom is Her name.

Wilderness Homecoming – part 4* Homegoing

Homegoing –  

“To the Native people, the land was not wild. It was home’- Bill Mason, Song of the Paddle. 

Today, we paddled out, through mist laden lakes, where the silhouettes of islands slowly materialized, then disappeared. Most of Caribou Lake, which we passed through early this morning, will remain shrouded in that thin veil of fog for me–except for what was up close, which is where David Whyte suggests I should begin anyway. 

After Caribou Lake, there was yet another portage before we passed that indistinct boundary between wilderness and civilization, somewhere in the middle of a long narrow lake by the name of Lizz, though it felt to us as if her sole island at the far end stood as sentinel to that vague passage. Then, like walking down a long hallway and stepping through a curtain, suddenly we were standing on the shores of Poplar Lake, with its cottages and fishing boats, and American flags flying half mast ( ‘oh no, what has happened?’). Landing on its far banks, we climbed the hill to the lodge where we were to call our shuttle. (oh, that’s right, humans need to wear masks out here)…….   

A few days ago, while we slept, someone turned the colors on. We’d gone to bed with the subtle beginnings of autumn tawnying the landscape, and awakened to the brilliance of gold. The cedars and pine had shed their brown needles seemingly overnight, their litter coating the water’s surface like pollen in springtime.   

Throughout our last days in the wilderness, we basked in that brilliance, taking a day trip one morning over to aptly named, Vista Lake, where we had lunch-with-a-view, perched atop one of her windswept islands. The thing about islands out here is they can offer refuge in a way that making camp on the mainland cannot. We stayed 2 nights on a large island earlier in this trip, and when the winds were too blustery to sit on one side of the island, we could walk to the other and tuck ourselves into the lee of the land, where it felt 10 degrees warmer. That can happen from one end of a portage trail to the other as well… such a short distance, totally different climate….as our layers come off and back on.  

The other thing about islands, of course, is that you can get stuck there.  If the winds grow too strong, you can find yourself windbound on an island in the middle of a large lake, unable to cross the expanse between it and a sheltering shoreline along which to paddle. On the other hand, if the mainland is on fire, an island is where you want to be.   

Don and I often gather the firewood we will need for evening warmth on the exposed beaches of small islands, where the sun has dried what has fallen or washed ashore there.  I’ve noticed Ravens often roost on islands overnight, and a pregnant cow Moose swims out to an island in order to give birth in the spring. There, she and the newborn calf are less vulnerable to predators. However, they must soon make haste to the mainland, swim across that exposed channel separating it from that place of safety, in order to have access to enough food to survive.  We’ve made camp on islands in early May where we’ve had to sweep the ground with pine boughs, clearing the piles of moose scat left behind by mother and baby during their respite there. 

You quickly learn when paddling that what looks like a separate piece of land is really just the rise of the earth where it emerges above the surface of the water. Often a shoal of rocks, or lurking goonies, stretches between the mainland and an island, or at least for some distance from the ‘edge’ of it. The separation, of course, is an illusion, and an unsuspecting paddler can accidentally find herself abruptly grounded, seemingly in the middle of deep water.   

So then, where does the wilderness end?   

Though intellectually, I understand that the boundary is subtle, or even ‘unreal’, a mental construct, my body tells me it feels abrupt and stark, the climate shift real.  The world of machinery and technology, plastic and steel, containment and disconnection, rushes in like a powerful wind. I don an extra layer. Reentry (or is it exit?) feels that disorienting, the loss potent and abrupt, my very humanity at once diminished.   

Diminished?  

The essence of wilderness is the experience of being untamed – unbounded and boundaryless.   No lines between mine and yours, inside and out, sky and water, earth and me. Within that boundaryless expanse, something distinctly human in me is liberated. Free to explore, to get lost, to find belonging, to be, something latent in the human spirit comes alive and thrives, something so muted by our modern existence that it is almost entirely forgotten. Something about what it means to be, or what it feels like to be, human . Something so foreign, yet at the same so deeply intimate, that I struggle to find words to express it.  

This feeling of deep belonging is entirely different than visiting a place. Your body understands that you are not a visitor, not an outsider, nor even an observer, rather your being is seamlessly with and within You become a part of it. It becomes a part of you.. Sleeping on the earth, beneath wind rustled trees or star littered skies, drinking from her waters, sharing a moment with a wild creature, you recall this feeling of embeddedness.  Held within that vastness, something innately human awakens …a vibrantly wild kind of belonging to the earth.  

We have only islands of wilderness left in our world today, where once there was vastness.  An island, as I learned from Moose, is not enough to sustain us. The best we can now do is gather enough firewood there when we visit, to carry back ‘home’ with us for warmth.  

There is much talk about saving our diminishing wild places, yet even as we speak the words, I suspect most of us, when imagining this wild place, envision something outside of ourselves that we are losing. Few, perhaps, realize this loss OF ourselves that we experience when we are divorced from the wilderness, when it is parceled out as a thing set aside, as a thing that is separate from us. I wonder if, perhaps, it is not only the wild spaces ‘out there’ that we are beckoned to save at this crucial turning point, but something of our very humanity. The two are not separate. We need to re-place ourselves within this wild earth, as an integral part of it. 

I long to bring this wilderness-in-me back home.  I yearn for my spirit to remember what my body simply knows here. I don’t want the switch to be turned off, the colors to fade, the curtain to close. I want to remember that the island is connected under this water, that the protective lee is just a short walk away, that my inner landscape is still wild and free, a refuge worthy of preservation. But the wilderness in me is so intricately intertwined with the wilderness of the earth, I don’t know how to extricate myself and remain intact.   

But beyond my self-centered sense of loss, something tells me that when we extract our humanity from its wild place, making ourselves separate than, an ‘other’, we become capable of devaluing and desecrating what we no longer experience as home. Perhaps, then, the extraction of human beings from the earth is one of the costliest ravages of our ‘natural resources’. 

Rumi has said, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill, where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.” 

Unless, of course, you are lying upon the ground, beneath wind-rustled trees and star littered skies… 

Postscript

Thank you for reading along with me on this journey. Even as I read each day, I am brought back to that place, but also touched anew, somehow. These words this morning, when reading, filled my heart

“….But the wilderness in me is so intricately intertwined with the wilderness of the earth, I don’t know how to extricate myself and remain intact. But beyond my self-centered sense of loss, something tells me that when we extract our humanity from its wild place, making ourselves separate than, an ‘other’, we become capable of devaluing and desecrating what we no longer experience as home. Perhaps, then, the extraction of human beings from the earth is one of the costliest ravages of our ‘natural resources….”

especially after watching David Attenborough’s heartbreaking, yet hope-filled , ‘A life on this planet’.Here is the link to the last in the series.

In beauty we walk,V

(*This entry was originally posted as a Prayernote for Oasis, a local to me contemplative prayer community, at their invitation. You can read my offering it in it’s original format by following this link For more of these exquisite Prayernotes, written and offered by their co-director, Glenn Mitchell, you can go directly to the Prayernote page by following this link)

Wilderness homecoming -part 3

Part 3 in the series* , in which I acknowledge the multitudes and mysteries in the wilderness within and without.

Morning coffee. 

Raven wingbeats overhead. I don’t hear the noise of their flapping, as much as feel the vibration in my eardrums. (of course, I suppose that is what all sound is after all, but this is a soundless sound somehow, l feel it like I feel the beat of my heart). Vibration draws my eye upward as She appears and passes over me.  

Sunrise kisses the tawny with gold. Fish jumps, concentric circles expanding. Red squirrel chatters, announcing its presence or mine, I’m not certain. Whether paddling past or walking a trail, they chatter in our passing, forwarding the message perhaps to their cousins farther along in the direction we are traveling like a game of telephone. Always I respond with my own, ‘Yes, I am here, in your world’. Perhaps that is what they are also saying to me.  

It rained just a bit overnight. The earth is damp beneath me. The wind, which sang in the treetops its lullaby throughout my restful sleep, still rushes and gusts even in morning’s quiet. I hear it. I see it bending the tips of the spiring spruce, which are lining the top of the sheer granite cliff, though I can’t feel it here, tucked into this cove.  

There is movement even in the midst of stillness. Song in the midst of silence.  

Beaver swims to the edge of land, clambers ashore and disappears into the bush. Within moments, I  hear the sounds of his chewing. It sounds a bit like a woodpecker working to me and I wonder if at times I have mistaken one sound for another.  

The first day we paddled into the wilderness, my heart was so full of sound. We were retracing the path we had taken with my daughter and her partner the week before (this is our second trip into the backcountry. Our first week here, we were joined by them, companioned by their tireless enthusiasm and sense of adventure ) and I felt the strange mixture of missing the energy of their presence and welcoming stillness, unexpected sadness and relief occupying the same space in my heart.  It took some time for those feelings to quiet. By evening, the strong winds that had companioned our long first day’s paddling, and which had encouraged us to search for a place to make camp in a leeward bay, had calmed and the lake spread out before me was like glass…. though the tips of those spruce were still bowing and swaying.  I wanted stillness, but was I mistaking stillness for numbness? I wanted my feeling of sudden emptiness to be instantly filled. Flipping back in my journal to that first day, I see Wisdom speaking to me, whispering, ‘Stop pushing. Let the wilderness of this place meet the wilderness in you in its own rhythm and time.” 

Now I see that, like Walt Whitman, and like this wild place, ‘I contain multitudes’.  All of them present at once, none of them higher or lower.  My need for human connection, my need for solitude.  My gift for care taking, my need for self nurture.  My love of family, my longing for freedom.  I also know that upon my return to the bombardment of the, somehow-to-me, wilder world ‘out there’,  in the oft chaotic culture of family and concentric community, I will also experience these strange mixtures of feeling. And it is also likely that sometimes I mistake one sound for another. 

My eye is drawn now to the view. To the west, opening after opening invites my gaze. Like opening a door and finding another on the opposite wall, it draws me ever inward (or is it outward?). To the north the view of what I have named,  ‘the fjords’, reveals just their entrances, inviting my imagination and my longing for what remains hidden. I keep trying to ‘capture’ those fjords with my camera, but there is something of their essence that won’t be caught.  

 There is something about this particular landscape, these vistas, whether paddling or sitting, that both whispers and stirs my longing for More, that resonates with my desire to explore what remains hidden, to see and experience what opens out on the other side if I follow that trail, to feel the pull of those waters beneath me as I kneel in the boat. Sometimes I feel that restless longing in me moan to be met, like the moose behind our tent 2 nights ago.  

Philosopher and naturalist Walt McLaughlin, in a thin volume tucked into my pack recognizes this place within me. “The wilderness experience is so much like the mystical one that they might as well be considered the same. In both cases, the wanderer establishes a certain intimacy with something ineffable. In both cases, all matters are eventually reduced to a single burning question: How far am I willing to go?…. Those afflicted by this ‘long desire’ seek something else…. A desire reaching beyond words. Perhaps it is pure longing itself. Perhaps it is only the desire for absolute freedom, without a specific object in mind. No matter. The wild draws this feeling out of a seeker whether she realizes it or not” 

The wilderness outside meets the wilderness within.  I wander in its depths, uncertain where it is I am going, what it is I will find, but drawn evermore to Being here with it. This day, we have no destination in mind, but intend to explore, paddle west into that open invitation, turn north into that hidden passage, , poke around the edges of this hidden lake, where we are utterly alone, but not at all alone, to listen to what we will see, feel what we hear, and Be here with the multitudinous One.  

(*This entry was originally posted as a Prayernote for Oasis, a local to me contemplative prayer community, at their invitation. You can read my offering it in it’s original format by following this link For more of these exquisite Prayernotes, written and offered by their co-director, Glenn Mitchell, you can go directly to the Prayernote page by following this link)

Wilderness Homecoming- part 2 – Windblown Wisdom

The second of four, in this series, Wilderness Homecoming.* On this day, I am searching for some Ancient Wisdom, and I find glimpses of it in the Earth. It’s a story of loss and rejuvenation, of that which is gathered, stored, and finally released. To read how it unfolds for me, please read on.

Windblown Wisdom

Today I washed my hair. Heated a pot of water over the fire, laid back over the edge of a sloping rock, and let Don pour the pail over my scalp, which I’d soaped with the bar of Doctor Bonner’s.  Now, as I sit perched at the water’s edge, it blows dry in a brisk breeze, as does my laundry, which I washed in a bag with the same bar of soap.  Again, the feeling of luxury soothes me.

Autumn is subtly unfolding here. The tawny needles of the shedding cedar and the slight yellowing of birch and poplar lend to the landscape a faintly faded hue. The wind, playing those poplars at present, elicits the melody of water rushing through a river gorge.

It is day 6, the midpoint of this, our second trip into the park, and we are taking a day of rest.  Yesterday, we were 9 hours on the trail, having broken camp at dawn to get across the big water of Brule lake before it became Bru-tal—that is, before the rising sun stirred the slumbering winds and waves awake.  There remained just a series of smaller lakes after that, but the 8 portages between them were quite rugged. Many of the trails here are rather like river gorges themselves- boulder strewn beds- such that distance is not an accurate measure of difficulty, nor time required, as we plan our days on the map. Traversing them is not so much a matter of endurance but of patience and grace (as in self-forgiveness, not necessarily elegance ) as we care-fully choose our footing and negotiate loading and unloading the boat.

I am reminded that all trails are not the same. We think we are practiced, that our experience has prepared us, but no matter how the basic elements are the same, we walk upon new terrain.  We cannot simply muscle, or bulldoze, our way through to the other side. We must tread more wisely than that.

My husband and I double carry. That means one of us carries the food barrel (which begins our trips weighing in at 55 pounds ) and the other, the canoe, on our first trip across a trail connecting one lake to the next, then go back empty shouldered for the 2 remaining packs, which contain our tarp, tent, clothing, kitchen, sleeping mats and bags, etc. There are those, mostly younger than us, who choose to carry 80 pounds all in one go, to cover lots of distance in one day, but that is not our way.  We, perhaps by necessity, are willing to be inefficient. We don’t feel the need to ‘see it all’ at this stage in our lives, but to ‘see’ it all.

Gazing at my husband, asleep shoulder to shoulder with me in the tiny tent this morning, I suddenly could see the old man he is becoming, and I questioned how many more years we will be out here, doing this. I felt, in my own body then, the anticipatory grief, the resistant denial, the tender letting go.

This area of the wilderness has suffered both massive blow downs and devastating wild fires, one of course setting the stage for the other.  Yesterday, we passed through a portion of the 75,000 acres burned a decade ago as a result of both natural and potentially human sparked events. At the end of a long, wearying day, I’ll admit it was disheartening for me to realize that the lake we’d landed on was one of those ravaged by fire. It did not look like the landscape I’d hoped to find. Yes, I understand the fire dependent ecosystem, it’s reliance upon natural cycles of succession. And yes, there was rejuvenation–verdant new growth where sunlight and ash and fire-released seeds have performed their alchemy, forging a burgeoning young forest. I have paddled through fresher burns than these in years past, in other wilderness areas, found breathtaking beauty in the stripped bare and resilient skin of the earth, but there is something in me this season that longs for the comfort of the Ancient, the familiar, dark and deep. Something that longs, perhaps, for Wisdom.

Perhaps it is that there is enough destruction in our world right now, that we are all walking on unfamiliar trails, as gracefully as we can, balancing precariously on these boulders unexpectedly strewn in our path, hoping that what we find on the other side looks somehow familiar. Longing for Wisdom.

I trust in the Earth’s.

We moved from that recovering lake this morning to this one. Now I sit on the perch that is a fallen White Pine, overlooking a vista that soothes. She too was likely a casualty, on the margins of that high wind event that sent millions of her sisters crashing and subsequently providing fuel for those inevitable wildfires. Before learning the story of their fate, I’d known simply that somehow I missed them here– those large white and red pine – feeling their loss on the landscape of my heart. I imagine those travelers who passed this way before me, who knew intimately this particular point of granite,  felt poignantly the loss of this particular Pine’s falling, their hearts sinking when rounding the bend to find a beloved sentinel fallen. 

Curled into the crook of her great rootball now, I trace the sliver of soil in the crack of the rock, where she once clung to life, trace the mirrored angle of one of her legs, put the pieces together. Today one long tendril of root stretches up the slope for a toehold of earth, a sip of water, so that even in this, the laying down of her life, she still produces needles, gathering sunlight into her five fingered bundles.

During our daily travels, my eye has been drawn to those of her sisters that remain standing, rising high above this canopy of spruce, cedar, fir, aspen and birch, still catching that wind, revealing its prevalence in the grace of their leeward reaching arms, being caressed by it and forged by it. Their silent vigil as we’ve paddled past them fills me with their Wisdom and peace.

Many will fall, or be felled, or flare up- to become something new, releasing a century of gathered sunlight in the process.

I too.

You too, my love.

Us too, dear world.

(*This entry was originally posted as a Prayernote for Oasis, a local to me contemplative prayer community, at their invitation. You can read my offering it in it’s original format by following this link For more of these exquisite Prayernotes, written and offered by their co-director, Glenn Mitchell, you can go directly to the Prayernote page by following this link)

Wilderness Homecomings – part 1, The upside down nature of things.

This fall, I was invited by Oasis, a local-to-me contemplative prayer and spiritual companioning community, to share some reflections from my recent experience in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

This post and the 3 that follow are from that series, originally published by Oasis. You can read more from their exquisite series of Prayernotes here.

Wildnerness Homegoings, Introduction to the Series

Each year, spring and fall, (and increasingly, also, summer and winter) I take what I have come to realize are spiritual pilgrimages, north to the canoe country of Ontario. There in the spaciousness of water and sky, in the intimacy of flora and fauna, in the freedom of wilderness and the solitude of nature, I experience a deep sense of homecoming.   In that place, where the boundaries are blurred between water and sky, between myself and the other, where even the definitions of journey and destination are unclear (are we travelling from body of water to body of water across the land, or from island to island across the water?), I lose my self-consciousness, I lose myself in presence and in Love, and experience a simpler, inconspicuous and transcendent, belonging.  

This year, we were not to be permitted across the Canadian border. A deep sense of loss filled me, yet I struggled with the decision to simply supplant yet another ‘experience’. It felt forced at best, and like an unwillingness to face/be with my emptiness at worst. But after a few false starts and changes of plans, we finally took the plunge and headed north for most of the month of September. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota, 2,000,000 acres of glacier carved lakes surrounded by the trees of the “North Woods’, we immersed ourselves in a rhythm of days of paddling, portaging, hauling water and gathering wood, fire building, pitching and striking camp, and the rhythm of the season, attuning our bodies to the earth’s risings and fallings, her ripenings and decay.

These posts are just a few samplings of our days spent (quite literally) quenching our thirst from her waters

Wilderness Homegoings, Part 1 -The Upside Down Nature of things. 


.I awaken with the sun, its rising causing the dome of nylon between myself and the sky to glow, informing me that it will soon be cresting the ridgeline of birch, cedar, and spruce. I want to be with it, to witness the subtle unfolding of dawn, so I too arise, unzipping my side of the 5×7 tent as quietly as I can so as not to awaken my partner, who is fairly exhausted after yesterday’s miles of paddling and portaging. I wish to let him rest, yes, but also to savor these moments of solitude.  

The coffee, made last evening over the fire, is tucked inside the thermos, tucked inside the cozy, tucked into the corner of the tent next to my head. I hope it is warm enough that I may not have to busy myself with a fire right away, though my nose – an accurate thermometer I have come to trust through these years of canoe tripping – tells me the temps dipped below 30 degrees overnight, and that fire might be welcome. Still, I long to be still. So it will be warm enough.  

It doesn’t take many days at all for my body to sync itself with these cycles,  for the earth within me to turn towards the sun each morning and fall away from it each evening, my weary bones falling into the tent most nights shortly after sunset. (though we did make a point of staying up until after 9 a few evenings ago, to lay back on the granite point and drink in the stars, the milky way arching grace-fully from horizon to horizon over the smallness of our bodies, clinging upside down to this rock we call Earth, hurtling through space ) I ponder that word, ‘sync’, how it has come to refer to all things technological – calendars, emails, computers—divorced from the body, as I have come to experience the feeling of being in sync with her cycles out here.  

As I sip the warm-enough coffee, burrowing into my down sweater and wool cap, the water before me reflecting the morning stillness for which I have longed, the word luxurious fills my belly.  Again, I am reminded of the way the world outside is turned upside down in here. That it feels like a luxury to have carried the canoe and a 40 pound pack over 10 miles of rocky and rugged portage trails and 30 miles of water, in order to sleep on the ground in this frosty place, seems quite apparently preposterous. Yet, I know it is a luxury few experience, to be able to come here like this, to be given the gift of re-membering what human belonging with the wild earth feels like, what quiet like this sounds like, what complete darkness looks like. Even my sense of smell reawakens out here, as the rising sun elicits the scent of ripening autumn from the tawny bracken at my feet. 

As I sip, a beaver swims by. She is up late this morning, so busy this time of year, preparing for the fast approaching winter, when her lodge will be marooned in the ice. She knows this is the time to drag fresh limbs down to the lake bottom, where she will impale them into the mud so as to adequately nourish herself and her family from those stores in the coming months. I know that I too am doing the same. These annual autumn pilgrimages sustain me in much the same way as I return to the oft cold ‘real’ world, out there. 

Again, the upside down nature of reality strikes me. What is ‘real’–this wild place or the ‘civilized’ one outside its boundary? And what does it mean to be fully human? Is it the way I am here with simple, undivided presence, my mind and my body in one place, paying attention, with no anxiety about yesterday’s mistakes or tomorrow’s expectations?  Simply being – carrying only what I can on my back, nothing more – content to be a part of something much bigger than me, one of many beings, One with them.  

There seems to be no hierarchy here– interrelationship yes—but inflated self-importance, no. Humility here is simply incarnate. I hope to carry this re-membrance back home with me, where my conditioned co-dependent ego can too quickly inflate (deflate?) my presence to something more akin to duty, and I tend to carry more on my back than is necessary.  But of course, even here there is still longing—longing for more, or longing for connection, or both. We heard that in the bellows and lowing of the moose throughout the night 2 nights ago.  

I’ve come to understand through the years of these trips, that the ancients, who first attempted to codify techniques for prayer and meditation, were merely trying to recapture the intuited remembrance of what it was to simply be fully present in such a way as this, no part of one’s mind somewhere else, to simply Be, a part of Something Bigger—of earth, and water, and sky.  Before, perhaps, our heads grew too big for our bodies.  

I hear the zip of the tent behind me. Time to scoop a pail from the water’s edge, move to the circle of stones, lay some twigs —the sun laid into the cells of those twigs bequeathing its fire once again—and tend to Love. Together we will take in the day’s nourishment.  

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