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Does the Land Weep for Us?

I just returned from 7 weeks away. I had to leave for a surgery that I was unable to have performed here in town. I stayed with friends in my old haunts of the Bay Area; had Christmas with family; and when I felt well enough to haul my own wood and take care of myself, I returned home to my little cabin in the woods. I’m still not healed enough to hike, or even walk around much, but happy to be back in the wildest lands in lower America.

In California after a few weeks, I began dreaming of home. I flew into the Absarokas in a small plane, landing high up in rugged country. I found elk, moose, and bears living in Marin County so I tracked them. Eagles soared overhead, wolves howled in my dreams in friend’s homes where I stayed. I missed my home and my dreams said so.


Flying in my dreams over this place near my home

I arrived home last night. No moon, the stars crowded the night, shimmering like millions of ice crystals in the sky. This morning some young buck deer came into the yard, looking for corn I’d thrown out for the wild turkeys. The turkeys milled easily around the deer while both fed. At dusk I drove to the flats above the cabin where hundreds of winter elk feed. I knew they’d be there as they are the Lamar migratory herd that arrives in December.

elk moving up the hillside

Lamar migratory herd

It’s getting cold now and I’m back at the cabin, windows closed, when I hear familiar sounds calling faintly outside. The wolf pack is howling, getting ready for their nightly rounds.

(Wolf sounds I recorded last year)

Winter is the best time here. Tourists are gone. Local townspeoples are gone. Even the residents, mostly snow-birds, have left. The valley belongs to the wildlife and their evidence–tracks–is everywhere.

Back in California, I pictured myself walking through my little woods which I like to do on a daily basis. I’ve spent ten years here–appreciating, loving, serving this place and soaking it up with my whole being. And now this tierra and all its surroundings where I’ve wandered, have gotten deep into my blood.

But does the land miss my regard when I’m gone?  In some small way, I like to think it does. But I’m only one person. What the land, and its community of wildlife, was adapted to long ago was a tribal presence that cared, and did ceremonies of thankfulness.

When I lived in California, I learned about how native clans gathered yearly each October to harvest acorns, do ceremonies, dance, give thanks to the trees, find mates amongst the neighboring clans,and tell stories. Some clans had special Oaks they claimed and served. During the rest of the year they’d prune these trees, and clear brush by fire around them. Acorns were their life blood and also the king-pin for forest food of thousands of other animals.

Miwok preparing acorns

But now no one dances nor eats the fruits of the oaks. No one comes to tell stories and give thanks to the trees and the trees suffer with strange invasive diseases. I believe they are suffer from this lack of regard.

Maybe our trees in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, infested with beetles, suffer this loneliness as well.  Scientists study these trees, but perhaps a different approach is necessary for their healthy response. White Bark Pines shared a similar history for the native peoples in our area. Whole encampments centered around White Bark harvests; now those camps are buried and forgotten, and the trees weep with their sap.

Sheep Eater Shoshone harvest site called High Rise Village

Maybe in my absence, my nearby forest missed my presence just a little, as I missed it.


We could have many more places like Yellowstone.

Living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, I enjoy the full suite of wildlife (minus bison, another story…) at my doorstep.  It’s not that I’m seeing large megafauna daily, yet if I hike around my valley or the nearby Beartooth Mountains, I see their evidence.

People who visit Yellowstone expect and hope to catch a glimpse of wolves, bears or other wildlife.  But Yellowstone is a protected habitat, free of human habitation.So what is it like to live with these animals in your neighborhood?

Today was a hot day in the valley.  When it’s hot, I like to take a half hour drive up to the Beartooth Mountains towards the summit via highway 120.  Although mosquitos are out, the air is cool and pleasant.  I took a hike along what’s known as the Morrison Jeep trail–an ATV road closed until July 15 that runs from the Beartooth Plateau all the way to the Clark’s Fork Canyon in the desert. Wildflowers are starting to abound.

Marsh Marigold

Marsh Marigold


Kalmia, used by some tribes to commit suicide as it is deadly poisonous

Kalmia, used by some tribes to commit suicide as it is deadly poisonous

And Koda had a great time in all the lakes.

In the Beartooths

Yet what makes this place so unique is this:

Wolf tracks

Wolf tracks

And the signs to watch out for grizzly bears.

Front and back grizzly tracks.

Front and back grizzly tracks.

Because this is a ‘road’–suitable only for ATVs–and it is closed now, few people were out.  I saw one group of returning backpackers.  They told me they saw two wolves this morning, one black and one grey, in the meadow.  Part of the Beartooth wolf pack I told them.

I recently visited northeast Wyoming and Devils Tower in The Black Hills.  It’s a gorgeous area and a striking sacred spot.  At the Devils Tower visitor’s center, I read a story of an Indian man that was interviewed in the 1930s.  He recalled coming to Devils Tower (known as Bear’s Lodge to the tribes) as a young boy in the 1850s.  At that time, he said, there were wolves there.  Yet no longer.

Devils Tower, WY

Devils Tower, WY

The United States has many beautiful parks and national forests, yet only the Yellowstone Ecosystem is complete with a full suite of native wildlife that once was abundant everywhere.  After living here, everywhere else feels bereft.

Grizzlies too are killed for cattle predation on public lands

I am not advocating that more people move here.  On the contrary.  I am advocating that we work to have these kinds of complete ecosystems in many other parts of the country where it makes sense.  Grizzlies, for instance, occupy less than 2% of their original habitat.

Like many animals that are losing their habitat, we too are losing ours.  How preposterous is it that a person must fly or drive thousands of miles just to view these animals as well as experience an un-fragmented ecosystem; even though there is plenty of suitable habitat for wolves, grizzlies, and other carnivores in forests and Parks in places like Utah, Colorado, and other lands in the West.

After living here for eight years, I’ve come to understand that scenery isn’t ‘everything’ and in fact, it’s nothing without the wildlife that was meant to inhabit it.  Without them, those beautiful lands feel empty.Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep

Practically, what does that mean?  First, a change in attitudes. In larger landscapes, we can live with these large predators.  Yes, we’ll have to adapt with our garbage, bird seed, chickens, and other small livestock, but it can be done. Changing our attitude includes changing our hunting and trapping laws to be inclusive of these predators, instead of the outdated model of ‘more ungulates, less predators’.

Second, the livestock industry must change and use predator friendly methods of control where possible, including the realization that livestock losses on public lands are ‘at your own risk’.  Public lands are all wildlife have to make their living on. Bears, wolves, coyotes and other wildlife should not be shot on public lands if depredation occurs.  It should be the responsibility of the cattle rancher to ride the range with their cattle, stock them appropriately with perhaps a bull and mixed age groups.  Sheep need dogs watching them as well as a human shepherd.

People who live with bears and wolves and cougars daily know that these animals are not ‘behind every tree‘, waiting ‘to get you‘.  If they were, then they could easily kill a person.  Instead, they avoid people; make their living mostly at night; and seem to only get into trouble when people are leaving food out or not taking care of their livestock.

Having spent a lot of time in the Southwest, I would love to see wolves restored in that area.  But the year-round coyote trapping and bounty needs to stop first.  The northeast corner of Wyoming is the corridor in which cougars can expand eastward, but the hunting quota is either too high, or unlimited! That is just two examples of attitudinal and practical changes that need to be considered.

Once you’ve lived in a place like the Yellowstone Ecosystem, not only is there hardly anyplace like it on Earth, but you will want to restore your home, where ever that is, to its natural balance.



Ode to a Wyoming Spring

Yesterday I took a short hike on the Clark’s Fork plateau.  And I was again reminded that there is nowhere like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Spine of the Rockies where one can experience what I did in just a few hours in the lower U.S.  Frankly, it was a magical excursion.

I began my hike on a well-known trail that falls just 45′ down to the vast plateau above the rocky cliffs of the Clark’s Fork.  Within moments I came across cougar tracks in the melting snowfield.  After a following the tracks a few steps, the elusive cougar  disappeared.

Left Hind cougar

From the parking area above I’d spied a few elk, so I knew some were around.  But as I rounded a bend in the treeline, there was a small herd of about 75 elk in the meadows near the cliff edges.  Elk disband into smaller and smaller herd sizes as spring nears, until soon they disappear to calve and head into the high country.  The elk spied me and Koda, and were a bit skittish but quite curious.  As they ran one direction, then another to follow our movements (I was headed away from them and already at quite a distance), their hooves pounded on the frozen earth an ancient, but familiar hollow sound.


I watched the elk briefly as they watched me, but I was headed for the river.  Within moments I spied fresh wolf tracks, 2 sets, as well as a lone coyote, on a sprint down to the river too.  I began following them as they lead me down the narrow gully that meets the river’s edge.

Two wolves side trot down the road

Two wolves side trotting towards the river

The wolves sidetracked up to a small meadow for a view and I did too.  From there, I glassed around, probably doing what the wolves did with their own eyes and good sense of smell.  Just a ravine away, there was a large gathering of birds on a melting ice field.  I detoured that way and watched them for a while.  Thousands of birds were gathering in trees, taking time for a drink.  Their chirping sounded like crickets, which I knew weren’t out yet because it was about 37 degrees.

After following the canine tracks down to the river, and seeing they’d crossed over, I made my way slowly to the cliff edge.  I wanted to spy for mountain goats that frequent the Clark’s Fork cliffs in the winter.  There is a special look-out area, where the meadows give way to trees, that soon fall precipitously over the 1000′ edge.  As I neared the trees and cliffs, I heard that strange ‘cricket’ sound again.  The flock had flown here and they were flying everywhere, from tree to tree, around the cliffs, thousands of birds.  These were Bohemian Waxwings and maybe there were beginning their migration north.  Beautiful birds, a bit smaller than robins, they caught my eye and senses.

Bohemian Waxwing

Whatever they were up to, the sheer force of their presence and numbers was magical.  The sun beat down through the trees.  I stood and allowed the new spring sun to warm my body, closed my eyes, and listened to them.  As I became quiet, they grew less concerned about my presence and became more active, flying all around me.  I felt like I was receiving a tiny bit of what America might have looked like hundreds of years ago–when wildlife was so abundant that this ‘small’ flock of a thousand birds or so was common.

What a wonderful two hour hike.  Only in a place like the Greater Yellowstone.  I was reminded of how precious, fragile, and necessary this place is.

The Ecology of Awareness vs. the Landscape of Fear

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a great laboratory that houses all the fauna and flora that make up a complete ecosystem. Granted, humans have greatly altered that system, with invasive species of animals and plants, farms and ranchettes, housing developments, dams and canals; but still pristine and natural wildlife interactions can be observed in the vast  lands  surrounding the Park.

Coyote searching sagebrush for prey

Coyote searching sagebrush for prey

Since wolves were introduced, a lot of the systems have changed, and not only have the wolves been studied, but their effect on elk, coyotes, aspens, watercourses, beavers, grizzlies and more.  Wolves are an apex predator, in other words, at the top of the food chain.  They are the key lynchpin effecting entire landscapes, the beginning of a domino effect, which creates a ripple of change far and wide.  This is referred to as a ‘trophic cascade‘.

'06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

World Famous ’06 shot by hunters in 2012

One of these studied effects is the resurgence of willow and aspens streamside in the Park.  Before wolves were re-introduced (wolves were extirpated from the Park by the early 1930’s), there was not an aspen younger than 80 years old to be found.  Aspen only live about 100 years.  This dearth of young trees was because elk, free of predation, were browsing like cattle, feeding  unfettered in stream bottoms on young shoots.  But once the wolves arrived, everything changed.  An elk in a river bottom is more vulnerable–less escape avenues, harder terrain to navigate quickly.  Over time, elk learned river courses were not where they wanted to linger so the aspens and willows rejuvenated.   With young trees returning, the beavers had food and materials for their dams.  With the beavers returning, slower stream habitat was created for fish and insects, and the fish had shade and cover.  So you get the concept of trophic cascades.

Mature old aspens and gazillions of young aspen clones

Mature old aspens and new young aspen clones with the reintroduction of wolves

One of the ideas that came out of all these new studies was a scientific catch phrase: ‘The Ecology of Fear” or sometimes called “The Landscape of Fear“.  This of course, relates to the idea explained above–that wolves,and all predators, effect prey movement through fear of being killed, and thus mold the landscape.  And this is a true observation, even with humans.  Fear has us humans avoiding certain neighborhoods at night, or packing a gun, or just being more vigilant when hiking around grizzlies.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear on a well used forest service road.  Gun or bear spray?  What do you carry?

The world of nature and its observations, scientific or not, can be compared to a room full of individuals.  Each person describes the experience through their own lens; in a sense it is like a vast hall of mirrors playing tricks on the observer.  The Landscape of Fear is only one way to describe the play of nature, and I feel we do a great disservice to tag Life through this lens.  We demean non-humans, reducing animals to little more than reactive and fearful creatures.  Fear is a useful emotion. Without it survival would not be possible. But fear does not describe the whole and the complexity.  I prefer to think of it as the Landscape of Intelligence and Adaptation.

Elk herd in valley on a warm day

Elk herd grazing in winter

For instance, with their native predator back, the elk relearned their landscape, reconnected with their instincts, re-quickened their alertness and intelligence–much like a person who walks in grizzly bear country as opposed to walking a trail on the California coast.  This kind of alertness, although born out of our universal need to survive, is an act in Consciousness.  Elk, nor any other animal, are not walking around fearful all the time.  They are aware, alert, ready to adapt to new circumstances. They feed in the open where they can run, they distrust and don’t like fences that hinder their freedom to escape, and they stay close to forest cover where its harder for wolves to out maneuver them.  But they also are frisky, feed early before storms, move continuously for better forage, adapt their location for wind and weather protection, and are forever curious.  They are intelligent.

elk and snow

We have all seen people who are frozen with fear, or their outlook on life is clouded by paranoia.  They are not healthy mentally, nor happy. And their personal Landscape of Fear becomes one of obsession with protection as their world becomes narrower.  Clearly then, this is not the natural state.

Fat Marmot

Alert Marmot

The natural state is one of relaxed awareness, able to draw on whatever appropriate response is necessary at any moment. It is a flexible state of consciousness, with the ability to learn and grow, move and adapt.  This is the lens through which I view the natural world. This is the mirror I feel dignifies wildlife and all of Life.

Bear scent trees and leave their hairs

Happy bear makes a tree rub

What is an elephant?

The Buddha tells a parable that is a classic:  The King has six blind men brought to the Palace and asked to describe an elephant.  “When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each of them and said to each: ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?”  Each blind man describes the elephant differently.  The one who touched his ear said he was like a fan.  The one who touched his leg said he was like a tree trunk.  The man who felt his tusk said he was like a spear.  Touching the elephant’s body, one exclaimed he was like a wall.  One man touched his trunk and said he was like a rope.

How can anyone describe the Whole until he has learned about all the parts.  Relative to Nature, we are all like the blind man for we cannot see the whole and all the parts are too many, too intricate, and some parts even invisible which we will never see.

I was speaking with someone today about Grizzly bears and the need for connective corridors and Yellowstone to Yukon to become a reality; how if grizzlies are delisted in 2014, then hunted to control their numbers, they will just be in a virtual zoo in the GYE, and how studies have shown that without connectivity, over time the bear will go extinct in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Strangely enough, I was told that the plan was that if genetic diversity were compromised, then bears from other areas could just be flown in!  I think that’s the idea with wolves as well.

Trying to manipulate all the parts to make a whole becomes a juggling act that is doomed to failure.  Over time, we’ll never be able to control wolves for livestock on public lands or figure out how many we should kill to maintain elk and deer at levels we want; Or how to control the diseases in the ungulates we desire to hunt when we have killed the wolves that control those diseases; or manage cattle on public lands and still maintain healthy ecosystems for elk and deer; or control brucellosis, that originated with cattle, from transferring back to cattle from elk and bison; or keep enough control over Park bison and still have enough genetic diversity; or shoot enough coyotes to keep them from killing sheep or chickens; or kill enough raccoons to protect our cornfields.  We are like the boy with his fingers in the dyke.

In the end, we always seem to learn that all the parts need to be there to make up the Whole; and the Whole can self-manage and heal itself quite well, without our interference.  This has even been proven in places where humans are no longer allowed, like Chernobyl, now a healthy ecosystem as far as wildlife is concerned.

The question is not how do WE manage and juggle everything.  The question is how can we live lightly?    When all is said and done, it will not be the Endangered Species Act, nor some Act of Congress that makes the final difference, but an act in Consciousness that each and every one of us must make.  And that Conscious Act will translate into our Approach to all of Life itself.


What is wild?

What counts as wildness and wilderness is determined not by the absence of people, but by the relationship between people and place.  A place is wild when its order is created according to its own principles of organization—when it is self-willed land.  Native peoples usually…”fit” that order, influencing it but nor controlling it…  Jack Turner

I’ve been re-reading ‘The Abstract Wild’ .  Jack Turner is so eloquent and makes such an impassioned plea for wildness.  Neither does he mince words nor ideas.

I find it interesting to consider once again What is Wild?  Turner argues that it isn’t just about the preservation of ecosystems per se, but what wilderness and wildness does for the soul of people.  People need wildness.  We need it to know who we are.  “Something vast and old is vanishing”

Black grizzly

I live in a beautiful and some say remote, isolated place, right on the border of our largest Park.  Yellowstone National Park, and its surrounding region,  is the only intact ecosystem in the temperate world.   I live bordering the Shoshone National Forest, a National Forest with the most designated wilderness area in the U.S.  Many people would say that apart from Alaska, these are truly the last wild areas left.  To me it has a certain wildness; but truly it is not.

Wolves are captured, collared and sometimes killed under a ’10J’ rule; elk, deer, and sheep are carefully counted to keep track of their numbers, then hunts, seasons and quotas are established; grizzlies are either dropped off here or, if they are ‘getting into trouble’, they are captured and moved; studies are conducted constantly on habitat health for different forms of plants and wildlife; commercial logging goes on.

Elk study expedition

There are the public interests as well.  All Terrain Vehicle owners want more roads and access; ranchers move their cattle onto the public lands, want protection and reimbursement for losses, want fences built and water sources maintained; back country horsemen clear trails; hunters blaze new trails; snowmobilers need their winter access; trappers work their traplines; and in every season people shoot coyotes, ground squirrels,  badgers and other ‘varmints’.

In our National Park next door, there is no hunting, trapping, or ATV’s, but there certainly are snowmobiles and biology studies that include collaring animals.  Trails are ‘managed’ for bears to have their privacy in the spring, and for humans to be safe from bears. Aspen or White Bark Pine studies are conducted.  Fish are monitored. Even frogs are monitored.  Backpackers are assigned to specific campsites on specific days, and reservations can be made in advance. And cell towers must go up to appease tourists who complain about poor coverage.

As remote as my cabin may seem to most of my friends and visitors, it is not wild and this place is barely a direct experience of wilderness.  What makes it different is the presence of top predators, especially the Great Bear.  If it were not for the presence of grizzly bears, there would be many more people hiking these mountains, making it even less wild.  The nearby Wind River Mountains or The Big Horns are a perfect example of beautiful mountains without grizzlies that are full of people.  The Winds are considered a Wilderness area, yet sheep graze there in the summer. And although grizzlies make their way down there as it is good habitat, they are endlessly moved because it’s not part of their sanctioned ‘reintroduction area’.  The Big Horns are full of cattle and ATV’s.

Wildness is determined by the relationship between people and place…where people influence but not control it.  Here is the fine line between ‘influence’ and ‘control’.  In order to understand that difference, one must identify with one’s Place.  That takes living there, watching its order, its seasons, its needs, what a Place wants.  An attitude of service to a Place is necessary rather than exploitation for fun or profit.  If one works the land for a living, then a sensitivity must occur where the entire biotic community is taken into account along with ones’ needs.  That is not an easy task when it comes to growing food–no spraying, no rodenticides, protection from deer and bears, rabbits, and frosts.

And if all this is done properly, I still am not sure that Turner’s definition is complete for wildness.  Wildness as a relationship requires an intimacy that we no longer will know ever again.  There may be a handful, if that many, of tribes in the entire world who still know that kind of intimacy.

Intimacy with elk.  The wild herd of Yellowstone in Sunlight in Winter

Turner pleads for a new tradition of wildness. To create a wilder self, the self must live the life of the wild, mold a particular form of human character, a form of life.  Relics will not do, tourism will not do, books will not do.  He does not look to the past– Native American traditions or African bushmen or Australian aborigine knowledge.  The landscape of the past is gone.  Turner says we must consider what our new intelligence of the wild will be today, in this modern age; and then expound it through art and literature.  Although this ‘rant’ of a book might be considered pessimistic by some, it truly isn’t. Turner has hope that as the emergence of new ‘wild’ spokespeople is taking place, others will seek that wild direct experience too; and they will demand it of our culture.  Turner’s is not a lament, but a plea.  In this complex World where economics is the glue that binds all of us, it is difficult to see where wildness will win out in the end.  Even with the ‘good fight’ that takes place day to day,there is a slow (or maybe fast) erosion of places where direct contact with the wild can even occur.  I, unlike Turner, am not so optimistic.

Cub carves out his space in the forest nearby

A Toolbox for locating Power Places

There is an honest experience of spiritual space.  We all understand this somewhere deep in our psyches.  It comes out of a time when there were fewer of our species on this earth and we banded together for safety.  A time when we could walk for days without seeing a person; when our eye scanned a horizon without limit.  Space on our planet is becoming at a premium.  Without being told this, we can feel it.  Crowd or no crowd, we feel the limit pressing against us.  We are aware of this, regardless of how much solitude we enjoy at any moment.  And that awareness is troubling—the too many rats in the cage syndrome.  Our DNA is not fit for these kinds of crowds.  We are adapted for limitlessness, expansiveness, a clarity and freshness of consciousness.  All else becomes depressive, constrictive, crazy-making.  Depression is widespread and no amount of pills can fix the kind that hungers for open spaces.  This type of depression has deeper roots, like a tree caught in a can, its’ crown gnarled, unable to grow and expand.  This crush of human consciousness might not be obvious until you’ve actually been in an environment not only without crowds, but without much of today’s technologies.  Once you’ve tasted the difference, you can never fully go back.  You’ve drunk the punch.

Limitless expanse hides in our DNA

I fear there are less and less places on the earth where one can experience this feeling, so natural yet now so foreign to us.  Our world today is crowded even in places where its’ not.  Wires, cell towers, EM pollution, air pollution, water pollution, on and on.  I first fell in love with Wyoming, in the tiny town of Pinedale.  Long ago I ‘drunk the punch’ there.  Pinedale today, population 1,400, has air quality in the winter  worse than Los Angeles due to ozone from the gas fields.  Los Angeles!  Where there are almost 10 million people!

Pinedale anticline gas field in winter

Power in sacred spaces is diminished by man-made monstrosities like wires, roads, buildings, oil fields and other land scars.  Some places must just remain sacred.  With large amounts of people on this earth, we require even larger amounts of sacred spaces, not less, to hold the quiet so necessary for our spiritual peace of mind.

Living in the Bay Area for a few weeks, I became acutely aware of our lack of psychic space.  Yes, there are refuges here and there—parks, open space, even National Forests & Parks—but there is no ‘Wildness’ capable of absorbing our subjectivity, helping to ‘jumpstart’ us into this present moment.  With so many people using the limited amounts of open land, there must be many more rules. Trails are neatly constructed, lots of signage, no dogs, fees for parking, and on and on.  I don’t resent this.  In an overcrowded world with more and more people seeking refuge, that is the price we pay.

Private golf course abutts a Widerness area in Sedona

But are these controlled parks and lands the refuges we truly seek?  Or are they a compromise, a washed down version of something we once knew and now must settle for?  Can places of Power that were once brimming over, full of energy, yet now diluted by human interference, still transmit the same potency they contained hundreds, if not thousands of years ago?  Is it still possible to go out as a vision seeker, like Jesus, Gautama or Plenty Coups, and have the  Power of Place transform and enlighten us?  I see this as an important question to ponder.

Milarepa in his cave for 20 years

Every great spiritual leader in all traditions–and traditionally any person who had the inclination—went seeking their vision, their connection, a transmission of wisdom or insight through a communion experience in nature.  They went alone.  Where ever the power was present in their unique geography, there they went.  Some to mountains, other to deserts.  Some, like the Buddha, found a quiet and large tree to sit under.  Others, like the Tibetan Yogi Milarepa, sought a cave and sat there for twenty years.  I don’t recall a story where the Enlightenment, the Profundity, came forth at home with the kids or when haggling in the marketplace.  A retreat was necessary, in an isolated Place of Power. The transmission of Power in a sacred place seems to have the capacity to transform a person.

Devil's tower. Sacred to Indian tribes

This retreat is not the exclusive right of the rich, nor the so-called more spiritually advanced or inclined.  This is, and should be preserved as, the birthright of every human.  This transmission of wisdom and awakening takes place in Land free of transmission and electrical lines,  ORV’s, signed and groomed trails, night sky pollution, and other unnatural human effects which distort the Energy of Power Places.  To be so alive with Power, the place must also be alive with all the large and small critters that nature intended to be there.   How can a ‘spirit animal’ come to you and instruct you if their spirit is no longer there?   This is not a matter of belief.  It is imbued in the land itself.  A Silent Spring, as Rachel Carson warned us about, is a dead place spiritually.  It may be pretty to look at, but it lacks all the elements that give it Life.

The Effects of Off-Highway Vehicles on Archaeological Sites and Selected Natural Resources of Red Rock Canyon State Park

We all need places where we can, if we so desire, wander for days without seeing a soul, or a trail; a place where the natural forces of the Earth—drought, fire, wind, are allowed to shape the Land.  A Place where your eyes can come to rest in a limitless horizon of the natural world.  Places where the natural drama of Life is played out by the animals that live there.  That drama, of life and death, is part of the spiritual lesson we are seeking to understand and transcend when we go out alone.  We too are part of that cycle, and having those animals out there, as well as the force of nature to confront, keeps us awake to this present moment.

In our distant past as a people, when we wanted to go on a vision quest or spiritual journey, we knew through our feeling sensitivity the places where we should go and sit; we knew where Power gathered and so there we headed.  In today’s world, how would we know?  We have no culture to guide us, no designated spiritual places.

We must re-learn to trust our innate feeling sense as our guide.  To do this requires a different approach to the outdoors.  There are times when all we want to do is unwind and recreate in nature—to ski, or climb, or backpack, or use an ORV.  That is fine too.  But to be sensitive to Power Places, a different asana is required.  Right approach means curiosity and sensitivity mixed with a healthy respect.   This will guide our noses and give us the information we need to determine the different qualities a place contains.  A good tool is wandering.  Wandering without goal opens our senses.  The posture of ‘not knowing’ or abandoning the ‘need to know’ connects us with our child mind, a mind that is free of constructs and defenses.  Alertness and awareness are necessary when wandering in the wilderness—there are dangers in the form of topography, weather, accidents, or animals like bears, rattlesnakes, or even ticks.   With these few simple intentions in our toolbox of our ‘sacred quest’, nature will guide us easily into the present moment.  Once there, it’s easy to feel what kind of power is in a place.

Combine yourself with your Experience

Sunday was the finest day we’ve had so far this year.  Elk Creek is one of my favorite drainages in the valley and I decided to roam it for the day.  The creeks are just beginning to rise, the snow pack in the high country barely beginning to melt.

May 2011 High Country has not yet melted

The first two creek crossings I was able to use some downed trees for a crossing bridge. But the third one would require wet feet.  I decided to detour up to a secret side drainage which followed a steep game trail to a view point on the top of the divide.

As I walked, I felt how these last three years of living here had begun to change my thinking, my way of moving in nature.  I noticed the moose that had wandered from my nearby forest through an open area that I didn’t think was part of her usual rounds. Her tracks were easy to differentiate from the numerous elk tracks on the same trail.

The elk are still here. Too much snow in the high country to return to the Lamar

I stopped to run my fingers over and measure the print of a male grizzly that frequents the bottom of Elk Creek.  I got out my notepad and recorded his stride, width and length for future study. Further down the trail, a nice aspen grove I’d been watching for five years is maturing nicely, with older trees giving way to younger clones.

Mature old aspens and gazillions of young aspen clones

In brief spurts, a scent wafts through the air, similar to a skunk but not as all-pervasive.  I pause to wonder from where it came–plant or animal.  I’ve smelled this scent before in the spring only.  All the daily walking, studying and pondering over these last years has paid off in unexpected ways–I feel I can more easily piece together the puzzles of the natural world than I did several years ago.

This winter has been a hard one for deer and Elk Creek is no exception.  Everywhere I’ve hiked there’s been deer carcasses.  Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed less active signs of bears in the lower drainages than previous years at this time.  I’ve been wondering if the easy availability of winter kills upon leaving their dens has had the effect of the bears foraging elsewhere now.  I have more questions now to answer than three years ago too.

Golden eagle on nest with her young 3 week old chick

My teacher coined the term ‘Consideration’ (liberally interpreting the Sanskirt word ‘Samyama’)  to describe the action of pondering something so deeply that one combines with it completely.  By entering into this process (by deeply considering a subject from every possible angle) its truth would be known through thoroughly combining with it.

Robert Heinlein used the term ‘Grok’ in his novel ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’  in a similar way: Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience.

True knowledge and mastery of anything requires combining oneself, the observer combines with its subject.  It is not enough to be well-read on a subject, but one must completely be immersed and given over in order to master it.  Every profession requires this in order to master it, every art, even every philosophy or religion.  We must completely absorb every aspect of it, become fluid in it, become one with it to know it completely.

My experience and my wanderings in the natural world are like that.  Reading and study informs me, but it is only through continued direct experience and immersion, deep pondering and relaxed attention, samyama and continued consideration, that its secrets reveal themselves to me–slowly, ever so slowly over time.  That is why the Native Americans who lived here in times past were so intimate with nature.  They had combined so directly with the animals, the plants, the rocks and even the non-physicality of the world, that they had a supernatural and direct understanding of the world around them.  In other words, they grokked it completely.

Self-Portrait: With a saw I found on the Elk Creek trail

I am a Tree Hugger!

I can proudly state that ‘I’m a tree hugger’.  In Wyoming, that can be considered name calling and a put down.  But why?  I love trees and really, everyone else should.  Without them, there would be no shade, no cover for wildlife, no food nor shelter for so many animals.  Our trees high up near tree line provide protection from massive erosion and mudslides in the spring when the snow melts.  Limber, Pinyon, and White Bark provide nuts that we can eat too.  Trees impress and awe us.  Stand in an old growth Redwood forest or amongst ancient Cedars and feel their Presence.  Its is a humbling and quieting experience.

The future of our forests, in general, is in question with warming temperatures.  Yet I attempt to be an optimist when it comes to conifers.  Conifers were around before flowering plants evolved.  That’s a long long time.  Even with the planet warming, I suspect they’ll find places to retreat to and survive.  But for now, I’m doing my little part on my little patch of land,  planting trees for, hopefully, future wildlife.

This year the CCD (Cody Conservation District) had no Limber Pines (the species indigenous to my property) so I went ahead and ordered Pinyon Pines (Pinus edulis).  Its a gamble.  My forester friend says that they are out of their latitude and if they live, won’t produce nuts.  The University of Colorado says that they are reliable to 7500′, and maybe even to 9000′.  I’m at 6800′ but a higher latitude than Colorado. We don’t get the cold temperatures we used to so I’m counting on global warming to help them along.  It will be at least 20 years or more before they produce nuts, if they do.  Its a long term experiment!

Pinyon pines and Douglas fir seedlings--can you tell which is which?

I worried when I was planting them and wished the CCD had Limber Pines.  Its so rocky up there.  Probably 2/3 rock to a tiny bit of soil for each hole (these are small holes too just the size of tree liners).  And although I’ve seen Pinyons many times, I haven’t noticed them in granitic and limestone soils. But the UofC said they can take lean, dry soil on sunny slopes.

After I remove the rocks from the hole, I don’t have any soil to put back in. That’s why this year, in addition to my moisture crystals, I purchased some top soil to add in.

This is top soil? Very poor quality though its all that's available here

Yet I discovered another wonderful place to get soil, especially since we’ve had so much moisture this year–pocket gopher tunnels!  These wonderful little creatures tunneled under the snow and left nice rock-free dirt for me to use in my holes.  They are the rototillers of the Rockies!

Pocket gophers make these tunnels, not moles

Another thing I learned from last years planting is that the Limber Pines especially want a little shade.  Tree seedlings like the cover of nurse trees.  Since I’m trying to plant in the open where I had to cut trees down, I’ll use a bit of shade cloth on my pines.  The Douglas firs, for some reason, were a lot hardier.

I did good last year.  I figured if I had 50% loss then I was beating the odds, but after reviewing my seedlings today, I’d say I had more like 25%-30% loss.  That’s great!  I watered every 2 weeks last summer, but skipped a lot toward the end.  There’s no water up there and I was carting it up by hand.  That’s probably when I lost some, although a few were nibbled.

cages and moisture crystals

This year I’ve caged every tree (to prevent nibbling), and last years’ trees I’ll water maybe once/month.  Then, after that, on their third year, they are on their own!  I’m also going to feed last year’s trees with some nitrogen this spring.  I really like Maxsea 15-15-15.  Its a natural fertilizer that will never burn, but it’s not available around here.  So Miracle-Gro will have to do.

Hunter gatherers and the Internet

A friend sent me an interesting link the other day.  Nicolas Carr, technology writer, discusses how our brains have changed over the centuries, beginning with the first maps all the way to the internet.  Maps, he argues, may have been the birth of abstract thinking.  Instead of using visual, verbal, or auditory clues to find one’s way around, we suddenly were using an abstract picture of where we were in space.

1890 map of the Tuscarora Indian Reservation

The written word, over the centuries, changed us from a brain of sensory perceptions to one dependent upon abstract thinking.   The written word required the brain to focus attention without distraction. This nurtured a propensity for deep contemplation, considered a great virtue in the Western world. The internet, on the other hand, requires multi-tasking skills. Rodin, Carr says, created the sculpture ‘The Thinker’ as the epitome of cultured man. Could you image if his work had been ‘The Multi-tasker’.

A man I know in California asked me, over the phone, ‘What do you do out there anyways?  I mean, like, how many emails do you get a day?’  The value or worth of one’s life seems to have been stripped down to this:  the amount of blips of conversation vis-a-vis tweets, texts, and emails you get on a daily or hourly basis!

This all got me thinking during a recent hike:  the skills I mentally use, the synapses that need connecting, are quite different than what society has adapted me to throughout my lifetime. And how different is my brain from the hunter-gathers here just a few hundred years ago?

Can you see the marmot in the hole?

I’ve definitely noticed a change in my attention skills since I’ve lived here full time over the last several years.  I was thrilled last October when a grizzly about 200 yards away in the trees caught my peripheral attention.  She wasn’t moving, just foraging, and looked like many of the logs in the forest, but something told me to stop and look.

Can you see the moose in the trees?

Just a few weeks ago, walking to my mailbox at dusk, I spontaneously (or so it seemed) looked to my left at a tree branch about 100 feet away.  The light was fading and I could barely make out an outline of a bobcat watching me from a low limb.  I regularly catch movements in the landscape.  I detect moose hiding in the willows or deer escaping through the brush.  One friend who visited me this summer from California commented that I see a lot of animals that she never noticed.  It wasn’t always this way.

Can you see a moose, at night?

This new-found skill is simply the resurgence of ancient ways of seeing.  How many more skills are lying dormant?  The old adage What is not used becomes obsolete–are there ways of seeing, of smelling, sensory skills that have fallen away over hundreds of years that no longer have the synaptic connections?

Coyote blends into the landscape

When I hike around these woods, I have to use a completely different set of skills than I might on the internet, or in a city.  Recently I was in New York City.  The amount of bombardment of information was overwhelming.  It was as if grizzlies were coming at me from all different directions.  But walking in the quiet woods, smells, movement, bird sign (i.e. gathering of crows and ravens could mean a nearby kill; small ground birds calling frantically might mean a hawk above)–all subtle information that could save your life, or give you the thrill of seeing wildlife, or, for a hunter-gatherer hundreds of years ago, could mean the next meal.

Can you see the Golden eagle as well as the Bald?

How about the skills of location?  Aborigines sang songs, called songlines, that were used as their maps in a featureless world.  Just the skill of orienting oneself without a compass, map, or road signs and finding your way around must be stored in a different part of the brain–not something we usually need to use today.

I once heard a scientist discuss orientation, and that if children are allowed to ‘wander’ freely, that they will have better orienting skills as adults.  Who trusts their children these days to wander freely around cities and suburbs?

A friend told me a woman showed up on his doorstep one afternoon.  She’d parked her car in the desert and taken her dog for a walk.  But she was so disoriented that she couldn’t find her car.  My friend, who knows the Oregon Basin well, easily found her car from the few visual clues she gave him.

Sense of time, sense of self, sense of community, sense of one’s surroundings and all its visual clues–I wonder how different my brain is from my fellow travelers who once roamed these mountains?