Scott Jurek and the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Controversy

Recently, ultra runner Scott Jurek completed the Appalachian Trail thru hike in record time – 45 days. This spawned a controversy at the terminus, Baxter State Park, where Jurek was fined for various rules violations. He opened a bottle of champagne at the summit to celebrate his feat. He had more than 12 people “with him” at the summit.

If you read the letter that Baxter State Park Authority wrote to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, you could empathize with what the BSP rangers have to deal with on a daily basis during AT hiker season. Perhaps Jurek would have planned his accent a bit differently had he known the fatigue these rangers face every day from rude AT hikers.

The bigger controversy is, do we all have the right to enjoy parks and wilderness, or do we need to follow certain “rules” in order to keep those lands pristine for generations to come?

It’s a good question. This perhaps isn’t a problem of environmental values, but maybe a problem of overpopulation and the increasing popularity of outdoor recreation and sports. With media vehicles like Outside Magazine glorifying the human achievement in nature, and documentaries that follow the accomplishments of extreme hikers, bikers and mountain climbers (180 Degrees South, Touching the Void, Ride the Divide, to name a few), more people than ever are seeking personal fulfillment through nature.

What is my personal opinion about all this? I’m not sure. I think that different people view “spirituality” and “peak experiences” in nature in different ways. Some people, like myself, enjoy quiet contemplation in nature, with no particular goal in mind other than deep observation and enjoyment. Others get that same sense of bliss from running 50 miles on a trail per day, climbing to the highest peak in their state, or riding giant waves on the ocean.

Certain deep ecologists would say that wilderness should be kept free of all human contact. I always found that sentiment extreme. We belong in nature because we ARE nature. We shouldn’t separate ourselves from nature. However, when there are 8 billion of us on the planet, we will eventually nudge nature out. Animals don’t do well living elbow to elbow with humans.

Derrick Jensen says that civilization isn’t good for the planet, because “forests precede it and deserts dog its heels”. We may be part of nature, and we may enjoy it and have a right to be in it, but we’re not really good for the planet, because not all of us leave the trail better than how we found it.

The Upside of Dangerous Hikes

Queen Elizabeth Range
The Queen Elizabeth Range, Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada

It’s a day of rain and drizzle, and we’re hiking in Jasper National Park on a trail that flanks the Queen Elizabeth Range. It’s July, so it’s tourist season, but it’s also mid-week on a cold day on a trail that isn’t very popular. In other words, there aren’t too many other hikers on the trail. A fact that is causing me a bit of anxiety.

On the drive up to the trailhead my husband and I encountered two black bears and their cubs foraging close to the road. We stopped, rolled down the window and took photos from the safety of the car. I was thrilled and amused at seeing so many bears in the last several days, mostly from the car and mostly black bears. But now, as we make our way through the mud and mist on a narrow trail that cuts through the dense forest, I’m not amused by the thought of seeing yet another bear. Particularly a grizzly, a species with a healthy population in this part of Alberta, Canada.

The trail curves to the left, then to the right. The trees that surround and tower over us seem dark and foreboding. The birds have fallen silent for the most part. All we hear is the steady drip of the rain and our footfalls. I’m remembering (and regretting reading) a passage in a book I picked up at a gift shop near Maligne Lake in Jasper. It was about a grizzly bear attack near Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. A couple was hiking and enjoying the scenery one minute, and the next minute they rounded the bend and everything changed. The husband was killed and the author was left disabled when a large brown bear charged them. Just like that, you stumble upon a predator and your entire life changes.

I’m normally not afraid of bears when I hike in my home state of Colorado. I’ve encountered many black bears there, and only once while hiking. They seem skiddish, elusive and shy. I respect them, but I don’t worry too much about them. Incidents of bear attacks on hikers are unheard of in Colorado.

Here in Jasper, it was different. There were warning signs posted at certain trailheads about hiking in groups of a minimum of four people for safety because of the high chance of grizzly bear encounters. The visitor center in Banff National Park further south had posted trail closures due to high grizzly activity in the area. We bought a large bottle of bear spray and were advised to carry it at all times. These people weren’t messing around. This wasn’t Colorado. This was a place where you had to stay focused and alert when hiking. No joke.

So here we were, the two of us, descending deeper and deeper into the woods. Our senses were sharpened and sensitive. We heard every snap, every rustle around us. When we stopped to fish in the lake the trail encircled, we would occasionally look over our shoulder to make sure nothing was stealthily moving upon us. Whenever I got a whiff of something musky, I felt a rush of adrenaline burst in my chest. Was that a bear nearby or a moose?

We didn’t feel that we had the luxury of silent contemplation while hiking on this trail. We were constantly talking or singing, trying to make as much noise as possible so we wouldn’t startle any unsuspecting predators. When we tired of talking, we’d smack our hiking poles together to make eerie, metallic “clack, clack, clack” sounds to cut the silence. We doubted any of this was going to really scare away a grizzly.

In our everyday lives, we normally don’t need to be in such a state of heightened awareness. Our natural instinct for preservation and attunement to the natural world is deadened because we are surrounded by conveniences and comfort. Instead, we walk around in a mental fog, distracted by our cellphones, pondering our to-do lists, constantly tweaking our environment for comfort and pleasure.

Despite the nervousness and tension I felt while hiking in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies, I look back fondly on that hike and others we’ve taken in similar places known for large, dangerous predators and dangerous conditions: Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and Teton National Park.  My heightened sense of awareness in these places brought me fully into the present moment like nothing else in my everyday life. The fear burned my memories in high definition with surround sound. It’s one of those experiences you dread at the time, but can’t stop talking about later.

When you’re in a place where can die at any moment, whether it’s because of lightning, slippery trails over steep drop-offs or the possibility of dangerous animals and predators, something ancient and primitive gets activated. It’s a part of us that lies dormant as we commute to work, buy dinner from the grocery store and sit on the couch at night. It is hibernating in the dark corners of our being, until the moment we go outside and step into a vast unknown. It suddenly wakes up, eyes clear and ears pricked, and suddenly we remember something that’s taken us centuries to forget: how to survive in the wild.

 

 

Mind-Boggling Nature!

The Athabasca Glacier, Alberta, Canada

Sometimes the things that fascinate us most in nature aren’t the things we can see, but the things we can’t.

This summer my husband and I visited Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada. We were inspired to visit these parks a few years ago when we were in Glacier National Park, Montana. A woman who lived and worked there told us that if we thought Glacier was awesome, we should go to Jasper National Park up in Canada, which was like “Glacier on steroids.”

Well, we thought Glacier was the most spectacular mountain scenery we’d ever seen, so the idea that another five hundred miles north was something even more intensely beautiful thrilled us.

In anticipation of our trip, we bought travel and hiking guides off Amazon for Banff and Jasper. We Googled images of the two parks. We made a checklist: canoe Lake Louise, go inside the castle-like Banff Hot Springs Hotel, maybe take a boat around Spirit Island on Maligne Lake. These were the iconic destinations, and we couldn’t wait to see them all in person.

But there were things we didn’t expect to see or experience, and I’m glad, because while I like to plan things out when I travel, I also like to feel surprised.

The drive from the town of Banff to the town of Jasper is nearly 300 km long along the Icefield Parkway. Along the way, according to a map we picked up at the Banff visitor center, there are many places to pull out, go for a hike, check out a lake or just take photos. One of those places was the Columbia Icefield. On the full-color map, the Icefield was pictured as a large snowy area with a knobby-tired bus parked in the middle. I didn’t think much of this. I thought the Icefield was just going to be a high-altitude valley with a permanent snowfield or something. I so underestimated it.

Several hours into our spectacular drive, with “crazy ass” mountains around ever corner, we approached the Icefield. When I realized what I was looking at, I sat up straight in my carseat and my jaw dropped. Ahead of us was the largest glacier I had ever seen up close and personal – The Athabasca Glacier.

Along the Icefield Parkway between Banff and Jasper.
Tourists hiking up the trail toward the lip of the Athabasca Glacier.

There was a visitor center and a parking lot from which one could walk right up to the edge of the glacier. The moraine on either side of the ice was rocky and bare. The ice draped over the saddle of two towering mountains, some of the tallest in the Canadian Rockies, beyond which was the Apex, the point where the Continental Divide ended. The sheer amount of ice, the relative rockiness and lack of trees and vegetation made me feel as if we had been magically transported to Antarctica.

There were signs posted along the road leading up to the lip of the glacier to indicate how far the glacier had receded in the last century, which was about a quarter of a mile or more.  It seemed like a lot of loss, but then I studied our road map closer, really looked at it, and my mind boggled.

"Columbia icefield view" by Original uploader was Rufus Hawthorne at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

The glacier we were seeing was just a small appendage of the much more massive Columbia Icefield. The icefield was an area of about 325 square kilometers with a depth averaging 100-300 meters (1000 feet), and that icefield was what we couldn’t see. It is the largest ice mass in North America south of the Arctic Circle. If we were to climb one of the mountains at the Apex and look directly west, we would see an ocean of snow and ice that reached out to a wilderness of semi-permanent winter. A real-life relic of the last ice age!

The Columbia Icefield formed three rivers and fed three oceans: the Pacific (the Columbia River), the Atlantic (North Saskatchewan) and the Arctic. The river that flowed from this glacier was the Athabasca River and it flowed all the way across Alberta to the Arctic Ocean. This was the first time in my life I was standing at the origin of a river that flowed to the Arctic Ocean.


As we departed and made our way north to Jasper, we saw many more glaciers that flowed off the Icefield. We saw snow cornices atop mountains that must have been 100 feet thick. We viewed distance crevasses that were large enough to swallow a house. It was one of the most spectacular drives I had ever experienced. And it was deep wilderness, with no houses or structures besides those servicing the Parkway, no roads, nothing but mountains and forest and glaciers as far as you could see.

I could not stop wondering about the Icefield. I imagined climbing one of the mountains at its edge or getting into a helicopter and seeing the massive icefield, imagining how much time it represents, how long that ice has been there. It was there when cavemen were painting horses and bison in the caves of France. It was there when the Egyptians were building pyramids. It was growing slightly a half century before the American Revolution and receeding when Kennedy was shot. There is frozen water buried under hundreds of feet of more frozen water that hasn’t seen sunlight or been exposed to air in over 125,000 years, perhaps.  This state of wonder made me feel pleasantly insignificant in terms of the vastness of time and the sheer size and force of the glacier and icefield. There are things on this earth that we know so little about as individuals, but that have endured for hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of years.

I didn’t know anything about the Columbia Icefield until about an hour after I was standing at its toe, reading about it in a tourist information brochure.

I’m so glad to be reminded that I can still be humbled by nature, in the little I know and the whole lot I don’t know, or can’t see, or have yet to discover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adventures at Lost Lake, Oregon

Adventures at Lost Lake, Oregon from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.

My teen daughter, Skye, and I are on a road trip to the coast of Oregon. My husband joined us mid-way through the trip to enjoy a bit of the mountains and coast with us. We’ve spent close to a week in the Hood River Valley, south of Hood River, Oregon, at a vacation rental with a front-and-center view of Mt. Hood, one of Oregon’s active (but dormant) volcanoes.

When my husband Dave and I first visited this part of Oregon a couple of years ago in the fall, we were enchanted by the rolling green hills filled with orchards and fruit farms. Back then, we barely were able to catch a glimpse of the dramatic volcano that presides over the valley due to low clouds and near constant drizzle. We enjoyed the infamous Fruit Loop and ate the sweetest and juiciest pears and apples we’d had in a while, sometimes straight off the tree. We walked through flower fields that were already starting to wither at the end of their season. We wondered what it would be like to come to this valley in mid-summer, when berries and cherries were in season and the views of Mt. Hood were easier to come by.

Since we arrive July 3, and for the next 10 days, the forecast is pure sunshine and zero chance of rain, so views of Mt. Hood have been constant.

Yesterday we spent the day at Lost Lake, where we rented a rowboat and flittered around the lake all afternoon, fishing and relaxing. The trout were reticent about biting, but Dave did manage to catch one. I got a few nibbles on my bait, but that’s about it. Later, after we returned the boat, we fished some more on the shore, where the water was brilliantly clear and surprisingly not too cold for wading. I spotted what looked like a small fish but turned out to have arms and legs. A salamander! There were quite a few of them gliding through the water and they were easy to spot against the lighter colored gravel below. Skye was excited about catching one (she’s a kid at heart, even now), so we devised a plan using a ziploc bag.

Later, I Googled it and found out that we caught a Columbia Torrent salamander, a rather small-ish variety that is aquatic and prefers cold, clear lakes and streams (bingo)!

We also watched as ospreys hunted for fish above the lake, diving and soaring, diving and soaring, until one succeeded in catching a trout right in front of us. It was just the kind of day that’s perfect for the whole family – lots of wildlife to look at for the kids at heart, and comforting peace and fresh air for the old folks.

Hiking and Climate Change in Colorado

Alderfer Three Sisters trail in Evergreen, December 31, 2010. We long for this much snow in 2012.

I published my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range in 2010, and did the actual hikes described in the book from October, 2009 until August, 2010. Just two short years later, I’ve already noticed changes in the environment as a result of climate change in the foothills and mountains of Colorado.

The benefit of doing contemplative hiking, where you’re actually paying attention to the flora and fauna as well as your own internal landscape, is that you are more aware of the subtle differences from season to season, and, if you journal your experiences, from year to year. I’ve noticed many environmental changes on the trail having to do with a warmer spring in 2012 and less precipitation in the winter of 2011-12. These are just my personal observations. Your observations may differ, or you may have noticed other changes where you hike:

Wildflowers: Around the third week of April, 2010, I noticed small wildflowers growing around rocks near the trail near the Mesa Trail and Boulder Creek Trail, such as violets, chickweed and sand lilies. I wrote an entire chapter about contemplating these small, pretty things. During the same month, but in 2011, the wildflowers had bloomed earlier, and in 2012 there were less of these flowers overall and their bloom happened a month earlier, in March. In fact, I noticed wildflowers along the NCAR to Mesa trail in May that normally I don’t see until June, such as wild iris.

The Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, which takes place near the beginning and middle of July, was a bust in 2012. Due to a below-average snowpack and a dry and warm spring, the flowers were sparse and bloomed a month earlier, in June. During the festival the only flowers to be found were up above 11,000 ft., and the normally colorful Washington Gulch hike was just a solid green.

Pasque flowers, a staple in the foothills and lower mountain elevations, were gone by June of 2012. Normally, they linger a little bit after their first appearance in April. They appeared in March of 2012.

Wildfires: The spring and summer months of 2012 were devastating for the Front Range as far as wildfires went. We witnessed the High Park Fire, the Waldo Canyon fire, the Bear Peak fire and dozens of large and small fires throughout the state. The scariest day was one day in late June when a thunderstorm passed through the Boulder foothills, igniting literally DOZENS of fires with every lightning strike. It was as if we were at war and being bombed.

The warmer, dry conditions and lack of normal spring precipitation, combined with too much beetle kills from too-warm winters in the last decade or more, made Colorado a tinderbox. It remains a tinderbox today, with the Boulder County sheriff enacting a fire ban in December.

Snowpack: As of December 4, 2012, the mountains of Colorado are only at 40% of normal snow pack for this time of year. Officials are already worrying about the impact on water availability for the summer. This is also impacting ski resorts, as Vail braces for a “slow start to winter.”

Climate change means that places that normally get adequate precipitation will experience extremes with either droughts or flooding. In July, 2011, the Yampa River flooded.

I’ve personally observed that hiking trails that normally are snow-packed this time of year (Elk Meadows, Bergen Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park north slopes) are bone dry.

Trees, shrubs: I made a personal observation that due to the extremely hot weather (104-106 degree days in June and July), many trees and shrubs along the Front Range simply withered. Leaves turned brown or yellow and the trees went dormant for the year. One lilac bush at my mom’s house is budding out—in early December!—because daytime temperatures have been averaging above 55 degrees for several weeks now.

Reservoirs, ponds and lakes: There was a large pond, perhaps 2 acres in size, near where I used to live in Westminster at Olde Wadsworth and 108th Ave., where water fowl would swim year-round. As of last summer in 2012, the pond is now a weed-infested field. Estes Lake in Estes Park is at the lowest level I have ever seen it. Denver reservoirs are below 70% full, down from previous years when they were anywhere from 80-87% full this time of year. The Boulder Creek near Eldorado Springs is a trickle compared to previous years at this time.

All these observations are just some of the big and small ways we are seeing what Guy McPherson says are “rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

I fear what the summer of 2013 will be like. I also fear what the next 20 years will be like.

Before you dismiss these observations as simple weather anomalies, or begin a mental debate with me about whether or not man is responsible for climate change, let me say that we’ve already wasted way too many decades debating science (and more recently, simple observation), and we simply have no more time to waste. Unfortunately, however, nothing we do can stop the train from going off the cliff.

According to a presentation by Guy McPherson at a 2012 Bioneers Symposium, the best we can do is prepare and adapt to the catastrophic consequences that are coming down the pike near mid-century. McPherson, in the video below, presents data and scientific evidence that we are headed toward a 6 degree Celsius warming by 2050, which by all standards, will mean the end of ALL LIFE (including human) as we know it.

 

Where Is Your Emotional Sanctuary?

Me on the flight to the US with my parents, January 1972.

When I started first grade, I didn’t speak English. My parents and I had just emigrated from Poland, and within a couple of weeks of arriving in Detroit, Michigan, my mother enrolled me in the local public grade school. I don’t remember much from that time, but what I do remember is sitting in class feeling like I didn’t belong. I didn’t understand anything anyone was saying, it was a new country with new surroundings and a new culture, and I was completely freaked out.

At recess on the second or third day of school, I decided I didn’t have to stick around if I didn’t want to. And I was done trying to fit in. I started walking home—by myself—not caring whether or not I’d get lost, or if anyone was home to let me in, or what would happen if my mother found out I ran away from school. I was already on the other side of the school playground fence, fiercely determined to blow that popsicle stand, when a classmate ran up and motioned for me to stop and come back. I’m sure that at that point, a teacher must have seen the exchange and followed me, and perhaps had taken me by the hand and led me back to the school, but I don’t remember. All I remember was the feeling of needing an emotional sanctuary because I felt so untethered and alone. I just wanted to go home, and I didn’t care about the consequences.

When I was that little kid, my mom was my emotional sanctuary. I ran to her when I’d been hurt or insulted, or when I felt overwhelmed. As an adult, I have no desire to go running home to mommy whenever I’ve had a bad day. We don’t have that kind of relationship. But I do want to reach out and connect with my husband, or a friend, or just visit an online forum where I can vent and get support.

As adults, sometimes “home” isn’t the best place to run to, either, for a variety of reasons. Home may represent too many responsibilities, or “home” may be the source of emotional challenges because your kids are acting up or you just had a fight with your spouse.

There are times I long for “home” even when I’m already there, physically. There’s a work challenge, or a project bombs, or I feel deeply criticized in some way. Emotionally, “home” is a place where I can feel accepted and safe, and it has nothing to do with the house I reside in. In my case, home means staying true to myself, writing about the things that matter to me and my tribe, and creating beauty for the sake of beauty, not for the sake of someone else’s misguided idea of beauty. Home means a place where my deepest longings are expressed as reality and my greatest concerns are met with serious consideration and thoughtful feedback.

Home can be a state of mind, but it can also be a location.

The physical location for my emotional sanctuary is on the trail. When I’m surrounded by trees, birds, grass and an expansive sky, I am free. I am accepted, and I am safe from judgment and criticism and expectations. Nature has no expectations. Nature doesn’t have an ego and it isn’t offended if you have one. Nature just IS. It is neither friend or foe, but it does command respect.

When you’re feeling lost, criticized, uncertain, overwhelmed, where is your emotional sanctuary?

Give Up Trying to Be Special

Our way of life is changing the planet.

It’s changing the climate, it’s stressing animal habits, it’s creating the next big global extinction event, and it’s melting the ice caps at a rate unprecedented to modern civilization.  We are squandering fossil fuels that took millions of years to form on industry that’s meant to make our lives easier, but has only made us increasingly stressed and unhappy. We are surrounded by gadgets and technology meant to create a global village, and we can have discourse with a virtually unlimited number of people anywhere in the world, all while sitting in the warm comfort of our living room. The options of where we can travel, live, work and play are almost endless, restricted only by finances. We can ease our discomfort at a moment’s notice by turning up the thermostat or Googling the answer to a frustrating conundrum.

And yet, our souls are withering. So many of us feel untethered in a sea of meaninglessness and distraction.

We have lived in the blip of time known as the Industrial Age, during which we increased our population from 1 billion to a world of more than 7 billion people in just a matter of 150 years. There will never again be a time like this on the planet. In another century or two there will be scant fossil fuels left to extract. The disease of modern civilization will eventually overtake us, and we will inevitably return to a way of life that’s both less complex and yet more arduous for our species.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t change the trajectory of evolution into something better, or that we can’t somehow start to heal the disease of Industrial Civilization. We can. All it takes is a subtle shift in how we view ourselves and the world we live in.

Healing can happen for the soul and for the planet when we stop trying to conquer, control or use nature, both for our “lifestyle” and for ego-gratification. True sustainability can occur when we see ourselves not as separate or above nature, but as intricately tied to our environment in ways we may not even be able to consciously comprehend. What we do and how we live has an impact on everything around us. The way we perceive the natural world and the way we interact with it (or not) can also greatly affect our physical and mental well-being.

When we use nature for ego-driven pursuits or as validation of how “special” we are, we are actually contributing to the feelings of inadequacy that compel us to seek out those experiences in the first place. Whatever we do, it can never be enough. There’s always someone better at the endeavor than we are, there’s always an untouched wilderness to explore or one more unclimbed mountain to scale.

When we give up hyperbolical pursuits and instead seek the pleasure of just being in nature, a completely new experience unfolds for us. We sense a deep, ancient acceptance of who we really are. Like the dark clouds that form on the distant horizon, we are not always benign, rather, we are capable of both creative and destructive forces. We are not unlike the lightning that sparks the fire that rips through ten thousand acres in a matter of days, killing thousands of trees and animals while at the same time providing the conditions that make way for new life and a better adapted ecosystem.  Our lives are stories filled with beginnings, endings and transformation and in the end, the unavoidable tragedy of entropy. When we spend contemplative time immersed in nature, we see the entire universe reflected by all our senses, and we are grateful for the gift of consciousness. We feel truly at home.

 

 

Nature, the Media, Real and Perceived Violence

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana

I spent a week in Glacier National Park, Montana with my family, almost completely unplugged. We didn’t have cell phone service where we were lodging, there was no wireless, and the only time we could check messages or receive calls or texts was when we drove into Columbia Falls or West Glacier to get groceries. We did have cable television in our cabin, so there was some tie to technology and the outside world if we wanted it.

Other than needing an update on some luggage Frontier airlines lost, I really didn’t care about not having phone or internet. I enjoyed the respite from my day job, which involves sitting at the computer writing or designing for many hours a day.

We were visiting Glacier because we were intrigued by the almost-surreal photos of the park we had seen. These photos featured mountains that were pointier and steeper than any mountains in Colorado, with lush valleys greener than anything west of the Mississippi, except for the Cascades and Olympics.

I don’t own a professional-quality camera and I’m just a mediocre photographer anyway, so the photos I’m posting here can’t do the place justice. When I first embarked on a hike in the Many Glacier area, I remarked that the entire place looked almost fake, like one of those sofa paintings you learn how to create in a half an hour on Sunday morning off a PBS television show. Waterfalls that were hundreds of feet tall, and hundreds of them, insanely steep cliffs, rivers snaking through valleys that were green with moss and pines and birch. If there’s a bucket list of hikes to do in the United States, I would rank this among the Top 5.

Something happened midway through our stay in the wilderness that bolted us out of the present moment of blissful contentment with the scenery. While our on way to Whitefish for the day, my daughter received a text from a friend telling her about the Aurora theatre shooting. Just like the vistas in the park, at first the story seemed fake. My teen had been waiting to see this movie for what seems like months, and to get a text that said, “Somebody came into the theatre on opening night and started shooting and killed more than a dozen people” sounded like a mean prank designed to annoy her, like a not-so-funny joke meant to burst the bubble of a 14-year old who’s been anticipating seeing a popular action movie for a long time.

We quickly discovered that it wasn’t a joke. Suddenly, we were not present to our surroundings any more. We were lost in thought, thinking about what happened 1,000 miles away. We empathized with the people who had experienced the tragedy. We imagined what we would have done if it had happened to us.

Then, when we returned to our cabin, we made the mistake of turning on CNN.

There wasn’t much new to report, but that didn’t stop the reporters from retelling the tragedy over and over.  Cameras and microphones were dispatched to Aurora and San Diego with the hopes of getting some juicy tidbit from friends and family. And I realized, that just like the 150 point headlines on the Huffington Post, the media loves to sensationalize a tragedy. If there isn’t a tragedy sufficiently shocking enough to warrant 7/24 coverage for many days in a row, it doesn’t matter. They’ll come up with something. They’ll create drama, controversy and tragedy where barely any exists. And if something awful really does happen, like it did in Aurora, it’s capitalized and maximized. The media loves a tragedy.

I know what happened was horrible, and because it happened so close to home, even more shocking.  I don’t know quite how to say this without sounding callous in some way about what happened, but I wonder if people realize the mainstream media’s sole purpose is to make money and distract us with sensational stories so we become addicted to the drama. It’s not really to “report” anything. These people aren’t even real journalists, probably. And let’s face it. Shitty things happen every day, all over the world. In recent days hundreds have died in attacks in Iraq.  Adults murdered children in Rwanda and Darfur. Children murdered adults. Somewhere, right this minute, a creepy old man is sexually exploiting a child and lying about it.

You know what else is happening right now? There has been unprecedented melting of glacial ice in Greenland. We are poisoning ourselves and the environment with toxins. We are depleting soil quality and clean drinking water. Species are dying off. We are on the downhill slope of Peak Oil. Climate change has entered the phase of negative feedback loops and we probably won’t be able to alter its course, even if we all stopped driving and using electricity today.  The last time the temperatures rose this quickly was during the Permian extinction, which killed all but 3% of life on Earth.

We are on board a runaway train headed toward a cliff, and there are no guardrails.

Why aren’t those stories told with 150 point headlines on Huffington Post and monitored ad naseum 7/24 on CNN and FoxNews?

It also made me consider that in the midst of the wilderness in Glacier, where rangers harp on “bear awareness” and bookshelves at the gift shop feature, among the nature photography, frightening nonfiction about bear and animal attacks, the true violence isn’t in wilderness. After hearing what happened to the regional Native American people from a Blackfeet tribal historian, I see where the real danger lies.  After experiencing record heat and seeing so much of the Front Range explode in fire this summer, all while energy companies advertise how “sustainable” and “good” they are to the environment, I see where the black heart of evil resides.

It isn’t in the woods or on the grassy slopes of a national park.

True violence isn’t where we fear it is. It isn’t in the deep woods of a national park at 3 am, or while you’re hiking alone in silence in Glacier. That’s not where true violence is, and it’s not  where we should be feeling trepidation. True violence is sitting next to us in a dark theatre, about to execute its agenda, as we’re about to enjoy a tub of popcorn and a superhero action movie with our kids.

What Ecopsychology Means to Me

Here’s a transcript of an interview I did for Bodhi Nest, a company founded by Anna Brouhard, a colleague in ecopsychology. The Bodhi Nest focuses on the intrinsic connection between mind, body, spirit, and earth. The Bodhi Nest seeks to guide individuals, families, and communities towards a holistic approach to reconnecting our lives and our world. You can find Bodhi Nest at bodhinest.com or read the blog here.

 

Bodhi Nest: What does Ecosychology mean to you?

Margaret: To me, ecopsychology means that we have lost our way as a civilization and culture and that we need a gentle reminder of who we are and where we belong in the web of life.

We have lost our way because, starting with the advent of agriculture five thousand years ago, we have convinced ourselves that we can conquer nature and control it for our personal enrichment and advantage. Of course, it hasn’t been since the industrial revolution that this delusional thinking has really gotten out of hand, and it’s become particularly insane in the last ten years of the Information Age. We are a culture that believes we can solve any problem through technology and that, in fact, we really don’t need nature in order to thrive. That all we need is a job, a car and a computer. Nothing could be further from the truth, as everything in this planet is interconnected: air, water, soil and climate. A healthy biosystem doesn’t just have economic value, it is necessary to our survival as a species. What ecopsychology tells us is that even more than mere physical survival, we need a connection with the natural world in order to feel emotionally and spiritually whole, as well.

When we spend all our time in front of one screen or another, and barely ever venture beyond the confines of a home, store, office or car, we may think we’re doing alright, but in fact we are slowly chipping away at what makes us human. We become depressed and anxious, we seek short-term gratification in the form of consumerism or passive entertainment, and we feel constantly that deep down, something is missing.  We lose our compassion for other living things. We objectify nature. This is the result of not being part of the real environment around us, and not participating entirely in the world around us.

Bodhi Nest: What is the most radical environmental activity/process/ you have done?

Margaret: I don’t know if I would call it “radical”, but taking people on contemplative hikes has felt at times like a paradigm shift in my community. Hiking is a very popular outdoor activity in the Denver/Boulder area. What I see are individuals or groups of people with their dogs, either socializing on the trail or using the trail as their own personal stairmaster. Almost everyone is hiking briskly and has a destination in mind: the completion of a loop, the summit, or a personal record. I like to hike in that manner as well, but what I don’t see more of are people who are hiking to be present and to enjoy nature. What I don’t see are people considering their surroundings as something to appreciate and have a relationship with. I don’t see people journaling while sitting under a tree, or laying down in a meadow and enjoying the clouds floating past. On the trail, as in the city, it’s all go-go-go without a thought to what plants and animals are doing around you or how the woods change from week to week, year to year.

Taking people on hikes where the focus is not on socializing or achieving any kind of goal feels radical in that respect. It’s also radical to bring a group to a place where they can all sit silently in contemplation without chatter and without any kind of agenda other than stillness. The people who have been on several hikes with me say that they’ve experienced nature in a whole new way as a result. In other words, it’s not just something to use for entertainment and enjoyment, but something with its own intrinsic value.

Bodhi Nest: You wrote a book Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range, can you tell me more about what Contemplative Hiking is, and how people living outside of Colorado can apply this in their life?

Margaret: I decided to write my book specifically focused on trails along the Front Range because I wanted to be bioregionalistic in my approach. I wanted people in the Denver/Boulder area to learn more about the land where they live as well as learning about themselves in the process. At the same time, however, I specifically set up my book to contain activities that can be done “anywhere”, as indicated by the letter “A” in the description of the trail. That means that even if one doesn’t live on the Front Range, one could take the activity described and do it in Wisconsin, in Florida or anywhere in the world in nature.  For example, one of the activities described in the book is the autumn equinox or “letting go” ritual. This is a ritual celebration that can be done anywhere near a lake, stream or moving body of water. Using a marker, you write down things on leaves that you want to let go of, then cast the leaves into the moving water and watch them float away. This is an activity with no impact on the environment but with huge impact on your psyche. You are able to put into words those aspects of your life that no longer serve you, then watch them float away (or get stuck in currents, or wash ashore, or whatever).

The point of my book is that when you go on a hike or contemplative walk in nature, you not only learn a little more about where you live and about the plants and animals around you, but you also learn about yourself. How do you respond to the challenges you encounter while hiking? What’s your attitude about your surroundings or the weather? What most speaks to your heart? What do you most think about when you’re silent in nature?

One can do a contemplative hike anywhere. It is just about setting an intention and hiking silently, whether alone or with others, so the focus is on your own consciousness as it is in relationship to the outside world.

Bodhi Nest: What do you feel is the biggest environmental challenge we as humans face today?

Margaret: There are many environmental challenges. We are experiencing “peak everything” when it comes to natural resources: peak oil, peak water, peak healthy soils, peak coal, peak rare earth metals, peak biodiversity (or probably well past peak). Perhaps the root cause of all of this depletion of Earth’s vital resources is overpopulation. We have simply outgrown our britches. Therefore the biggest environmental challenge we face as humans is ourselves. There are too many of us and we are still operating mostly on self-gratification and personal survival mode.

Bodhi Nest: How do you face these environmental issues with a positive attitude?

Margaret: By cultivating a relationship with nature. I know that I can’t solve the world’s problems by myself or even convince enough people to change their way of thinking so that meaningful change can take place. However, thinking that I can or should go at it alone is just another way we perpetuate the individualistic, self-centered attitude of our culture that has been the cause of all these problems anyway. I can only hope to change the way I approach the world, and the way I conduct my life. I become the change I want to see in the world, as the saying goes. I share my love of nature with others. I try to show them another way. This keeps me positive in the face of deep despair.

Bodhi Nest: What makes you feel inspired?

Margaret: The mountains inspire me. I am most at home when I’m in the woods, looking out at a towering mountain face, listening to the birds and the wind, and smelling the life around me. It makes me feel that I’m part of something timeless, wordless and formless.