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.
Our ego is our constant, drama-addicted and often irritating companion. Our ego tells us that we are better than other people or not as good as others. It tells us that we’re smarter than that guy down the hall in Marketing but a slacker and dumpy compared to that athletic bicyclist in the office next to ours. Our ego tells us that we aren’t doing enough to realize our goals and it tells us that we know more about health/politics/religion than our best friend.
We find it very difficult to separate ourselves from our ego, and therefore we feel exhilarated whenever information from an external source elevates our sense of self (“You did so well with that, I’m impressed!”) and devaluates it (“I’m not in love with you anymore.”), because we derive our emotions from our thoughts, and our thoughts are dominated by ego. Our mind cannot distinguish what is actually happening to us from what we think is happening.
In this way, we suffer needlessly. We tell ourselves stories about how this or that person is not respecting us. We convince ourselves that someone else is standing in the way of what we really want, and therefore we can’t truly be happy. We hold grudges and we feel anxious much of the time. Our blood pressure surges and our adrenal glands are pumping out fight-or-flight hormones in response to some perceived threat to our wellbeing.
And yet, this is all happening in our minds. Our bodies are just sitting there, staring at the computer screen or laying awake in bed at night. We are creating our own suffering.
We cannot live with the peaceful joy and sense of aliveness that is our birthright and natural state unless we recognize that who we are is not who our ego tells us we are. Our story—of what happened to us in the past or what we think will happen to us in the future—is not who we are.
So if you’re not your role or your story, who are you, really?
Are you a teacher? An engineer? A writer? A mother? Are you a bicyclist, Apple user, intellectual, athlete, urban farmer, vegan, ominvore, conservative, liberal, progressive, peak oilist, naturalist, yuppie, or sports fan?
Do you have a high opinion of yourself or a low one? Are you a valuable person? Who are you without your identities and without your ego?
We are not who we think we are. We are the awareness of our identification with form. In the moment when we realize we are placing a label on ourselves and feeling a certain way about that label, we have brought awareness in between the thought (ego) and our identification with it. We are the space that separates us from the thought that tells us, “You are not enough” or “You are better than everyone else.”
We suffer because we feel inadequate in our roles and identifications. We didn’t get that promotion, we lost that client, our child came home with an F on their report card, we suspect our spouse is cheating on us, we aren’t making progress on that project or goal we’ve been obsessing about for the last several years.
In nature, consciousness and life are ego-less and have intrinsic value.
Here’s an activity in nature you can do on a hike or just out in your backyard, that will help you answer the question, “who am I?”
Find a place to sit comfortably outside, where you can feel safe and where you can spend at least 30 minutes undisturbed.
Close your eyes and extend out your hand. How do you know that your hand is alive? How does it feel, inside of your body? Is there a buzzing, a vibration that tells you that your hand is alive, that you are alive?
Don’t think about the fact that your hand is alive. Don’t think, “I know my hand is alive because I can see it and I used it just now and there’s blood flowing through it.”
Don’t think, just FEEL. Feel the sensation of aliveness in your hand.
You are this sense of aliveness. You are not your thoughts, you are not your past, you are not your future. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are consciousness and life itself.
Now, open your eyes and look at a plant or some other living thing near you. Perhaps a tree, or a flower, or an insect. It’s best if you look at something you know very little about—perhaps an insect or plant you haven’t seen before.
Look at it without trying to identify or label it. You don’t need to know what it’s called or what it’s usefulness or function is.
You know nothing about this being. You don’t know what it thinks of itself or what it knows. You don’t know how long it’s been alive or who its mate is. You don’t know if it will die today or next year. You don’t know what diseases it may harbor.
Does this being have value, even without you knowing anything about it?
Aldo Leopold, ecologist, author and founder of the science of wildlife management, once wrote that there are those who love wild things and sunsets, and there are those who do not. While I agree that there are people who prefer to relax on the couch and watch television than to sit on a grassy hillside to watch the sun sink down over the mountains, I don’t think that people are born disliking nature. Children are drawn to animals and are natural “tree-huggers” (as well as tree-climbers!) If they dislike or fear nature, it’s because of a traumatic experience or because they’ve been sheltered from it because of growing up in an urban, human-centered environment.
We are born loving nature. Author Edward O. Wilson, in his book Biophilia, wrote that humans’ attraction to animals and natural landscapes is biological and a result of evolution. But because humans are social creatures, even a thing like a love of nature can be socialized out of us. From an early age, we can be taught that nature is something to be studied, commoditized, feared or used for entertainment. Or, we can be taught that nature has inherent value, that it sustains and nurtures us, and that we cannot be separated from it without endangering our own physical and mental health. Nature, we teach children, is either something “out there” or it’s something that is a part of us and that we’re connected to.
People of my generation or older often remark about what a different world they grew up in. They reminisce about wandering all over town with their friends as children, playing in the lakes and streams and woods and making up games with found objects. When I was 10 years old, my friends and I used to walk around the ball fields behind my house with a fishing net and catch butterflies, which we would then put into a jar and observe for a while before letting them go. We would bike ride up and down the streets, visit garage sales, buy candy at the corner convenience store or ice cream cones at the Dairy Queen. Our mothers never seemed to worry where we were or if we were okay. They just asked us to be home for lunch and dinner, which we would happily do after an entire day of exploring the neighborhood.
I didn’t live in some idyllic pastoral valley far away from urban crime, either. I lived in inner city Detroit, and this was the mid 70s. My husband grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, and his memories of a free-range childhood are similar, but consist of more natural settings: dark forests, forbidden fishing ponds, and a small mountain anchoring the town.
My earliest memories of nature outside my neighborhood were weekends spent either on Lake Huron or at smaller, interior lakes, either boating or picnicking on the shore. I was afraid of the deep, black water, but my parents encouraged me to swim in it anyway. Entire afternoons would be spent in our motorboat, with the plap-plap-plap sound of the waves hitting the sideboard as my dad cast out his fishing line or my mom handed out sandwiches. When I got older, my family and I took a road trip across the country, and it was in a campground in South Dakota that I took my first walk in the wild woods. That vacation was a big part of why I now live in Colorado, and why I love to hike.
My parents were protective, but they didn’t teach me that nature is something to fear or abuse. Our vacations, which were mostly road trips with our aluminum trailer in tow, took place in the countryside, in campgrounds, on scenic byways and national parks. Nature was a reward, a place to rest and rejuvenate, and a place to find that wildness that was so lacking in the inner city where we lived.
In the 21st century, things are different. Many parents fear letting their children out of sight of the backyard. The public school system teaches science, but not place-based ecology. Children learn to analyze nature but not necessarily love it. Nature is taught as being necessary for economy, as having value only as an object to be quantified, studied and turned into profit. Loving something requires having a relationship with it, and it’s hard to have a relationship with numbers, pictures in a book, or cells seen through a microscope.
When children are given an opportunity to have a relationship with nature, either through trips to the lake, or by observing backyard animals, or fishing in lakes and streams, they develop memories that influence how they perceive nature later in life. Rivers have value for more than just electricity generation. Forests have value for more than just timber and pulp. Oceans have value for more than just gas and oil exploration. These wild places are necessary for our survival and our humanity.
They will grow up knowing this, not because they learned it in a textbook. They will know it because they dream about being in vast, natural places or because they long for the sacred peacefulness of a glassy lake at dawn. They will become lovers of wild things and sunsets.
If you’re a parent of a pre-teen or a teenager, and you like to hike, you may have had this experience. You wake up your teen early on a Saturday to announce that you’re going to hit the trail and ask them if they’d like to come. You want to spend the day with them and you know that the exercise and time in nature is good for them. They roll over, rub their eyes and moan like you’ve just asked them to mop the floor in the bathroom.
“Do I haaaaavvvveee to?”
“I’d like you to come with me. It’s a beautiful day outside. Don’t you want to get some sun and exercise?” You ask hopefully.
“Not really.” They grunt and roll back over, pulling the covers over their head.
Eventually, with much prodding and cajoling, they get out of bed, and two hours later, you’re in the car and on your way.
You know that as soon as they start walking in the woods and smell the fresh air and see the view they’ll love it. You deceive yourself of this false conclusion every time. You’re optimistic that your teen will realize that hiking is fun, feels good and that it’s “quality time” spent with the family. They seem okay with it—as long as the trail is flat or downhill and you’re not walking more than twenty minutes. As soon as the trail starts to gain elevation or you’ve finally been walking long enough to get a good heart rate going, the whining begins.
“When are we going to turn around?”
“Are we at the top yet? How much farther is it?”
“I have a headache.”
They’ll just slouch and drag, their pace slowly to an infuriatingly slow amble, so that any hope of real exercise is lost. And so is actually arriving at the summit, or the lake, or whatever your destination was. Because at their pace, it’ll take hours.
I know this isn’t just my experience. For years I designed a course catalog for a teen summer camp program for a Colorado company that took kids aged 13-17 everywhere in the world to rock climb, kayak, backpack, and camp. Whenever I selected beautiful photos of expansive mountain vistas depicting kids hiking, the owner of the business would tell me to remove the photo.
“Teens hate hiking,” he would say. “If we have that photo in the catalog they won’t sign up for that program. You have to pick photos of kids being active and having fun. Preferably eating and sitting by a campfire. Maybe goofing off. That’s their favorite thing to do. Goof around with each other and eat.”
I love hiking so much I’ve written a book about it, so the idea that someone would find hiking so torturous is amusing. Is it really that bad? Apparently, if you’re just about to turn 13, it’s considered a form of punishment. It’s a death march. It’s something your parents make you do when you’ve gotten an F on your report card.
Last year I was planning an annual trip to the San Juan mountains of Colorado with my family. One of the things my husband and I wanted to do is hike the 7-miles round trip to the Blue Lakes just beneath Mount Sneffels in Ridgway. I prepped my 12-year-old daughter for months ahead of time. We went on frequent walks and short hikes in town to get her into shape. I played basketball with her at the local rec center. I described how beautiful the trail would be and how majestic the mountain is. I told her it was something I had been looking forward to for so long and I couldn’t wait for her to experience it with me.
With so much preparation and inspiration, my daughter probably felt like she couldn’t let me down. When the day finally came, we did end up doing the hike – all 7 miles and 4-1/2 hours of it, and half of it in the rain no less! I was proud of her. It was a difficult trek uphill and an exhausting workout. We went out for pizza and ice cream that evening for dinner as a reward and I kept telling her over and over how proud I was of her. She was enchanted by the view and she didn’t complain even once the entire hike.
But now, whenever I tell her we’re going to go hiking, she compares everything to that hike. Is it as long as that hike up to the Blue Lakes, she wonders? Will it be as long? As much as she seemed to enjoy it, I doubt I could get her to do it again.
What I’ve discovered about my teen and hiking is that she enjoys it under certain circumstances. They are:
1. In a group of kids her age.
My daughter says the most magical, best experience of her life was hiking 7 miles in one day with a group of kids her age to the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado during a week-long wilderness camp. She talks about this day with reverence. It was grueling, yes, but since she was with kids her age it was also fun. Go figure.
2. If the hike involves a game or fun activity.
In my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range, I indicate the hiking activities that are “appropriate” and interesting for kids. Two of those are “drawing yourself in the landscape” and “tree games.” These activities break up the hike, spark their imagination and make it “fun.” Sometimes children and teens don’t see the point of walking long distances in the woods for its own sake. They want to laugh, have fun, see interesting things and maybe play for a while. My daughter liked the hikes where we played the tree games and drew pictures, and it wasn’t just about walking.
In the winter, my teen enjoys a short snowshoe, sledding or cross-country skiing. So do I.
3. If the hike is short and easy.
I’ll have to save the longer, grueling hikes for a time when my teen is visiting friends, hanging out at home with dad or away at summer camp. Otherwise, we’ll all be miserable listening to each other bitching and moaning.
4. If the hike involves animal sightings or frequent breaks to just “hang out” and explore.
One of the more exciting hikes we’ve done as a family was in Yellowstone, on a trail where there were scores of fat marmots running around and steam rose mysteriously out of the sands on the beach of Lake Yellowstone. The fear of grizzlies around every corner helped keep the adrenaline pumping, too.
Since I can’t find any weekend hiking clubs for teens where I live in Colorado, I guess I’ll just have to try my best to adhere to points #2-4. It’s not just a matter of assuring that my kid gets enough exercise—there are many sports leagues in town—it’s exposing her to nature and quiet, non-competitive time outdoors. It’s a challenge at this stage of her life, but it’s worth the extra effort to find a hiking experience we can all enjoy.
I recently was introduced to a wonderful website for parents who love being active outdoors with their children: www.OutdoorBaby.net. This website contains a plethora of resources, tips and information on how to enjoy just about any outdoor activity with little ones, whether it be hiking, fishing, climbing or backpacking. OutdoorBaby invites experts and bloggers to contribute articles on their outdoor recreation experiences with their family, and these articles are sometimes funny, and always useful and inspiring.
Heidi Ahrens, the woman who started the website, is a former public school teacher and educator for Outward Bound. I was excited to learn of her project because I understand the importance of exposing children to both structured and unstructured time in nature (see my blog post about contemplative nature activities for children). It’s good to see there are more and more resources and information for parents who know the importance of outdoor education and activities for their kids and are looking for no-cost or low-cost ways of having fun and doing something healthful with them.
I asked Heidi a few questions about her mission and background:
What is your earliest and best childhood memory of time spent in nature?
Heidi: My parents lived in a variety of ramshackle houses with drafts, outhouses, and snow pilling up to the second story window. My earliest memory is using the outhouse.
My best earliest memories are of going on walks in Fundy Park with my dad and looking at marshland and flowers and playing in the woods around furry trees (the trees probably had a kind of beard like lichen on them).
My best teenaged memories of the outdoors: As a teen I went hiking alone, camping, and visited cabins that were only accessible by rowboats. My parents and my friends’ parents trusted us and were not fearful. At sixteen I crossed half of Canada by bicycle with a girlfriend. We knocked on doors and asked farmers if we could stay on their land.
In your work as both a teacher at a public school and an instructor at Outward Bound, what do you see as the biggest differences in kids who spend a lot of time outside in nature or who have a love of the outdoors, versus those that don’t?
Heidi: I have worked with students from such varied backgrounds, but it is really hard to generalize about children who spend time outdoors and those who did not. I believe that the students who spend no time outdoors because of economic hardship, social stigma, inaccessibility, or cultural differences often exhibit the same positive adaptability and creativity that kids who spend time outdoors exhibit. The kids that exhibit, in my view, worrisome behavior are those that grow up in a sheltered environment, in suburbs and have parents that are fearful of the world outside their door.
What do you think are the factors that prevent parents from being more active outdoors with their children? What do you usually tell people when they say it’s too much of a hassle to take their kids hiking/biking/walking/exploring with them?
Heidi: Probably the top factors are time, inexperience, fear, and money.
I think that a lot of people think that it is too much of a hassle to take kids exploring in nature. It takes a lot of work and dedication but it is work that pays off in the end. It is also a hassle to go shopping with your kids or going to the movies or going to a restaurant, but people do that every day. The payoff for getting into the outdoors with your kids is that you get these wonderful experiences that you can build a positive, happy relationship on. You have memories, health, and intellectual curiosity building while hiking with your kids or observing wildlife; this is not true with going to the mall.
I also need to say this. It becomes easier when you create systems to organize yourself and when you let go of expectations and ideas about performance and go out just to be together.
Your website is filled with practical and user-tested tips for families who are active outdoors and want to include their young children. What gave you the inspiration for this specific model of website?
OutdoorBaby.net was created because I saw a need to use my skills as an educator, a mom, and as an outdoorsperson to help others. I decided to stay home with my children and I wanted to continue my intellectual curiosity and I wanted to continue to learn.
If money and funding were no object, what kind of outdoor education program would you design for young children in public schools? How about teens?
I have worked very hard at creating projects like training materials for teachers, workshops, that OutdoorBaby.net can build on so that we can reach the largest number of families. Some of these projects are in school trainings and others are community based. Yes, if we had the money we would be able to build these programs quite quickly since I have the background to produce such materials, but these days it seems like people like to fund research and materials that are based on intellectual development rather than on hands on or rather simply what I would call person building initiatives
So outdoor education programs should be modeled after the idea that we are going to build positive, creative, and inquisitive minds. Idon’t believe the goal should be at first to get children to identify three different kinds of trees. Children should be guided in realizing the interconnectedness species, adaptability and creativity through experience rather than through lectures or set standards. Our bodies are strong , powerful, intuitive and capable to consciously live in this world.
If you would like tips and stories on how to get your kids outside in nature and make sure everyone in your family has a safe and fun time, visit OutdoorBaby.net.
Directions: From Highway 93 in Golden, take Golden Gate Canyon Drive west approximately 8 miles. Turn left on Robinson Hill Road. Continue to Camino Perdido, which is the north access road into the park. The trailhead is approximately one mile to the south. You’ll see brown county signs directing you to Centennial Cone shortly after you turn onto Golden Gate Canyon Drive.
Duration: Approximately 3 hours or as long as you’d like it to be.
Route: Take the Travois Trail from the parking lot. After ¼ mile you can take the Evening Sun Loop or continue left—both paths return and continue to the Travois Trail. You will want to make this an out-and-back hike.
Access Notes: Hikers are NOT allowed at Centennial Cone on even numbered weekend days, only odd-numbered days, and certain trails in the park are closed seasonally. Check the Jefferson County Parks and Open Space website for details here. There are pit toilets at the parking lot and space for at least 20 cars. Limited shade exists, which makes this a great hike on cooler or overcast days or in the winter. Dogs are allowed on leash and bicycles are allowed on even-numbered weekend days. Horses are permitted at any time. This is a multi-use trail on weekdays.
Centennial Cone Open Space Park is a large conservation area owned by Jefferson County – the Travois Trail encircles the park in more than 15 miles of hills, meadows and forest. Most of the area is moderately hilly, with grassy knolls, low shrubs, and ponderosa pines dotting the tops of hills that seem to stretch out for miles in all directions. Large, old narrow-leafed cottonwoods grow along the drainage between hills near the trailhead.
In spring when the grasses turn deep green, this landscape may make you want to run through the grass and sing “The hills are alive!”, a-la Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music (ok, I just dated myself and that’s not good). In the fall, the grass turns a dull shade of cornhusk and grasshoppers take over the area with their hissy calls. This is a relatively low-traffic trail in every season except summer, and the lack of nearby road or air traffic also makes it a particularly quiet place to hike. The ringing in your ears may be louder than any sounds you’ll hear coming from the land, especially on a chilly morning when the grasshoppers are still warming their bodies.
The dirt and gravel trail is narrow and winds around the round hills in loose, wavy shapes, sometimes in shade if the sun is lower on the horizon, or in hot, full exposure if it’s near high noon. The ponderosas and the altitude don’t seem to provide much relief from the intensity of the sun on a clear day. The trails climb up the sides of hills and up to the summits, where a view extending from Denver to Lookout Mountain to Mt. Evans and the mountains west of Blackhawk frame an ocean of forested hills and grassy ravines. At some points on the trail when you’re ascending up, you may have a sense of vertigo as you look down at least 1,000 feet or more down the steep slopes. It can also be a feeling of expansiveness and spaciousness when you’re walking on these sections. There are plenty of boulders and rocky outcroppings to sit on just a few feet off-trail and relax or contemplate, or simply take a break in the shade of a small tree. The trail is well-maintained and easy to negotiate when it’s dry.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki
In Buddhism, the term “beginner’s mind” refers to a state of openness and curiosity about a subject, devoid of judgment, expectations or preconceptions. It is about throwing out everything you think you know and allowing yourself to experience the world anew.
To illustrate this concept, there’s a well-known parable about a scholarly monk who was seeking a master teacher so he could become his student and learn more about enlightenment. The monk approached the master and during his interview, bragged about how intelligent and sharp he was and how he had showed up so many other teachers with his knowledge. The master teacher just sat and listened and went about making some tea. As the monk was speaking, the teacher began pouring the tea into their cups. He kept pouring tea into the monk’s cup until it began to spill over the brim and onto the monk’s lap, burning him. The young monk jumped up and exclaimed, “What are you doing?!” The teacher simply smiled and replied, “Your mind is like this cup. It’s spilling over with ignorance and already too full to receive any new teaching. You are wasting your time here.” And he sent the young monk on his way.
The parable demonstrates that when we think we know everything there is to know—about a person, a thing, an idea or a place—then we lose the ability to receive new information and experiences. When we close ourselves off from the world by judging it and then dismissing it, we actually shrink our lives.
In reference to hiking, there may have been times in the past when you looked at an area or viewed a photo of a particular hiking trail and thought, “I don’t like that kind of landscape. That looks like a boring place to hike. I don’t want to go there.” Or, how many times have you met a person and decided you knew everything you needed to know about them within the first hour or even the first five minutes of saying, “Hello”?
The common term for this in the Western world is, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Or, “There’s more to that than meets the eye.” In Eastern teachings, beginner’s mind means there’s more to the world than you can ever know. Therefore, when you approach the world with an attitude of “not knowing,” you can be constantly, and sometimes pleasantly, delighted by what you experience.
When you make quick judgments about the world and close yourself off from truly experiencing life with beginner’s mind, you’re channel surfing. You are not fully engaged, not present, and unable to experience the joy of getting to know someone or something with the full breadth and depth of your soul. You sit in your car in rush hour, feeling aggravated and bored, not bothering to look around at the cars next to you or see the trees and plants that are growing on the side of the road, or the way the clouds look as they pass over the sky, not expecting to see anything new or interesting or worth your attention. But there is always something to new to see, experience and feel.
Think about how long you’d like to hike on this trail and split your hike up into two halves. This activity is best when it’s done in the middle, at the turnaround point of an out-and-back walk. Find a place to sit comfortably for about 15 minutes with your journal and a pen.
Look around where you’re sitting and find an object to hold in your hand. This could be a rock, twig, plant, or pinecone. Whatever you’re drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a natural object, but it’s better if it’s something you don’t look at every day.
While you hold the object in your hand, pretend that you’re an alien that’s just landed on Earth. You know nothing about this planet or its inhabitants. Your planet is nothing like this planet. Therefore, you have no idea about this object is. You don’t know what it’s used for. You don’t know if it’s dangerous or benign, alive or dead, young or old.
Look at your object in this way, with “beginner’s mind” for a few minutes, until you feel ready to write something down about it. Spend time noting its texture, its weight, its smell, its integrity, its taste.
What do you notice about this object that surprises you?
Now, after a few minutes, you may reach a point of boredom. You may think you already know everything there is to know about this object. You’ve been looking at it for a couple of minutes and there’s nothing else to figure out. Or is there? This is the point at which we usually shut ourselves off from the world. Our minds are at first curious, then quickly become bored after reaching a conclusion after some analysis (sometimes this analysis takes microseconds).
Go back to your object and look at it deeper. Ask it what its name is. Where did it come from? What does it do? Who are its friends?
What else comes up at this point for you when observing and experiencing this object with beginner’s mind?
When you’re ready to hike back to the trailhead, think about the way you’ve looked at this common, perhaps “mundane” object with beginner’s mind. Can you look at the land surrounding the trail, where you just hiked, with the same sort of beginner’s mind? You’ll be going in a different direction, so things will look a little different than they did in the last hour or two, but what else will you notice that’s different?
When I facilitated a hike with a small group and engaged in this activity, the participants reported that they noticed a keener, more heightened sense of presence and awareness on the return. Some noticed more color. Some noticed flowers and plants along the trail they couldn’t believe they didn’t see before. Some actually found themselves curious about textures, and touched many objects while walking. In general, most of the hikers said they felt more at peace on the hike back because their minds were not as filled with chatter.
Cultivating beginner’s mind is a practice—it’s something you need to do often to really get a sense of its power and potential. It’s not something you can do once and then expect to live your life differently. But fortunately, this activity can be done anywhere, on any trail, any time of year.
You know that being “green” has become an official fad when you start seeing t-shirts for 12 year old girls at the department store imprinted with mantras like “Think Green” (on a green shirt) or “Do Something Good Today: Recycle”.
I was at a department store at the mall the other day, getting clothes for my 7th grader. We smelled perfumes. We looked at shiny new jewelry. We tried on trendy jackets. I commented at how it felt like 1982 all over again, with clunky boots, layered tank tops, cheap chain necklaces and skinny jeans, none of which I could fathom wearing at my ripe age. Yep, there’s nothing like walking through a department store to make you feel dumpy, fat, ugly or old. Almost everything you see is meant to make you feel like you’re lacking in some way.
Anyway, this is when I noticed the t-shirts. They were displayed prominently as we passed the children’s clothing section. “Think Green.” it blared in 150 point type across the flat chest of the manequin. Forget the fact that these shirts represent nothing uniquely sustainable– they’re just thin cotton shirts mass produced in China or Tawain. The idea that a 10 or 12 year old girl would want to advertise her eco-consciousness is saying something.
It’s telling me that her parents are probably making comments and judgments about their own eco-habits. Maybe they talk to their kids about the importance of doing the right thing and living more sustainably. I know, because I talk to my daughter about stuff like this. I tell her the importance of living in harmony with our environment. She knows about recycling and saving energy and reducing pollution. She is young and she is impressionable and she really wants to emulate her parents.
Maybe talking to our children about the importance of living in an ecologically sustainable way and actually putting some of our values into practice is a very important way of teaching them to be better Earth citizens. Making sustainability “cool” is one way of getting a kid to embrace the idea. But how do you get it to stick so it doesn’t go the way of other adolescent fads like break dancing, Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and feathered bangs?
Also, what about adults? Can going green become MORE than just a fad and actually become part of a person’s value system for the long-term?
The question of how a person makes a psychological shift from feeling detached from what’s happening to the environment to actually wanting to live sustainably and in harmony with it all comes down to one thing: ecopsychology.
Numerous studies have shown that people who care about the environment seem to have one very important thing in common. They identify with nature in some way. Their environment is a significant part of their lives. Perhaps they love to hike and spend time in the mountains every chance they get. Or they lovingly tend to a backyard garden and like to watch birds in their yard. Maybe they take daily walks on a beach to enjoy it’s vastness and to feel peaceful.
People who spend time in nature typically care more about what happens to it.
Ecopsychology studies why we persist in destroying their environment, and what it takes to change the way we think, so the protection and conservation of natural habitat is equal to the preservation of our OWN mental and physical well-being.
I know that the single best way to change the way a person perceives the environment and their place in it is to get them out in nature and connecting to some beautiful aspect of the wild. I also know the best way to bring up my child with the right values is to do things like going on walks with her in the woods, or taking her down to the lake with a field guide and watch the ducks make lazy circles in the water. Sure, it helps that I tell her about recycling and the importance of not being too materialistic and consumed by retail fads. Ultimately, though, the one thing that’s going to have long-lasting impact on her developing mind is the time she spent tending a campfire up in the mountains while watching the sun set over a peak, or standing among pack of mule deer, or having a camper jay land on her hand to swipe a piece of bread out of the palm of her hand.
Those are the moments she’ll refer to when someone asks her someday, “What do you care if they cut down that forest to make room for a new mall?” She’ll care, because she’ll know that no tchachke, trinket or t-shirt bought at that mall could ever take the same place in her heart as feeling that wild bird’s tiny feet grip the tips of her fingers in tender and hungry gratitude.
(Note: This is a great hike and activity to do with kids aged 9 and up.)
Location: Northeast Colorado, approximately 55 miles north of Ft. Morgan
Directions: From Denver: Take I-76 to Ft. Morgan. From Ft. Morgan, exit on Main Street and CO 52 (exit number 75). Turn left (north) on CO 52. Go 25 miles to CO 14 and turn left (east) to road 390. Turn right (north) on 390. Weld County Road 105 is the first right angling off Road 390 just past Keota. Stay on it until it dead ends into County Road 112. Turn right, and when you cross a cattle guard, you’ll see the first sign directing you to the Pawnee Buttes. The signs for the Pawnee Buttes are small and brown and could be easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Follow the signs to the trailhead. It’s 18 miles trip from CO 14 to the Buttes, all on gravel roads.
To reach the Pawnee Buttes from Ft. Collins, Loveland or Boulder, consult a map to see the best route to CO 14 and go from there. You may need to take US 34 east to I-76 or CO 14 east.
Duration: 1-1/2 hours
Access Notes: The gravel roads to the Buttes are completely passable by passenger car. This hike is best done in late spring, around May 25- June 10th when it’s not too hot and prairie wildflowers are in bloom. This is a completely exposed hike with no real shade. Be mindful of forecasted thunderstorms, as this area is prone to hail and tornadoes in spring and summer. It’s best to go as early as possible in the morning to avoid the worst weather. There are no facilities at the Buttes, and the nearest food and gas is at least 20 miles away, so pack food and water for your hike. Dogs are allowed on leash.
The Hike Although two of the trails are closed March 1- June 30 to protect nesting birds, the main Buttes Trail is open from the parking lot. This is an easy 1-1/2 mile hike each way with barely any elevation gain or loss, however, the first quarter mile descends down into a shallow canyon where water has eroded sandstone walls. Junipers, yucca and a variety of prairie grasses and wildflowers grow along the sandy trail. You’re very likely to see and hear several varieties of larks and grasshoppers from your car on the way to the Buttes and along the trail. You may also encounter pronghorns (a type of antelope), lizards, and snakes.
The grass prairies were referred to by early settlers as a “sea of grass”. If you come in spring or summer, you may feel as if you’re indeed afloat on an endless green sea as the wind creates undulating waves in the grass and there are no obvious signs of civilization for miles from certain vantage points. It’s just you, the green waves, and the vast sky above. If you come on a weekday morning, you may be the only person around for miles. This is a different kind of wilderness than the kind in the mountains and foothills of Denver and Boulder.
To the west and not far away, you will see a wind turbine farm with its graceful and towering white blades rising over the hills and rotating soundlessly. The juxtaposition of the prairie and the wind turbines is the intersection of the timeless and the modern, the past and future together.
Unlike the claustrophobic feel of a thickly-forested mountain trail, where you imagine predators such as cougars and bears silently watching, here you experience the opposite: an aloneness and quiet that is broken only by the tootee-tooteleedee of a meadowlark and the long swishhhhh of the wind combing the grass.
The Buttes rise up mysteriously out of these soft swells of grass. They’re steep, chalky and rough. The rock is brittle like pressed sand, so you have to be careful where you step as you approach the formations. You imagine these buttes having been tall dunes at some point in the past, or something softer that has since weathered and hardened, and then eroded into a steeper formation from wind and rain.
The beauty of this place is in its unbroken, green landscape and sense of expansiveness. The sky here is as wide as the ground, and invites you to imagine a time when there were no houses, no power lines, no cows and no cars—only grass, bison and small clusters of tee-pees where Plains Indians went about their lives. You almost expect to look up at the horizon and see a group of Pawnees sitting on horses, dressed for the hunt, feathers and ribbons of leather rippling in the breeze. You wonder what it must have been like to feel the deep rumble of a herd of a hundred thousand bison migrating across the hills instead of the distant rumble of an airplane. The solitude and silence was once unbroken for hundreds of square miles. When you visit the Pawnee National Grasslands or the Buttes, It’s easy to contemplate a different kind of life and a different relationship with the land here, both now and so many years ago.
The Value and Sacredness of Land
Before white settlers populated the west, there were at least 700 million acres of prairie in the western United States. Large grazing animals such as bison, elk and antelope roamed the grasslands. Native grasses such as switchgrass, buffalo grass and blue gamma grass grew thick and lush because they were species that evolved to need very little water in areas that get as little as 15 inches of precipitation per year.
Currently, untouched prairie represents a tiny fraction of what once was a “sea of grass” that extended from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains. In the last 200 years, the prairie has been turned into ranchland, agriculture, and urban areas covered by roads and strip malls. This conversion from land that once was legally owned by no one, not even the Native American tribes that populated the riverbanks and hunted in its expanses, to land that was plowed, covered and sold for profit originated with the way the law was constructed by America’s Founding Fathers. The last phrase contained in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This paradigm that land could be bought and sold and owned privately was a construct that shaped the landscape of America.
Native Americans saw the land in terms of ecosystems and areas where bison would migrate, where rivers would flow, where grasses and timber could be gathered to make shelter and where they could count on sustaining their livelihood year after year. The animals that lived there were seen as spirit guides. If a young man saw a certain animal during a vision quest, that animal would become his source of wisdom and inspiration his entire life. Bison were viewed as sacred because their flesh enabled entire villages to thrive, clothe themselves and survive long, harsh winters.
While Native Americans saw the land as sacred—a place that could sustain generations of families with everything they needed to live and thrive, both physically and spiritually—white settlers and homesteaders saw the land as an economic opportunity.
When pioneers and homesteaders arrived in the West, they dreamed of converting the land they acquired into a personal fortune. The government and industry laid down a map of the West and divided the prairie into even squares, measuring one mile by one mile, or 640 acres. Each square was then subdivided into smaller squares and sold or given away. No consideration was given to the migration of animals or the viability of certain areas for farming or grazing. The question of whether there was enough rain each year to grow anything other than native grasses was dismissed, and acre after acre was plowed, wells and irrigation canals excavated, and non-native livestock brought in to graze. The value of the land was measured in how much profit it could generate and what could be extracted from it. It certainly didn’t hold the same value to pioneers and American industry that it held to Natives.
Native Americans saw this mathematical dissection of land as white people’s insanity. They didn’t understand how a person or a community could survive by limiting themselves to just a few acres, without the ability to track game or move to different regions in summer and winter. They didn’t understand how a person could claim to own a piece of land, to the exclusion of everyone else. While it’s true that they themselves fought over the best hunting and farming grounds, there were no such things as “For Sale” signs, realtors or title companies in Native American culture. The land belonged to all people, and the people belonged to the land.
This view of land as having economic, versus intrinsic or ecological value, is a notion that is ingrained in our Western culture. It is ingrained in our thinking whether we agree with it or not. We view colorful, lush lands with scenic vistas as having more value than arid lands with less-than-enchanting landscapes. We view cities with complex architecture as having more value than an empty lot covered in weeds. In fact, the mere notion that driving out to the Pawnee National Grasslands and thinking, “There’s nothing out here” is a symptom of our Western paradigm. What is the “something” that would make this area more valuable in our mind? Bustling industry? Large homes on manicured lawns? Stores and streets? Pump jacks?
A Native American of 300 years ago would look at this prairie and say that everything is here. Everything that he needs to survive and live happily is contained in this sea of grass. The value of land is not some arbitrary number a developer or government places on it, but its value to the animals, to the tribe, to the nation. It is the value of beauty and abundance and ecological balance. It is the value of all life that is sustained there. It is priceless.
The Activity The first thing to do as you begin your hike is to ask yourself what kinds of thoughts were running through your head as you drove out to this area of Colorado. Did you find yourself placing value on the land in the sense of the Western paradigm or the indigenous paradigm? Or a little of both?
Consider the adjectives you would use to describe the area around the Pawnee Buttes. (Is it lush, vast, empty, quiet, economically depressed, abandoned, thriving?)
As you begin hiking down the canyon and toward the Buttes, imagine a time several hundred years ago when this wasn’t an established trail or land owned by the U.S. government. Imagine spending several days or weeks here by yourself, living in a leather tent with a generous ration of food and water. What relationship would you have to the land in that situation—meaning, how would you feel about your time here and what would you do?
Now imagine living here for the same period of time without a ration of supplies. How would your relationship to the land change?
Considering these differences, why do you think it’s so easy for most Americans to buy and sell property or move from place to place?
Can you see why the way we place value on land may have something to do with how we treat land and the animals that live there?
This is a great contemplative hike for children and families. It doesn’t need to be silent.
Location: Between Eldorado Springs and South Boulder.
Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on CO-170, go 1.7 miles to the South Mesa trailhead. Park on the north side.
Duration: Approximately 2 hours
Route: from the parking lot, start along the Mesa Trail to the South Boulder Creek Trail, which heads east.
Access Notes: The parking lot for this trailhead gets full early in the morning on weekends. Arrive before 8:30 a.m. to improve your chances of finding a parking spot. Otherwise, try parking on the south lot and walk over. Do not park on the road, you will get a ticket. Dogs are allowed. To avoid being trampled by other hikers or off-leash dogs while viewing delicate wildflowers, come very early or on weekdays.
(For this hike, you’ll want to bring a wildflower field guide, preferably one about Rocky Mountain or North American wildflowers).
The best time to do this hike is late April to early May, when the first delicate wildflowers appear after all the snow has melted. If it’s been a particularly mild winter, it may be better to come as early as mid-April.
Starting out from the South Mesa Trail, it feels odd to veer to the east onto the South Boulder Creek trail and head back toward Boulder and away from the trees and quiet wilderness of the more western trails. The path is down a rocky, narrow gouge in the grass through the meadows and hills that slope gradually downward as you approach the rumble of Highway 93 and Marshall. There are large and small boulders throughout the meadow where you can sit and rest and listen to the birds.
Starting in March or April, you’ll hear the pretty song of the meadowlark, but good luck trying to spot him! He’s small and light brown and usually perches on a fencepost or tall reed of grass. He has the loudest voice in the meadow to attract mates, but camouflages himself well to avoid predators. You may also spot a stellar jay, a magpie, a crow or even some mountain bluebirds.
Closer to Highway 93 you’ll see a row of large cottonwoods and hear the creek. If you turn around before you get to the road, you’ll have walked about 2 hours, roundtrip.
The Small and Quiet Voices of April
April isn’t typically the month that comes to mind when you think about wildflowers. A plethora of colorful prairie flowers bloom in May further east in the plains, like at the Pawnee National Grasslands. Mountain trails above 8,000 feet are almost always still covered in snow in April, so there aren’t many flowers there, not until June or July. But in fact, you can spot quite a few species of flowers this early in the spring, and close to town, if you slow down and actually search for them.
They’re not obvious. Like alpine and tundra flowers, they’re small and low to the ground to keep warm and sheltered from harsh storms and wind. They hug rocks or grow in disturbed areas close to the trail—maybe even right in the middle of the trail.
When I went out on a mission to search out and photograph these flowers, I was surprised at how many different types I found. In my usual non-contemplative “exercise” mode, I barely notice anything except the general landscape: the rolling green hills, the ponderosas, the rocky spires and flatirons to the west. But slowing down and getting closer to the ground brought a new awareness. These flowers are the small, quiet voices in April. They’re delicate and delightful, growing quickly and without much pomp or circumstance as soon as the snow melts. They attract the early crowd of flies and moths, perhaps some bees too on warmer days. They’re not revered or celebrated as much as their mid-summer cousins like the Indian paintbrush or the larkspur. They don’t bring in crowds of admirers. For this reason, I found them to be worthy of contemplation.
If you brought your field guide on this hike, it’s fun to try to actually identify a few of the species by name. It requires a close inspection and careful comparison. The flowers may be the same as the photo, but the leaves may be different. Try to study one flower from the tip of its stamen all the way down to the base of its stem and leaves. Feel the petals, caress the leaves.
What do these early bloomers tell you about yourself, or nature, or the change in seasons?
Are there any species that seem to be blooming earlier than the field guide states? Later?
The April wildflowers are the small, quiet voices of the meadow—pretty but unassuming. They are easily overlooked when your attention is on the louder, more obvious beings, like melodious meadowlarks or the visually soothing carpet of green grass across the hills. What small and quiet voice inside you are you ignoring because it’s being upstaged by louder, more insistent messages?