The Value and Sacredness of Land

Pawnee Buttes

(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?

More People On the Trail – Good or Bad?

View of Pike's Peak from the Devil's Head fire tower overlook

Devil’s Head Trail

Noticing Other People Enjoying Nature

Location: Between Sedalia and Deckers, in Douglas County

Directions: From Denver take I-25 South to Happy Canyon Road (west), then go proceed on Happy Canyon Road to Highway 85 and turn right (west) toward Sedalia. (From western suburbs take C-470 to Santa Fe Drive to Sedalia and Highway 67).

From Highway 85 turn left (southwest) onto Highway 67 heading toward Deckers. Then head west on highway 67 to the north entrance of the park at Rampart Range Road, 10 miles. Take this South for approximately 9 miles to Devil’s Head campground and the Fire Tower trailhead.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours

Route: There is only one trail up the mountain to the Devil’s Head overlook and tower from the parking lot.

Access Notes: Rampart Range Road is closed from December to April since the road is not maintained in winter. It’s best to go in the summer or late spring when roads are dry and clear.

The trail itself is a moderately steep walk 1.5 miles up to the summit and the fire tower overlook. There are picnic tables and restrooms (no running water) at the trailhead and parking lot. The lot fills up early on summer weekends, even though there are plenty of spaces. You don’t need a 4WD vehicle to access this trail since Rampart Range Road is gravel and fairly smooth with only a few areas of washboard. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive to Devil’s Head from most central and northern Denver suburbs, much less if you’re coming from Highlands Ranch or Castle Pines.

This is one hike I recommend doing on a summer weekend as opposed to attempting to come when it’s not crowded, such as mid-week or early in the morning. The point of this contemplative hike is to really experience the feeling of other people on the trail, what it means, and what the future holds for those wanting to experience the peace and tranquility of nature.

Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

From the parking lot to the top of the trail where the fire tower is located is 940 feet of elevation gain and a mile and a half of long, sweeping switchbacks that wind their way through tall, erect aspen and then through spruce and pine. The trail zig zags the north face of the mountain, with distant or picturesque views of rock formations, Mount Evans, the eastern plains and the Black Forest, and the Lost Creek Wilderness Range to the west.

The hike starts off sheltered in the tall aspens and crosses a small creek (during spring meltoff). Mid-way up the mountain you’ll pass huge, smooth, egg- and spire-shaped boulders and scenic overlooks. Don’t get too close to the edge!

Once you reach the summit, you’ll encounter a small meadow, a cabin, more restrooms, and an old fire tower that is accessed by a very steep and long metal staircase. This is a good place to take a break and eat lunch. The final push to the fire tower is not for the faint of heart or people with vertigo or fear of heights. However, if you can manage it, it’s well-worth the effort. The views of Pikes Peak to the south and Denver and Mt. Evans to the north are so expansive it feels as if you’re in an airplane—much higher than you actually are. The tower is closed if there’s lightning or the danger of lightning. Ideally, you want to do this hike on clear, sunny days that aren’t too windy. The final elevation at the top is about 9,500 feet, so you may feel a little winded with all that climbing.

With so many people you pass on the trail, once you reach the tower you’ll enjoy the feeling of wilderness and space. Pike National Forest surrounds you to the south, west and east, and trees are all you can see for miles. To the west, you can see the 130,000-some acres that were burned during the 2002 Deckers wildfire. The hills there are still brown in comparison to the unburned areas.

More People On the Trail — Good or Bad?

One of the many scenic overlooks from Devil's Head trail

Before you even arrive at the parking lot for this trail, you’ll notice something unique about this entire area of Pike National Forest. The length of Rampart Range Road branches off into large alcoves and parking lots intended for trucks with trailers hauling ATVs, dirt bikes and quads. There are special trails that have been designated for off-road travel by ATVs only and these trails weave in loops through the forest, sometimes parallel to the main road. Families and groups pitch their tents, bring in their travel trailers and motorhomes and spend the day or longer riding their ATVs and enjoying time in the woods.

The high-pitched buzzing of small engines permeate the area and you may start to wonder, as you’re making your way up the road to the trailhead, how you’re going to enjoy this hike with all this racket going on. It’s actually not that bad once you get up onto the trail, as most of the noise is absorbed by the trees and wind.

When I was in my 20s I used to enjoy weekends camping with friends who’d bring along their small quad that we all took turns riding. We camped in BLM land near the Lost Creek Wilderness, and being young and stupid, we did some stupid things, like making a campfire that was way too hot and throwing out sparks, drinking too much, making too much noise and probably not being very kind to the land. I’m sure we probably pissed off some backpackers or hikers who may have wandered near our camp when they heard the growl of the ATV engine zipping up and down the hills.

I haven’t ridden in any ATVs since then and actually find their noisiness irritating now when I’m out hiking or trying to enjoy the peace of wilderness. I suppose I’m not the only one who feels this way, because I know there aren’t many places that allow the kind of activity one sees as one travels down Rampart Range Road.

Recently, the idea of too many people using natural areas has come up as a source of controversy among the National Forest Service, Boulder county residents and some of my friends. In October of 2009, The Boulder City Council and the Open Space and Mountain Parks Board of Trustees were considering a pilot program that would charge non-residents a fee to use some of the open space parks within Boulder county. The reason this was being considered was because City Council was looking to close a budget gap for Open Space programs. Around 40% of users of the open space park are non-Boulder (non-city tax paying) residents, according to City Council, and they felt those people needed to help pay for the cleaning and maintenance of the parks.

The walk up to the fire tower is 1-1/2 miles and nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain.

In May of 2010, an article appeared in the Gazette stating that the Forest Service was considering charging hikers $10 per day to summit the fourteeners in the South Colony Basin near Westcliffe, Colorado. As state and federal budgets are tightened, land managers are looking for alternative ways to both cover the cost of trail maintenance and to reduce the number of people using the trails.

This controversial proposal struck a nerve among some of my friends and family, who admit they, too, feel there are too many people crowding the Front Range hiking trails on any given weekend and wonder what the solutions are.

One person even told me that perhaps there ought to be less books telling people where to go hiking, because the information is just contributing to this “problem.” (This book, of course, being the target of such facetious banter.)

But is it a problem? And why is it a problem?

As an ecopsychologist, I can say that the worst thing federal, state and city authorities can do to solve budget problems is to start charging money for people to spend time in nature. Unless people have ample opportunities to enjoy nature and connect with the land where they live, they will no longer know how much wilderness is really left and therefore won’t care about what happens to wilderness. Human beings need some sort of connection to nature for optimum mental health. We cannot lock ourselves up in a concrete box with only more boxes such as television, cars and computers to interact with and think we can end up healthy, mentally or physically. We need a relationship to the land: whether that’s a garden, an animal, a tree, a park or a backyard. When that relationship is lacking, man’s consideration for his environment withers. The environment just becomes an abstract idea. The natural world becomes an object to be exploited and converted to human wealth. It becomes a mountain to be mined for coal, an ocean to be exploited for oil and seafood, a forest to be cut down to build tract homes.

If it’s going to cost money to experience wilderness, then only those people who can afford to spend the money will be able to enjoy time in nature. Many low-income people already don’t drive up to the mountains to go hiking or just enjoy the woods because they can barely afford the gas money for such trips, let alone if it cost them $10 per person or $5 to park their car each time. Enjoying nature becomes a luxury for those that can’t afford the fees and gas prices, and the best they can do is to go to a nearby park in the city and sit under a tree.

But the bigger question is, why are so many more people using the trails, visiting State and National Parks and putting a financial burden on the agencies who are working so hard to maintain these areas? Is it that there are so many more people moving to Colorado and the population is increasing in general? Perhaps — I certainly wouldn’t discount this obvious fact.

View from just below the fire tower

Perhaps the other reason more people are finding it necessary to drive some distance away from where they live to go enjoy nature is because nature is being continually pushed out from the city by development. There are fewer and fewer places to go in the city that afford the same kind of experience once gets from hiking in the woods—where it’s quiet and scenic and smells good. It’s not so much that population is increasing, it’s also that development is increasing around the Front Range, with fewer and fewer fields, prairies, stands of trees and what investors call “vacant land.”

Is charging fees and discouraging use of trails and parks the best solution? The problem is not that there are too many people using the trails. The industrial growth paradigm that creates this need in people is the problem. It stems from how we treat or value natural areas that already exist near the city. It’s not a vast meadow with some trees to be enjoyed by all creatures; it’s undeveloped land that has certain monetary value to investors, but only if it’s bulldozed, excavated and covered by buildings and parking lots. A prairie dog or coyote is not an animal; it’s a “nuisance” to be eliminated or relocated.

Therefore, charging fees to recoup the cost of human use of natural areas or to discourage use by making it only affordable to wealthy people is like putting a band aid on a headwound. It doesn’t address the core problem of industrial growth society’s attitude toward nature, and ignores the fact that keeping people distanced from nature only adds to the problem, because people will look to material wealth to fill that void; a void they could be filling through spiritual and contemplative practices, such as an opening up to feeling enchanted by nature’s beauty.

The Activity

The intention of this hike is not to be silent and withdrawn from others, but to connect not just to the mountain, but to the people who have come to enjoy it, too.

When I hiked this trail in late May, I noticed a lot of “sneaker hikers” enjoying the trail. This is what I call people who like to hike but don’t have the latest in technical clothing and gear, who aren’t racing to the top, who are stopping frequently to take breaks and enjoy the view and maybe even snap a few photos. They came with their kids, their dogs, their friends to enjoy a warm, sunny spring day in the woods with their loved ones.

People aren’t a “nuisance” on trails. They are individuals who value the land where they reside. They value what being in the woods or hiking up a mountain does for their bodies and souls. Human beings belong to the land, not the other way around.

I can’t imagine these hikers feeling that this particular trail is an object to be exploited to create products or build mansions for the select few. I’m almost positive that if I were to ask each person on the trail if they wouldn’t mind if this entire area was closed to the public and turned over to a mining and forestry company to extract resources for the manufacture of cellphones, coffee tables and televisions, they’d look at me in horror.

Take a look at the people you encounter on your hike. Consider why they’re here. Consider what would happen if they weren’t here, or if no one cared about coming up to the mountains for enjoyment.

These are people who have seen nature displaced where they live, in small ways, or perhaps in significant ways. Deep in their memory, they all have a story to tell about the displacement or destruction of natural areas.

In 1995 I moved to Broomfield. I bought a new house in an area that was previously just old farm fields and prairie. For at least the first two years I lived there, my still-small neighborhood was surrounded by these fields. I would go walking through those fields after work almost every day, enjoying the views of the mountains and the way everything felt so wide-open and spacious. I would observe many different birds flittering about from shrub to shrub. But all this came to an end after two years of development and expansion, and the fields were covered in tract homes and playgrounds.

What is your story about losing a favorite place to development or pollution?

While you’re making progress up to the tower, enjoy connecting to the people as well as the scenery. Say hello. Make eye contact. Strike up friendly conversations.

How does it feel to share these woods and this mountain with other people?

Were there any assumptions and attitudes about other people on the trail that were challenged by your observations?

When I began my descent down the steps of the fire tower, I ran into a man and his two children on their way up. I had passed them an hour earlier, as the father had stopped to point out some kind of plant to them.

His son, who looked to be about 12 or 13, had stopped halfway up the staircase, terrified and crying. His head was slung in shame as he was unable to move up or down. I slowed down as I passed them, and looked with empathy at the father as he tried to comfort his son.

“I remember feeling the same way about these kinds of places when I was his age.” I said.

“Yeah, it’s tough having a fear of heights.” The father answered. His eyes and voice were full of compassion and softness.

In that moment, we were more than just hikers. We connected as parents, as human beings, and as decent people wanting the same things for ourselves and our children.

5 (Free or Low-Cost) Things To Do on Earth Day

April 22, 2010, marks the 40th anniversary of a pivotal moment in time, when 20 million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable relationship between humans and the planet. Earth Day founder, Senator Gaylord Nelson, proposed setting aside an official day on the calendar to commemorate the event. His efforts eventually led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Act.

This year, we have even more serious and global challenges in the form of climate change, peak oil and mass extinction of species. Although no one of us can solve the world’s problems all by ourselves, we can set aside the day to be mindful of our role on Earth, to think about how we may contribute to the healing of our planet, and to take small but important steps lesson our personal impact on the environment.

These steps don’t have to cost anything or contribute to further commoditization (solving problems with more STUFF instead of systematic changes). They can instead contribute to mindfulness, deeper relationships with our friends and family, healthier activities and an appreciation of what we already have. Here are six things you can do to celebrate Earth Day that cost little or nothing:

1. Reconnect with the land by going on a contemplative hike. Recently, a friend of mine told me that she’s met people who have lived in the Denver area their entire lives but never traveled up into the mountains or gone hiking in the foothills. I found this to be astounding and almost inconceivable. How can one look at the mesmerizing views to the west, which change not just seasonally but almost daily, and not want to explore its mysteries and beauty? Many hiking trails are within an hour’s drive of the Front Range suburbs, maybe even as little as 10-15 minutes away, depending on where you live. You don’t need any special equipment to hike most of the trails around town, just a small jug of water and some good walking shoes. If a person has lived along the Front Range and has never gone hiking or exploring in the mountains, they are missing out on blessed silence, the sound of birds that don’t typically reside in the suburbs, fresh air, a sense of peace or wonder or enchantment, or the fragrant whiff of a forest of pine and spruce trees. They are missing out on the access to something timeless, mysterious and wondrous. Nature is neither welcoming nor rejecting. It’s non-judgmental. For this reason, when you’re in the woods or walking through the meadows and canyons, you are free to be yourself and feel whatever you want to feel.

I’ve scheduled a free Earth Day group contemplative hike in Golden at the White Ranch Open Space Park starting at 9 a.m. from the Belcher Hill trailhead. Click here for more information.

2. Invite friends over to watch an uplifting or thought-provoking movie about nature or the environment. Whatever you feel about nature or animals, someone somewhere has already felt and expressed a similar sentiment. That’s why it’s inspiring to experience the visual arts, film, literature, poetry when they reflect our values and feelings, and share the experience with our friends and family.  Earth Day is a great day to go outside, but if you’ve spent the day hiking and just want to relax, pop in a good nature flick and invite some friends over for some local brew. If you plan ahead, you can order these films from Netflix or Blockbuster Home Delivery.

My personal Favorites are the Planet Earth series, Into the Wild, Winged Migration, The Yearling, and The Girl and the Fox, a French film from 2009.

3. Plant some hardy flower or vegetable seeds. Whether you have a garden where you live, or just enough room to put out a clay pot near your front door, late April is the perfect time for many hardy varieties of vegetables and flowers.  You can plant pansies, alyssum, peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, potatoes, spinach, turnips, cabbage and lettuce. If you can only do pots, then spinach, lettuce and hardy flowers seeds can be planted now. Gardening is relaxing and connects you to the weather and climate of the land, because when you’ve invested time and energy into the soil and into your seedlings. You know exactly when it will rain, how much precipitation your garden received, and ultimately rejoice in a good balance of sun and moisture. There’s nothing like gardening to make a rainy day seem welcome. You’ll become aware of when the nighttime temperatures get above freezing, when the date of the average last frost occurs, and how what exactly constitutes “normal” in terms of climate, from one year to the next.

4. Honor your land by picking up the trash around your neighborhood.

There’s a lot of trash that accumulates along the side of the road near where I live in Westminster. It’s not because people are necessarily littering out of their cars. It’s mostly because of what happens on windy days. Recyclables get blown down the street, paper products fly out of the backs of pickups, dumpsters, and parking lots. Plastic grocery bags get snagged on wire fences and in the branches of trees. It’s hideous, and someone ought to clean it up. Why not take an hour and let that “someone” be you? Who knows, you might inspire someone else to do the same thing.

5. If the weather is nice, eat dinner with your family outdoors, picnic-style, and enjoy the sunset. I actually enjoy eating outdoors this time of year, when it can be warm and pleasant but the bugs and wasps aren’t out in full-force yet. The sun will be setting around 7:40 p.m. on Earth Day in Colorado, so that affords plenty of time to pack a lite dinner and head off to the local park, your backyard, or a nearby picnic area. Challenge yourself and your family to spot at least 5 different kinds of birds or animals while you enjoy your meal.

6. Turn off the TV and computer and pay attention to the nature around you. Nature is everywhere. Your pets are nature. Your friends are nature. YOU are nature. Nature is not something “out there” to be either feared or revered. We are part of the circle of life. Contemplate this. Spend an evening unplugged and really see what you haven’t noticed lately. Ask your spouse or partner what has been troubling them lately or what’s given them joy in the last few days. Write a poem about what you see outside your window. Meditate under a tree. Take a walk around your neighborhood and say hello to the people you encounter. When you make a habit out of mindfulness and outdoor activities, pretty soon you’ll discover that you feel happy anticipating things that cost nothing and require nothing of you: longer and warmer days, trees budding out, the return of meadowlarks and other migratory birds, the smell of the air after a thunderstorm.

Commemorating Earth Day doesn’t have to be about protest, or doom-and-gloom, or angst over societal apathy or stalled political action. Those frustrations can be set aside for a day, while you actually listen to what the Earth is trying to say, what you’re working so hard to accomplish the other 364 days of the year, and why.

Paradigm Coma

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
— Rumi
dog sleeps on railroad tracks
Paradigm coma

I tend to slip into a paradigm coma every now and then. I go back to sleep. I forget everything I’ve learned about peak oil, impending economic collapse, climate change, species extinction and go back to living according to the prevailing western paradigm: keep striving for more, keep improving your assets, success equals money and affluence. This is the paradigm where we are so well off that we can’t concern ourselves with social and environmental problems at hand; we’d rather gossip about the sex lives of celebrities and entertain ourselves with fantasy in some electronic form.

I don’t know why I keep falling back asleep. Is it because it’s so hard to change your paradigm once it’s been programmed in you since birth? Is it because I simply can’t accept that anything bad will happen to me/us? Is it just my optimistic nature?
Sometime in the next several weeks I will be co-facilitating a “Work That Reconnects” workshop with my friend and fellow ecopsychologist Donna Dubois. I’m looking forward to providing a forum for people to express their feelings and angst over this very issue. I need the support and understanding of people who know what it feels like to be at the windowsill of two worlds.
I’m also planning on hosting a book discussion group with Carolyn Baker’s book, “Sacred Demise: Walking the Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse” an examination of the heart and soul of our predicament.
Meanwhile, whenever I feel myself seduced into slipping back into my western paradigm coma, I ask myself what really matters and what will have real meaning in my life. What thrills my heart and soul, no matter how many years have passed and no matter where I am in my life? The answer is always the mountains. The mountains are my constant lover.

The Trauma of Living in Two Worlds

CranesCarolyn Baker, author of “Sacred Demise: Walking the Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse” writes in a recent article that we are all experiencing some sort of psychological trauma because of what we have seen unfold in the last decade. The shock of 9/11, Katrina, neighbors losing their homes, resource depletion, endless war and increasing personal hardship has made us all suffer from a form of PTSD. Whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, we are psychologically affected by what we are seeing, experiencing and hearing each and every day.

I, too, feel traumatized and changed by everything I’ve been learning in the last several years. Four years ago, I thought the only thing standing in the way of having a better and better life each year was my own ambitions and motivation. I looked forward to always having more: more happiness, more prosperity, more money, and more fun in the future. After I learned about the realities of Peak Oil, climate change and resource depletion, my world turned up-side down. I could no longer assume that life would just keep getting better and easier—not for my family nor for society.

I had what’s called a “peak moment”—the moment that comes right after fully understanding the predicament humans are in on the planet and realizing that you can no longer go back to assuming things will be normal again. This is the moment when you see the futility of the paradigm of western culture—the paradigm that economic growth is necessary and good and must always be the focus of our collective talents and energy. Endless growth in a finite world is physically impossible, and the limits to this growth have already started to manifest around us. Here in the Denver area, it’s not difficult to see the end result of building too many strip malls and having too much development. Businesses are closing left and right, home prices have been dropping, and vacant retail buildings have started deteriorating after a decade or more of disrepair and exposure to weather.

And yet, despite the obvious evidence, there are two new WalMarts being constructed within 12 miles of where I live. And yet, city councils of five adjoining towns are considering a proposal from a developer to build a major freeway on the far west of town, where they hope to also build more strip malls, more office buildings, and more homes.

This is insanity. We live in a culture that doesn’t see how completely insane its actions are. We assume what we’re doing makes sense. We see it as “progress.” We listen with hope and impatience to mainstream media give us updates weekly on how fast we’re recovering from this economic blip and getting back to normal.

But what is “normal”?

Is normal going back to building more strip malls and tract home neighborhoods where there was once farmland? Is normal pushing mortgages people can’t really afford? Is normal encouraging people to take on more and more debt (individually and on a public level) that can never be repaid because we won’t have the resources to fuel the growth that is necessary to pay off that debt?

I don’t live in a normal world anymore. I live in two worlds, actually. One world is the world I grew up in and have been socialized by. It’s the world that’s telling me it’s ok to believe that technology will solve all our problems and that if we’re not making more money this month than last month, there’s something seriously wrong with the picture. The other world is the one where I see the reality (kind of like Neo finally sees The Matrix). This is the reality where our unexamined assumptions have led us to polluting 70% of our waterways, turning fertile soil into a chemical sponge, exterminating species, and basing our entire survival on a resource that is getting more and more challenging to find and extract. In this reality, the world has a different future than the one that’s being advertised on T.V.

In my world, in the way I hope it will be, the future is where people matter more than money, where everyone realizes the intrinsic value of nature, and where every problem isn’t automatically solved with some object that can be mass produced, marketed and distributed (with the lowest cost basis and therefore highest profit margin possible).

These two world views are completely in opposition, and yet I must live my life believing both.

Living in these two worlds has made me feel traumatized.  It has affected me deeply. I began to feel that my job had no meaning, that writing marketing copy was just one more way I was contributing to the insanity. I listened to the directives to work harder to make more profit and I wanted to laugh the hysterical laugh of the lunatic! I was being told to believe the destructive lie, to live it, to embrace it as my mantra. I tried, but I failed to see any other vision behind this besides the mindless striving for more—the disease of modern society.

Whenever I feel the trauma creeping up within me, I know that I have to go get grounded—fast. I escape from the chatter and noise of this insanity and go off into the mountains or into the woods. This is where I can finally exhale out the pent up tension and fear and clear my head. Nature doesn’t require anything of me. The trees stand quietly, embracing me in their shadows. A squirrel trills out a call that sounds like a cross between a joyful proclamation and a warning (depending on my mood). The wind descends down the valley and cancels out all other sounds for a few seconds. There is peace. I am enough.

This place has been here long before the age of industrialization. It will be here for a good, long time after industrialization finally sputters and runs out of steam. The trees don’t care about profits and politics. The mountain could care less how many gadgets I own or if I’m wearing the most fashionable technical gear. This is where I come to just BE, this is a place where I belong because I, too, am nature.

There are many good ways of dealing with and tending to our trauma for what is happening in the world. We can get together with friends and envision what world we want to see in the future. We can prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We can teach others what we know about gardening, canning, chicken-keeping and other “lost” skills. We can talk about our feelings—the more we do so, the better. And finally, we can just go and be— in the woods, in a meadow, on top of the mountain. We can find that place in our soul that longs to connect with the land from which we were created.