Icy Cliffs and a Frozen Lake

Echo Lake and Chicago Lakes Trail near Mt. Evans
January 18, 2010

Chicago Lakes trailThe Chicago Lakes trail, which starts at Echo Lake near Mt. Evans can be pretty thrilling this time of year. There’s a stretch of trail that’s maybe a couple of feet wide above a very steep and sometimes sheer dropoff, and right now it’s covered in snowpack and ice. Unless you’re wearing YakTrax and have a lot of confidence around heights, you might be challenging your senses. At the start of the trail, Echo Lake is frozen solid and even though there’s a sign posted to keep off the lake, several groups and individuals decided to ignore that sign and ice skate, walk around and even do a little ice fishing (complete with a motorized ice screw).

Frozen Echo Lake

What felt unusual this time of year along the Continental Divide was the sheer stillness in the air. It was balmy in Denver (mid 50s) and well above freezing up around 9,000 feet at Echo Lake. Normally when the weather is this warm in January you expect strong, gusty winds in the mountains as the air downslopes toward the plains. Not on this day. There was barely a breeze. It was blissfully quiet.

Earlier that morning, back in Westminster, I had gone on a short jog around my neighborhood and was accosted by the smell of exhaust and the rumbling engines from cars with impatient and caffeinated drivers on their way to work on a Monday that was a holiday for some. In comparison, being on this trail in the woods with just the sound of an agitated squirrel and maybe the caw-caw-caw of a crow was like a long, heartfelt sigh.

Once we stepped out from the trees and onto the ledge of the rocky slope overlooking the valley below and north toward Berthod Pass, it felt more than just peaceful. It felt expansive. Again, this was a stark contrast to the claustrophobia of the suburbs, where my views are confined by houses and cars and the sound of non-stop traffic.

View from Chicago Lakes trail
View from the Chicago Lakes trail

My 12-year-old was intrigued by the nooks and crannies between giant boulders that had long ago tumbled off the mountain and settled on the slopes. You had to be careful to stay on the trail or risk wedging your leg in a narrow crevice between rocks, unseen due to a blanket of snow that covered everything. The trail is well-worn and snow-packed, evidence that even this time of year, Colorado’s residents can’t stay away from enjoying some solitude with nature. It’s a good time of year to hike up here. It’s a good way to test your focus and balance on the icy patches along the narrow trail before you descent into the valley. It’s a place to breathe the long, deep sigh of a body and mind letting go of the drone of a busy city.

Gratitude Hike (Increase Your Happiness 25%)

(Note: This is a contemplative hike you can do on any trail or park near your home. I did this one in Evergreen, Colorado at the Elk Meadows Open Space Park.)

Directions: From Interstate 70 (east or west) take the Evergreen Parkway exit. Go west on Stagecoach Blvd. to the Elk Meadows open space parking lot on the north side of the road.

Duration: 90 minutes–3 hours

Route: Proceed west directly behind the trailhead sign to Meadow View trail. Turn left on the Bergen Peak trail and walk as far as you want before turning back.

Access Notes: Dogs are allowed on a leash. This hike is moderately strenuous at the point where you turn onto the Bergen Peak trail because it is a steady uphill walk up. The trail is gravel with occasional rocks, roots and small boulders to step over. In the winter the trail is likely to be snow packed or icy, so be sure to bring snowshoes or YakTrax. It’s mostly shady the entire hike, which keeps this trail cool year-round. There is some road noise at first from Stagecoach Blvd., but that gets muffled as your make your way north and into the trees.

Along the Bergen Peak trail, Elk Meadows Open Space Park, Evergreen, Colo.

Hike:

In his book, “thanks!”, Dr. Robert A. Emmons details research that shows that people who took time to list the things for which they’re grateful every day for a period of 10 weeks experienced 25% more of a feeling of happiness than a different group that focused on hassles or events.

In other words, if you want to feel happier next month than you do today, make it a habit to be thankful for all the blessings in your life.

A daily affirmation of gratitude can put you in a positive mindset for the entire day, in my opinion. I also think that having an attitude of gratefulness for what you have, even if it isn’t quite everything you dream of, can actually get you more of what you really want than constantly complaining about feeling deprived. It’s the Law of Attraction—you attract more of what you want by focusing on the positive and following the energy of gratitude and optimism.

This hike is a way to boost your energy and mood by focusing on the things in your life that make you feel thankful and appreciative.

As you begin the hike, you’ll pass the trailhead sign and shortly past that is a small bridge. Stop before you cross the bridge and think of your intention for the hike. If you want to, voice your intention out loud. Then imagine the small bridge as your threshold between the profane space and the sacred space of your contemplative hike.

Walk in silence (if you’re with others) along the Meadow View trail, which winds its way around the mountain to the north, at which point it gets encased in shadow and trees. This is a nice hike to do when it’s hot in the city in the summer. In the winter, the shade keeps the snow from melting even when temperatures spike into the 40s and 50s around Denver. On a weekday, you will probably encounter a few hikers on the path, some with dogs, and even a few bicyclists (probably fewer in the winter).

elk meadow trail
View from the Bergen Peak trail, looking east

Knowing that this is called a “gratitude hike” you’ll probably start thinking of things you’re grateful for as you walk through the woods. Resist doing this as much as you can until you reach the point where you’d like to turn around and head back. That way, you’ll be mindful of everything that you’re seeing and hearing along the trail instead of being lost in thought. Try to open up your vision to the slope of the trail, the way the trees look, and any animal sightings or calls.

Hike along the Meadow View trail until you get to the Bergen Peak trail and follow that trail to the left and up the mountain. The trail will switchback several times before you get to the top, and at that point you will be able to see a view of Evergreen, all the way down the foothills to the plains, if it’s clear enough that day.

When you’re ready to call it a half-way point and turn around, find a spot to either stand or sit for 15-30 minutes. Take a water and snack break.

Activity:

(If you’re alone) Find a spot where you can look out toward a direction that feels peaceful and soothing—either into the woods or looking east onto the meadow and the town of Evergreen below. Take several deep breaths and a few moments to transition from the active, body-focused task of walking to a more internal, restful and reflective state.

Answer these questions. Take time in between statements to absorb what you just wrote. Don’t rush it. Let each one settle in. If you prefer, speak your answers.

Take notice of any birds or animals while you are doing this activity. Do they play a role in your life on this day, too?

What are you most grateful for in this moment?

What are you grateful for in your life?

(If you’re with a friend or group) Take turns saying what you’re grateful for in the moment and in your life. Don’t judge anyone’s answers and resist the urge to say, “me too.” Acknowledge everyone’s statement with a nod. Be sure to count to five between each person’s proclamation, so everyone feels acknowledged and heard, not rushed.

The activity can end when no one has anything more to say (and it can go on for a while, depending on the size of the group and everyone’s mood).

Before you return to the parking lot, offer gratitude to the mountain and forest for all your insights and mindfully step back over the small bridge threshold.

Facing Your Fears By Hiking in the Dark

dark woods at nightDoes the idea of doing a midnight hike alone frighten you—or intrigue you?

Darkness used to creep me out. I had a house in the mountains of Fairplay, Colorado for a few years, where on a moonless night it was almost completely black outside except for the glitter of the Milky Way. Walking through the house in the middle of the night to get a glass of water was nerve-wracking for me. The flat black of night through the windows made me imagine serial killers and rabid predators lurking on the porch.

One night I decided to face my fears and I took a very short walk up the road at night. After the stiffness of my initial fear relaxed a bit, I noticed some things. There were occasional comets that flashed across the sky and were quickly extinguished. I saw stars that I had never seen before—there were so many of them. I saw the haze of the Milky Way that at deceptively looks like a thin cloud in the night sky, but isn’t.

What enchanted me most were the comets, or shooting stars. I wondered how often they hurl toward Earth when I’m not watching or even aware—like during daylight hours or on the other side of the world. The Earth is constantly and dutifully shielding its creatures from a pelting of space rocks with its atmosphere. I felt the Earth as my gigantic mother, shielding me from harm.

The experience transformed my relationship to the darkness. I saw the dome of the sky above me in a different way.  It was a window onto the universe.  It allowed me to see that which was necessary, but invisible—the protective atmosphere around our planet. I saw the sky as a time machine of sorts, since I was looking at objects that sometimes weren’t even there anymore, just their light and energy making its way steadily across space and time.

Sometimes when people are alone in the dark in the wilderness, they feel fear. They fear that something “out there” is stalking them or out to get them.  They imagine bears and mountain lions hurling out of the dark to claw at them and eat them alive. That’s how I used to feel, too. But the chances of getting eaten or attacked by a predator are pretty slim, to say the least. You have a better chance of dying in an automobile accident on the way to the campground than you do while you’re sitting alone in your tent.

When you fear the darkness, what you’re really fearing is the darkness within yourself. Darkness is uncertainty. It’s not knowing what’s around the corner or behind the tree. You’re frightened about becoming lost in that uncertainty. You fear you’ll never come out, and the darkness will eat you up. It can be paralyzing, unless you can face it and be comfortable with it.

Befriending the dark means befriending and overcoming your fears.

A Contemplative Activity for Hiking in the Dark

Most open space trails and parks close after sunset. Don’t let that stop you! There may be a large park nearby with a lot of trees, or you can try to park on a street and walk to a trailhead. If you’re motivated, you can go up into BLM land or National Forest, where there are no restrictions on what time you have to be out.

(For this hike, you might try the Flatirons Vista Trail, Mount Sinitas or Chautauqua if you live near Boulder.)

If you’re not comfortable going alone, bring a friend but stay completely silent during this activity. It’s better if you go alone because the purpose of this is to befriend the darkness, and the only way to reach deep into your inner fear is to face it alone.

Bring a flashlight so you don’t trip or stumble. You start by going as far as you’re comfortable, and walk slowly. Stay on the trail, and if there isn’t a trail, stay near the road so you don’t get lost. Stop when you start to feel a little too creeped out or frightened.

Here’s the challenge: turn off your flashlight. Stand still, absolutely still, and LISTEN. Which sounds feel unsettling and which ones comfort you? Maybe the sound of distant cars comforts you now. Take mental note.

If you get too uncomfortable, turn your flashlight back on. Try to go as long as you can and relax into the scenery.

Walk a little further into the woods or trail—again, as far as you can before getting too uncomfortable, and look up and around. Really get into your feelings. What do you imagine coming out of the darkness? What do you fear? Name it. Say it out loud.

Hear yourself saying it out loud. Does it lose its power or gain power that way?

Take several deep breaths and release all tension in your body.

If you start to feel more relaxed, find a place to sit (or stand, if you prefer) and remain there for at least 10-15 minutes. Ask yourself: What do I fear?

Say the answers out loud. The answers may change or stay the same. Keep saying it until you feel you have gotten to the core of what it is you’re really feeling and experiencing, or until you’re no longer able to remain in place.

Return to your car or home when you’re ready.

When you drive home, consider at what point you felt different and completely back to normal after your moment in the woods. Was it when you got back in the car? When you turned on the car stereo? When you returned home and turned on the lights? What makes you feel safe?

You may surprise yourself and feel comfortable in the dark. Or, you may find yourself feeling creeped out a bit longer than you thought. The key here is to realize that the woods are no different or dangerous in the dark then they are in broad daylight. What changes is your perception, and often that perception is masked by your internal fear and uncertainty.

Detroit – From Cars to Carrots?

Is it true? Is Detroit going to be on the forefront of a new, more-eco friendly industry in the new millennium? Is it going to go from building cars to growing carrots (and other crops)?

What an exciting thought!

growing up in detroit
Me in my First Commion garb on the porch of my childhood home in Detroit, circa 1976.

I grew up in Detroit and moved away to San Diego with my parents when I graduated from high school. I’ve seen the city go from a bustling industrial city where my father got his first job in America as a line worker and my mother styled the hair of elderly Polish ladies in her own salon in Hamtramck, to a city that quite literally has decayed and collapsed.

If you GoogleMap “13171 Moenart, Detroit” (my childhood home) you’ll see a neighborhood on the satellite image that looks gappy and strange. Clusters of homes are surrounded with expanses of green, indicating that half the homes have been burned to the ground and demolished. The other half are abandoned or occupied by people who can’t or don’t want to sell their home.

My aunt is one of those people. She lives in an area so devastated by the economy that people are literally giving away free rent in the hopes they can write something off on their taxes, since the homes they own are worthless. She doesn’t own anything of value for fear of being robbed (which she has been, many times) and doesn’t lock her door when she leaves the house. Instead, she leaves her vicious German Shepherd in full view behind a glass “security” door to ward away burglars and vandals.

I wondered what would become of this city, knowing that the American automobile industry probably won’t be making a comeback anytime soon, if ever. Today I read an article in the LA Times online that got my spirits up. Detroit may be on its way to becoming the next urban agriculture mecca!

Hantz Farms wants to invest in Detroit’s abandoned land to build farms and gardens that could feed the locals and even better—offer employment opportunities to those out of work.

This isn’t just what Detroit needs, it’s exactly what the national economy needs. We need new jobs that represent industry with low commodity potential, which according to Herman Daly (“Ecological Economics”) is one way of attaining a steady-state, sustainable economy. We invest in the service sector, instead of looking for yet another mass-produced “product” to help solve our environmental, energy and social problems.

In the case of wide-scale urban agriculture, we can hit many birds with one stone. Abandoned land can be used for the common good—by providing jobs, by feeding the local community with locally-grown (hopefully organic and inexpensive) foods, and by raising the value of the surrounding properties. Who wouldn’t want to live across the street from a community garden or farm? It sure beats living across from an empty lot that’s used as a trash receptacle, at best.

I applaud Hantz Farms for their vision, and wait with cautious optimism to see my hometown transformed into the kind of city I always knew it could be, given the right amount of ingenuity and hope.

7 Signs You’ve Become Disconnected from Nature

logs1. You view nature as a “resource.”

Nine thousand years ago, when human beings began to cultivate the ground and grow their food on a more organized and systematic scale, we began to see ourselves as being in control of the land and of nature. For our civilization, it was a turning point. Agriculture and animal husbandry allowed civilization to flourish and develop. We began to tame the forests and prairies and build expansive cities where great minds could invent and explore and innovate.

However, in the process of all this so-called “progress” we’ve become convinced we are somehow separate from nature. We’ve somehow forgotten that we, too, are animals and that we need a healthy and thriving ecosystem in order to breathe, eat, feel content and safe. We are not exempt from the laws of biology and physics.

Like animals, we need to eat and take shelter. But unlike animals, we take much more than we need and we enslave and marginalize those of our species that we see as inferior or undeserving. We compete instead of cooperating. We spoil and poison the land where we live.

We have forgotten that everything is connected; that when we blow off a mountaintop in order to extract coal, we pollute the waterways and air and cause suffering in other ways; that when we kill off the predators in an area to protect our livestock, we see an explosion in the population of herbivores, who soon decimate the landscape with their foraging.

If you know you’re guilty of seeing nature only as food or a “resource” to be exploited or used up, you probably need to spend a week enjoying the beauty of nearby wilderness, to see how there is intrinsic value in nature, not just economic value. Because without a healthy ecosystem, you yourself will become diseased.

buildings reflection2. You have no idea what the native plants and animals are where you live.

This is because you don’t go outside enough to have a chance to see them, or you simply aren’t aware of what grows naturally outside of the pristinely maintained shrubs and lawns of your suburb. (By the way, most of the weeds on your lawn are not native; they were imported many decades ago as seeds in cargo ships and on the clothing of travelers and pioneers.)

If you spend a lot of time outside, whether on daily walks or just relaxing in your backyard, you’ll notice some things. You’ll notice what time the sun rises and sets each day, and you’ll look forward to the solstice and the shift toward longer days. You’ll know the average first day of the first frost, or exactly when in the spring trees start to bud in the spring.

If you know all this, you’ll be aware when the climate changes and things start to go awry. You’ll see more or less of a bird species and you’ll realize that a warm winter and a sudden spring freeze means no fruit from your plum trees in the summer. You’ll know that less fruit year after year means less birds and animals.

When you’re aware of the ebb and flow of the natural process where you live, you know immediately when something isn’t right, or is out of the norm. Not only that, but you’ll know the effect those changes will have on the wildlife and landscape in your city. Not many people can do that. Maybe that’s one reason why some climate change skeptics might think temperatures getting a little warmer (or colder) is actually a good thing.

3. You feel an underlying sense of despair about what’s happening to the Earth.

You watch the news, you see the kind of books that are appearing on the bestseller list year after year, and you’ve seen documentaries that have enraged and depressed you. You know that we’re experiencing a rate of species extinction that is so pervasive and accelerated, it’s rivaled only by what happened in the Permian era, or maybe the Jurassic era that wiped out the dinosaurs. And yet, no comet has collided with our planet. The source of the impact this time is humans.

You’ve heard about climate change and peak oil and you’re disturbed and frightened by what you imagine might happen to civilization a decade or a century from now.

And yet, you have to live in this world and participate in society just like everyone else. You still have to drive to and from work. You eat food you know is probably tainted with GMOs and imported from ridiculous distances away. You feel like you need to own certain things in order to function in this world—like cell phones or computers—but these things are making you feel more stressed and disconnected.

You know things have to change, but you don’t know how. You want to do something, but you don’t know what. You feel a vague sense of doom and despair that never quite goes away.

If you’re feeling this way, the best remedy might be to shut everything off for a while and go spend a weekend in a natural setting. When you spent time in the woods or in the peace and solitude of nature, you realize that there still is a sense of order and sacredness in the world.  You feel aligned with the world in a way that’s ancient and unshakeable. The despair dissipates for a while, because you sense that whatever happens, that mountain will remain in its glory centuries, even millennia from now.

Another remedy is to do something—join an organization that is working toward changing the paradigm of our culture.

4. You’re feeling down and you don’t know why.

Human beings need a connection to the natural world in order to feel mentally healthy and whole. Whether that connection is a pet, a garden, a tree or a nearby park—it doesn’t matter. Studies have shown that spending time in a natural setting can be psychologically healing and relieve stress. One study in particular done in the U.K. concluded that individuals who spent the same amount of time walking in a park each day reported feeling less depressed and stressed than another group that spent the same amount of time walking in a mall.

So if you’re feeling down and you don’t know why, take a walk outside, preferably somewhere with plants and animals and the sound of birds chirping. You’ll feel a little bit better, and if you do this often enough, it might just keep the blues at bay.

5. You saw the movie “Avatar” and now the real world seems gray and depressing in comparison.

A recent article on CNN reveals that some people who saw the movie “Avatar” feel depressed and even suicidal over the idea that the utopian, beautiful world of Pandora does not exist on Earth. One moviegoer posted this on an Avatar forum:

“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”

While I haven’t seen the movie myself, I’ve heard from several people that it has “ecopsychological” undertones. It appeals to our desire for a better connection to our world, for a more sustainable relationship with the Earth that would allow the possibility of the kind of beauty and prosperity that’s depicted in the movie.

If Avatar depressed you, you probably need to find a beautiful place in nature and spend a little time there.

6. If had an acre of land and you suddenly had to grow all your own food, you know you’d starve.

If things got bad economically and there were food shortages, or if you couldn’t afford store-bought food for some reason, you suspect you’d be in trouble.

Not just because you may not own enough land to cultivate, but because you wouldn’t know what to do with that land if you had it.

That’s because you have no idea about how to mend the soil, how to grow food, and how to save seeds. It’s not your fault, really. Agriculture and animal husbandry isn’t something that’s taught in public schools, not even rural ones.

Blame it on the industrialization and globalization. Even people living in the West knew how to be self-reliant probably up until fifty years ago. During the Depression many of those that survived and thrived did so because they were able to grow their own food. Victory Gardens that sprang up during WWII provided 40% of the American population’s vegetable and fruit needs. When Cuba faced an oil crises in the early 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most people lost an average of 20 pounds because they were eating less and walking more. Fortunately for Cubans, they didn’t starve en masse because many city dwellers still remembered how to cultivate the soil and grow food, so when the government mandated that every available inch of ground be used to plant crops, an urban revolution took place. Empty lots became community gardens and rooftops became lush with edible plants. People knew what to do, and if they didn’t, they had relatives and friends who did.

You don’t have to grow all your own food now. You don’t even have to have land. But it’s good to learn how, whether through renting a plot in a community garden or volunteering at a local CSA.

It’ll make you appreciate the soil, the climate and the land where you live.

7. Your idea of a good time is Las Vegas, Monday Night Football, and spending the entire day at the mall.

Hey, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy watching sports once in a while or letting it all hang out when you’re on vacation. I enjoy shopping and entertainment just as much as the next person. It’s when you rely on those things for your sense of fulfillment and joy that it becomes a problem.

What happens when the TV stops working for some reason or you’re unemployed and can no longer afford to go shopping? What happens when vacations become staycations due to budget constraints and you’re faced with an entire week at home with no money to spend on outside entertainment?

The bigger question is—are any of these activities really contributing to your physical and psychological wellbeing?

There is such joy in seeing mist float over a lake. The sound of rain dripping off trees or the wind combing through a meadow can put you at ease. A deep red desert canyon is both mysterious and timeless to contemplate. None of these things—short of the resources it may take to drive to where they are—cost money to enjoy. You can even find a trail near your house and spend an hour watching birds. Nature is everywhere. You are nature. You belong to this Earth, you just need to find your place in it.

Stephen King – The Environmentalist?

Under the Dome book coverI just finished Stephen King’s 1,000-plus fat brick of a novel entitled “Under the Dome.” I haven’t read a Stephen King book since putting down “Insomnia” half-way through sometime back in the 90s. As a kid and college student, I devoured his novels, but grew out of them and grew bored with the way King would start out with a fascinating concept and then always take things a little too far.

Under the Dome didn’t suffer from that. Under the Dome is a page-turner to the very last page. I haven’t been this addicted to a book since reading The Memory of Running several years ago. I would take this absurdly thick book with me to the gym, read while eating breakfast and lunch, and on several nights it would follow me up to bed, where I would gobble up a few more pages before turning in.

The premise is what got my attention in the first place, and why I ordered the book in its bulky and unabridged hardcover form. A small town of about 2,000 people in Maine is suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the world by an invisible force field that allows nothing to penetrate – in or out. That’s the predicament, and what follows is a study of human nature when faced with being cut off from everything that will sustain them.

To me, the dome was an allegory. Apparently some of the reviewers of the book on Amazon agree with me. The dome could be climate change. It could be resource depletion. It could be peak oil. It could be all of the above. When the townspeople finally grasp the reality of their entrapment and the power goes out what do they do? They go on living pretty much the same way (although they plug in their TVs and appliances into propane powered generators). They tell themselves it will all get resolved soon and the government will “do something.”

The government does do something. Their knee-jerk response is—you guessed it—military and explosive. It does more harm than good, however, since nothing—not even bombs and missles—can permeate the dome. Conspiracy theories abound. People point fingers and assign blame. The national media turns it into a 7/24 talking head circus. Certain people in authority begin to plot their corrupt rise to power with the cover of doing “for the good of the town.”

But I’ll tell you what people WEREN’T doing. No one was asking how they would get through the next several weeks or months if indeed the “techno fix” didn’t work. No one turned off their generator to save on fuel and keep the air inside the dome clean. No one made a run for the grocery store, or conducted meetings on how to acquire fresh water without electricity. Instead, the townsfolk concerned themselves with more banal matters: politics, gossip, and matters of ego.

Cooperation and a community spirit is almost lacking. No one is thinking long-term except a couple of the main characters, but it’s only background static to what they’re dealing with from moment to moment.

I found myself wanting to shake someone and tell them to wake the f*** up and smell the coffee, pretty soon they’re going to suffocate themselves and run out of water if they don’t start dealing with the situation. But alas…

Everything that happens under the dome happens not because of the dome, but because of how the townspeople react to it. It happens because of greed, ignorance, ego and a quest for power (for the sake of power).

I have no idea how much of his personal philosophy King injected into the book, but I had as much fun trying to find out as I did following the fast-paced plot. When the evil antagonist turns out to be a right-wing fundamentalist Christian who refers to environmentalists as “bleeding heart liberal tree-huggers” I can’t help but smile. There are many snippets throughout the book where that same antagonist is described as a city government official who had no qualms about allowing a Wal-Mart to be constructed, but ignored the question of whether or not there was too much gray water being dumped into the local streams. One of his last rants before he finally expires at the end of the book is about how “it’s always something!” If it’s not climate change, it’s nuclear fallout. If it’s not concern for the ozone layer, it’s something else. When confronted by the reality of a poisonous air outside the bunker where he’s holed up, he waves it off with impatience, no doubt out of guilt and denial, as he bore most of the blame for the disaster.

“It’s just smog! It’ll clear.”

Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t clear, and he dies as soon as he sucks in his first breath of it.

Stephen King, you turned out alright.

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.

Winter Hiking with Children

Bear Canyon Trail
Skye pauses along the Bear Canyon Trail

My daughter’s winter break is winding down and the day after tomorrow she’s going back to school for the last half of sixth grade. It was a beautiful winter day today, sunny and mostly clear, calm, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I took her on a one-hour walk along the Bear Canyon trail, directly south of NCAR in south Boulder.

I started thinking about what kinds of contemplative activities we could do together along this hike that I would recommend later for parents and their kids on similar winter days. The most obvious ideas came first—asking her to tell me what she thought the animals and insects were doing this time of year. She’s 12, so her answers came easily and with a lot more sophistication than I expected. She named a burrowing insect that hibernates in winter, and described what prairie dogs might be doing when it’s cold out and the ground is covered in snow (“mostly hanging out in their deep burrows, coming out occasionally to try to find grass”). We saw birds flittering about, but not as many as there are in the spring and summer. Even though we didn’t hear any insects, she did spy one lone grasshopper warming himself on a large boulder.

Everything is quieter on a winter hike. The snow muffles much of the ambient sound anyway, but the silence is mostly due to the low population of birds and insects this time of year. The sound of the water trickling through the half-frozen creek underscored the quiet and felt soothing, like listening to a fountain.

Up ahead, only minutes after we started on the trail, Skye pointed out the two cone-shaped hills below NCAR and asked if we could climb to the top of the tallest one.

“It’s bigger than it looks. It’s also harder to walk up there than it seems.” I warned.

bear canyon hill
Skye summits the first hill south of NCAR

She didn’t believe me until we were much closer and she realized that the hills were quite steep and quite tall. But she wanted to try, so I stepped back and watched her as she trudged upwards. She made it as far as the first summit, looked around, then beckoned me.

“Come up here, mama!”

No thanks, I said. I’m not in the mood to suck air on that steep walk up. I’ll just stay down here and take photos…

This gave me an idea for hikes with older children such as Skye. They already have an idea of what animals are doing in winter and may find the activity of talking about that a little anticlimactic, but Skye’s desire to scale the hill was interesting. I asked her why she felt she wanted to get to the top, and how she felt when she was there.

She said she wanted to see all the way around, and when she got up there, she felt tall with achievement. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Into the Wild” when Alexander Supertramp scaled the rocky hill above his campsite near the Salton Sea.

animal tracks in snow
Animal tracks are easily seen in snow

When she returned to the trail I asked her to look around and tell me where she would love to explore, if she could. She pointed up at a north-facing slope on the other side of the creek, where animal tracks led into the trees.

“I want to go there, because it looks mysterious. I want to know what’s on the other side of that hill.”

We couldn’t go there because we couldn’t cross the creek, and neither could any other hikers, so we knew that the tracks crossing the slope could only be wild animal tracks—most likely deer or fox tracks, maybe coyote. The tracks were everywhere. That’s one of the features of hiking in snow that’s fun for kids—seeing where animals roam around in the fields and forest when no one is looking.

We were just about ready to turn back when the trail narrowed and was enveloped in shadow. Skye wanted to keep going because she said she loves darkness. I asked her why and to describe the kind of darkness she’s referring to. She said she likes dark woods, small rooms, or going outside after sunset. I kept asking her how it makes her feel and what it reminds her of, and why it soothing to her.

This could be a question you might ask your older child on a hike. Ask them to look around, especially if you’re in a location where you can see far down valley or up at the mountains. Where would they like to explore, assuming there could easily get there or fly up there? Why? How does it make them feel to look at it?

When I’m taking a walk or jogging in the morning and see a dark, misty cloud cover the Front Range mountains I’m drawn to them the same way Skye was drawn to the shadowed hills on the other side of the creek.  I want to be there. I want to explore that mystery, to be in the middle of that gray darkness, to feel what it must feel like to be surrounded by shrouded peaks. There’s something comforting and thrilling about it that compels me to stare at it until I feel it in my bones.

Our walk today was brief. Just enough time to breathe in some fresh air and see what nature is up to this Monday in January. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hiking with my child it’s this: keep it relatively short. Have a reward at the end. Today, it was lunch at Subway.

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.

Contemplative Outdoor Activities for Children

Richard Louv states in his book, Last Child in the Woods, “The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assume are devoted to nature. Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, “summer camp” is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear —to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream—while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.”

If children don’t feel a connection to nature, and don’t see the importance of conserving the integrity of the natural world, where will the Earth’s future environmental stewards come from?

Teaching children that all life is connected is important, so that when they become adults they understand the importance of careful research and planning when it comes to technology and development, so that we don’t lose species. They’ll know that we cannot survive without a thriving and healthy ecosystem, and that an ecosystem consists of everything from clean water to healthy soil to insects and birds. Many critics of conservation and proponents of things like drilling ANWAR and the Gulf of Mexico say that environmentalists care more about polar bears and reindeer than they do about people.

That statement implies that we don’t need polar bears, or caribou, or any other animal for our survival on Earth. What these critics don’t consider is that when you lose a keystone species such as the caribou, or you obliterate pests in agriculture you also threaten needed pollinators, you are directly affecting what happens to humans.

We need to teach children how to enjoy and respect nature, so they’ll be able to make the right decisions for their future.

These are a few no-cost or low-cost ways of enjoying time outdoors with children.

What Animal Are You?

This is an activity for children ages 6-10 that can be done while walking in a wilderness area or trail. This activity will help a child realize that animals need hiding areas and appropriate habitat to live.

Talk to the child about the kind of animals that may live in the area you’re walking. Ask them to describe what animals they imagine might live there. Then ask them to pick an animal they like the most out of the list you came up with together, or the animal that’s most like them. Ask them to imagine what they would do to find food. Where would they go? What would they eat? What would it taste like? Then ask them where they might go to rest and sleep when they felt tired. Help the child by pointing out possible places—rock outcroppings, under logs, burrows, in a thicket. Have the child tell you what they would be looking for if they were that animal and needed to find a place to rest or sleep so they weren’t disturbed by humans and predators.

Smell a Tree, Touch a Flower

This is an activity for younger children, perhaps 2-6 years old, as well as for older kids up to age 11. It can be done in the backyard, in a park, or along a trail. This expands the child’s awareness of it’s surroundings beyond the cliché or the obvious.

Ask the child to smell a nearby tree bark. Some trees, like ponderosa pine, smell like vanilla. Ask the child to tell you what they think of the smell. Then ask them to touch some flowers and tell you which one feels softest, or the most delicate.

Ask the child to look closely at the leaves of a tree and see if they can find evidence that an animal or insect visited that leaf.

Draw What You Feel

This is an activity for children ages 4-11. It can be done anywhere outdoors, including a backyard or a park, especially where there are a lot of trees, flowers or animals. You’ll need some paper and crayons or drawing tools to give to the child. This activity builds an empathetic connection between the child’s emotions and what they observe in nature.

Ask the child to look around and draw what they see that makes them feel three different ways: 1) peaceful or happy, 2) worried or unhappy, and 3) curious or confused. They may end up drawing such things as flowers for happiness, or maybe a piece of trash or a dead plant for the unhappy emotion. Give the child ample time to complete the exericise. Then ask them to talk about what they drew and why.

Field Guide Trip

This is an activity for children ages 6-12. It can be done anywhere outdoors, but is best done in a park, open space or wilderness where there are many birds, insects or wildflowers present. You will need a field guide from your region, which you can check out of your local library. Pick any of the following types of guides: wildflowers, trees, animals, birds, or weeds.

Bring the field guide along on a walk or hike and challenge the child to find as many plants or animals as possible that match what they see in the field guide. Read the descriptions of the animal and plant and why what they’re observing is what they see in the book (does it have the same colors? Does it live in the area where it is described?). Ask the following questions about the plant or animal:
1. Is it native to the local area?
2. Does it live here year-round?
3. Where does it go or migrate when it’s not here?
4. What happens to this plant or animal in the winter?

Discuss what you find and then make plans to visit the same area in a month or two to see if different plants or animals appear there.

Contemplative Fishing

This is an activity for children ages 4-12 and involves fishing. If you enjoy fishing, it’s a wonderful way to teach a child about ecology if you bring them along. Learning ecology helps a child understand the interconnectedness of all life.

Ask the child to tell you what they see and hear at the pond, stream or lake where you’re fishing. Do they hear frogs? Do they see reeds and plants near the water? How clear is the water?

A good way to know that fish are actively feeding is to watch for risers. Explain to the child what a riser is (a circular disturbance on the surface of the water that indicates a fish has surfaced its mouth) and what the fish may be trying to catch and eat. Explain why you’re using certain bait. If you’re bass fishing, you may be trying different colorful lures because bass have great memories – and if they got caught and released once with a pink lure, they may be leery of anything pink in the future. If you’re trout fishing, explain that trout enjoy very cold water but they don’t enjoy water that rushes quickly, like in a stream. Ask the child where they see areas that a fish may want to rest or hang out, and that’s a good place to cast the fly.

This is also a great opportunity to talk about the food chain. The insects are necessary for fish to eat. The small fish are eaten by the larger fish, and the larger fish are eaten by ducks, pelicans or other predators like cranes or herons (or humans). The sophistication of your your explanation depends on the age of the child.

Neighborhood Pride

This is an activity to do with your child from toddler all the way to their teenaged years. You take a walk in your neighborhood with a trash bag and pick up trash and debris. You teach the child the value of serving the community, not littering, and having pride in where they live. Smaller children can hold the trash bag, while older children can wear gloves to pick up debris.

Discuss how it felt to do this activity. Was it embarassing? Did it feel good to clean things up? Did the child feel angry about the people who littered? How does it make them feel about taking care of the Earth?

Children’s Garden

You need not have a backyard in order to help your child plant and grow something. This is an activity for children of all ages and can be done indoors on a sunny windowsill, or outdoors in a sunny location. If done indoors, you will need a small pot, some good potting soil and some seeds that your child selects. You can plant beans, flowers or vegetables, but for beginner gardeners such plants as peas and beans do very well and grow quickly with the proper care. If done outdoors in a garden, you can help the child plant the seeds in a tilled, enriched soil and let the child weed and water the area throughout the season.

Children take a lot of pride in growing their own food, as evidenced from my own 10-year old daughter, who loves to pull out beets and carrots that she planted and eat them raw, right on the spot! (after a good rinsing, of course.) This is also a good way to teach children about the importance of good, appropriate weather for growing certain kinds of food, and the importance of enough sunlight and moisture. Tomatoes don’t do well when it’s too wet or too cool. Peas and lettuces wilt in weather that’s too hot. Children also learn what plants look like and where their food comes from, as well as gaining a culinary appreciation for vegetables.