4 Reasons Why “Progress” Isn’t Always Progress

From the time we were children, we’ve been taught that “progress”—as defined by capitalist American culture—is a good thing. Progress is manifest destiny. Progress is civilizing the uncivilized, elevating the inhabitants of the third world and taming the “savages” that lived off the land. Progress is taming nature, not being at its mercy. Progress means more time for leisure and the opportunity to be wealthy and comfortable.

Progress is a good thing. Or is it?

Perhaps we need to examine our unexamined assumptions, because despite our push toward that sort of economic and social “progress”, most Americans are no more happy today than they were in the 1970s, according to a study done by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. While there have been certain social milestones made in the last two centuries when it comes to human social progress, other forms of economic or technological progress hasn’t all been good. Certainly, we can celebrate the end of slavery, segregation, and polio. We should hail the progress that the women’s rights movement has made in the last century, and feel relieved that advances in medicine mean we can cure most cancer and help women deliver babies safely as compared to several centuries ago. We can feel grateful that progress has meant that men and women alike no longer have to toil on the land in order to survive and thrive: they can become artists and engineers and activists and leave the hard work to those who find their soul’s calling in the agricultural arts.

However, the endless quest for progress has brought us such environmentally destructive practices as natural gas fracking, tar sands, and risky deep water drilling. More consumption means more pollution, more rainforests cut down to accommodate agriculture, more trees cut to manufacture paper for magazines and junk mail.

In the mainstream media today, progress is akin to a national religion. When the economy isn’t growing, we’re not making progress, and therefore, we need to put all our time and energy into making sure we get things back on track.  This is the Story that our culture lives by and subscribes to, but it is this story that will foretell our demise. Do we even stop for one minute to consider that the story we’re telling ourselves isn’t correct? That from the perspective of the planet, and thus ultimately from the human perspective, progress isn’t always progress?

Here are at least four reasons why:

Reason #1: Progress has disconnected us from nature.

It’s true that in the last two centuries, there have been great strides in technology and efficiency that have enabled most people to pursue careers of a non-agrarian nature. One farmer, equipped with fuel-powered tractors and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, can do the work of hundreds of farmers without such implements. Therefore, more people have been able to branch out into the arts and sciences and dream up things like machines that can travel across a city or out into space. We no longer need to have the knowledge of how food grows or how to care for the land on which we live: we can exchange our thinking in the form of skills and talents for food and shelter. When in the past people would know when the first frost was likely to end a growing season and what “normal” rainfall to expect year to year—because their very life depended on it—today people barely notice the weather because they spend time indoors in climate-controlled offices and houses.

But we cannot live as a species disconnected from the rest of nature. When the sole purpose of our life becomes the acquisition of money and material goods, and we no longer care about what happens to the rivers and forests surrounding our cities, massive environmental degradation is sure to follow. When we can once again enjoy a relationship with nature—whether it’s in the form of gardening, farming or simply hiking—we can once again be physically and spiritually healthy.

Reason #2: Progress has disconnected us from each other.

People used to spend a lot more time together as a community. Now people are too busy working in cubicles, commuting to and from work, and compulsively checking our e-mail to really get to know their neighbors. And why should they care about knowing or befriending their neighbors when we don’t really NEED them anymore? If our car breaks down we have our choice of perhaps dozens of auto repair shops that can service our car. If we need a loaf of bread we just go and buy one from the grocery store. If we need a barn for our horses (or RVs), we hire a contractor to build one. In the old days, alienating yourself from your neighbors meant a difficult and lonely life. Today, it means that you’re just “busy” and probably have a big salary.

Money has enabled us to become self-reliant and independent, and it has destroyed community. Technology has made the world a smaller place, but it has isolated us from each other. Instead of going over a friend or neighbor’s house for dinner and conversation, we eat our fast food meal alone on the couch while watching TV and checking our cellphone every five minutes to see if anyone has commented on our Facebook status. No gadget, software or website can take the place of real human companionship and interaction. We are deficient in community and we don’t even know it, because we think we are “friends” with more people than ever through the internet. But while face-to-face time satiates our craving for companionship, spending time on the computer does not. Therefore, we have become addicted to technology and the momentary euphoria of being acknowledged by words on a screen.

Reason #3: Life expectancy goes up, but health goes down.

Life expectancy has gone up considerably in the last two centuries because of advances in medicine. Antibiotics, chemotherapy, surgery, and many life-saving drugs have made it possible for most Americans to reach a ripe old age of 70. However, it’s the quality of health that’s gone down for many—particularly the lower-income demographic. According to the American Cancer society, an unhealthy lifestyle of poor eating habits, smoking and little exercise has increased cancer cases to 27 million and increased cancer deaths to 17 million in 2009. China, Russia and India are expected to have the highest rate of increase of cancer incidence and deaths and the overall global increase is expected to be 1% per year. Tobacco use and obesity are the leading causes of cancer in poorer countries. Children are developing Type 2 diabetes in America, something that was practically unheard of just 50 years ago. Residents living near natural gas drilling platforms are at an increased risk of developing neurological problems and disease. Allergies are epidemic, and scientists postulate that a too-sterile environment is to blame. Processed food is cheap and easy, but nutritionists and doctors now warn that a diet high in processed food can cause colon cancer and other health problems.

Reason #4: Resource depletion and environmental destruction.

Human activities have led to a rate of species extinction that is at least 100–1,000 times higher than the natural rate.  Industrial agriculture and genetically modified crops have killed soil fertility and left what amounts to a chemically-dependent sponge upon which we grow plants and feed crop. We treat animals like products to be caged, injected with hormones and drugs, and slaughtered en-masse instead of treating them like creatures that can feel pain and despair.  We dump industrial toxins into rivers and oceans and tell the world that the ocean is big and “can take it” when there’s an oil spill and we have to pour even more chemicals into it in order to cover up our negligence. We don’t care that we’re poisoning the air or the waterways or causing the extinction of precious animals and plants, because all we seem to care about are jobs, economic growth, and how much money we’re going to have in our bank account.

What is the cost of all this insanity?  What else will we have to sacrifice or destroy in order to worship at the altar of this so-called progress?

A New Definition of Progress

Progress must mean more to us than taking away from nature in order to gain material goods for ourselves. Progress has not given us more free time to spend with our friends and family; it has made us more stressed and fearful than ever. We can’t count on our non-existent community, so we work jobs we hate so we can continue to live in the illusion that our happiness depends on maintaining our current “lifestyle.” Progress has to mean examining what really makes us content, and working within the limits of the planet in terms of resources. The greatest tragedy of the human race has been the squandering of fossil fuels, particularly oil—in 200 years we will have used up most of these miracle energy sources that took millions of years to form and which we will never get back.

Progress should mean working within the Earth’s limits to ensure that people aren’t just well-off financially, but happy and healthy. It means closing the gap between the very rich and the desperately poor, because progress can’t just mean the improvement of the lives of 5% of the population. Progress means peace, and cooperation, and more beauty in the world. It means figuring out a way to live on the planet so that our children and our great-great-great grandchildren can enjoy the same wilderness we’ve enjoyed, and not just in a zoo or on television. Progress should mean that we put our collective energy into elevating our spiritual and emotional growth, instead of protesting against this or that political party or the latest atrocity against nature and humanity. Increasing beauty, happiness and well-being of all: I’ll take that sort of progress over the latest high-tech, plastic entertainment gadget any day.

Burning Bear, Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

Burning Bear Creek Trail #602

Location: Pike National Forest north of Grant, Colorado.

Directions: From C-470, take Highway 287 west toward Fairplay for about 39 miles. At the town of Grant, turn right onto CR-62, or Guanella Pass Road. Follow Guanella Pass for approximately 5 miles. The trailhead for the Burning Bear Creek Trail will be on the left at the top of the hairpin turns and there will be a small parking area on the right side of the road. There is a brown, wooden trail sign at the entrance to the meadow where the trail starts.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours.

Route: Follow the Burning Bear Creek Trail – there is only one route out and back.

Access Notes: The parking for this trail can accommodate no more than several cars. You may need to park lower down on the road and walk up a quarter of a mile if you can’t find parking across from the trailhead. It takes about an hour and a half travel time from Westminster/Arvada to arrive at the trailhead without traffic. Guanella Pass Road does not go all the way through to Georgetown as of 9-10-10 due to construction and landslide abatement, so taking CR-62 from Grant is the only way to and from the trail. Guanella Pass Road is a gravel road with limited winter maintenance and in dry conditions is easily passable by passenger car to the Burning Bear Creek Trail. Dogs are allowed.

The Hike

View from the Burning Bear Creek Trail

This hike begins in a marshy meadow on top of a constructed, elevated path that turns into a wooden bridge that crosses the Burning Bear Creek before it enters the shady confines of the trees. There are views of surrounding mountains: Arrowhead Mountain (el. 11,209 ft.), Kataka Mountain (el. 12,441 ft.) and Geneva Mountain form a bowl of rounded peaks directly to the east-northeast of the trail. To the west, the direction the trail runs from Guanella Pass, you’ll see distant Red Cone (el. 12,801 ft.) and Handcart Peak (el. 12,518 ft.). There’s very little discernable elevation gain the first 2 miles of the trail, only occasional undulations as it runs alongside the soft swells of a forested hill where it meets the meadow.

The winding creek at the start of the hike was a strange shade of teal blue when I was there – perhaps mineralized runoff or bacteria was coloring the water. It was running low but with enough volume to indicate at least a little bit of precipitation had fallen recently in the mountains up slope. The trees at the start of the hike are mostly pine and spruce, but aspens do make an appearance about a mile in. Across the large meadows you’ll see a house and perhaps some horses and cattle, but it won’t be long before you’ll have more of a sense of wilderness as you walk deeper into the forest. It is quiet here, being that it is so far from Highway 285 and the traffic is considerably lower on Guanella Pass since its closure at the half-way point.

Wild mushroom

The creek is much smaller and closer to the trail about a mile up, and you can stop to enjoy the sound or just dip your feet for a while. In late summer, the trail close to the creek appeared eroded from mud, so I imagine that it can be quite muddy on parts of the trail in early- to mid-summer. Look for mushrooms in the darker, moister areas, some of which can grow to the size of large grapefruit. Just don’t pick them or eat them—mushrooms can be toxic and only an expert can be sure if they are or aren’t.

Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

It was a sunny, breezy and warm day when I hiked this trail for the first time early in September. There were hardly any signs of the approach of autumn on the drive up yet, with the exception of a few patches of orange-yellow from select branches of narrow-leaf cottonwoods and aspens along the South Platte River to the west of Conifer. On the relatively flat path in the woods at the start of the trail, I would occasionally hear the rumbling and clattering of tractor trailers as they lumbered up Guanella Pass to where they were doing road work. Otherwise, the sounds of trees and birds was soothing and pleasurable. A woodpecker would pound its head against a dead tree trunk and make a repetitive, hollow sound like a tiny jackhammer. A breeze would comb through the hillsides and down the meadow through the brush, as grasshoppers took off and landed, took off and landed underneath my feet, their flight haphazard and brittle-sounding.

The woods changed texture and shape the further I went. At first, the branches were lower and greener, creating a dark green canopy with a lap of mossy growth at the base. Then the trees got leggier, with bare branches reaching further up and allowing more sunlight and warmth to the floor. An amber light enveloped the trail at that point, creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

A series of raven cries got my attention at the point where the path led out of the woods into a grassy area. There, about 100 yards away from the trail in the meadow, were about a dozen of the big, confident birds, perched on what appeared to be a large black boulder with white streaks in the middle of the straw-colored field. Some of them were flapping their wings and some were balanced squarely on the edge of the black object. I walked off trail toward the scene, curious and suspecting it might be a dead animal of some kind. The ravens departed as soon as they realized I was approaching, cawing and fussing at me for encroaching on their prize.

I got as close to it as I dared before I realized it was a dead cow. It had been laying in the field for some time, its interior completely caved out by scavengers. The white streaks on the black hide were bird feces from the ravens, disrespectful and crass by human standards, normal protocol by bird standards. I snapped a couple of photos and returned to the trail.

It was there that I saw the rest of the herd: cows laying about, slowly chewing their cud, moving like ghosts between the trees, quiet and contemplative in their bovine repose. Whether they knew about their fallen herd member or not, it was hard to tell. They seemed to be enjoying a rest in the shady woods and staying far away from the gruesome scene in the sunlight. They didn’t seem concerned or frightened or worried. Whatever killed their fellow cow was no longer threatening them—or never did to begin with. Maybe the cow died of a heart attack or stroke. Do animals get strokes?

Before I returned to the  trail I noticed a bleached animal skull – I’m guessing another cow skull from a different season, a different year, perhaps, decorated the trail nearby. I bent down to touch the teeth. They were like human teeth: rounded, white, solid molars toward the back and pointier, more jagged teeth for slicing in the front.

I always wonder why we don’t see more carcasses of dead animals and birds around. There are thousands of birds in a suburban neighborhood. There are maybe dozens of squirrels and rabbits. Sure, once in a while I’ll see a stiff corpse of a bird or a flattened rabbit in the gutter, but is that it? Surely, the rate of casualties must be high in the animal world where the average life span is a few years or less. Nature’s trash collectors and recyclers must do a bang-up job disposing of remains.  No landfill needed. No morgue, or hospital, or hospice necessary. Death seems to occur in private, in burrows and ravines and under vegetation.

An hour later, after an exploratory taste of the woods deeper into Pike National Forest, I turned around to head back to the car. I passed the scene of decay once again. I began to hear strange clicks and murmurs coming from the trees. It took me a while to confirm the sounds were coming from the flock of ravens I had disturbed earlier. They had flown up into the trees above the trail and were having conversations. These weren’t the insistent “caw caw caw” sounds you typically hear from crows or ravens when they’re announcing their location or yelling at each other. These were alien-like whispers, trilly little clacks and brrreeps and bird-like clucks of the tongue (do ravens have tongues?). They were quiet conversations; gossipy and bantering. When I stopped to look up to see where the sounds were originating, I would be startled by a sudden swoosh and a flapping of black wings overhead. The ravens didn’t like to be observed.

I continued walking and just listened. I imagined their exchange went something like this:

“You think she’s going to want to eat some of our beef, Bob?”

“Probably not. She looked a little freaked out by it.”

“Whatever. I’m pretty full anyway. That meat was a little on the tough side.”

“Yeah, but I hear there’s a fresh kill of elk just over that ridge there. Maybe we should check it out later.”

“You go. I need a nap first, Phil.”

I wondered what the take-away message was from this hike and I decided there wasn’t really a message. I had stepped into the living (and dining) room of Burning Bear Creek, intruded on a lunch buffet, eavesdropped on afternoon gossip, and tromped through what may have been a period of bereavement or rest for a tribe of cows. It was regular life and death drama, going on as it does every day, every month, every year, whether humans see it (and hear it) or not.

Imagine what it would be like if one day a couple of squirrels with backpacks decided to walk through your house for entertainment, exercise and to take in “the view.” You and your family would be enjoying a roast at the dinner table and one of them would jump up on the table, get a good look at the scene on the serving platter, and then continue on his merry way to your kitchen, then bedroom, then your den. One of them would stop and pee in a corner behind a chair. On their way back out, they’d pass through where you were sitting in the living room, pausing only briefly to look at your with mild curiosity and amusement as you discuss the day with your spouse. Then they’d go back to their tree and wonder what it all meant.

How to Do a Medicine Walk

Coulson Gulch Road/National Forest Trail #916

Location: West of Pinewood Springs, between Lyons and Estes Park

Directions: From Boulder take the 36 through Lyons toward Estes Park. Immediately past Pinewood Springs, turn left (south) on Cr-118, where you’ll see a brown sign for Big Elk Meadows and National Forest Access. Drive another 3 miles until you get to the “Y” fork in the road. Take the left fork, following the sign pointing toward National Forest Access. This last half mile is a very rutty dirt road best accessed by high-clearance vehicles. Park along the road in front of the metal barrier. Walk south past the metal barrier where the road continues and spreads out into a bigger area. Veer slightly east where there’s a second metal barrier and locate the narrow dirt trail directly west of it that descends into the trees below, indicated by a brown National Forest Service sign that states “Trail 916.”

Duration: 4 hours or longer

Access Notes: Camping is allowed at the trailhead in certain areas, so you may encounter a few cars already parked at the trailhead in summer. The last half mile of dirt road is not maintained in winter, so this hike is accessible when the roads are dry—after Memorial Day. Elk hunting is permitted in this National Forest area during the fall, and it is advised to wear bright orange during that time when hiking in National Forest. There are no facilities or restrooms at the trailhead. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

This is one of the trails within 30 minutes drive of Boulder that feels like you’re stepping into wilderness. It’s quiet, bucolic in summer, with no road noise (except maybe ATVs in nearby Big Elk Meadows and Johnny Camp) and long, green views of the valley between Pinewood Springs and the north Boulder foothills.

The start of the trail is a narrow slit in the dirt that cuts through a sloped, grassy meadow that descends into the trees. It then follows a small creek through a thicket of woods and brush at the bottom of a gully. In the spring and summer you’ll see a variety of wildflowers dotting the trail, including lupines, yellow peas, prairie chickweed, western dayflowers, columbines and others. The view of the meadow below (Higgin’s Park) is most spectacular the first portion of the hike, before you enter the woods.

After the cool and pleasant walk in the woods next to the stream, you’ll come to a more exposed section of the trail where you can look across the valley to the west and south. After a steep and sketchy descent down a section of trail with a lot of loose sand and gravel, you’ll come to an old abandoned log cabin—a relic of the earlier part of the last century. There’s no roof, but a rusted bed frame, mattress springs and headboard are propped up inside the decaying structure. There’s even a rusty skeleton of a wood-burning cookstove flung onto the forest floor nearby. It feels odd this far into the trail, and makes you wonder how people used to bring in such items this deep into a forest. A little further down, an old livestock enclosure fashioned out of logs borders what once was a home to someone who lived this close to nature.

As you come out of the woods past this abandoned homestead you come upon Higgins Park, a large, rolling meadow with views of Cook Mountain and North and South Sheep Mountain. As the trail turns east and away from the grassy hill, you have to make a decision—go another half hour toward Button Rock reservoir or another 20 minutes to a footbridge over the St. Vrain river, following the trail until it dead ends up the river.

There are many opportunities to view and listen to wildlife along the way—chirping and crowing birds, squirrels, elk, or deer. Sometimes the more open you are and in tune with the land, the more animals you notice.

The remote feel and peaceful setting make it an excellent location to do a Medicine Walk.

Medicine Walk

Native Americans believed that every animal or object in nature had a spirit and contained special powers that were beyond the normal ability of humans. The landscape and its inhabitants was not an inanimate object to be quantified and assessed for monetary value as it is in Western culture, but a place alive with mystery and purpose, omens and symbolism. The spirit, or wakan in Lakota, of hawks, coyotes, elk and other animals symbolized such qualities as courage, success in courtship, or a deep and clear seeing. When animals appeared to humans, whether in reality or in dreams and visions, it held special meaning. There was an intimate connection between the animal realm and the human realm, each one needing the other.

It was believed that every person had their own spirit guide from nature, represented by some animal or object. This spirit guide gave the person emotional strength to endure challenges in life and the insight to succeed in hunting, love or leadership.

Spirit guides were particularly important during vision quests. Vision quests were sacred rites of passage in Native American culture where adolescents (and sometimes adults, when seeking answers to difficult questions) would fast in the wilderness for three or four days, which helped incite hallucinations and an altered psychological state in order to get a vision to guide them in their life. The quester would bring along talismans of their spirit guide they carved or created on their journey, packed in a sacred medicine bag.

During their time in the wilderness, there was symbolic meaning from things they observed from the weather, animals and the landscape that they interpreted in relationship to their own life. The “messages” they received told them of their purpose in life, revealed their special gifts and talents, and instructed them how to use those gifts to benefit their tribe when they returned.

A medicine walk is like a short vision quest, during which you pay attention to the omens in nature in order to find your medicine, which in the Native American sense is anything that is healing  and positive to body and mind. During a medicine walk, you find a place where you can spend at least a half a day alone, walking, sitting and meditating in nature with as few distractions from civilization as possible. You focus on an important personal issue and seek wisdom and guidance in nature by looking for symbolic meaning from the things you observe.

Medicine walks can be undertaken in preparation for important transitions in life: a new job, a divorce, a new relationship. It can be a healing, insightful practice when you’re feeling stuck or confused about something in your life. The insights you receive from a medicine walk can be subtle or immensely profound, and sometimes the answers aren’t what you were expecting. But simply by embarking on a medicine walk, you invite a more mystical quality in your life. You acknowledge that the world is more than a collection of profane objects, but rather a world alive with both meaning and mystery.

To prepare for a medicine walk, you select a place where you will spend a half day or longer, a place where there aren’t too many people (preferably a trail that has little or no visitors on certain days of the week). If you have a favorite trail or a place that draws you in some mysterious way, that’s a good place to go. The key is to have a place where you’ll feel comfortable and unembarrassed to walk slowly, sit for long periods of time or even have a conversation with an animal or plant. The reason you want to be out for at least a half day is because you’ll naturally come with a lot of mental chatter, and it will take at least a few hours for that chatter to subside enough for you to be open to what the outside world is trying to say.

It can be a time during which you take water, but no food. The reasoning behind this is that because fasting can further eliminate distractions.  Personally, I think hunger is a bigger distraction and I prefer to take along a snack. In planning for your walk, be prepared for any weather possibility since the weather can be completely different at the end of your walk as it is when you embark. Or, try to plan your walk on a day when you know the weather will be as agreeable as possible. Be sure to tell someone exactly where you’re going and what time you expect to be back home, in case you get injured or something happens and you’re out longer than you want to be.

I selected the Coulson Gulch trail for this activity, because it is on National Forest land and has less visitors than other trails near the Front Range, especially on weekdays. It feels like you’re deeper in the wilderness than you actually are, and provides the solitude and quiet that you’ll need in order to benefit from this contemplative activity.

When you arrive at the trail, set an intention for your medicine walk. You’re here to ask guidance from nature and you want to stay open to all omens and signs. Perhaps you’re confused about the direction you’re going in life. Maybe you want guidance about what your true talents and gifts are, and what to do with them. Whatever the question, it should be of a personal nature.

Find an imaginary threshold that you will step over to begin your medicine walk and journey into dream time, or a period of time when everything that happens and everything you observe has special and sacred meaning. You will be stepping back over this same threshold upon your return. This threshold could be the metal barrier to the trail, or the trail sign, or a stand of trees.

Walk purposefully and slowly. Allow your curiosity to seek out things that capture your attention. Don’t analyze everything you observe for meaning, because sometimes the best guidance comes in subtle ways when you least expect it.

When I went on my first medicine walk, I wanted answers on how and when to transition my career. I had a hard time receiving the messages at first. I was looking at everything and assigning meaning. Did the stand of broken aspens mean that I was making changes before I was ready? Did the wind pick up and shake the leaves on the tree because it acknowledged what I just said? Did that deer symbolize something positive or negative? Nothing I was considering felt right. It was as if I was trying too hard and making up my own meaning instead of letting the mystery unfold.

After a few hours, I started to feel tired and hungry and turned around to head back. As I was thinking about my hunger, a strange thought came over me. I looked to the grass in the meadow and was convinced I could dive into it and find food in the form of insects. This wasn’t a logical thought or even a momentary musing. It felt visceral and real, and my body almost followed my eyesight into the grass.

I had no idea where the thought came from. It didn’t feel like any I had experienced before or since. It was as if, for a brief moment, I channeled the thoughts of a bird. The sensation felt wild, foreign, and intense.

Ironically, after all that analysis of every unusual thing I observer, I came away from my medicine walk with just one simple message: don’t try too hard. Stay open. Allow the spirit guide to come to me, instead of searching it out. This could mean staying open on contemplative hikes, or it could mean staying open to what happens in life and allowing opportunities and answers to unfold instead of forcing a direction.

I haven’t channeled any bird thoughts since that one time, but now, coincidentally or not, almost every time I go on a contemplative hike I see ravens. Ravens flying in ecstasy overhead. Ravens sqwaking at me. Once, I observed two ravens, one chasing the other one that had something in its beak. As they flew right above me, I willed the raven to drop his prize, and he did, and whatever it was landed just a few feet from me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find whatever it was since it was small and landed in the snow. But in that split second when I thought, “drop it” and the bird let go of what he was holding right as he flew overhead, there was a connection between us. Once, on a hike with my husband, I was telling him about the special symbolism of ravens and how I experienced the thought of getting food from the grass, and within moments of saying that, we came upon a big raven, pecking at the grass in front of us on the trail. Coincidence or not, I felt validated somehow. The raven then flew up into the trees and watched me. It was surreal.

But what does it all mean?

To me, ravens symbolize freedom and intelligence. Their croaky cry echoing across valleys or the way they seem to fly just for the fun of it is their way of and reminding me about my own freedom. They link me to my own wildness. They’re a reminder not to take life too seriously, but to stay curious and revel in the feeling of the wind in my wings, so to speak.

When you go on your medicine walk, you will find your own spirit guide and message. Remain open but don’t try too hard to read what you’re experiencing. The best guidance comes when you least expect it. Your spirit guide will find you. You don’t need to go looking for it.

To heighten your experience, stop and have a conversation with a being. Tell a tree about yourself. Ask a bird what his life is like. Sometimes it will seem like creatures want to communicate something to you. Birds will follow you. Deer will stare at you. Trees will tremble as you approach. What is it they’re trying to say?

When you complete your walk and step back over your threshold, take a minute to offer gratitude to the land for showing you its ancient and eternal wisdom. You can bow, say thank you, lay your hands on an object or tree and offer it positive energy. Record your impressions in a journal when you get home, when they’re still fresh in your mind.

My New Favorite Front Range Hiking Trail (Shhh…Don’t Tell Anyone)

Fowler to Goshawk Trail

Location: About a mile east of the town of Eldorado Springs

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on CO-170, go 2.7 miles to Boulder County Road 67, turn left. Go about ½ mile where the road ends and park near the trailhead on the east side where it is allowed.

Duration: Approximately 2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, start along the Fowler Trail and follow signs to the Goshawk Ridge Trail. At the first intersection, veer right (north). Take the Goshawk Ridge Trail for about 2-1/2 miles. Once you cross a bridge, turn left on the Springbrook North trail and return via the Fowler Trail to the trailhead where you parked

Access Notes: The parking lot for this trailhead only has space for about a half dozen cars. If you arrive mid-morning on a weekend or when there’s a lot of use, you will have to park at the South Mesa Trail or Dowdy Draw parking lot and walk up the road to the trailhead, which will add about a mile to your hike. If you park at the Dowdy Draw Trailhead and hike to the Goshawk Ridge Trail from the Dowdy Draw Trail, you’ll add about 4 miles to your hike. I recommend starting at the Fowler trailhead to experience more of the contemplative aspects of this wonderful and less-traveled trail. Dogs are not allowed on the Goshawk Ridge Trail.

The 1.2 mile Goshawk Ridge Trail that forms a loop of the Fowler Trail was constructed in January, 2009, so it’s a relatively new area that has opened up to the public in the Eldorado Springs area. The day I hiked this trail was my first time. I would have to say that the beautiful variations in the landscape and the solitary nature of the walk due to its lack of popularity (not many know about it and there’s not a lot of parking) make this my favorite hiking trail within a half an hour of the Denver/Boulder suburbs.

Looking west to Eldorado Canyon from Fowler Trail.

I arrived at this trail at 8:30 a.m. on a sunny, cool Saturday in late spring. On road up to the trailhead I drove past the South Mesa Trail and Dowdy Draw parking lots, both of which were almost filled with weekend visitors. A mile up the road, at the Fowler trailhead, the parking area was comparatively empty: only about a half dozen cars lined the road outside of the “No Parking” signs.

Someone told me about this special trail a couple of months ago, touting it as incredibly scenic and lovely, and now that I’ve experienced it myself I hesitate to even advertise its location publicly. It feels like a hidden gem in an area that I call the “Disneyland of hiking”: all the popular Boulder trails west of Broadway that can become as crowded as a stroll down Pearl Street on warm weekends. Runners, hikers, families, and dogs making steady progress up and down the foothills between Boulder and northern Jefferson County. Unless you want to drive an hour into the mountains, you’d be hard-pressed to find solitude for your hike on a mild day, let alone on a weekend, this close to town. So finding this trail felt remarkable to me, like a secret that only certain “insiders” were privy to.

Rock cut passage

As you begin the walk on the Fowler Trail toward Goshawk Ridge Trail, you’ll cross a sloped meadow where deer like to graze early in the morning or late in the afternoon. You’ll switchback toward the northwest and come across one of this trail’s unique aspects: a man-made cut through the rock wall that you walk through and beyond which you’ll find yourself standing on a ridge overlooking the small town of Eldorado Springs below. This is just the first of many pleasant or delightful characteristics of the Fowler/Goshawk Trail, most of which I won’t mention in this essay because if this is your first time on this trail, you’ll want to allow yourself to be surprised at each turn.

The Relationship Between Landscape and Mood

The Goshawk Ridge Trail has a variety of landscapes and can evoke many kinds of subtle differences in mood, depending on what time of day you go or the weather. There’s a cozy, wooded canyon with a stream crossing. There are expansive views of Boulder County. There’s the not-too-distant whistle of the cargo or passenger train that snakes its way around the hills directly above and west of the trail. There’s a walk across a green meadow with wildflowers. There is also a walk through dead trees once ravaged by fire, and the quiet fortitude of a wide, flat forest that seems to go on for miles.

Fuzzy purple Pasque flowers were blooming on May 8th along the Goshawk Ridge Trail

I want to express my own feelings in each of these landscapes, but I don’t want to influence your own thoughts and feelings as you travel the trail. I’m sure each of these particular locales and changes in surroundings will affect you in different ways than it affected me. It also depends on the weather on the day you go. It may be foggy or cloudy, cold or muggy.

View of the small town of Eldorado Springs from the Fowler Trail

Whenever you come across an area that evokes a particular feeling in you, stop and note where you are, describing your surroundings and your mood. Do you feel frightened? Apprehensive? Peaceful? Relaxed? Bring a notebook along on your hike and write down your answers.

Even though the Goshawk Ridge Trail has only recently been constructed and open to the public, there is evidence of past human use and habitation. Can you spot evidence of human activity in the area?

How does this make you feel to see that this natural, relatively remote trail was once used in different ways for different purposes by people? How does it define “progress” in your mind?

The (Eco)Psychology of the Gulf Oil Spill

oil on handsI’ve been monitoring the heartbreaking developments of the Gulf of Mexico BP oil leak all weekend long on the internet. Other than learning about the possible cause and the plans for containment, I’ve also learned something about the (eco)psychology of this disaster from the perspective of the public who is reading these same articles. I’ve noticed that public sentiment, via the comment board postings below each article I read on CNN, Huffingtonpost, FoxNews and Mike Ruppert’s blog, has been swaying between blame and anger and a stronger demand for a wake-up call regarding safer, renewable energy sources. What’s missing, for the most part, from the public commentary is a shrug and dismissal of the catastrophe as a “necessary evil”. Everyone seems to feel this is a wake-up call, whether it’s a wake-up call to the way some corporations put profit over ecological concerns and safety, or a wake-up call that we have to begin stepping up our national efforts to diversify our energy needs to more renewable and less potentially deadly sources.

The latest headline, for example, suggests that the Gulf Coast oil spill has appeared to lessen the administration’s enthusiasm for future offshore oil drilling. What was previously deemed as “safe” by the oil industry is now in question. Is it really safe? If it was an accident of nature, then it’s unpredictable and not safe. If it was sabotage, then the very idea this sort of event can be manufactured to make a political statement makes deep water drilling unsafe. The only way it can be made safe is to put in redundant and over-the-top safeguards that can prevent any sort of foreseen and unforeseen incidents in the future, or eliminate off-shore oil drilling completely (yeah, that’s not going to happen anytime soon).

In an interview with a survivor of the oil rig explosion, it is apparent that this was an act of nature. The rig employees were conducting routine testing of the well, and everything was checking out o.k. when suddenly there was a blowback of natural gas that came up so fast and forcefully up the pipe from the well, it blew out the valve and spilled heavier-than-oxygen natural gas all over the platform in a matter of minutes. Something—perhaps even static electricity—ignited the dense gas (odorless and colorless) and set off the first of a series of explosions. Simply put, they hit a pocket of extremely high-pressure gas that their equipment couldn’t safely contain.

The survivor said that the balance of pressure from the rig and well at those depths are tenuous and a very delicate balance. It seems that the balance tipped, and now the entire Gulf region is facing an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions.

As Mike Ruppert wrote on his blog, “…maybe Mother Earth will have poisoned us with the substance we have so greedily raped her — and killed each other — for… “You want oil?… I’ll give you oil.”

The Blame Game

It’s difficult to fathom such a destructive situation and not want to blame somebody. It’s human nature and it’s a way to direct the anger and despair away from ourselves. Some are blaming the government for not having enough regulation of the oil industry. Some are blaming BP for not putting enough safeguards in place and spending the extra money for additional back-up systems. Some are already blaming the Obama administration for not acting quickly enough, even though the containment of the well has been likened to an Apollo 13 mission a mile underwater. Translation: a near impossible task, given the depth and the fact that the tangled metallic mess of the destroyed rig is laying on top of the well.

There are even those who are forming conspiracy theories. The North Koreans sent a secret torpedo from Cuba. Environmentalists rigged this disaster so that no new oil drilling platforms would be allowed. The government planned this so that they could control us better through more regulation and a nationalization of the oil industry. This sort of thinking is just one more way to deflect the anger and despair we’re feeling inside, but it isn’t productive or helpful.

Why do we want to deflect our anger? Because blaming someone and feeling angry feels much better than feeling despair and bone-deep sadness deep in our heart and soul. Blaming others means we don’t need to change what we’re doing because we feel above blame. Anger is invigorating and allows us to not have to feel responsible or face the truth.

So what is the truth? The truth is that we are all a party to this mess, because we live in a world that is utterly and completely dependent on oil for survival. The oil companies keep drilling wherever they viably can because the public demands cheap energy to run the economy. Unless we face that simple fact, we are doomed to keep repeating these sorts of ecological and economic disasters in the future.

Go Ahead, Feel Your Despair

Unfortunately, blaming others, corporations and political parties for this disaster won’t solve anything or keep this from destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions of animals and humans dependent on the Gulf of Mexico. Unless we all realize our own culpability in this, we won’t make any lasting or significant changes that will prevent this from ever happening again.

We have to embrace the fact that each time we get into a car or gas-powered public transportation, we are contributing to the oil industry. Each time we type on a keyboard, put on a piece of polyester or nylon clothing, eat non-local food, use plastic or any product that was transported by planes, trains, trucks or boats, we are using oil. As long as we continue to subsidize the oil industry with our oil-rich way of life, our environment will always take a back seat to Our Way of Life.

As helpless as you may feel about stopping the oil from infiltrating the ecology of the Gulf and possibly the Atlantic, you probably feel just as helpless about staying away from the very thing that is poisoning our environment. Our very survival is so intricately tied to oil. The helplessness I feel is so deep and profound. When I calm the anger and fear and resentment long enough and listen to what’s really in my heart, what I hear is utter despair for the world and all its inhabitants.

Therefore go ahead, feel your despair. It’s not easy to see something that’s so devastating unfold and know that in your small way, you too had a part in this drama. Denying your feelings or trying to stuff them down or deflect them away through blame and shame isn’t going to solve anything. It’ll just create more fodder for the mainstream media, more bickering and debate and then endless gridlock over details that are meaningless and counter-productive in the long run.

Now Do Something

Once you can admit to all your feelings and actually feel them, there is something you can do to actually make a difference for the future.

Besides directly participating in the efforts of the clean up through such organizations as the Nature Conservancy, or donating money to similar organizations, there are things you can do to lessen how much oil you use in your life:

• Bike or walk instead of driving if at all possible, to work, the grocery, to visit friends, to run errands.

• Buy local, organic produce instead of produce shipped from another state or country.

• Join a CSA or participate in a community garden to grow some of your own food. Locally grown, organic food takes a fraction of the oil to produce and transport conventionally-grown, imported food.

• Grow your own garden.

• Choose natural fibers like cotton, linen and wool instead of polyester or nylon, or better yet, buy your clothing from a thrift store whenever possible.

• Consider used before new, consider if you really need something before you buy it, especially if it’s not local and made from plastic.

• Be an advocate for more public transportation, especially the kind that runs more on an electricity grid fueled by renewable resources like wind.

• Write a letter to your government officials demanding more creative ideas, funding and projects related to renewable, safer energy sources.

• Invest in your local community by banking local, supporting your local community garden, shopping at independently-owned stores instead of big box retailers, and, if it’s in your means, be a venture capitalist to companies that have innovative solutions for sustainability.

The public sentiment I’ve observed online in the last few days tells me that people want to be less dependent on oil for energy, but they realize that it’s not an easy transition to make. Making small changes, combined with a mindful awareness of the paradigm that’s contributing to the pollution of our planet is the minimum we should all be doing. It all starts with examining our hearts and allowing ourselves to feel whatever we’re feeling, so that we can make thoughtful, intelligent choices about the future of our planet.

Tree Games

Trees have a history and mythology of being sacred beings with the capacity for healing. Many people are drawn to trees for various reasons – because the trees seem to have character, because they’re stoic sentinels of the forest, because they offer shelter and comfort. But can a tree communicate with a person through some sort of energetic or psychic capacity? You can try this game to find out.

This activity was inspired by a friend named Geoffrey McMullan, MSc, who lives in Ireland and specializes in wilderness therapy and tracking. He uses nature in his work as an addiction counselor, and has observed incredible results from his patients and clients in how they relate to their addiction or find inner wisdom through their relationship with the wilderness. One of Geoffrey’s nature games involves forming a deeper connection to and communication with a tree, stepping a good distance away from the tree, then, while blindfolded, seeing if you can find your way back to the tree. You use almost all the senses to experience and get to know the tree, and then transcending those senses to feel a connection to a tree that has less to do with logic and analysis and more of a spiritual consciousness that can’t be explained or forced.

child and tree

I think this is a fun activity to try with a few friends or older children (12 years old and up) who already have an appreciation of nature and an openness to try new things.

I have selected the Flatirons Vista Trail as a suggested location for this activity, but any trail with the following aspects will work:

  • Heavily wooded with aspens, pines, or spruce.
  • Not along very steep slopes. Ideally a wooded area that’s as flat as possible.
  • Somewhere you can safely go a little bit off trail without trespassing on private property or disturbing the landscape too much. You’ll want a little privacy and quiet for this activity.
  • Avoid areas with scrub oak, junipers or a lot of pine kill (can be hazardous during windy or wet conditions).

The Flatirons Vista Trail runs through the northern edge of Jefferson County Open Space land, which is a 7,390 acre parcel west of Rocky Flats between 120th Avenue and 80th Avenue. The City of Westminster boasts (in their Feb/March 2010 Issue of Westminster City Views) “No other city in metropolitan Denver has 5 miles of

public land between its western edge and the foothills. Over 43,000 acres of property both within and abutting Westminster preserve this amazing ecosystem.” Indeed, as you’re walking westward toward Eldorado Canyon and the foothills, all you see are rolling hills and trees, and maybe the occasional herd of cows since this land is used for grazing. This is a trail that’s close to Boulder, Broomfield, Westminster, Arvada and Golden, but feels spacious and quiet, at least once you get far enough from Highway 93.

Instructions for Tree Games

Find a spot among the trees where you and your partners in this game can feel comfortable, safe and have some privacy. You may need to walk off the trail far enough so that you can’t be easily heard or hear other hikers pass by, but not too far away that you lose your sense of direction to return back to the trail. On the Flatirons Vista Trail, once you arrive at the second cattle fence where the trees begin to get thicker, you can venture south along a clearing the trees where it appears a few vehicles may have traveled in the past. There are relatively flat areas of trees where you can do this activity.

You’ll need at least one other person and some sort of bandana or blindfold, or if you don’t have anything to use as a blindfold, you can go on the “honor system” and just keep your eyes shut tight when it’s your turn.

The “blind” person is led to a tree while blindfolded and introduced to the tree by the seeing partner.

“Tree, meet Bob. Bob, meet your tree.”

Then the blind person is allowed to spend time getting to know the tree. They can touch the tree, smell the tree, and use all of their senses other than sight to get a feeling from the tree. They should not open their eyes or take off the blindfold at this time.

The seeing partner quietly sits and observes, allowing at least 15 minutes of quiet time for the blind person to get acquainted with their tree. Some questions for the blind person to consider privately may include:

What gender is your tree?

How old is your tree?

What mood is it in?

What is the feeling you’re getting from this tree? Happy, sad, angry, depressed?

Is there anything this tree wants you to know?

The seeing partner should ask these questions all at once at the beginning of the 15 minutes of quiet time, allowing the blind partner to formulate their own questions or responses when they’re ready.

At the end of the 15 minutes, the seeing partner gently suggests that the blind partner let them know when they’re ready to be taken away from their tree. Once the blind partner expresses they’re ready, the seeing partner takes them away from the tree, randomly walking in different directions in order to disorient him or her. The blind partner keeps their eyes closed or the blindfold intact during this phase of the game.

When the seeing partner is satisfied with this disorientation task, they can do one of two things, depending on the landscape:

1. Allow the blind partner to open their eyes or take off their blind fold and find their tree.

2. Ask the blind partner to (while still blind) point to the direction where they believe their tree to be, then guide them in that direction so they don’t trip over rocks and twigs. Occasionally stop and have the blind person reassess the direction they feel they need to go.

With either of these options, the seeing partner should affirm or reject the blind person’s choice of tree or direction. In other words, if the blind person is pointing in the wrong direction to walk, let them know. Or if they select the wrong tree, let them know.

When the blind person finds their tree, they should open their eyes or take off their blindfold and touch or embrace the tree to see if its energy has changed in any way. Does seeing the tree change the feeling of being with the tree? How?

When I played this game with my 12-year-old, both she and I found our tree, although we made a least one wrong assessment of the direction we needed to go to find it at first.  The highlight of this game, surprisingly, wasn’t finding the tree, but feeling it’s energy while we were spending time with it. We both felt a resonance to something older, more rooted in the environment, both literally and figuratively.

Addressing Activist Burnout

This is a guest article written by my friend and colleague Scott Brown:

activists protestingLooking back on my career as an environmental campaigner is a bittersweet experience. There were many highlights: Getting the news that the hazardous waste incinerators I’d been involved in helping to block would not be built; learning that the chemical company we’d targeted had decided to not produce CFCs (chloroflourocarbons); making headlines through research, large protests, and civil disobedience; and many other positive decisions and developments that I felt I had helped influence. Not to mention all the wonderful people met and relationships formed.

At the same time, I have to own the fact that unconscious forces in my psyche were driving my behavior and attitudes, and that I did not really mature as a human being over that span of those years. Like so many activists, I was angry and felt victimized. I believed that shame and blame were appropriate and effective tactics to use against my “opponents,” and I took myself and my work very, very seriously. I was burning out and this only fed the anger and resentment. I was also not as effective as I could have been with a healthier attitude.

Thanks in part to the wake up call in the form of a failed marriage, about five years ago I realized it was high time to make a fundamental shift in how I approached my activism and the world in general. It was time to do my own inner work and bring consciousness to what had been unconscious and automatic for my whole life. I don’t think I’m alone in this respect, either in the degree of unconsciousness or in the desire for change. I was fortunate to have been guided to teachers who could help me find a new, peaceful way to live and work.

Shortly after starting that journey of training and transformation I knew that part of what I wanted to do was share what I was learning with other activists. I knew that my main contribution to healing the planet was to help heal the people—to make the link between body, mind, spirit and action, to put some meat on the bones of Gandhi’s dictum to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If we want a nonviolent world we must begin with ourselves and practice nonviolence in a dedicated and consistent way.

So it is with happy heart that I offer, along with John Ehrhart, the upcoming Introduction to Restorative Activism workshop. My hope is that it will be fun and engaging, and that on-going communities of support may emerge. Information on this workshop can be found at http://www.openpathtrainings.com/restorative-activism-workshop

For the Great Turning,
Scott Brown

Scott is cofounder of Open Path Trainings and Restorative Divorce. He is trained in peacemaking, mediation, restorative justice, and the Hakomi method of psychotherapy. Currently finishing a Master’s degree program at Naropa University in Transpersonal Psychology/Ecopsychology, Scott worked as an environmental campaigner for 15 years with Greenpeace, the Idaho Conservation League, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. He can be reached at Scott@OpenPathTrainings.com or 720.565.9388.

The 5 Rules for Doing a Contemplative Hike

lone hiker crested butteThere are many reasons why people go hiking in Colorado. They want to experience the scenery and get some exercise. They want to spend time in a quiet, natural setting and get away from city pollution and noise. They want to go for a walk with a friend, a pet, a lover or a child in a pleasant environment. They want to test their athletic acumen by “bagging” a Fourteener (a 14,000 ft. mountain) or enduring a particularly long and grueling trail.

Some want to hike for a slightly different reason—to allow for the mental and physical space to introspect about their life or to experience a spiritual connection to nature. This is the reason I’m writing my book, “Contemplative Hiking Along the Front Range”—to offer those seeking a more introspective, spiritual and mindful experience in nature ideas on exactly how to do so and to guide them with specific activities to do when they embark on the trail.

When I was younger, hiking meant exploring new landscapes and getting a good dose of cardiovascular exercise at the same time. I moved to Denver, Colorado in 1994 and couldn’t wait to see what lie west of the Front Range. I would drive up I-70 on the weekends looking for places to park and go walking, but I wasn’t very sophisticated about it, not knowing what a topo map was or how to find a trailhead. I’d end up doing more driving than hiking, and when I did discover a popular trail I usually went at the most popular time—on a summer weekend morning. I took my dog, I went with my family, and I talked about problems, politics and gossip. I got a lot of good exercise, but most of the time my mind didn’t feel more relaxed for the experience.

I remember one day in particular many years ago when I was feeling in despair about my life. I was overwhelmed with responsibility and felt claustrophobic with mental chatter and worry. My clients were being difficult and my personal life was unraveling. I knew I needed to take a break, even for a day, and I needed to go somewhere by myself where I could just breathe and BE.

I drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park and used the park map I received for my entry fee to find a trail close to the road within a few miles of the entrance. I ended up on the Deer Mountain Trail, a gradually ascending south-facing trail that wove through stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine. Before the trail turned north and encircled the west slope of Deer Mountain, there was a treeless stretch of trail with an expansive and glorious view of the 12,000 – 14,000 foot mountains to the south and west. I remember that day being clear and sunny, and there was just a little bit of snow left on the peaks.

I stood there, doing what I intended to do before I even stepped on the trail, which was to breathe and just be. I took in the view and a feeling washed over me, unlike any I had before. I was no longer seeing a mountain range. I was seeing backwards and forwards through time. These mountains that I was seeing would be here long after I was gone. They’ve already been here for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years before they appeared in my awareness. No matter what my problems were, they were just a spec, a dot, a grain of sand on a beach compared to the solidity and magnitude of these arrangements of minerals and soil. No matter what was going on in my life, these mountains were constant and unmoving.

This felt comforting to me. It was something for my mind to hold onto, something permanent I knew I could rely on. If all else failed, these mountains that felt so comforting and looked so beautiful would be here for me to visit any time. I could count on that permanence in a way I couldn’t count on anything or anyone else in my life.

The things I had been worrying about before my journey that day felt almost silly. The mountains didn’t care about such trivialities. What’s one or even several “bad days” when you stand tall and firm despite millennia of wind, blizzard, scorching sun and rain? I knew at that moment that there was something in me that stood tall and firm, too. I knew that there was something in me that was as timeless and sacred as the mountains and forest.

That was the very first contemplative hike I went on, but it was that was by accident. It was probably not an accident that ten years later, I remembered that moment when I decided to change careers and embark on a graduate program in ecopsychology. I was going to learn how human mental health was dependent on a connection to a healthy environment, but I already knew about the healing aspects of a simple walk in the mountains. I already knew how the trees could make me feel soothed and whole in a way that no T.V. show, no mall, no purchase could make me feel. I already knew how one afternoon looking at a mountain range from a trail in the woods could change my life.

A contemplative hike can be healing and invigorating, or it can simply be calming and restorative. It can bring about a revelation. It can connect you to the wisdom of the Universe and provide surprising answers to personal or existential questions. It can help you find your purpose. It can help you get unstuck from a destructive thought or worry. All these things are possible, and I’ve experienced each benefit more than once.

There is no right way or wrong way to do a contemplative hike, but there are certain ground rules to follow. The purpose of these rules is to open your mind to the experience and allow you to tap into your own wisdom and natural healing ability that’s usually hidden by everyday chatter and distractions.

1. Set an intention before you start.

Why are you on the hike? Do you want to calm your mind and relax? Do you want to reflect on the loss of a loved one? Do you want to become more present and grounded? Do you want to have the answer to a difficult question? Setting an intention is stating the reason you’re there and asking the forest or mountain or meadow for insight or permission to use its energy for that expressed purpose.

An example of an intention may be, “I want to let go of the fear I’m feeling around my future somehow. Mountain, please allow me to see that I have nothing to be afraid of and that everything is going to be O.K.”

Or it could be as simple as, “I intend to let go of any judgment or expectations about this hike and open up to whatever happens.”

The purpose of setting an intention is to subconsciously prepare your mind to receive any feelings, thoughts and insights from your hike. I’m always amazed at how different my experience is when I go hiking without intention (just for exercise or for fun) and when I’m fully present to what I’m doing from the first moment I’m doing it.

2. Cross an imaginary or real threshold into sacred time.

After setting an intention, you want to imagine crossing a real or imaginary threshold that delineates “regular” time (your everyday, profane life) with “sacred” time (open to otherworldly or spiritual experiences). This also flips a subconscious switch that allows you to experience what many ecopsychologists call “dream time.” It’s a period of time when unusual events become omens and communication between species can happen through symbols and telepathy.

When you’re in sacred time or dream time, a dead chipmunk means something to your narrative. A hawk flying overhead is the answer to the question you came with. An elk’s bugle is a reflection of your own wildness. In a profane, linear worldview these things would not have deeper meaning, but from a spiritual view these are all ways you’re connected to all living things, and the world is constantly trying to tell you something about yourself.

3. Be silent.

This is by far the most important thing about doing a contemplative hike. You may forget to set an intention, or maybe you chose not to imagine a threshold. Despite that, you may still have a good experience if you’re silent on your hike. That’s because silence allows you to be mindful and present in a way that can’t happen when you’re chattering away with your companion about what happened an hour ago, what you want to do next weekend, and how a particular person gets on your nerves. I would have to say that 98% of the time we’re having a conversation with another person it’s about the past or the future and it’s hardly ever about what’s happening now, unless you specifically make it a point to observe the now.

Have you ever been walking on a beautiful trail and passed a group of hikers who were so absorbed in their conversation you wondered if they were even aware of their surroundings? It’s even worse when their conversation is so animated that their proclamations and laughter boom and echo out as if they’re on a playground at recess.

Being silent is an easy rule to follow if you’re hiking alone, unless you have a habit of talking to yourself. But when you’re with a hiking companion, be sure to agree ahead of time to hike in complete silence, except when it’s absolutely necessary or unless your intention is to reflect on something in the moment or perform a contemplative activity together that requires asking and answering questions.

4. Watch your monkey mind.

You can tell your mouth to be silent, but you’ll never silence the mental chatter in your mind. Unless you’re a lifetime meditation practitioner or a professional yogi or something, you’re going to have a hard time shutting up the constant narrative in your head.

You’ll be walking along and thinking about all the things you need to do when you get home. Or you’ll get hungry and mull over what you want to eat after the hike. Or you’ll have judgments about the hikers that just passed by, or the person you’re with. You’ll think back to that nasty little exchange you had with your boss or client the other day and obsess about it for a good chunk of time before you even realize what you’re doing.

It’s normal and unavoidable – you will have a loop of meandering thoughts or “monkey mind” on a hike or any time you’re trying to be silent and meditative. The way to handle this is a technique that’s used in mindfulness meditation. When you recognize that your thoughts are pulling you away from the present moment, focus on your breath. The reason for this technique is that whatever is happening, wherever you are, you always have your breath with you. It’s steady, unfailing, and brings you back to the present moment. It’s a visceral reminder of what you’re doing right this second to stay alive.

Once you come back to your breath, look around and experience what you see, feel and smell around you. It probably won’t be long before your thoughts stray again or go off on a tangent about why the trees have dead branches or what’s going on with the wacky weather that day. Which will lead you to remember something you forgot to do at home…like, close a window.

It’s impossible to avoid having monkey mind. When you start noticing that fact, you’ll be amazed at the kinds of things you tell yourself minute after minute, day after day. Usually it’s the same stuff, over and over. It can be an enlightening experience in and of itself.

Don’t try to control your thoughts or punish yourself for having monkey mind. Just be sure to check back in every once in a while and come back to the breath and to the trail.

stand of aspens

5. Don’t try too hard.

One of the mistakes I used to make early on when I first started doing contemplative hikes on a regular basis is that I would simply take it too seriously and try too hard to get “answers” or “signs” from nature.

I would look at a small stand of aspens that had snapped and toppled from an early autumn snowfall and wonder what it meant to my situation. Was it a sign of being caught unaware? Being too confident? Being inexperienced? I would analyze what it could possibly mean, but nothing at all was resonating with me. I was trying too hard.

What I learned was that the most powerful omens and insights come when you least expect it. When you’re tired from hiking for three hours and suddenly you hear a voice in your head that seems to come from nowhere, makes a profound and simple statement and suddenly you have an “aha!” moment. Or, the moment you give up trying to get a sign a raven suddenly flies overhead and drops something from its beak onto the ground in front of you. You’re enjoying a beautiful, clear day up the mountain and for some odd reason you get a really bad and dark feeling and turn back. Then later, you realize that if you hadn’t turned back when you did, you would have been caught in a dangerous lightening storm at the summit.

Insights, omens and revelations happen when you least expect them. So don’t think too much or try too hard to see meaning in things. Just tap into your heart and what it’s feeling. That’s where the best experiences come from anyway.

I’ve heard and read about people in all walks of life—doctors, corporate professionals, students—who were feeling stuck and out of touch with their soul’s desire have moments of intense clarity and understanding about some critical aspect of their life because of contemplative time they spent in nature. It’s hard to have these kinds of insights in our normally busy, distracted lives filled with cellphones, internet, television, and just the normal day-to-day communication we have to have with others. We could go years working jobs we tolerate, staying in relationships that are destroying our soul, and we don’t even know how bad it is until we are suddenly forced to spend an hour, a day, a week alone somewhere and it all hits us at once: We’ve been asleep in our life and have missed out on so much that’s possible, beautiful and liberating.

Are You Experiencing Eco-Anxiety?

sad face

You’ve just finished reading a particularly disturbing article online about industrial agriculture and its unsustainable practices and you’re furious. You spend an evening watching the movie Collapse on Comcast On Demand and you feel slightly depressed about your future. You’ve been talking to your friends about the economy and now you’re worried about what’s going to happen when the recession ends and inflation kills the value of the money you’ve been conscientiously saving in the last few years.

It just seems like it’s always something that’s ruining your optimism and desire to feel that everything is right with the world.

You feel pretty good about your job, but someone just told you that there will be no use for your profession after Peak Oil. You have been living within your means but now you worry that you own no land and won’t be able to grow your own food when food shortages strike. You’ve been buying “green” and organic products for years but just read a headline that Whole Foods is destroying the planet.

Argh! You’re this close to giving up on everything you’ve come to believe and just going back to a life of blissful ignorance about the state of the Earth. What’s the point? You tell yourself. You are only one person and you can’t save the planet. And besides, all this is stressing you out.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re experiencing eco-anxiety. That’s what ecopsychologists call that underlying feeling of fear and anger over the injustices and destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. I suspect this is fairly common, but the problem is that there are no statistics to back that up, because quite simply, no one likes to talk about it.

So if you know you’re feeling eco-anxiety, what can you do about it?

The Problem With Doing Something About It

I read an article in Time Magazine online a couple years ago where ecopsychologists were treating people with eco-anxiety. The article advised that in order to feel better, you should choose to do something to help a cause you feel passionate about, or prepare some kind of personal action plan.

So let’s say you do that. Let’s say you prepare for collapse by paying off debt and learning how to grow food. Or, you donate money to the World Wildlife Fund or the Wilderness Society because the thought of hundreds of species of animals going extinct every year is too grim to even contemplate.

You join a group or an organization, even a movement like the Transition Town movement (that’s what I did). But sooner or later it will dawn on you while you’re boiling jars of home-grown pumpkin in the pressure cooker or learning how to fix a bicycle flat that it’s not enough. It can NEVER be enough.

You’ll be sitting in a seminar where you’re learning about how to circumvent the illegalities of rainwater catchment and you’ll suddenly be hit with how ridiculous it is in the face of what you know is coming down for all of us.

The scope and breadth of the problems we’re facing as a civilization won’t be solved if by magic suddenly everyone grew their own carrots and peas, stored rainwater in a barrel and occasionally rode a bike to work. That’s because when the sh** hits the fan, your job will cease to exist and there’s no way in heck you can grow all your own food on a suburban plot and hope to survive for more than a week. There are people in the modern, Western world right now who are burning furniture to heat their home because they can’t afford to eat and keep their thermostats set at a comfortable temperature.

You soon come to the realization that even if you were to do a little something every day (like reducing your trash or eating less meat), or even change your life completely (by moving away to a self-sustaining communal farm and totally disconnecting from everything and everyone you know), it still won’t stop the destruction of the rainforest or the fact that when the climate switch gets flipped (and it will) and starts a negative feedback loop, we will have been too late.

An A-Typical Bit of Advice

In our fast-paced, gotta-have-it, have-no-time culture, we love problem-solving with the quick fix. I know, because I have spent the last three years writing attention-getting marketing copy for internet-based companies that sell information and self-help products.

What I learned during that time is that people don’t want to hear about how to fix their deep-seated issues or spend long hours slogging through intense and painful therapy.  They want to know the “3 Easy Tips” for making the person of the opposite sex INSTANTLY attracted to them. They want to know the 1-step plan or the 5 mistakes to avoid and by doing so, change everything forever. If anything I was selling even smacked of sounding complicated, it had at least better be entertaining.

We want the quick fix, and we want it to be fun. AND effective.

There’s no quick fix for eco-anxiety. Sure, there are stop-gap solutions such as taking a walk in nature, volunteering at a nonprofit or learning a new skill for self-sufficiency. But unless you get out of the mode of doing and actually stop to confront your feelings and talk about them, you will become what I call an “angry activist.”

Angry activists are those blessed souls who have spent hundreds of hours in thankless service to a cause, only to feel utterly helpless against the onslaught of ignorance and continuing environmental destruction. Angry activists develop a contempt for those they see as being the “cause” of all their frustration: namely, people who drive SUVs or watch blue ray DVDs on their high-definition televisions. You know—“those people.” I have no such contempt because a) I’m one of those people and b) I am a product of our culture—we all are. I have compassion for all of us. We are all doing the best we can with what we know. There was a time not too long ago when I had no inkling of such terms as global warming or Peak Oil. There was a time not too long ago when I thought recycling was a pain in the ass and a waste of time, and so did most of my neighbors. Times have changed, I have changed, and I see everyone I know (SUV-owning and not) professing some level of concern over what they know is wrong with our system.

Angry activists are no help to their cause. They can’t help but sound judgmental, even to those who agree with their ideas and feel an affinity with their philosophy.

Therefore, you can spend your time doing, doing, doing, but still feel like you’ve gotten nowhere. You’re still bitter and scared and furious and sick with worry.

The best chance you have to deal with eco-anxiety is to actually admit you feel it and talk about it. Talk about it to yourself, then with your spouse or partner, then with your community. If we ignore and repress our feelings, they will only come back stronger and in other ways.

A caveat: just be careful who you talk to. Not everyone is aware of all the issues facing our civilization. Sometimes trying to tell someone how worried you are about your future because of Peak Oil will backfire if the person dismisses you because they don’t know enough about it. “What are you talking about? We won’t run out of oil anytime soon. We’ll be using alternative energy before that happens, anyway. Chill-ax, dude.” They smirk at you and you kick yourself for even opening your mouth, because now on top of feeling eco-anxiety, you worry about being labeled an “alarmist” or a purveyor of “doom and gloom” by someone you like.

Find someone you trust, who shares your knowledge and viewpoint about that which most makes you feel despair. If there are workshops in your area on Awakening the Dreamer or The Work That Reconnects, participate in them. Get online and find websites that write about the issues you’re most concerned about and post comments and share ideas. Get a group of friends together with the expressed intention of “venting” your feelings on the state of the world.

By participating in such communal discourse, you’ll find you feel so much better, at least for a while. You’ll be amazed at what a relief it is to know there are others out there who share your concerns and frustrations. After being in the Transition community for the last year and a half and having sat through many lectures and discussions on various eco-topics, I know how energizing it is to be a part of a community that’s taking steps toward a positive direction, however small. It is heartening to listen to someone voice the feelings I myself have been hiding for months, maybe years, and finally be able to admit them to myself and to someone else in public and NOT be ridiculed.

It is only after we’re able to face our fears that we can be a force for change in the world. With denial and repression, there is only anger and despair.

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.