Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Trending: Forest Bathing, Forest Loss

Fall Equinox 2016

When I visited the Mohonk Mountain House in the summer of 2004, it was like stepping into a fairy tale or back in time a hundred years. This enormous wood-shingled Victorian castle on Lake Mohonk ninety minutes north of New York City is set in a lush landscape that has been meticulously cared for since the resort was built in the late 1800s. Rolling lawns, orchards, gardens, cliffs, clear waters, and forests invite nature immersion. And now there’s a new offering on the activity menu there: for $160, Dr. Nina Smiley will take you on a fifty-minute walk through the woods and remind you to attend to the present moment and embrace your senses.

The Seattle Times explains: “In Japan, it’s called ‘shinrin-yoku,’ which translates as forest bathing. It’s the practice of immersing yourself in nature to improve your well-being, and interest in the concept is growing, with spas, resorts, retreat centers, gardens and parks offering guided ‘forest bathing’ experiences.” The Washington Post calls it “the latest fitness trend to hit the U.S.” and reports that “a number of scientific studies emphasize that reveling in the great outdoors promotes human health,” lowering stress levels, improving working memory, and causing people to feel more alive.

Duh. Until the era of “I prefer to play inside because that’s where the electrical outlets are” (Richard Louv’s finding in Last Child in the Woods), we just knew that. Edward Abbey, who blessedly left this plane in 1989 before the onslaught of email and cell phones, knew that and gave us this succinct admonishment: “Our suicidal poets (Plath, Berryman, et al.) spent too much of their lives inside rooms and classrooms when they should have been trudging up mountains, slopping through swamps, rowing down rivers. The indoor life is the next best thing to premature burial.”

It seems a measure of how far we have fallen from grace with the natural world that we need scientific studies and certified guides to remind us to go outside. Still, we’re told there’s reason for optimism: “‘I think about where yoga was 30 years ago and where it is today, and I realize that forest therapy is making the same journey toward cultural definition in a way that will mainstream the practice,’ said Ben Page, a certified forest therapy guide who founded Shinrin Yoku Los Angeles” (quoted in the Post article).

That’s nice. But I wonder if there will be any forests left by the time the practice is mainstreamed. Deforestation has been proceeding apace for three thousand years, and according to 2016 figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, forests are being lost worldwide at the rate of 3.3 million hectares per year (a hectare is about 2.5 acres or roughly the size of two American football fields)—at least in part so that forest bathers can live in wood houses and eat meat. One wonders if at some point the two trend lines will cross: more forest bathers than forests to bathe in.

I can only offer this suggestion to budding forest bathers: take the $160 that’s burning a hole in your pocket and send it to TreeSisters or Plant-for-the-Planet. Then step outside, bring your attention to the present moment, and open your senses.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Full-Spectrum Living

Summer Solstice 2016

Last Saturday had been a day of downpours interspersed with sunshine, but by early evening the clouds had dropped to the horizon and the sun was warming the land. I decided somewhat tentatively, since the past two weeks had been mostly cloudy and cool, to swim my laps in the unheated outdoor pool at the health club. At first splash, I knew I’d made the right choice. Yeah, the water was brisk, but I could feel the sun warming my skin as I shot up and down my lane like a bullet.

Ugh. I hadn’t wanted to use that simile. The point is, I was pretty focused and intent on counting the lengths. Then here came another woman to join me in the pool. After a while, I noticed that she was just kind of lollygagging up and down her lane, making smooth, slow strokes. Whoa, I thought, I wonder what that feels like. I slowed down. I started to really feel the water caress my skin. The warmth of the sun’s rays began to feel delicious. I fully took in the deep blue sky, the nearby treetops waving in the breeze, the dried grasses dancing just beyond the fence.

We are taught to move with purpose in our postmodern machine culture. We sit or stand purposefully at computers, drive purposefully to the store, eat purposefully with an eye on the clock. Being able to focus in that way is good and necessary, but not all the time. Also within our capabilities is pleasure. We can take pleasure in movement. Wouldn’t it be sweet if we were also encouraged to notice what feels good as we move through the day?

I’ve been reading Tabitha Jayne’s book The Nature Process. She proposes these rules of engagement with life, based on natural attractions:

1. Stop doing things that make you feel bad.
2. Start doing things that make you feel good.
3. Harm neither yourself nor others.

That last item is to ensure that you don’t become a promiscuous, hedonistic lush. Short of that, I think we could all afford to give more time to pleasure to balance out the overabundance of purpose in this world. I’m going to go for the full spectrum this evening as I stretch and breathe during the alfresco full-moon solstice yoga class I’ve signed up for.

Monday, March 21, 2016

This Beauty

Spring Equinox 2016

Early morning, early spring, I circle the wetland on the boardwalk. On this cloudy day, the roar of traffic from the highway a quarter mile away is the primary sound in the air, but if I make a conscious effort, I can tune in to the birdsong instead. There’s a lot of it this morning, sneet-sneet-sneet, wheerly-urrrr. Soon I’m not listening to the cars and trucks at all but only to the orchestra of life at Jackson-Frazier.

In her essential book The Earth Path, Starhawk writes that the tools of magic include the skill of listening to “the great conversation, the ongoing constant communication that surrounds us.” She says: “Most of us who live in cities, who are educated to read, write, do arithmetic, and use computers, live our lives surrounded by that conversation but are unaware of it. We may love nature, we may even profess to worship her, but most of us have barely a clue as to what she is murmuring in the night.”

We walk through the world paying attention to the wrong things. We let the manufactured and built realm occupy us entirely. We squint at tiny screens in our palms and miss the beauty of the living creation everywhere at hand. This beauty could feed us so deeply we wouldn’t need to reach for greasy foods or stuff we don’t need. But instead we eat greasy foods and buy stuff we don’t need. I know. I’ve done it.

Would you believe me if I told you I saw a double rainbow as I walked home before most people were even awake? I did. A chartreuse light bathed the budding trees as the rainbow materialized and I looked hard, speaking the order of the colors to myself: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red. Really? In just that order, always, all around the world? Who thought that up?

This earth, this beauty, could blow our minds if we let it. But it wouldn’t increase any corporate profits, so no one’s going to tell you this. You just have to find it out for yourself, if you have the courage to unplug and leave the herd behind.

Love, Sex, Earth: What's Eros Got to Do with Saving the Planet?

Valentines Day 2016

Here it comes again, the Hallmark version of Eros: the winged boy with arrows in his quiver meant to strike lust into young hearts. In this guise, dreamed up by the later Greek satiric poets, Eros enjoyed wreaking havoc in the Greek pantheon, smiting the gods with inconvenient desires and provoking unrequited loves. Zeus falls for the mortal Semele; Venus falls for the mortal Adonis. Tearing and rending of garments ensues, as do offspring: from the former couple, Dionysus, that hearty partier.

But this is a trivialization of Eros that obscures its power to move postmodern people toward a rapprochement with the natural world. In the most ancient Greek stories, Eros is a fundamental cause in the formation of the world, representing the power of love to unite discordant elements and bind humankind together. It’s that sense that we urgently need to recover today. Properly understood, Eros is a force of nature, the innate life force that connects us to ourselves, to other human beings, to all other living beings on the earth, and to the earth as a living being. Eros is fuel for a revolution of the heart. And sex plays an essential role in that revolution.

Native American poet Sherman Alexie refers to sex as “the fog-soaked forest into which we all travel,” “the damp, dank earth into which we all plunge our hands / . . . / to search for water and room and root and home.” Sexuality is basic and universal, and its great beauty is that when we are naked, vulnerable, and aroused, when we are out of our minds and fully in our bodies, we are perhaps closest to our own nature and our own wild hearts. In that moment we know for certain that we are part of, not above, the animal kingdom.

All of the environmental sins of our time spring from holding ourselves above and separate from the great body that provides for our every need. When we see ourselves that way, we impose our own self-serving plans on the natural world. The catastrophic results are all around us. Sexuality draws us into relationship and makes us see that we are part of—not apart from—nature. When we understand that what we do to nature we do to ourselves, we are much more likely to respect and hold sacred the land and other beings. We are much more likely to listen to and cooperate with the great intelligence that informs all life around us.

So on Valentines Day, go outside. Listen. Listen to your own beating heart, to your deepest longings, and to the world around you. Listen hard. Listen as if your life depends on it.

Monday, December 21, 2015

December's Invitation

Squishing along the boardwalk in the very wet Jackson-Frazier Wetland a ten-minute walk from my house, I realize that nature is issuing us an invitation in December: to see clearly and rest deeply. The trees have lost their leaves, revealing vistas that are invisible the rest of the year, revealing the beautiful form and structure of the trunks and branches themselves. The brief days and long, dark, cold nights make us naturally want to turn inward and conserve our energies.
I overheard this conversation between two men in the jacuzzi at my gym this morning: “It’s so dark for so many hours! We’re getting close to solstice now. I don’t know why, but I just feel like hibernating.” “Yeah, I just want to curl up with a good book and not be disturbed, and I’m not much of a reader the rest of the year.” I was smiling inwardly and thinking to myself, “I know why. It’s because we’re animals.”
But how many of us consciously accept the invitation? I was glad to learn that an organization called TreeSisters, whose mission is to empower women all over the world and swiftly reforest our world, absolutely gets it. I listened in to their regular full moon call, hosted by founder Clare Dakin, and enjoyed the guided meditation for December. “Drawing our life force back inside is like learning from the trees,” read Clare's invitation to the call, which continued:

Total stillness
In silence
Finally I can hear
The rivers of my veins flowing
And my roots breathing
As I fall back to the centre
Of my Self

Clare asked us to consider “drawing back our energies from all our ‘doing’, to feel what it’s like to really give our energy fully to ourselves.” What it was really like for me, honestly, was feeling anxious, antsy, impatient with myself. I’ve shed the compulsion to Christmas shop, instead choosing to give to charities that feed the hungry and protect the earth, but shouldn’t I be serving on several boards or at least volunteering somewhere? Oh sheesh, I thought as I listened to myself, that programming is so, so stubborn.
But besides that, I’m a single householder, a freelancer, and the sole breadwinner for me and my cat. I need clear examples of how it would look for me to slow down in December and still make the mortgage payment. What it looks like this year is that I focus during the brief daytime hours on projects for my editing clients, who seem to get a little frantic about wrapping things up by year’s end, and when the sun goes down I nap, read a novel, have dinner, play with my cat, go to bed early. I may have to let go of sending out a solstice letter to friends. Will they understand that this year, finally, I’m accepting December’s invitation and doing the best I can to hibernate?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sifting Through the Ashes

My ritual there was always the same.

First, immersion in the warm pool. Coming back into the body. Stretching limbs while thinking warmth and expansion. Pressing my back against the blue tiles and the concrete side of the pool, noticing with soft awareness the other bodies around me. Becoming present to the day, whether sunny or rainy; the sky, whether blue or gray. Saying hello to the fig tree whose generous branches spread overhead. Taking in the dramatic flower arrangement always placed carefully as if on an altar at the head of the pool. Listening to the trickling of the water into and out of the pool.

Then climbing the four stone steps past the sign requesting SILENCE and entering the shelter holding the small hot pool, affectionately known as the crab pit. Clinging to the sculptured metal railing while easing down oh-so-slowly into the scalding water, then swiftly pressing toward an edge or corner to get out of the way of all the other bodies. Turning the focus inward to dreams and visions while gazing out the wooden window frame at tree branches and hillside. Observing the array of objects on the altar, always a candle burning. Listening to the music of the waters.

Finally being able to stand it no longer and climbing out and up some more stone steps to the cold plunge. Entering swiftly, immersing up to the shoulders, holding still until the urge to scream and flee had passed. Ahhhhh. Finding steadiness and calm, observing the colorful flowers in the concrete vase styled as a goddess’s head, visualizing my body and heart being swept clean as the aquamarine waters flowed through. Someone would always come up the stairs and grab the branch of the fig tree with the wind chimes on it, making more music.

And then the best part, emerging pink-skinned and open from the cold plunge and taking a seat on the bench in front of the white ceramic statue of Kuan Yin at the base of the fig tree. The Tree at the Center of the World, I called it. Kuan Yin with her welcoming hand would receive all the secrets of my heart. And of many other hearts, to be sure. Stones, photos, feathers, pieces of jewelry placed on the altar whispered hopes and wishes and griefs. The day Princess Diana died, someone placed photos of Diana and Mother Teresa on the altar.

The AP photo in the Sacramento Bee is captioned, “A swimming pool at Harbin Hot Springs is filled with debris from the Valley fire, which destroyed the clothing-optional resort near Middletown.” Describing Harbin as a “clothing-optional resort” is like describing the Mona Lisa as “a painting of a woman with a half-smile.” So much is lost in the description. Harbin was a place on earth where humans had created Eden, where creativity and embodiment and beauty ruled, where other creatures were part of the community. These memories still nourish me as I sift through the ashes in my imagination.

I remember one spring day looking up at the tiny chartreuse leaves emerging from the Tree at the Center of the World and realizing with a start that they looked like praying hands. This is my prayer: That the fires of every kind kindled by climate change burn to zero everything unworkable in the human psyche. That the Heart Consciousness Church accomplish a resurrection and steward the lands of Harbin Hot Springs for another forty years and then another four hundred, ushering in the era when beauty will prevail on earth.

Monday, May 18, 2015

What I Am Hungry For

I've been silent for two years, getting EARTH & EROS ready for publication (it's coming out in October from White Cloud Press!) but this spilled out in a writing workshop yesterday.

When the belly softens, I hear it grumble
and instead of reaching for chocolate
I ask what it actually hungers for.

A circle of hands, arms, eyes to witness and support
lives of imagination and courage.

An Arctic safe for polar bears, wolves, seals,
and the caribou migration.

Cities filled with the swish of bicycles and the soft padding of feet,
not a car to be seen anywhere.

The bees and butterflies returning to fields of crops
grown without Roundup or the neonicotinoids that Bayer claims are safe.

Children who have been read stories
and nourished at the family dinner table
and not slaved to cell phones and computers.

Neighbors who would rather pass the time on porches and picking
fruit from the community orchard together
than disappear into the house and never come out.

Friends who are eager to meet at sidewalk cafes
to pass an afternoon or an evening
without having to check calendars and schedule weeks in advance.

Work that uses our deepest talents
for the good of all.

A collective recognition of the insanity of that glaring yellow behemoth
parked in Seattle’s harbor yelling Royal Dutch Shell.

An end to all wars.

These are the true hungers of the belly
of the Western woman

who the Dalai Lama says will save the world.