Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Recipe for Sanity

Winter Solstice 2016

I switch off the NewsHour feeling horrified and confounded. What can I do to help stop this slow-motion cataclysm? Signing a slew of online petitions expressing outrage does not satisfy.

I trudge out to the wetland through an inch of new snow. Little boys let out of school play hide-and-seek with plastic Uzis. (Yes, honestly, and this isn’t Baltimore or Chicago but Corvallis, Oregon.)

Sanity, anyone? I find it at the wetland. A fat thrush lights on the branch of a low tree and shakes some ice off the twigs. A small brown squirrel darts across the path, jumps onto the fence railing and dashes along it, and finally leaps into the brambles where little brown birds are flitting and pecking at seeds. This will go on. The world will go on.

Back home, I dig out the recipe for sanity I once composed and post it prominently on the fridge. Now more than ever, I want to take this to heart:

Remember the landscape of your birth. Love your body and its memory of this place. Know true north and follow the red cord of passion. Listen to tree talk, water words, the voice of raven and hummingbird, and trust these at least as much as human speech. When the trees drop their leaves, let go of all you have outgrown. When the earth lies cold and still, rest. Blossom in season. When they tell you that you must kill for your country, or pay for the killing, talk back. Be faithful to what you love. Celebrate beauty every day.

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.