Self-Applied Ecotherapy

Taylor and I went out to the coast today. Our main destination was the trail to Drift Creek Falls, near Lincoln City. It was a lovely hike, and we made sure to detour up the North Loop to the old growth forest there.

Most of the forest, though, is newer growth, recovering from clearcutting in the timber industry. It was very easy to tell when we segued from the new growth to old growth. The most obvious sign, of course, was that the trees were much bigger, and spaced further apart. However, the underbrush, with multiple species of ferns, younger hemlock trees, salmonberry, and other smaller plants, was more varied than in the newer growth. The entire forest had a more completed look to it, more balanced to the eye. Conversely, the new growth had a bunch of trees mostly of the same age (no more than a few decades), a mix of hemlock and birch, and the undergrowth was mostly thick with ferns and other low-growing plants, and didn’t have a very well-developed middle layer with small trees.

On our trip down, I’d had a pretty rough day emotionally. I’ve been starting to wrestle with one of the deepest-seated pieces of bad conditioning in my head: perfectionism. The very short version of this is that I am incredibly hard on myself and push myself to reach impossible standards as a defense mechanism against criticism. I grew up with a lot of abuse from peers, and have continued to encounter people in my adulthood for whom it’s perfectly acceptable to emotionally abuse another person under the guise of being rightfully angry for some wrong that was done–even unintentionally. (It’s a pattern I’ve fallen into myself, but that’s a story for another time…) Anyway, what’s happened is that I learned to try and avoid this abuse of power through self-criticism, essentially trying to make an offering of emotional self-abuse in an attempt to placate anyone who might have been affected by a mistake I made, even one that was accidental. I just assumed that it was acceptable for others to react violently and aggressively when angry, disappointed, or frustrated, never mind the effect it had on me. Shouldn’t I be hurt, since I was the one who fucked up? Don’t we already live in a punitive society anyway, and doesn’t this fit that?

It’s only been recently that I’ve been coming to accept just how unhealthy this is all around, not just the coping mechanism I’ve adapted, but the abusive behavior in people in general. In the former, it’s a matter of harming the self emotionally for unnecessary reasons; my partner S. made the point that instead of tearing myself up, I need to be my best ally, since I have the most invested in my well-being. Therefore, I need to not be so mean to myself. And with the latter, the punitive behavior in others, just because a particular behavior is common doesn’t make it healthy. If I’m screwed up due to others’ revenge-seeking, and using others’ mistakes as an opportunity to blow off unrelated steam, or to otherwise ignore the effects their “righteous” anger has, I can’t be the only one with such scars.

And I was thinking about all this as I was hiking through that forest today, starting with the young growth, and then looping back into the old growth. I identified with the forest as I walked; here are the parallels:

–My emotional health and well-being is like the trees and other plants in the forest. They can be damaged, but the healing takes time, and more damage takes more time to heal. The most substantial parts of the forest, the trees, take the longest to recover.

–The demand for wood products, beyond what can be healthily supplied, is analogous to the demands of other people for emotional response from me beyond what is healthy for me to give. Forests are resources that can be sustainably drawn upon; so are emotions. Take too much, and you cause imbalance.

–Therefore, clearcutting the trees to maximize the immediate profit at the expense of long-term forest health is analogous to my tearing myself apart emotionally to procure a seemingly acceptable offering in the moment at the expense of my long-term emotional health.

–The young growth forest is analogous to the part that grows back to an extent, but historically has periodically been clearcut over and over again to make offerings to meet external demands. The old growth forest is the core that reminds me of what it was like to be emotionally healthy, and what I can be again, given enough time.

I can put the emotional clearcutting to a stop. But it will take time beyond that to allow the forest inside to regain old growth status. I looked at the young part of the forest today, and I saw that it was just beginning to really remember what how to be a forest; hopefully it’s protected now, since it’s a popular place to hike. The old part of the forest contained enough seeds of pioneer species to recolonize the land that had been ravaged by the timber industry and help the growth start anew. And I have, at the core of my being, memory of what it is to be healthy and whole. The pioneer species may not be as sturdy or long-lasting as trees, but they pave the way. As long as I respect my emotional space and give it the time it needs to recover, I can move beyond that disruptive, harmful pattern of emotional clearcutting.

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Hiking Near Mt. Hood

Today Tay and I went hiking out near Mt. Hood, on Barlow Trail. This was a new-to-us trail, and one that was recommended as light traffic and not too difficult in 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland. Actually, half our hike was on Barlow, and the other half was a detour towards Upper Twin Lake. We really, thoroughly, and truly enjoyed this hike. Despite it being one of the busiest hiking days of the year, and despite the fact that Mirror Lake, just a few miles away, was packed to the gills, we ran into less than a dozen people the entire time we were out there.

It was a six mile hike, three in and three out, and we averaged two miles an hour (though that was including the times we stopped to rest). The weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and upper 70s. The trails were actually pretty level a good bit of the way, and the inclines were easy, no scary, steep switchbacks. While there were occasional rocks and roots in the trail, and a few fallen logs, it was smooth hiking otherwise.

We encountered a pretty decent variety of wildlife. We saw a number of small toads, some greyish-brown, one reddish-brown, and one a lovely leaf-green. I was a bit surprised as we weren’t near any source of water, but I suppose the condensation at night is enough to keep them happy, and toads aren’t as water-dependent as frogs. We also saw a tiny little baby snake, dark dusty brown with lighter brown stripes down the sides and a rounded, non-poisonous head–no more than six inches long! We heard and saw several ravens; I forget just how big they get. No one who has ever seen a raven will ever mistake a crow for one again, that’s for sure. We also startled a lone elk; we both heard it bounding down the mountainside, and Tay caught a glimpse before it disappeared into the trees. There was a single Douglas squirrel on our way out, and a nesting osprey on the Columbia River on our drive home. And, of course, there were numerous blackflies and mosquitoes, who greeted me with “Mmmm, you’re the best thing I’ve seen all day!”

I really need to go through the stack of field guides I was given recently to try and identify some of the plants I saw, too. I know I saw lots and lots of wild strawberries; they were just blooming, and if I were to show up in a few weeks no doubt there’d be fruit (or empty stems, depending on how popular they were!). I know a conifer when I see one, and I’m pretty sure I know which one is Western hemlock, but I couldn’t point out a Douglas fir from a lineup. Clearly I’m not enough of a Northwesterner yet. I can identify cinquefoils, though (five petals!). And I knew that the puffball-looking mushroom near the destroying angels was probably not a safe bet to eat.

As I was walking, I saw numerous hoofprints from horses, the U-shaped imprints from the steel shoes embedded in the dry earth. I imagined the sound of the hooves striking the hard-packed dirt, and while my own feet were too soft, I could thump the ground with my walking stick and pretend. On our way out, not three minutes after I remarked to Tay that we hadn’t seen anyone on the Twin Lakes trail, three riders passed us. The first two were on large brown mules; the third was on a skittish, stocky, short-legged red bay mare who looked to have some pre-Thoroughbred Quarter Horse in her. Tay and I stood to the side of the trail and let them pass.

We really enjoyed the hike, and we intend to go back again at least a few times this year. If we hadn’t been getting chewed to pieces by the bugs (having unwisely not worn any repellent) by the time we hit Upper Twin Lake, we could have added another few miles to the hike, looped down around Lower Twin Lake, and then come back around to Twin Lakes Trail and back down Barlow. So we’ll be doing that another time. Plus there are numerous other trails that branched off from Barlow and Twin Lakes, and plenty of exploring to do. (And maybe next time I’ll remember the camera so I can get some pictures!)

While right now we’re day hikers, eventually I want to collect the right equipment for packing-in camping. Barlow Trail is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, which attracts a lot of hardcore hikers who will walk it for weeks at a time. I’m nowhere near that point, but I want this year to at least be one where I get more experience with camping. Even if we don’t do the pack-in thing this year, I do want to spend more nights outdoors.