Sometimes It’s Hard to Admit I Need the Wild

I spent this past weekend at PantheaCon in San Jose, CA. It’s been one of the highlights of my year since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 2006, and as always it was a wonderfully executed convention wherein my interaction with others was mainly in five and ten minute conversations in passing. I got to speak on plant and fungus totems (and got some preorders for my upcoming book on the topic) and still feel like an utter dumbass for missing the Llewellyn ancestors panel because I thought it was at 1:30pm instead of 11:00am.

But that mix-up was part of a personal theme for this year’s PCon. February’s been a challenging month for me; after the burst of positive energy that resulted in my event Curious Gallery, I found myself drooping and tired afterward, not at all surprising given that it was a LOT of work, and because I’m enough of an introvert to need some recharge time after big social events. The time that I thought I’d have to recover before PCon, though, was taken up instead by one of the freak snowstorms that Portland gets about every five years or so. It was only a few inches, but given that we have a dearth of plows and sand/cinders, only the highways were getting plowed for the first couple of days, and I was NOT about to go sliding around messy streets with a bunch of people not used to snow driving, chains or no chains. I more or less spent the better part of four days apartment-bound, minus a walk to the grocery store for rations. And once the snow melted, I had to start getting prepared to head south.

Sycamore bark, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. Lupa, 2014.

Sycamore bark, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. Lupa, 2014.

Which means that I haven’t gone hiking all month, and barely did last month due to Curious Gallery prep. Even before we hit the road, I was cranky and travel-anxious and generally out of sorts. Throughout the weekend I kept finding myself running short on energy and social tolerance, and while I very much enjoyed my time at the convention, I felt I wasn’t as present as I’ve been in previous years. I kept finding myself looking forward to getting outside at some point soon.

So because my Saturday schedule at PCon was almost entirely open, I decided to go hiking, and ended up at Alum Rock Park east of San Jose proper. It was an incredibly refreshing break, quiet other than occasional families with loudly excited children, and some amazing views from the South Rim Trail. I was surrounded by Steller’s jays, a lovely reminder of one of my “home” totems back in Oregon, and broad-shouldered sycamore trees, and uplifted ridges covered in scrub, with Penitencia Creek meandering throuugh it all in spite of drought. And then on our way home, my friend who I was traveling with and I stopped off at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. It was just at dusk, so the birds and jackrabbits were out in force; I traded calls with great horned owls, and we enjoyed a lovely sunset on the water.

So I got my wild time and I felt much better for it. But I admit I felt some guilt. I’ve long been an advocate for green cities, partly as a way to free up more space for wildlife without humans interfering, and partly to make cities more habitable, especially for those who are unable to leave them. Granted, San Jose isn’t exactly overflowing with sustainability (though I’m sure it has more resources than meet the eye, mixed in the confluence of interstates and the airport and such). But I spend most of my time in Portland in a neighborhood with lots of green space and yards. Shouldn’t that tide me over?

South Rim Trail, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

South Rim Trail, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

It’s good for maintenance, to be sure. But I always need regular trips to wilderness areas, whether forest or desert or coastline. Nothing refreshes me quite like the quiet and soft fascination, and I don’t think it’s just my introversion. Something deep inside me needs those open areas to roam, perhaps even more than most people around me who may enjoy and benefit from it, but don’t necessarily have a deep, soul-sprung craving for wilderness.

I suppose the conundrum I’m left with is: does this need for wilderness negate the concept of green cities? Is a more sustainable metropolis only a temporary solution to a problem that can only be cured with the sort of setting we evolved in–open, untamed, populated by all the wild beings we grew up with? Maybe the sorts of people who reblog pictures of wilderness settings with sayings like Thoreau’s “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” and the anonymous “nature, not cities” are right.

But wait–that’s falling right into the false dilemma fallacy. Surely there’s some middle ground in between “stuck in a depressing, dirty city” and “a perfectly clean idyllic life deep in the wilderness, insulated from all other humans”. My need for wilderness on a regular basis is not proof that city life is wholly unsuitable for me. I can survive in a rural area much better than my urban-born partner could, and there are days I long for a life in a place with deer in the back yard and quiet, star-filled nights. But cities are where my work is, by and large, and they’re generally more friendly to those of us of alternative subcultures. There are benefits to Portland, to be sure.

Mineral spring grotto at Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

Mineral spring grotto at Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

When I feel that deep longing for wilderness, it’s not a sign that I need to abandon the city for good. In fact, at the end of my hike or camping trip, I feel energized and ready to return to the busy-ness of my everyday urban life. (Plus the traditional hot shower upon my return home is a definite perk.) I love the quiet of small towns, but right now I need the resources and opportunities and diversity of cities. Furthermore, there are plenty of restorative environments within Portland proper, the largest being Forest Park. There’s no need to abandon urban life; I just sometimes need to tilt the scale more toward “get out into the woods more and don’t work so hard!”

Like most potential answers to a complex problem, my solution is likely to be an ongoing balancing act comprised in part of reflection sessions like this one. And a challenge to a strongly-held conviction is not cause for worry; instead, as always, it’s an invitation to recalibrate that conviction. As my younger self would have said, “Stagnation is death!” (Some of the time, anyway.)

A PSA, and Escape to the Desert

First, a quick public service announcement: I got a temporary full time job over the summer doing mental health counseling at my old internship site, and so I’ve closed my art commissions list for the time being. You can read more at the link, but in short, I’m really excited about the job. It’s been wonderful working more in service with the non-human end of my community, but this will reconnect me with serving my human community (in more capacity than making artwork and writing things for them). Actually, let’s make it a pair of PSAs, since I wrote earlier this month about ethics and consuming animals: here’s a Kickstarter for those who want to support a more ethical approach to omnivorism. Now, on to the main event!


Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

So earlier this week my friend Emily and I escaped to the desert of Eastern Oregon to explore the John Day Fossil Beds. Neither of us had been there, and since my upcoming job will be keeping me in town during the week, I’m trying to get as much further-away travel done before it starts next month. We decided an overnight trip would be enough for this first excursion, and so she dragged me out of my apartment bright and early on Monday morning.

It would be impossible to describe to you every wonderful moment of this trip. We started our journey with a stopover at the Bridal Veil post office to give this ghost town survivor some much-needed business, and to stretch our photography muscles for the trip. Our journey through the Columbia River Gorge and then south into the desert was puncuated by windmills, abandoned houses, and many stops to marvel at vistas and break out the cameras. We managed to achieve the trifecta–we visited the Painted Hills, Clarno, and Sheep Rock units, and were able to explore each in some detail. We went to the Cant Ranch with its century-old house and rusted-out tractors, and we stayed the night in Dayville, Oregon in a little cabin guarded by two of the least threatening Golden Retrievers ever. We hiked in the Blue Basin surrounded by towers of azure-tinted tuff, and Emily watched as I scrambled down a river slope to investigate an elk skull a hunter had left behind. We thoroughly investigated the paleontology center, and each came out with a postcard adorned with fossil skulls. We came home on the 84 accompanied by a lengthy sunset in the Gorge and a half-moon surrounded by stars. In short, it was just about as perfect a trip as we could have hoped for.

People speak about the desert being lifeless. Those of us who have been there and who pay attention know better; it thrives, in clear and radiant defiance of the threat of scant water and harsh weather. We saw our first black-billed magpies and I snapped a picture of a Say’s phoebe. There were ravens and vultures and ospreys galore, robins and juncos and even a wayward Canada goose. I saw what might have been a pronghorn walking through the sagebrush in a dry creek bed. And the “alert” put into effect by the park–that we must be notified of the presence of wildflowers–served to introduce us to the local flora. Purple silky lupine and bright yellow balsamroot vied for attention among rabbitbrush and juniper berries, and as the days warmed up the piquant scent of the sage filled the air. Even a few hardy lichens flattened themselves against the rocks like dried crusts of paint daubed by an itinerant artist cleaning her brushes after completing the masterpiece of the Hills.

Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

And, of course, there’s the human life. Not much evidence remains of the original indigenous people who made a living in these exact spots, though we drove home through lands owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Picture Gorge is named for the pictographs left by some of the original inhabitants. The Cant Ranch exhibits, though mainly concerned with the primarily Scottish immigrants who settled in the area in the 1800s, did allude some to the people they displaced. Both populations are impressive in their own way–the one for having created a way of life here for such a long and sustained time, and the other for managing to thrive even when dropped into the harshest environment many had ever experienced. I admit, though, that I felt a lot of frustration for the proliferation of fences along almost every road, warning off anyone of any descent from crossing over into “private property”. All these mesas and hills to be climbed and explored, and yet we were limited to the few trails in the Fossil Beds units. The human story, it would seem, is punctuated by barbed wire, even in its most open and rambling pages.

What struck me most about our trip, though, was just how evident the geological story is. The Fossil Beds are unique in that erosion has bared the layers of millions of years, sedimentation and lava flows and ash falls and flooding. You can look at a high peak like Sheep Rock and read the strata like a prehistory book. When you realize the highest crags of mesas near Picture Gorge are where the valley floor was seven million years ago, and everything has eroded since, you can imagine how high the ground would have been above your head now, and wonder at the immense span of time that it took to build up those landforms in the first place. All those millions of years alluded to in books and documentaries are set into stone here.

I and others have often referred to watersheds as the hearts of bioregions. This is true; however, the (literal) bedrock of the watershed is the geology. Everything else in a bioregion–where the rain goes once it falls and whether it collects anywhere, what the weather and climate patterns are like, what flora and fauna can live there, etc.–all these are determined in large part by the geology of the place. The landforms in and surrounding the bioregion are the canvas upon which everything else there is painted. So it is in the desert. Forty-four million years ago, the places we visited were a lush rain forest, and the fossils from that time reflect that. The uplifting of the Cascade mountains to the west created a rain shadow later that began the process of desertification, compounded by multiple and varied volcanic activities in the area over time. From rain forest, the land changed to deciduous hardwood forest, then grasslands, and finally to the sage-and-juniper-studded desert of today.

Most of the time, the layers of ages are buried far beneath our feet, accessible only through the occasional cave or road cutaway, or the fieldwork of geologists (when funding permits). We don’t think about anything but the top layer, the part we think is the main player in our lives. But each stripe of soil and rock rests on another; it’s terra all the way down. Isn’t that the way it is with us, too?

Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.

I hope the desert with all its layers, visible and hidden, survives us. I have never seen so much land with so few roads; even in the Midwest rural areas where I grew up the spaces between towns was netted by county roads all over. Here, there were thousands upon thousands of acres broken up mainly by the barbed wire, a few roads, and the occasional agricultural endeavor. I hope I never live to see the Fossil Beds surrounded by cookie-cutter houses and billboards advertising new subdivisions “for those wanting to escape the city!” Here there are more than just traces of wilderness, more than just a scant reminder of what the land looked like before humans exploded into seven billion. And yet even I fall prey to the shifting baseline problem–my baseline is of sagebrush scrublands cut with fences and two-lane highways, grazed by cattle and sheep, and encroached upon by cheatgrass and the invasive tumbleweed produced by prickly Russian thistle. Three hundred years ago, only the sagebrush was here; the rest were yet to come. What to me might seem like an impossible walk back in time would be, to others, not just preservation but restoration.

I leave you with a few more pictures (as with all of the, you can click them to get bigger versions); in another century will these represent something long-lost? Perhaps if most of us can visit the desert and then kiss it good-bye again, rather than insisting on cohabitation, there will be the chance of continued hospitality without being ungracious guests.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.

The Say's phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put. Lupa, 2013.

The Say’s phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put for more than a few seconds at a time. Lupa, 2013.

Recent Hikes in the Gorge

The past few weeks I’ve been rekindling my love affair with the Columbia River Gorge. Sure, I’ll travel out to the coast with my partner every few months, and I’m planning an overnight trip with a friend to the East Oregon desert later this month. I love exploring new trails in the area, and I can’t wait until the snow’s melted enough around Mt. Hood that I can revisit some of my favorite places there. But the Gorge has always been my first love here, and it’s there that I continually return, year after year. I’m especially fond of the Oregon side, west of the Cascades. I never get tired of the basalt cliffs covered in Douglas fir and Western hemlock, the red-tinted ground bursting with wood sorrel and sword ferns, and the air filled with the spring sounds of Steller’s jays, winter wrens, and Northern flickers, among many others. Still, the eastern deserts, and all along the Washington side, I find more and more places to explore and appreciate.

Eagle Creek Trail, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

Eagle Creek Trail, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

I’ve been there three times in the past two weeks. First, I headed up the historical Eagle Creek trail, one of the earliest modern hiking trails in the Gorge. It’s one of the busiest trails in the area, and I must have seen close to twenty other hikers even though it was the middle of the week. I’m especially cautious as there are some narrow points; one stretch in particular overlooks a sheer drop, and there’s only a steel cable set into the rock on the inside of the trail to hang onto. I tend to only go on dry days; there have been deaths from people falling when the trail was slick with rain and ice. Still, if you can handle the vertigo it’s an absolutely stunning hike up into Eagle Creek’s canyon. This time I only went as far as Lower Punch Bowl Falls, where I watched a water ouzel splashing and diving in the water for a bit before turning back.

A lot of hikes I just spend stomping around, exploring the terrain and maybe taking a couple of cell phone pictures. However, this time I took my good camera with me, and got some nice shots here and there. The one I chose to share isn’t one of the best; it’s out of focus further back. But it was the only one I got with the sunlight streaming through the trees, and I was quite grateful for the change from winter’s rains. Apparently everyone else there was, too, since the birds were singing up a storm, and the trilliums were just opening their white and purple petals. I could still see snow in the upper parts of the mountains around me, but with sun and the temperature near 70, I could feel myself warming up and drying out.

Speaking of warm and dry, last week I headed out to Catherine Creek on the Washington side of the river, starting to get into more dry, deserty terrain. This is the best time of year to go there, as the meadows are packed full of wildflowers, over 80 species thereof. My visits to Catherine Creek have historically been adventurous. The first time I had to run a couple of miles back to the car as one of the few thunderstorms I’ve seen in the Northwest came rolling in from the south. And then when I went with my partner the following week, we ended up getting horribly lost and had to bushwhack our way down the slope to get back to the parking lot, avoiding poison oak and thorns all the way.

Grass Widow, one of the iconic flowers of Catherine creek. Lupa, 2013.

Grass Widow, one of the iconic flowers of Catherine creek. Lupa, 2013.

This time was thankfully uneventful, at least in that regard. Once again I decided to be my amateur photographer self, trying to get better shots of the flowers than I had last year. So I didn’t make it more than a couple of miles in a loop, but I did have a lot of fun snapping shots of the flora (and occasional microfauna). Again, the birds were out in force–juncos, swallows, scrub jays going “VWEET! VWEET!”, and even a hairy woodpecker tapping away at a pine tree. The flowers might get all the attention here, but the little flying dinosaurs are nothing to sneeze at.

I will admit that I was a bit disappointed there were no storms this time. I used to be absolutely terrified of storms when I grew up in the Midwest because we were always told at school to watch out for tornadoes. Since I moved to the west side of the Cascades in 2006, though, I can count on one hand the number of wind and thunder storms I’ve gotten to see–two in the desert, and one on the coast. I always manage to be out of town when the rare storm hits Portland, too. Still, I was grateful for the warm and sun again, even if I did bring a plastic bag to stash the camera in if the rain managed to make it across the mountains.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon back in Oregon. When I’d gone to Eagle Creek, I noticed there was another trail across a suspension bridge while I walked from the parking lot to the Eagle Creek trailhead. I’d made note of it and decided to check back another time, and yesterday was the day! Turns out the bridge connects with Gorge Trail #400, which parallels (and in some places replaces pieces of) the historic Columbia River Highway, the first highway through the Gorge to Portland. The sign pointed to Tanner Creek three miles ahead, so I decided that’d be my turnaround point. I’d left the camera at home this time since I wanted to do some serious trail-stomping, but since it was already almost 2pm by the time I arrived, I figured six miles would be about right. (Admittedly I did take a few wildflower pictures with my phone, like the one to the left.)

Red-flowering currant along Gorge Trail 400. Lupa, 2013.

Red-flowering currant along Gorge Trail 400. Lupa, 2013.

This was a fairly relaxed hike; other than a few steep spots and switchbacks it was relatively level. The only downside was the noise–since the Columbia River Highway has been joined by Interstate 84, the traffic noise is much more significant. The only time I mostly couldn’t hear the noise was whenever I’d be right next to one stream or another, and even then the passing semis were loud enough to be heard. Still, the beauty of the trail more than made up for it, and it was surprisingly lonely out there. The only times I ran into other people were at trailheads–for other trails. Maybe people just don’t like the traffic, but I think I’ll be spending more time on 400 myself.

I did get some really good wildlife sightings. As I was sitting for a late lunch, a pair of juvenile bald eagles flew overhead low enough that I could hear the wind woosh through their feathers as they banked, and their appearance sparked alarms from wrens and a large pileated woodpecker above me. I got to see another ouzel bouncing along through Tanner Creek when I rested there before turning back, and there were robins fighting like crazy over little bits of territory. I think the highlight of my day, though, was when I was walking back in the late afternoon, almost to the trailhead again, and I stopped next to a slope of small moss-covered boulders to get a good view of the Columbia. As I did, I heard the call of a pika amid the rocks. I really love pikas. I think they’re adorable, like little furry squeak toys. I also get the sense that they’d be very indignant if they knew I thought about them that way.

Stomping around all those trails got me to doing some research on the area. I found out, much to my delight, that the Eagle Creek trail connects to Wahtum Lake, which is at the foot of Chinedere Mountain, one of my very favorite places (here’s a write-up I did of my last backpacking trip there this past August). It’s about 26 miles round-trip, so about a four-day time commitment since there are some steep spots, and it apparently has some fantastic waterfalls along the way. I’d love to spend the summer conditioning myself and then do a late summer backpacking trip (anyone interested in joining me?)

I think I may revisit Catherine Creek next week; there are some parts of the trails I haven’t been to yet, and it’s one of those places where the wildflower show up in stages so there’s always something new. And then, of course, out to the desert, where I’ll be in good company visiting the John Day Fossil Beds which I’ve been meaning to get to for AGES. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few more pictures from the past couple of weeks (as with all the pictures on this blog, you can click them to make them bigger.)

Dead fir tree covered in lichens, Eagle Creek. Lupa, 2013.

Dead fir tree covered in lichens, Eagle Creek. Lupa, 2013.

Small shelf fungus of unknown species (suggestions?) Lupa, 2013

Small shelf fungus of unknown species, Eagle Creek, open to identification suggestions? Lupa, 2013

A not-particularly-good picture of the hairy woodpecker I saw, but I rarely get wildlife shots at all, so you get to see this one. Lupa, 2013.

A not-particularly-good picture of the hairy woodpecker I saw at Catherine Creek, but I rarely get wildlife shots at all, so you get to see this one. Lupa, 2013.

Ponderosa pine cone and needles. Lupa, 2013.

Ponderosa pine cone and needles, Catherine Creek. Lupa, 2013.

Powell Butte, 11-15-12

For the last sunny day we’ll be getting for a while, I decided to head out to Powell Butte. While a lot of my favorite hiking spots are way out in the middle of nowhere, Powell Butte is much closer in, a quick drive to Gresham. It’s the first place I saw a wild coyote in Oregon, my favorite outdoor running locale, and has one of my very favorite red cedar stands in the area. I’m trying to get myself back into condition after last month’s illness, and while I’m still comparatively slow and lacking in stamina, Powell Butte was just what I needed.

It was tougher to get settled in as there’s ongoing construction of a new water reservoir there, so there were trucks and backhoes and workers shouting and the like. But once I got over the crest of the butte and down into the woods, things quieted out a lot. That’s one of the challenges of urban wild places–if your aim is to get away from the noise and busy-ness of the city, you may find it follows you in spite of your efforts. Still, if the Savannah sparrows and the woolly-booger caterpillars can hack it day after day, I can deal with a little extra chaos in exchange for getting to wander this beautiful–if ever-changing–place.

Did I mention these were BIG leaf maples?

Like so many of the large hills in the Portland area, Powell Butte is an extinct cinder-cone volcano; it has a broad, flat top and the sides gently slope, so it’s not that challenging as far as hikes go, but it is a lovely one with a lot of local history. It still has an old orchard from when it was farmland. Supposedly the trees that remain are over 100 years old; sadly one of them had blown over in a recent storm. The rolling grasslands turn into a beautiful forest of old Western red cedar, big leaf maple, and Douglas fir, with nettles and mushrooms as part of the undergrowth. For being so close to houses–you can see them through the trees on the western edge, especially this time of year–it’s one of my favorite quiet spots. Striding across the grasslands makes me feel like an adventurer, but the forested area brings me into walking meditation.

I got there fairly late in the afternoon and had plans for the evening so I couldn’t stay as long as I might have liked, but I did get my wilderness fix for a bit. And I even got a poem out of it! Enjoy:

The trails are a muddy tangle;
Gallantly the maples lay lay down their cloaks,
Perhaps a little too well! The golden-brown patchwork
Covers us all.
Indignant mushrooms brush off the kind gesture
And get back to the business of growing:
Little round ghosts in the gloom.
I came to see the forest in its tattered Autumn best,
But I see the sun slung low
Across the land, and I must go.
But I will return (I promise),
I will return.

In Which We Determine I Am Not an Indoor Wolf

I have spent the better part of two weeks being sick with a gut bug. I’m almost recovered at this point but am still fatigued enough that it’s going to be a couple more days before I can reliably leave the apartment for more than a little while. It’s definitely going to be a bit longer before I get to go hiking again. But even going outside so far as to walk down the block has been a challenge. I went out Friday afternoon to walk an errand, and was overjoyed to get absolutely drenched in the rain, simply because it meant I wasn’t inside.

Now, my apartment is a pretty cozy place to be. I have just about everything I need here–my work, lots of books, my computer, company in the form of my partner, and so forth. So being restricted to this place isn’t the worst thing in the world. Even on the days when I was so tired I mostly just slept, I had a nice, warm, comfy bed to snooze and snuggle in. I even popped open the bedroom window during the day so I could see the cherry and maple trees outside, with the squirrels and scrub jays and crows busying themselves with autumn chores. So it sure beat being stuck in a hospital somewhere (not that I was anywhere near that sick this time around).

Still, it wasn’t outside. And due to being sick twice now in the past month, my outdoor time has been almost nil. To be quite honest, it’s been driving me up the wall. Once festival season settled out for the year and I was able to get out more, I got used to my weekly hikes and other sojourns. And now they’re sorely missed. I’ve felt so starved for outdoor time that even walking downstairs to the mailbox or the car has felt like a banquet of smells, sights, and sounds for my sensory enjoyment.

The entire experience been an immediate illustration of the human need for nature. I noticed a definite difference between the first time I was able to get in the car and have my partner drive me to the grocery store, and the first time I was able to walk a mile around my neighborhood on one of the last sunny days. Sure, the former was a change of scenery, and the source of much-needed provisions. But the latter….that fed my spirit. I often take for granted just how much the trees and the gardens and the small creatures in my urban neighborhood improve my overall well-being. That first walkabout was a strong reminder of what had been missing. I went from a small space of a few rooms and the endless distractions of the internet, to a full, living world brimming over with flora and fauna. I encountered thousands of living beings–the last remaining orb weaving spider, chrysanthemums, moss greening the rain-soaked pavement, my fellow humans jostling for space in a small market.

I vary from day to day how much I’m able to get out, but every moment under the sky is precious now. It was before, too, but never to such a conscious degree. And every day I direct my efforts in growing stronger and healthier with the goal of being well enough to hike, even if it’s just a small hike. That’s what has helped keep my sanity intact in these days of illness and fatigue and confinement. Between my walks outside, and the promise of more wilderness, I can keep myself calm while I heal.

I am not an indoor wolf. I never had the ability to fool myself into thinking that the city was enough, that the virtual reality of the internet and all its shining interruptions could replace the living world. I have uses for technology, of course, but they are no substitute. I am a living, breathing, evolved being, and like my ancestors before me, I need open landscapes to roam. We may have developed some incredible and even beneficial technologies over the past century, but we are still the mammalian animal, Homo sapiens, and evolution doesn’t work so quickly that tech replaces biology.

So I wait as patiently as I can for my body to complete its healing process from this damnable illness, letting my immune system work its magic, and taking in calories and rest as I need to to help it along. And then someday soon I’ll find myself strapping on my day pack and picking up my hiking stick, and I’ll be on the trail again before I know it.

Mt. Hood At Last

Festival season is over, and I’ve been trying to shift gears into a slower, more home-based lifestyle. I’ve started picking up my practice of weekly hikes, and yesterday I decided to reach for one of my personal goals–hike on Mt. Hood itself.

Mt. Hood is the closest and most noticeable of the snow-covered peaks surrounding Portland; there are places in the region where you can see all the way from Mt. Rainier in Washington to Mt. Jefferson in central Oregon. But Hood dominates to the East, a large gray andesite peak with remnant glaciers adorning the top. The Multnomah tribe, a small group of the Chinook Nation who were wiped out by European-borne disease in the 1800s, referred to the mountain as Wy’east; some people still choose to use that name. While for me the Columbia River is the heart of my home, Hood has been this brooding presence ever drawing my attention. I’ve hiked near it, at Twin Lakes near Barlow Pass, and Mirror Lakes, and I’ve driven 26 and 35 all the way around it. But it wasn’t until I found out about the McNeil Point hike that I decided that I was ready to get to know this mountain more closely.

The hike itself was rather pleasant, not as steep as I had thought. My idea of “strenuous mountain hike” has been steep switchbacks on Dog Mountain or Kings Mountain, and most of the trail here was pretty level. There was a surprising number of hikers, too–the parking lot was so full that I had to park on the side of the road with a few other cars! I kept running into these two nice guys, too, who were on the same course (and made one of the same wrong turns, too!) I also chatted a bit with a couple of members of Friends of the Columbia Gorge; we talked a bit about politics in an election year, and I asked about their organization, which I think I’m going to join.

The wildlife was out in force, too. I flushed several Northern flickers from the grass on the sides of the road as I drove up to the trailhead, and I heard, though didn’t see, the occasional raven. There were lots and lots of chipmunks; I startled one near the start of the hike, but he (or she) quickly recovered, and sat about four feet away from me foraging for seeds and berries. Might have been the most chill chipmunk I’ve ever seen outside of a city park! The juncos were in full attendance as well, and higher up in the talus slopes I could hear pikas making their squeaky-toy noises. (If you’ve never heard a pika, allow David Attenborough to introduce you to this most adorable of mountain critters.) Lots and lots and lots of Douglas fir and hemlock trees, too, and the trail was lined with thick clumps of beargrass and some wild rhododendron. Erratic boulders deposited by long-retreated glaciers sat like large resting animals in the brush, and glacial streams trickled down the slopes.

It wasn’t the steepest hike I’ve done, but it was the longest–partly because I went almost a mile the wrong way down the Pacific Crest Trail and then had to turn around. Between that and another wrong turn and backtrack I added two miles to the nine miles of the McNeil hike proper I managed. I’d had the grand plan of going all the way up to the stone shelter at the edge of the treeline and snowline, though things didn’t work out quite that way. The trail disappears once it dips into the valley of McGee creek, and so I just poked around the valley a bit before deciding to head on back. I’d gotten a later start than I had intended and didn’t reach the valley until 4pm; with only three hours of daylight left and this being a new trail to me, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stomping around in the dark and cold!

Still, I had the time to be truly amazed by being so close to Hood’s peak. I went far enough up McGee’s valley that I was probably within a quarter mile or so of the base of the peak proper. You can see in the photo here just how close I got! (I’ve seen several other people’s versions of this shot online, too, so I know it’s a bit cliche, but I wanted to mark the moment for myself.) Surrounded by wildflowers and the cold meltwater of the McGee, I imagined I was in another world. And Hood didn’t seem so scary, either–perhaps a little brusque and cranky, but I’d had so much help from other hikers and the trails themselves getting there that I felt rather welcomed.

I am normally a solo hiker; I prefer going at my own pace, and dislike too much chatter. But as it was getting late and I needed to hurry back down the mountainside, I met up with the two hikers I’d been sort of pacing with earlier, and asked to accompany them down to the lower trail. So we rather quickly ate up about two miles of rough trail in an hour, and once we were within a mile of the trailhead I bid them good evening, with plenty of sunlight left to make my own way back. There are two options for taking the Timberline Trail back to the Topspur trailhead where I started; one goes through fairly standard fir and hemlock woods, but the other follows a narrow trail overlooking the valley of the Sandy River–not only do you get a great look at Hood in all its glory, but you can see the tiny glacial trickle that is the source of the Sandy. In the late afternoon sunlight Hood was beautifully illuminated, and I kept stopping to gaze in awe. Here’s my last photo before I headed back into the forest:

Just for fun, here’s a version of the above photo with a bit of notation–you may need to click on the photo to get the bigger version so you can see my notes!

All in all, it was a very good hike. While I’m definitely not in a place where I can climb Hood’s peak proper, I feel much more comfortable with the spirit of the mountain. It truly is a place of beauty, with the deep evergreen forests, and the alpine meadows with little surprising ponds. I think next year I may try doing a backpacking trip up there, though I might take another shot at the shelter on McNeil Point later this month.

Chinedere Mountain, 1 August 2012

[I am coming into the final stretch of the festival season; by mid-October I should hopefully be posting more often. In the meantime, here’s a bit of something to read.]

Earlier in the month I took my very first solo backpacking trip, heading up Chinedere Mountain southwest of Hood River, OR. I had done this hike before as a backpacking trip with a friend a couple of years ago, but needed to make it my own this time around. So I chose the night of the full moon for the best lighting for late-night bathroom breaks and whatnot, and with a pack roughly a third of my own body weight (I am a tiny thing, so even having an ultralight kit is a lot of weight for me!) I did the two mile hike up to the peak of Chinedere. It’s a relatively easy hike, with a nice gradual climb most of the way, and the scree at the top has been arranged to make roomy paths and some sheltering dugouts on the lee side of the peak to give tents a little extra wind protection. There’s an excellent view of Mt. hood’s north side, too, one of my favorite features of it. Since I was there in the middle of the week there was nobody else there, though I had plenty of phone reception in case of emergencies, and it’s not an area frequented by bears or cougars, so I was pretty safe.

The full moon is the one time during the month when the moon rises at the same time the sun is setting. Where I live in Portland there are too many trees and buildings for me to see either happen, so this was a really unique opportunity for me. I was inspired to a bit more poetry, and so here it is:

In talus nest I sit
Between the sunset and the moonrise,
He sunk as low as she is risen.
They have agreed I shall not be without light while I am here.
For before she beds again, up he will fly,
Over that ridge in the east,
On which she sits, a queen enthroned.
She takes up the tattered hems of his robes
And mends them over her shoulders
Brass into silver.
He draws up a well of ink
With which to clothe her hips,
One last gift to her before he sleeps.
For a moment, Hood blushes to see them
So intimate across the entire sky.
The sun climaxes in a flood of amber and rose;
The moon sings her love in blue and mauve.
Their tenderness rings the world around me,
Safe in my talus nest.

And here is what I woke to in the morning (you can click it to get a bigger version):

Photo by Lupa, 2012

First Hike of 2012

I have been stuck indoors too much as of late, between book revisions and artwork frenzies. So today we had a warm enough day (in the low 50s) that I decided to venture out to the Gorge for a hike. I had originally intended to do something relatively low-altitude like Triple Falls, since I wasn’t sure how far down the snowline would be out in the Gorge area. However, as I drove further out I didn’t see snow on the lower peaks, and so I decided my first hike of the year should be one of my very favorites–the Multnomah-Wahkeena Loop.

Now, I’ve rather out of condition. Up until this past September, I was running 5k three times a week. However, once I graduated with my M.A., I hit the ground running on some creative projects, and unfortunately let the running lapse (though I have been on some hikes in the meantime). So it’s only been in the past couple of weeks that I’ve started to run again, and I’m nowhere near the condition I was before. I was prepared to turn around and go back if necessary. Happily, not only did I make it around the entire loop in three hours, but a lot of my slow-down was due to adjusting my hip pack, taking entirely too many pictures, food/water breaks, etc. I actually did less resting than I normally do, probably due in part to the cooler air, as well as having been cooped up inside too long!

I’ve never done this hike later than late November, when it was still a bit fall-like, and if I recall correctly, sunny and warm. (Autumn likes to stay warm here for a while.) So it was a real treat getting to see what this place is like in full dormancy. The only (not-human and not-dog) animal I saw the entire time was a single female dark-eyed junco in some brush near the end. However, the plant life was incredible! The firs and other conifers were still spreading their branches for sun and mist, and the ferns had nothing left green except their newest fronds, so they were these spectacularly bright green arrays against the dark brown of dead leaves and soil.

One new development was that as I was hiking, and observing everything around me, my mind kept accessing information that I’ve been picking up from science-based TED Talks, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and other videos on YouTube from various scientists. I listen to these and watch what I can while I’m making artwork. Having enriched my store of knowledge about everything from geology to biology to physics and then some, I felt as I hiked that I had more of the backstory to this place I was a part of for that time. It wasn’t distraction, though. Rather, knowing things like just how long the processes of evolution have taken to get to this point only served to make me appreciate my fellow beings more. I could look at the canyons I hiked through and imagine how the rivers and streams had slowly cut down the earth over time, wearing these enormous grooves over thousands and even, in some cases, millions of years. I consciously shared breath with the trees, ferns, moss and other plants in this well of oxygen. I observed the formation of rain clouds in the sky. I knew the fleeting, short lifespan of the little songbird who greeted me so briefly before flitting away and was blessed even more by her presence.

The knowledge of this world is sometimes downplayed for sake of more ethereally “spiritual” interests. One of the points I made in Deep Ancestral Totemism, Part One over at No Unsacred Place is that so much of religion and spirituality is aimed at transcending or otherwise escaping this world, as though it has nothing to offer. The idea is that this world is so flawed that we are encouraged to look to a “perfect” world that comes next. Or, alternately, while we are here we are supposed to transcend and avoid anything of our more animal nature, trying to be “spiritual beings having a physical experience”. And, of course, there’s the very mundane practice of escaping “nature” for the comforts of human technology, which often distracts us from the needs of our bodies, or negates those needs temporarily.

The problem is that so many people are trying to escape the physical realm for various other places that our detachment causes us to take what is physical for granted. Because we can conveniently ignore the world around us, we lose that sense of connectivity. The idea of a polluted river or strip-mined mountain is so distant because most of us in the US don’t have to think about them. And so these actions are allowed to continue unabated because we’re more interested in our selves and our needs and the things that let us continue ignoring, transcending, ignoring, transcending, etc. The more we focus on the mind, too, and virtual reality, and spiritual reality, the more this reality suffers.

So it was a great relief to me to find that the knowledge I had absorbed through modern media had only deepened my connection to the physical Land. I had felt yearnings and appreciations even when I was holed up in my apartment listening to these things, but being out in the wilderness today really confirmed that knowing more = appreciating more.

Anyway–like any good trail, this essay rambles.

My favorite part of the hike was actually the last two miles, coming down the mountain alongside Wahkeena Stream. Why? Because it was raining! I love hiking in the rain, provided it’s not close to freezing. I admit that, selfishly, I like having the trail to myself when possible. But more than that, it reminds me that this area is a rain forest, and to only visit here when it’s clear is to miss out on what truly gives life to this place.

And so that was what grew within me as I hiked, and this is what it became:

Sometimes I think the Northwest is best
When it is being the Pacific Northwet.
The rain soaks into the sun-parched pigments of the soil,
And glazes the fern leaves in a hydrous kiln,
Until all the colors remember themselves more fully.
Even the sky cordially removes his blue cloak,
And gently wraps the sun in a sheet of gray
So that it is the rain forest who shines the most.

You can see more pictures from the hike here.

Thunderstorms and Wildflowers

(Apologies to those with feeds for the number of pictures lengthening this post.)

Earlier this week, I decreed Wednesday to be “Take a Fucking Hike Already!” day. I haven’t been out as much as I would like as of late, and so in an effort to get more outdoor time as well as make myself some schedule self-care time, I decided to take one afternoon every week for extensive hiking or similar outdoor endeavors. I headed out to Washington to Catherine Creek, which I had heard has absolutely beautiful wildflowers this time of year (or so said the author of the Portland edition of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles). I also recently replaced my old, dying camera with a refurbished Lumix care of, and though it’s proven its worth in photographing my artwork, I wanted to see how it did with nature photography.

So I jumped in my car Wednesday morning and headed out into the Gorge. Even in the middle of the week, the parking lot at the trailhead was almost entirely full, though it has capacity for about fifteen cars before you start parking on the grass. The day was absolutely brilliant–sunny, upper 60’s, some breeze from the west. I got my gear (such as it was) situated, and headed on up the trail.

Now, I had had the intention of hiking the entire 4.1 mile loop. However, my progress ended up being significantly slower than I had intended because I kept finding really pretty things to take pictures of. Before I even got to the trailhead, in fact, I had already pulled over to the side of the road to take pictures of some poppies:

And then there were mossy carpets spiked with bitterroot:

Plus some verdant young oak leaves:

And pine trees, both live…

…and long dead…

Never mind the tadpoles.

And the turkey vultures.

As I proceeded up the ridge, I had a great vantage point to see a massive array of dark clouds coming up over the mountains to the southeast. At first I figured they would most likely pass by to the north and east of where I was. However, the wind shifted, and I began to worry as they started my way.

It wasn’t until I heard thunder, though, that I decided that being up on an exposed ridge was a great way to become a headline; “Hiker killed by lightning strike”, while it sounds less dramatic than it probably would be, is not what I’d like my last word in this world to be.

So I made my retreat back down the trail, only having made it a little over a mile up in the first place. The rain started to fall just as I got to my car, and so I headed back west toward Portland and sunnier skies.

This hike really exemplified postindustrial humanity’s relationship with nature in a very basic nutshell. Human being goes out with shiny technology to take a particular slice of nature back with her. Bigger, scarier and much more uncontrollable slice of nature thwarts nicely planned activities. Retreat ensues. Unlike many people, though, I didn’t see it as a waste of time or a reason to curse the storm. I was grateful for the time I got out on the ridge, and was rather philosophical about not having any control whatsoever about the storm coming in and changing anything. If anything, I felt fortunate that I had enough time to get off the ridge and to my car safely, and that I got to see a phenomenon that’s pretty rare on my side of the Cascades (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard thunder in Portland, which is entirely different from my experiences growing up in the Midwest!).

And I did get a poem out of it, too:

Catherine Creek, 5/18/2011 – by Lupa

Stem-threads bow their heads;
The ladies hold their hats against the wind.
The sun yields to massive paws
Of a bear rumbling across the ridge.
Only the birds are defiant:
Ravens pick at wet, grey fur;
Vultures ride the warm breath;
Swallows look no further than their brush.

Still Not Dead

Though you might not know it from how seldom I post here. I’m still spending more time in the outdoors than anything else as far as my spirituality goes–that and still working with the skins and bones.

The thing is, for the past six months I’ve been going through that tear-down and rebuild process yet again, except it’s even more drastic and bare-bones than when I did it a little over three years ago when I started this blog. I had thought I had stripped my spiritual self naked back then. How little I suspected how much I had left to tear away.

I’m not entirely sure what things will look like for me in another six months, or another twelve. I don’t know how much my practice will resemble what I left off in the spring when this need to tear apart and rebuild came upon me so strongly that I had to act on it. My worldview has shifted so immensely, and yet I’m just nowhere near ready to talk about it yet. Not much, anyway. This is sort of my first attempt, maybe a pre-attempt.

So. I’ve still been hiking a lot, and going out to the coast, and taking my lover out into the Gorge. I’m still running a few times a week, which gets me out under the sky even when I’m too busy to do so otherwise. While ecopsychology isn’t as much of a part of my practice in my practicum as I thought it might be, it still has its own burner. I’m painting a bit more, too. Especially plants. For some reason, the flora of the Pacific Northwest have captured my imagination in my art, particularly my personal, private art. “I am a creature of conifers, ferns, and thick, green moss” indeed.

I’m almost afraid to write this, for fear it will become crystallized and stagnant by being placed into words. But the first thing that really seems to have coalesced into a statement of meaning is the phrase “In relation to”. On Halloween/Samhain, the day before my birthday, I went out to hike Drift Creek Falls. It’s my third year, but my first year going solo. Along with being an opportunity for a rite of passage leaving behind the last vestiges of what used to be married life, and back into a stronger singledom, it also ended up providing a valuable experience in getting to the core of meaning for me.

One of the problems I have–well, sometimes it’s a problem–is that it’s hard to get my mind to shut up. I’ve never been good with “sit down and be quiet” forms of meditation. I can do them, but I don’t like them, and I normally don’t get a lot out of them. However, I was getting frustrated on my hike because I so often found myself spacing out and missing the place I was in while my mind was floating off in a dozen different directions. “How often did I get to come to this place?” I thought. “I shouldn’t waste my time here thinking about things that concern me back in Portland!”

So I decided to just shut the thoughts off. It took a little effort, but it wasn’t more than a few moments before I was able to clear my mind. The result was both startling and telling. My physical spatial awareness snapped into sharp focus. I became very aware of where I was with respect to every tree, stone and animal I could perceive within my vision, and I had a sudden sense of space that put me firmly within my environment. Things that I normally screened out, such as the subtle movement of my visual field as I walked, became more apparent. I became present in a way I very rarely get to experience.

I realized that this feeling I was having through conscious effort of clearing my mind in this specific environment was the same feeling I got when struck with wonder by a particularly beautiful wild place. Only instead of having to be smacked over the head by the experience to actually pay attention, I was allowing it in. And I felt that sense of connection with everything else that is at the core of so much that I think and do. I don’t go throughout my day with a constant sense of that connection, but I remember enough of the times that I have experienced it that the memory is enough to motivate my actions and decisions. My choice to buy recycled paper products, for example, is directly a result of feeling connected to trees that could be cut down for pulp, even if I am not feeling that connection at the very moment I am purchasing toilet paper made from 100% recycled office paper content.

And that sense of connection has always been at the heart of meaning and wonder for me. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt it so purely, though, without the trappings of religion and paganism and shamanism and spirituality. All those things? All those are abstractions of that feeling. This is not a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with emanations and symbols.

But one thing I have had many conversations with my lover about is how often people mistake the map for the territory. Therioshamanism, my forays into chaos magic, my extensive explorations with animal totemism–all of these are maps. The maps are meant to help describe the territory of the experience with the world around me, particularly but certainly not exclusively those wild places that are such pure wellsprings of meaning for me.

And I think that’s perhaps where I…well, I won’t say I went wrong, because I don’t believe there are wrong things in spiritual exploration, only meandering and detours and “this is where you happen to be right now”. But I think three years ago I was also searching for the territory without having the map in the way, and I just didn’t quite get as much of the map out of my perception. And now I’m much closer to experiencing the territory for itself.

Hiking in the forest, with my awareness of that place and my place within that place–that is the purest spiritual experience I have had. More than Otherworld journeying that takes me out of an important layer of myself. More than rituals that are supposedly in “a world between worlds”. More than gods of the forest, spirits of the forest, I connected with the forest.

“In relation to.” That is the key phrase. I am just rediscovering where I am in relation to everything else. I am going without my expectations that there are fairies in the bottom of the garden, and without anything other than my own perceptions. Let me see what I perceive there, without what I’ve been told by years of pagan books and festivals and rituals and networkings what should be there.

Let me make my own map in relation to the territory, and let me not mistake the map for the territory.