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.