Climbing the Big Tree

“Do you want to go higher?” came the question from the dusky shadows below.

Our 12-year-old grandson, Jaden, and I looked down the deeply furrowed bark of the immense Douglas fir tree towards our guide and the source of the question. We two were about 85 feet up in the air, resting in our climbing harnesses tethered about half way up a 250-year old Douglas fir tree. Jaden looked from the guide back at me. I knew he was looking for reassurance.


An old growth Douglas fir tree carefully rigged for climbing

“What do you think, buddy?” I asked. (Christina was lower down on the tree with the guide and not close enough to be in this pivotal conversation.)

“Well, we have climbed pretty high,” Jaden offered.

Jaden climbing up to his high spot

It is sunset. All of the tree trunks in the forest around us are aglow with the orange/yellow light from the setting sun. Jaden and I have been talking about the remarkable size of all the trees and trying to figure out what other creatures might have gotten as high up in the tree as we had. We can no longer clearly see the forest floor.

“Jaden, you have done an awesome job of climbing this high. If you want to go higher, I will go with you. And this is also a good goal in itself.”

“OK, I’m done,” he said quietly to me.

“I’ll stay until dark, if you want,” encouraged the eager young guide from below.

“No, we’re sure we are done,” I called down.

This was the moment Christina, Jaden, and I had talked about earlier in the day. “There will come a time, Jaden, when you will need to decide you have gone high enough to feel that you have overcome your fear of heights. Keep the experience positive for yourself and remember the big tree will hold all of us safely,” Christina and I had told Jaden.

Guide (left), Jaden (right), Christina resting in her harness

After the decision-making moment, the young guide skillfully ascended to our level using the strength of his legs in the stirrups below his harness in combination with his hands on the ascender mechanisms. He complimented us on our climb and carefully changed out our “ascender climbing gear” to a “belay mechanism”. We began the much quicker journey down the tree, joining Christina and heading to the tree’s base together.

Initial instruction and fitting of gear: our guide, Christina, Jaden

Once unharnessed, we four began the 15-minute walk through the slowy darkening forest back to our car near the Deception Pass Bridge on Whidbey Island’s north end. The sky kept morphing from orange gold to bright pink to fading magenta. As we walked, our young guide explained that there are very few old growth trees rigged for recreational climbing. “I think only about .001% of the population has ever climbed an old growth tree.”

View of Deception Pass Bridge on our walk back from climbing the tree

“It is harder than I thought it would be,” I said. “It takes a lot of arm and leg strength and coordination.”

“Well, you and Christina are the oldest clients we’ve had this summer,” said the young guide respectfully. That certainly made us feel good— probably elevated our status as Jaden’s adventuring Nature Grannies.

But the really important thing is that we each reached our goals of pushing past some fears and had the stunning experience of being held by one of these remarkable trees. I was changed by that experience—my molecules reordered and realigned, my heart once again beating in sync with life’s simple, steadfast pulse.

Christina, Jaden, and Ann after the climb

Community Sit Spots

My last blog was about the benefit of establishing a Sit Spot in nature. If there is personal benefit from having your own Sit Spot, what could be accomplished by Community Sit Spots?

Whidbey Island Audubon Society with support from the Island County Marine Resources Committee has sent 40-60 volunteers out to island beaches for one hour of Sit Spot activity every week from mid June to mid August for the past thirteen summers.

Nesting pigeon guillemots are the main focus of the volunteer’s Sit Spot observations. About a thousand of these dark brown, 13-inch sea birds with white wing patches and bright red feet nest on the high cliffs of Whidbey Island.


pigeon guillemots on rock, photo by Ted Keefe

These little birds are just plain fun to watch. Because their feet are set far back on their bodies, they can swim quickly underwater to catch prey. However, that makes them “out of balance” for water landings. They appear to crash into the water rather than land on it. Yet, with fish in their beaks, they somehow manage to fly into small cliff holes to feed their little chicks.

a “bazaar” of pigeon guillemots, photo by Ted Keefe

Their presence on Whidbey Island is a good indicator of healthy coastal waters—i.e. the availability of good forage fish like gunnels, cod, and sculpin. They are mysterious little birds. When the chicks are ready to leave their burrows (usually at night), they literally jump off their cliffs and walk into the sea ready to care for themselves.

A pair of adult pigeon guillemots on the ledge outside their burrow, photo by Ted Keefe

We don’t know much about where our local pigeon guillemots (PGs) disperse after their nesting season ends in late August. However, we do know that all PGs feed on benthic or bottom dwelling fish, so they can never live too far from the shallower waters close to land. We believe our PGs disperse throughout Puget Sound and Washington coastal waters.

What does it look like to be a PG observer? On a recent July day I joined two team members and headed down to our assigned beach. We had our camp chairs set up by 7:35 a.m. and sat perched with binoculars for one hour of watching PGs fly in and out of their cliff holes—writing down the exact minute each VB (visit to burrow) or FB (fish to burrow) occurs. This data is entered electronically and coordinated by several of our local Audubon members.

Ann watching cliff face on a cold July 4 morning, photo by Christina Baldwin

Malmo Bluff cliff face that Ann is watching, photo by Ann Linnea












While we are watching PGs, we also see eagles soar by and great blue herons fish on the shoreline. We hear osprey calling their prideful boasts of recently caught fish. On windless mornings the sweet murmurings of PGs gathering next to the shoreline fill the air. All the while, goldfinches are darting in and out of shoreline vegetation gathering seeds. Everywhere Nature is in full summer swing!

What a radical thing to do! Pause. Observe. Appreciate. Reflect on the wonder of Nature’s miraculous ways—contributing to the work of citizen science.

Sit Spot

The idea is simple, really. Plunk yourself down someplace outdoors and sit still for 15 minutes—no electronic devices, no books, just your eyes, ears, and sense of smell wide open. What do you observe?

On Mother’s Day I was making a call to my dear 90-year-old mother while sitting indoors near our front picture window. It was early morning, chilly and overcast. While talking with Mom, I noticed the little junco leave its nest on our front porch.

Our front porch with nest in pot on right side of the front door. Photo by Ann Linnea

Sign warning visitors to use the back door.
photo by Ann Linnea

Ten minutes later, still deep in my conversation with Mom, I noticed the junco return with an insect in its beak. The four blue, speckled eggs had hatched, on Mother’s Day, no less!

Four junco eggs in the nest at our front door.
Photo by Christina Baldwin

After finishing my call with Mom, I began my Sit Spot exercise. I actually could not go outdoors because there was no place to sit without interfering with the junco mother and father’s 10 minute feeding interludes. For nearly an hour I watched the faithful parents in their routine. Every day since then I have spent a lot of time at my Sit Spot.

Adult black-headed junco delivering a small grub to her nest concealed in the flower pot. Photo by Ann Linnea


Baby juncos.. Photo taken by Christina Baldwin immediately after the parent junco went to get more food.

 My indoor Sit Spot is close to home; nature is present; I am alone and safe; my attitude is one of curiosity and openness, but I am sitting indoors. (So, humble apologies to Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows, whose description of a sit spot very definitely intended a Sit Spot to be outdoors.)

A Sit Spot reaps the greatest rewards if you revisit your spot on a regular basis—i.e. become an expert on the comings and goings on your little piece of earth.

First baby junco to fly from the next and wander the front porch. Photo by Ann Linnea

By watching the junco nest from first hatch to fledging these past 12 days, I have been stunned and amazed at the rapid growth of these little birds. And I am really, really impressed with mama and papa junco who never, ever fly straight into the nest. They zigzag from nearby post to bush looking carefully for the presence of any predator and then dart in, feed their completely silent little charges, and head back out for more food.

Now that the fourth and final young junco has left the nest, I have no way of tracking how the parents keep feeding their young or if marauding crows capture and eat one of the young. However, just two days after the final baby fledged I was reaching for the garden hose and one of the babies ran deeper into a bush, peeping all the way.

I have gained deepest respect for the diligence of junco parents and am reminded again of the incredible fragility and strength of life.


Youth—Let’s Talk!

It has been my great privilege and joy to spend much of my time these last weeks immersing myself in youthful spontaneity, curiosity, and creativity.

Our grandchildren the rock hoppers, photo by Ann Linnea

First, there was our marvelous, annual time with our dear grandchildren. Jaden (12) and Sasha (6) are city kids with a willingness to follow their grandmothers most anywhere.


Obstruction Pass State Park hike, photo by Sally Schimpf

 This year we decided to take them to Orcas Island for 5 days of exploration based in a cabin with no wifi, tv, or video capabilities.

Shamrock Cabin, North Beach Resort, photo by Sally Schimpf

“This will be good for us,” said their mother, Sally, who accompanied us.

Sally loving a high perch on a sunny day, photo by Ann Linnea

Instead of “down” time being the equivalent of “device” time, we filled those moments with campfires on the beach, playing board games like Apples to Apples, working together to cook in the tiny kitchen, or just talking with one another.

It’s a big experiment stepping into a time that requires more face-to-face interaction. It’s an experiment their grandmothers (and our little dog) are deeply invested in and appreciate very much.

Creek Walking, by Ann Linnea

 Second, my year’s work with a group of local high school students culminated in an outstanding Earth Day assembly that was entirely written, produced, and performed by the students. The principal of South Whidbey High School called it the high school’s “best ever Earth Day”.

My cohort and friend, Julie Glover and I, in front of the Climate Action Project youth

After the 55-minute assembly in the auditorium, the dozen students that had written poems, skits, and songs, came out for a formal bow and their fellow students gave them a standing ovation.

South Whidbey High School Earth Day assembly, photo by Ann Linnea

Click here to see one of the performance pieces (Echo Chambers) featured by our local television company : In 5 minutes these three young women effectively tackle one of the biggest issues in the U.S. today—we are not talking to each other!

Third, on April 21, I was a guest speaker (via Skype) in a “Wilderness in American Life” class at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina. The young people chose to focus on Standing Rock as an example of a complex environmental issue.

Ann on Skype call with Brevard College youth, photo by Christina Baldwin

A mixture of junior and senior college students had many questions for me: Why do you think Standing Rock garnered so much attention? Why did you choose to go? What did you learn? What are some of the stories that were most meaningful to you? Why did the veterans choose to make a presence?

These students are talking to one another. They are talking to their professor. They are talking to guest lecturers in thoughtful, respective ways.

In the last month I have had pretty in-depth interactions with about three-dozen young people ranging in age from 6 to 21. Not a huge sampling, but an inspiring one. Can’t generalize to “all youth”, but can report that my thoughts and actions have been influenced and inspired.

Strongly recommend a dose of youthful interaction to anyone!

Grandma watching her kids at sunset on Orcas Island, photo by Sally Schimpf

Tiny, Ubiquitous Treasures

Big fast-moving things grab our attention: eagles, wolves, and cougars. But we miss much by overlooking tiny, stationary creatures around us.

The creatures I write about are everywhere—all habitats on all seven continents. And they have been with us since life first emerged from the oceans onto land.

They can lie dormant for over 40 years waiting for one drop of water and they are capable of that most miraculous of life processes: photosynthesis.

They contain no vascular tissue, no roots or leaves or stems, but mosses merit careful attention. On a cool Sunday morning deep in the Whidbey Institute woods twenty of us followed bryologist, Miles Berkey, around for two hours peering at these tiny treasures.

From Berkey’s website: we get a definition of mosses: “The small little green fuzzy stuff that grows on logs, rocks, in our lawns and on our roofs. This term can accidentally incorporate such things as lichens, algae, and other small vascular plants. . . The taxonomic name for moss is bryophyte, which when used, carries a greater accuracy, pertaining to all non-vascular land plants.”

The trip was sponsored by our local Whidbey Camano Land Trust,, a remarkable organization that helps those of us living on the island preserve unique habitats through donations and work parties. And on days like this, they offer us an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of where we live.

Without further words, I share my enthusiasm through photos. One photo in particular is noteworthy—the final one. It was taken by my friend Whidbey Institute fellow, Larry Daloz, a fine bryologist in his own right.

The equipment needed for moss-peering, a hand lens

Ann looking through a hand lens at moss growing on an alder tree, photo by WCLT 

This is what Ann is looking at—Moss fruiting bodies











A stair step moss—each level represents one year’s growth



An “upright” tree moss with its miniature crown











Larry Daloz photo: Awned Hair cap (Politrichum pilfirum). Red cups are “splash cups” that host the sperm-producing antheridia. When it rains, they are splashed out to fertilize female archegonia. In this case the water had frozen and was in the process of melting.”






Remember Beauty

In this time of fast-moving changes, dire predictions for the earth and ocean’s future, and political infighting that is, at best, unsettling, let us look to nature and poetry for reassurance.

William Wordsworth lived from 1770-1850, in far different times from ours. Yet, the first lines of one of his most famous poems is perfect for these times:

The World is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not . . .

When it became clear to me in February that Standing Rock would enter the phase of closing down the main camp and transitioning to an as of yet unknown new phase, I knew it was time to head to the snowy mountains and re-gain some perspective.

Ann cross-country skiing, photo by Carl Hoerger


Lots of snow in the mountains this year, photo by Ann Linnea










So much snow that campground structures have nearly disappeared, photo by Ann Linnea










And what is the perspective I gained . . . Remembering Beauty. It has returned as my daily guidepost. Thank you to long-time friends, Janelle and Carl, who reminded me of the joys of track skiing!

And with that, a little story from the closing days of Standing Rock’s Osceti-Sakowin Camp. During all of January and February a small crew of folks worked diligently to carefully salvage donated food and clothing. They drove it to nearby food banks and thrift stores. They worked in between blizzards. They worked during thaw and mud conditions. They needed more time than the Feb. 22 eviction gave them, but they did a valiant job.

May each of us continue to do our “one piece” of work diligently and carefully.

Ann happy in the snowy world, photo by Carl Hoerger


Take the Long View

Now what do we do?

On January 24, 2017 U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order to commence construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

On December 4, 2016 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer ordered a halt to construction until an Environmental Impact Statement could be completed.

What will happen now? What do those of us who care about protecting treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux nation and water quality for people along the Missouri River and stopping proliferation of fossil fuel extraction do?

We pause. We listen to the wisdom coming from the Standing Rock people. We know there are many levels of complexity in this issue. Above all, we do not hysterically respond to yet another dramatic edict from the president’s office that no one is quite sure how it will be implemented.

Yes, there is great cause for concern. There has been great cause for concern every single step of the way on this ill-conceived pipeline to carry Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to the Gulf of Mexico. A handful of Standing Rock Sioux began their seemingly impossible opposition to this huge project in the spring of 2016. They have held spiritual commitment and peaceful presence and drawn thousands of people from hundreds of native nations all over the world to stand with them.

Photo of Osceti Sakowin camp located in the flood plain of the Cannonball River, photo by Ann Linnea

Photo of Osceti Sakowin camp located on the flood plain of the Cannonball River, photo by Ann Linnea

It has been a long, cold winter at Standing Rock. The blizzard we experienced in early December (see two previous blogs) has been followed by many other blizzards and subzero cold spells. Since December 5, the main Oceti Sakowin Camp on the banks of the Cannonball River has been occupied by several hundred people in winterized teepes, yurts, and RVs. Tribal Chairman David Archambault II has asked that the camp be vacated before spring floods destroy it. A number of tribal activists have chosen to remain to “keep watch” over any activity at the pipeline end near the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. The two groups are not in total agreement, but they are in careful dialogue.

Standing Rock Sioux tribal chair, David Archambault II, Yes magazine photo

Standing Rock Sioux tribal chair, David Archambault II, Yes magazine photo

“The Trump Administration’s politically motivated decision violates the law and the Tribe will take action to fight it,” said Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II. In an interview with the Seattle Times Archambault said the “tribe is considering all its options”.

Meanwhile, crews are reportedly in hotels waiting to get to work. The drill pad for crossing under the river is secured behind multiple barriers with ongoing police presence.

The step now is to write a comment on the Draft EIS. Comment period closes Feb. 20. This is important even if the Army Corps now issues an order to abandon this process. Such an order will be contested in the courts by the Standing Rock Sioux.

 This article in YES magazine contains a very careful, thoughtful analysis of what an EIS is and how to respond to this particular EIS.

Writer Jake Tracy says, “So it’s true. Denial of the pipeline is a long-shot. But if the water protectors at Standing Rock have taught us anything, it’s that with enough public pressure, even a long-shot is possible. So if you’re against the pipeline, this is the time to step up, not back down. As long as the public process is still in play, we should do everything we can to push back. We owe it to those who worked so hard to get us to where we are today.”

 Once again there is a showdown in this remote part of North Dakota.

Once again the situation calls for complete alertness to all possibilities.

Once again we must hold belief that projects done for the short-term gain of a few wealthy people at great cost to the lives and resources of the rest of us can be stopped.

Lawsuits are being pursued. Sacred conversations of intention and negotiation are happening. Drums continue. Singing continues. Weather continues. There are agency personnel working behind the scenes. The vets are organizing to return in support.

My December 2016 trip to Standing Rock reinforced my deep-seated belief that we must always hold the long view.

  • The long view focuses first on protecting the earth’s health and well-being.
  • The long view understands that there will always be challenges.
  • The long view brings together people of differing viewpoints to achieve a vision that is wiser than any one person or point of view can achieve alone.
  • The long view requires a tenacity of spirit, a trust in established processes, and a willingness to step beyond ordinary processes when they are overtaken by those who abuse power.

This is my final blog about my December 2016 trip to Standing Rock.

Conversation Matters

Originally posted on Wednesday, December 28th, 2016 by Ann Linnea

It was a privilege to have the resources and skills to go to Standing Rock (Dec. 2-10, 2016). I was able to be there at a moment when the David vs. Goliath battle between a small tribe of Native Americans against a huge corporate entity tipped in favor of the underdog. The seemingly intangible powers of prayer and nonviolence manifested in a tangible order from the U.S. government to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline from drilling under the Missouri River.

This almost miraculous moment was instantly made complex by the arrival of a North Dakota blizzard that put the encampment in survival mode and initiated yet another transition in this heroic story. I captured some of that story in my first blog about this journey:

What I want to capture here is the soul of my journey beyond the considerable physical stamina that it took to be there. I practiced profound attention to my surroundings and was deeply changed by some of the conversations I was able to have.

Train ride as a time of ceremony and conversation

A twenty-six hour journey by coach on Amtrak gave me a lot of time to slowly let go of the busyness of preparation for the journey—packing 6 duffels with my own winter camping gear and gifts for the people of Standing Rock, finishing email communications, and saying goodbye to friends and family. Moving at the pace of train travel slowed me way down. I am attached to my sense of sacred ceremony when I move slowly.

Anne Hayden organizing our luggage in the Everett, WA train station

Anne Hayden organizing our luggage in the Everett, WA train station

Sitting in the dome car as the train emerged from the darkness of night into the beauty of Glacier National Park, my traveling friend, Anne Hayden, and I noticed a Native American man sitting a short distance away. “Where are you headed?” we asked.

“Standing Rock,” he said. Craig Falcon, a member of the Blackfeet nation, was headed home to Browning, Montana, to join two van loads of Blackfeet veterans on their way to Standing Rock. In the hour we journeyed together we learned that one of his great passions is taking teenagers from his tribe out to hunt buffalo in the traditional, ceremonial way. He also spoke at length about a recently released documentary on the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area located between Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and The Blackfeet Indian Reservation. “This is our Standing Rock,” explained Craig. “We have been working to protect these sacred and ceremonial grounds from oil and gas drilling for nearly 30 years.” Craig is featured in the film and has worked hard as part of a coalition of his people, hunters, anglers, and conservationists to get this secured.

He told us that as a veteran he was journeying to Standing Rock because he was appalled at how people were being treated. “You don’t spray people with water in subfreezing temperatures and shoot them with rubber bullets.”

This conversation offered me deeper insight into why at least some of the veterans were traveling to Standing Rock.

 All Camp Ceremony and conversations

Twenty-four hours later we two were pitching our tents on the snow-covered ground of the Oceti Sakowin camp along the shores of the Cannonball River in south central North Dakota. Our first experience of formal ceremony at the camp occurred when thousands of people began joining hands around the perimeter of camp to receive the news that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied the permit of the pipeline company to drill under the Missouri River. We have no idea how the impossibly large task of pulling us all into this ceremony got started, but it was profoundly moving to be joined together as we heard from the “runners” and horseback riders who carried the news.

Celebratory circle around camp on Dec. 4 after Army Corps announcement, photo by Christian Hansen for

Celebratory circle around camp on Dec. 4 after Army Corps announcement, photo by Christian Hansen for

For hours into the night fireworks exploded, drums and singing reverberated, and a seemingly endless caravan of cars streamed into the camp.

The next morning, Monday, December 5, was a time for us to rise early from our tents and wander along the perimeter of camp on a quiet, gray winter morning. We stopped at numerous campfires to talk with veterans who were drinking coffee and chatting outside their newly set up tents. We met men and women from Georgia and New Mexico and Alabama and even Hawaii. We thanked each of them for coming and relished the ceremony of casual conversation that can be so sweet between strangers gathered for a common purpose.

 Two surprise conversations

Coming in the spirit of being present to whatever happened, I had two surprise conversations on Monday that were particularly meaningful to me.

Monday was media day and one of the announcements I heard on the loud speaker was that Billy Mills was here for interviews. I could scarcely believe my ears. Billy Mills is a longtime hero of mine. My father and I loved to watch the Olympics together. In the summer 1964 Tokyo Olympics we watched Billy Mills pull off “one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all times” (Wikipedia). Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and orphaned at the age of 12, Mills had gone on to college and joined the U.S. Marines. In the 10,000 meter run that year he sprinted from behind to win, beating his previous best time by 50 seconds. I still remember my dad standing up in front of the television yelling, “Go Mills! Go!” When I noticed Billy Mills standing alone for a moment by the sacred fire at the entrance to camp, I wandered up and introduced myself as a longtime fan. He is 11 years older than I, a man of straight stature and quiet demeanor. With all of the humility of a truly great human being he reached out and shook my hand and bowed. In the quiet ceremony of my soul, Dad and I shared a few tears in that moment.

Olympian Billy Mills, Dec. 5, at camp, photo by New York Daily News

Olympian Billy Mills, Dec. 5, at camp, photo by New York Daily News

About 9 a.m. it began to snow lightly. By 9:30 a.m. the wind kicked up and it began to snow in earnest—a wet, driving flakes that quickly plastered our coats and hats.

With the fierceness of the storm bearing down on us, we wandered over to check the condition of our tents. We brushed a good inch of wet snow off the tents and met our neighbor—a man named Paul camping in a converted school bus with heat. “Stop by any time,” he said in the spirit we found everywhere at camp. His invitation would prove very important to our well-being.

Veterans lining up to march on Dec. 5 as the blizzard hit, photo by Christian Hansen for

Veterans lining up to march on Dec. 5 as the blizzard hit, photo by Christian Hansen for

“Indoor spaces” in camp were those protected from driving wind and snow and ranged from our small, unheated tents to teepees, yurts, and army style tents with wood stoves.

Anne and I spent our day helping in the kitchen mess tent and talking with folks about road conditions as the storm intensified. At supper time we crowded into the main mess tent (one of seven) with 30-50 people around wooden picnic tables with maybe a dozen folks gathered around the wood stove in the corner. The serving line of big kettles and volunteer servers was along one wall. All of us remained dressed in winter boots, snow pants, heavy jackets, and stocking caps while we ate. I sat next to a quiet, young native man. Introducing myself, I asked how he was doing. Something in the directness of my presence and interest must have created a container for genuine conversation. He proceeded to tell me at great length how he had just returned from two weeks of absence. He said his friends asked him when he would come back. “I knew I had to get rid of my anger or I would be no good to my people,” he said. “So I went home and disengaged from everything.” He told me he still had bruises from the rubber bullets. He said he would never give up.

You remind me of my son,” I said. “He was a warrior like you. He passed away serving his people as a paramedic.”

 “I am sorry,” he said. We let there be a long, comfortable silence between us. We both finished eating and bowed to wish one another well.

 Quiet ceremony in my tent

By the time I crawled into my tent Monday night, temperatures had plummeted to zero degrees F. and the howling winds made the tent flap in an almost deafening way. It is hard to do ceremony when you are in survival mode. There needs to be a methodical carefulness to routine to insure survival: put the toe warmer packets into your down booties, keep most of your layers on in the sleeping bag, carefully zip both sleeping bags. But first, take a minute to remember why you are here.

Each night I took the photo of our grandchildren, Jaden and Sasha, out of my journal and kissed their little faces and then carefully tucked them back into the journal before crawling into the cocoon of my bivy sack and sleeping bags.


Our grandchildren: Sasha and Jaden

Our grandchildren: Sasha and Jaden

Aftermath of the blizzard

All day Tuesday was triage from the blizzard, which was also raging in the larger world around us. Unbeknownst to most of us in camp, Interstate 94 running east and west across the state was shut down and every hotel/motel room in Bismarck was full. The whole state was in a kind of shared emergency.

The two conversations I most remember from this day were the ongoing one with my friend, Anne. “Where do you think we can be helpful? How are you doing? Do you need anything?

In survival physical conditions it is essential to tell the absolute truth. Anne and I were able to serve as members of an all-camp medic search and part of the kitchen’s dishwashing detail. When we were exhausted and cold at day’s end, we decided to knock on the converted school bus next to our tents.

We asked if we could heat up some water for dried soup. He was genuinely delighted for our company. Here in the comfort of a 6 x 10 foot space we could boil water, warm our toes by a portable heater, and have a conversation beyond just a few sentences.

We learned that his partner had joined a group of folks two days earlier traveling 30 miles to Ft. Yates to help sort donations. He was planning to go pick her up tomorrow, but like us was concerned about road conditions. We all three realized that we needed to leave tomorrow so as not to put any more burden on the camp’s food, water, and heat supplies.

Small, converted school bus like the one that offered us shelter, Pinterest photo

Small, converted school bus like the one that offered us shelter, Pinterest photo

We agreed to help one another in the morning—he would jump our car if it did not start. We had a tube of sand if he had trouble getting up the hill out of camp. We had an excellent ice scraper for his frosted windows. He would help hold our tents while we took them down in the wind.

Strangers in emergency situations make important, life saving covenants. This, too, is a model of a deeply sacred conversation.

 Bismarck Conversations

Wednesday we made our way over icy, drifting roads to Bismarck and ended up in the Radisson Hotel, which by now had some rooms available. Unbeknownst to us, we had landed in a place that was very supportive of water protectors from Standing Rock.

At breakfast we wandered down to the lobby restaurant and were soon in a conversation with the manager who let us know that one of the front desk people that morning was Kendrick Eagle, the young Standing Rock Sioux man who directly pleaded with President Obama to make good on his promise in 2014 to help his people. His plea went viral and many agree it was a significant influence on President Obama’s decision to encourage the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the DAPL permit request to drill under the Missouri River.

Kendrick is a humble young man. He is barely 23 years old and is working this desk job to raise his four younger brothers in the city of Bismarck where they can get a good education. He did not talk about himself. He simply nodded when we thanked him for putting that plea forward.

Kendrick Eagle, White House photo

Kendrick Eagle, White House photo

“Thank you for coming to be one of the water protectors,” he said. “It means a lot to my people.”

Sometimes there is an intuitive recognition between people that extends the hand of respect and connection. The conversation need not be long. The energetic connection speaks more than words.



Like many, I was drawn to the Standing Rock Sioux cause because of their steadfast belief in prayer and ceremony and their commitment to non-violence. My life is changed by my time in North Dakota. I now claim myself to be an “activist granny.” And one of my skills is using conversation as a way to build bridges between people.

The adventuring, activist granny, photo by Anne Hayden

The adventuring, activist granny, photo by Anne Hayden




Home From Standing Rock

I am just back from the Standing Rock protest in south central North Dakota. It was a pivotal time in the ongoing history of this poignant struggle. During the week of December 2-10, three important things happened:

  • thousands of military veterans arrived prepared to stand between police and water protectors;
  • the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for further drilling, effectively halting the project until further study can be completed;
  • and North Dakota dished out a blizzard with extreme sub-zero temperatures.

It is my intention to write several more blogs about this trip. I start here with a narrative of how was it to be “on the ground.” I went to be of help to the Standing Rock Sioux in their valiant, courageous, peaceful struggle to keep a pipeline carrying crude oil from crossing their sacred land, going under the Missouri River, and potentially destroying the water supply for 18 million people. As if to underscore the concern about a possible leak, just days ago a pipeline 150 miles from Standing Rock spilled over 170,000 gallons of crude oil into a tributary of the Little Missouri River:


Our four-season tents shortly after setting them up.

Our four-season tents shortly after setting them up.

My dear friend, Anne Hayden, and I made the 1300-mile journey to the snowy, well-established camp by train and then rental car and arrived on Sunday December 4, 2016, the same day many veterans were streaming into the Oceti Sakowin camp. It was mid-afternoon on a sunny, 36 degrees F. (2 degrees C.) day that still felt like late fall.

We had just put up our tents when a long line of people began joining hands on the outer perimeter of camp. It took quite a while to organize thousands of us, but once we joined hands horseback riders and walkers came along behind us announcing that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied the permit of the pipeline company to drill under the Missouri River. (To understand the importance of this and read a clear background story, click here: Cheers reverberated along the banks of the frozen Cannonball River and off the hillsides lined with ever-watchful police officers.

Osceti Sakowin Camp along the banks of the Cannonball River. Security troops located on surrounding hillsides.

Osceti Sakowin Camp along the banks of the Cannonball River. Security troops located on surrounding hillsides.

All Sunday, well past 8:00 p.m., cars poured into the camp as veterans from every corner of the United States arrived. Fireworks exploded in the dark, clear night.

Monday morning, December 5, was “media day.” There was to be a march of veterans north to the barricade on state highway 1806—the most direct road to Bismarck and emergency services. For the first time TV trucks and major news media were present in significant numbers. Our little campsite was set up next to that of a photographer from U.S. News and World Report who was thrilled that his editors had finally approved his coming. Anne and I rose early, walked along the outer perimeter of camp visiting with newly arrived veterans at the campfires outside their army style tents, and enjoyed the relative quiet of a cold North Dakota morning. We listened to announcements on the loud speaker at the sacred fire at camp’s entrance and watched veterans begin to line up on the road to make their statement of protection.

And then the snow and wind started. By noon a wet, driving snow made it difficult to see or move around. The blizzard quickly canceled all other plans and became the main event.


Looking down into camp from "Facebook Hill" about 11 a.m. as the storm began to build.

Looking down into camp from “Facebook Hill” about 11 a.m. as the storm began to build.

It was hard to know exactly what was happening, but we knew the main kitchen could surely use help so we showed up and chopped garlic for 2 hours while the storm raged outside the unheated cook tent. We do not know exactly what happened with the march by the veterans, but post this iconic web photo from that march.


A Getty Image from the Huffington Post

A Getty Image from the Huffington Post

A Mexican-style dinner was served in the main kitchen tent. There was a wood stove in the corner and 30-50 people crammed around wooden picnic tables—all of us dressed in winter boots, snow pants, heavy jackets, and stocking caps. I had a poignant conversation with a young native man just returning to Oceti Sakowin from a 2-week hiatus. He’d been attacked with water guns at freezing temperatures. “I knew I had to get rid of my anger or I would be no good to my people,” he said. “So, I went home and disengaged from everything.” This level of dedication to maintaining nonviolence was powerfully evident in the native people I met.

Monday evening before retiring into our respective 4-season backpacking tents, we knew it was important to warm up so we headed over to the Interfaith yurt for a conversation around a propane heater with a newfound friend. The wind was so intense (reported at about 60 km/hour) that several times during the night I felt my feet tucked into my two sleeping bags and bivy sack lift up as the wind sought passage underneath the tent. Overnight temperatures dropped to 0 degrees F. (-18 degrees C.).

I rose in the dark at 5:00 a.m. Tuesday morning with the inevitable need to visit the outhouse. It took nearly 30 minutes to don all my layers and exit the tent. It was a bit frightening to realize we were in near whiteout conditions. I could see the outhouse 50 feet away and headed there with my headlamp. Once back outside the porta-potty, I could make out the light of the geodesic main meeting dome and headed there on the icy-snow packed road. After some searching, I found the main kitchen near the dome and presented my services to a rather frantic cook. For the next 90 minutes I cracked over 400 nearly frozen eggs into a huge bowl. As more helpers showed up, I left to find relief for my cold fingers.

VOA news photo taken along main "flag road" into camp showing poor visibility

VOA news photo taken along main “flag road” into camp showing poor visibility


Back in the dome and reunited with Anne, I quickly became aware that many, many people were struggling with hypothermia and cold. At least a hundred folks were sitting on camp chairs wrapped in sleeping bags or huddled around the small wood stove in the corner of the 20-foot high dome. We offered our skills to the medics as experienced wilderness guides and were invited to join the all-camp search to make sure no one was trapped in a car or tent without a warm place to be.

After 2 hours of searching and finding one vet who had slipped on the ice and needed medical attention, we returned to our tents to get snow off them and accepted the invitation from a neighbor to sit in his bus around a space heater. We boiled water to reconstitute our dried soup. Then it was back to the mess tent where we washed dishes with melted snow water for 90 minutes. Unbeknownst to us the “outer” civilized world was struggling as much as we were. Interstate 94 had been closed; Bismarck’s hotel rooms were all sold out; stranded motorists were being housed in churches and schools.


KARE 11 photo showing cars heading south on highway 1806—slick conditions that sent many cars into the ditch

KARE 11 photo showing cars heading south on highway 1806—slick conditions that sent many cars into the ditch

With news of another blizzard arriving in 2-3 days and the obvious stress on the community due to the extreme weather conditions and a lack of incoming supplies, Anne and I decided to break camp and head to Bismarck on Wednesday morning. Tuesday night temperatures dropped below zero degrees F. and winds continued to howl out of the north. It took 3 of us to take our tents down: our “bus” friend, Paul, held our tents to keep them from flying away as the two of us pried stakes from frozen ground with the aid of a shovel and the claws of a hammer.


Photo of me just after taking our tents down (by Anne Hayden)

Photo of me just after taking our tents down (by Anne Hayden)


 What did I learn?

  • People are incredibly kind in emergencies. The vets had to transform their protest energy into emergency response—creating warm spaces for people, transporting them to Bismarck, searching the camp. Nearly everyone who walked by me during the blizzard asked if I was warm enough.
  • In any large gathering it is difficult to discern what is happening around you. Our experience was surely different than other people’s. For example, we did not even know that Tribal Chair David Archambault had called for the evacuation and closure of camp until we read it in the Bismarck Tribune two days later!
  • Our “job” was primarily to help white people in the storm. It was also our privilege to have some remarkable conversations with our native brothers and sisters. In future blogs I will reference some of these. What struck me most about these conversations was the depth of genuine humility I experienced.
  • None of us can go it alone. The Standing Rock Sioux opened their cause. People from many walks of life were inspired and came to help. That response complicated things AND ultimately numbers mattered so the pipeline has been at least temporarily halted.
  • Ceremony matters. The Standing Rock Sioux kept their sacred fire burning night and day for months, even during the storm. Dancers and drummers came out despite the blizzard. Gatherings began and ended with prayer. I have so much to learn about the depth of true prayer.

I am incredibly grateful to Anne Hayden for our impeccable journey. We carefully delivered all the gifts people sent with us, you know who you are. Please note the current announcement on the Oceti Sakowin website “We are not accepting new arrivals due to severe weather conditions! Please do not travel here at this time.”

Next blogs on my pilgrimage to Standing Rock: Conversations as a form of social activism, Do not lose touch with nature, Ceremony matters, and A political update.

Apologies to the World

To those living outside the borders of the United States, the majority of Americans who voted on Nov. 8 send apologies. Our election results sent the message that we don’t care about you. I and millions and millions of Americans care about you.

Ann having tea in downtown Amersterdam

Ann having tea in downtown Amersterdam

Please remember that:

231,556,622 registered voters pre-election day

26% voted for Clinton—she won the popular vote

25.9% voted for Trump—he won the electoral college

2.6% voted for “other”

45.4% (105,195,013 registered voters) DIDN’T VOTE

Ann and Christina resting on a hike through southern Austria

Ann and Christina resting on a hike through southern Austria

Many of us are still in shock that this has happened. We are gathering in twos, threes, tens, and even thousands. This is NOT the message that WE send to the world outside our borders, to our future, and to the natural world. We are devastated that our country’s already “rogue nation reputation” has been exacerbated.

Ann and Christina and Ann's sister, Susie, visiting British Columbia's famous Butchart Gardens

Ann and Christina and Ann’s sister, Susie, visiting British Columbia’s famous Butchart Gardens

On election night a young friend from the Netherlands wrote to us, “so sorry, no retirement for you!” She could not be more correct. We do not yet know how, but we– millions of us– are wide awake and ready to march, lobby, write letters, and CHANGE what seems to be happening in our country.

Ann raking leaves one week after the election—preparing for winter and what lies ahead

Ann raking leaves one week after the election—preparing for winter and what lies ahead

And to the natural world, which is completely innocent of all this but in danger of irreparable harm, the deepest apologies of all and the fiercest pledge of activism.

Christina taking a photo of a wombat in Australia

Christina taking a photo of a wombat in Australia