The Dog & the Backstory

I don’t remember when I first met the Cooper family, central characters of the novel I just sent to my New York agent, but I remember how: their dog introduced me. The germinating moment for my ten-year novel project occurred when my corgi Glory died in 2010. I missed her constant watchfulness over me and others.

Glory & me: Oct. 2008

Glory was a public dog, often present in the circle trainings, writing classes, and wilderness work we were doing at the time. After she passed away, people wrote condolence notes that began, “You probably didn’t notice this but… Glory came round the circle… Glory slid against my leg… Glory seemed to know I was feeling vulnerable.” Yes, I noticed: she did the same for me, and I had watched her tend the social field in remarkable and intuitive ways.

Her departure raised questions about the nature of witness in our lives. Even if trauma, pain, and grief cannot be stopped, does something/someone come alongside to help us bear it? Is it up to us to notice? Is it possible, with their presence and attention, that “dog is God spelled backwards?”

As part of my grief, I began writing from a dog’s point of view… It was to be the story of a woman whose life is witnessed through all the different dogs who companion her. This woman was born in the 1940s, into a family named Cooper, who had a dog named Preacher Boy.

I took the first 50 pages to a weeklong seminar called “Writing the Breakout Novel,” led by Donald Maas and Lorin Oberweger. Their critique said, “Intriguing idea, but I don’t think the dog can carry the story. Don’t lose the dog but let loose the story.” I began several years of questioning. What is essential? What wants to be said? What am I dedicating myself to? Pages and pages of journal notes, scraps of dialogue, scene, post-it notes on my office wall, and very little creative time.

Amazing Gracie, who was here for the most of it.

Ann Linnea and I were depositing our life work of The Circle Way into a next generation of practitioners and teachers. We traveled. We worked with an emergent board and new identity that took shape and handed off decades of work and resources. I continued teaching memoir and autobiography seminars, and we still offered a wilderness fast, the Cascadia Quest, until 2021. Occasionally the novel surfaced in my priorities. I made character lists, studied novel development, plot design, the eight beats of a screenplay (which ruined the movies for me for a few years!), the hero’s journey, how to outline your story, create conflict, etc.

2016: I turned seventy. I committed to the book. Tagline on my personal email: Writer in her own residence. Writing a novel is a collaboration between what the writer has in mind and what the characters have in mind. They surprise me, these Coopers; they announce their own backstories and tell me things that change the plot. We make our way together. I write.

The 1940s remains the timeframe: but this is about the homefront during World War II, not the battlefront. My father, born in 1920, lived nearby and we began hours of conversation about the realities of life in the years before I was born. I become more and more intrigued about what was going on with ordinary people, far from the drama of battle, at a time when the requirement for change was unavoidable: then, as now.

I borrow my birthplace and family lineage as a stage set: west-central Montana, the valley where I was born, 3rd generation settler on the lands of the Blackfeet Confederacy.

The novel features the Cooper family: Leo, the patriarch, is a widowed Methodist preacher and beekeeper who wishes people would behave as orderly as bees behave. He and the country doctor are a team that tries to hold the valley together. Leo’s son, Franklin, enlists to prove himself in the eye of history. He sends home his pregnant immigrant wife. Leo’s other son, Jesse, who ran away as an angry teen, comes of age on the Blackfeet reservation. Carrying a secret of his origins, Jesse returns to challenge the white farmers to work together with the Indians for the war effort.

There are Native characters, and I am a white woman. I spent three years seeking a Blackfeet Cultural Advisor. Our relationship is a journey of profound learning that goes way beyond the book (see my blog: “What shall I do with my old white skin?” as one indicator). I hope I have learned enough to educate white readers and honor Indigenous experience.

The Beekeeper’s Question is a love story, a war story, a family story in which ordinary people find their moments of triumph and truth amid chaos and sacrifice. Preacher Boy remains, but he doesn’t tell the story: he’s a good dog, like my dogs, who have sat patiently under the desk all these years and insisted on walks and adventures beyond the page.

And there are bees.

To be continued.

Vivi, who approved all the dog scenes in the final manuscript.

 

Gratitude

My heart is filled with gratitude—the kind of inner flush that starts in your heart and constantly reframes your thoughts. It is not just a polite ”Yes, I am feeling good.” And it is not fleeting. These complex days in the world find me with a newfound ability to listen, reflect, and sort through what to take in and what to let go.

I had my two-week post-surgical visit this week. Excellent report after my L4/L5 bilateral laminectomy. Now free to resume swimming, biking, and hiking—albeit gently. (My surgeon knows me.) But even before that visit, I knew I was doing well because I had weaned myself off all pain meds, begun moving more easily than I have in a couple of years, and above all, am feeling no sciatica pain!

When my surgeon came into the room, I got up and took his hand in both of mine and profoundly thanked him. Certainly, his skill and that of his entire team was instrumental in all of this, but I went into surgery as physically strong as I could. We were quite the team. I feel as if I have been given a new lease on my active life.

Thanks to all of you who reached out during this time. I read and re-read every comment and card. They meant a lot. Those good wishes helped me remain hopeful. I was carried into the surgery on a wave of healing energy.

This public declaration of gratitude will help me hold that point on the wheel of each situation I find myself in these next months and beyond. It is a stated covenant, a commitment to keep my hand on the gratitude rudder that charts the course of my life.

My wish for each of you is to capture moments of gratitude, tuck them into a pouch where they can easily be retrieved, and pull them out as needed to serve as antidotes of hopefulness in moments of challenge.

After a visit with my surgeon, a celebratory hike to our favorite Bowman Bay. Resting in the blessing of the long vista of Puget Sound. photo by Christina Baldwin

Glaciers, Part II, Hiking

Blue sky, a summer day, and an invitation to walk around on a glacier. Such grand adventure! Yet, walking around on glaciers is precarious. Advancing or retreating ice edges are in constant flux, creating crevasses, hidden snow bridges, and steep, slippery traverses.

Ann on Root Glacier, photo by Christina Baldwin

We went to Alaska in June 2022 to visit family and touch the expansive wilderness of this northern continental rim with its raw edge of climate change. In my previous blog I wrote about paddling near one of the fastest melting tidewater glaciers in the world. In this blog I write about hiking on the Root Glacier in Wrangle St. Elias National Park. This is the largest national park in the United States, 20,000 square miles. Six Yellowstone Parks, or the states of Vermont and New Hampshire could fit within its boundaries, and only two dirt roads run into the park’s vast interior.

Mt. Blackburn and the glacial flow below, photo by Christina Baldwin

Christina’s brother, Ric, and sister-in-law, Kathy, drove us 60 miles on a dirt road from the SW entrance to our cabin. The morning of our adventure we walked across a foot bridge over glacial silt-laden waters, runoff from the expansive peaks of the park. Mt. St. Elias at 18,808 feet is the second tallest peak in North America. Mt. Wrangell (14,163 feet) is one of the three largest active volcanoes in the world. Nine of the tallest sixteen mountains in North America are located here, as are thousands of miles of glaciers and the largest ice field in North America (Bagley Icefield).

Crossing the bridge to McCarthy, Alaska, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

 A van from the St. Elias Mountain Guides picked us up in McCarthy, population 100, at the edge of the park, and took us lurching along the one-lane, five-mile road to the old Kennecott Copper mine where we would begin our hike to the glacier.

 

 

Hiking into the abandoned Kennecott Mine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our adventuring troop consisted of the four of us, a couple from Texas, and a couple from France. Our two young guides gave us a safety talk, fitted us with the crampons we would later need to walk safely on the glacier, and we headed out of basecamp. A two-mile trail to the glacier’s edge undulated through a young aspen, subalpine fir forest filled with wildflowers amid a distant backdrop of towering snowy mountains. The air temperature had warmed to 65 degrees F. and mosquitoes were beginning to hover. Our guides kept a steady, doable, “just ahead of the mosquitoes” pace. We stepped over the fresh droppings of both moose and bear, counting on the guides’ assurance that bears were not a problem in groups of eight or more.

A stream crossing on the way to the toe of the Root Glacier

After two miles, the forest trail opened to a view of the moraine, a blast of cool air, and the disappearance of mosquitoes. We zigzagged down the wet, gravelly footpath to the glacier’s edge and donned our crampons.

Christina putting on crampons as we transitioned from the two-mile hiking trail onto the toe of the glacier

The spikes of the crampons gripped the melting, slippery glacier, giving us confidence to hike on the ice. With each step up the gradual incline, the vista became larger and grander. Mt. Blackburn (16,800 feet) to our Northwest towered over us—a snowy giant standing aloof and seemingly inaccessible.

Gaining confidence as we work our way up the glacier, photo by Christina Baldwin

In 1912, a young east coast scientist and adventurer named Dora Keen climbed Mt. Blackburn in a skirt and lace-up boots! It took two tries for her and her party to summit, and no one has ever repeated their technical ascent of Blackburn’s south face. Here are two accounts of her achievement: 1) https://www.steliasguides.com/blog/alaska-spotlight-on-advenure-dora-keen-1912-first-ascent-mt-blackburn/  2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Keen

From a distance a glacier appears white and relatively smooth. Up close, the surface is dense, uneven, and in summer it is scattered with blown dirt. Occasionally there are small colonies of  “glacier mice.” Not really animal matter, the “mice” are a conglomeration of life forms from bacteria to mosses. Palm-sized, oblong moss balls, they always occur in groups, and actually “move” in tandem with one another—albeit at a barely discernible pace. The Root Glacier is one of the places these life forms are being studied, including miniscule radio tags used to monitor their movement even under mounds of snow. This article explains the studies in greater detail, including showing the radio tags: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/22/858800112/herd-like-movement-of-fuzzy-green-glacier-mice-baffles-scientists

A group of glacier mice

 

Holding an individual glacier mouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The encouragement to alternate our views from grand vistas to miniscule life forms emphasized the complexity of the glacier ecosystem. As neophyte adventurers, we would only venture about two miles up the toe of the glacier

Beyond the area where we ventured, the glacier had cracks and crevasses and snow bridges dangerous to traverse. Six or seven miles beyond us rose the Stairway Icefall. A wall of ice 7,000 feet tall! It is second in size only to the Khumbu ice fall on Mt. Everest.

Ric and Kathy Baldwin, Ann and Christina with the 7,000 foot Staircase Icefall behind us. guide photo

We spent several hours meandering over the terrain of this immense glacier toe. At lunch hour, we sat on ensolite pads while the guides dipped a pot into the aquamarine blue glacial pools to make tea, coffee, or hot chocolate.

Guide preparing hot water on a Jet Boil with glacier water for hot tea, cocoa or coffee

Numerous blue glacial pools, ranging in size from table tops to room size, provided water for our hot drinks and extraordinary beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eager lunch crew awaiting their drinks while sitting on Ensolite pads to keep dry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Language goes mute in the face of this much grandeur. Pictures do it some justice. Stories elucidate my experience a bit more. But feelings of humility, awe, and respect are the jewels that I will carry in my wilderness heart forever. It was one of my most spectacular “God moments:”

As long as I walk this earth, I will do everything I am capable of to protect and love this precious planet. I shall focus on efforts large and small that contribute to earth-tending—whether in gardening the tiny parcel of land that I am privileged to live on, filling my soul’s reserve by walking or paddling in places of beauty, or sharing earth’s beauty with the next generations.

Closeup of Mt. Blackburn from the footbridge into McCarthy, Ak

Post script: It was a great privilege to do this trip. We had planned it for summer 2020 and then came the pandemic and my mother’s death. Originally, we had hoped to focus on Denali National Park, but in the summer of 2021 an underground rock glacier closed the road half-way into the park, which remained closed in 2022. When we first dreamed of this trip, I had no thoughts about back surgery. In two weeks I will have back surgery. Life keeps offering up changes. When big dreams call, answer them as soon as you are able.

Knowing that I would face back surgery at summer’s end, I was careful yet able to physically meet the challenges of the trip. I am ready for the surgery and in good shape and optimistic that my trekking and paddling days shall continue for some time. We also know this trip elevated our “carbon footprint.” We do not casually overstep our sense of sustainability. We constantly reassess the balance between remaining life dreams and remaining climate capacity. This year, Earth Overshoot Day (the date when humanity has used all the biological resources the Earth can regenerate in a year) occurred on July 28. Our actions contributed to that AND our daily life choices have helped keep that date at bay.

Glaciers Part I, Paddling

We have long dreamed of a trip to Alaska to visit glaciers, experience their grandeur, and understand more directly the impact of climate change. We also wanted to visit my brother-in-law, Ric, and his wife, Kathy, who volunteered to lead a road trip through some of the wilder places in that wildest of all states.

Photo of the Chugach Mountain Range south of Anchorage, from Ann’s seat on her Delta flight

And so, we planned a June 2022 trip to kayak in Prince William Sound near the Columbia glacier and hike the toe of the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park—both adventures of great privilege and magnificence. Having Ric and Kathy as narrators/drivers/tour guides was an extraordinary bonus.

Kathy and Ric Baldwin, our trusty tour guides

We began our trip driving south alongside Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Prince William Sound where we caught a ferry from Whittier to Valdez. On the way to Whittier, we stopped at the Portage Glacier visitor center. Ric explained how the glacier had been a major feature at the edge of the center when it opened in May 1986. Now the glacier has retreated across the lake and behind a ridge and is no longer visible.

Signage at another roadside glacier located between Valdez and Chitina, AK, the Worthington Glacier

On our six-hour ferry ride to Valdez we passed the mouth of Columbia Bay full of icebergs. (Columbia Bay is one of many bays pouring into the forested, island studded Prince William Sound.) We passed the site of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in 1989 which dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into these pristine waters. We marveled at islands large enough to have their own mountain ranges and exchanged concerns with Ric and Kathy about the true  fragility of the waters of Prince William Sound.  Fortunately, we saw sea otters, an orca, and sea lions. We later learned that sea otters had made a better comeback after the oil spill than the resident orca pod.

Glaciers are extremely dangerous/unpredictable rivers of ice. To experience them from the water and on foot we knew the importance of local guides. For our paddle, we joined Anadyr Kayaking because my research and conversations convinced me that their 33 years of experience in Valdez would ensure excellent safety and natural history skills. We were not disappointed! Kayaking the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound required that guides and paddlers take a two-hour water taxi to ferry our kayaks into Columbia Bay near the calving face of the glacier.

Christina riding on the water taxi  to our paddling adventure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ann in the cabin of the water taxi, photo by Christina Baldwin

One of the floating icebergs we passed while on the water taxi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We off-loaded our plastic double kayaks onto a cobblestone beach. The motorized taxi retreated out of sight and we were alone at the mouth of creation. The air temperature on that partly cloudy June day was 45 degrees F. We wore three layers of warmth on our legs, four layers of clothing on our torsos, donned life jackets and spray skirts, climbed into our kayaks and pushed into a sea of floating ice. Our skilled guides maneuvered a pathway through the small to medium icebergs, offering us many angled views of towering walls of blue and white ice.

Unloading kayaks from the water taxi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting into our double kayaks from the shore

Paddling near the west face of the receding Columbia glacier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Glaciers are not rivers that flow. Glaciers are rivers that crack under pressure, burst, boom, grind, and calve. The SOUNDS of the glacier added an element of unease and alertness. Our guides brought us to within 1.5 miles of where ice meets saltwater. We paused, listened, and drifted on this windless morning. I was thrilled to be in a place with virtually no sign of human presence. Here was The Beginning. Rocks that had been crushed and moved and buried for millennia suddenly revealed. Ice that had taken ten thousand years to form, now afloat and melting in two days.

Christina in our double kayak within 1.5 miles of the 40 foot high active glacier face

 

 

 

 

 

 

West face of the melting Columbia Glacier meeting Prince William Sound

We paddled to another rocky beach for lunch and pulled the boats high enough to avoid the incoming tide. The guides made hot chocolate and tea while we ate standing up, stretching our legs. The scale of the wild in Alaska is hard to comprehend. A “small” calving event occurred across the bay and we watched a wave undulate the ice-filled channel and ripple onto our shore. An occasional gull flew by. The seals and sea otters that we had seen swimming among the ice floes were nowhere to be seen way down in this ice-choked arm of the bay. There were NO lichens on the rocks. Life as we know it had not yet taken hold here in the raw aftermath of melting glacier.

Lunch time across from the glacier, photo by Anadyr Adventures guide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joining a trip like this, you always meet interesting people. One noteworthy couple, Jose and Jose from Mexico City, surprised all of us at lunch when they pulled tuxedos out of their dry bags, donned them and posed for a barefooted Save the Date postcard they were going to send to friends. They were so energetic, such a delightful addition!

It was exactly 30 years earlier that I had pushed off the shore of Lake Superior to begin kayaking around the largest of the Great Lakes. My life was changed by that journey. I stand humbly in the beauty of these years, grateful for so many adventures, grateful for this day of awe and reverie.

Exactly 30 years ago I pushed off the shore of Lake Superior to begin my 65 day journey, photo by my paddling partner and friend, Paul Treuer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ann paddling her boat “Grace” on her journey around Lake Superior, another photo by Paul Treuer

And yet, my awe is tempered by knowledge that this beach was under ice just one year ago. I am standing on human-caused climate change. The World Glacier Monitoring Service has tracked ice changes in relationship to temperature and mass since 1894. The scientific evidence regarding glacial loss is absolutely clear. The Columbia is the fastest melting glacier in North America and is contributing 1% of global sea level rise.

Questions began churning inside me. What can one person do about the magnitude of the problem of climate change? Is that even the right question? Shhhh . . . whispered myself to myself. Just be here. The right question and your own unique answer(s) lie submerged, like the bulk of each iceberg before you. Fill your soul only with beauty and wonder.

A melting glacier, photo by Ann on her Delta flight

Next blog: Glaciers, Part II, Hiking

Holding Extreme Tragedy and Finding Beauty Again

Spring is coming to Ukraine, despite the desecration of its country. We do not hear about the beauty of the natural world unfolding from its winter slumber because so many horrific things are happening to people, buildings, and homes. It is hard to find beauty when everything around seems burnt, bombed, and dangerous. The only reference I hear about the landscape was first frozen ground to enable tanks, then mud to slog them down, and lately about leaves returning to provide camouflage.

Our table centerpiece-prayers for Ukraine

The people AND the land of Ukraine are being severely harmed. They are the principal supplier of wheat and sunflower oil to many countries, particularly in Africa. What is being planted? What is being destroyed?

Our Wilderness Guides Council held another zoom call to witness the stories of our Ukrainian colleagues.

We from the United States, Canada, Europe, and South Africa listened. The first Ukrainian speaker reported relief to see the faces of his countrymen—a confirmation that they are each still alive. One by one they took up the invisible talking piece.

“I wait every night for the call from my son who is fighting to find out if he is still alive,” reported one man.

“My home was bombed. I have confirmation of this now. My mother has been captured by the Russians in Mariupol, but at least I have word that she is alive.”

Barely able to speak through her tears, a young woman said, “Hate. I did not think I was so capable of hate. That we must prove what the Russians are doing is unthinkable,” she said in reference to the fact that Russians are claiming the atrocities being discovered have been staged by the Ukrainians.

“Thank you for listening,” they each said at the end of their speaking.

The call dropped me to my knees, brought tears to my eyes, left me grasping for what else I might do besides being a listener and sending money to the World Central Kitchen https://wck.org/.

How do I hold these stories?

 After the call, I walked outside to see my garden.

My April garden tulips

Tiny arugula seedling coming up under the protection of row cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could see the beauty before my eyes. But I was not staring into a bombed landscape. So much sadness filled my soul. How could I integrate the stories I had just heard and make space again for joy? How could I remain grounded in my own reality and resources so I could be a witness for those who needed it?

Nature is always my refuge, my restoration, but I needed more than just a meander in the woods. I needed something tangible to do. I had been thinking about collecting nettles this spring. There is about a two-week window when they are big enough to cut and not so big that the stems become woody. Perfect, I would “armor up” to harvest nettles.

Young forest nettles perfect for harvesting.

The tiny- pointed hairs covering the leaves and stems break off when touched and release formic acid—the same venom found in bee and ant stings. So, NO bare skin for this harvest. Many people consider them a superfood, a super medicine.  Nettles are a rich source of vitamin C and potassium. They contain more iron than spinach, antihistamines that help alleviate allergy symptoms, and serotonin, which imparts a feeling of well-being.

My gloved hands harvesting nettles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dressed in heavy pants, long sleeves, thick gloves, I carried two 5-gallon buckets down a path and off into a huge nettle patch near the state park parking lot. Within 20 minutes I had snipped two buckets full of nettle tops. The patch was so big, looking back behind me, I could not tell that anyone had been here harvesting. Nettles grow in Ukraine. Would anyone even be safe harvesting them? My thoughts would wander, then I would refocus on my task. Harvesting nettles requires attention—a wrist bared or sock top exposed means miserable itching.

Back home carefully snipping the tender leaves from their stems into a steaming pot.

Coming home, I sat on a chair on the patio and carefully snipped the leaves off the stems and into a gallon pot. Two five -gallon buckets consolidated down to one gallon of leaves to steam. It took about 20 minutes of steaming for the nettles to cook down (the steaming destroys the stinging hairs) to a small serving dish size. Sauteeing some of last summer’s garlic and sunflower seeds in olive oil, I added the steamed leaves turning them over and over, adding lemon juice and balsamic glaze. Presto! A vegetable dish for three.

A filled gallon pot cooked down after steaming

The nettles sautéed in olive oil, garlic, and sunflower seeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It made me so happy to honor the earth’s bounty in that way, to feed my family. Action empowered me to do something good and tangible. It brought me joy and purpose. By day’s end my heart was again open.

The connection between  food and land and hope

The work of holding the complexity of these times is immense. We all do it in different ways. Let us not forget that the earth is helping us, too.  Leaves are returning to the trees in Ukraine. May blooming flowers rise in the shattered cities and surprise those most in need of beauty. May someone be planting a kitchen garden on their porch. Stinging nettles grow worldwide. Maybe one of the local chefs working with the incredible organization of the World Central Kitchen is preparing nettles in some Ukrainian village this very day.

This is not a far-fetched thought. WCK partners with local chefs to create hot, deliverable meals to communities in Ukraine being bombing. (There are many fine non-profits working in Ukraine. I highlight WCK because of the connection to food in this piece of writing.) For example, a small town outside Kharkiv where cows cannot be milked and the grain silo is destroyed have been receiving hot meals. In a monastery in Odesa where 130 seniors live and 10 refugees a day come from Mariupol, the monastery staff bakes bread and shelters homeless animals. People and land working together sustain life.

Plants connect us. Food preparation connects us. The act of foraging in dire need or in adventure awakens gratitude that food is there. I can reach my gloved hand into the nettle patch and feel connection to the life-giving presence of Ukraine and its remarkable people.

How We Behave Matters

Bullying is aggressive behavior with intent to hurt, threaten, frighten a person, group, or even a country. Playing out on the world stage right now are lessons in what happens when bullying escalates to warfare and war mongering. We are seeing the consequences of avoidant and disengaged foreign policies; countries that have colluded and deluded each other that they (we) could go on about our national interests and not deal with Russia… or North Korea… or any other autocrat bent on terrorizing the international scene.

Bullying succeeds until stopped. And if not stopped until it is very big and dangerous and armed to the teeth you get what’s happening right now with Putin using his power to invade Ukraine and bully it into submission. You get what’s happening in the United States, with the entitlement of white supremacy attempting to put voting rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights, BIPOC rights, and public education back into a very prescribed reality. Bullying does not voluntarily go away.

When I was in fourth grade, I had to pass my arithmetic papers to Bobby Cox, the boy in the next desk, for “grading.” I guess the teacher thought this system removed the temptation to “correct” our answers as we went through the problems. But the problem for me was that Bobby liked to change my answers to be wrong. He would turn a 3 into an 8 or a 1 into a 4, and then he’d make fun of me, calling out that I was stupid, and writing a big red F on the page. I earnestly showed the teacher how the numbers had been rewritten and she believed me enough to give me a B, but she didn’t discipline Bobby. She passed this volatile boy into fifth grade where he took to drawing buttocks on the top of my papers and coloring globs of brown poop down my homework so I had to recopy assignments.

My mother counseled compassion. “Maybe nobody loves him,” she said. “Maybe his father is mean to him. A child mimics the behavior he sees. He wants you to be mad at him, so be nice instead. Here, make him a valentine. You don’t have to sign it, but there will be at least one in his shoebox.” Mom was probably right about the lacks in his home—but no one in authority intervened on Bobby’s behalf. He drew his signature buttocks and poop on the only valentine in his box and taped it to the blackboard, laughing and lonely. In junior high he picked fights in the back of the school bus, put spitballs and chewing gum in kids’ hair. In high school he was repeatedly suspended for aggressive behavior. Instead of graduating, he was in juvenile hall for stabbing another boy in a street fight. I have no idea what happened to him.

Such a child is a tragic tale. Bobby’s access to his own moral compass had been destroyed and while he sat in the middle row, he was separated from the schoolroom society around him, unable to adhere to common codes of behavior. In the 1986 classic, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum asserted that most human beings have (by age five) an understanding of what constitutes moral/civil behavior and he suggested adults remember these basics. His list had such universal appeal the book sold 17-million copies and was translated in twenty-seven languages. It included: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.  Take a nap . Watch for traffic. Hold hands and stick together. Be aware of wonder.

It is heartbreaking and havoc-creating when the umbilical cord to our moral/civil code is severed. As such children grow, bullying often becomes their primary way of relating in the world. Unconfronted bullying escalates in thoughts, words, deeds. And right now, bullying is a global pandemic. Here in the US, fringe political groups carry assault rifles into school board meetings, people have weaponized the flag, the pledge of allegiance, social media, and civic spaces. Where is the Commons, the town square, where we might meet and remember the things we learned in kindergarten?

I believe it is up to us to become the “Commons,” to speak and behave with decency and to intercept the rise in bullying in whatever ways we find ourselves capable. In our years teaching circle practice, people often asked for help to confront bullying.

Here is what we learned:

  1. Self-care is primary. We cannot succumb to victimization. (Think of all those Ukrainians rising up to meet their bully!) We can talk with friends, get reality checks, run through scenarios, process our emotions so that we remain calm in the work of the moment. If we are the target, acknowledge how draining this is. Rest in whatever ways are most nourishing.
  2. Set clear parameters. We can define what behavior/language is most important to us to intercept and why. Knowing our own motivation helps keep us out of ego conflict and supports neutral language. Who or what are we defending? We can be compassionate and fierce; confront behavior while honoring the humanity of a person.
  3. Refuse to meet escalation with escalation. We can walk away, hang up, delete social media attacks. As appropriate, we can confront behavior in witness with others. If someone else is being bullied, or confronting bullying, we can be an ally, an active bystander, a recorder of the moment. (Think of the teenager who videoed George Floyd’s murder and changed the world.)
  4. Define meaningful outcome and hold to it. Bullies may or may not transform into citizens, colleagues, or friends, but their behavior can be corralled, and their influence diminished when we insist that rules of decency, civility, and truthfulness prevail. Entrenched behavior takes strategy, effort, and time to untrench. People need to be creative, supportive, active, persistent and collaborative.

Bullying is misuse of power, and in the world of now, we best do everything we can to confront bullying while it is still manageable in our lives. The list of crises we face is longer than Fulghum’s list of how we face them. Standing up to bullying is not comfortable work, but it keeps the Commons alive. It provides social spaces where children can learn how to be good humans and we can hold hands in uncertainty. In the 21st century, this is a skill we best cultivate and support each other to practice.

Do Not Forget Us!

Flag of Ukraine, courtesy of Wikipedia

Like so many of you, I have felt shocked, devastated, and immobilized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Other than discerning a good way to send relief, I have felt helpless. So, when the Wilderness Guides Council put out a call for a collective gathering to hear the stories, needs, and strengths of our Ukrainian friends, I eagerly signed up. (WGC is a global network of wilderness guides and supporters who offer “contemporary wilderness rites of passage”.)

Since the international Wilderness Guides Council convened in Ukraine in 2012, I was hopeful that some of our Ukrainian guides would be on the call. At least four participants were from Ukraine. The rest of us tuned in from many countries including South Africa, Spain, Germany, Canada, South Siberia and many U.S. states.

2012 WGC attendees in Ukraine, photo courtesy of WGC, Darcy Ottey

 

Close-up from 2012 WGC gathering in Ukraine, photo courtesy of WGC, Darcy Ottey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the Ukrainian guides was sitting in total darkness because his city is under bombardment and strict orders to have no lights on at night. One is currently living in Canada, every day fearful for her parent’s lives. The other two had fled their cities and were in the currently safer western part of their brave country.

Council Wisdom

The intention of the council was to offer peace and protection for Ukraine. We opened with a slide show of that 2012 gathering, a song, silence with lit candles, and then an open invitation for the Ukrainians to speak so we could bear witness. Words came slowly at first. Feelings were raw, so very raw. One of the Ukrainians had spent 12 days in a bomb shelter with her family before fleeing to the western part of the country. Another is still living in a city being bombarded. His face illuminated only by his electronic screen showed the wear of sleeplessness and living in constant danger. Still another wrote her comments only in the chat box because her reception was so poor she feared we would not be able to hear.

There were long pauses. This is the way of council. We wait. We hold the space open so words can form and be supported as they arise.

Some of us as witnesses added comments after our Ukrainian friends spoke. One American guide who went to the 2012 gathering spoke of bringing 3 acorns back from a 1,000 year old oak. One of those acorns sprouted. She planted it and it is now about 30 feet high—a symbol of the longevity and strength of its home country. Another shared the t-shirt that was literally given to him off the back of one of the Ukrainians on the call. Another among us spoke how she is living on stolen lands—from U.S. native peoples—and reflected on the violence so long perpetrated against peaceful peoples everywhere.

1,000 year old Ukrainian oak, photo courtesy of WGC, Trebbe Johnson

I chose to repeat the words one Ukrainian guide had spoken at the end of his second check-in. “Something new is being born. In a birth both the mother and the child are very vulnerable. We must pay attention and protect both the mother and child.” The words haunted me, yet I know he spoke them as a man who has lived many decades and watched the ongoing trials of his country. His voice invited respect. He spoke with hope. He repeated words that each of his countrymen and women had spoken earlier, “We will not lose our country. We will remain free.”

The chat box was filled with information, including a note from one of the German guides with a connection to a site that would help refugees find shelter, food, and clothing in her country. We shared emails. We want to remain connected. We want to speak again. We are eager to help in whatever ways we are able.

The parting words from each of our Ukrainian friends was, “Do not forget us!”

Something new is being born

Leaving the council, I chose to head to our nearby state park with its old growth Douglas firs and western red cedar. I wandered the slowly emerging spring woods in the tradition of the Medicine Walk, so dear to the hearts of my fellow WGC guides. The phrase “something new is being born” kept repeating itself in my mind. A short ways up the first hill of the trail a large, old alder tree next to the trail had blown down since I walked this trail last week. It was shocking how little root structure had held the old alder all these years. The alder will now become a nurse log providing a platform for mosses, mushrooms, salal plants, huckleberry, and eventually another alder tree. Something new is being born out of a loss, though, at the moment, all that is visible is the dead alder and all the ferns and young plants it smashed on the way down. Can any of us begin to see what will be born out of the current tragedy in Ukraine?

“We must pay attention and protect both the mother and child.”  Further along, I stopped to lean against the 500-year-old cedar tree. It is hollow now—a person could actually bend over and “skinny” their way from front to back. The winter has blown down some of its enormous branches, yet as I gaze skyward, back against the tree, I cannot see through the many remaining branches to the top of the tree. It is probably the oldest tree in the park.

In 1999 I was sitting on the bench overlooking the tree when two young boys wandered up from the campground. They grabbed some big sticks and started hacking away at the then smaller hole in the tree. I was completely shocked. It occurred to me that no one had taught them to respect a large old tree. I rose from the bench and gently approached them.

“Excuse me,” I said. They both looked up. “Would you beat your grandmother with a stick?” At this point they have set their sticks down and are looking at me as if I am some kind of apparition. “This is the oldest tree in the forest. It is the grandmother tree. We must treat it with respect.” The two boys hurriedly disappeared down the trail.

Later I worked with the park ranger to erect a sign and a barrier to the tree explaining its age and importance. “We must protect both the mother and the child.”

The winter has been hard on the forest. A number of large trees have blown down. Yet the whole of the forest remains functioning, beautiful, and vibrant. The further I walk the more I can understand the wisdom of the older Ukrainian guide who has walked the “forests” of his country for many decades. He knows intimately the individual components of cities, mountains, forests, people. He sees them as a whole—resilient, interconnected, ever-changing. Two hours later I return home with a much better understanding of how these four guides could be so sure that they will not lose their country. They know and understand things that we as outsiders can barely comprehend.

Sitting down to dinner that night next to the wood stove, holding hands with my beloved, we offered prayers of gratitude for the incredible privilege of an intact home, enough to eat, and a peaceful neighborhood. And we asked for prayers for all who do not have such privilege at this time.

We will not forget our Ukrainian friends. We will keep the stories of their courage and determination alive, for they represent the hope that people everywhere have for democracy to remain alive.

 

 

 

 

Our Animals Help Us Be Better Humans

Blue-eyed girls, photo by Christina Baldwin

Daily our little blue-eyed corgi helps me be a better human. By doing the things she loves, I become a happier, healthier, kinder person. Having a dog makes sure that I tend to the following:

Plan time outdoors every day.

 Share love and affection and, of course, snacks.

Pay attention to needs other than your own.

Offer kindness.

Be curious.

It seems so simple really. Yet we humans can get involved with matters of consequence and overlook or minimize these basic tenets of a good life. But our pets, be they dogs, cats, horses, birds, guinea pigs or something more exotic, thrive on these things. And so do we!

Because Vivi is only two years old, she needs a LOT of exercise—which is very good for us. Two good walks a day of at least two miles. Time in the big, fenced yard of her best friend, who also happens to be a corgi, racing around flat out  with no leash. Lots of time on the floor playing with stuffy toys and keeping her two 70+ year-olds flexible. And did I mention race and chase? Her favorite indoor game is to be there when the laundry comes out of the dryer and steal a -falling sock or underpants that then requires a fun romp and keep-away around the living room. Such good laughter for us two serious humans.

The laundry helper stealing a dropped sock. photo by Christina Baldwin

Come get me. I know you want your sock!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vivi loves meeting people— especially children. She does a hilarious belly crawl as she approaches them—as if a short corgi needs to make herself even shorter so as not to intimidate little children. People always laugh and ask what she is doing. We explain that she wants to meet them, and this is her greeting crawl. During the pandemic, when meetings with passersby have been reduced, her six-foot leash is just the right social distance and her friendliness a wonderful bridge builder. We call her our little Minister of Joy. There are, of course, people who simply ignore Vivi and walk on by. She watches to see if they are dog aware or not, almost shrugs her little corgi shoulders and then heads onto her next interaction.

Always on the lookout for something new and interesting!

Regularity of schedule and pattern provide a secure rhythm to our days. Yet, Vivi is always “up” for something spontaneous—like the surprise appearance of a squirrel on the feeder or a neighbor who stops for a chat during a walk. (Honestly, I am quite sure that most neighbors in the next community over have no clue what my name is—I am just the one who walks that cute tri-colored corgi named Vivi.)

At the end of their weekly Medicine Walk in our local state park, Ann writes in her journal and Vivi remains alert.

As a longtime wilderness guide, I have incorporated two practices from guiding into my life: a weekly Medicine Walk and a daily Sit Spot. (A Medicine Walk is more about being than doing. It is a walk with intention to seek greater awareness and guidance.) Vivi has made this easy. She loves our Medicine Walk. She gets to sniff as much as she likes and when she stops to notice something, I stop to try and perceive what she sees,  hears, smells, or senses. Always she knows when someone is coming well before I am aware of their presence. Walking alongside our perky little pup, I pause as often as she does and listen to the forest. May I do this the rest of the years of my life. It will surely take that long to perceive both the underground symphonies of resonance and the above ground harmony of sensory overload.

Winter Sit Spot on our front porch, photo by Christina Baldwin

The other nature-based practice that Vivi helps me honor is the Sit Spot. When dusk comes, she comes to find me until we head out the front door and sit on the porch together.  On a near daily basis, here are some of our gifts—eagles coming into roost, the last flickers at the feeder, or a surprise clearing of the mountains just in time for sunset.

I cannot end this blog without sharing the journey of two dear friends who walked their 15-year-old chihuahua/Italian greyhound to her final breath this week. They did so with beauty and attention, taking care of their “old lady” as she aged. After she had a stroke, they stopped everything for three days and simply prioritized her needs and their own. Tootsie has been on every hike and camping trip we’ve taken with them all these years—an adventuresome little dynamo. We will all miss her. Tootsie helped them be their best possible selves. She deserved no less.

Tootsie in the last week of her life. Photo by Nicole Luce

Would love to hear some of your own stories about how your pet helps you be a better human in this complex world we live in.

Henry Beston’s famous quote from The Outermost House:

For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

 

Covid 19—the Never-ending Story

“When you go out and see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms,

don’t say to yourself, ‘It looks like the end of the world.’ What you’re seeing is love in action.

What you’re seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other…

Let it fill you and sustain you. It isn’t the end of the world.

It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.”

from the Belfast Corona Virus network, Feb. 2020

People like events. Events occur with a beginning/middle/end. We like a good story, or a sporting contest (who won—and we know the score), or a family reunion when all our relatives leave on Tuesday and we can “put things back to rights,” as my mother used to say.

When the Covid-19 Pandemic started, it was articulated as an event, a huge global occurrence playing out on the world stage. It felt like we were all living in a disaster movie, complete with spooky music and escalated voices on the news. The virus was a sneaky monster, microscopically unreal, but lurking everywhere. We watched in astonishment as the modern world came to a sudden halt. Lots of real-life drama was generated in Act One watching healthcare systems near to collapsing under the load of need, and heartfelt relief was provided by stories and gestures of kindness and support.

But now, in its second year of ongoing disruption, the pandemic is not behaving properly. The plot is very unclear, unmanageable subplots are bobbing like container ships at the edges of ports. The story needs serious editing. It seems stuck in what my editor refers to as “the muddle of the middle.” Well, if we are even in the middle. And in the early summer of 2021, just when the vaccinated were dashing toward the exits and a promised return to normalcy, Delta variant cancelled Intermission. Anti-vaxxers cancelled civility. Misinformation cancelled confidence. We don’t know where we are or how to live our ways forward. And now, Omicron (OMG) brings on another winter of uncertainty. The muddle indeed!

Attending our nephews’ wedding–August 2021–the masked aunties. We tested before and after–no one got sick. Whew.

Oh, a new reality is dawning. The pandemic is not an event: the pandemic is a shift.

A shift is a much harder experience. We don’t know how long it is, how big it is, or what consequences it enforces. We don’t know if it actually ever comes to resolution in which the protagonists have triumphed, good has won the day, the dust-up of drama has settled, and we can finish our popcorn and eye the satisfying announcement, THE END… In a shift, is the end just THE BEGINNING? And beginning of what? And what just ended? And who am I in the muddle of this? How can I make story and meaning when everything keeps changing? And what happened to the camaraderie when we were cheering for team humanity?

I want opera on the balconies again and clanging pans for nurses, and poetry about togetherness, and thoughtful pieces about how this might change our lives for the better. I want to believe that beautiful declaration of the Belfast Corona Virus Network, “It isn’t the end of the world. It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.”

Yes, and it is the end of the world: the world of putting off facing our accumulating crises, of luxuriating in our fantasies that some other generation and some other time will require sacrifices but we can keep driving our cars, shopping at Costco, and sustaining economies reliant on citizen over-consumption.

Shift is admitting we are standing at the edge of forces in Nature and human nature we have never lived through before.  The pandemic is the messenger–along with social erosion and violence, floods and firestorms, tornadoes for Christmas, and governments that barely function on the standard of “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are living inside a contagion of social variants and the longer we fling our attention from one false flag to another, the more these variants multiply and the more serious the threats become.

Shift asks us to live by our moral compass and help one another remember our best selves. In spite of the the news and dire predictions, I believe most people can access shared human values of preservation and altruism, love for children, empathy for each other’s challenges, compassion for suffering, desire for balance. All of us wake in the morning trying to orient ourselves and figure out how we’re going to get through the day in a world that won’t stop wobbling. Take a breath. Stretch. Ask for guidance: listen. Write it down. Make a bit of  story to step into the day. Tell someone how you are; listen to how they are.

There is no predictable path: we are making the path we predict.

The outcome is not decided.

We are deciding.

Together.

 

The first part of this blog is an edited version from the foreword I wrote for The Story Circle Network’s 2021 anthology series, Real Women Write. This volume is titled: Beyond Covid: Leaning into Tomorrow, edited by Susan Schoch, the book contains prose and poetry by over 50 women reflecting on their personal journeys through Covid times. It was an honor to provide the foreword, and with Susan’s permission to include some of it here and spread word of the book.

It’s a Fine Line

Outdoor winter adventure is beautiful in the mountains of western Washington. White mounded trees, animals that whiten for camouflage, the presence of tracks so the activity of animals can be discerned, and mountains with their extraordinary mantle of white. Minnesota-raised, my child winters were full of sledding, skiing, skating and snowshoeing. Winter was fun! To access that snowy wonderland from the rainy, green lowlands of western Washington I head up in elevation for a few adventures each winter.

Individual trees almost disappear under mountains of powder snow

Winter adventures pose a greater level of risk than wilderness outings in warmer seasons. A mistaken route choice can lead you into avalanche territory. Improper attention to weather conditions can find you in driving wet snow, loss of a sense of direction, and hypothermia in less than 30 minutes. This greater call to preparedness and attentiveness is part of what I DO love about winter adventures.

Snowshoeing at 4,000 feet in the season’s first big snowstorm

The first big, ski resort-opening snowstorm of the season in Washington state occurred mid-December. On the first day of that storm, I joined an REI lowland snowshoe trip to Mt. Baker, a place I have been both summer and winter. (At 72, I prefer not to go alone into the winter wilderness.) Having someone else drive was a delight—especially when mask-wearing protocols were carefully followed. We arrived at the Heather Meadow downhill ski parking lot in moderate snow and wind—a world of white far above the green grass back home. Everyone scrambled into layers of gear before stepping out into the 25 degree F. (-4 degrees C.) temperatures. I carefully slid hand warmer packages into heavy weight gloves and then joined everyone.

Distributing snowshoes, poles, and gaiters in the parking lot.

After being issued snowshoes (loved trying out new gear!), poles, and gaiters, nine participants and two guides were on our way up the snow-covered, rolling slopes leading to Artist Point. Within the first fifteen minutes, it was clear one participant had not carefully read the “vigorous trip” label as he struggled to keep up. One of the guides took him down to the Heather Mountain Lodge for the remainder of the day.

When, our remaining guide stepped out of the tracks and came back to check on each of us, I quietly explained that I had a current Wilderness First Responder certification and would be happy to remain at the back of the line-up and serve as “sweep”. She thanked me and gratefully accepted the offer.

Landmark in a snowy landscape

We slowly made our way up through the trees until we reached the Heather Meadows Visitor Center—closed, of course, but a guidepost on the snowy landscape. Although visibility was poor, our guide pointed out avalanche chutes and gave us an educational talk about the Northwest Avalanche Center and what information we should check before heading into the mountain backcountry landscape.

Heather Meadow Visitor Center, accessible only by snowshoe or skis in the winter

 

 

Looking closely, we spotted a ptarmigan in a shrub—white spot upper middle of the shrub.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stopping for lunch

The group made good progress and stayed together well. Once we traversed a steep ridge, we were just below Artist Point. Blowing and drifting snow made visibility poor so our guide circled us up near a group of trees in the lee of the wind for a lunch break.

Following in a line so we broke trail for one another, we climbed to a ridge below Artist Point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The always helpful Washington Trails Association guide lists Heather Meadows ski lift to Artist Point snowshoe as a four mile, 1,000 foot climb. It details the importance of knowing your route and avoiding avalanche-prone areas. It was reassuring to have our guide with her GPS navigation and radio that connected us directly to rescue, if we needed it. My guess is that in our 90-minute climb we had come up from our 4,100 foot beginning about 800-900 feet.

Lunch break on sit pads or standing

Stopping for lunch is important, AND it is a moment of vulnerability. We had been issued small insolite pads to keep us from sitting directly on the snow and getting quickly chilled. I knew not to sit down because I get cold very fast, so I ate standing up. Before eating, though, I pulled a light weight down coat from my pack and put it underneath my waterproof outer layer. While eating my sandwich, I noticed one of the participants had put on her warm underlayer, but had not zipped it. Then I noticed that her bare hands holding her sandwich were beet red, so I asked if she would like some help zipping up her jacket. She was appreciative. Her friend volunteered to give her a set of hand warmers.

In 20 minutes our guide encouraged us all to finish up and get ready to head down. “You won’t burn as many calories or stay as warm going downhill, so move around while you are waiting for everyone and keep on that underlayer you just put on.”

A moment of vulnerability

When one of the younger men stood up, he instantly got dizzy and had to sit back down. Here was a point of vulnerability for the group—What if he cannot walk out by himself? Our guide asked us all to keep moving and stay warm. I snowshoed around, talking to each person while the guide stayed with the young man who was now actually, in WFR terms, a “patient”.

Wandering over to the guide, the young man, and his girlfriend, I asked what he had for breakfast and what he had eaten for lunch. It did not sound like a lot of food for a rigorous snowshoe in the cold and wind, so I asked if he had a protein bar, which his girlfriend did. After eating half of it, he tried to stand again and found he was still light-headed.

As a trained Wilderness First Responder, I have begun thinking about possible rescue scenarios. Our guide had a radio to contact the other guide in the lodge. I had a bivy sack the young man could climb in and get seated on insolite pads to keep warm until help arrived. Then I started wondering who will stay with the “patient” if he needs rescuing and how the guide might expect to help the rest of us keep warm.

Ann bundled up—her pack set carefully in the snow 5 feet away.

 

On the next try, the young man was steadier on his feet, so we started the trek back down.  We progress slowly enjoying the snowy beauty. It was fun to watch the numerous backcountry skiers make their way uphill on their climbing skins or swishing around us as they carved their beautiful turns in the accumulating powder snow.

 

 

 

It was a gorgeous day in the winter wonderland with important reminders to BE PREPARED. Yet again I am reminded of the fine line between winter wonder and potential emergency.

 

For my reminder and for others, a list:

Must bring on a winter trip

Extra layers of clothing

Packaged hand warmers

Waterproof jacket and pants

Gaiters to keep snow out of your winter warmth boots (not hiking boots)

A means to navigate if snowing and blowing snow descend (GPS or compass)

Extra food and water (in a bottle that won’t freeze)

First Aid kit

Must check before going into the winter mountain back country

Avalanche danger

Weather report for your area

Someone knows where you leave your car and what time you will return, and don’t travel alone!

An honest assessment of your own physical strength and stamina

Snow-loving Ann