The Courage of our Elders

In six weeks, my mother moved three times, received physical therapy four times/day, and returned to using a walker just two weeks after fracturing her pelvis. This is heroic stuff for anyone. Mom is 92 years old.

It is heroic because in your tenth decade, it is not just one thing not working like you expect. There is arthritis, misbehaving bowels, wavering balance, misfiring memory or mental synapses, and a general slowness to movement, to name a few. When a “new” event, often a fall, triggers a “big” malady, the accumulated stress on the body is often completely overwhelming and debilitating.

Mom was overwhelmed and discouraged after her fall, but her usual kind nature drew health care workers to her. Her resolve to do her best during rigorous physical therapy sessions surprised everyone. Mom has not been an exerciser, but she wanted to get back on her walker. She did occasionally joke about hiding from her young, eager, skilled physical therapists. But they always found her!

Mom working with a physical therapist at Christmas

She still needs a watchful eye when walking or self-transferring, so she has been placed in a new section of her health care facility. And once again she is working to make friends, to participate in activities, and to be kind to her healthcare workers.

As a life-long piano player, she has brought new life into the wing of her facility. She wheels her wheelchair over to her piano in the family gathering area, carefully gets up on the piano bench and begins playing dozens of songs she has committed to memory. People begin wheeling themselves out of their rooms to hear her play.

Mom playing her piano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am incredibly proud of my mother and I realize her story is being played out every single day in homes and facilities around the world. Who do you know that is determinedly putting one foot in front of the other— overcoming sometimes great physical, emotional, and financial odds. A neighbor? A relative? A friend of a relative?

Find a way to spend time with them. Their time is not long on this earth. Their conversation might be slow, but their ability to get us to slow down and really listen is a gift. Their insights can be fresh and thought provoking if we let them.

When Christina’s mother was in her mid-90s, she often recited this poem:

“You see me dreaming alone in my chair,

You think that I’m ‘here’ but I’m really out ‘there.’

I’m talking with angels and I’ll join them soon,

Just after I learn how to fly over the moon.”

Mom and I talk about the veil between the worlds, about God’s plan for her, about conversing with Dad who passed away 5 years ago. I am not afraid of these conversations and listen carefully for openings that might encourage her to articulate some of her current inner journey. But I certainly notice how much happier she is now in her new setting thinking about playing the piano or participating in the next activity for residents. It clearly is a lot more fun to be engaged “here” and I am happy she still has that life force.

Mom visiting with her hometown pastor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Really, you think I am courageous?” she asked when I wondered if she would be OK with me writing a blog about her.

“Without a doubt, Mom! May you cherish the time you have left on this earth and may you continue to be of fine service to the people around you.”

I am lucky. Mom can still converse, play the piano, read books, write in her journal and play cards. I intend to see her as often as possible in whatever months or years she has left.

Ann and her mother, photo by Ann’s sister Kathy Harrington

Lights out!

On December 20, 2018, I was home alone with the dog (Ann was in Minnesota) when Whidbey Island was engulfed in a storm of sustained winds 50+ MPH. Trees fell, but not on our house, power went out for 3-5 days depending on the neighborhood. So while waiting for electricity to resume, I had a chance to renew my survival and emergency skills.

Driftwood plowed off the road, Keystone Spit Rd.

Wherever we live, the modern conveniences of our lives are at risk! We watch the news of floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, fires, winds with a kind of morbid fascination—unless these events are disrupting/wrecking/ending our own comfortable lives. We need different kinds of emergency preparedness and social/spiritual resilience for each of these scenarios. My responses during and after the storm are an invitation for you to identify your vulnerabilities and design your own plan.

Get water: When winds came up and lights blinked, I ran a 3-gallon bucket for flushing and set it in the shower near the toilet. I filled a soup pot with 1-gallon of drinking water and all other water bottles in the house. In our earthquake supplies we have additional reserve supplies of water. (We also have 250 gallons in a hot tub that could be shared and/or converted for multiple uses by camp filters.)

Preserve food: We always keep 2 blocks of ice in our box freezer to turn it into an ice chest if needed. Once the power was out, I arranged frozen food and ice and covered the freezer with a feather duvet and wool blankets. (I took out and ate ½ pint of ice cream as precautionary measure!) Fifty-six hours later when power returned, everything in the freezer was still frozen except some bags of blackberries. I also got a camping ice chest in the kitchen with another block of ice to store refrigerator things like milk, mayo, and fresh veggies to use daily.

Stay warm: I chopped a lot of kindling and filled the wood bin by front door. Our wood stove kept the temperature in the living room at 62 Fahrenheit (16 Celsius). I lived comfortably in sweaters, put two duvets on the bed, drank lots of hot tea, soup, ate well because I could match light the propane stove top. Several neighbors were toasty by their propane stoves or fireplaces—very helpful to have alternative heat source! And it helped enormously that outside temperatures were in the mid forty-degree Fahrenheit range.

Prepare for darkness: We have little solar camping lights that I made sure were in the windows charging up. I also used candles, both flame and battery operated. I wore a headlamp as a necklace and beamed my way around the house in the evenings. This time of the year we have 16 hours of darkness.

Check neighbors: Some of ours had generators they hauled out on the second day. Some had no back-up heat and were shivering in place. I talked to the new folks about not flushing (water won’t flow uphill to your septic field, and the pump between the tanks is not working) and answered any other questions gleaned from our 25 years living here through power outages. Just talking with neighbors helped them not feel so isolated and encouraged some to pull out extra blankets and clothing. Others left for relatives’s and friend’s homes or mainland motels.

Communicate: Create a little texting group and keep track of one another to encourage resilience and safety, share information, and support a sense of community in place.

Wait out the storm: the only thing more dangerous than living under 150-foot-tall conifers is driving under them! On the 10-mile main road that feeds into our 25-household community, there were 20 trees down over the road and 3 or 4 of them on hot wires (until the wires broke). The wind blew hard for 9 hours, and then abated at dark—very dark, very quiet. Starry night and Solstice full moon.

Once the practicalities were in place, I could practice living with this event at multiple levels, so here are two more suggestions.

Look for surprises and stories: The headquarters and WiFire coffee shop of the local telecom company (Yes—Whidbey still has a locally owned/operated phone and WIFI company) ran its mega-generator and served as a community hub for recharging devices, being on-line, getting warm, and getting espresso and baked goods. The camaraderie was magic: island folks showing up to share stories of how they made it through the night, where the worst of the tree damage appeared to be, what roads had been cleared, what stores were open. Everyone had access to free WIFI and electricity. A conference room had 40+ people in it. The line-up for coffee was 30 minutes with plenty of hugs and hellos. Collective hosting emerged, honor systems engaged.

A community communicating–thank you Whidbey Telecom.

One woman told me, “I found a laptop in the parking lot last night. Someone leaving in the dark, I’m sure, disoriented by all this, set it down to find keys, drove off…I turned it in to the desk here and hope the person wasn’t too panicked and got back here to pick it up.”

A man said, “You think taking car keys away from your aging parents is hard—this is the storm we finally had to take mom’s chainsaw away! She’s always prided herself at being able to saw her way out of her driveway, but she really doesn’t have the strength to safely heft that thing around anymore.”

Participate in the sacred: Two friends host an annual Solstice Ceremony that has come to serve as a spiritual marker in the year. I called at 4:00 PM as the winds died down and the host said he’d driven several routes and laid out the safe byways to their home: the party would go on in candle-light. I put on a sweater that highlighted the jeweled tones of my headlamp and headed off into the dusk, glad to be driving while I could still see the wires and leaning trees along my way. About 45 people showed up and stepped into the glowing feast of food and fellowship.

We held a Solstice ceremony with everyone clustered in the living room. We became collective prayer. We prayed for the world. We prayed for three among us currently fighting brain cancer. We became a peer spirited voice of quiet insights offered to the candlelight center. We anchored one another in a ritual of nonsectarian spirituality that shimmers in me still.

Morning prayer light, dawn in the dining room.

Saturday night the lights flicked on, the furnace kicked in, the clocks blinked awake, and with a sigh of relief I resumed modern living—the lessons in that are the next blog.

End of Part One

 

 

Winter Storm in the Forest

When big storms blow in off the Pacific Ocean and hit our island sitting at the inland mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, huge damage can occur.

 

Storm debris was literally blown out of Puget Sound, onto some roads, and had to be plowed to be cleared.

Two grand firs were blown over and through the roof of this local, iconic structure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently we had a storm with over 60 mph winds that left many parts of the island without power for up to 5 days. Thousands of islanders were discovering how essential electricity is to comfort, and how prepared or unprepared their household was to live without it. We were able to keep the house warm with our wood stove and live by candle light with our carefully saved containers of clean water. (See Christina’s blog: Lights out.) When electricity returned, I was eager to see what had happened at my favorite local forest.

None of the towering old growth Douglas fir or cedar trees were down. They were deep in the forest surrounded by their younger offspring and their roots “held” on to each other. They were lucky, but many trees were not.

A tree was literally sheered off, making visceral the power of the wind.

 

A tree snapped off right at trails edge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New openings now exist in places that previously were heavily shaded. This will bring light to the forest floor and unleash a whole new growth spurt of young trees reaching towards the light. This is the natural order of things in a forest. Nothing is static. Everything is constantly changing.

In the midst of my awe at the power of wind on these standing giants, I wondered how many birds were killed by falling trees and branches. Where did the deer and coyotes and squirrels hide to avoid certain death? I could find no evidence to help me answer those questions. It was just very obvious that walking in a forest in the wind is a seriously bad idea.

Forest trail barely visible amidst the downed debris.

In some places our little dog had a much easier time finding her way on the trail than I did! I could barely roll under this tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing I did find that amazed me was the telltale sign of a tree getting ready to “let go”. In the quiet of the forest a week after the storm I found a line of disturbed soil about two feet from the base of a sixty-foot western hemlock. As the tree top was whipping around in the wind, the root ball supporting it was also beginning to move—a very bad sign for the tree’s longevity. It made it through this storm, but what about the next high wind?

 

The disturbed soil line of the moving rootball is just at the edge of the vegetation.

Closeup of the disturbed soil line. If you see this near a tree by your house, have it removed immediately!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what an overturned rootball looks like.

In the quiet aftermath, this walk brings forth a message I am listening to as the year turns:  Be a part of a community. You have someone to hang onto, someone to share resources, someone to register when you are in trouble. This is true whether you are a tree, a bird, a forest mammal or a wandering, wondering human.

 

Writing on

My father died.

Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road.  And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.

I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.

“A man and his butte,” photo by Becky Dougherty.

His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.

And when my father died, my editor died.

I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.

My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.

All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.

“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”

Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.

In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.

In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.

I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.

 

Family Reunions in Natural Settings

Where to hold a family reunion? Warm weather or cold? City or country? Beach or mountains? Travel time, cost, different preferences, backdrops for family photos—there are many choices that influence where we gather. Once we are there, Nature serves as a host that lures us outdoors.

In mid-October my mother, three sisters and I held an important reunion. The last time just the five of us—the Brown women— were together was 30 years ago for a mother/daughters canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

1988 Brown Women BWCA canoe trip: Ann on top, left to right: Margaret, Mom, Susie, Kathy

A big clan, we have had many family reunions since then with partners, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. We have gathered for weddings, holidays, and funerals. But with just the five of us who live in four different time zones, it had been three decades.

Five Brown Women: Susan Lynch, Kathy Harrington, Astrid Brown, Ann Linnea, Margaret Brown photo courtesy of Kathy Harrington

We have aged, and we have an age spread of 32 years so a canoe trip was not an option this time. But nature is important to all of us and we all come from Minnesota so we chose to gather at a cottage on the shore of Lake Superior—a crown jewel of our home state.

Lake Superior, photo by Susan Lynch

 

Larsmount Cottage, Lake Superior, photo by Susan Lynch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Superior is somewhat infamous for its weather. In fact, the week before our October gathering there was a gale-force storm with 65 mph winds. A snow squall covered the ground in white our first morning in Minneapolis. However, driving north we were lucky and had sunny skies and moderate winds even though our accommodations would have kept us comfortable regardless of wind or temperature. The inspiration of looking out our cottage’s window at the largest lake on the planet kept us in a place of wonder and encouraged our outdoor adventure.

Chairs at our beach front, photo by Susan Lynch

 

Our Mom overlooking the Gooseberry River, photo by Ann Linnea

The five of us at Split Rock Lighthouse, photo courtesy of Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mom was celebrating her 92ndbirthday and our youngest sister, Margaret, was celebrating her 60thbirthday so there was a lot of fun and frivolity.

Dining room table adorned with birthday celebration things, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

Sparkler play, Ann Linnea, Susan Lynch, Margaret Brown, photo by Kathy Harrington

As is always the case, wandering in nature or sitting by a campfire brings forth stories and memories and an opportunity to share more deeply.  We all have complex lives. It was incredible to come together for 4 days and reweave the bonds between us.

Our beach campfire, photo by Margaret Brown

Roasting marshmallows at the fire: Ann, Kathy, Susie, photo by Margaret Brown

Sisters Margaret and Ann at the fire, photo by Kathy Harrington

 

One morning we called a circle at our cottage’s dining room table and shared our respective health concerns. We spoke thoughtfully about the journeys of our children and grandchildren. We established a prayer list to better hold one another’s lives. As our elder, Mom spoke about her aging process and what she needs from us. I know we will work well together in the years ahead to support her.

As children, Mom and Dad annually took us on a family vacation to Colorado where we saw grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins and got to spend a week in the mountains hiking and fishing. The imprint of gathering for fun and togetherness in nature runs deep in all of us. It is part of the pattern that bonds us. I see how strongly Nature still holds us and I know that each of us has passed this love and respect on to our own children.

Late fall shot of Lake Superior birch trees at Split Rock lighthouse, photo by Ann Linnea

 

A grove of birch trees is one living organism, connected through a powerful underground system of roots and rootlets. Like the birch trees in this late fall scene along the shore of Lake Superior, we five have a deeply connected root system. We stand apparently separate but continue to nourish one another in ways that are both visible and invisible. And that is a lot to be grateful for!

 

 

 

How Apology Works

I’m on the beach with my corgi dog. She’s playing in the sand near my feet when she lets out a sudden sharp squeal—“ouch,” in dog talk. She looks at my foot in big boots, and with what I consider an accusing gaze, backs up and sits on her haunches staring at me.

“What?!” I say, “I didn’t move an inch. I’m sure I didn’t step on you.” Without breaking her steadfast gaze, she raises one paw—“hurt” in dog body-language. Whether or not I think I did it, I am 140 pound human looking at a 30 pound dog who trusts me with her life. I know what she wants. I kneel in the sand, hold her face in my hand and sweet-talk her while smoothing sand off her snout. “I’m sorry, Gracie. I didn’t mean to step on you. I’ll be more careful. Are you okay?”

In response, I get a lick on the nose and she resumes playing.

That’s how apology works.

I do not mean to diminish the complexity of human suffering, nor to equate this exchange with the need for accountability and reparations around issues of abuse and violation, but in the absolute purity of this interaction—hurt, apology, forgiveness, healing—in the moment, without festering—I saw stark contrast to the consequences when we follow instead the path of hurt, denial, outrage, trauma.

Apology requires that we have the emotional maturity to say, “I’m sorry,” even when we are not 100% sure we are “100% to blame.” Training in this maturity begins in kindergarten as children are coached through ambiguous social interactions. By the time one child is crying, the sequence of events may no longer be clear. Bless kindergarten teachers who must sort through this justice: she hitted me with her shoe/he took my toy and wouldn’t give it back/he started it/she started it. And then the teacher says: I don’t know who started it, but you need to say you’re sorry.

Right now in America, justice is not child’s play. We are seeing the ugliest parts of ourselves and our histories brought to light; and we are seeing light shine through this anguish as truth-telling keeps geysering to the surface. During the escalated Senate proceedings of in September, Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s outraged lack of accountability and the defensive tirades of Republican senators, was not my hoped for outcome—for his personal soul or his capacity to balance the scales of justice. While the horrors of this time careen on and the media is stressed by the next outrage and the next, I find myself still riveted by this moment and how it impacts all that is happening next and next and next.

At 72, I could be I could have been Brett Kavanaugh’s kindergarten teacher, his auntie, or his law professor. And now that he is Justice Kavanaugh, I want to say to him: inside the complexity is the simplicity. Whether or not you believe you are the boy who covered Christine Blasey’s mouth and forced yourself atop her, you, and you alone, were in the position to heal or harm.

In my mind, the maturity that would lead me to believe that this Supreme Court could actually practice justice, would have required—at least—some statement like this from Brett Kavanaugh: “I am white male who lives inside gender, racial, and class privilege that I seek to comprehend. I was a teen who drank too much. I do not remember the night Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is referencing and therefore I can neither deny nor admit to what she says occurred. However, I acknowledge that the environment of our adolescence and the cultural norms we were swimming in were toxic. Boys objectified girls in ways that horrify me now as a man, a lawyer, a judge, a husband, and father of two girls. I vow to spend the rest of my judicial life working to rectify imbalances in the conditions women face. I am supremely sorry for what happened to you, Dr. Ford. I apologize for my role in that school, in those times, and in your trauma.”

But no.

Again and again we race past opportunities that could help us heal and choose instead to cause more harm. To compound tragedy, it seems quite clear that Justice Kavanaugh has no idea he missed his chance to cross the divide of privilege and pain in this country; that he could have called Senators to their integrity, rallied bipartisan support for his entry onto the Supreme Court, and most importantly, stood as a surrogate in the shattered places in a million women’s hearts by saying, “I’m sorry.” And we, the battered citizens of America, would have been shown a model for opening dialogue toward relationships of amends. He might even have shown the president how to behave.

But no.

He accepted the presidential “apology” and declaration of his innocence, and he has taken his seat on the high court justified—and isn’t that an interesting word—that the ends justifies the means. We the people shall see.

It was the Saturday after these hearings, when the judge was sworn to become a justice, that I was down on the beach. My little dog raised her paw—ouch—and I surrendered to her perception that I was at fault because repairing trust is the most important thing I can do.

That’s how apology works. And if we have any hope of restoring civility to our torn and violent nation, we need to perceive our shared accountability in the wounds that surface.

“I’m sorry.”

 

Celebrating the Seasons

Fall with its cooler temperatures and spectacular leaf colors has arrived in the northern hemisphere. Spring with sprouting plants and warming temperatures has arrived in the southern hemisphere.

Noticing these changes and taking the time to celebrate them is as natural to human rhythms as the various daily rituals we each have for rising with the light or retiring with the darkness.

Why not celebrate the change of seasons? At our home we mark seasonal changes with a bonfire, drumming, and using our garden lavender as prayer sticks.

Ann harvesting lavender for seasonal celebrations  Photo by Sarah MacDougall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not a complex celebration—something we design spontaneously that various neighbors have joined us for over the years.

Ann and Sarah drumming at opening of Fall Equinox celebration, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The point is noticing the seasonal change and marking it by stopping to be outdoors in some self-designed ceremony. We are lucky enough to have a fire pit in our yard, but a person might just as easily walk to a city park collect a few colored leaves and take them home and arrange them on the dining room table.

Notice. Pause. Appreciate. Share your appreciation with a celebration of your own design.  You and the natural world come more closely into alignment. It is a form of activism.

Placing dried lavender sticks into the fire with each prayer, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

In Search of Bioluminescence

In early August our dear grandchildren came to camp with us on the shore of Puget Sound. We had a wonderful time hiking, kayaking, and exploring. One of the magical things we experienced was bioluminescence.

puerto-rico-bioluminescent-bay from bvipropertyyacht.com

By definition, bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Some folks get to see fireflies in the summer.  Those of us around marine environments have to look in the water for our “fireflies”.

 

 

 

“Look, the stars have fallen into the sea,” said Christina as all four of us swished our long marshmallow sticks through the water at the edge of the dock.

Ever the literalist, seven-year-old Sasha looked overhead and said, “But the stars are still in the sky!”

Sasha balancing on a log in the same bay where we all discovered bioluminescence

 

“Right, some of them are up above and some of them are down below,” responded Christina.

 

 

 

 

 

“Wow, even in total darkness you can see a rock drop way down into the water!” exclaimed 13-year-old Jaden. “What actually makes the light?”

Jaden being his reflective self

“It is caused by energy released from a chemical reaction inside tiny organisms,” I explained. “When we stir up the water, they get activated.” While I am talking, everyone is busy swishing sticks through the water like magic wands.

Why do they do this?” asked Jaden.

“Lots of creatures have the ability to produce light—fireflies, jellyfish, even some sharks. These tiny creatures here are called dinoflagellates, a kind of marine plankton. We think they light up to confuse their predators. Other creatures exhibit bioluminescence to attract mates or to attract prey or to aid in hunting.”

We all returned to the beach, turned our headlamps back on, and filled our pockets with rocks. Though it was getting late, our exuberance did not wane for over an hour. Nearing 11:00 p.m., when we were finally satiated with swirling lights in the dark waters, we made the 10-minute walk back to our tent. I complimented Jaden on his persistence.

Jaden our 13-year-old night owl

“It took us three nights to figure out how to find the bioluminescence,” I said. “You were determined and kept me coming back each night. The first night all four of us tried to find it at the end of the dock but it was too choppy and didn’t feel safe to be close to the water. The second night you and I didn’t know to bring sticks. The final night we got everything right. Good job following through!”

 On the way back to the tent we paused to lie on the group site picnic tables with our headlamps off so we could see the Milky Way overhead. An infinity of stars, endless possibilities for life beyond what we know, complete silence and darkness.

“I miss Gracie,” said Sasha.

Sasha and Gracie together

 

“She is sleeping in her little kennel,” said Christina. “Let’s go back and check on her.”

Soon we are all asleep in the big Grandma tent, a satisfying end to our first camping trip with Sasha, and dreams that sparkled in the night.

 

 

Rocks of Ages

I’m walking in a narrow riverbed, wearing special river boots and feeling my way carefully over rocks hidden under murky water. I am carrying a hiking stick, probing for balance. Above me, cliffs soar 1500 feet revealing a slit of morning sky. I place my hand along the sandstone walls of the slot canyon, touching what was seabed 61 million years ago. Touching what water can do to rock. Touching a strip of smoothed rock-face about shoulder height, burnished by hundreds of thousands of hands just like mine, pressing skin on stone.

This is a hike called the Zion Narrows, where the Virgin River flows through Zion National Park in southern Utah. It is a spectacular end-of-summer adventure that Ann and I have been training for by walking Whidbey trails for months: increasing distance, hours, weight in our backpacks. We ride the first park shuttle of the day and arrive at the wade-in point, in the middle of the park about 7:30 AM.

People dwarfed by canyon walls. Zion Narrows.

We will stay “in river” for over nine hours, walk over 10 miles, and alternate between moments of utter aloneness with Nature, and navigating around clumps of people in various stages of appreciation and athleticism. People come from all over the world to do this hike and the languages that stream by us babble like the river itself. There are many families, mid-life and younger parents, teens and toddlers, some younger grandparents. I would say I am the elder here—except that is a ridiculous, egocentric, anthropomorphic comment when walking along these cliffs comprised of sedimentary deposits of unimaginable age.

In the National Park Service brochure, it is written: “These rock layers hold stories of ancient environments and inhabitants very different from those found in Zion today. In this distant past, Zion and the Colorado Plateau were near sea level and were even in a different place on the globe—close to the equator. The rock layers found in Zion today were deposited approximately 110-270 million years ago, and only in recent geologic time uplifted to form the scenery of Zion National Park.”

And I am a seventy-two year old human-being walking in the floor of the canyon, pressing my palms onto the skin of the rock, awash in awe and wonder. I am humbled by the beauty, and calmed inside the incomprehensible bigness of this story. Truly, Earth is the planet of the stones.

Moving slowly, deliberately upriver, I am held in a beauty that allows both gratitude and grief to rise. Gratitude that the canyon is still protected; grief for most everything else, especially that other Utah canyon lands are being auctioned off by shortsightedness and greed to the oil and gas industry. The mantra, “forgive me, forgive us,” wrenches through my heart…but just as quickly the thought races back, “What humanity has done to the Earth is not forgivable. It is not even appropriate to ask such a thing of these stones.”

Forgiveness is a human issue. Inadvertently or intentionally we trespass on one another’s trust. As we become aware of our transgressions, most of us try to be accountable for harm done, we practice making amends, learn to ask to be forgiven, and to forgive. We ask this of one another. We ask this of institutions because corporations, churches, governments, and militaries are all run by people. Forgiveness functions at the scale of human flaw, human harm, and human capacity for recovery.

Zion Narrows–high noon

The stone I am touching is outside this drama. I am standing under a cliff that does not register my presence: forgiveness is not the business of these stones. They are invulnerable. They are the body of the Earth. I am the disposable being here. My species is so young we are not even embedded in the geologic layer. And when this era crumbles to dust, what a layer that will be: landfills, atomic waste and nuclear warheads, mountains of plastics, tumbled skyscrapers, rusting vehicles, the bones of billions and the Sixth Great Extinction. But the cliffs will take it all and press it down and make more layers atop us.

Geologists have named and chronicled these layers: the Carmel Formation, the Temple Cap Formation, the Navajo Sandstone, the Kenyeta Foundation—representing several hundred millions of years of compression and upheaval. The waterfalls seeping out of the sandstone have been a thousand years in the making, since an ancient rainy day drove droplets into the top layer and they filtered down and down and down. Purified, they fall on my uplifted face. The earth has cleansed it all—whatever happened then, the stink of dying mastodons, the rotting seaweed of a long gone sea, and whatever happens now and tomorrow—eventually we all become a chapter in the story of the stones.

I stand in a moment of profound recognition: human beings cannot destroy the Earth. I kiss the cliff walls with unbounded joy, with the certainty that this rock will survive.

The land I live on, my island in Puget Sound, is an old river delta made by glacial melting 10,000 years ago. It is young and unstable, the layers loosely packed and crumbling back into the sea. It rests on the edge of deep coastal fault-lines.

This land I visit is old, weathered, wise even. It transmits endurance. Standing in place. Allowing wind and water to shape it. To sustain joy in these times is a matter of what I identify as source, as ground. I pause here: feet in the river, hands on the stone, sun and shadow all around me.

Stilled.

It is still true that beyond the canyon walls humanity is busily destroying the biosphere that makes our version of life-on-Earth possible. It is still true that the foundational question of life on Earth at this time is whether or not we as a species will rally ourselves to correct our relationship with Nature. It is still true that the answer may be no: or that our systemic tampering with biological and geological energies is beyond our capacity to correct to our liking. It is still true that how we have treated one another, and how we have treated the species that companion us, and used the resources offered us, is unforgivable and has grave consequences that are all coming due. But in this moment I am just a tiny desert lizard licking the water of life off the rock walls. I am in sunshine. I am home. I surrender to what is.

Canyon lizard–the weeping rocks, near entrance. All photos by Ann Linnea

 

Oddballs

No, this is not a derogatory term. It is actually a scientific category in Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon. And last week while hiking in a local forest a particular species of oddball was popping up everywhere.

Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, popping up in a northwest woods. Photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Oddballs” according to this popular botanical guide are plants that cannot turn sunshine into food. They are not green and contain no chlorophyll. Instead of being capable of photosynthesis, they get their nutrition in a variety of ways—by being insect eating, or saprophytic (living on dead and decaying vegetation), or parasitic (getting nutrition from a living plant/tree).

These Indian Pipes or Ghost Plants are parasitic and do not make their own food. Photo by Ann Linnea

Indian Pipe or ghost plant is parasitic. It obtains its nutrition indirectly from the roots of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and other conifers. Indirectly? Yes, these little ghost plants connect to conifers via microscopic pipes formed by a combination of fungal filaments and plant roots. These microscopic pipes are called mycorrhiza (meaning fungus-root).

Oh the mysteries of what lies beneath our feet in the forest! The remarkable neural network of the forest is just beginning to be understood by scientists. The work of Dr. Suzanne Simard, University of British Colombia, on communication and nutrient exchange between trees and other plants in the forest will be the subject of  another blog.

Ann and her dog, Gracie, walking in the forest with the ghost plants. Photo by Christina Baldwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last month my blog was about walking through the forest at the moment that my namesake flower, Linnea borealis, was blooming everywhere. This month it was my great good luck to be walking during the time of the bloom of the ghost plants.  A walk in nature is an open door to wonder and mystery always waiting for us to walk through.