Mornings, by Alex Wescoe

Typically, I am not an early riser. I’ve come to dread the 7am sunlight that never fails to find its way through my charcoal colored curtains every morning. I feel especially frustrated with the sunrise on this Saturday as it selfishly disrupts the darkness that I’ve come to feel so safe in. I spend fifteen minutes watching my ceiling fan spiral above me until I finally admit defeat and get out of bed. Mornings are difficult for me. While most wake up feeling refreshed, I find this is when my thoughts are the most overbearing. In an effort to avoid the noise inside my head, I get dressed, make myself tea, grab my yoga mat and head out the door. Little did I know upon leaving my apartment that today would be the day I learn to fall in love with mornings again. I have my sanctuary to thank for that.

The climate is different here today. The earth is wet beneath my feet as the sun works hard to melt away the excess moisture across the landscape. I remove the same wool-knit scarf I wore on my previous visit as small droplets of sweat take shape on the back of my neck-mother nature’s way of saying it is her responsibility to keep me warm today. I hear her message, and along with my scarf, decide to remove my bean boots and socks before perching myself on my yoga mat. Breathing in the quiet, lukewarm air I felt at peace. However, as I sip my tea and float around into positions that are gentle on my body, I can’t help but notice that my environment seems to match that of my thoughts-loud, chaotic, and somewhat overwhelming. The chirping of two different birds competes against one another, each of their songs louder than the last as they ricochet off the naked trees. Every few minutes, I hear the sharp crack of the sun’s rays melting away the ice that coats the reservoir. Lately, stress and anxiety have felt heavy as ever, which only becomes more apparent as my emotional turmoil leaks from my mind and poisons the environment around me. Feeling discouraged, I force myself to focus on my breathing and posture. I close my eyes, catch my breath, and try to target gentler noises and images. I watch the water form ripples along the shoreline as different critters come and go. I again listen to the bird songs that now seem to be harmonizing with one another rather than competing. My uneasiness slowly begins to fade as I reset my rhythm and allow tranquility to dance beneath my skin.

A Tibetan Buddhist by the name of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche once said, “Ultimately happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” With this in mind, it is abundantly clear that how I perceive myself is the same lens I use to perceive the world around me. The earth is merely a reflection of myself. Even a place like my sanctuary can be seen as wild, untamed, and unruly if I allow it. However, today, I have learned that nature is full of order, balance, structure, and above all, the power to ground me.

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s text of Braiding Sweet Grass, she tells a story of sitting with a Sitka Spruce tree in an effort to think and states, “I am not from around here, just a stranger who comes with gratitude and respect and questions of how it is we come to belong to a place. And yet she makes me welcome, just as we are told the big trees of the west kindly looked after Nanabozho.” Kimmerer’s intimate relationship with this tree highlights the idea that nature is always ready to nurture and welcome us home, regardless of who we are and where we come from. There is much to be learned from mother earth if we allow her to be our teacher. And in this case, I am allowing her to be mine. Like her, I too must be unapologetic of my seasons. I must be honest of my dry valleys while being ready to embrace a blooming and plentiful harvest that is promised to come. I must not shy away from deepening my roots as it is essential for growth in the season to follow. I walked into my sanctuary feeling over stimulated and under nourished by the good things in life. However, as I roll up my yoga mat and treat myself to the last sip of green tea left in my travel mug, one thing is for sure. And that is for the first time in a long time, I am eager for the 7am sunrise that awaits me tomorrow.

 

Poppop’s Lesson, by Lindsey Kattermann

It seems nature has heard my pleading prayers lately, as this is the second saturday of merciful warmth in the midst of a blustery January. Walking across the parking lot to my reservoir place of solace, rays of sun tickle my face gently, like the loving caress of a friend welcoming you back into their home after a long journey away. As I encroach ever closer to the translucent blue of the water ahead, I pass photographers eager to set up their stands and capture the beauty that encompasses us, with the peaks of the mountains surrounding acting as the borders. The sun edges bashfully around the treetops, playing one last game of hide and seek before retiring for the night, and I am grateful for the company as I advance further into the woods. Above me the pines shake lazily in the breeze that has reluctantly slowed its advances for the day, allowing itself some rest to pick back up in normal tempo tomorrow. It is a lackadaisical day here in the forest, or so it seems. No animals stir, none of the normal hurried scutter of little feet behind me, no conversational chittering of the squirrels as they quarrel amongst the branches. The only sound is the hushed shifting of the needles under my footfall, as they are compressed deeper into the bed of moss that has become the platform for this worn path. Taking a moment to appreciate the harmony of the scape, I am invigorated by the connectedness of everything around me, each element acknowledging the peace in the others and reciprocating the state. Reciprocity is a newfounded concept for me in respect to the natural world around us, although when the lessons surrounding this ideology are revealed, it is a wonder that we did not all grow up with this notion.

From as far back as I can recall I was reared on the stories of my grandfather, ever so eager to weave for us some of the history that brought us to be as we are. Sitting in the great room of their house in Pennsylvania, we crowded closer and closer to the hearth of the fireplace as he unfolded the intricacies of the fabric of our family line. Behind him, watching as he talks animatedly with the hands so worn by years of work and life, my great-great-great-grandfather peers down sternly from inside the framed oil painting. He has a sense of nobility to him, with a headdress resting just above his furrowed brow and lean muscles popping in his arms crossed around his torso. He was of the Blackfoot tribe, a legacy my grandfather wears proudly amongst his other northern European heritage. Although the traditions of the indigenous peoples we call ancestors have been lost on us, their ideologies don’t fall on deaf ears in my family. Nature is sacred, a restoring and healing power that both manifests and fuels each and every one of us. Mother Earth supplies for us everything from the sun that illuminates our world each morning to the water that runs clean and quick around us in the rivers outside that upstate lake estate. There is no question to those who have learned from my grandfather that this earth is one to cherish and respect as she does us. Each night Poppop would walk in solitude in silent reverence for his home around him, regardless of where he was he returned the same attention and love the Earth gave him in a practice of solidarity and reciprocity.

From this man and from the people before him I have learned to love this world in the best ways I can, unselfishly and actively. As Robin Wall Kimmerer explains in the teachings of her people, this planet was not meant to be owned or dominated as we of the western culture so often assume. Kimmerer highlights the necessity of reciprocity and humbled kindness, traits lacking desperately in today’s consumer culture. We have dislodged ourselves from a place of compassion and respect within the biospheres and taken to an ideology that we are the top of the food chain, a problematic notion which allows us to justify the slaughter of other beings on massive scales, and the desecration of our sacred home planet. Who are we to decide when other beings come to a demise? Where in history do we believe this power was bestowed upon us? Because as far as I can see it certainly was not. Reciprocity and respect are inextricably joined, and despite how far we have strayed from them, it is not impossible for us to reclaim them. In places like my reservoir, it is so evident the interplay of every element in nature, and I content myself with the connectedness I feel as I press on forcefully in a reverent stride akin to Poppop’s.

Ice Bridges, by Tricia Harrington

It is significantly warmer today than it has been all of January. Fifty-two degrees, a temperature that only four months ago I would have needed a sweatshirt to walk outside. Fifty-two degrees also means that all of the snow melted, thus creating the shallow stream that used to be a walking path. The side of the hill that leads to my pebble beach bears resemblance to a small, muddy waterslide. I take my chances, but with one swift step I slide directly into the mud and the brush. Every rose has its thorn, and every thorn bush has thousands. I laugh and carefully pick myself up and wipe the mud off of my hands while I limp to the beach. I wore a T- shirt today; I thought it would be nice to soak up some vitamin D that isn’t in the form of Flintstone gummies. I am convinced that I would have been able to do so without the newly formed holes in my arm, but nature planned otherwise.

I brought Finn with me today. He is my roommate’s dog, but he is also the thing that I spend most of my free time with. Finn is medium sized with a brindle coat, his body is shaped like that of a small greyhound, and his soft ears flop onto his face next to his big brown eyes. He makes for good company on days where I don’t feel like talking. I sit down among the pebbles, and notice a few pink shells. The creases rise and fall spanning from the bowed top to an apex at the bottom. I imagine a small creature folding the shell over and under in order to fashion a small corrugated fan. I smile and Finn lies beside me to lick my wounds.

The stream is visibly flowing, but a few ice bridges still remain. I watch as the water laces itself under and around the ice and the rocks; I admire how it still flows in the face of adversity. I begin to think about where I am in my life. Like the stream, many things have gotten in my way, and I found my way around them eventually (obviously not with the same fluidity of the stream). Over the past few years I have been knocked down more times than I could get back up. Depression froze over me like the ice bridges, I see it for what it is but I am unable to break through immediately. Day by day, I melt the ice a little more and eventually it won’t keep me down. There is always the threat of cold that could form the ice again; it is my job to have the strength to flow even if that happens. On page 152 in Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes “Order and stability emerge out of chaos.” She may have been describing making a black ash basket, but to me it said so much more. So long as I keep going, I can get through.

Finn emerges from his explorations and stands directly at my side. His big brown eyes look up at me just before he leaps for a muddy kiss; he knows just what to do to get me out of my own head. We stare ahead and watch the water skim the belly of the white tree that looms over the water. I heed to the bird songs that seem to harmonize with the splashing.

A feeling of calmness rushes over me as the sun is setting through the trees. The past few weeks have been the most hectic with school and work, but the hour I spend on this pebble beach once a week pulls me right back in. Some things may (literally) be a thorn in my side, but so long as I do my part as a human, the earth can continue to do its part as my home. Robin Wall Kimmerer says it best, “Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”

A Warm Winter Day, by Shannon Connors

Today was the first warm day in what has felt like years. For weeks I had been refusing to leave my bed scared to face the frigid temperatures unless I had to. But today the sun had finally begun to shine, and the temperatures had risen to feel like an early spring so I decided to venture out. As I pulled into the parking lot I noticed at least five other cars and a man in the park playing fetch with his dog, clearly I wasn’t the only one who had noticed the warm weather. I made my way into the woods and hiked about a mile in, to a set of boulders overlooking the pond. I had been here so many times before but I had never seen it look like this, the pond was frozen and the last remnants of snow laid over the fallen leaves on the trails. It slowly dawned on me how little I venture into the wilderness when the sun is not warm and bright, and today I saw a whole new side of the woods that I loved so much. Despite the cars in the parking lot, there was no one in sight. The trees were bare, the floor was covered with a thick coating of their leaves it appeared vacant, like everything had gone to sleep for the winter tucked into the blanket of snow. Regardless I settled myself in on the boulder wrapped in a towel to defend against the melting snow, and low and behold the woods proved me wrong.

A blue jay called loudly into the woods then another, and another all calling loudly warning each other, the guardians of the woods. It soon became clear to me why, as a Cooper’s hawk flew overhead soaring beautifully on the wind. I watched until he dipped behind the trees on the horizon far out of sight. Once I became aware of the life still present more and more began to appear before me. There seemed to be woodpeckers on every tree landing high up, barely visible to me and I instantly regretted not wearing my glasses. But as I stared at what I believed to be two woodpeckers which had landed on the tree I witnessed something I had never seen. One of the so-called woodpeckers leapt from the tree and soared dazzlingly to the next tree. As it went past I realized my mistake, I had just seen a flying squirrel for the first time in my life. I slowly realized that these woods were far from asleep and were teeming with wonders waiting to be seen if you were willing to deal with a little cold weather.

As I watched the woods come to life before me in what appeared to be a frozen, dead landscape I began to reflect on this week’s reading. Despite the cold winter and lack of foliage animals were still able to live here. They didn’t have to import their foods from somewhere that was still warm and green, they managed with the seasonal foods available. And if they could do it why couldn’t we. The problem isn’t a lack of food it’s the culture we have created which demands its every desire. When colonists settled this area centuries ago they couldn’t import fresh oranges from Florida or lettuce from California in the middle of the winter, they learned to eat the food they had, the food grown in the area just as these animals do. So why have we pulled away from this concept? Why have we created a culture which will sacrifice its own environment for selfish demands?

The book discusses the creation of highways as a major factor in the development of this food culture, and I can’t help but stare at this beautiful landscape before me and imagine back when this was the majority of the landscape, when we couldn’t ship our food thousands of miles and it wasn’t packed with preservatives to make the journey. But a time when we were at peace with nature rather than battling it and our food was natural and healthy and local. With all of these thoughts rattling in my head I decided to leave the boulders and begin my hike home. This trip has shown me two important things which I take home with me today, one the true disconnect that we have with nature in its true form, and the unnaturalness of our current food system. I will continue to return to these boulders for the weeks to come and hopefully, I can remedy at least one of these problems for myself.

One Step at a Time, by Ken Chang

One Step at a Time

In the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, the month of January is always a dreaded one. Notorious for its bleak and harsh weather conditions, it is not only the area’s coldest month, but also its most precipitous, according to US Climate Data. As a consequence of these frigid—and often snowy—conditions, the vast majority of its 31 days are typically spent with cement or aluminum walls on either side; trapped in the confined, heated comfort of residential homes, office buildings, and motor vehicles. In fact, the immobilizing cold weather, in conjunction with the abbreviated amount of daylight, places inhabitants of the Mid-Atlantic at a greater risk for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), said Jeffrey Spielberg, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Delaware. But as I stood there, shedding my outer layer in the parking lot of White Clay Creek State Park, something was amiss.

Instead of the bitter, uninviting conditions that have become characteristic of this time of year, I was faced with an afternoon of unexpected, unseasonable warmth. 63-degree weather in the middle of January? In the dead of winter, temperatures like these, as it turns out, are only typical of two cities in the entire country: Tampa and Orlando, Florida. Climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—for the third year in a row— predicted the arrival of a “warmer-than-average” winter. And while the jury is still out on whether this trend, which began with the warmest winter on record in 2015, is a result of climate variability or climate change, it’s days like these that make you more concerned about the latter, to say the least.

With the sun already closing in on the tree line, I took a quick sip of water, slung my bag over my shoulder, shut my trunk with a deliberate thud, and set off into the woods. This was not my first time braving the outdoors, and my fraying, well-worn hiking boots provided incontrovertible proof. It was, however, the first time I had come to a park simply for the sake of being in one. In all of the time I’ve spent in the Gunks in upstate New York, or Red River Gorge in northeastern Kentucky, or even Yosemite National Park in central California, as a climber, my priorities always lied in the prize of the destination rather than the struggle of the journey. The approach to the crag was not so much about immersing yourself in the sights, smells, and sounds of the wilderness as it was about collecting your thoughts before leading up an X-rated, 60-foot pitch. A pity, I would soon find.

With the melted snow soaked deep into the soil, every step on the trail was followed by a fervent and inexorable squash, each louder than the next. For this very reason, the hills on the path provided a very particular and—only in hindsight—hilarious kind of pitfall. Nevertheless, after finally settling into a casual, ambling pace, I started to take notice of things; things that, as I quickly realized, were all too easy to miss if your attention was being spent elsewhere. Surveilling my surroundings, I could see blue jays, plump for the winter, hopping from tree branch to tree branch. I could hear woodpeckers, high in the sky, drumming against hollowed out wooden trunks. I could smell, between modest gusts of wind, the damp woodland air as it snuck between the tree-lined passages. And somewhere along the way, the visitor mindset that I always carried along trails like these was lost, and—if only for a moment—I felt member to the living, changing habitat around me.

With each hard-pressed step, I drew more custody in the experience, becoming more attentive and more aware of the complex ecological intricacies that comprised and created these lands. The leaves that littered the park grounds were beginning to decay, breaking apart into trace minerals that would supply the soil and the insects and bacteria living within it with nutrients necessary for survival. Then, later in the spring, the deciduous oak and maple trees, providers of cover and refuge for the forest’s wildlife, will harvest these recycled nutrients from the ground and eventually sprout leaves, only to be shed again come autumn. And there I was, smack dab in the middle of all of these symbiotic, life-sustaining relationships, slipping and sliding in the mud.

My suspicion is that experiences like these—ones that encourage feelings of environmental connectedness—have the capacity to reverse a deliberately-devised culture of ecological detachment. The implications of this mindset are many, but the dangers of it are simple: the less individuals know about their environment, the less they tend to care about its preservation. Take Bears Ears National Monument, for example. The 550,00-hectar preserve, which was established by President Barack Obama back in December of 2016, saw an 85% reduction in land size just last month, and it happened barely without a fight. Unfortunately, due to the continued course of this culture, this indifference runs deep, even touching facets of our life as intimate as the food we put in our mouths, and large food corporations have capitalized on this opportunity.

Ask a room full of Americans where their dinners came from and tell me what you find. In our push to industrialize food production, we have centralized the nation’s farms and have allowed a select group of wealthy multinational companies to control what we eat. As a consequence, we’ve lost touch with the people who grow our food and the methods they use to grow them.

In truth, the large food corporations that stock the shelves of local supermarkets do their best to hide this information, and they’ve fought ruthlessly to preserve our ignorance. They have engaged in countless court battles and have financed government representation, all while sacrificing billions of dollars, just to keep it this way. They keep their consumers in the dark for the same reason they run experimental crop dusting trials outside of their own states: peace of mind. They understand that enforcing this mental separation between the products we pull from the shelves and the animals and procedures that went into producing them keeps questions about food safety and sustainability at bay.

Fortunately, however, the reason for all this backroom deception trails back to a single, deep-seated insecurity. These corporations understand that all of their influence and wherewithal teeters on one thing: consumer trust. Once these assurances are worn thin, consumers will find safer, local alternative to invest their money. But until then, the fight against industrial farming and the unintended environmental consequences they bring about will have to be fought one step at a time.