Thursday, June 5, 2014

California Wilderness: A Return to Self

Toward the end of each California Wilderness program, each student has the opportunity to do a "solo"-- a span of several days spent in solitude. Lily Westphal writes about her solo experience, and how time alone helped strengthen her connection to body, self and nature.
I don't ever want to forget the way I feel today - the way I feel right now. 
I want to scoop it in a jar and drink it when doubt feeds the belly of the beast that tells me No. 
I want so badly to share it and at the same time I'm hesitant to even try and explain. Words might fail its preciousness. But I am really going to try! Maybe my words will draw merely a smudgy idea of this feeling and maybe that is good enough for now. 

Almost two months deep and we are steeped in the beauty of the Yolla Bolly Mountains. Oak and Pine trees sprout upwards on either side of us, holding the Eel River in place. Our footsteps are the first of the human kind to move across this land this year. This wilderness in particular seems playful and mischievous, yet so warm and welcoming. The past four days have been spent on solo. Four days spent with our wild selves in this wild nature. It is amazing to think that before solo I had never been alone for more than a few hours before seeing another person.  It is also amazing to think about how in the people-filled buzz of our front country lives it is possible, and very likely, to live an entire lifetime without really spending good, deep quality time with your person, yourself, alone. 

My spot, my nest, is a series of pools spilling down and down and down and down into more pools of deep turquoise and emerald greens. Big rocks grow from the riverbed and I hop from rock to rock, scrambling in my play, insistent in my search to find the one that fits. Finally settling in, pressed against the warm rock, its curves fit my curves and we are one rock. My soft body against hard body rock, belonging to each other. I belong here. I belong in the slowness and the stillness. I belong here in the raw spaces and with the brightly colored river stones. I belong with the turtles and the frogs that share my pools and the bald eagles that glide through open sky. I belong to this body. This journey, and the four days of solo in particular have been a process of re-learning what it feels like to be inside my body. It has been a journey of reclaiming all of my senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. 

Being in my solo nest I can hear the chatter of the river deepen into a thick pulse. It is the heartbeat of this place. I plunge into the water- again again again. Sinking heavy and deep into river and self. Shedding with every dunk and plunge, the dead skin. The bits I have collected from here or there. The bits that hold no worth, only weight and yet I carry them with me in my pocket and my heart. Fears, insecurities, worries, selfish thoughts, and dirt - I peel them off. No thank you, not today. I want to keep this newfound lightness with me, because nothing is actually as hard as I once made it out to be in my head. I want to keep this stillness in my busy body and this playfulness in my young female body. I want to feel my own fragility and smallness and celebrate it! 

Since the beginning I have learned to come home, over again, to so many different landscapes. I have learned how important it is to continue to be amazed by things. To surrender to the river and let it move me both physically and emotionally. I have learned about the Old People before me and my mind has been filled by the words of nature philosophers and story tellers. Out here it is easier to hear my wants. The shoulds and the shouldn'ts are silenced. 

Later in the evening I lay wrapped in my down cocoon looking up. I watch sky fade to space, the barrier between me and it is dissolved by starlight. I feel clean, balanced, refreshed, rested, content, sun-loved, and so full of life that part of me is worried about moving in case I spill over. I don't want a single drop of this experience to go to waste. 

-- Lily Westphal

Monday, June 2, 2014

California Wilderness: Feeling Connected

Sammy Lassoff writes about her experience of trying to hard and learning to let go in the Yolla Bolly Mountains:

Up until I had begun this program, I did not recognize how truly disconnected from nature I was. It is crazy to think of how detached I was from what my own two feet had been walking on for 18 years! I remember being very little and splashing through the shallow beach waters with my family, toddling through the foothills behind my house, scurrying in the grass chasing after squirrels, and playing hide-and-seek with my toes in the sand. However as I got older, my priorities required the attention that I was convinced could only be given behind walls and closed doors. I spent all my days in school struggling through hypotheticals and theories that I had no time to be "outside." I spent years being told that life is work, hard work. I was told that there is no time for play, to relax, to breathe, "You must go to college, get a job, make money, spend money, etc."  Everything that could not contribute to my efforts had no purpose. Life was tough work that, if better than another's work, will result in reward and gratification that should be instant. I had lost all energy to be patient and the know-how to be playful. I was mindlessly trudging up this dark, monotonous road that my capitalistic education had slashed, burned, and bought itself.

However, this style of education could not completely erase a human's intrinsic love of and connection to nature. Proof of this was my initial draw to this program. Something buried deep in my core made its way through the murky waters of my goal-oriented thoughts, making itself known again. It was strong and persistent enough to enroll me in this incredible experience, which is one of the best decisions I have ever made. In my mind's eye, I had made many goals for myself while out in "nature." I would rekindle my relationship to the land, find the healing I needed to take back to my family, and become "enlightened" from all of my problems. I was prepared to study and be taught specific instructions on how to do so. The process would be difficult, but all my goals would be reached. 

Obviously, I was more disconnected from nature (reality) then I had cared to admit. I was internally struggling so much throughout my time in Death Valley, the Domelands, and the Lost Coast. For the life of me, I could not understand why I felt so disconnected from the land. Why was my body so resistant to finding comfort within dirt? Why was I blaming the wind for my sour mood? Why weren’t the sun, the moon, the stars handing me the answers to all of my most pressing questions? I was working so hard! I was pushing myself to roll in the dirt, clenching my teeth as the wind tore through my skin, and going numb in my sleeping bag under the black sky. I so stubbornly insisted that I had found the one and only path to enlightenment and was "reassured" by how much effort it required. But then why was I not seeing quick results? My schooling had assured me that hard work would bring instant result!

As you can tell, I was incredibly frustrated. I was searching, yearning to be taught something. If I only stopped to breathe, just for a moment, I would have seen that the answers were right beside me. I needed to quiet my mind in order to open my eyes. No one was going to teach me or tell me how to find them, simply because they are not something to be found. I did not need to think so hard. I did not need to work through some cryptic puzzle. "You do not have to be good. Your do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting" (Mary Oliver, Wild Geese). I needed to stop thinking and start being and accepting. It is ok if I do not like the wind, Yell at him! It is ok to wash the dirt from my skin and apply deodorant. The nature police won't lock me up for not being "tough" enough”. I only have to let the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves" (Oliver). There is no right way to embrace the natural world. Life does not have to be hard. "Life is play" (Walker Abel, Sierra Institute director). This program has led me to understand that my relationship with nature is unique and beautiful. I finally feel connected. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

California Wilderness: Belonging

Lost Coast, California:

Walking onto the sand, all my possessions in my pack, I am confronted with a beautiful view of endless ocean and a feeling of belonging and excitement for what the wild coast will bring: wisdom in the waves, calmness in a sunset, belonging in solitude. Deeper into the wild I go, reflecting on the past month of desert sands, wildflowers and mountain streams, days spent wandering open spaces and experiencing the wisdom of nature philosophies first hand in untouched nature itself. Joining my tribe for group meals, thoughtful discussions, yoga, singing and endless laughter is among the many joys I experience in a day, knowing that this is where I'm meant to be. Wading in cool waters, reading among wild elk, contemplating the sounds and cycles all around me, those muted by the chaos of the front country. The days have turned to weeks and my sense of wonder and curiosity translates to belonging and gratefulness - to be surrounded by such beautiful people and endless possibilities for learning more about myself  and this giving, wondrous earth than ever before. 

-- Luna (Rachael Merten)