My Bearings

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The bear track halted my run. It and a string of identical cousins imprinted the sandy trail ahead of me. If I paid no attention to the crescent moons pressed by the claws, the tracks resembled a child’s delicate footprint. Rounded, plump indents. Chubby toes.

The cherubic tread traveled north on the trail, the same direction I was going.

A thought shoved stiff rebar down my spine: how fresh were these tracks?

I am no practiced or professional tracker. I have friends who are. If only they were there with me. Or, if only I had cell service! Then I could beam them some pics and they could tell me, “Bah, those tracks are weeks old. You’re fine.” Or, “GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!”

The other shoe prints and horse hoof indents decorating the trail all appeared mottled with time or wind-smudged; their edges indistinct. Only my marks and the bear’s were crisply defined, trodden atop all the others.

A wintry gust shoved through the canyon. It pried under the insulated clothing and licked goosebumps across my skin.

I traced the tracks backwards. How long had I shared the trail with them without notice?

Quite a while.

My stomach dropped somewhere below my knees. That bear might be only a few yards ahead! And I was miles from the trailhead, completely alone.

With clumsy, shaking hands, I unsnapped my water pack and rummaged its pockets. I heard in my stooped position nothing but the chrrgg-chrrgg-chrrgg of adrenaline-laced blood surging through my system. At last, I procured the little canister of pepper spray.

As I slid the pack back on, my nostrils scoured the breeze for that unmistakable tangy, musky bear body odor. When I smelled nothing but the cold, many thoughts crowded in. I was being irrational. Bears avoid people at all costs. Even if those tracks were fresh, odds were good that my scent and my noises had probably prodded the bear to jog way ahead and hide to evade me entirely.

I resumed my run. Calm returned gradually and with it came the question I’d been taught to ask whenever my overactive imagination led me too far into fear’s terrain: Does this feel familiar?

While my imagination serves my writing well, it often skews reality for me. When I am afraid, I can spin a thousand fictitious narratives around the potential causes and outcomes. But those scenarios bear zero connection to the reality of the moment. They are usually a facade, a replica or facsimile, compiled from some past trauma.

Essentially, from a young age I became adept at buying fear’s tickets and riding the panic coaster through every loop dee loop.

When I asked myself if this fear in this moment and in this place felt familiar, I readily answered: yes!

On another wintry day in this very canyon where the sandstone cliffs resemble shortbread castles and baggy elephants, I had experienced fear. Perhaps exactly a year ago, I hiked this trail. At that time, I was facing the last winter and holiday season I’d ever get with my beloved best friend. On some level, I’d probably elected to do a strenuous hike because I needed to prove that I could endure. That I could survive the looming loss.

How could I possibly go on writing without this most trusted reader delighting in my creations? Who would I be without this person in my life? I was certain the answers to these questions awaited me at the end of the hike.

Back then, this trek was arduous for me. I’d packed gobs of food and water. The eight or so miles took most of the day for me to walk, with plenty of breaks to rest my aching feet and legs. I can still remember how I wanted to turn back after the first couple miles. No way could I complete this hike. But I did, practically staggering the last mile back to the car.

Fast forward, and here I was, out for a leisurely run. I knew I’d finish the circuit in hardly more than an hour.

The irrational fear dusted up by those bear tracks had nothing to do with the present moment. They stirred up fear I’d known in the past.

I marveled at my transformation. My skill. My strength. My power. That girl in that situation was a thousand miles away.

And the bear tracks? Gone. Although I never saw them veer off the trail, they did vanish, freeing me to forge my own way forward.

 

 

Photo credits: “Rock Creek Trail” and “Sandstone Castles” copyright Jennifer Mason; featured image “Canyon Curves” also copyright Jennifer Mason; “Black Bear Tracks” by K Young CC 3.0.

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The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy

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Eyes do not see; they touch. Vision evolved from skin gathering light in minute detail. The brain does not think; it smells. It evolved from a large olfactory nerve in skull. It helped us sew memories and scents together.This book will change how (and who) you are in the world.

Meloy, Ellen. The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature essays)

Summary: A collection of essays explore color’s spiritual, emotional, and biological importance to humans; how our humanity has been shaped and how our impact on the planet shifts as our connection to colors diminishes.

Critique: Touch. Contact. Connection. Having a tactile experience with the physical, natural world is at the heart of each essay in this collection. Meloy demonstrates through her own adventuring how to be fully alive and awake and seduced and ecstasied in the great outdoors.

To bring readers into her experience, she converts our ability to perceive colors–especially one as slippery as turquoise–into a haptic experience. More than that, she stretches into synesthesia when she reminds us the eyes can touch and the brain can smell. It can even smell colors. Turquoise, in its hybrid not-quite-blue-not-quite-green existence is really just the scent of the wind (or so said ancient Middle Eastern cultures). Native cultures across the Americas transcribed the color into sound, one that guided souls to the afterlife.

Magical and sensual though that is, Meloy laments the modern world’s loss of color. Or, it’s increasing colorblindness to the natural world which has been dammed, funneled, paved, monetized, and commodified. Either every scrap of this planet is put to our direct use and benefit, or those scraps which will not submit to our utilitarian desires will be removed. However, this very practical and clever war-rationing approach to nature strikes Meloy as too narrow.

On a recent trip to Moab, I marvel at a stone’s skin.

Instead of using the world, why not enjoy it? Marvel at it? It is a place we can revel in. Get lost. Drown. We can be bedeviled. Seduced. Overwhelmed. Ignored. All these things, and more, the world can do to us if we only let it. But why allow it to take such liberties with our bodies and souls?

Because it cracks us out of our slumbering shells. It enables us to live in a constant euphoric state of quivering, goose-prickled tingles.

Even better, enjoying the world enables us to be what we truly are, rather than what we think we are. And what we are, according to brilliant biologist E. O. Wilson, is a species of biophiliacs. Forget sapiens! Biophiliacs are insatiable lovers when it comes to nature.

“Our sense of wonder grows exponentially,” Wilson writes, “the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery.”

Or, as Meloy phrases it, “Lives without access to sensation are lives that edge out the earth’s raw, pervasive sweetness, that deeply biophilic connection to all life.”

But these essays come from an almost gentler, more idyllic time: the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back when we were taking our first baby-steps into sustainability and renewable energies. Today, we cannot be sure the EPA will survive the current White House administration. We cannot be sure our public lands will remain in our hands or wind up so privatized that in order to enter them (let alone enjoy them), we will first have to download and accept a standard EULA.

Now more than ever is the time to read this book and feel the world in a whole new way. Now is our best chance to confront the essential questions: are we locusts or lovers to this natural world? And, given the savage, ravenous course love takes, is there any difference between those roles?

Felicity by Mary Oliver

Was the 2 a.m. emergency room really the best place to tease open the knots life ties between love and loss? I had no choice. I could not be anywhere else.

Oliver, Mary. Felicity. New York: Penguin, 2015. Print.

Genre: poetry

Summary: Mary Oliver’s poetry and essay collections normally focus on nature. She lays bare her raptures and heartaches shared with grasshoppers, wild geese, or murk-water fishes. But in the collection, she presents the raptures and heartaches inevitable when loving both the self and another person.

Critique: I was, as I mentioned, in the emergency room as I grappled with Oliver’s collection of love poems. Specifically, I was in the waiting room while my friend was back in the exam room. Her bout with food poisoning required me to drive while she tipped her head in a bucket the way a honeybee tips down a pistil, hunting for nectar. When my friend texted to explain her soggy-verging-on-foamy, prostrate predicament, I calmly grabbed the essentials: purse, books, water bottle, car keys.

While the docs hooked my friend to an IV drip that would quell her nausea and rehydrate her cells, I settled in for some poetry.

The books I brought along were both by Mary Oliver, but they were separated by over a decade, with Owls and Other Fantasies published back in 2003. Comparing the two, I was struck by the brevity of the poems in Felicity. Oliver has always been able to go for the jugular, but in the latest work, she seemed to have given up stalking the reader in a slow, supple way. Her writing in Felicity is both ruthless and mercifully instantaneous.

Google Mary Oliver and you’ll find a lot of synopses curtailing her work to the keen description of nature. Be warned. Describe is not what Oliver does. You could say she teaches us how to experience and love the world for the first time.

You may think that in your daily life you’ve tousled your hair in some fling or flirtation with your external environment, but then you read Oliver and you realize all you’ve known is surface friction. External penetrates internal and vice versa and you are intimately aware that you had never seen the world like that. Until Oliver, you had never seen a storm as a “shaggy, howling sky-beast” or lightning as a “printed…sizzling unreadable language.”

But now your eyes are wide open and you are madly in love with this world and quite certain it is madly in love with you.

And so the most accurate way to articulate Oliver’s craft is to say that she virgins the world for us.

Felicity is a different assortment. Rather than write about nature, Oliver opens our eyes (and bodies) to that blissful parachuteless skydive that is love and its nature. The first section of the collection, The Journey, assembles experiences and observations that I read as learning to love the world and yourself in it. “The point is,” Oliver concludes, “you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”

Acquiring the skill and fervor required to love yourself above all else–not in petty selfishness, but rather infinite downy kindness–is what opens the door to truly loving another (and being loved in return), which becomes the focus of the second section, Love. And just as you might not, on your own, see a storm as a shaggy sky-beast, you might not have considered kissing to be like the opening of a flower, only faster. Like a fearless journalist, Oliver shares with readers the full spectrum, from love’s nascent, bottle-rocket budding to its unavoidable, withered snuffing.

Yes, we must acknowledge the loss. Is it really love if you can’t lose it?

Mug Collection.” CC BY 2.0

Love is not steadfast like your coffee mug collection. Nor is it sensible like a sweater or a wallet. It is fleeting–even if you get to love someone, The One, for more decades than there are toes on your feet. The One, your one, will one day die. But that is no excuse not to love with all you’re made of. As Oliver explains, “There is nothing more pathetic than caution/ when headlong might save a life,/ even, quite possibly, your own.”

Which brings the collection to its third and final section, Felicity. Bearing only one poem, this section seems to conclude that the key to everlasting and ever-expanding bliss boils down to a few simple elements: notice the world, welcome the difficult, unanswerable questions, and have a person in your life whose hand you best like to hold.

Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs

Gearing up to see Al Gore’s return in An Inconvenient Sequel? Be sure to add some good mental trail mix to your rucksack.

Childs, Craig. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of Earth. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs travels around the world to showcase the impacts of climate change — those we can readily observe, as well as those more hidden in surprising chain reactions. Childs’ work won the Orion Award, presented only to those outstanding books which deepen a reader’s connection to the natural world. Childs is also the author of previous award-winning and thought-provoking books including The Animal Dialogues, Finders Keepers, and House of Rain.

Critique: With his usual devil-may-care penchant for bedlam, Childs takes readers — and anyone else crazy enough to tag along — to every deadly brink he can find on the planet which may (or may not) chart the course of our demise. He rafts an uncharted Himalayan river…with his stepdad…during flood season. He traverses the base of a glacier…while it is calving…at unprecedented speeds. He monitors the stormy, hostile waters around the Bering Straight…under gale-force winds hurtling stone-hard rain…with his mother.

From Greenland’s white water deserts to Mexico’s sandy no-man’s (and no-waters) lands; from Hawaiian lava flows to Iowan corn vistas, Childs presents a dazzling tour of destruction. Over and over, he covers the planet’s 4.6 billion years of cyclical renewl and collapse. Digestion and regurgitation of landmasses and species. He points out the research suggesting what we are going through now is perfectly normal…and yet perfectly exacerbated by our mode of modern life.

Sure, the earth will most likely survive any severe turnover — life always finds a way. But we homo sapiens might not be so lucky. We may have already triggered irreparable sequences; destructive dominoes already litter our path. Or do they? Only time will tell.

I’m not just being coy about the end of this book as a way of tempting you to read it. I am reflecting Child’s even greater penchant for sharing more tough questions than easy answers. Which is wise, considering how few complex issues are ever cut and dry. Not every debate has a right or wrong side. Sometimes both sides’ positions stink equally. In this case, Childs holds us accountable to answer the toughest questions. What will we do in the face of global demise — wait and see if we’re really boned, or act in every way possible to avert calamity?

We know what plays better at the movie theater when the clock on the nuclear bomb ticks down its final seconds before detonation. Rarely does the hero just sit and wait.

Because this is a critique and not a review, I am obligated to point out that this book’s greatest feature is also its most tragic flaw. It stems from a stylistic habit I share with Craig Childs, and thus, I comment with deepest respect and sympathy. Every page, every paragraph, is loaded with stunning similes and metaphors to evoke the settings.

Back in February, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of meeting Craig Childs several times during his week-long visit in town. Apocalyptic Planet was the common reading experience for the college freshmen (and the wider community). Often, he noted the goal of his writing was to bring readers out of their easy chairs and into the wilds, out on the trails where most cannot follow. To that end, he leaned heavily on figurative language. However, the text held so many of these descriptive gems, they eventually dulled into common minerals. I lost sight and sense of the place, or else lost the scope and stakes of the environmental issue under scrutiny. As a result, the pacing slackened and my desire to keep reading waned (the very thing my writing advisers and mentors always warned me about).

Perhaps if the earth generally benefits from gobbling up its most precious places, then Craig and I might also benefit from wiping away our more darling descriptions.

 

Upstream by Mary Oliver

Yea or nay: Humans, with all their mighty know-how, should alter the world and fix all that ails it. Yea or nay: Humans should sit back, only observe, and do their best to not interfere with natural processes, like National Geographic wildlife photographers.

Oliver, Mary. Upstream: Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 2016. Print.

Summary: In a series of essays, Mary Oliver traces the riparian zone of our role in this monstrous, miraculous, moiling and mending world. Although some of the works were previously published, here they are recombined, juxtaposed with newer works to provoke fresh questions, perspectives, and mystification.

Critique: Whether through poetry or prose, Mary Oliver opens your eyes. Nay, she uses her arresting imagery and metaphors to perform an ocular transplant, bequeathing unto you eyes which will never see the world in the same  way. Ever. Again.

Take for instance that pendulous clock in the hall, with its white spider belly. As soon as you notice it, you realize you are and have always been stuck on time’s web, your flesh a feast in slow mastication. Or, what about that time of year when the world “smells like water in an iron cup”? Or the way egrets drink the light rays off the tops of pond water?

The world is full of splendors to be seen and felt and known. But that is not the only point Oliver is out to make. We are not just observers. We are animals, too. We hunger. We create. We destroy. In other words, we exist. But how are we to exist when all the actions centipeding in the shady soil beneath that concept threaten to sink this planet deeper into its naturally cataclysmic cycles?

I do not mean to say this collection is an open diatribe on global climate change. It isn’t. In her usual way, with her characteristic poise and grace, Oliver comes like a sunset shadow, her questions traveling a slender, irregular, delicate path over some very solid ground.