419. Walking in Woods

January 30, 2015

Beyond rowing whenever I can, I am also fond of walking in woods. A casual question about something I published seventeen years ago recently led me to go back and read my description of a hike I made on snowshoes along the Long Pond Fire Road in Acadia National Park on January 15, 1996. I didn’t think in terms of engagements with nature in those days, but what I wrote then fits well into the theme I am developing in these posts about that very topic. Here is an excerpt from my book, ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park, (Bar Harbor: Earthling Press, 1998, pages 114f.).

On both sides of the fire road, verdant panoramas unfurled in a continuous strip as I went. Anchored at each end by stands of Northern white cedar, with several magnificent cedar swamps between, roadside vegetation set the tone of the hike.

I felt like a traveler depicted on a Japanese landscape scroll. The most spectacular thing about this hike was the unending woods on both sides. I had to pay close attention to detect subtle changes from one stand to the next. Here, cedar mixed with spruce and pine, there, with tamarack. Birch and popple put in a show, then mountain maple.

The slope of the land was so gradual, the shift from one watershed to the next so unpronounced, the landscape seemed quietly to flow with the road as one seamless forest. But wherever they grow, trees thrive under a limited range of specific conditions. Those conditions changed as I went, from wet to dry, north slope to south, shallow soil to less-shallow soil (never deep), shaded to sunny, with diverse histories of human and natural influence.

In one sense, the scene changed with such little commotion that it appeared bland and wholly undistinguished. These trees had been standing behind the door when charisma was handed out. They may have been ordinary and uninteresting, but, too, they were the stuff of Acadia, its heart and its strength.

The landscape of Maine and the health of our region depend on these woods. They are anything but boring. Maine’s motto is Dirigo, Latin for “I lead.” That is the voice of the pole star, but it is also the voice of the Maine woods. As they go, so go the rest of us. Our tracks follow the lead of the woods—deer, squirrel, hare, fox, coyote, the rest of us falling in behind, whether by snowmobile or snowshoe, cross-country ski or on foot, ax or chainsaw in hand, or not. If anything is dull it is our perception of the woods, not the woods themselves.

Woods are the waters of Earth come to life. On this hike I crossed six streams, flowing into four ponds, each stream rising in the woods through which I walked. Given air, sunlight, and water, woods spring up. Followed by insects and wildlife. And people. What are we but walking woods? What are woods but water with branches and roots?

The woods along the fire road flow as streams flow downslope into Duck and Long ponds, into Hodgdon and Seal Cove ponds. And water, where does it come from? From the firmament, and now this fallen white fundament underfoot. Making tracks in the snow, animals come full circle, walking in the stuff they are made of. Here are the origins of Acadian life.

The primary theme of the winter hike I made around Long Pond Fire Road was the unity I felt between my outer surroundings and my inner self. Everything came together—snow, tracks, woods, streams, ponds, sunlight, and the sky above. Like the little bent figure in the scroll, I played my part in the larger scene, one mote of awareness trekking through the landscape of the universe.

You have to go back to the woods or you lose your place. Your ties to the land. To your origins. You forget who you are. You come to believe you are a free agent, an independent being with no ties to anything beyond yourself. You lose your sense of belonging. Your judgment becomes uprooted. With nothing under your feet, what holds you up? You wander and are lost.

I have been that route. Centered on family and work, for years I gave no thought to what holds up the globe of human affairs. Woods, soil, water, sunlight, air—these were nothing to me. I wanted to get ahead, to be somebody.

Studying science, the humanities, education, I focused on human society and its accomplishments—as if they bloomed by spontaneous generation from human genius itself. I thought nature was a nice place to visit but I didn’t want to live there. It was a resort, a kind of sideshow of natural wonders and curiosities.

It never occurred to me I was made of Earth, thought its thoughts, saw with its eyes, spoke with its voice, or was in any way responsible to it for the benefits I received, which I took for granted as my deserts for being alive. I saw as a child. Wholly self-centered, I was a child. Reality for me was symbolic, found in art, movies, television, music, and books. I rowed on a rowing machine and ran at the side of city streets. For thirty years, thinking I dwelled in Paradise, I wandered and was lost.

One day I woke up realizing I was alone. Looking down, I saw nothing beneath me holding me up. My life was an unfounded dream. That day I might have become a taxi driver or a monk, but instead, for the first time, I heard a voice calling me to witness the miracle of life on planet Earth.

The trick to miracles is in recognizing them for what they are, otherwise we let them pass unacknowledged. Another day, oh hum. No, not oh hum, but by golly! How many miracles can we spot before our time runs?

Now paying attention, I explored Long Pond Fire Road for the first time, finding water, air, sunlight, trees, and wildlife in good order. Another day, another walk among miracles.

If I hadn’t come to my senses and spent the next thirty years in Maine, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. But I did come to my senses, and did move to Maine. Now here I am standing tall among the trees where I belong, with deep roots in the soil and the watershed that keeps it moist.

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(Copyright © 2009)

 I am on snowshoes in deep woods, making my own trail. I don’t know where I am but I am not lost. I can always follow my track back among the trees to where I started. Amazed at what I am doing, I weave among randomly placed trees, shrubs, ledges. On a steep slope, no less! Yet I keep traversing the slope and do not collide with a single stem or limb. How do I do it? I see trees ahead, approach them, then move around them. They grow larger in my visual field as I near and then pass them. Everything changes as I go, but I do not lose my balance. It’s as if I had a chart of these sloping woods in my mind, and could navigate by that chart. I don’t have to keep reorienting myself at every step, even though everything looks so different. I know my brain is working hard to keep me going without falling, yet I am perfectly calm. Looking about, I think I have never been in a more beautiful place on this Earth. This is the place, I think to myself, this is the place.

Now at a different season, I am sitting on a ledge of local bedrock by the edge of the bay, looking northwest, watching the sunset. It is high summer and, since the wind died down, I am enjoying the stillness. Not only enjoying but reflecting it by remaining perfectly motionless. Earth is rotating away from the sun, and so am I. Other than that, I am still. To me it looks as if the sun were going down into a ridge of spruce trees on the far shore. As if the sun were moving while I am still. My consciousness is keyed not to my motion but to the apparent motion and deepening tint of the sun. I am not going anywhere. The sun is making change happen; I am a universal constant, ever the same. I am not living in a landscape so much as in time itself. Or if I am navigating at all, I notice myself moving through time, not space. Time is happening. Not as told by my watch but by the real thing—the apparent dive of the sun out of the sky toward the horizon. I sit and watch colors brighten then fade on the edges of clouds. At some point I find myself sitting in darkness, listening to an owl. Stars are out. I rise, stretch, stumble up the bank, and let my feet find their way along the trail back to camp.

Space is told by our movements—even small shifts of our eyes. Time is told by things changing in relation to us when we are not moving. Space-time is told by our moving within a situation that is changing on its own. Without representations of changing scenes in our brains, neither time nor space would exist. Time is calibrated change when we are not responsible for that change; space is calibrated change resulting from our own actions. It’s as simple—and counterintuitive—as that.

Camera in hand, I am flying 500 feet above Taunton Bay on an eelgrass overflight. More accurately, I am being flown by Fred so I can open the passenger-side window and take pictures while he keeps us aloft. The ceiling is 600 feet—we’re flying just under that. Our flightpath follows a map I made before we took off. I drew loops around flats where eelgrass had grown in the past, then drew the shortest routes between loops. Fred follows the map while I lean out the window into the slipstream on the inside of the loop and take frame after frame. I am right where I want to be—where I planned to be when I thought the flight through to get the most coverage of the flats in the shortest amount of time. Airtime costs $250 an hour in a single-engine plane out of Hancock County Airport; I thought I could get the shots I wanted in 35 minutes. Planning the flight, drawing the map, looking down taking pictures—it was all done in my head beforehand, so now I’m just going through well-rehearsed motions. It’s like I am looking down on the workings of my own consciousness inside my own head. I love that feeling—checking myself out to make sure I do the job right in the right place at the right time. Whoopee! I love the feel of riding the wind when it all comes together! The image below is a picture I drew of the state of my brain at a particular instant on June 7, 2008.

aerial flight-6-7-08-72

Whenever we engage the world scene in some way, we have the option of including ourselves in that scene by rising above or expanding our own consciousness so that we can look down and witness ourselves being aware. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Just as I can observe myself moving through winter woods, sitting and watching the sunset, or flying in a plane according to plan, I can be conscious of myself being conscious no matter what I am doing. I am not talking about out-of-body experiences; I am talking about expanding consciousness to include the very act of being conscious. Which may sound strange until you realize we do it all the time.

In football practice we study diagrams of plays on the blackboard, which we internalize, practice, then employ in the big game. We watch ourselves going through the drill until we get it just right. We cast our net of expectancy onto the world, and rely on feedback to tell us what we have caught. We live in such loops every day of our lives, adjusting our behaviors accordingly until we live up to our own expectations. Or better yet, surpass them.

Basketball practice. I’m in line on the left side of the court well behind the keyhole. Now it’s my turn. I get the ball, drive toward the center of the court, take a high stride, arc the ball in my right hand up and over my head while still heading straight across—without looking at the basket—up, up, drop, swish through the net. The whole play works just as planned. The court, the ball, the net, and me all in my head in proper relationship. It’s still there 60 years later. The plan, that is, not my ability to execute it.

Visualization, practice, immediate feedback, more practice, and still more—until we get it right. We can learn to watch ourselves being conscious, see what comes of it, then rework that consciousness until it meets the standards we currently aspire to. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

One problem with consciousness is we pick it up when we are too young to appreciate what it can do for us. And nobody ever tells us we’re in charge of the whole show. We have to keep pushing ourselves as we grow older to transcend the former boundaries of our mental abilities. We are partly conscious while in school, conscious in different ways when working and raising a family, and later in life come into our own because we have time to work on perfecting ourselves in ways we never thought of before.

Which is when many of us are so tired of working we retire early, move to Florida, and spend the rest of our days playing golf. Such folks have maps of the different courses they’ve played in their heads. To improve their game, they do mental workouts, then practice every day until they get their score in a range they can live with. What if they took the same approach and devoted the same energy to understanding and improving their own minds and the world they live in in order to make up for all the mistakes they made getting where they are today? Instead of resting on their laurels, they could help create a world that would be better for them, better for their relationships, and better for this tired old Earth.

If consciousness can send Captain Nemo around the world in 80 days, Einstein on a thought experiment into space packing only his alarm clock, Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through blood vessels of the human body, others on a journey to the center of the Earth, my youthful self onto a basketball court or on a walk through snowy woods or into the sky to take pictures, then it should have no difficulty transcending conventional wisdom by placing those who so desire on a platform above themselves from which they can look down upon their own conscious minds—particularly their left-brain interpreters—in action.

That is the easy part. The hard part is adopting the discipline of making accurate, detailed observations from that perspective so the trip is not only an adventure but provides sufficient evidence on which to base a new understanding of the workings of our minds so that we may take responsibility for what we are doing in and to the world. Culture is a huge, collaborative effort from an agreed-upon point of view in the mind. Anthropologists study minds immersed in other cultures. We must become students of our own inner cultures in order to improve our mental processes and the actions they lead us to commit.

If we can visualize female circumcision in which the clitoris and labia minora of 300 million teenage (and younger) girls in Africa are excised every year with a rusty razor blade, we can ask ourselves whether we—male or female—would wish that practice on ourselves, our mates, and our children for any reason whatsoever. From a cultural distance, it is easy to see the pain, misery, and danger such a practice inflicts. The art is in seeing the mentality of male anxiety and presumed dominance within which it makes perfect sense, and then asking whether that mentality is the best we can imagine for ourselves. If it isn’t, we then have the option of handling our sexual anxieties in other, less punishing ways.

Read, watch, or listen to the news. Abuse and cruelty are rampant around the globe—directed at our children, mates, neighbors, bodies, and even the body of the Earth on which we live and absolutely depend. Thinking to get ourselves off the hook, we come up with millions of rationales for such behaviors. Looking down from above, we can see them for the excuses they are, and beyond that, see ourselves protecting the cherished assumptions by which we live. Those assumptions invariably cast blame for our failings on others, who by default become inferior beings deserving of punishment to keep them in line with our wishes.

What the news is really about is the sorry state of our own consciousness as revealed through the thoughtless behavior of those like ourselves. Everybody does it, we say, it’s just human nature. We’re no better than we should be. There in plain sight for all to see is the Big Lie. Discovering it in ourselves gives us the option of seeing behind the lie to what it is in ourselves we are so set on protecting. Not life itself nor our genes but the advantaged way of life we have chosen for ourselves. As if we were members of an elite core of beings far superior to the rabble around us. That conceit is at the heart of the discontent behind every one of our assumptions, attitudes, and acts.

Rising above our minds and looking down, we discover options we never considered when locked in the confines of conventional consciousness. We have more discretion in administering our workaday lives than we commonly think. Do we really want to spend time watching animated cartoons depicting the antics of two-legged mice wearing white gloves—who can talk? Do we really think an appropriate response to 9/11 is to invade a country having no connection with that attack? Because I loathe the very idea of abortions, do I have the right to deny them to women under any and all circumstances? Now that I am old enough to know something of my own mind, is playing golf the best use of my time?

If we reach the point of questioning our true motivation, we are halfway to taking direct responsibility for our actions in the world, for visualizing the situations we are in, and for our personal brand of consciousness itself. Nobody taught us how to do this; nobody can do it in our stead. But from here on the way is clear: the state of the world is our doing; if it is to improve, we are the only ones in a position to make it happen. Which is my definition of a superhero. Either we rise to this inner occasion or we don’t. The rest is the history of our times.

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