Practice of Place

10 Tips for Healthy Living From the Salmon People


A few helpful hints for the Standing People from the Salmon People:

1. Show off your beauty. Know how beautiful you are. Leap. Surge. Mingle. Dance.

2. Have grand adventures. Cross the North Pacific all the way to Kamchatka and Hokkaido. Move under your own power. Navigate by the stars.

3. Be intimate with the tides and currents. Play the edges constantly. Find your joy there.

4. Hang out with charismatic megafauna. Congregate with humpback whales and bald eagles and sea lions and humans among the tides rips and upwellings, and where the herring come to spawn.

5. Know where you are going, and let nothing stop you. Remember in your bones the exact location of the stream where you were born. Know where you are, always, in relation to that stream.

6. Turn for home when your body tells you it's time. Trust that you will find the way, and don't be daunted by any distance.


7. Give yourself away to the creatures who need you, who have waited expectantly for your return: the Swimming People, the Flying People, and the Standing People whose lives are bound so closely to yours'.

8. When at last you reach the home stream, head straight into the current and start climbing. Climb the rapids. Climb the waterfalls. Climb the very mountains. Bend yourself to that final act of love that will keep it all going.

9. Let go of any thought of preserving your beauty now. Let your body morph, sprout humps and fangs and rainbow colors. And in that final act of union, pour yourself out with your lover into the stream that will be your progeny.

10. Let it all go now. Feed the animals with your spent body. Stray far into the ancient forest as you swim down their bodies and back into the soil. Become the very flesh of the forest itself. Climb to the tops of the trees.

(As transcribed from the Salmon People by Kurt Hoelting during the Blue River Writer's Gathering, Andrews Experimental Forest, McKenzie River, OR, Sept. 25-27, 2014)


Postcard from the Edge

As I look out from the lodge onto Keene Channel this morning, I can barely tell where the line is between water, forest and sky. I can barely tell where my own body leaves off, and this wild world begins. I'm writing this by hand. Later, when I load the skiff with laundry and head to town for supplies with my crew, I'll transfer these words to my computer and send it along your way. Consider this a letter, then. "Blog" is one of the least alluring words ever consigned to the English language, in my opinion. I've just completed my first Inside Passages kayaking retreat of the season, with a terrific group of Courage & Renewal facilitators. My co-leaders on this trip have been John Fenner from the Center for Courage and Renewal, Noel Stout as assistant guide, and Emily White as lodge chef. What a great team.

For a week I haven't checked email. I haven't heard a stitch of news either, and yet I feel flush with the news that matters; that I am awash in a still-vibrant world, that there are good people all around doing extraordinary work. William Carlos Williams wrote, "Look at what passes for the news /  You will not find it there."

So I have been busy this week listening to the news that issues from silence, from words carefully chosen, and from the ground beneath my feet. Sometimes it is delivered in human voices. Sometimes in the voice of raven, harbor porpoise, the wind in the spruce forest, or the sheets of rain pelting the water. There is a great deal to ponder here.

In her poem Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?, Mary Oliver writes,

"There are things you can't reach. But                                                                            you can reach out to them, and all day long.  

The wind, the birds flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier."  


It is a strange thing, how my stubborn conviction that the world is tragically flawed can suck the life out of me, and make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thought, in my experience, has a bad habit of going negative, almost by design, and it is not a habit that can be cured by more thought. On the contrary, I have been learning to question my thoughts ruthlessly, take them on as the snarky, unruly crowd that they are.

The best way to do that, I've found, is to let my thinking mind hammer away at its grievances, if it must, and in the meantime climb back down into my body, re-establish contact with the ground I stand on, or the flowing water beneath my kayak. That is what I have been doing all week during this retreat. My body knows what is needed, and what to do. Take the next step, or the next stroke of the paddle, but do it consciously. Feel myself doing it. Let go of the physical tension I hadn't noticed I was carrying. Soften my senses. Open back up. Listen deeply. The mysterious thing is that if I keep at this for awhile, if I stay with the sensations of my body in a direct, immediate way, sure enough the mind lets go of the bone it's been chewing on, and the world around me comes back into vibrant focus. The world that was alive all the while comes back alive in me. There it is again. Here I am again. Now, what does the world need from me?



"Narrow path to the deep north"

I love the title that Basho gave his travel journals: "Narrow Path to the Deep North." What I feel as I prepare to sail up the Inside Passage for another season of kayak guiding and commercial fishing in Alaska must be similar to what other migratory animals feel, when the urge for going sets in. There is a physical yearning for the "Deep North" that has been woven into my annual cycle now for over forty years. The salmon are returning. The great migration of birds and whales and humans is in full swing, pulled by the long days and warm weather to a place of Pleistocene plenty.

For most of these years I've been a commercial fisherman, chasing salmon runs from Bristol Bay to the Panhandle, and halibut from Chatham Strait to the Gulf of Alaska. Now my commercial fishing gig is down to a single halibut trip in Southeast Alaska in August, after a month of guiding kayak trips. I'm starting to pull back on the throttle.

But I love both these ways of being in the wild - as a guide and a fisherman - expressions of livelihood, not leisure,  played out in a still-primordial landscape. There are stakes involved, and risks. But being a commercial fisherman also has a powerful contemplative strain to it, which links it to mindfulness; a need to be fully present, and a visceral sense that I am a small player in a vastly more-than-human world.

I'm well aware, as a student of the dharma, that commercial fishing contradicts a core Buddhist teaching against taking the life of other creatures. But many indigenous traditions think about this differently. I've always felt a powerful bond with Northwest Coast cultures, whose survival hinged for millennia on a deeply respectful dependence and reciprocity with the "salmon and halibut people". I understand, as Gary Snyder has said, that one day the table will be set around me, and my flesh will flow back into these other creatures. I don't have a problem with this. It gives me comfort, really, and a sense of powerful belonging on this coast. My work as a mindfulness teacher and fisherman are excursions onto the same wild edge, one inner, one outer. Both edges are alluring and untamable, bound by the poignant, transient nature of all our lives.

I will not be updating these posts often while I'm in Alaska. I need this annual cycle of "time outside of time", to lay my heart back out on the long wave. I don't think we're better for being at the beck and call of our media tools every waking hour of our lives, and I will be on something of a media fast over the coming weeks. May you also find yourself sailing on the long wave from time to time during these long days of summer.

Wherever you may be reading this cyber-message-in-a-bottle, I hope it finds you well.


How has Inside Passages changed over 20 years?

It's hard for me to believe that this summer will be my 20th season of guiding Inside Passages kayaking retreats in Southeast Alaska. So much has happened since that first trip in 1994, and so much has grown out of that early impulse. When I started Inside Passages, I had a clear purpose in mind. I wanted to augment my commercial fishing income with time in the wild that was more contemplative, less driven, and more in line with my love of silence. My ulterior motive was to bring leaders into that majestic wildness, where they might find convincing new reasons to care for the fate of our endangered earth. My medium was wilderness. My method was the practice of listening and paying attention. I still have that purpose. I still love these deep annual immersions in the silence of a wild landscape. And by most accounts from my clients, these trips have spurred a deeper passion in them too for the fate of the earth that sustains us all. The Tongass wilderness has been a terrific partner in that effort.

I began this project as a veteran of the fight for new wilderness in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, and I have enlisted new allies in that effort through my trips. This was, and remains, important to me.

But a lot has changed since 1994. The scale of our environmental threats, and the stakes involved, have grown radically larger than what I understood them to be back then. It's not that I think habitat protection isn't still important. Every place is precious, and I will always fight for the protection of the places I love.

But with the rapid escalation of global trends like climate disruption in the intervening years, it is clear that no place is safe from the impacts of human activity, no matter how remote they may seem from our direct presence. This is a sea change in how we have come to understand the nature of nature itself, and of our place within it. With temperatures now rising 50 times faster than at any time in the last 15 million years, the damage done by development to places like the Tongass is peanuts compared to the systemic changes that are assaulting every ecosystem on the planet at once. I no longer see Alaska as a "place apart" where we might escape the engines of disruptive ecological change.

So I increasingly enter the human wilderness of the city on this same quest for restoration. If the sources of imbalance ecologically reside with us, then the sources of restoration reside within the human heart and mind, and not merely in the protection of external nature, or the development of cleaner technologies. This deeper exploration of wholeness is what my Circumference of Home project was all about in 2008, when I stayed close to home and lived car-free in an effort to renew my local practice of place.

That's also why I don't think of my climate activism as separate from my work as a mindfulness teacher. The forces that stand between ourselves and ecological resilience are less technical than they are psychological and spiritual. A lot of mindfulness will be necessary to confront the depth of our own fear and aversion to the challenges we now face. A lot of mindfulness will be necessary to accommodate the accelerating scale of change that is confronting us all. There is a great deal of inner work which must accompany our activist agendas.

This process of discernment starts, as it always has and must, with our individual choices about how we are going to live, what we value most, and what comes between us and the living of those values. How we move around on the planet, and how much we need to consume, are choices that have never carried higher stakes.

As I enter the third decade of my work with Inside Passages, these questions are active and alive in me. The uncertainty, and unknowability, of what is to come actually gives me hope, because I am learning to trust the deeper intelligence of a living world that refuses to give up, and that is erupting with new expressions of aliveness, even amid the painful litany of losses. That emergent world is fully capable of finding its way. And it will. The question is whether we humans will prove, in the end, to be on the side of that emergent aliveness, or swept aside by it.


Big surprise. Outdoor exercise more beneficial than the gym.

I missed last week's blog post because I was playing hooky, kayaking in the San Juan Islands with Sally. My last several posts have been the kind that leave me needing to play hooky, which is part of the activist's conundrum. The climate wars are heating up and getting ugly. A new generation of activists is getting more creative and aggressive in their tactics in taking on the fossil fuel giants. I've been tracking this rising intensity in the climate movement. I feel encouraged by what has been emerging within the movement, but it can also feel overwhelming. We are in a "long emergency" here, and even the most ardent climate warriors are going to have to figure out how to pace themselves. I don't know why it is so hard to do the things that sustain emotional balance, but it just seems to be how we are wired.

Anyway, with all this intensity in the air, my get-away to the San Juans was the first time in months that I've put my kayak in the water, and as usual, I wondered why I've waited so long. It was glorious being on the water, feeling the familiar tug of the paddle against tide and waves, the immensity of space around, below and above me, and the rejuvenating soundscape and aroma of the Salish Sea. What a tonic for the soul. With spring coming on, I've also been riding my bike almost daily again as well. For me, getting in my kayak or on my bike are the most reliable mood-enhancing drugs I know of. The benefits are hard to quantify, but undeniable.

There is something about being outside, unplugged, and physically vigorous, that is almost magical in its restorative powers. Gretchen Reynolds in the NY Times recently wrote that "emerging science suggests there are benefits to exercising outdoors that can’t be replicated on a treadmill, a recumbent bicycle or a track." Surprise, surprise! Whether walking, running or cycling, you burn more calories outside than indoors during comparable workouts, because of the added effort needed to adjust to changes in terrain, wind resistance, hills, etc.

"But there seem to be other, more ineffable advantages to getting outside to work out. In a number of recent studies, volunteers have been asked to go for two walks for the same time or distance — one inside, usually on a treadmill or around a track, the other outdoors. In virtually all of the studies, the volunteers reported enjoying the outside activity more and, on subsequent psychological tests, scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside."

Strange that we need all these studies to tell us that. Mind you, I go to the gym for weight workouts once a week myself. But I remain bewildered by the impulse to take our whole active life indoors. We are creatures, after all, of the elemental world - the "great outdoors." Just like everything else in nature, we humans are fabricated of rock and wind and flowing water, literal expressions of the forces and elements that make up our physical bodies. We are psychological and spiritual extensions of the earthly matter that has molded itself over thousands of millennia into these transient forms that house the miracle of human consciousness.

Which is another way of saying, I'm going to go outside every chance I get. I won't be effective in the climate work I care so deeply about if my inner climate of heart and mind get thrown out of balance in the process.



Yearning for the continuity of place

As mid-January passes, I feel the first ticks toward a growing light. Last evening Sally and I walked the trails of the Chinook lands we are blessed to live nestled against. Emerging from the forest, we watched the fading light of sunset at 5:30. A half hour of new light has started the swing toward longer days. Soon we will feel its quickening pace. For now it is cold, and thoroughly winter. Marv Hiles writes: "We live our years in a courtly dance, circling through a roundel of sun, tides, and seasons of body and soul that extend farther than our brief lifespan. We are ripples on a pond of incomprehensible depth."

My own life has become a dance between what is enduring about that cycle - the refuge of seasonal continuity and grace, and what has broken that cycle into something incomprehensibly new. It is more important than ever that I remember to take refuge in the "roundel of sun, tides and seasons", daily and hourly, so that I can be alive as well to what is breaking open, even when it feels as if things are merely breaking apart.

These days I long for the simpler rhythm of work and place that I remember from an earlier era in my life, bound to a small fishing village on a remote island in Southeast Alaska, where my children were born and spent their first decade of life. Doing carpentry in the winter and commercial fishing in the summer, it was all held within a scope of place and belonging that feels far away now. We moved south to Puget Sound when my children came to an age that was confining for them on that small island. My work has shifted away from matters of craft and endurance, toward matters of the heart and mind - teaching and writing, networking and organizing - work I love. But I spend many hours a day now in front of a screen that did not exist through my first four decades of life, wielding powers of connection that earlier generations could not even have imagined. I have become a different person inhabiting a global culture to which place is often an afterthought, if it is a thought at all. A culture in which the mind and body rarely occupy the same place at the same time.

I live in a house that I built with my own hands, though I too-rarely pick up hammer and saw and chisel these days. The yearning of my heart is strong for more of the continuity that characterized my life as a carpenter and fisherman - a single habitat containing work and family, leisure and the intimate fabric of a local community that actually depends upon each other for social and economic sustenance. That possibility of a place-based life feels gone with the wind, and working with that fact is a big part of my "practice" now. My children will be the last born on this earth who spent any portion of their life uncoupled from the internet and the withering reach of social media.

But so it is, and therefore so it will be. Perhaps I am merely of an age where the backward glance is becoming more frequent. I will have to be vigilant not to give myself over to this impulse. But I also feel it is my job - my calling in a way - to be one of those outliers whose desire is to keep to the old ways - work that is connected to earth, soil and sea, physical labors working the material of that earth into something useful and visible and available to the touch. And a community that is not always just passing through, using this place as a launching pad for forays to the far ends of the rainbow.

The part of that vision that endures is the part I have in each moment of pause, when I allow myself to feel the pulse of the place I am now standing, the fragrance of the winter air, the continuity of decades spent in in the same valley. And the yearning of a heart that is still beating within it.

The travel conundrum

Sally and I took a road trip through the Deep South last week - my first extended car trip in several years. That's not us in the picture, just to be clear. We rented an economy car. But driving across the South we saw remarkably few fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. We covered a lot of ground in a week of driving that took us from the Ozarks of southern Missouri to New York City, via the southern tier and Eastern Seaboard. It was a memorable trip, with some great experiences along the way. The civil rights museum in Birmingham, AL, was a highlight. And Charleston, SC, is a stunningly beautiful city. The Great Smokies are spectacular in their ancient, weather-worn way. But my body was stiff as a board by the end of the trip, and there was never any doubt that we were skimming over the surface the whole way.

It was a relief when we got to New York City, and swapped our rental car for our own two feet. I've come to love the Big Apple for just that reason. When I'm there, I don't even think about getting into a car. I can walk for miles through the city and never get bored, and the subways stations are everywhere when I need to get somewhere fast. I love the human wildness of the place, the endless variety and swirl of cultures and in-your-face human energy. Interestingly enough, the average carbon footprint of a resident of New York is one-third the national average. Most of my friends in New York don't own a car. This is an irony I think about a lot. I so love the natural beauty of my home on Whidbey Island, but getting by without a car is almost unthinkable in the sprawl and spread out life of rural Puget Sound. Its also much harder in Seattle than New York to pull off a car-free life, because the city is a child of our car-culture - much more spread out and infected with sprawl, and public transportation is an ill-conceived afterthought.

Lately I've been drifting back into a more car-dependent lifestyle, and I don't like it. My work as an MBSR teacher increasingly requires commuting into Seattle. It is a nasty commute, no matter how you slice it. Seattle has some of the worst gridlocked traffic in the country. My teaching schedule rarely lines up with the commuter bus schedules, so to use public transportation adds at least two hours to the commute if I'm not going right downtown in perfect alignment with the commuter schedule.

Even now, four years after I ended my car-free experiment in 2008, I hate how driving makes me feel. The memory of all those months without a car - the physical pleasure of moving so much more slowly through the landscape - is still imprinted in my genes. Mind you, I take a certain amount of comfort from the fact that I drive a hybrid car to the city, and an all-electric vehicle on the island. I'm using the best available technology, and that feels like the least I can do. But the fact is, I genuinely dislike how I feel physically and emotionally when I've been in a car. This is how I described the visceral benefits of car-free living in my book The Circumference of Home.

“Six weeks into my year of local living, I can begin to feel the pace of my body slowing down. The inner residue of hurry and restlessness is gradually seeping out of my nervous system. It is a subtle shift, and it has taken this long to begin registering in my conscious mind. I am able to sit still for longer periods, not because I am more determined to do so, but because I just want to. My mind is more available to what I am seeing. With less wanting of things to be different, less pursuit of external stimulation, I simply see more of what is right in front of me.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this shift is the way I can literally feel the geography around me growing in scale and stature. A circle I drew on the map that felt small to begin with, and potentially confining, seems huge now, since it takes an entire day on foot to cover a small portion of it. Fifteen miles of walking is about what I am good for, yet such a day is filled with far more sensory input than a comparable day of driving that could take me halfway to San Francisco. I end my days physically tired, but emotionally full, with a sense of having transited a whole world of hard terrain. Curiously enough, I can end an equally long day of driving or flying almost as tired physically, but emotionally exhausted at the same time, not sure that I have connected with anything real beyond my desire to cover as much ground as fast as possible."

My livelihood needs, and my love of teaching, have conspired, for now at least, to get me back in a car a lot more than I'd like. Granted, I drive less than I did before my year in circumference. And I use my bicycle and public transportation much more regularly than before - whenever they offer a reasonable alternative to driving. But climate change is rarely far from my mind these days. And the benefits of self-powered travel, both physically and emotionally, are deeply embedded in my heart.

Maybe it's time to consider moving back into the city. As a wilderness guide and nature junky, I never thought I'd hear myself say that. But the price of this kind of spread-out life is really getting steep, especially with the consequences playing out on such a massive scale with climate disruption. From a practical standpoint, I'm still looking for the sweet spot (if there is one) between an all-or-nothing approach to the fossil fuel conundrum. But four years out from my car-free year, I still rarely feel more alive, or more at home in the world, than when I set out on foot, or climb aboard my beloved bicycle, to get where I'm going under my own power. It just doesn't get any better than that.


Peaks of Circumference

Without a doubt, September is my favorite month of the year. It is full-on fall in Alaska, so my return to the Lower '48 at this time each year gives me a second shot at summer. Here in Puget Sound, September tends to dish up the best weather of the year, clear and sunny with cool mornings and warm afternoons. This year is no exception. These weeks leading up to the fall equinox offer a space in between my busy guiding schedule in Alaska, and my work as an MBSR teacher and contemplative retreat leader in Puget Sound during the fall and winter months. For me, September is my time for New Year's resolutions, a chance to pause and reflect on where I've been over the last year, and how I might do things differently this time around. The satisfaction of much hard work under my belt gives way to the traditional spaciousness of the fall season. Something in me is both ready and willing to slow down.


One of my resolutions this year is get keep my outdoor orientation from Alaska going through the fall and winter more than I have in recent years – to get out from behind my computer and into my body every day. I'm doing a lot more biking, hiking and kayaking in my spare time than I have in several years. I did some hiking with Sally around her birthday, then took five days off to climb Glacier Peak with my son Alex last week. Glacier Peak lies on the circumference of the circle that was the basis for my book The Circumference of Homeand I've had a longstanding goal of summiting the mountain. We climbed through the seasons from summer to fall to winter and back, and found ourselves immersed in the first blast of winter in the high country that kept us from reaching the summit this time. But it was a glorious shared adventure with father and son, of pressing physical limits, and basking in some of the most remote and gorgeous scenery in the Lower '48.

That blast of early winter led to a fairly grueling hike to get off the mountain, but a glorious one, as disappointing as it was to fail in our summit attempt. The experience pressed our limits of endurance, but it was a memorable experience for us to share, one we will always cherish. It also helped me push back some unnecessary limits that have taken hold in my mind about my own capacity to undertake this kind of expedition. I was encouraged to see what my body was able to do.

Here in the lowlands again, I resume teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes this week at the Samaritan Center of Puget Sound, and will start up at the VA Hospital in Seattle soon. Teaching seems to be where more of my energy is going these days. I'm doing less writing and speaking, finding much nourishment in to process of directly sharing what I love with others as a teacher. I will resume more frequent blog entries, too, now that I'm settled back on the home front.

I wish you all a Happy Fall Season. Here are a few of the mindfulness retreats I'll be leading in the coming months. Don't hesitate to contact me if you want to join in, or collaborate with me in hosting a similar retreat.

The Inner Radiance of Being

I have been "absent" from my blog the last few weeks, which (contrary to the emerging culture of blogging) does not mean I have been absent. I am leading my annual contemplative kayaking trips in Alaska through Inside Passages, and that involves something ancient and entirely un-cool in contemporary culture - being (OMG!) off the grid!

The trip I've just completed was with a group of Jewish environmental activists and leaders through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, co-led by myself (a non-Jew) and a couple rabbis who accompanied us on the trip. Somewhat to the surprise of several activists in the group (a pleasant surprise as it turns out) we talked little during the week about our activist causes. In fact, we talked a lot less than normal generally. Instead, we listened. We listened to the extraordinary sounds and many more-than-human languages of natural silence, something which is becoming an extinct experience in our massively urban, too-busy human world. We sat and ate and paddled together often with a choice to hold that silence together, to give it scope and duration, and to watch with curiosity to what it evoked within us - both pleasant and unpleasant. And being human, there was some of both.

There was also plenty of good conversation, much learning and teaching from this extraordinary group of academics and activists. But mostly we chose to listen, and - for a time - not to solve or fix. We talked about the inner radiance of being that gets lost in our daily striving to repair a world in turmoil "out there". We talked about - and deeply felt - the need for inner habitat restoration to match (and undergird) our work in the world, and to sustain a more robust sense of resilience that we activists ultimately need more than ever before. For this group, for this week, that was enough. And it was a great gift.

Eating Rainbows

Alaska is a different  way of being in the world. I sometimes feel like I've fallen over that mythic edge when I come here. Until recently, being off the grid was a built in - and much beloved - part of the experience of being in Alaska. But cell phone coverage has improved, and this year I bought an iPhone. So to my bewilderment, that other world is now at my doorstep, even in this final sanctuary.

This summer has been a really wet one. The local meteorologist explained that the jet stream is pointed right at Southeast Alaska this summer, so wetness may be the name of the game this season. It's impossible for me not to think "climate change" when the weather heads toward the boundaries of the expected, though who knows? I suspect the changing climate is "juicing" the wetness here, just as it is juicing the extreme heat over most of the rest of America.

I've also noticed that the rainbows are unusually brilliant this year, in those moments when the "sucker holes" - those odd patches of blue that occasionally let in some sun, place the sunlight and the rain in a single blender. At the prompting of my friend Christian Swenson, who was visiting last week, I decided to taste one of them, and it was not all that bad. Eating rainbows is one of the treats I may be offering my clients this summer on my Inside Passages kayaking retreats.

I came up several weeks early to get all the systems running at the lodge, and also to do some improvements before my guests arrive. My son Alex joined me this week to help with projects, like building a trail into the old growth forest behind the lodge.My first group arrives in less than a week - a group of Jewish environmental activists sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality - a long time partner on these trips. I'll be joined on the leadership team by Rabbis Sheila Weinberg and Lisa Goldstein, and a remarkable group of leaders who are willing to dive deep into both wilderness exploration and contemplative silence, to see what lessons they may offer to the activist calling. I'm looking forward to getting started.

How many people, in the course of a single week, get to be a carpenter, plumber, and wilderness guide, while also teaching meditation and yoga in the wilderness? It's good work if you can get it.

It's a bit of a controlled frenzy at times, and I still don't have internet coverage for my computer at the lodge (thank God), so I will not be adding many posts in the coming weeks. Hope this finds you all well.


"Consult the genius of the place in all."

Wendell Berry likes to quote Alexander Pope. "Consult the genius of the place in all." This runs hard against our contemporary enthusiasm for "no place in particular" articulated by Bruce Sterling; "As long as I've got broadband, I'm perfectly at ease with the fact that my position on the planet's surface is arbitrary." Berry would contend that this very ethic of geographical arbitrariness, fostered by the computer and social network technologies that he assiduously refuses to participate in, is what has driven our culture and ecology to the brink. There is a fierceness in Berry, tempered by "a kind of calm despite full awareness of the storm.” (Mark Bittman). His family has lived around Port Royal, KY, for two hundred years, and he has become the patron saint of local living economies in America. David Skinner has said,  "Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. . . Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings. And it should have a better sense of proportion: Its solutions should be equal to its problems and should not beget other problems." “You can describe the predicament that we’re in as an emergency,” Berry says, “and your trial is to learn to be patient in an emergency.” How do we do that? It seems to come down to a willingness not only to be thwarted, but to remain capable of joy and curiosity in the midst of being thwarted. In a pronouncement that rings especially true to me, Berry has said, "It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

There is something supremely un-American about a "baffled mind". With our technological prowess, we Americans believe we can fix any problem. Which is turning out to be a really big problem in itself. One cause of the fix we're in, in other words, is our refusal to acknowledge legitimate befuddlement. (Who can stand down climate change, for instance, and not feel befuddled and shaky in the knees?) There is a kind of joyous defiance that emanates from Berry's proclamation that “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.”

When I feel myself stuck in an impeded stream, it is sometimes the smallest things that set the inner waters flowing again. For me it usually involves re-establishing contact with my physical body in an act of getting out into physical nature (on foot, by bicycle or kayak). There the two grand streams of Self and Cosmos find their confluence again, and the illusion of stuckness unsnarls itself naturally, at a place beyond thought.

Last weekend, for example, after years of meaning to, I finally did paddle the Snohomish River estuary - the great river of the central Cascades that was the reason local Salish tribes chose this particular place to live. All I've known of it until now is the industrialized slurry of the I-5 corridor heading north out of Everett. Blasting across the Snohomish delta on giant concrete legs, there is almost nothing within the near terrain of the freeway corridor that suggests wildness, or even the possibility of wildness. But that is what I found as I headed a few miles up Ebby Slough out of Marysville, then back out Steamboat Slough, two of the main channels off the Snohomish that snake through the delta to tidewater in Possession Sound.

Four years ago, during my year of car-free local exploration, I walked this narrow concrete pathway through industrial yards that barely hint at something grander beyond the margins, and I have wanted to venture beyond those margins ever since. I was amazed by how quickly nature reasserts itself in the uninhabited floodplain of the lower river channels. Heron rookeries and large schools of coho smolt filled the upper channels - rich rearing habitat for salmon - while rows of cormorant nests crowned the rotting rows of pilings along the lower channel.

My friend Bruce Davis and I never saw another boat or person until the river gave back  out into the Salish Sea. On a busy Saturday afternoon in late spring, it was just us, the herons, cohos and cormorants.

What does this have to do with Wendell Berry? This is my Port Royal. Sinking back into the land that I inhabit expands the boundaries of the near at hand. I came out of this day on the river with a feeling of elation and gratitude that so much wildness still waits just beyond (and within!) the margins of our human-dominated world. I can't wait to explore the other river channels now. One more good reason to stick around, and to open my eyes and senses to what I have been for too long blind.

Seeking An Etiquette of Freedom In The Digital Storm

My local email server hit a major snag in updating its equipment this week. A small technical glitch cascaded into a multi-day outage of email service.  For me it was a nuisance, for sure, since I work from home and am tied to the same ethic of quick response that everyone else now expects and demands. For my server I'm sure it was an unmitigated disaster, and will cost them a lot of business. Our culture of time-acceleration is a ruthless overlord. Isn't it interesting how quickly this ethic of instantaneous response has colonized our hearts and minds. You would think the Titanic was going down for how much agitation this event has unleashed within our local community.

What gives? Was it really so long ago that three days between messages was considered a fast turnaround? Now three minutes is an unacceptable delay? Five seconds to download a document leaves our foot tapping impatiently. Who is really benefitting from this? My mindfulness-based stress reduction classes are filling up with working professionals who are simply shorting out at the ever-escalating demands and time constraints of their working lives. Moore's Law stipulated that the speed of our computer technologies would double every eighteen months, while halving in cost, and that march toward mach speed continues unabated. As I pointed out in an earlier post, our human nervous system is not similarly doubling in speed every eighteen months. And unlike our computer devices, which keep getting cheaper and more ubiquitous, the cost to our bodies and emotional well-being is steadily rising.

The poet Gary Snyder, now 82, was asked in a recent interview if he felt complete with the work he had done in the world. His answer: "I don't have time to think about that." In his case, this answer did not signify a lack of time, but a fullness of time, a level of engagement that is rooted in an eternal NOW, and in alignment with what his life is currently dishing up. Snyder went on to say, "Ultimately it's not success or failure in the human realm that matters, it's that you're at peace with what the work is and who the people are and what you're doing. . . A certain modesty is created by our recognition that we are impermanent and that we do not understand everything perfectly. Impermanence inspires us to do good work, to make things well. . . Etiquette is acknowledging impermanence and bringing dignity to everything in the process." (Inquiring Mind, Spring 2012). My experience these days is that few people are at peace with the work they are doing, or feel in control of their time. There is little dignity, and much stress, in feeling that we don't have time to do anything well.

This can sound like sour grapes, but that's not my intent. I'm  just allowing myself to feel the force of the gathering digital storm, and to wonder about its human implications? My primary sense of vocation circles around various efforts to keep the "long wave" of human experience alive in the midst of a "short wave" culture. Most of my work involves keeping that long wave of time off the endangered experience list.

Yet my world is changing too, and I don't want to set myself against unstoppable tides of change either. Gary Snyder's "etiquette of freedom" demands a fierce vigilance about where that threshold lies, between using our digital tools in the service of abiding human purposes, and being swept into their undertow of speed for its own sake. If three days off line is a disaster, as some of my friends have been suggesting, then we are forgeting to consult the long wave for its opinion on the matter.

I think I'll go for a walk now.


Everyone Has a Body

It's not that far to the wilderness when you're on the water. Get a little beyond the distance you can easily swim to shore, and you're there. Last weekend I set out with Rick Jackson to paddle around Bainbridge Island. We did the first half of the 25 mile circumnavigation, paddling from Manzanita Bay to Eagle Harbor. We had neep tides for this paddle - halfway between the full and new moons when the tidal currents are modest. And the weather was terrific. Light winds and one of the first really warm, sunny days of spring.

It was a great reminder that I don't do enough paddling when I'm in Puget Sound. I spend so much time in my kayak when I'm leading summer trips in Alaska, that I can let months go by during the winter without feeding the inner aquifers of physical well being and emotional resilience that come so naturally on the paddle. I get caught up in my work, and before I know it, the winter has slipped away. This year I vowed not to let that happen. If there is one thing I've learned as an activist, it is that regular time in the body and in nature are essential to keeping my balance. I've been on my bike a lot more this winter too, for the same reasons. When I'm fully engaged in a physical activity, immersed in the rhythms of the natural world, I find refuge from the temptations of overwhelm and despair. I experience an immediate aliveness, both inside and outside my body, that is always there waiting for me. And I experience the satisfaction - endlessly renewable - of doing something that leans in the direction of my core values.

It's a remarkable thing. Nothing has changed in the grand scheme of things. The world is still burdened with the same problems and vexing challenges. But in these moments of physical refuge, my body remembers what it was put here for, and my mind follows the body's lead into a direct experience of well being that is no longer hostage to the usual intellectual contentions with reality. I emerge with a renewed capacity for hope that is not tied to any specific results.

And in the process, I see, hear and feels things that I would otherwise have completely missed - in this case, the braying of sea lions hauled out on the channel markers in the Sound, the mesmerizing interplay of light and waves on the water that calm nerves and delight the senses, brightly colored star fish and sand dollars in the inter-tidal shallows, the cold salt wind that quickens my heart as I come around into open water. Each sensation anchors me in the aliveness of the moment at hand, because our senses are always only alive in the present moment - this breath, this play of wind on the face, this bark of seal, or call of kingfisher. It is only the human mind that wanders aimlessly off in the dark alleys of past and future imaginings.

When Rick and I pulled into Eagle Harbor we were both bone tired, and completely satisfied. It was the first paddle of significance for me on Puget Sound since I ended my year in circumference. What a great feeling. Even the stiffness in the body that lingered for several days was a reminder of how much had been revealed to me. We will finish our circumnavigation of Bainbridge in a few weeks, and in the meantime I have plans to paddle the estuary sloughs of the Snohomish River with friends next weekend. The path to wildness is everywhere, if we remember to deploy our senses, right where we are.

Occupy Your Bike, South Whidbey

Yesterday a group of local cyclists met to put some meat on the bones of our new Occupy Your Bike group here on South Whidbey. We all rode our bikes to Hannah and Phil Jones house for a great brunch and conversation, and we are up and riding!  We'll have a permanent website up soon too at: We have lots of fun rides in the planning, plus bike commuter groups, bike classes, and group rides to community events like movies at the Clyde Theatre (Ride To the Clyde), group grocery shopping by bicycle (Mob the Goose), farmers market and a regular Sunday ride to different parts of the island. The point is to have fun, create community, and bring a more visible, viable bike culture into our midst here on South Whidbey. We plan monthly potlucks at Woodland Hall on the last Monday of each month at 7:00, with the next one being Monday, March 26th.

Obviously, our name if a tongue-in-cheek play on the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it is also based on the huge respect we have gained for the efforts of that movement to change the political dialogue in our country away from corporate dominance to thriving local communities. Occupy Your Bike is just another small example of our desire to celebrate local community, to honor local livelihood efforts, and to align our actions with our conviction that highly consumptive lifestyles are undermining the very foundations of life on the only planet we will ever have.

This is also making good on a personal pledge to be more community-minded in my efforts to change my own behaviors and travel choices. It is not only more fun, but more sustainable to anchor these changes in a community-minded effort. A lot of the initial group members are much younger than me, and I'm really appreciating their commitment to put their actions where their mouths are. I live in a community with a growing number of retired people, and it is easy to slide into comfortable habits when we are still perfectly capable of getting on our bikes and experiencing the benefits and pleasures of that lifestyle.

Derek Hoshiko has introduced the idea of the "bike-bus", where cyclists commuting to work, or going to a particular community event, pick up additional cyclists along the way at designated times and places. The person furthest away begins the bike-bus, and others join as the group progresses along the way. By the time you arrive, you have the fun and solidarity of a group that arrives by bike with you. We did this yesterday going to Phil and Hannah's house for our Occupy brunch, and it was really fun. But having a group depending on you being there also helps the motivation to ride whether you feel like it or not on a particular day. It helps hold each rider's feet to the fire. It can be fun and energizing that way regardless of the weather or the season. We are reminded that the problem isn't rain. The problem is our unquestioning mindset that says, 'rain is a problem'. Cycling is fun in any weather if you have the right gear, and are committed to just doing it. It's rarely as hard as I expect, and the benefits always outweigh the costs. It's nice to remind myself again of that fact.

This is not only for experienced and dedicated riders. It is also a motivation for people to pull their bikes out of the garage and join in on rides, even if they haven't ridden in years. The experienced bikers in the group are happy to offer instruction or advice, and to go at the pace of the slowest rider for added support. A Ride To the Clyde, for example, is also an opportunity to overcome fear or resistance to riding in the dark. The group leaders can again offer advice and support for how best to do that, what basic equipment is needed, and how to get that equipment at the most reasonable prices.

Keep an eye on our website for future rides (coming soon), and join us for a ride. Or start you own Occupy Your Bike group where you live! It's easy and fun.


Tone Deaf To the Body

 I finally got an iPhone last week. My old cell phone was so many generations behind the curve that it had become an item of public curiosity whenever I pulled it out. The truth is, I didn’t pull it out all that often anyway. We don’t have cell phone coverage in my neighborhood on Whidbey Island, so I only use it when I go to the city. And it was, after all, a phone, not a tool with a thousand applications. I still find it amazing, in fact, that we can pull living voices out of thin air, in real time, speaking from any place on the planet to any other place on the planet, from the summit of Mt. Everest to the wilds of New York City. But already, that fact has become old news. I didn’t wait this long to get on the smart phone bandwagon because I’m techno-phobic. I know what these tools are good for, and I use them daily. I’m using them right now to write and share this blog post. There is no doubt that the sharing and spreading of ideas is easier this way. But for the longest time I've gotten a “No” every time I thought about making the shift to a smart phone. The questions that matter most to me when evaluating the merits of new tech gadgets aren’t the usual ones, like, “Will it make me faster and more efficient?”, or, “Does it have really cool applications?” Instead I ask, “Will it improve the actual quality of my life? Will it make me a better and more caring person?”

I have no doubt that I will use my new iPhone to good effect – I already am. But will my life improve as a result? That’s a very different question. As a mindfulness teacher, I know there is much more at stake here than speed and convenience. We humans are on a fast arc from being the toolmakers of our evolutionary past to becoming mere tools of our latest tools, no longer able to imagine our lives without them, and remarkably helpless and disoriented in their absence.

Our computing systems may be doubling in speed every two years, while halving in price, as Moore’s Law predicted. The problem is that our nervous systems are not undergoing a similarly radical expansion in capacity. We are getting way too far out over our skis. Applying still more speed to the problems at hand may not be an intelligent antidote to too much speed already.

It is also difficult to feel grounded when our position on the planet has become psychologically irrelevant and arbitrary. In a time of ecological decline, we need more contact, not less, with the places we physically inhabit. We are living, as one Seattle University student recently put it, “a life of chronic dislocation. Our minds are never in the same place as our bodies.” This is a bigger problem than being merely distracted. Once our minds have abandoned our bodies, we have literally gone “out of our minds”. Not only do we become tone deaf to the body’s needs when the mind is elsewhere, but we become functionally illiterate about our place in the biological fabric of life that actually sustains us. Next time you’re genuinely hungry, try eating the image of that cake you’ve just Googled onto your screen.

I think I’m going to turn off my computer now and go for a walk. I need some fresh air. I want to see that full moon that’s rising out of the fir forest. I need to feel some of that blustery winter wind on my face. And I’ll definitely leave my iPhone behind. Right now, I don’t need it getting between me and the place I love.