The Summer Sky

I wander away from the lights. I look for the darkened air, where the bats are felt but not seen. Wildfire smoke smudges the horizon. I crunch over the grass and the gravel until, finally, I am far from the cabin. I look up. Past the smoke, in the clear zenith, vega hangs emptily, spaciously, blue-and-white, on the shoulders of cygnus, the swan. There is bootes and corona borealis. Then there is hercules and ursa major, cassiopeia and aquila. These are the marks of summer.

The wind blows through my flannel shirt. Something screeches–a great-horned owl, perched in a Douglas fir, high up there, on the edge of things. I stare through the gray fields ahead of me. I can sense the openness. It’s like standing in front of the ocean. You can feel it, the movement of air and the bending of grass. You feel that you should speak to it; ask for its forgiveness and its advice. You feel that your ancestors once crept through tall grass and followed the stars like seafarers. Coyotes sing, somewhere out there. A flash of lightning illuminates half the sky. It is silver, and cold, and it makes no sound. Is this why the coyotes are singing? The wind blows faster. Clouds sail in thin tufts across the zenith. I spin around and say good-night to them all, the summer constellations, before they are gone, before I am gone, before I turn the light on again.

My Plastic Free July Journey

This month I decided to participate in Plastic Free July, a worldwide initiative to encourage the reduction of everyday plastic usage.

Aside from being made from fossil-fuels, plastic takes millennia to biodegrade, polluting our rivers and oceans–and their animal inhabitants–in the meantime. Many plastic products are designed to only be used once, which makes their long life-span even more ridiculous. Plastic also wastes our money; though its particles last basically forever, plastic is designed to lose its usefulness quickly. Plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic razers, and plastic food containers soon become crumpled and ripped, and can also leach toxins into your home. They’re not designed for longevity; they’re designed to keep you coming back for more.

Thankfully, there are many re-usable, durable replacements for throw-away plastic (and paper!) items:

🐳 Swap cloth towels and napkins for paper.

🐳 Use a glass or stainless steel water bottle.

🐳 Pack your lunch in glass, cloth, or stainless steel containers.

🐳 Bring your own cloth bags to the grocery store (including produce bags!).

🐳 Buy loose produce instead of the pre-chopped packaged kind (this will save you money, too). A great place for this is your local farmers market.

🐳 Get what you can from bulk bins and fill your own jars/cloth bags with nuts, seeds, beans, dried fruit, grains, etc.

🐳 Stop using a straw, or keep a re-usable one in your bag.

🐳 Likewise, keep a wooden or metal fork/spoon/knife kit in your bag for restaurants with plastic silverware.

These things were easy and money-saving, and I had already been doing most of them. That being said, there were still some areas where I struggled:

🐳 Ziploc bags while traveling:

What should I put my toiletries in? I use sweet almond oil as a body moisturizer and it always leaks, so I’d be afraid to pack it in a reusable bag in case it were to bleed through and stain my clothes. And I use a new one each time because re-using an oily Ziploc is pretty messy. Also, I still put my shoes and dirty clothes in plastic bags because, again, I don’t want my clothes to get dirty.

🐳 Shampoo, conditioner, leave-in conditioner, detergents, etc.:

I’ve yet to find a good homemade haircare recipe so I’m still buying natural, albeit plastic-entombed, hair stuff. Same goes for dish and laundry detergent, and other random beauty products like witch hazel or aloe vera.

🐳 Plastic bags for meat:

Sometimes the butcher doesn’t have the cut I want and I need to buy some pre-packaged (or frozen) chicken thighs or ground beef. Meats can be sticky and prone to leakage, so, unfortunately, I put them in horrible thin plastic produce bags.

🐳 Snacks:

Sometimes I want store-bought kale chips, or just one slice of gluten-free dairy-free cake, or some other snack wrapped in plastic, and it’s easier to buy things like this than to make them from scratch.

It’s okay to not be perfect; a snack now and again or a few Ziplock bags a year for traveling won’t do too much damage in the long run.

Plastic Free July has been a good exercise in mindfulness. I’m way more aware now of what I’m doing right and what needs improvement. I’ve decided I’m going to turn Plastic Free July into a Plastic Free Journey, and continue to reduce my plastic usage long after this month had ended.

River

We walk in the time before sunset. “River,” we ask. “River,” we call. The air smells of sagebrush, that fresh after-rain perfume. We don’t see the rain but the wind speaks of it– the warmth it holds, the velvet-soil fragrance, the red paintbrush and wild peas. “River,” we sing above the wind-flow and the slow-moving clouds. Look, river stones, smoothly tumbled, the same red-pink and green-blue of the horizon. The water runs fast. It is the color of dandelion pith. If we stand still enough we begin to drift. The river untangles into a placid stream, slowing, slowing, until it is the stillest place on Earth. It is us–we are moving, faster than the curve of the Earth, faster than the sky. “River,” we say, but he can’t hear us anymore.

20170409_072207

Concrete Fields 

Every time I return to the town where I grew up, another field has died.

I think, “They can’t build anymore houses. There isn’t any room.”

And then they find room. The grassy lot, once rich with goldenrod and dandelions. The meadow, once overrun with blackberries but open, muddy in the rain, perched over by finches with their talons between thorns. The old field, where the deer bent their heads at dusk.

They call these places unused. Vacant. Potential real estate. They build clone houses with beige plastic siding and windows that look straight into the neighbor’s bedroom. 

Why do we need more houses? Who would want to live here when the open spaces are gone?

Take A Stone From The Desert

 

Take a stone from the desert. Carry it home with you; keep it safe in the inner pouch of your backpack. Unwrap it carefully. Feel how it has cooled. Turn it over in your hands. Feel the softness of your fingers, exfoliated by wind and stone, and how the rock, too, is smoother than you remember. Flip the lights on so you can see, without a doubt, how the colors have changed. What was once red is now brown-maroon. What was once tea-green is now gray. This is not the same rock you pulled from that ledge of sandstone, but a memory of it.

 

We go to the desert to renew ourselves. This is a land of sky and distance, incredibly ancient but wearing away before our eyes. We are tangled in the elements. Night rushes in. Sweat turns to chills. When the sun rises you are bundled in fleece, but, just as your hands thaw, the day suddenly blooms into warmth, and the sweat returns.

 

Look, there, the ravens circle wordlessly. By the river, Canadian geese honk their morning songs. Wild turkeys roam the sagebrush, laughing. Any sound here is startling and abrupt. When the birds are not calling, it is completely silent. If you stand for a moment, and hold your breath, you hear the buzzing of stillness, the buzzing, perhaps, of time, that very strange quiet that we do not hear in the city.

 

We often think of the desert as a place for escape. All wilderness is seen this way; as a refuge from the evils of society. Perhaps we need not to escape those evils, but to face them. Perhaps the desert should be the place we go to breathe, to listen; to lay with our backs curved against sandstone, to watch the stars turn, and wander carefully through the bleached moonlit landscape, its shapes contorted, its shadows moving like clouds. It is in these moments that the best thoughts form. There is no better place to see the relationship between us and time. Our smallness is evident, here, but it is a magnificent smallness. How beautiful it is to see that there is more than us, more than our mistakes and our self-imposed distance from the non-human world. And once we have seen this, we can return to the city and apply what we have learned.

 

We need to see ourselves in the context of the larger world in order to understand who we are and how we want things to change. This is why, in the dry desert air, things start to make more sense. Out here, we learn to rejoice in the things we have no control over. We learn to love harsh extremes and to find solace in our connection to vastness.  We form new ideas in the openness and carry them with us, like desert stones, changed by landscape. Each stone is a different color when we arrive to our city homes, inseparable from its surroundings. We hold the rocks themselves and the memory of their brightness, and both help us understand what needs to be done.

From Rain to Red Rock

Making the transition from the rain forests of Oregon to the second driest state in the country has been quite the adventure. Utah is beautiful in a completely different way from the Pacific Northwest. There are the red deserts with ravens high above them; the aspen forests that flutter like wings; the long chains of mountains that catch the sun on their faces. Everywhere you look, in Salt Lake City, there are mountains, much gentler than the great peak of Mt. Hood, but still magnificent. I am still getting to know them, but that will come with time. I’m almost halfway through my two-year Environmental Humanities graduate program (hence the lack of blog posts the past few months!); another year to go, and another year to get to know this beautiful landscape!

All the Waters I Have Seen – Lake Superior

“Does it have a tide?” I asked.
“A very slight one.”

“Are there ever any actual waves?”
“When you get out far enough.”

“Do people swim in it?”
“Sometimes. Usually it’s too cold.”

“It doesn’t smell like the ocean,” I said, but they were skipping stones and had stopped listening.  Too many questions, I guessed, but that was okay, because as they threw their stones in long gallops I gazed and gazed, entranced by the runny soup broth texture of the water.

“See—you can’t even see the other side,” my friend said as she whipped a stone across the surface. “And no wind. Every time I go to the Oregon coast I come back looking like a drowned rat or something.”

Lake Superior was technically a freshwater sea, an inland sea, the relic of glaciers, so I’d expected it to be comparable to the ocean. There was nothing I could place that wasn’t oceanic; it was enormous, and the water hushed and breathed. There was nothing about Superior that dwindled its sea-ness, except for the smell and something that was missing, something more than salt. I expected this to change, and I stared and I stared, but the longer I looked, the less like the ocean it became.

“It’s really not much like the coast at all,” I told my friend, and I threw a stone into the water.

All the Waters I Have Seen – The Colorado River

 

If I was upset when I was younger I would run to the trees. I would stare up at them and hope that they might know me. I would stare intensely, my whole neck tilted back, and I’d hold my body still so that when the wind came through I would feel like a mountain overlooking the sea, the clouds and the water and the tilt of the earth spinning around me, like I was the one steady thing in this world.

Far from my sea of ferns and cedars I found a greater steadiness. The desert is a place of slowed time. Ancientness is everywhere. As we perceive it, the ruins and petroglyphs speak of eternity; they are time capsules; they are symbols of both immortality and fragility.

All around are ancient seabeds, arroyos and washes, eroded cliffsides half-digested by rain. A millennia of changes, visible before my eyes, and yet from my place, from my senses and from all the shortened count of human time, this land has lived forever.

As I follow the cairns between sagebrush I am completely alone. At last the trail is empty. I stop, just briefly, and hold my breath. Nothing. Nothing at all. No wind, no tussle of blackbrush, no cries of ravens. No hiking boots, no hot breathing. For this moment I am underwater. I am in space.

I find water. The sun softens. I want to jump in and swim against the river currents, but I don’t, because it is too close to sunset, and I don’t want wet hair when the night grows cold. Instead I stare at the plumes of white and I try to imagine what the water might feel like as it tosses and pulls its way through faded colors—gray, blue, and sandy red—past the Grand Canyon, past cow pastures, past ancient time to some desert basin. This, the Colorado River, will not reach the sea as it once did. It is a dying river. For some reason this is what breaks my illusion, the spell of a desert afternoon; this is what sets the world in motion again. Maybe I am moving just the same as any of them, and there is no such thing as steadiness.

All the Waters I Have Seen – The Jordan River

20161002_115524

The Jordan River in Salt Lake City

I cannot reach you on foot; I cannot run to you on sunny days, or sit quietly on your banks. I will never know you well, but I doubt anyone does. I’ve heard little about you. It seems that you’re not charismatic enough—nothing like the Colorado River, or the Green River. You aren’t large or fast or striking in color. You are the equivalent of an old dog who sleeps all day. Sweet, placid—easy to ignore. But you are also an oasis in a nearly waterless land, and I don’t think you’re cherished enough for it. Maybe this is because you reside on the west side of town, the poorer side, the place of industrial plumes and coal trains. Here, there are signs in Spanish and homeless people on sidewalks. Here, the buildings are blocky and ugly, utilitarian, made to store commodities and to please no one. Maybe I’m harsh to judge, but I think you’re the most beautiful thing in this part of town. And you and this whole area could be valued if you were only noticed. Maybe someday they’ll see what an asset you are, and they will sit on your shores and gaze lovingly at your slow, green water. Until then, I will be the one who notices, all the way from the other side of town.