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Wildlands Winter

The following post is one I wrote last year after skiing with friends to a special place in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I published it on another blog that I share, called Writing the Wild. Today, many of the same friends and I skied to the same special place–it is becoming a yearly tradition. After a year I am more in love with public lands than ever.

“What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself” Mollie Beattie, Director Fish and Wildlife Service 1993-1996

img_6203The words of Aldo Leopold come to mind more often these days, particularly his thoughts on some who cannot live without wild things. That someone is me. Wildness and wild things are the spiral that I have climbed from my earliest years. My Michigan childhood was spent wandering fields and orchards, climbing trees, later walking in awe in the old growth white pine cathedral called Hartwick. Then I discovered the mountains of the West and vowed to someday live in that wild sanctuary.

It took time, but I landed in Gardiner, Montana. Less than a thousand of us are fortunate to call Gardiner home. Here, when it snows, people cheer. When it snows, people shopping in the Gardiner Market have a special spring to their step and a glint in their eye. Where the person at the check-out knows your name (and you know his) and asks you how the skiing was today.

Gardiner is a town where we can mention that we want to ski and 17 people show up to break trail to a forest service campground where we build a fire and grin as we pass around home-made brownies and cookies. These friends love to ski and to share good times. But, they also gather around anyone who is floundering, as some did in the deep soft snow last Sunday.

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Clouds hung low, covering the mountain peaks as we hopped out of the cars and into our skis. The air warmed and the clouds thinned as we slid slowly across the landscape, rusty willows in the low valley to our right, tall spruce and lodgepole in the hills to our left. The wind abated and we stripped layers as we warmed. Snow and wind had obliterated the tracks we had put in a few weeks earlier. The front skiers broke trail, sometimes sinking in beyond their knees, sometimes cruising across the surface. The rear guard had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and look for tracks. As the day wore on, fresh squirrel and weasel (ermine) tracks became more plentiful.

We made our way to site 5 in the campground where we found our stash of wood and a surprised weasel bouncing away into the trees. Jane built a fire. Diane threw a toy for her black lab, Stitch. JoJo fried hotdogs in the frying pan she had carried in her pack. The rest of us passed out brownies and cookies and laughed as we sunk to our hips in snow around the picnic table.

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This is the essence of Gardiner: People who love public lands for whatever reason: hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, skiing. These activities feed our collective soul. We gather most often in the outdoors on our national forest or park lands, where we find space to move, distant views, and adventures around every turn.

And, this is the essence of ‘We the People’, of our nation. We need public lands. We need them not just for recreation, nor even for spiritual renewal. We need them for the grizzly bear; we need public lands for the wolf, for the elk, for the weasel. We need public lands for the lodgepole and for the lupine. More than money, public lands are the bottom line of our very existence. We are as much nature as the ermine that bounds across the snow, black-tipped tail a flag waved high.

My life is entwined with public lands: National Parks, National Forests, BLM land… early infatuation has evolved into a life-long love affair. As relationships cannot be taken for granted, neither can we assume, in this political climate, that our lands will always be here. I find myself slowly, tentatively, moving into action as I watch Congressional bills, remember their numbers and make calls to my Representatives and Senators. It is not much, but it’s a beginning.

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“For far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes. . . .          When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don’t, others will abandon us.”                         Terry Tempest Williams

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About Awe

A few months ago, I wrote the following piece for another blog, Writing the Wild, that I share with other women. I publish it here for those who may not follow Writing the Wild.

img_3021“Riding over Marston Pass, the view was so huge, so empty yet full, that it was unsettling. My eyes travelled outward—as far as I could see were jagged peaks, rounded mountains, flat-topped buttes and wide valleys below.”      Julianne Baker

Awe:
1 a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.

2 an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like

3 an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime

4 a feeling of great respect, usually mixed with fear or surprise

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From Merriam-Webster to the Oxford English Dictionary, to Dictionary.com, official definitions of the word awe include the word fear or dread. But in this present day, is awe always combined with fear?

Recently I ran across an article on the feeling of awe. (Link) I shared it with friends, which sparked thoughtful discussions. As we wrote, talked, and thought about what awe means to us, my mind’s eye returned to the view over Marston Pass. I remembered feeling small, but not afraid. I remembered feeling unimportant, humbled by the beauty and vastness of what I was seeing, of where I was. I did not use the word ‘awe’ in my description, but that is was I felt. I like that feeling of unimportance. It grounds me in my human-ness. Awe brings me out of my inner mind where thoughts can be larger than life. Awe sets me right down in the here and now.

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What is awe? What is that feeling of awe, and what does it do for us? More importantly, what makes each of us feel awe? And what emotions do we associate with it? Fear? Anxiety? Gratitude? Inspiration?

On Facebook we questioned : “Do you find your awe connected to fear? I’d say most of the time I do not. However, I think some people like the awe and fear cocktail… Because it produces adrenalin. “

Another reported: For me, awe can be either fear or the closest I come to believing in a god. The difference between coming face to face with a chest-beating Lowland Gorilla in West Africa, or watching a 16 year-old champion gymnast, or seeing the sunrise on Torres del Paine.”

Another:” the natural world does it for me every time, no question. A great painting doesn’t, but I wonder if that’s because I’m not a painter. I’m impressed, but not necessarily gaga.”

Which led us to differ between art and nature: “…amazed at and humbled by another’s abilities vs. completely awestruck by light in Antelope Canyon or a sheer rockface thousands of feet tall. “

Each person who commented referenced a passion. Another friend recently wrote about flying—he was a pilot: One thing this type of awe shares with nature is the humbling aspect. I was humbled by the capability of the jets I flew. I stand in awe of the perfection of evolution, this type of awe I guess I would put in the category of wonder”. 

Most of us described awe as emanating from their heart or center, radiating outward. Some described it as happening when something unexpected was experienced, as simple as a feather next to the trail.

I’ve begun to think that awe is a very personal thing and can be cultivated. In fact, it should be cultivated. For me, the natural world inspires awe. For me, awe is a feeling of being humbled by the natural beauty around me. Awe connects me to myself and to my surroundings. Awe makes me grateful to be alive. My awe seems to be a combination of wonder, humility, amazement, unimportance, connection and gratitude.

Awesustains me. It is life at its most intense. Many of my strongest memories have at least a tinge of awe:

The view of Electric Peak, covered in new snow after a September storm.

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The view from the top of the Grand Teton on a sunny August afternoon, and the view looking back up at the Grand after descending from the summit.

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Watching a cinnamon colored black bear nip the tops of yellow flowers, close enough that I could see his incisors through my binoculars.

Having lunch on the shore of Turbid Lake in the backcountry, then looking up to see two wolves come down to the opposite shore.

Hearing wolf howls at midnight while backpacking on the Mirror Plateau.

Seeing a grizzly bear searching for moths on the rocky slope of Younts Peak.

Watching a cow elk urge her newborn calf to its feet in Hayden Valley.

Finding and holding an obsidian point which fit perfectly in the palm of my hand, as a golden eagle flew overhead.

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Watching the beauty of a rainbow over Lamar Valley after a summer rainstorm.

Standing thigh deep in Slough Creek, concentrating on laying the fly just right on the water, then looking up to see a bald eagle fly at eye level, a bison lying on the bank of the stream 20 yards away, and 5 mergansers swim around the corner.

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The first time I felt awe, that I can remember, was my first view of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I was young then, and was unimpressed by the familiar landscapes of my childhood in the Midwest. The jagged snowy peaks, the fresh cool air, the night stars that seemed to be only an arm’s length away, the red and yellows and blues of meadow flowers—these were new. These made me open my mouth in wonder. I have continued to seek out that sense of wonder, that feeling of humility. These days, more and more experiences evoke awe. Perhaps it is a function of having more knowledge. Or maybe the awareness of how little I know and how ephemeral this life is. In the end, it does not matter. All that matters is that I search out experiences that continue to inspire me to feel awe.

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“Awe sneaks up on us like love. We surrender to the ecstatic outpouring of life before us.”                                            Terry Tempest Williams

What makes you feel awe? What other emotions are connected to awe for you? I would love to read your thoughts! Please leave your comments below. Thank you.

Utah Meanderings, March 2014

Ancient art, high on rock walls                                                                                                                                                                             Bears witness to those who’ve come before.                                                                                                                                                   Who were they, those long-ago people?                                                                                                                                              Our footsteps echo their trails.

Down a long dirt road, red dust coating the interior and exterior of my truck, Teresa and I rattled our way to the Horseshoe Canyon TH. We hiked down into the Canyon, the sign said an 850′ drop (which we’d have to climb on the way out). The day was beautiful–warm, sunny, not too much wind. We wandered along the dry river bed, looking at first buds on cottonwood trees, early flowers, and red canyon walls. Our goal was the Great Gallery, though there are three other galleries along the way, all beautiful. 

Archaic people created the Great Gallery pictographs,called Archaic Barrier Canyon Style. These pictographs have been aged to be up to 6-8,000 years old–the oldest ones, anyway. One of the pictographs is identical to a figurine found in a 6,000 year old layer. IT is possible these were considered sacred sites to late people–those who came 3,000 years later. The climate was changing from cooler and moist to dry and warm, so perhaps that has something to do with the purpose of the pictographs. One of the figures looks like a bison–one of the extinct bison? 

 Later, Fremont people created some of the other pictographs. These are more recent, some are less detailed. 

I wish I’d carried my binoculars in order to see the pictographs more closely, but the Park Service had thoughtfully placed ammo cans at the Great Gallery, one of which held serviceable binos. I also wish I’d taken my ‘real’ camera–I just got an Iphone 5S, and have been experimenting with using the camera for photos. While it takes amazingly great photos, I’d have liked a closer zoom and the ability to use a few more features of a camera. We were fortunate to meed a Park Volunteer who told us about what we were seeing. When I got home, as I was deleting old downloads, I found a pdf file on Horseshoe Canyon–one that the volunteer had recommended! Huh, don’t know when I downloaded it, but it’s very cool. Good info. 

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“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

So true.