More Places Underfoot

In October of 2004 four friends and I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska for a five-day backcountry trek before attending the North American Association for Environmental Education Annual Conference. The five of us were serving as environmental educators in various capacities and we all lived in the desert. So, naturally we anticipated freezing to death and had each spent hundreds of dollars at REI outfitting ourselves for the Alaskan fall weather. Stepping from the plane, we were relieved and surprised by balmy fifty-five degree air! A burly-faced Alaskan explained it was the Pineapple Express—an occasional trade-wind from the Hawaiian Islands that “takes a hard left up the Pacific coast” and blows tropical breezes over the Alaskan archipelago and beyond.

We rented a van in Anchorage after settling in at a comfortable hostel at $25 per night. Leaving behind the confining spaces of our respective workplaces, our female energy, like water, ran free, gurgling here and there. We began a woman’s journey as rich and multilayered as an ancient Tell with its visible present and deeper layers of forgotten pasts. Over five days we melded into a mobile community, sharing deeper aspects of our lives in a natural setting like no other. Along the way other women crossed our path whose life stories fit like colorful pieces in a hologram.

Journal Entry:
Rain makes popping sounds on our water proof gear, spills down slender Aspen trunks, and makes rivulets between tangled roots that crisscross the trail. Our voices like wood winds – a light rolling melody – play in the silent woods. Around us streams and rivers pour forth pewter-gray waters. [Earlier the ranger explained that Alaska’s glaciers are retreating in the global warming of the Earth, the glacial silt freed in heavy liquid flows.]

Our jackets make colorful splashes of orange, aqua, and sky-blue in the misty green of the forest. White-trunked beech with fall’s last yellow leaves still clinging to their branches, drop a soft, yellow carpet on the earth. We are alert to the presence of grizzlies. One impaled a red salmon from the river with a long, sharp claw at the entrance to the trailhead where the ranger reflected that as far as he knew grizzlies had never attacked a group of five or more. Grrreeeaat, we mumbled. Someone makes a joke about entering the food chain. I am not amused. We come upon a steaming pile of grizzly scat. I am looking behind me often.

We search for velvet brown moose passing behind dense trees up ahead and chat excitedly like kids let out of a school house for recess. Far from our desks piled high with projects, notes, and timelines, far from incessant e-mail and the glow of computer screens we begin a new rhythm.

Up from black stones – Alaska’s bones – emanates a deep vibration, slow and strong, retraining our erratic energies. With the gentle wash of a steady light rain, our false identities drain away. We are swept away in the beauty and rawness of the landscape and the wild creatures that still walk its paths and swim its waters in fair abundance.

The following day we leave the Eagle Pass area where we had hiked seven miles in back country to learn that a photographer and his girl friend were attacked and killed by two grizzlies. The incident happened only a few miles from where we had been hiking. This dramatically confirmed for me that nature does not have our plans in mind as she moves in her mysterious ways. The incident stayed with me the whole ten days we were in Alaska and forever imprinted on my mind that wildness is not a fuzzy bear to play with or a player in our imagined destinies. They are simply in their own homes and they are predators.

Alaska Lesson #1…Lesson #2 came that next week when I listened to scientists from Yellowstone National Park describe the role of top predators in the health of ecosystems based on what they were learning from wolf reintroduction in the Park. These are the bookends then of the human struggle to be safe, to protect livelihood while giving space to bears, cougars, and coyotes.

Alaska presses on the chest with its wild power – though diminished, still vital and instructive.



IMG_0188The word dad is said to originate from baby talk, dada, as does mom from mama. What’s more, these words occur across languages and cultures. They must derive from some ancient root that expresses itself in our babyhood as language emerges.

I am not sure when I began to speak, or call my Dad, dada or daddy. I do, however, remember when my own children began to call their dad “dada”. They were both very little and it was about the time they began to try to walk–as they were about to step into the big wide world.

Dads are funny, magical creatures who can sometimes appear as giants and other times as teddy bears.  They smell different than mom. Little girls remember their aftershave and boys remember their sweat.

My dad was gone a lot as a military man. Whenever he was home it was a celebration. He called us four girls and mom his “harem.” I remember how he complained he could never get into the bathroom. Back in the 50s houses had only one. There was always one of us primping in with the door locked. When he did get in he had to wade through our lingerie drying on every hook. His complaints were all in good fun. We all loved him dearly and we preened over him when he would let us. My older sister Bev and I scrambled to be the one to bring him his pipe or a cup of coffee.

All I knew was that dad brought home the bacon. He was the action person. Vacations, graduations, christenings and baptisms, birthdays, and award ceremonies were all made meaningful by his attendance.

Mom perked up when he came home and a feeling of safety pervaded when he was around. With dad there was always enough money and tools or vehicles or machines to do stuff.

He was a very funny person and even in his temperament. It took a lot to knock him off center. When I was in elementary school he would say, “Sure, you can go swimming…but don’t get wet!” When I was twenty he would reflect, “This too shall pass.”

In his latter days on earth, in his 90s, he recited a lot of poetry. One day I recorded him as he sat smoking his pipe by the front windows of his condo. He liked to sit there and watch the “goings on”. Birds, them dern squirrels, and dwellers at Bay Oaks were all under his daily scrutiny.

Here is a short video of Dad reciting a couple of his favorites for me:





I remember distinct stages in my life when time stood still.

The first stage was early childhood living in no measured world except by sunrise and sunset. Hours may have passed while I was deeply engaged in play and exploration, present to the moment only.

During this quietude of mind I was a keen observer of plants, animals, and people and their curious behavior and their lives. I studied my parents, how they spoke to each other and to me and my siblings. I noticed when they spoke to neighbors or strangers—the subtle changes, deference made.

School days ended the quiet world I lived as a young child. I learned about clocks, schedules, thinking about the past and planning for the future. One classroom club I joined was the Busy Bees. I must have signed up for a lifetime membership because the next thirty years I lived the life of a bee in a hive of fellow bees. The continuous hum and bustle of bee life was joy and motivation. There was much to get done and I wanted to learn everything I could about being a bee.

Then something happened that called me away. Deep was that call that drew me to an open field and big sky above. There were sounds: trickling brooks, the cry of a hawk, rustling in the tall grass. The warm sun caressed my hair and skin welcoming me back. Voices spoke within me. I was reminded who I was born to be. I was not a bee, they said. I was bound to be a butterfly.

That was the second period of quietude.

Life sweeps us along in its currents and soon I was bobbing over stones and around isles, racing in torrents and languishing in still pools but always going somewhere without cessation. Then I met an Indian woman who taught me to stop…wait…consider. She had me sew little bags of rose petals by hand and to chant the Rosary. I lit candles, painted golden boxes, stayed quiet in my dark, cool trailer in the roasting desert near Yuma, Arizona. She read from the Upanishads and Sufi teachers, Iroquois saints, and the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Time had no meaning; the sun rose and the sun set but made no egress or exit through the blanket-shrouded windows of her home. I unwound my glistening wings and fluttered a while.

That was the third period of quietude.

Life then became a walk, sure-footed and true. I chose to be here or there. I wrote about my experiences and read about those of my fellow beings, leafy, furry, scaled, feathered, four-legged and two-legged. Quietude came and went in those days but stayed finally when I turned fifty.

This was the fourth period of quietude.

Quietude took residence in me.