Before you begin Dear Reader, a warning. This is a long article, the longest I’ve ever done for Medium. For that I apologize in advance. If you don’t make it through the whole thing, no prob. However if I accomplished anything you will be moved to go sit under a tree for a day. That has a way of changing perspectives.
The traffic snaked in a long conga line, the inevitable 7:30 crush that C-470 was supposed to relieve. It’s the same thing with populations. If you feed folks who are in famine, the population expands, and you end up with more famine. It’s how we got to nearly eight billion. Expand the highways, and in no time more traffic will clog the roads. No judgment intended. It’s just what populations do. Nature abhors a vacuum, but she also cleans house every so often.
The clogged arterial was one reason that I hung a right off the southbound road to head into the Colorado high country via 285 towards Fairplay. It was a Monday morning. I had no idea where I was going, nor where I might stop. All I knew was that the aspens, stressed out by drought, were already starting to turn, three weeks early. I’ve so rarely been able to head to the high country in autumn. Never at the first turning.
As those who sell travel like to tell you- because for the most part it is true- within an hour after leaving the confines of the city, stress rolled off my shoulders like raindrops. The skies, recently muddied by California forest fire smoke, were that cerulean blue that we Coloradans love to brag about. Light breezes whispered in the pines and spruce as I wound my way past horse stables and small towns bursting at the seams with newcomers. Eventually I made it past the feeder communities that once marked the spot where no one his right mind — twenty years ago — would have lived and still driven to Denver for work. Not today. You can hardly buy a miner’s shack in Colorado these days.
Word had come in that Kenosha Pass, some 65 miles south of Denver and the first major pass you head over en route to Fairplay, had early aspens turning. That would be my destination, I decided. The last time I’d come up here was autumn of 2017. A Wednesday morning, high leaf-peeping time. At 7:30 am the parking lot was jammed, and nearly 150 cars and horse trailers crammed the area. Especially on the highway, right under the No Parking signs. Grand Central Station. I held my breath. Not what I needed today.
When I rolled into the parking lot there was just one empty car. The occupants never did show up. The toilets were closed, which meant that people had made full use of the area behind the toilets to do their business. We in Colorado are increasingly incensed that folks don’t have the courtesy to bag their poop or at the very least clean up their toilet paper, which makes for a right awful mess. And, frankly, a smell. The same could be said for the immediate woods past the parking lot. We aren’t the only ones with this problem. When we say tourists are full of shit we’re not making this up. We step in it all the time. People clean up after their dogs, but somehow, the same doesn’t go for their own piles. Sigh. At least a crisp walk away from that immediate area was rewarding.
The early morning breezes, which caused me to curse myself for not grabbing a down jacket, slapped me full in the face when I opened my car door. Then I remembered: I’ve lived here my entire adult life. Not only did I have a down jacket, but also rain pants, extra boots, four pairs of gloves, hats, and enough food supplies to live in my car under an avalanche for a month. I’ll die of boredom (or the smell) sooner than of the cold. Gratefully I slipped on the rain pants, the down jacket and gloves, and began my walk.
The first thing I hit was the Frostian fork in the road. To the right, a little-used path. To the left, far more well-worn. I headed right. This wasn’t mean to be a training hike. I do plenty of that at home as I prepare to climb Mt. Kenya this November. This was just to see.
Nature teaches us to be a Noticer. At least She does if you let Her. I’ve been on some pretty gorgeous trails in Peru while gaggles of people marched by me at warp speed, arguing about the kid’s SAT scores, missing orchids and ruins and the kinds of vistas that make you cry just for the right to see such a thing. Here at Kenosha, the early morning had laid dewdrops on every single leaf. As the sun angled through the branches, the drops glittered like a casting of diamonds. Early aspen leaves that had already shattered lay damp and gorgeous on the ground. It looked like Davy Jones’ locker- gold everywhere, kissed with crystals.
Here and there ground cover had begun to blush the reds of fall. Brilliant red berries peeped from under lovely, low, oval-shaped plants, looking for all the world like early Christmas decorations. Indeed, one small pine had been decorated with fallen leaves and looked for all the world like someone had placed them there on purpose. Well, yes. She had.
I slowed to a crawl, focusing on the ground. Fungus, mushrooms, the last of the slightly purple daisy-like flowers well past their prime. Depending on your state of mind, Nature can teach you to notice without needing to name it. Naming a thing, knowing the Latin, is relatively meaningless to the emotional experience of breathing in 60-degree air and taking in the dense riches of the forest floor. Naming a plant or a species conveys the conceit of having control over it. Not on your life. Truth is we have control over nothing, with the exception of how we choose to see. How we frame our experiences.
Speaking of Which…
This had been, by some accounts, a right shit year. A very bad shoulder surgery had stunted my adventure travel and kept me both home and out of the gym for months. I’d lost a lot of power and strength. That’s not a big deal at 25, but it is a big deal at 65, where I am now. The stresses of constant pain, a bad concussion, twenty migraines a month and some particularly evil meds had caused me to veer so far off course that I lost my temper at a kid who almost killed me on the road. I got arrested, which I find funny now, but it sure wasn’t at the time. I could go on. Depending on what side of the ledger you want to list the stuff that has happened, you can cant it to sound like the world is falling apart. That’s how we choose to see. Or I could note that I had scored excellent work with an international training company, that work had made me very popular with one of the clients, I have a trip to Africa coming up, and finally I was back at the gym doing shoulder work. I possess the gift of time to wander these woods on a Monday. That’s how I choose to see.
To get there, what works best for me is to head out where absolutely nothing matters but the sweet sweep of early autumn breezes in the high trees, and immerse yourself in the one place where we were meant to heal: Mama Nature.
Lots of folks pray for help. Nature IS help.
Out here nobody cares about your credit card debt. Nothing cares about your busted relationships. Nothing cares about how much you weigh or the strength you lost or how old you are or how heavily-weighted the pity party side of the ledger may be. There is no wi-fi, no phone signal, no anger algorithm on Facebook to fire you up and make you feel hopeless.
There is just the forest. My definition of heaven. This is how I grew up.
Aspens are one massive organism, not a bunch of individual trees (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pando_(tree). Here they grow in profusion, wound together beneath the surface, fed and supported. I can attest to this. I have a grove of them in my front yard, and every year their kids pop up where I’d prefer they didn’t. By the same token, every few years an old one dies, and around its roots, the dying tree feeds the young which spring up eagerly to continue their march across the grass. There are few things so lovely as an aspen grove in the fall. The sounds of shattering leaves, being covered with a light blanket of gold as you lie on the ground and watch the sun arc overhead. I am in the middle of an enormous family.
I passed tree after tree that had sustained stupendous damage at the base. Even one which had toppled over, almost completely torn apart. Its crown lay in the arms of a nearby pine. It was full of bright green leaves. Dead? Hardly.
A ways up the road, I spotted what looked like a rock outcropping. It turned out to be a group of felled trees. To my untrained eye it looked as though a microburst had down several all together, their root balls angled perpendicular to the ground. One huge pine continued to grow and seed. Downed aspens dead at the top sprouted new growth at the base, three feet off the ground.
Life finds a way.
It’s hard not to be in Nature and not find analogies for life. The damaged trees, for example. So many of us want to pass through life untouched by pain, unburdened by woes, undamaged by life’s vicissitudes. People pray for such things. An easy life. Please God gimme a break. Here up in Kenosha I didn’t see a single perfect tree, or at least perfectly symmetrical and unblemished (and let’s include those with knife slashes and initials from long-dead relationships, which is a huge insult to the tree. If you doubt me please read https://homeguides.sfgate.com/cutting-through-bark-tree-kill-tree-81498.html). Each tree bore the scars of surviving life at high altitude: the intense snows, temperature changes, the winds, the storms. This is the life-conformable price of existence: to be in this world is to be scarred in some way. In this grove where untold numbers of these aspens held hands just below the surface, shared secrets and nitrogen and water and nutrients, they bore each other up and allowed others to die when it was time. Some trees even share nutrients across species as they are dying, helping to grow others’ young in the perfect definition of community.
We could learn a lot from this.
Trees twisted all out of proportion by storms and snow runoff had denied their fates, planted dense, thick roots and shot skyward. I’m lucky to know a few people like this. These trunks made perfect benches from which to observe the chittering, scolding squirrels whose indignant insults marked me as an intruder.
Yet I’m not. I was taking a soul shower.
Naked in the face of my nothingness, and standing on my Mother who will call me back at some point, I am vastly more at ease here than in any city or town made by man. I grew up in similar woods which featured long-needled pines, blackberry brambles, branches to climb upon and the sounds of species of birds that either no longer exist or have faded from memory. Woodpeckers and whippoorwills and the evening song of my long ago youth are gone forever. So I heal here, and in similar forests around the world.
An online friend on Medium.com recently admonished me to read Ishmael, a book that has long been part of my library but had as yet gone unread. I brought it up to Kenosha with me. As I lay in the early afternoon sun with the treetops swaying over my head, I read what I already knew. As a species we are subject to the same laws as any other. If a species runs out of food, then Nature has a way of reducing the population through famine. Unique to us (as humans, that is) we send supplies. That of course, as I mentioned in the beginning, means that the starving population flourishes, and breeds uncontrollably. There is more famine, we send more food, rinse, repeat. At the time of the book’s writing, the Earth’s population stood at five billion. We are now approaching eight. The cost of this is beyond comprehension. Ask anyone, me included, what it’s like to see vast areas of pristine forest upended and burnt for crops, which will feed more people, who will breed more people, who will need more food. Rinse and repeat. It’s a natural law.
The more we increase food production, the more we guarantee, without fail, population explosion. That means shredding more trees, which are the earth’s lungs and much more than that, ensuring that the seas will not only be vastly more polluted but virtually fished out, and a great deal more that is quite difficult to comprehend at this point. Those of us old enough to grow up on farms which had woods- a pipe dream for almost all of us now- have seen this happening for a long time. Perhaps couldn’t put a name to it but we’ve seen it. Nature rids itself of those who take too much.
It’s called extinction.
The Inevitability of Greed
No matter what you and I may feel as individuals about this (and I’m not going to be dragged into a religious argument about the sanctity of life, with which I most vehemently disagree, or about man’s being the Crown of Creation, with which I disagree even more vehemently) we are going extinct. Because our hunger for stuff, for industry, for products will continue to feed us as a species, those who don’t have, want, and then they want more. That ever-expanding loop all but guarantees that at some point, there will simply be nothing left.
For example: the constant steady burning of the precious Amazon rain forest (for crops, for money, for greed, for oil drilling, for the purpose of ridding the rain forest of those annoying indigenous Indians), to the constant steady burning of precious Indonesian rain forests — so that world can have Fritos, thank you — to the stunning drought in Africa, which affects millions, including the once-rich Cape Town area. Cape Town was known for its wine (and now for the whine of dead, dry wind blowing through horror-story branches that belong to the Pumpkin King) but now it’s ground zero for huge cities running out of water in the world (https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/11/17346276/day-zero-cape-town-south-africa-water-shortage-reservoirs-dams-climate-change).
As we burn the trees for feeding the famines, we burn ourselves to death. The more people, the more demands, the more demands that are met, the more people. For an object natural lesson in how this works, let me take you to the Kalahari where I traveled with a guide in 2000. Botswana had enjoyed a bountiful rainfall. The results were obvious- mud and pools of water everywhere. More strikingly, the grasses of the plains were thick and high. This did two things: it gave the gazelles and all the other herd animals plenty to eat, so they prospered and multiplied (as did all life there). The grasses were high enough and thick enough for prides of lions to ghost themselves into the vast waving seas of golden strands, where they fed easily on the plentiful meat supply. Until of course, the grasses were grazed down, the rains failed again, and everyone starved. Famine. It’s a rule of nature. It has to be. Otherwise there is no Nature. I saw it at work. It does work. And it will work for us, too.
Nature Nurtures Diversity
Where there is no habitat, there are no animals. Birds and insects don’t thrive in fake cultivated forests for man’s paper supplies, nor do they survive in Murderer-Monsanto massive mono-crop systems. Witness the death of nature’s professional pollinator: the honey bee( http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-08/colony-collapse-ten-years-after-crisis-what-is-happening-to-bees/8507408). These are not diverse systems, and Nature by her perfect design is diverse. Wildly, passionately so. What man in his single-minded intent on world domination and mastery of Nature creates doesn’t support a diversity of life. Besides, Monsanto is too busy poisoning us along with the creatures who share our planet. Ultimately the top executives at Dow and Monsanto and Philip Morris and all the other killer corporations who have profited off plunder will discover that there is not a single isolated island hamlet where their billion-dollar mansions will be safe from red tide, dead fish, polluted skies and people who want their home back. It’s going to be damned hard to hide when the world’s population has doubled again. Because eventually it will. Unless we either change the course we’re on, or Mama Nature decides to do what she does best: take care of business with a species that has overstepped its bounds.
I am not smart enough to offer answers. Only observations, borne of a passion for the land, the earth, its waters and skies and forests and oceans, and all the magnificent creatures I’ve had the honor to either see- or in very special circumstances, both touch and massage. Only 4% of the worlds elephants are left. Greed. Barely 30,000 rhinos are left and each day a few are killed off by poachers who have paid off members of the legal system in South Africa. Greed. Only a handful of tigers. Greed. We can say the same about starving the orcas, wiping out our salmon populations (because clear cutting the forests and opening up new mines are just ever SO much more important, of course they are, so that we can leave deadly tailings in the runoffs, which gets into the streams, and poisons fish, elk, deer, bears and people. Of course, people. But what a minor detail). GREED.
Mother Nature isn’t greedy. She provides the environment. Everything flourishes. When something gets out of balance, something has to pay a price. Or someone.
I Don’t Think So
Religious dogma would have us believe, in its heartbreaking arrogance, that Man is the crown of all Creation. That everything was made for Man. I might add this qualifier: to destroy, shit upon, damage, rape,pillage, wipe out and otherwise mismanage the exquisite and lovely ball he lives on. Not all of us. But enough of us so that to try to stem the tide at this point is going to be one heck of a comeback story.
Good luck with that. I really want to believe it’s possible but a country that could elect Donald Trump and his merry band of religious abundance cultists at this point in the world’s challenges is not positive news. In case you missed this gem, Joel Osteen (a self-centered materialistic asshole if there ever was one) is among the loudest and proudest of this gospel: God blesses you with material wealth. The way you measure your goodness in your goodies- even if it is at the expense of millions or billions of others and the entire world at large. You’re going to heaven in a gold Beamer. In case you’re curious, I offer you the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS7pnPlQLcY) I am a fan of Reza Aslan for good reason. Lots of folks hate and are terrified of him. For good reason. He’s a national treasure.
The American God of Gods
There is only one true man-made god here on earth. Industry. Commerce. Money. The tree that branches out like a hydra in all directions, consuming everything at a mind-breaking cost to us all. The voices of heartfelt conservationists are drowned out in the tsunami wave of I want my Beamer. I want my designer t-shirt that takes umpteen gallons of water to make. I want my $100 sushi that wipes out the entire tuna population. I want. I want. I want.
If I recall my Bible correctly, please tell me if I’m wrong here, but Christ said that man couldn’t serve both God and Money. Hey. Tell me if I’m wrong. Just saying. Something or some Creative Force or just exquisite good fortune gave us heaven (this magnificent marble of ours). In far too many cases, we worship money. Hasn’t worked out too well for the world so far. Look at all those happy places where dictators got rich off the backs of their country’s resources and the poor.
Kinda like what’s happening here.
No population- certainly that I’ve been able to research- that eschews industry suffers from drug abuse, opioid abuse, massive suicide statistics and all the inherent woes of so-called “modern man.” Those who lived in humility and respect with Mama Nature flourished, and when they became too many, they experienced famine. Not extinction, culling. Mama knows how to cull. She kills. Because she has to. She prefers balance. Of course I am making broad statements here. I’m no historian, nor am I an anthropologist. However I am no longer an apologist for human treatment of what’s left of our natural world, and shrinking fast.
That’s MY Mountain
In an early scene of one of my favorite movies, Seabiscuit, actor Chris Cooper plays Tom Smith, who later became Seabiscuit’s trainer. After running a horse herd for a while on then-still-open plains of the West, he rides up to a barbed wire fence. He ponders this for a while, then spots a truck sending up a dust cloud as it heads down a nearby road. The encroachment of civilization. The beginning of the end. Cooper himself was raised on a cattle farm in Kansas, so he understands the land and its loss. The expression on his face in that movie spoke directly to my soul, and still does.
If you’re wondering whether I’ve ever lived utterly without, I have. Been through bankruptcy and lost everything (frankly good riddance) and have learned to live out of a bag on my back for several years. In every way it teaches minimalism. My house could burn down (please save the BF and his bulldog) but the rest is just stuff. Stuff. There are very very few have-to-haves in the world. Shelter. Water. Food. Nature. A way to be of service to others. Helps to have a pet around. Love is great if you can find it but if not, life is still amazingly full. Want to make an investment in how we got to where we are with our obsession with stuff we don’t need? This could fry your brain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s. At the very, very least it will force you to rethink need vs. want, and the cost of consumerism, along with that mindless have-to-have clothing magazine Vogue puts out every September. I have to have water. I don’t HAVE to HAVE a pair of twelve thousand dollar shoes.
At some point, I fear that I will make the 90-minute drive to Kenosha Pass and see it surrounded by barbed wire. No Trespassing signs will dot every hundred feet, and there may even be an armed patrol. Why do I think this?
Scarcity. Last week I drove into the mountains, and pulled off next to a lake. Walked just a few yards in and ran into a fence. Private Property. No Trespassing. In the very high country. Somebody bought that damned mountainside. I’m not making this up. It’s coming. Why?
Scarcity. As we lose the most beautiful and precious pieces of our world to industry and greed, those who have the money will buy up what’s left- because those in power can do it for them (doubt me? please witness the current Administration and any tinpot dictator in the world who needed to stay in power by pleasing his rich friends). Vast stretches of once-public beaches are now either bought up or off limits. Although I have to admit anyone on my home state of Florida’s Gulf Coast who had the conceit to build a massive McMansion is paying a pretty stinky price right now (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/red-and-blue-the-toxic-algae-that-are-a-key-issue-in-florida-elections/) which just emphasizes my point. Eventually whatever you sow you will most definitely reap, and that includes our now-unprotected whales and sea turtles. Hundreds of sea turtles, dolphins, millions of pounds of fish. It’s bad enough that endangered baby sea turtles grow up with a Kim Kardashian corset crushing their guts by swimming through Billy Bob’s plastic six-pack holder. Now they’re being wiped out wholesale by polluted runoff from sewers ( I mean, why not fill the seas with shit; fish shit in it right?) and a host of other toxic sources.
Let’s put it this way. If your kid shits in the tub just a tiny bit, and it’s a full tub, no harm no foul. But you leave him in there for several weeks, that tub is going to be chock full of shit. Kinda like our oceans are getting with plastic, sewage, medical waste, oh let me count the ways.
Wanna build a McMansion on a beach in the Dominican Republic? Here ya go guys:
Have at it, oh industry captains. Enjoy the view. The smell. The spoils of your labors. Eventually even that evil POS CEO of Nestle, who said that access to clean water was too extreme a position and that water should have a “market value”, (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/nestle-ceo-water-not-human-right/) is going to wallow in sewage at some point. Frankly I hope he drowns in it. Somebody throw him a pool toy, made of petroluem products. It also has “market value.”
During my waning years I may witness a tipping point where the melting glaciers unleash a virus or bacteria that we simply cannot fight off. It’s already in play (http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up). Not only are a slew of people getting a tick-borne virus that makes them allergic to meat (a condition the Chick-Filet cows are celebrating as we speak)https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/06/25/621080751/red-meat-allergies-caused-by-tick-bites-are-on-the-rise but also, Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are on the rise as global warming makes heretofore inhospitable parts of the world very tick-friendly https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/03/11/519518318/beyond-lyme-new-tick-borne-diseases-on-the-rise-in-u-s.
Exactly one hundred years ago the Spanish Flu pandemic wiped out fully a third of world’s population( https://www.history.com/topics/1918-flu-pandemic) I think it’s fair to say that we are due. While I am no fan of suffering, and such a repeat event would be pretty awful, there is something to be said for balancing in favor of Nature so that She can regroup. Do I include myself in this? Damned right. I don’t deserve special treatment just because I’m alive. That’s where our addiction to the sanctity of life comes from: we’re alive and we want to stay that way. And fuck. And eat. And conquer. And take vastly more than we need. Yet those who have a great deal, as we do in America for example, feel very strongly about our right to have it, and by god not have to share it with anyone else.
One of the arguments that confounds me no end is that people want to keep folks out of America to protect our way of life. Let me share a story about that. In 1984 I was a guest at a village elder’s house in a tiny town in Fiji. That house had electricity and running water, which was rare at the time. They also had a TV and VCR. Every night the chief collected the equivalent of about ten cents each from a huge crowd which gathered at his windows and doors. Then he played American movies and TV shows like Dallas. Those kids grew up believing that ALL Americans had huge mansions. ALL Americans had guns. ALL Americans wore big-shouldered gowns and ate like kings and queens, and drove huge cars. In the same way that religions feeds us pap that the streets of heaven are paved with gold, those Fijians believed absolutely, positively that all they had to was GET TO AMERICA and what they saw on our shows would be theirs. If you lived in abject poverty like so many of the world’s billions, but you saw those images, excuse me, but you would do anything to get to America. We bragged, showed off, shoved our riches (which we got in many cases at the world’s expense) in everyone else’s face, and now we’re pissed that others want a piece of that materialistic pie. My little 16-year-old friend Melania, whose father was that village chief, landed in America a few years later as a result of that dream. She eventually went back to Fiji, albeit educated, because she now understands what’s really important. Americans have effectively been baiting and switching the world for decades. See what we have? How great life is here? Fuck you. Stay home. Been here awhile? Get the hell out. But by the way, we want your resources, and in return your government will accept our toxic trash that is now in your front yard. Deal with it.
Therein lies the problem. We don’t play nice. Not all of us. Too many of us. This is true of any country that has a better standard of living than somewhere else. And if Mama Nature decides to do some housecleaning, as it says in Matthew 5:45, we all get rained on folks. (Please, you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the Bible).
Mama Nature is an equally- opportunity house cleaner. If it’s my turn, I’ll happily fertilize some new trees. Be my pleasure. She has given me a great life and I owe Her. Unfortunately, as with the flu pandemic, she’s not just going to select all us old geezers.
By the time I drove back from Kenosha, I felt renewed, joyful, grateful. This is the gift of Nature. That gift that does indeed keep on giving. I pray to whatever Intelligence is behind all this design that we come to our senses soon enough, but what I see in too many places in the world is the headlong rush to be like Americans. Unfortunately, that’s not in Mama Nature’s best interests. I still passionately want people to see places like Kenosha, to not fear Nature but to exalt Her, and to understand Her essential role in all our lives. You may prefer the city. Fine by me. But we can’t live without our Mother. Even city dwellers air themselves out for a drive in (what’s left of) the country, that which hasn’t been walled off, fenced off, or ended up as mini-mansions sold as “gracious country living.” Yah. When the view out of your second story window is of your neighbor’s rich but hairy butt about a foot and a half away.
This is just my take, based on my experiences and observations. Doesn’t make me right. It does, however, make me care even more for what we are steadily losing at an appalling swift rate second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. It’s not just Taliquah the orca and her pod. It’s all of them. And, by virtue of that, it’s about all of us, too.