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National Monuments: Land Grab or Legacy?

A Utah Senator says that setting aside this land as part of the National Parks is “a hasty, impetuous action to lock up the area, a step that the people of Utah and the nation would regret for centuries.”  A Deseret News article asserts there is “no other place in the state which [has] greater potential for mineral production.” A Moab Times Independent editorial states, “We wholeheartedly agree that Utahans cannot allow vast, potentially-rich tracts of land to be ‘locked’ into reserves that would prohibit any future use…” Why would these people say these things about the Bears Ears National Monument, designated in 2016 by President Obama? Because they didn’t! They said these things in 1962, opposing the establishment of Canyonlands National Park, which, coincidentally, borders Bears Ears National Monument.

A popular hiking trial in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

Few today – from Utah or any other state – would argue that creating Canyonlands National Park was a mistake. Along with Arches National Park, Canyonlands has helped make southeast Utah one of the nation’s outdoor recreation hotspots. As Stephen Mather, the Park Service’s first director put it a hundred years ago, a National Park is “an economic asset of incalculable value.”  Canyonlands has certainly been such an asset to southeast Utah.

Since the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906, nearly every president has used it to protect places that they deemed needed protecting and to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Teddy Roosevelt used it numerous times. In 1908, concerned about all sorts of plans to develop and deface the beauty of the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt, using the Antiquities Act, established Grand Canyon National Monument. There was local opposition to this decision, claiming abuse of federal power. History has proven that acting to protect the Grand Canyon as a National Monument (which eventually became a National Park) was undeniably the right thing to do.

President Theodore Roosevelt and other officials at the Grand Canyon in 1903

The designation of many National Monuments and Parks was fiercely contested by small local groups, including designations by Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jackson Hole National Monument, now Grand Teton National Park) and more recently by George W. Bush (Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, northwest of Hawaii). Who today would argue that the legacy of Grand Canyon, Arches, Grand Teton, Zion, or Canyonlands National Parks would better serve our nation if they would have instead gone the way that a small group of locals wanted them to go – as mines, oil fields, private ranches,  or for timber production?

The names of the places may be different today – Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante, Katahdin Woods and Waters – but the arguments are simply history repeating itself. “Land grab”, “locked up”, “abuse of power” – this is the same language used to argue against every National Monument or Park designation that the locals believed was wrong. Thankfully, we as a people have decided that some places deserve to be set aside to protect their scenic, historic or ecological values as a legacy for future generations, protected from mining, logging, and other extractive industries. Thankfully, we have given the president the power, through the Antiquities Act, to make those decisions when threats to the integrity of these places are moving faster than other efforts to protect them.

Exploring along the Green River with my grandkids at Dinosaur National Monument, August 2015

Wallace Stegner’s words are as appropriate today as they were when he wrote them in the 1950s, opposing the proposed construction of dams in Dinosaur National Monument, “It is a better world with some buffalo left in it, a richer world with some gorgeous canyons unmarred by signboards, hot-dog stands, super highways, or high-tension lines, undrowned by power or irrigation reservoirs. If we preserved as parks only those places that have no economic possibilities, we would have no parks. And in the decades to come, it will not be only the buffalo and the trumpeter swan who need sanctuaries. Our own species is going to need them too. It needs them now.”

Right now, the current administration has directed Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Department of Interior, to conduct a quick review of all national monument designations since 1996. This review is taking place under the false premise that they were designated without local input. For example, years of local Native American conservation efforts, public hearings, Utah congressional requests, visits by former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel and other officials, countless letters, op-eds and emails took place before Bears Ears was finally designated late in 2016. The original 1.9 million acre proposal was reduced by 30% by the Obama administration as a result of local input.

The current administration has essentially stated that it believes that many of these national monument designations were improperly done, and wants to see them altered or rescinded. These monuments belong to all Americans; if you are among the vast majority of Americans that believe they should remain intact, please let Secretary Zinke know: Secretary Ryan Zinke Dept. of Interior 1849 C Street N.W. Washington D.C. 20240; 202-208-7351; email through website https://www.doi.gov/contact-us

The Bears Ears Butte in the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, one of the most significant cultural landscapes in the United States, with thousands of archaeological sites and important areas of spiritual significance.

Vuja de

I’ve been writing about various facets of the natural world for the newsletter of the Nature education non-profit I started in the Mountain Park in Beulah, my small southern Colorado town, for a long time. The recent issue that was just published begins the eighteenth year of the Mountain Park News.  I can recall writing articles on all sorts of birds and wildflowers, bears, trees, mountain lions, pronghorn, bobcat, pleasing fungus beetles, squirrels, owls, biological soil crusts…but, surprisingly, I don’t recall ever writing about one of the area’s most common and iconic species, Odocileus hemionus. If my memory is correct, the pages of Mountain Park News never included an article specifically about mule deer. As of the recent issue, that is no longer the case.

There has been much statewide press about the significant population decline of mule deer in Colorado over the past decade. According to a recent Denver Post article, mule deer population estimates in Colorado are down about 36 percent, from 614,100 in 2005 to 390,600 in 201 (compared to a 10% decrease across the entire western US). Disease, habitat loss due to development encroachment, and road mortality are among the likely reasons for the decline according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Well, maybe they should do a count in Beulah; considering how many deer with the big ears and short, black-tipped tail there are in the valley, maybe all those missing mule deer are all hanging out here. It is a rare day that I don’t see several mule deer while driving or walking in Beulah.

Just the other day, on a windy and chilly late afternoon walk in the park, I came across eight deer – one young buck, a few does, and several adolescents – that watched me but hardly seemed concerned about me as I walked by within around 20 feet of the closest one. A couple weeks ago, I was walking down the steps to my house (which is just across the road from the park). Looking at my mail and not paying much attention as I’ve walked down these steps a million times, I looked up to see a doe no more than ten feet in front of me, standing on the steps. I stopped. She turned and took a couple of step towards me. Hmm. I’ve seen video clips of how aggressive deer can be. So I backed up a few steps, made some noise, and she finally ambled off. Slowly.

The minimal snow so far this season is keeping the dried forbs and grasses readily available for our area’s mule deer to fatten up on as the winter approaches. When the snow cover is deep, shrubs and trees make up most of their diet. I recall many times being out in the park on skis or snowshoes on cold days with the landscape covered in deep snow. Working hard to keep myself warm, I’d watch deer bite the needles off ponderosa pines and wonder how many calories they are were actually getting from those needles that would get them through the cold night ahead. Mountain mahogany and Gambel oak are also common winter foods for mule deer in the park.

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Yes, mule deer are common and I see them pretty much every day. They are a very familiar part of my daily life here in Beulah. Hence, mule deer give me daily opportunities to apply Vuja de. The opposite of Déjà vu, the sensation that an experience currently being experienced has already been experienced, Vuja de is the act of seeing something familiar with a fresh view. I love keeping the idea of Vuja de alive in my life. It helps me to see the familiar – my home, my loved ones, my everyday world  – with fresh eyes. Vuja de reminds me to see each day and everything in it as a special gift. Because each day that I am alive, each day that I get to see my home, my family, my world, and mule deer, is, indeed, a special gift.

 

My views on Trump and Climate Change

I’ve been reading about how we need to get behind president-elect Trump so he has a successful presidency. If a successful presidency would be defined as finding common ground to begin healing the divide that so defines our country right now, I’m all for it.  I suspect, though, that the president-elect and the team he is gathering to run the country would define a successful presidency primarily as the successful implementation of his campaign promises.  One of his defining promises has to do with energy and climate change, based on his belief that global warming is BS, or a hoax started by the Chinese.  I can emphatically say that I will never get behind the president-elect on this issue, and will do all that I can so he is unsuccessful on this issue.

Trump and his team can argue that human-caused climate change is not happening, is a lie, is a conspiracy, is bad science, or is a left-wing invention all they want. But science is not on their side. As a bumper sticker I saw once said, Science doesn’t care what you believe. According to nearly every climate scientist not in bed with the fossil-fuel industry, climate change is real, it is primarily caused by human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, and it is going to be catastrophic for the Earth that all of us, regardless of political affiliation, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and anything else, live our lives on.  Scientists also say that there is still time to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, but only if we act now!

The president-elect and company are arguing with physics. You can’t argue with physics and win. Increase greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the planet’s climate will change. It’s the law.  It’s like arguing about the existence of gravity while holding a bowling ball over your foot. You can argue all you want, but if you let go, it’s going to hurt. A lot. Unfortunately, the impacts of denying gravity are so much more immediate than the somewhat slower manifestations of increased greenhouse gases.

It is often argued that the current warming is nothing more than a natural cycle, as the planet has always had warming and cooling periods. No argument from science there – the Earth’s temperature has always changed as carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and other factors change. Currently, CO2 levels are at around 400ppm (parts per million). Using data gathered from tiny air bubbles in ice cores drilled into ancient Antarctica ice fields, CO2 levels have not been this high for at least 800,000 years. Analyses of shells in deep sea sediments take it back much further, to 10-15 million years. Yes, somewhere back there, way back there, way before any modern human species walked the planet, CO2 levels were 400ppm.  And the Earth showed it – sea levels 100 feet higher than they are today, little ice anywhere on the planet – it was a very different planet than the one we all live on.

When our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, CO2 levels were about 275ppm. At the time of the Civil War, they were around 285ppm. In 1950, they were a bit above 300ppm. Three days after the recent election, they were 403ppm. Why the increase? The science is clear – human activity, mainly the burning of coal, oil and gas.

All those numbers are not liberal think tank numbers, they are scientific facts. Have there been variations in the interpretation of them? Sure. That is what science is – looking at phenomena; developing a theory about this or that facet of the phenomena; subjecting the theory  to vigorous testing,  observation and data gathering; analyzing the outcomes; making a conclusion as to the accuracy of the theory; making adjustments and re-testing; and, eventually, subjecting conclusions to  reviews, challenges and insights from other scientists.  As the past few decades have gone by since the theory of global warming first hit the mainstream, the theory of global warming has been questioned and scrutinized over and over and over.  Today, the science is more certain than ever:  global warming is happening, and we are causing it.

Consider this: Say my young child comes down with some malady, and I take her to 10 doctors and receive ten medical opinions. Nine doctors tell me she has a serious condition that needs to be acted on immediately, and the tenth doc is pretty sure she has that same serious illness, but says there is a small chance it is not something serious and I shouldn’t worry about it. What would you think of me if I ignored the nine doctors plus the general counsel of the tenth doctor that it is serious, and instead went with the small chance the last doctor mentioned, that it is nothing to worry about? Not very well, I suspect. Negligence would be an appropriate word. Child abuse, you might say. Well, that is exactly what the president-elect and all other climate-change-deniers are doing about the planet we all live on – ignoring the 97% of scientists that agree that the planet is in trouble.

Fifteen years ago, the Bush administration cut funding of global warming research and systematically sought to suppress and distort the findings of climate scientists.  Today, the president-elect wants to do much the same, including eliminating, or significantly reducing, the Environmental Protection Agency. And it looks like he’s got Congress behind him on this.  These actions are equivalent to removing the mechanisms that monitors your car’s oil levels and engine temperature. Of course, none of us want to see the oil or temperature light come on when we are driving, but what’s the alternative? Not knowing something is wrong until your engine is ruined? At least you can buy another car – we can’t buy another planet. Such actions and policies are not science based, and they are not people based, they are based on the corporate interests of the fossil fuel industry.

Four hundred years ago, Galileo was persecuted for publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. At a time when the prevailing view was that that the Earth was the center of the Universe, strongly supported by the powerful Catholic Church, Galileo was tried, convicted and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. All for studying and concluding what we now know to be indisputably true – the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Fast forward to our time.  Michael E. Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State, is a modern day Galileo. His research into global warming led to a massive misinformation campaign initiated by the powerful fossil fuel industry. In Mann’s own words, “I set myself up for a completely different life … I was vilified … I was called a fraud. I was being attacked by Congressmen. I had death threats, which were actionable enough that the FBI had to come to my office to look at an envelope that had white powder [in it]. I’ve had threats made against my family. These folks know they don’t have to win a legitimate scientific debate. They just need to divide the public. All of that hatred and fear is organized and funded by just a few players. Fossil fuel interests … finance a very large echo chamber of climate change denialism. They find people with very impressive looking credentials who are willing to sell those credentials to fossil fuel interests. Front groups funded by corporate interests.”

Sadly, this campaign, echoed by politicians, conservative talk show hosts, and others, has been very effective; in spite of the solidity of climate science, a significant percentage of Americans still do not believe in global warming. And fossil fuels continue to be mined and piped and burned, and atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise.

I have dedicated much of my life to providing opportunities for people, especially disadvantaged young people, to experience the wonders of Nature. I do this work because it is so good for children in so many ways to spend time in Nature (it is good for adults too). And I do it because these young people, if they have first hand experiences in Nature, are more likely to then grow up into adult citizens who advocate for the natural world. I love this planet, this amazing little blue ball floating in space. I want others to love it too. From all that I’ve heard said by the president-elect and the people he is surrounding himself with about their plans, it makes me feel like my work will soon be taking place in a small room on the Titanic. It’s a nice room, but what does it matter if the ship is going to sink? This is unacceptable to me.

So, am I a whiner, a sore-loser, a doomsayer… if I want to see the president-elect fail in implementing his policies that will so terribly impact the planet we all live on? If I am anything, I am simply a very concerned American citizen that wants to see my government implement environmental policies based on science – good, solid science.

Because without a hospitable planet, no lives matter.

40 Day Love Fest: Daily Marriage Practices for Easy Living

Forty years is made up of a whole lot of individual days.

It is what happens routinely in those days that add up to make a life, or a marriage. Sure, vacations are nice, breaks from the routine, opportunities to do some different things and see some different places. But vacations are just that – temporarily vacating the familiar. Then it is back to the familiar. One of our philosophies of creating a happy life, and marriage, is to make the familiar – the everyday days with the everyday tasks – to be as good as they can be. Here are a few of the things we have always tried – and continue to try – to get as many of these as we can into every day:

Walking: Any day with a walk is better than a day without a walk.

One of the reasons we so love living dhvmshadowwalkwhere we do in Beulah is the easy opportunities for walking. We walk in all seasons, and know that even in the coldest of conditions, all it takes is the right warm clothes to make for a good walk.

But in every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks. ~John Muir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music: When we made a living making music, this was easy.

Now that we have different jobs, it sometimes takes a bit more of an effort to get a good hit of music each day – we mean something more than just background music. Sometimes a day of meetings, appointments, work tasks, and other activities requires a deliberate effort to incorporate some good music time – closely listening, dancing, kicking back, singing. But whenever we do, we are glad we did.

1976

1976

Talking: We have always loved talking – just plain old talking – to each other. It helps us feel connected, up-to-date, closer.

Our talks include planning and strategizing, as well as sharing gratitudes, interesting stories or facts we read or heard, things that are “up” for one of us, something that needs “getting clear” on… We usually try to separate out our work talks from our personal talks, although so much of our work is so tied to our personal interests and values, so these two often bleed into each other. Our talks do include a lot of listening which may be one of our ‘secrets’.

IMG_7629Eating together: When the kids were little, eating together was an important part of our family life.

As they got older, sharing breakfast and lunch was not always possible, but we always made a point to eat dinner together. No TV, no eating in their rooms – we ate together at the table. Always. This also contributed to keeping our small cabin clean. And this has carried into our empty nest – breakfast and lunch are often on our own, but we almost always eat dinner together.

food

December harvest from the greenhouse.

Preparing food together:  Helene is certainly better and more confident when it comes to cooking, but that hasn’t stopped us from preparing our meals together.

We’ve lately noticed that we have evolved this very pleasant flow when we cook together, knowing without having to say what comes next, what needs to be done…

IMG_1476Chores: We find doing chores together makes the work easier.

So when it works for our schedules, we often put on some music and do a tornado clean of the house, or a part of the house. We both like things to be organized and uncluttered so together we meet up to accomplish what needs to be done. And…we have learned to not tell each other how to do things…or micro-manage each other.

 

bedroom

Making the bed together in the morning: There is something about making the bed together, right after we get up, that feels good – like we start the day, right off the bat, with a completion.

It is also a way that we connect to each other across the bed and creates a pause to nurture each other in the moment. Sometimes we talk; sometimes it is in quiet; sometimes while listening to the NPR morning news. But it is a symbolic action that mirrors how to attend to our marriage. And then the pleasant payoff: getting into a beautifully made bed together each evening. Now that brings luxury to our relationship.

Going to bed at the same time: Most of the time we do.

Naturally there are times when our schedules are busy and our needs for rest vary, but getting into bed together is a sweetness that can’t be beat for us. And the cuddling is a part of the healing connection that our relationship is based on.

sept 2011 wise women walking retreat 019

Helping each other:  It’s pretty great to have your best friend to walk through your days with.

We always seek to help make each other’s life easier; high on the list of what we are to each other is help-mates.  It works for us and infuses our marriage with mutual support, along with the joy and the fun!  And…when we built our GrowingSpaces.com greenhouse our great family all came and helped in this learning experience.  We are the lucky ones for certain.

 

 dhvm smoothies

Dave and Helene Van Manen know the secret to their 40 years of loving and it includes green smoothies, making the bed together and falling into bed laughing each night. They share their journey as they honor for 40 days their relationship started back in the 70’s when they were teens. Today they live and teach in the mountains of Colorado.

 

 

 

40 Day Love Fest: Kindness Guides Our Days

This song sums up what we strive for…in our day to day connection.

ps Let us know if you love this song by David Wilcox as much as we do.

dhvmlakeDave and Helene Van Manen celebrate living intentionally together for 40 years with honoring 40 days during the summer of 2016. They have joined forces to raise children, create music, build a community non-profit and more. Kindness is one of the secret ingredients in their recipe for loving.

40 Day Love Fest: Music Brought Us Together – The Van Manens are born

In the beginning, there was music.

If there is a thread that connects the entire length of our marriage, as well as the couple of years we were together before we were married, it is music. Making it and listening to it.

lovefestroseJust a few months before we met, Dave did his first public performance at his high school (Brooklyn Tech) after abandoning the plan to become a professional football player (his not-quite 5’7″ stature had something to do with this abandonment) and setting his sights on a music career. Helene’s vocals led to the two-part harmony that became one of the Van Manens’ trademarks.  We were in love and in love with the songs that fueled our desire to leave NYC…Country Roads by John Denver, Dark Hollow (David Bromberg), and Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles).

at badlands

Badlands National Monument in South Dakota, a couple of weeks after we were married.

Along with our friend Tommy Kessler, we made a demo of a few of our songs at A & R Recording Studio, Dave’s place of employment the year before we were married (Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and Judy Collins were among the artists who recorded there that year). The demo didn’t really go anywhere, but it sowed some recording seeds that would eventually germinate.

We were into the Eagles years before they became the super-popular band they later became.

We were lucky to go to some of the best concerts in the early years – Jackson Browne (Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ), James Taylor (Carnegie Hall), Eagles (2x at Capitol Theatre, one show 2nd row center, tickets were $5.65 each), and Janis Ian (Central Park).

singing at yule log 1977
Beulah Yule Log event in Pueblo Mountain Park, late 70s.

Not long after arriving in Colorado, we spent some time as students in the Music Department at the University of So. Colorado, Dave taught music privately and then at the University, and we were soon singing at weddings. We sang the Wedding Song by Paul Stookey, Follow Me (John Denver), and Longer (Dan Fogelberg) at a whole lot of weddings. We were soon doing music therapy at area hospitals, and our writing music together led us back into the recording studio.

in studio

Recording at FTM Studios in Denver, 1986 or ’87.

We happily found ourselves drawn to making music for children, which led to traveling throughout the country during the late 80s and the 90s making a living on our songs, including We Recycle, Don’t Whine, I Love My Home… Libraries, schools, church basements, living rooms, parks, peace rallies, festivals – we sang in thousands of places.  Little did we know back then that our music would someday be uploadable through something called “itunes” and that a future generations of children would be singing the songs we wrote for our children and their friends.

state fair 1984
Street Performing, mid 80s.

 

 

 

 

Peace Rally with Elaine Lopez Pacheco

 With our lifetime friend Elaine Lopez Pacheco at a peace rally on the lawn outside the Pueblo, CO Courthouse, around 1990.

 Paul Simon recorded this song at A&R Studios the year Dave worked there. We love this song!

In 2000, ready to “retire” from the music business, we both launched new careers (Helene as a Coach, Dave opening the Mountain Park Environmental Center). But music continues to enrich our lives and nurture our connection as we take music into our present day work and play – on hikes, out under the oaks, with children, and into the desert in our ’95 Eurovan. And there is singing in our house most every day.

Our music has taken us a long long way since we first sang together back in the spring of 1974, on a picnic bench in Forest Park, or on the corner of Gates and Seneca where we “hung out.” Music has also moved into the next generations – our kids Sierra and Sequoia played piano, guitar, danced, and they sang on several of our albums and performed with us when they accompanied us on our tours. And now our grandkids play a variety of instruments and receive countless lessons in music appreciation and instrument instruction from us.

A deepening of our connection to each other often takes place when we listen to music and, especially, when we make music.

An unspoken clarity rings through us about who we are together, why we are living this life on the planet at this time, and what we are meant to be doing. It  ground us and helps keep things in perspective when the world seems too crazy or is moving too fast.

Most days you will find a well-played guitar taking a break on the couch, or the Beatles or Bach or David Wilcox filling the air, or the sounds of a uke coming from the back deck, or one or both of us  irresistibly dancing to the B-52s.  It’s a wonderful musical life!

 

 

dhvm canyonlandsDave and Helene Van Manen found each other as teenagers in their New York neighborhoods, left for Colorado and let love carry them as they grew up together. Today they are reaping the joys of decades of loving and learning together.

40 Day Love Fest – Our Magical Mystery Marriage

40daylovefest1We’ve been talking about how to honor and celebrate our 40 year wedding anniversary (which we cannot even believe we are saying “forty”). We originally thought we would take 40 days off (one for each year), but that did not work out with our work schedules. So we grew that idea into creating the “40-Day LoveFest,” which will consist of doing something special each day for 40 days to celebrate these 40 magical years, including taking time each day to remember the years, the ups and downs, the memorable moments and more!
dhvmjuly10201640yearanniversaryHelene and Dave on July 10, 2016 in Wild Rivers National Monument in northern New Mexico.

“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”~ Annie Dillard

Looking back on those forty years, the statement by Annie Dillard, “We do not remember days, we remember moments,” rings true for us. We got married as kids in Queens, New York (Dave was 20, Helene 17) on July 10, 1976 – a bicentennial wedding. A few days later, we headed West in a Chevy van to find our place to live the life of our dreams. Our wealth is our shared lives, our family, our love for the natural world, our mountainside home, and the wonderful work we have been able to do. It all is centered on making our day-to-day actions reflect our shared value of “making a difference”.  Leaving NYC and settling somewhere in the West was a dream-come-true in and of itself; since then we have had many many other dreams come true.

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Journey with us these next 40 days as we share some of the moments we remember, along with thoughts about being married to the same person for all these years and what it feels like to wake up and have the calendar say, “Hey kids, it’s been 40 years!”

 

Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 4

DAY FOUR

Up at first light, I break camp as the canyon slowly becomes day. I am on the trail as the first rays of sunlight hit the upper walls of the canyon. As I hike these last few miles, I am filled with a great sense of energy and lightness. Yes, my pack is a bit lighter, having eaten most of the food I packed in, but that’s not really the reason for this feeling. Sixty feels pretty darn good if you ask me!

Quiet, silence, peacefulness, stillness – these words all come to mind as I hike down and then out of Elephant Canyon on this early morning. They are more than just descriptive of this desert morning – they are this place, as much as these rocks are this place. I stop often to just drink it all in. There are stretches when there is no sound at all – no bird song, no wind, no jets (halleluiah), nothing at all. Then a spotted towhee sings its chattering song and I can’t help but feel like I am in heaven. Was it Thoreau who said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads? He would have found confirmation of that here with me this morning. I think he would agree that heaven is also found sandwiched between the ground beneath and the sky above, right here in the perfect stillness of a redrock desert morning.

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*****

               As I drive out of the Elephant Hill parking lot, window down, I hear the song of a canyon wren and I can’t help but smile. This little bird is the voice, the spokesbird, of these Canyonlands. I’ve heard the song a thousand times, but this morning, as I make my way out of the park, it’s as if the song is being sung just for me. Is the canyon saying something to me? If so, what? I have my ideas, but I can’t really say I know for sure just what this land might be saying. I suppose that maybe, if I keep coming back to this redrock land of wild canyons, I’ll figure it out in my 60s. Sounds like a good plan to me. I’ll be back!

A Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 3

DAY THREE

Except for a gusty wind that woke me several times, I had a warmer and better sleep last night. I climb out of the tent to a cloudless, desert blue sky. Oatmeal, nuts and tea are my fuel for a hike that, at this moment, I am not sure how far will be. I start up the wash where I get my water and continue until I reach an unpassable pass were it not for the two ladders the Park Service has conveniently provided. Without them, it would be a quick mile hike to a fifteen foot vertical wall at the top of the canyon, then back the way I came. Instead, I climb up and over and eventually into another drainage – Big Spring Canyon.

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At a high point on the slickrock, I have the choice of turning around for a four-mile out-and-back hike, or continue forward and make an eight-mile loop of today’s trek. The day is young, I am feeling rather young myself (I am only 60, after all) and a lot less sore than yesterday, the clouds that were building a little while ago have melted away. I know of a truly magical spot along this loop, a shaded pool, an oasis in this desert, a great place to eat lunch. Onward!

Interesting that this rock is called slickrock, as it is quite the opposite of slick. My shoes seem to stick to the abrasive sandstone, even on steep sections. Off the unslick slickrock now, my hike through Big Spring Canyon is wetter than I’ve ever seen it. Apparently it was a wet winter, as there are few places along the two-mile drainage where water is not in sight. This is a far cry from the many times I’ve been here with nary a puddle anywhere. The day is warming in spite of gusts that seem to say, “Hey, spring, not so fast – notice the date on the calendar? It is still winter!”

Up and over into another expanse of slickrock punctuated by pinyons and junipers, I arrive at the hidden mini-pond feeling pangs of hunger. Perfect timing! I enjoy lunch serenaded by the music of water constantly dripping into the pool from a seep in the rock. Unlike Big Spring Canyon, I’ve never seen this hidden place empty of water. Roughly thirty feet in diameter and who knows how deep, the pool is mostly shaded by a white sandstone overhang. A few cottonwoods, still in their winter nakedness, grow nearby. I look beyond this hidden wet spot to the landscape I just hiked through – pleasant today but sun-baked hot and bone dry for many months of the year. I am sure this pool is well known to the locals – bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, mule deer…

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******

I am glad to be back at camp after a perfect day of hiking. According to the map, I hiked an 8.6 mile loop. I didn’t encounter any more ladders, but there was a weathered gray log with notches cut into it, leaning on a huge boulder, that provided access into a tunnel-like, hundred-foot long slot in the rock that opened up into the upper reaches of Big Spring Canyon. This park is aptly named – Canyonlands! I must say, hiking here is a delight. It has it all: wooded trails – not deep forest woods, but a few tall cottonwoods among scrubby woods of oak and juniper and pinyon; top-of-the-world slickrock hiking; an assortment of wildflowers – even this early in the warm season, a few species are already in bloom, with many more to follow; at least one mountain lion – which I’ve never seen a sign of; and out-of-this-world beauty every step of the way.

Of course, it is hardly out of this world – it is very much a part of this world. And, thanks to a man who loved this wild desert landscape, it is a protected part of this world that has been set aside as a place where people can step away from our increasingly fast-paced society, for a day, a week, a month.  Bates Wilson began lobbying for the creation of Canyonlands National Park in the early 1960s. He convinced Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall that this canyon country should become a part of the nation’s system of public lands, and in 1964 President Johnson signed it into law. The park has grown in size since those early years, and exists so people can experience its solitude, its rugged wildness, its beauty, and so the ecological processes that take place within its boundaries can go about their business protected from our culture’s heavy footprint that continues to have such an impact on the rest of the country’s lands.

The vast majority of Americans believe that our nation’s public lands, such is this park, are a good thing. But not everyone. Just a few weeks ago, a handful of armed militants who believe that federal ownership and management of such lands is not a good thing, illegally took over a National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They occupied it for five weeks, calling for the federal government to turn over these lands to local control. Right now, while I sit on this slickrock under this desert sky, those individuals are sitting in jail. Where they should be, as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, most of my fellow citizens and I fully support the idea of public lands. But there are those who would rather these wild places be used not for recreation, education, and preservation of natural values and processes, but opened up for more mining, grazing, logging and other extractive uses. We who love these lands must remain ever vigilant, as there are those who want nothing less than to undo the efforts of Bates Wilson and so many others that worked tirelessly to protect wild sanctuaries like this amazing park. Thank you Bates Wilson, wherever you are (in so many ways, you are right here with me).

I visually explore the red-and-white spires, hundreds of feet tall, which rise from the canyon floor directly across from camp. How long have they been there? I am sure they looked exactly the same eight or nine hundred years ago, when the native peoples that lived in these canyons painted the pictographs that I was admiring on a canyon wall not far from where I am sitting here at camp. There may have been some different plants growing here 12,000 years ago, when the climate was wetter and cooler, and humans first began to cultivate plants and animals for food halfway around the world. But I bet these sandstone spires looked pretty much the same even then. Geologists say these rock formations of Cedar Mesa Sandstone were originally dunes of wind-blown sand and flood-eroded sediments that formed over 200 million years ago. Twenty million years ago, other forces began to fracture the solidified dunes. Millions of years of erosion by wind and water worked those cracks and fractures into the sculpted pillars that I am looking at now, on this late winter 2016 evening, two days into my 61st year.

ec2 old photoThere is a feeling of, what is it – silliness? absurdity? – to sit among these ancient rocks and reflect upon my briefer-than-brief 60 years of being alive on this planet. Then again, the short little speck of time that is my life is all I’ve got. It brings up a range of feelings to be here at this time in the middle of this magnificent landscape – humbled, joyous, inspired, awe, insignificant. I sit as quietly as the canyon is on this late afternoon. Lines from a Mary Oliver poem that I’ve been trying to memorize emerge out of the quiet:

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

One wild and precious life. Hmm. One. Wild. Precious. Life. I can’t think of a better place in which to contemplate my one wild and precious life. One thing I know is that I want more wildness in this precious life of mine. And I know I am right where I need to be today.

Yes, from one angle, my life can seem small and insignificant in the face of this ancient stone. Then I am reminded of how the life of a high school dropout, a dryland cowboy, was able to convince the Washington DC power brokers to get behind this crazy idea of making a national park out of this God-forsaken landscape, as many people considered this place. I suppose Bates Wilson could have looked at his smalltime, western cowboy life as never being able to have much of an impact beyond his little red dirt world. Fortunately for the rest of us, and for this magical landscape, he didn’t.

When considered against the geologic time represented in these rocks, I suspect that what Wilson or any of us accomplish will probably always seem like a speck of meaningless dust. But, when considered within the realm of our country’s history, the foreseeable future of this land, and a good many handfuls of human generations, Wilson’s efforts are hugely significant. It’s a bit of a paradox, how being here can conjure feelings of insignificance, which can be disempowering. But if applied appropriately, that feeling of insignificance can lead to humility, perspective, not taking oneself too seriously…all good things – for individuals, for a society, for our species. Being here can lead to empowerment – empowerment that comes from meeting the physical challenges associated with getting around this place, or the psychological challenges that a few days of wilderness solitude can provoke. And, being here can also lead to a sense of hope, something that often seems, at least to me, pretty hard to come by as the 21st century unfolds. Along with a capacity for so much destruction, greed, and disregard for so much and so many, the fact that this little corner of the planet has been deliberately set aside as a place protected from ourselves – a place where we actually choose to put limits on what we could do to this place, but choose not to – is a reason for hope. Yes, being here makes me feel hopeful.

******

The sun sets while I take a leisurely stroll up-canyon. Unlike last evening, the sky is completely cloud-free tonight. The wind has diminished to a few gusty breezes. The air does feel much colder than it did the last two nights. Maybe I will wear an extra layer tonight. Without any clouds, the slightly larger sliver of moon is desert-sky clear as the evening slowly begins to darken. Still no stars. Soon!

I plan on rising early for a quick start to what will be a long day. The hike out of here will be the pleasant part. Sorry sciatic – we have that same drive to do in the opposite direction tomorrow. As quick as it started, my wilderness retreat to say good-bye to my 50s and hello to my 60s will soon be done. But it’s not done yet! On the many hikes I’ve guided over the years, I would often say to my group of hikers towards the end that the best part of the hike – like some cool animal sighting, or something unexpected – could still be ahead of us. The same holds true right now – I still have a night to spend in this amazing desert wilderness, plus what I expect to be a very pleasant early morning hike. Who knows what will happen!

A Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 2

DAY TWO

I slept cold and poorly last night. The slow leak in the air mattress, which eventually eliminated the insulating layer of air between me and the cold rock underneath, might have had something to do with it. I was happy to see the light of the new day through the walls of the tent. Tonight I think I’ll do a middle-of-the-night refill and see if that helps.

I decide to warm my slowly waking body by exploring around the camp. Surrounded by slabs of slickrock poised at every angle, I scramble up some red sandstone that leads to a slab of white sandstone, and then another and another. My body now wide awake, it feels good to be warm. Oatmeal and hot tea finish the job. As if that isn’t enough, the sun slips up over the rock wall to the east and soon has me shedding a layer.

IMG_2729After hiking back down Elephant Canyon the way I came up yesterday afternoon, I reach a trail intersection sign after about a mile. Chesler Park: 1.0 m. I’ve hiked many of the trails in the Needles District, but this trail to Chesler Park is one I haven’t done. I climb out of the main canyon through a side canyon filled with a tortured hodgepodge of broken rocks, boulders, and an assortment of desert plants, some of which I can readily identify  – Utah juniper, Fremont’s mahonia, pinyon pine, dwarf mountain mahogany. It may still be winter, but I come across a few early spring wildflowers in blossom here and there – western wallflower, Newberry’s twinpod. I’ve never seen a flash flood here in the park, but I’ve read about them and know that they can make a real mess of these drainages. Make them look like this chaotic mix of earth, stone and hardy plants through which my morning trail travels. It does make for fun hiking though.

I reach a high point and turn around to a spectacular sight that I’ve seen from other trails that I never grow tired of. cnp 1Those same snowy La Sals that I saw while driving yesterday look even more stunning with a foreground dominated by the red and white striped spires that give the Needles District its name. It is all the more pleasing to see, not through the windshield of a car, but from the heart of this wild landscape that can only be reached by foot. I suppose one of the reasons I wanted to do a wilderness backpacking retreat for my 60th was to see if my body could still do it – enjoy hiking these slickrock up and down trails with a pack on my back. I admit I am feeling a bit sore, as I haven’t backpacked in awhile, but beyond that, I am having a blast!

I hike into the grassy Chesler Park, named after a horse rancher who operated in the area long ago. The day is soft and warm while I notice some patches of snow lingering on a north-facing slope off in the distance. I work my way through the Joint Trail, which is a series of narrow slot canyons, in places less than two feet wide where I have to lomatiumremove my pack and turn sideways to get through. I am now planted on a slab of white slickrock that is decorated with black, white, grey, and a few tiny yellow lichens. In a miniature crevice of rocky pink soil grows a small lomatium in bloom, its tiny lemon-colored blossoms saying that spring is, indeed, on its way. A high ceiling of thin clouds is weakening the sunshine, but the solar energy absorbed by the rock is keeping me warm. I watch a couple of chipmunks scurry across the rocks across the wash. They both jump into a just-greening shrub and seem to disappear. Oh, there they go, back across the rock and out of sight. Time to begin working my way back to camp – about three easy miles from where I sit.

The songs of a Say’s phoebe and a mountain bluebird accompany my own singing as I lazily work my way back to camp. ….Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride…. I suppose that if I needed a theme song, or a summary of how I feel at 60, these lyrics from James Taylor’s Secret O’ Life work pretty well. Of course, 60 is a good ways beyond the top of the hill, but whether I am 60%, 75%, or 98% through my life, I so want to enjoy the rest of the ride. This sentiment is another reason why I am here on this little wilderness retreat in this favorite place of mine.

cnp 2Back to camp by mid-afternoon. The clouds have thickened, but the day is still mild and gentle. After hiking around seven miles, it feels good to shed my hiking shoes and just hang out at camp. It sometimes feels as if my life over the past several decades has had so little of this kind of unstructured, undistracted, unpreoccupied quiet time to slow way down and just be. I have with me the most recent issue of High Country News, a special issue devoted to our National Park System, which turns 100 this year. What a great invention, National Parks. That I have this wild place in which to retreat for solitude, reflection and wilderness immersion is one of the greatest benefits of being an American citizen. Our system of national parks is very high on my list of what makes this a great nation.

*****

I’ve never been much of a meditator, at least in the manner that meditation is often portrayed – sitting still, focusing on breath, keeping the mind free from extraneous thoughts. I have gone through stretches of days, maybe a few weeks, when I meditated in this fashion. But it would never last. I just returned from the backcountry ritual of finding and filtering water. This necessary backcountry practice here in the desert always goes like this: I mindfully approach the puddle and find the best place to position myself, careful not to disturb the water with additional stones, sand, sticks or anything a careless foot could kick into it. These desert water holes are usually harboring a fair share of insects (both dead and alive), maybe a surface covering of something slimy, silt settled at the bottom…disturbing it only adds to what the filter needs to remove.

Properly positioned, I am careful not to accidentally drop the filter or any parts of it into the puddle, except the end of the tube designed to be in the source of unfiltered water. Screwing this process up could result in contracting some sort of intestinal bug that could ruin a trip, or worse. With the end of each tube where it is supposed to be, I slowly pump – about 50 pumps per liter. No way to rush the process, as the filter can only handle a small amount of water per stroke. Slow, methodical, focused – kind of like meditation. Plus, the opportunity to gaze at the surroundings, which is always a pleasure, and absorb the music of the wildness that surrounds me. Three and a half liters filtered, plus a nice deep watering of my own parched self, I then carefully drain the filter and place it in its carrying case, ready for my next water meditation.

*****

Why solo? Why come out here by myself? I was struggling with this question yesterday. A taste of uneasiness accompanied me as I left the Elephant Hill trailhead, leaving the car and the road and civilization behind, and began hiking into this wild place. It wasn’t a fear of wild animals – even though I had seen a poster back at the Visitor Center: Warning! A mountain lion has recently been seen in the Elephant Hill area. I’ve hiked thousands of miles inIMG_2762 wild places, sometimes not necessarily at the top of the food chain, and I always take with me a strong belief in John Muir’s adage that a wilderness feared is a wilderness lost. But I do bring a healthy dose of respect for these wild animals.

So, it wasn’t fear. It may have had something to do with feeling like I was doing something wrong. Somewhere, maybe as a boy scout, I was told that traveling alone in the wilds is dangerous. A friend questioned why I would want to spend my birthday by myself in the desert, away from the people I love and that love me (I did have a little celebration with my wife, daughter and grandkids a few days before I left). My aging mom is not well, my daughter is crazy-busy with nursing school and can always use my help with the grandkids, and so I am certainly needed back home. And there I was, walking away from all of that. Am I being selfish? Whatever the cause, it was nagging at me. Not big, but still there.

As today wore on, I could feel the uneasiness dissolving as the red rock landscape worked its way into me (and onto me, as this red dirt has a way of finding every part of me to take a ride on). As I sauntered alone along desert trails, I thought of the numerous treks I’ve done in this park with many combinations of people. I began to recognize that the experience of being out here on my own has a different texture, a different flow, compared to being here with others. Not that I don’t love being here with others – I do. I love sharing this magical place. And, admittedly, I have had some moments when I wished I was here with my wife, kids, grandkids, friends. But this solo texture is now feeling like a good thing for me to be experiencing at this little blink of time in my life. Retreating into these wild canyons for a few days of solitude, with extended time to ponder, reflect, not talk, write, and be guided only by my own whims and wants, is feeling more and more like I am doing something right. Again I think of John Muir, “…for going out, I found, was really going in.”

*****

The cloudy afternoon has given way to one last show from the sun, shining through a narrow gap between the clouds and the western horizon, illuminating the very top of the sandstone wall to the east. It looks like the light is coming not from the sun but out of the uppermost part of the redrock wall itself. And then, in a matter of seconds, the light dissolves and the evening just became several notches darker. A canyon wren sounds like it is rehearsing its iconic canyon song of descending notes. Another bird whose song I am not familiar with adds some counterpoint to the wren. Dueling birds! The thin cloud cover above the eastern wall is now blushed with a peachy pink, once again brightening up the evening landscape. As I watch it becomes brighter. The color reveals that the clouds are moving to the north as they become brighter still against a backdrop of a bluish gray sky. I couldn’t ask for a better evening show!

I turn my gaze behind me and see that the western sky is just as alive with color. Feathery clouds of pink drift over the Needles on the northwest horizon, their red and white stripes still visible in the fading light. The evening show has many acts; just when I think it is over, another colorful act begins. The birds have quieted and the deep silence of the canyon, of the park, of the Universe fills my ears. Fills my entire self. Oh, it was a long drive getting here, but this, all by itself, makes it well worth it. The latest act is fading slowly, as if the silence is sucking the color right out of the sky.

Ah, the next act, stage west – the crescent sliver of moon, a shallow U facing almost directly up, is coming through the thinning clouds. Next, depending on the cloud cover, will be the stars. Will I ever get to sleep tonight?