Solitude

Caring for Precious Lands

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. It’s been a good companion over these last couple of days’ flights home. Particularly in long delays or crammed up against fellow passengers, it serves as a reminder that I’d rather be anywhere than where I am at the moment. And it takes me there.

I’m envious. Notified by a friend of an opening for fire lookout, he quit his job in Manhattan where he was a journalist and during the fire season lives in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico in a small box held up by stilts. He watches for fires and calls them in.

In some directions, the gaze settles on nothing but vast wilderness. It must have the same effect as gazing into a night sky unobstructed by human-made light. The more you gaze, the more the night sky invites, catapulting you into never-ending depth. There’s the sense of our small place in the universe and ancient knowledge we’ll never know. I imagine it could be a lonely job if you’re not cut out for this kind of solitude and little outside human contact. But for those who instead make friends with nature, find solace in silence and discover meaning in the wind, it must be pure heaven.

FireSeason

Monsoon season. Photo: Carla Woody

Connors focuses on the 2009 fire season and walks us through his daily life, controversies through the years about the service natural fires perform, the cycle of nature, prescribed burns, what happens in drought years, and philosophical thought. I particularly found interesting his detailed description of sighting tendrils of smoke when he was out on the trail, knowing he was the first to see it, how he sent the alert and the actions taken from that point by wildfire fighters. Considerations if the fire got too close or overwhelming, what options he had to save himself.

I’d never heard of fire lookouts until I moved to the Southwest. Now the possibility of fire hovers in the back of my mind during the season. It’s come quite close to me a few times and otherwise engulfed local areas, leaving devastation and lost lives. And I always think of the animals.

One year — I think it was 2002 — I had a chance for a small taste of what it was like to be a lookout. An acquaintance had been one for years on Mount Union, the highest point at 8,000 feet in the Bradshaw Mountains of the Prescott National Forest.  He’d been inviting me out for some time. One weekend I decided to drive up there, quite the feat for the car I had at the time, especially as it had started to rain and fog was rolling in. Unbeknownst to me, it happened to be the weekend he was going down to Phoenix. I arrived just as he was leaving. He encouraged me to stay anyway.

The clouds had by now enfolded all. I could see only several feet beyond where I was standing in any direction. I was completely alone.

I went inside the cabin, having thoughts toward dinner. Choosing one from the many books Jon had, I carried my plate to the small table in front of the west window, which normally held a view level with, or above, far mountaintops. At the moment, I saw nothing but a solid white wall. And by now, the gentle rain had turned into a storm.

I glanced out the window and couldn’t believe what I saw. An immense fiery ball seemed to be hovering just beyond, in the ravine. I went out onto the porch to investigate. There it was—huge and blazing. How could the sun be coming to me in this way through the now torrential rains and impenetrable shrouding of clouds? I stood watching, awestruck, until the last remnants of this light finally disappeared.

Even though the storm was raging, I was compelled to sleep in the tower. I lugged my sleeping bag and a flashlight up the steep metal stairs, along with some water and Saint Thérèse’s book. After arranging my bed for the night, I stilled myself and just watched the scene before me. From an altitude of around 8000 feet and the further height of the fire tower, I had a sense of being on top of the world. The clouds had raised enough that I could see the panorama of lightning dancing across the land. I’d never seen such a demonstration of raw power. Some strikes seemed too close for comfort and the thunderclaps vibrated the tower’s cabin. But I just stood witness and found an uncanny metaphor in the stormy night to some of the inner turmoil that I’d brought with me to that place. Finding myself distracted and unable to read easily by flashlight, I lay listening to the sounds of thunder and raging wind for the longest time, feeling somehow perfectly safe. Peace was penetrating. I finally slept.

I opened my eyes very early the next morning. I heard no sounds of wind or rain. All was silent. I sat up. There were no clouds anywhere. Peace had come to the landscape. I could smell the fresh scent of washed pines coming to me through the small crack I’d left in one of the windows close by. My eyes came to rest on the mountain range toward the east. First light was appearing. I watched as the same fiery ball rose into view, smaller now, but its appearance just as profound to me. The cycle of renewal was complete.

— Excerpt from Standing Stark: The Willingness to Engage

 

That night was so precious to me. I’ve never forgotten it. In such environments, things are more real somehow than at any other time.

Connors’ recounting also made me recall the years I lived in Germany. Especially those couple of years in a village where the road by the house ended several feet away in pasture, then shortly in forest. Forests in Germany always seemed manicured to me. Beautiful, but pristine and tamed. Each village has a forstmeister, or forest master. I wonder how their role compares to the fire lookouts and forest rangers here in densely forested lands of the US. I appreciate the wildness.

Fire Season will be of special interest to those in the Southwest and other such forested lands. He wrote of places I know. And for those who live in places like Manhattan, it may ignite something similar like it did in Philip Connors.

Widely available in print, ebook and audio.

Categories: Book Review, Contemplative Life, Honoring the Earth, Solitude | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Film Review – Agafia’s Taiga Life

Agafia’s Taiga Life

A Documentary by Vice Media

Agafia

Agafia Lykov. Photo credit: Siberian Times.

In 1936 Karp Lykov took his family and fled into the Siberian wilderness to avoid Stalin and persecution because of their religion. Called the Old Believers, they belonged to a sect of Russian Orthodox fundamentalists. Over the years they retreated deeper and deeper into the Taiga, a forested region in the heart of Siberia, where temperatures are extreme and civilization is non-existent.

Agafia was born into that life in 1943. Agafia saw no one but family for 40 years. And then no one at all for 25 years until a geologist moved a short distance away. All that time, she’d been a woman alone, living off the land.

Journalists from Vice Media visited Agafia to shoot a documentary about her life for their Far Out series. She relates what it’s like to live in the company of her animals, her faith, occasional encounters with bears and rocket debris, a way of life that gets much more difficult as she ages. Her story is an example of pockets in the world where people are living in solitude by circumstance and often by choice.

Watch it online for free. Length: 36 minutes.

To read about another in this series and watch the documentary, see Faustino’s Patagonian Retreat.

Categories: cultural interests, Film, Solitude | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

200px-QuietBookCoverPeople are often surprised when I say that I’m an introvert. They’re fooled by the fact that I’m articulate, do public speaking, work with groups and engage socially. They assume that I’m an extrovert. I can do the things I do because I’ve arranged my lifestyle to support my biological make-up and preferences. I love to engage when they’re things I care about deeply—BUT I retreat to regenerate myself. Whether you lean toward introversion or extroversion primarily has to do with how you expend your energy and the way you renew it.

However, our culture values extroversion. There must be something wrong if you’re not talking: You’re secretive, have nothing of value to contribute and probably not so bright.

As a child there were countless times when I heard I was “too quiet.” Not by my parents, who are also introverts, but mostly by teachers, causing me to retreat even further into my inner world. As a teenager, it was even more hurtful, especially when it came from friends. All that input translates to: You’re not good enough. It haunted me for a long time.

 Indeed, your biggest challenge may be to fully harness your strengths. You may be so busy trying to appear like a zestful, reward-sensitive extrovert that you undervalue your own talents, or feel underestimated by those around you. But when you’re focused on a project that you care about, you probably find that your energy is boundless. – From Quiet.

Later in life I have often been called “intense” as though something is wrong with that as well. But by the time I heard it the first time I’d begun to value my own sensibilities and could translate the meaning to “passion.” And the years I worked in a corporate environment…meetings were my most dreaded activity. Those who were most vocal blathered on saying nothing. It was an effort for me to keep in my seat. I wanted to jump out of my skin and flee.

Author Susan Cain has gotten a lot of play in the media since Quiet was published in 2012. It’s been on the bestseller list for many weeks running. Nevertheless, I didn’t know about it until I was perusing my local library for CD books to accompany me on a recent road trip to Utah.

I’m writing this review for those who missed this important book like I did. Whether you’re more introverted or extroverted, Quiet contains highly useful information for valuing both preferences. It also contains data on biological differences and distinctions of introversion. If you’re an introvert, it cites numerous studies and other pointers that will validate your value. If you’re an extrovert, it will help you understand the many introverts around you. I was horrified at one story about two extroverted parents who sought psychiatric intervention and medication for their introverted child. When one psychiatrist found the child to be normal the parents moved on for the next opinion.

My most transformative experiences have never happened in groups. That said, there is extraordinary energy that builds when groups entrain to strong spiritual intent, kickstarting a process of opening. Then integration comes through balancing the internal and external. That is the premise underlying any retreats and spiritual travel programs I sponsor.

The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions–sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments–both physical and emotional–unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss–another person’s shift in mood, say, or a light bulb burning a touch too brightly. – From Quiet.

The quote below was quite interesting to me. Such practices don’t just occur in Evangelicalism. I’ve personally had experience of being expected to utter prayers and entreaties out loud while in sweat lodge and other ceremonies, although not as common. I remember the first time it happened I was shocked at the intrusion on my privacy in a spiritual setting. To me, such things are so sacred they’re not pronounced aloud. Of course, the leaders didn’t see it as an affront. Now, if such a thing occurs, I pass to those who want to speak these things out loud and remain comfortable with my own way.

Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme…If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.

 There is a compilation of quotes for the book on Goodreads. Ultimately, this is the teaching of the book.

We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in this world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.

There’s also an excellent TED talk by Susan Cain giving an overview. Quiet is available on Amazon and elsewhere in print, ebook and audiobook.

Categories: Book Review, Compassionate Communication, Creativity Strategies, Healthy Living, Personal Growth, Sacred Reciprocity, Solitude, Spiritual Evolution | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Review – Fleeting Moments of Fierce Clarity: Journal of a New England Poet

Fleeting Moments

L.M. Browning has written a volume about spiritual travel, not in the sense of exotic adventure, but in leaving the familiar inner dwelling, while staying close to home, to discover what is true. She lets the reader know that difficult circumstances accompanied her through much of her young life, alluding to sacrifices and betrayals. But that’s not where she leaves us. The purpose of disclosure is to let us know where she’s been and where she’s come to this point: unstintingly honest having found strength in vulnerability. Gratitude for the small things. Connection to place.

She frequently mentions the Transcendentalists. In reading the poetry and introductory essays, I can easily imagine the author walking by Thoreau’s side around Walden Pond. I’ve traveled to some of the places named. But even if I hadn’t, her use of language makes them immediate. And there’s a feeling sense that speaks to an inner space common to all of usif we choose to know it.

 As I grasped the old wrought doorknobs, I shook hands with the past.

 Celebrations of nature and history are used as vehicles urging toward spiritual travel, to shed what is meaningless and embrace greater freedom. There are examples on every page. I’ve chosen this one, reprinted with permission, to include here.

The Truce

 

Pluck a strand of wind

And listen to the trees quiver.

 

Run until your heart pounds

And watch the stagnant surface

Of the pond ripple.

 

Throw back

The suffocating blankets of false comfort

And let yourself feel the renewal of the rain.

 

Only when we overcome

Our fear of being along,

Can we come to know the company

That is always with us.

 

In surrendering, we are cradled.

In accepting, we are able to impart.

In kneeling, we stand taller.

 

Gather what is worthy of your devotion

And never betray it.

 

So that, in the end,

You will know that,

Though you be small,

You poured out all that you are

Into what is greater

 

And in doing so,

Became part of it.

 In this thin volume much is said. You’ll not want to hurry through it but rather take a page or two and linger, much as you might to inform meditation practice. Fleeting Moments of Fierce Clarity has been given the distinction of Finalist, Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the Non-Fiction Regional Category.

Available in trade paperback, e-book and audio formats via Homebound Publications, Amazon and other online or retail bookstores.

Categories: Book Review, Healing, Solitude, Spiritual Evolution, Spiritual Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Respite

 

I take daily respite in the morning. It’s my habit to arise quite early, usually before the sun is up, and sit cross-legged facing the east, to the hills just across the way, above the preserved land below my home. Then I go into meditation. I no longer use any technique as I did years ago. Going into meditation became automatic. The energy and stillness just arrive. When the sun comes up over the hills I know it immediately, not only from the strong light that plays against my eyelids, but also because the sun’s vibration is palpable, adding to what I was already experiencing on my own.

For more than thirty years, I’ve started my day this way, in different homes through time but essentially the same process. The fruits of this ritual are potent. It sets the tone for my day; it’s a benefit to my health; insights and guidance are offered: something explained, inspiration given, direction that becomes evident. But most importantly perhaps is the feeling of Presence, a sense of the sacred.

Hoodoos

Hoodoos, Mt. Lemmon

I have another respite that I’ve come, over the past few years, to treasure equally, with the same benefits. It’s turned into a habit as well. Every several weeks, five women convene at a home to share a meal and deep communication. I am one of them. We come from different walks of life, life stages and range of experiences and talents. Not all of us even knew the others when we began to gather. Yet we are a homogenous group in that we all seek the same thing: a safe haven where we can let our hair down, talk about tough nuggets we encounter, explore new ideas and celebrate each other. I think I can speak for all of those involved in saying: We’ve become significant to each other, a family of choice.

Santa Catalinas

Santa Catalinas

Salad Nicoise

Salad Nicoise with seared ahi with thanks to our gourmet chef who has mastered champagne camping.

Two years ago, we added an annual camping trip. I have to laugh because we have different ideas of what camping is and the activities involved. But we came to consensus, and this days-long respite has become paramount, too. Last year we camped in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in southeastern Utah. Two weeks ago we were in the Catalinas north of Tucson. We were early this year, and those of us in tents, rather than the camper, froze some nights. Indeed, when I got up at 5 a.m. there was frost blanketing the outside of my tent. But the sun came up. The coffee was hot and the conversation warm. As normal, we undertook our individual pursuits—reading, napping, hiking in quiet places and birdwatching, writing, one-on-one time—and gathering as a group for meals or when we felt like it for deep conversation. It’s fully free and easy.

It was to this group I entrusted the initial reading of my forthcoming novel Portals to the Vision Serpent, to test the flow and story. Any author will understand what it is to let others view their work at that early stage. I knew I could let them hold my fragile newborn, and they would make it dear and be honest. I made changes based on their feedback.

 So, I also knew that I could test an idea I have for the next novel with them. I’ve been mulling it over for the past few years, bits and pieces coming to me over time. It’s fairly complex and pushes the boundaries of a religious doctrine. Right before our camping trip somehow I stumbled upon an actual person who may serve as the inspiration for the main character. It finally seemed time to share, even though the framework wasn’t fully formed. I was grateful I had their full attention.  After listening to my somewhat disjointed dissertation, they agreed the idea had sturdy legs. Now I’m further inspired.

I’ll end here by relating what I’ve learned to be true:

       Daily respite enriches life and is a necessity to mine;

       Gathering regularly with intended community encourages risk-taking, provides comfort and is a sacred respite in itself;

       Even though I live in a wilderness area where silence prevails, leaving home and work for retreat invites further Presence into my life.

This post is dedicated to my Moon Sistars.

Categories: Compassionate Communication, Healthy Living, Meditation, Sacred Reciprocity, Solitude, Spiritual Evolution, Spiritual Travel, The Writing Life | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Review – Faustino’s Patagonian Retreat

Map La Florida PeninsulaFaustino Barrientos lives alone on the isolated Patagonian peninsula called La Florida near the shores of Lake O’Higgins. He’s been there since 1965 relishing the nearly lost lifestyle of the Chilean gaucho. Faustino has completely removed himself from civilization with the exception of a solar panel to run his radio, a chain saw, and a few other such implements that make a simple life a little easier. “If you spend a year without going out, you see nobody,” he said. And he’s chosen that life.

Vice Media sent a young film crew from New York to make a documentary on Faustino for their show Far Out: Lifestyles of the Remote and Solitary. It took them four days to reach him by plane, pick-up truck, ferry and finally by foot. Faustino had the reputation from family, and villagers from the town he left, of being cantankerous with not much use for people, even as a young man. The young filmmakers were worried. They were going into an isolated wilderness with no possible communication to the outside world to meet a recluse with a bad reputation—unannounced.

Faustino at Lake O'Higgins

Faustino at Lake O’Higgins
Photo: Peter Sutherland

Their fears were set aside after meeting an eighty-one year old man who was quite gracious and robust. He welcomed them. This documentary is Faustino’s story: how he came to live the last forty-six years in self-imposed solitude and the ingenuity it took for him to thrive; and how he’s bearing witness to global warming in a manner up front and personal.

Faustino and his hand-made goggles

Faustino and his hand-made goggles.
Photo: Peter Sutherland

I wondered if the filmmakers would touch on the spiritual fortitude it must take to live such a life. They didn’t—except to cover a story of Faustino’s early vigilante tendencies and the kindness they found instead. They did note that there was much Faustino kept to himself.

Faustino in hut

Photo: Peter Sutherland

The film is thirty-seven minutes. I was touched. You can see the trailer and complete film for free here.

Categories: Film Review, Solitude | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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