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An entry in Encounters

One of the challenges of attempting a life in the margins is the sense of alienation it can, at times, produce. Granted, a life lived within the confines of society's dominant ways and thoughts can be alienating as well--even more so, in many ways. Still, the simple fact is that in divorcing oneself of the myth of progress, spurning a great deal of material wealth in efforts toward voluntary poverty, believing that society is in the beginning throes of contraction, and limiting your intake of the newest and shiniest technologies, you tend to alienate yourself to some degree from a good many people. If, like me, this is a somewhat new project for you, then it's likely that you'll find yourself navigating tricky ground with at least some of your friends and family as you try to live your life in accordance with your beliefs while not becoming completely inscrutable to those you've known for years.

I've struggled with these challenges, though I'm blessed in that most of my friends and family seem to have taken my odd behavior in good stride. I suspect some of this is due to a sympathy toward my core beliefs, even if the expression of them skews somewhat radical, while some is due to the fact that I've always been at least a bit odd and contrary. Whatever kick I'm on at any given time is typically suffered with good nature, and for that I'm grateful.

What I do miss in my attempt to live a life of less is a partner. While I've done some dating over the past four-ish years that I've been farming, I find it a bit of a challenge to find people who understand the sort of lifestyle I'm trying to live and are either interested in pursuing a similar lifestyle or who simply are sympathetic to it, even if it's not exactly their ideal. It's not that I can't find people who believe we live unsustainably as a society, but that it's more of a challenge to find people who are interested in or are already taking the next steps of living with much less. I can't help but feel that the term "voluntary poverty" is a bit scary to a number of people out there, though perhaps this is as much my own sense of self-consciousness as anything else.

It's within this context that, just shy of two years ago, I found myself hiking the trail up Neahkahnie Mountain, not long after moving out here to the coast for my third farming apprenticeship. I hiked alone, climbing the mountain for the first time, shouldering a backpack with some water and food in it. It was a spring day and the sun shone, though I hiked mostly in the cool shadow of trees. I kept a steady pace with matching breath.

Hiking is something of a meditation for me. I've written about this before, in The Rhythm of Contemplation, but as I fall into a steady pace of hiking and breathing, my mind tends to wander and explore various corners within itself, tracing out paths much as my body follows the forest path, though not with such a singular focus. Sometimes I find myself thinking out some new bit of philosophy or insight, while other times I fall into a contemplation of lingering personal issues or frustrations. Hiking up Neahkahnie that day, my mind took the latter path. I focused in on a complex and somewhat unresolved relationship from a year ago, allowing the frustrations that had arisen from the relationship to pull me toward depression, even mild despair. Wandering through the trees, engrossed within my own mind, I felt an intense alienation and loneliness, wondering if I would ever find a settled place and a partner, good and meaningful work, a life which felt right.

I had only recently moved out to the coast, relocating for the third time in two and a half years. I made these moves in service of broader goals: learning to farm, finding meaningful work and a meaningful life. But that didn't change the fact that each move proved a challenge, further heightening my sense of alienation and divorce from the social world, and further unsettling my life. I wanted desperately to find a place to stay and familiarize myself with, but that place continued to elude me. I wanted a partner, and she also continued to elude me. In that moment, then, out on the trail and surrounded by intense beauty, by an incredible amount of life, I couldn't help myself from falling into the confines of my own mind, blocking out the abundant world around me and indulging in a great loneliness. I felt I might never have what I wanted. I questioned my decisions, this life I had chosen to lead.

I stared at the ground, at my feet, placing each of my steps carefully but automatically, avoiding rocks and roots and keeping a firm footing. I could see the ground, but not really--I was in my own head, lost in pity and frustration, in the dark paths that the hike's physical rhythms had opened up to me. I imagined human touch, physical intimacy, and the longing for it clawed at me. I wanted all these things that I didn't have at the moment, and I couldn't see all I did have.

At that moment I looked up and ahead, along the shadowed trail beset on each side by high-reaching Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. One of those firs towered on my right, moving in close as I continued to walk along the path, its trunk deep and wide and covered in vibrant green moss. I didn't think about it, made no conscious decision; I simply reached for the tree. In that moment of intense sadness, I turned and reached and hugged the trunk of that tree, pressing against the rough bark and soft moss, and I felt relief flood me. The tree comforted me as well as any human could have and for a startling moment, it was as real and alive to me as any friend would be. It mattered not that the tree was of a different composition than flesh and bone, a different species, in many ways an alien being.

Trees are alive, of course. They have power and spirit. They are creatures of this world, the same as humans are, the same as any animal. And yet, despite my love of them and despite my joy in their presence, I don't tend to gain a comfort from them the way I do a friend, or a family member, or a lover. I know there are some people out there who feel that intense a connection to trees on a regular basis, but I'm not one of those people. Sometimes I'll stop to touch a tree, to feel its bark, to rest or lean against it and I've even been known, once or twice, to speak to a tree, though I've never heard a response. Hell, I've hugged trees more than a few times in my life. But never when I felt the way I did that day, in that dark moment, in desperate need of comfort from another creature. I sought that tree out, not even thinking, and I felt as connected to it as I would anyone. Even as it happened, it shocked me.

I stayed against the tree for a few moments, shifting my head to place my forehead against the cool and damp moss, taking deep breaths, self-conscious enough to glance down the trail to see if anyone else was coming into view, able to see me in my arborous embrace. Thankfully, no one appeared. I was left alone with the tree and its comfort.

After a few minutes, I stepped back, placed my hand against its trunk, thanked the tree. I felt infinitely better. I did not feel nearly so alone, nearly so destitute. My loneliness and self-pity dissipated and the incredible community around me came into focus, reminding me that I wasn't alone, even if it at times felt that way. I continued my hike, buoyed and thankful. Blessed. I stayed alert and aware of the life around me, even as I continued to think and meditate, to allocate a portion of my attention to the inside of my mind.

Since that day, I've stayed here on the Oregon coast. I've moved a few times, but each time only down the road, not to some other town or region. I've been building a life, integrating into the community, meeting people and making friends, establishing myself. I don't know that I'll stay here--it's very possible, but not assured. I have yet to find a partner. I still find myself lonely at times, and I even occasionally question my decisions, wonder if I'm on the right path. But almost every day I'm surrounded by other life, some of it human and much of it not. That's always a blessing. It's always a comfort. It's always a confirmation that I'm on the right path, wherever it may be leading. Yes, there are still human relationships I yearn for and that I hope to eventually cultivate. But they're not the only source of comfort and connection. They're just one amongst many.

I don't know that I'll ever feel such a striking and intense connection to a tree again. But I love knowing that it's possible--that in dark moments, a greater number of species than I might otherwise have imagined can provide me deep and true comfort. I love that sense of connection, of being intertwined, of transcending unnecessary and imposed boundaries. Flesh and bone, bark and pith--it's all the structure of life, all from the same source. It's all connected. It just sometimes takes a dark moment to realize it.

(Cross-posted from my blog, Of The Hands.)

Originally posted to aimlessmind on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 06:12 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (23+ / 0-)

    Of The Hands - Thoughts on voluntary poverty, homesteading, farming, reconnecting to the land, doing good work, and muddling through the new no-growth economy.

    by aimlessmind on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 06:12:05 PM PST

  •  Our parter Blaki had a litter, (9+ / 0-)

    a couple decades ago. We had a puppy float alongside our dock. An adolescent male wolf took an interest in the family. He was probably just lonely, but wolves do kill dogs so we remained wary. One day when I was walking the beach gathering up some stuff because we were moving the next day, the young fellow came from behind and brushed my leg as he passed, wolves aren't dogs, they have no pact with humans and they move like magic. He let me know that he was willing to join my pack if I allowed. Connection, yeah, I get it.

    Anything you're good at contributes to happiness. Bertrand Russell

    by Wood Gas on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 06:27:59 PM PST

    •  Amazing (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LinSea, Renee, blue91, RiveroftheWest

      That sounds like a hell of an encounter. Wolves, yes, they strike me as magical. I've only really seen them at a distance. Coupled with a boat load of caveats, I'd love to see one close, to have the time to watch it move and make its way across the land.

      Of The Hands - Thoughts on voluntary poverty, homesteading, farming, reconnecting to the land, doing good work, and muddling through the new no-growth economy.

      by aimlessmind on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 06:41:35 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting epiphany. Would that (4+ / 0-)

    Timothy Treadwell had stuck to trees.

    •  Yeah, you'll never see me hugging a grizzly (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LinSea, a gilas girl, RiveroftheWest

      Though that would be fun if I could guarantee he wouldn't get grouchy about it.

      Of The Hands - Thoughts on voluntary poverty, homesteading, farming, reconnecting to the land, doing good work, and muddling through the new no-growth economy.

      by aimlessmind on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:41:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I respect your diary and the thoughts propelling (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        aimlessmind, myboo, RiveroftheWest, marina

        it. We all search in our own way. I was not trying to be cute, just to express my sense that nature doesn't much care about us.

        I too have found inspiration in natures tactile and visual presentations. As a Navy carrier pilot for 20 years I've flown over many spectacular venues at very low levels. I recall a low-level training route in Greece we called the Thromo Stolo" (sp?). For the last 3-4 miles before it fed into the sea, you flew down a canyon, 200-300 feet above you on each side, at about 350 mph. Width was about 300-900 yards. The first time you fly it, it's all about the aircraft and not screwing up--Mars could have been outside the cockpit and you wouldn't notice. But after the fifth time or so, its about what it is, why is it there, where it came from, who's been there before, (and waving up at the (presumed) Greek folk walking along on the trail you were flying beneath).

        My point is, nature couldn't have cared less had I made a mistake and flown into a canyon wall. But as long as watched my p's and q's and took care of my business in that over which I had control, she would be pleased to present me with her wonders, allow them to expand my consciousness, and learn what I could.

        I also identify with your search for a partner. I suspect I am older than you (I'm 66), and as one grows older, more nuance is added to one's definition of the preferable partner. But the desire for one such, I think increases. Be not dismayed by your life's choices, but be willing to to reach the odd compromise. I might also add, be not afraid to reach out (with due diligence) to other lands and cultures. Believe it or not, not everybody has American 'values' as to what constitutes the good life. I will guarantee you your lifestyle will be a step up for many folk.

        Anyway, I liked your diary, it plucked several strings, and wish you good fortune.

        •  Thank you, valion (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Renee, myboo, RiveroftheWest

          I'd agree with you that nature couldn't care less if you had flown into that canyon. I find it an odd compunction that so many people seem to think that humanity is particularly special, or owed something by the earth---which isn't always stated, but seems an assumption when people's behavior is examined closely. Part of the reason I write the Encounters series is because I don't think we're any better or more worthy than any other species on this planet, and I think understanding that concept is an important part in understanding that we're beholden to all the same rules and realities that any other species is.

          That includes all the hard ecological realities that I believe are becoming clear and will become yet more clear over the coming decades, whether or not we choose to acknowledge those realities even as they're asserting themselves all around us.

          That said, I do also have a certain spiritual belief in an underlying connection amongst all the different creatures on this planet, human and otherwise, and I do think those connections cross over species lines in compelling and mysterious ways. And I think trees, for instance, experience the world in some way. I don't know how and I'm sure it would be quite alien to me as a human, but I do believe that.

          It would be fascinating to know how a tree experiences the world. Or a grizzly bear. Or a mushroom, a house cat, a blade of grass. Hell, even another human. Alas, we only get our own experiences.

          Still pretty amazing, that.

          As for reaching out to other lands and cultures, that's a good point. I have no intention of leaving the United States, so I won't be doing it in that manner, but there are still plenty of people right here in America who don't buy into the dominant culture. I've met quite a number of them. It's always a bit of a balancing act, connecting with those sorts of people and also keeping myself from being cut off from the rest of the culture--which is not something I want to do.

          Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate them.

          (Oh, and it must have been a hell of an experience, flying through that canyon, once you had mastered it well enough to actually take a broader view. Man, oh man.)

          Of The Hands - Thoughts on voluntary poverty, homesteading, farming, reconnecting to the land, doing good work, and muddling through the new no-growth economy.

          by aimlessmind on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 10:13:20 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I also have never been especially wedded to the (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            aimlessmind, RiveroftheWest

            notion that homo sapiens were somehow exempt from cosmic forces. In fact, that's why I give thanks for being here, being who I am, and having a very brief (cosmic) opportunity to know my predecessors and to launch a successor into an uncertain cosmos, hoping it will give her the same opportunity.  I'm not all gooey about it, but it frames my perspective, and keeps me from getting all hot and bothered about stuff. Be well.

  •  In describing so vividly your being blessed, you (5+ / 0-)

    evoke that feeling in the reader as well.  Thank you for this gentle respite tonight.

    Dance lightly upon the Earth, Sing her songs with wild abandon, Smile upon all forms of Life ...and be well.

    by LinSea on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:54:26 PM PST

  •  I'm becoming a serious fan of your work. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    aimlessmind, RiveroftheWest

    Poverty = politics.

    by Renee on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 11:11:10 PM PST

  •  From one tree-hugger to another (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, marina, aimlessmind

    I start with trying to imagine what it would be like to be rooted in one place unmoving but moved by winds, rain, snow, fire, bugs and other creatures -  24/7/365 for 600, 800, 2000 years. Like one lifelong meditation, maybe. Not saying I get it, but it's a start.

    muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

    by veritas curat on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 09:13:29 AM PST

  •  Fine, thoughtful post -- thank you. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marina, aimlessmind

    I wish more of us could value nature the way you do, and express ourselves half so well. Please keep writing.

    •  Thank you! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I certainly will keep writing, though it may trend down over the summer. Busy times in the farming world.

      Of The Hands - Thoughts on voluntary poverty, homesteading, farming, reconnecting to the land, doing good work, and muddling through the new no-growth economy.

      by aimlessmind on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 10:54:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes Indeed (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I and some family members are starting an organic farm/aquaponics system on what was my parents' property. The younger folks are doing the work but we are all invested in keeping that good land productive and useful. This will be the year that we actually begin to sell at the Farmers' Markets -- it's very exciting.

        I always enjoy your writing; good luck to you.

  •  You hug the tree. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    aimlessmind, RiveroftheWest

    The tree hugs you.

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