Why on Earth are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear.
One of the lasting lessons I learned early on my first extended trip into true wilderness (recently and probably soon again to be known as the Planet) — which expedition was a bush plane drop off in a wolf-heavy spot in Western Alaska in 1993 — was that if you are in a mentally and geographically quiet enough place to hear a raven’s wings whooshing, if pretty much means you can only have a good day.
This (in my view) key grounding lesson in any complete education has since been confirmed so many times in the field, across nearly fifty degrees of latitude, that if I had recorded ten percent of the pertinent experiences I could probably have pulled off a Journal of the Hyper Intelligent Bird-sanctioned study. Excluding the odd extreme event which demands a particular parasympathetic nervous system response, you’re in a very desirable space for handling just about anything that comes your way when you’ve not just seen but heard a raven. You’re a conscious member of creation. You’re also probably dozens if not hundreds of miles from the nearest car alarm, law office or pharmaceutical-polluted public water supply.
Here on the Funky Butte Ranch, I’m in danger of taking such days — days featuring low-flying avian-caused audible air — for granted. Days when a hyper-intelligent bird’s wings are not just discernible, are not just loud, if the wind’s right they actually echo off canyon walls. In fact we’re beyond wild wing/wind fugues here. I’m so spoiled in my home and workspace that I’m pretty sure I’ve got one purple-highlighted yearling raven resident of the Ranch ready to perch on my arm. We already have daily extended conversations, usually just after goat milking, when there’s a lot of spilled grain all over the corral, chicken coop, and meadow. I’m trying to teach it, “Howdy neighbor,” and it’s trying to teach me, “Squa-Squawk (throat roll) Squack.” These lessons can go on for some time — it’s the kind of un-rushed chattiness you see at small town deli counters when you’re in a hurry. In fact, being on deadlines short and long, I had to end the last two exchanges.
This is all part of the daily payer that I call my morning arroyo run.
First, a little background about how I came to realize that my gym is also my shrine. The final sprint to that awareness began when I acquired, just last week, Western scientific proof of my long held belief that the main, if not the only error that the human species need correct as of this moment in Gregorian 2013 is giving up hunter/gathering. The moment the first land was fenced off to plant an individual family’s seeds, kings and slaves (and the lawyers, newspapers and priests necessary to keep the insanity in place) were not far behind.
An easy fix, I think. For me, at least. Just do what makes me happy. But I have a finely tuned vibe sensor and I can sense that over the years most folks, if not a super majority, have tended to find my “let’s get back to the wandering” suggestion, which I’ve been making since my early 20s, unrealistic, if not certifiable. Finally I discovered that someone with tenure had long ago signed off on it. The key is for this to happen before the flailing powers make you drink the hemlock. This involves living a life of courageous delicacy. Finding myself still alive, now I have my dinner party (or river raft or green room) back-up! It’s like Idea Insurance.
Comes in the form of a 1965 UC Berkeley doctoral anthropological dissertation in which Richard Lee found that the !Khun people (I think the exclamation point is some kind of click) of the Kalahari average 2,140 calories per day and an astounding 93.1 grams of protein during a – and this is the key stat for this dreamer – 12-19 hour work week. I spend more than that blanching kale.
And this is a non-motorized work week. A work week sans the freakin’ wheel.
I shudder to think what we’d turn up if we studied our own society in these terms. Imagine the relative caloric intake to energy expended of, say, the financial adviser, the Wal-mart regional manager, the GMO corn farmer, the trucker, or you or me.
During my own analog of what Lee describes as the !Kung’s “extended leisure time” each day, I notice that when I’m in an ecosystem that’s alive to the point of healthy predator/prey balance, I remember not just that the universe seems to want what’s best (for me and everyone), but that it’s always acceptable to be my own friend. This restorative is delivered thus far without fail on every 45-minute run/yoga routine in the wilderness adjacent to my ranch. I feel like I’ve won the psychic lottery every day. I wouldn’t change a thing in a life that yet again got me to this point feeling this way. Well, hardly anything.
This is to say that without expectation, conscious need or preparation (beyond some rudimentary Tree Pose stretching in the creekbed) I enjoy a profound spiritual experience while exercising every morning. It just happens. Today the spiritual spark ignited a few nanoseconds after I scooped up a handful of shaded old snow, blindingly white against the cactus and yucca screen, and rubbed it on my sweaty neck. That was when the woodpecker started up in stereo — in an oak tree on either side of the deer trail where I had paused for a sip of water.
Whatever the day’s catalyst (talk about Must See TV), I often find as I duck under the final fence line and see and smell the juniper smoke rising from my own house, that I can’t say thank you enough. To God, the dang in-the-orchard-again goats, everyone. Sometimes it kicks in earlier than others, and can interfere with my ostensible exercise: I keep thinking of something or someone or some kindness for which to give focused, intentional thanks, so I stop for a minute, pull off my headphone, pray, get caught up in a woodpecker symphony, or the deer hoof reverberations of the herd I’ve just startled, or (this one happens a lot in wintertime) a regrouping quail family yipping from trail-side clusters of Apache plume bushes like Sesame Street aliens as the resident red-tail hawk circles languorously overhead, probably assuming I’ve got to that breakfast take-out counter before she has.
I’m the kind of fellow who doesn’t generally expect instant karma. I try to be patient; make an effort not to forget the many-stepped cure when there’s a lag between medicine and healing. But my morning run straightens me out (a lot or a little, as needed) every time. It matters to me a great deal that it never fails. It somehow informs me that the holy is always discernible, like a focus feature, if I just keep groping for the dial. A sweetheart of mine once said she exercised so she could eat. I exercise so I can feel.
The question I faced upon having this realization was, “Do I write about it?” I have no interest in pushing my particular spiritual path. In the end, I just decided to do what I always do: write what I feel. I know I’m fed on one beautiful thought or act per day. I return from the morning arroyo run feeling like the funnest decision, the easiest path, is to try to be the best conscious being possible, and then maybe a little better. Beyond a better writer, a better friend, or even a better father, my exercise routine, I believe, makes me a better rancher. Which, granted, isn’t saying much.
Like a crunchy Elmer Fudd, I’ve been known to guard my goats all night from coyotes with a shotgun I hardly know how to use. This kind of love is acutely recognized by the Funky Butte Ranch livestock, and it is returned in the form of real protein production benefits. I think I’ve probably drank more than a ton of my goats’ growth hormone-free milk in the past half decade.
It’s for all of these reasons that I go, go, always go on that run, even on a subzero morning with a headache on no sleep post-deadline when still jet-lagged from a Szechwan-fueled East Coast media trip. My armor as I glide through this sometimes dangerous world is the magnitude of my appreciation. The more appreciative I am (directly correlated to the more raven wings I hear), the stronger I am — anywhere. Some people say they don’t listen to what today are called “the haters.” I see haters — and there thankfully don’t seem to be many, which is just enough — as part of the love. They provide part of life’s essential humility-maintaining Ninja training. Not just in motivation to prove them wrong but to see if there’s anything to learn in what they say.
“Home again,” I realize one more time, panting from the session’s final sprint (marathon runners know this as “interval training”) as I scritch one of my goats between the horns and start thinking about my work day tasks to do and ranch repair tasks to postpone. “Overflowing with, permeated by, active love and a few cactus thorns (“Ouch” in my ecosystem isn’t so much an exclamation as a figure of speech).” Also more than a little ready for the eggs and the other goodies that the non-human branch of the Funky Butte Family provides. I’m pretty good on protein even if Wal-Mart goes away.
So that’s a source outline, a starter in case Dr. Lee wants to tackle my neo-Rugged Individualist lifestyle. And thus, my run is my prayer. In fact, in rereading the previous paragraph I’m thinking that a more accurate title for this Dispatch might be “Six Sense Marinade.” It just doesn’t take much to launch me into blissful appreciation. I’m a spiritual lightweight — one hour outside and I’m high all day. Regardless of the title, what is without question going on is stimulation of every one of my known senses plus some others I can’t quite name. I’m lumping some very disparate flavors of awareness into a “sixth” sense here, which I’d like to acknowledge just in case, the way string theorists says we’re dealing with, ya know, 42 dimensions or something, we might also be just scratching the surface of perception and indeed consciousness itself. I’m referring to receiving signals as “true” in the same manner that the optical nerves receive “oak” signals when you look at an oak.
The activating agent for this relatively straightforward “There is only Love” message, as I’ve already alluded, is often a windsurfing angel of a raven, who seems to get something out of our Walnut Tree Klatches as well. (Park signs advise us to “leave no trace” in the wilderness. I think we need to add the word “physical”, since I believe we exchange valuable psychic treasures with other travelers, no matter the species, every second we’re on the planet.) This is one reason I think my religion has to happen in a wilderness setting. Another is that, for a guy like me, if he consciously keeps in shape, the kind of physical quiet I’m talking about leaves room for real spiritual growth. At least prioritizing.
I live on Goat Milking O’clock. Mine is a datura based calendar with seasons delineated by owl and falcon fledgling, by when each variety of hummingbird arrives. Once I can see or hear human neighbors, everything changes to Digital Age normalcy. The primate pissing contests over road maintenance and dog etiquette begin. I start caring about cosmically unnecessary things.
Last week one of my neighbors, whose wildfire my ranch sitters rushed to put out while I was researching Too High to Fail, erected an impassable cairn of river stones on the only “road” between “his” property and “mine.” Ostensibly to prevent road creep into his meadow, I would think, but really to stimulate a lot of chimp gesticulating and grunting. I think I’m supposed to move them (a rancher version of the medieval slapping with a glove). I ain’t playing. As yet haven’t even dramatically circled into his Rubicon of a meadow. Just been pushing the Ridiculously Oversized American Truck‘s rear view mirror in and brushing against the poor far side juniper. I have a whole passenger seat full of indigo juniper berries, slowly turning to gin in my rarely vacuumed rig.
Back to prayer mechanics, for a moment, because the whole reason I’m telling all this is that I made a for-me exciting change to one part of it recently that I’d like to share here in a bit. The arroyo run service, as I say, is unscheduled but daily. I say “gotta go pray to stay in shape” in the exact same muscular situation that some would say “gotta go work out to stay in shape.” If it had a printout the service would I think look something like this:
–Run up local Continental Divide canyon with Bob Marley playing in one ear and self-serve woodpecker diner duets in the other.
–Hit imaginary speed bag for one minute, break for one. Repeat until distracted.
–Stop to stretch (Tree Pose and other stretches with Sanskrit names).
–Exclaim something like, “Whoa, listen to that cactus wren call! Thirteen notes! Syncopated quarter notes and triplets in 13/4.”
–Immediately notice a second minor miracle (today it was a hidden, impossibly out-of-season lemoncillo blossom, still redolent of its namesake citrus).
–Notice self feeling, overwhelmingly, bolt-uprightingly, that the Creator of this miracle of life at all, let alone the intense and constant LASER show of conscious being, deserves immediate and intentional appreciation. Specifically, for the gift of the immeasurable love and beauty that surround us at every moment. I mean, this is the giver, to give a recent example, of the din of joyous bee wings half submerged in desert wildflowers. The ancients share the best light show with us: a shooting star, the Northern Lights, the blue tip of a campfire.
Using roughly the above map, I try to ground every element of my life these days in appreciation of the gift of this great, often hysterically-funny adventure of conscious existence in my current body, this puzzle whose goal, rules and every clue seems to me to be “in any situation, a good practice is to try to live closer to heaven”.
That’s it. The above is where my relative sanity resides. That’s the mechanics of it, anyway. Now, for those who believe prayer is the recitation of some kind of hands-folded poem, on to the words. But first, big thanks to Dr. Lee — sending appreciation to you for legitimizing my appreciation. At last I can say with the kind of confidence that only peer-reviewed academic research can provide, that the closer I get to Neolithic lifestyle, the closer to heaven I feel. It might even prove an as-yet unrecognized branch of my faith called “Wildernessism.”
Insofar as I use any consistently articulated human words to express the breadth of my big picture appreciation, for years I have generally uttered, somewhere on my run, this:
“Thank you, God for
Everything (Note: sometimes I ad lib by tacking on something specific here, like ‘…including the neighbor’s pack of inbred dogs currently menacing me from a few ridges away with their visibly foaming fangs and recent cases of Parvo‘).”
I’ve been gushing forth with that prayer virtually unchanged since at least 1998, when I’d use the break on an icy run with a view of Homer, Alaska’s Kachemak Bay to jam my hands into my armpits. My fingers are just warming back up now. Since last millennium it’d been “Thanks for Life, Love, Beauty and Everything.” Seemed just a bit more rigorous, less lazy, than simply, “Thanks for…it all!” Closest thing to a mantra in my world, at any rate. I could recite it with an empty mind, and mean it. Until last Thursday.
And this change, coming so soon after and even more than Academic Officialdom backing its obvious meaning up, is what made me realize that my run, or more generally being outside somewhere quiet, is the principle practice of my religion. Even on holy fasting days. What happened was I, in short order, both added and then promoted to the anchor position the noun “Now” to this prayer.
So now the morning Appreciation Benediction is, “Thanks for Life, Love, Beauty, Everything and Now.”
I knew right away that the word was in the picture forever. It’s a good word. A metaphor made for the universality of prayer. For why it feels like to me that we are here.
I congratulated it, and, a few days later I started ending with it. When Now debuted (in retrospect, it had been a rising prospect developing in the minors for years), I was up to the “stop to stretch” stage in the above service and recall that one of the morning’s minor miracles had been that the only other tracks before mine in an overnight snow dusting were clearly some kind of not-small wildcat.
Some scat further up my creekbed confirmed this bit of very amateur tracking. I checked my phone reception in case I survived the initial claw-to-jugular in strong enough shape to call 911, made a note that I had just added “Now” in my longest-running, Cal Ripkin of a prayer, and, momentarily blinded as the first rays of winter sunshine beamed over the Eastern ridges of my canyon like oncoming high beams, bolted in undignified fashion along the deer trail until I was in what felt to me a less exposed position. This is when I acquired most of the day’s desert acupuncture needles. In other words, terrifying wildcat tracks are, particularly after the fact, why I live remote.
Not more than five days later, in nearly the same spot and on cue, I felt the appreciation coming on as I spied the spine of the Continental Divide and nearly wept for joy at its meaning: that I felt that such a wild friggin’ place was home base. Boom. Closed with “Now” and don’t see that changing for a long time. For one thing, being thankful for the Now always applies. Thus it’s much more elegant and way simpler than every time slipping in some wordy if accurate in-the-moment analogue, like, “Thanks for the absolutely distinct quiet of a snowy high desert canyon morning in January, which sounds like nothing else I can name except maybe a whisper inside some kind of soundproof organic recoding studio: even the echoes of Cambrian rocks sliding down the arroyo under my bootsoles tone it down after a winter Land of Enchantment snowstorm and this is so sublime that I don’t know whether to bust out in giggles or fall to the ground in gratitude that I’m allowed to feel this way. Which feeling I don’t want to stop. Ever. The world as it was given is a spiritual chiropractor. Real quiet is loud. Almost conscious. It allows me to breathe deeply (a very important health maintenance practice) without distraction. “
I patted Now on the shoulder and told it, “You’ve got the job, kid.”
* * * * *
A few work (Drug Peace) Postscripts (in writing the joy-filled Afterword to the paperback edition of Too High to Fail last week, I realized with some surprise that I’ve essentially been a full time drug policy journalist for two years now): Thanks to the Melissa Harris-Perry Show (which is staffed with smart and kind producers and host) for the fun recent panel discussion on MSNBC. Here’s a behind-the-scenes tidbit: I and the other panelists got to intensely lobby fellow panelist Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) to introduce legislation to get cannabis out of federal Controlled Substances Act. For the good of the country.
I’m also delighted to send ecstatic props to the Mendocino County, California county government for fighting an unconstitutional and privacy violating federal subpoena surrounding the successful cannabis permitting “Zip-tie” program I followed in Too High to Fail. As much as this is great for America’s freedom, economy, pubic health and community safety, I’m just astounded after two decades of journalism to come across a functional local government. The elected officials in Mendocino’s Board of Supervisors, folks who hold widely disparate views on everything from cannabis to the age of the universe, unified and decided to defend the county’s wise decision to acknowledge and bring above ground the $6 billion-a-year local cannabis industry. We’ll follow progress on the subpoena fight here in these Dispatches. The outcome might well decide whether a sustainable cannabis industry will be born with the dawn of the Dug Peace Era. This is something I wrote about recently on Alternet.
Finally — and from a protein and ice cream perspective most importantly — I’m very pleased to report that the annual Funky Butte Ranch goat breeding adventure is over and I’ve commenced pampering my pregnant, floppy-eared, white-and-brown Nubian Bette. She’s foraging for at least two (and as many as four) now. Of course, the others have noticed. So. Extra treats for all.
I’ll end with a photo from Seattle on what I hope most readers will recognize was an important day in American history: December 6, 2012 (the day the state of Washington’s cannabis legalization went into effect). Though some of the opacity in this photo might be considered atmospheric, the Associated Press reported that there was “nary a police officer in sight” at the massive smoke-out beside the Space Needle that day. America is stronger and safer with the coming of the Drug Peace Era.