Miscellaneous Ramblings

Finding My Passion

Each time I go on a long hike I have a long time to think, a rare privilege in a fast-paced world.  A week or so into every walk, I find my thoughts slowing and relaxing, and I begin enjoying the opportunity to think a thought through to its completion, to follow a train of thought to the end of its tracks.

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Felting Rae Lakes

Perhaps as a result of my being in my 20s, this thinking eventually turns to jobs and careers and what I want to “do with my life.”  On the Appalachian Trail, I decided that I wanted to have a job in an environment that wasn’t stuffy or sterile; I wanted to come down from the ivory tower and inhabit the real world.  On the Pacific Crest Trail, I learned that making time for creative pursuits was important to me; I longed to stretch my brain in the way only creativity and imagination can.  Finally, on the Camino, I learned that I wanted a job that wasn’t self-serving, wasn’t just about making money and getting by; I needed to do something that was fulfilling and, in some small way, made the world a more beautiful place.

The idealism there is palpable, right?  But, all of my thoughts came from confronting, in some combination of my own experiences and those of others, how I didn’t want to live.  I wasn’t quite sure how to go about building the life I did want to live.

There is a common idea in our society – especially among my fellow millennials – that we should each find our passion and that, upon finding it, we must then dedicate our lives to it.  And, for those lucky few who seem to have always known which path they’d take – who, for example, loved science class in middle school, continued to study biology in college, and now work as veterinarians – this model makes perfect sense. But, for those of us who tend more toward the dilettante or polymath end of the spectrum, who enjoy experimenting with lots of things rather than focusing on any one, this notion of a singular Passion can be distressing. We expect something to come along that we love most of all, and I know I hoped it would ride in waving a flag to alert me to its presence; we despair when it alludes us.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, Pine Nut introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke by reading aloud parts of Letters to a Young Poet.  While Rilke’s letter full of sexual advice was bizarre, there were others that were insightful.  In addition to the oft-quoted advice to “love the questions themselves,” there was another line that I’ve taken to heart: Rilke’s insistence that, to be writers, people must want to write, must need to write so much that it keeps them up at night.

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Felting a white blaze

In discovering my love of fiber art (entirely by accident and partially thanks to Lyme Disease), I think I’ve experienced that feeling.  I find myself felting until I go to sleep and then again first thing in the morning, squeezing in moments of felting whenever I can manage it.  I notice my mind wandering to my latest project while I’m tree planting, and my weekends are consumed with creating fiber art.

Just when I gave up thinking I had a Passion, I seem to have found it – or maybe it’s just a burning interest, one that will extinguish itself in time.  I suppose it really doesn’t matter.  For the time being, felting is something I love just about as much as I love backpacking, and that’s saying something.

Trees, Public Lands, and Politics

“The second best time to plant a tree is today.”

I have this thing about adages, corny  or cliche though they may be.  I think I’m just wired to appreciate them.  And, I’ve found myself quoting this one on a regular basis, especially in the years since I began doing seasonal work with the Intervale Conservation Nursery.

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Bur Oak seedlings

This spring, I’m up in Vermont again, working with the tree planting crew based at my favorite nursery.  We spent a few weeks “harvesting” the trees – removing trees from their beds and preparing them for bare root plantings all over the state – and now we’ve moved on to planting projects.  For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been based in northwestern Vermont.  There, on a cattle farm that sold a riparian buffer to the Vermont Land Trust, we revel in views of both the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain as we plant a future forest to improve and protect water quality.

Up in this corner of the world, it’s easy to imagine that we live in peaceful times.  It’s easy, too, to forget that development is a pressure that landowners struggle to ignore, that, in most instances, land is moving into use rather than becoming open space.  In New England, where populations long ago became dense, the importance of setting aside land for natural resource protection and public enjoyment was realized generations ago.

But even these wildlands face threats by the current political climate.  When I was growing up, I remember hearing about acid rain and the damage it caused to northern forests.  Then, the commotion died down, and I didn’t hear about acid rain until I came to New Hampshire for a summer research project in 2010.

As it turns out, acid rain didn’t stop being dangerous; there just stopped being acid rain.  Midwestern and Appalachian coal-fired power plants, in the face of increased regulations, cleaned up their processes, and, as a result, the weather patterns were bringing less toxic rain to the northeast.  The forests were healing.

These days, I’m dreaming of a wonderful summer of hiking in the Adirondacks, of climbing to the top of all 46 4000-footers and learning about the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States.  My pre-hike reading is also making me concerned about the future of this amazing resource, faced with development pressures and potential acid rain resulting from policy reversals.

What’s more, the adversities the Adirondacks might face pale in comparison to the challenges awaiting other public lands, should we decide not to champion these areas.  Policymakers need to hear our voices loud and clear, and it’s never too late to join the conversation (because, as they say…).

Waiting on the World to Change

In my early teenage years, I was remarkably politically active.  I subscribed to a number of “action alert” email lists.  Every day, I logged in (via a dial-up connection) to learn of injustices in need of resolving.  And then, I wrote letters and emails to my legislators, absolutely certain that they’d take note of my eloquent missives and act according to the enlightened advice I gave them.

Ah, the optimism of youth.

Sometime in my teens, after an animal welfare disagreement with a local church, I became disenchanted with politics.  If I couldn’t get a small-town minister, a family friend, to listen to my case, I reasoned, what chance did I have changing the world?

And so, as many young adults do, I found myself hoping for change but no longer doing the foot work to make it happen.  Often, to assuage my inner 13-year-old, I comforted myself with the idea that engaging in the political realm just made me anxious and confrontational; it was better to spend my energies creating a perfect community in my little circle of friends and family and hoping that its goodness would spread outward.

I would still argue that there’s a lot about that idea that’s true.  But, it also seems to me that it’s impossible to seal ourselves away in our own perfect worlds any longer.

We seem to be careening toward war.  People without criminal backgrounds are being forcibly removed from the country they’ve called home.  White supremacy rallies exist.  Health care is in jeopardy.  Our public lands are under threat.  Ten days ago, a terrorist armed with a machete marched into my alma mater and assaulted non-Republican students.

I can’t be silent anymore.  I can’t ignore the injustices all around me, pretending that because I’m okay everything’s okay.  I can’t even pretend that I’ll go on being okay.  I’m done waiting on the sidelines.

 

In Memoriam, with Love and Gratitude

I’m here today because of the love and advice given to me by a wonderful, compassionate, inspiring person who isn’t here any longer.

I lost my uncle two weeks ago.

Oftentimes, moments that leave us completely shattered also render us speechless.  That hasn’t been the case for me, not now.  Instead, I’m caught amidst an upswelling of words, words desperately seeking a way out.  If you’ll allow me the space, this is where I’d like to share them, starting with some of my favorite memories.

Circa 1994


Uncle Doug, my mother’s little brother, was always an important figure in my life, but initially that was simply because of my love for his sister.  When our family tree was chopped in half 16 years ago, however, he and I became much closer.  In thinking back to that era, I’m reminded of a line of John Denver’s Wild Montana Skies:  “His mother’s brother took him in, to his family and his home, gave him a hand that he could lean on, and a strength to call his own.”

Before the dust had settled from the divorce, Uncle Doug invited me to his home in Maryland, under the pretense that I, with my twelve-year-old’s design skills honed by Geocities, could design his business’s website.  It was my first week away from home, and it was a transformative experience.  While I was there, Uncle Doug took me out on long drives, playing sentimental Tom T. Hall songs and music from a recent backcountry trip to Newfoundland.  We talked for hours, about everything and nothing.  He gave me space, on his family’s five acres, to get a glimpse of myself again.

Other important memories come from two years later, when, once my family had moved to Kentucky and welcomed horses into our lives, Uncle Doug came to help us build a run-in for the love of my life, a fussy little colt named Frankie.  It was a fast weekend visit — Uncle Doug needed to get back to his family’s business — but he made time to shower some unconditional love on my sister and me.  I enjoyed seeing the evidence of the friendship he and my mother shared, and vowed, along with my sister, to emulate their bond.

I didn’t see him very much after that.  There were occasional trips and reunions (including one when he deemed once-snarling young hound dog Ohana a “princess” and she happily sat on his lap), but no longer could the man who’d shared my mother’s aptitude for road trips — who could jump in the car with a tiny backpack at a few minutes’ notice and emerge twelve hours later — make the voyage.

You see, Uncle Doug’s health was deteriorating.  He believed it all stemmed from football injuries (and the resulting back surgeries), but he also talked about years of strange illnesses.

Our relationship became phone-based.  For a decade, my mother talked to her brother every day, often for an hour or more at a time, sharing details of our lives and listening to his thoughts and feelings.  My sister and I talked to him, too.

As relationships do, ours evolved over the years.  When Frankie was young, our conversations consisted of debating the virtues of various animal training methods.  Later, we talked about our shared love of the outdoors.  He was a big-picture thinker who soaked up new information wherever he could find it, and I loved talking about ideas with him.

In his every interaction with us, Uncle Doug seemed to insist that, much like his own children, my sister and I had hung the moon.  She was the world’s greatest singer.  My writing was going to change the world.  We were going to do amazing things, just like his beloved sister.

When you’re young and so confused and self-conscious, having someone think you’re wonderful feels both ridiculous and special.

In time, I grew up.  I headed off to New England, proudly making my own way and becoming my own person.  When an undiagnosed illness that had sentenced me to bed for ten months sent me home for surgery, it was Uncle Doug who listened to my mother’s worries with an understanding ear.  Dispensing with the maddening advice that I needed more fresh air or exercise or even rest, he brainstormed with her about what could be the problem.  Ten days after I arrived home, on his suggestion, I was tested for Lyme Disease.  Two months later, I was given a new lease on life.

I’m still not sure by what miracle he suspected Lyme.  He’d had at least one bull’s eye rash in his life (around the time doctors were first documenting Lyme Arthritis), and struggled with Bell’s palsy during his last year.  Seeing my improvement, my return from death’s doorstep, he wondered whether Lyme could be part of his story, too.  After so many years of medical treatments, his biochemistry would have made detection of Lyme difficult, and we will never know the answer now.

Thanks to Uncle Doug, I’d won my first battle, but the war was far from over.  When I was home with my fourth relapse, I cried about several years’ worth of shin splint-like pain to my mom.  The next evening, without having heard my story, Uncle Doug described the same pain.  Suddenly, I had a new data point, and it helped me put together the puzzle I’d thought was solved.  This unhealing shin splint wasn’t caused by a long-forgotten workout; the culprit was one of Lyme’s friends, bartonella.

Since treating that coinfection, I’ve been healthy for nearly one year.  I’d so wanted to be able to return the healing favor.

Uncle Doug and I talked frequently during my recovery.  He was the last person I got to talk to in the airport, when I was heading for Spain.  This past fall, he was so thrilled that I was going back to school, but then he was equally excited to hear that I was helping Mom with her business and pursuing art.  When I got into the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen last week, he insisted that I was going to be world-renowned.

In our last conversation, he gave me advice for my debut art show, which will open tomorrow, just four days after the 54th birthday he’ll never get to see.  For him, I’m working on a large-format piece, the largest original piece I’ve ever created.

On my blog, I’ve shared the photo I’m basing the felted piece on before.  At the time, I’d captioned it “Top of the World.”  These days, the felted rendition is going by the second part of that lyrical line: “Looking Down on Creation.”

In Loving Memory

Douglas Alexander Ramsey

1963-2017

Politics on the Camino

In the United States, it’s a long-standing tradition among long-distance hikers to celebrate the Summer Solstice by hiking naked.  Because it didn’t quite seem appropriate to walk through tiny Spanish towns in the buff, I decided to commemorate the longest day of the year by taking a zero and heading by bus to San Juan de la Pena, a monastery built into the side of a cliff a millennium ago, with additions built onto it and onto it again, a testament of faith through the various architectural styles of the last 1000 years.

From the old monastery, I hitched a ride down to the sleeping village at the base of the mountain, where I enjoyed talking to a local ceramic artist and looking around two small churches.  When the couple who’d given me a ride into town were done their supper, they offered to take me back to Jaca.  It was perhaps a 30-minute drive, and, in broken English and more-broken Spanish, we spent the time talking about the upcoming Spanish election, where (just as in the then-upcoming elections in the US and UK) the country had the potential to set off in a very different direction.

With the US election results in, I’m reminded of the many Europeans I spoke with this summer who — without fail — asked some variant of “How could America support Donald Trump?”  Many asked why we couldn’t elect Bernie Sanders.  (I explained that I’d tried.)

As I wasn’t able to describe abstract ideas in Spanish, French, Italian, or German, I had to save my more elaborate responses for pilgrims and hospitaler@s who spoke fluent English.  I explained the dissatisfaction in our country and the fission of the traditional parties.  (Once Brexit happened, it was easy to point to other examples of conservative undercurrents.)  The response from my conversation partners was often something along the lines of hope and faith, a certainty that our young but powerful country would be wise enough not to give the nuclear codes to a volatile demagogue.  I wasn’t so certain.

Lacking wealth (and, often, health), straightness, and maleness, I’m afraid about the future of our country, especially now that our highest branches of government share one political party, making checks and balances far less likely.  Like many other liberals, I’m appalled that our next president will be a man who has mocked just about every minority in our nation, from women to Muslims to people who are disabled.  Presidential elections aren’t, as some take comfort in claiming, distant races free of repercussions for us average Americans.  Obama’s choices helped give me health insurance, helped keep a gas pipeline off my employer’s land, and helped ensure my friends could get married.

Soon, we will all live under a red president, a red Senate, and a red House of Representatives.  In Kentucky, we will also live under a Republican governor, with a red State Senate and a red State House of Representatives.  Our Washington Senators and most of our Representatives are Republicans.  In fact, there is one lone blue politician advocating for my county.

Wait.  Scratch that.  I just fact-checked myself and learned that, while our Democratic State Representative had won locally, he lost in the other counties.  So, that leaves Republicans, from Rand Paul to Donald Trump, attempting to protect our best interests.  We’re screwed.

I’m glad I got to see the AT while there were still mountains in Appalachia.

There are memes circulating about this election claiming that it was a case of hope vs. hate, but I disagree.  I live on the edge of Appalachia, in a state that went overwhelmingly red yesterday, but it’s not hate that I see everywhere; it’s a desire to be heard.  As Jonna Ivin wrote, “I know why poor whites chant Trump, Trump, Trump.”

Four years ago, I often said ruefully that when socially liberal people voted for Mitt Romney — oh, how I’d take him instead today! — they were deciding that their money was more important than other people’s rights.  Today, while the backing of Trump by wealthy voters is wholly unpalatable to me, I feel sympathy for — and even some empathy with — the poor who voted for Trump.

Classism is still very real in the US, and I have neighbors and coworkers who voted for Trump because they felt that he spoke to them, rather than about them.  He didn’t tell them they were uneducated hillbillies; he managed to inspire them and led them to believe that he’d change the narrative of their lives.  Like progressives hoping for a brighter future, their votes were also cast in hope.

That is the problem.

Yes, racism and bigotry may have bolstered Trump’s results significantly, pointing to insidious problems that we should make great efforts to solve.  However, hope for economic opportunity also figured into the results, and getting at the root of that is both more difficult and less complicated than eliminating hatred.

You don’t need me to tell you that our system is messed up, that our country is heading in a frightening direction; I’m certainly no authority, and I’m sure you worry about our trajectory yourself.  But, it is high time we reconsider who our opposition is:  There’s a whole lot more that my fellow impoverished Kentuckians have in common with seasonal Mexican farm workers than the election results indicate.

Amid all of the sadness and anger of yesterday, I saw the best side of America, too, when an 18-year-old waiting in line at the polls behind me gushed to her mother, “I’m about to vote for the President of the United States of America.”  Her enthusiasm, her hope, her passion choked me up.

In closing, I don’t have a conclusion — we’re all months away from that — but I have a beautiful quote from the Talmud:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”