Somewhere south of Moab Photo by Dallas Hyland
It’s Christmas morning. My kids are sleeping softly…or are lying awake, quietly counting down the minutes til they can finally open presents. I’ve gotten up early to do homework, the perpetual student. But my mind can’t seem to focus on ArcMap and GIS. Instead it keeps rolling back to stories.
I have been given books filled with stories written by past relatives. They have become part of the fabric that makes up our Christmas rituals. Old Santa Claus (1) and the Wheeler boys is particularly fun with three boys of my own. I read the names. I don’t know any of them, but they are mine – my people – and the realization that I am theirs brings a subtle pride and sense of belonging. I love that they wrote their poems, songs, recipes, and traditions. They are the notes that anchor our family to a song that continues in time as long as we don’t stop playing.
At our annual family Christmas party I was given a book by my grandmother. She had written memories of her eight children and gave us all a copy. It got me thinking about my own kids, things I would want to pass on to them and stories I’d like to put down for posterity.
Due to a recent conversation about Christians and climate change with a good friend of mine, my mind was already churning up memories of events in my life that were significant in shaping me and the way that I think.
My friend had written a scholarly article that had triggered the conversation wherein he referenced the conversion of a man to Catholicism and eventually to becoming a monk that was in response to reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
My friend argued that Joyce’s description of his early Christian experiences was so authentic that they swayed someone toward the faith through his novel and then suggested that most people are swayed by experience rather than intellect.
My conversion to accepting climate science was wholly the opposite of that, but strikingly similar to that of the Catholic monk who read Joyce. It happened through reading. I read great minds argue tenets of environmentalism and every one of them gave sound and compelling arguments – ones that I couldn’t help but acknowledge had merit.
Even though I didn’t accept any one philosophy in its entirety, I did accept; however, that each was valid, and they swayed my thinking. This was the primer that opened the door to accepting climate change science and connecting the dots from what the science was saying to my own choices. I could see the ethical imperative to do something about climate change, if possible, because of the ripple effects my choices would have on others – particularly the poor and disenfranchised.
Unfortunately you cannot un-know something and the by-product of knowledge is action. If you know someone is being abused, you should do something about it. If you know a stop sign means stop, you should stop. If you know that climate change is real, then you must examine your life. There is a certain danger that comes with knowing – in knowing, you no longer have the comfort of living without conscience. You know you should act. Of course ignorance has its dangerous consequences too – and those can be just as painful – but they don’t carry the weight of guilt that comes with knowledge.
Because I love my children, it’s not hard to love others’ children and to ache for those who will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. Because I can put myself in their shoes and can imagine the fear, pain, and heartbreak it would bring me and mine, I am compelled to do my part. Which brings me to another story.
Anton Chekhov’s, The Bet, has had the single biggest impact in my life and it happened in second grade. My teacher, who I don’t even remember, showed a video of the story. It took me until about a year ago to discover that the story was not some obscure educator’s tool, but a famous classic. I don’t know why she showed it, but her decision to do so dramatically shaped my life. It may also have been the beginning of my love of Russian writers, but I digress.
In my little eight year old head, I learned that there are things much more valuable than money and that many confuse God with money. I also learned that it matters how you spend your time, and that learning was one of the most valuable ways to spend it.
As I sit here on a dark Christmas morning awaiting the ritual of opening presents around the Christmas tree with my family, Chekhov and the wisdom in his story is not far away. How we live, how we consume, what we leave for our children, and their children, matters. This may very well be the story that I add to the annals of our family history.
Old Santa Claus put on his boots and his coat and buttoned a muffler snug round his throat. “I have dolls, books, skates and what-not and yet there is something I must have forgot….Now what can it be?” he said with a frown, “But I must make haste, or be late into town.”
So he jumped in his sleigh and rode off through the snow, for the jolly old fellow had miles to go. And hours before the bright moon went down and Old Santa was happily riding through town.
“Oh Ho! I am here!” he said with a shout, “And the lights in the windows are nearly all out. Now first to dear little John Wheeler’s I’ll stop, for his book and his skates and his sleigh are on top.”
He came to the Wheeler’s and what did he see? Pa Wheeler, Ma Wheeler and the Wheeler boys three. Old Santa Claus chuckled and listened awhile and his face was a light with a mischievous smile.
“Oh Ho! So the Wheelers are planning to see Old Santa Claus, are they? Well, bully for me! I saw just in time to spoil all,” chuckled he. “Why, boys ought to know its against Christmas laws for children to see old Santa Claus.” So he hastened away with his bag full of toys and filled up the stockings of good girls and boys.
Back to the Wheeler’s he came very late, jumped out of his sleigh and passed through the gate. “Now that chimney looks rather narrow and high,” said St. Nicholas, looking up into the sky. “But all it requires is one pinch of snuff — to go through that chimney I’ll be small enough.”
He owns a small airship as everyone knows, and up to the roof in his airship he goes. Then into the chimney he creeps very sly, but when half way down he sends up a shrill cry: “Oh where is my snuff box — my snuff box!” calls he, “The thing I’ve forgotten, it surely must be! The snuff that I carry to make me grow small! Help! Help! I am fast in a hole in the wall!”
“I cannot get either one way or the other. My sides, I declare, are both crowding each other. Too fat to go up and too fat to go down! Get up, Mr. Wheeler, and wake up the town! I cannot grow smaller — my snuff I’ve forgot, and I’m fast in the chimney all covered with soot.”
Then he kicked and he yelled , and he yelled and he wriggled, and the Wheeler boys hearing his plight lay and giggled. But Santa sent up such a very loud shout that the family arose and went hurrying about.
Pa Wheeler got ropes, and Ma Wheeler got worried. And off to the neighbors the Wheeler boys scurried. They called out, “Help, help!” and they woke up the town and the people in nightcaps came hurrying down.
The crowd gathers fast, and excitement increases and some begin tearing the chimney to pieces. “Go slow,” cried St. Nick, “Or my head will be damaged, with judgment and care this affair must be managed.”
The neighbors worked slowly, each striving to pick, piece by piece from the chimney the plaster and brick. Soon they had uncovered Old Santa Claus, and the night air was filled with a hundred hurrahs! As out from the chimney he came with a bound and bowed right and left to the crowd gathered ’round.
Then slyly he winked at the Wheeler boys three. “You’ve seen me at last, my find lads,” chuckled he. “And now to your beds, and I’ll return when you’re safe and sound, sleeping and snoring again.”
“The chimneys now days aren’t wide enough, nearly, however, I’ll visit the boys and girls yearly. My sides are all bruised, and I feel very sore, so hereafter, I think I’ll come in at the door.”
With a jump and a bound and a twinkling of eyes, he left the crowd gaping in open surprise. “Merry Christmas,” he called, “and a happy good night!” Then he jumped in his sleigh and was soon out of sight.
2. The Bet
“The local people were being caricatured as country yokels getting in the way of progress and not being given a voice by the people who were supposed to represent them.” ~ Golf Courses v. Dunes: A rebellion that failed
I want you to imagine something. Imagine that you have lived in a community your whole life; you’ve grown roots there. You were born and raised in the town that your parents were born and raised in, you know all of your neighbors, and all of your traditions and memories are there. You don’t make a lot of money, but you manage okay, raising your children and making an honest living.
Imagine now that you happen to live on the edge of a pristine and wild piece of land, maybe public lands, suddenly envied by a real estate mogul who wants to build a multi-million dollar golf course and resort there and the only thing standing in his way is you, your community, and your simple way of life. Imagine that when you turn down offers to sell your property, he demonizes you by saying you live like a pig, says you are a poor representation of your country, and encourages politicians to exercise eminent domain to take your property and make you move against your will.
Imagine that your government tenuously respects your property rights but still gives this person the go ahead to build his resort right in your backyard and because he couldn’t take your property, he pushes a dirt berm up around your property and plants trees on it so that the high-paying patrons of his resort don’t have to see the slum-like conditions that you live in. Imagine your access to those public lands, that wild open space that was part of who you are, is now gone and you have not only lost access but the ability to make a living.
Now imagine that this scenario is not a scenario at all; it’s exactly what Donald Trump did to small town residents in Scotland.
In ecology there is a something called ground truthing. It is what ecologists do when they walk the landscape where aerial photographs or remote sensing digital images have been captured to see if what they see on the ground matches what they are seeing in the photos. If we were to ground truth how Donald Trump really feels about working class people, we would find example after example of the real estate mogul dismissing, railroading, and pummeling them. Just ask Micheal Forbes, the fisherman farmer from Scotland who stood up to Donald Trump and may ultimately lose to him.
On the northeast coast of Scotland lies Aberdeenshire. Within Aberdeenshire and north of the city of Aberdeen lies the little village of Balmedie. The population is roughly 2,500. Along the coast is 14 miles of wild dunes listed as a Site of Scientific Interest (SSI), which in the United Kingdom is a designation that denotes a protected area.
To scientists and environmentalists it was a site worth protecting. To locals, the dynamic dune system adjacent to the North Sea was a wild, open space accessible and within reach of ordinary people. Donald Trump convinced politicians to agree that the economic benefits of a golf course on the dunes outweighed the scientific studies and advancement that could be gleaned from them, the environmental sensitivity of the dune ecosystem, and the local use and access the dunes provided average citizens.
The Aberdeen Council rejected the golf course but ultimately got overridden by higher government officials who agreed that the economic benefits would be worth it. When local citizens would not sell their properties, Donald Trump tried convincing the government to exercise Compulsory Purchase Orders (the equivalent to eminent domain in the U.S.) and take their property.
The Scottish politicians would not go that far, but they gave Trump the green light to build his golf course within the protected dune system. When dealing with the stubborn locals who would not sell their property, Trump singled out Michael Forbes, describing his property as slum-like and stating that Forbes lived like a disgusting pig and said visitors to his resort should not have to look out their windows into a virtual slum. To solve the slum problem Trump has bulldozers push dirt up around the local residents’ properties to hide them from view of wealthy visitors who would come to golf.
Who in the scenario do you most identify with, the billionaire from Manhattan or the farmer from Scotland? Who in the scenario would you be? I can’t speak for you, but I identify with the little guy. I know what it is like to be caricatured. Despite working a full-time, white collar job, my whopping gross income of $3000 a month for a family of five is too much to get food stamps despite only bringing home $2200 and having to decide each pay check whether to pay bills or buy groceries. But if I did somehow qualify for food stamps I would be labeled a lazy slob who doesn’t want to work and who is just looking for handouts. I know that if my property was in the sights of Donald Trump, he would mock and belittle me just like he did Michael Forbes.
I might not have tractors in my yard, or multiple tin sheds surrounded by farming and fishing equipment, but I know people who do and they are good, hardworking, honest people, not disgusting pigs, and despite our differences, my life more closely aligns with theirs than the real estate mogul from New York. I know that there is dignity in all honest work and that there is value and worth in anyone who puts food on the table for a family. I also know that wealth and money is no guarantee of class, grace, intelligence, or manners.
While many didn’t heed warning signs of what a Trump presidency would portend, I fear that Middle America will learn what Middle Scotland did. We will find out that the distant proclamations and campaign promises of Donald Trump and the pleas of those who so desperately supported him for political gain will not bear out on the ground for hard-working and struggling Americans in any significant, meaningful, or truthful way. And if the past has anything to say about it, we will find that Trump doesn’t care about Middle America any more than he cared about Middle Scotland, only rather than a local village impacted by a golf course it’s going to be the entire country impacted by his Presidency.
It is unfortunate that we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by cultural issues that have virtually no chance of being changed and that keep us from fighting for issues that we could change. Abortion, gun control, and gay marriage will only change if a new case makes it to the Supreme Court and over-turns current law by setting new precedent, which is highly unlikely in all cases.
By our own gullibility, we have been taken in by crafty marketing campaigns to keep us divided and distracted on issues largely outside of our control, and in being duped we have relinquished our free agency to think for ourselves, to cooperate rather than compete, and have hindered our ability to see and fight for things that have a real impact in our everyday lives.
We have been led to believe that competition is what’s needed, but the only place competition is encouraged is in the electorate because as long as we are divided and distracted, we aren’t really paying attention. As long as we are fighting against each other we are not cooperating and uniting. In nature there is competition for resources, but more often, those species that survive do so by cooperation with other species, not through pure competition.
If we were to come together on job creation, on incomes keeping up with the cost of living; if we checked the impact on the ground with the lofty ideals of policies, we could come together and make our local leaders listen to us the way they are supposed to, and then take our message to Congress and enact new laws, get rid of bad laws, and come up with policies that actually play out in meaningful ways on the ground.
You might be surprised to find out how much you have in common with different races, classes, creeds, and religions if you tried. It’s easy to demonize groups; it’s harder to demonize an individual.
A few years ago I attended the rally put forth by County Commissioner Lyman against the federal government in regard to Recapture Canyon in Blanding, Utah. Ryan Bundy and his entourage were there to illegally ride through the canyon. I was in the minority at the rally. I don’t agree with much Ryan Bundy has to say and I would assume the same of his supporters, but on our way walking to the canyon, an outspoken woman and Bundy supporter at the rally stopped her ATV and asked us if we wanted a ride. We accepted and jumped in.
Had she known we were opposed to what she was doing she might not have stopped. But we got in and joked and laughed with her on the short ride. She was enjoyable to talk to and I could imagine myself having a beer with her and joking about the struggles of life. She dropped us off at the gate where it was illegal to ride an ATV and continued on her illegal journey. I don’t know who that woman was, but I am certain we share many values and beliefs despite our differences and I am certain that is true of most Americans.
If we continue to divide and conquer among political ideologies we will be the ones who continue to get the short end of the stick. We were not as smart as the locals in Scotland who saw through Donald Trump, but we can be now and not allow his administration to ride rough shod over good, hardworking Americans. In 2012 Michael Forbes won Scotsman of the Year in the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards. It hardly compensates for what he has gone through or lost but it’s a start.
Forbes said, “I’m still crofting (farming/small scale food production) but have had to stop salmon fishing as I don’t have direct access to the beach anymore. I have 23 acres of land, which Trump says he needs for his second golf course, and there are 15 homes which still have the threat of a compulsory purchase order over them, but there’s no way I’ll ever sell to Trump.”
“All the morons that caused the controversy in Scotland have made my development more successful than anticipated.”
Like Trump’s promises to overturn Roe v. Wade, to build a wall along our southern border, to ban all Muslims, to start trade wars, and to bring back jobs, Trump’s promises to Scotland were much the same. Trump promised an economic boom and 6,000 new jobs, he said he was doing Scotland a favor.
Just like his back-peddling on campaign promises, the golf course provided roughly 200 jobs, most of which were part-time, low paying jobs one can’t make a living on and the golf course is losing money. Local people lost access to a wild, open space that their families enjoyed for generations and the landscape has been forever changed. The resort was not for Scotland, it was for Trump and his promises were as empty as his political rhetoric and promises made on the campaign trail.
One can only hope that Middle America will stand together and stand strong like Michael Forbes and the locals of Scotland did because if we don’t, the only person that will benefit from Trump’s presidency is Trump’s himself.
***The documentary You’ve been trumped can be watched on Sundance Now.***
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We ducked out of town the day before the election. Our votes had already been cast and it was just a matter of waiting for the results to come in. It was the perfect time to do some field work and get a break from the rancor of politics. Autumn in the desert means cool, brisk mornings and warm afternoons. We got to Kelly Dam in the afternoon when everything was coated in buttery sunlight and found quickly that our sweatshirts were unnecessary and only made us hot walking the 100 acre burn site to check ponderosa mortality, canopy spread, and to redo photo plots.
The lonely sound of an airplane overhead accentuated our solitude and isolation and made the crunching twigs and pine needs under our feet sound thunderous in the otherwise silent forest. We talked very little.
The forest was adorned in hints of reds and oranges that cast the world around us in soft hues of amber and gold in one last hurrah before being extinguished under winter’s embrace. The heads of blue grama grass make an airy blanket of curled feathers suspended in air a foot off the ground held aloft by their long stems. They and other native grasses are luminescent in the patches of sunlight cast against the patterns of shade in the forest. The curly-q tufts of grass at their base shimmer in the light like flames – streaks of red, orange, and yellow imitate a running ground fire in a trail of light that disappears into the shadows. I am mesmerized by the play of light and vegetation in their game of charade, mimicking other seasons and events.
Some patches of the burn site show no sign of fire and are thick and unruly while other sites reveal intense fire behavior with burn marks 30 feet off the ground and are more open and clear. The fire jumped around and missed spots. The kill rate is higher in some places than in others, noticeable by the fallen trees on the ground. It bothers me, my mind wanting uniformity. It’s a mess in need of more fire.
Many of the dead trees are still standing. I knew the trees were dead if they had no needles, but I had no idea you could tell by the presence of woodpecker holes. Trees decompose much like bodies, leaving clues by what is decomposing them. When a ponderosa pine dies, wood borers are able to move in and feast on the carcass and in turn provide a delicious bounty for opportunistic woodpeckers; predator and prey. The tree thus bored and drilled into is like a standing stack of wafers that crunches and crackles like pressed potato chips when leaned upon. Those are the ones to watch out for; the widow-makers.
We pull off a large piece of the outer bark on one tree that looks like Swiss cheese and see trails etched in the wood by the beetles that had been there. I lean in to smell the dead tree but the life that left with all the needles took the butterscotch scent with it. I am disappointed. I walk to another tree black from fire but still alive and lean in and inhale. The sweet scent lingers in the pockets between the outer bark and inner softwood. I feel like a dog sniffing something it can’t quite get to, sticking my nose in as far as I can. My olfactory senses salivate. I want to take an ax to the tree and cut a slice of pie out of it and breathe it in – take it with me. What is the tree trying to attract anyway? I wonder if this is what it’s like to be a honeybee, intoxicated and distracted by fragrances.
We head to the next plot, a meadow of sage surrounded by ponderosa. Sage is not a particularly beautiful plant especially when it makes up a meadow. Without contrast to bring the features of the plant out the eye scans over the patches of dirt and muted blue grey as if staring out to sea; the eye sees everything and nothing. Like most desert plants its allure is in its scent which rises to our nostrils as we walk through it. The fire didn’t like the sage, clearly struggling to burn through it. We pushed the fire to do its job but it was an unwilling worker. Large circles of blackened stumps stood out in the otherwise monotonous carpet of blue. Strangely, the grasses did not creep into the open spaces but stayed bunched up close to the unburned sage. I was told it might be due to drought. I wonder.
We move to the next photo plot in the ponderosa stands. The fire did its job here. Several fires did their job. The area is how one pictures a forest when they don’t know better. There is not a lot of understory plants or dead trees lying on the ground. It is clear and open, the trees majestically swaying in the breeze overhead, the ground covered in rust colored needles so thick it’s squishy and soft to walk on. The sun is getting low on the horizon and so the light casts through the trees to the ground in sunflecks that set the forest aglow. It’s enchanting.
I have a hard time focusing on my work; my mind is camping in this clearing and relaxes into a day dream-like state. I think this, this is how it should all look; the man-made forest garden. I catch myself, the irony, but I can’t help it. It’s captivating. I am in awe. Fire and people did this. How many other places, small pockets of beauty in remote places just like this, were created by people?
I understand now why fire is man’s best friend – I see it – man has always been in awe of the raw power and grace of fire. And why shouldn’t she be? It enabled people to see what is otherwise hidden, to see what might be sneaking up in the shadows; it enabled people to move quietly when hunting, it brought game, and it enabled cooking the game and staying warm after being satiated. Fire meant survival. I had to drag myself away from East Fork, the pull to stay was so strong, but nightfall was coming and it was getting cold.
With the shorter days of winter upon us, it was hard to know what time it was when I first woke. It could be 3am or 6am. It was too cold to get up and find out. I decided to wait for signs of the sun. Then I could be sure. I drifted in and out of sleep, cozy in my sleeping bag. My face is the only part of me exposed, the air is cold and invigorating, accentuating the warmth of my cocoon. Contentment oozes through me. It’s peaceful and serenely still. The sun creeps in like a cat and before I know it, the sky shifts from dark to light and the curtain opens on the next act.
I bundle up and make a cup of coffee. We get a fire going and create a pocket of warmth against the encroaching cold. The morning, like a cathedral, impresses us to silence. Our breathing comes out in steady white puffs. I breathe out just to see it, a kid again. I don’t have a mircrowave so I drink my coffee faster than normal and have to make another cup. As the air warms and light touches the earth, the forest awakens. We watch a flock of chatty birds dash in unison from trees to meadow and back again, down and up, over and up and down again. It’s a symphony of motion. I am motionless, a statue, the watcher. I hope for a deer or coyote but don’t see one. They know to stay clear.
Our destination on Election Day is Mt. Dellenbaugh. Our thoughts are far from politics. The trail is mellow and meanders first through a ponderosa stand, then up into the rockier ground inhabited by pinion and juniper. We watch our feet and make our way in silence, occasionally looking up for reference. Eventually the trail pitches up onto a rocky outcrop that gives glimpses of the view awaiting us from the top. The last quarter mile up to the summit is the most strenuous part. We scramble up onto the rocky point and look around at the unobstructed 360 degree view before us. I see fingers of canyons stretching toward us from the Grand Canyon but the Colorado River is hidden from view. I struggle to imagine anyone hiking from the river to where I was standing, let alone to St. George, and yet that is exactly what three men on the Powell Expedition were desperate enough to attempt.
We drop our packs and sign the summit register. “Nov. 8, 2016 – Escaping the election,” I write, and then look around for some good rocks to sit and rest against. I find two shaped crudely like a chair and slide down on them and eat my lunch. I can hear the wind up above my head. The sun is warm and pleasant. And then suddenly the wind drops out of the sky and washes over me. The leaves on the oak next to me shiver and I do too. I look around and wonder what obstacle suddenly made the wind drop to ground level. The wispy clouds above are shaped in curvy, white waves against the sky and I realize the wind is flowing like a river and I am in the current. Of course I didn’t bring my sweatshirt.
I look out across the landscape and notice ponderosa stands sandwiched into long strings by the sea of juniper and pinion trees crushing against them like ice floes against Shackleton’s ship in the Antarctic. They don’t look as abundant from this vantage point and it surprises me. The bumpy carpet of green stretches as far as the eye can see, broken periodically by open clearings of what I guess are private or state lands. If I look closely I can tell the difference between the juniper and pinion, the juniper being an ever so slightly yellow green, the pinion more blue green. Juniper trees rule here.
After our short lunch we take our photo plots – north, south, east, and west. We finish and then hypothesize about the strange colony of lady bugs inhabiting this rocky spot. Hundreds are huddled together in cracks, but many coat the rock surfaces in what appears to be sun bathing. They fly around periodically and land on us and our gear. I wonder, do lady bugs fly south like birds? Do they hibernate like bears? Do they survive the winter here? It’s strange to see their cheerful little bodies far from a quaint garden up in such a hostile environment. But what do I know. We throw our gear back in our packs and sling them over our shoulders, sending the daring few lady bugs that ventured to check out the colorful new objects flying through the air.
The drive back to St. George is roughly three hours, three more precious hours of repose from the political sporting event in full swing back home. There was no rush to get back; the results would come in with or without us. The landscape was indifferent to our leaving but we weren’t. We brought the tranquility back with us to replay in the convening hours and days thereafter. What sweet bliss those two days of escape provided before the results were known and the knowledge washed our ignorance away.
I am a blue collar progressive. It’s kind of exactly how it sounds. Both descriptives represent a paradigm or worldview rather than being literal. By blue collar I mean that I come from humble beginnings and still live in the economic lower to middle class. My parents didn’t make a lot of money. Both were government workers, my dad a city planner and my mom an assistant to the attorney general. It sounds pretty good right?
While my parents were technically white collar professionals, their income more closely resembled that of blue collar workers and so did our home life. We didn’t take fancy vacations, have a swimming pool or nice clothes, or get vehicles when we turned 16. We always knew we weren’t rich and we always knew the people who were.
Education was paramount in our home. Having open minds and thinking forward as well as questioning traditional lines of thought or those in authority was encouraged. A liberal education was a thing of great value. Being able to intelligently discuss ideas and argue logical, well-founded points of view was the currency we bought and traded with. Culture was something to be cherished, preserved, and enjoyed. Civilization was the idea that people working together could create a society that was great for everyone, and everyone mattered. Nature was something to enjoy, respect, and to run to for solitude and prayer. Wilderness was where God lived.
This upbringing inadvertently taught me how to find riches in simple pleasures and it taught me how to become secure in who I was rather than in what I owned. My status resonated from within rather than from without. I lived countless lives and discovered cities and places around the world through books. It is where I learned to love the outdoors whether it was lying in the cool grass in my backyard or fishing from a canoe at Strawberry Reservoir and grilling and eating the fish we caught afterward. My entertainment was humble and inexpensive. It included taking drives through the mountains, hiking, and star gazing.
Now that I am an adult and I have a career and children and make that same lower to middle class income I find that I struggle with the same things I did as a kid: not having enough money to do the things I want to do, not having all the things I’d like to have, and not having the ability to give more to my children than I had growing up. I have limits.
I struggle with finding joy and satisfaction in the life I am living. I teeter between the joyful surprises life offers and longing for a life I don’t have. It is a mentality to be happy with what you have and with where you are in life. It requires having control over your thoughts in what is literally a constant mental exercise. Learning to be happy with what you have requires finding or seeing other types of wealth. I call those things simple pleasures. Mostly for me it boils down to three things: time, people, and nature. We have unfettered access to all three; it’s what we choose to do with them that makes the difference.
We have all heard that time is love or time is money. What this implies is that time is valuable and how we spend it determines the outcome of the budget of time allotted in our life, it determines our state of mind, our successes and regrets, and our overall well-being. Our choices can produce wealth, the lack of wealth, comfort, excitement, an enjoyable job or a miserable career. We can use our time to enjoy life or we can squander it. Time is a choice. Who we choose to spend our time with is another form of currency.
People can be a blessing or a disease in your life. For me, finding people who are fun, intelligent, and humble to go through life with adds immense value to my life. People are an ingredient so easy to forget and yet so dire when they’re missing. Good people add the substance, support, and spice to life that makes it worth living. They can be the difference between getting through hard times or succumbing to them. The older I get the more aware I become that the idea of rugged individualism, doing things on your own, is a myth and a stupid and detrimental one at that. Life is hard, it’s harder alone. Having community and support can be the difference between a good life and hard and miserable one.
The last thing is nature. It is all around us all the time. It can be comforting and terrifying. It requires nothing of us. Sometimes it infringes on us without our consent, it blesses us always, and it provides nourishment to the soul. You do not have to go to nature to find it or experience it. While I would argue that you get more from it if you get into it and really experience it, I would never say that basking on a lawn chair in your backyard on a sunny afternoon is less than backpacking in Glacier National Park. One’s preference for how to experience nature is as varied as people are. It’s the value you get out of it that matters.
That being said, I would argue that getting out into open space far from city life is priceless. I harp on the value of public lands a lot and it is because having public lands around you is a treasure not to be taken for granted. There is of course real value in public land and open spaces, just look at trends in real estate around public lands, open spaces, or the ocean to see what I mean – or the politics surrounding what can happen on public lands or whether they should be public at all. But really, the value of public lands is something you can’t quantify.
Going back to my declaration of being a blue collar progressive, what makes public lands and access to them so valuable to me is that those lands offer a place free from economic status. Going into them gives one dignity and equal footing. It is free from shops and trinkets and glittery objects and costs. It is the place where worry and doubt and fear can be shed and the soul can breath and the body and think and the mind can rest. It is where rejuvenation and peace are found. It is a place where you can’t hide from yourself, you can’t compensate with money or house size or bank account, but you can be you. You can escape the charade, the keeping up with others, and unmask yourself. It is the ultimate form of freedom. It doesn’t require a flag, a constitution, or military service. It doesn’t check party affiliation or voting record. You can just be. It is existence free from the weight of the world.
Public lands make up 30 percent of the land mass of this country. Does that surprise you? It surprised me. We think of public lands as these huge chunks of land mass, but in context, they are really small islands in this country. One could argue that our public lands should not be developed at all but instead should be preserved as they are indefinitely. One could argue that the loss of economic value due to the existence of public lands is not the real loss, but rather the infringement of anymore development on those existing landscapes as they are is. We have plenty of opportunities to make money in cities and on private lands. The real threat is to our public lands.
That threat includes finding solitude 100 yards off a road. It includes the residual effect of remembering how your body felt after a 12 hour hike. It includes the enhanced refreshment of a cold drink after a grueling bike ride. It includes the studied and tested psychological benefits of being away from man-made civilization that nature provides. It includes the memories invoked when you are sitting in your office day dreaming about your next outdoor adventure or trail run or canyon. Just ruminating over it now with my fingers on the keyboard brings a soothing calm to my soul.
So now I’m sitting on my back patio, cold beer in hand, basking in the warm, amber glow of evening. A cool autumn breeze plays with the precariously dangling leaves clinging to the last hand-holds of summer and arouses goosebumps on my skin. Like the leaves in my trees I’m clinging to the quickly fading hues of the day before the purple shades of twilight creep across my yard and swallow it in darkness. It is a maddening practice to try to stop time, to enjoy the moment before it slips through my fingers, but it is the waltz of my life right now, stealing moments of glory in between work and soccer practices.
I take a sip of my IPA and the fresh, citrus flavor explodes on my tongue and sets off a storm on the distant horizon of my mind. The sensory response uplifts a swell of an idea that gains momentum as it breaks into my consciousness. With each gulp I fall from the wave into the iridescent green underworld of sublime imagery that has been lapping at the sandbars of my mind.
A couple of days ago while researching some detail online I stumbled upon this quote by Henry David Thoreau: “Instead of water we got here a draught of beer…a lumberer’s drink, which would acclimate and naturalize a man at once—which would make him see green, and, if he slept, dream that he heard the wind sough among the pines.”
The imagery of a lumberman’s hard and toilsome work ending with a cold beer in the cool shadows of green light with the sound of the wind in the trees sends my synapses into frenzied motion mixing a concoction of remembered experiences and sensations with an anticipatory longing and desire for more. It’s more than just the words; it’s the knowing. I know exactly what he is talking about and that knowing is what keeps my mind in a state of agitation until I can experience it again.
The juxtaposition of sensory delight and nature has got my mind in a lather. I am intrigued that so often natural phenomenon is used to convey our verbal explanation or description of a sensory experience. But even more is Thoreau’s injection of hard work thrown into the mix insinuating that through it the joy of simple pleasures is enhanced. I would argue that often it is only through toil that we truly understand the subtle joy that simple pleasures hold.
Whether it is toiling under a hot sun with a chainsaw and the reward of 20 foot winds moving through the tree tops or toiling to control my mind and thoughts when life feels like drudgery, the reward is knowing that the balance between culture and nature, between civilization and wilderness, between development and public lands is still there and that despite monetary limitations I still have the options and the ability to live a simple, abundant life.
Somewhere south of Moab Photo by Dallas Hyland