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.