You offered a gentle climbing valley full of wildflowers as my dog and I hiked the CT.
A sight of a family of at least three generations, camping with their horses.
I came back here twice before this time.
Once on an early spring hike, another to fulfill a day dream of running through the valley, late spring.
There’s something enchanting about your pine trees. Seen from afar, they appear to go on for miles and miles. Inside, hold secrets.
Your creeks, a gentle murmur. What are you saying? To you, I whisper quiet love songs.
(I wonder what tomorrow will bring?)
Pictures: Pacer during our first trip to Lost Creek wilderness, backpacking the CT. Me overlooking the forest, 3rd trip. And finally, pictures of our final time, already lost, before our encounter with a moose.
This spring, I began toying with the idea that I might be able to run fast again. Maybe even race if I felt called to. I had promised myself that if I ever did race again, I’d be mentally in a good place, ready to race with the true definition of competition (to seek together) and remembering that in the long run (pun intended), running in in itself is no big deal. I felt I was almost there, also having gained greater body wisdom and appreciation through 3 years of grad school and seeing a therapist who often used body-centered methods. Physically, I still wasn’t sure if my body would ever truly recover from years of pushing it too hard and not adequately nourishing it. But, I decided I wanted to try anyway, having a Rolfer and biomechanics specialist on my team, working together, to potentially get me running strong again, or at least consistently. If it didn’t work out, then okay. I was/am happy with myself, coming into my place as a healer, wilderness therapist, explorer, etc. (just a few of the descriptions/labels I’ve chosen for myself at this time).
But then, I fell wrong on my already chronically tender Achilles. Somehow I managed to run the Run Through Time half marathon in Salida, a course I always wanted to see, without pain during the race. And then I did’t run for several weeks as the swelling never decreased and the pain stayed consistent. Then I strained my right calf muscle in May, before getting run over by a moose and acquiring enough muscle damage to take me completely out of running for another 4 weeks. It is now mid-July and I’ve just started to run again.
Still, I am in a place where I have no idea what my running will look like in a few months. Mainly, I just want to run because it makes me feel good, and then I don’t have to cycle and walk my dog. My other dream is to open my own counseling practice in the fall, which I have a bit more control over the outcome. But really, the key for me here is that I have the ability to dream. That I can dare to dream, big and small, to pursue those dreams, to maybe reach them, and maybe not.
Lately, this has gotten me thinking about the “American Dream”, what it meant when the concept was first created, what it means now, and how we would like to define it for future generations. Dictionary.com states:
1. the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.
“a workaholic lawyer who seems to be living the American dream”
Good start, I thought, until I saw the example, which was more like my typical perspective of the American Dream growing up.
The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.
(Just acknowledging that this blog post could be much longer if I addressed poverty, privilege, power, etc.)
Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Gone are the days when Americans aspired to own a house with a white picket fence. Some 82 percent of Americans now say their “American Dream” is simply financial security for themselves and their family.
The last quote is more typical of what I grew up to believe, that the American Dream included owning a home, getting married, and having kids. At 31, I have none of these things, nor am feeling moved to attain any at the moment. When asked, the Boy responded that it meant doing better than your parents, then working hard so your kids would have better. As most of you know, financially that is not an easy goal to attain in this day and age, and a source of much stress for just about everyone. But what if we re-define “better”?
For me, better means that I am not restrained by the confines of a 9-5 job. That I can play in the mountains and trails weekly, that I have control over my schedule. That I can dream, work had, maybe fail, and dream again. That have the right to pursue happiness in a way that makes me happy, similar to the line in the Declaration if Independence.
What I am realizing now that current society has the ability to define their version of the American Dream (though I urge each individual to make their own unique definition).
So what do we want our version to say?
We have plenty to be inspired about too (glass half full readers!). Most recently, I’ve been fueled by the success of the U.S Women’s Soccer team, winning the FIFA World Cup with chants of “USA, EQUAL PAY!” both at the end of their final match and during their ticker tape parade. This dream truly started with the 1999 World Cup Women’s Soccer Team, but now we can actually taste the dream coming into fruition. On a more personal level, the Boy inspired me as he pursued his dream to run Badwater 135, a ultramarathon that runs through the heart of Death Valley in the heat of summer to the top of Whitney Portal road…this after being told several years ago that he would never run again. I could go on and on with stories like this, but they all really come down to one thing: these people had the courage, the daring, to dream.
If we continue with the society’s old ways of defining the American Dream, a long with what it means to be successful, I fear for the health and happiness of young people. It seems like a perfect concoction for chronic stress and depression. I could go on, but I’ll limit my words and recommend the book “What Made Maddy Run” for a more detailed example.
This is a call, a dream of mine, to re-define the American Dream. As described above, my version includes the ability to dare to dream, to succeed and fail, in a way that I chose. To decide and follow what makes me truly happy. What is your American Dream, how would you like to define it for our younger generation?
I know this is a stretch, but I’d love to hear your answers in the comment section of this post.
Do you ever feel like the world is too much to bear? Like the darkness is going to consume you? That you can’t bear to look at it or think about it because it hurts too much?
This “it’s too much” feeling has happened to me frequently over the past year. It’s different from my depression years ago, which was more focused on my internal self-loathing. This is more of an external depression felt internally. It’s like the pain of the world is an arrow shot straight into my heart. Hope, the fire in my belly, is nearly extinguished. My body shakes and my tears water the Earth, or my dog’s coat. In reflection, I realize my tears are my hope. My shakes mean I am still moving, and moving means I still have influence. As long as I don’t freeze (my go-to panic response), there is possibility.
My examples of my “it’s too much” scenarios are plentiful, though they may seem insignificant to a bystander:
I am sitting in a dark theater of a film festival. The movie is portraying a man, a runner, a hunter, who is seemingly connected to the Earth. He climbs a remote mountain, hunts a mountain goat. He kills it. I silently cry in my seat and the tears are pouring, my body trembling. The boy doesn’t know what to do with me. I can tell he wants to comfort me but is keeping his fingers crossed that I can continue to muffle my sobs. You see, mountain goats are beings I am blessed to see perhaps once a year, on sacred days. The magnificent creatures offer me blessings on my travels.
A week later, I am on the bathroom floor crying into a towel. On the news, I am constantly hearing about immigrant children being torn away from their parents. Then I look at my computer. I can’t remember exactly what it was this time, possibly a picture of a mama bear shot in her den with her cubs, or a story of a momma cow chasing after her calves who were put in a truck to go to slaughter. The tears came instantly.
In the spring, I learn my sister’s cancer spread, just when we were getting ready to celebrate the end of her breast cancer treatment. I hold back my tears at internship, but put them all into Pacer’s fur when I get home.
Quietly, I listen to war stories from the boy. How can people be so cruel? Another immigrant child died in camp. A picture of a starving polar bear, then dead whales on a beach with plastic in their bellies. There’s a school shooting, then another. Trophy hunters killed an elephant. A line of dog’s were euthanized because their owners didn’t want them. The Earth may only have another 12 years until climate change takes over, until the pain is too much for Mother Earth to bear.
Even if it is a doggy paddle.
Eventually I come out of the bathroom. Pacer licks away my tears. I don’t get rid of the pain, but I keep moving.
I run up the hill, or Pacer pulls me up, and I stare at the snow-capped mountains. As long as love, like the love between a girl and her dog exists, and as long as the beauty of a sunlit mountain range exists, there’s reason to keep moving. My tears have only watered the Earth allowing for the summer wildflowers to grow.
Martin Buber speaks of grief and praise. The grief is movement. As long as we allow it to move through us, our praise and love will be our fuel to fight on.
The problem, the dis-ease, as I see it, is that we have numbed ourselves to the pain. Society appears to be wallowing in a state of depression, with anxiety as its sidekick. It seems like no once can figure out why, so pills have become our pesticide-ridden fertilizer.
What if we all cried?
I know it hurts, but you must be brave.
Eckhart Tolle speaks of the universal pain body. I first read about this while on my Rites of Passage trip last year. He said that women feel more intensely during menstruation, feeling the pain of women around the world. It’s no wonder that a sensitive soul like me prevented her river from flowing for so long, without any guidance on how to deal with my emotions. I read about the pain body while naked in a canyon, the womb of Mother Nature. Finally, deep in the canyon, I felt a truth and a sense of purpose with my pain. Mixed with it was a call to heal.
But what can a little privileged white girl from Colorado (born in Cleveland, Ohio) do? (First, I should probably stop talking to myself like that.) I have a degree in wilderness therapy—does that even mean anything?
To be honest, I’ve always known the answer is “yes.” Yes, there is hope. Yes to life. Yes, I have a part in the healing. Sometimes, it’s just seems safer to feel small.
And I had some idea of the how. Besides having loved ones close to me, getting outside has not just been fun for me, but a necessary part of my life to rejuvenate and heal my own wounds. It reminds me that even in the darkest of times, there is beauty in the world. It’s like adding kindle to my fire, making my energy grow brighter so I can share it with others.
Still, I really wanted specifics. Yes, I knew I could take clients out in nature. I knew more and more research is coming out about health benefits of nature. It was enough and not enough at the same time.
Then came a cold summer day of 50 degrees and constant rain where I had signed up for Wilderness Therapy Un-Conference, dragging myself there only because I had already paid. By bedtime that night, I was already so cold and wet that I was ready to hike back to my car and leave. AND my tent was leaking. This was not the beautiful nature I liked to bask in. Of course, I survived, like every other person there who was cold and wet. There’s something to facing adversity in nature too, but I won’t get into that here. With a break in the rain that morning, I sat down with my group for our first session. What topic had we decided on? Of course, the stars aligned for me. Our topic was: As wilderness helps/healers, what was our role in healing the planet? I could go on and on about the insight of my group members, but for now I’ll just list the four steps I came up with during our conversation in how to create healing:
Create love and connection to the Earth. (PLAY*)
Awareness: Education on the state of the Earth
Allow and help people to grieve
Action: Give tools on how to make change (volunteer, recycle, vote, etc.)
*Many people have not grown up in a way that connects them to nature, or their attachment has been severed over the years. The biggest piece in step one is cultivating joy in nature.
Big but simple, difficult yet doable.
Another flicker of hope.
As I said before, our tears are a necessary part of healing. Before this year, I thought rain when the sun was shining was a dichotomy. Now I know they are both necessary parts of a bountiful life. It is only with the rain and the sun that a rainbow can exist, creating a bridge from what we call the real world to the world of our dreams.
Monday night, the boy and I got into an argument as I talked to him on my cell phone from my camping spot near Cottonwood Lake near Buena Vista, CO and he in North Carolina for his daughter’s high school graduation. I picked up my phone a little disgruntled, feel weird to be talking into a box in my hand while out in the wilderness, above 9,500ft and quite a few dirt miles away from town. I was looking forward to some quiet time, and probably should’ve have communicated better, in a loving way, that I needed some time away from technology. Anyway, a few minutes into our conversation, he told me “be careful.” I started to explain to him that I understood his intent behind the statement, that he cared about me, but he interrupted and said something like “that’s on YOU if you feel that way.” I quickly said goodnight and ended the conversation, before I refuted with something I didn’t mean.
You see, “be careful” can rub me the wrong way sometimes, especially when middle-aged white men tell it to me while I’m out hiking. Again, though I know they mean well, I still know there is a doubt in my ability, because I am a woman. As a woman, I know this is not just an assumption, as some well-meaning men might make it out to be. I’m not going to dive too deep into this topic now, as I’ve talked about it before, but I can say with confidence and without an enlarged ego that I have a decent amount of experience in the wilderness, both alone and with a group, learning from others who have decades of experience, plus Wilderness First Responder certification. I also always think about mine and Pacer’s safety, both at night in my tent and hiking during the day, considering what are my safety tools. On my Colorado Trail thru-hike, I had repeated to myself “dog, hiking poles, bear spray, and knife” several times, so if anything did happen, my reaction time would be quick. I also know that every time I go out into the wilderness, there is a risk, which I like to think of a calculated risk, which I try to keep pretty low. For example, I’ve learned to start all my mountain climbs early, and have learned when to turn back (albeit I still tend to go a bit farther than I should before making that decision, as the story below illustrates.)
3 days after the argument with my partner, my carefulness was put to the test in way that I couldn’t have expected. Could I have been prepared more? Probably a little. Did I make a mistake? Yes, but not as much in main experience that put Pacer and I in a dangerous situation. And, I am happy to report that the boy did not shame me experience later on (I had already done that, regardless of what I could and could not have done), but supported me in acknowledging the inherent risk in adventure, in life, that even the most experienced adventurist can fall upon the unexpected. What follows is mine and Pacer’s story, that I say with some embarrassment, as I did not think something like this could happen to someone who respected nature. I questioned telling this story, for what cause? My hope is that if I share my experience with others, that they can gain experience from my story, without having to actually go through it. Of course, I always find some catharsis in writing too, even if I put myself at risk for being judged, for I know someone else will understand and appreciate my words. So here it goes.
Pacer and I started our hike just before 6am (about 30 minutes later than planned) Thursday morning in Lost Creek Wilderness. I was somewhat familiar with the area, first going through it when backpacking the Colorado Trail and then returning twice after to get to know the land a little more. This time, Pacer and I had a 27 mile loop planned. I had been thinking about it since last June, when we ran the Colorado Trail section with the boy, and then learned of the loop popular* among runners. Pacer and I were going to fast pack it, as I was still healing from a calf strain and had been instructed by my PT to keep it flat when running. Hence why we were starting so early.
*Popular is relative in the Lost Creek Wilderness area, as it is pretty remote area, between the “towns” of Bailey and Jefferson, which are very teeny towns.
We cruised the first few miles, both in our excitement for adventure and because the trail was mostly flat and smooth (great for running, I had thought). About an hour in, maybe less, we came to a cool looking rock cropping, off to the side of the trail, which we stopped to take a picture at, then got back on the trail. We continued to pass empty campsites, and the trail became slightly more technical. I figured we were supposed to get some elevation in, so it seemed okay. We also passed another hiker, who stopped to ask me where we were on the map. I told him where (I thought) we were, and it sounded like he had missed a turn and was hoping to get a ride back to his car from the Lost Creek Campground. Pacer and I continued on, following a dirt path up and down near a stream, that got increasingly more technical. Before I knew it, we were in a canyon and following cairns on boulders. We did this for awhile, before I decided this was getting to dangerous, and I wouldn’t put Pacer through anymore of this terrain (she has amazing athletic ability, but boulder hopping is not her favorite thing.). I figured we could hike back to where we started, and start heading out for awhile on the trail we were supposed to loop back on.
We got a bit lost heading back, with me first trying to take an easier path back. Eventually we back tracked, finding a familiar point, and then re-tracing our steps from there. From my experience, back tracking is ALWAYS the answer (okay, maybe 97% of the time). I was happy with my decision to turn. I can’t remember how far back we traveled, but we were still on part of the trail that had some ups and downs. Pacer started picking up speed, and I knew she smelled something. This is a familiar experience, as it is almost a daily occurrence on our runs or walks near where we live in Estes Park that she smells or sees a deer and starts pulling me a long. She was looking across the creek, so that’s where I look too, following a weaving trail. Then we turned and entered a bit of a clearing, and 15ft in front of us was a bull moose.
At least I think it was a bull moose, I think I saw antlers, but everything happened so quickly after that. The moose started charging towards us, before I even had a chance to think, only to feel fear. Pacer was barking madly and pulling at her leash, which I dropped. I watched as this huge, 1,000 pound animal ran over my dog, my heart, while I screamed. It then stopped and turned towards me, and I stupidly put my hands up, using bear technique, which I usually think about more that moose tactics (usually I just think “stay away” for moose, as I had always first seen a moose at a distance). All I can remember is it continued to run towards me, then I was down, he was over me. I can’t remember how I fell, if I did it on my own or if he pushed me down (I have bruise on my shoulder, so maybe he pushed me with his head?). I don’t remember the position I was in when I hit the ground. It wasn’t that I was knocked out, it just happened so fast that I can’t remember. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I saw the moose stop and turn towards me again, but by that time Pacer had recovered and was running toward him. I screamed more, as I was worried for her safety (something happening to her is my worst nightmare.) But she continued to run after him, and he ran away through the trees. Not long after, Pacer ran back towards me, and I was awash with relief that she was okay, we were alive. I was also in a state of shock (not to be confused with medical shock, which can be life threatening).
First, I processed what Pacer, aka Supergirl, had done. She had protected me, against an animal 10x my size, and 20x her size. Again, she had saved me. First from myself years ago, and now from a potentially terrible injury. (When I told this story to my parents, I didn’t not use the word fatal, which moose attacks certainly can be.) I then assessed myself. Nothing seemed broken. My right calf was hurting and swelling, but I could walk. Being a WFR, I assed my own level of awareness. I was A+O x 4. All good. Miraculously, Pacer and I were relatively unharmed.
And so, I got up and continued to hike out. Pacer led me gently out, knowing I was hurting a bit. Mentally, I did my best keeping myself together. We had to get back and I didn’t feel like explaining my condition to another hiker.
My thoughts were like a frozen berries in a blender, though not as tasty. There was bewilderment of what had just happened, blame for putting me and Pacer in the situation (even if it was partially just bad luck), and admittedly, even some anger/sadness that my joyous adventure day was ruined. And fear. While I feel like I’ve always had a healthy fear, a respect for the wilderness, this was new. The place that I had always felt at home at, the place I had first felt like I belonged, was now doused in a very visceral fear. It was like a burglar had broken into my house. Would I ever be able to go back inside and feel safe again?
Eventually we came back to the cool looking rock-cropping. I noticed what looked like a trail on the other side of it. We walked passed the rocks, and I looked at a fallen sign post by my feet. The wood was pointing in the direction of the trail I head been on, but someone had lightly etched “Wigwam Trail” into it with an arrow pointing in the other direction. Fudge. (Okay, I probably swore.). I had considered that we may have taken the wrong trail, but thought it was perhaps at one of the water crossings. I knew there was an obscure trail on my map that I wasn’t supposed to take, but this wasn’t what I pictured. I had thought at that if the trail was obvious, it would have at least been properly marked. But I had missed it. Poor on another layer of self-blame, heavy like fudge, but more like sludge.
We made it back to Surry (short for Surrender-supposed to be a good reminder for me) the Subaru, put Pacer in with extra treats and fresh water, left a note in the camp fee box that asked to fix the trail sign and warnings of an aggressive moose (I did not mention the attack, as many moose who attack humans are euthanized, and I believe the moose charged out of surprise and his own fear), and drove the 20 miles back down the bumpy dirt road until I got cell service. I had been debating on whether to call my sister or the boy first. I just needed to mentally lean on someone, rather than hold it all in. I chose my sister, as I still had the boy’s “be careful” warning in my head. I choked up as soon I started talking, not being able to hold it all in any longer, but not wanting to worry her either. Really, just needing to hear a calming voice. I talked to her for a bit and then I called the boy, who was boarding his plane back to CO. I repeated the story, him making sure I was okay to drive the few hours back to Estes Park before we ended the call. I felt okay, so we went home.
The drive was uneventful, but I could feel the pain in my calf increase, could tell the swelling had continued. I had my NOLS Wilderness First Responder book in my car, so I looked up Compartment Syndrome. Symptoms include:
Pain out of proportion to the injury or stimulated by stretching or movement (Kinda. Walking hurt. Touch hurt.)
Palor: Pale or cyanotic skin (Nope!)
Pulseless: Diminished or absent distal pulse (Still good here)
Pressure: The muscles may feel tight or full. (YES)
Treatment: Rapidly evacuate.
When we got home, I hobbled inside holding onto Pacer’s leash. The cats were happy to see me (and wanting to be fed) and one brushed upon my leg (which was now comparable to the cyclist with calf implants in the Liberty Mutual commercial) which caused me to scream in pain. Still, I managed to shower, then lie on the couch with my foot elevated. I can’t remember if I called the my insurance’s nurse hotline first, or scrolled through Netflix. I think it was Netflix, so I’ll start there.
Of course, I had to check Facebook before going to Netflix, and vides of Gabe Grunewald, the professional runner who recently passed at age 32 after battling a rare form of cancer for several years. Then I went to Netflix, scrolling through the “comedies” section, needing a laugh. My mouse hovered over “50/50” which looked good, until I read the description that it was about a young man who had received a cancer diagnosis with a 50/50 survival rate. That was it. The dam had broken, flood gates open.
Because the truth is, what I had been holding back wasn’t simply the fear I had felt in my experience earlier in the day. What I had been holding back for weeks was there fear of my older sister’s (second) cancer diagnosis, something I have chosen remain private about until now. The truth is, I’m terrified. She’ll find out if the newest treatment has been working on my and my twin’s 31st birthday. It has to be working. There’s no other option. I can’t even handle the thought of it not working. She’ll turn 35 years old, 2 weeks after my 31st. She is too young not to live.
Once I stopped sniffling, I finally chose “Julie & Julia” which I had never seen before (great film besides all the dead animals used for cooking). I then decided I should call the ER, who turned me to my insurance’s nurse hotline. After going through my history and current symptoms (looked like cyclist from insurance commercial, yelling at the poor cat when he touched me, but could wiggle my toes!) she told me I should go to the ER, that I should have someone else drive me. My twin offered to come up from Boulder. The boy said to call our landlords. I stubbornly drove. (Feeling safe to do so, knowing I wasn’t putting others at risk!)
To make the story a little shorter, I’ll wrap this part up quickly. Because Estes Park is a small town (without the tourists), I saw the doctor right away. He quickly ruled out compartment syndrome, as when he touched my ankle, the whole compartment didn’t hurt and the pain would be more constant. I got X-rayed. No broken bones. Again, a small miracle that I neither Pacer or I were badly injured, which I in part owe to my mom for praying for her 3 daughters every morning. With instructions to rest, ice, (compression was out because it would’ve hurt too much), elevate*, and take ibuprofen, I limped back out of the hospital. The boy got back home an hour later, food in tow. Pacer laid under my leg, helping me to elevate it as I ate and watched Julie & Julia. My Supergirl.
*RICE is not a proven treatment for musculoskeletal injuries, and NOLS stopped teaching this practice in December, 2017.
A few days later, my leg is still swollen, but I was able to (forcibly) pull on my skinny jeans. Now that the swelling has gone down some, the bruises are starting to appear. I’m cycling, but still days out from running. Pacer is eager to go on long walk tomorrow. I’m looking at 14ers.com, checking out the snow conditions. When will I be able to climb up again? Pacer is lying on the other side of the pillows elevating my leg, eyes closed. Sampson the cat is scrunched up on the other side of the pillows, close to me and twitching in his slumber. I still haven’t processed the event, mixed in with the rest of life. I know I’ll go out again, just me and Pacer, but I don’t know what else besides our gear I’ll be bringing with me.
I know the likelihood of being charged by a moose again is rare. However, stories like this are no longer something I just read about. Now it’s real. I hope my friends don’t have to have an experience like this, and that they, you, can continue to spot moose from afar, enjoying their massive grace. Still, as what I feel is my duty, here are a few tips from beprepared.com if you are ever charged by a moose:
Back off and run. Make sure you get behind the nearest tree, fence, or building that acts as a strong barrier between you and the moose.
Curl up in a ball. If a moose knocks you to the ground, curl up into a ball. It may continue running, start stomping, or kicking you. Curling up will protect your head and vital organs.
Don’t get up until the moose moves a good distance away. If you try to get up while it’s close, it could attack again.
As a first year graduate student at Naropa, in my first semester, I was taking a class taught by Diane Israel. We were learning about Erikson’s stages of development and Bowlbly’s and Ainswoth’s theory on attachment. It was late September. I was getting into the flow of school as Colorado’s Aspen trees were turning gold. Diane had originally given us the assignment to observe a child and write about it, but with the class’s excitement about the trees, Diane decided to change the assignment to “go observe a tree.”
And so I did. With my pup in tow, I drove up the canyon to 10,000 feet at the Fourth July Trailhead outside Eldora. In my journal I wrote:
I don’t feel young, like I do at times in the summer when I am running down a trail. Nor do I feel old. I just am. I wonder if this is how the trees feel. Not tired, but just ready for a slow down. Along with the trees, I am fully here for this change in season.
Driving back along the bumpy, Aspen and pine strewn trail towards Eldora, I wonder: what if there was a nature attachment theory? A theory that stated all living things are connected, from the dirt to the sky, from trees to humans. And if one was to let herself slow down, to remove the superficial thought and material things and just be, that she would be able to re-connect with nature, to be held by Mother Nature. In this re-connection, healing from the trauma of the “created” human world, harmony would be found. The attachment to Mother Nature has all
the love and safety one needs to be securely attached. In this oneness with nature, humans could become whole within themselves and with the world.”
That day, I began to create Mother Nature Attachment Theory.
Now before I dig into the presentation, I’ll very briefly describe attachment theory. The theory states that in our earliest years, a safe and secure attachment to a primary caregiver is critical to development. If a young child does not have her needs met, then the child will insecurely attach not only to their caregivers, but this attachment will carry on through life and later relationships.
From my own definition, Mother Nature Attachment Theory states that growing up and living with a secure attachment to nature is essential for humans to find harmony within themselves, as well for society to find harmony in itself. An insecure attachment to nature leads to dis-ease among humans and destruction in society.
With this in mind, I came up with two principal questions:
Can Mother Nature help heal our attachment wounds in relationship with humans? And what happens when we, Mother Nature’s children, separate ourselves from the Earth? Can we re-attach?
I also have to note the main limits of my research, the first being that I am personifying Mother Nature. However, my hope is that this view helps me explain my theory a little better. Second, I did not have time to include adverse experiences with nature, such as those people who have survived natural disaster. And finally, while many of my ideas are backed in research, much is also backed in passion of the teachings I have learned from spending countless hours wandering in the valleys of Ohio and the mountains of the Rockies.
While I did grow up with loving parents, I developed an insecure attachment in childhood. In my teens and early 20s, my insecure attachment showed itself as anxiety and depression. Then I found service and trail running. A shift happened. My perspective on life got brighter. In 2015 when my dog and I moved to Colorado, we hiked the nearly 500 mile Colorado Trail which runs through the state. Despite our misadventures, I had never felt more at home. Despite the elements, I felt held, unjudged, like I belonged.
Several years later, I found myself interning at Harmony Foundation, a substance abuse rehabilitation treatment center located just outside Rocky Mountain National Park. A majority, if not all, of the clients come their with attachment wounds and score highly on the Adverse Childhood Experience test. In addition to being surrounded by nature at the treatment center, we also go on weekly outings. In these moments, gratitude is often present for clients and we discusses it on an individual basis and as a group. Studies show that nature reduces rumination by lessening the activity of the subgenual prefrontal cortex, often linked with depression and mental illness. In place of rumination, the mind opens to allow a sense of wonder and awe, a change in perspective. Something as simple as laying in the grass and watching the clouds, or the guided imagery meditation of tree firmly rooted into the ground, can help people feel stable and secure, also regulating the nervous system.
In addition, another recent study found that in laboratory mice, a friendly bacteria often found in soil activated brain cells and produced the chemical serotonin, which affected the mice’s brain in a way similar to anti-depressants. Of course, as someone who believes we, humans, animals, and plants, are all our connected, I would say leave the mice a lone and just go outside and seep the benefits in that we already know our there, with the intuition Mother Nature bestowed us with at birth.
And so, while I still feel it is necessary for humans with insecure attachments to find security in attaching with other humans, I believe nature can supplement and enhance the process.
My second question, can humans on a societal level re-attach with Mother Nature, is a bit more complicated. It is quite obvious that humans, especially in the United States, have separated ourselves from Nature. Even more obvious are the effects this has had on our world, and I’m not only speaking about climate change. Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinnings calls our separation form the Earth the “original trauma” and that this trauma has been passed down and interwoven with other trauma’s such as abuse. Is it a coincidence that as we rape our women, we rape the Earth? Or that we’re seeing high rates of infertility as we spray farms with chemicals, and that we numb our own pain with substances and medication? Furthermore, statistics show that the majority of people have barely anyone to lean on for help and that we also spend more time indoors than ever before in our history. Is it any wonder that in this separateness, we have mass shootings and are facing extreme changes in weather?
In this insecure attachment, a sense of “dis-ease” has swept through our society. We see it in the consumption of material goods, drugs and alcohol, and what we call mental illness. Psychologist James Hillman writes “to grasp the disorders in any subject we must study carefully the environment of the disorder: the kind of water, the winds, the humidity, temperatures, the food, the plants; the times of day; the seasons. Treatment of the inner requires attention to the outer; or, as another early healer wrote, “The greater part of the soul lies outside the body.” End quote.
It’s hard to say when this separation began. Some trace it back to Descartes’ great chain of being, where he presented a hierarchy of humans and animals, later adapted to humans and skin color. Others trace it even farther back to early writings of the bible. In America, we can most pointedly find it as we murdered and uprooted the Native Americans, the people who had the most to teach us about Mother Earth and Her wisdom.
OR [So where does our story of disconnection begin? Our story that we are not acceptable, that Nature is not acceptable as it? Perhaps with the story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent told Eve she was not good enough as she was and to be like God she should take a bite? And Adam in his jealousy of Eve knowing more than he, took a bite as well. And the story of separateness of death began? In America, the picture is a little easier to see, as explorers and settlers came to our country for freedom, escaping dictatorship. Unfortunately, some of the settlers brought their fear of not being accepted, the need to be better than with them, and they separated by themselves by killing of the very people who knew the land the most, who could have helped us re-connect to the Earth. And we continued that pattern of saying “Mother Nature, you are not good enough as you are. We must make you better.” And so we poised her land with chemicals thinking we could grow plants better. We took her animals, our siblings capable of great emotion and knowledge, and put them on industrial farms for slaughter, feeding them with the chemical plants. We cut down Her trees, drilled holes in her body, always wanting more. And now we see this separation is our own disease. We eat the food lined with pesticides and GMOs, and end up in the hospital with diseases like cancer. We’re beginning to see the Earth self-destruct, saying “no more” as we see the effects of climate change. ]
Renowned author and doctor Gabor Mate says in his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghost“The pressures of urbanization are cutting millions of people adrift from their connections with land, tradition, and community” and later in the book goes on to say “We have seen that addiction arises out of dislocation. The absence of meaning is yet another type of dislocation that we human beings, spiritual creatures that we are, cannot well endure.” End quote. As we’ve separated from the Earth, we have lost one of our primary roles as humans: caretakers of the Earth, the body that we are all part of.
How I look at things is that humans are the microcosm and Earth is the macrocosm. What we do to one we do to the other and vice versa. Or, as Chief Seattle stated “Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Speaking of webs…Did you know that trees are intricately connected and talk to each other? There can be hundreds of trees in one grove, sharing nutrients, giving out distress signals, and holding each other upright in bad weather. Even bigger is the web of mycelia, a fungus, fondly referred to as Earth’s Natural Internet by mycologist Paul Stamets, with one organism expanding to 2.4 miles in Oregon. These plants show us that when we stand together, connected, we are stronger. The Earth’s natural internet is not unlike our world wide web of the internet, though ours is a superficial example of what it means to attach to one another. Trees and plants are willing talk to us too, if we are willing to listen.
Right now our trees are dying. And as they die, our world has less filters to give us clean oxygen. Our natural landscapes are changing in scary ways, almost as if Mother Nature is telling us “enough is enough.” So my question is, “is there hope?”
At times I have been tempted to say no.
“As I see pictures of animals being brutally slaughtered, pipelines being built through sacred land, forest being destroyed, and mass shootings on the rise , my heart wants to bury itself in despair, but I scream to myself: be the light, be the light!
One of my favorite speakers on the subject of hope is Zach Busch, a doctor who advocates for natural farming practices and againsts fertilizers like RoundUp.After giving a speech that sounds like doomsday is right around the corner, he gives a profound message of hope. He reminds us of Mother Nature’s amazing ability to renew and heal. Farms that were once depleted of nutrients can regenerate to full capacity with a little love and time. In a podcast with Rich Roll, Busch reminded listeners that sometimes we have to reach our death before being reborn. I see this with my clients too. Many of them come to Harmony Foundation having hit their rock bottom. Truly, if they would not have come to Harmony, they’d may be dead. So in the shadow of the mountains, we offer them a new hope, a rebirth. We remind their souls that life is worth living, and something greater is out there.
And then, there is the great Joanna Macy, the environmental activist who wrote a book entitled Active Hope. Joanna Macy says:
“Active Hope is not wishful thinking.
Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued . . . .
by some savior.
Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life
on whose behalf we can act.
We belong to this world.
The web of life is calling us forth at this time.
We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.
With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store,
strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.
Active Hope is a readiness to discover the strengths
in ourselves and in others;
a readiness to discover the reasons for hope
and the occasions for love.
A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts,
our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,
our own authority, our love for life,
the liveliness of our curiosity,
the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,
the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.
None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.”
And the truth is, hope is all around us, which is shown in the hearts of humans and from scientific studies. We know that the brain, at any age, can create new neurons. Research now shows that heart disease can be reversed by following a diet rooted in plants. We have evidence of forests regrowing and regenerating when native species are planted and then left alone to heal, with the animals who once lived there returning. There are farm sanctuary’s opening up around the country because they know animals are loving, sentient beings. We know that attachment wounds can be healed.
Furthermore, kids across the world are marching in their cities to demand action is taken on climate change. People in my midwestern hometown of Parma Heights, OH are recycling, something I didn’t even know existed as a kid. Even more astonishing is that their local grocery store has a vegan section! Psychologist in Scotland are now permitted by their government to prescribe nature rather than pills. And in Boulder, CO there are graduate students getting their degrees in Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy.
As Suzanne Simard said in her 2016 Ted Talk, “Give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal.”
If Mother Nature can heal herself, and if more humans realize that we are part of Nature, we can heal too.
So how do we re-attach?
In the Spell of the Sensuous, writer David Abram states that “When a Navajo person wishes to renew or reestablish, in the world, the harmonious condition of well-being and beauty expressed by the Navajo word hozho he must first strive, through ritual, to create this harmony and peacefulness within his own being. Having established such hozho within himself, he can then actively impart this state of well-being to the enveloping cosmos, through transforming the power of song or prayer.”
With clients, our job as therapist is to help them begin to create harmony within themselves, to love themselves. At the same time, we can help them create a life of harmony with nature, with therapists remembering that healing client wounds is the same as healing nature and vice versa. Simple practices that can be done with clients are:
-going outside and walking rather than staying in an office, then highlighting the experience as my supervisor Gretchen Leezer reminded me.
-Using a nature basket to help clients describe how they are feeling.
-Using guided imagery that lets one feel grounded like a deeply rooted tree or one that allows them to escape to their “happy place” in nature
-giving homework to go outside
-creating metaphors with plants and the landscape with clients, which I often consider to really be parallels. Examples include comparing the curves of Mother Nature to the curves of a woman with a client challenged by body-image, or looking at a tree on a windy day and comparing that to staying grounded in ourselves in the midst of life challenges.
-Have clients share their nature story from childhood to adulthood. (Most people can report having a secret spot outside that they went to as a child, or have fond memories of summer vacations outside with their family..)
-Create ceremonies and rituals using Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water.
Finally, there is service. We can encourage clients to volunteer for their local parks, cleaning up trash, planting native species, or building new trails. We can suggest volunteering at animal shelters or farm sanctuaries that care for and give a new life to animals like sheep, goats, and pigs that were once neglected and abused.
O, did I mention all of this isn’t just for our clients, but all of us?
Throughout the day, my classmates will be sharing more brilliant ways to strengthen our connection with the Earth.
In summary, by healing our own wounds and client wounds we are also healing nature’s wounds, and by healing nature’s wounds we are healing our own. When we live a life in harmony with Mother Nature, with plants, trees, animals, insects, fungus, and all, we can live in harmony with ourselves, bringing out the best and beauty in all of us.
“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.”
While the government closure goes on into it’s 4th week, the once protected National Parks are left vulnerable without rangers, volunteers, and respectful citizens to protect them. Like many of my Facebook friends, I’ve been both angrily and sadly watching my feed with updates on more news of parks getting trashed, human waste building up, and even trees being cut down. Why, why is this happening? What would make a human so lazy as not pack out their trash, or be so motivated to take a saw into the park and cut down it’s historic trees?
Over the past few years, I’ve been observing and studying what I have dubbed “Mother Nature Attachment Theory.” This is based on human attachment theory that, in short, states our earliest relationships to our caregivers affects how we attach, securely or insecurely, in our other relationships throughout life. In other words, if you have a negative relationship with your mother, or maybe she was never there, or sometimes there, or was always there looking at you for comfort rather than vice versa, then as adult you might either embody these same characteristics or go overboard in the opposite direction. The underlying feeling left is often one of fear or distrust. (That’s just a brief summary of attachment theory).
(Cuyahoga Valley National Park)
In my own Mother Nature Attachment Theory, I see this in a similar way. If a child doesn’t grow up spending time outside, climbing trees, building forts with sticks, then the child didn’t grow up with an attachment to Nature. Or, maybe the child was told “don’t get dirty”, “it’s not safe out there”, and handed an iPad to keep busy, then the child grew up without trusting Nature, and an insecurity to it. Then, there might be the child who was given a dirt bike before ever taking a hike in the woods, never recycled, or grew up with the perspective from parents that we must dominate Nature. Again, this kind of relationship creates another form of insecurity. These types of attachment to Mother Nature create not only a fear but both a disconnection to the land and to the self, for all of us who have grown up with a secure attachment to Nature knows that we are all connected.
If you didn’t grow up with the view that nature is an abstract object, then leaving a wrapper behind is no big deal. If you grew up fearing nature or with the a privileged view of separate equals better than, than the damage of cutting down a tree might not be worth a second thought. Actually, those acts might be your way of trying to cope from that missing connection with the Earth. Temporarily, it might make you feel better.
The sad thing is for the people who grew up with an insecure attachment to Mother Nature is that their outward destruction usually reflects their own inward pain. While I’ve only been interning as a therapist at a substance abuse center for 6 months now, I’ve clearly witnessed the turmoil many of our clients face from growing up with an insecure attachment to their early caregivers. Most of them self-destruct with drugs and alcohol, don’t trust others, and don’t trust the world. It’s a tough, unbearable way to live. While I’m still angry at the people trashing our National Parks, I can find a little sympathy and sadness for them because I have a sense of what they’re lacking. Having lived several year’s by Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park and now next to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Parks, I have re-gained a sense of wonder and awe, felt at home, found my Higher Power, and cried in the beauty mountain shadows. Just thinking of my life without Nature leaves me feeling like I have void centered in my chest.
Rocky Mountain National Park
If your feeling sad or angry about the state of our National Parks, that is actually a positive feeling. It shows your love and secure attachment to Mother Nature, and a justifiable angst that She is not being respected or taken care of. These feelings can either eat at us, or motivate us to do something. What can we do? For those of us who don’t live by National Parks* and can’t inform visitors or trail or park etiquette at this time (which may be dangerous and I don’t necessarily suggest) or clean up like this little boy, we can support our National Parks with donations, visit them the next time we are on vacation, and speak with our actions by recycling and trying to reduce of consumption of heavily packed products. We can also get to the heart of the matter by encouraging others to have a secure attachment with Mother Nature. If we have or work with children it’s a bit easier. We can encourage kids to get dirty, to sit outside when they need to calm down or had a bad day, or make comparisons like “wow, that flower needs food and water just like I do!”. It’s a bit trickier with adults, and we already know preaching usually doesn’t work, but we can sneak in comments, maybe at work, such as “Whew! I had a really tough day. I need to make sure I get outside for a run today.” or “I had a great weekend hiking with my family. I feel so much more energized now.” We can also use our actions like recycling or bringing in re-usable silverware to eat lunch with. If you have time, I suggest volunteering for your local or National Park a few times a year too.
I’m also going to keep praying to my Higher Power, Mother Nature, that the parks re-open ASAP. And when they do, profusely thank the rangers for all that they do. I’m going to count my lucky stars (which, by the way, are amazing living right next to a National Park) that I”m blessed enough to live in the mountains and that I grew up with parents who allowed me to play in the mud and build tree forts. Last, I’n going to try to send a little love to those who haven’t been as blessed, as angry as I am by their actions, because I know what they are doing on the outside is a mirror of what is going on inside.
*While I live right next to Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m very fortunate to not have witnessed any damage from my outings, which may speak to the community of Estes Park whose residents see themselves as the parks caregivers.
**I have to add this Rich Roll podcast with Zach Bush, MD of Food Independence & Planetary Revolution because it is relevant, both from a scientific and spiritual standpoint.
In childhood, there were the 20 mile bike rides my sister and my dad. 20 miles along your towpath, following the once burning river, now home to turtles and river otters.
Providing me with the adventure my young heart yearned for and the memories my wizened heart now cherishes.
As an adult, I discovered your winding trails, like veins pumping bloods to the heart state.
You were the escape from what others told me was the “real word” and taught me that actually, I got create my own trails, shape my own journey, and decide what my “real world” would be.
I had forgotten what it was it was like to be held.
You reminded me.
You reminded me what it was like to be lost…and then found.
To feel alive.
In your valleys, I found home.
You were a reminder that there was always sun behind those seemingly encompassing grey clouds.
I still visit you at least once a year for Christmas, and more many more times in my dreams. I picture myself entering the Portal Tree, blue jays perched on Her branches, to a place of safety, wonder, and answers.
Truly, I know you are always here with me.
While I now live in the land of high summits and alpine lakes, you’re here too.
Different, but the same.
And in me, you’ve created both a valley and a mountain girl.
This blog started with a Facebook post, written shortly after returning from a (1-day) trip the mountains (Leadville/Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert):
Every time I come back from the mountains, I ask myself “Why the F did I come back?” (In reality, I know the answer. Society asks that I have a job and a physical place to live). I’m tied between wanting to contribute to society, to make a difference, and the want to escape the complicated and busy structure of our world (of course, it isn’t all bad). Does anyone else face this dilemma?
I have my own further thoughts on this topic (perhaps a future blog post), but I’d love to hear the insight, questions, and wisdom (not necessarily advice) of others who also question this dichotomy.
*I added in the not necessarily advice part later.
I got quite a few replies, some advice, some various perspectives, and mainly a “I feel that way too”. Which upon reflection, was really what I was looking for. A sense of universality, that others both felt and questioned (society/life) the way I do. When I realized the post had gathered some heat/interest and that I personally had more exploring to do as well, I decided to write a bit more.
Living in the world, being part of the world, making a difference in the world does not mean, at least for me, living in the confines of society. That, for myself, is the answer that I have come to, but my conclusion is not so easy to put in words, though I can not say it is complicated either. It’s just what is.
The dilemma I mention in my Facebook post is not so black and white as it seems. It is not between being a hermit in the mountains and praying for a better world or living in the city and working in an office for 9 hours.
And, while I do believe energy, prayer, and intention does have an impact on the world, I am not so ethereal to believe that is all that is needed…that I could just live in a cabin and meditate and play outside all day. I am a big believer in action too.
My work as a (wilderness) therapist will involve both, the energetic and the physical manifesting.
So if I choose to live in the mountains, can I be a giver of both as strongly as if I lived in the city (or in a small city like Boulder)? Really, that is the heart of my question.
While I believe that the answer is very individual to anyone who asks the question, I’m starting to figure out my own truth. Admittedly, part of my answer might go against the simplicity I crave (I’m reminded of a particularly sarcastic blog by Dakota Jones on car camping), but modern technology and transportation might help solve some of my conflict, or help me find harmony in the dichotomy.
Then there’s the bigger question. Despite the fact that humans are living closer than ever before, that wifi and cell phones let us connect to hundreds of people, even across the world, are we becoming more lost, more disconnected? (For more on the topic, read Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections) And not just from other humans, but from the land that bore us too, to our Mother Earth? Are we supposed to live in apartments, or with the land? I could go on and on…and on with questions like this. But I’ll save you my words and ask that you have this conversation with yourself. And if you don’t find an answer, that is okay. Just keep questioning, stay curious. Because while it is the mountains that make my soul sing, and often the cities that make me cringe, I’ve also found profound beauty in the mass humanity of the city street as well.
[The Boy just got done finishing the Kodiak 100, a 100 miles race in the San Bernardino mountains, and we were reflecting on his journey on the drive back to the airport. He said is favorite part was nearly 80 miles in, when he was running down Sugarloaf Mountain and the 50k runners, who had just started, were coming up. People were smiling, hi-fiving, and struggling, all together. That, I thought, might be the best of both worlds, the crowds and mountains. People connecting and encouraging each other while journeying through the wilderness.]
And maybe all this girl really needs is her dog.
Tips for returning from the mountains/wilderness:
Before you depart from your adventure, ask yourself “What am I bringing back with me?” Are there any reminders from being in the wilderness that you can bring back with you into everyday life?
Create extra awareness on the drive back. Don’t speed out as fast as you can. Choose your pace/speed wisely.
Use your phone with awareness. If possible, give yourself sometime before checking your inbox and text messages.
Practice self-care. Take extra time (space) to do things. Get enough sleep. In other words, don’t just jump back into the hustle and bustle of life.
For long trips, and trying to communicate your experience with family and friends, consciously choose what you share and who you share with. It is often difficult to communicate the sacred. (It also often helps to ask what others have been up to first, before diving into your experience.)
Remember, continuing change takes time and practice. If there is something you want to bring back with you, like journaling or slowing down before dinner, create action steps to make them a habit.
Be kind to yourself. Your going to forget. It will seem like the mountains have left you. But they never leave you. They are in you.