Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Heart Song for a Hermit


Once upon a time, not terribly long ago, I spent my summers with the "Great Standing Ones.":


'Lou


At that time I used to sit on a mountain in Oregon during the summer and this little bird used to sing to me


Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush Photo by Velo Steve

Here is the story:





"Bald Mountain Vigil" originally appeared as two earlier articles in Siskiyou Country, Vols. 8 & 15 (1984 and 1985). Later, it was excerpted and edited for publication in The Soul Unearthed, edited by Cass Adams (Tarcher/Putnam, 1996).


BALD MOUNTAIN VIGIL

For days we had been making preparations for my second summer on the mountain. A series of sweat lodge ceremonies had been conducted to purify our minds and bodies. The Takilma Peace Circle had dedicated Bald Mountain as a special sanctuary to pray for world peace. A group of friends had formed a support group to deliver food to the trailhead throughout the summer. Everything was ready: we were anxious to go, but the storm continued.

Waiting is difficult-it makes me think too much. I thought about the so-called "Wilderness Bill" which had just released over two million acres of Oregon’s roadless areas to the timber industry. I thought about the threat now posed to the great old-growth forest that still flourishes above Silver and Indigo creeks. I thought about the senseless greed and destructiveness of today’s world. Nearly half of all the forests on earth have been cut down since 1950.

Like the rain, my wondering continued. What sense does it make to ask a society that discards its old people to save its old trees? What sense does it make to ask a society that regularly abuses its children to preserve the forest for our great, great grandchildren? What sense does it make to ask a government, which is continually preparing for war, to maintain the peacefulness of the natural world? And what was I doing hiking up to Bald Mountain with people from distant lands, to maintain a forest sanctuary in the middle of nowhere?

Storytelling was a better way to wait. So I shared the tale of how my vigil had begun in the first place. Over a year ago, in May of 1983, I had been arrested in the first activist blockades of logging roads in our National Forests. Our blockade came in the middle of a series of six actions. On that day eight of us sat in front of a bulldozer. Eventually forty-four people got arrested. The court made our probation conditional on not reentering National Forest land for one year. Less than a week later I was back in the Kalmiopsis declaring, "My purpose is peaceful and religious. I shall remain to bear witness to the present attack upon the forest and pray for its safety."

My camp was near the top of the mountain, next to a crystal-clear spring that bubbled out from under a rock. The young ferns, miner’s lettuce, and violets growing around it provided a ready supply of fresh salad greens. A great Douglas fir, ten feet in diameter, created a thick carpet of needles, and its branches shielded my tent from wind and rain.

Within a few days of my arrival I began to sense a growing trust among my new neighbors. The local squirrels, blue jays and juncos were now content merely to announce my presence rather than scold my every move. Deer began to travel the trail through my camp in daylight. The mouse family, which lived in a nearby stump, scampered across my feet as I sat by the fire at night. One afternoon, as I basked in the warm sun, a hummingbird lighted on my shoulder. It made me feel that I had arrived at some sort of harmony with my relatives in the natural world.

My life on the mountain became magical in many ways. Occasional visits from folks bringing supplies felt like a combination of Christmas and family reunion. This kind of experience was not limited to my friends or "support people." Total strangers, just hiking through found themselves hanging out, camping overnight, or readjusting their plans. Sometimes the reaction was extraordinary, as in the case of an Ashland man who made a special return trip to bring me two weeks’ worth of provisions. Nearly everyone tried to offer some kind of assistance: extra food or reading material or a clean pair of socks. Best of all, for me, was just watching people fall in love with the mountain.

The top of Bald Mountain is like Friar Tuck’s head, a flat, barren area about thirty feet in diameter, with a view of the untouched North Kalmiopsis. It is a holy place: good for seeing the four directions, for touching the four winds, for sleeping under the stars, and for talking to God. The overall ambiance of the mountain is more "old growth forest" than "mountain." Decaying remains of ancestral trees still feed the soil and house creepy-crawlers. Grandmother and grandfather trees, the old living ones, stand proudly as secure anchors on steep, fragile slopes. All around there is a feeling of connection with earth and critters and vibrant growing energy. Wendell Berry, in one of his poems, describes feeling "the earth’s empowering brew rise in root and branch." Yes, it was like that.

My daily routine was simple. Gather wood, prepare meals, keep warm and dry, hike down to watch the illegal construction on the Bald Mountain Road, and explore the forest. Walking was a good time for prayer and I often found myself reciting a traditional Navaho chant --

In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.

This was not ritual. It was simple appreciation.

One day, as I was returning from a morning of road watching, I found a beautiful Knobcone Pine branch, which seemed to have potential for a walking stick. As I passed through a high meadow about a quarter a mile from my camp, however, I plunged the stick into the ground. I had found my meditation spot.

The view from this south-facing slope overlooked seven mountain ridges, which seemed to drift off into the ocean some fifty miles away. Often the ridges rose through low misty clouds, looking like Oriental paintings. For centuries, Buddhist monks have chosen places like my meditation spot to sit and contemplate the impermanence of worldly things. It was a good place to unburden my mind.

During those early days on the mountain, perhaps as a reaction to aloneness, my mind often got terribly busy. I found myself concocting great dramas, holding arguments with the logging industry or delivering self-righteous lectures to the Josephine County Court. But this wasn’t why I had come to the mountain - my purpose was "peaceful and religious" - and these mental debates were making me feel furious and angry.

I meditated and watched my own thoughts come and go like the clouds. I saw that I had no perfect solutions to offer. As my mind emptied, I remembered the awe with which I had, as a child, watched the clouds; I could see that we are all innocent as we attempt to confront the problems of our modern world. For the future of our planet will not turn on our ability to produce the "right solution" as much as on our fundamental values toward life. As the Native American religions tell us, "The two-leggeds have been given a choice."

After my meditation, I would cross over the ridge and drop into the deep, dense forest on the north slope. While the south side was mountain views and sunlight and thoughts, here it was dark and cool. Dewy ferns and decaying branches commingled on the forest floor in an eternal dance of life and death while huge firs rose to form a protective canopy. I could feel the tremendous surge of Mother Earth as the forest enveloped me like a giant womb.

Sometimes I would talk to the trees. I would tell them that a government had drawn a line along the ridge and declared that the forest on one side of the mountain protected, the other side not . . . I would tell them I was just a little guy who wanted to help, who was foolish enough to think that my being there might matter. I would ask the trees to temper my folly with their wisdom, to guide me toward whatever might help them. Each day, without fail, a particular tree or spot would emerge and grip my consciousness. "Just be here," it would say, "live in harmony with us and you will learn whatever you need to know."

Going down to the road was full of another kind of unavoidable reality. The roar of diesel engines and blasting could be heard throughout the forest and reached up to my camp. Hikers told of hearing road work all the way from Pine Flat, which was 2,500 feet below along the Illinois River, to Polar Spring Camp, six miles beyond on the other side of Bald Mountain. As I walked down the trail the grunts and sighs of machines became louder, and the air filled with anxiety.

I watched from a high vantage point about a mile away. From there I could see the full length of the road up to the clearcuts and barren slopes near its beginning on Flat Top. The places directly on the ridge where the trail and road nearly touched each other seemed especially battle-scarred. Freshly felled trees, oozing stumps, deep wounds in the earth and giant equipment all made me shudder.

One day, while sitting there with a visitor, I said, "Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but that looks like a road bringing a war into a peaceful area." The visitor told me about working in a Forest Service survey crew on Flat Top several years earlier. His supervisor looked out over the Wilderness Area and said, "Those trees are protected now, but someday we will get them."

The Illinois River Trail formed the northern boundary of the protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the Forest Service had posted many signs. On the road side of the trail the signs read:

ROAD CLOSED
NO TRESPASSING
BY ORDER OF USFS

On the other side:

WILDERNESS AREA
NO MOTORIZED VEHICLES OR EQUIPMENT
VIOLATIONS PUNISHABLE.

The trail felt like a demilitarized zone between warring armies.
I remembered some lines from the 74th Psalm:

The enemy has damaged everything
within the sanctuary;
Thine adversaries have roared in
the midst of Thy meeting place;
They have set up their own
standards for signs.
It seems as if one had lifted up
his axe in a forest of trees.

My first reaction was anger - I wanted to tear down all the signs. Instead, I carved a sign of my own, and hung it on a tree farther down the trail. It read:

BALD MOUNTAIN SANCTUARY
FOLLOW THE BEAUTY TRAIL
COME IN PEACE

I wanted to stay on Bald Mountain as long as the forest was threatened, but the coming of winter forced me off. I had kept my first Bald Mountain vigil for fifty-six days.

Now, nine months later, I was ready to return for my second summer on the mountain.
The storm broke in the night and Karin (from Germany), Pablo (from Spain) and I left for the trailhead early the next morning.

The first few miles of the trail snake upward along perilously steep cliffs high above the Illinois River. My body soon registered the effects of my long rainy season hibernation. As my muscles screamed, every questionable item I had put into my pack danced in front of my mind and grew in size and weight. To make things worse, the clouds had reformed and we were soon putting on our rain gear. This was not going to be an easy hike. The combined burden of a heavy pack and bad weather left little space for my weighty thoughts of the day before. I was forced to set aside all my "wondering" and concentrate on taking one step at a time. When we reached our campsite, the clouds scattered and sunlight began to play across the forest floor. This last storm of spring had ended. Sore and tired, I cast off my pack and felt somehow younger, as if inner burdens born of the world below had been released.

I was excited to visit familiar spots in the forest and led the group on a whirlwind tour. The forest was full of the dense green lushness of late spring and the air was heady with the smells of new growth. The local blue jays, juncos and pine squirrels chattered at us and I wondered if they remembered me. I felt like an enthusiastic child bringing new friends home.

Last summer I had done much of my praying on my hands and knees, picking up bits of broken glass and rusty nails left years ago when the Forest Service had burned down the old lookout. Before leaving the mountain I had constructed a traditional American Indian Medicine Wheel - a prayer circle with flagpoles marking the four directions, the sky and the earth - and the mountaintop was reasonably clean. Now the flagpoles were bent over and a whole new layer of glass and debris had been uncovered by nine months of fierce winds, rain and snow.

Karin, Pablo and I committed ourselves to a regular routine of mountaintop clean-up. Restoring the Medicine Wheel for the approaching Summer Solstice became our most important task. The activity evolved into a meditation - we were not only cleaning up the mountain, but clearing away the thoughts and emotional debris that had been cluttering up our minds. Sometimes one of us would consider a particular piece of glass or rusty nail as a special treasure, seriously discussing its peculiar properties until there was nothing left to do but throw it away. In the humor of the situation, we also faced many of the meanings and absurdities within our own lives.

There were times during those mountaintop clean-up sessions when we’d laugh hard enough to send tears rolling down our cheeks. Then, cleansed with laughter, we’d sit quietly listening to the song of the Hermit Thrush - who we named "Sunsinger"- and watch the sun sink slowly into the ocean beyond the distant ridgeline. Light-hearted and giddy, we’d stumble down the trail toward hot chocolate and stories around the campfire before sleep.

It was over a week until the first group of hikers came through, a 4-H Club outing from Brookings. The leaders of the group, two middle-aged women tired from the long hike up the mountain, looked at our neatly stacked kindling and asked, "Are you planning to stay here all summer?" They were obviously disappointed that their hoped for camping spot was occupied. I thought about the Forest Service fourteen-day camping limitation and responded evasively, "We’ll stay as long as we are supposed to."

Fortunately, there was another campsite nearby with a good source of water and excellent forage for their pack animals. I told them about our mountaintop clean-up project and invited them to join us. About an hour later, three boys - Clint, Adam and Jay - came running up the trail. They turned trash gathering into a competitive game and soon several more buckets of glass were dumped into burlap sacks.

At sunset, Pablo, Karin and I sat quietly in the prayer circle, but the boys couldn’t stop laughing. Jay and Adam would try to hold back, as if in church, but Clint’s infectious giggle would soon get them started again. Finally I said, "Go ahead and laugh. That happens to us all the time," and we joined together in a circle hug of laughter. In that moment, the sound of laughing children seemed like the finest prayer. Listening, I imagined a future full of old trees and happy children and knew then, with a deep certainty, why I was maintaining a wilderness sanctuary on top of Bald Mountain.

The next morning Clint organized another clean-up party at sunrise. We were just rolling out of our sleeping bags when the boys came down from the mountaintop. Clint looked at me with a wink and said, "We left a present for you up there." They had filled seven sacks, over three hundred and fifty pounds of glass and nails. The clean-up task had been completed and I only wished for some way to get it all off the mountain.

A few days later the Forest Service trail maintenance supervisor, Harvey Timeus, visited our camp. I offered him some fresh-brewed coffee. When he asked how long we were planning to stay, I responded, matter-of-factly, "All summer, if the food keeps coming." He frowned, mentioned the fourteen-day rule, and said he would have to do something if there were complaints. I wondered if the leaders of the 4-H Club outing had already produced some. Our conversation reached an impasse. After a long silence, Harvey said, "By the way, we’ll pay our trail maintenance crew to pack out all that trash you picked up. If you went to all that trouble, the least we can do is get it out of here." My wish had been granted.

The next day the Forest Service again visited us, this time by District Ranger Bill Butler. We talked about the wilderness values of the area and some of the hard decisions that lay ahead. I waited for him to raise the issue of the fourteen-day rule but, instead, he asked if I would like to do some volunteer work and mentioned brushing out an old trail. I said, "As long as the work doesn’t carry me too far from the mountaintop." He said, "Fine, I’ll send in some tools."

A week later Harvey returned with tools and an "Agreement for Voluntary Services." The agreement called for me to maintain the Bald Mountain Lookout Loop Trail. "Wow, that sort of makes me the caretaker of the Bald Mountain Sanctuary, doesn’t it?" I said. He smiled and his son, who had come along for the hike, gave me a wink. Harvey’s son was Clint, the boy from the 4-H Club outing.

By Summer Solstice, the Medicine Wheel had been fully restored. Brightly colored flags waved in the strong breeze and fresh strings of tobacco ties decorated the flagpoles. On Solstice we spent twenty-four hours within the prayer circle, fasting and remaining in silence. The night before, we had gone to sleep blanketed by wet clouds that hovered about the mountaintop. At dawn a patch of blue sky opened directly above us. All day we watched as the sun burned off the moisture, and mountain ridges rose out of the low-lying fog and the clear sky spread away from us toward the coast. It felt as if a light or energy was radiating outward from Bald Mountain.

Everything had a quality of sacredness on that longest day. We walked the circle casting tobacco to the winds. We burned cedar and sage in the fire pit near the centerpole. We prayed for the trees, gave thanks for the many wonders of this existence, and thought of loved ones near and far. The circle was complete: we stood humbly in the midst of a great natural harmony and the world, for the moment, seemed in order. Then I had a vision of many prayer circles, forest and mountain shrines throughout our region - places of power and renewal, of peace and pilgrimage. They would be, like Bald Mountain, safe spots in confusing times, rallying points and sanctuaries for those who love this earth and HER peoples.

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Back then, over 20 years ago, I wasn't quite sure who SHE was but later I came to know her as the Queen of the Forest, Rainha da Floresta, as she is called in Brazil and that's why I'm here in São Paulo now trying to make connections that might help protect the greatest forest on earth.

But São Paulo is a tough place facing, like most mega-cities, huge problems. Nature and the forest seem far away and are thought of mostly for recreation and retreat, but not for truth or necessity. Indeed, it's hard to get people to give it much thought let alone a real priority. Sometimes I can feel very far from home and very alone. Sometimes I get sad that our world is, unfortunately, the way it is.

But today, thanks to a new Internet friend Tim, I discovered that that little bird, the Hermit Thrush, can still sing to the hermit in my heart. It's the finest hymn that I have ever heard.

Listen to the Song of the Hermit Thrush



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Obrigado Lou!
I'd been in Oregon only once, and I crave returning there one day, but not for a day...
I love Florianópolis, but I miss the Pine forests, the power of the Pines...
Abraço,
Marcelo Mercante.