Saturday, July 10, 2010


Ancient Path by Charles Frizell

I've been meditating on this marvelous old guy painted by the visionary artist Charles Frizell. His website says, "The old wizard walks the lonesome path through the ancient oaks, the standing stones, and the moon phases. He is self contained and relies on his knowledge and power for his sustenance and his protection. Others have walked this path through the centuries, and, though often lonely, it is the ancient path of those who carry magic.

 Frizell's old wizard reminds me of my own past when I had the great privilege of spending my summers camping and walking the forest paths amongst the great standing ones of Bald Mountain.  I surely was not a wizard, nor did I carry any special magic.  But, there had been something more -- the  magic of being so connected with the beauty of nature and the power of being part of an extraordinary citizen movement to defend the Ancient Forests of the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The special alchemy of Bald Mountain seemed to be simple appreciation of place combined with political action. 

Often, in order to find and hold the magic I would just walk and watch and recite the Navajo prayer:

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.
With beauty within me, I walk.
Sometimes, others would walk with me. Often, our destination would be the prayer circle on the top of the mountain. I still hold my times on Bald Mountain, wandering about alone or with others, as precious. They generated a magical reservoir of stories. I return to those memories, images and symbols again and again and look into them as a deep pool of reflections from which I might draw insight and inspiration, especially in difficult times.

Now, is that kind of a time for me. With good Internet in Rio Branco, I'm connected to the world. I roam the web following news of both people and nature, especially here in Brazil where I see both the promise of economic development and the threats of environmental devastation. People are gaining better lives and the forests may be lost. 

Brazil, in many ways, is sitting on top of the world or at least arriving at its moment of becoming a major global player. The vibrancy of this culture and its contradictions are everywhere. It makes no sense to debate whether "the cup is half full or half empty." Brazil is clearly on the move and many people are filling their cup for the first time. With economic growth approaching Chinese levels, more and more people are seeking and gaining  opportunities for a good and decent life. 

Unfortunately, prospects do not look as promising for Nature. Something must give. The natural world is the weak and vulnerable one. Often, the future of the forest looks catastrophic to me and I don't know where or how to find the balance. That's when I return to Bald Mountain memories and call out to the spirit of that place to guide me toward new insights or to old ones that I may have forgotten.

The photos above document a very special time of healing and recovery on Bald Mountain, during the first seasons following a huge forest fire that hit the area near the end of the summer of 1987. So "apocalyptic" was the event that it was described in the media as the "fire from the sky."

Fire officials report that 1,659 lightning strikes hit Southern Oregon and Northern California on Aug. 30, 1987, sparking the nearly 150,000-acre Silver fire complex. The estimated 230 square miles covered by the fires burned in a mosaic pattern. While some areas were scorched, leaving little more than ashes, other areas within fire perimeters were barely singed. The largest fire was the roughly 96,000-acre Silver fire, which started in the remote Silver Creek drainage [which is bounded by the north slope of Bald Mountain.]

I was there to witness the lightning strikes and the spread of the fire for three days until it raced up the slope of Bald Mountain destroying my camp and sending me fleeing for my life down to the Illinois River deep into the wilderness. When, in the following seasons, I returned to witness the recovery there were some real surprises.  Let's look at this photo again...

Lou with the "Grandma & Grandpa" Tree

This tree, which I affectionately named the "Grandma and Grandpa Tree", is one of the largest Douglas firs in Oregon. It is not particularly tall but its great branches reach out in a crown almost 60 meters in diameter. On the up-slope side of the tree (to the right in the photo) the great branches touch the ground. During the fire the tree was vulnerable. If the grass had burned up to the branches the whole tree crown might have gone up in flames. The duff and ground vegetation was burned below the trail but because the footpath was compacted by people's steps the fire did not travel across it toward the branches further up the slope.

The path led to the prayer circle on the top of the mountain. We had walked there every day.

Lou in Bald Mountain Prayer Circle

On the mountaintop there was something even more spectacular to see. A huge full-stand removal fire had roared up the northeastern slope of Bald Mountain incinerating everything in its path (upper right in the photo) but -- due to the small cleared area -- it stopped at the prayer circle and barely singed the forest beyond it. Somehow, all those small steps and simple acts seemed to have mattered.

Fire plays a different role in Oregon than in AmazĂ´nia. On Bald Mountain fire is part of the natural ecology but in the Amazon basin's high moisture there are few natural fires. Here, fire is mostly a tool used by humans to deforest and create either crop or pasture land. In Oregon, Nature provides the catastrophic force. In the Amazon, people do.

But, somehow there is also something that might be the same in both places. As people come to better understand the beautiful and healing gifts of the forest they begin to take small and halting steps in search of a sustainable future for themselves and their children. At present, the path is unclear and the steps are uncertain. But little-by-little and step-by-step, as happened on Bald Mountain, the catastrophe may be contained.

The Ancient Path was for the old wizard or shaman or saint to complete a journey in the lonely wilderness in order to earn his magic. The Ancient-Future way is for us to learn how to take small steps together and share our pieces of magic as one.

Perhaps, it could be.