Accomodation, Affirmation, Creation, death, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, Forest, hiking, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Parasites, Pilgrimage, Religion, Sacrifice, Serving Others, Trees, Uncategorized, wisdom

The Plover and the Crocodile

Last month, we hiked through a mixed forest of beech, oak, pine, and hemlock. It is evident all through the north that these hundred+ year-old forests are stressed; the ash still standing are all dead from the ash borer, the beech are ringed with deadly fungus, and the hemlock is next, expected to succumb to the wooly adelgid in Michigan as the tiny insects migrate from the east.

When we came across this tree (pictured), I began to think about the nature of parasitism, that form of symbiosis between species in which a squatter takes advantage of a host. The deer tick is a good example; it sucks the host’s blood, and transmits Lyme disease. Obviously, there is nothing good in the relationship for the host. The photo is of a hoof fungus on a decaying tree. It is a true parasite, attaching to a vulnerable place on the tree and causing stem rot, which eventually kills the tree.

Other symbiotic relationships can be mutually beneficial, in which both host and parasite benefit one another. In Egypt, the plover and the crocodile have made peace for millennia. The crocodile opens wide, the bird flits in and eats the rotting food stuck in the croc’s teeth, and, in apparent gratitude, the croc doesn’t eat the plover. Voila!  The bird eats and the reptile gets a free dental cleaning.

I think the most interesting of these relationships is that of commensalism, in which a parasite attaches to a host for a free ride. One benefits, while the other is not harmed; think barnacles on a whale. Or a person who has asked for prayer.

This has had me thinking mostly about human relationships.  I am people-shy by nature,

in a lifelong struggle to reconcile scriptural demands to love my neighbor with the fact that I prefer solitude. Instead of open arms that welcome “the inconveniences and suffering that love requires,” [1] I tend to flee into myself, wrapped, not in apathy, but in a dread-frosted cake of isolationism.

I do not want to be needed. I do not want my energy to be sucked dry like a tick sucks blood. I do not want to be used. And, to be sure, there are people who are parasitic on one’s time, emotions, money, and good intentions. Thus, most of my freely-given time goes to things like making the coffee, offering to pray for people, serving a meal, helping people move across town, even recover from a hurricane. I can do these things without much chance of exposing my inner self to the deep, sometimes twisted, often long-term (even endless) neediness (especially emotional neediness) of others. It is as much as I can do to avoid parasites while agreeing to a time-constrained spell of commensalism.

I guess, if I am honest, I dislike sacrifice.

And that’s too bad. Here, Nature is such a good teacher. I know that, like the plover and the crocodile, the Church is full of people who both need and love God.

I know that people will come alongside me to model what it means to love without dread, to give without constraint, and to be the hands and heart of God to someone who is hurting-even when that someone, someday, is me.

We always want our relationships to be mutual, in which both parties benefit. I see this naiveté all the time when young people head out on a mission trip; it’s less about sacrificial service than they like to think.

Truth is, the foundation of faith is sacrifice. And bloody.

Freely given that we might be greedy takers of forgiveness and salvation.

But, once freed from our wayward living, the expectation is that we follow. All the way to our own death if necessary. I believe this, but I have to continually pray that God helps me in my unbelief.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]www.desiringgod.orgaccessed July 13, 2019. John Piper. Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God.  pp. 283-284. 2012.

adventure, Creation, Creator, death, Faithful Living, God, hiking, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Mountains, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

Trust Your Boots Girls!

In an icy parking lot earlier this week, the footing was dicey, and, at one point, I blurted out to no one in particular, “Trust your boots girl!”  This adage bubbled up from a deeply-etched memory of a time in high school when a group of gals was climbing Mount Meeker in the front range of Rocky Mountain National Park.  At 13,911 feet, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to peaking a fourteener.  At one point along that climb, there was a steep portion, prompting one member of our group to happily call out,

“Trust your boots girls!”

While at Colorado State University, I reveled in backcountry cross-country skiing. I took a 2-day lesson the first time, and the instructor emphasized the need to trust your skis so that you could flow with them as they glided.  Just before moving back to the Midwest for grad school, I purchased a set of used skis and boots from the ski rental store. The next snow, I waxed them up to go skiing. I could not ski! My left foot kept sliding sideways, and the ski itself seemed to awkwardly tilt my boot so I had no traction or control. My husband-to-be laughed at my claims of being an experienced skier. We soon discovered that the store in Fort Collins had sold me skis with two right-footed bindings. Trust your boots indeed.

When learning to kayak in Wales, we practiced rolling in an indoor pool. Despite heroic attempts, I never did master a tip and roll.  The instructor’s advice to trust your skill in the whitewater rapids didn’t sit well with me. I knew if I capsized, I’d be permanently upside-down knocking my head on submerged rocks.  Having once before been pinned under a turtled boat (see blog post Unbounded Joy, 7-31-18), a healthy respect for the water had evolved into an irrational fear of drowning.

It is just common sense to be fully prepared for a wilderness adventure-to have the right equipment and skill set to see you through to a happy conclusion.

When paddling or hiking, you have to trust your instincts, your experience, your companions, and your preparations. It is folly to be unprepared.

Still, you can never be prepared for everything. Accidents happen with no warning. Wind and weather are fickle. Forests catch fire, and rivers and canyons can swiftly flood. What can you trust when the world turns inside out, when trickles of doubt mushroom into cascades of fear for your safety, even for your life?

Proverbs teaches that trust is an outcome of wisdom, and that wisdom, in turn, is the principal heir of a healthy fear of God.

This is not the kind of fear that makes us dread God’s judgment, but, rather, the kind that sees beauty in creation and is wowed by the God who made it. Not fright but reverence. *

It seems to me we prepare for our trip through the wilderness of this world- on this side of the river- much better than we prepare to face a holy God, misplacing our sense of security by trusting in things, jobs, money, ‘safe’ cars, our own thinking. When my husband was in the ER a few years ago with multiple and deadly pulmonary emboli in both lungs, we did trust that the surgeon would do his best to keep death at bay. Still, our ability to remain calm and hopeful (it was surreal to be honest) came from a stronger, deeper, surer Source. From God himself, whom we love, fear, and deeply trust to make the path through the wilderness straight.

I hope you can spend a little down time this winter working out in what, or whom you place your trust. Life is fragile at best, and downright slippery at its worst.

~J.A.P. Walton

* for more on the wisdom of Proverbs, see God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life by Tim and Kathy Keller. 2017.

Blessings, Creation, Darkness, Forest, hiking, Lessons from the Wilderness, Light, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Peace, Silence, Trees, Uncategorized, wilderness, Winter, wisdom

The Days Grow Short

The snow is drifting down at Trout Creek, but the squirrels and juncos pay it no heed. They stay busy burrowing and flitting, feeding.  Even so, it is quiet.  Too quiet. The pair of great horned owls we’ve had in the tall cedars for several years have not returned. Perhaps it’s too early, or they’ve wandered further north in search of denser forest. Their absence is palpable, even though we rarely saw them.

The color palette is hushed this time of year too. Brown is the primary hue, only brightened by the snow. Most signs of life are dampened too; no green leaves to dance in the breeze, no delectable tender shoots for the deer to eat. A six-pointed buck roamed by last week in a futile search for greens.  He was hard to spot in his winter camouflage of bristle brown.

We took a walk last week, up north on the Old Indian Trail, part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Sleeping Bear info  It too was silent, the only sign of wildlife in the form of prints and scat. One lone, blustering blue jay pierced the calm, but even it preferred to remain hidden. No other sounds but the wind sighing up high in the firs, and our footsteps crunching on snow-crusted, ice-rimmed leaves.

Silence and beauty are soul sisters, each one weaving purpose and meaning into the other, that we can wrap ourselves in them.  It is one of the gifts of the wilderness to be able to experience both together.  The pulsing of the mute northern lights. Silently spreading ripples on still water. The shadow of an overhead harrier flitting across your path. The flick of the white patch of a deer’s tail.  The sun on its daily trip across the sky.  How nice that the tick of the clock, that slave driver of modern life, cannot contaminate the wilds.

The days grow short. May you find some silence in them, in the falling snow, the lighted tree, and the smile of a loved one. God once broke the winter’s silence with a baby’s cry and an angel’s song. It was cold and dark then too. May you embrace the quiet spells with wonder and delight.

~J.A.P. Walton

Thank you for reading along, and sharing with your friends.

Accomodation, adventure, Adventure Tourism, Creation, Edward Abbey, Henry David Thoreau, hiking, John Muir, Lessons from the Wilderness, National Parks, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Outfitting, River, Silence, Uncategorized, White Water Paddling, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

The ‘Unhurried Grace’ of the Wilderness

The Walton brothers are back and rested from their rafting trip down the Colorado River, full of stories, memories, and the gratification one gets from completing a once-in-a-lifetime wilderness adventure.  Over eleven days, they rafted 192 miles, bucking through 66 rapids, 28 of which were level IV or V (i.e., significantly formidable).  Since the Colorado is open to paddlers only by permit, almost everyone on the river is with a professional outfitting group. This is good because the rapids and cold water (around 50 degrees) are dangerous even when you know what you are doing.

So the brothers joined 12 other trippers at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as 4 guides and 4 support staff from O.A.R.S. outfitters. They spent time at the start in orientation: man-overboard drills, helmet rules, and “groover” instructions (a groover is a backcountry toilet for solid waste, because we all know that everything we eat must come out, and that on the Colorado, everything solid that comes out must be packed out).  At 4:00 a.m. the next day, they set off down the Bright Angel trail from the rim of the Grand Canyon hiking down (with a capital D), nearly 10 miles to Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River. They began in a frosty, pitch dark with headlamps, and 3 water bottles apiece. By the time they reached the bottom it was 95 degrees and they were footsore, more than ready to on the river. The rafts were awaiting them in the cool brown Colorado, 4 for the 16 trippers and 4 guides, and support staff with other rafts with supplies like food, drink, gear, and groover. The group all agreed that this was the most physically-challenging day of the trip, and that hiking 10 miles downhill makes everything hurt: back, hips, knees, and, most especially, toes.

When you trip with an outfitter, you have to learn that you are the patron, and the staff is there to serve you.

This is so unlike any trip you would plan and execute on your own; on this trip, carrying the gear, brewing the coffee at 5:30 a.m., cooking the food, cleaning up the camp kitchen, and steering the raft through dangerous rapids was all done for the trippers.  This is fun for most people, and allows them a chance to enjoy being in the wilderness without any of the obligations of planning and paddling.  But, for the two paddling Walton brothers, this was hard. They enjoy the process, and welcome hard physical challenges, where testing themselves against the beauty, danger, and mystery of the wilderness is the main thrust of why they go in the first place. This is not to say they didn’t have a terrific time on the Colorado, only that they would have enjoyed a more hands-on experience.

It begs several questions that have plagued the national parks for decades. How do we get more people in touch with what the wilderness has to teach, and accommodate the novice explorer’s lack of expertise and physical fitness, while preserving the true notion of “wilderness”?  How do we make the wilderness accessible and relatable for people with disabilities?  We know that hands-on experience is a master teacher. So, if we want people to advocate for wilderness preservation, how do we help them be active participants instead of passive passengers?

The world is shrinking. The national parks are experiencing record numbers of visitors, and the wildness of the lands the government preserves is in peril when accessibility/development is at loggerheads with preservation of the virgin wilderness.

Edward Abbey, John Muir, and Henry Thoreau would decry the bulldozers ripping and gnawing at the wilderness so that the auto, RV, motor boat, and trail bike can reach far corners, in faster time, than would happen if we could only get there on foot, or with mute paddle.

What’s lost is the silent stretch of time and physical challenge that births reverence and awe in the undiminished wilds, something that industrial tourism* can never authentically afford.  For now, there’s the shallow surface beauty that national park visitors can enjoy in a quick stop-for-a-day.

The deeper, more mysterious, yet difficult to access  “unhurried grace”* of the wilderness, is won

only by those able and willing to do the hard work to get out and away from the crowds, and it is diminishing by the year.

~J.A.P. Walton

* Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. Chapter 4. 1968.

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adventure, Blessings, Creation, Creator, Desert, Faithful Living, God, Henri Nouwen, hiking, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Perseverence, River, Silence, Uncategorized, wilderness, Zion National Park

Always Worth the Climb

Let me tell you about a day I spent alone in Zion National Park last month.  My husband and brother-in-law set off at 7:30 a.m. to hike the Narrows, the most popular hike in the park.  The Narrows is a train of steep, high canyon walls along the Virgin River, and the only “trail” is upstream through the river itself.  The fellows wanted to hike a minimum of 6 hours upstream, then back in knee-deep water hiding infinite ankle-twisting hazards. Not wanting to go that far, nor get my feet wet (or my ankle broken a 2nd time), I opted for the more moderate 3-mile hike on the Watchman trail, followed by an hour in the museum, an afternoon nap in the shade of a giant oak at the lodge, topped off with a cappuccino from the coffee cart.  Not exactly “wilderness” but delightful nonetheless.

The Watchman is an uphill trail along a dusty, rocky path of switchbacks and ledges on the south and west sides of the east-side canyon wall.  In the early morning, when I hiked, it is gracefully shady and cool, and much less crowded with hikers (Zion N.P. has 5 million visitors per year, so it’s not a place to seek out wilderness per se).  The trail begins at the Virgin River and rises about 600 feet to a football field-sized outcrop with a 270-degree view of the park. I found myself thinking about the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who built this trail in 1934.  CCC  Who were they? Could they conceive of the millions of people who would hike here for the next 100 years?

Toting 64 oz. of water, two granola bars, an apple, a hiking hat, my camera, and hiking poles, I set off alone, thinking of the distinctions Henri Nouwen makes between loneliness and solitude. It can feel lonely hiking alone in such a beautiful, magnificent place because there is no friend or lover to share the experience.  But, Nouwen insists that solitude does not depend on outer circumstance, rather an inner orientation of solitary rest that underpins our spiritual health.[1]   I did feel lonely at times, but it was also an inspiring, uplifting, strangely restful day in the canyon.  Besides, I made a few friends along the way.

I had silly conversations with a chatty canyon wren that was flitting gaily amongst the juniper and prickly pear.

I spent 10 minutes studying a green lizard near a wet patch of seep, and kept busy sweeping the heights with binoculars in search of peregrine falcon and California condor.  I saw mule deer with their laughably large, light-filtering, body-cooling ears.  I kept watch for the western rattlesnake.  (Since I am easily startled, I like animals and people who make noise to announce their presence).

Still, it was already pushing 80 degrees, this was an upwards hike, and because I am prone to acute altitude sickness, I had to rest often, yet keep going, albeit slowly, watching carefully where I put my feet, and leaning -sometimes too heavily- on my trusty hiking poles.  About halfway up, some people approached coming down.  And I thought had started out early!  Then commenced the “dance” that occurs on narrow, gritty trails alongside high, dizzying ridges- no one ever wants the outside position, nor do you want to flatten your back along the canyon wall looking “craven” -as they’d say in Game of Thrones.  Onward and upward, through pinion pine, scrub oak, mosses and ferns doggedly rooted in the sandstone cracks and seeps until I was nearly level with the tree line. Here, the trail turned abruptly southward, still climbing toward a large plateau just made for walking, sitting, snacking, sunning, and thinking.  There were about 30 people already here, and more streaming in behind me, but I had the strange feeling that I had the place to myself.  That is the inner serenity that Nouwen speaks to, and that nature beckons us to immerse ourselves in.

The views are always the reward for hiking up.

True, I didn’t hike a Rocky Mountain 14er, but I was pleased with myself nonetheless.  With the binoculars, I could make out our old RV in the far parking lot, and the throngs of people at the Visitors Center.  To think this was all carved out by the Virgin River over time.

It made me wonder what God is carving out, ever so slowly in my life, and if the result is as beautiful as all this. And that unfolded another secret of solitude: it creates in us a deep, inner, carved-out space for the Spirit of God. Always worth the climb.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]Henri J.M Nouwen.  Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.1966.