Traditions of Transition

Just in time for Halloween, we are pleased to feature this post from Johanna Young about some of our autumn rituals and transitions.

Leaves have turned from green to caramel, butterscotch and rich cranberry. The forest floor is littered with an abundance of leaf, seed, fuzz and stick.

An ancient longing calls us from the earth, lulling us to sleep.


In the Northern Hemisphere we call this seasonal transitionfall. If you stop, look and listen you may notice the loudest sound is the wind rushing through the dried leaves which clatter on their branches. Songbirds have migrated South, ducks have headed for the coast, and other mammals which hibernate are digging dens or frantically scurrying to collect nuts to store. Frogs and turtles are deep in mud. For humans it is a time for dozing off in front of hearth fires and warming toes by wood stoves.

At Church of the Woods in early fall, several of us gathered by a bonfire to watch the sherbet lunar eclipse. Its now a month later and the moon is reaching full once again. Halloween approaches and soon Christians will celebrate All SoulsDay and All SaintsDay, marking the mid-point of the season heading towards winter. Lawns are decorated with pumpkins and ghouls of Halloween.

For the ancient Celts 2,000 years ago, October 31st was New Year Samhain a day to honor the departed when it was widely believed the dead would return to the land of the living. Bonfires were part of this celebration. Sacrifices and offerings were performed. For the Celts, Samhain signified the end of harvest and the advent of winter. Many of the customs we observe today as part of  Halloween, such as dressing up in costume and treats, have their roots in this ancient Celtic festival.

Eventually, as Christianity spread into the regions of Europe and Great Britain where Celts dwelt, Samhain was taken over by Christian practices that many observe today on All SaintsDay (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd). Halloween has become its secular cousin.

In both traditions lies a common thread – this season signifies a time where we come face to face with the natural cycle of life and death of all things.

Rainier Marie Rilke writes in his poem Autumn:

The leaves fall, fall as if from far away,

Like withered things from gardens deep in sky;

They fall with gestures of renunciation.

And through the night the heavy earth fall too,

Down from the stars, into loneliness.

And we all fall. This hand must fall.

Look everywhere: it is the lot of all

It is also a time to notice the earth, stripped to its barest elements.

What can we notice as we step outside into the growing chill of dark mornings? What can we see and hear as we step beyond the threshold of our warm homes, and listen to the wind? Perhaps we might discover the beauty of the bark of trees, once camouflaged by green and thicket, or admire the stature and texture of the trees, the softness of the forest floor under our feet, the persistence of chipmunks with cheeks stuffed with seed.

Feast on the deep reds giving way to earth tones.

Poet and author John ODonaghue writes in Anam Cara: Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm. The Celtic people had a deep sense of the circular nature of our journey.(p. 5)

Fall invites us to this journey in the dark.


Fall’s Peak: Solo Backpacking in Baxter State Park

We always love Wendy Weiger’s photojournals! Here are some beautiful photographs and reflections from her latest expedition into Baxter State Park: 

In early September, I discovered Wassataquoik Lake, a wild and intensely beautiful stretch of water that lies between Wassataquoik and South Pogy Mountains, north of the Katahdin massif, in the heart of Baxter State Park. It’s roughly a nine-mile hike from the nearest parking lot, at Roaring Brook. Because there are only two lean-tos, one at each end of the lake, campers are guaranteed solitude. I decided to return for the final days of Baxter’s fall season. This past summer was a challenging one, with multiple deaths in my church community, including an especially dear friend who had become “surrogate family” after my mother’s passing last year. I’m also in a transitional period in my life’s work, as I move toward completion of my revised book manuscript and consider future directions. I felt I needed a few days of quiet contemplation. From long experience, I know that when I go alone into the woods with my heart full of questions and I listen carefully for answers, I am never disappointed. And so I hoisted my pack and set off for Wassataquoik Lake…


An iconic view of Mount Katahdin rising above the West Branch of the Penobscot River, taken from Abol Bridge on the Golden Road (a gravel logging road). Thoreau camped in this vicinity before his 1846 ascent of the mountain. 


Swamp maples growing at the edge of a wetland along the Golden Road, near the southern gate to Baxter State Park.


After leaving my car at Roaring Brook, I headed north via the Wassataquoik Stream Trail. I took this photo at the point where hikers ford the stream. I was delighted that peak foliage ran a week later than usual this year; when I made my camping reservations, I expected that I would miss the fall’s brightest colors. What a blessing, in this case, to be proven wrong!


I spent my first night in a lean-to at Russell Pond. I slept well after my hike in, though the yipping and yowling of a pack of coyotes pierced my slumber sometime in the middle of the night. I set my alarm to wake up early…one of my favorite things about Russell is the sunrise view. (7:05 AM October 13)


The view evolved as the sun rose higher, clouds flowed across the sky, and mist swirled over the pond surface. (7:31 AM October 13)


After a pleasant morning at Russell Pond, paddling around the pond and visiting with the resident ranger and his wife, I set off along the Wassataquoik Lake Trail. I stopped for a late lunch at Deep Pond. A gentle rain began to fall, and in the gray light, a lone maple stood out like a flame against a background of dark green conifers. On the far shore of the pond, a cow moose appeared (too distant to photograph), then she wandered back into the cover of the forest. An odd sound came repeatedly from her direction, something I had never heard before…it’s hard to describe, but it was a relatively high-pitched (at least for a moose) nasal-sounding utterance lasting a couple of seconds. Was it related to the ongoing rut, part of the “language of love” between bulls and cows?



The rain enhanced the colors of fallen leaves along the trail.


It was dusk when I arrived at my lean-to at the western end of Wassataquoik Lake. As I paused along the shore, a beaver swam by, expressing his annoyance at my intrusion with a loud slap of his tail on the water. The weather remained showery, so I made a cozy nest for myself in the lean-to, then settled down to enjoy a dinner of (canned) chicken, (stovetop) stuffing, and (instant) lemon pudding…not bad for backpacking fare! In the cool weather of fall, I’m willing to haul a bit more weight so that I can be comfortable at night…a warmer sleeping bag, more substantial food, a little saw for firewood. I didn’t weigh my pack…the truth is I thought it might be better if I didn’t know the number…but I’m guessing it was about 45 pounds when I started (the return trip was a bit lighter because I’d eaten most of the food).


I went down to “my” shore early the next morning to watch the progression of dawn colors. (6:50 AM October 14)


The lean-to made a wonderful home-in-the-woods for three nights. There was a nice fire ring with convenient benches; a canoe was parked on the shore just below (the little closet on the side of the lean-to holds life vests); the lake provided an excellent water source, though it had to be purified (beavers carry parasites that can infect humans); there was plenty of downed dry wood for fires in the surrounding forest. And there was indeed solitude. On my last night in the lean-to, I was the only human on Wassataquoik Lake (on the previous two nights, there was just one other solo camper at the other end of the lake, about 2 miles away). At Russell Pond, about 4 miles distant, there were three people (judging from hiking registers on my way out). And that was it.

12022610_1042734572425468_5250354368663409002_o The view of trees and lake from inside my lean-to.


The view got even better when I stepped outside. (The mountain across Wassataquoik Lake is South Pogy.)


The short path from the lean-to down to the lake shore showed plenty of color.


The view to the northwest from “my” shore. A trail climbs the nubble of rock in the center of the photo; I followed it up to a spectacular view (to be shown later—so stay tuned!).


The trail to the viewpoint led through yellow woods. 


Just a mile from my lean-to, I reached this rocky ledge. Wassataquoik Lake stretches out below, with South Pogy Mountain to the left and Wassataquoik Mountain to the right.


Green Falls was an easy hike of less than a mile down the lake from my lean-to.


For much of my stay, it was too windy for me to solo paddle the tandem canoe (I might have managed it with a double-bladed paddle, if one had been available). But when the wind slowed down, I shuttled across Wassataquoik Lake to gather firewood; there was a point across from my lean-to where the canopy formed by living trees sheltered a treasure trove of downed dry wood. I was rewarded with this view in the short term, and in the longer term, I enjoyed a warm bright campfire in the crisp darkness of a mid-October evening. 


After three nights at Wassataquoik Lake, it was time to hike the eleven-plus miles back to my car at Roaring Brook. I paused at the southeastern tip of the lake for a final view (Wassataquoik Mountain is on the left, South Pogy Mountain on the right).


When I got back to Russell Pond, I found the tamaracks were turning golden. Tamaracks—deciduous conifers—provide a final phase of autumn color after the maples and birches have lost most of their leaves. 


During my time in the park, strong gusty winds stripped leaves off the trees, covering trails with a colorful carpet for my return journey.


Nature’s extravagance amazes me…producing such beauty to be trampled underfoot.


As I had done on my hike in four days earlier, I forded Wassataquoik Stream on my way back out. The cold water reached above my knees; it was a chilly business on a showery day with the air temperature probably in the upper forties. The gray light evoked a mood that felt a bit melancholy, but at the same time very peaceful…a sense that nature was gently moving into the dormancy of winter…and as it turned out, the first snow of the season fell that night.


As I neared Roaring Brook, my car, and my return to conventional reality, dusk fell. I stopped at the Whidden Ponds for a view of the Katahdin massif. There was a faint sliver—just a whisper—of a waxing crescent moon above Pamola (so faint that it’s only visible if this photo is enlarged). When I got back to the Roaring Brook ranger station, the building was dark; the fall camping season was over. I was likely the last human to visit Wassataquoik Lake for several months. Perhaps some hardy winter traveler will snowshoe in from Russell Pond in January or February. But for now, the lake belongs solely to the moose and coyote, the chickadee and raven, the beaver in his shoreline lodge, the brook trout and Arctic char that swim in its cold depths. I know I will think of Wassataquoik Lake often, wishing I could be there to witness the daily progress of the seasons.


Storytelling Pt. II

Part II of II Chelsea wrote for Inhabiting the Anthropocene:


Last summer I rode 2,500 miles across the country, interviewing people about “the sacred” and our human connection to land and place. This is the second of two posts about my experiences–if you want to start with the first one click here.

Wes Jackson’s ‘Becoming Native’

“The wilderness of the Sierra will disappear unless little pieces of nonwilderness become intensely loved by lots of people.” – Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place

A challenging aspect of my bicycle ride from Minneapolis to Seattle this summer was the growing awareness that many of the small towns of the plains that we cycled through and past — towns like Malta, Montana, which I discussed in Part I — are places whose better days, economically speaking, are far behind them and receding ever further. They are places where grain elevators are silent gray giants, or places that were once sites of booming industry, but which are now made up of abandoned store-fronts and aging populations. They are places that you encounter and can’t help but think, “I’m glad I don’t live here.” And can’t help but ask, “Why do people stay?”

Indeed, what does it mean to inhabit an increasingly forgotten place? To live in a place where habitation first and foremost involves simply choosing not to leave?

In his book, Becoming Native to This Place (Counterpoint, 1996), Wes Jackson speaks of the need for the return to local, integrated, and agricultural modes of living and inhabiting. We must, he argues, “search for a less extractive and polluting economic order, so that we may fit agriculture into the economy of a sustainable culture, [where] community becomes the locus and metaphor for both agriculture and culture” (p. 103).

For Jackson, the Anthropocene is replete with practices of consumption driven by the desire for wealth and economic growth. What’s more, we’re entrenched in practices of a removed, scientific logic which yields an objectified understanding of the world in order to more precisely deconstruct it–intellectually and physically. As Aldo Leopold said: “Everybody knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead…there has been an ecological death, the significance of which is inexpressible in term of contemporary science.” (A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1949.)

The teeny (and getting teenier) town of Steinauer, Nebraska, where my family is originally from.

As human activity continues to impact our earth and impinge on its habitability, these economic and scientific practices continue to fundamentally and dangerously alienate us from nature. We have forgotten the “ecological arrangements that shaped us” (Jackson, p. 60), and instead “have sent our topsoil, our fossil water, our oil, our gas, our coal, and our children into that black hole called the economy” (p. 12).

And so, Jackson writes, our alienation is a call to a transformation of consciousness, to a fundamental change in our current practices of habitation. We must return to our native practices of integration and interpenetration with our earth and its ecosystems. A cadre of “homecomers” and “new pioneers” must re-inhabit these rural, forgotten places and tend the land, because “we cannot avoid participating in the creation, and it is in agriculture, far and away our largest and most basic artifact, that human culture and the creation totally interpenetrate” (p. 103).

Whether or not Jackson’s call for a great reverse-migration from urban population centers back to the countryside is a viable one is a question for another essay. Jackson does, however, raise important insights about the ways in which transformations in our perception of place can transform our practices of habitation. As he says, “either all the earth is holy or none is. Either every square foot of it deserves our respect or none does” (p. 67). If we are able to see all land as holy, as something to be respected — in sum, as sacred — we will be more inclined to treat it with respect.

Storytelling as a Deliberate Practice of Habitation

A necessary part of our intelligence is on the line as the oral tradition becomes less and less important. There was a time throughout our land when it was common for stories to be told and retold, a most valuable exercise, for the story retold is the story reexamined over and over again at different levels of intellectual and emotional growth. – Wes Jackson

I witnessed small instances of the ethos Jackson articulates along my route. Places like Garfield County, Montana, which initially seemed undesirable in my (unfair) judgment, were — as the result of even a brief conversation and interview — made more desirable, given greater value. All it took was having people who lived there tell me a story that conveyed their relationship to that place.

John and Margaret, ages 90 and 87 — “the oldest couple walkin’ around Napoleon, North Dakota” — refused to answer any of my questions until they had sung me 20 minutes worth of German songs from their childhood. They both grew up on farms outside of Napoleon, speaking only German until they entered school, part of a cultural group in North Dakota now referred to as “the Germans from Russia.” Father John Odero, who moved from his home in Kenya to the tiny town of Bolwus, Minnesota, where he is a missioner in the St. Cloud Diocese, gave me a tour of the large garden he tends behind his church where he has planted many of his native Kenyan crops. “Back at home we try as much as we can to share whatever we have with people. People might be poor in other ways but the little they have they will have to share with other people. They will not let somebody go hungry, but they will see that they share and that’s their happiness, that’s their joy.”

Lisa Cline-Person talked at length about growing up on her family’s ranch. “The elevation was such that I could climb up there and I could see forever. I could see the Big Horn mountains and I could watch the sunset and I could look down on the buildings. And it was a really strange feeling because I felt separate up there from people, but I felt very connected to everything around me. My dad died when I was 15 years old and if I wanted to go connect with him I wouldn’t go to the cemetery, I would go there.” She wept when she told me that when her family lost that ranch, she felt it “like a death.”

These small moments, these snatches of memory, these transfers of imagination were simple and real and powerful. They brought the places they were told about to life, certainly in the minds of those who were telling these stories, but in my mind as well.

Narratives of Change, Choice & Imagination

So back to our foundational questions: How do perceptions and knowledge of a place affect the habitability of that place? If we transform how we perceive and imagine a place, how will that affect our lived practices of habitation there?

In the moments I just shared with you I understood why people choose to stay, choose to continue to inhabit these places which, at first glance, might appear to lack culture, lack pizazz, lack things to do. Perceptions of a place as loved, cared for, as a place to be rooted in – have a profound role in making those places habitable, even if from outside perspectives they do not seem to offer much of a life.

Sometimes, of course, people stay because they do not have the means to go elsewhere. Habitability in the Anthropocene rings strongly of privilege. The walls close in more slowly and less dramatically when you can easily make the choice to inhabit elsewhere. We’ve long known that the poorest among us will fare the worst in the face of our changing climate.

prairie grass smallBut habitability can also ring of love and relationship. People stay often because of this deep bond that has grown strong because their ancestors and then they and then their children farmed the land. Because the skies and the grass and the way the air smells like sage in the rain are old and dear friends.

We live in a time when our perceptions of place will change whether we want them to or not; when we will have to find new practices of habitation whether through ‘becoming native’ or otherwise; when the stories we have and tell about where and how we live will take on new plot twists and less predictable endings.

Inhabiting the Anthropocene will mean that we will be continually faced with choices which will continue to affect the habitability of our planet. As we come to grips with that fact, what can we learn from those who approach their homes first with an attitude of love and care, of tending the land, of staying put? What can we learn from the practice of telling others our stories about the places we live in and love? What can we learn from listening to these stories?