Fear of Missing Out

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Night on the porch. Real darkness.
The rain tries out some rhythms
then shakes its head: “Take five!”
The frogs advertise in the fields for all they’re worth.

I’m not doing much. Vacation.
There’s a blanket, a chair,
the vague dark breath of the sea.
I want to be composing, too: what’s my worth?

Crack the delicate nest of night with porchlight.
You have to break some eggs, et cetera.

When I’m writing, or reading, or working in my apartment,
what I’ll want is to sit in the dark and sing back to these frogs.

***

Thanks to my original publishers at Cascadia Rising Review: https://www.cascadiarisingreview.com/fear-of-missing-out

On Bodies

Some days, some months —
let’s be honest, probably some years —
my pants don’t fit.
This is supposed to matter to me,
and it does.

In the drowsing noon,
I was sitting outside
and I asked the douglas fir next door
about this.
As usual, ki said nothing.

Well, I thought, you get rounder each year!
And you get rings for it.

***

With many thanks to the original publishers at Cascadia Rising Review: https://www.cascadiarisingreview.com/on-bodies

 

Self-Portrait While Traveling Solo
Self-Portrait While Traveling Solo

 

 

 

Before Ordering a Second Margarita

IMG_20180414_184739_997.jpgWalk out between the hydrozoans
blooming on the beach.
Or anyway, they’ve bloomed:
clear jelly fingerprints, lavished
on the sands: Cnideria was here.
A few strewn blue-lipped bodies, still
plump with sea-shout,
sunlight shriveling.

On what occasion did cold Pacific
order such bouquets?
Wrack line implacably delivers.
Bare of foot to climb the rocks
and ford the greengold deepblue braided streams,
my mind comes late to contemplate
toxins, fishkills, all the usual news
read through my soles.

A new study tells us alcohol
will take years off your life.
Which years? — a friend,
his glass upraised. Who says I want them?
Can you exchange this salted rim for a day
to breathe the salt in wind, bury
sandy toes? Would you trade that silty burrowing,
halve your joy, for fear?

Another friend is dying.
Forty-five, and braided through
with tumors like the seaward grains of sand.
Did some choice — hers, a government’s,
shareholders’ — steal those years? Blindly bargained
woman, fierce and generous and loved. No
answers serve. Reach and touch the tangled
endless openness, where,

pitiless, at unprotected feet,
the wrack line lays down all the gifts
that wash in our direction.

We are here.
Barefoot in the sand
with open hands.

Published first in Cascadia Rising Review: https://www.cascadiarisingreview.com/before-ordering-a-second-margarita. Thanks very much to the thoughtful and responsive CRR editorial team.

Conversations with Landscape is in Transition!

Hello Friends,

Thanks so much for taking part in this ongoing conversation. You’re wonderful, and I appreciate your support.

For a little while at least, I won’t be updating this blog. I began it as a way to prove that I could produce writing I enjoyed, on a regular schedule, and share it with anyone who wished to read. That project was a great personal success, and I thank you for your role in it.

I’m now working on related projects that use the type of material I previously posted here. I hope to share those with you, too; the time will come.

If you would like to contact me directly, you may still do so through this site.

My Very Best,

Tara (PDXpersky)

Home Again: A Photo Essay

A long time coming, it came like a winter flood. After six months idling in the backwaters, our house sold one day, and it carried us away for a month.

Only a month? My body says a year.

My body says: go for a walk. A sanity-preserving suggestion.

We’ve landed in a gangly elbow of the Portland metro, a ragged cluster of office buildings and corporate-looking apartments, crooked between the wash and the roar of freeway. It’s loud, but it’s just this side of country. And it has its charms, up close.

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Even better: if I climb steeply for five minutes, my boots sigh onto the soft, non-native grasses of one of the last remaining patches of Willamette oak savanna.

I’ve opened this gift nearly every day since the last box landed.

It’s literally the same few trails. A half an hour’s brisk loop. They make new conversation every day, though. Already they have changed their clothes for winter. Always moving forward. Yes, I’m listening. 23659519_10214969735903274_1348357550184536507_n

Anna’s hummingbirds give chase, screaming in their tiny whirring voices. Towhees shout down the endless cars. Leaves plummet, pivoting around their spotted galls. I’m told that if I find a hole the right size in the hillside, I’ll know where a mother coyote raised her pups.23659245_10214969736143280_603823775223930087_n

From the top of the slope, an actual answered prayer. That’s River Mile 28.

From the top of the slope, from the midhill oaks, from the south-facing windows of my strange and lucky home: every day, the most astonishing clouds.

I could make an entire avocation up here out of cloudgazing.

At sunrise, in particular.

At the close of each short day.

Every time I look up from my work.

Every time I look, this grace.

***

Dear Reader

The goal of Trail-A-Week was 52 essays.

In August of 2015, I realized that I wouldn’t be a writer until I let my bones show. I’d already understood – gradually, after 24 years of doing it – that I am not fully living unless I am writing. But aside from a few (utterly nerve-wracking) published bits, I’ve written all those years for private consumption. Literally nobody but me has read most of my work. So I needed a way to get myself out there. Not so that everyone would notice, but so that anyone could. I wanted to get used to the idea that any person who wished to might engage with my work. Self-criticism will only get you so far; I wanted to hear others react, discuss, ignore, share – whatever in the world they might do with my offerings.

A writer also has deadlines to meet, and blocks to get over. I needed to see if I could do those things, so I set myself a test: one piece, every week, for a year.

I’ve tried many formats, and I thought I was strongest, happiest, had the best chance of completing my thoughts, with the essay. But I knew I’d be anxious if I planned to write one randomly every week. Before I can let go and create, I need structure – a theme or a goal, an arbitrary constraint that focuses my distractible thoughts. I can’t even remember how the light dawned, it seems so obvious now. Of course I should write about walking. It’s the other thing I need, to be myself.

If you’ve been here before today, you’ve seen my 52nd essay. I reached my goal, and Trail-A-Week is over.

When I started, I was describing my journeys on named hiking trails in my Pacific Northwest. By the end, I’d largely abandoned trail description in favor of writing about landscape in a larger way: how it enters and how it changes the mind, how I saw myself mirrored or challenged or created in it, what is like to be human in specific landscapes. This is what I’ve enjoyed the most about this project: trying to figure out what it feels like, what it means, to be a person in a place.

I have no easy answers. I do have some ideas about what to do with all this figuring, but before I share those, they need a little work. And I’ll keep writing new things; do expect this site to grow, but perhaps not at the rate of Trail-A-Week.

Meantime, dear reader, I still want to hear what you think. Did you have a favorite essay? Which ones didn’t work for you? If you read multiple pieces, what themes did you see emerging, and did they interest you? Which should I explore further? What spoke to you, and what turned you off? What are these essays? If you were me, what would you do with them? If you have a few minutes to share your thoughts and critiques, again or for the first time, I’ll be grateful.

As I am already. Because my other favorite thing about this project is the generosity of my friends, family, and some total strangers who hiked, read, and engaged with me this past year.

Thank you for walking beside me.

***

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Right Work

This week’s essay was written for the Columbia Land Trust, a conservation group that serves the entire Columbia River region. The topic was suggested by a conversation I had with the Trust’s Volunteer Coordinator last weekend, while we were surveying for non-native grass incursions. You can read the original post on the Trust’s blog here.

***

It was cold, that first morning. My face was streaked with dirt; mud crusted my nails. My fingers ached from scrabbling in the soil. I’d signed up less than a week before, with an organization I’d only read about, to plant trees in a place I’d never been, with people I’d never met. At the boundary of rural and wild, I found myself plunging my borrowed shovel through the rocks and dirt on a Friday morning, untangling root balls, kneeling to place stick after fragile budding stick into a hoped-for home.

I’m no fan of yard work, and, until that morning, I’d never planted a tree in my life. The other volunteers seemed to know what to do; I had to hang back and ask for help. Digging a hole – one that won’t strangle your sapling or murder your back – is less straightforward than it sounds. There was a learning curve.

I was due at my day-job that afternoon. After I rinsed off the mud and before I opened my laptop, I scrawled this in my journal: “I know what I need to do.”

***

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My whole life, I have connected with landscapes. More than anything else, they inform – even direct – my thinking, and my writing. The way I engage with them is personal, and more than a little centered on my own self in them. They outline my history; sometimes they seem nearly people in themselves. The Yorkshire Dales are a mysterious acquaintance, friendly but aloof, intimidatingly profound. The Santa Monica Mountains are the old friend I understand better with some distance between us. The redwood forests of northern California are the soulmate I will always love, my heart’s oldest anchor.

Perhaps this is the consequence of a nomadic childhood: constant longing for one true forever home, and the concurrent certainty that I’ll never find it. I’ve lived near Portland, Oregon since 2004 – by far my longest sojourn to date. Until this year, I did not love this land.

It’s lovely here; I’ve always thought so. I like the cool damp mornings, the dim forests and the shimmery lines of riverside cottonwoods. I enjoy the blessed certainty of rain. Love, though. How could I love a place for which I felt frequent gratitude, but zero passion? The landscapes of the greater Columbia River Region have been pleasant companions. I enjoyed them; I did not need them.

I think my heart changed when I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essays about gratitude. It’s all very well to appreciate the land, she says, but what are we humans doing to give the land a reason to appreciate us? I had no answer. It bothered me. What could I do that would make the the land around me desire my presence, rather than despair of it? Rather than wait patiently for humanity to leave it alone?

Gradually, something else fell into place. This land – this diversity of ecosystems connected by the drainage of the mighty Columbia River –  had gotten under my skin. I had become a moving part of it. I – present tense – belong here.

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***

Belonging carries responsibility. A network of any kind requires caretaking, and it is every member’s job. Hyper-successful as a species and painfully self-aware as individuals, humans must rely on more complicated methods than instinct to find our right work in the world. How will we know what to do? The desire to be of service is not the same as actually helping. With families and friends, communication and sustained effort can save us. But we cannot actually ask our landscapes what they need. What we can do is pool what we, humans, know.

I got my first real clue from reading Kimmerer, who is Native American, and who introduced me to a concept that I, a white American who grew up seeing “nature” as other, had never encountered. She says: seek to create reciprocity with the land. This is right, I knew. How?

I grew up in a Protestant Christian family. We tossed around archaic words a lot. My favorite is fellowship. Nobody says that anymore, unless they’re in academia or discussing popular fantasy fiction. But it just means spending quality time with others who share your interests.

The other one I love is stewardship. The western religious version of this idea is that people have been given all that we physically and materially have by a greater power. The world is imperfect, however, and thoughtful management of our resources for the greatest good is the duty asked of us in return for their possession. If I am wealthy, I should use my money to improve another’s life. If I have a gift for teaching, I should foster knowledge. If I have two strong hands, I should offer their service to someone who needs my work.

Seeking action to create a reciprocal relationship with the land that is my home, I began with these concepts. I have two strong hands, and I knew I wanted to work. But it’s important to me that my work is right. What is right work? It’s careful, it values doing no harm as much as it values doing good. It’s planned to be of use in the long term. It’s rooted in meaningful units of place. It is undertaken with joy.

Looking for all of that in one place led me to the Columbia Land Trust. They said I could volunteer. I’m an introvert, I tend to be solitary, and I’ve never had much use for organized groups. It was a calculated leap of faith. I could always take it back, right? Thank goodness, no. The choice to volunteer with the Trust is one of the best things that’s happened to me, because I found not just the purpose, but the practical guidance I sought.

That first morning, when I knelt in the mud planting salmonberries and alders near the Clackamas River, sweating in the chill and spilling over with questions about the philosophy and the logistics of land management, I felt fellowship. The Trust staff and volunteers I met that day certainly have personal reasons I don’t know, but every one of them displayed an earnest passion for the careful stewardship of our watershed. They spoke the language I needed to hear: you can make a difference. Come and learn, by doing.

***

I was hiking above The Dalles recently, on a midday mission to map and to experiment with weeding invasive grasses at a Land Trust property called Four Sisters. The dewy beauty of spring has faded in that inland-influenced climate, leaving balsamroot flowers crisp and brown on their stems. There’s little cover on the property, and 90-degree sunshine is never my first choice for working weather. The land slopes steeply; there are no trails. Walking here is a much more deliberate business than I’m used to.

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Maybe you’re thinking that doesn’t sound like fun. And…it’s not? It’s something more. Fun implies pleasure, and certainly I felt that. A cool breeze pushed away the heat from our skins; the mountain rose like a white star above the ridges. Pools of violet-colored wild vetch lapped at the shade of a single, sweeping oak. The hum of a hundred honeybees rose up around us, sealing the gaps in our conversation.

Fun also implies amusement, entertainment, lightness of purpose. And that part is wrong, at least for me. The right word is joy. You can ‘jump for joy,’ but I usually feel it as a quiet swell of the soul. It comes from taking pleasure in not just anything, but in something that is good and right.

Donating my sweat and my strength and my ability to read a map in the service of strategic and holistic conservation fills that requirement. It’s uncomfortable, sure – jammed toes on steep slopes, heat rash on the backs of my hands. And I can’t imagine not wanting to spend my time doing it. Connecting with landscape – my landscape – isn’t about ‘getting out in nature,’ it isn’t about experiencing wilderness, and it isn’t about beauty. All of those things may come as a bonus. But connection grows out of a relationship, and relationships require work.

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This one demands physical work: weeding, planting, building. It values mental work: learning flora and fauna, tracing human and geologic history, understanding human use and impact. I separated those automatically, but in fact they are as indissoluble as humanity and nature. This is the first thing I learned.

And this is the next: The more I work, the more I want to work. Reciprocity means mutual benefit, and there it is: I was grateful already for this place I am lucky to live, but directly contributing to its care increases my joy a hundredfold. Can right work make you happy? I say yes.

I cultivate a personal life philosophy, because I’ve come to believe that a human without one wanders lost. This is my most recent tenet: I belong to the land, and my work upon it matters.