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.

Puffin Day

Today I went to see the work of a Portland artist who spent 3 months in Antarctica drawing birds. She was actually researching a bird I’ve never heard of, the Snowy sheathbill. But I was captured by her depictions of a single Arctic tern – a forceful little seabird with which my only direct encounter has been negative. (There was shrieking, I remember, and dive-bombing.) I lingered in the cafe where the work was hung, juggling too-hot tea from hand to hand, standing quiet and distantly puzzled. I felt something, looking at that painting, that I could not name for trying.  

Certainly, it conjured a memory of ducking and retreating – laughing, but also afraid – from the real things, magnificently fierce in defense of their ground-slung nests. And it pulled me into creating a sort of backstory for the piece: this tern seemed either just about to settle, or just about to fly. She was undecided, perhaps anticipatory. I wondered why, and I wanted to know what she would do. Engaging, but not what troubled my mind.

I’ve never been good at “intuition.” This seems so wrong to say that for years I didn’t know it. I’ve always loved the idea of understanding a thing – especially one’s own self – deeply and immediately, without needing to reason it out. I admire the ability to just know: that a course of action is right, that a new acquaintance may be trusted as a friend, that you dislike a new thing you’ve just encountered. People in books do this all the time; so do many of my friends. I knew from childhood that I must have this ability. I had the right personality – curious, emotionally attuned, introspective.

And it turns out that I have no intuition at all. I utterly lack quick insight into people, landscapes, my own emotions. I react to most non-urgent situations simply by taking them in, speaking the words and performing the actions logic or protocol dictate. Only time and distance allow me to process how I feel about them. My emotional reactions are on a time delay.

It occurs to me, having recently read this article about aphantasia, that maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about it. Maybe intuition, like visualization – a thing I can do – is so obvious a part of most people’s daily lives that not using it is unthinkable. Here’s what that looks like, in the instance of the arctic tern: I paid for my tea. I took the artist’s business card. I waved at the barista and walked back down Fremont street to my office, aware that I was having strong feelings, serenely unable to grasp them.

Two hours later, I was driving down Terwilliger Boulevard – the pretty part, between Lewis & Clark College and Lake Oswego, where it’s all green leafy abundance and smooth, pleasant road. And I realized that painting had made me want to cry. I’d been anxious and afraid and pleased and excited in the space of a few minutes, ocean waves of emotion I couldn’t feel soaking me to the skin until that moment. That minimalist painting of a tern had taken me back to the April day I went looking – desperately – for puffins.

***

I needed puffins because I’d gone from loving my life to holding it together with off-brand duct tape. I was exhausted and working too much, perpetually about to explode. My professional future shimmered in place, unresolved into mirage or oasis. (To be clear: all of this was my own doing.)

I could have fixed on any bird; it could have been terns. But April is when the Tufted puffins return to raise their babies on Haystack Rock. I’d put the second weekend in April on my calendar weeks before, and I was living for puffins and the Oregon Coast the way my tiny brown tabby cat lurks in the kitchen, wide-eyed and on-edge like she’s starving and sad.

Jeremiah and I drove out to the Coast at dawn, and we came back long after dark. Leaving Portland, and then drawing back closer to the city’s limits, I talked in the same old circles. Work, the future, is-this-the-right-move, where-is-the-contract, I’m-so-tired, writing, work, what-is-wrong-with-me. In between, though. Was it my partner’s contented calm, his patience? Or just getting physically away from the site of my ongoing trauma? In between, I had the best day of my spring.

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The idea was to begin birdwatching near Tillamook, and end, at afternoon’s low tide, by visiting the puffins. I had an itinerary, of course. (I always have an itinerary.) And we followed it, more or less. Certainly I kept enthusiastic bulleted lists of stops made and birds seen, at what times. But that is not how I remember the day.

Bayocean Spit is flat, fronting Tillamook Bay. Free of development (nowadays), it’s quiet and calm in the early morning. Calm, that is, if you’re a human, walking slowly, hand in hand with your mate. If you’re an American crow, the shallow sandbars are full of small dead things to pick at and half-swallow, and brag about to your friends. If you’re a Great blue heron, the water’s ruffled edge is covertly competitive, a place to hunch in a tense cluster with four of your normally solitary kind, eyes on the fishy prize. If you’re a White-crowned sparrow, the drier reaches are populated with smallish fir trees, just the right height for you to throw back your black-and-white striped head and sing your jealous heart out: this place is mine!

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Near the town of Nehalem, we met unexpected sand dunes in the State Park. They ripple in the wind with sharp-edged grasses; wild strawberries flower on the margins. Climbing, the Coast Range and the long rolling shore both hide from sight until you’ve reached the saddle. Then: behind hills of sand, mountains gray as rain, and to the west, endless ocean that only seems flat from here. A single harrier – my first – slid along a length of air, as a human hand caresses softest silk.

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In Cannon Beach, the sewage ponds attract scaups and buffleheads and mallards and Canada geese. There’s a labeled nature trail, tightroped between blackbird-filled wetlands waving with wild yellow flags, and the wire-topped fence that separates you from the sludge. I thought of the city acknowledging nature as not merely ‘wild,’ or only beautiful, and human use as part of that, potentially compatible with the needs of ducks and geese and cattails.

At Haystack Rock, the puffins had been frightened out to sea mere moments before by a couple of peregrine falcons. We hung around, asking questions and looking hopeful. Scanning the waves, I spotted a raft of surf scoters, marine ducks with hilarious orange and white bills. The puffins remained pelagic.

My disappointment barely registers in memory. I recall the joy of children sliding down the sand, the warm hand of a springtime sun, the feel of Jeremiah’s fingers laced with mine. Over dinner, long and unhurried in the corner of our favorite Astoria bar, I got pleasantly drunk and we talked of everything but work.

***

You could say that I’m only understanding the depth of my feeling for this sorely-needed day of rest – nearly three weeks ago as I write this – right now. At the time, I needed only the act itself. My limited access to immediate emotions lifted me as the thermal does the harrier, so that I floated on the day, accepting it as a gift.

A particularly interesting painting of an arctic tern has brought it all back around. Now that I have weathered this brutal band of storms, I can unfold my memory of Puffin Day in the quiet space granted by time and distance, and I can feel it.

Emotional mission accomplished, my mind is troubled only by how to get a print of that gorgeous, unsettling tern. This solution will be simpler.

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***

Spoiler alert: It couldn’t be easier. You can visit Terri Nelson’s Etsy store to view or purchase her lovely work. It’s not all from-life paintings: there’s a pretty cool one of a kraken getting feisty with the Steel Bridge…

Bayocean Spit is highly recommended as an Oregon Coast walk. Find it outside Tillamook, about 2 hours from Portland. It’s easy, and it can be as long or short as you like. I also love the beachwalking further north, at Nehalem Bay State Park.

Lying Fallow

I added a new state to my map last week. Though meeting a new country is closer to how it feels for an urban Pacific Northwesterner to visit Alaska for the first time. I checked into my Juneau accommodation with something like 30 hours to spare, before I was due at the artists’ camp that was my reason for visiting. The weather was perfect: mid 60s, bright and sunny. I should have been filled with the anticipation of new trails.

I had been, before. It’s part of the reason I applied to this particular retreat. A new landscape, one known to be very much wild, pulled at the loose ends of my wanderlust, frayed them until they whispered like pines against each other. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they wouldn’t shut up. When the chance came, I booked my flight.

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The innkeepers had supplied me by email with trail names, general directions, and approximate distances. The rest didn’t look too tough to figure out: Juneau is not a large city. I tightened my boot laces, checked my mobile’s charge…pulled the heavy arts-and-crafts style chair up to the window of my 3rd floor room and plunked myself down to watch the mountains. It was a moment’s rest, and then it was inevitable. I gave up, untied my boots. I’d flung the windows wide – no screens – and I moved to sit on this one’s sill, leaning out over the rooftops, into the mountains.

The mountains. They were right there, in a way that felt both foreign and familiar.  Juneau perches on the edge of a finger of ocean dividing island and mainland. Most of its streets are steep, climbing quickly by necessity, colorful houses jumbled into the narrow space between sea and slope. Later, a friend related both the mountains, and the way the city cozies up under them, to the Alps, and I felt the comparison click.

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From my windowsill, I watched a whitened waterfall spilling chuting slipping off the snowfields and down the long rocky face. I strained for the sound of it – surely something so massive, and so close!, must shout its exuberance all the way into town. I heard cars leaving the capitol buildings, state employees on their lunch break, a pair of ravens talking about stealing the state employees’ lunch.

Early afternoon into evening, I lived suspended beneath those slopes, caught between chair and sill. I watched the mist rise up the mountains, rivers fall off them, ravens fly before. I do not recall thinking anything at all.

The following day, I did walk, navigating past the top of the town and out to trailheads for the Mt. Roberts, Perseverance, and Flume Trails. Each looked inviting – some other time. I wandered empty roads fringed with the neon green foliage of spring, the mountains’ close-pressed faces halfway veiled in cloud above me. I tilted my own to them, soft rain on my eyes and lips, and wondered, distantly, if something was wrong with me.

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***

It’s the first day of May as I write this, and the past two months have been intense. Work, mainly, and the surprise emotional impact thereof. Seeking a way back into a profession I miss practicing, I’ve briefly held two jobs at once (one part-time, one full-, abbreviated for their month-long co-existence as The MultiJob.) I’ve also accepted two new freelance assignments, and lived on tenterhooks waiting for yet another full-time opportunity to resolve itself into an offer. A long headspace later, it did, giving me permission to untangle myself from the MultiJob and begin the process of becoming yet another self.

The heartstring threaded through all of this is my personal attachment to the current full-time job, where one good friend is my boss and another my colleague, where I’ve been challenged and accepted and treated very well indeed, where our company pursues an educative mission I’m proud of – and where I’m unable to find work that ignites my passion or uses my primary skills.

I am told that I exhibited, during these months, a truly alarming level of daily anxiety. The part I remember is that I couldn’t settle to any task that wasn’t directly oriented to Getting Things Done – even if things were, in fact, done for the day. I drove hard at productivity with both hands gripping the wheel, hanging onto the quality of my work with my teeth while it tried to fly out the window. I lost track of my friends, drank more than I needed, struggled to produce the personal writing that sustains me. Four days before I was due in Juneau, my professional life settled and began to move forward, but that didn’t stop the storm. I took off from Portland with my brain still churning through the same possibilities, timelines, self-imposed directives.

The approach to Juneau from the south is surprising: a sudden, sharp tip of the wings, banking the plane into a narrow defile between imposing mountain steeps. No more than a few minutes later, you’re on the ground.

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It’s probably a gradual process, loosening your grip on a stress-ball the size of mine. I doubt I let it go all at once. But memory constructs its own truths, so that I now recall carrying my anxiety all the way north in my lap. When those wings tilted toward Alaska, they shook it loose, and I stepped off the plane with all of that behind me.

***

This is not to say that I instantly recovered. In fact, boots on the ground in a foreign land I’d once been excited to meet, everything I did surprised me. Though I was not alone in town (a number of friendlies flew in for for the same event), I found my ability to create a coherent sentence reduced to the page, and I almost pathologically avoided company. I wandered the city in a contented sort of daze, with no purpose other than idle curiosity. I went to bed early; I took a nap at ten in the morning. It wasn’t until I’d met up with my fellow artists and arrived at our wilderness camp that I realized: I was exhausted. I can be kind of slow on the uptake with this sort of thing.

Solitude restores me, but this was more than the usual depletion. The sudden, constant presence of forty-odd other creative folks, in their own various states of exhaustion and excitement, took over where solitary wandering left off. It pulled me out of myself and gave me the kind of joyful social motivation I’ve rarely experienced. I spent the weekend as an extrovert: energized by the presence of others.

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By the end of our three days together, my throat was scratchy, which I attributed to nightly campfire smoke. I sat next to one of my new friends on the bus to the airport, coughing in between chatting about our hometowns and our creative goals. My throat seized in mid-sentence and my friend looked concerned. “Are you ok?”

“I just need some water,” I replied. I really believed that.

There were two days left in The Multijob when I returned: two days requiring at least 12 working hours each, plus that constant, awkward headspace where your mind is full of one project when you’re working on the other. I worked from home, grateful as always that I can do that, and tried to be silent around my unspeakably sore throat. It tapered off; I met my cousin for coffee. I’m fine, see? Got off light. On the first day of the next weekend, this one, I woke up groggy and unable to breathe freely, with a headache the size of Alaska.

Illness always takes me by surprise. It also changes my perspective, in a physical way that goes beyond philosophy. Instead of suddenly ‘realizing’ I am too tired to write, or to work in any way, I simply cannot, and so I sleep. When I wake, eating is a tiring chore, and after I’ve managed it I’m good for nothing at all, other than hours in my favorite chair with a book. I’ve read two fat books in two days, straight through with no guilt at all.

Do I have responsibilities? Certainly. I’m fortunate to have a body strong enough to push through to the weekend before it throws an unarguable wrench in the productivity wheel. All the same, I have business correspondence to catch up on. I could seriously use a walk. More crucially, I haven’t written anything outside my journal since the middle of April. Didn’t I just go to a retreat for creators? Here I am, creating nothing at all. I haven’t hit a trail in weeks; how can I write a piece about one?

Full-capacity me would make time to address these imbalances. Sick me does not even try. The real imbalance is fundamental, in response to which my body has changed the rules, and my brain obeys. Today we are fallow. Let it be.

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Fallow is a curious word. Referring to a plot of agricultural land, it does not mean untouched or untended, only unplanted, unsown. It means the ground has produced before, has been prepared to produce again, and is asked to produce nothing at all just now, in the expectation of greater yields next season. It’s a break, of the sort a producing field (or human) can be comfortable with: it promises rest now, and a return to productivity in due time.

With a season behind me more difficult than most, fallow is what I needed to give myself permission to be. I couldn’t stop the whirlwind in my brain long enough even to see the need, and this is where the rest of the blessed world stepped in to save me. My body, in its exhaustion, calmed the storm the only way it could. Some mountains I’d never met caught and held me while I rested. And a group of strangers, in their generosity, supported and energized me with friendship.

I’m coming out of the fog; I can tell because I rose this morning refreshed, with a five-mile walk on my mind, and no sign of the whirlwind returning. I can tell because my fingers twitched when they thought of writing.

But I am still tired, my restless fire banked low. I took another long nap today, and felt accomplished for it. Philosophy has followed physicality, and I trust this process. I’ll go forward soon enough, with the energy I need to close out this chapter in my life, collaborate on a new one, discover new paths and find the words to distill them on the page.

In the meantime, it’s okay to simply till the soil, and wait.

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