Thursday, July 28, 2011

FACE LIKE A MAP – Nature’s Telling Patterns

As fascinating and awe-inspiring as Nature’s crafts and creatures are, if we focus too hard on one thing, we risk missing a great deal more. Or, as goes the old expression, we miss the forest for the trees.

Nature’s full of elegant repetitions, patterns and unisons—swarms, grids, grains, textures and frameworks. And to see them we often have to employ a special lens. Sometimes it's a close-up lens; sometimes a wide-angle.

For example, when it snows, we tend to see it as a commodity—the pristine, sparkling-white blanket on the ground; the dense, backbreaking pile the plow leaves in our driveway; the stuff we carve into igloo or ball into snowman. But inspect a single snowflake, and you’ll never look at snow the same way again.

     In this case, the art isn’t in the detail, but 
     in the broad brush applied by the wind

On the other hand, pick up a grain of sand. What do you see? Chances are it’s a tiny specimen of quartz, feldspar, coral or shell. Usually not all that interesting, right? But drop that single grain, step back and put on your wide-angle lens. Only then do you appreciate how, in this case, the art isn’t in the detail, but in the broad brush applied by the wind: the elegant undulations of sand dunes.

Micro or macro, it’s not hard to think of other natural patterns: roiling schools of baitfish or flocks of birds moving in unison as if on cue, tree rings, bee hives, fingerprints, spider webs, or the honeycomb patterns on a dog's nose. I’ll bet you can come up with a dozen more.

Unlike the sand or snow examples, each of these patterns is either made by a living creature, or is itself alive. Yet we know better than to credit the intelligence that designs and renders these motifs to the organism itself; after all, in the whole scheme of things it is fragile and fleeting. No, it is a perfection that can only be ascribed to an eternal wisdom.

    What we see in crystals or honeycomb is the 
    deliberate precision of a knowing draftsman.

How incredible that Nature, with each modicum of new growth, always manages to set each molecule in near-perfect alignment with the rest, and precisely in the pattern unique to each organism, each material! Despite the seeming randomness, even chaos, of much of Nature’s impressionistic brushwork, what we see in crystals or honeycomb is the deliberate precision of a knowing draftsman. And to witness this perfection, we need look no further than our own skin or our sleeve on a snowy day.

Patterns aren’t just amazing in their own right; they can help us to see other things more clearly. That is to say, it’s not the pattern, but a break in the pattern that sometimes tells the tale. For example, a great trick for spotting critters in the woods is to scan the regular vertical lines of tree trunks and the more random, lacy patterns of foliage.

An animal or bird, while very hard to see if you’re looking just for it, may be considerably easier to spot if you look, instead, for the break in pattern that it creates. A large mass in the otherwise fine texture of foliage, even if it’s not an animal, usually turns out to be something interesting anyway, like a nest, hive or gall.

   The “roads” on that map—the ridges and 
   furrows—led to all the experiences that person 
   had weathered in his life.

Whenever my father would spot a character with a leathery old face, wrinkled, one would suppose, by some conspiracy of age, sun and smoke, he’d say the person had “a face like a map.” I remember thinking that the “roads” on that map—the ridges, furrows and scars—led to all the experiences that person had weathered in his life.

Just think of all the patterns Nature relates to us as narratives of how its organisms and structures have lived, thrived, suffered and survived: the rings of a tree; a rock’s striations, layers of glacial ice...and, yes, the lines on a person’s face.

"Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry." RICHARD P. FEYNMAN

Monday, July 25, 2011


There are a few foods that, if you haven't tasted them really fresh, you haven't tasted them at all. Among them, home grown tomatoes; freshly ground coffee; and corn on the cob.

Obviously, the main attraction with corn is eating it—that sublime interplay of flavor and texture that only really fresh corn can serve up. (I like mine with a little butter and enough black pepper to make my lips smart.) M-m-m-m, I can't wait!

But wait you must; first you've got to shuck it.

Like so many of life's little chores, shucking corn can be a nuisance...or you can choose to see it as an experience, a joy. I highly recommend the latter.

                                                         *     *     *

Pick up an ear of fresh sweet corn and the first thing you notice is that it's heavier than a green, leafy thing should be. I've always imagined that heavy gifts in small packages held special promise.

The next thing that strikes you are the silken tresses spilling out the tapered end in bleached yellow-green, tips perhaps tinted golden brown by air and sun.

The snug, raspy leaves peel back easily one at a time; try for more and they voice their squeaky objection. Layer by layer, the green softens from dark and paper-dry to light, tender, translucent. The last few reluctant layers squeeze tight, conforming like shrink wrap to the pebbly texture beneath.

Emergent kernels, near the tip, wander randomly, then fall into neat rows as they march smartly down the cob.

The kernels greet you cheerily, buoyantly. Slightly cool, they grab the tips of your fingers like so many tiny, shiny, pale yellow balloons all squeezed together— inflated, it seems, to the point of bursting.

Emergent ones, near the tip, wander randomly, then fall into neat rows as they march smartly down the cob. Here and there someone loses the cadence and falls out of line for a step or two.

A few strands always hold out, ducking stickily into crevices between rows.

Then it's back to the silk. Most of it lets go willingly, but a few strands always hold out, ducking stickily into crevices between rows. I suppose this is where some might let the job get a bit tedious. Don't let it spoil the wonder; a few threads of corn silk may even be good for you!

Now just cut or break off the remaining stalk—appreciating the cob's tough, woody core, of course—and your cob's ready for the pot.

Corn on the cob: whether you're shuckin' it, cookin' it or eatin' it, enjoy!

NOTE: Some people tear off and toss their corn husks as they go. I like to leave them attached, and then imagine a great yellow rocket ship blasting off atop tongues of green flame. What can I say; I guess I've never really grown up!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

TIP #22 
When you're beset by problems or limitations, refocus on possibilities.

In every human condition lie the seeds of its opposite. In the Whole Scheme of Things, pain does not exist without the hope of relief. The same with sadness, discord and want.
Nurture those seeds; sprout and grow with them despite the poor soil.

Monday, July 18, 2011

EYES OF A CHILD – Like You’ve Never Seen Before

What is it about the eyes of a child? Could they possibly be any wider open, any purer, any more completely in the moment? When the downy little head of a one-year-old turns your way, and those great, round eyes meet yours, you can’t help but be struck by both how voraciously and how generously they see, eagerly grasping every detail, yet with an innocence that’s utterly free of judgment or guile.

There’s also something especially disarming, I think, about eyes that look up at you—as children's eyes usually do. Could it be some instinctual comfort we experience when we’re dominant? If someone’s looking up at you, they must either be smaller or in a subservient position and, therefore, pose no threat.

Does it tap into our inherent drive to protect and nurture the innocent and vulnerable? Or do we see something in that gaze that puts us in touch with the sacred? Might we, at some level, associate it with the way a newcomer to heaven might perceive God?

Every observation within their pull swirls inescapably into their possession, as if swallowed
by a benign black hole. 

Whatever the reason, I’m utterly undone by kids' eyes—captivated by the way they envelope and explore everything, including me, as if they were holding it, turning it over, feeling it. Their capacity seems so far out of proportion to their size. Every observation and impression within their pull swirls inescapably into their possession, as if swallowed by a benign black hole.

A baby’s eyes are just as enchanting for what they don’t show. They harbor no assumptions, no prejudice. The vulnerable way they gaze up at you would be the same if you were Miss America or Quasimodo. They’re not yet well versed in fear.

Expectation, disappointment, competition, prejudice—none of these attitudes is intrinsic to homo sapiens. They're learned. That’s why you don’t see them in a one-year-old’s eyes…and why you may start to see them in a two-year-old’s. What does that tell you?

Oh, that we could learn to give and receive 
that sweet, open, vulnerable look more often!

It tells me that the brightness that fades gradually from some children's eyes is getting obscured, layer upon layer, by lessons we wouldn’t teach them if we knew any better. Like sheets of sheer gauze, the first few of these filters may escape notice, but add enough of them, and the wrapping becomes nearly opaque, all but blocking the curiosity, delight and wonder that should remain every child's essence.

Some kids manage to keep that essence, that clarity, in their eyes longer than others. Even a child who’s learned to frown, pout and throw tantrums can, at other times, when the “attitude” falls away, give the most unguarded, most innocent of looks. I’ve seen it in the eyes of ten-year-old boys, who look up at their dads as if to say “I want to be just like him.” I’ve even seen it—though I must say very seldom—in the eyes of an adult. Oh, that we could learn to give and receive that sweet, open, vulnerable look more often!

When I’m with Nature, I try to put on my child’s eyes. It's not always easy. (Maybe I just have too much on my mind, or can't find and remove all those layers that come to cloud the clear innocence of one's perception.) But I want that openness, that vulnerability. I want to be so free of expectation that I can’t be disappointed.

Above all, I want to see everything as if I’d never seen anything before.

The eyes are the window to the soul. –  ENGLISH PROVERB

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Just about all of us, at one time or another, have played that game where you try to find cloud forms that look like objects, animals or faces. Right? Half the fun is trying to describe what we see to someone else—someone who may have a completely different interpretation.

And there’s more to clouds than their shapes. Their swirls, wisps and whorls paint the skies in telling styles: cirrus and stratus, contrail and cumulus.

Each tells a different story, foretelling what clear skies never divulge: the gathering storm, sailors’ delight or plight. Tinted red and gold by setting or rising sun, clouds stun us with their beauty. When excited, they swell gray and black in rising warm air, and then, pierced by lightning, shower their gifts of rain and ions on the expectant earth.

Take a different point of view and it's like seeing clouds as if for the very first time.

But, like just about any aspect of Nature, we tend to see only one facet of the magnificence of clouds. Take a different point of view and it's like seeing clouds as if for the very first time.

When I fly, I like a window seat, especially when taking off on a rainy day. I love that moment when we break through the clouds to clear sky and sun. It’s the epitome of escapism, as if it were my spirit given wing, rising through a billowy white down comforter from my still-sleeping body.

On darker nights, I tiptoe through pools of warm, golden light where cities shine through.

Once I’m above the clouds, I surrender myself to a panorama of wonders limited only by the horizon of my imagination. I soar between peaks of cloud “mountains.” I look for real mountains poking up through the clouds, the view of their summits reserved that day just for me. At night, I bathe in the cool glow of moonlight on the cloudscape below. Or, on darker nights, I tiptoe through pools of warm, golden light where cities shine through.

Last year I was flying home from the East Coast. It was nearly dark and we were over central Wisconsin. I noticed an immense thunderhead just ahead of us on my side of the aircraft. I felt the plane’s size and mine shrink as we approached the still-rising monster and I realized it towered above our 35,000-foot cruising altitude.

I felt the plane’s size and mine shrink as we approached the still-rising monster

Spots of flickering light dappled the surface of the looming mass, betraying the violence deep within. At any given instant there would be three or four lightening flashes. I watched, transfixed, as we passed, gradually turning, then craning my neck back until I could no longer see the light show through the window behind me. (I learned later that this storm—so beautiful from above—had spawned a series of tornadoes that proved deadly for those on the ground.)

NOTE: As we passed the storm, I’d looked around me a couple of times at my fellow travelers. I like to do this, to see how other people react to things. I guess I was also looking for some validation of what I’d been seeing, someone to share the moment with. Alas, some were reading, a few watched DVDs, others slept. Not one was looking out the window. I felt sorry for them…and blessed.

Monday, July 11, 2011

US VERSUS US – And Other Reflections

The universe is immense beyond our comprehension. Yet this vastness is reflected, literally at our fingertips. For there in a single skin cell exists another  “universe”—one of ever-smaller and smaller particles. Even an atom, which itself is a ten millionth the size of the period at the end of this sentence, is made up of components that are proving every bit as hard to count as the number of bodies in the celestial universe.

Here, at Nature’s extremes, is where perspective begins to get a little weird. As physicists venture into the realms of quarks, quasars and antimatter, they’re learning that the rules governing the concepts of not only space, but mass, time, motion and even existence are going to have to change.

It’s never the simplistic “us versus them” paradigm we’ve invented to try to make sense of complexity and manage emotions.

Two things you might think would fall at opposite ends of a scale of time, size or space might, according to these new realities, actually lie right next to each other or even coincide. In these latitudes, large encompasses small; bad includes good; beauty has its ugly side. In everything lie the seeds of its opposite. And the astounding Intelligence that designed it all, at once everywhere and nowhere, looks on kindly as we endeavor to understand. 

So the worlds I continue to explore around, within and beyond me are ultimately the same world. It’s all one, and it’s all good—the beginnings, the endings and everything in between.

In politics, in international relations, in personal conflicts and even in war, it may just be that it’s never really about what we think it’s about. It’s never the simplistic “us versus them” paradigm we’ve invented to try to make sense of complexity and manage emotions.

Because there’s always a part of “them” in “us” and vice versa, it’s always about us.

We can learn something important both from what exists and what doesn’t exist, from things and the spaces between things, from words and silence.

It's impossible to overstate the significance of this new understanding. The implications for those of us exploring who we are and where we fit in whole scheme of things are becoming clearer by the day:
  • What happens to one person, one animal, one river, one ecosystem ultimately affects every other.
  • The spiritual energy each of us produces can instantaneously change someone's reality on the other side of the world. 
  • There’s always another way of looking at something, another way to experience and explore it.
  • We can learn something important both from what exists and what doesn’t exist, from things and the spaces between things, from words and silence.
  • The answer to any conflict is for both parties to understand that what they judge and fear in their enemy is a reflection of themselves.
  • The solution to any of society's most daunting challenges could already be within our reach, simply awaiting a fresh perspective or a more open mind before revealing itself.
  • Finally—perhaps the most important implication of all—it means there are no limits other than those we impose on ourselves. In fact, we’re only just barely separated—if at all—from the ideal, the sacred, the timeless.

Friday, July 8, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

TIP #37 
Talk back to Nature.

Just as we listen to Nature, Nature listens to us.
She hears that little gasp when we behold something beyond words; 
a cry of celebration at the conquest of mountain or white water; 
our provoking the call of a gullible bird; even an unspoken word of thanks for the privilege of the conversation.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

DOES A BEAR…? – A Warm Welcome Indeed

The wilderness is a great place to sharpen your senses. Obviously, being observant (and knowing your maps) helps insure safe, proper navigation. Once in a great while, awareness even turns out to be the key to survival. But most often, keeping your eyes, ears and other senses open just increases your enjoyment of being outdoors far from crowds, calls and cars.

Once in a great while, noticing one of Nature’s little gifts proves just plain hilarious.

There for the taking are sights, sounds and smells you likely won’t find anywhere else. The sunglow inside a red rock canyon, the mournful call of a loon across a northern lake, a whiff of white pine sap in an old-growth forest.

I'm used to thinking that Nature's to be beheld in silent reverence. But, once in a great while, noticing one of her little gifts proves just plain hilarious.

When my kids were in their twenties I took them on a fall canoe trip in northern Minnesota’s amazing Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

One cool, damp afternoon, after paddling and portaging our way through five or six lakes, we were ready to find a good campsite for the night. The map showed several possible spots within a short distance along the left bank of a narrow bay.

Keeping your eyes, ears and other senses open increases your enjoyment of being outdoors far from crowds, calls and cars.

The first campsite we came to looked unoccupied, so I got out to survey it out for the key amenities: a good, flat, root-free spot to pitch our tent, a well-made stone fire pit, enough dead and fallen trees for firewood, a good branch for hanging our food pack beyond the reach of bears, and, of course, a decent Forest-Service-built latrine.

Following the path back into the woods, I found the wooden “throne” to be in good shape. On the way back to the landing, I realized I hadn’t had a “pit stop” all afternoon. Still out of sight of the kids, I stepped off the path, unzipped and watered a large, rotting, moss- covered stump. It’s always nice to have a target.

My kids had already decided the campsite merited only about three stars. So we hopped back into the canoe and paddled a few hundred yards down the shore to the next campsite. Unfortunately this one, with its lumpy tent site and poor landing area, rated only two stars. It was getting late and we were feeling the chill. So, instead of going on to check out a third site, we opted for the far-from-ideal, though certainly adequate, first campsite, and paddled back.

While the kids put up the tent and unpacked their sleeping bags, I headed into the woods to collect some firewood. In no time, I had a nice double armload and headed back toward the campsite to build the fire.

That’s odd, I thought. Just ahead, next to the trail, I thought I saw a wisp of steam.

On the way, I connected once again with the latrine path. After a few steps, my happy whistling came to an abrupt stop. That’s odd, I thought. Just ahead, next to the trail, I thought I saw a wisp of steam. I slunk a few steps closer. Could it be the breath of a small animal, I asked myself. No, it didn’t come and go like breathing would.

Wait…this looks familiar. I recognized the stump I’d just used as a urinal fifteen minutes earlier. And there on top, in the very center, was a fist-sized pile of still-warm bear shit.

What do you do when a North American black bear acknowledges you in this most personal way? You can run. You can feel insulted. You can ignore it. Or, as I did, you can look around for a big brown-and-black face peeking out from behind a tree and smiling. And then you just laugh out loud.

Friday, July 1, 2011

HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY! – Make It Wonder-full!

These long summer holiday weekends, it's easy to lose sight of what the occasion's really all about. Sure, the Fourth is about fun. After all, it's a celebration, a cherished opportunity to spend a few of these long, languid days just being outdoors, having fun with people we love, and eating our way into a long nap in a hammock.

But the fourth is also a time for gratitude—an appreciation of living in this great, fiercely independent nation whose liberty was hard won two-and-a-half centuries ago. I try never to lose sight of this, even though that liberty is awfully easy to take for granted, since it's only rarely been challenged since—and even more rarely on our own soil.*

The Fourth of July also has come to represent a passage into summer, especially for those of us living in northern climes. (I think we can be fairly sure it won't snow now!) So let's be aware of all those little wonders that make this season such a blessing.

Here are just a few of the small wonders I plan to notice and appreciate as if I were experiencing them for the very first time:
  • The way kernels of fresh sweet corn pop as my teeth plow through them
  • The pulsing sizzle of a hot meadow teeming with life
  • How my skin smells toasted in sunny, sultry air

  • The pink crystalline coolness of watermelon chilled in the creek
  • The misty echo up and down the river valley of a big aerial bomb's boom
  • Water – that amazing clear, cool, flowing substance that both sustains and entertains
  • A bluegill's arresting colors and texture and spiny dorsal fin
  • The magical, winking syncopation of firefly glow with cricket chirp
  • The sweet, evocative smell of freshly mown grass
  • The faces of my grandchildren as they too experience wonder

What little wonders will you be 
ready to embrace this Fourth of 
July weekend?

* It saddens me to note the deeply troubling undercurrent to this year's otherwise joyous celebration of Independence Day. Never in my long life have I been as deeply concerned about the state of my country. 
We've elected a shallow, narcissistic, willfully ignorant reality-show host as president. His yes-men appointees, as well as majorities in both houses of Congress seem hell-bent on turning the nation's back on our responsibilities—not just to the rest of the world, but to the poorest, most vulnerable of our own countrymen. In six months we've become the laughing stock of the world.
Instead of America's trademark optimism, drive and inspired leadership, we're retreating into a cowardly shell of fear, enabling shameless opportunism by a visionless, doom-and-gloom ruling oligarchy. 
It is nothing less than an assault on our country's founding principles and on much of the hard-won cultural evolution we've achieved during my lifetime.