Inner Canyon, Where Deep Time Meets Sacred Space

Cover Picture

1 Spellbound
When the Wheaton Van Lines driver phoned early on that Sunday morning to say that he couldn’t find anyone to help offload my 5000 pounds of household goods (mostly books), I suddenly had a whole day ahead of me, with nothing I could be doing to settle into my newest apartment. Of course, I could have gone to the lay- led service being held at my new interim church in Flagstaff, AZ.
But there is church, and then there’s Church.
Like my Unitarian Transcendentalist forebears, my inner life is grounded in the natural world, and so I packed up snacks and bottles of water and headed out of town, for a mere seventy miles away was the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
I had been there before, several years earlier, and had even visited the North Rim a few years previously. After all, this is THE place of pilgrimage that most Americans feel compelled to visit at least once in their lifetimes.
But I was totally unprepared for what would come to pass this time. This time, when I got out of the car and walked up to the Rim at Mather Point, the sight of the Canyon made me gasp. I felt I was being held by the throat and was choking.
Breathe, I told myself, just try to breathe. I walked along the paved path leading away from the main viewing area, seeking a place for solitary reflection. The August sun was hot so I sought out a spot shaded by a twisted juniper tree.
As I sat staring out across that great gash in our Earth, I sensed I was at an intersection of deep time and sacred space, and suddenly I began sobbing uncontrollably.
Was I ‘losing it?’ I looked around at my fellow tourists for clues: was anyone else experiencing what I was?
What about the middle-aged father talking nonstop and berating his young son for not seeing the castle of stone on the butte “right there next to the big titty!”
Or the grandmother having a meltdown when her family went out to the edge for a better look, until they turned their attention away from the view and put it back where it rightfully belonged: on her.
For truth be told, few people seemed to be really looking into the Canyon very much at all. Rather, after being surprised by the squirrels and amazed by the ravens, folks were dashing into the curio shops to buy some memento of their visit.
I would later learn that the average visitor’s stay at the Canyon’s rim is less than eleven minutes per person.
I too could/should just get back into my car and retreat to the safety of my still empty apartment in Flagstaff.
Instead, I spent the rest of the day driving along the east rim, stopping and staring, and sobbing at each pull off.
All across the great chasm, the changing afternoon light played like child gone wild with a box of crayons, turning the beige layer of Coconino Sandstone luminous, washing the Redwall into an innocent pink given depth and texture by shadows of brooding blue, then smearing a suggestion of green sage across the slope before dropping off into blackness as the inner canyon descended to the blue-green ribbon of river that could barely be glimpsed from the Rim at certain points.
Breathe. Just keep breathing! From Grandview Point to Moran Point to Lipan Point to Navajo Point, I became so increasingly intoxicated that by the time I reached the final pull off at Desert View, I was a drunken, blithering idiot!
When I could pull myself together long enough, I found a pay phone and called each of my daughters on my phone card.
“Yes, yes, I made it to Arizona. No, I’m not in Flagstaff. Actually, you won’t believe this, but the Grand Canyon is practically in my new neighborhood…,” I blathered into lines stretching westward to Washington, eastward to Tennessee.
My daughters were polite, if under impressed. Clearly one had to be here to appreciate this world-class wonder, to be having this first-hand experience that I simply couldn’t get enough of!
So I circled back to where I’d started out so many hours earlier. Watching the sun drop down into and the full moon rise up out of the Canyon simultaneously, I intuitively knew that everything in my life was being turned upside down.
While watching the sun crest the Rim, it hit me in a whole new way what the science of our day has been telling us….that we are, in the words of mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme:
“….. the first humans to look into the night sky and see the birth of stars, the birth of galaxies, the birth of the cosmos as a whole.”
And thus “ Our future as a species will be forged within this new story of the world.”
This was a new story, indeed…….. one to rival the one I grew up with that began with “Let there be light!”
“To speak of the universe’s origin is to bring to mind the great silent fire at the beginning of time. We can see the dawn of the universe because the light from its edges reaches us only now, after traveling twenty billion years to get here. We can now see the beginnings of time. We are the first generation to live with an empirical view of the origin of the universe.”
I had long been trying to translate this new knowing into what it meant for how we people might live our lives. Did the Canyon hold clues, with its exposed record of the planet balanced between the sun and our moon, to a new world view? Was that why I felt I was under its spell?
Blessedly, darkness finally descended, erasing the Canyon, and releasing me to make my way home to my empty apartment, and my newest interim ministry position.

Nature’s Calling, the Grace of Place

Here is an essay by We Are Wildness’ Heidi Barr about my newest book.

Nature’s Calling: The Grace of Place

It’s Complicated; Living the Simple Life in Rural New England

(This was Just released as an essay in The Wayfarer, A Journal of Contemplative Literature, special New England Edition, Vol. 3; Issue 3. Below are the beginning and ending…)

After spending an interim ministry year ‘banished’ to Las Vegas, with its limited natural resources, I deliberately chose an ecologically aware and environmentally active congregation in Vermont for my next interim ministry experience.

I wanted to learn to live as simply and as sustainably as possible. “Simplify,” Thoreau urged a century and a half ago; okay, I’d try, while living in the rural village of Lyme, New Hampshire, twelve miles north and east across the Connecticut River from the church’s office in Norwich, Vermont.

Renting what I came to call my Thoreau House, a two-story cottage that sat on a tiny lane just outside the village, it didn’t take long to realize how complicated the simplified life can be. I’d come to expect and always taken for granted such essentials as running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, and instant heat….none of which Thoreau had, of course.

While this was about as ‘simply’ as I could or cared to get, living in rural New England proved to be a learning curve.

….. I found that the closer you live to nature, the more you realize the damage being done through human mindlessness. For instance, the glory of New England is its fall colors, yet the maples are dying from acid rain carried on the wind from coal burning power plants in Ohio. And the earlier springs from global warming are disrupting the sugaring cycle that needs cold nights to draw the sap back down into the roots at the end of each warm spring day.

Everything was clearly interconnected in large and small ways: it was utterly overwhelming to be so intensely aware of ones every action, so that even opening a packet of peanut butter crackers became a wanton act of wasting packaging.

The archetypal Yankee poet Robert Frost wrote of the difference between making new and making do….and rural New Englanders have always seemed to know in their bones how to make do out here, where the true state flag is blue tarp.

But making do meant being mindful! And that made for a complicated life!! It also called forth a whole new way of living.

Honoring Earth Day 2014

Wasteland or Wilderness
Perhaps it’s a tribute to human ingenuity that early Euro-Americans could look at Nevada’s arid vastness and see hidden treasures of silver and gold, gypsum and oil. However, there is one little glitch in our greed: once these resources run out, what’s left in their place are ghost towns and waste tailings.
So it’s no wonder that the next wave of attention paid to Nevada turned towards making the best use of its wasteland: our military relished the open empty space as a place for the testing out of its hardware, including the atomic bomb.
There’s a pull out on the side of Mount Charleston a mere thirty miles north of Las Vegas where today you too can stand where tourists once watched atomic blasts for entertainment, some while sporting a special mushroom cloud hairdo.
And now, not far beyond the shimmering mirage of water held in the brown bowl of the desolate desert, a repository is up and running, ready to receive the Nation’s nuclear waste.
Perhaps it’s a tribute to the change in human awareness that brings many Nevadans out in protest of that project, and compels others to become advocates of this place by striving to protect it, and by legally preserving it as wilderness.
“In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau in the era that launched our sense of Manifest Destiny.
The war he refused to support with his taxes, that act that landed him jail, was the one during which we wrangled the whole of the southwest away from Mexico. We really only wanted more direct access to the riches of California, and had no idea what to do with the wilderness that lay in between.
The whole notion of letting it be for its own sake rather than for ours is a new one, born from the souls of first peoples, poets, hikers, spiritual hermits, and the like.
To count yourself among them would mean becoming an active and activated part of the earth’s immune system.
It would mean aligning yourself with efforts to protect threatened species like the desert tortoise, the Mt. Charleston blue butterfly, and the Moapa dace.
It would mean agonizing over the irreparable damage done by off roaders and target shooters (and cattle ranchers).
And it could mean wondering about the place of your own species within the bigger picture of things.
Wasteland or wilderness;
exploit or experience;
abuse or appreciate;
useless or use less:
the choice that is facing us plays out in the vast sea of sagebrush and sand that spreads between ranges of mountains that make up the land of Nevada.

Windy

Spring is synonymous with wind here in the desert. In the post below, taken from Chewing Sand, I am confronted with the difference between ‘humanity’ and ‘people’ as a teenager. Now as an elder, I find I struggle with the same disconnect, perhaps because I perceive such a gap between what humans can be and what people actually do. What say you?

Windy
The essence of the desert is wind.
Ed Abbey said so. But reading about it in Desert Solitaire is one thing, experiencing it first hand is quite another.
Gusts up to 50 mph were forecasted to become higher when we questioned our camping plans. But the campground was only fifty miles away, so we could always return home.
Four retirees, we had the luxury of an early arrival and a choice of camping sites. We selected one that seemed sheltered from the oncoming wind, and spent the afternoon poking around in the fiery-red sandstone bluffs that gave the state park its name and its fame.
And yes, it was windy: we didn’t dare light the campfire, and had to secure supper with lots of on-hand rocks.
We were to be two to a tent: one was set up by sunset, but we gave up on the other one soon after it turned dark.
Huddling between collapsed layers of canvas, I kept the mesh patch of a window over my face so I could breathe, as well as to see the stars as they moved across the firmament.
Staying awake to watch the glorious cosmic show was no problem, thanks to the wind. To say that it roared would be an understatement: it was more like the sound of a train coming out of a tunnel in an explosion of noise, pushing air ahead of itself. All you could do was to brace for the onrush.
There was to be precious little sleeping. All night long bursts of wind were interspersed with the sound of other campers driving away.
Choosing to stay, we could just lie awake, wired in full alert. I had visions of being blown with the sand across the southwest, ending up in a solidified dune somewhere in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, or/and Colorado. What story would my fossilized remains conjure up for future paleontologists? Would they know that the two breaks in my elbow came from skating: the first on the sidewalk at age five, the second on the ice at age twenty-five? And how could they tell I had relished my last moments of consciousness by living into my nickname?
“Why do you call me Windy?,” I ventured to ask my high school boyfriend’s father. For from the moment we met he’d called me that, and would do so well into my adulthood.
My mother had wanted to name me Wendy, but worried that classmates would dub me Windy Wendy, so named me ‘Gail’ instead. And now I was being called ‘Windy’ anyway.
“Because a gale is a wind,” he said simply. “Is that it?” I pressed, half afraid that the real reason was because I talked too much, though actually only to him. A painfully shy teen, in spite of being head majorette as a high school senior, I kept my inner self carefully protected, except in conversations with him.
And he honored that part of me no one else cared or dared to see, myself included. His observation: “You love humanity, Windy, but you are not so sure about people….,” haunts me yet. My ‘windy’ self gravitated towards flying planes and writing poems even while I nursed, taught, mothered, and ministered. Now lying here out in the wind, the very essence of the west, I hear his laughter.
By dawn I am steeped in gratitude, not that the wind has stopped (it hasn’t), but that somebody knew my true name.

Keystone Thrust

       How can it be that I’ve never hiked this trail until now?  Surely I’ve known it was here all along, even as I explored the main part that meanders through lavender spring lupine. Yet this cut-off has mostly gone unnoticed, until now.

         So why now?! There seems to be no rational reason, only the need to get away from T.V. and radio, computer and tablet, with their stress producing news of our day:

A recent rally on the National Mall with 40,000 people demanding leadership on climate change, beginning with the rejection of the dirty tars sands pipeline, has, as expected, gone largely unreported by the corporate media; what is unexpected is the discovery that, during that rally, the president was golfing with oil and gas executives in Florida.  And this morning, the local stations were a buzz over the new oil exploration under way in Nevada as a boon for the economy.

This day is a cold overcast gray; the air feels raw enough to snow: perfect conditions for a shade less trek. Nearly a mile in, we crest the ridge composed of grey Cambrian limestone and start downwards onto a plateau of red Jurassic sandstone.

The cause of this juxtaposition is contained in the name of this trail: the Keystone Thrust, a fault line that runs through this mountain range and extends into Canada.

The irony is not lost upon me: it is Canada’s Keystone XL Pipeline that has become the ‘place’ to finally take a stand for saying no to fossil fuels and yes to renewable energy sources.

Finding a secluded ‘sanctuary,’ I climb up on a slab of red stone beside a lone Manzanita blooming in the frigid February morning, glad that here in the desert my birth month means early spring flowers instead of just late winter snows.

But cyclical seasons are not the main source of wisdom out here. Geologic time is.

And therein lies the frustration. The human mind may be able to measure but not grasp the Time that is opened before me: this fault line marks the point where the ocean once ended and this continent began.  The layer of the earliest explosion of life (there are the horn shaped fossils embedded in the limestone) has thrust up and over the layer that, millions of years later, supported the plodding of dinosaurs and the scurrying of mammals that would one day become us. 

In between these came the carboniferous period that utilized and then buried enough carbon dioxide to cool the atmosphere and allow for a whole new epoch of life.  Yet it is this sequestered carbon we are now releasing back into the atmosphere that’s reheating the climate. Were we to bring to the surface and burn all that’s still out there to find, Life as we know it will be over forever. There are already mass die outs, and we too will go extinct. Thus we must leave the rest of the carboniferous age fossilized coal, gas, and oil in the ground.  

Science has made this all quite clear for us.  So why can’t or won’t we transform that knowledge into wisdom? Claims that it’s inconvenient or obstructed by greed seem too easy.   

Perhaps that question is what’s brought me out here; though mostly I just want to bang my head against this immutable sandstone, that intractable limestone.

I sit close to the fault that drove one crustal plate down and under the other: if there’s a key to moving from human understanding to action may it be here in this cataclysmic shift. But perhaps it is already coming to pass: that rally in D.C. might be the eruption of people power on behalf of the planet.

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