An Unlikely Refuge on an Important Journey

Thank you to the attendant in the women’s bathroom in Concourse A of the Atlanta International Airport. On a recent cross-country trip to surprise my sister at her retirement from 30 years of college teaching I was lucky to be one of many nurtured by the attendant’s generous spirit.

Moving from my arrival gate to the departure gate of the next leg of my long flight, I tucked into the bathroom. There was a line out the entry way—another signal to this travel weary soul that the world of travel is big and impersonal. As I inched forward in the line, I began hearing the same steady, cheerful voice.

“How are you doing today? Long flight? Head right over there, Honey!”

When it was my turn, the gray-haired attendant in her red uniform gave me my own, warm, focused greeting.

“Welcome, young lady! Been on the road long?”

I barely had time to respond before she gestured to the next empty stall.

What I noticed is that the women inside the bathroom were not impatient. Once we realized the orderliness of things, we all calmly waited our turn. And we all seemed to pick up on her thoughtfulness.  When I headed to a sink to wash my hands, a woman stepped aside to let me in. I was probably in that bathroom a total of five minutes, but when I emerged back into the sea of moving humanity that seldom looked at one another, I had been somehow reinvigorated.

Settling at my gate to eat breakfast before the next leg of the journey, I kept thinking about that attendant and how carefully she was doing her job. She made such an impression on me that I decided to pay a return visit to that bathroom right before my next flight departed.

There she was, two-and-a-half hours since my first visit, still standing by the entry to the bathroom, still sharing her positive spirit. Still sometimes going in and wiping down a stall before directing someone in. When I was sitting in a stall in this unlikely refuge for the second time, I thought, “I want to figure out some form of acknowledgement to thank her. I will have about three seconds for the transaction.” I grabbed a five dollar bill out of my wallet, waited at the sink for a pause in her speaking, then walked out handing her the $5 bill and said, “Thank you. This is the cleanest public restroom I have ever been in.”

“Bless your heart, honey,” she said.

Conclusion of the Important Journey

Twenty minutes later I was boarding my Delta flight to the Asheville, NC airport and the unfolding of a several day rendezvous and celebration that my youngest sister and I will forever remember. She was honored with student and faculty accolades and many gifts for outstanding service to Brevard College.

Ann greeting Margaret for the first time as they walk into the college Humanities Dinner

As the author of The Wild East, a Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains, Margaret is an accomplished writer, an active gardener who has created a Monarch Waystation, a devoted mother, and a person known for her community activity and commitment to lifelong learning. She is an all-around remarkable human being whom I have cherished since the day she was born.

Margaret and Ann relaxing together
photo by Frank Parsons

My sister and the attendant live in very different worlds. One gave me five minutes of kindness— a boost on my long journey. The other has given me a lifetime of joy, memories, and connections.

Margaret and Ann hiking in the Pisgah National Forest
photo by Frank Parsons

A Winter Paddle

Near the end of February, between snowstorms, heavy rains, and strong winds, I snuck in an afternoon’s kayak paddle along the Mutiny Bay shoreline near our home. My winter’s goal the last two and a half years has been to get my new, lightweight (27 pounds—12.3 KG) kayak into the water at least once a month, every month. My Epic GPX, carbon composite kayak is a dream come true: light enough for me to load and unload by myself and carry to the shoreline. And it has a large cockpit to give my legs and back plenty of room. It is fast and easy to handle.

Ann’s Epic GPX paddling the wild west side of Whidbey Island

Paddling in the winter means careful weather watching. My “go to” weather for winter solo paddling: calm seas and air temperature above 40 degrees F.(7 degrees C.). That means spontaneity because winter weather is always changing.

I love being out on the cold waters of Puget Sound wrapped in its mantle of winter gray paddling in the cocoon of my trusty boat. Only rarely do I see another small, self-propelled craft. My human companions on the winter seas are the sturdy, dependable tugboats moving their year-round loads and the occasional cargo ship loaded with overseas freight heading into or out of the port of Seattle.

A tugboat carrying two barges of pulp on Puget Sound in the distance

My most regular companions on the Sound’s winter seas are harbor seals, solitary common loons in winter plumage, rafts of white-winged surf scoters, dozens of red-breasted mergansers, flotillas of tiny bufflehead ducks, and the occasional, solitary cormorant or grebe.

To be a part of this hardy human and animal seascape, I dress carefully, study the weather meticulously, and check the tides and currents. In any season a prepared kayaker dresses for the temperature of the water. In Puget Sound  in the winter that is about 45 degrees F. (7 degrees C.). My layers are a heavy turtleneck, wetsuit, fleece, and paddling jacket; a warm cap; gloves with handwarmers; neoprene booties with wool socks.

A selfie from the cockpit

Because I have a half-century of paddling experience on big, cold seas, I have enormous respect for the vagaries of winter outings. I am in cell phone contact with a shore person. I don’t paddle far from the shore. And I do my best to return at the time promised.

Paddlng close to shore

These outings exhilarate my soul. Confirm my oneness with the wild seas. I am under no illusion that at my age I can or should paddle in just any winter weather. But being out in the winter, when it feels safe to my experienced eye, confirms that I still carry a strong measure of skill and strength. It builds my confidence as an aging athlete. May I be able to do this for some years to come! AND, may I be wise enough to know when the time has come to retire the goal of paddling in winter.

Home in time to clean up the gear and enjoy a sunset

Mushrooms Everywhere!

A classic Amanita mushroom growing in my neighbor’s field

The fall of 2023 is a stunning year for mushrooms in the forests along the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. They come in most every color: Yellow, red, brown, purple, pink, white, and even black. Some grow on the forest floor, some on logs, some only on individual Douglas fir cones. They occupy nearly every inch of the forest and are completely essential to its health.

 

This tiny mushroom grows only on Douglas fir cones.

An example of a gilled mushroom holding a tiny lake of raindrops.

 

In a recent class I taught for fifth graders at one of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust sites, I had the students stomp their feet on the forest floor. “Underneath one of your feet are 300 miles (480 kilometers) of mycelium,” I said. “They mostly can only be seen through microscopes, but if you laid these little thread-like roots under your foot end to end they would  stretch from one end of our island to the other six times!”

And what do mycelium become? They become mushrooms when conditions of temperature and moisture are just right. The fifth graders received deep caution about trying to eat any mushrooms. The focus of our class was wonder, amazement, and respect for the role of these “creatures”.

Twenty years ago, mushrooms were still thought to be in the plant kingdom. Now, however, they have been catalogued by scientists to be in their own kingdom—a kingdom mostly invisible to us except during spectacular “blooms” like this fall. The more I learn about mushrooms, the more I am convinced they are the magicians of the natural world.

A lignin decomposing shelf fungus

Notice the brown spore print below the shelf fungus. Spores disseminate the mushrooms into new places, much like primitive seeds.

Need a two-ton tree on the forest floor removed? Mushrooms will do the job. Need to find a way to decompose plastics? Mushrooms are proving capable of that “impossible” job. Is there a disease in need of cure? Likely a mushroom exists that can be of help. And mental health challenges? Mushrooms are on the frontier of that field, too.

Mushrooms also provide us with spectacular metaphors for life. On a recent zoom call between Wilderness Guides in Ukraine, North America, and Europe I listened to the dire reports from my Ukrainian colleagues: those in their 20s and 30s struggling to have hope for the future, one in his 60s whose son had just been sent to the front line. Please, they asked us, tell us something of your lives so we can see beyond our own borders.

My check-in was about our forest mushrooms. “I know mushroom foraging is important in your country. Lately, I have been walking our forest trails and been absolutely amazed by the variety, color, and abundance of our mushrooms this fall. One month ago, there were scarcely any mushrooms out. Now they are everywhere. It is a poignant reminder that unseen, powerful forces for beauty and good are always at work around each of us.”

Fairy finger mushrooms.

 

 

A log being decayed by moss, witches butter mushrooms(yellow) and a species of gilled mushrooms

 

Shaggy mane mushroom

 

Admiring or collecting mushrooms is more fun with friends—Marcia and Christina holding onto Libbie and Vivi who are NOT truffle sniffing dogs!

If you are hunting mushrooms for eating, go with someone local who knows what they are doing! I had the privilege of acting as sweep for a recent Whidbey Camano Land Trust walk with Kyle Ostermick-Durfee, WCLT steward specialist and amateur mushroom hunter Sego Jackson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mycology, the study of fungi, is a complex and fascinating field. One of the best, most accessible sources of information is the film by Louie Schwartzberg entitled “Fantastic Fungi”. The film with animation focuses on connection between all mushrooms and the earth’s systems. It can be accessed on line.

One of the best books I’ve read recently about fungi is Entangled Life, How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake.

And I pay tribute here to Dr. Lois H. Tiffany, mycologist, my professor at Iowa State University, who first opened my mind to the wonder of fungi. She was known as “Iowa’s mushroom lady”, taught at ISU for over 50 years, and received numerous national awards for her work. She passed away in 2009 and would be totally amazed by the knowledge gained in the mycological world since her death.

One of my all time mentors, Dr. Lois H. Tiffany

 

 

 

Solo on the Spit

Each year for many years I have held the intention to spend time alone camping in nature, offering gratitude for my life and the earth, designing simple ceremonies, and doing whatever wilderness adventuring my body allows. This is my most basic spiritual practice, a way to reset and check my internal barometer.

This August I had a campsite reserved in the Cascade Mountains. However, as time drew nearer, temperatures were predicted to rise above 100 degree F. (38 degrees C.) Then a nearby fire exploded down forested foothills. Time to change plans and cancel the reservation. But these were the days I had set aside in a month full of harvest and volunteer commitments.

Public campgrounds of either the local, state, or national variety are solidly booked these days. The weather forecast indicated that camping near the cool waters of Puget Sound made the most sense. However, there were no open spots anywhere—except first come, first serve. Not my favorite scenario, but abandoning hours of internet searching for availability, off I went in a spirit of trust.

Surprise #1

With my change of plans I had to count on standby status on a ferry normally fully booked during the summer. Last car on the ferry! Things looked good for my spontaneous plans.

Dungeness Spit Recreation Area overlooking the Straits of Juan de Fuca had some first come, first serve campsites. I caught the first ferry from Coupeville (yes, I was standby status) and lucked into an exquisite site located 20 yards from a bluff overlooking the Strait. By 11 a.m. my site was fully set up.  I loaded up my backpack and headed out to Dungeness Spit National Wildlife Refuge.

My solo tent—no rainfly for breathability. No mosquitoes or wasps either!

Dungeness Spit is the longest natural sand spit in the United States. Jutting out into the Straits from the Olympic Peninsula, it is a narrow, 5-mile-long curve of sand, beach logs, and incredible bird habitat. I hiked about halfway to the light house, sat down, ate my lunch, and marveled at the blue expanse of sea and the shore of Vancouver Island (Oh Canada!) across the Strait. My intention for this trip was a modified retreat/quest—insightful solo time, small ceremonies, journal writing, and wilderness adventure.

Looking at Dungeness Spit from the bluff above.

I had hiked far enough out on the spit that there were no other human beings around—just the seagulls and terns. Pulling out my journal, I began to record my gratitude—always a first day exercise for me on these solos. Even though fully covered and sitting within reach of the shore breezes, the intensity of the sun and heat drove me back to my campsite by early afternoon.

 

 

Surprise #2

About halfway up the forested, paved path from the beach back to the campsite (a 2/3 mile, incline) I began to feel completely exhausted. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was capable of walking to my campsite. I staggered on. Once back, I sat sweaty and thirsty in my camp chair drinking and drinking water, beyond the 2 quarts I had carried down to the spit and already consumed. I worried I had Covid.  I took a nap. Rising, I still felt completely lethargic—just sat in my chair and began to marvel at the small Douglas fir and alder trees around me, the chestnut-backed chickadees and golden-crown kinglets carrying on their high pitched dialogues in the underbrush,  and the distant view of Vancouver Island. After a time, I felt hungry enough to cook up a bit of supper. (I no longer fast from food during these self-designed solo times.  I fast from electronics, homey comforts, and my beloved family, but for health reasons do not fast from food.)

By sunset I was feeling like my usual self and it dawned on me that despite camping in one of the coolest spots in the region these hot days and engaging in only very moderate exercise, I had experienced a case of mild heat exhaustion. Obviously, another thing I am more susceptible to as I age and weather intensifies.

Surprise #3

Sun setting over the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

As sunset approached, I walked 25 steps around the forested area protecting my tent site to a bench overlooking the Strait. The bench was located along a paved path. Only one other person was sitting awaiting the sun’s nightly journey onto the horizon. There was no wind, just the rhythmic pounding of surf on the beach far below. No sound of footsteps, just the slow, inexorable sliding of the sun on its ever-changing nightly course. I sat in awe of this nightly spectacle. As it began to darken, I turned and rose to go back to my campsite. There were nine people standing behind me in the cathedral of sunset! No one had said a word. A few bowed as I passed by.

Surprise #4

My first night in a smaller tent since my back surgery a year ago went smoothly and well. The second day of my solo is usually about listening for wisdom from my ancestors—both recent and long ago. Always I create a simple altar for this ceremony. Again, I hiked out on Dungeness Spit. Again, it was a hot day in the upper 80s (low 30sC). I brought more water and the awareness to REALLY take it easy.

Altar created on the shore of the beach out of stones and a few sacred objects brought from home.

This is a place Christina and I have come before to scatter our son Brian’s ashes and honor the yearly passages since his death in 2013. We are approaching the 10th anniversary of his passing. Sometimes these anniversaries are harder than others. And days can pass now when I don’t think of him. But this year the generosity of his estate enabled his nephew, our beloved grandson, to go to college. The great heart of our son and the enormous enthusiasm of our grandson for this gift filled me with an overload of happiness and profound grief. Mixed together they came out as huge sobs which I had absolutely no control over. Ceremony brings the inside to the outside, helps us pause and bear witness to that which is within us always. It always serves to guide my life going forward.

Surprise #5

On the final full day of my solo when temperatures were beginning to cool down into the low 80s F.(mid to upper 20 Degrees C.), I drove to the Olympic National Park to be with the great old growth trees. My choice of trails had been to travel up Hurricane Ridge and hike. However, the road was closed for removal of fire debris. Another surprise. More flexibility required.  I decided to hike the Heart of the Hills trail—moderate difficulty, large trees, 4.4 miles out and back, recommended by the ranger at Park headquarters.

However, this was the sign at the trailhead.

A warning sign at the trailhead. Cougar protocol: hike with others, carry hiking sticks, look LARGE if you confront one and never, ever run.

Yikes! As I was reading the sign,  a pair of women hikers came up behind me and began the trail. I reasoned I was not really alone and headed out a short distance after them, though I definitely gave them their space.

Trail among Olympic Mountain old growth trees both standing and downed by powerful storms.

Typical trail section through thick undergrowth of Devil’s Club and over a bridge because it IS a rainforest with seeps everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only at the turn around point by the river did we see one another again. About 30 minutes after seeing my trail friends, I did stop to pick up a large, stout stick for some reassurance. Surprise #5 is that I did not see a cougar!

Surprise #6

This surprise could simply be that I was able to have a solo in a public campground that was so deeply meaningful for me. Yes, I did have interactions with a few people, but mostly i was able to practice solitude, deeply held by the natural world of my own bioregion. And in the spirit of the quest, my “base camp” and community back home, Christina and Vivi, welcomed me with long beach rambles and deep story sharing.

Another photo of the holy moment of sunset at a public campground.

Holding onto the Thread

Those of us in the Wilderness Guides Council who are no longer actively leading trips or are beginning to slow down in how many we lead, belong to the organization’s “elders council”. We are a diverse group of folks ranging in age from 65 to 89, sharing our thoughts about moving into this next phase of our lives. I find our bimonthly zoom conversations helpful, honest, and insightful to my own aging. We were each asked to write a reflection about this transition which I also share here as a blog post.

Many of my peers are engaging in different versions of the question, “How am I transitioning into my elder years?” I share some of my thoughts here and encourage yours.

I turn first to William Stafford’s remarkable poem:

                   The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

                                                   By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

This is the poem we always shared with people from our Cascadia Quest as they prepared to return home, encouraging them to integrate the insights they had found from their time on the quest. This is a poem that speaks to me deeply. It encourages me to articulate how I am holding the “Thread” at this time in my life.

I have always trusted the world of nature and it has rewarded me with endless wonder. My earliest childhood memory is lying on my back in our backyard staring at clouds and making up stories about mysterious figures in the sky. Growing up in the 1950’s, a little white girl in small town Minnesota, I had tremendous freedom to roam the fields, forests, and nearby stream in all seasons.

When I was twelve, I took my three-year-old sister to look for crawdads at Turtle Creek on the back of my Raleigh 3-speed bicycle. At sixteen, as a YMCA camp counselor in northern Minnesota, I took eight-year-olds on overnight canoe trips.

Sharing the mystery and beauty of nature with others has been the guiding thread in my life. I was a botany major who became a Forest Service naturalist, schoolteacher, mother, grandmother, kayaking and wilderness guide. In 1990, friends and I published, Teaching Kids to Love the Earth (University of Minnesota Press). In 1992 I kayaked around the shore of Lake Superior—a journey of 1800 miles and 65 days. To pay homage to this feat and incorporate its lessons I wrote Deep Water Passage, a Spiritual Quest at Midlife (1995, Pocketbook).

Ann on her journey around Lake Superior

Though I knew little about the rites of passage movement emerging in a transfer and amalgam of Native knowledge into the white naturalist community, the Lake Superior journey set me to reading—pre-internet—to understand the deeper spiritual longings underneath my physical feat. That reading eventually led me to The School of Lost Borders and introduced me to Anne Stine. In 2004, she and I designed Elderquests for women 50 and older in the Inyo mountains of California.

Anne Stine and Ann at their Elderquest basecamp in the Inyo Mountains        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guiding dovetailed with the pioneering work Christina Baldwin and I offered to integrate the collaborative wisdom of circle within the hierarchical structures of modern business, education, medicine, and governance The Circle Way, A Leader in Every Chair (2010, Berrett-Koehler). While this work took us indoors, there was always a “campfire” in the center, and the patterns of severance, threshold, solo, and incorporation, were also present.

In 2010 Christina Baldwin, Deborah Greene-Jacobi and I designed Cascadia Quest, melding lineages from Lost Borders, The Circle Way, and Angeles Arrien’s Fourfold Way.  We offered that quest to women and men in eastern Washington until retiring from the work in 2021.

Ann, Deborah-Greene-Jacobi, Christina Baldwin, Vivi as mascot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my 70’s guiding and sharing nature with others looks different than in previous decades, but it is still a strong thread that brings purpose into my life. Whether taking friends and family for local walks or paddles, hosting our summer Granny camps, leading local Land Trust hikes or coordinating environmental education activities with school groups, I help people set aside the human story and become quiet enough to hear the Nature story. Keepers of the Trees (2010, Skyhorse Publishing)

Ann and Vivi on one of their first Medicine Walks at the beginning of the pandemic, a weekly spiritual practice for both of them.

My ability to implement my passion is slower in my seventies. Hikes are shorter, camping requires a larger tent and thicker pad, paddling requires a lightweight kayak, and formal solo-time is self-designed with my partner as basecamp. And even those adjustments will change and morph as my body ages. I hope for more years to love this beautiful Earth. And when dying comes, I pray to lay myself down gently in the duff of the forest.

A surprise

It is a warm, sunny Monday afternoon in mid-May on the lawn outside South Whidbey Elementary School. Our group of two teachers, a dozen first and second graders, and myself as a volunteer are sitting on the lawn in a squiggly shaped circle. We have spent the last two hours visiting their pollinator garden, reading a book, and writing in journals.

Visiting the pollinator garden the students have established in the back of their school—with the help of fifth graders.

The book the class is reading together.

Writing in a journal at day’s end. (Children’s faces purposely obscured.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fifteen minutes before the close of the school day it is time for the daily check out circle. Their teacher, Miss Ristoff, reviewed behaviors for circle. One child volunteered to lead. Another placed a water bottle filled with picked daisies for the center. Another child suggested everyone say names so I can remember them.

Centerpiece of our circle: a water bottle of picked English daisies.

He began our round of checkout by saying his name, his nick name, and his age. The child next to him passed, not yet ready to speak, and the twig being used as a talking piece went to the next child. “My name is Evan. My nickname is “Ev” and I am 7.3 years old.” By the time the talking stick reached me, nearly everyone has checked in.

“My name is Ann and because it is such a short name, I don’t have a nick name. And I am 73 years old.” I saw some raised eyebrows on the other side of the circle. The girl sitting next to me said quietly, “That’s older than my grandmother.” Smiling, I leaned over to her and responded, “I am a grandmother.” And then I passed the talking piece on.

I can’t stop smiling. For the past several decades I have lead PeerSpirit circles in places ranging from hospitals to university classrooms to non-profit board rooms in many different countries. Nobody in this circle knows or cares. They are just present to their own circle, as they should be.

The closing round of the talking piece is a response to the question, “What is a ‘glow’(something that went well) and what is a ‘grow’ (something that could have gone better) from today that you experienced?”

It is now ten minutes to 3 p.m. and some of the students in other classes are beginning to file out of the building. Yet, the two teachers maintained calm as the natural twitch factor of first and second graders began to ramp up.

First and Second grade teacher Caris Ristoff setting up the journal writing exercise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternative Learning Experience teacher, Andi Kopit, reading a book to the students.

“OK, everyone stand up and do either five somersaults or five jumping jacks,” said Ms.Ristoff. Little bodies instantly went into action. In three minutes everyone was done and sitting back in circle. It took some refocusing, but we were checked out and the students ran inside to pick up their packs a few minutes after 3 p.m. This was a masterfully held circle. Perfect in its timing, respect for individual voices, and content.

I had volunteered to spend an afternoon with the students so they would better know me when I came to be part of their field trip later in the month to visit a blooming prairie. I should have guessed that the students and their teachers would be familiar with circle. However, I had no idea that sitting in a circle with them would be such a poignant reminder to me of the power of circle.

These youngsters are being raised to understand and love the natural world around them. And they are being raised to listen and respect one another. This bodes well for the future of the world around them. And as a complete bonus, two of them gave me a hug on their way into the building!