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).
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.
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.
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)
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.