Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Song for a Sedentary Summer

This is the first summer in ten years that I haven't spent mostly in the wilderness. The first sedentary summer of my adult life. All previous summers have been spent with youth, in the wild places of the West, backpacking. I've led fun trips and I've led not-so-fun trips. I've led therapeutic trips and I've led less-than-therapeutic trips. I've spent over 600 nights in the field in every kind of weather.

Giving it up has been surprisingly easy.

I never thought I could love the settled life so much. Give me stability! Give me routine! Give me the same damn thing over and over again, day in and day out.

Gardening is the place I go when I want to discover, or remember, the mutability of the day-to-day. Underneath the veneer of unchanging routine is a changeless fact: All things are in constant flux. Nothing is the same from one day to the next. Even the seasons, rhythmically recurring and seemingly regular, vary from year to year in their temperatures, timing, particular weather conditions, and surprises (hurricanes, for example).

One need only pay attention.

Today I noticed that this plant I planted last fall--I really have no idea what it is, my brother gave it to me--is finally starting to bud. I'd given up on it, figured it wouldn't bloom this year. But now it's begun, and the fact that I have no idea what it's going to be is really, really cool.

But as much as I enjoy research, I also love surprises. And these days, with all the world's information at our fingertips, it's getting harder and harder to be surprised. At times I purposefully neglect to gather information.

When I know I'm going to see a movie, I won't watch the trailer. There are times when I've been traveling that I've opted to leave the guide book buried in my pack for a week or two. It seems a little silly, but there it is.

But I digress. What I was going to say is that EVEN though I am loving this sedentary summer, I recognize my own propensity toward extremes, and figured it would be important to balance the sedentary-ness by getting out backpacking at least once. And of course I always have to drag some young people along.

Mission Accomplished! When: last weekend. Where: Foss Lakes, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Weather: Terrible.

It seems we encountered what seems to have been the ONLY ridiculously bad weather in the region. When I returned and asked people how the weather had been in Seattle, they said, simply, "fine." As if they couldn't fathom why I might ask the question.

As if they simply wouldn't believe that most of our youth had spent the last night of the trip eating dinner in their bare feet and underwear because all their clothes were wet; that they preferred near-nakedness in the cool drizzle to their sodden clothes.

Yes, it was rough. It was tough. It was tumble and it was definitely stumble. It was soaked and sore and stubbed and short-tempered and tried-patience and quiet mornings that lasted all of twenty minutes. It was backpacking with six youth who had never been backpacking, c'est la vie.

In the end, we marched into the Mountain View Diner in Gold Bar, in long underwear and soggy boots, plunked down, ordered burgers the size of our heads, and called it a great trip.

The amazing thing about young people is their resilience. I was not soaked to the extent that they were (mostly because I put my rain gear on when it started raining rather than after I got wet), but if I had been, I would have been twice as miserable as them. They took it in stride. Perhaps they didn't know better. Perhaps they thought this is what backpacking IS. And it is, I suppose, sometimes.

It's good to get out there, no matter what. My love of gardening (though still fairly nascent) and my love of the wilderness are inseparable. I would even go so far as to say that together they represent the two sides of being human. There is the portion of me that is fairly domestic, which I can know, cultivate, control. And there is the portion of me that is wild; that will always be outside my sphere of absolute knowledge; that is rife with the unknown; that is not a sheltered garden but a wilderness in which frigid rains may fall.

I must allow it to remain this way, not only because it is freeing to do so, but because to attempt to cultivate everything--as we know, now, from the study of ecology--is ultimately destructive. We cannot effectively control what we do not understand, and we will never understand everything.

Which doesn't mean we shouldn't seek to understand it.

Funny enough, in gardening one is forced to recognize that even in the sphere within which we claim knowledge, we are still responding always to new things, new developments. The world is in constant flux. Pests arrive in irrationally large numbers, something doesn't fruit for no apparent reason, a raccoon digs up a bed. We exist in a living continuum. It moves, and we have to move with it.

If we let it, it keeps us on our toes. It makes us pay attention. And if we keep paying attention, then what?

My guess is that I'll learn something.


midnight sound said...

this was beautifully calming to read on my ransacked morning. keep writing!

Karyn-Lynn said...

Wow! You're a really terrific writer-- and why you do not consider youself a "pro" is beyond me! I loved the berry-addict post (the photos as well). And the tree-pruning post. . .Still reading, of course, but this is really great-- really. Late blooming aside, I'm sure you've made the elder Mr. Smaus proud! ~Karyn-Lynn