Notes in the Wake of a Pilgrimage

Monday morning – well, okay, it was noon when I left – I took myself down to the river. It’s a little less than seven miles round trip, about 400 feet in elevation to descend and ascend again coming home. My plan had been to be up early (this never happens) and start before the heat woke up. But I was done putting off this journey. I left at noon.

This journey was a pilgrimage. A micro-pilgrimage, perhaps, but a pilgrimage all the same. I did not know exactly what this pilgrimage was for; I only knew it was necessary. I had become a pilgrim, and this is what pilgrims do.

I am in the middle of a big shake up in my life (who isn’t? It is 2020, after all…), stumbling through the most significant transition since taking my first breath. It’s a multi-layered transition. I won’t fall into the details here. Navigating this transition has involved a lot of feeling stuck, being paralyzed, asking for help, getting great help most of the time, getting injured a couple of times. But the transition is non-negotiable. It must be navigated: it is what is happening.

Preparing for this journey I learned things. On this pilgrimage certain things, insights, experiences, were impressed upon me. Afterward my perspective shifted and my experience changed.

I began listening to Stephen Jenkinson’s Come of Age while I walked. I stopped to take a picture of a beehive in a tree which some thoughtful people had marked off with caution tape and a sign indicating a plan was afoot to safely relocate the hive rather than doing what is more often done in the name of public safety. While I framed the shot, Jenkinson said, “The bees have long since been driven into their hives by the cold, and you’ve blanketed and tarped them in a way that will never keep them warm it seems, or alive.”

A quarter of a mile later my eye was caught by the sun glinting brilliantly, glaringly off a double width aluminum slide in a trailside playground. As I framed the shot, I heard in my ears, “Well, here is what is becoming glaringly obvious: there is nothing inherently ennobling about aging.”

Another quarter mile down the path, finally into the beginnings of the shaded portion of the trail that follows Woods Creek, a place where I’m really fond of being a pilgrim, Jenkinson says, “So I set before you a task, a pilgrimage of a kind.”

When I encounter synchronicities like these, particularly when they come in a cluster, I take it as a nod from the rest of Creation that I am vibrating in sympathy with something important.

When I came to the river, I went first to the site of the old dam, the one that was removed last year, originally the site of the covered bridge that spanned what was then the North River. Heading down the bank to the shore I was brought up short by the sight of a hummingbird flitting about amongst helianthus and the like just below me. First time I had seen a hummingbird in a natural setting (not a feeder) for years. Muddy water made up the river, swollen by recent rain, and a series of standing waves stood above the site the dam once occupied.

I walked downstream a ways, back up atop the bank, into the park at Jordan’s Point, and found a secluded spot where I could drop below the park and into the river, sheltered by layers of overhanging sycamore branches, now hanging low enough to caress the steadfastly roiling river. The current was strong – this was not a place for swimming – but I sat there in the water for a while and eventually baptised myself, after a fashion. Then I found a fishing line beneath the surface and decided my barefeet would be better off on dry land. I never go into rivers around here without something on my feet, but this time it was nice to feel the sand between my toes.

I walked home a different way, through town. I wanted this to be a circuit, always new terrain. Walking uphill now, almost entirely in the sun, facing south, I had not been looking forward to this part. But I had just been immersed in the rain-cooled Maury, my clothes were still wet (I hadn’t planned on going swimming), and now I found there was a stiff, cool wind blowing straight in my direction all the way home. I didn’t mind that it was a headwind, it was keeping me cool in the sun.

I came home complete. All of me. I had sacrificed the day to a pilgrimage, letting go of the perceived need to be “productive.” But that evening I followed through with two items of correspondence I had not had the emotional wherewithal to address for days and weeks. Just like that, without even thinking about it.

Completing this journey was important. In so doing I completed a gesture, a sequence. In pre- and perinatal somatic psychology there is a discussion of sequences. The basic model is Intention –> Preparation –> Action –> Follow Through –> Integration. Get stuck in one part of this sequence during your birth and you will likely get stuck in that same phase of other sequences later in life – unless or until you find a way to resolve that pattern, that imprint. I don’t know what part of the sequence I tend to get stuck in – it might be more than one. But Monday I made my way through the entire sequence, uninterrupted, in less than four hours. It took time to prepare, an hour to walk to the river, an hour to be at the river, an hour to walk home, and some time to recover.

Since then I have found myself living in a different nervous system. Instead of feeling needy, being needy, speaking needy words, asking for help every chance I get, this week I have been resting in my own enoughness, in faith in myself and the rest of Creation. I’ve not been bringing the past into the present. I’ve been letting the present flow through me. The world is responding differently to this new nervous system, and that’s a good thing. New opportunities, new insights, breakthroughs, new completions.

I wanted to share some photos, and maybe I still will, but none of them turned out very well, and my phone battery doesn’t like taking pictures very long. But I learned a long time ago that recording is not always allowed. Just like with UFOs, crop circles, and Wolfgang Pauli, in the presence of the Sacred, cameras don’t always work. Tape recorders mysteriously fail. I think of these as electronic libations – just like the Greeks would always offer their best wine to the Gods before imbibing, when it comes to the best things I want to capture, to record, I must be prepared to let the Gods have them. After all, there is plenty to go around. There is always more where that came from.

Hidden Rocks, Jefferson National Forest

When I found this hike I was looking for an enjoyable trail along which I might capture a recording of a stream without any anthropophonous intrusions.

I wanted a trail at a decent remove from denser populations. The weather for the day looked friendlier near the Friendly City than anywhere else within a similar radius, plus, I have some lovely friends in Rockingham County whom I hadn’t seen in some time. The planning process became one of seeing how many wishes I could get from one genie. In the end I scored big – it was a great day, filled with productive recreation, social engagement, and even a little music.

In my search for the ideal hike to match these purposes I stumbled across a Virginia hiking website I’ve had good luck with in the past and found out about Hidden Rocks. From their post I knew they had field tested some conflicting information found online about this hike, so I decided to let them figuratively lead the way. I found their information checked out well, though I was a little too distracted by the imminence of inclement weather and my ancillary task of making a recording to fully evaluate their directions or explore the whole loop they describe. I was also in a bit of a rush when I read their article before heading out, and had no cell service on the trail. But I didn’t get lost! Their coordinates for the trailhead were accurate. I did not find the falls, but I found the rocks (strange, eh – they purport to be hidden…). I did not go far enough to find the second crag, but the first crag is pretty spectacular.

The trail is a bit unkempt and in places quite rocky, but it is well established. We’ve had a lot of rain this spring, so the water seeping from springs onto the trail might be a seasonal feature. It looks like in drier weather there are stepping stones at most of the Rocky Run crossings, but I decided it was safer and simpler to sacrifice the dryness of my feet and just wade through them.

In the most general terms, the beginning of the trail is a lot of gentle ups and downs, followed by a descent to Rocky Run, and a slow ascent hiking alongside it, followed by the only really steep portion at the far end on the way up to the rocks. There is a path around the rock face that takes you up on top where you can look back on the ridge you’ve traversed to get there. There is apparently a loop to be made near the end of the hike, but I didn’t get to try that out (this may be why I missed the falls). Even if you do the loop, though, it’s more like a lasso – you’ll retrace the bulk of the trail back from Rocky Run to the trailhead.

Despite feeling harried by the forecast of thunderstorms and the need to spend the better part of an hour in the recording process, I was able to spend a little bit of time looking for interesting plants. The mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) in full bloom made for a glowing presence for a considerable portion of the trail. In one place there was a stand of it in bright sunlight at the end of a tunnel of rhododendron.

I found three different types of ferns, one of which I readily identified, Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Christmas fern is easy to recognize by the dark green of its fronds and the stocking shape of its leaflets or pinnae. It is also quite common throughout eastern North America. The other two I will have to look up – they are both familiar, but I have a hard time remembering which is which and what the identifying features are for each.

I found a spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) growing along the edge of the trail, just about ready to bloom. Spotted wintergreen is not uncommon in the woods in Virginia, but is an endangered species in Canada and considered “exploitably vulnerable” in New York.

There is also rhododendron, in many places arching completely over the trail, enough to make me want to go back in early July when it should be blooming. The folks at Virginiatrailguide.com have identified it as rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), and it probably is, but I understand that Catawba rhododendron (R. catawbiense) is also found in Rockingham County, so I am inclined to take this as an opportunity to further rejuvenate my plant identification skills. If I am able to return to the trail while it’s blooming I will post pictures and settle on an ID. I also found a little bit of striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum), an old favorite of mine.

I’m usually not very good at matching any of the Latin names that rattle around my head with plants I see, but one name that always floats up in search of a match is Dioscorea villosa. I have finally gotten the common name wild yam root to adhere to this binomial, but for once this name popped up at least for something similar if not the real deal. I will be sure to sort that out and post what I find. I also noticed in reviewing the photo that there is some sort of Solomon’s seal right next to it, which I didn’t notice at the time; true or false I can’t tell from the picture.

An early stretch of the trail features a bunch of witch hazel (Hammamelis virginiana); I found some apparently healthy eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) near where I recorded Rocky Run, as well as some type of Vaccinium. The onomastics of witch hazel turns out to be rather interesting, perhaps I will explore that in a future post.

The three remaining plants to ID are the most interesting to me, as they are less common in my experience or altogether unfamiliar. One is what seems pretty clearly to be a type of iris:

Another is quite possibly partridge berry:

And what the last one is I have no idea. It seems to be a stoloniferous low growing evergreen, but even that is intuitive guesswork:

I also found some groovy straightupandicular fungus, which a cursory cruising of one dichotomous key suggests may well be candlesnuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) :

I mentioned making a recording. I was looking for a sound source free from human noise (planes, cars, talking, footfalls, etc.) of which to record a good half hour segment. In the future I plan to make hour long recordings, but this was a first run and there were thunderstorms on the horizon so I halved that for the sake of completion. A little ways after crossing Rocky Run for the second time I ventured a little upstream from the crossing and found a promising stretch with various features to the sound the water makes passing over the thalweg. I put on my headphones and wandered around with my recording gear in search of a sufficiently sublime susurrus. The level of water in the stream made for a sound that glossed over a lot of the features of burbling, sloshing, and percussing I was really listening for. With more time I would have explored further, but given the weather I opted for compromise. I found a small cascade with an alcove of large rocks nearby and pointed the mics away from the source of the sound and into the alcove instead. This allowed more of the percussive and dynamic nature of the sound to emerge. Next time I record a stream I want to get less white noise and more distinct features, but this will do for a start! You can stream (how appropriate) a 30 minute recording of Rocky Run here.

I definitely want to go back to the Hidden Rocks trail for further exploration on a day when I am less pressed for time. I will post further information about the plants and fungi in question as I obtain it. Now it’s time to start choosing the next expedition – I’m thinking Rockbridge or Amherst County or somewhere along the James in the Tidewater. If you have a location in mind that offers both a nice day hike and a lovely soundscape to sample, please let me know!

Blogging on the Edge of Chaos

I looked into blogging a few years ago, hoping to make a living and change the world. I got discouraged. It didn’t seem like making a living blogging was within my reach, and I thought I needed to get the world’s attention before I could change it. But recently I encountered a much simpler, more human scale perspective on blogging, from someone who has been doing it for a long time. Seth Godin’s blog is free, contains no ads, and he posts on it every day. He encourages people to blog as a way of “building a tribe.” I’d like to build a tribe, a group with which I resonate, within which I feel I belong, where my principles are in alignment with that of the group, in which I am respected and accountable for whom I have demonstrated myself to be. I have for most of my life felt a certain deficit of meaningful connection – perhaps, ironically, I am not alone in that regard. I am now seeking connection through blogging. Thank you for joining me!

Godin is not the only person inspiring me to launch this endeavor, however. I must also thank Stephen Harrod Buhner and Michael Crichton. Resonant material from two disparate sources encountered a couple weeks apart converged in my mind as I heard the second source speak. The latter was Godin, speaking at his 2012 Startup School, talking about what makes people feel like they have achieved their purpose. He says it is:

“to dance on the edge of failure. I think that when people are dancing on the edge of failure, and they’re growing, and there’s a void over there but they keep moving forward – that’s when we feel alive as people. There are a few people who don’t have that – it’s been boiled out of them or raised out of them or whatever – but generally, it’s that getting close to the precipice that I think is ingrained in who we are as people. What industrialists did for a hundred years is they brainwashed us into not believing that – because they don’t want you to do that – they want you to need them. Because if you need them you’ll work for cheap, and if you need them you’ll comply, and they’ll be able to make more money. And now the industrial age is ending, and all these opportunities are showing up in front of us, and so we’re calling everybody’s bluff.”

This really caught my attention. It is utterly accurate in terms of my own experience in the past, and it reframes my own perspective in the present, moving the lens away from the search for safety and stability and toward instead where I am on the path forward toward what it is I want in the future. But even better than all that, it was a remarkable echo of a Michael Crichton quotation, which I read as quoted in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception and into the Dreaming of Earth, and which originates in Crichton’s book “The Lost World.” The quote appears in a chapter called “Everything is Intelligent,” amidst a disquisition on the emergent behaviors manifesting just across the threshold of self-organization.

“Even more important is the way complex systems seem to strike a balance between the need for order and the imperative for change. Complex systems tend to locate themselves at a place we call ‘the edge of chaos.’ We imagine the edge of chaos as a place where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy. It is a zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and new are constantly at war. Finding the balance point must be a delicate matter – if a living system drifts too close, it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far away from the edge, it becomes rigid, frozen, totalitarian. Both conditions lead to extinction . . . Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish.”

Each of us, as a human being, is a self-organized system. Looking within, each of our cells is a self-organized system. Looking without, the biosphere is a self-organized system. Self-organization occurs in nested hierarchies. It is a mysterious phenomenon.

On one side of the threshold there is only random molecular motion. Once a critical density has been achieved, the threshold is crossed and the whole becomes larger than the sum of its parts. At this point emergent behavior arises, and this new system can no longer be understood by any reductionist approach. Within a self-organized system there is information being processed about what is happening within and without this unit of self, leading to greater stability of the self-organization, and ultimately to greater ability to respond dynamically to ever changing internal and environmental stimuli.

Terence McKenna used to encourage people to ask what the ecological purpose of a phenomenon was. I have asked this question most often about the occurrence of Homo sapiens sapiens, as well as the surge of this species’ population across the planet. Self-organization occurs as a phase transition, once a critical mass is achieved. There is no way to predict what that critical mass will be prior to its occurrence. We seem to be approaching a critical mass of humanity on the planet right now. This usually comes up in conversation about natural resources, extinction, etc., – but what if it were instead about the threshold that stands between random unconnected behavior and the emergent behavior of self-organization? What if we were on the verge ofcreating a new self-organized system – not unlike the concept of the Noosphere – in which each individual has and maintains autonomy and is simultaneously aware of itself as part of a larger whole – a newly formed, literally superhuman organism. It’s as wild an idea as it is a speculation, but I think it makes for a fascinating question. And if that is not the ecological function of the surge of the human population on the planet, what else might be?

Whether as part of a larger self-organized human structure, or as a smaller part of the Gaian organism, but certainly as self-organized systems each of us, we are in fact dancing on the edge of chaos, on the edge of failure right now. This is true both moment to moment as the simple reality of self-organized systems, as well as true for us as a species seemingly bent on destroying its habitat. I am inspired to embrace it: to dance on the edge of the void, the edge of chaos, the edge of failure. That’s where the good stuff is, and it’s where I am finding I feel most at home.