This was the way of it.

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This was the way of it,

Let the story fires be lighted.

~ Robbie Robertson.

When train travel in Canada was affordable, and it still seemed fun to sleep sitting up in a coach seat, I often made the 21-hour journey as a student between Thunder Bay and Toronto. It was beautiful in every season, especially along the north shore of Lake Superior ~ vibrant autumn leaves, ice and snow sculpted on the windblown lake, the bright green of the forest in spring, and the dazzling blueness of sun drenched water.

Our family travelled by train from the west coast years later, this time with the luxury of beds, and meals in the dining car. At bedtime, my daughter and I cuddled together in our bunk while the full moon shone on the snowy mountains. The magical world outside our window seemed like a dream as we drifted in and out of sleep. The next day we descended from the mountains and began hurtling across the prairies, soaking in the spaciousness of land and sky. And then, as our love of train travel began to wane, we reached the familiarity of the Boreal forest – spruce, fir, jackpine, birch, and cedars, the tracks winding between and beside lake after lake.

It’s hard not to wonder about our sense of place while travelling over the land, passing small towns and villages, remote homes and farms ~ the meaning that places hold for us, our attachment and connection to the places we love.

When we lived in New Zealand our children studied Maori language and culture – Te Reo Maori. They were asked to prepare their Mihimihi ~ an introductory speech about who you are and where you come from in relation to your land and people. Specific geographical features associated with your home are shared, linking you to the land ~ your maunga (mountain), awa (river), and moana (sea) ~ and to your tribe, ancestors, and marae (sacred gathering place). Our family could only imagine what it would be like to have these ancestral ties and place connections.

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It would be easy to be sorrowful about what we have lost through our roaming and migrations. I have felt a pining for those deep roots, a longing for ‘home’ that has led me to search for a place never to be found on a map. Still, there are times when a warm and welcoming sense of home reminds me of who I am and where I am from. The vegetation may differ, the smells, and climate, even the orientation of the sun, but walking through a deep green forest, swimming in a cool lake, smelling the damp earth in spring, bathing in the light of the moon, or feeling the sun warm on my face, I feel… home. And although most of our ancestors are unknown, and many of their stories have been lost, we carry them with us in our bodies, and know their lived experiences deeply in our dreams and memories. And when home feels elusive, and the space and time between beating and now still hearts feels too great and distant, I become quiet and listen ~ and there, deep within, are the ancient vibrations of our ancestors and loved ones and the land from which we all come.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still they say. Watch and listen.

You are the result of the love of thousands.

~ Linda Hogan.

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This is a beautiful song by Robbie Robertson and the Red Road Ensemble, Twisted Hair

This was the way of it
Let the story fires be lighted
Let our circle be strong and full of medicine

Hear me
This is my dream song that I’m singing for you
This is my power song that is taking me to the edge
This is rock medicine
The talking tree
The singing water

Listen
I am dancing underneath you
This was the way of it
It is a river
It is a chant
It is a medicine story
It is what happened long ago
It is a bead in a story belt
It is what has been forgotten
It is the smell of sweetgrass and cedar

And prayers lifted to sky father
It is a way, a tradition
The way it was always done by the people
It is a feeling of warmth
The sound of voices

Listen
I am dancing underneath you.

 

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Let us become more a part of the places we inhabit

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This week, guest contributor Georgia Wilkins shares a story in which she imagines a new use of technology to connect us to one another through our sense of smell, and ponders the magic of smells to both transport us to another time and place, and bring us deeply into the present moment.

Here’s Georgia’s story…

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Photo by Georgia Wilkins: Sea smells in Tofino

“It may be that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues—but no closer—and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.” ~ Dianne Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

I don’t often dream of technology or how it will change our lives.

When I’m in the city, I see how cell phones allow us to withdraw, prevent us from engaging in spontaneous connection. We forget so easily to be in that place, in that moment. I play around with this by leaving my phone in my bag and keeping an open posture: eyes up, shoulders back, arms uncrossed. It’s rare at these times that I won’t meet eyes with someone, begin to chat, sometimes leading to a new friendship. Or, maybe, I notice a funny sign or a crow collecting sticks. These fleeting interactions and discoveries allow me a curious kind of peace, by reminding me of the people and creatures – eccentric, compelling, big-hearted – who roam our planet. When we open ourselves to connecting with the beauty around us, it often comes. We can be in the present moment.

I do still spend time on my cell phone – especially these days, while living and working at the quiet Tofino Botanical Gardens, where the phone is a bridge from the gardens’ stillness and from my solitude to my dear friends and family and the wider world.

When I do leave my phone behind to refresh I notice changes in my stress levels, a capacity to commit more fully to the moment and to my communities. When I’m not confronted with a constant flow of news, updates, information, I find a new engagement… space to truly be in the world around me.

And so I find myself wondering: How might I find this same sense of connection to the world by using rather than rejecting my phone? Likewise, how might I connect from afar in other ways? Letters and packages have always been a favorite of mine, a deepened sensory experience– handwritten notes, a patch found at the thrift shop, a tiny bough of cedar… glitter… a stone… sand.

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Photo by Georgia Wilkins: Sniffing the forest floor.

Back to the phone… I send photographs, poems, short stories, emojis, drawn out messages, videos. But I have an ultimate technological fantasy that someone else might realize someday.

For now, let’s call it the smellophone. I imagine being able to capture a smell on my iPhone, just as I would take a photo, and send it to someone I love. Salty air to Ontario. The sharp smell of pine and crisp air coming back. The warm breath of someone you love.

If technology enabled a stronger sensory experience, we might be even more affected by the stories and information we experience through it.

Imagine if we learned of the recent oil spill in Bella Bella not just through photos, but through the harsh smell of crude oil mixing with the sea and cedar undertones? How might that alter our reactions or further impact us?

The smellophone would allow us to save smells, to revisit them. In her wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, American naturalist Dianne Ackerman provides a storied exploration of the senses which helped me to become more aware of the magic of the many ways our body allows us to experience the world. Ackerman shows that of all the senses, smell is most closely connected to nostalgia. A smell can instantly and emotionally transport us in subconscious ways our brains might otherwise not allow.

Walking along the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island (part of the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park) this afternoon, I came to an impasse where a spruce tree had fallen, making the path unclear. I looked around and found a kind of tunnel through the branches. As I crawled through, I inhaled and was brought to a blissful place – the smell of spruce, Christmas trees, warmth; family and friends gathered around a plate of fancy cheeses and tea in my childhood home. The deep feeling of knowing you are loved. An emotional nostalgia so strongly linked to the rapturous fragrance of spruce.

The phenomenon works in painful ways too.

When I was eight, my parents left my sister and me at home with our brother Matt who was to care for us. At the time, Matt’s kind and loving nature took unusual and cruel forms. He told us to wait in the living room as he prepared shot glasses of ketchup, mustard and vinegar. We were told to drink them. Unfortunately, my positive reaction to the sweet taste of ketchup didn’t give Matt the reaction he was looking for. I was told I must eat all three condiments… or else.

Food poisoning. I was horribly sick and missed a week of school. It was mid-February, and as a seven-year-old, I was traumatized to miss the Valentine’s Day card exchange in class and a special field trip to see Stuart Little. I still remember trying to go to school on February 14th and having to run out of the school bus onto the snow where I threw up.

For years, I refused not only to eat, but to be near the smell of vinegar.

Six years later, I suffered a panic attack at school. My body shook as my breathing became short and quick. I cried uncontrollably, stricken by fear. On this particular day, there was an anti-smoking presentation happening, and the presenters had brought in a pig lung to demonstrate the changes that tobacco smoke has on our lungs. The lung was kept in formaldehyde, and the smell filled the school. It reminded me of vinegar, of sickness. Perhaps a fear of not being able to trust the ones I love.

My emotional reaction to the smell has stayed with me for years. Only recently, have I found myself able to cook and clean with vinegar.

Smell is powerful. Let us pay attention to it. Savor it, be repulsed by it.

Close your eyes. Reflect on your day from the moment you woke up. Focus on the smells you’ve encountered. Do not assume them, remember them. Note every olfactory moment. Allow yourself a sensory journey… Recognize. Appreciate. Let it go. Until the smellophone comes around, every smell is fleeting.

Let us breathe easy, breathe deeply and become more a part of the places we inhabit.

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Photo by Georgia Wilkins: Along the Big Tree trail on Meares Island.

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Listen deeply to every kind of sound

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Photo by Eric Guth

Learning to be a better listener has become my primary personal and professional development goal.” ~ Jennifer Kingsley

The autumn leaves have fallen from the trees, but here on the west coast there is little sign of what I know of as winter; still strange for me having spent much of my life where the winters are long and cold. There are days when I pine for the smell of a snow covered forest, and the incredible quiet and beauty of snow falling gently in the night. I remember pausing during a walk in the forest on a frosty winter day. The cold in our fingers and toes encouraged us to keep moving, but the longer we stayed still, the more we came to hear the smallest and sweetest sounds – snow falling from a branch, the wings of a raven flying overhead, breath meeting cold air.

A mutual friend recently suggested I connect with Jennifer Kingsley from Meet the North. When I saw her beautiful photo on her website, I was filled with longing for winter – her bright, rosy face, fur lined parka hood, frost gathering on her collar, soft blue sky, snowy landscape. The above photo of Jennifer was taken in the Arctic by photographer Eric Guth. Jennifer travels throughout the Arctic listening to the people who live there and learning about the land through their stories.

Here is a bit of Jennifer’s story from our correspondence.

“I first traveled north as a paddling obsessed 25-year-old in search of whitewater and wildlife. I wanted to get away from people. I had the joy of traveling some of Canada’s sublime Arctic rivers, and it wasn’t until I settled back home in the south again that I realized what an opportunity I had missed. In all that I had learned about the north through its waterways, I hardly knew a single person who lived there. I didn’t yet see the north as a place that cannot be separated from its people. In 2015, I set out to learn about the land all over again from those that know it best. I created a project called Meet the North with the support of Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. I have been traveling to Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard, and Nunavut with photographer Eric Guth. Our goal is simply to learn about the north from the people we meet and to find out what is most important to them. We are not reporting on any specific topic, and that point is very important to us. We ask people for recommendations on who to meet next, and most of all, we listen. Learning to be a better listener has become my primary personal and professional goal.”

While I’ve lived where the winter hits hard, I have never ventured very far north. The image I hold of the Arctic in my mind, as with many people from the south, is mostly of snow, ice, and wide open space. Most of us know so little of the north and the lives and experiences of the people who live there. Jennifer’s project comes out of her commitment to listening and learning  – having face to face conversations, and being present for the rich and varied stories to be shared.

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Listen deeply to every kind of sound, including the sound of pain from within and from without. When we know how to listen deeply, everything becomes clear and deep.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

On a cold wintery evening, a visitor may arrive at your door. You take their coat and hat, and find slippers to warm their feet. As the tea steeps, you place another log on the fire, and settle in together. You take their hands tenderly in yours as your visitor begins to empty their heart. With your own heart wide open, and your mind quiet and still, you come to a place of deep listening – without guiding, rescuing, reacting, or withdrawing. You are with them in their suffering and sorrow. Through your deep listening you hold a place of understanding and healing and acceptance – for your loved ones, your friends, your neighbours, and those you have never known. And one cold and wintery evening you may find yourself at that door – you warmly welcome yourself in, offer tea and comfort, and deeply and compassionately listen to what is in your heart. And through our deep listening, those spaces and places that once seemed desolate or unknown or frightening, in our hearts and in the world, become rich and precious and loved.

Thank you to Jennifer and all the deep listeners.

Learn more about Jennifer and Meet the North here.

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Ring the bells that still can ring

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Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
~ Leonard Cohen

It has been a week of losses; grief and sadness felt and shared by many. It seems fitting that it’s raining lightly on my walk this morning. I’m on my way to the ocean, as I do every morning, to walk beside the water. I’ve brought an umbrella, but because the cool rain on my head and face feels so soothing, I don’t use it all. The ocean is calm and looks still, but I’ve recently learned that under the surface is an amazing ocean migration. This is the largest migration on earth, as billions of sea creatures ascend to the surface of the ocean every night from as deep as 2 km, and descend back again at dawn – another rhythm, like tides, like breathing, like seasons, like the patterns of life everywhere.

Long and long has the grass been growing,
Long and long has the rain been falling,
Long has the globe been rolling around.
~ Walt Whitman

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There is a small, but regular community of people who also seek out the seaside in the early morning. We smile and greet each other even though we usually maintain our own quiet company as we walk and run and play with dogs and commune with this beautiful place. This week, amidst the US election, the death of Leonard Cohen, and Remembrance Day, there is a feeling of sadness, and a greater warmth and gentleness among my seaside friends. We hold each other’s eyes a bit longer, smile more warmly, and linger in the company of one another, as people often do in the midst of loss. We are bringing our kindness and compassion to the surface, to the light, where it wants to be.

There are times when we are reminded of our capacity for connection with others. While there are many influences on whether, and with whom we connect, our mirror neurons are the biology behind this capacity.  When we see someone smile, or cry, or feel pain, our brains respond as if we, ourselves, are smiling, or crying, or feeling pain. We are hard wired for empathy and connected to one another through our neurons.  Our mirror neurons provide the capacity for us to effortlessly understand and feel the experience of others. As Rick Hanson says, ‘we are not this body apart from the world’. We are intricately connected to everything.

We are all connected, to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, to the rest of the universe atomically.
~ Neil deGrasse Tyson.

This week I have found such comfort in my connections – to my loved ones, my friends, the many people who comprise the human landscape of my day, and as always, the moon, the stars, the sea, the forest, the wild places and all their living things, and the billions of sea creatures on their vertical ocean journeys.

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall,
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all,
But love’s the only engine of survival.
~ Leonard Cohen

Sending love to you all, dear ones.

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This film, Ocean Magic at Night, documents the nightly ocean migration.

In this TED talk, The Neurons that Shaped Civilization, neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran outlines the fascinating functions of mirror neurons.

 

Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet

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Lingering in Happiness
by Mary Oliver
from Why I Wake Early

After rain after many days without rain,
it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
and the dampness there, married now to gravity,
falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground

where it will disappear – but not, of course, vanish
except to our eyes. The roots of the oaks will have their share,
and the white threads of the grasses, and the cushion of moss;
a few drops, round as pearls, will enter the mole’s tunnel;

and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
will feel themselves being touched.

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I left for a walk today with a heart full of worries. The kind of worries that loop around on end ~ the repeating themes. These are the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives in another time and place, usually an unknown and unlikely future, and an imperfect past.

This trail through the forest feels welcoming ~ soft and forgiving under foot. The light today is soft also, mostly overcast, and only a whisper of wind. The forest is disinterested in my worries from its place of quiet contentment.  My attention begins to shift to the trail ahead and my body moving along it.

In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit describes walking as the alignment of the body, the mind, and the world, ‘three characters finally in conversation with each other, three notes suddenly making a chord’.

Walking has been a constant and pervasive thread in my life, carrying me through space and time ~ exploring, wandering, reflecting, and imagining. Even as a young child I loved walking ~ the movement of my body, the sound of my feet on the ground, the feeling of air on skin, the smells, and the inner and outer spaciousness found there.  The peaceful rhythm of walking.

I love it still.

I’ve brought my camera with me and stop from time to time to take a photo. The trees here are huge, the thick canopy above allowing a bright green mossy ground cover. The sea comes into view, expansive, calm, and with complex patterns from the currents and movement of the water.

Gradually over time I begin to notice the smaller, more micro world ~ the moss and lichens, a patch of peeling bark, the spaces between the leaves, the peace at the end of the breath. The arbutus leaves that have fallen are curling in a patch of warm sun. As they curl they make a tiny dripping sound like rain falling. Delightful and sweet.

I am adjusting my lens, wide angle to macro to micro, noticing the different aspects of this place as they come in and out of focus. Then gradually shifting to see and feel it all, and bring my whole self into this place.

As I walk, my internal lens has changed as well. And as I begin my journey back to where I began, the sun now dipping to the west, a new story has emerged to replace the landscape of worry that I arrived with. And this is the new story:

I am here, walking along this forest trail.

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Listen to the sound of this old heart beating for you. ~ Neil Young

 

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I remember the first time I tentatively lowered my new baby into the sling I was wearing, zipped my big sweater up around him, and headed into the forest. I was struggling – overwhelmed by my new life as a mother and hoping that I would find myself again in this welcoming and familiar place.

I walk along with his little body snuggled against mine, the sound of my steps on fallen leaves, the sweet forest air filling my lungs. I walk for hours, and in the quiet spaciousness of this forest, my heart opens and I step into my new life.

Over time we switch to a back pack, his face next to mine as we wander about exploring the world. We see seasons change, watch a woodpecker, clouds, squirrels, birds, trees swaying in the wind, snowflakes falling. He is quiet and still and absorbed by this place.

And then he is walking next to me, his hand reaching up to hold mine as we amble along, or crouching down to explore those small and unnoticeable things that I had always passed so quickly. These are the days of wonder and mystery.

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Then another child arrives, and this time the shift is easeful. The adventures continue, but at a new pace. Throwing rocks in a lake, sending sticks down a creek, or gliding along the snow in our kick sled – these are our big adventures. We wander and explore and let the quiet and undisturbed places whisper their stories to us so we come to know and remember them always.

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As our children grow, there is a pull to be indoors: school and classes, screens and schedules, so we move to a house in the forest to be near the wild places. It is here we hope our children will come to know themselves, the world, and their place in it. We hope this sense of place will sink into their bodies, provide a foundation for weathering the ups and downs of life, a place where they can find solace and connection and peace.

Through the teenage years we still plan adventures and journeys outdoors, but the time for that is squeezed between other things. I persevere and get outdoors whenever I can – sometimes with one child, sometimes with both. When we all go together, it’s joyful, and we are brought back to ourselves and each other.

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The summers bring long stretches of time outdoors – camping, swimming, hiking through forests, staring at stars in the blackest of skies, watching storms, lighting fires. It’s a time of freedom and spaciousness.

There have been times when I have found it challenging as a parent to remain dedicated to being outdoors in the midst of a culture that seems determined to keep us in. But now my children are grown, and time in the outdoors continues to be a part of their lives, and our lives together.

When we go to the wilderness, we share our stories, our joys, our dreams, and our sorrows, until the peaceful murmuring of the trees, and the calm water we walk beside, reminds us to be still and quiet. And in that peaceful place we remember who we are, where we come from, and how we are deeply connected, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world.

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If you’re interested in learning about, and connecting with, a great group of adventurous, creative, and inquisitive women, check out She Explores. This podcast also featured the visionary and brilliant Magnetic North, and the inspiring Adventure Mamas

Drop by drop is the water pot filled

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Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.                                                                         ~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

I spent my childhood summers in a red, fiberglass canoe. By the time it was put to rest decades on, it was mostly patches, many of them thin and almost transparent. It had carried us through lakes and reedy marshes, by shorelines where loons hunkered down on their secret nests with their eggs and chicks, where moose waded up to their knees for an evening drink as we silently glided by, and eagles stared down at us from their lofty perches.

At sunset we would paddle in silence, watching, listening, and soaking in each moment. Here I learned to see, hear, feel, and appreciate this watery world. Awe and wonder.

When my children were young and the fears and worries of childhood came close, I would lull them to sleep with stories of drifting on peaceful waters. The dreaminess of floating in a leaf under a starry dome.

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There’s been some wonderful research into brain function recently, especially neuroplasticity. We have learned that what happens in our mind changes our brain, both temporarily and in lasting ways, and what happens in our brain changes our mind. We can do small things inside our mind that will lead to big changes in our brain and our experience of living.

During our evolution, human survival was aided by focusing on and remembering danger and unpleasant experiences. While useful at one time, having brains that are wired for a ‘negativity bias’ now leads us to overlook good news, highlight bad news, and experience anxiety and pessimism. We need to intentionally attend to the good.

In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson shares how we can create new neural pathways to support our well being by practicing ‘taking in the good’.  We can use our minds to wire our brains for greater happiness and well being by allowing ourselves to deeply absorb the good in our lives. This isn’t ‘positive thinking’, which can make us feel worse, but being present for the good when it’s happening.  While having a positive experience, linger with your good feelings, absorb them fully, let them soak in deeply, and remember them often.

Do not think lightly of good, saying, ‘it will not come to me’,

Drop by drop is the water pot filled,

Likewise, the wise one, gathering little by little, fills oneself with good.

~ Dhammapada 9.122

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The peaceful rhythm of paddling through still and silent water.

Pausing in my kayak on a calm lake, I soak in the world around me, paddle at rest, eyes closed, breath deep.  The space between the inner and outer worlds narrows. Drifting with the movement of the water ~ the distant sound of air moving over water and earth, the nearby sound of water meeting kayak, and the inner sound of breath ~ weather on skin ~ light ~ warmth ~ peace.

Here in this moment, changed.

Learn more about neuroplasticity and hardwiring for happiness here.