Estimated reading time: 11 minutes 15 seconds.
“Are we weird?” I suddenly asked Gina a few mornings ago as we savored an extended coffee hour on our lower porch surrounded by trees, deer, turkeys, groundhogs, singing birds, the buzz of cicadas, and…utter solitude. Sitting in the epicenter of 54 acres allows (with the exception of the afore-mentioned wildlife, flora, and fauna) the rare experience of complete privacy and stillness.
Being accustomed by now to my sporadic outbursts of random questions, she laughed, thought a moment, and replied, “You know, Randy, I suppose some people might think we are.”
That caffeine-fueled conversation prompted this post. Are we weird? You be the judge.
- Meditation Walks — I often feel the urge to walk and I’ve found that out here in the wilderness walking can be a deeply spiritual exercise. Thomas Huxley, inventor of the word “agnostic,” considered his mountain jaunts “the equivalent of churchgoing.” Thoreau called his early-morning walks “a blessing for the whole day.”
My meditation walk is simple but has provided some of my most transcendent moments of peace and insight here in my temple—the forest.
I simply find a solitary trail here at Kalien, take one slow step and breath deeply, take another slow step and breath deeply, and repeat for as long as my senses can handle it. I then find a place to recline and reflect a while and then most times, I journal my feelings.
This sounds weird, I admit, but these walks have created some of the most profound moments of my life.
2) Shedding My Clothes — No, I am not a nudist. And if someone (besides my wife) were to see me naked, I would be mortified and they would flee screaming in horror.
I am also definitely not an exhibitionist. I found that out once on a nude beach in Greece.
But out here in the wilderness, one can see why the Hebrew Bible story of the garden of Eden recounts that the perfect adults Adam and Eve were created to be naked.
There is something incredibly freeing and exhilarating about walking the wilderness unfettered by clothes and feeling a soft breeze waft over your skin. The tsunami of little chill bumps makes one feel more vibrant and alive somehow.
It is important to note, that for my body’s sake, this happens only when the bugs have disappeared for the season. I have also discovered the rationale for wearing clothes in the summer—lots of clothes—for protection against the elements, varmints, and anything that injects venom or stings.
I know it sounds weird, to paraphrase the words of the inimitable Josephine Baker, “I don’t really walk around outside naked. Sometimes, I simply don’t have any clothes on.”
3) The Healing Of The Earth — If you’ve ever walked barefoot through a carpet of freshly mown grass, and yielded to the temptation to create summer snow angels, you may have a glimmering of what I mean. Since ancient times, people have recognized the healing properties of the mud surrounding Israel’s Dead Sea. Many spas and resorts incorporate mud into their treatments.
Once here in the wilderness, when I was ill, I felt drawn to walk up our western ridge, lay prostrate on the ground with my arms and legs spread, and face the rising sun. It may have been psychosomatic, but I distinctly felt my body being healed, and my illness descending into the boggy moistness of the soil of arguably the oldest mountains (the Appalachians) on earth.
I know it sounds weird, but “Your skin is the largest organ on your body, and that’s going to absorb the most, and it’s going to release the most toxins. The mud draws out toxins through your skin,” says Reverie Spa owner Beth Warren.
4) Seasonal Rituals — Could it be that we are hardwired for ritual? But life in the fast lanes has erased the time to spend answering the yearning for ritual. When you live in the wilderness, inevitably most of your time is spent outdoors. And it is obvious to see why seasonal changes have been marked by celebration throughout history—until now.
Most of us understand the significance of Thanksgiving and the autumn harvest. But how many of us celebrate the Vernal Equinox in March (unless you count christian Easter services), as the first blossoms breathe life and color among the drab browns and grays of winter?
And then there is the onset of Summer at the Midsummer Solstice celebrating the gifts of fresh vegetables and warmth. It is the longest day of the year and is a celebration of nature’s gift of light.
Each change of seasons, Gina and I eagerly hike up to our sacred circle called Cinqwani and create a service of rituals to commemorate the new cycle of life.
I know it sounds weird, but Joseph Campbell says, “The function of ritual, as I understand it, is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth.”
5) Morning Coffee Hour—Speaking of rituals, no other marking of the passage of time (with the possible exception of the cocktail hour) is observed so religiously, every day here in the wilderness, without fail, as our morning coffee hour. In the extremely rare event that we miss this time, it seems the world is spinning off its axis.
It is our time to smell the aroma of life and talk about the past nights dreams Jungian style, plan breakfast and dinner, and discuss items of importance that only become clear after sleeping on them.
Even our little Morkie Remy intuitively senses and anticipates morning coffee. She also sinks into a depression on the rare times we miss because of an emergency.
No matter if the Sumatran bean is brewed quickly in a utilitarian Keurig pod or on special days poured meticulously into a stylish Chemex—our coffee hour is non-negotiable.
I know we are weird, but to paraphrase the words of T.S. Eliot, “We measure out our lives with coffee spoons.”
6) Watching Insects—Sometimes it is truly the little things in life that mean so much. They all have one objective: to get us to pause just long enough to realize that life is a freaking miracle. The least we can do is pay attention.
At any given time, it is estimated that there are ten quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive. That’s about 200 million insects for every human on the planet. A recent article in The New York Times claimed that the world holds 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans. That’s just insects. That’s not counting other arthropods like spiders and mites.
Consider this: In 2012, scientists estimated the global human biomass (i.e., how much we all weigh) at 287 million metric tons. Five years later, a different group of scientists set out to estimate how much the world’s spiders were eating. They came up with a horrifying (if somewhat inexact) estimate of 400 million to 800 million metric tons’ worth of prey each year. In other words, just the subset of bugs eaten by spiders last year probably outweighs all the humans on Earth.
I never stopped to pay attention to this phenomenon until moving to the wilderness. Every day to my increasing wonder and amazement I discover a new insect. They are veritable works of art. All colors, all shapes, and all sizes. Yesterday I saw a most amazing example. I have used it for the photo to accompany this post.
I know I am weird, but E.O. Wilson says, “If we were to wipe out insects alone on this planet, the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land. Within a few months.”
7) Eating and Drinking Slowly—The Chinese don’t merely drink tea. It is a performance. It’s an enthusiastic, messy ritual, with much splashing of tea over frog statues and sloshing everywhere. Much like wine, says a wise man named Zhong, “First, smell the tea, then sip it, the fragrance will stay with you longer.”
My wife Gina is teaching me to take a bite, then place the eating utensil on the plate, not to be picked up again until every morsel of the food is savored and finally swallowed. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Try it, I dare you. I’ve been working on mastering this art form of eating for 3 1/2 years here in the wilderness, and I must admit, I’m still a novice. But on those rare times, I am able to eat slowly and purposely, everything changes. The taste is magnified exponentially, the spices come alive, and the nuances speak. It is truly a multi-sensory experience.
When a rare dinner guest comes to our home Rivendell, we explain our ritual of eating and conversation, and at first, they freak out, but for most of them—not all—gradual understanding dawns and a eureka moment occurs.
We may be weird, but the folks at Precision Nutrition say, “The benefits of slow eating include better digestion, better hydration, easier weight loss or maintenance, and greater satisfaction with our meals. The message is clear: Slow down your eating and enjoy improved health and well-being.”
8) Outdoor Showers—The first year here in the wilderness we lived in a tiny RV and my artist cabin which does not have running water. The RV had only a 6-gallon water tank. So necessity led me to an amazing invention by EccoTemp. A heated outdoor shower hooked to a garden hose and propane tank. It is an instrument from heaven.
I installed it in on a cedar tree so that we could stand in a thick floor of soft needles and voila! We live at the end of a very isolated country road and in nine months of heavenly outdoor showers, not one person ventured by. However, one particular female deer became a perpetual voyeur. I think she liked me.
The warm water falling down like a rainstorm provides one of the most sensory and pleasant experiences I’ve ever had. There is an ambient chill permeating the edges of your body on all but the hottest of days. It is highly pleasurable. And I can’t explain it, but there is something about an outdoor shower that screams freedom.
I know I’m weird, but I’m in good company. Actor and sex symbol, David Duchovny says, “I really enjoy taking an outdoor shower.”
9) Watching Falling Stars—Nature holds the key to our physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual satisfaction. Every night of our lives, above our ceilings, there is a light show that rivals a Disney Fireworks extravaganza. Every night. We just never take time to witness it.
I did not.
Until I moved out here to the wilderness. When we were living in the “Hawk’s Nest”, my artist cabin now, but then it was our one-room house without running water, at night I would heed the call to nature, step outside on the deck and pee over the edge. And for six months, every clear night, I swear on my grandmother’s grave, I saw a shooting star. Every night. It became an omen that our move to the middle of nowhere was the right thing.
I cannot adequately describe the overall affirmation of my whole being as the star would fall in a dazzle of light. Each night, it became routine, I would smile, point my finger towards the sky, waggle it a bit (my finger, I mean), and sigh and go back to bed and drift into a peaceful sleep. It was as if nature was saying to me, “Hang on, everything’s gonna be all right.”
One night while we still lived at that little cabin perched high on the mountain ridge, I rousted Gina from the bed, laid our blankets and pillows out on the deck, and introduced my partner to her first Perseid meteor shower, as I had done with my oldest daughter many years ago. It was magical. We finally stopped counting at 150 falling stars and watched the heavenly panorama until we fell asleep.
I never cease to watch a falling star without a sense of glorious wonder and enchantment.
I may be weird, but as Rainer Maria Rilke so eloquently penned,
“Do you remember still the falling stars
that like swift horses through the heavens raced
and suddenly leaped across the hurdles
of our wishes — do you recall? And we
did make so many! For there were countless numbers
of stars: each time we looked above we were
astounded by the swiftness of their daring play,
while in our hearts we felt safe and secure
watching these brilliant bodies disintegrate,
knowing somehow we had survived their fall.”
10) The Mandala at Cinqwani— What makes a place spiritual? Is there really something in the air? Is it that fuzzy-headed New Age catchall, energy? Or is it the cumulative intentionality that lends a place specialness? Does a place become holy because holy people choose to live there, or do holy people choose to live there because the place is holy? I’m not sure and suspect these are unanswerable questions, but any place with a reputation for being “magical” and “transformative” bears a heavy burden.
(The preceding passage is by Eric Weiner in his amazing book Man Seeks God.)
Think of your favorite place in nature and be there with it as much as possible, physically if at all possible—if not, in your imagination and fantasies.
One of my favorite places in nature is here on our southern ridge. I have named it Cinqwani. From the first time I encountered it during a hike exploring our new land, I knew it was special. A thin place.
To this day, I often sit at Cinqwani on benches I built for this purpose, in the verdant forest and feel this ineffable live-ness all around me. The huge cluster of hickory trees from whence the Cherokee name derived inevitably wave in the wind blowing winds of the spirit, of freedom, upon my face.
I decided to gather stones from across our land and from circles built by men who have performed mid-life Quests here, to build a sacred circle, a sedimentary wheel, like a mandala, only with Native American instead of Buddhist iconography. A gift to myself.
Everything inside the circle is sacred, special; everything outside the circle is ordinary. Sacred circles are said to exist “between two worlds.” In the center of the circle is a small circle of larger stones which contains a fire pit. Extending out like a compass to each direction is a line of stones to the south, north, east, and west.
I think often as I sit there in silence and solitude, “the reason I am here is the reason it was built.” This is the place where my ashes will be scattered one day.
You may think I’m weird, but in the words of Pema Chodron, ”Each person’s life is like a mandala – a vast, limitless circle. We stand in the center of our own circle, and everything we see, hear and think forms the mandala of our life.”