While the days became long

[Spring Equinox to Summer Solstice, 2018] It’s the sabbath day of snow. The laying down after the task, the last embrace.

I want to write for no one else, which is perhaps what the snow says on its second snow, the second snow of falling not onto the forest floor but into it, the second snow that only the snow itself watches, only the snow itself feels. Does the snow take a slow inhale of its own wetness sunken in soil? Does the snow linger just to press its chest last, again, into the momentary presence of its own season before revealing, and becoming, what it long protected and will never see?

There are days when I haven’t wanted to write because writing isn’t real enough, when writing is from a place too enclosed to matter on the surface, like the color of the lightless sea. But those days are punctured by these, by this one, the ocean’s pressure bearing down, even the sinking meeting resistance. A day when writing is too real, makes real, reels in, casts wide and tight and traps some things onto the page as real. There have been days when writing compensates nothing, replaces nothing, the touchings of life loud enough. And then this day, which itself exists for another, writing replacing absence, replacing wrongness. There’s already a gap in the world carved out for this writing, it’s not the rare writing which only invites itself into existence, it’s filling in for something else.

I didn’t ask this day for another sadness. I didn’t ask this day for anything, though.

We are among the creatures who look down as we eat, as we find our own food. This gosling looks up, cranes its beady black eyes to the clear sky and pecks for chewed cashews in my lips, the sky’s alimentation. I underestimated how the world so constantly finds ways to begin again. Even inside the pillowcase I could tell there was no longer life, no subtle shifting, no warm inconsistency, just the constant stillness whose shifting’s slower than ourselves.

It seemed to become green almost immediately. Here, time unfolds around me, always folding downwards, as the cat rubs herself against the rocking chair and the green earth drips. Do I feel I deserve less than this abundance of water? Is that why I plan to go to drier places?

At last the air is neither warm nor cool, neither still nor moving, neither moist nor dry. The air makes itself for my body before it reaches me, and enters almost unnoticed.

The student, when asked to write an ode to the wind said he had already written an ode to the wind. And I said, ‘to this wind?’

In the soft evening, the sky uncups its hands to show one moon and one star, the west wind uncupping its breath for the dusk loons. The cedar burns as if it has been waiting to burn, skin peeled and arms wagging. I wondered how it would feel to burn so easily, after the moisture lifts out of my body to lose weight but not shape.

I put all my belongings on the center of the cowhide in the living room as if to say-- am I really going? For how long? Why?

As the heat deepens I worry about not having enough space, wanting to start closer to the beginning. In a journal full of the chaos of spring, the summer begins to begin not after but rather amidst, among, the pages of spring restrained, pushed back, held, strung, plying the open space. The layering of the summer amasses and things are just bright enough to see, not yet blinding.

In the dusk I almost wanted rain, wanted the sky to close with clouds and the day to tuck in its corners, enclosing nearer until my body encloses itself, my words enclose their meaning.

What is it for the weight of the day to slide off? To dip away into the night like a far and familiar voice. Tonight you’re drawn back to that voice, to follow it through the dark in fellow surrender, to follow it unrepenting until morning. And only then in the familiar light, in the very same light that never once stopped being light, you hear it as your own voice.

How rare, how today the one you want to write for is here. Where else? The one you write for isn’t far off and in body’s still whole.


Five days of solo biking in northern Ecuador

Imbabura Volcano is dusted in snow the morning after rain. Perched on the flanks where blueberries and potatoes grow, we’re layered in sweaters and scarves. I’ve just come back from the feria with Lordes, Roberto and Gova, where families from the indigenous community of San Clemente gather in Ibarra to sell homemade food and corn flours for every purpose. Our tent sells tortillas a tiesto (toasted on a ceramic pan over fire), hog roast, and chicha (a fermented corn drink). When heavy rains come in the afternoon, we wrap ourselves in woven tablecloths to take down the market. In the evening, the paper maps are splayed out on the cowhide in front of the Pupiales’ hearth, and Matias is tracing paths with a toothpick, effusing quick Spanish stories of land. I have five days off from teaching the semester course, an unusual construction given that we’re on expedition and I don’t have a home in this country. But I realize that I do have a burly bike, friends with formidable route knowledge, and the will to be utterly alone.  Despidiendo the chill of height, I descend through the city of Ibarra towards the via antiguo, an old cobblestone highway winding down to the Valle del Chota on the way to Colombia. Quito is a concrete beginning, rested in the eminently explicable inter andean valley, between the eastern and western cordilleras. The mountains in the north feel more raucous and haphazard but no less magisterial. 

This road plunges towards desert scape, rocking through dusty chaparral, opening like a mouth or a tongue to canyons and outcrops surging in presence. Enormous cacti have heaved themselves into the path, crumpling in their own weighty rootlessness. Sun blazes and I veer towards the only house, where vats of water are set out in the sun for showers, and where I receive a blackberry popsicle and an orange. 

El Valle del Chota is said to be the only African settlement in the Americas of people never enslaved, who arrived following a shipwreck on the Pacific coast. Germinator of bamba music and Ecuador’s giants of futbol, El Chota is glorified in my mind if only as the day’s destination. In deepening heat, I pull into a one-street village of concrete houses and crumbling roads, rumbling trucks of sugar cane continuously pulling in and out. There’s no store or hospedaje. Every house looks out onto the municipally-funded soccer pitch, and every person in town is in their jersey, inscribed with alternate spellings to names I recognize, like ‘Naytan’ and ‘Rolan.’ The only thing to do on Saturday afternoon, or probably ever, is to watch soccer, which I do as I wait for Mercedes to call her friends Anita and Pilar on the landline because maybe I can stay in their house. There’s a throbbing energy of vitality and agility and music. I sit on the sidewalk and drink yellow soda with Mercedes’ son who is still sweaty from the game as my legs are devoured by bugs. 

Pilar Lara introduces herself to me as my mother, and tours me through the rooms of her house for my choice, except that they are all claimed by people who actually live there. I end up in her own room, where I sleep a long and soggy night possessed by the heat, sweating into the sheets. 

In the morning, Pilar gives me a bag of mangoes and two ‘pepinos’, a sort of tomato-pepper-mango. On the ascent to the market town of Mira (17km uphill), I meet the Columbian cyclist who, from the land of García Márquez, will introduce himself as Stalin Chi. He is a former vegetarian with a fast food joint in Ibarra selling salchipapas and papipollo, and talks about Mario Benedetti’s discourses between the poet and death. In Mira, women are skinning sugar cane with machetes and we buy a bag of sugar cane cubes as a cycling snack, chewing out the sweet water and spitting the pith. He joins my route for the rest of the day. At the high point of our ascent, Imbabura rises again behind the crest of the valley, sucking folded earth or otherwise muscling its way up from haunches. The rest of the day is almost inexpressible. Over a descent of 19km to the Estación Carchi, we pass through at least five climatic zones, gaze towards roiling mountains black like voids, cool cornfields, broad-handed tropical leaves, sugar cane, and back to blazing, dusty canyon. 

The terrain is torn with ‘quebradas’, lit: places that have been broken. Earth, crumbling, plunges to depths inexpressible in topographic lines, labelled only with an innocuous Q. The in-between places are ‘botada’, wastelands, but lit: places that have been thrown out. 

In a newer language, the filaments between verb and adjective keep their tenderness, as if what we are is happening, as if that which we are among has just become. The language enlivens itself. Like how the yellow grass is magnificently, somehow, more beautiful in wind. Madrugar is not just to wake up early, but to actually dawn.

At the end of the day I leave off in the little village of Tumbabiro, returned to the mountains. Seeing that I am left handed puts him over the edge. ‘Estas cada vez más loca’ (you just get stranger and stranger). It’s a surprise to remember that we too are unusual characters to the others we encounter. 

Abdón Claderón greets me at a hostería in Tumbabiro, former superintendent of regional school districts and named for the child hero of Ecuadorian independence. He talks about educational methodology, shows me his collection of enormous beatles and accompanies me to the village’s evening mass. I spend the following morning lathering in mud at the hotsprings in Chachimbiro before an afternoon of boiling, forsaken ascent to Cotacachi. 

In Cotacachi I meet Crisa, who has hosted cyclists on wild adventures traveling across the continent and around the world. After dinner her young son Omken jumps on my cross-bar and I ride with him through the night to the circus in town. In the morning, I stay to ride Omken to school the same way. 

Crisa is preparing for her radio show tomorrow on musica infantil, and we spend the evening listening to Andean arrullos, traditional lullabies reviving ancient children’s songs. As I go to sleep the dogs are barking madly and Crisa says she doesn’t like how they bark because yesterday it presaged a tremor. But in Latin America the dogs are always barking madly and the earth is always about to shake.  Finally, the long and last climb to Laguna Cuicocha. The wooing mountain wind roughens and softens at once, and the edge of the páramo is the coast of the sea. Some say this laguna has limitless depths and touches the ocean. We don’t know how much this crater, like any creature, holds. We see only what stays unfilled.

I am in the heights with a nibble of cheese and a handful of seeds. I am in the heights with a mountain of grace. I am letting the day hold me. Like this water, held, gazes up at the crater’s firm arms to say thank you for showing me you could hold more, but this is all I have (as the wind sweeps across my upturned chest). And the day says, you are enough, let me just hold you awhile longer. 

These are days of new dreams thickening, which is something to beware. They’re not dreams I should say yet, because of the way dreams have of elbowing their way, against all convenience, into form. To ‘dream about’ is tangential, approximating, off-shore. In this land, ‘dream about’ is ‘soñar con’ (to dream with), the dreaming itself commanding the ‘with’ of presence. 

‘We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins’ (Maria Popova). In these changed days of trusting in unfolding, where I end is wider, and where the world begins is closer. 

What to do for the sake of poetry? For the sake of finding a place in this messy world for a poem to hear itself breathing. After days of self-propulsion in every sense, there is something absorbing about sitting down on the bus in the passive tense and being taken. About the decisive distinction between waiting and moving, and the clammy shade. On my last night I return to a particular garden in a pueblo tranquilo on the hillside if only because it's the place these poems want to sleep. The bus rides are rumbling and circuitous, a bag of granadilla, aguacate and warm pan from the dusty Cotacachi market as the light of day blackens abruptly in the mountains. 

My heart is upended by the encounters of kindness of this firm earth.

Teaching of meadows and words

I am writing from a canvass tent on a hill overlooking the lights of Quito, and the surrounding glaciated, volcanic peaks. I am teaching a semester course with Kroka Expeditions which started on August 25th in Marlow, New Hampshire. We spent four weeks in New England on mountain biking and paddling expeditions, sewing backpacks, carving spoons, visiting local farms to learn about permaculture, and studying Spanish, creative writing and poetry. We arrived in Ecuador a week and a half ago, and have been absorbed in making knives and studying permaculture, geology, herbal medicine, fire cooking, poetry, more! We are getting ready for our first wilderness expedition in Ecuador, which begins on Tuesday and returns on November 4th. We start mountain biking from the farm and take three days to arrive in San Clemente, an indigenous community on the flanks of Imbabura Volcano which I visited during my travels in January. After visiting families in San Clemente and climbing the volcano, we continue by mountain biking and trekking through the western cloud forest. These days with the semester are absorbing and enlivening, centering around essential questions of how to live consciously on the earth today. My students write a blog with lots of photos: http://krokaecuadorsemester2017.blogspot.com/?m=1

 1. Fields and Meadows


I have been living in a valley, unseeing of far, and I have been giving myself slowly, piece by piece, to that valley. That valley only ever faces north, and the sun only sets in reflection. Here in the highlands of the year, the far view is enthralling, Volcán Cotopaxi stark and crisp in the morning gleam, a delicate fume floating from the glaciated peak. The last fingers of sunset behind Pichincha, the gray afternoon mist, enclose as imperative relief from the world pressing its glory into our days.


I hope in teaching to swing variously from the contraction of the valley to the over- boldening of heights, and land spread amidst the meadow. Where am I in relation to the field of my heart? (A.L. Steiner) Where am I in relation to my students? How can teaching be the opening of a place? A place where people could come and pay attention. I’ve begun a collection of meadows, fields of words opening towards me.


Out beyond wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I will meet you there (Rumi)


 2. Words and students


As we walk into words that have waited for us to enter them, so

the meadow, muddy with dreams, is gathering itself together

(Marie Howe, Meadow)


How to let my words, as my students, be at once contained and uncontained? How to create with words, as with lives, a feasting without greed for meaning? How to go, without having yet been?


This poem, like this life, may not necessarily be a steady accrual of meaning and learning. It will not make sense of itself.


Are not the best poems (lives) arisen from the despair of not yet having written? Words (days) are the consistent present, the always coming ever-arrivers. When they flock so faithfully, I feel they will always continue to flatter.

This last-most insight, perched for arrival, is that words follow words. Words (days) emerge in all moments and it takes a certain earthly energy to bring them out from under gut, rib, skin, out from ether.


Words, days, students sit down beside each other in parallel assimilation in this stormy languid time of ritual, construction and newness.


  1. Days


I walk, all day, across the heaven- verging field. (Mary Oliver, Upstream)


I am wooed by these days, enchanted by this company. The day is a unit of thrumming fascination. Smoothing out the corners, thumbing back the edges. To whom do I dedicate the bulk, the best?


This constant uncertainty of futures is not unwilling to tentatively begin us again and again. How to foster people being more like themselves, and not more like their teacher? Is there even an essential self it behooves to assimilate?


I have come to be sensing the tender buoyancy of poetry, the wet stickiness. Some nights I leave behind my glasses and don’t wish to see the world in so much clarity, want for what’s around to not be so separate as the light dims, as the earth enters shapeful silent realms and what goes uncontacted remains unitary, as the moon’s burr widens in darkness.


  1. What is actually happening


The crafting of curriculum is only the teacher carving a place for herself in the world, carving a room of requirement. But when is that carving found and when made? A few things I have ‘taught’ in the past weeks feel more like spaces where I and another have happened to meet. Often I am permitted to return to a meadow (Robert Duncan)


- Translating Mary Oliver into Spanish, we realize that some poets, in fact many poets, are still alive!

- Flying over the Panama Canal, harbors blaze in the night and we wander in conversation into trade and shipping, US imperialism, and the whipping winds of the Magellan Strait.

- In the loft of the boathouse, we’re muted by the crashing thunderstorm and write 13-line poems in the round. We write until we can hear each other again.

- Before the sun rises over the eastern Andean ridge, we tromp to the vegetable garden for morning chores. It’s a chosen, delicate morning within a waxing moon, and I’m translating grafting a fertile nectarine branch onto this sapling. There’s an easy awe about these words—menguante, creciente, heard softly before the full blaze of day.

- Sprawled on the floor of the airport, any place is a place of fascination and of learning. We interview pilots on fuel consumption and conversions for a math class, play clarinet and fiddle, knit hats, translate Spanish.

- Reading Love In the Time of Cholera together, some students read in Spanish and others in English, and we hear the parrot’s ‘sancocho’ reduced in translation to ‘soup.’ Sancocho, with yucca and plantains ‘verde’ which we made over fire just last night.


In these days of doing prolifically, to take poetry seriously, we have to believe that words actually happen, and actually do.


What I want to read:

Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under the Words

Gregory Orr, Concerning the book that is the body of the beloved

John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us

Perhaps this is education

‘In out of the way places of your heart, where your thoughts never think to wander, this beginning has been quietly forming, waiting until you were ready to emerge.’ (John O’Donohue) There are enough ways not to write. There are enough ways to drain the days without holding just one by the hand and saying ‘sit.’

In entering collective undertakings, the possessions of acquisitive, individualistic society feel less my own. Words possessed return too to this collective undertaking of language, of thought world. In dissipating conviction in individual authority, words seem starkly more apt to speak for, speak of, speak to. They are not only my own.

But this light Saturday suggests that speaking with solitary authority is not a necessity for creation. Like learning orchestration, like teaching, I could host these words together in speaking to each other, and still be here.

In the undulations of teaching, of re-thinking, of adoring and detesting, spring is becoming fall, leaving messier tracks without authority, with no one story.


The more attentive I became to the late winter woods, the more foreign, the more newly arrived.

A poem from a red maple in spring, found when prompted, with slick buds: I have many names and neighbors, many tongues like roots on rock. I have many ears in needles listening in being still. Opening, attentive, lying, whispering ‘until, until.’ Until my names come out in ringing, asked like questions, I’ll be here to hear today’s placeholder crying I’ll stay near you, I’ll stay near. It’s an attentive coming going, newly neighbored, nearly touched. I stretch through layers upon layers, tongues transform beseeming stuff.


The field in front has turned and turned this whole spring. I came to watch a place up near and already it’s spent and made itself in changing. A teacher asked the students what is your favorite type of grass? Any question quelling talk of other distant things. But the question opened like this field in front—the grass brittle with frost, the whaff of just mowed, the grass almost a meadow, the squelch of water-logged sod. We portage our canoes around the town dam and sit cross-legged in the prickly grass of almost river, in the May time air of almost warm.


The summer feels itself to be beginning. Fading light swimming in the pond, wide sky clear, boathouse accordion.

A folded poem received leading middle schoolers in the Pilot Range in early summer: Not because of victories I sing Having none But for the common sunshine, the breeze, the largeness of the spring Not for victories but for the day’s work done As well as I was able Not for a seat upon the dais But at the common table


How do we live in places and think in places? What lineage do we enter into and what do we reinvent? What is kin?

‘How do we take back up a collective adventure that is multiple and ceaselessly reinvented, not on an individual basis, but in a way that passes the baton, that is to say, affirms new givens and new unknowns?’ (Vinciane Despret)

You teach who you are. You give them everything you have and they take what they need.

‘Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them.’(Anatole France)


How to be an individual within multiple societies? What is individual in communities today?

The pleasantness of one solitary meal. Two eggs only, brief and paired. The black cat in the apple tree, easily swayed, comes to drink milk from my cup, unafraid. The calf in the field tears grass into food and from this evening porch I hear the grass ripping, it has not yet been quiet enough.

Nothing needs my spirit before I need it myself. I must be my own to give.


The lake is still like a known place Holding my own infancy, largeness. I am a creature that floats for now air filled faulty but bobbing. The lake holds age irrelevant to aliveness. As words, incited, touching the mirror and depth of the lake, neither more nor less alive in ancient being. Words, like the grayness of the lake, give me the best of their beauty to hold in the heat of sunburned cheek, to hold as stones in a pocket. Words, like the rhythm of the lake, ask for ceremony in the morning, if only a steady holding in an opened eye.


The old patterns adore us, and want us back. When we pause we leave openings for new patterns to begin forming. We are still being called.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us Then walks with us silently into the night These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall Go to the limits of your longing. Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in. Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror Just keep going. Nearby is a country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness. Give me your hand.

(Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy)


There is always time for writing, once the time has begun. Writing is the pulp of time, the intricacy in the cog, the palatable moon crest. And the glow too. Writing is the aggregate, the all-together, the manyed-knowing, the power of ease. My own writing casts wide, knows little, looks ahead.

How to be a poet

Creep up. Go on. Salt the waters yet unsalted. Cry into the calmer realms Unsettled by your calling. Shed lightness but not gladness Know nothing before The saying is said.


Perhaps this is education. Eddying out behind a boulder amidst rapids, held in place by the backwards swirling water, surfing a pillowing wave and watching upstream students drawing nearer. Then shouting come here!, a jabbing pointing to the eddy, lean and cross draw, meet and pause amidst white water, don’t let yourself float by me.

My spirit is re-arranging with the world. When I agreed to teach the semester I agreed to be changed inexpressibly.

This is a week of presence and departure, of promise and extraction. The calf moaning in the night for separation, and the absent waxing moon awaiting patriation.

Arriving! (on my bike ride from Virginia to New Hampshire)

In the last light of the day I made it to Kroka in New Hampshire. My route totaled 646 miles over 13 cycling days (and 4 rest days) and I raised $1,403 for No More Deaths (a humanitarian aid organization working to reduce human misery and death on the US-Mexico border, and advocating for immigrant rights). Today a soft cold rain blows across the white fields and I'm ready for stillness. ‘We return from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance’ (Berry) and these gifts feel abundant. I stayed with kind hosts all along the way, some of whom I knew and many of whom I didn’t yet— family (Roger and Emily), friends (Kristen, Robbin and Max), Quakers I met through a rural New York meeting (Ginny and Bob), kindred spirits who reached out when I emailed a Waldorf school (Krista, Bruce and Warren), and hosts I met through Warm Showers, an amazing network for touring cyclists, who shared their dinners, homes and daily ways with such easy generosity (Kathy, Scott and Jennifer, Julie and Caroline, Sheryl and Alan, and Alice, Gregg and Olivia). 

I received loving encouragement and donations to No More Deaths from folks in 14 states coast to coast, England, New Zealand, and a Pacific sailboat which embarked from Mexico!—Meganne, Rob and Eileen, AP, Nancy and David, Marcy, Aurora, Pape, Keaton, Morgen, Statia, Pam, Matt, Bob, Kristen, Rachel, Madeline, Cappy, Sara, Joy, Nia, Kathy, Marianne, Carl, Polly, Audrey, Dana, Kylie, Allie, Mary, Jose, Kristen, Vanessa, Michelle. 

I feel like I have been cycling back in time in a world with a sense of its own, where winter naturally comes after spring, and the longer I ride the more intensely beautiful the world becomes.

This journey has been so filled with grace. This grace arrived to me through particular land and people, and I think was invited by the intent to move slowly, be curious, see anew, and ask for help. But I think this could happen in any number of places.

On my mind have been Kroka’s expedition principles of meeting people (v.promoting privacy) and giving and receiving (v.Leave No Trace). I have had the impression through wilderness programs I’ve led, and in my personal life, that certain places are FOR adventures— for challenge, for personal growth, for reflection. Namely, the wilder the better. This has led me to some amazing places far away, but has also allowed me to overlook places I crossed on this trip I considered to be FOR something else. 

This mentality is the same one from which the many fields of monocultures that I passed emerge— this land is for corn, that land is for a housing development, and the land for the border becomes always further away. It’s the colonial imagination to keep looking further afield with dreams of self-discovery. 

Of course the wilderness areas which so plentifully offer gifts of all kinds of learning demand preservation and also the reverence to exist beyond human purpose. But by pinning certain types of places as for adventure, challenge, personal growth and reflection, I’m expending resources to get to other places, and confirming that what’s near is for something else. On this ride I found that adventure is a will to be curious, whatever we find, including among places and cultures that seem to be our own.

Part of my intent in making this trip was to show myself the real possibility of biking for distance transportation without super special training, planning or investment in new equipment, technology or clothing. Two chainrings and a rack on my road bike were not ideal but eminently possible. 

To plan my route, I used Google Maps for bikes, which at times did an excellent job connecting designated bike routes, but also misled me onto muddy dirt roads, and gave me no topographic information. I didn’t use a specialized biking app to foresee hill profiles, which allowed me to notice so many ways in which land reminds us of itself. Noticeably steep roads often end in ‘mont’, ‘hill’ or ‘view,’ on a long downhill I anticipated a drainage at the base followed by a comparable ascent; through a valley I would be climbing or coasting according to the direction of the water’s flow. 

Each evening I sought route suggestions from my hosts, traveling within their local realm. I felt a distinct transition around the Massachusetts border that I was no longer far— people started to know of Marlow, NH; some had personal connections, or at least knew roads that went there. Each day I only went so far as my host could easily describe to me, and by travelling somewhere close day after day, I ended up far away. I’m not commonly granted such a graceful, gradual transition from far to close. 

Choosing to go by bike involved more time, doubt, solitude and physical pain. My main source of despair was hurting knees, from crunching on hard gearing the first few days, accompanied by burning sun and prickling rain, and lonely moments by the side of the road looking so pathetic cars slowed and asked if I needed help. But I also continue to think, I could have missed this. I could have missed the sparkling snow-covered brooks and air of melting snow, a floating layer of wood smoke from maple sugaring, the sun setting over and over as I climb the hills, and reading by a fire in friendship with banjo and fresh baked bread on a slushy day when travel, for me, was just not possible. If I had chosen, as I have many times before, a means of travel faster and more oil intensive, where the pain inflicted by that travel was alienated from my experience of it, I could have missed this. 

Filling out employment paperwork today, I feel gratitude for the ability to travel freely with safe passages, find hospitality, and farm and teach under the protection of law, which impresses upon me again the importance of the work of No Mas Muertes. And I feel such gratitude for all the folks who accompanied me (in word, contribution, and spirit) on my ride!

Water on the Journey

Miles so far: 490 (Charlottesville to Rixeyville VA 60- Harper’s Ferry WV 70- Shepherdstown WV 15- Carlisle PA 55- Reamstown PA 64- Warrington PA 68- Trenton, NJ 26, East Harlem NY to Cornwall on Hudson NY 47- Millbrook NY 47- Great Barrington MA 38) DONATE HERE to No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes): https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276

This past week of cycling I’ve found water in many of its forms— crusty snow, soft mist, plopping rain, prickly sleet, slushy ice, puddles and mud, creeks running by roads, into roads, waterfalls and drainages, all collecting in great rivers that form this land— Shenandoah, Potomac, Susquehanna, Schuylkill, Delaware, Hudson. 

Water goes first. By bike, I travel like the water that went before me to soften bedrock into curves— falling with gravity, leaning into contours, sailing down the flats. To seek smooth riding, I’ve ended up going where water goes, along creeks and rivers, and in between I cross hills separating great watersheds. This is a pace and way of travel that marks how people approached this land for a long time— people follow where water has gone, and go where water goes.

I had the good fortune of visiting Carlisle, PA on the same night as Winona LaDuke (environmentalist, economist, writer and most recently prominent organizer in the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline). The setting was poignant, the town of the Carlisle Indian Industrial school, a model for the many Indian boarding schools with the purported purpose of ‘assimilation’ which had a devastating impact by separating families and communities. Through removing children from their native culture, these constitute an aspect of Native American genocide. When the school was formed, the Office of Indian Affairs was part of the US Department of War, and the school has been closed to the public since 9/11 since it’s inside an army barracks in Carlisle. LaDuke told us she had found her grandfather’s records at the school earlier that day.

LaDuke had such an invigoratingly blunt tone— I’m a cool fun person, and I just want to do cool fun stuff, I don't want to be sitting around talking about a pipeline that goes from nowhere to nowhere, that’s not a cool idea. What’s a cool idea is how we’re installing solar on White Earth Reservation. It’s not going to get better unless we do it ourselves...Like that. 

What was most striking seemed so simple. There is no new water. The water that we have now is ancient, and we live on ancient land. 

The Potomac, which I crossed to get to Carlisle, gathers water from the western hills of Pennsylvania, and the water flowing down the far side of those hills runs into the Ohio. I learned recently that along a tributary of the Ohio is the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, the largest archeological site in eastern North America, dated to 14,000 BC, built by folks who probably survived on mammoth, mastodon, camel and moose. It’s so much more fascinating, apart from being more true, to stop thinking of this as a new world.  Leaving Carlisle, I crossed through Harrisburg, PA and the Susquehanna en route to Lancaster county, in Amish and Mennonite farmland. The Lebanon Valley towpath was still covered with snow, so I meandered towards an unexpected route and found a woman waving vigorously from the side of the road. I pulled over at Middle Creek wildlife preserve, and it was Julie who just happened to be passing and who I had arranged to stay with that night! As we were about to pull out, from the marsh lifted a cloud of thousands of migrating snow geese, who began sailing in enormous circles and breaking out into complex Vs. A rare and magical spectacle!

Just as the catchment areas of these rivers are wide and hint at something greater, I began to enter the enormous catchment areas for Philadelphia and Manhattan. After days of quiet farmland, I didn’t mind some business and ugliness, and wanted to see the land change. Part of the business is that the suburban sprawl is a place of passing through. But this land too wants no less to be seen and represented and known.

Near the crossing of the Schuylkill, I stopped to warm up at the Crooked Hill Tavern, where I met a local couple on their weekly Friday lunch. They were so proud to tell me that they lived downstream near Valley Forge, where Washington wintered his troops in 1777, and impressed with my ride, they paid for my bowl of chili. It was notable to me how this landscape is etched with stories of Washington’s movements during one fight— that against British forces. Perhaps even more significant was (is?) a simultaneous and much longer fight against the nations native to this place. In the mid-1770s, ‘George Washington wrote instructions to Major General John Sullivan to take peremptory action against the Haudenosaunee [in now NY state], ‘to lay waste all the settlements...that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed.’... Sullivan replied, ‘The Indians shall see that there is malice enough in our hearts to destroy everything that contributes to their support.’ (Dunbar-Ortiz, 77) I read about this history on the Manhattan subway, passing Columbus Circle in the Empire State. While in New York City I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time, a spectacle of movement and commerce over the East River, the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Whitman crossed this river by ferry:

What is it then between us? 

What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? 

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not, 

I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine, 

I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it, 

I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me, 

In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me, 

In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me, 

I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution, 

I too had receiv’d identity by my body, 

That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (first version 1856) A plaque memorializes Whitman on the bridge, as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was a forum Whitman used to comment on identities of bodies, complicated in relation to his poetry but with the same fierce energy. During the US-Mexican war, Whitman proposed stationing 60 thousand US troops in Mexico to establish a regime change; ‘We pant to see our country and its rule far-reaching. What has miserable, inefficient Mexico...to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race?’ (Dunbar-Ortiz, 118) 

By this I mean to say that, in beginning to re-teach myself histories of the land that I occupy, the undercurrents of stories and sides not before known to me become harder not to see. It is all the more poignant to be moving at a human pace through land I thought I somewhat knew, which has become unfamiliar and enthralling. So much colludes to normalize the settlement of this land in this way, and normalize the safe passage and free movement of certain individuals. But the border is here too. 

As I cycled from East Harlem north along the Hudson, Dar William’s lyrics thrummed through my ride like a prayer to the river:  The river roads collect the tolls/ For the passage of our souls/ Through silence, over woods, through flowers and snow/ And past the George Washington Bridge/ Down from the trails of Breakneck Ridge/ The river's ancient path is sacred and slow

Water is so plentiful in this season and region that I’ve had the privilege of trying at times to avoid it. This is present for me since one of the primary forms of humanitarian aid that No More Deaths volunteers provide is backpacking water into the desert in a punishing landscape in which many migrants die of dehydration.

This journey has been plentiful in more ways, not least in the grace that I feel has accompanied me. I’ve been overflown by the kindness I have found from friends and strangers and feel grateful for the opportunity to channel some of that towards No More Deaths. Ahead still I have my steepest hills, a snowstorm, and a few more double mitten days as I approach the Connecticut, my last great river to cross.

DONATE HERE to No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes): https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276

Resources I’ve appreciated this week: *Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States* 

‘Neither superior technology nor an overwhelming number of settlers made up the mainspring of the birth of the United States or the spread of its power over the entire world. Rather, the chief cause was the colonialist settler-state’s willingness to eliminate whole civilizations of people in order to possess their land’ (96)

‘The conquest of the West was not guaranteed by defeating the British Army in battle in 1815, but by defeating and driving the Indians from their homelands’ (quoting Grenier, 100)

Toward Right Relationship with America’s Native Peoples, a Quaker project through Boulder Friends Meeting led by Paula Palmer


A great document of Towards Right Relationship resources 


A mapping resource on US invasions


The video Silenced Voices, produced by Migrant Justice/ Justicia Migrante, a Vermont organization advocating for human rights and food justice 


Why I'm Going By Bike

Miles so far: 200 (Charlottesville- Rixeyville VA 60mi- Harper’s Ferry WV 70mi- Shepherdstown WV 15mi- PA 55mi) DONATE HERE to No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes): https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276 These first few days have been exhausting, lonely and physically painful— long stretches of quiet country roads under a big sky, a rumbling thunderstorm with splintering rays of lightning cracking overhead, a thick rainbow smeared across the horizon like a sunset in every color, and in between slowness and doubt. I have been reluctant to write in evenings of tired sadness, but all day have criss-crossed trails with people of this land who were much more deeply unsure of how they could make it, and where they would be tomorrow— immigrant laborers beginning construction on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal for trade west before being overtaken by the railroad, people who had been enslaved leaving Virginia to seek work in Washington and Pennsylvania, confederate troops marching towards the carnage of Gettysburg, all followed the same paths I’ve ridden. And I’m mindful all along of the uncertain journeys of immigrants today for whom my ride is dedicated. I’m reminded that like any land, this land (that which I’ve seen these past four days, and that which I’ve never seen but carry in my mind) is the home of many journeys of length, purpose and doubtful hope. 

As I slugged along in frustration on a too-hard rear cassette gearing, I had plenty of time to consider why I’m going by bike:

1/ Fuel

I really think it matters the choices that individual people make. I know that biking releases less fossil fuels than driving, flying, or riding the train, and I had space in my life to make that choice, so I did.

Joanna Macy names The Great Turning ‘the essential adventure of our time’— the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. And it's such an adventure! On this adventure, I want to make choices that allow me self-respect and fill me with hope. In doubt on Day 1, I remembered a quote I wrote down awhile ago: ‘Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like the roads across the earth, for actually there were no roads to begin with but when many people pass one way, a road is made.' (Lu Xun 1921, quoted in Lappe, Hope’s Edge)

I want my tires to pack down the routes that need to exist— dedicated bikeways, local bike shops advocating for alternative transportation, local businesses I can hop off to support, people seeing bikes on the road, people learning about adventures, people finding hope.

Right now, these routes are at a crossroads to the highways streaming in and out of DC, both geographically and symbolically. I spent a whole day in northern Virginia without seeing a gas station or food store, getting confused among winding roads not marked as unpaved on GPS. This is what it is to seek another way.


The fuel I consume is food. By one estimation, for the energy I require (through food) to travel 25 miles by bike, a car running on gasoline can travel less than 1 mile. Still, on average in the United States it takes 10 units of primarily fossil fuel energy to produce one unit of food energy, and about 14% of economy wide CO2 emissions in the United States result from food production. 

The fuel I'm using for this journey is intimately bound up with my fundraising for No More Deaths. According to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, 78% of farmworkers in this country crossed a border to get here, and over half of hired agricultural laborers are undocumented immigrants. This means that the fuel that will propel me towards New Hampshire literally comes in large part through the labor of recent immigrants. 

In this way and others, the cost of my travel reaches beyond what I can know. Phenomenal time-space compression gives me the option to choose to fly or not, and to feel the lives of people far away bound up with the objects in my gut. Doreen Massey describes an uneven experience of contemporary senses of place, and further convinces me of the significance of individual choices:

‘Every time someone uses a car, and thereby increases their personal mobility, they reduce both the social rationale and the financial viability of the public transport system— and thereby also potentially reduce the mobility of those who rely on that system. Every time you drive to that out-of-town shopping center you contribute to the rising prices, even hasten the demise, of the corner shop. And the ‘time-space compression’ which is involved in producing and reproducing the daily lives of the comfortably off in First World societies— not just their own travel but the resources they draw on, from all over the world, to feed their lives— may entail environmental consequences, or hit constraints, which will limit the lives of others before their own. We need to ask, in other words, whether our relative mobility and power over mobility and communication entrenches the spatial imprisonment of other groups.’ (Doreen Massey ‘A Global Sense of Place’ 1994)

2/ Land ‘Everything in US history is about the land— who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife, who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.’ (Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States)

I wanted to travel over land and learn what stories I found. In the academic history context, there is much discussion of what happened ‘on the ground’ (as opposed to what?). But I’ve never before travelled across ground in this way to learn stories. Car and air travel allow me to feel that Virginia and New Hampshire are two completely separate places, and I want to instead knit them together in continuity. 

My route is also an acknowledgement of my free movement between these places. I’m freely crossing borders that not long ago separated the United States of America from a separately declared nation, the Confederate States of America. On my first night, Kathy hosted me in her farmhouse which had served as a Civil War hospital in Culpepper county, what Robert E. Lee called the most devastated county of the civil war, and Kathy felt that destruction viscerally. On my fourth day I passed through the Antietam battlefield in Maryland, where 23,000 soldiers died on one day in 1862 as confederate forces moved north. I rode along the C&O canal towpath, used to convey bodies of the dead. 

The flow of people and resources across this area now is so continuous, it’s possible to completely forget these were borderlands, apart from the heritage markers that punctuate the landscape (and make it seem this land only had something called history in 1860-65). Yet the areas I'm traveling between declared themselves separate nations more recently than the US and Mexico. ‘Mexicans continue to migrate as they have for millennia but now across the arbitrary border that was established in the US war against Mexico in 1846-8’ (Dunbar-Ortiz) in which the US gained over half the territory which had comprised Mexico. We should not assume that the borders we see today are inevitable, just or fixed.  

I left Charlottesville in the shadow of Jefferson’s Monticello; in 1801 he had hoped, ‘it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern if not the southern continent with a people speaking the same language and government in a similar form by similar laws’ (Dunbar-Ortiz). This is the dream of a colonist in an expanding empire. In myriad ways, this dream has come to pass, and immigrants from Central and South America who arrive in largest numbers also come from countries suffering punishing imperialist policies from the US which disadvantage farmers and others and force immigrants to seek a living elsewhere (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, see a NYT chart here/ this phenomenon is the argument of Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire).

This is what is between Virginia and New Hampshire— borders, tragedies, farms holding on, people and land with stories, movement and exchange. This is what has accumulated in these places, and by bike I’m not permitted to forget.

3/ People

I have been under the impression that I need to fly to faraway places to have unpredictable adventures, meet people strange to me, see new plants and animals, and learn about unknown histories. This is patently not the case, and makes me notice the connection between US people’s long-distance travel, and our lack of understanding of habitats near to us. Being on an adventure is truly a state of mind— a willingness to seek kindness from strangers, show curiosity and humility, request directions, ask for water, ask for a place to sleep. It’s my impression that many people really wish to give what they can when the need is before them, but so often the need feels so far away. In going by bike, I am able to enter into a gift economy in which I can reciprocate through providing company, attention, and one day paying hospitality forward. I go slow enough to either say hello or choose not to but each time not saying hello is an individual choice and I must think about why. I read historical markers and hear the full length of bird songs and know which way the wind is coming from.

The geographies of this country have been built around people wanting to meet each other, or, more often, not. Virginia governor Spotswood put together a pioneering expedition in the early 1700s called the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe to investigate the exploitable resources which could be stolen from this region, and one of the land plots claimed became James Madison’s plantation Montpelier. The farmland I traveled through in northwest Virginia was settled by German indentured laborers who, upon completing seven years of servitude, were given European permission to squat on Indigenous land. They were ‘given’ plots on the ‘wild’ frontier to serve as a buffer between English settlers in eastern Virginia and Indigenous nations westward of the Shenandoah valley. The houses that I stayed in along this route were in their particular places because of someone’s fear of frontier, border, otherness, and contact. Biking leads me to make continuous choices about how my personal geographies intersect with those of settlers and indigenous people different from myself. 

Finally, meeting people is a lesson in magic. There is still magic in this country. As I ride circles in glee in the West Virginia twilight with my new rear cassette that Scott helped me fit by his wood stove, there is still so much magic. I share a chili dinner on TV trays with two who took me in, who I just met, with Cricket the beagle at our feet. We watch NBC news covering the political dramas of unrepresentative legislators obscuring today’s earth and climate disasters, punctuated by advertisements for foods and pills which further distance us from our places, and an ‘inspirational’ news story of propaganda for Chevron on its dedication of a memorial park bench for a heartbroken father so we forget it was oil that fuelled the weapon which killed his son (a car). And still, in our sad and overwhelming state, people are such magic to each other. 

By bike, I want to take stock of these places, this country, right now, up close. 

‘The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working in and for, the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love.’ (Wendell Berry, ‘Out of your car, off your horse’)

Learning resources: Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (2nd ed. 2011)

Rodolfo Acuna, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (8th ed. 2014)

Bill Bigelow, The Line Between Us: Teaching about the Border and Mexican Immigration (http://www.rethinkingschools.org/ProdDetails.asp?ID=9780942961317&d=toc)

Arturo Perez Torres, Wetback, The Undocumented Documentary (film)

Zinn Education Project: Teaching A People’s History (https://zinnedproject.org/) Recent work from No More Deaths:


‘By dropping food and water along migrant trails and by providing legal counsel to undocumented community members, we resist border militarization, deportations, and policies that contribute to death and disappearance in the US–Mexico borderlands.’ Sources for food systems statistics:



DONATE HERE to No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes): https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276

‘The border is everywhere but most people think they have never seen it’: Biking 700 miles for No More Deaths (Donate!)

I am about to embark on the longest human-powered journey I have yet attempted, traveling by bike from Virginia to New Hampshire. I expect to encounter some inhospitable conditions (cold!) and things will surely not go as planned. But my prevailing feeling is excitement— to be out in the open air all day, seeking out natural spaces, meeting people along the way. I am leaving one home where I am welcome (my family’s) and heading to another home where I will soon be received (my new place of work), and I have confident hope that I will find hospitality all along the way, and a warm place to sleep each night. During the weeks of my trip there are many other folks in my country who are also pursuing human-powered journeys which are different from mine in almost every way— perhaps going was the only option, and being in wilderness is not awaited nor sought out. People move towards a place where they will not be welcomed, and there is low hope of finding hospitality (let alone water) along the way. This is a reality on the Mexico- US border, where 6,029 human remains have been found during my lifetime as the Border Patrol pursues a strategy of ‘prevention through deterrence’, intentionally using desert wilderness as a weapon. No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes) is an humanitarian aid organization providing relief to migrants in desert borderlands and immigrant rights advocacy, including reports of human rights abuses around the border. It is volunteer-run and relies entirely on donations. I learned about No More Deaths through the work of thru-hiker and writer Carrot Quinn, who wrote a fantastic article about No More Deaths in the Guardian, and has stunning images and a great blog.


I considered traveling to the southwest to volunteer for No More Deaths this March, but decided that at this moment I couldn’t justify the environmental impact of taking another flight (from the east coast to Arizona and back) for a short time, and the thrust to my movement now was towards the north, towards meeting places where I was dedicating a relationship of greater longevity. As I reflect on my own freedom of movement and that of those around me in this country, it also becomes clear that the border is not so far away; ‘the border is everywhere but most people think they have never seen it.’ I am still going to use these weeks in support of the work of No More Deaths, and my fundraising goal of $700 reflects both the amount I would contribute to cover my volunteering expenses, and the number of miles I will ride on my journey.

My sister recently helped me think about the importance of lifting up resources from communities who are able to give in the direction of where those resources are needed— even when it’s uncomfortable to ask for money! I'm grateful for the donation of any amount. As a thank you for making a contribution I’ll send a handmade postcard from the mile mark that your donation helped me reach (eg. from mile 43 if your donation brought me up to $43, etc.). I make good handmade cards!

 DONATE HERE!: https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276

Alongside fundraising, it is just as important to me to cultivate awareness and mindfulness (in myself and others) of privileges of movement through space, the manipulation of wilderness as receptive or hostile for certain people, and hospitality and belonging in local place and national community. Join me in finding moments to feel into the bodily sensation of moving through space (whatever that means for you and wherever it happens— walking, biking, driving, on public transport, on an airplane) and use that feeling as a reminder of gratitude. Pay attention to who is around you in those spaces. Pay attention to how your body feels, moving. Read past poems on my blog on settlement and borders and read updates from my bike trip, where I'll be investigating place, movement and hospitality in the context of the histories and presents of my own country.

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'There are no unsacred places': Peru, Feb 9- March 6, 2017

‘There are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places’ (Wendell Berry, How to be a Poet) The Sacred Valley was the heart, mind and belly of the Incan Empire, chosen cosmologically, geographically, spiritually, as not only A place but THE place. Here, there is a palpable sense that the energy of place is directive. From arriving in Cusco, I felt lifted aloft for the ride. It was a floating learning ‘by going where I have to go’— unexpected, inward, earthy.

Our first day was a hasty preparation for a trek to Salkantay, the formidable apu/mountain from the Incan salcca (wild), the crown of the ridge descending to Machu Picchu. From Machu Picchu, the Southern Cross’ apex aligns with Salkantay’s summit, rising east and setting west. The Inca designated dark constellations of interstellar dust within a great celestial river (the Milky Way) believed to be part of the earth’s hydraulic cycle. During the rainy season (now) a group of dark animal constellations bringing fertility come to drink from this sacred river, grouping around the summit of Salkantay as seen from Machu Picchu— the toad signaling rain, the serpent for transformation. Machu Picchu sits on an isolated mountaintop whose cliffs spear down to the crashing Urubamba rapids, fed by glacial melt from Salkantay. Salkantay has a deep history as a place for spiritual offering and sacrifice, and also of violent wrath not to be disturbed.

Ingressing into the valley of Soraypampa we walked along a deep gorge with long cascading waterfalls on each side, Nevado Tucarhuay coming in and out of mist before us. It wasn’t long before Keaton began to sicken and stumble, and we set up the tent beside the lonely dirt road when he could go no further. I tended anxiously and ran to the road to flag down a passing pickup truck, the only vehicle in the valley. Edwin invited us to his home and put Keaton in a bed, offering coca tea to sip and Agua de Florida to smell for the altitude. A neighbor working on construction took a break to pick medicinal herbs for Keaton. When we decided we needed to descend for the night, the sky was darkening and an invasion of fog pummelled into the valley. Edwin faithfully piled us into the camioneta and we didn’t even know where we were going, bouncily descending and getting in and out to maneuver the truck through rocky washes in the dark. I feel grateful for the instinct to ask for help, and even more for Edwin unequivocally setting aside his day to care for us. In new places, I feel a yearning for hospitality, for being welcome, and yet my vulnerability and need to be received by strangers are in part so chosen. I DO have homes, DO have access to healing resources, CAN also be the one who is flagged down, who stops. How complex the factors are to feel welcomed in a place, and yet here in the mountains we were the recipients of such single minded graciousness. From the wide window of Edwin’s home, he watches year by year the glacier on Tucarhuay melt down. We shared ideas for the program he dreams of starting to bring underprivileged kids from Cusco to Soraypampa for escalamiento (climbing), traditional Andean living, stewardship, conocimiento (knowing) of plants and animals. I prepared a discussion of environmental education Edwin read on the Mollepata radio the following morning. Our message from Salkantay this time was to follow that glacial melt sliding down the mountainside, to take note; our work right now was of healing in pueblo and valley.  Being welcome and grounded in place, I am finding, depends upon relationship with people and relationship with tierra. These are relationships educators are working to heal at Kusi Kawsay Waldorf School in the small Sacred Valley town of Pisac that became our next stop. The school blends traditional Andean pedagogy with Waldorf philosophy and is the last gate on the camino to the towering Incan terraces of the Pisac ruins.  This school was built and the hillside terraced by a collection of dedicated families who often exchange labour or goods for children's school attendance— stone working to build terraces, carpentry, straw for roofing, artesanías. The aulas are arranged in a subtle spiral shape symbolizing the infinitude of time and learning, with typical Incan trapezoidal architecture for doorways, windows and walls. Drawing with a stick in the dirt, Rene described to us the trapezoid as a pyramid of hierarchy with the top removed, indicative of a more egalitarian home. The trapezoidal structure— less rigid, rational, uniform, is remarkable for the ability to withstand seismic events (physical and perhaps also social). 

The approach here is grounded in the Andean agricultural calendar. Children learn botany through corn planting, accompanied by traditional Quechua songs about stages of growth. The revival of Quechua through bilingual education is poignant given that plenty of the parents at Kusi Kawsay grew up under the repression of Quechua, depriving them of a true mother tongue. To illustrate the spirit with which corn is approached at the school, Rene described to us the corn harvest with his father when he was a boy. After harvesting, the corn is bundled and set to dry so as to be lighter to carry home. The night of the harvest, Rene slept with his father under the stars beside the corn. Why was this necessary? he asked his father. The corn was a new visitor to their home and like any visitor should not be left alone. I am learning how our sense of aliveness emerges culturally. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how in the Potawatomi language, the inanimate article is only ever used for non-living objects of human creation; life itself is never shlumped with the inanimate ‘it.’ Last summer my toddler cousin Rowan was picking bark off a tree when I suggested to his astonishment that the tree was alive, and bark was like skin. It became an object of curiosity what was alive and not— the wooden shingles of the house too were from trees and yes, were like skin for the house. But the carpenters bang on the shingles, does this not hurt the skin of the house? Rowan expressed in gesticulations. I said the house was dead and the tree was still alive. But this distinction of aliveness was too much to grasp, perhaps only because in Rowan’s world much more is ‘still’ alive than in my own. Aliveness is learned in childhood, and I hope, can also be re-learned. 

The classrooms at Kusi Kawsay surround a large boulder that most schools would excavate in the process of construction, but which this community understands as an apu whose energy is integral to the place of the school. The students have a relationship with this apu, and every day it is a mountain, ship, island, car and more. Rene spent four years resisting the ministry of education mandate to smother the terrain with a concrete slab sports pitch. Instead, children play on soft grass, corn plots, handmade play structures, and the apu. Each breath of the school is a thoughtful resistance of a culture that is globalizing, homogenizing, industrializing, commercializing, urbanizing. The school’s library houses shelves of glossy, uniform textbooks they are issued by the state. Our eyes opened to the way these textbooks forcefully promote a culture that is oppressive, acquisitive, and at odds with the lived reality of the Kusi Kawsay community. The inside cover showed a letter of political propaganda from a Peruvian icon of political corruption on the importance of environmental education. Unrealistic cartoons distort childrens’ bodies and confine gender expressions. Norms of acquisitive consumerism are advertised in the detailing of a ‘normal’ home made of materials that will not go back to the earth, in a non-rural setting, and filled with ‘necessary’ appliances and manufactured goods. Native Peruvian culture is depicted in cute images of ‘buffoon’-like entertainment. There was nothing in these textbooks that made sense for these students’ lives, but the recognition that it was the textbook that needed to change and not the lives. The name Kusi Kawsay is an expression of the intent of the school in Quechua— ‘to live in happiness.’ This happiness is understood to emerge from a relationship with community and earth which both need ardent tending and the teaching and learning of how to tend. 

This school was resurrecting a rich tradition of cultural resources to cultivate human-earth relationships, a heritage which I find my own culture to have at best forgotten. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer describes that many contemporary social pathologies (acquisitive materialism, compensations for loneliness) are rooted in a sense of homelessness— both of indigenous people violently separated from their places, and natives of elsewhere not fully arrived. She asks, ‘can a nation of immigrants become native, make a home?’ This becomes a living question of history for me— which traditions of human-earth relation are mine to draw on? Which are mine to create?  Our last night in tiny Pisac, we walked the dark tranquil streets out of town to Kerry’s warm roundhouse and both had our natal astrological charts read. It was shocking and comforting and surprising and unsurprising and devastating and uplifting to hear so many true things told about myself at once. The Sacred Valley is filled with palpable energy, but there are certain sites of really special cosmological and spiritual significance, aligned with the stars and planets in a totally particular way. Natal charts show a snapshot of the sun, moon, planets, asteroids, at the time and place of our birth. This means that we each carry with us— in our bodies and our souls— such a site of totally particular cosmological and spiritual significance. 

If Cusco is the ombligo (bellybutton) of the world in Incan cosmology, Ollantaytambo is the heart. Ollanta runs through with veins of water channels, a living Incan city of arms-width cobbled ways. Following signs weaving through the Incan old town, we came to La Casa de Wow!, a home full of kindred spirits and a place of true arrival. Wow himself led us to the cupola to introduce us to the surrounding apus who appear as figures in the mountains— el Condor, el Dios de la Luna (moon God), la Pachamama (Mother Earth, in a mixture of Quechua and Castellano), el Patriarca de los Inca (the Incan Patriarch) and el Dios del Cielo (sky God). These Gods lay here in the mountains looking over us whether we see their shapes or not. Most sacred, I felt, was that we were identifying forms in jagged cliff and outcrop rock that humans had shown each other for centuries. Place is made sacred by sharing— between earth and sky, human and earth, and most palpably here, among humans across time and history.

  In the mornings in Ollanta, I walked to the town market, where every day women in colorful traditional dress sold enormous mangoes, soft avocadoes, granadilla (a marvelous slurping fruit combination of pomegranate seed structure and frog egg globbiness) and much more, pig heads resting on tabletops, pungent cilantro filling the air. On street corners women sold ubiquitous tuna fruit and on a walk outside Ollanta we passed a man harvesting tuna from a cactus using a bullhorn tied to a stick to twist off the prickly fruit. He rubbed one with a corn husk to clean the spikes and cut the red fruit out of its casing to give us a snack for the road. On the way to the market I pass the bread oven, a short wooden doorway on a narrow road with the white letters ‘horno’ painted on the doorjamb. Filling the dark room is a huge wood fired oven and the baker uses a sickle-like hook attached to a long stick to pull out hundreds of buns and dump them into a tall basket. In the early morning the line is out the door to buy six hot breads for 1S (30 cents). In Ollanta we sprout lentils, drink muña tea (a mountain herb), and home cook hearty quinoa. 

At Wow’s we met Leticia, Paul, Anna and Zeke, a dear, adventurous family of Friends with roots in Pennsylvania, Argentina and Bolivia. Leticia practices Shamanic Energy Healing, one approach to enlivening a tradition of connection with the earth which she translates into the context of my own culture. Through this connection, my attention was brought to my own relationship with mother earth, a relationship which I have paid little thought to, for all the care I give that other people (students) foster their own relationships with nature. Kimmerer describes the results of a survey she gave her ecology students, in which the vast majority felt unequivocally that the earth would be better off without human presence. This sentiment has been my own prevailing assumption. In taking account of my relationship with the earth, I find it marked above all by guilt (for unsustainable consumption, unintended harms), estrangement, distraction, lack of comprehension, unsteady hopelessness. But I also find intense curiosity, lifelong commitment, awe and reverence, and the exchange of signs of love— plentiful gift giving, words of affirmation, positive touches, time spent together. It was startling to contemplate for the first time that the earth could possibly be grateful for my presence. What acts of reciprocity can convince me this should be so? After all, it seems that restoration of our society’s relationship with the earth is also a matter of attending to personal nature relationships, many times over. 

The mountains outside Ollanta are filled with Incan temples and settlements; the Incan capital briefly retreated here during the Spanish conquest. We set out to explore these mountains on an overnight backpack loop, beginning at the Incan bridge in Ollanta and camping at Socma, at the top of a verdant agricultural valley held up by high peaks. On the second morning our trail splintered apart and we continued cross-country into high silent valleys where children ran up and down the stiff inclines herding sheep and llama. A local man began to walk with us, saying he was going to check on his horses over the high pass towards Ollanta, but he mainly spoke Quechua and we could communicate little. As we breathlessly crested the pass I saw my first condor soaring below. 

Once over the pass, it became clear that we had truly lost the route, and this man was leading us further from where we need to go to get back to Ollanta before dark. We were 1200m above the town, glaciated peaks ringing around above and cragged vertical cliff below. We chose a steep gully where it seemed least likely that we would get cliffed out on the descent. This bushwhack made a farce of my intention to sit on the earth as a daily practice; the earth wanted me not only to sit on her but to know her all around me, subsumed in high slippery grasses, nettles, cacti with long spines which stuck into my legs, and the smell of mountain mint. It was freestyle hiking, moving in all directions through space, tumbling down with eyes fixed on the pueblo far beneath. Lower down we slid on bouts of scree slide, rolling with bundles of rocks brought to life by our presence. In heat and hunger and thirst we finally arrived in the valley. I felt like a thing of the earth, caring not so much for that line between me and beyond me which is so well preserved by cleanliness and pre-made paths.

From Ollanta, we pressed to the depths of the Sacred Valley, to the ‘mind’ of Machu Picchu. Our bus ascended the Abra Malaga, the hallucinogenic (colloquial: awesome) pass guarding the eastern edge of the Andes, which looks as fantastical as it sounds, shrouded in mist. We then plunged into humid jungle on a single lane dirt road carved out of cliffside. A perilous ride, we crossed waterfalls washing across the path, rumbled over landslides, and avoided potholes which fell into scree along the vertical edge of the Urubamba River gorge, roaring class V rapids below, jaws open. All my muscles were tightened when we arrived at last at Hidroelectrica, to begin a several hours walk to Aguas Calientes along the train tracks, looping around the majestic promontory of Machu Picchu.


The morning of our climb to Machu Picchu was thick fog and heavy rain, and the trail was almost desolate. Our experience here in the rainy/low season has somewhat maintained the rhythm of winter— a sense of contraction, inward-looking, slowness, seeing close-up. We began by exploring with near-sighted admiration, as the complex Incan canal/ irrigation system performed in full force. Throughout the day, fog lifted artfully to reveal human structures and the mountains they call towards. Every aspect of the being of this place reveres the surrounding apus, trapezoidal altars lifting my eyes up to trapezoidal peaks beyond. Most of what is thought about Machu Picchu remains impassioned speculation (and it was never found by Spanish chroniclers), but this settlement was likely built under the Inca Pachacuti in the late 1400s, the same Inca who expanded the Tawantinsuyu (Incan territory; the ‘four walls of the world’) as far as now northern Ecuador, with Cusco as the symbolic center. 

In the afternoon sunlight, the place was magnetic— such a singular, sacred NOW amidst long journeys of arrival and return; a testament to the power of inspired human creation and unity of purpose. On the stairway to the ‘hitching-post of the sun’, there is a sign that reads ‘no detenerse’— do not pause, or translated literally, do not un-have oneself. In the presence of such mystery and majesty, how are we not to pause? How are we not to un-have ourselves?

Detenerse is also ‘to detain, to apprehend’, another condition in which the self is un-had. There is a pull here between people losing selfhood to place, and place losing selfhood to people. For all the history of sacralization of place, Cusco is too a site of desecration, and both sacralization and desecration continue at once today. 

The Sun Temple, Qorikancha, was the spiritual center of the Incan empire. It was once clad in 700 solid-gold sheets, and life-sized replicas of the empire’s flora and fauna in solid gold filled the courtyard, which was bordered by temples to the rainbow, stars, thunder and moon. High priests monitored celestial activities from an observatory and the architecture itself served as an agricultural calendar, the sun shooting through the ceremonial niche on the June solstice. Qorikancha exemplified the Inca’s exclusive use of gold in adoration, and gold mined never left the empire.

When Cusco was sacked by Pizarro in 1532, the captured Inca Atahualpa offered gold from Qoricancha as ransom and was killed anyways. ‘Struggling, battling between themselves, each soldier angled to get off with the lion’s share of the treasure [at Qorikancha], laying waste to jewels and altars’ (Galeano quoting Miguel León, my translation). This was the beginning of a long history of colonial and capitalist exploitation in South America by European nations then the United States, ‘the poverty of man resulting from the richness of the earth.’ In 1650, nearby Potosi (in now Bolivia) was an opulent city with extreme wealth in silver mining, one of the largest and richest in the world, with a population ten times the size of Boston. In Venas Abiertas, Galeano describes ‘this city condemned to nostalgia, tormented by cold and misery, is still an open wound of the colonial system in America.’ The exploitation and desecration of natural resources for political power and wealth is a continued history; as I left Qoricancha I was handed a flyer for a protest against the corruption of private businesses siphoning public funds in the construction of a new airport in Cusco. The protest was to take place in the plaza where Tupac Amaru, who led an indigenous uprising of now mythical significance, was tortured and quartered by the Spanish in 1781 by having his limbs tied to four pulling horses. It’s all part of the same story. 

Our last week in Peru we rose out of the Sacred Valley to Arequipa and the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world. To arrive in the marvellous mountain village of Cabanaconde, we took the slowest bus on earth for eight hours through eerie volcanic desolation. On this trek we met new friends, breathless awe, and expansive silence. We began to understand the myriad factors that are necessary to undertake a wilderness trip, which are easy to take for granted in the US, England or New Zealand— physical/ mental health (after struggling with parasites and altitude sickness), physical safety (on this trip we avoided some hikes because of warnings of assaults), a hospitable relationship between hikers and locals (which we haven’t always found), and the ability to independently find one’s way (amidst splintering unsigned mountain paths of local use). All of these factors finally and joyfully came together on this trek. We slept in simple hospedajes in small villages in the canyon and found such kindness from the local people we met who harvested tuna fruit, avocado, apples and corn in the canyon. 

When we walked back into Cabanaconde at the end of our hike, a funeral procession was advancing through town. The man leading carried a black cross, ‘Luisa Álvarez falleció 1.3.17.’ Behind him, hand in hand, a row of older women with heavy blue shawls, followed by the band— a solemn drum beat, trumpet, and weeping tuba. Neighbors stepped to their doorways as the procession passed. The iglesia and plaza of Cabanaconde are set against searing pink mountains, beyond which lies the world’s deepest canyon of Cotahuasi. My heart was softened and opened returning to this sweet town in the fresh mountain air, spring-like in the last days of rain. I wandered around, stopping at the tienda where the dueño asked me to read off the weight of a heavy sack of potatoes a mother dragged in, pausing at an embroidery shop on the plaza where a man crafted the traditional colorful, heavily embroidered brim hats, vests and skirts that all the women wear. In the evening I sat by the fountain as an old man played the flute in the supple breeze.

We know it’s time to go home when our hair is growing over our ears and our 2 oz. supply of Dr.B’s soap is almost gone. Culminating (but really continuing) an unexpected journey, I have in mind the hummingbird’s teaching to travelers: ‘to drink the sweet nectar, and to make the impossible flight.’

Books I have read while travelling in Peru:

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)

‘After all, there aren’t two worlds [indigenous knowledge and western science] there is just this one good, green earth.’ Eduardo Galeano, Patas Arriba: La Escuela del Mundo al Reves (1997)

‘A broken memory allows us to believe that richness is innocent of poverty’  Eduardo Galeano, Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971)

‘The latin american colonial economy gave forth the greatest concentration of work force then known, to make possible the greatest concentration of wealth that a civilization had given forth in the history of the world.’  Doreen Massey, ‘A Global Sense of Place’ in Space, Place and Gender (1994)

‘We need to ask whether our relative mobility and power over mobility entrenches the spatial imprisonment of other groups.’ Johan Reinard, Machu Picchu: The Sacred Center (1991, 2002) Recommendations:


Pantastico Hostel and Bakery

El Encuentro Vegetarian Restaurant (10S Menu!)

Green’s Organic balcony seat

San Blas Plaza and Market

Qoricancha Museum

Sacsaywaman ruin

Refugios Salkantay (run by Edwin), www.refugiossalkantay.com Pisac:

Hostal Pisac Inca

Ulrike's Cafe

Pisac artesanías market

Kusi Kawsay School

Pisac Ruins

Kerry Moran’s Depth Astrology

Lagos Kinsa Ccocha day hike

Chicha Morada juice Ollantaytambo:

La Casa de Wow!

Horno de Leña

Ollanta produce market

Pumamarca day hike Machu Picchu:

Camping Municipal (15S/carpa!) Around Arequipa:

Mercado San Camilo

Omphalos Vegetarian Restaurant (10S menu!)

Pachamama Hostel, Cabanaconde

Colca Canyon trekking (Cabanaconde-Llahuar-Llatica-Malata-San Juan de Chucho-Cabanaconde)

Margarita’s Hospedaje, Malata, Colca Canyon

Places in Ecuador

I am learning how our places teach us how to live— how to feed, how to stay warm or cool, how to stay kind. I have met a series of witnesses who watch their places, who come back. Who know what has changed, and how, and who ask me to imagine. These are the historians, who ply what is now as a tool between what has been and what might be. Like a sharpened tool in an accustomed hand, what exists is at once revered and small.

Falling asleep in the jungle feels like being possessed— the soft pounding constant roil of the river beside, a cacophony of crepuscular lulls, hisses, buzzes, twits. Fist-sized snails emerge towards open spaces, pace of sleep. When it is light, chlorophyll kaleidoscopes enrodean—palms and ferns of dinosaur, thigh-width bamboo, pink-hewed boulders strewn in clear aguas cascading. The sky in the Oriente is quiet colors of water, and the twilight amplitude feels like warmly slowly sinking deeper. We sleep open air in the choza under a white linen Indonesian bug net, as creatures far larger and littler command us to stillness.

Antonio carries a yellow- handled machete everywhere he walks, taking for granted that to move forward is to hack a way. It may be, like the rubber boots, for venomous snakes, but more often meets toxic invasive African snails first brought to Brazil as a delicacy. On the way to the bathroom in the evening I follow his instructions and rampage the purple snails creeping towards the choza, each requiring several blows of a hatchet. Sometimes it gets cold at night here, Antonio warns us, and he has to cover himself with a sheet.

Like winter floods across the Oriente in an age of climate strangeness, this river by Archidona rose three meters on New Years’ Eve and carved a new curved course. In the morning, we take saw and machete to root and stalk to clear debris for perhaps a new beach. It is muggy and buggy and we are small creatures heaving toothpicks of damage flattened in seconds. Only five years ago this plot was a horse corral, now a tended agroforestry project of cacao and plantain. Grazing meals still spring up like weeds and these reminders on the near past insist on being individually pulled up by root. It concerns me to be a transient young adult at a time when our places need us most— as witnesses, makers, caretakers. In these environments, I learn only secondhand how now is unlike then. Places unwitnessed too are changing. 

Passing through Papallacta hotsprings, our journey into the jungle is a descent of over 10,000 ft from the indigenous comuna of San Clemente on the skirts of Volcán Imbabura. On Sunday evening, we meet Roberto at the school and share a plato of boiled potatoes, fried meat and choclo. Keaton’s corralled into a game of volley, as indigenous women traditionally dressed embroider and giggle at the sideline under the single streetlamp. 

The moon is tierna, tender, new, filling and emptying at unfamiliar angles. Roberto’s taita (kichwa for father) Alberto describes to me how at this time of the cambio de fase, tree sap drops towards roots, making wood drier and freer of insects, better for harvest. Likewise, the full moon draws sap towards extremities, the sweetest time for plucking fruits. Monday and Tuesday are therefore spent clambering into the camioneta (pick-up truck) and scouting for carrizo (bamboo) on the edges of properties in Ibarra for the construction of a roof for a new house. When we find a mature patch, we ask the dueño for permission and begin an operation of machete chopping, vine untangling, debranching, peeling, sorting. The madre Laura brings a huge pot of boiled potatoes, a round of queso fresco (the only cheese in Ecuador, always made or bought locally), a jar of aji (a ubiquitous spicy dip of crushed aji peppers, cilantro, vinegar, garlic), and one avocado and mango per each. 

The eighteen families in San Clemente are involved in subsistence farming; cows graze on the edges of dirt roads, chickens roam, cuy (guinea pig) squeak in their shelters, and attached by a frayed rope to a short wooden peg hammered by rock into tierra all throughout Ecuador are llama, alpaca, chanchos (hogs) and sheep. The rhythm of seasons we know is null in a place of constant fruition. Growing now in the mountains are potatoes, carrots, beets, leeks, scallions, zucchini, cabbage, broccoli, and up high, blueberries. Tamia is three and tours us through the huerta plants, telling which cures a cough and finding tiny sweet sprouts of estevia. Before going up to San Clemente we were giddy to shop at our first SuperMaxi, where we could find salty plátano chifles made by Frito- Lay, sugary alfajores, conventional mushrooms in a styrofoam container wrapped in plastic wrap, and 500g sacks to quinoa for 80 cents. Our supermarket finds quickly feel inappropriate here, where in the rafters a year’s supply of quinua hangs drying on the stalk.

When we walk with Alberto through high páramo to Lago Cubilche, the place he sees is heavy and storied. In pine groves, he describes being enrolled as a young adult in a government project to plant pine and eucalyptus tree farms. In return for planting, members of the indigenous community were given food— bottled vegetable oil to replace harvesting oil at home from hog and sheep fat, canned meat over a protein- rich, largely vegetarian diet, white sugar over panela, a natural unrefined sugar product, and white flour for machica, a mixture of local whole grain flours including quinoa and barley. As the scheme drew members of San Clemente down the hill into a market economy to satiate new tastes, the non-native pine and eucalyptus uphill sucked moisture and nutrients from the soil, devastating crop yields in families’ huertas. 

The folks in San Clemente are Caranqui, native to the northern Sierra of Ecuador in a period before Incan, followed by Spanish, conquest. To the north, a glimmering lake is named red for bloodshed incurred by the Inca. Only two generations ago, Alberto’s family was enslaved to huge monocultural haciendas on these hills, and the Freire sons of the hacendados still run an auto business in town. Out of the cloud emerges a ridge opposite, and three days’ walk over the peaks is Manuel de Acosta, a settlement of Alberto’s relatives who escaped hacienda servitude in the middle of the night. 

Hacendados dismantled indigenous communities in the northern sierra with a colonizing tactic ubiquitous across the Americas— separating families, splitting kin through geographic space. It is a means of consolidating economic and social power in the hands of few and it is just as uniquitous today though often disguised as a personal choice. Taking advantage of rapid transportation and the seduction of increasingly ‘comfortable’ lifestyles, many in my generation develop affiliations to corporation or institutions which surpass affiliation to family, civic community, or particular place. I am struck in my Ecuadorian encounters by the way in which stewardship of place demands intent commitment— those places best cared for are places where witnesses and carers have chosen to remain. This kind of attention to a place will never be advantageous to exploitative consumer capitalism, which will always rely on disposability— of stuff, of people, of places, of people in their places. 

Environmental education is a means I have found of beginning to bring people back to places. Keaton and I were invited to give two Spanish talks on environmental education at the Universidad Polytécnica Salesiana in Quito, a gift of articulating our practice and recognizing the importance of sharing about the possibility of outdoor, expeditionary, experiential and place-based forms of education in a setting where such possibilities are far from taken for granted. Jesús organized the talks, a professor of pedagogy and the brother of Rafael, the teacher and Peace Corps host we stayed with in the rural town of Amaguaña, outside Quito. Jesús, Rafael, and their six siblings started a school in Amaguaña, where Jesús worked in the mornings before meeting us at the university, one of many family-centered social projects I was able to witness in Ecuador. The second talk I gave alone to an auditorium of distance students in a bilingual/ intercultural Kichwa- Spanish track, all from indigenous communities south of Quito. I felt conflicted commanding a stage when there was so much I wished to learn from these students, though those who responsed at the end shared a heartening sense of earnest gravity and implicit understanding towards the current importance of nature education.

As it was the end of the semester, I was then invited to a potluck (my name for it) out on the lawn, in gratitude to the professors. The students layed out black trash bags and scattered them with traditional indigenous foods they eat at home. Eating with our hands, we enjoyed boiled potatoes, choclo (crispy corn kernels), mote (enlarged boiled corn), tough corn on the cob, chicha (a bubbly fermented corn drink) and a delicacy reserved for special occasions— cuy (guinea pig). 

Cuy has a rubbery skin, fishy taste, and consistency like dark poultry— the bulk of the meat is found in the thigh. Cuy are often kept for their rich guano, and they are also used medicinally. Most folks in San Clemente use natural remedies for external ailments (headache, stomachache) including warming plants (eg. ginger, aji) and cooling plants (eg. aloe). A limpieza de cuy (cleansing with guinea pig) is used by trained indigenous medics to discover internal ailments— a family cuy is rubbed around the body, and the highly sensitive cuy responds by imitating the symptoms it perceives, like a sonogram. At the least this practice sounds entirely more life-giving and healing than most Western diagnostic treatments! Food is the primary medicine in San Clemente, with the recognition that the consumption of poisons through conventional agriculture leads directly to our buying further into the industrial-pharmaceutical system.  I was nourished in San Clemente by powerful imaginings of this place as it might become. Members of San Clemente are recovering a knowledge of organic local agriculture, a means of alimentation ubiquitous in human society apart from the blip of the past three generations. The availability of California lettuce in New England winter or Ecuadorian plátanos in North America at any time of year began as an unbelievable party trick and luxurious use of resources, not a way of life. Indigenous communities around Ibarra are organizing to teach about organic agriculture and protest against Ministry of Agriculture restrictions on selling pesticide- free food. The Pupiales imagine becoming energy independent through heating methods which take advantage of hog manure, and scheme a community replanting of native aliso, yaual and polylepsis trees to heal the soil. 

In witnessing community projects here, most moving of all is a word I have heard often which specifically denotes work done in common— una minga. On the day we arrived the Pupiales returned home with an enormous basket of mangoes from a strange nearby valley with a warm microclimate, where they had spent the day helping in communal harvest. San Clemente plans mingas every few weeks, to be present for a family for a task an individual could not alone complete, then sharing the fruits. By this exchange, all enjoy food not growing in their own huerta. Antonio suggested we have a minga of four to clear debris from the flood, so I have the sense it matters not so much how many are involved, but the intention that the task at hand can be uniquely achieved in common.

The Dammer brothers welcomed us to Palugo farm, where they live in community with their young families and their parents in homes of their own construction, running an organic farm and outdoor school. Palugo is on the outskirts of Quito, with a view to the stark snowy flanks of Volcán Cotopaxi and in the foreground, a new particle board factory. This year a highway was completed which splits through the farm, breaking the son’ area from their parents’. The commitment of this family to tend to their place, an urban oasis in an area of rapid development, is marked every day as flights vroom low overhead towards the newly constructed international airport nearby. Hills opposite are in the process of clearcut, as Thomas perfects his irrigation channels in the terraced vegetable garden, an unlikely achievement on a hillside of dense volcanic ash soil.

When we arrived, we visited piglets only three days old and Michael gave us a jar of yogurt from their hefty Brown Swiss stock. We were able to use the kitchen and choza constructed by students for students, and in the evenings collected goods from the garden for our fire-cooked meals. With eucalyptus leña, we prepared carrot cake, zucchini bread, oatmeal soda bread with fresh scallions and thyme, quinoa stir fry of fresh carrots, onions, cabbage, zucchini, and beets.

In exchange for our stay, we contibuted in the construction of a new bodega to replace a structure now cut off from the barn by the new highway, for use by students for yoga, sewing, gear storage, and trip planning. Feeling often inept but eager to help, we built window sills, varnished, and sanded, cut and rounded wood. Our witness of so many hand-built structures on this trip has been a moving indication of the human power of creation. In seeing unfinishedness, it is easier to know that this wasn’t always here, this place was different, and, this place can be different.

I expected on this trip to find more of what I determined ‘wilderness’, but it was rather filled with human aliveness, with learning about how to live. Our first excursion was a 4-day hike from the mountain village of Sigchos to Quilotoa crater lake. We followed a route of yellow blazes through mountain farms, river valleys, earth canyons, animal trails, and remote villages. We felt constantly conspicuous, walking in leisure steep routes that campesinos took to work, giving saludos to farmers squinting up into the hot sun while harvesting with machete. On the road into Chugchillán, droves of children walked past staring, pointing and whispering. My expectation was conditioned by my understanding of wilderness in the United States— places purified of culture, returned to a ‘natural’ state. But these places have been purified for certain people, with unequal privilege of access. I visit Yosemite valley without any sense that I am encroaching into the place of a different culture only because the cultivator ancestors of the children who would snicker were removed or murdered. Not without cultural struggle, here cultivation and recreation are entangled in stunning natural space. After gasping up the 2,000ft wall of Toachi Canyon, it provides a different perspective to see children running up on their daily route home from school. There is great opportunity here to prepare educational materials for tourists to pursue this route with an understanding of people and place.

I have had plenty of trouble communicating on this trip in ways that have nothing to do with language but rather with cultural expectations— of time, relationships, money, transport. In fact, many aspects of these travels have been exceedingly difficult and impossible to expect. Travel is really a reminder of the evolutionary miracle of clearly communicating with another human in this world, at times requiring such stubborn patience and tenacity. In moments of frustration and exhaustion, I also realize that there is hardly a more worthwhile task than to keep trying to make sense of each other. It was never going to be easy. I carry this with me back to the United States.

This trip came to be about learning how to live in place— not what we bring home from ‘wilderness’, but how we make that home itself. I left the US burdened with political anxiety and fear, which right now remains for me in the realm of wifi, media, and dream world. At a time of impending facism and incessant fabricated chaos in predominantly placeless realms, I am reminded how it is all the more important to ground myself in place and tactility. In Ecuador, I have found the gift of involvement in projects of creation over reaction, the construction of places and ways of being which insist on greater aliveness.

In Ecuador, many of the individuals I met were connected to Kroka Expeditions, where I will begin work in April. Kroka’s mission statement is: 

‘Kroka is a wilderness expedition school for young people based on a year-round, organic farm in Marlow, New Hampshire. We believe that the consciousness and altruistic will can be brought forward through a living relationship with the natural world and by taking our places within the circle of community.’

Books I have read on these travels and recommend:

David Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, the Environment and the Human Prospect (2004; 1994)

‘The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.’

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007)

An inspiring and convincing account of a year of local eating in Appalachia; ‘When we began each meal with the question, ‘what do we have plenty of?’ it really became an exercise in gratitude.’

Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (1988)

‘People are the only critical resource needed by people. We ourselves, if we organize our talents, are sufficient to each other.’

Alan Weisman, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (1998)

The story of the unlikely flourishing of an ingenious eco-village in the inhospitable llanos of Colombia.

Coming Together

The first week of this year has been long and varied, but thrums with the theme of coming together. I am now in Amaguaña in Rafael’s simple house, crickets, perros, gallinas, cows lowing outside in the street. Amaguaña ‘tropical’ is in a valley east of Quito, flanked by the rugged outer rim of volcán Pasachoa, lush and laced with clouds. In this arrival, places and moments feel fractured each from the next and flights and flitting show me how much place is intentional construction, bodily dedication.  In this year to come, my mother reminded me that while there is no one right place to put our bodies, it is our responsibility to say clearly why we choose to place our bodies where we do. This week has left my body speck-like, struggling against an earthly scale my mind so much more easily traverses. Our flight to Quito left from Dallas after a 27 hour-by-hour delay, 5 pilots, 2 mechanical faults, and 3 iterations of boarding the aircraft. The violence of placelessness and artifice was upon us, the terminal floor continuously rumbling, buzzing with disregard to hour. I was wrenched in two directions as my gut- doubt continued over my justification for adventure and learning at an uncertain time, when it feels like the splayedness of my country is closing in on itself. But I have been bolstered by the greater hopefulness of those around me, that this is still a time for ventures that bring me fear and greater boldness, that my mind is not as open as it might be. I repeated through the journey to arrival, ‘It’s only fear. It’s only fear.’

The extended placelessness of in-betweens, spent in modern spaces where time and specificity have been eradicated, has nonetheless indicated to me the placing power of people finding each other. Our hours of waiting were filled with laughter and comradery with Ecuadorians who were returning home after visiting children in the United States. With stories and suggestions, our new friends powerfully conjured the images of very particular places— the bizcocho (cake) shop across from the cemetery in Cayambe, the trailhead at Papallacta, the last volcanic ice merchant in the world in Ríobamba. From the hour’s cold wait for the last shuttle at midnight in Dallas, we served as translators and advocates for this pueblo of twelve. In communing with these new friends, we came together in creating place— social and imagined— and since their kinship buoyed me to take the flight at last— tangible. I have never before experienced this phenomenon; as we boarded the aircraft for the third time, each greeted another with jolly familiarity. What joy can be found in coming together when we need to. 

We finally arrived in Quito at 3am a day after we expected, and have been continuously arriving ever since. The altitude (ten thousand feet) is a forceful reminder of how much our bodies emerge from place and what gentle patience it takes to settle again. The altitude brings lethargy, headache, dizziness, fevery chills and potent dreams— even in sleep, we’re tethered to airier spheres and wait for our bodies to settle as heavy again. Our first day was spent sleeping, waking to walk in the hot, close sun, and having blackberry juice and plátano. 

The next day, Rafael, Dan’s Peace Corps host, met us in Quito with his cousin Edwin. We rambled from iglesia to iglesia in the old town, the streets closed from cars and filled with guitar bands, cyclists, church-goers, and salespeople selling everything from choclo (corn) to dog clothes. These churches were built with the same foundation stones as the sacked Incan temples that once stood in their place. They were signals of ‘quantum entanglement’, overlayings, depths, filled with geometric Arabic designs , Italian tile mosaics, ‘pan de oro’ mud reliefs crafted by native workers. Edwin’s tour was filled with vivid legends and proof of their truth— the one stone water spout outside Iglesia San Francisco that the devil laid late, saving the city of Quito, and the esquina where the cock fought the drunk to be memorialized on the weather vane of the national cathedral. On the drive down to Amaguaña Edwin plays his own music for us as the Valle de los Chillos opens below.

The twisting road turns to rock, lined with Eucalyptus trees and cows tethered by rope grazing on the banks of the street. For almuerzo we stop at the río San Pedro and catch trucha in a pool by the gushing river. We eat the fish fried, sitting by the dry heat of a eucalyptus fire in the chimenea as the afternoon rain falls. 

My travels last year were an investigation of the enormity of the world, of how eminently possible it is to be hopelessly far away. This investigation is a contraction, a testament to interconnectedness and common livelihood. In Dallas, we visited the energy exhibit at the museum of science and nature, an extensive glorification of hydraulic fracking, an exposition for children of possible career paths. Mike the docent told us that he really enjoyed his time in Quito while drilling in the Amazon, he hoped we would enjoy it too. This is the very same world that I travel in, and it is only a matter of realization.

I am here. Traveling brings into relief the balance between disappearing into ‘I am HERE’ and the mutual creation of place with self, ‘I AM (the) here.’ I have no return ticket and each day unfolds as new, guided by questions of how people and places come together in living, feeding, learning. 

On Coming Together:

On Being: john a. powell: Opening the question of race to the question of belonging ‘We are constantly making each other.’

Hunter Jackson, Ya Van Muchos Hermanos Muertos 

A beautifully written and harrowing account of volunteering with No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths) providing humanitarian aid to migrants near the Arizona- Mexico border. ‘The border is everywhere but most people think they have never seen it.’

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)


To settle to turn one’s attention to become calmer or quieter to sit or come to rest in a comfortable position to adopt a more steady style of life to end a dispute to pay a debt to fall or come down onto a surface to establish a colony in to silence by some means to gradually sink down under its or their own weight.

I don’t know what it means to live intimately with land I do not (properly) belong to. I have come of settlers, am settling re-settle and resemble.

It wasn’t very long ago this very hour, I mean.

Be like a child in the wide wet leaves of histories. Look up. How did you come to be on this land? How did your family come to be where they are? How did you acquire the resources which have over and over sustained you?

Now is a time to seek elders, families If you elder be sought, say why was this not spoken about in my home, say imagine what it was like

Who cooked who cleaned? Who chose to go and how did they arrive? Who occupied a house, by mortgage, a plot, by land grant? Lamp, drape, tome, tinker--where do these things come from? Who owned who owns who?

I live on occupied territory that continues to be resettled. Still at night I feel safe and by day, hopeful. The right to be here has been naturalized, settled, habit. Name the occupied territories inhabited. Whom will I heed, seek? What will I give up? to turn my attention to become


Maine- Wabanaki REACH


‘REACH envisions and prepares for a future where Maine and Wabanaki people join together, acknowledging truth, promoting healing and creating change.’

I attended the Maine- Wabanaki REACH Ally Training in June which connected me to a journey of acknowledging my position as a white settler within real and ongoing structures of colonialism. It also connected me with actions and information, and I highly recommend to others seeking out similar local organizations.


Lisa Graustein, Why We Don’t Wear Mohawks: A Conversation about Who We Are and Cultural Appropriation with My 7-Year Old


‘In learning this history, I was given the opportunity to do what I think all white people need to step up to: honor our ancestors who endured and survived horrible things while also taking responsibility for those ancestors who enacted the terror and violence on others.’


Standing Rock Solidarity Training


See the first 45-minutes for a great foundation on settler colonialism. ‘Our presence as settlers on this territory is continuously displacing indigenous people.’


Winona LaDuke, The Beginning is Near


‘The violence and the economics of a failing industry will indeed unravel, and this is the beginning.’


Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder (1996). A novel I recently finished and highly recommend. ‘How can a calendar tell us how long a person is a leader? That's crazy. A leader is a leader as long as the people believe in him and as long as he is the best person to lead us. You can only lead as long as the people will follow.’


Michael Meade, Awakening the Genius in Everyone: When the Calling Keeps Calling


‘Elders work to create situations that will exist after they are gone’


Vincent Harding, Is America Possible?


Advocating patient and passionate cross-generational relationship in civil rights and social justice work

What Abides

November 9, 2016

In the afternoon I walk to the place in the forest where the sun last shines, the soft cup where eastern hemlock branches bend, treetops like torches of the evening light. The sun strewn ground a cradle and a mossen rock for the curve of my neck. The stillness has wetness, and ferns perk surrounding, shivering gently.

This is a quiet place where no clocks changed, no one won or lost, a quiet place where the sun burns my eyes and sets a hazy orange tone. I know so little about these woods but there is space albeit where I calmly can be. Rachel Carson tells us that in sharing nature with children, ‘it is not half so important to know as to feel,’ to point out to a child how the dimming of the earth nudges your soul in what peculiar way. This noticing feeling in youth exceeds knowing.

From where I sit at breakfast with my students, the rising sun beams onto their faces from east of Mount Monadnock in late October, and some mornings we sing a song before we start the day. ‘Now the sun is rising up/ I feel the warmth of it/ in my soul and in my bones.’ This song could be sung loudly today no less, as so much exceeds yet depends upon us. If I need no other reason for welcoming today, too, it is from Maya Angelou, ‘I’ve never seen this one before.’

I went for a morning walk back when there was still a prickly midday warmth, climbing the arcing meadow by Gabriel’s Field, the laying hens, the herb garden and the raspberry thickets. I walked towards the west in a groove and at the edge of the treeline lifted my head. Before me through the woods was a wide and tall maple, my silhouette perfectly framed by the rising sun upon its trunk, my own body astride two places. I listened to Krista Tipett, who, as I witnessed my composed shadow on the far tree, described how ‘a core aspect of wisdom is that there is an integrity between inner life and outer presence in the world.’ This moment of integrity emerged from only an instinct to get out and look up, and also to walk with the sunlight.

The orchestrated openness of this life right now is an invitation to examine what suns I’m orbiting and how directly I’m walking in their light. It is an invitation to listen for ways opening up. Our chatty sixth graders would often ask a question and then immediately become distracted. In one circle Mark stopped the group, ‘Listen up! I have a piece of advice that will serve you for your whole life! When you ask a question, you need to be able to listen for the answer.’

In a morning of confusion and shame, there are questions to hold that need for a moment to be held. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes to his young friend, ‘be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’ There’s not one ‘answer’, but I do know that one morning my silhouette was perfectly framed by the rising sun.

On this morning equally, Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem pertains, ‘We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see.’ I don’t know what it means to be safe, but I feel the prospect of greater violence not just to my soul but to my body, in the years ahead. I need to take my body with me. The best way I can describe my safety is that my father’s bread came into my mailbox, flown. Dense rye, which was grown somewhere and prepared for him to acquire, some yeast and sugar, and a peaceful kitchen for the mixture. He posted it and it arrived on the right day, still fresh, in parchment paper and twine. Someone handled it, someone dropped it off, and someone else placed it in the little wooden mailbox that yet another person built and someone else again put my name on. In receiving this loaf, flown, so much infrastructure, so many resources, conspired to tell me that my father was alive, his health was in his food, and I was safe. These structures worked to retain and convey our relationship, not to be taken for granted.

Before each meal we share a gratefulness circle with our students beside the wood-burning stove. We live with greater plenty than kings of history, with greater comfort, freedom, and health-giving sustenance. Mark described to the fourth graders how meals conveyed through the palace of Versailles would freeze in the winter, the palace stony cold, as our warm meal awaited. I will take this with me from Glen Brook, above all being grateful. Brother David Steindl- Rast describes gratitude as the bowl of a fountain being quietly filled (gratefulness) then overflowing, making noise and sparkling (thanksgiving). This culture attempts to make that bowl bigger and bigger, and many never therefore feel it overflow. I want to keep a small bowl, and not fear if in walking fiercely it spills, knowing it can be replenished.

At the Young Friends retreat on climate consciousness, Nia presented three stories about climate change that we tell ourselves as we make choices in our lives: Business as Usual, the Great Unraveling, and the Great Turning. The teens read dozens of examples and placed them under the associated paradigm that would allow people to behave in such a way. We found that there was quite a bit of confusion over whether a given story should fall under ‘business as usual’ or ‘the great unraveling’, as we currently live in plenty of ways which will irrecoverably destroy the earth for our children, and these ways are what is ‘usual.’ How, when, where are we choosing to live into a great turning? How, as Gandhi said, are we living in preparation for the world we are working to create? And how at this moment, are we going to ensure that the unraveling choices cannot be normal?

No one was allowed to work alone today, and I spent the day hauling maple sugaring supplies, setting up sugaring lines for the spring, and cleaning with friends. Today is unspeakable and sickening, but there is no preparation I possibly lack to fight towards justice with greater conviction. Much abides, and my purpose holds.

‘The importance of ground when leaving the ground’: Collections from Summer

img_2847 Oh poetry, oh the importance of ground When leaving the ground - from Stephen Dunn, Loves

The frost came last night, the meadow grass whitened, the window panes cold. The hunt for warmths began, and raspberry brambles scratched my ankles as I collected the last berries. This summer has contained many questions and excursions uncollected yet. To make way for a faithful fall writing, here is a slowly collected list. A list like a vine gently shaken, this is what ripened and readily fell.

In the late spring returns to the Northwoods of Maine, we paddled the whitewater of rivers whose droughted emptiness was etched in dark water lines on the rocky rims. The waterways were bony, and Ash trees wilted on the banks whose toes no longer touched groundwater. The boulders’ watermarks darkened around their waists or necks or crowns the memory of flow. The bed stood witness for my students, who possessed no further reference or grounding. I, too, remarked how this rapid which now trickles and pools two years ago enveloped me, and I too became the witness. How do we convince our children of all that our landscapes can be, when we are the ones who know that what our children experience is diminished? How are we convincing our children of all they, themselves can be when that is also more than what they see? The sudden drying, burning air of this Northern summer makes me feel no longer young, makes me write ‘our children’ readily because I have something to tell them, I have seen some things change.

This is ‘the importance of ground when leaving the ground.’ I have stepped into positions of critical perspective from organizations and institutions which formed my ability to critique. What does it mean to become part of an organization, to really enter in? What does it mean to emerge from it, to leave its ground? Who are our allies, and how can we know of them in the widest light possible? Will such alienation be a condition of my life? Is that too much to hope?

I made a list this summer of ‘things that might change’-- weather, seasons, climate, clothing, work, folks in my daily life. Pressed, much, almost all might change-- my association with communities and institutions, the continuing existence of those communities and institutions, my deepest and closest relationships with friends and family, my health, my sound mind, my body. I made another, shorter list of ‘things that will not change.’ Only two items survived-- the reality of our environmental crisis, and the presence of people who need more love. I have been buoyed this summer into orbit around these, to honor and give gratitude to what is present and will soon go, while centering myself around needs towards which no work will ever be wasted.

But what is work towards stewardship, towards believing hard truths, and towards love? It is not work as my society has led me to know it. The last few lines of Philip Levine’s ‘What Work Is’ are on the front page of my journal:

How long has it been since you told him you loved him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words, and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you’re too young or too dumb, not because you’re jealous or even mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no, just because you don’t know what work is.


On an August week off from instructing canoeing expeditions for teens, I took a solo bike trip to Acadia National Park and the Deer Isle Hostel. At Deer Isle, I camped on a subsistence homestead created by Anneli and Dennis, and ate communal meals in the seventeenth century style farmhouse they built with their own lumber upon a granite root cellar where they store food for the winter. They live off-grid with a few solar panels and pump well-water which they carry in buckets to where it is needed. The outdoor shower is open to the sky and the water is heated through a hose coiled within a seaweed- rich compost heap. Anneli exchanges all sorts of goods and deeds with her neighbors, which allows her to understand money as something ‘often used as a shortcut to not draw on your own skills and community.’ I was wrapped and nodding reading Anneli’s book in the half light hours before dark-- ‘To say that people should work--regardless of the conditions, the salary, or possibilities for personal and spiritual growth-- for the sake of such vague goals as ‘a strong consumer economy’ and ‘profit margins’ is to reduce the individual person into a disposable part in a system where advantages made at the expense of others are not only accepted, but expected.’ She describes how her ‘way of living where gains are earned through physical labor, practical skills and devotion to a place has largely been replaced in modern Western society by a way of living where gains are made by financial strategies and depletion of resources.’

What does it mean to do hard work? My education and society have taught me that my hard work is indicated by efficiency, productiveness, business and monetary reward. I have also learned to measure my hard work by physical exhaustion and depletion. But I am not convinced that these are measures of work worth doing. What then are the indicators of ‘hard work’ in the right directions? How can I re-think what it feels like to work hard?


This fall I am living and ‘working’ as an outdoor educator at Glen Brook, a farm and forest Waldorf education center in Marlborough, New Hampshire. I lead school groups ranging from 3rd to 10th grade in week-long visits on topics that have so far included botany, ecology, farm life, cooking and baking, backpacking and campcraft, astronomy, joyful play in the outdoors, and group work with kindness and compassion. I have a sparse room at the top of the farmhouse where I can lie on my side upon waking and see the sun rise crossing an ever-more barren line of forest. Most of this work is about being present, meeting children and teenagers and adults and animals and plants where they are as they grow.

At a Bread and Puppet Theater show this summer, a group of ragged ‘citizens’ made vagabond by earth changes and political upheaval turned their heads and palms upwards to exclaim. ‘We just need a here! BRING IN THE HERE!’ The ceiling of the Paper Maché Cathedral opened and an enormous sun orb puppet descended. I am lightly tethered to one place right now, and Glen Brook has descended as this fall’s ‘here’--- the lake is chillier around my sweaty body after trail runs, the sugar maples crumple their leaves and I am easily enveloped. It is a place to be slow with children who are not often allowed to be slow. It is a place to be slow and home with myself. I have had frequent de ja vu, and strong personal memories, as my mind is admitted to graze in its own plain. It is a place to be still enough to again ‘go to the limits of your longing’ (Rilke, Book of Hours I.59). Where do I long? Where to I need to venture next?

I feel that a coming step is learning more about how to die, in order to journey further and in order to even believe the news and believe what is already true. Roy Scranton has argued for the importance of the humanities towards our climate crisis, because we need to better learn our own mortality and the mortality of our environments. An extended personal wilderness expedition is also in my midst, where both power and fragility become more pressingly real. Joanna Macy draws the circle between learning to die and learning to work at love, both a diminishment of boundaries. ‘Our grief only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it, but when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.’ I have felt, and continue to feel, this wild love for the outdoor life and for a world which abounds to support it. What does it mean to die in this same world?

The last drop on this list of ripenings is a particular connectedness which I met at the end of a canoe portage to Mooselookmeguntic lake in early September. The sky was pinkening and the cormorant stood alone on the cool dock, her long nose tucked gently into her layered feathers. Asleep, she shook slightly in the wind. Her tiny bulbs of eyes were thinly closed. How daring, to sleep through such a pink twilight and become the sweet subject of precious attention. There are few creatures who let me watch them sleep, so I took this as a sign of friendship and of peace.


Why I'm leaving Harvard

The day I stood on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado must have been the first day of the Harvard semester of my second year of graduate school. I looked down into the canyon in the morning sun and cried without meaning— cried at its sharp depths, its lit chasms, above all I cried at its existence without me. Desert roads leave a long time to say a hard thing, and I took all the time before saying, 'I think I need to leave Harvard.' At that point, like a question. There are years that ask questions, and years that answer (Zora Neale Hurston). I have some answers.

I have learned too little. My years as a student engulfed me inside, hunkering in solitude and silence as the conditions of purest study. Under artificial light, central heating, digitally-scheduled packed days, text messaging as solace, quiet as convenience, screens as reality, walls and roofs, quick meals and quick greetings; under the token features of contemporary university life, I became less alive.

The ailments of emotional and physical indoors have become blatant to me after a year in contrast—stinging eyes in quick changes of light, stuffiness in sleeping, subduedness in spirit, lethargy, impatience, headache, dullness. These effects are less evident the longer we remove ourselves from the rhythms of the natural day. When these symptoms can't be felt as a crisis, it is only because we have been desensitized by the temptations of seeming comfort and apparent convenience.

Last year as I prepared for my general exams, I had roiling headaches that went on for weeks at a time. I visited a primary care doctor, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, an optometrist, a neurologist, an acupuncturist, had an MRI of my brain, had blood tests, took supplements, did stretches, and received conflicting conclusions from each of these professionals. Still, many days I woke up in such pain that I couldn't get out of bed. I cancelled arrangements, I bit my lip in anger. In time it was clear. My body was speaking, and I wasn't allowed to listen until it spoke louder and louder and louder. I needed to be able to believe what I already knew; we need to pay attention to what is killing us and not just what symptoms we are complaining about (Bernie Siegel). In the deepest, snowiest parts of that year, my pulse marked my energy low and still in my bones. I was literally less alive.

The school I wish to start is so far an imaginary palace where I put my ideas about education and the oneness of things. In it, Dewey sits talking about time; we always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. We live not only at the time we live, but in the place and in the body. My formal education has situated itself outside time, place and body— it prevails to the extent that it suppresses these conditionals. My intellect succeeds to the extent that it smothers my pain.

While preparing for my final exams at Oxford, the culmination of three years of study, I attended a pastoral care event in which we were advised that these exams were our chance to give everything. You can repair your friendships and family relationships after Finals, they told us, but you can't repair your marks.

This is what I mean that I have learned too little. Before I can continue with a life of learning, I need to learn how to live— how to care for my family, how to let my body be alive as possible, and how to be where I am because when where I am is generic, constructed, controlled, it is only by illusion, while the real world thumps and dies.

But really, I need to leave Harvard because I have learned too much. Like many of my peers, I believe that humans are changing our climate and destroying our environments. I believe that how we respond to this is the foremost challenge of our lives and a condition of our existence which cannot be ignored. At the first meeting of the introductory History graduate seminar, I said I was there seeking slowness. Amidst crisis, I wanted to preserve a place for long-term, thoughtful thinking on the intellectual conditions of environmentally destructive political and economic structures. There is certainly a place for that. But no longer at the cost of living at odds with the natural world I was describing, and no longer at the cost of being comforted into thinking that what I was doing was ever enough.

When living untruthfully, there is little that is more unsettling than to hear Annie Dillard tell us that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. This is just the beginning. The History of Science shows us that how we spend our days is also how we make all sense of the world— the discovery of what is real and what is true in our time emerges from the material circumstances of our living; our food, movements, noises, air, water, spaces, what we think, how we think, in the in-betweens.

This is what I know from reading history. There is no way to dismantle an unjust and environmentally lethal capitalist system when even its critics allow themselves to remain beneficiaries. It is not too late in history if the living beings whose turn it is choose for it not to be too late. And it is not foolish to speak in a supremely hopeful way— words have power, and ideas have long lives. I feel for my planet and my country the same thing I feel for my soul— there are no non-radical options left (Naomi Klein).

I did not expect the prospectus I would write in my third year after enrolling in graduate school at Harvard to be of this nature. But there is a problem that has to do with more than one dissertation, and rather with the conditions of contemporary academic institutions at a time of dire need. While Harvard and many of its peers profess to prioritize endowing students with skills to confront a changing climate, the material circumstances of study curtail opportunities to actually envision alternative, sustainable ways of living. The hegemony of the indoor, technology-centered, high-stress academic lifestyle becomes a condition of knowledge production, and the screen, the artificial space, the processed food and the unnaturally long days become what is implicitly real. But these things are not what is real, and our students learn more from how they live than what they read.

Before this year, I almost hoped that living outside was not actually as good as it seemed, in order to check my own longing. But the extreme beauty of untrammeled natural places is real, the extreme health and joy that accompanies being among them is real. I have slept outside in -15F in Minnesota and 105F along the Colorado River, I've reached volcanoes and glaciers and passes and peaks in Patagonia and New Zealand, sung in caves in Joshua Tree, worked long days on an organic farm in Chile, skinny dipped in turquoise waters, watched the moon come and go. Maggie Nelson describes being real as a sensation, which, among other things, makes one want to live. 

This is what higher education, what any education, should do at its best— it should make one want to live.

The answers of how will be a lifelong becoming. I will continue to live, teach and write outside in the knowledge that there’s not time for holding off. While I won’t always live as well as my words, I want them to stretch towards the people who do. I'm so glad you’ve had this year, my grandmother said. I said, I'm so glad I have this life.



Rain in Doom: The Tongariro Crossing and Round the Mountain Track, Tongariro National Park, New Zealand, March 21-27


This trek was an orbit— around a volcano, around an ensnaring storm, and around a companion. We began with the Crossing, before our wilderness was augmented not only by solitude but by wetness and shroud. The earth was living in sulfur and steam vents, Emerald Lakes appearing below us by a trick of the eye as the week's fog descended.     



Ruapehu means 'throwing rocks,' and when we turn onto the narrower trail which encircles the highest of the volcanoes, we are in a place where things have arrived where they are by being thrown. One thousand meters above us is Crater Lake, dammed in by volcanic debris and fed by glacial melt. 

   We could almost have walked into Rangipo hut before seeing it through the white fog. That night I feel like I am on another planet— a desolate volcanic desert-scape with inhuman winds and interminable dark, where I become a child again listening to each assailing sound as the hut shakes and the fire dies out. 


We drink ginger tea in the morning and pull a mattress in front of the wood stove fire. Today is a gift, Keaton says. The wind is all-consuming and the gusts sear to 100kph. We pee out the window, which I'm prepared for by having peed off the gunwales of a sailboat under way.

We read and talk, eat lentil soup and fall into sleep. My words, food, companion, warmth and awe are all at an arm's reach. I dream of the red view, then stand on the porch at the red view, the mist against my afternoon softness. 


There is a joy in seeing the distance when the storm clears not because it is spectacularly beautiful, but because it is our own world, the one around us, continued. It has an independent brokenness— the way the skirt of the volcano folds into mountains, the gorged valley eroded like steps, rocky desert mars for on and on. It's fracture is its own, not the one we create by being in a certain foggy place and not another. 

The deep quiet of the evening is what I hoped for in the height of the storm, to tell us not that we are on a volcano in a desert moonscape hours from the nearest person and there are so many ways to become smithereens, but instead to tell us that we are on a volcano and this is right because while the earth shakes and slams and licks away life, right now it has paused, long enough for us to hear each others' breath rise and fall and the high tinking of aged crackling coals. 

    We leave Rangipo when the sun is so strong it pricks our skin. It isn't long in the red desert before the sloppy rain begins again, and such long pounds come from above I wonder if we should seek shelter for lightning or high ground for an eruption. The wet rocks I grab are still warm from the sun, as if they had stayed warm since their creation. 

    That is the first day we see the peak of Ruapehu, the shape of which had long been organizing the intent of our days. Mangahuehu glacier emerges out of air and means something important about faithfulness, about the awe of discovering the true existence of what we couldn't yet see. 

    We are alone again at Mangahuehu hut, and only see one traveler going the other direction among those three stormy days. We play cards as golden light slants across the room, then write by candlelight. We dance as the water boils and make lists of adventures to come. 

Our last day snakes us through crossing five hip-deep, swollen, muddy, rushing creeks. In Okahune everyone seems to be without shoes and we narrate our life like García Márquez, because after the three years' rain no one in all the town wore shoes, for they were drying in the sun in the town square for one whole year. 

I have thought of New Zealand as a land of seeing things far away, of huge vistas. These days instead asked me, with grace and violence, to see what is beside me, what is underfoot and what is at hand.              

The Alpine Route, Richmond Range, New Zealand, March 11- 19


This will be short because the days were long and flow. It's clearer now than in the midst how walks make stories of themselves, and how bother, disquiet, slog and mank are still for poetry. 

   The Pelorus River is exactly magic, a sparkling emerald flow slightly thicker and slightly clearer than water. Sitting by a deep bed in the river with the morning sun on my back, I think 'nature's first green is gold' like on other wooded mornings. Here, I hear Frost saying less 'nothing gold can stay,' and more 'green IS gold.'

   At Middy Hut we read that there's no water awaiting us at Mt. Richmond hut, and decide against crossing that peak, 6,000 feet of elevation away. It's obvious how living outside is about saying yes, and less apparent how it is about saying many times— no. We decide to instead follow the Pelorus to the Alpine Route, one of the finest sections of New Zealand's Te Aroroa, 'The Long Pathway.' 

   We climb and climb and at the end of days I can only write down separate words— candle lit hut, wood burning stove, hiss of gas, blue mountains like choppy seas, crescent moon glowing, men reading, men stretching, men yawning, stove crackling and snapping.   

 We started walking before the sun, and we could see the day laid out ahead of us. This was a route where my eyes and my body played the slinky game, sighting the distance, being in the distance. Mount Rintoul was what we couldn't see past, it broke the rules.

   The mountain said, whether you thank me or you despise me, I will crumble under your feet, I will fracture beneath your fingertips. I lost all faith in how the surface of the earth is this thin boundary holding firm the difference between rock and air. I felt like weeping not just because if I kept slipping I would just become the scree and go the whole way down the mountain, but also because the way one rock falls and then many fall feels like the start of a cry— the way you go from being the thing that kicked the rock to the tumbling rock itself. 

    We follow ridges and watersheds, spot snow poles in blinding wet fog high up, cross bands of uplifted red mantel rock with pinch holds. Carried along by the trail, I carried Woolf's Orlando:

'Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous... has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread.'

I am as incongruous as this place, yet a long trail makes sense of it for me. I feel long trails to be too civilized, and want to be stitched together, want to stitch together, by an even lighter thread, by a more alarming, happenstance path.

    At the end, downhill was a defeat as we became the world we had beheld. We were muscle and hunger, without a piece of loftiness. We ate our last particles of food before reaching St. Arnaud's and then had three meat pies, two milkshakes, chocolate milk, mango juice, two bags of chips, a cheese sandwich, an apple muffin, two pizzas, and honey ice cream. Tomorrow we fly north to Tongariro, volcanoes, desert!