Earth custodian

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Three or so years back, when it first dawned on me that picking up garbage in the wild places around home was a simple form of activism – of love in action – that I could practice with intention, I had no idea the fire that was being lit in me.

I had no idea then, that I was taking a step in the direction of what might become my life’s work. By life’s work, I don’t necessarily mean the work I get paid to do; I mean the work of my heart invested over the remainder of my days. The legacy I wish to create and, one day, leave behind on this planet.

It began with disturbance. It boiled into rage. And it has been evolving ever since into something constructive, something empowering, something life-giving. Something like pouring the contents of my soul upon the ground.

. . . . .

My journey began along the shores of Lake Washington in Seattle. I partnered with Seattle Parks and Recreation and joined habitat restoration parties in collaboration with the city and Forterra. I began entertaining a new dream: what if there were a position in the city where I could be paid to keep our natural habitats clean (something beyond the regular, minimum cleanup of the understaffed parks’ employees)? I searched and searched and found one possible listing, which disappeared from the website the next time I checked, much to my dismay.

No, I realized. These jobs are few and far, far between. I’d be more lucky than I could hope to land a job like that.

So I set that dream aside and kept working my job as an assistant manager at Starbucks and cleaning up the lake in my free time. And a year later, we left our life behind in Seattle and started from scratch two hours north in Bellingham.

We’ve lived there two years.

. . . . .

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Though it took me more than a year of living in a new city before I picked up my old practice of cleaning up the outdoors, once I finally stepped out with my litter stick and fresh eyes, there was no turning back.

Our neighborhood in Bellingham is entirely different than our Seattle hood. It’s the northern end of town, where concrete begins to brush up against farm land at the county line. It’s a neighborhood of 55+ housing communities, low-income apartments mixed with condos, cookie-cutter housing developments on top of what was once wetland buffer, a community college and medical buildings.

Wetland, forest, fields and habitat buffer zones are woven into the spaces between our man-made communities. It’s quiet here and the pace is slow.

I think I hesitated to resume my work of cleaning up for so long because I wasn’t seeing properly. I simply didn’t believe there was enough garbage around to bother. And I was fighting my way through the thick of what has been more than five years of clinical depression. As is so often the case, I struggled to muster the energy or desire for the very thing that could be my most effective therapy.

But I finally got out there, one rainy day, and I returned with fresh eyes and a full bag of trash. Turns out, the forest and wetland need plenty of protecting. This would become my new family.

. . . . .

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I’ve given myself a new title these days: earth custodian.

I’m out several times a week now, cleaning and hauling, posting pictures and videos on Instagram. After a year and a half of not having consistent work, of Ricardo and I barely scraping by an existence, I also have freelance work on a team of terrific humans. It has helped give a little boost to our survival-mode lifestyle, and it affords me the luxury of working from home and continuing to do the things I love on my own schedule.

One recent afternoon, I returned home from one of my litter walks – where I’d posted my first live video on Instagram – and received a text from my boss, who currently lives in New Mexico.

“I want to pay you to pick up trash and post about it on Instagram,” she said.

I dropped my phone.  This couldn’t actually be happening.

But it is.

And several weeks later, we’re working out the details of a new business venture, of which I’ve been asked to be the heart and soul. We want to empower and equip others to clean up their own communities, to become custodians of the earth with us. And we want to give back the profits we receive to support the work of others in caring for the earth.

I’m designing shirts. Writing blogs. Picking out products. Learning how to best navigate Instagram as a business. Upping my litter pickup game. Dreaming big.

And though I don’t need to get paid in order to do this work, I am literally in wonder that this is exactly what’s unfolding – better than I originally imagined three years ago.

. . . . .

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In the midst of this growing work of cleaning up the outdoors, I’ve found myself turning with a sense of urgency to the task of cleaning up indoors. In my own garbage and recycling bins, habits and lifestyle. I don’t know why it took so long for my eyes to register the prevalence of waste in my life, but now that they’re open – as with picking up trash – there is no turning back.

I’ve been horrified and sobered by the reality of plastic in my life. Of how addicted I am to it, how it permeates nearly every aspect of my material life. And I find myself on a new, parallel quest to not only reduce waste in the habitats I love outdoors, but also reduce my own legacy of waste in the course of a lifetime. Because larger cleanup efforts and individual waste reduction are two sides of the same coin.

I’ve got to step up my game here, too.

And I’m not going to lie: some of this is hard work. Changing mindsets, habits of convenience and familiarity that are deeply ingrained in our consumer culture – the culture that shaped me – is neither quick or easy.

Some of it – like bringing my own bags to the store, carrying a water bottle and reusable coffee cup in my backpack, and using the tupperware and glass jars we have on hand instead of Ziplock bags – is easy.

But some of it hasn’t even been possible to change until very recently. Because, let’s be gut-level honest. When you’re worrying from month to month if you might be evicted or if your power is going to be shut off; if every damn dollar matters at the grocery store and you choose between bananas and a bus ride home; if you can barely afford (and often times can’t) to replace the essentials like cheap shampoo or toilet paper, light bulbs or razors when they run out; if you can’t afford to buy in bulk because, even if something may be more economical in larger quantities, your dollars don’t stretch that far – the truth is, changing your $1 plastic toothbrush for a $5 bamboo one is not an option. Or silicone covers to replace plastic wrap. Or everything in bulk. Or mesh produce bags, dental lace, stainless steel razors and a set of bamboo cloth menstrual pads.

It all seems so out of reach. And in a practical, financial sense, it is.

But that is slowly changing. And with these changes, I feel I can finally breathe more fully and step more into a lifestyle that matches my values.

The thing I want you to know is that it’s not all or nothing. It almost never is. It’s every-little-damn-bit-matters. You do what you can, I do what I can, and we have grace for the in between places. Because I know what it’s like to live with sparse resources and a daily gnawing of anxiety in your gut. There’s no judgment here, no illusion of this being an equal playing field.

It’s just not.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t make huge, significant changes from wherever we are, regardless of our financial abilities.

And if all else seems out of reach, we can pick up our gloves and bucket and clean up our neighborhoods. These seemingly small acts are collectively making the world a better place, for all of us who call it home.

. . . . .

If you want to join the ecowalk movement, please follow us on Instagram: @conscious.clan. If you visit our website (still under construction) and sign up to receive emails from us, you’ll get more focused stories and tips I’ll be writing on caring for the environment in your inbox, easy peasy. I hope to see you there!

 

 

 

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Lifeblood

The slate gray of morning light pancakes me in bed, between warm covers and the prospect of filling the hours of another day by myself. When I say goodbye to my husband several hours after waking up, I sit frozen in the quiet apartment, the familiar sense of not wanting to do a damn thing washing over me.

Loneliness, this ever present companion, a double-edged sword. She is both an ache in my gut and familiar old friend. A large portion of my life – probably 95% – is spent alone. And I work harder than most, perhaps, to manage loneliness so she doesn’t conspire with depression to send me spiraling in despair.

Some days, she paralyzes me.

Get on your mat, my inner voice urges. Just start moving and stop thinking. 

So I roll out my mat, flow and sweat myself into motion, until gradually that feeling of being stuck dissipates. These acts of self care are not luxuries for me; they are my daily work, every bit as important as the work I do for income. Yoga, fresh air, the company of trees, bird watching, walking with eyes wide open to beauty. They keep me afloat in a sea of lonely days, connecting me to a world vastly larger than my own.

And then I start walking, not knowing exactly where I’m headed. Knowing only that the forests, yet again, are calling.

. . . . .

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En route to the park this afternoon, the sun begins to split through the cracks of slate, prompting me to take my jacket off and stuff it into my backpack. I pick up my pace with the park in sight, rubber cowboy rain boots striking the pavement hard. Once inside its borders, I relax, finding myself in the company of old friends.

The dirt trail is soggy from several days of rain, squishing beneath my boots. From deep in the woods, I hear the sound of home. Towhees, their calls surrounding me like the muffled voices of children playing hide and seek. A continuous loop of questions, this is how I hear them. The sound lights up my face every time.

I travel slowly, pausing beneath trees to locate squirrels. Nodding to robins as they traverse the ground. Trying to find the towhees through echolocation. Inhaling the musk of the woods with appreciation.

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When I reach a familiar tree whose trunk and roots extend like knobby benches, I can no longer bear these boots. I peel them off with my socks and relish the soggy earth rising up between my toes. Finding a seat on the tree trunk, I practice some yoga poses while my leggings soak up the tree’s moisture like a sponge.

An older man with his adult son and young grandson pass by, the little boy on a bicycle. A woman steers clear with her dog. A teenage couple smoking weed walk by with heads lowered. And I, in my own little world, nod to them all and turn back to the tree.

. . . . .

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I am the eccentric grown-ass woman with bare feet and pig tails wandering the park on a 50-degree day in March, rubber boots swinging in hand, staring up at the tree tops.

Under a dimly lit canopy of cedar trees, I catch the pale sun boring through a pinhole of light. The filters of the forest through the arms of gentle giants, all the ways for light to dance between the spaces of darkness, send shivers of wakefulness through my body.

Between two trees, I place my palms in the soil – dirt, fir needles and cones – and reach back with my legs, climbing the trunk of one, kicking up and forward to rest on the trunk of the other. Grounding down and gazing upward, the world upside down, I see a labrinth of branches and peekaboo sky.

My hands are caked in earth and tree, dirt etching lines through wrinkled palms, glowing in the dust of sunlight. I’m in no haste to wash them clean.

. . . . .

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Yet again, this world outdoors – trees, birds, dirt, sky – has met me where I am. My therapist. My companion. My family. I head to her arms often, especially when the loneliness feels crushing, and she absorbs some of the weight.

I come home today with a lightness in my chest, words rising in my thoughts and bird song echoing in my ears. My hands still lined with remains of the forest.

This world not only keeps me afloat; it is my lifeblood.

 

 

 

 

For the love of place

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Some mornings in Seattle, when I stepped outside I’d be greeted with a waft of ocean air. As a girl who grew up vacationing at the Oregon Coast, the scent of the sea carries with it a bit of home; but I never expected it in this teeming city.

Here in Bellingham – small city hedged by forest, bay, farmland and Canada – it is not the ocean greeting me on the breeze when I step outside, but the musk of farm animals. And it thrills me all the same, this whiff of sweet manure, tapping into another place of home in my being.

On a walk this morning, as soon as I step into the woods the scent of a barnyard dissipates and I am left with evergreen trees. Their musk is subtle in these woods, so much so that I experience it more than I inhale it. Here among trees and song birds and squirrels is the scent of home that has become my lifeblood these past years. Wherever I go, my compass points toward forests.

. . . . .

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A friend kindly suggested to me recently that, one day if I live among family or friends, geography might not matter so much. The message between the lines was this: If you had more meaningful human connections, you wouldn’t be so attached to a place.

For me, that place is the Pacific Northwest. But my husband’s entire family live in Mexico, and we have talked extensively of moving there one day to be near them. The one question at the forefront of my mind is not, Could I love Mexico?  I have no doubt that Mexico would open up a new door of home in my heart. New people, new landscapes, new trees and birds, new colors and sounds, scents and tastes.

No, the question has been, Could I live without these forests? 

My husband’s family live dead center in Mexico, where it is arid and hot, far from any forest. I wonder how homesick I would be for these living beings that bring me to life whenever I am in their presence. Who tap into a place of knowing in me that transcends language.

It’s not that my friend’s comment offended me. It just didn’t ring true. Isn’t there room for loving a place without it diminishing love for people, or visa versa? And even more, isn’t it valid enough to simply love a place, with every fiber of your being?

This is my reality, and it’s not been one that everyone can relate to.

. . . . .

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I step out of the woods into a large clearing, treading as lightly as my running shoes on gravel permit. To my left, a spotted towhee perches on the tips of a small tree, his voice a continuous question. Eeeeeeeeuup? Eeeeeeeeuuup?  I regard him with sidelong glances, mesmerized by the urgency of his voice. I wish I could speak back.

To my right and up the path, a half dozen robins comb the grass for a late breakfast. Their rust-colored chests bob up and down, set against green blades and a sky the color of their eggs. As I watch them, I feel my own chest swell with emotion.

Step by step, I make my way to a bench and sit facing the woods. Cotton swab clouds move across the sky as if being pulled apart in slow motion. Somewhere in the woods, I hear the pounding of a beak on dead wood. The rise and fall of a robin’s call. The continued questions of a towhee. Two gulls soar soundlessly over my head and I watch until their white bellies disappear. I see the curve of a bushy black tail trailing a squirrel up a trunk.

And I release the swelling in my chest, a torrent of gratitude and wonder streaming down my face. That this place exists. That I am here. That any of them are alive.

I don’t know if I can bear imagining a world without them. Not even where I live apart from them, but without them in it. A world that is no longer hospitable to their lives. And this is precisely the world we humans are creating.

It is possible to weep with wonder, love and heartbreak all in the same salty tears.

This, too, is my reality.

. . . . .

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One of the many things that slowly edged me away from my roots in Christianity was this mindset that the earth is not our home, and therefore, we cannot love it too much. Likewise, human beings are the main characters of this earth’s narrative and the ones, in the end, who truly matter. All other life is here for our pleasure or use – and yes, our care – not existing for their own glorious purposes, but ultimately for ours. Furthermore, life is best spent investing in things that have eternal value, according to the faith, which means humans. Humans have souls; no other living being does.

I fully recognize this is not universally true of the Christian faith – as it is practiced or perhaps as it was originally intended; there are always exceptions and my knowledge of Christianity came only from western culture. But in my thirty years of experience, this was largely how I saw it lived out across many denominations and communities.

I began to see that the ones I loved did not hold much value in my faith tradition. That, no matter what, I did love this place and earth was my home and humans aren’t the only ones who matter in this story.

I began to see that trees have souls and animals are sentient beings and this world is as much their home as it is mine. We breathe the same air, yet we are the ones degrading it. The state of this earth matters, whether or not this is the only life we’ll know or if it will all be reborn one day after it’s destroyed.

It matters because we exist. Together.

. . . . .

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I didn’t have the words at the time, when my friend suggested I not give so much weight to loving a place. But I do now, thanks to Kathleen Dean Moore and her book, Great tide rising, that makes me ache with familiarity. At the end of an early chapter, she listed what it means to love a place (which is exactly the same list for loving a person):

  1. To want to be near it, physically.
  2. To want to know everything about it – its story, its moods, what it looks like by moonlight.
  3. To rejoice in the fact of it.
  4. To be transformed in its presence – lifted, lighter on your feet, transparent, open to everything beautiful and new.
  5. To want to be joined with it, taken in by it, lost in it.
  6. To fear its loss and grieve for its injuries.
  7. To protect it – fiercely, mindlessly, futilely, and maybe tragically, but to be helpless to do otherwise.
  8. To press your lips against it, to taste it, to close your eyes and feel it gratefully and fully. 

And I wept here, too. For the knowledge that this love is more than enough to sustain me.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas trees, reimagined

I grew up on artificial Christmas trees and generally thought nothing of it. We could put them up whenever we wanted, for however long we wanted, and they made no mess. But as soon as I was living on my own, I gravitated toward real trees. I wanted that quintessential Christmas tradition in my memory bank, the one of hunting for the perfect tree in the cold winter air with the scent of evergreen dancing in my nostrils. I wanted to traipse through forest or rows of fir trees on a farm, saw slung over my shoulder and a cup of cocoa in my hand.

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So as soon as I met my husband, this is what we did, for five years. Until that last year, as I surveyed the acres of magnificent trees with a lump in my throat. I tried to shake it off, this feeling of unease. Because, how dare it threaten my beloved tradition? This is a cornerstone of Christmas memories, a symbol of the holiday season. I wasn’t keen on giving it up, but I couldn’t shake it, that pesky sensation of being at odds with my self.

If I love – even revere – trees as much as I say I do, why am I essentially killing one once a year so it can sit for a month in our apartment as a decoration?

I turned to my husband that day on the tree farm and whispered, with a trace of apology, “I love this, but I don’t think I can cut down another tree after this year.”

And after I explained my thoughts behind this statement to him, he squeezed me and nodded his support, as he so often does. God bless this man for his patience.

We decided that year, together, that we would come up with our own creative expression for a Christmas tree in the years to come.

. . . . .

December was fast approaching last year and still we had to figure out exactly how we were going to construct our own Christmas tree. I had ideas, but so far none of them had panned out. We needed something, stat.

Enter the epic windstorms that are par for the course this time of year in our northernmost part of Washington state. Violent winds that snap trees in pieces and leave their branches strewn from here to kingdom come. As we were driving home one afternoon in the little beater Prism we no longer have, with a flimsy handsaw in the backseat, we pulled over near a small maple tree that had cracked in two. We hacked our way through the part of the trunk that had nearly snapped off and hauled it back to our car. With both backseat windows rolled down, we drove home with a skeletal tree poking out either side of the car.

And this naked beauty became our Christmas tree.

We left it up the remainder of the year, without lights or ornaments. Because where else are you supposed to store a tree that is no longer alive, with branches that do not fold down?

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. . . . .

We were planning on redecorating this maple for our tree this year. Truth be told, in my heart I longed for something green in our home. I loved our naked tree, but it still lacked that feeling of Christmas that an evergreen embodies. But I wasn’t about to cut down a living tree, we had no place to plant one and no money or car to transport one, even if we could.

Thanksgiving afternoon, the sun broke through and we headed outside for a long walk. Our plan was to stretch our legs, breathe the fresh air and collect acorn tops. I led Ricardo to the jackpot of oak trees in our neighborhood and we bent down and collected these little wooden tops like two kids who’d stumbled upon a buried treasure.

“We can do something cool with these,” we said to each other, unsure of what that would be. Which is also how we happen to have a large bundle of birch branches standing up on our balcony, awaiting a grand purpose.

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Satisfied with our loot, we strolled hand in hand back through the neighborhood to our trail through the woods.

And it was here, at the edge of the trail, that I saw our Christmas tree for this year.

It laid on its side, with its long, beautiful branches reaching in all directions, half hidden in the grass. I ran to it, shouting, “Ricardo! Look at this! It’s perfect!” Looking up from where it lay, I saw a large pine tree. Squinting to see through its full branches, I saw jagged splinters of wood at the top where the tree had snapped off. And here it lay, oozing resin and begging to be hauled home.

So we each took one end and hoisted it up, hauling it the remaining mile and a half home. My hand stuck to it like super glue, but I didn’t care. We smiled and greeted families as we passed them on our walk, chuckling afterwards at their thinly veiled looks of judgment. Like we’d chopped this tree down in our own neighborhood. If they only knew.

And now it stands about 7 feet tall in our living room, its trunk curved as if blowing in the wind. Its branches, full in places and sparse in others, lend it personality of its own. We couldn’t love it more.

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. . . . .

I turned on Christmas chorale music last night, sitting in front of the tree as it twinkled lights in the darkness, and stroked the tummies of my sugar gliders as they slept in their pouch. Beneath the tree, our nativity scene – one of our many thrift store decor finds – features my new black sheep ornament huddled close to the baby Jesus. And the painted glass urn that holds my Papa’s ashes right beside it, a photo of him and me as a little girl propped up, stare back at me.

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I sat and gazed up at our beautiful, unexpected gift of a fallen tree top, inhaling its rich scent. Sat listening to the music that carries me back through years of memories, many of them now bittersweet, as they so often are when loss shapes them. Sat staring at my Papa’s face, with tears streaming down my own. Sat feeling the softness of my sugar gliders’ warm, furry bodies and the weight of love in my heart for them.

And it all felt like too much to hold.

 

 

Intersections

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The shivering wind through distant trees calls to me, their bodies swaying in whispers and breaths. Through a field of shorn, spiked grass in sandaled feet, I pick my way to the far edge where stand the remaining crop of trees. They shelter a small marshland, what’s left in an ongoing spread of development. It’s been months since I stepped foot in there, and today, I crave the company of trees. My first steps inside, I am distracted by the musical wind, the tinge of autumn. A few more steps and my eyes focus beyond. Something does not look right.

My steps quicken, and soon, the ground beneath me rises up to speak.

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The dirt has been overturned, as if a ship dredged the bottom of a lake and spit its contents on shore. Everywhere, garbage. Rubber tires, plastic jugs, bottles, electronic parts, a sweatshirt snagged on a branch, a shoe half buried, glass shards. And mangled roots. Through the center of the woods, a wide path has torn through, flattening everything in its way. Trees pile on either side, haphazardly, grotesquely. I feel I have entered some site of desecration.

I cry out, cover my mouth, curse the machines that left a gash here in this small community of trees. It is barely recognizable.

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The air hangs heavy, eerie. If only the trees could speak. No, if only I could sit here long enough to discern their stories, because they are speaking. They do. For now, I absorb their sadness through my limbs.

I reach out and place my hand on the severed trunk of a birch tree, its beautiful red bark exposed. It stands there, injured beyond repair. I stroke its wood, gently, wondering if my touch sends electrical currents to its roots. Wondering what it communicates, if anything at all.

“I’m so sorry,” I whisper, again and again, caught between sorrow and outrage.

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I listen to the birds and squirrels carrying on in what remains of their home. I hear stirrings, branches cracking, and I’m not sure if they are human or animal. Humans also live in these woods.

I pick my way through mud and rubbish, nausea slowly spreading as my eyes absorb it all.

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The trees smell of death, or impending death. Of sand slipping through an hourglass.

And still, all around me life goes on, forging new places amidst the ruins.

I follow the clearest path, past work overalls hung from a tree like a scarecrow. Past a tent tucked in an alcove of trees, bikes parked outside and laundry hanging to dry. Past a canopy over a lean-to, a satellite strapped to a nearby tree trunk. I walk quickly, wanting to pause to take in these sights, yet racing a sense of unease. These are homes and I am trespassing, though there are no stirrings of their occupants within.

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Where the trees open up to usher me back out to the field, a grocery cart stands piled with plastic, the earth around it a landfill. And just beyond, a chain link fence guards a construction site that borders protected wetland.

I want to know what it means for us, all of us, to share this same space. Trees, humans, birds, construction sites, wetland, homeless persons, evicted wildlife.

But for now, I stagger away, reeling from the messiness of these intersections. The absence of easy answers, the cohabitation of beauty and its maiming, hope and despair, death and resilience. The way it holds a mirror to the world.