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Breathing in the Land

Virginia Falls - NPS photo

During the summers I worked in Glacier National Park, I hiked the same trails many times, partly because they served as feeder trails to longer hikes, or somebody suggested going for an after breakfast walk, or the sky and the air seemed to be offering an invitation.

Over the course of three summers, I learned a lot about my favorite trails. Most of it was five-senses knowledge. The number of miles between one place and another. The steepest climbs. The best-tasting water. Mountain sheep meadows. Wildflowers. Birds. But, over time, a fair amount of what I picked up was intuitive knowledge. I came to know those trails the way one knows any good friend. And, like what we know about a good friend, that knowledge as in large measure a felt thing.
In earlier times before we became entertained and enslaved by such distractions as cars, cell phones and the Internet, people walked the same paths everyday to get to school, work, the high pasture, the fishing hole, or to buy supplies. While the walking was focused on the practical need to get somewhere and do something, it nonetheless became a ritual, supplying the individual with a great deal of felt knowledge over time.
Breathing in the Land

Glacier cedars - NPS photo

As a writer in love with symbols and metaphors, I like thinking of what I learn about the land as breathing it in. It takes time and commitment to breathe in anything or anyone. You don’t walk into the woods once and come away with a head full of knowledge any more than you learn everything about your prospective soul mate on the first date.

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson calls this breathed-in-over-time knowledge a longitudinal epiphany. In her book Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way, she likens this knowledge with what a husband and wife experience from taking time to have breakfast together every day for 40 years or in making it a habit to go somewhere and watch the autumn leaves falling every year.
Our attention spans have become too short for very much ritual whether it’s formal, as in a religious service or a meditation, or whether it’s informal as in eating dinner with one’s spouse every night or hiking between Many Glacier Hotel and Grinnell Glacier every morning while in the national park.
Bateson writes that “Rituals use repetition to create the experience of walking the same path again and again with the possibility of discovering new meaning that would otherwise be invisible.” One has to walk the path, I think, to gain the knowledge; you don’t learn it by reading what somebody else experienced on the path or by using MapQuest or Google Earth to look at the path.
A Favorite Tree or Meadow
One need not visit their favorite national park and can hike, for example, around Lake Josephine every evening at dusk or listen to the water at Virginia Falls at the break of day. Like the Glacier Park cedar in the photograph, the old oak tree in your backyard will work or, perhaps, a meadow, lake or stream in a nearby park.
Decide how much time you can spend, and then sit in or walk through or around this place once a day, once a week, or once a month. Listen, observe, smell, touch with nothing on your mind other than where you are and what you are breathing in with your five senses and your  intuition.
Don’t expect a psychic experience the first night that fills your head with a hundred years worth of history nobody knows about the place. Instead, experience the changes from visit to visit.In time, you will form a relationship with that place.
You will trust it and know it because you have made the commitment to go there and be there. In time, you will know that place through the loving ritual of your walking and your breathing in everything you encounter.

contemporary fiction set in Glacier Park

  1. This reminds me of a Ziggy cartoon where Ziggy is out in the countryside and hollers “Hey mom I’m home”. That is the way I feel when ever I am outdoors. Now I know why I take that first deep breath.

    October 6, 2011
    • Those Ziggy cartoons said a lot in a very simple way. I also enjoy that deep breath for a lot of reasons. Thanks for the visit and comments.


      October 6, 2011
  2. Smoky Zeidel #

    For me, the simple touch of a tree can transport me to the Smokies, or, more recently, to Kings Canyon National Park. The sound of an acorn woodpecker can find me square in Crescent Meadow in Sequoia, where there are also a lot of acorn woodpeckers. To have such an experience requires practice, but it also requires faith, belief, that such an experience is possible. It means believing in magic.

    October 6, 2011
    • In a more in direct fashion, Smoky, that happens to me when I see a picture of a familar place. It was hard to shake off the sounds of the forest when I uploaed the photgraph of the cedar for this post.


      October 6, 2011
  3. I certainly agree that hiking a familiar trail periodically leads to a lot of good experiences as it becomes like an old friend. I have many favorites that I visit frequently. (I was on one today.)

    October 6, 2011
    • I hope your old friend was in great shape today. If it’s the trail you mentioned on your blog, perhaps you got a bit of rain as well.


      October 6, 2011

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