Eating The Red Berries


Spicy food is an odd thing. It’s an evolutionary attempt by plants to keep us and other animals from eating them. It makes sense, if you eat a pepper once and it hurts your mouth, you’re not likely to try it again right? 

Not our species though. We’re notoriously bad at learning from our mistakes, and the mistakes of those around us. There’s a theory out there about”eating the red berries”. An older, more experienced ancestor would know from experience what berries were toxic, and avoid them. So a younger member of the tribe/group would learn by watching them and the knowledge of what’s safe to eat gets passed down this way. 

We’ve sort of lost this ability, or at least some of us have. We revel in attempting things that we know are impossible, or at least uncomfortable. To keep going with the food topic, think of the various”challenges” that show up every couple of months. Cinnamon was the challenge of choice when I was in highschool, and then I got to witness one of the most objectively intelligent people I know attempt the”Gatorade” challenge during a course in Maine, knowing factually that it would make him feel sick. 

Even after seeing plenty of examples of others failing these challenges, some of us still have this innate need to try them anyway. Food with kick to it has even become a cultural staple in some cases. We love the tingling burn it leaves on our lips, even if it’ll make us feel awful in a few hours. We all want to be the person to sample the red berries and come back to the group saying “look, this is ok”, and if we can ALL eat them as a group it becomes a bonding experience, and the natural end point of passing of knowledge. 

That skill has a purpose, but we live in a time where it isn’t necessarily required. The knowledge we’re hoping to acquire first hand already exists, and is easily accessible. So what is it in some of us that aches to attempt it anyway? Arrogance and ignorance, if you’re asking me. 

We can apply the same line of thinking to outdoor activities fairly easily. We go to “inhospitable” places, and for some reason bask in the glory we perceive we’re garnering by doing so, and that glory isn’t just from the outside. Society lifts up explorers and people who summit Everest etc, and it makes sense. They’ve eaten the berries. They’ve come back saying”look, we can do this. YOU can do this”. 

Look at Everest. We know the names of those that attempted the first summits, but now it’s something plenty of people do every year. That’s not to diminish the personal accomplishments of those who came after, but to point out that once something’s been shown to be doable, folks will do it without reservations. 

This has translated into a slew of modern day “adventures”. People who make their living by going out and having experiences in the natural world. They lead rough lives, lives that physically tax them to the extremes, and for no reason beside the experience. The map’s pretty much been drawn. They aren’t discovering new places, or climbing previously unsummited cliffs. 

If you ask me, thats pretty amazing. Breathtaking experiences aren’t only for the red berry eaters anymore. Or rather, we all get to be red berry eaters now. We all have the opportunity to be the tardiest of explorers, increasing the knowledge of a place for the group, but still having personal experiences that allow us to grow exponentially. 

There’s obviously problems that come along with this. Unprepared folks that end up injured, less than ecologically minded people who leave the places worse then they found it. Those are valid issues, that can only be remedied by education and understanding, and to an optimist like myself, the fact that these people are going to these remote places to begin with means they’re open to expansion of their understanding. (This optimism thing is likely to plant both feet firmly in my esophagus.) 

But, as far as I can tell those are the real issues of a societal shift towards personal exploration. There are plenty of complaints and think pieces naysaying those of us who crave this lifestyle. It’s understandable, and a lot of it comes from people who are caretakers of the wild places that are being explored. It’s a fair point, and paired with an appropriate educational plan for visitors will hopefully help. 

(Sharing what I know. Trying at least)

And that brings us back around to that”shared knowledge base” we talked about. Information is as easily accessible as the places we want to explore. While it’s tempting to go into them blind, assuming we can handle whatever it throws our way. That’s the wrong approach, or at the very least the arrogant one. 

All this knowledge has been gleaned by this that came before us. They are the red berries for us, and came back telling us we could too. They also came back telling us about which ones we shouldn’t. We’d be idiots not to listen. 

So by all means, eat the red berries, but when those who’ve come before us have given us  warning of what NOT to eat, we’re obligated to listen to that part as well. Enjoy your time in these beautiful places, but don’t assume you know better then others, and listen to them when they advise you. Not only are you helping preserve the places for others, you’re hopefully adding to the communal knowledge and helping those who come after you. You’re eating the red berries for the generation that comes after you. 

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“Like them I left a settled life, I threw it all away”

The song “northwest passage” is my favorite song by Stan Rogers, and the line that grew into the title of this piece is why. 

When those of us who’ve tasted the road and the wilds at either end of her,return to real life its jarring. We see old friends and enjoy ourselves, but there’s something different in our interactions with them. 

On my trip back to St. Louis for a friends wedding, I got to spend time with my best friend and former roommate. It was wonderful, but we’re on different paths now and it was glaringly obvious. He’s enjoying domestic bliss, working a good job that he enjoys and for all I could tell is really happy. It was wonderful to see, but afterwards I was even more certain that sort of life isn’t for me. It’s that “settled life” I was sliding into working for Governor Holden, and the exact life that was keeping me miserable. 

We trade things to live this life don’t we? Things we don’t even know we’re trading when we make the deal. We know them in an abstract sort of way, but as we get further down the road they get pointed out in a more realistic way. We see friends start families, and live in a way that seems alien to us. We try to stay in touch and keep up with them, but it gets harder and harder. Relationships of any kind take work, and maintenance, and that’s tough to achieve in a normal situation, let alone one that involves miles between and spotty cell service. 

It brings acorns to mind. Our friends and family have found a good patch to settle into, and have started laying roots. It’s good, it’s what acorns are supposed to do. It’s not a criticism of anyone to say they’ve settled down. The only people I’ve known who sling that phrase like mud are those that can’t find happiness in the joy of others, or that want to do the same thing but haven’t managed it yet. 

Then there’s acorns that drop into a stream and get carried a ways. Sure, most of them eventually find a mooring along the way and start putting down those roots. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to do that, but I’m not counting on it. For now I’m just enjoying the ride towards wherever this stream takes me. 

It’s what I’ve always wanted, and what I’ve known for a long time. The road, and the places along it are my loved ones, and it’s important to think of them that way. The road, and all it brings can be lonley things when you think of them as something in-between stages of life, instead of acknowledgeing that the road is an entity. More than that, it’s the entity you traded security, relationships and so much more to be with. She offers you something no other way of life could, and in return you’re expected to forego a lot of other aspects of life. I’ve seen people who can juggle both lifestyles, and I applaud them for it. I can’t, at least not right now. 

(I’ll take this over anything)

Its difficult not to think about the allegory of the cave here in some way. Except that it’s not that either party has reached a higher levof understanding. It’s more that they’ve exited the cave on opposite sides, and found something good on both, but have no frame of reference to explain it to the other. My experiences in Maine, and the goals I’ll be trying to accomplish with my next project are pretty counter intuitive to someone who doesn’t see anything wrong with existing in a city, or falling asleep to the constant sound of combustion engines.

(Attempting to bridge the gap between lifestyles)

 Just as difficult, is convincing me that the things that come along with their lifestyle is something I’d like to do outside of a visit. I’ve always had a bit of the zealot in me, and it’s a struggle to not be dogmatic about this life, especially when I’ve personally seen so much improvement in my life since I started the shift towards it. I would turn it into a crusade if I didn’t keep reminding myself that what works for me, won’t necessarily work for everyone else. 

That’s the toughest part of self discovery in life I think. You find something great, and you want to share it with people you care about. The danger arises from assuming they want to hear about it. 

 
So, what’s the point of this little scribbling? 

The truth is I don’t know. I was hoping that as I wrote my thoughts down an answer would appear between the phrases. All I got was observations, but at the very least they’re out of my head and on the page now. 

Hit the road, and hit it hard my friends. 

Three hundred thousand miles 

I just went on a road trip back to the Midwest, and that road trip ticked my odometer over the 300k mark. 

(Admittedly, I replaced my engine two years ago. Otherwise Jeep Prime would be dead by now)

Now, this isn’t a review of Jeeps, or a love letter too cars. This is about mileage.

I think of that mileage the way a geologist would think of digging down through layers of rock. As they go down they find different indicators. Stone that was probably carried by melting glaciers, volcanic rock from long dead magma. 

That’s what the miles on my Jeep mean to me. I can look at a certain stretch of miles and remember the places I was. From 299k to 300k, will always bring to mind this last trip. Stu and Morgan’s wedding, where I got to see two lovely people celebrate how happy they are, and will be as long as they’re with each other, and catch up with people I haven’t seen in years. Time spent with my closest friends in Stl, writing Tom Wait’s style songs about a woman who smells of Potato salad on a warm day, and time with the Chicago gang, building them a fire, having a few beers and reminiscing on life, and the paths we’ve all been taking. 

Somewhere around 250k I was on my way to Georgia, to start my attempt at the Appalachian trail. I only made it halfway through that hike, but it was still the moment when what I wanted became clearer. When I knew the outdoors was where I needed to be. That wouldn’t come to fruition for a few years, but it started there. 

Or the miles could bring to mind a drive to new Orleans with my other universal movie monsters. A week of revelry and excess. Getting to experience new Orleans away from bourbon street, meeting fellow Baltimoreans and loving the surprising common thread. 

The further back I go with this, the more nostalgic it becomes. Road trips with former girlfriends, driving back home to Maryland to see family. Cavorting around st. Louis with my friends (that last one is a phrase my father used to describe my wayward ways during college. In retrospect he’s right. I should have been studying instead of driving to parks and bars)

And that’s what I like so much about this method of memory. Jeep Prime (yup, that’s still his name) has been the biggest constant in my life, and due to that, can be linked to all the events. Bringing Rep home for the first time, getting rear ended by an old woman who was more concerned with the tiny dent in my bumper than the folded up hood on her little Prius. 

The mileage thing might not work for everything, but it’s important to find something like this to attach memory to. Sure, journaling is a great option, but words don’t bring back sensory memories the way other forms do. When I remember miles 299k-301k, I’ll be flooded with the smells of fire, and gin buckets. The sounds of Morgan and Stu laughing during their first dance, and everyone cheering for them as they start their new life. The ache of my ribs after laughing long into the night with the guys in Chicago. 

So find something you can make little mental notches in. Boots are good, if you’re a hiker. Or a collection of playlists, each one reminding you of a period of time. 

For me though, nothing’s going to beat Jeep Prime as a reminder of all the places I’ve been, and things I’ve seen. 

Cranky bones, transform and roll out. 

Little sisters and Feathersticking.

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I’m back in St. Louis for an old friends wedding and a quick visit. Stu and Morgan’s wedding was wonderful, and filled with Halloween decor. I’m lucky to have such interesting friends, that’s the truth. It’s been great seeing family and friends as well as explaining my new world to them.

One of the nights here I went to a housewarming party with some friends. While there I watched someone struggle to light a fire for smores and to ward off the increasingly crisp October air. It was a mirror into how much I’ve learned over the last year, and an opportunity to practice. Not only the act of lighting a fire, but explaining the process to as I went. A golden chance to prove to myself that I had a good grasp of the concepts, and could explain them in a way that made sense. That’s the mark of knowing something isn’t it?

And you know what I did? I let it slip past. I simply sat and mentally disparaged this man while he soaked a log in lighter fluid, and became more and more frustrated trying to get a flame going steadily in the fire pit. I sat drinking my beer and chatting with friends instead of stepping up and offering to help.

Not a lot of things make me ashamed, but that did. So how do you deal with a missed opportunity like that?Approach A. Beat

Approach A. Beat yourself up in the hopes that it’ll somehow fix it.

Approach B. Penitent actions. 

I’ll take option B, thanks.

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So, I assigned myself a penance of practicing feather sticking and one match fires. I woke up early, walked out to my parents woodpile and grabbed a few logs and got to work. After ten of them, my sisters walked out to see what I was up to. Eventually they decided to try their hand at it. I’ve got to say, it felt really good to sit and watch them go through the learning process. Feather sticks are a fairly simple concept, but the execution is tough, and only gets easier through practice and trial and error. It helps immensly to understand not only how to make a featherstick, but what you need it to do once a flame is set to it. They don’t have that connection, so it was slow going at first.

That’s something I hadn’t thought about. In college and traditional school classes you bounce from subject to subject each hour, and the information in each of them doesn’t ever need to cross over in most cases. Sure, the things you learn in an algebra class, will be important for the next math class and some sciences, but you’ll never need to apply it to language arts, or history. In the outdoor education world, everything is connected, and in some cases the understanding of a specific craft, or task is dependent on a broad understanding of other ones. Sure, you can make a featherstick without using it as tinder, but if you don’t understand how the curls hold a flame and allow the flame to breathe, there’s a good chance it will just be a pretty piece of wood. It’ll burn at first, but likely won’t catch enough to start a serviceable fire.

 

Those connections are hard to explain, and not neccesary to the actual act of making a feather stick, no matter how important they are. So we just sat and made them. It was a nice, quiet exercise, interrupted by the occasional question. Eventually Julia exclaimed and held up her stick to show me a small, but beautiful curl she’d managed to produce. It wasn’t much, but it was clear she’d gotten the general concept. That little start made up for the missed opportunity of the previous night. Sure, her featherstick wouldn’t start a raging inferno, but it was the closest I’d felt to them this whole trip. Just little quiet moments, doing a menial task, was better than the previous few days of filling each other in on the changes in our lives.

It was also a moment of realizing that I have a really good handle on a skill that eluded me at first. Not only feathersticking, (Most of my first ones ended up looking like Christmas trees, with not a curl to be seen) but also understanding of how to ignite them efficiantly. Fire, believe it or not was the hardest part of my Jack Mountain semester. I’d grown used to gas powered camp stoves, and lighter fluid. So what I thought of as simply practicing, ended up being really self-gratifying. I knew the answers to all their questions, I turned tight curls that made my old christmas trees look even worse, and I knew exactly how I’d lay each of the feather sticks to build a fire.

Christopher make fire. Christopher lord of flame.

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Those little moments like the man trying to light a fire are chances to teach, and they slip by pretty quickly. I’m glad I got a second one with my little sisters, but I’ll be keeping a better eye out for them from here on out. They sneak up on us, but if we’re obserbvent, we can snag them and not only help the person, but improve on our own abilities as well.

So in the future I’ll be paying more attention to how all these skills slot together when being used, and be keeping an eye out for opportunites to pass them on, or employ them to the benifit of those around me. Sure, it’s not an action I’ll take out of anything but self interest, but it’s got some great by products. I’ll be learning to be a better teacher as I teach, and at the very least won’t sit for twenty minutes smelling lighter fluid in the air because somebody thinks that’s the easiest way to get a fire going.

 

 

Plus, now my sisters can show up my dad when he’s starting a fire. That thought will give me a nice little chuckle whenever I have it.