A Year In Review

I’m finishing up this piece sitting on a group of friends’ deck in Chicago. It’s fitting. A year ago I sat on the same deck with the friends I’ve known for years, trying to explain why I was leaving my life in St. Louis to go to a semester long course in northern Maine. 

I didn’t have a plan past that. I just wanted a break from the everyday. A chance to get my monsters in check, to sort through the events that led me to need a break in the first place. I went looking for nothing more than an interesting experience. What I found was a lifestyle that did away with previously mentioned monsters entirely. Jack Mountain, and the people I met, didn’t give me what I thought I wanted, but it gave me what I didn’t know I needed. 

It’s hard to explain the last year in a way that doesn’t come off as performing lip service to the school, fellow students and the instructors that have been instrumental in sheparding me towards a way of life that not only brings me more joy than I’ve ever known, but allows me the opportunity to pass that joy onto other like minded souls. Each experience I had that impacted me on a visceral level was crafted by people more experienced, and more knowledgeable than I am. I will forever be grateful to them for those experiences and the generosity they’ve shown in sharing their know-how with me. 

So the past year. That’s what we’re here to talk about. This piece of scribbling could be longer than anything else I’ve written, but I’m just going to chat about the “big three”. Three moments in the last year that stick out in the tectonic shifting that shaped this new life.

1. Seeds of School Of The Forest

April seventeenth was the start of the semester I participated in at Jack Mountain Bushcraft school and guide service. Over those nine weeks I was introduced to skills and methods of living that will forever be the ground work for any program I teach. I learned about “frilufstliv”, or the idea of living a life that has a real and constantly evolving relationship with the outdoors. The moment in this semester that truly shifted my course in life was a rainy Thursday afternoon when I went setting trail markers with my instructor and friend, Tim Smith. As we walked we chatted back and forth about future plans and what I was getting from the course. As we wandered along the paths hammering blazes onto trees, we talked about my desire to bring people into this lifestyle at an earlier age. Tim mentioned off hand that he had run a youth program a few years back, and would love to see it revived. I expressed my interest in being involved, but didn’t think much more about it. It continued to lay low in my mind, dropping in and out of thought, always growing and making its call louder and louder. Now it’s my pleasure to not only be involved with it, but to be running the program itself. It’s a ridiculously underserved opportunity, but I’m grateful and excited that the project is off the ground and has courses listed on its calendar. 

2. Homecoming

I stayed for six months in Baltimore working, but mostly killing time until I could head north again. It was an eye opener after living a sustainable outdoor lifestyle for nine weeks. I’d always previoualy thought of good ol’ charm city as some sort of personal Xanadu. Now though, it serves as a reminder of how detached from the natural world our culture has become. Not by any fault of their own, the folks I worked with had no frame of reference to discuss the experiences I love having in the outdoors. Not the “adventures” or moments of internal/external struggle that invariably become the talking points when discussing the outdoor industry. People want to hear about the romance and the trials, but those aren’t the moments that keep me doing this. It’s those little moments where all is right. They are fueled by simple things, like a pot of trail coffee and the sound of snow falling, or a sit spot that you’ve watched go through its shift from spring to summer. These are the things I want to talk about, but are hard to discuss without a prior reference point for both indivuals. Baltimore cemented my resolve that school of the forest is a worthy endeavor. I saw detachment from, and fear of the world that brings me so much joy. SOTF gives me the opportunity to pass this on to young people and hopefully affect their internal lives for the better.

3. A community on the outskirts of the norm

This industry seems to attract certain types of people. A lot of the self described “lone wolves” seem to rise and bare their teeth in an attempt to make their presence known. In my experience so far, they end up whimpering and sulking away when the day to day work needs to be done. They want the romance of the life, and the ego stroking that comes with having a captive audience to be macho and “independent” at. My friend and associate Ben Spencer put it best while discussing this very subject. “Our best ‘survival skill’ has always been our ability to get along with other people.” 

He said this in passing on a long drive back from northern Quebec, and it wiggled its way down into my brain. It’s the most succinct explanation of humanities’ growth as a species and is becoming more and more relevant in an increasingly interconnected world. Words of wisdom from a fellow filthy vagrant. 

And that’s the amazing thing about this tight little community I’ve somehow tumbled heel over head into. They are an eclectic, intelligent, completely bizzare group of lost souls. Seekers of something more in this life. Something old, that lives in our deepest memories of primordial soup. Sure, half the time our conversations are crass and filled with the worst jokes of every category (dad jokes, groaners, thinly veiled threats of violence) but at the end of the day we as a strange little collective find the meaning we require in our sweat of the day mixed with the nuerons that fire as we sit around our cook fire at night talking about the desire for others to experience this amazing natural world we live in. The outdoor industry feels like home, and it does so because of the people who’ve welcomed me into it. They are too many to mention here, but they know who they are, and the effect they’ve had on me.  

Thanks for keeping up with my ramblings for the last year, and here’s to the next one. Let’s hope it’s filled with bad puns on trail and all the boots I can eat. 

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Boreal Expediton finale.

Hello again everyone,

Sorry about the wait between articles and the relative shortness of this one. March has been a rough month for writing. Office work for School of the forest, paired with experiencing my first New England spring has made the finding time to sit and write pretty tough. We’re back in the proverbial saddle though, as winter breathes its last, and I start getting ready for courses to take off.

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When we last spoke, we’d gotten the newer students up to speed with camp life, teaching them the basics of axe work, outdoor cooking etc. As the course progressed, something became clear. The weather was not cooperating with our plans of moving camps every couple of days. It was getting warmer, and the snow and ice on the lake was becoming slush. This made dragging the sleds with all of our gear, an already tough endeavor, pretty miserable. The slush builds up on the sleds making them heavier, and the crust of the snow starts to melt, meaning that every few steps one of us was punching through. Pulling your foot out of three feet of snow is funny the first few times, but gets pretty draining after a few miles. The slush builds up on top of the netting of your snowshoes and adds weight to every step you take. It’s not that the experience shouldn’t be challenging, but there’s a skill to knowing when you should just “hole up” for a few days.

So hole up we did. Our plan was to be moving every couple of days, and with two weeks planned out for the trip, this would have made for lots of chances to practice what we’d all slowly learned. Personally, I was looking forward to being out and moving. I got a taste for snowshoeing while in Quebec, and looked forward to sating that. The constant moving would have allowed for chances to get the process of setting up camp down to a science, and opportunities to experience winter like I never really have. (Not a lot of opportunities to snowshoe in Maryland or Missouri).

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But that’s how things go on trail right? You’ve got to adapt to the situation as it presents itself. If I’d been on my own, I wouldn’t have had A. the experience or B. the wherewithal to see the signs that led to our decision to stay in our original campsite as long as we did. I’d have assumed that this was just part of the experience and pushed through and likely made everyone in our group miserable because of it.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case. Tim saw what was coming, and adjusted the plans to the situation. We ended up staying close to our original camp and really focusing on a lot of the crafts and skills that may have just gotten a quick overview otherwise. We worked on a lot of carving skills, practiced making and using a bowdrill kit, and processed wood. Man, did we process a lot of wood. Personally, this helped with whatever the trail version of cabin fever is though. If we’d just sat around the fire most of the day, the boredom would have festered and that’s when group dynamics get iffy. Instead we went to bed tired and full of food every night, slept well, and group spirits stayed manageable.

After a few days of this though, it became apparent that the weather wasn’t going to shift in our favor. The opposite in fact, it was going to get warmer. Tim called the trip off at that point. We’d exhausted most of the teachable skills, and even though none of us wanted to go back to our daily lives just yet, the decision was made and we prepped to head out the next day.

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Before that happened though, we all set out for a solo night with the basics. Axe, Knife, Matches, tarp and a pot for melting snow for drinking water. The experience was like nothing I’ve done before, but I can’t do it justice with my current vocabulary. There may be an article in the future about the solo experience and “killing the bogeyman” as Tim calls the results of a solo winter experience, but I’m not sure. At least not till I’ve managed to frame the words in my head in an intelligent way instead of the current “it was pretty great” response when someone asks me about it. Maybe I’m romanticizing it too much (A habit I’m definitely guilty of), but I’m not sure it’s something you can talk about with someone who hasn’t experienced the same thing.

I did,however doodle my campsite for the solo night, and for now that’s what I’ll share.

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All in all, even with cutting the trip short, the experience was a good one. It was great to see more of Maine, a state this southern-ish boy fell in love with quickly and jumps at the chance to learn more about it’s seasons and habits.

Thanks for reading as always, and be sure to check back. I recorded a great interview with Ed Butler (The Working Class Woodsman) last week, and his insight into the outdoors is incredible.

Slainte Maithe everyone. Get Outside.

 

 

A Follow Up On Angie

Six months ago I was on my way north for what I now know was the most important course I’ve ever taken. I was wrapped up in my excitement and joy to be leaving St. Louis. At a small rest stop in Indiana I met Angie, and I was so struck by our conversation that I wrote about her on my site. It had nothing to do with the content of my usual work, but I was so profoundly heartbroken by this woman’s story that I couldn’t help it. It was something I simply had to do, because I couldn’t do much else. It’s since become the fourth most read article on primitiveaddictions.com

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And the truth is, it should be. If anything it should be the most read. Because the things touched on it will always be a part of our lives as human beings. People like Angie will always need our help, and we should be as forthright with that help as we can be.

 

But that’s another article. Today’s is in a much happier tone. A few weeks ago I got an email from an address I didn’t recognize. The subject line simply read “Thank you”. Now, as the bleeding heart hippie I am, I’m subscribed to a lot of political/environmental awareness newsletters and almost didn’t open it, assuming it was another ad about some political victory that I had nothing to do with, but some organization thought I “needed” to know about. On this basis I didn’t open it.

 

Boy am I glad I did so later. It was from Angie.

It wasn’t long, and it wasn’t detailed, but in it she let me know that she had found work, and a place to stay, and was writing me from the library, where she had just read my article. She asked if she could pay me back for the cliff bars.

I’ll admit, I choked up when I read that particular line.

She explained that she’d kept my website’s name, and forgotten about it until she found it in the console of her car. Through the website she found my contact information and wanted to get in touch.

She ended the email with “thank you for the words.” That phrase will be the new bench mark for my writing, because it sums up why a lot of us write. Sure, sometimes it’s a simple exercise in expunging a thought, or a way to organize a stampede of them that we can’t wrangle otherwise. A lot of the time though, it’s an attempt to reach out. Not to anyone in particular, but to some unknown person or group. We put it down on paper or megabyte and say “look, this is what I’m thinking and I know it’s got to resonate with somebody out there.”

I can’t really put into words the feelings I have about her statement though. On the one hand I know cerebrally that I didn’t DO much of anything. I scribbled my thoughts down, put them up on the internet and then forgot about it. I did the least amount of work I could without actually affecting my life in anyway.

On the other, something I wrote touched someone’s life in a positive way. I don’t know how to explain what that feels like as a writer. I don’t even KNOW how to describe exactly what it feels like, but I wish more people could feel it.

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The truth is they can, and in bigger amounts than I did. By giving, by helping. As I said, I did next to nothing. I wrote. I didn’t help her get a place to stay for the night, or anything that really cost me a damn thing. I will do my best to make up for that in the future, and if you take anything away from this, or the previous article, I hope it’s a drive to pay attention to unimportant people. By that I mean people that you could walk by, look at and move on without the interaction having any effect on your life. My generation CRAVES meaning in our lives, and I think at the very least this is a good place to start. If you have excess of any kind (time, money, things) and are comfortable with having a bit less, look for people who need that little bit you’ll take off the top. I know a lot of young people read this, and I know that it’s hard just to get by right now for some of them. I’m not advocating giving away so much that you can’t take care of yourself.

 

What I am advocating is “a little off the top”. That weekend you planned on sleeping in till noon? Skip it. Find an opportunity to give that little off the top. There are volunteer organizations in every town, and they need help. I guarantee it. It doesn’t have to be a homeless shelter. (But I hope it is) Sure, you’ll miss those extra hours of sleep, but if at the end of the day you feel anything close to what I felt reading her response, and just knowing she was ok? It’ll be worth it. You’ve got ol’ cranky bones’ word on that.

Here’s a couple of links that I posted with the last one. You know, just to get you started.

http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org

http://www.salvationarmyusa.org

http://www.chicagohomeless.org

 

 

The Big Shift 

I have been a student all my life. I plan on continuing to be one for the remainder of it. However, starting next year, I’ll be making”the big shift” from student to instructor. I’ll be moving (again) to New Hampshire and helping the owner and head instructor of my school in Maine start a youth program

Now, in retrospect I’ve been helping with courses like this for a long time. Different subject matter, but similar formats. In highschool I worked for my fencing coach on occasion, going with him to fencing demos at schools, and teaching/performing at Renaissance Fair’s. Eventually, doing a few demo’s on my own when my coach couldn’t find the time. I helped facilitate groups attending Heifer international’s poverty courses in Arkansas, and organized youth programs for the Midwest-US China association. 

Its a big change in mindset though, to go from student to teacher. It takes a basic comfort in the subject, paired with an understanding that the people you teach may be completely oblivious to the little details of it that you take for granted. 

On top of that, it’s likely the most responsibility I’ve ever shouldered. The purpose of the courses I’ll be running is not just to inform, but to help young people find something that is missing from modern life. A closeness, and deeper understanding of nature and our place in it. I am of the mind that this is at the root of a lot of modern issues, and I’m not alone. In his book “Last child in the woods” author Richard Louv lays out a description of modern children and the way they are educated that lacks any real immersion in the outdoors. He refers to a “nature deficient” generation, that I was born into, but due to the choice of my parents to homeschool my siblings and I, observed from the outside. As Louv talks about all the things previous generations were able to partake in (Unstructured outdoor time, gardening, nature walks etc) that young people today simply don’t do, some mental and emotional puzzle pieces that have been irking me for a long time started to fall into place.  

I was lucky in my young life to have a school structure that encouraged me to be outdoors (this is all your fault Ma), it allowed curiosity to grow that was stifled in the one year I attended a regular grade school. Once I completed the scheduled curriculum content, that was it. Information and understanding was a step in a ladder that teachers would only allow me, and the rest of the class to climb so high on, because if we went to far ahead, what would they teach tomorrow? It created boredom, and a tendency to create problems for teachers. Which really meant I took time away from other students during some classes. To them I apologize wholeheartedly. 

So, the antithesis of this is the guiding factor as I create lesson plans in preparation for this new project. I want to have to say “I don’t know” in answer to questions on occasion, and follow it up with”why don’t we figure it out?” Not only does this mean that I’ll be learning as I teach, but hopefully it will help students to light that spark of curiosity and gently give it air, and fuel until it’s a roaring fire they can cook their ideas on.

Between that as my guide, and the fact that I’m also responsible for these kids safety. (Outdoor activities involve a few potentially dangerous tools, if not used properly, as well as the simple fact that kids fall a lot) the task can seem pretty daunting. However, when I remember all the time I’ve spent outdoors, and the training I received at Jack Mountain, and in all those other projects mentioned earlier, I know I’ve got a good set of skills to start with but plenty to learn as I go. 

So, that big shift? I pretty well stoked for it. Now I just have to ask my siblings about all the stupid things they remember us getting into when Ma took us hiking so that I can keep an eye out for students attempting them. 

And that’s another reason I’m excited for this. Some of my favorite memories involve my youngest siblings and being outside with them. When there’s six of you, there’s a pretty big age gap between the oldest and the youngest. Which meant that I could help them as problems arose, or answer questions if I knew them. 

In particular I remember going to Rockwood state park with my youngest brother, Pj. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight at the time. Inside the visitor center was a row of terrariums, filled with local reptiles and amphibians. One of them contained a large, fat tiger salamander that Pj instantly became fascinated with. I don’t recall being particularly drawn to it, but I remember helping him read the placard below its tank. With every new bit of information his eyes hungered for another bit. At the time I remember mostly being annoyed that he couldn’t just read it himself, but in hindsight I see the beginnings of something that’s still a bit part of his life. PJ has had a whole menagerie of lizards, snakes, frogs, fish and anything else you can think of. With that comes a knowledge base that is entirely built on his own curiosity about them. 

Moments like that are what make being an instructor of young people so simultaneously daunting and exciting. If I had let my annoyance at his inability to read stop me from helping, maybe that curiosity would have had one less match lit under it. On the other hand, I have the opportunity to help light more matches along the way, and I likely won’t even know I’ve lit them most of the time, but I can tell you all this, I hope I help regardless. 

I’ll be sure to let you all know as things progress with the program, and as always if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask. 

Slainte Maithe everyone 

 

Immersion 

Americans love the outdoors. 


Well. Something along those lines. We love the idea of them, and we love to have personally conquered them. It’s a strange pattern in our culture, and ours specifically.  

It’s not just about the commercialization and industrial mentality I’m talking about. People smarter than me are doing a much better job pointing out the issues brought up by that and working towards solutions.

No, this has more to do with our disconnect from nature as a culture. Nature and the outdoors are something we DO, the way we go to a bar or a theme park. We “make a day of it”. We plan it out and check off things as we go along. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. Probably more so. I’m working on it. 

Now, this isn’t unique to Americans. We aren’t the only ones who market adventures and use the outdoors as a backdrop. There’s nothing wrong with that inherently. If an individual has the ability to show people a more tantalizing side of life by taking them climbing a mountain, or skydiving, all the power to them. 

The difference is, we don’t know when to stop. Everything is peacocked up into some grand escapade. I’ve even seen nature walks marketed as “adventure in an afternoon”. 

That’s not right. Not in the slightest. Worse yet, it cuts us off from a lot of aspects of the outdoors. Things that inarguably help us be better people. 

Other cultures have this inherently tied into aspects of daily life. The concept of “friluftsliv” is a recent discovery for me, but it’s one I’m going to pursue doggedly for the rest of my life. It’s a Scandinavian idea that roughly translates to “free air life”. It bleeds into a lot of daily life in those cultures. It’s the idea of just being in nature. Not out to conquer it, or take something away. Just existing. That’s something I’ve always felt when I’m out on trail, or even just sitting out in a backyard. We need it so badly, and we don’t even know it. 
I’ve been reading a lot about youth education lately. It’s all in preparation for a project I’ll be starting in the new year. (If you’re curious check out the site and let me know what you think) 

One of the books every teacher I approached recommended was “Last child in the woods”. I’d recommend everyone read it, but the premise is that young people NEED the outdoors the way a tadpole needs water until it’s a frog. Then it can take time away from it if necessary. That’s my analogy, not the author’s, but I think it’s a good one. We don’t immerse ourselves in nature as much as we should. We spend our time there to accomplish a goal, and then it’s back to the humdrum of every day life. 

I get it, and for some folks maybe that’s the only way they can enjoy it. Going back to that tadpole analogy, maybe some people are more like toads. In the water when they absolutely have to be, then a whole life spent out of it. Why though? As much as we’d like to remove ourselves from the natural world, we’re part of it. Admittedly, modern life tends to paint the “wild” as an other. An outside force we’ve been trying to escape since we first stood upright and came down from the trees.


 I tend to disagree with this, and I’m not alone. There have been plenty of studies and research done showing that time spent outdoors is not only good for us physically, it makes us happier. Again, I’d recommend “last child in the woods if you want a clear explanation of how it effects the growth of young minds, and how those effects can change a person’s entire life.


  

So, here’s a challenge. The next time you go outdoors? Go by yourself. Not just without a group of friends, but without anything else that connects you to them. Leave your phone, or if you really MUST have it for pictures/emergencies/etc put it on airplane mode. Take a journal, and just find a quiet place to stare off for a few hours. Jot down the thoughts that really reach out to you, or sketch what you see. Anything to really force yourself into just being. Because, no matter how much you feel like you’re not part of nature, you are. And in my experience, it’ll remind you pretty quickly. 

Mushrooms (Not a badger to be seen)

You never know what’s going to catch your interest on a hike. If nature’s feeling paticulalry riled up it’ll be a day filled with deer leaping across the path, or a family of jays you’ve disturbed from their daily habits of disturbing everything else around with their shrieking.

Other days it’s something simple and slow. In the mornings it might be spiders in thier webs that catch the light as it breaks silently through the overhead leaves, or the chourus of frogs and insects as they wake up and start to avoid/pursue one another.

In this case, the morning was a quiet friday, around seven AM. I’d been busy all week getting stuff together for my time in Canada and Maine this coming winter, as well as working. So I hadn’t had much time to spend outdoors. Somedays I like to set a distance, and knock it out. It’s about the excercise. That morning wasn’t like this. It was slow, meandering. I don’t know if people regularly saunter through the woods, but that’s certainly what I felt I was doing.

For whatever reason the theme of this hike was fungi. Now, I’m as big a fan of mushrooms as the next person. That is to say, I like the one’s I can eat, and know jack diddleyumpkiss about the rest of them.

How many of us would wander past the scene above and see it only as part of the view? It doesn’t have to be mushrooms. It could be moss, or the variety of grasses that brush against your legs. How much do you really know about them? How easy is it to change that?

It’s pretty simple. The internet and your own curiousity are probably the best tools you’ll ever have access to. Sure, field guides are wicked helpful, but if it’s a new topic for your personal study you likely don’t have eight books on mushroom identification. (Just another reason I miss the library at Jack Mountain) So, punch it into google and start the search.

The first little cluster I found was on a fallen log. They’d either started growing after it fell, or had adapted afterwards to lay out horizontally with the ground.

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The large white ones, I beleive, are Cerrena unicolor. Sometimes called “Turkey Tails”.  Now, I spent an unbeleiveable amount of time trying to identify these suckers because I was looking for something green. What I hadn’t realized, and what a real fungi fanatic would have told me is that I’m not only looking at two fungi here, but another living thing. Algea. In the words of th outdoorsman we all aspire to. “that’s pretty neat”

The orange goop, is some sort of Jelly fungus. I’m still trying to sort that one out, and will update once I know more. To be honest, I’m pretty happy with “Jelly fungus” as a name. Common names always entertain me. They’re often a version of “does what it says on the box”. Some person, who knows how long ago, looked at these weird squishy orange things and thought “Yeah, that’s jelly. I bet bears use it on their toast”. Or something along those lines. I may be assuming this hypothetical person has the same idiotic thought process as I do.

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Look at it. It can be anything you want. I see a rough sea, with a few sharks circling, you might see something different. I’m a big fan of these close up shots. Sure, you could take a photograph of the whole speciemin, and that’d probably be a better identifier. You wouldn’t get to see the little details though. You’d see a white, toadstool looking mushroom, and if you knew the ecosystem well enough, that might tell you what it is.

As far as the enviroments of fungus goes though? I don’t. Ask me just about anything about birds or fish in maryland, and I’m pretty comfortable giving you a description. Thats half the point of making your hikes into these kind of excercises though isn’t it? I’m researching in the hopes that somewhere down the line, some client is going to point at one of these and ask the dreaded “What is that” or “Can I eat it?”, and I’ll be able to say “Knock yourself out, just wait till I lay down some tarps and turn on some Zepplin, because buddy? You’re about to see the face of god”. Or more than likely I’ll be able to give a simple “Nope”.

In this case, I learned something equally as important as whether or not this big ol’ fellah is edible. I found that mushrooms, and fungi in general can be pretty hard to identify to a beginner. There’s a lot of look alikes, and when you’re dealing with something that’s possibly toxic, that’s a gamble I’m not willing to take. I believe what I’ve found is a “Shaggy Parasol”, which is edible. Now that’s where the danger starts. I could be completly wrong. I’m going off of sight, a photogrph, and a few field guids (Online and hard copies.) I figured, “Sure I’ll just type in ‘large white mushroom maryland” and that’ll be that.

Christopher you ignorant lumox. You’re going to get somebody killed.

 

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So, the take away from my adventure with mushrooms? I’m picking up on the traits used to identify them in the field. Cap size and shape, color of the various parts, as well as the environment they grow in. That’s a good start, and it’s opened up a whole world in the undergrowth for me to pay attention to when I hike. Plus, mushrooms don’t run away or bite the way the subjects of some of my other self motivated “collections” have.

 

Chalk that up as a win right?

 

If you happen to know more about mushrooms than I do, and can fill me in before I have the chance indentify any of these past the point of doubt, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email, or comment below.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

“I’ve learned”

 

 

There was a man.

He couldn’t tell you much about himself.

Not for lack of trying mind,

He just always seemed to replace the pieces he’d shown you as soon as you’d seen them.

He’d say “I’m not really a sports sort of guy”

Next thing you’d know he’d be next to you at a ball game cheering as loudly as the rest.

I recall a conversation I’d had with him, common interests was the topic.

We’d been on the subject of things that brought us grief. Family we’d lost, friends we couldn’t trust.

And just like that, in the middle of this conversation,

he sluffed off his skin

Not like a snake, or a crustacean shedding it’s skin to get bigger.

He just shrugged, and sort of burrowed into himself,

turned inside out and responded to my latest complaint with a completely sincere

“I’ve learned to let these things slide off me”

I thought he meant the little things, that brought him grief, but I was wrong.

He meant himself, his entire being, the things that made him, him.

And it was in that phrase that I saw his secret,

I understood how I could envy and pity this man all at once.

I pitied him, for his lost friends

Not lost by error, but by giving them up, in a hope for newer cleaner ones.

I pitied his family

For having to deal with this shifting spectre of a son and brother.

And yet I envied him, for he stood in the center of all this mistrust

orbited by abandoned loved ones and betrayed, confused friends.

And he was happy, and when the happiness stopped?

 

He simply turned himself inside out and said

 

“I’ve learned to let these things slide off me”

 

Màthair

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

~Marcus Aurelius: Book one; Line Three

Today I’m twenty-six. I’ve been on this wonderful, odd, planet for over a quarter of a century now. This article actually started as something about the odd paths life takes you down, but while writing it I noticed a trending constant. A constant that, to be honest, should have been obvious from the start. That constant is my Ma.

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My mother is something incredible. (I’d never tell her that in person. We’re not that sort of family.) When the issue of my siblings and I’s education arose, she took that burden on herself, homeschooling all of us through all of it up to college. When I say “all”, I mean six. Homeschooling six children with energy levels like ours isn’t something I’d ever have the heart to attempt. We were even referred to as a litter once by a stranger in a pet store. My mother was incredibly upset by the encounter. Little did she know the woman who made the comment had seen me, and one of my brothers trying to climb into a pen filled with puppies ten minutes earlier. (We told her this years later, to her dismay. Or amusement? Could be both)

I make it sound like we were a bunch of wild heathen children, causing havoc wherever we went. That’s somewhat true, and it’s a testament to my ma’s dedication to us that we all grew up with an ingrained desire to learn and to work hard at it, when we started out as a bunch of feral blonde monsters.

I am almost certain I was the toughest of the bunch to deal with. I was her first child, and that combined with a stubbornness and innate desire to do what I want, when I want to, couldn’t have been easy. I honestly don’t know where she found the endless patience to deal with educating me, let alone all six of us.

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                                                   (Still a horde of feral monsters)

And trust me, I know I tried her patience to no end. A favorite story around my parents’ house is the time I built a fort by turning over all her living room furniture, and barricading myself in it because I didn’t want to do a math lesson. (I still hate math. Sorry Ma.) After an hour of me yelling, and not getting anywhere with that stubbornness I mentioned, she finally cracked and chucked an orange off the counter at me. It’s a funny image, but looking back on it I know two things. Firstly, that she immediately felt awful about it, and secondly, that I absolutely deserved it. Hell, I deserved a whole bushel of oranges with an anvil and a really irritated ape of some sort buried under them.

She’s taught me a lot about how to interact with people. She taught a selfish man, how to find more value in what I’ve done for others in a day, than what I’ve done for myself. She imparted to me my endless love of literature and the outdoors. Finding ways to rev up my wandering engine at home through reading classics that are now books I read the way some people use a security blanket, then turning me loose on the woods, parks, and long drives.

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Long drives. Let’s talk about those for a moment. I live for long drives, to places I’ve never been. It’s the closest I get to meditation or prayer. Those long aimless drives that to some people would seem like a waste of time, or gas, or an endless amount of other “commodities”. Not to my mother. When we got to be too much, or life in general got her down, we never saw it. I only see now, in retrospect that all those adventures we went on were her clearing her head. I don’t know if habits can be passed on genetically, but if so that’s one I definitely attribute to her. Not adventure, that’s ALL due to Mr. Jeff Russell. No, what I got from her was the soft parts of wandering. The gentle sense of calm that comes with simply going. Those little moments between destinations where you notice small details of the scenes that pass by. We still make fun of my mother for a

Not “adventure”, that’s ALL due to Mr. Jeff Russell ( I’m sure an article about him is coming in the near future, now that I’m on this tangent)  No, what I got from her was the soft parts of wandering. The gentle sense of calm that comes with simply going. Those little moments between destinations where you notice small details of the scenes that pass by. We still make fun of my mother for a particular summer involving her teaching us geology. When my mother takes an interest in something she’s teaching it invades all her thoughts I think. So our drives from class to class, or anything else really, were invaded that summer by the phrase that still makes my mother turn bright red when we say it back to her. “Look at that awesome rock formation!” It was the cheesiest, most contrived (to my, at the time Preteen mind) thing I’d ever heard.

No, what I got from her was the soft parts of wandering. The gentle sense of calm that comes with simply going. Those little moments between destinations where you notice small details of the scenes that pass by. We still make fun of my mother for a particular summer involving her teaching us geology. When my mother takes an interest in something she’s teaching it invades all her thoughts I think. So our drives from class to class, or anything else really, were invaded that summer by the phrase that still makes my mother turn bright red when we say it back to her. “Look at that awesome rock formation!” It was the cheesiest, most contrived (to my, at the time Preteen mind) thing I’d ever heard.

But that’s the beauty of my mother and her desire to teach. Not only her six maniacs but anyone who’ll listen. She has a way of doing things that stick them into your brain. I hear her voice in my head on every highway that cuts through cliff faces and along hills. I see her in every landscape. Her passion is unabashed. That’s a hard thing to be in a family of people who tend to keep to themselves, and keep what they really feel close to the chest.

That doesn’t stop her though. I’m terrible about texting most of the time, unless it involves work. My mother knows this, and doesn’t care. I still wake up most days of the month to a small something from her reminding me that I am missed, or some tidbit of information she found that she knows I’ll find fascinating. If you read this Ma, I know I don’t always answer, but I always smile when I see them.

Somehow, through all my boar headedness and idiotic desire to march to the beat of a drummer who, I can only assume at this point, can’t keep time and is probably missing at LEAST one arm, all the things Ma tried to impart in me through her curriculum, and simply through the way she lived, stuck. Not that I do them as well as she does, but that I strive every day to do them half as well.

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The biggest one goes without saying. Patience that is fueled by a deep love for others. Lisa Russell is the most patient woman I have ever met in my life, and after twenty-six years I think I’ve ferreted out what lets her be like that. She cares, for everyone, instantly and deeper than anyone else I know. I took it for granted most of my life, that if I really needed something she’d do her best to help me get it. I can’t really ever pay her back for all of it, but I don’t think she’d want that anyway. She’d want me to pass it on. So that’s what I’ll try to do. If I take one thing away from all the things she taught me it’ll be that. At the very least it’ll mean I don’t have to take away algebra.

The line at the top of this page is from a book she “forced” on me at a young age, that I detested at the time but has become the closest thing I have to a bible. I don’t know if she intended it to become so important. It was mixed in with a slew of other greco-roman classics that were part of our curriculum. I can say this without feeling as if I’m bending the truth though. My mother turned me on to stoicism, not only by giving me the book to read, but by embodying some of the ideals it professes without trying, or possibly knowing she was doing so. I am constantly left in awe of her, and the sacrifices she’s made to give my siblings and I the best possible life we could have.

So, it’s my birthday. Twenty-six years ago my mother brought me into this world, and she helped me navigate it through everything that reared it’s ugly head. I miss the hell out of her, and everyone else in my family, and this is the closest I’ll get to ever telling them. If you haven’t called your mother lately, go do it. Hell, go hug her if you can.

I figure if you guys do that, it’ll balance out me NOT calling mine.

Kidding…. Mostly.

 

 

Convergent Thought Evolution.

I’ve been going through a lot of my old scribblings over the last few days and found a short little thing I wrote that seemed like nothing at the time. However, reading it now I was surprised to see a lot of similar thoughts to those Robert Service transcribed in his poem “The men who don’t fit in”. Service’s work has quickly become a staple of mine, so it was an odd thing to see similar frames of mind between them. I hope you guys enjoy it, and if not go read Robert Service. I know you’ll enjoy that.

The more we learn, the harder life gets to navigate.

However, wisdom and knowledge are a less like a burden than I used to think.

I created this image of all the information I had ever learned tied

around my waist while I swam the length of a pool.

The rope was long enough to allow moments where the weight would help me.

As I turned at either end of the pool I could pull myself through the water

Until I passed over the burden. Then I had to start tugging it along again.

This was the wrong analogy.

It’s more like a map of an ancient broken maze that I keep seeing new paths through.

They all end up in the same place

but that’s the cruelty of the maze.

It keeps opening new paths as you head towards the destination.

Each path holds something you think you might want.

Or even just a different landscape to see while you walk.

Some can flow through paths making choices as they go,

not bothered by the plans they’d laid for the path before them.

Not me. I am one who succumbs to the wall’s cruelty.

I see paths sprouting up like weeds behind me,

In front,

below,

and to the right.

It crushes me, the weight of choice.

 

I stop and stare and see so many paths I can’t barrel down just one.

I head down the first for a bit, but I’m so curious about what lays down the others.

So I backtrack, and head down a different trail.

Sampling each of them for a while, then realizing some of them have started closing off,

and new one’s have opened.

This is the beauty and danger of living with an interest in all.

You accept that you will never be truly great at anything, only decent at all things,

but you will see more paths than most,

and that will make it all worth it.

You will die with your name unknown to the rest of the world.

No great paintings, no amassing of wealth.

But you will have seen more than they have,

And that is the cruelty of the maze,

but it is a gift to those of us who prize seeing more than the rest.

We wouldn’t trade it, but it’s going to remind us of the things we could trade it for.

It’ll be constant and keep things raw as long as it can by pointing them out to us

 

The friends that seem put together because they run down one path,

with the veracity and patience of bamboo.

The lovers who crave the stability we detest,

and they grow bored with our inability to sit still long enough to be bored.

Employers, who see something in us we refuse to look at,

for fear it’ll be the last thing we notice.

 

Towns we love and say to ourselves “I could live here”

but as soon as we visit the next one it wins us over,

it eclipses the memory of any other town we’ve seen.

 

So we live with the rawness, and salve it with a change in direction

it lasts for a while

But never long enough to heal.

We’d stop moving if it healed.

We find a new path and press the memories to the wall as we walk.

So they open up and we can treat them with the next twist in the maze.

“Pass It Around”

There’s a lot of good in this world. It can be easy to get caught up in all the daily minutia that seems determined to keep us from remembering that. It’s all we see on a day to day basis sometimes. That’s a good thing in itself sometimes. We’re part of an increasingly interconnected world and society, and we should pay our dues for the ease it affords us by helping out were we can.

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That’s another article though. This one is about the simple joy that comes from showing others that “good” we talked about. There’s something toxic in a lot of us modern western folk. Something that finds good things and wants to hoard them away for ourselves. I  don’t claim to know why we’re like that, or that it doesn’t exist in other cultures, but it’s incredibly prominent here.

And it’s a shame really, because the joy we find in things builds on it self exponentially when we pass it along. It’s a matter of seeing outside yourself for a moment. Your sense of personal happiness, or contentment may not grow in a tangible way when you share the things you love with people, but if you take a step back and see what it brings to those you’ve shared with the overall happiness is doubled.

This isn’t just a happy little think piece. I did begin it with a certain subject in mind. Teachers. We all know that old tired adage of “those that can’t do teach”, and we all know it’s probably one of the worst bits of “folk wisdom” that’s ever been spoken by a human being, correct? Good. As long as we’re on the same page.

I think we should all strive to be teachers in our day to day lives. If you know how to do something and can pass it on, not only are we affirming to ourselves that we have enough of a handle on our chosen subject that we can explain its workings, and show how it’s done concisely and effectively. We’re also giving someone else a chance to be infected with a passion for something . That’s not anything to balk at. People in my generation have more access to information than any of us monkey’s in shoes ever have, and that’s great. However, it’s one thing to read and watch pieces about a subject and another entirely to be doing them with someone who can guide you through it.

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The “Ghost Flower” or “Corpse Plant” One of the many plants I’ve had to research since I got back. 

Since I got back to Maryland a few weeks ago, I’ve been out hiking and swimming every chance I get. I’d been away from the land of pleasant living for so long, I felt I owed it to my home state to reacquaint myself with it. In my head a new outdoor environment is sort of like a dog you’ve never met before. It’s best to take the first bit slowly, get to know one another a bit before you start roughhousing (everyone here wrestles with all the dogs they meet right? No? Just me?). So when my cousin asked if she and her boyfriend could come along on one of my little sojourns I was initially hesitant. However, once we got out on trail I experienced what this article started off talking about. Like a lot of young people in our generation my cousin “like ,totally loves nature”, but it’s a one-dimensional relationship. People in our age group sometimes interact with nature the way they  interact with a movie. This has been true of other generations as well. To me the most accurate example of this is “national lampoon”. The family finally makes it to the grand canyon, and Chevy Chase says something along the lines of “well, there it is. Let’s go”.

That had been my cousin’s experience with the outdoors up to this point. Taking them out and telling them about each bird we saw that I knew, or showing them the basics of how to read the clouds (a skill I’m also still learning) made the experience three dimensional in a way none of us, I think, expected. The minutia of the trail replaced the minutia of everyday life for those few hours.

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I obviously used the outdoors as my example, because that’s what I love, and it’s the field I’m falling into, but the experience can be overlayed onto anything. So, if you’re good at something and you love doing it, I challenge you to take an hour this week and show someone who’s interested how to do it.

And I’ll leave you with the song that got my mind wandering down this little path. “Other Side Of Rainbow” by Gogol Bordello. There’s a particular line that started the thought process

“And if you hear of something good,
Don’t hold it back, pass it around.”

So take good old Eugene’s advice, go pass around whatever you’ve got that’s good.