Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Ground Underneath My Feet

Rocky soil, summit of Mount Townsend 6/10/12
I read on a panel at the Scienceworks Hands-On Museum in Ashland, Oregon that a single scoop of soil contains more microorganisms than there are people on the planet: over six billion tiny lives in a handful of dirt.  I recorded the fact using the "notes" tool on my old-school flip phone, keying in the words "soil," "scoop," and "6 billion plus" using the phone's number-keys.  I wasn't sure why that fact seemed worthy enough to spend five minutes number-typing into my phone.  Perhaps, even then, as a Midwestern vagabond more smitten with vistas than soil, I knew I needed that reminder of the bigness of smallness: the tiny specks of life that surround us everywhere.

1. To move about without a definite destination or purpose.  
2. To go by an indirect route or at no set pace; amble: wander toward town.

I spent the last year of my life hiking every weekend.  When I moved to Washington state fresh from graduate school in Iowa, I wasn't sure how long I would stay in the Pacific Northwest and, having never lived near ocean and mountains, I wanted to encounter them like a tourist.  I wanted to walk to each view I saw advertised in the gift shops of the State and National Park offices.  I spent work nights flipping through hiking books, thumbing descriptions and photos of my next weekend's adventure.  I put twenty-five thousand miles on my orange Honda despite the fact that I lived where I worked and seldom left the parking lot on weekdays.  I kept a mountain bike, a box of books, a sleeping bag, and a tent in my car.  Every Saturday morning, I left the YMCA Camp where I taught outdoor education with a fistful of trails maps printed from WTA, my GoLite day pack, and two tin water bottles.  I felt calm as soon as I got to my car.  The movement soothed me.  I put on music or podcasts or an audio-book, stopped at my favorite espresso stand for an Americano and a pumpkin muffin (small luxuries I justified paying for because I'd eaten bland camp food or stir-fried vegetables all week), and headed north or west or east toward the Olympics or the Cascades or the Pacific Ocean or Mount Rainier.  I stopped at the farm-stand to fill my pack with carrots and lavender chocolate and spicy meat sticks and let the landscape sweep by until I reached that week's trail head.  I grew familiar with the lactic acid strain of switchbacks and became comfortable hiking down mountains after dark, feeling my way with my feet until night enveloped the trail and had to turn to the illumination of my headlamp to guide me step-by-step back to my car.
In graduate school, my housemate named my little Honda
Fit, "my noble steed," because of the way it accompanied
me adventuring. Once, a man from Belgium who I briefly dated
told me that he couldn't wait to go back to his country and tell
people he had met "an American girl who lived out  of her
car."  I tried to explain that I paid rent, I had an apartment.
I just also had a clothes-filled Honda where I spent most of the
summer traversing the woods.

3. To proceed in an irregular course; meander.
4. To go astray: wander from the path of righteousness.

Last year, I taught 4th-6th graders orienteering (along with marine science, wildlife ecology, forest ecology, reptiles, boating, archery, rock climbing, wild worms, and ornithology.)  I walked kids into the woods and passed them compasses.  I taught them to lay the compass smooth on their palm, pressing the flat back of the compass against their belly buttons.  I'd show them the Hugo arrow ("you go where Hugo") and "Red Fred" who always pointed North.  I'd teach them how to turn their dials and quiz them about what each number on the dial means. ("So if you want to go East what do you set your dial to?"  "90 degrees!" They'd shout with their hands pointed skyward, unable to wait for me to call on them.)  I'd turn them into "pirates" and give them coordinates for things that we had to find as a group.  ("There's ice cream at 135 degrees, which way should we sail?")  By the end of the class I'd ask if they felt more comfortable in the woods.  I'd ask how they might find their way without a compass.  We'd talk about landmarks, sunsets, sunrises, the north star, the big dipper.

Dirt: Steamboat Rock State Park, a wander-y side trip after
a missed ferry and changed vacation plans.   3/27/12
When I talked about teaching orienteering to my friends outside of the camp where I worked, they'd respond, "You're teaching childen how to not get lost" and I'd say back, "Yeah, it seems like a bad idea, I should be teaching kids how to be comfortable being lost, literally and metaphorically, not how to find their way, I'm better at that."   My friends knew how often I'd gotten myself lost: on the way to the blues club in Des Moines, in half-abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit, on the way to the dentist I'd been going to for ten years.  Once, driving back from a road trip to St. Louis, I realized that I'd crossed the Mississippi at the wrong point and no longer knew where I was.  I had been talking on the phone to my father:  "Dad, I gotta go.  I don't know what state I'm in so I want to look at an atlas."  Had I taken the advice I give my students (moving slowly, looking for landmarks, paying attention) I would have stayed found.  I get lost (literally and metaphorically) because I often ignore my own advice barreling forward when I should be stopping the car or pressing my palm to the dirt or lifting my face toward the sky.

5. To lose clarity or coherence of thought or expression.

This summer, I started rock climbing, outdoors, at Grand Ledge in Michigan with my brother.  When I climb I struggle.  I want a distinct route and can never seem to find it.  When I raise my left foot I can't find a hold for my right hand, when I try to extend my leg and push my body upward toward my destination I flail at the wall, instead of feeling for crevices in the sandstone where I can wrap my fingers.  To climb well, you have to find ground beneath your feet where there is none.  You have to trust your body and trust the rock.  You have to find small spaces for your fingers and toes and learn how to work with the stone so your body balances.  My brother often climbs barefoot for this reason.  "You can feel the rock that way," he says.  This is what I want to learn, I always think, how to feel the rock.  How to see the life within the soil.  How to find my way.
Erin, my brother's lady friend, rests and rises with an
elegance I envy, palming the rock for finger pockets and
stretching upward in smooth sure movements. 8/01/12

I haven't blogged in more than six years.  I follow the blogs of friends, look at their well articulated pretty lives and struggle to see myself as part of that online conversation.  I write, but I don't bake vegan cookies or practice alternative urban permaculture, or craft found objects into jewelry and home decor.  I love to cook, but make a mess of the kitchen and the meals I make hardly seem worthy of photographing and writing about and usually, when I try to craft I end up with a scraps of magazines all over the floor and glue-gun seared fingertips.  I decided to re-enter the world of blogging because I recently took a job in a mountain school so remote that phone conversation, via land-line or cell is impossible.  I will have no car, no roads, no television.  But I will have (slow) internet and a life of hiking, reading, teaching, and writing that I want to share with friends and family.

The first thing Blogger asks for is a title.  I text-ed friends:  "What should I title my blog?"  I flipped through books of poetry I loved, listened to song lyrics, and created three or four failed blog addresses before heading to bed without any title or template.  The next morning, I woke up, poked around on the computer, sorted through stacks of books and cds and clothing, then headed to the Honda dealership for an oil change.  I dropped off my car and went for a run.  While running, I found myself retracing the last year, the decision I had made to live in a remote community without an easy escape route, my own tendency to get lost, my recent gravitation toward simplicity and soil.  I returned to the dealership and text-ed one of my closest friends.

Me:  "I came up with a title."
Him: "Is it 'Rachael's blog'?"
Me: "No, I'm pretty sure that web address is taken."
Him: "Drat."
(Pause in conversation.)
Me: "I'm calling it "The Ground Underneath my Feet"--as in getting grounded, soil, moss, rocks, sand, putting down roots, searching for home.  As opposed to vistas and travel and running away."

Last year, I learned that the tulip shaped icon on my camera allowed me to shoot photographs in Macro mode in order to catch tiny details: lichen, dirt, buttercups crusted onto mountain cliffs.  When I tried to shoot panoramas in Washington's lush landscape the greens blurred together but when I knelt down and focused the photographs came out clear.  They're the closest thing I have to the type of foot-finding my brother does rock climbing at Grand Ledge or the dirt-sifting science I learned about at Scienceworks.  They're evidence of the places I've been and reminders of the places I want to go and the way I want to stop and learn the landscape when I get there.

Moss, lichen, and kelp covered rocks, Shaw Island, 2/28/12


  1. Beautiful. I look forward to reading more of your writing over the course of your year in the mountains. Love.

    1. I'm glad. I've been loving your blog all year. When I get lonely I re-read the blog posts you wrote while I was visiting and think about curry and Crater Lake. Love, Rachael

  2. What a blog post. Thank you for this. There's a world out there and your enthusiasm in exploring it is downright infectious.

    1. Thanks! I really appreciate your kind comment!

  3. I love the path you are on, Rachael, literally and figuratively. I applaud this blog project and anything else that stimulates even further reflection, especially given your setting. Enjoy the time, space, and moments. Thanks for writing. Love, UD.

    1. Thanks Uncle Dan. Love you and miss you! ~Rachael