Not Wandering, Not Staying Put

by A. d’Forrest Ketchin

I am not a person who transplants easily or quickly. I need to smell and hear, taste and touch the community of the land, much like a baby needs to be laid upon its mother’s chest after birth. I need to understand the land in my cells. Although I suppose you could say I have a base camp near Boulder, Colorado, I have not stayed put in the conventional sense for many years. I feel vaguely uneasy about this, especially in light of recent writings on ecological identity and its relationship to permanence. Sometimes I wonder with a sudden jab of pain if I betray myself in some way, along with the Earth whom I love so deeply.

It is Winter Solstice and I’m living for a few weeks in a cabin on the lower slopes of Mt. Blanca massif, a magnificent presence extending westward into the San Luis Valley from the main range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A little to the north and west are The Great Sand Dunes. Blanca massif rises from a wide rift valley 6,000 feet below her summit. The valley, extending along the Rio Grande well into New Mexico, is high desert punctuated with volcanic upwellings where Earth’s hot blood pooled and scabbed on the surface as a result of the rifting. At one time the valley was a huge lake. Long, long before that, before even the mountains, the area was inundated by an ancient sea.

To me Blanca massif is deeply female, and so I call her “woman’s mountain.” Her sister, The Great Sand Dunes, I call &lduo;the Great cinnamon she-Bear.” Over the years, these two have shown me that the wisdom traditions are right when they say the bond between Earth and humanity cannot be taught directly. It is held in stories, songs, and ceremonies that guide the individual over the course of a lifetime. True understanding emerges organically from each individual’s effort to make sense of experience. I am trying to make sense of what it means to be permanent, or transient, and how either relates to sense of place and a person’s identity with place (or what some call ecological identity).

For most of humanity’s sojourn on Earth people have moved through the landscape. Is there any relationship between this movement and the ability to exchange self for other, so fundamental to ecological identity? Could such movement foster a unique kind of understanding of wholes within wholes? Of how context shapes truth? Of relationships between places? The extensive neurological connections between the heart and the brain suggest that mind includes the heart, if not the rest of the body. Could the neurological development of this heart-mind be key to healthy identification with wholes beyond the small self?

Pondering these questions, and in need of deep personal healing, I spent last summer here at the dunes. One late afternoon exactly six months ago on Summer Solstice I walked southwest along the creek that flows next to the Great cinnamon she-Bear. I was looking for a good place high on the dunes to watch the full moon rise while the sun set. My bare feet pressed into the yielding, water-laden sand as if pressing into flesh, the sand rising to meet me the way healthy flesh rises to meet the hand caressing it. A breeze came up, blowing the sand so softly across the surface it sounded like breathing. My tracks vanished close behind me, flesh rebounding–moist, tawny. On the breeze I smelled salt, an ancient and disappeared ocean . . .

During that time I grew to feel at home here in this vast, wild place, much as I do where I live on my beloved high plains near the Front Range. I am here some seasons, there others. When I travel from one region to the other, I cross threshold after threshold between life zones, watersheds, and bioregions, yet my sense of place encompasses the whole. All the while my inner conflict is heightened by the driving involved. What is the land’s experience of the speed, the car, the unbreathing tar and gravel of the roads, the exhaust . . . ? Of my conflict and longing?

The Great cinnamon she-Bear, tens of thousands of acres large, and countless thousands of years old, has much to say in answer. She is ringed by two creeks flowing out of the east that surge ocean-like over the measureless depths of sand along her borders. Despite being called creeks, they have no banks other than the few places where cottonwoods and willows form tree island refuges for grasses and creatures. Generally, the transition from stream to not-stream is as continuous and subtle as that from dreaming to full wakefulness, a flow from wet to dry, from formless, surging watersand in the creek to formed, undulating windsand in the dunes. The play of water, wind, and sand in the daily lives of the creeks keeps her alive, carrying sand-flesh from the sheltered coves of her eastern dunes to the scoured windward side where it can be lifted singing to fall gently upon her back once more: sand not wandering, and not staying put.

Watching the winds blow fiercely across the dunes I am reminded of an ancient lifeway I call eternal return. Its anthropological name is transhumance. Normally this term is applied only to movement by pastoral peoples between seasonal pastures, but such limited use always seemed a shame to me. Defined more broadly, transhumance may be the oldest human relationship to the land, dating back millions of years, as humans and our two-legged relatives followed animals and plants, moving through the landscape in company with the seasons, returning yearly to the same areas. Often the word nomadic is used to describe this movement, but it is not quite precise enough to do justice to the wisdom revealed in such a lifeway. I believe transhumant is a better word, because it highlights the annual, cyclical, patterned and repeating character of that movement–in one sense a physical gesture of the eternal return. This is a far cry from wandering at large across the land in search of food, the common misunderstanding of nomadism. It is rather, a deliberate patterned movement, suggesting a deep and complex understanding of a mosaic of landscapes.

Peoples in a variety of life zones have patterned their lives this way. As I’ve roamed the Front Range landscape, I’ve often felt the presence of the aboriginal people who lived there thousands of years ago, as if the land itself is the medium connecting past and present in a seamless fabric. They followed a yearly round, timed to coincide with the unfolding life cycles of plants and animals at different elevations and latitudes. They wintered in the rolling high plains near present-day Denver and Boulder, then traveled northwards in early spring as much as 100 miles along the face of the mountain uplift. When the snows began to recede in the high country they turned west, crossing through low passes into inter-montane “parks,” moving south through a series of these parks as summer progressed. It is likely they gathered in large groups at rendezvous and ceremonial places, until in late summer they returned over the high mountains to the Plains, hunting as they went in preparation for winter. Their routes are still discernible to the observant eye.

So it is with the land that embraces woman’s mountain and the Great cinnamon she-Bear. Although their lives were somewhat different from those of the early Front Range peoples, the lifeway that emerged for the ancients of this desert place also reflected seasonal changes along elevational and latitudinal gradients. They too responded intimately to the changing community of the land–planting fields near home bases and natural gardens along routes of movement; fishing, hunting, and gathering throughout a region as familiar to them as a single plant. Their PLACE was a cosmos anchored by great mountains and chasms, rivers and lakes, hundreds of miles apart. They held deep phenomenological and sensory knowledge about the complex interdependence of regions, watersheds, and ecosystems . . .

And so, I have come to the conclusion that permanence must have many expressions. An obvious one is stationary village life, such as characterized by peasant models of intensive agriculture. Unfortunately this is often taken as the ideal, an ethnocentric conclusion ruling out untold numbers of cultures over deep stretches of time. I think of transhumance as permanence on the move–not aimless wandering or simply going back and forth between places. Embedded in the continuous and reciprocal field of being that encompasses everything across time and space, it is movement through the land like a shuttle weaving congruent tapestries of inner and outer landscapes. It is not hard to imagine that this lifeway expanded the boundaries of self, fostering a healthy exchange of “self” for “other” based on an understanding of wholes within wholes, cycles and patterns.

This ancient pattern of transhumance suggests something important about sense of place. It complexifies our view, deepens it, expands it. Sense of place, or ecological identity, for that matter, may not be related in a direct and causal manner to permanence, as we usually conceive of it. Patterned, repeating cycles of movement–expressed both as transhumance, and as gestural movement in the seasonal ceremony (dancing, song . . .) and cycles of work (hunting, planting, harvesting, birthing, dying) may reveal a physical sense–sense of movement–crucial to the unfolding of a person’s bond with Nature. Like the other physical senses, gestural movement holds the potential to extend the boundaries of how one understands oneself, while movement through the land may extend that self by heightening awareness of greater wholes.

Transhumance, then, is not the same as transience. Transience is a malady afflicting industrial and post-industrial societies and colonized peoples, particularly in this era of rapidly globalizing markets. It is often contrasted to permanence, and cited as part of the problem with humanity’s relationship to Nature. The trend world-wide is toward the upheaval and diaspora of whole cultures and peoples, toward migratory work forces, and other forms of transience and rootlessness. Whole populations seem to be responding to this trend by becoming entrenched in a limited understanding of themselves in relation to the land, indicating some degree of trauma to the developmental process by which one discovers one’s relationship to wider circles of life. Still, I question the assumption that one cannot develop a sense of kinship with place unless one stays put, and wonder if the underlying wisdom of transhumance and its ability to foster complex inner landscapes of interlocking wholes may indicate creative possibilities for working with transient populations.

When I first began my rounds of the U.S. West, I was in pretty desperate shape, a war casualty of a kind. Movement through the land, and the flavor of pilgrimage it came to have, reeled me back into life at a time when little else could touch me. The motion of the land community, the rise and fall of the landscape, the weather and seasonal cycles–what could be called the land’s gesture–entered my body and movements, awakening a bond deeper than the psychological. Movement through the land fostered, perhaps demanded, that I learn to exchange myself for other, a wondrous inner improvisational dance between my body and the body of the land.

The ability to exchange self for other is a skill everyone develops when learning to empathize with someone else. Once developed the skill can be applied beyond close family and friends to wider and wider circles of life, until it encompasses whole cultures, landscapes, regions, even the Earth itself. Acts of spontaneous, un-thought-out altruism often follow.

This ability underlies empathy and altruism, whatever the scale at which it is applied. It relies upon heart-mind, or the heart and mind working together, to create a felt knowing and understanding of the role of context in shaping truth, of interlocking wholes, of cycles and patterns, and of the emergent quality of all phenomena. These require the capacity to hold great phenomenological complexity. One can develop these qualities through intellectual effort, but only to a certain extent. Beyond that, one needs to call upon the body and its ways of knowing, engaging the physical senses, including gesture and movement. The developmental process involved is neurological, and both imagination and the physical senses are key to its full unfolding.

The old adage, “I’ve got a gut feeling about that” hints at the neurological component. The vital organs that lie together in the very center of the person possess the ability to read and synthesize important information from the outer environment, and then communicate it via extensive and complex neurological nets to the head, where it is translated into forms the cognitive mind can comprehend. The neurological connections between the heart and the brain are particularly well-developed, far exceeding what is necessary to keep the heart beating. The danger of psychological projection during this process is ever-present, but the senses can help to diminish it. Sensory reciprocity with one’s surroundings tends to bypass the mind’s ready interpretations and categories.

Sensory reciprocity is key to fostering, and re-awakening the ability to exchange oneself for another. The idea that one exchanges information with one’s surroundings through the senses may sound odd, but most people have had everyday experiences with pets and houseplants that make it seem a little more familiar. These experiences suggest that the senses extend beyond our physical bodies and that natural phenomena are capable of receiving and understanding. The thought is exhilarating, healing, and un-nerving . . . perhaps what is meant by mysterium tremendum, an encounter with “sacred other,” the experience of realness possible when the veil of projection parts.

The root qualities of heart-mind tend to generate tolerance for ambiguity, or basic trust. This quality of perception makes it possible to remain open even in situations of extreme uncertainty, as encounters with “sacred other” tend to be. Heart-mind appreciates that phenomena and situations are always changing, and are extremely sensitive to context. It remembers patterns and cycles, often in a non-conscious manner, and deep into the past. I think of this as a verb orientation, in which one responds to phenomena as clusters of dynamic and complex relationships. Mountains are mountain-ing. Rivers are river-ing. Truth is truth-ing. How easily lost these qualities of perception are when peoples are colonized, urbanized or industrialized out of their seasonal return and the land that holds their stories! The hallmarks of heart-mind would have been vital to survival long ago, and may be key to the future, especially to people forced into transience or diaspora.

Many stories from the world’s first, or aboriginal, peoples describe how basic trust, and an ability to exchange self for other, grow out of experiences with the land. These stories often begin with the simple, yet profound teaching that all beings are related physically and spiritually. The land and its people are family to each other, joined by the kind of reciprocity befitting close relations. This reciprocity is corporeal, in the form of food and offerings–and spiritual, in the form of a deep congruence between the inner landscapes of hearts and psyches and the outer landscape of the Earth.

The stories often describe the journey a child takes to adulthood as a circular pilgrimage through the land to places of spiritual significance, while along the way non-human guides and allies help with obstacles. Key to a successful journey is the three-fold teaching of respect (pay attention), gratitude (remember), and humility (take care). Through these, the seeker discovers the meaning of kinship as understood beyond the personal dimension. The elegant teaching that land and people are kin simultaneously stimulates the heart and mind to understand the principle of kinship far beyond the story-line of an individual’s personal history. It suggests we are one and not one at the same time, in the way families are one and not one.

The quality of familial relationship in one’s sense of place is alluring but can backfire if it remains tied too closely to personal history. I say this because transient and uprooted populations may be subject to unhappy family experiences. Tightly bonded families do not necessarily foster deep respect and healthy communion. If one is to draw upon the ancient wisdom that emphasizes kinship with the land, one must recognize and respect the obstacles that may arise when fractured and disrupted populations are asked to embrace it. For instance, what might be the implication of considering the Earth as mother if one hates one’s mother and cannot transcend the personal story line?

The Great cinnamon she-Bear has not always made it easy for me to want her as a member of my family. Biting insects drove me to wear netting sewn to my hat last summer, a long black veil covering my head and shoulders as I roamed the landscape. Without it the explosions of swirling, biting no-see-ums raised swollen, painful red welts on my body anywhere they could creep. It was as if the sand had been given biting and sucking mouth parts.

The insects were maddening, but not terrifying. The storms, on the other hand, stampeded over the mountains, shaking the ground until it seemed to shatter and collapse. I have seen five simultaneous lightning strikes on the dunes, and heard sounds in the winds like those of a woman dying in childbirth. If I happened to be walking among the dunes when a storm blew in, ravens playing on the messenger winds like aerial gymnasts warned me to turn toward home. But I wouldn’t want to. A strange longing to walk deeper into the dune field and dissolve into the storm would come over me. Then a raven would call, or the wind would surge, and, with Not this time echoing around me, home I would go.

Fortunately, my love for this challenging place has endured despite it all–no-see-ums, mosquitos, wind, lightning, terrifying storms, burning cold . . . Or is it because these things are in the mix, demanding respect in their own right and teaching me about cycles and complexity?

It has been six months since I walked the creek on Summer Solstice. I’ve returned at a time when those long, stretched out days have shrunken in the cold to thin wafers sandwiched between long nights. Only the Great-slumbering she-Bear is free of snow. On the sloping wind-driven plain between mountains and dunes, long gray stems lift clusters of rabbit and horse brush out of the snow, spreading their yellow, mittened seed heads. Along the gulches, aspen and cottonwood look from a distance like blond mohawk haircuts, standing out against the snowy landscape.

As I walked among the dunes yesterday, I moved dreamily in a thin sliver of color and shape between snow and cloud. Two ravens played on a high ridge of sand, landing together only a few feet apart, running ten or fifteen steps, then flying, soaring, tumbling, all over again. Their parallel tracks said,“”Splash, run, run, ru-u-u-u-n–hop, hop–fly!!!” I am filled with the memories of last summer, and wonder if, across the curved expanse of time-space, the ancient residents of this place share them with me: the oceanic smell; the wind cresting and falling; sand filling the ears; the intimate gargle of raven; the silent watching of golden eagles; the fragrance of wild rose; the smell of puma marking territory, of bear on a summer diet; the wild colors of the sky and the blood-red mountains at sunset; countless birds in liquid song; the flavor of a storm brewing out of sight . . .

By early afternoon it began to snow quietly, large flakes falling slowly. Toward evening a wild wind began to blow, drifting the snow mercilessly, and filling every empty spot. All night the wind growled and croaked in the forest around my cabin like a thousand ravens. As if on fire, the trees smoked with whirling snow. Between gusts brackish junipers leapt flame-like into view, and piñons exploded into my field of vision like winter-green bonfires.

Throughout it all, woman’s mountain danced and sang her fierce healing song, beating up a cool fire of smoking snow for her mid-winter ceremony. Her brittle rattle, and dry, searing voice carried the high notes of the storm’s penetrating prayer song. Her incense of snow, ice, and juniper laced with far-off oceanic realms, filled the air. When at last I fell into a restless sleep late in the night, icicles on the eaves clattered to their deaths, startling me awake once again . . .