Mom and I just came back from a ten day trip to Glacier National Park, her first time, and mostly mine too. We dusted off the van and joined a friend and her two boys camped in the Many Glacier Campground. It was magical.
The moose, bears, mountain goats, big horn sheep, huckleberries on steroids, and a mink running down the trail with a snake in its mouth (first for me) gave me so much joy.
It was fun to see it all through a child’s eyes as well.
I was deeply humbled by the size of the mountains, and the many emerald green lakes and waterfalls. It brought me back to my roots and reminded me of how much nature is an incredibly important part of my connection with God, and the moment that connection started…
I grew up camping, my first experience in my mothers womb in Joshua Tree National Park, sleeping on the dirt because the inflatable mattress didn’t hold air.
As a kid, nature was just a big playground with rope swings, creeks, and trees to climb, until my teenage years when I didn’t want to do anything my parents wanted to do, so I stayed home while they went camping.
But nature stayed with me, unknowingly, choosing the university I went to based on the size and beauty of its trees on campus.
At the start of my junior year, still an undeclared major, I took a ‘camping management’ class. I thought it sounded fun. Little did I know it would change my life.
Ball sports in middle and high school were never my thing, and I struggled with them, experiencing the humiliation of being picked last or second to last for team sports by my peers (thank God the PE teachers don’t do that anymore, or at least I hope they don’t).
But Mike Selby, the teacher of the college camping class, showed me a whole new world, outside and within myself. I found out I was actually a natural at skiing, rock climbing and other nature centered activities.
He took us backpacking to the Lost Coast of California, where we zip lined from the top of an old lighthouse down to a washed up anchor on the beach, no helmet, flying down towards the ocean like a bird.
We built a sweat lodge on the sand, crawled in under the night sky, chanted, howled, crawled out and jumped into the ocean under the moonlight.
We snow camped on the side of Mount Shasta, blowing up an inflatable fun island and using it as a sled, six of us flying headfirst, laughing and screaming and jumping off right before we hit the trees.
The fun island didn’t last long.
The next day, on the way out, Mike said “Follow me Angela.” I got on my very long and skinny telemark skis for the second time in my life, with my 30 pound backpack, and managed to keep up with him aside from only one spectacular face plant.
I was waking up on the inside and the outside. It wasn’t just my confidence and self-esteem, it was a love of something, something greater than me that I wasn’t consciously aware of yet.
That moment came three years later when I was 23 years old. After graduating with a degree in Recreation Administration from Chico State (my parents always told me to choose a major I would enjoy :-), I fell in love with all things outdoors, and ended up being an outdoor trip leader for a group of high school students in the Pacific Northwest.
On one part of that trip we had the opportunity to climb Mount Rainier in Washington. Being a glaciated mountain, we went through snow school with the Rainier Mountain guides, and learned how to use an ice ax to stop ourselves if we slid on the ice before attempting to summit early the next morning…well, actually later that night.
At midnight, the guides woke us up from our short sleep in the hut, and we roped up under a starlit sky. There were four people to a rope, attaching ourselves so if one person fell in a crevasse the rest of us could catch them with our ice axes.
There were 16 students, four trip leaders including myself, and four mountain guides, so 24 people total.
I was told to attach myself at the very end of the rope of the last team of four to leave camp. It was my first time on a glacier.
The large shadow of the mountain was to my left, and in the other direction, a few clouds were being lit up by a dry lightning storm off in the distance to the north.
The only other thing I could see where the headlamps of the people in front of me slowly making their way up the glacier.
As the rope pulled taught, I took my first step onto the ice, hearing only the crunch of my crampons contacting the frozen snow.
I clearly remember the moment and the feeling in my body of complete awe and wonder, of joy and excitement, of humility and smallness in relation to the greatness I felt around me and above me.
It was my first experience of feeling God, although I didn’t know that that was what it was at the time, in fact I didn’t believe in anything spiritual at the time. I just knew I was completely hooked, and I had to do more of it.
We summited the climb, and I was elated. Little did I know that the next 20 years of my life would be in search of moments just like that one, personally and professionally.
I led mountaineering expeditions in mountain ranges around the world, relishing getting up at 2 AM to step on the ice in the quietness and magnificence of the mountain.
To be honest, part of it was an escape, from society, pains of the past, and my own perceived inadequacies, but my soul always knew where to go to connect with that feeling (aka: God).
Nature has been teaching me since I was in the womb about the greatness of spirit and my connection to and of it.
There’s a quote by John Muir, naturalist, environmentalist, and mystic, that I often reflected on and was a guiding light for me on my trips during those 20 years. He said,
“I went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
For me, it was, and still is, going in to peace, tranquility, openness, awe, wonder, joy, oneness, groundedness, wholeness, love, and challenge by choice.
I could not be me without nature. It is my monastery, my soul home. I need time in nature every day.
My Buddhist teacher Matthew Flickstein used to say that we connect with nature so much because nature just IS. No judgments, no have to’s, no pressures, no should’s, nature just IS.
Mom and I attended a ranger talk on beavers last week when we were camped in Glacier NP. She shared the importance of beavers to the ecosystem and how they create incredibly rich areas of water that are vital to other critters, plants and trees. She said there are up to 73,000 insects in one square meter of a beaver pond, WOW!
She ended the talk with a quote from Michael Runtz, author of Dam Builders, and a Canadian biologist, naturalist and photographer, who related the richness of a beaver pond to the Sistine Chapel. Tears welled up in my eyes when I heard this.
Two days later mom and I serendipitously hiked by one of the most extensive beaver pond areas I’ve witnessed. It was in the Two Medicine valley of Glacier NP.
There were multiple ponds. I counted six, but I’m guessing there were more. It looked like the beavers had been there for decades. There were frogs jumping in the water, dragonflies flying around, and a moose came into the meadow to feed on the lush grass growing along the edges.
I bowed to the ponds, hands in prayer position – my daily ritual when I’m in nature. It’s a moment of reverence and gratitude and love for all that God provides.
The indigenous people of every continent hold the wisdom of our connection to God through nature, our connection to the Great Spirit, and our need to care for that which cares for us.
A Pawnee song sings (a tribe from the Central Plains of Nebraska):
Remember, remember the sacredness of things
running streams and dwellings
the young within the nest
a hearth for sacred fire
the holy flame of fire
Mystics, saints and poets speak of this connection as well.
Saint Francis of Assisi, a 13th Century Catholic friar and mystic, wrote “If your heart is pure than all of nature would be to you a Book of Divine Wisdom.“
And Mary Oliver, American poet and mystic, wrote so eloquently in her poem Mindful:
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
The next time you go outside, be still, take time to watch the dragonfly, take time to feel the raindrop resting on the leave, take time to brush your hand over the soft grass seed pod as you walk, take time to listen to the miracle of the song bird, take time to watch an animal chew back and forth, take time for your soul to remember what it already knows.
If you’re one to listen to a podcast or music while you hike or walk or other activity outside, I encourage you to leave the phone in your car or at home and give the gift to your soul to connect within, and find the prayers made out of grass.
A parting shot from Glacier NP, mom and I in our happy place together…
More to come dear friend, from my heart to yours.
Categories: Gratitude, Health & Happiness, Meditation & Mindfulness