Here is Everything
Updated: Jan 29
A not so solo wilderness retreat ~~~
I recently went on a solo backpacking trip to a place I’ve spent a lot of time exploring, the Eastern Sierra Nevada. I use the term solo in the sense that there were no other humans in my company, but whenever I go out into nature on my own, I am not alone. I always have the companionship of the plants, animals, minerals, and elements that make up what we call the wilderness.
As I was walking through a grove of pines, I started to contemplate the age of the different individual trees. Depending on the estimated age I would then say to to the tree, “Hi, Little Sister.” or “Big Sister”, or “Grandmother”, and so on. These living beings who share this planet with me, on whom I depend for countless gifts such as clean air, the paper in my journal, and shade on a hot hike, are part of my family.
The first day of my hike into the wilderness, the skies were thick with smoke from the fires some 250 miles north. I had been backpacking on this trail before, so my memory held an image of the expansive crisp blue sky views and the alpine peaks towering over the lakes. This day, as I set up camp at one of the lakes, I could barely make out the peaks just surrounding me. The haze made by the smoke created a depressing dullness to the scenery. My heart ached at the thought of loss for my wilderness family to the north.
I intended this hike to be a sort of spiritual retreat. In my mind, as I prepared for the trip, I imagined the clean air and beautiful views would be a balm to my soul. I would be nourished in nature’s perfection and come back to “civilization” renewed. When the skies continued to be polluted with smoke, I could feel myself contending with the disappointment of unmatched expectations. I eventually surrendered to the opportunity to truly tap into the sorrow and pain of my heart break. I felt it deeply. The pain of destruction. The pain of disappointment. The pain of loss. I suddenly heard the phrase “Here is everything” come into my mind. These fires, this smoke are part of everything that the wilderness holds. Not just the beauty. Perfection is an illusion. A spiritual journey, too, is filled with fire and smoke, as well as joy and wonder.
Despite the realization that the smoke didn’t prevent me from the full benefits of a spiritual retreat into nature, I went to sleep that night fairly certain I would have to turn around the next day to prevent breathing in much more of the unhealthy air. However, throughout the night huge gusts of wind blew the smoke out of the mountain basin and I woke up with the sunrise to the crisp blue skies of my memories. It didn’t mean that the fires had vanished. One thing does not necessarily disappear because the other appears. It just becomes less obvious. Often this is out of our control and up to whichever way the wind blows.
I ended up spending a couple more days in the wilderness. The second evening I set up camp next to a lake, which I had entirely to myself. Well, that is, without the presence of another human. I woke up to witness the sunrise shining it's bright face above the water and painting the peaks across from it a fluorescent salmon color. As I sat on the little hilltop above the lake, taking in the wonder of the brilliant scene, I saw a large bird coming into view from the east. I assumed it was a raven. I’d seen a few already. However, as it came closer I noted the completely white head and white tail on the dark, dense, enormous body. It was a bald eagle! "Hi, sister eagle!" She flew close enough I could see her bill and eyes until she disappeared toward the setting moon in the west.
My eyes filled with tears of joy. After nearly twenty years of backpacking, I had never seen a bald eagle in the south-eastern Sierra Nevada! Just fifty years ago they were nearly extinct in California due to the effects of long-term use of DDT pesticides. In the 1970s only 30 nesting pairs remained, all in the northern third of the state. Thanks to the banning of DDT, they have made a magnificent recovery, but are still relatively uncommon to see in the southern Sierra. Seeing her was a reminder of this possibility for renewal. I made a wish for the wilderness family to the north to find such healing.
And so it turns out that this trip was a balm for the soul as I had hoped, not because I was bathed in only the transcendent beauty of nature, but rather because I was also met with the destruction, the pain, the loss, as well as the resilience, the joy, and wonder of nature. The true beauty of life, of a spiritual journey, is in all of it.
“Here is everything.”
The golden-mantled squirrel inches closer
and closer to me
pausing every so often
to assess my intentions
She gets within an arm’s length away
for only a second
then retreats to a safe distance
and side-eyes me for some time
As we sit together
I wonder if she notices the smoke
filling the mountain basin
and whether this disturbs her too
Both of us together now
created of the same earth's materials
My sister squirrel
Or at least my distant cousin
After all the millennia
that led to this moment
here we sit, eyes locked
waiting for the fires to come
Imagine you are an eagle or a pine tree or a squirrel or a river, the sun, or other non-human creature/element. What would you like to share with us humans?
Leave a comment below or email I'd love to hear your reflections.
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