Sunday, December 11, 2011

Arizona's 5th C: Conflict?

Site of the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine in the
Santa Rita Mountains, 30 miles south of Tucson, AZ.

When I was in fourth grade, I remember learning about the 3 C's of Arizona's economy: cotton, copper, and cattle (and oh, the havoc those three have wreaked). At the time, I didn't understand why so much fuss was made over this; I'm not sure anyone really made a true effort to explain economics to fourth graders, and I don't blame them, since I'm hard pressed to understand any of it today. I did know that many of my not-so-distant Arizona relatives - people that I met at family reunions, people who wore cowboy boots and smoked Marlboros on the back porch - really! - were either ranchers or miners, and when I thought of them I inevitably felt the romantic pull of a notion I had, impossible to articulate but very real, of my family as makers of the Wild West.

In recent years, I've heard that a 4th C has been added: climate. Our lovely winter weather draws retirees' Winnebagos to Arizona like lumbering moths to a flame, and fueled a frenzy of building and development that only the near-collapse of the domestic economy could slow - which it did. But that doesn't mean that the other three C's are gone; in fact, yesterday I attended a Forest Service hearing regarding the draft environmental impact statement for the development of the Rosemont Copper mine, 30 miles southeast of Tucson in the Santa Rita mountain range.

I attended the hearing to speak out against this mine, and I did so. But it wasn't without acknowledgment of the complexity of this issue, which I feel is often lost as both sides batten down the hatches and prepare for a war in which the other side not only has no claim to legitimacy, but is morally repugnant. As much as I oppose the mine itself, I have to acknowledge that those who support it are simply coming from a different perspective - they are not necessarily scientifically illiterate morons, as the anti-mine crowd seemed to perceive (ok, so there's a high level of scientific illiteracy happening, but that doesn't make those who suffer from it morons, or somehow inherently less valuable humans than the rest of us).

There are plenty of reasons to oppose this project. It would destroy a large swath of the Santa Ritas, one of the least-trammeled ranges in southern Arizona. It would have unpredictable consequences for the watershed, including reducing groundwater levels and the flow of springs that feed important riparian areas throughout the range (well, the only thing that's unpredictable is how much impact the mine will actually have; there's no question that it will be highly destructive.) In a regional economy that currently brings in millions of dollars from tourism, the mine would destroy land of significant scenic, biological, and recreational value. The list goes on and on. I heard several interesting arguments during the hearing yesterday, one from a former mining engineer, saying that the copper vein that is to be mined is weak, and that the project is doomed to failure for many technical reasons that I wish I understood.

The argument for the mine, of course, is jobs. In an economy where the real estate, construction, and development industries have all crashed, Arizona's 4th C is no longer working out so well. And so the lure of copper once again has a hold on us - mining can provide jobs, and copper is an increasingly valuable commodity due to its use in high-tech applications. I fully acknowledge that without copper, I wouldn't be typing on a computer right now. I wouldn't have been able to drive a car to the hearing yesterday. We all use the products of these extractive industries, so how can we actually reconcile opposing them in our own backyards?

Then there's the uncomfortable question of what I can only think to call a kind of class warfare around these issues. Overwhelmingly, though not without exception, those who spoke out against the mine were well-educated, well-off folks who opposed the project on environmental grounds or because it threatened their way of life, which often involved a ranchette where they had retired a few years before to run a few horses and open a bed-and-breakfast. Those who spoke in support of the mine did so because it would support their jobs - for example, a trucking company brought in a busload of their employees who would be hired to truck copper away from the mine. The privilege of opposing these projects belongs to the wealthier folks in our society, or at least those of us whose jobs don't rely on these types of industries. And who are we to try to argue that habitat is more important that jobs?

Despite these complications, I still oppose this mine, mostly because it seems to cost so much for so little (or unpredictable) potential benefit. Assuming a cost-benefit analysis could accurately value things like habitat and scenic beauty, I feel confident that the costs of the project would outweigh the benefits. The deeper conflict is how to find alternatives to the cultural and economic paradigms that require such a heavy toll in terms of natural resource extraction, and deeper still seems to be the divide between worldviews represented at the hearing yesterday. The people around me were dismissive and demeaning towards those who spoke in favor of the mine; I have no doubt that the other side of the room snickered when I talked about the threats to riparian habitat. After all, what use is a bird when there's no food on the table?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Meditation, Week 1

Last Saturday, I attended an introductory meditation course. This was something I'd been wanting to do for a while, and circumstances just came together and I finally committed to it and went. I'm so glad I did.

Since then, I've added 15 minutes of meditation to my morning routine, and managed to fit it in every day this week except Friday.  I've also been reading Real Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg, before I sit, which I highly recommend.  It's difficult to try to articulate (much less understand) everything that has already begun to blossom from this apparently simple practice, but here are my initial observations.

Through meditation, I've started to realize how many of my thoughts are repetitive and unproductive - they don't serve to further anything except my anxiety and tendency toward escapism. That leaves me unfocused and feeling less alive, as if I move through my days with half my mind absorbed in thoughts that don't ultimately serve me or anyone else. For example, if I've done the best I can at work, endless thoughts about what awaits me tomorrow or a week or a month from now do absolutely nothing except increase my level of stress and distract me from the present. Of course, we all know this intellectually, but I'm finding that meditation somehow attunes me to this more viscerally, in a way that allows me to start to truly become less attached to those unproductive thoughts, rather than just acknowledging that they aren't productive but not knowing what to do about it.

At first, I was resistant to the idea that when meditating, we should try to recognize and move away from long strings of discursive thought. As I rode my bike home from the introductory class, I thought, isn't discursive thought where ideas and insights come from? And I think that's true when we are focused and creative. But what I've started to notice through meditation is that my automatic thought patterns are extremely predictable. They consistently turn to the latest anxiety about the future or obsession about the past, rehashing the same thought pattern again and again. Just recognizing this, observing it, and then breaking the pattern by re-focusing on the breath has been tremendously empowering.

But here's the thing: I'm also realizing that I'm incredibly attached to those thought patterns. The idea that someday we will "escape" to a little mountain town where we'll be immersed in nature and I'll write brilliantly every day is one of the abiding fantasies to which I turn during the challenging parts of my day, especially during a sleepless night when I feel insecure and inadequate to the tasks at hand. And there is a part of me that thinks if I let go of that fantasy, I'll lose it forever - I'll forget that I'm supposed to escape to a small mountain town and write brilliantly, maybe because I'll be so fully absorbed and engaged in life as it is instead of life as it should be. The part of that fantasy I need to let go of is the idea that I'll somehow be a different person in that world than I am in the here and now. Which of course isn't true - and if I don't wake up and recognize, and then work to break, this particular thought pattern, then a new fantasy world will just replace that one once it has been achieved.

Finally, what I've found is that meditation is really hard. Sometimes it takes every ounce of discipline and concentration I have just to sit and focus on breathing for fifteen minutes, reigning in my thoughts as I go. But given everything I've only begun to learn in the past week, I sense that this practice will stay with me for a long time to come.

Friday, August 26, 2011

On Yoga & Commitment-Phobia

I went to a new yoga studio yesterday, and found the class I took there quite refreshing. It wasn't so much that the teacher was super amazing - she really wasn't - as that the class she taught was so calm and therapeutic. Of course, there were some challenging poses; any yoga pose is challenging when you bring your full physical and mental attention to it. But there was also meditation to start and end class, and a feeling of calm and sensitivity in the room that made its way into my mind and body. I was able to be present in a way that I have not been in a yoga class (or anywhere else) in quite some time.

The studio I normally go to holds one-hour classes that are incredibly intense from a physical perspective. They are crowded - mats are laid down edge to edge like the patches of a room-sized quilt - and it's hard not to feel as if you're at some kind of yoga revival. I don't mean to be overly critical or dismissive of this approach: it draws a huge crowd and is definitely an intense workout. I'm just not sure that an intense workout is what I'm really looking for from yoga anymore.

What am I looking for, and am I going to find it in yoga? I'm not sure, although I have been consistently drawn to yoga for ten years now, though it's never really found a comfortable niche in my life. I have always been drawn to its spiritual and philosophical aspects, but never enough so to really dedicate myself to their exploration beyond reading a popular book or two. I suppose I'm a yoga commitment-phobe: I want the benefits of a cursory relationship with yoga - strength, flexibility, a toned body - without all the intellectual and spiritual work of delving into its literary and meditative teachings.

Maybe this speaks to a larger issue I struggle with: a hesitancy to believe thoroughly in anything. I try to avoid dogma in its many forms, even when disguised by things I believe in, like nature and science. Does this hesitancy keep me from fully investing myself in a course of study and spiritual development? Or am I simply, as I sometimes think, just lazy? Am I just satisfied enough with the way things stand that I don't feel any need to dedicate a lot of time to profoundly changing my life - a life, I must say, that I'm very happy with?

Whatever the case, the cursory relationship I've had so far with yoga no longer seems to be enough, and in some way, I desire to go deeper. This may mean facing some of my own assumptions head-on: after all, I realize there is plenty of room for critical thought when one is engaged in studying philosophy or in developing a spiritual practice.  It's just a matter of owning up to the rigorous work that represents, instead of brushing the whole thing off as dogma and therefore not worthy of my time and serious contemplation.  It's just a matter of deciding to invest - an always risky, often rewarding, proposition.  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hiking Tumamoc

Last night, J and I rode our bikes to Tumamoc Hill and hiked up it. I love this little urban hike - about 800 feet of climbing up a paved road that cuts through pristine desert. The hill is owned by the University of Arizona, and has been a desert research site since 1906. The hike is short but steep, with gorgeous views of the city from the top.

The view from the top of Tumamoc Hill, with Sentinel Peak
("A" Mountain) in the foreground and rain over the Rincons.

Hundreds of people hike the hill every night, making it far from a wilderness experience. Almost the opposite - the hill is an urban gathering place where people come together to do something good for their bodies and souls. Strangers of all shapes and sizes share the experience of the climb - the steep curves, the skinny deer nibbling at a creosote bush, the continuous drama of a monsoon evening - lightning pricking the Rincon Mountains to the east, the sun igniting the Tucson Mountains to the west. On the hill, we are in the great middle of it, and we see our city for what it is - an unlikely settlement nestled in a horseshoe of mountains: gritty, sprawled, and beautiful.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kingdom Animalia

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.”
-Albert Einstein

We went to see the film Project Nim last night, a documentary about a chimpanzee raised with humans as a science experiment in the 1970s. Nim was taken away from his chimp mother when he was only a few days old, and initially raised in a human household basically as a human child. When that situation proved too chaotic, the lead researcher moved Nim to a house where he was cared for by young scientists who socialized with him and taught him sign language. It's a fascinating story, mostly of human selfishness.

It struck me that out of all the people who interacted with and cared for Nim over the years, the person who was closest to and most compassionate toward him was the one who respected his chimp-ness, rather than obsessed over his pseudo-humanness. Everyone else wanted so badly to mold Nim into a little human that they didn't appreciate or honor who and what he really was. It does beg the question of whether or not we can ever really understand another form of consciousness, an experience of reality that is so different from our own. In a recent New Yorker article, "Dog Story," Adam Gopnik cites the philosopher Thomas Nagel on this topic, in Nagel's essay, "What Does It Feel Like to Be a Bat?":

"It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task."

Most of the Project Nim researchers were fixated on the possibility of understanding Nim's inner world only if he communicated that world on purely human terms - through language. But this would not tell them, to borrow Nagel's phrase, what it was like for Nim to be Nim; only what it was like for the humans to interpret what it was like to be Nim. There's no doubt Nim could communicate with signs; even if what he did was, as many people claimed, only a sophisticated form of mimicry, he still used signs to get what he wanted - "food," "hug," "smoke."  In that sense, he played our game to the extent that it benefited him, but expecting him to be capable of or willing to reveal the experience of his inner life purely on our human terms, by using our specifically human tool of language, seems the height of arrogance.

We cannot help but anthropomorphize, because our personal experience of consciousness is the only one we know, and projecting that onto animals (and, as a friend we saw the movie with suggested, maybe even onto each other) is the only way we can empathize and relate. But it seems worthwhile to strive to appreciate animals on their own terms - to recognize their instincts as completely different from, yet equally astonishing as, our own ability to articulate abstract thoughts through language. We cannot know what it's like to move through the world as animals do, but does that make their experience less valuable, their instinctual understanding of us less impressive? Adam Gopnik writes:

"Yet, for all the seemingly unbridgeable distance between us and them, dogs have found a shortcut into our minds. They live... within our circle without belonging to it: they speak our language without actually speaking any, and share our concerns without really being able to understand them. The verbs tell some of the story: the dog shares, feels, engages, without being able to speak, plan, or (in some human sense) think. We may not be able to know what it's like to be a dog; but, over all those thousands of years, Butterscotch [the author's dog] has figured out, in some instrumental way, what it's like to be a person. Without language, concepts, long-term causal thinking, she can still enter into the large part of our mind made up of appetites, longings, and loyalties. She does a better impersonation of a person than we do an approximation of a dog. That it is, from the evolutionary and philosophical point of view, an impersonation, produced and improved on by generations of dogs, because it pays, doesn't alter its power. Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle" (The New Yorker, August 8, 2011).

We are, no doubt, a long way from understanding animals on their own terms, just as we are a long way from understanding each other with similar respect and compassion. But it is certainly an undertaking that is worth trying, not only for the animals, but for ourselves.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Out of the Store and Into the Woods

Williams Lake, San Juan Mountains, CO

There's something so liberating, and shocking, really, about carrying everything you need on your back. As I backpacked through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado for five days recently, I couldn't help but think, "What's all that stuff back in my house? I have everything I need right here!" Of course, we ate Ramen and wore basically the same clothes for the entire trip, but still, it's an excellent reminder of how little we need, not only to survive, but to be happy, especially when our days are spent doing something fulfilling and soul-satisfying.

So I've returned with a renewed determination to de-clutter our house, to buy and keep only the essentials - though of course "essential" is always relative. Mostly, I want to consciously evaluate what we have and what we decide to buy. Even though J and I think of ourselves as conscious consumers, it is so easy to fall into the trap of believing that material things reflect status and represent a path to happiness (after all, there are enormous forces inundating our lives that are aimed solely at making us believe just that, and I don't think any of us are immune to them). For me, one of the best ways to avoid this, or at least mitigate it, is to leave it all behind on a regular basis, to carry only the true essentials, to sleep under the stars while the cell phone and computer beep and purr alone back at home, and to practice self-reliance.

I left for my Colorado trip thinking that it might be the final journey for my 15-year-old backpack, purchased for my first Grand Canyon hike as a teenager. "I really need a new backpack," I thought, mostly when I happened to be looking at rows of them hanging in an REI store, drawn to their shiny newness like a fluttering magpie. But guess what? When I got out of the store and into the woods, I realized it was nothing a few patches and new buckles couldn't fix. My raggedy old backpack will surely continue to take me wherever it is I decide I want to go, if I only let it.

Columbine, San Juan Mountains, CO

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Flesh, Bone, Music

We went to see Okkervil River play last night, and for some reason it made me think about the first few live music shows I ever saw as a teenager, and how stunned I was to realize that down on stage was the famous person playing the famous song, and that it sounded so much different - so much better - than it did when I played it at home that it couldn't really be considered the same kind of experience at all. The experience of listening to a recording bears only a superficial resemblance to the experience of live music - like a soothing recording of forest sounds compared to the sweat and shadows of walking through a real forest.

I recall the same stunning feeling of reality when as a ten or eleven year old, I went to see my first professional basketball game. As soon as the team superstar jogged onto the court, with such relaxed grace, with all the expressiveness of a real person, I was shocked by the realization that the players I saw on TV were real people - real flesh and sweat and thoughts and shouts floating across the court. The representation I had always seen of them on TV suddenly seemed so flat, so distorted, so disconnected from the essence of those humans and the experience that was to be had in the crowded, pulsing arena.

It's somewhat troubling to think that as technology offers increasingly "real" representations of experiences, we may have fewer of the experiences themselves. I doubt technology will ever be able to truly replace the experience of reality, although it may calibrate us to have distorted expectations of that reality - how exciting is spotting a hummingbird, for example, when you can experience the flight of superheroes from building to building when you go to a movie theater? I don't believe anything can ever replace the pleasure of un-choreographed experience, such as spotting wildlife when you least expect it, but will our overwrought media experiences diminish our appreciation of such subtlety? I hope not.

Ah, these philosophical musings. I set out to say something much simpler: live music never fails to renew my confidence and astonishment in humanity. Watching others do something that is so far beyond the realm of my own experience is at once humbling and heartening. Everything will be ok, I inevitably think as I stand swaying with the crowd, because we humans can do this. We can make music, and some very few of us can do it in a way that is transcendent. And as the rest of us watch, we rise, too.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Letter to My Future Self

Dear Self,

I write this on the evening of your first wedding anniversary, May 30, 2011. I don't know what you're doing, but I do know who you are, and I like to imagine that your dreams have shifted and grown in ways so unpredictable to me that I'd be surprised by many things about you and pleased that all the good parts have stayed the same. But promise me this: that you have done your best to love him more, and better, every day. That you remember all the reasons that drew you together in the first place.

Yes, you love hiking together, and riding bikes, and badly describing distant birds. And you probably have even more connecting the two of you now: hopefully you will have made some children together, those mysterious beings of the future; though now they seem the strange opposite of ghosts. And yes, there is probably a house, and careers, and no doubt there has been an ongoing series of poorly behaved cats.

But Self, remember that you love the stories he tells you. Remember that you met along a river in the most beautiful place in the world. Remember the nighthawks that hunted overhead when you revisited that place on your honeymoon. How the two of you just watched as they fell through the clean desert air again and again, so close you could feel the rush of their wings. How the faint smell of water blew in on the juniper wind. How the two of you sat for hours, it seemed, without really speaking, because you knew it was special, even as you knew it wasn't: the show happened every night whether the two of you were present or not. It was a chance brush with the world, a convergence of beings, much like your meeting. You looked up at those nighthawks from a shared point on earth. May you have never stopped looking.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bike Here Now

There is a stretch of road on the U of A campus that I often pass through on my bike, just moments after leaving the chaos of the main city streets. It is a gently sloping downhill followed by a gradually curving left turn. The momentum from the downhill carries me effortlessly through the curve, and just as I begin to slow, my smooth pedalstrokes carry me up a slight hill, then downhill again, along the tree-lined road, toward home. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this place, but something about that curve unfailingly brings me joy.

Perhaps it's because I know the rest of the way home is easy, cool, and smooth. Perhaps it's the sweet smell of blossoming campus trees, the density of vegetation unparalleled in the rest of town, and the way the light falls on the red brick campus buildings. But no - it is something less tangible than all of that. It is a perfect moment. The smoothness of the curve, the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle, engaged and present in my body, my mind, and the world around me, and the knowledge that I am almost home - these things snap me so fully into the present moment that my often-wandering mind is momentarily paused. I just am, this moment just is; it belongs to me, and I to it.

This must be a hint at what it means to be fully present. I carry that moment with me always, both invigorated and bewildered by the notion that such discrete moments could become a continuous present, one in which I am fully awake.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Waiting for Summer

"Me and this desert, baby, we get along... It's hot here/it's hot as hell here/swamp cooler and a cold beer/I ain't saying we got it made/but we're gettin' there..."  -Kevin Pakulis

So here we stand, right on the cusp of summer. The days are getting hot - into the 90s - but the mornings and evenings are still cool. The sun rises early and shines its slanted light through our east-facing bedroom window. I love waking up to that, and to the cooing of the doves that serves as an overture to the coming trill of cicadas and the heat that burns the lungs with every breath. I love the sense that each morning, the earth is stoically preparing for yet another beating by the slowly arcing sun. Call me crazy, but I love summer in Tucson.

The desert summer is a great simplifier of things. Everything moves just enough to maintain its function, but no more. The small pleasures of a shady spot to sit or a glass of ice water trigger a physical sense of celebration. We wear fewer clothes and even less makeup, and sweat is a generally accepted accessory.  No one cares if you are stinky and miserable, because we all are.  Tucson is full of people who leave during the summer, but those of us who stay bear our burden proudly. We are the real Tucsonans.

Right now, the saguaros and prickly pear are beginning to blossom in their annual act of defiance against the coming June. The desert holds its breath, waiting for the heat to bear down. When it hits, we will fall into the familiar rhythm of summer days: of rising to greet the sun, and of sunsets all the more spectacular for the relief they bring. The city is quiet, as college students and snowbirds alike have cleared out; the rest of us wait along with the desert.  We are all equally at the mercy of the earth, and are united in our knowledge of that and the smallness of ourselves.  We will talk of the heat as if it is a person, malicious and stubborn.  We will stand in the grocery store produce section for a few extra minutes, commiserating with strangers about how good it feels compared to the hell that is the outdoors.  But the truth is, I think we like having this thing in common.  And come July, we will allow ourselves to speak, and perchance to dream, of rain.  

Monday, May 2, 2011

Writer's Block & Vehicle Shock

Greetings, faithful readers! Just thought I'd send a note out into the cloud to say that I'm here, I'm thinking a lot about writing, and I'm writing, well, really... not much at all. It's been a combination of work and travel busyness and writer's block, which I hope to kick soon. Past experience tells me that will mostly involve continuing to give myself opportunities to sit down and write, plus kindly coaxing the muse with coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the hour.

In the meantime, a story to amuse you:

We've recently been considering selling one of our cars, given that in an average week, both cars sit idle five days out of seven, as we get around by bike. Clearly, there was no reason to be paying insurance and maintenance cost on two cars, and we were going to get around to selling one of them... eventually. But as it goes with most such chores, weeks passed with little action.

One day last week, J and I left the house for an early morning bike ride, and noticed that the car in question had a smashed window (unfortunately, not the first time this has happened - we have only on-street parking, and Tucson is notorious for property crime and car theft). The stereo, of course, was gone. It was irritating, but I couldn't even bring myself to be angry - it just seemed like a sure sign from the universe that it was time to become a one-car household.

After a little research into the value of the car in its current condition - the smashed window was not the only problem it had - we decided it wasn't worth trying to sell it and donated it to the local NPR station. They towed it away and will sell it at auction to benefit the station - a beautiful reincarnation, if you ask me.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Veggie Garden Update: Obstacle, Vegetable, Miracle

Broken sewer pipe.. not the best way to start a new project!
It's been quite some time now since I wrote my first post about our veggie garden, and it's fair to say that we've hit some pretty significant snags with the project since then. First of all, remember that broken pipe I mentioned? The one that one of us (I will not name names) smashed with a pickax? Well, that turned out to be a sewer pipe connecting our guest house to the main house. So with borrowed angle grinder in hand and a conversation with the retired plumber at Ace Hardware fresh in his mind ("You can fix it, just don't screw up and break the pipe or you'll pay thousands of dollars to replace all the outdoor plumbing on the property"), my indomitable husband approached that pipe with some trepidation. And yet... crisis averted! I wish now that I'd taken a photo of his professional repair job.

Once that was fixed, we re-buried the pipe and reconstructed our sunken beds around it. I put in a little rockwork to support the area where we had moved the most dirt around, and therefore where it was most likely to erode into the sunken beds. Then we mixed compost in with the native soil and set off on our bikes to stock up on seeds at a local nursery.

Our sunken beds, with reinforcing rockwork where we had to dig out the broken pipe.

I used rocks we already had around the yard, and created a walking surface with the flattest ones.
To start off with, we've planted carrots, cucumbers, basil, snow peas, and sweet peppers. Most of these were recommended for planting during this time of year by my desert gardening book; a few are experiments (i.e. they might die in the heat of the summer). We also used some drip irrigation tubing I had leftover from a work training to rig a gravity-fed irrigation system from our rain barrel.

Unsure of what I was doing as I planted the seeds, it occurred to me that in fact, I had never actually planted vegetables (aside from potted herbs) before. It's been my goal basically since moving to Tucson to plant a veggie garden, but school, work, and outdoorsing always seemed to get in the way until now.

I couldn't help but reflect as I buried each seed what a miracle it is that plants will, if we're lucky, spring from them. It's one of the most basic - and essential - biological functions out there, and certainly one that humans have been dependent on, well, forever. Much has been written about how disconnected we are from our food - the way it's produced, where it's produced, and the people who produce it - and it's certainly symptomatic of our larger disconnection from nature that I have now planted my first food-producing seeds at the ripe old age of thirty.

Yesterday, I got home from work tired, hungry, and a bit grouchy (for me, those things almost always go hand-in-hand), and so I was somewhat annoyed when J insisted that he had something important to show me outside. But he really did:

Snow pea



Saturday, April 9, 2011

Run, Run, Run, Awaaaay....

Crossing the finish line, November 2009.

In November of 2009, I ran my first half marathon - 13.1 rolling miles through the Tucson foothills. It was a great experience except for one thing: a nagging pain in my left foot that started a few weeks before the race and had become much worse by the time I finished it.

Last week, in April of 2011, I made a decision to stop running because of the continuing pain in my foot. Already, only a few days later, it seems absurd that I spent eighteen months provoking an injury that was at worst very painful, and at best, fairly painful. But I was driven by a rigid need for routine and a growing addiction to running. And really, is addiction too strong a word when you continue to do something with the full knowledge that it is hurting you with every step?

So what finally made me stop? For one thing, my foot was beginning to bother me during other activities that I actually value more than running, such as hiking. For another, J and I have just made the big decision to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, and I know that I have to start that journey 100% healthy. 

But there was something deeper at work, too. Lately, I just feel compelled to move more slowly, more gently, more kindly through my life. Running had become an unkindness to myself, something that was brutal on my body. It in turn led to other brutal habits, such overeating, for which I then felt ashamed, and resolved to counter with - you guessed it - more running. It was a way to both impose and forgo control of myself: a vicious cycle.

What I've found since I've stopped running is that I'm able to be more moderate in all my habits, to be more physically and emotionally kind to myself. My natural inclination is toward the extreme (I swam four hours a day, six days a week as a teenager), but the older I get, the less I care about being extremely fit and extremely hard core. I'm amazed now by how much time and energy I have for other things - riding my bike, hiking, yoga, gardening - and that variety and energy are so refreshing. It's not so much that running occupied a lot of my time, but rather that it took up a lot of my mental space to levy that type of self-discipline. Which isn't always a bad thing; it just isn't right for me anymore.

It's hard to know, though, in a culture that proclaims to value hard work above almost everything else, just how disciplined one should be. A nice house, a fancy job title, a rock-hard body: all of these things represent our ability to discipline ourselves, to take "hard work" to extremes, to deny pleasure. On the other hand, daily kindnesses to ourselves - a long walk at sunset, a good glass of wine with a square of dark chocolate, time spent fully focused on family and friends - aren't well symbolized by material things, and so are often deemed frivolous or extraneous to the image we present to others and the blurry lens through which we judge ourselves.

I recently had a small crisis of faith (and by small, I mean resolved within the course of a single yoga class) during which I contemplated the notion that I'm not really a true believer in anything.  I'd like to say I'm skeptical by nature, but it's more by experience. I'm wary of anything dogmatic, anything that requires some kind of deep sacrifice or adherence to a certain lifestyle or belief system. So what actually guides my life? I wondered as I shifted back into downward-facing dog. And then I realized that it can actually be easily summed up in one word: kindness. Kindness to others, to the planet, to our fellow creatures. Most of all, kindness to self, which seems to be the most difficult and essential sort to cultivate. 

I was convinced that my daily habit of running was a kindness to myself, but at some point it shifted to harmful dogma, something I did because I felt I had to. Doubtless it will be replaced by something else, and the ongoing quest for balance will continue. But here in this moment, I feel remarkably kind, and free.

Tiny Buddha: On Commuting by Bike

For those of you who might have missed it, check out my latest post on Tiny Buddha:

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

No Little Plans

Make no little plans.  They have no magic to stir men's blood... 
-Daniel Burnham

It's a tricky thing, commitment. You commit to a person, or a goal, or a lifestyle, knowing all the while that there's always the possibility that something beyond your control could change your plans. And so I'm going to resist the urge here to preface the announcement of a recent commitment I made with those hesitant caveats: "Assuming nothing else comes up..." or "If all goes according to plan...." Instead, I'll just come out and say it: Exactly two years from now, in April of 2013, J and I will begin our attempt to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

There. I've said it. You heard it here first. The PCT runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington - 2600 miles of soul-searching, marriage-testing backpacking. We're going to do it, and we're going to invite as many of our friends and family members as possible to do some portion of it with us. It will take approximately six months, hiking south-north, starting in April to avoid the heat of the desert and hopefully reaching the high Sierras in early- to mid-summer, when most of the snow has melted there.

It's both exhilarating and terrifying to have committed to this journey. I'm not so concerned about the physical effort as I am about the mental exertion - six months is a whole lot of time doing nothing but walking. And the next two years is a lot of time planning something that - let's face it - could easily be derailed by the rest of life.

I often find it difficult to strike a balance between flexibility and commitment, and this trip is no exception. We have to be fully committed to this goal if we are serious about accomplishing it, which means spending many hours and not an insignificant amount of money just in the planning stages. We have to be willing to quit, or at least take extended leave from, our jobs, and we assume that we'll be as able - economically and psychologically - to do that two years from now as we think we are now. And we have to be prepared to change our plans, to adjust to the ever-changing current of things completely beyond our control, like the health of our family members or the future economic situation.

In the face of all that ambiguity, we choose to make plans anyway. We want to turn our talk into commitment, and finally to turn that commitment into action. Getting to each of those points with any given dream seems to me one of the keys to a fulfilling life.

And so, we commit without caveats. A river guide once told a group of paddlers I was with, as we headed into one of the largest rapids in the Grand Canyon, that as we paddled we needed to be not just involved, but committed to the experience. "What's the difference between being involved and being committed?" he asked. "Well, it's like bacon and eggs. In bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tiny Buddha: In Defense of Wasting Time

Greetings, long-lost friends! Well, life has been busy - richly, wonderfully busy, with mountains summited and quality time with friends and an exciting, though time-consuming, work event that I'm organizing. Needless to say, I've been neglecting the Porch Swing, so in the meantime, here's a link to my first post on Tiny Buddha, for those of you who may have missed it:

In Defense of Wasting Time

Enjoy! I hope to be back to weekly posting here within the next few days.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cave of the Bells

A couple of weekends ago, J and I had the opportunity to visit Cave of the Bells, which is in the Santa Rita mountains southeast of Tucson. Although we'd been to this cave before, we'd only explored a few hundred yards into it. This would be the first real caving either one of us had ever done.

Yep, that's me, caving!
After a short hike, we reached the entrance, and our guide, a grad student who studies caves, paused to give us her "caving guidelines." These consisted of things like, "try not to touch the pretty stuff," "there's no shame in crawling," and finally, "don't die." ("That's not a guideline," she said, "that's a rule.") Good God, I thought, what have I gotten myself into?

The first obstacle was a squeeze that served as the true entrance to the cave. It took us away from the light- and breeze-filled first chamber and into the steady 71 degrees, 100% humidity, and pitch blackness that would be our environment for the next four-plus hours. These conditions are constant in this particular cave: as I write this, Cave of the Bells sits like a buried dragon, hollow and moist at 71 degrees and 100% humidity.

Gorgeous formations, Cave of the Bells, AZ.
It is strange to think of this vapid space as just existing, with no knowledge of itself. Something about the cave's darkness caused me to project some kind of consciousness onto it while we were there. Perhaps it was my sense of us as invaders, or at the very least explorers of a highly inhospitable and indifferent environment. Perhaps it was easier to think of the cave as something that cared about us, or at least knew we were there. Perhaps it was the influence of House of Leaves (a novel I highly recommend). In any case, though I knew it was crazy, I thought of the cave itself as something alive.

We moved along slowly, admiring the stalactites and stalagmites, the crystals formed all over the walls, and the utter darkness in which our eyes, for lack of stimulation, seemed to create things to see when we turned our lights out. Thick, slippery mud covered every surface. We climbed up and slid down slopes where the cave bottom dropped away on either side into what truly seemed to be oblivion, and what truly was far enough to seriously injure anyone who slipped. We followed an increasingly perilous path, all the while with the knowledge that the only way out was back the way we had come, through belly-scraping squeezes and hand-over-hand mud-covered scrambles. We knew that one slip of a foot or hand would result in a serious fall and probably serious injury. Caving, I discovered, is not for the faint of heart.

More formations, Cave of the Bells, AZ.
Once we had visited each of the research sites, we decided to do one final route through the cave that we hadn't seen yet, a loop. As soon as we began, it became apparent that this route was far more technical than anything we had done; it also became apparent to me that I was very tired. My arms and core were shaky from climbing and from the tension of maintaining my balance in an almost continuous sequence of precarious positions.

We made slow, tedious progress around the loop. At one point, as we chimneyed across a ravine with our feet on one side of it and our backs on the other, I looked down into the blackness below me and decided that this experience had just passed the point of fun, passed a healthy pushing of my comfort zone and moved firmly into the realm of the stupid. The thing about caves, though, is that once you get yourself in, you have to get yourself out. So this realization was of little consequence aside from provoking my annoyance with myself for voluntarily getting into this situation in the first place.

Finally, one last squeeze stood between us and the climb back out to the cave's entrance. We had been climbing up a formation that required relatively technical climbing skills (considering that we weren't roped in), and I could feel my whole body trembling with fatigue and the day's steady stream of anxiety. I began to make my way into the tight vertical space and quickly realized that my head could barely fit through. For some reason, the scraping of my helmet along the cave walls and the wedged, trapped feeling created by my immobile head felt like the last straw, and I felt panic begin to rise up as if from the darkness all around me.

A scuba diving instructor once told me that "panic is the genie you can't let out of the bottle." I've always remembered that image, and it's true - especially underwater, where panic is very often fatal. And although I'm not an expert, I imagine that it is almost as dangerous in a cave.

My method for dealing with panic is to attempt to detach myself from the situation and try to remove my thoughts from the physical circumstances of my body. I know that mind's power to influence the body is extraordinary, and indeed, I don't think there is any true separation between the two. Of course, I didn't actually think about any of this as I attempted to jam my head through an eight-inch crack God knows how many feet underground. I took a deep breath, mentally removed myself from the situation, hissed, "Get your shit together, Tory!", tilted my head just right, and squeezed through.

I don't mean to over-dramatize this adventure. Not a single bad thing happened, and I'm sure that for the experienced folks in our group, it was just another great day of caving. But it pushed me to my psychological limit - something that I normally enjoy, or at least look back on fondly, but in this case, I just think was stupid. I wish that I could say that I conquered some kind of demon, that there will always be another cave for me to explore. That would be a satisfying, if clich├ęd, ending to this story. But the truth is, I'm not sure there was ever anything that needed conquering. I bow with utmost humility to that cave, unconscious and thoughtless as it is, and leave it to others. I admit, for once, and with great difficulty, that some parts of the earth are better off left unexplored -- at least by me. 

Safe, mostly sound, and pretty damn dirty after a day of caving.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Might as Well Face It: Addicted to School?

I've been out of graduate school (for the second time) for almost two years now. Sadly, at the almost-age of 30, this two year period is the longest I've been out of school in my entire life (not counting ages 0-5). And no, I do not have a PhD or an MD, though I have managed to accumulate two Master's degrees. Despite that, I found myself semi-seriously contemplating yesterday whether or not I should enroll in a PhD program. The point here is not to exaggerate nor to downplay my academic achievements, but rather to ask: what's the appeal? I have a job I enjoy in my field of choice that is creative and allows me a ton of freedom. I'm learning and experiencing new things all the time, because I try to seek them out. In short: there's no logical reason for me to go back to school. So why do I seem to be addicted to it, or at least to the idea of it?

Is it the prestige? Meh. I'd like to think I'm over that. While I certainly admire people with PhD's and other academic achievements, I'm starting to really admire people who pursue a creative life outside the constructs of academia. Is school just a nice security blanket? Something I know I'm good at and therefore a kind of permanent "back-up plan" in case I [lose my job/hate my job/have to move/get bored/decide to have a kid/fill in the blank]? I think that's a part of it. It's also a bit of the "grass is always greener" syndrome, in which I become convinced that some other reality may be better than my version of the present - a habit of mind that I continuously strive to break.

Speaking of habit... I think that's actually a huge part of this. I'm in the habit of going to school, of focusing on school-related goals, which come in conveniently structured semester-long, year-long, and program-long packages. I'm in the habit of constructing my identity around being a student. I like the built-in community of like-minded folks. I really like the winter and summer break lifestyle. I like it when someone who knows more than me tells me the best books to read and how to focus my often-scattered attention. Most of all, I like a concrete framework upon which to overlay my dreaminess, where I can hang my big ideas like miraculous plants that need only passionate philosophical discussion and a consistent infusion of beer to grow.

But you know what else I like lately? A paycheck. A job that focuses that dreaminess and forces me into action, into applying my skills and challenging myself to really implement my ideas. I like the time I have to write about whatever I want and to (gasp!) watch a little bad TV. More and more, I envision a future in which the same creative energy and sense of community that I feel in school are cultivated in other ways. And more and more, I'm living it.

A friend sent this to me, because it's totally me.  Thanks, Joanna!  Image credit:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Birdwatching the Urban Jungle

One of my favorite things about walking, running, and biking around Tucson is sighting birds. This afternoon as I biked home from work, I spotted a great blue heron flapping along toward Himmel Park, its wing beats long and leisurely like a bird with nothing but time for enjoying the gorgeous March day. The same flicker was singing his heart out on the same tree where I noticed him this morning, which was not long after I saw a Gila woodpecker scaling a mesquite tree on University Boulevard. This was not an atypical number of sightings (and those were just the ones that stood out) during my 8-mile round trip bike commute, especially this time of year, when, despite relatively chilly nights, spring threatens every day to burst forth in all its gaudy desert glory.

For me, the pleasure of bird sightings in the city stems from my perpetual surprise at them. Tucson is, in some ways, a barren place, and I say that as someone who loves desert vegetation and loves this city. But we have approximately 1% tree canopy cover here, compared with a national average of 25%, and even though our desert trees may naturally create less cover than more lush vegetation elsewhere... that's still pretty pathetic. Our urban forest could definitely stand to be enhanced (for more on those efforts, check out Watershed Management Group and Trees for Tucson).

So it is always a surprise when, as I make my way through the exhaust-filled, pavement-covered, largely shade-free urban landscape, having nearly forgotten that I do in fact share this environment with something besides my fellow humans and their cars, the shocking red of a cardinal or a vermilion flycatcher literally stops me in my tracks. Or a red-tailed hawk alights on a telephone pole, fluffs its feathers, and screams its wildness across a deserted parking lot. These are the small miracles that transcend the ordinary workings of my day, that transport me, that keep me from looking down and hating the grime of the city, and instead looking up and feeling, briefly, the freedom of its winged inhabitants.  The birds do not judge, they just are.

Nature is so very resilient if we give it the slightest chance. There are many people working in Tucson - and in so many other places - to bring nature back into our urban spaces. It is vital to our health as humans and to our awareness of other species that we see nature as something that we are a part of, not something we go on an eco-vacation to see, but rather something that is present in our everyday urban lives, inseparable from us and impacted by us. The countless benefits of this extend to both ourselves and the species that we help to thrive, and I like to think that the biggest one is simply that the presence of nature can remind us, daily, if only for a moment, that we too can be wild and free.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reflections: Organ Pipe National Monument

A small tinaja, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ.
A raven is cruising the campground, sweeping by and landing with trills and squawks and all manner of raven-speak. They are one of my favorite birds - so iconically Southwestern, they always make me think of the wild desert places I've visited, lived in, loved. Where do they find water here? Come to think of it, where do the many birds here - Gila woodpeckers, Northern flickers, cactus wrens, desert quail - find water? They're here, so it's somewhere. But apparently it's easier to find on two wings than on two feet.

Craig Childs writes about this general area in his book, The Secret Knowledge of Water (he focuses on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which is just west of Organ Pipe). He has traveled through many arid places, always on foot, in search of water, and in this region he says you must go to the mountains to find it, where it is stored in tinajas, or waterpockets within the rock. If you just understand the lay of the land, the geographic circumstances required for such catchment, you will find it. This knowledge has been passed on, from generations of indigenous people and even to Spanish missionaries like Father Kino, who explored a large portion of this region in the early 1700s. But now, people cross this desert under dire circumstances and can't find water, because they don't know where to look for it. It can't be found along what seems to be the path of least resistance: the mesquite flats crisscrossed by dry washes that flash during storms only briefly, and then only a few times a year. The water is stored in the mountains, but to traverse them would make an already difficult journey both longer and more dangerous.

For all the beauty of this place, it has become impossible to ignore what's happening along the border. As we drove back from a hike yesterday, we came across at least a dozen Border Patrol vehicles, parked at angles along the dirt road, not an agent to be seen. Clearly they were out on foot. Any consideration for the fragile ecosystem is lost completely in the pursuit of those who, at best, simply wish to pursue economic opportunities that are made readily available to them once they cross the border, and at worst, are smuggling drugs that current US policies have made highly profitable.

Of course, the impact on the ecosystem, though at the forefront of my own mind having just hiked through it, pales in comparison to the crisis of violence and meaningless suffering that currently pervades the borderlands. I am often struck when hiking in this area, comfy in my synthetic, wicking clothing and three-liter Camelbak full of cool water, by the level of desperation that would motivate someone to cross this landscape in the summer, in the dark, in second-hand tennis shoes and with a gallon jug of water painted black to avoid detection. It's an unimaginable journey. (I should say that I'm referring here to migrant workers, not drug smugglers - that's a whole different issue.)

I sometimes long to just forget it all, to see this place as one of simple and immense beauty, and not as symbolic of a conflict born of economic disparity, in which I am both complicit and on the privileged side. I want the natural world to transcend the muck of human affairs, and I want it to take me with it. And yet, that would be deny the interconnectedness of all things: of humans to the natural world and of it to us; of me to the Gila woodpecker and of the migrant to me. And so here we are in the muck, without answers, except the knowledge that the paradox of pain and beauty represented by such a place is surely one small, inescapable piece of being human.