A note from Bear: The following text is what I hope will be the first of many contributions from community members and volunteers. Today’s post, a meditative review of a favorite local hiking spot, is written by Moh Burford: poet, librarian, and occasional volunteer in the SECRETS classroom and on field trips, during which he goes by the steward name, “Oak.”
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard humans as inhabitants, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.
Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” (1862)
All the way there the wind pushed our little car so hard it swayed and shuddered, twitched and jumped. For those not strapped to a kite or sail, this was a day when the outdoors felt particularly inhospitable. On a day like this, then, one wouldn’t imagine your destination to be named after that which you are trying to escape, and yet, escape we did, as by the time we pulled up to the small circular parking area for Wind Mountain, the wind had all but disappeared. Still, its mighty thrashing could be heard as it played a chaotic tune along the densely wooded mountainsides of the Columbia River Valley.
My partner and I had picked Wind Mtn. not for its namesake but for its vigorous brevity. The hike is only a few miles long, but is almost entirely uphill and, with minimal commitment of one’s time, gives one that gorgeous feeling of having accomplished something meaningful. For me, this is the joy of hiking: the feeling of accomplishment in each step—that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. One is wholly removed from society and civilization, work and paychecks, strip malls and big-box stores when they are trekking up the side of a mountain. And so hiking is never about consumption or instant gratification; rather, it is work accomplished by one’s body over time. It is a great feeling.
The trailhead, so unassuming you’ll pass it in a breath if you’ve got your head down, is on the right-hand side a little ways down what looks to be an old logging road. From the trailhead—where you will no doubt brush off your boots before and after, as a good steward should—we began our sun-dappled climb.
Early on and throughout the hike I noticed a number of trees which seemed to have fallen over at their root-base, creating a kind of natural portal along the trail, with mountain on one side and root-base on the other. Each time I crossed through, I reminded myself that with every step I was again and again leaving the civil society of the work day and entering the wildness of nature, a place of so few encumbrances.
While the trail is steep, it is by no means monotonous. In contrast to other hikes that rely wholly on grinding switchbacks, Wind Mtn.’s trail, however steep, still retains the feeling of meandering through the woods. The trail is alive with plant life. My partner and I never spotted the same insect twice and were filled with joy at the variety of flowers and ground cover. The trees there are lined with a moss so deeply green and soft you’d think you were touching velvet.
As many as three times during our ascent we came across fan-shaped rocky outcroppings—of what looked like shale—that started above us, slid across the trail, and down the side of the mountain. Each of these outcroppings seemed to be of different ages—I guess, as moss on one seemed older and more grown out, while on another there was almost no moss at all, but I’ll admit here that my ignorance of such matters is vast. What made these stony streams, and over what period of time, was beyond my guessing. When we leaned closer to the sides of the crackling ground, we found small flowers and succulent-like ground cover peeking around every corner. Amidst one of these chalky beds, we came across a pack of dogs and their owner, a majestic flock to be sure.
The top of Wind Mtn. is a kind of mohawk of vegetation, with small clearings on both the west and east side of the very top, and thick ferns, bushes, and grasses, not to mention reaching pines dividing the two sides. You come upon this rich glade all at once from around a bend and follow a narrow path, hemmed in by reaching bushes, to the very top. At this point, the atmosphere of the hike has changed. The wind has returned as promised and swirls around you but in confused rushes, as if it cannot pick a direction. The air at the top is solemn and there is a weight to the environment that speaks to its history as a sacred place. The two small clearings provide the best sites for taking in the stunning view at the top, where they are home to sharply descending fields of stone. Based on the way these two clearings are positioned at the face of the mountain, it is almost as if the mountain had cried these rocky outcroppings, every tear a jagged stone. From the east especially, you can take in a 180-degree view of the majestic Columbia River Valley. One can see the swollen and glittering snail’s trail of the Columbia River, its peregrinations echoing across the spiny ridges on display.
At one point on our descent we heard a strange noise emanating from above us, a kind of deep, crackling squeal. Looking up, we saw a small tree had fallen along the side of a larger one, gotten stuck, and over time warn an indention where the smaller tree had come to rest, so that when the wind blows it moves the little tree along the bigger one, like a bow along a violin, creating a music unlike any I had heard before.
I felt bolstered and grand by the end of our trek. Back at the trailhead, the wind gurgled its old song, and the sky was grey and warm. My attention was caught by a tuneful noise: I found that some loving steward of the forest—as it did not look official—had constructed a sign and wind chime pointing to the Wind Mtn. trailhead, made of beautifully hand-crafted wood. With the light sighing of chimes on a spring afternoon, it looked like something made out of love for the mountain, a gratitude I shared.
As the penultimate week of my first time through Gorge Explorers comes to an end, there is much to reflect on. GEx is such a multivalent camp experience, with layers of mentoring that are many and diverse: high school students mentor 3rd graders; teachers from local elementary schools mentor everyone in the room; CGEI staff bounce around, while I in particular learn from everyone involved in a manner almost ferocious: there is so much goodness to obtain from week to week, whether we’re talking about geology or wildlife, playing games or navigating the chaos that is Snack Time.
Meanwhile, I’m constantly gauging my own role as mentor, both for the high schoolers as well as the campers, wondering if and when those two roles are the same and where they split, if they should. Sometimes I think the ways I should be interacting with 14, 15, 16 year olds are quite different from that of 9 and 10 year olds. In other moments I reconsider, trying to separate knowing from learning; I want to be sure that no matter who I’m talking to and what about, I am acting not from instinct so much as a space of learning and empathy, one in which I am ready and available to take seriously the needs before me, whatever age they belong to. My patience varies, my impulses are challenged. What makes me take one person’s story more seriously than another’s? How visibly young or old must you be for me to decide if I’m launching into play mode or peer mode?
I knew going into Gorge Explorers that it would be an incredibly fun, dynamic camp, full of firsts for the campers involved. What I didn’t predict was how necessary it is for learning and discovery to happen in a room full of people of all different ages and experiences and titles, the tenderness and the empathy that can be accessed from such.
While the primary role of GEx is academic intervention for the 3rd grade campers, there are profound benefits to everyone involved. I suppose it is a classic summer camp effect: how you begin to feel self-permission, how confidence grows in you. How else are we to access, in a real and tangible way, the knowledge of our own strength and capabilities? You walk into nature with a group of trusted people, you recognize your ability to take care of something besides yourself. In four weeks, I’ve watched students of all ages and professions witness their own and each other’s becoming. Our trajectories and topics have been wild and wonderful:
From one of many stations that took place during “Water Week;” the final product here read, “Summer is fun.” I think the pattern of each letter followed by its imminent evaporation only emphasized her palpable truth. I remember distinctly the first day of summer after I’d finished 3rd grade, being too young to see the other side of an entire season. Being able to access the feeling that summer would last forever. Like a phrase painted on the sturdy concrete. The various tools, activities and props throughout Gorge Explorers have been dazzling and, not infrequently, delicious. Is it a flower? A vegetable? An organism? What makes a balanced ecosystem if not a room full of learning and healthy consumption disguised as fun, as art? Pictured: gardening hats, before and after. Not pictured: the short, short time span between a kid pulling a carrot out of the ground for the first time and asking if they can have seconds.
Who’s exploring who? I have this thought experiment I’ve been doing: I imagine that Gorge Explorers is a camp specifically for each group of people involved. For example, a camp for teachers & professionals where kids serve as their mentors. Or a camp for high schoolers where they benefit from having 3rd grade role models. I’ve gone through various phases of considering how my own role might shift with each version. Or the blog post that might be written by a worm, reflecting on the child who brought it into the light.
“We’re all made of atoms,” said Ranger Amber during our tour of The Dalles Dam. We were learning about water, electricity, the fluctuation of human need. Presentations like this one ensure that a young generation will grow up understanding that a strong community is both dynamic and fluid.
Wood cookies worn by everyone at camp adorn the wall right outside our classroom at the end of each day. Ecological literacy starts with a love of trees as much as good nicknames. Biology and creativity have more in common than we know.
I have this memory: I was very young, sitting in the backseat of my mom’s car, her driving. Looking out through the windows like I’d just noticed their transparency, I saw for the first time, I mean really saw, the mountains surrounding us, making up the Rogue Valley in which we lived. Curious and excited, I asked my mom if we could get closer to them. But as our conversation unfolded I learned that they remain a backdrop, a distant landscape meant to be gazed at but not touched. That, with every mile our little car got closer and closer to one, the mountain, through some feat of spiritual energy or tectonic shift, would move a mile farther away. I pictured huge rocks taking giant steps backwards, and a little piece of my own personal mythology settled into place.
It was a dream, of course. But I was young enough and imaginative enough—an only child who spent a lot of time thinking—for the dream to make an impression on me, receding into my subconscious and invisibly shaping the way I moved through the world. You can imagine the epiphanies I had as a young adult when, with groups of friends or even my own mother, I began regularly getting closer to these geologic statues, the facts of my childhood dream slowly morphing into metaphor.
When kids spend time in nature, it’s not an either/or relationship that they enter into: not metaphor or fact, not exercise or fun. Kids are great at moving cyclically and in little spontaneous zig-zags through the world—Deleuze and Guattari, French philosophers and writers, called it “rhizomatic”: informed by the creeping rootstalks of the plant world, but to signify methods of learning and knowing that branch off of one another, moving and scaffolding in ways that are anything but linear. By making the outdoors a regular part of children’s lives, you open up entire worlds for them, in which curiosity and science and invention and mythology can thrive and inspire and collaborate. Such dynamic spaces lead to healthier communities–physically, mentally, magically–for everyone involved.
It’s crucial that we dedicate some of our time and energy toward getting kids outside, making ecological literacy and outdoor play more accessible regardless of circumstance—like the barriers created through time, home-life, gender, race, socioeconomic status or native language. Obstacles are part of our contemporary human existence. But like mountains, we can move and shape ourselves around them, fostering intimacy with nature both in our own lives and for those with less privilege. This is how I’ve come to understand equity: getting us all close to the mountain, regardless of where we start.
a brief user’s guide on getting through life, as gleaned from plant adaptations invented by students in our SECRETS program.
1) Everything that comes out of your mouth can be a seed—or a thorn.
2) The storms of life may actually just be opportunities for growth.
3) All of us organisms have different kinds of attributes and interests, leaves and roots; some are as visible as a rainbow with glittery leaves, while others might be clear, inconspicuous, harder to immediately see or share.
4) Sometimes, the simplest and most common ingredients bring about unique and exceptional circumstances.
5) And finally: when your elements are balanced, any place can be a suitable home.
In grad school, I learned to be really good at answering questions. You had to be—English departments, in striving for quantifiable excellence that might mirror their scientific sister departments, have come to prioritize things like thesis statements, highly specialized arguments, and the propping up of one’s reasoning on legs made of unquestionable steel.
But poetics and creative writing are what brought me to the English department, so I was already imbued with the seed of a natural suspicion, and a desire for play, when it came to all things made of language. And as my ability to answer questions, look for concrete symbols, and analyze themes became stronger, so did my ability to wonder about everything I was doing.
At CGEI, our SECRETS field trips are the culmination of 8 weeks of place-based curriculum, implemented in classrooms all over the Gorge. We spend these weeks working through basic environmental concepts—relationships found in nature, plant and animal adaptations, etc., all framed as “secrets” of the local ecosystem—and then we get to celebrate by going on a field trip where we take the kids outside, play games, and discover what we’ve been talking about as found in real life.
One field trip station, called “Solar Treasure,” consists of a mini hike and/or exploration time, followed by what we call a “sit spot.” The idea is that, in addition to our five basic senses, students have a chance to work on their less commonly cited but just as crucial sense of wonder. I give them each a piece of paper, a little handmade clipboard, and ask them to find a spot at least 10 feet away from each other, where they can sit down and respond to this prompt: “I wonder….” Students sit on flat rocks or on tipped over logs. They find hidden spots in the shade or, if the wind is cold, places where they can absorb some sun while writing. On exceptional days the entire group gets quiet. They draw, write sentences, and imply question marks whether they’re using them or not. During this time I, too, find a place to sit down, where I observe their suddenly smaller movements, anxiously awaiting their creations and asking myself whether the act of wondering is visible in one’s body—the tilt of your head, the placement of your arms.
Near the end of my Master’s program, I took something called the comps exam: a “Comprehensive Examination” that occurs during a 48-hour period, Saturday to Monday, in which you are expected to write, from start to finish, four essays. These essays consist of answers to a list of questions, which you receive no sooner than the start of the 48 hours, and the questions pertain to an even longer list of texts, which you were expected to have been diligently studying all year long. The idea is that you produce, in a quantifiable space and with strict page requirements, tangible, “correctly” supported answers. There’s no room for wonder, let alone doubt: excitement and curiosity will only work against you in the midst of such strict requirements. The pleasure of writing becomes a temporarily foreign thing, as the exam attempts to ensure that I’ll be walking away with an ability that can be measured, the quantifiable shape of a successful answer.
Rilke (late 19th/early 20th century German poet, novelist, and thinker): “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”
How does my background, my history, shape the questions I find myself currently asking, the things I still mistakenly desire to answer with certainty or prove entirely? Or the work I do, and the way I do it?
I’m working on better ways to lead Solar Treasure, to introduce the “sit spot” to students. Sometimes I tell them that I have a bonus secret and I need their help completing it. Sometimes I ask them what the word “wonder” means to them. I always wish I could convey to them a sense of excitement plus reaching, minus a destination point: this sense that you can engage your curiosity without reaching toward a particular solution. You wonder about a thing because it is unfamiliar to you and nevertheless exciting and inspiring—it doesn’t require that you know much or anything of it before you can experience it as pleasurable. The act of wondering is the pleasure itself.
I’m never quite sure how to communicate this idea to them—which is perhaps for the better, as my own version of wonder, shaped by a history of seeking answers that might need to be measured, is surely quite different from theirs. So I suggest a few options for responding to the prompt—a poem, a list of questions, a doodle—and urge them to discover their own; it is my awkward and too-formal attempt to say: be unquantifiable!
They always come up with fantastic ideas, good stewards of empathy and scholarship, of the water and the trees. I learn from them what they so easily know: that the divide between learning and playing is an artificial one. That it’s easy to live the questions because they’re already alive.