Alone Time

I’m coming to you today from my bed at 8:30 pm.  Let me set the scene.  It’s dusk outside, and so hot it makes my ears ring.  I have a fan pumping air at me on medium, so I can still feel relatively sane but I’m not in a wind tunnel.

I’m worn out.  This seems like the story of my life.  So I won’t bore you with the specific details right now.

Let me instead tell you about yesterday.

Yesterday I camped above treeline on wide, lush, flower-speckled piece of earth that made my heart happy.  I ate dinner from a mug, swatting mosquitoes off my cheeks in the fading light of evening.  I felt the cold air descend as the sun dropped below the massive mountain above us.  I crawled into a small green tent, and put my son into grey fleece pajamas. My husband read aloud to us from my book until our eyes were all droopy.  Then he closed the book, and the last of the evening light faded. We snuggled together – a man, a woman, and a little fleece-covered cherub.  The cold evening air infiltrated the tent slowly, and we pulled our sleeping bags tight up around our shoulders to stave off the cold.  Only Cody’s feet remained uncovered, because they get too hot.  Because he is more than just baby now – he’s a small person with feelings and thoughts – laughter and frowns.  He has answers to questions.  He has urgent need for kisses.  He has to throw rocks.  Right now.  He is id embodied.

I was exhausted and fell into a deep sleep.  I recall nothing until I was awoken around midnight to the sound of a human voice yelling ” Aaaargh!”  My eyes opened and I whispered urgently to Rick.  “What was that!?”  He explained it was two, possibly drunk, hikers coming by.  I sat int the heart-pounding space that one sits in when terror awakens.  I realized that as an individual I’d never been afraid to camp.  I assumed I’d figure out the right move in the moment if anything went wrong.  Now, with a gray, fleece-covered cherub to take into account, my fear was palpable. Things change so quickly.

The gray, fleece-covered cherub fervently held me in the cool night – asleep but still vigilant to stay close.  I nestled him in closer and checked his feet for cold.  I evaluated plans for fighting off unwelcome nighttime visitors with a grey, fleece-covered cherub by my side.  I fell into a new sleep – guarding him closely.

He is my everything.  I fear I don’t know exactly how to protect him – both in the night when strangers yell – or in the world when things feel very dark, and good news feels like a rarity.

I sit here alone tonight, and even in my excitement to be unattached for a few days while the cherub, dog, and husband are away  I am reminding you and myself of how urgently and unquestioningly I love this small being and the others too.  I remind you of the exhaustion, the sweet kisses, the tissue-soft cheeks, and the deep fear that he is too sweet for the world and that I can’t do enough to make the world better.  I remind you of my sadness that our reality will unquestionably dampen the joy he exudes today. I remind you that motherhood is a thankless challenge and also my highest honor.

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Snow!

I’m sitting in the rocker that Rick and I put into our bedroom to nurse and sit with our baby during the night.  From its vantage point in the corner of the large room, one can look out the window at snowflakes gently falling on the cars parked on our street.  The snow dulls the sounds of morning – when typically one can hear cars starting, kids walking to school, the opening and closing of creaking gates.  This morning, occasionally I hear the scrape of a shovel on the huge old slabs of sidewalk that line the street.  Other than that, the morning light slowly emerges, more strongly than normal, reflecting off the snow, but with it comes a silence indicative of winter.

As I sit in this rocker I feel movement in my belly.  This part of pregnancy has become a constant for me.  The stretching and banging and moving that emanates from my son within my womb is both familiar, and when I stop and give some thought to it, incredibly odd and foreign.  As my pregnancy begins to near its end I think sometimes about how little gratitude I’ve offered to my body for its strength and vitality through these months of change.  Someday, I may miss the movement of my baby inside me and recall the days when I was ripe with anticipation for his arrival.  Many days, my focus turns to the inconvenience that can come with pregnancy – the fatigue, the irrepressible hunger of the third trimester, the fact that my body isn’t my own anymore.  But, today, waking to the gentle descent of snowflakes I’m filled with a feeling of being truly blessed in my circumstances.

I recognize, sitting here this morning, a sea change in my attitude towards life.  Last night as I labeled Ziploc bags and prepared to make dozens of frozen dinners (for postpartum times) I wondered aloud to Rick about our choices and whether we were setting ourselves on the course we desire.  We both work hard and we both want to do well.  We commit ourselves fully, and sometimes I wonder whether either one of us is capable of scaling back if we needed that. Last night as we talked I wondered whether we could turn the ship around if we decided to uproot ourselves and begin life anew elsewhere.    This morning the light reflecting off snow, the bitter cold front that moved in overnight, and a long, slow wake-up of murmuring with Rick and Addie as we snuggled together against the chill of our room, leave me feeling refreshed and truly positive about our lives.

There is something about winter that stirs in me an inner camaraderie with all of humanity.  Looking out at the cold reminds me to connect with the people around me and to offer them all the love and support I can give.  Together we can make it through whatever comes our way.  Today’s silent morning reflections bring me back to a sense of myself, amidst weeks of exhaustion, feeling too busy, and wondering how I will juggle the demands of life once we have a child.  Today in the stillness, I sit in gratitude for the immense love around me, the generous spirit of my friends and family, and the beautiful natural world that periodically pivots to reveal another facet of itself and remind me that the vicissitudes of life are part of the dance – not something to fight against.

Learning to Cope and Leaning In

Sometimes when you care deeply about things, it can be hard to reconcile work and your personal principles.  In fact, when you work in environmental consulting, it can be a daily challenge.  So, today I want to share an email that my boss shared with me.  She wrote it to a young sustainability coordinator in our company who is struggling to find a balance between her work and her beliefs. Reading it, I am reminded about my calling to this work and my belief that change needs to have internal champions.  Names have been changed, obviously.

Dear Hillary,

I spent some time with Rebecca after the conference and she shared a little bit about how hard it was for you to make peace between what we do as a company and what you personally believe from a sustainability perspective.  This is a topic my colleagues  and I talk about frequently and I thought you might like to know our perspective.

I have worked on many projects that were frightening and unfair to impacted landowners – especially when eminent domain is involved.  There was one project a long time ago that particularly sticks with me – I was working with Bob Anderson on a storm water solution for the greater Omaha area that would involve flooding a huge area of farm ground and relocating a small community north of town. Bob and I spent several days meeting with landowners one-on-one, some whose houses would have to be relocated for a planned recreational area adjacent to the lake, and many who were third-generation on the land.  Good, honest people sat down in front of us and cried because they understood that if the project was approved they would lose their home or post office or farm ground.  On the drive home, Bob and I were silent for a long time.  And then I asked him if he ever felt like we were on the wrong side of the issue.

“Every day,” he said, “and that is exactly why you and I need to be leading this project.”

His point was that if we weren’t on the inside, who would be fighting for the little people?  Who would be pushing to do the right thing?  Who would be working to find a solution with the least impact?  Who would be working to make sure the community’s voices were heard?  Who would be there to make sure the people weren’t bullied?

Over the years I have realized that is exactly what my job is.  My job is to get on the inside of our client organizations and swim upstream as far as I can to influence the decision-makers to do the right thing for the public.  Sometimes I can influence them to do great and amazing things.  Sometimes I am powerless to do anything at all.  Sometimes I can nudge them a fraction of an inch, sometimes I can push them miles ahead of their time.  What is important to remember is that my career – my quest to make a difference – is a marathon, not a sprint.  My success isn’t measured by one or two projects, rather it is measured by hundreds of projects and professionals I have influenced over many years. 

I offer this perspective to you because I know that every word in bold above can be replaced with the word ‘environment’.  I know that without people like you on the inside of our firm working to make a difference, bit by bit, every single day – without people like you championing the earth, our society would continue to destroy it.  I also understand that there is a tremendous industrial momentum in our society right now that is not going to turn on a dime – it could take another decade or two or three to get it to fully embrace renewables, recycling, and smaller footprints.  You work for a company who is in the middle of that and not only believes in sustainability but invests in it heavily.  It’s a good place from which to make a difference.

Do not be daunted by the full task at hand.  It will take hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people just like you to change it.  Feel empowered by the small space you have to make a difference and just keep doing it.  Over time, you will realize how much of an impact you are having.  Also remember that you are just getting started – your power will be much greater in 10 years after you have tried things and witnessed things and soaked every possible thing in that you can.

It was fun to spend a little time with you at the conference this week.  Thank you for your deep commitment and tenacity.  Both are a great service to the earth.

Sand Dunes National Park

I sat awake in the cool night air, listening.  Around me the winds from the east were rushing down the mountainside. The aspens and meadow grasses surrounding me whirred with a steady rustling.  The noises felt ominous in the cool dark, as though they preceded a storm or an imminent bear attack, but in my little tent not even the puppy stirred.  It seemed that I was the only one startled awake in the blackness to wonder at what the night concealed from me.

I shifted position, recognizing that the pressures on my growing belly made for an interesting sleep experience on my thermarest.  I curled into the fetal position, facing the tent wall as it fluttered in the wind, glowing with the subtle light of the moon’s cool light filtered through the aspen grove where we camped.

Recalling the day that brought me to this spot, I smiled.  Rick, Addie, and I had piled into his car and driven the three hours to the Sand Dunes National Park.  Rick had visited before, but for me it was the first time and I was pretty excited.  Along the way, I watched the scenery fade from the familiarity of South Park, to the arid vastness of the San Luis Valley – a huge, flat expanse of harsh, unwelcoming land.  It once was a booming agricultural valley, but now it was mostly dotted with small, abandoned shacks, interspersed with large irrigation systems that periodically brought a shock of green to the swaths of brown grassland.  The valley is testament to the finite nature of groundwater and a warning to use it wisely.  In the heat of midday, the valley seemed anything but welcoming.  Heat vibrated up from the roadway, blurring the brown grasses that made their way, crisscrossed with only dirt roads, to tan sands.  As we pulled into a coffee shop to grab a chai and use the bathroom, a sign reminded us of the cost of maintaining the toilet and the need to conserve water. It asked us to flush only after multiple uses.  It asked for contributions to help pay for their tank to be emptied each month.  It seemed apparent that the valley was not thriving.

Putting this depressing fact behind me, I tried to focus on the dunes, but suddenly I was consumed by questions of if I would even enjoy the trip.  Through the wafting heat off the valley floor I could picture myself trudging across an unbroken, unshaded expanse of yellow sand with no water or cool air in sight.  A creeping panic began to rise in me.  If there is one thing that grabs my survival instincts by the balls, it’s the thought of unbroken and unmitigated heat.  My brain immediately flashes to visions of me shriveling to a parched and shrunken shell of myself, and collapsing in the heat, and never leaving the desert.  Though many landscapes evoke fear, to me, the desert is perhaps the most forbidding.

We drove into the park, however, and I reminded myself that today would not be spent on the dunes.  Today Rick and I planned to hike in the preserve where we could backpack in to a backcountry site to camp.  Abutting the dunes is the Sangre de Cristo Range.  The winds that bear down the mountains, combined with the prevailing winds barreling across the San Luis Valley, and the winding Medano Creek help to hold the massive dunes in their place.  Today we would hike up Mosca Pass, to the crossing point of the Sangre de Cristos, in a low saddle full of wild green grasses and aspen groves.

We hiked for an hour and a half, up the incline to the pass, and were there before we even knew it!  The hike was mostly shaded and gradual, and we were moving faster than we thought.  We reached the pass just as afternoon storm clouds began gathering on the horizon, so we turned back, took a dog-legged path off the trail, and made our way into a beautiful mountain meadow with a small creek running though it, wildflowers blossoming abundantly, and a tiny, miraculous, hidden cache of Columbines in a shaded aspen grove.  It was a little paradise, and after searching out the right spot, we set up camp at the edge of and aspen grove overlooking the meadow from above.

We made a fabulous meal, and Rick broke out two beers he had stowed away in his bag as a little treat.  As I sipped my shandy and watched the light fade while Addie bounded through the meadow grasses, I couldn’t imagine a better, more peaceful spot to rest my head and body for the night.  I felt a little chill as I sat with intention, trying to share this moment with the little being fluttering in my belly.

We lit a small fire and let the night fade away from us before crawling into our sleeping bags, reminiscing on the sweet perfection of our day.  Moments spent like this, together, away from the rush of life in the city, bring both of us back to ourselves and the simple things that bring a smile to our faces.

As we have been busy putting together a nursery, fixing up our home, and trying to establish ourselves in the new jobs, we occasionally lose sight of these simple pleasures.  Our trip to the Sand Dunes was a beautiful reminder from the universe that a mountain meadow filled with wildflowers can do more for the soul than weeks of dedicated work to “improve” one’s lot.  Reduction, it seems, is often the key to contentment.

Diversionary Tactics

Diversionary Tactics was the title of a poster I presented at the Association of American Geographers Conference back in 2006.  it was about a hydropower development project in Manitoba that was making a major diversion on the Churchill River, through a man-made channel, upon which would be built several hydropower dams.  The dams would not be in great locations – mostly coniferous forest, without major topography, meaning the water would spread out – not up.  It would kill a lot of biomass, which would in turn rot, produce methane, and generally be a bad ecological situation. Tree stubs and floating logs would pepper the reservoir, posing safety risks to boaters.  Water levels would constantly fluctuate, making it hard for the riparian ecosystem to stabilize, and in the winter ice would not form consistently, which can trap and kill animals.  On top of that, the dams were on traditional First Nations lands, and would alter the land the tribes relied on. Worse, however, was the fact that these projects tended to divide the community and fuel corruption.  First Nations communities in Canada already suffer some of the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and violence in the nation.  This type of development was simply a new chapter in a legacy of environmental racism and injustice that had long plagued them.  The saddest part to me, was that this infrastructure was being built to sell power to the United States – to Minneapolis and Wisconsin, and Chicago.  It wasn’t even benefitting the local communities that felt the impacts most acutely.  And most people in the States had no idea…

It was while I studied this that I began to better understand natural resource development.  It fascinated me.  Particularly when it comes to power.  The methods we rely on to fuel our increasingly electronic lifestyles are often pretty far removed from our lives.  We don’t tend to see the costs, and as a result we don’t often involve ourselves in the debates on how to develop our natural resources in responsible ways.  Thankfully, there are some legislative tools (the National Environmental Policy Act) that encourage us to step back for a moment and consider our choices, our alternatives, and consider public input before major projects can move forward.  These tools are pretty effective in the United States to curtain truly BAD development policies.  I tend to think, however, that our legislative tools make us a bit lazy as citizens.  When was the last time you participated in a public meeting on an issue that affected your community?  When did you last contact your representatives to let them know how you felt about a bill or a development that personally impacts you?  I can almost guarantee that unless you have a pipeline coming through your backyard, you probably haven’t been very engaged in the public decision-making process of late.  I know, because this is what I do every damn day.  I try to facilitate this process.  Though I don’t always necessarily support the PROJECTS being developed, I wholeheartedly support the PROCESS they must go through to secure permits, and prove that they are necessary and that better alternatives are not out there.  In a sense, I feel a bit like a public defense attorney; these processes are part of the structure that makes our country what it is, and it is my job to see that the process is followed that the public is consulted and made aware or these projects, and that they have an opportunity to educate themselves and make informed decisions about the natural resources issues that impact them.

It’s intriguing to me how my worldview on the subject has shifted with time and age. There was a time when Xcel Energy monitored my blog because I was so adamantly opposed to Manitoba’s hydropower developments.  Now, however, with a wider wold view, I recognize that there is a place for certain development, and unless you can claim to live entirely off the grid, we are all, in essence, complicit in supporting that development through our need for power, for gasoline to fuel our cars, for water to take a shower each day.

Yesterday I was asked to help write a rebuttal piece to an article by Yvon Chouinard, the owner of Patagonia, which was recently published in the New York Times.  He was maligning dams and suggesting we tear them down.  I deeply respect Chouinard. I worked at Patagonia and I am proud of his record of being a thought-leader and a visionary who has also made business work without compromising his principles.  Of course, I can barely afford to buy anything from Patagonia as it caters mostly to rich, white people.  But, it’s good quality product and it is made responsibly.  That said, the inflammatory nature of the article he wrote also bothered me a bit.  Most people today in the United States recognize the perils of dams.  New hydropower dams in the US are simply not being constructed due to the lack of suitable locations, and the NEPA process.  It’s too hard to permit these structures.  Plus, they have significant riparian impacts.  But, they do produce energy free of greenhouse gas emissions, and they help to manage water flows and provide storage.  They are not all bad.

I wrestled for a moment with the fact that my 23-year-old self would not have been able to write a rebuttal to Yvon Chouinard, but my 31-year-old self sees the need and the responsibility of having that conversation in a public sphere.  I am excited to participate in this project, and to be making my dreams of impacting and improving natural resources debate and policy a reality!

 

Manizales, El Jardin Secreto, and… Montana?

As I write this, there are two puppies curled up on the floor near me, Rick is sitting in hammock a few feet from me, and I’m overlooking a lush, green mountainside that falls away into a valley punctuated by a muddy, boulder-strewn river.  Just setting the scene here.  I almost hate to write this knowing that many of my friends and family are hiding out from the cold weather.  We, on the other hand, are taking a little break from the afternoon heat.

We are about twenty minutes from the city of Manizales, near the coffee-growing zone, at a hostel called the Jardin Secreto.  Unlike most of our previous places, this is actually not owned by locals.  That part is unfortunate.  We practice our Spanish a bit less here than when we stayed in the city of Manizales with the adorable Maria Teresa of the Palogrande hostel – she and I sat and chatted over coffee for a few hours, which was so wonderful for my Spanish and great fun to learn about the city from a local!  But, there are trade-offs, the couple that owns this place is American (from Portland) the woman is a yoga teacher in the Anusara tradition, and she’s into Ayurveda – so I’ve found my little happy place.  Needless to say we have been here a night and already extended our stay for several more.  There is something about the lushness, the cool nights, the pungent smells of dirt and manure, and the myriad flowers in every shape and size – it’s a just a hard place to leave.

Today we toured a sustainable coffee farm, which was great.  Lots and lots of good coffee, and some great food too.  Tomorrow we’ll head up to the mountains to trek to Los Nevados – hopefully approaching something like 15,800 feet of elevation!  The day after we will check out some thermal springs, before heading to Bogota where I’ll be beginning my yoga teacher training with BJ Galvan.  I’m really excited! The fact that I’m able to continue my training with a teacher who I have worked with in Australia is wonderful.  And, the fact that we could combine our travel here and my teacher training (after having to drop out of the training I had planned to do in Australia so that we could move home and get married) is a huge blessing.  I can’t wait!  I’m also thrilled at the opportunity to do some of it in Spanish.  What fun!

I have to say that this trip has strengthened my confidence in my speaking immensely. I have always been able understand Spanish fairly well (having taken it from age four through high school certainly helped with that), but my speaking has really come back to me with two weeks of Spanish school.  It’s wonderful and fun to feel relatively sure of myself as I speak, and to be very sure of what I’m hearing.  It’s been nearly 13 years since I last spoke Spanish regularly – it’s incredible what the brain keeps hidden away. 🙂

Anyway, in case you’re wondering how Manizales, the Jardin Secreto, and Montana are at all related, I guess I can fill in a few details. As we have been traveling, Rick and I have been dedicating a fair amount of time to job applications and figuring out some of the details of our future.  While there are challenges to doing this abroad (namely horrendous Internet in Cartagena, and the fact that we are often on the move) it’s actually been pretty effective.  Up until we left for Medellin I was cranking out a few applications a day – mostly to locations throughout Montana and Colorado. Rick has been doing much of the same, though his path is a bit more reliant on where I go so I’ve been leading the charge.

Having completed our tour of the US cities we were considering calling home just over a month ago now, we determined that we loved the sunshine and ruggedness of the Rockies and probably wanted to make those mountains our home.  Though we have both spent lots of time in Denver, and though Rick owns a house there, we are both drawn to a rural lifestyle.  Montana has been calling to us both now for a long time, and it might just end up being our final destination for several reasons.  I’ve always wanted to live there, and have taken every chance I’ve had to visit.  Rick too has felt the draw to Montana.  He was a ski bum at Big Sky and has spent quite a bit of time in and around Bozeman.  And, just a few summers ago Rick and I biked from Missoula to Seattle, seeing some of the best of the west along the way.  That part of the country holds a chunk of both of our hearts and I think we’d like to try making a go of settling down there and bringing up a family – with the majority of our time spent out in the woods.

There is something about the idea of a more rural life that I love.  I am a social person and I love and feed off the energy I get from other people.  Unfortunately, sometimes I feel as though it takes me away from my own priorities and goals.  I found that to a certain extent, the relative isolation of our lives in Australia (in the sense that we didn’t have a huge social network) allowed us to grow individually and together in some really special ways.  I felt like it allowed me to spend time focusing on things I enjoy and want to do more of – like yoga, art, and writing.  Rick, though in very different ways, sees the appeal of a rural lifestyle.  We both want to improve our ability to live self-sufficiently and be close to nature.  Rick loves the idea of being able to leave the house to go trail running, a luxury that might even draw me back into the runners fold. We also both love that in Montana we can have mountains, water, and sunshine.  I guess I’m greedy, but I just want it all – and I’m willing to give up living in a larger city to have it.  Plus, we both love the winters and the potential of amazing backcountry skiing, great resorts, and opportunities to Nordic ski too.

We have a few irons in the fire for jobs in Montana, but we are more and more convinced that even if we don’t have a specific job to walk into, we might make our way to Montana anyway. We aren’t ruling out other parts of the West.  I certainly love the idea of being close to our friends in Colorado, or somehow finding work we love in Jackson Hole or Boise, but when we consider all the options, we still end up with Montana at the top of our lists.  No final decisions have been made yet, but so far this is where are hearts are leading us.

Up north

My parent's cabin

It’s been a year and a half since I last visited my parent’s cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin.  Then, it was summer and I’d rallied a crew to join me from various parts of the country.  We drank wine, swam in the lake, and enjoyed sunsets to melt your heart.

Now, it’s -16 degrees.  Snow drifts around the house, and the lake is buried under ice and criss-crossed with snowmobile and cross-country ski tracks.  The sound of the woods is silence, broken by the creaking of frozen trees in the wind. The winter sun sets about 40 degrees south on the horizon from its summer roost.

I love the seasons here: the falls with their pungency, their color, their sense of tangible resignation to the slow descent to winter.  The springs with turtles rambling about laying eggs, the smell of pine and mud permeating the air.

I have spent many of my most enjoyable New Year’s Eves here, with many other close families, skiing all day, cooking chili by night, all of us trudging through the ice and snow of the lake to celebrate the new year with a toast of champagne under a cold, star-filled sky on a frozen island.  This place holds so many of my dearest, most wild and fun, and some of my most painful memories.  Its fabric is woven into me – the time my dog drowned in the lake and I had to pull her lifeless body out and bury her in the darkening evening as my sisters and I cried and got eaten by mosquitos; the time my boyfriend came to watch me run my first marathon and held me later that night in my exhausted soreness telling me how impressed and proud he was; the time I brought college friends here to hide away before finals and we baked blueberry pies and drank homemade wine after studying all day by the fireside; the summer days when my sisters and I would build forts in the woods and catch crawdads and snakes.

I love this place with my whole self.  It’s an incredible homecoming to be here after our months of self-imposed homelessness.  It reminds me of what matters to me and what I want for my own future.  It is such a great way to recall my memories of family and friends, and tare the scales of my life with my priorities.  Rick is not with me, he is celebrating the new year with his family before we leave to head abroad.  I think for him too, this bizarre exercise we’ve been performing of criss-crossing the country in search of a home, then coming home, then heading abroad, and hoping the pieces fall into place for us, it’s all very confusing, but I think the time back home serves us well to establish a base of where we come from and what we want going forward.