"A blank spot on the map is an invitation to encounter the natural world, where one's character will be shaped by the landscape. To enter wilderness is to court risk, and risk favors the senses, enabling one to live well.

...The time had come to protest with the heart, that to deny one's genealogy with the earth was to commit treason against one's soul."

-Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Under the Giant Sky

...While the world waits for an explosion
That instant of light that wipes the slate clean...

...While the world waits for an explosion
That moment in time when we are set free.

        -Bright Eyes, Train Under Water, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning

In these lines, Conor Oberst is alluding to the events of 9/11 and the impact that such catastrophes can have on our lives.  He implies that we actually crave those times of re-examination, those moments when our self-centered, often petty concerns are immediately put into perspective.  We are forced to reassess and simplify, and in the process find ourselves present, focused, and aware.   For most people, although the event itself may cause considerable emotional and/or physical pain, this presence in the moment and respite from the ego-based burdens they carry feels like being set free, and thus is a positive and grounding thing.  In 2004, in January of my senior year of college, I slipped while ice climbing without a rope and fell 50 ft. face first to the snowy earth.  I survived (clearly) and for many months as I recovered and went on with life I felt exceedingly calm and content, thankful for the simplest of things and present at every moment.  I was free from rethinking the past and anticipating the future, stressing about classes to be finished and graduation and what lay beyond.  Unfortunately that feeling didn't last, and that's precisely the point, we need those events to check our reality, to remember what's actually important, and to be happy and feel truly alive. 

  Catastrophes of the natural kind hold a very special importance.  I am writing this lying in bed in a renovated railroad bunkhouse in Matfield Green, Kansas, glad to be in a warm place and out of the bitter elements.  Sonya, my girlfriend, and I arrived two nights ago to my father's home in the Flint Hills and awoke the next morning to a raging blizzard on the prairie. The wind burned any exposed flesh on our handful of trips back and forth from the bunkhouse to the main house over the day, our tracks buried every time by the incessant storm.  The snow blew hard against the grasses and on the rolling hills and valleys and grew waist deep in sculpted drifts, driving into our squinted eyes as we trudged along.  We worked in the 0 degree, -20 wind chill day, removing large amounts of bird shit from the second floor deck of the barn; honest work for pay.  The good projects were soon to come.

  We'd come from Chicago where we'd been home for a few months, working freelance and visiting family, in the midst of relocating from Berkeley, California to Portland, Oregon.  We decided to stop and work for three weeks at my father's in Kansas on our way back west.  Days before leaving Chicago, the city was crippled by some hard winter weather of its own.  I ran down the lake front to the Lincoln Park Boat Club on the stinging night it was supposed to hit, worked out with my sister, pulling hard on the rowing machines in the little Rocky-esque, one-room facility, then ran back as the snow began to swirl about, the temperatures dropped and the sky to the west grew thick.  When it finally arrived in earnest, midday the next day, it did so with great gusto. The frozen sky shed upon the city in unending volumes, stranding people and their cars for 12 hours on Lake Shore Drive as the snow piled up around their windows.  A total game changer as always: businesses closed, schools out, people immobilized.  If you've lived in such climates you know how it can go.  


Chicago winters, now and then

  Extreme weather and natural disasters, like the events to which Conor Oberst is refering, have the ability to reset our thinking, to instantly ground and humble us.  The difference is that natural disasters display the fury of nature while 9/11 displayed the fury of man, the latter being far more frightening in my opinion (but that's another topic.)  The outcome, the reality check, is the same: you seek comfort and community with friends and loved ones.  You help and show concern for others,  and forget some of yourself, your baggage and self image, and about the deadline next week or the date that could have gone better.  You finally realize (again) what's essential and what's filler, and are content with less.  

        The most valuable lesson to be learned when Mother Nature is teaching (which is always) is about the proper order of things.  Living in cities and suburbs and not venturing into the unmanufactured outdoors, as is the case for so many, makes it easy to think that we have things neatly under control, with manicured landscapes and lawns, sterile and ordered parks, cars and pavement, and all the amenities you could want.  In places with no large scale natural presence (mountain range, desert, ocean/major lake) the grandest sights are the buildings, the man made edifices, which are sometimes intelligent and beautiful but regardless have a somewhat ill-effect.  The result is a skewed sense of order in those living there since we are not the biggest and most significant.  Our greatest achievements, inescapably flawed as born from human hands, can never compare to the perfection of the natural world.  

        In other words, walking down the center of a normally busy street in Chicago in sub zero temps, knee deep in snow in a graveyard of entombed autos, with stores closed and people bundled miserably against the bitterness, shows you who's boss again.

Remembering the proper order

        It is one of my greatest pleasures, and a founding principle upon which Animal Athletics is based, to make a habit (dare I say addiction) of humbling myself to the forces of Nature.  I willingly suffer at the hands of it over and over again like a deranged penitent trying to show his undying love, commitment, and devotion.  We (at Animal Athletics) love to be cold and hungry, sleep-deprived and starting to hear falling water speaking words through the forest.  We want to be seasoned by the seasons and taught lessons by their raw power; Nature's forces lashing us as we run, showing us the way of things.  We want to stare back at the eyes in the woods at night, under the moon, then see animals up early with the sun as we run into the day.  Only by loving Nature fully, by bowing before it and showing deep and true reverence, and finally and most importantly by trusting in it, can we develop a strong bond with it.  It is because of this slightly insane yet deeply loving approach (and, of course, a great deal of experience and training) that Nature has responded favorably, harboring us safely, and allowed us to share moments with real animal friends as well.  We must approach with open hands and open heart, waving white flags, willing to challenge popular notions of "comfort" and "safety" in order to get to know it.  

Appropriately small, running in the Flint Hills of Kansas

        The storm passed a few days ago and the sun has been stronger and melting things quickly.  We've been doing good work and working hard; finish carpentry, designing and building (photos and more to come later.)  I've started running the back roads, trying get my spring training underway, but I'm way overdue a long run.  So I've been scheming and have a few plans in the works.  I've mapped routes through the blue stem, over the rolling land under the giant sky, to remind me of the proper order, to surround me by views guaranteed to make me feel small.  

        Running through the prairie, on my way back West...

Please enjoy this week's music video:

1 comment:

  1. Willie,
    This is awesome, bro. Can't wait to follow you. And now I see why you can't run with us in New Mexico in late May. Maybe I'll try to make White River?

    Remember too the smallness that we feel when overwhelmed by movements like those that are tearing across the Middle East.

    Much love,