Jenn Barton: Simplicity

Hundreds of bacteria inhabit one square inch of skin. Imagine what lives in a cubic inch of soil, and then behold a whole tree, not just a young sapling, but a hearty hemlock that has survived the centuries, housing a multitude of insects, birds, mammals, fungi, lichens, mosses. We go to the woods to live simply in an unfathomably complex and intricate system. What is it that speaks to us of simplicity?

In Webster’s words, simple means: “1. not hard to understand , 2. having few parts, and 3. not special or unusual.” This definition defies nature’s reality—in truth, nature is hard to understand, complex in its myriad parts, and, to add a subjective bent, exceedingly special and unique. Still, we have ordained nature as the teacher of simplicity. How can this be so? Let’s behold the complexity for a moment, the excessiveness, and we might worm our way into a new understanding.

When my daughter was four, we tirelessly collected acorns from a single tree out her bedroom window. For weeks, the gray squirrels serenaded us by chomping and dropping these hard-capped treasures on the lawn, in the woods, even on our heads. We sorted them into categories—by color, by size, by hardness, by the presence or absence of caps (or hats, as she called them)—then counted them by tens, tallied, and recorded the results. Over a thousand acorns covered the carpet! According to Dr. Marc Abrams, Penn Sate professor of forestry, ‘A mast year can occur twice in a row, or there might be several years in between. “There’s no way to predict it.”’

Wildlife thrives on excess but does not depend upon it; the squirrels stockpile more acorns in a mast year, but can adjust to a dearth the next year. Humans, however, specialize in hoarding—food, clothing, money, possessions—and might have a tag sale once or twice a lifetime; voluntary simplicity is not our strong suit. Throughout our lives, we expect to either maintain or elevate our standard of living, never to decrease it. Loss, instead of being a natural part of the unpredictable cycle, signifies failure. Squirrels, on the other hand, are ceaselessly adapting to what the environment presents them, the boom-bust reality of forest life. They cannot hoard and elevate their status. Excess is subject to decay; every last acorn will be recycled without trace the following year. Removed from natural cycles of decay, human excess persists, sits on shelves to gather dust until we forget where or why we even saved it. Even so, we are captive to its care.

We go to the woods to learn of letting go, to realize that we can’t even remember what lines our shelves at home, the excess we insist we couldn’t live without. As we move along the trails, our hands fall open at our sides, relaxed, needing nothing to grasp. Water sloshes in our bottle, a food wrapper crinkles in our coat pocket. We carry only the weight of sustenance and shelter. We have brought little. We return with less. What we receive looms large in the heart, not in the hands.

Photo and video by Daniel Casado. Text by Jenn Barton.

Jennifer Ries: Guided Recreation in the Maine Woods

As a young person bumbling through life, looking for that blissful connection of hand to heart—wanting my work to mean something—I got the notion, rather suddenly one day, that I should become a Registered Maine Guide. I adored nature. This, I thought, would be a chance to camp more, canoe more, and make my office in the woods. The task of acquiring the illustrious guide’s patch to wear on my jacket seemed heroic, and I was up for the challenge. Shortly thereafter, I met the man who became my mentor, and the course I had set in my mind looked very different from the one that eventually unfolded.

When we met, Raymond Reitze had been professionally guiding people into the Maine woods for more years than I had been alive. Setting pole in hand, with a rare combination of gentleness and strength, he wove his tough old homemade canoe upstream through rocks and rapids. He was like a teamster whispering to his horses, asking all that muscle to move forward, back up, and step aside. He commanded his craft with love and confidence, an act that seemed to give many happy returns. Ray and I spent years together paddling rivers and snowshoeing through the Maine woods. Before I knew it, the paddle had been passed. In time, I got to wear that patch.

Time on the trail bequeathed to me an inheritance much broader and deeper than I could have imagined. Along with the woods skills came stories of the land and of the lineage of Maine guides who traveled before us, arcing back over more than a hundred years. Guides in the old days brought recreating “sports” to fish and enjoy refuge from the metropolitan hustle. Follow the arc back further to the native people who inhabited these spaces and lived by the rhythm of the seasons. In between were darker times when those who came seeking guides also came to exploit the land. We can imagine the inspiration that welled within all of these people as they beheld the vastness of the mountains, the woods and the waterways. Perhaps we are coming full circle, as we return to the woods to engage our senses, expand our awareness, test our limits and renew our spirits. We are tapping into a common heritage that, as descendants of early land dwellers, we all share. Perhaps in some small way, we are rejoining the ancient rhythms of our ancestors.

Today, the Maine guide tradition lives on. But it wouldn’t be guiding without the people who come seeking the accompaniment of a guide. These guests bring an element of discovery and playfulness to every trip. They come with a yearning that simmers in many of us: to find simplicity. Each camper blossoms with the finding of his or her treasure, be it solace, quietude, adventure, reflection, self-sufficiency, or just plain fun. Those who were strangers at the beginning of the week part in friendship. All of this humbles and uplifts us and collectively, we remember what it was that drew us here in the first place. To witness this kind of reconnection to nature and each other is a gift; to help facilitate that process is a privilege.

We are beckoned to the woods by voices from the past. We are called by earthy vespers rising out of the elements in which we revel. They entreat us to travel tenderly on the land and to protect it for the generations that will follow.

To cherish a place, it helps to fall in love with it; to fall in love with it, one needs to spend time in it. Years ago, nature writer Barry Lopez came to Maine and gave a rare public lecture. At one point, he made a suggestion that has stuck with me and served me well in my travels (paraphrased): when you travel to another land and culture, find a local and ask that person to take you for a walk. Ask him or her to tell you a story. Listen carefully. This is true intimacy.

More stories to share, paddles to pass, and circles to widen…

Photo and video by Daniel Casado. Text by Jenn Ries.

John Willard: Access/Barriers to Wild Places

In Maine, trees are accessible to us all. Hide and seek is challenging in this state, for the seeker that is. But how many of us actually know these trees, these forests? How many of us see the burl that to a woodworker is a beautiful bowl? How many of us know tree flowers, dangling up there in the canopy every spring, humbly going about their pollination rituals? What about the convention of insects just beneath the bark or the cavities patterned by pileated beaks? Or what the hunter knows of the leaves overturned by turkeys, their wet undersides revealed? What is the price of entering in?

Some would say nothing. It’s free. Apart from state or federal parks or nature centers, there are no admissions fees. There are no membership dues. We need not belong to anything. We need only to show up. If we venture to more vast woods, perhaps there are fuel, transportation, and time costs. And if we desire an immersion experience, there are accommodation and facility fees. Even these are nominal. So why do we hold ourselves out of these woods where Thoreau went to confront only the essential facts? Why do we choose the clutter and overwhelm of modern life? More importantly, why do we see time in the woods as one more line item to check off, instead of an opportunity to simplify the whole list?

If a man with Multiple Sclerosis can ascend a peak in an all-terrain chair with six “sherpas” maneuvering him, certainly I can walk a hundred yards to the brook at the edge of my property. What holds us back are not the external barriers but the internal ones, the perception that it’s too hard, that it takes too much time, that it prevents us from accomplishing other things or at least tending to them. Deeper than that is a fear of the quiet. In a culture that values the words, the sounds, and the immediacy of response, the opportunities for quiet have become endangered. Oriah House beckons, “I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”

Sometimes a person has to walk the entire Appalachian Trail to have a transformational experience. Sometimes it happens in a mere moment of witnessing—the exquisite or the mundane—that awakens us to who we are. Beauty often beckons us to the trail, but something else inspires our return. It could be the absence of regret, never once having wished we’d done something different with our time. Quite possibly it’s a sense of connecting authentically to an ancient and wise world, and the ancient and wise that lives within us. Where everything has its place and there is no opposite to belonging.

For some, walking in the woods is routine. But, perhaps you were not born into a tradition of woods walkers or hunters or fisherpeople. Perhaps you deem yourself the wrong “type”, however it is that you cast yourself. Perhaps you feel unequipped. Perhaps there isn’t the time. Or maybe you feel physically unable. Set the timer on your watch for ten minutes. Wear what you would normally wear to go out into the weather. Walk until you come to a tree. Crouch down. Look up. Look into the sun or the rain or the wind-thrown canopy. Ask a question. Listen for a response. When the story in you ceases, there is space for another’s story to begin. That’s how you know you have truly entered in.

Photo and video by Daniel Casado. Text by Jenn Barton.

Eric Stirling: Tradition

A morning cup of coffee (or two or three); a run before breakfast; a dog walk before dinner; the brush, floss, wash, change ritual of bedtime—these are familiar routines. Be they healthy or harmful, these deliberate, repeated patterns lend shape to our daily lives, but they lack something fundamental that traditions possess.

Traditions connect us to history. The grace we now share was offered by our grandmother forty years before at a different table. These very same words embed us in a legacy that cups of coffee and tooth brushings are hard-pressed to do. But tradition, itself, is backward nodding, an honoring of what others deemed important. It is what we have chosen to carry forth, sometimes out of obligation, sometimes desire.

Whether we embrace or begrudge them, traditions that survive the generations must have merit, for what took immense pioneering effort can, in truth, be halted in an instant. The family reunion ceases when the host dies and no one volunteers to fill the post. The children leave the congregation. The family no longer gathers for dinner; grandmother’s graces have no venue. But what does survive, what we seek to keep alive for ourselves and all in our circle, brings a wave of continuity in an ever-changing human and natural landscape.

What is it about this sameness that creates some deeper sense of connectedness, that we weren’t the only ones to inhabit a particular place or speak certain words? What is it about seeing our name on the same plaque as our grandfather or great grandfather for catching the largest fish of the season on a remote Maine pond? Why do we return again and again for the same experience?

At West Branch Pond Camps, it might be as simple as the smell of fresh bread, how it rides the air currents out of the kitchen and finds the nostrils of the porch sitters, ensconced in a game of spades. We can almost taste the warm, hot-buttered goodness, and we can certainly remember so many times of biting in, with family members—some gone, some much older now—the same recipe, the same satisfaction. We love what we know. Predictability breeds comfort.

But comfort, alone, is not what we seek. While tradition furnishes the framework, mystery supplies the stories. And it is these very stories that distinguish the years of experiences in the same setting—the year we tipped the canoe trying to reel in the big one, the year the rain never stopped and nor did it stop us, the year mom first lost the cribbage tournament. When we honor tradition and simultaneously open to the mystery of the present moment, magic arises.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “…man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he, too, lives with nature in the present, above time.” Tradition might get us to camp, but we must do the work of truly arriving each time, of coming into presence with all that breathes around us. Alert senses. Quiet mind. Open heart. Nature offers freely the experiences that embed the traditions even deeper.

Heraclitus so poignantly reminds us: “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

Photo and video by Daniel Casado. Text by Jenn Barton.