The Big Epic

Connecting with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

Month: March 2018

BEWARE! Steep Roller Coaster Ahead…

Are you a roller coaster lover? Or are you like me—terrified of those torture devices? It doesn’t matter which kind of roller coaster it is, from kiddie ride to mega-coaster, I hate them all the same!

Along the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia, there is a 13.5 mile section called the Roller Coaster. This series of a dozen short steep hills comes with a “warning” sign at each end. We reached this area a few weeks into our first backpacking trip on the AT. It was intimidating, but we survived.

In the past few weeks, I have been on a different type of Roller Coaster. There has been an unending path of steep emotional ups and downs: bittersweet memories while sorting family photos, my parents first anniversary after my dad died last year, approaching the 10th anniversary of our son’s death (how in the world has it been that long?!), the upcoming first anniversary of my dad’s death, my dad’s birthday, my birthday that I share with my son…plus family gatherings, a daughter graduating from Pharmacy school, a son graduating with a bachelor’s degree, both kids and their spouses moving to new locations, a cross-country road trip and more. So many mixed up emotions hitting me all at once!

I know I’m not the only one walking a challenging path right now. Daughter and I conquered the AT Roller Coaster. Here are some lessons we learned that can help me (and you?!) more easily navigate other times of turmoil in our lives…

RECOGNIZE WHAT IS HAPPENING: It is much easier to handle difficult times when we anticipate the struggles. We can give ourselves grace, not expecting too much of ourselves in the midst of steep ups and downs. At the same time, we can make preparations to (somewhat) ease the challenges of grief and stress. The warning signs in the guidebooks and on the AT itself were daunting. But these warnings helped set our expectations. In reality, it wasn’t as bad as we feared.

LIGHTEN the LOAD: When chaos hits, it’s time to take a look at what we are carrying and lighten the load wherever possible. Eliminating unnecessary things allows us to have more energy to deal with the burden(s) we can’t avoid carrying. Which things can be rearranged in our schedules? Which chores and responsibilities can be left for later or delegated to others? This is a never-ending quest in backpacking—determining actual *NEEDS* versus heavy *shoulds* or little luxuries that quickly add up to draining burdens.

SET YOUR OWN PACE: Don’t compare yourself to others walking a similar path. Don’t let others dictate what (they think) you should do. Some folks best deal with challenges by keeping busy, not wallowing in messy emotions. Others need to step back and plan for times to rest, allowing themselves space to ponder what is happening. In the case of the AT Roller Coaster, we chose to stop in the middle at a pretty campsite and get good rest to finish the ups and downs the next day.

LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE: In the middle of the Roller Coaster it sometimes feels like things are out of our control and the upheaval will never end. It helps to step back and realize this turbulence is temporary…it will not last forever. And even in the chaos, we can find moments of beauty and rest. It was helpful when we were weary of endless ups and downs to stop at an overlook for a few minutes. Rest, a beautiful view, and some nutritious snacks gave us energy to continue down the trail.

LET OTHERS HELP: When we feel overwhelmed, there are often people around us who want to encourage us. We have to be willing to talk with them and accept their offers of assistance. Stubborn independence makes our own burdens heavier and prevents others from experiencing the joy of helping someone else. Often little things become huge encouragements! A simple granola bar offered by one day hiker, a brief conversation with some young kids walking with their dad, and the juicy sweetness of fresh fruit handed to us  gave us energy to keep going until we finished the Roller Coaster. (Thanks, Trail Angels!)

I still hate roller coasters, but looking back at our successful hike through the Roller Coaster on the Appalachian Trail reminds me that I can also successfully navigate the turbulent ups and downs  of grief and stress I’m experiencing right now. I’m off to listen to some soothing music while re-reading a favorite book. I can face these challenges again tomorrow…

(You can read more about my “adventures” with grief HERE and HERE.)

“Our Holiday” — Celebrating FORESTS!

You already know how much daughter and I love to spend time in the woods. After all, that’s the reason I started this blog to tell stories about our adventures! I discovered that “our holiday” was yesterday. On March 21, 2012 the United Nations declared an annual International Day of Forests. This day is a global acknowledgement of the importance of forests and a celebration of the ways in which woodlands and trees sustain and protect us. Woohoo! Folks around the world enjoy the woods as much as we do.

I just discovered a fascinating book: “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. The author, a forester from Germany, makes audacious claims about life in the forests. Even better, these assertions are supported by new research being done by scientists around the world. Here are a few of the most intriguing facts I’ve read so far:

1-the “Wood-Wide-Web”

We have all heard about the interconnectedness of life. There is actually fierce competition between species—plants, insects, birds and mammals. But in fully functioning woods, deciduous trees of the same species are connected at the root level by soil fungi. This network allows sharing of both information and goods. These interconnected trees support young seedlings and saplings, share nutrients with other trees that are sick or struggling, and warn each other of impending danger from insect invasion or grazing critters. Occasionally, different species of trees network in similar ways for mutual benefit. Individual trees or man-made forests do not have these types of connections, and they live much shorter, sicklier lives.

2-Smart Trees

Scientists have discovered that trees learn from experience and change their later activity based on what they have learned. This was so unbelievable that I read the chapters more than once! One example: younger trees tend to slurp up huge amounts of water every day and in every season. However, after experiencing the trauma of a significant summer drought, in future years, these now more experienced trees take up less water in the spring which leaves more water available for use in the summer months when there might be another drought. In addition, they stockpile extra water during the winter months to be used in drier months.

3-It’s COOL to Walk in the Woods

It is literally cool to walk in the woods…research shows that on a hot summer day it can be up to 50 degrees cooler on the forest floor that has full, undisturbed bio-mass! Natural woods create their own micro-climates. Thick tree cover keeps the forest floor in deep shade. (This is one reason “parent trees” share nutrients with young trees, as mentioned above.) Masses of tall trees also slow down winds. Calmer air means less evaporation, keeping more moisture in the local area. Higher moisture levels in deep shade lower temperatures which keep the cycle going.  Again, individual trees and man-made woods with carefully spaced trees do not benefit from the microclimate effects of a healthy natural forest.

Let’s CELEBRATE the forests!

Trees are far more amazing than we ever imagined. Next time Daughter and I go to the woods, we will take time to stop, listen, ponder, and imagine what is actually going on around us. Will you join us?

It’s About TIME!

This week we changed our clocks in the US. Every spring and fall this seems like such a useless, random practice. I’ve been thinking about “time” this week. We waste time, make time, spend time. Our language makes it sound like we are in control of our time. But is that really true? What is our actual relationship with time?

For millennia, humans informally followed the passage of time as measured by natural events. Their lives were ordered by the movements of the sun, moon and stars and by the changing seasons. They understood the normal ebb and flow of NATURE’S TIME. Life was hard, often living at a survival level, but it was not a stress-filled, guilt-producing, never-ending quest for efficiency and productivity.

Following the rhythms of Nature’s Time changed in the past few centuries. “Progress” was the order of the day. Leaders in government and business felt a need to order time, measure time, and control time. They looked for ways to make workers more efficient. They sought to unify divergent regions of their countries into more-controllable homogenous groups. Accurate time keeping allowed sailors to more safely explore new places without getting lost; small businesses were consolidated into large industrial factories; mass transportation more quickly moved people and ideas across nations. Progress was exciting and new. But with it, the tyranny of CLOCK TIME had arrived.

Humans measure something to control it. (We do this with land ownership, recipe amounts for cooking, and time, among other things.) We are told to carefully manage our days, hours, and even minutes . We place a high value on being productive, on finding more time in our day. This feeling of CONTROLLING TIME makes us feel in charge of our lives. Too often, we fail to notice that we have actually become slaves to our planners and our to-do lists. Even worse is what happens when institutions control time—eventually, masters control workers and teachers control students. When we become drones, following schedules and expectations set by others, life becomes a plodding, joyless drudgery. And the cycle continues as we try to more tightly control our schedules to find more time for elusive pleasure in our days.

We must fight back. It is time to recognize and change the deadening effects of being controlled by our planners or by the institutions we live under. Let’s regain control of our daily lives by focusing on PERSONAL RHYTHMS based on balancing individual needs with the work that must be completed. When we follow natural rhythms, allowing an ebb and flow to our activities, we are actually more creative and more productive.

“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).”  — Richard Louv

ASSIGNMENT: Look at your calendar and choose a day to experience Nature’s Time: eat when you are hungry, work hard at tasks, take short breaks to walk around or rest before going back to work, talk with others, spend a few minutes alone, alternate work with your hands and brain-intensive work. Steeped in a culture of Clock Time, it is important to regularly reset our expectations of how we use our time. It is possible to follow Personal Rhythms in our workplaces. It is easier to find these rhythms when we are outdoors, surrounded by Nature’s Time.

Isn’t it ABOUT TIME to let go of controlling every moment of our days?! Let’s choose to live in Nature’s Time!

(I’m excited to be starting training and certification as a Forest Therapy Guide this fall. A large part of this practice is helping others get free from Clock Time and experience Nature’s Time, at least for an hour or two. Read more about this opportunity HERE and learn how YOU can help me reach this goal!)

Robotics–a Different Kind of Adventure

Daughter Anna just finished a hectic two months of Robotics. There was a steep learning curve; there were tears; there was exhaustion; there was excitement and a cliff-hanger final match at regional competition. But…did this qualify as an “adventure?”

Contrary to common definitions of adventure, joining a robotics team does not involve being outdoors or traveling to exotic locations. It is not particularly physical or hazardous (even when requiring safety glasses). It tends to gather the brainy “nerds” or “geeks”…not super-fit “jocks” or members of the “in-crowd.”

Here on my website I define a “Big Epic” as something larger-than-life that I’m pursuing.  It might be physical but it also includes facing unexpected challenges in life. (Find more explanations and examples HERE) With more research and pondering, I propose the following elements are needed to make an enjoyable activity become an Adventure:

  • Personally stretching
  • Big enough to require planning, finding mentors, and learning
  • Extensive hard work
  • Perseverance (Never Quit on a Bad Day)
  • Uncertain Outcome
  • Makes a good story later!

Let’s take a look at how well participating in Robotics with the local “Red Plague” team fits these criteria:

Personally stretching: Check! Anna had personally never done anything like this before. No one else in our family has any experience with Robotics, so this was uncharted territory for all of us.

Requires planning, mentors, and learning: Check! Everyone one the team was involved in brainstorming designs and planning how to build their robot to be both sturdy and able to complete required tasks. Mentors patiently helped Anna learn the basics of programming the robot. YouTube and I helped her design the team “avatar” (used at the competition and on badges).

Extensive hard work: Check! Anna was at the shop almost every time it was open for work. More than 130 hours were logged by the team during the 6 week build schedule, and the week leading up to regional competition. Anna received a “workhorse” award for jumping in and doing whatever work needed done.

Perseverance: Check! Toward the end of the grueling two months, Anna wanted to quit a number of times. Even at the competition itself (3 long days in a city across the state from home), she wanted to go home a few times. Each time, she and I talked about the lessons she has learned while hiking the AT—choose your attitude, focus on good things not on pain, never quit on a bad day. In addition, she learned the importance of considering what her team needed from her, not just individual desires. (At the competition, Anna was the “Safety Officer” – spending most of her time down in their team “pit,” making sure team members were following safety rules and ready to pull out the safety spill kit or the first aid kit, if needed. This is not a visible glory-job, but is an important team position.)

Uncertain Outcome: Check! There were 61 teams at this regional competition. Many of these teams had far more members and exorbitantly deep-pocketed sponsors. At this first competition of the season, no team had prior experience with the obstacles, equipment, and tasks on the field. Alliances had to be made—guessing which other teams would best complement her team’s strengths and weaknesses. The “Red Plague” participated in 9 matches during the qualifying rounds, reached 4th place overall, and made it to the semi-final round.

Makes a good story later: Check! Ask my daughter about her team’s cliff-hanger final round. It included an alliance robot which wouldn’t run (arghhh!), a time out to try to help fix that robot, a last moment reprieve and being able to run the match with all three alliance robots after all (whew!). Then part way into the round, “Red Plague’s” robot froze (ARRGGGHHH!) The other two teams/robots in the alliance pulled the match to a tie in the preliminary score… (woohoo!) But then they lost by a handful of points in the official scoring. (oh noooooo!) Now THAT’s an emotional finish!

Looks like joining a team for a season of Robotics meets all the criteria for a “Big Epic.” Yes, it IS a different kind of true Adventure!

One Gray Week_Two Stories (Part 2)

(Last week I had solo adventures in Nature. While wandering, I realized two different stories were playing out at the same time. You can read the first story HERE. Today, I share the second story…)

On Monday, my hubby and daughter were out of town for the day. I had the house to myself. It was a great opportunity to do things just for me, things I somehow never get around to doing. Perhaps get ahead on writing blog posts. Or teach myself how to make videos to share. Or go out to lunch at a real restaurant (rather than getting McTaco fast food). But, with nothing on my schedule that HAD to be done and with no daughter needing oversight for her work, I couldn’t find motivation to do anything. I sat on the couch, nursed a mug of yet another coffee and mindlessly filled in crossword puzzles.

Finally, I got myself off that couch and out the door into the drizzly, gray day. When I got to the forest walking trail in a local park, I felt somewhat lost. No-one was with me to turn my grumpy attitude around with a song, no-one to enjoy the surprising beauty of dead flowers with me. Hmmm…usually I enjoy time to myself!

And, then I took that oopsy-daisy sliding fall on the slick leaves, flowing water, hilly trail. Getting covered with mud made me laugh! But…I realized I also missed my daughter who would have given me a hand up, laughed with me, and teased me the rest of the day…

As I explained in the previous story, I got to travel with middle daughter to Virginia for a few days. While she went to interviews, I found my happy place in a quiet, beautiful, peaceful cave. And I ended up in tears…no-one to enjoy the beauty with me, no-one for me to point out little details I noticed. Ugh… “empty nest” hits with a vengeance—even before the youngest “birdie” actually leaves!

After the cave tour, I wandered the trail beside a peaceful river. I sat on a rock and pondered this second story. Yes, Nature is healing. Yes, I love to be outdoors, soaking up the beauty and the peace. BUT…the sense of loss I was feeling on these solo adventures reminded me how much I also enjoy helping others make their own connections with Nature and find their own healing and peace.

Thinking about both of these stories, affirms for me that training to become a Forest Therapy Guide is the perfect next step for me. It will allow me to continue helping others in ways I have been practicing with my own children for decades!

(Please check out my go-fund-me campaign and consider how YOU can help me get to training to become a Forest Therapy Guide! You can read about different ways to help me HERE. You will be helping me find purpose out of upcoming “empty nest” and, at the same time, help me help so many others find peace in stressful daily living.)

(elephant photo from Strange Travel dot Com)

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