Where’s Susan?

Ring Lake guests and staff

As in, Where’s Waldo? Except that I’m easily spotted in the front row of the photo above, shot at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range outside Dubois, Wyoming, last night. That group of people includes many of the participants in my week-long seminar, “Cultivating Sacred Stewardship of Nature in a Time of Climate Change,” and some of the staff and children of Ring Lake Ranch, a dude ranch with a mission of offering “refreshment and renewal in sacred wilderness.”

(The photo is missing several people, including RLR director Andy Blackmum–he’s behind the camera; and multi-faceted ranch wrangler/horse whisperers Mo Morrow and DeWitt Daggett. DeWitt is presenting a seminar in September of 2020 on a spiritual practice of belonging, using horses as teachers.)

The view of Trail Lake and the high peaks of the Winds from my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch.

I can attest that the ranch fulfills its mission and then some. There’s the setting, which is spectacular and wonderfully “apart” enough from ordinary life to be restful just by itself. And the people, both staff and participants, who are not just warm and welcoming, but capable and playful and interesting, and intellectually and spiritually deep. And then there’s the hiking and paddling and riding and food…

I came away feeling quite refreshed and renewed–full of ideas, new connections, and excitement about the work I was teaching and the people I met. (And also a bit saddle-sore from some great trail rides, about which I am not complaining one bit!)

Stopping on a ride to take in the view… 

Before going to Ring Lake, I was, frankly, a bit intimidated to be offering a seminar at a place that hosts noted thinkers, writers, and artists in the Christian tradition, especially knowing that among the participants in my group would be faith leaders from various mainstream Christian denominations and other traditions. Honestly, I wondered what I, a scientist and writer who considers herself a Quaker Pagan, would have to offer.

Plenty, as it turned out. The group bubbled over with energy and excitement, ending the week with a new understanding of how restoring healthy nature nearby, including on our church grounds, can also restore us humans, our communities, and the Earth we share. I think I learned as much as the participants did, both from their responses and ideas, and from the work of examining and organizing my thoughts in order to teach.

Sheepeater petroglyph image (circa 800 to 1,200 years ago)

Part of the magic of Ring Lake Ranch is that it has been a sacred site for at least a millennia. The ancestors of today’s Eastern Shoshone people chipped petroglyphs of sacred beings they saw into the sandstone cliffs in and around the ranch. Those rock spirits, some with wings, some masked, some with clawed or curled feet, and many with curving “tails” like smoke leading out of a natural crack in the rock, have the feel of a sacred gallery, an assemblage of wisdom and visions we may never truly understand, but which offer wordless information and inspiration.

I am still processing what was an extraordinary week. I feel as if the time at Ring Lake Ranch was a kind of sacred pilgrimage, one taken without knowing at all what I sought, and despite that, I found just what I needed.

Looking across Yellowstone Lake this afternoon toward the wild Thorofare Valley, where I once walked alone, with only a friend’s dog, on another week-long pilgrimage. 

Tonight I am in Gardiner, Montana, writing with the rushing voice of the Yellowstone River coming in my open door, as a quarter moon sails in the still-blue sky after sunset. Tomorrow I will head to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and begin a week of digging invasive weeds. Despite a gloomy forecast of rain and cold temperatures, I look forward to the hard physical work. It is good thinking time for me, and I will use it well.

As summer edges toward fall, my wish for all of us is that we find ways to nourish our hearts, minds, and spirits, no matter these difficult times. And that we each cultivate an active relationship with the sacred community of nature around us, and find ways to nourish and restore that community, as part of the work of healing this battered planet–and us, too.

Blessings to you all!

Road-Trip Realizations: Life as a Pilgrimage

As Red's tires hummed a steady road-song on the long drive home yesterday afternoon, I found myself thinking about life as a pilgrimage, a journey undertaken for inspiration or enrichment. As a deliberate spiritual practice. 

I am not particularly inclined toward organized religion, but I am deeply spiritual, and my daily life reflects that. Beginning with my 30-minute morning yoga routine, which is designed partly to relieve the muscle and joint stiffness and pain that settle in when I sleep, "gifts" of my autoimmune disease. And partly to reconnect my restless mind with my body, with the rhythm of heart and lung, the moving dialog of muscle and synapse, tendon and bone.

And perhaps most importantly to reconnect this complex organism I call "me" with the earth and the moment-by-moment passing of life itself.

Yoga is part of my meditation, my practice of inner and outer awareness. I follow it with a short spoken prayer of gratitude for this landscape and my patch of it, and intentions for the day and my part in the dance of life. 

That deliberate ritual of yoga and prayer is one of the daily spiritual habits I practice to remind myself to pay attention and cultivate awareness of the moments that make up my hours and days, so that life doesn't whiz by without me fully participating in it. To notice and cultivate compassion for the lives around me, microscopic to gargantuan, in all forms. And to practice joy and gratitude for the gift of this earth and the community of life that animates our planet, as well as the gift of taking part in that community. 

A pair of mergansers, diving ducks who eat fish, I saw on my run along the Arkansas River today. 

Those daily rituals are my attempt to find the spiritual in the every day, see the miracles imbued in the ordinary, to not take this existence for granted. Of course I'm not always successful.

We all have times when we zone out or get busy or simply to forget to stop and pay attention to ourselves and our part in the wondrous stream of life. And the days rush on whether we're aware or not, whether we care or not.  

Why bother? Why put the effort into living life with mindful gratitude?

Because life is a gift, not a given. There is no warranty on our term of years. After losing Richard and my mother in the same year, I am keenly aware of the truth of the saying that only moment we know we have is now.   

I want to live this unasked-for solo life fully. To not let any of it–no matter how joyous or painful, tedious or thrilling, hard or harsh or gloriously abundant–pass by unnoticed or unappreciated. 

This is the life I have. I am determined to live it with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, engaging in the pilgrimage of experience for however many hours, days, months, and years I am given. Until the rush slows, and I cycle on to whatever is next. 

For now, I am here, and grateful for that gift. 

A rodent skull I found in my garden this morning.