Being Gently Powerful

You could say that I’m a treehouse nut, as I’ve never understood why most people think that treehouses are for kids. The fourth one I’ve built, is in my backyard — a three story monstrosity that tops out at 32 feet above the ground. In the “crows nest” at the top, you can see over our house and down across Sonoma Valley to Sonoma Mountain, and south down the valley toward Marin. The lower parts of the treehouse were built 13 years ago and the upper parts 10 years ago. Both are slowly being absorbed and warped in odd ways by the tree.

In one spot (pictured), the ladder leading to the crows nest has been slowly bent way out of its straight up and down position. Clearly if it had been warped that badly all at once, it would have shattered. But rather, the tree gently but persistently pushed against it, and it has slowly but surely stretched it into its present position. It is this aspect of “being gently powerful” that one sees a lot in nature. Trees can also break stone using the same technique of very slow but persistent pressure.

In a related example, on a river trip through the Grand Canyon you eventually come to a section deep in the canyon where the oldest rock is exposed. It is a very hard, metamorphosed volcanic granite and schist. And yet the Colorado River has not only carved it’s path through the very heart of it, it has actually sculpted it, with intricate and fascinating incisions (see photograph). These were formed not by one cataclysmic event, but by the very slow and constant caressing of suspended silt and sand by the river over eons. The river is being gently powerful over a very long period of time.

I’ve come to believe that is exactly what our efforts to clear the Overlook and Montini Preserve of invasive species needs to be like. We need to be gently powerful for many years. As I said to someone on the trail recently, “this is a program, not a project.” You could also call it a war, not a battle. But that’s a more violent image that I prefer to avoid. I prefer the idea of being gently powerful, as that is more like what it feels like.

Each day that I can get out on the trail during thistle pulling season I am blessed to experience the outdoors, feel the sunshine, sweat like crazy, and do something that I feel is meaningful. That feels like being gently powerful. And something that feels worthy in and of itself.

So the next time you see one of us out there pulling invasive species, think of us as a tree or a river — gently, but powerfully and persistently, pressing against what we oppose. It, too, will give over time, as all things that are gently, powerfully, and persistently opposed eventually do.


Vishnu schist photo by Al_HikesAZ, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC 2.0.

Meditation Hiking


Twenty hikers met on Sunday to welcome in Daylight Savings time and to do a meditation hike. Jeff Falconer led the group in a silent hike to the top of the Overlook Trail where the mindful walkers enjoyed the sweeping view with a deep calm. If you’d like more information about enhancing your hikes with the discipline of meditation Jeff’s newly published booklet on Walking Meditation is available for purchase at Readers Books.

Next time you hike, try combining awareness of your breath, your body in motion, and the natural surroundings for an enhanced experience!


Being Thankful for the Trails

An adult wild turkey in the Red Quarry, blissfully oblivious of what most people in the US are doing today.

An adult wild turkey in the Red Quarry, blissfully oblivious of what most people in the US are doing today.

On this, Thanksgiving Day, it’s appropriate to consider what one treasures. For me, the Overlook Trail and the Montini Preserve are high on the list. I started hiking the Overlook 5-6 years ago, on virtually a daily basis. When the Montini Preserve was opened, I lengthened my hike by starting there, making my way to the Overlook and then back. For quite a while now this has been my daily exercise, a four mile hike with around a 400 foot elevation gain. This replaces what is for many people their indoor “spin class” or gym time.

So in the spirit of the holiday, these are just some of the things I’m thankful for that have come into my life through hiking these trails:

  • My health. Breaking a sweat for over an hour is always a good thing, especially when performed multiple times each week.
  • My mental health. Unlike a number of people I see on the trail, I don’t have earbuds in my ear piping in music. This lets my mind wander and process a lot of things as well as foster new ideas. I’ve had a number of ideas on hikes that have led to real results once I’ve left the trail. Also, there is new evidence that exercise prevents or decreases depression.
  • The views. I love seeing long distances. Perhaps this explains my love of the Grand Canyon and treehouses. There are some great views from the trails.
  • The wildlifeYou pretty much always see wildlife on the trail, whether it is the ubiquitous birds and squirrels, the frequently-spotted deer, or the more rarely spotted snakes (yes, including rattlesnakes). Of course let’s not forget insects.
  • The sense of adventure. My favorite times on the trail are actually when a storm is raging. I love when the creeks rise so high that they are a challenge to cross, and when there is a waterfall that crosses the Holstein Hill trail. It seems raw and exciting. Plus you often see more wildlife (like a flock of turkeys running in the rain) and fewer people.
  • The friends I’ve madeBy walking the trail so much, and running into volunteer trail Stewards and other regulars on the trail, I discovered a new source of good people to have in my life whom I appreciate.
  • The chance to do good. Whether it is picking up trash on a daily basis, or pulling invasive weeds in the Spring-Summer, there are multiple ways you can make a difference on these precious properties. Knowing that your work is both making an impact and is appreciated (as I’m often told by visitors on the trail), is a gift indeed.

The trails in the hills above Sonoma are truly a treasure. Many people I’ve met have traveled some distance to enjoy them. So those of us who live nearby are well and truly blessed. I am thankful indeed, on this Thanksgiving.

A Skill Gained From Rocks and Rivers

001060_lThe other day as I was tripping down the Overlook Trail alternately dodging rocks and using them as stepping-stones, I was reminded about how I had gained a useful life skill. It no doubt began when I was young, first on an Indiana farm (before I turned 6), then later in the foothills of the Sierra as a teenager and young adult.

But it was really solidified after I started running trails at 18, in both Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. I don’t think there are any rockier trails, especially since a number of the trails I ran and hiked in the Grand Canyon were not maintained. When you run really rocky trails you need to make split-second decisions about foot placement while also keeping an eye out for what’s coming up. In other words, you need a highly-developed sense of spatial relationships, often down to fractions of an inch.

At 21, I honed these skills further by becoming a commercial river guide. I began by guiding on the Stanislaus River in  California, now buried by the New Melones Dam. As a river guide, you need to be very aware of just how the water is flowing downstream, and how it interacts with the shore and rocks in the river bed. Again, skill with understanding spatial relationships is very important.

After guiding for one summer in California I got a wonderful opportunity to raft the Grand Canyon on a 30-day private trip. After learning to raft on about 1,500 cubic feet per second (CFS) of water flow, I was suddenly on up to 20 times that much water, flowing through a much larger river bed. I trashed through the first rapid because I didn’t yet have the scale down. I didn’t grasp the vastly different spatial relationships of a big water river. In my mind, I was still rafting a small water river.  But I learned quickly, and that was the last Colorado River rapid I bungled that badly.

These spatial skills saved my life at least once. Sometime later I was driving south on Highway 101 north of Willits at freeway speeds and I noticed a car passing oncoming traffic. I saw that the driver would have just enough time to duck back into his lane before I reached the car, so I didn’t fret. Until, that is, he ducked back into his lane and I saw that there was another car behind, also passing. At that point I was virtually on top of this second car, so I instinctually swerved onto the shoulder of the road and we passed three abreast. I knew that I could do that maneuver because I could make split second decisions about space. And I was also extremely lucky that the other driver didn’t do the same.

Today, I rarely experience anything nearly as dangerous or exciting as I’ve described. But every time I trip down the Overlook or Montini trails at speed, I know where I got the skills needed to do it safely. They were earned, one day at a time, on many rocky trails and rocky rivers. And I’m here today because of it.