I am alone on Thanksgiving. A solitary figure, I walk north along County Road 23, two miles south of Ridgway, Colorado — the northern entrance to the San Juan mountains.
I live in the loft of an A-frame home behind me along the dirt road. The snow-topped San Juans rim the Uncompahgre Valley, home of farms, cattle ranches, and magical rainbows each April. Cows and horses dot the fields of the valley below. I feel lonely but okay.
The day awakened brisk and beautiful and flows toward me from the mountain to the east. The gravel crunches beneath my boots. The cool air burns my cheeks. The new sun warms my skin. Magpies, bluebirds, and blue jays sit on the fence posts and in the trees along the road and dash and dart about. Life thrives around me, and I am part of it. All of life is a family dependent on the interconnected energy of all.
I pause and say hello to two favorite young cows — “Brown” and “Tan,” I call them. They are indifferent to me, and I move on. A dozen deer, ears perked, stand frozen 30 feet away and watch me pass by. The local marmots are in their homes. I see no one and, other than the sounds of nature, my boots, and my breathing, the air is quiet. I am in a reflective mood.
How long can we live on this planet where we extinguish 200 species a day to feed our global population? Will we change? Nature has a deep purpose: to sustain the conditions for life — not necessarily human life but the existence of creativity and aliveness. Nature will endure; will we?
Nature teaches us about sustainability; she doesn’t share our values. I was once in the middle of a tornado, I’ve dug out of massive blizzards, and battled a record flood. In each violent act, nature expressed her passions and moved on without mercy or sentiment. The next day the sun often shined and the birds sang as nature’s gentleness returned. If we provoke her too much, will she turn her wrath on us? Nature is deeply authentic and filled with spirit, purpose, meaning, and mystery.
I look at the powerful mountains and wonder how anyone can believe they can control nature — how afraid of her power they must be. I think about a recent experience: I drove my jeep 12,000 feet above sea level on a narrow path of a trail. I was a few miles east of Silverton, 30 miles south of where I lived. A sudden rainstorm washed the clay beneath me away and my jeep began to slide backwards down the mountain perilously close to a steep ledge. Nature reminded me of my powerlessness. I went with her pull until I saw an opportunity to maneuver out of the slide. I am humble before nature.
I walk to the white house on the curve of the road that leads into Ridgway, drink some water, wave to the barking yellow lab, and turn around for the walk home. In the spring a couple of hundred elk will graze warily in the meadows below me. The diversity that surrounds me on my walk promotes adaptation; a lack of diversity foreshadows death.
I swing my left arm — exercise for a pulled muscle — as I walk. The return trip climbs gradually uphill from about 7,200 feet. I breathe faster and deeper and my legs feel the strain. I finish my water.
Finally, head down, I trudge up the curved and rutted incline of the long driveway to my rather majestic-looking A-frame home nestled against the side of the mountain. I sit on the picnic table near the back door and under the deck; I am hot and wet with sweat. I breathe heavily. I notice Skeeter and Tate — two cats larger than Noga, my Westie — hunting in the brush. I feel alive.
I mutter an expletive under my breath in acknowledgement of the hard effort. I love this almost daily three-mile walk that puts me close to nature and provides a milieu for creative contemplation. I’m old enough to find it harder to believe in a loving God than as a child. I try to figure out how I can believe and still see humanity as it is: so often evil, cruel, and unjust.
As I catch my breath, I think back to when my brother Allan and I took a trip to East Africa for 18 days of wildlife photography in Kenya and Tanzania. The animals were excited, spirited, and expressive — they ran, jumped, and played. Prides of lazy lions slept and sunned themselves while mischievous cubs played and irritated their elders who cuffed them gently. Large groups of giraffes loped gracefully across the plains.
Two or three cheetah quietly stalked Thompson gazelles. A silent leopard carried a young wildebeest into a tree to feast on for the next two or three days. Elephants lumbered in front of a gigantic and snow-covered Mount Kilimanjaro as, filled with excitement, I fumbled with my camera. The daily drama for food played itself out in front of us. What an authentic and powerful place this is.
I observed how life in the Ngorongoro Crater, a collapsed volcano with steep walls, had evolved and cooperated so all of the elements fit together to create a balanced whole — an ecosystem upon itself.
I watched the chaos of the annual wildebeest migration as hundreds of thousands of animals chased the rain. I began to sense the underlying order, programmed genetically over thousands of years, of their seemingly insane behavior. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest births occur within a three-week period, during the annual migration to water. This mass birth preserves the species, for predators cannot kill that many young before they can care for themselves.
Wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago calls this underlying order “Okite — a law of natural life that’s neither glamorous nor indulgently savage.” Nature adapts and designs and all of life plays an authentic role, with an unimaginable intelligence. Order exists beneath chaos — observable, in part, to the mindful. I wondered if the rich diversity of Africa will survive humankind’s abuse, greed, ignorance, and arrogance. I hope so but am doubtful.
As I sat at the picnic table, I thought of my time in Colorado. This was a time for solitude, and a time for reflection on how to live. I sought to balance action with contemplation. I required more time to think and ponder — to try to see the patterns and order of life in a chaotic world where making sense of so much nonsense may not be possible.
I appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, the quiet walks, and the spirituality of the San Juan mountains that surround me. My retreat to the mountains is also difficult — like a long vision quest filled with freedom’s anguish. I face my fears, losses, and the anxieties freedom provides. I wrestle with my resistance to authenticity: denial of truth, self-delusion, and self-imposed demands and limitations.
As I catch my breath, I decide to go and soak in the hot springs in Ouray — eight miles south at the front door of the San Juans. Many years prior, I drove around the mountain curve on highway 550 into Ouray. I saw the steam from the hot springs rising to the Mountains. I returned several times. One day my divorce, my mom’s death, and the surprise passing of my best friend provided the deep awareness of a fragile and temporary life, and I loaded my jeep and drove west to grieve and live out a dream in the Mountains.
The large hot springs pool sits surrounded by Mountains and the town of Ouray — a tiny piece of Western history nestled in a bowl at the foot of the San Juans. I relax in the pool, drink water, and watch rock climbers, mountain goats, small avalanches, and the deer that come to feed in the adjacent park. Often I sit quietly for hours and think, other times I read, and occasionally I talk with regulars and tourists. In the winter, the steam rises from the hot water and often I can only see a foot or two in front of me. The pool fills with people when it snows, and white heads appear to float on top of the warm water.
I reflected on my connection with nature while I soaked: I sat in a small skiff in the San Ignacio lagoon in the Mexican province of Baja California Sur bobbing in light waves. I watched as a 40-foot-long, 40-ton great gray whale surfaced slowly beneath the boat and gently introduced her new child to the boat’s elated observers.
I peered into the large, serene eye of the mother and wondered: What was her world like? Her gentle and knowing return of my excited stare linked us in a mystical moment. I realized that in one slight movement she could destroy the boat and kill its occupants. Instead, she chose to form a relationship with us — a profound choice: destroy or relate — the essence of competing worldviews.
Mother and child floated with the boat for a few minutes. The whales allowed the exhilarated humans to touch them and to lean over and kiss the barnacle covered parent before mother and child submerged slowly and disappeared. For a few short moments, the sky, the ocean, the people, the bobbing skiff, and the whale and her child were one. Nature is a form of love available to each of us. Maybe this moment of intimacy is God.
I feel a deep sorrow for what we do so selfishly to the natural world at our own peril. I’ve had the sadness for a long time. At first I tried to push it away. Now I just feel it. Are we evil for consuming her so greedily? I fear we are. Can we change how we think? I hope so.
Abraham Maslow wrote that the priority to save our world calls us to make the Good Person. He defined the Good Person as:
This Good Person can equally be called the
self-evolving person, the responsible-for-
himself-and-his-own-evolution person, the
fully illuminated or awakened or perspicuous
man, the fully human person, the self-actualizing
We need a renaissance of authentic people who understand, who do what they can to help a world in transition, who expand our compassion so we can change the way we live on our planet so future generations can enjoy what I’ve enjoyed.
Excerpted from Learning to Live: Essays on Life & Leadership