Nature

Posts about the greater world, it’s creatures, and the cosmos.

Into the Wild

My apologies to Jon Krakauer. I am unabashedly stealing his title for my own non-commercial use. I won’t do so without giving him due credit, nor for that matter without recommending you read his (to me) wonderful little book about the life and passing of Christopher McCandless. It’s the sort of book that could change your life if you allow it.

I commandeer the title though because of something it implies, mainly that “the wild” is something that can be gone into and out of. From the perspective of civilization, I suppose there is a certain amount of truth in this. My home to the naked eye is more domestic than the hillside behind it, which itself is more domestic than the larger expanses of forest in the mountains to the east, which are more domestic than the great expanses of “wilderness” in Canada, etc. “Wild” in this sense means a place inhabited by no or few people or at least less-impacted by the hand of humanity. Fair enough.

However, this seems to me a terribly misleading idea. Certainly what we humans do tends to leave a footprint. Often a big muddy one all over Ma Nature’s pretty carpet. We don’t like admitting that we have the tendency to muck up the joint but only the most delusional truly deny it. It’s obvious just about everywhere one looks. Even those “wild” places often carry the marks of our passing. My favorite trout streams are wreathed by railroad beds of past industry and often harbor fish not native to the region. We are a herd of bulls in a very small china shop.

Still, to impact something is not the same as controlling it. The processes (and ultimately “laws”) of the natural world remain intact. Dammed (damned?) rivers still have a way of finding the sea or evaporating into the air. Deserts blooming with the desired produce of mankind stop blooming as soon as the water supply is cut off. Weeds pulled from my garden have a way of coming back. Again and again and again. We may channel certain natural forces, even alter them incredibly, but in the end we never really control them. Reality remains undomesticated and our attempts to domesticate it are futile at best or self-destructive at worst (and unfortunately, destructive to other creatures as well).

I am trying to shift my paradigm. To see the world as it is. To see that “the wild” may be altered but not conquered. To see that my domesticated home is filled with wild creatures–from the birds that nest on it to bees that nest in it to the billions of unseen creepy crawlies that as I type are swarming over my keyboard and desk and hands and all the rest of my body. To see that I need what they need–air and water and habitat. To see that the physical and chemical and organic processes that govern them also govern me and all my kind. To see that I have made my home in the Great Wild. I cannot go into the wild because I am already there. I was born into it and so were you. It is to our mutual peril when we think otherwise.

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Not Always So Serious

A sense of mission can be a blessing in life. Like most blessings, it can also be a curse. Single-mindedness can lead to tunnel vision. Failing to lift our eyes from the path we doggedly pursue, we can miss some lovely sights along the way.

I am usually not so serious as many of my posts. I laugh. A lot. I watch silly shows. Sure, I’m interested in “deep” topics and philosophy and spirituality and the meaning of it all, but sometimes I just want a chocolate chip cookie. One made by my wife. In fact, forget the cookie–just give me a bowl and a spoon and the dough. Save a step and some energy and help the environment, right? No fossil fuels required to just eat the dough. But there I go getting serious again.

I like to watch my chickens rove about the yard. I can’t decide whether they are very serious or not serious at all. They seem to take themselves pretty seriously, but the way they mingle with my cats shouts absurdity. It doesn’t help that they are naturally humorous in their locomotion, and victims of  a great existential practical joke, what with having wings and all but being unable to truly fly. Do they watch the sparrows and finches and crows that often visit with a touch of envy? Do they get the joke? One wonders.

I love to get lost in music, or the sound of a mountain stream, or the sighing of the wind in lonely high places. If feel so small and absurd myself in such places, a tiny bit of cosmic flotsam deposited by currents far beyond my little brain’s ability to conceive. Somehow, feeling so small feels grand and feeling grand breeds laughter and silliness.

To be honest, most days I’d rather spend holding hands with my wife or catching a fish or just sitting around a fire with a friend or three as opposed to “doing something important”. Accomplishment seems so powerful in the moment, but at the end of my journey I don’t see it mattering much. My, there I go again. The serious just refuses to surrender the spotlight doesn’t it?

Well today, it isn’t getting it. It’s April Fools Day…a salute to pranksters and jokers and yes, just plain fools among us. Within us. So today I shall let a bit hilarity rule. I will take my work seriously but not SO seriously. I will look at all the reasons to laugh and maybe just do something for fun. Because I can. Because I am alive.

 

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Our Eclectic Lives

You have likely noticed my blog is a bit eclectic–a post on fitness is followed by a post waxing spiritual or philosophical which is followed by a post about the natural world or backpacking or fly fishing or whatever. The thought has crossed my mind that I would likely get more readers if I stuck to a more specified theme or developed more than one blog and built each around a particular topic. Such an approach suits the Western mind which is very adept at classifying and compartmentalizing. We have a work life and a home life and a personal life and spiritual life and on and on and on it goes. Sometimes we even consciously act to keep these aspects of life apart from one another.

But a simple truth of our living is that try as we might, our life doesn’t have neat little compartments that we walk into and out of. Life is in fact holistic–the different aspects of our lives interact with one another constantly on both conscious and subconscious levels. Work seeps over into home and vice versa. Our health affects just about everything we do and how  we view the world can have much to do with both our mental and physical health.

Additionally, everything we do as individuals happens interactively with the rest of the world as whole, including not only human culture but also our impact on the natural world in which the human culture exists and upon which it depends. Truly no one is an island, and even should we try that act itself would influence in its own way.

So my blog will stay eclectic because my life is–because our human life is and all life is. While I will no doubt emphasize certain topics due to my experience and interests, I will try to keep myself open to new ideas and experiences. No human mind can learn it all nor experience it all, at least not while wrapped in the finitude of our current existence, but it seems to me that the wider our experience here the deeper and richer it will be. And since we are here, living and breathing and learning and loving, why not engage everything with all the depth and richness we can?

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I’m Alive

Confession: I haven’t been running as often as I would have liked since the first of the year. I have a full quiver of the usual excuses…too tired, not enough time, it’s raining, it’s snowing…the usual suspects. That said, in fits and starts I have been moving forward, quite literally one step at a time.

It would help if all the enjoyable runs beginning at my house didn’t start with an uphill. A steep uphill at that. It makes perfect sense though–generally speaking the higher we rise the more beauty avails itself to us which is likely why we often seek the tops of mountains. So yesterday, having no intention of climbing to the top of the mountain, I laced up my shoes and put one foot in front of the other headed on an up grade.

All my runs seem to begin the same way–with me questioning why I do this. It can seem like “vanity and striving after the wind”. After all, no matter how well I take care of myself I am still gonna wind up at the same place (yes, I’m talking about physical mortality but trying to avoid the “D” word). Before my body begins to find a groove, running is a real grind. My body and my mind always seem to argue for a bit but I am never quite sure which one is arguing to quit and grab a bowl of chips. A beautiful thing though…my feet always seem to keep moving.

Yesterday, I did things a bit differently. I climbed the initial grade at a fast walk. As the ground began to level, I jogged a short interval, walked again, then ran a short distance at not quite a sprint. I found myself falling into a pattern of walking and running. And noticing. Not thinking but seeing, hearing, and feeling. Seeing the snowflakes falling softly. Hearing the happy and gentle rumble of the little stream that parallels the road. Noting each breath and the pressure of my feet on the ground. Feeling the life inside me expanding to every part of my body like the quickening of the cosmic life every spring.

Almost before I realized, I was at the top of  the nearly two-mile climb from my house, and it was lovely. Every breath drew in the stillness of the woods and the quiet of the lightly falling snow. Every footfall resonated life and  the sheer energy of it.  I broke my pattern of intervals and just let my body glide back down the hill toward home. I’m not sure I have ever been more fully aware in life. I saw myself connected to all things.

I’m sure you are thinking it was just the endorphins kicking in, and I agree to some extent. I love how our bodies can treat themselves to a high. But it was more than a high. It was meditative. It was engagement not just with the run, but with everything around it and required for it–body, mind, earth, air, water, and the fire at the foundation of life. And I remembered something so fundamental it almost seems primeval. I don’t really run for fitness or to look a certain way. I run because I’m alive, and running is an expression of the the primitive joy of  it all. In running, I’m not a grown-up with all the artificially cultivated responsibilities of our so-called civilization. No–in running I’m a child on a playground, a fawn in the woods, a stream tumbling down a mountain. Good things to be, every one.

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Farewell, Dear Beyonce

I would like to use my humble blog to say farewell to a fine feathered friend. Beyonce was one of my lovely hens that comb the yard and nearby hillsides on a daily basis, scratching and pecking for whatever culinary treasures the Earth chooses to provide. I give them a bit of feed and some water and a safe place to roost at night and they return the favor with eggs and a spiritual peace that just seems to settle around their presence. Nothing lowers the blood pressure like sipping wine on the porch and watching “the girls”, or even listening in and occasionally joining their clucking conversations.

But alas! Beloved Beyonce is no more! She left us last Thursday for those fair, feathered realms beyond the sky, where chickens may peck and scratch without fear of silent death from above. You see, I and my family were not the only observers of my girls and their wandering. A hunter was watching. A beautiful bird in his own right. A bird shaped toward a very different life than that lived by my domesticated jungle fowl. A bird free and fierce and wild. A bird that must kill to sustain itself.

While I miss my bird, I believe that she died a good death. She died so another might live. This happens around us all the time, both literally and symbolically. One life is traded for another in the constantly shifting life that abides on our planetary home. I bear the Coopers hawk who took her no ill will, though I will seek to discourage such foraging on his part. I can’t blame a hawk for its hawkishness, though I can try to limit its success.

And come spring, I will get some new chicks–perhaps even another black austrolorp or two. I will raise them from peeps then turn them into the flock to peck and scratch to their hearts content. Perhaps they will live to a ripe old age before resting with their ancestors. Or perhaps they will feed another wild creature. But my life will be the better for having shared theirs for a bit, so they have my thanks already. As does Beyonce, her hunter, and all the other living things that make this world a constant miracle.

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Life is a Hunter

Life is a hunter, and it preys on death.

We tend to think of this the other way around, but one of the simplest observable truths is that as soon as something dies living things begin their work of turning it back into life again. Death may stalk life, but life stalks it right back.

I sat in a tree this evening to hunt. My purpose was to take a life.

Not for fun, for I find no joy in the actual death of any living thing, and certainly not in being the one bringing about that death. To thoughtfully hunt is one of the more sobering things a person will ever do. But I know death is part of life, and that all animals (and even a few plants) kill to sustain themselves, for even herbivores must kill the cells in the plants they consume to obtain their nutrients. So I sat in a tree with a bow and arrows in the hope of being quite directly and personally involved in this sacred circle that sustains all creatures.

I did not have long to wait. After only a short period of time, three deer passed near me, but not near enough for me to take a  clean shot. I have no desire to merely wound an animal and see it suffer. If I shoot, I want to be as certain as I can the animal will feel no needless pain. I want–no I need–a clean shot for a clean kill. If I am going to consciously join this dance, I owe the animals that much and so much more–for the animal will help to sustain me.

Shortly after the first three deer passed, two more approached. I drew my bow on the first and my arrow flew true. The doe ran only a short distance. I felt sad and thankful and deeply a part of something wild to the point of scary. On reaching her, I thanked her and told her I was sorry. That she could live on in me perhaps. I stroked her fur and felt her beauty and wildness. I thanked the earth from which she sprang and  the Maker of all things–for the food, for the experience, for my own earthy life which one day too will end.

I will butcher the deer myself. She will be truly honest food for me and mine. I will not take one bite without thinking of her. Of her living and of her dying and of my part in both–and of both our parts in the larger story of life on earth. Much of that story is the ceaseless hunt. Death stalking life and life stalking death. Life is a hunter. Today, so was I.

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Bearly Awake (with compliments to J.R.R. Tolkien)

Oh the adventures a hobbit can have if he will but leave the Shire. Wasn’t that the real message Tolkein had in mind for us? That there are lives to be lived, loves to be loved, and battles to be fought? And who knows how little things add up to bigger things and eventually to the Biggest Thing?

This is a short story about a little adventure in the midst of my part of the Grand Adventure. Where the story begins is lost in the fog of time. I know not all the details that go into what makes me “me”. I know only that I long to be Outside and have a bit of free time between work right now so I decided to take a couple of days early in the week to do some adventuring. I was geared up and after taking care of a few details of life headed for the mountains late Monday morning. I had a particular glen above a particular stream in mind for a campsite.

I apparently have an inner Hobbit, because he kept worrying about whether I had everything I needed and reminding me to get the headlamp out of the glove box. I told him to stop worrying and after arriving at the trail head I checked everything one last time, shouldered the pack, and headed up the first ridge. At the top of said ridge the Hobbit spoke again–“I think you forgot the head lamp.” Ah the headlamp! I briefly mulled going back for it, but the day was bright, the trail beckoned, and Daniel Boone never had a head lamp.

“You’re not Daniel Boone!” huffed the Hobbit.

The walking was fine early in the afternoon and I decided to go a bit further, cross another ridge, and camp on a slightly larger stream than I had originally intended. Plans are, after all, made to be broken. This put me a tad closer to the highest point in the state which I decided needed a visit the following day. It also put me on an excellent trout stream and I and the Hobbit were in agreement that a few trout in the pan would be a good supper (if you want a Hobbit’s agreement, talk about food).

Reaching the area I had in mind about 3PM, I set up camp, rigged my fly rod, and walked downstream a bit to hit a series of runs and pools I knew would have some fish. My first taker was a native brook trout, a male so resplendent with the colors of autumn I just couldn’t kill him. Again the Hobbit agreed, as Hobbits do have a certain sense of art and beauty. So, after a second or two of admiration back in the water he went.

I fished on, delightedly watching as trout rose to the fly, grumbling when I missed the hook set, gleefully admiring the color on another brookie and a rainbow truly worthy of name that I did not miss. The rainbow had a deep scarlet slash along both flanks and cheeks so rosy he seemed to me embarrassed at having fallen for such an obvious trap as the Royal Wulff hanging from his lip. Both these fish were released for the same reason the first one was.  The Hobbit was beginning to wonder if we would ever catch one or two that would qualify for the pan because ugly trout are hard to come by. To his relief we ended up with three rather plain rainbows that were perfectly pan-sized. Two for me and one for him.

I will not even bother trying to describe the celestial experience of eating trout fresh from the stream, lightly sprinkled in Cajun seasoning, and sauteed in butter. Even the Hobbit was satisfied. Then it was time for a friendly little fire to crackle and pop at the gathering darkness. Amazing it is how a little flame can defy the turning of the planet. After a few hours of quiet reverie, I turned in. The labor of the day had both refreshed and wearied, and a longer day was coming. There were many miles yet to cover. So I burrowed into the warmth of my sleeping bag and fell deeply and soundly into shadow. With no complaining to be done, the Hobbit had retired right after supper. All was right in our world.

POP! From deep in my slumber, I heard the sound. A limb breaking and falling perhaps? Who really cares anyway? The bag is warm but the night is cool to the point of cold. Limbs break in the woods all the time. POP! Closer now! Something is coming. The Hobbit is wide awake.

“Bear!” he whispers excitedly.

“Just a deer,” I reply. “Go back to sleep!”

Huff puff huff puff…WOOF!

I hate it when the Hobbit is right.

“A headlamp would be nice right now.”

No arguing there. We humans are so sight dependent. Apparently Hobbits too. Light is a comfort in the darkness. To see the beast would help at least mentally, and possibly give me an idea as to whether he was raiding or just passing through. But the only possible light is the now-smoldering fire about ten feet from the tent–coincidentally about the same distance as to the bear.

Huff puff huff puff…WOOF! Stomp stomp WOOF! Apparently the bear sees the tent and is trying to decipher what he is going to do. In his indecision, a bold front is considered wisdom until the situation resolves itself more clearly.

Time to act. Fight, flight, or hide. The bear isn’t going anywhere. The Hobbit is for hiding. I’m not exactly for fighting but a bold front on my part seems the only wise option. I grab my knife and burst from the tent shouting “Get out of here!” at the top of my lungs. Yes, I know…a knife? Hilarious! But it was the only weapon I had.

I would love to have been a third party watching the scene from above. I am not sure what would have been more comical. Myself moving in one awkward roll/crawl to the fire ring and frantically huffing and puffing and woofing  the hot coals to awaken the fire from its slumber; or the bear, wondering what it had got itself into, huffing and puffing and woofing as it turned tail and bulldozed its way through the woods. I could still hear it running a few hundred yards away.

It is surprising how fast one can get a fire going in those circumstances, and not surprising at all that at said juncture one loses all interest in sleeping. So there I sat for a couple of hours in the now quiet woods to let the adrenaline subside. The Hobbit of course joined me fireside, wondering aloud if every noise was now a bear and how high hobbits ranked on their culinary list. Eventually, the rush of the moment was gone, a quiet reverie returned, and most importantly the bear did not. So we turned in again, our next realization was of birdsong and the dim light of dawn.

After some oatmeal and a few cups of strong coffee, the Hobbit  and I agreed that we were glad the bear had visited. Obviously, while the visit was exciting, it wasn’t really that dangerous. The bear really was more afraid of us than we were of him (this trait has served black bears well, and explains why they are thriving in the midst of our sprawling civilization). Certainly it gave us a fun story to tell when we got back to our Shire. Still, it also made us think of how often we are just barely awake–barely alive even, living as if we are almost asleep. Much better to be bearly awake and bearly alive. Feeling and breathing and fighting and loving the moments in all their vivid and oft-hidden glory, acting in those moments as one has them instead of moments past or moments yet to be. Much better indeed.

Ah, yes, the adventures a hobbit can have if he will but leave the Shire.

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Survivor

Friday, I experienced a wonder. I touched a tree.

Not just any tree mind you, but a very special tree. A tree that whispered of the past.  A tree of a species that dominated many habitats in the Appalachians. A tree once so common that one out of every four trees in these mountains was of its kind. I laid my open hands on an American chestnut tree.

In 1900, the American chestnut was king of the Appalachian forest. Prolific, but so much more. Chestnuts fed about every creature that lived in the forest, from squirrels to bears to humans. The wood was both beautiful and stout–useful to our species on many levels. Settlers were so fond of the tree they took chestnuts right out of their native range and planted them all the way to the Pacific. No one could imagine these ancient mountain forests without them.

But in 1904 a forester named Hermann Merkel noticed diseased American chestnut trees in New York. They had contracted chestnut blight, a disease native to China and introduced to America via Chinese chestnut trees that had been imported largely for ornamental purposes. Our native chestnuts had no immunity to the blight, and it spread quickly southward down the the mountains, killing trees by the billions. Within a few decades the king of the forest was dead, killed by a fungi it had no evolutionary experience with, and no resistance to.

The natural world is a marvelous thing, however, and our great native chestnut trees have two refugia. The first is in those trees planted by the settlers outside its native range. The tree died at home but lives on in a few places in the upper Midwest, the Rockies, and the Pacific coast. These trees remain free of the blight. The second is in the the trees themselves. The roots remain resistant to the blight, and send up saplings that will survive for a few years–sometimes long enough to put out a few nuts and produce a few seedlings in the mountains where the species was born. The blight eventually kills most of these trees, but here and there you can find one that has defied the odds and lives on.

I have no idea of the history of the tree I saw Friday. I only know it was far from mature, but it was mature enough to put out a few nuts. The blight may eventually claim it, but for now the tree appears disease-free. It survives.  It casts a shadow longer than its height. A shadow reaching back to the time when the species thrived, and forward toward an unknown but at least hopeful future. So please forgive my sentimentality when I say to see and touch this tree touched something in my soul.

I’ll likely visit this tree occasionally. I may even plant a nut or two from it in my home holler in the hopes of helping the species survive. But mostly I’ll just go to be in the presence of living history–and also living hope.

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Forest Folk

With the large amount of time I have spent in the woods lately, it would be unjust for me not to mention the forest folk I have become acquainted with. No, I am not referring to elves and sprites, but I have been in some magical places that if such creatures exist they surely call such places home. I am referring to the people who I have shared work with over the last few weeks, clearing trails and roads of blown down limbs and trees from a fairly severe storm we had this past June.

For instance there is Mark. Mark fights fires for the US Forest Service in the summer and teaches people to ski in the winter. He is a beast with a chain saw and remembers about 97% of the jokes he has heard in his lifetime (which is more than a few because he is in his mid-fifties). He eats hot peppers in the same way people generally eat apples (I mean that literally!) and tunes in to NPR in the truck every morning. Did I mention he wears his hair is cut in a Mohawk and and he has about six inches of braid hanging from his beard?

And there is Andy. Andy repairs musical instruments for a living. I watched him carry a chainsaw eight miles one day, refusing every offer to give him a break. Andy remembers 99.4% of the funny lines he’s heard in movies or from comedians and still laughs at the retelling. He also offered to let several of us camp on his property for free. Pretty generous, when you consider how people camping for a week while working tend to smell.

Then there is Sarah. Sarah is a flower child. She grows them for a living. At least she did until her crop failed this year and she decided to take the summer off–a decision she described as less than lucrative but that she doesn’t seem to regret. Sarah is easy to talk to and just seems to enjoy being alive. She isn’t afraid of work and utterly ignores the fact that she is the lone woman in the group. She is probably better on the crosscut saw than I, but don’t tell her I said that. She is off on an adventure out west when she is finished working this gig with the USFS.

Also there is Adam. Adam is into telemark skiing. He is currently letting a kid from out west stay at his place for free. A kid he had never met until his brother showed up at his door with this kid in tow. Adam looks at the forest with the wonder of a child, and is easily distracted by interesting plants and mushrooms and the like. But he will work hard when the need arises, and is sometimes heard singing while he does.

Then there is my own son. It has been such a pleasure watching him pitch in and do work. In his own way, he loves the woods every bit as much as I do, as well as the things that live there. He grabbed a black rat snake along the trail the other day, and it grabbed him right back. He calmly pried it off and after admiring it for a bit turned it loose on its wild way. He came off the hardest day on the trail pumped up and ready to do it again. Ah, the fire and fitness of youth!

My words don’t do these people the least bit of justice. Each has been a pleasure and blessing to be around. They all smile most of the time. They all laugh easily. They all tell good stories. They all pitch in and share loads and food and water. I’m really gonna miss them, and maybe that will give them a bit of the justice my words can’t.

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The Real World

Sunday evening. Preparing to get back to the “real world”.

I wonder why we call it that? Why has the human construct of commerce we call civilization been so elevated in human mind and metaphor? Why do we feel something so temporary as the things we build and the tasks at our hand to be ultimate? To be what this living gem of a planet is really all about?

I suppose it’s just that we all must “make a living”. We have to eat, and to eat we must obtain money. To obtain money we must either work or steal. We have to play by the rules of the culture or find away around the rules. Seldom do we seriously question just how real the culture itself is. Whether things actually have to be this way.

A scene from the end of the movie The Mission comes to mind. The Catholic church has just colluded with Spanish and Portuguese  authorities to brutally suppress Jesuit missions in the Amazon that are trying to protect the native tribes from slavery and oppression. To comfort the bishop in charge, a lesser official says “We must work in the world…the world is thus.” The bishop, in a moment of haunting candor responds, “No Senor Hontar. Thus have we made the world.”

I would tweak that slightly. Thus have we made our world. But there is another world out there. A world that sustains ours. The world of life. A world whose rules  ultimately trump even the rules of our culture. Whether we admit it or not, we are made of the same stuff everything else is. The laws of physics and the laws of life apply to us as to every other living thing. Ecosystems can be damaged and other species wiped away, but in the end we cannot “triumph” over nature because we are part of it.

I’ll be spending the next few weeks in the forests of the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia. Though lush and verdant, these forests are a shadow of their former selves. They were clear-cut a century ago as the trees were turned into products that were turned into money. Those people, products, and the money they created are long gone, as are the timber operations that pillaged the land. No one really knows or likely ever will know what we lost ecologically and aesthetically. We will never know the species gone forever for the sake of a dollar.

It’s a bleak story, but there is hope. Life is a miracle, and the living forest is reclaiming the land. The real world is asserting itself. More than that, the real world is giving us another chance. A chance to see the vaporous nature of all our endeavors. A chance to seek harmony as opposed to exploitation. A chance to again see our connection to all life on the planet. A chance to live in the real world.

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