Category Archives: Essays

We Are Nature: July 2017 in Two-Lane Livin’

(This appears in the July 2017 issue of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine.)

I love the way thunder rolls across the sky, how it rumbles in our bones at the first boom, then ripples, grumbling past the eastern hillside and on across the horizon. When I was young, we would watch for the flashes of lightening, like watching for fireworks, and count as we were taught to determine the distance to the strike. One, one thousand. Two, one thousand. But now, I am happy to listen to the rain and the thunder as the sky chastises the earth.

Today, a storm crossed overhead, with consistent rumbling for nearly half an hour. Instantly, the heat of the afternoon was erased. Rain fell steady, but not pounding, and ground drank it in. I spent as much time as I could on the back porch in the glider, as porches are made for storm-watching. You can experience the storm and be exposed to it, but remain dry and relatively safe.

After the storm passed, wisps of fog swirled up from the valley, moisture drawn up into the system, just to be dropped back down somewhere else. From the valley to the hilltop perhaps, to keep the cycle turning. Once the storm moved on, its grumble fading as it wandered across the atmosphere, the setting sun raised temperatures again, and new wisps rose and swirled. The orange light shone more than usual, heightened by the moist reflections of everything just washed clean.

There are no evenings to match a summer evening after an afternoon thunderstorm in the hills of Appalachia. I feel as though I am inside a terrarium, the moisture dripping down from a giant glass dome above. Sometimes, life here feels sealed inside a bubble, secluded from the rest of the world. Sometimes stifling hot and sweaty, sometimes baking, parched and dry, sometimes fresh and clean and sparkling.

As the skies cleared, and the water temperatures on the lake out back balanced, I watched the green duckweed expand again across the face of the water, no longer compressed by rippling waves, and a mother deer appeared on the bank of the island, and a fawn that had to be out for its very first walk it was so wobbly. With the rumbling over, bird song started again, and the chickens and the robins pecked in the saturated yard for earthworms and bugs. And in that moment, the fields around me and time itself seemed to expand, and the concerns of the world shrank to a pittance.

I felt relief. Relief from the heat of the day, relief from the stress of the week, relief in knowing there are still magical moments in this world–the way nature can make us feel small and immense at the same time, connected when we are or feel alone. Humans have forgotten that we ARE nature. We are hardwired to benefit from exposure to it. We get Vitamin D from the sun (statistically, the average American is Vitamin D deficient), and multiple studies show that 20 minutes in nature can lower blood pressure, relieve stress, depression and anxiety. We are not technical, mechanical creatures. We are (or were?) natural creatures. Writer Laurence G. Boldt says, “a society at odds with nature is a society at odds with itself.”

* * *

I recently attended the WV Writer’s Inc. annual conference at Cedar Lakes in Ripley, a weekend of seminars, readings, and networking. One seminar I took was how to remain focused on your life as a creative existence. Deep down, I hoped there might be a magical pen or technical device that would keep me in creative mode, impervious to the restrictive mentalities we all encounter in our culture and societies today. Perhaps a creativity pill I could pop every morning. Of course, these things don’t exist.

During the seminar though, I was reminded of many things I already know, but do not regularly practice. Stretch upon waking. Meditate. Be grateful for the little things. Be positive. Be open. Don’t get on the computer first thing in the morning. Limit exposure to social media and digital devices. Turn off the TV. Take a walk. Breathe. Immerse yourself in nature.

After the recent summer storm passed, I contemplated why that moment was reassuring, comforting. How that moment “outside” of society, disconnected from man but connected to nature, could soothe my spirit so. And again I was reminded of something Boldt says in his book, Zen and the Art of Making a Living. He said, “Society can be interested in a man or woman only as a political or economic entity; a culture is interested in more… Cultures care for their peoples as natural, spiritual beings and not simply as workers or consumers.” In other words, humans are not just political, economic beings. We were meant for more than work and consumption. We are nature, spiritual, but we live in a society that neither acknowledges, values, nor endorses us as such.

Boldt says, “Our whole effort is to gain and hold, acquire and defend.” The American approach to life and living is a mindset typically used for warfare. We are focused on getting–striving, consuming, keeping, maintaining–status, power, reputation, cars, houses, etc.–no matter the cost to our own well-being or the natural world around us. Americans live with a mentality to conquer and defend. No wonder we’re so stressed.

I believe this is why time in nature is so soothing to the soul. Nature is the ultimate level playing field. Nature doesn’t care about status, reputation, shoes, or the latest cell phone app. Social media, television series, all our little rat race games and power struggles are irrelevant. Our narcissism, prejudices, irrational judgments, daytime dramas, are insignificant. And if anything, that’s a relief.

Boldt says, “We cannot be fully awake, fully alive, fully human–and remain indifferent to the world in which we live.” The costs of denial and suppression are devastating to human happiness and creativity. Boldt notes, until our society changes its consideration humans as nothing more than workers and consumers, “it will continue to take uncommon courage, strength, and perseverance for individuals to realize meaning in their every day experiences.”

When we stop and take a time out with nature around us, Boldt says, “the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing… the contemplation of beauty eliminates selfish desire.” In turn, “Ugliness depresses and diminishes life–sapping the creative spirit of the individual and weakening the character of society.” Did you get that? Ugliness saps creativity and weakens our character. No wonder the beauty of the hills after a storm provided me with such relief. How lucky we are to live where the natural beauty around us can soothe our souls.

Are you grateful? Do you take time to just sit and experience the natural world around you? What things do you do to keep your creative juices flowing? Send me an email with your thoughts and suggestions at info@twolanelivin.com.

Lisa is an Assistant Librarian at Gilmer Public Library & recently received her MFA in Creative Writing. For details, visit Lhayesminney.net.

Lying Fallow: June 2017 in Two-Lane Livin’

(This is my 2017 installment of “Two Lane for Life” from the June issue of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine. You can view the entire issue as a digital flipbook via twolanelivin.com.)

As we grow near to Two-Lane Livin’s 10th birthday, I have been looking back through our early archives. And though I am old enough to reflect on nearly five decades of life, only the last ten years have been recorded in a monthly publication I can look back upon.

When we launched the magazine, I was so excited about gardening and canning, learning how to be healthier and more self-reliant. I was thrilled to welcome chickens and bees to our family, was stockpiling seeds and lamp oil and teaching myself to sew and crochet.

Somehow, I thought this “back to the land” mindset was going to simplify my life. I look back at all that now and laugh.

When it comes to farming and gardening, I have found that it is quite easy to over do it. I have learned, truly, moderation is key. But baby chicks can be purchased in bulk, in fact, when ordering, you must purchase at least a dozen.  One more tray of spring plants can produce another thirty or more pounds of tomatoes. One more row or seed packet of beans can double or triple the bushels of beans that need strung in the fall.

A ten year old oregano patch can spread to cover more than eight square feet. Mature perennials need divided. Fences eventually need mending, spades sharpened, hives and pens need maintained.

All the projects I was so excited about ten years ago, I now know, are work. Work, and time. And though I knew back then and was not afraid of the work, I sorely underestimated the amount of time truly required.

Gardens, bees, chickens, fields, these things do not wait. They do not wait until you have time, do not wait until you are ready. Weeds need pulled, beans need picked, hay needs cut. Bees swarm. Eggs, water, and feed need dealt with more than once a day.

There was a time when we had more than 30 chickens, and planted more than 100 tomato plants and six rows of beans.

For two people? Insanity is what that is.

These days, my sewing machine is packed away, as are my crochet needles, my pressure canner. And though June is upon us, we have not planted a garden this year. The pantry is still filled with jars from previous years, and we still get near a dozen eggs a day from our small flock of aging hens. We have four bee hives, but three of them are swarms we caught this spring.

We can certainly take a break from gardening this year, but it feels shameful to not have a garden. I feel shame, and I feel a loss. A loss of a chance to fill more jars, a loss of the mornings pulling weeds and smashing stink bugs. A loss not to wander out again in the evenings sweating in the late day sun and swatting at deer flies. In many ways, gardeners are slaves to their gardens–you weed and water when it’s needed, pick and harvest when it’s ready. But at the same time, a garden is nourishing, not just to the body, but to the soul.

In some ways, I feel like we’re taking the summer off. Like we’re cheating, or being lazy.

Of course, we still have asparagus, garlic, horseradish, mushrooms in the perennial beds, and thyme, oregano, lemon balm, sage, and chives in the herb garden.

Won’t we miss fresh produce? I don’t think so. I have learned that someone will inevitably grow too many cucumbers and squash, and will bring some to the library or the local mom and pop store. Heirloom tomatoes will find their way to the local farmer’s markets.

What will I do with the extra  summer days that for the last ten years have been spent tilling and canning? I hope I don’t waste it on facebook. I hope to work on other things, like moderation and maintenance. My approach to simple living ten years ago wasn’t simple at all. I was so excited about getting started, I didn’t really think about the upkeep. But you have to think about upkeep, or you won’t be able to keep up. Over the past ten years, we have fallen behind.

Where to store empty canning jars, or tomato stakes not in use? Do we really need all those plant trays? I’m going to sharpen my hoe before I ever use it again, and I’m going to spend more time in the back porch swing, watching the grass grow.

So this summer, our garden will be lying fallow, a term used to describe land tilled and plowed but left unseeded. Some farmers do this to raise the fertility in the soil. I wonder what lying fallow will do for us, the humans that tend the garden, what fertility might rise in our lives and souls–if any. Perhaps I will find a way to combine simple living and self-reliance. But it hasn’t happened so far.

Lisa is an Assistant Librarian at Gilmer Public Library & recently received her MFA in Creative Writing.  For details on her workshops and speaking availability, visit Lhayesminney.net.

The Chair in the Woods

Just beyond the edge of the woods, on a flat space speckled with the shade of Maple and Tulip Poplar, in a small clearing covered with mosses, sweet grass, and poison ivy, sits a faded patio chair.

My time out chair.

A five minute walk will get me there, when I think of it in time. When I manage to make myself use it, to think before I act or speak.

I carry more anxiety within me than a soft-boiled tea kettle, and more anger and resentment than any soul deserves. My awareness of these flaws does not yet help me control either of them, but time around that chair in the woods helps me manage them some.

The comfort of the shade comes first, hushed and yet sprinkled with bird song — Vireo, Thrush, Bunting, and Towhee.  The scents come next: moist earth, rotting leaves, the sweetness of Autumn Olive mixed with the smell of my own sweat. Instinctual scents, familiar to the crone in my soul, connecting me to the peace of previous lives, to the soothing spirit that flows through all life.

But it takes time for my tension to dissipate, time to extinguish the deep, hot coals of my anger. They are fertile within me where they flourish, fertilized by my resentment, by my disappointment in myself. My downfalls and failings in my life were my own doing, my misplaced trust in the intentions of others.

I cannot sit in the chair upon my arrival, anger and rage still swelling within me, energies boiling within and seeping from my pores. I yank sticks from the forest floor and snap and break them, beat them against the trunks of stout trees. I throw stones–smaller ones tossed one-handed like a baseball, sandstone smashing to pieces against massive boulders. Heavier stones shucked two-handed, landing a few feet away with a dull, smacking thud.

The forest is unimpressed by my tantrums, undamaged by my attempts to rearrange the landscape. My rage here is harmless, my tension and anxiety pointless. The forest doesn’t recognize frustration, does not acknowledge vehement rage. Its ageless persistence and patience renders all that upsets me irrelevant and small, diminished by a distance that multiplies at the edge of the wood.

When my anxious energy is dispelled, my inner emotional child exhausted, I take my seat, but remain restless. I kick my feet and chock my heels in the soil, making dents in the grass. I shrug my shoulders repeatedly, roll my head around on my neck.  I wriggle my fingers and shake the tension from my hands, then flex them from fist to jazz hands, fist to jazz hands.

Only then am I able to focus on my breathing, a shallow suffocating pant, and at last, I draw the air of the forest into myself. I hold it within, the musky scents and botanic moisture wrapped in my lungs in a bronchial embrace. The tension lingering within me clings to it, and rides it out on the exhale. I push with my diaphragm to expel as much as possible.

My shoulders loosen. My mind begins to clear.

And I draw the forest within me again.

When Chicken Little says, “I told you so.”

For about nine years, I was a hard-core prepper.

You know, growing and canning our own food, working to get “off the grid,” investing in and collecting silver and gold, learning the medicinal uses of local plants and herbs, how to identify them, harvest them, store them, and use them.

I often felt very much like Chicken Little, running around trying to convince folks that the sky was falling.

Preparing for the end of the world, or the end of civilization, or the end of a Democracy, is not the most positive outlook on life. So much brain energy and body energy and study and practice to quell that “I’m not ready” feeling that lurked constantly below my surface.

It’s an aching fear, consistent and never ending. Not ready. Not ready. Not ready. In the prepper world, not ready is equivalent to not good.

I learned to catch and clean fish. Taught myself to sew, garden, heal, raise bees and chickens and mushrooms. Collected canning jars, batteries, candles, lamp oil, ammunition, and first aid supplies until they were tucked in every nook and cranny. Pickle eggs. Dehydrate tomatoes, herbs, roadside plants. Open cans without a can opener. Start a fire from flint.

That’s where I went after 9-11. That’s how I responded to the Homeland Security Act. I freaked out, and started preparing for the worst. My bug-out bag includes everything you might ever need on the road to survive, and has been packed, untouched, for more than a decade. The vaccuum-packed, dehydrated food inside still hasn’t expired. In my mind, I always envisioned me giving it to someone else, someone on the move who needed it.

And you might never know it, but I am walking, talking, bottled anger. I’m angry about fill-dirt and flooding, GMOs, fracking-induced earthquakes. I am angry about haves and have-nots, environmental rape, oppression, corruption, apathy, ignorance, bullying, prejudice, hatred, and mistreatment of animals.

I am angry at our Oligarchy, in this nation and in this state. I am angry about state takeovers of schools, about a lack of town and gown, about entitlement and suffering and the lack of health coverage for holistic treatments. Truly, there is no end to the things in this world that piss me off.

I have spent years spouting from my soap box, watching eyes roll, and countless times had to explain why I felt the need to prepare. Years feeling frustrated, unprepared, unheard. I stocked enough to supplies to care for family and friends who thought I’d lost my mind.

And then one beautiful afternoon, I was sitting on the back porch glider with a prepper friend, who was advising me to bury our van, underground, on the hillside, because the only true way to guarantee survival was to go underground with our supplies to protect us from devastating storms and radioactive rain–thieves and military governments. Everything we had done was for naught.

And I thought, “I cannot live this way.”

I gave up life as a prepper. I went back to school, got a job outside the home, planted less, filled fewer jars. Never did get the piece to convert our generator from gasoline to natural gas. Never did finish that quilt, or harvest and preserve the mullein. I chose to forget (or ignore the fact that) the sky was falling. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to have hope.

And now we all see the falling sky. As each day passes, more pieces break apart. And I look at empty jars in the pantry and cling to the young but fading hope I had mustered.

Imagine how the story would go if Chicken Little had been right all along.

Imagine Chicken Little, after ten years yelling and being ignored, now slowly digging in a field, surrounded by chunks of broken sky.

“The sky is falling!” the villagers yell at him, “Why aren’t you protesting?”

He stands, arches his tired back, and shrugs.

“I’m burying my van.”

Pockets of Peace

There must be spaces that are neutral.

And they cannot only exist in nature, but must also exist in our society, our culture, our industrialized spaces. If our nation is truly one where all are created equal, then our society must have spaces where all people are treated with equal respect.

There must be spaces where no one makes rash judgments, no one feels compelled to convince others, pressured to prove themselves or their beliefs. There must be places that are a reprieve from the battle, places where we can interact cordially regardless of cultural, political or spiritual opinion. There must be spaces where the things that divide us do not matter, where the common behavior is civility, and the common goal is kindness.

There must be spaces in our society where we can feel secure and un-assaulted by the disasters of this dictatorship. In the midst of massive uprisings, incessant oppression, wide-spread fear, and televised hatred, there must be pockets of peace.