Allowing the Earth’s Embrace
By being aware of the environmental impact of our gear, and then experimenting with alternatives or abstaining completely, we can make our backcountry experience more intentional. This kind of awareness allows us to harmonize more deeply with our Mother Earth.
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When you walk into a store like REI, a plethora of gear for the various outdoor sports surrounds you in a multicolored array of rain jackets, pants, skis, backpacks, boots, bikes, rock climbing equipment, GPS devices, and many other gadgets.
Here’s a gear list an employee would recommend for comfortably enjoying a backpacking trip.
Most people would have many items beyond the “ten essentials” in this list, but there are lots of variations to this, especially for ultralight backpackers who try to have less gear that has multiple uses.
But do we really need all that stuff?
Very often, less is more. By being aware of the environmental impact of our gear, and then experimenting with alternatives or abstaining completely, we can make our backcountry experience more intentional.
This kind of awareness allows us to harmonize more deeply with our Mother Earth.
So what are most of these items made from?
PLASTICS derived from petrochemicals and fossil fuels, and different METALS refined out of ore mined from the body of Gaia.
There are many negative environmental impacts that are associated with the extraction of fossil fuels, the derivation of petrochemicals, the mining of metals, and the many stages these constituents go through as well. Pollution in the water, air, and soil released in the refining and processing of the fossil fuels and ore, affects beings from all species in the local area and potentially very far away as well. I mention this because it is seldom discussed among outdoor enthusiasts but nonetheless impacts the environment we are working so hard to preserve and protect.
I had a lot of experience backpacking in Big Sur, CA and falling in love with our beautiful planet before I became more aware of our impacts. It wasn’t until I was in college that I began to learn more about the environmental issues around the globe, the impact of fossil fuels, and the worldwide destruction of our Earth in the name of a consumerist economy that incentivizes growth and short-term profit above all else.
It hurt me so much to experience the cyanide contaminated gold mines, the forest clear cuts, the oil spills, and the slashing and burning of the Amazon rainforest for livestock for McDonalds burgers. I felt Gaia’s pain and began asking why are we doing this? Who is doing this? How can we change this?
I began looking at things I owned and realized how many things are made from plastics and metals. I looked at my outdoor gear and thought of how humanity for many hundreds of thousands of years did without GoreTex rain jackets, plastic tents, and aluminum stoves.
I had to acknowledge the specific gear needed for rock climbing and other specialty sports, and also how comfort and convenience can be elevated with a quick setup tent instead of an energy-intensive natural shelter. I have been in areas many times that didn’t offer materials to make a quick natural shelter, especially in the deserts of southeastern California like Joshua Tree National Park, and I was happy to be able to easily keep out a chilling wind or precipitation with a tent. I felt also that gear made from these materials wasn’t totally necessary but offered comfort during more difficult weather that allowed my friends and I to enjoy our time more.
I didn’t immediately get rid of all my plastic and metal gear I had acquired over the years and substitute for their natural low-tech alternatives, but I began to explore what this could look like. Through the awareness of the other side of environmental impact, beyond Leave No Trace ethics, I began learning skills that allowed me to carry less of this gear.
Learning to take the plunge
Then, a couple years after graduating from college, I found the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) based out of Boulder, Utah, that specialized in traditional living and wilderness survival skills based in the “Old Ways.”
The school facilitates the hands-on learning of indigenous skills, and the experience of living in harmony with the environment; touching a deep, sacred space of interconnection to the natural cycles, humanity, and all beings on this Earth and in the cosmos.
For more about BOSS, check out my last article.
I first took a 28-day Field Course with BOSS in July and August of 2011 and it was an unbelievable rite of passage that challenged me physically and mentally and exposed me to the many lessons Gaia and my instructors have to teach.
The school does not allow headlamps or flashlights, backpacks, sleeping bags or pads, watches or tents; instead, it uses wool blankets (also wraps up all gear and is tied into a backpack), rain poncho (rain gear and shelter), and local natural materials from the land. The course was divided into distinct phases, that allowed specific subsets of our minimal gear list, and are shown in the table on their website for the 28-day Field Course, along with some of the skills covered.
The rhythms of the day and the way of life on this course brought me closer to nature through the practice of: cooking dinner in a repurposed coffee can over a fire made with the bow drill (if we had food for dinner that is), sleeping on a pile of pine needles or leaves with all the possible bugs sharing it, working around not having a light at night, travelling lightly through the Utah wilderness, and the living of cultural history.
The dramatically reduced gear list was an exercise that brought feelings of freedom from some of the items originally deemed necessary, and empowered me to “know more and carry less.” This also gave me a greater appreciation of good rain jackets that keep out moisture, yet also made me aware of limitations in technology.
Simultaneously, I felt a connection to the humans from our past and to those still living with less technology, and a sense of camaraderie was built through shared challenges.
Deepening the connection
My more recent experience with the Hunter Gatherer course allowed me to explore further what gear isn’t necessary and to deepen my communion with the land. It was required to have already taken a field course prior to the Hunter Gatherer, because it pushed the skills of survival harder to include trapping and gathering all food after basecamp.
The first four days were spent preparing for the expedition at a basecamp in the Dixie National Forest, and during this time we were allowed our knife, blanket, jacket, water bottle, and poncho. We spent the days making the pieces for Figure-Four and Piute deadfall traps, making a gourd bowl, processing dogbane and twisting cordage out of the fibers, and we respectfully killed a big sheep and continuously worked to eat all of it while drying jerky out of all four quarters to make pemmican for later.
After some very busy days, we embarked on the expedition with our few gear items rolled up in a 5’ by 5’ cloth (versacloth) tied around our backs. My gear included:
one 5’x5’ linen versacloth
one pair of underwear
wool long underwear, top and bottoms
hiking long sleeve shirt
one pair of shorts
one pair of wool socks
one mid-weight wool sweater
journal and pen
toothbrush with vitamins and small bag of baking soda for brushing
4 bandanas for carrying things
hand-drill fire kit
Native American cedar flute in the key of G
4 wooden trap sets
obsidian to flake blades
Aquamira water treatment drops
gourd bowl for drinking and eating
recently carved wooden spoon/spatula (spoontula)
My wrap was so light to hike with that I felt like a springy mountain goat!
Think for a second about your daypack you usually bring out on a few-hour day hike. Some of you may not carry one, some only hold a water bottle, some bring nothing at all, and some have a first aid kit, snacks, water, an extra layer and a journal. I personally am used to bringing a daypack with plenty of water, journal, snacks and flute, and this versacloth with all of my gear for the next 9.5 days was almost lighter than a daypack I would usually carry.
It was so liberating to feel unburdened.
I thought too of my backpack that would be loaded up for a 9-day backpacking trip, and how I would have all the food to eat well, tent (or maybe just a tarp and rope), lots of gear from the REI list above and water to make it probably close to 55 pounds.
I could move so much faster and more agile with just this versacloth of gear, and it had very little plastics and metals, most of which were just in my camera, first aid kit, water treatment, and the Vibram sole of my huaraches (Made by Tread Light, they look like Jesus sandals that tie around the ankle).
The rain is a stern teacher
I was pushed a little out of my comfort zone by not having any rain shell or poncho to keep from getting wet or to help waterproof my shelter. It had already rained every day in the afternoon because of the summer monsoons, and we started at just under 9000’ elevation, so it was pretty cold at night. I am used to putting on my rain shell once it starts raining in order to make sure I stay dry, because if your base layers are damp when the colder temperatures set in for the night, you can be very cold and may have to fight hypothermia. I knew that with wool or synthetic layers, it is possible to be wet and still retain heat, but I generally had a rain jacket and would only rarely experience this issue. Now I had to rely on this property of wool to wick moisture and even repel it in the first place.
For me, there were many lessons at BOSS that exercised the practice of letting go, and sleeping in a structure built from local materials is one of them.
The debris shelter is the basic structure of many forms made from whatever materials are available, and when built right, it can be completely waterproof with just sticks and pine needles. A common layout uses one larger branch or log that has one end up in a Y of a tree and the other end angles down to the ground. Many smaller sticks are laid up against it making the “whale back,” resembling the spine and rib cage of a whale. After sufficient structure is made at the right angles to fit the dweller(s), pine needles and/or oak leaves (also called duff) are collected to cover the structure. Around two feet of duff is required to make the shelter waterproof with an additional 1-2 feet of duff inside the shelter to insulate you from the ground that would otherwise suck the heat out of you.
As you can imagine, or maybe know from experience, when you bring all this duff to sleep on and under, you will most likely be bringing many other beings that live in that material to your new dwelling. Letting go of the need of a barrier between you and the pine needles, branches, spiders, insects, and other earthen materials is a part of the process of becoming comfortable in low-tech outdoor adventuring.
I felt it as allowing Gaia’s embrace, which included a feeling of surrender to the unknown.
I felt it so deeply; my memories of forts as a kid and enjoyment of my self-constructed natural shelters in past lives bubbled up to ~resonate~ in my awareness.
During the first couple days at the first camp of the expedition we had rain on and off, and my shelter kept me dry, but the early morning was chilly and I woke up frequently to rub my cold legs and pile more duff on top of them before falling back asleep.
We left for our second camp on day eight and it was completely overcast, looking like it would rain at some point. It wasn’t until we were about two miles into our 9-mile hike that it started coming down, and preceded to get us nice and wet. I went through multiple feelings: hoping it would stop soon, hoping at least it wouldn’t rain harder, then being frustrated and wishing I had a wool versacloth instead of a linen one to keep my clothes for later dry, then thinking that my other layers were wool so they would still keep me warm later that night, then letting go into the hard rain and knowing I would be fine, feeling cold but happy, and finally bliss when the rain subsided (for a while) and we got a little bit of sun.
The last couple hours of hiking were beautiful: descending the flanks of the flat-topped Boulder Mountain (summit at 11,316’), looking down on the cream, orange, and red-colored sandstone mesas and canyons below, deep in good conversation. As we arrived at our new camp for the next couple days, it began the light drizzle that would persist, with undulating intensity, until the next morning. When the rain returned, I was reminded that “nothing lasts… but nothing is lost.”
Two coursemates and I constructed a debris shelter that took a while to complete, but it kept us warm and mostly dry. My versacloth and long underwear from the knee down were wet, but after experiencing that I was still able to stay warm that night, my trust in the wool deepened, and I further liberated my need of rain gear while deepening my connection to the land and its Mana.
There were only a couple breaks in the rain the following day and I made good use of them by climbing up from the bottom of the canyon to the mesa top, and drank from the fresh pools of rainwater in the sandstone. I also played songs of gratitude with my flute to the life around me. We collected some wild edibles of spiderwort roots, nettles, purslane and wild mint, but shortly after we finally got a fire going with help from our instructors, it started to rain again.
We were chased into our shelters before sunset and it didn’t stop raining until the next morning, which did create some leaky spots in our shelter. Just after we broke camp and started hiking down the canyon, it started raining again and quickly escalated to a hard rain. The rain falling on my body and my versacloth didn’t bother me. I welcomed the beautiful moisture in this dry terrain and honored it. I felt the freedom that comes with travelling lightly across the wilderness and a more complete awareness of what is really necessary.
Our route then took us up a large sandstone bowl and as we began the ascent, the clouds let go and transformed the dry sandstone into a fabric of hundreds of rivulets cascading down, sometimes forming small waterfalls.
I reached down to drink some handfuls of clean rainwater from the cascade and I thought about how starting about 208 million years ago, the sand below my feet was transported here by the wind to create very large dunes in the Early Jurassic period. This is the Navajo Sandstone, and the numerous layers of cross-beds of deposited sand are seen now as pathways for the water to flow down to the creek below. This beautiful cream-colored sandstone has seen so much through geologic time…if only rocks could talk.
This rain and its quickening dance around me connected me to the infinite NOW, where the past, future and other dimensions of our quantum reality meet.
I drank in the beauty around us as we reached the top of the bowl and saw Boulder Mountain in the background, feeling pure ecstasy and gratitude for the rare experience Mother Nature, Gaia, had given us. The rain subsided and it turned out to be the finale to our few wet days. The process of letting go of this “need” of rain gear, a plastic shell to protect me from the elements, was so liberating and grounding. It was also an experience that brought me into an intimate communion with Gaia in a different manner than I had experienced before.
Integrating the experience
The BOSS experience, through this small snapshot and the rest of my time with them, has had a lasting impact on my being. It is a lens through which I perceive the world.
I would like to thank and honor my teachers and instructors for all they have given me. I would also like to honor YOU because many of you are already exploring these questions and have done so much to seek balance and greater harmony with our planet. THANK YOU.
One of the things Gaia needs most right now, is for humanity to work more with her in harmony and less against the natural rhythms and cycles, because this disharmony has in part brought ecological destruction and a dramatic mass-extinction 10-100 times faster than any other in Earth’s history.
I invite you to explore the following questions in whatever way is true to you.
What gear do you usually have on hikes and backpacking trips?
What is this gear made from?
Where does it come from?
What are the impacts of its creation?
Are there items that you think you could do without or substitute for a more environmentally friendly option?
What skills can you learn to “know more and carry less” while you “leave no trace”?
Through your answers, you can continue to bring awareness to our impacts on this Earth while seeking ways to minimize them, for the good of all beings.
Find ways to clarify what your needs really are and are not. Go build a natural shelter and spend a night in it. Experiment with new ways to commune with nature and the spirit that unifies all.
We must not feel hopeless and frozen in inaction and overwhelmed by the magnitude of our challenge. We are stewards of this planet and we must do what we can to create regenerative projects and live in harmony with the land and its other beings, because we are not separate from them.
We are One with the Love and Life that makes up this planet, and we are a part of the web of life that is the body of Gaia. Everything is interconnected. Let nature be a classroom and sacred space, listen carefully for the lessons of life, do the inner work and research so you have the eyes to see the meaning, and dare to allow Earth’s embrace.