Us native Oregonians joke amongst ourselves sometimes, that people visiting our fair state in winter probably find themselves here on the one sunny day we have between November and June. Unbeknownst to them, Oregon likes to play tricks in the winter to convince out-of-towners that rain is a rumor here. A couple times throughout the winter, Oregonians get a respite from months of soggy shoes and saturated raincoats. We get a few days at a time where the sidewalks are, somehow, miraculously dry and little boys and girls can, once again, ask their parents, “Why is the sky blue?” It did this last year- in March. I remember the day clearly. It was balmy and smelled of new blossoms. Everyone, including the choirs of birds, were out on their bikes. We needed our sunglasses.
Last weekend was another one of those weekends. I had, luckily, planned a trip to Hood River, OR to visit my dear friend, Katie. On Saturday, Annie, Katie, and I drove across the wide and mighty Columbia into Washington to hike under a banner of blinding light and fluffy white clouds. We slowed the car to the side of the highway and jumped out, crossing the road to the gently sloping of a hill. It rose from the river in a velvet curve of grasses and small, craggy rocks. We began a meandering criss-cross of the hillside, over rocks and across small streams that bubbled quietly. The hillside stretched on and on, as we climbed higher and higher, the wind whipping more wildly with each step. The sun shone fiercely, making the short grasses that covered the basalt curves in the landscape glow from within. With the overwhelming softness of the green surrounding me and the steady blue ribbon of the Columbia to my left, I felt like sinking back into the hill like it was a large, soft bed filled with pillows. Or maybe I could have worn it, like a plush velvet cape, and jumped off my perch into the great Gorge with the fabric of the hillside streaming behind me.
Maybe it was our talk about Katie’s recent year-long stint in Co. Kilkenny, Ireland, but I felt as though each step we took transported us further from Oregon and nearer to the Green Isle. Maybe it was the greens and the blues and the craggy, wild, beauty but I get a nostalgia for Ireland at this time each year. Last year it was on Valentine’s Day, the year before, I visited the San Juan Islands as a replacement, and the year before, I was mentally preparing for an upcoming journey to the Isles that summer. When I visited the Northwest corners of Ireland and Scotland in 2010, I knew it was no coincidence that their craggy, wild beauty was so instantly part of my heart. There’s something wild and unexplainable that connects my Northwest home with the NW coasts of the British Isles.
John O’Donohue, Irish poet and philosopher, seems to understand something of this connection. In his 2008 interview with Krista Tippett that aired on “On Being” in 2012, he so eloquently posits that landscapes so tangibly form each of us: “I think it makes a huge difference when you wake up in the morning and go out of your house, whether you believe you’re walking into a dead geographic location which is used to get to a destination or whether you’re emerging into a landscape which is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a really watchful reverence, you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you.” He’s onto something. By saying this, does O’Donohue believe that the land of our home forms us? Forms us so deeply that it prepares us to be affected by other landscapes? Is our approach to what is around us daily essential to our development as people? If we don’t actively engage with our home landscape, are we sabotaging future encounters with beauty? If we don’t take the time to recognize beauty, will we not recognize it when we see it?
Well, I think he does believe this. In the same interview, he also marvels: “What amazes me about landscape is that it recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.” Wow. I believe it. The times when I have felt most alive have been in moments of raw, even wild beauty. When I walked the sloping, lush hills of the Syncline in the Columbia Gorge last weekend, tripping over rocks, wind whipping in my face, boots audibly crunching on pebbles, legs burning with the steepness of the hill, I just wanted more. I was hooked. I would go there every day or to watch the stars circle the planet at night if I could. I was reminded of my family’s similar meandering exploration of a wild Irish hillside in 2010 called the Carrowkeel Megalithic Tombs in Co. Sligo. We searched for large cairns and burial sites, crossed our fingers against a rain storm, and felt our hair whipping in our faces as we stood upon ancient burial sites, while the ocean, sparkling and inviting, played below.
I am also reminded of last summer, when I visited Lands End in San Francisco with my friend Alison. This is a city of wild beauty and commanding landscapes. A city of ocean and bald, windy hills. A city of seven impossible mini-mountains that take your breath away. Alison and I walked the almost cliff-like trail of Lands End and clambered down to the seaside outcropping of the cliff that is home to a constantly shifting labyrinth. In its middle, we added to a cairn that held tiny offerings left by past visitors, little secrets. And we added our own intentions of wildness ala Terry Tempest Williams, wild woman herself. In all of these moments, I felt a little burst of freedom, which may be the “receiving of time” that O’Donohue talks about. I felt my heart expand palpably in my chest. It beat faster, louder, and in time with the wind (or maybe because of it).
Whenever I am faced with wild beauty, I always remind myself to be more attuned. Pay more attention!, I urge myself. Find this again! But like most exhilarating experiences in life, you can never plan them. They seize you unexpectedly and all you can do is hold on. But we can prepare ourselves to be open to moments of beauty when they do occur. We can enter that “mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence” in seemingly mundane moments such as walking out our front door into the living, breathing world. When we step out into the world and breathe with it, let its wildness make our hearts wild as well, only then can we be ready for those moments that catch us off guard remind us why we’re alive and in love with the world.