Tiny Frontiers
by Eric Alan
September 12, 2020 - 8:39am

Some days during this pandemic, it seems like the world has a giant “closed” sign hung upon it. Borders and doors have slammed shut, as travel has become unwise or impossible. Businesses are shuttered on main streets and side streets. Friends remain in their houses, protecting their health and that of their families. Our small-town community can’t gather in the ways that has made it strong. When my mother passed away in May, she was largely alone in a quarantined memory care center, unable to say goodbye in person to anyone but me. We can’t even safely gather to celebrate her life. I am alone in the woods now, as society quivers. It is surreal and painful.

 

Yet celebration remains an essential survival technique. I don’t find it optional, if I’m to stay open in closed times. I can’t afford for my heart to resemble another boarded-up business. Every day, every week, I must find things to experience and celebrate, in order to stay inspired enough to have strength for the rest.

 

Small scenes of fresh beauty are essential in that celebration. I’m blessed by the forests I live in, where I can instantly find the grace of nature upon exiting my door. The woods provide immeasurable solace, as I see how persistent their growth is. Nature’s openness is beyond our ability to close it, and I celebrate that daily.

 

Since long journeys aren’t available, I’ve taken to exploring the tiny frontiers at my feet. Every morning I simply sit outside, seeking some small natural detail I’ve never noticed. I learned a lot about the mating flights of mosquitoes, earlier in spring. I studied the rhythms of woodpeckers’ drumming. I’ve discovered the fluttering ways that western tanagers explore house eaves. I’ve relearned the skill of slowness, sitting on my porch.

 

Still, even the grace of these home woods is sometimes not enough to refresh my spirit. I need to consciously get away, to see something beautiful I have not seen before.

 

Perhaps it’s odd that my weekly day of rest is the one in which I leave. But I’ve taken to driving previously unknown forest back roads, the network of gravel and dirt that webs these mountains. I’ve looked for coastal places that aren’t on the main trail maps. I’ve walked back streets of nearby towns where I have no purpose other than distanced discovery.

 

Oregon is a diversely beautiful state, where many wild places remain. The more closely I look, the more I find how many levels of wildness there are. It reminds me of a grade-school science experiment demonstrating different levels of fullness. Our teacher first filled a jar to the brim with marbles. Then she poured sand in it, which filled in the spaces between the marbles. Then she added water, which filled the jar even more as the wet sand settled. Then she poured ink into the water, which added color that didn’t even seem to take space.

 

I need to see and celebrate that the world is always that full, to feel the small beauty that can fill even the most troubled times. That’s especially true, now that my state is suddenly on fire.

 

One recent Sunday, my day of rest entailed heading for coastal dunes where the trails have been buried by the shifting sands, or never existed at all. A visit there was recommended by a friend in the land conservation world, who said it was a rare pristine place left out of hiking guides. Still, when I got to the small lake adjoining the dunes, the small dirt parking area was beyond full, as was every improvised parking space along the rutted road in. I struggled to find a place to leave my car. When I finally did, I found the little lake teeming with people and their plastic flotation devices. The crowds felt like an infestation. I quickly skirted the lake edge and began to climb a steep unmarked dune, barely able to scale its steep angle.

 

When I reached the apex, I was suddenly utterly alone. Desolation and majesty appeared as one. After a mere few steps across the dune’s peak, its horizon hid the lake from view. The only remaining noise was the wind, howling unhindered across the blowing sands. The landscape of dune scapes was shifting before my eyes, a kinetic sculpture I was in. The brilliant sun was as fierce as the wind. Dunes stretched to the sea, an uncrossable mile away. The scene resembled the stunning new photographs of Mars. It was almost as inhospitable, too. I couldn’t tell where the sand was solid or soft. Which of my footsteps would slip or sink? How deep were the sand wells, potentially too difficult to climb out of? How quickly could the dunes shift, and create deeper dangers? Every motion required my care and concentration. One mistake could leave me in serious trouble, where no one might find or help me until too late. In the necessity of care and concentration, the rest of the world fell away. I was fully present with the raw, wild beauty. I found my needed break from all other thoughts.

 

The tiny frontiers within are the core layer of my local wilderness, I realized. That’s where my inner fullness and spaciousness reside, when the world is too crowded and crazed. Keeping our inner frontiers open, wild and worth exploring is what enlivens our celebration of mere existence. It’s what gives us room inside to handle all the rest.

 

I stayed hidden in the dunes for hours, finding the rare places sheltered from wind, admiring the plants that somehow have found root without complaint. I never saw another person, until again I descended the dune to the teeming lake edge. I didn’t feel crowded inside anymore. I’d found another tiny frontier, within and beyond. My small world felt infinite again.

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