I feel fragile.
In the heart of Yellowstone lies a caldera that’s thirty miles by forty five miles in size. Yellowstone is a super volcano that last erupted six hundred and thirty one thousand years ago. It is still very active. The remarkable volcanic activity that can be witnessed throughout the park is actually one of the major reasons it was protected and established as this countries first national park in 1872. There is actually so much volcanic activity here that NASA has taken to studying it to learn about how life could exist on other planets. Hot, harsh, sulfuric waters are heated by lava deep under the earth’s surface and then pressurized and pushed out above ground. In the areas where this water runs over the earth one sees multicolored bacterial mats containing some of the first life forms that were able to exist on this planet. If this volcano were to erupt again it would be catastrophic to life as we know it, and even if I were still home in Vermont I would feel the effects.
I feel small.
Yellowstone National Park is home to a thriving community of many of the large mammals in North America. Black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, packs of wolves, elk, moose, and bison all roam the 2.2 million acres of snow covered peaks, lush meadows, and dense forests that constitute Yellowstone. I can feel their presence here, how they shift this landscape. Its palpable. There is this sense in Yellowstone that this is somewhere truly wild.
These large mammals couldn’t exist without this wilderness. If the park didn’t envelop such large tracts of undeveloped land these large mammals wouldn’t choose to live here, they physically and emotionally need it to thrive. For example, the territory of one male grizzly bear can be up to 500 square miles.
I think that also if these large mammals weren’t here, this land would not feel or even look like it does. It’s really true. There is a relatively recent scientific finding referred to as a trophic cascade. One of the major studies of this event actually happened in the Lamar Valley here at Yellowstone. By some unique chain of events, scientists discovered that the re-introduction of keystone predators in an environment can over time have an effect that cascades down the trophic levels and ultimately changes the physical geography of the land. They observed this when wolves were re-introduced in to this park. As the wolf population grew, it changed the habits of the deer, who prior to this time had had huge population booms and overgrazed all the meadows. The deer started spending less time in the open meadows where they were easy to spot, and a lot of the meadows were able to regenerate to forest because of this. This brought more beavers and birds to the area. The beavers built dams, creating more niche habitats for other species. So the entire ecosystem changed. Not just the ecosystem changed though. Because so much forest could regenerate, it stabilized the soils on the river banks. With less erosion they started to wind more. So over time the introduction of wolves in the Lamar Valley even changed the shape of the rivers.
So in other words this landscape and these animals are really one with each other. One would not exist without the other. They inter-are. The mammals could not exist without this wilderness and this wilderness would not exist the same way, physically and emotionally, without them. It is so clear in Yellowstone that one is in an environment literally shaped by these mammals. One can truly feel it. I start to wonder my place in all of it.
When we first arrived in Yellowstone we camped just south of the park, pulling in after dark on a nearly full moon night. The campground was on Snake River, an active grizzly bear zone located in a patch of dense forest that lies between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. The moonlit river and forest and mountains were awe inspiring, true to the definition of the word. (“awe: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder. -google definitions”) As I drifted in and out of a restless sleep, I peered out the van window at the river. At one point I pulled back the curtain and as if in a dream I gazed the moonlit silhouette of a grizzly bear wandering downstream. I blinked and rubbed my eyes and the figure was gone, a mirage or not I will never know.
I feel restless.
Printed on the road map that one gets upon entering the park are three large words: The Restless Giant. They are referring to the super volcano that is Yellowstone. I am sure that they call it this because ever since it erupted six hundred and thirty one thousand years ago it has not stopped spewing hot sulfuric water and gas from its caldera. It has not rested.
As I stared at the map handed to me by the park ranger this word stood out. Restless. Deep within the earth there is always restlessness. Extreme heat and friction and powerful forces are grinding and shifting and moving. One can see its evidence very clearly here. This restlessness is in me to. These forces of heat and change propel all of us forward. The forces of the earth need to play out on a very personal level for all of us. When a student asked the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi a question about hell, he responded after some time, saying, “hell is not punishment, it is training,” as if to say it’s quite normal and necessary to feel the forces of heat and change that this planet produces, in one way or another.
Though these feelings might sound uncomfortable and challenging, they are the necessary ingredients in my life to spark creativity. Within all of this mess of feeling fragile, small, and restless I feel endlessly inspired and as wide open as these Wyoming skies. The sky feels so big here, I’m not sure how this landscape achieves that effect. Maybe its the huge treeless valleys with ten thousand foot snow capped mountains on either side. Maybe its the altitude, the valleys themselves being at five to seven thousand feet elevation, holding you that much closer to the cold vacuum of space. Maybe its the low light pollution that lets the Milky Way explode in to a band of stardust every night.
Whatever it is there is some magic unique to this part of the world that just brings me to life. It’s almost as if the veil between the physical and the spiritual world draws thinner here than other places. It’s as if as one gazes out they are simultaneously witnessing landscape as well as the grace and movement of a great spirit that pervades all things.
All of this leads me in to the questioning of my life and the choices I have made and continue to make. To what degree am I allowing this deeper wisdom to guide my life, and to what degree am I closing the door and turning away? Right now Lydia and I are traveling to Alaska in an old van we have turned in to our home. I know this is, funny enough, a dream both Lydia and I have harbored for a long time. It has been beautiful to watch it manifest from thought to reality. If this is truly my heart path where is it leading me? I wonder sometimes also, am I on the right path? I love the teachings of a certain Yogi named Swami Muktananda. In a book called “Mukteshwari” in a chapter titled “You Yourself are What You Seek,” he writes:
“Who would wander from forest to forest
when the divine flame shines in the heart?
The thumb-sized flame
shines in the center of the heart.
By its brightness the world is bright.
When that is in the heart,
why do you think it is far?
Within the heart lies supreme affection,
boundless enthusiasm, lasting peace,
compassion like nectar.
So why travel far and wide seeking something that is already so close? The truth is I don’t know, and I am sure I am not meant to. But the universe speaks in mystery with a language not many can understand. There is room for contradictions, amendments to the rules. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I believe a heart centered life can look like thousands of different things. Perhaps there is a mystery that keeps the gears on this old van greased and rolling north west down the highway that neither Lydia and I have yet to comprehend.