My awareness of the importance of forested trails of my own sanity and balance has evolved slowly. I see two parts at work here.

First is the aspect of locomotion. I could begin with the fact I’ve never been an athlete. As a youth, I delighted in speed — as in running or riding a bicycle — or in swimming, with its parallel of flying suspended in space. But I’ve never enjoyed the repetition of exercise for its own sake, gym class was a bore, and team sports have largely eluded me. Since I existed largely within mental activities, such as science or the arts, the idea of doing something that involved a mindfulness to my own body in motion did not register with me, at least until I took up yoga after college. I could add to this a recognition that I’ve also been filled with nervous energy and general restlessness. Sitting still — and focused — is something I’ve had to learn in the course of practicing meditation and attending Quaker meeting for worship.

Second is an encounter with natural history. Somehow, at an early age, I was introduced to geology, birding, tree identification and the like. I’ve also been interested in maps and map-making. Human history, too, which often turns up as discards in places returning to the wild.

What I’ve come to appreciate, though, is largely an esthetic response in walking through places of repose. If forest trails are the symbolic ideal here, I must admit they are not the only examples. Walking miles along the Atlantic on the outer Cape Cod shoreline, for example, serves well (although walking on sand always presents an effort) or trekking above treeline or through wild meadow can be heavenly. Even a stroll through a wooded cemetery or a city park can be recommended. But I speak of forest because of its timeless nature, in both senses of the phrase; this is what this land would remain at climax, forever. Everything is in balance or harmony. There are, of course, seasonal changes, but these are within a rhythm or cycle of returning, much like the movements of a symphony played over and over. Somehow, this begins to merge with the rhythm of walking, which itself begins to pace my own thoughts and emotions. Nothing too rushed, too overwhelming: everything, one step at a time. Uphill or down, all within reach. Walking along a city street or even a country highway can induce some of the step-by-step rhythm, but the balance is off: traffic rushes past, always as a threat, especially at intersections; there’s too much commotion or stimulation; my soul’s not at rest. Look around and notice all the trash and discard, all the waste as a social illness. The wilderness, in contrast, is continually healing. “Come to the woods for here is rest,” John Muir counseled. “There is no repose like that of the deep green woods.”

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.


Years later, a friend relates an incident of telling his wife his intention of spending the day in a favorite place in the mountains, countered by her question of what makes him return there. Even though he’s a photographer, he replies by acknowledging that many of his writer friends have answered the question simply, saying it’s the surprises that draw them back.

Somehow, as one of his writer friends, I find the word “surprise” in this context jarring. For surprises, one would be better served by trips to new locations, rather than returning to an old favorite. Novelty, rather than familiarity. Upheaval or intoxication, rather than purity or sobriety. Even so, as I consider my own places of return, her question becomes increasingly kaleidoscopic.

First, there’s the very demand of naming a favorite place. In this context, he invokes wilderness, where return is a kind of pilgrimage. Here, return may be once or twice a year, if that frequent. I could counter that with an evening stroll, as I used to do along the canal bank at the back of the desert orchard, or sitting at the café downtown in the small New England city where I now dwell — activities that could take place daily. We could add to that an opera house or concert hall, museum gallery, or even places of dedicated labor: a studio, cabinetry shop, garden, kitchen, or laboratory. Even, though rarely for me, shopping destinations: a boutique or farmers’ market, perchance. A fair or festival.

So the question soon turns to a matter of one’s intention. What is one attempting to escape or encounter? What is one leaving behind and what does one face instead?

Continue reading “PLACES OF RETURN”


Master intricate knots. Trout flies, for example. Especially in your dreams.

Be astounded by what any feather can do.


Mice, even snakes, leave their tracks in the dust.

Follow them, to their hideaway.

Knock at the entrance and enter.

Come home, explaining, “Last night my mind blossomed.”


Pulling into the barnyard, I find another paradox of spiritual discipline: the practitioner becomes simultaneously rooted in flight.


By now, I’ve been away so long I no longer feel the memory.

How large was that spider?

If we had looked at each other, I would have seen. I was free to go home, even if it took another forty years to get here. March straight into that horizon? And then?


In cloud wisps two soaring ravens turn about.

They wheel from great land in the sky.

The black rings under my eyes are gone.


For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.


When you walk into the expanse, keep going. Maybe you’ll meet a dwarf at creekside. Maybe a bear. If you do, you must speak respectfully and listen closely to the reply. Even if they call you a yokel, as Kokopelli did.


A dust storm — sandstorm — and they close the highway.

You must wait. Cover your mouth and eyes.


On high ridges, bachelor Basque shepherds follow their flocks all summer. Each one and his dogs rarely encounter anyone who speaks Human.


Wilderness is about clouds, too.

Now what were you dreaming?


Guides do appear. Sometimes among fellow practitioners. Maybe even your landlord. Or Kokopelli.


“Who’s standing on my head?” a totem pole figure wonders.

Just like a typical office.


Blinking in my field of karma, the reminder:


It’s not the first time.

Be faithful and wait.


Sometimes a lover becomes a place you want to enter.

Sometimes one’s the space the other envelops.


Where would I have been without her in that desolate expanse?


For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.


The space of art also works in other dimensions. The artists themselves are rarely of the same social class as their benefactors or audience. We repeat the cliché of starving artist, even when some become comfortably wealthy and dwell in chic locales. Still, they’re employed in ethereal fields — actors, musicians, painters, the stagehands and gallery owners, box office managers, and a host of others. They work different schedules from the general populace. Many sleep late or stay up through the night.

There are even the spaces as a work moves away from its creator into other locations. A painting, for example, appears one way in the studio, another way on one’s walls, and still another way in a gallery — none of them resembling what happens when the same piece is hung in a major museum. Musicians and actors know the difference between the intensity and argument of rehearsal and the propriety of performance itself. An author can observe how different a piece appears in manuscript, in galley-proof, in a magazine or literary review, or in a bound book. A poet or a poetry supporter becomes aware of the differences between viewing a piece on the page, voicing it on the lips (either in a public occasion or for one’s own private pleasure), or performing it in a formal reading.

We can move outward, of course. Into ballparks or arenas. The loud crowds. But those are other spaces, in some ways overlapping fine arts and religion.

We might consider as well the ways the fine arts have been acceptable as civic religion. An Oscar or a Grammy is more valued than a Crucifix in our society. A comedian is a better master of ceremonies than a preacher or priest. We’re nervous about civic events held in houses of worship. A wedding or funeral, perhaps, though it carries a sense of crossing into something private.

On the other hand, as religion has retreated largely from public awareness, or perhaps simply to the suburbs and better parking, it has abandoned earlier houses of worship, especially those downtown or in the inner city. Some have been converted to arts spaces — galleries, concert halls, night clubs, theaters, restaurants. I regard these as being somehow different from structures designed and built for arts uses. It’s more than recycling, I’d say.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.


This time, flipping through a glossy magazine, I confess to myself a sensation I’ve often experienced in the realm of the fine arts. It’s a consciousness I first associated with the hush of large museums, a rarified atmosphere that could well be pressurized. There’s a degree of trespass, moving from the everyday world into this temple, and an expectation of awe.

The museum itself could be dedicated to history or natural science or even military technology. We speak softly, walk slowly, reflect and absorb impressions.

There would appear to be similarities to religion in the expectation of awe or the ephemeral. These are holy places, consecrated and set apart. They are cathedrals built to preserve sacred relics — not just any bones or works, then, but all those who have advanced the cause. There are rituals, as well, in the progression through exhibit spaces or the celebratory openings. There’s also a sense of the departed, as though wandering through a cemetery; here the memorial names are included as donors of objects, rooms and wings, or endowments, in addition to the artists or high priests themselves. But there are differences, as well: where religion has at its core what is eternal, timeless, and righteous in the eyes of God, art often strives for a sense of progression, which fosters curiosity, novelty, play, even a touch of shock or scandal. Where religion imposes ethical behavior, art frequently excuses or even encourages the practitioner in indiscretions. In both, though, there’s an expansion of one’s field of awareness, however brief, and a moment of personal renewal and refreshment before resuming one’s usual activities.

These spaces are not just those for visual reflection. A concert hall, playhouse, or theater has similar dimensions. We settle in, become quiet, and the house lights go down as the stage lights brighten. We show reverence and appreciation by applauding at appropriate moments. Newcomers are initiated in the customs.

Layers of wealth and breeding also appear. The institutions typically originate in noblesse oblige. The patrons reserve box seating or receive invitations to openings, private showings, or galas. Members and subscribers enjoy their own privileges. Smaller spaces, such as art galleries, chamber music settings, or poetry readings extend the experience. Libraries, as well, can be seen in this light. The sensation often recurs when I’m handling a thick, refined, costly literary quarterly — one printed on carefully selected paper and published with an eye for expert, balanced typography. (Sometimes the work presented becomes secondary to the presentation.)

We might speak of the thoughts and emotions that arise in these encounters. The space of art can be acknowledged in one’s own life, then. We observe, but don’t touch. We listen, but don’t speak. We’re voyeurs who do not taste what’s on a plate before us. Here, in public places, we visit our own private musings. There is an outward uselessness in it, ultimately. Time in these spaces does not add to our wealth, our table, or the usefulness of our apparel. It does not transport us physically from one place to another, although it may do that in our imaginations. What does happen is our moving from our animal roots into uniquely human possibilities.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.


In town, the side of one building has a ghostly paint on black brick. With difficulty I decipher


across from the train depot and next to the OPERA HOUSE. Railroads, cigars, saloon, and opera all fit together in a remarkable calculation. Just where were women, besides up on stage?

What, precisely, mad the Far West so different? No family roots? It was all male: cowboys, loggers, miners, fishermen, soldiers, trappers. Even an orchard’s considered a ranch. You need only a few acres, Buckaroo. Where is my wife at this moment? Like Maya of Sanskrit lore, she’s a weaver. Like Maya, she had spun a web of entrapment. Maybe these open spaces aren’t really so open.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.


Kokopelli is not quite of this place, but he will stand in for the local hunchbacked flute players. As will Krishna, in tunes that begin slowly and build to ecstatic climax. Maybe they will be joined by a wandering sailor, looking for water. Maybe by fiddlers like me. Our melodies haunt and echo. This music demands dancing. The drummers appear.

You might ask what the Native American flute is made of. As well as Krishna’s pipe. What kind of bone or horn the sailor has carved. What opens as a simple, plaintive cry gains complexity and liveliness. Spider, in fact, weaves their intricate counterpoint.

The sailor knows sees their progression running from reel to jig to, ultimately, hornpipe. Who knows what the Hopi or Hindu call it — the effect is the same. Just look at a cow skulls and see where the horns were. Look at elk antlers. Look in his Bible, where horns are an image of power. Some who venture out into solitude return with their own power song. Begin wailing. Begin reeling.

I reflect. Suppose my children are born here? Is this really an arrival or a failed promise? What about the long exile ahead? The decades of trying to understand precisely what I’ve encountered in this desert and at its rim. Perhaps I will face a desert in my profession, as well. Perhaps I’ll find the sea is another kind of desert — one giving rise to the fishermen who were Christ’s first apostles. I already know of salmon returning to the desert.

I had believed this would be his Canaan — my place of milk and honey. I could spend the rest of this life pondering exactly what I experienced. Attempting, as well, to recover something of the encounter. The tune ends, but I remember its sound and its place on my maps. No matter that I might have even found this Canaan in a large city of orchestras and quartets, stages and screens, galleries and architecture, lectures and bookstores.

Maybe I’m merely sojourning here all along. In exile here as much as anywhere. And maybe it wasn’t the desert as much as the promise itself I explore.

At the end, a door closes. Maybe a gate. Like Eden, with its reality that I’ll never return. This desert is not a land that many visit. It reveals its true nature slowly, if you’re patient. If you’re reverent.

Actually, this might be just one more gate locked behind me. Even if I could return, I’d find everyone scattered. Or at least older. Here I haven’t even collected an antique basket or beaded moccasins or a piece of turquoise and silver jewelry to carry with me. Wherever I’m going.

Those were the days when I could read a totem pole and anticipate the stories. Maybe even name the children and their grandparents.

I should have known traveling with Kokopelli comes with risk. There’d be a price, eventually. Maybe it was while I was at the office or those other times when I turned, and he wasn’t there with me.

Now I come home and both Kokopelli and my wife are missing. I should have been suspicious all along.

It’s time for me to leave, then. I’m free.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.


I awaken with indigo skin. Sparrows hop about on my mattress. I vaguely recall a plunging star followed by blindness. In that sleep, a voice spoke in primary colors and related a saga oozing blood between brown feathers. I followed her in a procession toward the origin. She pointed out a killer whale, a shaman’s folded robes, a raven’s halo, a falcon spitting fog, a cluster of warthogs, a gathering of peacocks and white llamas, the roots of a great-grandfather’s moustache. As we ascended from a swampy trail of frogs, birds, cobwebs, sunning turtles, and lizards, we skirted the foot of a smoldering volcano. Off in the other direction in emerald water, an island burned. She, however, had other plans. Wild goats ran from our approach. Soon we braved auto glare, road owls, iron bridges. Spinning me back to my Midwestern sources, she demonstrated how thin the thread of perception remains. Spider-thin, in fact. She showed me I’m one animal at one time and in one location, but when those factors change, I become another. Only the soul is constant. When she held a mirror before me, there was no reflection. When I asked her name, she smiled coyly. “You’ll find it written in the desert.”

Each time you acknowledge the distractions that keep you from dancing freely, turn back toward the melody and the rhythm. Turning, I knew, was repenting. Turning and returning, in the music I danced and played. My partner there has always been faithful.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.