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Finding Gratitude (Amid The Welter Of Not Knowing What To Do)

Are you feeling overwhelmed by the threats to wildness? As Susan Marsh reminds, the first step toward preservation is appreciating what's in front of you

Nature can re-create our sense of purpose, if we allow her in. Photo of hiker in the Rockies courtesy Shutterstock Photo 343345385/Kris Wiktor
Nature can re-create our sense of purpose, if we allow her in. Photo of hiker in the Rockies courtesy Shutterstock Photo 343345385/Kris Wiktor

EDITOR'S NOTE: As Mountain Journal completes its fifth year of existence, we wish to remind readers of the esteemed credentials of our columnists. Susan Marsh is an award-winning essayist, poet and writer of fiction who for several decades worked as a backcountry/wilderness/policy specialist for the US Forest Service. She was based at both the Custer Gallatin in Bozeman, Montana and Bridger-Teton national forests in Jackson, Wyoming. Among differing accolades, she also received the Raynes Citizen Conservation Award from the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative.

by Susan Marsh

Lately it’s become too easy to lose myself in worry about the state of the world and the relentless human pressure threatening all we love about our home region, Greater Yellowstone. Each year the maps and aerial photos of our communities tell the story—more development reaching deeper into the places that were wild not so long ago. 

While thankful for my good fortune to have lived in Greater Yellowstone since 1982, I often find myself feeling guilt along with gratitude, knowing that each human being makes demands on precious resources. Allowing self-reproach to overwhelm the joy of what I see out every window of my house, every day, is a dangerous hole to fall into.

What happens when you forget that gratitude is necessary? I’ve learned one thing about it: it refuses to be forced. Rather, it prefers to come spontaneously when my mind is at peace instead of fraught with worry. It finds me, kind of like grace. I can’t make myself feel it when I’m not in the mood but I can use little tricks to invite it in. Pay attention when I go outside, find something worthwhile to work on, engage with others doing similar work. Next week I’m going to fill garbage bags with musk thistle.

After getting out of bed this morning, I stood at the bathroom window looking out into the trees in the back yard. They seemed to block the view of nearly everything beyond, as if they wanted to be noticed more than usual today. Most days I scan them, watch for crows and ravens patrolling town after a night in the roost, an take note of colors and shapes of the clouds. 

The back yard trees, and one in particular, nudged my gaze downward, and I focused on a weeping Douglas-fir beside the back deck. I see something unexpected: it bears pale green cones, full-sized, for the first time in twenty years. This tree rarely bears cones at all, and when it does they are half-formed, about the size of marbles.

That little tree always brings a smile with its lacy downcast branches and oddball shape. J-rooted as a seedling or genetically abnormal, it has never grown straight since the day we planted it nearly 35 years ago. Because of this, it is stunted, its bole only a few inches in diameter. I became its advocate as it grew to shade a corner of the deck, having resisted my husband’s half-hearted plans to take it down.

Most of the conifers in the yard are orphans, some rescued from the local bank that was giving away half-dried seedlings for Arbor Day, others delivered of imminent destruction after a motel fire. Thirty feet tall with dense foliage, they have sheltered nesting songbirds and the occasional stray grouse. They offer wide sunny branches for the resident squirrel to dry mushrooms. Two of the spruces have recovered from accidental decapitation during pruning misadventures and I can see from the window a distinct kink partway up the trunk where one branch in the remaining whorl took over as the leader. The trees are a ragtag bunch, but as I told my husband, “I’m not growing saw timber.”
My friends and I are constantly reminding ourselves and each other how lucky we are to live where we do. I can walk out my front door and be in the national forest in about ten minutes, five if I ride a bike. Sometimes it feels as if the familiar trails welcome me. I greet individual plants from old-growth spruce trees to annual wildflowers the same way I greet the plants in my yard. 
The damaged and determined trees offer a living lesson every day, to not give up on yourself or your desire to thrive. To allow gratitude to seep into your being like breath—felt, but barely notcied. With the help of a truckload of soil that was rich in roots and rhizomes, the trees in my yard have formed their own community of wildflowers, shrubs, various symbiotic organisms and each other, much like the wild forest nearby which I was trying to emulate all along. Just going outside on a summer morning brings a sense of belonging, me to them and not the other way around. 

Whether in the woods or the back yard, there is always something new to notice, a mini-revelation similar to the visitation of gratitude. Later on this morning, I went outside for a better look at the developing Douglas-fir cones. While trimming a few dead twigs from the tree’s dark interior, I found below my shears a starburst-shaped foliose lichen growing on the trunk. Then I saw other lichen species with it. As with the cones, I had not noticed them before.
Constructed in the architecture of a tree that Marsh nurtured to grow tall is a hornet's nest. Photo courtesy the author.
Constructed in the architecture of a tree that Marsh nurtured to grow tall is a hornet's nest. Photo courtesy the author.
I glanced above me in search of another cone and what I found instead was a beautifully constructed nest the size of a soccer ball—bald-faced hornets. In the warming air, a few were emerging into the daylight. I grabbed a camera, thinking about the number of wild things that depended on the Douglas-fir, and the three things—cone, lichens, nest—that I hadn’t seen before even though I sit beside that tree nearly every day. How could this fail to bring joy and gratitude?
          
In an effort to combat the occasional discouragement that chases gratitude away, I’ve always depended on the balm of being in wild country. There I can forget myself and witness the interaction of other lives in the montane community, undisturbed by me. But what happens when that balm is not enough? It can feel like a temporary escape whose healing powers are already fading by the time you get home after dealing with traffic, jaywalkers, rudeness at the post office and a reminder about the bill you forgot to pay.

My friends and I are constantly reminding ourselves and each other how lucky we are to live where we do. I can walk out my front door and be in the national forest in about ten minutes, five if I ride a bike. Sometimes it feels as if the familiar trails welcome me. I greet individual plants from old-growth spruce trees to annual wildflowers the same way I greet the plants in my yard. I know when and where I will find them, but they can still give me a thrill of recognition when I encounter them for the first time each year. They allow me to enlarge my sense of home from the trees in the back yard to the forests that surround the neighborhood.
What happens when you forget that gratitude is necessary? I’ve learned one thing about it: it refuses to be forced. Rather, it prefers to come spontaneously when my mind is at peace instead of fraught with worry. It finds me, kind of like grace. I can’t make myself feel it when I’m not in the mood but I can use little tricks to invite it in. Pay attention when I go outside.
Along one trail I give a mental pep talk to a small limber pine that has put out vigorous growth after being whacked back by blister rust that reduced its leader and half its branches to brown knobby clubs. Bright new needles sprout from the damaged stems and I stroke them lightly. Well done. The persistence of this little tree cheers me whenever I check on how it’s doing. Like the droopy Douglas-fir at home it gives me a reminder—whatever life throws at you, do your best. Yes, many things may kill you, but until they do, soldier on.

Contemplating the steadfast determination of trees does more than inspire admiration. It reminds me to keep in check my propensity to consider myself safe in an odd and unrealistic way, coasting on good genes, as a friend of mine puts it. However one might take them for granted, those genes that keep your natural teeth intact well past middle age, and the ones that bequeath an indomitable immune system when others are falling ill with flu, will not prevent aging and mortality. When eyesight starts to fail and bones become brittle, or when dread disease strikes at any time of life, it’s common to say “My body has betrayed me.” You can become annoyed with yourself as if you have failed.

Sometimes it seems as if we expect, in our privileged bubble where health care and wild nature and the basics of living are readily available (if you can afford them), to go on thriving forever, like a healthy young pine.

From a conifer Marsh advocated to protect comes a new cone and seeds inside it that might give birth to another sheltering tree that will outlive us all. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
From a conifer Marsh advocated to protect comes a new cone and seeds inside it that might give birth to another sheltering tree that will outlive us all. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
In my mind I don’t presume anything of the sort, but there seems to live within me an unconscious assumption of well-being. I have enjoyed good health for almost 70 years. Why should I expect anything to change? I get that I could be “hit by a truck tomorrow” (and almost was, yesterday). Knowing that life is provisional doesn’t stop me from living with the expectation of another day of hiking, as usual.


While immersion in the wild is balm for my soul, if it’s the only thing I do I’m still left with being part of the problem, simply by being one of 338 million Americans. I try to keep my environmental footprint in check, but taking dog food cans to the recycler doesn’t feel like much when only about 10 percent of us recycle anything at all.

Still, when you are feeling helpless and at loose ends, a way out of the cycle is to do something, whether it’s going to work and doing your best, speaking up at a meeting, or harvesting summer squash from the garden and taking the extras to a food bank. Small gestures are powerful in putting us back on track.

There is, as we all know, another opportunity for making a difference, even if we can’t change the world with our own two hands: vote.

The American Presidency Project keeps information on voter turnout, which shows that during the years from 2000 and 2020, for the presidential elections only, the percent of eligible voters who cast ballots ranged from a low of 54 percent to a high of 67 percent. While that is at least a majority, at least 45 other countries beat us in voter participation. During off-year elections our turnout is considerably lower.

I’m tired of hearing people say that it doesn’t matter, my vote doesn’t count, and so on—giving in to discouragement and losing interest in the outcome. Excuses, in my mind, for failing our duty as citizens. Your pick for president may not win but there are many down-ballot items that matter regionally and locally, including referendums and initiatives. Voting is one thing we can do to wield a modicum of influence, and it’s a good feeling to walk out of the booth with your I Voted sticker on your lapel.

Okay, off the soapbox and back to the threats that can send us into a tailspin of gloom. From climate change to the loss of wild backcountry in our home region, I take those threats personally. The fear they instill is an undercurrent to the joy of living each day. At my age, my worries are more for the coming generations and the future of the trees in my back yard than for myself. 

I resist the temptation to fall into the * slough of despond, but like everything else alive, like the rust-infected limber pine on a rocky knoll a short stroll from my house, the need, the desire, and the joy to keep persisting remains. It’s fueled by gratitude. While we must be concerned about things that matter, the rut of helpless worrying seems to come from the monkey-mind chatter in our heads, most of it in some way negative.
 
On the other hand, we don’t have to remind ourselves to be grateful when we stand in a river or on a rocky overlook and spread our arms out to the mountain breeze. Minds at peace, we give thanks with our entire bodies. Our animal selves deeply inhale and our admiring eyes bless every leaf and pine needle.  


POSTNOTE:

* About Marsh's reference to "slough of despond" mentioned above. It is is a phrase used in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, into which the character Christian sinks under the weight of his sin.

Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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