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Bench Marks: The People And Places Lifting Us Up When We Are Down

It's tough work fighting to save the communities we love

Throughout Bozeman's cherished public trail system stewarded by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust is a series of benches donated in memoriam to departed loved ones. At a bench dedicated to Chris Boyd, who was instrumental in designing Bozeman's Main Street to the Mountains trail network, a young man proposes marriage to his girlfriend.  Photo by Angus O'Keefe
Throughout Bozeman's cherished public trail system stewarded by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust is a series of benches donated in memoriam to departed loved ones. At a bench dedicated to Chris Boyd, who was instrumental in designing Bozeman's Main Street to the Mountains trail network, a young man proposes marriage to his girlfriend. Photo by Angus O'Keefe
I wonder about how our Western landscape includes us in its majesty. Are we absorbed into its hardscrabble features like a bucket of water disappears into a river? Or do we find solace in its vastness?

Do we climb, hike, ski, float, and run up its slopes to forget someone or to meet ourselves in the contours of the canyons, ridge lines, and wending rivers? Do our mountains inspire, intimidate, or provide refuge? Do the visiting outsiders with second homes here really find comfort and rest in their enclaves set among our wilderness neighborhoods or do they miss the opportunity to achieve full decompression before returning again to their lives in the urban fray?

My mind wanders back to Wyoming author Gretel Ehrlich and Montana’s Ivan Doig for descriptions that match my experience in a way a historian might find relief in a leather bound volume recounting past civilizations' efforts at dominating the world while social media beeps sound around about him.

A resiliency of spirit awaits to be discovered in our western landscape. And yet this same open space can intimidate and overwhelm. In her heartwarming book The Solace of Open Spaces Erhlich writes:

“Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. My grandchildren will probably use space shuttles for a honeymoon trip or to recover from heart attacks, but closer to home we might also learn how to carry space inside ourselves in the effortless way we carry our skins. Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull or ‘spaced-out’ but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation.”

On my weekly walks along Bozeman’s “Main Street to the Mountains” trail system, I pass one of the wooden and steel benches that bear plaques of dedication to the departed often with a quote. One such quote is from the Old Testament, Psalm 121, that begins with: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains, from whence cometh my help.”

As a recovering Christian, raised by austere Christian missionaries, this quote speaks to me even though it's the mountains that provide me solace and not the Lord. And it also brings to mind the late Chris Boyd, who was instrumental in creating our trail system and land conservation strategy back in the early eighties when he spearheaded landscape protection for the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. 

One such bench is dedicated to his memory. His suicide, while seeking treatment for chronic depression, haunts me to this day. Chris was a beloved and noble member of our community.

As friends, we would sit together and talk about the forces that work a man who was loved and lived in our wholesome mountain world, how we cherished our alone time, our hiking solitude, and yet were haunted by a terrible loneliness that could slide into despair. The irony of the confluence of love, beauty, relishing solitude and fighting off loneliness and despair beset me to this day. What is the difference between these currents and how can I protect myself and others from their undertow?
Those among us who wrestle with transpersonal forces—wilderness habitat, global warming, denigrating political posturing, economic and gender inequality, preserving open space, community integrity and identity—fall prey to loneliness and despair.
Those among us who wrestle with transpersonal forces—wilderness habitat, global warming, denigrating political posturing, economic and gender inequality, preserving open space, community integrity and identity—fall prey to loneliness and despair.

It’s like we see a comprehensive overview of what we are called to protect or defend and know that we are fighting a losing battle, although such an admission is made only in the wee hours of the morning after a restless night, and only to ourselves. It’s like we cannot pass through and into a landscape we love without taking note of the new subdivisions, feeling the views that have filled us up become eroded and steadily slipping away.

How do you explain this to a person who just arrived and believes that this lesser landscape, this blighted one, is actually paradise compared to where they came from? Is the yardstick for measuring place one that compares Bozeman or Jackson or Cody or Livingston or Big Sky to a hellish suburb or against the possibility of what it can still be with foresight?

The despair that comes with frustration is not about admitting defeat, we are too strong willed and positive for that, but there is this gnawing fear that in spite of our best efforts the power of greed and shallow dominance can cover these places we know in our hearts like plastic floating islands cover wide open oceans.
How do you explain this to a person who just arrived and believes that this lesser landscape, this blighted one, is actually paradise compared to where they came from? Is the yardstick for measuring place one that compares Bozeman or Jackson or Cody or Livingston or Big Sky to a hellish suburb or against the possibility of what it can still be with foresight?
I do not mean being beholden to some false ideal. Far from it. What I’m writing about here is the loneliness that comes with introspective activists who strive to make this world a healthy place, be it in the consulting room, conference table, art studio or stage and try to push back against a collective mindset that either doesn’t care or has yet to awaken.

Loneliness to me means that there is a place deep within my psyche that is challenging to touch, to be affected by others or even myself. This loneliness is tinged with sorrow and longing not for anyone or anything but rather for union with life, like a fox kit might find union with kin in a burrow warmed by her mother. This union may be attained, human to human, in a fierce storm in a tent strapped to an endless exposed mountain face as well.

It’s about bonding between each other and with the landscape that nurtures us. Note: there are plenty of both feminine and masculine ways to achieve union besides the obvious and much more meaningful and enduring.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry has saved my ass on a number of occasions. These lines from his poem, The Man Watching  speaks to this inner space:

“The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in a psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.”

“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.”

You see, the perceived fight is not the real one. The real one is within my heart, my soul, if you will. The trickiness of this battle is that the shadow of loneliness is actually self-pity, feeling sorry for myself. That is the tiny battle and if not fought against slides into despair.

Despair is the anguish or distress of not feeling connected. No matter what someone might say or do to comfort the other, there is a galvanized sense of feeling untouchable. Despair in our modern world might account for the reckless and ultimately unfulfilling need to be connected on social/cell media at all costs. On the other hand loneliness is the solitary row boat adrift on the open sea of confounding personal and social cross currents.

So here is how I help both myself and others reckon with this trifecta of trouble. I was impressed years ago with a philosopher’s notion that hope and despair are flip sides of the same coin.

The insight garnered by the paradox of this riddle changed the way I related to the socially sanctioned use of the word hope. Rather than saying, “I hope you are well, or that things are working out for you, the country and the planet,” I began using the word ‘trust’ instead. This mindful practice shifted the focus from the rough bet of hope which is entangled in despair, to a sense of trust in the way things are.

The way things are might suck in a given immediate moment but hope is not the way out. Presence is. Why do so many resort to yoga or sit in the quietude of their version of a cathedral? Presence is about mindfulness, of being fully engaged in what some might call nothingness but it is actually about being able to let in the everythingness—not of information but of the mind-blowing awareness we are alive. That being here, in this moment, in this place, with these people, at this moment in history is a gift.

This brings us back to nature as we experience it in our Western landscape.

Several weeks ago I strapped my nobby rubber soles onto my boots and made a run at hiking up Drinking Horse trail east of Bozeman. The snow packed icy surface felt like a bobsled run all the way to the top and down again. I have a staff with a brass tip that I use for support and my sense of ‘I can do it’ for my resolve. Our fellow super humans in male and female bodies ran by me up and down the hill as did newcomers slip and slide away. My surging breath, striving old muscles, and Celtic determination took me to the top.

I was alone the whole time, although pleasantries were exchanged with fellow hikers along the way as were rub downs of happy dogs bounding across the path, through the trees and back. The stalwart pine trees swayed in the breeze as did the magpies chatter, bossing around who knows what. The cold wind ripped at my cheeks as I swore a solemn oath not to fall, which I did not. The overcast sky laid heavily on the mountain’s spine and the cars driving down the hill from the Bridger Ski area hummed in the valley below.

I stopped at my favorite gnarled tree and rock outcrop sculptures, patting them on their bony heads and trunks. I made good on my pledge to not stop and take a breather on my way up as my personal metric of where I am on the aging spectrum. And while on the bench on top, eating a nutrition bar and drinking water, I was overcome by a sense that sustains me, a gratitude that we mountain folk are as close to the revitalizing qualities of the natural world as a quick ride on the bike or car allows.
Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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