I’m on a pilgrimage into my past
foraging through my faith and story for what remains good
(Here’s a very unedited glimpse into what I am up to on my epic national parks road trip. I decided last minute to share this post with everyone. I’ll be sharing more as I write my new book in my paid Embodied substack community, which you can subscribe to below. I’ll still be sharing things here for free too though! So grateful for each of you being here!)
Last year I started foraging for mushrooms. Maybe it’s my neurodivergence showing, or maybe we are all secret nerds and I’m just strange enough to tell you about it, but two years ago I became utterly fixated on the interdependence of the forest. I devoured books about mycelium. I found myself spontaneous crying for joy reading about how mycorrhizal networks mirror the human brain. And the more I read, the more I needed to move from observation to participation. I needed to touch the dirt to fully delight in the way she turns decay into life.
So, I joined a local mycological society (aka, mushroom nerd club for adults) and started attending forays every weekend. Soon, I found myself stealing away to higher elevations to be with the mushrooms whenever I had a few hours free.
I started that summer sick—and stunned.
I was just wrapping up cardiac rehab after the bludgeon covid took to my lungs, heart, and nervous system. I had to learn how to walk more than five feet again, and I did. And having survived that much sickness, I was astounded to simply get to be alive.
One day, still feeble but finding my legs, I went outside our tiny apartment to take in the sunset from under the shade of the giant tree in the shared front yard. I was too sick to make it to the park, where sunset daily crowns the lake with glittering gold. But the sliver of sky I could see from home was enough to savor. I sat there on a blanket, with an overflowing dumpster to my right and a cotton candy sky to my left, and I felt the quietest joy.
This is good.
Everything that took me to that moment is why I am writing my next book. Every sorrow. Every scar. Every kindness. I am who I am today because grief has recomposed death into the life that you now see.
When I started foraging, I found myself on the some of the same trails my feet had found before. But now I was seeing them differently. What we see depends on what we seek. There was life bursting from the soil in purple, ochre, brown, grey, and gold and I had never—not on any hike on any year—noticed it before.
Foraging is a practice in slowing and seeing. I come to the land to listen more than take. I let her slow me and show me what is good and what earth can remake.
And like all things, the stanzas of soil I was reading week after week shaped the way I saw…well, everything.
I knew: I needed to forage my faith and story the same way I sought oysters and hawkswings and boletes. I knew there had to be more goodness in my past and faith tradition than trauma let me see.
I’m on a pilgrimage into my past.
I am foraging through my faith and story—not for what is broken but for what remains beautiful.
This week I started my first big journey in that pilgrimage, driving from my home in Colorado Springs westward into the land where my little girl self first learned the language of wonder. As a kid, my parents packed up me and my three siblings in a motor-home to spend a month at a time in the West’s national parks.
Sure, it was bougie, to be able to do that, but it was partly because so much was broken. What I didn’t know until later was that every summer’s trip was an attempt to keep my older brother from being arrested. The foreground of so much goodness was our family’s secret grief.
This summer, I am revisiting many of those same national parks. I am returning to the places where our grief met great goodness—where I first encountered the wonder of waking up to a bigger story than my own and ecosystems full of members who need each other to thrive.
I picked up my friend Sarah Southern (of Waste + Wild) at the Salt Lake City airport and we started racking up the miles on Reepijeep. (Ryan named our Jeep, and it is the best. Tell me you get the reference!) We’ve witnessed more wonders than I currently have energy or time to tell—a painted sky over salt flats, hot springs tucked into a canyon flecked by yellow wildflowers, a waterfall we saw right when old pain wrung us out. I’m literally stopping myself from going on, because, well, it’s just too much. Too good.
This week we visited Crater Lake National Park and Redwoods National Park, and I’m writing this quickly from the passenger seat on our way to Portland, OR, where we are going to spend the evening eating salmon and steak beside a campfire with writing friends. What a gift.
Here’s a little excerpt I wrote in my journal yesterday. Bear with me, this isn’t edited (and my photos aren’t either!):
We are sitting on the forest floor next to a redwood whose base is larger than my car. We are drinking piping hot coffee we made right here and are eating PB and Js. Everywhere I look is fog and fern, fir and giants.
Sempervirens—these coastal redwoods are everlasting. And they breathe into what is everlasting in me.
Earlier, we witnessed a hollowed-out living redwood. Forest fire scorched through her outer bark, through the cambium and sapwood, straight into her heartwood. Now she is a home to wildlife, and a spot to rest for me.
What was damaged, decayed.
What decayed, became a domicile.
Her heartwood became a hollow. Her scars became a shelter.
Fire does not only burn. It also builds.
A tour group of elders just walked past us. A woman, entire head grey and body bent, walked past, her trekking poles supporting her.
I smiled at her as much as at these ancient giants. I blessed the beauty of her adventure and silently prayed to become as she is.
A family just passed us. As they approached in the distance, I heard the dad say, “There is a thing called canopy-shyness. The crowns of the trees won’t touch each other so they have enough light.”
The trees give each other’s crowns space to catch the light. God, that’s beautiful.
Then the youngest—a little blonde girl with a hiking pole and bear bells—just like the ones I wore on hikes as a girl—scampered up to us.
“This is a tall tree!” she exclaimed.
“Isn’t it amazing?” I replied.
This morning I renewed my intention to see the little girl in me who felt unseen and to bless the forest for holding us.
The little girl’s parents apologized to us.
“I’m so sorry. You are going to be her best friend now. Sorry she interrupted you!”
“No. Thank you,” I said. “I came her as a little girl at her age, and I love seeing her.”
Last Christmas, my mom’s present to my dad was digitizing all our home videos. That night, we watched years of birthdays and Christmases unfold like a flip book before our eyes.
Seeing myself—seeing my family—confirmed so much I remember. So much that my body recalls. I saw the girl who glistened with wonder and only wanted her parents to see it too. I was the camera pan away to my older brother’s antics and my younger brother’s cuteness. But I also saw my moments attended—my first figure skating show, dressed as the happiest ice-bunny ever.
I was cared for.
After hours of memories, I went to bed, where Ryan had been for over an hour.
Dad texted: “Get up here! We’re in the Redwoods!”
“I have to go see this,” I told Ryan.
Up the stairs, I re-entered my own roots.
In the home video from the Redwoods, Dad is holding the camera and narrating everything he sees. “These particular trees right here are three hundred years old. The ones we just saw are probably closer to 2000!” (I swear, I just overheard my dad’s voice in that father’s canopy-shyness lesson.) He keeps panning upwards—just like I have today—astounded by the trees towering into the sky.
The the camera pans to my brother, trying to climb a massive redwood stump. Marco was always trying to get higher. He still is.
Then it turns to me.
I’m wearing lime green overall shorts. The look on my face—it’s exactly the same as today’s. “Look at this banana slug!” I cry.
I’m holding her so gently in my palms. I’m witnessing her (their?) wonder. I’m seeing the smallest of things among some of the world’s largest trees, and all I want is for others to see them too.
At Christmas, when I saw this video, I cried. The seeds of who I am today were already there. (Let’s be honest, I basically point at things I am amazed at for a living…)
A redwood will hold her buds safe in bumpy knots of root collar burls. Her burls hold the seeds of life and might stay dormant for generations. But when stress comes—through storm or fire—the sleeping sprouts awake.
The burls of my becoming were built on this land. The fire that burned me only released their resilience. I am tall and wide with wonder today because the fire burned.
What gifts are waiting for us in the forest? What needs to be seen to be heard? Where are the sprouts of your regeneration hidden? And will you greet the wind and flame as an artist’s tools?
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