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Crater Lake & the Ritual of Return

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-TS Eliot

I was twenty-two years old when I started to write.  For the first time in any true sense, I began to write creatively, both to express myself in new ways and to explore my own language.  I began slowly with things that were on my mind, wrestling with pressing decisions and investigating motivation. As the practice progressed from hobby to habit, my writing took form more as a seeking than a saying.  I tried to clear my mind of day-to-day things, sat quietly, and reached out to the deeper rhythms below the hum. Only then did I come to the art of it, to sincere efforts in translation.

To facilitate this process of seeking and saying, I approached my writing sessions in a consistent way:  dimmed the lights, lit a candle, played some music, and sent a polite request for wisdom into the universe.  I invoke the darkness that shrouds the bulk of existence, play host to the elements that give rise to the rarity that is life, and extend my antennae into the sky in my humble attempt to explore my own consonance with universal rhythms.  The results are mixed, of course, but this is the ritual.

Although some may associate the notion of ritual with a sinister intent or with a shadowy occult form of sacrifice, most of us have ritual in our lives.  I greet each day with a ritual grinding of the sacred beans; a boiling of life-sustaining water; and a slow consumption of the warm, caffeine-infused results.  Although the phenomena of human ritual vary widely, many of the motivations are common. Often they arise out of the opposition two forces: the human desire to affect the world around us and our lack of control to do so.  One thinks of the raindance or the myriad pre-hunt rituals that humans have performed, pressed under the weight of existence.

My own writing ritual is a small outgrowth of one my friends and I developed over many years on our group expeditions.  In our youth, we mixed journeys into raw nature with our personal investigations into the nature of our being. We found a certain openness in gatherings at the edge of the river, around the fire, under the night sky.  In one particular location, where the force of life and eternity seemed peculiarly strong to us, we built a fire pit. Not just any fire pit, mind you—this one was special. For us, it was an open invitation to return to this place, an altar upon which we could measure ourselves in pure form, and a crucible in which we could burn away parts of ourselves we did not want or need.

In those days, there was a strong desire to stretch boundaries, to explore new places and spaces, to see things unseen, to hear things unheard, to try things untried.  In time, we began to experiment with another creeping pull—the desire to return to places we had been before, to places where we had resonated well with the surround. The first place where we felt this sort of majik we named the Euberland.  And in the beginning, we thought this strange yet familiar buzz was unique to this place alone:  a slow bend in a creek with soft gravel beds and majestic sycamores, an open meadow hemmed in by thickly forested hills.  It was a secluded and somehow ancient place where caravans had traipsed during the civil war, where native people had undoubtedly gathered.  We thought it the fountainhead for the spring of being, and, for a time, it was just that to us.

The more we revisited, the more welcomed we felt, and the more attuned we became to the rhythm of the air and the water and the land.  It seemed, almost as if by means of some open circuit, we could plug ourselves right in to the earth by way of standing between soil and sky; and in doing so, we could transcend the human-nature dualism.  

Ultimately, we came to the sense that we should be able to find this majik elsewhere, perhaps even everywhere, and so we went, scattering ourselves across the globe in this humble hunt.  And the deeper our investigation, the more we found that other locations opened up and shared with us the subtle magnificence of place in time.

* * *

The notion of return has a strong pull, and its undertow reaches into many facets of our lives.  In many religions, the myth of a return to an original state, to an edenic garden, is prevalent.  Across many cultures there is a romantic association with the idea of a return home, to the place of one’s birth or family origin.  In environmental philosophy there are deep discussions over whether human being might be capable of a “return to nature,” whether any past cultures have lived in harmony with nature that might serve as a model for such a return, or whether such backtracking would even be desirable or effective.  

In an intriguing critical meditation on Heidegger’s work, Luce Irigaray muses:  “There is never any return but a return to the same.” In seeing return as she suggests, as a going back, we might ask:  Is return a forward action or some sort of backward retreat? In seeing return in this way, as a going back, we might ask:  is return a forward action or some sort of backward retreat? For much of my life, I thought of return as a surrender of forward motion, and in that, for example, I avoided the idea of moving back to the place I grew up.  But that is a narrow conception. I would argue now that return is a dual action. As the word itself suggests, it is a ride on the circle, rather than a slide along a line. There is a turning in re-turning.  Return is an opening, an opportunity at a-gain.

The most tangible example of these subtle shifts giving rise to a new turning that I can think of occurred regularly along the creek shore of the Euberland.  The creek was prone to flood events that would erode the banks, deposit or wash away (sometimes large) areas of gravel, and carve out new aquatic spaces for discovery.  These events (and the resulting accretion and avulsion that claimed some of our satellite fire pits and even struck down a Wood God totem we had raised and revered) gave us an early understanding of impermanence and flow that have remained important parts of our view of the world.  This recognition of change as constant gives new context to Irigaray’s thought: perhaps there is never a true return for us; each time we “return,” we have come to a different place, a new space and time. In that light, return might be even better conceived of as a ride on the spiral, in spite of the line:  we may only ever approach the places we have been before.

I’ve become more and more convinced that whatever the path for humanity, there is much to be accomplished in fostering improved personal relationships with the natural world.  There is no doubt in my mind that there is power in place that may be accessed—unlocked via experience—a power that can glow white-lightning-hot-cold enough to forge intense relationships to natural rhythms that change a person.  The Ritual of Return, then, may be seen, not as an act of control intended to affect the world externally, but as a crucial act of integration and exploration.

* * *

Crater Lake is the most amazing place I have ever gotten to know.  I may have visited places more stunning, but I have never felt the same about a wild space as I do for the azure jewel of southern Oregon.  Ten thousand years ago, the crater that is the park’s namesake was a towering volcano in the Cascades mountain range, a spine of volcanoes stretching from Washington to California.  It was known then as Mazama; and one day, the volcano known as Mazama showed what is was made of.  It erupted with such cataclysmic force that it blew the whole mountain apart in a rain of ash and fire and lava and basalt that one simply cannot imagine.  It was too big to conceive of. The pumice, the hollow dry bones of the volcano’s marrow, is layered for miles and miles around.

What remains of that most chaotic of earthly events is the base of a mountain that contains one of the deepest and most pure bodies of freshwater on the planet.  From chaos unfathomable to a peaceful blue lake. And, yeah, it is really, really blue. It is unimaginably blue, the 100th color they left out of that big box of 99 crayons because it was just too powerful for ordinary children to wield.  On seeing it, most people can only say, “Wow. It is soooo blue.” And though predictable to the point of being humorous, they are right. All of blue is right there in the water.

And that is the last I will write here of the lake itself.  The casual visitor to the park that visits the rim, comments on the aforementioned color, and drives on south or north to take the road through the Redwoods or up the Oregon Coast Highway has missed something here.  And it is that something that can only be known through repeat adventure.

Our trips to Crater Lake began in 2004 and continued as a late summer ritual for many years to follow.

* * *

Something about repeat returns to wild places changes its effect from awestrike to something much more subtle.  It is change itself, the slow pace of small shifts that mark not just the passage of time, but the ebb and flow of the timeless exchanges:  river meets shore, mountain meets wind, tree meets the weight of snow. On repeat experience, subtlety becomes nature’s majik, and one learns to experience place anew despite a general familiarity.  Places grow more complex and appreciable under the shifting shadows, the varying light of the day and night. Last year’s favorite tree, succumbed to winter, is this year’s seedling bed. The bear cub from two years ago, now lord of the land.  

At Crater Lake, we know the way the trees rot, turning from a moist red pulp into hard, dry cubes of dead wood.  “That one’s gone to cube,” one might comment. We understand the way the trees huddle together, often in groups of five or six, to bear the routine 20 feet of winter snow with the help of a neighbor.  We’ve got our favorite trees: the ones that tower in their prime; the dead ones against which we shelter from the wind; the young stand of hemlock—at one time only about our height—that high five us each year as we enter one of our favorite trails, like teammates ushering our big entrance onto the field of play.  The examples are many, developed over time: nights by the fire, sunsets at the edge of existence, moonrises that wrench the heart, and high-altitude rides through the spinning cosmos.

Although the lore is as deep the lake, two disparate examples suffice to introduce the glow of the place.

At the edge of one of the first rim spots to view the lake when approaching from the north, there is a dead tree.  It must have once been an amazing solitary sentinel, providing an excellent little shady spot from which to sit in stillness and ponder the nature of color, the shiftiness of clouds, or other such topics.  Still, the skeleton of this tree serves as a gathering point to take in the lake, a guide suggesting one of the very best vantages. Over our many visits, the remains of the tree have shrunk, bit by bit, as the grey bark is consumed by moss, flecked by the wind, and carried by the snow into the blue below.  Each return is like visiting an old friend. You know one day it will not be there any longer, and each chance to stand with it once more is sweet. Sweet enough to commemorate in pictures. The w[i/ea]thering makes it somehow new despite its easy description as old and dead. I haven’t been to Crater Lake in several years, but I occasionally travel there in my mind in hopes that tree is still standing in some form, appreciating the remains as well as the bits that have been lost.  It is a little thing, I guess, to love an old stump, but it is somehow a lesson in how we view things: moment enriched by time and experience.

The next example requires a bit more scene setting.  From a high point in Crater Lake, of which there are several wonderful towering spots, one can look in any direction (save for  a portion of the view south, where the town of Klamath Falls can be seen way off in the lowlands of the Klamath basin) and see nothing but unbroken wildlands.  To the West, an unending series of forested hills that ultimately give way to the Pacific. To the North, the towering, lightning-smashed peak of Mount Thielsen, and the spine of the Cascades.  To the South, to California, the Siskiyou National Forest, the Redwoods, and the snow-crested Mount Shasta. To the East, the lake and the imposing Mount Scott. It is hundreds and hundreds of square miles of wilderness, to give it an inadequate measure.  Below the canopy, there are trails leading to waterfalls and pumice deserts and sphagnum bogs and places of the world that are rarely visited. In the weeks we’ve spent in the Crater Lake backcountry over the years, I can only recall specifically seeing one other person—a young woman several miles deep on the trail, running, with nothing but a water bottle.  She may have been just a figment of my imagination, perhaps just a young deer or some other graceful thing. In short, only a dozen or so people might be camped in the entire backcountry portion of the park on any given night, and Crater Lake is a place where one can go to be wonderfully and spectacularly alone.

Our favorite high-point in the park is called Union Peak.  The remains of an old volcano, it rises up alone in the southwest part of the wilderness and can be seen from many areas along the rim of the lake.  Tradition has been that, after our visit with the old tree on the rim, we begin our hike toward Union Peak in the early afternoon in a footrace with the sinking Sun and with the hope of making it to the 8,000 foot summit in time to see it drop over the far western horizon.  Once we hit the area below the peak where we set up camp, we ditch our bags, and scramble up the steep slope. Along the way, there are incredible views of the park. The final approach tests the legs and the lungs. At the top, we are free to engage the horizon in every direction.  

On our first ascent, we missed the sunset by a matter of minutes but arrived in time to see the fire in the west give way to purple and the rising of the sliver Moon in the east; on our second ascent, we saw the sunset unobstructed by clouds and watched every last drop of light disappear.  On a subsequent trip, we experienced a form of celestial happenstance we had never encountered. Just as the Sun caught the horizon in the west, the full Moon cracked the horizon in the east. And though I couldn’t be sure to any scientific exactitude, the orbs appeared to be exactly opposing each other, both in terms of their 180-degree opposition in the sky and in their timing as they drifted above and below the horizon-line, respectively.  It felt as if the Sun and Moon were connected by a long arm stretched between them, with the heavier Sun dropping and raising the Moon into the evening sky. We stood as fulcrum between the two. These things happen at Union Peak every night.

To the extent there is a common experience for us on Union Peak, it has been to rest, soak up the sky, shelter from the wind, take photos, and let go whatever of life that had been bothering us thousands of feet below.  On our last trip, perhaps expecting more of the same, we got something new again. With the setting Sun, a thin wisp of cloud became visible on the long line of the western sky. As daylight waned and the air cooled, the wisp coalesced, and a string of clouds stormed the hills between us and the coast.  We stood watch, and eventually the clouds spread over the distant parts of the park from the northwest and then sifted through the ridges into the valley below. We waited, [un]knowing. Quickly, the moist air at the front edge of the clouds hit the base of Union Peak and lifted, and as it did, clouds instantly materialized below and rose fast all around us, bathing us in the mist, sweeping us into the fog, and curling down over the south face of the peak.  It came on a striking chill that was one part fear; one part thrill; and one part soft, pink-purple majik. On that mountain top, there was only the fine focus of moment. There were four of us, air, water, and rock. That was all.

These and others have been the gifts of our returns, the subtle differences that have made the trip each time a return home and a journey through the new that characterizes place in and out of time. Such gifts are given on slight shifts of the wind and on the gentle turn of the Earth.  

* * *

Maintaining our wonder is sometimes difficult work, particularly in the mundanity of routine that marks human modes of survival.  There is a certain diligence in finding inspiration, in being amazed, by what seems to be the familiar. For some time, I have been testing the Ritual of Return through my photography, returning to the same spots on repeat occasions and taking photos each time, searching for the inspiration below the hum of assumption, below the false veneer of what I think I know about or have experienced in a place.  The results have been consistent. Each time I revisit places that I feel a connection to, that connection deepens: I see and hear and smell things I didn’t perceive before; I discover new angles, new colors; I entertain the landscapes less and explore the fascinating microscapes more; and my expression becomes more textured as a result. This is a resonance that is enriched with practice.

To be sure, the Ritual of Return is not solely an effort in recognizing change and difference.  For a time, I made a home on the flanks of Mount Hood, a volcano in the Cascades north of Crater Lake that likely bears some similarity to Mazama.  One need not go so far to be reminded of what these volcanoes can do; Mount St. Helens is only about an hour away. Despite the irony, I found a great peace in the shadow of that volcano.  The turn of the seasons, the return of the bears, the repeat cycle of wildflowers from March to October. Each plays its beat in the rhythm of the place that hearkens to that “sameness” Irigaray alludes to in her concept of return as a venture to the same.  In this way, home is the place where wonder is maintained on a cycle of old-new.

At peace on a volcano:  a final tale from Crater Lake takes us there.

* * *

On our latest trip to Crater Lake, we revisited the cinder cone of an old volcano to the south of the lake, known as Crater Peak. Our return had been promised two years before. A close friend and I spent a night in the crater in 2008. We gathered rocks for a small fire pit and huddled close to a fallen giant that made an excellent break from the wind and served as a bit of an entertainment system, holding our gear, our music devices, and providing a little fuel for the fire. We sat in the grass that night in absolute agape wonder at the show the sky put on, the Milky Way brightly splattered across the nightscape. As we prepared to leave the next morning, our return-pact sealed, we stashed the rocks of our fire pit in the crevices of our downed treehome.

On the hike up and around the side of the volcano, Union Peak towers over the park toward the western horizon. Crater Peak is a stark contrast to Union Peak. It is covered in trees, softer and more squat, and the top is a huge, pleasant grassy bowl with a few epic trees keeping vigil. When we first saw the cinder cone, we immediately identified it as a playground of eternity, a rare stadium or amphitheater for the greatest spectacles of life. We meant to headline a show there someday.

That someday came on Sunday, September 5, 2010. As we entered the field of play, we felt almost as if we crossed over some threshold into an old, perhaps eternal, home. A place to which it had been foretold we would return. We made our way across the depression to the fabled downed tree to set up the entertainment center for the night. We pulled the rocks of our fire pit from where we had left them just over two years before and reassembled it. We made ready.

I leave much of the rest to the memories of those involved. We ran and played and watched the drift of the cosmos, which seemed to press itself in all around us, covering us in a sparkling velvet blanketsphere. I simply cannot describe the feeling of walking up to the lip of a volcano, the threshold of the crater gripped by the most vivid night sky I’ve experienced. It felt like we traveled across the galaxy in a bowl-shaped meadow cradled inside a crystal dome. At least, that is how I recall it.

I can close my eyes and return there. It will suffice until we can reassemble that fire pit.

About the Author: Troy Payne

Troy Payne is a naturalist writer and photographer, bidden to mirror echoes of the sublime, to amplify whispers heard over the rush of the river. As a commentator on environmental law and policy (Cartesian Eco-FemDarkanism, Radix), a lecturer on environmental ethics (Black Lantern Synergy’s lectumentary series) and an editor and publisher of art and philosophy (Lantern Journal), Troy’s images inform an endarkened philosophy, rooted and winged in wild nature. An avid hiker, paddler and diver, Troy also pursues a passion for music and hi-fi.

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