The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger


Hopefully, readers of this blog will regard the title as semi-facetious and not boorish ego-basking.  Being the facilitator of Biodesign was often exhilarating, delightful, humorous, dramatic gratifying and many other positives.  It could also be terrifying, aggravating, traumatic, chaotic and many other negatives.  Dealing with negative forces sometimes required me to be the chief law enforcement officer.  It was the job that I disliked the most, yet paradoxically, may have been one of the most important.  Biodesign was not a tree-hugging, rainbow-chasing, retro-hippie class, or a “New-Age,” touchy-feely experience involving lava-lamps, and peacock feathers.  Any successes that we experienced were the result of discipline and hard work.  The more disciplined and harmonious the class and teacher worked together, the richer the results. This often involved role reversals as students took leadership responsibility and created learning experiences that I would not have been able accomplish by myself.

Although, working, playing, laughing and crying together yielded many close relationships (with both boys and girls), there was a tacit understanding that I could not throw caution to the wind and completely join with them.  This was part of the magic and power of the circle.  While sitting or standing in a circle, we were as close to equals as we could possibly get.  Each student had the potential to add a priceless insight, reflection or unique point of view and transport all of us to a higher level of understanding.

Our mentors helped immensely.  John Muir suggested that between every two trees is a doorway to a new world.  Henry Thoreau reminded us that every person has an innate need to be spiritually reborn in the sanctity of Nature.  Loren Eiseley pointed out that many indigenous people knew the value of going apart from the tribe to seek visions and insights.  Emerson reminded us that, “The whole of Nature is but a metaphor of the human mind.”  And, e.e.cummings opined, “Every day is a birthday for a creative mind.”

Even so, for the first 15 or so years, there were times when I felt like The Lone Ranger.

Then Christie pulled another magical book out of her bag of tools.  The title is, “Kything:”The Art of Spiritual Presence, by Louis M. Savary.  Kything is from an old Scottish word, “kythe,” meaning “to make visible.  It is a sort of wordless, mind to mind communication in which one person, in essence, almost becomes another, seeing through their eyes and feeling through their senses.  Mothers and daughters often communicate this way.  Identical twins (especially female) are often adept at it.  It was also not unlike the concept of making a “mandorla” or Socrate’s concept of friendship as being two bodies with one soul.  I had read this all before, but was shocked to learn that the Scots believed (many still do) that kything can and should be used to communicate with the dead.  The possibility that my spirit could have communion (intimate fellowship or rapport) with my mentors was truly one of the most revolutionary ideas I had ever encountered.

John Muir was tricked into attending a séance, something he had no interest in.  He admitted, however, that as he left the room a table started mysteriously tapping a leg.  I agreed with Muir and had no interest in attending a séance, however, the book opened a whole can of heavenly worms.  The students in the class of ’79 ALL believed that they had a soul.  They were convinced that after they died their soul would “live” on.  Most religions believe in an after-life and I began to wonder if the “spirits” of John Muir, Loren Eiseley and all of our poets, saints and scholars, existed beyond the writing they left behind.  Was it possible that they were “aware” of us, and even capable of mysteriously guiding us?  While Christie and I enjoyed the book, it was not information that I wanted to share with the students. I could imagine what the school board members would think: “Now he walks and talks with John Muir.  Has he finally gone off the deep end?”  However, the possibility gave me pause to wonder.  Just perhaps, Muir’s “living” spirit really was hovering over us on our Yosemite trips.  Maybe Eiseley’s spirit guided us along Grand Canyon Trails.  Could this be why we experienced the many miraculous moments that I knew were not of my doing?  After that, I found myself consciously thinking (if not talking) with them more on each trip.  There is so much we don’t know, perhaps Muir’s Scottish ancestors had it right and we are walking around spiritually ignorant.  It could even be hilarious.  There were times when I could almost hear John’s rich Scottish brogue saying, “Aye, aye childrrren, yurrr are on a bonny path.”  Or even, nae, nae, that path will lead to rrruination.  Whether it was real or imaginary, their presence often comforted me and I no longer felt like The Lone Ranger.

Assume The Virtue Though You Have It Not

Assume The Virtue Though You Have It Not

William Shakespeare


At least one time each year a student would ask, “You know a thousand quotes, how do you do that?  I usually laughed and said, “It really is not as hard as it may appear.  It is simply a matter of starting with the first one.  You have the mental freedom to think whatever you want.  If you choose, you can memorize crude, disgusting, pathetic quotes (there are a lot out there).  The quotes will become part of you and you will act accordingly.  Or, you can select quotes that are uplifting, inspiring and filled with hope and enthusiasm.  Unlike the ‘low road quotes,’ these will take you to a higher level of passion, sensitivity, perhaps even love.”

In a way, however, it was easy for me.  We started out nearly every Biodesign session with a quote from someone famous.  Of course Muir, Eiseley, Thoreau, and Emerson were quoted often, but so were many saints, scientists (even sinners).  Loren Eiseley wrote so succinctly and economically that he often offered several gems on a page. However, some of my favorites came from previous Biodesign students.

Jennifer wrote:

“Then, I remembered the Merced River2,000 feet below, flowing over Nevada Falls. I thought about the water that had been flowing for over 50 million years and wondered why people waste so much time hating each other?”

One of my several skeptical principals, knowing that I used an ongoing plethora of quotations, derisively commented that he thought citing quotes (out of context) was like eating at Mc Donald’s.  He was a self-proclaimed “secular humanist” and apparently not capable of discerning the potential spiritual radiance of a “free-standing” quote. Many of my favorites appear as lustrous pearls, dazzling diamonds, brilliant blue sapphires, fiery rubies, threads of silver and apples of gold.  For example, it is good if you know that the phrase, “Assume the virtue though you have it not,” comes from Shakespeare’s, Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV, however, if William is not your cup of tea his gem of a quote can be enjoyed, perhaps even be transformative.

Prior to the Grand Canyon trip we read from James Allen’s, “As a Man Thinketh,” where he suggested:

Mind is the Master power that moulds and makes,

And Man is Mind, and evermore he takes

The Tool of Thought, and, shaping what he wills,

Brings forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills:—

He thinks in secret, and it comes to pass:

Environment is but his looking glass.

Allen had no doubt that our human destiny was a result of all of the thoughts that lead up to our ever-evolving behavior in the present.  Some people delight in memorizing trivia, historical events, world records, athletic records, cooking recipes; the topics are endless. The important thing, however, is that each person is in charge of his own list and thus the direction of his own life.

For those of you who have discovered the NatureIsUs Fb page, I rest my case.  Sharka and Mark have created a quintessential page of platonic truth, beauty and goodness. BOFAW readers, familiar with C.S. Lewis,’ “2%-essence-of life,” will readily see that they continue to operate in that rare zone.  They marry stunning photographs with words of wisdom and inspiration (their own and other’s) into a dynamic slide-show that costs only the effort of a mouse click.  You may have to dig a little deeper, but Linda Williamson Fb (BOFAW editor) offers equally stunning images of the plants, animals, and especially people that she has encountered.  All three of these people are “goose-bump-people;” when you see their work you are likely get goose-bumps.  Each one has enriched my life and I am profoundly grateful.

One of the hundreds (?) of triads that I tossed out included the ethical foundation for the International Olympic Organization: Altius (higher) Citius (faster) Fortius (stronger).

My yearly challenge to the students (and myself) was to aspire to think, act and respond in a higher, faster and stronger manner.  In order to do this we often had to assume the virtue though we had it not.

Thoreau, Lemmings and Simple Gifts

Thoreau, Lemmings and Simple Gifts


When our son-in-law gifted us with a computer, the first thing I “Googled” was the story about the Alaskan Lemmings launching themselves into the sea, as a means of population control. According to Google, Disney had to go to elaborate (and deceptive) staging to accomplish the footage necessary for their movie featuring lemmings. It is true that, as rodents, they are wont to overpopulate and will migrate in large groups searching for food.  They are also good swimmers, and perhaps, have been genetically predisposed to leap into the sea in search of more territory to habituate.

I only mention this to connect with Henry Thoreau. Thoreau’s “triad” for life was naturally simplistic: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Christie and I marvel(?) at couples out for dinner, each feverishly texting someone else, at the exclusion of his/her mate.  People are killed in autos because of texting.  The, “hang up the phone while driving” law is a farce. There are theories that, because of these devices, we are losing our ability to talk to people face-to-face.  If a humming bird wants to move “one inch” along a twig, it has to fly up, over and land again. It has lost all ability to use its legs for movement.  Muir, Emerson, Eiseley, Whitman, Thoreau etal, predicted that that only chance of saving humanity from destroying itself will be to return to Nature.

I what is a very strange irony, readers of BOFAW have responded that the book offers them hope.  As a trained biologist, however, I fear that we have overtaxed the “carrying capacity” of our environment.  The threat of us acting like lemmings seems very real and scary.

So I return to my mentor for encouragement:

“I have been accused of wooly-mindedness for entertainingeven hope for man. I can only respond that in the dim morning shadows of humanity, the inarticulate creature who first hesitantly formed the words for pity and love must have received similar guffaws around a fire. Yet some men listened, for the words survive.” Loren Eiseley: The Immense Journey

Knowing this, it is little wonder that I leapt for joy, watching my granddaughter singing the words:

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free’

Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.[2]

Three Clerics

Three Clerics

Three clerics, representing three of the world’s great religions, met at a conference on World Unity.  They became fast friends and agreed to meet monthly to compare customs, rituals and the logistics of operating their respective houses of worship.  During one of the meetings the subject of gathering and disbursing monetary donations arose.  One of the men said that he had painted a north-south line on the floor of their sacristy.  After each service his treasurer prayed over the money, threw it into the air and watched it fall.  The funds landing on the east side of the line were sent to outreach programs.  The money landing on the west side was used to operate their program.  The second cleric nodded in approval and said that he had painted a circle on the floor of their sacristy.  His treasurer also prayed over the money before tossing it.  The funds landing outside the circle were sent to outreach programs and the funds landing within the circle were used to operate their program.  The third cleric smiled approvingly and said that their custom required a much deeper faith in God.  His treasurer too prayed as he threw the money upward saying; “Dear God, we trust that in your infinite wisdom you will decide how these funds should be disbursed.  We, therefore, trust that you will keep the money you will need for outreach and what falls on the floor will be used for our program.”

I love this story because it includes some of the whimsy commonly found in Sufi stories. (There are few, if any, funny Christian stories)  It also includes elements of the ironic, cryptic nature of a rich Zen koan. Even so, the story was not about Sufism, Zen or Christianity. Although it transcends many socio-ethnic layers and scopes, I like it because it is biologically profound.  In fact, without its meaning, we would not exist. It can’t get much more profound than that.

Hint: It has little or nothing to do with money, religion or vocation. You may also find a clue in BOFAW, chap 10, “Matthew I.”

UFOs or Not

UFOs or Not


The recent reference to UFOs was not based on science fiction.  When Christie and I moved to St. Helena, Ca. (1970) we had a lot of work to do restoring an old Craftsman-style home.  I was working on the roof, shortly after sunset, when I noticed three bright orange lights in the sky, southward towards Napa.  I yelled for Christie to come out and I quickly descended the ladder.  The lights continued on a due north flight-line.  It took several minutes for them to arrive over the Pope Valley area.  We had no idea of how far away they were, they may have been in the next county or state.  Suddenly, two of them veered west toward Santa Rosa and the third headed east toward the Sacramento Valley.  It got smaller and smaller, suggesting that it was going farther away.  Meanwhile, the other two looked to be over Santa Rosa, and then “it” happened.  I had just looked back to the singleton and it zipped from wherever it was to join the other two.  It left a faint streak of light, but was almost instantaneous.  Immediately, after the third body rejoined the two, all three flashed away in the direction of the Pacific Ocean.  Christie and I looked at each other and laughed.  We were both thinking, “This is a story better not told.”

Interestingly, when I did share it with students, their response was typically, Wow! Far Out! Cool! Wish I could have seen that.

Out Of The Mud Comes The Lotus

Out Of The Mud Comes The Lotus


It is striking to see beautiful Lotus flowers in mucky, smelly swamps.  The overarching theme is that from dead, decaying vegetation something of great beauty springs forth.  Although the colored varieties can be striking, the metaphorical contrast between muck and pristine white can be stunning.  Many world religions agree that we must die before we can transcend to an afterlife.  Meanwhile, we will face a seemingly endless line of “little deaths” as our egos are whittled down to size. (hopefully)


Excerpt: BOFAW.

In Margery Williams’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, the skin horse

informed the rabbit that becoming real, “doesn’t often happen to those

who break easily, have sharp edges or have to be carefully kept.” This

was not a metaphor, but a reality for the Biodesign classes. If Mother

Nature could polish granite, carve out Grand Canyon, and shape continentalshorelines, could she not “break” people, dull their “sharp edges,” and remove them from their “carefully kept,” comfort zones?

Lotus seeds have very hard, impermeable seed coats, and can remain viable for very long time. Sacred Lotus seeds, the most long-lived of all angiosperm seeds, have been known to germinate after more than 400 years! American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) can germinate after a dormancy of 200 years, and recently, lotus seeds of 1,200 years from China were germinated! What’s an incredible plant!


Citing Abraham Maslow, many references to spirituality need not include a religious connotation and can (and should) be used in public education.  Gautama Buddha, Jesus and many scholars, saints and poets used plants and animals as metaphors to communicate the possibility of living a deeper, richer, more meaningful life, regardless of a person’s personal religious choice.  In fact Buddha described his “Eight Fold Path” as a method of mental discipline, designed to promote and enhance personal and social tranquility.  It is a beautiful concept that is not the property of any organized form of religion.

Excerpt: BOFAW,

The pitcher reared back and threw the hardest pitch he couldthrow. The batter expected as much and drove a rifle-shot back to the mound. The ball hit the pitcher in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Both sets of fans gasped in disbelief, and then something amazing happened:

The young ballplayer was demonstrating one of the most difficult, challenging aspects of being human, being thankful for adversity; or looking for the lotus that will bloom out of the mud.

A Spirit Invitation

This photo is being offered as an invitation to “Vashon Jane,” and other mountain lovers, to make a spirit visit to one of the most sacred Biodesign trail junctions. This one was not a typical right/left junction; either of those options would have resulted in death.  This option was of a vertical nature and involved the choice of whether to climb the mountain or not. BOFAW readers will recognize this as the place where: Hannah wept; the class intellectual said, “I find this situation highly intimidating;” someone asked, “can we pray before we go up there?”; a “body” careened wildly down from the cloud enshrouded Dome; my palms were like “Stickeen’s” paws, bloody and sore; and Kaarin and I were engaged in a very slow, very strange dance as she labored to put each frozen foot on top of a waiting boot. It was a wonderful/awful place that became both a metaphor and a cautionary tale about the possible risks and perils that awaited those students who looked up the Dome and were not afraid to climb. Some of them are still climbing.


Excerpt: BOFAW, “Cindy.”


We were sitting in the sunny meadow at the base of Half Dome in

our final circle before returning home. One of the chaperones was an

Army vet and with tears in his eyes said, “You kids have formed bonds

that are usually only formed in the heat of battle; it has been an honor

to climb that rock with you.”


I could not have said it better. 20 of the 24 Biodesign Classes had the privilege of facing this junction and it was both an honor and privilege for me to share with them.


PS.  Probably in response to the outbreak of the hantavirus, Yosemite Rangers have announced that there have been so many Half Dome permit cancellations that they are readily available. The cables will be lowered on or about 10-8-12.  The fall was John Muir’s favorite time of year. He lamented about people “being so time poor that they could not take a pillow case filled with dried bread rolls, a pocket full of tea bags, a wool blanket and spend a glorious month in his beloved Temple.


Perfect Sincerity and Vulnerability II

Perfect Sincerity and Vulnerability Part II


When the slide-show team completed their program they announced that they wanted to show it to the class before the parent’s night.  They felt that there were potentially intimate moments that they wanted their classmates to see before they shared with a larger audience.  They asked the superintendent’s daughter if she wanted to include her dad and she did.  The program was shown and generated howls of laughter and tears of joy and sorrow.  When it ended there was a feeling of profound reverence—even love—in the room.  When the lights were turned on many eyes were glistening.  The superintendent stood up and quietly left the room.  I wondered what he was thinking.

A couple of days later he sent the class a beautiful, hand-written letter, thanking them for including him as a fellow learner and not rejecting him as an authority figure.  He ended with, “and by the way, the slide-show was quite emotional, did you plan that?”  The slide-show team seemed to be perplexed by his question.

We were still presenting papers and Raphael, one of two Mexican students, indicated that he was ready to present his.  The class was immediately impressed with his keen insight and ability to blend reflections through the lenses of two cultures.  He created a beautiful bilingual, bicultural tapestry.  For example, he wrote, that his parents could not understand why we were going to the mountains to sleep outside.  There were many homeless people in Mexico who would love to sleep inside.  Why would people want to go outside to sleep in the cold?  He described feeling loved by every class member which was often not the case when he interacted with “Gringos.”  He described seeing, feeling and understanding things on the top of Half Dome that he could never have dreamed of before.  Sentence after sentence created a virtual kaleidoscope of images, emotions and visual clarity.  His paper was profoundly moving and left few dry eyes.  After class, I asked Raphael if I could send a copy of his paper to our superintendent.  He was honored and quickly agreed.

Several days later a letter addressed to Raphael arrived at my mail box.  I handed it to him during the “news and notes” segment at the beginning of class.  The class properly guessed who it was from and urged him to share.  He beamed with pride, opened the letter and began to read.  The letter mentioned some of the same feelings that the class had experienced, however, they were more intensely poignant, due to being spoken with a beautiful Spanish accent.  He must have felt the same poignancy because he was quickly overcome by emotions.  I was sitting next to him in the circle and quietly asked him if he wanted me to finish the letter.  He nodded yes with a bright, but tear-streaked smile.  I continued where he left off and soon found that the lump in my throat was difficult to control.  I momentarily wondered if I would have to pass the letter to the person on my other side.  When I was finished the class erupted into wild applause.  Raphael’s face was resplendent.

After class I realized I had received two wonderful gifts, Raphael’s inspiration and a response to our superintendent’s question.  I sent him a “thank you” note for both of the letters and asked, “by the way, when Raphael read your letter to the class, he cried; did you plan that?”

Perfect Sincerity and Vulnerability

Perfect Sincerity and Vulnerability



Every Biodesign trip ventured into the uncharted and unpredictable wilderness of the teenage mind.  In the class of ’81, one of the girls wanted to invite her dad (VB) along as a chaperone on the Yosemite Trip.  We always needed chaperones, but her dad posed some scary potential issues.  He was the superintendent of our school district which meant that he was my boss.  The Biodesign concept was relatively young, highly controversial and I had some very vocal critics, all of which made me feel very vulnerable.  Interestingly, the class surprised me by agreeing that he should be invited, so what else could I do?

By the middle of the second day he had blended in so well that I forgot that my boss was watching my every move (almost).  That evening things would change drastically.  We arrived at the base of Half Dome and it started to snow lightly.  Ascending the rock would be impossible so we made camp in a nice open area.  We fixed dinner and were snuggled in tents and warm sleeping bags by 8:00 PM.  About 9:00 PM a group of half-drunk, half-stoned backpackers arrived and began pitching their tents right next to ours.  After setting up was complete they partied on.  There were four guys and one girl and their language was loud, vulgar and laced with obscenities.  I had heard guys in locker rooms use crude language, but the girl was spewing out anatomical descriptions that would have embarrassed a truck driver.  She could actually complete sentences consisting entirely of crude expletives.  They appeared to be abhorrent animals that we were trapped next to.  Our kids were amazingly tolerant, however, around 2:00 AM, one of them yelled, “Can you please quiet down, we are trying to sleep.”  The response was raucous laughter and more obscenities.  One of them slurred, “Maybe I’ll light a fuel bottle on fire and toss it into the little f—ers tent and see what happens.  More laughter.  The weight of the responsibility was almost overwhelming.  I tried to relax and get some much-needed sleep, but wondering what VB was thinking made it almost impossible.  Around 4:00 AM the last neighbor either passed out or fell asleep.  The next morning we fixed a quick breakfast.  The snow had stopped and beautiful sunshine replaced the horror of the previous night (almost).  We would be able to ascend The Dome, if only for a couple hours.  The partiers arose and greeted us kindly, as if nothing had happened.  At one point VB came over and said, “You handled an awful situation very well.”  I appreciated his words but was not convinced.

After a very long hike back to our Valley base camp, we arrived late and were greeted by a sudden storm.  Water came down in torrents and I told the hikers to grab the first available tent and unpack.  Thankfully the storm passed and we were able to prepare dinner.  The next morning we struck our tents, packed the cars and headed for home.  We stopped in Oakdale for a hamburger when it hit me!  I asked my VB what he thought about the previous night’s sleeping arrangements.  “What do you mean?” He casually asked.  I blurted out, “I mean that girls and guys were sleeping in the same tents!”  “Humm,” he said with a smile, “They treated each other like brothers and sisters so well that it just didn’t occur to me.” We both laughed, even though I knew that back home, critics would say, “Have you heard the latest?  He let boys and girls sleep in the same tents.  That is shameful!”




The Power of the Circle

The Power Of The Circle



“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in

a circle, and that is because the Power of the World

always works in circles, and everything tries to be

round … Everything the Power of the World does is

in a circle.”   Black Elk

Christie thought that the opening line for BOFAW should have been, “Form a Circle.”  It might also have been a good title.  It was probably the single most important logistical and operational factor of the class.  There was often something profoundly simple by standing or sitting in a circle which often raised physical, mental and spiritual visions to a higher level of awareness.  Especially when we discussed difficult topics, they could easily read the joy, sorrow, pain, anger, frustration or countless expressions on their classmates faces.  But it wasn’t just the circle that was powerful.  The students had agreed to make an effort to enhance sensitivity by approaching each topic without criticizing, condemning or complaining.  We were not perfect, but often able to tackle difficult concepts with a minimum amount of collateral emotional damage.

Black Elk believed that “the white man” would die of a great loneliness of spirit because he lived in rectangular houses that lacked the energy of a round tepee.  He had attended white man’s council meetings and noted that they lacked energy because they were not sitting in a circle.  I don’t know if he attended any white church services, but he most certainly would have found them to be spiritless because people were sitting on benches, all facing one man (or woman). “Surely,” he must have thought, “one man or one woman could not have the wisdom to think for the whole tribe.”  Not only that, it was customary for a chief or elder to frame all discussions and decisions based on the simple caveat, “Will our actions benefit the ‘seventh generation?’”

On Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas he encountered Caribbean peoples who held tribal council meetings in a circle, with both men and women having equal voting rights.

Although I may have been the leader, students hopefully discovered that anyone could be “the leader.” There were many times when they generally agreed with me, but there were also times when they vigorously disagreed with me.  Some of those disagreements proved to be ungrounded, but some proved to be greatly important.  They taught me many things that I could not have discovered on my own.

Typically, discussions would dart around the circle like a pinball ricocheting off the bumpers of a pinball machine.  The classic example of this was Matthew blurting out, “Wait a minute! What the Hell do we believe anyway?” That simple question radically changed all following Biodesign Classes.  Amazingly, millions of people go through their entire life without questioning what they believe and why.  I know this personally because I was of that mindset before the Biodeisgn kids started my real education.  BOFAW readers know that I once thought that memorizing all the parts of a fetal pig was more important than “creative thinking” and exploring Yosemite, Grand Canyon and the Mendocino Coast of California.

The circle rule applied especially on the trips, where we sat at Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Mendocino in magical circles. The classic example here was Heather’s candle light service on top of Half Dome.  The campfire circles often proved to be the most dynamic.  There was something, almost palpable, that often lifted conversations to a higher level.  Many students have contacted me with sad stories that they have searched in vain at colleges or universities for another “Circle Experience.”  They are not alone.  Despite all that we know about the power of a circle, we ignore it as quaint or obsolete.  I am guessing that less than 1% of the U.S. population will ever have a circle experience.

How tragically ironic it will be if Black Elk was correct and we do die of a loneliness of spirit because we lost the power of the circle.