The West’s Silent Spaces

By Stephanie Malin

Having just completed my dissertation, I feel a little lost. Strange, I know. I longed for this day while I sat staring at mounds of data, a computer screen, and the ticking clock. I am certainly doing more cleaning, organizing, and cooking than I thought humanly possible, and my work out routine is back to normal. Thinking back on the writing process, though, I’ve realized that one of the things that got me through the process – aside from my patient husband, insightful major professor, and encouraging parents and family – was the southern Utah landscape.

In the middle of writing ‘The Beast’ (as I affectionately termed my dissertation), my husband and I celebrated our tenth dating anniversary. Though I knew taking a break might be risky in terms of finishing on schedule, I also knew Matt and I needed to take time to enjoy the milestone. Thus, we decided to head down to one of our favorite haunts in southern Utah – and indeed, one of our favorite places in general – Capitol Reef National Park. Given our love of petroglyphs and anything archaeological, we decided we would also hit Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery. Looking back on this trip from a place of new-found calm, I now know that not only did these silent spaces help Matt and I recognize our anniversary; the red rocks, towering cliffs, and ancient rock art also inspired me to get through one of the most challenging periods of my academic training.

On the way to Capitol Reef, we first stopped at Horseshoe Canyon to walk the trail that ends with the Great Gallery. As you may know, the journey to Great Gallery is as much the destination as the ancient rock art itself; once off the highway, we took off down the 32-mile dirt road. This was our second trip to this surreal place, and we knew the road has unpredictable, shifting sand dunes, washboards that shake your car violently, and a sense of isolation and adventure unparalleled even in remote southern Utah. As we bounced down the road and made it to the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, we stepped out into a wind storm, sand stinging our faces and eyes. Descending down the cliff side, we met up with the roughly-marked path winding along the canyon bottom, towering tan cliffs on either side. With no one else in sight and four panels of rock art to observe, we were in heaven.

Once we reached Great Gallery, however, each of us had to stop, sit, and stare. You can feel this place’s special energy and silence as soon as you round the last bend before the Gallery appears, ghostly dark red and brown figures looming high above you, six-foot tall beings watching you from a different time or planet. The figures look like large mummies or elaborate warriors, though trying to identify them or attach meaning distracts from their mystical quality. So we sat there in silence. Taking it in. Breathing deeply. And wondering to ourselves what inspired people thousands of years ago to create these magical, mysterious images. All the anxiety of writing a dissertation, of an impending move, of all the looming uncertainty were whisked away in that moment of silent desert stillness.

Once in Capitol Reef, after a bumpy drive back to the main road, we completed our customary hikes and delicious, gourmet dinners at Rim Rock Restaurant. This time, though, in honor of the special occasion, we did something we never have – we hired a local guide to take us on a backcountry tour of Cathedral Valley, where you can see the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Our guide arrived early in the morning, in a weathered Land Rover, a tall, stoic, reserved cowboy named Brian. He forded a river for us, taking us deep into the backcountry on a 60-mile loop. Brian described the landscape as he saw it, giving us insights into the park that we never had before, and amused Matt and I with stories of local residents and his own escapades in the area over the years. Once we arrived at Cathedral Valley, we knew we had reached another special, silent place. The sun peeked out, illuminating the Temples and accentuating their brilliant red. Even in the whipping wind, I took a deep breath and felt the silence, surrounding me for miles and miles. Any lingering worry slipped away, and I allowed myself to just feel connected to the landscape – at once alien and deeply comforting.

On our drive out of the area, I felt refreshed, full of life and love, and ready to tackle the long haul ahead. Without these silent spaces and their soothing energy captured in my imagination, I doubted I could handle the task. With them clear in my mind, though, I could push through the stress, self-doubt, and worry and complete the daunting task ahead.

The West is full of these silent spaces, the spaces that bring peace, encourage introspection, and cultivate self-awareness. What are yours? Please share!

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Stepping Up and Taking Responsibility

Heath and wellness has been a common thread throughout my blogs and I am continuing to stitch with that thread again this month. So many things could distract me – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant melt downs in Japan followed by yet additional earthquakes occurring again this week. Add to that the near melt down of our government operations as negotiations continued right up to the last minute to determine whether there would be a government-wide shut down reminiscent of the shut downs in 1995-96. So far it appears that government offices will be open for business at least for now although debates on the budget will continue. Even with all that excitement I’ll return to my health and wellness theme.

My focus this month is on the growing number of retirees and other members of the baby boomer generation who were born between 1946 and 1964. Baby boomers started turning 65 this year and their growing ranks are causing concern partly because of the impact they will have on Medicare. This is the fastest growing age group made up of around 39 million Americans, a number that will increase to 71 million by 2030. According to the American Hospital Association 60 percent of these folks will experience more than 1 chronic condition by 2030. These conditions include diabetes, arthritis, congestive heart failure and dementia. Chronic conditions are also the leading cause of death for older adults.

Last fall I went to a meeting of our local AARP Chapter. The Alaska State Director and the AARP National President were speakers. They each addressed health care and the need to get run away health care costs under control. As they fielded questions from a very interested audience I pondered why no one was talking about the things each one of us can do to improve our own health and the preventative steps we can take to avoid being part of that 60 percent. It was puzzling to me because there is so much each of us can do to improve and insure (to a certain degree) our own health and wellbeing with many ideas showing up in the AARP magazine.

AARP The Magazine arrives in my post office box every other month with an extensive health section that incorporates suggestions for maintaining and improving mental and physical health. Examples from September/October 2010 include articles on “green exercise”, fitness, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and immune system health. I’m a regular reader and always save – and share – these articles even after the rest of the magazine has gone to the recycle bin.

I didn’t speak up but shortly after the meeting I contacted Juneau Chapter President to volunteer to present a session at AARP Day, which will take place at the end of April. There will be sessions on financial planning, tax law changes, estate planning, and Medicare, as well as cooking, stress reduction, and computer basics, and I’ll be there to talk about how being active outdoors can contribute to health and well-being.

I plan to highlight research from a study at the University of Essex in England that found that just five minutes a day of “green exercise” could boost your mood and self-esteem and reduce odds of depression and other psychological conditions. Green exercise can include gardening, fishing, walking, cycling – basically being active outdoors in a natural setting. In addition to the benefits of vitamin D from the sun (if you live where you have sun) other benefits include enhanced cognitive functioning and increased compassion, and positive effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress. Some studies have also documented links between spending time in nature and longevity and decreased risk of mental illness.

Other research has found that walking can reduce diabetes incidence and lower mortality for those who have diabetes. One death per year may be preventable for every 61 people who walk at least 2 hours a week. While preventing one death per year may not seem like much I’m sure most of us know people with diabetes and it would make me happy if the diabetics that I know could avoid being a casualty of the disease…. and 2 hours a week is less than twenty minutes a day.  Diabetes often leads to the need for dialysis treatments that are not only inconvenient for the patient but also very expensive for society. In June 2006, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nearly 22% of people 65 or older had diabetes with cases expected to increase 336 % over the next 50 years. If current trends continue one in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes and this is not just a problem in the United States. The World Health Organization predicts that diabetes will rise 50 percent in the next decade with diabetes deaths doubling in the next ten years. It is frustrating that effective preventive measures are available through lifestyle changes but not everyone takes advantage of them.

In addition to being a preventative for diabetes, green exercise, specifically walking in forests and other natural settings has been shown to reduce stress, improve moods, reduce anger and aggressiveness and increase overall happiness (see Rural Connections – Healthy Communities Issue, Volume 5, Issue 1 – 2.3MB PDF). Walking is an especially good activity because, in addition to having less impact on your joints than running, if you swing your arms as most of us do, walking is a bilateral activity—meaning it allows us to access the whole brain. This makes it a very grounding activity that can result in increased creativity and healthy processing of emotions. As I mentioned in my article in Rural Connections (linked above) studies of “forest bathing” in Japan – short leisurely visits to a forest – increased vigor, decreased anxiety, depression, anger, may decrease psychosocial stress related diseases, and increased levels of a cell that releases anticancer proteins in the blood that work to prevent cancer generation and development.

So, you’ve been treated to a preview of my session at AARP Day in Juneau. In addition to sharing research findings I’ll be asking participants what kinds of outdoor activities they enjoy, what experiences they can share about the benefits they observe, and what we can do locally to encourage more people to engage in outdoor activities. What do people find as barriers or impediments to getting outdoors for a walk? I know for me it is mostly making time to head outdoors. In fact, I think it is time for me to head out right now!

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.