Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite

Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite
by Mark Liebenow, University of Nebraska Press, March 2012

You can pre-order my book now at your local bookstore or online. The publication date is March 1, but copies will be shipped to bookstores 4-6 weeks before then.

I’ve attached the cover of the book so that you can see what it looks like.

And if you’re in the Peoria area this spring, I will be doing a couple of book readings and would love to see you.

You can find more information on my website –

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Early December's Quiet - Sigurd Olson

The evenings in early December are quiet, the earth held by the pastel colors in the sky and the broadening shoulders of night. Nature is clothing itself in winter.

I stand on my backyard deck and gaze into the woods. Thoughts drift among the trees. Dusk fills the snow-covered woods with shadows and presence enough that no discernment on my part is needed, only openness to what this is. If feelings should rise inside me, that would be alright. And if this quietness should bring back a dear, forgotten memory, or spark an insight into something that seemed impenetrable, that would be okay, too. But nothing is needed tonight. The presence is enough.

The silence of the woods, and the journey of the earth through the dark, silent cosmos, remind me of Sigurd Olson’s words, written from his listening point on the shore of Lake Superior:

The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores.

December is a time of taking stock of the year, of listening to our dreams again and believing that if we take risks and step forward, some of them will come true. It’s a time of looking at our lives and seeing if we’re headed where we want to go. It’s a time of feeling the presence of community, of renewal, and believing again that the dispirited can be comforted, the wounded can be healed, and relationships be made stronger.

Soon people will walk the streets of my neighborhood, caroling of hope and joy. Houses will fill with people and lights will glow from every decorated window. Holiday parties will overheat, people will open the back door to come out onto the deck to cool down, and find themselves listening to the quiet celebration of the woods.

(This blog is shifting its focus to nature. For entries that focus more on spirituality, please see the new blog that I am constructing called Cabin Monk – It should be finished in a couple of days.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Between Seasons - Leidig Meadow

The transition period between seasons often has a pause. I used to think that autumn progressively shifted into winter, each day taking another step along the way. But sometimes there is a period when movement seems to stop, when it is neither autumn nor winter, but something on its own.

In autumn the leaves on trees turn from green to yellow and red and fall to the ground. But a few trees hold on to their lingering colors. The process seems to stop moving. It’s not Indian Summer, more of an Indian Autumn. Leidig Meadow holds an earthy brown color with tints of yellow. In the early morning the slow flowing Merced River has a skin of ice on pools along the edge that melts away in an hour. Sunlight gleams bright off granite domes and peaks as it leans south in the sky, and a medium jacket is enough to keep me warm. The blue sky is clear and deep, not yet soft with the scatter of snow crystals high in the atmosphere.

This pause can last a few days or a week. Then the transition starts again and the cold of night stretches further and further into the day with a fewer moments of warmth in the middle. The last leaves fall. The ground freezes and the warm earth colors of the plants in the meadows turn black, gray, and mauve. Snow sifts lower from the clouds and covers the valley in white, closing the last remaining trails until spring.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mist Trail - Yosemite

How to Hike Without Looking

The sign at the bottom of the Mist Trail tells you it’s 1.5 miles to the top of Vernal Fall, 2.7 miles to the top of Nevada Fall, and 211 miles to Mount Whitney in Southern California on the John Muir Trail. Hikers start up the trail excited with a goal in mind, a place that they want to reach.

Some hikers go up the steep granite steps of the Mist Trail and stop at the top of Vernal Fall. Others go further up the canyon to Nevada Fall, eat lunch there, and come back down. Some continue on, taking the trail left for Half Dome, or go straight and follow the river into Little Yosemite Valley, or head to the right and pick up the Panorama Trail that leads to Glacier Point.

No goals are assured in the wilderness. I may run out of energy or twist an ankle before I reach my destination. Maybe the bridge above Vernal is under repair, or a storm sweeps in over the mountains, leaving me with no option but to turn around and run. Perhaps a mother bear will be hanging out by the trail with her cubs, blocking my way.

If I focus only on reaching my destination up ahead, and on not tripping on the steep and often uneven trail below my feet in order to get to get there, I will miss everything that is going on to the sides. There are sights, sounds, and scents all around. People sometimes see a bobcat here. There’s also a spring that the settlers put stones around to create a pool. At the top of Nevada there is a small dam that keeps the river from flowing down the steps I just hiked up. Illilouette Fall is only visible along one section of the trail. Did I see everything?

When I’m hiking, I see more if I don’t look for something specific.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Yosemite - A Place Apart

The wilderness is amazingly still at 8,000 feet. I’m alone, having hiked up the steep switchbacks for two hours from the valley floor to Glacier Point. A forest of sugar pine trees is behind me. In front, the view stretches a hundred miles over the gray peaks and mountains of the Sierra Nevada. No one else is here, but far below I see tiny people walking around on the valley floor. Except for a few squirrels and one Steller’s jay, no other creatures are letting their presence be known.

The breeze hums lightly as it twirls the needles on the pines, and there’s a hush as the wind flows over the mountains in the distance on its way east. Now and then, when the breeze shifts just right, the distant cascades of waterfalls reach me.

Where I sit feels like home. I couldn’t live here, of course. There’s no shelter, food, or water. And yet here I feel connected to something eternal. Is it awe of the landscape that pulls me away from my ordinary preoccupations? Is it reverence for a sacred place? Or is it respect for an ancient wilderness that has existed and looked like this for thousands of years?

Whatever it is, whenever I am here, I feel the burdens of life slide off and the surge of joy and contentment return.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Ocean From June's Deck

Marcia and I are sitting with June on the deck of her Maine home looking over the ocean. Dusk is falling and the colors of the day were changing from bright yellow, blue, and green to gray shades of blue, pink, and purple. The wind stops and the ocean calms, letting the light of the rising moon sparkle across a hundred miles of waiting ocean. The stillness of the world and our thoughts deepen the presence of the moment.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

At a Wandering Pace - John Muir

I remembered a John Muir quote incorrectly. I thought he said that nothing could be seen at 40 miles an hour because everything becomes a bewildering, swirling blur.

When people arrive in Yosemite today, after having spent four or more hours in the car driving 60-70 miles an hour across the Central Valley, up through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and into the valley, they do stagger out of their car dazed. At those speeds, the landscape has been a blur. Trees flash by the windows as we focus on staying on the road. We would be able to see much more if we slowed down to 40, but Muir doesn’t think this is enough.

And he’s right. In Peoria, as the sparseness of winter trees fill out with summer leaves, they begin to hide the contours to the hills. The little valleys and creeks that crease the rolling hills that I could see in winter are hidden behind trees. When I drive by a woods going even 25 miles an hour, all I see are the trees that stand alongside the road.

Yesterday I ran across this quote again. It doesn’t say 40 miles an hour. I had mistakenly thought that Muir was berating people who arrived in the valley by stagecoach, zipping over the new dirt roads, or taking the train to El Portal at the breakneck speed of 40 instead of taking their time by riding horses over trails. Muir took things even slower by taking several weeks to walk the 200 miles from Oakland. (Wendell Berry wrote an insightful essay on adjusting to the pace of the nature, “An Entrance to the Woods.”)

What the quote really said was 40 miles A DAY.

Harkening back to my time as a Boy Scout, I know that a good hiking pace is 4 miles an hour over relatively flat or gently rolling terrain. Ten hours at this pace would make a full day. You can see a great deal more of nature going 4 miles an hour rather than 60.

Yet even at this pace, if you keep to it hour after hour, you have no time to explore what is around you, what catches your eye. You can’t investigate the open patch of sunlight 100 yards into the forest, or check out the sound of running water to see if it’s a creek, a waterfall, or a pool that would be ideal for cooling your sweaty feet. If you are trying to get somewhere, even at 4 miles an hour, you are moving too fast to experience the landscape you are moving through.

So where does this leave us?

When you find yourself outdoors in a beautiful place, take your time. Savor what is there. Do not hurry on to get to some place else. Stay in the moment until it is over, then go on to the next. This is also important for the other events in our lives, like the deeper conversations we have with others.

Life is not a linear experience, a matter of getting from here to there. It’s a collection of special moments that we linger in, explore, and thereby come to cherish.

Not all who wander are lost. -- Tolkien

Friday, April 22, 2011

Half Dome, Yosemite

To celebrate Earth Day, I share one of my photos of Half Dome. This is taken from the side that doesn't show up in photos very often.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Seeing Nature

Early one morning, I followed the Merced River in Yosemite from Happy Isles to the big medial moraine, turned right, and headed up Tenaya Canyon. At the far end of Mirror Meadow I sat on a log by Tenaya Creek. My intention was to sit by the silent river, focus on the triangular boulder reflecting off the still water, let thoughts come and go, and wait for the sun to peak over the top of Half Dome, a mile above my head. When the light was right, I’d take black and white photos of Half Dome rising above me backlit by the sun.

When I first began taking black and whites, I quickly learned that colors do not translate to black and white film. Black and white picks up contrasts. I had to train my eyes to see the natural world differently in order to notice would show up in black and white.

Any time I go into nature from the city, I also have to refocus my eyes so that I see nature on its own terms rather than in comparison to a city landscape.

Ansel Adams was convinced that a black and white photo was different than a color photo of the same scene, a difference that went beyond the colors. Perhaps he felt that it was too easy to be misled by the colors in a photograph when composing a scene. Black and white photos capture the details, the essence of what is there, the grain, the shades of the land, the texture of reality rather than the surface flash.

Story versus images. Psychologists tell us that if a scene is green, we become peaceful. If it is red, we get excited. Colors do affect us emotionally. Have you ever noticed the difference in a friend’s face when the same photo is in black and white instead of color? It’s as if a protective covering has been removed and we can see the struggles that person has gone through.

If there is more emotion to color pictures, is there more philosophy to black and whites? Or more drama? And if writing and reading are essentially black and white affairs (black ink, white paper), do avid readers see black and white photography differently than non-readers?

John Muir’s birthday is tomorrow. He will be 173. PBS is running a good overview of his life under the American Masters heading.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


I do not make the transition between seasons easily. I get comfortable with the season I’m in, having rediscovered its unique beauty, and I don’t want to let it go. The last couple of weeks we’ve had brief snowstorms that changed the woods behind my house from brown to a white wonderland in a matter of hours. Yet the warmer days tell me that we’re on the boundary with spring, and I begin to miss the snow.

I remember one winter day in Yosemite:

I am hiking the Yosemite Falls Trail up the canyon wall. A scattering of snow has fallen to the 6000-foot level and it gets deeper the higher I go, feeling like the French Voyageurs battling harsh weather on Lake Superior. I think of when I canoed in the Boundary Waters above northern Minnesota, and I think of Sigurd Olson canoeing there, listen to the voices of nature.

Near the top, the trail is covered in ice and I have to dig my feet into the snow on the sides and waddle the last hundred yards. On top, the snow is deep and unbroken. Apparently no one else was curious or foolish enough to hike up. At 8,000 feet, everything is hushed. Whatever sounds arise are quickly muffled by the foot of snow.

My plan is to find out which trail is open--the one heading west for the top of El Capitan or the one going east to North Dome, but neither trail is anywhere to be seen. I also realize that if there is ice and deep snow here, then it’s likely that the same conditions exist over the length of both trails. I head off anyway thinking that if I can find something of one of the trails, I’ll be okay. But after ten minutes of tromping and struggling through snow that is now above my knees, I find no evidence of any trail and stop, unwilling to continue when conditions are so risky. The trails run along the rim of the valley wall and any slip could be fatal. Carefully I make my way over to the lip of Yosemite Falls and watch it flow over the edge and pour down into the valley. I also gaze at the distance, over the stark, slate-gray mountains of the Sierra Nevada, entranced by the rawness of the view.

Quietly it begins to snow and covers the tops of Half Dome, Glacier Point, and hundreds of mountain peaks that stretch to the horizon. What I’m seeing is the boundary that exists between my city life and the wilderness world, a world that exists on its own and follows its own rules. I come here for a week at a time to glimpse its otherness and to feel part of something greater than my life. Yet this view scares as much as inspires me. It’s another boundary that I face.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Getting to Know the Details

Life is in the details. The excitement. The variety. It’s what makes us different from each other. This is an outdoor photo. What do you see?

Nature is not a backdrop that exists for our activities. The woods are not just trees growing out of the ground. We are only able to see the woods in detail when we get out of our car and take the time to hike through them. Then we feel the presence of a different place.

The intricacies of nature can leave us in awe, if we pay attention when we are outdoors, and if we bend down and get close. Look at the details. Listen to the sounds. Sniff the breeze to see what you can pick up -- rich aroma of earth? dry leaves? wet bark? pine needles? sage?

More important than what is in the photo, is how you feel looking at its details. What thoughts came to mind? It’s a close-up of snow, taken from three inches away. Sunlight is hitting it at an angle that creates shadows in the foreground. I would not have noticed the textures or the shades of colors if I hadn’t kneeled down.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Night Returns to the Valley

As night returns to the valley, I watch the sky above Sentinel Meadow. It’s the day’s shining moment. Sunset spreads its rich orange and red colors over the land and all the birds and animals are in motion. Some are getting ready for bed. Others are doing a little last minute snacking, while some are just waking up and getting ready to hunt down their breakfasts.

This evening I have been looking for owls, determined to see at least one. But after waiting at several prime spots and seeing nothing, I head back to camp. Halfway across the meadow, I notice the tan shape of a coyote behind a tree, casually watching everything going on. Yet in this near darkness I’m not sure if it’s really a coyote. It could be a log, but I’m not going over to find out.

(A dandy snowstorm is moving through the Sierras today. If you’d like to see what this looks like, go online, put in “Yosemite web cam” in your computer’s search box. The Yosemite site will have four options – the Ahwahnee Meadow webcam is the clearest right now.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Big Old Trees

There’s a street near my house that used to have large and majestic trees hanging over the road that provided cool shade even on the hottest summer day. For one block it felt like driving through Sherwood Forest. Now half the trees are gone, trimmed back or cut down because they were old, and big limbs fall off even in gentle storms. The street has a different feel to it. It’s now like every other streamlined road that takes me from here to there.

The land we live on influences how we feel. There are other places in town that still catch my attention. I can’t go along Grandview Drive without picking up a sense of inspiration that stays with me throughout the day. I can’t watch the Illinois River flow by without feeling its surging power and the endless movement of the earth. I can’t hike through the quiet of the Forest Park Preserve and not think that I’ve stepped two hundred years into the past when all of Illinois was like this. And I can’t drive through the countryside without seeing the shape of the land and not be moved by its close relationship with the sky.

As much as we affect changes on the land, so the land changes us.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Staring Into the Woods

Why do I stare into the woods? There’s nothing going on there. The woodchuck is hibernating. The deer haven’t come through in a while. And don’t get me started on the owl that’s been on vacation for six months. It’s basically trees sticking out of two feet of snow that has buried the bushes and rounded the land so that everything’s smooth. And yet I do. I stare at the white landscape amazed by the intricate pattern of dark branches and trunks.

Why sit in a cathedral when it’s empty? Nothing’s going on there, either. And yet I do because I feel a presence. If I were to be poetic about it, it’s like centuries of devotion are held in the air between the vaulted roof and wooden pews.

Why I think this is, and what I think the major reason that I do this is, I like to be surrounded by something larger than myself, something grand, soaring, and noble. Something real. Authentic. This seems like a strange thing to say when talking about presence and mystery, both matters that don’t physically exist,yet are something that one can feel. It’s a gift, a grace, to sit for a time in a place that allows me to relax and breathe deeply. The wilderness is a place that helps me believe and hope in things I cannot see.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Primordial turn of Earth.
Solitude with stone.

Light rises, then sets below the south ridge.
Cold lingers in hidden parts of the valley.
Fleeting moments of midday warmth.

Clap hands to awaken one’s ears to this season’s voice.
This aliveness.

Deer nibble the ground.
Squirrels and Stellar’s jays scold us for no apparent reason.
All creatures listen
for enlightenment.

Snow covers the world, and deepens.
Coyote trots over memories of buried trails.
Glaciers deepen on the north side of mountains.
Icicles click in the breeze.

from Canticle of the Sierra Nevada

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The world is still when it’s below zero. Vibrant. Alive like a wire. Everything is crisp. Wide awake. The steam from furnaces curl out of pipes in every roof in the neighborhood and makes it seem like I am living in a small village with everyone cooking breakfast over open fires.

The world is white with snow unifying the land. Snow coats the road and is piled in long rows on the sides. Snow covers the rooftops and mailboxes. Bare tree trunks and branches brush black strokes across the land’s white canvas. When a male cardinal flies up to the feeder, its red seems impossibly rich and bright.

Winter days are often gray, but on those few mornings when dawn rises clear and cold, the sun sends rays that make the land glow pink or yellow for a few minutes. The world sparkles as if crystalline. My boots crunch on the glittering, crisp snow and echoes as I follow the cuneiform tracks of birds to see where they go.

I shiver outside in thick coat and gloves until I adjust to the stillness of movement, the quiet, the beautiful cold.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Walking With Senses Open

To really experience nature, I need to have all my senses working. Hearing is pretty much a given because I do that fairly well by default. And when I am outdoors, I listen even more carefully, wanting to hear large, carnivorous animals moving through the woods before I run into them. But when I focus on one sense, I also mute the other senses and let them drift.

I limit what my eyes see by deciding what I am going to look at ahead of time, with the result that that is all I end up seeing. For example, I’m under the trees by Camp 4 when I decide to walk into the meadows to see what the clouds are doing to Half Dome. As I move through the meadow trying to get a clear view of the dome, I fail to notice the coyote resting by a log, a ten-point buck, and a harlequin duck on the river.

Next time you’re outside, don’t focus on anything. Just open your eyes and try to see everything at the same time. Be aware of movement on the periphery of your vision. Notice the birds flying overhead without looking directly at them. It’s an unfocused looking because what we’re doing is trying to see everything at once and react to what is going on before we decide where to put our focus. I’ve found this helpful when I try to find owls in the woods behind the house, especially in the winter months when the empty branches create so many crisscross patterns that it’s hard to identify the patterns in the feathers of an owl.

Another other important sense to use outdoors is smell, and this is where your mouth comes in. When you’re outdoors, open your mouth a little and breathe in using both your nose and mouth. You should be able to flood all your smell receptors with air from both sources. Have you ever seen an animal with its mouth slightly open sniffing the air. That’s what it’s doing. I discovered this one day when I was hiking in the highlands behind Eagle Peak. It was hot and I was tired after hiking ten miles so I took a break. I happened to be breathing with my mouth open and began to pick up a variety of scents. I closed my mouth and sniffed, but the scents were faint. I opened my mouth, breathed in again, and picked up the scent of trail dust, pine trees, hot granite rock, moisture from a nearby creek, and something musky. A minute later a deer bounded out of the woods fifty feet ahead me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Not to Die When Hiking

            The most important decision I make when hiking in the wilderness concerns how many risks to take.

            If I stay on the trail, odds are good that I will survive. And I’ll survive if I have enough water for the trip and I’m physically in shape to hike up and down mountains for hours on end, and if the trail is clearly marked even when it goes over bare stone so that I don’t go off in the wrong direction, and the weather doesn’t change and turn beastly hot or frigidly cold, and it doesn’t snow and hide the trail, or freezing rain makes everything so slick that it’s impossible to continue on or go back over the ice. And I’ll survive if I don’t surprise a hungry bear or mountain lion, don’t trip and sprain an ankle, or fall down a ravine and have a boulder pin me down so that I have to cut off my hand in order to survive, like Aron Ralston, the guy portrayed in the movie. These are the common, everyday cautions.

            But I ratchet up the risk by pushing on the limits of my luck and doing things like hiking alone, which the rangers say never to do. Yet I do because I haven’t found anyone willing to get up before dawn, hike for twelve hours, eat fistfuls of nuts and raisins, and come back to camp at dusk. And I’ve discovered that I relish the quiet of a long hike by myself.  Forgotten matters rise to the surface from my subconscious that I think about, and I listen to the woods, the rivers, the birds, and the wind flowing through 200-foot-tall Sugar Pines, making them sing. When I’m in nature’s world, I like to pay attention to it. If someone were hiking with me, we’d talk and I would be thinking about what to say next. We’d be listening to each other, not to the outdoors. While this is valuable, it’s not what I go into nature to find. 

            There’s also part of me that likes to see if I can survive by myself in the wilderness, even if it’s essentially just walking through a strange forest filled with unsocialized animals for a really long time. Sometimes I take a shortcut between two trails, end up in a place that isn’t on the map, and have to figure out how to get back. Sometimes a bridge over a fast-moving creek is gone, and I have to find a way to get safely across. I like to sit quietly for an hour and see what animals show up.  Coyotes often come by, as do chipmunks and red-tailed hawks. I also like to stand on the edge of mountain peaks and look straight down below my toes, and to do things like hang from a tree that is leaning over the canyon just to have a better view of a waterfall because experiences like this put the taste of death in my mouth.

            What I want to find is what life is made of and to see how I react when I’m challenged and there’s the possibility of death if I make a mistake. I want adventures that remind me how glad I am to be alive.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Taking Off the Old, Putting on the New

Camping helps me see what I’ve done to my life.

I like to stay up late but I also like to get up when the sun rises. This leaves me tired. So I drink coffee to get me through the day, but when I’m camping, I can’t do this four hours out on the trail and I’m irritable by the afternoon and headaches form. When I go camping, I generally have to sleep in the first few days because I’m so tired from work. What have I done to my life?

Letting go of old habits, a theme this time of year, is hard because I do them without thinking. I like them, and I think they help me get work done. I don’t like to think about them when I don’t have to because there are more important things that I don’t want to think about first.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll think about it.