Odysseys for the Soul


The Circumference of Home

by Kurt Hoelting

When I looked more closely at the details of my energy consumption, I discovered that three-quarters of my carbon footprint is a result of frequent jet travel, more than swamping all my other efforts at energy conservation combined. I’d been turning a blind eye to my biggest source of personal carbon emissions, while obsessing on small efforts to rein in energy use in other parts of my life. Yet with family and friends spread to the four winds and a livelihood dependent on frequent travel, I could see no way out of my personal enmeshment in this global crisis. It was a moment of truth that offered no easy solutions.

Excerpted from book, The Circumference of Home:
One Manís Quest for a Radically Local Life
Kurt Hoelting, by arrangement with Da Capo Press,
a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Copyright © 2010

I’d almost given up finding any answers at all, when the genesis of a creative response ambushed me one morning while I was having breakfast with a friend. I’d watched the dramatic changes happening in my own local climate — the rapidly receding Cascade glaciers and diminishing summer snowpack, the increased rainfall and flooding in the rivers, the obviously warming temperatures. It was written in plain sight, yet still I felt stuck. Tired of feeling powerless, and weary of this treadmill of travel, I overheard myself musing to my friend. “What would it be like if l didn’t get into a car for a year? What would it be like to spend an entire year within walking distance of home?’’

Just the thought alone brought a wave of relief. The very audacity of this prospect echoed all the way down to my bones. Rarely has a passing notion taken such complete hold of my imagination. In the days and weeks that followed, I could not let it go. I spent hours poring over local maps with a growing excitement about the places I’ve always wanted to explore close to home. The prospect of doing so under my own power added an aura of adventure that fired my spirit. Using my home as a center point, I drew circles of varying sizes on the map, to see what each contained. The image of “circling home” inscribed itself on my mind as a scope for the adventure. I chose the duration of one year for the project to include a full cycle of seasons, and one full circle around the sun. And I chose the winter solstice as a time to begin because of its symbolism of darkness turning back toward the light.

What really closed the deal, though, was the discovery I made when I drew a circle one hundred kilometers (or sixty-two miles) in radius from my home. The arc of this circle passed directly over the summit of Mount Olympus to the west, the highest point in the Olympic Mountains. It swung north to just include the San Juan Islands, before passing directly over the summit of Mount Baker, the highest point in the North Cascades. From there it passed directly over the summit of Glacier Peak in the east, the highest point in the Central Cascades, crossed Stevens Pass and Snoqualmie Pass on the Cascade crest, then swung around to just touch the southern tip of Puget Sound. To my astonishment, I discovered that my home on Whidbey Island lies at a perfect symbolic epicenter of the Puget Sound basin. With a home circle like this, there was no turning back.

For the coming year, I will travel exclusively by foot, bicycle, kayak, and public transportation inside this circle, with a portion of each month devoted to explorations under my own power. I still have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into or how I’m going to make this work. What I know for sure is that I’ve already set off on one of the grandest adventures of my life.

My goal is straightforward. I want to turn the necessity for change into an opportunity for adventure.

Six weeks into my year of local living, I can begin to feel the pace of my body slowing down. The inner residue of hurry and restlessness is gradually seeping out of my nervous system. It is a subtle shift, and it has taken this long to begin registering in my conscious mind. I am able to sit still for longer periods, not because I am more determined to do so, but because I just want to. My mind is more available to what I am seeing. With less wanting of things to be different, less pursuit of external stimulation, I simply see more of what is right in front of me.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this shift is the way I can literally feel the geography around me growing in scale and stature. A circle I drew on the map that felt small to begin with, and potentially confining, seems huge now, since it takes an entire day on foot to cover a small portion of it. Fifteen miles of walking is about what I am good for, yet such a day is filled with far more sensory input than a comparable day of driving that could take me halfway to San Francisco. I end my days physically tired, but emotionally full, with a sense of having transited a whole world of hard terrain. Curiously enough, I can end an equally long day of driving or flying almost as tired physically, but emotionally exhausted at the same time, not sure that I have connected with anything real beyond my desire to cover as much ground as fast as possible.

The landscape around me falls upon my senses differently now, working its way down through my perceptions and into my bones at a rate that my whole being can participate in, every step of the way. Already, I look out on a very different Puget Sound and a very different map of the region hanging on the wall of my office. I see nuances of landscape, identifiable landmarks, cultural niches, and relationships between them that were invisible to me before, and I am only just getting under way. Where there are blank spots remaining on the map, I have a new urge to explore them. My prevailing experience of a shrinking and flattening world has reversed course, and the geography around me has begun to expand again, right before my very eyes.

Gary Snyder touches on this dynamic in his story of riding in a pickup truck through the Australian outback west of Alice Springs with a Pintubi elder named Jimmy Tjungurrayi. As they speed along the road through his ancestral territory, Jimmy begins telling stories at a very rapid pace about what had happened in the dream time in each of the places that are flying by. Puzzled by this staccato accounting, Snyder later recalls, “I realized after about half an hour of this that these were tales to be told while walking, and that I was experiencing a speeded-up version of what might be leisurely told over several days of foot travel.” The writer David Abram, in reflecting later on this same story, points to the inseparable bond between landscape and language within oral cultures: “We might say that the land, for indigenous, oral cultures, is the very matrix of linguistic meaning. So, to force a traditionally oral people off of their ancestral lands . . . is, effectively, to shove them out of their mind.” It is worth wondering what kind of mind we can hope to sustain — what level of sanity — when the landscape upon which we dwell has been separated from its stories, when we must piece together our meaning from generic sprawl, usually transiting the landscape at a pace far faster than our stories can get a purchase on.

Kurt Hoelting is an Alaskan wilderness guide, meditation teacher, and climate activist with a passion for adventure and a lifelong commitment to the restoration of our planet home. He lives on an island in Puget Sound and is the author of The Circumference of Home: One Manís Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life.

This article is excerpted from book, The Circumference of Home: One Manís Quest for a Radically Local Life by Kurt Hoelting, by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010