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An open mind brings out the spirituality of place

"If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere."

— Vincent van Gogh

For years during the bustle of the holidays, when sunlight has been at its weakest and the air at its coldest and most biting, I have wandered far in spirit from my physical home here in the Rogue Valley to places on Oregon's east side I've considered my spiritual homes.

Last year during this season, I listed some of them, praising them for enlarging the mind even as they humble it with their breadth. I did so believing that respect for such places is a common thread in any genuine spiritual practice. I still believe that the destinations I mentioned then — Steens Mountain, the John Day Fossil Beds and Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge — along with some I went to this year — Hells Canyon, the high Wallowas and the Imnaha River Canyon — carry that transformative power.

But within the last year, I have looked more keenly at this land, this air, this water — my home ground here in the Rogue Valley and its surroundings — and have found it just as rich. Under a mountain mahogany along Hobart Bluff in the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument, beside a manzanita on the summit of Mount Elijah near Oregon Caves, in the shadow of a ponderosa pine along Tunnel Ridge in the Applegate and nearer yet, in the Jacksonville Woodlands or on the Bear Creek Greenway, there are feasts for the spirit equal to those open spaces to the east.

Because in the end, what is spiritual in any place is the light we touch and how well we carry it inside us. More than 30 years ago, when I was in the Navy, I heard two of my fellow sailors talking as I stood watch one night at our base in California. One of them said how unhappy he was, that if he could only go somewhere else, somewhere dazzling and expansive, Montana perhaps, or Colorado, "things would be better." His friend looked at him keenly and said finally: "If you're not at peace with yourself, it doesn't matter where you go. You won't be happy."

Almost 15 years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of a stress-reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, wrote a book called "Wherever You Go There You Are." In the book he talked of cultivating "mindfulness," finding a place of calm within ourselves he felt could be achieved through meditation and a more focused use of the senses.

I've had a copy of that book all these years but never read it — until now. This year, as many of us struggle with the aftereffects of recession and of living for years beyond our means, it seems particularly relevant.

Its message about what really matters in life is much the same as the one Henry David Thoreau articulated during his two-year stay at Walden Pond more than 150 years ago.

It was a sojourn he undertook because " ... I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau realized that the pursuit of anything, whether it be household luxuries or works of art, is valueless unless the wish to experience the truth of our existence in the moment — a spirituality of mind — lies behind it. From 1845-47, Thoreau gave himself completely to that ideal, finding himself as fulfilled sitting in a chair outside his cabin and watching the day pass as working in his bean field. He lived Kabat-Zinn's "mindfulness" intuitively long before the therapist articulated it.

Like Thoreau, I have seen this valley and these mountains with new eyes and have found them bountiful. A week ago, I looked out my window to the east and saw morning sunlight brighten the hills below Grizzly Peak with a wide bar of gold. In the foreground were bare trees, their still, leafless branches raised evocatively. Above the gold bar, along the crest, a soft shadow lingered, purplish in the dawn light.

Minutes later, I went to the other side of the house and looked out a window to the southwest to see Wagner Butte's triangular crest dotted with snow looming darkly under a hanging cloud. There, the day's light was gray and unsettling. Two different scenes, two different moods, yet both right for the moment.

All landscapes have their resonance, but it is up to us to be open to them without judgment.

"Only that day dawns to which we are awake," Thoreau said. "In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here."

Words to live by as the new year dawns.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 776-4498 or sdieffenbacher@mailtribune.com

Autumn light washes over slopes stretching toward the Rogue Valley in this view from Soda Mountain Road in the Greensprings. In such light, Southern Oregon's spiritual beauty shines. - Photo by Steve Dieffenbacher