Every time I’ve come to Colorado by driving up out of the mostly flat lands of East Texas, through the endless plains, to the foothills, and eventually to the sudden uprising of the great Rockies, I’ve reflected on the experiences of pioneer families coming in their covered wagons. I often imagine them, as they watch the first hint of a mountain range appearing vaguely on the distant horizon. I expect that at first they would not be certain whether what they were seeing was a cloud bank or a mountain. And then, day by day, they would watch as that mountain range grew larger and larger, until it loomed before them, unimaginably challenging.
For those who felt threatened or too much intimidated by the immensity of the task of crossing the mountain before them, this great edifice, this vast wilderness of mountain, where they were told were mighty rivers with rapids and waterfalls, that at the tops of the mountains was treeless tundra and even icy glaciers, where sudden blizzards anywhere along the trails could leave everything buried in snow or ice, or otherwise that there were always avalanches of rock that could come thundering down over the often precipitous and narrow passages. And everywhere, of course, was the danger of bears, mountain lions….
Well, I imagine many an individual pausing, looking at what lay ahead, and saying, “You know, this right here where we’ve come to, at the foot of this mountain, this is far enough! We’ll settle right here.” Thus, I always suppose, was born cities like Denver and Colorado Springs, or other smaller towns all along the Front Range.
Some pioneers, obviously, were not ready to settle so soon, or even to settle at all. These individuals were drawn on and onward, entranced by ever-new wonder and adventure, the better place or places that were just beyond the horizon, wherever the horizon was. And so they went on, up the rivers, through the canyons, up and down the valleys and the ridges and the ravines, all the way up to the Continental Divide, to the great high elevations, cloud-covered and austere.
No doubt many people stopped here and there along the way, creating new settlements all along the route, while others ventured further all the way across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
Many also, of course, died along the way, pushing themselves too hard or too far, or encountering the unavoidable or the unforeseen…
This contemplation always makes me consider the words I use in this mental picture. Often I see a woman, wearing a homespun dress and sun bonnet, gazing up at the next challenging mountain pass, and I hear her voice, speaking to her imaginary mate: “Well, Henry…” (Why it’s always Henry in my script I have no idea.) “Well, Henry, I say, we just right settle here!”
Settle. They settle. Here, or there.
I do not think about this as a judgment, as though they were always settling for something less than what they imagined they would do. I think of it as a clear choice, and any decision they (or we) make could result in positive or negative consequences.
Indeed, there are many uses in the English vernacular of the word “settle,” with many different connotations. “Settle down!” (as when speaking to rowdy children). “Let’s settle this right now!” (as in resolving conflict, or indecision, or simply completing a plan). “I feel unsettled.” (of mind or spirit or emotion). “The creek water settled and I can see clearly now.” (as a clarifying process). “I settled for what I could get.” (and feel one way or another about that, with resignation or with a feeling of being at ease with the limitations and mountainous circumstances that life throws in our way).
I think about these expressions as they apply not just geographically but also emotionally, spiritually, even in relationships or jobs or in, say, politics.
Being “unsettled” about a certain thing, memories especially, that persist may actually be letting us know that these unsettling things need to be addressed or challenged, for our own good, for our own wellbeing.
I consider any one of these uses of the word settle as probably a transitory stage. Every settlement grows or changes or even disappears, whether it is in the external world or the internal psychic world. (I am reminded that the first English settlers at Jamestown had to relocate out of their initial settlement to higher ground for security and health reasons…)
So…I think about all of this as metaphor, how all these considerations can apply to our own individual and social lives. It makes a big difference how we feel about “mountainous” circumstances, obstacles in our path, detours, and so on.
Is it that one has “settled for” or “settled on” a career or a relationship, say; the way we put it into words gives it a positive or negative spin, especially if one set out originally for another destination or with another intention. Has our settling out been ok or even surprisingly satisfactory, or is there still the restless “Yes, but…” voice, always luring one out of the settled, safer, possibly more comfortable place one finds oneself in? Is there ever a place where we are at peace, with many of the big issues and “bucket lists” settled, so we can settle down and be content?
Probably we all find ourselves with an “all of the above” feeling about most things. I often hear myself saying “Yes that, AND not ONLY that…”
Actually, I hear myself saying a whole list of things…”Yes.” “Yes, that!” “Yes, but not that!” “Yes, and that.” “Yes, and not only that.” “Yes, any of that.” or “Yes, all that.”
And sometimes the “Yes,” becomes a “No,” equally emphatic on all counts. And sometimes that feels right. Sometimes I feel both ways, “Yes” and “No” for different reasons. Especially in this time in our political life and in our culture, choosing what we “settle for,” what we “settle upon” as solution, how we “settle our difference” so that we can remain a community and not just a group of unsettled individuals… all of this and more seems critically important.
This summer’s sabbatical in the high country of Colorado has been all of that for me, and I want to bring back to you the blessings I have experienced. I’ve danced, chanted, prayed, drummed, envisioned, laughed, dreamed, absorbed, listened. I feel a great sense of renewal of purpose and wisdom and direction. I can’t wait to share all of that with you! It feels especially blessed to have Earthsprings to come home to, and all of you as my tribe to come home to.