the gift of a tree
Most boys get a baseball mitt, a train set, or Legos for their 11th birthday. I got a magnolia tree from my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Stanley! With great pride and excitement, I took the sapling out into the yard and dug a hole below my bedroom window.
I loved the magnolia the way some kids love a puppy. We grew up together. I might grow an inch or two in a year, while it would grow a foot, two feet, and more. I cared for it over the years with water and mulch and love, and it showed me a simple dedication to life, the unassuming practice of natural growth. The magnolia taught me to be humble, patient, kind, and caring, as loving another often will do. One year after the gift of this tree, my parents planted two eight foot green ash trees, one for me and one for my brother, in front of our elementary school in San Antonio, Texas. These early experiences set me on my green and leafy course in life.
Each summer for eight years, I could hardly wait to pack for summer camp. The singing, campfires, canoeing, archery, and crafts fed my soul. After five years as a camper, I became a counselor. I taught sailing, rode horses, walked the dry riverbeds, and guided campers all summer long.
One summer, while a counselor at Camp Champions in Marble Falls, Texas, I met a man named Hondo Crouch who carved spoons, kept a deer and falcon as pets, and was truly living his true nature. Hondo gathered his friends Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willie Nelson to jam around the campfire as they wrote the well-known song Luckenbach Texas - Back to the basics of love.
In June 1969, Neil Armstrong dropped off his son, Ricky. In July, an Air Force helicopter arrived to take Ricky home to Houston. Everyone at the camp gathered around to watch a small black-and-white TV as Ricky’s dad made one giant step for man, one giant step for mankind!
I attended college at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
One of my best college experiences was my internship at the 7UP world headquarters. I landed the internship because I was thinking outside the box. I waited outside the headquarters at lunchtime and watched as staff filed out the front doors. I could identify the sales, accounting, research, executive, advertising, and marketing people by their dress and demeanor. I noticed one man who seemed to be so alive and almost glowing! I gathered the courage to approach him and say, “I put an internship application in with the personnel department—”
“That was your first mistake,” he replied. I found the words to say, “I would like to buy you lunch!” He paused for the longest time, then said, “Where do you want to eat?” At lunch, I learned that Orville was the director of advertising ... The Mr. UNCOLA! This was at the beginning of the highly successful UNCOLA campaign that forever energized the soft drink world. After lunch, he invited me to his office and offered me a three-month internship. I gladly accepted!
As the UNCOLA campaign gained momentum, Orville was promoted to Director of Marketing and he hired me to be his special projects right-hand man. I was part of the UN-ovative, UN-ique, UN-credible UNCOLA campaign of the early 1970s, handling high-profile projects such as the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon and all promotional items, including the famous upside-down UNCOLA glass. I like to say that I went from the ground floor to the executive suite in about thirty minutes!
What I learned over my five years at 7UP was how art, creativity, and fun can be successfully combined with business. Slogans like “Be True UN to You” and other universal messages were used to not only sell a soft drink, but to encourage consumers to live their true nature. In my favorite of the TV commercials we produced, Jeffrey Holder said, “Cola Nuts or Uncola Nuts, now you choose wisely ... ho ho ho” with his deep and memorable laugh. It was a fun reminder about the choices we have in life.
After 7UP was taken over by Philip Morris Tobacco Company, it lost its creativity and soul ... not to mention Orville, me, and hundreds of others. It was a shock to see the dismantling of such a spirited team. For me, it was then on to Willy Wonka Candy Company to design chocolate candy bars and work on the Giant Chewy SweeTarts project ... that is, until my dentist encouraged me to find a new career.
a new start
I was in the post office mailing a letter halfway around the world to Kathmandu, Nepal, when I noticed that the person next to me was also mailing a letter to Kathmandu. We talked, I showed him some nature photographs, and a few days later I joined his company, Wilderness Travel, to be a guide and photographer co-leading 25-day treks across the Swiss Alps.
As I look back on my life, I see that when I’m living my truth, amazing things continually open for me. I experienced the beauty of the earth and literally walked away from a life that no longer worked. I walked from the Eiger to the Matterhorn on foot, feeling strong and connected. Next, I was scheduled to lead a trip in Norway, but the trip was cancelled at the last minute. On the way back to St. Louis, my flight stopped in Reykjavik, Iceland. A fellow from the Swiss Alps expedition and I had decided to explore Iceland together, but his plans changed and I could either return to St. Louis in the middle of the hot humid summer or venture out on my own in Iceland. Quite a surprise but definitely part of the bigger plan as I got off the plane for my next adventure.
solo in Iceland
I hadn’t planned on walking 40 days solo across remote Iceland, but then again I hadn’t planned not to! As I walked the rugged and pristine terrain of Iceland, I felt more a part of nature and less a part of civilization. I carried my gear and camped on the land, exploring waterfalls, glaciers, and geothermal vents. At 7 and 21 days, I noticed a marked deepening. I began to feel the rotation of the earth coming up to meet the sun rather than seeing the sun “set.” Walking, walking, walking in peace even though the rain had come down for 14 days straight. Breathing, becoming, allowing nature to wash over me. To cleanse me from a lifetime of electricity, mechanical, and unnatural elements. I ate dried fish and collected berries and savored packets of miso soup.
Thirty days into the journey, on a narrow strip of land between the North Arctic Sea and the immense Vatnajökull glacier, the air began to slightly cool, and a bird flew in an unnatural pattern. I saw a jet-black band of clouds on the horizon. A frozen raindrop hit my face. I noticed something taller than the flat terrain maybe two miles in the distance.
The cold sleet was pounding as I began to run, full pack and all, in hopes of its shelter. At times I could just lean forward into the wind and it would hold me up. The last 100 yards, I crawled toward the hut, drenched and exhausted. The door opened. In Icelandic, Danish, and English the sign on the wall read: “Shipwrecked mariners’ hut for the exclusive use of those in distress.”
For four days, the winds pounded and rattled this metal corrugated hut. The freight train sound shook my soul. One step outside, and I would be blown across the tundra and into the sea like a tumbleweed. I savored one cookie a day, wrote in my journal, and made promises in ink to leave my home in the Midwest and seek a closer connection to nature.
How do you bring back what you know and make it a part of your everyday life? How do you follow through on the tough decisions? Somehow I mustered up the courage. Upon returning from Iceland, I packed up after eight years in St. Louis. I retraced parts of the Lewis and Clark expedition trail and the Oregon Trail on my journey to Portland. The land was green and the soil fertile and the rain ... well, constant. I again had a choice, take a high-paying job as advertising manager for one of the big multi-national lumber companies or work for minimum wage outdoors in a tree farm in Boring, Oregon. You guessed it—and how delighted I was to work among the trees. It was anything but boring! However, given the wage, I decided that if I was going to eat, I better plant my garden. In the back of my mind, I had an intention to combine business with nature. So one day in 1978, while out in the garden hoeing the beets, an idea popped into my head: Why not combine seeds and greeting cards ... Greeting Seeds! I discovered a young art student who would create the art for the first cards and for many years thereafter. We created greeting cards with seeds, teas, spices, herbs, and other gifts of the Earth inside. The idea took root. Sales climbed each year to top off at 25 million cards sold.
That's a lot of paper!
Selling so many Greeting Seed cards presented a paradox. We made a commitment early on to not only use recycled paper, but to replant ten new tree seedlings for each mature tree harvested for our products and business operations. I thought, if each of us could just take care of our part, then it would all make sense.
Along with Gayan “Gregory” Long and Mary Herrick, I started the nonprofit Fort Collins ReLeaf, a community tree planting organization that has planted more than 30,000 trees in Colorado. The organization merged with another—Trees, Water & People—which developed a unique wood stove to minimize fuel wood usage in Central America and plants thousands of trees each year.
Excited to become a father , I asked several other fathers for their wisdom. “What would you do differently?” was my question. Most gave an answer like, “Children grow up so fast. I wish I’d taken the time to be with my kids more, to be more present.” I took these words to heart and stayed mostly at home with my daughter until she was old enough for first grade. I loved it! Being so involved and connected is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I didn’t feel pulled in so many directions, and I had time to enjoy the gift of parenting. Of course, being with a toddler all day wasn’t always pure bliss—but it was an investment of the heart in both of our futures. I wrote and planned, and when Laurel was six, I began my new business adventure...Your True Nature.
can you give me some advice?
It was one of those days when the winds of life were blowing hard. Deeply questioning “why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? How can I make a difference?” I knew that if I could get outside, my problems would seem smaller and life would seem much greater. I walked along the sidewalk and up to an old cottonwood tree that I had passed by many times. This time, I stopped. I leaned against its bark to ask for advice. It shared with me its beautiful wisdom: “Stand tall and proud... Be content with your natural beauty... go out on a limb!” This simple advice from a tree began to smooth out the complexities and challenges I faced.
The wisdom I received from the tree became the poem “Advice from a Tree,” and that’s how it all started. I included it in my book Poet Tree: The Wilderness I Am. I wanted to share my love of trees with my daughter and to put down in writing what really mattered to me. I created a bookmark, then a postcard, with the poem inscribed. Middlefish, the first store that carried the Advicebookmark and quickly reordered within a week! Pretty soon, we made posters and notepads to sell. It was clear that many people were seeking some wise advice, too.
The river, mountain, garden, and hummingbird wanted to share their advice too; they offered their wise teachings. Then bear, moose, owl, horse, dog, butterfly—and now more than 50 different advice-givers all offer their true nature. I found that others had a particular animal or aspect of nature that spoke to them and represented their essence.
To bring the advice poems to life, I uncovered another part of my true nature through drumming and storytelling. The problem, however, was that I wasn’t a drummer, and I wasn’t a storyteller ... at least so I thought. With a simple drumbeat and the freedom to tell stories in different ways each time, I broke through my limited perceptions and tapped into something that was powerful and so much a part of me. It started with kindergartners at the library and grew into keynote speeches for large conferences.
living your true nature
So, like the “Advice from a River” poem says, “The beauty is in the journey.” This is my journey. One of discovery, choice, intentionality, trust, and gratitude. One of perseverance, giving back, honoring our talents, and looking at the world with UN-ovation as day by day we create the life we imagine. Going beyond the obstacles into possibility.
A while ago, I sat in a movie theatre as the credits rolled for Into the Wild and tears streamed down my cheeks. It was so much my story—my Iceland journey into nature and into the depths of human nature. Chris McCandless and I both went into the wild, but I returned and he didn’t. It reminds me of the preciousness of it all. The journey continues each day, going into the wilderness and bringing back the wisdom to honor nature, honor myself, and offer a path for others to more fully live their true nature. We all have our story to tell, and our story to live.