Enough?

I’m ready for a real Pacific Northwest winter. The heat and drought from last summer and early fall have left me parched. The land remained thirsty even after the hard rains of November. The water for our cabin in the Coast Range is a spring that was still dribbling at the low flow of summer. The duff seemed to be withered. There were fewer chanterelles than I’ve ever seen, fewer mushrooms in general, as though the mycelia had died back from the desiccated humus. The prospect of cold heavy rains is exciting. Those slashing storms could bring life-giving water to a landscape unaccustomed to such dryness. With luck, snow will accumulate in the mountains and melt through spring, keeping salmon streams cool and full.

We have plunged headlong into the time of wet darkness. The long season of gratitude paradoxically kicks off with the consumer frenzy of Black Friday. These days I am captivated by the meaning of “enough.” It’s a simple word, derived from the Old English “genog,” which as a noun means sufficient in quantity or number or sufficient for the purpose. Yet the simplicity of the word belies an underlying complexity. While the definition may be clear, the line of demarcation between enough and not enough isn’t. This may be why many of us have difficulty deciding what a sufficiency of anything actually looks like.

We simply can’t get enough of some things. This winter I don't think any amount rain will be enough. Seeing enough birds on the Christmas Bird Count is difficult to imagine. Will humans ever develop enough environmental consciousness? Can there ever be enough peace in the world? With respect to our internal ecosystems, can we ever experience enough love, joy, or gratitude? The list seems endless.

Like rain and birds, I can’t get enough of people doing good things, especially in our small community of naturalists. You should know of a recent speaker who reached out to encourage and exhort a woman being treated for cancer. You should also know that a prominent local ornithologist stepped up to support a young birder who had just lost his father. Can we ever get enough of this goodness? These are stormy, tumultuous times, and the chasm of our need for virtue seems bottomless. We are a close-knit community of people living in the community of nature, where goodness ripples outward and inspires gratitude.

But the concept of enough has other permutations. I’m thinking of material acquisition, of course. When is enough really enough? I wish I knew. Because this idea of sufficiency is arriving front and center as critical in our thinking on how to ameliorate a host of human shortcomings, from unrestrained exploitation of world resources to depression to xenophobic scarcity mentality. An inflated sense of the material wealth necessary to meet our needs is quite literally killing the biosphere. As a community, whether local, regional or global, we should care deeply about the meaning of enough.

This brings us to the crux of our decision making to determine what sufficiency actually means. All of us must decide for ourselves. And that demarcation between sufficient and insufficient will be very different for different people. An extreme example would be a western capitalist compared with an African subsistence hunter. One person is steeped in the edicts of the growth economy, whereas the other must be able to carry all of his belongings to the next camp. The contextual differences in their lives, both ideological and practical, will lead them to very different ideas of how much stuff is really necessary for happiness.

I have a lot of questions. For starters I offer this: the level of acquisition that constitutes sufficiency seems to be internally regulated. Therefore, a first step might be turning inward and honestly asking ourselves how much we really need. This introspection, this attentiveness, might also require that we truthfully assess the external reasons that shape our internal definition of sufficiency. Are the drivers an outcome of our desire to be moral citizens of the biosphere? Or are they the standard measures of success in pursuit of the American Dream, the car, the clothes, the house, the vacations?

My only inkling of how to cultivate a concept of enough involved a bag of wild mushrooms. On good chanterelle years I’ve had a tendency to pick too many. My sins were small. The mushrooms were never wasted, and to my knowledge careful picking doesn’t deplete the harvest from year to year. But I ended up spending far too much time cleaning fungi, then giving the excess away because I had more than I could use. This happened because I was so locked into my foraging mojo that my entire focus was on the growing weight of the mushroom bag in my hand.

But I was missing out on a lot. An autumn forest is a busy place: Pacific wrens are singing, the smell of healthy decomposition fills the air, and coiled beneath that piece of fallen bark might be a western redback salamander. When filling my mushroom bag is the obsession, I’m no longer engaged in a reciprocal relationship with the forest. I’m only there to take, rarely to give back. This extraction mentality probably has its roots in scarcity thinking, that there will never be enough mushrooms or anything else to go around.

My attitude began to change on a trip early this fall. I walked into a mature second growth forest with sword ferns and deep moss and very little understory. A heavy rain had come ten days earlier. At first I thought there were no chanterelles. Then I realized they were just emerging, dry, firm, and clean, the color of those Creamsickle ice cream bars I loved as a kid. When I had enough for a breakfast of mushrooms and eggs, I slowed down. A lot. There was a forest beyond the toes of my boots waiting to engage my eyes, ears, and nose. I was grateful for the chanterelles that were there and started leaving mushrooms behind. I stopped picking long before I would have on past trips.

The earth will not be saved from the voracious reach of humanity just because I left some chanterelles behind in the mossy duff. But that feeling of restraint based on sufficiency and gratitude is still with me. As darkness ratchets down in this season of giving and receiving, I’d like to continue conjuring the memory of walking in that forest, revisit the feeling that my needs are much smaller than my wants, and find that childlike amazement that Earth continues to meet those needs.

May your holidays be blessed with plenty of birds and rain and kindness, and may all your needs be met.

[An earlier version of this essay appeared in Nature Trails, the monthly publication of the Eugene Natural History Society.]