A Compass of Collective Powers

Finding our way — alive, well, and free in a living world

Elizabeth Walsh, PhD
17 min readJun 26, 2021
On the path to a more just, and regenerative world, where all may be alive, well, and free in our common home. [Image: https://deepsouthmag.com/2016/06/03/travel-yellow-brick-road-north-carolina/]


Greetings, friend! Chances are, if you’ve found this post, you are a kindred spirit and fellow traveler, navigating this crazy world on foot, by heart, and in good company. Perhaps our paths have crossed years ago — or perhaps we’ve met more recently in the course of our adventures. Whoever you are, wherever your find yourself in the family of things, and however you’ve found your way here: welcome! Let us find our way together.

Who am I?

My name is Elizabeth. I love to hear all 9 letters of my name. My last name is Walsh. Some people call me Walshie (sometimes 2 syllables work better than 4, especially over a distance or in a hurry). Some people call me Dr. Walsh (sometimes it’s great to honor expertise and pursuits arising from a deep love of wisdom — plus, it’s great, if one must use a title, to use one that’s gender neutral — but gosh titles are complicated). And some people — well so far, one very special person — calls me Sage. It’s a Trail Name, you see — a tradition in hiking circles, especially among “thru-hikers” (basically those earthly fools who say yes to a call to complete an end-to-end backpacking trip on a long-distance trail like the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Coast Trail).

My beloved husband, Eric Johnson (EJ), bestowed the name Sage upon me somewhere along Section 2 of the Hayduke Trail, on the occasion our first [partial] thru-hike — which also happened to be our honeymoon, and which also happened to be the first week of COVID19-induced quarantine. That’s us, on the left, in Chesler Park in the Canyonlands — can you see all my namesake-sagebrush behind me? I’ll tell you what — after 80+miles into a 150 mile backpacking trek in the awe-inspiring Utah desert, the irresistible fragrance of sage begins to feel quite a lot like home. And I love home. So does EJ. And anywhere EJ is, it’s not only home, it’s a Five Star experience. And so, on the Trail, I call him Five Star. We make a good team. While I stop to smell the sagebrush, gape at the lupine, or become lost in the beauty surrounding us, Five Star always finds the way. And the water. Somehow, we manage to nourish each other and chart our course. Together, we get to be alive, well, and free.

Where am I on the clock of the world?

This year, in celebration of our third year of life together in the American West (July 4, 2018), our second wedding anniversary (July 5, 2019), and our third observation of Declaration Day (July 4, 2021) we are springing forward from the pandemic just as we entered it: with a wild walkabout in America the Beautiful. We’re taking a step away from work and people we love. We’re taking a step into an unknown; our first [complete] thru-hike challenge. As of June 27, we’re embarking our trek across the Colorado Trail: a 490-mile walkabout from Denver to Durango, CO.

The Colorado Trail at a Glance — https://coloradotrail.org/trail/guidebooks-and-maps/

We’d love for you to join us in our adventure! Even if we can’t meet up on the Colorado Trail itself, we’d love for you to join us this summer in our quest to live alive, well, and free in America the Beautiful.

There are lots of ways you can join us — here are just a few.

(1) You can follow our adventures on our community page on Facebook @Alive.Well.Free

(2) You can join us by celebrating the 4th of July with 3 (r)evolutionary questions:

  • Where (and when) do you get to be alive, well, and free? (And who do you get to thank for that?)
  • What does America the Beautiful mean to you?
  • Exercising your (r)evolutionary powers, what possibilities — for yourself and our world — will you declare into existence as we spring forward from the pandemic?

(3) You can join us by investing in people and their work to make our common home a place where more of us get to be alive, well, and free. Here are a some people and projects especially dear to us as we head off on the trail:

  • The amazing people behind the Colorado Trail Foundation, who care for our wild places and people (https://coloradotrail.org/). They follow in a tradition set forth by Benton Mackaye, who believed wilderness areas must be preserved for the good of the forest, the wildlife, and the people who need to escape and regenerate. He envisioned the Appalachian Trail as a place that would inspire kinship and cooperation, and in time it came to be!
  • Our dear friend Lucienne Nicholson, who's working to make the woods an inclusive place for all of us (https://inclusivewoodsandus.org/). In her own words, Lucienne is many things: a mother, an immigrant, a hiker, an enthusiastic gardener, a beach lover, and a wholehearted admirer of nature and its power to heal.
  • Our dear friend Doug Wooley, professional volunteer and mischief maker, who invests his precious life-force in nourishing soils and communities in our West Denver home (he’s even tending our garden while we’re gone — thank you, Doug!). Doug is a healer and connector who dreams of one day having a hand-cycle that will allow him to hit more trails himself, even with the limitations posed by life with spina bifida.
One example of a state of the art Hand-cycle!

A hand-cycle (like this one) is out of reach on a fixed-income, but with a little bit of Trail Magic from some Trail Angels, he could be out on the trails sooner than later! He would love to work with Adapted Adventures to find one that’s just right for him). Doug practices reciprocity every day! You’re welcome to include him in your own practice, and contribute to his dream directly — here’s a link to a GoFundMe page for a hand-cycle!

  • Our dear friend Gail Wells, whose Freedom Gardens in Buffalo are supporting racial healing, ecological justice, and equitable food systems (https://foodforthespirit.org/freedom-gardens/ )
  • Our dear friends at the Festival Beach Food Forest in Austin, who are growing edible forest gardens on public lands to nourish, educate, and inspire — https://festivalbeach.org/. (And big thanks to Jodi Lane whose design brilliance helped me bring the compass in this essay to life!)
  • The amazing freedom-fighters at Honor the Earth working with one of my sheroes, Winona LaDuke, to support our navigation on a new, green path that leads to mino-bimaadiziwin (the good life) - and they need support in their efforts to Stop Line 3. Please learn more, and if you're so moved, contribute... https://www.honorearth.org/stop_line_3 (And big thanks to Dani Slabaugh, for joining these water protectors in person, putting her body on the line to Stop Line 3).

(4) You can drop me (and EJ) a line via this googleform — I’d love to reconnect with kindred spirits when we come back from the trip!

And finally, I invite you to join me in using a Compass of Collective Powers to help navigate the (r)evolutionary moment we find ourselves in, this Summer of 2021. This post is about a Compass, after all!

Our (R)evolutionary Moment

As I wander on our walkabout, no doubt I’ll be wondering about our (r)evolutionary moment, here in the Summer of 2021 on the 245th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Here in Denver, we’ve been in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave here in the American West — tied both to “potentially the worst drought in 1,200 years” and a landscape primed for wildfires. As Americans come out of quarantine and call the 2020 pandemic “done,” will we also remember the other apocalyptic events of 2020, including an onslaught of deadly wildfires, a record-setting hurricane season, or the dire threats posed to our American Democracy with an attempted coup? In our post-pandemic euphoria, will we harness our love for liberty and community and channel it into the healing and regeneration of our world? Or will we, in a drunken stupor, slide back into business as usual? What would it be, I wonder, to spring forward spring forward on the clock of the world?

“Where are on the clock of the Earth”? — https://imgur.com/gallery/f3bj6Kd

Over the past year, I’ve invested a lot of time holding, exploring — and even living this question. It’s a question Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs lifted up July 4, 1973 in Detroit as they reflected on the costs of the 1967 Rebellion, the history of revolutions in the 20th century — and the promise and prospects of “making an evolutionary/revolutionary leap towards becoming more socially responsible and more self- critical human beings.”

The Boggs found freedom in understanding that, in perspective of the 50,000 year development of Homo sapiens, the era of liberatory, revolutionary movements was in its infancy — with great potential. “All of us now living,” they said, “have the responsibility and opportunity to decide whether the hands on the clock of social progress are going to stop or continue” (p170–171). Moreover, to support the long, ongoing evolution of humankind, they called on their brothers and sisters to move beyond rebellion to revolution. They noted that a revolution “is not just for the purpose of correcting past injustices”. Instead, it “begins with projecting the notion of a more human human being, i.e., a human being who is more advanced in the specific qualities which only human beings can have — creativity, consciousness and selfconsciousness, as sense of political and social responsibility” (p. 19). These qualities, they observed, were the basis of (r)evolutionary powers — our soulful capacity to “create the world anew, which each of us has.” How wonderful is that?! We all are endowed with (r)evolutionary powers to create a flourishing future!

This 4th of July — Declaration Day 2021, I wish for all of us to embrace our (r)evolutionary powers to create the world anew. I wish for all of us to experience being alive, well, and free. And I hope that we take this summer to recharge, declare the truths we hold to be self-evident, and link arms together to navigate a course to a just and flourishing future in America the Beautiful — Our Common Home.

To help us on our way, I have a gift to share with you — a little bit of trail magic, if you will. It’s a Compass of Collective Powers I drew over the pandemic. Of course, I didn’t draw it myself… The idea arose out of conversations with many kindred spirits (including EJ, Lucienne, Gail, Doug, Jodi named above — and others such as Barbara Brown Wilson, Eric Walker, Beverly Newkirk, Lynda Schneekloth, Lorna Hill, Maria Ta, Rahwa Ghirmatzion, Dani Slabaugh, Jasmin Barco, Josie Plaut, Brian Weinberg, Harry Pickens, Rebecca Strong, Alexzander Cook, Bob Shibley, Da’Von McCune, Judy Elliot, Kat Teague, Stephanie Johns, Michael Monreal, Meaghan McSorley, Nathaniel Smith…) and a whole host of wise souls who’ve guided me over the years (including Winona LaDuke, Audre Lorde, Grace Lee Boggs, Donella Meadows, and many others — some of whom I acknowledge here, in another pandemic-era reflection on (r)evolutionary powers)…. And the visualization of it came to life through the extraordinary talents of Jodi Lane, of the Festival Beach Food Forest (thank you Jodi!).

As you will see — it’s also very colorful. Coming out of 2020, it’s too easy to claim that our true colors have been revealed, that we’re a nation of hypocrites and democracy is doomed. This compass serves as a reminder that our True Colors are beautiful, like a rainbow as the great Cyndi Lauper has said.

A Compass of Collective Powers

Yes, we live in uncertain times. Sometimes it is hard to find our way. Sometimes we lose sight of our North Star and forget the beauty & power of being alive, well, and free in a living world.

And sometimes, those of us living in America the Beautiful lose sight of the truths we, as a nation, have declared to be self-evident; that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, in accordance with the Laws of Nature.

How often do we live our lives with awareness that our birthright is to be alive, well, and free in a living world? How often do we remember that we are part of nature, blessed with the gift of life in our common home — a beautiful planet enlivened by 4.5 billion+ years of cooperation and innovation in evolution? On the 4th of July, how many of us rejoice in being endowed with the powers of mind, spirit, and body to pursue our individual and collective wellbeing? When we celebrate “Independence Day,” how often do we delight in our right to practice sovereignty — or remember that this miraculous right arises through our entangled relations with others?

In a post-pandemic, politically polarized, disparately precarious world, it can be hard to remember that our greatest hope for a flourishing future exists by virtue of the webs of mutuality connecting us to one another and all beings who inhabit our common home. Witnessing the social oppression and environmental destruction that continues — 245 years after a handful of revolutionary leaders made a world-wide appeal to fundamental rights afforded by the Laws of Nature — it’s all to easy to become cynical. We might conclude that when push comes to shove, our true colors are antithetical to our espoused democratic ideals.

And yet, we find ourselves in 2021 at a crossroads, with much at stake for our individual and collective survival. How shall we find our way to a more flourishing future, where we may all be alive, well and free in our living world? How can we source the (r)evolutionary power at the core of our democracy’s promise and potential? The True Colors Compass is one tool that may help us chart our course together.

The Vitality Triangle

At the heart of the Compass is the “Vitality Triangle,” which names three principles of natural law that are sources of vitality in living systems: integrity, reciprocity, and liberty. When we practice these principles, we can better unleash our collective life-force to create the future our hearts’ desire. But how do these principles work?

What is Integrity? Integrity is a state of integral health where the parts work together in service of a dynamic, functional whole. As human beings, we are parts of much larger wholes — families, communities, ecosystems — all part of a living earth, part of a 13.8 billion year unfolding of a larger regenerative universe.

In our daily lives, integrity occurs when our vision, values, words and actions work in alignment, as we link arms with kindred spirits to navigate dynamic environments. Integrity is, itself, dynamic- — contrary to a popular belief that integrity is something fixed that people have, and others don’t. Ironically, we often talk about integrity in a way that divides us into distinct camps of “have” and “have-nots,” when integrity calls us to remember we’re all integral parts of greater wholes — and that our access to integrity is actually through the practice of compassion.

“A human being, Einstein concluded, is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” — Grace Lee Boggs

We human beings practice integrity when we practice compassion and summon our deeper reservoirs of courage — to heal, to restore our promises, to return to wholeness. We are all endowed with capabilities to heal and create the world anew.

The experience of integrity is one of being alive.

What is Reciprocity? In accordance with natural law, reciprocity is a state of mutual flourishing made possible through generous giving and receiving, and responsive, caring relationships. Robin Wall Kimmerer– a forest ecologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation– explains that the covenant of reciprocity holds that “for the Earth to stay in balance, for the gifts to continue to flow, we must give back in equal measure for what we take.” What does reciprocity look like in practice? Kimmerer suggests it is all about “keeping the gift in motion” — she explains:

“Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer

This practice of reciprocity supports a healthy flow of gifts mutually beneficial relationships. Fundamental to the practice of reciprocity are practices of gratitude. When we express appreciation and attribution for the gifts that contribute to our well-being, we not only help keep the gifts in motion, psychologists find we also increase our own vitality.

The experience of reciprocity is one of being well.

What is Liberty? Put most simply, liberty is our freedom of creative expression and conscious choice. Our capacity for intentional, conscious choice is both a birthright and a sacred duty of human beings. Our capacity for creative expression choice affords us the power to shape the world with loving intention. At any moment, we can create and choose new ways of being, and initiate new habits and new agreements with others in service of co-created possibilities.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Victor Frankl

Ultimately, liberty is the practice of sovereignty, a right and capability inherent to all beings to pursue wellbeing through our entangled webs of relatedness. As we open ourselves to one another and to the creative pulses of love moving through us, we expand our liberties — and our individual and collective vitality, too.

The experience of liberty is one of being free.

When we practice liberty, reciprocity, and integrity, we can cultivate vitality and equity, from the scale of an individual, team and organization to larger ecosystems and economies of which we’re part (as explored in “(R)evolutionary powers for regenerative economies: Learning from natural law and leaders in Jackson, Mississippi”). Practicing these principles amplifies our life-force, which we can direct through exercise of many forms of collective power that help us pursue Life, Liberty, and Happiness.

Directional Questions

While a traditional compass offers directional arrows, the True Colors Compass offers three directional (quest)ion marks. Just as a traditional compass helps us find magnetic north, this compass helps us return to our “True North” by reminding us to “live the questions” (as the poet Rilke has said). Centering ourselves in our big questions, we learn to embrace uncertainty, welcome wonder, and follow our deeper intuition. Increasingly, we summon the will to say “yes” to worthy quests, compelling visions, and kindred spirits — even when the path is far from clear, and outcomes are anything but guaranteed.

There are many powerful questions we can ask to support us in navigating toward more just and flourishing futures. Here are the ones I’m holding close as I navigate the Colorado Trail:

(1) Where do you (I, you) get to be alive, well, and free?

(2) What is America the Beautiful to us (me, you)?

(3) What possibilities will we declare into existence as we spring forward from the global pandemic?

The (quest)ion marks are also a reminder of the constancy of change, an invitation to practice what adrienne maree brown calls “emergent strategy.” Emergent strategy, she says, is “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.”

Guided by natural law and directional (quest)ions, we can increase our sense of vitality, with a renewed sense of energy and power. We can then channel our collective powers through actions in service of a more just and flourishing world.

True Colors: A Spectrum of Collective Power

In 1984, Audre Lorde observed that “the future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us.” The year before, in her well-known essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” she called out the bankruptcy of forms of power driving racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and all structures of oppression anchored in exercising power over “other” living beings. She declared that “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” This rainbow of nine regenerative people powers represents an attempt to define forms of power we can collectively use to advances a just, regenerative, and flourishing future for all. [Of course, there are so many more unnamed superpowers we can unleash in service of life together, but this is a start, no?]

Grounding powers

Grounded in our power to regenerate and question “Where — and who — are we on the clock of the world?,” we can cultivate our power to (1) disrupt, (2) heal, and (3) host.

Sensing Powers

Having grounded ourselves in the present moment and our evolutionary, regenerative powers to disrupt, heal, and host, we can also embrace our sensory powers of awareness. We are called to draw upon our host of senses and feelings to create sanctuaries where we can dare to dream and co-create new worlds built on the strengths of our differences. In doing so, we are called to learn together, cultivating our powers to (4) appreciate, (5) integrate, and (6) envision.

Enacting Powers

As we co-sense together about the past, present, and emerging future of the dynamic, living world we call home, new possibilities begin to surface for our collectively desired futures. While asking, “what is ours to do — individually and collectively — in service of life?” we can cultivate our powers to (7) co-create, (8) govern, and (9) redistribute.

When we live our True Colors — when we exercise our (r)evolutionary power — we will fulfill on the promise of America the Beautiful — and will crown thy good with siblinghood from sea to sea.

Thank you!

There’s of course, more to explore here — and I hope we have the opportunity to do so together. Please do reach out, I’d love to navigate our way together to a more just, inclusive, life-giving future where we may all be alive, well, and free! (Please drop me a line here, if you’re so inspired!)

Until then, if you’re really hungry for more celebrations of America the Beautiful, you will assuredly enjoy this rendition of America the Beautiful by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

And you might enjoy this very drafty set of reflections on the history of the American West and the possibilities for a just transition to a regenerative economy, “From the Buffalo Prairie to Amber Waves of Grain: Remembering our way forward to equitable and regenerative food economies [in Colorado and beyond].” I greatly welcome your thoughts on this work-in-progress.

I really do hope one day “America the Beautiful” becomes our official national anthem — a prayer of hope for our country that acknowledges both our pathologies and our promise. It’s a helpful reminder to hold ourselves, each other, our country and common home in compassion — so that we might bring integrity to our promises and create a world where we all may be alive, well, and free.

Looking forward to the journeys ahead!

O beautiful for vision clear
That sees beyond the years
Thy night time sky
Our hopes that fly
Undimmed by human tears

America, America
God shed His grace on thee
’Til selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free

And crown thy good with brother-and-sisterhood
From sea to shining sea



Elizabeth Walsh, PhD

Neighbor, urban planner, and facilitator in pursuit of a just transition to a regenerative economy, where all can thrive in our common home (@yellowbrickways)