What is our relation to the past?

 

Mt.Saint Helena Spring

Mt. Saint Helena Spring 2018 after a dry Winter. Robin L. Chandler

Yesterday I returned to Chalk Hill. It’s been a year since my artist residency at this glorious Sonoma County vineyard. Twelve months ago we were happily besieged by winter storms bringing the desperately needed rain ending our drought of many years. At that time, mountains and hillsides were deep green and the skies dark grays and blues. My painting Mount Saint Helena after the rain describes this past.  The storms replenished springs, and rivers and creeks fueled by the deluge, rushed powerfully to the sea. But the generous rain did not protect Napa and Sonoma County from the ravages of fire, indeed, the rain may have accelerated growth, fueling the devastation; it will be a long time before our memories of Atlas Peak and Tubbs firestorms dim.

And today’s Mt. Saint Helena watercolor captures Spring’s awakening, but my colors are pastels, the result of this season’s dry Winter. Last year’s oil paintings of the mountain tell a different story, intense dramatic Spring color born of a wet winter. The season cycle reminds us of our fragility, humbled by the earth’s beauty and power, aware of life’s precious gift.

“History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago. It is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago…what survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of the human voice confronting it’s own mortality…the story painted on the old walls and printed in the old books is our own.”

Quote from Lewis H. Lapham, The Enchanted Loom, Lapham’s Quarterly, Winter 2018

awaken at the beach

Limantour Beach

Limantour Beach. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Winter is my favorite time of year; I love the journey to the year’s shortest day and the new pilgrimage for the year’s longest day. Precious the light of day and the warmth of the sun; most welcome is the night when blessed with a good book by the fire and my cat curled sleeping in my lap.

On Christmas Eve, I walked the landscape of Drakes Estero and Limantour Beach with my beloved wife and dear friend. Just a few days past the solstice the day remained short, and to commemorate the day, I made a watercolor sketch and reflected on darkness and light asking myself what can well-meaning souls do to make the world a better place?

And by a better place I mean: end the rapacious exploitation of the earth’s flora and fauna; take measures to resolve the increasing disparity between rich and poor; respect the diversity of global cultures; and stop the egregious use of violence. No small challenge. No simple answer. In fact, it sounds so impossible to resolve, I might as well give up and run away. Run as far away as possible from the suffering and the death, building tall strong walls to protect me from the pain.

It takes great courage to sit and listen to the suffering, the death, and the pain: within yourself and in others. Many of us feel compelled to fix the problems, and when we can’t we give up and salve our pain with whatever money can buy. Not knowing what to do or how to fix a problem is impossibly hard. But through my Buddhist studies, I have learned that there is a place to begin: listen, stay open minded and be generous. This is how the suffering ends and the healing starts. We are not born knowing all things, and will never learn all there is to know. Mitchell Thomashow writes in his essay Nature. Love. Medicine. Reciprocity. Generosity. “…we can cultivate generosity, open-mindedness, graciousness, and humility in the space of that glorious unknowing. I don’t have the capacity to love every species and every person, but I can develop the capacity to be more generous with those people and species that I do encounter.” Blessings on us all for this New Year!

Opening to vastness

sierracottonwood

Mt. Whitney. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

inyomtsalabamahills

Inyo Mountains from the Alabama Hills. Robin L. Chandler, 2017

Recently, I visited the Owens Valley and gazed upon the vastness of the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains. Mountains and sky: in that infinite space, their beauty humbled me. In that quiet desert, I opened my soul to their medicine. For two solitary days, I painted Mt. Whitney and the Inyo Mountains from vantage points in the Alabama Hills becoming part of their story. And now, healed by their beauty, now part of their family, I understand how vast humans can be…..when we open our hearts.

Thomas Lowe Fleischner says it best in Nature, Love, Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness, “but each day we start anew and walk out into a world that is full of sorrow and injustice, yes – but that is also heartbreakingly beautiful. Despair must not overrun our appreciation for this world – plant and animal, stone and sky, and human souls – that is immeasurably lovely, more beautiful than it needs to be, in spite of the grief that is embedded within it.”

Reveal in the darkness

Reveal

Revealed. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

It is in the darkness that kindness is revealed.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem says it best:

Kindness
“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
     purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

bestow: offer

Horses

The gift he bestowed. Unaware – so absorbed by the struggle. We walked the line for many years never breaking step but the day came when the path branched. He said stay organized and keep your integrity. Comet-like, I return. Offering my stories, colored by the years and buffered by wisdom, born of sadness and joy. We sit side-by-side sharing memories, telling stories, gazing at infinite shadows. Untold devotion.

Farewell to a Sung Mountain Traveler by Po Chu-I

No more climbing peaks for me, no more following streams, so who abides there, part of rock and stream, mist and cloud?

When you reach the sunlit south exposure of Sung, sing out these lines, chant them until it’s thirty-six peaks understand.

 

 

 

share

1000years

Share. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

 

“…means something,

something absolute: whenever I start

to explain it, I forget words altogether.”

T’ao Chien; Tang Dynasty

Driving through the neighborhoods and vineyards of Sonoma County, I am devastated by the October 2017 wildfire destruction and deeply saddened by the loss of life and home.  Without words. I am humbled by and respectful of the latent power of nature. Nature shares: water, wind and fire; without words.

veil

Masks and labels

Mock or Mask? Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

In the Sixteenth Century, French-Dutch mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, launched the modern age with his words Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore, I am. With this new framework, he separated the mind from the body, freeing the mind from the body’s passions, and banishing the idea that sickness came from a sinful and impure mind. This concept complemented Francis Bacon’s scientific methods based on empiricism and inductive reasoning, and consequentially, humans gradually separated from ourselves as natural beings, no longer in tune with the spiritual gifts of wilderness. In Western society, animals became creatures to be feared or resources to be exploited, instead of interconnected beings deserving respect as cohabitors of our planet. Animals became veiled in our fears, our greed and our separateness.

And animal names became epithets hurled to mock and mark, or threatening masks donned to wield power.

  • You are a vulture: They were tearing themselves to pieces, and their vulture lawyers, were picking at the carcass of their marriage.
  • You are a snake: You’re nothing more than a lecherous snake in the grass.
  • You are a wolf: Who do you feed to the media wolves?

In large part, we are divorced from nature. Wilderness and animals have become our adversaries instead of teachers with whom we share time and space. Indigenous peoples embraced animals as a bridge to the liminal, lifting the veil into the spirit world.

Hilary Stewart in Looking At Totem Poles writes “the people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things and their dependence on certain animal and plant species fostered belief in the supernatural and spirit world. Life forms, especially those taken for food…each had their own spirit…certain birds and animals were associated with particular behaviors, powers or skills, and people sought their help to achieve success…in the dark of long winter nights, when fires burned…then the spirits drew close to the village…a time of ceremonies, speeches, singing, dancing and feasting…through costumed spiritual transformations and re-enactments, they brought past histories and adventures into the present…thus the carved beings of crest and legend portrayed on the totem poles, often recreated in masks worn by dancers, sprang to life.”

On this Halloween, as you engage in the ancient rituals of Samhain welcoming the end of harvest and the return of winter’s long nights, contemplate the true meaning of the mask you wear to celebrate the season. And while I will never advocate for discarding the benefits of the Age of Enlightenment, I would argue for the necessity of balance, and a framework that envisions humankind as a part of the natural world, instead of outside of the natural world, where it is all to easy to don the mask of conqueror and exploiter.