Totem: guide us through the darkness

Totem. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

Totem. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

“Totem poles are about cultural identity. They are a way of native people saying, “We’re here. We’re still here and our culture is still here…you treat a totem pole with respect, just like a person, because in our culture that’s what it is. A totem pole is another person…born into the family, except he is the storyteller,” wrote Norman Tait, a British Columbia First Nation sculptor and carver, in Hilary Stewart’s book Looking at Totem PolesTotem poles are carved from a western red cedar tree, selected for their beauty, strength, and proximity to the sea or a river, so they could be easily transported to the village artist for carving. Before felling, the tree spirit was addressed in prayer, part of a ritual honoring the tree’s identity before it began a new identity as a totem, a community storyteller.

“Trees are communal…they grow together in large groups…they have relationships…and even communicate with other trees within their stands, including trees of their own kind as well as those of other species; they function for the benefit of the whole…and they enter into mutualistic partnerships with other species…to understand a single tree, we must understand the entire forest” writes David Suzuki and Wayne Grady in Tree: A Life StoryWestern civilization for the most part views trees as a commodity. Trees are one of many resources our society extracts from the land to become lumber, Masonite, and paper. But as a culture we say no prayer to the tree spirit before felling the forest.

As a species we extract resources from the air, land and water on a vast scale. We use these precious resources to develop products for mass consumption that touch all aspects of our lives: the water we drink, the energy we burn, the houses we live in, the food we eat and the air we breathe. But without thinking deeply about how those resources are extracted and products created and disposed of, we also create pollution and devastation on an equally vast scale. Open your eyes. See the impact both local and global. Question your motives. We have the ability to respect nature, the lives of others and to live sustainably and responsibly. But today many of our leaders are making easy choices and taking quick actions that are neither respectful nor thoughtful about nature and the lives of our global neighbors. They could lead us to make hard decisions that consider the big picture, but their eyes are on focused on 2018 mid-term elections. They are influenced by the greed and corruption that comes with power. Their mouths open and lip service is given to care and concern for others, but in truth, they do not take responsibility for the Long Now. We are in a dark morass, and we need to raise our totems, to tell our story loud and clear, and to listen to totems of others, for only by talking and listening, will we be guide each other through the darkness. This mutual understanding will not come quickly. It will take time and patience. But we must take time and have patience.

“What’s happening in China makes a difference to us in the United States [and what’s happening in the United States makes a difference to China]. The amount that we drive cars or the amount that we misuse fossil fuels is going to or already has affected some other group of people or animals, the earth and the environment. These interconnected interpenetrating personal and global events are what we are being asked to be aware of. Once we become aware in this way then the teaching starts to transform us. This understanding will strengthen and guide our aspirations to respond to each situation anew with ethical and skillful responses…this is the mind of the Buddha,” writes Uji Shinshu Roberts in “Astride the Highest Mountain: Dogen’s Being/Time, A Practitioner’s Guide” in Receiving the Marrow.

Leave no trace

Bear Rug Flag. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

Bear Rug Flag. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

“I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and I am still on their trail,“ wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden; or Life in the Woods. “Many are the travellers I have spoken to concerning them describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who have heard the hound, the tramp of the horse, and have even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.” Thoreau’s words can just as readily apply to animals in the wild, especially those we are endanger of losing all trace of.

On Wednesday February 15, 2017 the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing to consider “modernizing” the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to eliminate red tape and bureaucratic burdens that eliminate jobs. According to the Washington Post, during the two-hour session, lawmakers discussed how “federal efforts to keep species from going extinct encroaches on states’ rights, is unfair to landowners, and stymies efforts by mining companies to extract resources and create jobs.” The ESA is a 43 year old law, enacted during the Nixon Administration, when we were beginning to grapple with the devastating impact of chemical use and human development on the environment. This legislation has likely saved from extinction the bald eagle, the California condor, gray wolves, black-footed ferret, American alligator, and the Florida manatee.

The Center for Outdoor Ethics developed the Leave no Trace Principles to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy nature responsibly. Ironically, the meaning of these words “leave no trace” could be twisted to serve as an epilogue for the Environmental Species Act. This phrase, used malevolently, can mask and suppress the evidence at the murder scene. Leave no Trace. Should the Environmental Species Act be terminated, or so diluted as to be ineffective, we can “leave no trace” giving a green light to actions that would “endanger” species.  We should take note of our crimes locally and consider disappearing the California Grizzly from the California State Flag. The last California Grizzly Bear was shot in Tulare County in 1922, and the last believed sighting was in Sequoia National Park in 1924.

It is not too late to fight the proposed destruction of the Endangered Species Act, in my humble opinion, one of the noblest pieces of legislation in our country’s history.

“All of this is made more precious, not less, by it’s impermanence. No matter what goes missing…disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend wrote Kathryn Schultz in her article “Losing Streak” published in The New Yorker February 13 & 20, 2017. Loss is a kind of external conscience urging us to make better use of our finite days. As [Walt] Whitman knew, our brief crossing is best spent attending to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, denouncing what we cannot abide, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone.”

Mindfulness, the Buddhist practice of self-awareness, is needed. We must recognize that the vanishing of others is akin to the vanishing of our selves. All life on the planet is endangered. Take action today: call your Senators and Representatives and advocate to preserve and strengthen the Endangered Species Act. Because the ESA ultimately protects you and me, as well as other endangered creatures.

dark times

The cliff above Mussel Beach. Robin L. Chandler 2016.

The cliff above Mussel Beach. Robin L. Chandler 2016.

In December, the sun sleeps late and lays to rest early. Short winter days bring cold nights and chilly mornings. Mid-afternoon, we rejoice in the sun’s warmth and bask in the bright light bringing intense colors and deep shadows. On windswept Mussel Rock Beach, I painted alongside my friends, also painters, grateful for the beautiful sunny day and the winter light striking the rain-restored landscape: so many greens. For the moment, darkness was banished beyond the horizon, the place where threatening storms lay in wait. Finding solace in this place, momentarily I put aside my fears.

The poet Michael Palmer gave the keynote address On the Sustaining of Culture in Dark Times for the February 2004 Sustainable Living Conference at Evergreen State College. Drawing upon the actions and imagery of 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq War, Palmer states “demagoguery, deceit, and denial of the other, such crimes against language are the grounds of despotism. And all in the trusted name of “liberty,” “freedom” and “democracy…yet, for brazen and blatant lies to work, there must be people to believe them, or choose to believe them, or simply be indifferent…” The United States initiated the Iraq War for several reasons: save the world from alleged weapons of mass destruction held by the despot Saddam Hussein, seek retribution for the destruction of the World Trade Center, and re-engineer a nation based on democracy and free trade. What did it achieve? Considered an act of rebellion against the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar, marched his troops across the Rubicon uttering the famous words alea iacta est “the die is cast.” When the United States “crossed the Tigres and Euphrates,” the die was cast, setting in motion events drastically reshaping geo-political alliances and pressuring democracies to choose security over freedom.

Later today, across the nation, the Electoral College will meet in fifty state capitals casting ballots for the next President of the United States. Electors will vote – another die will be cast – and there will be no going back. Noir flourishes in the light of day.

Open (guide)

Cottonwood near Bishop, California. Robin L. Chandler, 2016.

Cottonwood near Bishop, California. Robin L. Chandler, 2016.

The snow, fondant-like, blanketed the mountains. Rushing down the canyons, the rain wrote creeks on the landscape, like icing, on a cake. October brought me to the big empty, the Owens Valley, the tectonic, volcanic landscape, now a desert, once a vast ocean. The thirsty cottonwoods grow alongside the Zen-like creek, waiting months, sometimes years, for the river they know will come. In the big empty, I sang a prayer for this land. Staring deeply, intently at the mountains and the rivers, imagining the ocean that once was, I sang this blessing by Nanno Sakaki[1] for what was and what can be:

“One day from the ocean, from yesterday, I’m sure

A lost hump-back whale will swim up this river.

And someday, from the ocean, from tomorrow,

Countless whales will swim up the river

To revisit the ancient beech forest,

Whales swimming up the river, up the river.”

A few weeks later, I stand before a Marsden Hartley work, painted in 1918, entitled The Last of New England – the Beginning of New Mexico hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. Writing to his friend, Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley described the Southwest: “I like the country very well for it is big and clean and true, and there is nothing dirty standing between one and the sunlight.” Standing before this work, I absorbed the intensity of the landscape realized in the painter’s forms and colors. Like Proust and his tea and madeleines, the painting roused my memory of the Eastern Sierra desert, big and clean and true. Now more than ever, we need people to stand up and speak out like the Sioux tribal leaders now singing their prayers in protest of the pipeline at Standing Rock. We do not need anything dirty, like an unnecessary pipeline, standing between us and the sunlight on the land.

A great shadow threatens the land. Lies and abuse, dressed as truth and normalcy, threaten our democracy, so tenuous, so often taken for granted. To heal our selves, we must take our song to the streets and valleys and together loudly sing our prayers for our land, our peoples, and our democracy. It will be a tough fight, but we must continue to urge national investment in clean and renewable energies and demand the cessation of investments in projects like the pipeline perpetuating fossil fuel dependence. Here at home, the LA Times reports that California leads the nation in energy productivity, electricity from renewable resources, and reductions in carbon intensity. Like the Shaman, we will raise our voice in song to heal ourselves, each other, and our community. Together, open, guiding, we will sing our love of the land we hold so dear.

Because the whales will swim up river, only when they hear our song.

 

[1] Sakaki, Nanno. “Mountains and Rivers and Japan.” A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. Counterpoint. Berkeley, 2015. p.128.

near (and far)

Trees burned by fire in the drought stricken Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Trees burned by fire in the drought stricken Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Thanks to an early start, we reached the Owens Valley just before the storm closed Tioga Pass for the winter. Snow had dusted the peaks cradling Tuolumne meadow. There would be no pie today as we passed the Tioga Pass Resort; the diner long since closed, the windows boarded until the spring snowmelt. We were giddy, caught in the romance of the storm; dark thick clouds promised snow and rain to assuage our five-year drought.

Descending to Mono Lake, we made a right turn onto 395 towards Bishop and the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association’s (ESIA) inaugural conference on the history of the eastern sierras. This is a desolate land, whose emptiness holds so many stories to be shared. The Owens Valley straddles two counties: Mono and Inyo. Mono County defined by Mono Lake and the volcanic fields at an elevation of 7,000 feet and the Mammoth Lakes ski resort. Inyo County, the table drops sharply, thousands of feet in altitude is lost, as we descend into ranch lands, cottonwoods and the meandering Owens River. We stopped often, capturing with camera and brush the conversation between brooding sky, dark mountains, parched landscape, and autumnal trees. A photographer and a painter, drawn to this sacred place, finding poetry at every compass point.

At the ESIA conference, David Carle spoke about water and the historic choices that shaped California. A long-term California State Park Ranger, Carle now writes full-time about land and water issues facing our state. According to Carle, in 1902 Los Angeles was a small town of 100,000 people, with a promising citrus industry, but desperately seeking water. Led by the engineer William Mulholland, businessmen and city planners set their sights on the Owens Valley, a region of 8,000 residents with a 75,000 acres of farm and pasture land producing 51,000 bushels of wheat annually. The Owens Valley also held lakes and rivers fed by the water stored in the snow covered Sierras. The aqueducts were completed in 1913, but it didn’t take long before Los Angeles was thirsty again. By 1924 Owens Lake was a dry lake bed where dust storms raged. Los Angeles had purchased all the water rights in the valley, but by the mid-1920s they owned all the towns too. Communities had been destroyed and ecological disaster created for the region. The author Mary Austin asked “ is all this worthwhile in order that Los Angeles should be so big?” Today, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is working hard to implement water reclamation, and to their credit most of Orange County’s water now comes from reclamation. But for some, there will never be enough water, Southern California’s thirst will not be slaked. The proposed Twin Tunnels Project would move water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to the southland. Recently, LADWP purchased five islands located in the heart of the river delta, just as LADWP purchased the Owens Valley a century ago. Stop the Tunnels provides information about establishing fair water policies in California.

Looking out across the Owens Valley, at a land so near, so precious, it is scary to know that actions taken by a few powerful people, so far away, change the land and communities forever.

coastline or borderline?

Pescadero. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016

Pescadero. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016

The salty taste of a brisk wind and the bright midday sun welcomed we plein air painters fleeing the sweltering inland heat. Time suspended, we set-up our easels and laid out our paints and brushes intent on capturing the moment. Painting the seascape, onsite, is a meditation, a chance to lose self, and by the act, find self again. The sea, sky and land fill the gaps, and the renewed soul sees the wonder of life everywhere.

Driving to the coast, the radio waves burst with information about the sea change in Britain, Brexit. A campaign of fear coaxed many to mortgage their future to recapture a time past. Examine wisely the evidence of history; think critically of the stories told by those who seek power. Myths are one interpretation of the past. Identify the evidential source, and ask for what purpose was it created, and for what goal it is used now. William Carlos Williams wrote In the American Grain “to try to find out for myself what the land of my more or less accidental birth might signify.” It is a very good book, a poet’s interpretation of my country’s history. William writes “History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery.”

 

a dangerous place?

Oaklanders. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Oaklanders. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Oakland, California is my home. Donald Trump in a recent New York Times interview with Robert Draper told a story about Oakland — calling my city one of the most dangerous places in the world. Biking Oakland’s streets or walking the sidewalks does not feel particularly scary to me. Of course one should always be aware and sensible of your surroundings while moving through the urban scape. But there is so much good at work and at play in this city, designating it simply as dangerous, dismisses it unfairly. Engaging with my fellow city dwellers at the farmer’s market, the YMCA, the coffee shop, or at Cato’s watching the Warriors, I become part of the city’s story. And it is wonderful to talk, walk and work with these diverse and special people and hear what makes us Oaklandish.

Oakland is a vital city undergoing change. San Francisco’s high cost-of-living has brought a wave of immigrants to Oaktown who live and work amongst longtime residents. New buildings are under construction and old buildings are being renovated. Change brings a new skyline, new traffic patterns, and new conversations and exchanges between people of differing genders, colors, sexual preferences, and creeds. And like many cities, experiencing a rebounding economy, crime, poverty, injustice and pain exist alongside the rebirth.

Lazarus was here. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Lazarus was here. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

There are many stories to be told about Oakland: stories of success; stories of despair; stories of challenge; and stories of recovery. These are the stories that we who love Oakland want to tell and hear told. Irresponsible politicians write a city off when they label it dangerous without understanding the community, with little knowledge of individual stories, without context or perspective. It is criminal to disparage a town, without having a clear understanding of who lives there, their dreams and their capacity to achieve those dreams. It is criminal to dismiss a city without knowledge of the problems it faces, without a sincere concern for it’s people and without suggesting sustainable strategies to help resolve the challenges it faces. Stories, of poverty and pain, are rewritten by building faith in community, and keeping hope in individuals alive. Stories, of poverty and pain, are resolved with better access to education, a decent minimum wage, affordable housing, and health benefits funded by raising the taxes of the wealthiest 1%.

There are many ways to tell stories, and artistic works are usually at the forefront of engagement making the human connection, building awareness, and starting a dialogue. Thirty-second sound bites and 140 character tweets by grandstanding politicians can end a story before it has a chance to begin. The book arts, the dramatic arts, the performing arts, and the visual arts create spaces that reveal our experiences, open hearts and initiate listening. The great soul is in everyone and their stories should be told.

The poet William Carlos Williams in his poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower wrote:

“It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.”