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.

love and change

Cottonwood in the Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler 2016

Cottonwood in the Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler 2016

The lights dimmed and the spotlight focused on the figure center stage guitar in hand; she began to sing, the voice a little smoky and raspy, working towards the high, round notes so clear in my memory. Soon, “Saint” Joan Baez sang two of my favorites by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie respectively, “With God on Our Side” and “Deportee,”. Both songs are stories of love and tragic loss.  Each story holding forth the possibility of redemption, that we can learn from our mistakes and take right action.

Election eve, the significance of this sainted singer was not lost on any of us in the audience. This deeply disturbing election season nearly over, we drank deeply of the songs offered us, believing in the promise of a world where all persons count, no matter their origin or identity, and that the fabric of our society is stronger, when our diverse threads are woven together. Listening, my heart responds, I will march again to her call to action to build a better and loving world.

Between songs, she spoke about her belief in the ideas and aspirations expressed by Bernie Saunders as he crossed the county this year connecting with the hopes and ideals of a new generation. But she also spoke admiringly of the courage of Hilary Clinton, withstanding the barrage of lies and intimidation hurled at her these last months.

On my recent trip to the Eastern Sierras, many a cottonwood was growing, singularly, isolated from other trees in the valley, telling a story, stately and proud. In some cases, it was unclear if a tree was near death because of lack of water, or if it was merely beginning the long winter sleep. These trees standing statuesque on a parched landscape, with the majestic sierras as their backdrop, called to mind the elm trees, deemed Liberty Trees by the colonists turned patriots at the time of our Revolution. The first such elm was located in Boston and celebrated in the revolutionary poetry of Thomas Paine. Soon Liberty Trees were anointed in towns and cities throughout the colonies; these majestic trees witnessed calls to action, celebrated victories, and mourned defeats. Trees bear witness to our story, and with this act they become part of our own story, symbols of strength, longevity, knowledge, loss, and redemption.

We are participating in the most historic election of our time. The stakes are high; it feels like the future of our nation and perhaps the world weighs upon our ballot box. At times, I have been paralyzed with fear of what may come. But I also know that there are persons, my fellow citizens, who think differently than I and will vote differently than I, and they too are fearful of change. And yet, we are all part of the same country, and we must move forward together, whatever changes comes. I think of the lone cottonwood in the Owens Valley, thirsty. Is the tree telling a story of suffering brought on by a changing climate?  Is it hanging on for dear life hoping for the redemption winter snow in the mountains will bring? Is this cottonwood a symbol of my republic gasping, near death? Listening to the tree, my heart responds. While I fear the change that the election could bring, I will be strong like a tree, making connections, bringing the long-view, and sharing all the knowledge and wisdom found deep in my core. I will take right action continuing to build a better and loving world respecting the rights of all living beings.

 

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.

comes-a-round

Alpenglow. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Alpenglow. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

With a timetable to keep, the sun waits for no one. Rolling quietly out of our sleeping bags trying not to disturb our friend still wrapped in dreams, we emerged before dawn. Our feet heavy, not yet at full speed, our eyes bleary, not yet focused, we wandered to the overlook. The air, cool at elevation, was very dry. We stood on the White Mountains, the highest range in the Great Basin Desert. It would be another blazing hot day, mid-summer, in the Owens Valley four thousand feet below.

The momentary beauty subdued speech. Alone, together in reverence, we spoke only in gestures and whispers. Awake now, we scrambled amongst the sage and rocks excitedly imaging the ever-changing play of light and shadow. The sun comes-a-round again. Now blinding. Now instantly drying the sweat on my skin. No limits on shutter clicks, silently we prayed at least one image would convey the eternal beauty and connection now felt. The simple beauty found in a morning.

Looking west, the alpenglow danced across the Sierras. Standing somewhere between the void and illusion, Michael Cunningham’s Richard, the poet, a central character in The Hours came to mind. Richard, moments before he dies, says “Like the morning you walked out of that old house…and I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful as the sight of your walking out a glass door in the morning…I just feel so sad. What I wanted to do was so simple. I wanted to create something alive and shocking enough that it could stand beside a morning in somebody’s life. The most ordinary morning. Imagine, trying to do that…I don’t think two people could have been happier than we’ve been.” Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning fiction concerns three generations of women impacted by Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. Eulogizing, Cunningham wrote most of us, if we are very fortunate, are devoured by time itself and “for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined…though everyone…knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish…the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”

 

reach

Reach. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Reach. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

We took the back roads, choosing to meander through the country, forgoing the fast pace of the interstate. It was a beautiful fall day – cool in Texas terms — the sky was bright blue and gorgeous cumulus clouds, like cotton balls, soared across the heavens. For over twenty-five years, I have taken this drive with my father to visit my mother’s grave. Reaching out, I took my father’s hand as we passed  farmland, where corn and cotton was recently harvested and now farmers prepare the soil for winter.