Fire, Wind, Water, and Stone

forest fire

Fire in the hills. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

Now a week old, the Detwiler Fire has consumed 76,000 acres and is only forty percent contained. The windswept fire rages in the foothills, feeding on dry brush that grew intensely during our rainy winter. The fire has devastated a section of California State Route Forty-nine and threatens two historic Gold-Country towns Coulterville and Mariposa, the gateway to Yosemite. These places names trigger sweet memories of friends and shared adventures along the Don Pedro Reservoir, the Merced River, Yosemite Valley and the Eastern Sierras.

Fire, is a natural part of ecosystems. For many trees, such as the Coastal Redwood or the Giant Sequoia, fire opens seed cones required for germination. Simultaneously, fire helps clear-out dead wood and thus provides nutrients necessary for new plant growth. As towns and cities grow, encroaching upon once remote wilderness, human homes and livelihoods are increasingly threatened during fire season. But, when a wildfire rages, threatening your community, it is difficult to ponder the benefits to the natural ecosystem. You only pray the firefighters working night and day can save your home from advancing flames. The work of generations, the evidence of a lifetime’s progress, can be lost within seconds to fire. The poet Robinson Jeffers wrote in his poem Fire on the Hills

“The deer were bounding like blown leaves

Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brushfire;

I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.

Beauty is not always lovely.”

Dust to dust: when catastrophe strikes we experience the harsh reality of how quickly life can change; we begin to comprehend that humility as a means of survival; and we ask ourselves the question what really endures?

Friday, my dear friend and I visited the Carmel home of Robinson Jeffers and his beloved wife Una. Apprenticed to a stonemason, Jeffers built his house, Tor House, and then later, working solo, built Hawk Tower. Jeffers personally chose and hauled each stone up from the beach to craft these dwellings. Jeffers understood ancient stones – when listened to – share the song cycle of wind, water and fire tirelessly grinding granite to sand over the eons. The stone circles at Callinish and Achmore on the Isle of Lewis, placed by Neolithic peoples, have stood for some four thousand years, surviving wind, water and fire as well as the follies of mankind. These stones have survived, and are now artifacts, surviving evidence of a people’s existence. Jeffers wrote in his poem Tor House

“If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:

Perhaps of my planted forest a few

May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard

With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.

Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art

To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.”

living with ruins

Achmore stones

Achmore Stone Circle Megalith looking southwest at the Old Woman mountain range. Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Robin L. Chandler 2017

Gray skies and drizzle we drove the narrow track through the moors on the Isle of Lewis. Fresh from the Skye ferry, we were bound for the Callinish Stones, when we crested a hill and the sky opened upon a vista of mountain and sea. It was beautiful in a Brontë Sisters sort of way, the promise of redemption beyond the horizon, but a long troubled journey ahead with no certain success. We stopped to absorb this compelling view. Was it Providence, or was it simply a universal acknowledgement of beauty that had made us stop here? A windswept, rain-drenched patch of stone not far removed from the sound of the sea. Our rest to gaze at the magical landscape was serendipitous as we soon realized that nearby, barely acknowledged by signposts, was a nearly invisible stone circle built by peoples of the Neolithic British Isles. Situated near the village of Achmore, the stones, now unintended memorials, were monuments placed some four thousand years ago by peoples tracking the cycles of the sun and moon. With our reverence at these monuments, we seek connection to ancestors, and hoped for insight into the human condition. All the while looking southwest toward the mountain range known locally as the Old Woman; the hypnotic mountain range directing us to stop and commune with this place.

Memorials and the need to learn from the past are much on my mind these days. In Glasgow, I spoke with historian, Valentina Rozas-Krause, who writes about memorials: “monuments are as old as civilization. Whether with stones, totems, trees, stone plaques, busts, arches, or sculptures, the ways of materializing memories are as varied as the cultural manifestations that exist.” In her article, Challenging the Traditional Monument: Four Reviews Applied to Santiago and Buenos Aires, Rozas-Krause writes about archaeological memorials serving as material witnesses to a harrowing past. She raises an important question “how do we live with the ruins?” I ask myself: how do we live with ruins, both literal and figurative? Can we learn from the ruins so the past is not forever doomed to repeat itself? Two books I read while traversing Scotland serve as literary memorials, built around past ruins, crimes against humanity: Han Kang’s Human Acts and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Phenomenal works of literature. Difficult journeys both, but sad depths to which a reader must travel if we are to learn from the past. We must traverse difficult roads, we must live with these ruins and encourage others to make the journey as well, if we are to have any chance at acquiring the empathy essential to ensure the future of humankind.

Much later in the day, I queued up a song called The Old Woman by Skippenish, from their album The Seventh Wave. In a small store near the Callinish Stones, the album had spoken to me in that way that happens only when you’re browsing in uncharted territory. Something reaches out and says: “stop, look at me, learn from me, I’m the soundtrack you’ve been looking for.” And indeed, suddenly, the track The Old Woman meant so much more, after our visit to stones at Achmore. As I wander, as I wonder, no matter how much sadness I see or learn about, I cannot shake my sincere belief that by understanding the past, we can gain the empathy we need, to ensure our future.

Mt. Ste. Helena

Mt. Ste. Helena in Spring. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

Since my March 2017 artist residency, I have returned many times to the vineyard at Chalk Hill to gaze and make some oil sketches and watercolors of Mt. Ste. Helena, the defining mountain of the Napa-Sonoma region. It captivates my imagination. In the last few months winter has become spring has become summer; the weekly changes subtle, the seasonal changes dramatic. Green has become gold. Gray has become blue. And with my art I have tried to render this transformation.

In Cezanne: A Study of his Development, the art historian Roger Fry described the artist’s attachment to the landscape of Aix, France: “Cezanne devoted himself so constantly to interpreting that part of the countryside….that is dominated by the great buttressed ridge of Mt. Ste. Victoire. It is a mountain that impresses one rather by the strangeness of it’s ‘personality’ than by it’s height or it’s precipitousness…..no mountain has ever been explored by an artist so persistently, so incessantly as this…..his interpretation is extremely personal…..it is characteristic of Cezanne’s method of interpreting form, thus to seize on a few clearly related, almost geometrical elements, and then on top of this clearly held framework, to give to every part of the contour the utmost subtlety of variation which his visual sensibility could discover…..”

My great friend and teacher, the artist Anthony Dubovsky, writes about the importance of place, time and memory to an artist’s work; the artist’s challenge to find the right balance between story and form and; through the artist’s work bring some understanding to the meaning of life. In his book Jerusalem: To Know By Living, Tony writes “and yet the rhythm of the life here – the dailiness of it, the meaning of the dailiness, where making one’s way up Rehov Ba’al ha-Tanya at dawn is already to be a part of it. To know it. And to know it is to know life, slowly, day by day…..to know by living, to know by living.” Slowly, day by day, I am coming to know my Mt. Ste Helena, as other artist’s in other times and places have come to know their mountains.

Discovery

Russian River in March. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

April has brought spring in all it’s glory: hot sunny days and cold rainy ones; colorful flowers and deep green grass; and the sights and sounds of baseball. And yet, my soul and heart remain moored in March, dwelling long on the beauty of the Russian River. In the weeks since my artist residency, Sonoma County continues to inspire my imagination and fuel my art. Chalk Hill Artists Residency is a place to discover the interconnection of all living things and understand one’s place in the universe. And to take the bold step of sharing this knowledge as art. Dostoevsky wrote “it is life, life that matters, life alone – the continuous and everlasting process of discovering it – and not the discovery itself.”

Alexander von Humboldt, 19th century scientist and explorer, recognized planet Earth as one great living organism. Climbing over seventeen thousand feet in the mountains of Peru, Humboldt concluded that the botanical specimens of the Andes are similar to the plants he had seen in the European Alps. Lewis Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly, (Spring 2017) writes “the excitement is the act of discovery, not the numbering and storing of the dots, but rather the connecting of the dots…..to regard the universe as a metaphor.”

The voyage of discovery begins. Like a writer before the blank page, the artist before the blank canvas stands in awe, asking what do I know? As I fill the brush with color and connect the first dots of paint on the canvas, I wonder where this journey will take me and what discovery will I make about myself and the universe?

Lost Dog

Mount Saint Helena after the rain. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

This morning brought another glorious day of painting here at my Chalk Hill Artist’s Residency. For the last three weeks, I have walked acres of vineyards cradled between the Russian River and Mount Saint Helena here in beautiful Sonoma County. During this time, I’ve forged deep connections with this beautiful landscape and the people, animals and birds that call this place home, and I’ve tried my best to put those feelings into my paintings.

The morning also brought a couple of “lost” dogs: Okie and Shadow. Out in my yard, I found these two out and about. They weren’t really lost, they were just not where they were supposed to be. But that said, I was happy they graced my porch and gave me their joy and friendship on such a beautiful day. Dogs and people soon all fell in to place, and they were on the next stage of their journey, and I was off to my studio to paint and paint some more!

Recently, my good friend Pam introduced me to a very talented musician Sarah Jarosz who is also a gifted songwriter.  I can’t get this beautiful song Sarah wrote out of my head: Lost Dog. Maybe it sticks with me because all of us, bury old bones and find new ones, and all of us lose ourselves, and with determination, talent, good friends, and a wee bit of luck, find ourselves, again.

“ Lost Dog.

Where did you sleep last night?

Under the cold street light.

Who last called you by your name?

 

Where did you leave your peace?

Other half of your broken leash.

Why did you run so far away?

 

Lost Dog.

Something ‘bout you breaks my heart.

Why you burying bones out in the yard?”

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.