the infinite

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View to the Caspar Headlands State Reserve. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

Darkness punctuated only by the light emitted by stars hundreds of thousands of miles distant and the embers of our fire; and a quiet stillness, broken only by the sounds of waves crashing upon the beach and my wife’s slumbered breathing, measured exhales. The sound of the infinite, slow and steady. We came to Mendocino to slow life’s rapid pace and savor special moments, but, we were unexpectedly blessed to briefly experience the infinite.

Caspar is situated on coastal prairie between the communities of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. An active lumber company town in the 19thand 20thcenturies, it is now a quiet village whose headlands, once the location of a lumber mill, are now conserved as the Caspar Headlands State Reserve. The terrace grasslands are home to meadowlarks, white crowned sparrows and harrier hawks and the beach and estuary below host cormorants, gulls and oystercatchers and the endangered Coho salmon and steelhead trout.

From the balcony of our lodgings, we have a good view of the headlands and the Pacific and on Saturday we were rewarded with a sighting of a pod of gray whales migrating north. The whales were surfacing, exhaling and spouting warm, moist air before diving, their flukes breaking the surface as they plunged.  Now as I lay in my bed after midnight, listening to the sounds of the surf, I imagined the gray whales swimming through a deep blue sea, and the sounds of their breathing as they steadily continued north to Alaska, guided by an ancient knowledge passed from cetacean to cetacean. The infinite.

“Close your eyes, prick your ears, and from the softest sound to the wildest noise…it is by Nature who speaks, revealing her being, her power, her life, and her relatedness so that a blind person, to whom the infinitely visible world is denied, can grasp an infinite vitality in what can be heard. ” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

what you have tamed

LittleFoxes

Foxes heading to their den at sunrise. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

For the past week, I have slept little…my nights spent watching the family of Gray Foxes living underneath the old shed near my father’s house.  Sleepy days give way to frenzied nights, as the three kits turn acrobat and lovingly and relentlessly tease their doting parents. I will always remember this trip to Texas and my new friends who opened doors in my dreams.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince the fox gives important advice to the Prince:

“One only understands the things that one tames….men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more… What is essential is invisible to the eye…It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important…[and] you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

response and answer

baptism

Robin L. Chandler, 2018

When I visit or talk with my father these days, the conversation turns to our shared stories. Several times he has with joy and relief told his version of a story about a day when I was three years old. Here is my version. Perhaps it was the call of the wild, but when my dog escaped, I followed, determined to bring her back home. Too young to venture outside my yard alone, but that fact never occurred to me.  Single-minded, with purpose, I tracked my dog; when she crossed the creek, I walked into the water, unaware of the coming baptism. In a new world where the rules of gravity and locomotion no longer applied, my feet lost contact with the ground. Possessing no vocabulary to describe my new emotions, my grown self now describes the situation: panic flirted with me, but an increasing sense of calm flooded my body. Water felt like home, not enigma. I moved my arms and legs and reached the shore where my dog looked on; I grasped her collar and we began the walk home, my clothes completely soaked. Closer, fire engines wailed and police cars flashed. Neighbors ran excitedly in all directions looking for something. My frantic mother was yelling at my distraught father. I didn’t understand what was going on. Walking up to my speechless parents, I said, “I got my dog.” Suddenly strong emotions of happiness came from my parents. Once grown, I came to understand that adults thought I was lucky; they were probably right. But somewhere deep inside, some part of me understood my life’s journey had begun.

“Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the misermerman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps…”

“Only in the heart of the quickest perils; only within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out.”

Herman MelvilleMoby Dick

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.

a shadow crosses the land

Chalk Hill summer

Chalk Hill Summer, Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

On a recent trip to paint the landscape of Chalk Hill, Sonoma County, I had the great fortune of encountering a coyote, a flock of crows and a rattlesnake. The summer grasses were golden and red with just a few hints of winter’s green. Sketching in an oak tree’s shade, I could see the sun drenched heat rising from the land. As afternoon became evening, I walked amongst the new grapes and vines and met coyote, crow and rattlesnake. We, all of us, were not immune to our physical presence and we each, gave the other, a respectful berth, content to observe from a distance. I reflected on their spiritual meaning, because forms and symbols are the essence by which many live and breath. Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest consider coyote, a trickster or the one who brings gifts but sometimes takes those gifts back; crow, the one who warns of attack or is the harbinger of change; and rattlesnake, a messenger carrying prayers for life-sustaining rain and one whose dens are portals to the spirit world. As the evening shadows deepened, I packed up my paints, and headed home, considering the meaning of these encounters.

This week’s total solar eclipse brought a great shadow to our land, both literally and metaphorically. It was a magical experience; a reminder of our planet’s dance within the universe and a chance to participate in an event that has captured the imagination of humankind for thousands of years. But for many of us the shadow brought by the solar eclipse, served as metaphor. We see trickster roaming our land spreading lies and hate and laughing at the results, causing a shadow now darkening our democracy. We see the warning signs; and soberly we know the situation will worsen before it gets better. But we must be strong and have resolve. We must act and make our voices heard to sustain the social and environmental justice principles we hold dear in our communities, in our county, and on our planet.

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?”

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.