green fire

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright Robin L. Chandler
Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

In his essay Thinking Like a Mountain, Aldo Leopold recorded the moment his ecological thinking evolved. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and I have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.  I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because wolves meant fewer deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with me.”

Leopold spent a lifetime as a forester, a professor and an environmentalist developing his ideas and perspectives on the ethics of nature and wildlife preservation. Ultimately, his philosophy, evolving over years of observation and contemplation became known as his Land Ethic, which is at the core of his most beloved book A Sand County Almanac.  Aldo Leopold joins Henry David Thoreau and John Muir as one of our three great American wilderness visionaries and writers.

This weekend March 15 – 17, 2013, Point Reyes Books (near Tomales Bay) is hosting its 4th Geography of Hope Conference entitled Igniting the Green Fire: Finding the Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Typically held in March, these intellectual and spiritual gatherings are a gift to celebrate the coming of spring and rebirth encouraging us to think deeply about our relationships with the earth and our fellow living beings. At the conference’s center is the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, a wonderful film directed by Steve Dunsky, edited by Ann Dunsky, written by Stephen Most and narrated by Curt Meine.  It was announced at the conference that the film would be shown on PBS stations nationwide in April 2013.

Surrounding the film is a series of panel discussions with writers, thinkers and doers engaged the building of communities, the importance of stewardship and discussing our responsibilities to the land and to each other. One of the most compelling conversations has been with Michael Howard, Director of Eden Place Nature Center (part of the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation).  Inspired by Leopold’s belief in the importance of community and the land, Michael Howard has built a park and a farm for the African-American community on Chicago’s South Side.  “Eden” is in a place that was the former site of meat packing industry slaughterhouses, also polluted with lead poisoning which has impacted the ability of children to learn for generations.  Howard deeply moved me with his work to try to persuade a people about the benefit of having a relationship with the land; a people whose daily concerns are about having money to pay bills and feed their children and who have spent years running away from a specter of linking the land to sharecropping and slavery.  Michael Howard’s experience evoked for many conferee’s Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest about the emergence of non-profit and community organizations engaged in the environmental and social justice movement.

There is so much wisdom flowing from this conference, I will need days, weeks, perhaps a lifetime to really grasp and understand it all, and to see my thinking evolve as Aldo Leopold has demonstrated.  But what rings clear and true is this: we need to understand that change is something that happens gradually, and it comes by engaging in deep listening, exchange with and respect for both humans and the land. We must learn to “think like a mountain.”

in every grain of sand there is a story

Otters at Elkhorn Slough. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

The thirty-eight miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey can be a very busy road to navigate.  Route One is a major corridor with trucks carrying produce from the fields, and cars transporting farm workers, fishermen, tourists, recreation seekers of every stripe, and people like me who live and work at least part of their lives in this region.  Hurtling through space, my eye catches glimpses of life’s daily epic poem acted-out by the inhabitants – people, plants and animals – of this region.

Our Elkhorn Slough epic begins near Moss Landing, now a man-made harbor, but once an estuary, part of the Pajaro-Salinas river system that historically shared a common entrance to the Pacific Ocean.  Launching kayaks recently on a cold gray Sunday morning, we were treated to a new chapter in this epic story.  An important component of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds, the harbor and slough are populated with many species. This day we spotted Bandt’s, Double-crested, and Pelagic Cormorants; Brown and White Pelicans; Common Loons; Clark’s, Western and Horned Grebes; Forester’s Terns,  and shorebirds including Curlews, Dowitchers and Godwits.  Elkhorn is also home to many marine mammals.  Hauled out on the beaches and mud banks, harbor seals and pups nap after a busy night seeking nourishment in the waters of the Pacific.  Sea Lions rest comfortably piled-up on man-made docks. At low-tide, we spot Sea Anenome’s anchored to pilings and there secure amongst the now visible Eel Grass and occasional wayward kelp strand, we find mother Otters and their pups.  The epic story of one such Otter pup is told in the movie Otter 501, a visual poem to stewardship.  Paradoxically, Elkhorn Slough  –  a safety net to many animals and plants –  is situated amongst a complex and encroaching human ecosystem including a  vibrant agricultural economy, a regional power plant, an active fisherman’s harbor, recreational area for birders, hikers and kayakers, and a major north-south highway transporting people and goods.   It is through tireless stewardship that these animals and plants survive in this amazing place.

To the uninitiated speeding by in their cars, Elkhorn Slough is just a flash of light reflecting off water, punctuated mostly by the two power-plant towers dominating the skyline.  But for the animals and plants it is a sanctuary part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS).  In 1992, MBNMS became a Federally protected marine area offshore California’s Central Coast. Stretching from Marin County to Cambria near Hearst’s Castle San Simeon, the sanctuary encompasses some 276 miles of shoreline and over 6,000 square miles of ocean.  MBNMS is the home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with more than 33 species of marine mammals, 94 species of birds and 345 species of fish.  MBNMS partners with organizations and institutions such as the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and research universities including the University of California and Stanford to preserve, perform research, and educate citizens about co-existing as members of this ecosystem on the central coast.

Elkhorn Slough is a fragile marine ecosystem.  Most of us quickly drive by the Slough, preoccupied with getting to our next destination. Most of us don’t grasp the Slough’s role as a sanctuary in an epic poem, and fewer grasp that we are actors in the story and that have responsibilities to co-exist with the animals and plants as members of this ecosystem.  We can actively choose to act as stewards; we can choose to oversee and protect places like Elkhorn Slough, places worth caring for and preserving because they provide sanctuary to living creatures  that enrich our lives and ensure our survival both spiritually and physically. Anyone can be a steward; it can be as simple as recycling plastic bottles and composting vegetable waste or casting a vote to raise tax revenue to keep California State Parks open and education affordable for students at the University of California.  Stewardship is becoming a member of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation to help create conservation easements or becoming a volunteer naturalist with the MBNMS or taking a child to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to teach them about the wonders of the ocean.

Stewardship is a story that must be shared with others, repeatedly.  Saddened, I fear that for every story told, there are thousands of people who will never hear the story, therefore never be educated to learn about and understand their role as stewards.  With education, we build empowerment, foster discussion, enable understanding, and  realize just actions through compromise.  These are noble aspirations, and evidence abounds that it is always an uphill battle.   However, as the church of baseball teaches and Yogi Berra preaches, “it ain’t over till its over.”   At the bottom of the ninth with two outs and down by five runs, the Sisyphus at the plate knows heaven is found in the uphill struggle (described in the The Great Wave blog entry).   And so we must continue the hard work to learn and to teach each other about our responsibilities as stewards of ecosystems, no matter how great the odds.  As Rachel Carson wrote in her 1958 article Our Ever Changing Shore republished the book Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, “in every out thrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.”

Burning Bright

The Tiger Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

Durga, all fearlessness, patience, full of humor and creative feminine force, rides her tiger onto the field of battle, her eighteen arms holding weapons, the gifts of Hindu gods.  Fiercely compassionate, astride her tiger, the warrior goddess engages in epic spiritual battles to protect virtue and subdue the evil chaos unleashed upon the world by demons.  Durga rides a tiger because it is a symbol of unlimited power; the tiger is the king of the forest, a power on earth beyond the reach of any mortal.  An important figure in Hindu mythology, today the tiger is the national animal of India.

Inspired by Tea Obreht’s talk at Bookshop Santa Cruz about her magical story The Tiger’s Wife, I went to the Oakland Zoo to paint the tiger.  Obreht’s book examines how myths and stories can be a force for good or fuel for fear running “like secret rivers through all the other stories of a life.”  Obreht engages animal symbols to examine our fears about people – their race, culture and religion.   For Obreht animals in our myths and stories are symbolic catalysts for choice as we navigate life.  Is that animal an “it” or a “thou”?  The answer will determine how you act. You have a choice.  And by extension is the stranger an “it,” or perhaps someone with relationships, hopes and dreams just like you?  Pondering human nature in terms of communication taking the form of a monologue or a dialogue, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber described human existence in categories of consciousness, interaction and being in his book I and Thou.

Myths and stories can be a force for good. Durga and her tiger subdueing evil chaos on a daily basis is a story that strengthens me while navigating a chaotic and unjust world.   But Obreht weaves a different story.  In her tale, the outsider – a person from a different culture and religion  – through circumstance, becomes the Tiger’s wife, a person, perceived by villagers afraid of “the other,” as a powerful mythical devil hell bent on bringing destruction.  Obreht’s grandather tells Natalia “there are some stories you keep to yourself – it belongs only to you.”   But Obreht’s tale is not a story you keep to yourself, it is one share.

After reading The Tiger’s Wife, I found myself acting out the pilgrimage of Natalia and her grandfather seeking Shere Kahn, immortal tiger of The Jungle Book. Last Fall, the Oakland Zoo rescued four young tigers, sisters all: Ginger, Grace, Milou, and Molly. Privately owned, a divorce suddenly rendered the young tigers homeless. The Oakland Zoo gave these magnificent and powerful animals a home, respecting the need to keep them as a family.  While there are only 3,500 wild tigers worldwide, it’s estimated there are more than 8,000 tigers privately owned in the U.S. and only a few of those are found in zoos. Tigers once ranged across Asia from Turkey to the eastern coast of Russia, as well as Java and Bali. Today they are an endangered species having lost 93% of their historic range and their dwindling numbers in the wild are now found only in India, Nepal, Russia, China and Southern Asia.  If tigers are to survive in the wild and in captivity, we must see them as beings worthy of our respect; they must be “thou” and not “it.”   As Obreht writes “he was only half wild and in his partial tameness…..he missed…..the companionship and predictability of life at the <zoo>…..however expertly he learned to fend for himself, his life as a tiger had been tainted since birth – maybe that great Shere Kahn light my grandfather believed in had already been extinguished….. but that is not the tiger on whose account my grandfather carried The Jungle Book in his pocket every day for the rest of his life….. it was <the Tiger’s Wife’s> great fortune…..to encounter a tiger that was not all tiger…..maybe it’s enough to say he enjoyed the sensation of her hand between his eyes…..she liked the way his flank smelled when she curled up against him to sleep.” Animals in our myths and stories are symbolic catalysts for choice as we navigate life.  And in reality, how we choose to honor the lives of animals, reveals much about how we choose to honor life itself.

To feel the earth beneath my feet….

Grazing near Tomales Bay
Grazing near Tomales Bay. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

In the Spring of 2009, we returned to Marin County  just north of San Francisco to visit what I consider to be one of the most heavenly places on earth — the region near and around Tomales Bay — a land preserved by a mixture of sustainable agriculture and state and national parks.  A place of peace where thoughtfulness comes as easily as breathing.  It is always a homecoming of sorts for me.  It has been the site of many adventures  over the years: the kayak trips to Hog Island, the hikes through Bear Valley to Mt. Wittenberg, the cycling past Nicasio and hours spent painting and sketching the area from many vantage points.  The watercolors posted here are two of my attempts to capture the beauty of the place. It also brings to mind for me Wallace Stegner,  a writer who always opens my mind to the landscape through which I travel.  In 2008 the Point Reyes Books sponsored the “Geography of Hope”  conference focusing on the environmental writings of Stegner.

In his “Wilderness Letter” dated December 3, 1960,  Stegner wrote  “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”