trees are the breath of life – we should be cutting lies instead of trees

Yosemite Valley

Mysemite is Yoursemite. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

For the last few weeks, I have been making plans with family and friends for treks to Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras. The mountains are calling and I must go![1] While Covid-19 has kept me close to home, in my dreams I have visited the wilderness and have touched the Earth. Soon, I will be in the mountains breathing the air in a place as big as my dreams where trees connect the land to the sky. I will breathe and my spirit and body will be filled with beauty. Everyone should have the opportunity to breathe the good air of mountains and trees; everyone should feel welcome in the wilderness. But I fear the wilderness – this life giving world of trees and land and sky – may become a dream if we don’t act soon. The wilderness, like a garden nourishes plants and creatures, both animal and human. Respect, compassion, knowledge, and dialogue are critical to caring for landscapes (and all creatures). Otherwise, as we tread the Earth, we will leave nothing but scars on the land, the plants, and all living creatures.

Breath has been much on my mind lately, just as George Floyd’s last breath has been rattling the conscience of my nation. Many Black Americans are marching and rightfully demanding answers about violence. Many White Americans are searching their souls grappling with the violence that is continually perpetrated on people of color. It is time to search our souls and time to listen deeply; we must bathe in these painful and guilt-choked waters before taking action. When Black people say “I can’t breathe” they are saying I can’t take a breath because the police are choking me; I can’t take a breath because I have less economic opportunity; and I can’t take a breath because where I live the air is polluted. This is what we think about when we discuss the need for equality, equity and justice.[2]

Most of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space by the earth’s atmosphere. But due to human activity we have reached the highest amount of carbon dioxide in the last 600,000 years; it has risen from 277 parts-per-million (ppm) to 417ppm in just two hundred years. Carbon dioxide has increased because of our use of fossil fuels and deforestation practices[3]. Since 1850 (the beginning of the industrial revolution), the temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Centigrade (C). In some areas temperatures are rising more than in others; in the United States, the Southwest has warmed up 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 C) and parts of the Arctic have already warmed by more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or (4.0 C). As the climate changes, extreme events increase; there are deeper droughts; more severe rain events resulting in massive flooding; and heat waves. For a number of years, the United Nations (UN) has stated that 2.0 degrees Centigrade is the temperature level the world must hold to and this was formalized in the 2015 Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to consider what are the dangerous / unacceptable levels of climate change; the panel’s work resulted in a report, presented in 2016, that details impacts at both 2.0 degrees Centigrade and 1.5 degrees Centigrade. The main messages of the report are as follows: the climate has already warmed 1.0 degree Centigrade from pre-industrial times which has already made significant impacts, and without further action temperatures could rise above 3.5 C (6.3 F); every bit of warming matters, losses increase significantly from 1.5 C to 2.0 C; and limiting warming to 1.5 C requires deep cuts in emissions (50% by 2030). The United States did not approve the report.[4]

White-supremacy plays a significant role in the climate crisis, just as it does in the political and economic suppression of people of color. Some of the most important things you can do to strengthen the climate movement is to fight facism against brown and black people; as we take action to ensure that black and brown people have clean air, clean water, and access to trees in their neighborhoods, we will fight climate change, and help all inhabitants of Earth.

People of color are not strangers to the Earth. In her essay EARTHBOUND on solid ground,[5] bell hooks wrote about walking through rows of crops with her grandfather, a Kentucky sharecropper, who taught “I’ll tell you a secret…no man can make the sun or the rains come – we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature, but the small farmer knows. Earth is our witness.” bell writes “when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all-powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. When this thinking was coupled with a breakdown in religiosity, a refusal to recognize the sacred in everyday life, it served the interests of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

It is our shared responsibility to preserve our Earth for the future and for the most vulnerable. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the frightening truth about racism and climate change and it is easy to shut down, unable to act because we believe we are powerless to act; powerless to bring about the right-kind-of change. When we feel overwhelmed, we need to sit and feel the pain; understanding the pain will lead us to action. It is time to make the change we want. There is much work to be done and we must begin today. And the place to start is exercising our vote. I will vote in November, and before the election, I will work hard to get others registered to cast their votes. The esteemed writer Marilynne Robinson recently asked  what kind of country do we want? Our votes will determine the kind of country we want! We will breathe again.

“We should be cutting lies instead of trees” in my blog title is gratefully borrowed from Jerry Martien’s poem Salvage This.

[1] A quote by John Muir.

[2] Heather McTeer Toney, National Field Director of Moms Clean Air Force, speaking at Awakened Action: Women Leaders speak to Race, Poverty, Climate and Pandemic, June 21, 2020. These sentences are from my notes on her talk.

[3] Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes heat radiated from ground level to be reflected back towards the earth’s surface. This prevents the emission of heat from the earth, thereby raising the temperature of the earth.

[4] Diana Liverman, Regents Professor of Geography and Development, University of Arizona and member of the IPCC, speaking at Awakened Action: Women Leaders speak to Race, Poverty, Climate and Pandemic, June 21, 2020. These sentences are from my notes on her talk.

[5] bell hooks. EARTHBOUND on solid ground was published in Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy and published in 2011 by Milkweed Editions in Canada.

our pear tree slumbers

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Winter orchard. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

January nights remain long and chilly, but the sun grows warmer with each day. Some months from now, our tiny Oakland orchard of apricot, fig, plum and pear will provide a wonderful harvest. With luck, we will have a bountiful year blessed with cakes and pies and many jars of jam and preserved fruit. But should we have a premature spring, early blossoms may be lost to windy Pacific storms, severely limiting our harvest. Never one to give up hope, I gaze at the trees and pray they adapt to humankind’s “gift”: climate change. Sitting in their presence, I am reading, captivated by Richard Powers‘ novel The Overstory. In the book, one of the characters, Forestry scientist Patricia Westerford, writes about and speaks of the Giving Trees:

“…she remembers the Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it…love for trees pours out of her – the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the micro climate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature…People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures – bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful – call the shots, make the air, and eat the sunlight. Without them, nothing.“

the spirits aren’t lost

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East Side of the Sierras. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

In mid-January, we drove northward on 395 through the Owens Valley from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes. Late afternoon, the sun flirted among the storm clouds and the Eastern Sierra mountain peaks creating a dramatic bright yellow light shining on the valley floor turning the White Mountains a mysterious blue. Ahead, a red cinder cone, a volcanic legacy, grew larger as we made our way closer to the sleeping Long Valley Caldera. The cinder cone, a beautiful rich red, still captivates my imagination.

Rebecca Fish Ewan wrote in A Land Between: The Owens Valley“ the landscape…reveals that stability in the West is both precious and fragile; the relationship between people and the land is deep and passionate, yet the balance of this union can be shaken overnight.” When settlers brought cattle to the Owens Valley in the 19thcentury, the new grazing animal destroyed the grasses and marshland environment that had been vital to the lives of the Pauite-Shoshone. When Los Angeles Water and Power Department diverted and transported snow-fed lakes, creeks and rivers of the Owens Valley to the Los Angeles basin, the ecosystem of the region was changed forever.

The Buddha teaches that we must accept that impermanence characterizes existence. But the Buddha’s noble eightfold path also teaches us to have right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness and right concentration.  The recent damage to Joshua Tree National Park caused during the Federal government shutdown may last for centuries. It is difficult for me to grasp the consciousness of people who cause such damage.  Are they mindful of their actions consequences? Do they lack a relationship with place and community? Do they believe their “life” exists somewhere else in a different time and space? How can I teach that every moment is precious and our actions reflect our consciousness? We must understand our impact on the land and it’s inhabitants; our choices must be guided by sensitivity to the needs of others and not by our desires alone. Stewardship means never having to say your sorry.

In the 1970s, Gary Snyder heard a Crow elder say at a conference in Bozeman, Montana “you know I think if people stay somewhere long enough the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”[1]

It is a tiny step, but all great things have small beginnings. I start my teaching by sharing these thoughtful commandments I learned recently from an East Bay Regional Park District Park Supervisor:

  • The earth is your mother, care for Her!
  • Honor all your relations!
  • Open your heart and soul to the Great Spirit
  • All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect!
  • Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more
  • Do what needs to be done for the good of all!
  • Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day
  • Speak the truth, but only the good in others
  • Follow the rhythms of Nature; rise and retire with the sun
  • Enjoy life’s journey, but leave no tracks

 


[1]Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. “The Place, The Region, The Commons.” p.42 San Francisco: North Point Press. 1990.

awakening to wisdom

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December Mt. Saint Helena Sonoma County. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

December is my favorite time of the year in Northern California: bright sunshine and deep shadows; long nights alive with twinkling stars; and days of cold gray rain turning hillsides olive green and leaves burnt orange. I celebrate this time of the Winter Solstice measuring our shortest day and longest night on our journey around the sun. And as the New Year approaches, I reflect on days passed and days to come; counting blessings past and praying for a peaceful tomorrow.

Yesterday in San Francisco (with very dear friends), we rang the Bonsho  – the 16th Century Buddhist Temple Bell at the Asian Art Museum, symbolically eliminating darkness through the Joya ceremony, preparing to receive a bright new year of peace and happiness for everyone. The Buddhist priests at the ceremony wrote “ the deep and sonorous sound of the temple bell awakens people to the meaning of bussho – Buddha nature (intelligence, reasoning, and understanding) and wisdom – traits that are already within us.” May we all offer prayers for a peaceful 2019 awakening the good Buddhist nature and wisdom in us all.

the last tango

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Climate Change is Real. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

For over two weeks, Northern California was wrapped in an apocalyptic blanket of toxic air caused by the raging “Camp Fire” in Butte County. The Camp Fire, the most deadliest and destructive fire in California’s history, burned over 150,000 acres.  Drought, low humidity and high winds gave birth to a rapidly growing firestorm that took the communities of Paradise and Magalia by surprise destroying almost 14,000 homes and numerous habitats, claiming the lives of 88 humans and untold numbers of wild animals. Devastated by the losses, we wake soberly to the reality that Climate Change is here, now. Pretending is no longer a survival strategy.

Ironically, the desperately needed rain came with Thanksgiving, the shared holiday commemorating our nation’s beginnings; a day when we count our blessings and say thanks for all we share with our family, our friends, and our community. We have so much to be grateful for such as clean air and fresh water…..and there is so much we take for granted. But no longer. We can no longer ignore our impact on Earth, and shut our eyes and ears to the change the planet is experiencing. Clean air and fresh water are gifts that must be cherished instead of being trampled through our choices and ignorance. Climate is changing as a result of our actions, and animals and plants we assumed would share this planet with us forever are becoming extinct. Climate Change is real. On Friday November 23, 2018 the day after Thanksgiving, the U.S. Government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment  reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

Global warming is intensifying and will result in more disastrous fires, like the ones that have ravaged California, and other weather catastrophes unless governments act now to reduce carbon emissions, according to a stark new assessment of the impact of climate change…the 1,656-page analysis was unambiguous that climate change is here and getting worse. It said warming temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels and fire are likely to take a terrible toll on the U.S. economy, reducing it by as much as 10 percent by century’s end that would mean annual losses of hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century from heat-related deaths, sea level rise and infrastructure damage. The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country.”

On Monday November 26, 2018, President Trump rejected the reports climate assessment findings.

Humans have a great capacity for self-knowledge, but with this knowledge comes responsibility. And so we must step-up to the challenge, and open our hearts and minds to bringing balance and respect to our relationship with the Earth, her plants and animals and perhaps most importantly bring balance and respect to our relationship with our own self. With respect, for others and for ourselves, we can create solutions good for the many; without respect, we will sow the seeds of our own destruction.

 

aspens

Aspens

Aspens, trees of life, sketched at Lundy Canyon. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Last Saturday morning – October 27, 2018 – I was standing on the rim of Panum Crater at the edge of Mono Lake looking across the long valley at John Muir’s “range of light” beginning to understand great fullness is found in the emptiness.* My dear companions were scrambling joyously across the rock and ash, relishing the beautiful obsidian and pumice fragments, shattered remains of a past volcanic event. Sadly, a text notified me of the tragedy befalling innocents worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh over 3,000 miles distant. I kept the news to myself desiring my friends feel the joy of discovery, just a little longer. Looking West, I saw before me quaking yellow aspens dancing up the hillside along creeks fed by the alpine lakes Parker and Walker.  A single perfect moment – shattered suddenly into a thousand fragments by the destruction at the Tree of Life.  At the Eastern Side of the Sierras, we grasp our insignificance within the vastness of eternity, and realize the significance of our actions towards other living beings. May we all find healing, redemption, forgiveness and a mindful constructive path rising from the ashes of our volcano.

* “Before the emanations were emanated and the creations created, a most supreme, simple light filled the whole of existence. There was no vacant place, no aspect of empty space or void, but everything was filled by that simple, infinite light…what is called the light of the Infinite (Eyn Sof).” Luria, Issac. The Tree of Life (Etz Chayyim), Vol. 1. with an introduction by Donald Wilder Menzi and Zwe Padah, and ed. (New York: Arizal, 2008), p. 13.

Equinox

Michelmas 2018

St. Helena Fall 2018. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

“In a world without forest streams from which to drink, where shall I find forest streams from which to drink?”

From the poem In a World Without Forests by Dick Allen, Zen Master

Tramping alongside the Maacama, I rejoice to still find water flowing towards the Russian River. End of September, the air is dusty; golden fields are baked; creeks are typically dry; and the fear of fire haunts all of us who love California’s rolling hills and rivers. Almost a year ago, firestorms besieged Sonoma County, this beautiful place, displacing and forever changing the lives of humans and animals. I am grateful for all lives saved and mourn for all who lost their homes and loved ones. I am grateful for this yet babbling creek. The cup is yet half full. Little daylight remaining, a great blue heron soars by me settling alongside the quiet creek bank searching for the last catch. In the East, St. Helena soars, sheltering the vineyards below where harvest has begun. Equinox. I whisper a prayer “may we live in balance and at peace for one year more.”

slough time

 

Edison Slough

Edison Slough. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Sloughs are narrow, winding waterways where fresh and salt water mix with the rising and ebbing of the tides – a cycle of life, death and rebirth. When the tide recedes the muddy, marshy banks are exposed teeming with life; crabs, shrimps, worms, snails, clams make these flats their home. When the tide rises, these creatures feed on a nutrient rich “soup” created by decomposing plants and other small animals; when the tide ebbs, these shellfish and mollusks become a feast for birds and fishes that also call the slough home. In their time, these birds and fishes provide nourishment to yet other predators. Sloughs are a place measuring time by the absence and presence of water. It is a place for the soul to replenish and connect the tidal rhythm to the rhythm of sustaining our energy and our breath: give and take, in and out, give and take, in and out. Buddha was a gentle human seated amongst the world’s phenomena, contemplating life’s multiple rhythms.

Recently we visited Edison in Skagit County Washington. Walking along Edison’s slough, I was mindful of Gary Snyder’s words in The Practice of the Wild “walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind…the exact balance of spirit and humanity. Out walking, one notices where there is food…there are firsthand true stories of ‘your ass is somebody else’s meal’ a blunt way of saying interdependence, interconnection…give-and-take…what a big potlatch we are all members of! To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being ‘realistic.’ It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporary personal being.”

open and clear

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Robin L. Chandler, 2018

A grave illness resides with my father and we, his family, breathe on, our minds plagued with a dull ache that cannot be suppressed. But what goes through a person’s mind at this time? Is death as simple as opening a window? Do you have a clear view of what lays beyond or are you adrift in the darkness?   Czeslaw Milosz writes in his poem Winter:

“…when the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death,

I already see the mountain ridges in the heavenly forest

Where beyond every essence, a new essence waits.”

awaken at the beach

Limantour Beach

Limantour Beach. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Winter is my favorite time of year; I love the journey to the year’s shortest day and the new pilgrimage for the year’s longest day. Precious the light of day and the warmth of the sun; most welcome is the night when blessed with a good book by the fire and my cat curled sleeping in my lap.

On Christmas Eve, I walked the landscape of Drakes Estero and Limantour Beach with my beloved wife and dear friend. Just a few days past the solstice the day remained short, and to commemorate the day, I made a watercolor sketch and reflected on darkness and light asking myself what can well-meaning souls do to make the world a better place?

And by a better place I mean: end the rapacious exploitation of the earth’s flora and fauna; take measures to resolve the increasing disparity between rich and poor; respect the diversity of global cultures; and stop the egregious use of violence. No small challenge. No simple answer. In fact, it sounds so impossible to resolve, I might as well give up and run away. Run as far away as possible from the suffering and the death, building tall strong walls to protect me from the pain.

It takes great courage to sit and listen to the suffering, the death, and the pain: within yourself and in others. Many of us feel compelled to fix the problems, and when we can’t we give up and salve our pain with whatever money can buy. Not knowing what to do or how to fix a problem is impossibly hard. But through my Buddhist studies, I have learned that there is a place to begin: listen, stay open minded and be generous. This is how the suffering ends and the healing starts. We are not born knowing all things, and will never learn all there is to know. Mitchell Thomashow writes in his essay Nature. Love. Medicine. Reciprocity. Generosity. “…we can cultivate generosity, open-mindedness, graciousness, and humility in the space of that glorious unknowing. I don’t have the capacity to love every species and every person, but I can develop the capacity to be more generous with those people and species that I do encounter.” Blessings on us all for this New Year!