The Sanskrit word samsara means to wander, and in the context of Buddhism it means to return, confined to rebirth, locked in an endless cycle of ignorance and suffering, until after dedicated work following the path to end suffering, enlightenment is reached, and the eyes are opened. According to Donald Lopez Jr. in The Story of Buddhism, “wisdom is the insight that everything is of the nature of consciousness and the product of one’s own projections.” To become a buddha, it is necessary to be empty, as the sutras repeatedly teach “not to see anything, is to see everything…..in Zen, there is the saying ‘mountains are mountains,’ referring to the dictum that before one begins the practice of Zen, mountains are mountains; during the practice of Zen, mountains are not mountains; after the practice of Zen, mountains are mountains.”
October’s government shutdown locked us out of our national parks. Fortunately, national forests are nearly impossible to fence in. Forest rangers closed visitor centers, but they could not padlock our public lands. The indifference, lack of connection, and abstract selfishness of a political minority – disregarding communities beyond their voting district – blocked passage of a federal budget, keeping government workers from their jobs – in this case stewardship of our natural resources – and held our country hostage, reeking havoc with local economies, such as businesses dependent on tourists to our national parks. Flouting our temerity, we voted with our feet gaining access to our birthright, our public lands. Entering Inyo National Forest, we found welcome amongst the wilderness of trees in the Eastern Sierra and Great Basin Desert, trees, blessed by their ignorance of Washington, D.C.’s theater of the absurd. I photographed our journey in addition to the watercolors in this blog entry.
When its fall in the Eastern Sierra, trees dress in dramatic and painterly yellows and gold accented now and then with a touch of red and orange. Near sagebrush scrub in the yellow pine belt bioregion found at approximately 7,000 feet above the sea, the yellowing leaves of black cottonwoods are jewel-like on the landscape. Thriving on moisture, the cottonwoods grow where their roots find water near lakes, meadows, springs, and mountain streams. Higher in the Sierras, in the 9,000 – 11,000 foot elevation range, forests of jeffrey and lodgepole pines, red fir and western junipers are found, as well as stretches of quaking aspens, simply breathtaking to behold. Finding water amongst rocks at cliff bases, these trees sparkle in the sunlight, and the wind reveals their white trunks and stirs leaves in a continual flutter. Farther East in the Great Basin Desert, the White Mountains host magnificent ancient bristlecone pine forests. Methuselah, the oldest tree on earth, estimated at over 4,750 years in age, thrives in this arid, exposed landscape, requiring minimal water and finding just enough nutrients in the dolomitic and alkaline soils where few other trees can flourish. Keeping only essential parts alive during times of stress, the living tree is dressed in dead branches, made smooth over time by the forces of wind, ice and fire. The sculptural bristlecone pines seem to form a community of dancers moving nominally in a minimalist ballet for the ages. The beauty is sublime; this place opens our living souls and we are filled with affection.
For this trip, my book of choice was A Great Unrecorded History a biography of one of my favorite writers, E. M. Forster, written by Wendy Moffat. In 1909, just days after reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass,an inspired Forster sketched out the entire concept of one of his finest works, Howard’s End. Published in 1910, Forster explored several themes including developing urban industrial spaces juxtaposed with a rapidly eroding English countryside, and the human need to connect. A century later, Wendell Berry, who like Forster appreciated the value of community and place, was honored to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which he titled It All Turns on Affection. Informed by Forster’s Howard’s End, Berry described the need for integrated local economies connecting cities with their surrounding rural landscapes “to bring producers and consumers…back within the bounds of the neighborhood…[within] effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection…[gaining] a measure of security that cannot derive from a national or global economy controlled by people who, by principle have no local commitment.” In his talk, Berry described Forster’s foresight: “the existence of small farms were limited and that an industrial ugliness, was creeping out of the cities and into the countryside, and that this ugliness was characterized by the withdrawal of affection from places.” In Howard’s End climactic scene Margaret Schlegel talks to her husband Henry Wilcox, “a plain man of business who sees life realistically with a hardness of mind and heart only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls.” Margaret tells Henry “it all turns on affection now…affection. Don’t you see?”
In Song of Myself a poem from Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman penned the line “the press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections.” May our political leaders in Washington remember their actions impact places and persons across our nation and the world. As they do their work, may they walk with affection, understand their commitments, and not trample – drunk with power – the places and communities – in the lands just beyond their own.
This spring and summer we’ve made three trips to Southern California. Crossing “the Grapevine” through the Tehachapi Mountains I am filled with glorious anticipation of the descent into the Los Angeles Basin. Why such excitement? Perhaps it’s my fascination with the contradictory juxtapositions of the place and it’s history, and the palpable tensions. But then again maybe some of the appeal comes from aesthetics; something as simple as the light. Carey McWilliams, in Southern California: An Island of the Land, wrote “a desert light brings out the sharpness of points angles and forms…..but let the light turn soft with ocean mist, and miraculous changes occur…..but this is not desert light nor is it tropical for it has neutral tones. It is Southern California light and it has no counterpoint in the world.” There is a quality of light in Los Angeles and Southern California that is born from the relationship of desert, sea and the impact of humans (and the pollution we make) on the environment.
Years ago I read a February/March 1988 New Yorker article “L.A. Glows: Why Southern California doesn’t look like any place else.” Lawren Weschler tried to capture this sense of light with anecdotes from scientists, writers, and architects. Caltech Professor Glen Cass gazing north towards the San Gabriel Mountains identified a bright, white atmospheric haze. Cass said “on some days there can be billions of particles in the line of site between me and the mountain – each of them with the mirrorlike potential to bounce white sunlight directly back into my eye.” The poet Paul Vangelisti said “for one thing, I think the light of L.A. is the whitest light I’ve every seen,” and the Pritzker Prize winning architect Coy Howard said …..it’s not exactly a dramatic light…..if anything its meditative…..when you get the kind of veiled light we get here more regularly you become aware of a sort of multiplicity – not illumination so much as luminosity. Southern California glows…..and the opacity melts away into translucency, and even transparency.”
On these southern voyages, we’ve made it a point to have encounters with the work of artists and architects working in and inspired by the Los Angeles basin, such as Richard Diebenkorn, who I blogged about in April. Most recently we’ve seen the pale, soft and transparent light of Southern California play against buildings designed by Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. Friends, colleagues and rivals they both came to Los Angeles after WW I from Vienna, Austria where they had individually studied with Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffman. Making their ways separately to California, Schindler worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and Neutra for Eric Mendelsohn in Berlin. Collectively, they practiced the concepts of modernism or the International Style in Southern California when these were still revolutionary ideas. Schindler and Neutra both designed homes for Philip and Leah Lovell; Schindler designed the Lovell Beach House in Newport, California and Neutra designed the Lovell Health House in the Hollywood/Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Both buildings are inspiring examples of innovation in materials (concrete and steel) and the architect’s use of space, form and the importance of light to the structure creating a sense of transparency between the interior and the exterior so characteristic of what would become the post-WWII California lifestyle. Each building is a monumental work of art, but miraculously each structure lay easily and understatedly upon the landscape. In the case of Schindler, the eye of the viewer is lifted skyward into the light by concrete frames lifting the house above streetlevel; whereas with Neutra, the house is nestled within the canyon contours firmly anchored but appearing to gently to float cloudlike hugging the landscape. Each home – considered historic structures in the story of California’s architectural past – remains a meditation of light upon the land.
Thirty minutes after the doors opened, I walk off BART and onto the dance floor of the Bill Graham Auditorium, the party in full swing. Cannabis clouds envelope me, crowds of swirling dervishes surround me, the lights paint me surreally and the band welcomes me, the words of an Estimated Prophet hang in the air “I’m in no hurry, no no no. I know where to go….California, preaching on the burning shore…..California, I’ll be knocking on the golden door…..like an angel, standing in a shaft of light. Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.” Synchronicity. I am here.
Hours before I’d burned the two thousand miles from Austin to San Francisco; a western pilgrimage branded by rain, snow and wind. Somehow synched, the band breaks into Cold Rain and Snow “run me out in the cold rain and snow….and I’m going where those chilly winds don’t blow.“ Our road home through Abilene, San Angelo, Midlands, Van Horn, El Paso, Lordsburg, Tucson, Blythe and Los Angeles shared most of the 2,765-mile route of the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail. The stagecoach operated from 1857- 1861 traversing the Great Plains, the Sonoran Desert and the San Joaquin Valley connecting St. Louis to San Francisco. Evidence of ruts left by Butterfield stagecoach wheels, formed more than one hundred and fifty years ago, remains visible to hikers in the Anza Borrego Desert (East of San Diego). Sobering is the power of mankind to create lasting change, or in the desert wilderness, permanent damage. Leave no trace. Good advice in the wilderness, but judging from the energy around me, the Grateful Dead left an important lasting impression.
The band breaks into Tennessee Jed singing “there ain’t no place I’d rather be, baby won’t you carry me.” My mind flashes back to John Ford’s masterpiece Stagecoach the first film with a soundtrack scored entirely on American folksongs combining traditional Texas and ballads, Stephen Foster compositions, hymns, tin-pan alley tunes and minstrel songs. Stagecoach’s theme contain the lyrics “O bury me not on the lone prairie….. Where coyotes howl and the wind blows free…..By my father’s grave, there let me be…. O bury me not on the lone prairie.” Roots of the Dead. Synchronicity yet again. As if a messenger sent, my dear friend emerges from the seven-thousand year-end revelers while the band sings Scarlett Begonias “once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.” Synched once more. My friend leans over and whispers “the jam builds with Phil and Bobby at the core, the keyboard and lead guitar forming the outer rings of sound….all echoed in the movements of the dancers.” May we all be blessed in this New Year with such joyous synchronicity.
Behind the wheel, I’d been putting miles between us and our cameos in that timeless bittersweet holiday love story; the laughter and tears of parents and children. We’d had the joy of loving those in need and receiving their blessings in return. Needed warmth in the oft-desolate wasteland of the heart. Suddenly, I am shaken from my journey in the land of existential (“dust storms may exist”; “zero visibility possible”*). Deep in the heart of Texas,** the temperature gauge spiked. Oh, shit! Was our good luck running thin? Ahead the two-lane road came to a rise. We pulled off the road feeling small and alone amidst the vast sparse plains and endless blue sky. Prickly pair cactus for miles around and a little Armadillo road kill on the side. Nearby, a hawk perched hungrily watching a meadowlark dart across the road. Mockingbirds and ravens settled on the mesquite trees as if taking their seats for the show. Feeling a little like the wilderness comic, I bowed to the audience and lifted the hood dreading the voice of doom. Somewhere in the midst of that fine German engineering the car sizzled. I knew then we wouldn’t be sleeping that night in New Mexico. Under my breath I hummed the Grateful Dead lyrics “Casey Jones you better watch your speed…trouble ahead, trouble behind.”
The miles of country behind – cotton fields, pecan trees, goats, and the occasional steer – had been punctuated with cell towers. We might feel a bit lost out here in the desert, but we could be found; GPS and handhelds with bars serving as a strong substitute for a bright guiding star. Seconds later Google maps located the nearest VW dealer some 150 miles northwest. Plan B began to take shape. Later that night in an Abilene Best Western, that had room for us, we mused about our best-laid plans and what a roll of the dice can bring. Our luck never really ran thin. It was quite the opposite. Bearing gifts they came to us one following the other. John, our Abilene VW service manager, although miles away inspired confidence as we collaborated via cell phone to diagnose the problem and how to resolve it; Mrs. Wise, a local rancher, stopped and offered comfort making sure we had water and a way forward; and Sergeant-Major, twenty-year career soldier and medic, gave us command over the problem all the while laughing and sharing stories of his life in the army as he towed us west towards the stable, excuse me, garage managed by Donna (where they affectionately called her Ma). We will never forget the Texas magi and their gifts.
* Actual road signs in New Mexico, Land of Enchantment
** In 1923, Brady, Texas was officially designated as the “heart of Texas.”
On Sunday April 4, 2010 a 7.2 earthquake rocked Baja California and the desert lands near San Diego, Anza Borego and the Salton Sea. For nearly a minute tectonic forces were oblivious to international boundaries and struggling peoples trying to make ends meet on either side of the border.
Such a jolt shakes personal and collective memories to the surface…quakes I have known myself such as October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta or quakes I have mythologized such as April 18, 1906 San Francisco. On October 17, 1989 after leaving the Montgomery Street BART station, I walked the six miles home. Gone were the thoughts of seeing the opening game of the World Series Giants versus the Athletics as I hiked past the milling crowds of displaced persons, broken glass, fallen bricks, and scent of natural gas. I heard snatches of news from people sitting on their front porches with battery powered transistor radios reporting fires in the Marina District, the collapsed Cypress Structure in the East Bay, and the severe damage to the Bay Bridge. I trudged onward uncertain as to what I would find at home in Noe Valley. Sometime later, I reached the Mission District and walked up the Dolores Street hill where with enough elevation, I was able to get my first view of the city. I turned slowly, dreading what I might see, but the city was intact — yes there were fires and yes I knew some person’s lives would be changed irrevocably, but at that moment it was not the chaos and extensive devastation I feared. Suddenly I realized where I was standing at 20th and Dolores the site of the Golden Hydrant.
Taking a quote from About.com “On the morning of April 18, 1906 on the slopes of Noe Valley overlooking the Mission district, Dolores Park was packed with displaced citizens watching the fire advance from downtown. This hydrant across the intersection of Dolores and 20th streets was found to have water, but the exhausted horses could not pull the fire engines up the hill. The people mobilized to do the job, then spread out under the firefighters’ direction and, with crude tools and hand labor, stopped the flames” and saved the Mission District from the advancing fire. This hydrant is painted gold in a special ceremony every April 18th at 5:40AM.
That sense of a shared history and a collective memory with San Franciscan’s past and their strength to rebuild after tragedy gave me courage to keep struggling forward. David Blight in his book Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War describes collective memory as “the ways in which groups, peoples, or nations remember, how they construct a version of the past and employ them for self-understanding and to win power and place in an ever-changing present.” I think San Franciscan’s proudly tap collectively into the memories and mythologies of the ’06 earthquake drawing strength to overcome these unstable times.
Aftershocks continue here in San Diego, and daily National Public Radio updates me with news of the 6.9 earthquake in Quinghai, China near Tibet and the eruption of the glacier bounded volcano in Iceland. Amid these geologic statements that humble humankind reminding us that we cannot and should not expect to control all, I continue to work on my paper considering digital libraries and the “Landscape of Memory” and think about the role of archivists in shaping history and memory as described by Rand Jimerson in Archives Power “as generations pass, written records and other forms of documentation must take the place of personal memory….. Historians have also begun to recognize that archives are not simply locations to examine authentic and reliable records of the past, but are also active agents in the shaping of what we know of human history….the role of archivists in this interplay of history, truth, memory and evidence requires examination. As collectors, guardians, appraisers and interpreters of the archival record, archivists actively shape society’s knowledge of the past. “
In the late Spring, when we vacationed on the Colorado Plateau, I discovered a book by Patricia Limerick called Desert Passages. Dr. Limerick describes the American encounter with deserts in terms of three attitudes towards nature “as a biological reality in human life…hunger, thirst, injury, disease and death….as an economic resource…a container of treasures awaiting extraction…or as an aesthetic spectacle. “ We affectionately called our trip the archaeology tour as we visited the ruins of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples at Wupatki, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly. Wave and I spent many hours at the ruins in quiet meditation while I attempted to capture the essence of these amazing cultural resources on watercolor paper.
One of the great mysteries is what happened to the ancient peoples? Archaeological evidence reveals that sometime in the late 13th century these peoples abandoned their homes amongst the mesas and canyon walls and it is theorized that environmental changes — possibly extreme drought — caused these peoples to abandon their homes. One feels a certain twinge given the current state of drought in San Diego, Los Angeles and the rest of California, and of course the fire still burning in the San Gabriel mountains. It is believed that they left the Colorado Plateau and migrated to join other pueblos along the Rio Grande river in New Mexico. How would we best characterize the Ancient Pueblo peoples encounters with the desert? As a biological reality? Probably yes. As an economic resource? Probably yes. As an aesthetic spectacle? Probably yes. We preserve the artifacts they left us and look for answers in the patterns as we piece the pot shards together. Ann Weiler Walka’s poem “Other Dreams: Grand Gulch” in Waterlines: Journeys on a Desert River gives us something to ponder. “My thumb polishes the fragment of a bowl, its shallow curve delicately cross hatched with black…some woman dug this clay from a slip of mud…she kneaded the clay with sand and spun a ball into coils….she painted the bowl with a yucca leaf…and dreamed the design from her fingers…she blessed the bowl…that night in her sleep she saw clouds piling over a mesa, spirits coming home. She dreamed of the clay along the creek cool and slippery as a freshly opened heart.”