It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background…while the everyday moves into the foreground.” There is, however, an important difference between the weather events that we are now experiencing and those that occur in surrealist and magical realist novels: improbable though they might be, these events are neither surreal nor magical. To the contrary, these highly improbable occurrences are overwhelmingly, urgently, astoundingly real.
Amitav Ghosh The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable
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.”
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.
Yesterday I returned to Chalk Hill. It’s been a year since my artist residency at this glorious Sonoma County vineyard. Twelve months ago we were happily besieged by winter storms bringing the desperately needed rain ending our drought of many years. At that time, mountains and hillsides were deep green and the skies dark grays and blues. My painting Mount Saint Helena after the rain describes this past. The storms replenished springs, and rivers and creeks fueled by the deluge, rushed powerfully to the sea. But the generous rain did not protect Napa and Sonoma County from the ravages of fire, indeed, the rain may have accelerated growth, fueling the devastation; it will be a long time before our memories of Atlas Peak and Tubbs firestorms dim.
And today’s Mt. Saint Helena watercolor captures Spring’s awakening, but my colors are pastels, the result of this season’s dry Winter. Last year’s oil paintings of the mountain tell a different story, intense dramatic Spring color born of a wet winter. The season cycle reminds us of our fragility, humbled by the earth’s beauty and power, aware of life’s precious gift.
“History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago. It is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago…what survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of the human voice confronting it’s own mortality…the story painted on the old walls and printed in the old books is our own.”
The lights dimmed and the spotlight focused on the figure center stage guitar in hand; she began to sing, the voice a little smoky and raspy, working towards the high, round notes so clear in my memory. Soon, “Saint” Joan Baez sang two of my favorites by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie respectively, “With God on Our Side” and “Deportee,”. Both songs are stories of love and tragic loss. Each story holding forth the possibility of redemption, that we can learn from our mistakes and take right action.
Election eve, the significance of this sainted singer was not lost on any of us in the audience. This deeply disturbing election season nearly over, we drank deeply of the songs offered us, believing in the promise of a world where all persons count, no matter their origin or identity, and that the fabric of our society is stronger, when our diverse threads are woven together. Listening, my heart responds, I will march again to her call to action to build a better and loving world.
Between songs, she spoke about her belief in the ideas and aspirations expressed by Bernie Saunders as he crossed the county this year connecting with the hopes and ideals of a new generation. But she also spoke admiringly of the courage of Hilary Clinton, withstanding the barrage of lies and intimidation hurled at her these last months.
On my recent trip to the Eastern Sierras, many a cottonwood was growing, singularly, isolated from other trees in the valley, telling a story, stately and proud. In some cases, it was unclear if a tree was near death because of lack of water, or if it was merely beginning the long winter sleep. These trees standing statuesque on a parched landscape, with the majestic sierras as their backdrop, called to mind the elm trees, deemed Liberty Trees by the colonists turned patriots at the time of our Revolution. The first such elm was located in Boston and celebrated in the revolutionary poetry of Thomas Paine. Soon Liberty Trees were anointed in towns and cities throughout the colonies; these majestic trees witnessed calls to action, celebrated victories, and mourned defeats. Trees bear witness to our story, and with this act they become part of our own story, symbols of strength, longevity, knowledge, loss, and redemption.
We are participating in the most historic election of our time. The stakes are high; it feels like the future of our nation and perhaps the world weighs upon our ballot box. At times, I have been paralyzed with fear of what may come. But I also know that there are persons, my fellow citizens, who think differently than I and will vote differently than I, and they too are fearful of change. And yet, we are all part of the same country, and we must move forward together, whatever changes comes. I think of the lone cottonwood in the Owens Valley, thirsty. Is the tree telling a story of suffering brought on by a changing climate? Is it hanging on for dear life hoping for the redemption winter snow in the mountains will bring? Is this cottonwood a symbol of my republic gasping, near death? Listening to the tree, my heart responds. While I fear the change that the election could bring, I will be strong like a tree, making connections, bringing the long-view, and sharing all the knowledge and wisdom found deep in my core. I will take right action continuing to build a better and loving world respecting the rights of all living beings.
Thanks to an early start, we reached the Owens Valley just before the storm closed Tioga Pass for the winter. Snow had dusted the peaks cradling Tuolumne meadow. There would be no pie today as we passed the Tioga Pass Resort; the diner long since closed, the windows boarded until the spring snowmelt. We were giddy, caught in the romance of the storm; dark thick clouds promised snow and rain to assuage our five-year drought.
Descending to Mono Lake, we made a right turn onto 395 towards Bishop and the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association’s (ESIA) inaugural conference on the history of the eastern sierras. This is a desolate land, whose emptiness holds so many stories to be shared. The Owens Valley straddles two counties: Mono and Inyo. Mono County defined by Mono Lake and the volcanic fields at an elevation of 7,000 feet and the Mammoth Lakes ski resort. Inyo County, the table drops sharply, thousands of feet in altitude is lost, as we descend into ranch lands, cottonwoods and the meandering Owens River. We stopped often, capturing with camera and brush the conversation between brooding sky, dark mountains, parched landscape, and autumnal trees. A photographer and a painter, drawn to this sacred place, finding poetry at every compass point.
At the ESIA conference, David Carle spoke about water and the historic choices that shaped California. A long-term California State Park Ranger, Carle now writes full-time about land and water issues facing our state. According to Carle, in 1902 Los Angeles was a small town of 100,000 people, with a promising citrus industry, but desperately seeking water. Led by the engineer William Mulholland, businessmen and city planners set their sights on the Owens Valley, a region of 8,000 residents with a 75,000 acres of farm and pasture land producing 51,000 bushels of wheat annually. The Owens Valley also held lakes and rivers fed by the water stored in the snow covered Sierras. The aqueducts were completed in 1913, but it didn’t take long before Los Angeles was thirsty again. By 1924 Owens Lake was a dry lake bed where dust storms raged. Los Angeles had purchased all the water rights in the valley, but by the mid-1920s they owned all the towns too. Communities had been destroyed and ecological disaster created for the region. The author Mary Austin asked “ is all this worthwhile in order that Los Angeles should be so big?” Today, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is working hard to implement water reclamation, and to their credit most of Orange County’s water now comes from reclamation. But for some, there will never be enough water, Southern California’s thirst will not be slaked. The proposed Twin Tunnels Project would move water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to the southland. Recently, LADWP purchased five islands located in the heart of the river delta, just as LADWP purchased the Owens Valley a century ago. Stop the Tunnels provides information about establishing fair water policies in California.
Looking out across the Owens Valley, at a land so near, so precious, it is scary to know that actions taken by a few powerful people, so far away, change the land and communities forever.
This winter, we visited the Eastern side of the Sierras. We longed to see the snow covered mountains after so many years of drought. And frankly, I look forward to any chance to gaze upon Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the Sierras and in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet. Waking early, I drove to the Alabama Hills awaiting the glorious winter light the sunrise would bring to Whitney’s face. Mount Whitney towers above the Alabama Hills, but both ranges are made of granite. The Alabama Hills are composed of two types of rock, an orange metamorphosed volcanic rock, and a type of granite that weathers into potato shaped boulders.
The highest peaks were covered in clouds, it was snowing in the mountains, and Whitney was not visible. I stomped my feet and blew on my fingers to stay warm in the cold, hoping with daylight Whitney would be visible. The sun rose, the clouds , like curtains, drew back and Mount Whitney whispered hello. Countless times, I have come to this place, to stare at this mountain, but I can never get enough. I always return. Joyous, I pondered the magic of what light can do, as Robert Hass wrote in the introduction to his book of the same name “the source of that authority is mysterious to me…but it is that thing in their images [the photography of Ansel and Robert Adams] that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking.”
Big flakes of snow melted on our faces as we cross-country skied, breaking trail on the ridge above Cold Stream Valley watershed. The soft quiet storm shattered by the sound of the train swiftly rolling up the mountain to Donner Pass. Joyous, we made our way through the meringue-like forest. Deep snow, grey sky, frozen blue pond and the charcoal scrawled tree scape now frosted, defined the sunless day.
Like thirsty pilgrims arriving at a well after a long journey, we gave thanks, knowing each snow filled hour meant sustained water for drought stricken cities and fields. Magnetized, we were drawn to the snow, both day and night, awestruck by this magical and rare occurrence. Never again taken for granted. A midnight stroll found us by the bank of the Truckee, laughing in joy, as the river, roared her song into the night, balance restored. In the heart of darkness, the snow-covered landscape reflected warmth, restoring our parched souls.
John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra “measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems to show us God…the blessings of one mountain day; whatever her fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, she is rich forever.”
Winter rain has brought snow to our beloved Sierras and the sound of Yosemite Falls echoes like thunder through the valley! A welcome sound for our California beset by drought. Gradually hiking to Glacier Point from the valley, each switchback brought another gorgeous view of the waterfall. In his 1871 journal, John Muir wrote “as long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
Captivated, I painted the waterfall the next day. Setting up my easel by the Swinging Bridge, I tried to capture the rainbow created by the sunshine striking the water falling earthward. The song of the waterfall, birds, and wind was all around, complemented by the sound of human language, as peoples from throughout the world came to visit and wonder at the beauty of this sacred National Park. Yosemite, the great sanctuary, the heart of the world, welcomes us all, makes brothers of us all, diminishing our fear, giving us peace in time of pain.
Our backyard is blessed with fruit trees. In early summer, the apricots and plums ripen and soon find their way as jam, the taste of sunshine on a winter’s day. And now with fall’s arrival the Flanders Fig has ripened; with the pear and persimmon trees soon to follow. This week we will celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish agricultural festival celebrating the harvest. And so we tend to our figs. Even in this severe drought the trees are doing their utmost to participate in the cycle of life; and for this I am grateful and give thanks. But I worry. How much longer can they last with such little rain? Come hither El Nino, and when you come, don’t be shy, bring your entire Cumulonimbus family.
Harvested figs have become star performers in a galette, in salads, and rumors in our home, suggest a caramelized future for pizza pies. We planted the fig tree five years ago and over the years, we have tended the tree, watering, pruning branches, and building supports ensuring it would could grow tall and strong. This is the first bountiful harvest, so we eagerly await the fruit. The tree stands over fifteen feet in height, it’s branches tending towards the sun to help ripen the fruit. Figs are a favorite of the creatures with which we share this Oakland neighborhood; so, fig picking must be timed perfectly. The fruit needs to be ripe enough, but not so ripe as to become easy pickings for the raccoons, jays and squirrels that call our backyard home.
Tending my ripening figs, I contemplated their figgy future. What if the figs could break Newton’s Law of Gravity (avoiding a Fig Newton future) and fly like Pegasus? If figs could fly, what would they intend: remain on the branch, the majority content to a predetermined future filling the stomach’s of mammals and birds; or continue the cycle of rebirth, gravitating to mother earth seeding a new fig tree? If figs could fly, would they break their natural tendency and fly away: planting themselves in a land of gentle rain, or perhaps seek further enlightenment through a closer relationship with the sun? For the remainder of this day, I shall remain in this peaceful garden, seeking liberation from my own samsara by practicing self-discipline, participating in meditative concentration, and considering the wisdom of emptiness. Hoping that should I ever achieve nirvana, I would return as a Bodhisattva, attending to Figuasus and fig lovers on their flightpaths to enlightenment.
Saturday morning we woke to rain. It was a happy shock, given California’s drought. Dropping off the car for an oil change, I asked the mechanics to install new wiper blades. Overreaction? Overly optimistic? Only time will tell. Regardless, the skies put on a tremendous show as the front pushed across the region. It was an opportunity to paint a special place where sky, sea and scape meet with spectacular results. Shoreline Park operated by the Port of Oakland offered a grand stand to capture the atmospheric show: cumulous clouds towering over the San Francisco skyline situated on a bay reflecting the sun’s blinding light. It is a rare gift to live near a city blessed with the drama of sea and sky providing artists an opportunity to capture light reflective and translucent.
J. M. W. Turner lived along the London’s river Thames and visited Venice with its Grand Canal. This summer the De Young Museum hosted an exhibit “Painting Set Free” sharing Turner’s landscapes drawn from the last fifteen years of his career. It is a show not to be missed. Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Turner explains the artist’s first encounter with Venice in 1819: “his first thoughts on seeing the floating city are not recorded but we may imagine the response of one who was so deeply attuned to the movement of water, to the passage of light, and the intermingling of the sun among the waves…..he stayed for only five days on this occasion but the city seized his imagination; he filled some 160 pages of his sketchbooks with drawings and groups of drawings. He also executed some wonderful watercolors of the Venetian morning, where the translucent and ethereal light of the city is evoked in washes of yellow and blue. That sense of light never left him. It irradiates much of the rest of his work.”