landscape with flatiron

Bobcat. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

Bobcat. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

Haruki Murakami’s short story characters in After the Quake confront their emptiness when the massive 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan becomes a turning point in their lives.

“I call it Landscape with Flatiron. I finished it three days ago.

It’s just a picture of an iron in a room.”

“Why is that so tough to explain?”

“Because it’s not really an iron.”

She looked up at him. “The iron is not an iron?”

“That’s right.”

“Meaning it stands for something else?”

“Probably.”

Zen Buddhists believe that Buddha Nature – the true nature of reality and being – is impermanence, becoming, and a vast emptiness. And Satori,the sudden flash, leads to great insight into the vast emptiness. The earthquake provides Murakami’s characters with that sudden jolt providing insight into the emptiness…insight to grasp how an iron is more than an iron.

Last weekend, we visited our friends at Live Power Community Farm in Round Valley, California, where master farmers and apprentices continue in the footsteps of Alan Chadwick to sow and reap a bountiful harvest according to the principles of Biodynamic farming. Words cannot adequately describe the deep connection one forges with the land and the community when working side by side in the fields, making and sharing meals, and sleeping outside in the hay barn near to dozing horses, cows and sheep. It is sublime.

Arriving at the farm, we felt like understudies in a play whose curtain rose hours ago. We found ourselves reading lines in a well-thumbed script; and one of the acts was about this farm besieged for weeks by bobcats. Two weeks ago there were over forty egg laying chickens in the hen house; today there were less than nineteen. Eggs provide needed protein to feed the farmers. Late afternoon, we were hoeing and raking beds for planting, when news reached us that a bobcat had been caught in the trap near the horse pasture. We walked to the trap, fascinated and horrified at what we might find. There in a cage was the proud and beautiful creature, watching our every move, so alive, and so intense. This was the villain of the act in this play, but it was not really a villain, it was something else.

Our proud and beautiful bobcat would not live to see another sunrise, and that reality was like the sudden jolt of an earthquake providing insight into the true nature of reality and being, the impermanence, the becoming, and a vast emptiness. A coincidence, but a 6.0 earthquake occurred in Napa, California the next day; jolting our world with insight. And now a week later, while absent, the bobcat remains with me. And like the negative space in a painting, the absence of the subject, and not the subject itself, has become the most relevant, and the real subject of this story. It is the journey to understand the importance of impermanence, becoming and emptiness.

Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free*

Marin Headlands on the Pacific Ocean. Created by Robin L. Chandler. Copyright 2010 National Park Service.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville described the Pacific Ocean as the “tide-beating heart of the earth that makes all coasts a bay in it.”   Describing the interconnectedness of the lands ringing the Pacific Rim he wrote “the same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday…..lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of the Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans.”  On Friday March 11, 2011, mankind was humbled by a 9.0 magnitude quake striking the northeastern coast of Japan and triggering a Tsunami whose force quickly silenced thousands of voices near Sendai and damaged harbors – including Crescent City and Santa Cruz –  5,000 miles to the east along the North American coastline.  Nature will always bind what man’s competitive psyche seeks to distance.  Hokusai’s woodblock print “The Great Wave” part of his  series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji has long been a favorite of mine; mesmerized by the beauty of the wave, it is only now, newly humbled, that I truly grasp the precarious position of the fishing boats depicted in the print.

Last weekend I attended the Point Reyes Book’s third Geography of Hope conference bringing together people, place and literature to discuss water as both a life-giving and a life-taking force.  As rain poured outside in biblical proportions, the Japanese people were never far from our consciousness in this community located on the San Andreas Fault so near the Pacific Ocean.   An inspiring  gathering, we listened rapturously to poets, writers and scientists – including Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, William Least Heat Moon, Tim Palmer, Philip Fradkin, Eddy Harris, Peter Gleick, Evelyn Reilly and Julia Whitty —  speak about rivers, lakes and oceans and their hopes and fears for the health of our planet.  The desire to teach children  – through art, literature and science – about the connections between humans and nature was a major theme, but concerns about the potential of social media and hand-held technology to disconnect society from the natural world was an undercurrent of the gathering.

My work as a digital archivist working in academic libraries fosters my belief that social media can be leveraged to enhance our connections with and understanding of the natural world.  If any good can be drawn from the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, it is the knowledge that this is  likely the best documented disaster in recent history, and this information will be repurposed for constructive use. Numerous digital images and video recordings of the Tsunami’s destructive power were captured by survivors of these events and uploaded for sharing on social media sites. This week a BBC article published on March 21, 2011 “Japan Tsunami to Help Predict Future Waves” reported  how scientists will use this data to study Tsunamis. At the 2011 Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Webwise conference, Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President for Research at the Rennslaer Polytechnic and Dr. Joshua Greenberg, Director of Digital Information Technology and Dissemination of Knowledge Program at the Sloan Foundation delivered keynote addresses making several complimentary points: the role of the “crowd and the social network” in the generation of observational research data; the need for a macroscopic approach to gather comprehensive data sets and analyze and visualize data at scale; and the need for archivists, librarians and museum professionals to be central players in data curation workflows to appraise, manage, preserve and provide access to data supporting ongoing research.  Its important to note that this kind of work is underway.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded DataONE a multi-institutional and cross-discipline collaboration of universities and organizations including the California Digital Library to lay the foundation for a distributed framework and sustainable cyberinfrastructure that meets the needs of science and society for open, persistent, robust, and secure access to well-described and easily discovered Earth observational data.

Webwise also featured workshops and sessions on Libraries and Museums engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Learning.  STEM is part of President Obama’s program “Educate to Innovate,” a campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in these disciplines.  Teachers, librarians and museum staff are developing many fun and engaging learning modules using social media and technology.  One particular module — Habit Tracker – caught my eye; I saw a demo of the prototype at the conference.  Using the Apps developed for iPhone and iPad2 technology, Habitat Tracker will help students learn about the nature of science by learning to ask their own questions about the natural world, recording observations, performing analysis and participating in peer review with fellow students.

A humble respect, enjoyment and love of the natural world and a belief in the utility of social media technology and services are not mutually exclusive.  They can be symbiotic and when so joined the resulting analysis can support greater understanding of the natural world and our place in the cycle of life.  It is my hope that technology advancements – like social media –  will bring individuals greater engagement with nature and help humankind shoulder the stewardship responsibilities required to ensure the natural world survives for future generations.

*From the poem At the Fish Houses by Elizabeth Bishop read by Eric Karpeles at the Geography of Hope Conference

landscape of memory

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.

Anza-Borego Desert East of San Diego. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

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. “

the essence of folk music

Yesterday morning I woke up to an National Public Radio (NPR)  story about the sounds of Haiti one week after the devastating earthquake.  My ears were filled with the voices of children singing joyously in French about Joshua tumbling down the walls of Jericho.  Ironic choice of song, but I was deeply moved by the music and I began to think how music sometimes  breaks down walls between people.   And then Kate McGarrigle passed away on January 18th, 2010.  What a loss.  So much music and joy came from Kate and her sister Anna and their collaborations over the years with Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and The Chieftans to name but a few.  Last weekend I was in New England and I  got the chance to make music with a couple of wonderful people – Keith and Mickey.  Keith is one of my oldest and dearest friends and music has always been a part of our bond.  Sometimes I sang, sometimes I listened, and sometimes I tried to paint them playing, happy to be a part of the music.

Mickey. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

Mike Rigenstrief wrote in the Montreal Gazette this week “but perhaps Kate and Anna’s most enduring musical legacy is communal music-making: the way they’d gather friends and family together in concerts….and make thousands of people, most of whom they’d never met, all feel like they were sitting around the kitchen table or in a living room, making music together. That is the essence of folk music. “ I think about all of the people I’ve shared  or made music with over the years in all the living rooms, kitchens, stairwells and cars on road trips. Music is the tie that binds and can help to heal sadness, loss and despair.

Keith. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

Musicians are reaching out to Haiti with “Download to Donate – Songs for Haiti” with 100% of the funds going to Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross and Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund.  If she was with us, I’m sure Kate would be a part of this music for relief.  Kate you raced the Matapedia, you could not slow down, and you were not afraid.

Jammin’. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler