How can I reach you?

Mammoth Mountain

Mammoth Mountain from Minaret Summit. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

The Tang Dynasty’s Wang Wei is revered in China as a poet, painter, and practitioner of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. And for good reason when you read and savor Wang Wei’s work. Wei is considered to be the first Chinese painter to capture the inner spirit of the landscape, originating the mountains-and-rivers tradition beloved by the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder. In his book Mountain Home, David Hinton writes “Wang Wei’s poetry is especially celebrated for the way he could make himself disappear into a landscape, and so dwell as belonging utterly to China’s wilderness cosmology. In Ch’an practice, the self and the constructions of the world dissolve until nothing remains but empty mind or “no-mind.”

A few weeks ago, I travelled with the best companions, reaching the Eastern Sierra and our campground at Convict Lake, after many hours of driving. During our respite, we visited Hot Creek, Long Valley Caldera, Mammoth Mountain, Minaret Summit, and Mono Lake. Walking or sitting amongst the beauty, we were emptied and replenished reaching an awakening, if not the hoped for enlightenment. Wang Wei’s poetry came to mind as I reached for and drank deeply from the cup of friendship and nature. In the Mountains, Sent to Ch’an Brothers and Sisters Wei wrote:

“Dharma companions filling mountains,

a sangha forms of itself: chanting, sitting

Ch’an stillness. Looking out from distant

City walls, people see only white clouds.”

Looking out from distant city walls, people see only white clouds. In Buddhist meditative dharma practice, random thoughts are often seen as clouds passing by. As I meditate I try to reach emptiness, see the clouds evaporate, but often “my thoughts float like clouds and I meander among them until. I remember. Stop meandering. Remember. Concentrate on each breath. Mindfulness.” If most people see only clouds, and I can attest how difficult it is to clear the mind of clouds, how can I reach and expect them to be mindful of our impact upon the earth?

“Anthropocene is the voguish and not yet officially adopted term to describe the first geologic epoch in Earth’s history to be characterized primarily by the impacts of human activity, global warming foremost among them,” writes Glen Martin in the article Hell or High Water: How Will California Adapt to the Anthropocene?

How can I reach others and help them see that for the first time in humankind’s existence – a time now considered the Anthropocene – our actions are raising the temperature of the heavens, the oceans, and the land and thereby changing the fate of all creatures inhabiting these spheres. We must understand the actions we take today impact future generations. And we must understand that human consciousness is formed by our relationship to the sky, the seas and the land: the sky our infinite possibilities, the sea our mystery and the earth our enduring home. What will our consciousness become if the heavens, the oceans and the land are irrevocably changed? What if the air is too dirty to breathe? What if water is a scarce commodity? What if the land is stripped bare and emptied of the creatures with which we currently share this planet? What will it all mean? “We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to it’s 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.”[1]

[1] Stegner, Wallace. Wilderness Letter. December 3, 1960.

To see and describe

The Angel of History. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

The Angel of History. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

The days are dark and grey; the skies stormy and the ocean restless. Will we reach the shore? Or will we be battered by the tides? A weak hand at the tiller, doubt and anxiety grip our ship. We take our stand, voicing our opinion. Unsure. Will our words be heard, or will they fall on deaf ears, lost in the chaos?

Heroic action is needed to fight the fear mongers, but my special powers come from the brush in my hand. Will art signify in such a time?

In Defiant Spirits: the Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, Ross King proposed that an artist, and in this case, Tom Thomson, the great Canadian landscape painter and outdoorsman, could be “the hero in a time of need, [who] goes forth from his homeland and into an underworld of dangerous wonders. Here he contends against mighty forces and undergoes a series of trials before returning home, armed with special powers that give vitality to his community.” As an artist, Tom Thomson was engaged in the vision quest, “the single most pervasive literary plot in western literature…from Homer and the Bible, to Grail legends and the Native American hanblecheya.”

At this time in the history of our country, I believe each of us must undertake the vision quest; it is the eleventh hour and our land, and the creatures inhabiting the land, are under attack. To defend what we cherish, the hero within is desperately needed.

“When the aboriginal man goes walkabout, traveling along his ancestral songline, he chants the verses originally sung by his dreaming ancestor, singing the land into view as he walks through it. And in this manner, he renews not only his own life, but the very life of the land itself.”[1]  Each place has it’s story, a story of the land and the creatures native to that place and time, and those stories must be described and shared to be remembered, to remain alive. The Greek word Aesthesis, origin of aesthetics, means the “work of the senses: touching, hearing, seeing, smelling and tasting.” Stories are created from aesthetic experiences, but theses stories must be preserved to be remembered.

In his 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature lecture, the great poet Czelaw Milosz wrote that the poet must possess two qualities: to see and describe. The poet is the one “who flies above the Earth and looks at it from above, but at the same time see’s it in every detail.” Milosz makes the point “to see means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. To see and to describe may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved, thanks to the mystery of time, must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.”

We must see and describe, to make stories, to make memories and fight the nihilism lurking in the current chaos. And yes, using my special powers, brush in my hand, I will see and describe, I will spark the memory of particular stories, associated with particular places and times and particular creatures, and it will signify.

[1] David Abram. “Gary Snyder and the Renewal of Oral Culture.” A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2015. p. 94

Open (guide)

Cottonwood near Bishop, California. Robin L. Chandler, 2016.

Cottonwood near Bishop, California. Robin L. Chandler, 2016.

The snow, fondant-like, blanketed the mountains. Rushing down the canyons, the rain wrote creeks on the landscape, like icing, on a cake. October brought me to the big empty, the Owens Valley, the tectonic, volcanic landscape, now a desert, once a vast ocean. The thirsty cottonwoods grow alongside the Zen-like creek, waiting months, sometimes years, for the river they know will come. In the big empty, I sang a prayer for this land. Staring deeply, intently at the mountains and the rivers, imagining the ocean that once was, I sang this blessing by Nanno Sakaki[1] for what was and what can be:

“One day from the ocean, from yesterday, I’m sure

A lost hump-back whale will swim up this river.

And someday, from the ocean, from tomorrow,

Countless whales will swim up the river

To revisit the ancient beech forest,

Whales swimming up the river, up the river.”

A few weeks later, I stand before a Marsden Hartley work, painted in 1918, entitled The Last of New England – the Beginning of New Mexico hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. Writing to his friend, Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley described the Southwest: “I like the country very well for it is big and clean and true, and there is nothing dirty standing between one and the sunlight.” Standing before this work, I absorbed the intensity of the landscape realized in the painter’s forms and colors. Like Proust and his tea and madeleines, the painting roused my memory of the Eastern Sierra desert, big and clean and true. Now more than ever, we need people to stand up and speak out like the Sioux tribal leaders now singing their prayers in protest of the pipeline at Standing Rock. We do not need anything dirty, like an unnecessary pipeline, standing between us and the sunlight on the land.

A great shadow threatens the land. Lies and abuse, dressed as truth and normalcy, threaten our democracy, so tenuous, so often taken for granted. To heal our selves, we must take our song to the streets and valleys and together loudly sing our prayers for our land, our peoples, and our democracy. It will be a tough fight, but we must continue to urge national investment in clean and renewable energies and demand the cessation of investments in projects like the pipeline perpetuating fossil fuel dependence. Here at home, the LA Times reports that California leads the nation in energy productivity, electricity from renewable resources, and reductions in carbon intensity. Like the Shaman, we will raise our voice in song to heal ourselves, each other, and our community. Together, open, guiding, we will sing our love of the land we hold so dear.

Because the whales will swim up river, only when they hear our song.

 

[1] Sakaki, Nanno. “Mountains and Rivers and Japan.” A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. Counterpoint. Berkeley, 2015. p.128.

Iridescence: trust

Iridescence. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Iridescence. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Before leaving town, I drove over to my friend’s house to say goodbye and thank her again for the paddleboard adventure. My memories duly recorded of a beautiful November afternoon, the sun warm on my face as we glided on Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay. The wind picked up in the afternoon, bringing a slight chill. The breeze also brought waves rocking the board, challenging my core. Only my second time out on the board, I was still learning to balance…still learning to trust my ability to dance gracefully on a fluid surface, keeping time with water’s rhythms. Dancing the cha-cha, badly, with the wind and the waves. But when I relaxed, letting my mind and body live in the moment, I walked on the water.

Dogen meditates in his Mountain and Water Sutra “all waters appear at the foot of the eastern mountains. Above all waters are all mountains. Walking beyond and walking within are both done on water. All mountains walk with their toes on all waters and splash there.”

My friend was in the garden, cutting a single white flower, a dietes, a wild iris, from her garden, to place among the blue iris, waiting in the vase on her table. It was a beautiful juxtaposition: backlit, the iris emerged from the darkness, well situated on the tablecloth, a spectrum of colors. The image cried out to be painted in oil, but I am a watercolorist. With limited experience in oil paints, I have no trust in my abilities, in my mind and body to work together, no confidence that I could walk on water.

Gary Snyder writes in his essay Blue Mountains Constantly Walking published in The Practice of the Wild “there’s all sorts of walking – from heading out across the desert in a straight line to a sinuous weaving through the undergrowth. Descending rocky ridges and talus slopes is a specialty in itself. It is an irregular dancing – always shifting – step or walk on slabs and scree. The breath and eye are always following this uneven rhythm…the alert eye looking ahead, picking the footholds to come, while never missing the step of the moment. The body-mind is so at one with this rough world that it makes these moves effortlessly once it has had a bit of practice.”

So, I just said, just dive in, walking on water will come…with practice, and really, the journey is all that really matters. Diving into the deep end starts the learning. So, I painted with oil, the iris emerging from the darkness, well situated on the tablecloth, a spectrum of colors. So, I say, trust your mind and body, and never forget, the darker the night, the brighter the stars.

 

 

Metaphor

Metaphor 1. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Metaphor 1. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Lying in bed, reading softly aloud from Afloat, one of Gary Snyder’s poems from his epic Mountain’s and Rivers Without End “…like a cricket husk – like an empty spider egg case, like dried kelp fronds, like a dry cast skin of a snake, like froth on the lip of a wave, trembles on the membrane, paddling forward, paddling backward…there is no place we are but maybe here,” the sound of birdsong and the rain scent drifted through the window. Later, we launched the paddleboards and made our way out of the harbor, and through the river’s mouth to drift among the kelp beds on Monterey Bay. So close, so near, a pair of dolphins broke the surface, exhaling through their blowholes, a magical sound. The water was still and the sky a showcase of rainclouds, dark gray sky reflecting in the sea. “Floating on a tiny boat, lightly on the water, rock[ing] with every ripple…where land meets water meets the sky.” The Greek etymological root of metaphor is meta (across) and pherein (to carry). Cautiously, one stroke at a time, I left my troubles on the shore behind, carrying only my hopes and dreams, stormy skies surrounding me, steadily crossing, stroke by stroke, on my path to the other side.

Metaphor 2. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Metaphor 2. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

The Jewel of Turtle Island – Part Two

Another winter day at Lake Merritt. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

Last week we began the new chapter in our community history, Jean Quan was inaugurated as the first Asian and first woman Mayor of Oakland!  Quan brings over twenty years of experience on Oakland’s School Boards and City Council as well as the strong belief that communities and neighborhoods can work together to face the city’s challenges.  We find ourselves in challenging economic times: a deep gap exists between our expectations of government and society and the funding resources to realize these expectations.   We face tough choices in the years ahead, but we must trust and work together as a community to find the right balance. With the shooting of U.S. Congressman Gabrielle Giffords yesterday in Arizona, our society has received a startling wake-up call, and the dawn appears bleak, fueling trepidation about our abilities to discuss painful choices and work together to bring about non-violent change.  We must continue to engage each other in civil discourse to resolve our societal challenges. Our rallying cry will be a recommitment to our community, to our Turtle Island, because the alternative would be a geography of no-hope, and that simply is not an option.

Gary Snyder wrote in his book A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds “Bioregionalism calls for commitment to this continent place by place in terms of biographical regions and watersheds.  It calls us to see our country in terms of its landforms, plant life, weather patterns, and seasonal changes….before the net of political jurisdictions was cast over it….it doesn’t mean some return to a primitive lifestyle or utopian provincialism; it simply implies an engagement with community…..some of the best bioregional work is being done in cities as people try to restore both human and ecological neighborhoods……such people are becoming natives of Turtle Island.”

Smokey the Bear

When I moved to San Diego last year, I did two wonderful things. First I joined the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter and enrolled in the Wilderness Basics Course.  Second I started hiking with my brother-in-law Doug. We chose hikes in the San Bernadino and San Gabriel mountains because of their proximity to Doug’s home and since I had spent thirty some years in Northern California any trail in Southern California would be an adventure for me. Our first explorations in the San Bernadinos included a hike through Jeffrey Pines on the snow covered Siberia Creek Trail, documented in this watercolor,

Hiking on the Siberia Creek trail

Hiking on the Siberia Creek trail. Copyright 2008 Robin L. Chandler

and a trek to the Pacific Coast Trail where it brushes by Big Bear Lake.   Our final adventure of last year was in the San Gabriels  hiking  Mt. San Antonio (known affectionately as Old Baldy) with my friend Dan.   Baldy is some twenty-two miles to the east of Mt. Wilson and Big Tujunga Canyon where the fires continue to burn now in their sixth day.  I keep thinking about those mountains — a challenge for  the north-south driver — but also a strong range charged with protecting the Los Angeles basin from the harsh temperatures of the Mojave desert and capturing moisture during the winter for the times of drought.   I keep thinking about the wildlife and people uprooted by such a massive fire and the lives lost, some heroically and others needlessly.  This evening I opened Gary Snyder’s essays Back on the Fire and thumbed to the “Regarding the Smokey the Bear Sutra” and this brief excerpt reads “a handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs showing that he is aroused and watchful, bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances….his left paw in the Mudra of Comradely Display  indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits…wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but only destroys…wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of the forces that guard the Wilderness….round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great Earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her….”  Thank you Smokey.