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?”


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.


Montserrat Abbey at sunrise. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Sunrise at Montserrat Abbey. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

No matter where you find yourself, walking or cycling connect you to place. On foot or on a bike, life slows down and ceases to rush by in a blur. The smells, tastes, sounds, and sights of a landscape can be discovered, lingered over, and remembered. This rings true in both urban settings and the countryside where the aroma of paella cooking, the taste of locally made vermouth, the sound of church bells ringing, or the sight of the remaining fall leaves colorful against a winter sky are savored and stored like Proust’s memories of things past. Or as the landscape writer and teacher, J.B. Jackson wrote in his essay Sense of Place, Sense of Time the atmosphere…the quality of the environment…have an attraction…we want to return to, time and again.” So, after days of walking and gathering our own observational data about Barcelona, we set out to walk in some of Catalonia’s regions known as comarcas.

In the comarca of Pla de Barges, home to cava grapes, we arrived at Catalonia’s iconic mountain Montserrat to visit the Benedictine abbey Santa Maria de Montserrat in which the Mare de Deu de Montserrat – the black Madonna known as La Moreneta – greets pilgrim’s seeking to touch her hand to receive her blessing. The Montserrat range is Spain’s first national park and features formations composed of pink conglomerate and limestone rock visible from a distance as serrated ridges. The park draws hikers, rock climbers, nature lovers, tourists, and pilgrims to traverse the park’s miles of trails. On clear days visitors can see Mallorca one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean; unfortunately for us, it was hazy. At sunrise the rocks and abbey are bathed in pinks and oranges and the Llobregat river valley below the mountain is covered with a blanket of fog. The Llobregat river flows from the Pyranees to enter the Mediterranean at Tarragona, the Roman imperial city of Iberia. The mountains above the abbey host chapels and the ruins of hermitages dating back over ten centuries. We walked the Cami de Sant Miquel through a Mediterranean Oak forest to Sant Joan’s chapel, the hermitage of Sant Onofre and the Stairway of the Poor. On the trail to the hermitage, I was moved by the stones worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims climbing the trail. My thoughts travelled to the Zen Buddhist, Matsuo Basho, the great master of haiku who wandered Japan writing poetry during the 17th century. Bashho drew inspiration from his environment, capturing his experience beautifully in a few short lines. Reaching the summit, I heard the abbey’s bells ring the quarter hour hundreds of meters below.

Sunset at La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Sunset at La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Later in the trip, we visited the volcanic comarca of La Garrotxa, staying at the lovely bed and breakfast La Rectoria Sant Miquel de Pineda beside a restored 12th century chapel situated on the Ruta del Carrilet part of the itinerannia, a network of historical paths connecting three comarcs: El Ripolies (Pyranees mountains), La Garrotxa (the volcanic park) and L’Alt Emporda (rolling hills teased by the offshore dry, cold Tramuntana wind ). This network of trails is ideal for avid hikers and mountain bikers who enjoy exploring nature, touring farms, and sampling local cheeses, hazelnuts, pinenuts, honeys and breads, as well as learning about the history of the area. We walked the path leading to La Rectoria once the bed of the narrow gauge railroad connecting the ancient cities of Girona and Olot.  We also explored the cobblestone alleys of the medieval towns of Besalu and Sant Pau discovering the traces of Jewish communities tragically expelled by their majesties Ferdinand and Isabella’s Alhambra Decree in 1492 after the Reqonquista of Muslim Iberia in 1491. We visited these towns on the celebration of Treis Reis (Three Kings day) or the Epiphany, when the Magi visited the infant Jesus celebrating the revelation of the Son of God as a human being. Parades arrived at the main town plaça where the Kings presented gifts to eager children and on January 6 we ate the Tortell de Reis. Each night at dinner our host Roy Lawson and his wife Garrotti created delicious meals featuring fare from local farms including haricot beans, truffles, goat cheese soufflé, and buckwheat pancakes. Roy and Garrotti’s hospitality, comfortable and welcoming accommodations, fabulous food are a must if you are travelling in Catalonia; and the people you meet at their B & B are great!  Roy and Garrotti also have a blog for La Rectoria.

And then we came home and began thumbing our new Catalan cookbook!

Field notes: rain and the coming of spring

The promise of spring. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler.

Three times in the night I woke to the sound of driving rain: hard and loud on the rooftop. Now with the first light of morning I see the dark gray clouds of the cold front streak across the sky moving southeast.  Some of the apple-blossoms on the tree outside my window did not survive the night, but most held on, somehow. I was worried. January has been glorious in Santa Cruz, teasing us with warm days, glorious sunlight and little rain; gone were the drenching storms that defined California’s December.

The fruit trees have responded to the spring-like days, colors of white and pink delicately dancing in the breeze; there is always that fear that blossoms will open too early and a hard rain will end their story before it begins. Difficult to imagine a spring without ripening fruit and the canning that gives us apricot, peach and plum preserves – the taste of summer in winter. We are approaching Imbolc, the cross-quarter days when the sun in its celestial travels is midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox; in the Northern Hemisphere the sun in its journey has reached the precise point of fifteen degrees in the constellation of Aquarius. Occurring between February 2 – 7 on our Gregorian calendar, it is the middle of astronomical winter, and the beginning of spring.  It is a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring; known as the Festival of St. Brigid in Ireland, we know it as Groundhog Day, the day the groundhog emerges from its burrow to signify that winter will soon end.  But thankfully winter seeks to stay awhile yet, and truthfully we are not ready to say goodbye to the rain and snow either. If we are lucky our fruit trees will sleep a little longer before awakening to their life purpose. Pacific storms – bringing rain to the coast and Central Valley and the resulting snowpack and snowmelt in the Sierra-Nevada mountains – bring life to all of the inhabitants of California: you, me, fruit trees and Salmon.

In the late 17th century, the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho – the great haiku master – wrote “each day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”  During his life Basho made many pilgrimages throughout Japan with only a knapsack and writing implements, determined to become a hyohaksua “one who moves without direction.” On his last pilgrimage in 1689, Basho travelled through the villages and mountains north of Edo (today’s Tokyo) and along the shores of the Sea of Japan.  During his journey he wrote his masterpiece the Narrow Road to the Interior which features verse and haiku including this one describing the first signs of spring:

Kesa no yuki

nebuka o sono no

shiori kana


After morning snow

onion shoots rise in the garden

like little signposts

floating world: arancia hearts

With the coming of the cross-quarter,  winter begins.  Leaves in artful decay proclaim the changing season.  Gone are summer’s limbs heavy with ripened apricot and plum.   From the corner of my eye, the persimmon, branches nearly bare, adorned with amarillo bangles and arancia hearts. Floating. Breathtaking in the fading light.  I paint; a deep sense of connection between myself and everything. For the moment, I fade away, lost in the act.  Later, steady cold rains: the kind we welcome to keep the drought years at bay.   Mugs of hot matcha take the edge from chilled hands.   In the oven, persimmon cookies bake, the golden taste of connection. (San Francisco) California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

Persimmon Tree. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

Legends tell us the heart-shaped Hachiya fondly called kaki was introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century by a wandering Buddhist. The monk traveled Japan subsisting on persimmons spreading seeds “Johnny Appleseed-like” throughout the land.  Masaoka Shiki a 19th century Japanese author helped revive waka and haiku poetry and introduced the concept of nature sketching or shashei honored the fruit’s place in Japanese culture with this poem composed while stopped at Nara on his journey to Tokyo:

I bite a persimmon

the bell tolls

Horyu-ji Temple

In her book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Jane Hirshfield writes that “every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections….it begins…in the body and mind of concentration….true concentration appears paradoxically at the moment willed effort drops away….the self disappears ….we seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.”  Echoing Jane Hirshfield, Phil Lesh lovingly described his life with the Grateful Dead in  Searching for the Sound . “We were in the music and the music was playing us. To loose oneself completely in a spontaneous flow of music is one of the great human joys: one is creating, but being created. In fact, one no longer exists. At the same time, there’s a give-and-take a handing off of ideas that mimics the process of thought itself….Bobby and I left holes for each other’s notes, creating an interlocking constantly changing rhythm.”

The Great Wave

On Labor Day I kayaked on Tomales Bay.  2PM and it was high tide when I launched near the town of Marshall and the wind was dancing across the water leaving whitecaps in its wake. It was the first time I would be taking my new single kayak on the water. Wave and I have safely captained a two-person kayack on many trips on Tomales Bay  where the center of gravity is low and the craft moves very deliberately through water.  In my watercolors, I’ve documented kayackers  in singles paddling across this water and now it would be my turn.  Wave ably helped me launch the craft, and just after my paddle cut through the water,  I heard a voice from the shore  asking if I had a plan should I capsize out on the Bay. Well, the truth was, no, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t think I needed a plan. I felt I had the experience to handle any situation that might come up. I just wanted to get out and enjoy the last few hours of sunshine on a laborless day.

Kayaking near Hog Island, Tomales Bay

Kayaking near Hog Island, Tomales Bay. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

I was eager to feel  the joy of moving across the water, and  have the wind and spray on my face and see the sun dappling the water. I imagined the feel of my arms working hard to create forward movement against the wind blown waves breaking across the bow. I imagined the moment, when one turns and  with the wind at your back, experience the joy of being rocked forward momentarily airborne on the back of a breaking wave. But the voice spoke a truth that suggested listening.  One of the staff for onsite operations  for Blue Water kayaks on Tomales Bay took a few minutes out of her busy life and reviewed  with me how to manage the unimaginable. A little later I was on the water and the wind was strong and the waves presented a fun challenge. I was deeply grateful that a person previously unknown to me spontaneously showed concern, and I was able to hear the truth of the concern, put my eagerness in check and gently accept the gift.

Later that day driving home, I thought of learning life lessons aknew. While one gleans much knowledge over the years, one must embrace daily life with the openness of a beginner. Christopher Benfey in his book The Great Wave describes an essay by Shuzo Kuki called “Considerations on Time.” Written in 1928, the essay describes two Japanese responses to the theme “man and time.” These are the  Buddhist annihilation of the will, i.e. extinction of desire,  and the Samurai’s bushido, i.e.  affirmation of the will. Kuki saw the myth of Sisyphus as the very embodiment of the moral ideal of bushido. “Sisyphus rolls a rock almost to the summit of a hill, only to see it tumble back down again. And he is, thus, set to perpetually beginning anew. Is there misfortune, is there punishment in this fact?….Everything depends of the subjective attitude of Sisyphus. His good will, a will firm and sure in ever beginning anew, in ever rolling the rock, finds in this very repetition an entire system of morals and consequently, all is happiness…..he is a man impassioned by moral sentiment…..he is not in hell, he is in heaven.” Camus, describing Sisyphus, would write some years later “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”