Jesus and Woody

Taos

Taos, New Mexico. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Taos, New Mexico is a beautiful place. Imagine a warm summer evening sitting by a creek that rolls quietly to the river Rio Grande; you feel the magic of water in the desert. Water grants life; renews life. So precious is a life. My mind’s eye travels miles in seconds. Looking down from the bridge that crosses the narrow Rio Grande gorge, I toss a pinyon branch and I watch it travel through the canyon by the pueblos on it’s journey to Santa Fe; and then at Albuquerque where the river flattens and widens and water birds play along the shore; and on past El Paso where the river becomes the border between Texas and Mexico – a shallow river – a place of crossings for wild things – those beings naturally wild, we call free and others made wild by violence and fear, tired, poor and hungry seeking relief and asylum. Precious lives. There is no need for brick and mortar; we have built a wall of fear. An informative article in the April 23, 2018 New Yorker “A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall” sought to inspire discussion; discussion and compromise all seem so romantic now as we enter this the latest chapter of shock and awe.

Blessed am I able to freely sit and breathe and feel the special magic of a place. On this solstice day may the light shine and illuminate our way.

Happened upon the new Ry Cooder recording The Prodigal Son. It’s a good one. Keep thinking of the lyrics of his song Jesus and Woody inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song Jesus Christ where Woody (writing in 1940) speculates modern capitalist society would kill Jesus too. Listen to Woody sing here on YouTube. Ry’s lyrics – singing from Jesus’ perspective –  stick with me:

“so sing me a song ‘bout this land is your land’

and fascists bound to lose

you were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too…..”

“…..some say I was a friend to sinners

but by now you know it’s true

guess I like sinners better than fascists

and I guess that makes me a dreamer too…..”

 

Tamalpais

Mt. Tamalpais from Richmond

Mount Tamalpais from Rosie the Riveter National Park. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Living in the East Bay, our gaze draws westward, and this is not hard to understand. In the west looms San Francisco, our imperial city; our iconic bridges, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge; winter rainstorms are born there; and the sun, traversing the north-south longitude, sets in the west. And quietly, holding up the sky, Mount Tamalpais anchors my western horizon. Tamalpais is always there, grounding me; at times just in the corner of my eye, and other times commanding my full attention, whether near or far. My love for Mount Tamalpais has grown deep over the years – many chapters of my story feature this mountain. In the 19th century, the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai captured his love for a revered Japanese mountain with his famous series of woodblock prints Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

Inspired by two books, Opening the Mountain: Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais A Ritual Walk by Mathew Davis & Michael Farrell Scott and Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History and Prints by Tom Killion and Gary Snyder, I persuaded my dear friends, to walk from Muir Woods to East Peak, the top of Mount Tamalpais. At the end of March, we covered a distance of approximately twelve miles, spanning a range of plant communities, including redwoods, mixed evergreen forests, grasslands and chaparral, as well as plants, such as ceanothus, endemic to the mountain adapted to the Serpentine soils. Our journey gave amazing views of the greater Bay Area and we saw Mount Tam’s sister mountains: Black Mountain (west), Mount St. Helena (north), Mount Diablo (east) and Mount Hamilton (south). The artist Tom Killion began his love affair with Tamalpais as a young man, and inspired by Hokusai, he created beautiful prints of the mountain from multiple viewpoints, many of them featured in Tamalpais Walking.

Last week, cycling from Oakland to Richmond on the Bay Trail, I travelled a diverse landscape featuring mudflats so alive with plants and animals coexisting with trucks and cars speeding by on asphalt and cement highways. This is nature – mankind a dominating part of a community of flora and fauna; this is not wilderness. Throughout the journey, there was my friend Mount Tamalpais, on the horizon, a guidepost measuring my progress, a signpost holding close my memories.

 

 

Opening to vastness

sierracottonwood

Mt. Whitney. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

inyomtsalabamahills

Inyo Mountains from the Alabama Hills. Robin L. Chandler, 2017

Recently, I visited the Owens Valley and gazed upon the vastness of the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains. Mountains and sky: in that infinite space, their beauty humbled me. In that quiet desert, I opened my soul to their medicine. For two solitary days, I painted Mt. Whitney and the Inyo Mountains from vantage points in the Alabama Hills becoming part of their story. And now, healed by their beauty, now part of their family, I understand how vast humans can be…..when we open our hearts.

Thomas Lowe Fleischner says it best in Nature, Love, Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness, “but each day we start anew and walk out into a world that is full of sorrow and injustice, yes – but that is also heartbreakingly beautiful. Despair must not overrun our appreciation for this world – plant and animal, stone and sky, and human souls – that is immeasurably lovely, more beautiful than it needs to be, in spite of the grief that is embedded within it.”

tide: regain

Tideregain

Spirit guides. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

Early Sunday morning I walked the desert, my destination, four miles away and some two thousand feet above in the granite-mountains. I am on a pilgrimage of sorts, my feet drifting on the sands of an ancient lakebed, once home to mammoths, mastodons, and short-faced bears. Walking, hoping to reach stasis, seeking to regain what has been lost.

Reaching the hand built stone structure, an ashram, built by Franklin Merrell-Wolff, philosopher and mystic, almost a century ago, high in the Eastern Sierras between two forks of Tuttle Creek, I sat down to refresh and ponder. Below, I could see the valley and the steep trail now ascended, a metaphor for my journey. Yesterday, I knew little about the pinyon pine’s importance to the people who have called this valley home for thousands of years. My time at the Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center in Bishop opened my mind and my heart. Yesterday, they were pinyon pines a part of the ecosystem. Today, I knew the pinyons, scattered throughout the landscape, were foundational to the preservation of a people and a culture. Looking closely at the precious nuts growing within the cones – a vital source of protein – I understood what stewardship meant, to ensure a good fall harvest for a long cold winter.

On your journey, be present, with an open mind and an open heart. It is never too late to learn and it is never too late to teach. It is never too late to love and it is never too late to forgive.

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.

Fire, Wind, Water, and Stone

forest fire

Fire in the hills. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

Now a week old, the Detwiler Fire has consumed 76,000 acres and is only forty percent contained. The windswept fire rages in the foothills, feeding on dry brush that grew intensely during our rainy winter. The fire has devastated a section of California State Route Forty-nine and threatens two historic Gold-Country towns Coulterville and Mariposa, the gateway to Yosemite. These places names trigger sweet memories of friends and shared adventures along the Don Pedro Reservoir, the Merced River, Yosemite Valley and the Eastern Sierras.

Fire, is a natural part of ecosystems. For many trees, such as the Coastal Redwood or the Giant Sequoia, fire opens seed cones required for germination. Simultaneously, fire helps clear-out dead wood and thus provides nutrients necessary for new plant growth. As towns and cities grow, encroaching upon once remote wilderness, human homes and livelihoods are increasingly threatened during fire season. But, when a wildfire rages, threatening your community, it is difficult to ponder the benefits to the natural ecosystem. You only pray the firefighters working night and day can save your home from advancing flames. The work of generations, the evidence of a lifetime’s progress, can be lost within seconds to fire. The poet Robinson Jeffers wrote in his poem Fire on the Hills

“The deer were bounding like blown leaves

Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brushfire;

I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.

Beauty is not always lovely.”

Dust to dust: when catastrophe strikes we experience the harsh reality of how quickly life can change; we begin to comprehend that humility as a means of survival; and we ask ourselves the question what really endures?

Friday, my dear friend and I visited the Carmel home of Robinson Jeffers and his beloved wife Una. Apprenticed to a stonemason, Jeffers built his house, Tor House, and then later, working solo, built Hawk Tower. Jeffers personally chose and hauled each stone up from the beach to craft these dwellings. Jeffers understood ancient stones – when listened to – share the song cycle of wind, water and fire tirelessly grinding granite to sand over the eons. The stone circles at Callinish and Achmore on the Isle of Lewis, placed by Neolithic peoples, have stood for some four thousand years, surviving wind, water and fire as well as the follies of mankind. These stones have survived, and are now artifacts, surviving evidence of a people’s existence. Jeffers wrote in his poem Tor House

“If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:

Perhaps of my planted forest a few

May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard

With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.

Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art

To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.”

Mt. Ste. Helena

Mt. Ste. Helena in Spring. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

Since my March 2017 artist residency, I have returned many times to the vineyard at Chalk Hill to gaze and make some oil sketches and watercolors of Mt. Ste. Helena, the defining mountain of the Napa-Sonoma region. It captivates my imagination. In the last few months winter has become spring has become summer; the weekly changes subtle, the seasonal changes dramatic. Green has become gold. Gray has become blue. And with my art I have tried to render this transformation.

In Cezanne: A Study of his Development, the art historian Roger Fry described the artist’s attachment to the landscape of Aix, France: “Cezanne devoted himself so constantly to interpreting that part of the countryside….that is dominated by the great buttressed ridge of Mt. Ste. Victoire. It is a mountain that impresses one rather by the strangeness of it’s ‘personality’ than by it’s height or it’s precipitousness…..no mountain has ever been explored by an artist so persistently, so incessantly as this…..his interpretation is extremely personal…..it is characteristic of Cezanne’s method of interpreting form, thus to seize on a few clearly related, almost geometrical elements, and then on top of this clearly held framework, to give to every part of the contour the utmost subtlety of variation which his visual sensibility could discover…..”

My great friend and teacher, the artist Anthony Dubovsky, writes about the importance of place, time and memory to an artist’s work; the artist’s challenge to find the right balance between story and form and; through the artist’s work bring some understanding to the meaning of life. In his book Jerusalem: To Know By Living, Tony writes “and yet the rhythm of the life here – the dailiness of it, the meaning of the dailiness, where making one’s way up Rehov Ba’al ha-Tanya at dawn is already to be a part of it. To know it. And to know it is to know life, slowly, day by day…..to know by living, to know by living.” Slowly, day by day, I am coming to know my Mt. Ste Helena, as other artist’s in other times and places have come to know their mountains.