In February, I decided to see the snow. The weather broke for a week and I took advantage of blue skies and snow cleared roads to visit the East Side of the Sierras during this extraordinary California winter! The snowcapped Sierras were magnificent! Walking with my friends in the fields and along the waterway canals surrounding Bishop, we met horses, mules, and burros – for me the “holy trinity of the Sierras” – in their winter pastures, resting before their busy summer hauling supplies into the high mountains from pack stations, such as McGee Creek, Pine Creek, and Rock Creek, for hikers and fishermen to camp and sojourn alongside alpine lakes.
Writing about a summer pack into the California Sierras, Everett Ruess wrote, “much of the time I feel so exuberant, I can hardly contain myself. The colors are so glorious, the forests so magnificent, the mountains are splendid, and the streams so utterly, wildly, tumultuously, effervescently joyful that to me, at least, the world is a riot of sensual delight.”
In his Sunday, September 16, 1933, journal entry during his Sierra adventure, Ruess wrote about his day trekking with his burros Grandma and Betsy:
Up before day. There was heavy frost on the meadow grass. I packed with surpassing adroitness and celerity. We went up the north fork of Mono creek and climbed out of the canyon by the edge of a waterfall. I quarreled with the trailmakers several times, but it seems they went in the best way, after all. We passed some lakes and climbed to Silver Pass, where I was “High in the white windy presence of eternity”…..
After lunch, when the burros had rested and eaten their fill, I packed with great rapidity and drove the burros down…..we reached a fork of the trail, and it appears that the Muir Trail does not go down Cascade and Fish Valley, but up to Mammoth Lakes. Reds Meadow and Devil’s Post Pile are my next destinations.
Instead of down, we went up hill, over two passes. We are now in terra incognita, for I do not have the Mt. Morrison quadrangle. In a valley below the second pass, I camped by a long lake that sparkled in the evening sun. I managed to have a bath and plunge before sunset, and felt the better for them. I salted the burros and had constarch pudding, lemon flavor for supper. Now the alpine glow is fading from the mountains.
“During the more than thirty years that I did not make my home in Kentucky, much that I did not like about life in my home state (the cruel racist exploitation and oppression that continued from slavery into the present day, the disenfranchisement of poor and/or hillbilly people, the relentless assault on nature) was swiftly becoming the norm everywhere. Throughout our nation the dehumanization of poor people, the destruction of nature for capitalist development, the disenfranchisement of people of color, especially, African-Americans, the resurgence of white supremacy and with plantation culture has become an accepted way of life. Yet returning to my home state all the years that I was living away, I found there essential remnants of a culture of belonging, a sense of the meaning and vitality of geographical place (p.23) .”
“In ring composition, the narrative appears to meander away into a digression (the point of departure from the main narrative being marked by a formulaic line or stock scene), although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed, that return marked by the repetition of the very formulaic line or scene that had indicated the point of departure…..interlocked narratives, each nested within another in the manner of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls (p.13)…..so we will leave our wanderer there and not bother him with all this history, the vast chain of events that has brought him back to the coastline where all the myths began, because, as we know, obscurity has its uses, too: can be as solid and productive, as concrete and real, as illumination is. We do not want to distract him. Now it is time for this exile to set upon his great work, a book that will begin with an account of a technique that is as old as Homer, known as ring composition: a wandering technique that yet always finds its way home, a technique which, with its sunny Mediterranean assumption that there is indeed a connection between all things, the German Jew Erich Auerbach – no doubt forgivably just now, given the awful and twisted route that has brought him here, the dark road, which yet, as he will one day finally admit, made his book possible – considers a little too good to be true (p.113).”
“…..Obsidian, however, was everywhere: clusters of it every hundred yards or so, and individual chips scattered everywhere we looked. Clearly people had lived here. People just like us, not in some general way, but in the sense of having exactly the same DNA…..I tried to see it as it had been: a little village, with big oval huts standing here and there in knots of trees. People sitting around talking, prepping food, working on tools and clothing, eating meals together. Columns of smoke rising from campfires. Village life. It had been like that. They had not been on summer vacation; they were nomads, living in the right place for that time of year, perfectly at home…..That afternoon was a very different experience from our first discovery on the moraine mound. That first time, my feeling was one of joy: they were here! This time, seeing the meadow that had held a high village for thousands of years, my feeling was more complex, and suffused with sorrow. They were here, yes; but now they aren’t…..I’ll just say that to see those black chips of glass on the land is to feel something deep. We all are descended from people who evolved in Africa, some of whom walked out of Africa around 120,000 years ago, and kept walking. It’s important to remember that. Sometimes I think when you are walking all day, it’s easier to remember that, and to imagine what it must have been like. Possibly that’s one of the greatest values of walking up there [in the High Sierras]. It’s a chance to imagine the deep time of human history, and feel it in one’s body, in the act of walking all day.”
For the last few weeks, I have been making plans with family and friends for treks to Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras. The mountains are calling and I must go! While Covid-19 has kept me close to home, in my dreams I have visited the wilderness and have touched the Earth. Soon, I will be in the mountains breathing the air in a place as big as my dreams where trees connect the land to the sky. I will breathe and my spirit and body will be filled with beauty. Everyone should have the opportunity to breathe the good air of mountains and trees; everyone should feel welcome in the wilderness. But I fear the wilderness – this life giving world of trees and land and sky – may become a dream if we don’t act soon. The wilderness, like a garden nourishes plants and creatures, both animal and human. Respect, compassion, knowledge, and dialogue are critical to caring for landscapes (and all creatures). Otherwise, as we tread the Earth, we will leave nothing but scars on the land, the plants, and all living creatures.
Breath has been much on my mind lately, just as George Floyd’s last breath has been rattling the conscience of my nation. Many Black Americans are marching and rightfully demanding answers about violence. Many White Americans are searching their souls grappling with the violence that is continually perpetrated on people of color. It is time to search our souls and time to listen deeply; we must bathe in these painful and guilt-choked waters before taking action. When Black people say “I can’t breathe” they are saying I can’t take a breath because the police are choking me; I can’t take a breath because I have less economic opportunity; and I can’t take a breath because where I live the air is polluted. This is what we think about when we discuss the need for equality, equity and justice.
Most of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space by the earth’s atmosphere. But due to human activity we have reached the highest amount of carbon dioxide in the last 600,000 years; it has risen from 277 parts-per-million (ppm) to 417ppm in just two hundred years. Carbon dioxide has increased because of our use of fossil fuels and deforestation practices. Since 1850 (the beginning of the industrial revolution), the temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Centigrade (C). In some areas temperatures are rising more than in others; in the United States, the Southwest has warmed up 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 C) and parts of the Arctic have already warmed by more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or (4.0 C). As the climate changes, extreme events increase; there are deeper droughts; more severe rain events resulting in massive flooding; and heat waves. For a number of years, the United Nations (UN) has stated that 2.0 degrees Centigrade is the temperature level the world must hold to and this was formalized in the 2015 Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to consider what are the dangerous / unacceptable levels of climate change; the panel’s work resulted in a report, presented in 2016, that details impacts at both 2.0 degrees Centigrade and 1.5 degrees Centigrade. The main messages of the report are as follows: the climate has already warmed 1.0 degree Centigrade from pre-industrial times which has already made significant impacts, and without further action temperatures could rise above 3.5 C (6.3 F); every bit of warming matters, losses increase significantly from 1.5 C to 2.0 C; and limiting warming to 1.5 C requires deep cuts in emissions (50% by 2030). The United States did not approve the report.
White-supremacy plays a significant role in the climate crisis, just as it does in the political and economic suppression of people of color. Some of the most important things you can do to strengthen the climate movement is to fight facism against brown and black people; as we take action to ensure that black and brown people have clean air, clean water, and access to trees in their neighborhoods, we will fight climate change, and help all inhabitants of Earth.
People of color are not strangers to the Earth. In her essay EARTHBOUND on solid ground,bell hooks wrote about walking through rows of crops with her grandfather, a Kentucky sharecropper, who taught “I’ll tell you a secret…no man can make the sun or the rains come – we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature, but the small farmer knows. Earth is our witness.” bell writes “when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all-powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. When this thinking was coupled with a breakdown in religiosity, a refusal to recognize the sacred in everyday life, it served the interests of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
It is our shared responsibility to preserve our Earth for the future and for the most vulnerable. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the frightening truth about racism and climate change and it is easy to shut down, unable to act because we believe we are powerless to act; powerless to bring about the right-kind-of change. When we feel overwhelmed, we need to sit and feel the pain; understanding the pain will lead us to action. It is time to make the change we want. There is much work to be done and we must begin today. And the place to start is exercising our vote. I will vote in November, and before the election, I will work hard to get others registered to cast their votes. The esteemed writer Marilynne Robinson recently asked what kind of country do we want? Our votes will determine the kind of country we want! We will breathe again.
 Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes heat radiated from ground level to be reflected back towards the earth’s surface. This prevents the emission of heat from the earth, thereby raising the temperature of the earth.
 bell hooks. EARTHBOUND on solid ground was published in Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy and published in 2011 by Milkweed Editions in Canada.
Mt. Olson (sketch & photograph). Robin L. Chandler, 2019.
We backpacked into Lundy Canyon through the Hoover Wilderness making our way ‘cross a beautiful land whose natural history emerged with every step: granite uplifted and scoured by glaciers leaving tarns and lakes; sleeping cinder cones, and magma flows now still. Bald eagles soar, coyotes howl, and trout leap high all searching for nourishment…..seeking only what they need to live; nothing more, and nothing less. Carrying this heavy pack, on a pilgrimage of sorts, I seek that which will nourish me too. Ruach: Breath. Omoiyari: Compassion. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.” 
Mt. Connesa (sketch and photograph). Robin L. Chandler, 2019.
Along with my tent, sleeping bag, stove, water filter, and food (all to nourish my body), I’ve also packed the book by Yuri HerreraSigns Preceding the End of the World. Soon we will stop for lunch and rest and we will take turns reading this important book beside a lake in this beautiful place at the end of the world we know and the powerful words will resonate and humble us – we, those privileged (and blessed) to have what we need to live:
“first there was nothing…nothing but a frayed strip of cement over the white earth. Then she made out two mountains colliding in the back of beyond: like they’d come from who knows where and were headed to anyone’s guess but had come together at that intense point in the nothingness and insisted on crashing noisily against each other, though the oblivious might think they simply stood there in silence…then off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good tone: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction.”
In mid-January, we drove northward on 395 through the Owens Valley from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes. Late afternoon, the sun flirted among the storm clouds and the Eastern Sierra mountain peaks creating a dramatic bright yellow light shining on the valley floor turning the White Mountains a mysterious blue. Ahead, a red cinder cone, a volcanic legacy, grew larger as we made our way closer to the sleeping Long Valley Caldera. The cinder cone, a beautiful rich red, still captivates my imagination.
Rebecca Fish Ewan wrote in A Land Between: The Owens Valley“ the landscape…reveals that stability in the West is both precious and fragile; the relationship between people and the land is deep and passionate, yet the balance of this union can be shaken overnight.” When settlers brought cattle to the Owens Valley in the 19thcentury, the new grazing animal destroyed the grasses and marshland environment that had been vital to the lives of the Pauite-Shoshone. When Los Angeles Water and Power Department diverted and transported snow-fed lakes, creeks and rivers of the Owens Valley to the Los Angeles basin, the ecosystem of the region was changed forever.
The Buddha teaches that we must accept that impermanence characterizes existence. But the Buddha’s noble eightfold path also teaches us to have right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness and right concentration. The recent damage to Joshua Tree National Park caused during the Federal government shutdown may last for centuries. It is difficult for me to grasp the consciousness of people who cause such damage. Are they mindful of their actions consequences? Do they lack a relationship with place and community? Do they believe their “life” exists somewhere else in a different time and space? How can I teach that every moment is precious and our actions reflect our consciousness? We must understand our impact on the land and it’s inhabitants; our choices must be guided by sensitivity to the needs of others and not by our desires alone. Stewardship means never having to say your sorry.
In the 1970s, Gary Snyder heard a Crow elder say at a conference in Bozeman, Montana “you know I think if people stay somewhere long enough the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. “The Place, The Region, The Commons.” p.42 San Francisco: North Point Press. 1990.
December is my favorite time of the year in Northern California: bright sunshine and deep shadows; long nights alive with twinkling stars; and days of cold gray rain turning hillsides olive green and leaves burnt orange. I celebrate this time of the Winter Solstice measuring our shortest day and longest night on our journey around the sun. And as the New Year approaches, I reflect on days passed and days to come; counting blessings past and praying for a peaceful tomorrow.
Yesterday in San Francisco (with very dear friends), we rang the Bonsho – the 16th Century Buddhist Temple Bell at the Asian Art Museum, symbolically eliminating darkness through the Joya ceremony, preparing to receive a bright new year of peace and happiness for everyone. The Buddhist priests at the ceremony wrote “ the deep and sonorous sound of the temple bell awakens people to the meaning of bussho – Buddha nature (intelligence, reasoning, and understanding) and wisdom – traits that are already within us.” May we all offer prayers for a peaceful 2019 awakening the good Buddhist nature and wisdom in us all.
Last Saturday morning – October 27, 2018 – I was standing on the rim of Panum Crater at the edge of Mono Lake looking across the long valley at John Muir’s “range of light” beginning to understand great fullness is found in the emptiness.* My dear companions were scrambling joyously across the rock and ash, relishing the beautiful obsidian and pumice fragments, shattered remains of a past volcanic event. Sadly, a text notified me of the tragedy befalling innocents worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh over 3,000 miles distant. I kept the news to myself desiring my friends feel the joy of discovery, just a little longer. Looking West, I saw before me quaking yellow aspens dancing up the hillside along creeks fed by the alpine lakes Parker and Walker. A single perfect moment – shattered suddenly into a thousand fragments by the destruction at the Tree of Life. At the Eastern Side of the Sierras, we grasp our insignificance within the vastness of eternity, and realize the significance of our actions towards other living beings. May we all find healing, redemption, forgiveness and a mindful constructive path rising from the ashes of our volcano.
* “Before the emanations were emanated and the creations created, a most supreme, simple light filled the whole of existence. There was no vacant place, no aspect of empty space or void, but everything was filled by that simple, infinite light…what is called the light of the Infinite (Eyn Sof).” Luria, Issac. The Tree of Life (Etz Chayyim), Vol. 1. with an introduction by Donald Wilder Menzi and Zwe Padah, and ed. (New York: Arizal, 2008), p. 13.
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 Christwhere 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…..”