down in the valley

Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

The White Mountains are a high desert range situated between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Great Basin Desert and overlooking Death Valley to the South and the Owens Valley to the West. White Mountain Peak at 14,252 feet is third highest mountain in California following Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson. A big, empty, solitary place, created by dynamic geologic forces; it is a place where, Ancient Bristlecone Pines teach pilgrims about a higher consciousness. Time stands still, and peering down in the valley, pilgrims can see life’s journey, the forks in-the-road ahead, and path choices, guided by the wisdom discovered amongst trees – like the Bodhi Tree –  over four thousand years old.

In the late 1930s, the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax preserved for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song Down in the Valley. Captured in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, the song is written from the perspective of an empty, solitary, place – prison – where time also stands still. Peering into space, cut off from the earth and sky, the prisoner sees deep into life’s chasm, the forks in the road behind, and reflects sadly on choices made.

Down in the valley valley so low
Hang your head over hear the wind blow
Hear the wind blow dear hear the wind blow
Hang your head over hear the wind blow.

Roses love sunshine violets love dew
Angels in heaven know I love you
Know I love you dear know I love you
Angels in heaven know I love you.

If you don’t love me love whom you please
Throw your arms ’round me give my heart ease
Give my heart ease love give my heart ease
Throw your arms round me give my heart ease.

Build me a castle forty feet high
So I can see him as he rides by
As he rides by love as he rides by
So I can see him as he rides by.

Write me a letter send it by mail
Send it in care of Birmingham jail
Birmingham jail love Birmingham jail
Send it in care of Birmingham jail.

 

Blues in the Night

Blues. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Blues. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Going fishing with Dad was fun. Hot & humid Saturday mornings, piling into the station wagon with our poles, thermos or two, and bologna sandwiches. I had a spincast, pretty basic, the kind you had to bait yourself; the worms squirming in a Styrofoam cup filled with a bit of dirt and old coffee grounds. Dad was a fly fisherman; I was fascinated by the hours he spent tying his own flies in his basement workshop; I was also captivated by the ballet of the line striking the water. What an elegant and enigmatic ritual of rod and line dancing on the surface, breaking the serene plane. We fished in lakes and rivers of our Southern homeland, first Texas and later Virginia. I never caught many, and I know he spent hours helping me when he could have been fishing. But I remember the early mornings, alone together adrift in time, the sound of still water and rich dirt, the smell of dawn, before the fish bit.

Driving home, my father always sang to me, and I loved his tenor, cigarette scratchy. Sometimes, he made me laugh with a song from his days in the Air Force; “Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he, and he called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his privates three,” laughing and singing our way through the ranks to the general.

But more often than naught he sang Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s The Blues in the Night. For me it was a song of mystery, filled with exotic places, the sound of whistlin’ trains, of pain, darkness and loneliness beyond my age of understanding. But I felt the sadness, the melancholy, and the blues in his voice. It touched me deeply. He explained to me that Natchez and Mobile, Memphis and St. Joe were all cities on the deep and long Mississippi River with headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota rolling all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf, the land of dreams. Our river, became the river of song. Magic. Later, when I was able, I purchased a recording of Louis Armstrong singing and playing his trumpet with Oscar Peterson on piano. Listening now, I bring my own archaeology of understanding to this song and what it says about the space and time from which it sprang…a place limiting relationships between genders and races. But Louis’ deep growly voice always takes me back to the riverside where song began for me.

My mama done tol’ me, when I was in knee pants My mama done tol’ me…

“son, a woman’ll sweet talk,
And she’ll give ya the big eye, but when the sweet talkin’s done
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night”

Now the rain’s a-fallin’, hear the train’s a-callin,
“whooee!”
(my mama done tol’ me) hear dat lonesome whistle blowin’ ‘cross
the trestle, “whooee!”
(my mama done tol’ me) a-whooee-ah-whooee ol’ clickety-clack’s
a-echoin’ back the blues in the night
The evenin’ breeze will start the trees to cryin’ and the moon will
hide it’s light when you get the blues in the night
Take my word, the mockingbird’ll sing the saddest kind o’ song,
he knows things are wrong, and he’s right

From natchez to mobile, from memphis to st. joe, wherever the
four winds blow
I been in some big towns an’ heard me some big talk, but there
is one thing I know
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night

So, let me give ya fair warnin’
You may feel fine in the mornin’
But look out for those blues in the night

 

exalt, soar: a love supreme

Exalting in the moment. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Exalting in the moment. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

It starts with the sound of a gong, and the tenor saxophone begins to glide like a hawk soaring on the winds. The piano an asymmetric counterpoint, a successive burst on the cymbal, and then the foundational heartbeat of the bass begins, the vibrations a syncopation. Led by John Coltrane on sax, Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass, exalted and soared. A Love Supreme, was born. A masterpiece in four movements: Acknowledgement, Resolution. Pursuance, Psalm; a spiritual path. Elvin Jones wrote “every time someone hears it, that music touches them somehow, even people who are churchgoers and have always thought that popular music or jazz was influenced by the devil.” John Coltrane wrote a benediction in the album’s liner notes: “I will do all I can to be worthy of thee o’ Lord. It all has to do with it…thought waves – heat waves – all vibrations – all paths lead to God. His way – it is lovely – it is gracious – it is merciful…one thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God. Everything does.

Last weekend I read Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air; a book with tremendous impact in which Dr. Kalanithi grapples with the meaning of life when diagnosed with a fatal cancer.  Cherishing every moment with his wife and baby, he closed with the following: “everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind indeed.” Instead of chasing the wind, may we soar on the wind, exalting in each moment’s wonder as we travel our spiritual path.

Not to tarry, not to roam. We said we’d join her, she said she’ll meet us when we come

Winter plum. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Winter plum. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

On his recent bluegrass album, The Happy Prisoner, Robert Earl Keen recorded the Wayfaring Stranger with Natalie Maines. The plaintive lyrics haunt me:

“I am a poor wayfaring stranger, while travelling through this world of woe. 

Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger. In that bright world to which I go.

I’m going there to see my mother. She said she’d meet me when I come.

I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home.”

A classic American folk and gospel song, it resonates with one of Buddhism’s four Noble Truths that all is suffering, all is woe, and impermanence is one of the great causes of suffering. But a bright world exists to which we can go.

Last week the rains stopped and the fruit trees blossomed, a month before expected, but nonetheless spectacular for their early arrival. The plum trees in my yard shimmered in the February sunset, still winter by the calendar. The blossoms will not remain long. But long enough to tarry in my dreams, haunt my imagination, and find their way from brush to canvas to capture the beauty of impermanence.

This weekend we will say goodbye to a good friend, my second mother, who has gone over Jordan. There is no sickness, toil or danger, in that bright world to which she goes. Someday we’ll join her, going there, no more to roam. She said she’d meet us when we come. She said she’s only going home.

Shall we gather at the river?

Santa Cruz lagoon. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Santa Cruz lagoon. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

The sun was high in the sky: the light blinding and the air hot; no breeze. The egrets gathered as a rookery on the fallen trees by the lagoon in the Santa Cruz watershed, collecting themselves in the cool of the Eucalyptus trees, like sinners awaiting their baptism to wash away their sins. For a moment I lost myself in the other, the landscape. Quietly, I started to sing “yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.” Shall We Gather at the River was a signature song for John Ford the filmmaker famous for his westerns shot in Monument Valley; the song became soundtrack in some of his most famous movies including My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, and Stagecoach. Ford often used the song as a means to define the boundary between the anglo-churchgoing community “civilizing” the frontier, and the “other ” community defined by their racial and ethnic differences; the “other’s” music emanated from saloons and was typically defined by Ford as minstrel songs and Spanish California folksongs.

Art and poetry are means to give voice to the other, be it individuals, communities, or the landscape. In his book, The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, the poet Octavio Paz wrote “all poets….if they are really poets, hear the other voice. It is their own, someone else’s, no one and everyone. Nothing distinguishes a poet from other men and women but these moments – rare yet frequent – in which being themselves they are other.”

 

Blackbird, bye, bye

Raven on a misty morning. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Raven on a misty morning. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Last Wednesday was a beautiful misty morning; perfect weather for a bike ride through the great meadow. Everywhere the fragrance of sweet wet grass, and fog covered my Santa Cruz campus like a blanket. Damp air kissed my face making rivulets of sweat and rain. Up ahead a great black raven perched on a young Douglas Fir calling out percussively toc toc toc; I responded with a smile singing “packed up all my care and woe, here I go singing low, bye, bye, blackbird.” Written in 1926, Bye, Bye Blackbird became a popular standard covered over the decades by jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, and Nina Simone. I climb the hill, my crank spinning deliberately, a revolution at a time, while I riff on John Coltrane’s cover of Bye, Bye, Blackbird. The great jazz saxophonist believed deeply in music’s power. In a 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky, published in Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, Coltrane said “music is an expression of higher ideals…brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty…and there would be no war…I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good.” It gives me great pleasure to write that the UC Santa Cruz Library Special Collections & Archives preserves and makes accessible the Frank Kofsky Audio and Photo Collection of the Jazz and Rock Movement 1966-1968. Selected photographs from the collection are available online including an image of John Coltrane and his wife Alice (on piano) in performance.

Field of Rainbows. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Field of Rainbows. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

It is no small irony that segregationists opposed to the Civil Rights Movement played Bye, Bye Blackbird to taunt the Selma to Montgomery freedom marchers in 1965. In just another few days, 2500 cyclists, including me, will start our own kind of freedom ride, cycling 545 miles in the AIDS Lifecycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles to help make AIDS and HIV a thing of the past. We ride for many reasons: because we’ve lost a loved one or a dear friend to the virus; because we hope to honor persons living with AIDS by meeting the challenge of the ride; and because we just want to try and help people in need. Please support my cause by donating to the AIDS Lifecycle helping me meet my personal fundraising goal of $ 10,000. http://www.tofighthiv.org/goto/robchandlerJune2015 This week I completed my last long-distance training ride for this year’s AIDS Lifecycle, a ninety-five mile round trip distance between Santa Cruz and Monterey. On the training ride, I travelled San Andreas Road, where calla lilies and strawberries planted nearby Monterey Bay created a quilt of rainbow colors. Serendipity. As if to honor we AIDS Lifecycle riders traveling this road next week on the way to King City. I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good.

Colorado of Texas

The Colorado River of Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2015.

The Colorado River of Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2015.

Storm fed by New Mexican arroyos, the Colorado River winds across the Texas plains and prairies nurtured by springs, through the Hill Country and the fertile black bottom land, gathering steam as the Concho, Llano, Perdnales and San Saba rivers contribute on the journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Great forces tell the story of this country, some natural and some manmade. Wind and rain, lightening and thunder, sun and drought, the migration of creatures in the air, on the land, and through the water dialogue with man’s domestication of the landscape, wrestling nature to some kind of tenuous draw.

In a collection of essay’s Sacagawea’s Nickname: Essays on the American West, Larry McMurtry wrote “man may have seven ages, but the West has had only three: the age of Heroes (Lewis and Clark), the age of Publicity (Buffalo Bill), and the age of Suburbia, for which the preferred term is Urban Sprawl. How we got from the first age to the third, and what we have destroyed in the process, is a story historians will be worrying for a long time.”

Leaving Austin meandering the back roads towards Waco, I purposefully took a slight detour to the northwest to visit the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Spring is the perfect time to catch the wild flowers and glimpse migratory birds nesting in the Texas Hill Country. Austin’s culture of great music and good food combined with Texas’ tax incentives are attracting the computer industry and the countryside is increasingly being developed into suburban housing enclaves. My journey is a series of interstates, highways, and two-lane roads that are increasingly developed. Thank goodness the Refuge was formed in 1992 to ensure some land would forgo development and protect the habitat of two endangered birds: the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. And refuge it is. Although it is hard to completely loose sight or sound of the farm to market road, it is possible to loose yourself briefly in the surrounding natural history. Hiking on a ridge in the refuge, populated with juniper trees (known as cedars in Texas), I was rewarded with sightings of the nesting Warbler and a full stereophonic soundtrack of the bird’s beautiful song juxtaposed by distant thunder. My found treasure included a gorgeous view of the Colorado River of Texas with a threatening lightening storm looming on the western horizon.

I am conscious of the looming suburbs on the horizon, threatening like a storm this precious refuge. Back in the car, heading towards my Dad’s home, I queue up The Mountain on Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band’s album of the same name. I know the odds are stacked against nature; mankind’s greed and hunger scar the landscape with glacier like force. But I know we need to come to some compromise with nature, something more than this tenuous draw. We need to live and breathe stewardship; because the land helps keep us from worry and woe. As I merge onto the highway, Steve Earle sings:

“I was born on this mountain a long time ago

Before they knocked down the timber and strip-mined the coal

When you rose in the mornin’ before it was light

To go down in that dark hole and come back up at night

I was born on this mountain, this mountain’s my home

She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe

Well, they took everything that she gave, now they’re gone

But I’ll die on this mountain, this mountain’s my home”