Be Alert! Deer Crossing the Roadway!

Young deer in the Santa Cruz meadow. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

Young deer in the Santa Cruz meadow. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

UC Santa Cruz is a special place; where else would you find a traffic sign flashing bright orange “be alert…deer crossing the roadway.” Cycling into work, I laughed lovingly acknowledging both the practical advice and the deeper meaning of mindfulness. Situated on a mountain overlooking the Pacific, the campus is replete with rolling meadows and coastal forests of tanoak, bay laurel, Pacific madrone and the regal Redwoods. An ecosystem intimately shared by animals, plants and people. After a quiet summer, September signals major events in certain campus populations: the academic cycle migration of homo sapiens and the advent of the breeding season for California mule deer. The traffic signal brings some needed intervention to manage the humans and deer inhabiting this space. All summer the bucks have roamed the meadows as a herd while their antlers grew big and strong preparing to compete for a mate. Next spring, fawns begin the cycle anew. Riding up the bike path through the thirsty meadow, I wonder from where the mountain lion watches these migrations and lifecycles. Will I ever see one?

Right mindfulness, an element of the Buddhist eight-fold path, teaches adherents to be alert, present, building awareness of the moment…the path to enlightenment. Earlier this year, I received a gift from the wife of a landscape painter whose work I greatly admire; she connected me to the work of Peter Matthiessen, Buddhist and writer of fiction and many well-respected books about the environment including the National Book Award winner The Snow Leopard.  Trekking through Nepal with the ancient Buddhist shrine Shey Gompa on Crystal Mountain as their destination, Matthiessen and the field biologist George Schaller were seeking research data on the Blue Sheep and the Snow Leopard.  Truly a book about his spiritual journey, Matthiessen finds the revered Lama of Shey who blesses him with a koan “Have you seen the snow leopard? No. Isn’t that wonderful!”  Matthiessen writes “I feel great gratitude for being here, for being, rather for there is no need to hike oneself to the snow mountains in order to feel free.  I am not here to seek the “crazy wisdom;” if I am, I shall never find it. I am here to be here, like these rocks and sky and snow, like this hail that is falling down out of the sun…the absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty (to that self which is inseparable from others) to live it as bravely and generously as possible.”

It is the season when deer are on the minds of many. Last weekend we attended the fundraiser for the journal West Marin Review held by Point Reyes Books. Two great women poets read from their work: Kay Ryan and Jane Hirshfield and ironically among the many poems they read, they both chose to read works about deer. Selecting a poem from her book The Best of It, Ryan read “a buck looks up: the touch of his rack against wet bark whispers a syllable singular to deer; the next one hears and shifts; the next head stops and lifts; deeper and deeper into the park.” Hirschfeld choose a poem from The Lives of the Heart and read “a root seeks water. Tenderness only breaks open the earth. This morning, out the window, the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.

The Swanton Loop

Swanton Pacific Ranch. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Swanton Pacific Ranch. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

June and we are blessed again with strawberries. It’s after 5:30PM when I leave work, but the summer sun remains sky high moving towards the solstice. Driving north from Santa Cruz towards Davenport, the Pacific flashes brilliantly on this clear and hot day; along the coast farmers are irrigating their crops. The infinite horizontality brings mindfulness; the day falls away and clarity about the scheme of things returns.  Listening to the Blessed Are album, and I find the Woody Guthrie track Deportee and I softly sing with Joan Baez:

 Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil. And be called by no name except “deportees.”

Swanton Berry Farm is my destination. Founded in 1989 by UC Santa Cruz graduate Jim Cochran, Swanton’s is the first commercial organic strawberry farm in California; it is also the first certified organic farm in the United States to sign a labor contract with the United Farm Workers (UFW). The farm stand, where I purchase my two pints of bright red strawberries, proudly displays the UFW flag bearing the black eagle on a field of red.  The UFW was formed as a result of Cesar Chavez’s organizing of Mexican-American and Fillipino American farmworkers to engage in boycotts, hunger strikes and strikes (all based on pacifism) to gain their rights.  The successful 1965 Delano grape strike is the most famous effort. The strawberries are amazing; a delight to see, smell, and taste the sweet and tart delight grown in the sandy soils of the coastline routinely kissed by the sea air. Last year, when Irene Reti’s & Sarah Rabkin’s oral history Cultivating a Movement was published, I read about Jim Cochran’s sustainable practices. Jim described using the Brassica family of plants— broccoli, cauliflower and mustard greens— in crop rotation to improve soil health instead of traditional strawberry farming practices using methyl bromide and Chloropicrin to kill soil disease. At Swanton’s you will never see the plastic covering the fields of commercial growers, indicating chemical fumigation is underway.

This month is also the 38th anniversary of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act that became law on June 5, 1975 giving farm workers the right to collective bargaining and ensuring “peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations.” The act allowed union organizers to meet with farm workers in the fields and for farm workers to select representation by unions such as the UFW to engage in collective bargaining to negotiate conditions of employment.

Strawberries. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Strawberries. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

After purchasing my strawberries, I drive out Swanton Road a beautiful loop curving through the Swanton Pacific Ranch, crossing Scott Creek a riparian corridor for Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout, and winding through forests of Redwoods, Douglas Fir, and Monterey Pine. Surfers say the waves where Scott Creek estuary greets the ocean are the same as Swami’s Beach in San Diego County. The Ranch is beautiful. The furrows nestled amongst the coastal ecosystem; mankind’s geometric abstractions seeking to tame the wilderness topography. Recently I learned about the plein-air painter Sheridan Lord whose inspiring works are with us in the book Things in Place. Sheridan’s farm paintings are pictures “of breathtaking simplicity: the whole surface is occupied by the towering sky and broad fields, which are separated by a mere strip of trees.” Lord’s paintings evoke the environmental writer Peter Matthiessen who quotes the Ojibwa people in his book Nine-Headed Dragon River writing “sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is bearing me across the sky.”  Mindfulness is found in many ways: in a song, in a vista, in a painting, in a koan, or in a strawberry.