Spring Haiku

Asian pear blossom. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.
Asian pear blossom. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

Winter Isa Lei,

Asian pear blossoms,

Ry and Bhatt by the River. *

*References the 1993 album A Meeting By The River, a collaboration by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt; the album contains the song “Isa Lei,” the Fijian song of farewell that Ry Cooder learned playing with the renowned Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui.  I’ve been listening to Meeting By the River many mornings here in Santa Cruz while watching the beautiful asian pear tree in the garden outside my window greet the Spring.

Ghosts of Aprils Past

Cotton. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

Guarded by the monuments honoring the defenders from the northern aggression

A town square, now sits quiet


The highway  leads to the WalMart suburbs, spaces filled with fast food and fast fun, a drive through espresso and a MySpace page

The rhythms of cicadas, drowned by the roar of air conditioners

In the shade of live oaks, by the County Courthouse, I sit with my father and uncle

They speak of my grandfather – Eph – Manager of the cotton gin in Thorndale, Texas

With their voices the past comes alive:

The wagons creaking under their load

Bales of cotton

Products of hours of picking under a hot sun

Sweat streaming

Backs bent with pain

Bloody hands

Callused hands scarred by the thorns of the south’s cash crop

White hands and black hands made equal

By the pain and the heat

Sunlight streams through the cracks

Revealing cotton dust rising

Filling the spaces between breaths

The cotton enters the gin

Separating fibers from seeds

Long white fibers

To form the clothes on our backs

Dark seeds pressed

Oil for margarine, meal to feed cattle

They say the cotton gin killed Eph

Years of dust caused the cancer in his brain

A working man

A hard man

No time for tenderness

Love meant food on the table and a roof over their heads

My father’s sense of duty and responsibility flow from him

Father buried Eph in Taylor – as he asked — with a good view of the  road to Thorndale

Later that evening, we watch a little league game, April brings the nation’s pastime

A hot wind blows across the field

A reminder of the scorching Texas day

Grasshoppers by the hundreds fly towards the electric lights.

A black child walks by

Interrupting the serenity of our colorless existence

Watch him, a stranger says, he may have a knife

Shaken, I am horrified: the cotton gin cranks on, separating the light from the dark

Suburban streets cannot mask

Centuries of hurt, neglect and segregation

Revisiting our country’s Civil War, April resonates: Sumter, Appomattox, Lincoln’s Assassination

Bypass not these one-hundred and fifty years

Bypass not these struggles for justice

Mold not history to political need

Pick not the path of easy memory and least resistance

Sift the evidence, seek the truths

For we hold these truths to be self-evident

That “all” are created equal

Long before his death in Memphis in April 1968

Dr. King dreamed on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation at the  steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

“…..we will be able to transform the jangly discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brother hood.”

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.”

waves of glass

Fall is here.  There is a little chill in the air and the sun’s journey southward gives forth a particular quality of light.  This week has found me cycling as much as possible, and I naturally gravitate to the coast to ride the 101 as it meanders through the communities of La Jolla, Del Mar, Cardiff, Encinitas and Leucadia. Every few miles I get a spectacular view of crystalline blue waves peaking and crashing into torrents of white foam and see the surfers catch a wave and joyously ride the crest balanced precariously somewhere between chaos and nirvana. “Clear and sweet is my soul, clear and sweet is all that is not my soul,” wrote Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass.

Sunset North County San Diego: Swami’s Beach. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

A few weeks ago, I visited Cape Cod and I was thrilled to see a group of surfers anglin’ on ankle busters, but I think they imagined the waves as a bonsai pipeline.

Near Truro on Cape Cod. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

The view of the ocean from the saddle of my bike is where my soul opens up, and my spirit returns to balance.  On the bike, I scout out places to paint and observe the world at a pace that allows for interaction, reflection and a laugh or two.  Yesterday it was great fun to see  Surfrider Foundation members  on street corners  in Cardiff  for their “Hold onto Your Butts” campaign.  They were spending their Saturday morning reminding us that cigarette butts do not belong on the beach.  It is another of Surfrider Foundation’s good causes  part of their beach clean-up efforts  and their larger campaigns like “Save Trestles”  which kept a  toll road out of San Onofre State Park. They do good work.  They teach us to be responsible for our beaches and oceans as we should be for any good friend.   These are two watercolors that I’ve recently painted of late afternoons  in North County San Diego and Truro on Cape Cod.  Both pristine and soul redeeming spaces.

Toeing potshards

Monument Valley. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

In the late Spring, when we vacationed on the Colorado Plateau, I discovered a book by Patricia Limerick called Desert Passages.  Dr. Limerick describes the American encounter with deserts in terms of three attitudes towards nature “as a biological reality in human life…hunger, thirst, injury, disease and death….as an economic resource…a container of treasures awaiting extraction…or as an aesthetic spectacle. “  We affectionately called our trip the archaeology tour as we visited the ruins of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples at Wupatki, Monument  Valley, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly. Wave and I spent many hours at the ruins in quiet meditation while I attempted to capture the  essence of these amazing cultural resources on watercolor paper.

White House ruin, Canyon de Chelly
White House ruin, Canyon de Chelly. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

One of the great mysteries is what happened to the ancient peoples?  Archaeological evidence reveals that sometime in the late 13th century these peoples abandoned their homes amongst the mesas and canyon walls and it is theorized that environmental changes —  possibly extreme drought — caused these peoples to abandon their homes.  One feels a certain twinge given the current state of  drought in San Diego, Los Angeles and the rest of California, and of course the fire still burning in the San Gabriel mountains.   It is believed that they left the Colorado Plateau and migrated to join other pueblos along the Rio Grande river in New Mexico.   How would we best characterize the Ancient Pueblo peoples encounters with the desert?  As a biological reality?  Probably yes.  As an economic resource?  Probably yes.  As an aesthetic spectacle?  Probably yes.  We  preserve the artifacts they left us and look for answers in the patterns as we piece the pot shards together.   Ann Weiler Walka’s poem  “Other Dreams: Grand Gulch”  in Waterlines: Journeys on a Desert River gives us something to ponder.  “My thumb polishes the fragment of a bowl, its shallow curve delicately cross hatched with black…some woman dug this clay from a slip of mud…she kneaded the clay with sand and spun a ball into coils….she painted the bowl with a yucca leaf…and dreamed the design from her fingers…she blessed the bowl…that night in her sleep she saw clouds piling over a mesa, spirits coming home. She dreamed of the clay along the creek cool and slippery as a freshly opened heart.”

Smokey the Bear

When I moved to San Diego last year, I did two wonderful things. First I joined the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter and enrolled in the Wilderness Basics Course.  Second I started hiking with my brother-in-law Doug. We chose hikes in the San Bernadino and San Gabriel mountains because of their proximity to Doug’s home and since I had spent thirty some years in Northern California any trail in Southern California would be an adventure for me. Our first explorations in the San Bernadinos included a hike through Jeffrey Pines on the snow covered Siberia Creek Trail, documented in this watercolor,

Hiking on the Siberia Creek trail
Hiking on the Siberia Creek trail. Copyright 2008 Robin L. Chandler

and a trek to the Pacific Coast Trail where it brushes by Big Bear Lake.   Our final adventure of last year was in the San Gabriels  hiking  Mt. San Antonio (known affectionately as Old Baldy) with my friend Dan.   Baldy is some twenty-two miles to the east of Mt. Wilson and Big Tujunga Canyon where the fires continue to burn now in their sixth day.  I keep thinking about those mountains — a challenge for  the north-south driver — but also a strong range charged with protecting the Los Angeles basin from the harsh temperatures of the Mojave desert and capturing moisture during the winter for the times of drought.   I keep thinking about the wildlife and people uprooted by such a massive fire and the lives lost, some heroically and others needlessly.  This evening I opened Gary Snyder’s essays Back on the Fire and thumbed to the “Regarding the Smokey the Bear Sutra” and this brief excerpt reads “a handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs showing that he is aroused and watchful, bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances….his left paw in the Mudra of Comradely Display  indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits…wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but only destroys…wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of the forces that guard the Wilderness….round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great Earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her….”  Thank you Smokey.

I go among trees and sit still

Sunday morning and I wake up hot. Again.  For the last few days,  Southern California has been dominated by a High Pressure system  and we won’t see relief until later this week. After moving part of my life to San Diego last year, I came to understand there are only three seasons  in the southland: rain, hot and fire.  The season of fire has come and several fires are tragically raging now in the Los Angeles Basin.  Still horizontal I begin to dream of shade trees and my mind wonders again to cooler climes of the Spring and my visits to Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco.  On Inverness Ridge, the west side of Tomales Bay and the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore, there are coast woodlands of  Bishop pine and Douglas Fir. On the eastern side of  Tomales Bay are the open oak woodlands and grasslands with dairy and beef ranches — often visited by families of deer.  Much of this land on the eastern side has thankfully become conservation easements  protected by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).

On this side we  also find the non-native Blue Gum Eucalyptus and the  Monterey Cypress planted by early settlers in this community to provide shelter from the winds.

Monterey Cypress
Monterey Cypress. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

On my visits to Tomales Bay, I’ve tried to quickly capture the trees and grasslands of the eastern side in watercolor and ink with a bamboo pen.

Blue-Gum Eucalyptus
Blue-Gum Eucalyptus. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

Daydreaming still, the words come from several Wendell Berry poems I’ve read in his book A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997.  “I go among the trees and sit still. All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.”   Then as a hot breeze comes through my open window I think “of deep root and wide shadow, of bright, hot August calm, on the small, tree-ringed meadow.”   At the end of a long, hot day last Thursday, I cycled to Leucadia and then returned home.  It was a beautiful evening, and the air was still warm even as the sun set in the West.  As I started up the Torrey Pines hill on the coast highway suddenly the temperature changed drastically.  The pines nestled among the canyons of the park create  a blessed coolness  — the air felt like cool water lapping against my skin as I swam up the hill.  I was thankful for the trees whose kindness helped me ride that hill.  Rooted in the earth but reaching towards the heavens,  trees give us life.