The power of language

 

The Poet & the Patriot pub in Santa Cruz on St. Patrick's Day. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

The Poet & the Patriot pub in Santa Cruz on St. Patrick’s Day. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

Language and the stories we tell about our relationships to homelands and new found lands has been on my mind. Sitting in the pub on Saint Patrick’s Day surrounded by the din of good cheer, shamrocks, and a pint of stout, I heard above the fray, a few stanzas of my favorite Irish ballad The Maid of Coolmore.

The first time I met her, she passed me by, the next time I met her, she bade me good-bye. But the last time I met her, she grieved my heart so, for she sailed down from Ireland away from Coolmore. To the north of America my love I’ll search for, for there I know no one, nor no one knows me. But should I not find her, I’ll return home no more, like a pilgrim I will wander for the maid of Coolmore

Forced to flee their homeland because of famine, the Irish immigrated to America in the 1840s bringing little but the language in their songs. The great historian Oscar Handlin wrote in his 1952 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Uprooted “only in Dublin did I discover something and that not what I expected – not the documents in the libraries, not the sight of Bloom’s city, but the lilt of the Irish language everywhere adding a magical intonation to the words, so that never again could I read a line of the writing without hearing the resonance of actual speakers’ voices, without knowing the presence of persons long gone-by but real.” With this groundbreaking book, Handlin changed how we speak about and write our nation’s story and in so doing he changed how we see ourselves in and on this land. Regardless of origin, “the common experience was one of wrenching hardship and alienation and a gradual assimilation…that changed the country as much as it changed the newcomers.” The American story was no longer the myth of the Wild West, but the idea that we were a nation of immigrants. In Handlin’s words “once I thought to write a history of the immigrant in America. Then I discovered the immigrants were American history.”

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, charcoal sketch. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, charcoal sketch. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Last weekend, I had the great good fortune to attend Geography of Hope a biennial conference held by Point Reyes Books fostering discussion about the relationship between people and the land. The 2015 conference focused on Women and the Land, and the panelist’s made clear the power of language to assign status or empower the powerless. The keynote speaker Robin Wall Kimmerer insightfully connected the objectification of women and the land; “when language objectifies, ascribing the status “it” we loose all responsibility. It is a convenient linguistic imperialism” that allows us to exploit and destroy instead of learning from and living with a land and it’s people. Kimmerer, a scientist, member of the Potawatomi tribe, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, called for the restoration of sacred language protocols with values of reciprocity and stewardship. Reading  the Poem When Earth Became An It, by the Cherokee poet Marilou Awiakta, Kimmerer said

“When the people call the Earth “Mother,” they take with love and with love they get back, so that all may live. When the people call Earth “it,” they use her, consume her strength. Then the people die. Already the sun is hot out of season. Our Mother’s breast is going dry. She is taking all green into her heart and will not turn back until we call her by her name.”

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, watercolor. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, watercolor. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

One panel asked the question what are the gifts and responsibilities of women in the work against carbon catastrophe? Lauret Savoy, Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke spoke about Wangari Maathai, first Kenyan woman to receive a Ph.D., founder of the Greenbelt Movement, and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Recognizing that women are the primary caretakers of their families and their environment, Maathai established the Greenbelt Movement to plant trees and preserve watersheds, strengthening local communities’ capacity to take action against climate change; advocate for an end to government policies supporting land grabbing, deforestation and corruption; and advocate for gender livelihoods (recognizing that women’s work was critical to family survival – imagine that!). According to Savoy, Maathai’s work illustrates how cultural diversity and biodiversity are intertwined; because there is a wealth of knowledge to be tapped in people’s knowledge of the land, and their stories, their language about the land, restoring the environment goes hand-in hand with restoring cultural integrity.

Savoy also co-edited the book Colors of Nature: Culture Identity and the Natural World which features an essay by Jamaica Kincaid In History. Kincaid begins the essay asking “what to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history? If so, what should history mean to someone like me? Should it be an idea, should it be an open wound and each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again and again…or is it a moment that began in 1492 and has come to no end yet?” Kincaid’s essay clearly evokes the power of language as she describes Christopher Columbus’ discovery “he couldn’t find enough words to describe what he saw before him: the people were new, the flora and fauna were new, the way the water met the sky was new, this world itself was new, it was the New World…to have knowledge of things, one must first give them a name.” Botanists from the Old World quickly began to organize the fauna. “The plants…had two names: they had a common name, that is, the name…assigned to them by people for whom these plants have value; and then they have a proper name, or a Latin name…assigned to them by an agreed-upon group of botantists…the invention of the system has been a good thing. Its narrative would begin this way: in the beginning the vegetable kingdom was chaos; people everywhere called the same things by a name that made sense to them, not by a name that they arrived at but by an objective standard. But who has interest in an objective standard? Who would need one? It makes me ask again what to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history?” Language give us the power to reimagine our destiny and rebuild our world.

 

 

Everyone Deserves Beauty

Black Mountain from the Nicasio Reservoir. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Black Mountain from the Nicasio Reservoir. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

To my way of thinking, beauty and art are synonymous. Art, the creative act and our engagement with that act, stimulates thoughts, emotions, beliefs or ideas. When painting, I am participating in the creation of beauty. When I engage – my five senses – with any work of art, that is beauty too.

Last Saturday, driving home from a Point Reyes Books event through the cold December night, we talked about important work before us in the New Year, and fundraising was front and center. We had just attended a successful fundraiser for KWMR, West Marin’s Community Radio Station. Our donation allowed us to share the evening with Frances McDormand, actress and producer, in conversation with screenwriter Jane Anderson about their collaboration televising Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Olive Kitteridge. It was a generous act for two artists to contribute their time, hearts and minds to encourage donors to help sustain a community treasure.

The evening was inspiring and priceless; stimulating thoughts, emotions, beliefs and ideas. We laughed and cried, recalling McDormand speak about “poor” Olive suffering her husband Henry’s tyrannical happiness. McDormand’s art, gave us a chance to step off the dance floor and see life from the balcony, gaining insight into our lives, from that act of beauty.

Fundraising, no matter the cause, requires commitment, but how do we persuade donors to fund art and learning, when there are so many worthy causes to support directly saving and improving lives or the environment? Registered to ride in the AIDS Lifecycle 2015, I am fundraising to make a difference in the lives of people living with AIDS and HIV. My wife is continually fundraising to support the Environmental Design Archives preserving and cherishing the importance of design in architecture and landscape. To which cause would you donate? Hard choices, but most of the time we donate to save and improve lives and our threatened planet.

But I make a case for beauty, passionately arguing that art directly impacts life. By stimulating our thoughts, emotions, beliefs and ideas, art encourages contemplation and reflection about the precious and fleeting beautiful moments and places. Without art and beauty, what life is there to save? Beautifully rendered in prose and theatrically, Olive Kitteridge reveals “what young people didn’t know…that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again…[if] she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.”

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.

green fire

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright Robin L. Chandler

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

In his essay Thinking Like a Mountain, Aldo Leopold recorded the moment his ecological thinking evolved. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and I have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.  I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because wolves meant fewer deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with me.”

Leopold spent a lifetime as a forester, a professor and an environmentalist developing his ideas and perspectives on the ethics of nature and wildlife preservation. Ultimately, his philosophy, evolving over years of observation and contemplation became known as his Land Ethic, which is at the core of his most beloved book A Sand County Almanac.  Aldo Leopold joins Henry David Thoreau and John Muir as one of our three great American wilderness visionaries and writers.

This weekend March 15 – 17, 2013, Point Reyes Books (near Tomales Bay) is hosting its 4th Geography of Hope Conference entitled Igniting the Green Fire: Finding the Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Typically held in March, these intellectual and spiritual gatherings are a gift to celebrate the coming of spring and rebirth encouraging us to think deeply about our relationships with the earth and our fellow living beings. At the conference’s center is the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, a wonderful film directed by Steve Dunsky, edited by Ann Dunsky, written by Stephen Most and narrated by Curt Meine.  It was announced at the conference that the film would be shown on PBS stations nationwide in April 2013.

Surrounding the film is a series of panel discussions with writers, thinkers and doers engaged the building of communities, the importance of stewardship and discussing our responsibilities to the land and to each other. One of the most compelling conversations has been with Michael Howard, Director of Eden Place Nature Center (part of the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation).  Inspired by Leopold’s belief in the importance of community and the land, Michael Howard has built a park and a farm for the African-American community on Chicago’s South Side.  “Eden” is in a place that was the former site of meat packing industry slaughterhouses, also polluted with lead poisoning which has impacted the ability of children to learn for generations.  Howard deeply moved me with his work to try to persuade a people about the benefit of having a relationship with the land; a people whose daily concerns are about having money to pay bills and feed their children and who have spent years running away from a specter of linking the land to sharecropping and slavery.  Michael Howard’s experience evoked for many conferee’s Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest about the emergence of non-profit and community organizations engaged in the environmental and social justice movement.

There is so much wisdom flowing from this conference, I will need days, weeks, perhaps a lifetime to really grasp and understand it all, and to see my thinking evolve as Aldo Leopold has demonstrated.  But what rings clear and true is this: we need to understand that change is something that happens gradually, and it comes by engaging in deep listening, exchange with and respect for both humans and the land. We must learn to “think like a mountain.”

Feliz ano Nuevo

Early morning and first day of the New Year, dinner was already in the bag.  The black-eyed peas were cooked and we still had a little smoked turkey from “Tejas”  – my Dad’s annual holiday gift.  We were ready for our traditional new years pilgrimage to the ocean.  The truck easily covered the fifty-mile distance seamlessly crossing the once Spanish and Mexican ranchos — remembered now mostly as streets, colleges, landmarks or towns named for land grants – Peralta, San Pedro, Nicasio, Tomales and de Los Reyes.  Sir Francis Drake Boulevard holds some thirty years of memories: the old white horse in the corral just west of Lagunitas (a toy horse perched on the fence has sadly replaced the original); seeing my first Steelhead with Jane in Lagunitas Creek on our bike-camping trip from Santa Rosa to San Francisco; watching the Salmon with Wave as they lay their eggs in redds just below Kent Lake; and the journey to Bolinas in the old VW bug for my first kayaking adventure with Glo, John and Carol.

Before reaching the beach, two mandatory stops are necessary.  Ginger & Chocolate-Chocolate-Cherry cookies from the Bovine Bakery are a must: necessary fuel for the hike ahead.   Stocking up on our reading materials was another must at the Point Reyes Books.  We are members of their Community Supported Bookstore Program a cool new idea inspired by community supported agriculture to help sustain independent book sellers.  Supporters make a deposit with the bookstore and draw upon that amount for future purchases.  Brilliant! I hope other bookstores start this program!  A lover of browsing, I bought my first book of 2012, a volume by the roots music guitarist Ry Cooder: Los Angeles Stories.  Looks like my kind of book.  Fiction, but the kind of stories you might gather by sitting down with the everyday folks in your community over a cup of coffee and listening to their life; learning about their part in our shared history.  Revived both gastronomically and intellectually, we headed on down the road to Limantour Beach to let the ocean ions do their purifying thang.  We walked the beach length in the bright sunshine, the waves gently lapping at our feet and the sweet ocean air wafting through us.  Later, alone in the truck for a few minutes while Wave lingered to capture a last image of a beautiful day, I queued Mary Gautier’s Mercy Now.  As I look to the year ahead may everyone have “ a little mercy now.”

Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free*

Marin Headlands on the Pacific Ocean. Created by Robin L. Chandler. Copyright 2010 National Park Service.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville described the Pacific Ocean as the “tide-beating heart of the earth that makes all coasts a bay in it.”   Describing the interconnectedness of the lands ringing the Pacific Rim he wrote “the same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday…..lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of the Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans.”  On Friday March 11, 2011, mankind was humbled by a 9.0 magnitude quake striking the northeastern coast of Japan and triggering a Tsunami whose force quickly silenced thousands of voices near Sendai and damaged harbors – including Crescent City and Santa Cruz –  5,000 miles to the east along the North American coastline.  Nature will always bind what man’s competitive psyche seeks to distance.  Hokusai’s woodblock print “The Great Wave” part of his  series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji has long been a favorite of mine; mesmerized by the beauty of the wave, it is only now, newly humbled, that I truly grasp the precarious position of the fishing boats depicted in the print.

Last weekend I attended the Point Reyes Book’s third Geography of Hope conference bringing together people, place and literature to discuss water as both a life-giving and a life-taking force.  As rain poured outside in biblical proportions, the Japanese people were never far from our consciousness in this community located on the San Andreas Fault so near the Pacific Ocean.   An inspiring  gathering, we listened rapturously to poets, writers and scientists – including Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, William Least Heat Moon, Tim Palmer, Philip Fradkin, Eddy Harris, Peter Gleick, Evelyn Reilly and Julia Whitty —  speak about rivers, lakes and oceans and their hopes and fears for the health of our planet.  The desire to teach children  – through art, literature and science – about the connections between humans and nature was a major theme, but concerns about the potential of social media and hand-held technology to disconnect society from the natural world was an undercurrent of the gathering.

My work as a digital archivist working in academic libraries fosters my belief that social media can be leveraged to enhance our connections with and understanding of the natural world.  If any good can be drawn from the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, it is the knowledge that this is  likely the best documented disaster in recent history, and this information will be repurposed for constructive use. Numerous digital images and video recordings of the Tsunami’s destructive power were captured by survivors of these events and uploaded for sharing on social media sites. This week a BBC article published on March 21, 2011 “Japan Tsunami to Help Predict Future Waves” reported  how scientists will use this data to study Tsunamis. At the 2011 Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Webwise conference, Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President for Research at the Rennslaer Polytechnic and Dr. Joshua Greenberg, Director of Digital Information Technology and Dissemination of Knowledge Program at the Sloan Foundation delivered keynote addresses making several complimentary points: the role of the “crowd and the social network” in the generation of observational research data; the need for a macroscopic approach to gather comprehensive data sets and analyze and visualize data at scale; and the need for archivists, librarians and museum professionals to be central players in data curation workflows to appraise, manage, preserve and provide access to data supporting ongoing research.  Its important to note that this kind of work is underway.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded DataONE a multi-institutional and cross-discipline collaboration of universities and organizations including the California Digital Library to lay the foundation for a distributed framework and sustainable cyberinfrastructure that meets the needs of science and society for open, persistent, robust, and secure access to well-described and easily discovered Earth observational data.

Webwise also featured workshops and sessions on Libraries and Museums engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Learning.  STEM is part of President Obama’s program “Educate to Innovate,” a campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in these disciplines.  Teachers, librarians and museum staff are developing many fun and engaging learning modules using social media and technology.  One particular module — Habit Tracker – caught my eye; I saw a demo of the prototype at the conference.  Using the Apps developed for iPhone and iPad2 technology, Habitat Tracker will help students learn about the nature of science by learning to ask their own questions about the natural world, recording observations, performing analysis and participating in peer review with fellow students.

A humble respect, enjoyment and love of the natural world and a belief in the utility of social media technology and services are not mutually exclusive.  They can be symbiotic and when so joined the resulting analysis can support greater understanding of the natural world and our place in the cycle of life.  It is my hope that technology advancements – like social media –  will bring individuals greater engagement with nature and help humankind shoulder the stewardship responsibilities required to ensure the natural world survives for future generations.

*From the poem At the Fish Houses by Elizabeth Bishop read by Eric Karpeles at the Geography of Hope Conference

To feel the earth beneath my feet….

Grazing near Tomales Bay

Grazing near Tomales Bay. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

In the Spring of 2009, we returned to Marin County  just north of San Francisco to visit what I consider to be one of the most heavenly places on earth — the region near and around Tomales Bay — a land preserved by a mixture of sustainable agriculture and state and national parks.  A place of peace where thoughtfulness comes as easily as breathing.  It is always a homecoming of sorts for me.  It has been the site of many adventures  over the years: the kayak trips to Hog Island, the hikes through Bear Valley to Mt. Wittenberg, the cycling past Nicasio and hours spent painting and sketching the area from many vantage points.  The watercolors posted here are two of my attempts to capture the beauty of the place. It also brings to mind for me Wallace Stegner,  a writer who always opens my mind to the landscape through which I travel.  In 2008 the Point Reyes Books sponsored the “Geography of Hope”  conference focusing on the environmental writings of Stegner.

In his “Wilderness Letter” dated December 3, 1960,  Stegner wrote  “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its 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.”