awaken at the beach

Limantour Beach

Limantour Beach. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Winter is my favorite time of year; I love the journey to the year’s shortest day and the new pilgrimage for the year’s longest day. Precious the light of day and the warmth of the sun; most welcome is the night when blessed with a good book by the fire and my cat curled sleeping in my lap.

On Christmas Eve, I walked the landscape of Drakes Estero and Limantour Beach with my beloved wife and dear friend. Just a few days past the solstice the day remained short, and to commemorate the day, I made a watercolor sketch and reflected on darkness and light asking myself what can well-meaning souls do to make the world a better place?

And by a better place I mean: end the rapacious exploitation of the earth’s flora and fauna; take measures to resolve the increasing disparity between rich and poor; respect the diversity of global cultures; and stop the egregious use of violence. No small challenge. No simple answer. In fact, it sounds so impossible to resolve, I might as well give up and run away. Run as far away as possible from the suffering and the death, building tall strong walls to protect me from the pain.

It takes great courage to sit and listen to the suffering, the death, and the pain: within yourself and in others. Many of us feel compelled to fix the problems, and when we can’t we give up and salve our pain with whatever money can buy. Not knowing what to do or how to fix a problem is impossibly hard. But through my Buddhist studies, I have learned that there is a place to begin: listen, stay open minded and be generous. This is how the suffering ends and the healing starts. We are not born knowing all things, and will never learn all there is to know. Mitchell Thomashow writes in his essay Nature. Love. Medicine. Reciprocity. Generosity. “…we can cultivate generosity, open-mindedness, graciousness, and humility in the space of that glorious unknowing. I don’t have the capacity to love every species and every person, but I can develop the capacity to be more generous with those people and species that I do encounter.” Blessings on us all for this New Year!

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.”

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.”

Constellation Cetus and a shooting star

Farallon Islands from Point Reyes on a winter day.  Copyright Robin L. Chandler.

Farallon Islands from Point Reyes on a winter day. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

It’s late afternoon on the last day of December 2012 and the annual Pacific migration of the gray whales from the Arctic to Baja is underway. On a spectacular day the air is clear and crisp, the sea is still – little movement on the waves, a cold rainy front moves south towards Southern California just skirting the Bay Area. Miles-at-sea, there is a flash of lightening. From the cliffs at Point Reyes National Seashore we look south towards the Farallon Islands. Wave gazes out at the infinite horizon and happily finds a small pod of whales. One fluke breaks the plane, and a bushy kind of heart shaped blow emerges nearby. “A whale spout is like catching a glimpse of a shooting star,” she says.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 novel The Little Prince comes to mind:

“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all the stars are silent. You–you alone–will have the stars as no one else has them–”

Footnote: this afternoon Public Radio International interviewed the iconic American folksinger Pete Seeger about the beloved Chilean poet and musican Victor Jara who wrote and sang songs about love, peace and social justice. Jara was brutally murdered during the 1973 Chilean military coup that ousted President Salvador Allende and finally last week a Chilean judge issued an international arrest warrant for his killers and their accomplices.  Pete sang the words “Victor Jara lived like a shooting star, a shooting star.”

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.”

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 Wendall 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.

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.”