After a year confined, while Shiva created and destroyed, the open road beckoned. The horizon open, the land infinite, and my mind seemed lotus-like, unbound. And Earth shared: sky, mountains, trees, deserts, meadows, and rivers. My soul replenished: hope glimmers.
Clockwise: Thunderstorm over Wheeler Peak, Taos, NM; waterfall at Whitney Portal, Lone Pine, CA; sentinel trees at Whitney Portal, Lone Pine, CA; monsoon over Mt. Langley, Lone Pine, CA; and the San Francisco Peaks from Bonita Meadow, Flagstaff, AZ. Watercolors by Robin L. Chandler, 2021.
A week ago the dangers of fire season loomed in California; but this week an atmospheric river flows across the Pacific bringing rain and snow across the land from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The change has been radical and sudden, and we are grateful for the rainy weather. During the Thanksgiving weekend, snow blanketed the San Gabriel Mountains. At sunset, we walked in the Huntington Library Gardens and gazed at the twilight storm clouds glowing orange with purple shadows, seeming to feast upon the mountains. Gorgeous. Sublime. We gave thanks for this moment of beauty.
“The clouds will not wait while we copy their heaps or clefts; the shadows will escape us as we try to shape them…in all that we do now, therefore, direct imitation becomes more or less impossible…whatever skill you may reach, there will always be need of judgment to choose, and of speed to seize certain things that are principal…”
In this time of climate change we find graceful transitions vanish and blunt onsets prevail. Last week it was dry, and the threat of fire loomed. This week it is wet, and we are battered by wind, flood, ice, and snow. Our civilization believes it can conquer and control nature and in our acts of hubris, we have pushed nature to extremes. Writing about two great painters, Giorgione and J.M.W. Turner, Ruskin compared the civilizations in which they lived. The architecture of the Venetian Republic impacted Giorgione greatly; he “saw only strength and immortality, could not but paint both; conceived the form of man as deathless, calm with power, and fiery with life.” And Turner, living in Victorian England saw the exact reverse of this “in the present work of men, meanness, aimlessess, unsightliness: thin-walled, lath-divided, narrow-garreted houses of clay; booths of a darksome Vanity Fair, busily base…as to the strength of men to Giorgione, to Turner their weakness and vileness were alone visible…[Turner] must be a painter of the strength of nature; there was no beauty elsewhere…he must also paint the labour and sorrow and passing away of men; this was the great human truth visible to him.”
 Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing. Aquitaine Media, 2010. p.92
 Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151
 Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151
For over two weeks, Northern California was wrapped in an apocalyptic blanket of toxic air caused by the raging “Camp Fire” in Butte County. The Camp Fire, the most deadliest and destructive fire in California’s history, burned over 150,000 acres. Drought, low humidity and high winds gave birth to a rapidly growing firestorm that took the communities of Paradise and Magalia by surprise destroying almost 14,000 homes and numerous habitats, claiming the lives of 88 humans and untold numbers of wild animals. Devastated by the losses, we wake soberly to the reality that Climate Change is here, now. Pretending is no longer a survival strategy.
Ironically, the desperately needed rain came with Thanksgiving, the shared holiday commemorating our nation’s beginnings; a day when we count our blessings and say thanks for all we share with our family, our friends, and our community. We have so much to be grateful for such as clean air and fresh water…..and there is so much we take for granted. But no longer. We can no longer ignore our impact on Earth, and shut our eyes and ears to the change the planet is experiencing. Clean air and fresh water are gifts that must be cherished instead of being trampled through our choices and ignorance. Climate is changing as a result of our actions, and animals and plants we assumed would share this planet with us forever are becoming extinct. Climate Change is real. On Friday November 23, 2018 the day after Thanksgiving, the U.S. Government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:
Global warming is intensifying and will result in more disastrous fires, like the ones that have ravaged California, and other weather catastrophes unless governments act now to reduce carbon emissions, according to a stark new assessment of the impact of climate change…the 1,656-page analysis was unambiguous that climate change is here and getting worse. It said warming temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels and fire are likely to take a terrible toll on the U.S. economy, reducing it by as much as 10 percent by century’s end that would mean annual losses of hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century from heat-related deaths, sea level rise and infrastructure damage.The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country.”
Humans have a great capacity for self-knowledge, but with this knowledge comes responsibility. And so we must step-up to the challenge, and open our hearts and minds to bringing balance and respect to our relationship with the Earth, her plants and animals and perhaps most importantly bring balance and respect to our relationship with our own self. With respect, for others and for ourselves, we can create solutions good for the many; without respect, we will sow the seeds of our own destruction.
The break between storms brought me to the beach. Oh the rain! Such a much needed gift. But I am glad for this day to enjoy the hazy winter sunshine. Meeting my friend, we set up our easels and started sketching in oil, the sun at our backs and the wind in our faces, capturing the coming storm moving eastward over the Pacific. It was a beautiful day – cool and grey – and I lost myself in its splendor while trying to capture it on canvas. On my way home, I stopped in Pescadero purchasing some hot chocolate and fresh baked artichoke bread to warm my body and soul and celebrate this precious life after growing cold and warn by hours of plein air painting.
The wonderful novel I am reading is called War and Turpentine; Stefan Hertman’s homage to his grandfather, awarded the 2014 AKO Literature prize, is the story of a man “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he wished to become.” War and turpentine. Painting the seascape, this passage from the book came to mind:
“There is a great deal on this planet to arouse an enduring sense of wonder, especially when seen in the light of one’s impending departure. The way molecules move in the water, for instance, yielding the subtlest play of shifting light as evening falls over the sea in a southern bay – say, on the rocky beach of the Italian coastal town of Rapallo, when the wind has dropped and the pink of the evening clouds performs endless variations with the deepening blue or the sky mirrored in the sea – and how living beings with eyes and consciousness, two incomprehensibly complex adaptations to this whole wondrous biosphere, can take it all for granted and go on breathing, flawlessly designed for just this sort of system.”
Thanks to an early start, we reached the Owens Valley just before the storm closed Tioga Pass for the winter. Snow had dusted the peaks cradling Tuolumne meadow. There would be no pie today as we passed the Tioga Pass Resort; the diner long since closed, the windows boarded until the spring snowmelt. We were giddy, caught in the romance of the storm; dark thick clouds promised snow and rain to assuage our five-year drought.
Descending to Mono Lake, we made a right turn onto 395 towards Bishop and the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association’s (ESIA) inaugural conference on the history of the eastern sierras. This is a desolate land, whose emptiness holds so many stories to be shared. The Owens Valley straddles two counties: Mono and Inyo. Mono County defined by Mono Lake and the volcanic fields at an elevation of 7,000 feet and the Mammoth Lakes ski resort. Inyo County, the table drops sharply, thousands of feet in altitude is lost, as we descend into ranch lands, cottonwoods and the meandering Owens River. We stopped often, capturing with camera and brush the conversation between brooding sky, dark mountains, parched landscape, and autumnal trees. A photographer and a painter, drawn to this sacred place, finding poetry at every compass point.
At the ESIA conference, David Carle spoke about water and the historic choices that shaped California. A long-term California State Park Ranger, Carle now writes full-time about land and water issues facing our state. According to Carle, in 1902 Los Angeles was a small town of 100,000 people, with a promising citrus industry, but desperately seeking water. Led by the engineer William Mulholland, businessmen and city planners set their sights on the Owens Valley, a region of 8,000 residents with a 75,000 acres of farm and pasture land producing 51,000 bushels of wheat annually. The Owens Valley also held lakes and rivers fed by the water stored in the snow covered Sierras. The aqueducts were completed in 1913, but it didn’t take long before Los Angeles was thirsty again. By 1924 Owens Lake was a dry lake bed where dust storms raged. Los Angeles had purchased all the water rights in the valley, but by the mid-1920s they owned all the towns too. Communities had been destroyed and ecological disaster created for the region. The author Mary Austin asked “ is all this worthwhile in order that Los Angeles should be so big?” Today, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is working hard to implement water reclamation, and to their credit most of Orange County’s water now comes from reclamation. But for some, there will never be enough water, Southern California’s thirst will not be slaked. The proposed Twin Tunnels Project would move water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to the southland. Recently, LADWP purchased five islands located in the heart of the river delta, just as LADWP purchased the Owens Valley a century ago. Stop the Tunnels provides information about establishing fair water policies in California.
Looking out across the Owens Valley, at a land so near, so precious, it is scary to know that actions taken by a few powerful people, so far away, change the land and communities forever.
Cycling in the rain, while a bit hairy has great rewards. Riding the bike path on the Bay Bridge approach from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island suspends one in time and space. Rushing past, the wind filling my ears, I swear that was a glimpse of the great void in the corner of my eye. Perhaps, because of the recent deaths of cherished artists Alan Rickman and David Bowie, and the impending departure of a loved one, time and the measurement of our impact here on earth has been much on my mind. Western Civilization has bequeathed paradoxes to ponder and motivate us: reverence for eternity and a fascination with yesterday and yonder. Measuring, measuring, measuring, always measuring; how will we be judged by our peers or by heaven? Ungrounded measuring can mean endless suffering.
Lewis Mumford compared these paradoxes in The Golden Day. Describing the Middle Ages, Mumford wrote “medieval culture lived in the dreams of eternity: within that dream the visible world of cities and castles and caravans was little more than a forestage on which the prologue was spoken.” Characterizing the Renaissance, Mumford wrote “the first hint of change came in the Thirteenth Century, with the ringing of the bells…..as soon as the mariner could calculate his position in time and space, the whole ocean was open to him…..time and space took possession of the European’s mind. Why dream of heaven or eternity?…..outside the tight little world of Here and Eternity, they were interested in Yonder and Yesterday…..”
Reaching the end of the bike path, I dismounted and looked at the southwest vista. Thanks to Descartes‘ Cartesian coordinates, my position in time and space could be plotted, but where was I? Late afternoon, hundreds of cars rushed by, racing time, creating a thunderous enveloping sound. The grey twilight descended. Mortality, ageing and death are inescapable. All is impermanence, but acknowledgement is the first step on the Middle Way.
Rainy days are magical. Swaddled by the silvery mist, the grey-like sound of the hoot owl haunted the coastal live oak and eucalyptus forest of the East Bay hills near Oakland. Enchanted by the muted colors and subdued sounds we hiked the muddy Laurel Canyon trail. Twelve hundred feet above the sea promises a fair prospect. But reaching the hilltop, we found Wildcat Peak cloaked in a thick woolly rain cloud. Playfully, I imagined the peaks marking the compass points obscured by inclemency: Mount St. Helena (North), Mount Diablo (East), Mountain Hamilton (South), and Mount Tamalpais (West). Few hikers joined us on this cold, leaden day, but we found great warmth in our companionship and the grey solitude.
The artist and writer David Batchelor in The Luminous and the Grey surfaced the painter Vincent Van Gogh’s thoughts about the colour grey. Writing to his brother Theo in the 1880s, Van Gogh came to grey’s defence pointing to the “endless variations of greys, red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange grey, and purple grey…..it is impossible to say, for instance, how many green greys there are, it varies endlessly.” Continuing on this theme, Batchelor quotes the Bauhaus painter and color theorist Johannes Itten “[grey] is mute, but easily excited to thrilling resonances.” Batchelor opines “a small amount of any colour can and does transform grey…..into something subtle, complex and even thrilling.”
The Japanese poet Matsuo Basho describes this atmosphere – the solitude of grey – best with his haiku:
Winter rain has brought snow to our beloved Sierras and the sound of Yosemite Falls echoes like thunder through the valley! A welcome sound for our California beset by drought. Gradually hiking to Glacier Point from the valley, each switchback brought another gorgeous view of the waterfall. In his 1871 journal, John Muir wrote “as long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
Captivated, I painted the waterfall the next day. Setting up my easel by the Swinging Bridge, I tried to capture the rainbow created by the sunshine striking the water falling earthward. The song of the waterfall, birds, and wind was all around, complemented by the sound of human language, as peoples from throughout the world came to visit and wonder at the beauty of this sacred National Park. Yosemite, the great sanctuary, the heart of the world, welcomes us all, makes brothers of us all, diminishing our fear, giving us peace in time of pain.
Dark, cold and grey comes the day as the sun protests for better working hours. The whiff of coffee wafting through the house persuades me to leave my blanket comfort. Jets flying 5,000 feet above, on landing approach, mean rain is coming. Finally.
Lying in bed, reading softly aloud from Afloat, one of Gary Snyder’s poems from his epic Mountain’s and Rivers Without End “…like a cricket husk – like an empty spider egg case, like dried kelp fronds, like a dry cast skin of a snake, like froth on the lip of a wave, trembles on the membrane, paddling forward, paddling backward…there is no place we are but maybe here,” the sound of birdsong and the rain scent drifted through the window. Later, we launched the paddleboards and made our way out of the harbor, and through the river’s mouth to drift among the kelp beds on Monterey Bay. So close, so near, a pair of dolphins broke the surface, exhaling through their blowholes, a magical sound. The water was still and the sky a showcase of rainclouds, dark gray sky reflecting in the sea. “Floating on a tiny boat, lightly on the water, rock[ing] with every ripple…where land meets water meets the sky.” The Greek etymological root of metaphor is meta (across) and pherein (to carry). Cautiously, one stroke at a time, I left my troubles on the shore behind, carrying only my hopes and dreams, stormy skies surrounding me, steadily crossing, stroke by stroke, on my path to the other side.