For the last few weeks, I have been making plans with family and friends for treks to Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras. The mountains are calling and I must go! While Covid-19 has kept me close to home, in my dreams I have visited the wilderness and have touched the Earth. Soon, I will be in the mountains breathing the air in a place as big as my dreams where trees connect the land to the sky. I will breathe and my spirit and body will be filled with beauty. Everyone should have the opportunity to breathe the good air of mountains and trees; everyone should feel welcome in the wilderness. But I fear the wilderness – this life giving world of trees and land and sky – may become a dream if we don’t act soon. The wilderness, like a garden nourishes plants and creatures, both animal and human. Respect, compassion, knowledge, and dialogue are critical to caring for landscapes (and all creatures). Otherwise, as we tread the Earth, we will leave nothing but scars on the land, the plants, and all living creatures.
Breath has been much on my mind lately, just as George Floyd’s last breath has been rattling the conscience of my nation. Many Black Americans are marching and rightfully demanding answers about violence. Many White Americans are searching their souls grappling with the violence that is continually perpetrated on people of color. It is time to search our souls and time to listen deeply; we must bathe in these painful and guilt-choked waters before taking action. When Black people say “I can’t breathe” they are saying I can’t take a breath because the police are choking me; I can’t take a breath because I have less economic opportunity; and I can’t take a breath because where I live the air is polluted. This is what we think about when we discuss the need for equality, equity and justice.
Most of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space by the earth’s atmosphere. But due to human activity we have reached the highest amount of carbon dioxide in the last 600,000 years; it has risen from 277 parts-per-million (ppm) to 417ppm in just two hundred years. Carbon dioxide has increased because of our use of fossil fuels and deforestation practices. Since 1850 (the beginning of the industrial revolution), the temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Centigrade (C). In some areas temperatures are rising more than in others; in the United States, the Southwest has warmed up 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 C) and parts of the Arctic have already warmed by more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or (4.0 C). As the climate changes, extreme events increase; there are deeper droughts; more severe rain events resulting in massive flooding; and heat waves. For a number of years, the United Nations (UN) has stated that 2.0 degrees Centigrade is the temperature level the world must hold to and this was formalized in the 2015 Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to consider what are the dangerous / unacceptable levels of climate change; the panel’s work resulted in a report, presented in 2016, that details impacts at both 2.0 degrees Centigrade and 1.5 degrees Centigrade. The main messages of the report are as follows: the climate has already warmed 1.0 degree Centigrade from pre-industrial times which has already made significant impacts, and without further action temperatures could rise above 3.5 C (6.3 F); every bit of warming matters, losses increase significantly from 1.5 C to 2.0 C; and limiting warming to 1.5 C requires deep cuts in emissions (50% by 2030). The United States did not approve the report.
White-supremacy plays a significant role in the climate crisis, just as it does in the political and economic suppression of people of color. Some of the most important things you can do to strengthen the climate movement is to fight facism against brown and black people; as we take action to ensure that black and brown people have clean air, clean water, and access to trees in their neighborhoods, we will fight climate change, and help all inhabitants of Earth.
People of color are not strangers to the Earth. In her essay EARTHBOUND on solid ground,bell hooks wrote about walking through rows of crops with her grandfather, a Kentucky sharecropper, who taught “I’ll tell you a secret…no man can make the sun or the rains come – we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature, but the small farmer knows. Earth is our witness.” bell writes “when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all-powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. When this thinking was coupled with a breakdown in religiosity, a refusal to recognize the sacred in everyday life, it served the interests of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
It is our shared responsibility to preserve our Earth for the future and for the most vulnerable. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the frightening truth about racism and climate change and it is easy to shut down, unable to act because we believe we are powerless to act; powerless to bring about the right-kind-of change. When we feel overwhelmed, we need to sit and feel the pain; understanding the pain will lead us to action. It is time to make the change we want. There is much work to be done and we must begin today. And the place to start is exercising our vote. I will vote in November, and before the election, I will work hard to get others registered to cast their votes. The esteemed writer Marilynne Robinson recently asked what kind of country do we want? Our votes will determine the kind of country we want! We will breathe again.
 Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes heat radiated from ground level to be reflected back towards the earth’s surface. This prevents the emission of heat from the earth, thereby raising the temperature of the earth.
 bell hooks. EARTHBOUND on solid ground was published in Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy and published in 2011 by Milkweed Editions in Canada.
“Artists render things.” In my case, landscapes, cityscapes, human figures, combinations of artifacts, and even toys are rendered on canvas as they appear to me. Selecting a subject to paint calls upon both external and internal factors. Shapes, volumes, colors, and textures engage my senses – establishing my experience of the “thing” – while simultaneously my subjective connections, associations, and memories open a hailing frequency. For children (and grownups) toys (and art) are gateways to worlds we imagine where we are inspired to create a balance between what we observe and what we experience. And so play, and in this case, a painting, begins.
There were twelve toy animals on the table; the one that spoke loudest to me was the Bison. Though only inches in height and width, the expertly modeled Schleich toy called to me. I was captivated by the massive strong body, the tones of sepia, burnt umber, and yellow ochre, and the sense of the thick shaggy fur. Instantly my mind surfaced thoughts of John Muir’s wilderness and my associations with ecologically minded indigenous peoples, capitalist resource exploitation, and land stewardship combined with my memories of hiking and camping. I could easily imagine the cloud of breath released from the Bison’s nostrils on a cold winter Yellowstone morning. The “thing” reached out, grabbed me, and as all good toys do, brought a joyous smile to my face.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed “humans were like citizens of two worlds, occupying both the world of the Ding an sich (the thing-in-itself) which was the external world, and the internal world of one’s perception (how things appeared to individuals).” According to Kant “when we experience an object, it becomes a thing-as-it appears-to-us. Our senses as much as our reason are like tinted spectacles through which we perceive the world.” 
The world, unfortunately through other spectacles, is gritty and grim. I read this morning about how the Bison herds in Yellowstone Park are managed. Because this is the sole remaining place in the United States where the public can experience bison living free-range, sustainable herd percentages are identified (4800), and numbers beyond the benchmarks are destroyed by capture and slaughter or by hunting. Range management is rational, and yet I weep at the loss of numbers realized through our ongoing conquest of the planet. “According to the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, North America at the time of Columbus was home to sixty million bison, thirty to forty million pronghorns, ten million elk, ten million mule deer, and as many as two million mountain sheep…incredible to imagine today, bison roamed from New York to Georgia.”
 Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. (Vintage Books: New York, 2016). p.38-39
In mid-January, we drove northward on 395 through the Owens Valley from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes. Late afternoon, the sun flirted among the storm clouds and the Eastern Sierra mountain peaks creating a dramatic bright yellow light shining on the valley floor turning the White Mountains a mysterious blue. Ahead, a red cinder cone, a volcanic legacy, grew larger as we made our way closer to the sleeping Long Valley Caldera. The cinder cone, a beautiful rich red, still captivates my imagination.
Rebecca Fish Ewan wrote in A Land Between: The Owens Valley“ the landscape…reveals that stability in the West is both precious and fragile; the relationship between people and the land is deep and passionate, yet the balance of this union can be shaken overnight.” When settlers brought cattle to the Owens Valley in the 19thcentury, the new grazing animal destroyed the grasses and marshland environment that had been vital to the lives of the Pauite-Shoshone. When Los Angeles Water and Power Department diverted and transported snow-fed lakes, creeks and rivers of the Owens Valley to the Los Angeles basin, the ecosystem of the region was changed forever.
The Buddha teaches that we must accept that impermanence characterizes existence. But the Buddha’s noble eightfold path also teaches us to have right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness and right concentration. The recent damage to Joshua Tree National Park caused during the Federal government shutdown may last for centuries. It is difficult for me to grasp the consciousness of people who cause such damage. Are they mindful of their actions consequences? Do they lack a relationship with place and community? Do they believe their “life” exists somewhere else in a different time and space? How can I teach that every moment is precious and our actions reflect our consciousness? We must understand our impact on the land and it’s inhabitants; our choices must be guided by sensitivity to the needs of others and not by our desires alone. Stewardship means never having to say your sorry.
In the 1970s, Gary Snyder heard a Crow elder say at a conference in Bozeman, Montana “you know I think if people stay somewhere long enough the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”
It is a tiny step, but all great things have small beginnings. I start my teaching by sharing these thoughtful commandments I learned recently from an East Bay Regional Park District Park Supervisor:
The earth is your mother, care for Her!
Honor all your relations!
Open your heart and soul to the Great Spirit
All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect!
Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more
Do what needs to be done for the good of all!
Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day
Speak the truth, but only the good in others
Follow the rhythms of Nature; rise and retire with the sun
Enjoy life’s journey, but leave no tracks
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. “The Place, The Region, The Commons.” p.42 San Francisco: North Point Press. 1990.
Living in the East Bay, our gaze draws westward, and this is not hard to understand. In the west looms San Francisco, our imperial city; our iconic bridges, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge; winter rainstorms are born there; and the sun, traversing the north-south longitude, sets in the west. And quietly, holding up the sky, Mount Tamalpais anchors my western horizon. Tamalpais is always there, grounding me; at times just in the corner of my eye, and other times commanding my full attention, whether near or far. My love for Mount Tamalpais has grown deep over the years – many chapters of my story feature this mountain. In the 19th century, the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai captured his love for a revered Japanese mountain with his famous series of woodblock prints Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
Inspired by two books, Opening the Mountain: Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais A Ritual Walkby Mathew Davis & Michael Farrell Scott and Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History and Prints by Tom Killion and Gary Snyder, I persuaded my dear friends, to walk from Muir Woods to East Peak, the top of Mount Tamalpais. At the end of March, we covered a distance of approximately twelve miles, spanning a range of plant communities, including redwoods, mixed evergreen forests, grasslands and chaparral, as well as plants, such as ceanothus, endemic to the mountain adapted to the Serpentine soils. Our journey gave amazing views of the greater Bay Area and we saw Mount Tam’s sister mountains: Black Mountain (west), Mount St. Helena (north), Mount Diablo (east) and Mount Hamilton (south). The artist Tom Killion began his love affair with Tamalpais as a young man, and inspired by Hokusai, he created beautiful prints of the mountain from multiple viewpoints, many of them featured in Tamalpais Walking.
Last week, cycling from Oakland to Richmond on the Bay Trail, I travelled a diverse landscape featuring mudflats so alive with plants and animals coexisting with trucks and cars speeding by on asphalt and cement highways. This is nature – mankind a dominating part of a community of flora and fauna; this is not wilderness. Throughout the journey, there was my friend Mount Tamalpais, on the horizon, a guidepost measuring my progress, a signpost holding close my memories.
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!
Early Sunday morning I walked the desert, my destination, four miles away and some two thousand feet above in the granite-mountains. I am on a pilgrimage of sorts, my feet drifting on the sands of an ancient lakebed, once home to mammoths, mastodons, and short-faced bears. Walking, hoping to reach stasis, seeking to regain what has been lost.
Reaching the hand built stone structure, an ashram, built by Franklin Merrell-Wolff, philosopher and mystic, almost a century ago, high in the Eastern Sierras between two forks of Tuttle Creek, I sat down to refresh and ponder. Below, I could see the valley and the steep trail now ascended, a metaphor for my journey. Yesterday, I knew little about the pinyon pine’s importance to the people who have called this valley home for thousands of years. My time at the Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center in Bishop opened my mind and my heart. Yesterday, they were pinyon pines a part of the ecosystem. Today, I knew the pinyons, scattered throughout the landscape, were foundational to the preservation of a people and a culture. Looking closely at the precious nuts growing within the cones – a vital source of protein – I understood what stewardship meant, to ensure a good fall harvest for a long cold winter.
On your journey, be present, with an open mind and an open heart. It is never too late to learn and it is never too late to teach. It is never too late to love and it is never too late to forgive.
The Tang Dynasty’s Wang Wei is revered in China as a poet, painter, and practitioner of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. And for good reason when you read and savor Wang Wei’s work. Wei is considered to be the first Chinese painter to capture the inner spirit of the landscape, originating the mountains-and-rivers tradition beloved by the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder. In his book Mountain Home, David Hinton writes “Wang Wei’s poetry is especially celebrated for the way he could make himself disappear into a landscape, and so dwell as belonging utterly to China’s wilderness cosmology. In Ch’an practice, the self and the constructions of the world dissolve until nothing remains but empty mind or “no-mind.”
A few weeks ago, I travelled with the best companions, reaching the Eastern Sierra and our campground at Convict Lake, after many hours of driving. During our respite, we visited Hot Creek, Long Valley Caldera, Mammoth Mountain, Minaret Summit, and Mono Lake. Walking or sitting amongst the beauty, we were emptied and replenished reaching an awakening, if not the hoped for enlightenment. Wang Wei’s poetry came to mind as I reached for and drank deeply from the cup of friendship and nature. In the Mountains, Sent to Ch’an Brothers and Sisters Wei wrote:
How can I reach others and help them see that for the first time in humankind’s existence – a time now considered the Anthropocene – our actions are raising the temperature of the heavens, the oceans, and the land and thereby changing the fate of all creatures inhabiting these spheres. We must understand the actions we take today impact future generations. And we must understand that human consciousness is formed by our relationship to the sky, the seas and the land: the sky our infinite possibilities, the sea our mystery and the earth our enduring home. What will our consciousness become if the heavens, the oceans and the land are irrevocably changed? What if the air is too dirty to breathe? What if water is a scarce commodity? What if the land is stripped bare and emptied of the creatures with which we currently share this planet? What will it all mean? “We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to it’s 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.”
We live in an era where many people have ready access to technology able to track our current position in time and space. No doubt it took a long time and we travelled a long distance to reach this particular spot. We know where we are; we have the coordinates. But does this precise knowledge of when and where we currently “be” satisfy our soul? Do we long for a home, a home of memory or a vision of the future? If we are lucky enough to “be” at home are we shouldering our responsibility to care for and sustain it?
Claude McKay, Jamaican born, living in New York City, and writing during the Harlem Renaissance penned these words in his poem The Tropics of New York:
“My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And hungry for the old familiar ways
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.”
Watching 24/7 news coverage of the destruction wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, I despair at the loss of home, community and livelihoods for millions of people in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean Islands. For many, life will never be the same. Lives will be measured in increments of time and space: before and after the hurricane.
In June 2017, the scientists from thirteen federal agencies released a report revealing U.S. Citizens are feeling the results of Climate Change now. The reports states “the last few years have seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, the three warmest years on record for the globe, and continued decline in arctic sea ice. These trends are expected to continue in the future over climate (multidecadal) timescales. Significant advances have also been made in our understanding of extreme weather events and how they relate to increasing global temperatures and associated climate changes. Since 1980, the cost of extreme events for the United States has exceeded $ 1.1 trillion, there better understanding of the frequency and severity of these events in the context of a changing climate is warranted.”
In a recent New York Times op-ed, London School of Economics Professor Rebecca Elliot asked “in a world of more Harveys, rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts, what do we owe each other? The political trajectory we have been on suggests that the answer is, “Very little.” Elliott urges us to develop a new social contract, a Green New Deal, calling for public investment in science and education to train the next generation of engineers to build new homes and infrastructure that will help ordinary Americans adapt to climate change, retrofit their homes, move to safer ground and at the same time address issues of local poverty as well as invest in clean energy, and public transportation. Elliott makes a strong economic case for wise use of our public funds.
Beautiful orb: Earth, the perfect gift – spinning and moving through time and space. I pray we do not find ourselves longing for a remembered home; a home squandered through our negligence and our failure to shoulder our responsibility to care and sustain this special planet.