Totem: guide us through the darkness

Totem. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

Totem. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

“Totem poles are about cultural identity. They are a way of native people saying, “We’re here. We’re still here and our culture is still here…you treat a totem pole with respect, just like a person, because in our culture that’s what it is. A totem pole is another person…born into the family, except he is the storyteller,” wrote Norman Tait, a British Columbia First Nation sculptor and carver, in Hilary Stewart’s book Looking at Totem PolesTotem poles are carved from a western red cedar tree, selected for their beauty, strength, and proximity to the sea or a river, so they could be easily transported to the village artist for carving. Before felling, the tree spirit was addressed in prayer, part of a ritual honoring the tree’s identity before it began a new identity as a totem, a community storyteller.

“Trees are communal…they grow together in large groups…they have relationships…and even communicate with other trees within their stands, including trees of their own kind as well as those of other species; they function for the benefit of the whole…and they enter into mutualistic partnerships with other species…to understand a single tree, we must understand the entire forest” writes David Suzuki and Wayne Grady in Tree: A Life StoryWestern civilization for the most part views trees as a commodity. Trees are one of many resources our society extracts from the land to become lumber, Masonite, and paper. But as a culture we say no prayer to the tree spirit before felling the forest.

As a species we extract resources from the air, land and water on a vast scale. We use these precious resources to develop products for mass consumption that touch all aspects of our lives: the water we drink, the energy we burn, the houses we live in, the food we eat and the air we breathe. But without thinking deeply about how those resources are extracted and products created and disposed of, we also create pollution and devastation on an equally vast scale. Open your eyes. See the impact both local and global. Question your motives. We have the ability to respect nature, the lives of others and to live sustainably and responsibly. But today many of our leaders are making easy choices and taking quick actions that are neither respectful nor thoughtful about nature and the lives of our global neighbors. They could lead us to make hard decisions that consider the big picture, but their eyes are on focused on 2018 mid-term elections. They are influenced by the greed and corruption that comes with power. Their mouths open and lip service is given to care and concern for others, but in truth, they do not take responsibility for the Long Now. We are in a dark morass, and we need to raise our totems, to tell our story loud and clear, and to listen to totems of others, for only by talking and listening, will we be guide each other through the darkness. This mutual understanding will not come quickly. It will take time and patience. But we must take time and have patience.

“What’s happening in China makes a difference to us in the United States [and what’s happening in the United States makes a difference to China]. The amount that we drive cars or the amount that we misuse fossil fuels is going to or already has affected some other group of people or animals, the earth and the environment. These interconnected interpenetrating personal and global events are what we are being asked to be aware of. Once we become aware in this way then the teaching starts to transform us. This understanding will strengthen and guide our aspirations to respond to each situation anew with ethical and skillful responses…this is the mind of the Buddha,” writes Uji Shinshu Roberts in “Astride the Highest Mountain: Dogen’s Being/Time, A Practitioner’s Guide” in Receiving the Marrow.

Leave no trace

Bear Rug Flag. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

Bear Rug Flag. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

“I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and I am still on their trail,“ wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden; or Life in the Woods. “Many are the travellers I have spoken to concerning them describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who have heard the hound, the tramp of the horse, and have even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.” Thoreau’s words can just as readily apply to animals in the wild, especially those we are endanger of losing all trace of.

On Wednesday February 15, 2017 the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing to consider “modernizing” the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to eliminate red tape and bureaucratic burdens that eliminate jobs. According to the Washington Post, during the two-hour session, lawmakers discussed how “federal efforts to keep species from going extinct encroaches on states’ rights, is unfair to landowners, and stymies efforts by mining companies to extract resources and create jobs.” The ESA is a 43 year old law, enacted during the Nixon Administration, when we were beginning to grapple with the devastating impact of chemical use and human development on the environment. This legislation has likely saved from extinction the bald eagle, the California condor, gray wolves, black-footed ferret, American alligator, and the Florida manatee.

The Center for Outdoor Ethics developed the Leave no Trace Principles to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy nature responsibly. Ironically, the meaning of these words “leave no trace” could be twisted to serve as an epilogue for the Environmental Species Act. This phrase, used malevolently, can mask and suppress the evidence at the murder scene. Leave no Trace. Should the Environmental Species Act be terminated, or so diluted as to be ineffective, we can “leave no trace” giving a green light to actions that would “endanger” species.  We should take note of our crimes locally and consider disappearing the California Grizzly from the California State Flag. The last California Grizzly Bear was shot in Tulare County in 1922, and the last believed sighting was in Sequoia National Park in 1924.

It is not too late to fight the proposed destruction of the Endangered Species Act, in my humble opinion, one of the noblest pieces of legislation in our country’s history.

“All of this is made more precious, not less, by it’s impermanence. No matter what goes missing…disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend wrote Kathryn Schultz in her article “Losing Streak” published in The New Yorker February 13 & 20, 2017. Loss is a kind of external conscience urging us to make better use of our finite days. As [Walt] Whitman knew, our brief crossing is best spent attending to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, denouncing what we cannot abide, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone.”

Mindfulness, the Buddhist practice of self-awareness, is needed. We must recognize that the vanishing of others is akin to the vanishing of our selves. All life on the planet is endangered. Take action today: call your Senators and Representatives and advocate to preserve and strengthen the Endangered Species Act. Because the ESA ultimately protects you and me, as well as other endangered creatures.

Our share

Live Power Community Farm weekly share. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Live Power Community Farm weekly share. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Alan Chadwick was a master gardener and major influence on the birth of organic gardening in California. A teacher at UC Santa Cruz in 1967, he started the Chadwick Garden, where he cultivated the minds of many students minds and the seeds of the organic movement in California began to blossom.  UC Santa Cruz Professor Paul Lee wrote about Chadwick’s legacy in his book There Is A Garden in the Mind: A Memoir of Alan Chadwick and the Organic Movement in California. Stephen and Gloria Decater were students of Alan Chadwick; Stephen studied with Chadwick at UC Santa Cruz and followed him to learn and teach in Covelo, California where the master gardener briefly tended another Chadwick Garden reaching more students including Gloria. A living legacy was nurtured and blossomed in Covelo as Live Power Community Farm (LPCF), tended over the years by Stephen and Gloria, their sons and apprentices.  For almost three decades, we have been weekly share holders in LPCF, benefiting from the teachings Alan Chadwick gave his students. Every Saturday morning, the week’s harvest was delivered by the Covelo farmers to San Francisco where our community members sorted vegetables and fruit, flowers and eggs, grains and meat, delivering the weekly basket bounty – a cornucopia – to eager share holders like us. It has been a blessing: shared by Stephen, Gloria and the land. And for this we give our deep thanks for the love you, Stephen and Gloria, have given the land, and the sustenance of “bread” and teachings you have shared with us over the years. With your patient love and guidance we have become better stewards of both the land and the creatures, great and small, graced with walking her gardens. Amen.

Colorado of Texas

The Colorado River of Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2015.

The Colorado River of Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2015.

Storm fed by New Mexican arroyos, the Colorado River winds across the Texas plains and prairies nurtured by springs, through the Hill Country and the fertile black bottom land, gathering steam as the Concho, Llano, Perdnales and San Saba rivers contribute on the journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Great forces tell the story of this country, some natural and some manmade. Wind and rain, lightening and thunder, sun and drought, the migration of creatures in the air, on the land, and through the water dialogue with man’s domestication of the landscape, wrestling nature to some kind of tenuous draw.

In a collection of essay’s Sacagawea’s Nickname: Essays on the American West, Larry McMurtry wrote “man may have seven ages, but the West has had only three: the age of Heroes (Lewis and Clark), the age of Publicity (Buffalo Bill), and the age of Suburbia, for which the preferred term is Urban Sprawl. How we got from the first age to the third, and what we have destroyed in the process, is a story historians will be worrying for a long time.”

Leaving Austin meandering the back roads towards Waco, I purposefully took a slight detour to the northwest to visit the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Spring is the perfect time to catch the wild flowers and glimpse migratory birds nesting in the Texas Hill Country. Austin’s culture of great music and good food combined with Texas’ tax incentives are attracting the computer industry and the countryside is increasingly being developed into suburban housing enclaves. My journey is a series of interstates, highways, and two-lane roads that are increasingly developed. Thank goodness the Refuge was formed in 1992 to ensure some land would forgo development and protect the habitat of two endangered birds: the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. And refuge it is. Although it is hard to completely loose sight or sound of the farm to market road, it is possible to loose yourself briefly in the surrounding natural history. Hiking on a ridge in the refuge, populated with juniper trees (known as cedars in Texas), I was rewarded with sightings of the nesting Warbler and a full stereophonic soundtrack of the bird’s beautiful song juxtaposed by distant thunder. My found treasure included a gorgeous view of the Colorado River of Texas with a threatening lightening storm looming on the western horizon.

I am conscious of the looming suburbs on the horizon, threatening like a storm this precious refuge. Back in the car, heading towards my Dad’s home, I queue up The Mountain on Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band’s album of the same name. I know the odds are stacked against nature; mankind’s greed and hunger scar the landscape with glacier like force. But I know we need to come to some compromise with nature, something more than this tenuous draw. We need to live and breathe stewardship; because the land helps keep us from worry and woe. As I merge onto the highway, Steve Earle sings:

“I was born on this mountain a long time ago

Before they knocked down the timber and strip-mined the coal

When you rose in the mornin’ before it was light

To go down in that dark hole and come back up at night

I was born on this mountain, this mountain’s my home

She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe

Well, they took everything that she gave, now they’re gone

But I’ll die on this mountain, this mountain’s my home”

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.

 

 

Color from the sea

View of Santa Cruz coastline and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

View of Santa Cruz coastline and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

Reached from our hilltop campus by a swift bike descent, UCSC’s Long Marine Laboratory rests on the cliffs overlooking the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Today I cycled part of the Empire Grade and then spun quickly back down to the sea to visit the lab’s Seymour Marine Discovery Center. A research and teaching center, “Long “is renowned for innovative marine mammal research. Walking along the cliffs searching for a spot to paint, I was greeted by the sounds of the ebbing tide and the snowy plovers dancing along the water’s edge. Hard at work in search of nourishment, sea otters and bottlenose dolphins swim in the silver-white waves below me and pelicans glide searching for fish just above the whitecaps. It was late in the afternoon and mostly overcast but from time-to-time the clouds broke and the cerulean blue sky peaked through allowing sunlight to stream from above infusing distant cliff sides with a glow seemingly from within.

My visual experience is beautifully expressed by Santa Cruz resident, writer James D. Houston, who wrote Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea, a series of essays about place inspired by the California landscape. In an essay titled “The View from Santa Cruz” Houston wrote “in later afternoon the light turns the bay white…the sea, as much as the light, gives this curve of coast its flavor. The light takes its color from the sea, sometimes seems to be emerging from it. And the sea here is ever-present. On clear days it coats the air with a transparent tinge of palest blue that salts and sharpens every detail…the slow process of erosion has left many colored cliffs – yellow, buff, brown and ochre. Each striated layer reveals the pressed sand of beaches eons old. Sometimes in the low sun of an autumn afternoon they turn orange and glow like the horizon itself.” With his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki, Houston co-authored the memoir Farewell to Manzanar. The Japanese Internment Camp Manzanar, located in the Eastern Sierras, resides in the shadow of my majestic friend Mt. Whitney.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is so precious; we must ensure its continued existence through direct stewardship and consciousness raising actions. On Sunday September 21, 2014 citizens from over 150 countries took part in a consciousness raising action for the environment and social justice, participating in a global People’s Climate March. Largely ignored by the mainstream press, Ben Wikler host of MoveOn.org ‘s “The Good Fight” has chronicled the march in his podcast which can be listened to in iTunes or through the web at “inside the ginormous, huge-tastic climate march.”

wind and wave

Wind and Wave. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

Wind and Wave. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

Wind and wave carved the barrel vault through which the tides pass. Frieze-like, cormorants and pelicans adorn the rock’s surface. Just offshore Santa Cruz, this nature-made arch stands proudly like a monument to stewardship of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. A bridge for centuries, the 1989 earthquake took only seconds to sculpt the arch from a span called Natural Bridges. Out in the bay waters, humpback whales feast on schools of anchovies. Early evening, living on the edge of the Pacific plate, my friend and I paint quickly attempting to capture this fleeting perfection with our brush marks. Thousands of miles away, seismic politics bring violence and death to innocents in Gaza and Ukraine airspace. All is suffering. A few lines from Robert Hass’ poem Bush’s War published in his book Time and Materials capture my sadness at this suffering:

“Someone will always want to mobilize

Death on a massive scale for economic

Domination or revenge…

Why do we do it? Certainly there’s a rage

To injure what’s injured us. Wars

Are always pitched to us that way…

The violence, it’s a taste for power

That amounts to contempt for the body…”

The history of all conflagrations ultimately includes the tallying of the dead, the wounded and the maimed. But they never tally the loss for the living. The black fonts on the white page cleanly mask the suffering. Colm Toibin’s closes The Testament of Mary with a conversation between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a disciple, unidentified but likely John, one of the four evangelists. Mary spoke, her words brimming with her son’s suffering on the cross “I was there, I said. I fled before it was all over, but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”

Sometimes we paint to stave off despair. Chiura Obata the great Japanese American painter of Yosemite and the Sierras was interned at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during WWII. Obata painted and wrote about the power of nature to absorb the scars of war. Writing about his series of Hiroshima inspired watercolors, Obata said “there is always harmony in nature, a balance between the dead and the living, between destruction and resurgence.” And so I rechristen Natural Bridges as Natural Arch, a monument to the cycle of life and to harmony, seeking balance between conquest and stewardship.