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.
And yet most of us ignore the simple fact that our choices and our actions, in other words, our touch has a lasting impact upon the earth. “Wildlife is dying out due to habitat destruction, overhunting, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change. But the ultimate cause of all these factors is human overpopulation and continued population growth and overconsumption” writes Damian Carrington author of Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event is Underway, Scientist’s Warn.
Last week the coastal city of Houston, Texas was devastated by Hurricaine Harvey resulting in catastrophic flooding to the region and countless lives changed forever. While climate change is not the sole factor, scientists observe that warmer seas evaporate more quickly and warmer air temperatures hold more moisture, “so as temperatures warm, skies hold more moisture and release this rain more quickly” writes Jonathan Watts author of Is tropical storm Harvey linked to climate change?
The Earth bore witness to Buddha’s awakening. Sitting in meditation, his left hand upright in his lap, the Buddha touched the Earth with his right hand, and the earth responded, “I am your witness.” With his touch, the Buddha recognized the interconnectedness of all things and that humankind and the earth were parts of a shared community. How does our understanding change when we follow the Noble Eightfold Path and refrain from making choices and taking actions which cause the Earth to suffer?
“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,” wroteNorman Tait, a British Columbia First Nation sculptor and carver, in Hilary Stewart’s bookLooking at Totem Poles. Totem 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” writesDavid Suzukiand Wayne Grady inTree: A Life Story. Western 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 UjiShinshu Robertsin “Astride the Highest Mountain: Dogen’s Being/Time, A Practitioner’s Guide” in Receiving the Marrow.
“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.
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.
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”
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.”
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.”
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 Worldwhich features an essay by Jamaica KincaidIn 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.