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.
January nights remain long and chilly, but the sun grows warmer with each day. Some months from now, our tiny Oakland orchard of apricot, fig, plum and pear will provide a wonderful harvest. With luck, we will have a bountiful year blessed with cakes and pies and many jars of jam and preserved fruit. But should we have a premature spring, early blossoms may be lost to windy Pacific storms, severely limiting our harvest. Never one to give up hope, I gaze at the trees and pray they adapt to humankind’s “gift”: climate change. Sitting in their presence, I am reading, captivated by Richard Powers‘ novel The Overstory. In the book, one of the characters, Forestry scientist Patricia Westerford, writes about and speaks of the Giving Trees:
“…she remembers the Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it…love for trees pours out of her – the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the micro climate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature…People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures – bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful – call the shots, make the air, and eat the sunlight. Without them, nothing.“
The lights dimmed and the spotlight focused on the figure center stage guitar in hand; she began to sing, the voice a little smoky and raspy, working towards the high, round notes so clear in my memory. Soon, “Saint” Joan Baez sang two of my favorites by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie respectively, “With God on Our Side” and “Deportee,”. Both songs are stories of love and tragic loss. Each story holding forth the possibility of redemption, that we can learn from our mistakes and take right action.
Election eve, the significance of this sainted singer was not lost on any of us in the audience. This deeply disturbing election season nearly over, we drank deeply of the songs offered us, believing in the promise of a world where all persons count, no matter their origin or identity, and that the fabric of our society is stronger, when our diverse threads are woven together. Listening, my heart responds, I will march again to her call to action to build a better and loving world.
Between songs, she spoke about her belief in the ideas and aspirations expressed by Bernie Saunders as he crossed the county this year connecting with the hopes and ideals of a new generation. But she also spoke admiringly of the courage of Hilary Clinton, withstanding the barrage of lies and intimidation hurled at her these last months.
On my recent trip to the Eastern Sierras, many a cottonwood was growing, singularly, isolated from other trees in the valley, telling a story, stately and proud. In some cases, it was unclear if a tree was near death because of lack of water, or if it was merely beginning the long winter sleep. These trees standing statuesque on a parched landscape, with the majestic sierras as their backdrop, called to mind the elm trees, deemed Liberty Trees by the colonists turned patriots at the time of our Revolution. The first such elm was located in Boston and celebrated in the revolutionary poetry of Thomas Paine. Soon Liberty Trees were anointed in towns and cities throughout the colonies; these majestic trees witnessed calls to action, celebrated victories, and mourned defeats. Trees bear witness to our story, and with this act they become part of our own story, symbols of strength, longevity, knowledge, loss, and redemption.
We are participating in the most historic election of our time. The stakes are high; it feels like the future of our nation and perhaps the world weighs upon our ballot box. At times, I have been paralyzed with fear of what may come. But I also know that there are persons, my fellow citizens, who think differently than I and will vote differently than I, and they too are fearful of change. And yet, we are all part of the same country, and we must move forward together, whatever changes comes. I think of the lone cottonwood in the Owens Valley, thirsty. Is the tree telling a story of suffering brought on by a changing climate? Is it hanging on for dear life hoping for the redemption winter snow in the mountains will bring? Is this cottonwood a symbol of my republic gasping, near death? Listening to the tree, my heart responds. While I fear the change that the election could bring, I will be strong like a tree, making connections, bringing the long-view, and sharing all the knowledge and wisdom found deep in my core. I will take right action continuing to build a better and loving world respecting the rights of all living beings.
“I am a poor wayfaring stranger, while travelling through this world of woe.
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger. In that bright world to which I go.
I’m going there to see my mother. She said she’d meet me when I come.
I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home.”
A classic American folk and gospel song, it resonates with one of Buddhism’s four Noble Truths that all is suffering, all is woe, and impermanence is one of the great causes of suffering. But a bright world exists to which we can go.
Last week the rains stopped and the fruit trees blossomed, a month before expected, but nonetheless spectacular for their early arrival. The plum trees in my yard shimmered in the February sunset, still winter by the calendar. The blossoms will not remain long. But long enough to tarry in my dreams, haunt my imagination, and find their way from brush to canvas to capture the beauty of impermanence.
This weekend we will say goodbye to a good friend, my second mother, who has gone over Jordan. There is no sickness, toil or danger, in that bright world to which she goes. Someday we’ll join her, going there, no more to roam. She said she’d meet us when we come. She said she’s only going home.
At the edge of the void, one can see the emptiness from which all matter comes into being, and from which all things evaporate. Form gives us a means to learn and build confidence; form provides a path to experience the teachings and verify the teacher. Like an elephant’s footprint, form is a sign, here today, but gone tomorrow. Objects are material, ever changing in state; the spirit alone is precious. Tibetan Buddhist Monks create beautiful sand mandalas only to sweep them away to symbolize the transitory nature of material life. Their creation and their dissolution is an act of faith, revealing the beauty and truth of impermanence. At the edge of the void, one finds the beginning of the possible.
Our backyard is blessed with fruit trees. In early summer, the apricots and plums ripen and soon find their way as jam, the taste of sunshine on a winter’s day. And now with fall’s arrival the Flanders Fig has ripened; with the pear and persimmon trees soon to follow. This week we will celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish agricultural festival celebrating the harvest. And so we tend to our figs. Even in this severe drought the trees are doing their utmost to participate in the cycle of life; and for this I am grateful and give thanks. But I worry. How much longer can they last with such little rain? Come hither El Nino, and when you come, don’t be shy, bring your entire Cumulonimbus family.
Harvested figs have become star performers in a galette, in salads, and rumors in our home, suggest a caramelized future for pizza pies. We planted the fig tree five years ago and over the years, we have tended the tree, watering, pruning branches, and building supports ensuring it would could grow tall and strong. This is the first bountiful harvest, so we eagerly await the fruit. The tree stands over fifteen feet in height, it’s branches tending towards the sun to help ripen the fruit. Figs are a favorite of the creatures with which we share this Oakland neighborhood; so, fig picking must be timed perfectly. The fruit needs to be ripe enough, but not so ripe as to become easy pickings for the raccoons, jays and squirrels that call our backyard home.
Tending my ripening figs, I contemplated their figgy future. What if the figs could break Newton’s Law of Gravity (avoiding a Fig Newton future) and fly like Pegasus? If figs could fly, what would they intend: remain on the branch, the majority content to a predetermined future filling the stomach’s of mammals and birds; or continue the cycle of rebirth, gravitating to mother earth seeding a new fig tree? If figs could fly, would they break their natural tendency and fly away: planting themselves in a land of gentle rain, or perhaps seek further enlightenment through a closer relationship with the sun? For the remainder of this day, I shall remain in this peaceful garden, seeking liberation from my own samsara by practicing self-discipline, participating in meditative concentration, and considering the wisdom of emptiness. Hoping that should I ever achieve nirvana, I would return as a Bodhisattva, attending to Figuasus and fig lovers on their flightpaths to enlightenment.
Who could imagine a university nestled amongst stands of redwood trees and situated upon a hilltop meadow on the edge of the Monterey Bay. In this aspect, and in many other ways, UC Santa Cruz is extraordinary. Every morning I bike up the hill through the meadow to campus, a worthy challenge, and every evening, work complete for this day, I descend the pasturage, enjoying the emerging stars cast against a Technicolor ocean sunset. When I can take a midday break, I walk to the meadow and sketch. There, amazing Coastal Live Oaks, joined by their companion Bay Laurels and Buckeyes, bridge the forest and the meadow. A particularly compelling Quercus Agrifolia has caught my attention; a massive tree that must be at least sixty feet high, and could be over 250 years old. The change it has witnessed. It’s trunk is massive, contorted and gnarled, its branches an intricate web, and its crown rounded and dense. It sits majestically at the crest of the hill, the redwoods, the meadow and the bay as it’s theatrical backdrop. Beauty was the subject of my last blog and my search, blessedly continues.
It is difficult to take a break from the demands of a busy work schedule, but sketching the tree offers food for my imagination, an opportunity to refresh my soul, and ground myself before returning to my responsibilities. Henry David Thoreau danced on the edge of a Buddhist koan, with this 1859 journal entry “I have many affairs to attend to, and feel hurried these days. Great works of art have endless leisure for a background, as the universe has space. Time stands still while they are created. The artist cannot be in a hurry. The earth moves round the sun with inconceivable rapidity, and yet the surface of the lake is not ruffled.” My friend Chip Sullivan, artist and author, states in Drawing the Landscape that we “draw because it is the act of seeing and thinking clearly…it allows a concept to evolve…it resides between freedom and structure…drawing can also be a meditation…Zen art is the expression of the artist’s own inner state of going nowhere to a timeless dimension.
A few months ago, a very dear friend was reading a book about the National Archives historic photograph collection. The page was open to an iconic photograph taken by Dorothea Lange of hungry people in breadlines in San Francisco during the Great Depression. That single moment, set me on a journey of discovery, a road I still travel – reading about Dorothea and her first husband Maynard Dixon and viewing reproductions of their work in books, films and in museums. In the Fall 2014, PBS American Masters series broadcast the film Grab a Hunk of Lightning portraying the life and work of the masterful artist Dorothea Lange. A section of the film included Lange speaking about the meditative experience of making art:
“When you are working well, it is first of all, a process of getting lost, so that you live for maybe 2 – 3 hours as completely as possible the visual experience…you feel you have lost yourself, your identity, you are only an observer…all your instinctive powers are in operation and you don’t know why you are doing things really. Sometimes you annihilate yourself; that is something one needs to be able to do. There are moments when time stands still. You hope it will wait for you that fraction of a second…beauty appears when one feels deeply. Art is an act of total attention.”
Two nights ago the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series in five years. Can you believe it? We had witnessed first-hand the 17-0 drubbing a visiting Los Angeles Dodgers had delivered to our boys in mid-September; and as the season drew to a close, those same Dodgers claimed the Division title, and the wild card berth was the last glimmer of hope for our Giants. Our boys in orange and black were not blessed with the dominating pitching rotation that had secured their crowns in 2010 and 2012, so we silently feared their post season appearance would be brief. We had an ace this year, Madison Bumgarner, but it seemed unlikely a team’s destiny could rest with the arm of one young southpaw. But Madison’s teammates got something started. First came Brandon Crawford’s grand slam in the National League Wild Card elimination game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. And then came the 18-inning game with the Washington Nationals where a fastball crushed in the late night by Brandon Belt became a walk off home run. Of course there was Senor Octobre, aka The Panda, himself. And our spark plug The Preacher, Sasquatch (as I nicknamed Michael Morse) and the rest of the “killer Ps,” and last but not least, one of the greatest situational managers on record, Bruce Bochy. Steadily, game by game, we began to believe. Maybe there was something to that little voice in my head…”they always win it all in even years.” I started humming Don’t Stop Believin’ and We Are The Champions.
After defeating the “Nats,” the Giants dueled with the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Pennant. During the Pennant race, we visited New York City once home to Harlem’s Polo Grounds and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field; these mighty stadiums, the historic homes of the Giants and Dodgers until expansion brought their rivalry to California in 1957. In 2014, Cardinals had won their Pennant race berth by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers most feared pitcher, Clayton Kershaw. We enjoyed the cultural delights of New York City by day and found neighborhood pubs by night to soak up the play by play of the Giants and Cards matchup. Maybe it was the experience of those previous Series, but the Giants had something extra. Calm and focused, battling against the odds, they came to play every day. Even when the night before was a crushing defeat – a fabric appearing torn beyond repair, they never gave into despair. And then Travis Ishikawa, who almost hung up his cleats this summer, eclipsed Bobby Thompson‘s 1951 “Shot Heard Round the World” with his pennant winning homer. The Giants kept working together as a team, and each game was a fresh start, a new dialogue, a renewed bargain.
Tom Stoppard’s play about love and relationships The Real Thing is on Broadway this October. In the play, Charlotte, a divorcee, tells her former husband Henry “there are no commitments, only bargains. And they have to be made again every day. You think making a commitment is it. Finish. You think it set like a concrete platform and it’ll take any strain you want to put on it. You’re committed. You don’t have to prove anything. In fact you can afford a little neglect, indulge in a little bit of sarcasm here and there and isolate yourself when you want to. Underneath it’s concrete for life.” Charlotte implies relationships are not static, they are dynamic; they are a negotiation and you must keep working at them and through the wear and tear of daily life, bringing your “A” game every day.
Relationships are never static. This theme surfaced in an exhibit of Cy Twombly’s work currently on display at the Morgan Library and Museum entitled Treatise on the Veil. The series of paintings and drawings were inspired by French composer Pierre Henry ‘s work The Veil of Orpheus. Working in the style of music known as “music concrete” (music based on collecting random sounds and abstracting their musical values often by manipulating recordings on magnetic tape), Henry evoked the journey of Orpheus to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice as the sound of tearing fabric. The composer references the moment at which Orpheus loses his bride forever by transgressing the gods’ command and gazing upon her before leaving Hades. Twombly visualized “the sound of a relationship ending” as a study of subtle variations of gray – like concrete – mapped over time on a canvas nearly thirty-three feet long. Sitting before Twombly’s painting, I was struck by three artists grappling with the juxtapositions of concreteness and fragility; static and dynamic; commitments and bargains. And I meditated on relationships, battered by the strains of daily life. We cannot assume relationships are concrete, able to withstand any storm. They are fragile fabrics susceptible to wear and tear, neglect and strain. Relationships, just like baseball teams playing in the World Series, thrive by renewing the daily bargain…by never giving over to defeat and despair. Yes, they suffer frays and tears, but no matter how bad, the negotiation – the bargaining – begins anew with the windup and delivery at the top of the first. When asked if the season was over, Yogi Berra replied “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.” And if anybody made us believe that, it’s the 2014 San Francisco Giants!
October’s government shutdown locked us out of our national parks. Fortunately, national forests are nearly impossible to fence in. Forest rangers closed visitor centers, but they could not padlock our public lands. The indifference, lack of connection, and abstract selfishness of a political minority – disregarding communities beyond their voting district – blocked passage of a federal budget, keeping government workers from their jobs – in this case stewardship of our natural resources – and held our country hostage, reeking havoc with local economies, such as businesses dependent on tourists to our national parks. Flouting our temerity, we voted with our feet gaining access to our birthright, our public lands. Entering Inyo National Forest, we found welcome amongst the wilderness of trees in the Eastern Sierra and Great Basin Desert, trees, blessed by their ignorance of Washington, D.C.’s theater of the absurd. I photographed our journey in addition to the watercolors in this blog entry.
When its fall in the Eastern Sierra, trees dress in dramatic and painterly yellows and gold accented now and then with a touch of red and orange. Near sagebrush scrub in the yellow pine belt bioregion found at approximately 7,000 feet above the sea, the yellowing leaves of black cottonwoods are jewel-like on the landscape. Thriving on moisture, the cottonwoods grow where their roots find water near lakes, meadows, springs, and mountain streams. Higher in the Sierras, in the 9,000 – 11,000 foot elevation range, forests of jeffrey and lodgepole pines, red fir and western junipers are found, as well as stretches of quaking aspens, simply breathtaking to behold. Finding water amongst rocks at cliff bases, these trees sparkle in the sunlight, and the wind reveals their white trunks and stirs leaves in a continual flutter. Farther East in the Great Basin Desert, the White Mountains host magnificent ancient bristlecone pine forests. Methuselah, the oldest tree on earth, estimated at over 4,750 years in age, thrives in this arid, exposed landscape, requiring minimal water and finding just enough nutrients in the dolomitic and alkaline soils where few other trees can flourish. Keeping only essential parts alive during times of stress, the living tree is dressed in dead branches, made smooth over time by the forces of wind, ice and fire. The sculptural bristlecone pines seem to form a community of dancers moving nominally in a minimalist ballet for the ages. The beauty is sublime; this place opens our living souls and we are filled with affection.
For this trip, my book of choice was AGreat Unrecorded History a biography of one of my favorite writers, E. M. Forster, written by Wendy Moffat. In 1909, just days after reading Walt Whitman’sLeaves of Grass, an inspired Forster sketched out the entire concept of one of his finest works, Howard’s End. Published in 1910, Forster explored several themes including developing urban industrial spaces juxtaposed with a rapidly eroding English countryside, and the human need toconnect. A century later, Wendell Berry, who like Forster appreciated the value of community and place, was honored to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which he titled It All Turns on Affection. Informed by Forster’s Howard’s End, Berry described the need for integrated local economies connecting cities with their surrounding rural landscapes “to bring producers and consumers…back within the bounds of the neighborhood…[within] effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection…[gaining] a measure of security that cannot derive from a national or global economy controlled by people who, by principle have no local commitment.” In his talk, Berry described Forster’s foresight: “the existence of small farms were limited and that an industrial ugliness, was creeping out of the cities and into the countryside, and that this ugliness was characterized by the withdrawal of affection from places.” In Howard’s End climactic scene Margaret Schlegel talks to her husband Henry Wilcox, “a plain man of business who sees life realistically with a hardness of mind and heart only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls.” Margaret tells Henry “it all turns on affection now…affection. Don’t you see?”
In Song of Myself a poem from Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman penned the line “the press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections.” May our political leaders in Washington remember their actions impact places and persons across our nation and the world. As they do their work, may they walk with affection, understand their commitments, and not trample – drunk with power – the places and communities – in the lands just beyond their own.
UC Santa Cruz is a special place; where else would you find a traffic sign flashing bright orange “be alert…deer crossing the roadway.” Cycling into work, I laughed lovingly acknowledging both the practical advice and the deeper meaning of mindfulness. Situated on a mountain overlooking the Pacific, the campus is replete with rolling meadows and coastal forests of tanoak, bay laurel, Pacific madrone and the regal Redwoods. An ecosystem intimately shared by animals, plants and people. After a quiet summer, September signals major events in certain campus populations: the academic cycle migration of homo sapiens and the advent of the breeding season for California mule deer. The traffic signal brings some needed intervention to manage the humans and deer inhabiting this space. All summer the bucks have roamed the meadows as a herd while their antlers grew big and strong preparing to compete for a mate. Next spring, fawns begin the cycle anew. Riding up the bike path through the thirsty meadow, I wonder from where the mountain lion watches these migrations and lifecycles. Will I ever see one?
Right mindfulness, an element of the Buddhist eight-fold path, teaches adherents to be alert, present, building awareness of the moment…the path to enlightenment. Earlier this year, I received a gift from the wife of a landscape painter whose work I greatly admire; she connected me to the work of Peter Matthiessen, Buddhist and writer of fiction and many well-respected books about the environment including the National Book Award winner The Snow Leopard. Trekking through Nepal with the ancient Buddhist shrine Shey Gompa on Crystal Mountain as their destination, Matthiessen and the field biologist George Schaller were seeking research data on the Blue Sheep and the Snow Leopard. Truly a book about his spiritual journey, Matthiessen finds the revered Lama of Shey who blesses him with a koan “Have you seen the snow leopard? No. Isn’t that wonderful!” Matthiessen writes “I feel great gratitude for being here, for being, rather for there is no need to hike oneself to the snow mountains in order to feel free. I am not here to seek the “crazy wisdom;” if I am, I shall never find it. I am here to be here, like these rocks and sky and snow, like this hail that is falling down out of the sun…the absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty (to that self which is inseparable from others) to live it as bravely and generously as possible.”
It is the season when deer are on the minds of many. Last weekend we attended the fundraiser for the journal West Marin Review held by Point Reyes Books. Two great women poets read from their work: Kay Ryan and Jane Hirshfield and ironically among the many poems they read, they both chose to read works about deer. Selecting a poem from her book The Best of It, Ryan read “a buck looks up: the touch of his rack against wet bark whispers a syllable singular to deer; the next one hears and shifts; the next head stops and lifts; deeper and deeper into the park.” Hirschfeld choose a poem from The Lives of the Heart and read “a root seeks water. Tenderness only breaks open the earth. This morning, out the window, the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.”