Be Alert! Deer Crossing the Roadway!

Young deer in the Santa Cruz meadow. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

Young deer in the Santa Cruz meadow. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

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.

Women: a greater force challenging authority and tradition

View of Mt. Baker from the Anacortes ferry landing. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

View of Mt. Baker from the Anacortes ferry landing. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

It’s spring on Orcas, in the San Juan Islands, and we are hiking from Cascade Falls via Mountain Lake to Mount Constitution; at the summit, the view of Mt. Baker across the sound is glorious. It is a day so hot and clear, that even Mt. Rainier, nearly 100 miles to the south, sheds the hazy cloak, granting a glimpse of inspiring wonder. The Pacific Northwest has a quality reminiscent yet distinct from the Grand Canyon. Looking across the vast expanse of Puget Sound, we are flotsam in time, humbled by the knowledge that our lives are defined by tides, wind and volcanism; at the Grand Canyon, we witness the passage of time humbled by the expanse of history portrayed by the simple act of water coursing the land.  In these moments, when we glimpse our place in the scheme of things, we honor the greater forces at work on our planet.

On the trail, my feet seem to find every small cone shed by the Western Red Cedars populating this coastal forest;* the crunch seems deafening in the stillness. The air tastes salty, tinged by the scent of wood smoke, and the forest is quiet except for birdsong and the infrequent hiker or mountain biker. Rounding the turn, we discover a bald eagle perched on a partially submerged log near the shoreline, fishing. My friend whispers, “amazing to think that the removal of one chemical <DDT> from the environment made seeing this bald eagle possible.”

Today is Mother’s Day, a fitting day to honor women. According to Rebecca Solnit, in the early 1960s three women writers changed our thinking about the nature of authority and tradition in the world into which I was born: Jane Jacobs with The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Betty Friedan with The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson with Silent Spring. Jacobs assailed the postwar restructuring of cities resulting in suburbia; Friedan questioned the patriarchy of middle-class suburbia and the assigned gender roles of women; and Carson argued on behalf of ecosystems exposing fatal flaws in Big Science and industry’s broad stroke solutions. As Solnit describes in her essay Other Daughters, Other American Revolutions published in Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, Carson was “the first to describe the scope of the sinister consequences of a chemical society, the possibility that herbicides, pesticides and the like were poisoning not just pests – or pests, and some songbirds and farmworkers – but everyone and everything for a long time forward.”

Rachel Carson was able to communicate very technical information and inspire the general public to care about the environment. According to Solnit, Carson’s “book had a colossal impact from the beginning and is often credited with inspiring the DDT ban that went into effect nationwide in 1972. Though some now challenge the relationship between DDT and eggshell-thinning in species, wild birds from brown pelicans to bald eagles and peregrine falcons have rebounded from the brink of extinction since the ban.” Rachel Carson’s closing words say it best “the ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man…it is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.” Thank you Rachel Carson; your “words are deeds.”** We honor your greater feminine force that gave us this bald eagle today.

* The San Juan Islands forest typically includes Western Red Cedars, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Big Leaf Maples and Pacific Madrone.

** Lord Risley speaking to Maurice Hall from E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice.

Spring Haiku

Asian pear blossom. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

Asian pear blossom. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

Winter Isa Lei,

Asian pear blossoms,

Ry and Bhatt by the River. *

*References the 1993 album A Meeting By The River, a collaboration by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt; the album contains the song “Isa Lei,” the Fijian song of farewell that Ry Cooder learned playing with the renowned Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui.  I’ve been listening to Meeting By the River many mornings here in Santa Cruz while watching the beautiful asian pear tree in the garden outside my window greet the Spring.

there’s many a river that waters the land

Springtime along Salado Creek, Texas.  Copyright April 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Springtime. Cottonwoods and willow trees along Salado Creek, Texas. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

“The Rivers of Texas” is an old cowboy song that mentions fourteen rivers in the Lone Star state; Lyle Lovett recorded his version  – The Texas River Song –  on the album Step Inside This House. My good friend Bill tells me Townes Van Zandt also recorded this classic. This excerpt of lyrics comes courtesy of Verne Huser’s book Rivers of Texas:

“We crossed the broad Pecos and we crossed the Nueces, Swam the Guadalupe and followed the Brazos; Red River runs rusty; the Wichita clear. Down by the Brazos I courted my dear…The sweet Angelina runs glossy and glidey; The crooked Colorado flows weaving and winding. The slow San Antonio courses the plain. I will never walk by the Brazos again.”

Nomadic by circumstance, or maybe I just like driving, I am on the road again, speeding northward into the oncoming night from San Antonio towards Austin and Waco.  I laugh out loud recalling an essay in High Country News by John Daniel; in A Word In Favor of Rootlessness he wrote “marriage to place is something we all need to realize in our culture, but not all of us are the marrying kind…it makes me very happy to drive the highways and back roads of the American West, exchanging talk with people who live where I don’t, pulling off somewhere to sleep in the truck and wake to a place I’ve never seen.” Out my side window, I search for the “Old Yellow Moon,” Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell croon about on my CD player.  Running north – south, I-35 intersects a series of rivers crisscrossing Texas roughly north-west to south-east; I catalog them in my mind: San Antonio, Guadalupe, Colorado and as I get closer to my destination the tributaries to the Brazos including the Leon, San Gabriel and Little Rivers and of course Salado Creek.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas.  Copyright April 2013, Robin L. Chandler.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas. Copyright 2013, Robin L. Chandler.

This year, Texas like many places in the Western and Midwest United States is suffering from drought. Not enough rain is falling to soak into and heal the land, fill the reservoirs and aquifers and bless the riparian areas providing a respite to migratory birds and a home for wildlife along the streambeds. At the same time the demand for the life-giving water grows for agriculture, industry, and the expanding suburbs.  In the thirty-some odd years I’ve been coming to Central Texas the population keeps increasing; more houses, more malls and with this expansion the burgeoning need for water.  But this is not a new story.  In San Antonio, I travelled parts of the San Antonio River Walk heading south to the Historic Missions National Park. Built in the early 18th century, close to rivers, the mission communities constructed dams and aqueducts to guide water for irrigating crops and powering flourmills.  The Belton Lake Dam on the Leon River is a 20th century version of the mission acequias; Belton just provides a lot more water for a lot more people.  The grandfather of Texas conservation, John Graves, wrote a book Goodbye to A River, published in 1959, now considered a classic about his late 1950s canoe trip down the Brazos River.  The book is often cited as a major reason only a limited number of dams were built on the Brazos. The current drought places a strain on stored water supplies.  But what can we do to make sure that there is enough water for all those  who need it, including the native plants and animals? In the 13th Century, it is believed the Anazasi left the Colorado Plateau for the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico when extreme drought caused these peoples to abandon their homes.  Where could we go?

Nomad that I appear to be, place and community do obsess me. Wherever I land, I want to understand the context of the place – the land and its people. I do not feel geographic detachment, but I realize this ability to move quickly from place to place comes at an expense. In Teaching About Place Hal Crimmel published the article “Teaching About Place in an Era of Geographical Detachment.”  Crimmel states “technology enables escape from any particular locale, accelerating the process of geographical detachment.  In fact, living in place may have more to do with restraint than passion these days.  Unprecedented access to distant energy sources, such as natural gas piped across the continent, and to mechanical or electrical technologies means people need not live within the ecological limits imposed by climate and topography.” I feel the contradiction deep in my bones; I hope my Prius buys me some credit when my judgement comes.

I go among trees and sit still

Sunday morning and I wake up hot. Again.  For the last few days,  Southern California has been dominated by a High Pressure system  and we won’t see relief until later this week. After moving part of my life to San Diego last year, I came to understand there are only three seasons  in the southland: rain, hot and fire.  The season of fire has come and several fires are tragically raging now in the Los Angeles Basin.  Still horizontal I begin to dream of shade trees and my mind wonders again to cooler climes of the Spring and my visits to Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco.  On Inverness Ridge, the west side of Tomales Bay and the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore, there are coast woodlands of  Bishop pine and Douglas Fir. On the eastern side of  Tomales Bay are the open oak woodlands and grasslands with dairy and beef ranches — often visited by families of deer.  Much of this land on the eastern side has thankfully become conservation easements  protected by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).

On this side we  also find the non-native Blue Gum Eucalyptus and the  Monterey Cypress planted by early settlers in this community to provide shelter from the winds.

Monterey Cypress

Monterey Cypress. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

On my visits to Tomales Bay, I’ve tried to quickly capture the trees and grasslands of the eastern side in watercolor and ink with a bamboo pen.

Blue-Gum Eucalyptus

Blue-Gum Eucalyptus. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

Daydreaming still, the words come from several Wendall Berry poems I’ve read in his book A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997.  “I go among the trees and sit still. All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.”   Then as a hot breeze comes through my open window I think “of deep root and wide shadow, of bright, hot August calm, on the small, tree-ringed meadow.”   At the end of a long, hot day last Thursday, I cycled to Leucadia and then returned home.  It was a beautiful evening, and the air was still warm even as the sun set in the West.  As I started up the Torrey Pines hill on the coast highway suddenly the temperature changed drastically.  The pines nestled among the canyons of the park create  a blessed coolness  — the air felt like cool water lapping against my skin as I swam up the hill.  I was thankful for the trees whose kindness helped me ride that hill.  Rooted in the earth but reaching towards the heavens,  trees give us life.