Discovery

Russian River in March. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

April has brought spring in all it’s glory: hot sunny days and cold rainy ones; colorful flowers and deep green grass; and the sights and sounds of baseball. And yet, my soul and heart remain moored in March, dwelling long on the beauty of the Russian River. In the weeks since my artist residency, Sonoma County continues to inspire my imagination and fuel my art. Chalk Hill Artists Residency is a place to discover the interconnection of all living things and understand one’s place in the universe. And to take the bold step of sharing this knowledge as art. Dostoevsky wrote “it is life, life that matters, life alone – the continuous and everlasting process of discovering it – and not the discovery itself.”

Alexander von Humboldt, 19th century scientist and explorer, recognized planet Earth as one great living organism. Climbing over seventeen thousand feet in the mountains of Peru, Humboldt concluded that the botanical specimens of the Andes are similar to the plants he had seen in the European Alps. Lewis Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly, (Spring 2017) writes “the excitement is the act of discovery, not the numbering and storing of the dots, but rather the connecting of the dots…..to regard the universe as a metaphor.”

The voyage of discovery begins. Like a writer before the blank page, the artist before the blank canvas stands in awe, asking what do I know? As I fill the brush with color and connect the first dots of paint on the canvas, I wonder where this journey will take me and what discovery will I make about myself and the universe?

Open (guide)

Cottonwood near Bishop, California. Robin L. Chandler, 2016.

Cottonwood near Bishop, California. Robin L. Chandler, 2016.

The snow, fondant-like, blanketed the mountains. Rushing down the canyons, the rain wrote creeks on the landscape, like icing, on a cake. October brought me to the big empty, the Owens Valley, the tectonic, volcanic landscape, now a desert, once a vast ocean. The thirsty cottonwoods grow alongside the Zen-like creek, waiting months, sometimes years, for the river they know will come. In the big empty, I sang a prayer for this land. Staring deeply, intently at the mountains and the rivers, imagining the ocean that once was, I sang this blessing by Nanno Sakaki[1] for what was and what can be:

“One day from the ocean, from yesterday, I’m sure

A lost hump-back whale will swim up this river.

And someday, from the ocean, from tomorrow,

Countless whales will swim up the river

To revisit the ancient beech forest,

Whales swimming up the river, up the river.”

A few weeks later, I stand before a Marsden Hartley work, painted in 1918, entitled The Last of New England – the Beginning of New Mexico hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. Writing to his friend, Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley described the Southwest: “I like the country very well for it is big and clean and true, and there is nothing dirty standing between one and the sunlight.” Standing before this work, I absorbed the intensity of the landscape realized in the painter’s forms and colors. Like Proust and his tea and madeleines, the painting roused my memory of the Eastern Sierra desert, big and clean and true. Now more than ever, we need people to stand up and speak out like the Sioux tribal leaders now singing their prayers in protest of the pipeline at Standing Rock. We do not need anything dirty, like an unnecessary pipeline, standing between us and the sunlight on the land.

A great shadow threatens the land. Lies and abuse, dressed as truth and normalcy, threaten our democracy, so tenuous, so often taken for granted. To heal our selves, we must take our song to the streets and valleys and together loudly sing our prayers for our land, our peoples, and our democracy. It will be a tough fight, but we must continue to urge national investment in clean and renewable energies and demand the cessation of investments in projects like the pipeline perpetuating fossil fuel dependence. Here at home, the LA Times reports that California leads the nation in energy productivity, electricity from renewable resources, and reductions in carbon intensity. Like the Shaman, we will raise our voice in song to heal ourselves, each other, and our community. Together, open, guiding, we will sing our love of the land we hold so dear.

Because the whales will swim up river, only when they hear our song.

 

[1] Sakaki, Nanno. “Mountains and Rivers and Japan.” A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. Counterpoint. Berkeley, 2015. p.128.

near (and far)

Trees burned by fire in the drought stricken Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Trees burned by fire in the drought stricken Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Thanks to an early start, we reached the Owens Valley just before the storm closed Tioga Pass for the winter. Snow had dusted the peaks cradling Tuolumne meadow. There would be no pie today as we passed the Tioga Pass Resort; the diner long since closed, the windows boarded until the spring snowmelt. We were giddy, caught in the romance of the storm; dark thick clouds promised snow and rain to assuage our five-year drought.

Descending to Mono Lake, we made a right turn onto 395 towards Bishop and the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association’s (ESIA) inaugural conference on the history of the eastern sierras. This is a desolate land, whose emptiness holds so many stories to be shared. The Owens Valley straddles two counties: Mono and Inyo. Mono County defined by Mono Lake and the volcanic fields at an elevation of 7,000 feet and the Mammoth Lakes ski resort. Inyo County, the table drops sharply, thousands of feet in altitude is lost, as we descend into ranch lands, cottonwoods and the meandering Owens River. We stopped often, capturing with camera and brush the conversation between brooding sky, dark mountains, parched landscape, and autumnal trees. A photographer and a painter, drawn to this sacred place, finding poetry at every compass point.

At the ESIA conference, David Carle spoke about water and the historic choices that shaped California. A long-term California State Park Ranger, Carle now writes full-time about land and water issues facing our state. According to Carle, in 1902 Los Angeles was a small town of 100,000 people, with a promising citrus industry, but desperately seeking water. Led by the engineer William Mulholland, businessmen and city planners set their sights on the Owens Valley, a region of 8,000 residents with a 75,000 acres of farm and pasture land producing 51,000 bushels of wheat annually. The Owens Valley also held lakes and rivers fed by the water stored in the snow covered Sierras. The aqueducts were completed in 1913, but it didn’t take long before Los Angeles was thirsty again. By 1924 Owens Lake was a dry lake bed where dust storms raged. Los Angeles had purchased all the water rights in the valley, but by the mid-1920s they owned all the towns too. Communities had been destroyed and ecological disaster created for the region. The author Mary Austin asked “ is all this worthwhile in order that Los Angeles should be so big?” Today, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is working hard to implement water reclamation, and to their credit most of Orange County’s water now comes from reclamation. But for some, there will never be enough water, Southern California’s thirst will not be slaked. The proposed Twin Tunnels Project would move water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to the southland. Recently, LADWP purchased five islands located in the heart of the river delta, just as LADWP purchased the Owens Valley a century ago. Stop the Tunnels provides information about establishing fair water policies in California.

Looking out across the Owens Valley, at a land so near, so precious, it is scary to know that actions taken by a few powerful people, so far away, change the land and communities forever.

Blues in the Night

Blues. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Blues. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Going fishing with Dad was fun. Hot & humid Saturday mornings, piling into the station wagon with our poles, thermos or two, and bologna sandwiches. I had a spincast, pretty basic, the kind you had to bait yourself; the worms squirming in a Styrofoam cup filled with a bit of dirt and old coffee grounds. Dad was a fly fisherman; I was fascinated by the hours he spent tying his own flies in his basement workshop; I was also captivated by the ballet of the line striking the water. What an elegant and enigmatic ritual of rod and line dancing on the surface, breaking the serene plane. We fished in lakes and rivers of our Southern homeland, first Texas and later Virginia. I never caught many, and I know he spent hours helping me when he could have been fishing. But I remember the early mornings, alone together adrift in time, the sound of still water and rich dirt, the smell of dawn, before the fish bit.

Driving home, my father always sang to me, and I loved his tenor, cigarette scratchy. Sometimes, he made me laugh with a song from his days in the Air Force; “Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he, and he called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his privates three,” laughing and singing our way through the ranks to the general.

But more often than naught he sang Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s The Blues in the Night. For me it was a song of mystery, filled with exotic places, the sound of whistlin’ trains, of pain, darkness and loneliness beyond my age of understanding. But I felt the sadness, the melancholy, and the blues in his voice. It touched me deeply. He explained to me that Natchez and Mobile, Memphis and St. Joe were all cities on the deep and long Mississippi River with headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota rolling all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf, the land of dreams. Our river, became the river of song. Magic. Later, when I was able, I purchased a recording of Louis Armstrong singing and playing his trumpet with Oscar Peterson on piano. Listening now, I bring my own archaeology of understanding to this song and what it says about the space and time from which it sprang…a place limiting relationships between genders and races. But Louis’ deep growly voice always takes me back to the riverside where song began for me.

My mama done tol’ me, when I was in knee pants My mama done tol’ me…

“son, a woman’ll sweet talk,
And she’ll give ya the big eye, but when the sweet talkin’s done
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night”

Now the rain’s a-fallin’, hear the train’s a-callin,
“whooee!”
(my mama done tol’ me) hear dat lonesome whistle blowin’ ‘cross
the trestle, “whooee!”
(my mama done tol’ me) a-whooee-ah-whooee ol’ clickety-clack’s
a-echoin’ back the blues in the night
The evenin’ breeze will start the trees to cryin’ and the moon will
hide it’s light when you get the blues in the night
Take my word, the mockingbird’ll sing the saddest kind o’ song,
he knows things are wrong, and he’s right

From natchez to mobile, from memphis to st. joe, wherever the
four winds blow
I been in some big towns an’ heard me some big talk, but there
is one thing I know
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night

So, let me give ya fair warnin’
You may feel fine in the mornin’
But look out for those blues in the night

 

Long life, short life, but I am rich forever

Snow storm at night along the Truckee River. Robin L. Chandler 2016.

Snow storm at night along the Truckee River. Robin L. Chandler 2016.

Big flakes of snow melted on our faces as we cross-country skied, breaking trail on the ridge above Cold Stream Valley watershed. The soft quiet storm shattered by the sound of the train swiftly rolling up the mountain to Donner Pass. Joyous, we made our way through the meringue-like forest. Deep snow, grey sky, frozen blue pond and the charcoal scrawled tree scape now frosted, defined the sunless day.

Like thirsty pilgrims arriving at a well after a long journey, we gave thanks, knowing each snow filled hour meant sustained water for drought stricken cities and fields. Magnetized, we were drawn to the snow, both day and night, awestruck by this magical and rare occurrence. Never again taken for granted. A midnight stroll found us by the bank of the Truckee, laughing in joy, as the river, roared her song into the night, balance restored. In the heart of darkness, the snow-covered landscape reflected warmth, restoring our parched souls.

John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra “measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems to show us God…the blessings of one mountain day; whatever her fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, she is rich forever.”

Shall we gather at the river?

Santa Cruz lagoon. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Santa Cruz lagoon. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

The sun was high in the sky: the light blinding and the air hot; no breeze. The egrets gathered as a rookery on the fallen trees by the lagoon in the Santa Cruz watershed, collecting themselves in the cool of the Eucalyptus trees, like sinners awaiting their baptism to wash away their sins. For a moment I lost myself in the other, the landscape. Quietly, I started to sing “yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.” Shall We Gather at the River was a signature song for John Ford the filmmaker famous for his westerns shot in Monument Valley; the song became soundtrack in some of his most famous movies including My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, and Stagecoach. Ford often used the song as a means to define the boundary between the anglo-churchgoing community “civilizing” the frontier, and the “other ” community defined by their racial and ethnic differences; the “other’s” music emanated from saloons and was typically defined by Ford as minstrel songs and Spanish California folksongs.

Art and poetry are means to give voice to the other, be it individuals, communities, or the landscape. In his book, The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, the poet Octavio Paz wrote “all poets….if they are really poets, hear the other voice. It is their own, someone else’s, no one and everyone. Nothing distinguishes a poet from other men and women but these moments – rare yet frequent – in which being themselves they are other.”

 

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”