“Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry.”
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 A Great 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’s Leaves 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 to connect. 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.
The Rabbi’s words from Psalm 23 hang in the stillness of the First Congregational Church. Her clear strong soprano sings “yeah that I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” Some two hundred voices join her singing the prayer; my voice cracks a little, overcome with feelings I didn’t realize were buried. On January 13, I attended the “American Unity Town Hall” in Santa Cruz hosted by the Honorable Sam Farr seventeen term Member of Congress from 17th Congressional District of California. The church’s pastor opened the meeting with the words “I need to be with a group of people tonight for healing and growth.” Congressman Farr followed reflecting on Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords “for all the wrong reasons, the world is now aware of how special you are” and “our children are being raised on hate talk…..a democracy based on negative talk cannot survive.”
A community gathered that night in an ecumenical setting to seek meaning from tragedy and reaffirm belief in our republic’s democratic process. Wendall Berry wrote in The Way of Ignorance “our religious principles are justice, mercy, peaceableness, and loving kindness toward fellow humans and the gifts of nature, as our political principles are freedom confirmed in law, honesty, and public accountability. These are not the principles of a party. These are our free inheritance as human beings and citizens living under the Constitution of the United States.”
The senseless shooting of Congreswoman Giffords and the deaths of six others in Tucson are a tragedy; the impact of that moment resonates in Santa Cruz in many ways. We lost Gabe Zimmerman, Director of Community Outreach for Congresswoman Giffords; he was a University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) 2002 graduate in Sociology. UCSC Professor Paul Lubek said “Gabe fulfilled the ideals of the University….he engaged in public service to perform social justice.” A few days after we absorbed the events in Tucson, campus administration announced the threat of a possible active shooter at UCSC on January 18. Living with guns and acquiring the skills to survive an active shooter attack are sadly becoming the norm, and I ask: was this the intended outcome of our Constitution’s Second Amendment the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed? Sometimes it feels like Frederick Jackson Turner ‘s historical thesis has been revised: the American Frontier was closed, but now it’s officially reopened! Life is mimicking the final scenes from Gunfight at the OK Corral – the great vendetta myth of the American West. Yeah, that was in Tombstone….Arizona. Irony or foreshadowing?
In the last week my healing has begun, but as January – the gateway to the new year — closes I wonder what the rest of the year will bring. Ever hopeful, I walk through the doorway inspired to climb the mountains ahead and committed to being a better listener and more attuned to sufferings around me. Speaking at the Memorial Service in Tucson, President Obama quoted from the Book of Job “I looked for light and found darkness” and he asked us all “to expand our moral imaginations” and “to talk with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Because “how we treat one another is entirely up to us” and “the forces that divide us are not as strong as the forces that unite us.” And in his State of the Union address, he said “amid all the noise and passion and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we came from, each of us is part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference…..we are still bound together as a people [and] what we can do – what America does better than anyone else – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people…..we do big things.” We can climb the mountains ahead of us.
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.
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.
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.