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?
This morning brought another glorious day of painting here at my Chalk Hill Artist’s Residency. For the last three weeks, I have walked acres of vineyards cradled between the Russian River and Mount Saint Helena here in beautiful Sonoma County. During this time, I’ve forged deep connections with this beautiful landscape and the people, animals and birds that call this place home, and I’ve tried my best to put those feelings into my paintings.
The morning also brought a couple of “lost” dogs: Okie and Shadow. Out in my yard, I found these two out and about. They weren’t really lost, they were just not where they were supposed to be. But that said, I was happy they graced my porch and gave me their joy and friendship on such a beautiful day. Dogs and people soon all fell in to place, and they were on the next stage of their journey, and I was off to my studio to paint and paint some more!
Recently, my good friend Pam introduced me to a very talented musician Sarah Jarosz who is also a gifted songwriter. I can’t get this beautiful song Sarah wrote out of my head: Lost Dog. Maybe it sticks with me because all of us, bury old bones and find new ones, and all of us lose ourselves, and with determination, talent, good friends, and a wee bit of luck, find ourselves, again.
“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.
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.
They are often found by browsing. We find them in antique shops, or abandoned on that hard-to-reach shelf: forgotten. You can randomly encounter them preserved in an archival collection, displayed on a museum wall, or even in a digital library like Calisphere. The snapshot: a random glimpse of the world capturing someone you’ll never meet and a story you will never know. But yet, it draws us. We search for meaning. Vivian Maier’s street photographs come to mind. The composition, the lines, the color, or lack of, and the emphasis all conspire to spark the imagination and engage us.
Consciously or unconsciously made, art stands on its own authority; the artwork must exist successfully regardless of the creator’s context. The use of light, space, movement, rhythms, and textures must interact so compellingly that we gain insight on the human experience regardless of the work’s origin. The creator’s story can shape and enrich the work, but our engagement, that “snapshot” moment the work captures the viewer’s imagination, is the starting point. We want to understand the human experience. Can we solve the mystery?
The creation of and engagement with art is, among other things, a deep and personal search for knowledge, for certainty. It is a search for meaning. But this thirst for knowledge is a double-edged sword: overexposure can lead to wisdom or paralysis; underexposure to bliss or ignorance. Perhaps we must be both overexposed and underexposed to truly understand the meaning of being human. Understanding is not found in a single snapshot, but awareness is, and consciousness is a good place to start.
In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World Jane Hirshfield writes about the Heian era Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu stating [his] poem reminds its reader that the moon’s beauty, and also the Buddhist awakening…will come to a person, only if the full range of events and feelings are allowed in as well.
“In poetry’s words, life calls to life with the same inevitability and gladness that bird calls to bird, whale to whale, frog to frog. Listening across the night or ocean or pond, they recognize one another and are warmed by that knowledge” writes Jane Hirshfield in her book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. Waking in the night, each breath calls to yours, building a bridge between us, and I am warmed by that knowledge.
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.
To my way of thinking, beauty and art are synonymous. Art, the creative act and our engagement with that act, stimulates thoughts, emotions, beliefs or ideas. When painting, I am participating in the creation of beauty. When I engage – my five senses – with any work of art, that is beauty too.
Last Saturday, driving home from a Point Reyes Books event through the cold December night, we talked about important work before us in the New Year, and fundraising was front and center. We had just attended a successful fundraiser for KWMR, West Marin’s Community Radio Station. Our donation allowed us to share the evening with Frances McDormand, actress and producer, in conversation with screenwriter Jane Anderson about their collaboration televising Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Olive Kitteridge. It was a generous act for two artists to contribute their time, hearts and minds to encourage donors to help sustain a community treasure.
The evening was inspiring and priceless; stimulating thoughts, emotions, beliefs and ideas. We laughed and cried, recalling McDormand speak about “poor” Olive suffering her husband Henry’s tyrannical happiness. McDormand’s art, gave us a chance to step off the dance floor and see life from the balcony, gaining insight into our lives, from that act of beauty.
But I make a case for beauty, passionately arguing that art directly impacts life. By stimulating our thoughts, emotions, beliefs and ideas, art encourages contemplation and reflection about the precious and fleeting beautiful moments and places. Without art and beauty, what life is there to save? Beautifully rendered in prose and theatrically, Olive Kitteridge reveals “what young people didn’t know…that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again…[if] she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.”