Wild in the City

Even in the heart of the city there’s wildlife. I’m blessed to live near a bird sanctuary so for me this is even truer than it is for most, but look around you. I’ll bet you find your wild place. I’ve lived in cities most of my life and I’ve always found somewhere to go.

Start with the cracks in the pavement or the parking strips. Even if we humans haven’t planted something there, the planet has done so. Are there squirrels running along the power lines in your neighborhood? They do so in mine. Surely there are pigeons, crows, blackbirds, wrens? We generally don’t notice them because we aren’t looking for them. Do you have a neighborhood park? We don’t seem to realize that we share this planet with other creatures. The hardiest of them make their home in the city, just as we do. Raccoons are adaptable and smart and live everywhere.

In my neck of the woods, things are changing, as they always do. Every tree along the estuary beside E. 10th St. has now been cut. The aspens were only the beginning. It will be interesting to see what the end result is. The walking and bicycle paths will be extended, and all the culverts from Lake Merritt to the highway will be gone. Change isn’t easy, this Saturday there wasn’t a bird to be seen around the estuary or on the campus. Last week I watched triads of egrets walk in the shallows. White pelicans fished farther out and the campus was covered with geese. The quiet this week felt a bit ominous, but when the construction is over the birds will be back.

As usual, all the temporary traffic detouring was focused on the automobile, with the sidewalks unblocked as an afterthought. One day of using the traffic lane was more than enough for me, and I found that my Saturday detour to see the remaining aspens was actually the beginning of a workable temporary route. I can ride directly through the campus, along the estuary to the footbridge, and up the hill on the other side. Of course both paths are blocked at the sidewalk, but I can push my bike up a steeper dirt path between the redwoods and come out in the circle drive in front of the childcare center. From there I only have to deal with the school construction, with the “temporary” diagonal parking and the two blocks of narrowed lanes. That’s not particularly pleasant, but I’ve been dealing with it for over a year now, and the temporary vehicle lane across the estuary has made it so unpleasant for cars that the traffic is considerably lessened.

I have hope, though. Half of what appears to be a bike path has been built from Lake Merritt to E. 10th. I suspect the blocked paths will be the continuation for bike paths on both sides. If so, when they’re done it will be possible to ride along the far side of the estuary to the edge of the lake. Right now that area is wild and enticing, and I can’t get to it… The corridor from the end of the built path to the side streets I currently take home is not exactly pleasant or safe, but I’ll bet I can piece together another route that is, and the project could always surprise me with other improvements. There are already many more riders in that corridor than there were when I moved to this area. Saturday was lovely, though. It’s always the most pleasant ride of the week.

I went and saw the aspens again last Saturday afternoon. I walked through the grove till I came to the right tree. I stood with it awhile and looked closely at the clones walking down from it to the water. They were indeed clones, one was growing straight out of an exposed root. Even shaved away to the heartwood it was growing a shoot. I can see why these trees are so difficult to eradicate. Why did we plant them if we didn’t want them there? I circled around it. Odd, I was mimicking what I’d just read in My Side of the Mountain. I didn’t know it was home, I just knew I had to see the other side.

I found just what Sam Gribley did, in a way. A perfect arch of aspen shoots, growing between the double trunk of this doubled tree. It was of course full of spider webs. They shine silver around the dead branches of shoots from years past like jewelry on the feet of the trees. Brother to the birch, indeed, green leafed, silver trunked beauty who smells sweet in the height of summer and is first to venture into disturbed or fallow ground.

After a moment’s hesitation I sat down between the trees. Yes, I might get bugs, but it was worth it. I spent a few moments weaving branches, dead and alive, around each other. The space between the trees arched around me. I could see another grove of much younger aspens across from me, next to the school garden, framed in dancing green leaves. All I would need would be something to line the space I sat on and this would be perfect.

This Saturday was just as good. My spot awaited me, the campus was even emptier than usual, and I sat in that sweet smelling green cave and let it separate me from the work week. There truly are wild places in the heart of any city. All we have to do is notice when we’re in them.

Fantasy Leads to Reality

Books are paper ships. They take our minds places where our bodies will never go. I reread My Side of the Mountain as a little mental vacation and found that the path led right back to Druidry. A really good book will reveal something new every time you read it. I wasn’t expecting this, as a child I read this book so many times the cover practically fell off. I really thought I had gotten everything that was there from its pages long ago. Like so many other kids, I wanted more than anything to be Sam Gribley and run off to the woods. I was all about the mechanics back then. How do you make a fire with flint and steel? Will a fishhook made of twigs really catch a fish? I still eat blackberries, miners lettuce and the like out of my local wild places, but killing something for food was way too icky back then and I didn’t find a flint and steel and learn to use them till I was an adult.

Rereading it this time the connection with nature unfolded for me. Sam lets the forest guide him. The animals tell him when the snowstorms are coming, not in words, but by seeking shelter. By watching what they eat, he learns to find food. The trees provide a home for him:

“I looked at that tree. Somehow I knew it was home, but I was not quite sure how it was home. The limbs were high and not right for a tree house… Slowly I circled the great trunk. Halfway around the whole plan became perfectly obvious. To the west, between two of the flanges of the tree that spread out to be roots, was a cavity. The heart of the tree was rotting away. I scraped it out with my hands; old, rotten insect ridden dust came tumbling out. I dug on and on, using my ax from time to time as my excitement grew.”

Sam has that connection with the world that religion is supposed to provide, that some of us seek through Druidry. To him it is as natural as breathing, a part of life rather than a set of specific skills filed in the mind under “spirituality,” “religion,” or “connection.” He has no need to cast a circle or sit in meditation to get guidance from the natural world:

“I was singing and chopping and playing a game with a raccoon I had come to know. He had just crawled into a hollow tree and had gone to bed for the day when I came to the meadow. From time to time I would tap on his tree with my ax. He would hang his sleepy head out, snarl at me, close his eyes, and slide out of sight. The third time I did this, I knew something was happening in the forest. Instead of closing his eyes, he pricked up his ears and his face became drawn and tense. His eyes were focused on something down the mountain. I stood up and looked. I could see nothing.”

The world will indeed talk to us if we listen. Specific exercises are only one person’s attempt to show us how to create an experience like Sam’s with the raccoon, to teach us one way of listening. The story is all around us. The aspens showed me how they would gladly create a forest on the Laney College campus last Saturday night. I stopped to say hi on my way home, and to tell them how glad I was they were there. I fear they won’t be soon, the college seems to be systematically chopping them down, small grove by small grove. I am enjoying them while they’re here and the experience is all the more precious to me knowing how suddenly they may be gone. I had just spent a moment with my hands buried in the leaves, eyes closed, watching them flicker in my mind as the wind blew softly around us. I turned to look at the estuary before us, and saw the tree’s clones, lining up before it, marching slowly down towards the water. The brackish water would stop them when they got there, as would the concrete and steel of the buildings behind me. If left to themselves, though, they would gladly fill the space between, until the wide streets stopped them. In time, though, if left to themselves, they would even crack through the concrete and asphalt.

Was that vision a spiritual experience? I could certainly file it mentally that way, if I chose. But it’s just the way the world is. What the trees told me is the very definition of “invasive species,” and that is undoubtedly why the College, who planted those trees in the first place, is taking them out slowly. Methinks it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black, because if we humans aren’t “invasive” I don’t know what is. I thanked the trees, wished them well, but with a little trepidation. I realized that I’d done the same thing with the trees along the bank next to the road, and now they were stumps. Last December when I discovered them cut, I wrote this poem:

With my eyes I see only sky.
Where branches were lacelike there are only stars.
Chain link lies trailing in the dark water.  

But the tide flows out, necklaces of ripples shine silver.
A night heron glides low, silent, then gone to my eyes.
We stand together in the dark, the peace of the ghostly grove an echo of what was.

Those stumps are now clusters of shoots, many as tall as I am. They say very little to me now, they’re far too busy with the work of growing. It is almost as if they were knocked back to babyhood, rediscovering their fingers and toes and stretching towards the sun. I didn’t realize, until I stood with the mature grove that evening just how much I had missed what amounts to conversation with adults. It’s completely different, but essentially the same. The questions I asked last year are being answered, as if the campus aspens are one being, which leads me back to Gaia, and the fact that we truly are one organism. The conversation is far too big to write down, and stretches backwards in time, and far into the future. Long after I am gone it will still be going on. Off somewhere on the sidelines is the thoughtlessness of the college, planting trees as if they were ornaments, cutting them to stumps when it suits them, leaving those stumps to grow again. The chainsaw and the grounds staff have the armaments to win this battle easily, but the aspens may well win because time and the inexorable energy of life is on their “side.” Battle is only joined on one side because the aspens have more sense than they do.

What really struck me about “My Side of the Mountain” this time was how similar Sam’s conversations with his forest are to mine with my urban forest. The longer he spends on the land, the quieter he gets, the more he hears. In my forest, at first I heard nothing, or so I thought. I have come to realize that our conversations span years. Trees really do live on a totally different timescale. Consciousness is similar, on a deeper level it is one, but its expression is unique to each individual. The trees are gone, but the roots remain. One aspect of Druidry for me is to get at those roots, whether it be the aspens, a story written in a book, or the heart of a song. All any of us have to do is say hello, ask a question, and listen for the answer.

A Different Rape Fantasy

Ballads were–and are–more than just entertainment. There’s a lot of cultural information packed in there too, in rhymed, easy to remember stories that told people who they were. Only some of these things apply to us here and now, but in making the distinction for ourselves, we see the shape of our particular culture and our times. We can see some of how we became who we are, and so the power of a ballad as a teacher remains.

Eppie Morrie has been on my mind a lot lately, a touchstone, particularly after the latest debacle in Texas. I think Wendy Davis and Eppie Morrie are kindred spirits. Both stood up for themselves in what looked like a hopeless situation and both won their battles. Both set an example for the women of their culture–Wendy Davis set an example *with* the women of her culture. Times have changed indeed!

Here’s the version of the ballad that I do:


Eppie Morrie was faced with the prospect of rape in quite a different way than we are today, but many of the basics are the same. While women aren’t generally abducted on horseback by some guy and all his friends, getting passed around at a drunken party by people you thought were your friends isn’t all that far off as far as your chances of getting away go. At least Eppie Morrie got a ring first. Faced with the prospect of being bound to this oaf for life, Eppie Morrie manages to fight him off for the entire night. In the morning, still a virgin, she demands to be given a horse and sent home.

The ballad raises (and lowers) the whole idea of abduction, forced marriage, and rape to a battle and a battle the woman can win at! It may not be everyday reality, but it sure does help to see the story playing out like that once in a while. There’s a reason we don’t hear much about this in real life. If a woman avoids a rape, she usually doesn’t say anything about it. It’s a guaranteed hassle and if anyone is going to pay for the attempted crime it’s usually her. Eppie Morrie’s ordeal at least took place pretty much in public, and within cultural boundaries.

You know, I’ll bet there were men up there in that gallery the night of that filibuster. In the news I saw a lot of women in blue shirts going into the Texas Senate this morning, indicating that they were in support of abortion restrictions, just as there were men wearing orange, the color of the “other” side. While this issue is being framed solely in terms of womens’ rights versus the rights of the unborn, with men as oppressors and certain death on both sides, there are a lot of nuances that can’t be heard for all the shouting. To look at the Texas Senate, we really haven’t come very far since Child collected his ballads. Or is it just that it’s damned hard to turn the clock back, and this whole debacle is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting “La la la I can’t hear you!” Time will tell, I suppose, but I’m betting on the latter.