Rich on a Poor Wage

Green grass and spring flowers on a trail leading over a mountain
Field of Poppies on Mt. Tamalpais

I went camping on a whim last weekend. Well, a whim and a call from the Universe. I’ve been feeling rather low lately for reasons that are probably familiar to most of us. The forest was calling and I chose to listen.

Dryad made of tree roots sitting on a hillside
Can you see the dryad guy sitting on the hillside?

I packed up my stuff and got on a bus. What we had in the house was what I had with me. I have good, light camping gear but no stove. I stuck a lighter in my pocket. There was some bread and salami in the fridge, and my partner very kindly made me some sandwiches. I threw in a bunch of energy bars and a few herb teabags into my tiny camp kettle because without refrigeration there would be no milk, so no tea or coffee. It would be a weekend with just what I needed, no more.

I felt the layers of insulation come off as I rode bus after bus. It’s a three hour trip up there by transit, and it is a beautiful trip, starting with a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. Two changes got me to the Marin Stage and the winding road up the mountain. The pack was a lot heavier than I was used to, and it isn’t built to carry that kind of load. I had enough food, but only just, and there was no variety to it. I had nothing to cook, and nothing but herb tea. My sleeping bag, pad and bivy sack were easily warm enough, even for a cold night on the mountain and unless it got really cold, my extra layers would be enough if I stayed out of the wind. I would have to do as the environment dictated, which was exactly what I wanted. And to be honest, I could always bail and walk down the mountain if it got to be too much.

I’m almost to the end of a course of Druid study, the bardic grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and I wanted to do some of the work in the grove I’ve been visiting since my teens. It is as close to a spiritual home as I have.  I feel very lucky to have such a powerful and magical place not only accessible by public transit, but with a first come, first served campground available nearby. In the morning I walked up the trail, steep but beautiful. I stopped at the spring to fill my water bottle with cool, clear water and paid with a recently written song before walking on to the grove.

Circle of stones on mossy ground in a grove of Douglas firs.
Grove on Mt. Tamalpais

Few people go here, and I’m just as glad that’s the case. I obviously share it with other Pagans and likely wild children as I had once been. I was first brought here by hippies turned rennies who introduced me to paganism, among other things. I reflected a moment on that. So many of them are now no longer with us. As far as I know, no one in our circle comes here any more. My partner and I were married here, as were other couples in our group. We fought with sword and staff in the clearing beyond the grove, watched sunsets and smoked dope, and dreamed of a better world. Now I come here alone, or with my partner. Others hold rituals here, I see the remains of flowers and other offerings. Once there was a set of fairy houses made from twigs and brightly colored embroidery floss. Things that melted away into the earth after a brief, beautiful season. I sat there for a long time, in open-eyed meditation in the place I go to so often in my daily practice.

Sun over Bolinas from the top of Mt. Tamalpais
Sun over Bolinas from the top of Mt. Tamalpais

From there I walked the short distance to the Bridge of Starship Earth, as I call it. You can see all the way to Point Reyes from there. Stinson Beach and Bolinas shine in the sun and on a clear day you can see the drowned mountaintops of the Farallone Islands. Once, when the ice covered so much of the earth, that was the shoreline. I could hear the roar of the waves from my perch. I watched the hawks and turkey vultures dance on the air currents and felt the clean wind flow over me. From there I walked to other favorite places until sunset, when I went back to that sacred summit.

Sunset from the western side of Mt. Tamalpais
Sunset from the western side of Mt. Tamalpais

I walked back in the dark, down the network of trails to the spring. From there I took the road, knowing the gates were locked and thinking it no harm to take my time. I was caught, and scolded gently by the ranger. Since I, too, work in a public park, I knew the dance and played the opposite part properly. I am to be in the campsite by dusk, “for your own safety.” After seeing my campsite receipt she left me to walk the last mile on my own.

Campfire Fairies to heat my water
Campfire Fairies to heat my water

Someone had left a small pile of firewood and kindling behind that morning, and I had bundled it away into my site. Dividing it in half, I made a small fire that night and a cup of orange spicy tea to drink as I watched the flames. I banked the coals before going to bed and had another cup in the morning. It isn’t really camping without a fire.

I packed up my gear and decided to take the bus from Stinson Beach. The trail was one I hadn’t taken before, and I took my time. I had it mostly to myself–well, myself, the many dryads that peeked in turn of root and branch, the streams and seeping springs that laughed and sang along the way, and the flowers that we are so lucky to have in this year of relatively abundant rainfall.

Poppies and spring grass
True Wealth

I saw an oak embracing a fir, and admit I took some liberties with the colors…

The Oak Loved the Fir and Embraced it...
The Oak Loved the Fir and Embraced It…

And with a spiderweb that was clear to my eye, but not to the camera:

Spiderweb
Spiderweb

I eventually got down to the town and found myself a cup of coffee. It was a very long wait for the next bus, so I bought myself a beer and a burger from the snack stand and reflected on how wealthy I truly am in every way that matters. I have the broad Pacific at my feet and one of the most beautiful mountains in the world to roam on. I am healthy enough, past my fiftieth year, to walk with everything I truly need on my back for a few miles of fairly steep trail. I may not have much money, but it is amazing how a cup of coffee and a burger and a beer can completely change one’s outlook after a long, lovely walk and a night spent under the trees. I took off my shoes and walked with my feet in the water before catching the first bus of many.

Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight
Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight

I Will Never Be Indigenous

Two natural standing stones
Natural Standing Stones, California

I’ve been thinking lately about studying Druidry in California, a land where it is not indigenous. I’m beginning to think that what I thought of as a predicament might just as well be an advantage. Instead of the marked wells and obvious stone circles of Albion and Ireland, my landscape is covered with markers that I have never been taught to recognize, wrested from the people who should have been our friends and teachers but were mostly murdered and driven into the Missions. I know that someday I will have to seek them out, the ones who survived, and learn the proper names for the places, the names and needs of the spirits of this place, and of the First Peoples.

We *have* to learn to share this land, to return, if not the land itself, all the rights and recognition that we of the dominant culture have, and have respect for what is left of their culture. They should be able to choose a fitting and comfortable place to live, rather than a bit of land that we don’t want, where life is marginal, and further breaks the bonds of culture. We have to become one people here, of many colors, traditions and cultures, who live together in peace and harmony. That is a process already begun, but it will take many generations at the rate we are moving because everyone needs to be a part of this and most of us don’t seem to realize that it needs to happen at all.

I can of course honor my ancestral deities–we all can–but if I am to live in this land, I must also honor the spirits who live here, who are indigenous. I think that that is part of what is meant by re-indigenization. That’s part of it, but it’s more than that. We all need to remember that we are part of this world, we are not the owners of it. I have altered my rituals to reflect this. I ask permission and guidance from the ancestors. I ask to honor them and make an offering. It really is the least I can do and I recognize that it’s only a start.

We have to learn to recognize the true strength in diversity, the inherent fragility of monoculture.  We need to remember what true wealth is: clean soil, clean water, clean air. We cannot live without these things. If we put toxics in the ground, we eat them. If we put toxics in the water, we drink them. If we put them in the air, we breathe them. We are doing this right now, and we wonder why so many of us are getting sick. We wonder why so many of us are getting fat and why we can’t lose weight, why cancers, once rare, are now becoming ever more common. Meanwhile, we use our drinking water to flush our toilets, and the traces of the drugs we take in order to heal ourselves from the conditions the toxins we have put in the land, water and air cycle back to be taken into our bodies again. We can’t get away from them, who can refuse to breathe, drink, and eat? All we can do is stop the cycle and clean up the mess.

So how did I get from holy wells and stone circles to the sicknesses of modern civilization? John Muir said it a century and more ago: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Our world is a largely closed system. What we do to one part of it affects the whole. If we want to be well, we have to heal the world around us. We need to recognize that we are part of this world, and that we have to care about the other living things around us. Every being in this world has a right to live well. The Kichwa people in Ecuador have a term; sumak kawsay. It means to live well, but it’s more than that. It’s a way of describing coexistence. An ocean has the right to live well, as does a plant, or a people. This right is now written into the Ecuadorean constitution. The country has yet to catch up with the words on the page, but at least they are there at last.

Where I live, there are so many people of Northern European descent. Many of our stories were lost as our ancestors fled their homes and we have struggled to find an anchor, a place to belong, and in the process have too often recreated the oppressive systems that were strangling our ancestors. Many of us follow other paths, from Atheism to Buddhism to Christianity. What was rootlessness has become a great mixing and could be a source of creativity and strength. It is a great blessing to have all these different ways to the center. None need be privileged over any other, and anyone of any ancestry should be free to choose that which calls to them.

I grew up Unitarian, and played in a chapel where banners stitched with the symbols of many faiths hung in the tall windows that ringed the space. I was never formally taught any faith, but many different ways surrounded me. I was an Atheist in my teens, but eventually found Paganism, and now Druidry. My path through the forest and to the land of my ancestors is a source of great beauty and meaning to me, and while I am happy to share it, I know that it is one among many, and that the world is a more interesting and beautiful place because we don’t all try to use the same one. A road trod by all can easily become rutted and strewn with garbage as people are driven along it by force. Better we spread ourselves out and discover places that have meaning to each of us. The path to my grove in the hills beside the Shores of the Western Sea is still full of mystery precisely because no one comes there unless they choose to.

Few of us can return to where we came from. Such a place doesn’t really exist for many of us as generations pass. All we can do is share the places where we are, and treat each other with respect. None of us get to choose where we were born, and few of us get to choose who we live among. We do get to choose how we look on the world and the people around us, and how we pass the land and culture on to the next generations. I hope those who come after live in a world that is healthier, stronger, and happier than the one I inhabit. I hope that they know a peace that I will never experience. I live in wonderful, terrible, pivotal times. I will never be indigenous, but I can work for a world where future generations can be one with the land, true citizens of Earth.

Bus Stop Song

Wrecked Honda in the mechanic's garage
Wreck of the Pacific Coast

My last car was knocked off the road back in 2008. I’d just visited the Trees of Mystery and was on my way out of Crescent City when a truck coming the other way turned left in front of me. I stood on the brake and managed to get down to about 35 before we hit.

I just sat there a minute, then got out of the car and looked at the bashed in front end. It felt like losing a friend. I knew that this was the end for Phoenix, a 1980 Honda Civic that had come to me through another bad accident. That time his rear end had been crushed, but the SUV that had done it had been so high off the ground that the frame had survived. No such luck this time. The front bumper was leaning at a terrible angle, the whole side of the car bent downwards. I was a couple of hundred miles from home, hundreds from my destination, a three month long sailmaking course in Washington State. I felt like crying, but there was no time for that. There were people running towards me, and the driver of the other vehicle was babbling that he hadn’t seen me and had really had to pee. I calmly reached inside and grabbed my coffee cup out of the teapot I’d been using as a cup holder. Phoenix hadn’t spilled a drop.

The insurance company of course wrote off my car as a total loss. a hunk of metal good for nothing but the scrap yard. They rented me a car, and blind with tears, I unloaded the friend who had given his life for me into the rental. I sent him off well. Two brand new tires, four quarts of oil lined up on the back seat, and a plastic Viking helmet I’d brought along on a whim perched on the dashboard. I remember thinking that it was as close to a Viking funeral as I could manage for him. I christened the rental Jeeves about ten miles down the road, out of frustration for his annoying habits of doing everything for me, whether I wanted it or not. The doors locked the moment I began driving. The GPS “helpfully” asked me if I wanted to set a destination at the beginning of every trip (no thanks, I carried perfectly good maps, and it’s damned hard to get lost on Hwy 101).

I bought a real junker to get me through the three months, and sold it as soon as I got home. I’d decided a while back that Phoenix would be the last car for me. I think that as a culture we have to rethink our relationship with the personal automobile, and as I said in my last post, it might as well begin with me. I’ve gotten by on a carshare, a bicycle, and public transportation ever since.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m not here to judge you, or really to convert you. I’m just relating my experience and asking you to think about the way we get around.

Yes, it does take a bit longer to get some places without a car. Some places are out of reach without one. This is why I belong to a carshare. There are rewards, however, and I’ve had adventures and made connections I never would have if I’d stayed strictly behind the wheel. I have to think before I go places, but I have freedoms I didn’t have before, and luxuries as well.

I’ve gotten a much deeper connection with my neighborhood. I know the fastest walks and the nicest ones. I admit I know the trees better than I do most of the people, but that’s mainly because almost no one walks in this neighborhood unless they have a dog. I live in the heart of the city but I feel at times as if I have grounds and a large estate because there is so much greenery and wildlife to be seen. I’ve learned a lot about plant identification simply by walking and identifying what I find. And I have all the wild onions to myself, sadly.

I know the public transit system very well. This has shown me how much we have been neglecting this vital set of links between places, but I will never be stranded by the loss of a vehicle or a breakdown of any one system. When BART went on strike, I just switched to the transbay bus. My commute is my gym. It may cost me a little more on a daily basis to commute, but I have no insurance bills, gas costs, or tolls. Or gym costs. When I had a car, it was easy to decide to drive to BART that morning instead of bike. Now I can’t get out of walking or riding, and I’m in better shape because of it. And I really like walking. It’s a chance to think, and explore. It’s also a great way to do errands. When I’m walking, I can stop in at any store I please without having to look for parking. I don’t have to backtrack to where I parked, I am free to keep walking, or hop on a bus.

When I travel, my habits really pay off. I know how to learn a public transportation system, and how to explore an unfamiliar city. I don’t live in the greatest part of town, and traveling around it without a car has given me a certain amount of street smarts. I’m not saying I’m superwoman, but I do know a bit about keeping out of trouble. I really get to experience the places I go because I see them at a walking pace, able to stop anywhere that interests me. I know how to use a map and love doing so. When I go home I can relive the trip from my marked up maps and pictures.

The carshare is turning out to be cheaper than my car ever was. I spend less per month on it than I did for just the insurance payment on my last car. If I’m short one month, I can just not use a car that month. When I do drive, I’m always driving a car much newer than any I’d ever owned, and I don’t have to pay for gas or maintenance. Sadly, I always have to drive an automatic, but that’s a small sacrifice to make. I don’t miss doing tuneups and oil changes in the street, or unexpected repair bills one bit!

Not being able to go to out of town wild places as often as I used to or visit my out of town friends as much makes me treasure those times more, and if there is one thing I wish I could change about being without a car it’s that. I don’t think getting back in one is the best way of solving that particular problem, though. If the public transportation system in urban areas has gotten less useful over time and doesn’t give convenient access to all the places it used to, we are partly responsible. We have overwhelmingly chosen to travel by car even when it isn’t the best option.

I’ve learned, above all, that there are many definitions of freedom. A car has been sold to us as a nation as a symbol of freedom and a way to express our identity, but I’m no longer so sure of that. No, I can no longer step out my front door and instantly into my “seven league boots.” But I have learned that most of my regular destinations don’t really require a car. I’m not a big drinker, but when I do go out, I don’t have to worry about not being safe to drive home. I’m a lot more physically fit because now I’m in the habit of walking and biking and I have time while doing that to do a lot more thinking. I get more reading in because I’m on the bus a lot. And I’ve got more options financially because I’m not having to pay all the costs associated with owning a hunk of metal that spends most of its time parked.

I leave my house early each morning and walk through my quiet neighborhood. I hear the dawn chorus of birdsong and feel the song of the earth around me. Is it gray and cool, or is the sun beginning to paint the clouds pink? What is the shape of the day just beginning? I imagine what it could be like, if my neighbors were out here as well, if we were all sharing the streets, the buses, if we could put a name to a face and so had some idea who we share these folded hills with. I wonder what it would be like if the stores that sell cheap liquor and junk food sold staples like flour and milk and produce, if I could walk around the corner and barter the eggs from my chickens for milk or butter or produce with my neighbors. What if we hired the people with spray cans who are currently shouting their existence and worth through scrawled tags to paint murals on retaining wall and storefront with the owners’ blessings? What if our neighborhood was safe because there was always someone on the street?

I look at the trees in the yards and next to the freeway. There’s a lemon tree that drops its fruit at the top of the hill and I usually pocket one good one. The rest are left to rot anyway. I can name many of the trees and plants, and some of the birds. I have my own little hedge school each morning. The wood grain of the fence behind me speaks the language of the forest it came from. The concrete below my feet was once part of the floor of the ocean. At the bus stop the fennel, oxalis and plantain colonize the glass-choked dirt behind me. Weeds, or healers? It all depends on your point of view. I know I never would have seen the things that I do if I’d stayed behind the wheel. I am a pioneer of the post-gasoline age and I like it.

Walkway over Hwy 580, Oakland, CA
Have You Seen Jack-In-The-Green?