We Choose Life

Gibbous Earth rising over moon
Earthrise from Apollo 8. Dec 24th, 1968

Every morning I leave my house before the sun is up. As I walk to work I see the trees leafing out and the good green Earth opening to the rain, the sun, the fog. Our current situation, the spectre of global warming, our separation from each other, the roar of traffic, I see them all as quaint relics of the past. I spend a few minutes in mythic time and see past, present, future. I see this moment in time when we stood at the center of the hourglass, the choices we have made narrowing behind us until we reached this point between past and future. I see the moment when we chose life.

We are living through the beginning of planetary awareness. We are also at the beginning of an extinction event. We exist in wonderful, terrible, pivotal times. The decisions we make now are changing the very face of Gaia.  We are the descendants of those who took the terrible road to dependence on fossil fuels, the stored sunlight of the ages. We are the ancestors of those who will live in the world that we leave them. Will they curse our names, if they have breath to do so? Will they revere us as the ones who changed the course of history and left them this good green Earth to live and grow on? Will the spiral of life and growth continue ever upward as the hourglass fills once again?

As I walk through my neighborhood, I name my blessings. On nearly every city street there are trees. Grass grows in the cracks in the pavement. Gaia clothes herself in green no matter what we put between the soil and the sky and she will not be denied. As I walk through downtown San Francisco and along the base of Telegraph Hill, I do the same. Small trees grow even in the heart of the Financial District, but the steep sides of Telegraph Hill are wild, barely tamed by retaining walls and nets of cabled steel that hold back the falling rock, once mined to ballast the deep holds of ships. Trees cling to the earth, their roots spread like fingers dug deep into soil and rock. Birds sing here and in this wet spring, water sings a song of plenty in the concrete we have set to direct it to the Bay.

I give thanks for my job, my home, my partner. I am thankful for the deep peace of knowing that in all likelihood we will both come home safe tonight. I take that deep peace that pervades my life and spread it over the whole world, thick and green. I take a moment to see what the world might be like if everyone had that peace, if everyone had food, shelter and clothing appropriate to their needs and their creeds. What would it be like if we all realized our connection and that what we do to this world we all share we do to ourselves? What would it be like to live in a world where everyone was doing exactly what they were meant to, giving their unique gift to the whole?

I see a world where we all woke up and realized that we are determining the shape of this planet and what creatures live and which ones die. This knowledge shocked us, saddened us, shamed us. It also can bring out the best in us. We brought the world to this place, where the Great Barrier Reef is dying and the jet stream itself is changing its course. We did this, and we can undo it if we remember and act on our connection. I see a world where we chose life.

We chose life.
We chose to assume responsibility equal to our power.

We chose life.
We chose to count the cost of our actions on all beings before we took them, and to apply that same calculus to the actions we had already taken.

We chose life.
We chose to become the awareness shining out of Gaia’s eyes that we were evolved to be.

We are a sense organ of this planet. We don’t own this world, we give Gaia a way to perceive it in its entirety. We showed Gaia her face for the first time, beamed it across television screens and printed it on paper, then stored it on the internet where you can look at it right now. You are Gaia looking at herself. We are Gaia, aware of past, present, and possible futures. Extinction is bearing down on us and for the first time, Gaia can see it coming. We can work to stop it, or we can let our peculiar line of evolution and awareness be swallowed by it without even trying.

I don’t think we’re going to do that. I think that the ape falling over the cliff is endowed with superhuman powers at that moment and will manage to snag a root or a rock before going over the edge. I think enough of us realize what is happening and are willing to do the work that needs to be done. I can see it happening in this early morning, as I travel across town as my hominin ancestors did, millions of years ago, on two feet, looking with intelligence, memory and awareness at the world around me. Step by step I travel, part of the city of my birth, knowing the path I follow and seeing it change every day.

I see how it could change going forward. What if we chose to walk to our destinations? What if telecommuting replaced the river of metal, each car carrying one passenger, automation being turned to the service of all to free us from the “daily grind” instead of enriching the fortunate few? What if we all walked in our neighborhoods and so reconnected with each other and the place we inhabit? What f we could get the things we need in our neighborhoods, from people we trusted because we see each other every day? Walkable cities are possible, and property values are going up in places with neighborhood restaurants, coffeehouses, grocery stores, parks. The more time we spend outside the healthier and happier we are. As I walk I know that it makes a real difference in my life. I have time to think and I know where the olive trees grow. My body may not fit the ideal, but it is strong and healthy, and the aches and pains of age are manageable, so far.
If we worked fewer hours because we all shared in the gains in productivity, we could do more things for ourselves, things we outsource now. More than that, we could do what we were meant to do. Vocation has been defined as that thing each of us can’t not do. Might the reason that we spend so much time chasing happiness be that we haven’t the time to pursue it? Since most of us must take the job that is offered rather than do the work we love, is it any wonder that so many of us exist in varying degrees of misery?

What if we all knew each other? What if neighborhoods were not empty by day and full of strangers by night? What if we shared meals, and those huge expanses of concrete where we store so many cars were instead our gardens? What if apartments came with garden plots instead of parking spots?

What if we realized that true wealth has nothing to do with money? Clean air, clean water and the living, vital earth are far more important. We cannot live without these things. The wealthiest among us cannot escape the consequences of pollution. We all breathe the same air, after all. When was the last time you looked up at the stars? Even in the city it is possible to see at least some of them. What if we turned down the lights a bit and began to see the phases of the moon and the constellations as they change with the seasons? Our world would be a very different place, one where we would make different choices and where we might find our way past that great narrowing that is the story of Now.
The fresh air of morning, the darkness before dawn is the time for visions. We have so many of them between the covers of books and on screens of all sizes. Our awareness of past, present and future allows us to create and choose which to work toward. I hope enough of us choose life.

Moss-covered standing stone silhouetted against clouds and blue sky
Penrhos Feilw Standing Stone, Anglesey

Searching For The Oldest Tree In The Forest

A broad flat trail through a spring landscape
Spring in the East Bay Hills

I’m a city kid, born and raised in San Francisco. I’m also a Druid, and while I love the urban forest, there are times when I just have to get off the pavement and into the woods! Here in the Bay Area we are blessed with wild places. It’s surprising just how many of them are accessible on public transit. Today I’m going to share one of my closest “nature fixes,” complete with directions, should you choose to see it for yourself.

Last weekend I found myself overcome with spring fever. I was close to a BART station, so I jumped on the Fremont train. Fruitvale Station is easy to get to for many of us, and blessed with many buses to the hills. If you feel like a cup of coffee or something more substantial beforehand, there are also lots of choices there, which makes it a great starting point. The 54 line to Merritt College begins its run there, and I was soon aboard on my way to paradise. The ride winds up 35th Avenue, through the Laurel District and up the hill past a variety of places of worship. Since my church is the forest, I felt right at home. I got off at Merritt College, the end of the line. From there I crossed the street, walked across the broad lawn and crossed the street again on the other side. This put me at the head of the York Trail.

Redwoods in the sunlight next to a narrow trail
Redwoods beside the York Trail

Almost immediately I was in redwoods. The trail winds down, switching back and forth across the steep slope. I didn’t cut the switches—why miss a single minute of this? Water was running down the trail, the last rain was yesterday, after all. There were few flowers, but the green was everywhere. In a few weeks, this place will be a riot of color and I am already planning my next visit. I could hear the creek running long before I got to it. At the top of the trail it is confined in a concrete culvert, a reminder that this is still the heart of the city. I crossed the little bridge that met the trail and turned right, going downhill with the creek.

Laurel marking the York Trail
Laurel Marking the York Trail

The only marker for the York Trail is a laurel tree next to a dip in the side of the main trail. The way is rougher and steeper than the main trail, but it is an invitation to inhabit your animal body. The hazels were just beginning to leaf out and the wet, wild smell of earth and new growth surrounded me.

Leona Heights was logged a century and more ago. The redwoods that grow in the canyon are all new growth, all but one. This was the adventure I chose this wet, spring day. Old Survivor grew in a hard place and was spared the axe. I found its crown, sticking high above the tops of the younger trees, but the drop from the trail above isn’t possible, or at least I don’t want to chance it. Today I worked my way down the trail till the forest called me, then struck out across the hillside. I followed the ways the deer took across the good green earth, through hazels and poison oak. I took my time, sang to Brighid as I stood next to a hazel with leaves and branches so small and fine they seemed to be floating in midair.

Hazel in Leona Heights Just Leafing Out
Hazel in Leona Heights Just Leafing Out

I could see the York trail below me and hear the song of water, so loud in this year of plentiful rain. I trusted my boots, jeans and thick canvas coat to protect me from the poison oak, like the hazel, just budding out, and to hide me from the spring breakers whose voices rang through the canyon. I was glad I’d heeded the call of the forest and that the wet undergrowth was quiet beneath my feet as I followed the deer paths from redwood to hazel to laurel. At every opening in the canopy I looked up, hoping to find the tree I was looking for, but the forest wasn’t going to give up its secrets today. The oldest tree in the forest would remain a quest for another time. When I ran out of deer paths I climbed back up to the trail I’d started from and looked once again for Old Survivor. The French broom was so thick from the rains that it was hard to find, but there it was, and the drop over the edge of the trail was just as bad as I remembered. I followed it to another side trail and back down to Mountain Road. A ten minute walk had me back on the Redwood Road, and at the 54 stop next to the Safeway. Home was only two buses away.

If you’d like to take this adventure yourself, here is a basic page on the area. If you find Old Survivor, let’s go hiking together!