Carried On The Breath

Years back, in saner times, I went walking in Wildcat Canyon. It was midsummer, the green was creeping down the hills as the relentless sun of the dry season drove the water downhill. I sat under an oak tree and looked at the patterns the color made as gold engulfed green. I came there often and was realizing just how easy it was to get a specific lesson from the land, just by taking the time to really observe. The pennyroyal patch that I’d been making cups of tea from was obviously a place where water pooled below the surface even in summer. The reeds grew in another low place for part of the year. The bracken grows in winter, the wet season when our biome comes alive, and its brown skeletons can be seen as the dry season sucks the green plants dry. The hills are pale gold and the hum of life rises to a subtle scream of heat and light that stretches the days to the breaking point. This is when fire stalks the land. For a time, the only patches of green are the depressions between the hills, the streams marked by the trees that grow on their banks. The alders grow on the lower hills, closest to the water, the oaks and laurels take over from there and dot the hills. The huge purple thistles and Himalayan blackberries, brought by people who should have known better, are happy in their new home on the hills and in large thickets, and broom, another plant that was brought here, crowds out the native coyote brush and ceanothus.

I used to live close enough to ride there. I’d lock up my bike in the parking lot and walk the road that goes nowhere, my very own dystopic landscape when such places were delicious fantasies instead of looming realities. I’d think of what it would be like to be a nomad on a bicycle, living off the land and having adventures.

There is a turnoff and a steep section of hill that ends at a cattle gate. You can let yourself in and continue up the dirt road to the remains of what was once an estate, and then a sanitarium, and then was consumed by fire over half a century ago. What was once a long driveway lined with palm trees is now a rough trail with one or two weatherbeaten survivors, their trunks stout and battered by the struggle of living in a climate they were never meant for. Among them are oaks and bay laurels, the remains of rose bushes, and the low lines of what were once walls. There is a set of steps ending in grass, a fine place to sit, and further on an orchard reduced to a few stunted apple trees sheltered by a snaggletoothed line of cypresses. Strike off for the top of the ridge once you pass the line and there is a brass benchmark set in the bare top of the hill. The view is impressive, you can see the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais, the refinery with its round tanks off in the distance.

That day though, the heat had driven me off the ridge into the shade. I was thinking about the planet and how we were changing it. How it must feel to be the earth as it warmed. The hot day was a reflection of the planetary fever we are creating as we move the stored carbon from the land into the sky. I closed my eyes in meditation and asked the Earth what it felt like to breathe as a planet right then.

I began to feel the heat as I hadn’t before. My throat was dry, and I wanted to lie down. The air was drying me out, and my eyes popped open. I took a gulp of water from my canteen but it didn’t help. Each breath was drawn with difficulty, through the thinning tube of my throat. I began to panic.

Then I remembered what I had asked and realized what was probably happening to me. If it wasn’t, I was far from help and this was before the age of the cell phone. I did lie down, and slowly took a deep breath. I felt the land beneath me, holding me up, and spent some time just breathing, sending the fear down into it, reducing my need for air in stillness, looking up through the leaves above me, the bits of blue sky above. Slowly, the dizziness subsided. I wasn’t sick, not really. The Earth wasn’t even sick. Things were just a bit harder than they had been and I was a vessel far too small to contain the Earth’s pain. I sat up, drank more water, and thought about what had happened.

It has been years since I lived in Richmond. That day I’d driven up there on a whim, wanting to see the place again. As I walked back to my car, a battered silver Honda that had taken me on many an adventure, I realized that this had to be my last car. The Earth could take no more and I would no longer be part of this madness. Yes, my gas-crunch car sipped rather than gulped. It was tiny enough to fit in any possible parking place. Its emissions were so low that smog places asked me what I’d done to it, suspecting modification. I’d bought it from a guy who’d had tears in his eyes as he’d turned over the keys. Impulsively, I’d asked him what its name was. He said “Phoenix,” so fast and low I almost missed it. It had been rear-ended by an SUV, the back hatch had been crushed, but the frame was fine and the car did live up to its name. For practicality, and I admit to add to the Road Warrior ambiance, I popped the back hatch open, installed a couple of hasps on the sides, and padlocked it shut. I loved it like a member of the family. In the end, Phoenix died when a truck turned left in front of us on Highway 1 out of Crescent City. I managed to get down to 35 by standing on the brake. I wasn’t hurt, my coffee hadn’t even been spilled. Phoenix was totaled. With tears in my eyes, I turned it over to a wrecker and in the end joined a carshare.

Today the sky is hazy. The morning light was strained through smoke, the color of fine old Scotch and smelling like it has every summer for the last few years. Fire season is so beautiful, and so sad. We won’t be burning, we live in the city. We are lucky enough to be able to stay inside, able to do the right thing in a pandemic, but so many of us have to go out there, have to work or flee burning houses, or to places where we can breathe.

We’ve triggered planetary defense mechanisms, passed tipping points. In California, we are seeing the beginning of desertification. The forests are changing, turning to savanna in some places, changing their composition in others, burning and dying in places that were once beautiful. Sudden oak death is taking the oaks on Mt. Tamalpais. They are being supplanted by bay laurel and Douglas fir. What will happen to the redwoods, who need their feet in the water? Big Basin is burning, the oldest California State Park, home to the giants.

We’ve targeted the atmosphere, that thin layer of gases that the lives of so many creatures depend upon. It’s as if the planet is sending humanity the same message I received when I asked my question years ago. In specific areas, for specific people, we can’t breathe. And yes, we are compounding our folly by choking innocent people to death, as if to make this human-made tragedy complete.

COVID-19 is the icing on the cake. A disease carried by the air. It most often settles in the lungs, and most people survive it, but that is a deception that only allows it to move more freely among us. As it spreads on our breath we find it has so many more ways of killing or causing permanent harm. A zoonotic disease, it has spilled over into humanity because we can’t seem to share this planet we are part of, and collectively we don’t care about any of the other beings on this planet except as they relate to us. The remedies to limit its spread are simple, but unpleasant and expensive and require cooperation and sharing what we have.

We are being tested—not by a faraway being who created the Earth as some Petri dish to see how far the experiment will run, but by ourselves. We are stretching the limits of our only home and we have nowhere else to go should we damage our habitat to the point it can no longer sustain us.

We can stop this. The test we have devised for ourselves has no individual solution. Living a climatically virtuous lifestyle—whatever that is—is a way to experiment and find alternatives to the unbridled pursuit of growth that has been the norm for the last ten millennia, but it is like throwing a bucket of water on a forest fire. It will not save us as individuals. Enough of us have forgotten how to live as if other people matter, as if other species matter to push us over the edge of the carrying capacity of this place we call home, and until and unless we learn to live as part of a collective superorganism, which is, after all, what this planet is, we will not survive. Like everything else here, alone in the sea of space, we are all connected. Our actions in this time matter deeply. We are unlikely to extinguish all life, but we can certainly extinguish ourselves.

I don’t know how to fix this. The caterpillar doesn’t know how to become a butterfly, but it does so. Are we part of a galaxy, a universe, where this sort of metamorphosis happens? We won’t know unless we make it to the other side. It may turn out that we’re worrying for nothing, that what feels like death approaching is only the process of transformation. All I know is that when we seek stillness and listen to the rest of the world we do know what we shouldn’t be doing.

Our planet lies between two others, Venus and Mars, that for reasons we do not yet understand went in opposite directions, one falling victim to a runaway greenhouse effect and the other possibly losing the ability to support an atmosphere and retain liquid water. Did they ever support life? We won’t know if we don’t survive, but we do know that continuing to fill our atmosphere with carbon dioxide is a foolish thing to do.

I am not for an instant calling the current pandemic a blessing. My own country is closing in on 200,000 deaths, and the havoc and death that has been created by one little virus is not something any sane person would wish for. It is, however, the kind of shock that can create change. The countries who have taken it seriously and taken sensible action to deal with the crisis are beginning to recover. It is blindingly obvious what needs to be done and the consequences of not doing these things. I’m not going to go into those actions because they are being discussed worldwide and the information is available to anyone who chooses to open their eyes.

These things aren’t easy for people who have been accustomed to thinking only of themselves, their families, their nations, their species. Doing them will mean we have at last begun to grow up as a species and realize that we must act for the good of the whole. We will be on the road to planetary consciousness. It will mean that we think before we act, and we observe and learn from the world around us instead of looking for the facts that justify the actions we wish to take.

Someday, when we have done what we need to, I will walk in a wild place once more. Until then I will stay inside and remember what I have learned. Once upon a time I walked the ridge above Wildcat Canyon, camped beside the sea at Point Reyes, stood inside a redwood in Big Basin. Is that tree still standing? What will be left of Point Reyes? Or, like so many beautiful places, will they be only memories?

How Big Is The Cauldron?

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     The Wild Druids have been meeting on Zoom every Saturday since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s been good enough to get a quorum, so to speak, each week. We’ve been batting the idea of reading Kristoffer Hughes’s book From The Cauldron Born around for a while now, and last week, we decided to go for it. We all read the first twenty pages or so and talked about how it went for each of us, and whether we wanted to continue. Some very interesting things came up, and it all was intriguing enough by the end of the session for us to decide to come back for more next week.
     Highlights included the nature of Awen—is it like art, something you know when you see? How do you know it? How do you connect with it, and can it be made?
     By what paths do we each approach the cauldron?
     In meditation I thought on this. I stumbled into a year-long brewing of the Awen back in 2013, on the shores of Llyn Tegid, in Wales. At another camp, a month prior, I’d met Kristoffer Hughes and he invited me to come to his Order’s camp. It was the last weekend of my first trip to the UK, and I had not planned past Dublin, the week before the camp. So I bought a ticket. I had no idea, really what was going to be happening, which was perfect Gwion headspace, I realized later. The friends who kindly picked me up from the railway station and took me to camp told me where we were going on the way. That was how I found myself on the beach next to Llyn Tegid, the place where Cerridwen brewed the Awen, and transformation for one clueless kid ensued.
     That is one path to Cerridwen’s Cauldron. What might yours look like? Kristoffer Hughes’s book is what I would term an instant classic. While it does contain the method of brewing Awen, the book itself is a study of the Tale of Cerridwen and Taliesin, and we have not decided how far down this path we will be going.
     What is the nature of the Cauldron?
     At the end of the story, the cauldron cracks. All but three drops become poison, and the cauldron becomes unusable. The spell can only be done once, and Cerridwen is furious. The sudden sage flees as they are transformed. In my case, the container the work was done in was no more. It will never be again, for each brewing is different, each group shapes and is shaped by it. A single person may do this ritual and will also be changed. So should we choose as a group to do this, our experience and presumably our product, will be different.
     What is the Awen? Is the spell singular, for one person only? Kristoffer Hughes has often said that Taliesin is a title, something to be aspired to, not simply a single person. I know what my experience was, and I still feel transformed, but every person in that camp had their own, singular experience. We can all close our eyes and focus on our own foreheads and feel the drop of Awen there already. It is waiting to see what we will do with it whether we stand before the cauldron or not.
     It’s early days yet, and if you want to come and join us, here is the link to the Facebook event. You can also message me in the comments if you can’t find it. The Wild Druid format won’t change a whit. Show up for whatever sessions suit you, grab on to the discussion as it moves you. You can read the material or not, as you choose. We will be discussing the book, but the Tale is well known, as is the concept of Awen. We went some strange places today, from science fiction to an altar built on a stump whose roots still clutch the Earth. Who knows where we might go next week?

Lugh’s Fire

Where is the division of science and religion? Does there need to be one? Maybe Lugh is already here, shining on us every day because that is what he does. On the eve of Lugh’s day here’s a merging of myth and science:

Happy Lughnasadh!</div>

Fifty Cent Beer

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Bicycling across town is a great example of the permaculture principle of stacking functions, now more than ever. Even factoring in the fact that I’m dancing with traffic, it is still one of my safest ways across town, the others being public transit and a shared gig car. It allows me time to think, I get exercise, and it costs nothing. I have a much better idea than many of what my neighborhood looks like, where the tent cities are and how they are evolving (sadly)and I carry an ever growing street map in my head.

This post, though, is the fifty cent beer I was talking about when I told you I’d post weekly, no matter what. After riding across town to supply our tiny homestead, I found myself short of time to write. So this is unedited, stream-of-consciousness, and much more like what my livejournal used to be. It even includes beer! And a recommendation for a good place in Oakland to get some! Takeout, of course, in this time of COVID, but I’ve been in Federation Brewing’s taproom before and it was a nice surprise to see them open for takeout on the way back from the store. I picked up a 4 pack on the way home–three IPAs and an oatmeal stout, and had a lovely lunch of cheese and beer after unloading groceries. Hope to actually be able to go in there again someday.

See you next week, hopefully with something more substantial.

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The Fantasy of Independence

A certain vocal segment of us seem to believe that we are independent of everyone else. We have a right to make our own choices about everything. Our individual rights are more important than the rights of others around us. We won’t be forced to wear masks, we won’t pay for anyone else’s healthcare, or food, or anything else that “they” should be providing for themselves.

This is of course a complete fantasy. I can’t think of a lesson more perfectly suited to pop this bubble of crazy than the mask issue. We don’t need to wear them for our own safety, we do it for the collective, or really, the species. That’s why some of us are confined to our room, until we’re not collectively dripping viruses.

If I were a believer in fate, I could even see the planet providing this particular final exam for us as a way of making us awaken to our interdependence with all life, or die. However, there’s no need to go that far—we did this to ourselves, simply by believing we can do anything we please. We are part of a superorganism that extends over the whole planet and we have started to put the whole in danger. Mother Nature is not mad, God is not “gonna get you” for that. But we are triggering planetary defense mechanisms and the pandemic is one result of that.

As above, so below. Our bodies create a fever to make our bodily climate unhealthy for the pathogens that have infected us whether we are talking about a cold or COVID. Trees give off certain chemical signals when they are being attacked to call specific insects or other allies to help them. Might part of a local ecosystem repel invaders virally? The world is a network of these relationships and feedback loops. If we put a priority on learning what these cycles are and how to be part of them, life will be a lot more pleasant, and a lot cheaper, as we make use of these tendencies to lighten our load. If not, we can continue to be visited by disaster as we blunder around in the equivalent of a darkened room, setting events we can’t see in motion.

The relationship between humanity, bats, and COVID-19 is one example of how this works. Bats are very useful creatures, major pollinators, bug-eaters, and host a whole lot of viruses, some of which can kill us quite efficiently.

Why do these viruses kill us but not bats? Why don’t bats cause disease in us all the time? Finding out why they infect us is becoming clear. Finding out why they don’t get sick could lead to all sorts of medical breakthroughs for us—if we can avoid the temptation of trying to kill them off, that is, since they harbor what to us is disease.

Normally, this viral community bats live with is no problem to us. They live their lives and we live ours. But lately, with the general tendency we humans have to take over any part of the world we please, not thinking, if we bother to give a thought to the communities who live there at all, that we are stressing out a whole lot of living things, from indigenous people, to, well, bats. We encroach on their territory and stress them out in all sorts of ways, and their immunity drops. They start to shed virus everywhere. Is this what happened in the case of COVID-19? Looks like that might be the case, but we don’t have the tools to find out yet.

In any case, the problem that led us here was the fantasy of independence. Here we sit, the richest country in the world, confined within our borders because a significant proportion of us won’t stay inside during a pandemic. Our government, that bailed out the wealthy, doesn’t see making it possible financially and logistically for the general populace to do so as a good investment. Even worse, as individuals, some of us have chosen to assert our rights. We won’t do what we know would keep the most people alive. Keeping our distance for a while and putting on a mask—and putting this simple, cheap strategy into our personal toolkits.

The last few months should have showed us how counterproductive it is to ignore science. This problem is easily explainable and obviously fixable using that discipline if we choose to do what is needed. Most of our world has done so, after all, and are now cautiously resuming what is becoming the new normal. Don’t we want to be part of shaping that? Don’t we ever want to get out of our rooms?

Biking on the Bay Trail

One of the gifts the pandemic has given me is a return to my bicycle. Two wheels and feet have become the safest way for me to travel. I have been getting our groceries on the bike, but since I have been called back to work on site, the bicycle makes it possible to take the ferry across the bay instead of using BART. At first there were fewer cars on the road, but even as people decide that they have given the pandemic all the time they can afford to and jump back into their cars, I have become acclimated again, and have found other ways to separate myself from the worst of the traffic. Thankfully, there has been some progress on the bike path network as well. There are still gaps between the paths, but they are shorter than they were, and some real improvements, such as a long stretch of Folsom in San Francisco and a lot of Valencia Street.

I was curious about the Bay Trail running north from Jack London. I decided to see how far I could get after trying to trace the route via satellite imagery. I wanted to go to REI anyway, I needed to replace my beloved baskets. They are great, but impractical for transit and don’t fit lockers or even many racks, which are built for wide handlebars and narrow back wheels. They also make it impossible for me to pick up Beater with any kind of a load. I wanted a real rack that would support panniers, which can be carried separately, and also the weight of a load of groceries. I also wanted to see how crowded BART is, so I took the trail to North Berkeley and rode back. I picked up a rack rated for 110 pounds, and one of the only panniers they had left. No one in the bike shop could tell me how to get through the Maze, so I bought a newer version of the bike map I already have, which is the best five bucks I’ve spent in a while.

The Berkeley end was pretty good. It took less than half an hour to get from REI to Emeryville, and that was because I was dawdling a bit, enjoying being near the water on a really beautiful trail. That ended around IKEA. There is a good separated trail down Maritime, through the Port, but the exhaust is pretty heavy, and there are a couple of spots where you have to cross the streets the trucks use. According to the map there are two other possibilities, 40th to Mandela, or Middle Harbor to Third. Seventh was scary. The path is really a wide sidewalk, and there are several intersections much like those in the Port. I won’t be doing that again if I have a choice.

I bailed at Oakland West, and wished I hadn’t. Third will get me close to Jack London, and the Bay Trail will get me to 5th. The recent improvements in the bike lanes in my neighborhood don’t do me much good, though there is one light on International that has gotten rid of one blind crossing that I appreciate very much. I still have the potholed side streets largely to myself, and have plenty of decent sections of pavement that I can thread the needle home on.

All in all, it was a useful expedition. It looks like there is a very long but possible ride from Lake Merritt to the San Rafael Transit Center. That opens up the possibility of taking a bike to Point Reyes, perhaps to Mt. Tam depending on the trails from the other side of the bridge, and perhaps points north. Maybe, with all the people trying out bicycling, the Bay Trail’s gaps will be filled in the near future.

Here and Now

What we do now is crucial. I’ve been told this in the silence between thought, in the early morning when there is space between thoughts. Now the time has arrived. Out of many, one. We are one country, one species, one planet. What are we willing to do for the whole?

Taliesin

This is the first chant I ever wrote. It was only supposed to be an exercise at an experiential camp. We wrote for several minutes, and then were told to distill what turned out for me to be several pages into three sentences.

Not surprisingly, few of us could do it. It’s hard to throw away the words that have welled up within you, and pick only a few to share. We forget that once written they are still there on the page. Looking back at them now, I see echoes of the future, the Druidic path that I now walk. The waters of Llyn Tegid stretch before me, and the gold and green of Netimus. The cauldron holds the experiences, and the words are shaped by the past and the streams of wisdom others left behind for me to drink from. That night, in ritual, the bare words cycled through my head, slowly clothing themselves in song. All I had to do was listen and remember.

What is within you? How has the past shaped you and where has the future bled into your own life? Each age needs a retelling of the Tales, we all must drink from the Well and give our gift to the world. We are all Taliesin. Now, more than ever, the world needs our inspiration.

 

Phoenixes Rise

 

A Scow Schooner Sailing Under The Golden Gate Bridge

A decade ago I had come to the end of a road. After a door that shouldn’t have been was firmly closed, I was standing high above San Francisco Bay, looking at the Golden Gate beneath a soft blue sky and the heights of Mt. Tamalpais to the north. I decided to rise. I raised my arms to the wind and asked to be blown to my allies. Then I wrote this chant.

Very soon after, I became a Druid. I haven’t looked back.

Erin Rose Conner · Phoenix Chant

Find Me A Place

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I wrote this back in 2014, after coming back from the UK. I was looking for my ancestors, and instead, I found that home was right where I’d left it–under my feet.

Most of us in this country are a rich blend of many different places and peoples. We can be mixed up and homeless, or we can learn to live with the people and in the places we ended up in.

Just maybe we’re about to learn to be one human race.

Erin Rose Conner · Find Me A Place