The Forest Abides

I was driving down Van Ness Avenue today when the forest caught my eye. It was only some red, red flowers growing in the median. They drew me in as I waited at a light, and then I saw the honeybee drinking from the tall blue iris above them. Only a moment, then the light changed and I was driving once more, in the flow of traffic. But the flow of the forest stayed with me as well. Even in the heart of the city, the forest abides.

How long has San Francisco been here? How long has Van Ness Avenue carried the flow of traffic? Less than a century. The flowers have been here much, much longer. The sand dunes, the grass, the sheltered cove that was once Yerba Buena.

To me, it is forever. I was born in this city, grew up roaming whatever park was nearest my house. I used to walk through Golden Gate Park at midnight, laughing when people told me how dangerous it was. I knew the forest would never harm me. I knew I knew it much better than the hypothetical men who were supposedly waiting there to grab me. Let them try to catch me, here in my home. I have disappeared behind trees and watched people wonder where I had gone. I have climbed high above 36th Avenue to play my tinwhistle from a high branch and watched people look for the source of the music. Few have ever spotted me.

Last weekend I was in a much wilder, larger forest. There were bees there too. I watched them, watched the scarlet dragonflies fly in spirals above the ponds there. The last Gorsedd had scarlet dragonflies too. I was struck by them then, and last weekend their presence brought those two magical times together. As I was then, so I was again last weekend. I took off my shoes when I arrived and put them on only when there was no other choice, and when it was time to pack up. I put my feet on the living earth and was whole. In the city I put my shoes between me and the unforgiving stone we cover the earth with and wonder why it must be so.

The urban forest is all around us. We share our city with all manner of creatures. The trees are here, they were here before we came and will be here long after we are gone. Our forever is long to us, but how short it is in relation to their long lives. We have cut many, but looking out of the window of the BART train, looking across the bay at the golden hills of Marin County, there is not a hillside or a street that is treeless. Grass grows through the cracks in every sidewalk. Even the ridge of Angel Island, where the eucalypti were cut down is not bare. The trees are here, the forest is here and always will be. Whether or not we will be here as well is an open question, and it is up to us.

If we choose to live with the trees, to share this beautiful land with them, then we will remain. If not, if we continue to separate ourselves from the other beings that make up the web of life, we will surely die. We breathe out what the trees breathe in. We breathe in what the trees breathe out. It has ever been so, and will ever be so. When there are not enough trees to give us breath, we will be no more. The earth will manifest life no matter what we choose.

House of Danu Gorsedd 2012

We gathered under the redwoods in Ben Lomond. We were few, but somehow that only gave more power to what we experienced. There was time for deep conversation, and to learn from one another in a way that the excitement and energy of a larger group doesn’t always make room for.

Workshops included drumming; alchemical, Afro-Cuban and Middle Eastern, disaster preparedness, a Druid’s version of a Book of Shadows, a backyard Druid segment, a native plant session, and a detailed exploration of the magic of redwoods. We co-created a ritual based largely on the redwoods, and shared song and story in an Eisteddfod around the campfire. Our last night we let technology give us the best of both worlds as our Digital Druid gave us music and we all donned our best black and red to dance and celebrate all we had done together.

It was a chance to experience quiet time in a beautiful setting, to walk under trees and put our feet on the living earth. The forest was a wonder of trees allowed to find their own way on land that is stewarded by people who have taken the time to stop, sit, and listen to the spirits of this place, and build with it. There are beautiful ponds that reflect the trees above, and winding trails that lead to camping spots that are welcoming as well as beautiful. It is a place that I was glad to spread my roots out in and rest, if only for a weekend. I returned home energized, with plenty to think about and a renewal of my sense of purpose. I know what I need to do, and while the list of tasks is long, I’m filled with anticipation, and eager to continue the work of the weekend, here in the urban forest of Oakland, where my work presently lies.

The Last Marching Song

We fight so many wars. We frame so many things in the language of war.

I grew this song. It grew out of the quote I posted in my last entry. It grew out of all the things I have learned about humans over the years. It grew out of my archaeology degree. Because we haven’t always fought. Throughout prehistory, the human respose to conflict was to migrate away from it. Like most other animals, we only fight when cornered. Until we had stuff that we couldn’t easily carry with us, this was simple. When we started settling down and building places to keep our stuff in, we started thinking of those places as home. Instead of having the whole world, we had our own place. So war is one of those diseases of civilization.

Chucking civilization would be idiotic. But we can move past the equally idiotic idea of fighting with each other over stuff and territory to keep it in. We can see the whole world as our home once again.

Here’s a soldier’s view of war.

His book, Will War Ever End helped me to pull together things I already knew, and added a few more. The path to peace and the path to war are one and the same. Paul Chappell’s assertion that we fight to protect our people and our home makes so much sense to me. The rules of war, though often broken, usually declare homes and families to be off limits. While the deaths of combatants are always tragic, the true horror of war is when innocents are killed.

War, and inequality, and prejudice of all kinds cut us off from our birthright, which is the whole world. When the world is truly our home, we won’t destroy parts of it, and those who live in it.

Hopefully this song will help

I Ain’t A-Marching Any More

I tweeted from the acupuncture table yesterday. Which I realize sounds dippy beyond belief, but there it is. To spin out this granola theme even farther, it started from meditation class. We had a substitute teacher who really rocked, and it was a rainy day, so only two of us showed up. We ended up experimenting with different practices and having a really cool discussion in between, and I left in a state of mind that led in the end to the germ of the next song I’ll be writing.

In particular, this quote from the text we’re using is the catalyst:

“Agitated, restless feelings are like muddy water, which becomes still and transparently clear when left to stand. As our emotional reaction naturally subsides, mind and body become peaceful and balanced.”
        —Hidden Mind of Freedom – Tarthang Tulku
       
I had a few hours till my acupuncture appointment, I guess it was my mystical spa day. So I stopped off at the kitchen before I left the institute and made myself a cup of ginger tea to take with and walked down through the UC Berkeley campus. It was raining still, and I took my time. I wanted to see trees, and the campus delivered. I found a little redwood grove next to one of the creeks and practiced a bit on the songs I’ve been learning lately. Since all I have is a voice and a drum, things have to be changed to fill in where the instruments would go. And trees make a great audience. I owe the grove a good cleaning, the Mother always aims me at the trash that needs to go, but I’ll come back next week with a plastic bag…

The acupuncture table is a great place to let stuff come to me. I kinda have to lie there and not move much for close on an hour, with swimmy music on. And that meditation session was still working on me, as well as the music. One of the songs I’m working on at the moment is Great Big Sea’s version of Over the Hills and Far Away. There are so many versions of that song and they updated that for the Afghan War. I’m of two minds about that. It’s good, and the soldiers deserve a good modern version, but I kept thinking about that muddy water. And the booted feet stirring the dust, clouds of it till we couldn’t see the way back to peace.

The dust raised by the booted feet of those who march to war must settle before we can see to set our feet once more on the path to peace.

And so it goes on. There must be an end. I need to rewrite that song. Our brave sons and daughters are needed. They have to have a future where they don’t have to kill each other, and they’re the ones who have to make it. I’m the idiot who has to stand on the hill and make the song that shows my vision of the way. So the chorus is rough still, but as it is now, goes:

O’er the hills and o’er the fern
Our sons and daughters will return
All soldiers coming home to stay
Over the hills and far away

Verses to come.

May it be so.

Cycles

I’m reading a book called The Resilient Gardener. It’s about gardening, but far more than that, it’s about living on a changing planet. I want badly to own it as I’ll refer to it for years, but we are stony broke-oh at the moment, so I got it out of the library. When it gets cheap I’ll pick up a copy. And so it fits into the subject it covers, and ties into my life.

I have all I need. It’s all a cycle, really. We don’t have money right now, but we are rich in so many ways. Stuff is only one part of this, but really, we have the stuff we need. I can’t buy this book, but I’ve bought so many other books over the last few years that I have scads of stuff to read. And I have access to so many good libraries. San Francisco Main Library is only the easiest to access of these. I can get into the stacks at UC Berkeley, which gives me wealth indeed! I can’t check books out, but I spent a lovely evening recently waiting for Whitewolffe to get out of KPFA radio in their Celtic Studies collection. Really, the hardest part of leaving my job at UCB was losing my checkout privileges.

The book reminded me of cycles, and how many ways we are connected to nature. She was talking about haying, and how making hay while the sun shines calls on the interdependence of a community. In my life, scavenging is a part of that same concept. Haying and scavenging come from the same root, so to speak. Whether it’s something lying on the street, or a post on Freecycle, you have to jump when the offer is made by the Universe. Lately, the garden work parties in berkeley and the urban garden that will shortly be taking my chickens are also tying me into community. Making things do, waiting for the Universe to fill what I consider an order placed at the Cosmic Burger King are things I have always done. Lately, it feels as if the world is catching up to me. Instead of a weirdo who saves string, I am suddenly fashionable. Frugal. Sustainable.

I am a terrible gardener. That’s one of the reasons I picked this book up. Whitewolffe, luckily, is much better. She hears living things and knows how to respond to their needs. Plants and animals under her care flourish. Me, I’m a tinkerer and a planner. I can set the project up, and even keep things alive, but my role is to keep the place running. She makes it thrive.

Last weekend we potted plants. I went to the store and came back with a tomato and a basil plant. Which pretty much exhausts my knowledge of companion planting… We were supposed to have someone from Freecycle come over and take an oregano cutting off our hands. She didn’t show, but Whitewolffe potted it anyway. I’d put it in a glass on the windowsill a couple months back and it rooted. Lots of things we do that to do that there. This is the second oregano plant we’ll give away, we also have mint from a bunch I put up there and forgot to make tea from. I also wanted to see if I could start some seeds, and some mung beans. I started sprouting them recently, figuring that that kind of micro crop is perfect for our micro homestead. They’re also delicious, and hey, if we have sprouts, can we grow beans this summer? They’re doing well, and considering that I potted them, this is pretty cool.

Hope we can get the chickens out of the yard before all these plants need to go outside. Again, cycles must be heeded, and managed. Between the two of us, we’ll do all right.

Owl Magic

Once upon a time, back when I still had a car, my partner and I were driving on I-5. I saw a bit of white and tan flap at me from the shoulder, as if thumbing a ride. My heart sank as I realized it was the broken body of a barn owl. It was too late to pull over, but we took the next exit, and soon we were parked on the shoulder, wrapping the body, all but unmarked, and putting it in the cooler with the ice for the meat order we were on our way to pick up.

I had no idea why we were doing this, I only knew that the owl deserved better than to rot on the shoulder of a busy highway. We took it home, wrapped it in a square of muslin and put it in the freezer to give us time to think. In the end, I decided to take it up to Mt. Tamalpais, a good place to rest if ever there was one. I had been in the process of learning a song called “Waterlily” off a Cottars album I’d recently gotten, and so I found myself driving up Mt. Tam a few days later, singing the song and looking for a good place.

There used to be a beautiful oak by the side of the road, home to a beehive, and across the road from a really cool climbing rock. We’d often parked there, and while the oak had died recently, the parking spot was still there. I knew when I got out that this was the spot. The trunk had split, dumping blackened comb and leaving a large hollow space. I climbed up on the fallen wood around the trunk and put the wrapped body inside. I sang the song and wandered the mountain for a while.

Last Christmas we took a trip up there, and stopped at the oak, among other places. There is less and less left each time, of course, and the trunk is now short enough to reach from the ground, curling in on itself as it returns to the earth. Whether the small body is still there is impossible to tell, but this time there was an owl in the bark:

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We went back up there yesterday. It was bitter cold, between the rainstorms. The wind was howling in off the Pacific and the sky was a million shades of gray. We could see the Farallones:

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We quickly hit all the usual spots, including the tree. I wanted to see if the owl was still there. It is for me, in many different ways, but your mileage may vary:

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Bud Break

The trees across from my bus stop are leafing out. The first leaves are delicate, floating from the ends of a few branches, a promise of new life. They’re easily overlooked in the crazy buzz of Market Street. Soon the bare branches will be covered in large green leaves, and the pillow that has rested in them for the past couple of years will be once again hidden. Someday I’ll come up with a way to get it down from there. The tree itself is not really climbable without gear, and there have been many mornings that I’ve wished for a boathook or just a ten foot pole. But the insanity of carrying something like that on transit–or on my bike to transit, has stopped me.

The tree doesn’t seem to mind. Why should it? Spring comes regardless and it can easily bear the load.

How is the spring manifesting around you? Has it arrived in your neck of the woods, or is it yet to come? Or is it autumn that you’re seeing?

The Aspens

Every Saturday night I stop off to see the aspens. They are exotics, just like me, flourishing where they were planted, not knowing or caring that they’re not where they “belong.” They line a tidal estuary and create a tiny wild place in the heart of the city. On Saturday nights the lights for the tennis courts across the path from the water stay off, and so it’s possible to stand, wrapped in shadow, at the water’s edge. Seabirds do the same, and it’s possible to see night herons, egrets, and the occasional blue heron as well as seagulls.

The trees are bare now, sleeping in the cold and dark, their leaves mulching their roots. They no longer crackle as they did a few months ago when they first fell. I wheel my bike over them to rest against a tree near the water and we both disappear. As I stand there, watching the wind ripple across the water, my night vision improves and the forest reveals itself. Only one tree thick in many places it still stretches, bowl-like, around me as I stand there. In a few places I can look at the forest and not see through it. The illusion of impenetrability is comforting, here in the urban core. I can, for a moment, see a whisper of the estuary Jack London knew.

When it’s cold, as it was this week, the cars and the occasional throbbing stereo are the only sounds I hear from the street. No one passes along the sidewalk or the blacktop behind me. The tennis courts and the college beyond are silent. Warm it up even a few degrees and people are added to the mix. From where I stand I can’t be seen, but I can see everything that goes on once my eyes adjust. As a lone woman standing in the darkness, I’m supposedly in danger, but I know better. My mother taught me from my teens to “keep my wits about me,” and I know full well that I can now see better than any light-dazzled human passing through this place. No one has seen me in all the time I’ve been coming here, and no one will till I have wheeled my bike back to the blacktop and turned my lights on. Even the reflective tape on my bike helmet is invisible in this dark, welcoming place.

I look up through the tracery of branches at the sky. The reflected glow of the city shows me the gray sky and dances on the ripples on the water, always in the process of becoming, different every moment. I let my eye follow one ripple and am carried across the water as it speeds towards the concrete. The quiet enfolds me and I let myself drift, one with the pocket of forest.

I’m still safely in darkness, the night still comes early enough to allow me this protected time. In another month or so I’ll be in twilight, and soon after that, I’ll pass by day. The grove will change, the aspens will leaf out and the stillness will be later, and different. But the grove will still be there, and so will I. And winter will come again.

The story is always true, even if it’s told differently.

My step dance teacher told us that set dances were always the same, unchanged. But she’d go on to say that “this is the way the step was done when I was a girl,” and she’d demonstrate, quick and clean. Though she was past fifty and round, her feet were still sure of themselves. “But up north it would look more like this.” And again, a step. “But it’s the same step.”

I didn’t get what she was driving at for many years, but I always remembered what she said. Around the same time, I sang occasionally with a woman who insisted that her version of the song was the only “right” one. I found it a little limiting, but I can hold more than one version of anything in my head, and when I sang with her, hers was the version we used.

I heard an interview on the radio years later where a traditional singer said that the tradition is a river. You can’t take a slice out of that river and say “this is the tradition.” My mother long ago taught me that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” It’s as valid for a song, or a myth, as it is for life.

Is Pandora the giver of all gifts, spilling her jar across the hillside, bestowing the knowledge of all good things on humankind, or is she the silly girl who can’t keep her hands off her husband’s box? Is Arionrhod the independent, self-assured woman—the “virgin” in the old sense, or is she a lying slut? Is Medb the bestower of sovereignity, or the original swinger?

As my grandmother might have said, “it depends on whose ox is being gored.” Every teller of tales, every artist or writer has a point of view. Many have an axe to grind. The bard who said that “it is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed” wasn’t just talking about Medb, now was he? what did that tale look like a century back? Five centuries? What did it look like when it was first told? We used to make statues and paint portraits of people as god(desses) or historical figures. Today we have Presidents dressed up as fighter pilots. I ask you, what’s the difference? And the fact that people react to these images tells us that there is truth in them, or at least power. The way the tale is told is at least as important as the tale itself