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?

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?

Common Ground

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These people with guns storming statehouses are just trying to do the right thing.

They’re failing miserably, but that’s where they’re coming from. A steady diet of hate mixed with a coldly calculated approach designed to find and weaponize common ground has created a deeply divided populace. It’s hard to see the little man behind the curtain when you’re blind with rage and jacked up on words like liberty, freedom, and fascism. On either side.

There are a fair lot of us, however, who are isolated in our homes, doing what needs to be done, working from home and flattening the curve. These Astroturf demonstrations, widely covered, photogenic and deeply disturbing are designed to elicit a reaction from us. We don’t have to play along. We have other choices, but only if we calm down and think before we act. It’s hard to do, I know, when we’re confined to our own homes with only a television and the internet to connect us to the outside world. Can we see that this carefully curated–by each of us as well as by the powers that be–version of the truth is being used to return us to a status quo that no longer exists? Failing that, it will be a new normal that will benefit the holders of power–if we play along.

We are all in the same mess, together. We are nowhere near being in the same boat. Many of us are barely hanging onto the lines around the lifeboat, trying to keep our heads above the freezing water. Far more of us than should be are floating, dead, around the boat. A small number of us are living high, eating well and getting regular COVID tests, trying to figure out how to get past this unpleasantness before our core assets are affected. I am talking mainly to those of us who are in the boat with me–privileged enough to be able to stay home and watch all of this unfold as we work from home, or can survive there for long enough to get through lockdown, but in no way capable of doing it indefinitely. These protesters appear to be mainly of this segment of society, using their enforced leisure to protest, demanding the right to get haircuts and go outside. They are asking for “liberty,” not bread, and carrying expensive weapons instead of scrambling to make ends meet.

These people want a fight. The President who is egging them on knows that the more of a shambles he creates, the more likely he is to be able to steal a second term. Look over here and miss what I’m doing with the other hand has been his modus operandi from the beginning. The Republican party is now whittled down to the people who will go along with anything if they can profit from it, and as long as 45 keeps delivering the goods, they will do whatever it takes to keep him in the Oval Office.

The problem, as I see it, is we can’t fix any of this by ourselves. We got into this mess together, and that is the only way we are going to emerge. As it is now, a lot of people have died, and a lot more are going to. What we do now is crucial.

If there was ever a time for the Strength card, now is it. We can’t give the present holders of power what they want. We can do this without leaving our homes, luckily. It can begin quite simply. Stop spreading these news stories about the protesters. Stop whipping up the anger that makes us all act in ways we will regret later. If you’re living now and reading this blog, you know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, Google is your friend.

My mother used to say “Do nothing which is of no use.” It is the ninth principle in Musashi’s Book of Five Rings and while I have of course not always managed to act according to it, I have never forgotten it. It could easily be the touchstone for this pandemic. We are being exhorted, above all, to stay inside, if we can. To be modern Anchorites, albeit with a little more freedom and a temporary term, and leave the streets and public transit for those who have no choice but to go out.

I know I’m privileged. I’m working mainly from home. I am quarantined with only one adult, my partner, my best friend. We have only lost one of the jobs that support us, and my partner has an undetermined period of unemployment insurance while to figure out what her best options are. I’m spending what time is not devoted to work, helping her, and keeping us fed to things like restarting my blog and doubling down on daily practice. Making masks and writing to reps. Using the news as a tool, not letting it use me.

When I saw that angry, despairing post this morning, I saw a wise friend in pain. And yes, the first thought I had was that these people will probably get sick, and what could they expect? Not my finest moment, I agree.

I think sending in the National Guard is a demonstration of weakness, not strength. It would be proof that we are afraid of them and that they must have power. I don’t believe that for a second. If we want to meet them head on, we would do better to channel our inner Mel Brooks and Bugs Bunny. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.

Protesting is a pain–even if you manage to get coverage–and most of the time you don’t. It is about as fun as beating your head against a brick wall, at least for me. These people are getting far more coverage than most, partly because of the guns. They’re not getting massacred or hauled away for many reasons, the largest ones painfully obvious; they’re white, and they’re not shooting. They also have great lawyers. They are not immune to COVID-19, however, and are going to add to the chaos and the body count. How long will they continue to do this hard, unfamiliar work once the sugar high of being constantly on the news ends? What will they do when people begin to get sick? How about when people close to them die?

When you’re in a hole, the first thing you have to do is stop digging. Sending in people to stop these people will only expose more first responders in the form of police and, if there is violence, health professionals, to possible infection. If these people want to dance around any Capitol in the country with guns, let them! Turn off the cameras, move the lawmakers online or to other locations to govern and let them play. Alone. See what happens. And think of some truly creative ways to make them look like buffoons, or better yet, find a way to frame the issue that they can’t ignore. And watch as time passes. How many of them are there, and are any more coming to join them? This is a trash fire, not a movement. Remember the Malheur Wildlife Refuge? Not sending in the Marines, so to speak, was a better idea then too.

In the end, we all know what needs to be done. We need to stay in. We need to make sure that the people who need it get money–that means all of us getting on the same page and lighting up the lines to all of our representatives for the things we actually need. Coronavirus relief for everyone who is not getting a steady paycheck. Healthcare and testing for everyone. I think it’s odd, for example, that today I’m going across the Bay to San Francisco to get a PCR test instead of walking six blocks up the hill to the public hospital. No more handouts for rich corporations. All of this is much harder work and far less exciting coverage, but other countries have managed it. Many hands make light work. This is only difficult because so few people are doing it.

We have a chance to change a lot of things right now, when every institution we thought we could count on has been upheaved. The Overton Window is WAY wider than it has been in a long time. Will we allow the change to be determined by the people now in power by letting them get by with this stuff, or are we going to show them and ourselves that the tools of democracy still work?

Believe it or not, there is plenty of common ground. We are all scared of having our freedom and our lives taken away. We all fear for our livelihoods and our future. We all fear our own government. We’ve forgotten that it’s ours. Talking, not shouting, with each other is the first step. The people on the steps with the guns will realize this eventually. There are a whole lot fewer of them than it seems on TV.

A woman in a white dress pushes a gaudy lion's mouth closed.

 

Eating Our Own

I think the saddest thing is, as people are dying, fighting their way across the world to get themselves and their children away from unbearable situations, that we in the First World, unsure of what to do but wanting above all to avoid being implicated in the real crimes committed by our rulers, are beginning to eat our own. As happens in any revolution, and make no mistake, we are in a worldwide revolution right now, from the bloody horrors of Syria to the bloodless destruction of the lives of government workers in America, we are seeing demons wherever we look.

The truth, as many of us know, is that the demons were there all along. We long ago drank the koolaid of the cult of individuality. We are all supposedly responsible for our own situations, no matter how horribly unfair they are. We all should have known better all along, and in the rush to realize it, we are just creating more hierarchies of woe. If we point the fingers where everyone else’s are, if we share the latest atrocity and condemn it loudly enough, we will be perceived to be on the right side of history. The problem with that is, we are just shoving the new information into the same old paradigm.

I’d rather look for the angels of our better natures. Better yet, let’s start seeing people. Imperfect, fallible, but aren’t all of us? There’s no “them,” there’s only us. The only real difference between Donald Trump and our crazy uncle is that Trump has the power to do real damage. He is the raging id inside all of us that only grows stronger the longer we ignore it.

This passage in a book relating a story told to the author by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has always stayed with me. She had this experience while visiting Auschwitz, speaking to a Holocaust survivor:

“How can you be so peaceful when your whole family was killed here?

Golda looked back at me—those peaceful eyes!—and said in the most penetrating voice I had ever heard, ‘Because the Nazis taught me this: there is a Hitler inside each of us and if we do not heal the Hitler inside of ourselves, then the violence, it will never stop.’… She told me she was working in Germany, at a hospital for German children injured during the war, the children of the Nazis who had sent her family to Majdanek. I was shocked. I asked her why. ‘How else,’ she asked, ‘can I heal the Hitler inside me but to give to them what they took from us?”… There was something in her voice that day, some invisible thing that my younger self did not consciously understand but could only feel. And it went into the depths of me and there it remains still. And sometimes when I feel the cruelty in callous and indifferent men, when I hear the velvet violence hidden in the innocuous-seeming words of a mother speaking to her child, when I see the people among us from whom the powerful have stolen the future—and the present, when I feel some rage inside me wanting to do harm because I feel so helpless that I can find no other thing to do, that teaching, in the depths of me, rises up again into awareness and I see that young woman at Majdanek and I feel her eyes looking into me and I hear Elisabeth’s voice once more and I begin to think outside the box again.”

—Stephen Harrod Buehner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

This is why I won’t hate our leaders. I’ll be angry at them, I pity them deeply and I do wish them to understand their actions in all their ugliness and cruelty, but I don’t want to be them. I can’t take up many of the chants I hear at marches. I can’t join the mob with the pitchforks and torches. I am better than that.

We are better than that.

We are living in awful, beautiful, pivotal times. It falls to us to create the new paradigm from the ashes all around us. We didn’t create this mess, but we have to clean it up or there will be nothing for our children. The cult of individuality won’t serve us any more. We can’t parcel out the guilt and horror and each carry our share. It doesn’t work that way. We can’t fix our part of the world, can’t choose between condemning corporate and governmental actions or changing our diets and giving up our cars. That kind of thinking only leads to paralysis—the state we’re in now.

What we can do is the right thing, every time the choice is presented to us. We can be aware when we are not in a position to do that, and work towards changing the things that stop us. We can take ten minutes to write a letter or make a phone call and not rage that we can’t change our representative’s mind. Above all, we can vote—and then move on to he next useful thing that occurs to us. We can choose carefully at the market and the mall, bundle our errands, look for a new job if that’s what’s needed, and the list goes on. Above all, we can be gentle with ourselves and each other. This isn’t a contest, or a rush to judgment. You don’t know what that other person’s situation is, and you don’t have a right to tell them what choice to make. If a guy with a drum feels called to step in between warring groups, instead of second-guessing the situation, why don’t we do what we can to calm the whole thing down?

The dust raised by the boots of those who march to war will have to settle before we can see the path to peace.

Liberty

You can’t have that word.
You don’t own this Lady.
A gift, from across the sea,
From an ally we should remember.
A shared history.
A reminder of who we are.

Out of many, we are one.
Drops of water make an ocean.
Thorns of gorse, individually, are easily pushed aside.
A bush full of them is impenetrable.

We are a nation of immigrants.
None of our ancestors had papers, when we came.
There were no quotas, no walls.
As we grew more prosperous, we forgot who we are.

The people, resourceful and strong enough to get here
Should be welcomed.
That is the only test of citizenship that should matter.
Our ancestors built a nation.
The ones who come now,
What will they build?

We need not fear what will come.
We need to look to this Lady and remember who we are.
The words written in that book she holds
Apply to everyone, or they mean nothing.

You took the swastika.
You cannot have Thor’s Hammer.
You cannot have the Runes of my ancestors.
Othala is a place we all belong
All creeds, all colors, all genders.

The Awen flows through me onto this page.
Cerridwen’s Cauldron tests our hearts and our minds,
Not our bodies, our lineages.

I place this Lady in the window,
A cheap souvenir, anyone can have one.
But her Light shines upon us all.

 

Inspired by the posts of Mrs. Whatsit

The Shape of Now

 

A bare hawthorn tree on a high hill, twisted by the wind into fantastic shape.
Windswept hawthorn, Windover Hill, Sussex

“Travellers don’t know where they’re going. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.”   –Hostel wall, Inverness

I still don’t know why I’m on this journey, and though much of it was carefully planned, the actual shape of it is still unfolding. My journal is packed to bursting, as is my heart and my mind, but I have a lot of catching up to do as far as the blog goes. I meant to turn out polished, well thought out posts, but that will have to come later. For now, come have a slice of adventure with me!

The Druids of Albion are being so good to me! I am in Stroud right now, in the home of hobbits. If you’d asked me to pick a place to come to, I’d never have known to choose this one. I thought I was going to Glastonbury again, but this is definitely the place to be. My hosts don’t drive, which means I am seeing the place by footpath. There is a wonderful network of them here, and it is like being in on a great secret. The cars whizz by on the roads and we must occasionally cross their paths with care, but our world is trees and birds and the good earth beneath our feet. The canal is part of this network, and passing by the great locks is an echo of both the past, when they were in use, and a taste of the future, when they will be again.

I saw my first moorhen. It even did bird yoga for me, stretching out one wing and one foot, so I could see the shape of each. It hopped into the water, tail flicking as it paddled off. Jackdaws are everywhere. We walked to a large park to gather for the full moon just as the birds gathered to settle for the night. I’ve never seen or heard so many in one place at one time. Their strange popping calls were everywhere.

The local Druids gather in the park like my pack of friends used to, way back when. This feeling of being superimposed between past and future remains with me as I remember what was lost as the years go by. We stand in a small circle, in the dark, among the trees and share songs and stories. Kermit the Frog recites Ozymandias and we hear the story of a man who wandered into the Otherworld with his sheep. We sing, and this group actually picks up choruses quickly enough for us to all sing together. I haven’t heard their songs, nor they mine, but we are perfect in our imperfection, and our joy.

This place feels like the world I meditate on every morning on the way to work. It does exist in pockets, places where people can be themselves, where I feel I can catch my breath and be myself. This group wears what it likes. I feel like I can put all the message buttons back on my pack, and no one wonders if I’ll hurt my feet when I run around in sandals. I feel normal, whatever that is, and among my own kind. As I did at Anderida, and as I undoubtedly will at Bala. We are growing the world we need. It is in the process of becoming, as the world always is, but this time is different. We are living in wonderful, terrible, pivotal times, and places like this, where people sing and walk the footpaths unafraid in the dark, where the animals and plants are as much a part of the community as the humans, show me what the future will look like. Rooted in the past, living in the present, and one with the planet.

I was planning to go on to Bristol, not having met these folk before and not knowing their plans. I ended up canceling my hostel reservations. I’ll catch the train to Bristol in time to go north. This place is too tempting and I can hardly wait to go exploring. There are so many trees here, and such community. This is a place I could get used to and I know that this is where I was meant to be right now.

 

Where Are Your Edges?

Red-tailed hawk sitting on the roof of a car
Encounter With A Hawk

I had an encounter with a red-tailed hawk recently. I was on my way to work, walking up the hill to the bus stop. It’s a nice way to start the day. I’m almost always completely alone among the quiet houses and have space to think and gather the peace of the neighborhood around me. The hawk and I surprised each other. It seemed to fall out of nowhere, landing with a soft thump on the roof of a car just ahead of me. In this quiet space, our meeting was the last thing either of us expected. I stopped, then quietly pulled my phone out of my pocket before creeping forward. Zooming a phone camera always results in a grainy picture, but it was the only way to be sure of getting a shot, so I did it. The hawk looked at me, then flew off to a nearby fence. I followed slowly and quietly and got another shot.

We shared a moment of connection in that short space of time. The hawk didn’t really want to be anywhere near a human, but wasn’t afraid, knowing its wings held safety and reading in my movements that I wasn’t an immediate threat. I, however, wanted the moment to last as long as possible. I looked past the bird rather than directly meeting its eyes, hoping to appear less of a threat, and as it fluffed its feathers I took another shot. It hopped into the air and was gone.

I felt lucky, connected, blessed. I felt a part of my neighborhood in a way I hadn’t a moment before. The wildness is still here to be found in the city, available to all of us. All we have to do is look, listen, and be quiet enough to let it venture close to us. We just need to blend in. We just have to know where our edges are, how far they extend, how and where they meet those of others.

We all have edges. That’s where mystery and power lie. We don’t always pay a lot of attention to them, though. For a moment, the hawk and I shared that awareness. Our unexpected encounter was in balance for a short time, the hawk willing to stay and be observed as long as the distance between us and the quality of energy remained within its comfort zone. The moment may have been longer had I not chosen to pull out a camera, and maybe if there’s a next time I’ll make a different choice. Like a pair of fencers we shared a moment shaped by proximity and intent on a cool gray morning in the heart of the city.

Quiet and awareness are available to all of us at any time. Sitting on a bus, driving a car, even shopping for groceries can be done fully in the moment. I enjoy walking and bicycling so much because both modes of transport give me space to think and be aware of my surroundings. They are enhanced by such awareness. I may not particularly like the neighborhood I live in, but I know it well because I see it at walking speeds and know its beauties as well as its shortcomings. I belong to it and it to me in ways I didn’t when I only drove through it. The moments of our lives are all we really have and we don’t experience them when we’re waiting for this commute to be over, or thinking about what happened the day before. The hawk doesn’t have that problem. For it, it is always now.

I’m deliciously alone when I walk through my neighborhood. This is wealth indeed. On the side streets I essentially have a beautiful estate, full of trees and animals, all to myself. Since almost everyone drives and the few people I encounter are on their way from their cars to their destinations, or reversing that journey, there is rarely any interaction at all. I’m also deliciously alone, however, when I walk the streets of San Francisco. Columbus Avenue is the fastest, flattest way between my workplace and the transit station. It’s two miles through North Beach, in the heart of the city, and though it is well traveled, unless you go out of your way to strike up a conversation, you will usually be left to your own devices. This is actually not as alienating and barren as some who do not live in cities describe it to be. It’s actually a way of giving each other space in the cauldron of activity and stimulation that is a large city. There’s a scene in the first Crocodile Dundee movie that plays with this concept. The main character tries to greet everyone he meets on a crowded New York street. In his small town, this is possible and desirable. In a large city, it’s impossible and exhausting. It is, however, possible to make friends and be a part of the community, and fairly quickly this is what he does. By working with the environment you’re in, instead of lamenting how it isn’t the way things are where you come from, you become part of what is instead of alienated and unhappy. We humans have so many different ways of relating to each other, and we can choose to cocreate our shared space. We can even do it with other species, as the hawk and I did, and as I do with squirrels and other urban wildlife. And if someone in the city needs directions or other interaction, surely it isn’t that difficult to switch gears?

We can choose to be aware of our edges and of those of others around us. Like the first few minutes driving an unfamiliar vehicle, we can and should spend a minute or two finding out where we are on the sidewalk, as we climb onto a crowded city bus, or when we step onto a forest trail. Who and what do we share the space with? Where are our blind spots? Can we see the sky? Sometimes it’s wonderful to block out the sound of other peoples’ phone calls or conversations with headphones, but if we do it all the time we’ll miss the birdsongs in the morning and the interactions we could be having. We’ll miss the chance to be part of where and when we are. We won’t see that hawk.

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

The Goddess of Life and Death Screwed Up…

I may have killed an entire ecosystem. It was my creation, and under my care, and I let creative neglect go a little too far…

I have a worm bin, underneath a tiny oak tree next to my house. It’s a nice little space, shady and cool, and I was pretty diligent for years, dumping our coffee grounds, teabags, and other carefully selected compost into it on a regular basis. I would say, jokingly, as I took off the lid to their world, making the worms wriggle for the darkness and disturbing the other creatures that made up that tiny world, that I was the Goddess of Life And Death. I tried hard to return all the worms to the bin as I harvested finished compost and I watered them with the plants and drew off the wonderful dark liquid that is the only fertilizer we have ever needed for our garden.

This year I didn’t plant a garden. The onion and tomato pests have gotten out of hand because those are our favorite vegetables and we do not use any form of pest control other than soapy water and diatomaceous earth. The ladybugs have returned, among other beneficial insects, and we have decided to see what happens if we work with the land. Snails and other large pests can be thrown to the chickens, after all. I’d decided not to plant tomatoes or alliums of any type this year because we’ve been doing it too many years in a row. The place at the Farmers Market that used to sell a wonderful variety of plant starts in the spring has gone upscale and nothing in the tiny selection they had this year appealed. By the time May rolled around I realized that this was going to be a fallow year and I was fine with that. We still have the herbs and the strawberries, and there’s no shame in taking a rest from gardening and letting the land do the same.

We also have a rabbit. Every day we’re home, she gets to spend most of the day in a small fenced area where the grass is allowed to grow long and she can play among rocks and put her four feet on the quiet earth. Unfortunately, that corner is also where the door to get to the worm bin is. When we switched from a hose to a watering can, there was no longer a reason to use the gate. Slowly, the bin got forgotten. In winter, this was fine. The weather kept it moist, and there was still quite a bit to eat in there. But summer came and with it the dry months of the year. Last night I remembered the bin. We collected the artichoke leaves from dinner, teabags from the iced tea container and the breakfast coffee grounds and this morning I went out to see what was left.

A silent world lay under the lid. I dug around with my hands in the dry top layer and my heart sank. I found a few tiny worms struggling to survive and put them on top of the bowl of food. I pulled the top box and surprisingly, there were more worms alive down there where there was less food, but more moisture. I pulled a large empty planting pot over and carefully dumped the top bin into it, transferring every live worm I could find into the bottom box, where I dumped the food. It became the new top, and I lined the empty box with a chicken feed bag to become the new bottom. I drained off all the dark brown water and dumped the sludge into the pot of finished compost along with soil from empty lettuce bins. Stirred with a shovel and mulched, I left it to become rich soil. In a few days I will take the selected compost we will accumulate and feed it to the bin. If the worms that are left manage to survive and their world begins to come back, in a few months it will be as if nothing has happened for them. I intend to be more careful in the future.

I don’t see the point in guilt in this situation, but I do feel responsible for what happened, and for the future. If I no longer want to care for something that is alive, whether it’s a plant, a worm, or a chicken, I do have to either pass on the responsibility, let the creature go, or end the life. Just letting a closed ecosystem, which is essentially what a worm bin is, die slowly is no different than letting an animal in a cage die of thirst and starvation. It is no different than the way the human species is treating this planet that we live on. For example, downtown there’s a planted area in front of an office building. It used to be full of birches. Beautiful and green, it used to be a place to feast my eyes on as I waited for the bus home. It is really nothing more than an enormous planter box, though. When the trees got too big, they were ripped out. New saplings of a different species are now planted there. The restaurants I walk past in the morning have small planter boxes to define their outdoor seating area. Every six months, the plants are replaced when the old ones die or grow too large for the box. This brings me back to the rabbit. Shanti, as we have named her, was probably a kid’s pet. She was left on the lawn at work a couple of years ago, a couple of months after Easter. Skinny and small, all she wanted was to be loved. We didn’t want a rabbit, but she had nowhere else to go. So she joined the menagerie. Our cats were abandoned on our porch as kittens. They’re bottle babies. Two survived out of a litter of five. The chickens and the worms are the only animals we intentionally brought into this house.

This is how we treat plants and animals. As accessories and furniture. If an animal becomes inconvenient, we get rid of it. If a plant doesn’t fit our vision, or if it was poorly chosen for the space it inhabits and the size it will eventually be, we do the same. I had to do this myself when the ivy that used to fill my front yard popped the retaining wall that holds our house above the street. We chose rosemary and lavender to replace it and hope they will not become a problem in a century as the ivy did. The oak beside the house will also probably have to go in the end as it is inches from the foundation.

I’m planting nothing perennial in this yard except for the lavender and rosemary. I long for a lemon tree, but the yard is too small to handle it. We spend far too much time beating back the runner bamboo from the property on one side of us, and the ivy from the yard on the other side to create another future problem. The owners of the apartment buildings on either side refuse to see that there is any problem and as they are absentee owners, it is much easier to just trim and uproot diligently than make this into a court case. It is better to live within these limitations than to create a larger mess, legal or ecological. We have long outgrown this yard and this house. Like this planet, it seemed limitless when we moved in, but now we have found the edges of the space and what we can do with it. Four chickens, one rabbit, two cats and two people. And a bin full of worms. That is plenty for now.

We’ve found pretty sustainable solutions for this small space we live in. We’ve even made a dent in cleaning up some of the messes of others. All the tools we need are here to hand, and all we needed to do was think the problems through. It was even fun, in places. The cats are cuddly and well trained, and while I never want to have to do it again, getting up multiple times at night to feed them was fun, as was watching them grow. The rabbit is pretty sweet, and between her, the chickens, and the worms, we have all the compost we will ever need, plus pretty high quality eggs. It’s the same with our planet. We have everything we need to fix our problems. All we have to do is be willing to think creatively–and this seems to be the hard part–change our routines.

So many things are becoming fashionable. It’s easy to laugh at people drinking out of canning jars and growing beards, but beneath the affectations there’s a new sensibility growing. We need to rethink the way we treat each other, and the world around us. We need to think before we buy something and look for quality, durability, suitability–even if it means we have to wait a little before we get what we really want. Think of where something came from, whether it’s a cup of coffee or your next iPhone. And think of where it will go. We humans have an awareness of past, present, and future that few, if any other species, have. Our power has far outstripped our responsibility. Our choices will define the future. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind? I think it’s really that simple.

The Knife Edge of Now

The sidewalk that runs over Hwy. 580
Wild Oakland, high over Hwy 580

It’s the only place we truly live, this moment we spend our whole lives passing through. Try to catch it–no–it’s over. It’s just beginning and ending. We think we have all the time in the world–and here we are, at the end of a life that only seemed long. We want to be young again, though in youth all we wanted was the understanding we thought came with age. Our lives are bounded by the first breath and the last–our lives defined by the cry of agony, or of understanding.

I haven’t really been here in a while. I was busy with my studies. I just finished the Bardic Grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. It was a wonderful ride, but the last bits of it caused me to neglect a few things–like this blog. If you hung in there, thanks. I appreciate your patience. I hope this blog will be the better for the things I’ve learned, and will continue to learn as I move on to the next course in the series.

The knife edge of now has never seemed more important to me than it is at this moment. A referendum in the United Kingdom in a single day has thrown so much into flux. The election coming up in the United States in November looks to be another such moment of decision. I have always believed that we live in a wonderful, terrible, pivotal age, but never have I felt that the threshold of tomorrow is under our feet in quite the way that I do in this year, this moment in time. The choices we make now will be with us for many years to come.

In the morning I grab a moment to stretch this wonderful body I make this journey in, and another of quiet, to find the space between my thoughts. My commute includes a long walk in the cool of morning and I use that space to see the world I wish to live in. In this moment of decision, this might be the most important work that each of us can do. Like it or not, the world is changing and we are, each moment, creating the new world with our actions. Without knowing what we want, we can’t do this work effectively.

As a species, we’ve been blundering through life. Our power has so outstripped our responsibility that we are endangering the very shape of our world. We are driving the bus, drunk, blindfolded, and about to go soaring off the cliff. The world will still be here, but how many wild places and creatures will we take with us?

I see us stopping. Getting off the bus. Sitting down and letting our collective head clear. I see us realizing what we have been doing. Realizing that we are part of this planet. The only place we ever had dominion over it was in our heads. Drunk on power, we were cutting the web of life out from under our own feet.

This knowledge is hard to accept. It will terrify us, and sadden us. This is why we’ve been trying so hard to avoid it, staying high on whatever means we can find, from simple drugs such as alcohol or cocaine, to power, money and celebrity culture. We humans who were meant to be the awareness shining out of Gaia’s eyes have been treating ourselves and our planet like an amusement park, changing our consciousness in as many ways as we can find for fun. Like many teenagers, we may not survive our youthful experimentation, but in my mind, on this lovely morning, I see us doing so.

I see us seeing the big picture. I see us counting the costs of our actions on all beings, on the very planet, before taking them. I see us applying that same calculus to the actions we’ve already taken. I see the feedback loops that are turning towards our destruction slowing…stopping…starting to turn the other way. I see us taking concrete action  that makes a real difference.

This neighborhood I walk through is my testbed. It’s where I live, it’s where I can have an effect. Your mileage may vary–it should, because you live somewhere else, and your two hands are going to be the ones that hammer out your part of the solution wherever you are. It’s going to take all of us, doing what we know to be right and true. We are each going to have to take responsibility for our own actions, and join with the people around us to change what is not serving us, or the planet.

I see these streets I walk along becoming wider. Quieter. Safer. I see us coming out of our houses and walking, as I’m doing right now, up the hill to the bus stop, or to other forms of public transit that are now available. Personal car ownership in my city is one of the things that just doesn’t add up when all its costs are considered, and it is now a quaint relic of the past. The cars that line both sides of every street where I live are gone.

Now don’t be afraid–I’m not coming for your car. You have to make your own decisions, and your mileage may vary, remember? But here in the crowded San Francisco Bay Area. we are spending more money trying to create room for cars than we have. We are making some pretty dumb choices in the name of convenience. Our roads and our public transportation are jam-packed. Our streets aren’t safe to walk on, let alone bicycle or skate on. In my neighborhood we are only just getting around to putting in curb cuts at the corners. I shudder to think what it must be like to try and use a wheelchair around here.

I see us with public transportation that is clean, safe, pleasant, runs frequently and is available 24/7. I see carshares becoming normal, with satellite parking lots in every neighborhood. Most cars are used only a few hours a day. They sit at the curb unused, and everyone only has access to one or two vehicles. We’re either driving a huge, hard to park vehicle or we’re driving something tiny that we can’t fit more than groceries in. With a carshare, we could get a truck if we needed it, or a compact car. We could fit the vehicle to the trip. That would be true freedom–the freedom to travel safely and conveniently in any mode we chose.

I see us walking around our neighborhood instead of getting in our cars and driving through unseeing, intent on nothing but our destinations. I see us meeting each other, being able to put a name to a face. This would give us a lot more than just something to call each other besides “hey you.” It would give us community. Security. It would allow us to know what is going on and who is doing it. What you do would be home before you were, so we’d all behave ourselves. A lot of other things would be quaint relics of the past too. Dumping, for example. I’m very tired of seeing couches without cushions, trash, and broken furniture lying on the side streets. If cars and trucks were rarer, and people identifiable, this wouldn’t be the way we got rid of our unwanted possessions. If people knew each other and walked, we’d have the equivalent of 24 hour security. Without dark, deserted streets, tagging too would be a thing of the past. What if we knew your face as well as your tag? What if, every time it was seen, you were called and required to clean it up? What if all these people who are feeling erased and tagging to show that they exist were given the chance to learn to really use a spray can? What if their skills as artists were nurtured and developed, and they were put to work beautifying our neighborhoods with murals? They might just change their own community, protecting their artwork and, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, working from the gutter, looking at the stars. Just this one change could, at least in my mind, turn my neighborhood around. We’d belong to our neighborhoods in ways we don’t right now. It would give us a home.

This is only some of what I think about as I walk to the bus each morning. I’m at the side of the road, watching the cars scream by, late for something, seeing nothing. I detour into the street at the same places every morning because the same people block the sidewalk with their car. I push the same trash cans off to the side on pickup day because they are in the middle of the sidewalk. I stop and look carefully at the same corners every morning because I know from experience where the traffic will flow and where the stop signs either don’t exist or are treated as suggestions. But I also see the intricate pattern of the ginkgo’s leaves and the cool green of the redwoods reaching for the sky. I hear the birdsong at dawn and feel the cool of morning as the light of the sun makes the world new again. I get on the quiet transbay bus and let it carry me over the Bay Bridge. I have a seat and read for half an hour each morning. I see the shape of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I see the tall masts of the ships I am going to work aboard silhouetted against the sky and think of what it must have been like when the San Francisco shoreline was a forest of lines and spars, when where I am riding was only empty air. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and in the passage of time, I, too will be a part of the past. My moment will be gone. I hope I leave my bit of the world a little better off for having been here.

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