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 Stones Whispered “Connection”

The Stones at Calanais
The Stones at Calanais

The stones whispered “connection” to me. It took a while. A whole year, and the answer came from a different place entirely. Stones are like that. They just exist at a slower pace. Their connection spans the earth, through the crust of the planet. Sea, Sky, Land, from the changes that occur in the space of a deep breath at the planetary timescale, to the eons-long drift of the continents. One year I stood silent and listening at Calanais, the next, at Long Meg, I heard.

We have a hard time listening, we humans. There is so much to be heard around us that the subtle gets drowned out. The night sky is dimmed by our lights, the soundscape of the planet dulled by our sounds. Answers that come softly and slowly over time are often missed, with all the distractions of daily life. Luckily for us, the conversation the universe is having with us is never over. We just have to get quiet enough to hear it. The plants on a hillside will tell you where the water is, if you take the time to look. What do the weeds in your yard tell you about the soil? Are there crickets in your neighborhood? Where do the birds gather? More importantly, what does each small nudge of awareness say deep inside you?

Spending time in the same place has rooted me in it. I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have never really left it. Truly, where you have done your living is the measure of your life’s connection to land. I have watched the land change here, returning to the same places year after year. The trees that formed the back of the grove at Mt. Tam are fallen now, returning to the land. Trees that were seedlings when I first came here are now taller than I am.

I had to leave for a time to get a different perspective on home. Even a month caused me to see my land with new eyes. Returning from Albion allowed me to see two different Octobers, side by side. Green grass and gold, rushing waters and dry creekbeds. The smell of home is much stronger after a journey elsewhere. I was fortunate to have two trips, almost exactly a year apart, to the same place. I was able to spend time walking through the same Welsh forest, and come back to the same place in California at the same season.

Forest Path
Forest Path, Llyn Tegid, Wales

The first thing I noticed was the smell. High notes singing in my head, the smell of dry grass, oak and bay laurel. Powdery and golden in my nose, the incense of summer in California, it builds as the months without water pass, enduring until the returning rains wash it from the air and replace it with the crystal smell of water.  As I walked farther down the trail, I was embraced by the forest coolness. Brown redwood needles underfoot, gold to copper, and the darkness in their groves. The huge trees towered over me. It was so different from the Welsh faerie forest, some large trees but most of the trees I saw there would be dwarfed by these redwoods. I stood in the middle of a city, but here beside the barely running creek the last remnants of the forest reigned.

Forest Path, Redwood Bowl, California
Forest Path, Redwood Bowl, California

I took a number of walks after each trip, to talk to the forest and to look for the connections between this place and the ones 5,000 miles away. It’s as if I’m walking through an Albion newly discovered, the forests still, if not intact, large enough to lose oneself in, given a little imagination. This land might have looked like primeval home to the Northern Europeans, who followed the Spanish, who both wrested this land from the First Peoples. There are place names reminiscent of Scotland, the town of Inverness, and Ben Lomond down south. Now that I have seen a bit of Scotland I understand why. The rocky, craggy shores of California were once part of a great temperate rain forest that stretched across the northern hemisphere, and remains of it still can be found. I chase fog, and in December, when what turn out to be the only heavy rains of that year arrive, I wander through our local redwoods and see the scarlet amanitas appear.

Amanita, Redwood Bowl, California
Amanita, Redwood Bowl, California

We have remnants of forests, Albion has years of human habitation. Waves of it, leaving traces everywhere. Stone circles abound. What were they for? At Calanais, I was sure I didn’t know. Now, I know something they can teach us today. It took many hands, and many years to create these places. They seem to serve no purpose in keeping us alive–no food, no shelter, few remnants of human habitation from the time of their building. Their building was a cooperative effort, connecting their builders together, and the land as well.

We humans right now are as connected as we’ve ever been–and as far apart. We turn people not like us into the grinning masks of our worst fears, yet I can get online and speak to my friends across the Atlantic in the time it takes us to check our messages. We humans have had a few moments of spectacular cooperation–the International Space Station and the founding of the UN being two that loom large in my mind, but we have also often left our most vulnerable to die. We have access to the rest of the world, on demand, but we don’t have a connection to it. In order to have a connection with people, you have to spend time with them. Working on a project together will create this. Working on something that will benefit people you will never see, your descendants, for example, or our world, is the task I think we’re all called to do right now. We have all lived close to five millennia since the first of these circles were built, and we are distanced from the daily lives of their builders in ways that make it easy to idealize lives lived in partnership with the earth. It is easy to forget that ancient peoples did these things because they had no choice, their culture drawing its strength from working in ways that let them harness the strength of the land they lived in, their technology having to be based on an awareness of how natural cycles worked because they did not have the strength or knowledge to do otherwise.

Now, we’ve achieved power enough as a species to do as we please–for a while. We forgot, however, that we live in a closed system. This planet and what it is made of is all we have. If we exceed the natural cycles of life, by unlocking carbon from the land and sending it into the sky, with no provision for returning it to the land, we literally change the face of the earth, determining what can live, and where. We are doing this with little thought, as we can’t see the faces of the future. The pace of change is accelerating, but for so long it has been gradual, taking generations to pick up speed enough to be seen as a real series of events rather than just a series of measurements taken. It’s as if we climbed behind the wheel of a bus, drunk, and let off the brake. The bus has been rolling, slowly gathering speed, and we are fast reaching the edge of a cliff. If we assume responsibility equal to our power, in effect, apply what we already know as a brake, we could slow the speed of the changes, and learn how to work in harmony with the rest of the beings we share this planet with. As the builders of the circles of stone did, millennia ago.

I walked the hills above my home until I came upon a rock that felt like Long Meg. When I sit there and let the stillness creep into me, I can feel my connection. A year and more have passed since I set my back against Meg, but the rocks of California remember.

Standing Stone, California
Standing Stone, California