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?

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.

Little Things Make A Difference

smashed Bombay Sapphire bottle in the street
Study in Blue

Sometimes it’s all you can do to get out of bed in the morning. We’ve all been there. Sometimes, like now, very little progress can be made on things. The next election is an eternity away, the bill is stalled in Congress, payday won’t come any faster. The trash is piling up in the streets—

Wait a minute.

Okay, I can’t clean up the neighborhood. But I can keep that wiggly plastic bag from hitting the water and becoming an enticing jellyfish to a marine mammal. I’m walking that way anyway and there’s a trash can at the end of the block. It’s hardly any effort to bend down and swipe it off the ground as I pass.

I can’t ban plastic bags all by my lonesome, but I can keep a few reusable bags in my pack or in my car and use them whenever I buy something.

I can’t stop Starbuck’s from using paper cups and plastic lids, but I can carry my own cup and stop using them myself.

I can build small actions into my life in such a way that they take next to no energy. I can create a new routine for myself so that these things are just the way I handle these everyday tasks, and as they disappear from my bandwidth I can look for more things to add. I can spend my energy on the big things, like town hall meetings, letters to the editor, protests—you get the idea.  The most important benefit is the new mindset I’ve created for myself. I’ve become part of the solution instead of the problem. A person who picks up trash doesn’t create it. A person who actively looks for ways to be of use will find them. And it feels good. It fills part of the hole in my heart that living in a neighborhood full of trash and tags can create. The new way of life that will get us to a future we can all live in starts with me.

What does that future look like to you? What do you see around you that has to stop? What do you see around you that we need to see more of? Most importantly, how can each one of us facilitate it in ways that don’t alienate others? For instance, I was recently at a large event. The organizer bought bottled water for an outdoor lunch. Given the situation and the community level of awareness, it was the best choice, and she’d committed herself to recycling the bottles. Yet people still complained. I was part of the work crew for this event and someone took it upon themselves to snipe about the choice to me. I took a deep breath and chose my words carefully. I had a pewter tankard of water in my hand, and I said as nicely as I could that it was our choice to take a water bottle or not. If they preferred, there were glasses in the dining hall and tap water. I don’t believe I changed a mind, but at least the subject was dropped. And my choice was clear, in my hand.

I find it very freeing to eschew guilt whenever possible. We are, after all, not necessarily the ones who caused the problem, but we are responsible, both for our choices, and for cleaning up the messes we have inherited. There’s no one else, after all, and we are responsible for the world we leave to the next generation. Will they curse our name, or revere us as the ancestors who made the right choices when it was crucial?

Our small actions add up. What we pay attention to grows. How many plastic bags have been avoided by the fact that reusable bags have become a fashion statement? How many pounds of garbage have I pulled out of the woods, a pocketful at a time? How many pounds of garbage can we avoid generating in the first place by choosing to buy quality items, avoiding over packaging, and using things until they wear out? What other changes will occur to us as a result of these small actions? Slowly, the feedback loops that spin towards extinction move more slowly—then stop—then slowly begin to spin the other way…

“such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere” —JRR Tolkien

Earth balloon, lying deflated in the street
Larder, or Living Organism?

We Choose Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Oak tree in a yard in Oakland
Oakland Oak

I’ve always been a city kid, so it’s hardly surprising that I’m an urban Druid. I dream of forests primeval, I’m even on occasion lucky enough to visit them. I am a lifelong Californian, living in the cheap seats of Oakland across from my hometown of San Francisco, so I’m blessed with bits of the old growth forests that once covered this state mere hours away by car. I’m car free though, so getting there takes ingenuity–and friends.

This forces me to get up close and personal with my own urban forest. The trees around us aren’t a cheap substitute for the natural world–they’re the world we have built. Don’t say that you’re not responsible for the way your city or neighborhood is because we are the ones who made it that way. We have the power to change it every day. Responsibility is not just a blame game. It is literally our way of responding to the world around us. Do you hate the trash around you? I know I am not fond of it. So I pick some of it up. Not all of it, I’d be doing nothing else. I’m selective. I concentrate on plastic and scary glass and I just grab a piece or two, the ones that call to me. The broken bottom of a glass with the points sticking up. I see that embedded in my knee and I grab it before someone gets badly hurt. The rubber band that I see in a seagull’s stomach.

The funny thing is, by doing this I have entered into a conversation with my world. Gaia encourages me. She tells me jokes and gives me gifts. The scattered shreds of red plastic near Ocean Beach that I reluctantly decided to pick up before they ended up in the water turned out to be rose petals scattered at my feet. There are oghams in the flight of birds across the sky and awens made of scattered balloons from the street vendor who makes balloon animals. The grass at the side of the FoodsCo in the Mission yesterday had bits of tumbled bottle glass and several round stones arranged in a random, but beautiful pattern. It couldn’t have been wholly natural. How do round tumbled stones and beach glass find their way to the edge of a dirty parking lot in the middle of the city? The stinging nettles around the chain link fence were as beautiful as any botanical photo.

I sat down at my keyboard to show you the beauties of the urban forest and ended up in the weeds. How typical. I was rubbing my knuckles as I walked towards transit, but it was only a glancing blow. Later that same day I walked through my neighborhood to say hello to my greenblood neighbors. The aspens next to the stairs on East 20th St are still asleep, their buds green and swelling, but their branches are still bare. They were the first trees who had a conversation with me and there are very few left. They are slowly being taken out by a more involved neighborhood group that is cleaning up the area. The garbage is gone and the hillside is being replanted. That is what we humans do, though. We have planted most of the trees in our respective areas. The aspens are not native, nor is the huge palm and the eucalypts who share that hillside. The Monterey pines might have grown there by themselves, but I doubt it.

I cross Fifth Avenue with care. Few people walk in this neighborhood, and Fifth is a very fast street once you get past the small shopping district on East 18th. There are hawthorns in the next block, and I touch their bare branches. They, too, are still asleep, a few red berries clinging still but the leaves are hard greenish buds. The hawthorn Queen at the top of the block is the same. She will burst out in white flowers in a few short months but now she is skeletal, her long thorns bare and sharp.

There’s a redwood with a doubled trunk in a yard a few blocks further on. It is well loved as is the yard that surrounds it. The fence has been replaced with two-by-fours that mark the perimeter, but are obviously movable as the tree grows in girth. I stop and touch its soft green needles and whisper “Happy Spring” before continuing up the hill to the gnarled olive at the top. This tree is a magnet for furniture. People sit under it and talk in the summer, and the street is littered with its fruit each Fall. I think of Poseidon’s salt spring as I admire Athena’s far more sensible gift, a tree that can serve a community in so many ways.

I pass under a couple of large pin oaks as I continue towards home. There are still acorns on the ground under them, as well as fallen leaves. They are so large it wouldn’t surprise me if they, like the large redwoods, were here to witness the building of the neighborhood. The oaks would feed us if we had the sense to let them. They certainly feed the plentiful squirrels in the area. I see them often, running on the wires and telephone poles as well as the trees.

I used to beg Gaia for a new posting, but this is where I’m planted, for now. I am here to see the green, to notice the trees and the animals and the life all around us. I’m here to plant my own seeds of awareness, and to nourish the ones in you who are reading this. So many of us live in cities, and that isn’t likely to change in the near future. It may be part of our evolution as social animals. We made these cities for good reasons. They are cauldrons of change, mixing different cultures, ideas, peoples. This is reflected in the trees. Palms grow next to redwoods, next to aspens and magnolias. None of us, individually, freely chose to be here. We are planted by circumstances only partly within our control. We have to live with people we wouldn’t have chosen as neighbors for many reasons, but the dance of sharing space can bring out the best in us as well as the worst.

Since so many of us live in cities, this is where the world is most likely to be changed. I may dream of living in the forest, but I know that I have a responsibility to the future. I was shaped in the city and carry its gifts within me. I grew up hearing many languages spoken around me, wrapping my tongue around names that sang of other lands, playing with kids of many different races. That doesn’t make me immune to prejudice–I don’t think that’s possible for any of us–but it did give me a base of comfort with people who aren’t like me. It made me crave difference in people, foods, clothing, points of view.

I notice as Druids, so many of us devalue the cities we live in. We view them as necessary evils. we dream of escaping to the country, and we frankly spend more time in our cars, and at our destinations, than we do in this environment that we have made. I hear rural Druids lamenting the fact that all the big events happen in cities, and it’s difficult and expensive for them to attend. I hear them talk of their isolation, as I hear of Urban Druids talk of our disconnectedness with nature. I watch us all pile into cars, either to head for the city, to be with others of like mind, or to escape to the country, where we are more in touch with nature. This is difficult, expensive, and damaging to the environment we all profess to love.

So what is the answer? We’re going to have to discover that together. But I think that we can start by loving where we are, and by getting out of our cars whenever possible. Walk your neighborhood. Meet your green neighbors. Meet your animal and human ones as well. If you don’t like where you live, look for your true home by all means, but maybe it’s closer than you think. Land, Sea, and Sky are available to all of us, any time. All you have to do is concentrate on what’s beneath your feet, what fills your lungs, and the tides that flow inside you. Gather online, or, like the Druids of old, create gatherings large and small and support those around you. Above all, realize that like it or not, your life is being lived where you are, and bloom where you’re planted.

Mother Of The Grove

Dead sequoia snag, burned, with the sky showing through the holes where its branches once were
Mother of the Grove, California

There is a dead seqoia in the middle of a grove in California. Burned, but standing as if still alive, she is telling the story of her own death. Faint lines, eight feet apart, ring her trunk. They are the marks left by the workers who built a scaffold and removed her bark in eight foot wide sections, to be taken to London and displayed in the Crystal Palace. In 1908, she caught fire. She is beautiful even so. She stands, even though she is gone.

I went to the primordial forest with a pack of Druids. We’d just gone to Pantheacon, and were sharing our forest with a Druid from Wales. He’d shared Llyn Tegid with me, and it seemed only manners–as well as first rate fun!

We were completely unprepared for this, and maybe that’s how it should be. That’s why I’m not telling you where this was, though it’s easy enough to find out if you want to know. This tree broke our hearts. Opened our hearts. Made us ask the question, how could we humans do this? She stands to remind us that we must never do this again. She is a warning, she shows us the guilt and pain we have already bequeathed to the future in what we have destroyed, and asks us if we want to continue to add to it.

Find Us A Place

Druidcenter

Do Druids need a community center? This question comes up fairly often. I’ve definitely thought of it myself. There’s an empty church nestled next to the largest trees in the neighborhood that has drawn my eye since the services stopped many years ago. What a perfect place! An old Craftsman style building, a five bedroom house and a large open space for the church. A wild front yard with an apple tree next to the gate and a large swath of land behind running the length of the block. Ah, dreams…

The idea is all that I need, really, and maybe that is the whole point of the Universe showing it to me. In a neighborhood of Christian churches, a Druid’s nest, among the trees, would add something interesting to this place and just maybe people would be moved to learn about our green neighbors and love them as I do. There is a ginkgo just down the street, for example, the buds on its myriad branches green and swelling in the sunlight. In a couple of months it will be lush and green, and in Fall, its leaves will turn yellow and drop in a circle of gold on the street and the sidewalk. I’ll stand within them for a moment and thank it for the gift of soil it is trying to give.

Down the street is a huge old pin oak that stays green and shady year round. It drops a wealth of acorns each year, more than the neighborhood squirrels can eat and I am always sorry that my hands are too screwed up to process them into meal and flour any more. I wish for a community then, a lot of us sitting, talking, singing as we do the work to honor the gift the trees so freely give.

A few blocks away there are olive trees, lining 10th Avenue. Their fruit falls on asphalt, their gnarled, psychedelically shaped trunks showing how long they have been growing here and watching the neighborhood grow and change. Victorian mansions giving way to Craftsmen, who fell to be replaced by crackerbox apartments. Some of each remain, and the white faces gave way to brown, who gave way to yellow, and now we are beginning to whiten again. Again, some of each remain, and I hope that this time we will become as different and interesting as the trees of this place, the indigenous oaks and redwoods interspersed with birches, aspens and–palms? The queen of hawthorns crowns a hill a couple of blocks from the olives. A row of them marches down East 19th towards the Monterey pines of Lake Merritt.

My community surrounds me. We don’t need a community center when we could, if we so chose, gather around these trees, and meet on the lawns of Lake Merritt. Still, it would be so nice to have that building, open a neighborhood coffeehouse, a library, and have a large space for rituals, classes, and bardic circles. I envision the Wild Druid Collective living there, caring for the building and the land, creating a garden and a labyrinth in the back, pulling up the concrete of the parking lot and returning that hilltop to the earth. Let the rain soak in and the sunlight bathe the soil that would be once again able to live and breathe in the open air, like the rest of us. Let us serve it, as it serves us, as do the trees all over this neighborhood, the trees that I hope my neighbors visit, as I do. Because, really, we have our community all around us.

We don’t need to follow the Abrahamic model of making a box for God’s people to visit Him in every week, then go about their business. The Druids of old, however, took learning wherever they could find it. When the raiders came, they learned to write and left us riches, knowledge that should have been carried on the breath put into cold storage, as well as growing vinelike around the Christian tree that had been planted, changing it, creating a different beauty until the Church of Rome had to hold the Synod of Whitby to bring its errant child to heel. The calendar was forcibly yanked back into line, and the priests no longer allowed to tonsure themselves like Druids, ear to ear instead of the crown of the head. To stand our ground in this land, perhaps a page from their book would help, a place to gather, a box that we could fill with beauty and what is needful, while letting the Land around us also be the sacred place that it has always been.

70% of All of Us

Pardon me, do you have a minute to talk about water? I really think this conversation is long overdue. When you turn your tap, have you ever considered where the cool clean miracle that comes out of it came from? Go ahead. Get a glass. Fill it up and take a drink. Feel it slip down your throat and become part of you.

Thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act, we in the United States have the right to know where our drinking water comes from, and what exactly is in it.

Tap water is a blessing. Water is a gift from the earth and the sky. Tap water in the United States is more rigorously tested than any bottled water, and it is available to all. It is subject to laws that are getting better and better at using it sustainably, for the good of all while bottled water is a product of profitmaking companies, who take without any thought for the amount, and the effect on the land they take it from. That pretty picture on the label is likely a lie. Major brands like Aquafina (Pepsi) and Dasani (Coca Cola) are basically tap water. Spring water is not required to come from a spring to bear that label. These companies are damaging the land I live in, and our already overstressed aquifers. They are doing this all over the world. There is a campaign in my state, as a matter of fact, to get people to trust and drink tap water. The idea that it isn’t safe is yet another set of lies by companies who want to sell us water filters and–you guessed it–bottled water. I won’t go into the waste and hype any further here because that isn’t my main point, and the information is readily available. I hope I’ve inspired you to go and seek it out for yourself because it is an illuminating exercise.

Where does your tap water come from? Mine comes from the Mokelumne river and is stored in Pardee Reservoir. From there, the trail back to the source leads to the Sierras, and the snowmelt that feeds the river. The water that runs from my tap is piped from the reservoir, and across the Central Valley to Oakland, where I live.

The story darkens from here. Pardee Dam was built in 1929 to supply the fast-growing East Bay with water. In the process, the salmon runs were forced downstream. The downstream Camanche Dam was added in 1963. The fish managed to make the adjustment at first, but now, between population growth, destructive water management practices and climate change, the salmon and steelhead runs are nearing extinction.

Mokelumne is a Plains Miwok word meaning “people of the fishnets.” Their connection to the river and their means of existence are encapsulated in that name that we don’t think about. The people were long gone before the dams were ever built, having been removed to the missions. There are few left today. The Ohlone, of which the Miwok are a part, are not federally recognized tribes, and live on meager allotments while they fight for recognition. Their ancestral waters have thus been appropriated for our use.

All this information flowed from one simple question: Where does the water I drink come from? Now my questions are many, and answers few. What can I do to help the salmon? To support the people who have lost their river and their way of life in their quest for recognition? The other Native Californians who deserve recognition, and respect? What are their land spirits, and how can I respect them as well? Scattering tobacco and saying thanks is nice, but it doesn’t change anything for the people and the land, it only means I have manners.

I don’t know any of this yet, and I do know that respect for water is only a beginning. I know that connection to this land that I live in is something that begins with simple things like knowing where my water comes from, using it with awareness of its scarcity, and not wasting it. Knowing the plants and animals that share this land with me, and respecting the people who took care of it before I was born is not only manners, it makes my own life more meaningful. I know that the more of us who do so, the richer our lives will be, and the more likely it is that we will find ways to make connections that will bring us together in truth. Together we can pass the land to the future in better condition than we received it.

I began this post with a simple way to appreciate and connect to water. Here’s a more challenging way to do it in my area. On a hot day go to the hills, where in my tradition, Lugh reigns right now. Walk in the heat and the dust, smell the dry, golden grass all around you. Touch the powdery dry bark of the live oaks and feel their waxy leaves. Listen to the hum of heat, and feel your own sweat run down your body as you hike in the heat and glorious sunshine. Feel yourself getting parched and overheated. At the top of a hill, where you can see the glorious Pacific, or San Francisco Bay spread out before you, open your pack. In it you have packed a water bottle, wrapped against the heat, beaded with condensation and filled with cool water. You won’t be able to resist running that bottle over your body, holding it against the back of your neck, feeling the beads of moisture on your skin, cool and wonderful. Hold it in your hand and open it, and when you drink, you will feel every molecule of coolness as it slips down your throat and becomes part of you. You will feel every cell in your body open to the giver of life, the gift of California’s rains and her living heart, depending on where this water you drink comes from.

When you go home, take a shower, wash yourself clean, and think about the miracle we all have installed in our homes; an ever flowing waterfall, that runs at any temperature we choose. What has it been? Seventy years or so since showers became a regular part of our lives? We are so wealthy. We would do well to appreciate what we have, and give thanks for it.

What is the story of water in your land?