One of the gifts the pandemic has given me is a return to my bicycle. Two wheels and feet have become the safest way for me to travel. I have been getting our groceries on the bike, but since I have been called back to work on site, the bicycle makes it possible to take the ferry across the bay instead of using BART. At first there were fewer cars on the road, but even as people decide that they have given the pandemic all the time they can afford to and jump back into their cars, I have become acclimated again, and have found other ways to separate myself from the worst of the traffic. Thankfully, there has been some progress on the bike path network as well. There are still gaps between the paths, but they are shorter than they were, and some real improvements, such as a long stretch of Folsom in San Francisco and a lot of Valencia Street.
I was curious about the Bay Trail running north from Jack London. I decided to see how far I could get after trying to trace the route via satellite imagery. I wanted to go to REI anyway, I needed to replace my beloved baskets. They are great, but impractical for transit and don’t fit lockers or even many racks, which are built for wide handlebars and narrow back wheels. They also make it impossible for me to pick up Beater with any kind of a load. I wanted a real rack that would support panniers, which can be carried separately, and also the weight of a load of groceries. I also wanted to see how crowded BART is, so I took the trail to North Berkeley and rode back. I picked up a rack rated for 110 pounds, and one of the only panniers they had left. No one in the bike shop could tell me how to get through the Maze, so I bought a newer version of the bike map I already have, which is the best five bucks I’ve spent in a while.
The Berkeley end was pretty good. It took less than half an hour to get from REI to Emeryville, and that was because I was dawdling a bit, enjoying being near the water on a really beautiful trail. That ended around IKEA. There is a good separated trail down Maritime, through the Port, but the exhaust is pretty heavy, and there are a couple of spots where you have to cross the streets the trucks use. According to the map there are two other possibilities, 40th to Mandela, or Middle Harbor to Third. Seventh was scary. The path is really a wide sidewalk, and there are several intersections much like those in the Port. I won’t be doing that again if I have a choice.
I bailed at Oakland West, and wished I hadn’t. Third will get me close to Jack London, and the Bay Trail will get me to 5th. The recent improvements in the bike lanes in my neighborhood don’t do me much good, though there is one light on International that has gotten rid of one blind crossing that I appreciate very much. I still have the potholed side streets largely to myself, and have plenty of decent sections of pavement that I can thread the needle home on.
All in all, it was a useful expedition. It looks like there is a very long but possible ride from Lake Merritt to the San Rafael Transit Center. That opens up the possibility of taking a bike to Point Reyes, perhaps to Mt. Tam depending on the trails from the other side of the bridge, and perhaps points north. Maybe, with all the people trying out bicycling, the Bay Trail’s gaps will be filled in the near future.
I’m a city kid, born and raised in San Francisco. I’m also a Druid, and while I love the urban forest, there are times when I just have to get off the pavement and into the woods! Here in the Bay Area we are blessed with wild places. It’s surprising just how many of them are accessible on public transit. Today I’m going to share one of my closest “nature fixes,” complete with directions, should you choose to see it for yourself.
Last weekend I found myself overcome with spring fever. I was close to a BART station, so I jumped on the Fremont train. Fruitvale Station is easy to get to for many of us, and blessed with many buses to the hills. If you feel like a cup of coffee or something more substantial beforehand, there are also lots of choices there, which makes it a great starting point. The 54 line to Merritt College begins its run there, and I was soon aboard on my way to paradise. The ride winds up 35th Avenue, through the Laurel District and up the hill past a variety of places of worship. Since my church is the forest, I felt right at home. I got off at Merritt College, the end of the line. From there I crossed the street, walked across the broad lawn and crossed the street again on the other side. This put me at the head of the York Trail.
Almost immediately I was in redwoods. The trail winds down, switching back and forth across the steep slope. I didn’t cut the switches—why miss a single minute of this? Water was running down the trail, the last rain was yesterday, after all. There were few flowers, but the green was everywhere. In a few weeks, this place will be a riot of color and I am already planning my next visit. I could hear the creek running long before I got to it. At the top of the trail it is confined in a concrete culvert, a reminder that this is still the heart of the city. I crossed the little bridge that met the trail and turned right, going downhill with the creek.
The only marker for the York Trail is a laurel tree next to a dip in the side of the main trail. The way is rougher and steeper than the main trail, but it is an invitation to inhabit your animal body. The hazels were just beginning to leaf out and the wet, wild smell of earth and new growth surrounded me.
Leona Heights was logged a century and more ago. The redwoods that grow in the canyon are all new growth, all but one. This was the adventure I chose this wet, spring day. Old Survivor grew in a hard place and was spared the axe. I found its crown, sticking high above the tops of the younger trees, but the drop from the trail above isn’t possible, or at least I don’t want to chance it. Today I worked my way down the trail till the forest called me, then struck out across the hillside. I followed the ways the deer took across the good green earth, through hazels and poison oak. I took my time, sang to Brighid as I stood next to a hazel with leaves and branches so small and fine they seemed to be floating in midair.
I could see the York trail below me and hear the song of water, so loud in this year of plentiful rain. I trusted my boots, jeans and thick canvas coat to protect me from the poison oak, like the hazel, just budding out, and to hide me from the spring breakers whose voices rang through the canyon. I was glad I’d heeded the call of the forest and that the wet undergrowth was quiet beneath my feet as I followed the deer paths from redwood to hazel to laurel. At every opening in the canopy I looked up, hoping to find the tree I was looking for, but the forest wasn’t going to give up its secrets today. The oldest tree in the forest would remain a quest for another time. When I ran out of deer paths I climbed back up to the trail I’d started from and looked once again for Old Survivor. The French broom was so thick from the rains that it was hard to find, but there it was, and the drop over the edge of the trail was just as bad as I remembered. I followed it to another side trail and back down to Mountain Road. A ten minute walk had me back on the Redwood Road, and at the 54 stop next to the Safeway. Home was only two buses away.
If you’d like to take this adventure yourself, here is a basic page on the area. If you find Old Survivor, let’s go hiking together!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was lucky enough to spend the morning in Lafayette. It’s heavily wooded, as many of the more affluent East Bay suburbs are, and at 11 on a Tuesday morning, I had the back streets to myself. It was finally Fall today. Cloudy and cool, and the streets are covered with oak leaves and acorns. I used to come here on days like this to collect acorns, as oaks are the dominant tree here. I chose three perfect acorns of three different species, scarlet, valley, and live oak. They are all three tasty, but processing acorns is very hard on the hands and these days I choose to save the limited use I have of mine for writing and music.
I thought, as always, of the wealth of this community. Between the oaks and the deer, how could anyone possibly starve here? Huge trees and huge yards for gardening. I heard more than one chicken singing egg song as I walked.
I saw redwoods as well, and as always felt a little sorry for them. They’re all in ones or twos, rarely a planned development has a forest of young ones planted. They try hard to form a forest, throwing out shoots all around themselves, but vigilant landscapers take care of those before they get too big.
One potential mother of a grove was sly, throwing out a potential trunk high in its side. By its size, this one has been allowed to remain as it is far above eye level and growing close against the trunk. In the forest, a tree like this would produce a branch of trees, growing in the sky.
When I got back to Oakland, I rode my bicycle through my own urban forest. The olives growing in the beds created by the traffic calming curbs:
The hawthorn a couple of blocks away, at the top of the hill:
The birches in front of the apartment building on 8th Avenue:
There are many others as well. The trees in my neighborhood resemble the people. Few of us are natives, but we have all made a home here. Except for the spreading oaks and redwoods, the only large trees are those that were planted on the grounds of the great mansions that were the first houses built.
What does your neighborhood look like? what trees do you share your home ground with?
I didn’t get to busk today. I had to sort out yet another crime-related problem. You see, in the ten years since we’ve become homeowners, we’ve been burglarized twice. The first time, I came home and caught the guy in the house. I wrested my laptop from his hands while screaming curses at the top of my lungs, and was very lucky to only be hit across the face in the process. Honestly, I didn’t notice. The police had to tell me I had blood running down my hand where he’d tried to claw my fingers away from the laptop, and my partner later noticed the bruise on the side of my face. I’d wondered how my glasses ended up across the yard…
My neighbors were no help whatsoever. One ran into her house and slammed the door. Another was home, and later told me he had heard something, but didn’t feel he could come outside to see what was going on. The third watched from across the street as I staggered out onto my porch, then turned around and walked into his house. No one called the police.
We got an alarm after that. It didn’t help. The next set of burglars ripped it out of the wall. Our neighbors were once again home, and did nothing. The police came twelve hours later, after repeated calls. We barred the windows completely after that and we take our electronics with us when we leave. Not that we have much left. We were never able to replace our laptops or the video cameras my partner was hoping to someday make a living with, times being what they are.
The cats set the alarm off last month. The police were called, and never came. We got home three hours later and had the alarm company cancel the police call. I filed a complaint against the police department and my partner talked to the neighbors. Once again, some people had been home and no one had even bothered to check, let alone call the police. Filing a complaint was all we could do, really.
Yesterday I received a bill for a false alarm. Today, I called the officer in charge of our complaint and was completely stonewalled, as I had been when I filed the complaint. They respond to calls according to a priority system and property crimes are lower priority, et cetera, et cetera. And he had no way to deal with the bill, that was something I’d have to take up with the city of Oakland.
It took an hour or so, but I found the right clerical at last, and she was very helpful. My second call had been to the alarm company to get the documentation of what had happened. All I need do is send it to her and the bill will be canceled. Between the file I made of everything I’d done, all the phone calls I had to make, and the navigation of various systems, I’m out two hours and a day of busking. I saved myself almost $100 in fines. The anger and frustration is gravy, and the fear of leaving my house unguarded every day is something I’ve lived with for the last couple of years.
The damage to Oakland is multiplied by all the other homeowners who are in the same position I am, and it is completely unnecessary. In our neighborhood, one house is probably causing most of this. Every house has an alarm on this block, and several of us have been robbed, some more than once. After the first burglary, I saw the man who assaulted me. He saw me too, the way he ducked down on his porch proved that. I did my best to just walk along as if I hadn’t seen him, but as soon as I got around the corner I called the police. After all, they had his fingerprints. I was now able to give them his address. They asked me what I wanted them to do about it. And then they stonewalled me. The neighbors at the time knew of him, they called him “skinny guy.” None of them, even those who had been robbed by him, were willing to talk to the police.
This is a microcosm of the problems that face us all today. We all know what needs to be done, we just don’t want to do it. As neighbors, we need to pay attention to what goes on. We need to check on each other and call the police when necessary. We need to act as if this is home, and as if our actions matter.
The apartment building next door had a robbery averted about four years ago. We heard the break-in and asked, loudly, over the fence, what was going on. The burglar ran. We called the police. It was simple, and it’s what neighbors do, right?
Our actions matter. Just because we can’t solve the whole problem is no reason not to do what we can. Just because we don’t have the power to change things we know are wrong is no reason not to speak up. I can’t clean the whole beach, but I pick up trash all the time. Not all of it, just some, but I leave it a better place than it was when I got there. That’s all I have to do, I only have two small hands. That’s all any of us have to do. Is what we are about to do part of the problem, or part of the solution? That’s the only question we have to ask.
I got an apologetic call back from the police officer who stonewalled me this morning. He said that the bill was their mistake and he would have it cancelled. I didn’t mention the fact that he’d told me of his powerlessness to do just that this morning. I thanked him and I am quietly planning the next step. Until we can get out of Oakland we will continue to do whatever we can to make it a better place. It isn’t about any individual police officer, it’s about a system that does not respond to the needs of their citizens. It’s about a city government that cuts services and at the same time institutes more fees and fines on their citizens. $25 a year for an alarm permit. An $84 fine for a false alarm. A $25 appeal fee to protest such a fine. And it goes on. Every crime not investigated, every neighbor who turns a blind eye when someone is hurt, when someone dumps another sofa on the corner or throws another bag of trash out of a moving car makes Oakland a poorer place.
Poor isn’t about money, not really. I was taught the difference between being short of money and being poor. I was also taught that good taste costs no more. it’s about learning to cook, about making things last and buying only what you need. It’s about reaching for the stars even when you’re living in a tagged trash can of a neighborhood. It’s about feeding your head, spending that bus ride with a library book instead of sprawling across two seats and scowling at everyone who passes. Our house may be filled with secondhand furniture but it’s also filled with a well read library. We may not be able to afford to eat out much, but the house smells of a well made stew that will provide us with lunches for the week and the chicken whose bones provided the stock is waiting to be roasted for dinner. We are wealthy, and it’s a wealth everyone can have–and should.
We’ll be leaving Oakland as soon as we are able. It’s sad, really. Our first home together was six blocks from where we live now and we’ve moved all around the East Bay since. Oakland is beautiful, a place of fine old houses and with an urban forest as diverse as the people who live within it. Lake Merritt is a jewel and the estuary that feeds it is one of the finest city birdwatching sites I’ve ever seen. But in nearly thirty years it hasn’t changed one bit, except possibly for the worse. I’m tired, and I’m not willing to invest any more of my life in this place. But I wish it well, it deserves better. All it needs are people who care, and are willing to get involved with what goes on around them.