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?

Common Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Eating Our Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Stephen Harrod Buehner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

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

We are better than that.

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

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

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

Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Inspired by the posts of Mrs. Whatsit

Centenary

I know you’re angry.
So am I.
How could we not be?
Children ripped from their parents,
Concentration camps in Texas.
“I can’t breathe”
“I remember their laughter”
A child-man throwing ugly decrees from his high chair.

But from a high shelf in Europe come watercolor images a century on.
French families fleeing destruction.
Children starving in Yemen.
Corpses of trees standing witness as men follow orders into death.
As we follow our leaders.

They know who we need to hate.
In front of City Hall we are led in chants.
We know the story.
Our indignation gives us the right to hate.
We have worked so hard, but They stole our votes, our climate, our lives.
We will make them pay!
We will come here every night if necessary!
Bearing placards, twisted pictures of an uncrowned King.
A piñata we can beat to death
Until we get our hands on him.

Where is the line? When do We become Them?

Wind back time, another protest.
The First Peoples told us,
“Rise in peace, in prayer when you do this work”
I remember as I raise an electric candle.
I see a woman of amber gently closing the lion’s mouth
Pushing peacefully, inexorably,
In the direction where the muscles of hate have no choice but to obey.

Yes. I will witness.
Every night if necessary.
I will shine a light, but I will not hate.
I see the skeletal trees.
The skeletal children.
I see Armstrong’s footprints.
Earth rising above the lunar landscape.
The green children of Glen Affric.
Forests hiding trenches, life returning.

The bell is tolling, a century later.
Can we hear the words of Harry Patch?
Can we hear The Green Fields of France?
The ghosts gather round, asking “Have you ended war yet?”

Only a fool fights when the world is burning.
Peace begins with me.
The truth against the world.
Peace begins with all of us.

A woman in a white dress pushes a gaudy lion's mouth closed.
Strength, from the Morgan-Greer Tarot

The Druidry of Time

Grey sky, the green hills reflected in the still waters of the lake
Llyn Tegid Stood Still
   I decided to change up my commute this morning. I left the house before first light, listening to that small, still voice that is easily drowned out by the roar of daily life. I stepped directly onto the bus, and got a quiet car on the BART. I  got a good long look at the red streaks of dawn through the window just before the train dove under the Bay.
   This gave me time to walk to work from the station. I’ve been walking the other way, after work, in an effort to preserve some of the peace and clarity of my recent trip to Albion. If the afternoon walk was good, the morning is even better. I got to walk through the coolness and quiet of North Beach before the cafes are open and the sidewalks full of tables and people intent on their phone screens. I’m here at work before most people get in and am able to sit and write for a bit after spending some time alone with My Ladies, the ships who form our collection and carry their cargo of memory into the future. I am able to spend a moment or two reconciling my Druidry and my current livelihood in a way that allows me to build some more of that deep connection into the life I am living, the shape of this moment in time.
   We are all, to some degree, caught in a web that we don’t like, and it is often difficult to see our part in the weaving of it. We make choices and often are forced to do so without all the facts to hand, or in spite of the facts. I chose to be where I am now. I came here to serve these vessels and in the cool of morning, before I’m trapped in matters that have little to do with these Ladies and in fact have no part whatsoever in their survival, I can remember why I’m here and make as much time for my true work as possible.
   I picked up a sprig of fresh rosemary from the sidewalk this morning. I inhale its fresh scent and block out the tribal babblings in the next room. This moment is still mine. The darkened light of Autumn shines through the window and picks out the rich colors of the signal flags fluttering from every mast. I made every one of those hoists, party clothes for My Ladies. They don’t wear them often, but when they do they are resplendent indeed. This is the last time those flags will be flown before winter and I wonder if a century from now someone like me will be looking at another set of them in the same way.
   The space of a century is how I spend my early mornings in this place. I walk through the ferryboat, the only sounds the slap of the water and the creak of mooring line and gangway. I see all the ships of this collection in that time, a time when I and all of the people that inhabit this slice of time with me are dead. We are gone, but the vessels remain. Like the forest, the individuals that make up the whole live their lives, do their tasks and pass on, but the crew remains. Without the forest, the very air we breathe does not exist. Without a crew, the vessel is dead.
   We talk a lot on taking the long view. Thinking of our responsibility to our descendants, to our effects, with our actions today, on the seventh generation. I think that we only pay lip service to this for many reasons–among them short term gain, and the personal consequences of acting from this knowledge, which often puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to our actions in the present day. Taking the long view is hard when everyone else thinks in terms of next quarter or next year. There are rewards, however. The feeling of expansiveness I get when I think of that person a century hence standing on this deck where I am standing right now, feeling that same sense of oneness with the ship, is to align myself with the ages.
   I remember one specific job I helped with when I was still a volunteer. We were restoring a bilge pump, original to one of the vessels, and it wouldn’t come apart. It took us weeks to coax it to break loose. We tried everything, penetrating oil, torches and hammers,  railroad jacks and Johnson bars–we permanently bent an iron bar an inch thick in our efforts. Eventually we persuaded the rust that sealed the top shut to yield. The pump slid smoothly apart as the corrosion that held it fractured. The inside was almost bright. The leather washer was rotten, covered with something silver and flexible. It was dried out grease, which had served to protect the metal even after fifty-odd years. We didn’t know that sailor’s name, but the evidence of his skill and pride in the vessel was there before our eyes. The job had been let go for many years longer than it should have been, but the pump was still repairable. Without that thick layer of grease–much more than had been needed to do the job, we might well have been looking at a solid block of rust.
   I resolved that day to be that sailor. Whenever possible, I added extra coats of paint, varnish or tar to any part of the ships I could. I mummified the engines of a certain ship in the same sort of lanolin-based grease we use to coat the bilges of another, grease that was so good that the company that made it went out of business because it lasted too long to allow them to survive. I remember scraping the last of it out of 55 gallon drums in the warehouse, alone, filthy, and having the time of my life. I miss those days more than I can say, when I was directly involved in the preservation of the ships. Maybe, if I’m very lucky, someday someone will take apart one of the many jobs I’ve done and thank that unknown sailor who went the extra mile. Maybe they’ll learn, as I did, that that kind of love is what keeps ships alive, that we are all links in the chain, passing hand to hand the knowledge and skill that gets us to the future.
   This is one of the many reasons I am a Druid. We are all keepers of the future, but my spiritual practice specifically calls me to preserve and protect the past, in the present, so that our collective memory makes it to the future. We are keepers of memory, because without a knowledge of where we came from we can’t make good decisions, even for the next quarter or the next year. We are living in a world where that kind of short term thinking, fueled by the gifts and tools that the accumulation of memory have given us is bringing us to the brink of disaster. We know what we need to do to help our world back into balance, though too many of us fight like demons to keep from taking up those tasks. My job, my spirituality and my life are at the moment all reflections of that same understanding, here at dawn, with the winds of Albion still caught in my hair, the lessons I have learned still fresh in my mind.

Someone Should Do Something

A Bombay Sapphire gin bottle smashed next to a blue curb
Getting Smashed In Berkeley, CA.

Some of the things I do daily are so dead simple they’re almost stupid. Filling the xerox machine with paper when it’s empty. Picking up the chunks of (clean) toilet paper people throw on the bathroom floor. Picking up bits of glass and plastic on trails and sidewalks. None of this is my job–or is it? I see it. I am therefore responsible for it, in some way. I used to go barefoot a lot, and so a long time ago I began picking up the bits of glass that scared me. I’m embarrassed to see the public bathrooms at work in such a state. I wear a uniform, so I am easily identifiable as part of the place. It isn’t my job to clean up the whole world, it isn’t possible for me to do so. However, we can all make this world we are in a little better. At the very least, we can all take care of our own mess. If we all did so, think what this world would be like…

I don’t do this stuff as part of my application for sainthood, and I’m not suggesting that you all run out right now with a trash bag and a mission. I’m just asking you to think about the place you live in, how you make it your own, and what you leave behind. What difference does your presence make each day?

We’re all part of the land. We’re literally made of earth, the food we eat, the minerals in it that are part of us, and the less savory things that we give back to it. We don’t want them any more, but to some other being, they are life itself. Have you thought about what you eat lately, really thought about where it came from, what it was when it was alive? Everything we eat was once alive, and everything that dies is only in the process of becoming someone else. This isn’t cruel, or tragic, it’s the thing that makes us all one.

In my house, we say grace. We thank the beings that grace our table, from the fruiting bodies of mycelium that we call mushrooms to the chicken that gave its very life. Acknowledging this fact brings meaning to my meal, and puts me firmly in the web of life and death. It has put chickens in our backyard and herbs on our back porch. Calling “thank you” out the window when we eat eggs, and knowing that those birds are enjoying their lives is a gift. Cleaning the chicken coop becomes a means of connection as well as a chore. It’s part of the deal of domestication.

Not all animals want to make this deal with us. No one rides zebras, for example. No one keeps seagulls for eggs–though the nineteenth century inhabitants of San Francisco probably ate them. Chickens, however, not only lay for most of the year, they share nests and stay in roughly the same place. They are birds of habit and they don’t mind living with humans. It was actually a fairly good deal for them until quite recently. They allowed humans to take their eggs, and while they didn’t get to live out their entire lifespan, on the average they lived a lot longer than their wild relatives did. In return they got protection, housing, food, and instead of living exclusively in the jungles of Southeast Asia, they now can be found all over the world. Humans got eggs and tasty meat, and the tendency of chickens to scratch and defecate made them useful in the fields as well.

The next paragraph or so is not graphic per se, but if you don’t want to think any more deeply about this subject, you might want to skip past it.

This was a great deal, but as we humans have a tendency to skip out on our chores, we eventually found a way to get out of our end of it. The ways we treat our domestic animals these days are pretty horrific. Since most of us don’t have to watch, we can ignore this, but there are consequences for us as well. It can’t be good for us to be eating creatures that spent their lives in pain, mental and physical, and died horrible deaths. Having eaten animals that I’ve taken out of life quickly and cleanly, I can tell you that a well fed, happy animal just tastes better. Knowing the whole cycle of life is empowering as well. It was an initiation in the truest sense of the word. I felt that at last I could feed my family, and that I can take responsibility for how I live. I’m not planning on giving up eating meat, after all. I also came to realize that I, too, will in the end be eaten, and I don’t fear it. I don’t want to die, of course, but I want to lay a handsome table when I do. I want to give back what I have borrowed and continue the dance of life in some other form.

I started out with trash, and I’m going to end there as well. I’ve found that when a human begins to pick stuff up, we all get three benefits. The first, of course, is simple. There’s less garbage lying around. The second is related to that–a human who picks up trash is a human who doesn’t thoughtlessly throw things around when finished with them. The third is a growing awareness, for the individual human, and for the rest of us.

As I’ve begun to listen to the land, it has gotten downright talkative. I see the most interesting things on the ground.

A stick inscribed
Berkeley Gives Me Wood

The land hands me trash bags. A plastic bag dangles at eye level from a tree trunk in Golden Gate Park. You can’t get any clearer than that. Brightly colored balloons form a fan on the sand in Aquatic Park. What I took for brightly colored red plastic chips on the grass turn out to be rose petals, strewn at my feet. Never let it be said that the planet is not capable of making the grand gesture of appreciation on occasion. My chickens peck bits of glass and broken china from the dirt in the yard. Many of them are quite beautiful. I may get around to making a mosaic out of them someday, but for now I save them in a terra cotta pot in the yard.

We’re all responsible for what we see. But no, we can’t do all of it. I would spend my entire day picking up trash if I tried. So I set limits. I pick up plastic, mainly in the woods and on the beach. Plastic, particularly small bits of it, scares me. It’s on its way into the food web. Sea birds fight for food, and they will eat anything that looks like it might be edible without a second thought. Many of them die with their stomachs choked with the stuff. They’re not the only animals who do this. Plastic on the ground, exposed to sunlight, becomes brittle and falls apart. It remains plastic, but the bits get smaller and smaller, leaching toxins as they do. If plastic ends up in the ocean, it floats on the current or sinks. If there are future archaeologists, I’m betting that this century will be clearly visible as a layer of plastic–or its components. We will be remembered by what we leave behind.

So if you think that somebody ought to do something about it, maybe you, like me, are that someone.