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?

Walking is an Opportunity, Not a Chore

   I actually save time by walking to work, believe it or not. I do it by looking for the opportunities that can be found along the way. In permaculture, this is called the principle of stacking functions and it’s a way to save energy and make use of things that would otherwise be wasted. Time is a resource like any other, after all. We are all chronically short of it because most of us sell it far too cheaply in the form of our labor–but that is another subject for another post.
   I don’t have a car. Next March, as a matter of fact, I’ll hit the ten year anniversary of having watched my last vehicle roll out of my life on the back of a wrecker’s tow truck. I didn’t regret it then, and I don’t now. The money I have saved and the opportunities that have opened up for me because of that event are also another post in themselves.
   Today, I want to talk about my commute. With the exception of Saturdays, very early in my career, I’ve never commuted to my current job by car. I work in a very crowded part of San Francisco and between the traffic in town and the horrendous nightmare of the Bay Bridge at 5PM, it would actually take me longer to get home by car than it does on public transit. I didn’t realize for many years that the time to commute on public transit isn’t all that much longer than it is to walk.
   There are many routes available to all of us when choosing our commutes. There’s the fast way, there’s the scenic way. There are the various routes that take us past the places we need to visit for the errands that are necessary as part of life outside of work. This is as true for a commute on public transit and on foot as it is in a car. If anything, I actually have more options by broadening my modes of transport. I can easily avoid the Bay Bridge, for example. My choices are the BART system, AC Transit over the bridge, and the ferry to Oakland. The ferry ride is beautiful, but I don’t use it because it takes an hour just to get from ferry slip to ferry slip, and it’s far more expensive than BART. In a perfect world I would take it as it’s quiet, beautiful, a perfect opportunity to read something that requires concentration, or to write. The transbay bus has the advantage of cutting out the third bus ride, but factoring in the wait for the bus and the walk to and from the bus stop, it’s about as fast as the ferry slip to slip. It’s quiet and great for reading, though. BART is extremely unpleasant with the worn out fleet of cars and the related overcrowding, but it’s quick. So I take it.
   My choices open up at either end of that transbay tube, though. At night I opt for the fastest trip, which is also the most unpleasant, but I prefer the extra time to cook a good dinner rather than fast food or throwing something premade into the oven. I like sitting down to dinner with my partner each night. We both have long days and little time together during the week.
   My mornings are different. On my first trip to the UK, I ate whatever I pleased and stopped at every pub that had something interesting on tap. I came back twenty pounds lighter. How on earth could that happen? The secret was walking. I was on my feet, sometimes for ten-plus hours a day. I sat down on trains and buses, and when my feet hurt. Generally in a museum or a pub. For the anesthetic qualities of the excellent beer, you understand…
   When I came back last time, my friends had taken far too good care of me and I didn’t drop a single pound. The hospitality of English and Welsh Druids should be legendary, and if I have my way, it will be. I honestly didn’t care about my weight, my mind was full of ritual and wondrous nights spent around roaring fires, and walks through yew forests, and on the footpath system that also should be legendary. You can take slow, meditative walks and stop at conveniently located pubs. The scenery varies from the long views of the South Downs to towpaths along the rivers and canals to the forests and the wide ocean. I spent a few weeks in a bit of a funk, actually, missing my friends and the land I’d become so attached to in such a short time. But this is about my commute, right?
   I decided when I got back that I was going to start walking more. I started timing my walks from work to the BART station, and from the station to my house. I already knew, after all, how long each different route took me on public transportation and how to make the most of my time. I learned the mileage for the various routes and the times, and realized that walking to and from BART in the morning netted me a four mile daily walk and only took half an hour more. Better still, I could also squeeze in quick grocery stops along the way. Technically, we live in a food desert. We’re about a mile from the nearest supermarket, and being the only one in the area, its prices are high and the selection is not great. Therefore we both shop when we’re doing other things. My commute can take me past Safeway, Trader Joe’s, two excellent bakeries, and a few independent grocery stores. Some of these trips take a little longer, and are tacked onto the commutes at the last day of the week, but my regular marketing can be done in fifteen minutes or so at the beginning of the day. It is amazing how empty a grocery store is at 8 AM and how quickly you can shop if you know the store and only need a few things every day.
   So that extra half hour per day is not only getting me to work, it gets the shopping done and it gets my workout in. Four miles a day five days a week is twenty miles of walking a week, after all. I’m saving almost $5 per day in transportation costs and if I had a gym membership, I wouldn’t need that either, nor the time it takes to get to and from it and do the workout. These are only the conventional costs and benefits, however. There’s another layer of carbon savings from not driving to and from work, a distance of thirteen miles each way. In the morning, there’s one less person on the crowded bus system as well.
   I’ve dropped those twenty pounds and more in the last year, but it’s when I go backpacking that I really realize how much my body has changed. I can’t carry a full
pack any more, so I pull a bike trailer. This is a mixed blessing, it’s easy to do on wide flat trails, but there are rutted bits that involve short bursts of boosting the trailer over rocks or narrow spots. Since my problems are repetitive motion, I can do that. I also found that I can do ten miles in a day with considerable elevation changes, sleep on the ground, and not even come home sore. Being on the high side of fifty, this is nothing less than magical to me.
   And what price could be attributed to my state of mind? I leave my house around sunrise. That means I get to see the twilight every morning and often the sunrise. Almost no one is around, so I have what is a fairly beautiful neighborhood to myself. If you ignore the tagging, the dumping, and the general disrepair of the streets, that is. I choose to greet the neighborhood trees and watch them change over the course of the year and to enjoy the wildlife that is out at that hour since the streets are quiet. I’ve seen red tailed hawks sitting on cars, as surprised to see me as I am them. I see squirrels and raccoons, and of course the cats and pigeons that live in any neighborhood. Lake Merritt is a wildlife sanctuary and I see great and snowy egrets, night herons, cormorants, seagulls and pelicans on a daily basis and right now the geese are around. I can walk over the top of the hills, or I can walk along the ghost of the shoreline. I’m watching the footpaths get built around the sides of the estuary, and the slow decolonization actions perpetrated on the homeless population who colonized them as they are built, haphazardly, and shut off to the general public. I can do my daily wishwork, and a lot of moving meditation. On the other side, I get to walk through the gentrified shoreline of San Francisco. It is quite a contrast, and it makes me think. By the time I get to work, my mind is full of the blog posts I’d like to write, and the peace of the morning. Of course, from there, the hours of my life have been sold, but that is another post. And another day has begun.

Where Are Your Edges?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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