When I first started college, I was ambitious. I was going to major in Computer Science, double major in Biology, and do it in three years. I never actually got to take that first Bio class but I was still going to double major, this time in Accounting. It turns out that accounting is really boring. Okay. So I’ll stick with Computer Science and do it in three years. Which means I needed to take 20-21 credits a semester – which is a lot, and I was going crazy with all the work. I suddenly understood why people looked for easy A’s.
Then I heard about Phys Ed courses. Only one credit, but they were easy. In the Fall I could take skiing. During Christmas break we would go to Canada for a week and ski, and I’d earn a credit. It was fun! For another credit, I could take more skiing in January during Intersession, the period between Fall and Spring. In the summer I took Tennis. In the Spring I took Fencing. Even one credit at a time adds up.
Then a three-credit course caught my eye – Wilderness Survival! Now, I’ve always been interested in my own survival. I had never been in the wilderness, but I thought I should take this class, you know, to increase my odds. Unlike the other courses, it met as a class, but was still fun. Over Thanksgiving break, we had to go to my teacher’s acreage in upstate New York to demonstrate what we’d learned. We were allowed to bring a sleeping bag and some clothes. No tent, no foam pad, nothing else.
I borrowed a sleeping bag and went. That first night we’re paired up, me with a guy who is quiet, but nice, and then we’re given boundaries within which we can make camp. We gather firewood and make this big fire. We get in our sleeping bags and it’s toasty. No problem – we got this!
…Until the fire goes out. Then I wake up and I’m cold. I am shivering. My teeth are chattering and I know I should rekindle the fire. But that means exposing the top half of my body to even more cold, and no way I’m willing to do that.
Lucky for me, my buddy has awakened and is also freezing, and is willing or desperate enough to try to start the fire. But he is shaking so much that he can’t light the match. It isn’t happening. He finally gives up and we put on every piece of clothing we have. Even with a sleeping bag between us and the earth…the earth is very big… it feels like there is nothing between it and our bodies. It feels like the earth is trying to suck every ounce of warmth out of us, and it’s succeeding. We want to get together to hold our body heat in. But now it’s windy and we need to shelter behind the tree. This means settling into the troughs between the big roots, but they’re too narrow, so we have to separate. We do and, amazingly, we sleep.
I wake up. I don’t open my eyes, but I can tell there’s light. There’s something on my face. I try to brush it away, but it’s still there. I open my eyes and it’s snowing. There’s this blanket of snow over everything. I’m just a lump in the landscape. In that moment, there is incredible joy–because I’m still alive. I’ve survived the night and this is awesome.
It gave me perspective. Hey, as long as I have shelter, clean water and food, everything else is gravy. I am swimming in gravy and didn’t even realize it! Who cares whether I finish college in three years or four?
But what I loved most about that night, why I still go out into the wilderness…although it was harsh, it was also incredibly fair. It didn’t care if I was male or female, poor, rich, black, white, gay, straight – it treated us all the same. And in this world, that is a rarity.
Some years ago, I spent extended time in the National Forests of Colorado and Utah. Between archaeological projects, I would have several weeks at a time for leisure, exploration, solitude. Sometimes I travelled and searched out places that I hadn’t been to before. Other times I practiced “staying”, or “being in place.”
The area I was in was at some elevation, and there were noble stands of Ponderosa pine, enormous trees that smelled of vanilla and created a very open and inviting park-like setting. One particular day I was out on a hike, wandering outwards from my base camp on various forest roads that criss-crossed and meandered. I remember feeling very alive, aware of my own aliveness, and aware of my curiosity about the trees, the geography, the clouds, etc….one of those days when every individual thing seems like a book, completely open for me to read from, if only I am willing to spend the time.
I had brought with me, almost as an afterthought, a Peterson’s bird guide. Somewhere in my mind I had thought that, as long as I had free time on my hands, perhaps I should learn to make some identifications, improve my standing as a “naturalist.” There always seemed something heroic about those intrepid 19th century gents (and a few ladies) who had adventured to parts unknown and had come back with a clear and precise list (if not a whole menagerie of samples) of what “things” are in the big wide world. Well, me with a Peterson guide felt like being Darwin without the hard work, Audubon without needing a paintbrush. Natural historian, lite.
On this day, I hadn’t gone out doggedly determined to “identify.” But as I hiked, the guidebook rubbed against my butt in my back pocket and gave me a little physical reminder that I could add a pinch of productivity to my high-spirited stroll in the woods. So, when I saw in the distance a little grove of aspen trees squeezed into a little spot between two Ponderosa stands, and I furthermore saw and heard some tiny birds flitting about, I pulled the guide book out. Even at this distance, I “recognized” the birds as chickadees though I wasn’t close enough really to see their markings well. It was just that the chickadee was a fairly common bird, one I that knew, and that these little birds were the right size and were behaving in ways that didn’t surprise me. So, my starting ID was “chickadee.”
I approached further, starting to leaf through the book to find the right section, and even as I got to the correct page, I remembered that there is one species commonly named “Black-capped Chickadee” (Poecile atricapillus) and another one, only slightly different in markings, named “Mountain Chickadee” (Poecile gambeli) which was to be found in the Rockies. Now, I’m from Wisconsin, so the black-capped is the one I’ve been familiar with through most of my life. But now, with page held open, reading the information, examining R.T. Peterson’s carefully drawn marking differences in the book, I felt like my original chickadee ID was not good enough! These birds must be identified correctly!
Luckily, chickadees are gregarious birds and generally happy to hang around when human company comes. I approached closer, looking to see if I could spot the color of the feathers around the eye. Mountain chickadees have “a black postocular stripe behind distinctive white eyebrows.” Sitting in the grass, looking up, watcing them, my bad eyesight and eye took enough time to confirm that these were mountain chickadees. A triumph of investigative naturalism, right?
Well, no, not exactly. My eyesight isn’t great, to say the least, so it took me some time and patience to really make sure what I was seeing. I sat there nearly an hour, watching the birds (3 of them) flit, perch, sing, fluff, swoop, hop, etc. And so, even as I was feeling more confident in my eye stripe observation, I was noticing that this one (Chickadee #1) had one of his tail feathers skewed a little to the side and that other one (Chickadee #2) was the one that kept going back to that same perch on that aspen tree, etc. It started to dawn on me that if I sat here long enough, if I had the patience of Darwin and the artistic eye of Audubon, eventually I would see each of these chickadees as a totally unique and individual creature. And then, I pondered philosophically, is Chickadee #3 (let’s call him Ralph) best known as (1) a mountain chickadee, (2) a chickadee, (3) a bird, (4) an animal? (And don’t think the list ends there. If we can stretch ourselves to think ecologically, there are much larger categories as well). Or is “Ralph”, the affectionate label I gave him/her and which encompasses what I experienced about him/her while I spent an hour in his/her company, equally as accurate a description of that wonderful animated life? In other words, was Ralph, the animal-bird-chickadee-mountain chickadee more accurately described as a thing that I can place in a category, or as that with which I had a relationship?
Wherefore this anecdote? What does this have to do with sustainability? Well, the time spent with Ralph had a profound effect on me. It critically changed how I think about the natural world, what it is and what my relationship is to it.
There is an innate human desire to understand. Understand what?….pretty much anything humans come into contact with. We are the animals that delve, that look into, that want to know what it’s all about. This desire to understand has been turned full force on the natural world since the dawn of the human species. But is the desire to understand the same as understanding? Are there good ways to understand and bad ways? Are knowledge and wisdom the same thing? And once understanding is attained does it require some sort of responsibility on our part?
One side of this picture is the human capacity to understand by rationally knowing, i.e. by identifying, labelling, organizing, measuring, connecting the dots. Data and the computing power of our brains lead us to a world of timing, efficiency, and predicting the future – all very useful things when you want to make a good decision. This talent, developed more highly in humans than in other living things, is undoubtedly one of the factors that has allowed us to survive and prosper on this planet. By knowing things, as “things”, they are easier to manipulate, overcome, defend against, manage, control, etc. It is a remarkable skill which, in conjunction with our ability to share information with other humans, not only contemporarily, but also into suceeding generations, has made us the all-time champion of “clever” animals. It has been critical to our power in the world….originally, the power to survive and then later, and only quite recently in our species’ history, the power to dominate natural environments.
On the other side of the picture is understanding by “having a relationship with.” This is understanding that develops through spending time with, observing (without categorizing), accepting, appreciating beings, things and systems for what they are, having affection, and loving. Think about all of the closest relationships you have with people in your life. Whether you are thinking about your spouse, your parents, your child, your best friend or your long time colleague at work, it is highly likely that you would say that you “know” them. But you didn’t get to know them simply by labelling them or by compiling statistics and facts about them. You didn’t do experiments on them (hopefully!) and, while you might think you can predict some of their behavior, you don’t enjoy their company because of their predictability. You know and understand them because you have spent much time with them. You’ve seen them in different moods and different situations. You’ve seen them change. You’ve had fun with them, been angry at them, laughed with them, forgiven them, apologized to them, touched them, given them space….and much, much more. Your knowing them is not so sharply specific as the genome data gleaned from a blood sample or a soil pH reading. Yet, I doubt anyone who has come to know another within the context of working at and living through relationship would ever trade that fuzzy, flexible, unreliable but ultimately personal understanding for a rationally, scientifically precise list of proven facts about their friend.
I do not want to denigrate the first way of knowing that I outlined above. I am deeply impressed and appreciative of the human mind. My own life and all of our lives have been enriched by the many minds that came before us to a degree that is hard to fathom. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and I thank them. Yet our over-reliance on this side of the picture of understanding has led us to a crisis, one which I believe we will not be able to overcome unless we invigorate the other side of our understanding. It is in relationship that our rational knowledge finds its proper place. Knowing in relationship requires that we begin to know ourselves better as well and this is the starting point of taking true responsibility for how we live.
As I see it used, the concept of sustainability sets up its own conversation in a way such that measurement, categorization, quantification, efficiency and acceptable loss are of prominent importance. The playing field of the debate is already chosen. There are quantifiable “bottom lines,” be they measured in dollars, board feet, number of mouths fed, acreage, species mix ratio, etc. It is my assertion that any question posed this way can only, at best, lead us to be better “managers,” when, in fact, it is not poor or inefficient management that is the problem. While collections of data and analysis can certainly be useful, they are completely silent on a far more crucial question. That question is this: Where do we get the wisdom to decide if, when and how to use the power that our “clever” knowledge has made available to us?
The ultimate decisions that will matter will not come from managers that “manage the world,” whatever that phrase could possibly mean. What is needed is the wisdom to manage ourselves, first as individuals, and subsequently in the context of community and culture. What needs to be “sustainable” is not something outside ourselves but a way of life that starts inside ourselves, that includes gratitude, acceptance, contentment, humility and responsibility.
My encounter with Ralph, the mountain chickadee, now as I think about it these so many years later, was importantly an encounter with myself, with my own biases, a desire for control, a mindset…and then, luckily, a moment when I found the world to be bigger and more unique than my mind could contain. I loved the world then, not because I was able to pin it down, separate from myself, but because I understood that I was part of it.
The weather has turned frigid; this follows last week’s record shattering warmth. It has been an up-and-down sort of winter, which is, increasingly and alarmingly, the norm.
I grew up in a farming community on the plains of the Midwest. We spent a lot of time outside, and learned early to keep an eye on the sky. After all, blizzards, ice storms, and tornadoes were the norm, and each was dangerous as well as exhilarating. By the time I reached eighth grade I was a devout student of climate science and meteorology.
In spite of my love of science, during my undergraduate studies I was lured into becoming an art major. This was a surprising turn, as I had imagined myself studying ecology. Sadly, both the ecology program at the university was less than engaging. The art department was vibrant, as was the religion department, and I spent my undergraduate years firmly settled in those disciplines. I also took literature, writing, and theatre courses, much to the dismay of the art department faculty who firmly believed visual artists should draw rather than write.
My first turn in graduate school was in visual arts, although I spend a good deal of that year in the microbiology and electronic music labs. While the art faculty could not fathom what I was doing, they proved surprisingly supportive.
After a few years in the work world, I found myself studying cross-cultural approaches to counseling, and deeply engaged in learning from Indigenous teachers from many traditions. Following several years working as a clinician in both inpatient and outpatient settings, I returned to school to study environmental studies. Once again I found myself at the nexus of several disciples, including ecology, anthropology, and psychology. It was a heady and hearty time! I went on to teach art, ecology, anthropology, and psychology, often interwoven, at a small college for over thirty years.
Now we seem to have entered a time of gathering darkness, an era in which the arts, ecology, climate science, and cross-cultural studies are viewed with suspicion, and, too often, outright hostility. Perhaps most distressing is is the realization that Native values, culture, and lands are again under intense attack. I guess we should hardly be surprised at the hostility shown these realms of knowledge and experience; after all, each is remarkably subversive to any agenda that would produce normative hierarchies and simplify the world, and that gives preference to ideas about cultural and racial superiority.
Lately, I find myself struggling to address the attacks on these systems of knowledge , and ways of living, I treasure. I imagine things will only get worse before they get better, even as I hold out hope that they will indeed improve. For now, I do my best, although that is not enough to stop the darkness from growing. I try to keep in mind the words of a much beloved teacher, “The world is as it is, do only what you can.” Still, I would that I could do more.
My stepfather thought he’d make a man of me by shipping me West one summer to work on his ranch in Southwest Colorado. He told me I needed to learn the way of the world, the natural order of things in which Man, or least my stepfather, sat at the top of the mountain.
And so I was sent to help Waini Muatagoci, who the other ranch hands called Luke Two Moon, which is what his Ute name translated to. Two Moon was from the Weeminuche Band of the Southern Ute tribe who once ruled this part of the Four Corners before the whites “subdued” them and, in turn showed them the way up that mountain my stepfather talked about. Just nowhere near the top.
“Yog’yuvitc, brother coyote, he’s been here since before my people arrived in the before times, young Ben. Coyotes would take deer and elk and the calves of kutc-um, the buffalo. But it wasn’t until the white ranchers came that coyote has been hunted like this, just to be rid of him on the ranches,” Two Moon said as we rode the trap line set out to take down the coyotes that had been killing calves of my stepfather’s prized Herefords during the calving season.
“I guess Hal’s barbed wire fence is only good at keeping the cattle in and not the coyotes out,” I said, half-joking. Hal was my stepfather, Harold King.
“No. Mr. King thought he could scare them off the ranch by making big noises. Coyote ran away, laughed at him and then came back for more calves. He sent us on hunts, but there are more of them than there are of us and this is a big spread. So now we set traps and kill coyote without even seeing him. It’s a dirty and cowardly thing,” Two Moon said.
Up ahead we saw a thin gray form lying on the ground. It was my first view of a coyote and later I wished it was my last.
The animal’s bloody leg was in a hole, its mouth open as if in a silent scream of protest and it’s eyes were open in defiance, fear…maybe even accusation. I couldn’t look at its face long enough to tell.
“So now you see Mr. King’s ‘enemy,’ this scrawny thing lying here in a pile of skin, fur and bones. Help me get him out of the hole so I can reset the trap, young Ben,” Two Moon said.
I put on my gloves, pulled down my hat and jumped off my buckskin and tried to put aside my disgust. I understood the problem of the coyotes coming through the wire and taking calves, but I wished there was better way to keep them under control besides killing them in such an inhumane manner.
“This is just wrong,” I said.
“As far as the ranch goes, you’re wrong, young Ben. But you’re also so very right.”
In the next hour we found four more dead coyotes, their legs caught in traps set in holes and hidden from them, save for the bait that drew them to their abrupt capture and slow, agonizing deaths.
“As long as there are so many cattle here, breeding and calving so often, there will be coyote hunting and taking the babies,” Two Moon said. “It is as it has always been. Mr King is just providing many more opportunities for coyote to prove his rightful place in our Mother Nature’s order.”
At the next trap in the line, which sat at the top of little rise near the southern boundary fence of Hal’s spread, we didn’t find a coyote carcass. No, what we found was even more grotesque than the twisted form of a now-dead animal once wild with pain and fear.
Two Moon asked me to check on the trap set and bait, so I jumped off my buckskin and carefully reached into the hole. Two Moon must have thought I got bitten or the trap snapped and my hand barely escaped its vicious jaws, but he’d be wrong on both counts.
I looked at my glove and showed the blood to Two Moon.
“You all right, boy? Trap catch you?”
“No. Come on down and take a look in here,” I said.
Two Moon’s feet hit the ground in a silent puff of dust and he walked to the hole, kneeled next to me, peered into it and withdrew the bloody trap. In its jaws was the severed leg of a coyote. Actually the lower leg that had been gnawed off by the trapped coyote. Two Moon’s face took on an expression both resigned and disgusted.
“You’ll see this happen from time to time, young Ben, when brother coyote will not wait to die on the Man’s terms. He would rather die free, no matter the cost in pain and suffering. My people were the same way., fighting the whites, even though we knew we were whipped, all the way ’til 1923, when Chief Posey took on the Mormons one more time up in Blanding. They killed him,” Two Moon said matter-of-factly as he opened the trap and let the grotesque talisman of a perverted sense of freedom fall to the ground.
“May I have that, Two Moon?” I asked.
The old Ute shrugged and said, “Why not? It’s not doing coyote any good now and the dead ones on the pack-horse don’t need it, either.”
He reset this trap just as he had the previous ones and the seven more in which we found coyotes of both genders and all ages until we came to the end of the trap line.
“If Hal wants me to check the line tomorrow, do you think I should check the sets on the way back to the house, Two Moon? Just so’s I can remember their location and order?” I said.
“Ya know, that’s probably not a bad idea, young Ben. I’ll leave you to it while I bring these back to the big house for burning,” Two Moon said. “I think your idea’s a right good one.”
As Two Moon road back to the big house he sang, in what I assumed was Ute, a tune that swayed in the wind behind him.
I tripped every trap on the way back. I knew the calving season was still months away and I’d be back East by then. No more coyotes would die like that while I played cowboy. They’d have to find another way to control the coyotes.
My real Dad had been a conscientious objector and Draft protester back in ’67-‘68. Yet he went on to win a Silver Star in Vietnam as a life-saving medic and came back to protest the war and racism and whatever other injustice he saw in American society right up until he died in ’86.
Hal wanted me to be a man by his definition, if not in his image. I’d already decided to be the man Dad would want me to be.
As I tripped the last trap, I heard a coyote howl in the distance, saw it in silhouette against the moon as both rose over the ridge south of the big house. I yip-yip-yeowed right back at it and it echoed my call. I’m sure it had no idea what I was doing, but liked to think it understood my eastern accented message we were in solidarity against the Man.
I hope…no, I know Dad would be proud of me.
First draft of a story I wrote based on the theme of “resistance.” I’m not one to write political protests or satire, and I’m pretty sure I’ve buried my take on the subject much too deeply beneath the allegory of keeping el coyote from ruining the ranch. But, I don’t have the answers when one beast wants in, while the other will do anything to keep him out.
i planted seeds of lavender,
tiny things in the palm of my hand,
then the black soil and water,
patience . . . . and waiting
for the first signs of life,
the need for care and love
’til the splendor of blue,
the comforting fragrance,
a gift for the bumblebees and me
jag planterade frön av lavendel,
små ting vilande i min hand,
svart jord och vatten,
på de första tecknen av liv,
skötsel och kärlek,
The tide is out way downstream
in the great harbor, so the reed-ringed
pool at riverside here is wading depth
for a single spindly-legged heron.
She picks her way around, slowly folding
her leg up then extending it to wakelessly
enter the water in a slow-motion
hunter’s march toward the center
of her soggy dining room. All the while
she searches mightily for crabs and shiners
in its strangely sheened shallows.
Her movements are hard-wired
through uncountable generations
of her kind for whom the Hudson
has been home and larder.
They all walked the same gyre as she,
striding toward the middle of the pool
in successively smaller circles,
as if attached to an ever-shortening string
winding ‘round a pole to its mid-pool end.
But an intruder has claimed the throne there,
and she nervously diverts her attention between it
and the scant dinner darting just beyond her reach.
Blue and broad-chested, the interloper
carries a scent familiar to her now, always
in the air but never so strong as today.
A darning needle hums through the heat,
as a barge glides by, its wake shaking
the outsider to life. Fearful, the natural hunter
beats its wings and surrenders to the leaking
fuel drum that scatters swirling rainbows
across the water and its venom to the
muddy bottom of this realm where once
ruled lean grey princes and princesses.
This is a series of haiku I wrote reflecting on people who trespassed into a bird sanctuary so they could get the “right” photograph. The photos were taken across two days at the same location. Both days, there were people stepping into the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge off-limits area. Hiking guidelines here. Shalom, Terri.
It starts with one.
One skylark singing.
One Carson warning.
Then the robins and blackbirds join in.
The early birds, like Carson.
Then the wrens and warblers
as the daylight warms them.
Can you hear them?
The warning calls are warming up as well,
strengthening their numbers
as the bird song
Can you hear them?
on the Atlantic Seaboard they’re paralyzed under
the weight of snow drifts, the detritus of blizzards;
their stark bare branches of oak, elm and maple
etch dark veins into an icy-gray cast-over sky
on the West Coast we’re breaking out magnolias
and blades of tender spring grass are unfurling;
the slight warmth tempts us to pull early spring
like a wool blanket around us or perhaps a blessing
along the stretch of Big Sur the sea strikes stone
and the air explodes, bright and wet with spume,
the green-patinated brine salts our mouths;
above us cloud turrets mimic white-capped waves
standing here, consumed by an unutterable infinity,
our hands and eyes and mind are in cahoots to
imitate nature in the most apt way they’re able,
with our sketch pad, pen and colored pencils
a quick wingless flight into that dancing sea and
we surface with visions grasped tight in our fists,
our eyes are blinded by palette colors, our pencils
bear witness to the gift of another morning,
another kind of beauty; undulating, animated
and so unlike the silent white majesty of snow
If there was something he wanted done, he would order it done, and it would be done.”Is it a good thing?” the chief would ask. Whether it was a wise decision or no, his counselors always agreed. Those who did not were beaten. There was one counselor who never said ‘yes’ and never said ‘no.’ This counselor would consider the matter and reply, “All things are connected.”
One night when the chief couldn’t sleep, he became aware of the noisy croaking of the frogs in the nearby marshes. Once it came to his attention, he found himself listening for it each night. The sound annoyed him so much he ordered all the frogs killed.
“Do you agree with my plan?” he asked. His counselors all agreed, except for the one, who warned, “All things are connected.” “Pah!” said the chief, and that night he sent his people to the marshes to kill frogs.
They killed frogs and they killed frogs until there were no frogs left to kill.
“Ah,” said the chief. “Now I shall be able to sleep.”
That night he slept very well, and for many nights thereafter.
But one night he heard another annoying sound. “Zzzzzz…Zzzzz…Zzzzzzzzzzzz…”
He summoned his counselors. “The mosquitoes are worse than the frogs! Why didn’t you tell me they would rise in swarms and eat us alive without the frogs to eat them? Tonight I will send my people to the marshes to kill all the mosquitoes!” So they killed mosquitoes and they killed mosquitoes. But as many they killed, there were many more left. The mosquitoes made life so miserable that everyone left their fields and homes to start new lives far away, until the village was deserted, except for the chief and his family.
All day long the chief sat alone in his hut, swatting mosquitoes and muttering, “All things are connected.” But it was too late for the frogs. Too late for the village. Too late for the chief. Finally he too moved away.
The wise understand that all things are connected…
By the ground we walk on…
By the air we breathe…
By the the water we drink…
By the rhythm of the heart.
All things are connected…
…and hang by a delicate thread.
Where is the balance between give and take?
Can we learn the difference between just enough…
…and too much?
What kind of world do we want to leave our children?
The hoopoes are back,
the walls and holes they liked to nest in
were destroyed by human nest builders
four years ago,
when there was a housing boom
and money to be made.
The hoopoes are back,
the new holes and rubble they liked to nest in
were destroyed by human nest builders
three years ago,
there was no market for nests
and no money to be made.
The hoopoes are back,
the new holes and rubble they liked to nest in
were washed away two years ago,
as the walls that stopped the storm flow
were destroyed by human nest builders,
to prepare the ground for money to be made.
The hoopoes are back,
their nesting places are hidden, buried
under growing mountains of rubble brought
by the human nest builders a year ago
as there is no demand for human nests
and no money to be made, except from rubble.
Hey, the hoopoes are back! I’ve seen them!
The hoopoes are back!
– Lynn White
First published by Furry Writers Guild in Civilised Beasts Anthology, 2015, Weasel Press
I have fallen in love with Nature and intend to grow with it until death – and beyond. This is an Environmental Justice that is not at all fair or dispassionate. It is rather the opposite. It is a righteous sensibility, a championing of something I highly and intimately respect.
It started with admiration and wonder, as if worshiping my adolescent crush from afar. I saw my first Rocky Mountain while on vacation when I was ten years old and living in Illinois. I felt emotions bigger than all outdoors welling up in my small breast and had no idea how to respond except by singing John Denver songs lustily by heart at the top of my lungs. It was a hormonal, corporeal, visceral attraction. I felt my own biology resonating with Earth but had no idea how to develop a relationship with it. So, I did what any lovestruck Midwestern pre-teen would do: I started inventing ways to rendezvous with it in a haphazard way. I played in the woods across the street every day. I started an Ecology Club in 6th grade, which meant that I stayed after school to pick up trash in the schoolyard. (No one joined me.) I kept up with Girl Scouts so that I could go camping and hiking. Gradually, I felt more connected and responsible in the relationship. When we moved to California, I had the opportunity to take it to the next level. I explored coastline, redwood forests, Sierra mountaintops and Joshua tree deserts. And I experienced betrayal and heartbreak for the first time. I visited my college of choice in Southern California in March. Palm trees lined the streets of town, and the view of snow-capped Mt. Baldy from campus was clear and inviting. But when I moved into the dorm in late August, there was a brown haze in the air and Mt. Baldy was a shadow. Looking straight up into the sky, the blue color I expected looked more like the rinse water from a dirty paint brush. I was deeply sickened – homesick, heartsick, and ashamed. The betrayal was against Nature, but Nature never betrayed me. When my husband was dying and my four teenagers were exhibiting traumatized responses in almost every manifestation of self-abuse, I would walk to the prairie near my house for sanctuary. From the moment I stepped off the sidewalk and onto the path, I could feel healing in process. Touching Earth with my feet, breathing the scent of flowers and rain and decaying leaves, listening deeply to the song of birds and wind, I knew that every manner of thing was in a state of change and that it was ultimately okay. How I knew that, I was not able to articulate. I just kept coming back, arriving in tears and leaving in peace, righted.
This sense called Justice lies in the valley between Love and Suffering. Its orientation is in the shadow of those monumental feelings. I love Nature. I feel her suffering. I want to protect my Beloved’s health. I want to preserve her dignity, to fight for her autonomy and to respect her individuality. At the same time, human interference is the biggest factor in Nature’s distress. How can I care for my Beloved and do no harm? This is the question lovers ask when they’ve been together for a while.
“Do no harm.” It is a koan, an impossible concept that plunges me into a metaphysical dilemma. How can I treat Nature justly? I delicately explore our relationship; I imagine the poetry of our situation; I try to love and defend her. Eventually, I will simply allow her to do as she will and absorb me. This, I suppose, will usher in our eternal peace together.
The love affair metaphor engages my emotions and focuses on my experience. But Nature is a cosmic Beloved beyond my comprehension. It is mystery and reality and demands my humility. My perspective is challenged in every moment, and this is good for me. More important, this is Good. It is the Truth.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal
Gordon George Byron, Lord Byron
from Childe Harold, Canto iv, Verse 178
abundance lifted on the arc of time
then the folding in ~
the circular successions of creation and negation
forever changing, dark and luminous
nature and destiny, coming and passing
ever active, whole, eternally nameless
the wild river, the still mountain
the wordless mystery
[…] I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes, waiting for the burst – which came almost instantaneously:
– Our talks should be different! You know? Different. Like, when you come to me with that long face and I just know that something’s wrong, you should just talk to me and tell me about it. I mean, for heaven’s sake, I know you since you were a child, since you took your first steps towards me and hugged me. I felt you there, at my feet, a little being with so much potential, looking at me with those big round eyes and laughing with all your heart…you were such a marvel…and you still are, but somewhere on the way you lost your confidence in me. I used to be the keeper of all your secrets – and now you’re ashamed to talk to me, as if talking to me would make you some sort of a freak…Talking to me doesn’t make you a freak. Sharing your inner world with me doesn’t make you a freak. Feeling together with me doesn’t make you a freak. But your fear and shame do.
I opened my eyes, trying to ignore the tears streaming along my cheeks – how I had missed that voice…and how much truth it carried…I wanted to mumble a feeble “I’m sorry”, but then it spoke again:
– I don’t want you to be sorry. I just want you to open your eyes and see me for what I truly am – for what I’ve always been: your friend. And if you don’t believe me, look at me and remember the countless times when you ran to me and gifted me with your tears, your laughter and your thoughts. I still remember each and every moment we shared.
And while I touched the tree’s bark, letting my heartbeats resonate between my palm and the old trunk, its leaves caressed my cheek and it concluded gently:
– Your most loyal friend I am, not just the old oak in your father’s garden.[…]
Last September my son Eli and I went on a road trip to deliver my daughter Bea, an incoming freshman, to Stanford University.
Then all of a sudden Bea was at school…
…and Eli and I were back in the van for the long drive home.
For our trip down, we’d booked nice hotels in advance. It was all about our last hurrah before saying goodbye to Bea. Maybe because we didn’t want to think about returning without her, we forgot to plan the trip home. We were unprepared, disorganized, and we both kept looking around for Bea.
It was after midnight when we pulled into Redding, CA.
We found a place that was simple, but clean, and woke refreshed and ready to move on–from Redding, and from Stanford. We were going to write ourselves a new story.
We explored a delightfully shabby gold rush town, browsed its antique stores, and bought some dusty old tomes. Back on the road, Eli read aloud from The Last of the Plainsmen, Zane Grey’s 1908 memoir about the end of an era and the start of a new one.
Perhaps inspired by Grey, Eli suggested swinging by Crater Lake National Park. It was out of our way, and we didn’t even know how far, because we hadn’t brought a proper map. We hadn’t been there since the kids were young enough to earn their Junior Ranger Badges. I recalled Crater Lake as a one trick pony, with one view of a lake, gorgeous, but unaccessible. If we couldn’t get there before dark, the trip would be pointless.
It was a gamble.
We decided to go for it. We had a few ‘Where are we going, Carl?’ moments. Like at a crossroads, where two roads both had signage pointing to Crater Lake. The sun was sinking, and we couldn’t afford to get lost. I kicked myself for not stopping earlier for directions. This was a remote wilderness, late in the day and late in the season, without even another car to flag down.
Do you believe in spirit helpers? I took this handsome creature’s greeting as positive reinforcement.
Upon leaving the endless forest to begin our ascent. Whatever happened, the view on the way to the crater was worth the drive.
At last we arrived at the crater rim, with sunshine to spare, but not for long.
As the sun sank behind us, the shadows crept up the side of Wizard Island, until it looked like it was wearing a little sun hat.
While we looked down on shadow, on the far side of the crater, the sun still shone.
Our goal was to visit as many viewpoints as possible before we lost the light.
Crater Lake was not a one trick pony. It was a Horse of a Different Color. With the constantly changing light, the landscape changed dramatically too.
Each view highlighted different sights and inspired different insights.
Whether looking from a distance…
…or close up.
We were alone on the top of the world, awestruck by the beauty surrounding us, not just of the lake, but the valley as well.
Eli captured the detail of an alpine meadow in this shot….
…while I borrowed back the camera to capture the big picture.
Feverishly, we passed the camera back and forth. Where one of us recognized the stark beauty of an outcrop…
…the other saw a sleeping lady, turned to stone by an evil wizard.
One of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever been is Switzerland, and not just because of the high altitude.
How can someplace be so wild and rugged…
…and yet so tidy and tame and settled?
You can take an escalator to the top of the mountain…
…and just when you think you’re alone in the most remote place in the world…
…you stumble upon a chalet where you can buy a cup of Ovaltine.
Or you hear cowbells and realize you are not alone after all.
When you’re looking straight up at the sky, where no mountain ought to be–surprise!–you realize it’s just playing peek-a-boo from behind the clouds.
We went for a hike, but the landscape seemed so domestic that we felt we should really call it a stroll.
We stopped to make a friend or two along the way.
And belted out the words to The Sound of Music because…why not?
Unlike the deliberate and well-defined cable car ride up to our little village, there was no clear threshold, no magic doorway from domestic to wild. The landscape changed so gradually we hardly noticed.
No cowbells here.
And then a shroud of mist descended so swiftly.
The path was obscured and maps were useless.
We couldn’t see the landmarks described in the guidebook. It would soon be dark. We had no choice but to put one foot ahead of the other…
…keep walking and enjoy the mystery and adventure…
…and trust that sooner or later we would get where we were going.
I was sitting outside once, on an old, gray chair, listening to how the erratic creaking of a wooden door slowly shredded the warm peace of the last summer days. Somewhere above me, a garrulous sparrow strove to explain to its consort some sort of an existential problem, which definitely didn’t regard me and which, anyway, couldn’t have been debated in any other language than theirs (you see, I think that every problem has a particular language of itself, in which it can be expressed and then solved).
I looked at the sky, stretching indecently blue above me, and my right hand, fallen by the chair, found, in its purposeless movement, a tiny weed, which, when touching my palm, birthed within my fingers an imperceptible tremor, almost like a giggle. I caressed its long leaves with an unexplainable impatience, realizing that the last time I had felt such a sensation had been when I’d made love (maybe too long ago). Then my fingers gave in to temptation, and pulling the weed from its root, brought it in front of my eyes, like a teenager presenting his lover to his parent for the first time. I don’t know what name bore the small plant – I was never good about the nomenclature of weeds. But I looked at its filiform being, feeling some sort of regret because, out of curiosity to see it, I had allowed laziness to drive me towards breaking it, instead of simply having bent upon it. The small herb was trembling lightly in the wind, in my hand, and without thinking too much I rubbed between my fingertips the tuft at its end, looking then with wonderment at the tiny white dots, lingering for a second on my skin, and then allowing themselves to be carried by the warm wind towards the dust on the ground. The weed, now seedless, continued to quiver.
The wooden door suddenly squeaked again, and I sharply understood that, in all this time, my curiosity and I were only the way chosen by the little plant to spread its offspring – and nothing more.
It is nearly five years since hurricane Irene wreaked some havoc along the East coast of North America through New York State and beyond. This reminds me of the power of natural forces and, in a sense, runs counter to the spirit of this month’s theme “The Joys of Nature: Wilderness” … there is no joy in losing your home or, worse, a friend or someone you love, even to a natural disaster, but this story comes from a slightly different perspective or, if you like, a small tributary of the main stream, which leads you away from the maelstrom to a charming backwater, which in fact lies in the backyard of a fellow poet, who made an equally charming observation.
It was in the midst of a short conversation, with Twitter friend and poet, Jacqueline Dick (Twitter ID @Fumanchucat), who lives in New York. Hurricane Irene was blowing its way up the East coast and heading for the big city creating an undercurrent of fear and trepidation in the minds of everyone there. This was such that evacuation plans were being made in preparation for the expected structural damage and the flooding that would follow the high winds.
Anyway, the conversation! It went as follows: –
@Fumanchucat: “Hurricane update: Boring! Y A W N…”
@Poetjanstie: “What! No armageddon, no deafening fury of satanic proportions, no blood-curdling screams for mercy, no flying cars…!?”
@Fumanchucat: “Irene is one boring chick, lemme tell ya’..”
@Poetjanstie: “Isn’t there even a slight breeze?”
@Fumanchucat: “Some leaves are putting on a show, but no shake, rattle and roll”
I imagine, if she’ll forgive me for saying this, that she is one dour, but very erudite New Yorker, whose feathers don’t get ruffled easily! She makes me smile and sometimes laugh and writes some pretty good poetry to boot.
That phrase “Some leaves are putting on a show…” immediately struck a chord, and I suggested that it looked like the makings of a poem, thinking that she might take it up, but all she said in reply to that was “Go, John, go!”. Now either she was telling me to push off, or that I should write the poem. I prefer to think it was the latter, so I did that!
In spite of the tongue-in-cheek light-hearted nature of this poem, my thoughts still remain with the families of anyone who was lost in the wake of that powerful storm and for the immense damage it wreaked on its journey. It is also apposite to think of the impact of any of nature’s powerful storm forces, particularly since it is the fifth anniversary of that horrendous tsunami in Japan and Fukushima … that there is also the enormous power that nature has not only to create wilderness of stunning beauty, but also, in the blink of an eye, to lay waste to great tracts of ordered civilisation, which may have taken much human endeavour to build. How haunting a sight are deserted areas that once thronged with life. Is this the alternative wilderness?
Some leaves are putting on a pretty show
They said we should expect a maelstrom soon
an armageddon to blow away the moon
And telling us to pack our bags and go.
We waited long and into wee small hours,
our lives to change, last minutes in our wills.
The fear and dread is palpable, and fills
imaginations and dreams with satanic powers.
Meanwhile the leaves, with neighbours unaware,
are whipping up excitement on the lawn
as foliage twists into a dancing fawn;
a largely missed delight, as no one’s there.
But, somehow, when all is said and done
as lawyers sharpened pencils to prepare
for claims and litigation, a costed nightmare
the weather’s playing games and having fun!
Instead of blowing gales, disaster trails,
it whispered to the trees and leaves ‘don’t worry…
we’ll have some fun with just a little flurry’.
The leaves put on a show; there were no rales.
[I should also mention that, whilst it was poet, Jacqueline Dick, the intrepid Lady Fumanchu, who is responsible for inspiring this poem, it was another friend, writer, poet and fellow contributor to the Bardo/BeZine, Joe Hesch (Twitter ID @JAHesch), who, at the time of Irene, kept up a running commentary of the storm’s slightly more damaging passage through his neck of the woods, upstate New York, in Albany.
It’s a monkey trap from West Africa, made of clay. When I acquired the clay pot, a rope was attached to its neck. Hunters used to stake the other end of the rope to the ground, and bait it with fruit or nuts. A monkey would smell the food, reach inside, and grab a handful.
The hole was large enough for a monkey’s open hand to pass through, but too small for a balled fist to come out. As hard as the monkey pulled, it couldn’t escape, because it never occurred to the greedy monkey to let go of the food.
This is often told as a parable denouncing greed, or as a cautionary tale about becoming trapped by a fixed mindset. But the antique dealer who sold me my monkey trap told me the rest of the story…
In the late 1940s, a monkey was caught in a clay monkey trap, like so many before it. It struggled to free itself, never thinking to open its fist. On purpose or by accident, it smashed the pot against the ground, the pot broke, and the monkey escaped. But here’s the best part…That monkey taught the other monkeys in its troop how to break and escape from a monkey trap. Neighboring troops caught on until, at least in that part of the monkey world, the traps became obsolete.
Imagine a world where we teach our young, our neighbors, and the greater community what they need to survive and thrive. Imagine a world where we open our tight fists and our closed minds and stop doing things just because that’s the way it has always been done. Imagine smashing the status quo to leave the world a better place for our children, a place where the powerful and oppressive are outwitted, outnumbered, and they and all their ugly trappings become obsolete.
If one little monkey can change the world, maybe there’s hope for us humans too.
no mendacity in the natural world ~ just an
untamed grace in the meditative industry of ants,
in the peaceable company of small creatures
going about the business of food finding
and mating and homemaking in the loam of
this province, the republic of innocence
here is the soul-filling beauty of sun rising over
jacaranda as she paints her joy on a blue dawn;
robin with her russet-hued breast hunts for worms,
her instinctive motherhood proud of babies in
the spar and scrap of nest life . . . it is in this –
the uncivil cosmos – that the gentle breezes
dance with us on our mud-caked travels along
ripening pathways through meadow and brush;
as the flaxen sun shifts from rise to fall,
our hearts beat with their ribbons of ruby life,
pulsing with ebbs and flows of love and fear ~
soon – we know – clouds will gray and the
inevitable dark and shivered moon will show
her craggy depths, sooty with doubt and danger,
our earthiness projecting its own shadows;
still we trust nature’s homilies, content in this
province where we’re left to be ourselves, left to
write our own wildness on the mirror of time
“How near to good is what is wild.” Henry David Thoreau
Far within a forest thick, unperturbed by Time’s swift tick, stands a testament to Fae, roots deep as night, top tall as day.
Climbing vines hide tiny doors. Its feet are wreathed with mushroom spores. Leaves of Celadon and Jade mingle with the mossy shade and dappled greens of shimmered hues, creating screens for a secret muse.
Ancient seneschal of Pan, rarely revealed to the likes of man; misted tendrils obscure the way, they will not find it, try though they may. Only the pure of heart and need may find the chosen of Cernunnos’ seed.
If you should find a Fairie Tree, carry peace, tread lightly and leave it be. Respect the centuries that it’s stood, and be blessed by the Sidhe of the Woods.
Many people associate Israel with desert and war. Both desert and war do color the land. Some people express surprise when they also learn about the nature here—flora and fauna. I spoke with a travel editor once who said he had no idea there would be nature trails, flowers, or Ibex wandering the hills in Israel.
Ibex visit the field school
In the desert, the ibex (a species of goat and symbol of Israel’s nature preserves) often cross a hiker’s path. Especially in the nature preserves, they tend to be reasonably brave. One time, while staying in a field school in the Negev, a herd came to visit in the morning. Some of the small kids climbed acacia trees to get at the leaves. I encountered the kid standing on the rocks on a nature trail above the Dead Sea.
And there are trees, too
And we do have trees in Israel, too. As these pictures show, I am fascinated by the textures and colors of bark on the trees. Some of these trees grow near the Mediterranean. The red-barked katlav I usually see growing along valleys and gulches in the Jerusalem hills. We don’t actually have squirrels. I haven’t seen any, at least. The gray squirrel in the tree lives in Minneapolis. Or, at least, that’s where I took that picture.
Israel does have water. The t-shirt tells you so: Med Sea, Red Sea, Dead Sea. And there is the “sea” of Galilee (really a large lake). The pictures here come from a fish farm, freshwater springs that flow over the salty Dead Sea aquifers, a river, and the Mediterranean. There aren’t many lakes—there are some rivers. The Jordan River, most famous and religious of them, unfortunately has greatly diminished due to human use and misuse of water. It is no longer “mighty and cold,” although sometimes parts of it are cold.
Of course, we have desert and beautifully barren-looking landscapes. We have rocky ruins (some of them along the nature trails). And not all of the anemones are red, although the other colored ones seem to grow mostly in the north (where there are incredible wild irises, rare wild peonies, and amazing narcissus that blooms with other wildflowers on some of the beaches. There are tiny narcissus flowers that bloom in the forests of the Jerusalem hills, too.
The best time to see the flowers is late-winter to mid-spring. After that, it does turn hot, and most of the flowers die down. The trees remain. And the ibex roam the rocks, still. The nature trails are open all year. Although in winter, which is the rainy season, be sure to check for flash flood warnings—rain far enough away that the clouds are out of site could fill that dry gulch you’re hiking through with raging waters.
All photographs were taken by Michael Dickel, who retains the copyright for them. Used with permission. The photos were taken with a Nikon D-70 digital SLR camera, which Michael unfortunately lost in recent travels. All light effects in the photos were done “in camera,” using manual settings, except the black and white tree, which was changed from color in Apple’s iPhoto app.
Yesterday was lovely, bright and warm. Right now, we have heavy snow, and the trees in the forest outside our door are coated. In a day or two, temps will be 60F and the maple sap will be aboilin’. Must be we are in the month of March.
Folks who know me will likely tell you that I am quite fond of the Natural World, and learn what I can about how it works. As a young person, this fascination with Pachamama and the ways we humans interact with her many facets resulted in me doing doctoral work in environmental studies and anthropology. Along the way, I visited many green places and accrued a good many field guides and related books.
One of the joys of being in wild places is the opportunity to meet non-human beings. Of course, this is not without risk. A couple of years ago we were walking in a jungle park in Kerala, India, when we came upon a branch lying atop the sidewalk. I was about to step over it when our guide told me to stop. The branch was a marker: on the other side of that branch were tigers and bandits! How marvelously liminal: in one step we could go from civilized wilderness to real wilderness with all of its unknows and dangers!
There are, I think, many forms of wilderness, most of which lie outside our cultural definitions of such. One in particular has my attention as I write: if I were to really get to know you, I would no doubt find that you possess an unfathomable depth, a wildness that is both raw Nature and your nature. In order to know you at that depth, I must be willing to be in relationship with you as you are.
Somewhere in our library there is a book that portends to explain the meaning of a great many animals that may appear to us in dreams or visions. The visage and meaning of each animal, including amphibians and birds, is given to us by author in a direct, succinct manner. Each species is presented as an archetypal image, and given a tidy definition.
The book was recommended by a traditional teacher many years ago. Being a dutiful student, I went right out and bought it. I was already well into middle age and remember making that purchase with considerable trepidation. I brought the volume home, opened it, and, apparently visibly cringing, began to read.
Sure enough, my worst expectations were confirmed. While the descriptions of the animals were fair, the author’s project, to carefully define the meaning of each, seemed painfully reductionist. I’ve often wondered why my teacher recommended the book. I remind myself that he was a trickster and probably just wanted to make a point. Point made!
I have met a fair number of animals in my life: cats and dogs, crows and ravens, mud puppies and frogs, deer, turkeys, and coyotes. I’ve also met quite a few very helpful plants. Not one of those living, breathing beings was like the others in its species!
One of my dear friends, an aging Medicine woman who sprints circles around me, has several friends who happen to be crows. Each responds to the name she has given it, and each has a totally unique relationship with her. As I don’t spend time with them, I have trouble telling them apart. Not her! (Truth be told, they are not all that interested in me anyway.)
In my twenties, a vision came to me while I was visiting friends on on a reservation in California. In the vision, I watched the Amazon basin turn brown and be covered in ice. I was terrified and heartbroken; only later, after spending time in the Amazon, would I realize that I had been visited by the being of an entire ecosystem.
When a being comes in a vision, dream, or everyday encounter, they come primarily as a self, and only then, sometimes, as what one might call an archetype. (The magpie, river, or forest that appears in one’s dream is first, and foremost, an individual magpie, river, or forest.) The being, whether Ancestor, plant, animal, weather, or spirit, appears, offering relationship. Along with that offer might come information, guidance, or healing, but the first focus is on relationship.
Oh, sure, that magpie might well also be Magpie, a representation of the species, and therefore totemic or archetypal, but she is primarily a person. I can tell you that it is an odd, unsettling, even enraging, experience to be asked, as a Native American raised in the pan-Eastern Woodlands tradition, to speak for all Natives. I personally do not like being reduced to a stereotype, even an archetype one. Truth is, I can only speak for myself, although, I may still be helpful.
I believe we are best served by allowing individual animals and plants to teach us what they will, and that we humans make an enormous mistake when we reduce individuals to species, and species to archetypes. Such reductionist thinking erases the possibility of real relationship, and diminishes our grasp of Life’s complexity, as well as our opportunities for healing. Next time a creature approaches you, consider pausing, noticing its individuality, and asking how you might be of service. The answer might surprise you, and you just might make a new friend.
how red can a cherry get
when drunk with sunlight?
just enough to kiss the tree goodbye
and roll down to feel
the cherry spills its blood
all over the (maybe) ignorant rocks,
(i wonder) –
teaching them the poetry of redness,
and the rocks
peel the cherry’s sacrificial skin
and dig within its flesh
for the pip.
would you recognize the ghost of the flower
when watching altogether
the bones of the cherry
among those of the rocks?
What exactly is our relationship with Earth, its wilderness, its gardens and its green spaces?
Of course we all value this place in some way. I won’t call it our home, although we all live here; we can live nowhere else. To me, the idea of ownership seems inappropriate at least and inaccurate at best. This place may be closer to owning me, in fact. And ‘home’ makes it seem so domesticated. Is that what it is? Or is it unapologetically wild and autonomous? I have decided to approach this place as I would an equal: with humility and respect for both of us. That seems to be the best moral decision I can make at this time.
Others don’t agree. They consider this place a servant in need of stewardship. They talk of ‘eco-system services’ and measure the value of this place by the benefits it provides to one species, a single leaf on the great Tree of Life – Humans. They extract the elements that serve them, but they are not producers, like plants; they are consumers. They talk in economic terms, like ‘board feet’, but the only thing they truly produce is waste, of which only a minimal amount can be absorbed and re-used. They concern themselves with ‘management’, imagining a parental responsibility for the growth and training of this place. It’s ironic to me that the child they attend is billions of years their senior.
This place is often valued for its beauty, prized for delicate and powerful sensual elements that fill the soul and spark the imagination. Many who praise it lift it far up on a pedestal of mysticism but decline to offer it their understanding or their presence. To them, it can become remote, surreal and alien, a romantic fantasy on an epic canvas.
Some view this place with disinterest, perturbation, or downright disgust. Standing on it just means that it’s beneath them; they will not allow themselves to be grounded. It takes a great expenditure of energy to maintain this separation, but they achieve this distance by employing every distraction and applying every veneer currently available.
This has been called the “Athropocene Era”, the geological epoch of Humans. We are the dominant species at the moment and the major force impacting the Earth. We’re no longer a hunter-gatherer society, and our advancing technology is always at the expense of natural resources, even if our intention is to use it for conservation efforts. For example, the ‘progress’ we have made in recycling plastic still uses tremendous energy to break down the material and still results in the production of waste and toxins. The unchecked growth of our species has effected the climate of the entire planet and threatens a mass extinction.
It stands to reason that the only way to lessen our impact is to become less numerous, consume less, and produce less waste. We must slow down and live simpler, more sustainable lifestyles in order to stop this growth mentality that has become a global menace. Then we can begin to nurture an equal relationship to this place and its inhabitants.
Let us spend time with this place, pay a lover’s attention to its moods, its responses. Let’s be careful what we take and what we leave behind. Let’s respect this place in every detail and not dismiss the nuances of its character. Let us champion its autonomy and dignity, seeking to understand but not using that understanding for our own advancement and growth. Let’s explore to gain wisdom, not to invade. And let us celebrate our love for this place! Teach it! Demonstrate it in song, story, art and work!
I hope we will not grow weary or discouraged in this love. There will certainly come a new age of geography yet, whether our species is included or not. In our own lifetimes, though, living a loving relationship to this place is its own reward. It is a love to fill the heart, soul, mind and body and to bless the entire world.
There have been worrying reports this week that wild bumble bees are now catching deadly diseases from domesticated honey bees. Numbers are declining across Europe, North America, South America and also in Asia. You can read the Guardian article about the situation HERE. Then there are problems with pesticides that halve bees’ capacity to gather pollen. Last month the Guardian reported that:
“A two-year EU ban of three neonicotinoids, the most widely used insecticides in the world, began in December, following research that showed harm to honey and bumblebees. The neonicotinoids are “systemic” pesticides, being applied to seeds so that the chemical spreads within the plants. Over three-quarters of the world’s food crops require insect pollination, but bees have declined in recent decades due to loss of flower-rich habitat, disease and pesticide use.”
One thing is certain, without bees we will start going hungry. But if this is all too depressing, here’s a view of our Much Wenlock garden taken last summer where there were in fact very many bees. So for all of us who think that winter will never end, take heart. Summer will come again.
Once upon a time, there were a bunch of Big Brains who decided that living things (which they rarely called ‘living beings’) needed to be neatly organized. Grouping things together based on similarity was important to them for some reason. So they made up categories and named them Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, in succession from broad to specific. Then they had to remember these categories, so they memorized “Kindly Professors Cannot Often Fail Good Students” – apropos of nothing much. (Personally, I think “Kindly People Courageously Offer Fauna/Flora General Sympathy” might make better sense.)
Meanwhile, some other Big Brains decided that everything in the Universe was made by one Creator and that He gave humans dominion over all the other animal species on Earth and gave every plant for human use. That made them feel they were Most Important among the creatures on the planet. They felt very comfortable with that and valued themselves, and those that looked and acted most like them, very highly.
As for those creatures who were terribly different from them, well, they were kind of “icky”.
Well, these Big Brains were very clever. They prospered and multiplied (and divided and conjugated and came up with quantum physics). They learned how to make a Big Impact on the Earth, making things they liked out of the raw materials Earth had. And every year, there were more of them. They liked to be comfortable, so they tried to eliminate things that bothered them. Like locusts. And dandelions. They liked to be powerful, so they claimed victories over other living things that had power. Like lions. And giant sequoias.
Gradually, they noticed that some of the other living things (or Living Beings) were disappearing completely. Some people thought that was a shame, especially if the thing was useful or furry or had a face. Others noticed that when one type of thing was gone, things began to change for the rest as well. A few Big Brains began to ask some really Tough Questions about why things on the Earth were changing so quickly and whether the Big Impact of humans had anything to do with it.
I can’t tell you the ending of this story. Perhaps the Big Brains will disappear like so many other Living Beings did,and Earth will go on without them. Perhaps the Big Brains will become less numerous, less dominant, and Earth will go on with them. Perhaps something altogether different will happen. It doesn’t really matter how I tell the story.
What does matter?
Well, here on Earth, ‘matter’ can also mean every Living Being and every non-Living Thing.
What we Big Brains decide to do with all matter will matter and will help tell the end of the story.
Earlier today I went out back to refill the bird feeder. I walked through a couple of inches of new snow, each step providing a pleasant crunch; otherwise the day was silent. I reached up and removed the feeder from its limb, filled it, replaced it, and began the return walk to the house. I had gone maybe ten feet when the air was filled with chick-a-dee sound. Turning, I saw the tree had filled with birds and said birds were greeting, and thanking me!
Our resident birds have come to know us well over the years. When we forget to fill the feeder they will flock to the front porch and reproach us when we come to the door, or hang out on the back stoop, literally looking in the door and windows as we attempt to eat dinner. Once one literally stopped our car, hovering in front of our windshield as we attempted to enter the garage.
I remember a summer evening many years ago. At dusk, a family of raccoon sat on the fence in what was then our back yard, and sang to us. My wife ran inside, grabbed the kids and her guitar, and returned to sing back. What followed was miraculous: a bursting forth of song, solos, duets, and full choruses.
It seems to me we have more in common with the other animals than our culture likes to believe. Maybe the only real difference between us and other species is that we can imagine the future and, therefore, know we will die. Of course, we do not know that other creatures do not foresee death, we only imagine this based on our apparently unique neurophysiology. In the end this very notion might just be hubris.
I read recently that Shakespeare was a signer for the Acts of Enclosure, essentially barring commoners from access to his land. The Acts of Enclosure were a series of Parliamentary maneuvers designed to force peasants off traditionally common lands, thereby allowing landowners to use their lands to increase personal wealth. The effect, however, was desperate poverty for many of those denied access to fields and woodlands.
When my Sioux ancestors were forced onto reservations, they faced a sort of inverse enclosure. (My eastern woodlands Native ancestors faced a different form of displacement.) Plains Native cultures were largely nomadic, moving to take advantage of available resources, and to avoid placing undue stress on local ecosystems. The people moved with the seasons; they were an active part of the great world of Nature. Enclosure stripped them of access to resources, and attacked their sense of self and culture.
Of course, this intentional separation of people from the land was a technique used throughout the U.S. as colonists surged forward to empty the land of Natives so that they could literally enclose the land for their own uses. Now things have gotten so bad that food, medicine, and water are enclosed, access to them is limited not just for Natives, but for the great-grandchildren of the colonists.
Still, enclosure continues. Our brothers, sisters, and cousins the birds and animals are confined to ever shrinking spaces. Often the resources they need for life are in critically short supply or absent. Yet, knowing this, we continue to fragment and enclose the landscape. Climate change amps this process up; we are left with the Sixth Extinction.
I’ve heard eminent scientists suggest that if we humans can survive another thousand years we can colonize the stars, leaving Earth behind. As a Native person I find this a difficult idea to grasp. Apparently we are to accept the extinction of untold species as simply collateral damage, a necessary evil of interplanetary expansion. I imagine this idea arises from the Western psychological paradigms of adjustment and individuation, a sort of soulless vision for life, devoid of empathy and relationship.
When I hear such pronouncements I am reminded of the still very much in vogue idea of Manifest Destiny, and the genocide it was used to justify. Only now, the living world, the Mother who gives our lives and souls, relationship and meaning, is being sacrificed, along with our wild kin.
This seems a sort of illness, and a heavy price to pay for someone’s colonial dreams. As for me, I’ll prefer to remember that I am just another animal, and share what I can with those who lived here long before people arrived. It seems good to have their company on this journey, and I refuse to accept the concept that life would be just fine without them.
I snapped this photo in my Cousin Nancy’s backyard. We couldn’t have arranged a nicer outing. Her husband Ian played folk music on his guitar.
Tallie, her little Papillon, and our favorite little fur person, played fetch with the kids.
Then we all roasted marshmallows for s’mores in their fire pit.
Creating a lovely backdrop for us was this fascinating arrangement for firewood that I found so pleasing to the eye.
I did pause to wonder how the tree might have felt about the arrangement. Did it feel supported and held up by the spirits of its ancestors, or was it made nervous at the thought of suffering a similar fate? Am I the only one who thinks about these things?
It is always interesting to me, this business of feeding – of inspiring – one another with our art and poetry . . .
Buddhist artist Paula Kuitenbrouwer (Mindful Drawing) tells a sweet tale of the near-death of a beetle at her home in the Netherlands.
The tranquil garden-drawing Paula completed to commemorate the day is lovely and the first line of her post is both an homage to her unutterable respect for life and absolute poetry filled with the promise of story.
“I found a Carabidae beetle in a bucket with water and regretted its death by drowning… “
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills . . . “
Something about those evocative sentences lets you know there’s a good story to come. And there is.
“It lay there for at least an hour and I hoped so much it would give a sign of life. Then I did the most crazy thing imaginable; I turned it on its back, squeezed it gently, and gave it heart massage (don’t ask). Three drops of water came out. I have no clue why I did such a weird thing. Would somebody tell me he or she had given cardiac massage to a beetle, I would have laughed out loud.” MORE [Paula Kuitenbrouwer]
And so the inspiration for my poem ~
the garden floating in violet and ruby hues,
by the side of the house, a beetle floats too,
so jewel-like, amethyst and brilliant against
the dull gray water, it does not move
it lies there still as the dead of noon across
a bone-colored desert, and her hand so white,
wing-like flutters against its rigor, laying it
on the table, by a pad to sketch with pencils
that minuscule life, no will to release it
into whatever beetle heaven there might be,
laying tender finger to knead a tube-like heart
holding her breath, willing air into spiracles
wishful thinking? a flicker from the antennae?
slight movement of a leg? perhaps, perhaps
some healing pressure, one gentle push,
three drops of water, success in late hours
to heal a beetle, to sketch in varied colors
with time to hug the child and sip hot tea …
a creature saved from death by drowning and
cherish the mindful drawing for a memory
My world is parallel to yours.
I see what you see,
what you understand, but
the pace of my soul,
my mind’s chicanery,
the pattern of my life,
It is perhaps the magic
of the spectacles I wear
you know, the ones
that only a child can use
The varying spectral sensitivity
of which my eyes are capable,
sometimes miss a step
in your logic.
It’s like a missed beat
in the heart, that leads
to moistened eyes,
to anger or pain,
or simple awe at sight
that makes me fear
to show you how I feel,
because of how you think…
Like a garden full
of vibrant colours,
to their botany,
not their beauty.
Like lying in a field of grass
watching a sky full of stars,
defined by astrophysics
and not by your dreams.
When I am in
a hypnopompic state,
I tarry not with reason.
I see why your reality
is not what makes me tick.
What turns me on is
an alternative view
of sights and sounds
that sing to me,
with Mother Nature’s Earth.
That is, the earth,
the other worldly earth,
of which we are a part.
Try to understand it,
as I do you.
On Poverty—Spiritual Lessons From Nature series by Priscilla Galasso
Raising a child is not rocket science. It is more complex than that. Rocket science is merely complicated. What’s the difference? The Latin root for complicated “folded,” like pleats. There are hidden surfaces, but you can unfold them and draw an iron straight across it. Rocket science requires a long series of problems to solve, but with enough time and effort, you can get through them all and even repeat the entire process with very similar and predictable results. (Any one with more than one kid knows this is not the case in parenting!) In the same way, you can determine which peak is the tallest one in the Appalachian Mountains. You probably can’t guess correctly just by looking out over the landscape from a single overview, but get enough people with GPS tools to climb the hundreds of peaks on the horizon and take measurements, and eventually, you can figure out which one is the tallest. Complicated, but do-able.
Complex is a whole different story. The root of that word means “inter-woven,” like a spider’s web, where each fine thread is connected to another. And they’re all sticky except for the ones the spider uses to climb directly over to her stuck prey. But can you tell which is which? Can you tell that the one you just stepped into is sending a ripple right over to where the spider is sitting? She now knows exactly where you’re stuck, but she doesn’t know that you harbor a parasite that will kill her and make its way to yet another host when yonder sparrow snaps up her dead carcass. That’s complex.
Raising a child is complex. Trying to tell which peak in the Appalachian range is the tallest is complex, too, if the landscape is dancing: changing in an unpredictable pattern , moving to the rhythm of an imperceptible music. Which peak is tallest now? And NOW? And why are we even trying to find the answer to that question while watching this mysterious dance?
Poverty is complex. It is not something that is solved by simply devoting more time and effort to the problem. If it were, we would not be looking at thousands of years of history on the subject. We give in to the temptation to simplify poverty into a matter of dollars over time, reducing it to something measurable, predictable, and controlled, a mere graphic—the poverty line. But poverty is an inter-woven network of relationships and concepts—self worth, social justice, resources and their extraction, economic policies and global politics. It is as complex as our planet’s environment.
So how do you engage with a complex issue like poverty?
Aldo Leopold arrived at a Land Ethic after years of developing and recording a relationship to a particular place in Wisconsin. In the book A Sand County Almanac, he writes: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Making personal decisions about right and wrong based on your relationship to the community is the responsibility of every individual. Applying that ethic rigorously and non-dogmatically is the work of love. How do you love your neighbor? How do you preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community on this planet of inestimable and finite resources? How do you alleviate the suffering caused by poverty? These are complex questions.
“We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.” —Aldo Leopold
Maybe a more accessible question is this: How shall we strive to end poverty? To that question, I can imagine simple answers. Start early in your learning. Teach children about sharing and portion, not dogmatically, but in relationship. Strive toward understanding basic needs and toward a sense of what is enough. Build trust and hope and compassion. Be flexible, changing with the land and its resources. Be present with the multiple factors involved; do not look away, diminish or dismiss what is real. Be authentic and honest and diligent, and finally, believe that even on a dancing landscape, food is growing underfoot.
In my journey with photography, I have become more aware of light. The presence of light, the absence of light, how it causes reflection, my friend, Paul Jeffrey, told us once that he always turns the flash off, taking advantage of natural light. (I’m sure the rule is “almost always.”) I find that in photographing nature, that I try to stick to that rule and rely on photo-editing software to help me out if I need it. He also taught us how to make a faux tripod to steady ourselves when our shutter speed is taking just a little bit too long.
Light is a dominant theme in religious traditions also.
Christianity: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5),
Islam: “Knowledge makes you free from the chains of ignorance, and revives your heart, knowledge takes you out from the darkness of suspicions and superstitions, and gives a new light to your eyes. (Hazrat Abu Ali Saqfi)
Judaism: “I will say to the prisoners, ‘Go free!’ and to those who are in darkness, ‘Come out to the light!’ (Isaiah 49:9)
Buddhism: “Doubt everything. Find your own light.” (Gautama Buddha)
Hinduism: “One who kindles the light of awareness within gets true light.” (Unattributed)
Baha’i: “Grant that the light of unity may envelop the whole earth.” (Bahá’u’lláh)
The general thrust is that light is a metaphor for that which brings us to a higher consciousness or awareness, provides hope, guidance, and love. It is a beautiful thing when, through appropriate use of light, we can communicate a deeper exploration of these qualities—awareness of what is unseen, hope, love, beauty—a very real reflection of life. And sometimes, light lets you see something in a different way.
My favorite picture that I’ve ever taken of one of my children captures light and it seems, to me, to convey innocence and an essential quality of “child” that is so easy to forget. This is an old photo, by the way! And the picture isn’t perfect, but it still conveys a lightness of being that transcends the particular quality of the photo.
How do the following pictures and their use of light point to something beyond the images captured in the photo?
What do thoughts of light lead you to? Do you have a favorite photo that features light or the absence of light?
Shalom and Amen!
Post by Terri Stewart, 2014
Photography, CC License (CC BY-NC)
“As technological civilization diminishes the biotic diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. As there are fewer and fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing speech of the rivers is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land’s wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance.” ~ David Abram
I wanted to write a brilliant piece of poetry this for this month’s issue of The BeZine, but my efforts kept coming out with a negative bent, so I decided to instead make this a mish-mash of things. It can be really hard to try and stay positive and find hope in the face of so much apathy in the world, with so many corporations hell-bent on destroying the planet just to make a profit. It can be terribly disheartening when you look at the way the odds are stacked against us, and how very much work there is to do.
On the other hand, it means that there are plenty of opportunities for all of us to find something to DO. Find an environmental cause that speaks to you, personally, whether it’s saving the rainforests, trying to keep trash out of our oceans or making sure that more tar sands pipelines don’t get built. The thing about activism is that it requires action. If you can’t be part of a the local events, if you can’t get out and pick up litter in the parks, there are still lots of things you can do to help. The important thing is “action”. Whether your action is donating time, money, ideas, space, spreading the word via social media or blogging about it, taking pictures…however you choose to do it, just find a way to get involved. The more people we have taking action, the more our efforts can create a ripple effect that can move mountains (or save them from mountain-top strip mining, as the case may be).
Image borrowed from piecefit.com
Here’s a list of the Top 100 Environmental Websites to get you started. From animals rights, to deforestation, to environmentally friendly energy solutions, to recycling, to ocean protection to whatever else you can think of regarding the environment and wilderness, your cause is out there…you just have to find it. 😉 Speaking of which, here’s a handy, dandy test to help you figure out your Environmental Worldview , which is defined as “collective beliefs and values that give people a sense of how the world works, their role in the environment, and right and wrong behavior toward the environment. Environmental worldviews dictate how we interact with nature and our attitude toward how we use the natural resources it contains.” ~ Source
In closing, I’d like to leave you with a video by one of my favorite celebrity environmental activists, Woody Harrelson.
According to Wikipedia, the term “biodiversity” came into popular usage in 1985 as the 1986 National Forum on Biological Diversity was being planned. A decade earlier in scientific studies, the term “natural diversity” was the expression used to describe the variety of different types of life found on earth, and “species diversity”, “species richness”, and “natural heritage” are even older terms. The same Wikipedia article goes on to describe how biodiversity benefits humanity. This is where I want to jump off the Wiki-wagon. I have a diminishing tolerance for anthropocentric thinking. Diversity isn’t important because it’s good for us. Diversity is important because it IS.
Where diversity exists, you know the carrying capacity of the environment is at a high level. This means that there are enough resources to support a large community of biota. There is abundance and health….for everything. There are food sources, water sources, shelters, places to meet others of your species, safe habitats in which to reproduce and raise young, and plenty of predators, large and microscopic, to keep the population in balance. Where diversity is threatened, you see widespread extinction, the development of large mono-cultures, and the altering of climate and landscape. (For a fascinating example of this, see this story on how the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park changed the course of a river. How Wolves Change Rivers on youtube.com.)
Diversity and abundance or extinction and scarcity. These are snapshots on either end of the spectrum of possible futures for our planet…or for any small subset of it. My question isn’t about how diversity benefits humanity. My question is about how diversity feels. Not only to you, or to us, but to the Universe. As Eckhart Tolle would say, think beyond the Egoic Mind. What is diversity to the Power and Source of Life? It is essential; it is essence poured out on reality. You might say that the Divine is manifest in diversity. What is diversity to the Ego? It is a threat. It is Other and Dangerous. I’m sure you can see how this plays out across different parts of history in different parts of the world. Where mono-cultures restrict diversity in the human community, what is the effect? Take a moment here to think of all you’ve ever read or heard, seen or felt about genocide, extinction, ‘ethnic cleansing’, segregation, persecution, and intolerance. The human Ego fighting the reality of diversity is a war that makes no sense to me. There is no possible victory in it anywhere, for anyone.
My final questions are these: what is diversity to the Person you want to be, in the world where you will live? How is your carrying capacity, your caring capacity, today?
Like many people, I love to garden. I enjoy the feeling of soil beneath my fingers, the satisfaction of caring for plants and watching them grow and bloom. I also tend to believe that all life is sacred. From the biggest whale in the ocean, down to the tiniest ant in the ground, all living things are usually just trying to survive, the best and only ways they know how. It can be frustrating when garden pests appear to wreck all of my hard work! But in the many years I have been doing it, I have come to understand and appreciate that there must be a balance and that there are ways to be a more compassionate gardener.
Aphids. These sap-sucking insects can quickly overtake and kill an otherwise healthy plant. Most healthy plants can survive a small infestation of aphids, but if their numbers grow too large, it’s time to take action.
What you can do:
* Introduce some helpful insects – get some Ladybugs (also called Ladybirds in some parts of the country)! Ladybugs love aphids and can be relatively inexpensive to purchase. Lacewings are another alternative if you can’t find any Ladybugs.
* Use the water pressure spray from your garden hose to knock the aphids off the stems and leaves of plants. Many times, this alone will be enough to dislodge those unwelcome guests.
* Use a spray bottle filled with soapy water (1 quart of water, 1 teaspoon of liquid dish soap and a pinch of cayenne pepper) and make sure to mist the underside of the leaves, where aphids like to congregate.
* Plant some plants which attract Lacewings and Ladybugs and deter aphids, due to their strong scents. Some good examples to try are: Onions, Garlic, Chives, Cilantro, Rosemary, Sage, Oregano and Fennel. Most strong scented herbs and plants in the Allium family are great for this.
* Encourage nesting of birds which eat aphids, like wrens, titmice and chickadees. Natural predators are much safer and more compassionate than chemicals. (After all, the birds have to eat, too!)
Slugs/Snails. Slimy and slow, these invertebrates can leave a trail of destruction that will decimate any garden.
What you can do:
* Plant “barrier plants” around the plants you’re trying to protect. As with aphids, slugs don’t care for strong scented herbs like those listed above. Nasturtiums are also a natural plant that slugs don’t like. Try it. You might be surprised.
* Sprinkle finely-crushed eggshells or use a ring of sandpaper around the plants you want to protect. The slugs and snails will not attempt to crawl over these things because they will hurt themselves doing it. By the way, coffee grounds are great for soil amendment but they don’t dosquat to keep the slugs and snails away. 😉
* Put a board or an upside-down flower pot propped up so the slugs can get under it by the plants you don’t want eaten and check the board or pot every morning. The slugs and snails will go party on the underside since it’s cool and possibly damp, and you can pick them off by hand to get rid of them.
* If you can find it, try mulching around your plants with seaweed about 3-4 inches deep. The salt content in seaweed is enough to keep those pesky gastropods away. Don’t ever put salt ON your plants, though. It will kill them.
Snakes/Spiders/Lizards. Any experienced gardener will tell you: these are NOT the enemies! Quite simply, leave them be. They will help your garden more than you realize, and even though they may give you the heebie-jeebies, don’t kill them. Most of the time, they are not dangerous to people and will help you in your quest to keep your garden pest free.
Gardening can help a person “get back to earth” and reconnect with the planet. We can be compassionate in our efforts to protect the fruits of our labors and we don’t have to saturate the world with chemicals or kill those things which we label “pests”. There is always a balance which we should strive to keep.
“Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.”
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees. ~ William Blake
I saw grass for the first time today.
Oh, I’ve seen, sown and sawn Suburbia’s
mostly-green undergarment all my life.
But today it glowed upon my mind’s eyes like
a child’s first birthday present inside a shiny box.
I enjoy that infant-like discovery
of something I know I’ve held in my senses
since first I sensed. Maybe it’s
the light’s different angle reflected to this
ever-shrinking man, or this shallower air
I breathe that, say, a pumpkin pie baking
can infuse with the aroma of earthy heaven
upon heavenly earth.
Or perhaps it’s just me, searching for
something new in a life of so much now old.
Like today, the cords in the blinds
in front of me never had that figure-eight
infinity-upon-infinity existence before
my vision’s finite reach captured them here
in I’s, Y’s and F’s like this.
Such observations make me wish
for a few infinities so that I
might try discovering
the Whats and Whys of your world,
which I’ll never see, and those of mine,
which you’ll never understand.
Nor, apparently, will I.
A female North Atlantic right whale with her calf in the ocean.
On the mid-afternoon boat out of Boston,
we headed southeast past lobster traps
and gliding slicks of motor fuel,
all there to run the engine that transported
tourists from flush to a good deal poorer
in the time it took to eat one meal
at Ostra or The Capital Grille.
We were still digesting Quincy Market pizza,
feeling the breeze on our bare legs
poking out from the deck above’s
meager shade, as the hot sun sprayed jewels
off our bow. Above us, a radio squawked
that another boat had spotted her due east and
we canted to port, a vee-shaped churn
of golden foam trailing behind us as we
became smaller and smaller on the
blinding mirror of sea. She soon appeared
off the starboard bow, birds circling her
as if she was a conscious island, the gray queen
sinuously weaving her barnacled weft over
and under the Atlantic’s green warp waves.
And then it was pretty much over.
The boat powered up and sped us back to the
dock in Boston, as we winced with sunburnt legs
and bleary eyes into a sun that was setting
over the city, which bloomed bigger with
each rumble and bump, each passing trawler’s
casting of wakes our way. I remember the image
of the dimming eastern distance, where I
left behind my feeling of human superiority
and all my other images of that day,
having dropped my camera over the side
when I bowed in my audience with the queen.
silent, but for the cunning corvidae,
they of persistent caw, whoop and kuk,
they float on soft whimpers of wind
above the quiet fragrant grass
and all the while the pen spins ~
spins on spring when gentle colors
stir the blooming riot of garden
a fabled coalition of migrant birds
arrives to sit a spell, to catch a breath of
white jasmine on a breeze, it speaks the
tongue of aleppo … while pen weaves
a twine of words in the shade of a ginkgo,
siphoning stories from earth’s green waves
and that blue echo of peace called sky
Do you remember when your baby teeth fell out? Do you have any memories of being without central incisors, lisping and whistling when you spoke, unable to bite into an apple or an ear of corn? How much do you remember of the physical changes associated with your passage through puberty?
Would you ever choose to re-live those changes? (I imagine in response a loud chorus of ‘Noooo!’ and laughter.)
Why do we find change so awkward and uncomfortable? Why do we imagine a state of perfection achieved and unchanged, and why is that stasis desired? Consider this: change is natural; metamorphoses are observed and documented in every species — birth, maturation, reproduction, aging, death, decay, absorption, and birth. All around us there is a process of movement, going from one thing to another, losing some properties and gaining others. This is Life. It is dynamic; it is not good or bad; it is. Often, however, we decide we like where we are. We want to stay put. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. But we are, in fact, stuck, and it takes a great deal of energy to stay there, resisting the current of Life all around. We feel drained, exhausted, spent, sapped, worn out. We want to feel the flow of energy again, but in order to do that, we must make a change. Fear holds us back. This is a pivotal point of decision – we must choose Change to choose Life.
The Old Testament talks about having youth renewed like the eagles’, about mounting up with wings as eagles and being borne on the wings of an eagle. Golden eagles populated the Holy Land, and their lifespans were observable to the ancient poets. I have seen bald eagles in the wild on a few occasions now, but not before I was 45 years old. What do I know of an eagle’s life? I did a little research. Southwestern Bald Eagle Managementtold me “In their five year development to adulthood, bald eagles go through one of the most varied plumage changes of any North American bird. During its first four weeks of life, an eaglet’s fluffy white down changes to a gray wooly down. At about five weeks, brown and black feathers begin to grow. It becomes fully feathered at 10 weeks of age. In its first year, the mostly dark-colored juvenile can often be mistaken as a golden eagle. However, the bald eagle progressively changes until it reaches adult plumage at five years. Notice in the pictures how its dark eye lightens throughout its first four years of life until it becomes yellow. Also, see how its beak changes from gray-black to a vibrant yellow. It is believed that the darker, more mottled plumage of a young eagle serves as camouflage, while the white head and tail announce that it is of breeding age.”
Renewal is for the purpose of maturity. It is not about going back to a juvenile state. It is about soaring with the movement of Life toward the next place of energy. It is not about resuscitation; it is about resurrection. We shall all be changed.
My daughter recommended to me a book titled Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. The author is a medical doctor and a gerontologist. He tackles the real and practical implications of growing old and dying in this culture: nursing homes, DNR orders and advance directives, heroic life-saving surgeries, hospice and what it is to live with meaning and dignity. This book terrified me. I read it in small doses. It made me face denial and delusions head on. It was not a comfortable read, but I would recommend it to anyone. It puts Change in the forefront and invites you to get real. I would not have been able to read it 7 years ago, right after my husband died. I wasn’t ready. The book I read then that helped me to accept change was Pema Chodron’s book WhenThings Fall Apart (which I recently discovered is a phrase from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”).
Where are you in the flow of Life? Where are you stuck? What are you afraid of when you face Change? How have you embraced Maturity? How have you run from it? What images of Peace in harmony with Change are meaningful to you? These may be your symbols of Renewal. Here are a few of mine (click on the first one to see a slideshow with larger images):
Last summer I saw a baby Stellar Jay perched on my arbor, resting after trying out its wings. I looked away for an instant; when I looked back, it was gone.
It reminded me of something The Venerable Bede once said. Bede was an Anglo-Saxon monk born in 672A.D.
In The Ecclesiastical History of the English People he compares a person’s life to the flight of a sparrow. Imagine sitting in a mead-hall at supper by the light of a blazing fire, while outside a winter storm rages.
A sparrow flies in one door of the hall, into the light, then darts out out another door, back into the cold dark night. “So our lives appear for a short space,” said Bede, “but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.”
People have many different thoughts, feelings, beliefs and explanations as to what or if anything comes before…
…or after the sparrow’s flight.
Sooner or later each of us will fly out into the night.
That seems to be the only thing everyone can agree upon.
I don’t need to know all the answers before I fly back out.
I am right here, right now, basking in the warm and beautiful light of life.
Whatever happens outside the mead-hall won’t change the way I live my life here and now.
I have work I am passionate about…
..family I love and good friends to play with.
I care about issues in the wider world…
…and in my own little sphere.
I hope I can make some small difference…as a writer, a storyteller, a parent, a friend…
…and to leave even just a little nightlight shining…
…when my flight is done. All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck
Have you ever had an experience of ego awakening? I have. The first one I remember happened as I was sitting in church on a Sunday morning, listening to a sermon. I was a child of about 7, I think, squirming about in the pew beside my family members. None of them were paying attention to me. They were simply silent. I suddenly became aware that I was there and that it was possible that I could ‘not be there’. I could not be born, for example, or I could be something else. I wondered why I wasn’t a rabbit, but a girl, Priscilla. I wondered why I was aware of being present for this sermon when I had sat through so many others and not been aware at all. I paid attention to the words of the Rector for a time, staring straight at him, but his talk was not as exciting as this simple new awareness. I figured he wasn’t really addressing me. I think it was Spring, the stained glass windows were open a bit, and the sun was shining. I sat facing the windows, away from the pulpit, and in rapt and embryonic ego transcendence.
My ego returned to center stage, though, shortly after that. I was the fourth daughter in this church-going family. I grew up with questions about whether or not I was special, with feelings of redundancy. My sisters were always more intelligent and talented and capable, having the edge of years of experience beyond mine. What did I have to offer that they couldn’t deliver more readily? And what would be my share of the resources available? Could my parents really give their attention and their love to all of us equally? Somehow, these questions kept arising for me, causing anxiety and an eagerness to convince myself that I was unique and uniquely loved. I spent 47 years in the church-going habit, seeking to resolve these questions in community with others looking for a similar comfort.
Let me insert a different image now. David Attenborough on Christmas Island, surrounded by a moving mass of red crabs. It’s nighttime and quite dark. Thousands of females, heavy-laden with eggs, are approaching the tide in order to release their burdens into the surf. The water turns reddish brown as a surge of life heads out to sea. Millions, billions of little babies set adrift. Redundancy and abundance. Life in a beautifully mysterious burst of activity, at a specific time and place, choreographed by some ancient awareness and acceptance. It is awesome – possibly divine. Are those babies unique and uniquely loved? The question seems moot. They ARE. No less. No more. (http://www.arkive.org/christmas-island-red-crab/gecarcoidea-natalis/video-00c.html – this is not David Attenborough, but at least it doesn’t have advertisements.)
We were driving out to the University last week to attend an enrichment class entitled “Understanding the Mysteries of Hibernation” when Steve popped in an audio book CD, The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle began to describe his pivotal ego experience: For years my life alternated between depression and acute anxiety. One night I woke up in a state of dread and intense fear, more intense than I had ever experienced before. Life seemed meaningless, barren, hostile. It became so unbearable that suddenly the thought came into my mind, “I cannot live with myself any longer.” The thought kept repeating itself several times. Suddenly, I stepped back from the thought, and looked at it, as it were, and I became aware of the strangeness of that thought: “If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me – the I and the self that I cannot live with.” And the question arose, “Who is the ‘I’ and who is the self that I cannot live with?”
He went on to talk about the False Self that is edified, criticized, and mortified in our Western culture. I nodded in complete recognition. Don’t we call that the Ego? And then…I began to think of that ‘I’, that divinely authentic, fully alive, completely unique and inter-dependent being that each of us is. It was like a flash. My face lit up in excitement as I turned to Steve, “YES! I get it!” The things I had been hearing about enlightenment and no-self in Buddhism finally made sense. It’s not about the abasement of your being, it’s about the shift from False Self to ‘I’.
An hour later, I was listening to a lecture about mammals who suppress their metabolic systems, who turn down the fire of life in order to more effectively harmonize their energy with their changing environment. They go through cycles of torpor and arousal, staying alive (and in some cases, giving birth) without adding any food energy into their system – for 5 to 6 months! This is fascinating! Heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature, digestion – all of these vital systems depressed by as much as 75%, and still, there is Life. The speaker discussed implications for biomedical research, but I am not as impressed by what humans might do with this knowledge as I am by the beings who live it. They are the authentic ‘I’; they are themselves, in a web of inter-dependence and autonomy, using and conserving their energy in response to what IS, what is available in the environment and what is intrinsic to their survival. Descriptions, terms, charts and statistics become gibberish. Even Science is a False Self. These are “stepping-stones”, as are all words, in Tolle’s estimation, serving to propel us to the next place in the movement of existence.
The flow of Life, the flow of energy – what is that about? It’s not about clinging to stepping-stones: food, love, identity, thoughts, dogmas or practices. It’s about finding “the joy in change and movement” (as Steve would say), the dynamic of relating to an abundant, redundant, mysterious and unexpected Universe. It’s about waking up and being conscious of where we are right NOW…..and how beautiful and wonder-filled that place is. That consciousness is the beginning of Peace, an intuitive harmony with life that is unfortunately made dissonant by the noise of Falseness in this culture. What would it be like to give up that False Self more and more? Instead of giving up chocolate or the Internet for 40 days, I’m going to challenge myself to move more into ‘I’ existence. I don’t want to live with my self any longer. And that’s a good thing. 🙂 Namaste, Priscilla
I’ve sat here since Wednesday
watching a story unfold
on that snowy, tree-margined page.
Each new track a sentence scribed
by rabbit, deer or squirrel.
Each trail another chapter.
Today, an editor strode
from the north and scribbled
blue-penciled shadows across the hill.
With a great howl, as some editors
are accustomed to speaking,
this one deleted three days work,
scouring that page into
I just saw a squirrel plop
into the snow with a powdery The.
That’s where I differ from Nature.
She doesn’t fear rejection
and never gets writers block.
I guess I look ridiculous to the neighbors as they pass by,
Lying on the ground, staring up at the sky,
My head underneath a tangle of rose-tree branches –
“Canes” as true rose aficionados technically call
These black, stark, angular arthritic knuckles that
One must only ever touch with thick canvas gloves,
Lest a thorn – whose name is “Legion”, for they are many here –
Pierce tender flesh, draw blood, draw curse, and spoil
One’s romantic meditations on rose-hood, substituting
Instead an insidious intuition of hidden harm,
Of treacherous mendacity masquerading as sweetness, as softness.
But I guess my neighbors, or anyway, those who took a second
Glance, would understand, would understand when they saw
The gloves, the old straw hat, the gardening shears – though the posture would still mystify.
They would understand that, also, were they to join me here on the ground,
Which they would be welcome to do, were any not averse to such loss of dignity.
They would understand that, while seeing thorns is easy from a more
Dignified position, that the seeing of rosebuds is best done from a position
Lower down, closer to the earth, preferably upside down, a form of self-humiliation,
Like St. Peter crucified in Rome.
So here I lie.
Clouds drift by, cotton tufts caught in the brutal lattice of cane and thorn,
Sky fractured into azure plates by crooked black boundaries swept by wind.
Eyes drift from cane to cane, eclipsing sun, finally alighting on a single rosebud,
The first of an early spring, unexpected, dew-drop catching sunfire in a
Glissando of color … well worth waiting for; well worth a little lumbar pain
Heralding youth as well as age. Oh, the thorns are still there, observable
From any angle. Never fear.
But rosebuds are best seen from below, from a less exalted, less dignified
Vantage that invites the baptism of dew on forehead, of light in eye.
She was a King County prosecutor, a right-brained person in a left-brained world. I would describe her as a person with one toe deeply rooted in the earth, and an ear bent toward Heaven. No wonder she left law, and went on to become an acclaimed storyteller and author. Fair is Fair: World Folktales of Justice was awarded the American Folklore Society’s Aesop Prize, as well as a Storytelling World Award.
Her brilliant anthology, In Full Bloom: Tales of Women in Their Prime (foreword by Naomi Baltuck!) is well known in the storytelling world.
But at heart she has always been a poet, and a visual artist.
Sometimes both at once. Her work, Generations, is a collage featuring a vintage photo of four generations of the women in her family. Having grown up in Kansas, Sharon chose to include the quilt pattern called “Kansas Troubles.”
On the back of this piece–and at the heart of it– you will find her poetry.
Writers, poets and artists, teachers, mothers and grandmothers…hell, everyone occasionally needs a boost.
I am fortunate to know creative people with whom I can retreat and reenergize.
To share ideas…
To feed our spirits…
To get the creative juices flowing.
To create a quiet space to write….
Whatever it takes!
Last week I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the next writing project I have committed myself to. Sharon said, “Before dawn this morning, I was stewing about my resistance to starting a new painting and was reading Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING. And this poem came:
I am more than the sum of dried paint tubes and stacks of attempts and tries. I am the breath of color on canvas, I am the vision of something never before. I am the incessant urge of “one more time”.
Sharon transported me from that space of uncertainty. I felt cradled and spooned by the good women in my life. I felt bound not by blood and bone, but by our passion for language, story, and the incessant urge of “one more time.”