Carried On The Breath

Years back, in saner times, I went walking in Wildcat Canyon. It was midsummer, the green was creeping down the hills as the relentless sun of the dry season drove the water downhill. I sat under an oak tree and looked at the patterns the color made as gold engulfed green. I came there often and was realizing just how easy it was to get a specific lesson from the land, just by taking the time to really observe. The pennyroyal patch that I’d been making cups of tea from was obviously a place where water pooled below the surface even in summer. The reeds grew in another low place for part of the year. The bracken grows in winter, the wet season when our biome comes alive, and its brown skeletons can be seen as the dry season sucks the green plants dry. The hills are pale gold and the hum of life rises to a subtle scream of heat and light that stretches the days to the breaking point. This is when fire stalks the land. For a time, the only patches of green are the depressions between the hills, the streams marked by the trees that grow on their banks. The alders grow on the lower hills, closest to the water, the oaks and laurels take over from there and dot the hills. The huge purple thistles and Himalayan blackberries, brought by people who should have known better, are happy in their new home on the hills and in large thickets, and broom, another plant that was brought here, crowds out the native coyote brush and ceanothus.

I used to live close enough to ride there. I’d lock up my bike in the parking lot and walk the road that goes nowhere, my very own dystopic landscape when such places were delicious fantasies instead of looming realities. I’d think of what it would be like to be a nomad on a bicycle, living off the land and having adventures.

There is a turnoff and a steep section of hill that ends at a cattle gate. You can let yourself in and continue up the dirt road to the remains of what was once an estate, and then a sanitarium, and then was consumed by fire over half a century ago. What was once a long driveway lined with palm trees is now a rough trail with one or two weatherbeaten survivors, their trunks stout and battered by the struggle of living in a climate they were never meant for. Among them are oaks and bay laurels, the remains of rose bushes, and the low lines of what were once walls. There is a set of steps ending in grass, a fine place to sit, and further on an orchard reduced to a few stunted apple trees sheltered by a snaggletoothed line of cypresses. Strike off for the top of the ridge once you pass the line and there is a brass benchmark set in the bare top of the hill. The view is impressive, you can see the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais, the refinery with its round tanks off in the distance.

That day though, the heat had driven me off the ridge into the shade. I was thinking about the planet and how we were changing it. How it must feel to be the earth as it warmed. The hot day was a reflection of the planetary fever we are creating as we move the stored carbon from the land into the sky. I closed my eyes in meditation and asked the Earth what it felt like to breathe as a planet right then.

I began to feel the heat as I hadn’t before. My throat was dry, and I wanted to lie down. The air was drying me out, and my eyes popped open. I took a gulp of water from my canteen but it didn’t help. Each breath was drawn with difficulty, through the thinning tube of my throat. I began to panic.

Then I remembered what I had asked and realized what was probably happening to me. If it wasn’t, I was far from help and this was before the age of the cell phone. I did lie down, and slowly took a deep breath. I felt the land beneath me, holding me up, and spent some time just breathing, sending the fear down into it, reducing my need for air in stillness, looking up through the leaves above me, the bits of blue sky above. Slowly, the dizziness subsided. I wasn’t sick, not really. The Earth wasn’t even sick. Things were just a bit harder than they had been and I was a vessel far too small to contain the Earth’s pain. I sat up, drank more water, and thought about what had happened.

It has been years since I lived in Richmond. That day I’d driven up there on a whim, wanting to see the place again. As I walked back to my car, a battered silver Honda that had taken me on many an adventure, I realized that this had to be my last car. The Earth could take no more and I would no longer be part of this madness. Yes, my gas-crunch car sipped rather than gulped. It was tiny enough to fit in any possible parking place. Its emissions were so low that smog places asked me what I’d done to it, suspecting modification. I’d bought it from a guy who’d had tears in his eyes as he’d turned over the keys. Impulsively, I’d asked him what its name was. He said “Phoenix,” so fast and low I almost missed it. It had been rear-ended by an SUV, the back hatch had been crushed, but the frame was fine and the car did live up to its name. For practicality, and I admit to add to the Road Warrior ambiance, I popped the back hatch open, installed a couple of hasps on the sides, and padlocked it shut. I loved it like a member of the family. In the end, Phoenix died when a truck turned left in front of us on Highway 1 out of Crescent City. I managed to get down to 35 by standing on the brake. I wasn’t hurt, my coffee hadn’t even been spilled. Phoenix was totaled. With tears in my eyes, I turned it over to a wrecker and in the end joined a carshare.

Today the sky is hazy. The morning light was strained through smoke, the color of fine old Scotch and smelling like it has every summer for the last few years. Fire season is so beautiful, and so sad. We won’t be burning, we live in the city. We are lucky enough to be able to stay inside, able to do the right thing in a pandemic, but so many of us have to go out there, have to work or flee burning houses, or to places where we can breathe.

We’ve triggered planetary defense mechanisms, passed tipping points. In California, we are seeing the beginning of desertification. The forests are changing, turning to savanna in some places, changing their composition in others, burning and dying in places that were once beautiful. Sudden oak death is taking the oaks on Mt. Tamalpais. They are being supplanted by bay laurel and Douglas fir. What will happen to the redwoods, who need their feet in the water? Big Basin is burning, the oldest California State Park, home to the giants.

We’ve targeted the atmosphere, that thin layer of gases that the lives of so many creatures depend upon. It’s as if the planet is sending humanity the same message I received when I asked my question years ago. In specific areas, for specific people, we can’t breathe. And yes, we are compounding our folly by choking innocent people to death, as if to make this human-made tragedy complete.

COVID-19 is the icing on the cake. A disease carried by the air. It most often settles in the lungs, and most people survive it, but that is a deception that only allows it to move more freely among us. As it spreads on our breath we find it has so many more ways of killing or causing permanent harm. A zoonotic disease, it has spilled over into humanity because we can’t seem to share this planet we are part of, and collectively we don’t care about any of the other beings on this planet except as they relate to us. The remedies to limit its spread are simple, but unpleasant and expensive and require cooperation and sharing what we have.

We are being tested—not by a faraway being who created the Earth as some Petri dish to see how far the experiment will run, but by ourselves. We are stretching the limits of our only home and we have nowhere else to go should we damage our habitat to the point it can no longer sustain us.

We can stop this. The test we have devised for ourselves has no individual solution. Living a climatically virtuous lifestyle—whatever that is—is a way to experiment and find alternatives to the unbridled pursuit of growth that has been the norm for the last ten millennia, but it is like throwing a bucket of water on a forest fire. It will not save us as individuals. Enough of us have forgotten how to live as if other people matter, as if other species matter to push us over the edge of the carrying capacity of this place we call home, and until and unless we learn to live as part of a collective superorganism, which is, after all, what this planet is, we will not survive. Like everything else here, alone in the sea of space, we are all connected. Our actions in this time matter deeply. We are unlikely to extinguish all life, but we can certainly extinguish ourselves.

I don’t know how to fix this. The caterpillar doesn’t know how to become a butterfly, but it does so. Are we part of a galaxy, a universe, where this sort of metamorphosis happens? We won’t know unless we make it to the other side. It may turn out that we’re worrying for nothing, that what feels like death approaching is only the process of transformation. All I know is that when we seek stillness and listen to the rest of the world we do know what we shouldn’t be doing.

Our planet lies between two others, Venus and Mars, that for reasons we do not yet understand went in opposite directions, one falling victim to a runaway greenhouse effect and the other possibly losing the ability to support an atmosphere and retain liquid water. Did they ever support life? We won’t know if we don’t survive, but we do know that continuing to fill our atmosphere with carbon dioxide is a foolish thing to do.

I am not for an instant calling the current pandemic a blessing. My own country is closing in on 200,000 deaths, and the havoc and death that has been created by one little virus is not something any sane person would wish for. It is, however, the kind of shock that can create change. The countries who have taken it seriously and taken sensible action to deal with the crisis are beginning to recover. It is blindingly obvious what needs to be done and the consequences of not doing these things. I’m not going to go into those actions because they are being discussed worldwide and the information is available to anyone who chooses to open their eyes.

These things aren’t easy for people who have been accustomed to thinking only of themselves, their families, their nations, their species. Doing them will mean we have at last begun to grow up as a species and realize that we must act for the good of the whole. We will be on the road to planetary consciousness. It will mean that we think before we act, and we observe and learn from the world around us instead of looking for the facts that justify the actions we wish to take.

Someday, when we have done what we need to, I will walk in a wild place once more. Until then I will stay inside and remember what I have learned. Once upon a time I walked the ridge above Wildcat Canyon, camped beside the sea at Point Reyes, stood inside a redwood in Big Basin. Is that tree still standing? What will be left of Point Reyes? Or, like so many beautiful places, will they be only memories?

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