Songs That Must Be Sung, Part 1 of 3

This trip has been growing for years. There are things to be done and songs to be sung that have to happen in Ireland, England and Scotland. I don’t expect to get to all of them this time, but there are a few biggies that absolutely have to happen. There are three of my songs in particular that have to be sung this time. The first one is The Pangs of Macha.

Back in college, I took a Celtic literature course. It was the most important course I ever took. My instructor let me write a song for my final project, based on one of the pieces we read. I chose one of the pre-tales from Kinsella’s translation of the Tain. He included a selection of stories that an Irish person of the time would have known, and which made the tale more intelligible to people of our time. It explained the reason why Cuchulain was facing Medb’s army alone.

I chose it for a variety of reasons. First, before that class, I hadn’t known who Macha was, beyond a vague awareness that she was a goddess. I’d known of the Cu since childhood. I felt her story needed to be told. I also knew what it felt like to be wronged by the men of Ulster, a story best forgotten now. I also was struck by the fact that of all the provinces of Ireland, Ulster was the one that was still not free, torn by violence. It was as if Macha’s curse was still operating, her lessons not yet learned. So I told that story, fully, leaving nothing out, adding nothing, from the only version I had that I felt was trustworthy.

I knew when I wrote it that someday I would sing it at Emain Macha. So I need to go to Navan Fort in Armagh (Ard Macha?) and do so.

Busking My Way To Ireland

I’m going to be 50 on the Winter Solstice. I’ve spent my whole life on the West Coast of the United States, specifically in the Bay Area. This really is an amazing place to live, and I applaud my parents’ good taste in choosing to settle here (they came from Ohio originally). However, I’ve never been off this continent, unless you count the fact that I have been offshore and just out of sight of land on both coasts. Both trips were in tallships and I remember vividly being aloft off the Atlantic braced against the swell furling t’gallants. On the West Coast I remember the three members of our watch tacking the Lady Washington late at night without having to wake anyone else. It took a bit of time, but we felt like giants when we were done. I wouldn’t trade either of those experiences for anything, but the fact is, I’ve never been to any other country other than Canada.

Lest this turn into a pity party, I have a plan, and what Chris Guillebeau recently called a Big Thing on his blog, The Art Of Non Conformity. I thank him for the inspiration, and all the concrete advice he gives out for free on his site, as well as his excellent book, The $100 Startup, which is a great read.

The germ of my idea is this: I will busk my way to Ireland, which is a place I have always wanted to go. Every penny that comes from my music goes in the fund to do this. My drum will take me places my salary can’t.

Now I know it will take me centuries to pass the hat for enough money to buy a plane ticket. But I also know that adventures often begin small. If I set out my hat, start singing, and say yes to every good idea that comes to me, I’ll get there, probably sooner than I think. Along the way, I’ll get a lot better at my craft, and there are other things besides busking that I already plan on doing. I have two albums half written that will grow as I stand in the BART station or on that sidewalk. Busking is like fertilizer, I have always known that. It is the greatest teacher there is.

So for now I’ll pack up my drum and my produce and head for the crop swap. I’ll be playing on the corner of Adeline and Alcatraz in Berkeley in about 2 hours. And I’ll post some more details on why I want to go, and what I plan to do when I get there in the next few days. If you are intrigued by this idea, and find my journey entertaining, please spread the word. I need as many eyes and ears as possible on this blog to make this work. Thanks for reading this far, and may your road be as much fun as mine is going to be!

The Bicycle Meditation

My main modes of travel are:

First and foremost, on foot. It was good enough for my hominid ancestors, and it’s good enough for me.

If it’s too far to walk to, given our time-starved culture, I hop on my bicycle.

If bicycling is impractical or the route required is downright frightening, I get on the bus or the BART.

If even that won’t get me where I’m going, or the load I must take is too heavy, I get a carshare car.

I realize that I am, like the salmon, swimming upstream with this way of life. I get frustrated as hell living like this. But I know that our choices are shaping our world, and I fear the direction we’re collectively driving in. I can’t go back, I don’t like where we are now, and I feel that for me this is the only way forward to a future we can live in, and live well.

It’s hard, though, trying to get across town in a world built for the automobile. It’s hard and scary sharing the road that people in cars think they own. I take the side streets whenever possible but even so, there are a few places in my daily commute where I have to use the busy arterials for short distances. Every day I’m passed at high speed, close enough to feel the wind suck at my clothes, by some entitled jerk who needs to get there a minute sooner and sees me as nothing more than an obstacle in their way.

My morning commute, being early, is actually pretty stress-free. But I used to ride in a rage-filled haze many afternoons. That wasn’t good for anyone, least of all me. This meditation has evolved over the last year or so, and has made my afternoon ride a whole lot easier.

The Bicycle Meditation

Gaia, you have given me everything. This road I roll on is made from your bones. Every part of this bicycle I ride has been made from something that came from you. Likewise my body, my very life!

Gaia, you have given me life! I offer you this bike ride, all these rides taken across Oakland, all these shining strands woven by my wheels back into the web of life, all these rides made under my own power, using the original biofuel. I offer you these, and my firm intention to stay on my feet, on this bicycle, on the bus.

Because we are world changers. We humans have the power to change your face to the point where other beings can no longer exist on it. If we take it far enough, we ourselves may no longer exist. I am glad to be aware of the ways that my choices change you, and to choose carefully, because all beings have the right to their homes, and their lives. They should never be killed without a reason, or without awareness.

But Gaia, I do ask you one thing. Protect me. Protect all bicyclists. Let us all arrive safe and happy at our destinations, having the most amazing fun, because people join a party.

And Gaia, may our numbers grow. May we become an expected, respected and protected form of traffic.

Gaia, may our numbers grow. May we be equal to the numbers of cars out here. May facilities and accommodations be built for us as well, so that we may travel safely across our cities. May every road, bridge and highway be open to us, and to all human-powered forms of transport. May I be able to travel from San Diego, California to Vancouver, B.C. if I choose. May I at least be able to ride across town with a bike trailer to buy groceries and have it be a safe and pleasant experience.

And Gaia, may our numbers grow. May we outnumber the cars. May human powered forms of transport be the way we get around. May we travel on foot, by bicycle, by scooter, skateboard and wheelchair. May we all honor and respect all road users as we travel at human speeds, that preserve social cues and let us interact with each other as we travel. May every neighborhood be a better place to live because we meet our neighbors every day on the streets, on the trails, on the buses. May we, as always, live with the consequences of our actions, and may those consequences include watching ourselves grow healthier, stronger and saner, as we watch you grow greener and healthier.


Lughnasadh is here. I invite you to think, what have you harvested? What harvests are yet to come in? Are the skies clear, or does rain threaten to undo all your hard work?

What do you wish you had planted, back in spring?

Lugh shines brightly, high overhead. Many-skilled, he invites us to work hard at our crafts, to make our lives rich and beautiful with the work of our hands, hearts, and minds. What we give to our community is as important as what we give to ourselves. What we take should always be equal to or less than what we give.

My Garden, My Forest

I planted lettuce today. We cut the last head on Friday, and I bought starts on Saturday at the Farmers Market.


Even here, in the middle of Oakland, I am surrounded by trees, as I’ve said so often. Here is what my neighborhood looks like, in part:



My neighborhood, my city, is such a beautiful place.  All it really needs is for those of us who live here to see that fact, and realize that we are responsible–and blessed–with the task of caring for it. And the place I can start is to care for my small garden.

Music and Food

 I finally have a regular gig. I’ll be playing the Lorin Station Crop Swap in Berkeley every Sunday afternoon from 1-2 PM. It’s at Adeline and Alcatraz, where we have been gathering all summer to exchange the produce from our gardens, share skills, advice and supplies, and build community.
 The site is beautiful, if a bit urban. It’s a busy corner, and there is a beautiful bee garden that was put in by Berkeley students, as well as a parklet. The bees and the traffic are in a way mirrors of each other, both intent on what they’re doing, taking no notice of anyone else. There’s a lot of foot traffic, though, and we do a fair amount of education. It’s sad that so few people recognize our crops as food, but heartening when they begin to understand, take something away, and come back. The local gardeners have begun to see us as a place to drop off their extra and many have become regulars.
 I started coming last year, just because it seemed like such a good idea to have some food security beginning to come together, and have been coming back because the people there give me such hope, and we have so much fun. I don’t have all that much produce to give, I grow sprouts so I have something to bring, and I bring worm tea from my worm bin. My garden is full of plants that were given to me as starts, but aren’t producing much yet. It has been fun watching the tomatoes grow and finding out what kind they are. I appear to have beefsteaks and romas, but they are still too small to really tell. Today I brought my drum and decided to start singing, and knew I’d found my niche.
 If you live in the area, come on down. Even if you don’t have produce to share, there is music, community, and we can get you started if you want to produce some food. A windowsill is enough, or even a dish drainer and a mason jar. Growing food, even a few herbs or some sprouts, is a magical thing, a means of connecting yourself to something larger. It is an act of power.

Change The World

Back in 2010, Gaia asked me to do something for her. It’s worked out really well for me, and yesterday I realized it was time to pass it on. It’s a very simple practice, but one that has deepened with time for me. I find I can do it anywhere, any time it occurs to me.

All she asked of me was to notice her beauty, where she is healthy and growing.

What we pay attention to grows. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Such as are your habitual thoughts; such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the color of your thoughts.”

As a culture, I think we focus far too much on what is wrong. I think we are in the mess we’re in because of this. In particular, we’ve been focusing on the end of the world, until it looks as if the world will end.

I have to admit, I love me my dystopian fiction and movies. The Road Warrior, Dies The Fire, The Hunger Games, etc. But I also love Star Trek, The Fifth Sacred Thing and Ecotopia. What I love about them, is that we humans are being called on to be our best selves. In a crappy situation, we’re stepping up to the plate and doing heroic things. We’re making the world a better place in the process.

My Gaia practice is a quiet way of doing that. I see the urban forest, not the concrete jungle. I see the bees in the lavender instead of the garbage on the sidewalk. How many bees there are in summer in the city if I just look for them! There are flowers everywhere, even in my “blighted” neighborhood. The bees are working hard in them, creating food, harvesting sunlight. The birds are there too, everywhere if I just look. And the trees. The more I look for them, the more I see. The more I listen, the more the world talks to me, and the more strength and inspiration I am given.

If you choose to do this practice, I’d love to hear about your experiences, and how it changes you, and the practice. Make it your own, pass it on. Together, we will change the world.

Brave — An animated ballad for our time — SPOILER ALERT!









I love this movie for so many reasons. It isn’t High Art, but it can be unpacked just as a ballad or a myth can be. There are layers of meaning there for the Celtic scholar, but like any good story, it isn’t necessary to be aware of them to enjoy the story. Most of all, it takes the old, old trope of the princess who steps out of her role, has adventures, and is shoved neatly back in her box at the end and stands it on its head. It also makes use of the old feminist idea of inverting the power structure–putting the boy in the girl’s place–and seeing what the situation looks like from there.

I think I’ll start with the boys. There’s a concept called ternary analogy that basically covers the place of most of the men in the story. Whenever you see three of anyone, that’s a signal to pay attention. They can be from the Otherworld, as the hounds of Arawn are, or they can be one person of particular importance seen from three sides, as the Sons of Uisliu are in the story of Deirdriu. There are two such triads in Brave, Merida’s brothers, and the three suitors. The brothers are Merida’s helpers, and the suitors are her means of freeing herself. They are the ones who truly give her the reason to change her fate. I’ll go out on a limb here and offer Mor’du, the large black bear, Fergus, her father, and a yet unknown man who will continue the story when Merida is older, as a third triad.

Yes, the male characters are not very compelling, or fully formed. They are background. The three brothers, in particular, are barely named. They are like the king’s daughter in the ballad Willy ‘o Winsbury, or Lord Donal’s wife in Matty Groves. Neither of those women even get names, because they are only there to fill a place in the boy’s story. In Brave, the boys serve the same purpose in Merida’s story Yes, they could have been fleshed out, but if they had been the point would not have been made, and the parallel with Celtic myth would not have been drawn.

When this sort of story is told, someone is always going to have a problem with parts of it. Like a fine, but assertive wine, a story must be true to itself if it is to be truly told, and not everyone is going to like it. Even Disneyfied as it was, uncomfortable issues were raised. Me, I had a real problem with the witch. She was as much of a cariacature as the boys were. But when I put aside my discomfort, and saw her as the means of Merida’s initiation, she rose to the occasion. She gave Merida exactly what she asked for, and taught her to choose her words carefully. She looked like your standard ugly hag with a cauldron, but she taught Merida wisdom. The witch gave her the keys to unlock the cage Merida’s own words created and in the end, Merida freed both herself and her mother. She changed a kingdom’s fate as well as her own. Merida also passed the test that Mor’du failed. She freed him as well. There are a few ballads where the woman frees the man. Tam Lin is one of those. Sadly, Mor’du has to die, while Tam Lin gets to live, but them’s the breaks.

Merida gives her mother quite a bit as well. She knows the wild places, and how to live in them. By inadvertently turning her mother into a bear, and then having to teach her how to survive in the forest, Merida shows her mother the value of all she has learned in the days she has been able to escape her princess role. By the time the two of them get to the stone circle where the final battle takes place, they are a true team. Merida also learns the value of what her mother knows, and gains an understanding of the power her mother has in the running of the kingdom. When Elinor, as a bear, mimes the words she needs Merida to say from across the Great Hall where she cannot be seen, Merida shows how well she has learned the lessons her mother has taught.

Merida is a true daughter of both her parents. She has her father’s strength, skill, and vitality. She has her mother’s ability to be the true power behind the throne, and to keep the clans together. She is complete unto herself, and needs no one to help her rule. But she has a heart large enough to let others in. When she rides off with her mother at the end of the movie, we know she’s going to be all right, and so will the kingdom she will inherit. She has freed her people as well as herself, and she’s taken the princess trope and taken it places I never expected to see it go.

There’s a lot more to say about this movie. There are animal and character associations that go deeper into Celtic mythology than I am going to go into here. I can’t think that these were unintentional on the part of the creative people who put this film together. I have only seen this movie once. I fully expect to see even more when I see it again.

The Urban Forest

A year or so ago, I was looking out across Oakland when my perspective suddenly flipped. Instead of seeing the trees among the houses, I saw the houses among the trees. This was when I realized just how precarious our supposed ownership of this land is.

Redwoods stand like solitary steles, the tallest things in many places. Beyond them are the East Bay Hills in one direction, and the hills of Marin County in the other. Many of those trees are wider than I am tall. They stood with others of their kind, obviously, within the last century. My house was built in 1915. The large redwoods in the median of 14th Avenue, mere blocks away, were certainly standing then. The mansion in the middle of our block, whose grounds my house is built upon, is only an eyeblink older from the redwood’s perspective.

The oaks on the mansion’s grounds, layered as a forest is if you look in just the right spot, were probably there as well. I fear for those trees. There are young palms recently planted under them. When the palms gain height, one or the other will have to be cut. Our neighborhood will be poorer then. According to our laws, the owners have the right to decide which trees will survive. But should they really be allowed to do something that will so radically change the lives of everyone in the neighborhood?

The palms in our viewshed rival the redwoods in height. They are strange and beautiful, living in a land they were never meant to inhabit. Most of us can say the same. The trees and the people here are kin in this way. We all came from somewhere else. Even if we were born here, our ancestors came from somewhere else. We have made a home here, but we will never have a true home, where our ancestors for as far back as anyone can remember lie in the earth they sprang from.

There are ginkgos in my neighborhood, silver birches, sycamores and magnolias, just to name a few. We have made the strangest decisions in what we chose to let survive here. A scrub oak grows beside my house, dwarfed and planted witin inches of the foundation. I know it will someday have to come down, but I dread that day, and wish the people who planted it had more sense. I love that tree and keep the inner branches pruned back, but I can do nothing about the trunk. When we got here it was sick, covered in galls and growing strange, misshapen shoots, covered with white fungus. Over the years I have cut what looked strange and cleaned the dead leaves and galls away. The leaves and branches look much better now, and the brown leaves underneath are ny own miniature forest floor. I layer them on top of the worms in the bin beneath and breathe in the fresh, rich smell of the soil.

What is the makeup of your urban forest? What do the trees tell you when you look at them? Do they thrive? If they are sick, what makes them that way?

The Forest Abides

I was driving down Van Ness Avenue today when the forest caught my eye. It was only some red, red flowers growing in the median. They drew me in as I waited at a light, and then I saw the honeybee drinking from the tall blue iris above them. Only a moment, then the light changed and I was driving once more, in the flow of traffic. But the flow of the forest stayed with me as well. Even in the heart of the city, the forest abides.

How long has San Francisco been here? How long has Van Ness Avenue carried the flow of traffic? Less than a century. The flowers have been here much, much longer. The sand dunes, the grass, the sheltered cove that was once Yerba Buena.

To me, it is forever. I was born in this city, grew up roaming whatever park was nearest my house. I used to walk through Golden Gate Park at midnight, laughing when people told me how dangerous it was. I knew the forest would never harm me. I knew I knew it much better than the hypothetical men who were supposedly waiting there to grab me. Let them try to catch me, here in my home. I have disappeared behind trees and watched people wonder where I had gone. I have climbed high above 36th Avenue to play my tinwhistle from a high branch and watched people look for the source of the music. Few have ever spotted me.

Last weekend I was in a much wilder, larger forest. There were bees there too. I watched them, watched the scarlet dragonflies fly in spirals above the ponds there. The last Gorsedd had scarlet dragonflies too. I was struck by them then, and last weekend their presence brought those two magical times together. As I was then, so I was again last weekend. I took off my shoes when I arrived and put them on only when there was no other choice, and when it was time to pack up. I put my feet on the living earth and was whole. In the city I put my shoes between me and the unforgiving stone we cover the earth with and wonder why it must be so.

The urban forest is all around us. We share our city with all manner of creatures. The trees are here, they were here before we came and will be here long after we are gone. Our forever is long to us, but how short it is in relation to their long lives. We have cut many, but looking out of the window of the BART train, looking across the bay at the golden hills of Marin County, there is not a hillside or a street that is treeless. Grass grows through the cracks in every sidewalk. Even the ridge of Angel Island, where the eucalypti were cut down is not bare. The trees are here, the forest is here and always will be. Whether or not we will be here as well is an open question, and it is up to us.

If we choose to live with the trees, to share this beautiful land with them, then we will remain. If not, if we continue to separate ourselves from the other beings that make up the web of life, we will surely die. We breathe out what the trees breathe in. We breathe in what the trees breathe out. It has ever been so, and will ever be so. When there are not enough trees to give us breath, we will be no more. The earth will manifest life no matter what we choose.