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?

Eating Our Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Stephen Harrod Buehner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

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

We are better than that.

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

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

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

Walking is an Opportunity, Not a Chore

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

Travelers Don’t Know Where They’re Going

Sunrise through the treesSunrise through the trees at Alfriston Camping Park
Dawn at Alfriston Camping Park

Travelers don’t know where they’re going,
Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.—Hostel Wall in Inverness

I saw that quote on my first trip to Britain and Ireland, and it neatly sums up my approach to traveling. I plan, loosely, but leave as much wiggle room as possible. The world has a much better idea of what I should be doing and where exactly I’ll be going than I do.

I expected to do a lot of blogging on the trip I’ve just come home from, for example. That didn’t happen, and I’ll be doing my best to make up for it now. There was too much living packed into too little time. Old friends and new, and people I wanted to see but didn’t get to. I planned carefully, but allowed for last minute changes wherever I could. Hostel reservations, for example, can be cancelled, in most cases. The few times I did get hooked for an extra night, it’s usually cheaper to book in advance and eat that cost than to try and get a bed on arrival. Train tickets, likewise, are much cheaper in advance, and a few minutes with a site like trainsplit.com will let me know which fares never change and what the difference in cost is if I book a nonrefundable fare in advance, or get a fare that can be changed or canceled. Besides, I find trip researching a particularly pleasant form of daydreaming.

Loaded bike trailer and laid out bivy sack in Alfriston Camping Park
Camping in Sussex

My first stop was Anderida Camp, in Sussex. It was the first stop on my first trip to the UK, and it was a bit off the beaten track this time, but I was determined to return. I had missed climbing the Tump in Lewes the first time, and thanks to some time on Google Earth before I left, this time I was able to walk right to it. Thanks to some overambitious travel plans though, by the time I got there I was in a slightly altered state. I’d gotten about two hours sleep in the last 48, and had learned by then that Caffeine is Good, Food is Dangerous. I found I could function as long as I remembered that, and kept busy. It took two cabbies and an online map to figure out where camp was—I knew, but they didn’t, and I was giving directions from a different country, really. I walked in there at around hour 50, but this time all my friends were there, and I was soon set up among their tents, being fed tea, and generally having a wonderful time. I was also talking to Tony Stark by then, and by hour 55 I felt like I was surrounded by pillows. I decided I’d better sleep, and missed the opening ritual.

I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling much more grounded in reality, and went to the fire. A weekend of connection and community followed. Anderida Camp is known for Burning Things, and this camp was no exception. The firesides are also the best to be found anywhere. There was the happy-off, where we all played the happiest music we knew, and the hippy-off—well, you get the idea. A camp-wide version of the Age of Aquarius had us all on our feet. This, for me, is the heart of Druidry. Connection with people, and with the Land. Once again I felt the chrysalis around our world. It may feel as if we are dying, but it is only the old ways dissolving to make way for the new. This, I think, was one of the reasons I didn’t know why I was making the trip, or the shape of it. I still don’t, but the work I have to do is before me and the more of it I do, the clearer things become.

Maybe it was the ridiculous marathon of getting to Camp, maybe it was meant to be, but I lost the pouch with all my magical things in it somewhere along the line. Among them was my set of ogam feda. These look like a bundle of sticks, but they represent the ogam alphabet. They can be thought of as wooden tarot cards, though the system they represent is more a skeleton on which oral knowledge is hung. It is a way of memorizing such knowledge and organizing the relationships between it. The first letter, for example, is called Beith. The word means Birch, but it is also associated with Ban (white), Besan (pheasant), and beginnings. Among other things. The old Bardic schools used to teach oral knowledge, and for the first three years, students memorized 50 sets of associations for each letter. Once that structure was in place, their education continued with stories, philosophy lessons, grammar, etc. A Victorian reconstruction of a list of their studies can be found in P.W. Joyce’s A Social History of Ancient Ireland. One of the sets of associations are the different woods in the Irish forests, and modern use of this system tends to emphasize that set of meanings over the others. Accordingly, I decided to make my first set out of the woods. It took me many years to learn to recognize the trees and collect the various woods, and make the first set. It was very hard to lose it, along with my first Awen, and the pouch full of items that was attached to it, the presents I had for people, and so on. However, gone was gone. I could grieve over what were essentially things and let the loss overshadow the trip, or I could realize that I made many of the things that had been in that pouch, including the pouches themselves, and treat this as a new beginning.

I was in the land where the forest reflected the ogham. I decided to treat this as a “final exam.” The first set I’d constructed had been made by trial and error. I know more now, and can do a better job this next time. I also have a chance to make a set that is wholly from the forests of England and Wales. My first set reflected my own American state of being, being constructed from woods from several states as well as a few I could find only in Albion. My first trip gave me the last woods to complete that set.

So my trip was a chance to look closely at the forests around me and find the trees I needed. It was a chance to connect with each tree, and exchange gifts. It was a chance to create a ritual to contain that sharing, and to explore the difference between giving and theft. I didn’t have much time, and I am not completely satisfied with how I went about this task, but I did complete it, and learned a lot in the process. I came home with a forest in the form of a bundle of sticks. I know now that I can recognize every tree in the system in its natural habitat, and I have a ritual for collecting that creates connection between the gatherer and the gathered. I have seen a community in a field of Heather, and had a centuries-old Oak throw a branch at my feet. I know where each wood came from and can remember the conversation we had. Most of all, I am involved in a process, and am learning the phases of creation of a set as a set, rather than disparate woods gathered at different times. All of them came home with me as a bundle of green wood. Now I am in the process of stripping them of their bark and allowing them to dry completely. That has to happen before I can choose a size for each fid (wood), as each stave is called. I also have to decide how I will shape them this time as I no longer have access to the tools I used the first time.

Not knowing, but trusting, was a wonderful way to travel. It wasn’t all good, but neither is life. I feel as if the Land was testing me. The first two trips the red carpet was rolled out. I was cradled and protected by the Land. This time, more is expected of me. The gifts were no less munificent, and I count the tasks among them. What I lost may be the catalyst for someone else when they find what amounts to a kit for Druidry somewhere. In the meantime I have articles and songs to write, blog entries and recordings to make, and experiences to share. I have friendships and memories to sustain me here on the Shores of the Western Sea. I am blessed beyond measure by the Druids and the Land of Albion.

Chalk path--South Downs Way
South Downs Way

 

Where Are Your Edges?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Knife Edge of Now

The sidewalk that runs over Hwy. 580
Wild Oakland, high over Hwy 580

It’s the only place we truly live, this moment we spend our whole lives passing through. Try to catch it–no–it’s over. It’s just beginning and ending. We think we have all the time in the world–and here we are, at the end of a life that only seemed long. We want to be young again, though in youth all we wanted was the understanding we thought came with age. Our lives are bounded by the first breath and the last–our lives defined by the cry of agony, or of understanding.

I haven’t really been here in a while. I was busy with my studies. I just finished the Bardic Grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. It was a wonderful ride, but the last bits of it caused me to neglect a few things–like this blog. If you hung in there, thanks. I appreciate your patience. I hope this blog will be the better for the things I’ve learned, and will continue to learn as I move on to the next course in the series.

The knife edge of now has never seemed more important to me than it is at this moment. A referendum in the United Kingdom in a single day has thrown so much into flux. The election coming up in the United States in November looks to be another such moment of decision. I have always believed that we live in a wonderful, terrible, pivotal age, but never have I felt that the threshold of tomorrow is under our feet in quite the way that I do in this year, this moment in time. The choices we make now will be with us for many years to come.

In the morning I grab a moment to stretch this wonderful body I make this journey in, and another of quiet, to find the space between my thoughts. My commute includes a long walk in the cool of morning and I use that space to see the world I wish to live in. In this moment of decision, this might be the most important work that each of us can do. Like it or not, the world is changing and we are, each moment, creating the new world with our actions. Without knowing what we want, we can’t do this work effectively.

As a species, we’ve been blundering through life. Our power has so outstripped our responsibility that we are endangering the very shape of our world. We are driving the bus, drunk, blindfolded, and about to go soaring off the cliff. The world will still be here, but how many wild places and creatures will we take with us?

I see us stopping. Getting off the bus. Sitting down and letting our collective head clear. I see us realizing what we have been doing. Realizing that we are part of this planet. The only place we ever had dominion over it was in our heads. Drunk on power, we were cutting the web of life out from under our own feet.

This knowledge is hard to accept. It will terrify us, and sadden us. This is why we’ve been trying so hard to avoid it, staying high on whatever means we can find, from simple drugs such as alcohol or cocaine, to power, money and celebrity culture. We humans who were meant to be the awareness shining out of Gaia’s eyes have been treating ourselves and our planet like an amusement park, changing our consciousness in as many ways as we can find for fun. Like many teenagers, we may not survive our youthful experimentation, but in my mind, on this lovely morning, I see us doing so.

I see us seeing the big picture. I see us counting the costs of our actions on all beings, on the very planet, before taking them. I see us applying that same calculus to the actions we’ve already taken. I see the feedback loops that are turning towards our destruction slowing…stopping…starting to turn the other way. I see us taking concrete action  that makes a real difference.

This neighborhood I walk through is my testbed. It’s where I live, it’s where I can have an effect. Your mileage may vary–it should, because you live somewhere else, and your two hands are going to be the ones that hammer out your part of the solution wherever you are. It’s going to take all of us, doing what we know to be right and true. We are each going to have to take responsibility for our own actions, and join with the people around us to change what is not serving us, or the planet.

I see these streets I walk along becoming wider. Quieter. Safer. I see us coming out of our houses and walking, as I’m doing right now, up the hill to the bus stop, or to other forms of public transit that are now available. Personal car ownership in my city is one of the things that just doesn’t add up when all its costs are considered, and it is now a quaint relic of the past. The cars that line both sides of every street where I live are gone.

Now don’t be afraid–I’m not coming for your car. You have to make your own decisions, and your mileage may vary, remember? But here in the crowded San Francisco Bay Area. we are spending more money trying to create room for cars than we have. We are making some pretty dumb choices in the name of convenience. Our roads and our public transportation are jam-packed. Our streets aren’t safe to walk on, let alone bicycle or skate on. In my neighborhood we are only just getting around to putting in curb cuts at the corners. I shudder to think what it must be like to try and use a wheelchair around here.

I see us with public transportation that is clean, safe, pleasant, runs frequently and is available 24/7. I see carshares becoming normal, with satellite parking lots in every neighborhood. Most cars are used only a few hours a day. They sit at the curb unused, and everyone only has access to one or two vehicles. We’re either driving a huge, hard to park vehicle or we’re driving something tiny that we can’t fit more than groceries in. With a carshare, we could get a truck if we needed it, or a compact car. We could fit the vehicle to the trip. That would be true freedom–the freedom to travel safely and conveniently in any mode we chose.

I see us walking around our neighborhood instead of getting in our cars and driving through unseeing, intent on nothing but our destinations. I see us meeting each other, being able to put a name to a face. This would give us a lot more than just something to call each other besides “hey you.” It would give us community. Security. It would allow us to know what is going on and who is doing it. What you do would be home before you were, so we’d all behave ourselves. A lot of other things would be quaint relics of the past too. Dumping, for example. I’m very tired of seeing couches without cushions, trash, and broken furniture lying on the side streets. If cars and trucks were rarer, and people identifiable, this wouldn’t be the way we got rid of our unwanted possessions. If people knew each other and walked, we’d have the equivalent of 24 hour security. Without dark, deserted streets, tagging too would be a thing of the past. What if we knew your face as well as your tag? What if, every time it was seen, you were called and required to clean it up? What if all these people who are feeling erased and tagging to show that they exist were given the chance to learn to really use a spray can? What if their skills as artists were nurtured and developed, and they were put to work beautifying our neighborhoods with murals? They might just change their own community, protecting their artwork and, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, working from the gutter, looking at the stars. Just this one change could, at least in my mind, turn my neighborhood around. We’d belong to our neighborhoods in ways we don’t right now. It would give us a home.

This is only some of what I think about as I walk to the bus each morning. I’m at the side of the road, watching the cars scream by, late for something, seeing nothing. I detour into the street at the same places every morning because the same people block the sidewalk with their car. I push the same trash cans off to the side on pickup day because they are in the middle of the sidewalk. I stop and look carefully at the same corners every morning because I know from experience where the traffic will flow and where the stop signs either don’t exist or are treated as suggestions. But I also see the intricate pattern of the ginkgo’s leaves and the cool green of the redwoods reaching for the sky. I hear the birdsong at dawn and feel the cool of morning as the light of the sun makes the world new again. I get on the quiet transbay bus and let it carry me over the Bay Bridge. I have a seat and read for half an hour each morning. I see the shape of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I see the tall masts of the ships I am going to work aboard silhouetted against the sky and think of what it must have been like when the San Francisco shoreline was a forest of lines and spars, when where I am riding was only empty air. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and in the passage of time, I, too will be a part of the past. My moment will be gone. I hope I leave my bit of the world a little better off for having been here.

Living Among The Trees

Cauldron of Oak
Cauldron of Oak
My cauldron, filled with acorns, oak leaves, and a necklace of Land, Sea, and Sky

I was lucky enough to spend the morning in Lafayette. It’s heavily wooded, as many of the more affluent East Bay suburbs are, and at 11 on a Tuesday morning, I had the back streets to myself. It was finally Fall today. Cloudy and cool, and the streets are covered with oak leaves and acorns. I used to come here on days like this to collect acorns, as oaks are the dominant tree here. I chose three perfect acorns of three different species, scarlet, valley, and live oak. They are all three tasty, but processing acorns is very hard on the hands and these days I choose to save the limited use I have of mine for writing and music.

I thought, as always, of the wealth of this community. Between the oaks and the deer, how could anyone possibly starve here? Huge trees and huge yards for gardening. I heard more than one chicken singing egg song as I walked.

Oak in Lafayette
An oak in a yard in Lafayette

I saw redwoods as well, and as always felt a little sorry for them. They’re all in ones or twos, rarely a planned development has a forest of young ones planted. They try hard to form a forest, throwing out shoots all around themselves, but vigilant landscapers take care of those before they get too big.

Redwood with Shoots
A lone redwood trying desperately to build a forest

One potential mother of a grove was sly, throwing out a potential trunk high in its side. By its size, this one has been allowed to remain as it is far above eye level and growing close against the trunk. In the forest, a tree like this would produce a branch of trees, growing in the sky.

redwood mother
A redwood trying another way–growing a forest in the sky

When I got back to Oakland, I rode my bicycle through my own urban forest. The olives growing in the beds created by the traffic calming curbs:

Olive in Oakland
Olive in Oakland

The hawthorn a couple of blocks away, at the top of the hill:

Hawthorn in Spring
Hawthorn in Spring

The birches in front of the apartment building on 8th Avenue:

Birch on 8th Avenue
Birch on 8th Avenue

There are many others as well. The trees in my neighborhood resemble the people. Few of us are natives, but we have all made a home here. Except for the spreading oaks and redwoods, the only large trees are those that were planted on the grounds of the great mansions that were the first houses built.

What does your neighborhood look like? what trees do you share your home ground with?

Life Is Story

Gaia statue among the ferns
An Anthropomorphic View of Earth

When I began studying archaeology, one of the big questions was, what makes humans different from other animals? The answers have been shifting throughout my life, from our use of tools and language, to our adaptability. Now the changes we have made in our world have caused us to name the current epoch in geological time for ourselves. Whether that is hubris or simple assumption of responsibility only time will tell. I no longer think that there is any point to this question, beyond simple classification of species. We are part of a greater whole, and our place within it shifts, as do the places of the rest of this organism called Planet Earth. One of the things we humans do exceedingly well, however, is tell stories. We can’t really help it, this capacity is such a part of us that most of the time we don’t even realize that that is what we are doing. We have been choosing to tell the ones that set us apart from every other being, the ones that make us special, that give us the right to determine the fate of all beings.

We have done our best over the last few centuries to pull apart our world, to turn each piece over and see how it works and what it does. This, in planetary terms, is the equivalent of a baby discovering its fingers and toes. The antiquarians and Victorians created marvelous catalogues of the life on this planet. Useful and beautiful, they are a guide that allows us to orient ourselves and our studies, but they also shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. The tree of life has us at its apex, evolved from the lower animals. Since we are the storytellers, it is no surprise that we are the center. The story of archaeology gets even more specific to us, chronicling our rise from hunter-gatherers to the heights of civilization. While I learned the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, and that the hierarchical model of our evolution, cultural and physical, was only a portion of the truth, the idea of the great chain of being is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it is difficult to see it. Egalitarianism is an idea that we find attractive, but we’re really not very good at thinking of ourselves or our world in that way. It is an option, not an imperative.

I don’t think it was always this way. We know how to share, and we are as capable of cooperation as we are of domination. While it is very difficult to separate the assumptions of the first ethnographers (or even the current ones) from the realities of life in the cultures they studied, it appears that the closer to the land the groups studied were, the more cooperative their ways of life were. While it is very easy to create from this idea a myth of an interdependent Eden, it’s also possible to use it as a means of breaking the invisible bonds of hierarchy and allow us to see ourselves and our place in the world more clearly. We can compare ourselves to other animals, weigh our various cultures against each other, and get an idea of how varied the ways we are capable of interacting with each other and our world are, but the one thing I do not believe that we will ever do is find the one best way of being human.

The pace of change has become a race, run for its own sake, with no clear goal. We are falling over our own feet in our haste to get to a future whose shape is unknown. We have become Kali, trampling the earth to mud as we dance in celebration of our own godhood. We have moments of remembering our connection to that which we are destroying, but distraction in the form of new possessions, power, or other means of changing our consciousness is infinitely preferable to utter terror, so we keep dancing, keep consuming. We keep reaching for that golden finish line, not realizing it is the light of our own destruction.

We can change the storyline any time we want to. Some of us have spent their whole lives working towards this. We have, as a result, a vast number of very useful tools to hand. We know how to harness the power of the Sun, and how to read the book of life that resides in every cell. The knowledge we have gathered, and the disciplines that grew out of them, have shown us how our world works and where we came from, and the story is growing clearer with every discovery and every connection made. We have clearly seen the faces of the planets in our solar system, and of the Earth.

We stand at a wonderful, terrible, pivotal moment in time. We are in the midst of a change that is as monumental as the discovery of agriculture, when we discovered how to strike a bargain with plants and animals that changed the nature of life on this planet. We are still bound by the terms of that agreement, no matter how hard we try to forget we ever made it, and now we must extend it to the whole planet. We have gained the power to reshape the world in a way even more fundamental than the domestication of a few species who were willing to cooperate with us. We are now being called to partnership with the planet as a whole.

Our ability to tell stories is not unique. The Earth, the solar system, the Universe tell them all the time. We can read the book of life, and our stories are written within it. The story of our choices now will be there as well, if there is anyone left to read it.

The Stones Whispered “Connection”

The Stones at Calanais
The Stones at Calanais

The stones whispered “connection” to me. It took a while. A whole year, and the answer came from a different place entirely. Stones are like that. They just exist at a slower pace. Their connection spans the earth, through the crust of the planet. Sea, Sky, Land, from the changes that occur in the space of a deep breath at the planetary timescale, to the eons-long drift of the continents. One year I stood silent and listening at Calanais, the next, at Long Meg, I heard.

We have a hard time listening, we humans. There is so much to be heard around us that the subtle gets drowned out. The night sky is dimmed by our lights, the soundscape of the planet dulled by our sounds. Answers that come softly and slowly over time are often missed, with all the distractions of daily life. Luckily for us, the conversation the universe is having with us is never over. We just have to get quiet enough to hear it. The plants on a hillside will tell you where the water is, if you take the time to look. What do the weeds in your yard tell you about the soil? Are there crickets in your neighborhood? Where do the birds gather? More importantly, what does each small nudge of awareness say deep inside you?

Spending time in the same place has rooted me in it. I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have never really left it. Truly, where you have done your living is the measure of your life’s connection to land. I have watched the land change here, returning to the same places year after year. The trees that formed the back of the grove at Mt. Tam are fallen now, returning to the land. Trees that were seedlings when I first came here are now taller than I am.

I had to leave for a time to get a different perspective on home. Even a month caused me to see my land with new eyes. Returning from Albion allowed me to see two different Octobers, side by side. Green grass and gold, rushing waters and dry creekbeds. The smell of home is much stronger after a journey elsewhere. I was fortunate to have two trips, almost exactly a year apart, to the same place. I was able to spend time walking through the same Welsh forest, and come back to the same place in California at the same season.

Forest Path
Forest Path, Llyn Tegid, Wales

The first thing I noticed was the smell. High notes singing in my head, the smell of dry grass, oak and bay laurel. Powdery and golden in my nose, the incense of summer in California, it builds as the months without water pass, enduring until the returning rains wash it from the air and replace it with the crystal smell of water.  As I walked farther down the trail, I was embraced by the forest coolness. Brown redwood needles underfoot, gold to copper, and the darkness in their groves. The huge trees towered over me. It was so different from the Welsh faerie forest, some large trees but most of the trees I saw there would be dwarfed by these redwoods. I stood in the middle of a city, but here beside the barely running creek the last remnants of the forest reigned.

Forest Path, Redwood Bowl, California
Forest Path, Redwood Bowl, California

I took a number of walks after each trip, to talk to the forest and to look for the connections between this place and the ones 5,000 miles away. It’s as if I’m walking through an Albion newly discovered, the forests still, if not intact, large enough to lose oneself in, given a little imagination. This land might have looked like primeval home to the Northern Europeans, who followed the Spanish, who both wrested this land from the First Peoples. There are place names reminiscent of Scotland, the town of Inverness, and Ben Lomond down south. Now that I have seen a bit of Scotland I understand why. The rocky, craggy shores of California were once part of a great temperate rain forest that stretched across the northern hemisphere, and remains of it still can be found. I chase fog, and in December, when what turn out to be the only heavy rains of that year arrive, I wander through our local redwoods and see the scarlet amanitas appear.

Amanita, Redwood Bowl, California
Amanita, Redwood Bowl, California

We have remnants of forests, Albion has years of human habitation. Waves of it, leaving traces everywhere. Stone circles abound. What were they for? At Calanais, I was sure I didn’t know. Now, I know something they can teach us today. It took many hands, and many years to create these places. They seem to serve no purpose in keeping us alive–no food, no shelter, few remnants of human habitation from the time of their building. Their building was a cooperative effort, connecting their builders together, and the land as well.

We humans right now are as connected as we’ve ever been–and as far apart. We turn people not like us into the grinning masks of our worst fears, yet I can get online and speak to my friends across the Atlantic in the time it takes us to check our messages. We humans have had a few moments of spectacular cooperation–the International Space Station and the founding of the UN being two that loom large in my mind, but we have also often left our most vulnerable to die. We have access to the rest of the world, on demand, but we don’t have a connection to it. In order to have a connection with people, you have to spend time with them. Working on a project together will create this. Working on something that will benefit people you will never see, your descendants, for example, or our world, is the task I think we’re all called to do right now. We have all lived close to five millennia since the first of these circles were built, and we are distanced from the daily lives of their builders in ways that make it easy to idealize lives lived in partnership with the earth. It is easy to forget that ancient peoples did these things because they had no choice, their culture drawing its strength from working in ways that let them harness the strength of the land they lived in, their technology having to be based on an awareness of how natural cycles worked because they did not have the strength or knowledge to do otherwise.

Now, we’ve achieved power enough as a species to do as we please–for a while. We forgot, however, that we live in a closed system. This planet and what it is made of is all we have. If we exceed the natural cycles of life, by unlocking carbon from the land and sending it into the sky, with no provision for returning it to the land, we literally change the face of the earth, determining what can live, and where. We are doing this with little thought, as we can’t see the faces of the future. The pace of change is accelerating, but for so long it has been gradual, taking generations to pick up speed enough to be seen as a real series of events rather than just a series of measurements taken. It’s as if we climbed behind the wheel of a bus, drunk, and let off the brake. The bus has been rolling, slowly gathering speed, and we are fast reaching the edge of a cliff. If we assume responsibility equal to our power, in effect, apply what we already know as a brake, we could slow the speed of the changes, and learn how to work in harmony with the rest of the beings we share this planet with. As the builders of the circles of stone did, millennia ago.

I walked the hills above my home until I came upon a rock that felt like Long Meg. When I sit there and let the stillness creep into me, I can feel my connection. A year and more have passed since I set my back against Meg, but the rocks of California remember.

Standing Stone, California
Standing Stone, California