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?

The Fantasy of Independence

A certain vocal segment of us seem to believe that we are independent of everyone else. We have a right to make our own choices about everything. Our individual rights are more important than the rights of others around us. We won’t be forced to wear masks, we won’t pay for anyone else’s healthcare, or food, or anything else that “they” should be providing for themselves.

This is of course a complete fantasy. I can’t think of a lesson more perfectly suited to pop this bubble of crazy than the mask issue. We don’t need to wear them for our own safety, we do it for the collective, or really, the species. That’s why some of us are confined to our room, until we’re not collectively dripping viruses.

If I were a believer in fate, I could even see the planet providing this particular final exam for us as a way of making us awaken to our interdependence with all life, or die. However, there’s no need to go that far—we did this to ourselves, simply by believing we can do anything we please. We are part of a superorganism that extends over the whole planet and we have started to put the whole in danger. Mother Nature is not mad, God is not “gonna get you” for that. But we are triggering planetary defense mechanisms and the pandemic is one result of that.

As above, so below. Our bodies create a fever to make our bodily climate unhealthy for the pathogens that have infected us whether we are talking about a cold or COVID. Trees give off certain chemical signals when they are being attacked to call specific insects or other allies to help them. Might part of a local ecosystem repel invaders virally? The world is a network of these relationships and feedback loops. If we put a priority on learning what these cycles are and how to be part of them, life will be a lot more pleasant, and a lot cheaper, as we make use of these tendencies to lighten our load. If not, we can continue to be visited by disaster as we blunder around in the equivalent of a darkened room, setting events we can’t see in motion.

The relationship between humanity, bats, and COVID-19 is one example of how this works. Bats are very useful creatures, major pollinators, bug-eaters, and host a whole lot of viruses, some of which can kill us quite efficiently.

Why do these viruses kill us but not bats? Why don’t bats cause disease in us all the time? Finding out why they infect us is becoming clear. Finding out why they don’t get sick could lead to all sorts of medical breakthroughs for us—if we can avoid the temptation of trying to kill them off, that is, since they harbor what to us is disease.

Normally, this viral community bats live with is no problem to us. They live their lives and we live ours. But lately, with the general tendency we humans have to take over any part of the world we please, not thinking, if we bother to give a thought to the communities who live there at all, that we are stressing out a whole lot of living things, from indigenous people, to, well, bats. We encroach on their territory and stress them out in all sorts of ways, and their immunity drops. They start to shed virus everywhere. Is this what happened in the case of COVID-19? Looks like that might be the case, but we don’t have the tools to find out yet.

In any case, the problem that led us here was the fantasy of independence. Here we sit, the richest country in the world, confined within our borders because a significant proportion of us won’t stay inside during a pandemic. Our government, that bailed out the wealthy, doesn’t see making it possible financially and logistically for the general populace to do so as a good investment. Even worse, as individuals, some of us have chosen to assert our rights. We won’t do what we know would keep the most people alive. Keeping our distance for a while and putting on a mask—and putting this simple, cheap strategy into our personal toolkits.

The last few months should have showed us how counterproductive it is to ignore science. This problem is easily explainable and obviously fixable using that discipline if we choose to do what is needed. Most of our world has done so, after all, and are now cautiously resuming what is becoming the new normal. Don’t we want to be part of shaping that? Don’t we ever want to get out of our rooms?

Biking on the Bay Trail

One of the gifts the pandemic has given me is a return to my bicycle. Two wheels and feet have become the safest way for me to travel. I have been getting our groceries on the bike, but since I have been called back to work on site, the bicycle makes it possible to take the ferry across the bay instead of using BART. At first there were fewer cars on the road, but even as people decide that they have given the pandemic all the time they can afford to and jump back into their cars, I have become acclimated again, and have found other ways to separate myself from the worst of the traffic. Thankfully, there has been some progress on the bike path network as well. There are still gaps between the paths, but they are shorter than they were, and some real improvements, such as a long stretch of Folsom in San Francisco and a lot of Valencia Street.

I was curious about the Bay Trail running north from Jack London. I decided to see how far I could get after trying to trace the route via satellite imagery. I wanted to go to REI anyway, I needed to replace my beloved baskets. They are great, but impractical for transit and don’t fit lockers or even many racks, which are built for wide handlebars and narrow back wheels. They also make it impossible for me to pick up Beater with any kind of a load. I wanted a real rack that would support panniers, which can be carried separately, and also the weight of a load of groceries. I also wanted to see how crowded BART is, so I took the trail to North Berkeley and rode back. I picked up a rack rated for 110 pounds, and one of the only panniers they had left. No one in the bike shop could tell me how to get through the Maze, so I bought a newer version of the bike map I already have, which is the best five bucks I’ve spent in a while.

The Berkeley end was pretty good. It took less than half an hour to get from REI to Emeryville, and that was because I was dawdling a bit, enjoying being near the water on a really beautiful trail. That ended around IKEA. There is a good separated trail down Maritime, through the Port, but the exhaust is pretty heavy, and there are a couple of spots where you have to cross the streets the trucks use. According to the map there are two other possibilities, 40th to Mandela, or Middle Harbor to Third. Seventh was scary. The path is really a wide sidewalk, and there are several intersections much like those in the Port. I won’t be doing that again if I have a choice.

I bailed at Oakland West, and wished I hadn’t. Third will get me close to Jack London, and the Bay Trail will get me to 5th. The recent improvements in the bike lanes in my neighborhood don’t do me much good, though there is one light on International that has gotten rid of one blind crossing that I appreciate very much. I still have the potholed side streets largely to myself, and have plenty of decent sections of pavement that I can thread the needle home on.

All in all, it was a useful expedition. It looks like there is a very long but possible ride from Lake Merritt to the San Rafael Transit Center. That opens up the possibility of taking a bike to Point Reyes, perhaps to Mt. Tam depending on the trails from the other side of the bridge, and perhaps points north. Maybe, with all the people trying out bicycling, the Bay Trail’s gaps will be filled in the near future.

One Million Redwoods

I ran across the One Million Redwoods kickstarter  today. The thing that really brought me on board is that, besides the fact that this project is already underway, they are not just planting redwoods, but the whole forest community. They understand the difference between a tree farm and a forest, and they are doing the desperately needed work of reforestation that will save us all, if we do enough of it in time.

Trees are the cheapest, fastest carbon sinks we have to hand. They are proven technology, the planet’s own way of locking up the surfeit we’ve thrown into the atmosphere over the last few hundred years. More than that, trees and humans are interdependent. We breathe each others’ exhalations–literally. We need forest products for so many things, food and fuel and the houses we live in. Our bodies and our waste products can feed the forest, if we do it properly. We are happier and healthier living around trees–we are so dependent that even when we cut down the forest to build our cities we plant replacement trees. Our relationship is so obvious and natural to us that we don’t even see it any more, even when it’s all around us.

We are beginning to die because we have cut down so many trees. The planet is getting hotter and drier. Fire, drought, extreme weather events are increasing. The oceans are changing as they absorb the excess carbon and acidify. It’s time to give back, and this project is one way to do so. I don’t know how to replant a forest. I know it needs to be done, and for me this is very close to home. I am watching many of my home groves die. Sudden oak death is ravaging California right now. I don’t know what to do—no one does.  At the moment, the best we can do is not spread it. I have three oak seedlings in pots in my back yard that need to be destroyed because they have it. My potted laurel tree is a reservoir, so it too will have to go. So supporting the work of people like For The Wild is a way to support that learning process for us as a species, and to help build a seed bank and nursery for the future. This is one time when money will actually make a difference. These people have a week to raise the last 23% of their goal. Their rewards are pretty cool too. They include tree dedications, online classes, family legacy groves, and trips to the redwoods.

A goddess demanded that I plant trees. Sadly, my work does not lie along those lines. I’m a singer and a writer. I plant seeds of knowledge and awareness and that is why I’m posting this right now. At work, I talk about ships, one of which is the last of the Pacific Coast lumber schooners. She was built of Douglas fir, to mine out the forests of the West Coast. She helped to build the cities of the West Coast out of the cathedrals of living wood that we should have had the sense not to destroy. Her existence is an opportunity to explain that great mistake, and to ask the people who come to visit her to think about the forest she was once part of. She carried lumber once, now she carries memory, responsibility, and the seeds of the future.
We call trees natural resources. What kind of mindset does that imply? Forests are communities, not storehouses, and the way we treat these beings is already determining our own survival. We have forgotten that when we take, we need to give something in return. Please consider supporting this organization, a tree planted in your name is an investment in the future. I hope someday a tree will be my tombstone, of sorts, my body returned to the land that it was borrowed from.

I offer you a song, a few thoughts on what the city I live in now is, and what it could become:

Spirit of San Francisco

Goddess of Victory, Union Square
Goddess of Victory, Union Square
Goddess of Victory, Union Square courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

1857
Barefoot in skirt with tattered hem
Rising from the shallows where the Embarcadero would stand.
She turned, her hair flowing over her shoulders.
Pirouetted, changing as she span,
Her hair caught up, a trident in her hand as she poses
High above Union Square.
1967
She lies on her back on Hippie Hill
Staring at the ribbons of fog dancing on the edge of blue sky.
Acid rainbows, Cannabis kiss
Dancing with the Dead at the Fillmore. 
Tomorrow is here, Love is the answer. 
My younger self dances, kicks over mushrooms in the wet grass. 
2017
A skirt of stars, pinpricks of Light in darkest night.
Chrome boots with heels pushing her up to the sky.
Thin as the beams of steel holding up the high rises.
San Francisco has always had a taste for the finer things.
A talent for standing on the knife edge.
Techie dreams, her artists driven away, for now.
We may yet return 
When her Phoenix falls, 
Rises again. 

Peace Begins With Me

Sunburst through a bus window
Illumination

Peace begins with me.
I live in one of “those” neighborhoods where the cops don’t come when called.
I live in a community of all colors, some serene, some desperate, some dangerous.
Love and hate coexist on these streets.

Peace begins with me.
I walk without fear, but with great awareness.
I am small, older, female.
My strength does not lie in physical prowess, but in knowing my surroundings.
I make no apology for avoiding what makes me uneasy.
I am part of the night, and the night protects me.

Peace begins with me.
I don’t have a gun.
I will never get one.
Words are my protection.
I won’t tell you how to live.
I understand that your experience is not mine, and belongs to you alone.
The world is an exciting, strange, and possibly dangerous place.

Peace begins with me.
I believe that the world might kill me, but is always trying to shower me with blessings.
Someday, death might well be one of these.
I try, always, to be part of the solution.

Peace begins with me.
I can’t look away.
I can’t stop it either.

Only *we* can.

 

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 Goddess of Life and Death Screwed Up…

I may have killed an entire ecosystem. It was my creation, and under my care, and I let creative neglect go a little too far…

I have a worm bin, underneath a tiny oak tree next to my house. It’s a nice little space, shady and cool, and I was pretty diligent for years, dumping our coffee grounds, teabags, and other carefully selected compost into it on a regular basis. I would say, jokingly, as I took off the lid to their world, making the worms wriggle for the darkness and disturbing the other creatures that made up that tiny world, that I was the Goddess of Life And Death. I tried hard to return all the worms to the bin as I harvested finished compost and I watered them with the plants and drew off the wonderful dark liquid that is the only fertilizer we have ever needed for our garden.

This year I didn’t plant a garden. The onion and tomato pests have gotten out of hand because those are our favorite vegetables and we do not use any form of pest control other than soapy water and diatomaceous earth. The ladybugs have returned, among other beneficial insects, and we have decided to see what happens if we work with the land. Snails and other large pests can be thrown to the chickens, after all. I’d decided not to plant tomatoes or alliums of any type this year because we’ve been doing it too many years in a row. The place at the Farmers Market that used to sell a wonderful variety of plant starts in the spring has gone upscale and nothing in the tiny selection they had this year appealed. By the time May rolled around I realized that this was going to be a fallow year and I was fine with that. We still have the herbs and the strawberries, and there’s no shame in taking a rest from gardening and letting the land do the same.

We also have a rabbit. Every day we’re home, she gets to spend most of the day in a small fenced area where the grass is allowed to grow long and she can play among rocks and put her four feet on the quiet earth. Unfortunately, that corner is also where the door to get to the worm bin is. When we switched from a hose to a watering can, there was no longer a reason to use the gate. Slowly, the bin got forgotten. In winter, this was fine. The weather kept it moist, and there was still quite a bit to eat in there. But summer came and with it the dry months of the year. Last night I remembered the bin. We collected the artichoke leaves from dinner, teabags from the iced tea container and the breakfast coffee grounds and this morning I went out to see what was left.

A silent world lay under the lid. I dug around with my hands in the dry top layer and my heart sank. I found a few tiny worms struggling to survive and put them on top of the bowl of food. I pulled the top box and surprisingly, there were more worms alive down there where there was less food, but more moisture. I pulled a large empty planting pot over and carefully dumped the top bin into it, transferring every live worm I could find into the bottom box, where I dumped the food. It became the new top, and I lined the empty box with a chicken feed bag to become the new bottom. I drained off all the dark brown water and dumped the sludge into the pot of finished compost along with soil from empty lettuce bins. Stirred with a shovel and mulched, I left it to become rich soil. In a few days I will take the selected compost we will accumulate and feed it to the bin. If the worms that are left manage to survive and their world begins to come back, in a few months it will be as if nothing has happened for them. I intend to be more careful in the future.

I don’t see the point in guilt in this situation, but I do feel responsible for what happened, and for the future. If I no longer want to care for something that is alive, whether it’s a plant, a worm, or a chicken, I do have to either pass on the responsibility, let the creature go, or end the life. Just letting a closed ecosystem, which is essentially what a worm bin is, die slowly is no different than letting an animal in a cage die of thirst and starvation. It is no different than the way the human species is treating this planet that we live on. For example, downtown there’s a planted area in front of an office building. It used to be full of birches. Beautiful and green, it used to be a place to feast my eyes on as I waited for the bus home. It is really nothing more than an enormous planter box, though. When the trees got too big, they were ripped out. New saplings of a different species are now planted there. The restaurants I walk past in the morning have small planter boxes to define their outdoor seating area. Every six months, the plants are replaced when the old ones die or grow too large for the box. This brings me back to the rabbit. Shanti, as we have named her, was probably a kid’s pet. She was left on the lawn at work a couple of years ago, a couple of months after Easter. Skinny and small, all she wanted was to be loved. We didn’t want a rabbit, but she had nowhere else to go. So she joined the menagerie. Our cats were abandoned on our porch as kittens. They’re bottle babies. Two survived out of a litter of five. The chickens and the worms are the only animals we intentionally brought into this house.

This is how we treat plants and animals. As accessories and furniture. If an animal becomes inconvenient, we get rid of it. If a plant doesn’t fit our vision, or if it was poorly chosen for the space it inhabits and the size it will eventually be, we do the same. I had to do this myself when the ivy that used to fill my front yard popped the retaining wall that holds our house above the street. We chose rosemary and lavender to replace it and hope they will not become a problem in a century as the ivy did. The oak beside the house will also probably have to go in the end as it is inches from the foundation.

I’m planting nothing perennial in this yard except for the lavender and rosemary. I long for a lemon tree, but the yard is too small to handle it. We spend far too much time beating back the runner bamboo from the property on one side of us, and the ivy from the yard on the other side to create another future problem. The owners of the apartment buildings on either side refuse to see that there is any problem and as they are absentee owners, it is much easier to just trim and uproot diligently than make this into a court case. It is better to live within these limitations than to create a larger mess, legal or ecological. We have long outgrown this yard and this house. Like this planet, it seemed limitless when we moved in, but now we have found the edges of the space and what we can do with it. Four chickens, one rabbit, two cats and two people. And a bin full of worms. That is plenty for now.

We’ve found pretty sustainable solutions for this small space we live in. We’ve even made a dent in cleaning up some of the messes of others. All the tools we need are here to hand, and all we needed to do was think the problems through. It was even fun, in places. The cats are cuddly and well trained, and while I never want to have to do it again, getting up multiple times at night to feed them was fun, as was watching them grow. The rabbit is pretty sweet, and between her, the chickens, and the worms, we have all the compost we will ever need, plus pretty high quality eggs. It’s the same with our planet. We have everything we need to fix our problems. All we have to do is be willing to think creatively–and this seems to be the hard part–change our routines.

So many things are becoming fashionable. It’s easy to laugh at people drinking out of canning jars and growing beards, but beneath the affectations there’s a new sensibility growing. We need to rethink the way we treat each other, and the world around us. We need to think before we buy something and look for quality, durability, suitability–even if it means we have to wait a little before we get what we really want. Think of where something came from, whether it’s a cup of coffee or your next iPhone. And think of where it will go. We humans have an awareness of past, present, and future that few, if any other species, have. Our power has far outstripped our responsibility. Our choices will define the future. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind? I think it’s really that simple.

Bus Stop Song

Wrecked Honda in the mechanic's garage
Wreck of the Pacific Coast

My last car was knocked off the road back in 2008. I’d just visited the Trees of Mystery and was on my way out of Crescent City when a truck coming the other way turned left in front of me. I stood on the brake and managed to get down to about 35 before we hit.

I just sat there a minute, then got out of the car and looked at the bashed in front end. It felt like losing a friend. I knew that this was the end for Phoenix, a 1980 Honda Civic that had come to me through another bad accident. That time his rear end had been crushed, but the SUV that had done it had been so high off the ground that the frame had survived. No such luck this time. The front bumper was leaning at a terrible angle, the whole side of the car bent downwards. I was a couple of hundred miles from home, hundreds from my destination, a three month long sailmaking course in Washington State. I felt like crying, but there was no time for that. There were people running towards me, and the driver of the other vehicle was babbling that he hadn’t seen me and had really had to pee. I calmly reached inside and grabbed my coffee cup out of the teapot I’d been using as a cup holder. Phoenix hadn’t spilled a drop.

The insurance company of course wrote off my car as a total loss. a hunk of metal good for nothing but the scrap yard. They rented me a car, and blind with tears, I unloaded the friend who had given his life for me into the rental. I sent him off well. Two brand new tires, four quarts of oil lined up on the back seat, and a plastic Viking helmet I’d brought along on a whim perched on the dashboard. I remember thinking that it was as close to a Viking funeral as I could manage for him. I christened the rental Jeeves about ten miles down the road, out of frustration for his annoying habits of doing everything for me, whether I wanted it or not. The doors locked the moment I began driving. The GPS “helpfully” asked me if I wanted to set a destination at the beginning of every trip (no thanks, I carried perfectly good maps, and it’s damned hard to get lost on Hwy 101).

I bought a real junker to get me through the three months, and sold it as soon as I got home. I’d decided a while back that Phoenix would be the last car for me. I think that as a culture we have to rethink our relationship with the personal automobile, and as I said in my last post, it might as well begin with me. I’ve gotten by on a carshare, a bicycle, and public transportation ever since.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m not here to judge you, or really to convert you. I’m just relating my experience and asking you to think about the way we get around.

Yes, it does take a bit longer to get some places without a car. Some places are out of reach without one. This is why I belong to a carshare. There are rewards, however, and I’ve had adventures and made connections I never would have if I’d stayed strictly behind the wheel. I have to think before I go places, but I have freedoms I didn’t have before, and luxuries as well.

I’ve gotten a much deeper connection with my neighborhood. I know the fastest walks and the nicest ones. I admit I know the trees better than I do most of the people, but that’s mainly because almost no one walks in this neighborhood unless they have a dog. I live in the heart of the city but I feel at times as if I have grounds and a large estate because there is so much greenery and wildlife to be seen. I’ve learned a lot about plant identification simply by walking and identifying what I find. And I have all the wild onions to myself, sadly.

I know the public transit system very well. This has shown me how much we have been neglecting this vital set of links between places, but I will never be stranded by the loss of a vehicle or a breakdown of any one system. When BART went on strike, I just switched to the transbay bus. My commute is my gym. It may cost me a little more on a daily basis to commute, but I have no insurance bills, gas costs, or tolls. Or gym costs. When I had a car, it was easy to decide to drive to BART that morning instead of bike. Now I can’t get out of walking or riding, and I’m in better shape because of it. And I really like walking. It’s a chance to think, and explore. It’s also a great way to do errands. When I’m walking, I can stop in at any store I please without having to look for parking. I don’t have to backtrack to where I parked, I am free to keep walking, or hop on a bus.

When I travel, my habits really pay off. I know how to learn a public transportation system, and how to explore an unfamiliar city. I don’t live in the greatest part of town, and traveling around it without a car has given me a certain amount of street smarts. I’m not saying I’m superwoman, but I do know a bit about keeping out of trouble. I really get to experience the places I go because I see them at a walking pace, able to stop anywhere that interests me. I know how to use a map and love doing so. When I go home I can relive the trip from my marked up maps and pictures.

The carshare is turning out to be cheaper than my car ever was. I spend less per month on it than I did for just the insurance payment on my last car. If I’m short one month, I can just not use a car that month. When I do drive, I’m always driving a car much newer than any I’d ever owned, and I don’t have to pay for gas or maintenance. Sadly, I always have to drive an automatic, but that’s a small sacrifice to make. I don’t miss doing tuneups and oil changes in the street, or unexpected repair bills one bit!

Not being able to go to out of town wild places as often as I used to or visit my out of town friends as much makes me treasure those times more, and if there is one thing I wish I could change about being without a car it’s that. I don’t think getting back in one is the best way of solving that particular problem, though. If the public transportation system in urban areas has gotten less useful over time and doesn’t give convenient access to all the places it used to, we are partly responsible. We have overwhelmingly chosen to travel by car even when it isn’t the best option.

I’ve learned, above all, that there are many definitions of freedom. A car has been sold to us as a nation as a symbol of freedom and a way to express our identity, but I’m no longer so sure of that. No, I can no longer step out my front door and instantly into my “seven league boots.” But I have learned that most of my regular destinations don’t really require a car. I’m not a big drinker, but when I do go out, I don’t have to worry about not being safe to drive home. I’m a lot more physically fit because now I’m in the habit of walking and biking and I have time while doing that to do a lot more thinking. I get more reading in because I’m on the bus a lot. And I’ve got more options financially because I’m not having to pay all the costs associated with owning a hunk of metal that spends most of its time parked.

I leave my house early each morning and walk through my quiet neighborhood. I hear the dawn chorus of birdsong and feel the song of the earth around me. Is it gray and cool, or is the sun beginning to paint the clouds pink? What is the shape of the day just beginning? I imagine what it could be like, if my neighbors were out here as well, if we were all sharing the streets, the buses, if we could put a name to a face and so had some idea who we share these folded hills with. I wonder what it would be like if the stores that sell cheap liquor and junk food sold staples like flour and milk and produce, if I could walk around the corner and barter the eggs from my chickens for milk or butter or produce with my neighbors. What if we hired the people with spray cans who are currently shouting their existence and worth through scrawled tags to paint murals on retaining wall and storefront with the owners’ blessings? What if our neighborhood was safe because there was always someone on the street?

I look at the trees in the yards and next to the freeway. There’s a lemon tree that drops its fruit at the top of the hill and I usually pocket one good one. The rest are left to rot anyway. I can name many of the trees and plants, and some of the birds. I have my own little hedge school each morning. The wood grain of the fence behind me speaks the language of the forest it came from. The concrete below my feet was once part of the floor of the ocean. At the bus stop the fennel, oxalis and plantain colonize the glass-choked dirt behind me. Weeds, or healers? It all depends on your point of view. I know I never would have seen the things that I do if I’d stayed behind the wheel. I am a pioneer of the post-gasoline age and I like it.

Walkway over Hwy 580, Oakland, CA
Have You Seen Jack-In-The-Green?

Cormorants in the Cauldron

The cauldron formed by Municipal Pier in San Francisco
Aquatic Park, San Francisco

I work in a poisoned Cauldron, filled with plastic and wicked currents that take you far from where you thought you were going if you’re not careful. It was made from government money and the visions of the artists of the 1930s, who walked off the job when they found out their work was going to be used for private gain rather than be open to the general public.

Morfran Afgaddu might have felt the same when he found out that a young boy named Gwion had been conscripted to do the work that was to create the Awen his mother Cerridwen was brewing for him. Did she ask him if he wanted such power? Did he have a choice, did he participate in any way in the task of creating that brew? If he did, the Tale does not record this. Was he ready to receive what had been brewed for him when the Cauldron gave up its power? Did Gwion push Morfran aside to steal the Awen, or was it an accident? It was meant for the one who stirred the Cauldron, regardless. You can put a lot of learning into a year of stirring, after all.

Would you like to go on a boat ride with me, the oars stirring the Cauldron as we see where the current takes us? I am a sailor, after all, I have spent long hours with time and tide in this lagoon. Morfran lives here in the cormorants who dive deeply when they feel your eyes upon them, in the yearly round of tern and grebe and the starlings who are briefly here. Would you like to float in the Coracle and see what wisdom comes to us?

I’m here, of my own free will, trapped upon a spear planted in the mud of the lagoon. Held here by the love I bear for the Ladies in this Sanctuary. I am a link in the chain, keeping the ships alive by the work that I do and my eyes that see what ails them and does what is needful. I’m here because my parents took it in their minds and hearts to come here. My tenancy is less than a generation deep, but I am here where I belong, where I was meant to be. Was I Called, and did not know it? Were they?

This land, Cascadia, was meant to be made of Salmon, the fish of knowledge, who swims in the Well of Segais, who snaps the nut from the hazel, discarding the husk and keeping the kernel. Cascadia is kin to Albion and Ireland, connected by Salmon, by the Land, so similar, yet so different. I have stood on the shore in both lands, looking westward out to Sea. The Celts went ever Westward, and so my ancestors, Northern Europeans of many countries, came westward until we fetched up here, on the Shores of the Western Sea, where Land, Sky, and Sea meet, where it is said that poetry is born.  The Salmon run is a shadow of itself now, the fishermen lying idle, their boats growing old as they lie in harbor, waiting for a season that is cancelled, the quota too small to put diesel in their tanks. Stan Rogers sang it, he heard an old song down on Fishermans Wharf. The last schooner lies done in the harbor sun, with her picture on a dime. Gewgaws and gimcracks replace the fish, the crab, the sailors. You can get a shot glass with a picture of Alcatraz, but the crab come from Washington State, if you’re lucky.

Afgaddu is still here, though. The cormorants dive in the harbor. Gorse is the wood of the cormorant, Onn, sole of the foot, the Wheel. The journey is there to be taken. The speckled wood of the ogham fid is in the waves that brush the shore and Afgaddu became a warrior, his ugliness no barrier to the warriors who followed him. His Awen was inside himself no matter what his mother thought. He knew himself and dove deep till the drama was done, and then became himself, a fearsome force. The black bird floating upon the wave, taking his prey. I have stirred Cerridwen’s Cauldron for a year. I have stirred the Cauldron of my work for more than nine. I work in a poisoned Cauldron, but I know I am part of the healing.