As the sun sets out across the valley, Venus shortly afterwards reflects back to earth the sun gone around the corner. The full moon rises like a mirror into a hallway, like a night light beacon to all the life the sun gives to us, as our view spins us around to look out infinitely beyond our solar system. There is no more important star in the galaxy and beyond that we know of than ours, but there they are each night. Perhaps there is a distant creator far beyond our telescopes and satellites. We see pixelated light and artists renditions of things that exist only in the minds of imagination and speculation. While we might witness the entire universe in metaphoric and microscopic ways, what I would do to get the grand tour beyond time and space. If these are human limitations, that we exist in this moment and in this location in a vast and expanding universe, and that other ways of being persist, regardless of our measurements, then surely this moment, me writing in my underwear on a laptop computer powered by ancient sun energy, connected to a world that feels immense but shadowed by the emptiness of the universe beyond, is unbelievably absurd. Yet, here I write, calling out to you, because you make the whole thing worth it.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Before leaving, I work in the mornings and evenings, between the heat, to sand and prep the wood on the back porch, before quickly painting the bare wood. I switch from right hand to left hand and back to right as each get too tired to keep painting, but I can’t quit. I must finish this. It wasn’t neat, it wasn’t pretty, but it was done, and I loaded up the truck, and drove out of town as the sun was setting out across the valley heading north. My summer vacation had begun. I was heading to be with my family at my grandfather’s memorial service.
Judge Learned Hand (1944)
“We have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion. Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. For this reason we have some right to consider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty - freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves.”
Chico and I pull over along the Pit River. I saw it on the Google satellite image as a possible place to camp for the night. The Milky Way stripes the moonless sky, the centrifugal facture of the universe. I used to look up and think of the night sky as infinite chaos, but I look around now to the fractured United States, the broken world, and the night sky feels ordered, ancient, and comforting. While personally, the abyss of space makes me feel unimportant and meaningless, this feeling helps me deal with the politics of the world around me now. I try to say that it all doesn’t matter, but I can’t make myself believe that.
President Obama (2016)
“Scripture tells us that in our sufferings, there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see.”
My Aunts and Uncles tell stories. Stories about my grandfather and his love of nature and his desire to take them out there to experience. Hunting, fishing, rafting, backpacking…long before it was popular. The service is good. The military shows up to unfold a flag, play taps, fold it up, and hand it to my Uncle John. I never thought so much about what the flag represents. My grandmother once took me to the Smithsonian to see the original Star-spangled banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the war of 1812. General Armistead ordered the largest flag ever made so that the British could see it from their ships. I remember sitting through a talk at Fort McHenry as they told the story of the hours of bombardment and as the morning of September 14th came, the smoke cleared and the flag was still there. Not since that day over 30 years ago have I felt so enamored with a flag. The flag is folded so that only the stars shine through. This flag, today, represents my grandfather. Taps resounds across the empty air. The last note lingers almost too long. I once worked all summer trying to learn to play taps on the bugle. I cry as they fold it up, walk it over to my Uncle who stoically stands in salute as they present the flag to him. He says to my uncle, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.” Salutes, turns, walks away, and we all breathe. Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.
“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few - as we have learned to our sorrow.” Learned Hand
Why do we fight so fervently with each other? Deaths have been stacking up in the news filled with hate and frustration. Rhetoric is spilling over into the streets. Bombs are not bursting in air, they burst in our hearts and our homes. We expect for smoke to clear over and over again and from that smoke, from “morning’s first beam” we expect that flag to wave. I keep thinking about “the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion.” No, it is not in God that we trust, but in each other.
“Now, I’m not naive. I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence. And I’ve seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency. I see how easily we slip back into our old notions, because they’re comfortable, we’re used to them. I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been. And so, I’m reminded of a passage in John’s Gospel, “let us love, not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.” President Obama
The family all decides to go camping because Grandpa would have wanted that. I am not sure I really knew my grandfather that much. He wasn’t around. But he is more like a mythical person to me. A shadow figure. He would send me letters he wrote to congressmen about logging areas, forests in need of better conservation, rivers in need of preservation, trout runs threatened. He would send me articles from newspapers about environmental problems. He would send me books. Ever since I was young I would receive a new book each Christmas from him. They are books that would shape me. Two Years Before the Mast, Huckleberry Finn, By The Great Horn Spoon, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Mutiny on the Bounty. Stories that, in some ways, would later define me, or give me some sense of wonder and desire for exploration into the world. I would read the stories he wrote of growing up in rural Oregon at the turn of the century, his father a local pastor and mailman delivering mail by horse and buggy and his own embarrassment at the horse that would fart all the time. He would write about logging the old growth, about searching for remote trout streams in mapless areas. He would write about Pinchot and going to school for forestry. Later, he would give me all his topographic maps he had collected of California over the years. I still cherish them even if many of them are outdated now. Maps have always felt like treasures, as if I am still reading Treasure Island as I would scour the maps for remote lakes high in the Sierras, places to go where others would not. Mostly, I think of how he would fight to protect these wild spaces of the world. He is the true heir of Muir in my mind. A boy, born along with the National Parks, he would fight too for protection. He thought the Bald Eagle was done; he thought he would never see a bear or elk. We the people, with his help, have proved him wrong. The delisting of the bald eagle is perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of what an informed public can do. We did that with our government, with good policy, with good education, and with a realization that the chemicals we were using were not good for us, not good for ecosystems, and that those corporations didn’t want us to know that.
“What then is the spirit of liberty?
I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten - that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest. And now in that spirit, that spirit of an American which has never been, and which may never be - nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it - yet in the spirit of America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America so prosperous, and safe, and contented, we shall have failed to grasp its meaning, and shall have been truant to its promise, except as we strive to make it a signal, a beacon, a standard to which the best hopes of mankind will ever turn; In confidence that you share that belief, I now ask you to raise you hand and repeat with me this pledge:
I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands--One nation, Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Learned Hand.
I camp with my cousin Larry. We have done so many adventures together over the years. He is the closest I have had to a big brother growing up. He picked on me as such, but also he took me with him. We would fish streams, lakes, canals, ponds; hunt ducks, chukar, and grouse. We have had some devastating days where we would spend all night cleaning our catches. Larry is a hunter through and through. Once, on one of my summer visits to Boise we were driving through town. A crow was in the street, Larry swerved over and hit it. He looked at me and said, “always hunting.” I shouldn’t laugh, but I still do. Larry has taught me to be true to me, to be fearless of others thoughts.
Everything has changed so much now. He recently went through a divorce but that is nothing new. We all sit around the campfire and start to try and count the different wives my grandfather had. My Aunt, the oldest sibling there (Steve is the oldest, but he has stopped talking to everyone in the family. The family thinks he might have moved to Europe) seems to think that my Grandpa was on his 7th or 8th marriage. Every single one of my Aunts and Uncles have gone through at least one divorce. And those numbers seem to be mirrored in the grandkids too. I have no misconception that love is solitary. Like my grandfather I don't think about a god or a resurrection. Love might be boundless, but not about one person, not until death do we part. I believe in community. I believe in diversity. I believe in creativity.
“In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work. It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change.
Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.
I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this.
But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. “I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.”
That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.” President Obama
My Uncle John doesn’t make it to the camping trip. I guess, in his attempts to be more like my grandfather, a person that repaired everything he could, never gave up on a piece of clothing because it might have some wear to it, once bragged that everything he was wearing he found, left behind, discarded by those who no longer wanted it, Uncle John, although he can afford whatever he wants, he chooses to try and fix and repair. His latest invention is a coffin like box he hauls behind his truck in the remains of an old pop-up tent trailer. Everyone jokes with him about it. John is a decorated war vet, a lifer in the military, a green beret in Vietnam, Major Millard. He jumped at the chance to head to Afghanistan long after he had retired. “War” he would say, like some character from Full Metal Jacket. My grandfather would say that he understood that draw to go to war. Stationed in London during the V2 rocket bombings, the camaraderie of war left an impact on him. In his final days his mind kept taking him back to London.
John doesn’t make it camping because he left a few days early to go fishing up near Stanley, in the wind, the pop-up top collapsed on the coffin and locked him inside. He yelled for help for almost two hours until someone came to rescue him from his self-built box. We all laugh good at the thought of him there. His brothers joke about him. Everyone tells stories.
“We turn on the TV or surf the internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.” President Obama
Eventually, everyone goes home. I watch Larry pack up his camp, load up his truck, with his new girlfriend and her kids, and drive off. I decide to stop by myself at some hot springs and soak. Nobody is there and I have them to myself for a while, but eventually people show up. I am in the largest pool alone and everyone tries to be respectful, they find other pools, but eventually one family stops and asks to join. I say, please.
We talk, he is a war veteran, from Iraq. But also a fisherman and hunter. We have a good conversation, a conversation of friends that are strangers, but find commonality in a love for the world around us, the ecosystems and beauty of mountains and rivers and oceans. I don’t know his political affiliation and I worry about it. I want so badly to talk about it because I am so worried about which way our country is going. I am so afraid that people can’t see how fragile these ecosystems are and how much we need to protect them. I am too afraid to be put into a subgroup, too often have I been called “a liberal” or “a democrat” as if they are derogatory terms, and perhaps I have done the same. I prefer to share this idea that we are fishermen. I get into my car and drive back to my Dad’s house.
“We also glory in our suffers because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. For all of us, life presents challenges and suffering. Accidents, illnesses, the loss of loved ones; there are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural or man-made. All of us, we make mistakes, and at times we are lost.
And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things, not even a president does. But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control or how we treat one another.
America does not ask us to be perfect, precisely because of our individual imperfections, our founders gave us institutions to guard against tyranny and ensure no one is above the law. A democracy that gives us the space to work through our differences and debate them peacefully, to make things better, even if it doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like. America gives us the capacity to change.” President Obama.
My brother, my Dad, and I pack up for our annual backpacking trip. This year, we actually are not backpacking. My Dad’s recent heart attack has him a little spooked, and I can understand. I think I am too. A little more afraid of death, afraid of leaving the world when there is so much more to see, so many more people to love. We decide to make a home base and do a lot of day hikes to different lakes and scout a new area up in the Payette National Forest. The forest is filled with tarns, lakes left behind when glaciers slid down from the mountains, remnants of an icy past. I take to the mountains to find some center, to find footing, to let go of the world out there that fills my mind, to find perseverance and hope. It isn’t coming.
It is beautiful, each lake we visit, the long hard hike up to Box Lake, the short but steep climb to Snowslide Lake, where we off-trail to a summit. Each day is glorious and fun. My brother and I jump into the lakes while my dad catches his fill of trout. We decide to move base camp and pack up to drive to another lake. We are scouting for short hikes where we could take the next generation of Millards out into the wilderness. We drive down to an easy hike at Boulder Lake, and find it filled with people. It is easy and beautiful, but there is something about the ease of it all that doesn’t sit with us. Sometimes I feel like Abbey that you have to crawl on your bloodied knees. Maybe that is my own problem too.
On the walk back, I realize that I forgot some small solar panels sitting in the sun at our last base camp. Damn! It was over an hour back, but we load up in the car and drive back there. We race back up the creek, the dirt roads, the peaks; they feel familiar now, our campground, not a hunter’s space, but our own. Shaun runs up to get my left behind solar panel. We decide to travel over the saddle and down the other drainage. As we crest the saddle we hang out the windows in awe of the peaks and escarpments, the creeks, and rugged terrain. I joke that I left the solar panel on purpose. We were so close to this place and almost missed it. We drive over the saddle and into the Lick Creek Watershed. We look at the maps for lakes tucked up into granite cirques. We are sure we will return here. We camp for the night and plan to hike into Hum Lake the next day.
In the morning, we drive to the trailhead, and begin the long hike up to Hum Lake. A forest fire burned through here some time ago, and the wind through the dead trees seems to cry out. As we crest the saddle to look down to Hum Lake, we decide not to hike down, but once again go off-trail and hike for the nearby summit. We sit on the summit and watch clouds form across the range; Shaun trundles rocks down the empty scree fields below. We are in the heart of the Payette now. This land is so amazing. I am not sure how many more summer the three of us will get to go hiking together, but I am doing my best to be grateful for what I have right now. On the walk back, I stop at a water crossing to let Chico drink and to take pictures. My Dad and brother go ahead of me. I have been injured for a while, but I feel better. I decide to start a short run to catch up to my Dad and Brother. Chico is clearly excited to run. When Dad and my brother see me coming, they too begin to run. All four of us, trundle our own way down off this mountain. Maybe god doesn’t change our heart from rock to flesh, but gravity and the mountains erode the stone away to reveal the heart that lies beneath. Suffering doesn’t produce perseverance, desire does. Liberty isn’t in the heart of people, it is out in the land around us. We come back down that mountain because there is another mountain out there waiting.
“Weeping may endure for a night but I’m convinced joy comes in the morning.” President Obama
We stop, out of breath, and I can see my own father, a glow in his blue eyes, a red smile on his face, his heart, not of stone, his heart, not broken, his heart not failing. My Dad stops and thanks both me and my brother. He says, he felt alive again. Someday, if I’m lucky enough to live to old age, I too will cope with the loss of my father. We fold the flag to hide all the stripes, all the harsh lines that divide us are gone and only the stars remain. Stars have always been reminders of those who have past, they are like mnemonic devices to remember the stories of those that came before us. Those stars are unfathomable. The universe is unfathomable. The light is older than any story we can tell and what might be out there waiting is a great mystery that humans must seek to explore. We can change the stories. I can blend the story of Orion with that of my grandfather, the great hunter. Maybe Pisces is better. The strange duality of fish tied together swimming in different directions. Some have argued that we are leaving the age of Pisces, or already left it. I don’t think it has ended yet, not when I look around at the world. The next age is the age of Aquarius, the age of water. Water. That is when we realize how interconnected we all are. That is when we stop fighting, stop swimming in circles around each other, leave silly religions behind and see each other, see how the universe spins around, and how we are just a small fish swimming in a cosmic sea. I look up at stars like I look across the ocean. The vastness does calm me from the news, from the killings, from the bickering, from the death, and fighting, and meaningless attempts at controlling some small part of this rock. You can’t really control water. Water doesn’t know the boundaries of states and nations. The clouds lift up from the great seas and rain down upon land, erode rock, and carry away sediment. Dams can stop it for a little while, but even the land floats upon a sea of liquid magma, and the earth floats upon an endless sea of space, and this solar system spins in the rising tides of a galaxy we barely understand.
Maybe we shouldn’t seek joy in the rising sun and dawn of a new day, but instead, be OK with weeping into the night, be OK with what we see around us. Understand that the sun doesn’t illuminate; it actually blinds us from seeing out further to a universe much larger than our petty wars, our meaningless green pieces of paper, and bank accounts. When the sun sets, we can look out to see so much further. We can see the stories of the past wrapped up in the stars and know that the light is old, and there is more still coming. We share this. Can the stories of the stars remind us of how many wars we have fought, how many people we have killed, how much power we have sought, and how little it means? Shouldn’t looking up cause us to look in? There they are, every night, we can predict where they will be and when they will be there. Pisces, the two fish strung up, caught, out of water, tied up, soon to be eaten, fried. Perhaps when I look up and see Pisces, I will imagine my grandfather, his logging boots on, jumping from rock to rock, a pole in his hand, tempting fish with a fly. Perhaps, I will use it to think of my own father, and his joy of the fish he catches. Inside Pisces is a whole other galaxy, a spiraling galaxy with billions and billions of more stars inside that galaxy that we see as perhaps a minor star in the tail of the fish. Perhaps the suicide bombers, the cowardly shooters, and even the egotistical leaders of nations will think that they can write their stories into the stars, but they won’t be there. All that they deem so important right now will just spin out off this world, consumed in supernova, eaten in a black hole. What they do means so little in the end? Instead, they just cause momentary grief, pain, and sadness. When things break, we sometimes think they are then broken. No wall will keep you safe. No gun will ease your fears. There is nothing safe about living. There are no good ways to die, only good ways to live. If we only would look up and see. There are stars shining all around you right now. Their light is upon you.
Saturday, June 4, 2016
for Bernie Sanders and everyone trying to change the world.
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. Herman Hesse
The heat has come to Chico. It feels oppressive almost, but I like the heavy weight. I came home to see my sycamore tree (it most likely actually a London Plane, a hybrid of plane and sycamore) had exploded the bark from the trunk and it littered the yard. A few days earlier I had to identify a silk tree because hundreds of swallowtail butterflies danced on the thread-like stamen of the flowers like fiber optic lines projecting black butterflies. It made me think of a scene in 100 Years of Solitude when Remedios the Beauty is carried away by butterflies. I expected the tree to lift from the ground, roots dripping dirt as butterflies carry it away. I knew it was Fabaceae because of the pea-pod seeds that remained still in dried pockets on the tree. It looked like an acacia, and the common name hints to that, though it isn’t. I wanted desperately to impress the woman I was with by knowing the name, but I didn’t know it. I couldn’t easily find it with my phone. Instead, I gloried in my knowledge of the black swallowtail butterflies flirting with the flowers against a setting sun.
A Bernie Sander’s Rally is outside of my office today. People have begun to line up as the heat comes on again. Everybody I know assumes I am going. This movement means so much to me. I could probably hear the whole thing from my office, almost see the stage even, but I decided to go home and to the river. He wouldn’t speak until about 7:30. I have read and watched and argued every last bit of information I could for Bernie. I will still volunteer time to help knock on doors. But when I talk with people who support Trump or Hillary, it has amounted to no change at all. I fear that we have put a face in front of a movement that isn’t about the person.
I now have photo proof that my head is not up my ass, despite what many have told me. But I am confounded to understand why people, sane people, people close to me, would support Hillary, and even more confounding is friend’s support of Trump...family members supporting Trump. I am not sure what happens next. When you know you don’t want the other candidates, you don’t want the current system, then the time has come. I can’t imagine toppling an ancient redwood. I can’t fathom felling trees older than our constitution, but it happens. It has happened. It still happens.
Trees have always amazed me. I can name trees of my life, or remember times with trees, memories are peppered (peruvian peppered) with them. I don’t always have a clear idea of the type of tree. I can think now and try to rationalize from what I know now, but I do know we had a large pine tree in our front yard and I would play with hotwheels and army men around the roots. I can’t place the type, I think black pine, or knobcone pine, but I can’t remember the cone. I can’t remember the fascicles. The tree is gone now. We had, what my mind thinks was an elm tree in the backyard with an old cotton rope that the tree grew around. I remember being amazed at realizing the tree had ate the rope, enveloped the cotton fibers. I didn’t understand how that could hurt it. I remember the Santa Rosa plum in the backyard I would climb and eat and feast on the bitter skin, explosive flesh, and sour again pit. We had, what I now think was a camphor tree in the front yard on the side that I loved to climb because of the open canopy, no sap, and smoother bark. That was very young, there are other bushes that populate memories too. Plants of my life. Sycamore’s are in the old part too. Random potlucks at Bidel Park where large specimens with hollowed out insides were nature's best jungle gym, we would chimney up the hole. That specific tree is gone now. I went back looking once. Many others still remain there in the floodplains of the Arroyo Grande Creek...the watershed of my life.
I am genuinely concerned about all watersheds. I am terrified of fracking and Bernie is the only candidate informed on this. At what point do we realize that water and food, the ecosystem services of our world, is what sustains up.
There was a tree at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house, but I can’t place it in my current knowledge of trees. I can’t see the bark or leaves well enough, but I know it is there in the southwest corner of the backyard. Were there others? Too vague.
In another house, after divorce, living with a stepfather, there is an japanese plum tree, we were told was poisonous to eat, but I would once again gorge on them. They were mostly sour, unless ripe and then really sweet, but lacked the complexity of the Santa Rosa of my youth. I saw those again last weekend at a friend’s house. Trees hold memories like carbon.
There was a line of pine trees at that same house, not in our yard, but on the edge of the neighbors and I would climb and try to swing from one tree to the next out on the branch ends, my mother upset with the sap and maybe using the sap as an excuse to keep me from their heights.
My Dad’s house was all too new. They had a young coast oak that was slowly growing up. It is a proper tree now, though the house was long sold and he moved to Idaho. The tree still stands as a memory of what could have been, for him, for me, for us. It is now.
There are a lot of oak trees in my life. I can’t remember them all specifically. There are moments when I am in them. Like the time I was in one when the earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989 during the World Series. Me, I was out climbing a tree in a small oak woodland next to my father’s new house. I never noticed the ground shaking from inside the tree. World shaking, a tree gives enough I think. It is what I have learned to love about trees. They too have migrated and moved and had families and lineages that go beyond the dendrochronological rings we can find. I look for seed trees when I hike, mother trees, and think about the knowledge and wisdom that only a tree can know about the world around us. I wish I had that stillness inside of me.
I have revelled in the age of trees. I tell people that one of the greatest parts of California are our trees: the oldest, tallest, and biggest trees in the world are all within these state boundaries; however, the trees were here long before boundaries. They are survivors, but their ecosystems are now relegated to partitioned parks on the borders of human populations.
There are the oaks of Camp Natoma. That acrid smell mixed with Bay Laurel still takes me back to this escaped camp where the rest of the world seemed to fade away except for letters we would write, and receive, packages from family where we would sing to get them, candy and trinkets. My mom more than anything would make sure we had those, even though she was right there with us. I think now about the kids that didn’t get any. I wonder how aware I was of them back then. Here I learned to write love letters to a camp crush that would last a lifetime. Pencils of wood on paper of wood tucked into envelopes of wood.
Money is made from trees. Money has leaves on it. Money has become how and why we move in the world. We hold onto the past, we grasp at them. It defines who we are, but it can limit how we move forward. What would I sacrifice? A sane death, the poet rings out to me, a sane death.
There is an avocado tree at the small apartment my mom rented after having to leave the condo we lived in after the second divorce.
There is a spruce in front of Sonny’s house in Alaska, I barely knew him, but the memory of him looms. He is a presence because of all Alaska meant to me in my early 20s so lost to the world and wanting to run. He was a man rooted in land, rooted in routine. He had 5000 years of history to his land. He would sit at his window and look out at the lagoon, and never spoke a bad word to me. And his sons would become characters in my story. One, a good friend. Though his house is slowly being reclaimed by the land, the tree still remains. His body buried on the hill just above the tree line that looks out over the whole lagoon. Rather than a headstone, I would prefer a tree planted over my body in the hopes that I too might reach up into the sky.
Sonny was a casualty of climate change. He is a catalyst for my own action. His death, while devastating for the tribe and for his sons, was caused by paralytic shellfish poisoning. Never seen by the tribe in almost 5000 years. I remember as Dale would sit with a gun to ward off the bears that smelled death and wanted to dig his father’s grave up. For me, this was climate change, this is what happens when the oceans have been polluted. Innocent people have died and will die. How are we to be prepared for this?
In San Diego, there were less trees. But there were jacarandas that would drop purple petals on the sidewalk, paint them as I would ride my skateboard down the surreal streets of the largest city I have yet lived in. It seems perhaps one of the most foreign memories now. Amongst all the other places and trees of the world, like Baobab trees in Madagascar, stopping under one lone tree on a trek out to the desert and eating the fruits while we rested and another small group from another village stop, rest, and move on too. Their faces are lost to me now, the clothes they were wearing, gone, but the tree stands above the flat terrain, the shade worth sharing.
Madagascar has been an island in peril. The red island bleeds iron soil out into the rivers from erosion because the trees are gone, their roots unable to hold back the relentless onslaught from water dragging the land back out to see. I often think of the ocean as a cleanser, as a god out to destroy humanity. I often wish for it to raise up. When I surf large waves, when the tempestuous swell racks the sea cliffs, I want to see destruction. I am still an anarchist at times. I hold deep seated love for the eco-terrorists of the world, the monkey wrenching. I think often of Hayaduke, swinging his penis in the desert sun.
The mangroves of Guatemala, Yille climbing the coconut trees for us with machete tucked into his pants. Mangroves are buffers to storms, filters for rivers, a system also in peril. When I volunteered for Katrina, I already knew that one of the problems was that hurricanes didn’t have to deal with mangroves as buffers against the ferocity of the ocean. Trees have stood to protect all that is humanity and yet we have neglected them.
A pine forest in Germany is vague and covered with memories of a girlfriend unable to even speak to me for some inexplicable anger of which I was surely the cause.
Outside of San Diego there are Joshua Tree and Ocotillo from the desert trips we would go to to get out of the city. They say Joshua Trees will be a casualty of climate change. The large ground sloth that once helped move the tree over large distance, the relationship it once had that allowed the tree to move and adapt as tectonic plates shift, as sand moves in longshore currents, is long gone now. As the climate changes, the Joshua Tree doesn’t have a way to move as easily. Will we help it? Will we carry the seed or just the memory of what once was?
Bernie is the only candidate to tackle climate change head on. No deals with pipelines, no deals for coal, no compromises for fracking. Climate change is real and a threat to our existence. I know this has little to do with Bernie really. This is about us. In fact, if we make it about Bernie then we have already lost. This is about a movement towards understanding and caring. This is a movement about becoming active and engaged citizens in communities where you learn, and listen, and talk, and act, and solve, and there is not stagnation. A single tree might seem rooted to landscape, but they migrate too. They cast seeds to the wind, to birds, to animals, and work together to move with the earth, listening to the earth. Bernie asks us to listen again. He has been there with his ear to the ground for so long now.
And in the Chico there are the sweetgums, later I would learn the latin names for them and love the way it slides from the tongue. Liquidambar Styraciflua. I can hear my professor saying the same on one of our jaunts into the “field” of Logan street trees and the campus arboretum.
There is manzanita everywhere. Rafting on rivers brought to me madrones. Climbing Mount Lassen brought me whitebark pine and the symbiotic relationship with Clark’s Nutcrackers.
And the redwoods and sequoia are embedded too deep to even begin to tell their story. I often think of the sequoia as an already extinct tree in purgatory breathing smog filled air from the valley below. The redwood story is fairy ringed and burled into my life. I have taken so many students out into their forests and shared this experience with them. Students have become my helicoptering seeds spinning to winds.
Everywhere there are eucalyptus. The urine smelling dreidel tops seeds that were a skateboarders hell. They also shed their bark. I never had much love for them. I remember, playing in them, bb gun wars up on the Mesa, mostly I remember the butterflies their too. Learning that the habitat for monarchs is disappearing, and their wintering grounds the numbers have seen decline. I can remember watching the counts for each year precipitously decline and learning about habitat loss. Normally they would winter in the cypress trees, but those too are few in numbers. Instead, they cluster and cascade in the Eucalyptus trees off Highway one in Grover Beach. Will we lose the Monarch? Is it, too, just a three-inch fish? The hubris of humans humiliates me. I helped build a butterfly sanctuary for my mom in her yard recently. And they are there, the beautiful big caterpillars spinning chrysalis. Here is Bernie again for me. He is asking us all to spin the chrysalis inside of ourselves. If Leopold taught us anything, it is that while we can destroy the earth, we can also create conditions conducive to healing.
In Utah, I studied trees, both dendrology, but also the human connections to trees, from spiritual to economic and biological and metaphorical. I loved the limber pine on the mountain tops. I would melt into the aspen and bigtooth maples in the fall. I would watch the sunsets over the Wellsville Mountains from Dry Canyon Ridge under Mountain Mahogany and Juniper.
It was here where I “owned” my first tree. I planted more, but one hundred year-old elm towered above my yard and the whole neighborhood, and it was mine. I never actually felt like I owned it. From my jaunts above the city to refill my broken heart, I would look down to my tree in the valley. I planted the yard with trees and left them there: apricots, peaches, redbuds, juniper, pinyon pine, apple, cherries, plums, dogwood, and more. I sold them to another person. As I was leaving, he asked me about a couple of them. I told him, they are his now and his decision. He cut some of them down. I don’t want to go back and see it.
I walk Chico’s campus. There are trees I love here. Some I used to know are gone now.
It doesn’t actually matter the reason the sycamore sheds its bark, they are all positive adaptations towards survival. It doesn’t do from waste, but from necessity; it might be buried deep in the DNA; it might be improvising--survival is both. It is action. My action is to write and to teach. My life is my action. My work is my advocacy. I want so badly for Bernie to be elected that my mind obsesses about the ways I could turn my life towards such advocacy. Lately I have been trying to realize that my work is enough. That my life is enough. How do you love when your mind is filled with such fears for the earth that sustains us? How do you let love sustain you? Is love enough?
I looked at the long lines, the throngs of crowds with such hope; I have heard all his speeches, read his stories, looked at his policies, watched all the videos. Bernie hasn’t changed. That is what I like about him. I have already cast my vote for him. He has a way he fights, and people for whom he fights, and that hasn’t changed. The people have, the problems have, but not how he fights and the side he takes. He is always with the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, the poor, the underrepresented. The river always has something new. I walked passed the crowds of people. I saw students and friends in line. I wanted badly to go because of a beautiful woman somewhere in the crowd holding her signs because the trees around her can’t, because the murmur of the river isn’t listened to by enough. She is there speaking for them.
I understand that this work is needed. That these speeches don’t change anything, but they give people the energy to go do the work that is needed. My job is to get students civically engaged, ecologically aware, community-focused, and motivated to make change happen. Crowds of people are gathering under the redwood trees. There are magnolias in the free speech area. There used to be a leaning grey pine I loved so much, but they took it down. And there is the sycamore. I am guessing that tree too is shedding its bark. Some say they shed their bark because they grow too fast for it to keep up. Others say that doesn’t work, but that they do it to shed fungus and bugs that might harm them; still others say they have adapted to photosynthesize with their bark and shedding the bark reveals the chlorophyll to the sun. The shade makes waiting for Bernie bearable for the people. Everyone is under the shade. As people chant for Bernie, their voices are consumed in the carbon of the tree, through the stomata of the leaves. The trees around them are breathing them in. Inhaling them. Their lives and the stories of their lives written in the lines of their rings. I wonder, when people remember hearing him speak if they will remember the trees above them.
Tonight, the nighthawks murmur to each other as they dip and dive across the sun faded sky. There is something magical about the movement of all this water. It isn’t wasted. We aren’t “shoving it out to sea” as Trump seems to think. I have read articles where people think the problem is in the value of water. It isn’t the value of water, but the value of ecosystems that needs to be readdressed by our culture.
Four pelicans follow the river back out to the sea. They turn with each bend of the river until they fade into the night--to use a friend’s words, they are cursive across the sky, lines trail off into twilight. I stop to watch a heron hunt. I admire the slow steady movements, the concentrated eyes, the complete presence in the moment.
This is why I like Bernie Sanders. I hope you get out and vote. I hope I see you in the voter’s line.
Nate and Chico (aka: Prancis)
Friday, May 20, 2016
A lot has happened recently and all of it has me looking at life differently. My grandfather passed away, my father had a heart attack, I go in for my first colonoscopy because of blood in my stool, Chico went to vet to have some fatty tumors looked at, and soon I will turn 40. I guess it is all about mortality.
A thunderstorm is backing up into the heart of the valley. I can feel the energy growing, the wind swirling, the clouds beckoning. I am building planter boxes, but I stop what I am doing, grab some water, and head for the ridge to watch the storm. I started my 30s up on this ridge. With some of my favorite poets and people on the planet, just after passing our Masters degrees, we went to watch the sunset and drink wine. I am not sure how to characterize these last ten years. They have been the decade of my PhD. The decade of a failed relationship and even bigger failure in coping with it. It has been a decade of blogging, a decade of social media, the decade of owning my first house, of travelling the world, a decade of teaching, a decade of songwriting, and of course, perhaps most importantly, the decade of having a dog. It is unbelievably unlikely that he makes it through the next ten years together. He loads up into the truck, to his seat, to look out his window, and we drive up towards the park.
I woke up on the floor in the kitchen. It was a strange feeling. I gasped awake and quickly thought to myself, oh, I was just asleep, but then I realized, wait, I am on the kitchen floor. I got up, sweat pouring from my body, my heart racing, and I sit at the kitchen bar. What just happened? My housemate wakes up from the couch where he had crashed out, I wonder if I should tell him, but I know it is smartest to tell someone. He looks at me blankly, croggy, still getting his footing back into the world. I call my martial arts instructor, not wanting to freak my mother out, he demands we go the ER. I am pretty sure I just had a panic attack, but I am not sure. I have never had one before.
My father said he thought he had indigestion and if he could find some tums that might have been it, but he couldn’t. My stepmom, gratefully being the worrisome person she is, called for the neighbors to come check him out. He seemed OK, but they recommended a helicopter back to town to be sure. My dad refused. He couldn’t take a helicopter just for them to hand him some antacids. My stepmom drives him the 45 minutes along windy roads, no cell service, back into town. He walks into the ER, tells them his chest hurts, and they jump into action. It is, perhaps, the third time my Dad has had his life saved by almost dumb, what we call “Millard,” luck. The curse of the Millard luck. Terrible for all things accept when it really counts. And this time it did. 3% flow through his lower artery. They clear it and he is better.
Yes, I should go to the ER.
The storms swings opens up into the valley below, crosses the arterial Sacramento River. I become more and more enamored with this river and all it means. The storm seems to block up and refuse to move above the city, the sky darkens, the streaks of grey deluge as clouds tip like water cans and surely the plants below beckon this watering. A rainbow pours out from the murkiness as the sun hurls golden light sideways underneath the clouds. Each day, the sun tracks further north as the earth tilts towards it as if bowing in gracious humbleness. Thank you.
My grandfather passed, fittingly, on April 21st, John Muir’s birthday, the day before Earth Day. For a man who spent most of his life fighting for conservation and understanding of natural systems, it was a good day to die. He was 99 and surely ready to hike into that next wilderness, something more unknown than what he called the “forest primeval” of his youth in rural Oregon. He always spoke longingly of the old growth Doug Fir...mostly gone now. On his 99th birthday, when told he had only one year to make it to 100, he said, don’t remind me. Nonetheless, it has me wondering how you let go of this beautiful earth. My grandfather obviously struggled with this. At 87 we went on his last backpacking trip together. And for years after he would always say, soon he will be better again, soon his knees will get better, soon he will feel stronger, soon he will get back out there to see another bloom of wildflowers in the Marble Mountain Wilderness, soon he will hunt another buck, fell another tree.
For years I have sung a song by Cat Stevens called “I’ve got a thing about seeing my grandson grow old.” I liked the song, but I never really thought about the implications in my own life. I never thought about what a gift it was to me that my father and mother had me when they were so young. That, by them having me, I got more time with my grandparents, more time with them too. And me, as I get older, still struggling to find a way to shunt my heart back open towards love, I think that I will not see a grandson grow old. I am happy my Dad is OK and I can’t wait to do our annual backpacking trip. Not this year, but next year, we will backpack into the Marble Mountains to take my grandfather’s ashes to Big Elk Lake. My Dad tells me that Grandpa always wanted his ashes there, and my Dad says that Grandpa said, it would be OK to piss on them afterwards, because he probably deserved that. He is the old codger to me, the last of a kind. A WWII Veteran, he once met General Patton while stationed in London during the V2 bombings. He spent most of his life in the woods once he returned from war. Much of my poetry in my 20s had him as a key image. He is a muse to me, a siren of the forest.
The sky is darkening and the thunder rolls closer. I wonder if it will come to me. I would wait for it. I would hold my arms open for rapture. I could use this cleansing, this washing, this erosion. I would let it, if it would take it, to remove so much from my life. Open up my heart and let it all rush through. I’d hate to think of polluting the sea. The doctor didn’t know why I would have blood. Might be something simple like internal hemorrhoids; however, it could be something more complex. She says Crohn’s Disease, she says celiacs disease, she says colon cancer. What if you knew you only had so many sunsets left to watch in the world? Emerson once said, what if the stars only came out once every 1000 years? I try so hard to look up each night and see the vast beauty of it all, the incomprehensible infinite. This is why I think I ended up on the floor in the kitchen. Leaving would be hard.
The semester is over soon and I will disappear for a while out into the desert. Abbey would approve. I think sometimes we teach, and we build, and we create to stave off that abyss of the night. That life is a thin scum on a rock planet swirling down the drain of a galaxy that, so far, seems to care very little about us. These words will not last. I want humans to be important too; I want distant gods watching over it all; I want meaning. But I see the black holes of the universe.
Another flash off to my left, to the south. The sky behind me is Prince Purple, an indescribable beauty meant only to be experienced. If I am to go, I want to go watching a sunset. Can I be left to die on a ridgeline watching the world turn? A sky burial? Could my body just fade into the rock? Please don’t bury me in a crowded field of non-native grass. Please don’t burn me up in your fossil fueled oven. Please don’t haul me before an altar in a windowless room.
I am not sure how the next ten years will be. I am not sure what the doctor will find either. I prefer going to places without trails, without maps, without names. I don’t want preconceptions or prejudices about an experience even if I know that is impossible. I started my 20s in a type of panic, and religiously driven panic started at a random fire and brimstone church revival where an image of hell was implanted into my head of spending eternity cramped, shoved into a really small black box on a shelf all alone. And the church man said all I would have to do is to ask forgiveness.
Yes, that is easy enough to do.
I worked hard in my 20s to find acceptance rather than forgiveness. I spent my 30s trying for understanding. I hope to use my 40s for action. There are changes that must be made. While I turned off the television a long time ago, now I know it is time to turn off the social media. Goodbye Facebook. I have loved parts of it. Loved seeing the photos of your kids growing up. While it rarely happened, a few people I actually learned to know better through facebook than I ever did in real life. I think of people like Mike Quaresma who I knew, but didn’t know in highschool and I have admired his honesty and humor on facebook. I loved watching how he raises his kids. I think of Matt Yarbro, who was a friend, then unfriended me, but still we argue and I like what I learn from him because I must learn to love even those with whom I disagree. There are friends I only know through this. I fear they will disappear from my life now. There was Martin Inderbitzin, who I met briefly for a few weeks when he came to visit the hotel I was running in Guatemala, and I watched as he fought through pancreatic cancer and shared his struggle with the world. I am in awe of his resilience. I loved watching Ben Abbott raise his kids in Alaska while studying Climate Change and riding fat-tire bikes and then move to France. I loved some of the honest conversations I have had, and me too, the support some people came when you needed it, friends, friends of friends, old friends, new friends, and even those yet to be. But it isn’t enough. There is no action through Facebook. There is understanding, but understanding without action is a black box, high on a shelf, where valuable things collect dust. I don’t want forgiveness anymore.
Nonetheless, we are friends, and hopefully, we have plans to see each other soon. I will come visit if you ask. Or, you can join me on the trail, join Chico and I, and watch a sunset together. We only have so many left and I would prefer to share them with you. I don’t know what will happen with the colonoscopy. I am not sure how any of it will turn out. We all, I think, hope for old age. Actions don’t always match our desires. I would fight to stay here with my last breath, to stay here with you all, to see this crazy planet with all the struggles and try my best to be an engaged citizen in motion, like everything is in this galaxy, in this universe. Nothing stands still. But go, if I must, with a light pack, and good boots to whatever trail lies ahead, map or not. I’d journal back to you if I’m allowed. For now, I turn some of this off. It surely isn’t you; let’s go for a hike together. Let’s do something...anything. The sun is down, night cascades onto the earth, and tomorrow the sun will push it out again, like fog dissipating into blue sky, only memory is left.