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Posts Tagged ‘Mystic’

A New Years Poem
I have a desperate attraction to new beginnings
Sometimes the numbers on the calendar look so beautiful
I think
Today’s the day I drink less and run more
No smoking, all veggies
Honesty, integrity, self-reliance, perseverance, creativity,
No fear, live large,
Dream big, be bright, believe in love and believe in yourself!
And I do
Today is an auspicious day
Today is my new beginning
Sometimes I just feel it, on a Tuesday
Today’s the day I keep doing yoga
I don’t back down when I’m right
I go to bed at a reasonable hour, pay my bills on time
Clean out the toe jam, learn all those languages
All the little steps start here and I’m climbing
I can feel it now, right now, and I won’t look back
This is it!
Today is an auspicious day
Today is my new beginning
Then I find myself making the same mistakes
Who manufactured the grooves in my record?
How would it feel if the dj scratched me across the turntable?
The dissonant rip, like a zipper coming undone
A cut away from the 4/4 time that I was trying so hard to hold
But this is why the crowd came to the club
To hear the sound of the universe tearing into a new song
The maligned has become music
We throw our hands up and we dance
I am scratched across the turntable and the crowd is screaming
We are scratched and screaming
And the dj takes it back, and the song plays
All of it is beautiful
Every moment new
Every moment auspicious
Every moment beginning
Molly Trad

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The Blackfoot River flows a few miles east of the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana.

It is difficult to describe what the Blackfoot is like, because many of its natural qualities seem to have theological overtones. Maybe that’s why the Indians considered it a holy place. After the spring runoff, the water is blue-green and swift and cold and running in long riffles through boulders that stay half-submerged year round. The canyons are steep-sided and topped with fir and ponderosa and larch trees that turn gold in the fall. If you listen carefully, you notice the rocks under the stream knocking against one another and making a murmuring sound, as though talking to themselves or us. The boulders along the banks are huge and often baked white and sometimes printed with the scales of hellgrammites. Many of the boulders are flat-topped and are wonderful to walk out on so you can fly-cast and create a wide-looping figure eight over your head and not hang your fly in the trees. Wild roses grow along the banks, as well as bushes and leafy vines that turn orange and scarlet and apricot and plum in the autumn. When the wind comes up the canyon, leaves and pine needles balloon into the air, as though the entirety of the environment is in reality a single organism that creates its own rebirth and obeys its own rules and takes no heed of man’s presence. The greatest oddity on the river is the quality of light. It doesn’t come from above. There is a mossy green-gold glow that seems to emanate from the table rocks that plate the river bottom, and the trout drifting back and forth in the riffle are backlit by it.”
Burke, James Lee. Light of the World: A Dave Robicheaux Novel (p. 326). Simon & Schuster.

“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (1976).

Classical, baroque or romantic, spare or lush style is a preference or a fashion but good writing is good writing.

maxresdefaultFly fishing is a wonderful thing. A friend of mine, Dennis Machida, a determined fisherman, took me fly fishing a few times. He tried to teach me how to do it. I liked it a lot, although I was not a very good student.

There was a comedian I saw once who described a women’s mind as always full and buzzing with thoughts and ideas but a man’s as packed with boxes each containing only a single thought. At the center of all those boxes is one box that for a majority of men was the most important. That box is empty. Many men spend much of their time there.

I always thought fly fishing was something that a lot of men put into that particular box. Imagine standing for eight or so hours in freezing cold water whipping a piece of string back and forth above your head making lazy S’s in the sky.

I think it is interesting that neither of the authors quoted above actually mentions catching fish. It is not the purpose of fly fishing to catch fish. Oh, maybe one or two just to show people you actually went fishing. The purpose of fly fishing is to empty your mind of thought. It is a type or meditation for those who like to be uncomfortable while doing it and are infatuated with gear.

 

More reflections on fly fishing:

I had written the above in a post I send now and then to several of my friends and re-posted at This and that…. It is always flattering when someone responds positively to something I write. The following is from Naida West one of my favorite authors. I consider Naida’s historical trilogy, The California Gold Trilogy, to contain three of the finest historical novels written about America. Unlike others who merely place their story in another era, Naida’s involves mostly actual people taken from diaries and other sources to which she adds missing thoughts, motivations and dialogue and a character or two. Her characters are not kings and queens and the like, but ordinary (and some not so ordinary) people who populated the banks of the Cosumnes River in California more than 100 years ago.

I loved your reflections of fly fishing, such as this: “(Fly fishing) is a type of meditation for those who like to be uncomfortable while doing it and are infatuated with gear.”

Here’s a reflection of my own:

My lawyer father, a delightful actor on life’s stage if one winked at his pursuit of women and booze, grew younger before my eyes as he neared his favorite trout streams. By the time we left the road and bumped violently over bushes and rocky outcroppings seeking a place to stop, he was a wide-eyed child at Barnum and Bailey’s tent door. He bounced out to retrieve his gear while I steeled myself for a day of boredom with the windows up, my only excitement murdering mosquitoes that had snuck in while the door had been open. As the sun edged across the sky I poached in my sweat, recalling the day I explored a riverbank in shorts while he fished. The angry welts all over me, overlapping even under my shirt, just about killed me or so I thought. My dad had scoffed and said I should control the effects with my mind like he did. Umm, no. He admired swamis who barefooted across glowing coals.

Yet for an hour or two, coming and going, I had my dad to myself. At the wheel he recited story-length poems by Longfellow, Gray, Coleridge, and Poe, using theatrical emphasis to convey the meaning of outdated idioms. Between poems he answered questions about the words and phrases, always in an interesting way, repeating the stanzas where they were used. I memorized some of those poems before my mother & grandmother hauled us to CA, and in the 8th grade my teacher had me go from room to room in Carmel High School reciting them to classrooms of older kids. I saw my dad only a handful of times after we left Idaho, though he lived until 1989.”
Naida

 

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Hiawatha:

It is great to be reminded that there was a time when people quoted Longfellow, Poe and others instead of relying on street corner argot and advertising slogans to prove their intellectual integration with the greater American culture. For example, I often sprinkle my speech with the word “fuck” in an effort to signify my affinity for the common idiomatic mode of discourse we Americans use to express ourselves.

Speaking of Longfellow, I always felt he got a raw deal from the critics. He was part of a movement that began with Washington Irving and continued until Whitman gave up the ghost in an orgy of pantheistic individualism. They tried to create a new song unique to America out of the diverse traditions of those living or migrating to the continent at the time. True it was mostly wrapped in Yankee sensibilities. Nevertheless, they tried to bundle into a single melody the  of the stories Native American, Knickerbocker, Frontiersman, Acadian, Settler at the edge of the primeval wilderness and even the sad songs of slavery.  One can recognize those songs and stories even where altered to fit nativist sensibilities. I guess they were trying to write a “New World Symphony” decades too early. A violin differs from and oboe in its history, shape and sound, but, in a symphony by Brahms, together they create a song far different from what either could accomplish separately. No one criticizes old Johannes for failing to allow each instrument its own solo. Even Jazz requires the solos to doodle around with the underlying theme. (Come to think of it, Jazz was another attempt to meld the diverse music of several cultures, relying in part on the fundamentals of European folk music, African syncopation and rhythm, and Klezmer instrumentalization.)

Romantic and fuzzy headed, this movement died at mid-century when the two true songs of America emerged, one indescribably evil and malicious. The other almost as bad, lacking a unifying theme other than simple revulsion.

Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, an attempt to use new interest at the time in Native American culture and legends to create a syncretic myth for the new country, has been soundly criticized. At first, the criticism appeared to emanate from the trolls of that era who focused, in part, upon the poems idealization of a people whom they believed deserved their extinction. Later, because the poem relied on the study of Native American culture by a man who was one of the first to take an interest in their way of life, it was ridiculed because significant portions of that research were in error and more recent studies decades after the poem’s publication came to different conclusions. This is like criticizing the ancient Egyptians for not using reinforced concrete to construct their pyramids.

Did you know that reciting the Song of Hiawatha provides greater psychological and physical benefits than meditation? It’s true, try it. Find a quiet room, darkened but not devoid of light. Make yourself comfortable and slowly, in a hushed voice as deep you can manage, recite the poem making sure you accent it properly.

Longfellow used the trochaic meter instead of the iambic that is more comfortable for Indo-European speakers. It is a more common rhythm in Ural-Altaic languages (in this case Finnish) that Longfellow believed, rightly or wrongly, reflected the natural rhythms of the language of the First Peoples. In any event, for some English speakers, it seems to produce a chthonic throbbing that reverberates in the marrow of their bones like the moan of a cello.

Try it, you’ll like it. Do not begin with that portion of the poem that we learned in grade school but at the beginning with the Introduction. To get you started I include it here:

“Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?
I should answer, I should tell you,
From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors, and fen-lands
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.
I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician, the sweet singer.”

Note: Do not try this with Evangeline or any of the Acadian poems. Those rhythms can cause mild stomach upset to the inexperienced.

 

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I am what is referred to by some as a vivid dreamer. That is, my dreams are in color, I know that I am dreaming, and I can alter them as they go along. I also can wake myself up if things get too stressful. Moreover, I generally remember a lot of them in their entirety. Sometimes, those dreams become as real in my memory as any other experience. Periodically I used to analyze which of my memories were real and which were dreams in order to purge those not real. I no longer do that. I now believe, if it is there it is as real as any memory.

I prefer sleep to being awake because, on the whole, my dreams are far more interesting and exciting than my waking life is. I guess that goes for most of us.

Perhaps a little over a score of years ago I dreamt I was flying in a plane. We passed from the ocean over the land somewhere in Africa where we landed. I then took a small jitney bus that drove directly from the airport into the desert. The desert was not the sand dune desert of Lawrence of Arabia, but barren, dusty and rocky like parts of West Texas. After a day or two, we arrived at a small city of mud-walled buildings. In the center of the city was a large dirt plaza filled with men with guns, shooting them into the air and shouting at people in cars or busses and stopping them as they tried to make their way through the plaza. The men seemed to be grouped into gangs with no one group in charge. They appeared Mediterranean in complexion with large bushy mustaches. They wore dark pants and vests over their shirts. I assumed they were Muslims since most of them wore ragged turbans on their heads.

They would not allow our bus to continue, so I disembarked and walked into the city to search for some distant relatives whom I knew lived in the town. The relatives strangely were Armenian shopkeepers. I found their shop. I never learned what they sold there. The relatives lived above the shop. After I explained who I was, they welcomed me in. The father, a man of about 60, was relatively short-statured, clean-shaven with a round face topped by a mostly bald head with a few long black hairs combed over. He had two grown sons, they were much taller than he, broad-shouldered and mustached. Strapped to their backs were guns of some sort. Their sister was a slender dark girl of about 14, I guess. She wore a light-colored dress imprinted with small pink flowers. The mother was thin like the daughter with more grey hair than the father. I told them I had been stopped by the gunmen in the plaza and I wanted to continue on to the jungle beyond the desert. He said that it would be difficult under the current chaotic circumstances to secure permission to travel beyond the City. He said he would have to think about it and promised to do his best. In the meantime, they prepared a dinner in my honor attended by the father’s brother and his family. After the dinner, the brothers spoke with each other in a corner of the room out of my hearing. Eventually, the father came over to me and told me that the leader of one of the strongest militia was a friend of his and he thought he could arrange passage for me.

Early the next morning after saying goodbye and thanking everyone I accompanied the older son, returned to the plaza and after enduring several threats and insults from the militia leader, was put into an old Range Rover and allowed to continue on my way.

We drove on across that stony dusty desert well into the early afternoon when the landscape began to change, first into scrublands and then into a grassy savannah. A small copse of trees dotted the terrain here and there. Near to sunset we topped a small ridge and saw a little valley beyond. The Savannah continued across the valley along with the dirt track we had been following until along the smaller ridge on the opposite side the green expanse of the forest began abruptly. Where the road disappeared into the trees, I could see a small village of conical mud-walled houses nestled in the shade of the trees stretched out along the road.

At sundown, we arrived at the village. I got out of the vehicle at the edge of the village. About 10 or so adults and innumerable children assembled around the vehicle as I disembarked. One man approached. He seemed to be in his late twenties or early thirties. I guess he was Somali or other Cushite speakers, thin, light brown complexion and a straight narrow nose. He greeted me and asked what had brought me to the village. I answered that I had heard about what they had accomplished in creating their vast environmental and ethnological preserve and I wanted to see it for myself. This was the first time in the dream that I had become aware of what I was doing here.

He contemplated me for a moment then said, “Mama discourages casual visitors to the reserve.” At first, I thought MAMA was an acronym for the NGO operating the place. I was soon disabused of that assumption when he glanced to a large woman standing off to the side surrounded by a passel of young children.

She was a large woman, large indeed, about an inch or two taller than me and at least 50 pounds heavier. Her skin was a deep chocolate color and a thick dark tangled ring of hair floated around her head like Medusa’s snakes. She wore a deep blue tent-like dress that fell from her shoulders almost all the way to the ground. Thick red stripes containing faint yellow pinstripes broke up the wall of blue.

“Perhaps I can persuade her to let me stay,” I said. “I don’t think so,” he responded quickly. “But it is too late in the day to send you back, so you can stay the night as our guest and if she is not too busy perhaps you can try to persuade her tomorrow.”

With that, he led me into the town past several of the huts to one a little back from the road. “This is my house,” he said. “You can stay here for the evening. There is a cot in the back. You can leave your backpack there. I will show you where to wash up and you can join my family and others for dinner.”

The hut was nicely sized containing a single room. It seemed to be used only for sleeping. I found a small cot at the back and with both relief and trepidation dropped my backpack on it and rejoined my host.

He showed me to a surprisingly comfortable bathhouse with both hot and cold tubs and showers. It seemed available to both sexes.

After my bath, he led me to a clearing a little way from the village. Here there were benches and a few sturdy wooden tables. Several modern grill type cookers and other tables containing copious amounts of food surrounded a large campfire around which on a variety of strange tripod like contraptions other pots and viands hung over the flames.

I met my host’s wife and their two small children. She was young and quite attractive. I am sorry to say, I no longer remember their names even though they became some of the closest friends I had even known. That’s the way it is with dreams.

The clearing filled up with what appeared to be at least a hundred adults and even more children running about. The others seemed to be a mixture of ethnicities and races, predominately African but I could see some Europeans and Asians also among the crowd.

Although I remember the food was delicious and the feeling that I enjoyed myself immensely I recall little more about the evening other than that whenever I glanced across the campfire through the flames I saw Mama on the other side staring at me with what looked like hard cold angry eyes.

After the dinner, I returned to the hut, laid down on the cot and fell immediately asleep.

The next morning I awoke just as the light of predawn had made its way into the hut. My hosts and their children had already left. I dressed quickly, used the bathhouse facilities, grabbed some rolls from the breakfast tent set up near where I had dinner last night and strolled toward a large fenced-in compound in a clearing in the woods about a quarter-mile or so from the village. I figured it would be a good idea for me to make myself useful around there before any meeting with the formidable Mama.

The compound contained a number of trucks and several buildings. A lot of people industriously worked or walked about. There seemed to be more people milling around here than lived in the village. I asked the first person I came upon where I could best be of help. He brought me over to one of the trucks being loaded with medical supplies and equipment. I worked throughout the day at various things not stopping at all except for a brief lunch break. At about dinnertime, I washed up and joined my host and his family at the campfire. They mentioned nothing about me leaving and seemed to expect me to spend the night again in their hut.

During dinner, I asked my host a question that had been on my mind most of the day (from here on I will call him Tre because those letters are next to each other on the keyboard. His wife I will call Yu for the same reason). “Why was the work area fully equipped with modern facilities including electricity and modern plumbing while the village living area, as comfortable as it is, contained virtually none at all? Tre responded, “Because Mama believes where work is performed it should be as efficient as possible for the benefit of the work to be done and the laborers who do it. On the other hand, she believes where one lives, after accounting for health and adequate comfort, should be as frugal as possible because we owe it to the earth, it makes us more sensitive to the lives of the indigenous people in the preserve and it encourages us to share in our community.”

So, the next few days at the village continued like that, working in the compound and eating dinner by the campfire with everyone. I was even given a small hut of my own.

One day after lunch. I looked out across the village into the valley. About two or three hundred yards away there stood a large outcropping of rocks. They broke into the slope of the valley and on average towered about 50 feet or so high. The outcropping extended in a curve of about seventy-five yards or so. It looked like a rough amphitheater facing down the valley. The various boulders that made up the outcropping were stepped and flat-topped further accentuating the theatre effect.

On the rocks about two-thirds of the way up sat Mama on a large flat area facing toward the sun. Around her throughout the outcropping were many children playing and jumping from rock to rock and splashing in the small rock basins filled with water from various springs that leaked through the outcropping from the valley slope that backed up against it. There were also a number of other women tending the children or sitting down talking in small groups. There were a few men about too.

I thought this would be a good chance to speak with Mama about my status, so I walked over to the outcropping. As I climbed up the rocks to where Mama sat, I saw her looking at me not unkindly. As I got near to where she was sitting I heard a rumble not too loud at first but quickly gaining in volume. Then the whole valley began to shake. I turned and looked down the valley. What I saw terrified me.

I heard Mama say behind me, “Do not be afraid.”

A great brown and grey cloud billowed at the far end of the valley through which plunged a stampede of animals. Not like the great Serengeti migration where large herbivores run the gauntlet of predators but a stampede of all sorts of animals, herbivore and predator alike. Elephants, lions, leopards, giraffes, wild pigs and warthogs, even monkeys and chimpanzees plunged down the valley toward us. It looked a lot like the start of the SF Bay to Breakers race. I was so frightened I considered waking myself up. But recalling Mama’s calming words, I plopped down on the nearest rock, my heart pounding almost as loud as the sounds of the hooves and paws plunging toward us.

The herd split into two, each half passing the rock outcropping on opposite sides. The others on the rocks with me clapped and laughed. Suddenly a large male lion all ruff and fangs detached itself from the herd and sprang up the rocks right toward me. It swerved just before it reached me, brushed by and bounded over the top of the outcropping to rejoin the stampede leaving me little worse for wear other than a slightly strained sphincter.

A rhinoceros bumped out of the pack stumbled up the rocks a few feet, fell down and struggled to get up again. A child sitting nearby leaned over and patted it on its horn. The beast chuffed, backed itself down and ran off.

After the animals passed leaving only the rumble of their passage further down the valley and swirling clouds of dust, everyone on the rocks clapped and cheered like the Fourth of July crowds after the fireworks.

We then all walked off into the woods until we came to a stream. Everyone dove in to clean off the dust and dirt. Some removed their clothing and others jumped in clothes and all. I decided to explore the stream a bit and walked away until I could no longer hear their cries and laughter. I soon came to a place where the stream widened out into a small pool. Across the way, the stream entered the pool in a small two-step waterfall. The upper stories of the forest were pulled back around the pool allowing the sunlight to flood down glittering the spray of the waterfalls and turning the bottom of the pool iridescent.

The trees surrounding the pool although open to the sun at their tops crowded the pool in a seemingly impenetrable wall. Sitting or hopping about on the branches of the trees were hundreds of birds of every color and shape of feather. Where they did not hide the trees behind from view, thousands of butterflies fluttered about filling up the spaces. Strangely there was no sound of birds calling to one another, only the thrumming of their wings and the shushing of the waterfall. After a while, I began to think the whole thing was spooky and so I returned to the village.

A few days later I was invited to ride along on a truck going deeper into the preserve. I jumped at the chance. We started well before sunrise and drove through forest and savannah for several hours until the solid green wall of the jungle rose up before us. Nestled at the edge of that seemingly impenetrable mass of vegetation was a small village.

The people of the village did not appear to me to be African at all. Traditional Peoples south of the Sahara tended to be pastoralists and farmers, not hunter-gatherers. Nor did they look a lot like natives of the Sahel and further south. They looked, in fact, more like the indigenous people in the South American rainforest or Borneo pictured in National Geographic which is where my dream probably got them from. They were mostly bronze skinned and festooned with bones and beads piercing their septum or ear lobes or hung in their hair or on strings around their necks, arms or ankles. Their hair ranged from tightly curled to early Beetles bangs. They wore various colored dyes on their faces and bodies. I did not notice any scarifications or tattoos.

They were, of course in keeping with their National Geographic genesis, mostly naked. The children, starkers, running every which way, screaming and laughing. The men, the older the more pot-bellied, bare but for a ragged cloth over their privates or nothing at all. One or two sporting a penis sheath. The women, naked breasts becoming more slab-like and drooping towards their waste as they aged, here and there sported a grass kirtle or a piece of cloth or leather like the men. The younger women, their brown nubbins with puffy dark nipples protruded proudly from their chests.

For males of my age, I suspect many of us recall that time before Playboy began publication when most of us got our pre-adolescent titillation from surreptitiously staring at the brown nubbins with puffy dark nipples in the photographs of the ubiquitous National Geographic magazines of which it seemed every home had at least a modest supply. I wondered at the time, being too young and inexperienced to understand the subtleties and complexities of racial prejudice, why brown nubbins with puffy dark nipples were freely exposed while white breasts with pink nipples were covered with cloth. I concluded that to most adults white breasts with pink nipples must have appeared too horribly ugly and therefore needed to be hidden from view.

I met the representatives of the preserve, a middle-aged man and a youngish woman. They were both dressed like the other residents of the village. The man sporting a grey beard and thick white hair might have been European or Middle Eastern, but his skin was burned so dark and leathery it was difficult to tell. The woman seemed clearly of African descent. They shared the duties of providing medical services to the people of the village as well as those deeper in the jungle and conducting anthropological and sociological studies. They also accompanied and assisted scientists and others allowed into the preserve.

I was told that the residents of the village were quite antagonistic to strangers. I learned this first hand as I toured the settlement. The residents seemed happy and often laughing except when I came close. Then they became silent, sullen and almost threatening. As my guides explained, they see themselves as protectors of the preserve and everyone else as a threat. It all appeared to me to resemble the theory behind the establishment of those seed banks deep in the arctic so that in case of a disaster we would have stock to begin again. Admirable but naïve I thought.

I was taken briefly into the jungle to observe hunting by the villagers. After a lot of walking about, missed shots and mutterings they managed to bring down a small monkey with a blow gun.

All in all, I was happy to leave and return to the village where I was staying.

After a few more days, I left the village to return home. I did not go back through the armed town containing my Armenian relatives but drove on a very curvy road through some mountains. Now and then subdivision development appeared along the side of the road that seemed suspiciously like those in the foothills where I now reside. Eventually, we topped a ridge where I could see the coastal plain before me and the airport. Beyond the airport was the ocean. At that point, I woke up.

Over about the next year and a half, I returned to the village six or eight times. Sometimes I would fly into the airport near the ocean, at others, I would find myself in the armed town and now and then I would just appear in the village itself.

The first time I returned, Mama and I became lovers.

There’s not much to tell about how our affair began. It was night and I was walking by her hut. She stood in the doorway leaning against the frame, gazing at the sky. I walked toward her and directly on into the hut. She followed and we laid down together on the bed.

Most of the beds in the village consisted of a straw mat like they have in Japan at the bottom. On top of that were layered one or two soft blankets or rugs or something like that. Then a cool fitted sheet was placed over it all. In this case, the sheet was white. The bed was comfortable if a bit hard, but certainly nowhere near as hard as some of the beds I slept on in Thailand.

After that first evening, when I was in the village, I spent almost every night in her hut. Generally, we would sit on the bed our backs pressed against the cool mud wall staring at the night sky through the window on the opposite wall of the dark hut. That window provided a view of the night sky framed by a few black branches of trees. A wide streak of light bisected the night sky. It was as if a huge ribbon hung down from somewhere above the roof of the hut. On that ribbon, there seemed festooned what looked like an infinite number of blinking Christmas lights, white, yellow, red and blue. So many that it seemed like a single pulsating band of light. Now and then a meteor would flash by. I never saw a moon.

The light from outside that window provided the only illumination in the room. I could just make out the outline of her face and the arc of her jawline as it curved to meet her earlobe.

I could smell the harsh fragrance of the basic soap we all used in the village and the acrid smell of sweat mixed with the sandalwood aroma of the dust that was always with us. Floating through this melange of aromas was the hint of perfume from the shampoo she used. One of the few indulgences she allowed herself.

Eventually, we would shimmy down on to the bed.

In the morning, before dawn, I would leave her hut and return to my own to prepare for the day.

We rarely spent time together during the day, even at meals. I would however occasionally see her walking through the village almost always surrounded by children. Now and then I would notice her meeting with people or escorting them around the village. Some of the visitors had suits, others were dressed in various forms of military uniform. There were also some in a more casual dress that I assumed were academics of some sort or engineers. They often seemed to be vigorously arguing with her about something or other.

I began to sense tension and stress in the village and especially in Mama. When I asked her about it one night, she dismissed it as a minor irritant.

At first, I thought it was merely the ongoing pressure of budget, funding, personnel and administrative matters that are ever-present in any organization and exacerbated by the lack of staff to handle the endless paperwork that is a way of life for most eleëmosynary organizations.

I had some experience with these things and I could sympathize with what she and the other members of the village were going through. Then, one night I found the young son of Tre and Yu unconscious by the side of the road. He had been severely beaten.

I called someone over to run and find one of the paramedics that worked in the village. We bundled the injured child into an old Land Rover and drove him to the hospital.

The hospital located about 10 miles away on the other side of the valley was quite new and surrounded by a small town. I assumed the town was peopled by medical personnel who worked at the hospital and those who worked in the preserve but were unwilling to live the spartan lifestyle enforced by Mama in the village.

Tre, Yu and I sat outside the emergency room waiting. Mama arrived a few minutes later and waited silently with us.

The child, all bandaged up and still unconscious was placed in a hospital room after emerging from the emergency ward. There we spent the night. Tre, Yu and I alternately napping and talking quietly among ourselves. Mama sat in a chair rigid and silent, never moving her eyes from the child as though she was willing him to recover. Recover he did and we all returned to our various duties.

Following this, I learned that the preserve had been under political, economic and physical assault for many months. Terrorists, resource extraction organizations and the like all hungered for access to the reserve and its resources.

It was as though having fouled every place else (their own nests so to speak) they now ravenously looked at this unspoiled place like the rapist observing his next victim.

Many preserve workers had been injured and some killed. On one of my visits, another child had been attacked and Mama and I spent another sleepless night at the hospital.

I noticed on each of my visits the stress on her exacted a greater and greater physical toll. Then one day when I returned to the village, I learned that she had been taken to the hospital. I rushed there and into her room. She was lying in bed. He body was horribly shriveled. Her skin had lost its luster and appeared dry and brittle like a piece of cardboard.

I stayed there with her day and night. She still ran the preserve from her bed. She continued to decline. Finally, I told her that I had some experience it managing organizations like the Preserve and I would be happy to do so until she got better. She said, “No, this is my life, my world. Your life is somewhere else.” I woke up back in my bed. I knew she had died.

I returned to the village two more times after that to visit with my friends. But, the colors of the place seemed washed out and I had trouble holding on to the dream for more than a few moments. Eventually, I stopped going there.

Since then every once in a while in that period between sleep and wakefulness the image of us in the hut, or on the rock outcropping or even in the hospital hovers for a while before disappearing. It comforts me knowing that this is not a dream but a memory. END.

 

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I think here I should interrupt my usual narrative and share with you (well to be honest, impose upon you) my recent musings about traveling.

My approach to traveling is somewhat like my approach to life; it is not arriving at your destination that is important but what happened along the way. I call it Pookieism.

For example, assume that I depart from San Francisco intending to travel to, say Rome to visit the Vatican and see the Sistine Chapel. If that is what I efficiently did and returned home equally efficiently, I for one would be unsatisfied indeed.

If on the other hand I were to depart on that same voyage and along the way be diverted by circumstances outside of my control or through my stupidity and thereby facing perhaps danger, or passion, beauty or tedium and return home without ever getting to see Michelangelo’s frescos (the chapel would probably be closed anyway, for repairs or for some obscure holiday), I would consider my trip a success.

I guess, one could consider Pookieism something like Buddhism, but from somewhat the opposite viewpoint. Where Buddhism urges one to withdraw from the unreality of perception, Pookieism suggests you revel in it.

When I look back into my life, anytime I single-mindedly pursued a goal and overcame many obstacles to achieve it, I almost always came away dissatisfied, became depressed and soon decided to spend my time doing something else. On the other hand, whenever I was diverted from my path or failed in achieving my goal or found myself hopelessly lost, I often was overjoyed. Why, because there was so much experience, so much pathos, and so much joy. And, oh the stories…

Yes, of course, there were things that to this day I wish never happened and if I could I would want not to have occurred, but they did and the exquisite if odious memories of the experience accompany’s me like tattoos on the skins of generation Xers.

For those males of a certain age, some of you may recall that time when you were a kid and in your imagination played the announcer of your life. “The great slugger stands at the plate. Here comes the pitch. He swings. He misses….” Or, “Here is the world-famous runner running through the woods. Will he break the record? Oh no! He trips. He falls. Will he be able to get up, finish the race and break the record? Stay tuned.”

Well, I still do that.

“Here is the aging hero walking along the side of the road recalling past loves, triumphs, and failures. Out of the corner of his eye, he spies a small yellow flower, stops and contemplates its beauty for a moment and then walks on, crosses the street, the freshly painted striping glowing so whitely in the sun it hurts his eyes. Suddenly he remembers he forgot to buy that bottle of milk. Should he return to the store or proceed on toward home? He stands there at the edge of the road, like the brave Ulysses on the beach contemplating whether to return home to the aging but loyal Penelope or spend another night in the arms of the beautiful Calypso?”

Speaking of Ulysses, Homer’s account is not quite how it happened.

One night the short, bandy-legged, scraggly bearded young man named Ulysses, who lived in a subdivision on a small island in the Adriatic, left the home on a cul-de-sac he shared with his wife, young son, various hangers-on, and a pack of dogs, telling everyone he was going to the store to buy a carton of milk, or an amphora of wine or new sandals or whatever. Now twenty years later he stood on the corner of the block down from his old home, broke, hungry and older. He contemplated the excuses he would tell his wife for his long absence. He concocted stories about ships and strange wars, jealous gods, wooden horses, one-eyed monsters and to cover up the long periods of time he spent living with a succession of comely young women, he fell back on the tried and true excuse of philandering husbands of the time, bewitchment.

On the other hand, the also aging but still zaftig and supposedly loyal Penelope wanted no part of the smelly midget bastard’s return. She had happily spent the past 20 years screwing the Theban pool boy and every young stud in town. The assholes return would only mean she would have to give up the good life and return to working on that goddamn loom. Besides, she needed an excuse of her own to explain why for the last 20 years the same old piece of cloth hung on that machine with no further work done on it since he left. She told all her boyfriends that she would choose one of them to settle down with when she finished weaving the cloth. They were so stupefied with the thought of getting into her toga whenever she lifted its hem for them they forgot all about the status of that rotting rag.

She believed however that she would need something better to convince the crafty asshole of her unbelievable 20 years of fidelity. She decided to elaborate on the story and planned to tell her returning husband if unfortunately, he should ever return, that she weaved at the loom all day and every night she tore out what she had done during the day. If the simple and unbelievable story had worked on her lovers why wouldn’t this expanded version work on that scheming lying bastard Ulysses?

Nevertheless, she still was surprised when the testosterone-poisoned dwarf suddenly and unexpectedly showed up at her door and started killing all of her boyfriends and the Theban pool boy as well.

Sadly, Penelope was forced back to working all day at the goddamn loom and at night diddling herself while the drunken scumbag lay snoring among his dogs after buggering some prepubescent boy-chick.

As Holden Caulfield would say, “Crummy.”

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English: Transamerica building, downtown San F...

Transamerica building, downtown San Francisco, CA, USA. Photo taken from Coit Tower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the Edge: Stories about the Creation and Early Years of California’s Monumental Coastal Protection Program.

In the Beginning: an oft-told story.

In the autumn of 1972, I was a card-carrying, pot smoking, alternative lifestyle living, unemployed, hirsute Hippy San Franciscanus. It was about noon on a glorious fall day. I was wandering about in downtown San Francisco wondering what I was going to do about lunch. I was just passing the newly built Transamerica Building on my way to North Beach, hippy central during those times. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a very tall, very skinny, bearded man emerging from the forest of columns supporting the somewhat pyramid-shaped building. He was rapidly approaching me.

He dressed more or less in the style of my cultural sub-group. That is, he was not wearing a business suit or clothing purchased from any retail store not dealing in second-hand garments. His outfit was accessorized with a red bandanna around his neck and an aluminum Sierra Club drinking cup dangling from a rope belt tied around his waist. He grabbed my arm with his long skinny fingers and Moses-like, but in a surprisingly squeaky voice, said:

“You must help save the Pygmy Forest.”

Now, the societal fringe movement to which I belonged at that time was very sensitive to anything that could be considered a portent of an emerging transcendental experience. Here, the sun was at its zenith and I was standing at the base of an almost pyramid and detained like the wedding guest by the ancient mariner. Clearly, a portent portended. So in the polite idiom of the denizens of New York where I was born, raised and had so recently left, I answered:

“What the fuck is a Pygmy Forest?”

“Come with me,” he beckoned with a long bony finger.

The tall skinny apparition led me through the columns that made up the base of the pyramid and into the sparsely furnished lobby of the newly completed building where several large easels were set up in some sort of ad hoc exhibition. My guide introduced himself as John Olmsted. I was later to learn that he  descended from “The” Olmsted, the high school dropout from Connecticut who became a journalist and in the latter stages of the Nineteenth Century parlayed his journalistic abilities and his political connections to win the competition to design NY’s Central Park becoming thereby one of the most successful landscape designers of his generation.

John stood me before the easels and proceeded to explain all about something he called an “Ecological Staircase,” and about the “Pygmy Forest.” Now, at that time, I was vaguely familiar with the word “Ecological,” at least enough to know it had something to do with nature, but what it had to do with staircases had me mystified and curious. To explain it, he had a large chart set up on one of the easels. The best I could make out was that logically it had something to do with “The Pygmy Forest,” and that John was going to connect it all up for me.

John then pointed to a photograph of what appeared to be one of the ugliest plants I had ever seen. Had it grown in my garden, I would have pulled it out by its roots hoping I acted quickly enough to prevent it from infecting the rest of the place. To John, however, the sight of it seemed to have instilled in him an almost religious ecstasy.

He enthusiastically explained that the stunted monstrosity was a full-grown tree. My excitement at that revelation was muted.

Unperturbed by my lack of response, John continued with his presentation.

According to John, it seems the ground around a place called “Jughandle Creek,” located somewhere along the coast in Mendocino, a county lying about 100 miles north of San Francisco,  had, over the eons, risen and fallen beneath the ocean. Each time it rose the incessant waves carved out a ledge. About five or so times this happened sculpting the land to appear to the imaginative obsessive as a giant staircase — hence the Staircase to which Ecological was appended. It was all beginning to make sense.

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John explained that the ground on the top of each step (for some reason that I have forgotten), became packed as hard as cement. Over the years, the soil settling on top of that cement became more and more hostile to just about any living thing except for flesh-eating plants, these benighted trees, and illegal marijuana farms.

Apparently, the roots of the trees could not push through the cement-like hard-pan causing the stunted growth of these three-foot high monstrosities. “Natural Bonsai,” John crooned. They did not look like any bonsai I ever saw, but hell, who was I to argue with the crazed hippie descendant of “The” Olmsted.

The looming tragedy that prompted John’s hysteria that resulted in the exhibit and my selection as a potential acolyte, was a developer’s plans to build a motel right in the center of the first step of John’s beloved Ecological Staircase, thereby ruining it for future generations of, I assumed, people like John, as well putting  the nearby forest of stunted trees at risk.

Although I suspected that any tree that could thrive in that soil was a match for any developer, I nevertheless heard myself say those eternally fateful (and often regretted) words, “That’s awful, I used to be a practicing attorney, what can I do to help.”

About two weeks after my almost mystical encounter with John Olmsted in the shadow of the TransAmerica pyramid, I found myself traveling to Mendocino and Jughandle Creek with my friend Jeanne McMahon. I  smelled the beginnings of an adventure and it intrigued me — if strolling among flesh-eating plants and stunted trees with a tall, skinny, obsessed hippy could be considered as having the makings of an adventure.

I do not remember how we got there. I did not have a car at that time and neither did Jeanne. I guess we hitch-hiked which was the preferred mode of travel for those of us eager to join the counter-culture (you know “On the Road” and all that).

Jeanne was a freckled-faced, relentlessly positive young woman from Dubuque Iowa who, in the late sixties, like many others had left the mid-West farm belt to join the nationwide migration of those eager to experience “what’s happening” in California. She walked with a spring in her step, her face resolutely pressed forward toward whatever new experiences life she was sure would lay at her feet.

A few years later, she decided to go to medical school to become a doctor. She went back to school to acquire the proper science credits. She was successful and was admitted to medical school. To celebrate, she and a companion decided to go camping and hiking for a few days in the Trinity Alps a few miles north of Mendocino, an activity she loved.

While hiking, she slipped and fell off a cliff, her friend ran to find help but was not able to bring it back in time. Jeanne died alone and in pain as most of us ultimately must. Her friend and I accompanied her body back to Dubuque for burial. Two weeks later he drowned while swimming.

But that was then in the future and as now it is in the past. That day we were off on our adventure blissfully and thankfully ignorant of our futures (John himself died a few years ago after a long illness).

John lived in a little cabin (Actually a two-story Victorian type of thing, but I always thought of it as the cabin) in the redwoods along Jughandle Creek. A sign affixed to the cabin announced “The Jughandle Creek Conservancy.” Inside, John and a friend had just returned from mushroom hunting and had laid on the table before them an incredible collection of dirt-encrusted bizarrely shaped fungi that they both were obviously enthralled with. They invited Jeanne and me to join them in sampling their earthy delights. We declined.

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After a while, we unrolled our sleeping bags on the porch outside and slept soundly lulled to sleep by the rustle of the wind through the redwoods and the periodic hoot of an owl on the hunt nearby.

The next morning, John took us on a tour of the “Ecological Staircase.” In some ways, that hike changed my life as much as anything ever has. Never before had I experienced anyone that seemed to have such a passionate love of nature, or of anything really; musicians or those sexually bewitched maybe excepted. Perhaps those who met John Muir or explored the marshes with Mrs. Terwilliger (“Spend the day at home and you’ll never remember it. Spend the day outdoors with me, and you’ll never forget it.”) may have been equally affected as I was during this walk. For me, it seemed both revealing and somewhat disquieting.

I grew up on the East Coast in and around New York City. I could be included among those who that passionate cynic Don Neuwirth said get nose bleeds when the soles of their feet are not in contact with cement. To us the “Woods,” as we called it, was somewhat forbidding and dangerous, a place approached with care and where possible avoided (I to this day believe all “woods” to be inhabited by ravenous bears and rogue biker gang members).

As we walked along, John pointed things out like a tour guide in the Sistine Chapel. He would stop, dip his hands into the mulch of the forest floor breathing in its earthy smell then urging us to do so also. At times, he tenderly touched this or that shy plant explaining its particular remarkable attributes. I soon realized I was experiencing someone who appeared to be speaking about his beloved.

To John nature was nothing less than a symphony of renewal. I, on the other hand, could not go quite that far, the smell of the earth although pleasant still possessed the faint odor of decay. Where he saw in a green shoot pushing up through the browned fallen leaves the miracle of regeneration, I saw only the catabolism of the dead.

And yet, and yet, I could not resist his infective enthusiasm and hoped, no wanted it all to be true.

Or, I suddenly thought, was this in fact just another example of something I once read, of, “…our peculiar American phenomenon of seeking guidance or redemption within nature.” From what could John be seeking redemption? Not being “The Olmsted?” Something that happened during recess in grammar school? A secret life perhaps?

Among the stunted trees, John explained how the nitrogen-depleted soil encouraged the plants in the area to evolve to trap insects from which to obtain that chemical so necessary for life.

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As we trudged along we passed through the towering redwood forests that grew where the hard-pan had been broken at what could be called the staircase’s risers, crushed by the incessant geological forces as they thrust one step above the other.

As we walked in the silent spaces between the giant trees, John referred to it, as many do, as nature’s cathedral. Like a cathedral’s columns, the massive trunks climbed up to where, far above, sunlight filtered through the branches as it does through a cathedral’s stained glass clerestory windows. Far below, in shadow, the ground revels in silence.

But, in reality, even I knew the trees grew that high in order to expropriate the sun’s energy at the expense of everything below.  Just like, I assume, the builders of the great cathedrals sought to expropriate the grace of God, leaving the few worshippers scurrying about in the gloom and quiet below. Whenever I visited one of those grand churches, although I enjoyed the brief respite from the vicissitudes of existence offered by the silence, I, nevertheless, soon found myself longing for the excitement and distraction of life’s bazaar outside.

As we turned to go back to the cabin for lunch, I was a bit relieved, fatigued from scrambling across the wild terrain and somewhat overwhelmed by my sudden immersion into the intricate mysteries of nature. I guess, we usually simply absorb our momentary experiences with Mother Nature in unthinking contemplation but, wandering about with John, however, was more like a post-graduate course in ecological transcendentalism. It was made even more exhausting by exposure to a lovers passion that you, the observer, could not really share.

Still, unless one is simply hateful or irredeemably cynical one usually hopes the lover succeeds and perhaps thereby you gain some vicarious empathic connection to what you could never experience directly.

Watching them plod on ahead of me, Jeanne determined to wring all that could be wrung from her experience and John, in the lead, shining like Gandalf the White, I felt a chill and I thought about redemption.

We all seek redemption for something. For me, perhaps, it was absolution for that morning long ago, hearing my wife screaming over and over, “My baby, my baby is dead,” while I tried to breathe life back into that tiny purple and red-splotched body and failed. Or later, feeling nothing but anger at the stares of the mourners and the somber burial on some forgotten hilltop?

Could an innocent excitement about the future and a lovers enchantment redeem anything?

I followed them back to the cabin.

Back at the cabin, we ate a lunch of elaborate home-made trail mix and some locally grown fruit while John explained how to, “use the techniques of the private real the estate market to protect resources.” It seems he had managed to cajole many of his neighbors into selling him relatively low-cost options to buy their land. He raised the money for the purchase of the options from various endeavors including peddling “Jughandle Creek” Christmas cards. His goal was eventually to sell the options to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Unfortunately, the Department did not see Jughandle Creek with the same urgency and significance as John.

Nevertheless, John’s approach of using the private market to preserve nature impressed me a lot since, among other things, it indicated some creative thought regarding getting something done beyond simply pressuring the government to figure it out and do it. This approach affected some of the implementation policies that several years later I wrote into California’s Coastal Plan.

Since I had already been hooked, I spent the remainder of the afternoon discussing, planning and plotting our strategy for preserving and protecting John’s beloved Staircase.

It was clear to me that John was a lover and while he, like any lover, believed he would fight to preserve from harm every strand of his beloved’s hair, he was not, a defender. The difference to me was that the defender operates more or less by the following rules:

1. If the conflict is severe, damage is inevitable. (The lover often can neither conceive nor tolerate of the slightest harm to his beloved.)
2. You cannot protect anything if you are dead. (The lover, on the other hand, swears he would give his life for his beloved, but in fact rarely does, and because of that is prone to rash and foolish decisions.)
3. The opponent has to know right down to his shorts that he is in the battle of his life.
4. The defender will be disposed of the moment those defended believe the threat is past. Any songs that will be sung will be sung only about the lovers or those who merely survived the enemy’s rout.

(If this all sounds a little Seven Samurai and the Magnificent Seven, it is.)

Anyway, eventually, over the following month or so, we began the defense using all the traditional methods; protests, demonstrations and the like (John had many allies and supporters he could call on) and I joined in. Then came the litigation.

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John Olmstead years later but still partial to funny hats.

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Beatles And Maharishi

The Beatles and their wives at the Rishikesh in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, March 1968. The group includes Ringo Starr, Maureen Starkey, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, George Harrison (1943 – 2001), Patti Boyd, Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon (1940 – 1980), Beatles roadie Mal Evans and Beach Boy Mike Love. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One day in the late 70’s or early 80’s while sitting around with a friend drinking wine, smoking some dope and discussing the doings of mystics, rinpoches, gurus and yogis we had known — which is what we aging hippies often did in the late seventies or eighties — my friend, who I shall call Peter, told me the following tale:

During the Sixties, Peter worked for an American NGO in India. At that time, many of the young American groupies who frequented the sub-continent searching earnestly for the guru of the month traveled throughout the country like locusts. They were usually stoned, broke, homeless, diseased and smelly. Now and then, some of them would end up camping out for a while in one of the rooms in Peter’s home, where they would bathe, eat some food get a little healthier and move on.

After his stay in India, Peter settled down in San Francisco, which, at that time, was also often the disembarkation point for those returning from their Indian adventures. One day one of Peter’s previous boarders showed up at his house in not much better shape than when Peter had last seen him.  After a few days, he moved on. During his stay the often reminisced about the other sojourners that had camped out in Peter’s home and wondered what became of many of them.

Now it came to pass, as they say, that about a decade later Peter had the occasion to visit Boston for a few days. His friends, with whom he was staying while in Boston, invited him to a party in the prestigious Beacon Hill neighborhood. It was being thrown, they explained, in honor of a spiritual teacher and mystic that was all the rage in the city at the time.

When he arrived at the party Peter discovered the guest of honor, dressed now all in white linen, with long clean hair in a ponytail and a well-trimmed beard was at one time his guest at the squat in Orissa and later at his home in San Francisco. The Guru, recognizing Peter, grasped him in a warm embrace. Peter could only utter the obvious “What happened?”

The Maharishi as he was now referred to took Peter aside and told him the following:

After leaving SF and crossing the country by begging on the street corners of many of the nation’s best cities, he found himself broke, hungry, homeless, desperate and in Boston with winter coming on. So, he came up with a plan to better his circumstances.

First, he went to the supermarket and with the little money, he cadged that day, bought some rice. Next, he scoured some of the empty lots in Boston for a rock of just the right size and shape. When he located one, he took it and the rice to a local park and found a suitably imposing tree. Between the roots of the tree, he dug a hole. In the hole, he first placed the rice and then on top of the rice he stood up the columnar-shaped rock, narrower pointed end up, and covered it all with dirt that he carefully patted down so the ground looked natural and undisturbed.

Later that day he went around to as many people that he could, both those that he knew and those that he did not and announced that as a result of his stay in India and years of meditation, he had gained the ability to make the sacred lingam rise from the earth and that at a certain time the next day at the park he would demonstrate his power.

That next day he went into the park. At the appointed time, he fell to his knees by his chosen tree and began chanting and repeatedly bowing until his head touched the ground. He chanted and chanted, and bowed and bowed. Each time he bowed he sprinkled a little water. After a while, some of the onlookers became impatient and began to leave. Other passers-by, noticing the small crowd stopped to see what was going on.

Suddenly cracks appeared in the ground between the roots of the tree. He continued to chant, bow and sprinkle. Soon the pointed tip of the lingam appeared pushing through the earth. It continued to rise majestically until it stood fully tumescent in the sunlight.

“And that,” concluded the swami, “was how it all began.”

Peter could not help himself but to ask, “And what do you make of all that?”

The master thought for a moment and replied, “If you do not use the proper rice your lingam won’t rise.”

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