Wednesday, April 30, 2014


The beach in front of the house I am living in has wide, powdery sand, and piles of driftwood – whole trees with their long, sodden trunks and intact root balls. The side branches are gone, broken off along the river bottom and in the churning waves. On rainy days, the dog and I get wet. On sunny days we walk to where the river empties into the sea, just north of the astonishing McKerricher State Park, an anomalous, sudden, undulating stretch of sand dunes along the beach. There is a spot just below the bridge where the river empties into the sea. At low tide, you can walk up the river, picking your way along exposed water-rippled sand and slippery moss-covered stones. Sometimes there are sea lions that look like stumps when they bask in the sun. Sometimes you see their noses break the surface, sending tiny wavelets toward the river’s edge that merge with the pull of a rising or falling tide.

Ospreys are teaching their young to hunt. Before they dive, they hover, usually at the mouth of the river, motionless in the brisk wind, flicking the edges of their wings, tilting their fan-shaped tail, then plunging into the shallowest water, into the thin white foam, lifting out a tiny, squirming silver fish. Salmon fry? Not yet, though conservationists are working to restore the spawning habitat of this estuary. There are tufts of native grasses and sedges along the briny tidal zone, and gravel beaches farther up where fallen alders and willows create protected pools for eggs. There is a taciturn, old male osprey that often sits on the railing of the 10 Mile Bridge, surveying up river and down. Sometimes a kingfisher joins him.

Even at high tide, the beach is walkable. I have fallen in love, and the conversation is deepening into intimacy. Love takes many forms, I think, including the love of rivers, beaches and Ospreys. When I see the birds, I say, “I love you!” in response to their high, shrill, staccato cries. I watch their slow, leisurely circling overhead, their outstretched wings backlit and finely etched in white and dark brown. Love is seeing a beach littered with sand dollars. It is seeing my feet in the clear, icy water, the water so clean that I know how seldom I’ve been in water this clear, or known its smell. I think of the radiation from Fukushima that is surely in it. I greet the ocean, saying, “I love you! Hello! I love you!”

Sometimes I must step away and into the relief of being indoors, or I must close my eyes and be grateful for silence – again silence - because sometimes these trees and this ocean are too massive. The trees especially seem too green, too complex with too much life in and beneath and among them, and there are too many trees and at the same time never enough, because so many, many have already been cut and it’s unbearable, like losing all the lovers of all the lifetimes. The past two days there have been thunderstorms with howling wind and lashing rain, and only the dog and the leaking skylights keep my pounding heart from getting up and running away to join everything that is rampaging.

One day, after one of those spring storms, with everything washed clean, I drive from town to the beach with the dog. As I come down the grade after the bridge, the Sentry Osprey suddenly swoops across the road and comes to land on a nearby post, his outstretched wings suddenly looming huge in front of my windshield and in my peripheral view, the enormous, fleeting shadow momentarily eclipsing the road and the sun. At that moment, a beat up car pulls over across the road and a disheveled man hurriedly gets out. Waving his arms, he shouts to me, “Did you see that osprey, the way he swooped down and landed on that post?” The man flaps his arms again and makes the sound of a man imitating the sound of a bird’s wings flapping. “Yes,” I say. “Yes, I saw it!” My own heart is still pounding with the thrill and shock of it, so close. The man shakes his head in wonderment, and says, in a loud, ringing voice, “I’ve driven this road for 20 years!” He gets back in his car and drives away. He just had to pull over and stop his car to say to a stranger, “Did you see that bird?”

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


“In one ancient language, the word memory derives from a word meaning mindful, in another from a word to describe a witness, in yet another it means, at root, to grieve. To witness mindfully is to grieve for what has been lost.”

- Totem Salmon: Life Lessons From Another Species, by Freeman House

Sunday, April 27, 2014


[Note: In late 2012 I bought a beautiful piece of land along the 10 Mile River, walking distance to the ocean. My friends who are permaculture trainers created a blueprint for restoring degraded areas, for growing food and protecting the streams, meadow, forests and river. I am restless, on edge, in over my head.]

Not sleeping. What is it that is keeping my mind so busy? The land, the fencing, the lizard killed by the brush clearing, the orchard, the garden, my work, my mother, my body, my dog, the rats, the next earthquake (The Big One?), and haven’t seen any whales since New Year’s Day.

Caught a rat in the live trap at the new house. Fed him marshmallows and poured water onto a split reed pushed through the wires of his cage. His translucent pink ears, round and alert like Mickey Mouse in miniature. His dark, brindled, minky soft fur rippling with wild health. We make eye contact. His gaze valiantly holds mine the whole time I speak, which grows longer as I do so. Funny to find I have so much to say to a rat. He stops what he was doing (looking for food, water, a way out of the cage) and listens, motionless. I tell him, Thank You for allowing yourself to be caught. You are beautiful. We will not kill you or hurt you. We do not wish to frighten you. You are welcome to live at a respectful distance, to eat well and be warm, but you cannot be here. Please let the others know. We will take you somewhere far that we hope is safe. You cannot stay here. No rats can be here, in this house.
I am wondering: How can we build a fence like a skin? The boundary between me and not me, the world and each of us. In this case, between human-centered activity and deer activity, which is also tick activity, mountain lion, fox, bobcat and bear activity, and eating-vegetable-gardens activity. What rightfully belongs to one or the other? Are there places on the land we are willing not to go? What is the correct and proper dance of reciprocity based on intimacy and respect? Or is it a dance of intimacy and respect based on reciprocity? How to fence so that it’s the skin of my body? How to fence so that it’s safe and sustaining on both sides of it?

Saturday, April 26, 2014


“All knowledge is local, all truth is partial. No truth can make another truth untrue. All knowledge is a part of the whole knowledge... Once you have seen the larger pattern, you cannot go back to seeing the part as the whole.”

Four Ways to Forgiveness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Monday, April 21, 2014


I used to want to visit the altars of modern killing to witness them and thus know they were real: Auschwitz, Rwanda, Cambodia, Argentina and the rest, but no more. Looking back, I suppose I thought it my duty to bear witness to the extremes of our time, and also that by exploring the descent of others I could immunize myself against my own capacity to destroy life, as if witnessing massive acts of brutality at arm’s length created a vaccinating dose of it. I can admit these things now because, at 62, I know that no such exemption exists, and that what one chooses to focus on has more bearing on one’s fate, and therefore, one’s legacy, than what one is able to avoid.

Some years ago during a time when I was overwhelmed with worries and to-do lists, I found myself spending yet another night ‘hamstering’ instead of sleeping. (If you’ve ever had a pet hamster, mouse or rat, you will know that – shamefully, we often put these nocturnal creatures in tiny cages with little wheels for them to ‘play’ in. All night, they spin - as I was spinning within my mind’s whirring little wheel…) In desperation, I got out of bed and lay down on the floor on my belly. The question that came was this: What relationships do you tend?

At the time, the primary relationship I was tending was with my computer and all the necessary administrative tasks that kept me from finding a sense of completion to rest in. I felt far from my deeper writing projects, far from finding joy in life. Most of all, I felt far from Nature.

What prevents us from hearing Nature’s howls of possibility? Where in our bodies do we sense our longing for restoration? For silence? For wildness? How can we grieve together and make amends for what we and our forebears have done to the earth, and, therefore, ourselves? When, if not now, is the moment before it’s too late? There is a course correction that comes naturally with knowing what relationships we tend, and deep satisfaction from tending our relationship with the natural world. Each relationship becomes a living altar.

I like being awoken in the middle of the night by the brightness of the stars. I want to hear wind with birdcalls in it, and maybe the night sounds of animals, preferably lions, hyenas and hippos, the occasional night heron or cricket, and those odd, unidentifiable grunts and coughs that make one feel small and in a bigger world one cannot know and therefore will never, thank goodness, control, or care to.

In the African bush, silence is measured by the movement of shadows, every tree and shrub a living sundial. Ring-necked doves whir in the heat, as long as the sun is out, and fall silent at twilight. Pit-prrh-it, pit-prrh-it, their cooing pulses in the dry air, a thousand living clocks that keep the hours marching in a great circle, ratcheting the light through woodlands and across the undulating plains and pans. It is these sounds that remind me to stop and lift my eyes to the farthest horizon, to sit in wonderment at how the day knows what to do, a vast harmony that is the everything and is what matters above all else and that will hold us indifferently so we are as free and as wary as anything else in the intervals between hunger and contentment, danger and rest.

This hunger for the sounds and silence of Africa began long ago, before I was born, a path shaped by human hands and laid out in a pattern that drew me toward it, though I had no conscious desire to explore it. In Africa they say that before you begin a journey, you own it, but once you take the first step, it owns you. The journey into Africa was not of my making, but it has illuminated my life. And Africa awoke in me the longing for silence after certain silences – and certain sounds - had entered my bones along the sand rivers of Tanzania in the summer of 2008, when I camped there for the first time. The silence of the bush is actually very noisy. In it are the interwoven sounds of fruit bats dipping and feeding like nocturnal hummingbirds in the trees above our tents; the lioness draped across the road – all the way across it – and roaring so loud and so close that our bodies felt like tuning forks reverberating with the notes of her voice. We sat in the back of our little open-sided cart, like bells still ringing, clutching each other’s hands.

When I got home from Africa that time, my house sitter had rearranged my furniture and ‘forgotten’ to put it back. The neighbors had begun adding a second story to their 1920’s cottage, and I arrived home to workmen jack-hammering the driveway beside my kitchen window as the McMansioning process began. (Several years later, the remodel remained incomplete and the couple was getting a divorce.) Why do we jackhammer things when what we crave is silence? Sometimes it takes a jackhammer to pulverize the life that can’t be repaired, the driveway that no longer takes you home. The closed door of silence opened my search for land on which to live where I could be in and with the wild. This mythic place that did not yet exist for me in any tangible way was also where I hoped to learn an intimacy with the wild that had eluded me, its absence creating a backdrop of sadness that infused everything.

It has been fear - only fear - that has kept me looking for shards of connection with the wild that could be pieced together into a vessel that would contain the longing for silence and for the aliveness that creates it. Perhaps it was my father’s death that finally set me free by placing me next in death’s receiving line, finally willing to seek a sense of comfort in the wild that I have not been able, or perhaps willing, to embrace until now. When the time comes, I wish to die outdoors, my body on the earth’s body, in a place I love and have come to know, releasing my last breath into her care.


It is significant, startling, that animals, plants, stones, water, birds and even micro-organisms remain friendly, neutral, even overtly benign and inviting of (re)relationship in spite of our unrelenting brutality. This inexplicable open-ness is less a charming quirk than a simple fact of character: it is in the nature of most beings (humans included) to seek relationship, to express love and receive it. Remarkably, this has not evolved out of the non-humans. One wonders whether Nature is curious to see whether humans will remember or even recognize this connectedness and choose it.