Friday, May 30, 2014


“Myth, in its most ecologically discreet form, among people who live by hunting and fishing and gathering, seems to be the song of the place to itself, which humans overhear.”

- The Way of the Human Being, Calvin Luther Martin (quoting Sean Kane)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Akoi’s village is about 250 km northwest of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital on the coast. It can take a full day – sometimes two or three - to drive from Monrovia to Voinjama, the Lofa County seat. During the dry season, October to April, the highway is a dusty, rutted thoroughfare pulsing with semis, jalopies, 4-wheel drives belonging to the UN or aid agencies. The vehicles stir up clouds of dust that hang silently in the tropical air for minutes afterward. They roar along impossibly fast, the theory being that skimming the top of the washboard makes it feel less bumpy. The challenge comes with the unexpected ridges and potholes that have hardened like bricks in the dense heat. Experienced drivers have learned to surge and swerve, their feet dancing between the brake and the gas pedal, regardless of the condition of the engine, seats or shock absorbers. You hurtle along, surging and swaying, and every so often something breaks, usually something serious. Sometimes you get lucky and it’s just a flat tire – probably bare and already patched – or the shock absorbers give way altogether to that the chassis grinds along on the wheelbase. Sometimes a differential breaks, or even an axle. This is accompanied by much cursing and head scratching, and, if it can’t be fixed there with some wire and a wrench, someone stays behind with the car and someone hitches a ride with whatever vehicle will take them to the nearest town with a mechanic, often a day or more drive away.

For a passenger like me, the only option is to become a rag doll and carry mints. Since most vehicles, including ours, carry more people and luggage than the car was ever built for, some small comfort and stability can come from being wedged in tightly next to someone or something, preferably by a window and not next to a live animal. Sometimes you score the front seat, being careful not to do so more often than the others, as this creates a different and sometimes worse form of torment - that of being relatively comfortable compared to everyone else who is suffering without complaint in the back seat. When someone gives us live chickens, we have to put them under one of the seats with their feet tied together. They flap and cluck for a time, then list to one side on the hot floorboards, their eyes half closed, and simply endure. When we stop, I offer them water in the top of one of our plastic water bottles. The Liberians laugh.

In rainy season, May to September, the road becomes an astonishing sequence of sinks and potholes strung together by corrugated stretches of dry road. Only the most skillful or audacious drivers make it through. Huge UN tractors continuously grade the road but never pave it, so that once the monsoons come, barren curves revert to mudslides and the lowlands revert to swamp. Sometimes the mud comes up to the door handles or even the windows. Even the UN earthmovers get stuck, their wheels spinning deep and irrevocably past the axles so that only the chassis is resting on a berm or a buried ridge of granite. Sometimes the big rigs slide diagonally until they come to rest wedged against mud banks or trees. The wise will wait until an even bigger truck is called in to tow the first one out. If you are smart, you have brought drinking water, flashlights, snacks, and a change of clothes. Fools and machos gun their engines and, horns blaring, floor it and try to swerve past the ruts and obstacles, inevitably getting stuck or worse - breaking an axle or flipping or tipping onto their side. Eventually there is a pile of mud and vehicles blocking the road in both directions so that only motorbikes and pedestrians can squeeze by. If, like me, you are impatient or claustrophobic or car sick, you decide to get out of the car, knowing that you, too, will fall into the mud’s embrace, that the hungry earth will suck at your feet and eat one shoe. Thus anointed, you look around and see that, for once, maybe just for now, you are the same café au lait color as everyone else.

Certain swampy curves that are cut into the perpetual shade of the forest never dry out, like the infamous trap at Ma Fatu’s Village. Once, in a downpour at twilight, Akoi’s former commander, Bethelson, who was traveling with us, got out of the car and issued an earsplitting whistle. Dozens of ex-combatants appeared from the shadows and, shouting and chanting, surrounded the car. All we could see was mud and the palms of hands sliding against the windows, windshield and doors, rocking us out of the mud and onto solid ground. Then they stood back grinning, beautiful white teeth and patches of blue-black skin glistening through the caramel colored mud.

People on foot or on bikes and motorcycles make their way to local market days carrying huge loads on their heads, threading their way between and around bigger vehicles, nimbly stepping aside just in time as larger vehicles careen past. A roadside stand appears, with a cluster of mud and thatch huts behind it. On the stand there are dried fish, or sometimes live ones, and often an armadillo, a pangolin, a duiker or other endangered animal trussed on a long stick, bleeding and rotting in the thick air.

From Voinjama it’s another 40 minutes to Zwordemai, Akoi’s village, on the road they call the Kolahun highway (named for the town where the rebels had their training base). Kolahun itself scatters as if it has been carelessly tossed from the small rise at a bend in the road, spreading like a bald spot on an itchy hide with all the fur worn off from traffic scratching the same treeless patch. Most of the buildings are constructed of cinderblock with corrugated tin roofing panels, or adobe and thatch, none of it insulated, with all the buildings defiantly squared to the sun and ignoring any breezes that might attempt to wander through. It’s drought or downpour, dust or mud, rebels or government troops, no compromises and no middle ground. The road shrugs and keeps going, no skin off its back, through emaciated towns stripped of trees, forests burned to make way for the Green Revolution with its promise of plenty that turned rainforest into dustbowl, dustbowl to begging bowl. The rains come late or not at all and hunger stretches like brittle skin, taught and leathery, clinging to the bones of the road until at last it can slake its thirst when it reaches forest again in Sierra Leone. This town, this stretch of road, have an attitude born of boredom, of stillness and heat, as if they’ve learned to amuse themselves by daring you to stop and ask for a cold drink. And if you do, the answer will depend on whom you’re with, where you stop, and if the generator’s working.

We drive and drive, as if this road has always been deserted, comes from nowhere, arrives nowhere, just a severed piece of highway cut from the forest for no reason and about to dead end. When we go for miles like this, with no one in sight, before my mind goes blank, it does a few somersaults: I wonder if we are anywhere at all, much less where we think we are, or where I think we are. I read the occasional road signs and roll the names around in my mouth, not sure how to pronounce them. How many vowels can the tongue ride over with no consonant in sight? Liberian English is all vowels, it seems, and Liberians speak at breakneck speed, like the vehicles jouncing along the road, riding the vowels and skimming the consonants, adding an ‘oh’ at the end of a sentence as if there aren’t enough vowels for the meaning to land on – “Your take it oh!” meaning, “Here, please take this.”

For Akoi and his ex-combatant brothers, driving these stretches of road is a very different experience than it is for me. Once, when we were riding to Akoi’s village, we came to a short, earthen bridge built over a small culvert. The kids were suddenly awake and chattering after riding for several miles in sleepy silence. Ezekiel said, “This place here was a very dangerous ambush place because it’s so low.” Indeed the road dipped down. “We used to hide under this bridge and others went in the bushes to wait for enemy cars. You wouldn’t want to drive here at night. Sometimes if we were in one of our cars, the driver had to go as fast as he could to get across alive. It was so scary to take this road, very dangerous!” To me it was just another stretch of bumpy dirt road. To them it was an ongoing flashback, as were so many stretches of forest, streams or road throughout northwest and central Liberia. Driving, for them, was a continuous movie of the war.

We turn off the main road and head into the forest towards Zwordemai. The grass and weeds are shoulder height along the narrow tracks, brushing against the car. They are the emergency repair crews - the first to arrive where the forest has been cleared - and they are busy reclaiming it, fast. We cross a small, swiftly flowing river on a span of 6 or 7 tree trunks placed parallel to each other to form a bridge. Carefully, we line up our tires to drive across the water. Akoi tells us that he used to swim here before the war, and catch fish in reed baskets he wove with his sisters. The family lived in a 3-room thatch and adobe house, with an outdoor kitchen where cast iron pots sit bubbling directly on hardwood coals made from the towering forest surrounding the village. The trees are felled by hand with cutlass and axe, crashing to the ground, where they are hacked into stumps and dumped into pits, set on fire and buried, burning slowly, to make the charcoal. During certain times of year you can see the charcoal pits in clearings and along the road, spirals of acrid smoke curling up from smoldering mounds like great earth-covered bellies digesting the trees that once held that same soil in place. The mother becomes a grave for her children, giving birth to their charred remains.

There are different kinds of smoke in Liberia. Charcoal-making smoke is distinct from the frantic red plumes of slash and burn before the rainy season, while the sky is still a luminous blue and billowing white cumulus clouds begin to mass along the horizon out at sea and where the earth curves in the distance; different again after the rains have begun and the clouds trap the smoke so that it lingers all day and into the night, and you awake with your hair and your clothes reeking of fire; distinct from the smoke of burning trash, batteries and all, plastic bags mixed with eggshells mixed with toilet paper mixed with bones.

A few meters away, the trees stand, thick and ready, as if waiting to close in, swallowing light and heat with insatiable thickets of cool shade, 20 degrees difference at least between the heat along the road and the padded silence of the cool, thick air pressed between the trees. The heat goes looking for shade, leans heavily against the edge of the forest, looking for an opening where it can get a foothold, but the cool air knows better than to take the dare.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Abra: to create
Kadabra: as I say
Abra Kadabra: I create with words.


Sunday, May 25, 2014


I have a son who is a veteran. His name is Akoi. He’s not my ‘born son’ as they say in Liberia, but I am supporting him and 5 of his brothers – well, they’re not his born brothers, either, but they call each other brothers, and they have lived like brothers since the civil war there. I am one of their many mothers. They call me Ma Cyndie and I like it.

It was March, 3, 2003. Akoi says that the morning of the attack, he was in the communication room. He says he didn’t feel like fighting that day, but they were under attack and he had to go try to radio for help, since he was in charge of communications. He had learned from his first commander, Sea Never Dry, to be a communicator. When they brought ammunition to the base headquarters, Akoi would unpack it, take inventory and make a record of everything. His commander decided to train him as a communicator. In one week, he learned all the code numbers and code words, and had his own radio. His fighting name was Boy Blue.

The day of the attack, government troops surrounded them and attacked at 5 in the morning. His commander that day was Chief Combat. After the communication room was hit, he ordered Akoi and a few others to run for the car to go rescue those that were trapped. When they got into the artillery car, a heavy weapons car, a rocket propelled grenade sliced through the top of Akoi’s head, splitting it open like a pumpkin. He dropped to the floor of the car and everyone thought he was dead. They brought him back to the base and laid him out on the floor. Someone took a photo: Boy Blue is lying on his back on a blue plastic tarp, with several teenage boys kneeling beside him. A short distance away, there is something that looks like a small dish with a pile of glistening raw meat. It is the top of his skull and half his brain. His commander puts the piece of skull with the brains back on Akoi’s head and ties it on with a piece of string. They put him in a car and drive to Guinea. If he dies on the highway, they will bury him by the side of the road. He spends two days in a border town in a coma. On the third day he awakens to find himself lying in the middle of a hospital room with fifteen other patients. When he opens his eyes, he asks why he is there. The boy lying next to him says, “You are wounded.” Boy Blue can’t move his body. He can only cry.

They drive him back into Liberia, to the town of Voinjama and take him to what’s left of the hospital. Someone goes looking for Akoi’s mother. They know where she is hiding in the bush. They tell her that her son is badly wounded and bring her to see him. She tells him, “I don’t think, Akoi, that I will ever see you again.” People tell her, “Don’t cry. Depend on God. God will help. When they brought him here he was not talking, not opening his eyes to see people, and now he can see and say, ‘Oh, my Mother.’” The soldiers send for another car to take him back to Guinea, to the capital, Conakry. His mother begs to go with him because she knows she is the only one who can care for him properly. She says, “If he dies, I will be able to see where he’s buried.” But they tell her, “No. This car is only for critically wounded soldiers”. He is 14 and he’s been fighting for 2 years, ever since he was kidnapped from his village by the people trying to save him now.

She wants to cook for him. She insists on cooking for him, knowing that it will be his last meal. They wait for her to cook the meal. She returns to the hospital with his favorite dish. She wakes him up and holds him in her arms to feed him, but he is unable to eat, so she sits by his bed and weeps. They weep together as he drifts in and out of consciousness.

They put him in the car and drive nonstop for 21 hours. When they arrive at the hospital in Conakry, a French doctor unwraps the bandages from Akoi’s head, and weeps. The wound is festering and has begun to smell. Akoi undergoes more than a dozen surgeries. After a time he can sit up, but he is paralyzed on one side and confined to a wheelchair. Someone took another photo. A small teenage boy in white diapers stares without expression at the camera. He cannot bathe, dress or feed himself. He watches television with the other patients, and wishes he were dead. He forces himself to learn to walk with a stick, saying, “God will make a way for me.” The war ends in June, 2003, two months after he is wounded. On July 27, he is discharged from the hospital. They give him a plastic bag with two shirts, two pairs of trousers, and the doctor’s name and address on a piece of paper that got lost on the way home.

When he returns to Voinjama, his mother is overjoyed. She has been taken by LURD rebels, his sisters have been taken by government troops and are in a refugee camp. His mother begins to search for food in the bush, a little to eat, a little to sell. The heat and the strain cause the top of her skull to separate, a serious and usually fatal illness. She survives but has a nervous breakdown and never fully recovers. Her face is permanently contorted and her speech is slurred. Akoi says, “After that, her mind is so disturbed, not settled.”

During the disarmament, the U.N. gives Akoi $150, half of the total payment he will receive for turning in his gun. He gives his mother $50 for medical treatment, sends $75 to his sisters in the camp and uses the last $25 to go see them and beg them to come take their mother to the camp in hopes she can receive medical attention there. The sisters and the mother stay in the camp until repatriation. In 2004 the UN gives him money and he goes back to school, but in 2006 the program ends. Because he is paralyzed on one side, he cannot do any physical work to support himself so he bands together with 15 other disabled ‘veterans’. They sleep on the street and spend their days smoking marijuana and drinking.

Back home in the village, before he was taken, Akoi lived with his mother, two sisters, a brother and grandfather, his mother’s father, who died when Akoi turned 12, the year before he was kidnapped.

Akoi’s grandfather was a zo, a medicine man. His name was Kemah. In Liberia, zos are highly trained specialists with advanced degrees of expertise, analogous to Western post-doctoral degrees or medical specializations. For example, there are Bone Setters, Snake Zos (who have a special relationship with poisonous snakes and can cure snake bites), and Mortuary Zos whose job it is to properly prepare and bury the dead. If a person dies far from home or from the place they are to be buried, it is the job of the Mortuary Zo to walk the dead home and into their grave, it being common knowledge that with the right guidance, the dead will easily get up and walk to wherever they need to go. (A friend who is now in her 30’s, remembers her grandfather’s death very clearly, when she was a young child of about three. He would come once a month to visit her grandmother and spend the night. My friend and others in the family could tell he was there by the overpowering stench, and she remembers seeing footprints walking across the woven ceiling mat.)

Then there is the story of the Swedish NGO that equipped several villages with a forge and metal-smithing tools, with the intention of helping people make and repair farm implements. The donated equipment rusted, unused. What the Swedes didn’t know was that only Surgical Zos are allowed to do metal smithing and that even farm implements had to be ritually made by the rightful people. Akoi says that his grandfather was a big zo, one who helped with babies and who could counteract witchcraft.

Akoi’s grandfather was 98 when he died shortly before Akoi was taken into the war. That means that his grandfather was born at approximately the turn of the century, at around 1800, and grew up before Liberia had been colonized by returning slaves from America. He would have been a young man, about Akoi’s age now, when the first ships came to Liberia bearing Black Christians who arrived in the sweltering equatorial heat in corsets and long woolen dresses, top hats and tails, bibles in hand.

Akoi’s grandfather was a storyteller. Before dying he instructed the family that he wanted Akoi to sleep in his bedroom so that his spirit would be with him. That’s how Akoi came to have his own room until the war came. Akoi takes a photograph of a man in a hammock because it reminds him of his grandfather, who spent his last years, old and frail, lying in a hammock in his bedroom in the cool interior of their earthen house. Whenever he passed through his grandfather’s room, the old man would say, “Akoi, bring me something to eat, bring me something to drink.” Akoi brought him food, and lay next to him in the hammock, swinging and rocking, as his grandfather peeled off stories and set them adrift in the moist afternoon. He explained how elephants used to come when the children were very small, disturbing the village by eating the crops on their farm, and how, after they had eaten, they would run away from the farm again back into the forest.

Spider used to act greedy. It was a time people were having a feast. Spider promised the people in one village that his troop would sing for them at their feast. And he told people in the other village the same thing. He said he would stay between them. Then the spider tied a rope around his waist, and said that when the food was ready they should pull the rope and haul him to the village. Both villages started pulling on the rope at the same time. That’s why spider has such a small waist, so tiny.

After his father left them, when Akoi was ten, he made the farm that fed the whole family. He climbed coco palms to harvest coconuts. “I was small,” he says, “but I tried my possible best. I was very hard-headed. Too hard-headed.”

There is a rumpled flap of skin where the ‘hard-headed’ top of his skull used to be. Akoi says that at the time of his injury, if you held your open hand over the top of his head you could feel his breath on your palm. He says now that when he looks in the mirror and wonders why his life was spared, he thinks, “If God left me there it must be for a purpose. It is not like God loves us more than others who have died; it is the method of God to bring us together to love each other.”

Friday, May 23, 2014


“For North American Indians and Eskimos a name was a house in which one lived with the power of the earth; a name pronounced kinship with one’s place.”

- The Way of the Human Being, by Calvin Luther Martin

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


It’s Memorial Day and everything is backwards - a burst of icy weather at the beginning of summer, ghost stories told in the morning, The Doors open a radio show, singing, ‘This is the end’. I am driving to a mountain retreat, listening to a Memorial Day special on NPR, a compilation of stories from men who were medics during the Viet Nam war. “I don’t want to hear this,” I say to myself, and change the channel. But there is nothing else, really, and so I listen.

The first man says, “I was in Viet Nam from May, 1968 to May, 1969. It was only a year but what I experienced there shaped my whole life.” By the end of the interview he is weeping and asking the host, “Isn’t there something else we can talk about?”

Then two men are telling a story together. When one trails off the other steps in. When the second one falters, the first one continues. The story pours into the car like a rising tide: They have just arrived in Viet Nam. There is a midnight attack. Bloodied bodies are strewn all over the deck outside their hut. They rush into a surgery bunker to work on a marine whose chest is blown open. They see the heart. They see the stomach. He dies. They bring him back to life. He dies again. They bring him back a second time. An artery is severed. They open one of his legs and splice a section of vein into his chest. They lose count of the units of blood they replace. They lose him for the last time.

The name of the surgeon is Dr. Mouna. (I think of luna. I think of moon.) He is so distraught that he tears off his gloves and storms out of the operating room. The others follow, except one man, the one telling the story now. He is left behind, alone with the body, to clean up. The room is cold. He stands in silence looking at the boy with the open chest when suddenly the heart beats, and beats again, and he’s screaming for the others to come back. ‘He’s alive! He’s alive!” They come running back in. Dr. Mouna plunges his ungloved hands into the boy, massaging the heart, commanding him to live. Shouting and massaging, shouting and massaging, but it’s no good. He is gone, and they realize that the beating heart was only the body doing what it does to adjust to death. In the words of poet Naomi Shahib Nye, “Death comes when you can no longer make a fist.”1

1 Naomi Shihab Nye, “Making a Fist”

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


“Should not the music of place and its other-than-human beings come first in our learning, rather than unsung words alone, or songs unconnected to place-beings? One thinks of children growing up on television and radio jingles, or nursery rhymes set to music but not to place-beings… Insofar as our words, both spoken and written, are not rooted in precise place and learned from such place – I would emphasize learned in song from place-beings – such free-floating, detached speech becomes dangerous and, often, destructive, even if inadvertently so. For such disoriented, strictly human-oriented speech has always tended to succumb to fear and, worse, its corollary, mendacity.”

- In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time, Calvin Luther Martin

Sunday, May 18, 2014


Until the lions have their own historians,
the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

- Chinua Achebe

Corporations are the hunters glorifying themselves today. Modernity requires that we sever our connection to the natural world and pledge allegiance to the things that money can buy. We are told that the impoverishment of the soul that overcomes us can be healed by consuming the things that corporations make for us, including ‘buying’ the stories they tell us about Nature’s latest diminishment or the inevitability of the wars that profit them. 

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about ecological ‘hot spots’ – pristine, endangered areas that conservationists seek to protect. The strategy is to identify places that are close to 90% degraded, then seek to protect the beleaguered remaining 10%. The assumption seems to be that this is all we can hope to achieve, that we’ll be lucky to attain even this meager success.

But when we’re talking about saving (as if it were up to us) the natural world, is it even correct to ‘strategize’? The definition of the word strategy derives from military activity: Strategy (Greek "στρατηγία"—stratēgia: from stratēg (ós) military commander, general (strat ( ós ) army + -ēgos noun derivative of ágein to lead); meaning, A high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty (Source: wikipedia). Secondary definitions refer to strategy in the context of business or games. 

Do we really want to depend on a military approach to healing our relationship with the natural world? Saving small percentages of the whole does not necessarily save or even protect what remains. Even the most passionate and well-educated researchers do not know the environmental ‘tipping point’ that will cause Gaia’s demise, nor do we understand the deeper function of such things as oil, uranium, gold, diamonds, copper, and other buried substances that surely are not random or inconsequential and so must have a larger purpose, though we have not bothered to wonder what it is. Decisions and actions arising from short-term thinking do not consider long-range consequences nor do they perceive long-range possibilities. And none of us knows what resplendent restoration is possible if we set our hearts on it.

Now more than ever is the time for a wildly expansive, un-practical vision of a natural world fully restored, within an epochal, perhaps millennial time frame. Infinitely better to spend our creative energy initiating the first 500 years of an unabashedly passionate vision of full, unimpeded and uncompromised global ecological and cultural restoration and to offer ourselves to an inclusive global dialogue that will create a global vision of restoration to inform and sustain us through multiple generations of effort. 

If we ‘surrender’ our vision of comprehensive global ecological restoration and settle instead for the struggle to protect tiny percentages of marine and terrestrial habitat, we allow corporations (and the culture which gives them primacy) to set the terms by which nature and nature lovers must abide. Remember that 100 years ago, commercial air travel, computers, and the Internet seemed impossible. Extinctions on the scale we’re seeing now seemed impossible, too. We’re talking here about the ‘surround’ upon which life depends. Do we really want to tell our children that the best we can manage is to save 10% or less of what remains of the intact natural world? 

Within each of us is a passionate love for some place or some being in Nature that will open our throats once again to the daily cooing of gratitude for Life. Once found, that gratitude is our most reliable guide to right action. All is not lost. Let us sing the natural world within and around us back to its fullness.  

Friday, May 16, 2014


“Yoga is how we engage the gift of embodiment.”

-Douglas Brooks

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


I sit down to organize the too-many seeds I've bought and collected and discover another vocabulary, a thrilling new alphabet:

  • Arugula (Astro, Sylvetta) 
  • Basil (Holy, Red leafed, African, Thai) 
  • Beans (Black Valentine, Jade, Purple Dove, Scarlet Emperor, Sunrise, and of course Ethiopian lentils) 
  • Beets (Chioggia, Early Wonder, Bull’s Blood, Touchstone Gold 
  • Cabbage 
  • Carrots (Tendersweet, Cosmic Purple, Solar Yello, Scarlet Nantes, Parisian, Yaya). Yaya? 
  • Celeriac (Monarch) 
  • Celery (Tango) 
  • Chard (Rainbow) 
  • Corn (Bantam, Strawberry, Ashworth, Hopi Blue) 
  • Dahlia (“If you take care of your peonies, the dahlias will look after themselves.” Dorothy Parker 
  • Eggplant (Ping Tun Long, Turkish Orange) 
  • Fennel 
  • Flowers (mostly Sunflowers, including Evening Sun, Hungarian, Mexican, Tarahumara White, Zulu Prince, Tiger’s Eye, Velvet Queen, and Persian Carpet Zinnias) 
  • Garlic, Ginger, Greens 
  • Herbs (German Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Marigold, Mint, Mullein, Hungarian Blue Poppy, Mexican Tarragon) 
  • Ishikura onions 
  • Juniper 
  • Kale (Red Russian, Dinosaur, Red Ursa) 
  • Lettuces (Australian Butterhead, Canasta, Cimmaron, Deer Tongue, Devil’s Tongue, Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed, Grandpa’s, Ibis, Jericho, Lambsquarter Magenta, Mascara, Merlot, Reine des Glaces, Tomahawk, Two Star) 
  • Melons (Snake, Bitter, Jelly, Cassabanana, Piel de Sapo, Rampicante Zuccherino) 
  • Nigella (Love-in-a-Mist) 
  • Onion 
  • Parsnip 
  • Peas (Coral Shell, Cascadia, Mayfair, Oregon Trail, Swiss Giant, Sugar Ann and Sugar Lode) 
  • Quadrato d’Asti peppers 
  • Radish (Daikon, French Breakfast, Round Black Spanish 
  • Spinach (Bloomsdale, Sora, Gamma, Renegade, Strawberry) 
  • Squash (Black Forest, Red Kuri) 
  • Strawberries (Italian and Golden Alexandria Alpine) 
  • Tomatoes (Anna Russian, Azoychka, Amish Red, Black Ethiopian, Box Car Willie, German Queen, Olena, Ukranian, Cerise and Pear Orange, Paul Robeson, Sandul, Moldavan, Tlacolula Pink) 
  • Uva Ursi 
  • Virginia Snakeroot 
  • Wisteria 
  • X? 
  • Yarrow 
  • Zucchini (Verde Chiaro, Ronde de Nice)
I notice that monarchs, misfits and colors are popular, as are nationalities (lots of Russians).

The question of who names these plants is an interesting one. Scientists name things for the purpose of identifying and classifying distinguishing features, patterns and trends, with comparatively little regard for posterity in terms of the effect of the name. But s/he who names things creates a legacy. Naming is power, God-like power. We who name things are framing the terms of the conversation. We label the landscape we inhabit to remind ourselves of where we are. But as we walk, drive and study maps to find our way, these names also speak of who we are, who our forebears were, and about what was important to them. The act of erasing Native names for the places we live was an act of genocide that also erased the relationships and stories that gave rise to those names. As I drive between my land and Ft. Bragg I read the road signs (MacKerricher State Park, Inglenook, Cleone, Ft. Bragg) and wonder how we might see ourselves if our shared landscape bore the place-names of the Native people who lived here before us, each name a glyph for the shape of the land, its water, animals and trees and the events that occurred there. What if we could sing the maps of our landscapes as the Aboriginal people know how to do? How would those names and that knowing train us to live better lives?

A rose by any other name... But Hopi Blue Corn and Deer Tongue Lettuce and Persian Carpet Zinnias evoke pictures that create worlds, expectations, and kinship among all who have eaten, seen or grown these things (not to mention Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed lettuce, which few have grown, seen or eaten.)

Cultivating heirloom seeds and plants has become a political act these days. Monsanto’s efforts to erase ancient nutritional lineages is a genocidal act, the ultimate expression of the need of those who inhabit a power-over paradigm to impose lifelessness on that which they perceive (and rightly so) as threatening that power.

A few weeks before he died at the age of 95, my father sat dejectedly at a family meeting (which was usually his favorite activity) listening as I excitedly described my plans to purchase this land in Mendocino and talked about our family’s recent purchase of an organic avocado orchard near Santa Barbara. In 1939, my grandfather had bought a ranch in Blythe, California, along the Colorado River – raw land that the family cleared, leveled and cultivated for over 50 years, using the maximum allowable amount of fertilizers and pesticides, eventually selling it to the California Department of Fish and Game, which has allowed it to revert to raw land and wildlife habitat. Shaking his head in disbelief, my father said bitterly, “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in one generation!”

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


“The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.”
- Inuit saying

Sunday, May 11, 2014


For several years I have been having dreams about making offerings: In the dreams, I see huge, conical mounds of bright yellow corn. Oversize platters piled high with slabs of cake. Tropical fruit cut into delicate squares and tenderly arranged in tiny, clear glass bowls, then set on an outdoor shelf for runners in a race. Sometimes I dream of ways I am to offer myself: I am to dance a dance of reconciliation for arguing guests followed by gifts of olive oil. I hold out my outstretched arms as a perch for birds of prey. I prepare a speech for angry, expectant African Americans gathered as far as I can see on a wide, sandy beach. A frightened, angry man is about to kill a snake. I stop him and argue on the snake’s behalf. In one dream, a friend and I are to meet where the railroad track ends to witness a duel and then carry away the dead. I am collecting plastic water bottles half full of water. I must put them in the freezer to make ice. The more I collect, the more I find.

What are the dreams asking? What do they instruct? In the act of offering I cannot do harm, only nourish. I cannot take, only give. My friend says that to make an offering is to create a tangible edge, a threshold across which one can enter into dialogue with the spirit world.

I pour milk into the ocean: may this milk feed all the life in the sea. For that moment I am the primal mother releasing primal nourishment to herself. As the liquid arc flows from my hand, it becomes a tiny bridge of protection and for that instant all creatures are safe and loved.

As I place an egg in a stream I am entrusting the possibility of new life into the tumbling flow that dances fresh and cool over the mossy stones. It is a sunny day in January. I remove my shoes and roll up my jeans. I step barefoot into the icy water. I can barely keep my balance. My feet are numb and the stones are so slippery. But I cannot hold onto an overhanging branch or reach into the stream to steady myself on a stone because I have an egg in each hand that must be protected at all costs.

On the sacred mountain I come upon a cache of plastic water bottles. The elephants have told me they are thirsty. I pour water on parched ground and become rain. Later that afternoon the cloudless sky darkens and rain comes in person.

I awake before dawn and sleepily look for the first shapes to emerge at the far end of the garden. I see the silhouette of the giant Eucalyptus tree. I turn on the heat. I fill the kettle and hear its first drowsy hiss. I put on my slippers and call the dog. I wrap a blanket around my shoulders. No lights on yet, that would break the spell. I watch for the suggestion of pink above the horizon. The water boils. I catch myself thinking there might be time to make tea. But don’t get distracted. I might miss it. The light before the light arrives on a palette of beiges and grays.

I am excited. Like a puppy. Like a birthday girl. Like a woman acquitted of yesterday’s sadness for the breaking world. For this moment, before the tea, before the headlines, the light is fresh and will soon arrive. When it suddenly blooms, so golden against the tree trunk, I gasp. It takes me by surprise every time, as it should. The chilled air curls around my neck and wraps around my ankles as the dark ground releases its last shadows. And then suddenly there is warmth on my eyelids as I squint towards the East. A faint warmth on my chest as I gratefully inhale. Warmth on my lips as I smile and say, “Thank you for this day!” and mean it. The I Ching says: Make an offering and you will succeed. Imagine! A chance to feed the sun! What an outrageous honor! I reach my hand into the sack of cornmeal and pull out a fistful. It feels powdery and cool in my tingling hand. I stand with my outstretched arm suspended between earth and sky. The gray-blue grains sift through my fingers into the light and are gone.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


“The immense numbers of tule elk in the Central Valley (of California)…rivaled ungulate numbers in Africa’s Serengeti…Gizzly bears would come down to the coast at night and feast on beached whales…The tremendous flocks of geese… could appear in thick cloudlike congregations, so large that the roar of their wingbeats as they took flight was deafening… In 1857…a massive school of smelt and sardines piled up a foot deep on the shore at Crescent City and extended three-fourths of a mile seaward. The fish were so numerous three men found it impossible to row a skiff through them… Joaquin Miller described the head of the Sacramento River as a ‘silver sheet’ because salmon were so abundant. He had seen the stream ‘so filled with salmon that it was impossible to force a horse across the current.’… One North Fork Mono/Chukchansi elder, Pauline Conner, reminisced about the time long ago when wildflowers covered vast areas of grassland and ‘butterflies were so thick they would come in clouds, and you could reach out and touch them.’”

- Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson

Thursday, May 8, 2014


“The part encapsulates the whole. And as long as a piece of it survives, the whole can be read out, reborn.”

-Micmac cosmology, in The Way of the Human Being, by Calvin Luther Martin (quoting Ruth Whitehead)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


We humans long to know we've made our mark and therefore are living/will have lived a noble or at least worthwhile life, especially if, by so doing, we can leave a curative mark on the very system that has been destroying us and the Earth, and which gives rise to/has infected us with the illness of this same longing. Ironically, of course, is that the purist antidote is to step out of this paradigm altogether and re-inhabit a cyclic, non-linear and intentionally unremarkable life of surrender to and re-absorption by that same generous non-linearity.

The preoccupation with the Mayan moment of 2012, likewise exalted linear time and its mono-directionality. The more we emphasize these marker events, the more we strengthen linear time. Is writing, by its nature, so linear that it is of limited usefulness as a tool that can conjure (and thus inhabit) an alternative ecology?

Is it possible (reasonable? desirable?) – and, if so, how - to (re)forge a dialogic relationship with Life while simultaneously retaining a foothold in the dichotomous, linear, commodified, fear-based, history-bound culture of self-nonself? Can one, ought one, step across that paradigmatic border and arrive intact in the undifferentiated, mythic reality and be sufficiently healed by it to withstand re-infection with modernity? Can one truly inhabit both realms? What kind of mixed message is this of the locus of potency? What is the purpose of our stubborn pursuit of this kind of travel in and out of connection? Do we imagine that we can heal the malignancy of separation and still choose to live within it?

Monday, May 5, 2014


“Jefferson was in the business of creating private property. During his presidency, he was faced with the thrilling challenge of developing huge acquisitions of land by the new American nation, territories that compared in size to all of Europe. Among the first things he did in regard to the newly acquired lands was to send out surveyors who would impose on their entirety a pattern of grids called townships and ranges and sections, the cadastral survey that frames the terms of every real estate transaction today. Jefferson saw this work as a necessary first step in bringing order to a sprawling “wilderness.” The tidy squares superimposed on the map of areas few new Americans had ever seen was a pattern designed to expedite their hasty occupation by the yeoman farmer-democrats that the president saw as the chosen people of God. If the new government was to have something to govern, it needed to transform all of that land into property.”

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

Sunday, May 4, 2014


Last year my former nephew died (nephew by marriage, former by divorce) at the age of 41, leaving a wife and three small children, ages 2, 5, and 7. About three years ago he joined the Marines and was deployed to Iraq, where something in the water may or may not have caused a rare form of liver cancer that is less rare among young men of Middle Eastern descent and particularly young men in Iraq. It is mysterious if or how he could have contracted the disease while in Iraq, as he was primarily confined to the military base where the water is carefully filtered. Nonetheless, it is a troubling coincidence. It is this oddity that attracts my attention, and I wonder whether his decision, his insistence, on this choice, was driven by a deeper call than patriotism, adventure, politics, rebellion, duty, or defiance. It reminds me of a strange story that I heard years ago while visiting Hawaii. I was with my children, who were 6 and 8 at the time, on a tiny motorboat, heading out to a snorkeling spot offshore, a famous submerged remnant of an extinct volcano that is invisible from the surface or the shore. The caldera had a strange magic, located seemingly in the middle of the ocean far from land. Inside it, the snorkeling is beautiful, the water warm and shallow and so very clear. I remember swimming to the edge of it and slightly beyond, the rush of suddenly finding myself in extremely deep water, inky and teeming with mystery beyond the visible world. The sloping outer edge was a yellowy pale white tinged with blue as if seen through a blue lens (as, in effect, it was). The root of the caldera faded, then disappeared into blue nothingness. On our way to and from it, sea turtles flitted like shadows beneath the boat.

The skipper told us that some months back he had had a client who was a middle-aged woman who hired him to take her snorkeling. On the way to the caldera, they saw some kind of disturbance in the water in the near distance, and she asked him to take her closer to have a look. He told her that it looked to be a feeding shark, likely a tiger shark, and said he didn’t think it wise to go any closer. She insisted, and he took her there. As they neared the roiling water, she jumped in and disappeared. My nephew’s insistence on joining the Marines has a similar quality to it, a quality of leaping off the boat of safety, common sense, the urgings of family and friends, driven by what seems to me to be the irresistible arrival of fate.

What is the landscape of each of our fates? For example, that the seed of a certain disease finds us somewhere, and develops into a rare cancer? That we dive off a boat in Hawaii and disappear? And what of the inner landscape of these fates? Liver, breast, mind.

However and whyever it happened, my former nephew’s death had an unexpected effect on me. Though I hadn’t seem him in more than twenty years, I wept for three days. The only way to sleep was to create a nest of quilts and pillows on the floor by the window where I could see the moon and the night sky. I phoned my ex-husband, with whom I have not spoken more than once in the last decade and we talked for an hour. I wrote to my former sister in-law and told her that I wanted to plant a grove of trees in Danny’s honor. She wrote back, a sweet and soulful note. I spoke to someone at the Arbor Day Foundation and learned that they plant memorial seedlings for $1 each in national forests and state parks that have been devastated by fire, in groves one can visit. A snapshot of my former nephew’s legacy: moonlit nights spent weeping beside a curtain of stars; three children under ten without a father; a young widow; a grieving family; young Iraqi men dead of the same inexplicable disease… and a hundred trees near Yellowstone reforesting a hill devastated by fire.

Friday, May 2, 2014


“A visible action is always supported by its invisible companion.”

-From Inside Out, A Yoga Notebook, by Victor van Kooten, with Angela Farmer