Monday, June 30, 2014


“What if we were to think of ourselves as operating within the time frame of geological processes and of the natural succession of ecological communities, rather than the quick wink of human generations or the even shorter fibrillations of political elections? How could we begin to act like people of a place rather than like consumers and producers in a market system over which we had little control? What if we began to develop and share our own vernacular experience and wisdom to the point where it had a credibility equal to that of the specialists in the state capital?”

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014


In the Serengeti, as the full moon rises, I watch a giraffe savor an acacia branch, relishing its long, sturdy thorns the size of toothpicks, and the tiny, tender leaves they protected. Gingerly holding the branch in his lips, the giraffe curls his tongue around the thorns and gently strips them into his mouth. After a few minutes, he turns away from the tree and ambles towards a shallow ravine. The trees have released their tannins, carried by the wind to other trees and giraffes nearby: Time to move on. No more feasting here. After about fifteen minutes of feeding, the trees know to do this so as not to be consumed. I imagine the giraffe’s nostrils and the leaves themselves tingling in the afternoon air. In the Serengeti, the air itself has texture, lent by the sun, limned with gold as if inside a luminous golden bubble that floats on the washed out blue of the sky.

The clouds begin to gather, imperceptible at first, just a wisp here and there, growing denser and a deeper gray as the heat abates and shadows come to life. After the torpor of midday, there is a quickening as dusk approaches. Gold spills down the tree trunks. The underside of the clouds swells and glows, as if they have formed just then, when we momentarily looked away. Vultures circle but we can’t find the kill.

In the streambed, a dozing jackal suddenly pricks up his ears, sits up, then stands, rigid and listening, and trots upstream towards the sound he has heard. David, our guide, carefully follows the jackal, inching our vehicle forward until we come upon a pride of lions devouring an impala. The jackal and David had heard the lions’ triumphant roar after the kill, a sound that has eluded those of us with untrained ears. We drive close – no more than five feet from a lioness gnawing on the rib cage, and sit in the fading light listening to the wind and the cracking of bones. Soon the hyenas will come, the vultures and marabou storks. Hyena scat is chalk white because of all the bones they eat, finishing the skeleton after the lions are through. Giraffes and other ungulates eat hyena feces for the calcium. David tells us that lions do not hunt unless they are hungry. They don’t stockpile food. No scarcity. No waste. 

I ask David what are the most amazing things he’s seen in his years of guiding. He says there are two moments he will never forget. Both times he was alone. The first was seeing two pythons mating then lying together, exhausted and intertwined. The second was seeing an elephant give birth, surrounded by a group of females, who then buried the placenta.

David is an initiated Maasai warrior. Except for the gaping empty holes in his earlobes, you wouldn’t know it to look at him, in his T-shirt and khakis. He believes the Maasai are descended from the twelve tribes of Israel. In five years he is to be initiated as an elder in a ceremony that happens only once every fifteen years. But what will he teach the new young initiates? He has left the village and does not know the ways of the elders he is to join who will initiate him. They are the last of their generation. In just fifteen years, maybe less, an ancient, collective memory has been wiped clean.

It’s a familiar story: as a young child he was sent to the Catholic mission to get a Western education. He has been a guide for seven years. Now he wants to go back to school to get a Western education and become a journalist. What will he write about, I wonder? I ask him about village life, about the elders, especially the diviners and healers. I ask whether they foresaw who he would be before he was born, choosing a name that would remind him of his life purpose, as they do in parts of West Africa. He says vehemently, “I hate those people!” (meaning the shamans and medicine people). He repeats it again, and then again. He hates them, hates what they say and hates what they do. He hates that some of them take advantage of people or use their power to do harm. 

His breath hisses and lingers on the word: hate. He speaks for a long time. I do not interrupt. The story pours out of him as we bounce along looking for wildebeest. After a time, he falls silent, then turns and asks me what I think. I pick my way carefully through the sharp edges of his story and the path of my response, saying first that I agree that there are those who use their power to do harm, and that this is not good, but that this doesn’t apply only to corrupt shamans. There are many people with power who do this. I say that I think his hate is the church talking, not his own heart, and ask how he can be a warrior and an elder if he hates his people and his culture. I say that the church, and governments, the media, and big corporations are threatened by people who have natural power derived from a relationship with the earth and the ancestors, and power sustained by being in dialogue with the Great Mystery, because people who understand this kind of power cannot be controlled. I ask, Are there are any elders or diviners whom he likes and trusts? There is one. David’s face softens into a fond smile as he tells of this special man whose predictions invariably come true. The man can look at you and tell you your future in a glance, and he is always right. He has 16 wives and 42 children, and people come to see him from all over. He is kind and smiling and keeps nothing for himself, giving everything away to his community. I ask whether David has ever talked to this man. He has not. He is afraid. I ask when he is going back to his village for a visit and whether, just out of curiosity, maybe as a journalist, it would be interesting to hear what the old man says. David grins and says, “But I am going at the end of September! I can go see him!”

Saturday, June 28, 2014


“Receiving the world spinning under foot as your feet help spin the world, perineum riding forward and carrying the moon over your head. Those walk a dead planet walk heavy and push their dying bones.”

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

Friday, June 27, 2014


“Strange to say, it is death itself, making a final decision, that rescues us once and for all from nonexistence… What has once been can henceforth never not have been… All is lost, so all is saved.”

- The Irreversible & Nostalgia, Vladimir Jankelevitch

Thursday, June 26, 2014


“Accompanying this revolutionary shift from forager to producer mentality is a troubling new image of the earth as discordant, unforgiving, even dangerous, a place removed from human beings, who today refer to it as the environment.”
- The Way of the Human Being, Calvin Luther Martin

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Arriving in Tanzania, we went straight to the Ruaha game reserve, the country’s second largest, in the less-traveled southwest of the country, a magical landscape festooned with baobab trees and woven with sand rivers. 

At Mwagusi Safari camp, where we stayed, we meet Adrian. He is in his mid-twenties, my daughter’s age. He is a second generation Tanzanian, born, like his father, in Dar es Salaam. Adrian has a gift for tracking animals. Every morning before dawn as we head out on safari, we see him with the local guides bending over fresh tracks in fierce concentration. He is gentle and soft spoken: a clipped British accent, swarthy good looks and impeccable manners. He is descended from Syrian slave traders, a family secret so shameful that no one will speak of it. He wants to know the stories so he can know what to do with this part of himself but his parents and grandparents refuse to tell him.

Mwagusi camp consists of ten thatched-roof tents perched at the edge of the Mwagusi sand river in the Ruaha reserve south and west of the Serengeti. Each room is unique. Each has a sturdy wooden bed and two solar reading lamps, a writing desk, a hammock, and a small sunken lounge with a sand floor and huge pillows where you can sit and peer over the curved ledge and watch the animals without being noticed. 

In the bathroom of my banda, the bones of a giraffe’s spine are embedded along a low, curving wall of river stones, and there are two giraffe skulls next to the shower. In the patio overlooking the sand river, tiny birds alight on the trunk of a fallen tree then hop over to drink from the hollow stone that is lovingly refilled with fresh water each day. It is so quiet I can hear their wings and tiny feet as they arrive and flit away. Listen. You could sit in that silence for the rest of your days, just murmuring the name of this place, Mwagusi, rolling it around on your tongue. To be able to say it, you have to purse your lips tight then open them wide to get your mouth around it, like a giraffe wrapping its lips around the thorny branch of a fever tree.

Back home, I sit on the bluff above a beach that held my children and me for so many years. Sand castles and pirate ships, dog walks and tears, dolphins, sea lions and whales. In summer there is soft, gray-white sand. In winter the sand washes away, exposing jagged slabs of rock stacked like the scales and spine of the dinosaur earth-mother herself. There are boulders with cross-sections of ancient bones that are likely dolphin vertebrae, or spines and fins of small, prehistoric whales. There is a man who sometimes drives a tractor along the beach and steals the fossil stones for his garden.

I watch the reflection of the late summer, late afternoon light. Listen: the gulls are calling below the cliff. The patterns of wind and currents on the ocean are pulling towards the shore and away, up the coast and down, below the surface and on it at the same time. The late afternoon light of Africa can’t help but be golden, but here in California, at the same time of day, the low sun backlighting the leaves of that rock rose over there is soft and chalky white. Even the red terracotta urn glows white. It is from West Africa. It is round as a globe, and covered with pointy bumps (antennae, actually) like raised spirals except the handle, which is a knob shaped like a man’s head. He has fine features and a steady gaze. He stares out over the ocean as if looking towards home, seeing nothing, seeing everything. Soon it will be dark. The sun is sinking and the wind is about to change.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


“The histories of nations and empires and the political and economic geographies memorialized I our schoolbooks do not give us the essential information we need to act our way into a working relationship with place…The story a place has to tell, especially the story of continuity of human presence in that place, is an absence so large in our culture as to be outside our range of vision. It is invisible like the air is invisible, but it is no less essential to our comfort and survival. The living region requires of us that we become its intimate inhabitants, and further, that we regrow our sense of community as a function of that inhabitation.”

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

Monday, June 23, 2014


“As a species, we have become a population of refugees, longing for homes we remember only faintly, as we remember dreams. The process of reconstructing and immersing ourselves in our own specific places at times resembles the effort to recreate the memory of a victim of amnesia.”

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014


I go back to my office and thank the people working there. I sign some checks and borrow money from my son’s college savings account because I’m broke and overdrawn and still spending because there’s no stopping me now, or the work I am doing, I must finish what I have started so I can live this new life, and I am still going on the assumption that this is the right decision and the right moment and things will work out if I don’t flinch or falter, so on I go.

I drive home and there is a crew with a cherry picker and a chain saw cutting down the neighbor’s tall tree, the one that shields my bedroom window from the streetlight, and the shiny leaves on the half they haven’t cut yet are calling to me, “Help!” I remember that the night before when I walked the dogs I noticed something about that tree in particular and felt blessed that it was there and grateful to it, and now I wish I had stopped and thanked it and asked myself why I had felt that particular something toward that tree at that moment, but I didn’t, and now they’re cutting it down. I go to my studio and burn some sage and cry some more and quickly tell the tree to send its remaining life force into its roots, into the ground, quick as it can. I apologize that it is being destroyed, that it wasn’t warned. I tell it I love it and am grateful to it, and so sad, and the doorbell rings and it’s G. with fabric samples for new pillows on the bench along my dining room table, and the seamstress is coming and I am totally disoriented and not at all in the mood to talk about pillows. I come red-eyed to answer the door and tell her about the tree, the chain saw is still going in the background and we are shouting over it, and right away she tells me two tree cutting stories: The young couple that moved in next door to her cut down the huge old persimmon tree full of persimmons, then the old plum and peach trees as well.

The seamstress arrives and G. says, “Fran here has a tree-cutting story”. And indeed she has, about a tree at her apartment almost as big as the Moreton Bay Fig tree. (A Santa Barbara landmark, planted in 1877, and officially designated as a historic landmark in 1970. It is believed to be the largest of its kind in the United States with a branch spread of more than167 feet, a total height of more than 76 feet and a trunk diameter above the buttress roots of nearly 13 feet.) Fran tells us, “The landlord cut the fig tree as soon as his wife died. She wasn’t there anymore to protect it. It took them a whole week to cut through the thick trunk and get that tree down. It is true that the tree blocked a lot of light and dropped a lot of leaves and nothing grew underneath it, but still…”

My boyfriend arrives and tells me his neighbors have cut down the huge Eucalyptus between their yards because a giant branch is leaning on their electrical wires and into his yard. That night a flock of birds flew around and around, circling and circling, trying to find the tree they had slept in.

I speak with a friend who is writing her story of being fetched in her dreams to become a healer. I am writing about how everything that seems so wildly separate is in fact connected back through time. I am writing about ancestors. Another friend describes how the Wholly Law is written in her body and her life is to live it so that it can be seen. Our friend and teacher, Deena Metzger, is surely chuckling because this is the lived Hypertext she has been coaxing us into and we must write it, we are writing it, as we live it.1

So much of human expression about loving a place is about the human-to-land love. This is outlandish enough for some, but it, too, misses the point. Isn’t it possible that the relationship can be mutual, that the land can and does love us back, and the trees and the ancestors and the spirits, too…? Isn’t it obvious? Ungrateful as we are, the land and the Mystery continue to show us how to love.

1 For information on Deena’s writing, blog, and teaching schedule go to

Friday, June 20, 2014


“Sacred, yes, words can be sacred. But they can also be dangerous, when Homo Sapiens understands and knows only his own words, not those of other place-beings.”

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

Thursday, June 19, 2014


“The specific patterns out of which a building or a town is made may be alive or dead. To the extent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us free; but when they are dead, they keep us locked in inner conflict. The more living patterns there are in a place…the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name. And when a building has this fire, then it becomes a part of nature. Like ocean waves, or blades of grass, its parts are governed by the endless play of repetition and variety created in the presence of the fact that all things pass.”

- The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Exhaustion, sorrow… Released from numbness, I fall into sorrow’s arms, fall through her into a canyon wider than I can see. It is not freefall. I am held aloft and protected from the rocky sides of ruin by the soft and limitless sky in which all sadness, in all its beauty, floats. I am carried by currents of sorrow - columns of warmth and cold, thermals of grief between bluffs and sea. It is with me always, and it must be contagious because when I speak it, when the stories walk out of my mouth into casual conversation people tear up and sometimes want to hear more, and to keep from being rote, or bored, to keep from having to wind myself up and click across the conversation until I can stop, to keep from having to push until the words squeeze out of me like air through an accordion, I am learning to pause, inhale, and let the sadness sigh out, pulling the rest of me with it in a careful story that I can offer from the heart if someone asks to hear.

I drive with Sorrow down the street, heading for home after three hours of conversation with my accountant. I have gone in to ask how to write up next year’s budget for everyday gandhis. She wants to know what our objectives are, what results we expect and by when, who will do what, where the receipts are, the depreciation schedule for vehicles and camera equipment long since beyond repair and rotting in the humid heat, she asks for the lost deeds to the land we have bought, asks why we are making documentaries, who our audience is and why, all the endless legitimate questions that compress everything that takes so long to live. I thank her and answer as I know how to answer, by telling stories. I ask her to think with me how to respond to the dilemmas we are facing, help her understand (and myself, too) how a series of recent ‘mistakes’ could have happened, why they had to happen, so we can see what is being asked of us now.

And so I tell her: Of wanting to see a Leopard and meeting an ex-combatant named General Leopard who changed his name to Bethelson. Of how he received weapons training and anti-terrorist training in Israel, Romania, Jordan and Lebanon, paid for with US government dollars. Of how he ‘woke up’ beneath a Mango Tree and decided to become a peacemaker. Of how he ate human hearts, has three children of his own, is a traditional man who was raised Muslim and turned born again Christian at the insistence of his wife. Of how he says he wants to become ‘African Jewish’ and when he calls, greets me by saying, “Shalom, Mama!” Of child soldiers still being bribed and conscripted, massing at the border of Cote d’Ivoire. The accountant and I weep.

I speak of being stranded in a village and how we were welcomed and handed twin infants; Of seeing the women demonstrating for peace along the road the next morning; Of the 80% illiteracy rate; the unspeakable conditions at the Firestone rubber plantation and the unspeakable pollution of the sacred forest and river and coast beyond it - and of the elephants who have come to the towns we are working in after we make offerings to the elephants and the animals. I tell of riding along for hours on end and wondering why the hell I had come all this way and for what? How I had inconvenienced my family and spent all this money and got stuck in all this fucking mud, thinking next time I would just send a check and thank my friends and colleagues and tell them to carry on with the work as they saw fit, of how I couldn’t speak any of this out loud, but just then my Liberian friend, STV, sitting across from me, wakes up and exclaims, ‘What greater love is there?’ and I say, “What love?” And he says, “After all, you left your family to come all this way just to be with us. You could have just sent money but you came to be with us.” The accountant weeps some more and says, “You must tell your story. This is an important part of the story. Help us understand.”

I tell her how the NGO’s come to a place with their plans already made, shaped by political and economic agendas, and tell people, “We are going to drill you a well”, and the people tell us that they feel they cannot tell the NGO’s “We don’t want a well”, or “We don’t want a well there because it’s sacred ground”, or “It would be impossible for us to get to that well because we would have to cross disputed land”, because then they would get nothing at all. This way, the NGO’s can say to their funders and write in their year end reports, “We drilled x many wells to serve x many people in x many villages at x cost and in x time frame”, and be lauded and get continued funding.

And yes, of course we are accountable and rightly so, and we make mistakes we probably shouldn’t have made, and we must make plans and produce results. And we must do this in such a way that we can be grateful for the mistakes because they are our best teachers because they keep us humble and searching. We must do this in such a way that we find new language that lives and breathes ‘outside the box’ of predictable results, that enlivens the work by paying attention to what we can’t know in advance, and that will produce tangible results that are invisible in a cause-and-effect universe, in ways that give us new eyes that do not yet know how to see or what they are actually looking at.

I am an outsider who understands little of Liberian culture, knows nothing firsthand of this war or any war, who has never lost someone to violence and has never had to forgive someone for such a thing, or admit to being someone in need of such forgiveness. And I must speak of how our work soars when guided by dreams and reverence to the ancestors, and flounders when shaped by the linear thinking of people, and how we must decide, let Spirit decide, whether we are to apologize and cut loose, send money and thanks, mediate, create programs, dedicate staff, document or otherwise remain on the ground when all we’re mandated to do is find the story and tell it, but which story, exactly, and to whom and in what form and how to know if we’re getting it right, not putting people in danger, not leaving anything out, not still blind? And so the story is one story and several; the film multiplies and becomes many; the images grow until we have over ten thousand. One story - One with Everything? Ha. Now you see it, now you don’t.

And now she can see it and it only took three hours for this glimpse which she will forget until she remembers, as I have forgotten and am remembering, and which will live with her for the rest of her days because she wept. She will still wonder why I can’t get it right and do this in the way that can be expressed in checkable figures and maybe I will learn to do this without being swallowed by the mind that demands such a world and knows how to live in it. How to write something that can bridge the forms that created the world that made the war happen, in a way that shows how Einstein was right that we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it, but in this case we don’t yet know, we are just learning how to think differently, sometimes, as best we can, and this is my new job. What is the budget for that?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


“One story is not enough. One history is not enough. One literature…is not enough. Nor two. But the world I meet in the television set and in the store has evolved no system for dealing with multiple stories except to turn them into commodities. That divorces them from the land, and it divorces them from us. Money, in the narrow sense in which we understand it now, is species-specific. We need a more meaningful currency – one acceptable to some of the other creatures with whom we share the planet.”

- The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind & Ecology, by Robert Bringhurst

Monday, June 16, 2014


“History forgets. It forgets the truth of mankind’s embeddedness in this earthy planet: it forgets that there is no interesting or sane account of mankind apart from this larger narrative… History also forgets that the so-called underdeveloped countries were made that way by the magic wand of the civilization that now pretends to be their benefactor. The inroads of disease and colonialism… and the resulting cultural and social unraveling brought these people to their knees, to the pitiful, resentful, and rebellious state in which we, in the West, have regarded these ungrateful wretches over the past five centuries. They were feeding themselves just fine, and managing their relatively few indigenous diseases, and all in all were demographically stable before the Columbuses, Cortéses, Cartiers, Drakes, Magellans, and James Cooks dropped anchor, with their swarms of pathogens, rats and imperial mandates.”

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

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Recently I was talking with a friend in Santa Barbara who is a physician specializing in PTSD. I asked her what the possible forms might be for healing trauma that are cheap, free, simple and require no outside expertise. Before I could finish my question, her reply was, “Basketweaving.” I sat in mute surprise for a moment, and then she went on to explain that she has been studying basket weaving with a local Chumash master weaver for the past eight years, during which time she has been able to unlock and heal her own severe childhood trauma. Many cultures, including the Maya, teach that the crafting by hand of everyday objects is an act of offering to the Divine, one that is uniquely human. Talismans, baskets, carving, beadwork, plates of food and libations on altars and in the wild are all ways of expressing love and appreciation to the mysteries of life, and of coming into alignment with them. That these things have been corrupted, co-opted or commodified only affirms their inherent power, offerings and talismans in particular.

In 2008, while on safari to Tanzania with a group of former child soldiers and several Liberian staff members of everyday gandhis, I dreamed I was cutting chunks of flesh from my belly and making them into talismans, folded and pinned shut with sticks. They looked like bulging tacos fastened with toothpicks. In the dream, I crafted the talismans quickly and easily, my fingers moving confidently to assemble all the necessary materials, in addition to my own flesh. I then re-inserted the talismans into my stomach – no blood, no pain – just these many folded packets containing I knew not what (but precious and benevolent, of that I was sure), each one fastened with a twig – perhaps a piece of a filigreed branch from a baobab tree. As I made them, I put them in my belly and there they remained as I went about my day, as if they contained tiny living beings and I had become a tranquil mother of baby talismans. When I told the dream at breakfast the next morning, several of the Liberian elders who were with us became greatly alarmed. They still mention it with great worry when we see each other. They regarded me with a strange new wariness, and gave me wide berth, no matter how often I assured them that the talismans were harmless and caused no pain, and that I had awoken from the dream feeling calm and reassured by its benevolence.

This question of talismans is especially interesting. In all cultures and religions, talismans are common. The word itself is derived from Arabic and Greek roots meaning ‘to initiate into the mysteries’. The tallis or orthodox Jewish prayer shawl, the mezuza, the crucifix, medals of saints, holy water, four-leaf-clovers, rabbit’s feet, charm bracelets, all these and more were and are talismans meant to provide luck and protection through a direct and durable connection with the Divine. Other forms, such as some types of voodoo and juju, make use of talismans for power and sometimes harm. Buildings, pots, statues, poems, anything given physical form by human hands can be intended as talismans or can become one. Here is a question: How do we ourselves become living talismans, embodied expressions of alignment with the earth and all that is holy, for the benefit of all?

Saturday, June 14, 2014


“When the circle is whole, so are we.”
- Salmon in the Trees, Amy Gulick

Friday, June 13, 2014


“The society (I prefer the term geography) of human discourse has narrowed from human/other-than-human to human/human. The other-than-human persons, both animal and plant, have been disenfranchised – defined or spoken out of discourse into dumb brutes or unconscious vegetable matter, each depersonalized by man the cosmic orator, the name-caller.”

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

Thursday, June 12, 2014


“Since water was life’s first home, the sound produced by the medium would have been the first any evolving responsive organism would have heard.”
-The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, Bernie Krause

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


The butt of his rifle or maybe someone’s fist keeps her from screaming, but it isn’t necessary because she refuses to give them the satisfaction of her screams or her tears. After the boys have all left themselves inside her, they use their knives to carve their desperation in her as if she were a tree where their signatures would be large and indelible. They pour their agony into her, thrust after thrust, driving it back through time to the ancestors that had bequeathed it to them. Lying at the edge of the clearing among the shocked trees, she feels the life draining out of her, feels the earth receiving and recognizing itself, welcoming her back. The broken, blood soaked twigs and the shattered branches dig into her bare flesh. Unable to move, she grows accustomed to the contour of her deathbed. She hears the people of her village calling her name, thinks she can distinguish the voice of her best friend, Beatrice, from among the desperate shouts. She knows that if there had been any dogs left in the village, they surely would have found her by now, but they have been gone for some time, eaten during the last wave of starvation. Even the leaves used to cover the dead have been eaten. Even the grass.

She feels the snakes being called into her, feels them enter her and slide up through her wounds. She feels the rapid, tiny gusts of cool air that precede each flick of the tongue as they lick her blood, reading the story that has been inscribed in her flesh. Each ancient caress carries her away from this place, bearing her like the sacred vessel they know her to be. They are careful not to spill a single drop of the redemption she may be carrying.

This story was given to me by Beatrice, a young woman from Sierra Leone who was the best friend of the girl in this story. When they found her, she was able to tell them what happened, including the way the snakes had entered her. She was taken to hospital and died a short time later. The speculation and the interpretations are mine.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


“Reading, like speech, is an ancient, preliterate craft. We read the tracks and scat of animals, the depth and luster of their coats, the set of their ears and the gait of their limbs… We read the weights and measures of the wind, the flight of birds, the surface of the sea, snow, fossils, broken rocks, the growth of shrubs and trees and lichens. We also read, of course, the voices that we hear. We read the speech of jays, ravens, hawks, frogs, wolves, and, in infinite detail, the voices, faces, gestures, coughs and postures of other human beings. This is a serious kind of reading, and it antedates all but the earliest, most involuntary form of writing, which is the leaving of prints and traces, the making of tracks…

- A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, Robert Bringhurst

Monday, June 9, 2014


“…the path of vengeance and the path of feathers start and end together.
On the path of vengeance I departed.
By the path of feathers I arrive…”

Ghadaghaaxhiwaas, circa 1850
A Story As Sharp As a Knife: 
The Classical Haida Mythtellers & Their World
Robert Bringhurst

Sunday, June 8, 2014


Shortly after Voinjama’s first Mourning Feast, in November of 2004, the ancestors instructed the diviner we were working with to begin the process of restoring the land and the water by performing certain blessing ceremonies. Specific offerings were to be made to call to the animals and the birds and reassure them that the humans were returning to the land in peace and felt truly remorseful for the bloodshed they had committed. This was a very difficult ceremony. She and her entourage were to go deep into the bush and stay for 7 days without food, sleeping on the ground, making offerings, calling the animals and communicating with them. They were to capture 7 white birds and tie a thread to the leg of each one so they would take the message of peace and show it to all the other animals.

During our visit, the first of several preliminary water ceremonies was called for. We were to buy a special gourd in the market and fill it with specially ground rice flour, a favorite food of the forest animals’ spirits. The diviner gathered the other items needed – kola nuts, more gourds, some money in small bills and coins, and other sacred objects. We drove for about 40 minutes and hiked through the forest down to the Lofa River, a tributary of the St. Paul, where, during the war, many people had been shot or bound and tossed into the water to drown, and many dead bodies had been disposed of. The diviner and her husband, a powerful herbalist, made offerings and prayers to all the creatures of the forest, the land and the trees. The diviner went into trance, as she often does, as it is the primary mode of receiving messages from the ancestors. Eyes closed, she runs through the forest at full speed, and always returns without a scratch, never trips or bumps into a tree or bush. A small group of women – acolytes and relatives – run after her so they can be there when she wakes up and guide her home. They must exert a terrific effort to keep up, dodging fallen trees, brambles, and mud holes that she doesn’t even notice.

On that day, three different snakes appeared in the forest, birds called in obvious conversation, and we saw butterflies and brightly colored millipedes making their way to the offering site. The diviner later told us that the appearance of these beings in such profusion was a sign that the animals were grateful and so showed themselves by way of greeting. One of the snakes was poisonous and came to the edge of where they were running, and sat, calmly watching without attacking or running away. When they returned about half an hour later, they found that chalk had appeared on a large termite mound near their first offering site, a sign of protection and of Spirit’s presence and acceptance of the offerings on behalf of all living things.

Catfish and crocodiles, two of the diviner’s totems, appeared during the water ceremony and told her to return with larger quantities of rice flour, as they were very hungry and the amount she/we had brought was insufficient. Afterwards, she was told that the ancestors would be waiting for her at thirteen towns, in a particular sequence, that she was to visit one by one to work for peace and to continue ceremonies of cleansing and reconciliation with the water and the land. (She did.)

That night when we returned to the UN compound where we were staying, we had a scrumptious Pakistani feast with the officers in their dining room, about 100 men, attended decorously by the soldiers on serving duty and by Col. Raza and then Major Shahid, the commanders of the UN Pakistan Battalion II stationed in Voinjama. Before and after the meal we gathered in an anteroom where the men had a chance to relax, smoking and watching the latest Bollywood hits on TV. Gifts were always exchanged, theirs always more lavish than ours. We were free to ask questions and just get to know each other. Col. Raza told us, “Outside of Pakistan, this is our favorite place in the world. This is the place we would live if we couldn’t be at home. We love Liberia and we love Voinjama.” Wherever Col. Raza went in Voinjama, he drew crowds, and was greeted with shouts and cheers, “Col. Raza! Col. Raza!” A career military man, young, perhaps 40, he embodies the highest ideals of the warrior as a guardian of peace. Once people felt safe to return to Voinjama, and did so with great jubilation, he and his men could not help but fall in love with Liberia and Voinjama, the people and the place, and it immediately blossomed under his care.

The Pak Batt grounds are dotted with signs: “No White Man is superior to a Black Man. No Black Man is superior to any White Man.” and “If you kill one human being you kill the human race entire.” Because the people of Voinjama were hungry, the officers voluntarily fasted one day each week and donated their rations to the community. At their clinic, the doctor saw over 150 local patients a day without charge (although technically he was assigned only to the 600 men in the battalion).

While we were there, the men took turns standing guard along the perimeter and at their checkpoints. An off-duty soldier, in his white tunic and trousers, stood outside the guest house, which was in Col. Raza’s bungalow, and brought us thick, sweet Pakistani tea with canned milk every morning. At night a sentry stood guard outside our bungalow, armed with a long iron staff, like a Pakistani Maasaii with his spear.

On the night of the water ceremony, we stayed up late listening to our young Liberian camera woman tell a frightening dream she had had in which she was pursued by a large snake. When we finished our conversation, she stepped outside to go to her lodgings and suddenly came running back to the door shouting, “Come outside, quick! There are snakes right here!” We ran outside just in time to see two snakes streaking away into the bush between our bungalow and the little zoo that Col. Raza has created to protect feral animals when they find them. One of the snakes was about 5 feet long, thin, dark, and very fast, possibly a black mamba. There was a second snake moving beside it that was thicker and shorter, maybe three feet, and nearly as fast. A third, even smaller snake, about 2 feet long, lay dead by the footpath, victim of the night watchman’s quick reflexes and prowess with the iron staff. He said the snake was a dangerous one. Although I felt sad and horrified that our presence had caused the snake’s death, I thanked the watchman for protecting us.

Three different species of snakes, moving together, in swift parallel formation from the bush to our doorstep in the center of town, on the day of the Lofa River forest ceremony. In over a dozen trips I have only seen one other live snake. Perhaps a herpetologist will one day prove me wrong, but for now, I choose to think that their exuberant and daring appearance confirms that they risked their lives to come and greet us, perhaps to thank us for the offerings that were made.

Friday, June 6, 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

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


In the hands of the Magician, a simple twig becomes a magic wand that contains the force of all the elements: Trees, Rivers, Birds and Stones.1

All the world’s places and peoples of wisdom have been shattered by wars waged against them by colonizers who cannot remember what drove them to destroy their own lands first, or their intactness before that. The soil of the homes they left remembers the time before the time of intactness.

In South and East Africa, the Makore trees grow tall and straight, with long, smooth trunks over 100 meters high. People call them ‘elephant trees’ because only the elephants eat their fruit, only the elephants can break open the pods, and only then can the trees reproduce. In the trunks of the trees is the memory of the shattered seedpods. The elephants know this. The trees know it. The I Ching says, “The door of the Dark Animal Goddess is called the Root of Heaven and Earth…He who has found this mother understands he is a child. When he understands he is her child and clings to her, he will be without danger when the body dies.” The Makore seedpods know that the elephant is their mother. They cling to her as they receive the blows that crack them open to make new life.

It occurs to me that Liberia may be a seedpod that has been cracked open, about to sprout peace that could grow tall and straight with roots reaching deep, and myriad beings celebrating beneath the surface of the soil, with branches called to life by the birds and the snakes that have come to repopulate Eden. Liberia may not realize that the war might be its elephant mother, and slavery an empty husk discarded and drifting down, down through the moist air, silently down to the fragrant, blood-soaked soil to decompose so it can nourish the new that has been awaited for so long. Neither we, nor Liberia may ever comprehend how, yet this impossible destruction could replenish West Africa to become a forest of Shaman’s wands, enough for the whole world. Let’s not dare to kid ourselves: we are all cracked open by this violence against ourselves and we are hoping that hope will sprout and take root, as we dig into the past with our long, low tusks like Liberia’s forest elephants. The I Ching says that the Ghost River emerges from the Earth Altar to change the face of the world. It says that first there must be grieving, then there will be delight. Is this true?

What are the questions here? Are they the same for Liberians as they are for Americans as for Vietnamese? The same for Germans as for Israelis as for Palestinians? Whose questions are whose? Where is the line? Are these questions of who we are, of who History has made us, or of who we believe ourselves to be and what we believe to be possible? What is literally true about longing and sacrifice and war and circumstances? About fate and matters of degree? Justification and killing? Is what is true in Liberia also true in California and vice versa? What makes something that is true in the experience in one place not true in another? Why does ice water make a cough worse in Mexico City and soothe a cough in Los Angeles?

Has the Liberian boy’s mother learned to speak of her son in a way that makes sense? And does she believe it? Is it enough for her that the village believes he saved them all from war? Or could it be literally true? Some of us remember Cindy Sheehan, whose son, Casey, was killed in Iraq. In protest, she camped outside President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch. If her action helped end the war in Iraq, will her son’s death have been worthwhile? Would he know that his sacrifice was accepted, that it did what a sacrifice is intended to do?

If I speak about my son, will I put him in danger? Is he protected if I am silent?

1 Tarot of the Four Elements: Tribal Folklore, Earth Mythology and Human Magic, by Isha Lerner and Amy Ericksen

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


“This is the horror: the pitiless logic of atrocious acts. Evil is most monstrous when most banal – when they say it cannot be helped. What kind of dream is this civilization that makes us think so?”

- The Way of the Human Being, Calvin Luther Martin

Sunday, June 1, 2014


The soil of Liberia remembers the taste of the ancestors whose placentas were buried at birth under the trees, uniting the bodies of people with the trees and the land. The trees and the rain remember the taste of a land that could not be bartered or sold, paved or mined or moved away from. It is not the same as the taste of dismemberment and grief, of sewage and fear, not the same as the empty soil where birdless trees are struggling. In this soil are the nephews that were sacrificed to ensure peace, buried alive, one in a generation, an offering from people whose word for sacrifice means to give more than you can. The offering is not meant to placate an insatiable or bloodthirsty Spirit. It is an offering of themselves to each other that delivers them into the hands of the mysterious forces that keep them indivisible and safe. How then, can it recognize these children forced into it at the point of a gun or a knife, their blood drained and stolen for purposes never intended or demanded by the gods? The soil remembers the old times when the villages that sacrificed a nephew were not touched by war. Because of this, a boy whose name we do not know, in a small village not far from the capital, may have kept the killing at bay. They say the story is true, that it really happened.

Here is how I imagine it: On the day of the offering, at the center of the village, is the mother of the boy. The whole circle watches, hushed and humbled, terrified by their gratitude as the silence swallows him on their behalf. They say that everyone in the village – except the mother - helped to dig the grave, even the toddlers who are too small or the ones who are too old to understand exactly what is happening. They say that each person removed one shovelful, or one fistful, and added it to the common pile, until they had opened a chasm that was wide enough to hold the end of a life, all the days that lead up to it and all the days that would never come after. Perhaps this is because everyone knows that in order to meet the magnitude of the offering, everyone must recognize that they are responsible. This is why the grave became a sacred spot in the center of the village, where the people built a sacred palaver hut so the councils of elders can gather and, before they speak of weighty matters, they remember where they are.

What are the appropriate questions here? Are they: Who, exactly, was that child? What actually happened? Was it foreseen? How did the dreams inform them and what did the animals know?

Each person watching knows that boy and must now relinquish who he has been to them: The young men offer their companion, the child who was their playmate, with their memories of playing marbles together in the late afternoon heat before the fireflies appeared, a game played in the last light, and the way he became so absorbed in the game that the world fell away as they watched him move noiselessly on his haunches, fast as a shadow, artfully flicking his marbles into the dust.

The town chief offers the lanky, quiet boy who used to loiter by the teashop, listening to the men as they worried about the war, deliberating whether their Christian god could save them or if He had brought it upon them, and, if so, for what reason? Had they offended Him? Or had they offended the ancestors? Did they offend one by honoring the other and did the honoring of one inevitably mean the other had to be destroyed? Who or what could they call upon to solve the riddle of such suffering? What were they to teach their children about the order of things in a world such as this?

The uncle offers the memory of the boy learning to prepare the council tea for the elders: the small cup that barely fits in the palm of one’s hand. The ancient kettle, smudged and dented, as the uncle lifts it from the fire and fills the cup. As he has seen his uncle do countless times, the boy raises the cup above his head and tilts his left hand until the tea flows out in a long, steaming curve that disappears into the cup held in his right hand. Then the right cup up and the left one down. Raising one, pouring into the other, now closer together, now farther apart, shrinking and stretching the thick brown arc of sweet, scalding tea, never spilling a drop, not even at first, as if he had been born to pour this tea in this way, as if could conjure it even without a kettle, a young Zeus practicing with tea until he can pour lightning between his hands. Teacup to teacup, palm to palm, he pours the possibilities back and forth until the tea is ready and his mind is made up. As he offers the first cup to his uncle, he informs him that he wishes to be the one who is sacrificed, buried alive for the sake of the village, in the center of town, as it used to be done before, for peace. Is this how it happened?

What are the questions here? Are they: What actually happened? Did anything change afterwards? How do they speak of it now? And, Is this real or is it a story, and what’s the difference? Whether it’s a story or it really happened, what do we make of this?

The boy’s mother does not offer her consent. She does not give her permission and refuses to relinquish a single memory. The mother can only bring herself to take a pinch of dirt form the pile and sprinkle it into the pot of rice that she must cook for the common meal. She will force herself to swallow just one bite so that she can carry a grain of him inside of her always.

Even the birds must relinquish him, the echo and answer conversations of his boyhood. The dog he has secretly been feeding will expect no more rice. The shaman who dreamed this is secretly begging the spirits, and God, that he will never again receive such a vision in this lifetime.