Wednesday, July 30, 2014


The first sunny day in weeks. To the beach with the dogs at low tide! I am singing softly to myself, then to the hawk who is circling, hovering, circling, hovering, lower and lower. A woman farther down the beach watches it, transfixed, arms outstretched in a gesture of offering and embrace. It drifts down the face of the cliff, hovering, circling, but it seems distracted. A man on a deep blue hang glider hovers and drops alongside it, seemingly unaware of the hawk. Two other hang gliders, one bright orange, the other, bright red, crowd its airspace. It has been raining for days and the hawk must be hungry. It must be hard to spot a meal through fog and rain. The hang gliders are hungry for sun, too, oblivious as they float and dip between hawk and prey. Another hawk appears. Two of the hang gliders are eye level with the hawks. Beautiful for the men - but for the birds? I want to shout to them to get the hell out of the way. One of my dogs is barking at him, she’s shouting louder than I can, and I’m concerned that the hawk will be driven away by all this commotion. I shout too loud at my beloved, terrified dog, and before I think, give her a light smack to shut her up. She is silent for the rest of the walk and I am ashamed - she is never silent around hang gliders. To her they are giant, menacing birds, and she must protect us.

As the hawk swoops down and snatches his lunch, a sleek Doberman Pinscher scampers straight up the hill toward the hawk, feints and continues up to the top of the cliff. The hang glider bobs in the wind. The hawk drops his prey – a huge gray squirrel who suddenly finds himself on the beach. The squirrel staggers, dazed, then scrambles back up the crumbling cliff. The hawk is perched a few feet above him, waiting. Two blonde college girls join the rest of us gaping as this drama unfolds.

“Is that an eagle?” one of them asks, wide-eyed.

“It’s a hawk, a red-tailed hawk,” I say.

“Scary!” says the other.

“Not scary,” I say. “A hawk.”

They walk on. The hawk swoops up again, narrowly missing the hang-glider. As I head back toward the parking lot I see a fourth hang-glider appear. He’s better than the rest, more skillful, floating and gliding and spinning. It looks like fun, but at the moment I hate them all. I look up at the cliff again. Tiny gray swallows and ring-necked pigeons are swooping in and out of the crevices in the chalky white shale. Their wings open and fold like scissors, like feathered origami, like a sudden thought that appears out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. On the sand near the steps to the parking lot is a long, brown pelican feather with a splotch of tar across the middle the size of a large coin.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


“If there is magic in this world, it is contained in water.”
- Wm. Kloefkorn, quoted by Luis Alberto Urrea in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

Sunday, July 27, 2014


There are times when having a story to tell can be a burden – as much of a burden as not having one. If you have a story to tell and you don’t tell it, it sits on a branch like that blue jay over there, squawking all the time. Even if you feed it peanuts and sunflower seeds, it will scold you for neglecting it because, as they say in Africa, ‘Stories are there to teach us how to live’. If one catches you and you don’t treat it properly, then it will call for reinforcements. They might even go after someone else in your family. Stories are like that. It’s their nature. If we gathered more often to tell our stories in a sacred way, not just haphazardly, not just to a friend or to ourselves, then perhaps the course of the stories – and therefore our lives – would be altered.

For example, I turned to that blue jay on the branch and told it, “Did you know that I love you because your people have transformed my people?” He immediately flew away, after sitting there for a long time. Does that change the story? What if he understood what I said and went off to tell the others? What if he told them, “Guess what? She finally thanked us!” Then again he might have said, “I sat there for the longest time asking very plainly for a snack and all she did was talk to me!” We cannot know what he actually thought or whether he told the other blue jays anything.

But if I tell you what happened, telling it as if he understood perfectly, that he has understood all along and has been responding, then you will see for yourself that it was the Story showing us the way and the blue jay and I were just playing our parts.

It began with the courting male blue jay hurtling into my car, the female jay landing on a patch of curbside grass, spreading her wings in confusion and alarm. I scoop up the bird, wrap it in the old clean towel lying on the back seat, and hold him against my heart, driving home shocked and weeping. He is still warm inside the towel. No blood, no visible injury, the body soft and pliable. My breath lifts the feathers on his neck when I bend my head down to look at him.

The dogs slink over and I tell them what has happened. I tell it as if someone else were responsible, as if it were an accident, as if it were planned, but not by me, as if it might be an offering but I don’t yet know what kind. The jay is iridescent. Even the gray feathers glow. I didn’t know this about grayness, that it could be so luminous. Along with sorrow, my chest fills with the honor of holding it so close. The blue jay story has begun. Or rather, it has taken up residence in my life. I am not a victim or a perpetrator. I am a host. My task is to tend this guest.

The story ebbs and flows. At times, it accelerates. I find a fledgling jay lying dead on the flagstone by the guest room. A plump young bird on my doorstep. A tiny fudge and downy gray feather on the sliding glass door tells the rest of the story. It too, is still warm and pliable. I bury it near the place it died. As I sing to it, the tears catch in my throat. I find a dead jay at the cabin in the mountains, a whole bird, cool and hollow, its desiccated body perfectly preserved by the dry mountain air. All that’s left is a shell of feathers.

The story continues to train me. I learn to tend it: Fistfuls of blue jay feathers on hiking trails and camping spots; walking the dogs with blue jays flitting from branch to branch ahead of me. I leave peanuts in the peeling bark of trees. The following day, the nuts are gone. I leave more. We’re in a conversation. I begin leaving peanuts in my patio. I learn to throw them onto the roof so they don’t roll back down into the rain gutter. Most days, four jays come – two that will eat from my hand. The one that is training me pecks at the window or the front the door if the peanut dish is empty. If I leave the slider open, he hops into the house, calling with his hopeful, shrill reminder until I come with peanuts in my outstretched hand. He is teaching me about bravery, the courage it takes to enter the Abode of a Keeper of Peanuts.

Have you ever felt a wild bird’s talons wrap around your fingers, or his smooth pointed beak peck at the soft flesh of your upturned palm? The blue jay tilts his head and looks at me with alert curiosity, his face an arm’s length from mine. Our eyes meet, two expressions of the Infinite gazing at each other. The Story, embodied, takes us by the hand.

My Liberian friend and brother, the former rebel general, Christian Bethelson, called recently. “I was driving to Sarkonedu,” he says, “where the ex-combatants were waiting. On the way going, I saw a little boy netting a blue jay. I said, ‘Stop the car!’ and got out. The little boy said he wanted the blue jay to cook for his soup. He told me that the people gather grasshoppers and cockroaches and put them out to lure the birds. Then they throw nets over them to catch and eat them. So I asked the boy, ‘How much for that blue jay?’ He said, ‘250 Liberian dollars’ (about $4 US). I bought the bird and told the little boy to use the money to go buy a chicken. Then I released the bird!” Then he says, “I cannot describe the feeling in my heart when I freed that blue jay and watched him fly away!” He pauses, then adds, “And you know why I did it? It was because of that blue jay that ate from my hand at your house. It was so sweet! I remembered the feeling of that blue jay sitting on my hand.”

A few weeks later he calls and says: “Today I took my plate of rice outside to sit and eat. I had forgotten my glass of water, so I went in the house to get it. When I got back outside, there was a flock of blue jays eating my rice. I have never before seen blue jays in Monrovia.”

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, and more.

Friday, July 25, 2014


“…Middle grounds are sandbars or mudflats found in the middle of a tidal channel; water flows on either side of them. They characteristically occur near the entrance or exit of a constricted passage… The politician infallibly steers for the metaphoric middle ground, th4e shifting shallows created by current events. Not so the honest sailor.”
- Franklin Burroughs in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


On the beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, my daughter and I watch an eel being tortured at the hands of a group of terrified, sandy children. They are holding the edge of their Styrofoam boogie board, with the tapered edge pointing down, frantically gouging at the eel. The eel is gaping, gasping for water, recoiling from the scalding sand. It is bleeding from an open wound in its back. Sand is sticking to its body. I approach the children and speak sharply: “Stop! Why are you doing that?” A heavyset girl looks up, terrified, and exclaims, “But they’re poisonous!” I tell her they are not, that they’re harmless, and to leave the eel alone. Just then a very fat man in a bathing suit strides over to the children. Using two sticks he picks up the eel and turns to walk away. My daughter and I inhale, preparing a sigh of relief – the eel has been rescued! – but instead of taking the eel to the water, the fat man in the bathing suit suddenly turns and disappears into his beachside condo, brandishing the crucified eel. My daughter and I stand gaping in disbelief.

We walk back slowly to our hotel. What could we have done? I am distraught and blame myself. My daughter does her best to find comforting words. We walk past the chain link fence with the sign that says Save the Turtles! past the four story condos under construction with the line of frigate birds perched and waiting along the arm of the crane (odd, we say to each other, to call that machine a crane) and we return to our rooms to get ready for dinner. I feels harsh and bitter, my thoughts tasting of bile. I find myself weeping, shocked at my distress. The fact is, it was a small Holocaust and we did not do enough to stop it in time. I burn a bit of sage to lift my shame, and whisper an apology in the form of a prayer. It seems as if the birds outside the window hear me sobbing as the sage wafts through the screen door, carrying my longing out over the ocean waves where I imagine a tiny wisp of it dropping into the water. I see it drift to the ocean floor like a smoky leaf and wonder if the eels feel a tingling on their shiny black and silver flanks.

The next day we walk along the shore again, as we do several times each day. We prefer it to the overblown town, choked with traffic and restaurants. Day by day we feel the place enter us through the soles of our feet – the colors of the sky and the countless greens of palm fronds, the shadows of birds and the iridescence of ancient stones ground to sand. We go to the water’s edge. I drop to my knees in the shallow surf where the waves ripple to shore, and as the water washes over me I ask it if it recognizes itself.

On the morning of the third day, May 8th, we make our way to the water after breakfast. Although it is early morning, a group of people is already drinking and smoking cigarettes. A perspiring waiter carries trays of sweating plastic cups filled with margaritas. Meanwhile, it seems the eels have selected a messenger. The eel, the snake, the edges of the giant clamshell, trace the liminal space between the worlds, the openings and pauses in time. The eel calls across this scalloped space to other worlds and toward the opposite shore, to the living and the dead.

My daughter and I are on our way to swim, but as we approach the water we hesitate: a black and silver eel is lying motionless on the sand, barely moistened by the waves. He has come to the edge where air and water meet and there he waits. We stare in disbelief, looking from the eel and back to each other, and again to the eel. We fear he is in trouble. Kyra quickly removes her sandal and walks toward the eel, thinking to nudge him into the waves. Just then, he coils into himself looks directly at us. He lifts his head out of the water, entering the air we are breathing. Kyra sighs, I gasp, a sudden outlet and intake of breath, and it is done. We have received each other’s inadvertent offering. The eel twists himself into an 8, an infinity, then straightens himself and slips back into the sea. We remain standing, afraid the slightest motion will break the spell. Just then, the waiter walks past, balancing his tray.

“Excuse me,” I say. “But what kind of eel was that?”

The waiter looks puzzled of course, and answers, “What eel?”

“The eel that was there in the shallow water,” I tell him. “It was right there, for a very long time. There was another one the other day up the beach.”

“I’ve worked here for three years,” says the waiter, “and I’ve never seen an eel. We don’t have eels here.”

Monday, July 21, 2014


“The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking from the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love…. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses (or other natural beings, CT) may suffice, but within the circle, what do they call themselves?”
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Sunday, July 20, 2014


I go to pick up the metal dog bowls after a night of rain. A small slug, about an inch long, clings to the side of Ellie’s bowl. Its antennae are extended, it creeps tentatively forward. What is it searching for? Do slugs eat kibble? Does it seek a smooth, dry surface after so much water? The warmth of the metal bowl in the morning sun?

I pick up the bowls, one in each hand, and absent-mindedly clang them together, thinking to dislodge the slug so I won’t have to deal with it. It clings harder, rung with the bell of the stainless steel bowls struck together, its whole body engulfed in the single reality of that sound. And I, too, am, literally, struck by that sound in that moment. I imagine a moment in my world where the whole planet is struck against a twin of itself, only hollow and metallic, the calamitous gonging that engulfs my entire body, everything I know shaken and reverberating, obliterating every other sound, every possible explanation. And I think of Hiroshima, and car wrecks and of ‘smart bombs’ – that’s me, a “smart” bomb, quotation marks and all. And I cannot stand to do it harm, to rid my world of any other single living thing. Only there is no place for a slug (even though the garden is filled with them, what’s one more?) I can’t bring myself to deliberately put a slug in the garden, and I can’t bring myself to kill it, although I’ve already tried. So I carry it inside and put the dog bowls down on the butcher block counter. I fill the bowls, making sure to put in the vitamins and the joint supplements, as the slug makes its way off the bowl and onto the wood. I feed the dogs in their slug-free bowls and step quickly back into the kitchen because the slug is suddenly making rapid progress toward the Cuisinart and I don’t want it there, or anywhere.

I slide the corner of a piece of stiff paper under it and jiggle it onto the card. I don’t want to deal with this creature. I don’t want to have to handle any other life and death crisis, no matter whose, I don’t want the fact of the dilemma to intrude into my already over-crowded life, like the overcrowded counter top, too many indispensable things, too many choices, too many conveniences.

I carry it to the fence and tell it it’s going for another ride, with a steep drop in it, and wonder how slugs do with steep drops even as I am tipping the card over the fence into my neighbor’s yard, into the hedge they never trim, knowing what a stupid gesture this is, that there is nothing preventing it from crawling back through the spaces in the fence and coming straight to my compost, my plum tree, and, yes, the dog bowls, a mere 8 or 10 feet away. A day’s walk for a slug, surely.

And as I tip the slug over to its oblivion (oblivion only for me) I remember my son’s dream two years ago, about this neighbor and this fence: In the dream, a toxic gray fog forms in the neighbor’s yard and drifts between the spaces in the fence into our yard, spreading from there throughout the neighborhood. The poison fog can go everywhere, there is no escape.

I go inside and wash the sticky slug mucous off my thumb and forefinger. I didn’t want to touch it. I did everything I could to avoid getting the mucous on my hand. But there is no avoiding touching everything, hurting things I don’t want to think about, no way to create an impermeable fence, or even a filtering one. The poison is everywhere and we don’t know how to live with or without it.

Friday, July 18, 2014


“Pondering on the facts of gravity and the fluidity of water shows us that the golden rule speaks to a condition of absolute interdependency and obligation. People who live on rivers – or, in fact, anywhere in a watershed – might rephrase the rule in this way: do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
-Quoted by Donna Seaman in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Awake at 3 a.m., no obvious reason. I try to settle myself. I notice my breathing, how my heart pounds, and work to slow the breathing down, practicing tricks that work when I’m traveling: Lying on my back, I sense my toenails, the backs of my knees, my thighs and hips, belly, breasts, spine, neck, the spaces behind my ears. I reach the top of my head. (“Dice?” my daughter would ask.) No dice. My dread is gathering – now I am more awake than asleep. The panic rises. I push it down. It rises. I push it down.

As I lie there in the dark, a voice says, Go outside and close the studio door so the rats don’t get in. I think, What rats? Besides, the screen door is shut, I checked it. I am alarmed that not only am I fully, heart-poundingly awake, I am awake and having a conversation about rats with a voice in my head.

Go outside and close the studio door.
But I’m so sleepy. If I do that, I’ll really be awake.
Shut the door!

(Ten years ago, when my father was in the hospital recovering from surgery, my mother and I went to visit him. As we were leaving, stepping out the door and into the hall, he called out, “Shut the door!” In her best gravel-voiced imitation of Jimmy Durante, she called back, “Je t’adore, aussi!”)

I am doubting, sleepy, and whiny. I want to put conditions on things:

Not at 3 a.m.
Not a conversation about rats.
Not if I don’t get to sleep.
Not if I have to get out of bed and go outside in the cold.

Not for rats.

For what, then?

Get up and do it!

Out I go in my robe and slippers, flashlight in hand, talking to the dogs, reassuring the cats, asking them why they stopped catching rats and if they might like to start again…

I train the flashlight on the windows of my studio, on the bird feeder where I so happily watch the house finches, the sparrows, the doves and the occasional jay enjoy my offerings. It is one of my greatest joys, to offer the seed and to watch the birds come. The crows even tell me when the feeders are empty.

The feeder is boiling with rats. They don’t even look up when the light catches them. They look beautiful – so sleek and fat!

I rush into the studio and quickly shut the door behind me, then shut the door I was told to close. (Je t’adore!) Then I go back to the patio and stand there shivering, horrified and amazed. I grab the hose and spray the rats, splashing the newly clean windows, scattering the seed into the rose bushes and spraying everything for several extra minutes. I am wasting water. I don’t care. In the morning I check the feeder: No wonder the birds haven’t been coming lately. The feeder is caked with dried seed and rat droppings, as is the hanging birdbath next to it.

This latest turf war is an unwelcome new dilemma. I am already overwhelmed by a growing list of dilemmas that run my life like koans: How can we live in a way that creates the world we want to live in? How can we trust that our efforts are helping when everything just seems to get worse? Why must is suffering so persistent? I spend considerable time while awake (and a growing amount while sleeping, or, as it turns out, not sleeping) considering how to live closer to nature and in respectful communication with animals. (I, in a suburban neighborhood in a not-green house where I am gratefully comfortable most of the time. I love to be outside but I don’t like being too cold or too hot or too wet or too thirsty or too sunburned.)

I am thinking up ways to eliminate the rats that gobble up birdseed, fertilizer, unripe quavas, ripe tangerines, and who, I found out today, live not in my neighbor’s cursed ivy but in my very own compost heap. In my delight at communing with the birds and the trees, and my guilty satisfaction at turning all the water-guzzling grass trimmings and shameful quantities of uneaten food into a feast for the garden I don’t have time for, I have inadvertently created an organic, cat-free rat condominium and 24-hour smorgasbord. And don’t tell me they’re nocturnal, which is what I thought until today when I took a break from writing this, went outside to sweep the porch and startled a fat gray rat nosing around the rose food less than two feet from my oblivious, sleeping cats.

I want to eliminate the rats but not what I am meant to learn from them.

Rats and mice are shrewd, tenacious, communal, adaptable. They shred things into tiny particles and attend to each one, storing each thing in its proper compartment. Because their nests are hidden, sometimes underground, and they move so skillfully in the dark, in some traditions they are said to move between the worlds, connected to the ancestors.

During the past two years, life lessons have arrived borne on the corpse of a bird or a rodent – too many to dismiss or account for. In the past week alone: a dead gopher on the hood of my car, the body of a baby mouse on the trail while walking the dogs, and of course today’s ‘porch rat’. Last Spring, a courting male blue-jay swooped into my car, a baby jay smashed into the sliding glass door of my studio (the same one the rats wanted to use), the leg of a baby oriole courtesy of my non-rat-eating-cats, and the dozens and dozens of crow and jay feathers appearing for a full year everywhere I walked, but never saw before or since.

I decide that Step 1 is to dismantle the rat condominium and remove the smorgasbord. (Step 2, contact the rats telepathically? Step 3, look in the Yellow Pages under Exterminator.) What was that about living in balance with the natural world? Having rats feasting and multiplying is definitely not balanced but neither is killing everything that annoys or threatens us. I discuss this with the gardener, who is a supremely gentle and hard-working man of great generosity. He told me once he believes that helping others is an opportunity to do God’s work and to attain a state of grace. He will come this week to clean up the side yard where the rats live. As we are talking, I say it’s a shame to have to get rid of the compost.

“Why don’t you just spend five dollars every so often for a bag of mulch”, he asks.

Good question. I mumble something about plastic bags and not wasting food, but it’s feeble and we both know it. Then he says,

“Remember the other day when you asked me to spread compost on the fruit trees?’

Something in the way he says this makes me look up at his face.

“I stuck in the pitchfork and when I lifted it out I had skewered a big rat.”

Q: When is a nuisance not a nuisance but a creature trying to survive?
A: Now.

Q: Why don’t the rats eat the peaches on my neighbor’s tree, ten feet away?
A: Because they heard him say he was going to set traps?

Q: Still, do I have to live with a burgeoning rat population in my tiny yard?
A: Apparently, yes.

Q: Will they leave if I learn these lessons well – assuming I can figure out what they are - and respectfully ask them to go?
A: I guess I’ll find out.
The gardener comes two days later. The side yard is clean and organized. I ask him if he saw any rats. “Oh yes,” he says. “When I lifted up the compost barrel a huge one ran away. Their nest was in there, underneath. In the ground there was a hole filled with babies, at least 20.”

“What did you do?”

“I covered the hole and buried them.”

I cringe. I thank him. I go to the beach with the dogs. As I meditate and pray, a feeling of immense relief sweeps over me. I don’t feel the least bit guilty. I am amazed by this. I think it must be wrong, I must be in denial, I must get in touch with the sorrow. I try hard but don’t feel it. All I feel is liberated and relieved.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


“In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationship, not only with each other, but also with plants.”
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Sunday, July 13, 2014


When the last of the tract houses is gone

along with the freeways, the traffic

and all the televisions,

we will struggle to recall

the ubiquity of plastic

the way the soft, transparent sheen of Saran Wrap erased our fingerprints.

We will recall without fondness

or the slightest nostalgia

our heedlessness:

the suffocated fish

the strangled birds

the dizzying extinctions,

how we threw everything away.


Until Life insisted

we reclaim

our tenderness,

and our humility

slowly returned

as we fell

into the waiting arms of gratitude.

At first we will reach

for our cell phones and car keys.

Oh, the cars!

We will have to

squint our eyes

and think hard

about the times

when asphalt was normal,

and gates

and guns

between us.

We will tell our great

great great great


that those bits

of rubble,

those shards

of broken glass still scattered

among the tall trees

were once

what we called


(We will hear the distant ping

of an arriving elevator

and the whisper

of mirrored doors closing.)

We will smile down at

their astonished faces and say, Yes,

I lived in that sad time

when violence was the answer

no matter the question.

We will proclaim to the elephants

and the corpses

exactly how we cast the spell

of destruction. But we will refuse

to utter its incantations.

We will speak instead the alchemical

mother tongue

of restoration:

threatened to thriving

extinct to ecstatic

shattered to shimmering.

We will find ourselves


several times a day to wonder

at the miracles

of silence and open ground,

the vastness

of unbroken forests

and water flowing




We will see the moon

and remember

our longing.

Friday, July 11, 2014


“Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubbel space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand… Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.”
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


In Liberia, in the village of Barkedu, within walking distance of Guinea, there is a man we call the Elephant Dreamer. Since childhood he has been dreaming of elephants, receiving messages from them that often play out in waking life. Some are very specific: Meet me at your house on Thursday morning. Or, Make your farm here, not there. He meets them at the appointed time. He plants his crops where he is told. All around him, hungry elephants destroy his neighbors’ farms, but never touch a single plant on his. In his dreams they have told him that this is because the people in his village are behaving badly, contrary to traditional norms, and that many of them continue to hunt and shoot big animals, including leopards and elephants, both of which are protected.

Before the war, elephants were recognized as a sign of peace, and still are, although patience is wearing thin with increasing destruction of crops. But five years ago, when elephants first returned to Lofa county shortly after the ceasefire, hunger was tempered by awe. At the sight of the elephants, the elders of certain Muslim villages knew that specific verses of the Koran were to be recited when the elephants came and these were duly read aloud into the forest.

In the village of Samodu, a widow told us how she negotiated with the elephant elder to share her crops. He was big, much larger than the others, and he was thought to be the oldest living elephant in the country at the time, having been released from the zoo at Tototá at the beginning of the war. He and the other animals – those not killed at the time for meat – were left to fend for themselves during the fifteen years of fighting, after at least that many in captivity. It was known that this particular elephant also understood English and had learned to follow simple commands. The first time the farmer woman of Samodu came upon the old elephant eating her crops, she ran for cover. The second time, she stood her ground and spoke to him directly: “I don’t care how you look at me,” she began, “I will not run away today.” Then she said, “I’m a lady and I don’t have a husband. Will you be sorry for me? I grow these crops to feed my children. Now you have rooted up all the corn and cassava I have planted. You have destroyed all! Can you at least leave one stick of cassava for me?” The elephant stood listening, then gently uncurled his trunk from the cassava stalk he was about to root up, and stood there looking at her for a long time before slowly turning around and sauntering back into the forest.

The following year, our friend Master General, the former rebel commander and LURD Minister of Defense told us that three months before the ceasefire and before the arrival of the UN, he had come upon a mother elephant and her calf while marching through the forest with his men. He said, “The sight of the elephant told me, No more war in Liberia! God said the war is over!” He commanded all his men to lay down their arms on the spot. Anyone who disobeyed the order faced a firing squad. How many men? Thirty-six thousand laid down their guns, just like that. UN Peacekeeper Col. Raza Malik, commander of the Pakistani forces assigned to Lofa county, confirmed that most of the fighters had voluntarily disarmed before UN troops arrived.

The following year, we heard about the relationship between a local village and the crocodiles in the river: It seems there was a time when people were killing crocodiles, and being killed by them. The eldest elder called the eldest crocodile to come for a palaver. Sure enough the biggest, oldest crocodile raised himself from the mud and slowly walked from the river to the elder’s hut. They talked all afternoon and into the night. Pretty soon the crocodile waddled back to his people in the river and told them that he and the humans had made an agreement: there was a certain stretch of river where humans were to be safe from crocodiles, and another stretch of river where crocodiles were to be safe from humans. Humans would not hunt crocodiles and crocodiles would not kill humans. The contract is still in place today.

These tales of reciprocity and relationships that defy Western logic are common throughout Liberia and the rest of Africa, where animal taboos - relationships with totem animals - are still practiced in most places. Sometimes the relationship goes back so far the original story of alliance has been forgotten. Other times families or clans can still tell of how a particular animal either helped or saved the life of a family member, or vice versa, thus forging a bond for all time. It is forbidden to harm, kill or eat the flesh of one’s totem animal, on pain of instant illness, madness or death. Those that share a totem animal are considered brothers, regardless of age, religion or ethnicity.

These close relationships among humans and between humans and Nature form an organic conservation and peacekeeping network that remained intact for generations, accompanied by the stories of the original link. Modern conservation, with all its talk of corridors and preserves, is no match for the relational complexity of earlier times, with its multiple forms and functions. Unlike before, the survival of the animals, the waters, the forest and the people are now considered by humans to be at odds with each other, and therefore all are threatened.

When I was twenty-two and living in Mexico, my boyfriend and I went to Mexico City to visit a friend. His beautiful brown standard poodle, La China (Curly Girl) was being treated for what we thought at the time was a mild infection. It later turned out that she had been given a ‘hot’ rabies vaccine during routine vaccinations the week before. The day we visited, La China was docile as ever, never snarling or biting, although she suspiciously refused to drink water. Not yet knowing the actual diagnosis, the doctor had prescribed some medicine, so we took turns holding La China’s mouth open and gently pushing little white tablets down her throat. A couple of days later, she died. The grimly comical autopsy report that arrived a few days later indicated that she had tested positive for rabies and recommended she be decapitated then killed. There were over twenty of us who happened to visit La China that weekend. For weeks afterward, we all trooped to our local clinics to get daily rabies vaccine injections – 21 in all.

One day, we heard the story of a man we knew – my boyfriend’s former baseball coach - who had been bitten by a rabid dog, had actually gotten rabies and was cured by drinking caldo de zopilote - vulture broth. Even then I wondered, How does one capture, kill and cook a vulture? What ingredients does one include in such a brew? This formidable carrion-eater would make powerful medicine, indeed. I found out later that in addition to curing rabies, Caldo de Zopilote is a well-known folk remedy for cancer and (taken without salt) is said to cure madness. (One should bathe in the leftover broth after drinking). It is even said that drinking the blood of the vulture is sufficient in itself to cure rabies. When I see vultures circling, I wonder what might be the equivalent cure, the caldo de zopilote to heal the rabies of greed that threatens all of life on Earth?

The medical description of rabies sounds like an advanced case of consumerism: A viral illness, inflammation (swelling) of the brain that travels there from peripheral nerves (from the outside in, like healing, like war) until it reaches the central nervous system. Malaise, headache and fever progressing to acute pain, violent movements, uncontrolled excitement, depression, hydrophobia, mania and lethargy, coma and, finally, respiratory insufficiency.

Without familial ties among all life, human and non-human, it is difficult to see where human beings fit in the symbiotic Big Picture. Science sees homo sapiens as a natural progression of Nature’s evolutionary reach toward refinement and complexity. Indigenous thinking, and perhaps the indigenous within each of us, recognize the lived expression of sacred relationship with the natural world as a uniquely human capacity. Gratitude and the myriad forms of making offerings (whether as tangible gifts, silent prayers or simply living with humility, awe and respect) affirm our connection with the sacred, feed the divine, and sustain a relationship of dialogue, beauty and reciprocity. Perhaps this is our ecological niche. Perhaps this is the correct understanding of ‘development’.

In Mali, Senegal, the Gambia and other parts of West Africa, singers known as Griots were originally peacemakers whose job was to chant and sing the deep, historical relationships of conflicted parties back in time through countless generations, reaffirming that their connectedness overshadowed their separateness. Are there any among them that also recount the relationships between humans and the natural world? If so, we need them now. Perhaps we can make a caldo de cuentos - a broth of stories - to sip that will nourish the memory and make it strong.

Monday, July 7, 2014



“…there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.”
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Sunday, July 6, 2014


In the wild a giraffe can decapitate a lion with a single kick. At the Giraffe Sanctuary, in Nairobi, if you hold a feeding pellet in an open hand, the giraffes will nibble it from your palm. If you put it between your lips, they will take it with a shlurpy kiss, licking your face with their cat-rough sandpaper tongue, leaving strands of saliva that stretch like a piece of spider web between your face and theirs as they calmly pull away, making the Web of Life momentarily literal and visible. When they lean over the fence for a treat, their huge heads easily span from shoulder to waist on the average human body. They don’t like to be petted or scratched, but they love to be fed. Again and again they bend in fearless gentleness towards their human pellet dispensers. For them, it’s all in a day’s foraging.

For us it’s a thrill unlike any we have experienced. My daughter, who is a horse lover, is especially taken and revels in the slimy connection. I watch the look of deep joy on her face, of enchantment and magic experienced first hand, and know it is mirrored on my face, too, when the giraffe bends for his pellet-kiss. I watch my son as he stands, grounded and rightful, pellet in lips, upturned face calm and assured as the giraffe looms toward him. I see the astonished faces of other visitors, illuminated by that same joy, especially the children, and in the faces of the sanctuary’s patient Kenyan keepers who help us learn this most basic and simple form of connection with these astonishing creatures, perfect and impossible in their Dr. Seuss-ness. Gentle touch, a shared breath, a kiss is all it takes.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


The internal combustion engine and modern forms of energy production and consumption are largely centrifugal, dissipating huge amounts of energy in the creation of friction, heat and noise as energy is pushed outward - hence the need for metal bands around early wagon wheels to keep them from flying apart, and for radiators and fan belts and such. In contrast, Nature’s preferred means of locomotion is centripetal, moving from the outside toward the inside, in spirals, at increasing velocity, producing a consolidating, friction-reducing and therefore cooling effect. In Nature, extreme heat and violent force are used sparingly and for specific functions – to relieve pressure, to cleanse or decompose so that regeneration and rebalancing can occur. Everything to do with combustive engines is invasive, wasteful, complicated, noisy and expensive. Conversely, “Everything that is natural is silent, simple and cheap.”1 Planetary survival depends on our ability to rethink and restructure human activity in concert with natural systems.

Science is only now catching up to what indigenous peoples have always known: that the powerful elements locked beneath the Earth’s crust – oil, gold, uranium, and the rest – are crucial to maintaining the balance of the whole and therefore ought not be disturbed. Viktor Shauberger’s observations and experiments indicate that oil, in particular, is the source for healthy mineral content of spring water. The fact that the particulars of this underground balancing are still a mystery does not negate its inherent truth. Instead, it invites respect, even awe, and careful study to understand how the overall system and individual elements work. It reinforces our obligation to make radical course corrections.

We need to cast ourselves far beyond the fragmented battles, however urgent, to save this or that endangered species, habitat or corner of the world. The future depends on our willingness to step into the broadest imaginable vision of relationship, possibility and wholeness so that we have a sense of our earthsource at all times, one that informs our understanding of where we are going and how we will get there: What would a world look like that is fully restored and thriving?

Joseph Eagle Elk, a Lakota medicine man who lived 50 years ago, speaks of power and its use, and of the sacredness of fire. He explains how critical it was that people handled fire with gratitude, using it only when they really needed it, knowing that fire was both life giving and life destroying, and therefore requiring of us that we enter into sacred relationship with it. He said that there had come a time when people forgot that fire was a gift and stopped being thankful, and so ‘the heart got hard.’ Most indigenous cultures say the same thing. In Eagle Elk’s words, “Whenever we forget we are part of life and that at the heart of life is relationship, whenever we lose touch with our place in the scheme of things, then we start to take it all for granted. We put ourselves in the front… and then we forget what we have been given. We become hard. We begin to destroy ourselves.” 2

Kenyan peacebuilder and theater artist Babu Ayindo, speaks of the traditional understanding of conflict as being “a form of imbalance with fellow human beings, imbalance with nature, imbalance with the supernatural.” He says, “You know, right now I see the symbol of justice as being balancing scales. Even in most of Africa, we adopted the western justice system, with the emphasis on blame and punishment. But for my grandparents or any council of elders acting on the behalf of the community to resolve a conflict, the emphasis would be on the restoration of relationships, not just of relationships between human beings, but with nature and the supernatural.”

Babu says, “ For many Africans, once you apologize, you know, they’ll forgive you. In fact, it is viewed very negatively if people were to apologize and you refuse to forgive them because once they apologize, they are giving you the opportunity to redress

the imbalance (in all the worlds). Refusing that is viewed as a terrible thing to do, a greedy thing to do actually because you are now working against the communitarian purpose of our being here.” 3

Modern Western culture divides our world into either/or, us and them, all or nothing, boom or bust. Progress is primarily measured in terms of material gain. Modern narrative uses conflicts and crises to ‘drive’ the story. This way of seeing things, repeated over and over in the stories we tell ourselves, becomes the story we enact. We need stories of wholeness and possibility that will keep the world intact. It is time for humans to reclaim our place in global ecology. Like the tannins on the acacia, the earth is telling us, No More. Let us sit down together and listen.

1Alick Bartholomew, Hidden Nature: The Startling Insights of Viktor Shauberger, Floris Books, 2003, p. 90

2 Gerald Mohatt & Joseph Eagle Elk, The Price of a Gift, a Lakota Healer’s Story, University of Nebraska Press, 2000, p. 133-134

3 Joseph Babu Ayindo interview conducted at Eastern Mennonite University Summer Peacebuilding Institute, 1999,