Not Yet Out of Breath

Yesterday I heard the Del Sol String Quartet with special guest didgeridoo player Stephen Kent play a piece called String Quartet #14 composed by Australian Peter Sculthorpe for string quartet and didgeridoo.* The score was based on a legend that Tasmanian colonial government soldiers once drove a tribe of Aboriginals to a forbidding mountainous bluff where they had the choice of being shot or jumping to their deaths. They chose to jump and as they did, they yelled, “Quamby, quamby” which means “save me, save me.”

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Stephen Kent, master didgeridoo player, host of world music show on KPFA (Thursdays at 11:00 am)

The piece had four movements: Prelude, In the Valley, On High Hills and At Quamby Bluff. For me, when the didgeridoo entered he song, I felt a great sense of relief, of being held by forces unseen, as if instead of people jumping to their deaths, the earth came up to meet them and carry them home. It felt almost as if the strings were the human mind telling this gruesome story and the didgeridoo heralded a larger, ancient planetary story that is not yet ended.

Western culture is still, as it were, driving the indigenous people off the cliff and yet their very breath, the breath needed to play the didgeridoo still circulates around this planet, surrounding humans with the knowledge that we are part of the earth, that we are all connected, no matter how many times we drive try to that wisdom over the cliff.

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Aboriginal style artwork

Last fall I visited an overlook at Canyon De Chelly in Arizona that reminded me of this Tasmanian story. In the 1800’s there were people living in the caves along the rim of Canyon De Chelly and a massacre took place. Some soldiers stood where we were standing and shot into a cave across the way and some soldiers made their way into the cave to kill the remaining people. The cave is called The Place Where Two Fell because one of the native women grabbed a soldier and took him over the cliff with her. I read the story before my traveling companion, Viviane, and I went to the overlook and I was reluctant to even go there. But we decided that for the sake of healing, we would go and I would play didgeridoo into the canyon.

When we arrived, we heard haunting Native American flute music drifting towards us. I not only played into the canyon from there, but I began to collaborate with the Native flute player, D’von Charley. We played for a long time with Viviane singing and Lu from Belgium dancing. The whole tableau was a prayer for healing.

pottery sherd found near Chaco Canyon, NM

pottery sherd found near Chaco Canyon, NM

The human race is not out of breath yet and neither are the indigenous peoples. A Navajo man that Viviane and I talked to near Chaco Canyon in New Mexico told us that in the Diné language, to say the word for “thank you” to someone, one must engage deep inside oneself at the diaphragm, taking a huge breath that penetrates one’s being. And one does not just thank the person, but the entire context in which that person arose, the ancestors, the plants, the animals, the land that supported that person’s life.

With the breath we make this healing music. With the circular breath of the didgeridoo, we acknowledge the circle of life that sustains us, the ancestors and plants and animals who came before us. We make a way for that breath that sustains all life. And we give thanks for that breath and for those who write and play such music. Thank you Del Sol String Quartet, Stephen Kent, composer Peter Sculthorpe and all those who  have lost their lives in this struggle to keep humans in right balance with the rest of the natural world.

(*the didgeridoo is an Aboriginal drone instrument made out of a eucalyptus branch hollowed out by termites that is used for ceremony and hunting)

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Integration is making me wait

I am still dealing with my injured foot/ankle and feeling as if I need to tell more stories from the National Parks trip to allow myself to continue to absorb what we encountered in those sacred lands.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (29)

After meeting the Bristle Cone Pines (on a mountain between Mono Lake and Death Valley), our perspective on time had changed. If those trees had survived for 6000 years and they continued to learn and adapt, our bouts with the cold, wind, sun were such specks of sand in a desert. I began to feel the expansion of myself filling in the spaces between the trees and me—we weren’t so different. Maybe I had some Bristle Cone Pine in me and now that I had met them, I could get in touch with that part of myself that was timeless, enduring, and appreciative.

We made our way back down the mountain and continued to Lake Diaz to camp for the night. Lake Diaz was a bit strange and at first it looked like we would be camping right near the road but it turned out that the campsite was in a small oasis on the other side of the lake with trees and stiff breezes. We set up in a sheltered spot, hoping the winds would not blow us away or irritate us too much. There were very few other people there. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (37)

We  cooked and ate our dinner of polenta and soup and then admired the stars before curling up in the little tent and getting much needed sleep (the night before at Tuolumne neither of us slept much at all even though we were warm and cozy, but perhaps because of the excitement of starting such a trip, we couldn’t settle in).

We got going the next morning fairly early again, getting better at breaking camp and stowing our stuff (of which we had too much) in the car and moving out. We were near the entrance to Death Valley and the scenery demanded our constant attention as the terrain changed drastically from moment to moment—stark yet ever-changing desert, rock, mountain, valley, the subtle colors that Death Valley’s elements materialize so beautifully.

Just before we officially entered the park, up on a ridge above the valley, we stopped and Viviane collected larea, a strong anti-cancer plant. These plants were healthy and growing in this most magnificent place. A raven watched our every move as we collected the herbs.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (49)

Then down into the valley where one feels as if one is going back in time. The ancient is what rules the valley—no Congress or President can begin to think they can close or open this park—it wields true power. The sheer drops, the subtle colors, the expanses, the growth of an occasional Joshua Tree and larea plant or sage brush. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (39)Our clocks seem so puny there where so much has happened over such a long period of time. Even the Now cannot hold it. It is a place of yesterday, today and tomorrow all at once.

As we drove time telescoped and microscoped around us, a playground for the atomic and the galactic all at once.

At the Artist’s Drive where the mountains show off strange colors that look like a palette of different colors, strange blues and reds and oranges. Viviane stopped and painted a sketch of the area as I played the didge to it and to different rocks that were strewn about.   I discovered that volcanic rock seemed to have the strongest response (reverb) to my playing. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (62)The hungry winds quickly swallowed up the sounds of the didgeridoo. In such a place where my human form is diminutive and the place ancient and still, some ineffable part of me seeds itself into the surroundings and the boundaries separating me from the land, the animals and those who came before me, soften and spread out like shifting sand.

We were lucky that the temperatures were in the 80’s that day and not into the 90’s or 100’s as they often are. Their record for the summer was 128, six degrees shy of the top heat recorded in the Valley of 134 degrees.

Our timeline did not allow us to stay overnight in Death Valley, and we traveled on through to Tecopa Hot Springs on the south side of Death Valley. The campsite we found was challenging in many ways: gravel under the tent, no picnic table, surrounded by RV’s. But we made the most of soaking in private tubs containing the special mineral laden waters that underlay the area.

At about three in the morning we were disturbed by a drunk man and woman who came by to use the springs and who were noisy and vaguely threatening as they were swearing loudly and just seemed out of control especially to two women lying in a tent, vulnerable and awake. But they finally left without incident, and we tried to resume our night’s sleep. No one in the RV’s seemed to hear them.

The next morning in order to have our breakfast, we carted all of our stuff up to the building in which the hot springs were housed and took over the foyer there to cook. Since it was windy, we also rolled up the tent there and then had a morning soak before heading out for our longest day drive to Holbrook, Arizona, almost at the border to New Mexico.

Our aim was to get to Grants, New Mexico by noon the next day to meet our cohort Connie for her 75th birthday. Look someday for the U-tube video of us singing the song we wrote for Connie, inspired by both Connie and her creative life and by what we had been seeing along the way. It is called She’s a Julep and features a chorus that goes like this:

Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone Pine (repeat).

Don’t let your energy be caught in a bind,

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

Standing tall and feeling fine

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

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Sacred Lands

After traveling much of September and October, I have returned home and settled back into the routine. It’s hard to know where to begin to update readers on all that has happened.

I will start with a piece of the National Park’s trip. At the end of September, my friend Viviane and I went on a ten-day journey to visit sacred lands from California to New Mexico. The impetus for the trip was that I am working on a new novel called Here After which takes place in the months following 9-11. Some of the characters in the novel end up driving to New York from San Francisco in what becomes a pilgrimage to bring the wisdom of the sacred lands of this country to NYC and the devastation there. I found in writing it that I needed to visit these places in order to write about them. Thus, the trip.

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Berkeley camp entrance–burned trees

The first day, after driving through areas devastated by the fire, we landed in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. We had to find our camping legs rather quickly that night as Tuolumne Meadows turned out to be the coldest spot in the United States that night. We couldn’t hang around there long in the morning as we had far to go that day, but also it was too cold to dally.

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Tioga Pass

We continued through Tioga Pass down to Mono Lake where we stopped for viewing and to get our bearings and pay homage to those who worked so hard to save that precious lake from being drained by voracious water-users. Yes, we had attacks on this country in New York City, but how much devastation do we do to ourselves that goes almost unreported?  nat'l parks trip 9-13 (25)

Our main destination that day was the Bristle Cone Pine Forest, about an hour’s drive up a mountain from Route 395. It was well worth the extra driving as this forest is home to the world’s oldest living beings, the Bristle Cone Pines. They are 4000 to 6000 years old. I had not heard of these trees before a couple of weeks before we left on the trip when someone I met began telling me about a trip she was taking to the forest.  nat'l parks trip 9-13 (23)When I looked it up on the map and saw that we would be going right by there, we made a point of taking that detour to visit the trees.

As we walked around the forest and I played didgeridoo to some of the trees, I could feel an uncanny presence among them. Several times I looked over my shoulders, sure that some humans were coming up on us, only to see that there were just the trees. These trees have learned how to survive in very harsh conditions, high altitude, strong winds, extremes of hot and cold and poor soil.

nat'l parks trip 9-13 (31)nat'l parks trip 9-13 (32)Their presence felt watchful and full of gratitude for the interaction as they absorbed more than just nutrients from their roots. I could sense an openness to our presence, a way in which they may have been taking in even the small amount of energy we were offering them. Perhaps this is the evolutionary step that makes them able to survive on so little.

Maybe they have learned how to appreciate even the smallest gesture of connection, take it in, let it nurture them. I wanted to sit at their roots for long periods of time and to see if I could learn it too. This place could surely be a destination for the future.

Honoring the Trees

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oak at sunrise, Henry Coe State Park

I read not too long ago of an oak tree in China that sprouted in the year 550 AD and just fell down recently. What a lot it saw in all those years! Where do tree spirits go when the trees die?

In Turkey, people are staging an uprising because of a plan to cut down trees in their plaza and replace them with a mall. It is a flashpoint for bringing people together and allowing them to think about what trees mean to the planet and to all of us creatures who live here. The trees are making everyone consider what’s important to them; the trees seem to be inciting democracy.

I have been following the proposed action by University of California at Berkeley (UCB), City of Oakland, and East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). They have applied for FEMA grants to cut down a half million trees in the East Bay hills and spray thousands of gallons of herbicide in the clear cut areas. This is part of a misguided fire hazard risk reduction project.The plan is to remove all non-native trees (eucalyptus, Monterey pine, acacia, etc.) and vegetation from the project area: about 86,000 trees in Strawberry and Claremont canyons and in Oakland.  Of course this will have an effect on possible landslides and will reduce habitat for so many birds and insects who have always known these trees and have a relationship with them even if they are non-native.

The public has until June 17, 2013 to submit written comments on the project. Please take the time to  submit written comments:

Via the project website: http://ebheis.cdmims.com

By email: EBH-EIS-FEMA-RIX@fema.dhs.gov

By mail: P.O. Box 72379, Oakland, CA 94612-8579

By fax: 510-627-7147

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Old Man’s Cave State Park in Ohio (Photo Credit: Mark Peeples)

I urge all of us to take the time to go and sit with a tree, see if some of that wisdom and democracy rubs off on us. And take the time to thank the trees for all they do for humans and the rest of the natural world. What steadfast presences they are on this planet. They have so much to teach us about patience and standing our ground.

Summoning Ghosts (part two)

In the last blog, I promised an excerpt from Between Here and Hereafter that was connected to the theme of Summoning Ghosts.

At the beginning of that as-yet-unpublished novel, the main character Miriam is turned toward death, constantly summoning her conjoined twin sister Katie who died when they were separated at age six. She was living out of balance with the here and the hereafter, leaning in towards the hereafter.

Western culture strikes me as also being out of balance when it comes to mortality and the cycles of life. Death is a taboo subject in many ways and yet, we see violence and death glorified in films, video games and television. Barraged with images of death and dying, guns being sold both within our country and to other countries, we inure ourselves to other’s suffering and dying. Do we think that the more we act as if we don’t care about death, the less chance there is that we ourselves will die?

We are not a culture who honors the ancestors, or allows ourselves to grieve. I recently read Edie Hartshorne’s book Light in Blue Shadows: Transforming Grief where she faces the death of her nineteen year old son by his own hand. This book is not a bestseller, not because it is not beautifully written and wise, but, I think, because our culture is so afraid of such topics. And yet such topics are exactly what give meaning and beauty to our lives, speaking directly to our hearts, to what we know in our bones is important and why we are on this earth.

My novel is an attempt to bring out of the shadows the topic of death and to see how we might transform ourselves with that conversation into whole beings who embrace the light and the dark.

Here is a short excerpt from Between Here and Hereafter:

“The whole world has mourning sickness and doesn’t know it,” Miriam said, as she started class on the Monday before Thanksgiving. She went into a kind of reverie. “All around me I hear the moans of mourning sickness. Grief exploding in more bombs, causing more grief. These are time bombs of unshed tears. Death as an enemy can never be vanquished, but there are many other foes who can. So we direct our missiles towards them. If this nation ever fully grieved, we could be compassionate leaders.”

That day they spoke of war and its effects not only on the dead and their loved ones, but on the ones who are required to kill and on their loved ones. Joe’s group took the lead in the discussion.

        Near the end of class, Miriam reminded them that she would be going out to Alcatraz on Thanksgiving Day to pay tribute to the ancestors of this land. “This ritual on the island supports those Native Americans who, in spite of the genocidal actions of this country, are still managing to live in this country, often in grief, anger and poverty. There will be drumming and dancing in the sunrise ceremony. A celebration of a new day and the hope for a new way.Image

Summoning Ghosts

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Photo Credit: Cynthia Waters

This week I went to see Summoning Ghosts, the title of a current exhibit at the Oakland Museum. It is the Art of Hung Liu whom some of you may be familiar with if you frequent the Oakland Airport where she has an exhibit called “Going Away, Coming Home.” The exhibit is nothing short of phenomenal and may be one of the best exhibits I have ever seen.

I am particularly drawn to these paintings after a dream I had last week in which I was playing the didgeridoo toward a wall and I knew that on the other side of the wall were people who had died. As I played the wall slowly became a window and I could see that those on the other side were young people. I felt in the dream as if I had been “summoning ghosts.”

One of Liu’s inspirations is using old photographs depicting people who have been forgotten about and whose individuality in their lifetimes was devalued and maybe despised, such as prostitutes or orphan girls. In one instance, she separated the orphan girls out and featured them in individual or smaller groupings and gave them dignity, emphasizing their uniqueness.

Most of those she paints have most likely passed over into the realm of the ancestors. And these “ghosts” who may have suffered greatly in their time on earth are shown in all of their compelling humanity, embodied souls who lived as best they could in the political milieu into which they were born.

One of her most compelling techniques is to allow certain paint drippings to remain in the painting. These drippings signified sweat, tears, a sense of the ancient, and for me the most important was the feeling of gravity in the paintings as the drips were pulled down towards the earth and one had the sense of creatures connected in such a real way to the ground on which they stood. She uses butterflies and birds as a motif and paints circles, maybe to remind us all of the cycles of life.

In this new spring and the season of Easter and Passover, we all ponder the circle of life and death and what is important to us in this place that we are only passing through.

In Adam David Miller’s words from his poem Forever Afternoon:

 “…Life is a wheel of fortune, my life

a gift to be passed around the wheel.

 Do we ask where does the caterpillar

go when it becomes a butterfly?

The caterpillar does not go, it becomes.

Spirit of caterpillar lives in butterfly,

same heart, beating stronger.”

In Part Two of this blog, I will post another excerpt from my novel Between Here and Hereafter.