Feeling for the Trees

ImageI feel for the trees. A huge (120-150 foot) eucalyptus tree that lived for over one hundred years next to the Victorian house at 14th and Lakeside in Oakland blew down in the big windstorm we had about a month ago.

At Daré (Daré is a Shona word for Council and is a once-a-month gathering in Oakland open to everyone and dedicated to healing and peacemaking) held two weeks ago, someone spoke of the downed Eucalyptus tree that he had used as an anchor point when he jogged around Lake Merritt. To see it on the ground had stunned him. Walking amongst its downed branches, he could see beauty that had been too high for his eyes before—the patterns in the bark, the colors of the leaves. ImageSo much beauty on this earth takes place outside of our ability to perceive it. And yet, how often do we really look at what we are capable of seeing. We move so fast.

When a friend and I went to pay homage to the valiant tree last week, a feeling of immense vulnerability swept over me. That something so large and seemingly invincible could crash down that way. It could have taken some humans or their structures with it, but instead it fell onto a large magnolia tree (it is yet to be seen if that tree will survive) but not onto the road or the structures that stand nearby. It lay there, immense, broken, with its root ball exposed, its lifeblood, its lifetime of stories laid bare for all who cared to listen. We climbed down into the hole left by those roots and could see a rottenness at the core that must have contributed to the fall. Image

The tree seemed to have been perched on a rock (or at least very hard clay) at the middle of where it had stood. Now we could run our hands over exposed roots, intertwine them with our fingers and our minds. Was it the drought that caused this to happen? And how many more will fall before it is over? How many will they take with them? How much unseen suffering is happening right now to the trees?Image

Trees are a huge part of the respiratory system of our planet, taking in our carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis converting it into nutrients and oxygen so that some kind of balance of in-breath and out-breath can be maintained. Our future is caught up in the web of well being of trees. There was a time in most cultures when humans worshiped trees as sacred bridges between earth and sky. Trees are living beings which have the capacity to slow us down, to allow us to see inside of time as they span centuries as guardians of place. They provide constancy when so much is changing around us. And yet maybe that takes too much for granted as they, too, are vulnerable to disease, old age and drought.Image

Poet Morton Felix who passed away almost two years ago wrote these lines.

“This evergreen chill

spirals through lungs shaped like leaves

breathing its breath

upon being’s instrument.”

                                      From a poem entitled Autumn by Morton Felix

 

Being’s instrument. Isn’t that what we are as we live to breath (instead of breathing to live), fully inhabiting this instrument that is us? This breath, kept in a place of honor and primacy, connects us to all beings who live now, who have ever lived and those who are yet to come. And it places us directly at the roots of our fellow travelers, the trees, as they work to keep this planet in balance. We must not be cavalier with their lives—each and every one is a precious being, as is each and every human. How can we honor them, tend them, learn to understand their sacred language (see the book by A. T. Mann: The Sacred Language of Trees)?

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tree altar. (credit: Nicki Koethner)

 

In this new year, maybe we can all consciously notice the trees in our neighborhood and in our travels, spend extra time getting to know and appreciate them, breathe with them, talk to them and most of all, listen.

 

 

 

 

Not Another Step

???????????  For about a week, I have been on crutches, unable to put weight on my left ankle/foot. This situation has caused a forced shut down of my activities. I had been trying to get back to normal after a series of journeys this summer and fall, when my ankle began to hurt and then got steadily worse. The pain started after the ten day National Parks trip and before I went to Tennessee to assist my mother in her recovery from back surgery which was right before a week’s trip to the ocean.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that all of this is about the mother, writ large and small. At the Bay Area Daré (a monthly gathering for healing and peace-making) on Sunday, I asked for healing work for myself. When asked to tell the story of this ankle/foot, I began with the silent retreat I attended at Mt. Tamalpais in August. The retreat, including sitting and walking meditation, took place outdoors among the redwood trees. Since I was born with a neuro-muscular disorder that affects the shape of my feet and thereby my balance, walking meditation has always been extra-challenging for me. It is only in recent years that I have attempted the walking meditation and this year found myself deriving a great deal of joy and satisfaction from it. My high arches make it so that not much of my foot touches the ground when I walk normally. But in the deliberateness of the walking meditation, I found that my feet were given time to spread out and touch more of the ground.  Each step became an offering to the earth and the earth seemed to be reciprocating. Image

At times it was as if I were dancing with the earth as I walked, a kind of one, two, three, waltz rhythm. I remember that rhythm following me into lunch where I continued to sway to that beat as I ate my food. Time flew by as my consciousness was invited into my feet where it so seldom lives. Feet kissing the earth, dancing with its rhythms, my mind quiet.

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Wupatki

I started the story there because it feels as if that shifting in my relationship with the earth mother was a watershed event. The next thing I knew I was on the National Parks trip for ten days and walking on sacred ground in the footsteps of ancestors who have honored that earth for hundreds of years—in Yosemite, Mono Lake, Bristle Cone Pine Forest, Death Valley, Chaco Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, Sunset Crater and Wupatki.

Upon my return, my foot/ankle began to hurt but I managed it and continued on.

Then suddenly I am in Tennessee with my mother helping her in her recovery from back surgery. This interlude did not put a lot of stress on my feet but demonstrated a way to give back to the mother who has given me so much. The back is the primary support system for the body as well as a primary nerve center. Feeling. Reciprocity.

Then to the ocean at Sea Ranch and to a Spiral Gathering and ritual there for the oceans and especially for healing the fallout from the Fukishima disaster that goes on and on and does not stop at any country’s borders. And walking the sands of that place, entering sea caves and playing didgeridoo for the rocks, the sea, the seaweed and the seals.elise in cave

And then suddenly, I cannot take another step, there is so much pain. Perhaps my feet are taking in the pain of the Mother Earth or I have absorbed so much from these places where I have stepped that I must stop until I can integrate all of that energy into this small human body and learn the lessons I am meant to learn and tell the stories I am meant to tell.

After I told my story at Daré, and after I lay flat on my back and was held by a circle of lovely people and their ancestors and after they had walked around me in a reverent and joyful slow meditative walk, I felt relieved of something that had been too much for one individual to hold. They were taking some of the weight as well.

The pain is gone now and I am gradually putting a little weight on my foot. And I am telling the stories here and will continue them in the next blogs. Now you, too, help me carry that joy and that load. We can all begin to walk again in a different way, sharing the pain and the joy of the earth mother, one foot after the other, giving and receiving.????????????????????

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.

Fear Less

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Steep Ravine

My intention is to create a series of blogs that have to do with creating space in our lives through the awareness of the breath.

The longer I teach didgeridoo (Australian Aboriginal instrument that creates a drone) , the more I learn that this instrument is truly an instrument of peace and spaciousness (see Sound Rivers.net). On one level it is merely a physical act of blowing through a tube to make a sound; on another, it is an act that brings one fully and consciously into the moment.

Last night I went to a dharma talk at the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley http://www.insightberkeley.org (Bancroft near Martin Luther King Jr. Way) where Donald Rothberg was the guest dharma teacher. His topic was fear. Overactive fear has long been a damaging feature on the landscape of this country. Since 9-11 that feature has become even more pronounced in our government and in the individuals living here. Take the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and our acquiescence to surveillance by our own government as recent evidence of the fear we walk around holding.

Rothberg spoke of the way fear can enter our bodies and lodge there so that when it arises, there may be no story attached at all, just intensely uncomfortable body sensation. Our minds might then create a story to account for the sensation, perhaps we find an enemy to go after to alleviate that horrible sensation. One way that he has found to deal with irrational fear is to send out metta or lovingkindness, thus transforming the energies of fear. Fear cannot exist in the midst of lovingkindness.

Yes and let’s find more ways as well to work with the body, not just the mind. I have found that on at least two levels the didgeridoo works with these very energies and transforms them into deep peace and a feeling of at easeness with the universe. The low drone itself surrounds and holds the body, allowing it to relax. And circular breathing requires diaphragmatic breathing that cannot co-exist with anxiety.

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Elise playing agave didgeridoo

When we breathe shallowly, using just the upper lungs, we are straining to try to control the universe and how much of it we will let in. Most people in western culture routinely breathe in a shallow way that keeps the breath out of our deepest selves. It is a kind of breath that says to the universe, “mind your own business; I’ve got things under control here.” When we have the wherewithal to let that breath in deeply, the anxious need for control vanishes. Then a way to connect with whatever situation is at hand arises in the now, not in a fear-based story about the future.

The in-breath is a gift from the universe, the out-breath what we offer back to the universe. By taking the breath fully into our deepest places through a process of letting go, we give the breath a chance to transform us so that what we offer is not just our own agenda, but a conduit for harmony.

Deep breathing goes to the place where we connect with other humans, with our place in the ecosystem, with other creatures, and with our ancestors. It is a cornucopia of resources. And yet how often do we get there? Some of us, only in our dreams (making dreams even more crucial to our lives).

Why is sleep apnea so prevalent in this culture? Could it be because we are so unused to allowing breath to ful/fill us that even in sleep we find ways to shut it down? Perhaps this is why the only cure for sleep apnea that is known is circular breathing and why it is so difficult for many to learn it. Circular breathing is not just a technique, it is a deep letting go of fear.

No Shame

If you are looking for something to do this weekend, please take yourself to a treat of a play, La Cage au Folle at the Contra Costa Civic Theater, the last weekend it plays. The performances (all volunteer, by the way—community theater), were heartfelt, funny, talented and transporting. These are characters who play very specific people but whose emotions could be mine or yours. Never have I seen a production of this play that so reminded me of the times I did not fit in, tried to pass for something I wasn’t, hid in shame over some part of myself and found relief and redemption in coming out of the closet, voluntarily or–as if this case–involuntarily. My hat is off to the director and the actors.

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.

The Space Between Us

ScannedImageI was recently introduced to  a new-to-me author, Thrity Umrigar, an Indian-American. I was originally drawn to the title of her novel, The Space Between Us. In my philosophical work, I created the concept of The Between, the space which lies between the dichotomies this culture has created such as men and women, night and day, humans and the environment. The Between offers connection, creativity, and love. However this culture has for the most part amputated this rich and alive part of our lives. See The Emperor Has  Body: Body-Politics in the Between.

Anyway, I loved that first book. Thrity’s astute sensibilities picked up on the very things that interest me about human culture. She sees class, gender, friendship, parenthood with an eye for context, uncovering the underpinnings of culture that push us into places we can’t understand ourselves. I went on to read another of her books and got my step-daughter hooked as well. This week I needed a birthday present for her and went in search of more books by Thrity. I called four bookstores in Berkeley, none of which had her books. Since I was planning a trip up Route 101 anyway, I tried Book Passage in Corte Madera. What an amazing bookstore! They have a huge inventory and what looks to be a thriving author’s reading series. Not only did they have several of her books on hand, but the clerk, who knew her work, was able to suggest to me another author I might like.

I used to find myself in Cody’s on Telegraph quite frequently, but I must admit that I haven’t been in a bookstore in a while. I have gotten in the habit of purchasing used books online from bookstores all over the country. In Book Passages I was reminded of what I had been missing. I saw so many books that caught my eyes; the atmosphere was so pleasant I felt as if I was visiting an old friend. When I found the books I was looking for, as well as another one for my niece for her graduation, I leafed through them as if I had just drunk some kind of love potion. The smell of the books, their loving arrangement in neighborhoods, the familiar feeling of my love of reading, an electricity in the air created by the books themselves and all that went into making them, the friendly clerks who share this love—what an aphrodisiac!

Then in giving the books away, I felt as if I was giving some of that very feeling to my step-daughter. I could have given her the gift on Kindle but since I don’t have one, and I am going to want to borrow the books, I gave her the real thing. I can’t imagine feeling the same feelings if I had given her the books on Kindle. I feel as if I have created a reciprocal relationship with those books; this, even before reading them. I had gone on the first date in the dreamy atmosphere of the bookstore and I had established a loyalty, not just to the author, but to the beauty of the thing itself, the thing that I could smell and feel and rub against my face.

I feel as if I had awakened from a 21st century cyber-dream where I was beginning to wonder if we ever needed to see each other face to face or if e-mail and texting would do fine. Now I remember the value of something that I hadn’t even spoken of before. I hope we can articulate the value of unseen qualities such as touch, smell, and a kind of electric energy before we lose them in more places than bookstores, but surely there, surely there. As Joni Mitchell would say, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…