Friday, December 17, 2010

Poetic Interlude: Winter on Mount Tamalpais

Mist covers the mountain today
houses nestled in the folds of the hills,
half hidden by trees,
a Chinese landscape scroll outside the window.
All day they're cutting a huge fir across the valley
first, branches, till the tree stands bare
then, piece by piece from the top.
I miss the moment
when it no longer stands at all
clouds hide the sight.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Abundance and Diminishment, Diminishment and Abundance

This afternoon I shopped at Whole Foods, the aisles just brimming over with the beauties of the world: rare and tasty cheeses, the finest carefully-chosen organic vegetables glowing in artfully arranged piles, forty different artisan breads made by hand from stone-ground flour, Fair Trade chocolates from around the world (chocolate and lavender, chocolate and chile, chocolate and espresso beans). The food of gods and goddesses, and I'm one of them, grateful and amazed, even as I know that this abundance can only be temporary, in a world of such disparities, where so few have so much and so many have so little.

When I was a kid growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana, we shopped at the A&P grocery on 9th St - Wonder Bread, Hostess Twinkies, old wilted broccoli (who wanted fresh vegetables when canned and frozen lasted so much longer?), Folger's instant coffee.

"Organic" didn't exist.

The Wabash River flowed through town and an abandoned park on the river was my favorite haunt, but the river was so polluted that in all my years there I never dreamed of touching the water. Now my hometown has a restaurant where all the food has been grown or raised within one hundred miles, people catch and eat fish from the river, and The Nature Conservancy is working to protect the riparian forests of the Wabash which is - to my astonishment - the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi, an ecological treasure, a jewel.

Meanwhile, every day there is another story about the disappearing fish stocks in the world's oceans. Meanwhile the song birds are coming back from migration in fewer and fewer numbers. Meanwhile...well, you know the stories, you read them too. When I'm with a group of like-minded friends, sometimes we trade these stories, a badge of our shared despair. I've begun to wonder if this is helpful, for the song birds or for us.

When I was working in Southeast Alaska this summer, I saw abundance that seemed far beyond anything I'd ever known. The inlets and waterways were filled with diving murrelets (endangered south of Alaska), auklets and puffins; the streams were full of silver salmon; humpback whale spouts could be seen in all directions; every kelp bed was filled with flipper-waving sea otters. On land the deer barely bothered to lift their heads when we entered their rich sedge meadows; bear sign was everywhere (I would have been happy with a little less bear sign); and sandhill crane pairs trumpeted from their nests in secret muskegs.

It was wonderful and encouraging, and it would be easy to stop here, to write a few elegiac words about how the whole world must have once been like this - but it's not so simple. Here are a few examples of the not-simplicity of the abundance I saw....

Until a few years ago, there had been no sea otters in Sea Otter Sound for a hundred years or more - they had all been hunted out by the Russians and the English and anyone else who appreciated the warmth and value of otter-skin coats. Thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and tireless work by biologists and others, they're back, more every year, but the local people say that they're eating all the shellfish, and the shellfish beds are barren and empty now.

The bears and deer move through a landscape that has been decimated by some of the most rapacious clear-cutting ever seen on this planet. The Tongass National Forest was, between the late 1960's and the late 1990's, nothing short of a national sacrifice area, its vast dark forests of old growth hemlock and Sitka spruce merely fodder for two huge pulp mills on the mainland, its landscape scarred by thousands of miles of roads. Our national heritage was sold for a pittance, a tiny fraction of its worth, to keep those two mills turning out toilet paper and newspaper - toilet paper no doubt sold at the A&P in Terre Haute, Indiana - and to keep the owners of those mills providing large donations to Alaskan politicians.

A small group of activists. local subsistence-based people, biologists and foresters fought to stop, or at least mitigate, the damage, and they won. The cutting on Prince of Wales Island has largely stopped (except, ironically, on native-owned lands.....that's a whole other story).

One biologist I know, who has been working on Prince of Wales for eighteen years, said he had never seen so many bears before. The bears are coming back, the forests are coming back, with each storm the land reclaims another road.

Some of the salmon I saw in such abundance are hatchery stock, moving upstream to where they were born, where they will be milked of their eggs before being hit over the head and their carcasses dumped nearby. The bears like this a lot.

Our fingerprints are everywhere, doing good, doing harm, one step forward, one step back. Sometimes we don't even know if it's good or harm, or both. Even as I write this on this rainy night, I look out on to the dark slopes of Mount Tamalpais. I am spending the winter here again because I love being in a place where open space is a stone's throw from where I sleep, where mountain lions and red-shouldered hawks are my neighbors.

Mt. Tam from outside my window

But Mount Tamalpais was - and continues to be - saved from urban sprawl by generations of wealthy or influential (or both) peope who fought and fought to protect it, some of whom are probably shopping at Whole Foods right now, debating with themselves about which fish is most "sustainably harvested" for their Saturday dinner.

The world of owls and whales and otters may be in big trouble. I suspect it is. We, goofy troublesome primates that we are, may be in very big trouble, and I'm almost certain we are. But some of us have the will and energy to fight for the world, and the world has immense powers of recuperation, of renewal, even as we mess with it in our various ways. I don't even pretend to understand what's going on, but I suspect that abundance and diminishment, kindness and rapaciousness, damage and renewal walk together.

I do know this: the rain and wind that soaks the hills tonight and that brings such misery to those without homes in the streets of San Francisco will also bring the salmon up the streams to dance their old dance above their redds again. And the willow saplings planted along those streams by a hundred volunteers will take root in the wet, take hold, begin to grow.

P.S. Let's continue the conversation...if you post an online comment, I promise to respond.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Southeast Alaska - Second Glimpse: The XtraTuf State

A few weeks before I left for for my field work in Southeast Alaska, I was on a conference call with the four other biologists on the crew, all of whom had logged serious field time in Alaska, from seabird surveys in the remote Pribilof Islands to laying out huge timber sales on the Tongass National Forest. I was the newbie, the innocent, the lower-48-only idiot. I had no pride to lose, so I asked, “Hey, what is the best footwear for working in Southeast Alaska?”

The response was unhesitating and simultaneous: “XtraTufs, preferably with corks.”

I was not quite willing to admit at that moment that I had no idea what XtraTufs were, but I jotted the name down (Extra-Toughs? Extra-Tuffs?) in my little notebook with all the other tips (full working-man’s raingear – none of that Gore-Tex crap – boot dryers, fleece gloves with neoprene palms for the devil’s-club, Rite-In-The-Rain field paper….)

I was going to be PREPARED, by gum. I did know what corks were, though I’d never worked in them: they’re a set of wicked spikes that fit into the bottom of the sole of the boot, designed to grab on to slick logs so that you don’t go head over tea-kettle into the aforementioned devil’s-club.

(A digression here: devil’s-club, Oplopanax horridus, is a well-named Dr. Seuss-like being with enormous spiny leaves atop a long, bare spine-studded stem. I knew it well from the West Cascades of Washington, but only when I got to Alaska did I see devil’s-club growing in thickets tall enough to hide a basketball star. It seems to prefer steep slopes where an unwary sliding biologist will be likely to grab the spine-festooned stem as a last resort.)

An innocent-looking patch of devil's-club

I wasn’t so sure I wanted corks, especially after I heard stories of neophytes putting the spikes through their own raingear and shins, but I was determined to get XtraTufs, whatever they were. I went online and read this: “XTRATUFs are American-made neoprene boots that provide 100% waterproof protection with all-day comfort for the MOST SEVERE fishing, farming, and work conditions.” Sounded like the conditions I was heading toward. They looked like an expensive version of a basic rubber boot, but if my experienced Alaskan co-workers said I needed them, then clearly I needed them, and no questions asked.

Finding them – and extra-tough raingear to go with them -turned out to be another story altogether. I don’t want to go into the embarrassing details here, but I’m on the small side. I have been called (in a friendly manner) “height-challenged”, and I often save money by shopping in the children’s section of REI.

I quickly discovered that the iconic tan and brown XtraTufs are found primarily in marine supply stores, the kinds of places that cater to commercial fisherman and aspiring stars of “The Deadliest Catch”. Ditto for heavy-duty raingear. Now I KNOW there are women and children on boats all the time, but tell that to the makers of these things. In their world, all human beings are at least six feet tall and weigh over two hundred pounds. I could have fit at least two of me in the men’s extra-small rain bibs, and for a while it looked like my search for the essential XtraTufs might fail altogether.

Eventually I found a store that carried the smallest possible size of XtraTufs – men’s size 5 – and by some miracle, and with heavy socks and a pair of insoles – it seemed that they more or less fit me. I walked out the proud owner of the indispensable Alaska boots, and in retrospect, I shudder to think of how I would have felt if I had been unable to procure XtraTufs. I had no idea of their role in coastal Alaskan culture. Those of you who have been there are surely nodding knowingly now.

I will say that the raingear search was harder. Five marine stores in three different towns later, I was about to surrender and buy bright pink little girl’s raingear. I knew it was silly to care, I knew a Buddhist practitioner should be beyond “praise and gain”, but it was really hard on my dignity as a field biologist to imagine showing up in bright pink raingear. On the other hand, showing up without any raingear at all seemed like a truly bad idea.

In desperation, I spent two hours combing through a vast supply of raingear seemingly designed for Mr. Universe, until I found bright blue bibs and a jacket that I thought I could wear without tripping over my own hems or losing my hands inside the sleeves. I was quite pleased with myself, since I had avoided the deadly pink raingear, but I must admit that just the other day I put on the bibs for a walk in the rain with friends, and my friends burst out laughing. I have the sneaking suspicion that I looked like a large, overly ripe blueberry up there in the Alaskan rainforest. Maybe the only reason that the bears left me alone was that they were doubled up with laughter at the sight of me.

Photo by Emily Drew

Thus armed with a ridiculous quantity of brand new outdoor gear, I journeyed north, by Alaska airlines to Ketchikan, then by ancient float plane to Prince of Wales Island. I brought hiking boots along with my XtraTufs, because I’ve always worked in hiking boots and I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t be appropriate somewhere, sometime. But they weren’t.

Nothing made it clearer just how wet this part of the world really is than discovering the astonishing, absolute necessity of high waterproof boots at all times. Years ago I did wetland delineations, using plants and soil to identify boundaries of wetlands. I’m pretty sure that a wetland delineator could draw a great big circle around Southeast Alaska and call it good. There are dryer forests there, but even dry forests are covered with a dense, deep layer of sopping wet moss – moss everywhere, on the ground, on fallen logs, on upright logs, on rocks….like an emerald green blanket thrown over anything remotely horizontal. In fact, not only did I wear my boots all the time, I wore raingear nearly all the time too, rain or no rain. The first time I crawled over a big moss-covered log with no raingear on was my last.

XtraTufs doing their stuff in a mudflat

Within days I discovered - and I’m really not exaggerating much here at all - that no one wears anything on his or her feet, at any time, other than XtraTufs. Not just my seasoned field crew, but everyone. Not that we saw many people, but those we saw had XtraTufs on. Outside fading, dilapidated cabins, you could see a line of XtraTufs on the porch, matching the sizes of the men and women inside. In fact, I remember, on our last day, checking in with the floatplane company, and seeing a young, very pretty, very chic, well-dressed woman, waiting for the plane too. What was she wearing on her elegantly crossed feet? ExtraTufs, turned fetchingly down at the ankle. She made XtraTufs look like the sexiest thing north of the Canadian border.

I’ve even had a fantasy that babies have been conceived in Southeast Alaska by parents wearing nothing but XtraTufs (giving “rubbers” a whole new twist).

Here’s the funny thing, after all: XtraTufs are not all that great in the woods. Their soft and flexible neoprene provide little ankle or arch support, which are real issues when a person is on his or her feet for many hours a day, covering miles of uneven, very slippery, sometimes steep terrain. Sometimes I’d be going downhill through the endless little muddy streams and sphagnum, wincing as I twisted one ankle or the other about every five minutes. They’re probably great on a fishing boat, but a fishing boat is a far cry from the woods. A good pair of ordinary rubber boots would have probably been better. Nonetheless, I cringe to think of myself pulling out my cute little bright blue rubber boots (and oh, wouldn’t they have been fetching with my bright blue raingear?)

I have a suspicion that part of the reason terrestrial biologists wear XtraTufs in Southeast Alaska is the same reason that I might wear XtraTufs again if I went back, even if it meant sprained ankles after a day in the woods: they are a true symbol of Southeast Alaska, recognized by everyone there. They express your knowledge of the conditions and your readiness for anything – a day in the rain, a day fishing for salmon along the river, a day stalking your winter deer in the muskeg, a day out crabbing on the high seas, even a day hunting rare plants in the woods. The way they say, “This is one hell of a wet, difficult place, but I’m up for it, I’m prepared, I’m tough.”

Spencer Richter, with his pit bull Bristol and his XtraTufs

And Southeast Alaska demands a lot of her people. Her people are not just tough, but extra tough. And they have the boots to prove it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Southeast Alaska - First Glimpse

I'm back from three and a half weeks of work in Southeast Alaska, where I hunted rare plants as part of a team of botanists on the Tongass National Forest.

We worked on mountaintops, cliffs, salt marshes, beaches, bogs, lakes, meadows and old growth Sitka spruce forests on about a half dozen islands west of Ketchikan, most of which most people have never heard of: Prince of Wales Island (the fourth largest island in the US), Heceta Island, Whalehead Island, Blashke Island, Kosciusko Island, and Tuxekan Island, all in the Alexander Archipelago, made up of over a thousand islands off the west coast of the Alaskan mainland.

This was my first trip to Alaska. I've avoided Alaska all this years because -- and I'm just going to be really honest about this -- I'M AFRAID OF BEARS. I'm somewhat rational about this: I'm much more afraid of grizzlies than I am of black bears. But I'm also embarrassingly afraid of black bears. Embarrassing because as a field biologist for nearly twenty-five years, I should know better, or at least be a little less paranoid than some city slicker. I wouldn't have taken the job if it had been in grizzly country, but Prince of Wales only has black bears. More about bears later.

As a Southeast Alaska newbie, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had ideas - large bearded men, rain, insects, wildlife, big trees. But it's a long way from one's ideas about a place to the actual, living place. Still, some of my ideas were more or less accurate....

Large bearded men? Check - although there weren't many people on Prince of Wales, where there were men, they tended to be large and scruffy and bearded, though quite friendly. (Here's an Alaska joke for single women: "The odds are good but the goods are odd.") It's a guys' place, with an emphasis on functionality and a de-emphasis on aesthetics. In the few tiny settlements, trucks lay rotting in the weeds, minus their tires (imagine the difficulty and expense of getting a dead truck off a remote island); houses looked like they'd been put up in an afternoon a half century ago and never painted again, and blue tarps reigned supreme. One is visible as a make-shift door in the photo below. There was even a spectacular collection of enormous, long-abandoned and rusted logging equipment, called, with some heavy irony, "The Logging Museum".

The Ruff-It General Store, accessible only by boat. Whale Pass, Prince of Wales Island

Rain? Check - it rained nearly every day we were working, and on the rare days when it wasn't raining or drizzling, the underbrush was so wet that it might as well have been raining. We never really dried out, just like everything and everyone else there. The whole place is dripping wet, a great big sponge soaking up the North Pacific storms. About half the "land" is muskeg, which is essentially a spot that hasn't dried out since the last Ice Age, covered in layers of peat and sphagnum moss and carnivorous plants and little ponds and too wet even for most trees. There is no point to wearing any clothing other than layers of fleece, and no point wearing any footgear other than high rubber boots (more on those later too), preferably ones with cork spikes in the bottom ot prevent slipping off the giant wet mossy logs that must be clambered over to get anywhere.

That's me, in XtraTuf boots and rain-gear, walking through a saltmarsh.
Photo by Emily Drew.

Insects? They weren't as bad as I had feared, except for "white socks", little flies that removed chunks of flesh from our faces and necks, then worked their way under our clothing. I wouldn't know I'd been bitten (they must inject some anesthetic) until I touched my face and felt dried streams of blood. Sometime after the initial bite - hours or days later - the spot would begin to swell and itch. The itch would build to a nearly unbearable intensity, and all our faces were swollen and bloody, like sixteen-year-olds with terminal acne. It lasted about a week, until the next set of fly bites.

Me again, bug-netted, trying to document a rare plant location in a skunk cabbage swamp.
Photo by Emily Drew.

And bears? What Prince of Wales Island lacks in grizzlies, it makes up for in black bears, which like everything in Southeast - trees, slugs, devils-club, skunk cabbage - are prone to a certain gigantism. The bears on Prince of Wales are the largest black bears in North America. And like the rain, they are everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE. Big piles of dark bear scat litter the sides of main roads, line every game trail, stand like proud monuments out in the middle of meadows, and even show up on the tops of mountains. It doesn't seem possible that any animal smaller than an elephant could produce such humongous dumps. I can't even begin to express how large these things are - the scat that is, not to mention the bears themselves, which we encountered nearly every day.

Despite an ecological understanding of the importance of large carnivores, I have to admit that I prefer my woods without bears, or, if there are bears, I prefer my bears to be secretive and shy. The bears OWN Southeast Alaska, as far as I could tell.

All that aside, though - even as I chronically damp, nervous, and covered in intensely itchy welts - every day was a wonder, an amazing encounter with a land and creatures beyond what I had ever imagined seeing. I feel grateful and lucky to have had the opportunity to work in those primeval forests, on uninhabited islands, in a dreamlike place of mists and water.

It's been hard to begin to write about it, perhaps because the scale of the experience was so large, so multi-layered. I pull one thread and a whole island lands in my lap, mud and moss and forests and all. Or perhaps because it was so far beyond what I've experienced before - flying in a small helicopter a few hundred feet above the ocean, listening to the breathing of humpback whales, walking alone along the edge of a cliff, standing in places where there is no one else for many miles, happening upon courting, bugling sandhill cranes in hidden meadows.

I hardly know how to share it. I think the only way is in little glimpses, vignettes, like getting on to one's hands and knees and looking at the moss gardens in the muskeg, up close.

So, in the next series of posts, over the next few weeks, Southeast Alaska, glimpsed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Field Season Sabbatical From Blogging - in Alaska!

I won't be posting for at least the next month....I'm going to be in Southeast Alaska doing botanical fieldwork on Prince of Wales and other islands, with limited internet connections (but plenty of wolves!), and then traveling up in the Canadian islands. I'll post pictures and stories from the other side of all this adventuring.

Meanwhile, here's a link to the anthology that I've been working on for the last couple of years, due out in September and available for pre-order now from University of Utah Press or Amazon. The writings in the book, by nearly fifty authors, are truly beautiful and inspiring.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

On this Mother's Day I've been driving across the springtime desert, a great bouquet spread across the mountains and canyons and vast sweeps of the Southwest. And I've been thinking about the power of mothers, the sheer unbelievable exhausting work and terror and joy of mothering that women all across the world take on with their whole hearts.

In the Metta Sutta, an early Buddhist sutra about compassion and loving-kindness, the practitioner is urged to love others "even as a mother loves her only child." The Tibetans teach loving-kindness by suggesting that since all beings have, in one lifetime or another, been our mother, how can we help but feel boundless gratitude to all of them? And Prajnaparamita, the deepest possible wisdom, is described as "the mother of the Buddhas" and is always depicted as a woman.

Personally, I've been learning a few things about what it takes to be a mother, directly from the source. For the past few months, before I started my annual fieldwork, I've been the "token non-mother" in a small meditation group for mothers that my friend Monica and I started together. All the women (except me) have school age children, and some are on the second round of raising children - a child in college and a young child still at home.

We meet at 8:30 AM on Mondays, since mothers generally can't get to an evening meditation group. Anyone can show up as late as they need to, since everyone knows that getting kids off to school can be filled with the unexpected. If someone has a child home from school, she can bring him or her to the house too. After we sit together in silence on couches and chairs and comfortable cushions, we pass around a little statue of Kuan Yin, the female bodhisattva of compassion, and each woman has a few minutes to speak about anything she wants. We all listen with our full attention. Sometimes the person speaking begins to cry. Sometimes we all start to cry. Sometimes we all laugh. And then, after each woman has said what she wants to say, we talk for a bit and then go our separate ways.

Every time is moving, extraordinary, and the hard-won wisdom in the room is palpable. And each of these women, who spend all week listening and responding - to children, husbands, a whole family - have one place where she is completely listened to and heard, and where she can say whatever needs to be said, the thing that perhaps can't be said anywhere else.

This what I've learned, through the tremendous honesty of the women in the group: mothering is infinitely harder than anyone ever acknowledges (and I can imagine all the mothers reading this snorting and rolling their eyes at my great insight). My respect for mothers - any mother - has increased tenfold. All you non-mothers out there, male or female, just try it for a week. Take someone's kids for a week - even your own kids if you're not the primary caregiver - and see what it's like. See if you're not reduced to a puddle of exhaustion, frustration, infantile responses, confusion, and self-doubt by the end of the week. See if you're not horrified by the thoughts that have arisen in your mind. See if you haven't wanted, at least once, to throw something across the room, maybe even that sweet child that you love so much who has just pushed you over an edge you never imagined you had.

And yet, on the other side, ask any mother whether she regrets what she's taken on. I remember when my friend Katy had her first child, at 40, after most of a lifetime of not wanting children. She said, over and over again, "I can't believe I almost missed this. I have never felt love like this, my heart has opened wider than I knew was possible, there is nothing more wonderful." She was transformed, radiant, new-born herself. She's walked a tough road as a mother, with some terrifying moments - the kind of moments that no parent even wants to think about - but I know she would still say the same things that she said when her first beautiful daughter was born.

To be a mother is to open yourself up to everything - to all the struggle and heart-ache, to being unappreciated or even hated by your children, to risk the loss of your children, to weep, to sacrifice what matters to you for your children, to be helpless to ease their suffering, to fail and fail again. And to love with every cell in your body.

When Tibetan teachers first came to the West, they couldn't understand why their practice of generating gratitude by thinking of one's mother often went so poorly with their Western students. It seems that deep trouble between mothers and children is a hallmark of our culture. If we're lucky we can spend a few days with our mothers without going mad. But admiration? Devotion? Very rare.

We can't pretend that trouble away, but at least we can consider what it takes to be a mother, every once in a while. I know that my contact with the women I was sitting with every Monday morning has changed me irrevocably, and has given me a new view of the tremendous nobility of the practice of mothering. A bodhisattva is a being who is dedicated to the well-being of others; however imperfectly, every mother is engaged in bodhisattva practice, doing the best she can with her own heart and the challenge of a child. Now when I see a harassed mother with a screaming child - or two, or three - in the grocery store I want to bow down and kiss her fee, or at least hand her a coupon for a good massage and a glass of wine. I am in the presence of a bodhisattva.

I want to end with part of an ancient koan:

A certain laywoman was a student of a famous Zen teacher in China. From time to time she would come to the monastery to visit the teacher, and she would be treated with great respect and was housed in the teacher's best guestroom. The senior monk at the monastery resented the woman and didn't think it was proper that she was treated so well. He kept complaining to his teacher, and finally the teacher said, "If this bothers you so much, go talk to her yourself."

So the monk went off reluctantly to see the woman. When he knocked at her door with his attendants, she met him and said, "Is this a worldly conversation, or a Zen conversation?"

He said, "A Zen conversation."

She said, "Then dismiss your attendents and come in alone in a few minutes."

When he came in she was lying on the bed, naked. He pointed to her body and said (and I can imagine the tone here), "What is this?"

She said, "This is the gate through which all the Buddhas and great teachers come into the world."

Every great man, every great woman, every humanitarian, every saint, every president, every philosopher, every artist, every writer, every peacemaker has come into the world through the body of a woman. On this Mother's Day, I bow down to all women everywhere, and especially I bow down all mothers. Bravo. Bravo. Bravo.

And a special bow to my own mother, the amazing Harriet McNeal, off in Romania having more adventures as I write this. Thank you for all the ways you've taken care of and inspired me.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA,

It’s a cold, sunny November day in San Francisco, and I’m walking up Fillmore Street near Japantown. I don’t live in the city, but I enjoy coming in for the day from my little place in the oak-covered hills to the north. I’ve already indulged in a fine latte at a tiny French cafĂ©, sitting at a table in the sun reading the New York Times and feeling comfortably and exquisitely urbane. Now I’m near the Duxiana store, which sells high-end luxury mattresses, and I notice an older man sitting on an overturned bucket by the corner. He’s wearing a gray canvas smock and he’s holding an empty soup can carelessly in his right hand. He’s looking across the street, as if he’s just resting there on his bucket, resting rather than begging. I walk by him and up to the gorgeous windows of Duxiana, and then I remember my tax.

I used to live in the country in the Pacific Northwest. Every few months I’d drive to Seattle, and invariably, as I came down the off-ramp from the freeway I would see a person at the corner near the first traffic light, usually holding a hand-lettered cardboard sign: “Need food or a job,” “Please help,” “Mother and two children,” ”Veteran.” I would roll down the window and hand a few coins or a dollar or two to whoever was on the corner that day. I began to think of this as my “city tax.” I was coming to Seattle to enjoy the city for the day; the least I could do was hand a few coins to someone willing to stand on a busy off-ramp in the ceaseless drizzle.

I know and understand the arguments against handing money to homeless people. But I tend to see asking for money on the street as a very difficult, very poorly paid job, one that I – and most people I know - would be utterly unwilling to do. I can’t imagine standing on the street for hours at a time on sore feet, begging for help, ignored, sometimes cold or wet or both, all for a little bit of cash, perhaps barely enough to buy a warm cup of coffee.

So I’m standing by the Duxiana windows, looking in at the beds as soft as clouds, and I remember all this. I turn and walk back to the man with his bucket and empty soup can, and I drop a little money in the can. He’s surprised. Without thinking, I also touch his hand and wish him well. He, in turn, looks me in the eyes and says, “Bless you, bless you.” And I feel blessed. Thoroughly and genuinely blessed and warmed and touched, like a sudden shaft of sunlight on a dark day.

This is what I’ve found, from these many years of giving money to people on the street - men and women with their shopping carts in big cities like Washington D.C. or New York or San Francisco, homeless pierced teenagers in small towns, old ladies dressed in black on the steps of churches in Mexico, gypsies playing accordions in Italy or in Greece - the response, nearly every time, from every sort of person in every language, is “Bless you,” or “God bless you.”

This is the most wondrous and mysterious thing to me. I hand fifty cents to a stranger and they bless me, like an ancient ceremony, like the kiss on the head by a wise man or woman. I never expect the blessing – why should they bless me from their cold street corner, comfortable and secure and oblivious as I am? And yet, when the blessing appears, I understand again that this is what they have to offer. When you have nothing, what can you offer but your blessing? And perhaps, when you have nothing, when you find yourself begging for food or change while others walk by you on the way to warm restaurants and cafes, your blessing is a gift far beyond what even you yourself can know.

All I know is that it feels like more than a fair exchange. Fifty cents in my pocket will buy me very little happiness; a blessing, a real blessing, and that glance into each others’ eyes, is beyond price.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Clinging To Words

The Saturday before last I spent the afternoon at Green Gulch Farm, my old haunt in a valley on the Marin coast just north of San Francisco, then drove the curves of Highway 1 high above the Pacific, then past Bolinas Lagoon and up Bear Valley, where the San Andreas fault separates the North American tectonic plate from the oceanic tectonic plate, and thence to the tiny town of Point Reyes Station,at the southern end of Tomales Bay.

Two of my literary heroes were reading and speaking together in Pt. Reyes that night: Robert Hass, two-time poet laureate, and Michael Ondaatje, Sri-Lankan-born author of The English Patient and other great novels. I had found out about the talk two days before, and had been almost beside myself with excitement about it.

Why, you might wonder, are two towering world literary figures hanging out in a small town in West Marin on a Saturday night? Well, they're locals- Robert Hass lives in Inverness, just across Tomales Bay from Point Reyes Station, and Michael Ondaatje spends the winter in Marin. And they're old pals. In fact, they even look alike - both grey-haired, a little short, a little paunchy, with kind faces and laugh lines around their eyes. They were doing a benefit for the Tomales Bay Library Association, which sends writers into the local schools, teaches English to ranch workers, and hosts a major literary conference every couple of years, the last one dedicated to the memory of Wallace Stegner.

As I sat in the Point Reyes "Dance Palace", the local community center, waiting for the talk to begin, I was reading the book I'd brought along, Bill Porter's Zen Baggage: a pilgrimage to China. Bill Porter, come to think of it, would have fit right in that night - he's also gray-haired, a bit round, with laugh lines around his eyes, and he's also one of my literary heroes.

Bill lives in a place like Point Reyes Station, though larger: Port Townsend, Washington. Port Townsend is - like Point Reyes Station - filled with writers and wannabe writers, tourists and poets and artists and eccentrics and organic farmers, boat-builders and old Zen guys.

Bill lived for years in Taiwan, some of those years in a Zen monastery, then started translating ancient poetry from Chinese. He and his wife came to the US a number of years ago, and now he is one of the pre-eminent translators of Chinese Buddhist sutras. Sutras are teachings of the Buddha or expositions by great teachers on Buddhist philosophy, often quite deep and difficult to understand. Translating Buddhist sutras does not make one rich: in one of his books he thanks the local food bank in his acknowledgements. His pen name is Red Pine.

Zen Baggage is the story of one of his recent wanderings around China. That night, as I sat on a hard chair in the Dance Palace waiting for my heroes, I read about a cave he visited in the Taihang Mountains. From 581 to 1100 AD, more than a thousand Buddhist sutras, each one many thousands of lines long, were carved into the stone walls of a series of nine caves. In 1100, the caves were sealed, and they were only unsealed in 1956. Every inch of these caves is covered with ancient sutras. The versions of the sutras in the caves are in many cases older than any other known version. Paper and books can be burned; stone has a way of staying around.

As Bill wandered around the caves looking at all the words, he thought of the Lankavatara Sutra, and he quotes a long passage from it: "a noble son or daughter [a Buddhist practitioner] should not become attached to words, because what is true is beyond words. ...if someone points to something with their finger, and a foolish person looks at their finger, they won't see what it is pointing at. In the same manner, foolish people become so attached to the finger of words, they refuse to abandon it to grasp the truth, even at the point of death..."

Bill appreciates the irony of this - the Lankavatara Sutra, which was revered by early Chinese Buddhists, was undoubtedly carved in stone somewhere in those caves. Monks spent years of their lives painstakingly carving words - were they attached to them? How could they not be?

After reading that passage, I had to put the book down, because Robert Hass and Michael Ondaatje were coming on stage. For the next two hours I was filled with nearly unceasing happiness at the beauty of the language in the room. Robert Hass read first. I'd been reading his poetry for years, but I'd never heard him read aloud. In his mouth his words came alive in a new way, imbued with his humility, his honesty, his willingness to be moved and amazed by the world around him. One poem was about feeling like the shadows underneath pine needles on a spring day....

I'm no fool - I know that authors are often at their best in their language, and in person are arrogant alcoholics or worse - but I couldn't help liking Robert Hass. And his writing, which had impressed me for a long time, was suddenly full of sparkles, like sunlight on water, alive in a new way for me.

Then Michael read. I read The English Patient when it was first released and won the Booker Prize, and I had thought then that it was a masterpiece (the film adaptation, as good as it was, didn't even come close to the book). To be in the presence of someone who could write a book like hear his language, and to hear him talk with his old friend Robert Hass and with the audience about his writing process - well, it was extraordinary.

As I walked out into the misty night air, I considered the power of words in those two men. Their words had raised $3,000 for the Tomales Bay Library Association that night - an organization dedicated to words and to the sharing of them - and a hundred people or so had spent their evening, eyes alight, in the presence of great language and humanity.

Robert Hass's gift lies in the most minute and loving attention to detail - to the detail of a lover's shoulders, the detail of a bird's song, the detail of a facial expression or fleeting emotion - and yet that description, no matter how good, is only a simulacrum of the real thing - that pine needle, there, the needle on the tree that perhaps he looks at every day outside his office window; that actual lover, maybe not quite the woman that he saw and wrote about. I once wrote an essay about a relationship, trying to be honest and true...when the person who was the other half of that relationship read the essay, he said, "Very nice, but you know, it's fiction." And he was right. All writing is fiction. "What is true is beyond words," as the Lankavatara Sutra says.

Ah, but the beauty of words! What they can do to us! There is the beauty of the bird in the sky, but sometimes we only see it in a poet's words about the bird, revealed in its poignancy. A memory of a visual image, turned into language, written down, then heard or seen and brought into the mind of the hearer or reader, who "sees" the bird, and is stunned by the seeing. And yet, there's also a gap, between the direct experience and the re-imagined experience, and a kind of longing there, in that gap. But still, can we perhaps say that "what is true is also within words", or am I just fooling myself, caught in my own clinging to language, my own ecstatic love of language?

Later, after the talk, greedy for more Robert Hass, I looked him up on the internet and found several poems on the Poetry Foundation website that I'd never read, including one called Meditation at Lagunitas. I discovered that Robert Hass asks these same questions to himself, He says, "because there is in this world no one thing to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds, a word is elegy to what it signifies", but he keeps thinking about it, and ends the poem with, "There are moments when the body is as numinous as words... Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry."

So here's what I think right now... let us say - and write - blackberry - and take joy in the reading and writing, "as numinous as words", and also eat actual blackberries, the juice running down our chins, joy in both, knowing that both these words and this mouth are temporary flashings, like "dewdrops, lightning, a rainbow". There are some lines from Tennyson that have always moved me:

"Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass'd in music out of sight."

It's like that.

Meditation at Lagunitas

by Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.