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Archive for the ‘Valleys’ Category

Falling Back to Earth

Anyone who has participated in a School of Lost Borders program has heard some rendition of Steven Foster’s phrase about the Big Lie. “The Big Lie”, Steven would boldly say, “is that we are not nature!”   These words have echoed throughout my life for the last fifteen years, reminding me that not only do I love nature, and want to spend as much time as possible in the wildness of natural places, I am nature. I am the very stuff on which I stand. I am mineral, water, roots, flesh, and fungi. My brain, as Gary Snyder writes, is “rolling, crinkled, eroded, gullied, ridged” just like the washes of Death Valley, or the mountains of the Eastern Sierra.  My blood is a river, my veins its canal. My eyes are translucent pools.

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Still, after fifteen years of hearing Steven’s words play over and over in the singsong strings of my mind, I have barely the slightest inkling of what this actually means. I am nature? How do I live knowing this? How do I digest it? When my father took his last breath and I watched his body slump heavily into the mattress of the hospital bed, I may have understood, briefly. But then I turned myself toward the door, back to the light of day, and it slipped away.

It seems true that it is not until I am faced with loss, when I feel the heaviness of grief that I really get it, even if just for a sweet and terrifying moment. To be nature, not just a part of nature, is not an abstract concept. It’s not a fanciful or playful idea that I like to toss to my students (which I have done). It is not an amusing phrase to put in a glossy conference brochure (yes, which I have done).  It is as real as rock. We age. We die. And when we do, we fall back to earth.

I cannot say it any better than Native American writer, Paula Gunn Allen, who gifted us with these words, “We are the land. To the best of my understanding, that is the fundamental idea that permeates American Indian life; the land (Mother) and the people (mothers) are the same.” How can this so easily be forgotten? When in a drought, I become cranky and thirsty. And when it rains, I drink. When the land provides me with food, I take and eat. When she gifts me with beautiful sunrises and eternal vistas, I believe.

We don’t choose the landscapes that we love. They choose us. Never once have I decided to love a desert valley. I can’t fully describe how this happened; I feel it. The love rises spontaneously up through my feet, crawls up and over my skin, and burrows right into my heart. Almost always it is met with tears.

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Desert dweller, Edward Abbey, may have had a similar feeling. The desert chose him. While others saw the desert as a wasteland, he saw color and life.  He saw red rock sculptures and claret cups. He saw beauty in scorpions, snakes, and sandstone. He saw rain fed emerald pools reflecting back his tears.  And he saw bulldozers tear up the virgin soil. Developers love the desert too, but for very different reasons. The land does not choose developers. They choose it.

With the force of a flash flood, Abbey was prone to extreme expressions of opinion, which involved cutting down billboards and putting sand in crankcases of the bulldozers that were ripping apart his beloved desert. In response to romantics like myself, he wrote, “Sentimentalism without action is the ruin of the soul.”  As an introvert, and a sentimentalist, I shy away from activism. I cringe at the thought of speaking out, exposing myself, being ridiculed, being wrong. I like to keep my dirt orderly and clean. But, I also detect the ruin, as subtle as it is, slowly eroding away the force of my life. If I am the land, and the land is destroyed, how could I possibly extricate my soul?

And so today, I write on behalf of the Owens Valley as part of a community effort to stop the pending industrial scale renewable energy developments in the valley. It is not easy being an environmentalist campaigning against renewable energy, so I’ve had to do some homework.* What I’ve discovered is first, it’s a complicated issue but worth digging into and secondly, it is possible to support renewable energy without handing over one’s soul to corporate developers, even if they are in the solar business.  Still, the tension is not easy.

If you haven’t seen it, you might want to check out the 4000 acre Ivanpah solar facility near the Mojave Preserve in southern California. I’d give you directions, but you won’t need them. Just take a drive along Interstate 15, between LA and Vegas, or better yet, visit the Mojave Preserve. You’ll see the facility even if you don’t want to. It’s Gotham City at a distance. Or something that Andy Goldsworthy’s evil avatar would create on speed. But this is not virtual reality, especially if you’re a desert tortoise. It’s real. It’s hard to say how many of these endangered species have died so far, because many of them live underground where they also burry their eggs. Some tortoises have been relocated, but they have a hard time making it when removed from their territory. And then there are the flying creatures: birds, bats, and insects. When birds fly too close to the facility, their wings scorch in the 1000-degree temps, at which point, they fall to their death. Not surprising that just days before it’s grand opening, The Wall Street Journal, dubbed Ivanpah as “The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project”. Butterflies and moths, I imagine, just combust.

bird

There is a creepy atmosphere of stupor when it comes to the government’s involvement – or lack thereof – with monitoring renewable energy developments.  Some companies have been given 30-year permits to kill bald and golden eagles; some have been given the nod (hush, hush) to kill critically endangered California condors. And then back on the home front, in the Owens Valley, a February 26th meeting with the Inyo Planning Commission left everyone angry and confused when the entire commission, save one, essentially approved setting aside 10% of the county for renewable energy developments despite the public’s furry over a misleading public document.  As Marvin Gaye would ask, “What’s going on?”

I don’t know anyone personally who disapproves of solar energy power. The problem is not renewable energy, but rather how it is to be implemented. Tearing up pristine deserts, critical habitat, sensitive cultural sites, and scenic byways is absurd when there are so many viable options. Options that have been studied and proposed by respected environmental agencies. Furthermore, rooftop solar has been hindered by large utility companies in spite of a recent study that showed how Los Angeles County alone could power half of California with rooftop solar.

And while all this battling is going on, in distant lands, far, far away, glaciers are quickly melting, and entire eco-systems are slipping into the cold abyss of extinction.  I’ve never seen a polar bear, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to know that if I lived in northern Alaska, Greenland, or northern Russia, I’d be screaming and yelling at every warm weather bastard to build as many solar farms as possible, and quickly.  Like the Judgment of Solomon, it sometimes feels like we’re being asked to cut the baby in half.

So after all my ranting about solar farms and planning commissions, at the end of the day, I’m still faced with grief. And it is taking a huge amount of will not to lash out, or blame, or take it out on those I love.  It comes from an unresolvable conflict that drops me a few more notches closer to earth. It puts my face in the mud. It fills my mouth with foul tasting muck.

whitney

And it is here, in the mud, that I realize now why I dislike activism. It’s because I know I am never completely right on any issue. And, that I don’t live up to my own standards. That, in truth, it is impossible, no matter how hard I work at doing the right thing, I am a hypocrite. This is not about self-belittlement. It is the truth. What I most dislike about activism, precisely, is that it makes me have to look more carefully at my own shadow.

And if that is the case, then it must be a darn good thing.

For those of us who love this world, who fall in love with lizards and snails, smooth skinned mushrooms and green mossy rocks, lichens and orchids, tortoises and condors, and all the thousands of precious things, may we never forget that one day, every single one of us, will fall back to earth.  May we have the grace to do our best, whether it is fighting global climate change or for the survival of one tortoise, to make sure there is some earth left to lovingly catch our fall.

Please take a moment and sign the REGPA petition to stop inappropriate industrial solar/wind developments in the Owens Valley.

* I wish to express my gratitude to Chris Clark for helping me do my homework. His invaluable articles, which have contributed to this blog, can be found at http://www.kcet.org/user/profile/cclarke.

Sitting next to a newly installed Big Pine Creek

Sitting next to a newly installed Big Pine Creek

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Lately, I’ve been contemplating wholeness. I know that wholeness is something to be desired, but what is wholeness, really? Wholeness is one of those abstract words we carelessly toss around – similar to ego or self – but when asked, it is difficult to come up with a clear definition. When I Googled the question “What is wholeness?” this is the first thing I found:

“Wholeness is a concept that has many meanings in our culture. It is spoken of by New Age gurus, preached from the pulpit, and bandied about by pop psychologists. Yet none of these can give you a straightforward answer as to what wholeness really is”.

Perhaps, it is easier to describe wholeness by what it is not – via negativa – for I can easily identify the moments in my life when I have felt anything but whole; times when I felt alienated from others, periods of self-doubt and humiliation, and those many instances when I wasn’t understood or when my feelings were denied or devalued. It is times like these that my body and mind fall out of sync, scouring against each other like two opposing sides of a fault-line.

We do know from trauma studies that dissociation, or psychic splitting, takes place when an unbearable event such as child abuse or a natural disaster occurs in the life of an individual or community. Dissociation is a psychological maneuver that fragments the psyche into various compartments where the painful material can remain safely tucked away, enabling one to continue living without having to bear the full weight of the trauma. Thus, dissociation is a helpful survival mechanism, but not without great sacrifice. Whereas a traumatized person may be able to function in the external world of work, friends, and family, the inner world may be beset with a host of tormenting symptoms which cramp down on their ability to express themselves and move comfortably through the world. If they were Elk or Caribou, it would be like having fences erected around their migratory paths.

Unfortunately, too many of us know the impact of trauma in one form or another. Yet, within mainstream psychology, little attention is given to the pervasive trauma of global warming, the loss of habitat, or the destruction of wild places. And yet, the wounding impact of these events is palpable to anyone who has ever had connection to place. Each time I travel to my mom’s house in the Coachella Valley, for instance, I become disoriented, uncomfortably altered, and despairing as I watch more and more of my favorite desert places swallowed up by Home Depots, golf courses, and mobile home parks. And what makes this worse is that very few people understand or recognize these feelings. My guess is that this is due to the fact that environmental devastation is so all-encompassing and out of control that it is just too disturbing to give it words. How can I possibly ever be whole when the places I love are disappearing? My best memories live in these places. Where will my memories go when these places are gone?

And, of course, this profound loss is nothing new for those who have lived here long before the era of Manifest Destiny when rapid expansionism buried the ancient teachings and storylines under the rubbish of ignorance and greed. I can only trust that if we pay attention long enough and allow ourselves to listen intensely; we’ll discern the stories that still live deep in the belly of the earth, waiting in dark silence…

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.

He rubbed his belly.
I keep them here
[he said]
Here, put your hand on it
See, it is moving.
There is life here
for the people.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Although my ancestors are not native to this continent, I feel a responsibility to live as if I am, and to walk lightly so as to not harm the old stories that live in the land. And eventually, as I continue to walk, my own memories of trauma and loss find refuge in the stones, washes, and trees and a new story begins to take form. Something instinctively within me wants to continue the migration toward wholeness and all the living pieces are slowly making their way across the land. Memories gathering into a story. By our stories we are healed.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

And now it occurs to me that wholeness is no different than wildness and wildness is the ability to move freely through this world. In the past, I imagined wholeness to be like a hardboiled egg in which all things are held together tightly in place, but now I understand wholeness as that which is boundless and unrestrained, yet orderly within its own natural system. A plant that is wild is self-propagating, free to flourish according to its own unique endowments. An animal that is wild freely moves according to its own internal patterns. And, a human who is wild tells their story without fear or intimidation.

Speaking of wholeness in this way, Gary Snyder writes,

Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order….To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive” (The Practice of the Wild, p. 12).

It is thus no mystery why the work we do at The School of Lost Borders is so healing. Not healing in a fix it kind of way, but in an expanding, opening way. It is so simple. People gather together, go out alone onto the land, create ceremony, and then come back to the group with a story. It is healing because it reconnects us with our own wild system, knocking down fences, breaking apart dams, removing the barriers of shame and silence. This is our Practice of the Wild. This is our Practice of Wholeness. 

The only cure
I know
Is a good ceremony
That’s what she said

–          Leslie Marmon Silko


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Into the Deepest Valley

The ground of the soul is dark. – Meister Eckhart

God lives in the cloud of unknowing and that one has to be stripped of every idea, every intellectual conception, before one can approach the light which is surrounded by the darkness and utter confusion. – The Cloud of Unknowing.

owens-valley

Last week was dark. Depression came rolling in like an unexpected afternoon fog, and no matter how much I tried to shake it off, I couldn’t free myself from its merciless grip. As is often the case, I wanted to analyze my angst; to understand it so that I might be able to stand over it, rather than having it stand over me. But it is depression’s nature to resist being treated or cured. It requires that we go further downward until we are forced to come to a complete stop, blinded by its thickness, its muck, and its lack of differentiation. I was in the “impenetrable chaos”, which, as Jung writes, “is enveloped in a kind of fog, and this fully accords with the nature of the unconscious content: it is a ‘black blacker than black”. And so, I could no longer forge ahead with my work-ethic rigor, my never-ending “to do” lists and obligations. I was simply melted by my own tears.

On the other hand, I have discovered an antidote for depression, which, for me, is metaphor. Actually, it is not really a cure at all, but rather, a softening of perception and recognition that depression, like all psychological states, has a place in nature: dark seas, long nights, scavenging vultures, valleys of shadow and death. The use of metaphor is soothing to my soul.

I suppose it is no coincidence, therefore, that as I write this my thoughts shift toward landscapes of descent. And the landscape I know best that suits this is the Owens Valley, otherwise known as the “deepest valley”, located on HWY 395 in California. Although I have spent many warm and joyful days in this place, I also know its darkness, especially during the winter months when the towering Eastern Sierra prematurely steals away the afternoon sun. At such times a cold wind enters the valley from the north, bones chill and muscles contract restricting movement of mind and body. But, it is precisely this slowing motion that James Hillman refers to as “soul-making.” “Things slow down”, he writes, “There is a lot of sadness. You can’t see over the horizon”.
Eastern Sierra by Angelo Lazenka
Like depression, the valley is a feminine landscape. Whereas, the mountainous masculine yang seeks to differentiate, promote understanding and action, the feminine yin brings us back to the low places of feeling and connection, encouraging the practice of passive receptivity. We meander in valleys, possibly sitting by a river under a cottonwood or a weeping willow watching fallen leaves float toward some collective destination. We cry, muse, ponder, ruminate and reflect. Cut off (no choice here) from the busyness of our goal-oriented lives, the ego loosens its grip. Everything becomes wet.

Speaking of the feminine, Jungian scholar, Helen Luke* writes about the conflict that beset many women who are unhinged by depression. According to Luke, women who are driven upward by the need for acceptance often do so at the expense of their feminine nature. In these cases, positions of prestige are accompanied by an extraordinary amount of anxiety and self-doubt. Such a woman may have forfeited her ability to listen to the creative feminine voice that resonates within her, that connects her to Earth and to her own instincts. Her life becomes dry and meaningless. In this case, a descent – a sacrifice of all that has been afforded to her by the masculine world – is necessary to facilitate a reunion with the life-connecting principle of Eros. Luke writes,

“In some form or other the break must be made – a defeat accepted – a loss of prestige endured, even if it is not recognized as such by others. I remember that Simone Weil wrote in one of her essays that an essential ingredient in the soul’s journey through affliction was the experience of social rejection – and that whether this was suffered neurotically (to use our language) through projection, or in outer fact was not important so long as the resulting affliction was fully accepted and endured”.

But, as Luke writes, it is also in this fallen state that we discover the light in the darkness, an ember of meaning that illuminates from our very own depths.

“She has then to learn to start from the receptive, the hidden, the goal-less aspect of Yin, and gradually the true light of the spirit will shine in the darkness, and the intellect too will be illuminated and come to its fruition”.

In many respects, to go into the valley’s shadow is an initiation into the feminine where we can reclaim the “receptive, the hidden, and goal-less aspects of Yin” that Luke refers to. And yet, according to the Tao Te Ching, it is within these depths that we also discover the Valley Spirit, which, like a river is both feminine and masculine, movement and passivity, action and non-action. Although the descent may demand great sacrifice it brings about wholeness – Psyche and Eros united.

Sierra Snow by Angelo Lazenka

The Valley Spirit never dies.
This is called the mysterious female.

The gateway of the mysterious female
Is called the root of heaven and earth.

Dimly visible, it seems as if it were there,
Yet use will never drain it.

— Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

In retrospect, I can see how depression can be a gift. By its own severe gravity it temporarily prevents forward motion. There is no looking ahead, no false claim on the future. All that is is that which exists in the moment. In such a state the present becomes more real. No breath goes without notice. I am still breathing. I am still alive.
seirra-sunset

*Luke, H. M. (1990). Woman, earth and spirit. New York: Crossroad.

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