Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

And when a flock of bluebills, pitching pondward, tears the dark silk of heaven in one long rending nose-dive, you catch your breath at the sound, but there is nothing to see except stars.”

So writes Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There, a beautiful 1949 piece of nature writing. Aldo was an iconic woodsman, ecologist and environmentalist.

Reading his poetic lines you can just see him out in the marsh in the dark — waiting early or late there to hear and to wonder. Leopold is our model, our nature guru, our father forester who reminds us the land is sacred and the creatures sacred too. And we should wait on them.

This morning my wife and I sat in the family room looking out at our small backyard pond. We were waiting. We were waiting for the birds to come. We were waiting for some new migrating spring birds to show.

Sometimes seeing and hearing is all about getting in the right place and waiting, waiting for something to pitch pondward toward you, to tear the silk of heaven in front of you. To see you.

And sure enough, pitching pondward, a flash of color, a bright orange and black, a male, hooded Oriole. He landed on the trellis above the pond, all brilliant yellow-orange and deepest black, dropped aflutter to the water, splashed, and then winged back to the fence, rear end fluffy-wet and clean.

The first Oriole of the season! We felt so honored. And then as if that was not enough avian showboating suddenly brown phoebes were hopping on the ground all puffy and fat. And a white crowned sparrow lit on the stucco walland turned to show off his amazing eye stripes. And then a bit later a rare — to our yard — Rüfüs hummingbird darted into our blue plumbago, hovered over the pond and then in a reddish-brown flash — was gone.

When we planted all yard we planted for birds and butterflies. When we made a small pond, we made it for water lilies and water Hawthorne and duckweed — and birds. Doing so we tipped our hats to Claude Monet, Aldo Leopold, Emily Dickinson, Annie Dillard, Jean-Henri Fabre, John Bartram, God and other favorite environmentalists, poets, botanists and painters. 

What to do?

Build a pond set up a blind, or plant flowers, put out seeds and bread crumbs — and wait more.

The wonders are worth the wait.

We are small, limited and ephemeral. But space is vast, expansive and ancient.

How might our modern knowledge of Earth, the solar system and outer space help us in our view of ourselves and God?

Our earth is 239,000 miles from the moon, 93,000,000 miles from the sun and 6.2 light years or 38,000,000,000,000 miles from a star in the constellation Cygnus. What is a light year? It is the distance that light traveling at 186,000 miles per second would move in one year.

That is a speed and distance that we can’t even really get our minds around. How astonishing our universe!

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 100,000 light years across and 10,000 light years thick. It consists of billions of stars and our star, the sun, lies in the Orion arm or spur at about 28,000 light years from the galaxy’s center.

Our sun, our solar system is not still, but travels with the galaxy. Our solar system travels at about 515,000 mph and yet it would take 230 million years for it to travel all the way around the Milky Way.

There’s more. There is much more that we have discovered in the last few years. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old in the universe around 13.8 billion years old. Our existence lies within vast spaces and vast also periods of time.

How did this amazing conglomerate begin?

In the 1930s a Russian American physicist George Gamow worked out a theory now known as the big bang which stated that the universe originated in the fiery cosmic explosion from a dense particle smaller than an atom. For we Christians this sounds a lot like what we’ve always believed!

Life began with a dense fireball that erupted in less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a second and was 1 billion trillion times hotter than our sun.

Think about this says Judy Cannato in her book Radical Amazement. In its latent potential, the … person that you are at this very moment was present in the Big Bang … in an astonishing burst of light. We came from the light!”

This is truly astonishing! And it is mysterious! We now know that 95% of the universe cannot be seen but exist as dark matter or dark energy that holds the 5% that is visible together.

Judy Cannato takes this kind of information and challenges us to ask what this tells us about God.

She says that this newly discovered “story invites us to expand our commitment to emergence, to participate in the divine unfolding around us and within us as fully as possible.”

“ All life is in flux, all life is groaning toward fuller expression of greater consciousness. We can look for new life and nurture it where we find it, and we can challenge ourselves to be open and grow into things that we never knew existed.”

What may God have ahead for you? With an expanded sense of reality what might God be opening to you?

When I flew into the airport and saw the palm trees, they looked like home, but odd, almost artificial, pseudo-tropical — they weren’t pines.

I had spent the morning driving through Montana’s rolling hills, ogling the lovely farms, the sparklingly clear rivers, the pines wandering along the rivers, the pines strolling up into the hills.

But now I was back home. As we drove from the airport, into San Diego, I still had a smile on my face.

I love airplanes, I love travel, I love cities — their museums and restaurants –and I am smitten with hills, rives and pines. New places change how we see, allowing us the luxury of contextualizing love — and beauty. I love a new place, anchored in eating, sleeping, wandering, exploring, fishing, hiking, slouching and smooching.

It brings up the question, how does one enjoy life? How does one really mouth it, chew it, savor it, kiss it, dive down deep into the cold, clear, refreshing liquid-rush of it?

By sloshing in it!

In Montana, on the Blackfoot River, I stood stiff-legged in the front of the boat, locking my leg into the curved plastic of the hull and cast my dry fly to the right bank. The boat sloshed, I rocked back and forth, Matt yelled “Mend,” I did, and an eighteen inch Cutthroat trout boiled to the surface, took my fly right off the top of the boiling water, and dove.

I reared back on the fly rod, it bent toward the water, and the Cutthroat took off like crazy toward the far bank. Beautiful! Thrilling! Perfect!

That night when we got off the river my back hurt like crazy. It didn’t matter. I had sloshed in it, in the river, in life. I had done what it takes to receive the beauty. I had placed myself in a posture to receive.

This is how you do it, but something else is required too.

You have to prep like crazy!

For the last year before my Montana trip, I had worked like crazy at my job, and made and saved the money to go. And then I had thought and planned and talked and arranged. I had practiced with my fly rod on my front driveway, casting to imaginary fish in a concrete river. I had made an arrangement with my friend, I had paid my money, I had made the long trip, I had hired the skilled guide, had gotten in the boat, cast the rod and I had mended the line.

It takes an effort to enjoy life, and sometimes some pre-work. But when you do that, you get it — some pleasure, a Cutthroat trout, some loveliness, a bit of the gorgeous whip and womp and woof of the wonders.

That day, as we rocked down the river, we watched a bald eagle soar overhead, perused a black bear as it wandered along the bank, peered at a herd of elk on a far hill and watched Mayflies dance in a tall, white column above the river.

We were immersed in the Blackfoot and the ecosystem of the Backfoot — the sparkly white, rapids, the bumpy, rocky bottom, the cool rain that spotted our coats and brought a fresh, damp fragrance to our senses, the deep fish-filled water along the banks — the gorgeous speckled shinning rainbow trout, brown trout and Cutthroat Trout that we caught and released that day.

This is how you do it, how you enjoy it.

Life is so good, from time-to-time, and we can enjoy it, the columns of Mayflies, and then again, the churning fish-filled rivers, when we get a chance, the lovely pines, if we put ourselves out in it — the soaking rain — and do the work, and make a choice to get up and get out, and slosh in it.

It’s spring. It’s almost Easter.

Every morning now I wake up hopeful.

Reality seems good to me. I accept what is.

I accept the the proofs that God is good. I am not offended.

One of the most compelling proofs for me is sunlight, another starlight, another shadow, another color.

I am astonished by these simple realities. Everyday among the miracles of reality I find a renewal; every second alive I happen again upon my own resurrection from the dead, from the death found in unawareness.

I’ve taken to writing fables, about what is true. Here are is one for you.


The Sun

Looking south, the sun cast one arm over the Amazon basin.

Looking north, it put the other, covered with golden bracelets, lightly on the Sierra Nevada. It draped itself upon the earth.

Sliding through the jungle and slipping off the peaks it withdrew to the rumpled Pacific, and pausing there, and reaching its hands down to the west coast beaches, it ran its fingers through the tidal pools. They turned pure gold.

“And there, and there and also there,” the sun said softly, and it laid tender fingers of light across the stirring sand.

We are the best,” said the mountains, always first and last to warm and be warmed.“

Then the palms and pines along the western beaches whispered, running their fingers through their lovely hair.

“What about us? What about us?” they called out.

The sun flipped its fingers playfully and splashed sunlight up into all of the leafy trees lining the beaches, and seeing this they rose up on their pointy root toes, grabbed pieces of the light and fixed it in their hair.

Suddenly, each wore a sparkling tiara.

“Oh,” the trees murmured softly. “Give us more!”

But there was too much for them to hold.

Big pieces of the sun broke free and sailed toward the east.

The great sun slid along, pulling a shade across the Pacific ocean. It rans fast now towards Asia and Australia, crying out for Europe, calling out for Africa.

It ran, singing out for the Himalayas, the Tien Shan, the Urals, laying itself down upon the Tibetan Plateau and the West Siberian Plain.

“I’m coming now,” it whispered softly to Lake Baikal, to the Bay of Bengal and to the great Sundarbans.

“We are waiting,” they called back, “for you.”

Jealous, the great peninsulas of Europe, the Iberian, Italian, and Balkan, beckoned to the light. “But us, but us, but what about all of us!”

“Fall on our peaks too!” called the Alps, Pyrenees, Apennines, Dinaric Alps, Balkans, and Carpathians,

And the sun, with a total, complete and utter equanimity, sang out softly to the glowing earth, “But you know so well my precious ones from all my time with you, that I … I have no favorites.”

And then it fell with a laughing, loyal, lasting love upon the whole of the great Serengeti.


You can find more fables like this at one of my blogs,



It’s my humble observation that heaven overlapps earth.

The other day, I put my head up against my wife’s head, my check touched her cheek, the skin of her face presed up flat against mine and the porous boundaries of our individuated existances merged. We hugged with hugs that only thirty-three years of marriage can hug. We Venn diagramed.

Venn diagrams, and the nature of earth and occassionally a fleeting idea or two about heavenly possibilities, have long interested me. In Venn’s, circles represent sets. The interior of one circle represents the elements of a set, while the exterior represents elements not members of the set. If two circles, representing different sets are overlapped, then the area of overlap represents members of one set that are also members of the other. For example, one circle may represent creatures which walk on two legs, the other creatures that fly. Creatures in the area of overlapp both walk on two legs and fly, for instance, ducks.

The concept underlying Venn diagrams is commonality. One thing which is different from another thing may yet have something in common with it and even crossover into it. I like it; I  have always liked it, two things sharing common space, cheecks for instance, and I don’t much care for “this-is-nothing-like-that!” and the “us-and-not-them” perspective and other various separating distinctions, selfish individuations and nasty polarization. Legs go nicely with wings. I have legs; I wish I had wings. Antithesis and this-has-nothing-to-do-with-that is not that much fun.

Take heaven. What a weird and absolutely bizzare concept. Heaven is the idea that there is a place which we go after we die, and that it is better than this earth, and it is better than Mars and the time-space continum that we, Mars and Earth inhabit! Really? How would anyone know that?

It makes me nervous when people talk about heaven.  I find myself particularly nervous when people talk about who is not going to be there. The “in heaven” versus the “not in heaven” — how would anyone know that?

It is my rumination that the set of things that make up heaven somehow overlapps with the set of what make up earth and that earth and heaven have things in common, and that no one on earth has any accurate idea of what barriers or for that matter, doorways, exist between earth and heaven.

When Jesus was born, the scripture says that “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared …  praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

That’s an interesting report, from a Venn perspective. According to scripture, the set of things that make up heaven include God and angels, the set of things that make up earth include God’s favor. But elsewhere in scripture, Paul, a fairly repectable authority on the spiritual-space continum, says that in God, “we live and move and have our being.” So, if this is true, then earth’s set includes God too, and if we trust Dr. Luke, angels too, seeing they showed up for the shepherds.  So then if  we look at the teachings on heaven in the Bible, we might conclude that the set of things that are in heaven share with the set of things that are on earth,  things like God, angels who talk, and other attendant and following vague-itudes like “peace” and “favor.”

It’s overlap; heaven overlaps earth. Heaven isn’t some kind of alien place. Heaven shares underpinnings with earth. If we do go there, after we die, it will feel familiar. When we put our faces up against it, it will put a warm face up against ours. When we hug heaven,  heaven will hug back.

It is my observation that some people think heaven will be long church!  I think it won’t! Thank God!

C. S. Lewis posited that heaven is found in our longings for a place that is suggested by the beauty and wonder of earth. We see a beautiful mountain. We long to climb to the top. That longing — its’ a longing for heaven, stirred by the beauty of earth. Earth’s mountains have something common with heaven’s mountains and one suggests and creates hunger for the other.

Speculation? Perhaps, but the hints at what-will-be after-what-is-present-now  indicate commonality. Perhaps, earth  does mirror and even contain pieces of heaven, the angels, the peace, God himself. The best of what we taste here? It’s realized and finalized and perfected there. Coal here, diamonds there. Legs here, legs and wings here and there.


I think we might be experiencing a bit of it now.

Think Venn diagrams.

I clearly remember the moment I first  took responsibility for the earth.

It was the day I found big Red. He was a mangy male on the plus side of the scale, lots of ginger hair with some facial scars that belied his kick-back personality.

When I found Red, wandering, I drug him home with me, his forelegs hanging over both my arms, his stiff ears brushing the underside of my chin,  his back legs and tail bumping along on the ground behind.

My mom let me keep him, but he was pretty much confined to outside, where he wanted to be anyway, just in case there was a chance to mix it up with the feline cuties flirting in the neighborhood.

To get a sense of Red, you must understand something: He was so large and prowlish that when he was out and about, mothers pulled their small children back inside the house.

I was very, very proud of Red; his homecoming put me in a God-like category.

Genesis 1:26 states rather underwhelmingly that in the amazing and astonishing beginning of the very beginning of us, God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible … “

And then, in perhaps the greatest omission in world literature, the text goes on to say, “for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” In other words, for Red.

The author, seemingly unawares, blithely glosses over the emotional reaction — an unbelievable ellipses! Upon creation of beings like himself, God must have jumped up and down, waved his arms and  hooted! Adam and Eve must have screamed with pure delight. The animals must have jumped into a celebration chorus so raucous and joyful that it forever upstaged any and all imitative, animated, Disney-movie hit tunes!

What? The emotional response to creation was not mentioned? Perhaps, it was shockingly lost in the Hebrew oral tradition, or perhaps Moses thought he couldn’t do it linguistic justice.

But the effect wasn’t lost. According to the record, Adam and Eve jumped right into the forray and started happily naming things. With all the acumen of a Carl Linnaeus they classified the marvelous creatures they were  now wonderfully “responsible” for.

Cool! They acted out the DNA of God. They named, they brought home, they cared for — Red!

To care for the creation, to name it, feed it, pet it and bring it home with us– this is the image of God in us. The image of God is reflected in human responsibility for creatures. The sacred text itself says, God made us like him, so we could be responsible.

And in a damaged world and a broken creation, it is certainly the most God-like thing we can do to find lost creatures and to bring them home and care for them.

Want to be God-like?

Feed the dog.

Bring home a lost  humanoid too.


Posted: December 8, 2010 in nature, plants
Tags: , , , ,

I am in love with her. I confess; I have stocked her, bagged her and brought her  home. I have pealed her,  devoured her, and I will again. I can’t stop. I’m addicted. I love solanum tuberosum.  I love her  hot and mashed, with a pool of butter or gravy on top and salted — suck, smack  and bam, mouthfuls of  comfort and love.

And this is only the beginning of my confession. I am permanently, incurably smitten by the whole kingdom, Plantae — lovely. It’s not just the veggies, though I love my vegetables, the spicy lentil soup last night, the firm, moist slices of avocado with my mushroomed, onioned and green peppered eggs for breakfast yesterday.  I love the whole of this kingdom, the trees, bushes, grasses, herbs, ferns, vines, mosses and green algae. Amazing! I love them all so much that I go out, on the hunt, and find them and bring as many of them home with me as I can, and I lovingly  nurture each ones idiosyncratic beauty in my cupboards and in my backyard gardens.

This week, driving up East H Street away from my house, I couldn’t help but notice  the liquid ambers in the center divide. I almost drove off the road ogling them. It’s December and  fallish in San Diego and the ambers are red hot and fiery yellow and orange —  wicked pretty, like Maine earlier in the year,  but less so.

I fell in love with plants early. I’m sure it was the mashed peas, the yellow squash and the cereal my mom spooned into me.  Or perhaps it was the lovely, dolled up tiger lilies in the front yard, or the curvy iris she planted at the top of the drive,  big purple-golden and voluptuous blooms.

When I was big enough to get out on my own, into the woods, I was seduced by the Podophyllum peltatum with their long skinny legs, their deeply cut lobes, their single secund white flowers, their reaching rhizomes and their shapely  umbrellas. I found them in the open mesic woodlands of Benton County, Missouri where we lived. I discovered them as clonal, encamped  green canopies, gathered like beach umbrellas on a hot day at La Jolla Shores. I wacked them with a stick, knocking down whole forests of them for fun. It was fun, the harvest, or the battle, which is similar, I guess, but  now I regret it.  The mayapple is a larval host plant for the Variegated Fritillary. What dismay when the fritillaries came back! I repent, and now I plant passion vines in my yard  to try to make it up to them.

One other special plant I remember from the primordial woods of my childhood is the lovely Morchella. When I first saw her in the woods, moist and supple among the dying elms, I was undone. I took her home, washed her, laid her down in egg and flour, fried her up and ripped her apart with my teeth.  “Yum!”  I went looking for more, and that was a good deal of the fun, the hunt, almost as good as looking for arrowheads, but tastier when found. I remember going out in the spring, after a rain, and looking around rotting logs, in soft, moist, rich soil,  safe spots in the shade, eyes scanning, then suddenly the find, and another and, “There is another one!” Love it.

Some authors suggest that the genus only contains as few as 3 to 6 species, while others think there are  up to 50 species. Phylogenetic analysis based on both RFLP and  restriction enzyme analysis of the 28S ribosomal RNA gene support the former hypothesis, that the genus comprises only a few species with considerable phenotypic variation. The morels deserve the attention of the botanist as well as the gastronome. I’m  good with the attention given to these lovely beings, and the findings. It has also been discovered that  morels contain small amounts of hydrazine toxins, and have been thought to be a bit intoxicating, another reason to hunt and devour them.I’ve eaten too many. I’m irreparably intoxicated.

After I got married to a human, I confess that I went after the plants with even more passion. I got books, plant identification books, dessert plant books, marine plant books, mountain plant books,  and I went out with literature in one hand and my wife in the other to find more lovelies. There was Claytonia perfoliata,  a California trailing spring beauty. Their cotyledons  are bright green, succulent, long,  narrow bowls filled with tiny white and pink flowers. Like the morels, they love cool, damp places, under trees, along logs. Their common name is Miner’s lettuce and refers to their use by California gold rush miners to prevent scurvy. I like it when a plant has a known history like that, that ties me to the plant hunters of the past.

This fall, I visited the Chelsea Physic Garden in London,  a walled, “secret” garden founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London in 1673 so its apprentices might study the medicinal qualities of plants. A worshipful society — I’m a part of that, in awe of God’s plant work.  It was cold the day I visited the garden,  and much of it was in winter mode, but the long history of the place was in full parade. Dr. Hans Sloane had a hand here too, purchasing about 4 acres and leasing it to the Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year in perpetuity. Some of the  plants that have taken sanctuary here, such as Rosmarinus officinale  and Jasminum officinale, have been in cultivation in this spot for several centuries. Official plants; I’m impressed. I went inside, where they were serving food, and ordered a veggie lasagna. It was hot, and vegetablish and delicious, a perfect feast at the Physic Garden.  

The World Health Organization estimates that 75 to 80% of the world’s population still uses plant medicines. It has been estimated that   70 percent of all new drugs introduced in the United States in the past 25 years have been derived from natural products. Plants are the medicine cabinet of the world.

I honor this, and pay tribute to the Rubiaceae. When we visited the lovely island of Kauai a few years ago, we stayed one night on a coffee plantation, and took a tour. We awoke to green geckos on the walls and green tropical  plants all around.  Fascinating — the evergreen shrubs  and small trees, the  glorious green berries, the dark glossy leaves. The berries are green when immature, then they ripen to yellow, then crimson, and turn black upon being  dried. I love this plant, and what she does for me. I live through this one.

Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is to go downstairs, with Megan following, her tail up as she descends the stairs, and together we enter the shrine to edible plants. I take down the special container with  the dark brown  Coffea canephor or Coffea  arabica, and I pour the filtered holy water into the clean, clear glass pot, spoon the  large scoops of the finely ground, roasted seeds into the paper filter,  close the top with a click and press the bottom button. The magic commences —  the steamy dripping, the seductive aroma, the growl and sputter as it finishes up, the slow pour into the mug with the warm milk at the bottom, the creamy tan swirl,  the warmth in the hands, the first bitter sip slipping over the tongue, the flow of   life down the throat, the return of energy and sanity after the long night — this is a bit of the summon bonum.  By the second mug, I feel the magic, the buzz, the alert signals, the brightening colors, the return of hope. It has been said that coffee is proof that God loves us and wants us to pay attention.  Yes, and yes, I feel the love.

This gets at it, the thing about love. Plantae is proof that we are loved. The plants delight us, heal us, feed us, shade us, energize us and more and more and more. Yesterday someone brought peppermint bark to a Christmas party I attended.  I had four pieces, with coffee, and left the party happy with the world and  assured that we are all loved.  Theobroma cacao has to be one of the great sweethearts of the earth; it is so divine, so full of love, so helpful when life isn’t going quite right. Studies show that the plant originated in the Amazon, the hotbed of some many love-rich plants. I would not want to live without her, white, dark and every other form.

And even if we didn’t energize and glow from the use of the plants, the mere presence and appearance of this kingdom would alone be enough for us to glory in it.  Take  Cezanne; he loved the apples; he loved them for what they are, and taught us to love them too.  He loved their special roundness, their unique color.  I’ve seen the essence of the essence of the apples  in his Pommes et  bisquits in the  Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. Cezanne instructs, points, suggest the possibility of loving  more of the less,  the simple forms,  the minute variations in tone and color, the basic geometry of  nature – the beauty of the cylinder, sphere and the cone. The plants offer this, the arc of  the leaf, the sphere of the seed, the cylinder in the trunk, and thus they so look good up against the straight-edged world that we have created. 

I’m undone. A world without plants, can you even imagine how vacant and comfortless it would be. It would be an unloved world. And so we must not let this go unnoticed. We must wake and shout, rave, jump up and down, dive in, look around, surface and praise God for the plants that decorate and energize our lives.  We have way under-reacted. We are far to silent. If we don’t wake up and raise our voices, the rocks will animate and cry out.

And so today, waking and alerting, I celebrate Plantae, each and every one, my society garlic, raising their purple mouths to the sun in my backyard. My water lilies retreating into the rocks in my pond, preparing to rise again next spring,  my Ficus standing guard in front and back.

And I sit and sip my strong coffee and chew my wheat checks drenched  in soy milk,  and I am thankful for plant life washing my eyes and washing down my throat again today. 


my little sister

Posted: June 5, 2010 in nature

i woke last night at 2 am

breathing audibly

heart pounding inside me

it’s my beautifully wild little sister

she’s punctured somewhere far from me

bleeding hard and i can’t reach her

if you only knew how i love her

she wears her blue green and silver dresses tight and shimmery

filling the room at every crazy bluesy party she puts on

fast and fun until she rises from her couch late and scares the hell out of all her guests

i love the things she loves

her white flyers skimming

her black and white giants leaping

her vibrantly hued darters schooling 

her long brown tresses waving

her radiant edges glowing

but now

in the night

i am angry and lonely over those who have attacked and left her there

she bleeds internally

fouling brown blood squirting into her clean pure blue

the goopy flopping things at the edges dying with her

my little sister if I could only reach you and hold you

i would heal you if I could

i’m punctured too

Two October ago, we trekked three thousand miles to see if the carotenoids and anthocyanins might heal us. The days were shortening. The Pacific Ocean was getting colder. Christmas was months away. None of that would have mattered a bit, if life hadn’t just smashed us sideways and flipped us upside down in a multi-person, relational train wreck. We were reeling through the autumnal equinox, staggering from the scene of a social crime and we needed treatment.

Every year people hailing from sunless, rainy climates migrate to Southern California for light therapy; we were reversing the journey, pioneering from San Diego to Maine for the reds and yellows and oranges of northeastern chromotherapy.

Arriving in the dark, we drove from Portland down to South Berwick. Our Maine hosts, Ralph and Donna, said they preferred to take the back roads and avoid what they called the “turnpike,” so we did. I leaned against the dark car window on Fox Ridge Drive.  In the headlights, I could just see the trees starting to blush. We hadn’t come too early.

The pigments were at work. The same elements that color the bright yellow squashes in our California backyard gardens, the purple lupines along our roads, and the red strawberries in our bowls, color the trees in Maine. They are the pigments, the carotenoids and anthocyanins. When they hang out and mix it up with sunlight and rain, heat and cold, place and genetics — and who knows what else — they saturate the world with color.  They are a virtual botanical mixed drink.  Leaves tanked up primarily on anthocyanins dress up and go out to party in red or purple. Leaves having downed  good shots of both anthocyanins and carotenoids parade about shamelessly in pure orange. Leaves drunk with carotenoids but little or no anthocyanins stagger happily through autumn decked out in yellow.

The postcard Donna wrote said, “Please come visit. Ralph will take off work and we’ll go around with you. We’d love to have you as guests at our home.”  It was a gracious, welcoming invitation, carrying a faint sense of a sweet-smelling kitchen, a fire heating up the family room, a tail-whopping dog on the rug and hot chocolate in mugs. We were touched by the genuine gesture of hospitality — and the timing. The things that have just happened in our lives affect how we read our invitations.

I recently ran into a friend, Jean, at a party given by another friend who had just gotten back from a summer in Kenya.  Our Kenya trekking friend was showing her travel pictures. I’ve been to South Africa. I have friends there, and the pictures brought back vivid memories for me. While standing in the living room watching the photo journal of the trip, the back of my mind ran silent movies of eating with my own South African friends in a cinder block home in Soweto, touring the Pilanesberg Game Reserve with them and traveling across the veld to visit a rural school in Swaziland. My whole trip to South Africa was so much about people. Perhaps healing is pretty much that too.

While photos of giraffes, AID’s orphans and dancing African teenagers scrolled on a flat screen behind her, Jean asked how I was doing. I paused, an African child squatting over her shoulder. I needed a second. The Africans kept moving as I tried to call up what I told her the last time I saw her. I was also sketching out how to respond to her question about my condition. Whenever someone asks me how it is going, I make up a short story, fast. We all do. Even when we offer only a word, or a few words, we play the raconteur, laying out one plot over another, one point of view over another, our story choices made with split second judgments of the social milieu we spin our narratives into. And it’s complicated, how it comes out and how it is interpreted. The story we tell is always embedded within the story happening in the present moment and both those stories interact with a story about us that already exists within the listener.

I said, “I’m recovering. It was tough to lose my job in the recession. But I really like my new place. We are working on social justice stuff, feeding homeless people here in town, helping Burmese refugees in City Heights, working with foster children. I’m moving on, but it takes time, to get over what happened.”

It is awkward, the thing about moving on. I didn’t really want to talk about it. It was way too painful. I really didn’t feel like ripping into some of my former colleagues at a party with unsuspecting friends present. It’s in such poor taste and can upset the host. It’s also bad for digestion. I avoid it, generally. Besides, I didn’t have to go on. She took up the story and began telling me about the church in town she didn’t go to anymore. Stories beget similar stories. She had just been to a reunion. Certain people were there. She didn’t elaborate. I didn’t really know what she was talking about. Her voice quieted as she said, “It brought up some feelings I thought I’d worked through.”  As she was talking I was thinking about how the craziness beats in on all of us at times, turning boring, commonplace narratives surreal. Homey places where we put our feet up and sip hot drinks become places we run from scalded.  People who were safe become people we fear. Rwanda and Burundi, in 1994, come to mind.

At that moment, I didn’t see the African orphans behind her anymore, just her face near me, looking up at me. Our half-veiled emotions riveted us together. I stood there processing the narrative before us, the story I did know within the story I didn’t know, and then I said to her, “It’s okay.”  I paused, formulating more words. “It’s okay to have people you don’t want to see. I have a couple of people like that, from what happened to me. Perhaps, in time…” She nodded, silently, looking straight at me. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking. Then she wiped her eyes with the skin on the tops of her knuckles. “Thank you,” she said with a slight smile.”I needed that.”

Maine was something my wife and I needed.  I remember standing in the yard at Ralph and Donna’s home watching the leaves fall. It was just what I’d hoped for. The wind gusted in the big tree in the center of the meadow, and a flurry of yellow leaves wobbled down with papery sounds. They fell in slow flutters and occasional arcs toward the ground. Donna told me that when it is quiet in the woods, on freezing winter nights, that you can hear the leaves snap off the trees. I walked up the road with her dog, to the top of the hill where a red maple was on fire with color. I walked back down in the leaves that lay piled at the edges of the road. When a car came by the leaves gusted up, as if raised from the dead for a few seconds only to sink back to a quiet resting place again.

The next day, Donna and Ralph drove us over to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. There is a photo album on the end table in my home where I read that has pictures of that trip to New Hampshire in it, one of a blue stream full of yellow leaves,  one of a smooth lake mirrored with vermilion, gold and lime colored trees, one of hill after hued hill, piled up to the horizon with a dusting of orange, brown, green, red and yellow. They strike me as some of the softest and most therapeutic color tones I have ever seen. There is something about the miles and miles of celebrating colors, something festive, party-fun, good. I remember now, looking at these pictures, that the days Ralph and Donna escorted us through the wonders, every turn in the road made me reel one way or another with delight. I was drinking with the leaves, inebriated with color, happy to be alive.

Back at their house, after our day in the White Mountains,  I remember sitting at their kitchen table.  Donna put a big casserole of shepherd’s pie in front of us. Fluffy mashed potatoes crowned the dish in a flurry of peaks, paprika accenting them with a dusting of red. Tall glasses of white milk sat in front of the plates. We ate and talked.

Ralph and Donna talked about the accident. I had heard them speak about this before. But it was sacred, listening to them again. Their feelings, thoughts and words arced down deep inside of me. As they took turns talking, I listened with the intensity of a soldier with a deep unsown gash, hanging onto every movement and word from the field doctors bent over him.

Their son Josh died in a motorcycle accident. It happened when he was on a trip with their church. He got on a bike in a parking lot for fun, zoomed off down the street, and then they didn’t have their son to hug anymore. His room was upstairs, across the hall from the room where we were sleeping. Some of his things were still there. There were stars on the ceiling.

There isn’t simply one thing that gets at it. The leaves don’t change colors simply because the days get shorter. There aren’t any certain lines on which all leaves fall, neither are there any perfect lines that end our discussions of things. Ralph talked about questions that lead to more questions. He offered me no formula to write in my journal, carry back home, mix up in my kitchen lab and apply to my wounds and bandages.

But of course, I didn’t want that. I have had the privilege and burden of teaching writing at the college.  I have sat at home reading papers that only a teacher could, should or would read. Over time I have come to see that a formulaic interpretation of psychologically painful events is much like an amateurish freshman paper critiquing a novel only partly read. It is a thing awkwardly cobbled together late, under the disabling influence of a deadline —  a hodgepodge of unsupported quotes, blown transitions and an unproven thesis.

But that is not what Donna and Ralph offered. As I listened to them story their life, I was struck by a scenic beauty that acted as a backdrop to everything they said. There was a soft shade of gentleness behind every question and commentary. In all their thinking, in their psychology of loss, in their sociology of survival, in their theology of pain, ran a dusted hue of kindness. I noticed that Sunday, when they took us to their church, as they spoke to friends there, they were as tender with them as they were with us. And in these interactions something unexpected began to happen to our stories.  Ralph and Donna’s story began to intersect and merge with my story and the stories of all my friends and their friends. A kind of narrative fusion began to take place — all our terrifying experiences, our tragically lost relationships, our agonizingly arranged  interpretations blew from the road to the air again, to lift and turn and arc down, to settle and to rest where the pigments cover the rising mountains to the horizon.

People think of the Jewish story teller, Jesus as primarily a great teacher; he is known for his sayings, parables, stories, but he was as much a healer as teacher. The accunt of Jesus reports that once when Jesus saw a man with leprosy, he was “filled with compassion.”  I think his compassion was not justfor the physical problem, although I believe he must have cared much about that, but also for the man’s damaged sence of self,  his lost connections, his broken relationships with family and friends. To be a leper was to be a pariah, to be separated from  hugs and kisses and sexuality and love. It was brutal and agonizing, the distancing factor of having scary skin. And we are told that Jesus had compassion. In other words,  Jesus felt the deep pain of the man, the loss of his identity, the loneliness of his existence, the anger he had inside, the stunned confusion, the cry of  injustice. “I am left out,” cried the leper and Jesus said, “Be in.” The account reports that Jesus healed him.

Make what you might of it, not much beats compassion when you are suffering. A daughter rubs her father’s feet on his death-bed, saying by touching him, you are still a person, worthy of attention, deserving to be touched. Touch, compassion, psyche healing even when the physical  deterioration cannot be stopped, is eloquent to a watching universe, a shout int the dark, “I love you!”  When I was so sick after a surgery, lying in the bathroom alone one night on the floor, one of our small kitten came and lay down with me. The gesture, from an animal, the soft warmth close — I haven’t forgotten it. Not being alone in that isolating moment of suffering — significant! The color of compassion is shifted toward the warm, fallish end of the light spectrum.

It always astonishes me, how close truth hovers in the backdrop of life. On the day that we went driving in the White Mountains we came to where the “old man” had fallen down above Profile Lake. The old man had been a series of five granite ledges, that when viewed from the right angle, looked like a man’s face. He was a state emblem, but a fragile one at best. During much of the 20th Century he was held in place by cables and spikes. Between midnight and 2 am on May 3, 2003, with a rocky roar, the old man just slid down the mountain. People were so dismayed they left flowers at the bottom of the cliff.

The time goes so quickly. We are back from Maine. Southern California, along the coast, is such a beautiful thing. The palms here stay green and bright all year long. One of the many lantanas in my yard is always in bloom — purple, yellow or orange. But I don’t need seasonal reminders that things change because I know they do.  And when that change is for not for the better, I am of the opinion that the carotenoids and anthocyanins are among the things that heal, and love.

When I go shopping at the grocery store, I pick out the small orange and red and yellow peppers. At lunch, I sometimes edge my plate with them. And when I make smoothies in my blender, I dump in the bluest blueberries and darkest red strawberries. They are rich with the pigments I love. They sooth me, but I know what they are and what they aren’t. I know that they aren’t a spike or a cable, certain to hold me up forever. It’s not a dark perspective, just true: the bottom of the cliff waits.

But so do other things — friends yet to travel to, places yet to surprise, narratives yet to be shared. We have been through a few things that have changed us very much, my African friends, Donna and Ralph, Jean, my wife and I. And for some of us, there may be places that we are not quite ready to visit and people who for now are perhaps best not seen.  But we know that in the fall, the hills change. They brighten with the therapeutic pigments. And lately, I have been hearing more and more stories of loss that sound, at the emotional core of the narrative, similar to mine.

I lean toward the voices that tell them and hope to grow more gentle, like other story tellers I know.

Here Comes the Sun

Posted: January 17, 2008 in nature
Tags: , , , ,


“The jewel that we find, we stoop and take it,

Because we see it; but what we do not see

We tread upon and never think of it.” 

                                                                               Angelo – Measure For Measure

To live in San Diego is to live among jewels, and to really thrive here one must be constantly looking down. There is one precious treasure San Diegans walk on daily — it is the sun, the jewel that defines the city.

Sun, sun, sun – in this town you walk all over it. Check the bottoms of your shoes. They are probably warm. San Diegans bask in sunshine about 70% of the daylight hours. City hall scandals, half-a-million dollar house prices, Qualcomm stadium, Balboa Park, the San Diego zoo, Sea World – all and more make up the local identity, but it is the average daytime temperature, the 70.5 degrees, that best defines this city. The essence of San Diego, in the long run, is what piles up on the red tile roofs, covers the sidewalks and fills the potholes in the streets most everyday – sunshine! Sunshine is San Diego’s bejeweled identity.

The experts say that the Sun’s energy output is about 386 billion billion megawatts, and  in San Diego the sun certainly rules as Shakespeare’s jewel multiplied by billions. The sun is warmly overhead and underfoot here often and it’s worth taking a second look at it. If you live here, if you pay the local sun tax, if you visit here — don’t miss this radiant gift.  How could you? You could. We all tread on jewels.

Illumination 101

One of the primary lessons the impressionist painters taught is to catch light on the smooth surfaces. In 1892 the French Impressionist Monet rented a room opposite the Cathedral of Rouen and painted the church’s facade over and over again. Each painting is a unique study in light, because with the changes in light, the colors and angles of the walls were ever changing. This approach still yields treasure.

When the sun is out, San Diego’s architecture is a vast sun catcher. In the afternoon the huge windowed walls of San Diego’s downtown buildings turn into great sheets of fire as the sun sets over the Pacific. Solar fire falls onto all unblocked offices and homes facing west. Every window becomes the sun’s picture frame. Some places in the world are defined by ice. San Diego is defined by fire.

On a sunny afternoon, the edges of the city, an overhead street sign, the top of a building, a fender speeding down the Interstate 5 – all turned to California gold. A custom wheel spins the local yellow star into a perfectly straight thread of gold. Here, the ordinary commute home is a solar fantasia.


Natural Sun Catchers

Although the sun is the largest object in the solar system and contains more than 99.8% of the systems total mass, the small, thin, fragile surfaces of the natural world finely show it off. 

San Diego is a city where the trees work for the city as a force of light gatherers. San Diego’s palms are sun harvesters, and they fill up and literally drip with light. Their dark green and shiny surfaces turn sunshine into sterling silver. The tall Mexican fan palms drip silver light from their glowing fan tips. The graceful queen palms grab light with their long silver-green fingers. “Catch more,” they cry, holding up their hands to the sun.

Kate Sessions, San Diego’s early 20th century “city gardener,” who imported, propagated and popularized many trees here helped set the stage for a tree lit city. The trees in this city are the daytime street lamps.

The magnolias, bearing dark green shiny leaves, function as sun spades, slicing light in half. The avocados do the same. The secret to being a leafy street lamp is in having shiny leaves. Banana leaves glow like pale green lamp shades. Jacarandas blaze with an inspired blue-lavender splendor.

Light Remixed

Walls, shadows, leaves — it’s all good, but to see San Diego’s light in a special glory, one should see it mixed, and remixed with water. Along the cliffed beaches, the swells toss the water joyfully against the sandstone. Then as the salty sea runs back into the ocean, it grabs the light from the air and hangs glowing icicles of light between rock and sea.  Along the sandy beaches, the sun and water mix in another form as the waves  fall and break into tiny white water bubbles. The bubbles are lenses, they focus the light.  With the sun directly overhead, each single bubbles catch a bit of it and casts a tiny star-shaped bright spot onto the sandy floor below. Astonishing — the sun in a bubble!

It has been computed that one hundred and nine earths would fit across the sun’s disk. Its interior could house about 1.3 million earths and in this beach city, every sunny day the sun is as tiny and accessible to San Diegans as a bubble floating at the edge of the sea.

Stay at the shoreline that is filled with suns long enough and the light will get by you and head for the water, like some huge solar bonfire falling out of the sky. Every San Diego day ends with the sun in the sea. Down the bright light tumbles, past a bit of glowing dust wafting by like a planet, past the illuminated sea gulls, past the radiated tourists, past the silver palms. As it cartwheels toward the Pacific, it distorts in the thick atmosphere at the horizon, and its brilliant golden light trickles down its sides and puddles in the water. There it flows in a long glitter path, a sun road across the salty blue, collected finally in the tide pools, pure California gold.

At the end of the day, every San Diego frond and flat wall celebrates the sun. Every shell fragment lying on the shore and every wispy cloud above is baptized together for one glorious moment in golden fire until at last a tiny gold rim remains on the ocean’s horizon, and then is gone. The copies dissolve, the gold fades, and the light vanishes!  It was the jewel of the city.

Did they see it? Perhaps some San Diegans didn’t. Not to worry. In San Diego the sun will almost always come out tomorrow. And mostly likely, it will come out the day after that and the day after that. And although it may be tread upon,  there is the frequent opportunity here to stoop and take it — even for the briefest of flickering, sentient moments – the jewel of the city, the  beautiful, glorious San Diego sunshine.