For more than ten years, Judy and I have been taking care of two injured birds (Parker and Big Bird) from the wild parrot flock. Since some trees near our house were cut down, visits by the wild birds have become rare. But last week we started getting daily visits from one of them, who seems to be attracted to Parker. They sit next to each other—Parker in the window sill and the wild bird (whom we call The Munchkin) on a railing on the other side of the screen. There have been two days when The Munchkin was here the entire day, leaving only briefly to eat. I was puzzled as to what was going on until I saw The Munchkin come under attack on two separate occasions by passing members of the flock. It looks like he’s been banished for violating flock rules. I’ve seen this happen in the past. Eventually the ban gets lifted, and the outcast is allowed to return. The last couple of days, The Munchkin has been around less.
Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category
Not too long ago, the term “Kali Yuga” came up. I don’t remember why or how. I knew that Kali Yuga is an Indian religious concept, that a “Yuga” is an era or age, and that the Kali Yuga is the demonic age. But I wanted a little deeper understanding, so I did a search. The first link I hit defined it as “The present age,” which made me laugh. ‘Twas rueful laughter. I don’t know that I believe we’re in the Kali Yuga. Very often this type of thing is symbolism or myth, a way of talking about certain ideas. And sometimes they’re just superstition. But last night I saw a movie that made me think that, if there is such a thing, we might be in the Kali Yuga now.
The movie was Gasland, a documentary about fracking. (I know it’s already made the rounds, but I seldom see films.) If you’ve never seen it, you ought to. It’s one of those films about something bad happening in the world that is extremely discouraging. But the filmmaker, Josh Fox, has a good sense of humor, which made the film bearable. In a nutshell, the film says that while in office, Dick Cheney (in my opinion one of the most detestable men in American history) saw to the passage of a law that gets the gas companies off the hook for any environmental damage caused by fracking. The gas companies are clearly causing a great deal of harm to people, to the land, and to animals. Their indifference to the damage is demonic. They’ve been going to great lengths to make the film seem “controversial.” I can’t argue the science. I’ve never been that attracted to scientific learning. But I know liars and sellouts when I hear them, and the gas companies are clearly being defended by liars and sellouts. The government is not doing a thing to stop what’s going on. They either pretend it’s not happening or they actively assist the gas companies. I recommend the film to anyone who doesn’t know much about this whole fracking business. I had no idea how developed and wide spread it was.
I’m back from my week on Santa Barbara Island. It didn’t seem prudent to say this publicly before going, but Judy wasn’t able to come this time, so I spent the entire week completely alone. I was eager to do it, though. I was curious to know how difficult it would be. I didn’t find it difficult at all. While I prefer being there with Judy, I was able to handle the solitude—I enjoyed it—and could have easily stayed a second week. Now I’m back in the big city and having to make the same psychological adjustments I did last time.
I’m back out on Santa Barbara Island. Last night around midnight, I went outside to sit and listen and watch. I heard sea lions barking, waves crashing against the cliffs, the peeping of some species of seabird, and the banging of the flagpole rope against the pole. I saw the stars, the moon, the reflection of the moon upon the ocean, and forty miles away the dim glow of Los Angeles. I thought to myself, “I ought to try to write a poem.” And then I thought, “Naw. Nobody reads poetry anymore. Poetry is dying.” A terrible thought, really, and I had to think about that for a little while.
What is poetry? When it functions correctly, it’s a people’s expression of its deepest convictions and insights. The universe has a constant poetry going that sometimes we see in the form of coincidence. Not accident, but coincidence—where things mysteriously coincide, that is, the workings of karma. Those levels are always there. So, poetry, or the poetic, never dies, but a people’s awareness of it can. We can lose our convictions and insights. If no one is paying any attention to poetry in America these days (perhaps you could even say the modern world), I have to think that it’s the culture that’s dying, not poetry.
Judy and I have been back for a week now, and for me there’s been an unexpected development. As I said, when we were offered a third week on the island, we had to ask ourselves whether we could handle it. We decided to give it a go, and it was easy. The hard part has been coming back home—at least for me it has. Being on Santa Barbara Island was such a peaceful experience and we got settled in deeply enough that coming back to the chaos of the city has been unsettling. I dislike going outside right now. The city gets on my nerves more than it did before we left. I’ll adjust. I am adjusting. But this was unexpected. I’m speaking only for myself. Weirdly enough, just three days after our return Judy had to leave for another island: Manhattan. I’m eager to compare notes when she returns.
This is the fourth or fifth time that Judy and I have served as holiday season caretakers on Santa Barbara Island. All the other stays have lasted one week. We’ve loved them, but have always felt we were just getting settled in when it came time to leave. This year we were offered a two week stay, which we happily accepted. The day we got here we found out that a third week was available if we wanted it. We had to think it over, but we both ended up saying yes. The isolation has not been any strain at all. Besides being husband and wife, Judy and I are best friends.
This time I’ve been able to establish a routine: cooking, meditating, writing, working (we’ve been planting native plants), and hiking. One of my favorite parts of the day is right after breakfast when I hike up to a favorite spot in a meadow above the ranger’s house and just sit. The small ranger’s compound is completely out of view. Except for a trail marker, everything I see and hear there is natural. I wrote it all down one day.
What I saw: a broad field of grass with blades around six inches tall, the wooden trail marker, various shrubs (mostly sage and giant coreopsis), Santa Catalina Island (25 miles away), the sun, the marine layer along the horizon, a few distant clouds, the Pacific Ocean, one marsh hawk chasing another marsh hawk out of its territory, a white-crowned sparrow, a hovering kestrel—and on the distant horizon, two container ships.
What I heard: the cry of the marsh hawk being chased, a light wind in my ears, a flock of seagulls, waves hitting the shore, the barking of sea lions, a meadowlark, the grass moving in the wind, the song of the sparrow.
On my way back to the house a barn owl flew quite near and I saw the spouting of a whale.
As I said about my last trip, one of the things I value most about being on the island is having the opportunity to relax my nervous system. I always lose sight of just how much living in a city jacks me up until I get to a place like this. There is a natural rhythm that we are supposed to live by and that modern life constantly exceeds. One of the great delusions of our time is that by living fast and bold we create dynamic lives that are superior to the ways that preceded us. But all we end up doing is losing our clarity, losing our way. Because of the lack of distractions, I’ve gotten a very good handle on what it is I need to do to make my book, Street Song, work. I wish I could stay here for months and months and not do anything but write. I could finish the book within a year. But that’s not to be.
One final note: During my sits up in the meadow I’ve been dipping into the Stephen Addiss/Stanley Lombardo translation of the Tao Te Ching. While I’ve been reading and liking this particular translation for around a year, I’m in love with it now. Most translations of the Tao Te Ching read either like a cryptic and dry philosophical tract or some New Age pamphlet. With this version I can feel the presence of the mind that wrote it. It’s put out by Shambhala Publications.
Originally, Judy and I were scheduled to leave Santa Barbara Island today, but we were offered the chance to spend a third week here, and we’re taking it. This is an extraordinary place, and it’s been a good experience for both of us. I’ll write more before we leave.
Judy and I left San Francisco on Monday the 17th, driving down Highway 101 to Ventura, our point of departure for Santa Barbara Island. We left a day early so that I could spend Tuesday looking into two final research questions I’ve had for Street Song, questions that could only be answered by making a trip to Los Angeles. While neither question has been important enough to justify the expense of going there, they’ve been tugging at my mind for years. It was only recently that I figured out where the keys were. Since we were going to be in the area anyway, we drove to L. A., and I got my answers. Always very satisfying.
On Wednesday, the sea was too rough for a boat landing, so they sent us out in a helicopter. (Many thanks to our pilot Charlie and all the folks at Aspen Helicopters.) We are scheduled to be here in absolute solitude for two weeks. It’s not exactly hardship duty. We’re in a small house that’s powered by the sun and propane. We have lights, a kitchen with refrigerator and stove, a shower (military showers only) and internet access. There’s also a television with a satellite dish—although we don’t watch it. I’m working on my book, Judy has her film notes and another project, and we read. (Judy is reading Robinson Crusoe and I’m reading Allen Ginsberg’s Planet News and the Tao Te Ching.)
We have three daily duties: radioing in the morning report (the weather and the condition of the ocean); turning on a pump if the rainwater collection tank gets too full (it requires getting up in the middle of the night if there’s a downpour); and helping with the restoration of the island through the planting of native plants (see photo). The rest of our time is devoted to writing, reading, hiking, cooking—and sleeping. For some reason island life makes us drowsy. Every time we come out here, we tend to get in bed around 7:30. Some nights we sleep ten or eleven hours.
One anecdote: Two nights ago, there was a sudden squall. The rain was pounding hard on the roof, and we had to jump out of bed to check the water collection tank. It was filling up fast, so we had to pull out the instructions on how to turn on the pump, something we’d never done before. No sooner did we get the pump running, than the rain began to subside. Then it stopped entirely. Once we were certain that everything was okay, we got back in bed. Just before turning out the light I opened up the Tao Te Ching to a random page. My eyes fell on these lines:
Violent winds do not blow all morning.
Sudden rain cannot pour all day.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all that jazz
The last few years, Judy and I have spent every Christmas to New Year’s Day as the sole occupants of Santa Barbara Island, a mile-long island 38 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The island is part of Channel Islands National Park, and the park service relies on a regular staff of volunteer caretakers to watch over the place. Few people ever go there, except in summer, and even then it’s generally vacant. It’s difficult to get to. A boat goes out only once a week. Since there’s no water, unless you have your own boat, you’re saddled with the need to bring out a week’s worth of water and food. There isn’t a single beach on the island. It’s all cliffs. The landing is a dock built into one of those cliffs. Sometimes the ocean is too rough to permit a landing. It can be that way for days. And even when you can dock, to get to the campground you have to carry your gear up a long path with switchbacks.
The situation is different for volunteers, who get to live in the island’s only building, the ranger’s house, which has a gas stove, solar power, and a regular supply of water brought in by the weekly boat. This year, Judy and I are spending two uninterrupted weeks there. They needed volunteers for the week prior to Christmas as well the Christmas to New Year’s week, and we decided to take it. I’ll be using the time for focused work on my book. The island is incredibly peaceful and free of distractions. There are few sounds other than those that nature makes—wind, waves, sea lions, sea gulls, meadowlarks, insects buzzing in the grass. (Last year, though, we were awakened in the middle of the night by a helicopter that was searching for a boat that had crashed into the island in the darkness. They radioed and asked us to search for the wreckage and to take photographs, which turned out to be quite an adventure.)
Besides the radio, the ranger’s house has a modem connected to a satellite dish, so we won’t be completely cut off from what many people call civilization. I’ll try to write at least once while I’m out there.
Happy Holidays to you all.
Judy and I were at a convention of the nation’s top environmentalists. We were all in one big room. Before the meeting started, one of us went out in the hallway and discovered a troop of about ten poor whites, “trailer trash” types, who had been sent to kill us. None of them was holding a weapon at the moment—they’d laid them down while discussing how to do the job—so the guy who found them was able to round them up and march them into the big room. They were a mix of men and women, mostly men, and they all looked malnourished and poverty-stricken. Each one was carrying a copy of a letter that had been written in 1978 by the CEO of a major corporation. He’d originally sent it to one of the environmentalists present, threatening him with death for having stopped his company’s production of DDT. The CEO was finally making good on his 34-year-old threat, except that now he wanted to do away with all of us. Judy and I were chosen to read the letter out loud to the assembly. The letter was so badly written, though—incomplete sentences, mangled syntax—that we had to keep asking each other what the poor fellow seemed to be trying to say.