Friday, March 27, 2015


Intrepid. My wife re-introduced me to this word last night in a burst of giggles that rocked our bed as I settled more deeply under the down comforter. Her mirth occasioned by the secret knowledge of a colleague’s ignorance of the word’s meaning, she tumbled into a laughing fit at the thought of one’s unfamiliarity with this wonderful word.

Intrepid. To say it conjures pilots, explorers, adventurers, trailblazers. Its synonyms – fearless, courageous – pop readily to mind. The three syllables pack a punch, the force of tongue to back of teeth to produce the bold “tr-” a pseudo onomatopoeia. Defiance of convention. Bucking trends. Giving the lie to limiting norms or stifling stereotypes. Transcending perceived limitations. Acting boldly. So many ways to capture the word’s meaning, its arms-crossed, upwardly-thrust-chin quality.

Having spent the better part of the year among farmers and ranchers, intrepid also speaks to me of those who live off the land and waters. The seasoned organic vegetable farmer who confronts the thousandth day of a searing drought. The enthusiastic Greenhorn birthing his first pair of kids. The young dairy woman sleeping beside her sick Jersey cow.

Equally, it evokes the creatures who shelter under Mother Nature’s expansive roof: great egrets and blue herons, buffleheads and mallards, Canada geese and plovers, chickadees and robins. Redwoods, cedars, aspens, scrub oaks, eucalyptus, sycamore. Cattails, water weed, marsh and Pampas grasses, and also wild radish, clover, and even pesky Bermuda grass. 

I watched yesterday as a pair of pale yellow zebra-striped butterflies spiraled sunward then plunged tens of feet toward the packed dry earth in a dramatic mating dance, seemingly oblivious to barbed wire topped chain link fences, fast-flying crows, oblivious joggers. They danced their twirly, exuberant choreography intrepidly; cells in motion, energy completely in flow.

What would it mean to truly live an intrepid life, courage an inseparable companion, open-heartedness and faith coursing in your veins? What soaring choreography might be possible carried by wings of this kind of love?

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees
- like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
: Mary Oliver

Monday, March 2, 2015

Winter's Pruning

Among the blessings of winter, one stirs special gratitude within me. This is the season when Mother Nature generously reveals the elegant architecture of trees. Sturdy base roots to delicate, finger-thick branches, the magnificent artistry wrought in wood is laid bare.

I stand in awe, marveling at the sometime symmetrical, sometimes elaborate and complex spreading of branch over branch. Poetry in form, limb giving way seamlessly to limb like so many perfect words strung together in memorable meter. The uppermost branches touch the underbelly of the broad blue winter sky, linking heaven and earth. Near to earth, broad base gives way to a dense network of taproots that burrow deep into the soil, sourcing moisture, minerals, and organic material essential for healthy growth. Married with sunlight, these nutrients will grow green leaves, growth buds, and – in time – blossoms and fruit that delight our senses, nourish our bodies.  

Winter is also the time for pruning apple and pear trees, making careful cuts that encourage vitality and productivity. An alchemy of scientific technique and artful sculpting, skillful pruning promotes the maximum healthy, generative growth of abundant fruit for generations.

One recent bright February afternoon, I watched as Orin Martin, veteran Director of UC Santa Cruz's Alan Chadwick Garden, aggressively trimmed two- and three-year old apple, aprium, and pear trees. Systematically, with the trained hand of one accustomed to the task and the artist’s gift for simultaneous attention to big picture vision and laser-like focus in execution, he deftly severed and tossed aside 2" thick limbs from young, gangly trees standing just 5’ tall. He pruned away false leader limbs, which vied for the essential nutrients that would propel growth of a sturdy central trunk capable of sustaining rings of strong branches. To me, an empathetic tree lover, the castoff wood seemed essential to the tree's viability. He explained that the tree’s capacity to bear abundant and healthy fruit well into the future demanded that all of its energy be shunted toward productive growth - that it not waste nutrients on limbs that would ultimately not prove viable for fruit-bearing or those that would bloom out in directions that jeopardized the much grander endeavor of producing exquisite, delicious fruit for years and years. With bold cuts, he excised unproductive branching that resulted in vulnerability for the larger whole.

This winter, I feel I’m being somewhat brutally pruned. Tested. Cut to the core by larger, life-sized questions:  How do I want to grow? Can I remain rooted in the vision I hold for my work in the world, for my life? Can I allow for the removal - even when it's painful, harsh - of elements that don't serve me to realize my individual goals and my hopes for the wider world? Can I suffer through looking scraggly and awkward to outside observers for a season or two? Can I shiver under the frost or withstand the dry times rooted in the certainty that I know how to dig even deeper, know how to reach far within and source the energy I need for the longer haul because I’m intent on ultimately growing gloriously full and providing an abundant harvest year after year, both for myself and others?

Bare trees exist side by side with those trying on their spring attire in these dawning days of March:  tightly-wrapped bright green buds; hot pink flowers strung along thin branches like pearls; sloppily beautiful cream-colored magnolia flowers lolling open to the morning sun. Here and there, parrot tulips blaze in glory, frilly cherry-red edges rimming yolk-gold petals. An ancient lattice hung with pale yellow climber roses provides a feast for the senses. Regal calla lilies unfurl their linen white surfaces, bright white canvases of possibility. Bud by bud, a strand of lavender wisteria flowers blooms, cascading bountifully over a willing arbor. Songbirds ply the colorful landscape, lending their cheerful chatter to the chorus of new growth.

Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson counseled, “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience." So I patiently wait for winter’s pruning to yield new growth. I sink my feet into the soft earth, sip the spring air through my nostrils, bend my neck back and let my face catch the sun. Soon, I know, the blooming will happen – then, the fruit will set, the harvest will come. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Art of Living

The Journey
~ David Whyte (House of Belonging)

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving
you are arriving.

I’ve read this poem over and over again in recent days. It’s become a sort of antidote to the sound of morning or evening commuter traffic rolling past my window, the bustle of my wife’s preparations for the work day, the unceasing chatter of my mind as it strives to answer unrelenting queries, “What now? What next? What are you doing? What will you do?”

Snippets of memories from my days training as a farmer in Alaska begin to recede. The memories themselves seem like “the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out.” I struggle to discern what’s written in the ashes of my life – a life composed of surprising and complicated leave takings and homecomings, of passionate pursuits and searching, of dignified and undignified labor, and of longing for the grand and revelatory arrival, of “something new” to be revealed.

Instead, I am invited to practice patience. I must be satisfied with a little more uncertainty. I must dwell still longer in possibility.  The late John O’Donohue’s brief piece “The Question Holds the Lantern” captures the current beneath my restlessness, the themes of this journey between life as it was and life as it is being revealed, this pilgrimage that has not yet culminated in arrival - not yet:
"Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns.  Now you realize how precious your time here is.  You are no longer willing to squander your essence on undertakings that do not nourish your true self; your patience grows thin with tired talk and dead language.  You see through the rosters of expectation, which promise you safety and the confirmation of your outer identity.  Now you are impatient for growth, willing to put yourself in the way of change.  You want your work to become an expression of your gift.  You want your relationships to voyage beyond the pallid frontiers to where the danger of transformation dwells.  You want your God to be wild and to call you to where your destiny awaits."

All around me, people are busy. They are consuming and computing, communicating and conniving, proposing and posturing and posting, and doing, doing, doing.  The rare few are making, creating, mending, tending.  Perhaps (who knows?) fewer still are praying, nurturing, truly healing themselves, other people, our planet. Far too many seem self-defined by their doing and owning. They tally their worth as so many meeting minutes, emails, documents, tasks and activities and things. There is a relentlessness to their pace, an insatiable need to fill space and moments. Stillness is shunned. There is no time for rest, inactivity, reflection. Always and only a dull roar of busy-ness.

I listen to the flow of traffic, alternately uncomfortable with and envious of the elegance of being linked to one’s activities or products, of being identified as the role one occupies:  web tech, business analyst, lawyer, nurse, accountant, clerk. Inwardly, in my heart of hearts, though, I long to break free of this identity with activity. I want to find a new way of being and loving and living in the world. I want to move at a pace that accommodates my desire to spend time each day – free from guilt and self-reproach – to linger in wonder and awe, with poetry and precious people. I want to observe, to commune, to dwell in gratitude. I want to honor the “being” in human being, to acknowledge and appreciate the breathe of life that unites all created things by pausing long enough each day to experience fully this in-breath and out-breath, to remember its connection to inspiration.

I also want to work and to earn my livelihood in a way that expresses my intention to honor people and relationships, to care for creatures and the land, to open my heart even wider to love and understanding. I want to heal and tend and mend and grow. I want to build and contribute, to repair and reclaim. I want to make whole and create anew, ideally working side by side with others who share this desire.  

So I am learning to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty. I am learning to listen to the whirr of traffic and din of impatient and frenzied hurrying with gratitude that I can choose to be still. I am slowly learning to idle at a more gentle RPM, one that allows for noticing and appreciating and tending. I am savoring the particular purple of the morning glories outside my window, nestled side-by-side as they are with the hot-orange berries of pyrocantha. I’m learning how to follow the quick, precise movements of the hummingbirds; the patient, graceful arcs of the red-shouldered hawks; the impossibly slow steps of the great egret; the awkwardly determined plodding of the black-necked stilt. I am making my own awkward, determined path to my yoga mat more frequently, and learning there a new form of stillness and patience. I am practicing the hard labor of surrendering to what is and allowing what will be to take shape in its own time, in God’s time.

When I need it, which is often, I reach for poetry to comfort me. And I take comfort from Lynne Ungar, who both asks and answers me:

And you—
what of your rushed and
useful life?
Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything,
leaving only a note:
‘Gone to the fields to be lovely.
Be back when I’m through with blooming.’

After all, I believe we are planted here - in these bodies, on this earthly soil – to bloom. We are meant to grow and thrive. And when our small patch of home soil somehow becomes polluted or toxic or absent nourishment, we must enrich it. Sometimes that entails turning it over entirely, amending it with nourishing contributions from near and far, and then allowing time to work its usual magic.

I long for the arrival. And also, I am gradually finding peace in the longing. . .

But perhaps God needs the longing, wherever else shall it dwell,
Which with kisses and tears and sighs fills mysterious spaces of air -
And perhaps is invisible soil from which roots of stars grow and swell -
And the radiant voice across fields of parting which calls to reunion there?
O my beloved, perhaps in the sky of longing worlds have been born of our love -
Just as our breathing, in and out, builds a cradle for life and death?
We are grains of sand, dark with farewell, lost in births' secret treasure trove,
Around us already perhaps future moons, suns, and stars blaze in a fiery wreath.

~ Nelly Sachs  
(Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead, in A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, ed. by Aliki and Willis Barnstone)