“Wanna go climb Katahdin?”
“Why yes, yes I do.”
On a recent warm autumn afternoon, two friends and I set off for to Maine to climb Katahdin. Come along.
For much of my adult life, it has been the ragged mythos of the rugged West that has captured my attention and attracted my body. If East was Home, and with it safety and familiarity, West was wildness, adventure, and an ineffable invitation to confront the unknown. However, throughout it all, the stand-alone mountain in northern Maine, called Katahdin, has called to me from the East with the same sense of sacred Mystery.
When soul brother Reed (of corn-hole infamy) mentioned that he’d be in New England this Fall, and that we should climb the mountain that Thoreau described as being of “the most treacherous and porous country,”I fairly leaped at the chance. Lucky for us, another dear brother, Jefe, also jumped on board, and the three of us rocketed across northern New England in my silver Subaru. Driving in later afternoon light, we studied Fall’s firework hills, read the creative Trump signs adorning crumbling barns, and stop often to peer at rivers and study the terrain.
Similar to areas in the West, you can mark much of this north country by how recently it’s been logged–– one mile of road is a dappled disco of foliage shining down from overhanging, mature maples, while the next mile will be lined with the crowded thickets of recent clear-cuts growing back dense and tight. It may be rural and wild out here, but that doesn’t mean there’s any absence of the human touch.
We arrive at Baxter State Park well after dark to find that the park is closed: our reservation means nothing. Alas, after some haggling with the taciturn but reasonable park ranger, he directs us to a semi-legal camp-site a few miles back.
After a brief sleep beneath star-lit power-lines, we rumble into the Park as the gate opens as 6. Oatmeal and coffee, yogurt and yoga, in the pre-dawn dusk.
As dawn begins to light the golden birch leaves like so many paper bulbs, we hit the trail with cold hands and wily grins. Within a mile, we come upon the sign below. .. Wilderness as Danger, Wilderness Management as having to worry about modern people who have lost the art of Walking…
Wake up, we’re walking.
As we loosen narrative formations…
We find the Poet’s Perch, put on all of our layers, and settle in.
Minds re-begin, again.
Watch Jefe reading the raven-flung cliffs.
Note the black bear on the upper blueberry slopes.
Observe Reed strike a body balance within.
Wilderness as a place of non-ordinary states of time: time to do things like read poems aloud to your friends.
I read aloud, now, from my copy of Han Shan’s “Cold Mountain Poems.” These short poems come from 9th century China, were translated by Gary Snyder in the 1970’s, and this particular book was given to me by wolf friend Jon Turner.
My cold hands on the book’s smooth paper, my voice bell-clear, ringing the atmosphere:
“Spring-water in the green creek is clear
Moon-light on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge — the spirit is enlighted of itself
Contemplate the Void: this world exceeds stillness.”
“Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease––
No more tangled, hung-up mind.
I idly scribble poems on rock cliffs.
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.”
“I’ve lived at Cold Mountain — how many autumns.
Alone, I hum a song — utterly without regret.
Hungry, I eat one grain of Immortal-medicine
Mind solid and sharp; leaning on a stone.”
Hurling my self face-first into jazz, and then attempting to write out that experience, is a perennially thrilling exercise, and one of my favorite activities as a human.
In honor of another amazing Jazz Fest here in Burlington, here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote some years ago and published in my book “Wild. Life.” ….
“The night itself starts fast– the place is packed in its red gloom glory with sitting and standing bodies in sweaters and t-shirts and jackets hung from hooks on walls and shoved behind cracked silver studded leather booths– the arching palm tree in the corner hangs its glossy rusting spears down upon that corner, green and alive and swaying slightly. The bar itself can’t be seen, as I slither through and nod my nods and hugs my hugs, music starting with immediacy that I also can’t see, so surrounded am I by shadow and flesh. I make it to the bar and wrangle up a stout and feel its cold glass on my thawing hand and look through the forms of bodies toward the band.
By the door stand two handsome entities– Anthony Santor and his mahogany stand-up bass, it’s shining elegant curves matching the glossy shine of Anthony’s middle-aged shaved round head, already glistening red with the lights on his sweat, reflecting diamonds. They’re neck-deep already in a tune he wrote called “Raw,” a real filthy jazz tune from never before ago, or before that, but jazz no doubt about it, bop if you want it. His bass lines on these opening parts are rough and ragged, a lot of movement, a lot of his kind round Buddha face mouthing the notes– of quick up-hikes up clattering fire-escapes and riding rock-slides back down. A guttural groan here now, reverbs loud around–
Andy Allen now, the out-of-no-where best saxophonist we could be hearing right now, young kid, replaced Brian McNamara the Wildest when Brian took off for Montreal a few months back to study more music and wear more sunglasses in his car at night– (where I’d once found him seven pages into a composition he’d heard in his enigmatic head on his drive over to meet us at Nick and David’s for a romp.) And here is Andy now, real animated, that lower right hand spider running atop the brass keys and brass pad cups fast fast sliver notes. The arm connected tucked in close to a navy sweat-shirted body, kid swings and dips his body– follow up gleaming keys and find wet lips on reed connecting breath to notes and back to body, song spewing melodiously forth through his body. He’s already played the chorus and he’s moved on now to find one of these whimsical solos that seems completely immersed in the song and yet centuries and countries beyond it. It’s a fast beat and there’s a ton of texture, holding him up there– keeps taking in all this humid excited air and blowing higher and more intricately, hits these high notes unbelievably quickly and adeptly through true chords changes in line with the other lines but fast enough to make you close your eyes in a wince– you feel each sixteenth note bust into your mind– insisting we all listen intently until we hit our heads on the 18th century ceiling of old Burlington mill-town lake-town now-town is this music for us we’re cheering “Go!”
Nicholas Cassarino grabs the notes next and keeps them strong but brings ‘em down and under control, seems intent to stay modest and quiet for now. He straightens his back, adjusts the guitar strap with a pull on the guitar neck, playing. That instrument seems of him. Calm face, down-turned eyes, mouth in a half-smile grimace. We’re watching Creation happen. We’re watching the strangeness of improvisation happen. We’re listening– rhythmic eighth and quarter notes; occasional chords collide and coincide with a snare drum slap, but on un-expected beats. Deceptive cadence and hands-off innocence. Throbbing dynamics, counterpoint to whose last note? Who’s frettin’?
Nick eases to near stand-still, stands taller on leather shoes– Geza slows with him for a moment– and jabs a quick triple around the toms and high-fives out– Nick meanwhile seemed to know Geza would bat this way and was already hot on his heels, tops out too with huge high C just a moment after Geza, and proceeds to repeat the same line again and uses that top-out to start a whole new strand of notes never before heard and probably never will be heard again. Anthony took three of his favorites and is sonorously punching them into the floor. Geza goes all cymbals for a moment and rattles your skin, glances up at Nick, as if to say “This is the stream-bed.” Nicholas’ hands of a silken rain. Microcosms of all Music. Clever small sounds you heard in a dream. Urge inward. That one melody discovered moments ago drifting and streaming, fetches up against the walls of the tempo; leaves high water marks on the banks of the beat. Birds fly free but live in wind. Andy suddenly arrives from the east and blows a gust of poetic whimsy, to which the other three respond with immediate invites. Nicholas swings the neck around and stuffs a one-two-three-four-thunder-clap and stops– Geza hears and joins one-two-three-four-swatter- Anthony plucks one low string hard enough to shake my beer– it all creates this news and elevated precipice, from which Andy’s horn sings “These are the days of rain in our souls!” The three others repeat the impromptu stop-chorus, to which Andy again blurts “The Raw marrow of Life tastes like this!” and they all then instinctively throw themselves on the winter-wet ground of the song-path and run full swing back into the hurtfully beautiful melody of the “Raw” tune they’d started with. A unified rush of music and immaculate philosophy avalanches through the Big Mind of every one there– no one is safe– one poor guy has just walked in and gets buried in empathy. Some thought to cheer. I slug my beer. The song ends to raucous clapping and banging of inspired thoughts.”
Happy New Year readers!
Delight to announce the publication of my essay “Thinking Like a Watershed” in our local newspaper, the Burlington Free Press.
Delighted to say I had the following book review published in the summer issue of Camas Magazine.
Knowing That the Earth Loves You Back
a review of Robin Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass”
by Trevien Stanger
Working with a graduate student one year at SUNY Sycracuse, the professor of botany, citizen of the Potowatami Nation, and author Robin Kimmerer helped create an experiment that confirmed what many indigenous people have known for millennia– that the human hand can be a healing force in an ecosystem. Looking closely at the traditional use of sweetgrass, a plant rich in story, science, and sanctity for many tribes throughout the continent, the experiment revealed that when using the indigenous method of honorably harvesting only small sections of the plant, humans were emulating the work of wild ruminants, with whom sweetgrass had coevolved for millennia. With this technique, the health of a sweetgrass patch benefits immensely from the presence of humans, whereas many other sweetgrass populations in her area that go untended are are experiencing decline. This story, and others like it, demonstrate a central thread of reciprocity between humans and nature that is woven throughout Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” and it is an inspiring thread to follow.
Once harvested, sweetgrass has traditionally been braided into long, fragrant strands for use in ceremony and celebration. Using the weaving of sweetgrass as a central metaphor, Kimmerer threads her essays into an evocative and gorgeous braid. In some stories, Kimmerer shines as a scientist-writer, eloquently describing how the Maple tree gives us sap each spring, or how the Three Sisters crops of corn, beans, and squash form a mutualistic relationship both above and below the soil. Her writing in these instances is as crisp as summer corn and as sweet as syrup, and it seems she could easily have written a new naturalist’s classic that celebrates Earth through the revelations of the scientific gaze.
Instead, Kimmerer also leans into all of her topics with the weight of her thousand-year-old traditions. Using indigenous science, often called “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” or TEK, Kimmerer illustrates how ethnobotanical relationships between people and plants to help us create symbiotic relationships within a place. She knows she’s on to something, as TEK “is increasingly being sought by academics, agency scientists, and policymakers as a potential source of ideas for emerging models of ecosystem management, conservation biology, and ecological restoration.” As a student and practitioner of TEK, Kimmerer has decades of experience observing how TEK generates not only ecological benefits, but how it also engenders an intensity of gratitude and a sense of humanity’s unique responsibilities to care for creation. Think of it as a practical, ecologically-informed and spiritually-inflected set of instructions for living within the gift-economy of Earth. A way to see and treat the Earth, with reverence and respect, as a Gift.
But make no mistake– as gentle and kind a guide that Kimmerer may be, this book is most certainly a polemic. Again and again we are asked to examine what happens when a people no longer perceive the world as a Gift, but rather only as a collection of commodities whose value is determined by a consumer marketplace. Setting her older, traditional set of stories against the modern story in which the majority of us live today, she throws down the challenge most eloquently: “One of these stories sustains the living earth on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world. We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.”
But how to remember, reimagine, and reconfigure ourselves within these stories she’s offering? One way, Kimmerer believes, is for us to engage in restorative practices, such as those offered by the field of ecological restoration. But even this act is worthy of imbuing with cultural significance, as she encourages us to see beyond physical work at hand– “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of earth’s beings.”
Restoring honor to our words, our actions, and our relationships is serious business, but for those who read Kimmerer’s book, it is clear that this restorative work need not be dull or overly serious. Through such concepts as the “Honorable Harvest,” and then walking alongside Kimmerer as she navigates its precepts in superfund sites in New York (“The Sacred and the Superfund”), within public schools whilst reciting the Pledge (“Allegiance to Gratitude”), or while restoring her back-yard pond with her daughters (“A Mother’s Work”), we get a sense that Kimmerer is by no means urging us toward a doom-and-gloom environmentalism. Rather, this book points toward practices that are at once playful, loving, invigorating, challenging, and altogether radical, in that they ask us to inspect the very roots of our responsibilities as Earth’s people. Perhaps to find, deep within us, a sense of sacredness based not on mere belief, but by direct experience.
Because, as Kimmerer points out, the ecological restoration going on around us really can nourish us in critical, holy, and healing ways– “What if we could fashion a restoration plan that grew from multiple understandings of Land? Land as sustainer. Land as identity. Land as grocery store and pharmacy. Land as connection to our ancestors. Land as moral obligation. Land as sacred. Land as self.”
And perhaps, through some serious contemplation and action, we might work toward the ultimate challenge that Kimmerer lays at our feet like a braid of fragrant sweetgrass– the challenge to once again become indigenous to place. To no longer act as immigrants in a strange land– but rather as citizens of a land that you love, and that a land loves you back. For as Kimmerer suggests, this reciprocity is utterly transformative– “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” Yes, to circle that line. And this book, read with both head and heart, might well help weave us into that sacred bond, one braid at a time.
Place-Based Education #1
What I want to tell you is that I’ve seen a place
through which surges a crackling, shimmering Reality
I’ve seen a place where the creatures have taken on lives of their own,
rearing and devouring each other with mercy and grace
I’ve seen a place where the water pervades and permeates every possible niche,
where water is the Real and the metaphor of Spirit–
Spirit irrigating Form
A place where Spirit, constantly and incessantly, animates an electric,
soul-centric, biospheric Earth
trembling in constant birth
A place where wildness is not banished
A place where the land shapes the creatures and they in turn sculpt the land–
where streams lose meanders when they lose wolves–
where oceans lose kelp forests when they lose otters–
where people lose their sanity
when their guiding stories lose a land-manifested sanctity
I’ve seen a place where the intelligence of the universe, with impunity and at will,
can concentrate its focus through a pair of human eyes–
an aperture through which that universe, with its stars, dreams, ferns,
mountains and rivers–
can become aware of itself–
the optic nerve of it all
A place where the people are, always and unequivocally,
leaning forward from the front edge of their own evolution
A place where our eye-contact is experienced as an elucidation of unity,
our breathing a caress of constant sensuality,
and our imaginations a venerated instrument of a sacred sexuality
I’ve seen a place where the people are naked under their clothes,
and then further in, naked under their culture–
I’ve perceived their nudity to be a molten, pulsing lotus of Light–
a fire they did not start and could never extinguish, only relinquish
A place where words can create, and destroy, trophic cascades–
streams, mountains, and forests decimated
by a thought–
pipe-lines, tar-sands, coal-mines, clear-cuts halted
with an Idea
A place where people– lush, vibrant, life-quaking people
can sit at meetings and at readings and beside campfires–
their earthen-bodies and sensual organs and pan-empathy organs
tuning them to the moment– their fleshy, juicy minds tuning them to the moment–
I’ve seen how they get together to concentrate their energy
into a distillation of what matters–
on matters of vitality for all and fecundity for free
A place where the visions-worked-into-being by these people undermine injustice,
pummel ignorance with love, propagate awareness through poetry,
threaten entrenched paradigms, distill abstractions into actions,
and scare the shit out of those who would rather such groups of people never met
A place where our words can become works made visible–
speech growing ever more infused with the syntax of rivers, the grammar of galaxies,
the windy whispers of our own inner majesty–
I’ve seen a place where this Living Language can, will, and must continue
on its inevitable evolution, turning itself further toward the Beauty that inspired its rise
A place where We the People live in Earth, a place where we are Earth
towards that which makes us thrive
A place where you are a Native of this Universe
domiciled within, whilst co-creating dutifully
A place where you take up space
Because you are of this place
I have seen a place where we receive and transmit
this place-based education:
this place is your body
this place is your mind
take it as Soil
or take it as Spirit
but never forget
you’re one of a kind
that create you
A place where we are forever wed to this moment’s widest truth–
..here I resume my tale of planting a tree with four 4th-graders in the school-yard in sunny San Diego. Please feel free to read the previous installment here, or just jump in. We’ve just finished some introductions and we’re getting to work.
Dirt begins to fly. The mound of soil is torn apart with the eager hands of some students, gently pawed apart by others. I let the conversations meander, listening for the rich areas where I might ask more leading questions. Eventually one of the kiddos discovers the darker, richer soil that is mounded against the back of our dirt pile. “Whoa, this one’s so different!”
“Let me see! Oh my God, it’s warm!” Stephen says, taking it into his hands and holding up for us all to see.
“Yeah,” I affirm, “It sure is. What else is different about that soil?”
Sasha walks over, grabs two handfuls of the earth-stuff, and throws it high into the air above her– “It’s way lighter!” she screams, giggling as the brown confetti rains down on all of us. After a quick reminder to please not throw the soil, I engage.
“Okay okay, that lighter soil is something called ‘compost.’ Does anyone know what compost is made of?”
“Poop?!” Quick giggles and little kid teeth bared. “Ewwwww!”
“No, not this compost. Well what happens if you put a bunch of banana peels, apple cores, melon rinds, and a bunch of grass in a big bucket and leave it alone?”
“It’s gets rotten! It turns to compost!”
“Yeah, sort of, but instead of rotting we could just say that it ‘breaks down’ into this compost. But how does it break down? What breaks it down?”
“Like, worms and stuff?” offers Stephen.
“Yes! Exactly! Worms and stuff!” I grab a handful of compost– “so, can every one pick up a handful of this compost?” They all do. “I have a question for you: how many organisms are in this one handful of compost?”
“What’s an organanism?” the young boy Pablo in the blue shirt asks.
“Good question. An organism is anything that is alive. So, is the Whale an organism?”
“Yes!!!” they all laugh-affirm.
“Is the Eagle an organism?”
“Is the Ladybug an organism?”
“Is the truck an organism?”
“Are You an organism?”
“Okay, great, so how many organisms do you think are in your handful of compost?” I ask again.
“I don’t see any…” Sasha says, closely inspecting her hands.
“Well they’re all very, very small– so small they’re microscopic.”
“Um, like, a thousand?”
“Um, like, a million?”
“What?! A gajillion?!!!”
“Okay I’ll tell you– there are over SEVEN BILLION organisms living in that handful of soil.” Pause for absorption. See four pairs of eyes scanning the soil in their hands, about their feet, all around them. See their gaze dance from our pile, to their neighbors, to the length of this strip of land beside the parking lot. “Pretty incredible, huh?”
The two boys are holding the soil up an inch from their faces, while the two girls are beginning to move the soil into the hole with gentle strokes of their cupped hands. Just when I’m wondering toward what I’d like to transition next, I remember that we haven’t looked at our Tree in a while.
“Okay, look friends, our Tree!” I exclaim, taking into my hand and immediately passing the Tree around the circle again. Each student takes the Tree in hand and then passes the Tree on, some holding onto the Tree longer than others. The last girl, Tammy, takes hold of the trunk and thrusts the top-most branches into the sky, “It’s so little! How will it ever grow big and make apples?!”
“Well, for one thing this Tree a Peach Tree, so this Tree won’t produces apples, but you’re right, this Tree is really small right now. Does anyone know how this Tree is going to grow big? What does a fruit Tree need to survive?” I ask, leading back toward some of the established curriculum.
“And soil, and water!”
“Um, fresh air?!”
“Okay,” I say, holding the Tree in the middle of the hole, letting the Tree become our focal point. “You’re all right. First of all, let’s remember that this, this Tree, is alive, right? Like, alive right now. Do you call your friend an ‘it?’ Like, ‘it’s digging a hole?’”
“No, I say ‘she,’” Sasha says.
“Yeah, and we can do that for Tree, because our Tree is more than an ‘it.’ Let’s address the Tree with good manners…” and they’re looking at me quizzically at that one, so I move on. “Okay, anyway, once we put this Tree into the soil, the Tree is going to sort of wake up out of dormancy and begin to grow. And we know that the Tree will need good soil– which is why we’ve dug such a deep hole and have healthy compost for the Tree– and we know that Tree will need water– which is why we’ll be installing an irrigation system here– and we know the Tree will need a lot of sunlight for some super fascinating reasons that we’ll get to soon. So yes, our Tree needs soil, sunlight, water, air, and actually needs one more thing for our Tree to do really well… One more thing… Any one know what else it will need?”
After a brief pause, the Sasha pounces– “It needs LOVE!” We all giggle, but not because it’s wrong or silly, but I suppose because it challenges the more scientifically-inclined mind we’ve been using thus far.
“You’re right dear, the Tree does need our love. Especially if we want this Tree to live a long life and give us years and years of delicious peaches, well then we need to be able care for the Tree, so that it can care for us. We can take care of each other, right? So, in order for us to care for the Tree, what should we do?” I ask.
“We can give it food,” Pablo says with the solemn look of a Father promising to care for a found kitten.
“Good, but we’ll call the food ‘fertilizer.’ And you’re right, every year or two we’ll come back and help you feed your tree the right mix of vitamins and minerals. What else?”
“Oh, I know!” Mary blurts out, “we can protect the Tree from people who might, like, break it or kill it?”
“Yes, great, please do that. And you know some people might not think much of it, breaking branches or climbing the Tree when the Tree is still too small for climbing, but that’s where all of you can come in. Can you promise, right this very moment, that you’ll help keep an eye out for this Tree? Promise to care for the Tree as a the living being?” I get nods and smiles from every one. Suddenly the air feels perfectly still, the whole morning perfectly still– a brief moment of serious yet joyous ceremony has just occurred, one that seems larger than I can appreciate right now. I smile the smile of a man who feels like his ideals and his practice are working in tandem– so see me too, if you will, smiling amongst these kids and trees.
FORM AND FUNCTION:
“Okay,” I continue, “well here’s another way we can care for this Tree– we can better get to know our Tree. The same way we might care for our bodies or the bodies of our pets, we need to know a little about how the Tree works and what the Tree’s body does. So,” I begin, changing my tone back to teacher-authority for a moment, as I see some eyes wandering to the group next me who has already started planting their Tree, “the way I want you to think of this is with two different words. Form, and function. Think about your body. Can everyone wiggle their toes?” They do. “Okay, so you have feet– that’s the form. What’s the function of your feet? What do they do?”
“They help us walk?” Sasha asks.
“Great. If you hands are the form, what’s the function?”
“They help us grab stuff.”
“Good– if ears are the form–“
“If eyes are the form?”
“They help us see stuff!”
“Okay, awesome, y’all are amazing. So, now, let’s try the same thing for our Peach Tree.” I take up the tree in my hand and hold it upright in the hole, with it the lateral roots protruding outward and the fibrous root-hairs hanging down toward the soil. “So, down here we have the roots– if roots are the form, what’s the function? Why does the tree have roots, and what do they do?”
Quiet for a moment. I lift the tree higher, so that now the roots are at eye-level– we look across at one another through the earthy tendrils. I make eye-contact with Pablo and ask him– “What do the roots do?”
“Aqua. They drink,” he says confidently.
“Yes, great Pablo, they drink water like a straw stuck in the soil, and then send the water up into the tree through the xylem layer. Do we drink water through our feet?”
“Right, pretty amazing the roots do, and can send the water up, huh? Okay, what else do the roots do for the tree?” I ask, running my fingers through the rootlets and splaying some out across my hand.
“They eat food out of the soil?” Sasha ventures.
“They do, that’s true, they get nutrients out of the soil and send those up the tree in the xylem layer as well. Okay, what about on a really windy day– what do the roots do?”
“Oh, they help hold it down so it doesn’t blow away.”
“Good, exactly. Because trees and plants stay in one spot, right? They can’t walk around to go get out of the wind or go walk to the store for food, so they have to stay firmly rooted in place, even when it’s windy. Okay, how about this?” I ask, pointing toward the soil-line where the roots taper into the main…
“Good, the tree-trunk, which makes a strong base for the tree. Now what about these crazy arm-thingies up here?” I inquire, holding one of the lower branches and waving it like a puppeteer makes his puppet dance and point.
“Those are the sticks? I mean, the branches,” Pablo says.
“Good, yes, the branches. What do the branches do for the Tree? What’s their function?”
“They make the leaves and fruits and stuff,” Stephen replies.
“Yeah they’ll hold all of that, especially a lot of leaves. What do the leaves do for the tree? I mean, look around,” I say, gesturing outward across the parking lot and out toward the larger view-shed, “look at all of these trees around us, and they all have leaves. But what do the leaves do? What are they doing right now for all of those trees, and for us?”
“They’re making the food?” someone asks.
“Yes, nice, they are. So right now, this very moment, the leaves on the trees around us are taking in sunlight and converting it into energy, into sugar. Does anyone know the name of process where leaves are taking in sunlight and turning it into energy?”
“Um, chlorophyl?” Sasha asks.
“Close, that’s the stuff in the leaf that makes the energy. Anyone else? Anyone here heard of ‘photosynthesis?’” Some nods. “Yeah, so the leaves can take in sunlight, and when they mix it in their chlorophyll, along with the carbon-dioxide that we breathe out and the water the plant drinks, they make a type of sugar called glucose. Then they send those sugars down the phloem and then use that sugar to make roots, shoots, and fruits. Can anyone name anything else that can turn sunlight into energy, or electricity?”
“Oh,” Sasha begins, “yeah, those things on your bus. Solar somethings.”
“Oh, so close! Solar panels! Yeah, plants know how to make energy from the sun just like people have figured out how to make electricity from the sun. In fact, almost the food you’ve ever eaten comes from plants’ ability to turn sunlight into sugar. Can anyone name the one thing people eat every day that does’t come from plants?” I ask. “Again, what’s the one thing we eat that doesn’t come from plants?”
At this point in the lessons, if I even get to this question, I’m ready to field a variety of guesses and thoughts for a few minutes. Mostly these revolve around me showing them that that meat does in fact come from plants (grass), cheerios come from plants (wheat), fish come from plants (phyto-plankton), and candy comes from plants (sugar cane and corn). While they work on this question, I have these kiddos start to back-fill the hole, to ready the tree for planting.
“Salt and pepper?” Sasha finally guesses.
“Close! Pepper comes from peppers, which are a plant, but salt is the correct answer! People all over the world have always sought out salt in their diet, and it’s the only thing that doesn’t come from plants, because it’s a mineral present in our geology of the planet, which is super cool.” The hole is filling up slowly now, which is fine, because I still want to hit on the last part of the tree we’ve yet to discuss. “Now, as this hole keeps filling, I wonder if anyone can answer me this: where will the peaches come from on this tree?”
No answers come immediately, so I start showing them different areas on the branches, guiding them to look upon the nodes and buds and bumps in the branches. Pablo eventually shouts “I know! They come from the flowers!” Smart kid.
“Okay, you’re right Pablo, awesome. The peaches are going to come out of the flowers, which will come out of many of these buds. But how does a flower turn into a fruit? Does anyone know?” Invariably I get some statement along the lines of “it just happens,” and I use this to opportunity to play a quick little imagination game. Wanna play with us?
Okay, let’s pretend we’re all honey-bees, okay? Check out our yellow bodies and our wings and our crazy bee eyes. And we’re thirsty for that super sugary beverage we love that lives in the back of flowers, called Nectar. So let’s fly over to this flower over here (I sketch out a huge shape, the height of the chain link fence and wide as a bus) and let’s fly deep into the back of that flower. On our way in, we bump into a bunch of crazy, noodley shapes that grow in the flower called Stamens, and when we bump into their Anther tops all of this yellow dust explodes out and lands on our bodies and gets stuck to our feet. What’s this stuff called?! “Pollen!” Yup, so now we have this pollen all over us, and we go to the bottom of the flower to get our drink, drink all of that sweetness, and then quick! Let’s fly over to another flower on a different tree– and remember we have all of this pollen on us right? So now while we’re in this new flower, some of that pollen comes off of us and lands in this one specific, super sticky spot on the flower called the Stigma, and from there the pollen we brought might travel deep into the flower and fertilize the flower’s Ovaries– and only then, only when this happens because of creatures like us bees, only then will this flower be able to turn into a fruit. Anyone know what it’s called when a flower gets the pollen that will turn it into a fruit? “Pollination!” Yes! What else helps to pollinate flowers? “Humming birds!” “Butterflies!” Woohoo!
In her marvelous, astoundingly gorgeous book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” native writer and botanist Robin Kimmerer asks us to think upon just how wired our bodies are to this Earth. Describing her work with her college Botany students, she writes about a weekend teaching her students to go “shopping” for all of their needs in the local marsh. As these college kids go about digging spruce roots in the humus of marsh’s forested edge, she watches a great calmness come upon each student. As a woman with a rich spiritual background in her Potawatomi tradition, she credits the land for creating an emotional resonance with the students that is real and durable– but she doesn’t stop there. As a scientist, she can also allow object facts to inform the deepening relationship she witness when her students engage with the Earth in this way:
“Recent research has shown that the smell of humus exerts a physiological effect on humans. Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the same chemical that promotes bonds between mother and child, between lovers.”
I sit down now beside our hole, ready to close the heady flight of fancy I just took us on to instead get our hands and hearts back into the soil.
Just then we get another delivery, this time from crew-member and irrigation-extraordinaire Evan. With pale blue eyes, blonde hair pulled back in a man-bun, and the facial features of a mythic Nordic prince, his presence suddenly in the group has the children gazing up at him in awe or fear or both. With slow, deliberate movements of a wizard, he reaches into a large black satchel that he carries on his hip like a huge holster. After digging into the bag for a moment, his clutched hand emerges, covered in a slate-grey powder. He reaches towards us, and with the gentle gestures of a baker, sprinkles the flour-like substance all over our Tree’s bare roots.
“Thank you Evan,” I say, “you’re a gentlemen and a scholar– there’s only a few of us left!” He moves on to the next group to deliver more from his gift bag. “Does anyone know what this stuff is?” I ask the students.
“Is it food? Like fish food? It looks like fish food,” Stephen says with serious concentration.
“Is fertilizer?” asks Sasha.
“Okay, close. This is something called ‘Mycorrhizal.’ Remember earlier when we talked about an organism– something that’s alive? Well, this powder is a living organism that’s going to help our Tree grow extra strong. But Mycorrhizal is an interesting organism, because it’s neither a plant, nor is it an animal. Does anyone know what other type of organism it might be?” No response. “Okay, it’s a type of mushroom, a Fungi. This Mycorrhizal powder is going to come alive in the soil and splice itself, insert itself, into the roots of our Tree. Then the Mycorrhizal is going to spread out and meet up with the Mycorrhizal we put on that Tree’s roots,” I say, pointing toward the apple tree going in next to us, “and over to all of those Trees down there,” I say, motioning toward the other fruit trees going down the line, “until eventually all of these trees will be interconnected, like in a big web. And then, together, all of these Trees are going to use the Mycorrhizal Fungi to share nutrients with each other.”
“Yup, and here’s the cool part– the Mycorrhizal can’t make its own food from the sun like the plant can– and the plant can’t access as many nutrients and transport them the way the Mycorrhizal can. But together, they both help the other one out. The Tree will provide the Mycorrhizal with sugars, and the Mycorrhizal will provide the Tree with nutrients. Does anyone know what that’s called? When two species are engaged in a relationship where they both benefit?”
After a bit of errant guessing, I let them know. “It’s called Symbiosis. Can everyone say that word with me? Symbiosis?”
“Symbiosis!” they say in unison (which makes my heart sing.)
“Awesome. So, if two organisms have a relationship in which they both benefit, like the Mycorrhizal and the Tree, or the Bees and the Trees, do you think we can have a symbiotic relationship with this Tree?” I ask.
“Yeah I guess so,” ventures Pablo, “unless we have to kill the tree to eat the fruit, but we don’t right?”
“No, we don’t. So you’re right Pablo– because like we already said, you all are going to take good care of this Tree, and in turn the Tree will help take good care of you. That sure sounds like we’re all benefitting. So here’s another question you all can think about today, and for the next few decades of your life.”
“What?” Sasha asks, curious.
“How many relationships can Humans have with Nature where we all benefit? Can Humans have a more symbiotic relationship with the Earth? And with each other? What might that look like?”
PLANTING THE TREE:
You never get to know just how much the students are retaining the information that you’re actively giving them in the moment, with your voice growing hoarse and your body alert and awake from the exertion of speaking your small mouth noises– speaking your small pollen. In these schoolyards we don’t test the kids after we plant a tree, and I doubt their teachers do either. Instead, I like to think that this model of experiential, service-based learning is activating something within them that that goes beyond mere memorization of facts. It is my hope that somehow, when work like this engages the head, the hands, and the heart, students will grow a unique and authentic understanding about themselves and their world, and perhaps that understanding might become folded it into the very heartwood of their being. It is my hope, and the hope that many educators hang their work upon, that if we can provide a certain set of experiences for young folks now, then perhaps it will urge them to be good people today and tomorrow– helping them to become more conscious, empathetic, honorable, and loving members of our increasingly global village.
When we talk about what these orchards will look like in twenty years, which means these kids will be in their twenties and thirties with kids of their own, I think we’re all hoping that our global village will be in in a much healthier state than the wobbling one we witness today. But how to move from hope to reality? I for one grow rusty if I keep that hope silent and unarticulated, and I’m weary of letting that hope languish in unspoken idealism instead of flourishing in practice. Instead, I and ten of thousands of others are trying to figure out the right practices to work on now, and the right way to articulate it now, so that we might realize that better world then. But to speak that vision is a task that proves tricky– one’s wild ideas always need pruning.
But nevertheless, here’s how I think of it at this point in my life– here’s my articulation:
All people working for justice– be it environmental, social, nutritional, spiritual– we all work toward a world that will some day be united by a sense of shared destiny; one where all members of the Earth community are treated with dignity and respect– one where all people in all places have made peace with Nature and are welcoming Her back into our cities and homes– one where our modern lifestyles no longer run at a deficit, constantly over-borrowing from Earth’s generous but limited coffers– one where individuals feel interconnected and interwoven with one another and the Earth, and base their decisions upon the good of the whole– one where we share a common vision but we cultivate our own unique way to see it– and one where healthy bodies, healthy food, and healthy land emerge out of the same ethos of symbiosis. This Earth we work toward imagining, manifesting, and practicing is to be realized as just part of this ongoing Creation– a Creation that is always being generated and supported in ways that are disciplined, diverse, virtuous, artistic, and wildly, delightfully playful.
E.M. Forester had a take on the importance of speech to edify ideas. He wondered “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
What do you think we should do? And how do you help bring it into being? How do you say it?
“Okay, we’re getting close, anyone want to name the Tree?” I ask. The kids have been working together mostly in silence for the last few minutes, figuring out how to move the dirt the few feet needed while also packing the soil in along the roots. I’ve been holding the Tree at the right height, so that the soil will come up to the Tree’s previous soil-line (when the Tree was growing in a nursery field before harvest,) and now I take the Tree and shake a little, nudging the branches to dance. “Should we name it?”
Still no one answers. I’m not sure about the naming thing myself, but I like to give them the option. “Well then, we’re almost there. Stephen, can you hold the Tree while I help get this last part in?” He does, and I crouch down to use my fingers to quickly pack in the soil around the roots like a potter pinching her clay into a mold. “Okay, now let’s get the compost on here too,” and we all do. Right on time comes Leo, acting now as foreman with his metal clip-board and mirrored sun-glasses, and he gives me the finger-twirling gesture of “wrap it up.” Forty-five minutes already?
I invite all the kids down to ground-level now to help me with the final dirt-tamping. We spread the compost around, the texture soft and warm to our touch. I show them how to sculpt a small, crescent-shaped berm on the down-hill side of the tree to help retain more irrigation and rain water. When that looks good, we stand up.
See our Tree again: it is five feet tall, has five or six branches growing off a central leader, its buds look swollen on the smooth-skinned bark, and it is surrounded by five humans. Through the knowledge, practice, and patience of hundreds of generations of orchardists, we have before us a tree that has been genetically bred for this specific soil type and climate, and most importantly, for the delicious peaches it will produce. And through the knowledge, practice, and patience of the folks who run this non-profit Common Vision, we have this Tree in this school-yard on this exact day in this exact, school-sanctioned way.
See us now from above: the five of us around our Tree, and then the five other groups standing around their trees– all in a long line that runs along the parking lot and chain-link fence. See us from the street: half a block of concrete sidewalk, half a block of ten-foot tall fence, and half a dozen groups planting half a dozen trees.
See us from within this small group: here, put your hand on the tree. We’re going to have a ceremony, and I invite you in.
Again from Robin Kimmerer:
“Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable.
“Ceremonies transcend the boundaries of the individual and resonate beyond the human realm. These acts of reverence are powerfully pragmatic. These are ceremonies that magnify life.”
I invite us all in. “Okay, now, can we all do one more thing together? Can we all put our hand on the Tree for a planting ceremony?” They all oblige. All of our hands grasping the Tree, some on the branches, some on the stem. I tap into my experience holding space for poetry readings and speaking at weddings and running certain fire ceremonies– I tap into the vein of the Present like a Vermont-sugarer taps into the phloem of the Maple, and I let the sap run (in more ways than one).
“First of all, I’m really proud of you all for doing this work today. You’ve done something that won’t just benefit you– it’s also going to positively impact your whole community for many years to come. That’s really special.
“Second, I want acknowledge how great you all worked together, and I thank you for that.” I try to cast my eyes toward each child, making eye-contact, affirming them and witnessing them while still engaged in this powerful act. Hoping the piercing of gaze of an adult ally might affirm the essential goodness they may be feeling right about now. “This is an historic day for you and your school. In the future, you’ll be able to say that you were here when your fruit-tree orchard was planted, that you helped to plant these Trees, and that is truly deserving of this ceremony. Just like other important times in life when we have ceremonies, now is a good time to have one.
“So what I’d like you each to do is, on the count of three, let’s all take another deep breath in together. We’ll inhale together, and when we exhale, let’s send this Tree as much love and positive intention as we can toward our Tree– imagining this Tree with strong branches, deep roots, and big, delicious peaches…” I watch them look around at each other a little self-consciously at first, but they see that I’m taking it seriously, and it appears that feel safe enough to do so too. “Okay, ready? … One, two, three…” and we all audibly inhale, our bodies filling with oxygen– our bodies brining in this invisible oceanic medium of air like the rhythm of a tide– the beaches of our lungs receiving the air and transporting the oxygen through the terrain of our interiors– the billions of organisms that each of bodies house welcoming the air like a plant welcomes water.
In this space I also direct some positive thoughts toward each of these students as well, wishing them love and adventure and connection throughout their lives within this shared Earth, in whatever state this Earth will be in– and wishing them a feeling of grand possibility and excitement for this fruitful fact of existence– and also wishing them peaches: sweet, sweet peaches.
“And exhale…” and we all do, out bodies contracting, pushing out the chemically-altered air and releasing our unique CO2 back into the atmosphere, the mass withdrawing from one place and moving onto the next spin of the cycle– watch it float toward our Tree, and watch the Tree take a turn.
“Alright kiddos, that’s it. You did it. Our circle is closed, our Tree is planted, you may go in peace to serve your community or your dog or your teacher or your Mom. But seriously, it was great working with you, I’m proud of you and your school, and we can’t thank you enough for helping to make your school and this Earth a little better today…”
Stephen and Pablo both thank me and immediately chase each other away toward their teacher, who is already beginning to herd her flock. The two girls Sasha and Mary, however, are lingering, once again padding down the berm we built, their fingers in the humus. Two other students from another group come over, a boy and a girl, and drop to their knees to help.
“What kind of Tree did you plant?” the boy asks Sasha and Mary.
“A Peach Tree. Isn’t it pretty?” she replies prettily.
“Uh-huh. We planted a Plum Tree. Maybe some day we can have a fruit party together,” he says with light in his eyes.
“I sure hope so,” I say to them, picking up the shovel I had leaning on the fence. With a nod I take my leave, allowing them a few moments of free-verse time beside their new Trees.
“Hey Mister,” Sasha calls to me as I walk away.
“I promise you we’ll take care of the Tree,” she says with a look of serious joy in her leaf-green eyes. Eyes that see and reflect all of her world– the Trees, People, buildings and Skies…
Good evening kind reader–
I write to you this evening from the breezy confines of the Common Vision tour bus. Dusk is falling here at our camp-ground on the outskirts of San Diego, with the high crags of the Laguna mountains to the east turning a desert crimson in the sunset. Below the window, just outside, I hear the chattering din of my fellow Tour crew members– they sit beside a forking campfire, headlamps trained upon small white boards in their dirt-caked hands as they sand down the edges, readying them for an orchard-sign painting workshop tomorrow morning. Beyond them, working beneath some towering eucalyptus trees, are two other crew members watering over thirty citrus trees and a half-dozen bags of bare-root fruit trees– peaches, persimmons, figs, apples, plums, and nectarines. Just another evening of Fruit Tree Tour, and as I bite into a piece of citrus as the orange sun finally sets, I begin to set down some recollections for you of my first week on Tour.
But before I go much further, perhaps I ought to catch you up some on what this whole “Fruit Tree Tour” thing is in the first place. The Tour is one of the primary activities of an educational non-profit organization called Common Vision. Operating in California, CV is built upon a desire to address a suite of multi-pronged and interconnected problems– poor nutrition in inner-city schools; urban food-deserts (places where community members do not have access to food beyond that which is available in gas stations and convenience stores); and the lack of quality environmental programming in these underserved areas. Common Vision believes that one way we might to address these issues is to both simple and profound: plant fruit tree orchards at public schools the length of California, and in the process, to use the opportunity to provide students with unique, immersive, environmentally-educational experiences in the process.
Ten years later now, and they’ve done just that– they have planted and now help maintain over 200 orchards from San Diego to Chico, and we’re slated to install another 15 on this tour alone. And that’s where I, the fourteen other volunteer crew members, our two co-directors, and the thousands of school children come in to my tale for you this evening.
The “Fruit Tree Tour” tour is hard to pin down into one sentence or articulate as one sound bite. But earlier today, I found myself trying to do just that. I was digging a large hole at Burbank elementary school, huffing and puffing, knee-deep in the cavity, dirt-flying. Two other volunteers were doing the same in holes to my right and left, with our three holes all being excavated right next to the chain link fence that separates the school-yard from the street. The soil was a hard-packed clay, so our shoveling was slow and arduous– but with a little work song and a cool, Pacific breeze riffling through the single palm tree overhead, we were enjoying the process. We knew that within the hour we’d be planting apple and plum trees in these holes with a couple dozen fourth graders, and knowing that our shoveling was readying that experience seemed to make the dirt lighter and the shovel sharper.
Just then a local teenager swaggered up to us from the street, laced his fingers through the chain-link fence, and asked through the metal diamonds– “What are you guys doing in there? Digging holes or something?”
And there’s the question. And here’s an answer: “We’re planting fruit trees at schools all over California! We’re about to plant a bunch of fig, apple, and citrus trees here with the fourth-graders, as well as paint orchard signs for each tree, teach them about local food, and encourage them to create positive change in their community.” As I say this, I see his expression go from curiosity, to confusion, to intrigue, and finally to a smile.
“Wow, really? I went to this school, and we never did anything like that. Can I come help sometime?” And just then the school-garden coordinator, a sweet woman with the gentle demeanor of a life-long gardener, suddenly chimes in from behind a green-wall of tomatoes in the corner. “Sure! Come on over and I’ll get your information!” and she walked to a door in the fence, unlocked it, and the two began to chat. What was a previously life-less fence, a prohibitive boundary between the street and the school-yard, between the community and the school-kids, had been temporarily dismantled by our presence– and we hadn’t even planted a tree yet.
My explanation of Fruit Tour must continue as the kids arrive. Right at ten am sharp, out they come– sixty fourth-graders, with their frolicking gaits and their lively energies. We hear them coming, as the gregarious din that emerges from them grows and amplifies across the sea of pavement like a rising tide. Their teachers steer the flow the best they can, but the kids present a broad swell of excitement that bears down upon the fourteen other volunteers and I. We are standing in front of our massive, colorfully-painted, 1979 MCI MC-8 tour bus, and they seem drawn to us and the bus as irresistibly as waves seek the shore. And just as it seems the wave of little humans will break upon our heads, our co-executive-director/co-hero of Common Vision intercepts them. With quick wit and some lithe linguistic jujitsu, he has them forming a long line along the pavement, facing off from us like two opposing teams– kids versus the volunteer tree-planters.
“Good morning everybody!”
“Good morning!” sheepish at first, all of them eyeing us and the bus, their little eyes dilating in the bright light of their home terrain– a home terrain suddenly populated by these strange new outsiders and the promise of time outside.
“I said good morning everybody!”
“We’re so glad you’re here today,” Leo begins, and then proceeds to give a brief explanation of who we are– “We’re from a group called Common Vision, and we drive around Califronia in this sweet, veggie-oil and solar powered tour bus you see behind me, and we plant fruit trees with kids just like you!” And then what work we’ll be doing today– “Some of you are going to be planting fruit trees right here in your school-yard this morning, and then some of you are going to be painting signs to go with those fruit trees. We’ll be planting apples, persimmons, figs, plums, and one of my personal favorites– dragon fruits.” There are some excited gasps and confused “huh?”s at that one. “So here we go, when I give you a number one you’ll be going with my best friend Diana-“ and Diana raises her hand, “If I give you a number three you’ll be going with the great TreeJay,” and TreeJay raises his hand, “If I give you a number two you’ll go with the ‘Bearded Wonder’ Travis–” and Travis raises his hand, and on it goes until six groups are made for tree-planting, and then six more are made for sign-painting. I’m on tree-planting– come on over kids, let’s head to our hole.
As mentioned, the hole is pre-dug. The five fourth-graders and I arrive at it to find one large pile of the soil that was excavated in the digging process, and next to that a smaller mound of rich, fragrant, dark-hued compost. The hole is surrounded by what was previously impenetrable shrubbery– an aromatic rosemary and something else I don’t recognize– and our work helps more land become available, providing some more earth acreage upon which the children can tread and play. With the inert sea of pavement that surrounds most urban schools, there are rarely open-patches of land for kids to interact with the dirt, plants, flowers and trees of their home. By digging up under-utilized slices of school-grounds like this one, and inserting into them these wild-leaning fruit-trees, we are inviting non-paved Nature back into areas that have traditionally had no use for it/Her. But unlike a mere “greening” of the campus, wherein some landscapers come in to pepper the grounds with a few more flower features, we are here to help the kids themselves beautify their place. And to do so, and to guide them into the experience, I present them this– a three-foot tall, gaunt, bare-root peach tree. Teehee.
I hold the tree up, say it’s name, pass it once around. The five kids take it in their hands one by one, some inspecting it closely, some running their hands through the roots like fingers through hair, and one boy holds it daintily with just two fingers, concerned that it’s getting his hand dirty. It returns to me and I place it down on the earth beside me and lower myself into a crouch, facing this little circle of little people. Next I ask us all to introduce ourselves by saying our name and our favorite fruit. I also have them draw their first initial in the soft dirt in front of them, both to help me recall their names and so that they may begin to bring their sensing bodies into the experience. Introductions completed (amidst the sounds of similar scenes going on within the five other tree-groups to my right and left), I start guiding us in.
“Okay my friends,” I begin, “my name is Trevien, and I’m here with Common Vision today to help you plant your peach tree. But I have one important question I want to ask of you before we begin.” They stare at me, eyes wide, likely still trying to figure me out– this bearded, youthful adult in a canvas vest smiling at them from the other side of a hole in the ground. “I want to know– why do you think we’re doing this today?”
“Doing what?” one girl asks.
“Well, this. Why do you think we’re all here to help you plant fruit trees today?”
“Because trees are good.”
“Because trees are good for the earth? Like good for the air?”
“Because fruit is, like, good for you?”
And we’re off! Slowly and at the pace the kids provoke with their questions, I lead them to consider four primary ideas that speak to why we’re there planting fruit trees. Depending upon the students age, interest level, and apparent knowledge on the subjects, I proceed to cover the following major points*
(note: these descriptions closely follow the curriculum framework that Common Vision trains us to use with the students, and I am greatly indebted to their years of hard work refining this simple but expansive set of topics to cover when working with kids and fruit-trees)
“Okay, I heard someone mention FOOD. As you all can guess, you’ll eventually be able to eat peaches from this tree. Where do you all usually get your food?”
“From the my house.”
“From the store–“
“–yeah from Walmart!”
“Okay,” I inject, “good. But how does it get to the store?”
I proceed to ask them to consider that most food comes from farms that are quite far away, and during every step of the way, fuel is burned and carbon is added to the atmosphere. This sets up ideas around the importance of local food (and you can’t get more local than growing it at home or at school), the issue of green-houses gases and climate change (burning fossil-fuels in increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which is in turning trapping more heat on earth and changing our climate) and then also nutritional values of fresh fruit. I don’t go too deep on climate change, mostly because I’m not sure they are ready to start confronting the emotional weight of the problem– namely, that the world around them, run by the adults they rely upon to keep them fed and safe, is also a world of deeply complex, daunting problems. Problems that will, inevitably, come down on them.
“Okay, and what’s one more good reason to plant fruit for food?”
“Because fruit is, like, delicious!”
“Now, I heard someone else mention that trees are good for the Earth and good for the AIR. What did you mean by that?” As they answer, I try to suss out their level of understanding around our respiration and the respiration of plants. “Okay, how about this–” and I grab the tree and hold it in center of our circle, “on the count of three, on the three, let’s all take a big, deep breath in together…1, 2,3–” and we all do, our chests all filling and swelling upward– “and exhale–” whooooooshh. “Okay, what gas did we just breathe into our bodies there?”
“Oh, umm, oxygen!”
“Yes!” I affirm, “oxygen! We’re breathing it in constantly, all day every day, even we’re not thinking about it right? Every moment since you were born you’ve been breathing oxygen into your lungs, and every person you ever see, now matter how old they are or what they look like, they’re all breathing in oxygen from the air. But also, I wonder– what do you we breathe out when we exhale?”
“More oxygen? Gas?”
“Oh I know! Carbon!”
“Okay, close,” I say. “We breathe out another gas called carbon dioxide. So every day, every night, we’re breathing in what?”
“Right! And we’re breathing out carbon-dioxide. Now, what do you think a tree does when it breathes?” and I proceed to teach/remind them that trees and plants are constantly doing the opposite, breathing in our carbon-dioxide and breathing out the oxygen we need. I ask them to imagine these fluid, bright blue arrows streaming into their lungs as they inhale, and woody-brown arrows wafting out of their mouths as they exhale. And then we watch the tree as it inhales those exhalations, pushes them through its bark-clad body, and then exhales those pulsing, shimmering blue gases of oxygen back our way. With our arms, we push out breaths and and pull in the next, acting this out. Five fourth-graders and a thirty-two year old man, on a sunny morning, performing some sort of silly thai chi– a practice that is helping us recall our constant participation with the breathing plant beings of the world.
A quickie but an easy get. “Why else are we planting fruit trees?” I ask again.
“Um, because it gives us food.”
“Good, yes, but what else? Like, it’s a hot, sunny day, and you’re running around on blacktop and you start getting really hot. Where might you run to for some relief?”
“To the drinking fountain!”
“Yes, nice, you’re right water is amazing when we’re hot– trees love water too– but what else, if we wanted to get out of the sun?”
“Oh!” one of the quieter girls is suddenly raising her hand frantically, “I know where I like to go!”
“Where is that?”
“Under a big tree!”
“Yeah, you’re right– trees make shade for us! But do you think new trees make shade?” I inquire, pivoting slightly toward another dimension of our work here today– “will this tree we’re about to plant make shade for us later today?”
“Okay, but what about that tree over there?” I ask, gesturing toward the broad-crowned eucalyptus tree that rains shadows over the parking lot like so many cool spears of dark and light. “Was that tree ever really small?”
“Si! It was a baby once!” one boy manages through some giggles.
“Just like us!” says another girl, adding her own giggles to the growing gaggle of them.
“Exactly!” I affirm, chuckling now too, “we all were babies once, trees and people! … So do you think our tree will make shade for people some day?”
“Yes! Like when we’re really old.”
“And will future humans get sit under the shade of this tree we plant?” I inquire.
“Yeah, they will. I don’t know about you all, but I think that’s just amazing, and I’m really glad you’re all doing this today– making better air, fruit, and shade for other people in your community.
“Okay, I think we should get started planting this tree, but before we do, what’s one more reason to plant fruit trees here at your school? I’ll give you a hint– it has to do with Art and Beauty.”
Fast-forward twenty years. Spring-time in California, 2035. Over two-hundred school orchards that were planted between 2006 and 2015 are in full bloom– seen from above, the black-top pavements of the school-yards all pocked with the micro-bursts of colorful flowers abuzz with bees, careening through wavering rich greens of the thousands leaves, forming mini-forest canopies.
Seen from within, the trees’ well-pruned and cared-for branches all sturdy and strong, laden with early fleshy fruit and home to myriad birds and bees.
Seen from below, the once-thin trunks and graft-unions now robust and muscular, the ground that was once compacted dirt and grass now rich in humus and mulch.
Seen from within the soil, the once meager roots now thick and well-established– well-interlocked with mycorrhizal and fully-supported by the micro-biology that booms in the billions.
And seen from the play-ground, kids that were born in 2028 come careening out of class like bees from the hive. They run to swing-sets, to ball-fields, maybe to hover boards, and maybe into these orchards. Like the honey bees noisily at work in the flowers above them, crawling deep into the floral structures and drinking deeply of the nectar, the kids climb around and through the trees, playing games and reading the fruit-varietal names of their trees. They recall the fruit they ate from them last fall, the sugary-contentment they felt as they ate the food they helped grow. They recall the workshops that Common Vision, or some program like it, did with them earlier in the spring to care for the trees, fertilizing and weeding and pruning and making new signs, affirming their role and their relationship to these living, food-providing, shade-creating, oxygen-generating and carbon-sequestering organisms.
And still here in 2015, this group and I still just warming up, just simply thinking about how beautiful these trees will be in an hour, and by next year, when they’ll still be here,
So we begin pawing into the soil with our ten hands, back-filling the hole to ready it to receive the tree– letting our hands get dirty, our heads to become engaged, and our hearts to perhaps become a little more rooted into the toil and soil of this warming and whirling world.
“Okay boys and girls, whaddya think, should we plant this tree?”
…to be continued
…to be continued…
“Wanted: Someone to Play Corn-Hole Across America in a Free Van”
In late October, my mate Reed sent me the craigslist ad. It read: “Wanted: Someone to Drive my Van from Montana to New Hampshire.” I was elated– for you must know that I’m from New Hampshire and Vermont, and that I’m currently doing some grad/art stuff in Montana. And as the holidays were approaching, I needed to get back East somehow. What are the chances?
The brief jam is this: a young fellow in NH buys his son a van right after college, the son hooks it up for dirt-bagging (built a bed into it, loaded it with surf-boards and skies, put stickers all over it, etc.), and he goes West young man. Visiting friends in Missoula early in his trip, he proceeds to get rear-ended by a drunk driver. Then decides to ditch the van to keep his adventure going– hard to blame a 19 year old for that, but probably frustrating for Pops, who suddenly owns a van in Montana that needs $10k of body work. So, months later, van is fixed, and he wants someone to drive it back for him so he can sell it. That’s where we come in.
So after a lot of back and forth between Reed and I and Pops, and then some phone interviews and the like, it was decided. We were to be his couriers, and the van was to be our vessel for a free ride East for the holidays. He’d even pay the gas. Not bad for two broke grad students.
Having driven across this massive continent a few times now, (two trips of which you could read about here or here), I’ve now come to desire a way to give my trips some shape, to add to them some design. On idea I have, perhaps for my twilight years, will be to go around photographing rural basketball hoops. Another more pressing project would be to visit the various planned blockades against the Keystone XL pipeline, (all evidence of the growing nation Naomi Klein has dubbed “Blockadia.”)
But what objectives might we pursue on this trip? Well, we soon found out about some special cargo that would be onboard with this van, and I knew then that our trip was just given its design. This cargo immediately showed us the veracity and wisdom of Steinbeck’s maxim : “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” The cargo was the first agency of the trip taking us, and we were amused beyond laughter at what it meant for our journey.
The cargo, my friends, was a corn-hole set. And the immediately realized goal for our trip, as simple and perhaps sophomoric as it sounds, would be to play corn-hole in every state we pass through.
Corn-hole is by all definitions a silly, simple game, akin to horse-shoes. But in lieu of throwing horse-shoes at a pin, players toss bean bags at the corn-hole boards, trying to either land the bag on the board for “a cow-pie” or “an ace,” or to toss one directly through the hole for a “corn-hole,” or “swish.” One point for a cow-pie, three for a corn-hole. Games to 21. And while it’s been played for many decades in the South, the game is suddenly all the rage in lot-scenes at concerts, tailgate parties at football games, and it seems no frat house in America today is complete without a jenke set of corn-holes boards sitting in the furniture-strewn front yard. More portable than horse-shoes and more mellow than frisbee, and with a hipster-tinged sense of ironic connection to something vaguely nostalgic, it seems corn-hole is here to stay. For another year, anyway.
Let me also just say up-front that I cannot find anywhere the origin of this game’s juvenile name. I mean shoot, every time I even write it I can’t help but think of Beavis saying “Corn-holio!” on MTV while my brother and I laugh our silly little 1995 faces off. I’m also aware that, for you, reading the word “corn-hole” so many times in this travelogue may undermine my attempts at literary seriousness, but perhaps my musings that come out of playing this game across the landscape will make up for this fact. Or not. Corn-hole.
And finally, a word on my presentation here. As I was saying, for each state or province we passed through, we aim to pull over at least once, got out the corn-hole boards, and played a round. For most of these games I also set up my Canon s90 nearby and used a timer to fire off a few shots of us playing– to lend my descriptions some visual backing, hoping that my bean-bags of language might then better land on your corn-hole board of understanding.
I also, as a writer, kept some fluid notes in my pocket notebook throughout. So rather than just present a heap of photos, I’ve stitched together my notes into a largely free-verse poem written in sometimes-rhyming quatrains. This will, I reckon, add some more depth to your understanding of the wild, free-wheeling, provocative life of a traveling corn-hole player. And perhaps, if I’ve done my job right, colored in a little more of that massive map of America you have in your heart. I can report that no matter how much I travel through and live within this massive continent of Turtle Island, there is always more to discover, both out there and how it exists in here– and considering the year we just had as a nation, it seems like we all could use a light-hearted and wild-minded romp through this strange and amorphous place we hopefully are learning to better call “Home.”
So my friends, I invite you to pull up a chair, crack a beer or steep a cuppa, and come with us for a brief, enjoyable, weird and wild winter ride across America, starting in Montana and ending on the shores of Lake Champlain. In fact, here– take a bean-bag, and lob where we lob, land some cow-pies where we do, let’s together score a few nice corn-holes while we’re at it. Whaddya say?
your ace in the hole,
Start: Drop off some hitchhikers in Butte, beginning their journey to Mexico
Hammer the van past the Anaconda-Pintlers, the Beartooths, the Crazy Mountains
Hit the wider plains, hoar-frost shattering the light of river-bottoms cottonwoods
Roll through the oil-towns of Livingston and Billings, the cowboy hoods
Play our first game of corn-hole on a slushy Montana hill, feeling good
Buy gas and sweetgrass from a Crow res trading station
Read flyers for basketball, rodeos, pow-wows
Jobs in the oil-fields, jobs in mines, but no jobs nearby
Info sought about sacred rock-outcrops slated for road-crew detonation
Above the Bighorn River, climb the Battle Monument in a blinding sun
Walk amongst the bones of horses and men
Custer’s last stand that still stands as synecdoche
American flags whipping in unsettled winds that unsettle me rapidly
The Native memorial– “The Battle of the Greasy Grass” to them–
A huge stone circle, with one end open to the Americans in intergenerational respect
And another opening to the Bighorn seen from this northern aspect
And at the base of the wrought-iron sculpture, see the fox tracks inspiriting through
Next we fall into Wyoming, pursuing that towering gathering place
Icy roads sanded with the local red
Then we see that ancient, rock-rooted tower
That monolith against the sunset, thrumming and beckoning
Devil’s Tower, Bear Den’s Butte
“That thing from that movie”
A geologic anomaly, and a phenomena the eyes don’t comprehend, only see
We wander the base of ice and scree
Been a gathering place for millennia
People who danced and sung and hunted buffalo and had fear and fights and fun
All amongst pronghorn antelopes that were once hunted by American cheetahs
Antelope that are now unnecessarily fast for the landscape
A gathering place during the Indian Wars
Decades of rumors and concerns shared amongst tribes
Life-times and life-ways eroding under new weather
With their proud descendants still gathering and praying and staying
The Tower has a presence that asks to not be an “it”
Asks you to contemplate our tall buildings and our old ruins
Complicates all notions of sentiency inanimately
as animateness becomes harder and harder to define
Soup on the camp-stove for us as fog turns off the Tower
But the Tower’s thusness does not abate
So we stare like old sailors staring at a darkened sea
We walk up to Tower, touch Tower, sun-warmed Dark Tower, dream the Tower all night
Next morning, rustle up our Wyoming corn-hole in the frigid, lucid light
Then five days to get East
Frigid sleeps lead to pre-dawn gas stations
Brushing teeth in life-scratched bathrooms
Overhearing the old men who meet for coffee every morning
Heard country-wide in general stores, diners, and petrol stations–
Current concerns lifted from newspapers
Recent scores compared to seasons long-passed
One man’s wisdom landed like haiku:
“Well it’s Wednesday–
To late in the week
To start anything”
Hit the eastern edge of Black Hills by mid-morning
Slow the van to trot beside Coyote in a field
Watch the wind send the black-guard hairs on his muzzle
Into the patterns of the breeze-tossed grasses, all aglow and in flow
Find a spot off a National Forest road
To stretch and cook beneath ponderosas and aspens and sun
Make stew with the road-kill deer Reed had harvested
From a grassy Missoula ditch the previous fall
Companion Reed cuts out the gristle
Removes a few coarse hairs we’d missed first time
Also tosses these scraps into the forest beside us
Our first good Offering to the Spirit of the Road
Began a slow meander through those Black Hills
Those sacred hills, refuge of the Lakota Sioux
That place that they wanted protected in every treaty
That heart that Custer and prospectors so violently penetrated
With such sacredness in mind, with thoughts on “The Center of Creation”
I felt their bitter, slow-burning pain of having the form of their sacred hills
Become carved into, trans-formed for that National Monument of Disgrace–
The one that reveals the hollow, granite stare of presidents who did not care
So Mt Rushmore is driven passed,
and we pass it without stopping, out of respect
Likewise to the near-vacant tourist trapping town of Custer below
As I taste the bitter taste of the Truth in our history that was kept from you and me
Things get catty at the edge of the Badlands
For beneath a badly-bruised sky
I whip the van quickly to the side–
see the tawny bobcat, stalking in the golden grass, shy
Play some real bad South Dakota Corn-hole on a Badland pass
And then that feeling of leaving the mountains behind
The Badlands eroding in the rear-view
As the low drum roll of the South Dakota prairie already has me in a daze
Has me contemplating staying put, playing ball here for all my northern-desert days
Time to move. Drive late. Park along a creek for a four hour, four degree sleep
Coyotes yip-yawling-clipping in icy alders outside
Awake well before dawn and awaken the engine
Soar over the Missouri and make it to Minneapolis for a coffee-house breakfast
Old campus bricks behind sweatered professors
New co-op’s slick ads featuring bicycling hipsters, and flyers for a Ferguson protest
We slow roll and icily stroll along the Mississippi river of our boyhood dreams
Sense the waters pushing south to the Gulf over a thousand miles downstream
Float some corn-hole along the Minnesota banks of the Mississippi’s liquid seam
Another hard push through the afternoon gloom
Cross into Wisconsin and stop at a thrift store for a wool blanket
Admire the friendliness of the small-town woman, pregnant, radiant, offering potatoes
Contemplate growing up in this place, playing basketball in this yard in grey glow
Hit Lake Superior in industrial/touristy Ashland, Wisconsin– balk at the lake’s breadth
Buy smoked trout from a dimly-lit market with my diminishing cash
Talk to the blue-haired elder about the wild rice they’re selling–
I voice my knowledge of the Anishinabe people north of there
Their myth that guided them West from original Iroquois lands
That they would stop and settle where the rice grew in a land of lakes
That they would live and rattle their communities by the hand of lakes
That they would always give back– allow the fallen rice to seed next years lake
How the first whites felt it so inefficient, so pitiful that they didn’t store it as capital
Thinking how the global whiteness still insists upon a price for every kernel
And without mentioning it, I’m hearing Winona LaDuke speak three moons ago:
“Such Whiteness is a construct, you know– you can de-colonize your mind.”
This old lady here shares that she has a neighbor of native blood but blue eyes
Who, by treaty rights, fishes year-round for walleye
But will never sell an ounce of the flesh, only give it away
“He’ll only gift it, because that what he says it is anyway.”
Cast us some Wisconsin corn-hole, thankful for this gift of flesh and fish today
Onward into deep snow and ascend a narrow road into the interior
The Porcupine Mountains of the Upper Peninsula
That Michigan apostrophe above the mitten
And finally park in a star-lively dead-end
Build that raging fire and cook that trout-coconut stew!
Because, my friend, the stars are iridescent fish scales
All swimming and spawning in the “River of Heaven”
As we ride these currents like a steelheads, swimming towards Home
Wake early and invite the engine explosions to propel us by the hour
Approach the Canadian border with some consternation
Get rid of any and all contraband with concern and concentration
And straighten up our stories, realizing the truth is too strange to start with
Light off the last of our fire-works on the frozen lake, and fire off some corn-hole too
Cross into Canada through Sault St. Marie
Get confused by the idea of a “border” in the earth
Get lost in the post-industrial streets that obscure the earth
Get found in the sun-set just out of town at the edge of earth
Toss Canadian corn-hole at the edge of Lake Ontario
in the mad pink of twilight earth
Hours become obscure, become ever-smaller units of time
Miles become kilometers become a tread-mill of double-yellow lines
Sunflower seeds and tea
Whitman poems and Vivaldi
Get petrol in the smelting city of Sudbury
Know that the forests that surround were once polluted to an acidic death
Wonder at the efforts to restore and repair
The trees, the soil, the people, the identity, the air
Get really frustrated that we can only find Petro Canada gas
As I boycott those primary pushers of the tar-sands oil over in Alberta
That black-tar heroin of our anti-climatic self-destruction
That needle in the veins of a body politic that only knows Profit’s instructions
Keep driving. Keep hammering. Keep caring.
Our bodies and vehicle embodying the velocity
The break-neck pace that could break a neck
And howling past Algonquin National Park, recall that wolves still live there, right now
Decide to make the all-night push for Vermont soil
Take turns driving, sleeping, staring at dash lights and star lights
Cross into Quebec, cross into Francophone country tres jolie
Listen to BBC history hour about Cuba and Kennedy
Forget to play corn-hole
Re-enter America onto 87 in upstate NY
Back in the Champlain Basin! Back in home territory!
Back to Red Sox hats and surly Yanks at Dunkins!
Back to the familiar forests of hemlock and maple!
Pump some corn-hole at the pre-dawn gas station, with maple in my coffee
Van-amble through the pre-dawn islands of northern Lake Champlain
Open the window and freeze my face in the sedges and rushes of Vermont air
Off 89, crest the Burlington hills right at sun-up
Watch the alpenglowing peaks of the Adirondacks light up
Go fling some acorn corn-hole at Oak Ledge on Champlain’s purple-iced shore
Then we wander my city, my early-twenties city
My cut-my-teeth, meet-my-wife, meet-my-soul-brothers, meet-my-destiny city
My fall-in-love, travel-from, always-return-to, forever-indebted-to city
My gorgeous, lake-side, steepled and love-steeped peopled, sweet Burlington city
Too early for Pennycluse breakfast so we drink tea at Muddy’s and say “okay!”
Too cold for Church Street lounging but we stomp our feet on the bricks anyway
Too low a view for us, so we climb the parking garage to watch the world brighten
Finally Pennycluse breakfast way too delicious and nostalgic for poetry to enlighten
Let a montage of corn-hole swirl in my coffee’s creamy screen
2,333 miles and five nights
Four frigid sleeps and one all-nighter
Three Phish shows, Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” and heaps of Psychedelic Salon
One effusive feeling of again glimpsing the vastness of America, spinning
Finally get dropped off in central Vermont at home of Elder poet David Tucker
Clean out the van and say my goodbyes to feral genius Reed
Dive in with David, drink a Long Trail and swap long stories and short poems
Talk Devil’s Tower, the Iroquois’ “Good Mind,” how the Road is within & without Mind
Play no more corn-hole, and sleep very deeply
which feels, my friends, just, fine….
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Just upload the talk I gave on this subject– link below:
For the children and trees,