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Release

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She hangs there, upside down, eyes fixed on me as I open the gate and ease into the garden. I leave it open behind me, a gateway to the wild air I hope will call to her. As I draw near, she unclamps her talons from the netting and explodes out of the corner. She bumps against the overhanging net, this oddly constrained sky, and latches on again. I try to herd her to the open gate, but she’s not having it. The yellow toes, tipped with tiny scimitars, cling even tighter. The sharp eyes, bright and lucid, do not blink. The beak–that deadly instrument–gleams and menaces.

I have to get her out, but how? How, exactly, does one extract a wild peregrine from one’s tomato garden without either party being wounded? Bird netting is supposed to keep birds out, not in, but here we are. Bees, I remember suddenly: my long-cuffed goatskin beekeeper’s gloves are just the thing. I fetch them from the house and slip them on, feeling anxious, desperate, and hopeful. Somehow, I have to manage this.

She lets me get right next to her, eyeing me intently but without complaint. I stand still for a moment, then reach out both hands and cup her body gently. The heart beats at the speed of light–hers and mine alike–and I feel her anger, fear, and hope. With one hand, I softly stroke her back and head, and tell her it will be alright. We stand like that for several minutes. Gradually, the toes begin to uncurl, and I pull her free of the netting. Her wings quiver once, twice, and I hustle to the open gate, my hands full of impatient, flapping falcon. At the threshold I open them, arms high. She soars away, without looking back.

Decompression

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43 ideas brainstormed in 15 minutes—hot, efficient comets coming at you from the workshop circle. Inspiring quotes and anecdotes. Lists and lists of things to hope for, things to imagine, and things to do. Twenty times twenty times a hundred twenty questions, to unmask the truths we’ve hidden with the utmost care, the strategies we use to smother our dreams in their cradle, the tales we tell ourselves to make it seem alright. More lists:  resources to draw upon, goals that scale from tiny to audacious, ways to know the path you’re on is true.

 
You leave with pages of wild notebook scribbles, some items underlined for emphasis, some adorned with stars or question marks, some with straight or wavy arrows connecting one idea to another to another. On another page, a list of books promised to yield still more enlightenment. Your head is full, and your heart awakened, with hope and joy and quickened energy. Things can be different, changes can be made, and you can make them.

 
Somewhere on your journey home, the rich nitrogen dissolved in your blood during this deep dive begins to bubble, insidious and irrepressible, seeking weak spots in your circulation. There it looks to lodge, cutting off the flow of oxygen and stifling your fresh enthusiasm. Gradual ascent, not bolting to the surface, is the only way to foil it and keep your delicate new fire undampened.

 
The workshop high–like the ascent of a difficult and deadly mountain–can be ecstatic, bracing, and revealing. It’s right to cherish and enjoy it, to celebrate the insight and achievement you’ve extracted from the challenge, but take care not to break an ankle on the way down. Give yourself some space, and a little grace, before you re-emerge into reality. The laundry will still be there, waiting.

Blue Notes

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It’s a bustling summer day, folks jostling for the ripest melons or the freshest flowers, stalls bursting with color, smell, and texture as the crowd flows ever on. My list is long, and I’ve got lots to take in, and lots to buy, before the morning’s old.

A mandolin sings suddenly, gentle yet insistent, then a fiddler adds her strain — and all at once my cheeks are wet, some secret sadness welling up, massive and unknowable. Everyone I miss, or have ever missed, pulls at me like a black hole in the center of the farmers market. Their shades call me, and I dance along the unseen edge as the bluegrass wafts between the berries and the lettuces.

Why does bluegrass make me blue? It’s never been a genre I sought out, or one I really knew till a few years ago. Now it’s everywhere, part of the latest urban farming, homesteading, and crafting craze, and I can tell a hammer dulcimer from an autoharp at fifty paces. There’s something in it, like good old style country music, that grabs the heart and opens it, willing or no, and makes you listen. Why, it makes you wonder, is the world the way it is? Why do we create such madness, and inflict such pain? Why is he, or she, not here with me?

A singer joins in, and I notice others in the crowd sniffling, or wiping an eye as we all mourn our childhoods, our loved ones, the pure and pristine land and ways that might live only in our fantasies. It’s a sad and perfect day, sweet and bitter, and the music calls us all to dance along that narrow precipice. The berries and the lettuces will be waiting when the song comes to a close.

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This piece was aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on July 3, 2014. Listen here.

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Go beyond the market for a minute. That fruit you’re holding has a story, about work and care, sun and water. It’s also about the harvest, a dance of exploration, partnering, and purpose that changes and delights both parties.

First, as for any dance, you need the proper costume–here, that’s long sleeved shirt, long pants, and sun hat. Gloves are optional; I mostly go without unless I’m picking berries. Also, tools–not many, just a sturdy picking box or bag, and a light but trusted ladder.

Next, survey the scene and plot your choreography: what is the angle of the sun, and the set of the branches? Where is the fruit sparse or heavy, inviting or still green, smooth-skinned or bird-bit? Where will the ladder best be placed to reach this one, and then that? Where will the tree accept embrace, and where will it refuse? Once sure of your partner, set the ladder firmly and begin.

Every sense will guide you–sight for judging blush or hue, smell to catch a sudden waft of nectar, hearing for the creak and rustle of the tree echoing your movement, taste to spot check as the impulse strikes you. And touch–the last, but the most critical. Take the fruit in your hand and hold it, gently. Feel its heft, the firmness or slight give against your grasp, and ask the tree if it is ready. As you tug ever so slightly, she will tell you: ripeness falls to you like water into sand–softly, smoothly, silently. Resistance says perhaps tomorrow, but not now.

When the picking’s done, climb down and thank the tree. Is that her sighing, free now to begin another season’s work? No telling, but perhaps you’ll hear it as you bite into that peach.

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This pieced aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 8/4/14. Listen here.

The last brandywine

This piece aired on KQED FM last November (11/8/13; listen here) but it seems apt to post it now as I prepare for a new tomato season. Yes, there will be Brandywines!

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It bleeds onto my plate, red rivulets of summer at once sweet and sad, prideful and forlorn, beloved and feared. I felt it as the long knife, serrated and aware, met tender sleeping flesh, and had to stop myself from crying out–wait, it isn’t time to go, not yet!

The last Brandywine is always thus, met with longing and with dread in equal parts. When I walk among the vines in late October, I never want to see the truth I know is lurking there, between the pungent, furry leaves: this one is the last, the last until another turn around the sun goes by, the last until another crop of fawns has lost their spots, the last until the bees awake and swarm and swoon with all the songs of summer.

The last one, despite the heavy freight it bears, is somehow always the best–perhaps the tinge of melancholy fills a secret void between the taste buds, or sends a signal to a hidden cell folded deep within the frontal cortex. Perhaps its alchemy is yet more basic, and more powerful: it turns sunshine into joy, soil into spirit, and water into life.

Each fall, as I slice and savor the last Brandywine, I wish for never ending summer–that this one would be not the last, but one of many more divine epiphanies to come. Yet no sooner has the wish been sent into the world than I recall it, mindful of the need for seasons and their special gifts. Fall brings focus after summer’s breathless bounty, and winter rains demand a turning inward that makes room for reflection. Spring is for awakening, shaking off the mud, and roughing out the course of madcap summer. And just around the corner will be Brandywines, back before you know it.

Abuzz

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I didn’t expect the smell. Putting my nose next to the mesh window, I could hear the bees inside the box buzzing faintly, sleepy but on guard. The sound was reassuring, and satisfied the universal expectation of a buzzing, busy bee. More than that, it served as proof of life–my new associates had traveled safely, and were no doubt eager to exchange the transfer box for a real home. But the smell–a warm and pleasing mix of honey, nutmeg, and vanilla–had never crossed my mind. There was no honey in the box, just a tiny bit of comb they’d started building, so it must have emanated from the bees themselves. How strange, and wonderful, I thought: how much I have to learn about these wild, fuzzy dynamos.

I love honey–and who doesn’t? Honey has been valued for its taste, and healing properties, since ancient times. But the real reason I was standing in my yard wearing a goofy head-net and long protective gloves was food: fruit trees and vegetable beds dot the landscape, and I wanted bees to pollinate them. You’ve probably heard that one of every three bites of food we eat owes its existence to bees and other pollinators–here in California that means almonds, berries, stone fruit, and much, much more.

There’s something larger too, drawing me to keeping bees. Honeybees are amazing, industrious, and magically transformative. A bee’s touch turns flower into fruit, nectar into honey, and honey into wax. But they’re critically endangered, for reasons not yet fully understood, and a world hangs in the balance. One hive, and one small organic orchard, won’t fix the problem, or even solve the mystery. But it might help–and I’m sure I’ll get some great peaches in the process.

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This pieced aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 5/24/13. Listen here.

Wild goose chase

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It’s 14 degrees. The tires crunch in protest as we crawl along the frozen lane, windows down, heads hanging out like dogs on a much anticipated joy ride. The air is beyond crisp, and the sun won’t make its entrance for another hour, so there isn’t much to see besides our frozen breath. No matter–this moment is for one sense only: we are listening.

We’ve been driving these back roads for what seems like days, or nights, without success. The usual spots have come up empty, every one, and our fingers, ears, and cheeks are blue and sharp with cold. As a last resort, we turn down one more pitch-black byway, hoping this is where they’ve hidden.

Soon enough we hear it–an odd, low rumble, mysterious and unique, that tells us we’ve finally found them. Punctuated with bright squawks, muffled honks, and sudden wing flaps, it is the telltale heart of this wild place, beating steadily despite the frigid dark. We stop, confirm our find, and ease out of the car with our cameras and recorders.

They are floating, faint white blobs against still, black water, numberless and crowded, waiting with us for dawn to dress the sky in party clothes. As black fades to blue, and blue to gold, the hum becomes a thunder: they are debating when to rise and start their day, and it seems it’s not an easy call. Suddenly, a leader flaps once, twice, and flies up. Milliseconds after, ten thousand snow geese lift off in unison. This is the moment, brief and clamorous and beyond fantastic, that we were chasing. This is the moment, wild and unpredictable and beyond price, that our fragile world offers, open to us if we will only listen. It’s well worth a few cold fingers.

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This piece aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 2/4/14. Listen here.

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