Better Get With It

Published in the Redwood  Coast Review, Spring 2012


The gunshots sounded around the country house near midnight. I had fallen asleep an hour ago in the unfamiliar abode. Deep in the woods, in an obscure northwest corner of Sonoma County that had not  been electrified yet, the place emanated a quiet unlike any I had ever known. I had grown up and spent my twenties as a city person and held the usual stereotypes about unspeakable acts committed against people who ventured into the deep countryside. Only a year ago, when Phil, my partner of ten years, went away for a week, I had turned the lights and the radio on all night in our San Francisco apartment in order to go to sleep. But a few weeks ago he had died, of cancer, after months of illness, and now our city neighbor, upon hearing I had plans to relocate to the country, had suggested I borrow his getaway house for the weekend to experience it firsthand.

Now, as the gunshots neared, I raised my head a bit from the pillow, feeling blood surging through my veins. Like many hand-built houses in that area, the front door had no locks and I had no weapons. So I did what I had been learning to do for months: I gave up. I glided my head back onto the pillow and turned over. “Those people can come and get me if they want,” I thought. “I’m tired and I’m going back to sleep.”

When my neighbor returned the next evening, I learned the gunshots came from local residents who were in the habit of hunting wild pigs at night, when the animals go rooting through the woods, digging for roots and acorns. “They’re a nuisance, anyway,” he assured me, “tearing up the undergrowth. Besides, people shoot off their guns for different reasons around here. You get used to it.”

“You’ll be back in six months,” friends and family had predicted, when I told them of my plans to relocate by myself to the redwoods. “Mendocino County—do you know how much it rains there?” others exclaimed. Many women asked me how I could ever feel safe living off alone by myself, how I would sleep at night and defend myself.  I had had most of the same sentiments not much earlier, but since Phil’s death something had shifted and enlarged. A territory, unfamiliar until now, beckoned and included me in it. I needed a new gateway into life that included death, and this buzzing, chirping, burrowing, restless mass of organized quiet seemed to tell me something. I headed north, picked up a hitchhiker by the entrance to Highway 128 in Cloverdale, let her verse me in the ways of country alternative folk as we wheeled around what seemed like fifty hairpin turns, and spent the first night of my Mendocino County life on her couch, surrounded by dog-eared volumes of Proust and Foucault. The next day found me thumbing through local papers. I got the first place I called about, a sound, simple structure with third-growth redwoods in the back and a view of the valley floor in the front so sweeping my eyes projected out over the deck and seemed to travel the curves of the hills. I was twenty-eight years old, I was for all intents and purposes a widow, and I badly needed what we often quaintly refer to as “down time.”

And the woods were there, and they provided that. I was so used to fielding questions from those puzzled by my new lifestyle that I wrote a poem called “What I’m Doing Here”:

I’m standing on one of the earth’s thousand fountains

I’m not rooted to the spot, I just don’t choose to move

My fingers smell of lilac and seek out marble

I’m flinging sensations into the breeze

My arms brush against the membrane of the sky

My ribs are a cage for moles and field mice, and

My eyes are baskets for eggs…

People expressed to me their fear of being alone in nature in two ways. They were worried both about attacks by savage beasts and people, and perhaps more compellingly, by the demons unloosed within their mind. What we really fear when we are alone in nature, then, is our own wildness, a perceived unmanageability.

I was no stranger to that chaos myself. The first few months in my cabin found me spiraling down into depression and grief, but it wasn’t only the loss I had gone through. It was the beasts who had been residing in there since childhood, now bestirring themselves anew. People are afraid to be by themselves because they know the quiet little voices that sound only slightly crazy when they are with other people will amplify and enlarge when they are alone. Let me tell you, this is so.

Thus it was that after a year in the cabin, equidistant from the interior valleys and the coast and a good hour from a town, I knew I needed to move on. I wasn’t exactly driven crazy by the amplified voices, but they were wearing me down. I had written a lot of poetry, learned how to change propane tanks and start a fire in a wood stove. I knew which shortcut roads were paved and which were not, which trails to walk and which marijuana-growing or solitude-addled neighbors to avoid. And there were the other warning signs. I used to watch a neighbor, a nice-looking middle-aged woman, walk to the corner to pick up her mail at the same time every day. She held her arms about her frame tightly and her face turned away in a manner that clearly communicated, “Do not disturb.” Although she wouldn’t talk to me, a long-time neighbor explained that her husband had died suddenly of a heart attack a long time ago, when she was not yet thirty, and she had never gotten over it. “She still can’t forgive him for dying on her like that,” he told me. At that, a small but cogent alarm went off in my head:  “That’s going to be you in twenty years if you don’t watch out.” Meanwhile, the emerging computer culture to my south spoke of people who spent so much time at their computer that they were becoming “socially autistic.” That term entered a soft part of my brain and took on the dimensions of truth, for in my occasional trips to urban areas I had become unable to negotiate even small physical and verbal  interactions, my tongue leaden in conversations, arms and legs fleeing and hypermobile in crowds.

And so I left that country place, high above a wide valley, blundered about for a while, and got myself an unconventional education designed to ungnarl and detoxify the mind. Eventually I became such an avid student of these methods that I decided to move into a Zen center, since all I wanted to do  was meditate, anyway. I stayed more than ten years, became ordained as a priest, and ended up replicating my hermit pattern by moving into a charming, classically tumbledown plywood shack plunked in the middle of the fields. “You know… you really shouldn’t be living out there anymore,” one or other of the temple’s officials would wander up to me and say every few months. “It’s unsafe. (The roof had once blown off during a particularly heavy windstorm.) It’s really meant to be a tool shed; we just put you there because we’re low on housing.” Then the official would wander away, distracted by the myriad details of running a temple. I lived there for five years, opening the door in the early morning to webs of pale green spiders spun over the threshold, walking to the meditation hall and getting literally blown off the path by damp oceanic gusts, dodging skunks who darted up in the dark and playfully presented their hindsides, listening by day to the calm whir of a tractor and the singsong exchanges of the farm crew and by night to the whoosh  of cars on the highway and the solemn, metallic calls of coyotes. I gave greetings and directions to beachcombers, lost hikers, monks, derelicts, and tourists. I watched the fields turn yellow with mustard flowers, deep green with chard, green-gray with vetch as the land and the seasons proceeded from fertile to fallow.

Most important of all, I learned to manage my thoughts in the same way the farm managed the wilderness: by understanding the conditions from which it arose, maximizing its benefits and minimizing any harm. One doesn’t raze the mental wilderness nor allow it run rampant either, but creates a viable, vibrant environment that is adaptive to human needs. Thus, before I could learn to live in nature, I needed to be educated and trained in a highly developed culture.

I stand in the doorway, a golden light spilling from the sky, leveling the difference between inside and outside. On this fall day the sun is less strong now, slanting into the forest. And on the second floor of this house built into the hillside I am likewise slanted  into the trees, tipped toward their red light. In the same way, the light tips into me, full and round, and as it enters me it rounds more, till it reads me completely, uttering every cell. I am this wood and I know this wood. I am particularly here, on this day of September 23, 2011, and I am also released into time, emptied into every angry, joyous, righteous and confused person I have ever known or been.

“Whacking out again, are you,” I say to my cat when he starts chasing his tail, whirling in tight circles as he swipes at what he has somehow identified as a foreign object. I say the same thing to myself, when the mental loops begin, watching how one chain of thought and action sets off another. What I’m observing is a system at once natural (for there’s nothing “unnatural” about the human brain) and cultural (for the mind, after all, is speaking English, an encoded and highly particularized cultural system, and might be receiving different thoughts and impression if it was sounding off in, say, Swahili). I’m not going to spray it, clearcut and subdue it out of existence, but I am, begads, not going to let it take over and choke the other growth in the system. I am not a monoculture; I am more than an endless reiteration of judgments and reproaches. Knowing that, I relax, and am welcomed into a wide waiting presence which is identical to the vibrant hush of the trees that greet me and ring this house.

I have indeed re-placed myself back into the woods nearly twenty years after that first experiment. Yet this time I knew I had to be related to a city or a town as intimately as I related to a quiet stretch of land. I have chosen to live within ten miles of either Willits or Ukiah in the last several years, and this simple acknowledgement of the need for human community has made a crucial difference in my well-being. Meanwhile, several of my friends and acquaintances are moving off their country land and into the friendly, creative and unpretentious town limits of Ukiah. They’re growing older and tired of long, dangerous commutes on treacherous county roads, of jumping out of their Subarus to clear downed branches from their road in winter and pumping near-dry wells in summer. They hop on bicycles in town and ride to work, to social activities and to the farmer’s market. Living in a town or city has become more back-to-the-landish than the back-to-the-landers out in the sticks who burn carbon just to get to the store to buy locally grown produce. Human communities have become as important to cultivate and grow as any natural community avidly observed or snapped in photos. We are the bears we used to drive to dumps to watch, rooting through trash and amiably padding down the path together. [I would like to let the ambiguity of whether “we” or “the bears” are being modified to remain if you don’t mind.] Those of us who remain in the woods, myself included, have to think about what we’re doing.

The road winds up the hillside in a series of undulating curves that reveal bluish expanses of further hills. I stroll up it, spray bottle in hand for a chance encounter with a stray dog, thrilled to be in open land and out of the dense woods. Neat green pastures in the foreground are impossibly brilliant. Cows regard me with a steady, bruised banality. An occasional truck rattles by, a hand flapping a hello out a window. One neighbor leans out of her pickup and warns me not to go walking the hills alone, for a mountain lion has recently been spotted and the corpse of a large gray coyote, its victim, is still warm on the ground. But it’s too late; I walk on. For I have already decided to be eaten by the lion.

At this point in time, I find myself equally and irreconcilably attracted to both remote country places (my last house was ten miles down a dead-end dirt road) and dense, teeming and culturally diverse sections of great cities, including nearby San Francisco. Both are bristling with life-forms, birthing, breeding and dying in dramatic and vibrant interactions. The fact that one is primarily human (with patches of green) and one primarily non-human (with patches of human habitation) does not alter the scenario. What matters is the creativity and overall aliveness of the ecosystem. From the point of view of my cats, the woods at night must appear as North Beach or Times Square, full of squirming, alluring flesh as well as ruthless predators who can turn a rollicking night out into a violent encounter with one swipe of a limb. In both urban and rural landscapes, a great collective enterprise is underway. Both of them dwarf the actions of an individual, and subsume them in a compelling narrative that extends both vertically and horizontally. Of all the built human landscapes, suburbs, with their flat, near-contiguous blocks of stores, offices and homes, and ample streets and parking lots to accommodate every vehicle, are the places most built to scale of the individual human (or, at most, a nuclear unit). That may be why they are comforting and yet atomizing at the same time, for to reduce all human activity to a merely human scale is to diminish the human.

Bosnian exile Aleksander Hemon describes his flaneur-like intimacy with the streets of Sarajevo, and how, in forcible exile, he learned to redirect this familiarity onto the colder, less communal American culture he encountered on the streets of Chicago: “I gradually became aware that my interiority was inseparable from my exteriority, that the geography of my city was the geography of my soul. Physically and metaphysically, I was placed.

In “Life Is a Miracle,” Wendell Berry describes an acquaintance with the glowing details of small-town farming life in much the same way: “It is possible to live in and attentively study the same small place decade after decade, and find that it ceaselessly evades and exceeds comprehension. There is nothing that it can be reduced to, because ‘it’ is always, and not predictably, changing… one is constantly revising one’s knowledge of it, continuously being surprised by it and in error about it…. One knows one’s place, that is to say, only within limits, and the limits are in one’s mind, not in the place. This is a description of life in time in the world.”

Enchanted by ease, convenience and power, we often forget the most fundamental requirements of our human minds and bodies—connection, continuity, a sense of mutual and affirmative support in our daily labors. Even the simplest and perhaps most essential human act of meeting another person’s eyes has become compromised, as we avidly stare at our iPhones and computer screens rather than engage with one another. Yet I am wary of paeans to a past that would place us back in some imagined village on various corners of the globe, happily harvesting wheat, rice, or corn. Inhabiting a rural area is no guarantor of happiness, intimacy, or the ability to intimately know and name a place that Berry so eloquently celebrates. In fact, the opposite can happen. Lack of access to education, jobs and cultural enrichment and accompanying narrowness and suspicion are widespread and grievous problems in many rural communities. The young people I knew when I taught school in Leggett, a sparsely populated, rugged and redwooded section of northern Mendocino County, didn’t care that they lived in one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful spots on the whole planet; they just wanted to grow up, get out and move to the city.

That said, there is much work to be done in the matter of slowing down and carefully noticing one’s own place. Billions of years of high old culture are built into every blade of grass. And urban dwellers, by virtue of their placement, are not automatically in possession of greater sophistication or  nimbler minds. A family friend whom I visited in a newly built tract section of San José waved his hand out the window in the direction of a remaining stand of trees and remarked, “You see? There was nothing here before they came and built these houses.” If we use the term “unnatural” to contain everything we cannot accept, we use the term “nothing” to describe what we are unable to notice.

That is the task I want most to take up now, best described in Gary Snyder’s concept of reinhabitation.  I want to edge closer to both the country and city habitats I so love and just plain pay attention. For there are daily so many tragedies, on both a natural and a societal level, that my mind no longer knows how to settle. I anxiously hunch over and sculpt various solutions, only to see them squish into a solid, intractable mass and dry into new shapes in the next day’s sun. Things sure look bad for the planet; where should I be in it?

What’s at risk, I have realized, is not the planetary hunk of flesh itself–which Deep Ecologists properly observe will heal in its own long time scale–but something at once smaller and infinitely greater.  It’s the ability, in the midst of overwhelming planetary tragedy and mind-numbing technological change, to respond to what’s in front of us. If we lose our ability to respond then it is not so much that we as a planetary species will die, but that we are, unwittingly, already dead. Re-imagining a place means nothing more and nothing less than re-imagining each other.

The woods are waiting for me when I step outside this morning, with a simple, pure, and plain presence that I cannot explain yet is more real than the fingers on my hand. It is not that the woods are so beautiful and are going to sop up my silly human pretense with their solemn, ancient wisdom, for they  also home to squawking blue jays that fight over a scrap of food as vigorously as a clutch of Christmas shoppers over a pair of blue jeans at a Black Friday sale; it is not that the woods are peaceful and I must go to them to learn their ways, for nightly coyotes, foxes, and bobcats dine vigorously on the flesh of nonviolent deer. It is more that the woods absorb all these human, animal and plant tendencies and contain them in a category that at once includes and enlarges them. The peace is from an immensity that pays forth peace and violence in a rhythm I didn’t choose but have learned to dance to. The dance is called, Better Get With It.  And indeed a briskness in the afternoon air picks up now, as I peer closer into the visages of leaves extended from the branches of oaks, each ribbed and veined one a statement of water and air condensed, whorled and rolled, expressed as fog, as rain, as flat hot sun, and I stare at the ground and understand its constant and unflagging activity of worms and beetles and bacteria that break down old matter and release it to the waiting air. I realize that the woods are not what I want them to be, and, startled, I realize that that is what I really want. I don’t know what stands before me—the ravaged remains of logged trees that human generations have shaped into a livable landscape, a set of nonhuman creatures that remain alive in it, my human brain taking it in—but it is whole, it is here, and I am a spoken and speaking part inside it.