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Monthly Archives: December 2013

I have been living right next to Green Lake in Seattle for almost two years. I realized today that it would be easy to create a book of short stories or essays or at least journal entries, because everytime I take the short walk across the street and start to walk around, in either direction, story material comes up.

On the surface of it, I wouldn’t have thought of Green Lake as being the ideal place to have next door — maybe I would have preferred to live near some forested mountains or a natural lake (Green Lake was manmade back in the …20s???). It seems somewhat manufactured, like a garden or a park, which it is…and yet there is a magic there, which I have come to appreciate more and more the more I walk around and experience it.

For me, probably my favorite thing about it is that it somehow creates enough habitat that it regularly draws my favorite bird, blue herons, along with a wide variety of ducks, geese, and other birds including cormorants and even eagles. But indispensable to the magic are the human beings that come along in many shapes and sizes, some with dogs, or children, on bikes, skateboards, unicycles, or with carriages, each finding their way, jostling for space, asserting themselves on the path.

I walked out there today, December 24th, 2013, drawn to it because this was one of those Seattle wintry days, not too cold (a balmy 48 when I started out) or windy, when the sun mysteriously revealed itself between the clouds, creating swaths of blue and all kinds of beautiful spectacles of sunlight.

The first thought I had was of all the things that had happened here, that something new was bound to crop up. I passed the sawed trunk, surprisingly narrow considering its former size, of the maple tree that had had its central branch of three severely wrecked in the windstorm of September 29th, 2013…I recall seeing it and collecting a small branch-stem with leaves, which I placed in a vase like flowers, periodically cutting the stem…on this almost three months later, one leaf from that stem is still green.

Walking past, I saw the willow tree, and leaned in to remind myself of its name, a “Goldtwig Willow” if I remember right, and here might be the Latin binomial: Salix alba sp. vitellina. I thought back to a few months ago when I had seen a Great Blue Heron perched on one of its branches, about six feet over the water. It was doing something I don’t believe I had ever seen a GBH do, moving its wings to bounce up and down while still perched, making the branch rock, and times giving itself a drop and a sharp pull of the wings that made me sure he was going to fly…but didn’t. Did that several times. It was an unbelievably beautiful act. I had just been thinking about dancing and how important balance is, when I got to witness this amazing balancing and re-balancing act.

After a little of that, a young man came by (I believe his name was McKinsey as he later told me) who climbed up into the tree, I assumed it was to get closer to the heron and maybe take a photo. I thought he might scare the bird away but he was very stealthy, obviously a seasoned tree climber, and managed to get out on a different branch almost as far as the heron. Eventually the heron fly away.

When McKinsey? came back down, I asked him what he had thought of the Great Blue Heron and he said “There was a heron?” He had just walked down from the street, saw a good climbing tree and climbed up, oblivious to the heron. Was disappointed that he missed it!

Walking past that tree, I started remembering that there are certain recurrent themes, the most common one being overtaking or being overtaken. There are times when I hear footsteps behind me and it is a little annoying, because I might be in a certain introspective mood, and the sound of scuffling or hitting the ground with feet sounds insistent or aggressive, sort of a mood-killer. At that point one can choose to slow down and let that person pass, but often this seems undesirable because they aren’t going fast enough to make this seem like a quick enough distancing; I feel I am going to have to endure this person for too long. In these cases, sometimes I will stop and let the person go by, but more often I find that I will want to speed up, until I can get to a place where the path forks or the irritation goes away.

When this happened to me today, I was hearing the insistent steps that were remarkably loud, and thinking about what I’ve heard of the Native Americans, who are trackers and hunters, trained to walk quietly. I like this ethic, because whereas I am not a hunter, it allows me to be more compatible with my fellow beings, not tending to scare them off or annoy them…and for humans, by walking quietly I am more compatible with a wider varieties of moods. Maybe someone I am coming across on the path is suffering, or dealing with sorry, or just lost in their thoughts. Maybe they are happy but not in the mood for sharing. No matter what is going on with them, walking quietly creates or rather does not disrupt a sense of calm. (Of course walking silently can also creep someone out that the person could be a predator, but this kind of vibe isn’t usually a factor in a safe public place, especially with the sun out)

Finally, I decided to slow down and face the party walking behind me. There was a reason that the feet were making that much noise: there were four of them walking together. I noticed something interesting, that their strides were synchronized, i.e., all four right legs were hitting the ground at approximately the same time. I found this interesting, to see that this is the way people match each others speed: in spite of differences in leg length, apparently when walking together, they will adjust both the length and pace of their stride (granted, these four were all approximately the same height). I also noticed that the degree of synchronization was higher between the two men on the right and the couple on the left.

Another theme that has come up before on Green Lake walks is: one story ends and another begins. Just as I was thinking this, and just as they were beginning to pass me, the four walkers stopped. Well, first two stopped, and then the other two. Someone was pointing up to the top of a beautiful fir tree. I looked up too and saw a large bald eagle, sitting exactly on the top like a Christmas Tree ornament. It was so perfect and beautiful (and at the time the sun was shining on the tree and the eagle) that I decided to turn around and go back for my camera (which didn’t end up happening).

On the way back, I saw another Great Blue Heron, this time sitting much more sedately, wings in, on a different smaller tree, on a branch less than a foot above the water. Two women came by to photograph it and I briefly told them my tale about the heron and the man in the willow tree. One of the women asked if I had ever heard the big “grok” sound it makes “like a pterodactyl, like he’s complaining”, and then said “Oh, I think he hears us talking about him”.

And that was about it for tales of Green Lake on Christmas Eve, 2013. But for me, Eagles and especially Great Blue Herons are spirit animals and allies. For me to see them both on the same day — I had only seen eagles one other time on Green Lake, although others have talked about seeing them more frequently — is a really good omen, as far as I’m concerned. I took it to be a Christmas gift.

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Many people in the world have to struggle just to survive, or in any case to make ends meet. It’s a continuum, I suppose, as many of us for whom this is not really the case still face stress and fear about the future. But some of us have more breathing room than others. Imagine if everything you had grown up to believe and value was facing extinction: your language, livelihood and culture, everything that for you made your life have meaning, resided only in you and your family, maybe a handful of others. This is the case for the remaining members of various tribes in South America, whose existence and way of life have been under attack for centuries, as was the case too with all the native peoples of the Americas. Our way of life is erasing them from the planet.

We should value diversity of culture and way of life much more. The narrative that supports this destruction is familiar: this is just progress, there is no other choice, dams must be built to give people power, forests must be logged, and those whose subsistence depends on these lands must simply adapt to a modern way of life. This is so short-sighted. We don’t understand what we are destroying. We have learned enough to value, to a degree, “endangered species”; somehow we are vaguely aware that we don’t want to live in a world entirely without grizzly bears, even though they are dangerous, or buffalo or cougars or bison or eagles. Should we not then give even greater value to a species of human being, even if genetically similar, but with a language that will be lost forever, and a way of living that is wild and precious and maybe, just maybe, there is even something to be learned from those coming from a completely different cultural background? Because most of the rest of the world comes from a basically European industrialist model. It is not that our way is bad and that the way of life is somehow more virtuous or pure, but that without them we have no way of seeing ourselves or measuring ourselves. We lose our perspective and ultimately, our humanity.

There is one organization, at least, that shares my view on this and is fighting a difficult battle to preserve the integrity of these peoples lives:  http://amazonwatch.org/

I think that at least those of us whose lives are not immediately in jeopardy need to care more and speak up more, and I do think this is happening. It needs to continue. We especially need to speak up when it comes to irreversible acts, things that cannot be undone, including the loss of tribes and natural areas. There is a wily, manipulative concept coming into discourse that goes something like, “But what is natural, anyway?” This way of wishful thinking, rationalizing our destructive path, tries to somehow imply that everything is natural, even the chemicals that we create, because we humans are natural and we just created what we created from natural materials. It’s just a mental game, and it avoids the understanding of just how different what is truly untouched by human hands is, for example, the difference between an old growth forest and a planted forest. Yes, I want human beings to be involved in planting trees to cover clearcuts, and I do think we can do better to approximate nature’s design, but I do not believe we are to the point yet where we fully understand what came here before us, whether we believe it was created by a Universal Intelligence, Divine Accident, or Pure Accident.