Chanting E ala e

By Neva Knott

Jim’s rustling in the kitchen and the smell of coffee awakens me. It’s four in the morning. I stay nestled in my blanket on the couch, listening to him find pans to make breakfast, listening to his wife Gail turn on the water for a shower. The lapping sound of the ceiling fan reminds me I’m in the tropics, not at home in rainy winter Washington. I stretch my arm over the couch. Jim puts a cup of coffee in my hand and says good morning. “I’m up, really,” I reply. I’m usually the sleepy head of the bunch, but today we need to get a move on, so I get up, dress quickly, organize a bag for the day, and step out onto the lanai, into the still darkness. Our rental is a cabin is in Haiku, a residential area just off the North shore. Each Hawaiian island has a wet side and a dry side–Haiku is on the wet side, the jungle-y part of the island. No street lights, curvy roads through gulches and eucalyptus. The air smells clean yet musty, as it always does after a night of rain in the islands. I swing for a while in the hanging porch chair, taking in the warmth of the coffee, the dampness of the air and the silence.

Twenty minutes later, we pile into the rental Jeep. Our destination is Haleakala, the “house of the sun,” Maui’s volcano ten thousand feet above sea level. We’re going up to watch the sunrise, so pitch black is what we want right now, the darkness is why we’re up so early. It’ll take us about an hour to drive to up. Though I lived on Maui for a year a decade ago, and though I drive up to Haleakala National Park every few visits, I’ve never been up for sunrise. Haleakala is, in Hawaiian culture and oral history, a sacred place, a place of ancient ritual. In the words of Mark Twain, who visited the islands in 1866, Haleakala is a place of “healing solitudes.”

This trip to Maui is my way of saying thank you to Jim and Gail for helping me remodel my mom’s house after she passed away two years ago, my way of saying thank you for the support, the sweat equity, for feeding me and for letting me sleep on their couch for a long stretch while mom was in the hospital. This trip is also a celebration of our reunion. We went to high school together, but lost touch after adult life took over. Jim and Gail have only been to Maui once before, and they had the bad tourist experience. The whole plan for our trip is for them to see this beautiful island through my eyes.

We make our way out of Haiku and to the main roads. I direct Jim the back way through the still-sleeping town of Makawao and onto the rodeo road that connects to Haleakala Highway. Then it’s up and up, via an s-curved, two-lane road. We drive, mostly in silence. Jim has said he wants to see the sun “boil out of the ocean on one side of the island, and sink back into it on the other.” Jim’s request reminds me of the myth of how Maui stole the sun. Legend tells that Haleakala Crater is where the demigod Maui captured the sun in order to convince it to take longer crossing the sky each day, so that his mother’s bark cloth could dry fully. Maui held the sun captive in the crater for several days. Finally, the sun granted Maui’s wish, so he let it return to the sky. Since, the island has enjoyed full days of sunshine and warmth.

The sky is lightening as we snake up the last few miles. I glance between the dashboard clock, the sky’s edge I can see along the volcano’s slope, and gauge the distance to the top. We make it to the parking lot just as the whole sky is turning from gunmetal to coral. Jim parks the Jeep and we jump out. As we start walking to the viewpoint along rim of the crater, we hear voices. Gail asks, “What’s that noise?” It’s rhythmic and soft, low in tone. “Chanting the sunrise,” I tell her, though in my mind, I worry that I can’t remember the words. I give a quick explanation of the Hawaiian ceremony of chanting the sunrise as a prayer, and as a way to begin each day with purpose. We make our way to the guardrail along the rim, arriving just as the sun peeks through the cloud layer and burst into layers of crimson-orange brilliance, filling the sky. For that moment, nothing else existes, nothing except the sun rising out of the ocean, coming through the clouds, lighting the sky, signaling the beginning of that new day.

The sun shifts higher and higher, causing the colors in the crater to change. The cinder rock hills come out of shadow and take on their daylight hue of deep rusted burgundy, the sharp edges of grey cliffs come into relief so that the stone’s edges are delineated, the vegetation is now bright green. The angle of the sun in relation to the volcano’s peak reminds me of the first time I saw Haleakala come out of shadow. That morning, I was looking toward Maui from Kaho’olawe, the island eight miles off Maui’s South shore.

Kaho’olawe was used as a bombing practice target by the US military, for fifty years. In the early 2000’s, ownership of it reverted to the Hawaiian government. Because of all the bombing, the island is uninhabitable. The water lens is cracked, and most of the vegetation is dead. Kaho’olawe, like Haleakala, is sacred ground, a place of tradition and ritual. The Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana, a non-profit activist group interested in rebuilding a cultural connection to the island, sponsors work party excursions. While living on Maui and paddling on the Hawaiian Canoe Club outrigger team, I was invited to join one such trip. I went with my friends Niccole and Wendy, as chaperones of the teen members of our club. Before we were allowed to set foot on Kaho’olawe, we had to learn a series of rituals and chants. This morning, I’m reminded of the pre-dawn cleansing swim and sunrise chant for Haleakala, E ala e. As I stand next to Gail and watch the sun take over the sky, I think back, try to remember, and slowly, the words come out of the cadence of the chant I hear along the rim today.

As I listen, my mind drifts back a decade, across eight miles of ocean, to Kaho’olawe, to another pre-dawn awakening. In memory, I hear the group leader blow the conch shell, or pu, signaling it’s time for the day to begin. I rustle in my sleeping bag, and I reach for my flashlight but decide to leave it off–illumination will only upset the calm of the darkness, and will make it harder to see once I’m outside. I wake my tent-mate, Wendy, telling her I’m going to get Niccole and we’ll wait for her before we head to the beach. The last blows of the pu drift into the still-night darkness as I unzip the tent flap and step into the cool Hawaiian morning.

Rising before dawn is traditional cultural protocol. After the pu sounds, we are to make our way to the water, strip, submerge and cleanse ourselves of anything left from the day before or that crept into our consciousness during the night. The ocean will sweep away negativity, worry, guilt, exhaustion, anger, or distraction that will keep us from living this day fully. Wendy, Niccole, and I are alone at our scrap of beach, just yards from our tents. The water is shallow–ankle-deep, and the bottom rocky. We wade out as far as feels safe, knowing that darkness is not shark-safe, then kneel, dunk, and splash in the salty water. This ritual makes sense to me. I think to myself, “How can I awaken with such focused intention every morning?” The earth-based, cycle-of-life Hawaiian style of spirituality resonates in me.

After our dip, the three of us gather at the fire the kuas, or group leaders, have built. The sky is lightening, but is still some version of a blue-black-grey. After all of the group have made their way from tent to ocean to fire and are warmed and dry, we make our way up a shoreline ridgeline to watch the sun come over Haleakala, for the day to begin with purpose, as we chant our prayer for its climb from ocean to sky:

E ala e Ka la i kahikina (Awaken, arise)

I ka moana (The sun in the east)

Ka moana hohonu (From the ocean)

Pi’i ka lewa (Climbing to heavean)

Ka lewa nu’u (The heaven highest)

I kahikina (In the east)

Aia ka la. (There is the sun)

E ala e (Awaken!)

Just as these words weave into my memory, the Park ranger’s voice changes from the soft lilt of Hawaiian words to a tone of admonishment. His voice pulls me back to the present. I look at Gail and laugh, “And that’s the park ranger yelling at people not to crush the plants.” Haleakala is home to an amazing diversity of rare species, one of which is my favorite, the ahinahina, better known as the Haleakala Silversword.

As we turn away from the guardrail, the wind picks up and cold air hits us, and I realize I’ve forgotten to tell my friends it can be close to freezing up here. I have on yoga pants and a sweater, but am still cold. Gail is in shorts and a t-shirt. Jim runs back to the Jeep for our beach towels–Gail and I wrap ourselves in the hibiscus-print terry cloth, she in blue and me in red. As we walk back toward the Jeep, I suggest we drive the last half mile up, to the observation spot on the very top, to see the Silverswords.

The Haleakala Silversword grows only here, in these volcanic soils, on this volcano, on this island. The bottom of the plant is round and covered in silver-green spikey leaves that grow in a whorl. The flower stalk shoots up from the middle of this ball and grows to five feet. The Silversword lives fifty to ninety years, flowers only once in its life, then dies. The charismatic nature of this plant comes through in its bloom–the petals are a deep maroon and the hundreds of flowers on each plant burst open at once, engorging the stalk with life. The expansive grandeur of the bloom seems to represent the spirit of the volcano itself, seems to symbolize the sunrise, seems to elucidate the cycles of life in the islands.

Early visitors to the Park often picked the Silversword as a memento of having made it to the top of Haleakala. Local lore explains that it was the thing to do…not really a custom, but something like tossing a coin in a fountain for good luck…to roll the ball-shaped part of the plant into the crater, for sport. I have to admit, it does look a bit like a spikey bowling ball. And, before Haleakala was a National Park, the volcano’s slopes were used as rangeland. In addition to the picking and the rolling, grazing goats and cattle caused the plant almost went extinct. By the 1920s, there were just over a fourteen hundred plants left. Since the 1970s, Park rangers have re-established the plant’s population. Now, about fifty thousand Silverswords grow across this gritty cinder rock landscape.

As a photographer, I’m drawn to the Silversword’s Dr. Suess-world shape, prodigious bloom-stalk, and textures. But now we’re shivering. My hands are too cold to take more photos. Regretfully, the three of us pile into the Jeep and head down the s-curved, two-lane road. It was too dark to see much detail in the landscape on the drive up. What’s beautiful about the drive down is that the landscape changes again and again as we wend from the barren wind-eroded zone of the summit and through the trees along the slopes. Plants change, rock formations change, hill slope changes. Jack London called the landscape of Haleakala, “a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.” Both the North shore and the South shore are visible. I look across the water at Kaho’olawe, and smile.

As we descend, we watch the Maui awaken. It’s not quite 9 AM when we roll into Makawao Town, so early we have to wait for the coffee shop to open. Once inside, with warm cups in our hands, and almost unspokenly–in that way between friends of a long time–we decide we’ll go up again tomorrow.

Sugar Beach

By Neva Knott

I balance on smooth black lava boulders at the shoreline of Sugar Beach. I make my way just past the soft waves that undulate and dissipate. Ten yards out, the ocean meets the lava. There’s no surf, but enough water is hitting the rocks that they are slippery. I stop before I get to those covered in algae. I hold three flowers: a yellow ilima, a purple bougainvillea, and a red epidendrum. Behind me, my friend Gail picks her path so she can stand beside me, an orange bougainvillea in her hand.

Throwing flowers in the ocean is my Maui ritual. My partner, Adam, is buried in these waters. Each time I visit, I pick three flowers, of no special variety—I let them reveal themselves—one for Adam’s past, one for his present, and one for his future. This morning, I found the three in my hand while driving along the beach access road.

Adam and I had lived on Maui for a year in 2002. This island is a place to which people come and from which people go, and we were no different than others who’d left the mainland for Paradise. Work pulled me back to Portland, Oregon. Adam lingered on Maui for a few months, reluctant to leave. He made it back to Portland the summer of 2004, at the last possible moment to serve as his best friend’s best man. That fall, we decided I’d finish the school year and then we’d move back to Maui, for good. But Adam died in a car crash in January 2005. Our dream of the island life died with him.


This trip, I’ve come to Maui with my high school best friends, Jim and Gail. I moved to Portland a year after graduation. We kept in touch the first few years, until mortgages, professional obligations and adult life what-not allowed the 100 miles between our cities to stretch into twenty years gone by. We reunited at the fiftieth birthday party of a mutual friend. Recently, I moved from Portland to Olympia to remodel the house I inherited from my mom. Jim and Gail let me sleep on their couch, fed me, and volunteered themselves as my work crew. As we pulled carpet, tiled bathrooms, and painted wall, the gaps between the years filled. In appreciation for their help with the remodel, I hosted our trip to Maui.

Our third night here, we stood in the kitchen of our little ohana—a word that literally means family, but loosely translates as mother-in-law cottage and is the common description of small rental properties. Gail filled my wine glass and asked me about Adam’s accident. I’d forgotten she and Jim didn’t know the details. I sipped my wine and let the words roll out, giving the short version of the horror, but giving enough detail that my friends finally understood the magnitude. I’d explained my flower ritual to them while we were planning the trip. When I was done recounting the wreck and the days in the hospital, Gail said, “I want to throw a flower, and I want to say some words.” Later that evening, Jim sat on the couch and put his arm around me. He just kept talking, about anything and nothing, just like we did when we were teenagers, when we’d put gas in Jim’s car and drive around because we didn’t want to go home, until all the world’s problems were solved.


The spring after the wreck, Adam’s family and our group of Portland friends flew with me to Maui to put his ashes in the ocean. Friends who live on-island joined us. The dive shop Adam had taken scuba lessons through volunteered a boat and captain. I bought everyone flower leis. Niccole, a Maui friend, consulted a Hawaiian kumu, or priest, and prepared special leis for Adam’s younger brother, Wes, and me. She’d also learned the Hawaiian way to throw remains into the sea.

We launched with no destination in mind. As we moved away from shore and into the deep water, a pod of dolphins appeared. They escorted us to a popular dive spot near sacred native land. As the dolphins turned to leave, the captain cut the motor. Niccole explained what Wes and I were to do. The tradition is to throw a handful of ashes into the water, and then to dive in for one last swim with the deceased. Wes and I were to stay submerged until our ti leaf leis floated over our heads.

My hands shook, I fumbled, I began to sweat as I untied the bag of ashes. Finally, I submerged my hand into the container and pulled out a substance that felt reassuringly similar to sand. I threw my handful of what used to be Adam’s body into the water and dove in. The others followed suite. I lingered in the water and an ancient green turtle joined me. I felt Adam’s presence. The turtle looked at me, nodded, and submerged. I swam back to the boat. After our swim, from the boat deck, I watched garlands of white plumeria and those of green ti leaves slide along the swell of the water and float away.


This morning, Gail and I threw our flowers. I gave the yellow conical ilima to Adam’s past, the perfect funnel shape a reminder of his passage. I let the purple bougainvillea—the fullest bloom and softest of the bunch—signify his present. The epidendrum—a waxy, firm, sturdy burst of red and gold—will serve as the beacon for his future. They left my hand, one at a time, offered up with a silent prayer. The ilima was nudged by the waves and lodged between rocks. The epidendrum floated out along the point of the lava flow toward open ocean. The bougainvillea floated back and forth between rock and shore. Gail threw in her orange bunch. It landed next to my purple clump and undulated with the waves.

Jim and Gail and I walked along the tide pools and collected shells. Then I took my one last swim, again. While in the water, I overheard two women talking, their voices floating across the surface of the water, propelled by the soft Hawaiian lilt of pidgin, “When I was a little girl, my grampa tell me, you feel bad, you go to the ocean. It fix everything.”


If you’ve never stared off into the distance then your life is a shame…


By Neva Knott

Redmond. This Central Oregon town hasn’t changed much since its founding a hundred years ago. It is a typical Oregon small town in the organizational sense; there is a one-way leading in, through, and out of town to the south and there is a one-way leading in, through, and out of town to the north. There is an intersection with a highway to the west and one with a highway to the east.

I came to Redmond from Oregon’s big city, Portland, from the north. I came over snow-capped Mt. Hood, then across the dusty, sand-orange colored Warm Springs Indian reservation, dropping down into the Deschutes river canyon with the shimmering black-blue of the water, and ascending back up to the sage-covered plateau. After driving a long stretch across the res, I dropped back down and into the green agricultural town of Madras, a place that holds the scent of the garlic grown there. Continuing on, I passed the Smith Rock formation to the left, cross the Crooked River canyon, passed a red cinder rock butte on the right, and will then was welcomed to Redmond by a bronzed statue of a cowboy riding a horse.

The High Cascade Range of volcanoes creates a boundary between Central and Western Oregon. The Redmond side of the Cascades sits in a rain shadow which causes this drastic and immediate change from the Portland side thick and dense Douglas fir forest with its rhododendron, salal, Oregon grape, huckleberry, maple understory to a less dense mix of Ponderosa pine forest, Juniper trees, sage, and rabbit brush. Redmond sits upon an expansive landscape, the High Lava Plains, across which one can see for miles, taking in buttes and mountains.

This is a farm town. The Deschutes County Fair is here, ranching is the industry, and Big R is the place to shop. People here love the land, the hunting life, and outdoor sportsmanship.

I didn’t intend to relocate to Redmond. Nor did I intend to leave.

In Portland, I worked at the high-pressure college prep Lincoln High School. Due to constant budget cuts, lack of a district superintendent, and weak leadership from our principal, the general vibe of the school was increasingly dysfunctional. Professionalism was eroded. My colleagues were a group of stressed, strident, self-serving skitterers. The stress was eroding my love of teaching. I also had a personal reason for escaping both Lincoln and Portland. My partner, Adam, had died in a car crash two years prior. Adam and I had been planning on moving back to Maui, where we’d lived in 2002, at the end of the school year. Adam hadn’t wanted to return to Oregon.

After the accident, the Lincoln community and the structure of work provided me much support. But after a couple of years, I was tired of people looking at me with the unasked question, “Are you all right yet?” I gave my notice, signed a lease on Maui—taking over the rental of a friend who was moving in with her fiancé—packed my home goods and sent them to the shipper. Prepared the dog to pass quarantine. Intended to bartend for a year and sit on the beach, work on my photography and write, sort out myself.

I gave my notice on June 1, 2007. As I sat at graduation a few days later, I looked down the row of teachers, their slumped postures, wound tight faces, and bad hair dye jobs and thought, thank god I’m getting out of here.

I let go my Portland apartment, spent a week couch-surfing and saying my goodbyes, and then—there is no eloquent way to say it—it all fell apart. My friend’s fiancé broke off the engagement, she melted, and obviously needed to retain her lease. Our phone conversation about the situation is the only time in ten years of friendship I’ve seen her lose composure. She shouted, “If you make me give up my home, it will end our friendship.” My wordlies were on a boat in the Pacific, I had no job, no home, no recourse.

I panicked. I’d fucked up my life. As much as I’m a traveller, adventurer, and espouse big dreams, I also value professional security. I grew up in a hard-working, work-a-day blue-collar family in which the job is a prime directive. I wasn’t trying to quit teaching with my leave-taking from Lincoln. I was burnt out, traumatized, and grieving, and I knew I needed a break to regain sense of self after my loss. Now what?

Lincoln had gotten a new principal, a woman I knew from graduate school, and she’d been happy with my work the past year. The first line of the recommendation she wrote for me read, “Neva Knott is a teacher I’d rehire in a heart-beat.” I called her, and she’d just—that day—filled my spot. One friend suggested I bartend in Portland—I scoffed. One friend suggested I go to Maui anyway—I baulked. Without Adam, with no job and now no home there, with my friend dealing with her own trauma, and with a dog…it all seemed too big, unmanageable. I began having dreams of waves too big to swim through, of being on my favorite beach when the surf would surge, the water turning from aquamarine to a rough, sand-filled grey.

In desperation, I began applying for teaching jobs.

Redmond School District had an opening for an English teacher at the new International School of the Cascades. The description read as if it were tailored to my resume. Though I left Lincoln seeking a break, this was the type of position I hoped to find when I reinvigorated my career. At the ISC I encountered a friendly, smart, fit and worldly group of professionals and really nice, motivated students. I bought a sweet little ranch style house on the edge of town, near a llama field and the Baptist church.

On the High Desert, I encountered an expansive landscape. Open. Clean. Qualities I was seeking in my life and in myself. As I struggled to re-establish the outward aspects of my life, my internal landscape became closed, obscured, and small. I felt lonely in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been before. I photographed nothing. I wrote not a word. I didn’t make friends. That type of inertia is not me. As much as there is a line between the Portland side and Central Oregon, there seemed to be an imaginary boundary to what I set out to accomplish.

Some sort of tenacity kept me there.

Redmond is the type of place where, on a cold winter’s morning, before first light, a group of tough construction workers sits in Starbucks, conducting a Bible study. It’s a place where the coffee stand man knows your name and greets you every morning when you drive through on your way to work. Where people stop, smile, and wave as they let you cross the street. Where it’s effortless to buy local because every business is owned by someone born and raised here. The grocery checkers are always the same and chit-chat with you in a way that makes you feel you’ve participated in community.

The culture of Central Oregon is built around playing outside. Mt. Bachelor is a ski destination, the Chain Breaker is an annual cyclo-cross race that draws the state’s best riders, the Metolius and the Deschutes rivers provide some of the best fishing in Oregon, and Smith Rock is a world-famous climbing spot. I’m not an extreme athlete as are many I met there, but I hike with my dog. After work I’d choose a trail along one of the rivers or drive to the Ponderosa forest just outside of town. Within twenty minutes, I could be in wilderness, which is where I spent my weekends and school breaks. On one summer trip, out to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, I drove home after sunset with all the windows down. It took four hours to traverse the various ecosystems. I discerned changes in the landscape by scent and temperature; it was a tactile connection made between me and the Oregon I was travelling across in the night air. I shaped my life there around the landscape. In the process, I found all of the attributes of the outdoors lifestyle I sought on Maui, and I found more—a sense of being grounded, rooted, part of a bigger place than just that which I inhabited. I felt bigger than work and chores and adult-life obligations. I felt bigger than what I’d lost.

Somehow, inexplicably, I needed the lack of familiarity I experienced in Redmond so that I could push myself forward into the shape I wanted for my life. Was I still the take-life-by-the-horns, make-it-what-you-want-it-to-be bad ass I fancied myself to be?

Then came the recession. In spring of 2009, twenty per cent of the teachers in the school district, myself included, were laid off. We were told not to expect to be called back to work in the fall. I’d gone to Redmond with just over ten years of experience; sadly, in Oregon one does not retain one’s seniority or years of service when one changes districts. I found myself at the bottom of the pile.

The bell rang and my students poured out of my classroom, on their ways to another. I took a quick break myself. In fact, I pulled myself up short with a life-changing realization while in the faculty bathroom, all in the few precious moments of passing time. As I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was going to work another 20 years. I was 47, and we’d all been given our lay-off notices that day. We knew they were coming—Central Oregon was reportedly the fourth hardest hit place in the nation in the “economic downturn” as this new devastating recession was being called. There had been talk of nothing else at lunch, for weeks. I think by the time the actual day came, some of us—I know I did—felt sorrow for our supervisor who had the horrible job of actually handing out the individual notices.

So that’s how I found myself washing my hands and talking into the mirror, making a big life decision in the four minutes of passing time. I told my reflection, “You’re going to work another 20 years, you know. And your whole career in teaching has been budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. You have no seniority here—this will only get worse. Just try something different. You can do anything you want.”

So I did. I applied to a graduate program in Environmental Studies. I love the out-of-doors, nature. I had an idea of becoming a sustainability consultant, and of using writing and photography to help people understand how and why to live sustainably.

In the fall, though, one week before school began, I was called back and placed at a middle school, even though I’d always taught high school. When I explained this to the HR director, she told me I had to take the job, or they’d cut off my unemployment.

I made it until February. I took a sick day and hiked in the snow around Suttle Lake. Afterwards, I sat in a coffee shop and wrote out the details of what I was feeling. I couldn’t make it through a work-week without multiple migraines. I cried all the time. I had excruciating insomnia. I liked the middle school, but wasn’t really prepared to run a classroom at that grade level, so I was struggling. The district was in shambles and lay-offs were imminent again in the coming spring. I didn’t want another chaotic teaching position, after the erosion of Lincoln. This new upset was just too much for me after the ordeals of Adam and Maui. All of the turmoil distracted me enough that I was struggling in graduate school. And, I was losing money by the minute on my house. I drank coffee and tried to devise a plan, some sort of blue-print to get me out of this mess. The next morning my friend Kate came over and we walked the Deschutes. I stopped, looked at her and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going back to work on Monday.” Half an hour later, I got a call for a bartending job in Portland, at a place I’d in the 90s while we were starting Plazm.

In June, I returned to Redmond to participate in the graduation of the last class of the International School of the Cascades, the new school that held my dream job just three years earlier. The program had been cut in the budget shortfall. I wore the black robe and the mantle of my alma mater that signals my stature as an academic. I sat in the front row with my former colleagues, all of whom I respect and admire. I felt sadness and shame and failure about my professional experience there, and a longing for a life that I know I won’t have in this place of grandeur. I drove over Mt. Hood, across the reservation, through Madras. As I drove along the plateau, I looked at the sky. At once, across the High Desert, it was a dark and ominous grey, crossed by a swathe of blue-white. A mile off in the distance, a bright spot of sun shone through and illuminated the grey above me as it pulled the blue out from behind a pink-tinted puff of cloud. The sky’s colors and luminescence elucidated for me the meaning of my time in Redmond. As I looked into the distance, I knew that it was time of cleansing and expansion.


End Note: the opening quotation is from Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby, by Counting Crows.

Robin in a Puddle

I often read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, as a way to begin. Sunday, I read her essay, “Emergency Case,” in which she explains that many writers feel they need a crisis to get the creative juices flowing. My struggle with writing and creating is not that I need an emergency; rather, it’s the opposite. I am always seeking calm within myself so that I can sit to write. I do not find the writing energy in mishandling my life, living drained and angry, feeling like I’m moving past real life. Though, as I read “Emergency Case,” I thought of the small emergency of getting lost yesterday…

I was driving up to a forest site near Hood Canal. I was lost, because the forester I was to meet had given me the wrong name of a road. I called him several times, to the point he became exasperated with me. Finally, we agreed I’d park and wait for him to drive out to the main road to find me.

I pulled over from this emergency as Natalie might call it, and walked with my dog up a logging road.

First, I saw the bones, picked clean by predators, eroded clean by weather, but still pliable and not yet beginning to deteriorate. A short set of vertebrae and four rib bones. The ribs were long and their curvatures slightly elegant.

As we walked on, up the slight hill, we came upon a circular puddle, obviously made by a motorcycle rider going around and around. In the water pool of the tire tracks stood a robin, drinking the muddy water. Smallish, singular, but bravely in the pond. This little bird intrigued me. Aesthetically, I think it was the mix of a natural creature in a man-made space out it the woods–in an otherwise humanly uninhabited  place.

Walking down the incline, I looked left. Up on a bank I saw more of the carcass. Rest of the vertebrea and part of the pelvis. Big bones, bigger than human, deer, or dog. My guess–elk. I saw no other smatterings, no fur or sinew. I paused to wonder at the kill, always intrigued by these markers of the circle of life, then walked on.

I thought, as I often do, of how easy it is to embrace life and witness small examples of the vastness of it, just by getting out of the car for a minute or two.

The Oldest Tree in Edinburgh

July 21, 2012

The city wends its way from Saturday morning neighborhoods under crayon blue skies and clouds. Row houses stand guard with their uniformity in structure, with personality and uniqueness shyly sneaking out, posing as a red door, blue door, snare drum for potted flora, intricate stick configuration in a tree. Park tree leaves swaying, children swinging.  Down increasingly busier streets layered in the architectures of time. Slate of old melds into quick construction of new. Churches anchor geographic blocks, stake claim to quadrants of spirit and place. Trees tucked in, filling the negative spaces between street and bridge, bridge and steps, sidewalk and wall. The busiest streets scream butcher, pharmacy, tailor, barber, bar. In the bakery window, a reflection of it all. Human landscape. Hard, worn smooth.

Fashion, bridges, flags and feathers, commemorative benches, ballet studios, charity shops, trash, prams, the smells of it all.  Movement, it is the heartbeat of the city.

Pass through this juncture; two bridges, a railway, an through-fare converge.  The city calms. Richness increases, in lushness, style and scale. A meadow lies just over a stone wall. The Leith meanders. Hillsides forests flourish. Look back across the rooftops to take the city in full view. The hard human landscape recedes and the trees continue to climb.

Enter Corstorphine village. Find the hidden side-street and walk it back in time. Pass amongst the grave stones and find what you’ve come to see. There it is in majesty, the sycamore tree. Take a moment to touch it, to feel the cool smooth of its leaves. Feel the life it embodies and honor the lives past it guards in this churchyard.

Turn and wend back, but not along the way you came.



Sitting in a Church Basement, Learning to Plant Trees

Sitting in a church basement, surrounded by people in rubber boots and every variety of raincoat. Drinking coffee out of small church cups, eating donated baked goods. There is even something that looks like pink whipped cream Jello on the food table. Boy Scouts of America Troop 64 meets here, as I can tell from their 4’ by 4’ bulletin board on the wall. There is a rolling bookshelf of Bibles near the water fountain.
On tarps set out around the room are two displays. One has a leafy tree in a black plastic pot, its boughs bound by twine; two 2” by 2” stakes, a shovel, rake, and a post pounder; hard-hat. The other display holds all the same goods, except the tree is barren. These are the tools of this simple program.

It’s cold and drizzly outside. Fall is turning to winter soon. It’s tree-planting season and the Friends of Trees Crew Leader Training begins, here in this warm basement that is abuzz with the caffeinated chatter. This is a pretty multi-generational event, an uncommon characteristic to most Portland things. These are shiny people, all here in good cheer and with a simple purpose.

Friends of Trees here in Portland, Oregon operates in partnership with The Bureau of Environmental Services for the simple purpose of increasing the city’s canopy cover—the portion of the city covered in trees. Last planting season, 3700 volunteers planted about 4600 trees in 80 neighborhoods. Friends of Trees operates as a volunteer, organization. Residents purchase trees for a small fee, participate on a planting crew for a day, and weekend after weekend, the city becomes more lush and leafy.

A couple of hours are spent inside, learning the procedures to teach our volunteers. Then the neighborhood homeowners arrive, and everyone shares a potluck lunch together of warm soups, macaroni and cheese, cookies, and lemonade. Again, all donated. One of the tenets of the program is to build community while planting trees—by bringing neighbors together.

As the meal ends, people are divided into small work groups and tromp outside. Each crew has a set of houses in the neighborhood to visit. Trees have been delivered by the pre-planting day crews, and the holes for them have been dug. On my crew, I have someone from Environmental Services, a guy who just moved from Las Vegas and is studying horticulture, two young college students, four Hispanic teenagers from a high-school service club, and the homeowner of one of our planting sites. Three hours later, eight new trees are in the ground. Now dirt-covered and exuberant we laugh and chat our way back to the church, wash the tools and call it a day.

As I wash my hands and watch the dirty water swirl down the drain, I realize a few years’ worth of “I should…” have crumbled away, Today I joined an organization that plants trees to slow climate change, to improve air and water quality, to enhance horticultural diversity and watershed health. For inspiration, those who run the program have looked to the work of Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai, who started The Green Belt Movement in Kenya. These are her words, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope. We also secure the future for our children.”

Listening to the Forest

On our way back in from the hike we stopped at a small overlook. Below us was Taylor Creek and to the right and left it’s canyon. The moon was coming up on the distant side and the sun was setting on the close side. This little place was just next to the sign, Leaving Siskiyou National Forest. I imagined some trail worker finishing for the day and pausing just where we were. Inspired, he or she put in place plans for this little set of stone steps and barrier with a bench so that others could end a day here.

Driving back into town is always unsettling for me. It’s an uncomfortable crunch of the grandeur and expansion of wilderness and the oblivion-paced tightness of human spaces. Regardless of the forest or the town, my mind always wonders (as does my heart) how the wilderness serves the town here, and if the people reciprocate and respond. I want to know—is there a symbiotic relationship?

On this trip, Jason and I are driving back in to Grant’s Pass, Oregon, the hub of the Rogue River recreation area. This is a small town, one of those predicated on the one-way North and the one-way South main streets, taking people straight through. The smaller roads leading out of town are the routes to wilderness landscapes. Grant’s Pass is a pretty typical rural Oregon town, each being a place that sprung up around some sort of resource extraction activity. In the case of Grant’s Pass, it was on the route of Hudson Bay Company trappers, became a sugar beet plantation town, then a logging town. Logging has dropped off, so tourism is the official main hopeful industry.

In our two days, we stayed at a mid-range hotel geared toward vacationers; we visited a local-style bar, ate sushi, had cheap Mexican food, and hiked. And we made a couple of stops at Safeway. In this way, we got a lay of the land in terms of community. It’s pretty depressed there, economically. The economy-shed is one of retail services, recreation companies, vineyards and fiber works, public lands employees, and small farms. It is not a rich place, and most governance is based on economic growth rather than on environmental concerns.

While at the local bar, I overheard a woman talking about “all those countries we bomb anyway–they all have dirt streets.” She went on to explain how, on a trip to Morrocco (was I ever surprised to hear this admission uttered), her husband was offered a certain number of goats for her because she had blonde hair. The conversation died in the next two sentences when the woman next to her accused her of not being blonde, and she replied, “hair dye.” Immediately, I was struck by the reality that this is the way of most conversations in our society. Facile, fleeting, ill-informed. Anything beyond that is a bother, or too becomes too heated for polite conversation.

The next day we hiked along the Rogue, a beautiful river that provides all kinds of ecosystems services and recreational opportunities. The town relies on the economic inputs from the recreation, but I wondered, how much of the community dialog centers on the ecological health of the Rogue? Has the community or the Forest Service tried to create new continuity of place since the Northwest Forest Plan mandated the sharp decrease in forest harvests? Do the out-of-work locals understand, on some hush-hush level, that the forests are better off now? Do loggers love forests the way I do? These are the questions that I ask in my head as I walk along the river.

The image of the stone view point made me realize it’s the small inspirations put into action that add up to the big message. Similarly, the overheard conversation in the bar made me realize it’s the small comments, often ill-informed, that add up to the big message.

That little resting spot over Taylor Creek exemplifies the need to take a moment at the end of each day, as one crosses the border from one experience and reality to the next. As I looked out at the view, I thought of the meanings of what was before me, and how far such beauty and vastness extends across the state, and I thought of how scenery such as this can be used to make points about the natural world and human use of it. I think others will be, and have been, drawn to that place to take in the same information.

The trick then becomes how to use that inspiration to better the town while protecting the natural areas around it. How can Grant’s Pass, or any such Oregon rural town, come together, whether they be the local bar, the grocery store, the park bench, the town hall, to make use of the varied systems of knowledge of that place. There is rich human and natural history to be mined and put to use as the state grows forward and finds the need to confront and resolve such conflicts as the die-off of trapping and logging.

I drove back to Portland along I-5, watching the tree types and the land forms change, county by county. I watched the population build in number, city by city as I moved from rural to metropolitan. I know this crisis of economy v. the environment—meaning a resource extraction industry v. preservation of natural resources—defines Oregon. The next day, The Oregonian ran a story entitled, “Governor calls for broader view in managing timber.” It seems our state leader is looking to create collaboration out of the derisiveness that characterizes business as usual in all this mess of people v. trees. His is an expansive view.

A Wolf’s Eye

I became interested in the history of Oregon’s wolf bounty—a sanctioned act to eradicate—kill off—the wolf population to make way for ranching—while reading and teaching Molly Gloss’s The Jump-Off Creek. I’d just moved to Redmond, a farm town in Central Oregon, and liked the idea of an Oregon author writing the story of the early days of life in that part of the state. Since then, throughout the coursework in my Master’s in Environmental Studies program, I’ve had the opportunity to read much about wolves, and to study the current conflict between the wolves that have migrated back into the state and the ranchers who feel they now own that landscape.

Aldo Leopold is a widely known ecologist. One of the things he’s famous for is speaking out about the necessity for humans to realize, and try to accommodate, the needs of other species. The following passage marks the turning point in Leopold’s thinking, toward that ideal:

“In those days [1920s] we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy…When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I though that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
from The Sand Country Almanac, 1966.

Recently, I found myself engaged in a discussion based on the passage—the questions raised were, Is nature ethically and politically silent? Does it have value apart from human meaning? Two huge, philosophical questions, right? Two of the big, essential questions that drive much of the debate about environmental issues. Here’s my answer, or at least my pondering…

I don’t think that nature is silent; however, to hear the messages, humans must listen. Nature speaks in cycles and processes. Clear messages are thus sent about what it takes to maintain vitality, and what it means to live and die within the systems of nature. Leopold’s description of the wolf’s death is a perfect example of nature sending a message that was heard by a human. This passage is also a perfect example of the ethical and political aspects of such messages. The choice to kill for sport and thereby end two generations of wolves is an ethical choice; Leopold’s act then became political when he was motivated to change his ideology as a naturalist and a hunter after watching the light leave the mother wolf’s eyes.

Wolves are not intrinsically cruel. They, in fact, are quite loving and social animals; in fact, some wolf experts suggest that humans can learn much about family bonds, loyalty, and social structure from this species. (Now there’s a message from nature). Leopold meant that he saw a message coming through the wolf’s eyes, some deep, deep meaning in her experience of the event. This message, Leopold realized, was bigger than human experience. He then was left to consider the implications wrapped within. No, in this case nature was not silent. Leopold’s account illustrates that nature has value apart from human meaning.

It’s no accident that this Leopold passage is at the core of Green Fire Production’s film, Lords of Nature. This documentary richly portrays the role of wolves as top predators in nature. And, Green Fire is an Oregon company.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to former Governor Barbara Roberts speak to the Portland City Club. She spoke of coming into adulthood with few women role models in positions of power. She remembered completing a Girl Scout badge on women of significance, such persons as Florence Nightengale. Roberts remembered feeling inspired by the women she researched, but also feeling that they were far away. In her comments to the City Club, she recounted the deep feeling she’d carried with her as she made her way to Governor that it was a time of change, and that she and other women had the opportunity to break ground—if they chose to seize the moment.

Oregonians have a similar opportunity right now to break ground in terms of human progress in relation to the natural world. The days of the wolf bounty are long gone. Will we seize the opportunity to live alongside wolves, who bring health and balance to natural landscapes, or will we continue simply to pump lead into the pack?

Beaver teeth and salmon runs

This is the first piece of writing for my Science Writing class… might not be super-interesting, but I wanted to post it just as a starting point on my journey to becoming a science writer. I did take out the really assignment-driven parts. Practice, practice, practice–right? BTW, the assignment was to take a look at what’s being reported about science and find a story of interest to comment on…sort of a survey.


I don’t read the daily news. Nor do I read The Huffington Post. Or the like. On a random day, sitting in a coffee shop, I might read The New York Times—because I trust its coverage. So, when asked to write about the science news where I live–the Pacific Northwest Coastal bioregion, I was forced to ponder how I get my information, my news, specifically reportage on science, specifically on environmental issues. I read Orion magazine; I read assigned texts in my graduate program; I read online sources while researching for graduate school papers. I do glance at headlines, and I listen to NPR. I am quickly coming to realize I have a hit-and-miss way of gathering knowledge of the goings on about the environment. To work in this field of science writing, I’m going to have to digest the competition, and learn to ferret out the truth.

In the search I conducted, three categories emerged. Firstly there are the big-ticket items, such as the forest plan and the incidence of earthquakes, tsunamis and the newly found fault line; current big events such as the planting of a mini-forest atop an old landfill near North Plains, the dam removal on the Klamath River, the discover of seven million year old beaver teeth, and the opening of a new state park; general occurrences of vastly varying nature, such as the amount of algae on a Dorena reservoir, disaster areas for crop loss, a high school fruit tree planting. A fourth category might be designated for reportage on the human-nature interface, or how to live sustainably, covering such topics as how to recycle one’s refrigerator.

Beaver teeth and dams removal are the stories that caught my attention.

Unexpectedly, Bureau of Land Management workers just this week found beaver teeth in northeast Oregon that have now been determined to be 7- to 7.3 million years old. These are now considered the oldest beavers in America, having crossed the Bering Land Bridge when it existed. The oldest of all beavers are attributed to Germany, 10-12 million years ago.

I read about three dam-removal projects: PacifiCorp’s dam across the Klamath; the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams near Port Angeles, Washington, (the second largest restoration project ever undertaken by the National Park Service); the Condit dam at the White Salmon River, also owned by PacifiCorp. Dam removal projects increase salmon runs, which in turn increase community economies in myriad ways and reconnect tribes to an aspect of their spiritual practice. This increase in salmon also balances the ecosystem by increasing species across trophic levels; for example, it is expected that bear and eagles will return to the surrounds of the Elwha.

As I thought about the content of these stories, what I was being told, I saw a connection that interests me, and opens some scientific questions. Both stories deal with habitat connectivity. Both attest to aspects of climate change in regard to habitat. In the case of the beavers, connectivity was lost due to large-scale climate change. In the case of salmon, connectivity restoration will be affected by climate change that has reshaped the habitat in between the time of dam construction and dam removal. In the long run, the evidence available in the life history of the ancient beavers might inform current research on salmon resilience and adaptation to future, extreme climate change.

Science writing beyond the confines of academia is new to me. I don’t know of a scientist who can answer my questions about beaver teeth and salmon habitat. I do know I must become much more aware of the conversation going on, and that I must join it.

Conversations about the environment

So, I’m just beginning my last class at Green Mountain College. The core of the program has been conservation biology–everything about keeping the natural world intact. This included ecology, law and policy, bioregionalism, leadership, and conservation biology itself. All of this coursework, all the hours on the couch reading and at the computer researching and writing, have supposedly prepared me to work in this field. One theme in all of this has stood out to me–that scientists need to more proactively communicate the gist of their work. Now, I know most of you are not going to read Google Scholar journal articles on the fire regime in the Metolius basin in your spare time–even if you love the Metolius. So, I figure it’s my job to do this work.

But how? I really hate rabid environmental extremists, and here in Oregon, that’s the stereotype that comes when one even mentions the words “the environment” in polite conversation.

What a paradox, no? I say paradox because most of the people I know spend their non-work time doing something outside. Every Oregonian I know claims to love the out of doors and nature. Some hike, some climb rocks, some hunt, some ski. Same-same. Few of them, and to some extent myself included, spend much time taking care of that giant playground.

With all of this in mind, I constantly think about how to o’erleap (I love Shakespearian conjunctions) the bad impression we all have about extremists so that people will hear what I have to say. I’ve never really worried about this type of thing before, so this is a new thing for me to ponder and deal with. Then, last weekend, I realized environmental conversations aren’t that hard to have.

I went boating on Puget Sound with my good friends. I had to work, so hitched a ride with the parents, who were headed out on Saturday. While making our way to the group, my friend’s dad asked me what I was doing, and after I told him, he asked me what I thought about global warming. I told him. Then we talked about polar bears. Later during the trip, my friend asked me what I thought about creating habitat for fishes–he’s a scuba diver and often sees human-placed articles underwater that are meant to replace destroyed habitat, especially reefs.

Damn, I had a third example, but have forgotten it…

My point being, or my grand epiphany, is that people want to know what’s right action in our relationship with nature. It’s just that we are creatures of habit, and with change comes an element of fear, possibly even guilt.

I’m not the person who is going to join Greenpeace and climb Mt. Rushmore with a banner challenging the President to act for climate change (though it was an effective stunt, and you can watch it on Youtube). I am the person who can let the conversation drift and unfold so that we all have a better sense of how humans can use natural resources without being destructive to ourselves and other members of the biota.