Monday, August 27, 2012

Towards a Land Ethic....

            A small plot of dirt containing mostly weeds and some very old fruit trees hold me in my home.  This plot of dirt keeps me connected with the earth.  Each day I can remove my shoes and feel dirt beneath my feet  amidst this concrete jungle that was built around this ancient house as the East Bay boomed in the 21st Century.  My sweet old house lined with asbestos shingles.  It's kind of ironic that it's this toxic lining that keeps this old house alive.  In many ways I have the city's efforts against toxicity to thank for my housing.  Tearing the house down would be too much of an economic endeavor for the wealthy man who owns this house.  He lives many miles away and I have never seen his face.  He's waiting until the city approves his plans to develop the entire block to make any changes to this place.  

            I pray that he is waiting a long time.  I pray these plans never go through because for the first time since I have moved to the bay I have access to dirt—large chunks of earth that I can dig and turn and plant inside.  I arrived here unsure how long I would be living in this house.  My time here began as a sublet which has grown into a more permanent living situation now that it’s clear my roommate and I can co-habit well.  And now, after living here almost a year, I look out at this beautiful island of earth swimming in a sea of concrete and admire the determination of the weeds that have grown to my waist in the backyard.  The Oatstraw have dried up and no longer offer their soothing milk.   Their long stalks lean back in the breeze like ghosts.  The ghosts reach out and tickle one another offering assurance that what was once their bodies will once day give life  to more of their kind.

            The mint is just beginning to flower.  The sweet mint that has taken over the far back.  The honeybees alight the flowers as the sun shines through the wind, collecting pollen to take back to their hive nestled up against the metal fence dividing this island from the cement parking lot just beyond the determined rusty border.  This summer I read Aldo Leopold for a class on "Environmentalism and Religion in American Culture" at PSR.  Leopold pushed me to explore more deeply my ideas about a "land ethic".  He challenges readers to see that a “system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided”.  As I look out at one of the last places in the neighborhood where the earth can breathe without the constraints of concrete,  I wonder, what does it mean to be in relationship with this small plot of land in a way that does not reinforce systems of use and abuse?

            I have been a container gardener for many years.  As a “city witch” with little access to soil where I can plant roots, I have kept my friends in pots—prioritizing their captivity because there seemed to be few other options.  Looking out into the garden, there is only a small plot that has been tended.  In that place lies some of my formerly potted friends.  It was the right thing to do, to offer them soil to spread out their roots.  The Angelica has grown 4 times the size she ever was in a pot.  Her long stalks spread out reaching across to the Calendula which has grown from 2 plants to at least 8 in a few short months.  I look over at the endangered plants.  Black Cohosh has drooping leaves crying out for more shade.  This California climate is not her home and the air here is much drier than her native lands of Virginia and the Appalachian mountains.  I haven’t had the heart to put her in the soil here.  I don’t know that she would make it and yet I can feel her longing to put her roots into the ground.

Black Cohosh buds beginning to bloom
              The soil here is reflective of the century of industry that has sprung up around this island of soil.  As I dug through the dark hard ground this year I found small pieces of glass and some cigarette butts, evidence of the “land ethic” of those who have come before.  The large old trees in the back have yellowing leaves indicating a need for more nitrogen in the soil.  I’ve noticed this with the Raspberry starts I placed in the ground.  So I fell into the “trap” Leopold details in his essay of supplementing the soil with manure.  Although I did not use Guano imported from South America, as Leopold critiques, but local organic chicken manure.  It was so fascinating to hear his voice from over 60 years ago talking about the degradation of the soil.  I paused as I read his words realizing that I don’t know that I have ever planted in a garden without first supplementing the soil. 

Scanning though my memories, I land on my first experience “wild planting”.  Many herbalists and herbal training programs focus on “wild crafting” and how to best harvest medicine from the woods.  My teacher, Karyn Sanders, told me that in my first 7 years of practicing I should focus on planting rather than harvesting medicines.  She’s an elder Choctaw woman filled with stories about how the American Ginseng and the Cohosh grew in abundance in the woods when she was a child.  Her eyes gaze off into the distance when she tells these stories.  Behind her gaze I’ve seen tears held back by reverence as she tells of the endangered ones in generations past. 

 My first “wild planting” experience was in the Appalachian Mountains near Boone, North Carolina. It was my first year of studying with Karyn and I wanted to honor her teachings.   I brought with me seeds of Wild Yam and Black Cohosh.  It was the first time I had returned to the Appalachians in many moons.  This was the bottom end of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  These were the mountains off to the west that looked over my childhood.  It felt right to begin my planting in the Appalachians, mountains that held so many memories of my first experiences of “the wilderness”. 
            I found a place near a lake on the map.  It was relatively accessible, just a mile hike from the road.  I wandered down the trail and found a creek leading into the lake.  I followed the creek up stream through overgrown Willow and Rhododendron.  I tromped through the mud, walking in or close to the creek.  The air was thick and heavy.  As sweat dripped down my back, my arms, the backs of my legs, I welcomed the familiar humidity of the southern United States.  Many Californian cool summer nights of my adulthood have been spent lingering in the memory of the hot sticky summers of my childhood , and so I relished the wetness at the crux of the exertion of my body and the heat of the season. 

There was a clearing with ample shade and a small patch of Solomon Seal.  I didn’t feel hopeful to find many of my seedlings other family members.  Habitat devastation due to mountain top removal and development, poachers eager to make some money on the increasingly lucrative medicinal herb trade, and over harvesting by herbalists eager to collect their medicines from the woods are the primary reasons there are few non-cultivated communities of Black Cohosh’s and Wild Yam’s family left.  I looked around and felt called to stop.   I sat down and sent my roots into the earth grounding into this place.

I pulled out my pouch of tobacco and made an offering to the spirits of the land.  The earth felt inviting here.  I sat patiently listening as the birds chirped above the constant hum of the cicadas.  The wind was still but mosquitoes cast breezes across my skin as they circled their potential prey praying patiently to the earth.  I sat and after what seemed like a long time I felt a breeze gently slip past my skin.  I asked the Solomon Seal if I could plant these seedlings here.  I was surprised at how quickly I heard an answer. 

Aldo Leopold questions our “Ecological Conscience” and asks if it is not only the “volume” of conservation education that is needed but also the “content”.  I believe that this is a critical question to be asking and that it is highly relevant over half a century since it was first asked.  Most herbal education focuses primarily on the efficacy of plants and their the ways they can be used.  Many programs detail ways to prepare medicine from the plants and how to harvest them but teach little to nothing of the ways that we can plant these medicines and tend to them in our gardens and in the wild.  They reinforce a take-take relationship with the land and reflect a relationship with the land that fits Leopolds words, “The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations”. 

We all need to examine our relationship with the land and consumption.  When we approach the land, are we there for profit?  American dominant culture teaches us to approach other beings and often other people as objects for gain or profit.  Whether it is a visit to the woods for to collect some beautiful medicine or an online date with the potential for a relationship or sex, we are taught to first approach the other as potential for gain.  How do we shift our relationship with the land to one that sees the land as a subject rather than an object for profit? 

I believe that the answer to this question is different for each one of us.  Within us all runs the blood of ancestors who once lived closer to the land before subject/object thinking pervaded all aspects of our human existence.  We all carry the blood of human beings that were once animals living in a good way with the earth.  For some of us those ancestors are closer and for some those ancestors are many many generations back.  But we all have that blood and we all have the ability to remember right relationship.  Each of us has the potential to imagine a world where the next generations can be in right relationship with our mother and with all beings. 

To read more by Aldo Leopold, follow this link or go to Powells Books to order a copy of "A Sand County Almanac" 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chevron Addiction

I woke up this morning with a cough.  Not to get graphic on yall but I was coughing up something nasty.
"I must be coming down with something", I thought to myself.

I rolled over to turn off my alarm clock and did the second thing that I often do in the morning.  I checked my email on my phone.  That's right.  I confess.  I've become one of those people who checks their email before they get out of bed.  I hate it and yet I do it anyway--I can't resist.  Something about this iPhone is like a siren calling during my first moments of waking.

This morning I opened my email to find a message from an herbalist buddy about how she wasn't going to be able to use the herbs that she's growing in her back yard because of the "toxic cloud".  I quick replied, "Toxic cloud, huh?".  I then proceeded to open my facebook to find a document that another herbalist friend compiled about ways to take care of yourself in the aftermath of "Chevron's toxic plume".  My jaw dropped as I did a news search and learned about the dangerous leak and ensuing fire that dumped an unknown amount of hazardous toxic chemicals into the air at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, CA.  I read through the "shelter in place orders" that were given to people in the areas down to North Oakland and coughed.

I turned around and realized that my window had been open all night.

I groaned with the realization that my cough was more likely related to the toxins I had been exposed to than a cold.  Then the next realization hit me--this is likely not far from the daily experience of many of my neighbors just a few miles away.  Eight miles from where I sleep each night lies California's third largest oil refinery.  The refinery is capable of processing 242,000 barrels of oil each day.

There's a long history of problems in with Chevron in Richmond.  Just to give you a sense of the bigger picture, here's a timeline of incidents laid out in the Mercury News

Jan. 15, 2007: Fire began when a pump seal failed on the crude separating unit. Two Chevron workers received minor injuries.
Aug. 9, 2003: An unexpected compressor shutdown caused flaring activity, causing smoke. Twenty-six people sought medical attention at area hospitals.
Jan. 31, 2002: A sulfur dioxide release from the plant resulted in a shelter-in-place alert. About 20 people were treated at area hospitals for complaints attributed to the release, including dizziness, burning eyes and throats.
March 25, 1999: A valve stem blew out, causing a major fire that released hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide. More than 2,500 people swarmed area emergency rooms through the weekend, complaining of breathing problems and other ailments.
Oct. 30, 1991: Chevron catalytic cracking unit leaks and catches fire, sending clouds of smelly, thick smoke over Richmond.
Dec. 5, 1991: Chevron refinery valve malfunction spreads a chemical catalyst over Point Richmond.
April 10, 1989: Chevron refinery explosion and fire. Sends clouds of black smoke over the area for six days, injures nine workers. 

Chevron's fire spreads toxic smoke across the Bay 
Monday August 6, 2012

Clearly, this isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened.  These incidents are on top of the daily exposure that the people of Richmond are subjected to because of their close proximity to the refinery.   Richmond has the highest hospitalization rate for asthma in the country--not to mention the cancer rates.  The overwhelming majority of Richmond is people of color--largely working class and middle class families.  But I suppose it would make sense to a CEO of a large corporation like Chevron to put their oil refinery in a town like Richmond rather than neighboring Berkeley which is much whiter and more affluent.  Yes, my friends, this is what we call environmental racism and Chevron is guilty of it.  

And yet today, the burning eyes and cough associated with the fire (which is not yet contained just in case you're wondering) has crossed lines of segregation and is igniting a new fire.  This is a fire of anger spreading across the east bay.  Tonight, Chevron held a town meeting that was attended by over 500 residents of the East Bay.  Among them were people of faith responding to the call and demanding something be done.

"You talk about shelter in place, but how long can I hold my breath", asked the Reverend Kenneth Davis of North Richmond Baptist Church, "...What about our children?".

I think that's the question we all need to be asking ourselves.  How long can we hold our breath and pretend that the way that we are living our lives is not destroying the earth for our children? How long will we continue to live in a way that relies upon cars for transportation?  How long will we stand by as our government wages wars citing religious fanaticism as a cover for the real motivator--oil?  How long until we can break the spell of this unjust economic system that is reliant upon the exploitation of the earth and the exploitation of our neighbors? 

I'll confess.  I'm an addict.  I'm addicted to technology.  I'm addicted to my iPhone and I'm addicted to my car.  I'm addicted to the convenience of being able to jump in my car and go visit a friend in the city.  I'm addicted to being punctual and that means sometimes I forgo public transportation over using my car because public transit in this country is less and less reliable.  

How do you break out of the addiction when what you crave is everywhere and you are surrounded by enablers?

I know I'm not the only one with this addiction.  You're reading this on your computer or maybe your smart phone and I imagine you may be an addict too.  So I'm going to make a commitment from here on out and I invite you to do the same in a way that feels right for you.  I'm going to fill my gas tank twice this month.  That's it.  20 gallons of gas is all I get.  I'm trying the harm reduction approach to kick this addiction.  It's the least I can do.  I want to be a good neighbor.  The people of Richmond deserve better.  

Richmond Residents watch as their town is covered with toxic smoke

Flyer for the community meeting held in Richmond tonight.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gender and Divinity

I consider myself a witch.  When asked what tradition of witchcraft I practice, at this point I usually tell people I'm a Reclaiming witch.  I grew up Unitarian Universalist Pagan and found Reclaiming when I moved to California a little over 8 years ago.  I've been involved with the organizing of Free Cascadia Witch Camp for a number of years now and was a part of the teaching team at Free Camp for the first time this year. 

I love Reclaiming.  Where else can you find a community of Pagans who are both excited about magic and spiritual growth and equally if not more excited about social justice and the healing of the earth?  Seriously, the committment to both magic and justice that I have witnessed in Reclaiming has been deeply humbling and profoundly inspiring.

Every two years Reclaming witches from all over the world gather for the Dandelion gathering, a long weekend of magic, organizing, skill sharing, and process (what would a gathering of non-hierarchical Reclaiming witches be like without some processing?!).  At the last Dandelion, a more formal conversation began about the way we discuss divine energies and gender.  This conversation is slated to continue this year.  I'm sad to say that I am unable to make it to Dandelion this year and am sorry that I can't be a part of this conversation.  My friend Rain Crowe suggested that I write some of my thoughts down and share them with reclaiming folks as a way of participating in the conversation over such a distance.

I feel grateful for that suggestion and I hope that you'll take a min to read these thoughts and let them percolate in your heart as you journey to the 5th Dandelion gathering or continue to do magic with your home communities.

So here's the section of the Principles of Unity that I would like to see change:

"...Honoring both Goddess and God, we work with female and male images of divinity, always remembering that their essence is a mystery which goes beyond form."

First off, I just don't think this statement is true for many Reclaiming witches.  In the Free Camp community, while we do work with female and male images of divinity, we also work with images of divinity that go beyond gender.   I know this is also true in some Bay Area Reclaiming rituals, including the increasingly popular "Spiral Dance", where we have invoked the God, the Goddess, and the Transgender Divine for several years.  Additionally we already are working with divine energies that don't have a gender.  For example, this year at Free Cascadia Camp we wove a spell of healing and learning with the Salmon.  Where do the Salmon fall in these categories of gendered divinity?  How about transformation and healing--energies that are often invoked in our magic?  Are these energies male or female?

I believe that the divine is something(s) that is so great that our human minds can never understand it.  There are powers that are greater than anything we can imagine at play in this universe.  I have appreciated the reference to this as "mystery which goes beyond form".  The divine is beyond the tendrils of anything our monkey minds can create.  And yet it is in our human nature to try to make sense of the world around us.  We create stories or myth about the world and project images of the divine outwards--or as is so common in the ever popular Judeo-Christian traditions, upwards.  We need these stories and these images to be able to comprehend the divine.  Myth is one of the key lenses through which we can begin to connect with the vast mystery of the universe.  It is tragic that these myths have been warped and transformed into tools for genocide, cultural elimination, colonization, globalization, and oppression.  And yet, the ways that myth has been transformed into a weapon demonstrates its power.

It was a radical act when our foremothers asserted divinity as feminine and birthed this tradition that celebrates the goddess.  I believe that the magic that was woven by elders like Starhawk and Rose May Dance have been a driving force in women's liberation and I believe that it continues to be a radical act to assert divinity as feminine.  The feminist foundation laid by the struggles of our foremothers has created the fertile soil for the gender revolution that we are experiencing now, where trans and gender variant folks are stepping out en masse to demand inclusion in this patriarchal world.  Our foremothers fought against the dominant paradigm of the patriarchal world of the sacred.  They quite literally reclaimed the notion of divinity and engaged in the radical act of asserting the Divine's female form, the Goddess.  And so was the birth/rebirth of Goddess worship in the west. 

We can't divorce this revolution of spirit with the revolution of resistance to patriarchy and misogyny.

Today we find ourselves riding another wave of this revolution.  The gender revolution that is currently underway seeks to question the construction of gender itself.  We are continuing the struggle against patriarchy as we seek to dismantle the rigid gender institutions at the foundation of the creation of patriarchy.  As I look around the Reclaiming in the Bay Area and at Free Camp, more and more of us are rejecting the notion of gender as a set construct.  There is a growing community of trans and genderqueer people in Reclaiming--many of us are youth and young people.  As this new revolution permeates dominant culture and sends roots of change beneath the earths surface, sparking new crops of communities resisting rigid constructions of gender, we must not allow ourselves to be held back by old paradigms of gender and revolution.

And so then there's the question of where do those of us who don't fit well into the male and female boxes fit into a religious tradition that is focused on gender polarities?  Reclaiming and Feri magic has always held a draw for me over other traditions that hold male/female fertility at the core of much of their magic.  Reclaiming magic, which has roots in Feri tradition, is an ecstatic tradition rather than a fertility based tradition.  This is an element of our tradition that, for me as a queer person, has helped to make Reclaiming feel more like home.

I think it's our Feri roots that we must hold close as we enter into this conversation at Dandelion this year.  Additionally, we must also consider our values not just as witches and change agents but as Reclaiming Witches.  What is it that makes us Reclaiming Witches unique?  I believe it's our commitment to non-hierarchial magic and our ability to trust in each other and community through consensus and collaboration, at all levels, that sets us apart.

There's the larger question around gender that's been bubbling through much of the Pagan community over the past few years.  Where do trans people fit into a "Goddess tradition"?  My answer--anywhere trans people damn well please.  We have had to negotiate binaries our whole lives and are well adapt at figuring out where we feel belong and where we are not welcome.  I think the real question is where does a Goddess tradition fit into a revolution breaking down the very foundation of the structures of patriarchal oppression?  I think this is the question that is at the core of much of the fear underlying the conversations about trans inclusion in the pagan community.  This is the question we must grapple with.

I think we fit.  I think we need each other, desperately.   How do we hold lovingly the feminist roots of this tradition and live out the legacy of resistance to patriarchy at the foundation laid by our foremothers?  We must remember that this new revolution is the fruit of the revolution of our foremothers and we must not forget the reasons we gather together in community.  We pagans belong to an old tradition but we also belong to a very young tradition.  We must create spaces for all people who are passionate about healing our human relationships with the earth and protecting this sacred mother who gives us all life.  As global exploitation of human and non-human life increases, the hunger for profit continues to dump massive amounts of oil into the oceans, and indigenous ways of life continue to be attacked, each one of our magic is desperately needed.

In the words of the ancient Sufi chant, 

"The ocean refuses no river.
The open heart refuses part of me, no part of you"

All of our waters are necessary for the swell of resistance that is needed to heal this earth.

**UPDATE** The Principles of Unity were changed to be more gender inclusive after a long process at this years Dandelion!  Many thanks to everyone who shared their hearts and their vision to bring forth this transformation. 

Here are the new words that were agreed upon through consensus at Dandelion

 “Our diverse practices and experiences of the divine weave a tapestry of many different threads. We include those who honor Mysterious Ones, Goddesses, and Gods of myriad expressions, genders, and states of being, remembering that mystery goes beyond form.”

And this is what was added in another section

“We welcome all genders, all gender histories, all races, all ages and sexual orientations, and all those differences of life situation, background, and ability that increase our diversity.”

Here's a link to "The Wild Hunt" article that Abel Gomez wrote about the process.