Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Off the Train, into the Gooseberry Patch

Well, I had meant to share with you my long, slow train journey down through the heart of California to visit a dear friend in Santa Barbara--photographs of burnished gold hills and lone oaks, thick riparian corridors full of cottonwoods, strawberry fields green contrasting dust dry ridges, oil rigs off the coast, oil being pumped on the coast, old train shacks and herons in drainage canals amid the subdivisions, accompanied by my train scribbled musings from my notebook, my rambling thoughts about the stories of an older California to be glimpsed between drought-gold grasses and leaning oaks, sloughs and fog banks and ranch houses out in the open without cover for miles. About the soothing pace of trains, as compared to planes or cars. But alas, I've just lost everything off my computer since last December, due to a mysterious software failure and my own carelessness at having not looked into why my external hard-drive wasn't backing things up properly... So my photographs out train windows of blue sea and kelp beds, graffiti at the train stops and the sudden hills of San Luis Obispo--well, they are all gone, poof! Which is all a very good reminder of the strange unreality of all the things that exist here, on the internet, inside our computers, and how we relate to them. How we can get sucked very deeply into this odd dream-machine, which does the dreaming for us; how things lost here don't feel like things lost in physical reality--a photo album, say, or a collection of vinyls. It reminds me of the general attitude of disposability we have in our world, which informs how we relate to so many things. 

The blue kelp filled sea, the drought-dead cliffs of Santa Barbara (photograph courtesy of Elsinore Smidth Carabetta)
Luckily, of course, all of my stories and the three novels I've written to date were safely stored in emails. Those lost would have been devastating; but it reminds me that much of what I do on this computer is somewhat disposable, and shouldn't that be a lesson? I know I can take dozens of photographs, hundreds, and so each individual image becomes less precious. When we can read snippets of ten wonderfully written articles or stories at once, and a hundred more just beyond the click of a mouse, their value shifts. I don't know what to do about all of this; I'm only noticing, and pondering, and sulkily wishing I could share that photo of the train snaking around a long curve through the mountains with you, or the hellish beauty of an oil field north of San Luis Obispo as the sun set, illuminating the pumpjacks ceaselessly hauling oil from their wells like terrible chained creatures desperately doing their duty, and desperately hating it. What it is that oil means in our culture and world (speaking of disposability) and how that one field knew the whole story. 

I've been listening voraciously to a series of podcasts called Unlearn and Rewild, and in one interview, the eloquent Zen Master Dr. Susan Murphy Roshi says something to the effect of—"we are addicted to the absolutely extraordinary energy of oil, all the many, many things that oil can produce for us." This struck me very deeply; how powerful, how seductive, oil is, this ancient, deep-buried, condensed energy straight from sun in the dead bodies of primordial plants and animals--how much its power thrills us, even as it destroys us, like staring too long at that great sun. How can we treat such a thing as disposable? My god, it's the blood of time, and yet look how we treat it! Perhaps this is because, like many of the things stored on our computers or found on the internet, we don't interact with any of it directly, with our bodily senses; all of it is somehow abstracted. Even when I pump gas into my car, and a little spills, that toxic smell; still I can't feel in my body what oil really is—dug up refined primordial sunshine. It's too far gone for me to know it, and my lungs reject the scent.

Well. Instead of these things, what I am left with is a handful of photographs my dear old friend Elsinore took. How we scrambled down a dry creekbed and found a patch of wild mint, growing with more vigor and health than the mint in my garden has ever managed. How we gathered pocket-loads of black sage, which smells of sun and peace. 

How in that creekbed we found the most beautiful, robust wild gooseberries I've ever seen, striped like hard candies from another time. How we popped one, just one, out of its spiny skin and sucked the flesh and seeds like the squirrels. How tart-sweet, how utterly delightful.

Ribes amarum (bitter gooseberry)
How the ocean was warmer down south, and calmer, and when the sun came out, a dark lapis blue, heady with kelp beds, so different from the paler green-gray-blue of the ocean up here.

Perhaps all of this is to say that it is the small, sweet and slow things that keep us sane. Feet in the tide, hands full of sage and mint, tongue tart with gooseberries from the creekbed. How we value and love the things we can take in directly with our bodies and hearts. These, we will not toss aside. In the end, it is the things we make roots for that we will stand to save. We cannot save the world, but we can each strive to save home, and after all, together a hundred hundred million homes (of human, of seal, of fox, of spider) make a world.


  1. Sylvia,
    I love your writing so so much. I discovered you a few months ago and only wish I had sooner. The past 3 Tinderbundles have inspired me in a way that no other art or piece of writing has ever before. I almost feel as though you are writing especially to me, and that is a very special gift to have. I am looking forward to your new venture!

    1. Melanie, what a kind note, thank you! I am so touched that the Tinderbundles have inspired you so, and that my words have spoken to you. There really is no higher honor to me than making such connections; so bless you for saying so! xo

  2. My Dear Sylvia~ When I read your words, I nod my head and I wonder how it happens, the disconnect? How did humanity forget that we too are a part of the earth? Meanwhile, the mad consumption of oil goes on, all fuelled by a celebrated sense of "me", of "I," as though the individual is somehow separate from this beautiful earth, from the sea-bird caught in a sleek toxic spill. It is madness, all of it and I have no answers. Thank You though, as always, for sharing your heart-felt pondering, for letting your heart speak, because it helps all of us to remember, that there is an infinite and boundless web of connection that we are ALL a part of. Xo Nao

    1. Yes and yes, dear Nao. No matter how we may forget, we cannot get out of the web we're part of. I think every day it is desperately trying to remind us. I think every day we have to steal our hearts back from the stories our culture fills us with; sometimes it's not easy work! But other times, all it takes is the face of a little wren in a bush and I'm on my knees, you know? I know you know, you and me on our knees before the mouths of golden crocuses, ha! :) I think of you and Honey Grove in your dance, how every day you are actively engaging with that web, situating your heart in it with such grace. That thought is such a deep inspiration to me. Thank you XO

  3. Sorry for the loss of photographs...I lost a lot of mine that way too.
    Thank you so for the link to unlearn and rewild. I have listened to Stephen Harrod Buhner....AMAZING! You are inspirational as always ❤️ I look forward to listening and reading more.
    It is indeed the small sweet things that keep us sane. I am sitting on my sofa knitting, it is raining outside and on my iPad I have unlearn and rewind talks playing....

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