It is with profound sadness that Sample #46 has been postponed for two weeks. The next chapter will be powerful and complex, and it needs extra time and sweat. It began as 148 pages of raw and slippery snips from my book notes, blogs, and factoid dumpster. After several tedious days with a sharp hatchet, it’s down to 63 pages. It’s on a path to slim down to 20 to 30 pages of finished work that is ready and eager to prance around the world.
So, for your amusement, I’m sending around some stuff from a chapter in my first book, What Is Sustainable. Most of the sketches are from my years on the Keweenaw Peninsula, by Lake Superior. One is from a pilgrimage to Europe, in search of ancestors. Rereading them brings back warm memories.
September 22, 1994. It is the second day of autumn. I am sitting on my deck, drinking coffee and typing. This morning is an ongoing battle between the sun and the fog. So far, the fog is winning. The barn and ancient smokestacks on the horizon appear, disappear, and then emerge again.
The land is a misty watercolor, soft greens, gentle golds, splashed with the vibrant reds and yellows of turning leaves. A mild warm breeze out of the south makes the dewy leaves burble like a shallow stony brook. The breeze rises and falls, not fully awake yet, like me.
But the breeze music is in the background this morning. The main music is the song of robins. There are dozens of them visiting this morning, everywhere I look. In pairs they fly from tree to tree, swooping, diving, banking, and rising. Couples in love, dancing through an autumn fog.
The robins are not here to feed. They are not putting on fat for the long voyage to their winter home. This morning the robins are celebrating. They are celebrating the end of a long and splendid summer. They are celebrating the beauty of the land. They are celebrating the love and friendship that have kept their clan strong and well. Through their song and dance, they are passionately bidding farewell to their summer home. It is a ritual of worship before the long and difficult pilgrimage.
Screech. Scree-ich. Screech. The blue jay clan has arrived, as they do every fall, to feast on Mother Oak’s fat acorns. They flutter and fumble on the tiny branches, wrestling with the nuts. When one comes loose, they move to a stronger branch and peck it apart and eat it. As their tummies fill, they begin burying acorns in the yard for later. They take them out into the open lawn, where chipmunks dare not tread.
A pair of chipmunks squirts by, one following the other. They shoot up the hawthorn trunk, jet across the woodpile, and then dive into the tall grass and leaves. They race across the obstacle course fluidly, like a school of minnows, like the robins dancing across the sky. I have no immunity whatsoever to the chipmunk’s overwhelming joy. They make me glad to be alive. They force me into outbursts of laughter, and broad warm smiles.
The chipmunks are completely free and alive. They have no wristwatches, no appointments, no debts, and no worries. Their clock is the journey of the Earth around the sun, the passing of the seasons. They know how to live, for they have never forgotten. The chipmunks are my gurus and teachers.
When the chipmunks are done playing, they will return to Mother Oak to gather acorns again. They were filling their cheeks before sunrise, and they will continue until it is too dark to see. The ground is littered with ripped up shells and caps. They race by, heads grotesquely swollen with nuts, like cobras. One has a hole by my porch, and the other has made a home out by the well.
When the chipmunks are tired of playing and gathering, they stop and sit and rest. They sit up and gaze with profound amazement at the perfection of Creation, and offer heart-felt prayers of thanksgiving.
One of the chipmunks has come up on the deck to visit me. He sits, lifts his left front foot, and watches me type. Our eyes meet, and we gaze into one another’s souls. His mouth begins moving quickly, but silently. He is talking to me, in a language that my clan has forgotten, but I am somehow able to grasp some of the sentences and phrases.
I can’t really translate the words for you, because English is not a language of the spirit. But the chipmunk is sending me poems of love and encouragement and hope. He speaks to me with the simple kind affection that grandfathers use, or tender lovers, or pilgrims overwhelmed with the glory of the divine ecstasy.
All is well, he says. All is beautiful. All is perfect. Lift up your heart in song, for this morning is treasure, a wondrous gift, a rich banquet for the soul. Don’t let it sit there and get cold. Dig in, and nourish yourself.
He notices that another chipmunk is now sitting to my right. In the blink of an eye, the chase is on, both giggling as they fly across the grass and up the dead trunk.
The fog has lifted, but the sun is still concealed. Ravens fly by, making the daily progress around their parish, keeping a sharp eye for fresh-killed meat along the road. A single goose flies overhead honking, scanning the farthest horizons for the southbound flight that he has so grievously missed. And now the dragonflies are here too.
The dragonflies are older than the stones. They watched the dinosaurs come and go, and the woolly mammoths. And now they are watching me.
April 18, 1994. It’s a warm sunny springtime morning. The temperature is getting close to 50°. Most of the snow is gone. I’m sitting on my front steps, drinking coffee, absorbing the sun’s pleasant heat, and giving thanks for the priceless gift of yet another day in this beautiful land. It’s nice to be able to sit outdoors comfortably. I feel a bit stiff and sleepy, like a creature who has just emerged from a long winter’s hibernation — too much time indoors.
After three days of non-stop high winds, this morning is tremendously calm. The clouds are thin, scattered, high, and slow. To the south, a formation of Canadian geese is flying toward me, honking joyously. From an ancient place deep inside, I smile warmly, with deep satisfaction. The Goose People are returning. Winter lies old, weak, and pale on its deathbed, and spring is big, heavy, and active in the womb, anxious for delivery.
As the flock passes, I notice another flock to the west. Scanning the skies, I see another flock in the distance to the east. The sky is filled with dance and song and hope. The winged nomads are excited to be returning to their northern home. It’s time to repair nests, lay eggs, and then nurture them into life. Before long, tiny beaks will burst through delicate shells, and hungry warm fluff balls will celebrate, for the first time, the astonishing perfection of Creation.
The migration of the goose clans continues through my second coffee. And third. And fourth. Wave after wave after wave. Some fly in V’s, some in meandering curvy lines, and some in small groups. All of their formations are in a constant state of change and flow. The geese fly high and very fast. All of them will cross Lake Superior today and spend the night deep inside Canada.
The sky music is one of the most ancient songs in the world. It penetrates deep into my heart, mesmerizing and enchanting. I sit transfixed by timeless magic. This land has listened to the songs of the Goose People for the last 10,000 years. As I sit on my front steps, my soul exists in both the present, and the dreamtime of the distant past.
Listening to the music, and the beating flutter of a thousand wings, I close my eyes, and sit in the deep moist fragrant shadow land of a tall radiant dreamtime forest. In my dream, I am dwarfed by a clan of hemlock trees, seven feet in diameter. I am like a tiny red beetle in a huge green cathedral of love.
In the darkness of the forest floor stand large blue-green outcroppings of pure copper, many much taller than me. The crystalline wings, heads, and knobs of the Copper People vibrate from the passing goose music. They resonate, reverberate, and amplify like a hundred harp strings. As the birds fly singing overhead, the metal beings of the land sing back, and loudly. There is nothing but music. The land and sky are passionately embraced in song.
In the dreamtime, the migrations of the Goose People darkened the entire sky, and continued for day after day after day. Their northward journey was a dark and thunderous roar, a winged storm.
June 18, 1995. The morning was slow, dreamy, lost, and confused. I barely slept last night. The heat wave was in its third day now. Comfort was hard to find. Warm coffee, silent mind, gazing away the hours, looking at nothing.
In the afternoon, I hooked up the hoses and watered the garden. Swarms of mosquitoes and gnats took turns feeding on my steaming wet skin. Tiny rainbows sparkled as the arcing shower beat down on the dry soft dust. The garden was almost two weeks old now. Hundreds of tiny seedlings baking quietly in the cloudless blast furnace heat. In a couple moons, these little plants would mature and feed me. I was filled with profound satisfaction. All was well.
By the strawberry beds, a mother painted turtle laid her eggs in a small pit that she had dug. It was a long and careful process. She didn’t move as I approached. I sent her my greetings. There have been several turtles laying their eggs here this June. They laid them in sandy places with full southern exposures, where the heat will incubate the unborn. The eggs were laid close to cities of the ant people, so that the hatchlings would quickly find a sumptuous living banquet. When mother turtle was finished laying, she covered the egg pit with bark and grass, making it invisible.
As the sun set, the mosquitoes came out in force. A thousand of them hover in the giant maple tree beside the house. A thousand pairs of beating wings made a clear ringing whine in the air — a loud monotone hum, broken occasionally by menacing pulses. A thousand beings, one mind, all in perfect harmony. The maple was alive with vibrant insect music.
I wandered off to the pond by the old Arcadian mine, and floated in the cool water as the stars emerged from the fading daylight. Bullfrogs croaked. Warm gentle western breezes called the leaves to dance, called the pond’s surface to dance, called the violet pink sunset to dance on the rippling fluid, dancing light hypnotizing my weak tired mind. The water took the heat from my body, and the dirt and sweat and weariness were washed away. I dressed and departed in peace, calm and refreshed.
Home again. I walked bare foot down the road in the soft summer breeze. Shooting stars whizzed across the dark moonless sky. Peepers cheeped and bull frogs croaked and leaves rattled gently on the trees. A small dog barked in the distance.
A million fireflies were out tonight, sitting, floating, drifting, blinking. A million bright green insect lights sparkling below a million twinkling stars. Fond memories from years past comfort and warm me. Firefly memories were always good memories. People who live generous lives, who treat children with exceptional kindness, people who are loved and respected by everyone — these are the ones who return after death as fireflies, to fill the summer nights with beauty and grace.
I walked beyond the woods, stopped, and turned to the right. In the northern sky, an arc of soft green pillars pulsated along the horizon. Aurora borealis. I was overcome with a surge of joy. The night was filled with blessings, and I was the richest person in the world.
Quincy Mine, July 10, 1995. Warm evening, bright sunlight flooding through my window, too intense for reading or writing. It was time to get outdoors and enjoy the setting sun. I got on my bike and headed west, over to the ruins of the Quincy Mine. They’ve been crushing rock there lately, exposing stones that have been hidden for many decades. Perhaps I would find a treasure.
Hunting for copper was my yoga. By focusing my attention on rocks, my thinker stopped, and I achieved great peace of mind, great stillness and calmness. It always worked. It worked tonight. I became a tranquil animal wandering quietly across the fading evening land.
I spent an hour going through the piles of rocks behind the number four shaft. I found a handful of small copper flakes and nuggets. Nothing special. It was getting dark, so I ripped my weary eyes up off the dusty ancient stones and turned to go back to my bike.
As my eyes swept up the road to the ridge, I saw a deer standing by my bike, twenty feet away. She was a thin doe, probably born last year. She nibbled on some leaves, then stopped to nibble an itch on her shoulder.
It was an odd encounter. Normally deer explode into flight upon sight of a human. This one didn’t. I remained calm. I moved my gaze back to the ground, to minimize eye contact. I moved about slowly, like a grazing animal, making no sudden or threatening moves. I’ve learned that when I stop thinking, the animals are no longer afraid of me. They relax and treat me like a fellow wild one, which is a great honor and blessing.
In a few minutes, two more deer came into view — a second doe, and a young buck with prong horns. Then a second buck appeared. A clan of four.
The first doe was the calmest. She accepted my presence, and went about her way. The other three were anxious and unsure of me. But they seemed to take their cues from the leader, and stayed nervously on the road.
I started to slowly move back up the road, and the lead doe moved with me. I was within twelve feet of her. Two calm creatures sharing a warm and pleasant sunset together. No fear. Magical trust. I was allowed to be their honored guest and friend.
In the distance, I could hear the approach of other humans. They were walking loudly down the rocky road and talking. City humans. They were not calm, quiet, and wild. They had a schedule and a destination. The two bucks and the second doe turned and walked off the road towards the woods.
The invading humans rounded the corner, a young man and woman. They saw the doe, but they kept crashing down the road. As they approached, they saw me standing close to her. At this point, they realized that they had stumbled into the dreamtime. They stopped and gazed upon us, dumbstruck with amazement.
“It sure is tame,” the man blurted out. End of magic. The doe bid me farewell and moved off to join her clan. I thanked her and gave her my best wishes.
I exchanged a few sentences with the couple, then departed. This was not a time for words. They were on one channel, and the deer and I were on another. There was no bridge between us, no common language, no possibility of communication.
The deer headed east, the couple went south, and I moved toward the north — glowing, floating, heart bursting with joy and thanksgiving. I had found the treasure, and it was good.
Silver City, August 24, 1993. From the cliffs overlooking Lake of the Clouds, I walked down to the water level, through a marshland, and up a hill on the other side, primarily through virgin forest. The Porcupine Mountains park consists of 53,000 acres, and most of it is virgin forest. The spirit power of the unspoiled land is incredible. It rushes in to fill the vacuum in my soul, healing and strengthening.
Overhead, a thunderstorm was passing, unseen above the thick forest canopy. Amidst the rumbling, a warm rain showered down through the branches and turned the trail into rivers and lakes. The surface of the steep trail became very slippery.
I took off my shoes and was thrilled by the sensations of wet tree roots, rocks, flowing water, and soft mud. It’s incredible how much feeling and intimacy is eliminated by wearing shoes. Shoes disconnect us from the world, and deprive our senses.
I was coming down a steep hillside in a green glade. On one side was a ravine, where a small stream was singing over the rocks. The ground cover and the tree canopy were healthy, living greenery. The rain felt wonderful, and the sound of its trickling down through the branches was cleansing.
I was walking barefoot in the rain in a tremendously sacred and magical place. Ancient images rose up from my unconscious in rushes. I was a man walking through the dawn of time, before farming, before cities, before the dark ages.
The immediate presence of my ancestors was unmistakable. Perhaps this is what Wales was like before the coming of the metal axes, the sheep herds, and the Englishmen. It was a rich experience. As the rain passed, beams of sunlight started shooting through the mist and dripping trees, creating brilliantly-lit islands of green. I wish that words weren’t such crude tools.
My babbling inner thinker was quiet for a change, and I was simply a living being walking through a living land. We were all one, beyond time, beyond thought, celebrating the perfection of Creation. The trees and rocks still remembered the passing of Indian hunting parties, the days of clear skies, and a time when the rain was free of acids and metals and herbicides.
With the exception of my clothes and the garbage in my brain, it was 10,000 BC — the place where my heart and spirit feels most at home and alive. It’s pretty easy to find 10,000 BC around here. It comes with every fog, it comes every night in the wee hours of the morning when the machines are quiet, it comes when clear waves are crashing on stony unspoiled beaches, it comes with the dancing flames and crackling of a fire late at night.
It comes when picking wild berries in flower-filled meadows under a brilliant blue sky, it comes when the night is filled with bright pulsating shimmering sheets of colored lights, it comes when the music of rain showers fills the air with fresh sweet smells, it comes when a flashing booming thunderstorm is rumbling in the night, and I can’t wait for the intense blizzards of the months soon to come.
Wales, August 1983. I spent nine days at the National Library of Wales, in Aberystwyth. I studied their genealogical records, in search of my family’s roots. I was able to trace my family back to the late 1700s to a hamlet called Cwmbelan.
My research completed, I pedaled away from the coast, into the mountains. Sheep country. Twenty-eight miles into the interior, I entered the village of Llangurig. It was the parish seat of my ancestral home. A tiny village. I walked into the churchyard. Read the headstones. I found it!
The grave of my great, great, great grandfather and my great, great, great, grandmother. “In memory of Edward Rees of Cwmbelan who died April 20, 1849, aged 51 years. Also of his wife, Margaret, who died November 19, 1874, aged 81 years.” I stood over them. Home. The church had been the site of family weddings and baptisms. A spirit picnic in the tall grass. Severed connections reattached in the hot sun. I rode two miles down the road to Cwmbelan, adrift in time, absorbing everything. Floating.
Cwmbelan. Only the phone poles, cars, and hardtop on the road were of this century. Otherwise, the land was unspoiled by time. Everything was ancient. A house that my family had lived in was on the left. The wool factory where my great-grandfather had worked as a boy in 1850 was on the right. Ghosts filled the street.
I spent four days in the area. Someone told me to talk to the lady who lived at the old factory in Cwmbelan. I went there and knocked on the big old oak door. From around the corner came an old lady. She was small. Her face was deeply etched with wrinkles. Her glasses were from the 1940s. Around her head, she had a sweatband. She had been gardening. Hello. Hello.
I introduced myself to Gwen and we sat down and talked. There was an aura of wisdom about her. And an aura of joy. She had good eyes — all-knowing, but merry. Her smile was a sunbeam. A beauty.
Gwen lived alone on a pension of just over $20 a week. She did some sewing to supplement her income. Her pedal-powered sewing machine was older than she was. Gwen didn’t believe in the modern conveniences. No telephone. No TV. No refrigerator. A friend kept her butter for her.
Everything was just fine in her world. A burbling stream by the front door made lovely water music. The birds chirped. The summer breeze whispered through the trees. Her cats were her good friends. Her garden was her family. The flowers were her children. “Smell this one. Doesn’t it have a wonderful perfume?” Yes, magnificent! She smiled. I enjoyed her children, and she liked that.
Gwen was a happy angel. The old factory was her heaven. There was nowhere else she would rather be. Nothing else she would rather be doing. “My mother died when I was twelve. I had to take care of my father for many years. I never had much free time in my life. I was always busy, you see. I’m making up for that now,” she smiled. She was one of those rare modern people who knew who she was, and where she was from.
Several years ago, another young American man visited the old factory. He spent a lot of his time traveling and searching. He and Gwen became friends. The American told her that she was the only person he had ever met who was absolutely content with where she was and who she was. He was right. I’ve met other people who were content, but they have lacked Gwen’s radiance. Graceful contentment. A child’s sense of wonder. Safe and sound.
She thought about the American’s comment. “What is it that people are looking for,” she asked. “Is it money? I don’t want any money. What good is it? Religion? Most deeply religious people I have met are still afraid of death, so what good is their religion?” Fancy houses? Fancy cars? Fancy things? Meaningless. Her arm swept in a broad arc — the flowers, the stream, the trees, the hillside across the road. “What could be nicer than this? What else do I need?” Nothing, Gwen. Nothing at all. She was radiant.
Walter Bresette passed to the other side on February 21, 1999. Walter lived at the Red Cliff reservation, on the shore of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. Vern, Sandy, and I decided to attend the funeral, and we got there the day before. At Walt’s house, a spirit fire was burning beside the towering white pine in the front yard. It was lit on the day of his death, and would be kept burning, around the clock, for four days — the day of his burial. The keeper of the spirit fire stood watch until someone was sent to replace him. Someone was always there. Vern and I were asked to keep the fire.
Around the fire were placed four large hunks of wood, arranged in the four directions. On the east and west sides of the fire, blankets were laid on the ground, and on them were laid a square of red cloth and a fist-sized rounded beach stone. People coming to the spirit fire would kneel down, touch the stone, offer a prayer, and get a pinch of tobacco out of the can of sacred herbs. Then, they would move clockwise around the fire to the other side, touch the sacred stone, pray, and toss the offering of sacred tobacco into the sacred flames.
Night arrived, a wet snow started falling, and we talked and listened to the stories of visiting pilgrims. At maybe 10 PM, an Indian man came to relieve us. He told us that Walter was a gift from the Creator — and that the creator was very sparing in sending such loving and giving people to Earth. This man radiated the same sort of strong spiritual power that Walter did, and I deeply admired him.
There were about 500 people at the community center. It was a night of feasting, song, storytelling, and remembering. The next day, Walter was buried with great ceremony. When the process was completed, an eagle flew over the grave, a powerful sign. It was so good to see strong families, and a strong community — one that had carefully preserved and passed along its ancient traditions, customs, and culture. This certainly must resemble the world of my ancestors. Something inside me was awakened.
That funeral was the one and only time in my life that I have experienced being in a functional Earth-centered community, and I will never forget it — my 24 hours in a healthy and sacred normality. I have been longing for that feeling ever since. It felt like home. The Anishinabe were living in a place where they belonged, and their reverence and respect for that place was loud and clear. They had deep roots there. They knew who they were. What an amazing thing to see.
Ever since that time, I have felt much less comfortable in my own culture, which often feels like an insane asylum. I want to sit by fires on starry nights and listen to the owls talk. Prince Charles said it eloquently: “In so many ways we are what we are surrounded by, in the same way as we are what we eat.”
July 13, 1995. Sunny warm summer morning, 80° in the kitchen, leafing through a magazine, slowly easing my way into the day. Dense humidity, gray hazy sky, muted sunlight. Silent breeze, trees still, birds singing. Gentle friendly morning of peace.
On my third cup of coffee, I looked up to see a band of fluffy white clouds poking up above the trees, sixty miles away, barely visible through the curtain of hot moist haze. As I sipped my warm brew, slowly, very slowly, the band of clouds climbed higher in the western sky, forty miles away.
Slowly, very slowly, the clouds rose higher and higher. Coffee refill. The sky was in a state of magical transformation. Fluffy, bumpy ice cream clouds had melted in the summer heat, and were now linear, curved, an arc, a colorless rainbow of grays, twenty miles away.
The gray rainbow rose to tower above the land, a monumental skyscraper of moisture, power, and turbulence. Thin wispy lacy clouds led the advance, highlighted by the growing darkness behind them, ten miles away.
Suddenly, the storm’s breath arrived, rattling leaves, hissing grass. Then God mashed her foot on the accelerator, and the west wind became a howling gale. The horizon was now pitch black, and the buildings and trees, still lit by the sun, looked eerie and surreal. Five miles away.
The storm then sprang all the way across the sky and devoured the sun. The black sheet of darkness exploded, spewing thousands of huge foaming clouds across the land. The sky was a speeding rush hour freeway of twisting, frothing, raging, hundred ton clouds, all in the eastbound fast lane.
Above the clouds, was the metallic artillery shell rip of lightening bolts slicing through the turbulence and smashing hard into the earth. Boom! R-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-p BOOM! Large bullets of rain began pelting down. Thunder rumbling, earth shaking, house creaking, windows wet snare drums in the beating rain.
The winds grew to an incredible roar. Trees and bushes were whipping and flailing like flags on rubber poles in a hurricane. Greenery was shaking violently, like the very land was a kettle of vegetation steaming and frothing at an intense boil.
Rain flew sideways in racing, raging, torrential sheets. The road became a riverbed, a million wet bullets exploding on its surface, white-capped waves racing eastward, misting, steaming, splattering, splashing.
Meanwhile, inside my brain, a miracle occurred, a wonderful healing. My civilized thinker was gone with the wind, and I had suddenly become a normal, natural, healthy wild man, a spirit of the wilderness. All of my mental energy was totally focused on the experience of the storm. Thinking was impossible. For twenty or thirty minutes, I was completely out of my mind, and perfectly at one with the world.
Outdoors, the fury gradually subsided, followed by a long, strong, steady shower. Winds slowed, rains diminished, a band of orange light grew in the western sky, and I came to realize that the end of the world was yet to come.