Entries in community (5)

Sunday
Apr232017

Day 178-224: Cascabel finale

I have been struggling to figure out how to write about our time in Cascabel, and in the end, I have decided to keep it simple.

There is so much I could talk about. There is the community history, things like Jim and Pat Corbett’s work in the 80’s that began the Sanctuary Movement. There is the commitment of the Saguaro-Juniper covenant to conduct human activity in partnership with everything else that lives here. There are projects to restore native grasslands. There is the hermitage program which supports solitary retreat in desert wildlands. There is the community center built by volunteers from recovered materials, and the community garden with its cadre of fun-loving gardeners. There is the eclectic mix of people who live lives that are both highly independent and closely associated. Amongst those people, there is enough creativity, advanced education, and international experience to start a small college. And most important, there is the land itself that grounds everything else—the San Pedro River Valley, a rare, vital, relatively-intact, desert river ecosystem, whose miles of willow-cottonwood forest and mesquite bosques provide food and shelter for a staggering number of local animals as well as being an essential migratory corridor for many of the birds who summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Like I said, there’s a lot. But whenever I try to focus on any one of these things I find myself caught in generalizations or comparisons, or tangled in some kind of “educational” language that does not do justice to my actual experience.

So in the end it comes down to this: that both Tom and I came away from the last seven weeks with a deep affection for this place—the people and the land—that is like the bonds we feel with our family and friends. This affection comes from something greater than the accomplishments of the people or the beauty of the plants or the variety of the birds. It comes from the spiritual soul of this place—the wholeness of it, the spaciousness, the vast wild network of creatures connected to the vitality of the community.

   If I am still—
   if I let my hands rest, my heart broaden
   to the width of the valley, to the height of the mountains,
   then on to the next range beyond,
   to the cities, the rivers, the sea,
   then I too may find my place here,
   if I can stop grasping long enough
   to remember how to be vast.

   Of all the places I could be
   how did I end up here, in this moment?
   I mean in this very moment—
   at sunset, the cusp of night reaching out over the wide valley;
   the white cliffs at my back and the rangy peaks of the Galiuro Mountains
   pushed up in the distance; the whole wide green body
   of the valley laid out in-between in low rolling hills
   of creosote and saguaros; the little houses of people I know
   folded into them like nuts spotting a batter;
   and below, the cottonwoods assembled along the river
   like cows trailing loosely toward fresh pastures.
   The sky is about to reveal its stars.
   The moon is a ghost disk in the periwinkle wash.
   The barest threads of clouds mottle the air from east to west,
   and here I am—
   here I am with nothing but the wind
   and all this space
   to speak with.
Monday
Apr102017

Day 178-216: Cascabel, part 1

Two years ago in April, Tom and I rented a 100-year-old stone cabin in Cascabel, Arizona, in the San Pedro River Valley, a couple hours east of Tucson. To the uninitiated this might be considered the middle of nowhere. The nearest grocery store is 45 minutes by car, the best road here is unpaved, water is scarce, and a census might have to include cows to break 300.  It didn’t take long, though, for us to realize that Cascabel is actually somewhere, and not only that, it is somewhere special. Even after just a week we knew that we wanted to come back. It took us two years to do so, but on March 1st we arrived for a seven-week stay.


Downtown Cascabel

There is so much to say about this place—both the land and the community— that I get tongue-tied just thinking about it, so I am going to come at it through the back door. Instead of painting the grand picture, I am going to start with some humble bits, sidling up to it with a little whistle, as I have seen some people here approach a cow they needed to move.

--------------------------------

After having been in the desert now for the last four months, we are getting used to the "don't touch that" rule, whether it is the furry-looking cholla cactus, or the cat-claws of the acacia, or the long spikes on the mesquite trees. It seems best to just assume that rule applies to all plants and, well, pretty much anything that moves. Having grown up in the soft-and-friendly Pacific Northwest, I like to touch things, and I have to be reminded to keep my hands in my "Haydn-pockets" here.

Every Wednesday there’s morning coffee at the community center, followed by a work party at the community garden. Our first Wednesday here, the guy who sits down at our table is recovering from a scorpion sting on his foot. I am talking to someone else and can’t hear the details, but the length of his story and the size of his gestures suggest that he has been in a lot of pain.

I heard about fire ants on my previous visit, so I am careful to avoid ant mounds when I am walking. When we are visiting a neighbor here, looking at the native grass plantings he is tending in his restored pasture, I stop for a closer look at some unusually large black ants swarming in and out of a hole in the ground. "Oh, those,” he says, telling me the name, which I can’t remember now. “Don't mess with those, their bite is way worse than a scorpion sting!" Move along, in other words. Maybe over by that prickly pear cactus or in that stand of velcro grass. Or in a patch of that bristly plant with the yellow flowers that someone warned me would give me hives if I touched it without gloves.

Javalinas look like small, vertically-flattened, pointy-toed pigs that wander around in packs looking for mud. Mostly they seem interested in hiding, and the few times I have seen them it was from the rear as they ran hysterically away from me. But one woman mentions that she doesn't like to walk along the river in a place where the javelinas gather, not so much because they are dangerous, really, but because "javelinas don't have a sense of humor." Woody, the ranch's herd manager, tells a story of one angry javelina waking him up from a nap in the fields and chasing him into the stock pond. His description of the smell of the sludge he stirred up from the bottom of the pond when he fell in made me think that being bitten by the javelina might have been preferable.

After moving cows one day we sit in a little house next to the corral having cookies and cheese and I notice a good-sized spider (a solid inch in diameter with all the legs pulled in) on the wall over our host. Spiders aren't a trigger for me the way snakes are, but I think she might like to know about it so I mention it. Oh yeah. That guy is just a baby. It is deadly poisonous, of course, and moves really fast, so I am waiting until I can focus on it to catch it.

Oh, and I have now seen my first rattlesnake. I should have been forewarned, as Cascabel means “rattle” in Spanish, and refers in this case to the tail-end of a rattlesnake. Sure enough, our first night here I “discovered” a good-sized rattlesnake coiled up by the end of our trailer, and get my first lesson in snake catching and moving.

A few weeks ago most of the community gathered for a memorial service for a very dear friend of theirs who recently died. After a spacious hour of silence, meditation bells, and remembrances we sit for potluck lunch. The woman next to us asks us how we are doing here, and we tell her how much we are taken by the valley, to which she responds, “Well, with the warmer weather, you will need to watch out for the Kissing Bugs." Kissing Bugs! What? No one told us about Kissing Bugs. Turns out these are stink bug look-alikes that hide behind your cushions and come out at night to bite you while you are asleep, attracted evidently by the smell of your breath. Their saliva has a little anesthetic in it so you don't even feel them when they "kiss" you and they are able to fill to exploding on your blood like a leech. Great. Bed leeches.

The next Wednesday I am back at the community garden when someone walks by the young man who is helping with our tomato transplanting team. "I hear you got hit by a burn worm," he says in the sort of somber tone you might use for someone who has had a limb amputated. Burn worm?!? What now? Turns out these are some kind of caterpillars (also known as mesquite stinger caterpillar) covered with stinging hairs, that fall out of the trees and feel, as the unfortunate young man reported, like four bee stings at once. At least now I know how to treat it, which is to apply duct tape to the burning spot and then rip it off to pull the little stinging hairs out of your skin. This is also supposed to work with cholla glochids, though my previous experiences with sports tape make me wonder if this cure might add insult to injury.

I say all this to emphasize how amazing this place is. That even though the list of poisonous, prickly, and painful things to be avoided is longer than our trailer, I still wake up every day feeling like I have landed in paradise. Perhaps the threat of harm makes me pay more attention and take less for granted. Perhaps there is a kind of awe at the lengths things go to survive in harsh environments. Perhaps there is a longing to be as at home in this wide, arid land as the creosote bush and the cactus.

All I know is that this land feels deeply, vibrantly alive—an understated aliveness mirrored by the people who choose to live here. I have experienced a profound gentleness in many of the people here, coupled with a willingness to act decisively in service to what they believe in. There is a commitment to being partners with the land, rather than the land being a possession or only a means to making a profit. These ideals seem to arise at least in part from the desert itself, which is absolutely unforgiving and absolutely itself, while also offering an intense spiritual aliveness.

Not everyone who lives here ascribes to these ideas. There are many different faces to Cascabel, and what you see depends on where you stand and who you talk to. What is clear to us, though, is that we are here to learn—about generosity, about community working together, about how to live in challenging circumstances, and most of all about the land.

--------------------------------

Tom and I are staying at a ranch which is the central location for Saguaro-Juniper, the cattle-raising part of this community, and have parked our trailer amidst the welter of houses, trailers, corrals, sheds, horse trailers, trucks, and the kind of equipment and raw materials that accumulates on every farm. We feel so lucky to be here. To the west we can walk to the San Pedro River and can get to an area where the riverbed has year-round water. To the east we can walk for miles out into the saguaros and creosote bush of the desert. Our hosts are some of the original founders of this community and it has been a pleasure to get to know them and hear their stories.

This is also the location of the Sweetwater Center, the organization that I am volunteering for while we are here. I am helping with some pasture improvement projects as well as caring for two new plantings of pollinator plants. What this really means is I do a lot of weeding, which is something with which I have loads of experience. I am surprised at how much I am enjoying it. I think it feels good to just do something familiar, simple, and rote after six months of so much change.

When I am not weeding or walking in the desert with Tom, I have been immersed in the busy social life of this community. Coffee gatherings, Quaker meeting, potlucks, horseback riding, folk dancing, meditation group, writing group, road cleanup, cheese making, game night, celebrations of all sorts of things, committee meetings, mesquite-pulling work parties, conservation work, and tending the community garden all somehow get squeezed into the short weeks around here. The result of that, though, is that after only six weeks here, I have met just about everyone who lives along about a ten-mile stretch of the dirt road.

There is so much more to say about this place, but it will have to wait for another post. I am still digesting the incredible vastness of the desert, the life-giving presence of the river, the principles of the people who have been drawn together in community, and the work of the organizations that have formed around the intention of tending this valley and its inhabitants.

In a week we will pack up our trailer and move on. We aren't sure where we are headed or what the next five months will hold for us. We don't know when we might come back here. But the people and the land are in our hearts now and give us strength. We feel different after being here—a little more relaxed, a little more aware, and warmed by many memories.

Saturday
Mar042017

Day 171-177: Community  

A picture without any people may seem like an odd beginning for a post titled "community." But this picture would not be possible without the work of many different people coming together in common cause.

Most obviously, the cottonwoods below mark Sonoita Creek in the Sonoita Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservancy preserve founded in 1966 to protect one of the few remaining permanently flowing streams in Arizona. This mostly undeveloped watershed and riparian area provides crucial habitat for migrating birds and wildlife of all kinds. Trails from this site lead upstream to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds (an Audubon education site) and off into the surrounding hills.

The mountains in the distance are part of the Coronado National Forest, an excellent example of land that we hold in common. This forest is composed of at least 12 distinct mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico that create "Sky Islands"—cooler, moister pockets of forest separated by large desert basins. These forests are the remnants of larger forests that covered this area when the climate was cooler and wetter during the last ice age. If you hiked up the side of the mountain you would travel through changes in climate equivalent to travelling from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada. The mission of the Forest Service for this forest is to sustain the unique biodiversity of the sky island ecosystems and provide a variety of high quality visitor opportunities and services within the capabilities of these ecosystems.

And in the far distance, out of sight but just over the mountains, is Mexico, whose influence is felt everywhere in these southern states--in the language, the food, the history, the people. Nothing really stops at the border and the plants, animals, weather, people and culture all intermingle here.

Just a few miles away from where this picture was taken is Deep Dirt Farm, on the other side of the town of Patagonia.

I had the opportunity to work with Kate Tirion, the owner of Deep Dirt Farm, for a day with her Women Grow Food group. Kate cares for 34 acres of grassland and is integrating organic food production with habitat and watershed restoration as well as doing permaculture education and leadership training for young people. Everything you see in the greenhouse below is grown by the Women Grow Food group for their own use and for the senior center in Patagonia which provides the main meal of the day for a number of elderly people in the community. The farm is based on biodynamic permaculture principles and no fertilizer is used on these crops other than compost.

I also volunteered for a day at the plant nursery run by Borderlands Restoration, a group that is working on local community-based watershed and habitat restoration around the Mexican-US border. Borderlands Restoration greenhouses are located on land owned by Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization working to preserve local genetic diversity of agricultural crop seeds. To come full circle again, Native Seeds/SEARCH bought this land in a cooperative agreement with The Nature Conservancy, who manages the portion of the land where Sonoita Creek is located. Borderlands Restoration also has a seed bank, theirs focusing on hand-collected wild native seeds, and they grow plants for use by organizations like the National Park Service or BLM in revegetating disturbed areas.

Borderlands Restoration is also working on a project which would preserve a wildlife corridor between two mountain ranges in the Coronado National Forest, one of the few areas in the U.S. where jaguars live. This project is attempting to integrate the needs of people and wildlife by turning a bankrupt proposed housing development into a much smaller, more compact set of lots for houses while protecting a important area for wildlife travelling between Red Mountain and Mt. Wrightson. This beautiful canyon with oak-grassland habitat is part of that project.

Deep Dirt Farm is now a demonstration site for Borderlands Restoration and all of these groups are working together to begin teaching sustainable principles and leadership skills through the Borderlands Restoration Leadership Institute. Their mission is to be a project-based learning laboratory cultivating a restoration economy in the US-Mexico borderlands.

Why am I writing about all this? I don't exactly know myself. Only I was drawn here by Kate Tirion's image of community as mosaic—that each of us is a tile in a picture which begins to form as we bring our talents together. Our first job is to make our own tile shine, but the picture doesn't arise until we find our place in the whole.

I have been part of many wonderful communities in Seattle: writing and dance groups, Freedom Project, graduate school, the Hakomi training community, Fremont Healing Arts, Present Sense, our neighborhood, and friends and family. I did not go on this trip because I needed to find better communities to work with!

However, as we travel, my sense of community is starting to expand. Rather than thinking of community as an isolated group doing a specific thing, I am starting to have a sense of how all these different communities work together to create the fabric of the society we live in.  I am beginning to assume that one organization will be connected to the work of another organization, and am surprised if they don't know about each other. Then I realize that these organization may be 100 miles apart, a distance equivalent to me collaborating with someone in Bellingham or Ellensburg when I lived in Seattle—something I wasn't likely to be doing.  But somehow this level of connection is starting to seem both more natural and more important to me now. That we are aware of other people doing related work in other parts of the country. That we are able to inspire each other. That we can enhance our creativity through diversity. That we are able to share resources and knowledge. That we can support each other—mourn together when things fail, celebrate when they succeed, and provide hope in difficult times. 

------------------

When we left Patagonia Lake State Park on Feb 23rd we didn't know where we would stay next. Friends that we met at the Salton Sea had recommended the town of Patagonia, but every time I called the only RV park in town I got the same strangely non-committal answer about whether they had available space. None of my other requests for a place to stay had panned out. As we were driving through town, I called the RV park one last time, and this time there was an unexpected availability for the night! Once in the park, the owner was able to find room for us for a week. I can't imagine having missed Patagonia, as our experience there was so rich in connection and learning. Definitely a lesson in trusting things to unfold as we go.

Saturday
Nov192016

Days 51 - 67: Malheur and more

Sunrise over Frenchglen at Malheur NWR, Oregon

Days 51 – 60: We stayed ten days at Malheur NWR (Oct 26 – Nov 4) and thoroughly enjoyed spending time with a group of photographers who camp there every November to photograph the mule deer rut. Some of the best bucks this year were right in our campsite, wandering around our trailer with their necks outstretched, sniffing the air looking for that special doe. Thanks to our new friends, we got to see the herds of wild mustangs, almost get stuck in the snow on the top of Steen’s Mountain, learned more about living in Harney County, and cooked and ate our first Wamdingers. We also now have a new regulator for our propane tank (and know that it is not supposed to stop working when it freezes) and we figured out which end of the tool to use to lower the spare tire for the truck (thanks, Jeff, for reading the directions!)

Most importantly, though, is the ongoing opportunity for us to stay open to different views and experiences. Our world in Seattle had become isolated as we focused on what was comfortable to us and what we were good at. As we travel, we keep learning again and again how much we don’t know. We are humbled by the warmhearted generosity, hospitality, and help we have received from so many people. We are challenged by the different truths that arise out of different landscapes and economies. This is not to discount what is true in our own lives and from our perspective in Seattle, but rather to add to it. I hope that our hearts can expand a few sizes to be able to hold more of the suffering and wonder, discord and beauty, and incredible variety of the world.

On Nov 4 – 11 (Days 60 – 67), our adventures in contrasts continued, as we traveled to Caldwell, Idaho to visit friends from Whitman. I attended a Buddhist church (where my friend is the assistant minister) that was started by Japanese-Americans who moved there after being released from WWII internment camps. We experienced the election of Donald Trump in a town where I didn’t see a single “Hillary” campaign sign. We attended the International Students’ talent show at the College of Idaho where our friends teach and mentor, and enjoyed the energy, talent, and bravery of these young people from all over the world. One student ended his performance poem with: “Donald Trump made a mistake / America is already great / because of us!”

Saturday
Aug062016

Kite string

 

Making stringFor the last two weeks we have been considering selling our house instead of renting it out. The market is right, it would make the next month much easier as we would not have to do the major repairs needed for renting, and there is a certain appeal to “leaving it all behind”—putting all our energy toward the next thing.

However, all the time we were pondering this decision we felt anxious and upset. We lost the thread of our direction and started spinning in a whirlpool of indecision. We found ourselves drifting into old and highly unhelpful (!) patterns of relating to each other. We did not feel grounded in our own truth and knowing of ourselves.

A couple days ago it finally all came together again and we were able to see the decision that we needed to make: we are renting out our house instead of selling, and in hindsight I can see clearly why this is the right decision for us at this time.

Keeping the house is an important physical and symbolic tie to our community. Uprooting our lives in preparation for this journey has made us acutely aware of the value of our bonds to our community here—friends and family and place and work—especially since we are not yet moving into a new community.

Our community is kind of like the tether for a kite—the string is what allows the kite to fly steadily, and not just head off into the stratosphere or crash into the trees. This tie actually gives us energy rather than holding us back.  It is the string that allows a kite to stay aloft so long, that continues to hold it in just the right place for the wind to lift it up.

I think sometimes it is easy to miss the importance of the string. If I am not looking at the bigger context—ground and sky and kite together—I can just think it is something in the way. Something to trip over. Or something insignificant—what’s the point of this slip of cotton thread? Or something to be annoyed at as it gets its inevitable tangles. But though the bonds of love and affection and trust may be complex and sometimes hard to see, they are essential to our wellbeing. They are part of how we know who we are. They let us know where we have been. And when they are at their best, they help us to continue to fly true, showing our full shape and color.