Ancient Forest

Bristlecone pines, the oldest living beings on earth, dwell in the high country, closer to heaven than most of us, in a land of little rain. Last week I made a pilgrimage to California’s White Mountains to see them. It was a sunny July day, and the mountains looked like desert from a distance, great slopes of savannah rising up from the Owens Valley. For me, accustomed to hiking beneath a feathery green canopy of coastal redwoods with ferns and forget-me-nots at my feet, the spare, swept-clean beauty of the landscape looked naked in its openness. It was almost ninety degrees in the valley when we turned east off Highway 395 and the car began its ascent. We noted the elevation markers: six thousand feet, seven thousand, eight. The car turned onto an even narrower road, twisting higher into the mountains until we reached the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at 9800 feet.

Although I had seen photos, my first impression of a bristlecone pine in person was … well, compact. With little to sustain life in this harsh place, they grow exceedingly slowly; it may take a century to add an inch to their girth. Bristlecones typically grow no more than fifty feet tall, with stubby branches and short needles, and lack the symmetry of most conifers. Yet they are lovely.


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Trees measure time by the seasons, and their rings count each cycle. On this mountain, bristlecone pines know sun, a little snow, and the precious short time to grow, but for eons they dwelt apart from the doings of man. Now they have been discovered, and visitors come because we want to be in the presence of antiquity, to enter this other slipstream of time for a moment. Yet somehow I can only make sense of it by comparing it to the time I know. The saplings on this mountain are older than the United States; I touched trees that took root a millennium before Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, before Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed. Our trail took us to the Methuselah Grove, where the oldest tree in the forest stands. It is 4700 hundred years old and unidentified for its protection. As I wandered here, I looked at each tree, wondering, are you the one?

Perhaps most beautiful among the bristlecone pines are the snags. The density of the wood makes it almost impervious to decay, so the trees may stand for thousands of years after they die, all whorls and corkscrews with striations of color from golden to black. Walking in their midst is like touring a sculpture garden or stepping into a convent chapel, where the unguarded face of a nun at prayer reveals the purity of her soul.

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Bristlecone pines evolved to survive in a dry land in the alkaline soil of dolomite – in other words, to live with scarcity. They spread their roots a long way out instead of down because that’s where the water is, and they are satisfied with the infinitesimal growth they can eke out in a short growing season from what little the earth offers them besides sun and wind. This, I finally realized, was what drew me so far out of my way to see these trees. They are role models for dwelling in the kingdom of enough.

What do they have to teach us? Small is beautiful. Let your roots find their way to what will nurture you. If you meet adversity with skillful perseverance, it can strengthen the core of your being. Be patient – with yourself and with the earth.

 

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My Morning Mocha

No Apologies

latte art

I know I’m living in the kingdom of enough when a simple pleasure feels like a divine gift. For me this special treat is my morning mocha. One ordinary ingredient and two divine stimulants are required: milk, coffee, and chocolate. At home, with my espresso machine, I balance the three each morning to concoct not just a beverage, but a ritual.

First, I pull two shots of decaf espresso and take a whiff as I pull it out from under the brewhead. Then comes the cocoa. My favorite is Dagoba, which has little bits of dark chocolate mixed in with the cacao powder and is made in Ashland, Oregon from fair trade ingredients. The quote on the can says it all: “You can deprive the body, but the soul needs chocolate.” I pour nonfat milk into a small metal pitcher, add the cocoa, and place it under the steam wand as hissing fills the morning silence.

A tough barista can tell when the milk is hot enough by touching the bottom of the pitcher, but I prefer a thermometer. When it gets to 140 degrees, I briskly stir the steaming liquid to make sure all those chocolate bits are suffused into the hot milk and then pour it into my go-cup along with the espresso. Now the drinking ritual can begin.

If I correctly estimated how much milk to pour into the pitcher before steaming, I now have a small amount of intensely flavored hot chocolate left over, which I pour into a tiny espresso cup. For the past forty minutes I have been in high gear getting ready for work, but now a moment of stillness blesses the morning, like stepping through the door of a church when the sounds of the city fade behind you. I stand still, look out the kitchen window, and swallow my few sips of hot chocolate. The mocha itself, sealed in the thermal go-cup, comes in the car with me, not to be drunk until I am at my desk forty miles away in the Foothill Library.

What is it about a mocha? The alchemy of the espresso machine achieves a balance between intense flavors along with a sensuous mouth feel. A Dagoba mocha is hot and velvety, dancing the tightwire between bitter and sweet. It is elegant, complex, and completely grounded in nature. But I don’t really need to analyze it. I simply accept it as a token of affection from the divine.

What is the simple pleasure that delights your spirit?

A Prayer for the Water

I wrote this prayer after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but I offer it now for ocean closer to home, in Santa Barbara.

Refugio State Beach


 

O holy, mighty One,

open our hearts to compassion.

O Light of the world,

show us the way.

Mother of sorrows,

mingle your tears with ours.

Mother of mercy,

we are sorry.

Our Life, our Sweetness,

sweeten the poisoned waters.

Star of the sea,

shine your brightness there.

You fishermen, Peter, James, and Andrew,

join our prayer:

may the waters give life once more.

St. Brendan the navigator,

guide the energy of our prayers

to the water that wants healing.

O sacred energy that hallows

the Ganges and Brigid’s well,

permeate the wounded water with your pure love.

All you whales and creatures of the sea,

forgive us,

pray with us.

Thanks be to the water,

our Life, our Sweetness,

hear our prayer.

The Physics of Desire

Wednesday night I had the honor of sharing poems “in praise of the earth” with seven beautiful and talented Santa Cruz poets. Here’s one of the poems I read.


The Hunger That Crosses the Bridge Between

The physicist studies photons and particles,

while the seeker watches the sweet pea blossom

and waits at dawn for the hummingbird to sip its nectar.

What brings us to our knees before the altar of the holy?

In the darkness below ground,

what stirs inside the seed of the sweet pea?

In the moment when you strike the match,

what calls fire out of the sulfur tip?

It’s the physics of desire,

and God writes the equation for its fulfilling

in every place we might look.

(Title from Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

In praise of the earth poets
In Praise of the Earth Poets

A Temple in Time

On the winter solstice a few days before I turned fifty, I rose before dawn, smudged with burning sage, and drove to a park overlooking the ocean where I could walk in silence and plan a ritual for my upcoming birthday. Although I didn’t know it then, my musings that morning turned out to be the genesis for this blog.

The sickle of the old moon hung in the eastern sky, and frost glazed the fields. As the sun rose over the hills behind me, I knelt and touched my forehead to the earth “for all my relations.” Two days earlier I’d asked a friend who was turning seventy if she had any words of wisdom to share. “Know yourself and accept who you are,” she answered. Her advice was in my mind as I pulled the hood of my down jacket up over my head and walked towards the ocean.

From the cliff I watched sandpipers on the beach below race away from an oncoming wave, then chase it as it receded, and they reminded me exactly of the frenetic way that I plunge into activities, then rush through them so I can hurtle into the next item on my to-do list. I work fulltime, I commute, and I never have time for everything I want to do: read novels, garden, knit a sweater, hike, cook dinner for friends, listen to my beloved play love songs on the ukulele … Sometimes I also worry about money and being alone in my old age and whether I’m a good enough person, but mostly I’m tormented by a lack of time. Who was I? A person afraid of not having enough.

Yet here I was looking out at the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean in a wide open morning lush with stillness and winter sunlight. The night before, my writing sisters had sent me off into the silence of this sacred world with laying on of hands and blessings, and now the whole day lay before me. How could I really feel that I didn’t have enough?

Then an NPR story I’d recently heard on my way to work suddenly came to mind: about how climate change is making the world’s oceans so acidic that many sea creatures can no longer survive there. I gazed out at the Pacific. From up here it looked peaceful and pure. Further out beyond the shelter of Monterey Bay gray whales were hurrying south to the lagoons of Baja where they would mate and give birth in a few months. This blue ocean that stretched further than my eye could see had always seemed to me like the great mother, the epitome of bounty, yet in her unseen depths the creatures that called her home might be dying.

We actually don’t have enough, I thought. Not enough clean air to keep our climate stable, not enough oil, food, water …

But on the heels of this thought followed a crucial phrase: we don’t have enough if we keep using it as we have been. If we as a species somehow decided to start being good stewards, there would be enough. Maybe not a superabundance, but enough. And what was true of the human population on the planet was true for me in my personal life too. Yes, there are limits. My time in this body is finite, and I can only do so much, but if I recognize my limits and use my time, energy, and money wisely, I have enough, not so much that I can squander it, but enough for what is important.

Is that what this blog is all about? Triage and time management? When I told my sister about “The Kingdom of Enough,” she said, “So it’s about simplifying your life?” Well, yes, I imagine writing about the virtues of thrift and sustainable living, but I also envision more. Life is short, and we live in a crazy, consumer culture that is busy bombarding us with demands and desires, yet in the cave of every heart peace reigns. I want to explore how to touch that grace.

Later on that winter solstice morning, I climbed down to the beach and collected small gray stones polished smooth by the ocean, cradled them in my hand and hoped the years were polishing me in the same way. A little cove offered a meditation spot, and for a long time I sat alone with the sound of the surf and chirping birds. I felt like I was in a temple in time. Yes, constraints exist for me as an embodied creature, but in the life of the spirit there are no clauses or caveats. The soul has all eternity, and the power of love is infinite.

 

A Map to the Kingdom

Let me draw myself a map

out of my world of scarcity

into the kingdom

where everyone has enough.

The map I’m talking about

requires a subtle yet revolutionary algorithm

to rewrite the neuronal pathways of my brain.

Let my ears hear the soft call to prayer

from the cave of my heart

instead of the 21st-century symphonic blast

begging me to worship at the altar of the mall

and buy more apps for my iPhone.

The promise of productivity

and the buzz of news and games

want to trick me into believing

they can fill me up and give me purpose.

But no.

Rewire the neurons,

and let me rejoice in the gift of each moment

instead of fretting about what I don’t have time for.

Then I can find the cartographers

who will collaborate with me

in mapping our way to the kingdom of enough.

In that place time is the currency,

and relationships are all we want to buy.

 

Mary Camille Thomas