I walk out the backdoor and slip through a gate, careful not to slip on the mud, as I make my way to our chicken coop. I walk through one more gate and around the side of the coop, where a secret door allows easy access to the nest boxes. Three milk-chocolate eggs are my gift from the hens – Buffy, Wynona, Mary and Dominique, a buff Orpington, silver-laced Wyandotte, Americauna, and Dominique, respectively. Inventive names, I know, especially the last one. I thank the ladies for their gifts and I am struck by a feeling of gratitude, warm and loving.
Earlier in the day, we engaged in a different ritual. Ritual slaughter, although the word ritual is a bit strong. Really we just killed a couple of turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner. We thanked these turkeys for the gift of their flesh which will soon become ours. Feeling a bit melancholic throughout the day, I thought about this side of gratitude. The sad side.
Both of these feelings come from our recognition of our connection with the world, in this case chickens and turkeys, and the very thin line between life and death. The warm and loving side of gratitude comes from the awareness that this world gives us so much – clean water, food to sustain us, loving friendships, and beauty to name just a few – and awareness of our inseparability with the world all around us. And when I feel this I warm up from the inside out and if it’s a really strong feeling, tears will fall from my eyes. Tears of thanksgiving. The other side for me is characterized by an unexplainable sadness, not profoundly paralyzing but meaningful. It catches my attention. And this, I believe, comes from the fact that death is inevitable. It comes from knowing that everything is impermanent and not accepting that it is so. Although I said above that both of these forms of gratitude are recognition of connection, I actually think that this sad feeling comes from the desire to be separate, to play outside of the rules. But we simply can’t and the dissonance between what we want and what we get is sometimes saddening. And while I would like to think that I am walking around saddened for the turkey, I am actually sad for myself. The turkey was unavoidable reminder that I too will die. Gut wrenchingly sad, right? This inevitable fact is actually where the two sides of gratitude come together and create the entire thing, its wholeness. If we can give up the false and delusion hope that we can somehow avoid one of the most basic truths of life then we can transcend this reality and be truly and deeply grateful for what we have. And what we have is nothing less and nothing more than this breath, this moment, this life, and this thanksgiving.
I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving!
Looking out over the tawny, rippled sand dunes, the sky and ocean have merged. From this distance, they are indistinguishable like a Russell Chatham landscape painting. The rain falling from the black clouds connects sky and saltwater like a liquid curtain. It is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. They have become one, in a very real sense, as we are about to experience. As the storm makes landfall, we experience this connection as no mere appearance. In the matter of seconds we are pelted with rain drops and would be drenched if it was not for our rain jackets and the protection of spruce, pine and myrtle.
We hike through a dwarf forest of ages past, a relic of another time as water fills our world. Diminutive lodgepole pine (called beach pine here on the coast) and sitka spruce mix with bearberry and reindeer lichen, species of more northern climes that have held on here since the last ice age. For some 10,000 (or more) years they have hung on here, the southern extent of their place in the world. Deep greens, red berries and silver lichens, myriad mushrooms popping through the sand and duff. A magical place where we pretend that fairies live and love, thrive and survive. This is not a species that I have seen but I am not so hardened in my adult beliefs to not imagine that this would be their habitat. There might be some right now taking refuge from the rain under one of the broad-capped mushrooms called slippery jacks.
I hurry along with Madeleine on my shoulders perched atop my backpack. The rain shower passes as shorebirds zoom by on their way from the bay to the beach, where they will run up and down the waveslope snatching up food. The shower is over quickly and we remain mostly dry; enlivened by the passing squall and the chance to experience nature’s splendor, reindeer lichen, rainfall, fairies and all.
Jane W. LaFever, February 1, 1948 – November 18, 2012, in the waterfront neighborhood of Nyhavn, Copenhagen,
Denmark in 2006.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”
They just keep staring at me, unblinking, unrelenting, waiting for something to happen. I stare at this blank computer screen and then glance at them. No response, not even a little head nod. What do I expect from a soapstone elephant and rhinoceros, bought for a pittance at a street stall in the dusty, dirty and chaotic town of Eldoret, in western Kenya? I am at a loss, at a standstill with this damned computer. It won’t write for me and I can’t seem to find the words, the flow.
I suppose I could write about the soft rain falling outside, gently sliding down the roof and through the gutters to the earth below. It’s a beautiful and nourishing thing.
Or I could write about this past weekend and a Buddhist group visit to Pelican Bay State Prison (I will write more about this experience soon). I could write about how surprised I was to leave the confines of the chapel where we had meditated and find the softest rain I can remember falling from the sky, as if the entire cosmos was enveloped in mist. How can such a gentle rain could fall in such a hard place? The veil of the water filled air made the inmates exercising in the yard seem distant and disconnected as if I was watching them through a television screen.
I could write about the delight of a dry home and a warm fire on a rainy day and how grateful I am to have a roof over my head and the warmth of the tanoak logs set ablaze. “Deep inside, the plants hold the light” a botanist once said. I reckon that a fire is nothing more than the release and transformation of this light into heat, flame and ash.
Or I could write about loss, which is the title of this essay after all. Would I write about the loss of words, which I experienced this past weekend meditating in a maximum security prison with men who some would consider the worst of the worst in our penal system, nay worst in our society? The loss of words in this case coming from an inability to express how normal and abnormal, how ordinary and profound, and how uplifting and deeply saddening it all was.
LtoR: Jane and her son David at a Copenhagen street cafe; Jane, David, Jannik and Signe at Tivoli Amusement Park, Copenhagen; and Jane and her daughter (in-law) Kristin at a street cafe in Copenhagen.
Certainly if I could write about loss I would write about the passing of my mom, who died on November 18th two years ago. I would write about the loss of a delightful human being, one of the most important people in my life, and one of my anchors and how I have felt adrift since then? Perhaps I would write about the loss of continuity from my daughters, through me to their grandmother and on through the matrilineal line to whatever arbitrary point we call the beginning. How do I ensure that connection? What stories do I tell to keep her alive in our minds and our lives? Volumes could be written about this loss but in the end words won’t suffice and it must simply be felt, like a wave crashing over me. I feel the water running down my body and I taste its saltiness and I let it go, knowing that another wave will come, perhaps not right away but always unexpectedly.
I need to write something, I mean I promised myself I would write every week but nothing is coming easily. These soapstone creatures just keep staring at me and it’s unnerving. I am uneasy. Maybe that is what I will write about: uneasiness and the fact that sometimes uneasiness is the easiest thing of all.
“Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.”
Dark brown, orange-brown cap with striations on its edge. Thick cottony patch (skullcap) without warts on cap. Stem color not white and either hollow or filled with a cotton or gel. Partial veil forming an annulus ring, fragile, on the stalk. And the shape of the volva, sac like or thick cup. Running through the checklist of characteristics in my head, over and over again, I was sure that what I had in my hand was the coccora, a prized-edible, especially by Italian-Americans. I put them in my bag and then take them out to look at them in the truck. Yep, coccora. I check them again at home. Yep Amanita calyptrata. And later I find myself standing in the kitchen with the fridge open, staring into its depths like a stoned college kid. What was I doing here? Checking yet again. You do not want to make a mistake with mushrooms, you do not want to make a mistake with amanitas.
(Disclaimer: do not use this brief, incomplete, and probably erroneous description of the coccora. Please use a comprehensive identification guide such as “Mushrooms Demystified” and a knowledgeable person such as someone from the local mycological society.)
Mushrooms in general, and Amanita in particular, are a study in antithesis, in opposites. Mushrooms are both the destroyers and deliverers of life. It is precisely the role of fungi to break things down in order to give things back. One of the basic tenets of nature is that in order for new life to flourish, existing life must die. Without fungi, along with bacteria, we would all be buried under a blanket of inert matter. In fact, we simply wouldn’t be here. They are nature’s recyclers and her soil replenishers by breaking down complex compounds into simpler building blocks. This makes them available to plants to re-use. And then we, as omnivores, eat the plants and the plant eaters (as well as the mushrooms themselves). In a very real, and profound sense, mushrooms turn death back into life. David Aurora said it well, “To associate them only with death and decay – as so many people do – is to do them, as well as our own ability to perceive, an injustice.”
Within the genus of mushrooms Amanita, you have a study in death, decay, replenishment and life. Therein lie the most poisonous of all – the death cap and destroying angels (Amanita phalloides, A. ocreata, A. virosa, etc), and some of the most “exquisitely flavored of the fleshy fungi” (as David Aurora put it) – Ceasar’s amanita (A. caesarea), coccora (A. calyptrate), and the springtime amanita (A. velosa). The rest of the amanitas fall somewhere in between these two extremes. This is a group of mushrooms that have caused visions, nourished, enticed, inspired, and destroyed.
What if I was wrong? Do I try them myself and then if I am wrong at least Kristin and the girls would be alive? Or would it be better just to off us all with one fungal swoop? Or do I take the prudent course and just toss them out and be done with the whole matter?
“Easy choice, don’t be stupid dude”, you may be thinking to yourself (or saying out loud if you are like me). But I was damned sure that I had collected coccoras and not a deadly amanita, but you can’t be a hundred percent sure about anything in life, right (at least not if you are me)? So why didn’t I trust myself? What was the risk and how much risk was I willing to take?
What mushrooms can do – they can mystify, mesmerize and make you go upside down! These are king boletes (Boletus edulis), a prized and delicious edible.
Each and every day we measure the relative risks versus the rewards in pretty everything we do. Whether consciously or not. We do it quickly with most things, particularly those things that we do every day (such as driving a car or riding a bike in car-filled streets like I do), and we rationalize away the statistics and probabilities of things that we do often and are relatively risky behaviors (e.g., driving cars, or living in carcinogenic-laden houses). If it is a behavior that we engage in every day, we fool ourselves into thinking that it isn’t risky when in fact it is. In addition, when we minimize risk too well (i.e., by being overly safety-focused; yes I just said it we can become too obsessed over making everything perfectly safe) we lose our ability to calculate risk carefully and quickly and to extrapolate to novel situations. This can make us complacent or even paralyze us with fear.
Collecting wild mushrooms is not something that most of us do anymore so we have lost our ability to identify risk and perhaps have blown the risks way out of proportion. Of course with mushrooms you could kill yourself and your dinner guests with one poorly identified meal. It seems odd to say but these mushrooms were giving me a mirror into which I could see my life and all of life reflected. I thought only shiny objects could reflect, but the beautifully dull and earth-toned luster of these fungi were teaching me great lessons in interconnectedness, life, and death.
So back to the mushrooms themselves: What would you do in my shoes….er I mean sandals? Would you toss them out or sauté them in butter with garlic and shallots and serve them over pasta?
To find out what I did and whether or not I live, stay tuned to this blog. If I write next week, apparently I am still alive (that’s debatable), which either means they were coccoras or that I tossed them out. And if not….well that’s life for ya and I rest assured that fungi, including the amanitas would turn my body back into a simpler form to be recycled yet again in the never ending cycle of organization and entropy, bloom and decay, life and death.
(and if it’s just…pardon the pun…killing you to find out, you could email, call or write and find out whether I am still alive.)
The archetype of comfort (left) as I was nestled in between our two host brothers, Aziz (far) and Yousef (near), in the farming village of Amghas in the Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Despite the smile on my face, the photo on the right documents the single hardest day of backpacking in my entire life, near Ait Merzouk, Eastern High Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Much discomfort was endured that day.
Lift, raise up high, slide hands together down the handle and swing hard downward. At the base of the pampas grass clump. Do it again, and again, until the damned things’ roots are ripped out of the ground. This is pampas grass removal, a non-native invasive species from South America that is limiting the establishment and growth of the redwood seedlings that I want to encourage. This is my work this week. This is restoration of logged over lands, clear-cut forests and old-logging roads.
Its October and here on the North Coast of California we are experiencing our first bouts of big storms coming in from out in the Pacific. I am deeply grateful for the rain and love the change in seasons. It is not comfortable swinging a Pulaski (a hand-tool with an ax head on one side and a grubbing head on the other) over and over again in the rain. Some of the pampas clumps are stubborn and big. Others are small and more yielding. I am soaked to the bone, despite my rain gear, sweating profusely and beginning to get blisters on my palms. Wet leather gloves sliding up and down on a wooden handle results in blisters. I am most definitely not comfortable but I am enjoying the physical activity, hard-work, and being outside.
The youth crew that I am working with seems used to it. We work methodically, slowly chugging along and removing the grass clumps. Are others getting blisters too? They don’t seem to mind. Is anyone else comfortable? No and they probably let go of expecting that a long time ago, at the beginning of the field season. When you let go of expectations, a lightness, an aliveness, and a freedom appear. It’s the freedom to simply be without getting stuck on conceptions such a comfortable or uncomfortable. It’s not that you don’t want to be comfortable; it’s simply that you stopped expecting it, stopped basing your happiness on achieving it. I am reminded of an Ezra Bayda quote that was passed along to me recently:
“Our capacity to understand that life itself doesn’t have an agenda, particularly our agenda, seems to be very limited. We insist on our sense of entitlement that life give us comfort, pleasure, and ease. Why can’t we understand that the fullest and richest experience of life is often the result of the difficulties that life presents, where we are forced to go deeper? Isn’t disappointment our greatest teacher?”
Despite the discomfort to back, shoulders, arms, legs, and hands, I kept whacking and hacking at the invasive grass. When I got home at the end of a long and arduous day, I truly appreciated a hot shower, dry clothes and the warmth of my loving home. Not only is comfort not an entitlement, it is counterproductive to appreciating a vibrant and rich life. It is only through the interplay of discomfort and comfort that you can enjoy either. Working hard, getting wet and being blistered meant that I appreciated the comforts of home at the end of the day. Without that I may have simply entered the house and not realized how comfortable it is. Or even worse I may have complained mindlessly about some miniscule imperfection in the comfort of my home. How unnecessary! And knowing that I have such a home to come back to, means that I can settle in to the difficult field days and the gnarly weather, and truly appreciate both. Opposites not only define each other, they also manifest or bring forth one another into existence. Without discomfort there is no comfort; without comfort there is not discomfort.