Cross-eyed and Painless

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Lost my shape-Trying to act casual!
Can’t stop-I might end up in the hospital
I’m changing my shape-I feel like an accident
They’re back!-To explain their experience.
~Talking Heads (Crosseyed and Painless)
I hear them long before I see their forms cutting across the steely-gray of a early morning coastal sky. Their soprano-like cries, high-pitched and melodic in their own way, seem to echo off stratus clouds hanging down nearly to the ground. I stare at the place where I think I hear the sounds coming from but as I gaze westward all I see is a uniformly gray sky; a color so gray that it is almost blue. I relax, allowing my eyes to wander and I see them, hundreds of them. They appear as long black lines, some in Vs and others in scattering groups. They appear out of the nothingness much like an image in a Magic Eye poster. The geese, Aleutian cackling geese, fly northward away from Humboldt Bay, perhaps on their way to their namesake islands which arc their way between the Alaska and Kamchatka peninsulas or they are simply heading to the agriculture fields of the Mad River bottoms where they will spend their day foraging.

Have you ever stared at one of those Magic Eye posters wanting so desperately to see what others have seen but seeing nothing but your frustration welling up inside? I have found them terrifically exasperating. In order to see the image in one of those posters and to see the geese this morning I had to diverge my eyes. That means to simultaneously move both eyes outward. I had to go wall-eyed. This can also be done by going cross-eyed.  Seeing the geese amidst the autostereogram (the technical term for the Magic Eye) of the sky teaches me an important lesson. My life too is an autostereogram of sorts.  As I try to figure it out; what it contains and what is the next right path for me, I encounter optical illusion and distorted images at every turn. But by refocusing, going wall-eyed or cross-eyed if you will, I begin to gain the depth perception that is necessary for seeing the hidden image. Like the image popping out from the randomness of dots on a poster, my life’s path can then come forth in 3-D, clear and obvious. Depth perception arises from looking at things differently which comes with practice. That and connecting with others, particularly those who seem different from us, which is itself a type of practice. Life experience can also give this to us but life can also harden us into rigidity resulting in seeing only what we have seen before and what we want to see.  For me international travel, children and zen meditation, among other experiences, have done this for me. In this way we can refocus and see reality for what it is, not simply for what we already think it is.

I get on my bike and wave goodbye to my daughters and wife. As I pedal down the road on my way to work, I quickly become enmeshed in my thoughts. As cars pass by, mostly at safe speeds, my eye gets caught by something blue on the rear of a small SUV.  A small blue bumper sticker with a reminder that is more profound than its humble size: “Don’t believe everything you think”. I carry that reminder with me for the rest of the day. When it comes to me, I soften my gaze a bit and practice divergence. The perceptual world goes fuzzy, blurs and in that moment all I can think of is, “I hope my boss doesn’t catch me staring cross-eyed at my computer screen.” Then again, that sort of is what computers do to me!

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Back in the Forest

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…a realm that always linked ooze to land – running water, which is not water in quite the same sense as sea or lake. Seas and lakes are conservative, placidly sitting in their basins, jealously guarding the wealth of their depths. Rivers and creeks are radical – cutting new channels, throwing out sporadic bonanzas such as salmon runs – but poor compared to the old, established seas.

~ David Rains Wallace (“The Klamath Knot”)

The day is clear and crisp with just the right angle of the sun to let me know that winter is waning and spring is coming.  A friend and I walk upstream, tracing the sinuous course of the creek as it winds its way among the hillsides, carving its way long ago through the soft geology of this recently uplifted place. After going through a steep-sided canyon, here the topography and creek flatten out. The steep banks of the canyon portion were lined with conifer – second-growth Douglas-fir and redwood; but here in the flat, soggy bottoms of the flood plain red alder and willow abound. Their leafless forms stretch to the sky like out stretched arms saluting the sun.

I brush past a California bay shrub, releasing the spicy, menthol-like aroma of its leaves. Also known as pepperwood, its leaves can be used in to spice up stews and sauces just like Italian bay leaves. Native Americans throughout California have used the leaves, fruit, nuts, bark and wood of this species for a variety of reasons ranging from food (the nut) to cooking (leaves ) to medicine (leaves and nutmeat for sores, aromatic steam from leaves for colds and sinus infections as well as other uses). I grab a leaf and gently crush it in my hand releasing its pungent smell. This aroma will linger on my hand for the rest of the day reminding me of this moment, this light and this tree; and reminding me of the powerful medicine of this plant and the people who have used it since time immemorial.

We meander our way among the alders and willows, enjoying the dappled sunlight of this riparian realm. Low gradient sections like this are key rearing habitat for coho salmon. Coho eggs hatch and the young come out of the gravels whereupon they seek out these slack water habitats to grow fat and healthy (hopefully) before migrating out to sea. I stop and let this reality sink in. I look around me: the creek flows off to my left, a slack-water side channel is straight ahead and all around are the grayish-white trunks of alder and willow trees, fracturing the slanted light of late winter into a million points of dappled light. I imagine young coho swimming in and amongst the trees, going back in the forest, hiding and seeking amidst the shadows and among the roots. In this moment, at this time and in the place I realize that salmon, coho at least, are as much a forest creature as they are a river or ocean dweller. They may grow up interlaced with riparian trees and upon their return and subsequent death their carcasses will decompose into the very soil upon which these trees grow. Their nutrients, both oceanic and riverine, will become alder, willow, Douglas-fir and redwood. My eyesight loses focus for a second and all lines, all boundaries blur. I blink in the sunlight and my focus comes back. There is still the creek, the old side channel and the riparian gallery but things seem more fluid than they were before. The salmon go back in the forest and the forest blends with the creek in an infinitely fluid and beautiful co-existence.