Friday, November 29, 2019


This is a letter of reflection on living with the land that I wrote in November 2019 which was read at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco.

Dear friends,

I’m writing to you from the south slope of our mountain up in the redwood forest where I’ve lived since last April.  My feet are propped up on a dying madrone, and my head is leaned back against a fir.  There are a lot of birds making noise today.  I laid here all morning for my mind to slow down enough for words to come.  I was asked to write something about land and food.  It is hard for me to know what to say.

This land lived with the Cahto people for I don’t know how many thousands of years.  And while this forest is thoroughly beautiful, I imagine its mangled body would be barely recognizable to many of them.   Almost every tree has been cut, the land itself cut in all directions with roads, slopes stripped of their soil, no longer able to hold the rains on their way to the sea, eroding the streams into deep canyons.  And the trees are dying on their own now, whether from drought or toxicity or loneliness, I don’t know.

What does it mean to live with the land?  I feel no authority to speak to this.  I lay in the forest and weep for what has been done to them and is still done to them.  I am sorry.  I don’t have an answer, and I cannot turn away.  I will be here and ache.  They tower above me, they shield each other and my own body from the wind like a thick crowd, solemn, silent.  They want me to be here, they want me to see them.  I feel this.  I hear them whisper to each other in the rustle of leaves.  I think they know why I’m here, but I do wonder sometimes what they really think of me.  What I feel most from them is love and sadness, and a confidence that they belong.

Do I have any right to ask them to provide for me?  I don’t know.  They do provide.  Even after all the people have taken from them they still sprinkle the ground with acorns, and drop wood for our fire.  I am crying right now.  I cringe to speak of them and of my own way of life on the same page.

Am I really living off the land?  No.  Sure, we have plenty of fruit and greens and mushrooms from the land.  Our meat and eggs mostly come from friends nearby.  The only foods we need to buy from elsewhere are grains, beans, and spices, but that’s still a significant part of what we eat.  I can make excuses for myself.  There were once abundant salmon here, and now they are so few I have still not seen one.  I am not surrounded by a community that knows how to live with this land, while most of our ancestors always were.  I have more pressing work to do; if I didn’t, I could gather enough acorns for the year.  But I would still cook them in a metal pot that came from who knows where, while wearing clothes from who knows where else, on a fire of wood cut by a chainsaw.  Most of what we depend on was produced elsewhere by the industrial system.  There is no purity.  It’s all tangled up.

And I am still a human animal in the world, this world so beautiful I am speechless in gratitude just to be here.  I will delight in the warmth of the fire and the taste of strawberries.  I will still try to feed us from the land as much as I can because it feels right.  This means looking at what we have and eating that.  We eat our own kale, garlic, mushrooms, herbs, and apples almost every day all year.  And usually tomatoes or potatoes or squash or carrots or peas.  So we can taste the land in our food.

As our industrial and political systems collapse and we can no longer buy the things we used to buy, our relationship with food will change.  Here, we will probably end up eating more acorns, and being cold more often, and it’s quite likely that eventually we will go hungry.

I often wonder if it’s also too late for the forests as they are now, if the ecological balance is so upset that they will die soon even if the humans stop actively killing them.  I don’t know.  Meanwhile I want to love them as much as I’m able.  Looking around the forest here I am always reminded that everything dies, and often sooner than we’d wish it to.  I find something here to trust.  I trust, not that I will live as long as I’d like, or that I will be fed and comfortable for as long as I live.  Rather I trust that under all the sorrow and grief and confusion there is still something vast and beautiful that begs my attention and delight, and so I belong here.

I am grateful for the presence of tanoak, with its fuzzy, fatty acorns.  I’m grateful for fir and it’s bracing sap scent.  For redwood even though its leaves get all tangled in our hair.  For madrone, dancing its smooth curves beside the straight solemn conifers.  For bay with its rich bitter nuts.  Chinquapin with its gnarled branches.  Bold yellow maple and soft pink dogwood leaves, those funny alder cones, and the elusive yew.  The sweet crunch of manzanita, the shiny huckleberry, spiky whitethorn, and the sticky fragrance of mountain jasmine.

Friday, August 30, 2019

We haven’t got all that much time

Dear friends,

There is beauty.

What does it mean that so much of what I’ve done or eaten or used or been involved with is entangled with this machine called civilization, that has spiraled out from the first plowed field and imprisoned animal out and out to the point that people have cut down most of the world’s forests, poisoned almost everything in the ocean, killed off almost all of the animals, and imprisoned each other in boxes of metal and plastic and concrete, away from all of the other living ones?  What does it mean?

There is still beauty.  And we haven’t got all that much time.

I know what I find beautiful, what I find worth living and working and fighting for.  What I adore and marvel at.  My feet are on the ground, my hands in the soil, cold water on my skin, wind on my face, redwood needles in my hair, flowers in my nose, birdsong in my ears, berries on my tongue, sunshine dancing in my eyes, beloved people in my heart.

And what I find beautiful is being destroyed and desecrated and killed.  Has been for a long time, and it’s speeding up.  It is heartbreaking.

No, solar panels and batteries and all that aren’t going to undo this.  There are a lot of other cultures who have lived in a healthy way on the earth for tens of thousands of years, what we might call sustainable, and what I would probably call beautiful, and they weren’t as isolated from the real world as modern civilized folk.  They had to feel the world.  If we could go back there, I would.  If any future culture is to one day live in some kind of sustainable and thoroughly beautiful way with the living earth, it will probably look a lot more like that.  No plastic.  No computers.  People will die of things that people around us aren’t dying of now.  And people probably won't be nearly as sick and depressed as so many are now.  And people will know each other more and know the land they live with more and know the plants and animals they eat, more than we do.  And maybe some hundreds of thousands of years will pass and some of the surviving forests will mature again.  My spirit takes some delight in this possibility and then I go back to admiring the tanoaks I’m sitting under and their beautiful lichens and mosses, stiff and biding their time for the rain to come, and the sunshine reflected off the creek dancing on their leaves.  I’m writing so that if you wonder “well what’s Phil think about all this craziness these days” you might end up looking out at a tree or taking a deep breath or smiling.  Soon I’ll go back to picking strawberries.  Really, I’ve mostly been speechless before beauty and mystery for the past year.  There’s much I’ve wanted to say but words are difficult to come by, and the soil and air and water always call.  If you want to know some of the struggles in the world that I care about and how to help, my dear friend makes this excellent podcast called For The Wild that goes in depth on it, and my heart and opinion is mostly aligned with hers.  She’s so good at talking about these things that I don’t have to.  :)

So with all this about how we are destroying everything I love, I don’t mean to lay more guilt on you.  We all have some share of guilt in what’s been done and some part in what is being done, and we were definitely coerced into much of it, probably from very young.  Yes we have some guilt.  And more pressing, we have some freedom.  Some of us more than others, but we all have some freedom.  Name what you love, name who you love, keep this in your mind.  Name the beautiful.  Name it and keep it in your mind, and in front of your eyes when you can.  Name it and live and work and fight for it, and adore and marvel at it.  Everything dies.  Feel it.  Feel it.  Slow down.  Feel it.  We haven’t got all that much time.

I am too alone in the world, yet not alone enough 
To make each hour holy
I am too small in the world, yet not small enough 
To be simply in your presence like a thing, just as it is
I want to know my own will, and to move with it
And I want in the hushed moments, when the nameless draws near
To be among the wise ones or else alone
I want to mirror your immensity
I want never to be too weak or too old
To bear the heavy lurching image of you
I want to unfold
Let no place in me hold itself closed
For where I am closed, I am false
I want to stay clear in your sight
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken
I want to free what waits within me
So that what no one has dared to wish for
May for once spring clear without my contriving
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me
But this is what I need to say
May what I do flow from me like a river
No forcing and no holding back
The way it is with children
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents
These deepening tides moving out and returning
I will sing you as no one ever has
Streaming through widening channels 
Into the open sea.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The renewable energy lie

The lie is that we can live in a somehow more sustainable or friendly-to-earth or “green” way by using solar or wind generated electricity and lots of batteries.  It’s bullshit.  Solar panels are produced from mined materials and toxic industrial processes that pollute where the mining and production is done, and they leach poison into the ground even where they are used, and we don’t know how to recycle them so they will break down over time and be piled up or left somewhere to degrade and pollute and we’ll replace them with more that required more mining and more toxic industrial chemical processes.  Wind turbines are not too different — they’re expensive to maintain, require lots of toxic stuff, and eventually break down and can’t be recycled in any earth-friendly way.  Hydro is no better, river ecosystems have to be destroyed to have hydroelectric dams.  Nuclear shouldn’t be considered green anyway, it’s not renewable since it depends on this limited mined material, and it creates really nasty waste, and of course all the infrastructure required for it is ridiculous, and they risk meltdowns that ruin everything.  And then batteries, don't get me started.  Look up lithium and cobalt, and then consider that batteries degrade over time and can't really be recycled and are very toxic to produce and dispose of.

So with all that, in our modern media and social media world, there’s this false dichotomy.  There’s the fossil fuels which are evil and polluting and causing climate change and killing everything, and then there’s the “green energy” that causes no harm and will allow our modern civilization and economy and internet and cars and all to go on forever if we just spend lots of money changing over to the “green energy”.  The truth is we can’t have this civilization and economy and internet and cars and all for much longer regardless, there is no way to power or maintain it that doesn’t involve ongoing and accelerating destruction of what's left of the living earth.  So many well meaning people who love the living earth have been co-opted and tricked into basically being a lobbying force for industry and economy under the guise of "green energy".  Don’t fall for this.  Your time is worthy of better causes and more beauty than this.

I use solar panels for electricity, because they’re convenient when living off grid.  I have no delusion that they’re friendly to the earth.  I am torn and often would rather just quit the internet and not use electricity anymore.  Somehow I’ve convinced myself that it’s worth engaging with this stuff in order to be able to fight for what’s left of the living earth a little bit longer, and I’ll be honest, to stay connected somehow to the people I love.  Maybe that’ll change one day.  This is all very complex.  I’m not trying to guilt you, I'm just saying no, renewables aren’t more earth friendly, they’re not a green future, they’re not worth giving your energy to fighting for.  If you have energy to fight and you love the living earth, fight more directly for it — like fight to protect forests and rivers and mountains that are directly threatened by logging, mining, pipelines, etc.  Stop the resource extraction at the source, and all the rest of our destructive economy will slow down a little.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

You are freak

I read this story at the Easter vigil at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco in 2019.  

Sitting at my desk.  Ergonomic chair, 30” screen.  Sunlight and cheerful coworkers all around.  We are the winners.  The tech-elite.  Making the world a better place, raising the standard of living.  Eventually we are going to meet everyone’s needs with solar-powered artificially-intelligent everything factories.
But somehow I hear another story.  Out there, our empire of civilization reaches its fingers into the last wild places.  Its eye falls on an unspoiled steamy jungle, thriving with humans and majestic animal kin.  It sees timber, metals, tourism potential, untapped markets, labor pools.  Smiling people, sitting on their dirt floors in their dirt huts, eating the bounty of the land.  And we call it poverty.
In march the well intentioned, the missionaries, humanitarians, entrepreneurs, peacekeepers.  Out go the animals.  The human bonds are replaced with money.  Plugged in to the empire.  A “developing” country.  Another billion users.  Growth.
Everything is business.  War is business.  Revolution is business.  Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Haiti, Venezuela, the list goes on and on and on.  The machine has many faces, the military-industrial-complex, the technological-educational-pharmaceutical-agricultural- industrial complexes.  Even the nonprofit-industrial-complex.  Most of us keeping the machine running can explain why our part of it is beneficial, and we probably even believe it.  Yet despite all our good intentions, the machine grinds away converting life and diversity and beauty into profits.
No one speaks of it like this.  Over lunch, I slip in a sad remark about Syria.  Awkward pause.  The conversation shifts to when will we settle Mars.  We are frantic.  We don’t have time to see the consequences of what we do.  Everything’s too complex, so we must pretend it is simple.  We plug in the numbers and poverty goes down.  If you don’t like it you’re a luddite.
 “You can’t say this all at once,” a well-intentioned colleague tries to talk sense into me.  “People will think you are freak and then you won’t be able to change anything.”
Must I really go on pretending like it’s all fine, so I can hold on to the golden handcuffs, the empire’s power, and somehow use it for good?  I stare out the window at trees quivering in the spring breeze.  I sit in a comfortable chair, I have warm food and health care and barely have to work.  I should be grateful.  But I do not belong here.  It hurts.
Laying on the floor of my tent in the homeless camp.  Puddle of water in one corner.  Headlights in my eyes at night.  Screeching bart train in my ears.  I’m free!  Sure, I’m still in the empire, but now I’m with the oppressed and not the oppressors.
Marching on the street.  “What do we want?  Housing.  When do we want it?  Now.”
We demand the evil empire give us our fair share of this chopped-down paved-over concrete graveyard of a forest.  Our fair share of the plastic and minerals dug by slaves from the living earth five thousand miles away.  What if it was fair?  The seven billionth of us gets a comfortable room, a job, food, maybe an electric car.  Clean water, piped from some rare place whose destruction has not yet become an economic necessity.  Would the elephants say this is fair?  I love the people around me, and it is so complicated.  Must it be Team Human against all the rest of life?
Laying under a clump of redwoods in the forest I’ve been with the past year. 
My friend on the mountain says thirty years ago she’d get five to ten feet of snow each winter.  This winter, six inches.  Up the road from me they made new clear-cuts last fall.  They cut some special ancient trees in one particular spot leaving a sign saying it was for “fire prevention.”  Bullshit.  Money.  I hear the logging trucks rumbling on the road a mile away.  Will we ever stop?  We know that the trees bring in and hold the water in the earth.  As the trees go, the drought comes.  We’re killing them anyway.  Money.
Can our human empire just end already?  Must all of the salmon and orcas and caribou and wolves die first?  The ocean is dying.  The forest is dying.  Even the insects are dying.  God, are you going to turn this around?  What should I do?  What are you trying to tell me?  Why?