Across the Watershed
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
January 12, 2019 5 pm
I’ve just been out on a walk, following my usual route in my ordinary neighborhood, a place of grit and love and personal story for more than twenty years. It was 4 pm when I walked out the door; I’d been at my desk for hours and I finally looked up, and out the window. I knew if I didn’t grab the moment it would be nightfall and cold before I knew it. I needed a hat and gloves for the walk, rare for Santa Cruz, and although it was darkening as I left, I was in luck. After fifteen minutes the sun peeked below the clouds, sideways and harsh in a bright and loving kind of way, lighting up the neighborhood into a silver-gray glinting. It’s been raining this week, and more rain is on its way—this was an in-between moment when clouds move and break up and the world literally pulses with light and beauty. Everywhere I turned, ordinary houses, telephone lines, uneven sidewalks, graffiti by the train tracks—everything gleamed, and the sky was backlit by horizontal light skimming the horizon. The tall trees of the neighborhood swayed and danced.
But what I want to tell you is this. When I began the walk, I veered for a moment from my usual route and ambled down the train tracks near our house. Because I live with Jean, I know that just a short way down those tracks there is a place where the railroad is on a bridge over a wide gully and a creek. I wanted to see the creek. I thought it would be rushing headlong and I was not disappointed; finally the thirsty land is being fed by the sky, which just then was an ever-changing silver-gray-white-blue. The creek was rushing full, and though littered with the remains of someone’s party, it was beautiful and simply itself, dignified and flowing, and I felt the living bloodstream of our Earth, quickening and happy. I walked along the tracks above the creek and the wide flat grassy gully nearby. The gully is a floodplain when the creek rises, but the rest of the time it’s home—to coyote, skunk, possums, mice, squirrels, rabbits, gophers, raccoons, ants, bees, butterflies, aphids, grasshoppers, crickets, and a host of organisms like bacteria, algae, mites, beetles, centipedes, larvae, slugs, snails, millipedes, fungi, and on and on. In one inch of soil, biologists tell us there are ten million living organisms. They feed animals like caterpillars, beetles, and spiders, who feed the small mammals and birds, who in turn feed the larger ones, like coyote, hawk, owl, heron and the occasional fox or bobcat.
It was this community I was thinking about as I walked back down the tracks and picked up my usual walking route. I wanted to see the creek and the gully because of a conversation I’d had with my beloved friend Deena Metzger only a few days before. I was telling her about Dyana Basist’s beautiful new book of poems, Coyote Wind. My friend Dyana, I told Deena, lives across the watershed from us, above a meadow by a creek where coyotes visit. Dyana has aligned her life with the coyote’s wild truths, and I was about to say more about her book release reading when Deena stopped me….We were talking via Facetime, and she said, “Wait, wait! I have to tell you—I’m crying right now. Because of what you’ve just said…because that’s the change we need to make. To talk about the landscape that way. My friend lives across the watershed and above a gulch by a creek where coyotes visit…” I looked at Deena on my laptop screen, and there were indeed tears in her eyes. She sniffled and smiled at the possibility of it. “That’s how we have to change how we think,” she said. “How we talk about the land, in a way that holds and remembers its natural state. How that could change how we live, how we think, and how we act in the world.”
Deena was crying because she has just published a piece called “Extinction Illness: Grave Affliction and Possibility" in Tikkun, in which she names the illness we are all facing—that of extinction. She is daily, constantly, seeking pathways to its cure. She has always been devotedly willing to look at what most of us can’t sustain looking at for long; our Earth, our mother, is now losing massive numbers of her children, the wild and beautiful species of our Earth, currently experiencing the worst rate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Scientists tell us we're now losing entire species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the usual rate, with literally dozens of species going extinct every single day. We ourselves, our own species and all we love, are not immune. And we know it. Deena writes, “Whether or not we ‘believe’ the scientists who say climate change is Anthropocene Climate Disruption, meaning we are the cause, we know extinction and our role in it, consciously and unconsciously….The unconscious knows. The soul knows.”
The soul knows. We all know. And somehow, we all know that this is the moment when we must name what our souls know. I invite you, I invite myself, I invite all of us to name what our souls know, of what is happening to the Earth, and in our world, both personally and politically. To name it, own it, and even more deeply than ever before consider our grave illness, and how to find the pathways out. For we will do it only by doing it together, and we will do it by not looking away.
Just this week, in a rush of unfolding ideas, the concept of the “unthought known” came to me from my friend Kate Aver Avraham, who lives across Corcoran Lagoon from us, at the ocean. I hadn’t heard of the unthought known before, it is a psychological concept developed in the 1980s, but its texture defines itself: there are things that a person knows but cannot bear to think. At least yet. When the unthought known becomes known, we tend to become more whole, more real. That is to say, we are all living with an illness; when we look at it together, we all feel less lonely, less afraid, less lost. Strangely, we feel more alive. We take a deep breath, and begin looking for the pathways into the future, to changing our lives, and to healing.
As I walked today I thought about Deena and the ten million living organisms in a square inch of soil, the species we will lose forever over the course of this one day, about Rodeo Gulch and the watershed where Dyana and I live, of our neighbors the coyotes, and the incredible diversity of fish, insects and animals that live in the gully and creek as it flows beneath the tracks. I thought about all of my dear ones to whom I write this annual letter. It is usually written around the first week of January, but this year that week was full of the unending details of book deadlines on two books that I have helped to birth this past year. I dearly love both books that have been so compelling to me. Still, this time next year I plan to be not so much editor, organizer and publisher as poet, painter, novelist, walker, swimmer, lover, and explorer of my watershed. More like a slow ant making my way across the many varied petals of the rose. Memorizing it as I go. Slow.
Deena wrote to me that she is telling people what I said about the watershed, but I should mention that it is because I live with my wife Jean, who orients herself within the landscape of ocean, mountains and rivers as a matter of course, that I thought to say it at all. It was Jean who pointed out that Dyana lives across the watershed. I am more of an airy creature, without an internal map of the landscape. But we take in what is around us, and because of Jean, I think differently.
It feels that there is a quickening happening, like the creek I watched below the railroad tracks today. Things are coming apart; all sorts of human institutions are wobbling and disintegrating. And at the same time, many things are coming together in creative, new ways. The unthought known wants to be thought. New synergies want to happen. The human species is looking for the pathways to re-member—ourselves and who we have been and what we might be, and to re-member the land where we live: canyon, gully, creek, watershed, valley, meadow, forest, desert, woodland, river, lake, pond, lagoon. The quickening I feel is also in the people around me. So many are asking how we want to live, how to be really alive, as long as we are actually here. How to use the time left? How to leave a world intact for our descendants? How to see? How to truly know what our souls know? How to act now, knowing what we know?
On my walk today I followed my familiar route, visited my favorite gardens, and came to another creek I see every time I walk. You can easily miss the creek and never know it’s there, but if you drive down one of the side streets near my house, you are crossing it. Every time I walk to the creek, I go to both sides of the road where the water flows open, and visit. I first began visiting this creek when I was in the throes of a year-long nervous breakdown. It was a destination and a friend on my daily walks when I could bear very little stimulation or ordinary friendship. I began to bow to the creek. I bowed to it on both sides of the street, saying aloud as a prayer and a hope, I bow to the living waters of the Earth. I have made that small bow and prayer on my walk for years now, and did it again today. Sometimes the creek is hardly moving or utterly dry, but I knew today it would be flowing nicely, and again, it did not disappoint. I bow to the living waters of the Earth.
This is a practice that came to me at my most gravely ill, and it was healing. When we know we are ill, our prayers take on a purity, and deep intention. They sanctify us, and provide a pathway. Here lies the gift and the inherent possibility of naming our shared illness. Perhaps that is my entire message in this letter to you, who I love. I say again, I love you. To be alive and whole, let us go to a place near where we live that is natural, and greet the energy there, and say hello, and make whatever kind of prayer we have found in our lives. Name that we love that creek or river or nearby tree or woods or ocean as deeply and widely as we love our dear ones and our families. For the Earth is our mother and that creek is my family. And we share an urgent illness. Let us be with our dear ones of this stunning Earth, and see what our souls know together.
I will be here, heart wide open with love for you and hope for the future, for the pathways that still exist in our world through the knowing of our souls, connection to our ancestors and the old ways that can still be found in indigenous communities, as well as the new pathways being created among and within us. I rise and work and love each day because I love this world, and because of all of you. Thank you, thank you. I carry your beauty in me; I live and grow because you live, you grow.
With hope and faith in possibility—
This piece was published in Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, Issue No. 9, October 2019.