Do we have a blog or a brick?
I want to move. I want out of the overcrowded city of my birth, to give the City Spirit the gift of my absence. I want our neighbors to be our friends, to accept us as we are and to value the home we build together. I want to live in a community that works to make everyone welcome. Where we can love whoever we like and don’t have to hide who we are. Where we are celebrated for who we are. I want the whole damn world to be able to live well and in harmony with the land, sea, and sky.
I want to invite everybody over for dinner. Bring me black pepper and chai and olive oil from Athens. We will feed you on the fat of the land and send you home with acorn meal and rich red wine many years laid down in cool dark cellars.
I want a funky house with character, my back door opening onto redwood and hazel. I want a wood stove, if climate and forest allow it, and plenty of magical places with trails to get us there. I want rituals in the woods and acid trips and good weed. I want to climb trees. I want friends, the ones I knew in college and at Faire. People to ramble with and grow old with. Neighbors. The kids down the road who will be the next generation will remember our adventures when we’re gone. The ones we raised to protect the land and only take what it can freely give. I want to see the hourglass pulled over until it spills Pandora’s gifts on the good green Earth. Dagaz, instead of Extinction. Revels instead of Rebellion. The First Peoples as friends, neighbors, and Elders, re-indigenizing the people whose ancestors were once foolish enough to call themselves white.
I want the wheel of the year, Faires and bardic circles and a junior league that dances in the dirt and screws in the forest. I want to help cook gargantuan meals to feed the whole community when Lughnasadh comes and the travelers arrive on their yearly round. I want to sing around the fire after the first rain falls. I want to smell the earth open up after the long hot summer when Lugh’s high gold is beaten into the gray dust. I want the cool of evening.
I want to build a labyrinth and a library and shrines in the woods. I want to play with my imaginary friends and write the stories we live. I want the other side of the adulthood we were roped into. I want a long happy, healthy, prosperous time where I can finish the gifts I want to leave to the world when I die.
I want us to wear whatever we want and be treated the same no matter how odd our choices. Where we are not judged by our clothes, our hair. I don’t want to hide my Thor’s Hammer or my Awen or the patches on my jacket. If I walk down to the local store in a robe and a cloak I don’t want anyone to bat an eye.
I want to live in a place where cars are rare. Where all that we need is available and accessible to all who live there. I want occasional wireless and plentiful conversation, sharing the bus with whoever climbs aboard. I want roads I can ride a bicycle on and to do my shopping safely. I want solar panels and the sense to go to bed when it’s dark. Tomorrow will come soon enough. I want bonfires and clear, sweet water.
I want to live on the coast, near the forest, where Druids celebrate the ninth wave that rolls in from the Pacific. I want to dance with Dervishes and ride horses bareback through the wet sand as the wave rolls out to the ocean. I want fog and cool and quiet.
I want the Triad of Wealth. My body healthy and strong, my time my own. I spend my remaining days doing as I please, and my money for the few things it is needful for. An Awen of plenty crowned with three bright sundrops. I want to live as part of the land, leaving it better than I found it and when I leave this life, my last sight of it inhabited with people who feel the same way, who will care for it after I am gone.
I want fewer people and more quiet.
When the ferry comes, there will be no coins of gold over my eyes, no shroud of silk. Three rays of light, returning to the sun, the rest of me melting into the rich brown loam.
Dickens Fair is in the process of transformation. It is a matter of changing or dying. Times have changed and it is no longer possible or desirable to privilege one group over another, or to deny the needs and chances of people on the basis of appearance, gender, or identification. I hope we make it through.
In the meantime, I have gone back to my roots, remembering why I loved Renaissance and Dickens Fairs so much, and how my feelings have changed. My Bartstationbard.com site has those posts.
I have also gone back to what amounts to an electronic version of the Faire application that used to be the standard. After all the contact and workshop info, we were faced with a blank page to be filled with our character bio.
A couple Dickens back, I tried to go back to busking. My character has a tin ear, and I was tired of playing a tart, so I created another. She lasted a year, I found the new rules unbearable. We were to be confined to one defined spot, and our repertoires were to be cleared in advance. We were carded on a regular basis. My gig became robotic, my mind on whether or not I was boring the boothies I was stationed in front of to tears, and where Security was. It was hard to spark interaction with the customers or the cast tucked away in a corner as I was, and by the end of the run I was through.
Roisin, however, thrived. We talked constantly with each other, and when Fair was over she was happy to go back to busking the transit stations with me. She discovered the Dropkick Murphys and fell in love with punk. She loved the freedom of my time. When we decided to pack it in at the end of the run we planned her exit. Her life had been largely chosen for her. I may have set the parameters, but in my head she told me her story. I have always done my best to let characters, whether written or played at Faire, tell their own stories. Choosing for them either leaves me alone in my costume, or produces a story with the consistency of cardboard.
Roisin’s story was built on my gig, and the what-if of giving it to an Irish girl who had been put into service in London because her parents could not support either her or themselves. What if, after fifteen years, when the Famine came, that family was destroyed, some dying in Ireland, and the rest emigrating to America? What if she lost her place, and met Jeremy?
Believe it or not, after setting her up with that awful situation, she still speaks to me. She quickly made a deal with Jeremy, continued to busk on the same terms the girls had, and at the end of the run, he got her on a ship to Boston where she joined her family. That was all I knew. It was plenty to work with then, and now it is a great excuse to do the rest of the research and tell that story. After all, one of the reasons it came alive so easily is that we have not worked through these issues to this day. All we have done is to cast other marginalized people in the roles. Now that the Irish have become white, it is quite clear what was going on then, and now.
Archive of our Own hosts original fiction as well as fanfic. It’s a great place for us to tell our character stories. When Fair has worked through the issues, we might just know each other better on and off the streets of London.
We spent a lot of time last weekend looking at our old photos of Faire, and topped it off with videos on YouTube. The videos in particular reminded me of the shape of the illusion we all created. While it is true that LHC made the playground, we made the Faire.
Over my desk there’s a collage of images. They cover much more than Faire. In the center is a woman made of branches, her heart of fire green in her breast and her face uplifted to the sky among her leaves. An enhanced computer image of Long Meg, with all her cup-and-ring decorations towers over her, scarred by the passage of time and floating in a black background. My backpack, outer clothing and bodhran case are grouped around a tree on the shore of Llyn Tegid, in Wales, but the image I look to now is of myself, bodhran in hand, in leine and wool bonnet in Witches Wood, at Black Point.
Back then things were far from perfect, but I walked into another time and place every morning. My bodhran and basket were on my back and the day was there for the living. I started my journey as a matter of fact, the same way I started my day at Dickens, with a cup of Chai at the Mullah’s and conversation with good friends. Kenny Millikan might regale us with the tale of the Dawn Haggis, a creature we could only glimpse in his words. He had a jar of soft sculpture backsides, which he swore were pixie butts. The Pixie would take up the story at this point, telling us how they fell off in the fall, and that each Pixie had a special dance that sent them flying.
We carried stories like this into the streets and told them to Travellers. Some embellished them further or spun off wild tales of their own. There were a pair of Celts who came to Faire every year and found me busking on the streets. They would persuade me to take a trip to an alestand with them, and we would roar through the Faire. I would drop off after a while to play another set, and let them continue their colorful ramble through the playground they visited once a year. You may remember them, or you may not, for they were an ornament to the time and place we all created together, and while they were the very picture of uproarious revellers, they never, to my knowledge, caused a problem. Would they be welcome today? I don’t know. They chose their level of participation, and had complete freedom on the day per year they chose. They would not have been out of place backstage, though of course they were never seen there. Some lines, it has been made quite clear to me, are not to be crossed.
As a busker, I walked until I was tired, kept my tankard full of water when I played–both singer and bodhran found song a thirsty business–and told tales in rhyme to the beat of the drum. I stopped when asked, as some of the vendors would want me to grace the area around their booths with my music, and also when the Faire beckoned. While I had specific places I favored for a set, I was not in any one of them for longer than an hour or so. I made it a point to never repeat a song within a set lest I cease to please and begin to grate on those whose trade kept them in one place.
To me, that endless round through the streets is now missing. Every nook and cranny is filled with a booth or a stage, and there is nowhere to stop without stepping on the perfectly timed shows. Performers run from one to another, rarely stopping to play in streets too small to build a world in! We are watched, and our flaws marked. While there do of course have to be certain standards, we are no longer trusted to want to uphold them, not because they render a world deeper and more colorful than the one we return to after the last chorus is sung, but because we have people working to reveal our flaws instead of praising our glories.
There are still good times to be had, and bright spots in days growing ever longer, but as a busker I have been chased from these streets. I am no longer Jeremy’s messenger, part of the web of the underworld of London. While I miss Roisin, or Lucy, as she was called in London, I take heart in the knowledge that Jeremy’s girls were only a temporary shelter for her. In the end she did manage to join her family in America where they fled from An Gorta Mor. Perhaps Lucy’s story will fork, as did Jeremy’s and Jenny’s. Perhaps not. The characters I played never were wholly confined to the Faire. They came from somewhere, and kept going after it was over. Knowing who they were and in the end where they went was a part of their living presence on the streets, and the memory they leave for me when they move on.
I unearthed a lot of photos last weekend. The long look back over forty-plus years of Faire was useful. It gave me perspective on the current situation. I had forgotten just how big Faire used to be. I’m not just talking about size, though there was a lot more space, and there were a lot more of us. No, the quality of the spell we cast collectively created an energetic container that we filled with a place that never was, and always will be. Back then we were a community, trusted to play our part in the act of creation. There were fewer rules and more magic.
I was told by a dear friend “If you’re not having fun, it’s on you.” It was meant well, more the Zen master with the rod than Bill Sykes with a bludgeon, and I did try seriously to follow the core of truth in that advice. Maybe it is me. I’m older, and perhaps not as easily amused. My old friends are fewer, and there are new faces among them, but that isn’t it either. I play on the streets, but with the determination of the lone salmon fighting its way to the source instead of the player grabbing an outstretched hand, leaping effortlessly in the dance, trusting the magic will be there to catch me. I even tried creating a new character and going back to busking to see what would happen. There are bright spots. Singing choruses in the afternoons with great and generous people in an environmental area that is open for the public to join us is tasting the past. It’s good to see the friends that are left. It is still possible to catch the edge of magic, and just for a moment lose oneself in Faire. Spirits still move between worlds. I can’t expect things to be the same as they were years ago and they shouldn’t be. Time marches on, change is part of life, but the river flows from the same source.
The magic has been squeezed into such a tiny space! The eyes are always on us. What are we wearing? What are we doing? Must be sure not to step out of line, to draw focus from a performance or break a rule. Above all, if you do, don’t get caught! Now we sit in neat rows in Mad Sal’s, singing along at the right times to prompt the crowd and create the proper soundscape. We take our gigs and conversations outside, the designated place for background color and noise. Living your character all day long is the exception, not the rule, and enough people drop character at the curtain to make it the boundary of the lovely illusion that is only half there as it is. We work Faire, instead of play. Disney has replaced Dickens. Our passes must be shown without exception to pass back and forth past the guards hired for the event. There is no more security and crew, people who knew us, were part of us.
Safety is an issue, I understand that. Trust has long ago been broken. Space is at a premium in a venue we have long outgrown. There have always been broken stairs and differential treatment that mirror the society we live in, but the sharp separation between customer and Faire folk was never so stark, and we looked after each other far more than we do now. The constant carding at the door and in the venue by strangers jerks us back into the present we are supposed to be casting a temporary spell on and we can’t pull the willing visitor into the dance any more.
Faire was always a dance on the edge. We played with time, with language, with the energy. It was never safe, and things have always happened that shouldn’t. Yes, it is past time to change some of those things, but never before were we ever so powerless that our only real option was to strike. We let union be, a song instead of a movement. We were a community, that family that management–for they have become management–keeps talking about.
Faire was a dance on the edge, but it wasn’t just physical. For a few short weeks we were part of another time and place, and the people who paid to get in came to taste it, and sometimes become part of it. You could get in free of charge if you did the thing Faire asked of you that day. Perhaps it was wearing a specific costume or the reciting of a Shakespeare sonnet. You played Faire and were let through the magic door to play your part. There were more participants and more room. Every inch was not sharply delineated for stage and booth and alestand. The village or London Town had twists and turns and places where magic could happen. The streets did not run in straight lines. There wasn’t a microphone to be found on the site and silence was not required at the sharp barrier where street now becomes stage. Players did not demand absolute attention because they knew how to take and hold stage, and when to release it. Our allegiance was to the illusion, not the script. Mad Sal’s roared with laughter and song, and you could play skittles inside, drink and converse in what was for a brief moment a real dockside alehouse, not a stage set with a bar outside.
Faire was always trying to rein us in, but back then they never succeeded. Danse Macabre could get away with tiptoeing across Main Stage and the players adapted instead of objected. A whole procession could disappear into a magic privy because the crew built the privies and one of them had doors on both sides. It was years ago before rented plastic boxes became the norm, before people of color were hired to clean the bathrooms and pick up the trash, no longer part of the crew, part of us. Yes, times have changed, the books balance much better than they did back then, but where is the magic that flowed like water and carried us halfway to Faerie? The ragged heroes have long disappeared around the last bend. The day has died like a rose. The Faire has come to a close.
Times change and so do we, the spirit of Faire a sleeping Beauty lying somnolent in the bed of Procrustes. Black Point has become Patterson Abbey. We are more concerned with the distance between plate and cutlery than we are with the people who spin a continuous reality out of the whole cloth of history. It is more important to have a costume, pattern carefully selected from an ever-dwindling range of years that matches the palette of the show than to wear clothes that suit our characters and their stories. We will be measured and photographed, the garb we provide at our own expense cleared in every detail before it can even be made. A tart may not wear a tattered ball gown she purchased at the old clothes market no matter how careful the research the participant has done to build the backstory. Like goes with like, the regimented sections of the stage will be respected. We will have Fagin and Oliver Twist, but Sikes must not kill Nancy. It’s a family show, after all.
My first Faire was the first time I ever felt I belonged. I met most of the best friends I’ve ever had there, and every one of my love affairs began at Black Point or Dickens. I remember feeling the years sliding off me as I traveled back in time, to that place where the very air vibrated with possibility and promise. We were creating a world each weekend that grew closer each passing year. One day, I was sure, we would just walk through into that land that I felt but could not imagine and longed to see.
I grew up. We all did. Black Point is gone, the possibilities sealed shut. Dickens was a sort of Brigadoon for a while, appearing irregularly in places that sparkled for a season and then disappeared. Then there was that magic first year in 2000, when we came back to the Cow Palace. We had to make it happen, to blow the flame back to life, and for a few years it felt like our home, the place we all created out of dreams, belief, and love.
The problem is, it isn’t “we” any more. Every year the grip of ownership grows tighter, and the vision more limited. The bars for entry, far from making the show better, have squeezed the magic into acceptable channels until it is in danger of draining away. As a member of a cast instead of a community, with every shekel counted and every entry securely guarded by strangers who take no part in the show, I struggle to keep my light alive as I wear the acceptable clothes, keep to the acceptable paths.
The Tale must be told anew for each new generation. The song remains the same, but it is sung by many voices, and we all must be free to shape our part in the dance. Change is part of life, and it takes a living community–with voices that are heard and heeded–to keep the magic alive.
I fear that those who think they own the magic know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Color palettes, silhouettes, and one trademarked vision of the period mean that many of us no longer have a place, and what was once a family is now a very expensive hobby for a select few.
Fair has never been period. This is a feature, not a bug to be stamped out. We cannot have offal in the streets, laudanum in the shops, or tarts taking their customers into the shadows. I do remember, however, being offered a hundred dollar bill by a customer in Fort Mason. I knew how to keep the illusion intact while slipping out of the very real offer too.
Where has the adventure gone, the days when a street urchin could end up step dancing on stage though she had no part cast in it, where we all roared the choruses to all the songs as we drank, laughed, and ran through Mad Sal’s? Twosie wasn’t particular, and no one sat quietly in neat rows to listen to mic’ed performers. The sailors rocked and rolled through the streets. They did their turns on stage, but kissed the (willing) tarts afterwards and had their run ashore. How many of us came to Fair to become our other selves for blissful hours, to take up our other lives and stories for a few too-short weekends? The streets are now too crowded with commerce to find a place to be ourselves, and buskers are limited to the one assigned pitch to play a specific approved set. No more roving where we may, part of the living tapestry of the city, delighting vendor and visitor alike as we played to please and to lose ourselves in the fantasy of the streets.
I remember period as the paintbox to our living canvases. I remember a few precious years of literally living Faire. Between seasons we gathered as groups, and as friends. I delighted in libraries and fabric stores, making clothes, not costumes, bringing what I found in books to life. We read widely and shared what we learned because the details of life in those two times and places, the Elizabethan and Victorian, were what we spun our alter egos from and made them come to life. I beat the pennanular brooch I wore out on an anvil myself, made the sheath for my dagger. I slept in the wool cloak I made in the hay toss and my street urchin self sewed garters by hand as she sat in the streets. We told the stories we created and lived on those streets. We knew the cost of a tart or a meal or how much a sailor made at Dickens, and played six dice in the street at Ren. I knew the gaelic pike drill commands and how to carry the weapon not because it was required, but because it was fun. I can still talk for hours in a variety of accents and tell you the story of my personae because part of the magic of Faire was that we not only got to keep our imaginary friends, we got to become them for a few precious weeks a year in the best playground ever.
I remember Sharkey, a dreamboat of a man in high leather boots, breeches and the rest. He was one of the boys I secretly lusted after, but of course he was out of my league. What matter the fact that he was Black? There were title roles back then too, of course, Sir Francis Drake, the Queen, and the like. Was there a color line back then? Undoubtedly, but times have changed. Undoubtedly, but there were so many of us back then, and so much less emphasis on historical figures that got the lion’s share of the action. The sheer diversity of stage shows and the originality of the pieces performed meant that there were many more opportunities, far less hierarchy, and a dizzying array of entertainment to watch and participate in.
It’s different now. Times have changed. Costs have risen. Black Point, tragically, is no more, and the Cow Palace seems smaller every year. There are far fewer places to play in the streets and fewer shows. So much is scripted where once there was the magic of losing oneself in another time and another persona. We wear carefully vetted costumes instead of clothing, and must conform–at our own expense–to a dress code that owes at least as much to “palette” and the look of the show as it does to period. We dance to the tune of the accountant instead of the song our hearts and creativity wrote each day on the street.
While the strings of the corset of management tighten, the world has changed. A smaller cast and a greater emphasis on the look of what has become a production instead of a community means that the glaring lack of diversity is, like the Emperor, naked. At the same time, the mold Hamilton broke has shown us what the future looks like. Bridgerton, The Irregulars and many others have exposed the lie that portrait casting is the only believable way to portray the past. Racism, sexism and genderphobia were always savage, unnecessary bigotries, but now they are at long last becoming quaint relics of the past.
The Tale must be told for each generation. The song remains the same, but the details can–and do–change. We no longer allow desperate women to pay for their unwanted babies to be slowly starved to death in a haze of laudanum while telling themselves that they have been “adopted.” We no longer are allowed to openly keep or sell people as slaves because of their color. We are far too slowly abolishing other loathsome practices as we climb painfully out of a past that had gutters as well as glories. Faire was ever a place of dreams and fantasies based on history. Once upon a time it was also, if not a democracy, at least a community.
I remember when Faire really was a family, when I woke up excited to be going and sad to be leaving. I remember food tickets, true participant tickets, and when security was a part of us, friends we hung out with after hours. I remember when the trash and cleaning crews were not poorly paid contract workers who are frankly, the true lower class at Fair, and mostly people of color.
The strength and magic of Faire was that it was wrought by many hands and guided, not driven, by people who realized that dreams must be held gently, and that there was a spirit that is fed and strengthened by diversity, creativity, and respect. If you do not allow all of us, the true founders of your feast, to at the very least have a chance to try out–and have a fair chance at playing–the roles that feed our dreams, then why should we allow you to continue to profit off us, and to pay for the privilege? Why should we give you our time, energy, creativity and money when you give so little in return? As an actor and a busker, I have not felt respected by Faire for a very long time. I hope that this time you will really consider what all of us have to say, and make some long-needed changes. If you do not, you might find yourselves becoming quaint relics of the past.
I’m not going to make a decision now. I’m going to be the grain of sand to your oyster. I will not work in an organization that treats people as you do, and I don’t feel the need to inform you of my plans when you do so much behind the scenes and at a moment’s notice. If things don’t change, I’ll sit this one out, and in any case, my shoulder will be to the wheel of change and working for the return of the entity I long ago gave my heart to. You will graciously allow those of us who leave to return if we so choose? Good to know. I’ll let you know when the time comes. I hope that together we produce a pearl.
Looking back is exactly what we need to do right now. How did we let it get this bad? What great change were we waiting for to fix it all? The sheer awfulness of this year and the time and energy we’ve all put in to cope with it allows things to just creep up on us until we remember how it used to be—what it really used to be like, not the candy coated piece of nostalgia various demagogues and swindlers try to persuade us to swallow.
An event like 9/11 is far enough back in time to make a meaningful comparison of now and then. Here in the US, we all remember where we were. This day reverberates, the echoes growing stronger or fainter depending on your distance from the US and the First World. Most of us looking to vote in less than two months look back on that day with photographic precision. I can tell you when and where I got up, what I did that day, and what changed. We were still operating on assumptions and conditions about our world that were not reflected in reality. We were missing deadlines and tipping points by design, too busy chasing success, or at least survival. The age was an Iron Maiden around us, just as it is now, but most of us didn’t notice. The sore places were familiar, the callouses thick.
Nothing is remotely comfortable today. I just ordered an air filter that won’t get here until after the smoke has likely cleared. I should have done it last year, when the fires returned. I woke up with a headache and sore throat for the second day in a row today. Like everything else in this time, it didn’t come on until the day after Apocalypse Day, when the sky turned orange and cars had to turn their headlights on at noon. Two days after the color has faded and the light is back, but the smoke is even worse. You can’t feel it, and the most frightening part of the visible signal is gone. The flames are not even out here in California and Oregon is now ablaze.
People were working down in that. Mail carriers were making deliveries, the trains in and out of San Francisco were only a little emptier. My question is, why were so many people riding them in the first place? You would think that after the fire seasons we’ve had in recent years someone would have had the sense to evaluate staffing levels and relative risk the moment they woke up to a sky out of Mad Max and notified everyone not truly essential to stay home.
I was an essential worker a day later. My only real job is to watch the front gate. A security guard is needed, if no one else is outside on site, and we are set up to do that job as safely as possible. We have a fairly tight office to sit in with windows that allow us to see what we need to. The COVID modifications were largely made months back, and they double nicely for the smoke that has been the newest addition to a California summer for the last half decade.
My house is not nearly that well prepared. Today I’m cradling a cup of breathe easy tea and contemplating the cost of new windows. I know that to do the job of sealing this house is beyond us, and that so many other problems of its aging structure make other repairs far more important.
This is the banality of evil. This is how we are kept so busy keeping our own acts together that we don’t realize that the other tactic—separation from each other—is being so skillfully employed. We all have our own problems, and we shouldn’t expect anyone to come and rescue us, right? We treasure our independence above all else in this country. No one should pay our way, right?
This current set of crises couldn’t have been better designed to show the flaws in that worldview. Nothing but literal invasion from space would have been more capable of bringing us together. I’d almost welcome something so bizarre, as it would feed into our cultural conditioning of “us” against “them”, at least for the duration of the emergency.
Many, many people have observed that we aren’t in the same boat. COVID and wildfire smoke offer yet more concrete proof. The Trader Joe’s I went to after work yesterday was open. So was the door. The clerks were not wearing N95s, but they were there when I needed them. The transit operators who were there to drive me home made it possible for me to avoid walking any further than necessary. While they had better masks, it was only a matter of degree. Those people and many more are showing the daily heroism of the essential worker. Our appreciation has waned, and they are generally not getting hazard pay for what they are doing.
So the hierarchy is preserved even in our degrees of suffering. We’re arguing about the relative ease and comfort of our individual rungs on the ladder. What we should be arguing about is the necessity to climb one at all in order to have “made it.” In order to eat and have a roof over our heads. Respect, happiness, peace of mind—you name it.
These things should be our birthright. Not necessarily the “fully automated luxury gay space communism” we laugh about on Facebook, but we should all have our basic needs met and a chance at some joy in our lives. We humans are a successful enough species to accomplish that for ourselves. Go back 5,000 years—go back a century, before all the wild places had been discovered, and at least some indigenous people who could still live on their own land and practice their own culture managed it—without destroying the ecosystem they lived in. They can do that again, and we can as well. All we have to do is get out of their way, return what lands we can, and consider our own situations and our relationships with all that lives.
We should all have the right to refuse work. We have the ability, but having to choose between hazardous duty and not eating isn’t really a choice, now is it? It’s very apparent who is ordering us into the danger zones. How many times is that person standing beside us?
Before you say “fake news,” read the article and watch the video. I can walk you to encampments in my own neighborhood, places I pass on my way to the train or the ferry. Some of the individual living arrangements are pretty elaborate, showing the skill and ingenuity of the builder, but why are they there at all? There is empty housing all over the city, but it all belongs to someone and we aren’t collectively willing to pony up what it would take to get our neighbors inside and off the street.
Your area’s problem isn’t likely to be the same as mine. There are different, distressing problems popping up in all sorts of places. They all share one thing, though. They’re systemic and they’re about power and its Jekyll and Hyde twin, money. It isn’t possible for my neighborhood to band together and get the people in tents into the empty house down the street from me, any more than the residents of the Star motel could keep the lights on by passing the hat every time the electric company came around. Someone owns these places, goods, and services, and they expect to be paid. People paid the going rate for labor have no realistic way of forcing the issue for pay that allows them to live good lives.
There have been attempts to unionize fast food restaurants. Can you name even one that has succeeded, and has been effectively unionized for a year or more? Being part of a union’s formation at the moment, I can tell you that even with an enforceable right to unionize that protects one’s job, it is a hard road, much harder than the person who runs the workplace has to walk.
I question the whole structure we’re laboring under. That’s the scariest thing of all to the people at the top. They are busily proving that they will do absolutely anything to keep us doing our jobs, whether they’re essential or not. We have just seen a huge swath of people defunded with the lapse of the unemployment insurance relief that should have been a no-brainer for Congress. Why is there no bailout for the citizens as well as the corporations? Why was it so necessary to call the people who had just had the social safety net cut from beneath their feet too lazy to work? There were no jobs available for them. There is no excuse for anyone to have nowhere else but the streets to live on, or for workers to be forced out into the smoke with no realistic way to say no.
November 3rd is our next decision point. Our choices are designed—in part by us—to restore the status quo if at all possible. However, the choice is still clear to me. The incumbent has had the last four years, and more importantly the last nine months to deal with the pandemic. The information and the advisor, in the form of Fauci, was right there. He needn’t have done a perfect job, but surely we could have done at least as well as Italy? I sit in a room full of filtered air once a week because someone with a little power and some common sense did what was possible. Not perfect, but all that was possible, given the circumstances.
Trump has pushed that defense past the point of reason, let alone plausibility. He was in charge, and we know, if we have any memory and sense at all, that the administration he is responsible for creating and managing dismantled every preparation previous administrations had put in place that they could. By now, you have likely made up your mind about what you’ll do in November. If you are prepared to trust Trump (and have read this far), I can only hope there are fewer than you than there are of us. Because that’s the only way we will ever get back to a world where we know there is no “them” there’s only “us”.
So where were you on September 11, 2001? What did your world look like back then? How does it look now, and how did it get to where we are right now? What world do you want to wake up to next year at this time?
Years back, in saner times, I went walking in Wildcat Canyon. It was midsummer, the green was creeping down the hills as the relentless sun of the dry season drove the water downhill. I sat under an oak tree and looked at the patterns the color made as gold engulfed green. I came there often and was realizing just how easy it was to get a specific lesson from the land, just by taking the time to really observe. The pennyroyal patch that I’d been making cups of tea from was obviously a place where water pooled below the surface even in summer. The reeds grew in another low place for part of the year. The bracken grows in winter, the wet season when our biome comes alive, and its brown skeletons can be seen as the dry season sucks the green plants dry. The hills are pale gold and the hum of life rises to a subtle scream of heat and light that stretches the days to the breaking point. This is when fire stalks the land. For a time, the only patches of green are the depressions between the hills, the streams marked by the trees that grow on their banks. The alders grow on the lower hills, closest to the water, the oaks and laurels take over from there and dot the hills. The huge purple thistles and Himalayan blackberries, brought by people who should have known better, are happy in their new home on the hills and in large thickets, and broom, another plant that was brought here, crowds out the native coyote brush and ceanothus.
I used to live close enough to ride there. I’d lock up my bike in the parking lot and walk the road that goes nowhere, my very own dystopic landscape when such places were delicious fantasies instead of looming realities. I’d think of what it would be like to be a nomad on a bicycle, living off the land and having adventures.
There is a turnoff and a steep section of hill that ends at a cattle gate. You can let yourself in and continue up the dirt road to the remains of what was once an estate, and then a sanitarium, and then was consumed by fire over half a century ago. What was once a long driveway lined with palm trees is now a rough trail with one or two weatherbeaten survivors, their trunks stout and battered by the struggle of living in a climate they were never meant for. Among them are oaks and bay laurels, the remains of rose bushes, and the low lines of what were once walls. There is a set of steps ending in grass, a fine place to sit, and further on an orchard reduced to a few stunted apple trees sheltered by a snaggletoothed line of cypresses. Strike off for the top of the ridge once you pass the line and there is a brass benchmark set in the bare top of the hill. The view is impressive, you can see the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais, the refinery with its round tanks off in the distance.
That day though, the heat had driven me off the ridge into the shade. I was thinking about the planet and how we were changing it. How it must feel to be the earth as it warmed. The hot day was a reflection of the planetary fever we are creating as we move the stored carbon from the land into the sky. I closed my eyes in meditation and asked the Earth what it felt like to breathe as a planet right then.
I began to feel the heat as I hadn’t before. My throat was dry, and I wanted to lie down. The air was drying me out, and my eyes popped open. I took a gulp of water from my canteen but it didn’t help. Each breath was drawn with difficulty, through the thinning tube of my throat. I began to panic.
Then I remembered what I had asked and realized what was probably happening to me. If it wasn’t, I was far from help and this was before the age of the cell phone. I did lie down, and slowly took a deep breath. I felt the land beneath me, holding me up, and spent some time just breathing, sending the fear down into it, reducing my need for air in stillness, looking up through the leaves above me, the bits of blue sky above. Slowly, the dizziness subsided. I wasn’t sick, not really. The Earth wasn’t even sick. Things were just a bit harder than they had been and I was a vessel far too small to contain the Earth’s pain. I sat up, drank more water, and thought about what had happened.
It has been years since I lived in Richmond. That day I’d driven up there on a whim, wanting to see the place again. As I walked back to my car, a battered silver Honda that had taken me on many an adventure, I realized that this had to be my last car. The Earth could take no more and I would no longer be part of this madness. Yes, my gas-crunch car sipped rather than gulped. It was tiny enough to fit in any possible parking place. Its emissions were so low that smog places asked me what I’d done to it, suspecting modification. I’d bought it from a guy who’d had tears in his eyes as he’d turned over the keys. Impulsively, I’d asked him what its name was. He said “Phoenix,” so fast and low I almost missed it. It had been rear-ended by an SUV, the back hatch had been crushed, but the frame was fine and the car did live up to its name. For practicality, and I admit to add to the Road Warrior ambiance, I popped the back hatch open, installed a couple of hasps on the sides, and padlocked it shut. I loved it like a member of the family. In the end, Phoenix died when a truck turned left in front of us on Highway 1 out of Crescent City. I managed to get down to 35 by standing on the brake. I wasn’t hurt, my coffee hadn’t even been spilled. Phoenix was totaled. With tears in my eyes, I turned it over to a wrecker and in the end joined a carshare.
Today the sky is hazy. The morning light was strained through smoke, the color of fine old Scotch and smelling like it has every summer for the last few years. Fire season is so beautiful, and so sad. We won’t be burning, we live in the city. We are lucky enough to be able to stay inside, able to do the right thing in a pandemic, but so many of us have to go out there, have to work or flee burning houses, or to places where we can breathe.
We’ve triggered planetary defense mechanisms, passed tipping points. In California, we are seeing the beginning of desertification. The forests are changing, turning to savanna in some places, changing their composition in others, burning and dying in places that were once beautiful. Sudden oak death is taking the oaks on Mt. Tamalpais. They are being supplanted by bay laurel and Douglas fir. What will happen to the redwoods, who need their feet in the water? Big Basin is burning, the oldest California State Park, home to the giants.
We’ve targeted the atmosphere, that thin layer of gases that the lives of so many creatures depend upon. It’s as if the planet is sending humanity the same message I received when I asked my question years ago. In specific areas, for specific people, we can’t breathe. And yes, we are compounding our folly by choking innocent people to death, as if to make this human-made tragedy complete.
COVID-19 is the icing on the cake. A disease carried by the air. It most often settles in the lungs, and most people survive it, but that is a deception that only allows it to move more freely among us. As it spreads on our breath we find it has so many more ways of killing or causing permanent harm. A zoonotic disease, it has spilled over into humanity because we can’t seem to share this planet we are part of, and collectively we don’t care about any of the other beings on this planet except as they relate to us. The remedies to limit its spread are simple, but unpleasant and expensive and require cooperation and sharing what we have.
We are being tested—not by a faraway being who created the Earth as some Petri dish to see how far the experiment will run, but by ourselves. We are stretching the limits of our only home and we have nowhere else to go should we damage our habitat to the point it can no longer sustain us.
We can stop this. The test we have devised for ourselves has no individual solution. Living a climatically virtuous lifestyle—whatever that is—is a way to experiment and find alternatives to the unbridled pursuit of growth that has been the norm for the last ten millennia, but it is like throwing a bucket of water on a forest fire. It will not save us as individuals. Enough of us have forgotten how to live as if other people matter, as if other species matter to push us over the edge of the carrying capacity of this place we call home, and until and unless we learn to live as part of a collective superorganism, which is, after all, what this planet is, we will not survive. Like everything else here, alone in the sea of space, we are all connected. Our actions in this time matter deeply. We are unlikely to extinguish all life, but we can certainly extinguish ourselves.
I don’t know how to fix this. The caterpillar doesn’t know how to become a butterfly, but it does so. Are we part of a galaxy, a universe, where this sort of metamorphosis happens? We won’t know unless we make it to the other side. It may turn out that we’re worrying for nothing, that what feels like death approaching is only the process of transformation. All I know is that when we seek stillness and listen to the rest of the world we do know what we shouldn’t be doing.
Our planet lies between two others, Venus and Mars, that for reasons we do not yet understand went in opposite directions, one falling victim to a runaway greenhouse effect and the other possibly losing the ability to support an atmosphere and retain liquid water. Did they ever support life? We won’t know if we don’t survive, but we do know that continuing to fill our atmosphere with carbon dioxide is a foolish thing to do.
I am not for an instant calling the current pandemic a blessing. My own country is closing in on 200,000 deaths, and the havoc and death that has been created by one little virus is not something any sane person would wish for. It is, however, the kind of shock that can create change. The countries who have taken it seriously and taken sensible action to deal with the crisis are beginning to recover. It is blindingly obvious what needs to be done and the consequences of not doing these things. I’m not going to go into those actions because they are being discussed worldwide and the information is available to anyone who chooses to open their eyes.
These things aren’t easy for people who have been accustomed to thinking only of themselves, their families, their nations, their species. Doing them will mean we have at last begun to grow up as a species and realize that we must act for the good of the whole. We will be on the road to planetary consciousness. It will mean that we think before we act, and we observe and learn from the world around us instead of looking for the facts that justify the actions we wish to take.
Someday, when we have done what we need to, I will walk in a wild place once more. Until then I will stay inside and remember what I have learned. Once upon a time I walked the ridge above Wildcat Canyon, camped beside the sea at Point Reyes, stood inside a redwood in Big Basin. Is that tree still standing? What will be left of Point Reyes? Or, like so many beautiful places, will they be only memories?