In the Style section of the New York Times today I read about a group of folks living off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. There are pictures of their composting toilet, hand pump at the well,  rudimentary kitchen spaces and blackened wood stoves. Everything about them is familiar, the colors they choose to wear, the worn out elbows of a sweater, chipped black fingernail polish and choppy home haircuts. It is impossible for me to imagine how these people and their spaces seem to someone who has never been there, has never been them. I am so close to them that I laugh out loud, “The style section?”.  I am glad to see this in the style section, it is confusing and funny and right. It is a lifestyle and it has its markers, a mix of work clothes and thrift store sweaters and some felted wool something or other. Layers and vests and multi pocket pants, good wool socks, boots, but mostly its an inimitable look to the face, in the eyes, something clear. I miss them and I don’t even know them, these strangers in the Style section, looking out from a slightly sideways vantage. I wonder how they feel about the article when they see it. They seem a little shy in front of the photographer. I don’t blame them, there is a bit of paranoia that accompanies this lifestyle, a self protection and an insider outsider dynamic that the article does not address or even make mention of. But why would it, it is the style section, and substantive consideration of what gives the style its form, texture, or tone is often glossed over. Subcultures like these are often depicted from great distances, that seems ok some of the time. The photos in the piece are terrific and I am pretty sure the article presented this more as a lifestyle piece than a Style piece, but it still makes me smile, shake my head a little bit.

I left a long time ago now. That hasn’t been my life or style in over a decade. I have been here in the city for as long as I lived out in the bush, out in the hills, out in the country, out in the woods, away, away. It is true that I miss that lifestyle in ways I never thought I would. Little freedoms, pissing in the wind, ass out in the woods, just pissing on the ground- that is strangely a big one. Also I am missing all the stars, the plants that need tending, the garden full of food to pick and eat, berries in the woods, mushrooms, making big pots of tea, chopping fire wood, making dinner for a crowd, pans full of mushy vegan slop. It was tiresome, it was a lot of work, and then so is this life in the city.

This longing to return to the woods is so suspicious to me though, tied up in strawflowers and clay, a bucket swinging, a walk up a hill, stillness, startled bird flight, tall grass, moon light and a hatchet,  a shovel and a spade. How can I long for this half remembered life, these bits and pieces? The leaping and arching romance that sparks and blazes into my tired urban heart is something I have learned to mistrust, it is an escape fantasy, I know what it is. I am not going to believe this lonely song anymore, “the thing is better elsewhere, life is easier, more complete, la la la la la…” , it is a refrain, I sang it when I lived in the woods and I sing it now in the city.

 Longing is a thing unto itself, it has its own scent, texture, taste, it is full of itself and is fine to witness and even to swim about in, but it is duplicitous and manipulative and would keep me constantly dissatisfied if I heeded its call all the time. The longing calls me away into fantasy, a distraction to the work of remembering and of writing and of making a new world with my words. I have to put myself in this chair because I need to call up this story more completely than I have. Longing drives me to write and keeps me from writing, so I have learned to be so careful with this thing. All I can do is watch- the shape that the longing takes, the speed at which it travels, the ferocity of its claims. I watch now, the ideas I was so enamored with have begun to come apart. A process of decay and of break down that I will let happen, I will just watch. If I can, I will just watch. The words are the story and I will tell it to you. 

August Fire

August Fire

The black and gold cat they call Mountain Face is moving swift and low out of the dark line of the woods, down the hill and across the bleached grass lit pink by smoke filtered sun. The ominous taste is in my mouth, and the sky has not cleared for days. On my way up to the farm the radio said the fire is now the biggest in state history. I drive past the staging ground for the fire fighters, a dusty tent city on the north end of State street just before I turn west to drive the switchbacks over and down the tight ridges and canyons to get to this sixty five acres at the edge of the redwoods. 

The old road between the one and the 101 is pitted and coming apart in fissures and chunks that surprise with a bone shaking bounce. I know the road- so I zip close and in control- slow for the big lumps that would throw me off.

The smoke is idle in the valleys all around- erasing rows of ridges to the east and west. At the peak above town I stop and take pictures of the disappeared mountains of the national forest, the smoke pouring slow, decadent and insistent. Its a bad acrid smell. It’s telling a tale, it’s giving evidence and can not be ignored.

Next day in the early morning I begin to work, before the heat of the day, I am reaching, then squatting and ducking, over and under a hedge of marijuana chest high. The flowers are ripe and sticky and the fingers of my left hand are thick with the plant’s resin. This is the beginning of harvest. The left hand holds, as tenderly as possible, the ripe full flower, creating leverage as the right hand finds the base of the stem of the biggest fan leaf and removes them one at time from the branches. Careful not to tear the plant, I can tell right away if the leaf will pull off with a twist or a pluck- it is a practiced move that first tests the resistance, the vitality of the hold of leaf to stem. I start from up above and then once I have thinned the big rough fan leaves, move down below to the understory.  I practice being methodical and work my way from one plant to the next, down one side of the hedge, as far as my arms can reach, clearing all these leaves until the buds to be harvested are nearly naked, trembling from my touch in the sun. Weird stinking flowers, sparkling and gooey under hand,  all beneath the fringy canopy of this clearing in the redwood forest, smoke taste in the back of my throat. At some point in my work I realize that it is time to cut the whole plant down. The bugs that feast on the largest leaves and build webs in the flowers, if given enough time and heat, are starting to make their move. The plants need to be cut down now before the valuable flowers are destroyed by the webs of the multiplying mites. 

So the lead guys rustle up a helper for me and the two of us hack the branches off the plants until the pale woody stems are sticking up like boney fingers from the earth of the raised beds. Lars is working fast across the row from me, a big solid person with California all through his face. His smile is easy, his whole body done in broad golden colors, blue eyes sparking, his voice too, is home to me, deep and lilting, stoked, and at ease- with work, land, and himself. The branches, with the heavy sticky flowers, we pile in massive rubbermaid bins- breaking down two or three plants and stacking them this way, gently at an angle so the flowers are intact.  Then we move into the shade, and buck them down. This means we take a branch and cut it into smaller pieces, pulling even more of the fan leaves until just the flower is left and the plant can dry on a hanger in the cool dark barn.  Standing in the shade with the leaves building up in piles around my feet we work in teams, and the surfer boy working next to me chats me up nonstop. It is fun- we talk about all the far out stuff, Lumerians and mass extinctions, climate change and the changing world of the Marijuana economy. We trade UFO stories and fire predictions, we talk about the lights in the forest no one can explain, raising children in the wilderness and the pleasures of surfing. Time slides by and there is no phone to check up here. I listen to the shouts of the kids and the wheels of the skateboards on the half pipe under the redwoods. Chickens fluff and peck in the garden and the old one eyed dog named Einstein warbles and growls in his dusty dreams in the dirt of the driveway.  Stretching suddenly and inexplicably getting up and nosing around my legs looking for a pat on the head, a blocky remnant of some rotteweiller line in him and he is a tough looking sweetheart. I watch him walk stiffly away looking for shade and I let my eyes wander over piles of plastic grow pots and stacks of heavy duty rubbermaids, irrigation tubing, pipes, wires, generator parts, a dirt bike partially tarped, a caged plastic fuel tank, an Audi sports car from the late 80’s, kids toys in a profusion of color and decay. The woods make the strongest impression but the sound of the generator kicking on reminds me of how dependent and tenuous the little foothold in the forest is, how linked to carbon capitalism these once underground operations really are. 

I wanted to stay away. The pay is terrible these days and my past is thick around me up here,  but the land is so achingly beautiful and the night so perfectly quiet and crusty with stars and the dreams that come while I Iay beneath that sky are so strange and strong, that I go back anyway.  In the night I hear rustling, the green house plastic flapping, I see a red light that increases in intensity and then fades out in the little windows of the cabin where I lay my sleeping bag out. I feel so tired and so good up here, it feels like I could be abducted by aliens or the world could end and I would be alright with that. These woods make me want to disappear, they are so beautiful and strange.

I want to get away from the city and the confusion and the people and the feeling of incredible futility, the race towards our own annihilation that I observe every day from the windows of my apartment. Cars and trucks and buses hurtling as fast as they can through the block I live on, the only block on the road without a traffic light. Some mad urge is in play- to go as fast as one can through this one intersection before the next light catches you, demands you stop and wait. It is absurd to watch and it tells me all I need to know about the likelihood that we as a community, that we as a nation, that we as a global species will slow down enough to prevent the cataclysmic undoing of the delicate balance our climate rests inside- the precariousness of our ability to survive on this planet is willfully ignored in the rush to get to the next intersection, the next destination, the next whatever. 

When I do return to the city I can think only of the trees and the smoke, both of which appear to be linked in an unfurling edge, a fractal line sparking and moving in the wind and the sun. Trees and smoke, the heat and dust, the dry burnt line of ridges still not healed from the fires that raged through Redwood Valley last year at this time. My friend Sean lost his home during that inferno, I know he stopped growing weed shortly thereafter. When I saw him this last time we sailed out into the Bay and looked north to see the double plumes of smoke rising from the fires in Mendocino this year, fires they say are the largest in California history. A beautiful sunny day, sparkling bay and porpoises racing beside us and he never mentioned that loss, even as the smoke up north thickened and crawled across the horizon in a gloomy yellow circle. 

From The Throats of Angels

In the dark leafy close mountains 

there are more ways than one 

to get somewhere 

and I am sure we are not going 

in and out of focus 

for no reason at all


There must be something 

That hides in there

A feeling anyway

Of love and loss


And so I take my heart from my chest 

in a triumphant gesture 

and look at its glistening meatiness 

in the quiet of my grief 

and I can say 

it does not look like this 



That in between 

someone will have a reason 

to wrap arms 

gauze bandages 

flower essences 

tribal tattoos from the vending machine in the supermarket in Joshua tree 

around me 


There is some soft light 

and a good feeling 

of being together 

and knowing 

the quiet 

the way 

to consider 

the silence 

as speech


Me you and what we want 

unfolding in between 

Our grey hairs multiplying 

and the folds of flesh 

piling up in the creases 

and to remind us of mountains


And that memory has no volume 

and slides and shifts 

only occasionally taking up space within me

In the form of architecture 

In the form of the architecture 

of dreams


For I am as always house haunted 

and there I am again 

thinking of place 

and how extraordinary it would be 

to find a place 

to build a bit 

in the stars 

in the sea 

in the forest 

in the river


That you and me are here 

to be aware 

and think out loud 

in picture form 

and try to show 

and share 

the rising 

unsettling notions 

of multiplicity


And this is why I sing to the trans and the poly and the multi


But further and further yet we need to go.


To sliding in and out of meaning and of knowing


If only to recall 

in brief 

and unpredictable moments 

the strange light that emanated 

from the throats of angels

tall as towers 

that picked you up 

and tossed you with joy 

back and forth 

as if a toy 


and you remember this to me in the shivering dark of our little house by the sea.