Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hand Work: On Deeply Knowing

“June Gloom,” coastal California’s early, grey, summer weather, pulls us San Diegans back into a false winter, to the quiet, hunkering down that we thought was well past. Embarrassed for our city, we pity the poor tourist who has escaped her city’s icy or sweltering extremes to find herself here, cheated by the absence of the sunny and balmy days promised by our vacation brochures.

Winter patterns remerge. There is a strange, disorienting silence that hangs over the house and throughout the neighborhood. Body and mind are ready for summer, but the cues are all wrong. It’s the undifferentiated time—the time without shape or purpose—that makes me feel like small mammals are running around inside my skin. It is during false winter that I prescribe for myself the medicine of writing by hand.

My antidote to this restlessness is a two-part concoction. First I read so that I can be drawn into the voice and thoughts of someone other than my own. For me, reading is a morning activity—a way to gently enter the new day. On reading mornings I forego the newspaper so as not to clutter my head with more of the information “white noise” that permeates our culture. I declare a news moratorium day.

Secondly, as I read I keep a small journal next to me in which I write the date, the name and author of the book, unknown words and their definitions, entire passages from the text, my thoughts about certain passages, and links to new ideas generated by the reading. Often the author’s ideas lead me to forgotten or waylaid events or activities of both my past and present.

This small act is an exercise in and of patience and focus. I do this activity by hand, with a favorite mechanical pencil bought in my intimately stocked, neighborhood stationary store. If I succumb to the speedier computer as my collaborative interface I would not be able to slow down sufficiently to reflect deeply on the task in front of me. Instead, I would rifle through the Internet, my hard drive, and various other pieces of digital and analog information grabbing whatever seemed relevant; writing and erasing, cutting and pasting my way to a re-mix text.

Serendipitously, I’ve been reading the new book by Gary Paul Nabhan, the gifted writer and ethnobotanist. Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods “tells of his year-long mission to eat only foods grown, fished or gathered within two hundred miles of his home.”

Falling into his books is like catching up with an old friend. I know his voice; have heard it across the Sonoran desert as he visits his Tohono O’odham friends, along the pilgrims path to the home of St. Francis of Assisi in Umbria, and in the midst of his rediscovered family in the Bek√°a Valley of Lebanon. He has spent his life studying the plants that have nurtured the indigenous people of the Southwest, collecting seeds and stories along the way. Reading this new book I think, “Old friend, you have set yourself an interesting task. Where do you think it will lead you? What do you hope to discover along the way?”

Nabhan’s work reintroduces a yearning that has been waiting off to the side of consciousness: my desire to know something deeply and all the way through. The author has placed himself in a high state of awareness of an entire network of knowledge. He has done so by slowing down sufficiently to examine all sides of one particular question: how do the food gathering, preparation and distribution systems that underlie our lives affect us physically, politically, socially and spiritually? In this year plus experiment he will make that awareness an inextricable part of his life patterns, and it will lead him to knowing the very DNA of the questions he has posited.

How do I slow myself down in the same way? These days I cannot escape the feeling that I am a fiber optic cable network with millions of information bytes rushing past and through me. I am a conduit. I discover, think about, and share information. When I slow down to write, as I am doing now, I feel barely in control of the wild horses under my hands. In what the poet Diane Gage describes to me as “the squirrel mind” I have already created the ideas and their conclusions; it is just the words that are holding up the finished product!

What I know I fear I know only on the surface. I know that there are a myriad of unexplored, complex and perhaps groundbreaking relationships between objects, people or processes. I might even begin to think about what those relationships look like, and what they might mean. But beyond that, the deep ocean of knowing lies tantalizing beyond the horizon. The information age promised just that—information. What we have, in reality, are the edges of facts, and factoids at that.

I am trying to move away from what I call “the administrative life” so that I can fully embrace, without guilt, “the purposeful life.” Good Calvinist guilt keeps me worried about Getting Organized, that never-ending process of sorting, culling, and restacking. I’ve hired an assistant to help me get my studio and office (finally) under control—an activity familiar, I’ve no doubt, in purgatory, with the same unfathomable version of heaven promised at the end.

This morning, before beginning today’s frantic Organizing Before the Assistant Gets Here, I sat out on my backyard desk eating my breakfast (two fried eggs) and reading another chapter in Nabhan’s work. I was interrupted in his account of traveling to the headwaters of the Colorado River by the sound of scratching above me in the rain gutters. Looking up I met the gaze of a scrub jay that seems to know me, or at least the sunflower seeds and peanuts I bring to the feeders along the edge of our canyon. He has become bolder as the weeks and months have passed, coming ever closer to wherever I am in the yard. A crew of mourning doves, finches, and jays regularly collects on the power lines as soon as I emerge from the house, but it is this scruffy fellow who dares to approach me as a sentient being reminding me of my responsibilities to the canyon community of which I am but a small part. He perches above, then swoops past me to the fence post next to where I’m eating. “Hurry up, I’m hungry,” he seems to say.

That’s when it comes to me, after all the reading (including Sara B. Stein’s inspiring book, Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our own Backyards) it is the jay that gives me a clue. “Stay here in this urban canyon and deeply notice us. Build a relationship with us—the stay-at-home and migrating birds, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, possums, mice, squirrels and foxes. Let us help you reach that quiet spot inside yourself that allows you to touch your writing and painting; to slow your brain so your hands can do their work. Know us completely and ultimately know yourself.”

So I have begun to focus on this tiny pocket canyon, like Nabhan has done for his ecological “range” of foods, animals and people. I live in the seventh largest city in the United States, and have no illusions that this is “country.” But San Diego is blessed with a network of canyons that separate the mesas on which our urban fabric rests. I know what lies along her busy streets. My path of discovery is located through what lies between.

More on Gary Paul Nabhan:

Gary Nabhan is the director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. Among his many accomplishments during his years of studying and living in the Southwest, Nabhan co-founded the non-profit conservation group Native Seeds/SEARCH, spearheaded the Ironwood Alliance (responsible for research and public support that led to a 120,000 acre Ironwoods Forest National Monument), and initiated the Traditional Native American Farmers' Association. For such cross-cultural collaborations, he has been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Conservation Biology. Nabhan crosses disciplinary, linguistic and ethnic boundaries with apparent ease, an essential skill for someone who lives and works among many different communities in the Southwest.

In his position as the first Director of CSE, Nabhan is responsible for coordinating an expanding array of environmentally oriented programs and initiatives which bridge the NAU campus with the surrounding region. He is also a tenured professor in Applied Indigenous Studies and the Center for Environmental Sciences and Education, and helps to oversee the Graduate Certificate program in Conservation Ecology. Nabhan's writing is widely anthologized and translated, and has won the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing, a Western States Book Award, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.