I’ll Remember April

Friday, October 21st, 2016

(April Wells 1943-2016)

I loved you for your name–
the bloom of youth, the standing daffodil.

I loved you for your voice, in full Canadian lilt
Its high and low note chord.

I loved you for your strength,
To clear the brush and split the wood,
and raise those kids alone
in the dark house across the road.

I loved you for the gifts you brought—grace and song and dance

kenneth to left, april wells, debbie keane, steven marx, backrow joann sorenson, jan christie

And for the gifts you gave–confidence and joy

I loved you for your laugh.


Portals: Jeanne Lyons’ Show at ArtSpring August 2016

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

At the entrance to her current show of drawings and sculptures at ArtSpring, Jeanne Lyons greets the visitor with a verbal introduction as dense and suggestive as the visuals lining the gallery’s labyrinthine walls:

… the pieces in this exhibit portray portals, doorways into other realms, of one kind or another. Compassionate curiosity and a willingness to suspend what we think we know can lead us into unknown lands where we discover a much vaster world. Anything that we experience in the moment, whether we consider it “positive” or “negative,” can be a portal when approached in this way.

Following her direction, at the bottom of the stairway leading downward my gaze was drawn by “portal #4,” an image I recognized from the tiny version I’d seen on the Gallery’s website.


Its flat bilateral and concentric symmetry focused on a blank pink central bullseye. But soon the cool geometry of curved and pointed shapes gave way to a thick surface texture of scratches and hand-applied pigment. Then, as another passage of the artist’s statement came to mind, the whole image popped into three dimensions:

I have been a midwife for over 30 years. Currently I am an instructor in the Midwifery Program at the University of British Columbia. Midwifery is an art and a science. In this field, an area of particular interest to me is incorporation of the arts into the teaching of health care.

Whether intended or not, this “doorway into other realms” struck me as the portal between prenatal and postnatal life, regarded from either side.

The adjacent portal, titled “Alchemical Gate,” appeared as another variation of the same visual and conceptual themes.


Both receding from and radiating toward the viewer, its vibrant colors conveyed the fiery energy of transformation pulsing into and out of its center. The representational suggestion here was of a red Tori gate, the portal of a Shinto temple that marks “the boundary between sacred world of the shrine and the profane world outside”–both an invitation and a barrier. http://www.nihonbunka.com/shinto/blog/archives/000051.html

Portal 2, the third in the series on this wall, offered me no entry into “unknown lands.” But its vibrant colors, wildly flittering crayon strokes, and hints of vibrating body shapes expressed a pure explosive energy.


Portal 3, completing the series on this wall, was the most sedate of gateways.


It strengthened the emphasis on vertical and bilateral symmetry of the first two portals, superimposing and melding their circular and perpendicular structures into a kind of mandala: “a diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically…” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandala  At the center of this piece’s concentric circles lay a doorway-shaped rectangle within which appeared schematic human figures of diminishing size nested and receding toward the vanishing point. Could this, I wondered, be a representation of the chain of generations–through the gate of birth, as in Portal 4, or through the gate of death depicted as a set of occupied coffins?

This show includes about 25 additional pieces, each of them mysterious, haunting, and highly crafted. All of them open portals: into the artist’s dreams, into the visual languages of native myths, and into the horrors of environmental and humanitarian cruelty around the globe.

Crossing the Inlet

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

It was only the reduced ferry service leaving two hours to kill before the departure from Earl’s Cove that finally convinced me to pull off the main road and take the driveway marked by the sign: “Iris Griffith Nature Centre.” I had passed it many times on our annual road trip from California to Lund, intrigued by what I imagined was a little old lady’s back yard with labels identifying plants. But that was never enough to get me to delay entering the final stretch of the three-day drive to our home away from home at the end of the road. This time, alone with our nine-year old grandson, Lucas, I decided to satisfy my curiosity.


The gravel track through the forest opened to a large clearing. Through an artfully designed gateway I saw a bunch of kids engaged in some kind of race on a groomed lawn, egged on by college age counselors.


Behind the lawn lay a wetland marsh and a small lake. In the background rose the vertical green wall of Mount Hallowell whose top disappeared in the clouds.

It took me a while to take in the features of a massive log building fronting the lawn: its posts and beams of flared cedar trunks, its large windows filled with displays of books and posters, its roof topped with an array of solar panels.

On the way toward the entrance doors I noticed a white haired woman in a bright pink and white top holding a bucket and pointing out items on a laminated chart to a group of older visitors.


Once inside we were surrounded by a spacious arrangement of displays about the natural history of the BC coastal ecology I had treasured since living here full time in the 1970’s. The displays were illuminated by a skylight in the central atrium supported by bright mortised log beams.



Still stunned by this splendor in the middle of the forest, we were approached by the lady in pink. She introduced herself as Lee Ann and led us to a reconstructed cross-section of the trunk of a tree with the tightest rings I’d ever seen. “How old do you think this is, she asked Lucas, ” and he ventured, “Two hundred?” “No it’s two thousand,” she replied. “This is from a yellow cedar cut at the top of the mountain out back.”


I expressed my wonder at discovering this place after so many years of ignoring it, and she offered to show us around. Passing engaging posters explaining their solar and wind energy and rainwater collectors she took us to the laboratory-classroom downstairs.



There she gave us nets, buckets and charts and led us out to a floating platform at the edge of the wetland, which she told us, had originally been created by beavers, then drained and farmed by earlier settlers, and recently restored as wildlife habitat.


She showed Lucas how to scoop up little critters, identify and study them with the help of the charts, and then add them to the aquariums in the lab. With a couple of passes he found water boatmen, a dragonfly nymph, a water scorpion and a leech. In this surrounding, even a leech was a precious find.


Lee Ann had to leave and welcome other visitors—it turns out she was the place’s Director—but invited us to keep collecting and looking around. We took the specimens back to the lab and then wandered along a trail behind the lake where Lucas discovered a big hole in a tree at eye level. Near the end of the trail a sign portrayed a similar hole and the pileated woodpecker that made it.


Back at the Centre we met Lee Ann again, and I plied her with questions. What’s the history of this place? Is it open all year round? How can it thrive so far from even the small towns of Pender Harbor? How is it financed?

She told me that it’s been in existence since 2005, run by a non-profit organization called the Lagoon Society. They are now well funded by private and government grants, but much of the artwork, the displays, and the design and construction is by local Sunshine Coast resident volunteers. Their mission is to learn and teach about nature and promote sustainable lifestyles and technologies that work with rather than against local natural systems. They run weeklong educational programs for the Sunshine Coast school system all year, and they’ve recently purchased a bus to provide transportation to and from the Centre.


I mentioned that my wife and I had run a summer day camp for children near Lund with similar objectives but on a tiny scale compared to this. I knew that the kind of environmental education they were providing was of great interest to people across Jervis Inlet in Powell River and asked if they had much communication with folks over there. She said no, there had been little connection, but they would be happy to use their bus to pick up people at the ferry and bring them to the Centre for all kinds of programs.

When I mentioned that I now work with a non-profit organization in California promoting sustainable agriculture at small local farms and educational programs for school children, she said their organization’s Executive Director had just arrived and asked if I’d like to meet him. She disappeared for a moment and returned with a jolly curly red-haired man named Michael Jackson.

IMG_2881 In response to my enthusiasm about this facility, he said that they were now engaged in a much larger project. The place-based mission they began with over ten years ago—“To preserve and enhance the natural habitat and wildlife of the Ruby Lake Lagoon, to facilitate local environmental education, and to assist in monitoring the ecological health of the Sunshine Coast”—has expanded to the “Sunshine Coast Biodiversity Strategy”—which “provides a coast-wide assessment of the many challenges we face in preserving and enhancing the biodiversity of our region and shows how we can begin to address the deficiencies.” One element of this strategy is to build a facility in Pender Harbor that will be a local aquarium and major teaching and research facility to be completed by 2020. They are well on their way to raising the $10 million needed to bring it to completion.

As we left I asked myself whether here at Ruby Lake, out on the furthest margin of the Sechelt Peninsula, it’s plausible that such a grand and transformative vision could be realized. Well, who would have believed in 1970 when we came to the Powell River area as back–to-the-land hippies and when the economic, social, and cultural underpinning of the community was the largest pulp and paper mill in the world, that today the area has become a center of artistic, humanitarian, and environmental innovation  as well as of hiking and biking opportunities  that draws people from the ends of the earth.

It seems like a good time for the mental gulf between Saltery Bay and Earl’s Cove to be bridged. People on each side need to know more of what the other has to offer and to join forces in their efforts to make the changes that the great world outside is still slow to adopt. One way is for travelers on their way to the ferry and curious about the sign saying Iris Griffith Nature Centre to turn down that road.

For more information: http://www.lagoonsociety.com/who-we-are/iris-griffith-centre/

“The Time to Act is Now”

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

An address at “SLO Faith Communities Respond to the Pope’s Message,” sponsored by People of Faith for Justice, October 1 2015

About a month ago, I went to the annual potluck picnic of the White Heron Sangha—a Buddhist meditation fellowship I’ve been attending for several years. It took place at a beautiful home and retreat center in Squire Canyon, and during the meal I was asked by a couple of people if I would be willing to substitute for one of the Sangha’s leaders in representing the Buddhist community at tonight’s program. He couldn’t be here because he was heading off to a retreat in India.

Being only a marginal Buddhist myself and a burnt-out former climate activist, I was reluctant to agree, but I found myself saying “yes” as I recalled recently hearing about Pope Francis’ wholehearted willingness to take on the issue.

Having organized large Earth Day events and teach-ins called Focus the Nation on Global Warming at Cal Poly, I turned my back on the cause in 2009 after witnessing the failure of the international Helsinki talks and the growth of Climate Denial, driven by the influence of Fossil Fuel companies. I shifted my attention to family– raising two grandsons—to the community– building the SLO City Farm–and to myself– swimming, meditating and engaging with the Sangha.

But I found that this shift—liberating at first—was leading to a growing discomfort.

So, responding to the pressure of my fellow congregants, I started reading Laudato Si, the Encyclical I’d heard about. And I kept reading over several days…all 200 pages.

It was a disturbing experience—a stark and comprehensive reminder of what I had been trying to forget. It eloquently described how what was foretold years ago in the books I read in the Faculty Sustainability Book Club at Poly has now come to pass: the accelerating decay of nature and the increasingly desperate Darwinian battle between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, progressives and obstructors. The gloomy prospect came closer to home because of the California drought, the fires, and the aching fatigue brought on by our late September heat.

But I also found the document encouraging. Francis was mobilizing vast reserves of spiritual energy and institutional authority behind what seemed like a flagging cause—to save us from ourselves. His approach labeled Integral Ecology, that fused scientific and religious reasoning, material and spiritual principles, political and moral urgings, and public and personal arenas, felt both prudent and absolutely true.

Two years ago I registered for a fourteen-day silent retreat that’s scheduled to begin late this month. To prepare for it, I’ve been waking up at 5:00 a.m and meditating for an hour, occasionally experiencing deep concentration and serenity. But after I started reading the Encyclical, these sessions soured. My mind got distracted, uneasy, impatient for the ending gong. One morning I realized if this kept up, there was no way I was going to leave everything at home behind just to grow more anxious and uncomfortable at the retreat. And then came an understanding of what had happened. I’d heard the spiritual call to action. Whether or not I would go on retreat, I could no longer ignore it.

After I got the boys to school I returned to the Encyclical and came across this passage:

[What] some committed and prayerful Christians…need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them…”

The power of my conversion was amplified by the source of the summons—the Buddhist Sangha, and specifically a person known to me then only as a fellow member of that Sangha—Sharon Rippner, who happens to be the person who organized this forum.

Later that day she sent me the discussion questions I was supposed to prepare. First:reflect on how your faith tradition resonates with the observations and urgings of Pope Francis.”

Not having any answer, I emailed an old friend from the sixties, Taigen Dan Leighton, who’s become a prominent Buddhist monk but has remained a political activist. He alerted me to a proclamation signed by thousands of Buddhist practitioners and by leaders such as the Dalai Lama, the Karmarpa, and Thich Nhat Hanh, and which represents “a global Buddhist statement,” arguably as authoritative as the Pope’s Encyclical. Entitled “The Time to Act is Now, A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change,” it’s to be presented this December to the 21st UN Conference of the Parties, the successor to the Copenhagen, Cancun, Kyoto, and Rio meetings of world governments attempting to find ways to address the crisis together. (http://www.oneearthsangha.org/articles/the-time-to-act-is-now/)

Much like the Pope’s Encyclical, The Declaration begins with a description of the urgency of the present situation and then relates both causes and solutions to traditional core principles of the religion:

There has never been a more important time in history to bring the resources of Buddhism to bear on behalf of all living beings. The four noble truths provide a framework for diagnosing our current situation and formulating appropriate guidelines—because the threats and disasters we face ultimately stem from the human mind, and therefore require profound changes within our minds. If personal suffering stems from craving and ignorance—from the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion—the same applies to the suffering that afflicts us on a collective scale.

However, the declaration shifts from the traditional Buddhist emphasis on individual liberation to the collective, from the mind to the world, from contemplation to action. It urges us “to adopt behaviors that increase everyday ecological awareness and reduce our ‘carbon footprint,’” but more prominently to “make institutional changes, both technological and economic…to ‘de-carbonize’ our energy systems as quickly as feasible by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources,” to “reverse the destruction of forests,” and to “to move together towards an economy that provides a satisfactory standard of living for everyone ….”

The second part of Sharon’s question asks “how your faith community might engage in courageous actions to address the problem of climate change”

The issuance of this Declaration is an example of how the Buddhist faith community has exercised the courage to move from personal issues involving its members as individuals to addressing our collective karma and to taking action to improve it.

According to the Declaration, “If political leaders are unable to recognize the urgency of our global crisis, or unwilling to put the long-term good of humankind above the short-term benefit of fossil-fuel corporations, we may need to challenge them with sustained campaigns of citizen action.”

Campaigns of Citizen Action involve participating in educational and lobbying groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby (https://citizensclimatelobby.org/), Fossil Fuel Divestment campaigns like Gofosselfree.org, and in public demonstrations like last year’s amazing Climate Marches organized by the grassroots alliance 350.org Specifically they require joining an association like “One Earth Sangha,” whose tagline is “a Buddhist response to Climate Change and other threats to our home.” (http://www.oneearthsangha.org)

Groups of people supporting one another within each of our congregations can educate and persuade other members and help build a huge groundswell that’s supported not primarily by money or interest or fear, but by the counterforce of conviction and group solidarity.

Every church, synagogue, mosque and sangha represents an opportunity for transformation here and now.

The message that we need to spread is one of faith that averting climate disaster is still within our ability. We have the technology today to switch from fossil fuels to renewables worldwide; we have the money, if capital devoted to outmoded technologies is invested in renewables with a long-term profitable return. We also have the political capacity to make this happen through the simple and tested means of a carbon tax.

What we have lacked since the problem of climate change first surfaced thirty years ago is the political will, and that depends on every one of us as individuals, and more significantly, as individuals interacting with other individuals in existing communities, in particular in faith communities, just as we are doing on this occasion.

“What teachings from your faith tradition give you hope for our ability to make the necessary changes, given the dire situations which currently confront us.”
Buddhism for me is not really a faith, it’s hardly even a belief system, and I know very little about its vast array of traditions. My engagement is with a habit of practice, a set of moral principles shared with most religions, and a particular community of people.

But my experience of recommitment to climate activism over the past few weeks does involve faith, which I think of as the mind’s willed leap across a gap from one state of resolve to another.

That occurs in an instant that seems timeless—something alive both before and after the chronological event. This notion is supported by the Buddhist metaphysical doctrine of the limitlessness of the present moment.
The leap of faith is associated with what St. Paul called the evidence of things unseen—the voice of conscience, the breaking of one set of causal chains and substitution of another, the shift of perspectives, the inspiration of other people’s examples.

Faith produces sacrifice and is supported by sacrifice, which is the deliberate acceptance of suffering. Taigen Dan Leighton states

Suffering wakes us up, which is why the Buddha began his teaching with the First Noble Truth of Suffering. Now humanity is faced with suffering that will sooner or later shake us out of our complacency and make us come to terms with the consequences of living unsustainably in a world of limited resources.

Pope Francis says “Our goal is … to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

Buddhist practice also equips us for this acceptance. According to Taigen Dan: “Meditation… helps individuals to develop more calm and patience, a wider capacity to be helpful in the face of distress. Pope Francis says: “We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present … without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.”

Another Buddhist doctrine is the importance of Sangha, or congregation, for the support of faithful practice. As mentioned earlier, building support within the Sangha is an effective way of mobilizing action in the political sphere. But partnering with people of shared convictions also strengthens the faith of those convictions, the faith that the struggle can be won. Membership in the Sangha of millions of people around the world, both religious and non-religious, who share that faith, is open to us all.