Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Consider the Hummingbird

Joyful little Sister,
Nectar you crave!
All the sweetness
of the flowers
is the love you gave.

In a former lifetime, I was given a book to read in a loft bedroom. As I sat in the sun below the skylight, I spread the accompanying deck of sky blue cards out across the bed. My hand wandered tentatively to the first card I chose. I turned it over, and the lightning bolt on the reverse of the card snapped me out of my reverie: I'd drawn the card for Hummingbird.

At the time, I was living alone, and one of my favorite things to do was sit under the red blossoms of the Japanese flowering maple tree outside my front door, talking on the phone or just enjoying the view down my garden to the city and bay beyond. My view was the stuff of urban legend. I rented a tiny in-law apartment in the Oakland hills, so private I didn't even lock my door. My "front yard" was the back yard of an old home, complete with landscaped terraces and a circle of Monterey pine trees. I once saw a trophy buck pose in the clover below my bedroom, then leap gracefully over a hedgerow and glide away up the hillside.

As I sat under tree the filled with flowers like glossy lanterns, ruby-throated hummingbirds would fly right above my head and drink the nectar from the bright red blooms. I'd see them perch on the branches, listened to them make their funny whirring sounds, and watched with delight as they dive-bombed each other from great heights in their territory disputes, emitting high pitched whistles on the downward swoop. Once I rescued one from a corner of my kitchen, holding her in the palm of my hand and chatting with her for some time before she flew away. I'll never forget her bright black eye looking back at me.

So, naturally I already felt a strong affinity for Hummingbird. Pulling that card gave me a gentle shock, whether from the simple thrill of serendipity or of actual contact with another dimension is open to interpretation. I've loved these little divination systems ever since. And, while I've shared these cards with friends for almost 20 years, and have learned from many animal teachers since that afternoon, Hummingbird will always be my key, my totem creature.

Living in Big Sur, I happily have the opportunity to apply the real-life version of animal medicine. When I see a hawk on the tree in our meadow, a fox scurrying up the road, or a gray whale spouting below us in the ocean, I check the medicine cards book for the appropriate wisdom. If I hear an owl for several nights running, see a rabbit make a mad dash for its burrow, or watch a flock of wild turkeys stroll past our house, I go to the book to see what my level of awareness is bringing to me.

David Carson and Jamie Sams' wrote the best-selling book of Native American cartomancy, Medicine Cards, in 1988. Carson is a writer and healer of Choctaw descent, Sams comes from the Seneca / Cherokee tradition. After a lifetime of preparation, they wrote and designed the Medicine Cards together in one week. Days afterward they had a publishing deal. It's been translated into 6 languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide.

But back to the hummingbird. Now it seems I'm surrounded by them. Siting in the bubbles in my outdoor tub, I watch them zoom up to the sage and aloe, flashing their scarlet throats as they hover above the flowers. Big purple spears of Ecchium are also a favorite drinking spot for hummers this time of year. One unfortunate little flier exhausted itself indoors, ending up in a bowl of leftover salad dressing. We cleaned it up carefully, as if it had survived an oil spill.

We're amassing a collection of their tiny corpses since they tend to do a kamikaze act against the garden-reflecting windows at our workplace. We place them lovingly on our altar, tuck them into the dashboards of our cars, give them as gifts. Fly on, Sister Hummingbird, into the next world.

Hummingbird is Joy—she loves life and all its pleasures. She seeks beauty and bliss. While her medicine may seem fragile, she's really a tough little bird. It's said that her feathers open the heart, making excellent love charms. Hummingbird teaches us to drink deeply of life's sweet nectar, then to swiftly and brilliantly let go into the next moment. She is my ideal.

Hummingbird on succulent photo by Sula Nichols
Hummingbird Medicine card by Angela Werneke
Flowering maple photo by www.plantsafari.com

Friday, April 18, 2008

Artist of the Sea

All of us follow our unique paths. Or, as Antonio Machado said:

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road,
and nothing more.
Wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.

When a Big Sur kid grows up, after a magical childhood including education in the arts and natural history, he may very likely become an artist of some kind. For Jonathan Newell, one finds that, like his favorite creature the octopus, his life incorporates the mysteries of science and art.

Jonathan began his journey at the Newell Ranch in Big Sur in 1969. On this sprawling ranch and redwood forest, Jonathan's grandparents Ralph and Teva Newell built a Spanish style home in handmade adobe brick. The fountain in their courtyard is set with ancient Esselen Indian mortars and mosaics of astrological figures.

Ralph Newell's peers were some of the titans of Big Sur's homesteading past: rancher Billy Post, and builders Walt and Frank Trotter. But he also was friends with the artist and inventor Harry Dick Ross, a more bohemian type of fellow who lived on Partington Ridge, and eventually married Henry Miller's ex-wife Eve.

As a boy, Jonathan was inspired by all of these men, but especially by Harry Dick Ross, who in addition to building large aerial spirographs from butcher paper, boxes and wire, collected feathers, arrowheads and rare plants. In this way, Jonathan developed an open mind, and is passionate about diverse fields of study today.

His parents, Roger and Beverly Newell, are artists as well, and fostered a sense of wonder in their children, with everything from music and dance lessons to landscape design projects at the Ranch. With his brother and sister he began learning of the mysteries of the deep at the Monterey Bay Area Research Institute's Lyceum school during the summers. (This is now the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, MBARI.)

One of Jonathan's earliest memories is of dissecting a giant kelp bulb's root system to find a baby octopus inside. He was certified as a scuba diver at 13 years old, and began diving for Big Sur Jade soon afterwards. One dream was to become a marine biologist, and while he pursued these studies he also traveled and led diving expeditions in Indonesia and the Caribbean.

There is a place where scuba diving and the art world converge: diving for treasures lost at sea. Gold coins from the 17th century Spanish shipwreck, the Atocha, sparked Jonathan's imagination. He'd begun learning jewelry and metal design in college, and mixed this with his love of marine creatures by creating golden octopi holding these treasure coins in their tentacles.

Over the past decade, Jonathan has created a huge body of work with his solar and wind powered metalworking studio, JN Design. He provides elegant design solutions and one-of-a-kind artwork in bronze, steel, glass and stone for homes and businesses up and down the Central Coast. With architect Mickey Muennig, he created the steel railings at the Esalen Institute baths. He's also an inventor, building a wind-turbine generator and tweaking designs for a hydrogen powered car. His dream nowadays is to raise awareness of our marine environment through art and to develop technology that helps the planet. It's all going on in the sorcerer's workshop at JN Design.

In 1999 he married Paula, also an artist, and they have two beautiful children. JN Design is in many ways a family endeavor. Paula contributes design concepts, helps with the finish work, and keeps everything working smoothly, while Kyler and Micaela play in the studio with paints, paper and clay. "With Paula," Jonathan says, "I'm ambidextrous. Together we can be both spontaneous and meticulous, and manifest so much more, on all levels."

Artistic progeny: Kyler's first sculpture at age 6 was an oriental fish kite cut out of paper, complete with moving parts. Micaela's a painter, and that means coloring outside the lines, sometimes with indelible markers on a new leather couch, but hey, she's so adorable, who cares?

You can see Jonathan's work in Big Sur at the Del Campo Gallery. He recently installed some of his latest works in bronze there, including a chair suitable for Neptune, made from the cast forms of giant kelp leaves and bulbs, and a beautiful sea orchid lamp that lights up at your touch.

His fulfillment as an artist is deeply connected with his ideals. "Success began to come to me when my kids arrived on the scene," he says. "I stopped trying to be this persona and began working on doing the best job I could do. It was putting my authentic self out there that made the difference. Challenges became exciting. I now learn more from my mistakes, and feel I'm closer to my dream of helping create a better world."

To complete the Machado poem, with a fitting reference to the ocean:

By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path

that never will be trod again.

Wanderer, there is no road--
Only your wake upon the sea.

Photos: Newell Family collection
Trumpet flower and leaves by Paula Newell

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Nature Junkies

You’d think, living in Big Sur, we’d have our fill of Nature. But nooooo, we while away our evening hours watching the BBC’s Planet Earth documentaries. We watch them over and over, enjoying them more each time. They’re an exercise in how many ways we can say “WOW.” We spice up our commentary with “Oh, my god,” “Unbelievable,” and “No way!”

If you’re living on Planet Earth, you’ve probably heard of this expansive series, created by the BBC over a 5-year period, with a budget of $25 million. The film-making is wildly innovative, the scale immense, from spores to outer space, the sound amazing. The Diaries, explaining the most challenging aspect of making each episode, are as insightful as the episodes themselves, in their way. There’s just never been a nature documentary this good. It’s clearly a labor of love, an artistic masterpiece and well, WOW.

Of course, since this is the Rowland-Jones household, a bit of irreverent humor creeps into our awe-filled viewing time. It doesn’t help that the narrator, David Attenborough, has a plummy upper class Brit accent, with dramatic timing that recalls Monty Python, to everybody. With all due respect, there’s something about his voice that simply demands ridicule.

He makes a perfect babysitter for the under 8 set when they visit and parents want to sneak away to watch the sunset and drink a glass of wine. “I feel so good that my kid is being educated by David Attenborough,” one Dad said recently. And while it’s not snide, exactly, the impersonations are rife with plays on the educational commentary—“Ahem, and then the tiny desert animals urinated on themselves to cool down and survive the terrible noon-day heat.” Only mad dogs and Englishmen…

Probably the single most impressive feature of this series is the aerial filming of migrations of all kinds of creatures. Next would be mating rituals never before filmed, such as the flying leaf tree frog, who jumps from leaf to leaf, then on top of the nearest female. “The male frogs have dry toes, which enable them to keep a viselike grip on their moist partners.” Yes, Attenborough actually says this.

The complete lack of inhibition in the mating department is delightful. The males make the extravagant displays, and the females, for the most part, get to do the choosing. The Bird of Paradise from New Guinea with 6 individual antennae-type feathers popping out of his head has a mating dance that is a wonder to behold. He becomes another creature entirely, with bright blue dots in his crown, his feathers expanding around him into a saucer shape as he hops energetically from side to side. Another favorite is the Gobi desert camel, who spanks his own behind and squeals to attract a mate. Makes humans look kind of tame.

If you sat through an afternoon movie in grade school, you expect the nitty gritty of watching the small, old and weak get predated. But in Planet Earth the sense of you-are-there is enhanced by the high definition filming — dying critters’ last gasps and body spasms. Lions jumping on a baby elephant’s back at night, spiders ingesting ants trapped in the bottom of tropical pitcher plants, great white sharks engulfing seals, ducklings gobbled by foxes and on and on. Not recommended viewing with your TV dinner.

Then there’s the Rorschach test of who likes what. What one person can’t stand to watch, say, hunting eels swimming in a pack underwater, another person thinks is cool. We almost lost it with the cave-dwelling cockroaches, along with our neighbor, whose enormous screen made watching them cavort en masse pretty nauseating.

Everyone, however, likes babies. And all babies of all species, plant, animal, some insects, even fungi, are cute. What is that? Something deeply programmed into our reptilian brains. I wonder though, are baby sharks cute?

Planet Earth deliberately focuses on the world’s wonders, and not on the many threats to Nature, in order to foster a sense of joy instead of despair. Creating the feeling of relating to the natural world is of course a pre-requisite for generating a burning passion to save it from destruction.

Since so much of Planet Earth is footage most humans never see in person, I can’t help remembering the key scene in the ’73 film Soylent Green, starring the recently departed Charlton Heston in a very unusual role for him. New York City, 2022, and the planet has been destroyed by the Greenhouse Effect (imagine that.) Nature is dead and food is mass- produced in unappetizing biscuits, rationed to rioting urbanites. One character chooses to be euthanized. As he takes his lethal pills the mortuary staff shows him film of the world as it used to be, i.e. Nature: mountain meadows filled with flowers, waterfalls cascading down cliffs, beaches, plains, wildlife. This man had talked of this world he remembered, yet no one believed him. The joy on his face (the actor Edward G. Robinson, in his last film) made me weep.

Planet Earth may also make you weep, and not just with laughter (Toby's favorite quote so far: “Female asses are mysterious creatures. They come and go as they please, and much of their behavior seems unfathomable to an outsider.”) It will make you amazed and proud to be a citizen of this planet, happy to be alive, and determined to savor as much of our wonderful world as you can.
Photos: Thanks BBC!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Stefan joins the Coast Guard

In 1995, Stefan Edmondson Magnusson Toren sailed with his parents from Darwin, Australia to the Caribbean Islands, a journey of 21,000 miles, when he was just 5 years old. Now, at 18, he’s joining the US Coast Guard for a 6 year tour of duty.

When Stefan was completing his secondary school studies he decided that being a “Coastie” was something he wanted to do. He just graduated from his 8 week basic training in Cape May, New Jersey, and joins the crew of the USCGC Buckthorne as a seaman in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan (pronounced “soo saint marie”) next week.

Magnus and Mary Lu Toren, Stefan’s parents, invited us to join them in celebratory dinner for him this past week. Their cabin glowed in the candlelight as we drank French champagne in small etched glasses, and ate delicious Pasta Bolognese while reminiscing about Toren family adventures past and present.

What Stefan remembers from that first, epic journey across the South Atlantic is Table Mountain while sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, seeing his first crocodile, and getting a thorn in his hand on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. He recalls sudden squalls on the open seas, schools of dolphin, and the ubiquitous flying fish, fleeing their pursuers like skipping stones across the waves.

As they passed one particularly beautiful island, Stefan asked to go onshore. “Sorry, Stefan, we don’t have enough time to do that,” said Magnus sympathetically. “But Dad,” Stefan said, “I have enough time. I’ll loan you some!”

On the Scott Free, the 65’ sloop they traveled on, Stefan got his first taste of the seafaring life. Now he wants to be a boatswain’s mate and more, moving up through the ranks of the Coast Guard. He eventually wants to drive a 47’ motor lifeboat in 20’ waves! His Dad has a great-grandfather, grandfather, great-uncle and father who all served in the Swedish military. Father and son wear matching Coast Guard hoodies. “It’s good to know that there’s a Toren serving in the United States’ armed services, “ Magnus says proudly.

As you might expect from such a self-aware young man, Stefan came up with the “wild idea” as he put it, to join the Coast Guard all by himself. It seems the Coasties are like a big fraternity ready to spring into action to help others when the call comes. Stefan wants to do his best to make a difference, he says modestly. His preparation, he said, was sailing with his parents, traveling by himself, and living in a boarding school community. He thoroughly explored the Big Sur wilderness as a kid, and, as a competitive gymnast since he was 9 years old, he brings a high level of physical fitness to the job.

Self-sufficiency in the natural elements seems to be a practice and a goal. When I ask what he liked best about growing up in Big Sur, his eyes sparkle and he says, immediately, “The woods. Being able to run out into the woods, fend for myself, and come back and say hey, I did this. The freedom of it.” By himself or with a friend, Stefan spent a lot of time in the forest growing up on Partington. The time of year he likes best there? “Winter, when it’s down pouring rain, that was the most fun.”

The downside to being a kid in Big Sur, he says, is “being so far from everything. Like, I want to go do this, but we can’t because it takes too much time to get there.” Yes, we can relate to that one. It’s a matter of taking the good with the bad, but it does seem to be harder on younger folks.

Stefan will be learning navigational skills working on the Buckthorne, a buoy tender on the Great Lakes. Buoy tenders are the Coast Guard’s unsung heroes: it’s tough as nails work, and ensures the safety of ships throughout the region. Sailors rely on buoys the way airline pilots rely on landing lights, says the Coast Guard literature. Fortunately he’s beginning his service in the Springtime of this notoriously cold part of the country.

The Great Lakes were formed during the last Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago, and the temperature there today was 46 degrees, dropping to 30 degrees (in other words, they’re expecting snow on this early April evening.) Considering Stefan’s least favorite memory of basic training was a midnight fire drill that left him outside in very cold weather in his skivvies, we imagine he’ll be dressing warmly.

Right now it seems Stefan’s biggest problem is listening to his Mom rave about his accomplishments, and about the first-class treatment they received at the Admiral’s Club in the airport. “Hey, give her a break,” we say, “she’s a Mom, after all!” And, fitting for any discussion involving sailors, we debate the pros and cons of different tattoos, what the Coast Guard allows and what it doesn’t (no graphics above the collar of your shirt, for example.)

That evening, all the adults are moved by the potency of Stefan’s fresh start in a new world, where he’ll be following his dream and helping others along the way. Youth, strength, integrity, awareness, Stefan embodies all of these qualities profoundly.

As we start to give him advice for his future though, a neighbor who’s a veteran laughs at us. He’s more interested in pay and benefits (Stefan will make about 7 times what he made per month in the Marines in the 60’s.) The idea of sending Mom pictures of his apartment elicits a snort: “I would never have shocked my mother that way,” he says to me, discreetly.

Soft buzz cut hair with v-like pattern on top of his head, slate blue eyes, old soul smile. Hood pulled over one side of his face, napping after dinner with his head resting on his dog’s belly…we wonder where the world will take Stefan on this next adventure, what challenges he will face, what dreams he will fulfill. It's comforting to know though, that where ever he goes, he will be piloting his own ship.
Photos: Mary Lu Toren, Dick Sonnen, Linda Sonrisa, USCG