The Sierra foothills lit up with sunshine and the warm scent of pine needles as one of my Ananda College of Living Wisdom creative writing students, Kevin Davis, and I walked down a grass, kitkitdizze and manzanita-covered hill to practice one of my favorite writing sessions — “Nature’s Half Acre.”
When I first gave this exercise in 2002 at Riverstone Ranch in New Mexico’s Hondo Valley, all I could think about was the award-winning Disney documentary I watched in elementary school, Nature’s Half Acre, which celebrated the volume of life in a small space. I joined the retreatants for the exercise, which for me became a trip down history lane, as we were sitting on the very place where Billy the Kid took refuge as his pursuers tracked him. This resulted in the poem suite, “Riverstone Runes,” which was published in my book Shades of Green.
Fast-forward almost nine years. I asked Kevin to pick any place in these prodigious pine, manzanita and oak woods, draw a visual circle 30 feet in diameter around him, and shut off everything beyond that point. Then tune into the place, listen to it, enter its world — in which, according to scientists, thousands of different living beings and organisms dwell. For the next 50 minutes, his world would consist entirely of what he observed, perceived, felt, thought, heard and sensed inside the circle — and the poetic or storytelling voages on which those observations and perceptions took him.
I moved to a place of my own, amidst a circle of old pines and oaks that were felled by a vicious snow and windstorm that laid siege to the Sierra late last November. Beyond my circle, I could see the cords of neatly stacked firewood outside the house of my friend and huge literary influence, the poet Gary Snyder. But the session pertained to what stood within my 30-foot circle.
I saw old fallen pines and oaks. Ten of them. Moss started to grow on some; others truly looked like bodies that had given up the ghost. Butterflies, gopher holes and bobcat tracks occupied space, as did a small colony of busy ants, while the old denizens of Inimin Forest ground cover, kitkitdizze, poison oak and wild meadow grass, flourished around me. Some of the old tree bark, rough and knuckled, peeled back to reveal a soft, tender interior, made to nurture — an apt metaphor for the way we build shells around our hearts.
Next, I imagined the stories these trees could tell; some had been around since the Maidu Indians lived on this ground, which, like all of Mother Earth, they considered sacred. I thought of the countless storms, fires, intrusions by Gold Rushers and timber cutters, the saving grace of naturalist John Muir and, more recently, Gary Snyder, and the people atop the hill, whose meditations on divine love and peace cast a deeper serenity on an already serene land. What stories! What wisdom! I came up with a name for the poems I furiously wrote: “Council of Fallen Trees.”
Then I noticed the seedlings, none more than three feet tall. I counted them: ten. Eight pines, two oaks. Exactly the same count as the fallen trees. Once again, nature saw fit to replenish herself, to restart her particular Shiva cycle — creator, preserver, destroyer. The trees rise. They live for centuries. The weakest then fall, usually in a deep snowstorm or harsh windstorm.
When I looked down, I’d written eight pages of poems and vignettes. In 50 minutes. Where did the time go? I walked over to Kevin, who not only wrote out the atmosphere of his 30-foot circle, but also created a wonderful tale that tapped into the age-old promise of the pioneer — just one more hill, just one more hill…
To me, this is the essence of writing — to go to a quiet place, draw an imaginary circle of any diameter, shut off the entire world beyond that circle, and commune with pen, paper, the senses, mind, heart and soul.
And now, I will polish up “Council of Fallen Trees.” It will appear in Backroad Melodies, my next poetry and essay collection.