On my first break from the teaching, I drove to San Diego to stay with friends from my work days at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.  At that time, the clinic gave health and wellness classes at Rancho la Puerto, a spa and retreat center near Tecaté, Baja California.  My friends arranged for three days of rest and contemplation. I was exhausted, and confused about whether to continue my education in Yuma.

The resort was on the grounds of a previous Essene community established in the 1920s. The library still shelved many of the community’s books. I wandered in there one evening, not knowing the background of the ranch, and found a history of how the community was founded by Edmond Bordeau Szekely, an internationally known translator and student of world religions. The American Essene Community flourished for over fifty years, and gradually evolved into the present-day spa as more and more people wanted to experience the Essene quietude, exercise, vegetarian food, and spiritual practice.

Szekely is the scholar who translated the Essene Gospel of Peace from the original Aramaic, the native language of Jesus. He was given permission to translate the texts that were kept under lock and key in the Vatican. Szekely later discovered he followed on the path of St. Benedict and the monks of the Monte Cassino Monastery who protected these documents through the ages.

The texts had been originally translated by St. Jerome in the fourth century. He found fragments of the original texts in many small communities in the desert.  Many of the residents who harbored the document fragments were descendents of the original Essenes.

These ancient documents precede the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, and represent ancient teachings as old as eight thousand years B.C.E. (all the way back to Zarathrustra). They describe The Law. It is the same Law to which Moses referred. When St. Jerome was made the Secretary to Pope Damascus, who established a Papal Library, he was allowed to translate the ancient writings of the Essenes.

However, the translations caused a storm of criticism.  The basic principles of the teaching emanated from natural law, not the laws of man. This body of knowledge made it impossible to follow while promoting the ownership of land and the suppression of women and children to the rule of men (i.e. patriarchal government). The Essene Gospel was the original ecological literature of the west, binding human beings to the Earth and her natural rhythms in a cosmology connecting Mother Earth and Father Sky, the feminine and masculine principles.

When Pope Damascus died, his successor St. Augustine made sure these documents were suppressed. Jerome fled for his life to the desert. There he continued to search for more fragments of the ancient knowledge. After his death, Jerome’s manuscripts were scattered, but eventually many found their way into the Secret Archives of the Vatican, where they remained under lock and key.

The Essenes were a peace-loving sect that believed in the sacredness of all life, practiced vegetarianism, and held that there are spiritual manifestations for all physical phenomena. In this, they were the first quantum physicists: all matter exists in two forms, particle and wave – flesh and spirit.

They understood all of life in the universe as the Ocean of Life, and all thought in the universe as constituting the Ocean of Consciousness. It was their experience that angels connected these two realities. The Essenes believed that Moses understood this through the vision of his ancestor, Jacob, who saw angels ascending and descending a ladder connecting Heaven and Earth.

Essenes practiced self-improvement, which they deemed a life-long process. Achievement of harmony required a balance between earthly and cosmic forces. The heavenly father (cosmic) and the earthly mother (earth) are balanced: eternal life with earth; creative work with life; peace with joy; power with sun; love with water; wisdom with air. These correlations remind us that whenever we contact earthly forces, we are in contact with heavenly forces.

I eagerly read these teachings, and I was encouraged to learn that the principles and cosmology taught to me in Yuma were the same described in the Essene teachings. Here was an Earth-based spirituality making the connection between the material world and the world of thought at a universal consciousness level.

The Teacher of Righteousness in the Essene texts is believed by some to be Jesus, when he was between eighteen and thirty years of age. During this time, his whereabouts are not mentioned in the Biblical texts we have today.  Jesus and his family were Essenes, the ancient Jewish sect, existing from 250 B.C. to 60 A.D in Palestine. The community lived and taught a way of life consistent with Native American spirituality in which all things are imbued with the spirit of the Creator – rocks, water, air, plants, animals, and people. The philosophy of non-violence extended to animals, invoking a deep reverence for the living creatures of our planet. The last and most famous Essene-in-spirit was St. Francis. He lived and believed exactly as the Essenes, and his own writings are nearly identical to Essene texts.

So, I took this discovery of Szekely’s community, at the time I was questioning whether to stay with my Indian teachers, as an affirmation of the integrity of the work.  I returned to Yuma.

Midsummer Nights

Mid-Summer Night’s Dream

Patterns of Life in an Urban Sea

At midnight the heat radiates from the cement driveway under my feet.  I stand in the white moonlight gazing up at twinkling stars.  The dark outline of tall trees and roof tops form a stage-drop where city glow breaks the blackness of night.

This is my summer ritual – star-gazing in my pajamas.  I wake out of some consciousness that tells my snoozing brain I can open the doors and go out to a cool 85ْ F!

It’s summertime in Phoenix, Arizona.  Temperatures soar over 100. Yesterday was a crisp 116ْ.   After June, the heat island effect kicks into gear.  Buildings and streets – especially asphalt surfaces – absorb the day’s solar energy, then release it slowly through the night.  Even though the sun goes down, the built environment is still hot.  The hum of air conditioners is a constant auditory feature of summertime.

Here in Tempe there is humidity from the old irrigation system still in use.  Once a week residents open aqueduct valves in their yards to allow water to flow. Encircled by raised earth berms, the water is held so it slowly soaks deep into the ground.  This is an old way of life to support large trees and grass lawns from a time when Tempe was a tiny agricultural town in the early 1900’s.

People moved to Tempe to enjoy the dry, mild climate, and to escape allergy causing vegetation.   However, the Eastern trees and plants people brought with them (mulberry and olive, for example), and their love of grass, resulted in Phoenix becoming the asthma capital of the west.

Nearby Arizona State University is our land-grant university.  My little house sits behind a friend’s large art studio.  It is a plum of a house and only a short walk or bike to my workplace at the Center for Environmental Studies at A.S.U.  In the hot afternoons I swim in the Olympic-sized pool at the University along with bronze co-eds and swim team athletes.

My house is surrounded by large trees and a grass lawn maintained beautifully by grounds keepers.  Old Tempe is a remnant of an outdated way of life in the desert:  just add water and cultivate an oasis.  It was a way that made sense to residents and developers when water was plentiful, and when temperatures were cooler, and summers only four months long.

Over the last 50 years the average low temperature has increased by 10ْ F.  The city’s growth is exponential now.  The population since 1990 increased by 59%!  This is unsustainable with available water, even though theoretically there is much more desert to develop across the expansive valley floor.

City mothers and fathers are currently examining critical decisions Phoenix needs to make to sustain a live-able future.  How and what they decide to do to shape the city’s growth will be an important example for metropolitan communities across the West.

In 1998 Arizona State University was awarded a major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a Long Term Ecological Research Study (LTER) as one of two urban sites.  Phoenix and Baltimore were chosen as two urban cities to be studied.  We are a city growing by the process of sprawl, and Baltimore is an older city that has filled in its borders, and now grows inward and up.

NSF wants to know what is happening to the ecology of living communities in cities – since nearly 80% of the world’s population now lives in or near an urban area.  The study seeks to answer questions that indicate the health of ecosystem functions in urban areas. How are native animals and plants coping? How quickly is organic matter turned-over (decomposed to soil, elements in the air, and water again)?  What is happening to water and air quality?

The Central Arizona Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research Study (CAPTLER) began a twenty-year study of these factors along with human behavior patterns such as where we choose to live in the city or how we use water among many others.  The study recognizes that landscape affects human activity as much as humans impact landscape.  These forces work together to shape urban environments.

The Greater Phoenix 2100 study initiated by Arizona State University collects and disseminates data for possible scenarios of growth and quality of life to be used by policymakers. It looks at trends over time.  For example, three projections are made for population by 2050: at current annual growth rates (4.4%), the lowest annual growth rate in the last 50 years (3.4%), and the lowest annual growth rate in the last 100 years.  Projected population in 2050 based on these three rates could result in 28.2, 17.4, or 10 million people respectively.  Citizens and policy-makers looking at these numbers can make decisions now that will help them shape tomorrow.

The Long-Term Ecological Research Study is reporting loss of indigenous biodiversity on mountains in Phoenix surrounded by an urban sea of human activity. These habitats are essentially like islands.  Isolated species that can not relocate represent small populations with consequent small gene pools. Inbreeding weakens the biological fitness of species if prolonged.  Scientists believe this is happening to many species of plants and animals in the urban perimeters of Phoenix.

One of the most harmful assaults to native species diversity is the introduction of non-native plants and animals.  Successful non-natives have no natural predators in the new environment.  Thus they can out-compete native species for habitat and resources.  On species of tree – the Tamarisk – has reduced native trees along Arizona’s already vulnerable riparian green belts (areas where the water table is close to or above the ground).  Riparian habitat has been reduced by 90% in Arizona over the last century due to human activity.

For thousands of years these riparian habitats supported the greatest species diversity in our state.  Beavers and otters abound in rivers and streams, and mega fauna like deer found sustenance there.  Today one has to visit a museum or zoo to know what native species Arizona once supported.  Many residents in Arizona are unaware of what is a native versus a non-native due to the importing of exotic species.  In other words the cultural memory of the original landscape is being lost with each generation.

In many ways what Phoenix does over the next decade to slow and manage growth, and to clean up and use water more responsibly will be rich learning opportunities for cities across the Southwest facing similar issues.  A profound shift is happening in the West where growth is out of control and the Earth is showing strains of overuse and over-harvesting.

Tucson, Arizona where I now reside is 100 miles south of Phoenix and higher in elevation.  We are called the Upland Desert.  Tucson currently follows the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a multi-agency and community-based initiative, to shape its growth.  Although Tucson has its own sprawl (it has reached nearly one million people in the metro area), it is still known for its open space and residential landscaping with native desert corridors.  Native Tucsonans are desperately trying to hold onto this legacy.  But many new residents who do not understand desert ecosystems, or appreciate the way of life necessary to protect water reserves, build huge homes with lawns and pools.  They represent a threat to a way of life that has existed here for tens of thousands of years.

Since I moved here from Phoenix six years ago, I can still enjoy a cool summer night at the decent hour of 7 pm when desert soils release the heat of the day.  This is the natural desert rhythm that Phoenix has lost by asphalting over much of the valley floor.

On morning walks in central Tucson, I enjoy a covey of Gamble’s quail running wildly through the native vegetation in alleyways and yards.  Many people pride themselves on landscaping with desert trees like the graceful desert willow with its lavender throated blossoms and uniquely shaped cacti placed as you would sculpture.   They tend gardens where heirloom vegetables conserved from the Americas grow with little water.   The Tohono O’Odham still dry farm using only annual monsoon rains to grow corn, beans, melons, and greens of all kinds.

Striking the balance between natural communities and human communities makes sense.  We are in a new period of understanding the intimate and wholly necessary relationships with nature that maintain us physically and economically, emotionally and spiritually.

It is an exciting time for Arizona, one filled with great potential to rework our plan for human habitation.  How do we balance quality of life with quality of environment?  How do we develop a way of life that is in sync with the natural communities that make this land such a fabulous place to live and work?

Gazing at the twinkling night sky above me at midnight, I wonder if Hohokam people also lay outside in the cool of moonlight thousands of years ago.    A soft breeze moves across the yard as I doze off in my chaise lounge, in another desert town, in my pajamas on a summer’s night under the heavens.

Lag Time


What ever happened to daydreams?

Recently I heard a story that reminded me of after school time when I was in grade school. The author describes an era I call B.T. – Before Television. He came home after school to a quiet house, an afternoon snack awaiting him. He changed into play clothes and then boredom would set in. He lay on the living room rug wondering what to do. The clock ticked rhythmically.  He felt his heart beating in the silence of the moment. Then suddenly, he seized upon an idea, and off he would go to find a friend to share his imagined adventure!

I remember those days when there was plenty of time for the imagination. A special teacher of mine later named these seemingly vacuous moments as “lag time”- suspended time when fruitful thought can develop. It is a portal through which one perceives her true feelings, innermost urges, and clear thoughts.

Lag time is “doing nothing”. Today it is revolutionary, even suspect.

Children today have virtually no lag time.  American children suffer from a lack of time to develop a fertile ground for their imagination. But the good news is it is still possible to capture these moments at home if you are willing to turn off the television, the computer, the music, and slow the pace.  Just sitting is something I had to learn again from an Iroquois teacher when I was an adult.  Often the lesson for the day would be sitting in total silence for several hours.

In our fast-paced world of multi-tasking, digital games, cell phones, e-mail (the new drug – Crackberry), television, and the personal IPOD loaded with hundreds of songs – there is virtually no down time unless we are asleep. This is even true with young children, most of whom have never experienced the “lazy days of summer.”  Dragged from place to place, weary and irritable, many young children cannot be still or tolerate unplanned time. Today’s adults and youth experience withdrawal symptoms without external stimulation.

My children and I have been vacationing at Deer Springs Inn in the White Mountains of Arizona for the past nine years. There are just a few cabins set back on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. It is Ponderosa Pine Country where tall red trunks soar to 100 feet.

This place has become a refuge to many families. You learn about it through word of mouth. Everyone guards its whereabouts like buried treasure. There are no phones, televisions or any outside communication except the radiophone for emergencies. Due to the 14-mile trek on forest service roads, guests rarely leave until its time to go home.

There is sleeping time, reading or drawing time, chatting on the front porches, hiking, and writing time.  And there is silence and the drawing of wind through pines as if the forest invites us to breathe with it.

At night, a campfire beckons everyone to wander down to roast marshmallows, drink wine, laugh and commiserate into the night. Our faces are ruddy and lit by a blazing fire, poked lovingly by Ed or Mary King, the owners. The low hoot of an owl and the pine sap popping in the fire are the only music. Towering pines encircle a portion of jet black sky dotted with glittering stars and a big, white moon. The air is crystal clear. Every cell in your body lays back and sighs.

My son recently stayed up there with my daughter and me. He is a businessman from Nashville and lives a commuter life with a stressful job in the healthcare industry. He told me later how those four days at Deer Springs completely reoriented his mind and spirit. He felt deeply renewed. Whittle on a stick, let the chips fall where they may. He had forgotten about lag time.

With all of the technological advancements marketed as convenience, we have enslaved ourselves in a frenzy of driving, working, planned recreation, planned “free time” and – more driving! Often, children never set foot at home until after 6 p.m. as weary parents pick them up from day care. Chasing our consumer driven dreams we have neglected the imagination, the soulful, the spontaneous – in short, the spice of life!

But, it can be recaptured with very simple acts and it costs nothing. It just takes a little retraining:

1)  Practice turning off the television, radio, stereo for brief periods. Later go for longer periods.

2)  Remove clutter from rooms. Don’t replace any of it.

3)  Put plants in your home. Hang a bird feeder.

4)  Practice sitting and doing nothing for 15 minutes. Breathe deeply and then settle down to regular breathing. Smile. Notice the change in how you feel.

5)  Just keep it simple.  Your place of repose might be a hammock or a chaise lounge. Invite the kids.

Revolutionary Acts in Lag Time

Allow the spontaneous to return.

Reclaim your own thoughts and feelings.

Seek silent places.

Stay away from crowds.

Keep it simple.

Go for a walk and smell the roses.

Feel your body, listen to your heart.

Act accordingly.

Resources for Parents:

Inspired Parenting Web Site

This is a fabulous site for parents to learn tips from child development specialists and family counselors.

Resources for Adults:

Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabot-Zinn

Reading this book will add years to your life!

Wildlife Migrate North in Pacific

Kevin Schafer Photograph

See this article from TerraDaily Express about the California Sea Lions migrating up the coast to colder waters in Oregon.

As a teenager I remember the population of sea lions on the wharf in San Francisco, that blanketed every flat surface. They provided a lot of entertainment for us visitors.

This article describes a whole population migration to caves off the coast of Oregon where colder waters support the food sources seals typically consume. Other migrations include shorebirds.

The article suggests that the El Nino in the Pacific waters, which was very strong this year (bringing unusually warm waters) may be the reason for this dramatic migration. Climate change, causing the warming of oceans, is most likely a boosting factor to the El Nino effects across the Pacific and the planet.

Florida Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coastline both benefit from the El Nino with wind shear patterns that kept hurricane activity to an all time low for the past season.  Weather experts predict a stronger hurricane system next summer and fall but I wonder if ocean warming might institute a permanent El Nino effect???

The current winter season in the Midwest and Northeast also seems to be dramatic differences in our normal seasonal patterns. Again, we have to observe over time to know whether warming of oceans and melting of ice caps are responsible for these dramatic changes or these are the occasional flukes that happen from time to time with complex reasons we only decipher later (sun  or celestial events.)

As NASA reports on climate change patterns, scientists are convinced that the planet surface is warming even with patterns of cooling and heating which they say are part of the longer term warming.

In Gujrat, India agronomists report mangoes ripening well before the normal seasonal pattern. These dramatic shifts in both plant and animal populations are heralds of large scale changes now affecting human life as well.

What is most dramatic to me is the near lack of news about climate change on our national media networks. Do we have our noses to the ground on health insurance when the greatest threat to our health is happening right in front of our faces?

Brilliant Solutions to Implacable Problems

Frances Moore Lappe’s new book, Liberation Ecology, identifies six dis-empowering ideas and re-frames them with insightful solutions. This book was recently published in a limited first edition with an invitation from the author to write her back with comments, edits, and additional ideas.

1.  To save the planet, our economies have to stop growing.

2.  We’ve hit the limits of a finite Earth.

3. We must overcome selfish human nature to save the planet.

4. To make progress, we have to override people’s innate resistance to the rules.

5.  People are now so far removed from the natural world that they will never feel the connection to nature necesarry for an environmental turn-around.

6.  Given the magnitude and scope of today’s problems, there’s no time for democracy.

Go to the website to read more and to take a short survey of your perceptions before reading the book and how Lappe addresses each of these ideas that are holding us back from a world in sync with nature and on a road to sustainability.

Wendell Berry Goes to Washington…again.

The Washington Post interviewed “three wise men” who presented their 50-yr plan for a new agriculture policy to Congress that ensures sustainable food systems in the U.S. At issue is their plan that spans fifty years, or ten farm bills. The Post’s Jane Black, asked these three experts whether our representatives can think that far ahead!

Good question.

Wendell Berry, a farmer and philosopher, whose writings illuminate the politics and ethics of modern agribusiness versus sustaining agriculture, told Janet Black he was not particularly hopeful (since the same issues he wrote about are the same issues he presented three decades later).

The long-term plan for a sustainable food system (conceived by Berry and geneticist Wes Jackson from the Land Institute,  and sustainable-agriculture advocate Fred Kirschenmann with the Leopold Center) emphasizes perennials, not annuals. The reason has to do with cultivation of living communities in soil that foster resiliency to stress.

Drought and increasing temperatures, followed by flooding are some of the stress factors impinging on agricultural land. Industrial scale practices that ignore how soil communities sustain the productivity of land has been the U.S. approach to farming since the 1950s when fertilizers and pesticides ended widespread hunger in the U.S.

But the land is reaching exhaustion. With the new impacts of climate change, many experts fear a collapse of our once productive fields.

As a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I read the discussions about “deniers” of climate change, even in the face of mounting evidence of its progress, and causal elements from humankind. As yet we don’t seem to know how to convince a large segment of our society which holds a view that climate change is a left-wing plot.

maslows-hierarchy-of-needsFor any long-term change the public has to be able to think long-term. When our economy and political focus causes citizens to worry about basic needs (food, job and home) we put them at the base of Maslowe’s famous hierachy of needs. At the level of existence, people feel anxious.

Perhaps the long-term thinking that concerned leaders wish people to exercise is not possible under current political, social, and economic circumstances, or, even if people are willing to engage in long-term planning, misguided by leaders deny climate change as a threat.

Mrs. Obama established an organic garden at the White House and the the First Family dines on the garden’s sustainable produce. Will that sensibility spread beyond their table into national policy.

The jury is out. I would love to know what you think.