Category Archives: Perception

Change by Necessity or Faith

“Sometimes … reaching your Element requires devising creative solutions to strong limitations.  Sometimes … it means maintaining a vision in the face of vicious resistance.  And sometimes … it means walking away from  the life you’ve known to find an environment more suited to your growth.

“Ultimately, the question is always going to be, ‘What price are you willing to pay?’  The rewards of the Element are considerable, but reaping these rewards may mean pushing back against some stiff opposition.”

Sir Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Viking, p155.

Not just throw-away advice, it seems to me, although, unfortunately it has the ring of platitude.  In fact, I think all great advances, in whatever field and whatever context, were revolutionary – tending to turn things around or upside down, demanding sacrifices and causing anxiety.

What’s deceptive about Sir Ken’s words, what seems platitudinous is how easy it is to accept in hindsight.  The “of course” factor is huge, as it is in all platitudes.  But there is no “of course” when you are turning your world upside down, swimming up stream, making sacrifices, and causing anxiety.  There is no “of course” in the moment.  Still, that is what people tend to say.  “Of course, it was hard.  Of course, there were sacrifices.  That is part of the deal.”  But that belies the severity, the pain, and the difficulty experienced.  The great and noble stories unto myths we pass around the family of relatives who gave up everything to follow a dream, uprooted their families to reinvent their lives, faced the fear of failure for the chance to greater success, don’t include the reality of the pain, don’t allow the experience of the anxiety and the difficulty.  What we experience in stories like that is the the inspiration and the success.  As if the price paid for change is somehow a little less relevant.

And it is so much easier to go with the flow, to make lemonade, to take it easy.  But those aren’t the stories we tell.  The story of uncle so-and-so who “was never particularly satisfied with his lot in life, but he made it work.  Day in and day out he just got along, kept on.  Sure, somewhere deep down he had something like passion, a dream that he always said he couldn’t remember, but what he was really good at was going with the flow, taking it easy, playing it safe.”  We don’t tell that story – because success depends on adversity.

Weird, eh?  Why should that be?

And great advances are always perpetrated out of necessity, not luxury or privilege.  It is too hard to swim upstream – unless you have to, unless there is no other option.  Think of pacific salmon that die after struggling to invent the next generation.  (And listen to the inspiration in that: struggling to invent the next generation.  It gives you chills.  But I wonder whether if the salmon had a choice, they still do it?  Would they still swim up stream?)

Looking back we say it was all worth it, but in the moment, how can we know?  We can’t.  In the moment, we trust.  Change requires either necessity or faith – which is belief without support, believing in something despite the evidence (not purposefully believing in something that is contradicted by evidence – some people do that and that practice is perverse.)  But, you don’t always need evidence to know something is true.  Or right.  Or apt.  Or necessary.  That’s intuition.  And as the poet Rumi says, “There are many ways of knowing.”

Why I Teach – A Personal Philosophy of Education

What one does and how one does it is the product of what one believes and one’s orientation toward the future.  Upon that premise, I set forth now, as a classroom teacher and an experiential educator, my personal philosophy of education.  Let it be known that this I believe:

What is education?  What is teaching?

I believe that the true goal of education is the realization of human potential, that one’s personal human potential is the full expression of authentic self in relation to truth in community, and that realizing one’s personal potential depends on a reliable foundation of accurate self knowledge.

Therefore, education is the system by which we strive to realize the heights of human potential through the practice of teaching and the process of learning.

Teaching is the day-to-day endeavor to inspire and bring about learning in students. Its goal is the acquisition of knowledge, the advent of insight, and the development of personal capacities through live encounters with matters of real concern and the processing of experience. All knowledge is self-knowledge by virtue of the subjectivity of the knower; what is known, and even the act of knowing, is not independent of the knower, and, ultimately, what is experienced by the knower is a manifestation of self.

Self-knowledge is that collection of relevant and comparative information that a student uses to form a conception of self in community others and with truth. Furthermore, self knowledge allows the identification of passions and empowers the pursuit of happiness in moving forward with the uncertain business of living a life.

Fundamentally, teaching is the judicious practice of managing experiences to make them useful to students in interpreting the world and in pursuing their passions. Interpreting the world means making meaning of history and the human condition and understanding one’s place in both human and natural contexts. Pursuing their passions means identifying their talents and affinities and feeling empowered to develop them in community with others.

The individual and the community

The individual and the community coexist in collaborative interdependence, the two thriving on each other in measured balance. Human potential can only be realized in community with others because it is dependent on a human social context for its value. Individual expression in isolation has no effect, no benefit, and no real-world value. As such, it is a feckless and impotent gesture, incapable of either improving or diminishing the human condition. Self expression is made real when the effects on other people are manifest.

Community only exists to the extent that it recognizes and celebrates individuals and their free and personal expressions of self. Oppression is the curtailing of free and personal expression of self, and an oppressed community is diminished in capacity and human potential by the lack of expression. A community without a vibrancy of distinct and striving individuals working in common cause does not advance or progress and eventually collapses for lack of original thought and new ideas, both of which come only from free and personal expression of self.

The questions students ask

While they might not always be consciously aware of the questions they are asking, and even if they have come to give themselves automatic and pat answers, I believe students always ask three big questions about themselves while learning:

    • Is this about me?
    • Can I use this?
    • What am I compared to this?

 

These are the questions that compose the student experience of learning.

Is this about me?

This is the fundamental question that determines a student’s level of engagement in the learning process, and engagement is the primary modulator of lasting learning. Engagement engenders experience, and experience causes and necessitates a change in one’s perception of the self in relation to truth and the world. In reaction to experience one changes one’s mental models of the self and of the world, and from there one moves forward into new experiences with a new set of expectations and understandings.

So, “Is what is happening around me about me, of me, for me?” becomes the primary question, often tacitly asked and tacitly answered.

The degree to which a student feels able, invited, and compelled to participate in the content or material being learned is the degree to which it has an influential effect on his or her mental models of the world, of truth, and of the self. Enduring mental models are most of what we call knowledge, and a mental model that includes a conception of self with an active agency in the world is the foundation for citizenship in a community.  To create a sense of citizenship, of vested interest in a community, schools have to succeed in engaging students and instilling a sense of effectual participation. To do that, students have to feel that what they are learning is essentially and in some way about them.

And so, the content of what is taught should be relevant, first and foremost.

At risk is the alienation and anonymity that comes from the perception that this community or this experience or this world is not about me or my people, and there is nothing at stake for me here.

Can I use this?

The human brain forgets far, far more than it remembers, and thankfully so. Actually, it doesn’t forget so much as it sifts and filters experience to identify relevant and useful information to store in memory. The vast majority of what perceived through the senses is never even stored for future recall – because it is deemed irrelevant and has no identifiable bearing on health or well being.

Those things deemed relevant and useful are acquired, stored, recalled, and applied to new situations effortlessly. And incidentally, it happens all the time, within school and without, in every situation. The brain never “turns off,” it is always acquiring and evaluating information for relevance and utility, and the information it stores as relevant and useful are accessed without trouble.

So, the critical question that is asked, usually unknowingly, to determine whether content material is stored for later use or not is Can I use this and how? For learning and memory, utility of what is learned is critical. If we want students to remember and use what we teach them, we need to be very clear about how they are going to use what they are learning to interpret the world and their place in it and to navigate their pursuit of what they find most meaningful in life. That is what the human brain has evolved to do; there is no other way.

And so, the content of what is taught should be useful.

At risk is the notion that what is learned in school is not necessary, static and dead, already known by other people who do other things, and that learning is simply a short-lived torture of memory.  At risk is the notion that there is nothing new under the sun.

What am I compared to this?

Learning leaves a mark on the self. Everything we experience goes to creating a conception of the self that is dynamic and constantly changing with new experience. The brain is the seat of selfhood, personality, character, affinity, truth, beauty, and passion. Everything that is perceived comes through the brain and is affected by the mechanisms of thought, memory, consciousness, and emotion. Content material exists in and of itself, but what is experienced and learned is a combination of the thing itself and the self.

So, everything that is learned serves to define the self who learns and chart a path forward.  In this sense learning is always an act of comparison.  Students work to understand a concept or master a skill and then through the questions of relevance and usefulness come to some conclusions about themselves in comparison to what is learned.

Reading and studying Macbeth,for instance, coming to know the play through experience, can bring a sense of identity, as in – I know Macbeth. I am the one who knows Macbeth. Of course, other conceptions of self in comparison to Macbeth are possible, too, as in I am one who does not understand Macbeth. Any conception of self that comes from an experience with Macbeth serves to define the self who moves forward into new texts and new learning. The anticipation of a reading of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, will be influenced by the conception of self that was changed by reading Macbeth.

And so, learning should empower further learning.

At risk is the notion that I am nothing compared to this. Powerless before knowledge, incapable of growth, students who come to see themselves as inadequate in comparison to content will choose not to learn, not to express themselves in community with others and the human condition, and the human social context will be the poorer for it.

The bottom line

Through the brain-intensive process of learning, students actively redefine their conception of who they are in the human condition. In answering the questions Is this about me? Can I use this? and What am I in comparison to this? students gain self knowledge and insight into themselves as individuals, capable of self expression, in community with others and in relation to truth.

Because of that, the experience a student has while learning is far, far more important than the material learned.

This I believe.

Questions and Answers: What you need you already have.

At minute 9:28 in the above TED talk, Charles Leadbeater, who is particularly interested in the innovation that comes of meeting great needs in under-resourced school environments, talks about one school program in one of the poorer communities in Brazil and their habit of beginning each day with a question.  Leadbeater asks us to, “Imagine an educational system that started from questions, not from knowledge to be imparted.  Or started from a game, not from a lesson.  Or started from the premise that you have to engage people first before you can possibly teach them.”  I have and I do, and I believe Leadbeater is exactly right in what he is suggesting.

Something pernicious happens right about the time students graduate from school.  It comes of a constellation of forces and societal expectations, not one of which is wholly responsible but each of which contributes to coerce a transformation in students, a turning away.  NB: by students I mean learners and by school I mean a learning environment. It comes about as a “natural” and expected step forward, an advancement in the development of the self, sometime between high school and graduate school, adolescence and adulthood.  At some point, as the result of our educational system learners are expected to become knowers.

Sir Ken Robinson, the noted creativity thinker and eminently convincing proponent of sea-change in education, points out that if you didn’t know any better, upon looking at the American educational system in 2010 and asking yourself, “What is it designed to do?” you would have to conclude that it is primarily designed to produce university professors – that is, to reproduce itself.  Our educational system produces knowers, not learner.

In fact, there is a significant societal stigma that attends the notion of a learner.  It connotes beginner, amateur, inexperience, even naivete and ignorance, as in language learner as opposed to language expert.  At a meeting I attended recently of the local beekeeping community I heard one new member use the phrase “still just learning” to mean that she lacked the answers she needed.  She said, to the best of my recollection and not exactly quoted, “I am still just learning about beekeeping, so I want to ask the experts in the club…”.  It was a beautiful moment of communication between club members, because one of the more knowledgeable members addressed her, saying, “I have been doing this a long time, but I am no expert.  I am still just learning, too,” to which we all laughed.   Of course we all understood both perspectives.  “I am just beginning, so how would I know?” and “I have been doing this long enough to know what I don’t know.”  Whatever your perspective, it is clear that most true experts know that the salient experience in becoming an expert is becoming acquainted with more and more challenging questions, not answers.

As much as I value questions and as much as I think about and try to understand that a teacher should strive to become a master learner, not a master knower, I too have felt the uncomfortable compulsion to give an infirm answer to a student’s question before admitting I didn’t know. Most of the time I can control myself and I am proud of my courageous, unknowledgeable response.  “I don’t know the answer to that,” I proclaim, when I am feeling strong enough.  But it is there, the insecurity, the remnant of the societal norm that I resist.  “I am the teacher,” I think to myself when I am feeling weak.  “I should know.”  So, what is it about mainstream education in this country today that so requires teachers to be knowers and students to be the only learners?  I believe the answer lies in our conception of knowledge.

If we understand knowledge to be an external thing, a thing acquired and kept, as a material object, then it follows that there are those with more and those with less.  It is a materialistic model that regards knowledge as a commodity to be bought or bartered, as in, “I have it, and I will give it to you for a price.  I will sell it to you.”  In this model, knowledge flows from teacher to student, like the filing of Yeats’s famous pail.  Students are customers and teachers are venders.  The relationship is clearly defined and learning is the agreed upon result of the commercial arrangement.  There are all kinds of problems that flow from this model – and they all have to do with the common marketplace promise of “satisfaction guaranteed.”

If, alternatively, we understand knowledge to be inherent in the learner – something a student already has, latent within him, then what some people have more of and some less is access to self-knowledge, and the teacher’s challenge becomes, not increasing the flow of knowledge through the conduit, like a hose, but evoking insight.  In this model of education, there is no transaction of material and no commercial arrangement.  Students are questers, seekers, capable of effecting their own transformation of learning and of answering their own questions.  The teacher becomes a guide, and a facilitator – asking questions to shepherd student to their own answers.

It is a radical shift in our conception of education, but it is not new.  The Quaker wisdom tradition allows for the presence of an Inner Teacher, an inherent source of knowledge and guidance that requires evocation, not augmentation.  Quaker community members strive, not to supply answers, but to ask questions that help a friend or colleague hear and understand what their inner teacher is saying.  The notion is clear: knowledge resides in all of us, latent perhaps but there.  Guides, mentors, and teachers ask questions to evoke the answers that are already there.

I confess merely a passing familiarity with the tenets of Quaker spirituality, but so be it – in that, as in so many other things, I am “still just a learner.”

This is Wendell Berry on the same topic.  Imagine what education – indeed this country – would be if we could embrace the radical notion that what you need you already have.

The Wild Geese – by Wendell Berry

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end.  In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves.  We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

A Letter to a Teacher

This is a letter – email, actually – I recently posted to a fellow educator and one of my earliest mentors.  It came about as you might expect.  He asked me, simply enough, “How did your school year go?”  But for  some of us in schools, the answers are never that simple.  I went something like this:

He:  “Is your year almost over?  How did it go?”

I:  “I am done only just this evening.  I am glad it is over.  It has been a hell of a year for a challenging number of challenging reasons.”

He:  “I know what you mean.  The mania and the frenzy of schooling is difficult.  I have felt that way many times before.” (paraphrase).

I:  “I am not sure you have.  Let me tell you how it hurts.”

And then I laid it on him.  The following is more or less what I wrote:

Regarding the “I am glad it is over” feeling: I feel like I am good with the mania and the pace.  I feel like that is a choice we all, as teachers, collectively make – whether we feel in control of the choice or not, we are in control of it, and we do it, and I perpetrate the mania as much as anyone by participating in the manic system, submitting to schedules and deadlines, enforcing them, etc.

The thing that is needling me now is something that I first pondered in my 3rd year here – 6th year of classroom teaching – when I spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what schooling was – what was it that we were doing as teachers?  That was the question I was always asking, tacitly or not, in my work.  It manifested in the decisions I made, the way I positioned myself at school, how I taught my classes, the identity I brought to the classroom.  And it was a worthy question – still is – because it determines all of those things and everything else we do as teachers. What we think we are doing in school – our conception of what it is to teach – determines how we do our life’s work.  Classroom policies, the space we create for learning, and how we define success in the classroom, among many other really significant things.

So, in my 3rd year here, I first glimpsed a terrifying possibility: What if when I finally come to understand what schooling is here – I no longer want to be a part of it?  What if what school really is is not good?

This is an important question?  What if I fell in love with an illusion?  What if school isn’t about human potential, experience, curiosity, surprise, self-governance, and enlightenment, not about learning at all?  What if it really is about sorting kids, categorizing them like beef or eggs, creating obedient workers with “good study habits” so that they can serve our economy?  What if it really is about homework and grades and science fair projects and pencil and paper tests?

If it is about all of that nasty dogma, then either I subordinate my ideals to the service of that and “learn to love the bomb”, or I go to work every day and I fight against the system (which not really a system, it is people) to win small battles in a lonely war with few comrades in the service of scarcely held belief.

This is the old stuff, right?  I know that.  This is Horace’s Compromise – and why Sizer started CES and his other school reforms.

Okay, so, fine, right?  Get over it.  Big surprise that my school doesn’t perfectly fit my delicate sensibilities.  Big deal that I have to put some of my idealism aside in order to go to work every day.  Lots of people have it a lot worse in their jobs.

Yes.

Yes, AND lots of people don’t feel the need to improve the world with their work.  Lots of people are not teachers.  I DO believe teachers are special.  I DO believe that the work we do is fundamentally optimistic, idealistic, and forward looking – not just getting by, living through another day, but actively pursuing and effecting the change we want to see in the world.

So, these two positions are in conflict:

•Do I man up and get over it, tamp down my idealism and my need for a good fit between my work and my convictions, participate in a system that has flaws and try to value the participation and not the system, sacrifice what I think is important for the larger context of a school and a faculty and a group of people all doing the same thing, abandon my ego for the selfless goal of someone else’s vision of a better reality?

or

•Do I man up and get over it, stand up for my intuition, my convictions, and my beliefs because from where I stand today and what I know right now I am sure they are right and good and possible, trust in what is and has always been fundamentally with me, stop acquiescing to the impulse to accept the responsibility and the blame for when my core beliefs run afoul of institutional norms and the direction the school is going, stop wondering what is wrong with me that I seem to be the only person in the room with my set of priorities.

That question and the million, myriad ways in which it came up this year are why I am glad it is over and that I can now think about it a bit instead of constantly reacting and responding to another difficult situation.

Sometimes I wonder, what was so good about the first 5 years at this school?  Were things that different in the teaching environment? Or did I just see a lot less, was my vision poorer in some way?

Sorry you asked?

See you soon.

Ptr

Teaching is a hell of a job.  I do still love it.

The Ecstasy of Teaching

There are rare times when the joy and excitement of teaching swells to ecstasy.  When the world of tangibles mutes and fades into the background for a short time, giving way to a world of ideas, and, as in a dream, new rules seem to apply.  It is a confounding experience and difficult to describe.  I found myself today standing outside my classroom, on the steps in the sun, just catching my breath and trying to maintain my composure, and wondering what just happened.

In these glowing moments after things have gone so well in class, the world looks different.  Literally.  I know it is all about perception, but that doesn’t dim the experience of it.  It is as if the world sparkles, like I am seeing it for the first time.  Like things lack names.  New.  Unidentifiable in reference to anything that came before.  Like an infant’s gaze.  I have walked out of my classroom on only a handful of occasions in my 13 years of teaching and wondered, “What has changed in the world?  Why does it look so different?”  Or is it me?

This morning I was standing outside my classroom, sort of panting, looking again at a sparkling world for the first time.  I had just contrived a short, reflective writing assignment as an personal escape plan.  In order to give myself the chance to breathe, I had breathlessly recapped some of the intellectual and emotional territory we had just traversed and asked my students to write down what they remember of the 45-minute discussion we had just experienced together.  It was a fine thing for a teacher to ask of students, certainly pedagogically supportable, but it was an escape for me, nonetheless.  I had reached for the ripcord and deployed the parachute.

I wondered if my students knew, in some way, that I had bailed out.  Had the moment become awkward in class?  Did they wonder?  Did they ask themselves, “What’s up with him?  Why is he so into it?”  I trusted that they did not.  I trusted that they had by now come to expect my intensity around ideas.  But you can’t ever be sure – and I heard myself saying, “Pull it together.  Breathe.  Take it down.  You have to go back in there and wrap things up for next class.”

This class I teach is called Why War? and I am happy to tell you what we talked about, how it went, all the details – I know you are wondering.  But for now that isn’t my point.  What we talked about is almost irrelevant.  I am trying to write about why I teach (in fact, I have been trying for years), about moments of connection with ideas in the company of young people striving to develop their powers.  Moments of transcendence when being in the presence of grace and great things shines a light on you that you know you can’t endure but you want never to go out.

Hack Canyon, Ch. 4: The First Step

One of the particular joys of arriving in the canyons at night is not seeing where you are until morning.  You set up camp in the dark and go to sleep blind, and maybe wonder, “What does it look like?  Is there snow?”  Because you can’t know the scale and scope of the canyons in the dark, even with a moon.  You just can’t see that far by the reflected gleam of moonlight.  Detail is lost and you can’t judge distances.  It is ghostly and ethereal.

But in the morning you wake in unfamiliar territory and stare for a few warm moments at the wet inside of your tent.  Y0ur first thought is usually about time, your second about weather.  You try to gauge both by the ambient light in the tent, but it is a crude measure.  The condensation that slowly runs down the inside of your tent doesn’t bother you; your sleeping bag is too comfortable.  But the curiosity you fell asleep with spurs something in you, creeps in and eventually wins out – like unfinished business from the night before.

Maybe you don’t even have to get out of your sleeping bag.  Maybe if you just unzip and poke your head out, that will be enough.  So you sit up, reach down to the foot of your bag, and stretch to reach the tent zipper.  With a jerk or two that inevitably ruffles the tent enough to rain gentle but cold droplets down on you and your partner, the zipper opens and you flip back the flap, and behold the world outside.

It is like being born.  You find yourself utterly transported to a foreign landscape of staggering beauty and magnitude.  The details are sharp on the canyon walls and the low sun – must be about 7am – bathes everything in soft, orange light.  Blue sky, red earth, dark streaks on the canyon walls, and a dusting of white snow layered on the prominent features – the color scheme itself is astonishingly beautiful.  You may wonder, is it really that beautiful or am I just giddy?  Am I somehow conditioned or evolved to appreciate natural scenery?  Maybe both or all three.  In any case, you are enjoying the sight and you feel like you should have been here all along.

Because it has been here.  The canyons have been here.  Just sitting.  Waiting.  All of this – the canyons, the walls, the red earth, the snow – all of this has been here and you haven’t.  What have you been doing?  What on earth have you been doing?

The canyon walls are tall and far away, so tall and so far away it is hard to conceive of their size.  You feel like you could just bolt from your tent and run there and at the same time you know it would take you an hour to get there.  The air is crisp, making your sleeping bag all the cozier, and then you remember your students and the job you have to do.  There is breakfast to organize, packs to pack, curriculum to teach.

The first step is getting dressed and out.

The Truth is Out There

The mists are thick today, offering only occasional glimpses of the mountain.  Perched on the south side of our little ridge, we look out upon an airy vista and the full north face of Mt Tamalpais.  In clearer weather, that is, we look upon it.  Today the mists drifted up our valley in thick billows obscuring and quieting everything.  Even the birds have gone quiet in the thick white stillness.  The mountain energizes this valley with its presence.

At 2,571 feet, the mountain’s East Peak overlooks most of Marin County and San Francisco Bay.  And it looms like a guardian over our little valley, keeping watch and casting shadows.  It draws the eye and dominates the skyline with an imagined outline of a sleeping lady.  It is the source of myth, the place of local history, (including at least two plane crashes, airplane pieces from which you can still find if you know where to look) and a fount of experience and play for many of us who live and have grown up on its slopes.

The Coast Miwok people who lived on the shores of what would later become Marin and Sonoma Counties and inland are said to have believed that the mountain embodied a Sleeping Lady.  As the story goes, a heart-sick beauty wandered the mountain pining for her heart’s desire, a gorgeous young man of incalculable attraction who, as it is told, jilted her.  The broken-hearted woman laid down on the slopes of the mountain and died – what else to do? – of sadness.  The mountain, feeling her pain, gave her a final comfort in an eternal resting place incorporating her into its ridges and valleys.  She can still be seen where she lay in the mountain’s outline – from certain angles, to be sure.

It is a story not unlike many you might hear about many mountains, and you shouldn’t be bothered by the fact that it turns out not to be entirely true in that apparently this was not a Miwok belief so much as a white one about the Miwok and their mythologizing of the mountain.  In fact, that is true about a lot of the things we tell ourselves about indigenous peoples; the stories and our beliefs about people, upon closer inspection, turn out to be not so much about them but about us.  The fact is we don’t know that much about the Miwok and their way of life.  But whether it is a story about the Miwok or about the gold hunters who flooded the area in 1848 and their struggle to understand the people living here, the story exists in our local lore and it seasons our relationship with the mountain.

And there is more.  In his beautiful book Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints, Tom Killion, and his co-author Gary Snyder, gives careful and insightful context to a lot Tamalpais history and lore in the chapter called Poetic Histories, specifically the section in it called The Sleeping Lady: Invention and Appropriation.  I am still exploring the pages of this beautiful book, and I am finding it an important addition to the Tamalpais corpus.

As mentioned above there are two sites of circa WWII plane crashes on the mountain.  The engine block of one still lies in a creek bottom.  It is greatly decayed, of course, but not as much as you might think.  It is still easily identifiable as an airplane engine with its jutting piston housings and large center axle.  And it is big, really big.  I was surprised.

Legend had it when I was growing up in the 70’s that the top of Mt Tam was the site of buried  nuclear missile silos, and therefore was a prime target for the Reds, one of the kinder epithets for Russian Soviets in those days.  As kids experimenting with bravado, we all said we were glad to be living so close to a first strike site, that it was the best place to be in a nuclear war because who would want to survive?  There is, in fact, an old and long since dismantled military base on Middle Peak and there are concrete bunkers and the foundations of large cannon emplacements all over the headlands in Marin, but as far as I know there was never a nuclear weapon buried inside the mountain.

There are several native species of terrestrial orchid that grow in the woods of Mt Tam, including one that some people have assured me is endemic to the mountain, although I have had some difficulty verifying that.  Nonetheless, it is a satisfying story and a satisfying hunt in March up at Rock Springs to find the small, delicate pinkish flowers blooming under the firs.

There are stately, grand Coast Redwood trees that were hollowed out by various the fires this area has seen over the years, some so big you can get an entire family inside.  And there are a few, relatively hidden or off the usual paths, in which folks I know occasionally gather and sometimes spend the night in candlelight vigil for mother earth.  There is a 15 mile circumambulation route that was laid out and first tramped by Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder.  It passes through what is called the Serpentine Power Point which has been described as “the spiritual driver’s seat of the Bay Area” – not sure what that means, exactly, but it indicates something, for sure.  And there is a place on the north side of the mountain, a grove of trees, firs and oaks and bays, wherein hangs a symphony of wind chimes around a couple of small natural benches.  As light filters and diffuses through the trees, winds rustles in the leaves and the chimes sing, and at those times one feels absolutely invited to sit and think and be – to take a moment to experience oneself as a human being, as a friend of mine, an inspired educator, sometimes says.  This place is a cathedral as sacred as any stone edifice.

In the time it has taken me to write this paean, the mists have thinned and lifted somewhat.  There is a brightening in the valley.  I can see across to the far hill where horses graze, and beyond it I can see the ghostly, featureless outline of the mountain resolving slowly into detail.  It is becoming present in our valley again.  Or maybe it is me.

The truth – of the mountain or history or our lives – is out there, but seeing it with complete clarity never happens.  We are always looking for the truth through fog and billowing mist.  Sometimes the fog is so thick and settled that it obscures everything into a featureless stillness, a white silence, as it did for me only an hour ago.  Other times it breaks and thins and rises, and the mountain appears briefly but with crystalline clarity, reestablishing its presence as we reset our anchors.  Most of the time is somewhere in between.  There is a rippling veil between us and the world and it mediates our experience.  Our perception of the truth is influenced as much by our belief that the mountain is still there when we can’t see it as it is by our senses that tell us otherwise.

To me that is what makes life particularly interesting.  I can’t know what the truth is about the Miwok people or their belief in the sleeping lady.  And I don’t know if there is really any power at the Serpentine Power Point or if there is anything religious about the Nave of the Wind Chimes.  Truth be told, it doesn’t matter too much to me whether the Calypso bulbosa orchid only grows on the slopes of Mt Tam or whether it is widespread and far ranging.  It is the story that creates the Truth, and we are as much the authors of those stories, with all the attendant authority, as anything that might be termed that facts of the matter.

Is that right?  I don’t know.  I am headed outside to find the truth.