Skyline, Fall - 2007

By Diane Pendola

The Guardian

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Her meditation this morning is informed by the sound of chainsaws.  The images in her mind are of Ponderosa Pines severed from their roots, cut off from their source.  They are moving her way— the men with orange hard hats, long blades swinging like extensions of their arms, their hands gloved and their ears muffled against the guttural, throatless growl of their machines. The cacophony is moving closer and she feels a shiver tremble through the earth.  Or is it only in her own body that she feels the tremor, the mortal fear?

Several weeks ago the PG&E crew had driven down her gravel road, parked the white bulk of its utility truck beside the barn and three men had emerged from its cab.

“We’re here to take down trees,” the one with the clipboard in hand greeted her.  She nodded to him, and then reached her hand to the other one leaning against the truck.

“Jim,” he said as he shook her hand.

“Josh” the other said as he emerged from the passenger side of the truck, smiling.

Then she extended her hand to Frank. As he introduced himself, he shifted the clipboard from his right hand to his left, dropping it casually against his side. 

“Cara”.  She smiled faintly as she grasped his hand. “I thought you guys were going to let me know before you came.” Frank looked down at his clipboard, looked back at her.  He was thirty-something, balding with a paunch.  His two co-workers were younger.  Jim was small, lithe, the muscles in his arms coiled like rope. Josh was softer, broader, a friend of beer and television.

“We could come back,” Frank said.

“I would like that,” she answered unapologetically.

“We just need your signature to remove these trees.”  He brought his elbow up from his side, bending his arm to support the clipboard which he now brought around to Cara’s side.  He handed her a black ball-point pen.  Of course he couldn’t know the mis-beat of her heart as she signed her name to the trees’ demise.

After some small talk and purveying of the trees at issue they left.

Now, this morning, listening, she knows the murderous saws are closing in.  They will be here tomorrow.  She climbs down the ladder from her meditation loft, an abalone shell in her hand.  She goes out into the field beside her house.  The PG&E lines end their long march through miles and miles of the Tahoe National Forest here. She lives at the end of the line. And here at the end of the line are two trees leaning dangerously toward the high voltage wires.

Seven years ago, just ¼ mile up these very lines, the wind blew the top out of an old gnarled Pine which came crashing down on those coiled conduits of concealed energy.  Flame sparked and fire leapt into sight, spread through the dry October grasses and Manzanita patches.  The parched, low lying brush were ladders for the fire to access the crowns of Sugar and Ponderosa Pines, Douglas and White Firs, Cedars, Madrones and Oaks of every kind.  The fire exploded, consuming everything in its path. It licked up the trunks of trees.  It burned underground through gnarled roots, through holes of mice and moles.  It burned through the deer beds and the bear’s lair, through the breeding grounds of lady bugs and the nests of yellow jackets.  She remembers the fox with the burned paws limping through this very field, exposed and in shock.  She remembers the helicopters chopping through the dense smoke and the fire-fighters in their yellow coats, their faces blackened by ash and their eyes reflecting the massive flames.

She remembers all this as she stands in the field below the power lines. The abalone shell cradles a smudge-stick of sage that sends wisps of smoke from the visible to the invisible worlds.  Facing east she acknowledges the power of fire; turning south she remembers her grief; turning west she recalls the charred and blackened landscape of mother earth; facing north she remembers the long winter of her loss.  She looks towards the heavens and asks forgiveness.  She looks towards the earth and asks instruction. She looks within and asks communion.

She walks to the Pine marked with a red spray painted X.  The Pine is one of the biggest in the pasture, one of the few left after the fire.  20 feet up her trunk there is a wide scar across her diameter, as though punched hard in the belly she doubled over once long ago and was never able to fully upright herself again. Now, vulnerable to the wind, this old wound could break her, and her fall could spark a fire all over again.

Cara places her hand on the coarse bark, senses the pulse beneath, the life soon to end.  In her minds eye she sees the trees all along the miles of these electrical wires, thousands and thousands of trees, falling now, sacrificed to power.  And she has made her own bargain, her own assent— for fire protection, yes.  But also for power protection: so she can continue to use electricity.  She’s dependent on it, addicted to it, only vaguely aware of a possible quality of life beyond it.  She listens to the Pine and the wind sighing in her branches. She listens to the cry of the young hawk only recently flown from his nest.  She looks through the pine boughs to the power lines.  She senses them flowing with blood, not only the blood of these trees, but the blood of whole forests.  The blood of mountains blown apart for the coal at their heart.  The blood of rivers dammed for the energies of their captive waters. The blood of cathedralled canyons flooded and doomed. The blood of chemical laden top-soils running into creeks and streams, flowing to polluted seas.  The blood of animals, birds, fish, so many vanishing into extinction unlike anything since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  The blood of humans flowing from every corner of the globe.  All sacrificed to power.  And now she does her sacrifice as well: these few trees which connect her to all the trees that have fallen as a sacrifice to power in our age.

She follows the lines out of the pasture, across the fence line onto the dirt road that winds through the 200 acres of forestland she considers under her guardianship.  The high intensity fire had burned through all but 20 acres of her beloved forest.  The fire-fighters, the winds and numinous powers conspired to leave the buildings intact along with a circle of green extending down to the creek and across the canyon where the fire did not burn quite so hot. But on the slopes and the ridge tops the flames had taken everything.  It had consumed the great Madrones with their red satin skins, feminine curves and generous laps; the Black Oaks, some five to six feet wide at their base, miraculously risen to such might from mere acorn starts; the dogwoods who adorned the canyons with their white flowers in spring and their pink leaves in fall; the needled Pines and the feathered Firs and Cedars who were a mature forest again after severe logging of generations past. 

She looks across the road to where the goats are currently doing their work of brush control.  Held behind electrical fencing that is moved periodically to new territory, the goats help keep down the fire danger with their voracious appetite for young ceonothus, berries, thistles and all the ferocious growth thickening across the land since its denuding.  She feels a pang of loss.  It is the absence of the big guardian dog, Justin. Justin, a white 120 pound Great Pyrenee, who with his partner, Juneau, guards the mob of goats from the mountain lions and bears that live in these hills, disappeared two nights ago.  His absence is a gap in her heart, an empty space painful in its lack, in its revelation of what is no longer there.  In the evening the goats and dogs had gotten out of their pasture.  She was able to get the goats back inside, but often when this happens, the two dogs take advantage of their freedom to explore outside the perimeter of the enclosure.  It was late, getting dark and she thought the dogs would be there in the morning– eager for their breakfast and to return to their job of guarding their flock.  But in the morning, though Juneau was there, Justin was nowhere to be found.  Looking now towards the goats, she sees Juneau lying alone with her head on her paws, despondent and bereft.  Cara wonders what happened to Justin.  She feels in her heart that he must have tangled with a predator.  It’s just not like him to abandon his post. Even though she has put flyers around, at the post office, the general store and the forest service station, hoping that perhaps he had run a lion off in the night and had gotten lost, she feels in her gut that he is gone.

Cara remembers when she first picked him up from “the goat lady” five years ago.  He was 18 months old and very timid with people.  Guardian dogs aren't raised with people, they're raised with the animals who will be their “pack”, their family.  So it wasn't until she got him home and sharing the barn with a few goats that his quiet whining had ceased and he had begun to relax into the job he was born to.   He would continue to be shy and retiring though he always showed her an extraordinary sweetness and gentleness.  It belied his boldness, his ferocity when confronting any threat to his charges! It was amazing to watch the goats gather themselves into a tight circle, their rumps toward the center, their ears attentive to the protective barking, as Juneau and Justin with hackles raised, would place themselves between the vulnerable little herd and the scented menace beyond Cara’s human gaze.

She follows the road for awhile as it curves around a ravine and comes along the east side of its ridge.  From here the buzzing of the saws is even louder and more intense.  For a moment she feels hate arise.  There is a nauseous feeling in her belly.  Her mind moves darkly towards the men wielding their saws, and beyond them to the corporation they serve.  She looks down at her black boots, scuffed and covered with red dust. She kicks a rock out of her way with a curse muttered under her breath.  The rock scuttles a few feet down the road, comes to rest near a clump of orange California poppies.  She stops,  bends down and gently extends a finger-tip to touch a soft petal, translucent in the light. Hatred will never cease through hatred.  By love alone, by love alone, by love alone will it end.  She begins to quietly chant the ancient Buddhist scripture. She remembers how touched she was by the story that first taught it to her.* It was a story of thousands of refugees gathered together in a camp on the Thai border with Cambodia.  All had suffered greatly.  All had lost their homes and lands.  All had lost loved ones.  Many had seen their children murdered or their sisters raped or their fathers tortured and killed. And even in the refugee camp they and their loved ones were continually threatened. But even at the threat of their lives the people gathered to celebrate the opening of a Buddhist temple in the dusty center of the camp. There, 20, 000 people chanted “Hatred will never cease through hatred.  By love alone, by love alone, by love alone will it heal.” Over and over they chanted these words. They wept.  They chanted this is an ancient and eternal law. They felt the truth of it. Truth deeper even than their suffering.

Cara lets the chant take hold of her thoughts as she plucks one of the poppies and brings it to her lips. She stands, her fingers spinning the delicate flower across her mouth and beneath her nostrils as she gazes again towards the Justin-less field. Her short silver hair is lifted by a light breeze. Her blue eyes mist as she lets the chant flow towards the field and towards Justin, wherever he might be.  With the thought of Justin her heart softens and she can see the men with chainsaws differently— certainly not as enemies.  She remembers how the Dali Lama refers to the Chinese who have invaded his homeland and massacred or exiled his people: My friend the enemy.

She turns off the road, making her way through rocks and poison oak back towards the power lines. She meets them again descending the steep slope down the ridge top from which the road had detoured. Soon she’s on the path that the utility crews clear of brush and hazardous trees each year.  She feels so much ambivalence. She hates to see the trees felled.  At the same time she knows how fire can take a whole forest.  She hates to see these intruding lines of the oh-so-human world soldiering through the wild woods.  At the same time the path they open up is convenient for walking or horseback riding and of course, for fire break. Still, she hates the saws and the loggers and the giant yellow machines that snake the logs out of the woods, gashing the earth.  She hates the huge mechanical arms that lift the logs up onto waiting logging trucks. She hates the smell of diesel fuel that hangs in the air and the grease that is creased into her consciousness. She’s aware of her hatred, just the common garden-variety little hates.  She’s aware of the little weeds of resistance and aversion and only vaguely cognizant of the dark places in herself, unseen precisely for their darkness:  the blind spots of complicity and compliance.

She continues to chant softly, looking down the length of her blue-jeaned legs at the dry pine needles and fallen oak leaves crunching beneath her boots.   Hatred will never cease through hatred.  By love alone, by love alone, by love alone will it end.  Mature Ponderosa Pines rise up on either side of her.  They are at risk, too, so close to the electrical wires and already scarred by the fire and then the reckless crews that scraped whole sides of their trunks in the salvage logging that happened afterwards.  She feels such sadness. The chant helps her unite her sadness to the sorrows across the planet.  So much loss.  And under it so much hatred.  So much blame.  So much suffering.  Hatred will never cease through hatred.  By love alone is it healed.  This is an ancient and eternal law.

She breathes deeply.  The knot in her belly is still wound tight and obstructs the flow of breath. The breath seems to stick in her throat as though she has swallowed something foreign and sharp. It sticks in my craw, she thinks to herself.  And the word craw makes her think of a Raven she’s seen lately, flying over the fields and tree-tops, sometimes bothering the flight of the young hawk.  Ravens are rare in these parts, but just over the last few years she has seen them appearing more and more. And just a couple of days ago, actually the day Justin disappeared, one had landed on the fence, eyeing Juneau’s breakfast of dry dog-food.  Nearly as big as a hawk, the Raven’s scruffy black feathers shined with a purple luminescence as she cocked her head to one side and fixed Cara with an eerily intelligent gaze. She knew that in shamanic traditions the Raven was a messenger between the worlds: the worlds of the visible and invisible, the physical world and the spirit world.  She knew from her reading that they were very smart, perhaps with the equivalent of a 4 year old child’s intelligence.  This Raven had eyed her for an uncomfortably long time and then had cawed three times.  Maybe you’ll help me find Justin she had said to her skeptically.  In her imaginative flights of fancy she could hope for help from the other world but she was much too rational to believe it would come.  And besides, this Raven had only shown up for a free meal which Juneau had no intention of sharing. As the Raven moved toward her food Juneau had made a quick charge, baring her teeth and letting go one short bark. With that the Raven had lifted into the air and flapped away towards the forest cover.

Funny how that scene comes back to her so clearly now and how the feeling of undigested pain stuck in her throat and chest seems so related to the Raven’s image.  Walking slowly up hill she hears something startle and fly up from the brush.  She follows the sound with her eyes until she locates its source. She stops.  She feels her feet.  Let me feel my roots, she thinks. Let me feel the ground.   She senses her energy reaching down, beneath her, beyond her.  The soul is not in the body, she directs herself. The body is in the soul. She allows herself to settle, like the great bird she is looking toward.  It is in a tree 10 feet away, perched on a solid pine bough big as her thigh, about 20 feet up the old tree’s trunk. Be still. She counsels herself. Listen.  She stands for long moments looking up at the bird and the bird stares back.  Finally she speaks out loud: You’re not Raven, but you’ll stand in. As her voice breaks the silence of the forest another bird startles from the same spot as the first.  The grey-brown body crowned with its naked red head lands in a tree directly across from its mate.  There, between the two vultures, she knows she will find the body of Justin.

She turns east off the cleared path,  directly east of her house, less than ¼ mile from where she woke this morning, she finds Justin’s body.  Death in the east. She remembers the intuition now.  Two days ago, the morning Justin disappeared, as she had greeted the rising sun, these words had whispered in her mind.  But she hadn’t connected them to Justin.  The east is new beginnings, rebirth, resurrection, she had corrected herself.  The whisper slipped away with the dawn, as the full sun beckoned her to the business of the day. 

Now, beneath a scrubby Madrone tree, half dead itself, lies Justin’s magnificent white body.   She catches sight of him and stops, her breath catching in her chest, held there for a long moment.   She moves gently toward him. His belly has been ripped open and a grayish green rope of gut and intestine rests against his back legs.  She moves around his body to his head, leans down and presses her fingers against a deep puncture wound on his chest. There is a gurgling sound and for a moment she jumps back on her heels with the impossible hope that he might still be alive.  He doesn’t seem two days dead!  But he is dead and she begins to dread that perhaps it had been a long, drawn-out dying, alone in the forest as she slept so near-by. If only I had found him sooner! She kneels on the earth, strokes his face and the soft hairs on the top of his nose.  She massages the soft flap of his ear and exhales a tender breath into it.  If only I had heeded Raven.  If only I had listened for the meaning of “death in the east.” If only… She takes his head onto her knees. It is then she understands the mortal blow delivered to his skull: final, fatal and immediate.  Blood, sticky and thick, clings to her hand, dampens her blue jeans, staining them an inky black. She sees it as clearly as if she were witness: the powerful swipe of the bear’s great claws, slashing clearly, cleanly across the left side of Justin’s face.

Up until now she has felt oddly subdued.  It’s as though she has been standing outside herself, as though she were observing herself touching Justin and analyzing the scene of his battle.  Continuing to kneel, she now takes her dog’s front paws into her own two hands.  She feels the give of the calloused pink pads, traces the strong nails with her fingers, strokes the coarse hair on the top of his feet and feels the bone beneath, the tendon, the dear life so recently flown.  She holds his paws tightly, tenderly and the tears begin to come.  And once they come they feel like they will never end.

She cries for the loss of his beautiful form, his sweet amber eyes, his brave and gallant spirit.  She cries for him and for herself and for the mortality that binds them.  She cries at the necessity of this death and at the necessity of death.  She cries for her lack of presence, for the leaking away of life, neither totally seen nor totally lived. Through her tears she lights sage, smudges his body, prays that his spirit be free and happy.  She sings in a tongue foreign and ancient, looking to the east, where the sun rises. She then turns to a big Pine close by, throws her arms around its wide and solid girth, and weeps.

Who knows how much time passed? She sits on the ground, her back against the coarse bark of the Ponderosa Pine. She feels washed by her tears.  She looks down at the blood on her hands, staining the denim across her knees. The wind has come up.  It blows right through her as though her body were a hollow reed, a wind instrument for the breeze to play.  Pain is no longer a sharp catch in her throat and chest, no longer a knot in her belly.  The flood of tears has broken the nauseous dam of hurt, unlocked all the energy stores of emotion.  Now she is empty space.  Now she is blue sky.  Now she is the soft sighing amidst the tops of pines.

The image of a Raven glides through the clear sky of her inner vision.  The black bird rides the currents of air, circling, spiraling nearer and nearer, eventually landing on the very branch where Cara had first seen the vulture.  Again Raven fixes Cara in her gaze.  No longer eerie, the look is knowing. Even loving, Cara muses, wise.  The Raven’s eyes seem to gaze at her from a deep, ancient, place— a place more ancient than death. If that were possible, Cara thinks. As though reading her thoughts, the Raven spreads her wings. Her body dips a little toward the bough holding her and then, with a slight bounce she lifts into the thin air, her wings iridescent in the slanting sunlight. With a graceful descent she flies towards Justin’s body, but it is no longer there. Raven lands where his body should be. She looks slyly over at Cara.  Cara hears in her mind: Why do you look for the living among the dead?  Raven observes her.  Are you mocking me? Cara flings the thought at the bird.  Raven spreads her wings, gives a little turn there in the earth, as though she were dancing on Justin’s grave, and flies away.

Cara starts as though waking from a dream. She looks towards Justin’s body.  It is still there.  So is his blood on her hands and jeans.  She slowly stands, brushing the forest litter from the seat of her pants, turning for a moment to look at the tree she’s been leaning against.  Just above eye level she notices claw marks.  As she examines further, she sees freshly torn bark going a long way up the trunk.  The bear had ascended far up into this tree.  She looks up towards one of the first limbs that might have born the bear’s weight and sees that it has been broken off.  The remains of a jagged branch hang a couple feet out from the trunk.  Justin had treed this bear.  Had the branch given way under its great bulk?  Had the bear fallen toward the barking dog? Had it had no alternative but to engage the fight?  She knows that Justin and this bear must have known each other well.  This bear had visited outside the perimeter of Justin’s territory many nights, probably taunting Justin.  They were each other’s worthy adversary.  Each keeping the other alert, awake to their place in the forest.  Free of his enclosure, this night had been his chance to chase this bear out of the country for good— and away from the constant threat to Justin’s vulnerable flock.  Instead he had sent the bear up a tree.  When the fight was upon them, it was Justin who had given his life.

Given his life… That’s what you did, isn’t it buddy? You gave your life protecting what was yours to protect. Cara spoke to Justin now as though he were standing in front of her, looking at her with those kind, light-filled eyes of his. His eyes were different than any dog’s she had known.  Those dogs had nut-brown eyes, the color of almonds.  But Justin’s eyes were amber, the translucent yellow-orange color of resin from the heart of ancient trees. My good, guardian dog, she whispers to him, my good, guardian dog become guardian spirit. She says this softly and as she does she feels the truth of it, like finding solid ground again after the dizzying currents of sadness and grief. The soul is not in the body.  The body is in the soul. Who speaks?  Justin?  Herself? Do they share a common soul?  Now freed from the limits of body and form, does Justin speak from the inner depths of her own nature? Could it be? 

She turns back towards the power lines. She will return home and tell the others:  she has found Justin.  They will come back with shovels to dig a grave.  They will come with their tears and their private prayers and their common grief. They will remember Justin.  They will remember what a good and faithful servant he was. They will tell stories. They will learn the hard lesson that he has to teach: that to be a guardian is risky business, protecting the vulnerable can cost your life.

As she walks towards her home, the chainsaws continue their high whining chorus in the distance behind her. What is yours to protect? Is it Justin who speaks?  Is it her soul?  As she makes her way back to the end of the line the question will not be silenced.


For Justin 

July 14, 2001- August 13, 2007

*See the story as told by Jack Kornfield in “A Path With Heart” pp. 296-297



©Diane Pendola, Fall 2007. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author.

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