In That Old Country

278B8E0E-298C-4A8D-8397-3B9B39243596In that old country of open air
and littered leaves
we adhere to that traditional religion
the one of earth and trees
of wind and winding rivers

Conducting those ancient rituals
of walking
and listening around the fire

Here, all of us are born
with priestly ears
and sacred feet

There is no exile
and everyone is at the heart
of belonging

We sing the sacred stories
and know gratitude

We migrate, following the seasons
and herds of beasts
across the continent of our souls—they know where the water that nourishes is

When the rains come
we drink deeply together
in that old country

Ulaba: The Song of the In-Betweenness


Ajana minoet a’lan
Aunee min ajana
Unja idi anju idu
(ch)ulaba idi lana

[Sudden emerges the sun (or light)
Sudden arrives the dark
A beat here, a moment there
A song between the two.]


When I was growing up in Iowa, my farmer grandpa would walk the beans. On occasion he would let me tag along. Walking beans entails getting up before dawn, putting on overalls, and walking up and down rows upon rows of little soybean or corn plants, scouting for interlopers like milkweed that needed to pulled out by hand (Before the ubiquity of massively sprayed chemicals).

Half-asleep I would hear strange words emerge from my grandpa….Ajana minoet a’lan…
As if he were intoning a spell conjuring the plants from the dark earth. And perhaps he was.
He’d let his hands glide over the sapling plants as he walked at a steady clip….Aunee min ajana.

I later discovered that the words were from a song handed down through a long lineage, a song of the old tongue. My grandma told me that their grandparents, indeed everybody’s grandparents, used to sing it around the fire ‘in the olden days’.

The national language of my grandpa was Dutch, a language he knew but a little, but it was one of the lifelong language spoken by his parents–he arrived from the Netherlands to the heartland at age two. But this song/spell in the fields of Iowa was in the old language, Aduana–before Dutch, before there was such a thing as nations, what my grandma called ‘the language of the earth’.

It’s been a long time since I walked beans, but I’ve learned a lot about Aduana since then. A rich and endlessly versatile language, with deep roots in the land and flowing water, I’ve been inspired to excavate and resurrect it.

The above is the result of the first dig, with my best attempt at translation and transliteration.

Whenever I’m around a campfire, whether alone under the stars or with a group of friends, I feel the urge to sing it in the original language. What matters is not some ‘right way that it used to be sung’ but that it is sung. And when it arises suddenly (ajana), I let my body and voice be carried by it, until it sings itself.




The Biggest Circle Holds All the Parts

desert sun2Bees buzz and dragonflies dance
as the wolf howls call us into circle

We settle in to be unsettled
vulnerable to the rising eastern sun
and the gaze of others
Witnessing our unfolding stories
spiraling in towards the truth
that is ours alone to claim

arriving at our target
like an arrow of Artemis

no longer invisible
we become curious about what
sacred nuggets and rose-scented revelations
come pouring out of our heart-mouths
into the Inyo

The sun keeps chasing us, saying:
“You can’t hide anymore”

But it can rain at any time,
and sometimes it is rainy and sunny
at the same time
in the weather systems of our soul

And now: we show up
to take our places on the land

in gratitude and yearning
in celebration and commitment
marking the next unfurling
of that place within ourselves
which is none other than
taking our true place in the world

We bring but our gift of tears
of grief and joy
and ears to hear
what is already here

The land speaks with us
and through us
because we are not separate

we do not believe the Big Lie

The land speaks through us:

as an earth poem that unlocks hearts
as a log we carry home in love
as a bird with whom we whistle, saying, “Pay attention”
as an exquisite trust in the Beloved, the Great Mystery
as the scent of a burnt tree
and paw prints in the dirt, tracking them back to the Source
as a rabbit dancing with love and fear
as gnarled roots we love
as an ever-emerging tree being seen
as an unmatched sunset, saying goodbye with a squeeze of the hand
as honey in the rock that cracks open
as a consuming fire that forgets what it once was

as a mid-day sun stretched between the horizon of elation
and the horizon of desperation,
taking a Sacred Pause

knowing IT IS ENOUGH

Because the land holds us

all the parts
all the parts
all the parts

A Creek Runs Through It – Dispatch from the Watershed Poetry Festival

The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. – Wendell Berry


Vincent Medina, Ohlone Poet

When I saw the post for the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival in Berkeley on Poetry Flash, I knew that I had to attend. I was in need of both creative and moral inspiration, in this era of drought, climate change, and ecosystem collapse. And I am always enchanted by sweet nature-infused wordsmithery, especially celebrations of water, trees, and land.

This was my first time, though it is celebrating its 21st year. The Watershed Festival emerged during the tenure of former U.S. Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winner Robert Hass in the 1990s, when he launched the national Watershed Initiative. It continues today as an international poetry competition, River of Words, which encourages “children to make art and poetry about their watersheds.”

The day began with a walk along Strawberry Creek, starting on UC Berkeley campus and tracing above ground the route the creek takes underground until it reaches the bay.

The themes of poems on Saturday ranged from a tribute to the forests accompanied by a jazz-funk trio, to readings from an anthology dedicated to California State Parks called What Redwoods Know. But the highlight for me was two performances, equal parts edifying and inspiring: one by a local indigenous man and the other by middle school students who were part of California Poets in the Schools.

Vincent Medina is a member of an Muwekma Ohlone tribe. He spoke about his language Chochenyo, which, like much indigenous language and culture, has been the victim of erasure and suppression at the hands of colonial powers and outsiders, from the Spaniards to contemporary U.S. capitalism and imperialism. He is on a mission:”Reawaken” his ancestral language after it had “gone to sleep.” He didn’t grow up speaking the language, but his grandmother did and he began digging into archives and talking with elders. He is now conversationally fluent in Chochenyo.

The language connects them to the land and their ancestors, he said. To their oldest selves. And Chochenyo’s combination of rough and smooth sounds mirror the landscape of this bioregion, which the Ohlone have inhabited for at least several thousand years.

If you live in the East Bay, your mountain is Mt. Diablo, a name given by Spanish colonialists. But in Medina’s language it is called Tuyshtak, meaning something like “Place of the Day” or “at the dawn of time.” Tuyshtak was a sacred site for the Ohlone and features in many of their stories. From Altamont Pass to the ocean, the ups and downs of the land texture their historic sense of place. In preserving his language and anchoring it in the land, he was saying, “We have no intention of leaving.”

Medina then shared a poem and a phrase in Chochenyo that translates as “We are related.” It reminded me of the Lakota phrase, Mitakuye Oyasin, “All my relations,” both invocation and reaffirmation of our true interconnectedness – one our modern economy and worldview have largely forgotten.

If you ever need a boost in mood and hope for humanity, listen to kids read their poetry. Ten kids, ages 8-13, shared poems about submission, about the wonder of lizards growing their tails back, about bees dying, about stars that shine even when you can’t see them, and about pretty wishes sparkling in the night.

Their poems were so crisp, honest, unfiltered, and perceptive. Find out more about California Poets in the Schools.

The festival was a great reminder that we must begin to honestly see the natural world around us and to resurrect words that reaffirm the sacredness of that world and our connection with it. In doing so, we honor both our place and ourselves. If we are to cultivate living in proper relation to our home, language is a great place to start.

P.S. You can get a map of Oakland-Berkeley creeks and watersheds here and find lots of resources on Bay Area local watersheds at the Watershed Project and EBMUD.