Monday, 20 July 2015

Yellow Lines

At a cafe on the edge of a parking lot, retired men in Hawaiian shirts, middle aged hipsters on bikes, and all the mainstream twenty somethings lifting Starbucks paper cups to their mouths with tattooed arms. Cars are everywhere. Parked and polished, or being driven to box stores. They've done a good job at this shopping center of making sure no plant grows wildly. Every seam between each slab of concrete has been scrubbed; every bit of detritus swept up. Green things only grow up from islands in the asphalt demarcated by a thick coat of industrial yellow paint, or from planters hanging in front of the mega stores. Next to me a tiny baby gums its mother's iPhone like it is a pacifier, covering it in drool. For a few minutes I linger here, my own paper coffee cup on the table, sitting in the sun, feeling the highland wind move across my arms and bare legs, looking toward the pine covered hills rising to the east–so dry from the drought and record heat. Smoke is in the air. Fires are burning all over the territory–hot tongues of flame reducing what was to ashes.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Higher Intelligence

Biking down the trail in the white light of the sun. It’s hotter than I ever remember an April in the mountains to be. And though I live in a temperate rainforest where moisture loving cedars and hemlocks grow from soil covered in mosses, today the air feels as dry as it is in sagebrush country. This year, the snow left early. Its meltwaters feed our creeks. This has many of us thinking about drought which leads to thoughts of California. Wondering what it would be like to run out of water as I peddle toward the beaver ponds near the river. 

All around me, the valley is greening. The smell of cottonwood resin mixes with the dank aroma of skunk cabbage. I take note of a patch of nettles that I’ll pick from on the way back, and a nice assemblage of dandelion buds (nettles = wild superfood; dandelion is a tasty master detoxicant). Above the marshland I see a harrier cruising. My eyes can only keep up with it for a few seconds–just long enough to really feel the hawk’s presence–the way its talons have formed in relationship to its vision; how its body is shaped in accordance to the environment it thrives in, and that after being on this planet for a few thousand years, it continues to live in bloody harmony with its surroundings, adapting to the changes survival requires. As I watch this member of the Accipitridae fly in the scorching heat of the afternoon, I wonder if we're entering a new paradigm. I mean this in the most grounded, practical sense

The world is no longer as it was. Climate change is changing everything now. 

The result of industrial civilization is obvious and undeniable–melting ice sheets, thawing permafrost, massive drought in some places, torrential rains and flooding in others, sea levels rising. Yet, as this global ecological shift occurs before our eyes, dramatically altering the landscape and our existence, most of humanity behaves like Easter Islanders, stuck in a way of being that simply wont be sustainable in the new world that’s taking shape. We could probably survive in it; we might even be able to thrive in it, but we’d have to behave like an intelligent animal–one that is highly responsive to the changes that are occurring, and we'd have to be willing to adapt to them. In this new paradigm, any system of governance unwilling to do so is not only obsolete, but it is on its way toward extinction. 

The hawk disappears beyond the far edge of the marsh almost as fast as it appeared, leaving me with the feeling that it possesses a higher intelligence that most of us are missing.

painting by: Stephanie Kellett

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Nothin' but a Party

The bartender with the dagger tattoo is the first person I encounter in the room. I ask for a beer. It doesn’t matter what kind, I say, as long as it’s dark. 

“Anything for you, SugarBear,” she replies, winking at me while pouring a bottle of stout micro-brew into a mug. As I stand with my elbow on the bar, taking in the scene before me, not many would guess that I’m actually on the job. My first task involves exactly this: just standing back, out of the way, taking everything in. I notice how the room is lit with candles and dimmed down lighting, and how all the dinner tables are filled with people sitting at them. The bar is thoroughly occupied, and in the foyer, a dozen people are waiting to get in. Overall, the climate and ambience of the room is warm and cozy, especially considering how cold the night is beyond the glass walls. Tonight's crowd is diverse. You’ve got gray haired elders, young children and their parents, farmers, back woods hipsters, carvers of wood and rock, skiers, carpenters, ravers, artists, and crusty skids who moved way out here to the mountains from the cities, fleeing before the inevitable collapse. It’s a gathering of valley folk, congregating in the only public space they have. 

My job is big. I must find a way to gain the trust of this room of radical, rural, fiercely independent mountain people. Then, once they’re comfortable with me, I’ll have to get them comfortable enough with each other to express themselves through their bodies. It wont happen immediately. There’s a process to it with various stages, each of which takes time. 

Music is the primary tool I'll use. And while it’s true that music is the universal language with qualities that can transport the listener into other realities, to achieve my goal the music has to be used wisely. I’m The Sugarbear DJ. It is my duty to know these things.  

Tonight I’m booked for four hours. Some call that a “long set,” but for me it’s standard. I’ll gladly play for eight hours, but nothing less than three–the minimum requirement for the particular experience I co-create with the people I’ll be spending the night with.  

Many are still eating dinner when the turntables start spinning. They’re sipping wine. Laughing. Flirting. Talking to their friends. Their focus is upon what is immediately before them, and so the music I choose in the beginning has to support this. The first song is like a beckoning to the energies imbued within the grooves of my records to assist me in the sonic spell we'll cast. What exactly I’ll play is determined in the moment by the broadcast I’m receiving around me–not just the people in the room, but the greater ambient reality. Tonight, it begins with Maria Helena’s, Improviso. I slide my volume fader up so that the notes are elevated, but it’s not so loud that the song overpowers the space.  

After fifteen minutes or so people begin to notice there’s a change in the aural atmosphere of the room. The random chaos of the playlist on shuffle has been replaced with something more purposeful and human selected. It’s starting to happen. I’m meeting eyes with some of them. Connections are being made. Now we’ll go further, a little more volume and a lot more soul. Since I have their attention, I want to send out a message–most eloquently communicated by Issac Hayes, singing Do Your Thing. Heads are bobbing. Fingers tapping. Everybody is still in their seats, but it’s getting groovy with Ben E. King, Bill Withers. Lynn Collins, Darondo, Sharon Jones, and Fingerman playing. 

More people arrive. They’re way in the back, standing around the bar, taking in the scene like I was an hour ago. I know them. These are the dedicated party people who came specifically for the purpose of getting down. My party crew is a rag tag bunch of urban back to the landers, disco punk hip-hop herbalist hunter/gatherers, film makers, visual artists, social workers, queers, LGBT’s, baby catching mid-wives, blowers of glass, as well as those who simply refuse to be limited to any kind of classification. 

There’s a few people who’ve ventured onto the floor by now–a couple in their late 60s–first wave hippies who ran here to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War era. They’re pulling taffy and spinning around to Stevie Wonder’s, Superstitious, like they did in the old days. With them on the floor, and all the people standing close by, it's clear the pressure in the room is building. I’ve gained enough of their trust to move into the next phase of the party, but before I do, I can’t help but lay down the fantastic track Wait, by The Kills. Not only do I love the song, but it also speaks to the tension in the room because I know people are ready to groove. I let it play all the way through, not mixing anything in at all, then let the silence between songs fill up the space for about four seconds.

In comes the opening bass line of Guns of Brixton. There’s nothing like it on a big sound system. I first heard this Clash song as a ten year old boy, thirty four years before, and find it is as good now as it was then–and perhaps even more relevant. People who thought they hated punk rock move closer to the speakers. Their shoulders rock, responding as though the band was calling from London at that very moment to smoothly sing them a funky revolutionary anthem. 

The stage is set. My heart is beating faster. I’m excited. There’s no going back. I call on Edwin Starr and so he screams up from the grave; his voice from so long ago attached to contemporary, acid inspired beats in space. The people are on the floor now. I hear a woman growl, “YE-AH!” They’re grooving around and smiling, their faces telling me it feels great to be caught up in Edwin’s whirlpool of love. 

It’s on!  

We go to Yo Majesty’s lezzy ghetto funk, then Another One Bites the Dust for all the people shot this year by brutal cops. Emperor Machine has a magic, mid-tempo track which, I know when it bumps out of the speakers, will fill the floor to capacity. When I put it on the dancefloor gets packed. Barely any room left. I invite a half dozen dancers behind the decks. Some are friends, others I’ve never met. Yes, there’s the threat of the turntables getting nudged and the records skipping, but I like having people all around. It increases the intensity and pressure, and envelopes me in the energy of the boogie. It also breaks down the barrier between “audience” and “performer,” something I learned from hardcore in the early 80s. 

With Wicked Lester, Fort Knox Five, The Crystal Ark, Isis Sallam, and Psychemagik’s music of pure funky ass wonder, we’re totally in it. Hands in the air. People whoop and holler. The room is filled with the good feeling of liberating the moment and riding high on a wave of collective joy and fun–not in an abstract or intellectual sense, but in a pure, animal, in the body kind of way. 

At the peak of it all, I drop Selector Retrodisco’s High Voltage edit, and it’s like we’ve just entered a zone of total autonomy–a place where the chains of constraint are broken. With all the grinding and shaking that’s going on, it feels like the burden of living in modern civilization is gone and something brand new is possible. For a moment the dominant reality that hammers our lives into nothing more than consumerist mundanity is replaced by an instinctual, ancestral knowing that life never has to be any less than fantastic. And then, just as we’re tearing the roof off, the house lights flash on and off.

Really–four hours passed that fast? People sigh and boo like a squadron of fun police with billy clubs have just entered the room. Without a microphone I shout to the crowd: “Don't worry people! The night’s not over. There's an after party, and it's within walking distance!” 

They holler back in excitement, and together we move on.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Bearing Witness

At the confluence of the Chilco and Dasiqox Rivers, where teal blue meets milky white, I can see two separate flows now coming together, becoming more than either of them are on their own. 

Looking down from above, sockeye salmon are swimming up–their ruby red and emerald forms pushing up stream to their liquid homelands. Some have chunks taken out of them–gouges from several weeks of hard upstream travel, constantly pushing on through rapids, rocks, and perhaps even toxic effluent–letting nothing short of death hold them back. 
At the confluence, some will take the left fork, into the Dasiqox watershed and its distinct tributary veins; others will head right, up into Chilco Lake’s great blue depths. Ravens, crows, herons, and bald eagles are here to greet them. They call from branches or cliff top perches, announcing the arrival of the swimmers returning to the places of their birth–the places where they will offer themselves to perpetuate successive waves of new life. My partner, Stephanie Kellet, and I are here with them.

Our camp is set above the salmon’s bifurcation point on a golden, sun bleached, grassy bench. Pacific salinity gives a wet kiss to air brushed with the scent of sage, and in this forest of big Douglas fir, juniper, and aspen the presence of something so wild and primal is as tangible as the froth of the two rivers colliding. 

The bears contribute greatly to this feeling. 

Here at the confluence, we are entering the last strong hold of the dryland grizzlyThese are bears that once ranged from BC, all the way down to the border of Oregon and California, but on the dry east side of the Coast and Cascade mountains. Now, the only viable population of dryland grizzlies left is here, in British Columbia’s Chilcotin Range.

Over the next month, many of them will gather at sites throughout the Chilco and Dasiqox watersheds for their annual ritual of feeding as they have done since time immemorial. 

We have come to be with them, and to bear witness.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Dasiqox (Taseko)

Smoking myself over the fire before leaving, wanting to carry the essence of this place with me, on my body, on my clothes, on my fingers like the smell of a lover you don't want to wash yourself of. Spending this last evening in stillness after exploring as much as I could of this 450,000 acre landscape of wild wholeness. Moisture from the day's earlier rain is still in the air. Clouds spread a Zen grey over Taseko Mountain which stands perfectly silent in the distance as fish jump before me–leaping from their aqueous dimension like psychedelic adventurers to see what exists on the other side. While being out here I've watched grizzly bears shamble with solitary contentment through the meadows on higher slopes, shared a grassy knoll with a lynx, and found places where wolves and moose affirm their timeless relationship by tracks they left pressed into the mud. For ten days I've been alone but loons have kept me company–when I call they answer. When my belly grumbles there is no fee required to fill it, just the respect I offer to those who give themselves so I can eat. My days have been spent on the ground and upon the water, engaging my body as nature intended, tying knots with my fingers to connect things together, lifting binoculars to my eyes to see things more closely, and tonight, as I sit upon a lake shore the Tsilhqot'in people call Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), I'll use a harmonium instead of my voice to speak in reverential tongues to the innumerable beings that protect this place's sanctity from those who would destroy it.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Motor Home

I’m standing on a chair looking out the window as ice crystals fall from heaven. A figure obscured by snow and hardwood trees appears, walking toward the big house sheltering me. She stands out against the backdrop of brown, green, gray, and white like a pirate ship sailing across the desert or a red fox trotting over snowy tundra. For a second I believe the form's shape is alternating between human and wild animal, but in reality it’s my mother. She’s walking home from work in her long red coat made of wool, her neck protected from the wind by a collar of black fur. When she steps into the house I greet her with the delight of a wolf pup whose alpha has just returned from the hunt. We go into the kitchen. I stand next to her as she warms a pot of vegetable soup on the gas stove. She has to work a lot. Two jobs to feed, clothe, and house seven kids so when she’s home, I just want to be close. I tag along as she moves from room to room, checking on the other kids, picking up dirty socks, sweeping the floor. All of my memories begin here with her in that big old house thirteen miles north of Detroit. The place was like a mansion. Parts were sectioned off with blankets so Mom didn’t have to pay to heat the whole thing. It had a basement, main floor, four bedrooms upstairs, and an attic; an old farmhouse that seemed so massive I thought it would take years before I could explore all of it. Being four years old, my sense of scale was interpreted by how small I was. 

At age four my perceptual light flickered on. I have body memories before that, of loving hands stroking my infant flesh, of words being spoken and sung to me, but my eyes didn't begin recording images I can remember until sometime in 1974. In that year there was a birthday card on top of the television set. It was shaped like a number 4. I held up my fingers, counting: I, II, III, IIII. The card was mine but it didn’t make sense. I felt older than that–nearer to age ten.

Thirteen miles from Detroit patches of undeveloped land still existed back then. Blocks of uncut acreage, mixed forests of large deciduous and soft wood trees holding space for happy little water ways to run beneath them. Not too far from the house was a boggy area my siblings would take me to. I’d crawl out on one of the dead fall logs and watch tadpoles swimming in the pond. Day after day I went back, observing the tiny creatures throughout their developmental stages and, in wonderment, began to grasp what it meant to undergo metamorphic change. That a tadpole could become a frog, a caterpillar could turn into a butterfly, or a forest made into a sub-division meant anything was possible. 

For a period of time that now seems only as wide as the space between my thumb and index finger everything appeared stable. Even though the traffic on the main road was heavy, for a moment my life was lived in the trees away from the city. Always, there was the feeling of being enveloped in love. I had Cream of Wheat drenched in Aunt Jemima syrup for breakfast, bologna and mustard sandwiches on Wonder bread for lunch, and despite my mother always having to work, many nights she was there to sing Puff the Magic Dragon to me as I fell asleep. Being the youngest of seven I was lucky. My brothers and sisters were my babysitters when Mom was gone and they liked to play with me beneath the giant red maple in the field just off the back porch. They would pretend that tree was a portal leading to a land of enchantment; they said the doorway was at its base. I tried  to enter but couldn't. They said I had to try harder; use my imagination. I concentrated deeply, furrowing my brow, wanting to see what they saw but I couldn't. If the portal was there maybe I didn't need to walk through it because to me, the tree itself was magical enough. Ironically, as I sit in the mountains forty years later, it is the sound of a chainsaw which brings all of this back, remembering the day when the men arrived with their saws to cut that ancient maple down.

Of course, things weren’t really perfect before then. Mom was a single working woman with the responsibility of taking care of us kids. We were poor and stuck out in that neighborhood thirteen miles from Detroit like African Americans daring to step over the line of segregation demarcated by 8 Mile Road. Our struggle reminded our neighbors of everything they were trying to forget as they fled the inner city. With money earned from auto factory work, they fenced off the last little bits of outlying feral lands and created enclaves for themselves they believed would be protected forever so long as they were hardworking and loyal to their companies. The houses they built up around the farmhouse we rented looked like pre-fab boxes that only came in three different styles. Some of the people who lived in them seemed to hate us. They called our house an eyesore and the fact that some of my mother’s boyfriends were black resulted in ugly displays from the most bigoted among them, some of whom shot at us with pellet guns as they drove by our place. I didn't understand. 

Eventually we were given notice: the house was sold, the land was being subdivided, and the block of hardwoods we lived in was getting bulldozed. Whether we liked it or not, everything had to go: the trees, the bog, the deer that grazed outside the window, the jackrabbits and garter snakes, even us.  There was nothing we could do about it so my family packed everything that would fit into Bessy, a humongous green station wagon with side panels covered in fake wood paneling, and we motored on down the road. For many years after that, the car was the only place I truly considered home. 


Saturday, 14 December 2013

Waking Up in Detroit


Birthplace of the middle class turned into killing fields where the corporations bled it to death. Crime ridden city of hopelessness. Nearly half the population unemployed. Tens of thousands with their heads tied up on hard drugs. People going crazy. 

The Murder City. 

Photo: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
Highest homicide rate in the country. Every night the sky lighting up from gunfire or arson. Entire blocks empty and abandoned. House upon house burnt out or falling over. Whole neighborhoods sacrificed by the federal government, city officials, and the cops–who cares if the undesirables kill each other off? Organized criminals distributing junk brought over on U.S. military aircraft from Asia to hometown street gangs, flooding communities of disenfranchised blacks at the dawn of their political power–heroin acting as a kind of euphoric neutron bomb, leveling a whole segment of the population but leaving the buildings standing. Seventy-thousand packets of white powder handed out for free in the streets of the city in just one day. The Great Detroit Dope Giveaway as it was known, helped to ensure the poor and pissed would nod off rather than revolt.

Who paid for it? Whose idea to zombify that many people in one place? Who turned Detroit into a petri dish of socioeconomic collapse?

Photo: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
Human beings reconfigured into heroin ghouls and methadone freaks, their cognitive abilities bombed out, their heart and soul sucked from them, left to wander like hungry zombies with their spirits destroyed and their minds all mushed, as good as dead and buried alive in that city of crumbling brick and lockjaw metal. They are still in my consciousness, even though they are undoubtedly gone, their living dead eyes permanently closed by now, their vacant expressions pulverized back into the streets that gave birth to them, their bodies recycled into scrap like heaps of automobiles piled up before a giant compacter at the neighborhood junk yard. All of them dead except in my memories, memories of people I never even knew personally, but a part of them was woven into the soft tissue of my psyche just by our eyes meeting. And then there are the ones that I did know, two brother in laws in particular, one overdosing with only the veins in his cock left to shoot up, the other slumped over on a chair, head to the side, Alice Cooper grimace, his setup laying there on the coffee table, a bag of uneaten chili dogs from his family’s hotdog stand laying next to him on the floor. 

That dying city, the unemployment lines filling warehouse-sized unemployment offices to capacity, standing there for hours and hours with no place to sit down. They had it set up so that if you moved out of line, you lost your place in it. Back to the starting point–a cruel metaphor that applied to our lives. But many were too old to start over, or put too many years in as assembly line workers and didn’t have the skills to do anything else. To the companies it didn’t matter. The workers were nothing but disposable garbage to the Big Bosses whose products were still selling, and in some cases they were even making record profits, they could just make more money by producing automobiles more cheaply elsewhere. 

Standing in the lines with other kids next to our mothers and fathers, holding their place for them so they could use the toilet or go outside and sit on the curb for a little bit–smoke a cigarette, ground out, breath air mixed with pollution. Looking up at the masses of unemployed, all the grown ups were so down and out and frustrated. Hopelessness melting their faces into sullen expressions that perfectly symbolized the dismal future they faced, the same future in store for us. Not that having a secure factory job to sacrifice your life for was wonderful. I saw how these workers looked coming out of the plant my mom worked at. When the bell rang to mark the end of the shift change the workers poured out of the factory doors like water debouching from a damn, many of them running as fast as they could to their cars, like they were running for their lives. My mother would emerge after eight hours operating machinery that shaped big sheets of steel into trunks and hoods. The smell of gear lube mixed with the perfume she wore filled my nostrils as she pulled me close to her and asked how my day was, what I’d learned in school, if I liked the salami on Wonder bread sandwich she made for my lunch. On the really bad nights when she came out of the factory all droopy, make-up smeared, her hair flattened and the spray net all washed out from perspiration running down her face, getting into her eyes, toxic sweat from working with metal in temperatures over 100 degrees, her arm aching from pulling levers all day, the same maneuver performed over and over, “working like a dog,” she’d say–on those nights she’d pull me close to her and, making sure I was paying attention,   she would tell me: “Now don’t you ever do what your mother is doing. Don’t you ever work like this for nobody. Do what you love and everything else will fall into place. I promise you that. But don’t you ever do something like this.”  

Still, for my mother and almost everyone else who lived in Detroit, working in one of the factories was the only way they could make it. The only way to pay the bills and keep their families fed. Hard as it was, it was the tradeoff people accepted, the tradeoff everyone accepts in one way or another to survive under the boot of capitalism. When the auto industry left, there was nothing to take its place, and the unemployment office was filled with the dread of a future as bleak as a forest slated for clearcut logging. 

A few were really angry about what was happening to them and occasionally someone would go off in line, screaming and shouting after being abandoned by the company they were loyal to for twenty or thirty years; going off when they realized they meant nothing to these executives who treated them like cigarette butts in an ashtray; going off by raising their voices, putting their anger and sense of betrayal into words, maybe even trying to rile up the other workers in line to do something. But it never happened. It never went further than grumblings of discontent made in solidarity as the trouble maker was removed from the unemployment office by the company’s hired security. It is still surprising there was so little fight back. It is so surprising that the people were so docile to the system that was screwing them and to the company execs who so callously pulled the bottom out from under the whole city when they decided paying a living wage took an unnecessary nibble from their bottom line of maximum profit.  
Negative Approach

The workers had reason not to be so passive. They still do in fact. But at that time, everyone had become so dull and complacent, it was like everybody except for the punk rockers was under some new form of mind control. This was the beginning of the Reagan era, and the ugly face of neoliberalism was beginning to show.