Friday, 21 August 2015

Smoke on the Water

Standing in a spot in the river that is usually waist deep this time of year, but today it barely covers my ankles. In this channel, the flow from the main stem is almost entirely cut off. I’m not surprised. I’ve had a whole season to watch the water level diminish. Back in early March–a time when there is usually a few feet of snow on the ground in this mountain range–I was preparing garden beds wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. Most of the low to mid elevation snow was gone by then. Without that snowpack, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that during this time of year–the scorching month of August–the river would be exceptionally low. 

People who’ve lived here for years said not to worry. June will be rainy they said. It’s a natural occurrence that the old time farmers of this region have always counted on. But this year, it didn’t come.

Things are no longer how they were.

Along many stretches of the river, one can walk right across it in knee to ankle deep water without being swept downstream. 
All of its feeder creeks are low–lower than anyone whose been here a long time has ever seen. Two that I know of have completely dried up. One of them was nothing but a trickle two months ago. 

Today, the scene around me is apocalyptic, smokey and surreal. Massive fires to the south are consuming the forest–forests that have decades worth of piled woody debris stacked up on the forest floor. Back in the day, periodic wildfires cleared this material from the understory with a hot flash of tremendous heat that moved through and burned out quickly, without wreaking total catastrophe.  

Nature assigned fire a role that worked to create more balance and harmony.

But now, with over one hundred years of fire suppression designed to suit industrial forestry, a tremendous fuel load exists in many areas. With drought driven by climate change and its exceptionally hot temperatures, it was inevitable that the west would go up in flames.

Standing in the river trying to cool off, I strain my eyes, peering into the gray smoke blowing up from the south and try to make out the usually distinct lines of the mountains. 
Visibility is poor. A few hundred meters and everything vanishes. Closer, all the lines are softened like a charcoal drawing on paper. 
The wind is blowing hard as it often does now (something the old timers say is a new phenomenon), and the leaves of cottonwood trees are raining down with ashes. It’s scary. The mountains are burning. There’s a water shortage. Some people have lost everything they have worked for. But again, like my own dwindling river, none of it is surprising. Our collective disengagement from the natural world has led us to this point. The result of corporate driven disrespect for air, trees, water, and animals can no longer be ignored. We must do something different. Simplify. Downsize. Grow food where possible. Become bioregional. Connect to the fecund world of the woods. Gather your tribe, coalesce with your community, listen to what the land is trying to tell you, even if it is under a thick layer of concrete. Doing these things won't stop catastrophe, but they will help prepare us to live more harmoniously in the world that grows out of the ashes of the old.  

Tonight I will dance for rain, but if my prayers go unanswered, I will not shake my fist at heaven; I will not curse the fire because a part of me knows that Earth now demands we face the burning, choking reality that we’ve created and then, just maybe, we'll be able to create a new existence–one that is reverent,  respectful, and in balance with this planet that is our home. 


Saturday, 15 August 2015

Farewell, Soul Brother

As I steered into the blackness of the highway last night, I wondered if the machines keeping him alive had been turned off. Feeling him...mixed with thoughts of ravens gliding into the void, their wings beating in time to the rhythm of the Great Mystery. I imagined Jon with them, rising in weightless rapture towards the ancient lake we talked so much about visiting, a place where grizzly bears imprint golden tracks upon the numinous shoreline, and wolves sing their songs of tribal kinship beneath a starred sky that stretches beyond beyond.

When I first told Jon about this place, he listened intently, as though I were speaking about some heavenly realm attainable right here on earth–a landscape of incomprehensible vastness, untrammeled, and imbued with rightness and peace. I gave him an open invitation to come along. He smiled wide, in awe at the thought of someday seeing this place of natural wholeness for himself.

We made tentative plans to journey there, plans which had to be postponed as Jon was on a serious mission to spread the music of Fort Knox Five
around the planet, totally driven to funk for peace. Seeing him at Basscoast 2015, the first thing he asked was: "How are the bears doing?"

"Well, you know how it is these days," I said. "Things aren't so easy for wild things." Jon nodded his head. He was connected to the earth and knew exactly what I meant. "I still want to come out with you," he said, "just a couple more years than I'm out of the city."

"The invitation is open, my friend. Anytime you're ready."

I thought about our final moments together as I drove down the valley last night, and with tears in my eyes said goodbye to this Soul Brother, this Renegade of Funk whose genuine sweetness will forever be remembered by those who were graced by his presence.

Farewell, Jon. Thank you for the gift of your music; for all those nights where you were the DJ that saved my life; and for the passionate, tenacious example you set as one of the most committed artists I've ever known.

May the wild vastness welcome you back home.

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, 3 March 2015

Cougar Rock

Scramble up to Cougar Rock. The land is steep. Any boulder loosened by my feet tumbles all the way down the mountain side–its momentum ending abruptly with a crash. Other people come here but I can’t see the path they’ve taken so I follow my own route in city shoes that aren’t really suitable for climbing. Like the other animals, I make do with what I have, moving with careful carelessness, switching back and forth, zig zagging as I ascend, knowing there is no one to catch my fall, but I’m comfortable with that. I shimmy up a crack between two large columns of rock–holding my journal in my mouth, hoping as I climb higher that there is a different path back down. I make it to the top and stand in solitary contentment on the outcropping. Cars drive on the highway far below me, through the valley bottom that has become snow free a month early. Thinking of Elk because, on the way up, I saw their droppings; thinking of Deer–tracks and shit I saw on the game trail; thinking of Cougars because the place is named after them, although that was a long time ago, at a time before most of the valley’s predators had been exterminated. Oregon Grape sprouting up from the interstices between the rocks. Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir growing in defiance of clear cuts. Frog Peak visible to the south. Tiny insects flying in air warmed by the sunshine. The process of photosynthesis around me. Feeling my skin–warm, sweaty, and alive.  

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Still High

Two weeks have gone by but I'm still high from it. A good party can do that. In this case, the occasion for celebration was the birthday of local painter and creative dynamo, Stephanie KellettShe deserves to be celebrated. The woman goes to great lengths to offer beauty and art to the world around her. If you were to drive through our tiny town way out in the mountains and take a look around, you would see what I mean. 

Leading up to the party, she works outside with a crew of wild women, sculpting snow, shoveling pathways, and building an installation/effigy out of broken branches and construction waste to be set ablaze as a kind of mid-winter ritual. It's her way of offering some light and warmth at this dark time way up in the cold, snowy, north. 

We expect people to start trickling in by 9pm, but the first ones are there by 6:30 so the night begins with an old Nina Simone record playing from the soundsystem. For the next twelve hours magic happens. Beautiful people of all ages, body types, and identities have gathered. There are acupuncturists and sex educators, mystic cattle ranchers who cavort with vegetarians, disco punks making merry with folk singers and belly dancers, as well as mechanics, mothers, and back to the landers. Some stand in the orange light of the fire telling stories, others grind and shake on the dance floor inside. 

When burn time comes, stories are told and offerings are made, but not in a way that is contrived, didactic, or new agey. Yes there is intention (mine is to have a really good time), but it is expressed with artful grace that is also light hearted and comedic–a merging of the sublime with the ridiculous. Even with saw dust, gasoline, several lighters, and a blow torch the installation doesn't burn easily. Instead, it just kind of smolders and smokes, making everybody laugh which is a really good thing to Stephanie. 

Except for the burn, I’m behind the turntables all night in my Sugarbear guise–pretty much nine and a half hours straight, but I swear it feels like only three or four. When I’m back there and the party is happening, there’s no place I’d rather be (except maybe on a deserted Alaskan beach with a dozen grizzlies). I enter a timeless place of groovy magic, pure joy, and enchantment which is reflected right back at me when the strobe lights flash on the dancer’s faces. At one point during the night when I'm playing a track by Isis Salam, I remember something a mad hat maker once told me. It was many years before. We were at a party in a barn way out in the middle of nowhere. DJ Craig Mullin was playing records and had the people sweaty and bouncing on the old wood plank floor. The hat maker got up close to my ear so I could hear him above the music, and he said that in this fucked up world of lies, fakery, and commodified fun, a good party is one of the only authentic things we have left. In agreement I smiled big and nodded my head. To some that might sound cryptic, but I knew exactly what he meant. 

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.