Zane Grey: Solitude and the Western Hero

DIamondback Rattlesnake

DIamondback Rattlesnake

A bright yellow streak on the triangular head of the Diamondback Rattlesnake glistened in the sunlight as my father held out his hand. The snake’s mouth opened wide; huge yellow, needle-sharp fangs wet with saliva emerged fully from the sheath of skin. At twelve years old, my father’s hand trembled as the sound of the rattles grew louder and louder.
Zane Grey cautioned, “Hold steady. Hold the stick steady in your hand.”

Grey’s assistant held the neck and the midsection of the seven-foot reptile. My father held a large piece of balsawood. The handler guided the snake’s mouth toward the wood and the fangs struck quickly and lodged in the wood. The handler carefully moved the head back and forth and sideways, as he milked the deadly poison into a glass container, held below the snake’s head by Zane Grey.

A circle of seventh grade students from Washington Junior High School gathered around my father and Zane Grey and the snake. There was only the sound of the rattles. No one was breathing.

Zane Grey, Altadena Historical Society

Zane Grey, Altadena Historical Society

“Thank you Lyle. You have steady hands. All of you young people here know what this is. This is a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotlus atrox. You have probably seen this snake slithering in your own backyards, because most of you live up close to these mountains of Altadena. But don’t bother these guys. They help your moms and dads by eating mice and rats and gophers. They won’t bother you unless you bother them. So if you see one on the trail up to Echo Mountain, what do you do?

One teen spoke, “Walk around it and keep your distance.”
“That’s right, young lady. Stomp those feet and let him know you are around and he will head off into the brush.”

This was one of the encounters my father had with Zane Grey. Later on at John Muir Technical High School, Grey’s son Loren Grey, would become a close friend and mentor to my Dad. Loren was a couple of years older and a terrific amateur photographer. He worked with my Dad on the student newspaper and yearbook.

Zane Grey Estate, Altadena, CA

Zane Grey Estate, Altadena, CA

My father remembers many visits to the home of Zane Grey, at the foot of Echo Mountain in Altadena. He remembers the menagerie of local animals in the back yard like that rattlesnake, and the trophy heads of wild boar, mountain lion and grizzly bear hanging from the adobe walls of the home of the famous western writer.

As a teenager, I remember bathroom cupboards stuffed with tattered copies of Zane Grey novels. Our father traveled throughout Latin America for most of his career as a contractor and field engineer. These books had a special attraction for him. What was it about Zane Grey that captured by father’s loyal devotion as a reader? I imagine my Dad on long flights to Colorado or Mexico or Venezuela, reading the stories again and again. Where did it take his mind? It seemed to give him a sense of serenity and peace.

I watched him pack his suitcase methodically for the long trips. Always a copy of a Zane Grey western. He traveled to remote places in South America to help with concrete pump projects. I remember stories about taking off in a plane during a thunderstorm from the airport in Quito, Ecuador. The end of the runway was a cliff that dropped thousands of feet. Today at 95, he recalls details from these adventures, but mostly the loneliness, missing the family. As he read Wanderer of the Wasteland or Desert Gold, following the solitary travels of the protagonist, who wandered desert sand dunes, evading a posse, did his own long journeys through desert mountain roads and dense jungles connect with these stories. I am thinking that for my father, who was not an overtly religious person, reading the stories of his friend Zane Grey was his spirituality. The novels soothed the fires that burned within him. He found literary figures he could deeply identify with.

Traveling north on 395 through Lone Pine, turn left at Whitney Portal Road, which ends at Whitney Portal, the base camp for climbing Mount Whitney. Horses graze in pastures as the road winds and climbs through a notch in the Alabama Hills. Gnarled, weirdly shaped boulders loom above us on both sides of the road. At some point, you will recognize the location of a scene in the movie Tremors. The road levels out and the landscape expands to a 180 degree vista. Turn right at Movie Road, drive a hundred yards or so, pull over, get out of your car and look! There is that iconic view of the Sierra Nevada and Mount Whitney. Tony Stark/Robert Downey, Jr. stood close to your location as the hero of the movie Iron Man, demonstrating the power of his exploding weapons.

You are on the natural landscape stage that birthed the Western films of Zane Grey and many modern films as Gladiator, Lone Ranger, Man of Steele, Django Unchained and Star Trek. Over there Roy Rogers chased cattle rustlers. Gene Autry sang a cowboy ballad sitting on his horse over there amidst that cluster of rocks. In that canyon of boulders the British army marched forth to the shrill sound of bagpipes, in Gunga Din.

You can visit the Lone Pine Film History Museum at the southern entrance of the town to see exhibits about all the Western films created in this womb of Hollywood imagination. They now have guidebooks with detailed directions inviting you to become a film detective in search of the locations of famous movies.

Walk with me toward that cluster of boulders. A cold wind blows. As we enter the shelter of the rocks, the air becomes still and quiet. Whenever I come out here, I usually am alone. As I consider the romance of memories of the film stars who rode here, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Randolph Scott, and Gregory Peck, I sense the solitude of the western hero.

2013 Photo of Zane Grey Mansion

2013 Photo of Zane Grey Mansion

Stephen L. Tanner, writes in “Spiritual Values in the Popular Western Novel” (Literature and Belief 21:1&2 2001) about Owen Wister and Zane Grey: they had experienced the West first hand in the early 20th Century.

“What they shared was the recognition that the West—its landscapes, people and cultures—was a very interesting place which presented a salutary contrast to the dehumanizing materialism and urbanization of the Guilded Age.” (p.. 125)

For Zane Grey, encountering raw Nature in the West was renewing and revitalizing, purging the soul from sin and sorrow. Grey’s spirituality of the West did not come from orthodox Christianity. It was shaped by romantics like Rousseau, Emerson and Thoreau. The hero of Zane Grey’s novels retreated into the desert, often pursued by others or running away from personal tragedy. As you read Zane Grey’s western novels, spiritual revelation happens when blasting desert heat and wilderness deprivation strip away at the patina of civilization. Filters inhibiting intuitive communion with Nature fall away, and the hero finds redemption and salvation. The “Western” is a unique genre of literature evoking the vast landscape of the West.

Tanner recalls Zane Grey’s first journey west to Arizona, which sparked his imagination. He met a Mormon named Jim Emmet who taught him how to be present to Nature in quiet, attentive observation, opening Grey’s heart to the enchantment of the landscape.

“Surely, of all the gifts that have come to me from contact with the West, this one of sheer love of wilderness beauty, color, grandeur has been the greatest, the most significant for my work” (“The Man Who Influenced Me Most”, American Magazine, August 1926, p. 136)

Shepherd of Guadeloupe (1930) and Wanderer of the Wasteland are two of Zane Grey’s novels that tell of solitary men who come West to be healed or find redemption after an act of violence. Forrest becomes a shepherd, whose work involves solitude. He thought that God had abandoned him, but as his heart opened to intuitive communion with nature he received new eyes to perceive wonder and enchantment around him. These are the ingredients for a desert mystic.

His solitary life in the desert soothed the painful memories of the past and awakened “a spiritual consciousness stronger than anything in primal nature. While there was life there was hope, good, truth, joy and God” (p. 204. The Shepherd of Guadaloupe, 1930. New York: HaperPaperbacks, 1992.

As Zane Grey writes about the West, the spiritual power of Nature and landscape are the healing and redemptive resources of the Holy.

The Braniff Airlines flight from Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador tries to fly over a storm, but the clouds are expansive. As the plane tosses and shakes, my father reads another tattered Zane Grey western novel. Reading Grey’s stories calmed him amidst the storms of life. While his business trips to exotic locations could be exciting and surprising, how he missed our family! The long separation and the solitude wore on his soul. As he read about wandering desert heroes of Grey’s writing, did he find a setting wherein he could work with his own burden of solitude?

The Western Channel on our cable television network now brings me 24-hours of access to Western film and the stories of Zane Grey. Our new HD TV presents vivid images of John Ford’s landscapes of desert and Monument Valley. Like no other genre of film, the Western resonates with a visceral longing for something. What is it? Do you ever have that feeling?
Our busy lives, Iphones and Ipads wear down our attention. Stress comes at us from all sides. Even in retirement, tension continues. We all long for a peaceful place apart, of solitude and quiet, where we can rest.

I can calendar another desert retreat to the Owens Valley or Mojave Desert when I can commune again with the Holy Presence. I can do all the preparations, pack all the necessities and plan for a good retreat. But that doesn’t mean that in the desert retreat I will make a connection with the Holy. Ron Rolheiser writes, “Solitude cannot be so easily programmed. It has to find us, or, more accurately, a certain something inside us has to be awaked to its presence.” (“Longing for Solitude”, 2012-07-01).

When I go on a desert retreat in the Owens Valley, I plan at least three days. The first day or two, walking alone on crunching desert sands, I will be alone. The busy mind will continue to spin out memories, conflicts and work undone. So much chatter going on. The physical exertion of long walks, climbing up mountain trails, slows my mind down so that I can become more attentive to the present moment, what is happening right in front of me. Often by the third day, solitude seeps in and my senses awaken to the deeper tastes, touch, smells and sounds of the natural world around me: the gateway to wonder and the embrace of the Holy.

Filming in the West of Zane Grey” by Ed Hulse
“Spiritual Values in the Popular Western Novel,” Stephen L. Tanner (Literature and Belief, 21:1 & 2 2001: Brigham Young University).
“The Man Who Influenced Me Most”, American Magazine, August 1926, p. 136.
The Philosophy of the Western, Jennifer McMahon and Steve Csaki ed, (2010: The University Press of Kentucky). (website for the Lone Pine History Museum) (Los Angeles Times article and video about the Lone Pine Film History Museum.

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Encounters with Classic Western Films

I am walking amidst gigantic boulders shaped like elephants, camels, and whales. The imagination stretches to name each strangely shaped massif. Cold winds sweep up clouds of sand and I close my eyes, rushing to a protective gap between two rocks. A vast rock shelter shuts out the wind and sand. Here is a peaceful place for contemplation. Nature swirls and whirls the wind and sand outside, the very elements that carved these strange stone shapes in the Alabama Hills.

I peek through a gap in the stone shelter and there it is: that vista of Mount Whitney. The vast cluster of wind-carved boulders and the distant Sierra instantly recall for me the natural backdrop for all the western films I have seen of Randolph Scott, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Have Gun Will Travel, Gregory Peck and John Wayne. I am in the Alabama Hills, just west of Lone Pine, California, where most of our favorite westerns were made. The Alabama Hills continue to be the film location for new movies like Iron Man, Django Unchained, Man of Steel, the new Lone Ranger, and Gladiator.

Here is a newspaper article on the Alabama Hills that you will enjoy. If you first visit the Lone Pine Film History Museum, you will be given a guide to stimulate your search for the actual filming locations of the great westerns and the classic Gunga Din. As you read this article, you will find an invitation to help create a Federal protective designation for this iconic and spiritually soaked landscape.

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A Different Palm Sunday Procession

Fr. John Moneypenny, Fr. Brad Karelius and the Rev. Carolyn Estrada kneel before Blessed Sacrament

Fr. John Moneypenny, Fr. Brad Karelius and the Rev. Carolyn Estrada kneel before Blessed Sacrament

My hand was becoming numb. I dipped the asperses wand into the holy water bucket again, twirled to take up water, then lifted the wand and continued to flick the sacred liquid left and right, as the Procession winds through the streets of the Logan Barrio in Santa Ana, California. Holy drops fall on invisible seeds of Grace. A cloud of sweet incense enfolds me, the thurible swinging side-to-side right behind me. Behind the thurifer, Father Ed Becker, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, held a heavy, gold monstrance, bearing the sacred host of the Body of Christ. It is Palm Sunday afternoon and this is the 20th Annual Blessing of the Streets.

About 20 years ago an altar boy from St. Joseph’s lay dying at the curb, across the street from the church, shot by local gangsters. I remember those days. The sound of pop pop pop was almost a daily event in our area. Something had to be done. My Episcopal parish, Church of the Messiah, located two blocks west of St. Joseph’s, began to work with the local police department and St. Joseph’s in developing community based policing. My good friend, Father Christopher Smith, then pastor at St. Joseph, initiated this Blessing of the Streets as a way for local churches to witness our neighbors that Jesus was here in the streets and we are here as peacemakers.

Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ “ (John 20:21).

This Palm Sunday, the new pastor of St. Joseph, Father Ed Becker, placed the monstrance upon a small altar set up at the corner of French Street and 15th Street. On top of the altar was a large framed collage of photos of a young man who was murdered at this spot three months ago. His bright smiling face drew the prayerful attention of the 500 marchers, mostly Latino and Polynesian. Flowers and a small image of Our Lady of Guadalupe framed the photo of the young man. Father Ed disappeared behind some stairs and then brought out the tearful mother of the boy. We knelt before the Blessed Sacrament singing songs:
Bendito, bendito,
Bendito sea Dios.
Los Angeles cantan y alaban a Dios.

Father Ed embraced the sorrowful mother as waves of grief passed through the attentive crowd.
Traffic marshals held back cars coming off busy streets, as our procession continued. We were walking in the middle of a broad, tree-lined street, through avenues of four story high, densely packed apartments. One of the most densely populated neighborhoods in America. Each three-bedroom apartment usually housed a whole family in each bedroom. Poverty, gangs, drugs, family violence and vulnerable children. The sidewalks filled with curious neighbors.

In most of America, a public procession like this would seem strange. What is going on? However, in this city with the highest percentage of native Spanish speakers in America, this procession would remind them of their hometown in El Salvador or Mexico. And they recognized the Body of Christ. Jesus was here. But there was another presentation of the Body of Christ, in these 500 faithful souls, walking together, children and mothers, fathers and grandparents. They are also the Body of Christ. We visited and blessed another shrine for a murdered teenager and one for a little girl killed by a hit and run driver. Life is precarious and precious here. How many of these people have experienced gang violence within their own family? Together we are a strong spiritual presence exorcizing the evil spirits lurking in the shadows.

Holy drops fall on invisible seeds of Grace.

The first Blessing of the Streets twenty years ago was the beginning of a creative, spiritual synergy of the local downtown Santa Ana churches to create life and hope in the impoverished 92701 Zip Code. Sister Eileen McNerney, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, founded Taller San Jose, at the corner of Civic Center Drive and Broadway. Initially creating a woodworking workshop to make colorful benches out of old doors from the remodeled Mother House of the Sisters, Taller San Jose evolved into a complex training program for medical assistants, office workers, and construction tradesmen like plumbers and electricians. St. Joseph’s and Messiah Parish launched afterschool tutoring programs for junior and senior high youth (more than half of neighborhood youth were dropping out of school by 9th grade). This evolved into THINK Together, now one of the largest afterschool programs in the USA. My parish with the Sisters of St. Joseph founded Hands Together, a Center for Children, providing nationally accredited high quality early childhood education for the poorest children in Orange County. This evolved into three learning centers, including a program for homeless mothers and children. Mercy House built a state of the art hospice for homeless men and women with HIV AIDs. St. Joseph Ballet, founded at my parish, developed self-esteem in young Latinas through training in traditional ballet and folklorico, growing into one of the outstanding youth arts programs in America.

Sixty years ago, Civic Center Drive was called Church Street. The east west street was dotted with over 15 major churches. However, as Santa Ana grew into an urban center and home to increasing numbers of immigrants, most of the churches moved to the more affluent suburbs. Today only four churches remain. However, in these last twenty years, Civic Center Drive, in an area of gang violence and poverty, has been transformed into a “Corridor of Compassion.”
Holy drops fall on invisible seeds of Grace.

I retired 18 months ago as pastor of Messiah Parish and missed the Blessing of the Streets last year. As I walked again with my old neighbors, my good friends at St. Joseph’s parish, I sang again the canticos that we often sang at mass at my old church. Children held up intricately decorated folk art pieces of palm branch bearing the image of Jesus. Mothers held hands with their child and sang the canticos from a place deep in their heart, tenacious faith and hope for the future of their precious ninos. I felt like I had returned to my spiritual home, walking on the streets where people fight and struggle for a life for their families, but bearing a deep faith in the risen Jesus who walks with us today breathing peace over all of us.

Holy drops fall on invisible seeds of Grace.

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Contemplative Cows

open range cattle

open range cattle

“What the Power of the Slowing taught me is what the Source of All constantly yearns for: that each one of us will know without doubt that we are loved, and that we are intimately, irrevocably part of the endless creation of love, and that we will join, with full freedom and consciousness, the joyous creativity that is Nature, that is Wildness, that is Wilderness, that is Everything.” The Wisdom of Wilderness, by Gerald G. May MD, p. 190.

A late February storm blew through the Owens Valley last night. As I drive on a rutted country road west of Highway 395 in Lone Pine, hazy morning clouds open up to radiant sunlight. The Sierra behind me to the west and the Inyo Mountains ahead of me are covered with heavy snow almost to the valley floor. I drive past a pioneer cemetery filled with sagebrush and willow. The narrow road abruptly makes a sharp right turn and I slow down in time to get a good look at an old horse trailer parked at a pasture entrance. A cowboy wears a beaten old Stetson, long braided hair flows down to the middle of his back. Can’t see his face. He is leading a saddled, brown quarter horse out of the trailer. As I pass him, I can read a painted sign on the side: “All Indian Rodeo, Fallon, Nevada. Champion 1998”. I remembered that I was driving through the Lone Pine Paiute Indian Reservation and here was an Indian cowboy going to work.

The street is lined with huge, old cottonwoods. This time of year the branches are barren, the bark brittle and they all look dead. In a month a green patina of buds will cover the tree as a sign that spring is coming.

cowboy tending cattle east of Independence

cowboy tending cattle east of Independence

I am searching for a way to get down to the Owens River, for the past 80 years a sad sump of debris and dying trees. Recently, the LA Department of Water and Power released aqueduct water into the river, reviving plant, bird and animal life. I have not had a lot of luck getting close to this winding, meandering waterway. I have a topographic map on my lap that shows a trail up ahead going off this road. I find the break in the barbed wire fence, park my Honda Pilot in the grass, button up the heavy Carhartt jacket and cross over to the other side of the road. I walk over a broad cattle guard, ribboned with steel bars to keep range cattle from wandering onto the highway. I see a winding line of cottonwoods in the distance, a hint that the Owens River must be there. The cow path drops lower into dense sand. A thousand years ago, the river was flowing right where I walk. I follow the cow path toward a thicket of willow and birch trees. To my left I see a Black Angus cow standing beside a little black clump of something steaming. A new baby calf born in the last couple of hours. This is the time of year where newborn calves dot the rangeland of the Owens Valley. The mother bawls a loud moo at me. I walk quickly away. I don’t want to scare her. But she keeps up the loud mooing. I walk toward the river, a rocky hill to my right. I hear another moo coming from over there. Another cow is coming towards me, trotting quickly, with her baby running beside her. I see another cow behind her. Within minutes, I see twenty, fifty, a hundred more cows moving quickly toward me. A stampede in slow motion. I step back toward higher ground. This is weird. Usually when I hike through the rangeland of the valley and run into a mother with her calf, they quickly run off. However, all of these cows are moving closer and closer toward me. They are all mooing loudly, as if demanding some action. At that very moment, the Indian cowboy appeared to my left, riding out of the sagebrush. He waved and smiled and road down into the crowd of cows, looking intently at the baby calves. Then it hit me: dressed in my heavy jacket and high top Stetson hat, they thought that I was the rancher, hopefully bringing hay to supplement their grazing. They wanted their breakfast!

As you and I take our contemplative hikes through the dramatic desert landscape of the Owens Valley, we will see more cattle than humans. I heard somewhere that there can be up to 25,000 head of cattle in the valley at one time. The cattle were first brought here in the 1860s to provide food for the bustling mining camps of Bodie and Cerro Gordo. The cows ate the forage of the deer and elk, displacing native food sources for the Paiute. As Euro Americans took over possession of this land, some Paiute adapted by becoming renowned cowboys.

Death on the range. Photo by Daniel TerDedelen

Death on the range. Photo by Daniel TerDedelen

Ranching is still a hard life. Late winter/early spring is when the baby calves are born and you will sometimes see cowboys riding the range to check on these precious bundles of new life.

Brenda Lacey and her husband Mark have a cattle ranch near Independence. I gleaned this posting from her blog, which describes the difficult, dedicated work of raising cattle:
“Ever since the first of the year our main activity has been taking care of the first calf heifers. That is our term for a young cow that has never had a calf. They require extra care, feed and observation. These are first calf heifers. We keep them in a pasture of about 200 acres. When they start calving approximately January 15th, we start riding through them horseback about three to four times a day. They are very inexperienced and do some dumb things. Some examples of heifer behavior are; giving birth just fine and then walking away – so we must find the heifer and take her back and try to bond her to the calf, some try to steal other heifer’s calves, some can’t give birth and we must assist the birth, occasionally we have caesarian sections, sometimes the calves are weak and we must bottle feed them until the gain strength, some heifers won’t accept their calves and we will graft them on another heifer that is more maternal. When the calves are born, they get an ear tag with their mother’s number on it and source identification number that can be traced back to our ranch.
The calving season for the heifer is about 45 days. We start about 4:00 am and stay with the heifers until dark then we will make checks during the night if there are heifers that might calve. “

Robert Duvall riding the range in "Broken Trail"

Robert Duvall riding the range in “Broken Trail”

After a long contemplative hike on the open rangeland, being sensitive to my cattle companions, I nestled in to a warm bed at night in my room at the Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine. The cold wind howls. Signage on Highway 395 sways precariously. Lights flicker. I think about those mother cows and their babies in the darkness. There are mountain lions and coyote packs out there. How do the cattle survive? There must be a heightened, attentive alertness of the senses to everything happening in the present moment.

My mind shifts, as I stare into the dark ceiling of my room inviting the Lord’s presence. Contemplation like my praying in this present moment must be some kind of awareness that is wide-open and completely present to what is happening right now. But most of the time I am not like this. My culture and schooling have trained my brain to focus on specific tasks (like typing these words). I have to filter out background noises and focus. When we have long period of focusing on a task at work or writing, we become fatigued. You know the feeling. Even when we are not working on some specific task, our brains have been trained to tune out background stimuli.

Psychiatrist Gerald G. May MD wrote a wonderful book, The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature (Harper Collins 2007). May writes about contemplation in nature:
“It has always seemed to me that true natural presence, true wild being, involves no tuning out of anything. It must be absolutely contemplative—openly receptive to all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that exist in each immediate moment. I believe it is civilization, the taming of our nature, that has taught us to focus on a single task and tune out what we consider to be distractions. I acknowledge that we do not have to do this to function well in our society—but is just isn’t natural.” (May, p. 61)

I am thinking of those baby calves in the open range of the Owens Valley. They are natural contemplatives. Mother cows teach their young ones not to focus on any one thing. They must keep their senses open and alert. The mother cow teaches her baby to “watch out for themselves, to remain open, and sensitive to sights, sounds and smells coming from any direction at any time.” (May. p. 64).

Like contemplative cows, our disabled son Erik has been my tutor in the contemplation of the Present Moment. I am so busy with my do list, focusing hard on this and that task. Doing one thing at a time, I miss everything else. I take Erik for a walk after dinner on a summer evening. He is mentally a three year old in a 29-year-old body. I hold his hand as we walk, as his gait is unsteady. He is taking everything in. We walk. I say, “The leaves are rustling in the wind….the bird is singing…..the yellow butterfly is flying….the sun is warm on our face….the puffy clouds are floating in the blue sky.” All in the present moment. That is where Erik lives: little memory of the recent past, no fear or anxiety about the future. In our circle of love and care, Erik is fully present in this moment.

Dr. May describes our difficulty in joining Erik and the cows in their gift of contemplation:
“Like domesticated animals, we are completely unprepared for the wild—-the wild outdoors, the wild in our cities, the wild in our own psyches. In any of these places, we panic when we’re lost and afraid. We frantically concentrate our attention here and there, following nonexistent tracks, unaware of a thousand clues form sky and light and smell and inner Wisdom that could tell us where to go and what to do. Feeling so divorced from the nature within and around us, we make wilderness an adversary that we must tame rather than join, master rather than learn from. Where we find it, we feel we must force Nature into the tunnel of our own concentrated vision.” (May, p. 65).

There is a gift in this spirit soaked land. I have experienced it. You will arrive for your three or four day visit of contemplative walks. The first day or so you are concentrating on tasks unfinished or focusing too much of this or that details. After a full day of walking through the landscape, the land and the Presence of the Holy will make their claim on you. Mental and sensory filters will open up. Life will slow down and Grace will guide you by the hand into the Present and you will be at home again.

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2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Passing Parade at Little Lake

“Do they not see the birds above them spreading and contracting (their wings)? Naught upholds them save the Beneficent. Surely He is Seer of all things.” — Holy Quran, chapter 67, verse 19.

Looking north over LIttle Lake toward Red Hill

Looking north over LIttle Lake toward Red Hill

Winter rains have been abundant in the Owens Valley this year (2010) and heavy snowfall covers the Sierra. Highway 395, past the intersection with Highway 14, winds through huge volcanic reefs toward a narrow notch between mountain ranges. It is not hard to imagine the flow of the lava from the active volcanoes 25,000 years ago.
Once you pass through the notch, you have come to Little Lake. On your right is a blue green shallow lake, an oasis in this desert land. Thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds visit this wetland during autumn and spring. This journey will take you to a breath-taking overlook and a wonderful place for contemplation.
Continue north on Highway 395 for a distance of 24 miles from the intersection of Highway 14, coming up from Mojave, and Highway 395. As you pass Little Lake, clearly ahead of you is what looks like an old volcano: Red Cinder Cone. Head directly toward this monument. Just before it, you will see the sign for Cinder Road and signs for Fossil Fall/Little Lake. The Overlook is 4.9 miles from the highway. Travel past Fossil Falls about two miles to the Power Line Road. Turn south (right) on Power Line Road and follow the signs to Little Lake Overlook for about 2.75 miles. Turn west (right) to the entrance.
The road winds through open desert land and on to a volcanic reef. In the spring, there should be wild flowers. As you park your car, you will see Little Lake before you and there are some benches on which to sit and contemplate the magnificent view. Ahead of you to the west is the Sierra Nevada. You can see the highway. Notice the other side of the highway and a road branching off to the side. For 100 years, this was the settlement called Little Lake. There was a stone-walled hotel and gas station. Southern Pacific Railroad had a branch line that ran through here from Mojave to Lone Pine. Tourists in the 1920s would travel up from Los Angeles, stay at the hotel and fish and swim in the lake. The hotel burned ten years ago and the rails from the railroad were taken up five years ago. Almost nothing remains of Little Lake, except for some quaintly painted advertisements on flat rocks nearby.
As you walk toward the edge of the volcanic reef, watch out for the sharp volcanic rocks. Between the highway and the lake is a site much older than the vanished settlement. A Pinto or Lake Mojave Native American village existed here more than 6,000 years ago. On the south end of the lake the Koso Panamint village of Pagunda was situated, which served as a winter village. Around this site are a lot of rock art and petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs at Stahl Site

Petroglyphs at Stahl Site

In 1947 Willy Stahl, an amateur archaeologist, discovered evidence of this early native settlement in a small cave near the lake. These were Pinto people who had a unique style of projectile points made from obsidian. The site and petroglyphs are protected behind barriers and are located on private property, but there are frequent tours in the spring and fall through the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest.
As I sit on the bench on the Little Lake Overlook, I see this history. I imagine a rapid time-lapse movie. Smoke rises from the cone shaped reed shelters of the native village. Reed boats float on the lake, as men fish, women grind pine nuts on flat rocks and children are running on the lakeshore, splashing water. The film advances, a bright red Wells Fargo stagecoach rides through a cloud of dust pulled by six proud, black horses. The coach stops at a rude wooden stage station beside the lake. Impatient, gold hungry miners heading to Cerro Gordo pace nervously as a change of horses is made. The film advances, the village is gone, and the stone hotel and railroad appear, a steam locomotive belching smoke and the sound of a shrill whistle. The film advances and the dirt road going past the hotel is doted with an occasional Model T. I can see some folks on the side of the road filling a smoking engine with radiator water. The film advances, the road is now paved, 18 wheel trucks carry heavy loads and SUVs packed with skiers drive furiously north toward Mammoth. A golden eagle darts past me toward a rock crevasse below and a flock of white pelicans land on the lake.

Little Lake Hotel c. 1930

Little Lake Hotel c. 1930

In this ancient land, change is slow but constant. As I sit quietly on this desert bench, feeling the warmth of the sun, the soft caress of the dry desert wind, scented with sagebrush, my racing mind has quieted. I focus on my breath, this present breath. I an anchored to this place and God’s wondrous creation. The work, struggle, and ambitions of human life acted out before me in the scenes below are memories of the past. This present moment is real in this present breath I am taking. The vast expanse of this desert space opens my heart to God’s huge, compassionate love.
I remember the prayer of St. Francis’s Canticle to the Sun, and offer this up to the Lord:
“Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.”

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Interfaith Observer for December

This is a very good blog on interfaith dialogue throughout the world. If you scroll down you will see my contribution, “Transformed by the Other.”

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Remembering Manzanar

“All things whatsoever which deserve to be dreaded and revered for the extraordinary and preeminent powers which they possess are called the Kami.”
Norinaga (18th Century Shinto Scholar)

“There’s a belief that people die twice. Once, when you die, and once when you’re forgotten—when people stop talking about you and they forget about you.”
Rudy Cordova, “Day of the Dead,” Orange County Register, November 1, 2012

Sierra snow storm moving towards me.

Sierra snow storm moving towards me

Like a mist of sifting powered sugar, the cloudbank of snow moves rapidly toward me from the Sierra Nevada in the west. I walk a deep sandy road on the edge of Manzanar, the Japanese American World War II relocation camp, located on California Highway 395, nine miles north of Lone Pine. Sixty years after the closing of the camp, I can clearly see foundation ruins of the tightly packed barracks that housed 10,000 people in this harsh desert landscape.

The wind blows hard as the snow envelopes me, stinging my cheeks with the cold slap of winter. Have to get out of this wind! I turn up the collar of my heavy Carhartt jacket, pull the black fur Stetson hat tight upon my head and walk into a dense woods. The thick, overgrown foliage is Nature’s protection against the snow storm. I sit on the three-foot corpse of a fallen cottonwood to catch my breath. Boy, it is cold!

I gaze at the winter woods and see old apple and pear trees, smothered by the new growth of desert willow and cottonwood. The fruit trees are survivors of the verdant orchards of the Manzanar of the early 1900s, before Los Angeles began to siphon off the precious Sierra snow melt into their aqueduct. I break off a scraping branch of cottonwood. A loud, cracking snap. It looks like dead wood, but I know these trees will be green again in June. I am catching my breath. The trees have walled off the wind and snow. I am going to need to spend some time here.

Did you hear that? There is movement in the woods. The crunching of branches. I am not alone. Wind filters through the tightly woven strands of barren trees, sighing. Sighing. This land has a heaviness. Echoes of displacement. Spirits moving about like hungry ghosts with no one to remember them.

map of Manzanar

Map of Manzanar

Many of my Japanese-American high school classmates in Pasadena were tiny babies or infants wrenched from comfortable homes and brought to this desert place, where the fine alkali sand could not be kept out of the barrack housing and this same, sighing wind pressed against thin wooden walls and lifted up fragile roof shingles.
Jeanne Wakasuki Houston remembers the day when her family was rounded up in Boyle Heights, CA, boarded buses at the Buddhist church in Los Angeles, and drove all day to the new Manzanar camp.

“By the time we reached our destination….it was late afternoon. The first thing I saw was a yellow swirl across a blurred, reddish setting sun. The bus was being pelted by what sounded like splattering rain. It wasn’t rain. This was my first look at something I would soon know very well, a billowing flurry of dust and sand churned up by the wind through Owens Valley…..We drove past a barbed-wire fence, through a gate, and into an open space where trunks and sacks and packages had been dumped from the baggage trucks ahead of us. I could see a few tents set up, the first row of black barracks, and beyond them, blurred by sand, rows of barracks that seemed to spread for miles across this plain.
P 247 The Illuminated Landscape, quoting from Farewell to Manzanar.

Here is a YouTube video introducing the Manzanar Relocation Camp to you:

My Pasadena High School classmates’ families lost businesses, homes and community roots. For four years, their families struggled in compressed, forced community, behind barbed wire and guard towers with machine guns, to recreate a life. When you visit Manzanar today, you enter through the old community hall, which is now a visitor’s center and museum. You walk through a simulation barrack residence and see life just as it was. What catches my heart every time I do this is the realistic cry of an infant. I look around at the visitors and I am sure there must be some mother with a little one crying for attention. But no. This is the recording of a baby crying. I imagine a young mother, holding and nursing her baby, as the snow pelts the tiny windows and seeps through the wood wall slats.

The crying of the infant in the Museum display brings me back to another time, June 16, 1983. Our newborn son Erik was being held by my wife Jan as she sat on the sofa in our living room talking with her mother Evelyn who was visiting us. Something happened. A slight tremor through Erik’s body. Jan had 15 years of Emergency Room nursing experience and her instincts were aroused. Another very slight tremor. Erik was having seizures. The ten pound healthy boy was in trouble. The next day we were in PedICU at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Jan had been up all night, and when I arrived, I saw an IV connected to a vein in his bald head. Erik has encephalitis, his brain is on fire and it hurts. When he wakes up he cries the cry of one in real pain. Any parent hearing this will find it unbearable. Jan and I hung together through a week in the hospital. Erik recovered and came home with minimal aftereffect, except, as we learned four years later, the Medical School resident did not do a simple, normal protocol test called a TORCH screen. That would have told us the viral cause of the meningitis. Exactly four years later, June 16, 1987, his little brain would catch fire again and our lives would change forever.

I hear the sound of crying again as I sit on this cottonwood log in the woods of sighs and strange sounds of movement. I get up and begin to push my way through dense piles of branches and leaves, through gaps in the closely crowded trees. Hard, brittle sharp branches poke and prod at my Wrangler jeans.

Manzanar Cemetery, Ansel Adams 1943

Manzanar Cemetery, Ansel Adams 1943

I imagine the visits the inmates of this relocation camp might have made into these same woods to get away from the congestion and crowds of people. Perhaps a teenage girl snuck out to be alone with herself from the tight controlling old country parenting. Because most of the first and second generation Japanese Americans would have been Shinto, I imagine many of them coming into this forest to pray. The Kami would be here.
Shinto is the nature religion of the Japanese people. There is a mysterious power in nature. Shinto means “the way of the kami”, which can be divine beings, the spirit in a particular place, like a forest, or the spirits of the dead. Some kami are helpful; others can be harmful.

One modern Shinto scholar wrote, “the Japanese people themselves do not have a clear idea regarding the Kami. They are aware of the Kami intuitively as the depth of their consciousness and communicate with the Kami directly without having formed the Kami idea conceptually or theologically. Therefore it is impossible to make explicit and clear that which fundamentally by its very nature is vague.”
How do we experience the Kami? I can become aware of the kami by seeing their effects in nature or by a feeling for their presence.

Certainly, inhabitants of this camp must have walked where I am walking now, communing with the kami, praying for protection, or better, liberation and reunion with family back in Los Angeles.
I am walking toward the distinctive sound of crying. As I move into the center of the dark woods, I am disoriented. A huge old tree hovers over me and I cannot see the mountains in the west. I guess by the direction of the sun and walk painfully through the scrapping brush toward the sound. And there it is. A piece of metal roofing (from the old barracks) may have been blown by an ancient wind high up into that old cottonwood tree. The metal bends and scraps against another tree: the crying sound.

Suddenly a red blur races by my field of vision. As it has distance from me, it slows down. A bushy tailed red fox. A Japanese American walking and praying in these woods sixty years ago would have instantly recognized that fox as an incarnated kami, a messenger sent by the gods. However, this is one of the most feared kami, because the fox kami can possess people and cause illness and death to others. The fox darts a zigzag pattern under protective barbed wire toward the Manzanar cemetery to the west. A large white obelisk rises in the distance as the key memorial marker of those who died during the internment years. This monument was made by inmate stonemason Ryozo Kado in 1943. The front face of the stone marker reads “Soul Consoling Tower.”On the back of the monument is inscribed “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese. August 1943”. As I draw close to the cemetery to look at the stone tower I can see that it is decorated with strings of origami. Small stone memorials have been left along with children’s toys and several ceramic sake cups. The small cemetery has scattered graves. Circles of river stone outline the base of some graves. A few have concrete markers with the names of the deceased. Over there must be the grave of an infant, as I see a child’s sunglasses on a stone marker. Another grave is decorated with a barbed wire shaped heart, perhaps taken from a fence around the camp. Here the dead are remembered and loved.

These beloved ancestor spirits are a form of kami. The inmates were removed from their own homes, where family altars maintained an ongoing connection with the dead. A photograph or some item personally connected to the deceased was placed on that altar. There would be burning incense and food offerings, because those spirits must be remembered or they become hungry ghosts. Obake are ghosts of restless spirits who have suffered injustice in this life, such as being removed from home and work and brought to live behind barbed wire in this desolate desert landscape.

On the last weekend of April, every year there is an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar by descendents of the former inmates of the camp. This past April was the 43rd event. Former inmates and their families journey here, many from Southern California. Certainly some of my Pasadena High School alums must be among these families.

The Manzanar Committee, which organizes this pilgrimage, refers to Manzanar as a concentration camp. This may upset you to read this, but that designation ties directly into the wording in FDR’s Executive Order 9066 that created the relocation camps.
The events of the pilgrimage have become more numerous. Usually the UCLA Taiko Drummers perform a powerful cadence of ancient prayers. Films, lectures and testimonies of former inmates fill the weekend of remembrance.

Because this annual pilgrimage and remembrance of the difficult life in this camp highlight the struggle for civil rights, recently the local Paiute tribal members and representatives of the Muslim community have participated as a presence of solidarity.

Sue Kunitomi Embrey shared in the Inyo Register:
“The similarities are uncanny between the kind of prejudice and racial profiling the Muslim and Arab Americans are facing now and the kind Japanese Americans endured in the 1940s.”

This is a colorful gathering of Owens Valley Paiutes, the Muslim community and families of the former inmates. A concluding event of this emotional weekend is a memorial service at the Manzanar Cemetery. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim religious leaders participate. Most moving are the Shinto rituals for the dead performed by a Shinto priest. During the WWII years, the Shinto rituals were forbidden by the camp director.
Here is a video of the Shinto priest at the Pilgrimage Weekend memorial service:

Manzanar water gardens, Ansel Adams 1943

Manzanar water gardens, Ansel Adams 1943

I invite you to visit the Manzanar National Historic Site. The best time for visit is between October and May, before the heat returns. After you go to the Visitor’s Center, you can secure a guide for driving the route around the camp. You will see a guard tower and several restored barracks. Archaeologists have resurrected ruins of the main buildings and the intricate network of waterworks and gardens that brought some serenity to the inmates during their life here. When you visit the cemetery, remember those who died and let us all remember what happened here, so that it never happens again.

Helpful websites:

Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatusuki and James Houston.
Manzanar, by John Armor and Ansel Adams
Shinto, C. Scott Littleton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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Bread of Heaven, Pan del Cielo

“But a tree is what you make of it, and once, much was made of the pinyon.”
Ronald Lanner, The Pinon Pine.

Fr. Brad celebrating Christmas Eve Mass

In the shadows of the landmark El Tovar Hotel, at the very edge of the Grand Canyon, clusters of pinon pine form verdant greenbelts around the parking lots. Jan, I, and our son Erik walk within the cool shade of the trees toward our GMC Sierra truck. After a couple of hours hiking along the rim and caught breathless by vast beauty, we are fatigued. As we settle into our seats in the truck, I pause to see a large, fleshy woman, wearing an oversized Northern Arizona University sweatshirt. She is bent over, walking beneath the trees in front of us. Has she lost something? She is carefully searching. Then I know what it is. The month is October. Here are pinon trees. She is a Native American looking for pinon seeds that have fallen from the tree.

I get out of the car and walk carefully toward her. Jan joins me. “Are you looking for pinon seeds?”, I ask. The woman stands up straight, looks at me and with a smile of shared knowledge, she says, “Yes.” She holds up a half filled Ziploc plastic sandwich bag filled with pinon. We come closer. “How do you know where the seeds are?” Jan asks. “It takes a while for your eyes to adjust. See, here is one.” Jan gets on her knees beside the woman and they quietly go about the search for pinon. Jan is getting pretty good at this, as she has a handful in fifteen minutes and gives the seeds to our new friend. I join the women are my knees. Searching for pinon was like looking for dark pearls among dense pine needles.

I asked the woman if she lived near here. She said yes. “My people are the Havasupai. We live in the Cataract Canyon in the Grand Canyon. But it is too cold down there for me in the winter, so my family lives up here.”

I remembered my father telling me a story about working for the Havasupai many years ago. He worked on the concrete project that built a new reservoir and irrigation system. All the concrete was brought down into Cataract Canyon from the rim high above in helicopters carrying big metal buckets. The woman said she was a little girl at that time and she remembered this. It was the first time she had seen a helicopter. They were like noisy, mechanical birds.

I was remembering the chapter on pinon pine that I wrote in The Spirit of the Desert: how the pinon was a primary food source for the Owens Valley Paiute.

“The little tree produced the fuel, building materials, food, and medicines that enabled prehistoric Indians to establish their cultures on the Colorado Plateau—and to survive into the present as Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo and Navajo. It was the pinon that made the Great Basin the coarse-grained Eden of the pine-nut eaters who picked their winter sustenance from the treetops.” Ronald Lanner, The Pinon Pine.

I asked our friend, “Do you still pull down the green pine cones and roast them and shake out the nuts into a blanket?” She said that was what she had done all her life, but her children and grandchildren have drifted away from these traditions. So here she is, seeking pinon nuts in the median strip surrounded by hundreds of tourist cars. Mother Earth continues to feed her. As we helped to quickly fill her plastic bag of seeds, she would break the shell of a seed in her teeth, and eat. “They taste better when they are roasted.” But the look on her face was one of holy pleasure. For this woman, these seeds are manna, holy sustenance and communion with her ancestors.

As we drove back to our RV trailer in Williams, Arizona, I thought about this woman gathering pinon. Manna. Bread of heaven. My mind drifted to the vast, frightening wilderness of Sinai 3200 years ago. The Hebrew people had been freed from slavery but wandered for years in a wilderness. They were totally dependent on God’s care to find water and food. One of the desert foods that miraculous appeared was manna.

The Book of Exodus describes manna as having the color of white coriander seeds. It would appear as dew in the morning and had to be collected before it melted in the sun. The Book of Numbers tells us how manna was baked into cakes. It tasted like wafers made with honey. The manna could not be collected and saved, as it spoiled quickly. Therefore, each day the Hebrews were dependent on the grace of God to get through another day of life. I read somewhere that manna could have been a secretion from tamarisk trees, sweet and aromatic.

The Holy Quran mentions manna three times. In the Hadith, the collection of commentary and sayings of Mohammad, it is said, “Truffles are part of the ‘manna’ which Allah sent to the people of Israel through Moses, and its juice is a medicine for the eyes.”

Because we humans are forgetful of blessings, the Torah of God commands the Hebrew people to remember what happened in the Sinai wilderness by a commemorative meal called the Seder. This Passover Meal was to be celebrated every year to recall the story of the Passover of the angel of death over the Hebrew homes in Egypt and their liberation from slavery. The Haggadah is used today in Jewish homes as a ritual retelling of the sacred story. Most of the time, the Hebrew verbs are in past tense, remembering. At one point, the verbs becomes present tense, as those who participate today in the Passover Seder are transported in time and space to share in the exact event of the Exodus.

On Holy Thursday Jesus gathered his disciples together to celebrate this sacred meal. As he knew that his suffering and death were near, he took the unleavened bread and the wine into his hands and told them, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” He said that whenever they gathered in his name to share this meal, he would be present with them. After the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter, the community of disciples was galvanized by the fulfillment of Jesus promises. He would always be with them.

Since the earliest days of the Christian community, followers of Jesus have gathered to celebrate this Eucharist and in these earliest days, as expressed in the Seder meal, they experienced in the present tense the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine.

I write this blog after attending Sunday evening mass at St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel, California. I have been an Episcopal priest for 42 years and retired one year ago after thirty years as pastor at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana. I really missed that richly textured multicultural congregation and I have not been able to translate all of that to another Episcopal congregation nearby. When I am not filling in for a priest on vacation, Janice, our disabled son Erik and I attend the Sunday evening youth mass at St. Timothy’s. It is only three blocks from my home.

In the past, when I visited a parish, it was easy to evaluate how the priest celebrated the liturgy or compare the programs with what we had in Santa Ana. However, for a solid year, Janice, I, and Erik have been regular participants at St. Timothy’s. Because we are not Roman Catholics, I do not press the priest, who is a dear friend of mine, to give me communion. However, I have to share this with you. At the time of communion I am almost always overwhelmed with a powerful embrace of the Holy Spirit that squeezes me so tight I have to work really hard to hold back the tears of joy.

I realized that as a follower of Jesus, I hunger for this Eucharistic manna to stay alive. Even when I do not actually receive the sacrament, I am being nourished by this daily manna to keep me and my family alive in the desert of our lives.

In chapter six of the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “Unless you eat the bread of life, you will not have life within you.” John links this bread of heaven, the body of Christ, to the daily feeding that the Hebrew people received from God in their desert years. I am told that when this manna was eaten with food that the Hebrew people brought out of Egypt, it tasted bitter. But if they took the manna as their only food that day, it tasted sweet.

There is a tradition among Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and some Anglicans of daily Eucharist. This spiritual discipline is allowing ourselves to receive God’s daily physical embrace. The ritual of the scripture readings, prayers and communion is a life-giving ritual, a daily gathering around the Word of God and the sacrament of bread and wine. This transforms us, I believe, so that we go out into the world as manna ourselves.

Almost every night my wife Janice, our son Erik and I come together for dinner in our home. Frequently our daughter Katie comes over to join us. We begin the meal with grace, thanksgivings for the day and petitions for those in need. We share our simple meal and talk about how the day went. These rhythms and rituals of coming together, praying, eating, sharing are part of what makes us family. Just as the Church offers us this daily manna, we need the daily manna of presence to each other.

Eucharist as New Manna,” Ron Rolheiser, March 3, 2011.
The Pinon Pine, by Ronald Lanner.

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The blog is on retreat

I am grateful for the interaction with readers and the encouragement to continue writing this blog. We now have readers in over 40 countries. Because of some other writing project deadlines, I have to take a break from this blog until latter part of October.

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