Descending the steps of my Victorian home to walk the streets of my neighborhood, I find kids yelling and cars rumbling, ocean smells and factory fumes. “As I am breathing in, I know I am breathing in,” I remind myself. “As I am breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” During my walks I try to remember the Anapanasati Sutta and its teachings through Thich Nhat Hanh. I hope to enjoy my walking and breathing. But as I head down my block with my Australian shepherd, Cleo, I brace myself.
Our family lives in the Ocean View neighborhood of Berkeley, California, below San Pablo Avenue with its auto repair shops and fast food restaurants, down in the flatlands, by the San Francisco Bay. Ocean View is bordered by Interstate 80 and crossed by the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad. When I walk with Cleo in my neighborhood, I am following the walkways of the early European settlers, probably based on much older Ohlone Indian trails, now saturated with the exhalations of industry and traffic.
All along our street, dogs yip and yowl, greeting us from the windows of Victorians and stucco bungalows, from behind wrought iron gates and barbed wire. Yelping and whining in response, Cleo yanks me into this cacophony of dog barks. For several years the unpleasantness of this experience deterred me from walking Cleo at all. Two and a half years ago, when I took up hiking as part of my healing from breast cancer, I decided to honor the health of body and mind, and chose to walk without the interference of Cleo.
Vigorous and mindful walking became my primary meditation practice. I craved quiet and solitude in nature. Leaving behind the harsh descant of dogs and cars, the shrill sirens of police cars and ambulances in my neighborhood, I began to walk alone in the nearby Berkeley Hills. With a new passion, I paid attention to my breath and my steps. For the first time, I noticed my muscles working: calf muscles, quadriceps, gluteus maximus. All systems were activated: lungs drawing in oxygen, circulation increasing the flow of blood, lymphatic system draining toxins. I was walking, I reminded myself, to renew each cell. I was walking for my life.
This autumn, feeling less need to protect myself from the fracas of others, I have made a vow to move beyond my narrow focus, to try once again to include Cleo in my walks. At some point, as I wind uphill, I become aware of Cleo, who has been jerking me along, with frequent stops to leave her mark. Finally, she turns her head, rolls her pupils up so she can see me and I her. Our eyes meet. Experience and consciousness coincide. I see how we are walking together.
One Sunday afternoon my seven-year-old daughter Caitlin, Cleo and I join my friend Pat and her daughters, Kaia and Shosh, on a hike in Tilden Park. Tumbling out of Pat’s new Mazda van, we trudge up a dry rocky slope shaded by eucalyptus. Overcoming my fears that Cleo will get ticks or get lost, I let her off her leash to run and explore.
A tingling rushes my limbs as I watch a jubilant Cleo scramble over the rocks to ride waves of billowing green grasses, pausing to nibble as she goes. Burrs in her ears and a pine branch dragging from her tail, she sniffs in and out of the manzanita and coyote bush, then streaks past us into a creek, careening back, feet muddy, coat soaked.
At some point Cleo disappears into the woods. In high pitched staccato, Caitlin and I call her, “Here Cleocleocleocleo….” “Here Puppywuppypuppywuppy….” “Here babywabywabybabywaby….”
With a surprise leap, Cleo bolts out of the brush. Squealing in pain, she dives into the dust, rolls over and over. Raising her haunches, she rubs her chest in the dry red dirt. Then we see the vital yellow stain on her chest and face. Kaia asks, “Is it pollen?”
But the putrid skunk stink suddenly overwhelms us.
We can’t possibly drive Cleo back down the hill in Pat’s van. So we agree that Cleo, Caitlin, Kaia and I will trek toward home on foot until Pat and Shosh return with the much touted tomato juice for Cleo’s bath and my ‘69 Toyota which can weather skunk stench.
Diminutive beside the redwoods rising over us, I lead my tiny troop single file along the narrow shoulder of the winding road. Cleo is in the lead, straining on her leash. Drinking in whiffs of skunk musk so strong that it is, at moments, unrecognizable even as skunk, I hold Caitlin’s hand in mine. Kaia, holding Caitlin’s other hand, brings up the rear. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out….”
Already, as they speed around the dark curves, some of the cars are turning on their lights. With adrenaline coursing in my veins, I feel my own animal instinct to survive and to protect my family pack. All of my senses are keen, gauging the breadth of the shoulder, the angle of the curves, the speed of the cars whizzing by. I find myself flattening the children against the trees, protecting them with my body. When I see help in the form of a park ranger, I flag down her pickup.
The two girls squeeze into the front seat next to the ranger. I climb into the back, and Cleo leaps after me into a mess of shovels, buckets, a spool of heavy rope. As the truck leans into each curve, the force hurls Cleo back and forth across the floor. Alarmed, she dodges the sliding shovels and fixes me with her liquid brown gaze. She pleads, “Do something!”
I know what to do. Bolstering myself to endure the unthinkable stench, I enfold her in my arms, anchor the two of us amidst the tumbling tools and ropes. I can feel her trembling body exchanging heat with my own. Clasping her to me, I seal a bond with Cleo, with the skunk, with the night woods. I am succumbing not so much to skunk stink as gamy life stink. Shuttling back through time, I am hugging a shepherding dog of the Australian grasslands, a wolf, a dingo. I think of the native Ohlone people who lived in this terrain for thousands of years before the first settlements of Europeans. I remember how, in their healing rituals, the Ohlone shamans became animal spirits. Her flank against my breast, Cleo becomes my shaman. I absorb her rhythm. Our two wilderness hearts beat as one.
The next week, I feel unaccountably drawn to return with Cleo to my home neighborhood. The yelping of the Doberman down the block calls me too. As Cleo tugs ahead, I feel my attention bounding with her. After having, for a moment, inhabited Cleo’s animal body as mine, I am now more able to experience my own block through Cleo’s ears and nose, to sniff out life process—squirrel tracks, dog pee, excrement, garbage, dead possums.
Through dog walking practice, I have been learning to immerse myself in the world through my senses—broadening my field of awareness. And, it seems to me, that in embracing a skunk-saturated Cleo—when dog walking became “skunk practice”—my habitual mode of ordering experience was, for a moment, shattered, and somehow changed. My field of awareness seems now to expand in content—to include more of what I don’t like looking at or admitting is there. It expands in space—to include not just the hills, but also the flatlands. It expands in time—to include, within “now,” how we got here and where we are going.
Inspired to learn the history of my neighborhood terrain, I angle back and forth down my street, one hand pulling back on Cleo’s leash, the other clutching a guide book. In the first European settlement of Ocean View, I learn, the now arid streets were organized around creeks which flowed down from the hills into the Bay, fostering abundant riparian wildlife. Through Cleo’s wet black nose, I wonder, might I now learn to sense the streams beneath the concrete culverts? Through Cleo’s paws, might I begin to feel beneath the sidewalks, through layers of history down to the Ohlone trails?
Ten minutes from our house, Cleo sniffs her way to Jeronimus Alley. Only five and a half short blocks from the gas stations of San Pablo Avenue, this narrow dirt alley recalls the Ocean View of a hundred years ago. I head toward the remnants of Acieri’s Dairy, with its water tower and windmill, then back toward the site of the Starch and Grist Mill, the first local manufacturing business, which provided the basics—flour, washing powder and chicken feed—for the early settlers. My mind travels further back, to the Stone Age technologies of the Ohlones, who processed acorns and wove grasses into baskets.
Following Cleo’s lead, I breathe in. And an industrial smell—a ragingly twentieth-century stench—penetrates my senses, jars my reverie. Abruptly I turn for home.
That night I remember how just one week ago I allowed myself to ingest the wild liquor of skunk. But here, in the flats, I find that I tighten my shoulders, restrain my breathing, continue to immure my senses against my home terrain. Could I open my awareness here, too? I wonder: Does today’s stench come from Pacific Steel Casting, renowned among neighborhood activists for the toxic binders used in the molding process?
The next morning I decide that instead of hiking uphill, I will cross the tracks, to walk down, past the smoke stacks and huge cranes of the sand factory into the zone of heavy industry. As I leave home, I notice I am a little scared, even though I don’t know exactly why.
I head down toward the larger factories. After crossing over the tracks, I find the street I’d sensed was there. Second Street is unpaved, but in contrast to Jeronimus Alley, it is a broad street full of potholes, some with slick puddles of suspect content. Huge warehouses and factory buildings line both sides of the street. Littered with blown out tires, old box springs, broken bottles and rusty nails (one of which I find embedded in my sneaker when I get home), this street is difficult to navigate with Cleo. I also find it hard to stay in contact with my breathing. But I force myself. “When I breathe in, I know I am breathing in….” The clangor and fumes begin to overwhelm me.
I stop to read a sign which warns:
Detectable amounts of chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm may be found in and around this facility.
My attention is riveted. I read the sign again and again.
I remember all of the research I have been doing on breast cancer. Cancer is a disease of the DNA, causing cells to divide uncontrollably. This can be caused by viruses, defective genes inherited from parents, radiation and environmental poisons.
What am I doing here? I ask myself. Here I go to great trouble in my diet and lifestyle to protect myself from organochlorines to stave off a recurrence of breast cancer. And yet, this morning my fervor to experience my home terrain has overtaken my need to protect myself.
Despite the warning, I continue down the block past great open-faced factory buildings, into a tumult of whirring, grinding, yammering, the whistle of discharging steam. I ask a guy in a hard hat, “What are you making?” Through the din I think he says, “These here are parts for eighteen-wheel trucks.”
I wind Cleo’s leash in tight. Watching billows of smoke rising into the sky, I keep walking. The clash and bang from a great open forge draws my attention. I gaze across the street into the cavernous darkness. Illumined by sudden flares of fire, men in hard hats and masks are at work. A loudspeaker blares out what to me are indecipherable orders, punctuated by a sharp beeping.
What do I expect to find here, to learn? I take stock of my feelings. I discover that I am dizzy, my temples ache and my heart pounds. Noticing a burning in my lungs, I turn to flee. But Cleo stops to sniff a castoff rubber glove and to squat and leave her mark.
As I turn from Second Street back up toward home I hear myself mechanically reciting, “As I am breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” But what am I breathing in? I ask myself. What does it mean to mindfully walk these toxic streets? And what attitude of mind do I bring to this walking? Is my perception now tinged with fear? Grief? Sentimentality? Resistance? What attitude need I cultivate? Bravery? Vulnerability? Acceptance? A deep compassion for Caitlin and all the children of the future who inherit this landscape? Is it wrong to want to protect myself? How does self-protection interfere with truly knowing my neighborhood, my planet—in every cell of my being?
A fine drizzle is just beginning to fall. Wet breezes from the Bay waft the salty smells of seaweed and fish. We are heading up my street now, crossing the tracks, up toward Spenger’s fish restaurant, whose parking lot, before the European settlement, was once one of the largest shell mounds of the Ohlones. I picture the Ohlones netting their shellfish and salmon—living here for perhaps five thousand years with their simple technologies—and not destroying each other or the terrain.
I recall the industries of the early Ocean View settlement, providing basics like soap, starch and lumber—and in a mere hundred years evolving to steel casting, ink making and other industries which poison our air and soil. I think of the Chevron Refinery in nearby Richmond and the Weapons Laboratory in Livermore, and I remember that the Bay Area has an extraordinarily high incidence of breast cancer. The environmental sources of this crisis have as yet barely been researched. It is beginning to rain in earnest now. I am drenched through—hair, jeans, sneakers.
As I reach to encompass how this terrain has changed and how it is suffering now, I ask myself: What does it mean to allow life to seep through the membranes of our awareness so there is no separation between what we live and what we know? I think of how I “appreciate” the creeks, the grasses, while Cleo swims through them, eats them, becomes them. I think of Cleo diving into the streams, emerging from the underbrush with burrs in her tail, transporting forest to meadow. Do I need to roll in the dirt and brambles, allow the burrs to catch on my flesh, invite exchange with skunks and ticks? Do I need to feel through the soles of my sneakers the rocks and potholes of Second Street? Do I need to exchange exhalations with the factories?
As I reflect on Cleo’s teachings, I see that skunk practice in the hills does not translate gracefully to the industrial zone. Skunk fumes may be noxious, but they don’t destroy cells. I grope for a skillful way to walk the streets of my neighborhood. I see that there is no prescription. I do know that my healing cannot be separated from the health of the terrain. It cannot be separated from the welfare of other beings, such as those earning their living making truck parts ten blocks from my house. I want to find a way to practice that encompasses this understanding.
On a recent walk it occurred to me that as I am breathing in the oxygenated air from the remaining plants and trees, and the chemical fumes of industry, I am breathing in the history of this neighborhood: the Ohlones, the early settlers, the accumulated karma of the last century of “progress.” But I am not just breathing in. I am also breathing out. As I pass this history through the forge in my cells, I breathe it out changed. As I exhale carbon dioxide for the oaks and willows, I am part of the street’s future. Like Cleo, I leave my mark. Breathing in, I explore, I research my neighborhood. Breathing out, I distill what I learn. I question. I write.
In writing this piece, I have been inspired by conversations with Wendy Johnson, Joanna Macy and Judith Stronach. —B.G.