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Go West, Old Man

Shepherd Bliss says farewell to Sonoma County

By Shepherd Bliss

I used to think Hawaii was a place you won in a game show, where honeymooners drank piña coladas in a perpetual sunset, and rich tourists got sun-baked. Certainly not a place where this writer-farmer-teacher belonged or could make a home. I was wrong.

Visiting Hawaii never occurred to me until two years ago. I support the rights of Hawaiians for self-preservation and felt that a haole (non-Hawaiian) like myself might get in the way.

Then Hawaii started calling. I resisted. Laguna Farm's Scott Mathieson invited me to join him for a visit. Upon arriving I had the same instinctive feeling I had when I first saw what became Kokopelli Farm--"I'm home." The island evoked childhood memories from the isthmus of Panama.

Hawaii still has jungles, like Panama, with their moist mysteries. The active volcano invites change and creativity. The surrounding ocean both pounds and soothes.

I discovered diverse cultures, vibrant nature, active artists and writers, a growing community of sustainable farmers and conscious eaters, spiritual vitality, independent freedom-loving people, and many of the qualities that originally drew me to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have been learning a lot from Hawaii, which has become my teacher.

Redwood, apple, and oak trees drew me from Berkeley in the late 1980s to what was then the "Redwood Empire." Now known more as "wine country," industrial vineyards march into forests and across rolling hills. Nature recedes. Man's heavy hand weighs on the environment and my soul.

High tech destroyed the once agriculturally vital Valley of the Heart's Delight south of San Francisco, transforming it into Silicon Valley. It now threatens our once rural county with further urbanization.

A strong current flows through the earth's greatest ocean between this coastal county and Hawaii. Sebastopol's annual Apple Blossom Parade this year had the theme "Aloha Blossom." We have a Hawaii support group that helps people who go back and forth. I hope to come back over summers and continue teaching at New College and the Institute of Imaginal Studies.

Until Bush's seizure of power, I had expected to live in the bountiful North Bay the rest of my life. So I dropped anchor, settled in, and sent down roots. I hauled childhood memorabilia from the Bliss family home in the Midwest. My book collection swelled into the thousands, which I am now painfully selling.

My body now feels dread at what the American military is doing in the world and the liberties we are losing here at home. It's time to retreat. Hawaii is technically America, but not exactly. Legally one of the United States, it remains culturally distinct and more serene with its aloha spirit.

In the military, I learned the importance of retreating and having an exit strategy, which differ from running away or surrendering. My growing grief at the loss of democracy built by generations of Americans is more than I can tolerate on the mainland, which is becoming increasingly speedy and aggressive. The once Land of Liberty is becoming the Land of Fear. Hawaii, in contrast, seems to remain the Land of Love.

I gave talks at peace rallies in Hilo earlier this year. A department chairperson inquired if teaching at the Hawaii Community College might interest me. After looking at my résumé, she asked if I would teach a course entitled "The Meaning of Life"--an offer I could not refuse. The University of Hawaii at Hilo later hired me full-time to teach in their communications department.

But really, I'm going to Hawaii more to learn from the island and its people than to teach. Indigenous and island wisdom about natural resources and sustainability have a lot to offer to inflated continental power and folly, especially at this time.

Our future is unpredictable. So I want to live where I can grow food, have friendly neighbors, and be distant from targets of both the American government and those whose fire it will increasingly draw by its bellicose behavior. Hawaii's remoteness attracts me.

I'm a native son of California, born in Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast nearly 60 years ago. Moving is not easy. Letting go of lovely Sonoma County and California, my friends and land is difficult. I remain in love with my home state and my country, despite their shortcomings. I learned so much here, especially from the land, which I plan to practice in Hawaii. What might life after California and after the mainland be like?

I love Sonoma County; the land and people are wonderful. They've treated me well. What will I miss? Growing and providing people with healthy, tasty food. Monthly Sebastopol Art Walks. Weekly free summer concerts in the plaza, where you can encounter friends without making appointments. The rugged coast, the Russian River, and the rolling hills. (Sigh.) And KPFA radio--a voice of freedom.

How can I leave such a paradise? I sometimes wonder. But few new farmers and people like me can afford to buy here now. I could never purchase in Sebastopol today. I wonder what the county will be like in the future.

I delight that rural institutions such as the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Ocean Song, and the Western Sonoma County Rural Alliance remain vital. The continuity of groups such as the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and Farm Trails is important, as is the growth of various farmers markets. Newer groups such as Farm Link work to keep land in agricultural production.

Thoreau wrote that a town is saved by the woods and swamp that surround it. Approving the Laguna Vista development and the damage it would do to the Laguna de Santa Rosa would endanger small-town Sebastopol and its environment. The visible forest and laguna provide substantial invisible protection.

As vineyards expand into the forested Cazadero area, they further threaten the county and its remaining nature. The growth of groups such as the Blucher Creek Watershed Council and the South Sebastopol Neighbors for Safe Water are important to defend our water and other natural resources threatened by overdevelopment.

Hawaii is feminine, especially the Big Island, where the goddess Pele with her volcanic eruptions rules. The feminine has deep healing powers, including through nature, which the U.S.A. and the world need at this time.

Aloha may be a light to guide America out of its expanding darkness. Hawaii and Hawaiians have much to offer our troubled nation and the endangered world. Hawaii has become my teacher.


Shepherd Bliss has written for the 'Sonoma County Independent' and the 'North Bay Bohemian' for the last half dozen years and can now be reached at sbliss@hawaii.edu.

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From the August 7-13, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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