Channel Crossings

Catalina IslandOver the last few weeks I have been suffering from two things: chronic migraines and persistent homesickness. Both of these symptoms were preceded by a dream in which I am sitting on a beach looking up at a tremendous 300 foot tidal wave, which is just about to fall upon my head.  I can already feel the ocean spray on my face, droplets of sea water falling into my eyes.  It’s a dream that comes to me often, but has never caused me any disturbance that I can remember.  By mid-morning the dream and the waves usually recede into the background of my day world. But, this time is different. With the help of migraines the dream has, almost literally, stuck to my consciousness.

But why homesickness?

It comes in cycles. When I first left home for college in 1980, I have struggled with a dual existence: one that is Islander and another that is Mainlander. The Islander is free spirited and playful. The Mainlander serious and hardworking. Two sides of the channel.  Puer and Senex.

And so, about every ten years I begin to think about moving back home, to Catalina Island. And sometimes I do. This time I won’t. But I’ll respect the fantasy, nonetheless. I will indulge in my homesickness, slipping and sliding backwards down the slope toward puerile impulses.  I will waste time. I will become withdrawn and moody. I will embarrass myself.

Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.

“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back…”

— Rumi, “The Reed Flute’s Song”

view2Ben Weston 2

To grow up on an island is unusual and I can’t help but speculate that spending my earliest years on a 74 square mile of rock, surrounded by water, has tweaked my development in a substantial way.  For instance, I vividly remember a time in early childhood when my own consciousness was beginning to emerge. It was during first grade when my class was learning about the geology of the Channel Islands. Our teacher told us that a major portion of Catalina Island was created by volcanic activity, and that someday the island could re-erupt! Such a thought terrified me and that night I couldn’t sleep. I felt that it was my duty to keep watch so that I could warn my family when the mountain exploded. In many ways, the turbulence I felt that watchful night was the rising of my own internal island. It lives inside of me.

Despite the fear, the image of such earthly forces has always fascinated me.  What magnitude of strength and power could possibly push up this mound of rock? Furthermore, what lay beneath, within the greater regions of the surrounding waters?

Wallace Stegner writes, “Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies”. Certainly, the island landscape of Catalina impressed me at my most “susceptible time”.  Its landmarks and characters never cease to appear in my dreams and fantasies.  And, the longer I am away, the more these island images crop up from this unconscious territory that I can only identify as the root of my existence.  The “ocean of divinity” as Jung calls it.

The longing to return may not just be a whim, but rather, if taken seriously (oh, Senex), a summons toward the collective psyche, the Mother of life, which haunts us with a never ending “nostalgia for the source from which we came” (CW 9ii, par 476). To the irrational and wild place where rocks explode and waters rise high. To the very moment that blew this world into existence, swallowed by a great sea, steaming and cooling, rumbling and rolling, as islands slowly rise from below the surface.  The source of all creativity.

Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.

Some time there will be a tomorrow without any island.
So far, I haven’t let that happen, but after
I’m gone others may become faithless and careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.

— William Stafford, “Security”

Ben Weston Beach

Into the Fire

Nearly a year ago today, I received a phone call from Robin, one of my lifelong childhood friends. There was a sound of panic in her voice as she told me “The Island is on fire” and that the flames were moving quickly out of the hills and toward our homes in the small town of Avalon. The island my friend was referring to is Santa Catalina located twenty-two miles off the coast of Southern California. It is also the place where I was raised and have spent a bulk of my adult life. To hear that the island was being consumed by flames brought me a great deal of distress as many of the island’s natural landmarks served as an anchor to my sense of belonging in this world. The old oak that cradled our childhood fort is now gone. The Manzanita that marked my favorite trailhead is gone.  The canyon, which was once secreted in a canopy of scrub oak, is now exposed like an old naked woman. It was nearly impossible to witness this fire without the sense that I too was on fire and that a hot force was moving within me, burning through the landscape of my memories.


This last weekend, I visited the island to hike my childhood landscape and to see how spring was treating the 4000 plus acres that burned up last year. My friend, Donna, and I also went in search for the rare Fire Poppy (Papaver californicum), a brilliant dark orange flower which grows in habitats which have recently burned. The directions we had for finding the poppies were a bit obtuse: hike behind Haypress, go up the hill behind Hidden Lake, walk past the pig trap to Inspiration Point, turn around and then walk over the hillside to our left. The land was charred and the Island Scrub Oaks were black and skeletal.   





We found ourselves sliding down a steep hillside of ashen dirt, which blackened our clothing and skin. And then we saw them – the delicate, tissue-like, yellow-orange blossoms. Immediately, I thought about the words of the alchemists, “No new life can arise without the death of the old.” No doubt, these wise philosophers learned this ancient truth from nature herself. To see such vibrant color rising out of the dark soil gave me a sense of hope that goes beyond words.







Later on that day, we accidentally came upon the most outrageous field of Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) that I have ever seen in all my life growing up on this island! It felt miraculous. How could it be that with so much damage and slaughter, not to mention all the pain and suffering in the world today that nature continues to revive itself with such glory? All I can say is that, like the alchemists, I too must observe and learn the secrets of nature. To burn up in the fires of life is truly a loss, but the rewards are great if one is willing to make the long, hard trek to discover them.