INLANDIA LITERARY JOURNEYS: Remembering ‘A Room of Her Own’

o6x6km-b88706664z.120160509101238000gp7gdvvv.10The book was going to be an easy undertaking: two months to revise, update and reformat a work I published in 1995 about “A Room of Her Own,” essentially a bookstore within The Frugal Frigate, a Children’s Bookstore in Redlands.

Instead, my undertaking launched a new adventure.

In July 1987, I lived only a mile from The Frugal Frigate in the restored historic district of Redlands, when educator and businesswoman Katherine Thomerson opened its doors. Soon, Katherine enticed Ann Schmidt to assist her.

Nestled to the right of the front entrance, Katherine maintained a steady presence of four shelves of books by, about and for women. “The Women’s Corner,” as it became known, met a deep and growing need in the community.

By January 1991, a separate space was created within the store for books by, about and for women. It was called “A Room of Her Own.” Ann was the primary keeper of the room.

Within four years, it evolved into the largest collection of books by, for and about women north of San Diego, east of Los Angeles and south of the San Francisco Bay Area. It became a center of intellectual, literary and creative activity for women in the Inland Empire.

In early 1995, Katherine gave me permission to conduct an ethnographic, or descriptive, study on the evolution of “A Room of Her Own” as part of my doctoral work. I tracked its growth and activities from March 1991 to August 1995, and included a photo essay.

It became clear that the room was a magical place.

There were thousands of books, mostly single copies, in 49 topically defined sections. Ann introduced readers to more than 124 books in her column in the monthly newsletter. The Monthly Book Group devoured and discussed 51 books, and a Spiritual Journey Group provided women a safe space for dialogue.

Finally, numerous scholars and authors including Susan Straight, Laura Kalpakian, and Patricia McFall gave presentations for 56 events in the outstanding Speaker/Discussion Series, held monthly, on the stage of The Frugal Frigate, free to the public.

I was a reader for three celebrations in the series, and my one-woman play, “Mother of the Mystic Garden: The Life and Times of Hildegard von Bingen,” debuted at one those events. In 1996, I also organized and presented “A Celebration of Sacred Songstorysound.”

In 1995, when Larry Burgess, then the director of the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, requested a copy of my study for inclusion in the library’s Local History Archives, I had only a partial understanding of how appropriate that decision was.

Ten years later, after 16 years of service, The Frugal Frigate, housing “A Room of Her Own” within, was sold. The 2,200-square-foot “A Room of Her Own” was dismantled.

In 2009, The Frugal Frigate sold again. The current owner, Gay Kolodzik, purchased the store in 2010.

Last spring, I decided to republish the study as a book accessible to a much larger audience. The story of “A Room of her Own” chronicles a unique, vital piece of women’s history in Redlands and California, on many fronts. It provided an exciting, vibrant literary scene, was a woman-owned business, supported the visual arts, scholarship, debate, education, self-discovery and community, to name a few.

I contacted Katherine Thomerson and Ann Schmidt, re-interviewed them, and received their blessing to revive the study. Ann was invaluable providing both archival and updated information. Amazingly, I learned, the Book Group has been meeting continuously since April 1991.

As word about the project spread, people voiced interest in contributing to it. A chapter on recollections was birthed.

I put forth queries, conducted interviews, and contributors generously submitted reflections. Artist Christine Curry Coates writes of how the murals Katherine commissioned to grace “A Room of Her Own,” launched her successful career as an artist. Laura Kalpakian, Gayle Brandeis and many others penned their memories.

It has been a time of community: of rekindling and reconnecting, laughter and tears.

The anticipated two months to publication has turned into a year of unfolding processes now nearing completion. I’m grateful for, and humbled by, the results. The project took on its own energy, once again sweeping me away on a frigate to A Room of Her Own, providing gifts far beyond what I ever imagined.

Inland author Joan Koerper has published everything from poetry to scholarly research. She earned her Ph.D. in Writing and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco.

We’re Still Here by Joan Koerper and Marja Anderson

“We’re still here,” announced Paakuma Tawinat, member of the San Manuel Mission Indian Band of the Serrano Nation, to the standing-room-only crowd at the Wrightwood Historical Museum on November 6, 2015. Accompanied only by his gourd rattle, Tawinat opened his presentation in Serrano tradition, singing a melodic song honoring the Big Horn Sheep, sacred to his tribe.

In an entertaining, informative, and interactive demonstration, Tawinat shared the history, culture, and current status of the Serrano Nation whose territory once covered 10,156 square miles of the San Bernardino Mountains, the Banning Pass, and the Cajon Pass. Now, Serrano territory is reduced to 1.5 square miles: the San Manuel Indian Reservation.

When the Spanish arrived in Southern California, 30,000 Serrano called their territory home and spoke the language. Only 200 closely related Serrano remain. Tawinat’s distinguished elder cousin, Ernest Siva, is one of only two remaining Serrano speakers. Determined efforts are being made to recapture the language and teach it to new generations. Classes in the Serrano language are even being offered at Cal State San Bernardino.

Tawinat’s ancestors survived forced conversion, slavery, disease, loss of identity, the “War of Extermination” declared by California’s first Governor, and deployment of Serrano children to Indian Schools dedicated to the motto, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” His godmother was one of the last Serrano to attend the Indian School at St. Boniface in Banning.

The Serrano once flourished on over 300 local abundant foods: plants and animals of the mountains and valleys in large territories they shared with neighboring tribes, such as the Cahuilla. Under Spanish and American rule they died of starvation.

Traditionally, the Serrano made full use of their environmental resources building round dwellings from flexible wood poles, palm fronds, and willows, which they left behind to be absorbed back into the land. Clothing was made from yucca and plant fibers. Established trade routes were used to both augment and sell goods with other nations.

Musical instruments were formed from natural elements. Flutes were carved from hollowed-out wood and reeds, while acorn seeds filled gourd and deer hoof rattles. Drums were not part of the Serrano repertoire. Traditionally, the Serrano also excelled in basket making. The audience was invited to peruse sandals, baskets, musical instruments, and other Serrano wares on display.

Tawinat highlighted how knowledge of the changing seasons was critical to his ancestor’s survival. These lessons were passed along, in part, through Bird Songs, Big Horn Sheep stories, and Flood Stories.

The Serrano had, and have, a rich social and spiritual life believing in a higher power, shamanistic healing, an afterlife, coming of age rituals, and death rituals. Music, gambling, and stories are enjoyed by all ages.

Strict rules covering marriage are in place thus, in the past, most were arranged. Tawinat’s grandmother, Martha Manuel Chacon, was the last Serrano woman to enter into an arranged marriage.

“It is done,” Tawinat concluded in his native language, the traditional closing of a Serrano gathering.

The meeting may have concluded, but the Serrano Nation is, as Tawinat announced, “still here,” succeeding. Serrano ancestors live on in their descendants and in the land itself. Purposefully overturned grinding stones lie under oak trees anticipating the return of the people who used them. Artifacts mark the sites of villages, and clumps of Datura plants still wait for the shamans who once harvested them. And if you listen carefully you can hear the voices of the People, intoning sacred Big Horn Sheep Songs, riding the winds up the Cajon Pass to a strong and healthy future.

Postscript for this post: Marja Anderson joined me in penning this article. Marja has a Masters in Anthropology from UCR and has conducted fieldwork in Hong Kong and Malaysia.

This article was first published in the Mountaineer Progress newspaper on November 12, 2015. Unfortunately, due to editorial oversight, the hardcopy version published that day contained innumerable errors and repetitions. The newspaper admitted to the mistakes in the following weekly edition and made the necessary corrections for the online version of the paper.

She Cultivates Ancient Wisdom by Joan Koerper

She cultivates ancient wisdom: Inland author’s work points to agriculture in natural harmony.

When author and archaeologist Anabel Ford traveled the world with her family, retreating to their Wrightwood cabin beginning in 1960, she could only dream that her fascination with Meso-American and Maya prehistory would lead to great discoveries. It did.

In 1983, Ford and her team uncovered the ancient Maya city of El Pilar, which had lain dormant for more than 1,000 years.

Ford’s book, The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands,” co-authored with Ronald Nigh, a professor at the Centro Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Chiapas, Mexico, published in June, is the result of 44 years of excavation and research into El Pilar’s domestic architecture, gardens and traditional forest crops.

“I set out to answer fundamental questions,” Ford said. “How did the Maya successfully establish a flourishing civilization in the Mesoamerican tropics? Would their strategies for survival be an alternative for us today?”

The findings counter the longheld assumption that the collapse of the Maya civilization was due to overpopulation and deforestation.

“There was no extensive deforestation in the past,” the authors contend. The forest gardens have been productive for 8,000 years. When crisis stuck, the Maya left their cities and took refuge in their life-giving forest gardens.

Simply put, a forest garden is an unplowed, tree-dominated agricultural field sustaining biodiversity and animal habitats and producing a wide range of plants that meet human needs: shelter, food, and medicine.

The forest garden is part of the traditional Maya land management system known as the Milpa Cycle. Cultivated year-round, up to 90 percent of plants in the Maya forest garden are useful.

Gardeners maintain it with local resources such as organic material, household compost and manure, which enrich the soil and productivity.

Intercropping, or cultivating two or more regional vegetables at the same time, is core to the Milpa system. The Maya annually rotate small plots of vegetable crops and plant short-term perennial shrubs and trees in stages.

Present-day Maya farmers practice slash and burn, a tradition the Serrano and Cahuilla Indians of the San Bernardino Mountains once included in their land management efforts.

Ford’s research reveals a carefully human-orchestrated, complex, dynamic, symbiotic, and integral relationship with the tropical woodlands that has consistently nurtured the Maya.

This led Ford, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Meso-American Research Center, to champion sustainable cultivation, indigenous ecology and farming methods used in the Maya forest garden. It also shaped her vision for the future of El Pilar, which straddles Belize and Guatemala.

She helped form the Maya Forest Garden Network, connecting forest gardeners whose knowledge and approach to gardening can be traced to ancient times.

Ford, who earned her doctorate at UC Santa Barbara in 1981, also built an international interdisciplinary team including local villagers, scientists, university students and government administrators who are working to rescue the rain forest, curtail looting, and recover the cultural heritage of the Maya forest region. Ford transformed El Pilar into a living museum and research center: the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna. Several thousand tourists a year step back in time under the forest canopy and observe the gardens and wildlife of El Pilar. Ford continues her hands-on work at El Pilar and travels worldwide to promote the wisdom of indigenous conservation and the living future of the Maya forest. Still, somehow, she finds time to spend at the family home in Wrightwood, continually inspired by the forest she first explored as a child.

The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands

By Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. Left Coast Press, 2015.

Learn more about El Pilar.

This article was published in the Press-Enterprise, Jan 3, 2016; Section: Life; Page Z2

Gratefully Yours: Remembering the Veterans in My Family by Joan Koerper

I was told he never heard it coming. The bomb careening through the sky over the fields of France, the morning of September 18, 1944 killing William Edward Asman. The man we all affectionately called Big Eddie was Hollywood-handsome, tall, slim, and graceful with a smile that lit up a room. He courted my mother for four years, saving every penny to buy them a home. He would not ask for her hand in marriage until he could carry her over the threshold. They married August 23, 1941. Big Eddie knew his son, Edward Gordon Asman, my half-brother, only fourteen months before he was shipped overseas.

Big Eddie’s photo stood as one of three men in uniform on his mother’s side table. Granny Jenny Bell Asman’s other two sons made it home.

The story that Big Eddie never knew what hit him, and that it was a direct hit, made it palatable to my young ears as Mother and I shared his photos and letters, not yet curled up at the edges, and her stories. The knock on the door. The telegram. How I cried for their loss.

My father, William George Koerper, also served in WWII. A child prodigy and educated performance musician, he was with the USO providing desperately needed R&R, and entertainment, for the troops.

Many men and women in my family have served in the military. More than I can recount here. Their stories came alive in songs, over card tables, in whispers, and flamboyant parties.

We never glorified war, pain, or suffering. Rather, we honored duty and sacrifice.

My father and his siblings vividly remembered the photo of their maternal grandfather, Michael McLaughlin, hanging on the wall of the family home. In it, he stands in a garden, U.S. flag flying behind him, holding the rifle he carried, and decorated with the medals he earned in 1865, fighting in the Illinois Cavalry during the Civil War. He received land in return for his service, and later returned to County Kerry, Ireland, to rest in peace.

Full size portraits of my mother’s only sibling, Gordon Burrell, and his wife, Mary Patricia, a WW II WAC, both in Navy dress uniforms, proudly hung over their living room sofa. They hold the same place of honor today in their daughter’s living room. Their only son, Thomas Burrell, a genius eligible for Mensa, was drafted during the Vietnam War. He returned so emotionally and physically crippled he was lucky to make a living driving a taxi until he succumbed to throat cancer in his forties.

In my brother’s home two photos sit on a marble topped table in the living room. One proudly displays my brother in his Army uniform. Beside it, Big Eddie’s grandson, Navy Captain Leo Edward Asman, an Annapolis graduate and pilot, is pictured beside his grandfather’s grave in France, sixty years later. The honoring continues.

As I grew up I learned, of course, that Big Eddie heard the bomb that killed him. And his death was probably not instantaneous. I’m deeply grateful to my parents and elders for making his story one of swift heroism to my then-innocent ears rather than the terror it really was. Truth is unveiled soon enough.

I still cry for all that was lost, and those memories of all who served silently carried with them.

Blessings and gratitude to you all.

Veterans Day, 2015

Inland Area Influences Poems of Hard Truths: Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers by Joan Koerper

Award-winning books are often birthed in pieces, over several years in different locations. During the 10 years that poet Jon Sebba lived in Redlands and commuted to work in Riverside and San Bernardino, he confronted his ghosts of war by writing. In 2013, poems he penned in the shadows of the San Gorgonio Mountains helped earn him the title of Poet of the Year by the Utah State Poetry Society for his book, Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers.

Rising from his young soldier’s soul, Sebba’s poems record, reflect, and meditate on the images, sounds, and psychological realities of war. They offer an indelible expression of the invisible scars Sebba has carried with him since he witnessed his friend, Yossi Levi, killed in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War: “that a man you knew for weeks who died in a war of only six days / can be mourned for 45 years and counting.” And he gives voice to those caught in battle who can no longer speak for themselves.

His poems are authentic: embodying truths he refuses to couch, hide, or deny. As Dr. Rob Carney writes in the preface: “The power of these poems is that they don’t explain. They present.”

After witnessing a man severely beaten in front of his family, and learning an inquiry into the incident was to occur, Sebba writes: “Too late for that Palestinian farmer / in ripped, blood-splattered pajamas. / Too late for me, still carrying / invisible scars all these years.”

The first 25 poems in the collection focus directly on the 1967 Six-Day War. Twenty-one poems speak to “Others’ Wars”: WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During a phone interview, Sebba explained, “I included poems about other wars, and other conflicts or situations, that I was driven to write because they were about things that bothered me.”

I met Jon Sebba when we were members of the Redlands Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). He was one of two men who broke the gender barrier, joining the group when males were allowed membership. He quickly started a play reading group for the Branch. For four years, being part of that group was my favorite monthly activity.

I also was a member of a writer’s support group he hosted, one of the multitude of writer’s groups he has either anchored, or participated in, wherever he has lived. When he moved, we lost touch. Recently, I located him in relation to a book I’m writing about a former center of intellectual, literary, and creative activity for women in Redlands where he took part in a community program I organized and produced.

Born and raised in South Africa, Sebba left after high school to live in Israel. He studied geology, among other subjects and held various jobs. When the Six-Day War broke out he was mobilized as a reservist and fought in Jerusalem while his wife and 3-month-old son huddled in a bomb shelter a few miles behind the front lines. Transformed by the experience of random death, he committed to the belief that war should be avoided. “We didn’t know / that every rifle bullet / manufactured for the army / is intended for some mother’s child / But, by God, we do now,” he writes.

Sebba immigrated to the United States in 1968. He studied civil engineering, became a specialist in water-resources engineering, eventually working in six states. He welcomed another son into the family, and later divorced and re-married. For five years he was also an adjunct instructor in the engineering department at Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah until he retired. He and his wife now balance their time between Utah and Arizona.

Writing and being able to share his poems with others has been deeply therapeutic, says Sebba. In turn, his poems are therapeutic to others.

In demand as a speaker, he relates, “I often focus on writing as a way to work through trauma. And I always offer to connect with veterans. I want to help. And because family members are sharing stories with me after [readings and] speaking engagements, I’ve grown more aware of the trauma and stress the family goes through because they’ve been left behind.”

In 2013, The Gallery Theatre in Ogden, Utah produced a play he wrote. From November to June each year he teaches poetry at a low security prison in Tucson, Arizona. He is also organizing a program to work with veterans in Arizona using writing as therapy. And Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers is a text used in a Social Justice class at Salt Lake Community College.

Sebba’s current writing projects tackle another volatile subject: apartheid. He has written a second play, and is working on a novel, both based on people he knew while growing up in South Africa. And, of course, another book of poems about the effects of war is taking shape. “If I can help others through my experience, and writing, it is both satisfying and fulfilling,” he shared.

Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers is available at

Jon Sebba can be reached at:

This column was published in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, May 24, 2015; Section: Life; Page Z2 & Z5.

Love That Dog: A Novel by Joan Koerper

Sixty-six. That was the final tally of books I read for the “50 Book Challenge” this past February. Sponsored by the San Bernardino County Library, the reward for checking out and reading fifty books was a book bag. I didn’t need another book bag. But I thought that participating would be a way to catch up on some award-winning children’s and young people’s books, revisit old favorites, and explore new-to-me adult reads. It was a terrific adventure.

One of my selections goes hand-in-hand with National Poetry Month. Love That Dog: A Novel is penned by Newbery Medal Award winner Sharon Creech. Meant for readers ages 8-12, like most books for young people, to me, it is also a book for people well beyond age 12.

The inside front book cover reads, in part, “This is the story of Jack / who finds his voice / with the help of / paper / pencil / teacher / and / dog.”

Jack, the storyteller, is a student in room 105. Miss Stretchberry is his teacher. The class is exploring poetry: both writing and reading it. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“September 13

I don’t want to

Because boys

Don’t write poetry.

Girls do.


September 21

I tried.

Can’t do it.

Brain’s empty.”

A novel in poetic form, chronicling Jack’s struggles to overcome his “empty brain,” the story proceeds throughout the school year until the last entry dated June 6. His discoveries along the way, and eventual glee at his newfound form of expression, will invite you to laugh out loud, perhaps remind you of your own melee with poetry, and touch your heart.

Hand in hand with Jack’s poetic scuffle is the encouragement, and patient nurturing, Ms. Stretchberry offers her students. Indeed, Creech dedicates the book in part, “…to all the poets / and Mr.-and-Ms. Stretchberrys/who inspire students every day.”

An excellent read you will want to revisit again and again, Love That Dog, A Novel, was published in 2001 by Joanna Cotler Books, An Imprint of Harper Collins. Eight-eight pages.

Treat yourself.

Imperfect Fragments by Joan Koerper

It’s National Poetry Month. My poetic soul celebrates as I honor the poet in me, and the poets, and poetic works that have nurtured my life. Like most of us I have been in conversation with poets whom I know only through their writings. At other times, I am sharing a repast or sipping a drink with a poet whose vitality is radiating the space around us.

One of the poets I am privileged to know is Deenaz Paymaster Coachbuilder. Deenaz is well known to most of us who are part of the Inlandia community, yet her many accomplishments and talents are sometimes hidden by her soft and nonintrusive demeanor. I met Deenaz in the summer of 2009 at the Inlandia Creative Writing Workshop led by Ruth Nolan, MA, MFA, at the Main Riverside Library. Our friendship solidified over the months, indeed years, that we participated in the workshops and has continued on. For us, the workshops were a way to connect with a community of writers and continually challenge ourselves.

Deenaz, a Riverside resident, is a published poet in the US and India. Her poems have appeared in Inlandia: A Literary Journey; Sun Runner; Sugar Mule Literary Magazine; Parsiana; The Elphinstonian; Slouching Toward Mt. Rubidoux Manor; 2011 Writing From Inlandia; The Riverside County Recorder; India Journal; and Crucible. As an artist, Deenaz exhibits her often mesmerizing works in oil. She is also an educator and environmental advocate. Deenaz received a doctorate in Theater, an MS in Communicative Disorders in the US, and an MA in Literature from Bombay University, India. A retired school principal, she is a consulting Speech Pathologist and university professor in “special education.” A Fulbright scholar, Deenaz is the recipient of several awards, including President Obama’s “Volunteer Service Award.”

Deenaz published her first book of poems, Imperfect Fragments in 2014. Having watched the work unfold, I wrote a review that is including in a final section of the book entitled “Words of Praise.” I am waiting to post my review at Amazon, whenever the book is available there. Until then, I am overdue posting it here to honor Deenaz and her work. Happy National Poetry Month.

Joan Koerper On Imperfect Fragments by Deenaz Paymaster Coachbuilder

Harvesting imperfect fragments arising from a full range of human experience, translated internally in a multitude of languages, sensations, and lingering emotions, Dr. Deenaz Coachbuilder transmutes swatches of vibrant phrases into a stunning outpouring of poetic expression. “Life is a pilgrimage. But where does the path lead?” she begins, extending an invitation to accompany her on this personal journey of questing and questioning. Deenaz’s poems illuminate a journey of compassion, grace and transformation as she contemplates and celebrates, time, love, faith, the human condition and the continuum of spirit.

In the end, however, it is the humility of her spiritual journey that is most telling, and the true stairway to the profundity of her poetry. Even in the days when she felt no affinity to any particular faith, her unfailing sense of connectedness to all forms of life, the Universe, and particularly her family, in other words, her spirituality, never wavered. Deenaz shares her acute awareness of class differences in poems such as “The Green Hedge,” her almost unbearable grief over the untimely and tragic death of her only brother, her struggle to confront her mortality as she battled cancer, and her joy at the birth of her grandson, Barjor. We feel her affinity with the desert rose rock, the dandelion, the Joshua Tree, her dissolution into, and oneness with, a monarch butterfly and other sentient beings in “Impermanence of Being.” We read her tribute to the labor of the earthworm in “Paradise Lost,” become hypnotized along with her by the sight of a tiger languishing in cooling waters, celebrate Ocotillo Lady in the deserts of California, and listen while “Cymbidium Orchid Speaks.” All of her poems are ultimately a spiritual “answering echo to one’s primordial being.”

Deenaz’s heartfelt, lyrical, sometimes painful reflections are augmented with visuals of her other talents in the arts: stunning photographs such as “Alki Sunset.” We run with the wild horses contemplating her painting of same and feel our own eyebrows lift to her painting “Startled Flight.” The array of family photos across time, generations, and place, solidify that strong sense of her cultural identity across borders as she wonders at growing things.

I have been privileged to read and watch Deenaz’s poems evolve over the last few years. Yet I am profoundly moved by this collection she has courageously assembled. Each time I read and reread the poems, I am taken to a different depth of thought and feeling than I traveled on the previous read. Deenaz’s fravashi, her guardian spirit, has given a gift to us all by not only being at her side, but by guiding Deenaz’s poetic hand to weave her imperfect fragments into a memorable work that the reader will want to return to, again and again. (c) 2013 MJ Koerper.

Imperfect Fragments © 2013 Deenaz Paymaster Coachbuilder. First published, 2014. ISBN: 9780991308507

Bats in the Belfry by Joan Koerper

It’s true. My first encounter with bats actually was in a belfry: the bell tower of St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church on Livernois Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. Entry to the tower was forbidden to all but a chosen few. I’d begged my father, who was the organist at the church, to be my partner on an adventure and climb the long, winding staircase of the looming, mysterious bell tower. As an avid reader of mystery stories my nine-year-old imagination ran wild with excitement. Would we find the “secret of the bell tower?” Or the “mystery of the hidden staircase?”

One Saturday in October, Dad granted my wish as part of my birthday present that year. After his long morning of playing daily mass, funerals, and weddings he drove ten miles home to West Bloomfield, fetched me, and we headed back to the church for our rendezvous with the unknown.

The tumbler clicked in the wide, heavy, sculpted, solid wooden door as Dad’s key turned in the lock. Our footfalls echoed off the stairs against the cement walls of the narrow, curving passageway. Higher and higher we ascended. My heartbeat quickened until we reached the first open space with floor to ceiling vertical slits in the exterior walls. Then, mounting even narrower, twisting steps, my heart raced as we reached the steeple and confronted the beauty of the bats, the bells, and the view. It was a dream come true, one of the thrills of my young life.

I wasn’t afraid of the bats in the belfry. My father would never put me in danger. As an educator, he educated me. I knew we wouldn’t be “attacked,” and that it was extremely rare for bats to be rabid. Instead, we were visitors in their home.

I’ve had many other encounters with bats since then: while in Detroit, as an Investigative Police Officer (detective) searching old buildings, attics, and cupolas for young missing children, and working crime scene venues. And in caves I’ve explored across the country. While living in Northern Minnesota, I was introduced to the idea of bat houses. My friends the Kargers, along with other residents, specifically built and positioned houses for bats who were especially welcomed for their role in consuming mosquitoes and other flying insects in summer. Now, living in Wrightwood, I’ve observed a number of homes also providing bat shelters.

In western society in particular, bats get a bad rap. Some say it is because bats are nocturnal, creatures of the night, and part of the “dark side” because they go into damp, dark places, make no noise, and are mysterious. Whatever the reasons, misconceptions and superstitions surround bats, especially in western society, fostering fear, and even panic. Simply put, humans too often fear what we don’t know and are all too ready to declare the unknown as “evil.” Wildly exaggerated rumors, such as the common misconception that bats are rabid, abound. Or that they are some sort of flying rodent, or closely related to rodents, when they are actually more closely related to primates than rodents.

Last week, on October 28, I was standing in the Wrightwood Branch of the San Bernardino County Library, admiring the images and figures of bats hanging from the ceiling as part of the Halloween decorations when I found the book, America’s Neighborhood Bats: Understanding and Learning to Live in Harmony with Them by Merlin D. Tuttle (University of Texas Press) on a Friends of the Library sale shelf. I snatched it up. This beautifully produced book with full color photographs, intended to educate the general public about bats, won the Conservation Education Award by the Wildlife Society. The author, Tuttle, is the founder and science director of Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas.

Once home, I read it in one sitting. Soon I realized I should have been sipping a margarita or tequila sunrise while reading.

Yep, heads up tequila drinkers! Without bats there would be no tequila! Tuttle reveals, “agave plants, from which tequila is produced, are so dependent on bats for pollination that without them, the probability of successful seed production drops to one three-thousandth of normal.”

In light of the astonishing information I learned about bats, I thought it might be fun to briefly recount a few bat facts here:

  • Bat fossils have been found that are approximately 50 million years old, and today’s bats closely resemble those ancient bats.
  • Bats are mammals: the only flying mammals at that. Bats account for one-quarter of all mammal species. Scientists have placed them in their own group, Chiroptera, which means “hand-wing.”
  • There are nearly a thousand species of bats that come in a fascinating array of appearances.
  • The Bumblebee Bat of Thailand, the world’s smallest mammal, weighs less than a penny, whereas the Flying Foxes of the old-world tropics can have six-feet wing spans.
  • Bats are not blind: many have excellent vision.
  • Bats hunt by echolocation, or emitting high-frequency sounds that bounce back to their ears. This enables them to detect minute objects in complete darkness. Their unique echolocation systems “surpass current scientific understanding and on a watt-per-watt, ounce-per-ounce basis has been estimated to be literally billions of times more efficient than any similar system developed by humans.”
  • Most bats living in temperate zones in the US and Canada mate right before entering hibernation in the fall.
  • Like humans, bats give birth to poorly developed offspring and nurse them from pectoral breasts.
  • Bats can live up to forty years producing only one offspring a year, although few survive more than thirty-four years.
  • They are clean, cuddly and sociable.
  • Seventy percent of bats eat insects, though many tropical species feed on fruit or nectar exclusively. A few are carnivorous, eating small vertebrates: fish, frogs, mice and birds. Of the nearly 1,000 species of bats, only three species are vampire bats and they live only in Latin America.
  • Insect eating bats are essential to keeping night-flying insects in check including beetles, moths and mosquitoes. For example, “the 20 million free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave in Central Texas eat more than 200 tons of insects in a single midsummer night.”
  • Pollination and seed dispersal activities of nectar and fruit eating bats are a key to the survival of the rain forests and entire ecosystems. “Bats may drop up to 95% of the seeds that produce the first ‘pioneer’ plants in a clearing.”
  • In the Pacific Islands and Asia, where the species of bats called Flying Foxes live out in the open in the tree tops, and have wingspans of three to six-feet, they are not feared. Instead they are depicted as heroes in some legends. In China they are held in high esteem as omens of good luck and happiness. And there is much more.

Exploring the secret of the bell tower provided me with my first face-to-face encounter with an even greater mystery….the stunning beauty and intelligence of bats. Through curiosity, fortuitous circumstances, and now a breathtaking book, I have been guided to new learnings. My respect for the vital role these incredibly diverse, beautiful, and gentle animals have in our ecosystem, as well as so many other facets of their physicality and nature, has multiplied and deepened.

It is no coincidence, really, that for most of us bats come to mind at this time of year. The trilogy of All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day have their origins in the ancient Irish and Druid traditional seasonal quarters. October 31 concludes the quarter season of Lughnasadh, Autumn, which is the time of harvest, maturity, physical, and spiritual garnering. Samhain, Winter quarter, runs from November 1 to January 31 and, with the cold weather closing in, it brings the gifts of restoration and renewal. It is a time to celebrate wise elders, and all those whose actions and sacrifices have brought new life.

Considering that bats have been around for fifty million years, live similar life spans as our human ancestors, and that we are all made from the same stardust, it is time for me, and hopefully other humans, to honor and celebrate bats as wise elders whose actions and sacrifices continually bring new life to our earth.

Darkness converges on the final night of this year’s sacred trilogy: All Souls’ Day. The light of the ascending moon glistens on ice covering the watering holes in my front yard where birds bathed and languished just a few days ago. I light the wood stove, a stick of sandalwood incense, and raise my tequila sunrise, or in this case tequila sunset, with a nod, and smile in deep gratitude and admiration: praise to the bats of the past, present, and future. May you continue to thrive, nurturing Mother Earth and her propitious inhabitants.

Notes: All quotes in this piece are directly from Tuttle’s book. Tuttle’s book also has chapters addressing: resolving misconceptions, dealing with unexpected visitors, evicting unwelcome tenants, living in harmony, and getting to know your neighbors. It contains A Beginner’s Key to American Bats as well as Suggested Reading.

I found Tuttle’s book, and the following article in Popular Science, highly readable and transforming.

America’s Neighborhood Bats: Understanding and Learning to Live in Harmony with Them Revised edition by Merlin D. Tuttle. University of Texas Press. 1998. ISBN: 0-292-78148-2

“This Halloween, Celebrate The Beautiful Bat” Popular Science. Source:

Connections: Huxley, Stravinsky, Krishnamurti &Wood by Joan Koerper

“Human beings are multiple amphibians, living simultaneously in half a dozen radically dissimilar universes—the molecular and the ethical, the physiological and the symbolic, the world of incommunicably subjective experience and the public worlds of language and culture, of social organization and the sciences.” Aldous Huxley from the Foreword in You Are Not The Target, by Laura Archera Huxley

My paperback copy of Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World almost disintegrated in my hand when I was packing last October to move to Wrightwood. I’d had it since early high school. I carefully placed my hardback copy of Island, a softback of The Art of Seeing, along with my also falling-apart-at-the-seams copy of Laura Huxley’s 1976 edition of You Are Not The Target, into a carefully packed, plastic box of classics by George Orwell, Edward Bellamy, Ernest Callenbach, Hermann Hesse, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a lost feminist utopian novel, and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, among others. I had no clue at the time that I would be living less than a mile from a house Huxley once owned.

When I learned Huxley was Wrightwood’s most famous one-time literary resident I engaged in online research and hoofed it to the Wrightwood Historical Museum to see what info could be gleaned in person. There is a display case dedicated to Huxley at the museum, and also a bit of filed material on him.

In my first round of research on Huxley after moving, I found a photo on in a blog posted by Graham_Ranch on 12.7.2007. It was an image of Aldous and Maria Huxley, Mr. and Mrs. Igor Stravinsky, J. Krishnamurti and Radha Rajagopal (Sloss) at a picnic in Wrightwood in 1949. I looked up Radha and identified her as the daughter of Rosalind and D. Rajagopal who lived with Krishnamurti for a number of years, located the photo at other places online, then put the photo and the information in my mental “revisit later” file while I continued to unpack.

In early July, coinciding with the scheduled talk at the Wrightwood Museum about Huxley, I was asked to write up a short biography for the museum’s newsletter, a distasteful task at best. I was copying the sentence, “Joan (MJ) Koerper is passionate about exploring our souls as artists: the intersection of art, music, creativity, writing, and human emotion in the everyday sacred of our lives” when my mind flashed on the photo of the Huxleys, the Stravinskys, Krishnamurti and Radha. I returned to explore it.

I began meandering: about my relationship with these people and their works, their relationships with each other, and how they influenced each other…how their lives, ideas and arts intersected.

Huxley, as you know, and was previously noted in another of my blog entries, is considered one of the most important literary and philosophical voices of the 20th Century writing in English. Huxley’s classic, and other works of his, were required reading in both my high school and undergraduate classes at Michigan State University, as well as simply pertinent works to read and re-read over the years.

Growing up in the home of a musician, the works of the Russian-American composer, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), oft considered the most versatile and greatest composer of twentieth century, was well known to me. I met him once during my early years. Whether I liked his music or not, I gave one of his books to my father as a birthday present one year. I just let it go during my “great giveaway” prior to moving to Wrightwood. Somewhere in my memory I knew, but was recently reminded, that in the 1950’s there was even talk of Huxley, Stravinsky and Martha Graham turning the Tibetan Book of the Dead into a ballet with a Greek chorus.

  1. (Jiddu) Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was a world-renowned spiritual teacher and philosopher. In the winter of 1991, tricycle magazine reviewed the book Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti written by Radha Rajagopal Sloss. Radha was in the photo taken in 1949. The introduction to that piece noted that “… by the time he [Krishnamurti] died in Ojai, California, in 1986 at the age of 91, he had helped-perhaps more than anyone in this century-to introduce Eastern teachings on the nature of mind to the West.”

Krishnamurti’s works, and in particular the book Education & the Significance of Life, were required reading, and the centerpoint of much discussion, in my doctoral program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Krishnamurti believed it is necessary to face experience and disturbance as it comes to keep “intelligence highly awakened; and intelligence highly awakened is intuition, which is the only true guide in life” (1953:11). He further posed that if we are being educated to simply get ahead, obtain a better job or more power, “then our lives will be shallow and empty…Conventional education makes independent thinking extremely difficult. Conformity leads to mediocrity. To be different from the group or to resist environment is not easy and is often risky….” (1953:9).

He spoke of two kinds of revolt: violent, which is reactionary against an existing order and without understanding. The second is the deep psychological revolt of intelligence.

Perhaps, most importantly, Krishnamurti spoke of integration: “We may be highly educated, but if we are without deep integration of thought and feeling, our lives are incomplete, contradictory and torn with many fears; and as long as education does not cultivate an integrated outlook on life, it has very little significance” (1953: 11).

When I was working on my doctoral thesis, a work of creative nonfiction exploring pottery and writing as expressions of our souls as artists, I had the opportunity to learn about the pottery of Beatrice Wood (1893-1998). I visited her studio in Ojai, CA, in 2001, where Wood continued to work until the age of 104. I was totally enamored with her studio, her determination, the ceramics she produced and collected, and most of all the immersion in nature with which she surrounded herself. Her pottery wheel sat in front of a large window looking out over the valley. How could anyone fail to call forth songs from their soul to be transformed into clay in such an environment?

While Wood originally lived across the street from Krishnamurti when she moved to Ojai, in 1974 she was invited to move her home to the grounds of the Happy Valley Foundation in the upper Ojai Valley. In her autobiography, I Shock Myself, Wood relates that Dr. Annie Besant, Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley, Dr. Guido Ferrando and Rosalind Rajagopal founded the Happy Valley Foundation in 1927. The Happy Valley School, where Wood also taught ceramics for many years, was a project of the Foundation. She speaks of Huxley’s frequent visits to Ojai to have long talks with Krishnamurti about education, thus she was able to see the Huxley’s often. Huxley also served on the Board of the Happy Valley Foundation for fifteen years. Her home, studio, work, library and massive collection of folk and Eastern art were gifted to the Foundation upon her death. So there I was, back in 2001, in Beatrice Wood’s home, studio, and walking the grounds where she, Krishnamurti, Huxley, Anais Nin, Alan Watts, no doubt Stravinsky, and so many others gathered to socialize, exchange ideas, challenge, and nurture each other as friends do.

In 2001 I also had the outstanding good fortune to meet world-renowned woodworker, or furniture craftsman, as the Smithsonian refers to, Sam Maloof (1916-2009), when he hosted an event on his property to honor the potters of Mata Ortiz. A night under the full moon I will never forget. A story in itself, for another time. When Sam Maloof took us on a tour of his home, I recognized a number of Wood’s pieces about the premisses. He knew her, of course. We discussed Beatrice’s unique style and unconventional life among many other topics.

And so the linkages continued. I needed to take it further. It’s the detective in me. The researcher. The scholar. I wanted to observe the resulting affects of these relationships without having to get bogged down with all the details. I wanted to grasp the larger picture.

I re-visited some of Huxley’s stories and essays, picked up a new addition to my library, The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment (Jacqueline Hazard Bridgeman, ed.), put my nose to the pages of Krishnamurti’s writing, re-read Beatrice Wood’s autobiography and played some of Stravinsky’s compositions I have in my music library. I was able to perceive, with much more clarity, how these great minds influenced each other, and subsequently influenced me. Each expressed similar ideas using different mediums.

I was spurred onto this recent voyage of the integration and expression of ideas, philosophies and talents by one photograph of a musician, author, and philosopher…people with whom I’ve been familiar with since my youth.

Truth be told, for me, all forms of life are creative, and all life is art. One of the many uncoverings I learned by studying linguistics, for instance, is that in Tewa, Navaho, and most, if not all, indigenous languages, there is no separate word for art. Tewa potter and poet Nora Naranjo-Morse relates that in Tewa there is, “the concept for an artful life, filled with inspiration and fueled by labor and thoughtful approach.” Educator Kenneth R. Beittel, in Zen and the Art of Pottery (1989) writes, “From earliest times, art and life have been one.” Conceptual artist Damien Hirst and naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams both write that every society and each person designates what is art. “Art’s about life and it really can’t be about anything else.”

These quotes are only a smidgen of those I’ve gathered confirming what every child, indeed every animal, knows instinctively.

Yet in the Western world, the social construct of dualism is the foundation of our philosophical and psychological worldview. It teaches us to separate all aspects of our lives…indeed to separate us from our lives, our minds, our souls, our artful life. It is indeed a challenge when one embraces the whole while living in a society based on dualism. Hence, speaking in Western terms, I look at how the intersection of these perceived disparate parts of our lives form a much larger worldview. I like to explore how they unite us…how they come together to make us whole. Because when the focus is really on the art that is our lives, however it is expressed in the everyday sacred, it inspires us to be more fully creative beings.

My research offered me a glimpse into how the creative lives of Huxley, Krishnamurti, Stravinsky, Wood, and others, including Alan Watts, intersected: how they came together to nurture, inspire, enjoy and support each other. They carried forth the art of their lives into different mediums and, in turn, produced opulent, radical, lasting, artistic, literary, and philosophical gifts for the world. They were revolutionaries, in the intellectual sense of which Krishnamurti spoke. They impacted each other, and generations to come, including me, as they engaged each other and practiced the arts of their lives. For me, this dialog and communion of minds became yet another example of how important it is for us to have our own commitment to depth, breadth, vision, imagination, integrity, and integration, as well as a wide range of interests, friends, and colleagues who express their art in different mediums. And how critical it is to relate with people who care enough to honestly share, listen, dialog, mentor, honor, and nurture each other. Finally, this voyage into connections became an opportunity to express my deep gratitude for all who have cared enough to share their art of being, expressing, transforming and living with me.