Cedar Fire – San Diego County, 2003

In the quiet hours before dawn 13 years ago I got a call from my friend Sandra. She lives in the community just up the hill from us. She could see flames to the north. The weather was hot and dry – common here in the fall, and perfect for wildfires. As horse people living at the edges of open space we were especially wary. My equestrian friends know to keep our eyes open, fuel tanks full, trailer hooked up, and rig parked facing the way out. In a fire there might not even be time to turn around.

The fire came right to the edge of our neighborhood, and we had to evacuate. Twice. The first time it was with embers raining down on us. Emergency services were overwhelmed. There was no warning, no orders to evacuate. We figured it out when we saw the fire top the hill behind us. We never even heard sirens. There was no help on the way. I think this is one of the things that was so unsettling for everyone who went through that experience. We like to think we have systems in place that will keep us safe. Nope. Not in conditions like this. We are on our own, and we have to look out for each other.

This was back before smart phones with cameras. Nobody was posting “I’m safe” updates on Facebook. There was no live online map. We had TV (utterly useless because of stupid reporting – which is still the case today), AM news radio (the only really helpful thing) with their news ‘copter and listeners calling in updates, phones (sometimes), and each other.

Ultimately the Cedar Fire burned over 280,000 acres, destroyed over 2,500 homes and other buildings, and killed 14 people. [CDF Cedar Fire summary.] AND there were two other major fires in the county at the same time. If you want to learn more about the fires, see maps, etc. check out this CDF report:  The 2003 San Diego County Fire Siege – Fire Safety Review. According to that report, “… the Cedar fire was estimated to have consumed 5,000 acres per hour within a 40-hour period.”

During the rest of fall and winter that year every time it rained the air smelled like water thrown on a campfire. When the weather was dry and the wind blew there would be a gray haze of stale ash in the air. People and horses suffered respiratory issues. Flooding from water running off the bare soil was a problem.

It was scary and exhausting. We didn’t lose anything, but still … When the light is right this time of year, or the wind blows a certain way, I still get jumpy. Mention the fire to anyone who went through it and you’ll get stories. And they’ll get a knot in their gut. The memories are fresh and raw.

One fall evening the following year I was out in the horse pen with Eeyore, our little donkey. He was a sensitive soul described by his vet as “highly emotional.” He was trotting back and forth, glancing anxiously up the hill into our neighbor’s yard. I looked, expecting to spot a dog or coyote, but couldn’t see anything. Everything about Eeyore was saying “Look! Danger! We need to get out of here!” I finally understood what he was trying to get me to notice. Smoke! The neighbors were having a fire in their fireplace, and the smoke was hugging the ground and wafting between their trees. Poor Eeyore was sure it was happening all over again. I assured him things were OK, and that he was safe, but I knew where he was coming from.

A couple of weeks after the fire, when things calmed down and the flames were mostly out, I wrote about our experience. That was back before I had a blog. I posted it on my website, which I’ve since redone, removing the article. Here it is again, with a few [bits of new information] added:


The Cedar Fire, October 2003

Michael & Linda Eskin

(Written in early November, 2003.)

Now that things have calmed down a bit I can finally write up a summary of our fire adventure. I hope I got most of the facts right – between the chaos and the lack of sleep some parts are kinda fuzzy. Please forgive typos, etc. Things are still a mess here, so this was done in a hurry.

A photo of the El Cajon valley and surrounding mountains on Sunday evening – we did not take this photo, and do not know the source. If you have any information about it, please contact me, so that I can post proper attribution (or remove it, as the photographer sees fit):

El Cajon Valley, Crest on the Right - Cedar Fire 2003
El Cajon Valley, Sunday, October 26th, 2003
[We live near the right-hand edge of the photo, at the base of that burning hill. Just above us is the community of Crest, where my friend Sandra lives. It’s that bright spot that’s on fire. Her house was saved.]

Our Story

Sandra, a friend from Crest, woke us up with news of the fire on Sunday at 4:30 a.m. – she could see flames from her back window. We checked the news, and found it was quite a ways off. She got down here with her animal carrier and bolt cutters, while I fed, topped off water, and made sure our halters and lead ropes were on the gate. She and I took off in my truck and trailer to see what we could do.

Our Equids - Clementine, Sabrina, and Eeyore - Cedar Fire 2003
Wells Park in El Cajon, Monday Morning
[This was the morning after our first evacuation. These three were ours: Clementine, Sabrina, and Eeyore.]

We offered help to a few folks in Lakeside, but they were riding out ’cause their horses wouldn’t load. We saw them later – they got out OK. We also had to pass up a donkey in a field, whose owner had told the others there that it was mostly wild – they couldn’t even catch him. I heard later about a singed donkey, and I sure wish I’d at least given it a try – I’m pretty good with donkeys who “won’t load”. I don’t know if he’s the one who was injured, or not.

We heard Blossom Valley was on fire, and ended up taking two colts from there, as flames came down the hill across the road. Whoever handed them to us didn’t know them, just said they went together. They loaded pretty well, considering – the baby walked in, and the yearling took a little shoving and placing of feet, but it only took about 5 minutes. Since the Lakeside Rodeo Grounds were full (and very chaotic), we took them to my place, where we thought they’d be safe.

Brown's Castle (house) Before and After - Cedar Fire 2003

“Browns Castle,” [a locally-famous mansion] before and after the fire.

The smaller one unloaded in a huge leap, and landed right on Sandra, who now has a small, but very colorful hoofprint on her leg. Michael got it on video, of course. LOL I think it was the first time the colts had seen donkeys, ’cause they looked at ’em kinda funny, but didn’t get upset. In fact, the only thing that upset these guys, with all they’d been through, was after we finally got home, and I tried to fly-spray them. We were very lucky to have gotten colts (ungelded) who’d been worked with so well, and were so good-tempered. (The folks in the trailer ahead of us had gotten a very cantankerous pinto stud, with just a neck rope!)

An aside about what was happening County-wide … We’ve had no rain for 175+ days, on the heels of a long-term drought. We were in the midst of a Santa Ana, where dry (3-4% humidity) winds blow in from the desert. Prime fire weather. The general sense of the news reports was that there was no stopping this fire, and no help on the way, so you’re on your own. Don’t wait for announcements – no one is coming for you – just get out if you think you might be in danger. Entire neighborhoods were going up, with no fire equipment to be seen, and nothing ever mentioned in a news report. People were banding together to cut brush, put out spot fires, and save homes. When we got the colts home, and I called a few places to see where animals were being evacuated to, I was told they were so busy with the other areas that nothing was arranged in our area. Everything was stretched so thin there was just no way to deal with the magnitude of the situation.

We went up to Crest to check on Sandra’s horses, but things looked better up there than they did here, so we left them for the time being. At least she has a big pipe corral – ours is plastic fencing. Shortly after I got back down the hill, she called saying her area was being evacuated. I tried to get back up there, but just as the sheriffs were moving the barricades aside they got word it was coming up from Harbison Canyon, and made me turn back.

Two Colts from Blossom Valley - Cedar Fire 2003

Two Colts from Blossom Valley

On the way down the hill I picked up a horse, and the guy who’d been leading him. His friends were all riding down the side of La Cresta Road (long, steep road with no shoulders, and the only way out, at that point.) I kept his horse here until his friends arrived, just as it was getting dark. They rode / walked down to the high school, and warned us to get out, ’cause the fire was headed our way.

Meanwhile, Michael packed up his car with all of his instruments, and he got all the important paperwork together. We rounded up the cats, including a neighbor’s cat, and locked them in the house, just in case.

We fiddled for a while, discussing decision points and contingency plans, but when the fire crested the hill behind us we figured we’d better bail right now. I switched my computer off, grabbed the external drive where I back up my data. We shoved the four cats into two carriers – they don’t get along, but they’d have to figure it out. Michael loaded his car with instruments, paperwork, and, the cats. Flashlights, check… Cell phone… Horse feed and meds, cat food… We each threw a few days of clothes in our vehicles. We grabbed whatever food was handy. Water was already in my truck.

Michael with Eeyore & Clementine at the Boys' & Girls' Club - Cedar Fire 2003

Michael, After a Harrowing 36 Hours.
[This was in the fenced playground of the Boys’ & Girls’ Club in El Cajon]

Sabrina and Clementine went in the first trailer load – Eeyore declined our invitation to get in the trailer, so we left him for the second load. We headed to Wells Park, in the middle of urban El Cajon, because the smoke was so thick. Plus, it was getting dark, and we couldn’t figure out how to get into Granite Hills High School’s fields. Just as well, since it was packed with motor homes and horse trailers, and it looked like they might have to be evacuated next.

Michael called my parents, who live in Pacific Beach, and they came right out to help. So did our friend Mark. My mom and Michael watched Sabrina and Clementine (who were tied to trees, pawing and gnawing on bark), while my dad and I went back to get Eeyore and the colts.

Eeyore hadn’t wanted to go the first time, but now, with fire roaring down the hills behind us, a hot wind, and embers in the air, he rethought the situation. He’s usually hard to catch, and hates trailers, but this time he was waiting at the gate, and stuck his nose right in the halter. He and I ran to the trailer, and he got right in. His first time loading into the front stall (without Sabrina already in the trailer). He didn’t even flinch when I slammed the divider, and he waited quietly while we got the babies on-board. He was all but hollering “Drive, already!” Smart donkey. Difficult, but smart.

The bigger colt didn’t want to load. Can’t blame him … But it was getting downright scary, and my dad was starting to wonder if maybe we should just put him back in the pen and hope for the best. As a last resort, I got behind the colt (who was still calm, just not loading), and blasted him in the butt with water from the hose. (It was hot out, so it wasn’t like he was going to get chilled.) After about 20 seconds of indignation and dancing around, he jumped in the trailer, and we shut the doors.

Evacuated - At the Boys' & Girls' Club - Cedar Fire 2003

Safe Harbor at the Boys & Girls Club

At the park, after trying a few things, we ended up with everyone tied to they trailer (‘cept Clem – she got a lamppost), and waited it out. Considering that we had an impatient mare, two donkeys, and two ungelded colts we didn’t know, we had a pretty easy time of it. They did not paw or fuss (much). Sabrina thought the colts were the handsomest studs she’d ever laid eyes on [notice her gaze in the photo above], and spent the night flirting from her side of the trailer.

Mark helped with the critters at the park, and did a shopping run for water dishes for the cats, corn oil for Sabrina (especially important when she is stressed), and some food and water.

All 5 Equids in Boys' & Girls' Club Playground - Cedar Fire 2003

All five critters in the playground.

A neighbor of the park, Lorenzo, I think, a Nez Pierce Indian, with a soft spot for horses, came by to see if he could help, and ended up bringing us a big water jug so we could transport water (we only had about 20 gallons with us). People saw us camped out in the parking lot and brought us coffee, or offered to bring food (we’d packed enough apples and almonds for several days). An El Cajon police officer circled by to check on us a few times. A carful of teenagers who’d been evacuated from Alpine stopped by to be sure we were OK. Even the homeless people who live in the park were friendly and offered to help.

Once we got settled in, we let my mom and dad, and Mark, go home (around 1 a.m.). We slept (sorta…) in shifts, me, on the tailgate of my truck, and Michael in his car, making sure the critters didn’t get loose, or tangled in their lead ropes, passing out handfuls of hay, bringing buckets around… We each probably got an hour or two of rest.

In the morning our neighborhood looked safe. All the hills above us had burned already. So, thinking the animals would be safer at home than standing on pavement in a parking lot, we went back, making two trips. As we were leaving the park, two guys in rec center t-shirts came over and offered to let us use the fenced play area behind the Boys & Girls Club. Turns out we were going to need it.

Just after we returned home, and were hosing down the yard in case any embers remained, CDF (California Department of Forestry) came by and evacuated the neighborhood again. This time it was “if the wind shifts” that we’d be in trouble, so it wasn’t quite the same urgency as the first time. Nobody wanted to go, least of all Eeyore (who doesn’t care for adventures), and Michael, who by this time was feeling pretty awful with the flu. We were all exhausted. Nevertheless … Off we went again.

Shadow Mountain after the Cedar Fire in 2003

Shadow Mountain, and Crestridge Reserve
[As seen from our backyard.]

This time we left the cats in the house, thinking their chances were pretty good, and knowing how miserable they would be, two to a carrier, back at the park. Again I left with Clementine and Sabrina, with Michael following in his car. This time we headed straight for the Boys & Girls Club. One of the guys there understood horses, and put us up in their fenced playground, which had about 1′ of wood chips for footing. After the parking lot, this felt like a resort. My parents came back out to help with the animals, so we could take a nap!

On the second trip, this time Eeyore figured he’d be better off staying in his pen. He heard some strange voices out front (neighbors filling water buckets for us), and decided he’d rather brave the fire. We could *not* get him near the trailer, never mind going in. My dad and I came back for him, and after a few rope burns, and getting dumped on the ground once, we gave up for the time being, and resolved to come back later for him.

The older colt (18 months) in the playground.When Eeyore is left alone, he doesn’t hang out quietly. Instead, he runs the fenceline frantically, hee-hawing mournfully, in a panic. He probably would’ve been OK staying there, if he were a calmer sort, but I was afraid he’d colic from being upset (he certainly won’t drink when he’s like that). Besides, that kind of exertion in thick smoke is really bad for the lungs.

Eeyore Back Home, Charred Hills in the Background - Cedar Fire 2003

Eeyore in His Pen, with Charred Hillside
[The white spots are piles of ash where trees or larger shrubs used to be.]

We gave him a few hours to calm down, took a nap, and came back again. This time I asked my dad to wait out front, and be very quiet – just be there for safety’s sake. I took some carrots to Eeyore, caught him, and convinced him we were just going for a nice friendly little walk. One… step… at… a… time… 200′ through the backyard. We got just through the front gate, where the trailer was, and Eeyore saw through the plot. Just as he was turning to head back to his pen I took a wrap with his lead rope around a fence post by the front gate. Ha! Then I closed and locked the gate. What they say is true about closing the barn in the fire, after you’ve gotten the horses out, so they can’t run back in.

Once Eeyore was stuck in the front yard all it took were a couple of apples, some long ropes, and patience, and he was finally in the trailer. We got him back to the playground with his buddies, and could finally relax a little. Our friends Eric and Sarah came to help out (and brought food!).

Since the fire wasn’t an imminent threat, Michael was able to stop by the house to check on things, and take a shower. Some neighbors of the Boys & Girls club came by to see if we needed help. They offered to let us use their phones, bathrooms, water, power… We were pretty self-sufficient for camping out, but I did take up an offer of a shower in a nearby vacant apartment – the managers, a very nice young couple, left it open all night in case we needed to use it.

Although the playground was fenced and relatively horse-safe, we kept the critters each tied to their own fence post. One flirtatious mare, two donkeys, and two colts could’ve have way too much fun in there running loose. As it was, they were digging to China in the deep wood chips. I left their ropes longer, and tied lower, than I knew was safe, but I knew they would all want to lie down – they’d all been on their feet for 36 hours. One of the colts did get tangled, and fell, but I got him loose within minutes (he just laid there and waited for help).

Older of Two Colts - Cedar Fire 2003

The Older of the Two Colts

Aside from a few more minor interruptions, we slept, on the picnic tables, on saddle pads from about 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Many thanks to Mom, who brought sleeping bags and pillows!

I’m sure the folks in the neighboring apartment buildings must’ve thought dinosaurs had moved in, when the donks started hollering for breakfast at oh-dark-hundred. It really echoed between the buildings, too! We got everybody fed (soaked pellets – we’d run out of hay the afternoon before), packed our things, and cleaned the place up as best we could. Michael went out and brought back some sort of fast food breakfast, including fried french toast sticks, which we wouldn’t have touched on a normal day, but gosh, was it good that morning. We were just leaving with the second load when the Club folks showed up for work. I want to send them a “Thank you for saving our asses” note, with a photo of Clem and Eeyore in their playyard, but probably ought to think of something more appropriate for the kids.

Michael has all his instruments back in order. I’ve got the truck and trailer washed, and the cat carriers brought in. We eventually got together with the owner of the colts – they’d been evacuated from Eucalyptus Hills once already before we took them out of Blossom Valley. At least they load good now! We took a heaping pickup-full of towels, blankets, pillows, tools, buckets, chairs, etc. to Crest, for the hundreds of burned-out folks there.

Tomorrow I’m hauling some friends’ horses to their temporary home – theirs was one that burned. So far we know of one friend who was lost – Ashleigh Roach, an Irish dancer. Michael played at her wake. Many friends lost their homes – at least 4 in Crest, 3 in Harbison Canyon, 1 on Mussey Grade Road, the Roaches, in Valley Center, one friend lost her ranch in Lakeside, and her ankle was broken when one of her draft horses stepped on her. I’m sure we’ll hear about more – many areas don’t have power or phone service yet. Many others lost outbuildings, fences, vehicles… Most of our State Park facilities are gone, including the Los Caballos and Los Vaqueros horse camps. [The impact of this fire on the equestrian community was huge. People were still recovering physically, financially, and emotionally for years. Some moved away. Many of us tried for over a decade to get access and trails and facilities restored for public use, with limited success.]

If you weren’t here, or don’t know the area, it’s hard to imagine the scale of this disaster. Everywhere you go, all the hills are burned – not just patches where there was “a fire”. Out back, the hills near us are black, and the hills in the distance, and the mountains beyond them. It was (is, actually, it’s still burning) the biggest fire in California history, and it moved unbelievably fast through nearly every community in East County.

A lost hunter started the Cedar Fire by lighting three signal fires in dry brush during a Santa Anna. He was rescued by helicopter, and was issued a citation.

Copyright © Linda Eskin, 2003, 2016

Update, 9 Nov. 2003 …

Helped a friend clean up her burned-out horse boarding facility. She has several steep banks, and lost all the iceplant and mulch that was helping to hold them in place. She is also having trouble getting any help. There are a lot of groups collecting money “for fire victims”, but several burned-out people I’ve spoken with are being refused help everywhere they turn. Should be interesting to see how these millions are accounted for when this all calms down.

Update, 12 Nov. 2003 …

This morning we got just over an inch of rain. That’s great for our yard, but a bit much for the fire damaged areas. There was a flash flood watch this morning. I hope people’s straw bales and sandbags are doing the trick. (The local news stations keep calling them “hay bales” <sigh>.)

For more info on the state of things here…

[At the time I posted links where people could find up-to-date information. Lists of links were a thing back then, because Google wasn’t. Most are broken now, so I’ve omitted them here, but kept the heading so you can see how things were then. ]

Channel 10 News – Slideshows with hundreds of photos:
(Anything that mentions El Cajon/Granite Hills was in our area.)

Our local paper:
http://www.signonsandiego.com/ [The old direct link to fire info no longer works]
Photo galleries:
[There were galleries of hundreds of photos from throughout the county.]

Information of some of the people who were killed:
[Broken links.]

About Ashleigh Roach, the Irish dancer who was killed:
[Link no longer works]

Local equestrian sites, reuniting horses and owners:
[Horse clubs did tons of work caring for displaced animals and getting people connected.]
http://www.pvra.com/
http://www.polobarn.com [It was this site that helped us find the owners of the two foals we rescued.]

The local TV stations were virtually useless. They covered the areas in the City of San Diego, rehashed info about what had already happened and showed dramatic footage, while whole communities burned with no mention on the news.

KOGO Radio (600 AM) did a *tremendous* job getting information out about which way the fire was headed, where people could go, etc. They relied on listeners to call in with updates.

The Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs of East County, El Cajon center, took us in on Monday. They provided a safe, fenced area for the animals, and a safe place for us to camp out for the night. Their kindness and hospitality was very much appreciated. If you are looking for a good cause to support, please consider giving to them – it’s clear they do a lot of good work on a shoestring budget: http://bgcec.org/ <<< [This is the current link.]

O Sensei – Morihei Ueshiba

This is the fifteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   


O is for O Sensei.

At the front of every Aikido dojo is a photo – usually a formal portrait – of a man, usually old, sometimes smiling, sometimes stern. This is Morihei Ueshiba, or O Sensei, the founder of Aikido.

We learned some basic facts about him when we discussed History – How Aikido Came Into Being. I’m not going to repeat those here.

There are many books by and about him. There are some old films, and many photos. There are articles and interviews. Most – at least those few that I’ve read, seen, or heard so far – focus on his philosophy, teachings, and accomplishments. Essentially his professional side. But I often wonder what kind of person he was. I’ve seen a few glimpses in the sources I mentioned, and I’m always looking for more.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“At Iwama, I witnessed the private life of the man named Morihei Ueshiba, a kindly aging gentleman who took naps in the sun, and planted peanuts with ease. I think the real Founder, was the one I knew at Iwama.”
~ Gaku Homma Sensei
A Day in the Life of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba, April 1968

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

O Sensei died 7 years after I was born. This leaves me with the sense of having only just missed seeing a dear friend, discovering later that our paths had nearly crossed. Although I never had the honor of meeting Ueshiba Sensei I feel a kind of kinship with him. Like a great-grandfather I’d never met, but came to know through stories told at family gatherings, photo albums, and old letters. I’ve been taught, hands-on, by teachers who learned from his touch – knowledge passed from body to body to body.

When I tested for sho-dan, the first black belt rank, instead of an essay (as we usually do in our dojo) I wrote a letter to O Sensei. I think I would have liked him. I hope he might have liked me. I imagine he must have been generous and kind, industrious, and probably demanding. A selfish, mean-spirited, lazy, or apathetic person could not have done so much for others.

Life at Home

By all accounts I’ve read so far, Morihei and and his wife, Hatsu, were dear friends. But was he cranky until he’d had his morning tea? After a long day of teaching, did he come home and lament privately that the students all seemed to have forgotten all he’d taught them just the previous day? Did they ever have a cat?

Morihei and Hatsu Ueshiba

Here Gaku Homma Sensei of Nippon Kan provides a fascinating look at O Sensei’s daily habits in A Day in the Life of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba, April 1968. Toward the end of the article is a sample menu of what the founder typically ate. Homma Sensei has several more such posts on his site, and I encourage you to explore them.

Farming, Horses, and Bears

During several parts of his life Ueshiba was a farmer. When I watch my own teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, he reminds me of a farmer. He plants a seed and waits patiently while it grows in its own time. He waters here, prunes there, and watches again, knowing you can’t rush growth.

If you have been reading my blog for a long time you may recall that I took up Aikido to help with my horsemanship. The two pursuits dovetail so well. I was delighted to learn in 2012 that O Sensei had raised horses during his time in Hokkaikdo. How much he was personally involved with them, I don’t know. Did he ride? Did he use them farming? Or logging? He apparently also befriended wild animals, including bears.

I’ve not found much information about these things, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’d love to learn more.

O Sensei with his clothes off?

Here is a brief radio interview with O Sensei when he was about 85 or 86. Or 80. It reveals a warm sense of humor. He talks candidly about being old, and how aging changed him.

Dinner with O Sensei

Every so often one is asked “If you could have dinner with anyone, past or present, who would you choose.” I would love to have the opportunity to talk with O Sensei. He had such a powerful, positive impact on so many lives, deliberately, through Aikido. What a pleasure it would be to spend a few hours getting to know him.


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Training New Muscles, or Half-Halts in Real Life

Training New Muscles, or Half-Halts in Real Life

Uke/Nage – Horse/Rider

In Aikido, we train to be both nage (like the rider – connected, clearly directing the horse in a way that doesn’t elicit confusion or a fight) and uke (like the horse – light, responsive, moving, centered, with no resistance to the rider’s direction). This classic video of Stacy Westfall’s nearly legendary ride demonstrates both beautifully. And it’s a beautiful song, too. To the unitiated, it looks like she’s “just sitting there,” but she’s controlling every movement – it’s just really subtle.

Click to watch on YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIvYRZkklT0

O Sensei Raised Horses!!!

I have wondered about this, and tried to find any information on whether O Sensei may have kept horses, or worked with them. I thought maybe… I knew he was a farmer, but he could have farmed by hand, or with oxen. I had not found any mention of horses, until just now, in The Art of Peace, by Morihei Ueshiba & John Stevens. From Part One – Morihei Ueshiba, Prophet of the Art of Peace:

“Looking for new worlds to conquer, in 1912 Morihei led a group of settlers from Tanabe to the wilds of Hokkaikdo, Japan’s northernmost, largely undeveloped island. The group settled in remote Shirataki, and started to build a village from scratch. Morihei worked tirelessly to make the project a success. He put up buildings; cleared the land for the cultivation of potatoes, peppermint, and sesame; engaged in prudent logging of the great forests; raised horses; and eventually served as a local councilman. (Despite Morihei’s great efforts, the settlement never really succeeded. Crops failed the first few years, and there was a disastrous fire in 1916 that destroyed 80 percent of the village, including Morihei’s first home. Morihei did learn how to tame wild animals, though, becoming pals with several big Hokkaido bears.)”

O Sensei raised horses!!!

If anyone has more information, details, stories, references, anything, I’d love to know about it. Did he ride? Did he train them? Use them as draft animals? Did he raise them for sale? For meat? I’d love to add notes here with any links, book recommendations, etc. If you have anything to share.

And bears? I’d love to hear anything about that, too. 

I have always seen animals as a great common thread across time and borders. When I see a worn black and white photo of someone many decades ago, in a very foreign land, with a cat in the doorway, I know their life must have been quite different from mine, now, but I also know their cat was a cat like any cat I might know. I’m sure it meowed around their feet while they cooked, scratched at the door to be let in, and left dead “gifts” on the doormat. I know a little about their life, and know they can’t have been so very different from me, really.

I’ve always wondered if O Sensei had a cat, too. I can see him after a long day regaling uchi deshi with stories of Shinto gods, and overseeing dojo activities, sneaking a purring kitty a bit of meat from his dinner. It makes him seem so human, and so timeless.

—–

I’m adding a couple of comments here that I made when I posted this to Facebook, in case anyone has any info/thoughts on them. I don’t have commenting enabled here, but if you are on AikiWeb you are certainly invited to add your thoughts or information on resources to this post there: http://www.aikiweb.com/blogs/my-path-17246/o-sensei-raised-horses-4436/

– I’ve also thought there was a strong connection between farming and Aikido. Living with nature and learning to take what’s in front of you and use it seems like something anyone dealing with seasons, soils, insects, etc. would have to learn. You can’t push back against a storm, or take a stand against a swarm of bugs. You have to notice “OK, it’s pouring. I can’t plant today. How can I move forward from here?”

– Do you know where I can find information about the Settlement? (Or O Sensei’s other farming activities, before or after?) I’m curious about this aspect of his life because I find that training one’s body is not very different from training a horse (same learning patterns), and that working with nature and the land seems entirely compatible with Aikido principles. I’d love to know if/how that experience might have influenced his creation of the art, teaching, or view of how the world works.

Training with My Whole Heart

About this time next week, if all goes according to plan, I will be packing up Rainy’s things, feeding him a few last carrots, and sending him off to live with a friend. She will be evaluating him, training him, and ultimately finding him a new person, and a new future. He’s bored and lonely here, and too talented to spend his youth puttering around my backyard with just two donkeys for company.

Rainy will be taking a day-long trip north to the bay area, in a big box stall on an air-ride semi-trailer. At the farm he will be living in a pasture with three playmates, and will be working with a trainer several days a week. It’s going to be a little rough on me, saying goodbye, but he’ll have fun there.

I am giving up riding. More accurately, I am giving up lying to myself about being a rider. Sure, I’ll go out with friends, or to a dude ranch now and then, but I’m letting go of saying that any day now I’m going to get around to taking regular lessons, training in dressage, doing groundwork in the yard, and putting some miles in on the trails. It hasn’t happened in the nearly 15 years I’ve had horses, and it’s not going to happen. It was a story I told about who I was, one I was very attached to, but it wasn’t true. It’s time to stop telling it.

I have had plenty of frustrations. I have faced challenges. I have been discouraged, injured, sick, busy… Rather than pointing the way toward this realization, those things actually kept me from seeing it. I thought things would be different when when my mare was healthy. I’d finally be able to commit to the time when I had the perfect job. Once my health was back on track, then things would work out. And after I’d gotten Rainy, it was that he wasn’t quite trained, and when he was a better horse, and after I had a year of Aikido behind me so I could be a better horseperson for him, then I’d ride all the time. Well I have the perfect job, I’m healthier than I have been in years, maybe ever, Rainy had a very successful four months of training, I’ve been training in Aikido for almost two years. Short of winning the lottery and hiring staff, the circumstances don’t get any better than this. And I’m still not riding.

It took me a year to fully recognize and explore the reality of the issue – to be certain I wasn’t just frustrated or discouraged with riding, or temporarily swept up in the intensity of learning a new discipline. Possibly looking for a shiny new identity to glom onto. The truth is that I work, I train, I write. I do gardening and photography. I spend weekends doing chores, running errands, and going on adventures with Michael. What I do not do is ride my horse. 

The central focus of my life has become Aikido. Not Aikido to improve my horsemanship. Not Aikido to become a better rider. Not for balance or strength or safety. Not in order to. Just Aikido.

When I finally saw and accepted where I was, and where I was going, after one Tuesday night’s class about exactly that – noticing where you are, noticing where you are going, and accepting it, so that you can go effectively in that direction – I wrote a note to Sensei, who has been an occasional sounding board as I have worked through the decision, or maybe discovery. Putting it down in words, finally telling someone, made it real for me.

That next evening in class I felt more “there” than I ever had. Rooted where I was, not drawn off balance by the pull of another side of myself, having somewhere else I should be, or trying to exist in two places at once. Several people commented, both in class and afterward, that my technique was really good. Things seemed simple, clear, easy. Settled.

Lao Tsu said "When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.“

At first, maybe a year ago, I found this whole idea very upsetting. It was contrary to everything I’ve seen myself to be for most of my life – everything I worked very hard to be. I pushed back, denied it, and tried to find ways around it. I explored it over many months, sat with it, and now have accepted it. Rather than feeling a sense of loss, there is a sense of freedom. New space to explore. And integrity. Coming into alignment with myself.

"Tie me up and hold me down 
  (Oh, my traveling star) 
Bury my feet down in the ground 
  (Oh, old road dog) 
Claim my name from the lost and found 
And let me believe this is where I belong”

James Taylor, “My Traveling Star

Uke and Schoolmasters

There is a very good discussion on the AikiWeb forums, about uke collusion in practice/training. It’s particularly relevant for me, because I will be participating in the Aikido Bridge seminar later this week, where Ikeda Sensei will be teaching, and where there will be lots of opportunities for refining my own ukemi, and observing the ukemi of others.

One of the comments there, about how professional athletes train, brought something to mind: In horseback riding the relationship between the rider and the horse is very much like the relationship between Nage and Uke. 

The rider (Nage), through their cues, posture, weight shifts, placement of attention, and so on, is able to affect the balance and motion of the horse (Uke). It should not be a battle – it should be a partnership. They are not in opposition. Horse training essentially is training the horse to be a good uke – sensitive, not reactive, not anticipating, but moving as directed when the rider makes a request correctly. 

Of course, beginning riders are hopelessly uncoordinated about their weight, center, attention, posture, hands, feet, etc. A horse that refuses to budge, or who can’t understand what is being asked, would only frustrate them. Thankfully there are talented, experienced, angelic horses referred to as “schoolmasters” who and understand, and who happily play along with these fumbling newbies. A good schoolmaster lets the rider get the feeling of what a correct trot, balanced halt, or smooth canter depart should feel like, even when the rider doesn’t know how to ask perfectly yet. 

These horses, bless their hearts, can also perceive the skill level of their riders. While they may jog along sweetly for a little kid flopping around on their first ride, they may just as well require quite correct riding from someone more advanced.

In essence, the schoolmaster colludes, but only as much as is appropriate for the level of the rider. Pretty amazing ability, for a horse, but they do it regularly.

My understanding is that a good uke should provide that same kind of feedback to Nage. With a beginner, one may have to essentially guide them through the motion at first, by doing the ukemi as though Nage had performed the technique correctly, even if Nage didn’t really have their center, or didn’t take their balance. With a more advanced nage, feedback more along the lines of “Nope, I ain’t goin’, you don’t have me” might be more appropriate. 

Of course, there are good-natured, willing horses who simply do not understand, perhaps through lack of experience, what the rider is trying to ask. And there are others who know exactly what the student is requesting of them, but who have a “betcha can’t make me” attitude. The former may grow into happy and useful schoolmasters with experience. The latter will likely end up paired with riders who have similarly been trained in the “make ‘em mind you” philosophy of horsemanship, where force, conflict, and opposition are just the way things are done.

As a human uke, I’d sure rather work toward being more like the schoolmaster.

Milestone: One Year in Aikido

I am celebrating the completion of my first year in Aikido by staying home and fighting off a cold. I really wanted to be on the mat tonight. Instead I have the opportunity to practice writing with only half my brain engaged. My apologies if I ramble.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, but it also seems like a lifetime. In some ways, it has been a lifetime. I am not the same person I was when I first stepped onto the mat.

It would be impossible to overstate my gratitude and admiration for my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei. He passes on the touch of the founder through his technique, speaks our dojo community into existence, and embodies a safe space for discovery and transformation. He demonstrates that one can be vulnerable and strong, gentle and effective, trusting, allowing, patient, generous… These have been more powerful lessons than any exercise or technique I’ve learned.

I have trained 155 days. I’ve participated in seminars and workshops. There was a dojo retreat, picnic, exam days, lunches, and parties. I’ve learned a little about Japanese culture and language, martial ethics and history, and met the most wonderful people. I reached my goal of losing 40 pounds, and on the whole am much healthier (the present cold notwithstanding) and stronger. I’ve developed some discipline in other areas where I had been, frankly, a slob about things. I still have a long way to go.

I’ve tested for 6th and 5th kyu. Whoever said your first test is the hardest one was right, I think. But I need to guard against overconfidence. I forgot how fully I threw myself into training up to 6th kyu, and did not train as well as I might have as my 5th kyu test approached. Yes, I trained a lot, but not with the same focus and attention as at the beginning. I’ve been trying to reclaim that, while allowing the process of learning to happen, like healing, in its own good time.

I came to Aikido hoping to develop skills that would help me in my riding and horsemanship. So far, so good, in those terms. But it has gone so much deeper than just those skills, in directions I never anticipated. I have been experiencing how one learns motor skills, and watching how to teach in that realm. I now have my horse, Rainy, boarded where I can work with him regularly through the summer, with a great teacher, in the company of others on that same path. It has only been a few weeks, and already we are making more progress than in the past two years. If I’ve been a little behind in my blogging, it’s because I’ve been at the barn.

I came to Aikido determined and fearless, and have learned to temper those qualities with patience and judgment. I’ve learned to notice and treasure the cycles and rhythms of dojo life. I discovered that I really like training with weapons, and meditating. I’ve learned to be a little more gentle with myself, let my mind be a bit quieter, to allow others more space and time to be who they are.

Touching and being touched, even being hit or held, was never a problem. But it took me a while to get comfortable with watching people. At first it felt awkward to even casually look on as techniques were demonstrated, never mind openly studying another’s body, movement, and posture. It seemed rude, intrusive, and inappropriate. Now it’s an aesthetic delight and a source of wonder, like hearing beautiful music, and learning to pick out the bass lines and sing the harmonies.

After a lifetime of doing my best to dismiss what my body and emotions had to say, I have begun to allow myself to feel, and to acknowledge that feelings have legitimacy. I have discovered a whole world of somatic psychology, body work, motor learning, and conscious embodiment that I had never been aware of, and am finding it fascinating. My skeptical, literal, rational brain would have dismissed most of it a year ago, but enough direct experience tends to shut down those objections pretty soundly.

Robert Nadeau Shihan, my teacher’s teacher, when discussing dimensions of ourselves in our recent seminar, said “You don’t know who you are, really.” New dimensions reveal new aspects of ourselves. I’ve been catching glimpses. Some have been surprising. Each has felt a little like coming home – right, familiar, and comfortable.

On one of my first visits to the dojo someone asked me “So, how long are you going to do Aikido?” It seemed like such an odd question that I couldn’t even form an answer. I’m sure I just gave a confused stare. The answer was then, as it is now, “For the rest of my life.”

OK, Earth, take us for another spin around the Sun. Let’s see what there is to see on this trip.

Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and, once it has done so, he will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just another way in which horsemanship and Aikido are similar.

The Near Future

This weekend, Thursday through Monday, 14-18 January, 2010, I will be participating in my first big seminar at another dojo. It’s the Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, at Jiai Aikido in San Diego. The featured instructors are Frank Doran Shihan, Hiroshi Ikeda Shihan, and Christian Tissier Shihan. What a privilege! Several other students from Aikido of San Diego will be attending, too. I’m looking forward to training with them, and to meeting new friends there. At least one of my Aikido friends from Facebook will be at the seminar. I may be posting to my blog in the evenings, but only if there’s time after dealing with the critters and getting enough sleep.

The following weekend is our dojo community service project. On Saturday we will be doing a work day at the ranch where our Retreat is held. That should be a fun time.

On January 31st Sensei is offering an Aikido In Focus workshop on Ukemi. These workshops are only 2 hours, but those I’ve done so far have each provided a great opportunity to explore some aspect of one’s Aikido. I’m really looking forward to this workshop.

Next month, on February 6th, I’ll be taking my exam for promotion to 5th kyu. I’ve started reviewing the techniques, and working with my mentor, and of course training at every opportunity. I don’t feel entirely lost, but will certainly need every moment of preparation I can squeeze in before that date!

March 21st brings another Aikido In Focus workshop with Dave Goldberg Sensei. I’ll also be going to a non-Aikido thing, the App Masters conference by User Interface Engineering, later that same week. Maybe I’ll wear my “Don’t Make Me Think” t-shirt to both.

In April, Robert Nadeau Shihan, my teacher’s teacher, and a direct student of O Sensei, is coming to Aikido of San Diego for a 3-day seminar the 9th through 11th. I was fortunate to be able to participate in the seminar when he visited last year, and am excited about getting to work with him again.

May 7-9 I will be participating in a horsemanship clinic with Kathleen Lindley. Kathleen spent a year on the road (as basically an uchi deshi), training and teaching with Mark Rashid, the horseman and author who introduced me to Aikido. It would be helpful if I were to be working reasonably well with Rainy by then, so we can best benefit from our time with Kathleen.

May 15th brings another round of exams at the dojo. I will surely not be testing that time around (well… unless I blow it this time!), so I just get to watch and learn.

May 22nd will be our dojo’s annual Spring Picnic. The Spring Picnic was the first dojo event I went to, shortly after I first started training (on May 5, last year). It was a great chance to get to know everyone a bit, and I’m looking forward to this year’s, too.

Whew! It’s going to be a busy and fun few months ahead.