Category Archives: Mysteries, meditations, musings

Feast of Fogamar

Fogamar, “of wind and abundance,” Old Irish for this season we call autumn. It’s the perfect word for our annual shift from daylong predictable sunlight to those interesting grays and shifting breezes, and the occasional convergence zone with its furious rains and towering charcoal cumuli.

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

When we first met our new home a few months ago, the air was lilac-laden, dizzying in its sweetness. The blooms were fading by the time we moved in at the beginning of August, and by a couple of weeks ago the tall shrubs were looking pretty bedraggled, with shriveled brown seedheads sticking above the brown-edged green leaves.

But oh, they are beloved by the birds. Continue reading

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Speed and stillness: A contemplation

Yesterday the fastest creature on Earth stopped by for a visit. Ever the news-bringers, our park’s crows alerted us to a predator’s presence, and I was astonished to see a rare Peregrine Falcon up there on a high branch, lit beautifully by the winter sun as the crows called, annoyed or just gossiping.

Peregrine Falcon with crows. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon with crows.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

My first Pacific Northwest peregrine encounter, 27 years ago, had involved only sound. I had just sweated my way to the top of Little Si (at 1500′, higher than almost all of the eastern state I’d just moved from).

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

I was sitting there on the rocks, munching granola and admiring the vast glaciated valleys and the two forks of the Snoqualmie River merging below me, when suddenly the air vibrated with a sound I couldn’t place; I caught a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye. Continue reading

Passings: The Ghosts of Pleasure Beach

Volcanic mountains rise in rough white-capped waves below as the jet stream carries me eastward in my metal cocoon. We pass the sharp drop of the Colorado Front Range, and I reread its geology with the familiar pleasure of an old book: a massive fault system along which twisted ancient rocks have been thrust by circumstance into aerial performance. Still further east, a formless blanket of cloud extends from horizon to horizon, obscuring rocks, rivers, towns, burying geologic and human history alike.

* * * * *

It was December 19, and I was flying from Seattle to New Jersey to help my family celebrate the life and acknowledge the passing of my uncle Ernest a few days earlier. He wasn’t a believer in God or a churchgoer, but growing up in the core of Manhattan, he and his siblings were nature lovers. Central Park was steps from their front door and, with their father and sister, the boys who were later to become my uncle and my father examined glacial scars on rocks, unearthed salamanders, watched leaves sprout in spring, glow with autumn, wither with winter. Until shortly before his death at 92, my uncle loved to walk through the arboretum in the town where he lived all of his adult life. He adopted a trail near his home and helped clear it of invasive plants, learned the birds, monitored its health.

* * * * *

In these dark circum-solstice days, I haven’t been monitoring the news. I already know that things are terrible and getting worse in Syria; that the Sudan is in crisis; that Egypt is undergoing new violence; that a year later, we’re still not sure why twenty first-graders were murdered in their Connecticut classrooms. The world’s agony leaves me gasping for breath and grasping for hope in the face of evil’s vast scale and scope.

My uncle Ernest, with more courage than I, faced human suffering and death straight on. He worked for decades as the county medical examiner, helping to solve murder mysteries. (At his memorial, a younger neighbor who’d gone into the family business of wildlife rehabilitation noted that my uncle’s dinner table was the only one he knew of where the conversation was even more graphic than at home.) Ernest loved his work, his scientist’s mind fascinated as he mulled evidence and assessed explanations for each life’s end.

* * * * *

My flight’s 3-hour delay at the Seattle airport had given me time to recover from my 4:30 am wakeup and to witness dawn from a new perspective.

Predawn fog with eagles End of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

Predawn fog with eagles
Taken from end of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

The delay also allowed me to read a New York Times article reminding me that eBird reportings were tracking Snowy Owls in their Northeast irruption. Snowys aren’t usually found this far south, but something—perhaps a bumper crop of baby owls last year, possibly a rodent shortage—has caused them to expand from their Arctic home. Rechecking eBird the next morning at my father’s Connecticut home, I found that Snowys had been sighted along a nearby stretch of Long Island Sound, and I was hungry for a dose of nature, so my father and brother joined me in a late-afternoon search party.

Our destination was Pleasure Beach, a sandy spit south of Bridgeport. An overconfident navigator (me) erroneously sent us first to an industrial dock where doves perched cooingly, silhouetted against cathedral-sized tanks of petroleum by-products destined to be transformed into new roads through the Hudson Valley, additional parking lots for New England malls.  Remains of past organisms, exhumed from their stone crypts, wait here to be called to eliminate more trees, seal more soils, so that we might move and park a few more cars.

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility Bridgeport, CT

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility
Bridgeport, CT

The spit’s tip seemed near through the dock structures, but we couldn’t see how to get to it from where we were, so we gave up and returned to our trusty GPS, which we could almost hear whispering “I told you so.” Finally arriving with its help at the beach parking area, I was thrilled to see a good clue to unusual-bird presence: a guy with a big spotting scope. (Size matters in the world of birding.) He pointed us down the beach, and other birders returning from their afternoon owl-watching confirmed that a Snowy had spent the afternoon snoozing on the spit.

Wetland, Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Salt marsh, north side of Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

We finally saw a second guy with a big lens and made a beeline for him—only to watch him fold it up just as we approached, saying the owl had just flown off “that way somewhere.” I gave up any real hope of finding it, but at least we’d had a good nature walk with a lovely sunset impending. Enjoying the search for its own sake, we ventured a little further, scanning the wetlands and grass for a Hedwig-shaped white blob just in case. We passed some old benches, stone jetties, rusted bits of archeology from some deceased culture.

* * * * *

More people let go of their lives in winter than any other time of year. (In my own small world, I know of at least five other deaths in the past ten days—no, now six, with a new death since I began writing.) Why? Cold makes our blood vessels constrict, meaning our hearts have to pump harder. Cold also makes us more susceptible to viruses. And if you’re elderly and perhaps already in ill health, you may be poorer and less likely to turn on the heat; you may also be more isolated and less likely to have someone notice if you’re not doing well. But I think also, the darkness must take a toll. It’s just so much to deal with, trying to keep up your spirits in the face of the weight of night.

Ernest, thankfully, was neither isolated nor poor, but he did know he didn’t have long. Adventurer to the end, though, he’d recently been trying to convince my father to come along on a February riverboat trip down the Amazon.

* * * * *

If I’d been paying better attention during our walk to what was actually around me rather than looking only for the owl, it might have occurred to me to wonder about the spit’s flattened top and the random sticks and metal poles emerging from the russet grass and shelly sand. I’d missed the clues that we were walking through what had once been Connecticut’s largest ghost town. For over fifty years, a carousel, theater, bumper cars had thrilled children and their grownups; our desolate, darkening spit had once been a vacation destination.

https://i1.wp.com/ww4.hdnux.com/photos/20/23/42/4274339/3/628x471.jpg

Pleasure Beach, about 1955.
(Click for link to source.)

Like so many other manufactured human pleasures, the thrills faded after a while, and finally a burned bridge near the dock we’d seen earlier ended Pleasure Beach’s amusement-park heyday. Children’s cheers have been replaced by gulls’ screeches. Federal regulations and a system of wildlife refuges have given threatened piping plovers and least terns a fighting chance through human detritus, and the birds are beginning to recover.

* * * * *

Ernest and I both turned toward the small places of nature after careers of scientific investigation of suffering and death. Like him, I’ve loved my work, but engaging with tragedy for a living—in my case, environmental disasters of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution—takes a deep toll.

* * * * *

Suddenly I saw the Snowy Owl. It was scanning the beach from the top of a nearby snag, preening and scratching as it prepared for a long hunt during tonight’s extended midwinter darkness.

Snowy Owl on snag Industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl on snag (upper right),
industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl at sunset Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Snowy Owl at sunset
Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

As the sunset’s glow faded and true solstice night descended, we watched the owl until the darkness rendered it a gray smudge against the dark-blue sky, city lights in the background. We started the long walk back along the chilly beach. As we crossed the last jetty, we caught a ghostly movement: the owl had been accompanying us unseen.

Snowy Owl Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh

Snowy Owl
(Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh)

It finally flew on beyond our vision, a living light adventuring into the
longest night.

Last sight of Snowy Owl

Last sight of Snowy Owl

.

In Memoriam: Ernest E. Tucker (1921-2013)

EET, always young at heart

EET, always young at heart


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Gifts of Fogmaggedon

Carl Sandburg’s fog may come on little cat feet, but mine comes on the muffled blast of the ferry foghorn, telling me even before I open my eyes in the morning that our annual autumn mist has arrived. Here in Honnalee, the fog moved in 2-1/2 weeks ago: mysterious, atmospheric, giving presence to still air whose existence we usually no more notice than fish notice their placid water. Sunbeams filtering through foggy autumn forests inexorably pull my camera, with me attached, into the forest, and those first couple of days I danced around the park taking photo after photo of the moody woods and enchanting dewdrops.

Fog in Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Fog in Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Dewdrop on cedar needles

Dewdrop on cedar needles

A few days later, the fog still swirling through the trees, I left to spend a week back home in Virginia at my high-school reunion, celebrating with dear friends from way back, then showing my father my old haunts in my college town. (Well, most of the haunts; some were better left back in the past along with my profoundly immature 20-something self.) The remnants of Tropical Storm Karen literally dampened both occasions, dumping her remnant Gulf Stream moisture on us all day, every day. But the joy of being with old friends and my beloved dad lit the days, and one afternoon’s sunbreak gave me a few bird-photography opportunities.

Northern Mockingbird Williamsburg, VA

Northern Mockingbird
Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal
Williamsburg, VA

Do East Coasters realize how amazing cardinals are?

Anyway, as my evening flight took off from Dulles at the end, I was looking forward to returning to Seattle’s glorious blue-sky autumn days, the woods aglow with our brilliant yellow Bigleaf Maples and the occasional stunning red Vine Maple.

I woke up late the morning after, having mercifully been able to sleep off jet lag—to the sound of the ferry foghorn. Still? After a week and a half? No sun for twelve straight days, no sense of the changing light that tells time’s passing, just monotonous gray skies all day, not even a good storm to make it interesting. It would be 10 am, then suddenly 4:30 in the afternoon, time for a nap.

Lincoln Park beach in fog

Lincoln Park beach in fog

After yet an additional three days of this, even our eternally enthusiastic resident weather guru, Cliff Mass of the University of Washington, got grumpy. “Fogmaggedon!” he called our record-setting string of foggy fall days; a “boa constrictor” of an inversion. (As always, he has cool photos and diagrams – check them out.)

Cliff hightailed it to Eastern Washington to get a sun injection to his psyche, but I just stayed in place, not even venturing into the forest for a couple of days—which tells you something’s way off. I just couldn’t summon up the energy.

Then this afternoon, Rob called me a few minutes after he left for orchestra rehearsal. He’d reached the top of the hill near our house—and it was glorious up there, sunny and warm. The boa-constrictor inversion meant that at our house, 200′ above sea level and near Puget Sound, the air was cool enough to keep moisture in vapor form—but a mile away and 300′ higher, the sun had warmed the air enough to vaporize those foggy droplets. He could see all the way to the mountains.

Given this news, I couldn’t stand being indoors any longer. I grabbed my cameras and headed out. I got to the edge of the bluff just as the sun broke through near the horizon.

Color! Glowing yellow light through the trees! Bright orange leaves lining the soft red-brown path!

Path to beach, Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Path to beach, Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing color during the days of monochromatic mist. I raced down to the beach, suddenly full of energy, to immerse myself in the palette of post-fog sunset.

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach West Seattle, WA

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach
West Seattle, WA

I’ve been doing a lot of research recently into animal vision and the science behind it. Although we humans have three kinds of color-perceiving cells called “cones” in our eyes, many other mammals just have two kinds of cones, so the world looks very different to them. For instance, here’s how a dog might perceive the Lincoln Park path and the Northern Cardinal:

Simulation of dog's view of path and cardinal

Simulation of dog’s view of path and cardinal

All this research has been fascinating—bird vision, for instance, is astounding—and I’ll tell you more about it in future posts. But it took Fogmaggedon to get me out of my head and back into my body, for my spirit to wake up once again to how utterly remarkable it is, living in a world shimmering with hue and tone and vibrancy and saturation beyond the imagining of most other mammals.

If it doesn’t last too long, the quieting blanket of fog can be a blessing, providing an introverted interlude necessary for recharging the soul, bringing its own magical depth to the world. But too-persistent fog—from atmospheric inversion, midlife crisis, depression, self-centeredness, busyness—keeps our spirit from joyous aliveness to the multicolored world. When the time comes for the mist to dissipate, we welcome the brilliant earth back, alive again, rebaptized.

Autumn grove Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Autumn grove
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

 

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Traces of Hidden Presence

Yesterday, in the darkness at exactly 6:00 am, I heard a high-pitched screech outside my window, which turned into a squeal. Finally the call evolved into one I recognized: a Barred Owl, the familiar denizen of my park. After a short but fierce inner argument between the Voice That Wanted To Stay In My Warm Bed, and Naturalist Voice, the naturalist won and I dug myself out from under cats and covers, pulled on pants and a jacket, and ventured out into the dark street to try to spot the light-gray owl in the thick trees.

Unfortunately, the conifers along my street were too dense and tall for me to find the owl, who stayed quiet after that. So after my brief foray into the dark morning, I (quite happily) went back inside and crawled back under the covers to read for a while with tea and juice, knowing contentedly that the owl was somewhere nearby.

We humans, as you may have noticed, are pretty much diurnal: we’re active during the day, and if we’re out and about at night, we go where there are artificial lights. You can tell this is what we’re made for by looking at our faces. Continue reading

A Scientist is Surprised By a Tool Long Known to Artists

Maybe it’s my training as a scientist, with its requirements for precision and accuracy, but it’s always felt like my most natural fine-art form is photorealistic drawing:

Portrait of Agnes Adámy

Portrait of Agnes Adámy

I drew all through childhood (didn’t we all, in those pre-electronic days!), and in my teen years found the pure joy of doing portraits. The human face—expressive, alluring, textured, with character in curves, stories in wrinkles, soul in eyes—

Portrait of Arthur Wheeler

Portrait of Arthur Wheeler

—it’s unendingly interesting, no matter whose it is. It is a deeply sensuous pleasure to shape the curves of someone’s face or body with your hand, sketching in shading to bring out their infinite depth and character, a caress in carbon.

I didn’t really start experimenting with watercolors until I was an adult. Water in all its forms takes you with it on its fluid journeys, washes you out of your mold, pours itself into your rigid ideas and softens them, blurs and diffuses your boundaries. Watercolors have a life of their own, and I was drawn to them because I couldn’t control them as I could my pencils. And since you pretty much can’t erase with watercolors, being in relationship with them requires you to commit to their serendipity, to be open to new directions you hadn’t anticipated. I knew I needed that.

The watercolors I’ve been happiest with were those where I stopped in time rather than overworking them, but these have been few and far between:

Galapagos Tortoise (I think)

Galapagos Tortoise

Generally I just get frustrated because I keep trying to get it just right, with all the lines in the perfect place just like they are in reality, and all the colors exactly right with the precisely correct shape. I either overwork the piece until it seems ruined (remember, no erasing), or give up in frustration over the details before it feels finished. That’s what happened with this sketch, which I began while sitting on a bench in a Lincoln Park clearing that I’ve nicknamed “Dragonfly Field.”

"Dragonfly Field," Lincoln Park, West Seattle (unfinished)

“Dragonfly Field,” Lincoln Park, West Seattle (unfinished)

So many branches, so many leaves! It was just too hard.

Trying to get a grasp of this literally-ungraspable art medium, I took a watercolor course recently with marvelous artist and teacher Ruthie V, who teaches at South Seattle Community College. She really gets watercolor.

“Look, aim at just the big patches of color. Don’t worry about all the little bits,” Ruthie suggested as I struggled to portray every single leaf in view in the SSCC Arboretum. But I just couldn’t un-see the details, and once I noticed them I couldn’t not try to get them right.

* * * * *

Getting the details right is a big part of the scientist’s job description—and not only that, but a thrill as well. A continuing-education biology instructor who started out as a geologist once told me with great pride, “There’s not much about ultramafics[1] that I don’t know.” As a grad student, I loved knowing tons of details about crystals, their architecture, how the atoms fit together and influenced each other, how a crystal sings and dances.

Of course, that’s not all you need to be a good scientist. You also have to be able to find patterns, preferably ones that are both interesting and significant. As with art, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. I remember when I finally got my first big data set from my grad-school research and was faced with All Those Numbers: yikes! Now what?

I managed to find some interesting-enough patterns in those data. But how to do that in art? Especially when I’m not in my 20’s or 30’s anymore, but my 50’s —late 50’s at that—when my brain doesn’t function at quite the speed (that I seem to remember…) it did back in school?

* * * * *

I’ve had poor vision since fourth grade. In fact, I remember the exact day when the big blue numbers on Miss Stein’s classroom calendar looked different. She was teaching some lesson, finished up, and asked if we had any questions. I raised my hand and said, “Why does the calendar look fuzzy?” (She annoyedly clarified that she had meant questions about the lesson she’d just given. Oh. Sorry.)

I used to love lying under the Christmas tree and taking off my glasses, enjoying the wonderful soft haloes of colored light above me, our tree transformed into an arboreal fairyland by the hovering glowing light-balls. (I still do that now…don’t tell.) I think part of the joy I’ve always felt swimming might be partly because, wearing no glasses, I can’t see when I’m wet: a freedom from tracking what’s happening, freedom to trust to the sensation of wet and coolness on my body rather than the information from my eyes.

* * * * *

Right after I wake up every morning, I have a daily write-of-passage: three pages in my journal that take me from dreamland into reality, my treasured liminal time. And it was in that liminality yesterday, for no apparent reason, that I had a sudden insight into my art conundrum.

Because of my gift of poor vision, I can choose how well to see! What a wonderful tool in my artist box: to be able to simply take off my glasses and paint what my 20/450 vision sees: large fuzzy blots of color and hazy shapes. Take that, perfectionist tendencies!

This morning I went back to Dragonfly Field, sat on the same bench as before, took off my glasses, and iPad-painted what I saw.[2]

Dragonfly Field sans glasses (Used iPad app called Art Set)

Dragonfly Field sans glasses
(Used iPad app called Art Set)

It’s a scene, a whole scene, how about that? No tiny leaves to worry about, a few big shapes of shadows and shrubs and grass; can you make them out? The splotches of color seem to define a space, a place, in a way my thin lines couldn’t. It’s almost like having a whole new medium to explore.

Funny how at this point in life, occasionally the things you’ve been thinking all along are your weaknesses suddenly flip over and become resources. A tendency to move slowly, formerly known as laziness, starts to look like contemplativeness. Having no ability to deal with shopping malls (a sore disappointment to my mother) gets transformed from “hypersensitivity” to an affinity for the earth. Insecurity about having something valuable to say becomes a desire to listen more deeply. Bad vision can sometimes help you to see a little better.

Artists have long known to take off their glasses, and I’ve just discovered this tool. So maybe that’s another bounty of aging: delight at newly encountering the old wisdom of others. Here’s to many more such surprises.


[1] An igneous rock type sort of like basalt, but more so.

[2] (Unfortunately, not seeing well also meant that I inadvertently painted on a tiny little portion of my canvas, ending up with a teensy and highly pixelated image, but I can fix that next time. Live and learn.)

Respite

“What day is it today?” Charles asked.
“Tuesday,” Linda replied.
“Good. What’s your doctor’s name that we’re driving to see?”
“Dr. Lopez.”
“That’s right! You’re doing great. Now, again, what day is it today?”
“Umm…Friday?”

A half-hour later, Charles and Linda arrived for their regular meeting with the psychologist, scheduled after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis many months earlier. When Dr. Lopez asked Linda what day it was, she couldn’t remember, even though she’d practiced with Charles over and over during the drive. And a clock was now way too complicated for her to understand.

The dark curtain of Alzheimer’s descends in inexorable stages. The very first stage must be the worst for the patient: receiving the diagnosis, but having enough awareness left to understand what’s going to happen. Then as the patient loses more cognitive awareness, the nightmare expands to the caregiver.

Charles, whom I’d met at my church, was one of the most patient people I knew. He also had a brilliant career in management, ultimately becoming a senior administrator of an international company. But managing Linda’s illness was a wholly different challenge.

“Linda, you’ve got to have three more bites,” he insisted to her at lunch during one of my visits to their home.

She looked at him resentfully. Who was this person who kept ordering her around? He looked familiar, and sometimes she thought she could remember his name, but she had thought he was a nice man, not like this.

“You have to eat! Now, take this spoon and swallow.”

Linda finally did. But she was clearly pretty annoyed about it.

As we watched over the months, kind, warm Charles became short-tempered, defensive, and irritable. His friends began to suggest he take a respite break: arrange for Linda to stay for a week, or even just a weekend, in a high-quality local nursing home. But he’d always been able to handle any situation that came his way; why should this be any different?

“She wouldn’t understand,” he protested. “It would really upset her.” And of course he was right.

Finally, though, we persuaded him to at least give it a try. Charles went to visit his son and daughter-in-law in Malibu for a week. When I talked with them about it later, they said he’d been pretty quiet most of the week. He’d gone with them on a whale-watching cruise, a visit to the museum, out to a new play, and had seemed to enjoy each activity well enough, but clearly didn’t feel like talking about Linda, so they didn’t pry. He told us later that until that week, he’d had no idea how tired he was.

* * * * *
In many ways, Charles and Linda are like millions of other Americans who currently deal with Alzheimer’s in themselves or their families. Current estimates indicate that 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s, and this number may swell to as many as 16 million by 2050. And surely at least the same number of people love and care for those with Alzheimer’s: spouses, family members, nurses, therapists, ministers. The kind of “vicarious traumatization”—or, less officiously, “compassion fatigue”—that exhausted Charles affects millions in his position.

* * * * *
Now, imagine that Charles, his son, and his son’s wife are at a pierside restaurant in Malibu, admiring the view and enjoying a delicious dinner of fried shrimp and chips. They run into Ted, a friend of Charles’s son, who sits down to join them for a while. Ted, meaning well, starts telling Charles that he shouldn’t eat fried food; especially since Charles is getting older, salads are much better for him. And besides, Ted explains, those shrimp were harvested from Thai shrimp farms that destroyed many acres of mangrove swamps that used to protect those shorelines from hurricanes.

Picture Charles as he stops eating and sits looking down at his plate; he doesn’t say anything. Everything Ted said is true.

But both Charles and Linda desperately needed Charles to take a respite from increasing darkness as the curtains of Linda’s mind were drawing permanently closed. Without taking time to open up the drapes, breathe fresh ocean air, enjoy a new horizon, and get away from the weight of continuous negativity, Charles would more quickly lose his ability to take care of her as her needs increased unrelentingly. And without a respite, his own suffering would increase: compassion fatigue brings measurable physical, psychological, and spiritual pain. Charles needed a break, not a lecture bringing even more bad news. Just for a week.

* * * * *
We who struggle to hold back the darkening curtain of environmental damage suffer compassion fatigue as well, as we work desperately to minimize the deterioration of our beloved nature. We cling to frayed threads of hope in the face of impending collapse of eons-evolved natural systems, trying to drag the curtains apart just a little, to prevent the increasing darkness from acquiring an Alzheimer’s-like inexorability.

Where is our respite? You cannot open any environmental magazine, or even a newspaper, without coming across yet more information about the devastation we humans have wrought. We read these because we care, because we want to know more about what we can do to change our culture’s behavior, our beliefs, our beatitudes of destructive consumerism and selfishness.

But sometimes we need a break. We need to return to what we love, the exhilarating and precious natural world, to extend to ourselves and each other a respite of undampened joy in the beautiful and the fascinating.

In designing this blog, I’ve intentionally stayed away from sharing yet more of the depressing, enervating environmental news that crosses my screen multiple times a day. You already know about all that. And you know where to get more of it, if that’s what you want to read on a given day to provide you with the tools you need to save what you love.

What we so often lack in these darkening days is delight.

Kathleen Dean Moore is one of my favorite nature writers, and a wonderful writing teacher and mentor. Yet I disagree full-throatedly with what she wrote recently,

And I can’t read the literature of willful innocence, either. These are nature books by authors who celebrate a beloved place without acknowledging the anthropogenic violence it’s suffering, or books that rejoice in the healing power of a hike through a forest, say, without noticing that it’s poised to burn to the ground. These days, looking away is hard to forgive.

I’ll have to stay unforgiven, I guess. I will continue to write about chickadees and bushtits, spiders and seals: small creatures of forest and sea, living their little lives in shimmering, stunning, awe-inducing ways and means. I’ll let others expound on the anthropogenic violence that pervades their world and ours. I’m convinced that we deserve a respite of delight now and then: for our own sake and for the creatures. At least, I need it.

* * * * *
Coincidentally, on the same day that Moore’s essay arrived on my Facebook page, I also received “A Brief for the Defense,” a poem by Jack Gilbert, courtesy of The Sun magazine. Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire remarkable poem.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

I insist on our right to be dilettantes—ones who take delight in things—and on the legitimacy of moments of joy unfettered by reminders that we’re nearing the event horizon of an ecological black hole. That doesn’t mean I’m one bit less aware of how fragile and threatened it all is. It just means I never forget why it’s worth saving.

Black-throated Gray Warbler with nesting material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Black-throated Gray Warbler with nesting material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Starting Small: Bushtits, Beethoven, and the Art of Memoir

The forest is in high gear these days, with everyone busy at the different tasks of life in springtime. Uncertain speckled juvenile robins are trying to copy their parents as they forage on red elderberries.

Juvenile Robin in elderberries

Juvenile Robin in elderberries

The park is ringing with the cawcawphony of teenage crows arguing with each other…

Juvenile crows on rooftop; 2 on left objecting to the one on right having the treasure (a conifer seed)

Juvenile crows on rooftop; two on left objecting to the one on right having the treasure (a conifer seed)

…and harassing their parents for one more, another, another feeding they don’t have to get for themselves — yet.

Parent feeding juvenile crows

Parent feeding juvenile crows

Flicker parents pry the ground open in search of ants, beetles, and other bugs to deliver to their hungry young, still in the nest for just a bit longer.

Male Flicker feeds two young - more aggressive one is blocking its sibling

Male Flicker feeds two young – more aggressive one is blocking its sibling

A pair of Bushtits are busily helping the forest economy through new-home construction. It seems late to be getting started, but they’ve chosen a lovely spot in an aging Pacific Madrone, with a nice view of Puget Sound. The husband harvests the dried flowers of a nearby oceanspray and carries them over to the nest.

Male Bushtit harvesting dried oceanspray

Male Bushtit harvesting dried oceanspray

He then disappears into the opening they’ve woven into the lengthening bag, it wiggles for a bit, then he reappears and flies off to Avian Home Depot for more hardware. His wife arrives a few seconds later with some soft fluff in her beak: bedding for the tiny eggs that will become these tiny birds, perhaps?

Bushtit brings fluff to nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit brings fluff to nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Their nest is the woven story of the forest: tube lichens from Douglas Fir bark, silk webbing from our Cross Spiders, dried grass, Madrone flower petals. Reading a bushtit nest, you learn where you live.

* * * * *

I’ve recently begun considering a memoir of some kind, stretching myself to write in a new style. But although I’m comfortable writing academic pieces, I’ve never tried anything as intimate as a memoir. How on earth do you go about it? Being the aforementioned trained scholar who’s spent decades honing my scientific research skills, I put them to good use: I went to Google and typed “how to write a memoir.”

Behold, up came William Zinsser’s marvelous essay on the topic, creatively titled “How to Write a Memoir.” Zinsser begins by relating his father’s annoyingly straightforward and angst-free writing of his own memoir: the man just sat down in his favorite armchair with pencil and paper, wrote the thing out in one draft, had it typed and reproduced, handed copies around to everyone in his family, and was done.

Since it isn’t that easy for many of us, Zinsser taught memoir courses. A woman in one class wrote about her journey to Poland to unravel her Jewish father’s early life in the village he escaped at 14, one of few survivors to do so. Zinsser describes his own World War II experience of riding across North Africa in a “forty-and-eight”: a train car that could hold forty men or eight horses. Like a peephole camera, the tiny lens of a single short time span allows a whole world to come into focus on the page. You don’t have to write the Whole Big Drama Of Your Life — you just have to start with one memory, and then another, then another. You can trust Life to shine through your life.

* * * * *

On the spur of the moment a couple of weeks ago, Rob and I decided to attend our local stage theater’s penultimate performance of the season, “33 Variations” by Moisés Kaufman. In the play, Katherine, a contemporary Beethoven scholar, seeks to understand why the great composer used such an unremarkable rustic dance theme, written by his publisher Diabelli, [1] as the basis for a grand range of complex variations, working far beyond the original task even as his health is giving way towards the end of his life.

Katherine’s story is interwoven with that of Beethoven. As her own health deteriorates from ALS, she is able to see that in her life as an academic, her search for the universal has led her to disregard the particular, the individual—especially her quirky daughter. Ultimately, Katherine comes to understand Beethoven’s motivation and his genius in the Variations: he is glorifying the profound beauty of the mundane, showing that even a mediocre theme, a rustic dance, the simple events of a single life, are the shimmering seeds of the transcendent.[2]

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day! sings Jesus in the carol of that name, as he dances the redemption story “for my true love.” Transcen-dance: a grain of sand becomes the world, an hour holds eternity. A little nest is a mosaic containing a forest full of dances.

* * * * *

Zinsser’s final advice for writing about your life is: Think small. Moments become memoir; motifs become meaning; one life becomes a lens to the drama of history. A bushtit, second only to the hummingbird as tiniest in the forest, weaves her nest from the inside. The setting sun illuminates her form as she performs her own rustic dance, transforming the small bits of the forest into a home for her true love.

Male Bushtit (upper left) holds decoration as female works inside nest  (Click for 90-sec video of her work)

Male Bushtit (upper left) holds decoration as female works inside their backlit nest
(Click here for 90-sec video of her dance)


[1] You can hear Diabelli’s theme here: http://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Diabelli-Variations/dp/B000TPXKK8 by clicking on the first item, “Tema: Vivace.”

[2] In the piece’s title, Beethoven chose the unusual term Veränderungen, rather than the more traditional musical term Variationen. Why? Veränderungen implies transformation rather than simply variation.

Room to Move: The Space of Stories

Room to move,” cautioned my excellent photography instructor, Meredith Blaché, during my first digital-photography class. “You’ve got to give your subject room to move in your photo.” She showed us comparative photo-pairs of faces, children, nature. All of the pictures looked a whole lot more interesting with space integrated into the image.

Here’s an example. Look at this first photo of Rob in our neighborhood park:

Contemplating in Lincoln Park

Contemplating in Lincoln Park

The photo is placid and still. His head and body form a stable triangle with the log. The image emphasizes being here.

Now, notice the different energy in this second photo, taken a moment later but with a shift:

Contemplating in Lincoln Park - II

Contemplating in Lincoln Park – II

This photo has more energy. The space in front of him raises questions: what is he looking at? How did he get to this place? Is he making a resolution of some kind? Might he be about to get up and walk forward into the green forest? With this new room to move, the scene has a past and a future instead of only a present. In this photo, the man has room to move: he has a story.

For a different kind of room to move, consider this information.

Bushtit nests are pendulous and sometimes reach 12 inches (30 cm) in length, with an entrance near the top. When the outer shell of the nest is completed, the pair spends the night roosting in it.

A nest can take from two weeks to almost two months to complete, but adults will abandon a nest they are building if disturbed. Bushtits recycle previously gathered materials to use at a new site.

–From The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, National Audubon Society

Interesting, isn’t it? How long those tiny bushtits will keep working until their nest is constructed to their satisfaction, and the fact that they are recyclers?

One April day I watched as a pair of bushtits worked on their nest. Alternating, the dark-eyed husband and golden-eyed wife flew in with treasures of spider silk and twigs, then disappeared one at a time into the nest.

Bushtit male arrives at nest with material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit male arrives at nest with material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

I could see the crocheted bag wiggling as the bird wove each new bit into the structure. After a moment or two of hookwork, the bushtit would appear at the entrance, peer around, then fly off for the next round.

Bushtit male exits nest after weaving material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit male exits nest after weaving material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

But once, a male bushtit brought in a twig that was just a little too long for the nest entrance.

Proud bushtit with twig at nest entrance Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Proud bushtit with twig at nest entrance
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

He tried to poke it into the nest, but got it tangled with some spider silk at the opening:

Bushtit's twig too big - and now stuck with spider silk Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit’s twig too big – and now stuck with spider silk
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Now what? The little guy tugs and yanks, to no avail:

Bushtit pulls valiantly to extricate twig Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit pulls valiantly to extricate twig
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Finally he had to give up in disgust and just let the stick hang there. Maybe he told his wife it was a lovely creative new doorway decoration. (“Honey, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!“)

Know that feeling of the home-renovation project gone wrong? That hope that no one will think to remind you of the old saying to measure twice, cut once?

The space of story

As with the two initial photos of my companion in the forest, the first portrayal (the paragraph of Sibley facts) is accurate and interesting but inert, still. Like the second photo, though, the anecdote of the bushtits’ nest-building gone awry opens up time and empathy. The bushtits become people to us; we can empathize with their plight, their hard work, their desire to create a home for their children.

A story opens this room to move, a kind of space we can enter and explore. Stories invite us to move through possibilities, with imagination, into an as-yet-empty future. Moving through time, we project ourselves forward with the story’s protagonist: what’ll happen next? What would I do in that situation? What will the hero choose?

It’s this capacity to enter into story, into a space of imagination, that lets us create our future—and thus ourselves. “L’existence précède l’essence,” wrote Sartre: existence precedes essence. Who we are is not limited to facts or a still pose; the basic concreteness of our existence yields to an essence that we develop over our lives through our choices. We write our own stories.

Do animals tell stories?

I’d argue that we’re not the only ones who do this. An inner voice left over from my philosophy education kept pushing me to finish that previous paragraph with, “It’s what makes us human.” That’s what Sartre thought. But I don’t buy that. What’s the evidence that animals don’t have access to the story-space that allows such existential—essence-ial—choices?

And there is evidence that many nonhuman animals do share our capacity for storytelling, including birds, cetaceans, and fish. This article, for instance, includes the charming assertion that there is more solid evidence for transmission of culture by fish than by nonhuman primates. How else do we creatures pass along our cultures than through stories told through one manner or another?

John Marzluff has documented the passing of information across crow generations through experiments in which he and his students once wore caveman masks as they captured 7 crows for banding. Five years later, 28 crows were still harassing mask-wearers, even though nothing else “bad” had been done to the original crows during that time and the other crows had never personally had a negative interaction with mask-wearers. The crows had passed the mask information to their children—excellent and effective storytelling.

For us storytelling creatures, stories serve several essential purposes. Stories teach us who we are as individuals. They also show us the possibilities for our roles in our communities. Stories are thus the intersection of the personal with the universal: they’re how we make meaning in our worlds. We all, both human and nonhuman animals, need room to move, space to create our stories and thus to shape our selves.

Listening to another’s story—human or not—opens that space: one of the profoundest gifts we can offer. What’s your favorite story?

Bushtit Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

One Wren, New Under the Sun

The wrens are singing! This unusually bold fellow, a male Pacific Wren, perched by my regular trail yesterday and sang up a storm, not flitting into hiding even when I stopped and swung my camera into position.

Pacific Wren singing

Pacific Wren singing

When I first encountered the delicious extended burble that’s the Pacific Wren’s song, I marveled about it to a superb naturalist friend who used to teach in North Carolina. She told me of taking a group of students on a spring field trip, a hike up into the mountains to reach the spring range of the Winter Wren (formerly viewed as the same species), promising them the reward of a truly magnificent song in return for making their way up the warm, humid trail.When the group finally reached the wren’s elevation, they waited – and lo, there it was, somewhere deep in the forest, singing its little heart out! Many of the students oohed and aahed appropriately. (The other group’s response was “We climbed all the way up here for that?” But they were young; there’s still time.)

Now it’s our local forest’s turn. Pacific Wrens may be tiny and secretive, but they light up the woods with their complex melodies. We’re lucky enough to have them around all year long, and spring’s when they sing. (Lucky also that we can hear them with an easy walk along a bluff trail in fine breezy 60° weather; have you ever hiked uphill for hours in the North Carolina heat?) As described in this brief BirdNote from “Living on Earth,” it takes slowing down the Pacific Wren’s song to grasp that it may be telling stories we can’t understand with our ears.

Of course, it’s not just the wrens who are celebrating spring’s arrival. The budding Bigleaf Maples are attracting Black-capped Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna's Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna’s Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Everyday little birds, all of them. They’re regular neighbors who live here all year and do pretty much these same things each time spring rolls around. We humans, especially we scientists, love these regularities. Cycles and rhythms soothe us, reassure us that yes, even after the past year’s, any year’s, winter of wars and wrenching tragedies, the maple leaves will open, warblers will return to the flowering hawthornes, wrens will sing.

I’ve been trained for decades to look for these generalizations, to utilize the singular only as a clue to a new and more powerful pattern. Inexplicable uniqueness? No thanks, says my scientist-self; if it’s unusual, I want to explain it, figure out its bigger context.

It’s the artist in me, not the scientist, who wants to find what’s unique about this season—already so thoroughly explored by countless writers and poets for millenia—and this very wren, and treasure it for its own sake. Not only for what it might teach us about wren phenology or phonology or physiology—which knowledge I love not one whit less—but simply because that is a really cool song that the forest just sang. Right here. Just then.

Artist-self insists: This is not the same spring as before. This chickadee, who’s had a nest with her mate in this same Pacific Madrone for the past three years: rotting has opened her nest hole up so you can see right through it; what’s she going to do about that?

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

That particular Anna’s Hummingbird, who each spring has taken up his place at the top of the dead Bigleaf Maple that overlooks the salmonberry patch by the stream, defending his turf from that Rufous Hummingbird who regularly arrives once the blossoms begin to open: the maple finally blew down this past winter, and how’s he going to choose a backup throne?

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled, keeping a lookout for the Anna’s Hummingbird

What about this artist, this writer? This spring’s also different because I am: I now love penguins, when I only liked them before.

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

It’s different because I now have more memories of disparate natural beauties than I ever imagined a person could have; because Antarctica’s ecology-on-the-edge helped me to understand that ohmyGod what an astounding creature any tree is; because my soul has been fed with utter wildnesses that have taught me better how to pray attention. It’s an entirely singular spring because I’ve gotten to live a whole additional year with my beloved partner, and we’re both getting older, and other people I love are getting older, and one day it’ll suddenly be someone’s last spring.

And because a lone small red tulip has mysteriously sprouted in our side yard amidst a thick cluster of irises, while a distant wren was singing through the wind.

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle