Tag Archives: aging

Storylines in Sepia

After years of planning, I was finally heading for the Galápagos: my long-awaited retirement gift to myself. I had bid a teary farewell to my last-ever group of natural-history students. I had enjoyed the closing parties: the celebration for all my university’s retirees, the reception for the new faculty emerti, the departmental gathering just for me. I had packed. I had given my last final exam, turned in my final final grades that same day.

Forty-eight hours later, Rob and I were, at long last, on the plane to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We spent a couple of days recovering from jet lag by basking in the soft tropical air by the wide brown Rio Guayas, watching mats of vegetation float by on their journey toward the Pacific, fifty miles away.

Vegetation mat rafting toward Pacific on Rio Guayas, Guayaquil, Ecuador

Recuperated and restored, we finally departed for the islands themselves. I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of wandering through a tropical paradise filled with exotic birds, which had been so critically important to my hero Darwin.

But I’d been so busy bringing closure to a thirty-year career that I hadn’t wedged in a lot of time for trip research. So when our planeful of fellow voyagers started its descent into Baltra, I’m embarrassed to admit I was startled by the bare brown landscape below me. Where was all that lush jungly green we’d admired around Guayaquil?

Isla Baltra, Galápagos. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA, shared on Wikimedia Commons.

Although the Galápagos Islands are on the equator, which is generally pretty rainy around the globe, it turns out that they’re desert islands. Three cold ocean currents converge there, chilling the air enough to discourage the cheerful abundant plant growth of coastal Ecuador. And the islands, created just a few million years ago by a volcanic hot spot, are so removed from the mainland that it’s hard for plants and animals to get there to colonize and soften their rocky faces. (Some of those floating mats we’d seen on the Guayas may have brought the first seeds.)

At Baltra we boarded the friendly Samba, our floating home for our fortnight in the Galápagos.

The Samba, anchored at South Plaza Island, Galápagos

Lava was the language of landscape on each island we visited. Its dialect might be pahoehoe (smooth) or a’a (craggy), but in each place, fractures in the fresh-made land told stories of its birth from water, birth in fire.

Lavascape, Vicente Roca, Isabela, Galápagos

Lava landscape at Punta Moreno, Isabela, Galápagos. Volcan Alcedo in background, showing classic shield shape of basaltic volcanoes

Viewed from a higher perspective, these fractures tell the deeper stories of the island’s sepia faces. The curved concentric cracks around Darwin Bay at the island of Genovesa were formed when the underlying magma pool drained and the rocks above it collapsed.

Concentric fractures around Darwin Bay show where volcanic caldera collapsed (Genovesa, Galápagos)

To those who can read its wrinkled language, this lava landscape tells its life story: tales of explosion and collapse, of inexorable erosion and stressful seas.

* * * * *

We tend to think of beauty in terms of smooth curves and vibrant colors. Look what shows up when I do an image search on “beauty in nature”:

Results of “Beauty in nature” image search. (I had previously deleted cookies to avoid influence by past searches.)

The resulting images are bright, oversaturated, mostly with a soft feel. So the face of the Galápagos’ harsh landscape, with its craggy wrinkles and sepia palette, might seem unlovely; hard to love. But such fractured faces have their own beauty.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise. Urbina Bay, Isabela. Giant tortoises can live over 200 years.

Giant Tortoise. Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

Marine Iguana. Punte Espinoza, Fernandina, Galápagos

Climbing such challenging landscapes brings its own rewards as well as new vistas:

View from peak of Bartolomé Island, Galápagos

Lava Lizard on Marine Iguana. Punta Espinoza, Fernandina

Wrinkles bring character and depth to noble coppery visages:

Brown Pelican. Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

* * * * *

Somewhere in my family’s photo collection is a bunch of old black-and-white photos of my older relatives. Among the great-aunts and second cousins once removed, there are jagged holes. These are where my grandmother Mimi cut her face out of the photos. She was recognized as a beauty in her youth—

My grandmother with my infant mother, about 1925. Photo from Susan Adger.

—and I’m guessing that she couldn’t stand to see her face with the wrinkles etched by hard times and good: the storylines of her life.

Searching recently through the vast photo collection in boxes in my father’s attic, I could only find a couple of images of my grandmother that had escaped the sharp edges of her scissors—including this one from my mother’s wedding day.

My grandmother with my mother on her wedding day, 1954

Over her decades, my mother’s smooth face grew similarly storied, and even more beautiful than in her youth.

My mother in her late 50’s

And now it’s my turn to work toward the peace my grandmother could never achieve regarding wrinkles.

Trileigh, photo by Benjamin Drummond, taken as part of the Natural Histories Project (http://naturalhistoriesproject.org/)

Like the Galápagos Islands’, like my mother’s and her mother’s, my own wrinkles are the storylines of my life, rendered in sepia. All of the women in my family, as all women and men everywhere, are born from water, formed of fire, sculpted by exuberance and by wear.

Bright colors and smooth surfaces aren’t the only shapes beauty takes in landscapes, reptiles, pelicans or people. Those that catch my eye and touch my heart are the etched, lined, fractured faces—the ones with the wisdom of wrinkles.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

Advertisements

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

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


(**If you see an ad below this blog post, please note that I have no control over it or its contents. WordPress inserts ads into blogs of those who don’t purchase a “no ads” upgrade.)

Save or Savor?

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world.
This makes it hard to plan the day.

— E.B. White, in a New York Times interview
with Israel Shenker, July 11, 1969

It was so clear, early on, what needed to be done for the world. I had to teach young people how fragile and complex and delicate the earth is, to think with them about solutions to its problems. I joined important teams working on critical issues (all of which seemed to converge inexorably toward sustainability). I founded discussion groups to help us think our way through contemporary environmental problems. At least two, sometimes three, weeknights were occupied with team meetings or group sessions; remaining weeknights and weekends filled up with grading.

Hummingbird sculpture, Colombia

Hummingbird sculpture, Colombia

One year, shopping at holiday time, I found a little ceramic sculpture of a hummingbird nectaring at a piece of fruit. I started weeping. When was the last time I’d sat and watched a hummingbird? I was exhausted.

Another year during that time, in one terrible week I was reeling from the loss of a beloved friend, then a few days later was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cancer cells (DCIS)

Cancer cells (DCIS). Photo credit: UC-Davis. (Click on photo for website.)

In all my efforts to save the world, I’d neglected to savor it, and my heart and body were suffering the consequences. It took the glaring spotlight of cancer — by definition, uncontrolled growth — to help me see that my life had grown uncontrolled, too full of saving. Not enough savoring, I finally understood, meant risking a death sentence. After recovering from the disease (thankfully, the early stage of the cancer meant lumpectomy and radiation only), I left groups, dropped teams. I’m still teaching, but looking to an early retirement.

My savoring account has grown. I spend lots of time admiring the Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds who sip and chase around the feeder on my balcony. I make time for long walks through the forest, for greeting owls and eagles, for just looking across the Salish Sea to see what weather’s up next.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

Dramatic dark clouds over Salish Sea (Puget Sound)

Dramatic weather over Salish Sea (Puget Sound)

My rebalanced life is satisfying, and I’m happy these days. I’ve gotten back my health and my hummingbirds. Still, I head for bed at night wondering whether I’ve done enough for the earth today. My younger self’s certainty about what’s needed has turned into doubt and ambivalence. Is it really necessary, I ask myself, to make E.B. White’s choice? Surely there’s some way we can both save and savor.

Yes, the needed changes are huge. Yes, it’s getting almost too late to make them. But in our rush and scurrying frantically about, driven by our fear and our desperate grief over what’s already lost, we can’t forget to love what we’re trying to protect.

Giving ourselves the space to be stilled by awe, quieted by a chill morning mist, drawn into transcendence by the flash of a hummingbird’s iridescent gorget: we owe these to the natural world that formed us as much as we owe it our active work to preserve it. We owe it to ourselves.

Fog on Lincoln Park beach

Fog on Lincoln Park beach

Anna's Hummingbird flashing gorget

Anna’s Hummingbird flashing gorget

A great blessing of community is that Marthas and Marys, actives and contemplatives, can take our turns and contribute what we best can when the time is right. So perhaps the solution to White’s dilemma is scale. My life may have shifted toward savoring, bypassing real opportunities for saving, but there’s someone else out there who’s just awakened to passionate engagement and is convening meetings and writing policies. It’s ego talking when we think we can do it all at once, not the humble, unique voice of one creature of one species fulfilling its calling in the ecosystem with all its heart and mind and body. Savoring replenishes the energy needed for saving; saving preserves what we savor in our rest. To each, a place and a person; a time and a season.

Tree limb over wet path - Trileigh Tucker

Things that for some unknown reason threaten to breach the soft earthen dam of your heart within a half-hour space on a late autumn late afternoon

Pacific Dogwood berry clusters

Sunlight on fir needles after a soaking rain

Curling madrone bark dancing in the wind

Snowberries — tiny lamps in the dark forest

The gnarled base of an old camellia…

…arching tenderly over its three-year-old child.

Vertical moss garden, ecstatic after recent rains

Bigleaf Maple leaf ready to fall, having conscientiously done its duty…

…waiting to join its companions below, in their final glory.

Amen.

Making Meaning Through Natural Metaphor

Sally McMillan was concerned about the 13-year-olds in her seventh-grade English class. She wrote:

“Most 21st-century adolescents have difficulty comprehending the numerous natural descriptions and metaphors they encounter (i.e., ‘a waxing, waning moon’) in, for example, Romantic poetry, transcendental essays, folkloric stories, or Shakespearean plays.”[1]

With their sparse direct interactions with nature, how could these young people even understand, much less value, the long traditions of poetry and other forms of literature that employ natural metaphors in the search for human meaning?

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a Joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

From “To the Moon,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

For a young person who hasn’t had much skywatching experience—whether because light pollution has obscured our celestial birthright, because he spends too much time watching computer screens instead of the night sky, or just because he grew up in Seattle where clear nights are a rarity—how could he intuit that “ever changing,” for the moon, means going through the same cycle month after month? That constancy underlies those unending changes?

McMillan and her fellow researcher, math and science teacher Jennifer Wilhelm, asked their students to keep a “moon journal,” in which they observed the moon every day at the same time for five weeks, and wrote two sentences about their experience.[2] The kids’ other teachers helped out by having them read stories and legends, work math problems involving the moon, and build lists of nature-related words they encountered.

The students spontaneously started writing their own moon poetry. Emergent themes included awe; gratitude; hope.

That bears repeating.

Awe! Gratitude! Hope! From simply watching the moon. They paid attention.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention….

From “The Summer’s Day,” by Mary Oliver

 It was as if the students were creating their own new realm of spirituality. Without prompting, they began to see the moon as a protector and to find its rhythms a source of reassurance during this particularly turbulent time of life. One student wrote:

You’re the protector…
The fair moon,
a guide to many souls,
the lantern in the sky.

From another, to the moon:

I know that I will see you again…your promise endures forever.

It’s not only those of us beginning the difficult journey through adolescence who need natural metaphors. Some young friends in their early 20’s wrote recently of metaphors for this time in their lives, evoking mountains, forests, trees blowing in the wind. How will their chosen metaphor evolve, I wonder, as they grow older?

My grandfather wrote this poem, probably when he was about 50, in the prime of his career as one of the first osteopaths.

A little lisping rivulet
That trickled round a stone
Swept up the sands about it set
And drew them farther down.

 It swelled to be a rustling rill
That leaped and laughed along,
And rolled the pebbles ‘round until
The bars bent to its song.

To be a rushing brook it grew;
Around a cliff it wore.
It carved away the base and drew
The towering summit o’er.

Then grown to be a river wide,
It bore with stately ease
The hills dissolved within its tide
And swept them to the sea.

He who his soul’s commission keeps,
And labors with a song,
From power to vaster power sweeps,
And bears a world along.

Can you see the majestic river that’s grown vastly from its origins? Can you hear the tones of a man happy in the height of his powers? Glimpse his evolving sense of identity?

Middle Fork, Snoqualmie River

Finally, I talked with a friend in his mid-80’s about what might be a natural metaphor for this phase of his life. For him, it was a lovely image of mists clearing from a sunlit landscape, revealing the self he hadn’t realized he had always been.

Clearing mist

What natural metaphor speaks to you these days?


[1] McMillan, Sally and Jennifer Wilhelm. 2007. “Students’ Stories: Adolescents Constructing Multiple Literacies through Nature Journaling.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50 (5): 370-377. http://search.proquest.com/docview/216921765?accountid=28598.

[2] McMillan’s and Wilhelm’s assignment derived from an earlier paper: Duckworth, E.R. (1996). “The having of wonderful ideas” & other essays on teaching and learning (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Abscission

It’s been pouring rain for two solid days now. Last night I kept waking up to listen to the drumming of rain on our roof, the wind humming through the trees out at the bluff, a lively air-river whispering something I couldn’t quite make out.

Soggy fall is a welcome respite after the exhaustingly beautiful bright summer, full of activity fueled by the knowledge that the perfect sparkling days won’t last long.  But now forest creatures are stuffing themselves nut-chubby, huddling wetly under dripping cedar branches, wiggling out of the saturated soil in search of pockets of aeration. A hummingbird braves pounding raindrops the size of his eyes to suck sugar water from my feeder.

This sense of “it won’t last long” is everywhere these days. A thick yellow carpet of cast-off bigleaf-maple leaves sends up a gentle glow from the forest floor.  The irises that were a housewarming present have gone to glorious seed, their brilliant orange berries brightening the kitchen window. A photo taken by a friend shows me for the first time that the top of my head is growing gray.

As winter nears, trees concentrate their efforts on their roots, branches, and buds. Their showy leaves, which have been so helpful in spring and summer in turning sunlight into tree food, now become a drain on the trees’ resources. If you look closely at the stem-ends of the fallen leaves, you can see their abscission zones: the cutoff area formed when shortening daylength triggers chemical changes that keep nutrients from reaching the leaf, weakening it so that it drops off. The tree needs to release its leaves to conserve its energy in the challenging season of winter.

Abscission zone in Bigleaf Maple leaf

I know the feeling. I’ve loved my active, out-in-the-world life and my career as a professor. Academics’ time of rebirth isn’t spring, but fall, when new students sprout in our classrooms and we start the annual cycle of the school year, watering and fertilizing our promising young seedlings throughout the winter months.

This fall, though, it feels like time for abscission, for cutting out and letting go of the things that don’t feed my roots. I need my nutrients now for writing, photography, time outdoors that feeds my intimacy with my beloved natural world. My roots need to grow more deeply into the soil, to tap new nutrients and to brace better against winter storms.

Because it won’t last long, this life of mine. Genetically, I’m likely to last well into my 90’s and perhaps even beyond. But the shadow of Alzheimer’s always lurks, and weakening bones, and fading vision: the gifts of body and mind that we give back one by one.

This is the season to choose soil over air; soul over show. Because now is never long enough.