Tag Archives: geology

Just Keep the Bear


The Burke Museum’s Environmental Writing Program is coming up soon! See details at end of post.

When writing in the field, keep a lookout for bears. (Photo link here; Creative Commons license CC0, public domain.)

John McPhee won the undying allegiance of many of my generation of geologists by getting away with writing 720 riveting pages about geology and publishing them over twelve years as a series in the New Yorker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux later published the essays in book form as Annals of the Former World, for which McPhee was awarded a Pulitzer.

Although I’ve never met McPhee in person, during my years as a researcher I have met geologists who know him. Kathy Cashman, who now holds an endowed chair at the university of Bristol, taught for a while at Princeton, where McPhee has worked for more than four decades. Kathy told me that every year, McPhee gave a talk to the Princeton geology department. Then she chuckled.

During his most recent such talk, she said, he had read to the audience a list of his favorite geology terms; perhaps subnivean, sussultatory, hyaloclastite, or feldspathic litharenite (a type of sandstone whose name has a delightful anapestic rhythm). Apparently he didn’t include my own favorites, quaquaversal vergence (referring to the orientation of rock layers that come together toward a center) and palinspastic (a type of geologic map showing past rock configurations). Cashman said you could tell the audience scientists’ specialties by which words didn’t trigger laughter: the terms that were just everyday vocabulary to them but hilarious to everyone else.

Could this be quaquaversal vergence? Dinosaur National Monument, National Park Service photo, public domain.

For all of his verbal virtuosity, McPhee confesses that he gets stuck—and not only that, his writer daughters do as well. In his recent craft book, Draft No. 4 (based on his New Yorker article of the same name), he says that when his older daughter Jenny was a fresh college graduate, she called him one evening, miserable because she could simply not generate any words. “Who am I kidding?” Jenny asked about her desire to be a writer. Her younger sister Martha, like Jenny a well-published novelist, phones McPhee, he writes, “nine times a day to tell me that writing is impossible.” And of course his writing students arrive regularly with “howling cries” about how they cannot possibly produce another word.

Here’s what McPhee tells them, as if writing to a student named Joel:

Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do?

Curious polar bear at truck window. Photo by Steven Kazlowski via Burke Museum website.

You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.

Kodiak Brown Bear at Dog Salmon Creek. Photo by David Menke, US Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain. Link here.

I’ve been working for what feels like forever on an essay about a topic I’m passionate about. For long months, I felt completely stuck. Not being able to write about something I loved so much was incredibly frustrating, and I began to doubt myself as a writer.

I wondered how long “forever” actually was, so I checked; the first related file is dated one year ago yesterday. But the piece is based on a blog post I wrote back in 2013, so its seed has been lying dormant for years, waiting for its soil to be rendered fertile by some mysterious confluence of light and soft Seattle drizzle and an earthworm taking a particular path through earthy granules of rocks long disaggregated.

But I do remember how the sprouted seed finally poked through the ground one day. I had gotten so utterly tired of looking at the same old words in the same old draft, twiddling around unproductively rearranging them in hopes of generating some new energy that could drive the green fuse finally upward again.

Sprouting seed. Public domain, license CC0 1.0 Universal. Link here.

Then an idea fluttered gently onto my shoulder. I simply started a new file for the new material, which I called “Ending.” I should have named it “Bear.” No old leaden sentences weighing me down, no being dragged backward into stale editing. The blank page invited new words that turned into new ideas, and I worked happily, finishing the piece in six weeks.

McPhee’s book is called “Draft No. 4” for a good reason; Draft No. 1’s whole purpose is just to get words on the page, not to be “good.” (Anne Lamott memorably refers to the requisite “shi–y first draft.”) McPhee writes, “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people…. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4.”

I realize in retrospect that part of my problem was being careful. I wanted to write a really good first draft (of course). But my freedom came when I released myself from that unreachable standard.

My father has always loved wordplay, and when as kids my brothers and I got ready to run around outside, he’d caution us not to “be careful,” but to keep bearful. And now I realize just how excellent his advice truly was.

I’ve submitted the new essay to several journals, so its fate is now in the hands of good editors who will guide its next incarnations. And it may come back home for replanting. But now I can turn my attention to seeing what kind of bear wants to be born next.

Coastal Brown Bear Mother and Cubs. License: CC0 Public Domain. Link here.

* * * * *

Want to dig into nature writing in your own soil? The Burke Museum in Seattle is offering a one-day environmental writing program called “Inspire, Observe, Inhabit” on April 7, 2018. Not only will you get classroom instruction, but you’ll get to go into the field, the true home of nature writing. Instructors are Lynn Brunelle, Claudia Castro Luna, and Jonathan White, who’ve written books, essays, and poetry about nature in both urban and wilderness contexts. More details are available on the Burke’s website.

And while you’re there, you might ask them how to keep bearful.

Grizzly Bear. By Mattyman17 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


The Original Elves

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula


The stiff Icelandic wind picked up as we made our way across the lava plain at Hellnar. As the day turned into late afternoon, dark clouds gathered beyond the rocky cliffs. In the boulders’ lengthening shadows, I could almost make out the huldufólk—elves, the “hidden people”—that most Icelanders secretly believe in. In this raw country, the huldufólk will let you know if you’re on their rocky turf as you try to build a road or other human construction; they’ll break your equipment or otherwise harass you until you come to your senses and change your plans.

Elvish Icelandic topography

Elvish Icelandic topography

Valdimar Hafstein, Professor of Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland, says that in this land, “elves represent nature in the heart of culture; the places attributed to them are wilderness in the midst of cultivation. These places – rocks, hills, ponds – are taboo, they must not be fished in, messed with, moved or mowed; they must not, that is to say, be brought into culture.”

Indeed, Iceland feels like a land where natural magic pervades human settlement. It’s a land of rainbows, land of waterfalls, land of light and mist.

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland


Land of light and mist: sunset at Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

In Iceland, the earth literally splits to show what is hidden elsewhere in the world. The jagged rocks that tore our boots as we walked were born of inner fire, of the slow dance of plate tectonics. East of our hike, the majestic valley at Thingvellir (Þingvellir, as the Icelanders write it) runs north-south through Iceland’s center. Its serene lakes and narrow clefts mark the boundary between two massive tectonic plates that are sailing slowly apart, allowing hot magma to well up from the earth’s interior. When the deep molten flow emerges from the rift, it cools to form the basaltic rock underpinning our trek.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, central Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Iceland is the only place where the Mid-Atlantic Rift comes to the surface; usually it’s deep underwater. This makes Iceland a rare large landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—so it’s a sought-after waystation for migratory birds. Most of them had left for gentler winter climates by the time we arrived, but still we encountered Eurasian Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Gulls, Redwings, Redshanks, and other new-to-me species.

* * * * *

To catch our breath and warm up before we began the last leg of our coastal hike, we stopped at Hellnar’s Prímus Kaffi. Enjoying exquisite hot chocolate and hearty soup, we saw yet again that Icelanders clearly have their priorities straight:

2015-9-23-5540-We just have each other

“We Just Have Each Other.”

Refreshed, we resumed our hike over the rough terrain. We were aiming toward Londrangar, whose volcanic spire looked like a Valkyrie’s Valhalla.

Londrangar, Iceland

Londrangar, Iceland

On rocky crags jutting out of the stormy sea, Greater Black-backed Gulls noisily claimed dominion. Common Eiders paddled through the waters below while cormorants flapped heavily above them. As usual, I was the last along the trail, slowing to photograph this unique landscape.

Suddenly I saw Jess and Rob start to wave frantically at me while putting a finger to their lips for silence. Moving as quietly as I could toward them, I saw why they were excited: a stunning Arctic Fox, virtually hidden among the boulders, chewing on the last remains of a gull. When he stood up, I could see  his thick brown fur, made to withstand the winter here near the Arctic Circle, and his penetrating yellow eyes  sharp with intelligence.

Arctic Fox with "fangs" of gull feathers

Arctic Fox with “fangs” of gull feathers

We froze in place, riveted by this rare encounter. Arctic Foxes aren’t endangered, but they’re smart at blending into the landscape, so we were lucky to spot one. Most photos I’ve seen of Arctic Foxes show them as white, with dark brown eyes, so I felt even more fortunate to spot a “blue-morph” individual. You can probably guess that the white version is better adapted to disappear against the snow and ice at the higher elevations of inland Iceland.


Photo credit: USFWS/Keith Morehouse. ]CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But here on the coast, where the climate is milder—meaning the temperature only goes down to around 20°F—this fox’s darker color will let him blend with the boulders, helping him sneak up on prey.

Arctic Fox on the prowl

Arctic Fox on the prowl

He can make a good living here on the coast because he thrives on seabirds and marine invertebrates. And that also means he’s likely to deal well with climate change: he’s a generalist in a robust, resilient habitat. His home provides abundant resources and will keep providing even when other habitats become more difficult. Other Arctic Foxes in less isolated northern places, like Russia and Scandinavia, may have a tougher time as animals from more temperate places move into their warming homes, competing with the Arctic Foxes for prey.

* * * * *

As Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox is Icelanders’ closest local natural relative. Might these sturdy creatures of lava and lichen be the original elves of Iceland, hidden from human perception, living in crannies and crags alongside people’s less earthen homes, with ancient wisdom in their shining eyes?

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Wherever we live, the landscape is replete with secret elven spirits. My Pacific Northwest beaches hide hermits, my forests hold birds who disappear—literally—into the woodwork, and high-altitude shrubs in the Cascades Mountains host hungry grasshoppers.

Your home’s land has its spirits as well, alive and thriving beyond or beneath human perception. But as far as I can tell, most of our local elves, unlike the huldufólk of Iceland, aren’t able to turn away bulldozers, reroute roads, or set climate policy. That’s where we come in, defending nature in the heart of culture, as Hafstein put it: being their voices as we learn to dwell with foxes and other elves, honoring homes of all forms, preserving some wilderness in the midst of cultivation on our changing planet. The elves need us, because after all

We Just Have Each Other.

Grand Canyon 1: Rivertime

Glowing canyon walls, Lower Saddle camp, river mile 47.6

A palette of reds, yellows, oranges feeds broad horizontal brush strokes, lit by constantly shifting light on the canvas of the river’s song. Time has shifted to rivertime, where the day starts in the dark with the boat guides’ coffee call, and flows along with the swirling brown water, undivided into minutes and hours but distinguished by rapids, beaches, side canyons. Evening begins whenever we pull over to a camping spot on a soft beach, set up our sleeping pads, read or chat until dinner; it becomes night when I crawl onto my pad and collapse into dreams under the hot wafting air, bats flippeting overhead against a rippling backdrop of stars and planets.

Dusk falls in the Grand Canyon

Bat (left-center) against Grand Canyon night sky

Two weeks of rafting down the Grand Canyon has brought me back into a primordial flow, an easier presence to natural rhythms without the overlays of clock time, homework, the meta-level organizing required to run everyday life. I spend my days gasping in astonishment at the evolving beauty of cliffs towering over me, geologic time recorded in the tilted cross-beds of sand swept by ancient winds, fossil remains of crinoids and nautiloids preserved in their original coffins of soft muck now hardened, frozen lava-falls from more recent times.

Crinoid stem and pinnules from Redwall Cavern, Grand Canyon (river mile 33). (The stem is about 2-3 cm long.) This animal lived between 350-330 million years ago, and looked like a sea lily.

Lava flow in Grand Canyon, about 750,000 years old.

(Astonished, that is, when I’m not frozen myself in fear as we approach yet another churning rapid, our trip leader repeating her mantra to once again cinch down our life vests and hold on really tight this time. Apparently other people find these rapids fun and thrilling, and either I’m the only one terrified for my life on a daily basis or the others are better than I am at hiding their anxiety. Anyway, I have survived!)

Perhaps it was just ongoing sleep deficit, but as I got less and less verbal during our adventure, I wondered whether the canyon was calling me into a more profound presence that went below words. Even though some of my trip-mates turned out to be kindred spirits with whom I knew I could talk for hours at home, as we coursed through the canyon’s curves, I found I didn’t have that much to say or ask. Chatty conversation would have required a real effort to dredge myself up from rivertime’s depths; sitting in silence, letting beauty and spirit seep into my bones was enough.

Grand Canyon, lower end, nearing Lake Mead

(I’ll be posting more about the Grand Canyon in future entries, and more photos are posted on my Flickr page.)