Monthly Archives: May 2005

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new blog alert

Dynamic desert ecologist Daniel Patterson has a new blog, with politics and nature stuff from my second-favorite US city. In his work life, Daniel’s done some fantastic stuff defending desert ecosystems, especially the ORV-riding-yahoo-infested Algodones Dunes near Yuma. His blog promises to be an good read. Go say hello.

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Summing vectors

I started college at 14. Dropped out at 16. Tried to reÔøΩnroll four years later, talked my way into being accepted into the political science department at Buffalo State College, but found I was ineligible for the financial aid I was counting on. Under the terms of my parents’ divorce, Dad was supposed to pay child support on each of us kids until we reached 18. The fact that I hadn’t been 18 for a couple years, and the fact that we kids never had dime one of that money spent on us, are matters for another time. The important thing is that I was listed as a dependent on Dad’s tax forms, and was thus out of luck as far as receiving grants or loans went. No Political Science department for me; hello, fifteen years of manual labor at subsistence wages.

It’s been a while since I spent any time regretting that missed opportunity: my intellectual life is varied and rewarding.

In fact this morning, reading this post and subsequent comments over at Crooked Timber, I found myself feeling a profound gratitude to my parents for inadvertently helping to spike my renascent academic career.

It’s an interesting post. Complex systems are endlessly fascinating, and social networks are an accessible, familiar, and fractally intricate example of said complexity. A less-hidebound person might take note of the fact that some physicists find the work of some social scientists valuable enough to devote some attention to its (in this case near-literal) ramifications, and ask what this says about current thought in the complexity biz. Or one might point out that this kind of stuff is old hat, that Murray Gell-Mann helped found the complex systems program at the Santa Fe Institute for a reason, and that nonetheless the work at issue is kinda interesting.

I’m solidly in the second camp. The dot-line drawings at issue here are being claimed by some in the thread as an innovation of social scientists whose work has been tragically and offensively ignored by those damn physicists. There is, however, no mention in the thread of the long-term use of very similar heuristics in the fields of population biology, chemical and theoretical ecology, or systems analysis. I spent about a week ten years ago sitting in a room with Fritjof Capra and Sym VanDerRyn, the three of us drawing very similar graphs of ecological relationships in fields varying from wildlife biology to literary criticism to mathematical modeling — that last was amusingly recursive. So where’s our goddamned cite?

You’d think someone who’d devoted their life to intellectual inquiry would find gratification in having his or her ideas taken seriously. The “how dare they think about my idea” notion always leaves me breathless. The fact that people could discuss a study of who cites whom and get pissed off that someone wasn’t cited in the work studying who cites whom and not see the humor in their anger is frightening indeed. This is the only time I’ll likely type the next four words: Henry Kissinger was right. To think I might have wasted even a small part of my only life on this pointless turf warfare. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for setting me on a better course.

Sophie and Liam

My niece is becoming one of my favorite photographic subjects, for what are probably rather obvious reasons.

It’s just too bad she hates having her picture taken.

Her brother Liam celebrated his third birthday yesterday. He and I have been having better and better conversations these days, as his vocabulary grows (and mine too.) Executive summary of yesterday’s discussion: his favorite noise is “moo.”

Here’s something I wrote after meeting Liam for the first time. Odd: it seems far longer ago than a mere three years.

Redbuds

In late spring, my wife Becky and I went to Palo Alto to visit our nephew Liam, in residence at the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, where he had been born a few days previous. His parents were tired and inordinately happy. We took turns in the nursery, dancing around the two-visitor maximum, Becky’s sister Lisa practicing at feeding her son, husband Michael chatting outside with the overflow relatives.

Liam is big and fit, with black hair. His hobbies include eating, sleeping, and attempting to swallow his right hand. I introduced myself as the uncle that buys the good beer; he squinted at the light and sleepily stuck his face in the crook of my elbow.

When he’d finished eating, we took the new parents out for dinner. Heading for the car I noticed for the first time that the lot was fringed with western redbuds, planted every ten feet or so in big concrete containers. Each tree bore a full crop of seeds, which hung from the branches in dry, crackly pods. I grabbed a handful and put them in my shirt pocket.

The western redbud, Cercis occidentalis, is an admirable little deciduous tree — a maximum of 25 feet tall — that ranges from the coast as far east as Utah and Texas. Adapted to the semiarid foothills and low ranges of the west, it’s a deceptively lush tree that can withstand lengthy drought. Like the other species in genus Cercis, it blooms blinding red on bare wood a month or more before the first leaves emerge. Around here, redbuds bloom as early as February — feeding hungry winter-resident hummingbirds — and hold that bloom until April or so. Eventually, cool blue leaves the shape of hearts emerge in a loose canopy. Plainly visible under the leaves, leguminous seedpods start out magenta and dry an appealing brown, food for ranging goldfinches.

Despite the redbud’s perfectly fine appearance post-bloom it’s the flowers that named the tree. Brilliant reds at the end of winter are few and far between in the wild, even in this temperate clime. Redbuds have gained ardent admirers. The species has become a seasonal totem for many in California’s dry, rugged hills. There’s a Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society in Placer County, and Lake County’s Audubon chapter named itself after the tree as well.

Other Cercis species in other places are admired just as much. Take Oklahoma, for instance, which has adopted the eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis, as its official state tree. The Eastern species is substantially similar to the western: a bit taller, its flowers more pink than magenta. My grandparents in rural New York had an eastern redbud in their garden, a day’s drive north of the tree’s native range: each year it blazed deep pink before the apple trees had quite roused from their winter slumber.

One morning a number of years ago my grandfather woke up, put on pants and a white button-down work shirt, cinched his thin tie up around his Adam’s apple, walked down the stairs to the living room, and died. It took some time to collect his eight kids, spread across the country, and grandkids spread even further. The house was full after the funeral, and eventually I went outside. I don’t know whether the redbud had picked that day to bloom, or whether I was just noticing it now with the ceremonies out of the way. Every branch, every airy twig was cloaked in deep rose.

I see blooming redbuds nowadays, and my grandfather arrives with a jolt. Their blossoms smell of his Prince Albert tobacco, and of the burning solder in his workshop.

They say gourd seeds germinate best if the planter curses them loudly. Basil is the same way: the French phrase semer le basilic, “sowing basil seed,” is a quaint idiom for using hostile language. Western redbud seeds are made of sterner stuff. Curse at them all you like, and yet they remain inert. As is true of many other chaparral plants, redbud’s seeds are hermetically sealed in a tough coat, proof against the fickle false springs and summer rains that cause more eager seeds to sprout too early or too late. It takes a season or two of harsh weather to cajole the redbud’s seeds to open, and maybe more than that.

Or fire. Redbud is one of those native plants that revegetates burned-over areas: a seed an inch or so below the burning duff finds in the inferno the stimulus it needs to start a new life as a tree. One method of sprouting redbud seeds for the home garden involves a paper bag. Place the seeds in the bag, set it on fire, let it burn all the way down, and sow the roasted seed. If that seems extreme one can bring a pitcher of water to a rolling boil, remove from heat, let cool for five minutes and then add the redbud seeds. Once the water has cooled the rest of the way to room temperature, plant the seeds in pots, and keep them moist. In a year or two, perhaps three, some of them will germinate.

The process is called “scarification,” the same word used to describe the making of permanent marks on human skin. I suppose it’s only fair for me to scarify the seeds I collected from those parking lot redbuds, as the tree has certainly left its mark on me. And if the remembered scent of pipe tobacco is now mixed with that of disinfectant and my newborn nephew’s scalp, well, my grandfather will just have to get used to having a little company up in that tree.

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In memoriam

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!  An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918

Wabi-sabi

The mountains are still there, and the valley. Clouds still gather around the peaks, loose snow and rain onto the high polished granite. Spring still comes to melt the ice, to send it trickling down the near-vertical creeks that drain into the Owens River. Sky pilot and tamarack still push out new leaves cell by tiny cell.

Dust still swirls around the floor of the old lake. Winds still raise devils to waltz across the river’s saline sump.

The rocks are still where Kuichiro Nishi placed them. They may have shifted an inch to the left, tilted five degrees to the east. It doesn’t matter. It was planned for.

There is a phrase in Japanese — “wabi-sabi” — that resists translation into English. Wabi, roughly, means the kind of beauty conveyed by imperfections. Sabi means the kind of beauty conferred by age. Together, they stand for an aesthetic prizing a natural geometry, rough edges and apparent random simplicity. Never mind that Nishi spent months planning the rocks’ placement, all of them carted from the nearby mountains. Their edges, their faces look as if a blade of mother rock has just barely pierced the desert soil, there to crumble.

All things are impermanent.
All things are imperfect.
All things are incomplete.
This is the essence of wabi-sabi.

One hundred and seventeen thousand people were removed from their homes, shipped like cargo to the camps. The litany of place names is a geography of heartbreak: Tule Lake, Topaz, Heart Mountain.

Manzanar.

All they had worked for was stripped away, sold to neighbors for pennies on the dollar. Some held out hope that should this trouble ever end, their white friends would return the property they’d been lent. That day was far off.

They built furniture from scrap pallets, planted vegetables in the firebreaks.  Kuichiro Nishi planted roses, dug a dry streambed, arranged stones around it. Young people posed for wedding photos.

The barracks, the hospital and canteen were torn down a half century ago, their weathered timbers salvaged for barns. A new building holds historical displays, a searing and thorough apology made architecture. It sits on the land, but recognizably does not belong to it. Tourists read the essays, watch the newsreels.  Some weep. Others scowl. Back into the tour bus and on to Death Valley they go.

Nishi’s roses are long dead. All things are impermanent. The stones grow a crop of rabbitbrush and aster now. All things are imperfect. Red brome grass fills the streambed. All things are incomplete. This is a most beautiful place. I cannot bear to walk among these stones.