Monthly Archives: May 2007

No more Zeke

Zeke’s popularity among readers of this blog has been a great help to me in the last months. I can never repay the kindnesses you have shown, and I will always be grateful.

I’m not going to be writing about him here anymore, at least not in the manner in which I have been. He may pop up as a character in a story here and there, but he won’t be the subject of any more posts.

Writing for one’s audience is a tempting thing, and I don’t think it’s entirely a bad impulse. There’s been another dog at work here, one owned by a guy named Pavlov. People comment more on the Zeke posts, and I find myself responding to that in choosing what to write about.

Someone once referred to the writing I do here as being in the “open a vein and bleed through the keyboard” mode, or something similar. It’s not a bad description of the way I write, for good or ill. There are drawbacks to the technique. Writing about one’s experience of the inevitable sorrow in one’s life inevitably opens the door to people who will tell you you’re not feeling the proper emotions. My patience for that sort of response is thin enough at the best of times. Yesterday it made me want to do violence to my computer.

There is enough sentiment these days out in the blog world, attached to arguments I have studiously avoided, that by the act of writing a blog one is obligated to write about certain things: the underreported political issue of the moment, the taking of sides in inter-blog arguments. If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know how I feel about that assumption of obligation. It’s enough these days to utterly deprive me of the desire to write about anything political. Pile upon that the assertion that my feeling of loss, as expressed in a post, is egotistical because it doesn’t fit someone’s personal religious beliefs (based on a shallow misinterpretation of zen aphorisms at that) and I come close to tossing this thing out onto the Wayback Machine scrap heap.

Besides, even I’m getting bored with my whining about my dead dog.

So I’m taking him backstage again: he is, after all, my dead dog and not the Internet’s. To all of you who have sent their best wishes, commiseration, shared grief and shared stories, I can’t express how grateful I am. You truly touched us.

When I feel like writing about something else, it’ll show up here.

Tylecodon pearsonii

Tylecodon pearsonii
Tylecodon pearsonii

This morning was one of two exceptions. Sunday morning was the other. Otherwise it has been an unbroken string, four months of mornings, of that befuddled emergence from dreams to waking life, each varied dream truncated with morning light and gravity jostling me into the mattress and The Realization. It doesn’t matter what the dream is from which I awaken, whether he is a character in it or nonexistent or irrelevant. The Realization comes each morning before I am fully awake, before reason begins to diffuse into sleep to attenuate it.

He is gone. He is gone.

I carry out my daily tasks, for the most part. I laugh. I am joyous. I am angry. I go whole days without succumbing. But there it is, a fire I must walk through each day on rising, the smoke smell to linger in my nostrils all day, sometimes so strongly that I can smell nothing else.

It is not sadness, exactly.

I think it is insanity. Weeks of not going to the desert — a trip desperately needed — because of my duty to tend to a hole in the ground. Nights of panic when I realized at midnight I had forgotten to tell that hole in the ground good night, to tell it what had happened that day. Nothing else made sense. A wind-wave of a tule flower, an inch back and forth on a five-foot stem, could make the floor fall out of my heart. I felt the existence of life on Earth had been intended to give rise to him, and now that he was gone that world should fall apart, crumble and scatter in the wind, a dessicated chrysalis outgrown and shed, discarded.

Insanity. Death is the point of life and this whole pulsing world a cauldron of it, his death no tragedy though I am stricken with it, his life a happy story though it will sadden me from this day on. I am emerging, slowly.

I still talk each day to a hole in the ground.

Two months ago I found a little plant I liked, a Tylecodon pearsonii. The clerk was hesitant. “Do you have children?” No. “A dog or cat?” A rabbit. He warned me to keep the plant away from the rabbit. It is the most toxic plant to be found in South Africa, responsible for many livestock deaths a year, and he handled it once ungloved and his lips were numb for hours, so potent were the glycosides in the sap. “If a leaf falls off this plant and a bird picks it up, you have a dead bird.”

Death glistens in the front porch sun; life buried dark and deep out back. The front porch doesn’t tempt me. I tear my leaves from off Zeke’s grave, oregano and basil and sage, each of them full of evolved poisons, phenols and terpenes, ketones, methoxylated benzenes. It is all a matter of increment, and the herbs cut through the smoke.

“Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” by Lucinda Williams

These ol’ woods are kinda quiet, there’s never too much hoppin’ here
I think I know the guy that owns ‘em, but he won’t see me stoppin’ here
He lives a few miles down the road over in the next town
The snowflakes are lost angels, they look kinda pretty comin’ down
Oh the woods are fillin’ up,
Branches brimmin’ like an overfilled cup,
Miles to go before I sleep.
Hey hey, miles to go before I sleep
Miles to go before I sleep.
Miles to go before I sleep.
Hey hey, miles to go before I sleep.

I got a horse that thinks I’m crazy, he shivers and he snorts
He don’t know why I made him stop here, he’s not the contemplatin’ sort
He shakes his sleighbells like some old time Christmas kinda thing
Aside from that and the snortin’ it’s quiet, can’t hear anything
Except the wind out on the lake,
He thinks there must be some mistake.
Miles to go before I sleep.
Hey hey, miles to go before I sleep
Miles to go before I sleep.
Miles to go before I sleep.
Hey hey, miles to go before I sleep.

Miles to go before I sleep,
Miles to go before I sleep.
Miles to go before I sleep,
Miles to go before I sleep.
Miles to go before I sleep,
Miles to go before I sleep.

You know the lake is frozen over, the ice is gettin’ thick
It doesn’t snow much where I come from, when it does it doesn’t stick.
Sun goes down early here, it gets dark by four o’clock
And I got promises I gotta keep, we’d better walk
Oh I’ve been feelin’ dark and deep,
I won’t be gettin’ off so cheap,
Miles to go before I sleep.
Hey hey, miles to go before I sleep
Miles to go before I sleep.
Miles to go before I sleep.
Hey hey, miles to go before I sleep.

Looking toward Essex

looking toward essex

Night comes on the landscape long before the sky notices. The road noise in your ears has stilled, the rattle of breath in lungs has stilled, the sanguinary thrum itself has stilled and all is quiet. All is quiet, save a sage sparrow or two off in the yuccas. You can hear the shadow of the mountain travel across the valley floor.

No one in miles, no one knows where you are, and yet you are never so alone here as you are in the city. Here are the flickers and the cottontails, the orioles, the night lizards. Each one regards you frankly, threat or source of food, or source of shade. There is guile here, but not yet. The ones with guile will sing later.

Shadows deepen on the land. Your cup in gloved hands: a sip of tea, and the warmth runs down.

This is life, then, all the scurry between visits mere dreamtime. Or is it the other way around? Either way the stillness enters, an adiabatic cooling of your city mind diffusing into the violet valley air. This is what matters, this is what matters. Concern peeled off like layers of barnacle, littered the Barstow roadside, the skin beneath clean and raw. This is the whole point, is it not? To be here unencumbered. To be unencumbered here. A long life with a few such moments is well-lived, and the sky the color of longing.

The first coyote of the night, a mile away and sounding close.

The second, right behind you.

Writers

If you haven’t read Theriomorph’s blog, you should. And I’d say so even if she hadn’t linked me 18 times in the last week. Zeke’s fans will find this post the best-written thing in their day, most likely, and this post is absolutely stunning. But it’s all good stuff. O world that has such writers in it.

Speaking of which, my darling adoptive niece and coblogger-in-absentia says that she may have time to write more good stuff — whether here or at her own place she leaves unspecified. I’ll take either. Go poke her with your metaphorical reminding stick.

[Update! Funny I should think of this today: check out the date on Kat’s last entry.]

And speaking of cobloggers-in-absentia, a poll.

Meandering

Opuntia ficus-indica

Life these days has a curious lightness to it, a reprieve from worry. It is as if there is no longer anything to worry about, a palpable falsehood but there you have it.

I wake up, let the rabbit out. I chase the rabbit in and go to work. I come home and let the rabbit out. It darkens and I chase the rabbit in. A significant amount of my time is taken up with chasing rabbits these days, and I have learned from the experience. Sprinting is not a winning strategy, nor is assuming a set destination at any moment. I cannot outrun the rabbit, but I can outlast him, and I think now were I set out in the Mojave with a stick and knife I could keep myself well fed without breaking stride ever.

Were I eating mammals, I mean, which I am mainly not these days.

There are whales in the river again, humpbacks, and they have made it to the Port of Sacramento. How odd the fresh water must feel to them. How odd the sound must be in that confined current, the taste of Shasta snowmelt and Klamath rock. The authorities try to turn them back for their own good. There are too many careless knifeblade props in the water, too many who would try to jump the animals with their jet skis. Too many who would commune with them, as well. The last time this happened was a generation ago, and nothing worked to turn the whale around. He nosed up slough after muddy slough, ignoring all warnings, all entreaties, until they sang to him. They played humpback song on a boat-towed speaker, and he followed it back out through the Golden Gate.

The Sacramento is the nation’s largest unknown river. It rises in the sundew bogs of the Trinitys, the Jeffrey pine groves in the Warner Range, among the Sierran Big Trees, and all its arms, before the dams, ran cold and fast to the valley floor. There they gathered, a massive sea of snowmelt, and one braided, meandering channel to drain them into the delta’s skein of sloughs. On a flat plain a river travels more efficiently in meanders,  and the Sacramento Valley is flat.

Ord Ferry

Five foot contour lines are separated by a quarter mile on Sacramento Valley topo maps, and they hint at the river’s history. Meanders form and deepen. They build goosenecks and then cut their throats, leaving oxbows. Tiny tributary creeks follow the old abandoned riverbeds, and then the inexorable river captures them again.

“Inexorable” — from a Latin word meaning unresponsive to persuasion — is not, I suppose, precisely the right word. One can persuade a river, at least for a time. One can channel the Newtonian Imperative, chain and riprap cutbanks, break levees into floodplains. But only briefly and then all our works will be occulted, odd rills and hollows overgrown with elder and grape and morel, incongruous rises and lakes on someday’s maps. All this will be lost and yet the river flows, and nothing to worry about any longer.

Rare Earth

Of all the months to choose to finally read Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, a book I’ve long had on my “to read” list, this was probably the most fortuitous. It was a matter of chance, really. Reader S.S. saw the thing on my Amazon wish list, realized it was in a pile of books she intended to part with, and kindly sent it along to me.

I’m grateful for that, because I’ve wanted to read it for some time. What’s more, though, is that as a result I wound up reading it in the month in which scientists announced they’d found the first-known extrasolar terrestrial planet theoretically capable of supporting life. The planet, Gliese 581 C, is thought to be about one and a half times the diameter of Earth, approximately five times Earth’s mass, and revolving around its sun Gliese 581 within the “habitable zone,” a distance from the star at which liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. Gliese 581 is a red dwarf, much cooler than our Sol, and thus its habitable zone is much closer in. Gliese 581 C is about .07 Astronomical Units from its sun, and takes only 13 of your Earth days to complete a revolution around Gliese 581.

The scientists have been much more cautious than the media when it comes to fantasizing about another Earth out there. It’s not known for sure whether Gliese 581 C is actually a terrestrial planet. At five times the mass of Earth, astronomer David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Scientific American, “A five-Earth-mass planet “sort of looks like Earth, but it sort of looks like Neptune. So which is it?” If Gliese 581 C is indeed terrestrial, it could be completely covered with water — given the configuration of the other two known planets in the system, some astronomers speculate that the system has undergone planetary migration, meaning that the planets may have formed much farther from their parent star and moved inward. If Gliese 581 C formed on the cold side of its system, it could have amassed a large amount of solid water — a possible local parallel being Jupiter’s moon Europa — which would, on migrating inward, melt into a world-encompassing ocean.

Wait. Did I say the scientists were cautious? Team member Xavier Delfosse from Grenoble University may have let his excitement get the better of him when he spoke to New Scientist.

“On the treasure map of the universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X,” says Delfosse. “Because of its temperature and relative proximity, this planet will most probably be a very important target of the future space missions dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life.”

I did a little back-of-the-envelope figuring. If Voyager 1, the fastest human artifact, had been aimed at Gliese 581 instead of at some random destination in the constellation Camelopardis, it would be able to check out Gliese 581 C in only about 367,200 years. Better get that grant proposal written quick, guys.

But it’s the speculation about indigenous life on Gliese 581 C that made me glad to be reading Ward and Brownlee.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, the premise is that complex life could not have arisen nor survived long on Earth without a rather unusual sequence of events having occurred. As an absolute baseline, the solar system in question needs to be rich in “metals” — by which astronomers mean elements heavier than lithium — which the majority of such systems are not. The star must be relatively consistent in energy output, and the planet’s orbit close to circular, else the surface temperature will swing too widely for organic chemistry to be truly content. Other large planets in the system also need those circular orbits, lest they perturb the orbit of the test planet. It helps if one of those planets is large enough to suck up most of the interplanetary debris to reduce the number of planet-sterilizing impacts, as Jupiter kindly has for us. But one planet-breaking impact may be required, such as the one Earth probably got from a Mars-sized planet about four and a half billion years ago that tore both planets to shreds, the shreds re-coalescing to form the Earth-Moon system. That moon has kept the Earth’s axis from wobbling overmuch, meaning that the planet hasn’t gone through periods of millions of years with one pole pointed sun-ward and the other pole in permanent night.

That collision, if it happened, likely shaped later life on Earth in two other ways. The collision acted as a giant refinery. Much of the mass of the two planets made up of lighter elements went into orbit to become the Moon: the heavier stuffflew less far and formed Earth 2.0, which is now the densest planet in the Solar System. The other planet’s core is now part of Earth’s core. Most of the Earth’s core is liquid iron, which through processes not completely understood creates the Earth’s magnetic field. That magnetic field is the reason we can breathe: without it, the charged particles put out by the Sun — the Solar Wind — would have ablated the atmosphere away long ago.

The second way that Ward and Brownlee think that collision helped us is a bit more tenuous. Some of the heavy elements the Earth possesses in relative abundance include uranium and thorium, both of them radioactive, with some isotopes possessing extremely long half-lives. Along with the relatively light potassium 40, the radioactivity of these elements is thought to be what keeps the core as hot as it is. The core heat heats the mantle, which — being plastic — convects to disperse that heat. That convection drives plate tectonics. And if not for plate tectonics, argue Ward and Brownlee, there likely would have been no continents on Earth, and no shallow seas around them. Life on Earth would have been solely of the deep-ocean variety, and biodiversity extremely limited, quite likely enough that it could have been wiped out by any one of the early mass extinctions. No other planet in the Solar System exhibits plate tectonics, which may be rare among planets in general.

The book is admittedly Panglossian, with events that may only have influenced Earth life (such as continental weathering and its role in the carbon cycle) being offered as possible necessary preconditions for complex life. And despite Ward and Brownlee defining complex life as multicellular eukaryotic organisms, it’s clear that what they really mean is Earth-type animals. To read Rare Earth, you might decide that plants had nothing to do once their single-celled ancestors oxygenated the Precambrian atmosphere, and that space explorers finding a planet full of forests without animals would have failed to find extraterrestrial life. (In fact, in a discussion of bacteria on Martian meteorites, they explicitly say that no complex life could long survive in space, which might be news to those familiar with fungal spores, or for that matter the spores of a number of higher plants.)

But the book contains a number of important points relevant to the hubbub about Gliese 581 C. That close orbit, for instance. Planets that orbit close to their stars, or moons that orbit close to their planets, often become “tidally locked” — they, like our moon, mainly point one face at the body they orbit. Such an fate is being discussed as a likely possibility for Gliese 581 C. Scientists are talking about the blazing bright side and the cryogenic dark side being separated by a thin habitable zone, which is relevant if you’re fantasizing about colonizing the planet as an uncomfortable way station, but not so much if you’re expecting complex life to evolve and hang on over a couple billion years. Even if the planet could maintain an atmosphere somehow: can you imagine the windstorms?

And speaking of wind, we’d better hope that Gliese 581 C has an Earth-style magnetic-field-generating molten nickel-iron core. Red dwarf stars, despite being cooler and thus dimmer than our sun, apparently tend to generate significantly stronger stellar winds than does Sol. Gliese 581 C is about one-fourteenth as far from its sun as we are from ours, and its sun kicks up more plasma: unless Gliese 581 C has one heck of a planetary magnetic field, its atmosphere would have been scraped away long ago like so much balsa wood under a wire brush.

I have suggested here on previous occasions that the nerds of the world are unlikely, anytime soon, to meet buxom Andorran wenches unfamiliar with your quaint Earthling feminism. It made people unhappy. I expect the same people will be impatient with my suggestion that even if you discount the more handwavy parts of Ward and Brownlee’s book, the possibility of multicellular life on Gliese 581 C — let alone sentient life of a sort that SETI astronomers might find — depends on a couple big, less than likely “if”s. Hopeful hype aside, we still haven’t found a place nearly as suited to complex life as Earth.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches on the wall,
And waits for breakfast to drop dead,
And never blinks at all,

And rotting in the sun is smelled;
And still must be the form
That interests the hopeful bird
Competing with the worm.

When I am stretched upon the sand,
Discarded old debris,
Then comes that feathered hopeful thing
To scatter crumbs of me.

This is a dual-purpose link

It’s my favorite Amazon book review ever, and it also reminds me why I spent enough time editing Earth Island Journal.

Oh, and the reviewed book is garbage, of course. You want another reason I’m not sorry to have left EIJ, check out some of the other reviews. “All those people who dismiss this book must not have enough connection with the natural world yada yada yada.”

Shudder.

It’s illustrative that the dreams I’ve had that have been the most unsettling the last few months have had little to do with Zeke. The most unsettling dreams are the ones in which I’m back at Earth Island. Though the ones where I’m heading out to lunch with Matthew and/or Kat are OK.

Sidi h’bibi

Driving home on Wednesday I was listening to music, and suddenly realized that I was enjoying the music so much that I was grinning.

Not an unusual thing, perhaps, except that I’m pretty sure this was the first time in a few months I’ve grinned while no one else was there. Of course the metaanalysis killed the mood. Oh, well.

Here’s part of the song that did it, by Les Boukakes.

Sidi H’bibi (live 2006)