Monthly Archives: April 2009

Morning

Cactus wren call and the smell of blackbrush. Four months since I woke in the Joshua tree forest. Sage sparrows and wind through pointed leaves. Four months ago I awoke after sleeping little. Patches of snow in the shade of Joshua trees.

There are mornings so cold they hurt. In January I could not tie my boots and the coffee was frozen. These days the sun creeps up slow and lingering behind Avikwame, behind the Castle Peaks, behind Kessler Peak in the Ivanpah Range, and though the first direct shards of sunlight may throw themselves down against sleeping forms I am not one of them.

Cactus wrens and the whir of grasshoppers. On warm mornings there is the temptation to linger. The ground is hard and first night’s sleep comes reluctantly. I awake a hundred times, glance blurrily up at the reassuring stars, pull the sleeping bag up over my face. Even in April there would be chill at 5,500 feet and three in the morning. Glasses stuck away in my left boot against the possibility that I will step on them, or worse that a woodrat will haul them deep into a midden somewhere, and now and then I will take them out, compel the blurry stars to resolve. Hard sleep comes at last an hour before first light. Each morning in the desert an ache, a slow procession of black rock becoming deep burnt russet, sky black then indigo then red, and the cactus wrens drill their songs into my head.

The sun will break free of the earth, surmount these peaks incarnadine. In a few hours it will drive all shadow from the forest floor, feed the swelling cells of the Yucca and Menodora. The Uta and the Xantusia will bask their lizard bodies in it, but I will not see them.

It has been too long since I have been home.

Pointer

I’ve literally been pulling 20-hour workdays getting The Clade up, so not much in the way of writing from me here. (It’s not self-sacrifice: I can use the site as a piece of my web site building portfolio.) Even before launch, contributors have jumped on board and we’ve got some great stuff already live over there. Check it out. And jump on board yourself!

Underfoot

Verdugo Hills Resident

Hiking pal Erica and I found this cute little guy in the Verdugo Hills, between Burbank and La Cañada Flintridge. We’d been warned about his (?) presence by a mountain biker with a golden lab puppy, who apparently tossed rocks at it to get it to move off the trail. The mountain biker tossed rocks at it, I mean. Presumably the dog did not. Golden lab puppies in my experience tend toward a view of snakes that falls somewhere on the plane defined by the three points “stick,” “friend,” and “meat,” and interactions based on this worldview can easily end badly for both puppy and snake, so I didn’t begrudge the guy the stone-throwing, though I did wince to hear of it.

“It’s a big one,” the biker said. “Three feet long!” He was holding his hands four feet apart.

I was kind of hoping we’d find a rattler this morning. Larry Hogue and I saw a coltish 12-inch juvenile in Runyon Canyon a couple of weeks ago, as meek and inoffensive a deadly venomous creature as you’d ever hope to see, trying to cross the fire road as joggers and bicyclists bore down on it, looking for all the world like a hemotoxic version of Frogger. I’d neglected to take the long lens on our walk that day, and missed getting a photo. I took the camera today, long lens attached.

A strange thing: after a half century of trying to shed the snake-fear Dear Old Mom layered over her toddler’s innate herpetophilia, I seemed to have finally done so with that Runyon Canyon snake: I felt only joy in seeing it there, mere inches from my boots.  This one today was mere inches from Erica’s low-cut running-shoe-style hikers. Fortunately for both Erica and the snake, she noticed him at the last moment and levitated nicely. The snake didn’t flinch at all, nor did it rattle or in any way behave as though it felt threatened or beleaguered, despite the previous rock-throwing. As I suspected, the snake wasn’t anywhere near three or four feet long: the well-documented phenomenon of crotalid linear folkloric inflation had increased his putative length by the usual factor of two.

I took the above and a few other photos and we walked a little ways out to a promontory with a view of the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys.

When we doubled back I didn’t see the snake. “He seems to have taken off,” I said, to which Erica replied “no, he’s just coiled under that plant.” I’d walked past his face, well within striking distance. He could easily have ruined my day, and yet he didn’t.

My affection for rattlesnakes grows. What sweet and noble animals they are.

Announcing The Clade

This is one of the things I’ve been working on: a community environmental site, which anyone able to write (or paint or photograph or whatever) can join and post to, for free. All you need is a bit of HTML knowledge, some content, and the ability to write in complete sentences.

The idea has been germinating for some time, but became a bit more urgent recently when I noticed that the major environmental sites online seemed to have gone completely over to climate coverage at the expense of endangered species and a whole host of other issues that are every bit as crucial, and ominous, as climate change.

I’m going to make it as easy as possible to post, from web forms, email or your smart phone, and within a few sensible guidelines — no hate speech, no climate denialism, etc — contributors will have free rein over their own material. Essays and long-form journalism are strongly encouraged, but even if you only crosspost something from your own blog every once in a while — even if you stick to one-off links with a sentence of explanation — you’re invited to come on board.

Contributors’ guidelines and an FAQ of sorts will be up by 4/20/09. In the meantime, spread the word.

Regarding the Mexican Wolf

Mexican wolf
Taking a break from educating the public at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

I’ve been quiet here for a little bit. Some of the reason is that I’ve been busy with a couple of other projects, one of which I’ll be saying more about here in a few days. Some of the reason is jobhunting. Some of the reason is writer’s block, though it’s been an odd kind that allows me to write the things I’ve been procrastinating on and not so much on the blog posts.

And some of it is the sense that I’ve gotten, these last few weeks, that trying to express how I feel is close to futile. I have enough trouble talking sometimes. A few weeks ago The Raven and I were driving after sunset through the West Mojave. We watched the sky turn indigo, then violet, then ultraviolet behind the silhouetted Joshua trees. I tried to explain to her just how poignant and important the moment was, the way my heart felt itself wanting to open up and pour itself out onto the creosote, but I couldn’t. I mumbled something about feeling viscerally at home, and she nodded, and what I said wasn’t inaccurate but it didn’t even come close.

I have spent so much of my life waiting for my life to start. When the school day ends or the semester comes to a close, when that longed-for time off work arrives, then I’ll start the important stuff: the fire-sitting, the star-counting. I sat alone once tending a fire on the east side of the Sierra Nevada and remembering the fire before, some months earlier in the desert, and all the intervening meetings and trips to the hardware store, all the evenings spent agonizing over deadlines seemed evanescent, dream-stuff. It was as if I awoke every few months to my real life, tending small campfires twenty miles from the next-nearest person, and all the intervening business of keeping my economic soul afloat a mere vapor, dissipating, dissolving in the piñon smoke.

I suppose that means I’m a solipsist at heart. Fortunately I’m reasonably sure I’m not the only solipsist here. And what a healthy solipsism it is compared to the solipsism instilled by the onlife life, if you can call it that. I stood far off in the sidelines last week and watched a few people flame out in response to a post written by a woman who was remembering the value of life offline. Little by little our lives contract, each of us confined to a smaller space, and eventually we cease to strain against our tethers. A while later we rage against anyone who would remind us we are bound at all.

It’s not that the people we talk to online aren’t real: almost all of them are. It’s that we do that talking sitting alone, asses in chairs staring at a screen, in a limbo with neither company nor solitude.

The Raven and I went to Tucson this past weekend, lying awake nights listening to the coyotes singing as they hunted the Easter Bunny. I took the photo above at a zoo there. It’s a fine zoo, perhaps the best in the world, with an emphasis on habitat restoration and native species, a good enough zoo that you don’t think of it as one. The animals are kept in habitats far more capacious than most zoo enclosures, with opportunities for privacy and exercise. The wolves in particular are participants in the coordinated attempt to maintain a breeding population, without which the subspecies would almost certainly have vanished by now.

Still, they’re zoo wolves. I framed the shot above as naturalistically as possible, enough so that one could easily imagine I’d snuck up on her as she snoozed in a high-mountain bosque somewhere, shade dappling her gorgeous fur. I like the image, even though I’d have centered her if I had it to do over again. I’m pleased to have the shot to share with you, and I think it looks nice there at the top of the page, a deserty, heartbreakingly familiar image. And yet the image is two-dimensional. It shows someone in confinement whose natural state is utterly unconfined. It’s a flat website image of a truncated life, comfortable and healthy and well-loved and nonetheless deprived of the integral life she could have had in the wild, and that wild itself a trammeled, dismembered version of what it ought to be, what it deserves to be.

That resonates with me for some reason.