Monthly Archives: July 2011

Three years of Coyote Crossing

Wow, can it really be three years since I revamped the old blog into this new one here? I missed saying anything about the (octennial) anniversary of Creek Running North, but three years ago this week was when I dragged the laptop across the road in Nipton and uploaded the (previous) new site design, along with this very first entry. And since maybe five people read it back then, seeing as the Internets had all assumed I’d Quit Blogging Forevah, here it is again.

Coyote Crossing

Today I pulled a dead coyote pup off of the road.
He’d evidently lain out in the sun a little while,
but death and desert sun had not erased the sweet sly guile
there on his face, mute eyes with arid dignity unbowed
despite a cloak of flies. Across the road, funereal,
their hard-learned reticence sun-dulled, torpid, slow to react,
two golden eagles stared, accessories after the fact,
each one atop a Joshua tree, intent on bearing pall.
They did not want me there, preferred to dine without affront
there on the open road, the speeding trucks their camerieri.
I feared for them. It seemed to me that diners so unwary
would likely end as prizes in the next scavenger’s hunt.

They stirred, disturbed, as I resolved to keep them off the menu.
Clearly, the thing to do was to adjust this dinner’s venue.

He was so small. He would have fit within an eagle’s fist
and draughts of slow, dark wings could then have carried him aloft.
His face heartbreakingly familiar, clever and soft.
A plastic bag over my hand, I took him by the wrist.
I knew his paw so well, delicacy of nail and pad
with cracking calluses, resilient and deft, sweet down
disguised as fur, a silver-frosted white fading to brown
to cover it. It was that very paw that once had had
my own paws pace beside it and its kin, familiars,
until their path diverged from mine so irrevocably
cleft by the sickle-blade, that old familiar’s flesh set free
and mine adrift, stumbling in search of unnameable cures. 

I’ve heard the tales of travelers who perish in the wastes
mouths choked with alkali the vultures hesitate to taste.

I understand them now. I have been aridly seduced
while walking in these dead dry desert hills, by fortune cursed,
dragging my feet. Each new rise crested scrapes the swelling thirst,
each hundred yards another coil of rope to fix the noose,
and then another rise gives way beneath your plodding feet.
There, down below, a shimmering. Water! A broad blue lake
and deep, too, from the look of it, enough in there to slake
a thousand more like you without a chance that you’d deplete
or sully its abundance. Just an hour’s march beyond
and at that hour’s end you’ve seen no dwindling of your lack.
But it’s right there! Not far! No sense by now to turning back
and soon! And soon! You’ll drink it dry, that ever-shrinking pond.

I know that lakebed well. The thirsty avidly explore
and walk on blithely past the ragged bones that rim the shore.

My mouth thus alkaline I took Coyote’s paw and pulled.
His shoulders came, his head, and then a sickening delay;
and then the rest of him, mostly. A reek of flesh, decay
of sweet and guileful promise thwarted. Grieving, miserable,
I got him off the road. The seething sun relentless fumed.
Tall towers of dust spun crazily down in the valley heat.
Two hundred yards above on thermals, gained in single beats
of wing, two eagles waited for their dinner to resume.
I laid him in the granite dust under some creosote
to shade the eagles’ heads, unceremoniously kicked
a clotted pair of legbones off to where they could be picked
and cleaned at leisure, took one last sad look at poor Cayoat.

Familiar, this familiar; a synecdoche of loss
in me, and in this land, along wide roads we all must cross.

This was humiliation, a bold promise unfulfilled
brought so prematurely and so permanently low.
By rights the desert’s dauphin, scepter that wild golden glow
there in his eyes so prematurely, permanently stilled.
His smile a rictus, teeth that should have laughed now caked in dirt,
his figure meant for sleekness covered now in fetid flies.
He would have been a god here; he lay broken, compromised,
dissolving in the desert heat, insensible, inert.
And I was much the same, except the part about the god,
smelling a trifle better and still moving for the nonce,
mouth torn by alkali, my body wracked and whole at once,
a trail of salt still lingering on the hopeful path I’d trod.

Unlike me, though, he would cross yet another road today
to the far-distant side where all that’s fleshly falls away.

A hundred feet above, his wheeling vehicles descended,
solemn, near-ponderous, yet graceful verging on sublime,
the flying ferrymen to whom we all should come in time
were we to have Coyote luck when our prowling is ended.
I left before they landed. I had interfered enough,
but driving slow away I saw it clear, in my mind’s eye
the final fluttering of feather fallen from the sky;
the flash of beak and talon as they rend his mortal stuff,
and then ascension — feasting and assumption, flesh transforms
to flesh, to air, to flight, to light — to move in strong dark wings
beyond this alkaline and fleshly vale of fatal things
into Coyote sky, Coyote wind, Coyote storms.

And left to me, a task: embalm in pallid rhyme and meter
his crossing, swathed in patter as a cushion for the reader.

It is some consolation that my sojourn here is short.
That last humiliation so devoutly to be wished
still pending, and each moment now might be the one I’m fished
choke-gasping from that illusory lakebed, laid athwart
the plane of life and shaved down thin, each peeled layer sublimed
into this desert air. It is solace that the flame
in each heart won’t burn endless, that each faltering, fragile frame
will in mirage be mired, be in briny crystals rimed,
and soon enough. No use to seethe with envy of that beast
I pulled off of the roadside to be eagle sky-interred;
to each of us in turn will come some avatar of bird
to see each of us from this too, too solid flesh released.

The wheel of time turns swift and each of us to dust will grind;
the Raptor comes for all, and no one will be left behind.

Burning of sorts metaphorical and otherwise

Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

The day before yesterday Annette and I took the Jeep up into the hills, found ourselves a shady spot in a jumble of boulders in Joshua Tree National Park. It was deliciously cool, perhaps as low as 95 degrees, and ash-throated flycatchers raised a tumult in the overhanging pinyon pine. One of the birds was following the other around relentlessly, its calls just a little frantic, and then it would sidle up to its companion and gape. A fledgling and its mother, I deduced. At times the mother flew off, landed in one of the scrub oaks nearby, and the young one would head up to the top of the pinyon and shriek.

The wind through the rocks was gentle, a desert lullaby.

I’d been stuck at the computer too often, and the 110-degree ambient temps don’t inspire much activity other than napping. Whole weeks can go by without me remembering I’m in the desert as opposed to, I don’t know, a superheated city with cacti planted in the gas station verges. I needed Sunday more than I knew. Ravens soared a mile off over the Hidden Valley. I had rolled out my backpacking mattress: Annette stretched out languorously atop it. I hauled a camping chair from the Jeep, sat there with eyes shut for a while, watched the flycatchers for a while, shut my eyes again.

The scrub oaks around here used to be lumped into the species Quercus dumosa, which is how I learned them. Now they are probably Q. cornelius-mulleri, unless they’re not. I was disinclined to key them out. Scrub oaks are hard and time is fleeting. Still, I found it a little unsettling to find a place where identifying a Tyrant flycatcher is easier than identifying an oak tree.

Not a word written on the Joshua tree book since we moved, despite the drive to their National Park being shorter than some commutes I’ve had. I’d started to talk over breakfast at my frustration at paid work — for which I am grateful, don’t get me wrong — elbowing out the work on the book, and decided to go off the grid every single Monday to work on the book and nothing else. Manuscript Monday means unplugging the phone, failing to check email or TwitbookPlus, keeping the web to the minimum required to tease out a pesky fact or two from the fog of my bewildered memory, and writing as much as possible.

Fourteen years ago I hiked up the shoulder of Tabeau Peak in extreme southwestern Utah, about a mile north of the Arizona Strip. When I hiked there the scars of an old fire were plain against the landscape, as seen in this blurry photo of a photo:


The blonde patch at mid-right is where the burn happened. elsewhere, the blackbrush was thriving. Where it burned, only cheatgrass and one or two stray surviving Joshua trees held on. That was in October 1997; there have been at least two big fires there since. As I have been biding my time on finishing the book, it has progressively changed from paean to epitaph.

The Grin Of The Peninsular Bighorn

Working on a piece for KCET about this month’s Peninsular bighorn sheep count in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, and I came across this video, which is too good not to share. It’s from Gary Katz of the Anza Borrego Foundation, and it shows a happy moment in June among a family of bighorns.

I need to do the sheep count next year. Three days out in 115 degree temperatures? What’s not to like?

Quick thoughts about sexual harassment in the workplace and online

There have been a few times during the course of my work life in which I have been responsible for managing a team of co-workers, sometimes informally and more often as part of management. As a result, I have been in a position of specific authority over potential sexual harassment claims.

I am not an attorney. However, you don’t need to be an attorney to understand a manager’s legal responsibility in the United States should an employee report to you that he or she feels uncomfortable due to unwanted sexual behavior in the workplace.

To wit: a manager has an absolute responsibility to take any such reports seriously, and to act to resolve them as soon as possible.

I’ve worked in places where absolute adherence to decorum was insisted on, and in other places where the background level of oral sex jokes ran about four per hour, but the rules are really the same: 1) the person who is made uncomfortable calls the shots, and 2) the intent of those people whose behavior is at issue doesn’t matter.

The behavior can be a direct demand for sexual favors, or it can be (as in one case with which I am personally familiar) a perceived slightly flirtatious request to go for a walk, or it can be completely consensual physical affection between two co-workers in the presence of a third person. The specifics matter with regard to the eventual resolution, but not with regard to a manager’s responsibilities.

The manager has to take the report seriously and act on it promptly, either acting to remedy the situation or reporting upward to someone who can. A manager who doesn’t do so becomes a significant legal liability to the employer.

And saying “this person you’re complaining about didn’t mean anything by it, grow a thicker skin” is almost never an appropriate response.

The intent of the behavior really only matters if the behavior lands the person in criminal court. Until that point, the employer’s duty is to either end the behavior, or shield the sensitive person from that behavior without punishing her.

Businesses spend a huge amount of time these days working to shield themselves from liability, and sexual harassment claims are a significant point of vulnerability. It’s worth noting that the couple of times I’ve sat through company-mandated sexual harassment workshops, complete with cheesy films with 1980s hairstyles and bad acting, those workshops have been held as a condition imposed by my employers’ insurers. Sexual harassment is still a serious problem, mainly for women — though the law protects all people equally, and there have been times when I could have availed myself of it had I known — but more and more employers have strict policies on paper, at least. Even if management of rank and file employees still tries to ignore reports or sweep them under the rug, human resources departments are less likely to do so, especially during screening of new hires.

All of which makes me wonder about those people — men and women — who’ve weighed in on the recent Rebecca Watson elevator anecdote to opine that her mild request that men not hit on solitary women in elevators at four in the morning “blew things out of proportion,” or that women asking men not to hit on them is somehow the latest aggressive move in a feminist class war.

What I wonder is whether a prospective employer, faced with two candidates of roughly equal merit, would ever hire the one whose googleable statements indicate they’d make it harder to protect the company against future sexual harassment claims.

I know I wouldn’t.

California Desert Lizards

Here’s one of the things I’ve been working on while it’s been so crickety-silent around here.

CA Desert Lizards | DPC educational bulletin 11-2

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I have been unwell these last weeks, hence the quiet around here. I’m on the mend, it would seem: all but the coughing.  I spent the third week of June trying to focus enough to get some work done, for the most part unsuccessfully. I spent the week after that catching up on work that had gone undone, with a few moments here and there tending to Annette, who caught whatever I had. I’m still behind. Some of that behind involves emails I owe some of you, and actual mail I owe some other of you. I hope to get to that within the next day or so. (The actual mail will have to wait until the fireworks are over and the postal workers return to their posts.)

I was without insurance for a while in 2009, but somehow managed not to get really sick: a bout of the flu, I think, was about it. Aside from that, the last time I was sick without recourse to an MD on call was during the Reagan administration. I’d forgotten about the cost-benefit analyses, the prognoses and budgeting that go into pay-as-you-go health care decision making. This started out as tonsilitis and then settled into my lungs: i’ve had bronchitis a couple times before, so that’s familiar territory. I’m no longer in “coughing so hard my abs spasm” mode, so I count it as recovering right on schedule. Annette, who has been a mom for 27 years, is skeptical of my ability to self-diagnose. Were it up to her I’d have shelled out for an urgent care place, on the theory that I can figure out the budgeting later when I am still alive. Had I been bitten by a rattlesnake — or worse, a feral cat or a small child — I’d have taken her advice. A broken bone? Almost certainly likewise. But tonsilitis I’ve done. If it lasts more than three or four days I start to worry. I had no fever — though it sure felt like it — so no strep. Simple viral infection, nothing an MD could do other than tell me to go home and sleep it off and gargle with salt water and eat ice cream, so that’s what I did. Likewise with the bronchitis into which the tonsilitis evolved. Been there, done that, know the drill. It’ll be gone in another couple weeks, and as long as what I cough up stays out of the “Christmassy” region of the color wheel, not to worry.

Still.  There was a moment a couple weekends ago when I felt better and Annette wasn’t yet sick, and we were watching a movie at our friend Alan’s house. I won’t identify the movie for spoilers’ sake, but it was about two women, best friends and flatmates working dead-end entry level jobs in the big city, and one of them suddenly comes down with a nasty case of a tumor on her spinal cord. Aha, I think with the part of my brain that engages in not-quite-conscious thought, it’s financial stress plot point time. And yet no! Seeing as the big city in question is Sydney, Australia, the young woman goes to the hospital and has the surgery and the plot point is actually “will she get better,” not “how will she ever get better what with the crushing debt from the surgery and incidentals and all of the associated costs of recovery and rehabilitation.”

Imagine not having to worry about paying to see the doctor. Not having to worry that a serious illness will bankrupt you. It’s like science fiction or something.