Author Archives: Chris Clarke


End of summer

For seven days, chest-tightening melancholy
as the eastern sky purples.

We made it through another one,
little dog. The desert floor no longer sears our feet.

These seasons flicker by too fast,
bright and dark frames in a time-lapse film.

Last night I drove to Twentynine Palms,
scanning the road for deep rain pools.

A flood once caught me unawares.
By the time I saw it it was up to the undercarriage.

In the Mojave there are floods of water,
of air and lifted sand, of fire, of memory.

You have to be careful. Your wheels will slip
and you’ll find yourself facing the way you came.



Tonight, in dog class, a big unruly unaltered male kept getting in her face.

I don’t know what her life was like before the pound and the rescue, but I have some guesses. One of those guesses: she had to defend herself against unfriendly dogs. She is hypervigilant when other dogs are in sight, unless they are among her small circle of friends.

She has already taken this basic obedience class, and mastered everything except “heel.” I take her anyway so that she can spend time around misbehaving dogs, dogs who do not listen or respect boundaries or know how to play nice, in the hope that she will become desensitized and relax.

She shuts down when the triggers get to be too much for her. I will tell her to come with me but she will shut me out, freeze in place, pick a random spot on the floor that must be sniffed for the next 20 minutes. I have learned to ease her out of those moments, to take her muzzle in my right hand and bring her eyes around to meet mine. I whisper reassurances. I kiss her forehead. I envelop her.

Tonight that boisterous, unruly male, dealing with traumas of his own, came too close to her. A year ago she would have snapped at him. She did tonight as well, but it was a polite, pro forma snap; the merest baring of three or four teeth and a nod of her head, as far removed from an actual bite as a handshake is from an attempt to jostle loose any sleeve-hidden daggers.

That male is one of three in the class, and they have developed a triangular and resentful rivalry. There is much serious growling. There is unseemly barking. There is aerosolized testosterone and display of tooth enamel.

Tonight she grew tired of the boys.

It took her 45 minutes to reach the limits of her tolerance and shut down. When she did, it was a thing to behold. I took her muzzle in my hand, brought it around to make eye contact, and she was so rigid I lifted her front feet off the linoleum. We took some time away from the activities, off to the side, me whispering blandishments and offering bits of dried liver.

Twenty minutes later, in front of the whole class, she demonstrated for the less-tutored dogs the perfect sit-lie down.

That was lovely, but what made me happiest was something only I noticed. For the rest of the class I watched her. She lay on the floor at my feet watching the other dogs. I watched her. Every now and then, as she looked at one of the boys, her glance would harden, fix itself into a cold and calculating stare.

Each time I whispered “leave it.” And each time her shoulders would relax and she would turn her gaze elsewhere.

She will be a happy dog yet.




At 80th and East 14th, ragged tents line the sidewalk.
Last time I was there, they weren’t.
Comfortable men talk over coffee at the Alameda Natural Grocery:
a friend flipped a 2-bedroom for 750K.
New logos have bloomed on the high-rises.
A decade since I left, almost,
and still I imagine I could walk up Oak Street
open an unseen door, and come home
to 1993.
On the ridgeline, a path I’ve walked for decades
still grows manzanita and western leatherwood.
You can twist the latter’s branches backward
until they point in the direction they grew from.
On East 14th, a man my age looks at me.
I look back at him. We are the same,
though my exile is more comfortable by far.

Coyote hunting in the Marin Headlands. Creative Commons licensed photo by Franco Folini

Whistling in the dark

In the dark and the ancient creosote, something has pulled the dog taut at the far end of her leash.

A coyote then, affecting nonchalance. It lingers, then ventures out to the road, backlit, then stops.

It is warm, despite the dark. A smell of dust, of distant shredded brake lining.  A curious liberation.

It is a puzzle. The more the years-long bleakness lifts, the more I can admit my work is pointless. Sisyphus reaches the top. There’s a sign with a boulder and a red slashed circle over it.

Silhouetted coyote flicks a silhouetted ear.

Farther east? Perhaps. Perhaps. “Remind me of this when I complain about my life,” I said today, in momentary wonder over interesting plans.The pinacate beetle over there means more to me. It walks between the dog’s tensed paws. It pauses. it turns.

We four face each other for a long moment.

Coyote tires of our company. As she glides up the road a bright blue fireball meteor burns slowly above her head, and then is gone.

As portents go, not a bad one. Abandon all hope and the trickster has no power over you.


Orion rising

In retrospect, I must have been under for a very long time, until long after I tired of splitting my fingernails on the underside of the ice. Until I forgot what it was to have lungs that didn’t ache, forgot how it felt not to bleed warmth into the abyss.

I awoke in the desert, but that’s not news.

It’s a good indication that you might not be quite right when you find yourself taking the constellations personally. I woke yesterday far too early, took Heart out for her walk at 4:15 a.m., and as we stepped out the front door they were there: Orion, with the head of his dog Canis Major just coming up over the Wonderland of Rocks.

We walked together again, the four of us.

I have trouble remembering the first months after he died. I was numb, a dangerous and lingering anhedonia. After a few weeks I managed some semblance of recovery. I wore it like a hermit crab would, carrying it with me so I could hide behind it. I saw friends. I got a different job. I wrote things. I remember almost none of it.

It was years before the ice began to break. It took me a while of gasping on the bank before I could stand.

Look, I am broken. We all are broken. Again, not news. My whole life a bottomless pit of imagined loss, despite decades of astonishing fortune in love, in friendship.

For his last six months? I was content. It was enough. It was a frighteningly sad time, leaden with the expectation of certain grief, and yet it was a culmination, to be needed so completely. He asked for very little, but he asked for it constantly. To be held up when he tottered. To be reassured.To be carried when he could not make the last hill.

It was my sole focus, my sole purpose: walking with Zeke. I needed nothing else, wanted nothing else. He took 15 minutes sniffing and then re-sniffing the same tortured boxwood, walking a step away and then seemingly forgetting, then sniffing the boxwood again. I was content. He stared rheumily into the distance as admirers asked the same three questions over and over again, all of them ending with the same sad prediction. It was life. I awoke each hour to look in on him, to make sure he had not fallen or soiled himself. I was terrified and happy.

One night I woke to find him splayed improbably across a cushion, unmoving, and I was sure his time had come without me noticing. I felt for a heartbeat through his still-thick fur. I listened for his breathing and did not hear it. It took an endless 30 seconds for him to open his eyes, part his lips in a smile of greeting. I was eerily calm throughout. I kissed his forehead for perhaps the 50th time that day.

I’d found the third W in the Zen aphorism about what you do before enlightenment and after: Chop Wood, carry Water, go for a Walk. It was as complete and as content a time as I have ever felt.

And then he was gone, and the universe was a wilderness of mocking constellations. Orion kept his dog. Sirius was still a bright clear eye, Canis’ ears stlll folded back as he regarded his two-legged partner. The ice beneath my feet began to crack.

Zeke started his rapid decline ten years ago next week.

When a dog is broken, she does not hide it behind layers of subterfuge and curdled resentment the way a human might. Even a terrified dog is honest. Even a shattered dog will forgive those who never hurt her, in time. It took me longer. The universe built to culminate in those six months of my walking with Zeke, and then useless, an empty and discardable husk.

And Canis still chased Orion across the winter sky.


Photo by Kronerda, some rights reserved.

People will tell you it gets better. It never does. You might get better at pretending it does.

A phrase from a friend to describe her late dog: “one of your internal organs walking around on its own.” Then she laughed, and said “but you know. Look what you named yours.”

One winter night before Heart got her name, we walked out into the desert as Orion was rising. It was a few weeks after the hermit crab carapace I’d toted for years finally splintered. There was nothing between me and the constellations. The dog pulled at the other end of Zeke’s old leash, and I wondered what on earth I was thinking to consider getting back in line to ride the world’s worst rollercoaster. If all went well, I’d go through one of the worst losses in my life in my early seventies. And if it took another six years to catch my wind again?

I sat down suddenly, on the berm along a dirt road a mile and a half from the house. Sirius shone remote. Zeke panted behind me, unseen. And others, too. Gilgamesh. Kudzu. Dogs I’d never met. Shalom, Stella. Chupacabra. I knew the wrenching grief they’d left behind, though they never would have wanted it. I was not strong enough to go through that again, and I began to cry helplessly at the inevitability of betraying this sweet dog by handing her back to the rescue.

“Love isn’t worth it,” I told her. “It’s just a thing we tell ourselves we feel so we don’t have to think about how bad all of this hurts.”

She sat in front of me, sniffed a little at the wetness on my beard.

“I don’t believe you,” she said.


NASA: Earth-Like Planet Found in Solar System

In what’s being called the most important discovery in the history of planetology, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced today that it has confirmed the existence of a habitable, Earth-like planet in the Solar System.

The planet, which was discovered during an exhaustive search of older data in the NASA archives, appears to have a nearly circular orbit at a distance of 92.96 million miles from the Sun, well within the system’s habitable zone, where temperatures permit the existence of liquid water – and thus life as we know it.

In fact, some seven-tenths of the planet’s surface is covered in liquid water, reports scientist Nicole Cooper-Nikos, who NASA credits with the discovery. According to Cooper-Nikos, the planet is teeming with life forms both in its oceans and on several dispersed continents.

“Our endobiologists are working to categorize the different kinds of organisms on the planet,” said Cooper-Nikos. “It will be quite an undertaking. There may be as many as nine million different species on the planet. It really is the most remarkable place we’ve found to date.”

Cooper-Nikos said that scientists have discovered life forms everywhere they’ve looked on the planet, from the upper atmosphere to the deepest ocean trenches, and even growing inside solid rock.

The planet’s proximity has scientists excited as well.  According to NASA, the newly discovered planet is close enough that a craft traveling at the speed of a standard passenger car could make the trip in a week or less.

Public reaction to the news was mixed. “I suppose it’s interesting,” said one man watching the press conference on his phone on the subway, who declined to give his name. “But it’s really not going to make any difference in my career as an investment analyst, and it won’t lower the price of Soylent, so I don’t see the practical value.”

Others were more enthusiastic. “I never thought I’d live to see this,” said Franz N. Jonathan, who live-tweeted the press conference from his 34th floor apartment in San Francisco. “I mean, for so many years people thought we were the only living things in the universe. And now… Now there’s an amazing, habitable planet that’s so close I might visit it in my lifetime.”


Artist’s conception


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Creosote and Dream Time

I dreamed last night that I was working on a new project, a grass-roots environmental mapping, aerial photography, advocacy, and art endeavor.

It worked like this: we’d take a drone and abundant battery recharging capability out to a plot of desert that had been approved for use as a utility-scale solar power plant, and the drone would fly over every square foot of that soon-to-be-built project, photographing the vegetation. We’d look at the photos, then pick likely ancient plants to go “ground-truth” on foot, with video cameras and implements of measurement, and means to take and document genetic samples of the candidate plants.

We found, in my dream, any number of creosote clonal rings that rivaled the 11,700-year-old King Clone in size, and likely in age. We also found very old stands of Ephedra, rings of ironwood trees forty feet across, sixty-foot semicircles of palo verde and mesquite, circles of cholla and of barrel cactus, and we sampled every likely looking potential clonal ring so that some scientist someday might determine whether each ring was really a single individual, or just a bunch of plants that happened to grow in a certain shape.

And then, the naming. We chose names for each stunning potential ancient plant, some of them possibly as old as 15,000 years. We started with the names of the executives of the companies that would be razing these ancient plants, but we quickly ran out of names. Adding high-ranking agency officials got us a bit further toward naming all the plants, but we still needed more names, so we added the executive staff of certain foundations and program staff of certain mainstream environmental groups.

Toward the end of the dream, a volunteer scientist told us she’d found that one of the creosote rings we estimated might be older than King Clone was in fact very likely a single individual plant, and we prepared the press release. Then I woke up.

I have been chuckling over the glimpse the dream gave me into my id. I don’t believe in blaming most people for the jobs they do. Many of us feel stuck in this system like flies in amber.

I just fired up Google Maps. There are some interesting rings of plants on the site of the proposed Palen Solar Plant. It may be they’re young plants that just randomly started growing in  rings. I don’t know.

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