Category Archives: Desert Solitudinousness

The Vortex

We will rebuild.

 

At just after 3:30 pm this afternoon my yard was hit by either a very large dust devil or a very small tornado. It lifted this heavy, glass and metal table and flipped it: when I drank my coffee out there this morning it was on the other side of the chairs. My smoker landed two lots down. The wind knocked over two cinderblocks. 

Given that this happened on the anniversary weekend of my beginning to live alone, I choose to interpret it as a good omen, Coyote-style. 

Click

Desert senna, Senna armata

Senna armata

I drove a few days back, with a friend I had not seen for years, through the Pinto Basin and into the Chuckwalla Valley. She drove, which afforded me an unusual opportunity. Living alone except for Heart I am usually the one behind the wheel. On Saturday I had the chance to gawk at the desert through which we drove.

There were wonders. The Pinto Basin ocotillos are in fine bloom, and psychotropically magenta flowers blaze from every clump of hedgehog cactus, and the roadsides were lined everywhere other than the pits of washes with desert senna blooming yellow like wallflowers in a cottage garden.

The palo verdes bore sprays of blossoms, translucent yellow veils showing uninterrupted blue sky beyond. Even the desert ironwoods outside looked greener, their usual washed out olive drab leaves and charcoal trunks a bit less washed out drab.

I looked past them all to the bunchgrasses, the big galleta grass overflowing from the washes. Near my house, where big galleta is the third most common perennial plant after creosote and senna, each bunch is maybe a foot tall, with a dozen or fewer new flower stems per bunch. They bring me joy, to watch them knitting the desert together, but it is a special kind of rarefied, austere joy, the feeling that seeps in to fill the void when you give up, at long last, on disappointment.

In the Pinto Basin, though, the big galleta is lush and green, fair billowing across the smoketree-studded washes, and I fell into place with a click so profound I looked at my friend to see whether the noise had startled her.

My life is good these days. I have frustrations and sadnesses in full measure, fears and regrets, and yet I think when I look back at the full run of my life from some vantage point toward its end, the weeks since last autumn will be one of the highlights, one of the stretches of which I will say “that. That was the entire point of this exercise.”

A few weeks back I walked in the Oakland Hills, along trails I once knew well, and counted one wild plant species after another that I had not seen in years. The weather was perfect, the company even more so, and I had a moment of unnerving split perspective, like the one provided by the bifocals I have finally relented to wearing: I was suddenly seeing the world from two perspectives at once. I was in my old haunts but looking forward to future happiness, no Marley’s Chain of memory and regret dragging behind me. I was home at last and yet I was away from home, a long haul over the Tehachapis between me and the thin joys of big galleta.

Pleuraphis rigida, big galleta grass

Pleuraphis rigida, big galleta grass

 

 

Heart

heart3

I have a new family member.

Her name is Heart, named partly because of a black Valentine’s-heart-shaped patch on her left side, and partly because of who she is.

When I first met her, in November, she couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact with me. A series of events I can only guess at had persuaded her that most people, men especially, could not be trusted. She came to live with me in December — a dogsitting-fostering arrangement, I insisted, not to be considered permanent — and it took her several days to stop flinching violently when I’d absently reach to stroke her head.

After a while, in which I spent a lot of time moving very slowly and deliberately, and treating her according to a very smart friend’s advice, we won each other over just a bit.

That advice:

after gaining her trust with walks and ignoring and humor and nothing ever being a big deal, then you expose her to absolutely freaking everything so the shy doesn’t wreck her quality of life.

heart2

Now, she’s devoted to me, and I am in my inevitably inferior, non-dog way, to her. Here’s Heart waking me up on my 55th birthday earlier this month:

Heart1

We walk four miles a day on average, and she is slowly starting to learn that words mean things, and she is training me how to listen to her so that she can tell me what she wants, and she leaps onto the bed each morning and wakes me by punching me in the face repeatedly.

We made the decision this week to make our collegial relationship a permanent one. No one who knows me is the slightest bit surprised, excepting me.

Life is good.

heart4

Opening lines

I learned today that I am in need of magnesium.

I learned today that everything hurts.

It was the kind of day where the wind blows nonstop from the west, raising clouds of dust off the dry lake bed and stripping even the droughtiest desert plants of moisture.

I went outside to photograph the dust storm; a curator emeritus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History was standing across the road.

The cat is crazy with the wind.

88 degrees today, but with the wind it felt like 88, albeit windier.

“Magnesium will help your restless leg syndrome,” said Rebecca, smoothing my knotted calf with a strong oiled hand.

“You haven’t taken a deep breath in a long time, have you.”

A typical human body contains 25 grams of magnesium, though that constitutes a dietary source of the mineral only in the direst of situations.

There is no wind like a Mojave wind.

“This desert will become uninhabitable, with toxic dust storms reaching as far as the coast.”

“I will be right back,” I told the cat, lying through my teeth.

“Grief and breathing are tightly linked; people coping with loss don’t draw deep breaths.”

The sudden sharp pain opened my eyes.

“I think,” I told her, “that I get angry because it’s easier than being sad.”

 

Ladderbacks

Another walk tonight as the wind picked up, this one two hours before the moon. Walking in the desert in the dark with only the dim light of other people’s homes to guide me: a metaphor for something or other.

Three miles and change, almost all with sand ground into my heels. Arrived at the front door shaking with hunger, some of it for food.

At the house in the late afternoon after my trip down out of the Mojave to drop A. at the Los Angeles shuttle, I watched two absurdly gawky ladderbacked woodpeckers wrangle over the hummingbird feeder. They were teens with back haircuts and pointed elbows. One climbed the window frame and drummed on it for a few minutes, then drummed on the window pane to see how that worked.

What it did was summon the cat, and each regarded the other with frankly hostile interest.

In Palm Springs this afternoon I found myself idling in traffic in front of the vet where last I saw Thistle. All at once I couldn’t see the street in front of me, blurred with saltwater. I pulled over to let the moment pass.

Moonlit

I hung up the phone and walked out into the night.

Two miles? Three? Probably more. I lost count of the long desert blocks, of my breaths, of the pallid bats circling my dusty footfalls, of the creosotes and the shining eyes in the distance.

It was perfect weather for walking, cool and a slight scented breeze. A shame, really. I was after something more scathing. Something to sandblast my bothersome self down to bone, to bake out the decades-old sadness so recently prominent. To be blasted and bleached and battered.

Instead, I was moonlit. I was suffused with bright regret and memory.

I battle my worst self each day now. I pared myself back a month or two ago from most online socializing, but it seems I brought the angry, insulting voices with me. Was the Internet merely a way for me to externalize the voices in my head? Now Someone Is Wrong Inside My Brain, and the effort to moderate those voices is far harder than it ever was online.

Here was the point of all the last few decades’ sadness, the divorce and the philandering and the quitting of one job after another, the leaving of my first hometown and then the leaving of my second: all desperate attempts to stop being me. It is a litany reaching back more than 40 years. If there was any way to be someone else for the rest of my life, I would have run up to that big red button tonight and slammed it hard enough to break my fist.

Instead, I was moonlit.

Math problem

ladderback

The feeder is eight inches from perch to the fulcrum from which it hangs. It weighs approximately four ounces empty, and has just filled with a pint of food, consisting of one pint of water plus a half cup of table sugar. There was no wind when the photo was taken.

Given that information, estimate the weight of this ladderbacked woodpecker.

In which I finally take notice of Peter Kareiva

I usually don’t bother with people like Peter Kareiva. His kind would be a dime a dozen, were it not for the fact that he operates in a part of society where dimes are probably considered litter. “Chief Scientist” for the Nature Conservancy, Kareiva has gotten himself some notoriety in recent months for signing on with a growing reactionary criticism of the conservation movement which says, to summarize, that conservation needs to stop thinking so much about non-human species, especially those that don’t offer direct benefit to us all-important humans.

I said what I think of that point of view on Beacon a bit earlier today.

But it’s a point of view that’s wildly popular with a certain sector of society, to wit: the corporate donors that ensured Kareiva’s employer reported $5,406,671,996 in net assets to the IRS in 2013. If one dominant species is properly the be-all and end-all of conservation, then that species’ short-term economic activity becomes more important weighted against the mere survival of lesser species.

We dominate the planet now, Kareiva has argued, and we might as well adopt that as our overarching goal. There are about six or seven logical steps missing in the road from that hard to dispute premise to Kareiva’s conclusion. That hasn’t kept him from becoming a darling of the present-day anti-environmental movement. For instance, he’s found supportive fellow travelers in the Breakthrough Institute (BTI). BTI was founded by the bantamweight environmental pundits Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who turned humiliation at being laughed out of the grassroots habitat protection movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s into success, when philanthropic foundations bought the same line of argument that had caused the redwood defenders mirth.

Again, I don’t usually spend much time paying attention to their ilk. If I spent time pulling apart everything a well-funded antienvironmentalist said in public that happened to be wrong, I’d never have time to write about those unimportant non-human species. Especially if I started with Kareiva and BTI.

Buut in the course of pulling a few things together for my Beacon piece, I found a video by Kareiva on BTI’s site that I just couldn’t ignore. Those of you who know me will understand why almost immediately. Here’s the video. I’ve set it to start at the thing that set me off, 2:45 in. You could watch the whole thing, but why?

Here’s the transcript of that section:

You know, there’s this notion out there, and a lot of us have read these books, read these philosophies, of this pristine wilderness that exists out there in which we can venture — it’s almost always a solitary man — a solitary man can venture and rediscover himself and find himself and be inspired, and somehow learn something more about the universe and themselves [sic].

Henry David Thoreau was a classic take on that.

In the 1960s, when I grew up, I read Edward Abbey. Edward Abbey wrote a book called Desert Solitaire. A fascinating book. I loved it.

I recently discovered his personal journals.

In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey has a couple lines in there in one of the opening chapters about sitting out there in Utah and being by himself and looking up at the stars and writing poetically about “Oh, I’m alone, there’s nobody else around, it is beautiful. I feel nothing but exhilaration and happiness.”

At the same time in his personal diary he wrote “Oh my god, I’m so lonely, why did my wife Rita have to go back to New Jersey?”

It’s a lie! It’s a total lie.

There’s a lot to pick apart here. There’s the odd insistence that expository and lyrical nature writing is the domain of the solitary man. True of John Muir, perhaps, but not of Thoreau, of whom I can only recommend that you read Rebecca Solnit’s deft unraveling of his complicated relationship with solo contemplation. What of Mary Austin, Terry Tempest-Williams, Ann Zwinger or Ellen Meloy? What of those men whose wilderness sojourns were as often as not in the company of others? For fuck’s sake, the genre in the American West essentially began with Frémont, with Powell, with Lewis and Clark, none of whom got any solitude on their journeys. Clarence King with his assistants, John Steinbeck on the boat with Ed Ricketts, any number of desert writers of the 19th and 20th centuries: convivial exploration of the wild world.

Kareiva isn’t the first observer to ding Abbey for misrepresentations of the degree of his solitude at Arches in Desert Solitaire. After the above transcript leaves off, he does mention Rita and their son moving into the trailer with him for the second season, which never gets mentioned in the book. That criticism is fair game.

But his characterization of Abbey’s opening chapter is orthogonal to how the chapter actually reads. It begins:

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.

For myself I’ll take Moab, Utah…

Hardly a paean to the illuminating properties of pristine wilderness.  Later in the chapter, mainly taken up with a description of the surroundings on his arrival, Abbey does wish that his time at Arches will provide redemption of a sort. But it’s a hard-headed and rational redemption he seeks:

I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with the nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.

And then, in Chapter Two, Abbey is engaged in tasks with his coworkers. Worlds apart from Kareiva’s goopy misrepresentation.

As for those journals, I just happen to have them here. Here’s the sum total of what Abbey says in his Arches first season journal about his wife: On August 26, 1956, at the end of a purple-prosed passage describing summer storms, we have Ed saying:

It’s the evenings that are kinda bad; mostly around supper time; I sit down to my steak and beans with only a can of beer for company. Ah then, then I miss her, miss my friends, miss all the crazy irresponsible delights of my old society. But most of all then I miss her, the one true love-passion of my life on earth.

I mean — Rita.

On September 15 Abbey quotes from a letter from Rita in which she decrees that their marriage at an end, and he writes:

Terrible words; they make living rather difficult. Therefore, I must go back to her at once, even though she writes that there is nothing for me to come home to except “a glimpse of what could have been.” I must go back; three or four days, and then I leave this place. Probably forever. A lovely place, but tourists have come to depress me terribly. I can’t bear to look a tourist in the face anymore.

That’s what Kareiva is talking about when he says Abbey’s longing for a hardheaded communion with the beauty of the slickrock country while pining for his wife as their marriage crumbled is “a total lie.” As if a person’s heart can’t be broken in two directions at once.

Kareiva recorded this video in 2011, but I just saw it today — like I said, I generally have more significant targets for my time and attention — and I was primed to respond badly to what he said about Abbey and Desert Solitaire. In the interests of full disclosure, I share here my immediate reaction on Twitter:

I would like to take this opportunity to say that I regret that intemperate response. But I can’t without telling a total lie.

I have spent much of the last month grieving a change in my life I did not ask for or want, longing for the company of the one I love and being deeply sad. I have also seen simple, quiet things in the desert, those I meet out walking or those who come peer at me through my window as I work, that fill me with joy. And I write in some detail about those things. I exclude the sadness, mostly, because everyone whose business it is already knows about it.

So I write about verdins. One came to eat mandarins off the shelves outside my window today:

verdincropped

Is it really that hard to understand that I could grieve my lover’s absence and rejoice in this little subtly colored spark at my window? That both of those pangs could coexist in my heart?

If I don’t offer up my private pain for public delectation, is that verdin a “total lie”?

Kareiva’s main argument is that conservation is doomed unless it reorients itself to focus first on the welfare of human beings.

I don’t think he’s qualified to make that determination until he learns what it’s like to be a human being.

Antidepressants

Today’s photos from my office chair and through the window screens:

Picoides scalaris in tamarisk

Picoides scalaris (ladder-backed woodpeckers) in tamarisk

Archilochus alexandri at feeder

Archilochus alexandri (Black-chinned hummingbird) at feeder

Also seen but not photographed, another male Scott’s oriole apparently uninterested in the half-mandarins I set out.

And there were verdins. I’m starting to become quite fond of verdins. Engaging little monsters, fearless beyond their size. Here’s a photo that isn’t mine:

They eat spiders and insects. Annette will need to thank them for my relatively invertebrate-free house when she visits next.

 

Regarding my difficult workplace environment

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to get anything done around here when just any old mythopoetic demiurge can saunter up and look at me through my office window whenever she feels like it.

Especially when she takes off before I can get my camera focused.

coyotebutt

 

Though she did kindly stop for a glimpse back at the property line.

coyotesilhouette

It’s just non-stop productivity losses around here, I tell you what.

Red-tailed hawks

700 miles driven in the last week, and only a half mile of that of interest other than my company in the truck: In the quarries near the Santa Ana River, red-tailed hawks fought over a perch on a comfortable dead tree.

It is hot in the desert these days, but the temperature slackens nicely at sunset. An improbable blanket of salmon clouds covered the eastern sky then. It is dissipated, and the stars shine.

The cat frightened us the last two days, especially so for Annette who had to rely on my text messages. The less said about his symptoms the better, except to say that he will be getting a haircut soon to bar further gastrointestinal complaints.

An interesting word, trichobezoar: Greek prefix modifies an Arabic root.

He will be fine, most likely, and I now have less money with which to get myself in trouble.

He reassures me at the vet

He reassures me at the vet

 

Great Scott’s

Nine years ago this month I drove to Arizona, met some friends on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and then spent a little while lounging on the deck outside their room at the El Tovar. We were planning a hike down to the river the next day, and as we talked logistics and caught up I felt a shadow pass overhead. I looked up.

Sitting there on a chaise longue on a deck with a drink in my hand, and that’s how I saw my very first California condor. So I can’t honestly say that today was my best inadvertent birding day ever. But it might be the second best.

To wit: I looked up from writing this early afternoon at the hummingbird feeder outside the window, six feet from my head, and saw a mated pair of Scott’s orioles squabbling over whose turn it was at the feeding holes.

First time I saw a Scott’s oriole was just a day or so after that first condor: I was hiking alone in the Canyon, some of our party twenty minutes ahead and the rest twenty minutes behind, and there he was: a bright, chipper and aggressive male scolding me from his perch on a spent Agave flower stalk.

I’ve seen them on and off since, most notably on one day in 2006 at Wee Thump, when I felt as if I could walk forever into the desert despite the half cup of water left in my pack. But today was the first time I’ve seen them while sitting at my desk.

I did see them earlier this morning. I sat out back at 7:10 in my robe with a cup of coffee in my hand. I’m not sure whether it was the caffeine or the orioles that woke me fastest. This morning a pair of black-chinned hummingbirds was at the feeder. By noon they’d been displaced by a solitary female rufous. “That didn’t take long,” I thought to myself.

They have the place surrounded

Just ended: 20 minutes of the best coyote hootenanny I have heard in my entire life. It would seem to be a big family. There are pups with their plaintive, piercing peep-yowls and elders with their complex, scat-singing syncopation. They are behind my house and in front of it, close enough that I imagine I can hear the static electricity crackle in their fur.

The local dogs are so well outnumbered that they stay quiet.

I set up the hummingbird feeder outside the office window two days ago. So far two Costa’s hummers have fought over it. A cactus wren tried to drink from it this morning, and late this afternoon a juvenile verdin just old enough to have a tinge of yellow on its face stopped by to see whether the sugar was to her liking. Apparently verdins like to eat the dried remnants of hummingbird food from feeders, which I only learned today. This being the Mojave Desert, the hummingbird feeders are constantly secreting dried sugar. Lucky verdins.