Category Archives: Family

2017

Arthur D. Clarke and unspecified grandchild, 1960

My grandfather comes to me in pieces; The angle of a plywood sign nailed to a tree, my worn work boots on my porch in Richmond. I never call him up deliberately. This week marked 50 years since I saw him last.

If I make it through the next few months, I will be older than he was when he died.

 

I spend the end of the year alone these days. I don’t drink; alternatives are few in the Mojave. Thoughts chase tails. My grandfather was an oak tree; a rock face. He was incomprehensibly old, wrinkles forming on his forehead, hair completely white in a stiff brush cut, work pants and calluses. He wet his thumb to turn pages. A workshop shelf; salvaged bolts and screws sorted into applesauce jars.

Winter stars struggle to be seen; a storm off the Pacific. I have his reticence and his forehead. He would recognize the impatience, the recoiling and the longing. He would think my politics insane. He would pat his lap, invite my dog to join him in the recliner. He would know how to fix the hole through which the mice get in without dismantling the water heater in front of it. New Year’s Eve rain pelts the window. I have a low table he built me out of things he had on hand. No two of its screws match.

Today the dog, off-leash, flushed the back porch rabbit from behind the washing machine. Placidly staying at my heel, she watched the rabbit regain its composure under a creosote a few yards away. Rabbit folded his left ear down to wash it with both forepaws; dog flicked her left ear in turn.

Ten years after he died, I stood at six a.m. beneath a sodden eastern hemlock. The rides had run out in Western Pennsylvania. I watched a farmhouse through the rain, shaking to the bone. A white-haired man in green work pants pried open the hood of a pickup older than me, bent over it with a trouble light. I fought the urge to go to him, certain of disappointment at a stranger’s face. How different my life might have been had I gone to hand him tools.

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

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

 

Long distance

There are quail in the yard this evening and I miss you already. A bright male stands atop the cinderblock, topknot backlit by the slanting sun. He is calling out to his family. The cat watches avidly through the glass.

I stopped this afternoon near San Timoteo Creek. The badlands behind me bore a coat of spent golden grass. I imagined them poppies, and me in some more westward range closer to you.

Only a few hours since we laughed.

The wilted kale and the spent dandelion greens have gone out through the kitchen door, tossed back onto the gravel for whichever wildlife wants them. The breeze has died down. The house smells of warm creosote. Twice since I got home I have heard your footstep in the other room, started.

Your laugh over breakfast still echoing.

Tonight I am remembering an evening a long time ago, top down on the rental car in the Joshua tree forest beneath an impossibility of stars, and we watched a wall of flashing cloud three hours’ drive to the east. The canyons filled with flood that night, over there, popped trees from their rock and re-carved the riverbeds, and safe with you that night I felt my life start over again, a new me born in distant lightning and cool starlit breeze.

A rabbit has come for the kale.

We were joined in storm and flood that year. This year a storm and flood separated us, recarved your course, washed you to the coast, and my life reinvents itself again.

I have everything I ever wanted. Where I live, what I do, who I am.

Who loves me. I have been so lucky.

Remind me, if you think of it, that I need a new splatter screen for the skillet, and to pick up some paper towels. The sun is turning the rocks pink: I watch their color deepen from my chair.  140 miles and the next two weeks between us. You are my partner, my best friend, my beloved. My family, and who would have ever expected I’d sign up for another one? A raven circles a hundred feet above the block, turning slow circles. The sun glints bright blue off its wing, and the quail have scattered.

Happy Mother’s Day, my darling.

Fool’s Gold

pyrite

Iron pyrite is the most common sulfide mineral on Earth. Its chemical formula is FeS2. That formula gives the impression that the smallest possible bit of iron pyrite is two sulfur atoms bonded to an iron atom, like the two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen in H2O. In truth, the two sulfur atoms are actually bonded quite tightly to one another, sharing a pair of electrons in a covalent bond, forming a sort of submolecule: a disulfide. The disulfide portion of an iron pyrite molecule has an oxidation number of -2: to oversimplify, the two sulfur atoms have two more negatively charged electrons between them than they do protons. The iron atom — in its divalent “ferrous” form, with two fewer electrons than protons — forms a somewhat weaker ionic bond with the two sulfurs.

It’s called “fool’s gold” because the color is said to have deceived unschooled prospectors, but gold is in fact sometimes found in fool’s gold. It’s found in extremely small quantities, a few atoms at a time embedded in the pyrite’s crystalline matrix, but if you know what you’re doing you can extract enough of value to make the whole thing worth your while.

Iron pyrite usually has a cubic crystal structure. For a while, anyway. Iron pyrite is unstable in nature. It’s biodegradable. In the presence of air and water, especially if certain sulfur-metabolizing bacteria are present, that ionic bond between the iron and the sulfide gets pried loose. The iron generally oxidizes, unless it’s taken up by something alive and put to other use. The sulfide portion generally oxidizes into sulfates. Oxygen tends to work to eliminate pyrite, when it can get to it. The mineral forms best where there is no oxygen, where toxic hydrogen sulfide comes into contact with chemically available iron. This happens sometimes in anoxic sediments, deep beneath the ocean or in dying lakebeds, and pyrite will insinuate itself into the structures of dead organisms as they fossilize.

Pyrite is fungible, in other words. It is constantly being made and unmade. That process is faster if the pyrite has more surface area: the dust and powder of mine tailings, for instance, break down fast enough to release sulfuric acid into mountain streams. A piece of crystal, with less surface area, will decompose more slowly. The hunk of it on my desk here is only a little tarnished since I first held it. The photo above was taken 15 years ago, more or less: the rock looks pretty much the same tonight. A few of the facets of the smaller crystals in the photo are rougher now. Whether that is the result of chemical weathering or damage in the five household moves since I took the photo I can’t say.

I’ve had this rock for a long time. It’s one of my oldest possessions. I’ve owned a lot of rocks in my day. This is the one I’ve kept when I let all the others go. When I was 22 years old, hitchhiking across the country to what would be my new and apparently permanent home in California, this hunk of pyrite was in my $25 backpack.

My paternal grandfather gave it to me on my fourth birthday, a souvenir from some roadside stand in the Front Ranges somewhere. I had already established myself as a scientifically inclined kid at that point. He and my grandmother stood in my parents’ kitchen, a quick evening visit to deliver the pyrite and a handful other birthday present, and it turned out to be a memorable gift. Literally so. I can’t say I remember most of my other birthdays, but the night I turned four seems preternaturally clear.

I wonder what my grandfather would have thought had he known how long I’d hold on to this piece of iron pyrite. He never found out. The evening he gave me this rock he had three years and 16 days to live. Had he lived another decade, or three, I might not have been able to tell him. My affection for the rock has been constant, but it has not seemed remarkable. His death likely sealed my attachment to the thing, but it’s been less a “this item is very important to me” thing than a “huh, I’d better not lose track of this thing” thing.

It has followed me from house to house on nearly fifty moves. After coming west with me in 1982, it went back east again in 1984 and back yet again in ’87. It has never been stored away, though there may have been a month or two after one move or another when I’d forgotten to take it out of the box it moved in. It lives on my bookshelves.

Every once in a while, like tonight, I pick it up. It always feels heavier than its mass justifies. That may be less gravity than gravitas. Or perhaps it’s a vestige of muscle memory left over from when I first hefted it with a right arm just turned four, not knowing that it was the first of probably thousands of times I’d pick it up, turn it over absently. Here I am the age my grandfather was that night, and still clutching the birthday gift he gave his four-year-old grandson.

On Saturday it will be fifty years to the day I’ve owned this inconsequential bit of yellow rock.

Fool’s gold.

Deadman Creek

[Thinking of this piece because of something I wrote that will show up soon at KCET. I wrote this about 20 years ago about a day that happened before even that. It first appeared in Terrain, the now-defunct publication of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, in a Sierra Nevada theme issue. I’ve edited it lightly from its original form as I’ve learned a few things about words in the interim.]

It’s the Third of July, and we’re enjoying the traditional Third of July picnic. The campground, “improved” by the Forest Service so you can back your 34-foot RV right into your wilderness campsite, is surprisingly uncrowded. Maybe it’s the mile of washboard between here and 395, easy to drive but with a chilling effect on the pilots of $90,000 campers like those lined up outside Mammoth Lakes. Or maybe it’s the name of the campground, commemorating some forgotten 19th-Century miner double-crossed by his business partner. Whatever the reason this place is nearly abandoned, we’re glad to have it mostly to ourselves. We’re not looking this gift horse in the mouth.

Zeke, tied with my bearbag rope to one of the abundant Jeffrey pines, loudly regrets that he’s just out of reach of the barbecue. Becky tosses him a piece of watermelon rind, which he devours with gusto. Every few minutes he spies a chipmunk testing the borders of our territory and he forgets the rope is there, lunging for the critter. He reaches the end of the rope, and a loud twang like the E string on Paul Bunyan’s pedal steel fills the quiet air as he flips backward. He doesn’t seem to mind much, and is on his feet and wagging his tail before the dust settles. Matthew tosses yet another piece of melon. A fragment breaks off in midair, landing a few feet out of the dog’s reach. A chipmunk spies it and grabs her windfall snack. Twang.

Though it’s a beautiful day, and we’re nearly alone here, I’m not in the best of moods. Tomorrow Matthew and I leave for a week of backpacking along the John Muir Trail. Perverse beast that I am, I dwell not on the wonders in store for us along the route, but rather on how much I’ll miss Becky while we’re gone. I’ll be out of touch for a week, there are very few phones in the high country, and anything could happen while I’m gone. What if a meteor hits Oakland? Matthew is amused but tolerant of my sentimental foolishness, and quietly makes himself scarce as Becky unties Zeke and we stroll up the pumice slope into the forest.

This is the largest Jeffrey pine forest in the world, stretching from near the Nevada line to just below the crest of the Sierra, from Long Valley to the shores of Mono Lake. It lies leeward of one of the lowest parts of the Sierra crest, the environs of Mammoth Mountain. While the tall peaks elsewhere in the Sierra catch most of the moisture blowing off the Pacific, here wet winds are funneled through the range to dampen the excellently-drained pumice soils. Though the humidity is similar to that of the west slope, the temperatures resemble that of Bishop or Reno. The result is an ideal nursery for Jeffrey pine. It’s no accident that the largest ski resort in the Eastern Sierra is nearby. The moisture that quenches Jeffrey’s thirst falls partly as fat white flakes. Mammoth gets more snow than most other places on the East Side. It is this convergence of soil and weather that makes the forest possible, here in the rainshadow of the Sierra.

Place a huge, healthy old-growth forest in a region of plains and low hills with mining and ranching nearby, and you find some of the trees will disappear, made into fenceposts, houses, flumes, and charcoal for smelters. Run a railroad and then an all-weather highway through the woods, and the timber companies show up to send the trees to exotic locales like Los Angeles. The forest here has been logged and logged again, enough that it’s likely the collapse of the old-growth ecosystem here cannot be prevented. It may have already collapsed, for all we know; ecological axioms that hold true in forests of the Pacific Slope may not hold for East Side forests. Where the ecology of the Redwood Forest is abundantly researched, from marbled murrelet above to mycorrhizae below, most of what we know about the East Side is how to grow a nice straight Jeffrey Pine. We know what birds you can find here, but we don’t know whether they depend on being here.

Unfortunately for this forest Timber Harvest Plans make no provision for untested ecological hypotheses. The burden of proof is on the forest dwellers; if they can’t prove sufficient harm, they get evicted. And so the logging continues to this day, carving the heart out of this queen of the Jeffrey Pine forests.

The trees here, though, are as yet unmolested, and they give welcome shade as we follow Deadman Creek, a fork of the Owens River, upstream. The banks are lined with wild rose and an incongruous hedge of Artemisia tridentata, Big Basin sagebrush, which I’ve never before seen near fresh water. The creek is narrow — Zeke can easily put two feet on either side — but the water is filled with 8-inch rainbow trout. We’re without tackle, so my thoughts of fish steamed in bitter Artemisia go unrealized. The fish are hatchery stock, planted in season by the Department of Fish and Game. The DF&G truck plops thousands of fish into the creek here each year. Being hatchery trout, they’re much stupider than wild trout, and all of them tend to stay pretty much where they’re planted. Of course, even stupid trout are smart compared to fish in general; while catching these guys may be, literally, a picnic, it isn’t exactly easy.

There is some evidence of tree-cutting here, though it may be due only to the efforts of campfire-builders. Becky runs to a four-foot-wide Jeff pine, sticking her nose between the plates of bark, and savors the vanilla smell of the tree’s resins: her favorite East Side pastime. Zeke finds a baseball-bat sized branch and worries it, tossing it in the air, raising a big cloud of pumice dust. His coyote-colored fur makes him look like he belongs here. I lean against a downed tree and gaze toward the crest, at the line where the grey-green of Jeffrey pine gives way to the darker shade of red fir. If I were one of the fish in Deadman Creek, I’d forsake my fellow hatchery graduates and swim upstream to the Owens River headwaters. There, under the protective gaze of Two Teats and San Joaquin Peak I’d eat the small, drab fir seed moths as they emerge from the red fir cones and flutter onto the dark cool forest waters. Let the other fish fall for Velveeta and Power Bait.

That red fir forest, in the San Joaquin Roadless area, is little-traveled considering its location. Next to Reno-Tahoe, this is the most crowded spot on the East Slope, but people tend to stick to the roads and well-known trails. The red firs are seen mostly by chickarees, also known as Douglas squirrels, who eat the scales of the cones and heap sciurid calumny on the few passersby. There are pine martens there too. They feed on the more unwary portion of the chickaree population. Porcupines eat the bark of the few western white pines scattered through the forest. Fishers eat the porcupines. Until recently, only a few humans have hiked off-trail into the forest. The approach is too steep for logging trucks, and red fir isn’t the most valuable of timber. Campers tend to avoid red fir forests too. Red firs are prone to branch dieback, and dead branches will plummet to earth at the slightest wind. I’ve seen the falling branches described both as “windowmakers” and as “widowmakers”, depending, I guess, on whether or not one sleeps in a tent.

Lately, though, more humans have been visiting. The local Sierra Club chapter has led groups of hikers into the Roadless Area, so that people can gain a more intimate knowledge of this special place. Surveyors have been here, too, plotting the layout of a proposed Alpine ski resort, which is why the Sierra Club has become interested in publicizing the charms of the area in its pristine state. The resort, with its roads, clear-cut runs, garbage, and loud groups of skiers, would disrupt the forest and disturb the reclusive furbearing animals. But local environmentalists are hampered by the reluctance of their West Side counterparts to notice the problem. It’s as if activists in the Golden Gate drainage had arbitrarily decided that Tuolumne Meadows lay on the edge of the world. Drop down behind the “Sierra Curtain” and you cease to exist.

Night falls; it’s time to plan for our strenuous day tomorrow. There are sleeping bags to fluff, water to drink, carbos to load. Coyotes yip from the Inyo Craters a mile to the south; Zeke bristles and stares into the blackness. Matthew tends the fire, which reflects in Becky’s dark eyes. The excitement of the pending hike builds in me. After a century of abuse the World’s Largest Stand of Jeffrey Pines is still a beautiful place.