Category Archives: Recommended

Coprinus

As obsessive readers of this blog may recall, I pollarded my neighbors’ mulberry tree in November. This involved pruning off several dozen long, less than two-inch thick vertical shoots. I had probably a hundred such branches when I was finished, some of them about ten feet long. Becky, being the best wife a guy like me could possibly hope for, bought me a big honking electric chipper shredder a year ago, and so I spent a couple hours that day turning those branches and most of their attendant leaves into about a cubic yard of chips. “That’s enough for the day,” I said to myself as the shredder jammed on the last bit of green wood. “I’ll wheelbarrow the chips out to the compost pile tomorrow.”

The chips, of course, are still in the driveway. First the wheelbarrow turned out to have a flat tire, and then there was something good on television, and then it rained for a week and then I was out of town and anyway they’re still in the driveway.

What with our living with a rabbit and a guinea pig, we have an abundance of shit around the place. Browsing through a mail-order catalog of mushroom spawn last year, I decided to buy some inky cap mycelia to toss into the compost pile. Inky caps do well in substrates of manure, and they like wood chips as well, and I planned to put the pollard chips atop the small animal poops to provide an ideal growing medium for the mushrooms.

Inky caps, often called shaggy manes and known to taxonomy nerds as various species of Coprinus, are interesting critters. They’re one of the more common and easily recognizable mushrooms around, what with their characteristic behavior of magically turning into black slime. The spawn I bought was of the species Coprinus comatus, but there are a bunch of them, at least until the taxonomists decide to split the genus up into a bunch of new ones.

A mushroom is just a reproductive organ, only a small part of the typical fungal organism, and many fungi don’t even use them. Many fungi are unicellular, like yeasts, and reproduce by division or budding. Multicellular fungi such as my inky caps are called filamentous fungi. The bulk of an individual fungus is in its mycelium, a massive network of filaments — hyphae — that penetrates and consumes the substrate on which the fungus grows.

The hyphae in some more primitive fungi are just plain hollow tubes, through which cytoplasm moves back and forth, carrying nutrients and water and hormones and the like throughout the mycelium at a dizzying four or five inches per hour, pushed by little “muscles” made of a contracting protein called actomyosin.

Here’s a little fact that blew my mind when I first thought about it for a while: the actomyosin transport system can push fluid through a hyphal tube in both directions at the same time, by setting up discrete streams in different sections of the tube. Imagine being able to ship your drinking water into the house in the same pipe that drained your wastewater!

The hyphae of “higher” fungi have little walls like checkpoints along their length (roughly similar to the phloem sieve elements in many vascular plants, for those of you who remember your high school biology.) These restrict the flow of cytoplasm only slightly, but keep nematodes and the like from biting off an end of a hypha and sucking the mycelium dry. The walls, or septa (higher fungi are also called septate fungi) are made out of chitin and a few other tough substances. Chitin is what insect exoskeletons are made of.

That’s another mindblowing fact in the “kinship of all life” category, by the way: plant cell walls are made of cellulose, and fungal cell walls are made of chitin, which indicates that fungi are related to both plants and insects, which means my pollarding that mulberry was basically performing cosmetic surgery on a distant cousin. Woodsman, spare that tree!

Anyway.

Mushrooms are what mycelia use to make baby mycelia. A mushroom is basically a spore factory, and most mushrooms, like the portobellos you ate last night, produce those spores from their gills, those little grooves on the underside of the cap. Inky caps’ caps are very narrow and long when they first emerge, which would tend to impede spore dispersal. Coprinuses get around this by liquefying their caps from the bottom up, thus dripping sticky black juice all over everything and more importantly getting the cap margins out of the way of the later-maturing spores closer to the apex of the cap. The spores blow around, land on another suitable surface, and grow new mycelia while we are distracted getting black ink stains out of our clothing.

This habit is probably the main reason people don’t eat more inky caps: they’re supposed to taste pretty good, but you kind of have to catch them just at the right moment before they decompose. That’s probably a good thing in the main, as the shrooms contain coprine, a substance very much like the old drug Antabuse. If you don’t consume any alcohol for about a week after eating inky caps, you should be fine. But crack a beer the next day by mistake, and bam: an emergency-room caliber hangover. Unfortunately, some people claim that smelling vanilla extract or using mouthwash are likely to provide enough blood alcohol to make the coprine do its stuff.

I might try to eat them someday, and I’ll let you know if I do so that you can avoid smelling my breath for the next week. Which is probably a good idea in any case. But I was mostly interested in the Coprinus as a garden tool: a way to turn lots of compostables into rich garden soil without doing any actual, you know, work. If I cultivated a nice big bunch of Coprinus hyphae in the compost pile, I’d actually have a reason not to go out and turn the compost every week: why chop up a critter that’s doing all that hard work for me?

Despite my leaving the mulberry chips out of the compost pile the inky caps prospered and eventually colonized the entire pile. Flushes of mushrooms have emerged, grown, deliquesced, and faded. The pile occupies one corner of the bin: I’ve started building a new pile and the Coprinus has already started to take hold there. In about a year, with any luck, I will have distributed the finished compost around the garden and thus sowed Coprinus in the vegetable beds, the orchard strip, and the herb garden near the shed. A garden is incomplete, I think, without mushrooms in it, and the presence of mycelia is often a boon to green plants: fungi can make nutrients available that the plants would otherwise have missed.

And I may not even have to move the compost to get there. A hundred feet away, on the other side of the house in the middle of the driveway, the mulberry chip pile has started growing its own crop of inky caps.  The mycelium started in mid-pile, and there’s now a patch of partially digested wood there, surrounded by a ring of icky drippy mushrooms slowly working its way to the edges of the pile.

I don’t know whether spores drifted from the compost on the wind, or hitchhiked from out back on a garden tool, or whether this might be a strain that was already in the neighborhood before I had some shipped from Oregon.

All I know is that I now have another reason not to move those chips for a while longer.

I am Ward Churchill

So Ward Churchill is the latest target of right-wing outrage, and all over the online punditosphere liberals are taking up the banners of free inquiry and leaping to his defense.

Oh, wait. No they’re not.

I’ve read the specific instance of Churchill’s writing that has prompted all the outrage, and the most I can say about it is that it is too imprecisely worded and rather inflammatory. Churchill addressed the imprecision to my satisfaction in a subsequent clarification. As for the flamethrowing, well, I interviewed Churchill a dozen years ago, and have read much of his writing since then, and I’ll just say the incendiariness comes as no surprise.

And as far as I can tell, there isn’t any phrase in the First Amendment that says anything like “unless, of course, you’re impolite.”

Others have addressed the nature of what Churchill actually said in the piece at issue, an ironic (if ham-handed) attempt to extend the accepted logic of wartime to the events of September 11, 2001. I would observe that no matter how liberals may object to the notion of American exceptionalism, nothing makes them angrier than pointing out that the American standard of living has less to do with democracy than it does with empire. My house, and most likely yours, sits on land that was stolen at gunpoint. I can drive to the train station as cheaply as I do because people are tortured and enslaved on the Arabian peninsula.

Quick definition of an American liberal: someone who opposes torture when it makes page one of the New York Times.

Did you know that September 11 had a profound meaning for millions of people before 2001? That the date was a symbol of the relationship between the United States of America and the rest of the world? That it commemorated the brutal deaths of thousands of people? If you can name the country I’m thinking of, you are probably either a leftist or a non-American.

Taking the advice of some of the commenters here, I’ve continued to listen to Randi Rhodes. She asked the other night whether her listeners knew anything about Iran. It was a rhetorical question. No one called to answer. No one said, for instance, that Iran had lived through a CIA-backed coup that deposed the country’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and saw the return of the despotic Shah, or that the coup had happened shortly after Mossadegh embarked on a plan to nationalize Iran’s oil fields. No one called to recall the demonstrations of the 1970s, in which Iranian students in the US and other countries wore masks for fear of repercussions from SAVAK, the Shah’s US-sponsored and -trained secret police. Here’s a passage from the Federation of American Scientists’ website describing SAVAK’s historic activities paid for by your (or your parents’ ) tax dollars:

Over the years, SAVAK became a law unto itself, having legal authority to arrest and detain suspected persons indefinitely. SAVAK operated its own prisons in Tehran (the Komiteh and Evin facilities) and, many suspected, throughout the country as well. SAVAK’s torture methods included electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.

Quick definition of an American liberal: someone opposed to all torture not done by a subcontractor.

Bush is certainly the worst president, the most callous and murderous president, this country has had in a very long time. But he has not betrayed the country. He has merely ripped off the mask. America has not jumped the shark: it is the shark. The America that Bush describes is not a new perversion of a shining ideal. Bush’s America was there in 1971, 1968, 1954, in 1848. Iraq is not the new Vietnam: it is just another in a long string of Kentuckys, Massachusettses, Colorados. America’s history of wars of expropriation goes back all the way to the beginning of European encroachment on the North American continent. In his life’s work, Churchill’s has limned the Colonialist American Through-Story. I strongly dislike his throw-away characterization of CIA and Raytheon employees as “little Eichmanns,” though I find I cannot refute it. But he is right about most other things, and for what it is worth I stand with Ward Churchill.

Of course, Churchill is not at all important here. Not really. We could be talking about Chomsky here, or Sontag, or any number of articulate leftists whom liberals decry without actually reading their work. What is important here is the mechanism by which these things work; the identification of the right’s demon of the moment, and the inevitable liberal rush to condemn.

It will help to remember that it is not the liberals’ function to oppose the right. An actual opposition would have programs, positions, ideologies and strategies that stood on their own. And yet when we look at the canonical core values of present-day American liberalism, we find not a single one that was not taken from the left and watered down, or adopted once the tide of public opinion had turned. Not a single one was initially supported by the liberals of the day. Social Security, a neutered version of the socialist guaranteed income, was FDR’s way of deflating an increasingly militant poor people’s movement in the 1930s. Access to contracepton and abortion was pioneered by radical feminists, and condemned by liberals until the 1960s or later. Martin Luther King, who is dead and therefore safe for adoption as a liberal icon, told a group of liberals of his day (then called “moderates”):

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Students of Hegel will point out the dialectical inevitability of all this. Ideas are first ridiculed, then violently opposed, then accepted. And this works in more than just one direction. Who would have thought, twenty years ago, that a mainstream free trade advocate like Paul Krugman, whose politics diverge not too far from those of Nelson Rockefeller, would be vilified as a representative of the hard left? Or that Bill Clinton, a handsbreadth to the right of Eisenhower, would be smeared as a socialist? Little wonder that liberals take such pains to distance themselves from any vestiges of the actual left.

And little wonder that they have proven so singularly ineffective in their attempts to defeat the right: for almost a century, the function of American liberalism has been to defeat the left, to adopt just those tenets of the left program necessary to keep Americans content in their jobs, and then to vilify the people whose ideas they stole as crumbs to sate the masses. Now that the old left is in tatters, an array of sects and ego-driven posturing, liberalism has little reason to exist.

The left is in tatters organizationally, but there are more leftists than at any point in US history. We are diverse. The left is irreducibly complex, comprising social democrats and anarchists, union socialists and environmental decentralists, anti-globalization activists and ethnic studies professors and millions of others. And complex as we may be, our core ideas can be summed up rather succinctly: Tyrants should not be given support. No one should go without when others have more than enough. People should be free to express themselves and to love whomever they want.

Contrast that with the camps on either side of the great divide now rending American politics. On one side are those who would put US foreign policy in the service of corporations, the spoils of the world’s resources going to further enrich those already engorged with wealth. On the other side are the liberals. Outraged, they demand that more of the take be given to the middle class.

Surprise

I found this morning a letter from someone I haven’t talked to in five years, someone who came into my life like a glacier into a valley, an image that fits the scouring effect she had on me as well. I was digging through some old files looking for the article Carla had written for me, and I found a sheaf of paper covered in 12 point Arial.

I looked at it for the longest time before I realized it was from her.

Curious, I read it through, and was surprised at how remote she seemed in those pages. What is it that has changed in me to make her groping for feeling seem so inauthentic, so forced? There was no semblance of intimacy in the letter: it described a trip to the Trinity Alps and some hiking, an emotional crisis brought on by overlaying the scenery with expectation of psychic healing. That was acceptable enough: I do the same little destructive trick to myself. So why did her letter ring so hollow?

I read it, growing impatient with the self-absorption and the whining. Anger at herself, wounded shock at some imagined shabby treatment by her housemate, resentment of some town somewhere for being uninteresting, layered over with an undirected self-loathing. Self-criticism is a wondrous thing, and second-guessing a high art form. But destructive flailing for its own sake? I remembered the sodden sameness of how it was with her, and wondered what I had ever seen there to derail my marriage so.

I am still occasionally beset by the odd fond memory, but they have been played back too many times, and I suspect they bear little resemblance to the events that begat them. The outpouring of need on those pages was, by the letter’s end, repellently familiar.

So this is what “over” feels like.

Five years ago, I took the three thousand pieces of email she had sent me and deleted each one, wiping their sectors of my hard drive so that they could not be recovered. It was an excruciating, blessed relief, and I played her lost words in my head for days without meaning to. How odd to feel nothing at all this morning when I fed the letter into the shredder.

Waves in the desert

Lake Manly, Badwater, Death Valley. January 17, 2005.

Last Thursday I sipped coffee, the sand cold against my sandaled toes. The muddy, foam-flecked Mojave River flowed before me. Twenty years of visiting and I had seen water in this part of the river only once before, and then without stopping.

The truck engine clicked cooling in the morning air.

The river was swift and shallow. Small standing waves covered almost every square inch of its surface. A line of ripples before me like tiger claw marks on brown corduroy pivoted upstream and down. Standing waves’ key characteristic is that they, well, stand. They stay. They are static. I decided that the river’s flow must be fluctuating to make these ripples dance. Cubic feet per second on the Y axis and time elapsed on the X: waves within waves.

The full flow of the river right before me. Upstream, a dozen braids converged, to split again downstream. Water sounds echoed off the old Fred Harvey building. Houses are scattered among the red rock hills on the far side, up towards Old Route 58. In 1856 Illinois sent two delegates to the first Republican National Convention. One went on to the White House and martyrdom, the other moved here and built a mill across the river for his silver mines. Robert Whitney Waterman’s workers later remembered him treating them well, and their wives appreciated his ban on liquor, gambling and whoring. When the price of silver dropped, all scattered to the four winds. Little trace remains of the mill.

A man in an impossibly run-down house on the south bank rummaged through one of five cars in his yard, shouting at his dog. A Barstow cop drove by, waved at me, smiled.

The night before I drove through downtown Barstow after the sun had set. Scattered groups of men huddled around brown-bagged bottles. At a stoplight corner three of them stood facing me, no eyes nor noses visible, only gaping, questing mouths. I thought it a hallucination spurred by driving and peripheral vision. I dared not take a second look.

Waves in the desert. Chart most anything out here and you find troughs, breakers. In Death Valley on Tuesday I hiked up into Coffin Canyon, a high-walled slot carved out below Dante’s View. A hundred yards in I was stopped by a dry fall, fifteen or twenty feet of smooth vertical rock. I turned to face down-canyon. Ten feet above me, pasted to canyon walls, a bathtub ring of leaves were stuck still drying from floods of a week before. The newscasters called the storm “unprecedented,” the most rain ever recorded in two weeks in Southern California. At the mouth of Coffin Canyon the flood had carved a small notch into a broad alluvial fan, exposing layers of head-sized rocks moved by ancient storms. On the floor of Death Valley old Lake Manly had returned, a foot or so of water covering the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level. It would dry up within a month or so, leaving a thin layer of mud and salt.

Creek running north

I.

I have walked Pinole Creek for hundreds of hours. I have seen it in flood bearing trees a quarter-mile into the bay: I have seen it near dry. I have paddled its channel as far as it was navigable. I have sat at its headwaters, watched droplets condense on grass blade tips and drop off onto the ground, roll slowly downhill. I have seen deer at the ridges, sea lions and rays at the mouth, horses and discarded refrigerators on the banks midway.

I have never seen a drop of it flow through these pages.

II.

Pinole Creek runs north, more or less: I have walked downstream at night watching Polaris not more than a few degrees off the far bank. “Creek Running North” is thus a literal truth, but I chose the name with an old conversation in mind.

I was in the canyons of the Genesee River south of Rochester, the fall leaves an inferno of color. The river ran placid beneath canyon walls of Devonian and Silurian shales, thin gray layers like lithograph etching, rock friable and crumbling in my hand. A family member played tour guide. “The Genesee,” he declaimed at one point, “is the only river in the world that flows north.”

I smiled. I had heard the same thing said about the Monongahela. People say it about the St. Johns as well. I didn’t ask if he’d ever heard of a little watercourse known as the Nile. And what of the Ob, the Mackenzie, the Red, or for that matter the Niagara twenty miles from his house?

Pride of place can lead to unsupportable claims. Riding the Greyhound across Wyoming a quarter-century ago, I listened as the driver pointed out the Uinta Range to our south, describing it as “the only east-west trending mountain range in North America.” I thought of him and smiled half a year later, as I hiked in the east-west trending San Gabriel Mountains. New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Vancouverites, Philadelphians, and Halifactuals all claim the continent’s largest urban park, which according to my figures is actually in Phoenix. West of Amarillo there is a garish monstrosity at roadside billed as the “Western Hemisphere’s Largest Freestanding Cross,” which raised the horrifying notion as I drove past that somewhere in the Western Hemisphere there is an even larger one braced by guywires.

But rivers running north seem to have some sort of pull, a resonance, causing their myth to outstrip the others. Search on “only river that flows north” or its variants, and you’ll find a huge number of uses of the phrase, often with qualifiers such as “for its whole length in Vermont” or “in Oklahoma” or “on the Korean peninsula.” Change the direction and you find that people are not nearly as interested in rivers flowing east or south.

It’s a conundrum. Why would people care so much about a river flowing north? Dump some water on the earth, and it will run in whatever direction happens to be downhill. All things being equal, it will flow north about a quarter of the time. Why the fuss? It makes no sense.

Until you look at a wall map.

North is where the Great Bear wheels, where the coldest winds originate, the direction trees’ mossy sides face. Walk north, and you will never have the sun in your eyes, and the back of your neck will burn. Geese, gray whales go there in March. On the hills flanking Pinole Creek, north is the direction where the hills are clothed in oak and bay. Head north from the creek mouth, and after a couple hundred miles the trees are thicker, the rains more insistent.

But to those who take maps as truth, north is up.

And rivers don’t flow up. A river flowing north becomes an oddity, an uncomfortable embodiment of that aphorism about maps and territories. We note its course, feel despite the river’s obvious path downhill that there is something wrong with it. We confine it to exceptionalism. If the Illinois River becomes the only one flowing north, we can mumble a misunderstood cliché about exceptions proving rules and move on.

The river didn’t intend to make you uncomfortable, and yet in your discomfort you burden it with a story its waters will not support. Lay your words down across its waters if you must. They will sink, and the fish will not notice them, and all those other rivers will continue flowing north despite your declaring they do not exist. Your story means nothing to the river: why insist on telling it?

Then again, here I am doing the same thing.

III.

Bill Stack, who taught me to play guitar a quarter century ago, was in and out of psychiatric institutions his whole life, diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic. I lived with him in an apartment on the West Side of Buffalo when I was 18, relatively naïve, and I did not recognize the signs of his return to madness for what they were. He stayed up all night every night, not sleeping for a week at a time. He cut out photos from newspapers and glued them to the kitchen wall: I thought it was art. One night, a few days before the cops hauled him away, he shook me awake and handed me a yellow plastic margarine tub with four cents in it.

“What?” I asked. He was exasperated with me, asked if I was pretending at stupidity. I woke all the way. Bill explained things with an exaggerated patience until I got the gist of what he was saying. The four copper Lincolns in the tub were an explicit reference to the Yellow Submarine, which itself was an obvious mocking jab at his status as a lonely man with no Japanese artist wife. The universe had insulted him, and he was angry.

A week later, he was in a jail cell manacled to the bars. Suddenly a character in Fahrenheit 451, he’d found himself in troubling possession of a number of books and started burning them over the gas stove. Realizing the job was too big for him alone, he called the fire department. Three months later we walked in a park along the Buffalo River as he went through thorazine withdrawal. “So the world isn’t going to end?” he’d ask. “No more than usual,” I reassured him. I hoped he would be better. He wasn’t, and they found his frozen body in a dumpster one winter in the mid-1990s.

It was a long time before I realized that Bill’s rollicking free-associating sense of humor, which made him such an entertaining songwriter and drinking companion, was not at all, to him, a matter of non-sequitur. There were connections between his unrelated sentences as explicit and broad as the Peace Bridge we saw out our window. The fact that their existence was limited to Bill’s brain was our problem, not his.

IV.

In response to my short silence, Angus sent a passage from Maus, by Art Spiegelman:

“Samuel Beckett once said: ‘Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.’”
“Yes.”
“On the other hand, he said it.”
“He was right. Maybe you can include it in your book.”

I write words like stones to skip across the creek. I could dump in a truckload of words. The creek would flow past without a ripple.

V.

This morning from the train I saw a dozen pigeons, sitting on powerlines along the elevated track.

As far as they were concerned, they were sitting pigeons.

To me, they were a reminder of a photo Katia took, and my email to her saying her photo reminded me of a poem I wrote last year about crows on wires. The day Maddy died, Angus and Kim sat next to her in hospital and read that poem aloud. I wrote it remembering a day when I stalked down the street, anxious at my unraveling marriage and a lost friend, and found the music of the crows unutterably reassuring. I had been too lost in my own unhappy life, and the crows’ hollering was a reminder: “We are here. We do not particularly care about you. But we are still here.”

Weighting those dozen pigeons with love of Katia, grief over Maddy, gratitude for Angus and Kim, blinding devotion to Becky; with immense joy in the world going on without me, and adding a layer of rumination about these things’ irrelevance to birds and the song in my head to which Katia said last week I should listen, I wonder that the wires are not stretched to the ground.

But they are not, and the birds’ feathers ruffle only a little at my train’s passing.

VI.

The line between writing and psychosis is not, to my knowledge, adequately charted. A snake is, an apple is. When the writer starts talking about temptation and evil, she can do so either from madness or from metaphor. The kingfisher sits on a wire above the creek. That sentence is an assortment of light meant to mimic cast type in patterns based on words written by hand that symbolize the sound of someone describing the bird aloud. Even without an Aesopian moral, the telling is five times removed from the thing it attempts to describe.

And you aren’t done, as simple description dulls the reader’s senses. Humans are the species that insists on meaning where none exists. The trick is to believe the story and to discard it. To tell what the bread and wine mean and yet to remember that they mean nothing. When you persuade yourself you really are eating flesh and blood, you take a step closer to the dumpster.

I write or I don’t, and yet the creek flows. The creek is not the passage of time or the bloodstream of Pinole Valley or a living, breathing sentience or a book. It is a path the water takes on its way down to San Pablo Bay from Pinole and Sobrante and Franklin ridges. Ducks paddle in it, egrets wade. At night, I can place myself by listening to the changes in its sound. It is the only creek within three blocks of my home that flows north.

Big Thompson Canyon

The thing you have to understand about my day attempting to hitchhike down Route 34 is the context in which it occurred.

That winter, Susan and I had decided we were moving to Portland. She would be going to chiropractic school and I would find something to do. I read everything I could find about Portland and started to feel like I finally had a ticket out of Buffalo. As the day approached, Susan said she wanted to go to New York City for a week to say goodbye to her family. At the end of that week, she called, said she’d gotten a job and would meet me out west in a year.

I went to New York for a week to see Susan before heading west. I saw Susan for maybe 24 hours of that time. We walked together in the giant Nuclear Freeze march. I spent the rest of that week meeting with my fellow draft resisters and steeling myself to break things off with Susan, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I wanted the hell out of New York City. A friend from Buffalo put me in touch with a woman, Cara, who was driving from NYC to Boulder and then to Idaho for the Rainbow Gathering. For some inexplicable reason I thought the Rainbow Gathering sounded like fun, and she invited me along for the ride.

I persuaded Cara to stop in Buffalo so that I could cash in my inheritance — a whopping 500-dollar life insurance policy my parents had bought when I was a baby. We wound up picking up A., the mutual friend who had hooked us up, who was heading back to her house in Boulder.

I am going to trust that you don’t find my accounting of the next couple weeks boastful. It was a long time ago, and before certain public health concerns changed life for young people. Cara and A. and I stopped for a break in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska. Cara went off to mail some things at the post office, and A. took the opportunity to confess that she wanted more out of our friendship than she’d been getting. I liked A. a lot, and that was certainly OK by me. And the times were different, so the fact that A. was living in Boulder with her female life partner and said partner’s long-time boyfriend, to whom A. was legally married, to say nothing of the fact that I was still technically engaged, seemed more interesting complications than impediments.

There’s an important moment in this story where I wake up in the back of Cara’s station wagon, after a night of platonic cuddling with A., and the world looked completely different. We were somewhere between Julesberg and Sterling, on the shoulder of a dirt road a few miles from Interstate 76. There were prickly pears and buffalo grass and no trees anywhere.

I decided I wanted to spend a little time with A. in Boulder rather than continuing on to Idaho. I spent two weeks at her house, in which her girlfriend and her husband lived, along with a housemate, R. Inside of two days, every resident of that house had propositioned me quite bluntly. This started literally the moment I arrived: R. met us at the car, hugged A., turned to me, put her bare foot atop mine, and started kneading my instep with her toes.

I will spare you further details other than to say even as a libidinous 22-year-old with a long and varied sexual history, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. Not mixed enough not to avail myself of some of the companionship being offered, you understand. But I felt a bit like a side of beef thrown into the wolf pen, and not always in a good way.

I decided after two weeks that enough was enough and I needed to get further west before I stayed a lot longer. I’m not sure why I chose to hitchhike through Estes Park, snug up against the base of Rocky Mountain National Park, several hours out of the way considering I was heading toward Cheyenne and I-80. Maybe because of the scenery. In any event, it took me most of a morning to get to Lyons, and then I stood watching hummingbirds at a feeder for another hour before someone came by to take me to Estes Park. I called a friend in Buffalo from a payphone outside the Estes Park 7-11, chatted for a bit, ate some lunch and headed down Route 34 toward Loveland.

That’s the context. Here’s the story.

I was wearing those black flat Chinese fabric shoes, and walking backwards along the shoulder of 34 with my thumb out, for about an hour, before I realized only three cars were going by each hour. I started walking forwards. Past the riverside resorts, past the private cabins, as the canyon grew up to either side of me. My feet started to ache.

For months, I’d been letting my plans be made for me. Susan picking Portland as the place where I’d spend my life, heading to New York because of my compulsion to see her, accepting a ride to Idaho because someone I knew was driving there, staying in Boulder to get laid, not to mention the many months before that of bouncing from event to event like a pinball. And here I was, on a deserted stretch of two lane highway, listening to the Big Thompson roll past over the rocks, watching the hawks circle on the thermals over the canyon, marveling at the angular boulders interspersed among the trees, and all of a sudden I realized no one knew where I was, and I could decide to go anywhere I wanted, and it was entirely up to me what I decided.

I had never felt anything like that in my life. It was the moment I truly began to feel like I belonged somewhere in the world: among the rugged landscapes of a West I hadn’t even really seen yet.

I walked all the way to Cedar Cove before I got a ride, with an electrician heading home to Loveland after a full work day. Another ride got me to Cheyenne.

A couple weeks after I arrived in the Bay Area, I picked up a newspaper and saw a photo of the phone booth outside the Estes Park 7-11. It was a story on the 1982 Lawn Lake flood, which had just bulldozed through the town and down that canyon, sweeping away much of what I saw as my past started to be swept away itself.

Singing for Zeke

On my hike today, I watched a pair of red-tails circle on a thermal, keering loudly to one another. A hundred feet below, Steller’s jays called back and forth: raucous cries of alarm when the hawks came too close, their joyous staccato chip when the danger receded. Further down the road, I was sure I heard a Swainson’s thrush — until I remembered the time of year. Orange newts walked the roads in search of mates, and the nearest Swainson’s are in Central America.

I love so much to listen to the songs of birds. I wondered whether they might want to listen to me. I began to sing: a Kate Wolf song, Unfinished Life. Predictably, the birds nearest me flew away — I expect out of fear of humans rather than critical disregard for my skill or Kate’s catalog. Or maybe that line about the “wounded bird” scared them.

I sing to Zeke every day, just about, and have for almost fourteen years. Nonsense, mainly, about the squirrels as we walk past them or about his bad breath or dirty feet or general fuzziness, little childish jingles that half the time I don’t even think about while singing: Clarke emulates lark. Aside from those people that happen by without my seeing their approach as I sing to Zeke, and at whom I blush crimson, few people generally hear me sing. Twenty-four years ago, I stood on stages with a cheap guitar and sang angry folk songs to barrooms, coffeehouses, and the occasional demonstration. These days, I sing with Becky in the room about twice a year. That’s about it.

Which is why Becky raised an eyebrow about eight years ago when I took my guitar along on a day hike with my friend S.

S. was a writing colleague who volunteered a fair amount of work on the magazine I edited. We were sympatico. We hit it off. Far too well. I fell into a hole, spent far too much time with S. for a few years, Becky waiting less and less patiently for me to come to my senses. A weekend would arrive, and the phone would ring, and I would suddenly have plans with S. for the day. I neglected to sustain my relationship with my wife.

In short, I was a jerk.

Even ignoring the fact that I was married, there was something about my too-deep friendship with S. that was profoundly wrong for me. A harsh word from her, and a few days of silence after, and I would crumple into profound, intoxicating depression. Once in a while I’d weep. Zeke would get up, sidle away, find another room to be in. He has never been able to tolerate either of us crying.

My time away from Becky was time away from Zeke as well. He saw very little of me those years.

Five years ago next week, S. met a handsome, talented artist, fell in love, and told me. I was livid with jealousy, to the point where S. suggested we not speak for a couple of weeks. Hearing the news, Becky suggested it must hurt a great deal, as I’d obviously been in love with S. for years.

I admitted it to her. She was right. I was in love, and I was grieving. My admission brought years of Becky’s suppressed hurt to the surface, and in those next few days our marriage nearly ended.

The crisis was over remarkably quickly. We spent the last hours of 1999 in a remote cabin in the Trinity Mountains, watching bald eagles and fog play about the forested slopes. I put my friendship with S. to an end. We saw a shrink. We talked things out. We are stronger now, and Becky has forgiven me, and I have almost forgiven myself.

But it is those first few days I want to talk about, when Becky and I would sit in our bedroom and rage and weep and scream and grovel. It went on for days, four in the morning and three in the afternoon, gentle teary reconciliations followed by great gales of wounded fury, me moaning in abject shame as sobs came out of the shower to which Becky had retreated… and our timid dog Zeke, who would hurry out of the room when I cursed after stubbing a toe, reacted in an astounding manner to all the raw emotion.

Already an old dog even then, it was as if he had waited his whole life for this chance to prove himself. He was stalwart. He was brave, and he was steadfast. He stayed between us, some part of him touching us at all times as we argued, and though he trembled at the angry words — oh, how he trembled — he did not falter.

Without him, our hurt might have spiraled, our words turned bitter. But we sought to still his trembling as we fought. We kept our anger in check. We owe him our marriage, as surely as if he had raced into a burning building to drag it out by his teeth.

I sang to him in earnest the next few months, cradling his head in my lap.

The problem with dogs is that they live just long enough that one day you can no longer remember your life without them. This year has seen Zeke fade a bit. His hips, his back legs grow weaker, his eyes misty. He is surprised when we walk into the room: his hearing has faded, and he cannot hear our footsteps. In the mornings he is still his old self, bright and ready to go to the park. Within an hour, though, he is asleep, and stays asleep all day. He no longer accompanies me on long hikes. The climb up the hill to our house is too much for him, some days. He was always surefooted and precise of step, a tree-climber. Now his back feet trip over curbs as often as not.

We walked in the rain the other night, me singing to him about the puddles and his muddy feet, and he was opaque, preocccupied with the meter in front of him. I called him, still singing, and he didn’t respond: no glance, nor flicker of ear. I realized he had not heard my singing to him, and that he may not have for some months.

I knelt: he came to me. I buried my face in his fur. There is always a bright side. He could not hear my choked sobs.

This is the last in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Rainbow Basin

North of Barstow, the old lifted lakebed sediments of Rainbow Basin crumble in the winter rain. Fourteen million years ago this was a verdant lake, fringed with oak, palm, willow. Sabertooths and mastodon, camel and pronghorn, rhinos and sloths drank here. Sometimes they died, and the silt covered them. Now their bones tumble from the cliffs after a rain.

At night the distant roar of jake brakes echoes off the mud hills. Hidden by a low rise, Barstow lights the hazy sky. Most people never come here. Even hardened desert rats speed past Barstow, disinclined to linger. And of those who come here, most never leave their cars. The short loop road provides ample photographic opportunity, and one must after all head on to Furnace Creek if one is to make check-in at the Lodge.

At Arches a few years back, we were kept to the pavement by our long-suffering dog. We hung our feet over the rock, looked into the Fiery Furnace, and longed for the feel of dust beneath our boots. Other tourists, dogless, sped up to the official scenic vistas, left their car doors open and their engines running, and sprinted to the rail and back and drove away, never once removing the viewfinder from their face.

There is little of that kind of behavior here. The road is unpaved, and the nearest tourist attraction is the Calico Alleged Early Man site, and aficionados of actual fossils find little of interest there. This place is not on the way to anywhere, excepting the gate to Fort Irwin. Anyone who finds herself here meant it. Still, more than two-thirds of visitors drive around, kicking up dust to settle on the dish antennae at the Goldstone Deep Space site, and never take their foot off the gas until they are back at the stoplight on Old Route 58.

The road has barely enough room to pull off, but I do, and walk away from the truck through bands of red, brown, green. It is a bit of a stretch to call this stuff “rock.” It crumbles beneath my boots, multicolored pebbles left where my feet fall. I struggle up the pictured ridge, careful not to fall off the declivitous far side. Below, a rainbow talus pile. I sit and watch the ravens circle. It is warm. I imagine a smilodon sneaking up behind me, wanting a drink.

This is the eighth in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Hens and chicks

The yellow striped agave has followed me from home to home for the past 17 years. It sits now in front of our house in Pinole, and in a few more years it will be too large for me to move. After a few years spent carrying it from house to house in pots, I planted it in the ground in front of our house in Oakland, fully expecting that it would stay there for the rest of its life. When our annoying upstairs neighbors decided to buy the house from our landlord, and we realized we had to move immediately, friends came over with shovels to help transplant my irises and manzanitas, and one of them took it upon himself to uproot the agave. I wasn’t displeased, and planted it in its next permanent home on the street side in Richmond. I fully intended to leave it there, as well. When our landlord sold the place out from under us, I dutifully removed any plants I wanted to keep before the house showed, potting them up and putting a police tape around them. On the day before closing, the buyers’ real estate agent took me aside and mentioned that her clients wouldn’t miss any other plants I cared to take, and that they would probably throw away the agave anyway. Into the truck it went.

I don’t remember the provenance of the hens and chicks. Gardeners tend to collect such things, grow them out, cut them up and repot or give away, tucking plants they’re not sure what to do with into little out-of-the-way corners to thrive or die. Ron gave me a couple German bearded iris corms for the Oakland garden: when she and Joe moved and lost their garden, I was able to resupply her. Those two corms have planted three of my houses, my mom’s amazing little tropical paradise on asphalt between two trailers, and a few other houses besides, and they’re spreading now under the Asian Pear and Self-Fertile Bing along our back wall. The hens and chicks were probably obtained in pretty much that fashion. I do remember deciding, planting them in the Richmond parking strip you see here, that the next time I would plant the hens and chicks first and the agave second, thus saving on bandages. That was the day I sold out all my fervently held beliefs about the rights of plants to their own way of being, and began my habit of snipping the excruciatingly sharp tips off the agave leaves with my Felco pruners. By the time we moved, the hens and chicks had spread throughout the little concrete rectangle.

The Mexican evening primrose was another matter altogether. I didn’t plant it here at all, just in the next parking strip up the street. They promised maintenance-free abundant pink bloom during the hottest, driest part of summer: all phrases seductive to beginning gardeners but at which the seasoned California hort person will raise an eyebrow nearly off her face. Abundant bloom and not stopped by heat or drought translates, quite often, to horticultural monster plant devouring anything in its path. It looks innocent enough here, with its demure little leaves there along the top margin of the photo, but we planted maybe twelve tiny little one-inch plants in total, six in the front yard and six in the back, and we spent the next four years chopping and mowing and yanking it out by the roots by the cubic yard. Between that, the Montbretia the landlord had planted, and the tiny little 2-inch pot of Persian mint I planted our first summer there, we got out just in time. Those plants will be battling one another for control of that yard a century hence, like Godzilla and Mothra over the ruins of Tokyo.

This is the fifth in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Cafe Rocks

Two concrete pads, a metal pole, a peeling sign, and the high-speed traffic on Route 58 heading between Boron and Mojave. The sign tells only part of the story. It was a café at one point, and a rock shop at another, but which first? Intuition places the café first in line, as rock shops tend to inhabit the low rungs of the commercial real estate ladder: the failed strip malls, the abandoned gas stations, front porches and wizened mobile homes. It’s all about storage of durable, heavy inventory with low revenue per pound of sale. Unless they’re the tinkly crystally new age kind that sells a buck fifty worth of quartz for a hundred fifty bucks with a free white sage smudge thrown in to cleanse the previous custodian’s negative aura cooties, small rock shops have to find locations where they can clear maybe a thousand a month and still pay the rent and make payroll. It would seem likely that a café opened, failed, and then the owner gladly rented the land some years later to a business that might have paid forty dollars a month for it.

But the broken neon tubing in the sign obviously corresponds to the letters in the word “ROCKS.” The word “CAFE” is amateurishly lettered. Could it be that the natural order of succession in the desert roadside business ecosystem was reversed in this instance, that someone walked up to a property so desolate and remote that even a rock shop had failed there, and said “This would be an excellent location for a restaurant”?

It’s possible. Edwards Air Force Base is right across the road. The pathetic little hamlet North Edwards is maybe a ten minute walk away. The café owner might have dreamed of literal legions of service personnel dropping dollars into his pockets. Maybe he imagined the likes of Yeager walking in, X-15 test pilots unwinding with coffee after a hard day breaking the sound barrier or spying on Kruschchev.

Driving past North Edwards on a dark night about six years ago, my attention was drawn by a small red illuminated sign, visible though not readable from about five miles away. A bar, I thought, or a gas station, maybe a convenience store. It seemed odd, looming behind the sparse shrubs as I sped along 58. I got closer: a remarkably dim sodium-vapor light showed a squat, institutional green shack of a building, no cars parked anywhere nearby. A depressing scene. The red sign eventually resolved into legibility. It said “SHOPPING.”

I didn’t go in.

I don’t know when the ROCKS CAFE went out of business, whether it burned down or was dismantled or perhaps, as it might have been housed in a portable building, towed away. I do know that Route 58 was once a two-lane, until 1964 called Route 466, a tributary of the Mother Road, which from here headed toward 66 in Barstow but veered away at the last minute, like the Tigris from the Euphrates in Baghdad, to head through Vegas and across Hoover Dam to finally rejoin 66 in Kingman, Arizona’s answer to the Shatt Al Arab. A two-lane likely meant more business, as speeds were slower and driving more tiring. A few miles west, a pair of trailer courts survive as a vestige of the era. And then freeway went in, businesses went south. The process continues. Route 58 once went through the heart of Mojave, with stoplights and truckers making left turns into Reno’s Coffee Shop, with its elk and boar heads on dark paneled walls. Now the freeway loops lazily a few miles northeast of town, and Mojave businessmen chew their fingernails.

Still, there is the instructive example of California City, about equidistant from Mojave and North Edwards and ten or so miles off 58. California City is a motley bricollage of incongruous tract homes, shuttered businesses and wind-driven plastic bags, and you can’t blame freeway relocation for that: California City never had anything resembling a major thoroughfare going through it, unless you count desert tortoise migration tracks. The town was built on hopes of long-distance commuters and lucrative prison contracts, and neither, so far, have arrived. Boron, still with a functioning hardware store and high school and something approaching a nightlife, will likely weather the inevitable freewaying of its section of 58, as its economy relies more on the nearby Rio Tinto borax mine than on travelers. I have driven past Boron, hungry and tired, dozens of times, and never felt anything stronger than diffident encouragement to stop in town and spend money. “Eat here if you need to,” the town seems to say, “but you should know there’s a really nice place up the road at Kramer Junction.”

The whole of the Western Mojave is poised between its past failures and those to come. Los Angeles County extends across the southern half of the desert here, and mile-wide blocks of streets are already laid out: a grid of dusty scars through the blackbrush and Joshua trees. You can drive for miles on 190th Street West in Lancaster and never see a house, but real estate signs are everywhere. Some of the last remaining Pleistocene remnant Xeric Conifer Woodland lies in the path of those bulldozer blades, and one can only hope the economy collapses for good before the junipers and Joshua trees are scraped away.

I’ve woken up a few times in the back of the Boron Route 58 Safety Roadside Rest Area, just a mile or so from the site of the erstwhile CAFE ROCKS café. In the mornings, the place almost seems promising: clear skies sidelit by rising sun, snow glinting on the southernmost peaks of the Sierra Nevada fifty miles away. North of here a desert tortoise once decided Becky was a shade tree, strode up between her hiking boots, got comfortable, took a nap. Entranced, Becky stood still for as long as she could possibly stand it, then — very carefully — moved a few feet away. The tortoise slowly woke, realized its shade had gone, saw Becky across the little clearing and headed toward her again.

This is the fourth in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Skeletons

The desert has need of bleached bones. Mine, I hope, will help slake that thirst someday. A cow or deer or sheep succumbs, and its skeleton settles onto alluvial fans, where flash floods off the mountains blanket bone with sand. Antler, horn protrude and are eaten by woodrats, or carried off to adorn a midden.

Cacti have their bones as well, frames from which to hang their juice. The stem is harmed, frost or flood or drought or parasite, and the juice runs out. The superficial spines, the moist pulp fall away, and after a season or two the bones remain, intricate fractal tracery laid down an atom at a time.

Try to clean a stem yourself and your skin will become a colander, stabbing pains far out of proportion to the size of the needles. Mucilaginous sap will stain your hands and sting your eyes when you absently rub them. And for all your effort, you will have obtained a broken, unripe hint of a skeleton, like a moth taken too early from its pupa. Only the desert sun, the aching extended seasons, will peel outside from in, leaving the perfect brittle mathematics to stand unclothed before you.

A dear friend asked this week about my January trip, and what I hoped to get from it. That’s it.

This is the third in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Pinto Chollas

In Pinto Basin, near the center of Joshua Tree National Park, an imaginary line snakes through a forest of cholla. On one side of the line lies the Sonoran Desert, or at least that painfully hot, desolate section of it that lies in California. On the other side, to the north and uphill, is the Mojave. On maps of the park, the line is fixed to an absurd level of precision, as if it were a coast or a county line. Truthfully, the line’s course is somewhere between an arbitrary decision and a biologist’s best guess. To the north grow the Mojave’s Joshua Trees. Southward, Sonoran ironwoods thrive. Each is an effective vegetative field mark of its respective desert. Except when they willfully grow in the wrong one. Which happens a lot. But not here. You can’t see either species from this patch of cholla. To stand unambiguously in either the Mojave or the Sonoran desert, you will need to get back in your car and drive a few miles, or trudge that same distance over the waterless slopes of the Pinto Mountains or the Hexies, which the Park Service officially discourages.

Instead, I gaze to the east at the Coxcomb Mountains, about forty miles away across the plain. A pair of ravens passes. (That might mean I’m in the Mojave, as most ravens I’ve ever seen there fly in pairs.) They are a half-mile off, but I hear their feathers as they softly scrape the dry air. I feel their wing-beats in my chest.

This is the second in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.