My hero once again proves to embody the better part of valor.
Side note: Know something? Had I a couple extra centuries of life, I’d write a dissertation about 20th Century nature film scoring.
My hero once again proves to embody the better part of valor.
Side note: Know something? Had I a couple extra centuries of life, I’d write a dissertation about 20th Century nature film scoring.
This is the customary role of the best-known figure in lndian literatures, Coyote. To emphasize both his man/animal nature and his transformativeness, as well as to keep in mind the supra-tribal reference of my discussion, I’ll call him Coyote/coyote.
From Deconstructionist Criticism and American Indian Literature, Karl Kroeber, boundary 2, Vol. 7, No. 3, Revisions of the Anglo-American Tradition: Part 2. (Spring, 1979), pg. 76.
I’ve been poring over the photo catalog the last 48 hours or so, seeing images I’d forgotten, cast back into times I’d left.
Some of the images that say the most to me are the ones I might have thrown away, were I a purist. A blurred glimpse of butterfly speeding across the field of vision as I struggled to follow it with the long lens, the Mojave sun backlighting it into incomprehensibility. Feedlots in evening glow, blurred as I aimed, steadied, and shot one-handed, my other hand on the wheel at 80 mph. A perfect Calochortus with a thick blade of grass in front of it, out of focus.
Elk in a fenced-in side yard, spools and fallen chain link underfoot.
Among the best, in terms of composition: a puma seen from behind, relaxing. To call it a “nature photo” might cause some disagreement. It’s a zoo puma, and while shooting photos of captive animals still requires talent and skill, it’s a lot easier than photographing animals out running around. And on the outside of the zoo walls, when you do find animals, they’re far more likely to be doing something worth documenting. But try getting a shot like the one of that zoo puma, in the wild, with a 50 mm lens. And when you try, be sure to turn the camera’s shutter sound setting to “off.”
The important thing is to be honest about where you caught the image. If it’s a parking lot raven, don’t pretend you stalked a less-habituated gal out in the roadless desert. A few years back, a nature magazine caught hell for splicing a few extra zebras into their herd for their cover photo without saying so. If you’re pretending at documentation, be honest. That kind of purism is mere ethical behavior.
But some nature photo purism is just misguided. It’s not even all that pure…
The people thought Coyote odd when he came to live among them. He broke into laughter at unusual times. He sang loud laments in his sleep. He snapped at the air, as if chasing flying insects no one else could see. He was crafty, and they were wary of him at first.
Over the weeks, though, the people grew accustomed to his manner, and he proved helpful in keeping rats out of their corn. Coyote would dig clay from the river bank and shape from it lithe figures, deer that looked like they might leap from the road into the brush, fish so real they could flick a clay tail and dart into the depths of unseen waters.
Coyote was always beautiful, with eyes of ponderosa pine amber, a tail like silk. But when he sculpted his beauty became almost terrifying, as if those eyes held lightning. Most of the people avoided him politely at those times. But there was one woman, a young woman, who could not tear her gaze from Coyote even at his fiercest. Each night for a month she sat quietly as he worked, watching him from behind the old cottonwood. If he knew she was there he did not show it.
At long last one dawn, the third-quarter moon setting, he startled her awake. “It is done,” he said. He took her hand and led her from behind the tree, turned the sculpture so that she could see it. It was her likeness, faithful enough a reproduction that it made her feel a little faint.
She took him as her mate.
That winter was bitter cold, and there was little food. Her belly swelled with their child, and she was ravenous, but they had only cornmeal to eat, and whatever small game Coyote could capture. On the day the sun hung lowest in the south, a terrible blizzard raged through their town. It got very cold, and they burned a month’s supply of firewood in three days just to keep warm, huddling in damp blankets near the fire.
On the third day Coyote stood. “I am going.”
She gasped. “But where?”
“I must go find some food for us to eat, gather some fuel to keep us warm. We will die otherwise.”
And with that he strode out the door into the face of the storm. She waited for him to return.
He did not return, for a very long time.
There are so many of them down there. I watch them from up inside the mountain. Dozens of them there, passing as I tried to sleep, laying down over me a mantle of dust.
I drank coffee.
I nodded a silent hello to the trees.
I’m back, I thought.
— We never left.
There are so many of them here this time, I said.
— You will all leave eventually.
They keep to the roads, a trait both curse and blessing. I walk away into the desert. There was a canyon facing us all: In ten years I have seen just one person hike into it, and that was me. A braid of washes spills out of the canyon, and I lost myself in them, dropping out of sight of my neighbors.
Four-o-clocks bloom incongruous purple on the washes’ north banks. The wash was full of color. Paintbrush and turpentine broom, cholla with its golden armament and I dodged each bristling stand by centimeters, brilliant milk quartz where floods have broken open red-varnished shards of shattered mountain, washed down over centuries.
The trees kept me company. “I’m back,” I said aloud.
— You never left.
“Not the part of me that matters, I suppose.”
They nodded as I gained altitude.
This canyon is intimate, a cleft in the red-varnished rock. There is a pillar there in its center, a monolith thirty feet or so in height, and a patch of shade just my size beneath its north face. A seat for me amid a plenary of trees, of barrel cacti and red-baked rock, of lizard and cactus wren and fly. We sit in fellowship.
I do not know how much time passes. It is as if the passage of time has ceased to matter, though more likely time passes as normal and it is me that has ceased to matter. It is a result of solitude, this blurring of the boundary between natural and preternatural. In the company of people the minutes ratchet past as usual.
The wind shifts a bit, blows from Teutonia Peak and up the canyon to me, resinous and sweet and salt, gnarled juniper lost in longing for distant, fond-remembered jasmine.
Sounds from the crowd four hundred feet below reach me, borne on the wind. The big friendly dog whose barking will cancel any coyote concert tonight. The joyful complaints of old women.
And then a rasping chainsaw sound, and then another, and I recoil inside. Off-road motorcycles starting up, knife-sound to my ears. My hat is brown, my clothing black, skin red: they could not see me up here in the mountain if they looked, but I see them. The mountain has eyes today and we are watching them, and not kindly. Seven of them. Eight. Nine. They roll one by one past my campsite. They keep a sedate pace, I will grant them that much. In time I will find their dust has drifted inside my sleeping bag, clogged the burners on my stove, but that comes later.
They turn one by one, keep to the road, roar off northward down the dusty two-rut. They think they do no harm, I tell myself. Someone has told them, I tell myself, that if they keep to something on the map labeled “road” and do not raise giant clouds of dust near asthmatic campers that they are thus comporting themselves without harm.
A dozen species in this forest rely on sharp hearing to survive, to find prey or to avoid becoming prey. A dirt bike engine commonly puts out about 100 decibels, sometimes more. Human hearing begins to show damage from exposure to sounds of 85 decibels. Those fucking machines are loud. They are loud up here, a mile away. There are rabbits living in the blackbrush stands along the road: I met some on my way up here. I think of their reaction to this acoustic assault, and wince hard.
And of course the dust settles, coating leaves that may not feel rain for years, covering pistils and stamens open just now, cutting photosynthetic efficiency of the plants at roadside by increments and making it harder for those plants to control their internal temperatures, damaging what cryptobiotic crust was left when the cattle were finally removed from this forest, one more injury in a century of injury, and for what?
They deny this earth is alive. They deny the forest can be injured. There is them, and there is a desert landscape that is to their minds a paved track with a dust covering and some landscaping they cannot identify, and they deny the commonality between the two. They may be good people, with good hearts. It is true that the off-road “community” possesses a shockingly high percentage of ignorant thugs, who respond to concerns of environmental damage with threats of violence to children and pets. This forest has seen enough of that sort: it was a leg of the infamous Barstow-to-Vegas hare and hounds race, an event so useless and destructive that even the US federal government had to agree, at long last, to stop it ever happening again. These riders may not be that sort. They seem well-mannered, considerate of campers.
I do not care. There is no excuse for ignorance of the damage their sport inflicts; damage to the desert and to themselves. Their ignorance of the desert earth allows them to indulge in its destruction, and their so indulging protects and extends their ignorance.
I am furious. I feel as if I should answer this assault somehow, and yet if I had a gun and plinked their tires, somehow I would become the bad guy. My eyes ache, the tire-spun dust reaching up this far, and I turn to the trees for counsel.
“I should do something.”
— What would you do?
“I don’t know.”
A hundred trees face downcanyon, watching the dirt bikers, watching me. Atop the summit ridge one tree, its view obscured by another red monolith, cranes hard around to get a glimpse.
— They will all of them leave, eventually.
A lesson I have had to learn repeatedly from these instructors. There is a rock behind me slanted imperfectly toward my spine. I lean back, varnished quartz nubs hard against my knotted muscle. There is nothing to do.
I sit for a long time in the company of the desert.
The sun has moved, and I am cold. There is a flat rock in the sun, in front of me and forty feet upslope. I move to it and sit crosslegged. The sun puts me to sleep, partway. I talk to a far-distant friend, a conversation interrupted down there an hour before dawn. I wake again, and doze again, and sit, and wake again.
The sun has moved more. The bikers have not returned. Did they pass by on a broad loop from the Interstate? Perhaps they fell into an impossibly deep hole on the other side of this range. I care somewhat less now. I am content.
I have not moved a muscle for some minutes.
There is a rattlesnake in the shade of the shrub next to me. It rattles almost hesitantly. I move away, and then circle back to get a glimpse. It does not show itself but rattles again, more insistently this time. Dirt bikes a mile away and a deadly poisonous snake at arm’s length, and the sound of the first roils my mind while the second spurs a cautious fondness. Still, I take it as a hint.
Snakes greet me all the way back to the truck. I pack.
It was wide open on Route 101 this afternoon. The traffic heading north from the Golden Gate bridge was doing about 60. The truck carried me up the headlands slope past Alexander Avenue to the tunnel, then down the Waldo Grade toward Sausalito. There’s a canyon to the west right there, a cliff of dark ophiolitic rock covered in pampas grass, and I was thinking about other days when fog has rolled down that canyon like a river.
An Escalade passed me at about 85 or 90. I glanced as it went by, the driver on his phone.
I possess rank prejudice against people who use cell phones while driving, and people who speed on mountain roads in SUVs, and he was both of those things, so I eased up on the gas as he passed.
So I was only doing about 50 when he fishtailed and spun his ass-end into my lane about seven lengths up, and then
In my lane.
We were in lane number two, and the lane to our right was empty. I made a lane change. This lane change involved a Δv perpendicular to the axis of the Tacoma, which Δv was significantly in excess of the recommendations of both the Toyota Motor Corporation and the National Traffic Safety Board.
Which means I did a little fishtailing myself. I managed not to hit the Nokia Dementia sufferer in the Escalade, as (thankfully) did the sedan a few lengths behind me. But of the two or three very long seconds in which I worked to regain complete control of the steering, approximately one of those seconds was spent with the truck’s nose pointed at what suddenly seemed an insufficient guardrail, with a steep hill beyond it and some roofs of expensive houses a hundred feet below.
Clearly, I’m fine. I am not a Scott Eric Kaufman kind of blogger for whom terrifying accidents mean only a momentary delay in posting. The truck is fine. But after I straightened out there was suddenly a weird metallic flapping noise coming from the back end of the truck, and I got mad. Just what I needed: an inconvenient vehicle problem. There was an exit with a wide spot just ahead and I pulled off.
A few years ago, when I suddenly found myself spun around and tumbled and then hanging upside down from the seat belt in my late lamented 1994 Nissan pickup at Barrett and San Pablo avenues in Richmond, an absurd calm came over me. I methodically turned off the engine, inventoried body parts for new pain including the all-important spine, wiggled fingers and toes and (very, very carefully) head, then came up with an exit strategy that minimized exposure to the broken glass that covered every square inch of available horizontal surface, all the while pondering whether it made more sense to call home or work first. I remained preternaturally calm until I watched them tow my beloved and well-traveled truck away, the last time I saw it ever. So it did not occur to me to be particularly surprised at my lack of immediate fright or shock this afternoon.
But pulled off at the Spencer Avenue exit, crouching down to find that the metallic noise was probably due to the soda can that had wedged itself into the right rear tire as I skidded on the shoulder, I realized that I was unutterably relieved to have found a trivial, inexpensively repaired fix for the sudden noise from the truck, which I had been upset about.
Said realization was punctuated by raven laughter from a nearby blue gum.
Sure, I’m glad I didn’t die or — worse — get horribly injured. I have a picnic to go to this weekend, and a desert trip next weekend, and other fun travel plans in months to come being considered. I have unfinished conversations to continue, music to listen to, books to read. Plus it really would have made the week difficult for the folks at work, me dying on deadline and all.
But the big relief today came not from failing to plunge off the cliff, but from finding out I didn’t have to deal with a flat tire. Because that’d have just been annoying.
You want a capsule description of my interior landscape this year? There you have it.
Night comes on the landscape long before the sky notices. The road noise in your ears has stilled, the rattle of breath in lungs has stilled, the sanguinary thrum itself has stilled and all is quiet. All is quiet, save a sage sparrow or two off in the yuccas. You can hear the shadow of the mountain travel across the valley floor.
No one in miles, no one knows where you are, and yet you are never so alone here as you are in the city. Here are the flickers and the cottontails, the orioles, the night lizards. Each one regards you frankly, threat or source of food, or source of shade. There is guile here, but not yet. The ones with guile will sing later.
Shadows deepen on the land. Your cup in gloved hands: a sip of tea, and the warmth runs down.
This is life, then, all the scurry between visits mere dreamtime. Or is it the other way around? Either way the stillness enters, an adiabatic cooling of your city mind diffusing into the violet valley air. This is what matters, this is what matters. Concern peeled off like layers of barnacle, littered the Barstow roadside, the skin beneath clean and raw. This is the whole point, is it not? To be here unencumbered. To be unencumbered here. A long life with a few such moments is well-lived, and the sky the color of longing.
The first coyote of the night, a mile away and sounding close.
The second, right behind you.
Back for the first time since December 29. Back for the first time since… before.
Let me start by saying this: If you live within a two hour drive of Mount Diablo, go for a walk up Mitchell Canyon this week. I mean it. A short list of what was blooming today: Collinsia, Owl’s clover, scarlet and (insanely fluorescent) purple Delphinium, California poppies of the standard and light-margined coastal types, Clematis lasiantha, Ericameria, Castilleja, death camas, that three-leafletted shrub I always forget to hey out that I want to call hopseed with clusters of white flowers, yellow monkey flowers in the creek, Mule’s ears, other Damned Yellow Composites, wallflower, native thistles, more Stylomecon than I have ever seen at one time in my life (the best group is at the head of the canyon, just before the trail starts to climb away from the creek) and, of course, Calochortus:
And where there are many flowers, there are many flower-dependent creatures.
Aside from the California sisters as seen above, there are checkerspots and orangetips and sulfurs, swallowtails of both common kinds and half a dozen other butterflies I could not identify.
I had in mind a short little hike, not to the summit, maybe six miles or eight. I’ve been mainly off the trail. My natural tendency would be to go for the summit, and then to count the hike a failure if I did not have a summit in me. So I fixed Juniper Campground as my best-case scenario destination, a respectable hike, eleven miles up and back. If I turned back before that, or if my whim took a different trail and came down one of the back canyons, that would be fine too.
My whim took me off to the west a half mile below Juniper Campground, a trail called Burma Road. Maps I’d seen showed a loop between Burma Road and one of the first trails that branches off Mitchell Canyon Road. I had none of those maps with me, but shrugged: I could afford a mile or two of backtracking. It was early in the afternoon, and I dropped down the west side of the mountain in steep switchbacks, 1600 feet in a couple miles. Passed a concrete spring with algae and shy tadpoles, passed islands of peridotite and pine and lichen, passed curious wildlife.
I took a right fork to a rather imposing fence. Barbed wire and cable, and beyond it a broad fire road headed straight for downtown Walnut Creek. not the direction I wanted. The left fork headed obviously in an even wronger direction. I started to worry, a little. Was I sure I didn’t have a map? I rifled the inner hidden pockets of my pack. Yes, I was sure I didn’t have a map.
My alternatives seemed to me as follows: I could hike out for civilization and take a cab to my truck. I could burrow under the mean-looking fence — I obviously wouldn’t be the first — and do some route-finding through the dry grass and chamise back to the truck. I could lie down and go to sleep.
I chose the fourth alternative: After laughing heartily at my utter stupidity, I trudged back up the way I’d come down. I filled my water bottle at Juniper Campground. There was a trail-runners marathon on the mountain, and they had a drinks table set up in the campground. I cadged some salt from them and walked back down Mitchell Canyon to the truck. Seventeen miles and 4960 feet, three miles more hike and twelve hundred feet more climb than if I’d just gone for the summit. Certainly not the longest hike I’ve ever done. But maybe the second-longest, and possibly the climbiest.
At the start of my detour down Burma Road, less than halfway through my 17-mile hike, I gained a vantage point over a broad meadow I’ve walked through dozens of times. I startled a coyote there, once, so rapt in hunting ground squirrels she did not see me approach. Yesterday the wind riffled the still-green grass, silver cats’ paws flowing across the sward. There is structure to the wind’s chaos, fronts and eddies, and I watched rapt as a hungry coyote. All I love are waves kicked up by the impact of light on earth, and we fade only a little less quickly than these shimmers in the grass.
Passing the spot on my way back Raven joined me for a time, circling, a quarter mile of company. I’ve missed you, I told her, and then told myself it was the wind that filled my eyes with tears.
The world goes on regardless. They call me back into it. Seven years ago they called me back, their song not meant for me but I took it anyway, walking with the dog in a blur of loss and I heard them, atonal and grating from the power lines.
“We are here,” they sang.
I don’t know if I have ever seen the same raven twice. Two of them in the tree outside this window yesterday, probing the pollarded plane for insects. One against a field of blue as I walked. They are a pestilence in the desert, flock there by the tens of thousands disturbing the wildlife. So we’ve got that in common too. Ten years ago Sharon and I drove past an afternoon congregation of them, a thousand of them merrily dissecting a vacant lot outside a small Mojave town. “It looks like they’re waiting for a Who concert,” she said. “Counting Crows” I replied, earning a Look. Ravens follow humans and their edible garbage deeper and deeper into the Mojave each year, and many of them supplement their steady diet of cheese-coated fast food wrapping paper with an occasional baby tortoise.
I enjoy seeing ravens in the desert but it is more and a guilty pleasure, much as is seeing myself in the desert. Hitchcock’s nightmare comes true but it is not the revenge of the wild: the profusion of ravens rather one more aspect of the injury we do to the wild.
We walked this weekend on Bodega Head, after we took the dog’s old things to the shelter for donation, and along the clifftops we talked of whether Zeke would have enjoyed being there with us, where vertiginous trail met cliff crumbling toward the ocean. I stood at the edge, watched splayed blue-black wings shining off against a flawless sky, heading out to sea. The Birds was mainly filmed in Bodega, and the old church is still there and the old school. The movie didn’t end the way the filmmaker had intended: there was no budget to cover the Golden Gate Bridge in brooding ravens, his vision of an emphatic wild arisen to assert itself again. We are here.
Among the books I’m reading — I need another lifetime to read the books I want to, preferably one running concurrently with this one — is an intellectual biography of one of the most surpassingly influential men in US history.
Who is it? Let’s see if you can guess. I’ll list a few salient facts about the guy.
• He was a scientist and social theorist and writer, and achieved remarkable accomplishments in all three fields.
• One of the largest natural features on the planet, equalling the Amazon Basin in size, is named for him.
• So is a 300-mile-long river in the United States, a bay, three counties, two mountain ranges, and numerous towns.
• And a “sea” on the Moon.
• He was gay, and more or less out about it.
• He spoke out against slavery, and his ethnological writing and research was held up by the Abolitionist movement as proving that all humans are essentially equal.
OK: more hints.
• He conceived and established the first wide-range weather monitoring system.
• He proved conclusively that igneous rocks were formed by cooling of molten rock.
• Thomas Jefferson consulted him regarding potential mineral resources in the western Spanish territories.
• It is likely that he played a key role in Thoreau’s falling away from Transcendentalism.
• He laid the groundwork for C. Hart Merriam’s well-known “life zones” concept.
• Edgar Allen Poe dedicated a prose poem to him in gratitude for the inspiration Poe derived from his work.
• Washington Irving and George Catlin claimed his work inspired theirs as well.
• He discovered that the earth’s magnetic field is stronger near the poles.
• He was a close personal friend of Simón Bolívar, Liberator of South America, and visited Italy with him.
• Charles Darwin referred to his work numerous times in The Voyage of the Beagle. Geologist Louis Agassiz also counted him a major inspiration, despite being a major opponent of the theory of evolution.
I literally spent the last daylight hours of the year hiking. I had a spot in mind with a broad view of Mount Diablo, and catching the last rays of red 2006 sun as they lit it up in alpenglow, and I left too late. Two months ago I could have hiked three miles and 1400 feet of climb in half an hour, but not today. I gave up two-thirds of the way there, took a small single-track path I’d never hiked before into the darkening woods.
My life started here in these V-shaped cañons clothed in oak and resinous bay, rotting logs like bridges over the seasonal streams. 2007 marks 25 years since I started walking in the California Coast Ranges, the two decades and change I spent before that mere prologue. Coyote brush and miners lettuce and milk thistle sprout from soil so aerated, so full of humus it gives six inches beneath my feet.
This year saw me harden. I am an order of magnitude more misanthropic than I was a year ago, more persuaded that despite our art and cleverness we are an investment the planet should not have made. It is too late now, of course, for second-guessing that gamble. It is too late for a lot of things: for the baiji and the black rhino, for Lohachara Island and the Ellesmere ice shelf, and our victories consist of slowing the rate of devastation a trifle, of finding occasional lone and hopeless survivors of species declared extinct a bit too soon. We read of the devastation and cluck in shame to ourselves and have another 200,000 babies each day. Children are our future. Each and every one of them the future. A bleak future indeed for all but rats and pigeons.
And for the coyotes. The coyotes will survive almost anything we might do to this world: that is solace. They sang to me tonight as I walked downhill in darkness. This was a good year: among the swelling billions of pestilential humans are a few dozen cherished friends. This year saw me soften: I am a little more hopeful than I was a year ago, more persuaded that some of us might see past the petty bickerings among minor subgroups within one species in five million, might rise past our superficial, transitory divisions to stop the damage to the planet we depend on. It is a long shot still.
Ecology is a science that can wreak inner transformations on the scientist: it demands sensitivity to variable conditions, and one learns that adherence to ideology in the face of contravening facts is the mother of unintended consequences. Patriots, or Christians, or radical feminists, Marxists or Theorists or Libertarians or misanthropes, racists or progressives, we determine our opinions by whether they fit the labels we apply to ourselves, but there are more people now who turn that on its head. Some of us are listening for the coyotes. Some of us look to learn what is instead of determining what must be. We are in a small minority, but we are more than we were. Night-walking the forest, one places each foot with deliberation. Counting on the rhythm of your stride will pitch you off the edge.
How persistent, those memories. I cannot call up her face but in dreams, and in dreams each fold, each curve and lock are rendered so precise. Then I wake, and within hours she is gone again. It is better that way, so when will my mind’s back pasture let her go, blend her with a dozen other women I have loved?
The dog lagged behind yesterday, ten yards or so, and the squirrel was brazen. I have been carrying peanuts to the park and she knows me now, will approach and take the nut from my fingertips so gently, so gingerly my heart leaps. Yesterday I had nothing for her and yet she walked up to my boot, entreating me, asking why I did not respond.
For a time, each day I did not write was a victory hard-won. Before long that silence wore a groove in my heart. When will it ebb? A decade? Two? The solitude is comfort now and she is fossilized, the impression of her shape filled with the sediment of my sleeping thought, and it is better that way.
On Sunday Kat and I went to the mountain. She wanted rain and did not get it: the summit tore a bright blue hole in the cloud. We sat at its edge and ate, a massive fogcloud wall a hundred yards away, and headed back down, eight miles walked and two thousand feet climbed, about. Big-leaf maple burned clear yellow, grape leaves red at their tips, and two miles from the truck Coyote burst out onto the trail ten yards in front of us. She had not expected us. She made a quick wide turn, in her eyes a lupine yike. She crashed back through the brush uphill the way she’d come. For months I have thought of showing Kat that canyon, and now our sidelong gleeful smirk settles in among sharp memories, brief moments in a life of fog. She walked that path with us so short a time, but she walked that path with us.