Monthly Archives: June 2013

Life and the Aqueduct

The bats weren’t the only interesting life forms (or former life forms) we encountered on our visit to Caesarea. Before we got to the center of the Roman settlement proper, we spent a good long time wandering up and down (and on top of) the aqueduct that shunted water from inland springs to the city. It was an unbelievable structure—massive and ancient and half-buried in dunes from millennia of shifting sands. I won’t make a habit of publishing photograph-heavy posts—but I like this little series, so here it is:

This is what it looks like to be standing on top of the aqueduct, looking north.

This is what it looks like to be standing on top of the aqueduct, looking north.

While we explored we came across the following:

Some kind of allium, growing in abundance in the loose sands on top of the aqueduct itself.

Some kind of allium, growing in abundance in the loose sands on top of the aqueduct itself.

Waspy thing.

Waspy thing.

Shrimpy thing.

Shrimpy thing.

Sea snails and barnacles.

Sea snails.

A crab leg with a bit of pinch left in it.

A crab leg with a bit of pinch left in it.

A very plump jellyfish.

A very plump jellyfish.

…and perhaps most interestingly of all, just a few people.

Aqueduct-2

Aqueduct

Rise If You’re Sleeping

For years I’ve had a bad little habit of not attending to (or actively ignoring) parts of my body that are experiencing low levels of discomfort or pain. It isn’t a let’s-put-off-seeking-medical-help-for-as-long-as-possible thing, although like almost everyone I know, I have that going on too. What I mean is that if, for instance, I happen to sit, stand, slide, or snooze myself into a position where my neck is bent at an awkward angle, a shoulder is shoved against too tight a corner, or a shin strains against too much weight-bearing, I’m very likely to stay right where I am, just as I am—even if all it would take to be perfectly comfortable is the tiniest, most simple of movements.

I sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) plunge into a similar kind of stasis when I’m thirsty, too: refuse to pick up a glass of water that’s on the table in front of me. Does that seem odd to you? It does to me. I’m wanting in the most primary, most organic way, and life, satiation, clear relief stand right there waiting. What sense does that make?

It’s interesting, this tendency toward inertia, because it often feels simultaneously masochistic and involuntary. There is a determination, a weird diamond resolve that keeps me stiller-than-still, as if I’ve begun playing a staring game with my own anatomy. And yet there’s also a heavy sense of paralysis in the whole affair, as if an incubus is sitting on my chest. Rational thought makes no appearance in these moments—not, at any rate, until the self-cast/else-cast/tangible/imaginary hex or curse or anathema lifts, and I make move toward some greater ease.

All that exists is my strange and stubborn unwillingness to stir, even or especially for the sake of my own well being.

I thought of this a week ago today, when Ross and I drove north from Tel Aviv along the coast to land on sands that Herod walked on, once. We wanted to see where he’d built a little kingdom by the Mediterranean—where moneyed Romans soaked in baths kissed by sea breezes, cheered on chariot racers turning on tight pivots in the sand, watched moody actors play out Senecan tragedies on the stage below their great amphitheater. At this instant, though, it wasn’t Romans I was contemplating. It was bats.

Ross was wandering down into an ancient shrine when I heard squeaking from the vault next door to it, and wondered if it was birds nesting in the dark. The cries grew louder and more irritated as I made my approach, but for a time I couldn’t see a damn thing in the narrow cavern, its entrance (perhaps crumbling a little after these thousands of years) now held up by wooden beams. Eventually, I crouched to pass beneath a beam and lifted my head up as I moved forward, and hey—there they were: a colony of bats.

roosting bats

Here is the thing about the bats that was surprising to me. Here is the thing that makes me tell you this not-very-weighty story after all my rambling up above about inertia (obdurate inertia, making me so careless of my own simplest and most important needs). It was the middle of the afternoon and these bats, by my lights, were all meant to be asleep—but they were not asleep.

Well, some of them were. Some asleep and quiet and unpended, hanging from the ceiling just like bats in your imagination hang: with folded wings and stretched-out feet. But like I said, there was a great deal of squeaking going on, and each squeak was accompanied by lots of movement. Bats flew this way and that, flapping right to left and left to right; one would nudge another out of place and set off a small domino line of shifts, and only a few moments would pass in between the flurries and exchanges of position.

“They’re so chatty!” said Ross, who had come up from the shrine to find me rapt and glowing, taking video after video on my phone. “I know!” I said, and we both wondered at the inexplicable bustle.

Later I looked it up, and as best as I can understand it, this was not a colony of outliers who had learned to be diurnal. Roosting bats will often, it seems, change positions through the day. Sometimes (usually when roosting outdoors, though, in trees) they’re moving to escape from concentrations of the parasites that often plague them, like biting fleas and mites.

And sometimes (this is what I think was going on in that cool, time-worn vault) they’re moving in response to tiny fluctuations in the ambient temperature, following pockets of warmth as they occur and disappear. Roosting birds do this, too, although I hadn’t really thought about it much before that day: They spend at least part of their sleeping hours seeking finer rest.

To sleep, or maybe just to be alive, if you’re a bat or bird or probably most any other creature in the turbulent, immense cacophony of living things that fills the world, is to be always taking care of your own needs. You don’t need to consider much, to make this happen—your body answers to necessity and the environment without your making any serious judgment or decision. You just fly after what will change your situation for the better. You’re always in motion of one kind or another, making incremental shifts toward an unachievable, but useful, perfect state.

I, apparently, do not. Am not. Shift not. I see what would improve my lot and lay my energies toward failing to improve it. It’s not just cricks in my neck and popping knees I’m talking about here, friends. (You know.)

The bats have squeaked. I, they have said, am quite ridiculous. I should insert smiley face here, because I’m smiling, rather, at this batty pattern.

What to do? Ah, raise my capsized head and shove my way into a better place, of course. The bats have squeaked.

(Here is a video of Caesarea’s bats. I wish I could tell you what species they are, but Israel has several dozen and I have almost no mammal taxonomy. Maybe one of you can tell me.)

Write, Release, Reprise

Longtime readers know that about a year ago I self-published Mountainfit, a little book of natural history essays that bloomed out of a summer’s worth of volunteer fieldwork at the beautiful Lake Ånnsjön Bird Observatory in Handöl, Sweden. It’s my very great pleasure to report that a second edition of Mountainfit is being released, this time by a small press named the Chicago Center for Literature and Publishing. Here’s the blurb from the CCLaP site:

In 2011, a tiny bird observatory in far western Sweden found itself hosting its first American volunteer, and Meera Lee Sethi found herself exactly where she wanted to be: watching great snipe court each other under the midnight sun and disturbing lemmings on her way to find a gyrfalcon nest. Mountainfit is an ecological field notebook, a keenly observed natural history of the life that sings from the birches, wheels under the clouds, and scuttles over the peat bogs of the Swedish highlands. And it is a letter, in 21 jewel-like parts, from a well-read and funny friend. Meera’s vigorous, graceful prose communicates a wry understanding of how utterly ordinary it is to long for more out of life — and how extraordinary it can feel to trust that longing. Meera’s intent was to create a book small enough to fit in your pocket and read on the train to work in the morning. It is that. But it’s also large enough to contain a mountain or two.

Publishing with CCLaP is really neat for a bunch of reasons.

1) They traffic in ebooks, but they also release incredibly beautiful, hand-bound editions of all of their titles. We used three photographs I’d taken in Sweden for the new Mountainfit.

2) You can download an ebook version of any CCLaP title for free, or you can choose to donate as much or as little as you like. This model makes me happy because it means no one is deterred from reading by a sticker price, but people who want to support the book can do so to exactly the extent that they wish. I wish I’d thought of it when I put my book up for sale on my own website last year.

3) CCLaP books are released under a Creative Commons license that allows people to translate them, convert them into new formats, or produce derivative works (like films, comic books, or art projects) as long as they don’t alter the original text or remove attributions from it. I love this part of the model, too.

The first edition of Mountainfit was never intended to reach very far. I was doing something very important to me personally: testing the idea that I could be good at working in the field, and that it would bring me a kind of joy I’d been missing. Promising to write about it was my way of committing to the experience, a means of making sure I’d reflect on what I saw without letting it slip through my fingers. My goal was to print copies for the 100 or so people who backed me on Kickstarter. (Some were friends and family, but more than half, to my surprise, turned out to be strangers who offered such affectionate, generous support that we have since become friends.)

When I finished the book, I thought it was good enough to warrant making a page on my website to sell digital copies to anyone who wanted one, but I never did much to spread the word about it. This was partly because at the time I was caught up in a tangle in my life that’s only recently come loose, and partly I was preparing to leave for another 10 weeks of fieldwork in the Alaskan wilderness (a wonderful summer that will become a second book, I hope).

Among the few things I did was try to get the book reviewed. Jason Pettus, CCLaP’s founder, was one of about three strangers I invited to read it (and the only one who followed through). I had bought and enjoyed a CCLaP book, I thought Jason’s book reviews were smart and thoughtful, and I was living in Chicago and liked the idea of being reviewed by someone in my own city.

Months after I sent him Mountainfit, Jason wrote back to tell me he loved the book, and would rather publish it than review it. And so here we are.

Please help us spread the word about this—one of my jobs as a CCLaP author is to promote my work as much as is humanly possible, something this human often finds impossible to do. But the more you’re willing to say something nice, the easier it is for me to as well. Thank you. Now go download a free copy of the book! I hope you enjoy it.

This Week at Tejon Ranch

I’m about an hour north of L.A. this week, on a small team helping out a U.C. Berkeley grad student with his dissertation research at Tejon Ranch. Tejon is a fascinating place, both biologically and politically—it’s a 270,000 ranch framed on all sides by four very different ecological regions, the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert, California’s South Coast, and the Great Central Valley. It’s also the largest contiguous piece of land in the state that’s held in private hands.

About 5 years ago, the Tejon Ranch Corporation (driven by entwined motives, one idealistic and one economic), signed an agreement with five national and Californian environmental organizations. The contract was designed to help the company figure out how to shepherd its land in a responsible way, and it turned about 80% of the property into a conservation area while protecting the company’s ability to develop the other 20% without the threat of lawsuit. (More details on the rather intricate agreement, which has been great for the land but hasn’t quite worked out exactly as planned so far, in this excellent Sierra Club article.)

One of the stipulations of the agreement was that the environmental groups signing it would form a new conservancy whose role would be part natural resource management, part research, and part public outreach. Felix, the grad student whose project we’re helping to launch this week, is working with the Tejon Ranch Conservancy and the university to study 15 plots along creeks in the riparian areas of the ranch.

The research has a pretty broad scope: it aims to use soil and vegetation sampling, wildlife monitoring (of particular interest are the huge population of feral pigs that plague the ranchers, but we’re also setting up a herpetological study), and geomorphological data to create a comprehensive picture of:

a) What’s out there, and
b) How it’s affected by different patterns of land use (for instance, cattle will be kept off some plots and continue to graze on others, to see how livestock management practices affect species composition and abundance. Felix’s lab is particularly interested in comparing the relative impact of specific human activities vs. climate patterns on a landscape over time).

A previous project, which is now wrapping up, covered essentially the same ground in the ranch’s grassland areas.

We drove down on Sunday (there are five of us here; Felix, his lab manager Michelle, a recent graduate, and a current undergraduate) and had our first day of fieldwork today. To no one’s surprise, it was a tremendous learning experience: It took us all day to complete the long checklist of tasks for a single plot, and if we kept going at that pace there would be no way to even come close to finishing all 15 plots by Friday, our last day. So we’ll be streamlining the protocol for the rest of the plots, and Felix will have to save some bits of the data collection for future visits to the site.

We may not have accomplished everything we had hoped to do when we set out this morning, but I think it’s fair to say we had a great day. The ranch is beautiful—full of ridged and folded hills golden with Mediterranean grasses that came here in the bellies and on the hooves of Spanish cows, now dotted with North American cows. There are oaks and willows and cottonwoods and wild grapes. The sun was pretty intense, since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day, but down by the creek we had more shade and very few bugs. I might tell you a little more about the project later on, but before I crawl into bed tonight I wanted to at least share a few photos with you from the day.

We parked right next to this gorgeous sight.

Michelle showed us how to use a clinometer to measure the grade of a slope.

This Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) was riddled with galls, which are bad for the tree but lovely for birds and other wildlife which eat the insect larvae they contain.

This is a view of the dirt road where we parked our vehicles (you can barely make out the white Conservancy truck between the trees there) from plot CH3, where we worked today.

Michelle took and pressed a few plant samples today.

On our way out of the ranch, we stopped to look at a male red tailed hawk perched on a fence post. He flew off before I took this picture, but you can still see his mate tiny up at the top of the tallest tree. We aren’t doing any bird research, but it was a good bird day. No roadrunners or condors yet, though. Maybe tomorrow.