Monthly Archives: July 2013

Backyard Drama

Ross’s family is in town and we’ve been doing a bit of gallivanting, so right now I’m supposed to be stealing an hour or two to catch up on some work. But since my sister-in-law and her husband are napping in the living room, I’m working on the bed. Facing the window. Which looks out into the garden.

There is a butterfly bush right opposite the bedroom window; it’s a tall one, and the lawn chairs and round wooden table that live in the garden sit underneath its patchy shade. I have never seen a butterfly so much as look through a brochure for this plant, let alone come for a visit, but almost all of the backyard’s birdy denizens are big fans.

About 45 minutes ago, when I opened up my laptop to get started on this work of which I speak, an extremely chatty male Anna’s hummingbird and his lady companion were really having a go at it, helicoptering from cluster to cluster like purple butterfly bushes were going out of style.

He of the pair was pitty-pit-pitting away, presumably in an attempt to keep the goods for the two of them—but maybe 20 minutes after that, two Bewick’s wrens horned in on the action. You’d think they’d be able to keep things civil, share the shrub, you take the nectar, we’ll take the bugs—but no. There were some seemingly grievous hostilities going on out there for a while.

Eventually the Troglodytidae displaced the Calyptes, and all the scolding switched to a hyperactive flurry of happier whee-it, whee-it! nonsense until the wrens decided they wanted to forage on the cane chairs for some reason.

Right now the Anna’s couple is back. This time they are wisely keeping mum. The wrens have moved on, moved up: no need to turn up one’s bill at the purple trumpet vine on the garden wall, after all. A temporary harmony’s settled, and all is quiet.

But the juncoes and the towhees in the grass are still going to stay well out of it, man.

*******

Well, that attempt at labor was a flop. Looks like it’s going to be a late night.

Walking With Chris, Walking With Zeke

I didn’t take a lot of notes in college, so I’ve forgotten most of the discussions about books that went on around those scratched wooden tables I scrambled to. I can’t tell you what makes The Stranger a political novel, which misfit puzzle piece of Pale Fire connects to which other. But I’ll always remember what my dear A. said about Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pulling what in my memory is an old Dover Thrift edition from under the pillow of his dorm room bed—the book’s cover showing the dour, mustached face of Nietzsche himself, and not the cool and distant mountain of more recent editions.

“Sometimes when I really, really love a book,” said A., all blazing eyes, and curls, and wire-rimmed spectacles: “this is what I do.” And he brought Nietzsche to a pair of smiling lips and planted on his paper cheek a great big smackeroo.

I’m not sure either A. or I would make the same gesture of affection toward Zarathustra today. It remains beloved to me, not least because of this memory, but as with so many formative books that have not yet been reread, I can’t say what my present self would think of it. The gesture, though, I immediately adopted and have never relinquished. It was in this context that I posted the following tweet last week, and against this backdrop I’d like to tell you a little more about why this book deserves a kiss.

zeketweet

It is probably worth mentioning that Chris Clarke is firstly the author of Walking With Zeke, secondly the founder of the Coyot.es Network, where I write, and thirdly a person I happen to think is kind of the bee’s knees. I may not be the most impartial observer of his writing. But it’s also worth mentioning that a big part of the reason I like Chris so much—we’ve never met, and our digital lives have only recently become entwined—is that I’ve read his book.

His big-hearted, deeply intelligent, surprising, wholly satisfying book.

People sometimes volunteer that the highest compliment one writer can pay another is to say I wish I’d written that. I write about some of the same things Chris writes about—nature, place, identity, memory, the pull of wildness and the ache of home—and I had plenty of I wish I’d written that moments while reading Walking With Zeke.

Sometimes it was a single word I’d envy: the way Chris made me see that yes, coyote nostrils do “seine” breezes for scents. Yes, the partnership between a man and his dog is “thigmotropic.”

Sometimes I coveted a list: “I want no part of any enlightenment posited on the nonexistence of bird song, of capsicum, of salt water or libido or tooth enamel.”

And sometimes an image would arrest: “She is wearing black spandex, her body and the slickrock rhyming.” Chris is an incredibly gifted observer of the world, and I can’t count the times I felt like if I looked up quickly enough from the page I’d catch it: that screaming streak of a Steller’s jay or the trampled carpet of Bradford pears he was seeing when he wrote the words. I’d give a lot to be that clear and true.

But thing of it is, for me there are still higher compliments. I wish I’d thought that. I wish I’d known that. I wish I’d lived that. And in a way I have, now. Reading this book is to spend, in the course of a scant 150 pages, several years in great intimacy with both Chris and Zeke. It is anguish to be there when Zeke seems lost in the dark of a gathering storm in Nevada, and a thrill to be there when the aging, ailing dog has a wonderful day that involves explosive playfighting with a poodle, running circles around Chris, and making a clean 18-inch leap up a driveway wall.

This is not a book that feels confessional, though it is terribly, startlingly honest. It is not a memoir. But walk after walk, entry after entry, we cannot help but come to know the secret happiness and pain of someone who begins, to most readers, as a stranger. It is a book about a man and his dog; it is a book about the great, sweet, dizzyingly beautiful world. It is a book about growing older, and growing old, and growing something that is not quite wise.

Each chapter in Walking With Zeke was originally a blog post, and I will admit that when I bought it I was not looking forward to feeling like I was sitting at my computer clicking through a patchwork of random posts. Please don’t be put off by the origin of these words. The most surprising thing about them is how fluid, cohesive, and complete they feel. This is a work that seems to have come into the world fully formed, and it is extraordinarily hard to believe that Chris did not have a book in mind when he wrote these pieces.

If it seems I may be overstating how lovely this book is, and if it seems I may be doing so because of how much I admire and like its author, I can only say that I have read several books by friends and acquaintances, some much closer to my inner circle than Chris—but this is the first time I have ever written more than a dozen words about one.

I am not alone in encouraging you to pick up a copy of Chris’s book. Other people besides me—far more Internet-Famous people—have done so. Still, I may be alone in urging you to do this right: Learn from my mistake. Buy yourself an actual paper and ink copy. When you close the book on its last page, do not be surprised if you want to bring its lovely cover to your lips. (And do not be surprised if they are a little wet with tears.)

This photo of Zeke, courtesy of the Walking With Zeke Facebook page, was taken in his earlier years; Chris notes that "he didn't always look noble."

This photo of Zeke, courtesy of the Walking With Zeke Facebook page, was taken in his earlier years; Chris notes that “he didn’t always look noble.”

Nightfall

There is a story by Isaac Asimov called Nightfall. I say “there is a story,” but in fact it is Asimov’s most famous piece of short writing, and the one that has been anthologized more often than any other. There is a story, and it takes place on a planet whose sky is lit by the blaze of six suns. These massive bodies, like our own familiar sun, appear to rise and set. But with so many effulgences, at least one rides high in the firmament at any given time; and so the approach of darkness has been unknown here for the past 2,500 years.

At this interval, Asimov explains to us (and history books explain to the planet’s people), an immense eclipse always occurs whose gloomy shade blots out all six suns simultaneously. And after every eclipse, whatever great civilization has arisen on the planet in the intervening years tips into chaos—crumbles—must be begun anew. No one knows what governs this pattern of events. Perhaps, astronomers speculate, the sudden cover of blackness somehow plunges the entire population into a state of madness. But why? What could be so terrible about this thing the books call Night?

Apprehensive, everyone prepares without really knowing how for the eclipse. And when darkness finally falls it brings something more frightful than anyone could ever have imagined: It brings stars.

Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world…

“Light!” he screamed.

Anton, somewhere, was crying, whimpering horribly like a terribly frightened child. “Stars—all the Stars—we didn’t know at all. We didn’t know anything. We thought six stars in a universe is something the Stars didn’t notice is Darkness forever and ever and ever and the walls are breaking in and we didn’t know we couldn’t know and anything—”

Someone clawed at the torch, and it fell and snuffed out. In the instant, the awful splendor of the indifferent Stars leaped nearer to them.

Photo by the incredibly talented night photographer Phillip Chee.

The precise time and place of my encounter with Nightfall are lost to memory, but I do know that I was about 13 (that was the year I discovered Asimov, probably because it was the year he died and elegaic radio and television programs began stiffening his life’s work into myth). I might have read it sitting on hot cement stairs at the edge of my schoolyard, waiting for the bus home; more likely, I was sprawled on my bed after dark, my body crunched toward the ellipse of light that fell on the page from my dim wall lamp.

If I shivered when the last line came, it was not because of the cool kiss of the air conditioner. Nightfall, despite its pulpy prose—Asimov was an ideas man, not a stylist—is a shivery sort of story. What would it have been like to see that first nightfall? To live with only sun all your life and know it as friend and mother, as helper and friend, and then have it torn away? What cruelty to face a sky shot full of an infinitude of burning stars, not a single one of which could be apprehended or moved by anything you did or said.

We are diurnal creatures, and the sun shines light on all we are. I think it feels, in some deep way, like a witness to our lives. We live on a grain of sand, but on a clear afternoon the sun’s brightness turns the sky invisible and our eyes down to the world.

But night hides our world from us and us from each other. In its quiet gloaming it seems quite blind to our existence. And there is nothing besides the stars that better teaches us there are no corners to the universe.

I am so grateful that on this planet, in this life, we have a thousand and one chances to befriend nightfall.

Last Monday, 2 a.m. I’m sleeping in a tent. I have to pee. I uncocoon and stumble out. It isn’t till the deed is done that I remember to look up. I know it sounds absurd, but all the same it’s true: I make the sound you make when the one you love goes upstairs in jeans and reappears in a tuxedo, or a dress cut with diamonds. It’s so fucking big. They are so fucking close.

Oh, you know. We all know. We on our lucky, one-sun earth. There’s nothing wonderfuller or more staggering than looking up into that bottomless pool.

I think: Black is a different color here in the Sierras.

I think: Stars are a different shape.

There is no call for going back to sleep just now, so I lie down outside and look for friends. In this season Orion, whom A. always used to call the “Hanging Man,” won’t come to spend the night with us. But there are Ursas Major and Minor, the great Summer Triangle. The Big Dipper slopes toward the bottom of the night and moves to scoop the country up.

And across the sky the sweet, sweet puff of the Milky Way holds us all in. I think: I want to imagine a god just so there could be someone to have breathed that gentle breath.

Asimov wasn’t the only one of us who invented the night.

History of the Night

Through the course of generations
men brought the night into being.
In the beginning were blindness and dream
and thorns which gash the bare foot
and fear of wolves.
We shall never know who fashioned the word
for the interval of darkness
which divides the two half-lights.
We shall never know in what century it stood
for the starry spaces.
Others began the myth.
They made night mother of the tranquil Fates
who weave all destiny
and sacrificed black sheep to her
and the rooster which announced her end.
The Chaldeans gave her twelve houses;
infinite worlds, the Stoic Portico.
Latin hexameters molded her,
and Pascal’s dread.
Luis de León saw in her the homeland
of his shivering soul.
Now we feel her inexhaustible
as an old wine
and no one can think of her without vertigo,
and time has charged her with eternity.

And to think that night would not exist
without those tenuous instruments, the eyes.

—Jorge Luis Borges