Category Archives: Longs

Solo

The nice thing is, even though I’m not the only one who likes the quiet of an early morning, most of the ones who agree with me aren’t people. This Friday, when I put boot to trail at 7 am, among those who shared my opinion were a female grouse, a universe of bumble bees, and an adult black bear.

I heard the bear before I saw it. I was close enough to it that the noises I heard were oddly intimate. Breathing—a little wet and grumpy, like so many of us in the morning—and chewing—open mouthed. It’s late summer, and the shrubs on either side of the trail were full of beautiful huckleberries at that perfect stage: two drops more sweet than tart. I’d been popping them into my own mouth, as I came along the trail.

“Hello, bear,” I said loudly, to let it know I was there. It made no sign that it either heard or cared, but breathed and chewed some more. It took a few slow steps through the bushes in the direction of an open meadow, located off trail beyond the trees, with lots more Vaccinium growing in it. I knew this, because that meadow is my lowest study site on the Paradise side of Mt. Rainier. My destination that morning was further up the trail, where I wanted to catch some high-elevation grasshoppers for an experiment I’m running—so I had to keep going up eventually. But it was still early, and I was certainly in no more of a hurry than the bear, so I took several steps back down the trail, and stood perhaps 50 or 60 feet away.

The bear breathed, and chewed, and rustled. It crossed the trail, passing into and out of my view. Somehow, with its giant mouth, it was consuming berries smaller than my fingernail without destroying entire branches. I wondered how delicate and mobile its lips must be. Every now and then I said something, to make sure everyone involved knew I was there and could make their own decisions about the matter. Once, the bear ran suddenly (away from me) a few feet, and I thought it had spooked—but then it returned to its slow, calm, breakfast. Otherwise, it ignored me utterly. It was, unlike most black bears I have seen, a true coal black instead of a cinnamon or old rust color. A marvelous animal.

After about 15 minutes, the bear had moved far enough toward the meadow, and it had been long enough since I had last heard rustling, that I felt comfortable continuing on. “Coming up now, bear,” I announced, and hiked beyond the place I’d last seen it. But there was no longer any sign that a 300-pound creature had been there.

*******

The previous night, I had listened to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, which bills itself as being “about the invisible forces that shape human behavior”, and is often, though not always, interested in what science has to tell us about these forces. The episode is from their latest season, which I have in general found mildly irritating for reasons we can discuss in person if you are interested. 🙂 But the episode they called “Reality” was so irresponsible and had annoyed me so much that I had actually gone “UGH!” to myself out loud as I lay in bed alone at the field house that night, no one to hear or care. And I thought of it again the next morning as I hiked onward, leaving behind the bear.

This will make sense once I tell you that one of the main stories in the episode is about black bears—or rather, what the Invisibilia hosts call two “competing realities” about black bears. One, the conventional perspective, holds that black bears are wild animals, normally timid but nevertheless powerful and unpredictable, and though we may admire and appreciate them from a distance, they should not be trifled with or taught to associate humans with food—because this usually leads to negative outcomes for both people and bears. The other, which the podcast treats with equal merit, holds that black bears are not dangerous, especially if treated with “attention and love,” and that it is a great and good idea to set out feeding stations for them, attempt to befriend them, and ultimately become so close that when they visit your backyard you can lean on their backs and let their cubs crawl all over you.

The episode follows the conflict between a set of people living in a small town in Minnesota who passionately adhere to this “other reality”, and the rest of the townsfolk (who do not, and dislike the fact that their town’s black bears are constantly nosing around their houses and cars looking for food). Interestingly, the leading proponent of close human-bear contact is a wildlife ecologist, who teaches three day field courses in which among other things he trains people to hand-feed (and sometimes mouth-feed) bears. (Yup.)

With me so far? Then you won’t be surprised to hear that a bear dies, as it was bound to do. Here are the facts: A bear named Solo had begun to approach people for food so often and to generate so many complaints that the MN Department of Natural Resources decided to relocate her and her cubs  while they were hibernating, moving them to a sanctuary in Michigan—rather than euthanizing Solo. But people who wanted Solo to stay didn’t like this idea, so they “broke into the den early to help the bear and her cubs escape. They roused Solo with pepper spray – lots of it – and tried to coax her to the woods to safety.” The DNR employees then followed Solo and her cubs to the woods, where the bears climbed a tree. The agents darted the cubs, which fell out of the tree (but survived). The podcast isn’t clear on how Solo got down from the tree, but it sounds like the DNR folks retrieved her and tranquilized her, too—but in the show’s words, “After being pepper sprayed, being tranquilized and the trauma of the transport to Michigan, Solo never woke up from hibernation.”

So, those were the facts. Now, the Invisibilia take: The hosts describe Solo’s death as a result of “the different ways of perceiving the reality of bears”.

The different ways of perceiving the reality of bears.

Not: “People deliberately feeding a black bear, habituating it to humans as sources of food, causing it to become a problem bear, and then directly leading to its death by devising an insane and traumatic plan to “free” it from the reasonably good plan that was put in place to solve the problem they created in the first place.”

Listen. I believe that cuddling in your yard with a family of wild black bears is an extraordinarily cool and amazing thing. I am sure that having a wild black bear “kiss” a peanut from your lips, as one of the show hosts does, is a magical experience. But constructing that interaction by training a wild animal to approach you for food, and then calling it friendship, claiming that the bears are responding to your “love and attention,” is obscene and self-absorbed. If you hike across a frozen lake to visit a black bear in its den every few days while it is hibernating, lie down outside the den, and talk to it, as the main character in this story did with Solo, I don’t doubt that that means something to you. But it sure as fuck doesn’t mean a damn thing to the bear.

So if you’re going to be the kind of person who lives like this, then just be honest about it. Admit that close physical contact with a wild animal makes you feel remarkably special, and because of that feeling, you’re okay with the fact that the actions you take in order to extract that contact endanger the animal. Accept that you experience the entirety of the psychic benefit from the relationship, and the animal bears most of the risk.

And if you’re going to be the kind of podcast that tells a story about this kind of person, please don’t insult the rest of us by making this about “competing realities”, complete with a facile and grossly shallow reference to “Chinese philosophy and East Asian cultures” being willing to accept contradiction and the absurd implied conclusion that Solo died because “Western culture” isn’t.

UGH.

Enjoy your black bears and other wild animals with respect and joy, fellow humans. Please don’t make their lives about you.

Because it calms me, I shall leave you with this picture of the mountain that I took a few minutes before encountering the bear. Unlike the story of Solo, I think it benefits greatly from the presence of a person.

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On Living Without Windows

If I look to my left as I type at this moment, I see the whispering canopy of a European white birch some 40 feet tall, its branches dangling boas of diamond-shaped, tooth-edged leaves. I see the straight line of a utility cable weaving through the crazy puzzle of the tree’s profile. I see the nose of a silver sedan parked on the street below, and if I crane my neck to look over my shoulder I can see another birch, another cable, and a clutch of houses rising on the curve of Phinney Ridge, the neighborhood northwest of the one where I live. I see these things through the nearly full-length windows I am lucky to have lining the wall by my desk.

These are my windows; they are part of my apartment. It is simple enough to say, as you do: This is my view.

On Thursday morning Ross and I woke in the half-dark and drove two about and a half hours north of Seattle, picking up our friend Susie along the way. The goal for the day was to hike to a place called Hidden Lake Lookout, which lies just over the border between Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park. Susie had hiked this route before, several years ago, and had in general sung the praises of the landscape through which it climbs—a part of the Cascade mountain range that Ross and I had not yet visited.

Nothing about the hike disappointed. The vegetation was everywhere riotous and everywhere changing; as we moved from forest to open cliffside, the dappled ferns and mosses fell away and we started seeing spikes of fireweed, starry asters, lupine, mountain ash, paintbrush and false hellebore. At times the giant, hairy fans of cow parsnip—cousins of the hundkex (“dog biscuit”) I encountered in Sweden—nearly pushed us off the path. And after Susie pointed out the ripe wild blueberries that lined the trail, every new patch became an excuse to pause and pluck a half dozen tiny bright beads, tart as anything and more satisfying than water.

We saw and heard pika as the terrain got rockier (each call like a fraction of a red-breasted nuthatch). Four white-tailed ptarmigan, brown summer plumage fading sooner than I would have thought into winter white, stood clucking softly on a steep outcrop near the top, as high as snowfields. Near the top of everything, the first glimpse of Hidden Lake appeared like a crazy mirage shining low in the throat of the mountains around it, and here there were ravens. Always ravens in high places.

This is Hidden Lake, no longer quite so hidden.

But windows are my subject today.

Ross and I left Susie napping on a boulder in the sun and half-hiked, half-scrambled up another few hundred feet to the top of a narrow peak above. The views here, if possible, were even more expansive. We could see, though we could not have named all of these mountains at the time, Mount Shuksan. Big Devil Peak. Eldorado. Mount Baker. Johannesburg. Mount Sahale. Boston Peak. Mount Forbidden. Glacier Peak. The sky was close enough to touch and nothing for miles around, it seemed, was hidden from us—except perhaps the place where we had started from that morning, down below the shadows of the trees.

We found a place to stand, to twirl around and take it in. And then we turned our attention to the structure that gives the trail its name: a wildfire lookout built in 1932, decommissioned a few decades later, and currently maintained as a first-come, first-served camping shelter.

The Lookout.

Five or six other parties were at the top when we arrived, including a pair of young backpackers who had been lucky enough, they told us, to nab the space just as its previous occupants were leaving. The couple had arranged their sleeping bags and foodstuffs in the lookout, a little wooden cabin tethered to the rocks at very nearly 7,000 feet, and were now sitting just outside it. Ross, before me, hesitated on the doorstep. The lookout was, of course, public property—but even at that height, a certain canon of possession held.

“Go on in,” the couple said, with jovial magnanimity (a relief to me, since a trip report I had read about this hike made mention of a party that had commandeered the house and tried to prevent day hikers from entering the lookout even for a peek). “Go take a look!”

And so we did. And as we entered, both of us—entirely involuntarily—gasped. “Oh, my god.” Here’s what we saw:

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I’m not sure if these pictures made you gasp, too. It’s hard for me to know how I would feel about them if I didn’t have in my mind the memory of what it was like to step over that small threshold onto clean, peeling floorboards, thinking of nothing in particular except the sun and the air, feeling only a mild curiosity about what the inside of a fire lookout might be like, and to all of a sudden see that view, through those windows. It was quite genuinely breathtaking.

Not that the view outside the lookout’s walls had been less breathtaking—at least, it made no sense for that to be the case. By definition, what you could see through the windows was circumscribed and what you could see outside was not. Nothing ought to have been more spectacular than the 360 degree panorama we had beheld from the exterior, turning on our heels and back again until we all but lost our balance. A few pieces of wood and glass ought not to have improved on our eyes’ best evidence.

And yet, as soon as you walked through that doorway something made you gasp. It happened in exactly the same way to the people who stepped in as we stepped out—a stopping in their tracks, a sharp inhalation. “Oh, my god,” a woman said.

Reemerging from the lookout I was slightly irritated by the extra awe I’d felt on entering the structure. It took me a while to understand. At first I thought it must be something about the way the windows framed the mountains; perhaps they gave the overwhelming beauty of the scene some shape, I speculated. Perhaps they somehow emphasized the vastness of the landscape by placing onto it a sense of human scale, making the peaks seem even bigger and more majestic than they already were.

There may be something in that, but now I think the simpler, more direct, and more frustrating explanation is that windows make us feel as if we own what we see through them. And what a possession this would be! Everyone who stepped into the lookout that day, I think, immediately entertained a fantasy of moving into that irresistibly charming wooden cabin—of making it their home. That table, theirs. That bare bed, theirs. And that sublime, extraordinary view: theirs.

I often wish, spoiled as I am by having grown to love the outdoors through fieldwork at sites that were very nearly empty of other human beings, to be more alone when I hike. I grumble, quite unjustifiably, about having to share the trail with people who love wild places just as much as I do. This selfish impulse, I know, is another thing I share with many of those same people. I wouldn’t try to change it—solitude is precious, and we all deserve to seek it. But I would like to let go of the hunger to see the view through those windows, and of the silly, seductive sense that a place like that lookout was somehow the best possible vantage point from which to pass a night in the North Cascades.

I don’t want to want to own the mountains.

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(But I do kind of want to be in that lookout during a lightning storm. Wouldn't you?)

(But I do kind of want to be in that lookout during a lightning storm. Wouldn’t you?)

 

The Nearer Your Destination

In the vocabulary of rock climbers, a problem is the physical space between where you are right now and where you’d like to be in just a little bit. A solution is any one of the set of ways in which you might traverse that space. The joy of climbing, you immediately understand, lies in both problems and solutions: A particularly beautiful solution requires an especially interesting problem.

I wouldn’t call myself a rock climber, but I’ve done enough of it in the gym to have collected a small stockpile of techniques—I have a sense of how to stretch, and twist, and push on, and pull with, various bits and pieces of my body in order to make a seemingly inaccessible position accessible. I have a sense of how to approach the physical mass of a rock face, how to see hand-holds and foot-holds and how to exploit my contact with the rock itself so that friction and reaction forces give me extra leverage.

Ross and I let our Berkeley rock gym memberships lapse quite a while ago, but we like using these skills to scramble. If you’ve never heard of scrambling you can think of it as the middle ground between walking, which generally requires no skill or equipment—and technical climbing, which requires both training and gear. Yesterday the two of us spent a few hours inhabiting that middle ground in Sunol Regional Wilderness, a gorgeous park that lies just east of the Calaveras fault (part of the San Andreas fault system) and is blessed with an abundance of otherworldly blue-green serpentine and rich brown-black basalt rock erupting at intervals out of rippling hills. We scrambled in the sweet, clear waters of Alameda Creek, which has so many good-sized boulders in it that you can go nearly a mile straight through the creek itself and only occasionally have to hop over to one or the other bank. We scrambled up Rock Scramble Trail, whose nature does not belie its name.

I was having bouts of lightheadedness that day, on which more in a moment, but the weather was fine and the problems were interesting and the solutions satisfied. The daily push ups I’ve been doing for a few months helped me strong-arm my way up at least one rather tall boulder. I made a couple of singularly enjoyable moves that involved getting nearly horizontal, hands pressed to one whorled stone surface and boots pushing back against another. I got sweaty and I slipped and I ate a fly, and I thought: I wouldn’t mind it if the world were all boulder.

The lightheadedness was a thing of some note, though thankfully it was not only mild but almost enjoyable, in the way that, if you’ve ever gone under, the first flush of anesthesia hitting your veins can make you understand why “giddy” has two meanings. Sunday was the first time I became aware of it, though it’s continued through today and I imagine it may take a little while to subside. About ten days ago, I don’t mind explaining, my physician and I agreed that it was a good time for me to start transitioning off the medication I’ve been taking for the last 14 months. I was given a list of “discontinuation symptoms,” some of which were moderately terrifying and most of which I have very luckily avoided. But I’m pretty sure that this is where the lightheadedness came from.

The only other effect I am experiencing as a result of going off the drug is also of some note.

I have noted it in a conversation with Ross, and today in a letter to my dear friend Sarah, but I find it difficult to note it here, for some reason; perhaps that it requires telling you about one of the parts of myself I find the ugliest. The past 14 months have been good ones, and because of that and possibly because, I now realize, of the medication I’ve been on, this ugliness has not manifested itself very much at all. But it surfaced this past Saturday, while I was studying for an upcoming physics exam and struggling to call upon the concepts and equations I’ve been learning quickly enough to solve my list of practice problems in a reasonably finite period of time. And it surfaced on the drive back from Sunol yesterday, when I made several wrong navigation moves in a row on a busy highway.

Ugliness, in this case, is a sudden, blooming unhappiness—a kind of black choler rising in me like a force of nature—or at least, that is how I thought about it for most of my life. Ugliness is the choler itself, which is usually triggered by the sense that I’ve done something wrong or that something has gone wrong. It is also a secondary sense of outrage and panic about being infected with this feeling, and the desire to cut it out of myself as expeditiously as possible. And it is the almost automatic projection of both of these unhappinesses onto someone else, preferably in a way that has them wronging me—so that even if I have to be miserable, it doesn’t have to be my fault.

I was alone when it happened on Saturday, so Physics Itself took the brunt of my projected unhappiness, which was quite mild anyway and fortunately didn’t last very long because I had to shut my books and head off to meet an old friend. I noticed the choler, though, because it had been so long since I had felt it. Huh, I thought. It’s you. I haven’t missed you. It felt, a little, like a slipping.

On Sunday, of course, Ross was next to me in the car. It wasn’t exactly pleasant for either of us, but I’m very glad to be able to tell you that even without the smoothing benefits of a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, and even though I could feel the ugliness growing like a little massif between my ribs, the whole thing blew over within a couple of minutes. My old friend hasn’t changed, but I have. After an initial convulsion of frustration, I clued Ross—who’d been, understandably, mainly focused on helping us navigate safely home—in on what was happening with me. It took several minutes more before I could say I was no longer angry, or unhappy, or vehemently desirous of not being in the wrong, but I didn’t push those things onto him and I didn’t gorge myself on them.

There was a space between where I was right then and where I wanted to be in just a little bit. There was a set of ways to traverse that space. And I don’t know if it was beautiful, but I found one.

Not all the rocks we scrambled in Sunol had taken their place there as a result of the tectonic forces at play beneath our feet, but this is true of a lot of the park’s most remarkable and interesting problems. Because the fine-grained, iron-rich basalt that dominates the ocean floor is heavier than the the phaneritic (large-grained), silica-rich granite that makes up most of the Earth’s land masses, an oceanic plate will slip-slide below a continental plate when the two have a contest of borders. Down in the mantle, the subducted basalt will melt, be reformed, and alter in character before some of it is unearthed by other geologic events.

Zeb Page, a petrologist at Oberlin whom I do not otherwise know, has won my heart by pointing out that these rocks represent the only material in the world that was once subducted but is now available for study. This is rock that came from the depths of the Earth’s core, became part of its skin, was pushed back under for a second spell in that fundamental forge none of us will ever see, and then returned again.

And we get to climb on it. We get to practice getting nearer to our destinations—even if, after all, Paul Simon was a little bit right about that slipping and sliding thing.

 

A Good Year Long Past Due: My 2013

Night has fallen on the first day of this new year, and I am lying on a bed in a Motel 6 in Ridgecrest, CA, with a towel wrapped around wet hair, and there is a part of me that wants to tell you 2013 was the best year of my life.

I hesitate to say those words so baldly, particularly because if the past 365 days lacked one thing it was enough good time spent with my family back home in Singapore. 2013 began with a visit there, but throughout most of January I was mired in the last and deepest phase of what I now recognize as a depression years in the brewing. I was barely able to converse and I’m sure I perturbed my relatives terribly.

I am very, very glad indeed to have been with my funny, forgiving parents, crazy cool sister, and hilariously smart nieces and nephew in the first weeks of 2013. They supported me more than they will ever realize—but in many ways I wasn’t really there at all.

Hard, then, to believe that things have changed so much since then. This isn’t a post about depression (although please email me if you ever want to talk about that) or its treatments (again, please email to chat—I’ve been extremely lucky and am happy to share details). But one reason this last year was so amazing was the simple affirmation it offered: Happiness can, and sometimes does, return like a blaze after it seems to have been lost.

This was my 2013.

Miles run: 251.8
I took the summer off running to rest my bad right foot and ankle, but was able to get back into things in the fall with the help of new shoes and insoles. My dear friend Sarah asked me recently why I run, and my answer was, essentially, to keep my body strong for things I like to do even better, such as the following:

Miles hiked (since April, when we started logging them): 318.2
Ross and I go hiking almost every weekend now, and if you put a gun to my head to make me choose my favorite thing about living where we do, this is what I’d say.

If with the same gun you made me choose my favorite miles, they’d be the ones that led to the peak of Mount Dana in August, at 13,061 feet the highest mountain in Yosemite.

Regional, State, and National Parks visited in California (again, since April): 26
I’ve barely made a dent.

Nights spent sleeping out: 30
Three major camping trips, two weekend trips, and a short-term stint in the field contributed to this figure, which makes me incredibly happy. There are very few things in the world I like more than sleeping and waking up without walls. And a mere three and a half years ago, very few things would have surprised me more than the suggestion that this would someday be the case.

I’ve loved every night out this year, but if I have favorites they might be the one where I got rained out on the sandy beach of the Lost Coast where I was sleeping sans tent and the one, just this week, where Ross and I camped off-trail in the backcountry of Joshua Tree and heard coyote song.

Prerequisite classes taken toward applying for an M.S. in ecology: 3 (+ 3 associated labs)
This grand, terrifying, immensely long-awaited life plan is going so well that I’m going to take another three classes next semester alone. I’m enjoying it so much that I cried the night of my chemistry final this fall, because I was so happy about how the year’s learning had gone and at least partly because it meant I didn’t need to take any more chemistry classes. Fucking cried about that. Good lord.

Marriages restored: 1
Ross and I are closer than we’ve ever been. (Hi, babe.)

Friendships injured and then, I very much hope, reclaimed: 1
T.—I love you.

Phobias overcome: 1
I began the year extremely nervous about highway driving—to the point where I basically couldn’t go anywhere that required getting on or off a highway unless Ross drove me. I am ending it, as I said, in a Motel 6 in Ridgecrest, CA, to get to which I drove three hours in the dark, using six different highways. This means the entire world to me. This means I can take myself anywhere.

I can take myself, for instance, to the parking lot of Buster’s, an abandoned supermarket in Bridgeport, CA. And I will, because this happens to be where the beginning mountaineering course I am taking is meeting this Friday morning.

It is 2014, friends. I am going to climb. I wish you every strength, joy, and luck as you do, too.

New Year's Eve hike

New Year’s Eve hike

Fallout From a Fatal Gift

There’s this eerie sound that eucalyptus trees make when the wind is passing through the spaces between their belts of peeling bark. It’s not like any other tree I know of; when eucalypts talk, I hear the metal gate in front of the house my father grew up in, creaking on its hinges. That gate, along with the house and its porch and the purple and white periwinkles that grew in its garden, were all destroyed years ago to make way for new condos; but when I was little I used to stand on its bars and hitch the thing back and forth with all my weight. I was a very quiet child, and it was as much the creak as the swinging I enjoyed: a small assertion that I could disrupt the world.

I was waiting for something else to disrupt the world early this Saturday morning, lying on my back on a ridgetop in the Berkeley hills and listening to the eucalypts blowing in the oceanic wind:

We call them falling stars, as if they simply floated down like ash from someone’s cigarette late in the quiet night—as if they did what fond hearts do in love. We call them shooting stars, and this is a less gentled name; but if the incandescent streaks we see are missiles, who is hurling them?

They also call us.

It was the Geminids I’d come to answer at 4:45am. Forty-five minutes earlier I’d woken to my alarm, made myself a thermos of hot, sweet tea, petted a confused cat on the head, and driven up to Wildcat Canyon. Though city lights washed out the sky, the night was cloudless, fogless, and as dark as I could hope for it to be, since I had waited till the waxing moon had set like some great, aging cinder to the west. I was alone. Was quite awake. And waiting. God, I wanted the whole damn thing to fall.

It didn’t, but for over an hour and a half I watched pieces of the firmament break loose and arc across the sky, and was entirely happy to be where I was. One was a tremendous fireball that caught me in mid-step even before I’d settled down, bright as a sparkler and leaving a white trail behind it that remained for nearly a full minute afterwards.

Most were quite clear, but with short-lived trajectories; some were so faint they whispered in the corners of my eyes and on another night I might have talked myself into believing I’d imagined them. They came every few minutes, and I’m sure I missed a few pouring tea into a cup and sipping quickly as I could, unwilling to release the sky from view. But come they did, and after a while I knew I would not stop seeing them until the sun came up.

It’s a strange sensation, having confidence in shooting stars.

The sun did rise, eventually. I really could not complain.

The sun did rise, eventually. I really could not complain.

The year’s last major meteor shower goes by The Geminids because the shooting stars it sends out seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini, whose twin stars ride high and clear in the winter sky. Every shower has a core like this: The radiant of the Perseids is Perseus; the radiant of the Leonids, Leo. And every shower has another, truer, core: a comet following its own eccentric path across the solar system. When comets pass the sun, they heat and simmer, and along with steam they boil off parcels of cosmic debris that linger in a stream in space, only to burn up in our planet’s atmosphere as we hurtle through them every year.

There’s no such thing as an ordinary display of shooting stars. No wild, incendiary hail could ever be pedestrian. But the Geminids are special even among meteor showers.

They’re relatively young, for one thing—people have been watching the Perseids since before the Common Era, and the Leonids for over a thousand years. The Geminids showed up out of the blue, out of the black, out of the winter night, fewer than two centuries ago. They’ve grown steadily in number and intensity since then, and seem still to be mounting; a single fireball last year burned brighter than the full moon. Their fusillade lasts longer than a day, so you can watch them everywhere on earth.

The Geminids are mysterious, too in that lovely way scientific mysteries have of deepening even as their details come to light. Their source, the mystery goes, is not obviously a comet. Instead it is a dense, rocky body that looks more like an asteroid, and wouldn’t seem to be capable of burning off meteoroids as easily as an icy comet would. The latest theory astronomers have is that the body is in fact an old comet, still carrying ice within its heart but covered now in a clotted crust of interplanetary dust that makes it look like solid rock.

This doesn’t, prettily, explain it all. The debris this asteroid-comet-comet-asteroid casts out every year isn’t enough—not by a long shot—to account for the mass of the Geminids. And so our modern skywatchers wait, and scan the heavens, and hope to understand a little more about their secrets every time our orbits cross.

One thing they did right in the meantime, I think: they gave the strange fountainhead of the Geminids a wonderful name. It’s called 3200 Phaethon. The 3200 is because it was the 3,200th asteroid (or asteroid-like object, anyway) to be formally named. The Phaethon? Ah.

I remember Phaeton, although he’s not one of the more prominent figures in Greek mythology, because when I was 13 we did a series of skits based on the classics and my group performed unlucky Phaeton’s story. I think it was the tragedy that appealed to us—the tragedy and the crisis of identity. In case your own checkered past did not include such dramatics, I’ll tell you Phaeton was the mortal son of Clymene, a water nymph, and Helios: the god of the sun.

Around the time Phaeton came of age, we’re told, Clymene revealed his shining origins. None of his friends believed he’d come from divine stock, and to be honest, the young boy didn’t know if he believed it either. Off Phaethon went to find Helios, who embraced him warmly. But this wasn’t enough for our hero; he wanted to become his father. Let me, begged Phaethon, drive your chariot, the sun, across the sky. Just for one night. Let me take your place.

This goes as well as you’d expect. Phaethon, incapable of controlling the wild horses of the sun, careens across the sky and scorches heaven and earth alike until Zeus shoots him down with a thunderbolt to save the universe.

Some scholars believe the Phaethon myth was based on real celestial event, or that its purpose was to explain the desertification of the Sahara some four or five thousand years ago. More recently, it’s been employed as a metaphor for our own passionate mismanagement of the earth. We too, you might agree, have lost control of the reins we took. And there are monsters on the road.

“Suppose I should lend you the chariot, what would you do? Could you keep your course while the sphere was revolving under you? Perhaps you think that there are forests and cities, the abodes of gods, and palaces and temples on the way. On the contrary, the road is through the midst of frightful monsters….Nor will you find it easy to guide those horses, with their breasts full of fire that they breathe forth from their mouths and nostrils. I can scarcely govern them myself, when they are unruly and resist the reins.

Beware, my son, lest I be the donor of a fatal gift; recall your request while yet you may.”

—Bulfinch’s Mythology

Better Yet Crawl

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitare

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

I don’t have a natural talent for observation. In the course of most of my daily activities, noticing is a hard mode to maintain. There’s a lot of triage going on—What’s on my work calendar; did I do that Chem homework that’s due today; have I lost my hat again; wait, where am I going right now?

But even when I’m out on a hike, or backpacking, giving heed to everything around that’s worth heeding isn’t necessarily easy. Thoughts get in the way. Putting foot in front of foot gets in the way. Sensations from the eyes get in the way of sensations from the ear.

You may be different. If so, I envy you. Me, I like that Ed Abbey paragraph because hell yeah seeing shit is hard.

There are lots of reasons it’s a little easier in the field than at home, two of which are that there’s a lot more to see and you’re less used to seeing it. But I realized recently that maybe the biggest, simplest, most relevant reason I tend to notice the world more on field trips is that I’m so often doing what Abbey suggests:

Crawling.

I’ll tell you about a trip with Danielle Christianson last month in Sequoia National Park.

Danielle is a Ph.D student at UC Berkeley; I met her through a mutual friend, and have now had the great good fortune of helping her in the field on two occasions. She’s kind, very funny, and intimidatingly smart, but extremely practiced at downplaying her background—which includes several years spent working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab in Pasadena, CA. One of my favorite things about Danielle is that always she ends the afternoon by turning to her assistants and saying (absolutely from the heart, and no matter how frustrating or difficult the past 10 hours have been), “Thanks for the good day.” That—along with the fact that she brings frozen blueberry pancakes to the field and wakes up early to toast them for everyone’s breakfast—may tell you all you need to know about her.

This is Danielle at work.

This is Danielle at work.

Six years ago, she started this quixotic venture by looking for and marking thousands of tiny seedlings (mostly Abies magnifica, red firs) with even tinier metal tags. Since then she’s been counting how many survive in each of several dozen small plots within her study area, as well as how much they’ve grown in biomass each season. Danielle’s also been recording a multitude of environmental variables across her site during the same time, including soil moisture, temperature, sun exposure, and topography.

Matched with the seedling numbers, these data will tell us how differences in climate, and changes in climate over time, affect the seedlings on a scale much finer than most climate models can currently accommodate. This is interesting and important work that has lots of theoretical implications for managing and predicting the future of this particular habitat. In practice, it demands the execution of a lot of small, repetitive, and surprising field tasks.

On this trip, for instance, we needed to track down every seedling that was still alive last year—or find its tiny brown corpse amid the dirt and leaf litter—or failing that, at least pick up its lost tag. Since even an “old” seedling that’s been around for over a decade might be just a few centimeters tall, that wasn’t always easy. And after five years of attrition, there were still over 2,000 seedlings to be found. Danielle and Jack, her field assistant for the second year in a row, were like morel hunters in springtime who see mushrooms everywhere—their eyes having learned to pick out the shape of pygmy conifers before their conscious minds recognized them. It took me a bit longer to get used to looking this way.

Found seedlings had their tags removed; from then on they were identified by flags.

Found seedlings got mapped and assessed in a variety of ways. Danielle would measure their tallest height, count each individual branch—a number that could range from 0 to 40 or 50—and then, based on the fact that “new” growth on a conifer is a slightly different shade of green than “old” growth, decide how many branches and branchlets had managed to make progress since last year. Finally, we tried to photograph each seedling head-on against a white, shadowless background, so that Danielle can use computer vision analysis to determine the area of its canopy, or “leaf silhouette”—another way of measuring biomass without ripping a tree out of the ground and taking it back to the lab.

(This photography project may have been the most frustrating of all this year’s field tasks, for reasons that are too boring to go into but mostly involved the total lack of cooperation of sun, terrain, camera, and human body. It did cause Danielle to spend an evening fashioning a portable portraiture backdrop for our seedlings out of construction paper, a hard-backed folder, a clipboard, electrical tape, and binder clips. That thing was awesome. Remind me to write a post sometime about the crazy gear field scientists make out of household objects.)

But listen, pretty much everything on that to-do list required getting down on and crawling on hands and knees.

One afternoon I saw a bit of dust moving out of the corner of my eye and ended up watching a carpenter ant try a dozen times or more to shift the body of a dead compatriot, significantly bigger than itself, out of a depression in the soft red earth. Once there was a glint of something burnished, so small it could have been imaginary, but when I scratched beneath the bark of the log I was sitting on I found the green sheeny case of a wood boring beetle long moved on to better skins. There were pieces of it. Here wing, here head, here torso. An arthropod jigsaw puzzle.

Another day I bored Jack, who was napping beside me during a break, with the astute observation: “There’s a really pretty blue fly or something over here.” Hiking home evenings after, I spied a spider being mauled on the trail by the same little beast and took a video, and that is how I know it was really a blue mud dauber wasp, not as menacing-looking but related to the cicada killers I used to see in Chicago.

After one pee I returned with the pleased announcement that I had found a tree that had become a trail. In its afterlife, the fallen trunk retained a thin shell of intact bark cradling a woody avenue of beetle-mulched chips. Danielle, considerate, pretended to be impressed by the discovery—but afterward I noticed decaying tree-trails all over the place.

One of, it turns out, many tree trails.

I’d like to tell you everything: How red fir pine cones fall apart into scales that look to me like miniature gingko leaves in fall color; how their terpene sap sometimes smells like ripe oranges. How you can tread hard on the torso of a tree gone through by ants and release a fall of wood dust fine as baby powder. How the pine marten we saw chasing Douglas squirrels one day stopped on a branch to yawn and flashed fangs like a vampire bat.

The thing about the practice of looking is that your gaze relinquishes allegiance, becomes catholic. Having spent time with wood dust and beetle exuviae, I was free to notice what we had brought into the forest—ourselves. I liked watching the unconscious choreography that was Danielle, taller than tall, unfolding and refolding her limbs like a carpenter’s rule to fit into the spaces beneath and between fallen trees. I liked the way the sun slipped between the worn folds of her striped cotton shirt and forestry vest.

Jack was a far more careful scribe than I, and there was sharp satisfaction in the correspondence between the movement of his hand stirring a pencil in tight, tiny circles, as if writing the whole of Walden on a grain of rice, and the sound of lead scratching data onto paper.

This is her last year of data collection, but Danielle still has one important trip to make to the mountains; among other final tasks, she needs to pick up all the environmental monitors she’s set up at her study plot so that she can collect data from them. That trip was supposed to be happening as I type, but because of the government shutdown, she has no access to her field site. That’s true for other scientists doing research in other federally managed lands across the country, too. And for many doing work in areas like Danielle’s, if the shutdown doesn’t end before the first snow, getting there may become impossible until next year.

That’s a lot of seeing, sitting, wondering, and understanding that’s not going to happen.

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

Spotted towhee by Larry McCombs

Give Thanks to Towhees

I don’t feel this way anymore, but for months after we moved from Chicago to Berkeley I had the strongest, strangest sensation of ignobility. I’d walk down a pavement lined with lavender and juniper and rosemary and sage (eight different kinds of each, plus a hundred other unrecognizable plants that looked like they’d exploded onto the street from Fantastic Planet), and instead of glorying in the amazing smells and textures all about I’d feel myself a fallen soul who’d slipped back into Eden without permit and would soon, very soon, be found out and expelled again.

I’d hike up and down sandy trails, a peerlessly beautiful landscape of water and mountain and meadow and sky rolling out before me like some kind of vision that first appeared in the teardrop of a god, and I’d think: My presence here can’t possibly be sanctioned. This place is so bright it hurts the eye, and nothing dark can be allowed to hide amidst it.

I don’t feel this way anymore partly because since then I’ve come to know the Bay Area as a real and very earthly place, and not a paradise at all—though sometimes it can feel pretty damn close. Partly, as well, my mind is very different now than it was then. It doesn’t hold as much disdain for itself, as much intolerance. I hope this means I’ll be more comfortable here as well, in this new online home I moved into and then proceeded to shut the door on. I named it Dispersal Range for a reason, after all. I am a migratory species.

But there’s a third part—even if it is a rather small one—of the how and why I’ve come to feel that northern California could really be a friend. That is, I met a native son of hers who seemed (at least at first) to also be a little bit ignoble. I met the spotted towhee.

The spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is technically a New World sparrow, but it is to most other sparrows as a middle-schooler is to a second-grader—much taller, stockier, and more awkward. A large spotted towhee could weigh three times as much as a small Savannah sparrow.

Their coloring isn’t very delicate, either—they’ve got jet-black or dark brown upper halves, white bellies, swathes of rusty red on either side, and untidy splotches of white on their wings and back that give them their name. Not for this towhee the Savannah’s sweet yellow brow or crisply streaked bib. They’re handsome, I suppose, but in a coarse sort of way. They’re like the Fonz, not Remington Steele (am I giving away my age with these very early television memories? Here, I’m 34. We recall what we recall).

That was the first comfort about the spotted towhee, during those sad and rumpled days. On some I failed to lift a brush to my hair, or change out of the clothes I slept in, and so I thank the towhee for this: No noble looks.

Spotted Towhee

Picture by Larry McCombs

The second comfort was its voice. I took a birding class a couple of months after we moved, and when the woman who taught it imitated the call of the ubiquitous California towhee, a cousin of old Pipilo, everyone in the room said “Oh, THAT’S the bird that drives me crazy.” Male California towhees sound like someone repeatedly hitting a triangle and then strangling it after a fraction of a second (only the birdcall is sharper, even more metallic, somehow), and they have a great deal to say.

But spotted towhees talk a lot, too, and they don’t call to mind a musical instrument. They sound like irritated cats, or a cross between a dinosaur and an insect. Or—in the words of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—”a taut rubber band being plucked,” “a piece of paper stuck into a fan.”

In those days I could barely make a sound myself; I either stuttered and repeated myself or let achingly long pauses fall between a question and an answer. I had forgotten how to speak, it seemed like. I felt foolish. The towhee’s crazy chat was a consoling thing: No noble song.

The final comfort I have taken in these dear west coast compatriots of mine is that thing they do. Towhees will eat anything, or just about: seeds, insects, acorns, fruit. They don’t, though, like to go very high in order to get it. Instead they forage at foot level, scrabbling about like manic (well, like even more manic) squirrels.

Both California and spotted towhees do this thing where they uncover hidden food by displacing the top layer of litter on the ground in two quick hops: Once forward, to build up some momentum, and once backward, both feet rising and then raking through the dirt, pebbles, and leaves to scratch away whatever’s in the way of lunch and leave it open to their search and capture. They can (says Cornell, again) make a shallow pit a meter square like this.

Often, walking through a garden or along the Ohlone Greenway, or just sitting quietly minding my own business on a bench or lawn, I’d hear a frantic scrabbling beside me and think, based on the sound alone: Lizard? Snake? Some small, excited dog? And then a spotted towhee would buzz grumpily amid the grass, and I would see its freckly body lurching backwards like a lunatic, and know it for itself.

One of the things I said to a friend a while ago is that when things were bad, I felt globally incompetent. My body wouldn’t obey any commands, and all my parts were clumsy. I dropped things, knocked into things. Almost every movement that I made seared itself onto the mind’s film-reel, and embarrassed me. But I could look at the towhee and understand that there were creatures careless of their bodies, comfortable in the things they chose to do no matter how ridiculous it all looked from the outside. Thank you a third time for this: No noble manner, though perhaps a noble spirit.

Things are good these days, I think. I enjoy Berkeley. I’m not afraid to grab lavender leaves and crush them as I walk, like I belong here and deserve to smell this place. The views I see from trails don’t look like postcards anymore. They are beginning to seem familiar.

I still love the spotted towhee, though. I always will. You never can tell exactly what will give you what you need, can you?

*****
There are other, more pertinent things I might have told you about Pipilo maculatus, including why so many people call it the rufous towhee, and why the name towhee at all?—but I’m afraid I’m not always very pertinent.

Lessons from Plants in Pain, or What We Talk About When We Talk to Ourselves

Roald Dahl, sovereign of the strange idea played out in matter-of-fact sentences, once wrote a story about a man named Klausner who invents a sound machine. With it he’s able to hear rarefied notes—tremors of the air that otherwise range, like so many things, outside the limits of human perception. When he turns on his invention, Klausner finds himself initiated into an entire universe he hadn’t known existed: a universe of plant communication.

You might think, on the face of it, that this would be a fine and lovely thing. You might think of how you generally experience the green and the growing, and imagine Klausner entering a soundscape filled with music, strains that match the beauty of a field of wildflowers or the elegance of autumn leaves. But instead, he mostly apprehends the noises of plants in distress. “Fierce grinding discords” fall on his ears: he’s shocked by the shrieks that roses make when they’re clipped off the bush. He’s tormented by pity when he hears the awful moans of a tree trunk split by his own axe.

Dahl leaves the question of whether the machine really works open to interpretation—but what I like about the story doesn’t rest on the definition of Klausner as either brilliant or insane. The thing that’s stayed with me, long years after I first read The Sound Machine, is Dahl’s bleak view of what speaks loudest in this world, what he thinks drives the “speech” of all living things—and that is pain.

*******

343 (Mimosa plant, before)

Most disasters, even if they’re built on long and quiet years of brewing, eventually befall us with what feels like too little warning. A stroke slams down upon the pathway blood must take to brain, a guillotine that splits a thought in two. Your partner’s eyes, warm as summer lakes, freeze over for no reason you can fathom. A midnight switchblade sticks its cutting edge between your ribs; you gasp awake, pinned by the sharp awareness that you’re inside the wrong life. Tomorrow you might lose your job, your home. Be diagnosed with cancer. Even if you know the air is humid with the vapors of oncoming injuries, each one remains invisible until the day it’s churned into a storm.

I don’t think we’d be better off if we could see the future. I’m pretty sure I, anyway, would be flattened by the weight of full omniscience. But some small bit of notice, a clear advisory or two—watch out, here’s danger on the way!—now that, I’d take. Wouldn’t you? I think that wish must have something to do with why so many of us sit ourselves down to write quite undeliverable letters to the people we once were—an act that’s whimsical and sweet, and yet somehow forlorn.

Maybe it’s also why I’ve come to be, especially of late, a great collector of stories about other people’s hurts. (A cheerful philately.) If you’ve been wounded, come and bend my ear. I want to hear your warnings. And sometimes I eavesdrop on damages that strangers speak of. Years ago I spent almost half an hour lingering over my coffee—which was bad—because the girl at the table next to mine, fresh off her honeymoon, was wiping hot tears from her face and telling her companion how miserable she was to be married. She wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t my problem. And I’m not at all proud to have been riveted. But it was impossible not to be. My body rang (unobtrusively, I hope) with borrowed sorrow, and I still recall her cadences.

I think that moment meant so much to me because, respectfully, Tolstoy was not entirely correct about unhappiness. Life doesn’t feel the need to plan new slights and sicknesses to suit each one of us. Its threats recycle. I’m a realist: I know that, private though they feel, my troubles hover at the average, coinciding with those of my species. Whatever has battered some other Homo sapiens may soon come for me, and I would like to start preparing my defenses.

If this sounds ghoulish to you, well. I understand. But you should know that I am not alone in paying close attention to the suffering of my peers for my own sake. I stand with graceful trees: with willows, alders, poplars, sugar maples. The sweetest and most useful crops, as well—pea pods, beans, tomatoes, cotton—are selfish just like me. And ears of barley, ears of corn—these listen, too, to their beleaguered neighbors.

Klausner (tender soul!) was driven nearly mad by sadness when he overheard plant pain. He called a doctor for his broken tree and made him paint iodine in the wound. Plants themselves know better what to do.

*******

It was in the early 1980s that a few scientists first began to report on trees that seemed to send each other stress signals. One was a zoologist named David Rhoades, at the time studying Red alder (Alnus rubra) and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) defense mechanisms at the University of Washington. Rhoades fed caterpillars leaves from trees their brethren had previously attacked. He found that they began to lose their appetites, and often died prematurely. Presumably this was because of some chemical compound the trees were able to release into their leaves as a form of rapid resistance—precisely the kind of thing he’d been looking for.

But Rhoades was surprised to discover that the very same thing happened to caterpillars fed the leaves of undamaged control trees, planted a little distance away. Could the attacked trees be emitting some kind of pheromonal warning that their counterparts could “hear?” Could they be telling their fellows to put up a fight against their leggy foes?

This study inspired a similar experiment on potted poplars (Populus euroamericana) and sugar maples (Acer saccharum) by a pair of researchers at Dartmouth. Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin found higher concentrations of mildly toxic compounds called phenols in trees whose leaves they had torn. They saw the same thing when they checked on unscathed trees, after they were exposed to air pumped in from the chamber where the damaged trees were housed.

The scientific community as a whole reacted to these findings with great skepticism, some of which was not undeserved: methodological problems and an over-confident interpretation of statistics tainted both sets of results. But there was also, apparently, not a little ridicule, with some ecologists scoffing over the idea of “talking trees” and animal behaviorists closing ranks around the definition of communication.

In hindsight, this part of the negative response was somewhat less justified. In the first fourteen years that followed Rhoades, Schultz, and Baldwin’s reports, only three studies regarding plant-plant communication were published (perhaps because of the disbelieving atmosphere they would have emerged into). But times have changed. According to this overview of the literature on the subject, that figure increased to nearly 50 papers between 2005 and 2010.

At this point, the evidence that plants can receive, act on, and benefit from specific signals produced by their distressed coequals is pretty compelling. We’ve learned, for instance, that corn seedlings primed with compounds released by damaged plants give off more of their own defense hormones and chemicals when subsequently slashed with a razor blade or painted with caterpillar regurgitant. (Science is cruel.) We’ve learned that certain unrelated species, like sagebrush and tobacco, can interpret each other’s cues about dangers like hungry herbivores or clipper-happy researchers. We’ve even learned that well-watered pea plants, having overheard a warning from a thirsty neighbor, can pass on that message to still other plants, further away—although this game of vegetable Telephone seems to be played through the medium of soil, not air.

In my favorite recent study, which delights me more because of how the plants defend themselves than how they talk about it, Lima beans infested with spider mites—as well as those exposed to leaves from infested plants—react by activating a set of genes that trigger the emission of a volatile organic compound. This compound, in turn, attracts spider mite predators that come and hoover up the pests.

How wonderful is that? I call it very wonderful, especially since our own apartment has witnessed the expiration of a beloved dwarf Meyer lemon tree that succumbed to a spider mite blitzkrieg. If we’d had two trees, I wonder if one could have saved the other?

Maybe what Dahl got wrong was not the thought that pain is the seabed of all our most essential speech. Maybe where he erred was in suggesting that the anguish Klausner heard was simply that: anguish, pure expression with no purpose and no useful end.

I think of myself sitting at a coffee table, leaning in, despite my better judgment, and breathing in the chemistry of someone else’s heartache. In my mind, now, I see it as a moment of anointment, an inoculation. I think this even though I have no way of measuring what changed in me because of it.

Our bodies fail. Our partners leave. We wake up sick, or shipwrecked. Shocked. And I am hungry to be put on guard, to know when something wicked this way comes.

*******

It’s clear that unscathed plants do eavesdrop, like me, on strangers in distress, and make themselves stronger when they hear of trouble. What’s less clear is what is happening for the plant in pain. Is its anguished warning—Watch out, danger!—really meant to serve as counsel to the ones around it? It’s possible, of course, that some plants evolved to give off stress signals altruistically, because neighbors are often kin, and one example keeps the group as a whole safe. But many times, letting a neighbor in on danger makes you more vulnerable. A Lima bean plagued with spider mites might not want its compatriots to be protected by mite-eaters. (One lemon tree might have saved another, but reluctantly.)

Instead of selfless exhortations, the story of plant stress signals seems at once more simple and more strange. The thing is, a plant that’s hurt and sending out a warning is very likely talking to itself.

Most plants have sophisticated vascular systems, and that’s often how they transmit chemical messages. But volatile compounds, diffusing through air, can travel faster than molecules moving against gravity through tiny tubes. Airborne signals also allow parts of a plant that don’t have a direct connection to each other to speak. Why, though, would a plant need to warn itself? What does that even mean? Well, think of this: A caterpillar munching on one leaf will probably move on to another, a little ways off. That second leaf has time—not much, it’s true, but some small span—to put up its own garrison against the tyranny of tearing insects. That second leaf is far from doomed. And it could use some notice. A body needs to take care of itself.

Most disasters befall us with what feels like too little warning. But maybe that’s because, wrapped up in where we hurt right now, we don’t imagine taking steps to care for what is still undamaged. I know; we are not plants, with separate fates for separate parts. When I’m in pain, it feels as if I ache completely, my entire consciousness consumed by one calamity. And yet. Could there be, do you think, something in this selfish signaling? Some way for us to be like willows and like alders?

I’m not entirely sure. But this past year, and nearly two, has felt like injury to me; so now seems like the time to test the case. I’d rather not be Klausner’s roses, crying out futility. I’ll trust instead that there is strong and healthy matter that remains in me, and let the weaker parts speak loudly to them. More importantly, I’ll try to listen and to learn. Because it’s not, I think, too late to start talking to myself.

And you? Ah. If you eavesdrop, let it be.

*******

Mimosa plant, after

Highly recommended further reading: This wonderful article about visionary biologist Chandra Bose, and his experiments in plant sensation and behavior.