Tag Archives: place

In the Field, Finally

The last time I checked in here, the very first field season of my PhD career was just about to officially begin. I was filled with anxiety about my ability to handle the complex logistics involved in setting up a multi-year research project, to design protocols that would result in robust scientific data, and to serve as a mentor to two undergraduate interns when most of the time it feels very much like I myself have no idea what I am doing.

Four weeks in, I am happy to report that I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last month. For instance, one of my biggest questions was whether the phenomenon I planned to study (insect herbivory on subalpine meadow plants) actually even existed at a level that I could observe and record. I’d been told by Elli, a previous student in my lab who spent years surveying the same plants I was interested in, in the very same meadows, that she almost never saw evidence of insect damage. For months, even as I made intense preparations for the summer’s work, I was wildly nervous that I’d get out there, squat down at a plot ready to count tissue loss on leaves, and see absolutely nothing. However, I can now report that there definitely are enough insects in the meadows making a living eating plants that their traces are there if you are looking for them. This fact—that you might not notice something you’re not actively looking for—is definitely no knock on Elli, and actually seems rather marvelous to me. It serves as a huge reminder of the value of personal observation. I’m still unsure of whether I’ll find any evidence for strong climate drivers of insect herbivory, as I had hoped; the levels of plant damage seem not only species-specific but very patchy, and there are lots of factors I hadn’t anticipated dealing with in my analysis (for instance, my new transect on the east side of the mountain is drier, as I’d expected—but it’s also greatly more disturbed by burrowing rodents). So far, it’s not clear that the climate-driven elevational pattern I thought I might find will actually emerge from the data. But that’s a bridge to cross later. For right now I’m just happy I’m not trying to study a ghost.

There have been smaller and more practical lessons, too. I now know that I should bring extra flagging tape with me when I go to the east side of the mountain, because there’s a good chance the ground squirrels there will chew up the flags marking my plots. Extra kill jars are also a good idea, because you never know when you (I) will drop one into a marmot hole. I’ve learned that on humid or wet days the insects caught on sticky traps will start to decompose extraordinarily quickly, even if you only leave the traps out for 48 hours. (In general I’m struggling to deal with storing sticky traps for later analysis, because they are a pain in the ass to handle and their catches are very easily squished.) And I’ve learned that while Rainier’s mosquitoes are a vicious and cruel tribe—each week I come away with dozens of bites on my head, face, waist, and hands, the places hardest to cover up—my hatred for them pales in comparison with my affection for their mountain home.

Perhaps the nicest discovery of all is that, after having been terribly nervous about becoming a DDCSP mentor, my time with James and Leila has been among the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the field season so far. They are both smart, curious, funny, and kind. They take their own projects seriously—both involve aspects of plant-pollinator interactions in the same subalpine meadow ecosystem where I work—but are always happy to help out with mine. And they are wonderful company. As someone who fell in love with the outdoors in large part because it offered the opportunity to experience a vast and quiet solitude, I was afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy being the leader of a crew, no matter how tiny. But somehow we all seem to naturally fall into low-key moods and high-energy moods at the same time, and I have adored working with them. They’ve only got another two weeks before their program ends, and I know I will miss them more than I could have ever imagined I would!

I remind myself daily that I’m at an incredibly early stage in my project, and a lot could change. But while I am still not entirely certain of a great deal, I will say that it is far more comfortable to be in the field dealing with concrete day-to-day problems than it was to be imagining those problems from my desk. I’ll post another update here later on this summer—for now, it’s time for a night’s sleep in my own bed before I head out into the field again tomorrow morning for another week of work. I’ll leave you with a few images of the last month.

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Lupinus arcticus with three well-chewed leaflets (probably by juvenile grasshoppers).

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Valeriana sitchensis, my most abundant study species, showing signs of attack by an as-yet unknown gall-forming insect.

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Bite marks on the developing fruit of an avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum). Not sure who the culprit is yet.

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I have to be careful not to confuse mammal damage with insect damage. It was most likely a marmot that sheared off the tops of these tiny Castilleja parviflora stems.

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I see a lot when I manage to look up, too.

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We’ve had about half and half wonderful weather and days full of fog/rain/clouds. Those can be gorgeous too, though.

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Leila at 2000m.

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James and Leila at 1901m.

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The three of us.

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The mountain, writ large.

On The Downhill

Ross and I don’t tend to talk that much on the uphill when we’re hiking, largely due to the fact that I’m nearly always moving at a pace that makes me even less chatty than usual. But we often have wonderful, relaxed, surprising conversations on the downhill, after we’ve both had a chance to wring out the week’s preoccupations along with our sweat. Frequently these talks are about his science, my science, or some mathematical or statistical concept or other—I think because sore feet lead to a refreshed mind, and we’re both willing to take on sweeping or difficult ideas without much of a sense of expectation that we’ll get anywhere in particular.

Anyway, today I told Ross about a neat probability puzzle that Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary and theoretical biologist at UW, tweeted last night. While we were hurtling back down to the trailhead we talked about possible approaches to the puzzle; we talked about why certain seemingly important and seemingly missing pieces of information didn’t matter; and we talked about the answer, which is beautifully simple and elegant. (Carl called it “easy”, but I certainly didn’t arrive at it on my own—although I have the good fortune of being able to pretend that that’s because the tweet containing the solution was the first one I saw…)

In case you are interested, here is the puzzle, and here is the solution. You can have fun thinking through it now, or save it for the downhill on your next hike!

Today’s climb was notable for another reason. We had been promised a terrible weather weekend, with rain predicted in all directions. As it turned out, and as you know if you live in Seattle, today was an absolutely beautiful day—partly cloudy, but definitely partly sunny, and very warm. But since we didn’t know that beforehand, instead of venturing particularly far afield we decided to sleep in and settle for yet another hike of our old, slightly boring, and extremely crowded friend Mt. Si. To make things at least little more interesting we did it with full packs (this just means all the gear you’d need for a multi-day climbing trip, and for me personally ranges from about 35 to about 43 lbs, depending on the trip and what group gear I’m carrying. Today I packed something like 36 lbs, approximately a third of my body weight). Anyway, it had been nearly eight months since I’d hiked with a full pack, so while I thought I’d probably do fine I didn’t have especially high hopes for my pace heading up the mountain, which involves 3,200 feet of gain in 3.9 miles.

Notably, though, I wound up topping out at 1 hour and 53 minutes. I don’t usually like to get hung up about finishing times, since that tends to be (emotionally speaking) a poor way to judge success if you’re someone who is never the speediest in your group. But I’ll acknowledge that personal records can be worth a high-five, and today’s time was both a decisive 13 minutes faster than my previous best for getting to the top of Si with weight, and the first occasion on which I made it up carrying a full pack in under 2 hours. So that was nice…except probably for all the other innocent hikers on the trail who had the unfortunate experience of hearing what must have sounded like a gasping bulldog behind them as I came up. (I breathe hard on the uphill. I told you.)

Okay, folks. That’s me. Take it easy like Carl’s probability puzzle.

Si view

The unexpectedly good view from today.

Me

So sweaty.

There’s Gold in Them Hills

At typical ascent rates, at least as far as I can tell from decades of traveling back and forth across the earth—moving in search of knowledge, love, adventure, family, joy; fleeing from worry, work, confusion, loss, and grief—it takes less than four minutes for a fully loaded commercial aircraft to climb 7,000 vertical feet from sea level. This is enough time to turn a few pages of a book while your elbow kisses a stranger’s bicep; enough time to notice your ears fill near to bursting with awkward, bulky air; but not enough to allow for the strangeness of how close you’re getting to the clouds.

This past Thursday, it took me and five teammates seven hours and 45 minutes, including about an hour’s worth of quick breaks to eat, drink, and put on gear, to ascend approximately that same vertical distance. It was a journey of 5.5-miles (in one direction) that took us from Mile Marker 20 on the Cascade River Road to the knife-edge that is the summit ridge of Eldorado Peak at 8,868′, and during it we traversed a rushing river, pushed through rainforest, scrambled over boulder fields, crossed open, rocky meadows braided with streams and small waterfalls, and climbed steadily up and across both the Eldorado and Inspiration glaciers. When we were done we sat, full-hearted and sunburned, on the rocky spit that marks the edge of the peak, for three-quarters of an hour, naming cloud-lashed summits in every direction. Chocolate, dried mango, and satisfaction made a feast day. And then we turned around and headed home again, making it back down to the cars in about another five and a half hours.

If you add up our ascent, summit, and descent times you will arrive at 14 hours, car to car. This is enough time to sweat through your shirt once, twice, thrice, and then again; enough time for strangers to become, if not exactly friends, then partners of a wild and vital kind, who sense each other’s lightness and debility through strands of rope. But it is not enough—not really—to allow for the glory of how close you’re getting to the sky.

I was the slowest of the six of us, and I’ll admit that this was hard. The slowest climber in a group is always moving just a little faster than her own capacity, to keep from falling too much more behind. She rests the least and, if she is like me, frets the most. And yet climbing as far and fast as I did this week was more than I could ever have imagined, four short (long) years ago. I’m stronger than I was, and more forgiving when I fail to live up to my expectations for myself or to the standards that I steal from others without meaning to. I don’t give up, and though I grunt and pant and sometimes cry, I don’t give in to my frustration. Days like Thursday I still find a lump in my throat when I can’t go as fast as my companions, and it’s hard to speak to tell them not to worry—but even so, I think I’m better company.

Afterward, though. Those 14 hours shook awake the memory of how I fell in love with these great blue heights, these sharp green places, half a world away on my first summer out. I was not so strong and not so fast. But being a little weak and slow was also (I think now) a kind of gift. I was alone, and didn’t push, and gave myself allowance for the strangeness and the glory of it all.

There’s gold in them hills. I think I need to seek it out again.

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Today

I don’t reach easily for favorites. Perhaps it’s something tender left behind from early days, a hot primeval horror for the best that we are asked to place in front of friend and which becomes the world entire. Or maybe I just don’t like to commit. There is, however, one cool catalog whose topmost place, if it was mine to choose, I’d have no trouble with.

I have a favorite kind of bad weather.

Understand, when I say bad I don’t mean just unpleasant or annoying. I mean get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge bad; I mean it-may-not-kill-you-but-that-don’t-mean-it-won’t-try bad. And you may feel like sleet or hail or blizzards or typhoons should be front-runners here—but see, my favorite is a sneaky one. My favorite makes all other weather worse, and when it stands alone (although it never stands still for a moment) is formidable enough to take you down—or up, or over—without one peep from other players. Well, the thing is, I adore high winds.

I guess I don’t adore them right when they go at me, and especially not if I am setting up a large tent on the tundra or wheeling a suitcase full of laundry six blocks home. I guess today, standing 9,000 feet high on Rainier, less than a mile below our goal, I didn’t so much want to heap accolades on the gusts that NWAC’s Camp Muir wind gauges tell me blew at an entirely respectable 63 miles per hour at their strongest. I mean I guess I wanted them to die, and leave my face alone instead of throwing pointy bits of ice straight at it, and allow us to proceed without obscuring the way up in heavy clouds of spindrift.

But you know, favorites don’t always make sense. And if I tell you that the thing I love the most about the wind is that it makes you feel like you’re a boxer—not like rain or snow, which on their own are simply things you put your head down and endure—that wind is one to start a fight, and that it pulls at you until you have to muscle back at it, and use yourself against it—maybe you’ll agree and maybe you will not. I’m all right with that. Done with battles for the day.

The way up, seen when we were young and optimistic.

The way up, seen when we were young and optimistic.

Looking up toward Camp Muir.

Somewhere up there is Camp Muir. We made it to Moon Rocks, a spot right in the vertical middle of that long band of blowing snow.

The great Tatoosh Range, seen from a place where the wind was low(er).

The great Tatoosh Range.

Dogs, Cats, and Scats: Saving Jaguars, One Poop at a Time

One of my favorite leisure activities is looking at other animals’ poop. If you’re reading this, you’re probably the kind of person who can relate. I have a collection of photos on my phone that I’ve taken while hiking—everything from the irresistibly hairy gray dreadlocks produced by coyotes (which I happily handle) to the compact tourmaline pellets of elk and moose and the enormous spreading mounds of bear sign, great brown skies constellated by the bright remains of berries. Someday, in the fullness of time, I will realize my dream of buying the domain name www.shitisaw.com and building there a grand compendium of crap.

In the meantime, I’d like to direct your attention to a particular piece of scatological science that you can support at this very moment. It’s a project run by University of Washington wildlife ecology PhD student Jennifer Mae-White Day, who’s crowdfunding the final year of her dissertation research. I’ve posted this several times in a couple of places, so apologies for the repetition; but I can’t overstate how worthy I think this project is of your support. Here’s why:

Jen’s work relies on trained detection dogs which help her search for jaguar scat. Her research site is located in a remote, rugged habitat in Southern Mexico where other techniques for studying these elusive animals would be extremely difficult. (Aside: Did you know that Darwin was fascinated by jaguars and continually tried to find them while on his excursions in the Americas? You would if you followed him on Twitter. He’s a great one for Twitter.) Anyway, scat surveys are a totally noninvasive means (they don’t involve trapping or otherwise stressing the species of interest) of collecting information about animal movements, diversity, and health. Poop contains both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, so it can be used to identify individual jaguars and build a picture of genetic diversity within the population. It also contains hormones and absorbed toxins, which means Jen can quantify the psychological and nutritional stresses the jaguar population is under. And by tracking the locations where scat is found, she can figure out which landscape features, particularly those affected by human activity, attract or repel jaguars (hugely important to deciding where to target conservation)—as well as how genes flow between populations.

In short, this is very good basic science AND it’s highly applicable to our immediate efforts to preserve both the vanishing jaguar population and the ecosystems where they play a vital role as top predators. PLUS, it supports the work of Conservation Canines in general—so apart from anything else, you’ll be helping to save the lives of rescue dogs and give them purposeful work.

Jen with one of the Conservation Canines. I stole this picture from the project page. Apologies that I don't know who to credit for it!

Jen with one of the Conservation Canines. I stole this picture from the project page. Apologies that I don’t know who to credit for it!

That’s my pitch about the value of this research. My other pitch is about how much I think Jen, specifically, deserves your support. First of all, she’s very experienced with this type of research; she’s been working on projects involving large carnivores, tropical habitats, and scat surveys for many years, so she knows exactly what she’s doing and any funding she receives is going to be efficiently used. Secondly, I know her because she TAs my ecology class at UW, and she happens to be incredibly good at that. She leads our lab sessions with great enthusiasm, knowledgeability, and finesse, and I’ve learned a lot from her explanations.

Finally, Jen is a fantastic person as well as a determined scientist. A few weeks ago I made an appointment with her to talk about my grad school plans, and she sat with me for nearly two hours in the middle of what was an incredibly demanding week for her. At the end of it I felt like I had gotten an enormous education in approaching the application and decision processes, as well as sharp insight into how to thrive as a grad student. I was also moved by Jen’s generosity and kindness. If you’re reading this and you don’t happen to be the kind of person who likes looking at poop, then you’re probably a person who knows and loves me, and wants to support my future success. I can tell you that meeting Jen has directly contributed to my chances of achieving that success. So even if you couldn’t care less about jaguars or dogs or conservation, if you care about me, that’s a pretty good reason to support her.

I’m pushing this so hard because the Experiment.com model, like Kickstarter’s, only funds projects if they reach the goals they’ve set—so if Jen doesn’t get to $10,000 in the next 9 days, she’ll lose everything she has raised so far. I think that would be a tremendous shame. One last thing: Even if you can only spare a small amount in support, your modest backing will go twice as far, because every new donation from now on will be matched dollar for dollar till the end of the funding period.

Please consider making a contribution. If you do, and we’re ever in the same city at the same time, ping me and I’ll buy you a drink. Then we’ll toast to good science and good people and good old fashioned poop.

LINK TO THE PROJECT PAGE WHERE YOU CAN DONATE

LINK TO POSTS JEN HAS MADE ABOUT SCAT SURVEYS

JEN ON TWITTER

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?)

 

Another Promised Land

After Ross and I left Chicago I pined for certain things: the sanguine splash of cardinals in the trees; the husky downtown smell of raw chocolate on the verge of becoming sweet; the screech and flinty spark of a nighttime El train passing overhead on ancient, dangerously frayed tracks. I even missed the shock of skin meeting air on gelid winter days.

It took a long time for those aches to ease. I’ve told you before that I didn’t feel at home in Berkeley right away. I used to look out of our living room window at a towering pine in our neighbor’s yard and think: You don’t have to love this place all at once. Love a single branch of a single tree, and see where you get.

I started with a single branch of a single tree (a lovable pine, and today I am fond of all of it), and I got—you may tell from the throb of the heart on my sleeve—to a love that has been utterly, unexpectedly, enormous. I have lived for some time now with the knowledge that neither the borders of Berkeley, nor the outline of the Bay, defined my home.

I didn’t feel this way about Massachusetts or Illinois—but California? California is my kingdom. We’ve logged 54 hikes in the last year here, and many hundreds of miles. I’ve camped from the desert to the mountains to the sea, and driven along more twisting, narrow roads-with-a-view than I can count. The entirety of this skinny kicking leg of a state feels like it belongs to me.

I have been very happy to live here, is what I am saying to you.

And now that I have said it I will say one more thing, which is that I will also—and this is the God’s honest truth—be very happy to leave.

Here Be Announcement!

Ross and I are moving to Seattle in a few months. He’s finishing up his post-doc, and a new job is calling that has taken him a long time to choose. It is the perfect job for him right now, except for the fact that it will take us away from the place that has become our promised land. I know he has been afraid that this will break my heart—that we are moving from sunshine to rain.

But there can be more than one promised land in a lifetime, and we are still young, and there is plenty of space in this world for the two of us to disperse a little further. (And Seattle is a particularly beautiful place to stretch into, by anyone’s standards.)

I am starting a little bigger this time around. I already love the entire waterfall whose ragged spill you see below. I already love the mountain from which it flows. I already love every drop of rain in the sky, as long as it is raining over there. We’ll see where I get.

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P.S. In case you were wondering about my plans, there are a few excellent ecology programs in the Seattle area, and I will be ready to apply this December. It’s true that not being able to cast a net across the whole country will constrain the grad school application process somewhat, but I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ll have where we are.

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

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.”