Tag Archives: stray and unscientific

No Apology

I was going to tell you about the two magnificent bull elk that passed along the edge of my study site at 1668 m on the east side of the mountain, and how because I was alone, and kneeling, and looking at leaves, I saw them before they saw me. I really wanted to tell you how funny the gray jays found me the week I spent setting up air temperature sensors at the end of the field season, and how they came close, close, close, to watch and yell while I threw a tennis ball up into the trees like a maniac only to have it come straight back down again at my eyes, or arc over the wrong, too-low branch, or get stuck between the rough embrace of lichen and branch. I was hoping to point out how different being a second-year PhD student feels than being a first-year. How much I’ve been enjoying coding lately. How I went to a scientific meeting for the first time ever and printed my poster three times as big as everyone else’s because I didn’t know any better. I was going to say I know there will be ups and downs, but hey—maybe this is going to be all right. 

But I waited too long, and November 8 was two weeks ago today, and nothing is all right. So now we’re going to talk about horseflies.

I’m fond of complaining about mosquitoes, which settle like a veil and leave you pissed and itchy and distracted as all get out. But at least they don’t really even bite, just snake their slender probes beneath your skin and hope that you don’t notice them until they’re done. When you do notice them, mosquitoes are easy to kill. Horseflies (family Tabanidae), on the other hand—they’re hard core. They’ve got mouthparts like sharpened, jagged sabers, and they don’t suck from your veins—they slice open a shallow wound on your skin and wait for it to fill with blood, then sponge it up. You know. You’ve been bitten by a horsefly in high summer. It’s not a background buzz or burning itch you slap at lazily and then go on with what you’re doing—it’s the pain of having something cut out a visible piece of your flesh. It’s sharp. And it sharpens the mind.

Plato wrote that Sophocles likened himself to a horsefly, though he used the word gadfly—from Old Norse gaddr, a sharp metal spike, a goad. The city state of Athens, Sophocles believed, was like a huge horse—noble in its stature, but so large that it was apt to settle, slow to move. His words and ideas were the painful bites that it needed to sting it into wakefulness.

Listen, Sophocles is dead. He’s been dead for a while. Were he to be struck down, he said, Athens would sleep on…”unless God in his care of you sent you another gadfly.” So here we are. Our great state is asleep. Our leaders are burying their heads beneath their hands. Our media are playing lullabies. There is no other Sophocles. If you believe there is a God, you’d better believe we are the only ones he is sending. 

Here’s one set of ways to bite. Here are 2018 races to pay attention to. We need to fund the vulnerable Democratic seats to keep them from going the other way, and we need to fight for the few Republican seats that may flip. And here is what’s happening at Standing Rock right now that needs our urgent attention. Ross and I have done some of this work, but not enough by far. What stands in my way is that a lot of this requires a hell of a lot more personal discomfort on my part than I’m normally willing to give to anything besides type 2 fun. Right now, for instance, as I type, I have an idea about something quite small and specific I can do to help organize my community to action (setting up a regular meeting time for friends who might otherwise not do this to sit down for 20 minutes a week and make quick phone calls to reps). Yet I’m reluctant to take the first step toward doing it because it will take time (that I don’t feel like I have) and leadership (that I don’t want to practice). This is incredibly embarrassing to say. White nationalists are literally giving Nazi salutes to the president-elect of the United States and I don’t feel like I have time and leadership to spare. I’m saying it to you precisely because it’s embarrassing, and I’m committing right here and now to being way fucking better than that. To fastening, arousing, persuading, and reproaching, all day long and in all places.

There is no other Sophocles. We’re it. Terrifying, huh. Too bad.

“For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble stead who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel out of temper (like the person who is suddenly awakened from sleep), and you think that you might easily strike me dead…and then you sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you sent you another gadfly.”

—Plato, Apology

P.S. Yes, only female Tabanids take blood meals. Don’t let that stop you, men.

Photo of a female Tabanid chowing down on the photographer, used by permission (all rights reserved by the wonderful Morgan Jackson). Click on the photo to read about Morgan’s encounter with this beauty.

What I Know

That a drowsy sphinx moth moving slowly across the back of my hand has feet that feel like nothing else in the world, tiny hooks so gentle and sublime I wish my skin were made of loops on which they’d catch and hold forever.

That a bee in search of nectar can unfold its guarded, golden tongue so far you’d think it learned the trick from watching a magician with her scarves, and once or twice in my life I will be close enough and lucky enough and watchful enough to see it.

That the body can be bruised and scratched from the awl-edges of birch shrubs and the fine armored spines of devil’s club and the brittle bodies of dead trees, but none of it will hurt as much as the thoughts that rumble through the brain like summer afternoon storms, which are never announced and always expected.

That no matter how small the flower, there is an arthropod small enough to visit it.

That there is snow that you can trust and snow you cannot. I know the difference, sometimes.

That there are fears that you should heed and fears you should not. I know the difference, seldom.

That there are as many ways to make a living as there are living things. This is very nearly the greatest joy.

A minute thrips—look in the southwest segment of the flowerhead for a black-and-white beetle-like insect—feeding on a desert pincushion.

A minute thrips—look in the southwest segment of the flowerhead for a black-and-white beetle-like insect—on a very small desert pincushion inflorescence, photographed in Death Valley earlier this spring.

 

 

There’s No Accounting

An extra day—or rather, one that was outstanding in the ledgerbook we keep between ourselves, the planet, and the sun, and today was generously returned in more than full. I meant for it to feel momentous in some way, to spend it freely on what matters most—friendship overdue, or beauty, or some progress on the hardest questions—or at least outside. Instead I had a day much like the one I told you of last time, except a little harder here, a little easier there.

It’s funny; now it’s almost over, the debt seems quite unpaid.

Nancy Ekholm-Burkert’s James and The Giant Peach

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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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.

We Knew Him

Power is a strange and misunderstood thing. We tend to think we have very little; we tend to believe it is by rule or nature wielded by others over us. When we grasp it we do so with fervor, as if it could slip from our grasp. It is true that those who hold power are often masters, or monied, or men. But the word is smaller, too, and some of what it possesses is mere ability. To be powerful is to do what is possible for you.

Several years ago I passed some time as the editor of a smart, quirky, now defunct online science magazine. One of our problems was a near total lack of money and therefore a dearth of regular contributors, but I did occasionally receive queries of varying quality. One letter arrived from a Portland-based freelance writer on a Friday afternoon in October 2010. The poor woman who wrote it had been misled by a pamphlet to which she subscribed into thinking that we were a children’s magazine, and both the email and her cheerful, pun- and exclamation point-filled 660-word submission were entitled “A Slug is Not a Bug.”

There was something of a supplication in her tone that I have not forgotten. She entreated me not to dismiss her subject, despite its lowly stature in the world. She assured me she had done her research. She hoped I would read the entire article.

I wrote back politely, explaining that we did not publish material written specifically for children, and that was the end of that. But oddly enough I have thought about her email several times in the intervening years. She was professional, this woman—or anyway, as professional as she had learned so far to be. She was as hopeful as I was myself. I have no doubt she wanted more out of her life. To be a children’s writer; to be published. To be taken seriously. I have had so little power in my life, it has seemed to me. But there were things that were possible.

*******

Ross and I had a gorgeous day today up in Marin County, hiking 11 miles along a coastal trail in Point Reyes National Seashore. The ground was exploding with the purple of Pacific Coast irises and the air with wrentit and golden-crowned sparrow song. The sea below the bluffs crashed ecstatically onto the shore. It smelled like fenugreek; it smelled like ocean. It smelled like wild mustard, steaming and vegetal. We found the flat imprint of the shell of a marine mollusc on one half of a broken stone. We talked about the future and the beautiful possibilities Ross’s career success is about to provide us with.

We also met a slug. We met this particular banana slug (Ariolimax californicus), eating steadily away at what I think was a large leaf from a stinging nettle (Urtica doica)—more power to it.

We stopped to check it out. We marveled at the fact that we could hear the leaf disintegrating between its rasping, toothy mouth parts. I took a video. Slugs are so cool, we said to each other, nearly simultaneously, as we stood up.

About 15 minutes later, as we returned from the mid-point of our out-and-back hike, we saw the slug again. It was no longer eating. It had clearly been stepped on, no doubt by accident but extremely decisively, perhaps by one of the merry pair we had just seen wielding hiking-poles. The slug’s head, eyes, and part of its mantle were crushed and softly fissured. I did not take a picture.

*******

This is a strange post, and not the kind of strange I had intended. Not exactly a memorial for a single particular slug whose last minutes on this earth we happened to witness today. It has an odd humor, perhaps. But so many things are possible: To dash another’s hope or recognize it. To be the accidental cause of a small cessation of life. To be most excellent, despite one’s size, at excoriating the same Urtica leaves that stung Ross’s bare legs all afternoon.