Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Shot in the Dark

Hi, there,

"It was on just such a blustery day as this," began Owl's story to Piglet. As you may recall, Owl has been added to my many nicknames, and it certainly is blustery today. You do not seem much like Piglet, either as an individual or in relation to me, but all is not always as it seems. My Dad, who, as an adult identifies with Eeyore, just as you tend to, told me once that he used to identify with Piglet when he himself was small. So, maybe you have an Inner Piglet, too, a hidden self that is small and loyal and brave and easily embarrassed. If so, you can sit down and I will tell you a story about blustery weather...but I dare not take this comparison too seriously, since at the end of the Pooh story I'm referring to, Owl's house blows down.

And I'm kind of worried, actually. The wind is quieter now, but earlier the gusts actually set the house vibrating, you could feel it in the floor. We're not at our house, we're at Chris' parents' house, which is not protected by trees and is right on the edge of a large river, so the wind whips off the water and slams into the house. There were whitecaps on the river, and the grass of the lawn fairly glowed a weird and unseasonable green under the hours and hours of rain. No snow here, just rain.

It's been worse elsewhere, of course; the news is full of tornadoes tonight. A handful of people have died, a drop in the bucket of a nation, but a drop the size of the sea as far as the affected communities are concerned. I'm thinking about how similar these tornadoes are to the recent mass shootings, also in the news, how violence falls, literally or figuratively, out of the sky, unexplainable and nearly unpredictable, and divides the lives of those in the way into before and after. There is no reason behind a shooting or a tornado, nothing to bargain with, nobody to convince. Mass shootings, of course, are the work of humans, and we think humans are supposed to be amenable to reason. The evening news makes it seem as though the shooter is in our living rooms.

But, while I am sympathetic to these scarred and torn families, I am not personally afraid of mass shooters. I am afraid of tornadoes, but that is because I'm a bit neurotic. Neither tornadoes nor armed maniacs are particularly common. I don't mean that steps should not be taken to improve tornado warnings or to prevent mass shootings, I mean that neither really represents a national crisis and neither is a reason for generalized fear.

I'm not afraid of mass shooters. I am afraid of the political consequences of panic. I am afraid of people who do not understand the statistics of risk; for so many, the death of ten people in a dramatic events seems worse than the death of ten thousand in ordinary car accidents. To avert one frightful tragedy, we will gladly ruin the quiet multitudes. I go online, and I read that people are seriously asking whether perhaps all people who are "mentally unstable" should be locked up. Maybe all schizophrenics, or all recently diagnosed schizophrenic men, or everyone with some other condition should be locked away from normal people to protect the innocent. Never mind that mental health diagnosis is neither simple nor consistent. Never mind that the mentally ill are an extremely small minority whom many people are all too happy to dismiss as "other." Never mind that many mass shooters die before being diagnosed, so any statements about their mental health are pure speculation. A nation is afraid, so clearly a small and unpopular minority needs to lose their civil rights. It's for the Greater Good.

I'm not talking about mass shooters when I say are these people crazy? We've seen societies go down this path before, and the result is horrific abuse. What I want to know is;

How many people actually have mental illnesses that could cause mass shooting behavior?
How many of these ever actually attempt violence towards randomly selected victims?
What proportion of mass shooters were actually diagnosed with mental illness?
How many people die in mass shootings annually?

What I suspect is that the mental health status of most mass shooters is unknown, that the vast majority of people who are diagnosed are never violent, and that locking up the "mentally unstable" would involve violating the rights of tens of thousands of people in order to save the lives of a dozen or so people who would likely get shot anyway because you can't lock up the mentally ill until you find them, and many mass shooters are never diagnosed. 

But these questions are not asked in a climate of fear.

Oh, my sensible friend, I miss the afternoons of talking together in the sunlight and messy alchemy of your office.

-best, C.

Saturday, December 15, 2012



I was just about to write to you about something, and now I can't remember what it was. I suppose I'm supposed to write to you about the latest tragedy on the news, but I find I'm out of step, once again, with the national zeitgeist, because I really have very little to say about it. Other horrors horrify me far more.

Oh, I did want to tell you about going to see Prairie Home Companion. I still don't know if you even like the show, but you must know of it, and going to see it live was a bit of an adventure. I told you a bit about the journey itself last week, when Chris and I first drove up to my mother's house and I saw all those hawks on the way. The next day dawned very foggy, and we proceeded in the fog to New York City, by bus. I'd intended to be all productive, but instead I slept most of the way. We took the train on the way back, again through the fog, a far more glamorous mode of travel. In the middle was the adventure.

My parents both grew up in New York, and I went there often when I was small, when my grandmother was alive, and oftener still when she was newly not alive and my mother was cleaning out the apartment. My father and I, not needed, I guess, explored the city together. We went to the Natural History Museum and bought soft pretzels from street vendors and ate them with mustard and we rode the subway. My Dad always got on the first car so he could stand and look out the front door window and I looked out the window, too. I suppose that basic curiosity, the desire to look out windows for fun, I must have had it naturally--I was four, after all--but my Dad showed me it wasn't just a kid thing, it was a human thing, to get a kick out of looking out of windows, of wanting to know. And I still do--I only just found out this week that apparently most adults don't care about looking out the windows on the subway, since both Chris and my mother thought it was strange that I wanted to. Mom reminisced fondly about my Dad's strange habit, her memory apparently triggered by my interest in windows. So apparently grown-ups aren't supposed to do these things, and I did not get the memo until this week. It's ok; I ignore this type of memo. I'm thirty-five, which is old enough to decide what type of grown-up I want to be. So I looked out the window, searching the dark for abandoned ghost stations (I saw one!) and I ate one soft pretzel with mustard and shared it with my husband.

One thing I know most grown-ups don't do is cover their ears against loud noises. I noticed that when I was twelve or so, grown-ups don't cover their ears against thunder. I saw no reason to stop, so I didn't. Thunder is loud. It hurts the ears and I do not like getting hurt. I don't like loud noises generally--train crossings, fireworks, of these days I'm going to get smart and remember to bring earplugs with me when I go to concerts, maybe even movies. School bells made me nuts, oppressed my heart, drilled into my skull. And the subways this time in New York...the subway noises never bothered me before, but this time the noise triggered a major anxiety state, not just the decibel level but its jangly discordance and too many people going every which way down alien tunnels and the knowledge that if I lost hold of my Chris or my mother I would be lost just as surely as I would have been when I was four. Except when I was four I did not expect myself to know where I was going and I did not think I could get lost.

And then there was Vivaldi.

Last week, I mean, in the subway, level upon level of echoing, grinding, screeching confusion and there was this strange sound slicing across it, slicing through at right angles to the other waves of sound, the dips and spikes of interference and I almost could not see it was so awful and it turned out to be this woman playing violin. She was tall and thin and swayed while she worked, her body echoing her music's grace. It's not that I don't like violin; I actually love violin music, the sound of the instrument, though I rarely listen deliberately because classical music does not hold my attention. But this woman was bowing right into my ear is the problem, playing fast and frantic and I could not get away fast enough. A man in another corridor played drums on upside down plastic buckets with skill but without arms and nobody looked at him twice, too polite or too jaded I could not tell and then onto another platform and the trains came screeching again. An unseen musician playing Silent Night  on a musical saw finally brought me some kind of peace.

Out above ground we saw Ground Zero, which I am not going to write about now, but waiting in the line to get onto the site I could see the new tower rising, a genuinely beautiful, deservedly iconic building I'd seen before only on television and there it was, a square becoming an octagon becoming a square again, the way things change as they go along, and it rose into the sky beyond the clouds and I could not see the top of it. A building to honor the dead cloud-snagged like a mountain.

New York is not my country. I do not feel comfortable there, I do not really enjoy my visits, which are therefore rare. But I can see why my mother likes it, its gritty, human reality of it, its glamor and complexity and energy, the street vendors and buskers like lianas on the great trucks of economy, a human upon human rainforest diversity greened by plane trees and ailanthus and the young white oaks of Ground Zero and a pigeon in Battery Park looked up at me in sudden surprise that I'd noticed it. It took two steps back and thought about me and I held its eye and thought about you.

Garrison Keilor likes New York City. It is a cultured and fascinating place for him and he describes the place as he sees it, a home of sorts for him, for part of him, while the other part still live on the prairie, he makes himself a conduits between these two lives, these two world, makes himself the contrasting dot on each half of the Yin Yang symbol every week, his stories now and then rising to the stature of secular homilies.

Watching the show was less of a big deal than I thought it would be; it was very much like listening to the show like normal, which is to say pretty darn good. Have you listened to it? You know those stringed notes and the introductory "from Minnesota Public Radio," that opens like a sonic curtain on the song that starts the show? You can hear that sitting in the audience, with those opening strings the show goes live and you get the thrill of knowing that if you yelled real loud your voice would go out to the nation.

Keilor is tall and awkward-looking and he wears red shoes always (or at least always when hosting the show). He is also an irrepressible flirt, which you can hear over the radio. What you cannot hear is that he stands too close to his female guests, stooping over them, invading their space, or at least he did so last week. The women slowly backed up and he advanced, the pair moving gradually across the stage as they spoke and he can't possibly know we can see him doing that, that we notice? Maybe he doesn't notice, and who is going to tell him? But never mind, this, his sonorous voice, has emerged from the dark of radio more often than not every week for all the weeks since that week in my childhood when we came across the show by accident while driving to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant and my Dad and I let my mother go hungry until the show was over because we wouldn't get out of the car. I had forgotten that, and the story makes me want to buy my mother dinner in recompense, though she has come to love the show, too, this voice, this storyteller, who links time and space, the one thing that does not change as we go along.

And this week, today, back in my living room eating Chinese take-out with my sweetie and the half-decorated Yule tree, I hear the opening strings and the sound is a conduit, an auditory passageway through the blind night and I know at that at the theater in New York the show has gone live and all across the nation millions of people are united in single experience and right now the man in the red shoes smiles awkwardly and sings;

Ah, hear that old piano
comin' down the avenue
I smell the spruce trees
I look around for you
my sweet, sweet old someone
comin' through that door.
It's Saturday, the band in playin'
Honey could we ask for more?

No, at the moment we couldn't.

--best, at ever,

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hawk Eyes

Hello, my friend,

I saw FIVE hawks today. I'm not sure what kind--they all looked to be about the same size, maybe roughly osprey sized, but not ospreys. I got a good look at one and it was brown and white, with a white chest and belly, no stripes or spots. But the thing is, I didn't just happen to see them. I looked for them and they appeared.

I was not officially birdwatching. We drove up to my Mom's house today, the first stage in a brief trip to New York, and Chris was driving so I was free to look out the window. The road is mostly lined with forest, and at one point I saw a large lump high up in one of the trees. I thought "that kind of looks like a hawk. I'm going to look and see if it is a hawk." And it was. It's not uncommon for me to see hawks by the side of the road, but normally I see the hawk first and then I notice it; it's hawkishness impresses itself on my mind before I really see the bird consciously, so I have only a few seconds to really look--is that really a hawk?--before I pass out of view around the corner. This time I saw what could be a hawk, a potential hawk, an undifferentiated waveform of probable hawk, and I decided to focus my attention on it the way I might focus my eyes upon something, I focused and what came into focus was a hawk.

It seemed such a magical think, to evoke a hawk by looking, that I decided to see if I could do it again. And so I began scanning the trees, focusing on any largish lumps, and the very next time I focused on a hawk-sized lump it was, indeed, a hawk. Then I saw one again--three hawks in three minutes. All of them were doing about the same thing; sitting on tree branches facing the road, maybe waiting for something, maybe just watching humans or other birds. I saw smaller lumps in the trees as well--maybe some birds' nests, but mostly probably the drays (nests) of squirrels. The squirrels have likely moved out; I've read that grey squirrels often nest in deciduous trees in summer, but in the winter when these nests are exposed by leaf fall the squirrels move to evergreens or maybe people's attics. About five minutes later I saw another hawk, and then another. Have there always been this many hawks along RT. 113? Do I now have the ability to see a hawk whenever I feel like it? Or was I just lucky today? It almost felt as though the act of looking made the hawks appear.

It happens that way sometimes. At school, I expected to find superb faculty, and that is what I found, but I noticed not everyone there had the same experience--the complaints I heard generally concerned faculty members whom I did not know, so maybe it was just our program that had the best faculty and the other programs had to make due with more ordinary people. That is possible. But it is also possible I saw excellence because that is what I was looking for, while other people were not looking for it. I do not mean that I saw what I expected to see because I expected to see it. I do not mean that I projected something that wasn't there. I did not project the birds I saw today; those hawks were incontrovertibly real.

I've always liked hawks; I like predators generally, and birds have the trick of possessing a full measure of predatory glamor but in a package too small to actually engender my fear. Seeing a hawk is fun in a way that seeing a bear is decidedly not fun. My intersection with your life has further sensitized me to birds, multiplying my appreciation of raptors again. It is not that I have become a birder; the mad obsession of the naturalist has struck me in other forms, and the years find me more and more incapable of neglecting plant ID, while I can still let a bird go as simply "a bird." I doubt that will change. What has changed is that all birds are now important by proxy. It's like the way I notice if I happen to hear about the football team my husband likes or a news story about a place where a friend of mine lives. It's like if I keep an eye out for birds I might somehow see one you might like and send it to you as a present.

Towards the end of The Little Prince, the title character is getting ready to leave. He will not come back, so he is saying goodbye to the narrator. The boy explains that he lives on an asteroid that is too small to be seen from Earth, so instead his friend can look up at the stars and imagine that the boy is living on all of them, that they are him in some way. He says;

All men see stars differently: to thinkers, they are problems; to businessmen, they are wealth. But you shall have stars as no one else shall have them, for you shall have stars that can laugh.

One might say the same about birds. For chicken growers, birds are indeed wealth. To ornithologists they are problems (in the sense of puzzles, not burdens). You do not laugh much, though I've heard you chuckle occasionally, but you do smile a lot. It is an unambiguous smile, simple as sunlight. I do not know where you are; you might as well be on an asteroid, maybe you netted a star, one of that flock we call the Milky Way, and it flew off with you. But I saw five hawks today, and I thought of you.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Day at the Beach.

Hello, my friend,

Do you ever get a song stuck in your head? Of course you do, you must, everybody does. But do you ever get just a phrase, a non-musical phrase, stuck? I mind these a good deal more, in no small part because I hardly ever hear of anybody else with the problem. It's a bit like having food stuck in between the teeth, a small irritation, not quite painful, but over time maddening.

Today it was "graphic blandishment," the phrase Charles Schultz uses to refer to his animators in the closing credits of The Charlie Brown Christmas Special, which Chris and I watched last night. Graphic blandishment. I'm not even sure if the phrase means anything, apart from Mr. Schultz's use of it. But there it was, stuck in my head this morning, over and over, appearing early in the morning, right after the images and emotions of my dream faded, and it kept repeating itself, over and over again, for the better part of six hours. Graphic blandishment. Finally there was nothing for it but to tell Chris about it and thereafter to repeat the phrase over and over again, at intervals, throughout our conversation, throughout the day. Finally he started repeating "graphic blandishment" too.

The problem is we weren't alone. Chris has been involved in leading volunteers on Assateague in cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy, and today I decided to join him as a volunteer. So now and then someone else heard a "graphic blandishment" and I had to explain. Eventually, I got other people doing it--that, I admit, was deliberate. I'd stopped in the visitor center while Chris did concluding paperwork or something so I could copy down the list of plants that grow on Assateague (these include no less than three oaks, all of them new to me, and four pines, two of them new--I intend to learn ALL of them), and so as I copied I told the desk personnel about my day, including graphic blandishment. I discovered that the bookstore clerk has recently discovered birds and is in the process of expanding her geekdom from Manga (Japanese comic books) to include animals, so when I was done copying, I launched happily into stories about my friend, the ornithologist (I can almost hear your eyes role, but you are impressive, and she was suitably impressed), and I had gotten as far as explaining that statistics are actually a central part of doing science, when Chris finished up and I had to excuse myself and go, since he had somewhere he needed to be. My new friends cordially wished Chris a happy graphic blandishment, and he wished the same to them. 

Really, I had a good time out and about and cleaning today. Mostly we were up on the north end of the Island, an area I always find mildly frightening, because it is so exposed. Assateague is very narrow there, too narrow for anything besides grasses and the occasional low shrubs to withstand the constant, killing, salty wind. There is no way to shelter from the weather, apart from maybe crouching behind the occasional low, grass-topped sand dunes, and there is no drinkable water. I feel a similar low-grade anxiety sometimes in the desert, though I like both the desert and Assateague generally. It's just that I am aware that if one thing goes wrong in a place like that, everything could go very wrong very fast. But today the weather was forgiving, and nothing went wrong anyway.

We--maybe half a dozen of us, in my group--were engaged in picking up tiny bits of plastic from what Chris had described as a "gyre" of trash. Evidently, a swirl of stormwater had concentrated a stew of plastic and broken vegetation in an area not much bigger than that classroom in the west wing--you remember the one? before the water drained away and left the trash and the vegetation behind. We couldn't pick the trash out of the vegetation because the pieces were so small, so mostly we just shoveled up the mess entire. I was mildly disapointed that the "gyre" did not look all whirlpool-shaped, but I suppose Chris was right that a whirlpool caused the pile. Graphic blandishment.

Later, I went with Chris to inspect other, wider, parts of the island, climbing back into the brush and forests, ducking under greenbriar, investigating pine cones, and walking on the ever-present litter of storm-tossed vegetable bits. In places, clumps of storm-wrack hung three or four feet up in the trees and brush, and this is hundreds of feet inland from the normal high-tide line. Chris showed me a boardwalk that had been raised at leased two vertical feet from its former position. The storm picked it up and filled in the post-holes underneath, leaving the walkway stable enough but higher, the posts striped algae green and soil brown to show where the former intersection with the surface had been. Another walkway--and I think I mentioned this to you--had simply floated away. I'd heard of these things, but today I saw it.

Hurricane Sandy was scary and tragic in a lot of places, but Assateague is not one of them. As far as we can tell, the animals fared well, and only a few trees have been lost. There is now plenty of wide, flat sand for the plovers to nest on. I was just having a good graphic blandishment of a time climbing through the shrubbery and daydreaming about botanizing and tracking there on another day. As it was, I saw fox tracks, dog, tracks, and the small crescent moons of both deer and the tiny sika elk. There was also some tiny creature with sharp little nails whose feet made no more impression on the sand than that. The sand, by the way, cut here and there by storm waves, is layered vertically and variegated horizontally, magnetite, quartzite, and other minerals lapping together, a dry, quiet record of wind and wave. Speaking of animals--you'll like this--hordes of tree swallows visited the island today, too, rolling over our heads as we worked, the leading edges of the migrating flock strafing the bayberry bushes, according to Chris, for the ripe berries, before the birds surged and flew and returned for another pass to feed again. And there was a dog, too, a puppy. You'll like this also; two of the volunteers found an adolescent Labrador mix on the street on their way in to the cleanup. They asked if any of us knew who he was, and then one of them took him home to hold until they could track down his people using his tags. Graphic blandishment.

Well, I usually try to have these letters loop around to make some sort of point, subtle and unstated though that point may be, but I'll be graphically blandished if I can figure out what the point is here. Maybe it's just words, friendly, mildly informative, but disorganized words about my day. Or maybe you can identify a point.

Either way, believe me ever to be your (graphic blandishment) friend,

-Caroline (graphic blandishment).

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Old Songs

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope and trust you had a good time. What did you do? Who were you with? Who hosted? Did you eat--gasp!--a bird?

You will not answer, of course, because by the time I speak with you next this holiday will be long past and there will be other things to talk about. Anyway, as a scientist, questions, not answers, are your stock in trade.

Anyway, I've been puzzled to note, this year, a definite impulse among some liberal circles towards denying or pointedly not celebrating Thanksgiving. The rationale is that Thanksgiving celebrates the genocide of Native peoples via its association with the Pilgrims. Ordinarily I am on board with this sort of thing--certainly genocide has occurred, is not quite over, and is nothing to celebrate. Columbus Day is justifiably losing its celebratory status for this reason. Except that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the Pilgrims, despite their spurious inclusion in grade school holiday activities. The modern holiday was created by Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to boost morale for obvious reasons, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who moved the holiday up a week in order to encourage more holiday shopping. Pilgrims didn't have anything to do with it. Gratitude and consumption, not proto-American history, are the themes of the day. Our history-themed holidays are the Fourth of July, Columbus Day, Presidents' Day, and Veteran's Day. Thanksgiving Day is not about history, gosh dernit!

Except, that's not quite true. Thanksgiving is about history, it's just that it's about personal, not national history. It's about family, and family is a mess of history. As I told you last year, that is why I go to my mother's place for Thanksgiving, to indulge in good food, good conversation, familiar smells and familiar people. It is the holiday that has changed the least in the thirty-some years of my memory.

For example, when I was nine or ten years old, Thanksgiving Day was cold and rainish, and I was expected to spend the day inside helping with cooking and being social. I like helping with cooking and being social, but in most cases I regard being inside as an irritating interlude between periods of being outside. So I managed to escape for a few minutes and I climbed a tree. While I was sitting up there, a cat walked to the base of the tree, looked at me, and mewed. I'd heard about rabies in the area, and I didn't know what to make of this friendly stray. I stayed in my tree and she went away. But the following summer she approached my family again, and this time we fed her and she moved in. We named her Elora, after the baby in the movie, "Willow," and she lived with us for fifteen years until she died of old age, curled up on the blue reading chair we inherited from my mother's mother. She died on my mother's birthday while I was out of the house, and when I saw Elora's body it was still where she had left it, on the reading chair, but someone had placed one of the roses from my mother's birthday bouquet across the still form.

And those flowers...but way leads on to way and story leads on to story, and if I continue in this vein the end of this letter will find me still in the distant personal past and not in the crisp early winter of today and the titmouse opening a sunflower seed in the young sweetgum or the winter wren eying me from the woodpile.

The reason I brought up that first memory of Elora is that this year, this past week, the better part of thirty years later, Thanksgiving found me doing exactly the same thing; socializing and cooking and wishing I could be outside. And again I escaped, this time to do yard work with my husband. That tree still stands, and Elora's grave is within fifteen feet of it, a coincidence I'm not sure I've mentioned to anyone else. I spent part of the time nearby, coping with a disorganized woodpile, and part of the time further back in our long yard, clipping back invasive multiflora rose while my husband battled the equally aggressive bamboo. The yard does not look like it once did, having succeeded into  a young and tangled forest. My Dad once wrote a poem containing the line "it is here I have come to be older than the trees," and indeed I am older than most of the trees here. They will get older than me, in time. But while the neighborhood has gained trees it has also lost them, and a recent loss particularly caught my eye; the sweetgum in my neighbor's yard, the one I used to climb so often, is gone, cut into segments awaiting decomposition or disposal. I am not really surprised; it has been ill with some sort of systemic fungus for as long as I can remember, it's lower branches gradually dying off, denying me access, the bark of its dark and wrinkled trunk smelling sweet and musty on rainy days. That my neighbor would decide the tree was rotted and had to come down was not surprising.

But that tree was my friend. In its branches I watched the progression of its flowers and fruit. Have you done this? Sweetgum flowers are little pyramids of green balls, like something a child might glue together in summer camp, or like green, fuzzy, grape hyacinths. In time, most of the balls fall out of the pyramid and away from the tree, but one to three, the fertilized ones, stay and grow, their stems lengthening, their fuzz stiffening into dozens of paired spines like gaping mouths, until they become what we called "monkeyballs" when I was a kid. If that epithet had anything to do with the anatomy of a monkey, I never thought of it. I suppose I thought they were what monkeys threw at each other, if I thought of the derivation at all. They were good for throwing, as I recall. And now my friend the monkeyball tree is just another ghost of memory, clear in my mind but nowhere else. I can imagine so many things that are gone, that have not yet come, or that never were.

My Dad once wrote a series of songs with  friend of his. They recorded their songs on cassette tapes, at least four or five of them, and as far as I know, no one but me has ever thought of them since. I thought of one of them this week.

Someone cut down my favorite tree
along with the shadow that used to hang over me.
Noone keeps a secret like a sunny day.

Was this my favorite tree? Not quite, simply one of many I have grown attached to, some of which predeceased it and reminded me of that song also. I don't know which tree my Dad meant, or even if he meant a specific, literal tree. I don't know what shadow he meant, either, and I don't remember the rest of the song, but I like the deep ambiguity of those lines. I can imagine the flat cheeriness of a sunny, summer day, its silence oppressive, the smiling denial of history.

But today the dappled sunlight of my yard neither hides nor reveals any stories. It is simply cold, crisp, illustrated by chirping and the dry scratching of what I think is a nuthatch exploring the layered bark of a young white oak behind me. I hope that wherever you are and whatever you are doing today, sun and shadow together find you illuminated and similarly entertained.

-best, C.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Few Words

Hello, my friend,

I've been thinking of you lately. I've been talking to you in my head--the habit of having imaginary conversations is one I share with my father and it may have something to do with being a writer. But I do not anticipate actually talking with you, in person, until next year and I do not know what to say to you now. I like living in Maryland in this house of ours. And I like living close enough to my family of origin that I can go visit them for a weekend here and there. But I do not like not being able to see my friends with some kind of convenience...Chris wants to know why I don't make friends locally--and I have made some friends locally. But humans are not interchangeable.

What do I say to you? What do you want to know of my life? Thanksgiving is coming up, and we're going to my mother's. I told you about that tradition last year, and I expect this year to be just another iteration of it so I will not repeat myself. My bound copies of my thesis have arrived (I got two, one for me, one for a committee member who wants one), and according to the calendar I now have my degree. I have not received the actual piece of paper yet, but the conferral date has passed and so I am officially a master of science. I'm pretty excited about that,but this morning I feel pretty melancholy and I am not in a mood for crowing. Nothing is wrong, but I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed by my various plans, and it's making me pessimistic.

Fall is pretty well progressed here, now. About half the trees here are loblolly pine and hence evergreen, but the other half are mostly oaks and they have turned brown. The leaves drift downward, relaxing into winter, and I pick them up on my walks. There are so many different kinds; at least five different species, possibly seven. I'd like to make a list of all the woody plant species we have here. It lifts my mood somewhat.

We went out to Assateague yesterday and spent some time tramping around the marsh where Chris has been cleaning up from the storm.  You could see the wrack lines, thick bunches of broken phragmites, cattails, and spartina grass pushed up halfway across the island. The surge came in from the bay, not the sea, and pushed in nearly as far as the main road. The boardwalks from the trails had floated off and scattered. Chris and his volunteers managed to save part of one of the trails, but the others will have to be rebuilt. The marsh elder is white with wispy, cottony seeds, as are the drying heads of thistle and the stalks of broom-sedge, but ome of the seaside goldenrod was still in flower. We went out to see the sea, dramatic grey and white with the latest offshore nor'easter.

I must be off; I have packing to do, for we travel today. I fear this letter is sort of bland. I do not feel much creative exuberance, and this melancholy of mine is not the inspired kind.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

First Trip Around the Sun

Hi, there!

How are you? It's been a while since I've heard from you directly, but your posts on Facebook imply that you are well. I expect you're happy about the election--I know you were concerned about it, as was I. Another cycle completes and begins again, happily as it turns out. Or, happy according to you and I, anyway. I am aware that some people do not like the results, of course, but my expectation is that this is for the best for them, too...a statement that sounds somewhat condescending, but it not meant to be. After all, if I did not think this would be the best for everyone, I would not have voted as I did.

Another kind cycle has completed and begun as well, for this week was my little nephew's first birthday. I drove up for the party alone, since Chris had to work, but that, too is an interesting symmetry, for I drove up by myself when he was born, too. I remember I had a really horrible ear-ache the whole time my sister was in labor, which meant both that I was in pain for three and a half days and that I could get no sympathy for it whatever. And of course I did not try to get any. It has been a year since then, a year since that strange little being, a newborn baby, the first baby in our family in thirty years, lay under a sun-lamp in the hospital and cried. It's been a year, "a candle and a trip around the sun," as Jimmy Buffet says.

My nephew is now walking, though not talking yet. He had straight blond hair, rather like Christopher Robin and, more to the point, like his great-grandfather did at the same age (we have pictures). I expect it will darken as he gets older. I started out blonde, too, after all. It will be interesting to see if he goes bald, like his great-grandfather as well. He's got a one quarter chance, by my calculation.

He's a delightful little boy, outgoing and personable and sweet. On the night of the party he did not make many speach-sounds, he did not babble much, but he did laugh and when he noticed everybody watching him and smiling he squealed and giggled. He loves music. His favorite presents all made noise, including a pair of tiny maracas. He can dance, in a way, by bending his knees slightly several times in a row. He likes chocolate cake, also. He's never had it before, and did not want to sit in his high chair anymore, so he was crying and pushing and squirming until his Dad put some cake in his mouth. The cries, interrupted, were replaced by a small sound of surprise and appreciation and the boy ate the rest of his cake in silence, carefully picking up each crumb with his tiny fingers so as not to waste any. A year ago I wrote of him "he does not know about birthday cake." Well, now he does.

He still does not know I write about him, nor do his parents know, I think. I'm not going to use any of their names, nor will I say anything particularly private about them, though of course I could disclose something without realizing that it is private. Not everyone has the same understanding of what should be private, after all. But being the subject of someone else's writing is a very mixed thing. I myself do not mind it. I've been the subject of a number of my Dad's poems, and he never asked my permission, either to write them or to share them publicly. He may have published some of them, I'm not sure. But for me, this was always one part proof that he thinks about me, and one part simply what daddies do. In my experience the quality of "daddy-ness" includes the composition of poetry, as for your daughter the same word must instead signify birds. Or maybe it also means poetry for her, I don't know. I don't know that you don't write poetry, after all. Not observing something is not the same as observing its absence, a lesson I could have learned from you, except that I already knew it.

But not all children of writers react the way I did. The real Christopher Robin reportedly felt very used by his father, who had of course built a literary career on the most private thing of all; someone else's childhood. I can understand Christopher Robin Miln feeling violated, but I can also understand how and why A.A. Miln could have so violated the boy and done so in all innocence. The fictional Christopher Robin is not the same as the real one, but he is no less the son of his father; the real boy was the son of A.A. Miln's body, while the fictional boy and all the other residents of the Hundred Acre Wood and its environs constitute the son of A.A. Miln's soul and mind. How could he not love his children equally? Once the mind-child was conceived, how could Miln not bring the boy to birth by publishing him?

This is a line that all writers must tread, and many write about it, often with some discomfort. David Sedaris does so most touchingly, reporting that his sister once confided in him about something and then, tear-streaked, told him that if he ever wrote about it, she would never talk to him again. He actually responded "why? You're not using it!" before wondering to himself "am I the brother I was, or the brother I have become?" The story ends with Sedaris, bizarrely, up in the middle of the night teaching a parrot to say "I'm sorry." The line between generosity and selfishness is thin and subtle and easy, far too easy, to lose.

Should I then stop writing about people I know? What then would I write about? I never minded being written about, and my Dad actually wrote quite deliberately about my sister after realizing he'd written about me more (I am older). He didn't want her to feel left out.

So in a few years, my nephew will discover that people he has never met, including some people no one he knows has met, know that he likes chocolate birthday cake. He will discover that although he is his mother's child, he has a counterpart who is the child of his aunt. And he will take this discovery and turn to me with whatever thoughts and feelings he has about the matter. And I will bear them.

-best, C.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012



It's Halloween night, and I think I've seen a ghost.

I'm not sure; the sighting defies logic, and I could be totally wrong, but I can't think what else it could be. And here it is, so Yes, it's a plant.

We've come through the hurricane quite well, although some of our neighbors have had some minor flooding and damage. One woman lost her satellite dish into the tide-swollen creek. But mostly the only memento we have of the storm is a lot of fallen leaves, needles, and twigs--yes, a lot of our leaves are still green here. Autumn is in progress, but it's not too far along for leaves to be ripped green by a storm.

Anyway, I was walking the dogs this afternoon, and I figured this was an excellent opportunity to take in informal survey of the neighborhood of trees. Familiar trees I can ID by bark, mostly, and I do have the Bark field guide, but it covers New England where I am not. My other guides are all based on leaf and twig characteristics, which of course are forty feet up in the air. I don't know why you don't see tree geeks wearing binoculars all the time, given this ungainly standard. But today, a lot of the leaf and twig characters are scattered all over the ground, so I picked up a big, mixed bouquet, dumped them all in a laundry basket, and dug out my Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Trees. 

I had deliberately focused on grabbing oaks, first because they were the ones that had fallen with their twigs (identifying a tree by leaf alone rarely works unless you are already familiar with the species), and second because I thought it would be easier and more interesting to focus on one group, and third because I kind of like oaks. So I sorted all the twigs into groups corresponding to the three relevant oak sections in the book (there is a forth section, but none of mine fell in it), and got to work. I found southern red oak and eastern black oak, I found white oak, and I found two groups of oak twigs I could not clearly place. And then I found one that isn't an oak.

I'm sorry if this is boring you, I know you aren't a plant person, but I'm kind of jazzed up at the moment and I've got to share. Pretend they've got feathers or something, if it helps.

The reason I knew it wasn't an oak is that oak buds are all clustered toward the end of the twig, and these buds aren't. The leaves are sort of wavy, not deeply lobed like a classic oak leaf, and while there are oaks with wavy margins, as though the lobes had all gone shallow, the crests of the waves are  always smooth--so says Peterson's. The crests of these waves are sharp, with little bristles, like vegetable white-caps on a storm-tossed photosynthetic sea. I looked again and again; the only thing that matches this piece of tree, bud, leaf, and twig, in the American chestnut.

Chestnuts are the ivory billed woodpecker of trees, a magically liminal species, almost extinct, but maybe--oh, please, do miracles happen--it can come back. There are a number of them around, though; stump-sprouts, resistant individuals, lucky pockets here and there...even a new, blight-resistant cultivar. I've seen a sapling of such a phoenix myself. But that almost isn't the point, because what died in the blight a hundred years ago was not so much a population of trees, for many still exist, but a type of forest, a way of being green. Chestnut forests were entirely normal, generations ago. Chestnut forests defined normal. And they are gone. Maybe they can come back, but neither you nor I will ever see a chestnut-dominated landscape. Maybe my nephew will. So this what I mean when I say an individual chestnut tree is like a ghost. It's a living tree but an ecological ghost.

But what would a chestnut be doing here? It's not their territory, not their range. One could have been planted as a specimen tree, but this area was farm field and woodlot until twenty years ago; who would have planted a specimen tree here? Why? And why a chestnut?

I could be wrong. I'm probably wrong. But it's Halloween, and I've got my ghost story, and for the moment I will stick to it.

I like the thought of an ecological ghost. I like the thought of mourning species, of taking a day to honor the ecological dead. I like the idea of honoring the emotional and cultural losses, noticing the ghosts and gaps on the land where animals and plants go on behaving, for a little while, as though the missing species might come back. Maybe presenting the names and pictures, in silence, the way they honor fallen soldiers, would help somehow, help us notice what is happening. I wouldn't put the chestnut on that role-call yet, of course; it is not that sort of ghost.

Tonight and tomorrow are properly the Day of the Dead, a holiday Celtic as well as Mexican. I don't really celebrate Halloween as such anymore; I find its morbid Bacchanalia anthropologically interesting, but basically without meaning. I do not enjoy being frightened or grossed out, and I am not afraid of skeletons, anyway. But I do celebrate the Day of the Dead. I put out food for the Beloved Dead and light a candle, and I think of those who have passed on. There are a lot of awesome people who have died, and they deserve a day of their own to be remembered and loved again. I don't see why it should be scary; these are people who loved us when they were living.

I think it would be interesting to celebrate all sorts of dead on Samhain, the Day of the Dead, not just human beings, not just organisms, not even just species or ecosystems that have gone. What about dead hopes and dreams? What about dead expectations? Dead and departed fears? What have these things given us? What have they cost us? It might be good to acknowledge them. Not that I've ever been that organized about celebrating anything.

My favorite Samhain thus far was pretty simple and haphazard, but meaningful enough. That was the year I was banding saw whet owls, and that night was one of the few I was at the banding station unsupervised. Chris had given me a whole pile of candy, and I'd toasted myself some pumpkin seeds. I think I had some raisins, maybe some nuts. I put some of each out in little wooden bowls and built a fire in the wood stove. I sat on the floor drawing pictures in between checking the nets for owls and bringing back bags full of the patient, feather-headed beings, their bodies soft and sweet-smelling as human babies. I always wondered what they felt and thought about being measured and banded; I fancied I saw thought and feeling in those immobile faces, those lantern eyes. I thought I saw everything from long-suffering patience, to bewilderment, to understanding, but I know so little about birds, I was probably projecting mammalian prejudice over their essentially alien but obviously intelligent minds. They flew off into the night and vanished, like ghosts.

It would have been so cool to have a small party there. The bander I worked under traditionally has his Thanksgiving Dinner at the banding station, and his children spend their holiday along that raw and wild beach. Some years they swim there then. I would have liked to have founded a similar Samhain tradition, but with whom? My friends are scattered, and their migratory paths do not cross over Assateague much.

It's odd to think that I did not know you then.

-best, C.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Out In the Eye of the Storm

Hi, there,

I write this hoping that you and yours will be ok over the next few days. You do not live in a particularly at-risk area, but I believe you could have some effects. More to the point, I understand that there are people you care about who live in areas that are in some danger, so I am thinking about them.

This is the second hurricane I've been under in so many years, and also the second one ever where I've been so close to the eye. As far as I can tell from the Internet, Sandy's eye passed just to the north of us this afternoon, and has just now passed my mother's house, close on the east. Neither of us have seen very serious conditions, but it has been interesting, and we are not in the clear yet. I think Irene's eye did pass over us, last year; it was predicted to when we went to bed that night.

I had watched Irene approach with such dread; the storm track was to go right over our heads, and at one time it looked possible for it to pass over as a Category 2 storm. The scary thing for me was the thought that by the time it was upon us, we'd be committed to staying put, with nothing to do but survive until it passed. But, the storm weakened; it passed over us very much like a nor'easter, with lots of rain and tossing tree-tops. We never lost power...and I was slightly disappointed. A major storm would be something to see. We set the alarm for when the eye was supposed to pass over, but the alarm didn't go off. We did wake up at 4 AM, about an hour and a half too late, and I opened a window and looked out; the trees were tossing grandly against the dark, grey sky while millions of toads and crickets and what-not sang their desire in the strange, wet world. That is my lasting image of the storm.

I told you about my brush with Irene at the time, but I did not, oddly enough, tell you about the hummingbird. We'd taken all our feeders down but one, because the weather people said to take in anything that could possibly become airborne and hit a window. That one we left up because it was right next to our front door, and we figured we could grab it if things got really bad. I'm glad we left it up, because this hummingbird kept coming to visit it, over and over every couple of minutes, even as the winds picked up and up and band after band of rain moved over us, each one growing gradually and steadily worse than the last. Still she kept coming through the gusty, green air, wet and warm and leaning as it was. I imagine she had holed up somewhere nearby, but could not or would not go to sleep during the day, so she had to keep eating, and to eat she had to fly out to the feeder. I understand hummingbirds can starve to death in a day. What an incredibly strong little bird. I was glad we kept the feeder up.

Then, when I started this blog, sometime later, I wished I could include a letter-entry about the storm and the trees and the hummingbird, but it was too late; Irene was already several weeks in the past, and I could think of no way to make my comments topical. This storm has given the story a second chance.

I've often wondered what you make of this blog of mine, all these stories addressed to you in absentia (the ones addressed to your presence do not need this blog, obviously). If it had occurred to me at the time that a blog like this might strike the addressee as weird I would have asked your permission before starting, but I do so much that is weird and I do not realize until I see other people's faces. I do not see your face when I write this blog, so I do not know if you think it is weird. Perhaps, like my storm story, I will accept a second chance and ask you now?

Maybe it will make your status as muse seem less weird if I tell you you are not the first such muse, nor will you likely be the last. The way it works is if I am mentally composing a series of letters to someone, the letters sometimes capture my internal monologue the same way that a river, meandering, sometimes captures the waters of another river, changing the course of each. Then, for a while at least, my thoughts become addressed to somebody, and sometimes this address serves as an interesting focal point for my mind. I see the world as though on behalf of someone else, thinking look, look, look! I want to show you something, this thing, here, for you.

My thoughts are no longer addressed to you, except when I'm preparing to write a blog entry or an actual email to you. The mood passes, but I like this way of writing. I like what I think and what I see when I am looking to show you something. So I keep on with it.

Fifteen years ago or so, I was addressing my thoughts to the headmaster of my boarding school, he who had just kicked me out, a decision I did not resent him for. At first I thought he must be right, because I was used to thinking he was always right, both morally and in terms of his judgment. Later I came to see that although he made mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes, that decision of his was the right one for me even if it was right by accident, as it may have been. And so I wrote letters to him in my mind, letters about the strange, wide world to which he had sent me. I forget if I ever sent any of those letters. I remember that I intended to, but even if I did send him some letters, I did not send him all of the ones I thought up. I may never have even written them down. I might have started a blog of those letters, if I had known about blogs back then. I barely knew about email. But I don't think that blog would have had the depth or breadth that this one sometimes does, because he and I were never exactly friends, and I do not know what, if anything, we might have talked about had we ever simply chatted. I'm not sure we had much in common.

I remember I wrote letters in my mind also to my fellow students left back at school, and these I know I never sent, for reasons that would take too long to explain here. But I did hope to report back to those people, if I ever saw them again, so I thought about what I might say. Often, my words took the form of a Jimmy Buffet song, one I'd always liked and which suddenly seemed entirely appropriate;

I've had good days and bad days and goin' half mad days
I've tried to let go but you're still on my mind
I've lost all the old ways, I'm searchin' for new plays
Puttin' it all on the line.

And now that same song is again appropriate, though for a completely different reason, for the chorus goes;

If the phone doesn't ring, you'll know that it's me
I'll be out in the eye of the storm
If the phone doesn't ring, you know that I'll be
where someone can make me feel warm.

You and I do not make each other's phones ring much, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that we both hate phones. Keeping in touch is complicated, more complicated than it should be, for even in this age of instant internet there are people I care about and hardly hear from, people I miss, though we are only a send icon apart. People are strange, you know that? I no less than anybody else. There are people I stop talking to for no good reason at all, and I am not even aware of any bad reasons. I just stop. But I like the idea of a silent telephone, or perhaps an empty inbox, as a greeting. I like the idea of an intimacy where a phone not ringing communicates someone specific not calling, and also what that specific person is doing. The idea is somewhere between insanely presumptuous and gently sweet.

When the phone doesn't ring, I'll know you are out in the thick of your life, a life that is largely opaque to me but for the occasional glimpses you allow me, like gaps in the bands of rain. Perhaps you are like that hummingbird, small and strong and feathered, flying off to I do not know where, somewhere in the busy green twilight. But I know, too, that there are those who would and could warm you, should you need it. I have met one such person, and I have seen your face fill with sunlight when you held her, you free, for a moment, as clouds.

And for this reason, and others, I will hope she is safe and that you are with her and that, like me and mine, you can lie together in the dark tonight and listen to the wind in the wild night.

-best, as ever, C.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Small Worlds

Hi, there!

It was good to see you the other day. It always is. I had been on the point of writing you anyway, to ask you how you are, but circumstance beat me to it and I saw you in person. So, now I know how you are, more or less. Possibly less. There are some people whom I know well enough that I can take their silence on a subject as a statement itself. My mother, for example, has not mentioned plans to go to the beach this weekend, so therefor I know she is not at the beach. I know enough about her life, and enough about what she normally tells me, that I can fill in the blanks and put her comments in context. As I said, there are a number of such people for me, but you are not one of them. You could be at the beach right now, and I wouldn't know.

I'm not complaining. I have no need to pry...and you seem to tell me more when I do not ask. Some poet (I forget which one) famously said no man is an island, but I rather think some men (and women) are--not utterly isolated, just as real islands obviously are not, but distinctly bounded, defined, in part, by distance. Their intimacy is first with their surging sea, and they touch other lands only indirectly, their shadows reaching across the straights at sunset. I think, perhaps, that all men and women are actually islands, in the sense that the first, last, and most important thing we can ever know about each other is that person is not me.

Fine, then; be an island, and I will be a bird. I'll be a gannet, I'll circle round your shores and cry warning to any unwelcome colonists, if you want me to, and my feet will never once touch land.

Anyway, our surprise visit has only been the latest in a week of meetings. You were preceded by several friends, not a few species of algae, and a very large spider, her body splotched and speckled dull orange and black in almost exactly the same way as the granite face behind her unfinished web. I've been visiting an island, Mount Desert Island, in Maine, and I have only just recently returned.

I was camping there with my husband and also with a dear friend of ours, a musician who does not like camping as much as we do, but he does like us, so he puts up with the wet and the cold for our sake. This was our second such trip as a trio--I'm kind of hoping it becomes a tradition. And oh, how it was wet, not as wet as last year, but wet enough, days of rain and nights of trying to sleep in a wet sleeping bag underneath a pair of wet dogs. But at least the day I set my alarm for tide pools dawned dry and clear enough, though still grey and drippy.

Why an alarm? Because of the two low tides that day, one was in the late afternoon, when I expected to be getting ready to go watch my friend play in Bar Harbor, and the other one was just before dawn. The alarm did not do a lot of good, for I rolled over and went back to sleep for a bit, and the sun was already well up by the time I got down to the water, the tide rushing in, but at least I was in time for some exploration.

Have you ever been to MDI? Right near Blackwoods Campground is a little path to the top of some dramatic cliffs with ledges and pools sloping away to the sea forty feet or so below. You have to go down a service road and cross a street to get there, but you come out of this spruce forest, quiet and dark as a Grimm fairy-tale, walk a little way and right there is the crashing sea.

There are a pair of rough wooden benches there at the top of the cliff, half under the shade of spruce, balsam fir, and one red maple. I hardly ever see anyone sitting on those benches, but there are often people near them, and that day as I approached I saw a man and a woman standing there, looking out at the sea together. Convinced I was interrupting something, I almost turned around and left, but they turned around first, and it turned out I knew one of them. You know him too--my thesis adviser, though I don't suppose I can call him that anymore, being done with my thesis. I had not expected to see him there, though I had known he would be in that part of the state. He was probably even more surprised than I, since I don't think I'd told him I was even going to Maine. He introduced the woman with him as a colleague--he told me her name and her research interests, and she shook my hand. Curiously, he did not introduce me to her. Even more curiously, I did not introduce me, either, and I cannot tell you why I didn't.

The three of us stood chatting for a few minutes. It turns out they were on a mission very similar to mine, having come in search of tide pools. Unfortunately, while my interest was casual and flexible, theirs was professional and therefor precise. The specific pools they wanted to look at were already under water, so they turned and walked back up the little path and vanished out of my sight. Why had they been there of all places? There are a lot of tide pools all up and down the coast of Maine, some more convenient to get to, I would think. They did not explain and I did not ask and I do not know where they went afterwards. I continued my journey down to the water, pausing only to take off my shoes. I find bare feet are really the best traction on slick rock, though no one else seems to think so. It was on the way down, from ledge to ledge, that I saw that spider. I saw a lot of webs, strung from overhanging rock ledges or a twisted and crouching red spruce, all the orbs facing in the same direction and visible because beads of clinging fog. Only in the one did I notice a spider, and only that web seemed unfinished, all the spokes complete, but the spirals that would make the web work were missing.

My own web being complete, spokes and spirals and a check sent off to the bindery, what do I call my former thesis adviser? Other than his name, I mean, which I don't want to draw public attention to here without his permission. I was thinking about this as I climbed down. I could call him my friend, since he certainly is, but I have a lot of friends and the reader would not be able to tell which one I meant. It's odd to think, but from here on out, our meetings will be much like that one chat on the top of the cliff--not necessarily surprising or brief, as that chat was, but unenclosed by any defining institution. That was the strange thing for both of us, I think, not that the meeting was unlikely, but simply that we weren't at school. Within that one context, we knew each other thoroughly, the way one knows one's own house thoroughly, the way one can find the dining room table in the dark if the power goes out. But with his signature on a form, we erased the walls of that house and from here on all our meetings will take deliberate effort or astounding chance.

I started with the tide pool closest to the sea and found it rimmed and clotted with sea weed, brown and green. A claw moved briefly in the weeds, surfaced and subsided like a dream, and I did not see it again. Above the waterline, the weeds were of two types: a brown being of flattened fronds and swollen tips; and what looked more than anything like green cellophane, almost certainly sea lettuce. Below the water there were two green species, one a threadlike tube and the other flat as grass blades, plus a brown, branched creature, its tendrils thin as roots. None of these plants are much bigger than my hand, but so thick I could not see anything else. And the tide was coming in, so I had to move.

The next pool I visited had almost no seaweed at all, except for a brown strap that may have been a detached piece of kelp, its ends whitened with the geometric crust of bryozoans. The first pool was shallow but this next one dropped straight down several feet, its walls sheer and angled, like someone had meant to install a chimney here but forgot. Besides the kelp and its cargo, there were snails and also a chiton, striped purple and gliding along so smoothly I almost could not believe it was really moving. Most striking were the dozens, or maybe hundreds, of barnacles all beating their feathery fans along the vertical face. Barnacles, as you may (or may not) know, are actually shrimplike creatures who glue themselves headfirst to a rock at maturity, grow themselves a boney case, and there spend the rest of their lives sifting the water for food with their feathery feet. I read somewhere that barnacles actually practice internal fertilization, much as mammals do, but mammals are not glued by our heads to wherever we happen to be at the onset of adulthood. I suppose barnacles must simply love their neighbors, if they are lucky enough to have neighbors at all. I am glad I am not a barnacle.

The third pool was again shallow, and hosted clumps of some branched, pinkish, boney thing, probably colonies of hydroids. A third of the pool's bottom was red and a third was pinkish white and between the two was bare, natural granite. Some kind of living crust, obviously, but I could feel no difference in texture between crust and rock when I put my hand in. Once my hand was in the water I could see waves rising from my fingers, like heat distortions above a took me about a minute to realize that of course, it rained the previous night, so this salt pool bore a layer of fresh rainwater on top. When I put my hand in, the layers mixed and swirled visibly. Did the little flealike beings I saw crawling about on the bottom feel the fresh mix burning, like pool water up the nose? I withdrew my hand.

Each of these worlds has its own residents, its own water conditions, and its own vulnerability to changing conditions. Some of them receive trickles of fresh water from rivulets moving across the rock. Before the tide comes back, they must go almost fresh. Others, I'm sure, become hypersaline from evaporation on sunny days. All these rooted plants and animals must cope with changes none of us would choose. First pounding surf, then exposure to sun and rain and the feet and fingers of the curious. Who can cope with what changes how often determines the exact composition of each pool, that and the mixture of choice and chance that brings the wanderers, baby barnacles and mobile snails, small fish and smaller plankton. Each pool is a world apart when the tide is out, bounded at the top by an unbreachable boarder of air. Each of the wanderers finds itself committed, for a time, to a community defined by water quality and size, but also by the more established creatures who live there long-term. For the established, each tide cycle brings in a new mix of creatures to deal with, to get along with and to know. And then the sea comes. I headed back up the cliff, out of the water's way.

My Chris and our friend, the musician, were there with the dogs. I sat with them on the rocks above the cliffs, near clumps of plantain and goldenrod past flowering and bearded white with seed and poison ivy bearing white china berries like toxic grapes. Together we watched the sea surge over the rocks, waves tearing themselves to green jade foam between the spires and outcrops and uneven orange ledges. Gannets flew by, mostly going in the same direction, some going the other way. My tide pools were all covered by the sea, lost in the churn, the wanderers freed to make their meetings wherever they happen to find themselves next, the walls of their islands erased, become mere dimples in the wider world, the common sea.

I like that I bumped into my adviser, and not only because I enjoy his company. I like the astounding chance of the meeting, and I like the idea that I might come down a trail and see somebody I know. I like the implication that the world is cozy, that keeping in touch may not be so hard. I liked bumping into you for the same reasons. I'm not sure if I'll see you again before I head south for the winter, for you and I are more dependent on chance than most and even the internet is not our common sea. If I do not bump into you again before I leave, then I hope to see you again when I return. If I am, indeed, a bird, then you will know how to find me.

-best, C.

Thursday, October 11, 2012



Fifteen years ago this week, I got kicked out of boarding school. It's strange to think it's been that long. You might ask how I could get kicked out of anywhere, since I am obviously well-behaved by temperament. Knowing you, you would be more likely to make some wisecrack about what I might have been doing to get kicked out, and the actual story is far less entertaining than what you might attempt to embarrass me by imagining. I will spare you the details but, in brief, it became obvious that although I was not ready to graduate, the school was no longer doing me any good. I was on a need-based scholarship at the time, and the money and effort being expended in my direction could be better applied to some other kid. They did not put it like that to me. My boarding school’s culture was bizarrely insular and single-minded, and the official line was that anyone who wanted to graduate could, and therefore the only reason why anyone would not want to graduate was bad character. Not that anybody put it like that, either, but I got the message.  You can imagine my feelings, I think, upon being kicked out. You know how attached I can get. 

Several years later, I wrote several haiku, one of them was about that October 6th, long ago. None of my haiku were accepted for publication, so I will finally give that one its due now;

The day I left them
The trees burned orange, the sky
Blue all the way down.

I’m fond of it. Do you like it? As the poem describes, it was one of those gorgeous fall days when only good things should happen, and in retrospect getting kicked out was a very good thing for me, though it felt like crap at the time.
And now I am leaving another school, under very different circumstances. As I told you the other day, I am done my thesis, and now need only wait until the next conferral date to get my degree and actually be a Master of Science. I can hardly believe it. It has been a long time coming, yes, plus I am one of those people for whom failure seems more real than success. It’s not that I don’t think I’ve earned this; I have. I got excellent grades on my thesis itself and I was pleased but not at all surprised. But it’s like how I experienced the seasons at boarding school. I arrived there in winter, right after a heavy snow, and that first winter was long and cold and lined with white. The first bear I ever saw was walking across the tennis courts on campus in the snow that year, right at the beginning of Easter break, looking very thin. And ever after that, though I spent five summers at that school, the green and warmth of a New England summer has always felt like an illusion.
This week I’ve been engaged in preparing my thesis to be printed and bound. It isn’t a difficult process, just a couple of forms to track down and sign, but I was bizarrely anxious about it. It took me a good whole minute to get up the gumption to fill in the name of my adviser on one of the forms, because I was afraid I was going to get his middle initial wrong. Now, I’ve known his middle initial as long as I’ve known yours. While I don’t know what his middle initial stands for, but I know perfectly well what it is. I’m just being twitchy. Psychologically, I seem to be something of an amphibious creature.  I tend to think details are important, just as you seem to. Unlike you, I am not very good at thinking about details. I am very good at thinking about abstract concepts, and I’ve got the good grades to prove it, but then I get all hung up worrying I’m going to get this or that detail wrong and they aren’t even the details that matter. So what if I got my adviser’s middle initial wrong? Somebody would notice and I’d feel embarrassed and then the sun would come up the next morning and everything will be fine.
Fall is falling. I went for a walk the other morning, to take the sense of the season. Mushrooms grey and brown and round as coins sprout from the grass or the softened wood of old tree stumps. Ferns pale to a translucent straw color or bronze down like cherry wood, depending on species. It was wet that morning, it’s been a wet week, and the white pine needles were clumped up like the fur of a drenched cat.  Birch and maple leaves drop gently through the dripping air. The plants have begun their strategic retreat from the cold.
The sun is leaving for the year. A friend of mine just left the country, also for the year. I’ll be heading south myself in a few weeks. I am migratory like the geese, I and my mate with me. My friends and I scatter like old, yellowed pine needles, blow away separately in a stiff, raw breeze. But the pines and birches and maples will all wake to the same communities again in the spring. A tree is as much an intersection of relationships as it is a thing in its own right. A goose paddles on a pond whose location can be described in terms of distance, so far to here, so far to there. Where is a context. Who is a location in a web. Even if I migrate back to this town in the spring, I will not come back to here, this school. I can no longer say who I am as graduate student.
Do not get me wrong; I'm pleased as punch to be done with this and go on to the next thing. I no longer attach to whole schools in quite the same way as I did when I was younger. I'm also entirely confident that a lot of people like me, and that some subset of the people who like me will remain in my life for a long time or a little, and I am comfortable with that. It's just that living things belong somewhere and have some role in the system that defines them, and right now I don't know what mine is.
best, C. 

Monday, October 1, 2012



What squeaks at night in the fall? I know, that sounds like a joke, right? (the answer would be “a Fall Night-Squeaker”) As written, it’s an impossible question, and though I can elaborate, I don’t think I can tell you enough to enable you to actually answer. But I think if you heard the sound, you might know it.You might think it was obvious.

I like listening to things, especially at night. Once, weeks ago, I not only listened to, I actually saw a cricket, or whatever kind of insect it was, playing the violin of its tiny wings at night, a rough, two-note song. This is the only time, so far, I've managed to it because insects are such private singers. They stop as soon as they realize you are trying to find them, and then without the sound they are worse than needles to try to find in the grass. This time the song came from a bush, about eye-level, one of those shrubs near the bike rack on campus, I think they are dogwoods, the singer hidden effectively by the dark. So I used the light from my bicycle. I've noticed some animals ignore artificial light, probably because few predators have carried flashlights throughout evolutionary time. I and my flashlight were out of the range of this insect's experience, irrelevant as starlight, and I shall not tell you what I saw in that light because it felt less like invading some unwitting insect's privacy and more like receiving a deliberately offered grace. It was a grace, and I'm not sure I will ask for another.

Today I’ve been listening to the rain on the roof of the trailer, steady and long and wet. It’s a very cozy sound to hear, when one has the privilege of being dry and warm. Sometimes there are more mysterious sounds: the bonging of distant church bells tolling the hour late at night; the gallop or whinny of horses in the next field over, animals we never see and which Chris does not believe exist; the conversation of owls…I hear barred owls over in the trees by the river sometimes, one or two calling back and forth. The other day we heard something else, another owl, deeper and with a different pattern. A great horned owl, maybe? I've heard them before, though not here, and not often enough to be sure I'm remembering properly.

The other night, Chris suggested keeping the windows open so we could hear any crickets. This was not a self-serving move on his part. Chris likes sleeping with a fan going, for white noise. Twenty years of rural living has left him unable to ignore traffic sounds, and he cannot hear the crickets anyway. I do not like the fan; I grew up between a big university and its football field, so I can ignore almost anything and still hear crickets underneath. Except I cannot ignore that fan.  I think it’s interesting that Chris can hear a faint buzz and know not only that a plane is going by, but also what kind of plane it is and what it is doing, but he cannot hear the horses or the crickets. This goes beyond selective deafness for the sake of sleep; he and I live in different worlds, it seems. His world includes planes and cars, trucks, human beings and most of their doings (he knows who all the other people in the campground are and what they’re doing, and I don’t know how he knows it), and also birds. When we were riding our bikes down the bike trail this summer, he would say “witchity-witchity!” which means he has heard a common yellowthroat, a truly lovely bird, I decided, when I finally saw one. I still couldn’t hear its song, even knowing that it is supposed to say witchity-witchity, but I can hear Chris. And he can hear me.

Listening to human beings does not come easily to me, for it involves not talking, a difficult thing for a writer to do. We are creatures of monologue, fundamentally, whatever else we are. But a writer who cannot listen soon runs out of things to write about, runs out of readers, runs out, I suspect, of companionship. Without Chris, who would tell me to drink water when I forget? Who would anchor me when I drift off? So I do my best. And at least half of the time, I let Chris keep his fan.
I have been married not quite two years yet. I have known my mate just five years, plus some months. I’m learning. You know more about these things than I do, for better or worse, and what you know of these things are among the many things I cannot ask you about. I am not asking you now. There are a lot of questions I’ve thought to ask you at one time or another, and probably will not get to. What is that squeaking at night? Do geese fart? When the swallows left our mud bank here by the river, did they head south, or did they only disperse to hunt bugs over other fields now that the kids were up and gone? Most of these questions I suppose I could ask, if I only had the time. The problem is that when we talk next we will likely talk briefly about other things, and then it will be time to go. We just won't get to them. But there are questions I won't ask, not because I intuit any embarrassing answers, but simply because I think you'd rather not answer, and you'd rather not have to say so. There are things I don't want to talk about, after all, even with you. And, honestly, the inner workings of my marriage are probably among those things. 

We are all like crickets who stop singing the moment they realize someone is looking for them.