Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Speed Well

Hi, there!

It is an odd thing, being injured. 

I forget if I told you already about my small accident—I was horsing around outside and rolled wrong, and managed to severely insult my back, which now seizes up at the least provocation. As you can imagine, a huge proportion of my every is now eaten up with avoiding triggering another spasm. Chris has to do nearly everything—I can’t even get out of bed without help. Per hour, this has got to be the most painful injury I’ve ever sustained, and the second-most inconvenient. I’m hoping there will not be many hours, though. Already I’m seeing some improvement; as you saw today, I can walk normally at least.

I’ve been injured before, of course, and the interesting thing about injury, aside from the anatomical detail (on one occasion I found out I had a body-part by breaking it), is the way that the extent of the doable becomes so suddenly circumscribed. At the moment, I cannot bend at the waist from a standing position, nor can I rise from sitting or kneeling without help. As a result, I find myself staring at items on the floor (my laptop bag, a pair of socks, my shirt), and even though they are right there, these things might as well be ten thousand miles away, for all the good they can do me. I can’t reach them. A few years ago I spent a summer with what turned out to be plantar fasciitis, a condition I really recommend you not develop, such that every step hurt, not hurt a whole lot, I could still walk, but it added up, step upon step, until I was exhausted with pain. A quarter mile came to seem a long and terrible journey, a thing to steal myself for, if it could not possibly be avoided. In the glow of good health, of course, a quarter mile slides by under my moving feet more or less automatically. Distance expands and contracts with my bodily strength.

It occurs to be that this sort of temporary disability is simply a foretaste of getting old. I assume I’ll feel better in a week or two, but someday, unless I die in some accident first, there will come a time when I am permanently and progressively disabled in some way or other, when distances that now fly by under my feet come to seem just too far away, when things begin to hurt more or less all the time, when I will need help with even the most basic things. I don’t know what will fail, but eventually something will.

I don’t think of this in a morbid or frightened mood; age is the price of living a long time, and I intend to pay it, if I can. More than that, age is part of life, just as the end is part of a story. I’m enough of a storyteller not to begrudge this structure to things. Instead, I feel a kind of kinship right now with the elderly, while for a week or two I feel the rough edges of the old woman hiding inside myself.

I’ve been thinking of aging recently, in part because my husband has just had a birthday. A old college friend of his, in the course of wishing him a happy birthday, mentioned a former history teacher of theirs. The man had been something of a mentor to them both, and is now dead. All of Chris’ college professors are dead, or at least he assumes that they are, so much time has passed. Inevitably, I fell to wondering how many of mine will still be around when I turn fifty-six (a question with obvious relevance to you…).

Of course, Chris is talking about professors he had in his early twenties, which adds an extra decade of time to the mix. Also, his professors were not baby-boomers, and I believe your life expectancy is greater than theirs. So I think it’s entirely possible that I will be able to invite you to my fifty-sixth birthday party—and  you will probably still be too busy to attend.  Yet your death, and that of my other heroes and baby-boomer friends, is another thing, like my own old age, that I shall have to cope with, if I live long enough.

I was injured this past Saturday, while horsing around on a lawn. Just prior, I had been playing happily with my guide books, looking up plants and taking notes, drawing pictures…I found that the witch-hazel in the back had four different types of leaf damage, plus one spiky green growth that was probably a gall of some sort, and many three-part little buds that I’m guessing will become flowers in the fall. There were three or four types of moss at least, interspersed with scraggly tufts of some little rush. Rushes, as you may know, look like grasses, but their flowers structurally resemble tiny, inconspicuous lilies. They’ve gone to seed now, and when I look through my lens I can see pointed, greenish seed pods each cupped by three tiny triangular bracts. In the front yard, in among the grasses and sedges, I also found  wood sorrel (an old friend), and mouse-ear chickweed, a tiny little thing with pairs of green, fuzzy leaves and flowers with delicate white petals each cleft almost in two. I’ve seen it before, but not often enough that I didn’t need to look it up. The new acquaintance turned out to be some kind of speedwell, probably common speedwell. Usually these sorts of vernacular names are easier to remember, and much more charming, than the Latin, but the speedwells are an exception. Their genus name is Veronica, a pretty name that one of my dorm-parents in boarding school also bore, if I remember correctly.  Veronica the plant, then, is a plucky little creeping thing with four purple petals, the bottom one thinner than the others. I remember all of this because I wrote it down. I was planning to tell you, and thinking also of using these letters to assemble a little book of natural history, full of careful observation and carefree speculation, my modest offering after the likes of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Honey from stone. And then I jumped up like a child at play and fell down like an old woman, and I’ve been temporarily old ever since.

The thing is, Nature is not simply something I observe and wax poetic about; I am also a biological object, subject to damage and nibbles and frost, and so are you. We are fit subjects, therefor, of any natural history discussion. Our treasured individual dramas and the fleeting tragedies of anonymous birds could equally well be viewed with fond, detached hilarity. A sunny day can bring a predator’s swipe; a walk down the street can slice the heart.

And a cool summer’s evening can fuzz the air with mosquitoes till I tell myself I can persist only five minutes more before I must go inside, Chris has gone in already. But I will persist those five minutes, it is a matter of pride, and in those five minutes a great blue heron flies over, its wings as big as tablecloths flapping silently, its shape silhouetted black against the purpling sky and framed by the equally black arms of pine.

There is recompense for those of us who stick around, even if we must be nibbled a little.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Exploring the Gaps

Chris has just left for the week, and the trailer seems very empty without him. I miss him already—how on earth did we manage to be apart for months on end in the past? I guess one just freezes something for a while, and then thaws it out again afterwards.

Are your own migrations taking you away from your mate today? I know they do, sometimes. So much of your life seems merely theoretical to me, because I know only the vaguest possible things about it. I know roughly where you live and where you work, roughly what you do for a living, and so forth, but at any given moment I don’t know whether you are working or resting or what. Of course, at the moment there is no one on Earth whose actual facts by the moment are known to me, except for myself and the cat and the mosquitoes, because are alone here in this trailer, but I tell myself that I know. I know Chris is driving south with the dogs. I know my mother is sleeping, or maybe starting to get up, and that she will likely have coffee and a soft-boiled egg on toast for breakfast. With you? I’m just not privy to the daily details of your life. You are like the virtual cat, who is either in this state or that state, but I don’t know which, so in my mind you must therefore be nowhere in particular.

But, I saw you yesterday, and the day before, the actual, there-you-are, YOU.  I like having such direct evidence that you exist. I liked talking with you, and watching you work, and being able to help in some small way. I like that you guessed, correctly, that I already knew about structural color in feathers. And then off you went again, like one of those birds you were talking about, who fly off to Mexico, or Argentina, or wherever, and we know nothing about what they do, other than that they come back here. But, as you said, in such travel there are no guarantees.  Yesterday was a pin stuck in a map blank with unknowing, and I have guesses anchored to that pin. I know you were here, and I know you must leave again, so I imagine you saying your goodbyes to you mate with a sigh, the closing of your car door, and then the clear head of solitude and the rhythm of the road.

I think I even met your mate, though you did not introduce her as such, personal detail being obviously irrelevant in that context. If she was not your mate, she was obviously a good friend of yours, for you seemed relaxed around each other, comfortable. I liked her. I don’t see how anybody wouldn’t, actually. Am I allowed to approve, although my approval was not sought?

I’m savoring another dawn today. The sun is just beginning to lighten the sky, though sun-up itself is still far away. The birds are all shouting beautifully; like me, they are awake with something to say, and nothing else to do but say it. I always thought that birds quiet down towards mid-day because they get busy doing something other than singing, but you say otherwise, and you would know. I will have to move quickly, once I sign off here, and get out and explore, while the gap between one thing and the next is still open.

Oh, my friend. My cranky, ornery, knowledgeable, generous, difficult friend, you do something thing that no merely fictional muse can; you refuse to be what I expect. 

I looked it up, by the way, that pink grass like the fairy candelabras? It is redtop, I’m almost sure of it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Mosquito Love

Hi, there!

One advantage of being able to read fast with good read fast with good recall is that I can reread random passages of old books in spare fifteen minute increments and actually get some thing out of it. Lately I've been reading bits of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I've known and loved for years and years, and I'm struck again by how rooted in the living world the author becomes. She knows where the muskrats have their dens, she knows not only how to see small fish in the water but also what sort of fish they are. She spots a horsehair worm, a giant water bug (its actual name as a species), the Andromeda Galaxy. She gets emotionally freaked out by a yellow, fleshy plant with no leaves. She is mystified and enthralled by a glimpse of a dragonfly laying eggs and a water-strider stalking and eating a struggling fly. She describes herself as a kind of anchorite, a spiritual seeker anchored not to a church, as of old, but to a wooded creek valley in Virginia. I would love to be such an anchorite, to look at look at life until finally I became transparent to my own looking. I'd love to see muskrat dens and mother dragonflies.

But me? All I get is a glimpse of mosquito sex.

There were a ridiculous number of mosquitoes in the trailer last night. I'm not sure how they got in, probably they followed me in, since I entered the trailer in order to escape the mosquitoes, their small wings turning the lovely night air predatory. I've spent enough nights lying in the dark swatting at my own head in a futile attempt to stop that horrible, high-pitched whining. I didn't want to do it again, and the trailer is small enough that it can't contain that many individual mosquitoes. I went on the offensive, I prowled the trailer, I slapped at small black specks on the walls, ceiling, window blinds, my husband, and myself until my hands were smeared by mosquito guts and the beige surfaces of the trailer were all marred by tiny spots of secondhand blood.

I hate killing mosquitoes that have already eaten. They won't bother us again, and it seems such a waste, that little pinprick of itch and pain and now for nothing! No little mosquito babies to make the best of our small suffering! But it's hard to tell sometimes who is full and who is not, and anyway I got into kind of a rhythm.

And then I saw the couple on the window blind, their abdomens linked, though they faced entirely away from each other. What else could they have been doing? Their wings were carefully folded to stay out of each others' way, one insect clinging from one of the plastic blinds, the other handing head downwards. How do they decide who gets to be right side up? Who is who? I had thought mosquitoes would be obviously dimorphic, since males and females live such different lives, she dodging and whining towards blood, he quietly supping on plants that cannot run away. But I don't see any clear difference between them. They both just look like mosquitoes. Why was a male in the trailer, anyway? There's nothing for him to eat, here. I suppose he came in for the company, though any female who has a prayer of laying her eggs will be outside, not in here. I can't tell one mosquito from another, so I may have squished one or both of them later, but while they were linked I let that couple go.

I used to be a sort of anchorite, much like Annie Dillard. As a back-country site caretaker I lived in the woods and spent my days fixing trails, talking to hikers, and noticing things. I saw the nuptial flight of ants, and I saw the spent bodies of the little insect lovers settle out upon the surface of a pond so thickly that the surface of the pond grew golden. I paddled out among them and found some of them still alive, struggling. I scooped some out onto the bow of my canoe, but none dried themselves and walked off. They all died. Days later, the slow current had swept the surface clear, all the little bodies piling up in a crescent of debris against the beaver dam at the outflow creek.

Another time I found a large dragonfly stranded in the water, struggling in the surface tension of the pond. I scooped that one up, too, and set it on the bow of my canoe. That one did dry itself, and when its wings looked strong again I paddled over and left it on a leaf on the bank, I think the plant was some kind of Spirea, if memory serves.

The hardest was when I came across a dragonfly hatch, dozens and dozens of them crawling out to molt at once, a dozen or so on one rock near the edge of the pond alone. I settled myself down to watch, the mysteries of dragonfly life the most important thing I had to attend to at that moment, and I waited. I've heard that dragonflies molt to adulthood in the safety of the dark, and that it takes them all night to do it, but if these were any indication, I heard wrong. They did it in broad daylight, and it took each one maybe twenty minutes from swimming to flying.

A nymph would swim up with little jerky strokes, coming along near the bottom of the pond. It would swim along the bottom until the bottom came up and became the shore, became the edge of the rock. The nymph would crawl out, crawl out of the water that had been its entire world up until that moment, and then find a spot a few inches up out of the water and there it would wait, motionless for a few minutes. Presently, a small black triangle would appear on the top of the animal's thorax, and begin to grow, to bulge. It was the skin of the adult, visible through a tear in the nymphal skeleton.

The tear would grow and the dragonfly inside would bulge up and bulge up until the head and thorax of the dragonfly would bloom up out of the gap, the legs curled basketlike beneath, the wings like gobs of wet tissue on the back, the whole balanced precisely on the long abdomen still anchored at its far end to the nymphal skin but elongating, elongating, the insect standing on its own tail like a flower on its lengthening stem. Finally, the dragonfly would step to earth and pull the end of its abdomen and rest, and then the wings would begin to grow. So slowly I couldn't be sure if I was actually seeing it or not, the wings expanded, unfurled, inflated, it can't have taken more than five or ten minutes, they stretched out backwards, streaming, the four wings from the animal's back, loosing their opacity, becoming straight. There was a moment when they looked adult in shape and size, but their color was the sheen of soap bubbles. Then they hardened and dried. Then the dragonfly moved them for the first time, flapped slowly, and locked the wings into the flat at-rest position that all adult dragonflies use. Then the newly reshaped animal flew away.

The hard thing was that I wanted to see the transformation better, so I moved one of the waiting nymphs and watched to see the black triangle appear. It did, but not much more ever happened. It died, right there, halfway between nymph and adulthood. I disrupted something in my idle curiosity, and it died. I'm sorry.

I wish I still made my living by learning these things and telling other people about them. I want to lurk in the woods like an elf and compliment intelligent children and listen to curious adults. I miss being a caretaker. Before I became a caretaker, I used to berate myself for my unquenchable desire to show off, to tell other people all about the things I knew. Becoming a caretaker showed me I'd been wrong; I am not, at bottom, a show-off. I actually don't like showing off, because the people most inclined to respond to that sort of thing usually aren't actually interested in being my friends. My kind of people are the ones who hear me talking about bugs and get excited about the bugs, not about how smart I supposedly am. What I learned, being a caretaker, is that there are such people,people who really want to hear what I have to say, people who have questions to which my answers actually match. I can be useful to such people. My fault had not been trying to talk about what I knew, but trying to talk to people who weren't interested in what I knew. What I wanted to do, all along, was to share, to teach.

So I wasn't selfish, I was generous, right? It was a great relief to me at the time to revise my opinion of myself this way. And I am generous. But my desire to share knowledge, to be the expert, the guide, is no less a form of personal wanting for all that I want other people to benefit from it. It's not an altruistic impulse.

I've been thinking lately of the reciprocal nature of giving and receiving, how wanting to give and wanting to receive are opposites only in theory. In practice, I've accepted gifts I didn't need or want so that the giver could experience the pleasure of giving. I've offered my time and energy, generously, to people who did not seem to care, and felt thwarted, abandoned as a result. Both desires are desires to connect. Both can be selfish or loving, depending on sensitivity to context, the soul raised taut and listening, the way a mosquito raises her hindmost legs to test the air when she bites.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fourth of July

I had an odd little experience yesterday; I was biking home from campus around nine PM when I saw some fireworks—and liked them. I used to like fireworks as a kid, but I haven’t recently. Last year I actually went with my mother to watch a display and I found myself completely distracted by the other people in the crowd and by the movements of a large moth flying in loops around a nearby streetlight. The fact of the rocket’s red blare above seemed completely uninteresting and irrelevant to me. I don’t know why I lost interest, but I expected the loss to be permanent. And then last night, right above the trees along the Ashuelot, right as I got ready to follow the bike trail out of town, an explosion bloomed green against the clear dusk sky. And it was beautiful.

I had a tendency to think of the Fourth of July as Fireworks Day, when I was a kid. I suspect many people did, and some still do. I remember going up to a park in Wilmington with my parents and buying ice cream from trucks parked in the grass among the crowds. It was always hot, and there was always a huge press of people, all strangers, but I didn’t mind. There was a bandstand with music and occasionally actors portraying Benjamin Franklin and other notables, and I never paid much attention. There were men walking through the crowd at dusk selling glow-in-the-dark necklaces, and I always wanted one and sometimes I got one, my sister and I both did. And then the show began, pop! pop! pop! pop! One year I was totally obsessed with the color green for whatever reason, and I cheered that color whenever it appeared. My mother’s favorites were the big bells of color, giant chrysanthemums of color that filled the sky and trickled down on all sides. And then the grand finale, which was always way too loud, and the world was all bright and color and sound and not thinking, and then it was over and smelling like gunpowder and I had to hold tight to the end of the beach blanket my mother’s hands were full of, hold tight and not get lost as thousands of people all fled to our cars at exactly the same time. 

I was intellectually aware of the patriotic dimension, of course, but it failed to move me. I’m not anti-patriotic, not anti-American, but I can’t love my country any more than a fish can love water. I can’t wrap my mind around it, can’t think of it as an object to have feelings about.

But I can wrap my mind around, feel emotions about, even commit myself to people, individual people, like, for example, John Adams, the second president of the United States.  I started reading about him some years ago and more or less didn’t stop. It amazes me that he, together with his colleagues, made a country for us. They did it quite deliberately. John Adams once said that he studied war so that his grandchildren would be able to study art. He put his marriage and his family and his life on the line—as a ringleader of the revolution he would certainly have been hanged if we had lost the war—because he thought it was the right thing to do, and because his wife and best friend, Abigail Adams, also thought it was the right thing to do. She has gotten popular in recent years as something of a proto-feminist, and as such I do admire her. She was a remarkable human being, and she deserves the recognition she is finally getting, though it would have flustered and embarrassed her. But it is him I identify with. We are a lot alike, John Adams and I, for we are not only both intelligent, dedicated, and idealistic, but also moody, a trifle vain, self-analytical, stubborn, and disorganized. When I visited their home and the tour guide showed us the room where Abigail died, I broke down crying, not in misty-eyed sympathy, but in frank, full sobs. About John’s death I felt only mild interest—but then, he would hardly have grieved over himself.

The Fourth of July thus becomes meaningful to me as a celebration of the work and the sacrifices of a particular man, John Adams, but it is also more than that. Today is the anniversary of the day he died. One hundred and eighty-six years ago today, John Adams was alive—and that statement will never again be true, never in the whole sweep of time. From now on, that number will always be bigger.
It’s easy to think of these people as somehow timeless, almost fictional, living always and forever in some parallel universe where tricornered hats are always in fashion and the debates of the Founding Fathers play out in an eternal, historical present. Actually, all those people, the founding fathers and mothers, are dead.

John Adams died in the late afternoon, during a thunderstorm. His last words are usually quoted at “Jefferson survives,” or something similar. Actually, his last words were “help me, child.” The more popular version is probably the one he meant, for it would have been like him to think about what his last words should be, and to choose something heroic. Intellectually he didn’t mind dying; he was always brave, and of course Abigail had already died and he looked forward to seeing her again. But then, when he felt himself finally going, maybe he grew afraid, like how one sometimes feels afraid just before sleep, afraid to let go, and he made a grab for control and said “help me!” But he did say the line about Jefferson, he just said it earlier. He and Jefferson were the last two signers of the Declaration of Independence, and he must have wondered which one of them would be the last. Maybe he was gratified to at least have the answer to the question—except he was wrong. Thomas Jefferson had died several hours earlier. The two men had held on quite deliberately to make it to the Fourth, that year the fiftieth anniversary of Declaration. The day meant a great deal to both of them.
And the day after, in the days after, what then? John Adams’ oldest son, John Quincy Adams, could not be there when his father died. He was president himself, at the time, and did not have the freedom to sit vigil. In those years of horseback communication, it must have taken a few days for him to find out his father was dead, sharp news, unbelievable news, and he had to pull himself together and keep running the country. But gradually his grief grew less sharp, gradually it got easier to go on. A year went by, then two, milestones passed after which John Quincy could no longer say “the last time this happened, my father was alive.” Gradually, his status as adult orphan must have come to seem normal. It became his life, decade after decade, until he himself died, fell in the political traces on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and was grieved in turn.

Or imagine the more complicated wake of Jefferson’s death. Jefferson’s official last words (“Is it the Fourth? It is a great day, a good day”) were not his final words, either, but his real final words were not recorded. He addressed them to a group of his slaves--almost certainly his lover, Sally Hemings, and their grown children. What was that deathbed like for her? Thomas Jefferson had been the dominant fact of her entire life, and she had been his lover since she was a teenager. She had had some choice in the matter, since the relationship began in France, where she could have legally claimed her freedom; many black people did take advantage of French law, but Hemings did not. She chose to go back to America with Jefferson. But that choice must have been constrained by such a weight of non-choice as to hardly merit the term. Did she love him? Did she merely find him useful? Was she in any psychological position to even ask herself that question? Was she angry with him for the fantastic presumptions of his life, he who simultaneously believed that his slaves loved him and that black people would rise up and kill all white people if ever they had a chance? When Jefferson died, this embodiment of all the contradictions of his age, was she grateful? Grief-stricken? Or only frightened by the death of her patron in a world where she had no legal rights at all? Legally, she and her children and her entire social world were the property of a man who had died ten thousand dollars in debt. What would become of her?

A year went by, then two. Decades passed. People moved on, gliding out over the gulf of time as generations lived and died and coped, day after day until today, our day, one hundred and eighty-six years.

And we are no less real.

Happy Fourth of July, my friend. In a hundred and eighty-six years, what will become of our work?