Monday, January 28, 2013

Lost in Space

Hi, my friend,

I've noticed on Twitter (yes, I'm on Twitter) that today is the anniversary of the Challenger explosion. I remember that...and I remember, shortly thereafter, becoming conscious of the fact that that I would always remember it, and that the memory would be in some sense analogous to older people's memory of JFK being shot--you always remember where you were when you heard about it. I thought it was the first such memory I would collect, but probably not my last. It felt like a very grown-up memory to have.

I was, at best, half-right, for I also remember where I was when I heard that John Lennon had been killed, and that was much earlier. That would be my first tragic cultural touchstone, but it is a very different kind of memory because I was very young and, despite already being a Beatles fan of sorts, I didn't know who John Lennon was. I just happened to remember that conversation for other reasons until I was old enough to look back and realize what it was I had heard. It is odd to think that even though I normally think of Lennon as before my time, a figure of history, I can remember the day that he died and that the day before I could have truthfully said, if anybody had prompted me to do so, "John Lennon is alive."

Anyway, it has been twenty-seven years now, since the Challenger blew up, since that day one of the teachers called an all-school meeting and said "I just turned on the TV to watch the space shuttle launch, and it lifted off the launchpad and it blew up." I don't remember what else he said. I remember feeling shocked and disoriented and oddly self-conscious, as though everyone might be looking at me and judging whatever it was I was thinking and feeling. What was I thinking and feeling? I didn't know at the time. I incorporated the theme of exploding spaceships briefly in the continual stories I was, even then, spinning, but I was so obviously a child attempting to process tragedy through play that I stopped. I did not want other people having thoughts about my feelings (especially not before I understood them!) and I did not know how to spin stories without sharing them.

And in the end I'm not sure how much difference that tragedy made, except of course to the people immediately involved and their families and colleagues. It changed the space program in some ways, but I don't think it changed America more broadly. I don't know if it really is a cultural touchstone, like 9/11 certainly is, a day that divides a people into before and after.

I am not generally much concerned with the space program, which may be one reason I don't think often of that tragedy I heard of so many years ago. I regard those people as the victims of an accident, certainly mourned by their friends and families, and worthy of respect, but I do not regard them as heroes, people who died in the course of doing something good and noble for all of us. They are not secular martyrs. Why not? I am of a minority opinion on this, I think.

I look up and I see the stars and the moon and I think they are pretty. They do not stir my curiosity much. I do not care whether there is microscopic life on Mars or how many light-years our galaxy is across. I did go through a very brief astronomy phase as a kid, and I have a good memory, so I am neither entirely ignorant of space nor ignorant of the impulse to explore it. In any case, just as I know your fondness for birds has its analogies in certain fondnesses of mine, I can appreciate that others might look at astronomy and astrophysics with the same fascination I have for ecology. To them I wish joy in the pursuit of a fascinating intellectual hobby. But I'm not sure it's more than that. I think the main use of the space program is to launch and maintain communications and GPS satellites and scientific satellites aimed mostly back at Earth.

I don't mean to be pig-headed about this; if you or anyone else who may read this wants to try to change my mind, then please, go ahead. I've been wrong before and I'll be wrong again, and I could well be in the act of being wrong right now. But we belong to the Earth. We aren't just living on the Earth, we are part of the Earth, just as the rocks and atmosphere are. Yes, of course there are the grave practical matters, too; global climate change, conservation science, these are things worth spending a hundred million dollars annually on, they are worth living for and dying over. Satisfying an upward-facing curiosity? Maybe not so much. And the desire to explore the stars, to leave Earth as people, as a species? What would we be without Earth? Would one of us without our planet mean any more than one of my fingers without its hand?

Context, context is key. I was just talking to you earlier today about the idea of a life as a book, a life with multiple chapters, and what that means. What it means is context. Stories are context, too. We need ideas to tell us who and what we are, just as we need our ecological place, we need to exist in an ecology of the mind. And I think that explains the disorientation I felt that day twenty-seven years ago. It was a small piece of the sense of being "a generation lost in space" describes so eloquently in the sing "American Pie," which I've always loved and which is about yet another nationally relevant tragedy, and which I heard today, by coincidence, while at physical therapy.

These things happen, and interrupt, jolt, or, in some cases, destroy entirely, the sense of psychological context. The book we live in vanishes, the plot broken, abandoned, and for a moment, short or long, we look around and see the world without its story, directly. And that's why we always remember those moments.

Anyway, that's what I think currently. What do you think?

-best, C. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013



It's been wet and rainy for a few days, now, a pattern that began with a thick nighttime fog. I went walking in that fog by myself. It was Sunday, the only day of the week we are sure there will be no hunters out in the fields and woods on the way to the little beach. Usually, Chris and I make the walk out with the dogs, but this week he decided to update our computers instead, so I went by myself. I'd have taken the dogs, but I'm under doctor's orders not to until that injury from over the summer completely heals.

It was late enough that I brought a flashlight, since I expected evening to fall while I was out. I also brought my guidebooks and notebooks and a magnifying lens and my binoculars, which I hardly ever use and could not use on Sunday, as it turned out, because of the fog. I couldn't use any of my equipment because everything was so drippy and dark. I used my ears and a combination of other senses that amounts to a sense in itself. I do this sometimes. It's part of the reason I often look down when I walk. I say it's so that I don't trip over anything, and this is partly true, but a more complete answer--and I've just thought of it--is that by not looking up and around my attention stays generalized and I can get a feel for things.

The vultures who roost at the end of the street flapped heavy and invisible above the fog. Small birds twittered or flew overhead, their wings whistling. Geese flew over and geese flew over and then more geese flew over in invisible skeins. As I came out of the trees and into the marshes, ducks took wing, their small, fast wing beats identifying them as they escaped from channels and pools not fifty feet away from me but lost in the gloom. I must have been frightening to the birds, as so many of them flew at my approach. As I got out towards the end of what was once a small, marshy island, before the causeway was constructed, the geese flew, lifting up out of the bay in a great, unseen, honking mass, wheeling and turning and crying and talking to each other in their wild goose way, honkhonkhonkhonk! The white cedars along the coast, clearly planted once, as they stand in distinct lines, but now being lost one by one to the sea, stood like dinosaurs crouching in the gloom. I got out to the beach and listened, but the geese had all gone.

Were they afraid of me because in the fog they could not see? I was a noise about whom they could know nothing else? I was jumpy myself, startling like an animal at shadows in the gloom, dropping into a half crouch, ready for anything and motionless, until I could be sure the shadow was just a stick or a clump of old grass.

The night finally descended as I returned, but I didn't use my flashlight. I wanted to challenge myself, see if I could get home all but blind. I've done it before, in other places; my feet can follow a trail by touch alone and if I do not try to look at anything my eyes can join my other senses and contribute what little information they have to my "feel" of the place. The shape of shadows and the feel of the farm road kept me oriented the whole way home.

What is this, my fondness for temporary blindness? I can see, and I enjoy what I see much of the time, so why do I not look, look, look? Somehow it feels important to know how to be blind. Maybe I worry about losing my sight? I'm conscious of no such worry, but maybe it is there. Maybe I just enjoy exploring the country of my other senses.

As I crossed the little bridge in the face of the alien glow of porch lights from the house where the Chessie dogs live I heard a wonder and I knew what it was. Under the trees of the forest, the pines where the vultures roost, it was, quite clearly, raining.  I could hear it, no mere occasional drip but a steady, strong patter. Yet out on the bridge under the sky, there was no rain. The water looked perfectly calm in the porch light. And I could even hear that it was not raining on the top of the canopy, only underneath it, like an umbrella that rains from its underside. Of course, the trees were straining moisture from the foggy air, making rain for themselves. Once again, life evokes a lecture I remember from graduate school.

With you, too, I have had to function without my normal senses, put together bits and pieces to form a picture whose truth I can't directly confirm. I know you like hearing from me, so I make sure you do. I know, too, that you are a private person....and from bits and pieces over the years I have gathered very little else. I have put together a picture of your personhood that may or may not be correct. I'm more confident of my blind hiking trails than I am of my understanding of you. You keep me humble. And that is alright. You are alright with me.

I step out of my door with my books and my tools and my plans and my knowledge and the weather immediately makes hash of all my plans, keeps me guessing, renders all my preparations inapplicable. And I keep walking.

best, as ever,

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Partial Completion

Hi, there!

Well, it's begun; I have had my first dream that involved not finishing my thesis. Of course, I HAVE finished my thesis, as you know, but I still have dreams about not having finished high school, so these things don't have to be realistic. I'd rather not spend the rest of my life having thesis-anxiety dreams, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happens.

But that's not what I wanted to tell you about.

One of my fictional characters also gets a master's degree in conservation biology (complete with completed thesis) but does not anticipate making research a part of his career because he does not want to focus his curiosity on things nobody knows yet, he'd rather just focus on learning what he does not know yet. That sounds about right to me, though I don't want to rule out doing research. But today, for example, I think I solved a mystery that will likely surprise and interest the scholarly community not at all, but pleases me enormously.

I figured out what the vultures at the end of the street are doing.

A lot of turkey vultures, perhaps twenty of them, collect around the far end of our street in the afternoons. We've seen them on our afternoon walks several times now, flying low just over the pine trees. At first we thought something must have attracted them by dying, perhaps a deer shot by one of the farmers. That could have happened, but none of them seemed to be landing anywhere, and I do not remember such collections of vultures around the dead deer we did find some years ago (apparently the farmers here can shoot deer on their land regardless of hunting laws and often do so for population control. They leave the bodies to rot).

It was late in the day when we'd see the vultures, less than an hour before sunset, and I'd heard that turkey vultures use communal roosts, they don't just sleep wherever they happen to be at the end of the day. I didn't see how the birds had time to fly off to somewhere else to roost before they lost their light, so I'd guessed that they had established a new roost on our street. Now, I'm sure.

I went for a walk by myself right at sunset, and I saw the vultures, but I didn't just see them flying around. I heard groups of them taking off through the trees, as though they had been perching together but had flushed for some reason. They circled around and then vanished. I spotted another group sitting in a tree, four of them, and then saw them joined by a fifth. Another group flushed and flapped and vanished. Most of the trees there are loblolly pines, growing thickly together, and it is hard to see the big birds. They just blend in. I think dozens of them could be in there, collecting as the sun heads down and the light yellows, then getting ready to sleep as they sky turns pink and red above them.

Or will they sleep? Do vultures sleep all night? How much do they sleep? Maybe they just sit up and think about things? I think they are pretty, when they fly, the way the light shines through their feathers...the naked heads are a bit of a downer, but you can't see the heads from a distance. I admire vultures' bigness. And they are sleeping at the end of our street! The new neighbors!

I'd gone out walking with plants on my mind, and I had my bag full of field guides and magnifying lenses and everything, but I got rather distracted by animals. I passed the one cut-in from the creek, where a few dilapidated boats quietly rust, and startled a great blue heron into flight. When I passed the second cut-in I saw another great blue heron, likewise flying away from me to the west, exactly as the first one had done. A small group of ducks near the intersection with the main channel flew also. I couldn't see the ducks themselves, only the bright ripples of their wakes, and I could hear their winds and their cries.

After I finished watching the vultures for a bit, I continued on and walked out down the farm lane as far as the little bridge over the creek. It's the only really good place to see the sunset around here, and today was a good sunset, as though Jackson Pollack had gotten all enthusiastic with the reds and yellows. Skein after skein of geese, flying low, in messy, shifting, interlocking V's flew over, honking, flying east to west, from the pond in the old gravel pit out to Newport Bay, where a lot of them sleep. Small, chirpy birds, some kind of blackbird, maybe, flew over, too, much lower, heading upstream, I don't know why. They went very fast. The water was very calm, the tide high and slack.

I noticed tracks in the sand and spend a while drawing them and following them, but I couldn't figure out what gait the animal was using before I began to seriously lose the light. Reluctantly, I went home. As I was walking away down the farm lane I heard a complex moving whistle above me, low and pulsing, and moving overhead faster than I could have run.It only lasted a few seconds. More birds, perhaps? Otherwise the evening was so quiet I could hear the blood moving in my own ears.

My friend, I do not know what to say to you these days, this blog notwithstanding. There are many things I have in me to say, but I don't know which things you want to hear about. I think of you often. The new year begins on something of a melancholy note for me, though I cannot name the source of the feeling. A vague discomfort...perhaps it is only the short days and a bit of dehydration. I hope you are well.

The tracks belong to a large raccoon, I decided.