Thursday, May 28, 2009

Got grass?

Dialogues with the unknown

Evening came with the dawning comprehension that a thousand years had passed since Lori left for work. Music alone couldn’t alleviate the suffocating stillness of rooms hollowed and gutted of life so I put the computer to sleep and moved outside to look for rabbits. This has become a nightly event and I can usually find several, but one in particular likes to hang out under the Austrian pine by the driveway. Sometimes it sits there alert with its ears rotating like miniature antennae, and other times it collapses onto its side in a pose of undivided tranquility. Sheba and Mr. Bun of course did the same and usually at my side, curled against my thigh much as a cat would. Sure enough, the bun was at its post, and studied me as I launched into our one-sided conversation. 

Talking to mammals isn’t any different from talking to crab spiders, brown recluses or even tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and rhubarb in the garden, though in some circles such behavior is tantamount to admissible psychotic imbalances. After being raised in an Independent Baptist Church I’m well versed in thought processes straying far beyond the outer fringe of normality, or what passes for normal these days. I try not to get too worked up over it but I also try not to do it when people are around. No reason to push my luck. And anyway, it’s only when things start talking back that we have a problem.

The rabbit seems to take as much delight in our conversation as I do. It comes to me that dialog with a mammal has much more going for it than dialog with a spider. The spider might stop what it’s doing while you yammer on and on, but probably out of politeness more than interest in anything you have to say. The tiny crab spider I almost swept up at work last Friday seemed willing to accept my apology though it wandered off with an aggrieved air about it that left me feeling wretched. I’m really sorry, I kept pleading, keeping an ear cocked toward the front door in case the guard walked in. Apologizing to an arachnid isn’t something I’d want to have to explain to a stranger in the early predawn hours of a work week.

I sometimes wonder how human this trait is, or even how universal. Some scientists have concluded that speaking to plants forms a healthy bond, kind of an aural Miracle-Grow, also the writer-poet Jim Harrison claims to understand dog and look where it got him. Pets often show an uncanny knack at understanding humans even though humans are the most incomprehensible mammal of all, and the most untrustworthy. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a soothing tone, a particular vibration on the inner ear or some other natural phenomenon that we will never understand. And maybe we’ll never understand because we’re afraid of looking like fools and so budget little cash for such studies, preferring research into bigger, better and more murderous weapons of mass destruction. More bang for the buck.

My not-so-captive audience stood with its front paws primly held together as if at attention, its eyes clear and intelligent and directed into mine. Animals live in a world without calendars or clocks, excess, self-doubt or religion (though each species might indeed have its own hierarchy of gods, both greater and lesser), but their transitory lives are forever poised on the brink of disaster, however uncircumscribed by fruitless misgivings of mortality, their cholesterol levels or the collapse of Wall Street. Fully attuned to the present moment, responsive and alert to their immediate geography, their eyes reflect a supreme vigilance that we can only envy, though I have seen brown bears so blissfully satiated by overfilled and overturned trash cans that one could easily sneak up behind them and tap them on a furry shoulder, however inadvisable it might be. I also surprised a striped skunk once by barging out the side door without providing advance notice but the fault was more mine than his, or hers, as it might be. It’s difficult to distinguish between the sexes of most vertebrates but somehow I feel they don’t have that difficulty with us.

The problem with one-sided dialogues is that they invariably betray the speaker. When created without form, plot or thematic cohesion words like rivers carve their own self-serving course, sometimes the path of least resistance which unfailingly circles back to the source. In this instance I was prattling on about how Sheba loved having her ears rubbed when I reached out one opened hand and held it there between the rabbit and myself as if to bridge that unbridgeable gap. The rabbit responded by taking one tentative step closer, but the damage inflicted by the combination of words and splayed fingers was swift and irreversible. I realized I was lonely.

Funny how it took so long to admit it, or to consciously summon the description and give it its rightful place. And funny, too, how the realization engulfed me even deeper into a midnight sea of emptiness, so that I stood there shaking from an unnameable emotion, my head a kaleidoscope of thoughts and questions most of which revolved around the possibility and feasibility of asking a new rabbit to join our lives and what changes it would bring, what would need be done to arrange for such an act, both physical and emotional, and all the while the wild rabbit sat there watching me as if enjoying this talk, as if it were the most natural thing to do. I’m lonely, I said, and bidding the rabbit goodnight went inside and closed the door on that other world.

Hours later when I shut the windows to prepare for bed, the rabbit was still there, still watching the house, a gray lump in the congealing darkness, and I was still alone.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The ugly seedling

It started, as these things always do, in a place of darkness known only to earthworms and grubs. One day it wasn’t there and the next it was, a tiny sprig looking more furry than vegetal. 

My initial reaction was of delight, quickly dampened. The tiny seedling had sprung up in the flower bed next to the house, which, considering the location, was the last place we’d want. 

“It’s going to be a problem someday,” I said.

As far as my wife was concerned, someday had nothing to do with it: it was a problem now, and she wanted it gone.

“I’ll transplant it,” I’d say, and she’d look around the yard in exasperation. 

“Where?” Her tone, I felt, was out of sorts with the amount of land we owned. Good grief, the thing was the size of a postage stamp, and we had two acres!

In a few years it was the size of a basketball. Then it grew some more. I wasn’t too worried about it because I knew I’d get around to it. Someday. 

It began to fill out, though never in the graceful triangular shape common to eastern junipers. Its main growth centered in its middle section so that it appeared almost globular. Instead of a rich blue-green, its needles looked anemic. Whenever I noticed it I was reminded of the story of the ugly duckling, though I never harbored a fantasy that it would grow into a swan.

When it reached the height of my thigh, Lori told me she was planning to cover the flower bed with a cold frame. “It has to go,” she said.

Fine. I promised to handle it. A few days later I arrived home from work to find the little juniper trimmed. I use the word loosely—whack-job was more like it.

A lively conversation ensued. Suffice to say that within a very short order I found myself in the flower bed with a shovel. 

I started wide and went deep, slicing through narrow tendrils and rootlets until I could maneuver the shovel beneath the tree and sever the taproot. Once that was done I yanked the juniper from the ground and dragged it to a spot near the southern edge of our thicket. Badgerlike, I began a new hole.

Lori, working in the garden, watched my ministrations with an expression of doubt. I remained unfazed.

“Hold on, little buddy,” I told the juniper. 

After a while, Lori walked over. “How’s the hole coming?” she asked.

“This isn’t a hole, it’s an archaeological dig,” I said, pointing to a rectangular metal plate about eight inches long, several L-brackets and numerous crumbly sections of one-inch springs, unsprung and oxidized with a reddish patina at least as thick as the original item. 

“Cool,” she said, grabbing the metal plate and sorting through the rest. My wife is the only person I know who collects useless scraps of rusty metal. She once poured a perfectly serviceable box of nails into an old metal coffee canister and set it outside for several months. When she retrieved them they were corroded and pitted and the can half-filled with a viscous coppery-ginger soup the consistency of clam chowder. Through some arcane metallurgic chemistry she transformed the goo into vivid dyes she then applied to alpaca wool. Though the result was stunning, I hesitated to be too effusive because of a similar experiment she tried with dandelions that had resulted in a decidedly inferior, if not odoriferously abhorrent, miasma that made the house almost uninhabitable.

Once I’d dug down through several layers of sediment and settlement, carefully relocating each scoop of artifact-laden dirt into a yellow wheelbarrow, I dumped in a bucket of wood ash. This, according a knowledgeable friend, would kick-start the juniper into a miniature version of a towering California redwood. 

The juniper went in next. With Lori holding it upright, I packed the crater with dirt and a few unidentifiable metal objects, lightly compacting the soil around the roots. Leftover fill created a small berm on one side. A few gallons of water and we were done.

“Nobody else loves you, but I do,” I said.

Indeed, it needed all the affection it could get. Misshapen, stunted, truncated, uprooted, the juniper was almost painful to look at. It was so ugly, in fact, that it wouldn’t take much for it to transform into a swan.  

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Back to Watkins Woolen Mill, Missouri--a few exploratory shots

Lurker no more: coming out, narcissism and the hunger for validation

For a long time I stood on the side porch, camera in hand, waiting for the quail to show. The morning was unseasonably crisp and damp, heavy dew refracting the early sunlight into a clear cerulean sky like a thousand glittering shards of glass. A slight tremor shivered through me as my toes passed from mild discomfort to outright numbness, and still there was only the back-and-forth whistling between our disparate species. From near the silent railroad tracks rose a wild jabbering of turkeys, followed by the phlegmy cough of a pheasant. I whistled again, one low note followed by a high note, with an immediate reply that sounded very close. How close, though, and from what direction, were pieces of the puzzle my fading hearing could not decipher. After a few more minutes of this I wiggled my toes to a painful resurrection and disappeared into the house.

Mornings are my favorite time to write, but lately I’ve been squandering my time in the vain attempt to photograph the bobwhites in our thicket and the young rabbits by the brush pile. Both are remarkably skittish and secretive, and for good reason. When a substantial number of your neighbors want nothing more than to eat you, it’s best to keep your head down and your senses alert. The young rabbits allow me the porch but one foot on the stairs sends them running for cover. The bobwhites are vocal but rarely seen, though one foggy dawn I counted thirteen of them solemnly wending their way in single file through the oats. Yesterday one lone quail perched atop Mr. Bun’s cairn and whistled its heart out, but when I retrieved the camera it scurried off as if it didn’t want its picture taken. For a moment I felt unclean, like a scuzzy paparazzi.

I’ve also been spending too much time checking my e-mail and refreshing a certain web page. This last act has not only caught me by surprise, but also opened a veritable Pandora’s box of unintended emotions.

For months friends have tried convincing me that I need to display my photos on one of the social hotspots like Flickr or even to start my own Facebook page. I’ve resisted their admonitions for the most part though not without some misgivings. A recent article in a popular photography magazine proclaimed the importance of Flickr for networking and the increased chance of being “discovered,” with allusions of financial gain. All well and good, but first one must find time to learn the procedures and technologies as well as determining the proper placement and categorization of your offerings. I know it’s probably easier than I suspect but a quick overview of Flickr convinced me that posting one’s photographs on such web sites is an act as vulnerable as it is narcissistic. 

At heart surely is the psychological imperative for acceptance. For better or worse we are communal animals—often, and with great insight, being compared to lemmings in a headlong rush to self-destruction. In “Hellhole,” published in The New Yorker on March 30, Atul Gawande expounds on the nature of America’s penchant of dispensing solitary confinement for intractable prisoners, with multiple case studies showing the debilitating effects some professionals have labeled torture. “Simply to exist as a normal human being,” he wrote, “requires interaction with other people.”

How we approach that interaction speaks volumes about who we are. Flickr’s astronomical success has been in part due to people’s innate belief that their abilities and talents are better than those of their fellow man, and by posting their images they are, in effect, flaunting themselves. “Look at what I did,” seems to be the prevailing attitude, even when what they did is abysmally wretched, or at best mundane and bland.

There’s a narrower segment who actively seek advice. There’s critique and there’s criticism, but what might be more destructive is meaningless commentary. When the giver of advice is a professional or knowledgeable photographer, the end result is educational. Unfortunately, I see many more idiots posing as pros. Reading some of the comments leads a reasonable adult to question the viability of the species, or even the desirability.

And then there are those who just want to share regardless of their talent. To them I say, bravo.

So I held off, biding my time until a weak moment. On a lark, I uploaded a dozen or so photos to a private web site for Nikon users, mainly to see what kind of reaction I’d get, good or bad, before joining the rest of civilization on Flickr.

I was also highly cognizant of the pitfalls. On a recent What the Duck cartoon, our intrepid photographer presented his latest photo to a group of admirers. “Awesome,” “brilliant,” “fantastic,” “wonderful” and other accolades greeted him as he beamed with delight. Until, that is, a dissenting voice said, “Hate it.” The last frame showed him standing on the edge of a chair, the picture torn to shreds, a rope around his neck—a rope constructed of complimentary words. Conditioned to hear the negative, we are so easily crushed.

How I would react was anyone’s guess.

And so I tried for the quail and the rabbits, and checked the web site for updates. And repeatedly checked, and received at last a comment. "Good tonal phrasing. Rich feel. Well done!" it said. 

I also charted the positive ratings. Some photos hit a perfect ten within an hour, and hours took longer. More comments followed, all of them positive. I found myself grasping them like drowning men cling to bits of flotsam. And realized how utterly pathetic it was, how craven. How dependent. Inadvertently, I’d become a praise junkie.

I’m probably looking at this all wrong, but I don’t care for my reaction. My reasons for posting the images remain suspect, even treacherous. Flickr will have to wait. For now I’m no more than a young rabbit watching the world perched on its tiny wooden platform. If it makes a move to join me, I’m going to ground.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

And one more...

Triumph of the past

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well

–  Henry David Thoreau

‘To be above the fray,’ Pym wrote to himself on a separate sheet of paper. ‘A writer is king. He should look down with love upon his subject, even when the subject is himself.’ – John LeCarre, A Perfect Spy

The moment of completion was almost surreal. The last few days of August 1986 slipping one by one through the scanner’s paper port and sliding out in the same physical form, but transformed as well into an alternate reality of ones and zeros. The story (thus far) of my life, and a project that had taken so very long, came to a close. I was finished.

I reassembled the spiral notebook and added it to the others in the big plastic tub, and hauled the tub downstairs, wrapped it in heavy plastic and placed it on the shelf beside another pair of tubs. I then copied the hard drive to a LaCie portable drive, ran a backup to Time Machine and cloned that drive as well. Another copy of the archived journals went on a small flash drive I keep in my pocket. Five copies. That should be enough.

In all, 9,781 pages written between July 1973 to the present. I’ve no idea how many words that translates into, but some probably shouldn’t have been written and others are missing that should have been. It’s the memoirist’s constant dilemma, what to add and what to subtract, all subject to constraints and limitations most of which are time-specific. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

And it’s all there, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, gunplay, violence, lust, childbirth, love, romance, hate, depression, spilled blood and other body fluids, religion lost and found and lost again, philosophy, ruminations on every aspect of human life, farflung travels, travails, music, literature, the slow steady decrepitude of age, exhilarating triumphs, abject rejections and failures, passions stirred and cooled, fly-fishing, the love of moving waters, police chases, interactions with spirits and ghosts, death, madness, raising teenagers (closely related to the former), alcoholism (ditto), art, photography, education in a wealth of subjects but mostly the school of hard knocks, strategies and plans some of which went down in flame and others to rousing success, blizzards, tornadoes, hailstorms, ice storms, floods, politics, wars, fatwas, dreams and desires, rabbits, birds, deserts, mountains, jungles, Mayan ruins, abandoned farmhouses, Chacoan culture and astro-archaeological symbolism, genealogies, hunting and cold October mornings where my breath hung in the air like fog, rattlesnakes, lizards, midnights and dawns and dusks that lasted for eons, a lifelong search for a quality pen, the rise of computer technology and the Internet, births and deaths, Alzheimer’s disease and the erasure of memory, loss and remembrance, forgetfulness, strife, struggles, terrors, dissolution, rejuvenation and, as they say, so much more.

If that weren’t enough, interspersed throughout those thousands of pages were love notes from my wife, drawings from my boys, report cards, nastygrams from teachers, news clips from various endeavors I found myself wedded to, letters from relatives, organizations and governing bodies, most of the latter from the city of Broomfield, Colo., for my work involving open space and the preservation of 450 acres of wild lands, service tickets from burglaries I’d covered or other notable calls I’d made during a 26-year career at Denver Burglar Alarm (including one where I’d walked into a warehouse whose air was toxic from an ammonia leak only to stagger out with blood pouring from both nostrils, weak-kneed and dizzy, half-dead), poems, advertisements I’d found sexy or unique, cartoons, witticisms and quotes.

The process of digitizing was an emotional minefield, and my walk through that unsettled terrain both dangerous and disturbing. “One can have too much of oneself,” I told Lori after a particularly wrenching batch of papers. And yet there was nothing to do but continue, to go on with the uncertain end in sight, in theory if nothing else, notebook after notebook, years and dates wildly skewed, a hither and yon approach to personal history. And then the last notebook at the bottom of the tub, almost forlorn, almost an orphan, almost done. 

And then done, and surprised to find myself with nothing left to do. Nothing, that is, except to add to what had been written. 

Near the end, I had begun to wonder if there would be any inferences I could make, any insights or thoughts to merit the weeks of scanning, or even the years of writing; something, in other words, that that would give meaning to my magnum opus. That would make it worthwhile. As serendipity would have it, the final entry was about us returning from a trip to New Mexico, always a homecoming that left me torn between two worlds, that of Colorado and my wife and children and career, and that of my youth. And yet this last trip was different. I’d left with a feeling of having lost something, that some irrevocable bridge had been crossed, and with that crossing an unconditional surrender, and perhaps even acceptance. 

The past was no more, I wrote. From now on, my life would be lived in the present or the future, tenses that know no backward glances, no farewells.

And then I reversed course, as if understanding on some subliminal level that the past is the only language a diarist knows.

On Aug. 4, 1986, I wrote: “But my past will always triumph at the end, because I, unlike almost all other people, have left behind my memories in this written form. I have put down in ink the thoughts, emotions, actions and fantasies that make me what I am. I leave them to my sons, most of all, and perhaps to my wife if I die earlier than I plan. I leave them also to myself, to relive as I see fit. A legacy to us all. I have no money, so this must be my endowment. I am certain it will be more precious than gold.”

Maybe, maybe not. Once we relinquish our past we lose control of it. But it’s there if they want it. It’s all there. 

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The future forest

It’s disconcerting to discover that what one thought a willowy Kansas wildflower is actually a noxious weed hellbent on dominance, sort of the Super Wal-Mart of the plant kingdom. A starling with stems, stamens and stalks. Disabused of any romantic notions of a flowering Garden of Eden spreading from the woods behind our spare lot into the remnants of a yard I am so carefully noncultivating, I was suddenly confronted with an ethical conundrum I had no desire to contend with. And moved, indeed, to something suspiciously like compassion for so unloved a specimen.

I can’t say when I first noticed the white blooms of Alliaria petiolata, better known in English parlance as garlic mustard, but I can tell you with some certainty where I saw it: in deep woods. The European transplant prefers shade and moist forests, which is my preferred habitat as well. Our introduction was probably at Perry Lake shortly after we moved here, during a family camping trip that saw me at my reclusive best. Rather than sit around smoky campfires engaging in idle chatter with people I barely knew (and many whom I didn’t), I’d slip into the heavily forested woods surrounding the lake and disappear into the shadowed haunts of gigantic orb spiders and Kentucky warblers. In that murky twilight the luminous petals glowed ethereally, a ghostly radiance I would forever associate with the delicate tinkling of clear springs cloaked in ferns and a green so intense that the very air was imbued with a chlorophyllian shimmer.   

And again at Alcove Spring, carpeting the undergrowth bordering Seehan Creek, or a solid waist-high mass below the levee the time Lori and I searched for a hidden geocache and found instead the bulwarks of the old bridge embankment of which so many hundreds of photos were taken, now a mossy relic bleeding into the jungle like some Mayan ruin—to enter woods was to wade through the broad fronds and nodding flower clusters of Alliaria.   

It wasn’t until last year that I finally took time to identify the plant. Our spare lot, across the street to the east of our house, is fringed on three sides by woods, one of which drops precipitously to the meandering bed of Juganine Creek. The latter section forms a dense hollow where sunlight is a rare summer visitor and the only place around where the gorgeous rhapsody of a wood thrush can be heard on early summer evenings, if one is very, very lucky. I’ve always considered it something of a sacred place, a silent cathedral untrod by man, though not untouched, for moldering into the damp hillside are rusty implements of a bygone era. Due to the devastation of the previous winter’s ice storm, many of the trees had suffered considerable loss of limb, opening the canopy and allowing light where light had been a stranger. New plants proliferated, one of which was garlic mustard. I’d never noticed it there before; now it was everywhere.

It was, I felt, the quintessential woodland wildflower. Unfortunately, research proved otherwise. So invasive is the plant that some eastern communities host weekend pull-parties to literally uproot it from their midst. I couldn’t help but wonder if afterward they communally gather to pull ticks from their bodies, an act at once strikingly similar and guaranteed to follow. 

Shortly after my discouraging ID, I all but abandoned the spare lot. Partly this was due to laziness and the lassitude of late summer’s withering heat and humidity, and partly a revolt against what nature so adamantly proliferated, combined with a prohibitive increase in gas prices. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I thought, and so walked away from the yard with barely a look back. Since we live on the edge of town in an area zoned agricultural, it would become just another grassy field, though one with trees slowly making a leafy foothold.

But a new spring arrived, and a wet one at that, and as the lawn exploded into growth my eyes were drawn to the lot and its increasingly disheveled appearance. A manicured yard appeals to our sense of orderliness and moral uprightness, a notion our neighbors subscribe to with evangelistic fervor. Rather than continuing to style myself as odd man out, I decided to hack my way into that tangled wilderness and take its measure.

But not without walking its length first, picking up fallen tree limbs and moving them to a brush pile behind the narrow concrete foundation that anchors the central portion of the lot. It’s mostly hidden behind a stand of trees now and bordered with a broad swath of unmown grass. My perambulations discovered a dozen new locust trees varying between six to fifteen inches in height, plus a maple and a small juniper. Three elm saplings vied for space in the moldy cavity where a willow once stood. I was deeply pleased.

In the far corner, though, shaded by a towering maple, Alliaria had taken over, creeping from the declivity to form a carpet of white buds. Were I to chart its future progress, I’d guess it could easily overtake fully a third of the lot, competing with the lush brome encroaching from the pasture beyond the barbed wire fence and a stand of poison-berried pokeweed that annually rises near the mulberry. Toss in a multiplicity of elms and you have a veritable who’s-who of undesirables. 

Invasive, infestuous, aggressive, exclusive, Alliaria petiolata is probably also unstoppable. Standing in the sun-dappled shade of the maple, I saw with perfect clarity the future of this new forest, and perhaps even an end to my mowing. Slowly, steadily, our spare lot will revert to the wild, with a mix of native and nonnative life forms, one rectangular slab, a tanglesome pile of broken branches and, for the summer months beginning in May, dainty white flowers and a faint whiff of garlic. Not a bad combination.