Sympathetic Vibrations

The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit somewhere. —Barry Lopez, The Invitation

The wind started in the early morning hours. Cold air from the north mixed with heat from the inland valleys and points south. As a result, the air was aswirl. It blew through our bedroom window before dawn. I woke up to the scratch and rustle of leaves on the plane tree. A ribbon of cool air brushed over my cheek.

I took my coffee into our back yard and sat, listening to the wind. At first it sounded soft, well in the background. I sipped and settled, and in time I realized the sound of the wind was a symphonic hush that rose and fell in volume and intensity, made of a thousand, thousand leaves rustling, and also blades of grass, and the friction of molecules scraping past houses and telephone poles and cars and fences. It was in fact louder than the city’s ambient sound. From the city I heard freeway traffic, airplanes, train whistles, truck horns, sirens, the screech of rapid transit, the rap and pound of contraction sites; a constant thrum, the white noise of urban life. Above all this, and so much bigger, the wind rushed through. 

I’m a city dweller, happily situated in urban life with friends and neighbors, favorite bookstores and coffee shops, memory-laden streets and hidden pathways. At the same time, I vacillate between longing for connection and resistance to the same, the old ambivalence; now surfing into, now protecting myself against the way my body and mind are in an ever-excited state, as if revving in sync with the 7.52 million other lives at work around the bay. My nerves vibrate like the sympathetic strings of a viola d’amore

Almost always, I’m not just here, but here and sensing “here” from some third space. Some third position from which to feel my life. In this way I am both within and apart. I sipped my coffee, rich and strong. A sudden gust came in from the west. Having sailed down the canyons of San Francisco streets, past whales and ships in the bay, osprey in nesting boxes and peregrines under the bridge, over the filled-in former wetlands of the East Bay, the foraging egrets and Ridgeway rails, past the Chevon refinery, the dog parks and eucalyptus groves, it then ruffled our neighborhood, and like a great wave, engulfed our house. I watched it bend the mulberry tree and felt it smack into my forehead. In that moment I breathed in every thing and everyone with whom I share our westernmost city, perched as we are on the blunted edge of the continent. 


Birding 101: Earth Day

Peregrine Falcon Chicks

The Cal Falcons are hatching. Three fuzzy white chicks are tucked beneath their mother, Annie. A fourth egg may hatch soon. Annie dozes, white lids covering her open eyes. A stiff breeze ruffles her feathers as well as the debris scattered about the nesting box: feathers, bones, offal, the remains of songbirds. From time to time she opens her eyes, adjusts herself on her chicks, lifting her breast long enough for we viewers to get a glimpse of the hot pink feet and snow white fluff and startlingly red mouths of her brood.

These are peregrine falcons whose permanent home is a nesting box built into the Campanile on the UC Berkeley campus. Live Cams are trained on the nest and surrounding area. Fans of the Cal falcons can watch their progress online, from nesting to fledging, twenty-four hours a day. The nesting box and cameras are the result of a slow, organic process of crowd-sourced citizen science. You can read the history here

The plight and regeneration of peregrine falcons in the American west is a story worth remembering in this time of environmental crisis. Briefly, as a result of the widespread use of DDT post-WWII, the shells of peregrine falcons thinned to the point where they were crumbling under the weight of a brooding adult. There was a catastrophic reduction in the number of surviving peregrines. This stunning raptor, who can achieve speeds up to 170 miles an hour in a stoop, was nearing extinction at a similar rate. It was the work of Rachel Carson, a book widely enough read, and a campaign wisely enough proffered, that curbed the use of DDT. As a result, the peregrine was able to rebound. The species is now repopulated and maintaining at viable rates.

Last year at this time, my partner was quarantined at home with Covid, and I—also exposed but not testing positive—was isolating in the cottage behind our house. I donned a mask, went into the house to fix my partner’s meals and take our dog for his five walks every day. The rest of the time, I holed up in the cottage, reading, writing, drawing, and watching the Cal falcons. I set my iPad up on the bed where I sat to work. It was on all day. I drew the chicks. They changed quickly. Dark steaks first appeared, edging their snowy tails and the tips of their wings. Day by day, a distinct pattern developed, laddering up their backs from tail to neck, the beginnings of the slate grey plumage of peregrinehood. They had distinct personalities. One was brash and greedy, first to gobble the food brought to them by their parents. One was competitive with its most aggressive sibling. The third was tender, often looking the other way while the first two gorged themselves on bloody bird bits. Despite these differences, they all survived, developed quickly, changing dramatically day to day.

Ellen Meloy, writer and naturalist, writes: “We plead for the life of one species as two become extinct before the end of our sentence. We frantically scribble nature odes and end up writing Obituaries of Place in desperate voices that sound like scorpions being pushed through glass tubes.”

She is right to raise the alarm. We are in the sixth major extinction which, in geologic time, will be an eon compared to our quick human lifespans. But we are losing tens of thousands of species annually, on track to lose 30-50% of all species by 2050, according to the 2019 United Nations report. This has happened five times previously, as far as we know. During the end of the Permian age, 250 million years ago, we lost 96% of species. The earth survived, but not as it had been. This moment, everything we have known as Earth for all of human history, is a quick and precious thing in the life of the planet. 

The two Cal falcon parents work day and night. They take turns hunting to feed themselves and their brood. While one hunts, the other sits atop the chicks, keeping them warm and safe from predators. The male in this pair does the bulk of the hunting, but they do sometimes switch off. It is constant work to keep and protect three tiny vulnerable fuzzy chicks, to give them a chance to grow into adult raptors. All of this for one brood. Three chicks that, if they are lucky, will live for fifteen years.

We can’t all be Rachel Carson. We can’t all publish the papers that will unite scientists and the general public in a campaign to right an environmental disaster. But we can bring our awareness to the problem. We can expand the vigilance we bring to the care of our specific children to that of the whole environment. We can vote for measures and candidates that protect and conserve. We can insist that industry and economic policy align with environmental science. We can purchase those products whose manufacturers work green. We can offset the sometimes added expense of green products by using less. And we can all revel in the beauty of the natural world, close the gap that holds the natural world apart from human society. We are not separate from the natural world. We may sully this place that is our only place (SpaceX be damned), but we can also repair it.

What three things might you do this spring to nurture and protect this precious world?

Shelter from the Storm

Photo by Paxson Woelber – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27218120

Last night we heard a great thump at the side of the house. I went out in the raging storm in time to see a giant raccoon slip into the crawl space under our house. Someone had left the hanging door unbolted and this magnificent, intelligent creature managed to push the heavy wood flap up from its top hinges and slip in before the door shut. The weight of that door, had it struck the raccoon, would have crushed it. 

I tried to prop the door open but the stay slipped in the mud and the edge of the door clipped my wrist, which later swelled and ached. 

The rain blew so hard I was soaked in minutes. Squatting at the opening to the crawl space, I held the door up with one hand and with the other swept the dark with a four D-cell Maglite. One raccoon popped its head out from behind the cripple wall that marks the start of our front porch. I caught another set of bright eyes peeking from the far corner of the crawl space. At least two. And these raccoons were not coming out from safety into pelting rain and gusting wind. I thought about locking the door, let these two stay for the night but prevent others from entering. Then I thought they might become desperate and destroy the heating ducts and such.

In the end, I left the door unlocked. Let them all find shelter for the night, while the storm drain on the street in front of our house, where they usually live, remains flooded. Why not? What else is a house for? 

Birding 101: Street Theater

Red-shouldered Hawk
Photo by Carlos Porrata
www.carlosporrata.com

Last spring, I watched a mated pair of mocking birds, with clumps and long strands of grass in their beaks, drop by turn into the decorative tree in my neighbors’ front yard. When they were absent, I would sneak a peek, try to spot the nest, but I never could. It was well hid. The tree was barely eight feet in height, so the nest was less than that off the ground.

Then everything stopped. There was no evidence of brooding, feeding or fledging. There was also a feral cat that had taken to resting on the stoop of the house across the street, where it was fed and watered. The cat was bold, perusing our lawn, crouching under our car, even skulking across the railing of our porch, despite our sixty-pound canine staring it down through the large picture window, avid and murderous. These facts together, nest + cat, may be a three-word story.

In great numbers, chestnut-backed chickadees, lesser goldfinches, Bewick’s wrens and white- and golden-crowned sparrows flitted through our yard. For a day or so, a flock of cedar waxwings graced our mulberry tree, which had not yet fruited. Still, the waxwings sat amongst its upper branches, facing every which way, silent and still. Occasionally, I would hear the quiet, high-pitched tseeee that is the only sound I have ever heard from them.

As the spring progressed, house finches became the rule. Flocks, pairs, soli. Gorgeous bright red plumage on the males, plain brown or a wisp of deep rose on the females. For years, crows dominated the street, so the return of song birds had been welcome and cause to celebrate. The finches continued to flock and feed and nest well into late June. It was almost summer and the finches were still there.

We had a resident red-shouldered hawk, a gorgeous raptor, frequently dogged by crows. There were terrific aerial shenanigans as the crows attempted to run the hawk off the block. The hawk was intrepid. While sitting atop a telephone pole or the neighbor’s pitched roof, if a crow dive-bombed too close to its head, it might shrug. More often, it regally ignored the flapping jet cacophony.

One afternoon, I watched a battle waged from a plane tree on our block. Five crows worked in concert to dislodge the hawk, which was tucked into the leafy branches, still as death. The crows took turns whizzing past the hawk in vociferous rage. I assumed a crow’s nest in the tree, but then I saw the body of a squirrel in the middle of the road, likely hit by a car, or so it seemed. I stood a long while, watching.

The hawk flew out of the tree once, settling on the telephone wire across the street, above the road-killed squirrel. The crows organized themselves into a mob and circled the hawk, who then returned to the tree. This happened once again, a little later, the hawk seeming to draw the attention of the crows to the height of the telephone wire, as if this were the whole game, moving from tree to wire and back again.

The third time the hawk left the tree, it was as if the crows had come to expect that they would just be buzzing the hawk on the telephone wire and were bored with it. They were slow to follow, and the hawk, instead of flying to the telephone wire, swooped down to the street, gathered the squirrel corpse in its talons, and powered itself up from the ground into the height of an enormous eucalypt one block over. Dead-weighted with a dangling squirrel, the hawk easily outran its murder.

Through binoculars, I watched the hawk tear into its meal, perched under cover of foliage, safe from the loud whorling scrim of pissed-off crows.

Red-shouldered hawk.
Photo by Eric Mendelson




Birding 101: the Dawn Chorus

Dawn, Day Break, First Light. I’ve been reading these phrases my whole life. They are interchangeable and describe that hour or so of diffuse light as our place on earth rotates toward the sun, a period of increasing lightness while the sun still remains below our horizon. But it is there, the sun, and we are reminded every morning of the coming light.

During this hour, the birds start singing. It is a raucous hour of song and bird call. And it happens every day. Some mornings, depending on weather and season, the dawn chorus is almost overwhelming. This morning was like that. I’m out most mornings at dawn with our dog, Frodo, on his first walk of the day (he gets five!). The earth is sweetly scented this spring, after a winter of heavy rains. We stood on our street under the London plane, which has blown into nearly full leaf so quickly this past week, and we were enveloped by a rich tapestry of sound. Chirps, burrs, trills, rattles. The beginning phrases of song patterns. We stood very still while the birds around us resumed their business. A nesting pair carried long strands of dried grass into the tall camellias that border our yard. They worked together, one keeping watch on our roof while the other ducked into the tree with nesting material.

I purchased a Tidelog this year, which has greatly increased my knowledge and pleasure of the natural world around me. For each day, in a beautiful graphic that looks like a woodcut (seen above), it shows me times for dawn, sunrise, dusk, sunset, moonrise, moonset, high tides, ebb tides, current in my region, as well as phase of the moon, visible planets, and outstanding astronomical phenomena. Tidelog: https://www.tidelog.com

For the month of April, in the Bay Area, according to my Tidelog, here is the start of the Dawn Chorus, the height of which is a phenomenon you’ll have to stick around to discern:

April Day Break:

  • 1 5:56 am
  • 2 5:55 am
  • 3 5:53 am
  • 4 5:52 am
  • 5 5:50 am
  • 6 5:48 am
  • 7 5:47 am
  • 8 5:45 am — SOLAR ECLIPSE (partial in Bay Area, noon to 2:25)
  • 9 5:44 am
  • 10 5:42 am
  • 11 5:41 am
  • 12 5:39 am
  • 13 5:37 am
  • 14 5:36 am
  • 15 5:34 am
  • 16 5:33 am
  • 17 5:31 am
  • 18 5:30 am
  • 19 5:28 am
  • 20 5:27 am
  • 21 5:25 am
  • 22 5:24 am
  • 23 5:22 am
  • 24 5:21 am
  • 25 5:19 am
  • 26 5:18 am
  • 27 5:16 am
  • 28 5:15 am
  • 29 5:14 am
  • 30 5:12 am

Enjoy!


A Year on the Land: the Walk and the Farm.

My daughter has spent the year working on a small sustainable urban farm on California’s central coast. She prepared the land, planted, grew, and harvested food, tended to chickens and sheep, and two amazing dogs.

This one in particular, Mr. Bluford Jenkins the Third–Blu for short–was her special friend.

Blu was a guardian dog, bred and trained to guard flocks of sheep. He was huge, as you can see in the photo. Guardian dogs are typically aloof toward humans, spending their days and nights in the fields where they fend off predators and thieves, human or otherwise. Blu was an exception in that he was not aloof toward humans. He was affectionate, in charge, a mountain of a man. He took to my daughter immediately and often slept against the entrance to the farm house where she lived for the year. She would open the door to him, and invite him into the house. He was wary at first, having never been in a house. And he never took to being inside. He seemed curious, came into the vestibule, looked around, leaned against Bri for a few pets, and then left. She always kept the door open when he visited, sensing that being indoors felt foreign to Blu and he was not entirely comfortable. She has always been sensitive toward animals and their feelings, even as a small child.

In 1984, when I was my daughter’s age, I spent a year organizing a peace walk and then walking over 3400 miles from Washington state to Texas. The walk was part of an anti-nuclear campaign. I see a parallel: we have both had profound experiences of the land in our twenties, experiences inflected by collective fear.

The specific fears that motivated my cohort compared to my daughter’s are very different.

The Walk, as we called it, officially called On The Line, followed the railroad tracks along the route of the White Train (the destructive quality of fast moving whiteness having so many echoes). The White Train route originated at a factory in Amarillo, Texas, where it was loaded with triggers for the nuclear weapons on board a fleet of Trident submarines based in Bangor Washington. The Walk was part of a non-violent campaign whose goal was to raise awareness of our preparation for nuclear war, in the hopes of stirring reason and conscience. We had no specific outcome in mind. Our hope was that a conscious electorate would address the specter of nuclear holocaust rationally, that we would find a way to no longer accept nuclear weapons as part of the world’s arsenal.

After seven months, we reach Texas, 1984.

A campaign is a goal-oriented endeavor, an ongoing process of persuasion, planting seeds that may or may not take. Except when used in the context of war, the outcome of a campaign is ultimately the result of free choice. It can take many many years to see its effect. The anti-nuclear movement is not as active as it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and once dreaded nuclear proliferation has prevailed, but the ideas and goals of that movement are still alive, and can be heard in public discourse as we struggle with an energy crisis in the present moment.

We feared the cataclysmic moment of nuclear war, the ensuing unsurvivable nuclear winter, an insanity to consider. My daughter’s cohort fears a lifetime of diminishing resources and environmental changes for which we as a society are unprepared. Climate change and its effect on food production, water, shelter, and infrastructure–these are her concerns.

Whatever work my daughter takes up next, this year of learning to farm, of living close to the land, experiencing weather and seasons hour by hour, every day of the year, will be a reference point. She will understand the issues of food production, the politics of water, the economics of farming and of farming for profit, and she will have profound empathy for the workers upon whose backs our daily bread is made.

During the years of embargo, when Cubans faced the threat of starvation, there was an amazing campaign in Havana, a city where something like 12% of the population were scientists. That brain trust learned how to grow food in the city, using every available space, parks, verges, troughs, roof tops, anything they could convert to the effort of growing food. They had to learn what would grow, and how to grow it without petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides. It is said Cubans lost on average 30 pounds but, thanks to this communal effort, did not starve. If we ever face the threat of starvation in this country, it will be young people like my daughter, a generation dedicated to working farms and CSA’s, who are learning how to grow food at a scale other than mass, corporate, mono-crop production, who will be our brain trust, who will feed their local communities according to the real production values of the land. I hope it never comes to this. Just as my cohort hasn’t had to face nuclear winter, I hope we avert the worst of climate change.

Rilke: “And maybe in this darkness a great energy stirs right near me.”

The Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness.”

David Steindl-Rast: “This doesn’t mean that light shines into the darkness, like a flashlight shining into a dark tent. No, the good news that the Gospel of John proclaims is that the light shines right in the midst of darkness.”

I understand something about how fear shapes a generation’s choices, what they do for work, how they think about time, and family, and their own futures. The trajectory of a life is textured by the specific fears of a generation. Textured, not determined. Fear needn’t edge out the joy in learning and living. They live side by side.

Rilke, again: “Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. No feeling is the furthest out…near is the land that is called life. You will recognize it by its seriousness. Give me your hand.”

Bri at 28, on The Farm, 2023.

Me at 28, on The Walk, 1984.

What I read from Jan-Mar

California – John Mack Faragher

About This Life – Barry Lopez

Basin and Range – John McPhee

The Talking Cure – Paula Marantz Cohen

Desert Notebooks – Ben Ehrenreich

Malloy – Samuel Beckett

The Glass Hotel – Emily St.John Mandel

The Sea of Tranquility – Emily St.John Mandel

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

Birnam Wood – Eleanor Catton

There There – Tommy Orange

Madness, Rack, and Honey – Mary Ruffle

The Brutal Telling – Louise Penny

The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien

At Home On This Earth: two centuries of U.S. women’s nature writing – Anderson & Edwards, eds.

The Emergency is Curiosity – Christie George

Lucy By The Sea – Elizabeth Strout

Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald

Jack – Marilynne Robinson

What I read this Winter

Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

Ulysses – James Joyce

The World Broke in Two: the year that changed literature – Bill Goldstein

Different – Frans de Waal

Station Eleven – Emily St.John Mandel

Reflections from the North Country – Sigurd Olson

Saving Point Reyes – Gerald Warburg

Still Life – Louise Penny

About This Life – Barry Lopez

Fatal Grace – Louise Penny

The Leaving Season – Kelly McMasters

The Cruelest Month – Louise Penny

Books Read Aug-Nov

The Death of Ivan Illyich — Leo Tolstoy

New York, My Village — Uwem Akpan

Frankenstein — Mary Shelly

The Vaster Wilds — Lauren Groff

Basin and Range — John McPhee

Walk the Blue Fields — Claire Keegan

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — Johnathan Safran Foer

Remains of the Day — Katsuo Ishiguro

Justine — Lawrence Durrell

Balthazar — Lawrence Durrell

I Have Some Questions For You — Rebecca Makkai

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us — Hanif Abdurraqib

Landscapes — Christine Lai

People Like That Are the Only People Here: Ped-Onc — Lorrie More

Invisible Cities — Italo Calvino

When We Cease To Understand the World — Benjamìn Labatut

Natural History — Carlos Fonseca

True North — Jim Harrison

Foster — Claire Keegan

In Private Life — Barbara Holland

Earth Passages — Lora Jo Foo

So Close!

October has been a month of encouraging losses.

First, this rejection letter from the Winning Writers essay contest:

“Dear Patricia,

Before we announce our contest results to the public on October 15, I wanted to let you know that “Luminous Things” advanced to a late stage of judging, placing you among the top 5% of contestants who entered. I regret you did not win a cash prize, but we wanted to tell you how much we liked this submission.”

Top 5%…I’ll take that as a personal best!

I’m also seeking representation for ORDINARY TIME, the book-length memoir I wrote about my daughter’s cancer treatment. An excellent agency upon receiving my query asked for the first 5 pages, then the first 50 pages, and finally for the entire manuscript! After a thrilling month of hoping they’d take me on, they declined. Who knows why they finally rejected the work, but somebody(s) in the industry, at least the first readers, thought they had something promising, and were touched by my work enough to send it up the ladder. I’m going to take that as encouragement, as well.