Thursday, October 15, 2009

Climate change for Blog Action Day

I'm posting this for Blog Action Day, an event encouraging bloggers to post about climate change on October 15.

I don't normally put political posts on my blog, but this is an important issue for me.

Global warming is only one of a painfully large number of environmental issues we need to come to grips with in the coming 10, 25, 50, 100 years. But there's momentum behind dealing with this issue now. The time is ripe, and it's something I can feel hopeful about.

In honor of the day, I thought I'd share an article I wrote in 2005, for Science News, on the potential impacts of climate change. The possible effects of a warmer world are myriad, but this article focuses on hurricanes: specifically, on hurricane Katrina.

The Wind and the Fury

Will climate change contribute to more weather instability, including more frequent fierce hurricanes like Katrina? The consensus is moving in that direction...

And can we fix it, while improving life as we know it - less pollution of both air and land, more efficient use of the natural resources that surround us, quieter, less smelly cars?


Saturday, June 27, 2009

quince jam

Sometimes the simplest things cut right down, really stir you to the quick.

"He was primarily a country gentleman. That was why he had been made the Abbot here. It was his duty to restore the estate of the Patriarchate to order and productivity, so that the Christians of Petch might see how their God wished them to live in fair weather... In this he was succeeding admirably, for the monastary had that look of agrarian piety to be seen in many French and some English farms and market gardens...

He took us up to his parlour, which was sweet and clean, and we drank good coffee and ate crystalline spoonfuls of quince jam, while he talked of his work and the place."

-Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

I think that only West could make something moral out of good coffee and quince jam. What an oddly lovely line.

I have been thinking often of the value of a graceful, tidy, simple home. Am I nesting, as people love to tease? Perhaps. There will always be a hundred ways to snidely put women back in their place. But here we see the same impulse in a monastery, the province of men - the care, the respect - the humility, even. A clean space. A meal that affirms the goodness of food, the magic of it. The closeness of nature.

I spent the evening tidying our place and now am basking in the fresh cleanliness, so perhaps that's why I'm touched by this tonight... I think sometimes that more people are influenced, healed and soothed by a clean home than by a great philosophy.

There's more to it than that, of course. In the best of tidy homes, one senses the presence of a guiding hand. Of a firm, but sensitive discipline behind the pruned plants, the woven mats and the freshly swept tiles. One understands that all surrounding, there is a caretaker - and more, a creator. One sinks into the feeling.

The food comes, made with love and simplicity, and it is thoroughly itself. No strange alien hand has churned it through a great machine. The sun that strikes is real sunlight. It has been filtered through the washed windows.

This is safety - and order, and visual peace. One can work, can function; can simply be. This, one thinks, hardly knowing why, is what it means to be human. Abundance without excess; grace through order. Everything, as the song goes, in its right place.


Of course there are the other spaces also.

What a tremendous clutter there was backstage, I remember. Costumes crammed against the walls. A table piled with props. Our card game under the table, where we'd hide and play while waiting for our entrances.

And the dust! It crept along the edges of everywhere. Summer crawled in the windows from the dusty parking lot and settled in every cranny. Behind the seats, it swept itself together into a soft grey fog against the planks. Before shows, the young ushers assiduously banged their brooms across the floor and scrubbed the bathrooms. That helped a little.

Yet the theater too had its own variety of order. Clutter, yes. But each costume had its place, every prop a taped off square of the table. What a surfeit of art, of the most joyously extravagant and garish sort. "To silence enthusiasm - at any moment - is absolutely wrong," wrote Sri Chinmoy.

We cared for our space, and we were made to care. We took a great responsibility for what those wooden floorboards gave us, for the way the rafters sustained us. In all of those outpourings there was discipline.


Creation and responsibility seem to me to be closely linked. One subjects oneself to the object of creation. One takes on a responsibility for doing it properly, thoroughly, neatly, with attention to detail, without sloppiness. For that thing, one does what ought to be done.

And then that thing takes on a highness, and reaches down, and carries you with it, because you have knelt down to it, and given yourself over to it; because you have washed the bathrooms and become dirty with sawdust and dishsoap. You have raised it above yourself. But it is faithful to you.

So the flowers grow and the driveway shines, and visitors come in, and eat quince jam crystalline with sugar. And they look about themselves and smile, and feel happy, and hardly know why. And it has nothing and everything to do with you.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

swimming upstream

from October 19, 2008

Today Paul and I went to watch the sockeye salmon swimming upstream. Bright spears of red beneath the riffling waters. Through binoculars, a jutting head - a hooked snout - a golden, prehistoric eye. Their fluid shapes exhaled both strength and exhaustion. Every movement of their bodies a great effort and a great ease.

We walked along the path flanking Cavanaugh Pond. On the pond, a faded glitter of sunlight. Widgeons paddled and dipped underwater. A kingfisher flew, rattling. We lit our small propane campstoves and cooked our canned pork & beans, drank tea, and sat on the dusty hump of the shore. Sunlight slanted through the reeds and caught in sparkles on small insects beating the water. Tiny fish hung in the water column; a heron hunched on a far log.

Volunteer docents bustled along the path, leading tours to the salmon. One gentleman, a visitor, with a small bevy of children, paused to talk to us after the children, three boys, came to ask us questions.

"Are you seeing anything?" he asked.

"Well, there's some ducks," I said. "And a kingfisher. You hear that rattling call? That's the kingfisher."

"You hear that rattling call?" said the gentleman, in a strong English accent, emphasizing the word "that". He was portly, with black hair and a moustache. We looked at him in confusion.

"You hear that rattling call?" he repeated, pointing to the smallest boy, who was scrambling back up the slope. "That's called a grandson."

We chuckled. Then we all strolled along the path toward the salmon at the end. He was talkative, the gentleman. He calls Yorkshire his native ground. He told us he had lived in South Africa for ten years before returning to England. And shortly following South Africa, he moved to the United States. I foolishly did not ask him what all that moving was for. I wanted to be quiet with Paul, on the shores of the pond watching ducks and looking for frogs, and soon turned with him off onto another side path. The gentleman and his grandsons, and the grandsons' father, I presume, continued toward the creek with its salmon.

Later, we encountered them again, returning as we arrived on the creek shore, but it was too late. We had time only for a few short words. "There are lots of them down there," said the swarthy gentleman - meaning salmon, of course. Then he and his son and his grandsons were gone.

Monday, December 22, 2008


from Sept. 16, 2008

One tends to think of rain as something that happens to the land; to be endured a little while. In southeast Alaska rain is something that is. The clouds, great foggy wreaths, lean on the mountains. They move in the sky like vast dark sheep. Sunlight feels almost like an interruption. These mountains are made for the fog and wet: the occasional sharp peak thrusts upward, visible over a knot of cloud. The earth takes on a solemn gray dimness; the hillsides are mantled with spruce, cedar, and hemlock, a deep and endless green.

Arriving. We climbed aboard the floatplane on the small dock in Ketchikan. Its big skiis jutted forward, it sat like some big insect on the water. The workers, a woman and a man in street clothes, passed our baggage upward; we helped them. Then we all climbed in. I made some expression of nervous delight.

"Go sit in the cockpit!" said Gary - "really?" said I, - yes, go on, Gary encouraged, and then there I was, copilot. The big windows, the nose of the plane, that I had to crane to see over, the elderly pilot with his slightly splotched face. "I hope you don't mind Willie Nelson," he said. And then Willie Nelson's soft tones played all the trip long through the earmuffs. The dials and meters and gauges spread out in front of me. I watched the pilot move the levers and the steering bar, relaxedly, with his practiced ease.

The plane flew slowly over the islands and the water like an automobile, only far higher, floating on air, its big feet thrust forward. The rain and fog hung, lingered. All was grey, an endless peaceful grey world. The rain streamed the windshield and the windows.

So the little plane hummed over the water. It was so peaceful, barely a bump. The pilot was from Washougal, Washington. He played his Willie Nelson and announced to us that we would not be able to fly through the mountain pass to Craig - too foggy. So we touched down in a town across the island, the skiis bouncing lightly off the water, the water so still, still and black, until the plane furrowed twin tracks in final descent. Down we climbed. To stand on the dock, peering down the sides into the black water, looking out at the mountains, taking photos of ourselves by the plane - hunched into our raincoats against a steady drizzle - it was lovely.

I must describe the driver of the van who took us to Craig; I must describe his little wife. She wasn't so little, really, a buxom American girl, hair straightened, eyes rimmed with eyeliner. Her little spoiled daughter wailed on the Alaska Airlines plane from Seattle. "Ow, ow, ow!" she cried out repeatedly when they buckled the seatbelt around her, though she felt no pain. Her mother and grandmother fussed over her, cajoled her, tried to distract her. At the end of the flight, when the little imp peered around the seat at me with her enormous brown eyes, her blond hair straight and wispy, I understood better. Such a beautiful little creature would be easy to spoil.

The girl's husband was the driver of the van to Craig. He picked us up and we all pulled ourselves into the big red vehicle. The little baby - she couldn't be older than three - kept saying, "Hi Daddy!" over and over. Before he had entered the vehicle, she had looked at us appealingly, saying either "Hi," in a breathy little voice, or "my Daddy," until we were coaxed into speaking with her. Then her Daddy entered. "Hi Daddy!" she said. "Hi Baby," said her father, cajolingly, reaching back from the driver's seat to touch one small foot.

He was just an ordinary guy, bearded, with an earring, young, younger than me, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. What was so enchanting about him? The love in their small nucleus, his eyes, looking back in the rearview mirror at his wife. "Are you glad to be home?" he asked. "Yes," said his wife. He reached back to touch her calf with his hand.

"And you?" she said. "Am I glad to be home?" he joked. "Noo," said his wife. All this they said in soft tones, soft, private tones that both acknowledged that others were present in the car, and somehow also permitted those strangers entry into such a private and intimate sphere. "Am I glad you're back?" he said then, in a tender tone. "Yes. Very glad." Then he recovered himself before strangers and chuckled. "Now I have someone to cook for me." His wife laughed. "Oh, you jerk," she said, in a voice that made you disbelieve it.

By this time their little baby was asleep. She had spent the first part of the journey repeating, "Hi Daddy," or "Hi," to which he always replied, "Hi," in the same soft voice she used. Then finally she capped her repeated words with "My Daddy." There was a moment's silence. "My mama," she said. Then she leaned her little sweet spoiled head against her mama, and fell asleep.



I'm back.

Monday, May 28, 2007


At the Ballard Locks, wondrous things. The locks allow boats coming in from Puget Sound to reach Lake Union and Lake Washington, in Seattle. They've also been outfitted with a fish ladder for salmon, and several other mechanisms to let fish through the dam. Fish congregate there in large numbers, some stymied by the barrier, others on their way up or down the fish ladder.

We visited today in the clear sunlight. A kingfisher sat just below us on a concrete block as we walked along the dam. Twice, she dipped swiftly to the water's surface and returned with a tiny silvery fish in her long solid beak. Smack! and smack! she whacked the fish against the concrete, turning it in her beak, and smartly striking it again. Then she arranged it so the head would go down first, and swallowed it.

She wasn't the only creature hunting among the rich pickings at the locks. A small crowd had gathered to point at the smooth dark head of a small seal, protruding from the water in the middle of the canal about 100 feet away. He'd sink beneath the water, and around where he'd gone down, the fish would begin leaping, here, there and again, silver sparks jumping from the foamy water to escape.

Then the most wonderful thing of all. Where we stood, on a concrete walkway along the water, we could look straight down into the greenish canal, where the sun lit a channel of visibility down under the ripples. There, schools of fish swam, their heads pointing upstream into the current. Each only two to five inches long, I'd guess. Suddenly, as we watched, the sinuous form of the seal rose up from the green depths just below us. Then, for fifteen minutes, he hunted, first slowly swimming, then abruptly zooming forward as he'd zero in on a fish, twisting and reversing and swimming upside-down near the surface.

He'd vanish for a time, reappearing at the surface in the center of the canal. But as we looked down, we'd see the neatly lineated schools of fish suddenly roil and become confused. We knew, then, that the seal was near. And moments later he'd reappear, as close as if we were standing behind the barrier at a zoo.

We watched him for a long time, waiting for the fish to scatter into a starry mass, then watching the smooth predator fatly trail through, until he'd suddenly go slim and swift as a porpoise. His big flippers trailed him like oversized bedroom slippers.

I'd never seen a seal so nearby, nor in mid-hunt. This coast roils with life.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Today, in the late afternoon, I emerged from the office to seek the McNaught Comet. At first the sun still blazed brightly, half-sunk. I tromped down the sidewalk by the strip malls, the rushing traffic of 164th Street blasting by me on the snow- and dirt-crusted road. To the traffic light, from where I peered down the hill, to the horizon of tall pines, mountains behind them, and a clear and glowing sky. No comet.

I penetrated the parking lots. Walked past Walmart. Sought a clear view of the horizon, always seemingly obstructed by this or that - a building, a stand of pines. Circled a corporate complex inured from my entry by a fence. Trudged down a road towards more residential climes: found the entry to the corporation, and slipped past the fence, walking down the wooden steps leading to their levels and levels of parking lot cut into the hill, like a cake. I crept along the edge of a building, feet leaving marks in the snow behind me. Then I stood where the hill fell away. Beyond, a grassy, half-snowed field stretched, down towards the pines. A clear wide view of the horizon faced me. The sun had sunk completely; the mountains stood white and sharp against the golden sky.

No comet.

Cold now, disappointed, resigned, I started on my way back to the office. Perhaps I was facing the wrong stretch of sky. Up the layers of snowy parking lot, over the strips of grass alongside. Out onto the road again with its partial sidewalks. Back to 164th. I cast a glance behind me.


There it was. Somehow - perhaps as the sun had sunk just so, with the sky deepening in color - it had come at last into relief. A blob of white asserted itself against the sky, with a hazed tail climbing up and a little to the side above it. Higher still, and well to the left, Venus glowed. I stood on the streetcorner amid the strip malls by the traffic light, and gazed at Comet McNaught in its high indifference.

So I crossed the street, plunged down again towards the flanking neighborhoods, and found an empty, dark parking lot wedged between the commercial and residential spaces. There, I could see the comet clearly, in the purpled and orange sky, mountains below it. No traffic obscured the view; just a few power lines; and I could stare quietly. The comet was not bright, nor enormous. But it was strange and distant, shining there, soft in the evening light, with its long history of omens and stories trailing behind it like its tail. It was somehow lovely to look at. I stared for a long time, until the horizon started to creep up toward it. Half-frozen, I went back, those few blocks to the narrow foot-beaten passage between low bushes that led to the office again.

I'm home now, resting, showered and tired. Last night I played ultimate out at a park near here, from 8 to 10 pm in the falling snow. The flakes were tiny dots, millions of them, so that a glance up presented the view with a complex star-scape of dotted, falling white. We ran about on the wet sand.

Omens and omens - a hummingbird's visit, the wandering bushtits, a clear pale comet. Travelers all.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Night creatures

Saturday night, went to Seahurst Park for the night creatures beach walk. The crusted stones; the wet dark sand, rippled water climbing to our feet under the lamps and flashlights as we walked. About thirty people present; assorted children; ten "beach naturalists" trained by the Seattle Aquarium. We walked with lights glowing, patches of dark people surrounding central burning lamps, in rings of illumination dotted across the beach.

The rocks covered in enormous barnacles. One of them, the elephant barnacle, looked so like an elephant that before I even knew its name I said, "It looks like an elephant." Fist-sized, protruding from the rock, its hard sharp snout poking into the damp open air. When we touched it, it clamped up tighter, lifting its strange nose closer to the top of the round opening of its tent-like covering.

Crabs in the sand, hunkered down, crouching as we came close. Empty moon snail shells; an occasional hermit crab's claws and staring frightened eyes from within the curve of a shell. The lovely smell of salt in the cold humid air. A wet, decaying scent, the firm sand underfoot taking our prints.

Worms draped about among the barnacles, long snot-textured black slimy thin things that looked like they couldn't be alive. A tiny gunnel, smaller than my pinky finger: a blackish-grey eel-like fish perched between crusts on the rock. It had a little eel's face and staring eyes.

Water creeping into my hiking boots. A Dungeness crab moulting against a rock, the extraodinarily large body beside the ridiculously small hull still dangling from its front. Under a rock, the tiny shore crabs, gray and square, scuttling rapidly into the sand. Anemones, green spotted blobs with a smear of pink where they'd retracted their tentacles, a clamped rosy mouth waiting to sprout a thousand impossible tentacle-arms like a medusa or a monster. We found one lying in the water, opened, and its tentacles adhered stickily to our fingers as we touched them. "They're injecting poison into you; that's what you're feeling," explained our naturalist. We cringed and withdrew.

What else? Strange chitons, like brown growths on the rock with furred edges. Then, after our walk, gathering at the firepit, sitting around it drinking coffee spiked with cocoa mix, and listening to the leader naturalists tell Indian folk tales. The story of how the animals brought fire to the humans in the beginning - Coyote and Crow and Chipmunk, with Chipmunk's long white stripes down his back where the witch guardians' claws scraped down his back when they nearly caught him as he fled. The tale of Salmon-Boy, who became a salmon and lived among the salmon people, then returned to his human people only long enough to teach them all he knew. When, in spring, the salmon returned along the river, he recognized his soul among them in an ancient, exhausted fish, so pale and worn he could almost see through it. So he thrust his spear into it, and at that moment, he died. His people sent his body out to sea, floating, to rejoin his animal people.