Archive for the ‘nature’ Category


March 15, 2019

The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend entry about Raccoons reads as follows: “Animal trickster about whom many stories are told in Eastern Woodlands Indian mythologies. Raccoon is never a creator or transformer as the major animal tricksters are (for instance see Coyote). He also differs as a trickster, being neither foolish nor a dupe; the tables are seldom, if ever, turned upon him, as they are on Coyote and other tricksters.”

Wanting to be on the good side of all tricksters, we take great care in our relations with them. Most notably this includes allowing them to be recyclers of table scraps and left over popcorn. You can see the process in action above. That repurposed bird feeder is on the deck outside our kitchen window making it easy for us all to keep eyes on one another.

There is little they will not eat, though given a choice they go after high fat/high calorie stuff first. Their capacity for consumption is prodigious. They stay in their dens when it is very cold, but after a thaw so many sometimes converge that all that can be seen is fur. They are mostly nocturnal, but in late spring the youngest brave daylight because they know the elders would not allow them a seat at the table.

Last summer, right at sunrise, I had my dog in the car with me on the way out to a local golf course for a walk and swim. The highway was a busy one. Just ahead on the left I noticed a raccoon about to launch a scurry across the road. Oh no! To my horror, an oncoming sedan did not brake or swerve and rolled right over the poor creature. The nature of my thoughts about the driver were medieval.

We arrived at our destination soon thereafter and my friend Nellie hopped right out of the car and headed for the creek. I’m no golfer, but am here to tell you that this course is of spectacular beauty. There is topography, timber, and much sound of water. Nellie, of course, had no mind of the accident and the image in mine had faded as we topped a small rise near a bridge just before the eighteenth tee.

With eyes further above ground than Nellie’s I saw first the small pair of newborn raccoons on the abutment of a bridge across a stream. I quickly snapped on her leash. Once she laid eyes a sense of horror returned to me for I was not certain I’d be able to hold her off. I fell to the ground, but held on and listened to her raspy breathing constricted by the choke collar.

Finally she relented and I was able to drag her in another direction leaving the raccoon kits sitting in wait of their mom. As we made back to the truck (me hoping Mom gave them a good talking to) it dawned on my that I had no way of really knowing the mind of the driver that had killed the raccoon an hour before. Perhaps he/she could not avert and was beset with remorse. In a parallel universe maybe the first coon felt but a passing draft.
Nellie slipped my grip and extinguished those flickers of elan vital.


Nothing Is Less Real Than Realsim

July 5, 2013

Woods 2 

  One foggy morning (cerebral that is, not atmospheric) a while back I was doing my usual AM ablutions while following (sorta) Despierta America on Univision.  Means “Wake Up America” and man do they have fun.  None of that starched jocularity found on the major gringo networks.  Lathering up while waiting to see what the attractive newsreader would be wearing that day, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a new mole on my chest.

  Had to fetch my glasses for a closer look.  I’ve never worn a shirt outside when I didn’t have to and as time has marched on I’ve wondered about the ramifications of lots of sun and what, if any, protection I can expect to enjoy from the Moor in me.  Not to have worried.  Once bespectacled, I watched the mole move.  It was a tick – soon to be holding its breath on its way to the river courtesy of indoor plumbing.

  My Lab friend Nellie and I frequently explore the woods behind my mother’s house and I’m well aware of the presence of all sorts of creatures that you won’t find inside.  We love poking around out there and continually find interesting stuff like the fence post you see above.  How would you like to have been in charge of that project?  If you’ve ever stretched barbed wire you know how much work that is, but to also have to sink posts like that?  Wow.

  Anyway, many years ago, living out west, I took ill and went to a doc who said that the symptoms pointed to leukemia, but asked if by chance I’d found an embedded tick recently.  I had.  Tick fever.  So I’ve been careful since and have taken the usual precautions in Mom’s woods – long sleeves etc -but obviously to no avail.  I thought about it and figured the thing just rode home on my jeans, hid till the coast was clear, then made for a sanguine dinner.

  A little research informed me that the tiny arachnids (yep) need to be attached for at least twenty-four hours and very probably thirty-six to transmit tick fever, Lyme disease, or whatever so I rethought my approach.  Now, if it is warm enough, I just wear running shorts and shoes when Nellie and I are out there.  Once home, I throw the clothes right in the wash, undertake a visual inspection with the help of roommate or mirror, and then and take a hot shower.  Potential problems are thus averted with the added benefit of nettle stings up and down my legs tingling beneath my desk all afternoon.  No need for a PM caffeine fix.

  Made me think about something Georgia O’Keefe said:  “Nothing is less real than realism”.  She wasn’t, of course, referring to anything like my idiosyncratic idiocies, but I take her point.  Reality TV I don’t get.  “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we can get at the real meaning of things.”  The berries you see below were a bit bitter, yet unripe.  They’ll get there though and Nellie and I’ll be back when they do…

Woods 1


The Outdoor Cure

December 3, 2010


  There is an impressive new indoor climbing facility not far from where I live.  Visited it recently with youngest daughter and had a blast.  Vertical kinesthetics always provide their own special sort of joy.

  Daughter has been frequenting one in the Bay Area and was quite a bit more fit than her pencil pushing old man.  She cruised up and past the overhangs to the fifty foot summit with grace and ease.  Climbing is one physical endeavor that is gender neutral. 

  The sport’s most groundbreaking feat to date – the first free ascent of the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite NP – was accomplished by a woman.  Lynn Hill.  Women know right off what it takes most men a long time to figure out, that finesse trumps brute strength.

  Anyway, the new wall incorporates a few hand sized cracks which up to this visit I’d seen in nature, but not plastic.  Either way, that sort of feature provides considerable security.  Slide your hand in, cup it, pressing fingers and hand heel to one side and knuckles to the other, and you have a multidirectional bomb proof purchase.

  Only trouble is that after a bit of upward progress thus effected the backs of your hands tell a tale of woe.  Especially if you’re out of practice and uncalloused.  (There’s a short such climb in Yosemite named “Meatgrinder”)  Oh well, I was visited by a waves of ouch and masochistic nostalgia as I slid my hands into my pockets later on.

  We had great fun, but it is not the same thing as being outside – somewhere between a video game and the real thing.  That thought occurred a few days ago when I came across an article in the 11-30-10 Science Tuesday section of the NYT titled “Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space”.

  Turns out that there is something called “outdoor deprivation disorder” and we learn that its “effects on physical and mental health are rising fast”.  The diminished importance given to physical activity and the natural environment has led to a diminished populace young to old.  Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, vitamin D deficiency, osteoporosis, etc, etc.

  Not to mention the most important thing of all – the state of one’s mind and the experience of living.  Depression, stress, attention deficit disorder, are included in what one researcher called “diseases of indoor living”.

  Even regarding our present topic.  I’ve been repeatedly astounded to learn that gym rats visit other gyms within miles, within sight even, of world class natural outcrops completely unaware and uninterested.  You tell me which situation would constellate one’s neurons most spectacularly – the one above or the one below. 

 *The building in the background is IM Pei’s National Center for Atmospheric Research


Wright’s Gingkos

November 12, 2010


  Until it gave up in 1992 there was a ginkgo tree in front of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home in Oak Park, Illinois.  The one pictured above still thrives behind the home and to the side of the studio addition.  The historic site book shop is named for it.

  At first sight, Wright had been attracted to that lot on the corner of Chicago and Forest streets which was owned and profusely planted with native and exotic species by Scottish landscaper John Blair.  “I remember well that I came to Oak Park to live for no other reason than… the remarkable character of the foliage on the old Blair lot.”

   A few days ago while watching the gingko in our backyard drop nearly all of the green jewels of its crown in the span of just a few hours, I began to wonder what role gingko might have played in the evolution of Wright’s Prairie Style.  They are beautiful, but idiosyncratic, and though once widespread, the extant species has not naturally existed outside a small part of China since the Pliocene.

    They stand out.  They look like their progenitor must have been an initial sincere attempt at arboreal architecture by a divine novice – one with only a schematic set of instructions from his/her master.  The branches all stick out and up from the trunk in a more or less regular fashion and at a more or less forty-five degree angle.  Though plentiful, they are too brittle to make for good climbing.  (Look at ours and you’ll see how I figured that out.)

  They are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female plants.  A seed is an inch or so long, light yellow brown, soft, and stinks.  Smells so bad, in fact, that upon the odiferous encounter many look about and step with care thereafter.

  The steep gables of the Platonic triangular west façade of the Wright home vaguely parallel the gingko vectors.  The lines of Wright homes 1895 – 1898 do to a lesser degree.  The lines of his studio, built in 1898 do not at all, nor does any part of the Prairie aesthetic.

  It’s probably my over active imagination again, but I wonder if at some point in the mid 1890s the alien acute angularity and proclivities of the gingko catalyzed the transmutation of shapes and shadows of local species into the leitmotif of his Prairie Style.  Hmmm…

 *Wright’s home was designed in 1889.  The  Frank Thomas home (above) just a block down  Forest Ave was built in 1901. 



September 10, 2010


  Ever watch a garden spider spin her web (yes, only the girls make the big ones)?  It’s an amazing process requisite of a highly evolved bit of anatomy.  There are six different glands nearly filling a spider’s abdomen each producing different sorts of silk.  Ductwork connects the glands to spinnerets, which are in fact repurposed vestigial legs.

  When ready to set up her redoubt our little friend secures a perch some distance above the ground or any other more or less horizontal feature.  She then simultaneously secretes silk from several of her spinnerets divergently aimed.  Light wafts of air will thus cause the threads to loosely combine and form a sort of kite.  With luck, said waft will carry said kite downwind TO sticks to some solid surface.

  She will then grab the secured line with her hind legs and begin to roll it up while simultaneously attaching a new one behind her by which to let herself across – still aloft.  Once to the middle, she connects the two ends and lets herself down.  Critically, she then moves a few paces perpendicularly one way or another before affixing that end thus ensuring that the plane of the finished product will be inclined.

  Complex, but similar steps create the rest of the web’s framework.  Last but not least is the sticky part – the only sticky part.  Working from the outside toward the middle she winds a spiral of thread beaded with a glue like substance.  Guess the reason for the inclined orientation of the web plane?  Ms. Spider moves about her orb by grasping the nonstick  framework from its underside.  Neat huh?

  Even though she has eight eyes, she doesn’t use them to locate entrapped quarry.  Instead, she employs a remarkable sense of touch.  The impact of, say, a fly would of course be very apparent due to the reverberation.  To find and dispatch fly before it dispatches itself, spider plucks the threads like an angel of death with a guitar strumming a chord in a minor key. Specific vibration pattern pinpoints next meal.

  Now even if you’re an arachnophobe (and I’m related to at least one with a real problem*) that is pretty amazing.  No matter what your metaphysics, you have to agree with the preacher in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “…human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders”.        

  Remember Charlotte?  A great book.  Eudora Welty called it “just about perfect… about friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time.”**

  Here’s Charlotte telling spring pig friend Wilbur how to construct a web: “Take a deep breath.  Now climb to the highest place you can get to.  Then make an attachment with your spinnerets.  Throw yourself into space and let out a drag-line as you go down.”  A plenty good description for a naïve little pig.

  As I’m sure you’ll recall, Charlotte soon uses her skills to save Wilbur from getting turned “into smoked bacon and ham”.  Farmer Zuckerman and soon neighbors from near and far marvel over patterns in Charlotte’s web that first read” “SOME PIG”, then when people seem to get bored with that “TERRIFIC”, then “RADIANT, and finally “HUMBLE”. 

  At one point rat friend Templeton suggested “crunchy” to which Charlotte responded “Just the wrong idea” for obvious reasons.  Asked about all that effort in his behalf she responds: “You’re my friend, Wilbur.  That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

  Wilbur returns her vital favors by ensuring the safety of her egg sack and its 514 occupants.  As we leave the scene, Wilbur regales several progeny, Joy among them, with tales of their mother.  You should maybe reread the book.  Besides the simple vocabulary, it’s easy because as Ms Welty also wrote: it is “a book for children, which is nice for us older ones as it calls for big type.”

*One time oldest daughter awoke in a small room to see a web wove just above her – plane parallel to floor – and affixed to all four walls.   She not same since.

**NYT 10/15/52

***”Salutations” was the first word Charlotte was heard to utter as well as that of daughter Joy both in address to Wilbur.

The Mind Around Us

August 20, 2010


   On the front page of Monday’s NYT (8/16/10) was an article entitled: “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain”.  Reporter Matt Richtel accompanied a group of five neuroscientists who left technology behind while floating down the San Juan River in remote southern Utah.  Their purpose was to study the effect of today’s digital barrage on one’s mind as well as what might be the ameliorative effects of nature’s embrace.

  The group was comprised of two sorts: several who employ digital technology with abandon and the rest a bit wary and more judicious.  Trip leader David Strayer, one of the latter, compared the research to the study of the consumption of too much meat or alcohol.

  Dang stuff is sort of addictive.  I know it is rude to check my blackberry in the middle of a conversation or meeting yet I do it anyway.  Find it difficult to resist in fact.  Even worse is texting while driving.

  “Attention is the holy grail” said Strayer.  “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it”.  “Too much digital stimulation can take people who would be functioning O.K. and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy.”

  By the end of the trip, having fallen into the rhythm of the river, all had noticed a change in the nature of their cognition.  Even one of the skeptics said: “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you…time is slowing down…”

  “…even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions – something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise.”

  And other stuff even worse.  Here’s Anne Frank: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.  Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”

  The photo above is of the top of the tree she could see from her attic window and about which she wrote: “From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind…As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be.”

  The scientists hope to develop strategies to identify the related specific neurological mechanisms surrounding attentional disorders wherefrom to enable curative therapies.  Jeesh.  Just turn it all off and go outside.  Or at least look out the window… 

*The photo and quotes came from the video installation by Jason Lazarus “The top of the tree gazed upon by Anne Frank while in hiding, Amsterdam, 2008”.  It can be seen at the Des Moines Art Center through 9/5/10

**In case you don’t get the allusion in the title, The Sea Around Us it the title of a best selling and prize winning book by Rachel Carson.

*** Relatedly (to me anyway) was the recent study showing accelerated hearing loss among the IPod generation.

Universe In A Grain Of Sand

May 7, 2010


  The April 2010 issue of National Geographic recounts research undertaken by John Bush and David Hu into the locomotion of those bugs that stroke silently across the surfaces of ponds and lakes – water striders.  Until these MIT grad students* looked into it, the thinking was that the insects created tiny waves that propelled them forward.

  That theory was first compromised by “Denny’s Paradox” which showed that wave propagation could not account for the movement of baby water striders because legs of the newly hatched are too short to make waves.  Applying mathematical analysis to high speed photography Bush and Hu found the truth to be entirely different. 

  The surface tension of the water allows the bugs to stand upon it without poking through.  Essentially, each foot makes an indentation in the surface much as would a human foot upon a trampoline thus also similarly imparting energy thereto.  Their middle legs use this energy to make themselves sort of bounce forward. 

  This reminds me of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  It is the impression of matter, such as the earth, upon the fabric of space-time that makes for the motion of heavenly bodies.  In a sense, the moon rolls around the rim of the depression in the universe made by our little blue planet.  And us around the sun etc. 

  Just as the three dimensions of a pond develop energy by the actions of a bug upon it, so do the four of our universe by virtue of our presence in them.

  I think.

*Their work was first published in an MIT newsletter 8/6/03 and in the journal “Nature” the following day.

The Tyrant Next Door

April 23, 2010


 I don’t get lawns.  I mean, I’m glad I have one and I revel in its revivification each spring.  I’m just not particularly particular about its constitution.  Green is great, but green alone lacks drama and verve.  What is up with the incredible close cropped homogeneity that pervades most of suburbia? 

  Well (you read it here) it’s the outer manifestation of a sequestered  concern that there might not be order in our universe – which of course there is not.  At the beginning, for a moment, it was indeed highly organized.  Since, however, we’ve been hurtling toward ever greater disorder.  Entropy.  The universe is a mess, getting messier by the moment, and there’ll be no turning back the arrow of time.  Too bad, so sad.

  The more assiduous the lawn care, the more every blade in a lawn is identical and oriented just so, the more bottled up inner turmoil can logically be assumed to inhabit the owner determined to beat his little part of the planet into submission.  Just watch the reaction after a kid cuts a path and you’ll see what I mean.  Jeers and tears all out of proportion and to no good end.

  Makes me think of Thomas Hobbes.  His Leviathan, published in 1651, is perhaps the most important work of modern political theory.  In it Hobbes asserts the necessity of an iron fisted central authority strong enough to preclude civil disorder as well as to enable a credible defense. 

  It made certain sense back then, especially given the provenance of his thinking.  Told that the approach of the Spanish Armada jolted his mother into labor, he later said that “I was born the twin of fear.”  His point of perspective though didn’t allow him to foresee twentieth century totalitarianism and the associated agony and horror left in its wake.

  Sure, civil society must most certainly be.  But not to the point of heartlessness and cruelty.  As the Dalai Lama says, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy” and dandelions can help.  They are bits of beauty that arrive on their own, unannounced. If allowed, they can provide emotional counterpoint to Hobbes’ famous dictum that “life is nasty, brutish, and short”. 

  Walt Whitman, among others, would agree.  From Leaves of Grass:

Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me juicy autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals
  teaching content,
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of
   the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I
  can walk undisturbed.
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should
  never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
  world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own
  ears only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O nature your
  primal sanities!

*Finally, I’m ecstatic to report that the January 2, 2010 Economist (what else?) tells us that dandelions “may yet make the big time”.  They might supplement or even replace Hevea brasiliensis which is the scientific name for the traditional rubber tree.  Can you imagine what a field of them would look like?

Judd Viburnum

April 16, 2010


  Marie Winn wrote The Plug in Drug in 1977 examining the effects of television on the developing minds of young people.  In the 25th anniversary edition she put the range of new electronic media under her scrutiny and, among other stuff, gave it all as the cause of a significant decline in average SAT scores of US high school seniors.

  Remember how I’ve described many times how the brain wires itself up through interaction with its own particular sensory environment?  A new book, iBrain* explores the effects of “growing up digital” on neuronal development.  The authors tell us that “Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now – at a speed like never before”. 

  They demonstrate how addictive technology can be and that even just intent perusal leads to a diminution in social skills.  “With the weakening of the brain’s neural circuitry controlling human contact, our social interactions may become awkward, and we tend to misinterpret, and even miss subtle, nonverbal messages.” 

  The apparent purpose of the book is to identify this and other ramifications of modern media along with ameliorative suggestions.  It describes a “brain gap” between older and younger minds – ‘digital immigrants’ and ‘digital natives’ –  and how to narrow it.  The tone is not dire, but optimistic and hopeful.  Still… 

  It is well known that the average American spends far more time in front of some sort of screen than engaged in any sort of physical activity.  In this book a study at the University of Illinois is recounted that correlates the development of digital leisure technologies and a significant decline in visits to our national parks.

  How can this not bring to mind the middle (dark) ages of Europe in which the educated preferred to read Aristotle’s description of something rather than endeavor to undertake a real experience of it?  Alchemy – the attempt to turn common elements such as lead into gold – was big.  Doesn’t that remind you of the incredible profusion of gambling/lottery venues?

  Jeesh.  These days of spring, wife and I fight over who will take our dog on his evening constitutional.  Around the corner is a shrub that, as it comes into bloom, gives olfactory intimations of heaven. Especially in the dark when vision is reduced to monochromy and smell symmetrically amplified.

  Recently I ‘borrowed’ a cutting to take to a green thumb and identify.  “Oh my God” she said “let me have another whiff”.  Exact quote.  “Maybe mock orange, but I’m not sure, let’s go ask Ned.  I have to know too”.  I followed her to the shrubbery section where stood gnome Ned.      

  As we approached, he smiled broadly.  “Judd Viburnum” he said when he saw what I held.  “Wonderful, isn’t it?  We have one outside our bedroom window that we trim to keep the top just above the sill.  Oh Lord if doesn’t it make for a few of the most enchanting nights of the year.   We never leave town during the middle of April.”

   I wouldn’t either.

*iBrain, Surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind; Small, Gary and Vorgan, Gigi; Harper; 2009.


October 17, 2009


The huge dunes in the foreground were formed by the interaction of wind, water, and stone over the course of many eons.  They are the largest and most extensive (330 square miles) in North American and comprise the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south central Colorado.


  Most of the sand came from the San Juan Mountains to the west, but the larger grains were shed from the Sangre de Christos on the east such as Kit Carson and Crestone (pictured below) – two of Colorado’s fourteeners.


  The dunes loom some 700 feet above the sand sheet and sabkha just to their west.  The visual effect of the afternoon sun upon them is unforgettable.  Why should the sun on a big pile of sand have such an impact?  Well, not long (in cosmic terms) after life evolved beyond a simple unicellular state, as ability to discern between light and less so developed.


  Billions of years later we see in 3-D and Technicolor, but the pre-primal legacy still influences our perceptions.  The incredible lights and shadows of the dunes mediated by the undulating ridges transfix one’s gaze.

  All visitors thus moved, if only for a moment, what better place for an artist to imbue and convey?  Wife is artist-in-residence here and as usual has made the most of the situation.  Observations from many points of vantage have inflected her current work while observers, young and old alike, have added tactile impressions to their experience of this unique bit of terra firma NA.



  Bonus for this here strong back is that the location of the park, far far removed from the nearest town makes for a similarly prehistoric level of noise and light pollution.  Have seen more falling stars than I’ve fingers and toes.  Me lucky boy.