Round but sharp

Aside from all the nature, I also have a small fabric art thing going on. After the big move, it’s taken me two months to get my sewing studio back together. But it’s coming along. The lines in my studio are usually angular, but there are rounded ones here and there.

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Skunked

My husband and I closed on a new home at the end of July, and we love it. We have an acre and a quarter of land. There are dense trees on three sides in the back, with a seasonal creek cutting through what we call “the back forty”.

The night we got the keys, we stood in the large, glass-walled sunroom looking out at all this, and saw a deer bedded down between the trees. Later on, a great-horned owl stopped by. The next night, a red fox zipped through the yard. And a week later, a white skunk trotted through, tail aloft.

We were thrilled, as you can imagine. “There’s so much wildlife!” we exclaimed. And we do like wildlife. I spend a lot of my time photographing wildlife.

The dog likes it too.

Last night I was out with my cousin for a late evening snack. She has been staying with us for a few days on her autumn vacation, and as we do when we visit, we had repaired to a restaurant to eat and talk and discuss our lives, problems, and goals. We left my husband to the Astros game and my son to his Xbox, and began driving toward a local deli.  After an hour or so of conversation, I visited the ladies room and she began idly scrolling through Facebook. “Um, Travis posted on Facebook,” she said before trailing off with a wince.

Oh shit, I thought. My phone is dead. She turned hers to face me.

While I had been eating tomato bisque and discussing current events, the dog had engaged in a little light diplomacy with a yard intruder near the lettuce patch; specifically, the skunk.

We abandoned ship quickly and called Travis, who asked us to please bring home something “stronger than Rosemary-Mint Suave.” After careening into the parking lot of a pet store one minute before closing and prevailing upon the good will of the cashier, she directed us to a bottle of “Stinky Dog Shampoo.” From there, we screeched out of the parking lot toward home.

The path home involves a right turn about half a mile away from the house, and the smell hit us like a wall about two feet from the stoplight. “Oh my God,” we exclaimed in unison. This was half a mile from the house.  Nature, in all its terrible efficacy, has created a creature capable of befouling such a huge territory that the remaining wildlife has made a tightly-enforced pact to avoid it. Thanks to this pact, skunks are the merrily-striped assholes of the natural world, trotting arrogantly across the landscape with utter impunity, tails aloft, just as a reminder of its power.

But that pact does not apply to domesticated dogs.

Before last night, I had only smelled skunk spray in a diluted fashion – along the road, and temporarily, as I drove through it. It’s an unpleasant odor that makes you wrinkle your nose, but it’s not overwhelming.  It won’t ruin your day.

But when your lettuce patch is ground zero, and the smell T-bones you like a semi half a mile away, the stench becomes something altogether different.  As I entered my home – my new, formerly fresh-smelling home – I realized that up close, skunk doesn’t smell so much as it simply burns. What there is of smell calls to mind a combination of highly concentrated perm solution mixed with rotten eggs and death.  And this makes perfect sense; the chemicals in skunk spray, called thiols, are sulphur-based compounds present in perm solution and putrid flesh.  This smell will literally curl your hair.

When I entered the house, Thomas didn’t greet me as usual, electing to remain on the floor looking dejected, traumatized, and wet. Because it was the first really cold night of the season, Travis couldn’t bathe him outside. My husband limped over to us, his spine twisted like a question mark from lifting a panicked and flailing 75-pound dog into our tub with only the help of a protesting teenager. Afterward, my son had locked himself in his basement bedroom.

All so the dog could mark off a bucket list item in his eleventh year.

This is an animal that was once so well-trained I was able to call him off a black bear on a remote trail in West Virginia; who had once left behind a snarling raccoon on my stern command; who spent a lot of time on our Montana property without any such incidents. But there comes a time in every old man’s life when his supply of shits to give about anything runs dangerously low. And that time, for Thomas, was last night.

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Skunks are a young man’s game.

For your future reference, I can tell you what worked: Stinky Dog shampoo was a winner, even though the second bath of the night almost caused lasting injuries to both arthritic dog and humans. Boiling vinegar for an hour or so removed most of the ambient stench in the house. Soaking his collar in a combination of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and detergent worked like a charm. (But don’t keep this around, because it can explode in a closed container.) For my bedroom, which the dog had tried to hide in and was too far away from the vinegar steam, a friend with previous Skunk-And-German Shepherd experience recommended a few drops of vanilla in a small bowl of warm water. This worked surprisingly well, given the mellow scent of vanilla.

Do not use tomato juice, because it won’t work and your bathroom will resemble the shower scene in Psycho.

As it turns out, skunks carry enough spray in their glands only for five or six shots. After that, it can take up to ten days for the little stink goblins to replenish their supply. I have no idea how many shots Thomas took. So it could be out there still, locked and loaded. And lurking. Meanwhile, our entire neighborhood probably hates us, the skunk-provoking newcomers.

But, hey;  we love the wildlife!

Look, it’s a mother.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the day I became a parent. Of course, it’s also my son’s birthday. That’s the primary holiday, but I can’t help but remember how it felt to undergo such a radical shift on that Sunday morning a decade and a half ago.

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Parenthood, the reptile way.

My motherhood was a happy accident. I never would have done such a thing intentionally, even as I vaguely thought I would be a parent someday. But at heart, I’m mostly a coward, and usually reluctant to commit to anything beyond lunch on a given day.  Also, I’m not a fan of vulnerability. And if you want the clearest possible lesson about how little control you have over your own heart and what happens to it, try parenthood.

Motherhood for me has been an open field with no place to hide – from myself, from the frailties of others, and from the vagaries of fortune. It’s the place where bullshit goes to die. Typically, that is the kind of environment in which I’ve done the most growing. And grown I have; had I never been a parent, I would have had fewer of the finer human qualities, like empathy, steadfastness, and resilience.  For me, the existence of a person I would never give up on – would never even consider giving up on – has been an enormous gift.

I spent the first five years of my son’s life trying to come to grips with the anxiety of it all. I missed the years before my son was born when I regarded the prospect of my own death with near indifference. About that possibility, I remember thinking, Well, I won’t know about it, so who cares? A feeling of invincibility is heady stuff, and parenthood will wipe away the high of it without a trace. There’s a palpable loss of freedom when you have to care what happens to you.

Then came a sudden and humiliating divorce, and with it, a choice: succumb to bitterness, or don’t. And though I know my own sense of self and hunger for life is what dictated my choice, the constant need to show up for my son only cemented it. In a way, the divorce forged our close relationship, as we have been on our own, in a way. His dad is involved, and he has a constant and supportive stepdad, but Sean and I are an everyday unit.

Still, though, no accounting of parenthood can be honest or complete without the longings and the empty spaces of my own that come with it. When they say that mothers are self-sacrificing, they aren’t kidding. And I’m not persuaded that’s a good thing, though we pretend to venerate it as a society. Over and over again, I see men looking at parenthood differently; they seem to feel freer to rely on mothers to do their jobs in a way those mothers can’t necessarily look to them to do. Without raising a cry of “Not all Men!” the best way I can put it is this: To retain and nourish our own selves, mothers must execute a faster and nimbler tap dance, on average, than fathers.

Parenthood, then, is many things, at many different times. And lately, among those things is alarm at how fast it’s proceeded, how soon the full-time part of it will be over, and how many children I’ve had over the years, in just one boy.

There are times when I long for the infant days, when I would hold him against my chest with my face buried in his sweet-smelling hair, and it was, without a doubt, the closest and most perfect bond I’ve ever shared with another human being.

And then I realize that if the universe gave me the impossible gift of going back to that time, even for just a few minutes, I’d be overwhelmed with missing the boy of today, the archly funny, animal-loving justice-seeker who lives in my house right now. So I will pass on the time machine, and simply rely on memory.

So happy anniversary to me, of the day I stepped onto the roller coaster.

Tiny deer, big storm

I have a lot of ties in south Florida and the Upper Keys particularly, so when Irma came though this weekend, I watched in horror, like so many did. In addition to the places I knew so well, I was particularly worried about the Key Deer.

Key Deer are a seriously endangered subspecies of white-tailed deer that lives only in the Florida Keys. They are tiny little things, probably only slightly bigger than my dog. They are the smallest species of North American deer.

The first mention of Key Deer in the historical record is, I believe, from the journals of Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda, who was shipwrecked in the Keys as a young teenager in the mid-1500’s, and remained a captive of the Calusa Indians for the next 17 years. His memoir contains references to “large bears” on the islands and a fox-like animal thought to be a raccoon. He continues:

But what was a great wonder to the captives who were there, and to those of us in other places, was the existence of deer on the Islands of Cuchiyaga, the town of which I have spoken. 

The Key Deer, once numerous, now only number in the few hundred. In the middle of the 20th century, their numbers were truly dire, dipping down into the double digits, but they have rebounded since. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in the 1960’s. Last year, though, a parasitic infection killed 135 of them before it was vanquished, a number the species could ill-afford to lose.

And then Irma. Although Key Deer have been living through hurricanes for centuries, their numbers are low enough now that conservationists were concerned. Last week on Twitter, I had an exchange with someone who also thought to mention the Key Deer. Yesterday, someone tweeted this video, taken by some journalists on Big Pine Key, in response:

 

Some of them, then, made it. We’ll have to wait to see how the larger population has fared.

An ethic of wonder

One day a couple of years ago, I was spending a day doing one of my favorite things: walking along a remote creek in western Indiana, near the Fall Creek Gorge. It was this creek, the same one I wrote about here.

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There is, along this creek, a spot where butterflies puddle. “Puddling” is when butterflies gather on wet sand, or something dead and rotting, or some kind of animal scat, and slurp up the moisture and minerals they find there. I have walked to this spot over and over again, and there has never been a time — at least in summer — when butterflies were not present.

The first time I stumbled onto this place, I noticed an enormous Eastern swallowtail perched on the wet sand on the edge of the creek. And then I noticed another. And another. And still another. And suddenly it became clear that I had wandered into a cloud of fluttering swallowtails, all taking their turns on the wet sand. I looked around. The sun shone through the trees and bounced off the canyon walls, lighting the butterflies’ wings into a kind of humming yellow glow, as they zinged past my face, danced around my hair, and swooped in to take their turn on the sand, sending other swallowtails up into orbit around my head.

Meanwhile, I had stopped cold, and time had stopped too. On some level, I recognized the moment for what it was: an encounter with the greatest of human emotions, a moment of wonder. “Oh!” I thought. “This is it!” But then I let the thought go, let it fly into the breeze, and just joined the butterflies. It may have been five minutes or it may have been an hour. I really have no idea.

Recently, I saw someone, probably on social media, ask the question: What is your favorite emotion? I saw a lot of “joy”, “happiness”, and “love” in the responses. All strong contenders, and certainly in my top five choices.

But nothing else comes close to awe.  Wonder and awe are the mechanisms that propel us to transcendence, that generate the other emotions in the longer term. Scientists are interested in it now, too, working to identify it, examine its contours, and determine its connections to other emotions and its impact on the human condition. One article confirms my suspicion that awe makes time screech to a halt. The same piece notes that among the range of human feelings, “awe occupies unique standing as an emotion rooted in joy, but tinged with that Kierkegaardian fear and trembling.”

Maybe. For some of us, the Kierkegaardian fear and trembling are part of the payoff. But whatever the exact contours of it, wonder is a state in which the mystical has achieved a complete occupation of our deepest selves. We have been overcome by the forces of the whole shebang, of the universe. It has, for the moment, harnessed us completely.

Wonder and awe, though, are not universally available experiences. Rachel Carson, in The Sense of Wonder, tells us that a capacity for wonder is wired into us all, but it’s often suppressed as we grow.  About twenty years ago, I walked out of my home with a house guest, a busy investment banker, as he took his leave. It was October, and the trees were softly aglow in the morning overcast, their vibrant colors piercing the morning mist. I exclaimed over their beauty, and asked him if the colors were at their peak at his home. “I don’t know,” he said dismissively. “I never notice things like that.”

To experience wonder requires a deliberate surrender that some just can’t allow.  When the universe offers us an invitation to encounter the transcendent, an implied condition is that we are not in the driver’s seat. When we are focused on ourselves, our imagined superiority, or our delusion that we have control, we can’t accept the invitation.

But it’s also difficult when you’re hungry, frightened, pressured, or depressed. This is basic Maslow; some needs come before others. We must eat, for example, simply to exist, and if we’re struggling to do that, then all of our self must be dedicated to the task. Or as one writer put it, when summarizing recent research, “[w]e now understand that the pressure of scarcity literally taxes our brains; our mind’s field of vision narrows, and the beauty of the world is very often blocked from view….in short, wonder is very often a privilege for those who have their basic survival and relational needs met.”

Put another way, had I been looking desperately for food along that creek, I wouldn’t have given the butterflies a second glance. But for those of us who have dragged ourselves to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, or were born there, it’s much easier to be open to it.

It’s important to me to be keenly aware, when I write as I do about the experience of wonder, that it’s as much a luxury as my fully-stocked refrigerator, and a house on which the utilities have been easily paid. For some of us, existence requires a constant focus and hypervigilance; there is nothing left for butterflies, or colorful autumn mornings. I know this, because I haven’t always been able to access the wondrous myself. But when I can, it is a matter of gratitude, and part of what underlies my beliefs about justice and equality. Wonder should be a universally available experience. And to write about it as if it is universal would be the antithesis of what underlies it; wonder and awe are about extending out from ourselves, and connecting to something larger, not assuming everyone else has the same opportunities we do.

So we experience it, and we write about it, and we hope to instill an ethic of wonder. Tap into it, if you can. And then offer a hand so someone else can.

The things we take from ourselves

Eleven years ago today, I spent my birthday at Glacier National Park. That was back when I owned a house in northwest Montana, and I spent every possible moment there. And because it was my birthday, I wanted to go to Glacier, because I love Glacier. I looked back at my ancient blog Trailheadcase (I’ve been blogging continuously at one site or another since 2005), and was reminded that it was chilly enough up at Logan Pass to require a coat on my almost-four year old (now almost 15), but warm enough to play in Lake McDonald in shorts and a t-shirt. Such is life at elevation.

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St. Mary’s Lake at early afternoon, during the 2003 fires.

Tonight, eleven years later, Glacier is on fire. A lot of it is burning. The venerable Sperry Chalet, one of Glacier’s famous backcountry lodges, was overtaken by flame. I’ve been watching this beloved place of mine — all of Montana, really — burning for weeks on the news. I spent a day in Glacier the last time it was this tormented by fire, in 2003. It was a hellscape, and my lungs were scratchy from smoke inhalation at the end of the day. These fires are immeasurably worse.

At the same time, the Columbia River Gorge — a place I lived near for three years around the same time — is alight as well. The story is that a teenager tossed some fireworks into a a canyon for lulz, giggled, and walked away, trapping more than 100 hikers on a trail I can recall hiking about exactly ten years ago.  At the end of that trail is Punchbowl Falls, a sublimely chilly pool where a smallish, homely bird called the water ouzel plows into the falls and skims the bottom for food before popping up again, calm and collected, to enjoy its meal.

The trapped hikers made it out. I don’t know the condition of Punchbowl Falls, but as of yesterday, the fire had spread to 30,000 acres, enough to threaten all of the other wonderful trails in the Gorge and some historic structures, some of which I was lucky enough to see again when I was there last month. Although everyone wants to junk punch this teenager, his casual maliciousness could never have had the effect it did had this July and August not been the third driest on record in Oregon.

061-3FL17On the other side of the country, Hurricane Irma, among the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, is on trajectory for a head-on collision with south Florida — another place I’ve spent significant time, both in my childhood and as an adult.   I took my first steps at the Kon-tiki resort in the Florida Keys. I wonder about my grandparents’ old house west of Ft. Lauderdale. I worry about my stepdaughter in Orlando, working as an intern at Disney. I worry about my aunt in Ocala, and my dear cousin in Palm Coast. I worry about the monkeys on the Silver River, and the willets on Marineland Beach.

And this is all on the heels of some of the worst flooding in United States history in Houston, which saw my husband’s childhood neighborhood drowned.

I lived out west about ten years ago, and it was there I became acquainted with the reality of climate change, as so many of us did. Climate change somehow became a political question, and a refusal to believe the established science became a tribal litmus test for the right — to the profound and devastating misfortune of the earth.  I don’t know how much longer that denial will work for people, as one out-sized natural disaster after another befalls us. Sadly, I fear that the denial well is nowhere near as dry as the woods in Montana and Oregon.

And so this is likely to be what the last half of my life looks like, watching these gorgeous and meaningful places die, not to come back in my lifetime. I suppose I’m lucky I saw them while they lasted; my kids’ generation isn’t so fortunate. The earth will outlast us, of course. Whole books have been written about that. The World Without Us talks about what an earth suddenly unstressed by human occupation would look like. Some things, like plastic, are here to stay. But the carbon in the atmosphere would clear after many thousands of years.

These things aren’t so much about the earth, exactly. Climate change has always been more about what we take from ourselves, and from the wilds. And whether we admit it the cause or not, we are starting to lose a great deal.

 

Waiting

We visited this lavender farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula on a Sunday in early August. The morning air was cool, misty, and carrying a bit of smoke from the wildfires in British Columbia.

This is my spouse and favorite travel companion, sitting in the lavender as I wander the fields. Waiting.

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Fire in the air

In the last few days I’ve been been in the Pacific Northwest, and we wandered out to Salt Creek in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Fires are burning in British Columbia and central Washington, and a haze hangs over everything. During a Pacific Northwest summer, you can usually see the volcanoes and the Olympic range from a good distance; not so now.

I was in Glacier National Park for the crazy wildfires of 2003 (we were the last vehicle to exit the park at Apgar when they closed it down, just ahead of the sirens, and I’m sure I took three years off my life from smoke inhalation). So from my photography there that year, I know how wildfires can produce weird, surreal light.

I was hoping that the sun would sink further down toward the horizon and spill some light toward the island before it was swallowed up into the haze entirely, but this is as far as it got. Elemental.

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