Saturday, June 21, 2014

Visiting the dog-ears

I confess: I am a great dog-earer of books. I dog-ear a page when I read a sentence that I love. I dog-ear when an image stops me in my tracks, makes me gaze off into the middle-distance. I dog-ear when I learn a new word. I dog-ear when I find an old word used in a new way. I dog-ear every time I read something and think, "Damn, I wish I'd written that."

It's a way of marking not just the words on the page, but the moment of discovery itself.

Sometimes, when I'm in a certain pensive mood, a hankering-after-something mood, I visit my old dog-ears. I'll pick a book off the shelf and flip through the pages, stopping at all the dog-eared pages. Often I can't remember what or why I dog-eared. Those are the times I wish I was not only a dog-earer, but an underliner or even a highlighter.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Zooburbia: Almost here

Zooburbia: Meditations On The Wild Animals Among Us, is the book I've been working on for the past year. Though I'm still not quite finished (the book will be out in May 2014), Zooburbia is already available for preorder on Amazon.

Zooburbia contains many of the themes that first found expression here on Aerophant. It's a collection of true stories about the wild — and not-so-wild — animals in my life. It's about the connections we forge with other species and how they help us cultivate a sense of wonder in our lives. If you've enjoyed reading Aerophant, I hope you'll check out Zooburbia.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

At the top of the hill

Curious to find out what lay at the top of the hill behind my house, I clambered up the slope, sliding on the ancient layers of leaf duff that had built up over the years to form a thick, slippery surface. I slithered and tripped as I climbed, while jays screeched a warning at my approach. At the crest of the hill, I stopped. In front of me was a flat empty field. The field was blanketed with tall grass that had never been mowed in its lifetime. Here and there were elliptical indentations, nest-like spaces where the grass was flattened, as if a body had lain down and curled up in each one. 

I had found the place where the deer sleep.                                                                     
Painting by Nicole McGrath

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Procrastination

I have a letter from a friend, dated April 2006, that I still have not answered. I mean to answer it; I fully intend to answer it. I actually have answered it, several times, in my head. The letter I have written in my head is a great letter, as letters-written-on-the-mind often are. The letter in my head is so perfect I fear that trying to get it down on paper would dilute it, diminish it, ruin it. I'm writing you a letter, I say to my friend. I assure her that it will be a great letter. I compose another sentence, mentally, change a word here and there. Just wait, I tell her. Your letter is coming.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer solstice



Two American robins have taken up residence in the backyard. The scrub jays and the Steller's jays seem bemused by these non-blue birds with their merry songs and industrious ways. All spring I imagined the nest of blue robins' eggs that was surely concealed somewhere in the mass of trees on the hillside. Imagining the nest, which I never saw, gave me nearly as much pleasure as the actual robins, whom I saw every day.

Though their brood must have fledged by now, the robins are still here. The couple enjoys bathing together in the morning. The female takes a quick dip and jets off, while the male indulges in a leisurely soak, splashing half the water in the birdbath onto the ground before he is done. He knows I will refill it. 

The jays use the birdbath at the end of the day. They gossip about the robins, shrieking and squawking, making their opinionated jay noises. But at twilight, when the robins begin to sing, the jays fall silent and the song pours out of the trees and into the gathering darkness.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Aerophant is nesting

We'll return in the spring.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In the woodpile

In the West African country of Mali, Islamist extremists are spreading their virulent brand of Islam across the country. Mali has a rich tradition of cultural diversity and music, but if the fundamentalists prevail, all that will be destroyed. The same thing happened in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban, which pronounced secular music "satanic." The Taliban banned music and ordered instruments destroyed. Mothers could not even hum to their children.  

I heard Andrew Solomon tell this story about Afghanistan during the dark time of the Taliban:

One musician could not bear to destroy his instrument, a relative of the lute called a sarinda. So he hid it in the woodpile behind his house. Whenever he went to gather wood he moved the sarinda deeper into the woodpile. His fingers ached to play it, but the penalty for playing a musical instrument was death by stoning, so he never did. And when the Taliban fell, the musicians had a party, and this man played his sarinda for 13 hours without stopping. 

Andrew Solomon was at that party. He said they played the kind of music you can only play "after you have known five years of silence."  

Can't you just hear it? 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sidewalk shrine

I chanced upon this memorial to a cat named Miette while I was walking down a street in Oakland. I never knew Miette or her guardian, but their story, and their love for each other, resides in this perfect little shrine.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The mysterious BOOM

The night before last, about 10:30pm, I was reading on the couch when I heard a tremendous BOOM. The house shook, the windows rattled, the dog barked. Then silence. I jumped up and ran to the window, expecting to see burning airplane parts raining down upon the street. But nothing was there. No smoke, no fire. My neighbor also heard the BOOM, and she said it was accompanied by a flash of light. The next day I scoured the newspaper and the Internet. Had a gas main exploded? Meth lab? Meteor? I found nothing. It was as if the BOOM had never happened, or had happened only in the small pocket of atmosphere at the end of our street, a collection of wayward atoms conspiring to create a great disturbance, for no reason at all.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Midsummer mathematics

Today I counted 7 Steller's jays in the birdbath, 11 wild turkeys in the driveway, and 23 honeybees in the oregano flowers.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A simple act of mercy


I was walking past an office building in San Francisco when I saw a pigeon trapped inside the lobby. It was frantically beating its wings, throwing itself against the glass again and again. The lobby was crowded with people, but everyone ignored the bird, stepping around it as they hurried on their way. Not a single person was willing to stop what they were doing. I went into the lobby. I took off my jacket and gently draped it over the pigeon and then I picked it up, crossed the room to the automatic sliding doors and opened my hands. Instantly, the bird fluttered up into the sky. The people continued to hurry along, oblivious to the moment, to mercy, to the beauty of sudden flight.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A few things I've learned lately

A flock of starlings is called a murmuration.

People who say they have no regrets have not thought things through very well.

Making music with strangers may be the path to world peace. (That, and getting rid of all those weapons.)

There are some people you will never stop missing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gone flying

"The stars don't look bigger, but they do look brighter."
-Sally Ride, youngest American and first U.S. woman in space

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sermon

No place at last is better than the world./The world is no better than its places.

-Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2007, VI

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tales from the Oakland Animal Shelter

The din of a kennel of barking dogs is unlike anything I have ever heard. It is a shrill, shrieking curtain of desperation; the sound washes over you as you step through the door and gains in crescendo as you walk down the aisle past each grated cell containing a dog. The dogs bark in hope, in boredom, in distress; they bark because it is the only way they can communicate their need to get out, out, out, let me out. Help help help. I'm in here, here, here. Dogs, it is said, live only in the present. Here at the shelter, their constant barking is the sound of the present.

Like all living creatures, dogs crave quiet. There are a couple of spots at the shelter put aside for that purpose. One is a trailer that sits out back, furnished with a rug, a couch and lamp, and dog toys scattered about. It is removed enough from the main building so you cannot hear the barking from the kennels. The trailer is supposed to resemble a mini living room; it reminds me of a movie set, or an IKEA display. For the dogs, the trailer is heaven.

One day I took Autumn to the trailer. I had brought a book to read. I sat down on the couch and opened my book and she jumped up and curled up next to me, her head on my lap. She closed her eyes and in less than a minute she was snoring softly. Autumn is not too interested in toys or food or running around; she wants affection, she craves love and touch. For Autumn, the noisy kennel is a version of hell. I turned the pages and heard the minutes tick by on my watch. I had only 15 minutes to spend with Autumn – there are so many other dogs needing attention -- and I dreaded having to wake her and take her back to her kennel. For the moment, there in the present, Autumn, one of the world's gentlest dogs, was at peace.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Overheard in Oakland

Man at coffeeshop, pointing at pastry case: What's that?
Barista: That's a gluten-free vegan crumb donut.
Man: How's that selling?
Barista: It's very popular.
Man: I look at that vegan crumb donut, and I know why the terrorists hate us.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Losing your tail

One of the cats caught a lizard yesterday, and before I could intervene, the lizard had dropped its tail. While the tail wriggled in the dust, attracting the attention of the cat, the lizard made its getaway. That is how this defense system, called autotomy (auto: self; tomos: cut) is designed to work.

It's a neat trick. Yet losing a tail, even though it will regrow, is not without cost to the lizard. It takes a lot of energy and time -- as much as a year or more -- to grow a new body part. During that time the lizard's reproductive life comes to a halt: it will not mate or bear young. If the lizard is a juvenile when it loses its tail, it simply stops growing until the new tail has grown back. And the new tail is always less impressive than the original: it's smaller and may be a different color, with differently patterned scales. Regeneration is not a perfect science, as Frankenstein taught us.

Imagine if we were capable of autotomy. In a way, we are; often in life we must leave a part of ourselves behind in order to survive. While we may someday recover what we've lost, it's a difficult and painful process, and like the lizard, we are never really the same again.

I admit I felt a terrible pang when the lizard scrambled away, leaving its precious tail behind. I had a crazy impulse to seize the tail and run after the lizard, to somehow join the two together again. But that, of course, was impossible. Once you've said goodbye to your tail, there's no going back.

[Photo by Gary Nafis]

Friday, June 1, 2012

Captain Ahab

From the prow of his ship, Puck gazes out at the stormy sea, searching for the white whale. Birds, the birds. He rises!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Doc Watson, 1923-2012

I'll never forget hearing Doc Watson, who died yesterday at the age of 89, playing "Deep River Blues" and "Tennessee Stud" at the Strawberry bluegrass festival 23 years ago. It was a warm September evening and the crickets were still chirping as we whirled barefoot in a meadow, seized with the joy of the music, and Doc squeezed his sightless eyes shut and smiled and sang in his gravely-sweet voice, and the notes flew faster and faster from his guitar but he never missed a single stroke. There will be never be another Doc.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A simple spell


First, give yourself a secret name. Next, tell it to the forest on a moonless night. For the rest of your life, the trees will remember your name. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Nothing is lost

"It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world."

-
Zora Neale Hurston

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What I saw on the train to Nagoya

December 2011. I saw a tree full of small brown finches. I saw terraced gardens spilling down the mountainside. I saw mist clinging to forested ridgetops, a persimmon tree heavy with orange fruit, fields lying barren in winter. I saw a small cemetery on the edge of a village, an icy stream tumbling down a hill. I saw autumn leaves scattered like golden coins on the forest floor. I saw a flock of ravens circling a stone cairn. I saw a little red bridge crossing a pebbled stream. And through the tunnels, across the valleys and up the mountains, the conductor sang: Nakatsagawa, we soon stop at Nakatsagawa. Next stop Chikusa, we will soon stop at Chikusa. Next stop Nagoya, we will soon stop at Nagoya.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Jobs I want

Faerie couturier.

Night of the dinosaurs

When I was in high school my friends and I used to go up to Mulholland Drive to look at the lights of Los Angeles at night. From an overlook on the spine of the Santa Monica mountains, you could see the entire L.A. basin and trace with your eye the freeways, the grand boulevards, the glittering skyscrapers of downtown.

One night up on Mulholland I had a vision: The city became an ocean writhing with dinosaurs, their long necks twisting up out of the sea and plunging back in, creating towering waves of light. They thrashed and flailed, the angry ghosts of our fossil fuels. Then, one by one, their serpentine necks sank beneath the water and the lights began to glint and sparkle, an ordinary city again. I didn't go back to Mulholland after that. I had seen what was waiting in the darkness beneath the dazzling surface, and I could never trust Los Angeles again.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Supermoon

Tonight's full moon will be the biggest, brightest moon of the year, and closer to the earth than at any other time -- so close you could reach out and touch it with your tongue.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Products we like: Critter escape ramp

Small animals in search of water often accidentally drown in swimming pools or succumb to the chlorine. Wildlife biologist Rich Mason decided to do something about all these little lost lives. He started tinkering with pieces of styrofoam and plastic, and before long the Frog Log was born. This product is so simple and yet so incredibly effective. Imagine you are a mouse, swimming back and forth, exhausted and terrified, desperately trying to scramble up the slick tiles -- and then you come upon this merciful floating island made just for you. Anyone with a swimming pool -- and a heart -- should have a Frog Log. Countless numbers of chipmunks, mice, lizards, ducklings, turtles, toads, frogs, salamanders, dragonflies and bumble bees will be grateful. (Aerophant endorses this product because we like it. We get no kickbacks.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tai's cure for the nerves

It's hard to feel tense when you're wearing overalls.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Somewhere there is nowhere

I was saddened to read that Russian scientists have finally succeeded in breaching the ice sheet that protects Lake Vostok in Antarctica. The Russians have been drilling for 20 years, trying to reach the surface of the ancient lake, which has been frozen for 15 million years. I wish they would leave it alone for another 15 million years. I like to think of those dark waters, locked beneath the ice, cold and unknowable. Surely somewhere on the planet there should be a place untouched by human hands or even a breath of wind; a place as quiet as the moon.
(Photograph by Rolfe Horne)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The birds of paradise

When I was a little girl I thought that birds of paradise -- those colorful flowers with spiky beaks and orange crests -- were real birds. And if the birds were real, it stood to reason that paradise was real, too. But where was it? There was nothing in Los Angeles that remotely resembled paradise. I decided the birds of paradise must be in exile, and that someday, when the time was right, they would uproot themselves from the gardens and flower beds and manicured lawns of Los Angeles, great flocks of birds shaking off soil and leaves, filling the skies, making their way home to paradise.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

In memoriam

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

- Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dreamclock chiming

"For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life."
- Stephen King, "11/22/63"

Friday, January 13, 2012

From the Aerophant newswire

Astronomers have peered through a telescope 13 billion light-years into the past and spied a cluster of five galaxies in the earliest stages of cosmic infancy.

A Danish marine biologist has identified a new life form, Mesodinium chamaeleon, that is half plant, half animal.

A study published in the journal Science finds that pigeons -- and probably all birds -- are on a par with monkeys and apes when it comes to math skills.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ramble on the serpentine prairie

One of my daily rambles with the dog takes me past an old horse stable on the edge of Redwood Regional Park. Some of the horses drowse outside in small paddocks, but most are kept indoors in stalls: small, dark boxes with tiny rectangular windows that let in only a single shaft of dusty sunlight. I hurry past the barn, since it pains me to see horses confined this way. Herd animals are made to move. In the wild their foraging can take them miles each day, in the comforting company of other horses. But these horses, like many domestic urban horses, live the majority of their lives confined indoors, isolated from each other by thin wooden walls.

As I pass the old barn and trudge up the hill, my thoughts grow darker. Honestly, it pains me to see any animal confined. Many people seem to regard captivity as normal for animals. Parrots live in cages, many dogs spend their lives at the end of a chain, zoo animals pace out their days in small enclosures. Then there is the unspeakable atrocity of factory farms, where cows, pigs and chickens -- gentle, intelligent creatures -- live out their entire lives in spaces hardly larger than their bodies. Animals are made for flight and for movement, just as we are. They suffer in confinement just as we do. If it were up to me I would break every chain, open every cage, smash every lock.

I try hard to push these thoughts away, because they bring me so much despair. Now the barn is behind us and the dog and I are crossing the serpentine prairie, a small preserve that is as beautiful and ethereal as its name suggests. Beneath the prairie runs the smooth blue-green rock that gives the preserve its name. A decade ago these grasslands were smothered by invasive shrubs and Monterey pines, and in danger of being covered by another housing development. But conservationists convinced the public of the value of native grasslands, and now this little remnant of prairie in the Oakland foothills is being restored and protected.

The prairie hosts an astonishing array of rare grasses: blue-eyed grass, purple needlegrass, bent grass, big squirreltail. Their very names are poetry. It's easy to imagine the big herbivores that grazed here during the Pleistocene epoch: mastodons, bison, camels. Herds of small native horses galloped across this very slope. All of them extinct for reasons we'll never know. Now endangered wildflowers bloom here in the spring, and tree swallows with iridescent blue feathers zoom across the grass and nest in boxes built specially for them along the fence line.

The dog is scrambling up the hill, the picture of reckless joy. I don't believe there is balance or justice in the world, but I must remember that the impulse to caretake and restore is just as human as the impulse to confine and exploit. I must remember that not all birds live in cages. Last summer I found a perfect redtail hawk feather on this trail; a gift from the serpentine prairie. That was a good day.

(Photo by Wilde Legard)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Welcome to California, Canis lupus

On Thursday, a young gray wolf wearing a radio collar crossed the border from Oregon into Northern California. He is the first wild wolf to set paw on California soil in 80 years. Long may he howl!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Some things I loved about Japan

Fabulous, speedy, punctual trains that take you everywhere you want to go.

The look of clay tiled rooftops against winter skies.

The guardian demons in front of the Ninnaji temple in Kyoto. There is an "Ah" guardian and a "Un" guardian; each is one half of a perfect breath. This is Ah.

The elaborate meals I ate at Buddhist temples. Called shojin-ryori, the ingredients are seasonal and entirely vegetarian. While I have to admit I did not love the flavor of every dish, I did love the beautiful presentation and the care that went into the preparation of the food.

A cup of steaming green tea and a chestnut-paste sweet at a teahouse on a chilly afternoon.

Confections counter at a Tokyo department store. Department store basements are filled with the most wondrous food you can imagine.

Fox guardians, or komainu, at an Inari (Shinto) shrine in Nagano. I never did learn the significance of the red bib.

Japanese schoolboys eager to practice their English homework.

Bamboo trunks as thick and tall as trees.

Maple tree ablaze at Ritsurin Gardens.

A dozen kinds of apples in Obuse.

Baffling, unintentionally eloquent Japanese-to-English translations.

The swans gliding in the moat that surrounds the Tokyo Imperial Palace.