January 13th, 2013 The Eagle Flies

eagle in crate

Sunday was the first eagle release of the New Year for the wildlife shelter where I volunteer.  These things can sound more impressive than they turn out to be:  a group of people gather in a field or grassy lot of some kind, some with children most of them with cameras–some with telephoto lenses the length of their arms.  there is a lot of waiting around until a vehicle appears with large dog crate, and one of the senior staff from the shelter will put on very long, very heavy leather gloves and reach into the crate, to extract an eagle wearing a hood, which always causes them to look demoralized, if you ask me.  The hood is removed and the bird realizes what’s going on, and it suddenly becomes irate–then, the pitch:  the bird is lightly tossed into the air out of the keeper’s arms.

And what usually happens is it drops to the ground a number of yards away–looks to see what’s going on, then takes off again, flying to the nearest tree and landing, turning its back to us, ignoring our good wishes, often disappearing into the brush.  No thank you, no looking back–eagles I’ve seen released have been uniformly unsentimental.

Sunday I got up and had coffee with my friend Phil, and we drove to the site.  It was a gorgeous winter morning, the kind we rarely get in the PNW:  clear and cold with a heavy white frost coating everything, glinting at angles in the sun.  Along the way we pass a former bamboo farm, where varieties got loose and have grown to twenty feet clumps in some places;  this morning as we drove by the bamboo is huge shocks of yellow-green, silvered with frost.   And it is cold:  28 or so, which out here constitutes frostbite warnings.  I’ve heard from friends in the Midwest they had their windows open yesterday, while apparently it’s been cold in southern California.  Wending down the country highway in the sun and ice I feel like a snow-dome has been shaken, and the weather has just gone all over the place.

So today looks like an exceptionally fine morning for an eagle release, which is happening in the large sleeping field of an organic farm–lumps of brown grass bowed over and frosted, chickens in their pen back by the house, darting back and forwards, excited by they know not what.  There are several groups of people but it’s not a huge crush;  two media outlets interview Lisa, the new shelter’s executive director, a tall, attractive woman in a bright red ski jacket.

Then, yes, the truck rolls into the field and Mike, the wildlife director hops out, opens the hatch of the truck cap, and there is the dog crate.

A brief speech:  the eagle is hooded, he explains, and will be brought out shortly, and released by the new director–she will throw him into the wind so he can get lift, and Mike gestures where he’d like us all to stand, so we don’t spook the eagle.  Lisa, the new excecutive director has never even handled an eagle before, and she’s not afraid to mention this:  her teenaged daughter stands by with a hand-held video camera, as Mike brings out the bird.

Lisa holds it a moment–I know how she feels–these birds are large and very strong, and the whole concept of holding an eagle sends adrenaline pumping up over your head;  Mike comes over to mess with getting the hood off, and, suddenly aware of where he is, the eagle’s head snaps to attention.  Lisa holds him just a moment longer then gives him the toss:  the bird rises up out of her gloved arms and immediately banks to the south, away from the crowd, but in clear view of everyone:  he rises up higher and catches sight of the water beyond the trees, and seamlessly heads for it–steady, strong wing beats as he confidently rows himself up and away, growing smaller and more distant to our sight but still there, back to the life he’s been missing, the things he’s left undone.  I have never seen a release so flawless.

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Over a return, thawing-out cup of coffee, Phil and I talk about it all–the eagle,  the group at the event, maybe twenty percent of whom are other volunteers and board members, the experience of getting up early and standing out in the open on a cold, sunny morning.

It’s good to have things that make us feel human, he says.  He is suggesting this effort of working with wildlife is something that opens me up emotionally, maybe even spiritually.

I think about that phrase after he’s gone.

No question this is an experience that reaches something in me that I’d consider to be elemental:  a connection to the natural world, a recognition of my place in the larger scheme of the broad wild world.

But does it make me feel human?

I recently turned that around in a conversation with a woman at work, who was telling a story about her beagle, and remarked how animals could seem so human.

It’s the reverse, I blurted out:  we’re animals.  We’ve stepped out and created our own self-importance, but that doesn’t change anything–we just shift the roles to make ourselves feel better.  The recognition we see when a raccoon wash his paws in a stream or a mother bear defends her cubs, the sentiment we see in a dog’s eyes–these aren’t animals being human, these are humans recognizing connection to animals, we just really don’t want to see it that way.  Because after all, we’re the higher order.  Right?

So, I wondered, what things make me feel human?

On a visit to New York City, some years back–an early evening in late summer, I was walking up from Midtown to meet some friends for dinner.  First, there are the canyons of buildings, and the echo of noise–car engines and bus air brakes and all the traffic on the pavement–and there is the motion: other pedestrians streaming along in both directions, the occasional glimpses of people doing something personal, like walking in or out of their apartments or getting out of cabs.   It’s all part of the scene:  the brownstones and restaurants and apartment buildings on either side of me, some filled with more residents than the total of my entire town;  cars and cabs flowing along in lines through the streets, orange neon, green streetlights, high billboards way above the crowd line and buildings reaching up high beyond that;  women of any age going by in the moment’s perfect fashion, wearing sunglasses that may cost more than my first car, or good knock-offs, hoping no one can tell. I pass the street vendors, veer through trash cans lined up at a street corner, past high glass windows of books, or sales banners, or mannequins staring back at me.  I pass a subway entrance–clusters of people going in or coming out, negotiate past a street character sitting down, blasted out from mental illness or intravenous drug use.

“Good evening!” says a tall, smiling black man, and I smile back and say, “Good evening,” and I keep to my course, on to a small restaurant up by Columbus Circle, on our way to Lincoln Center for a play with a famous actor that’s been getting mediocre reviews.

Active and energized, and essentially a huge block of pavement, wildly overbuilt and teeming with human beings–messy and creative and hazardous and beautifully crafted and entirely self referential–heading along the New York sidewalks as the sun went down and the lights came up I have never felt more human in my life.

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Solstice, 2012

barred_owl_granthickey1

About three weeks ago on a rainy night, I had been on the computer too long, working on a deadline, so I thought I’d take a quick break and go to the gym.  I kept the workout brief, finished about nine o-clock, then hopped back into the car to head home for a hot bath and then more work.

I whizzed along the dark, two-lane country highway that can seem so empty this time of night, came to the last major intersection where a large Indian casino flashes on and off all night like a hallucination, turned onto the road that leads into the town of Suquamish: a gas station, a good pizza joint and the requisite ambiguous tavern next to the pier that reaches out into Puget Sound.  It’s a small basically reservation community, approached and exited by long stretches of dark, tree-lined highway.  Suddenly, in the haze of headlights whipping towards me on the other side of the dark road I saw what could only be one of a couple of things–a white plastic grocery bag, caught up and spinning in the eddy behind the zooming truck, or it was an owl, hit and flailing in the road.  As I passed it I glanced in my rearview mirror.  I had to stop.

I pulled over on the side of the highway and began fumbling in my bag for the small flashlight I carry but thought better of it–if whatever it was was still alive I needed to get it out of the road before another car came along and hit it again.  I popped the hatch on the back of my car, where I keep a sheet and a large towel for this sort of situation, something I learned to do after I started volunteering at the wildlife shelter.  I glanced nervously at oncoming headlights as I got the sheet out of the back, almost wincing at the anticipated impact–the car seemed to slow down as I hoped it would; thought I saw it angle around the mess on the road, rather than over it.

I was still in my gym clothes–boxer shorts and running shoes, fleece jacket over a tee shirt, I felt ridiculously exposed.  I checked for oncoming traffic then crossed into the middle of the highway where there was a large mess of feathers–a barred owl–splayed across the centerline.  I threw the sheet over it and quickly pulled together in an approximate owl-sized shape, to keep it in the right form, even if its wings were broken.  I held it against my chest and ran back to the side of the road.  There was no movement.

Striding back to my car, one of those huge, aircraft-carrier pick-up trucks pulled along side of me, all glowing and ticking in the rain:  “Hey!” a young guy called from the window–“Did you just get something out of the road?”

“It’s an owl,” I called back.

“It hit my truck, man–”

I don’t remember what I said but I was civil, and he pulled away and I continued to my car with the bundle pressed up against me.  I laid it gently on the passenger’s seat on what I believed to be its back, patted down its shape to see if it was holding together, then I settled behind the wheel, put the key into the ignition, exhaled.

Now what?

I leaned over again and carefully opened the sheet partway–the bird’s dark eyes rolled up in its head like a baby doll’s, but otherwise there was no movement.  I put my hand on its breastbone but couldn’t detect a heartbeat.  Still, no blood that I could see: at least it hadn’t been split open on the impact.

I rewrapped it somewhat loosely, glanced at traffic in the rearview mirror and started the car, pulled back onto the road and drove the last quarter of a mile to the glow of the gas station, rolling through it to the darker empty parking lot on the other side, and stopped again.  It was 9:30–still decent time to call anyone, I thought, so I phoned my supervisor from the wildlife shelter, who lives forty five minutes away.

She picked up immediately, sounded surprised and amused to be hearing from me, probably hoping I wasn’t calling in for my shift the next morning.

“Sorry to bother you at home, but I’ve got a barred owl,” I said in a rush.  “It’s been hit on the road.  In Suquamish.  I can’t tell if it’s alive or not.”

She began immediately asking questions and we started discussing what I could do with it:  could I take it to the shelter?  I knew how to open the clinic.  No, she’d put the alarm on when she left that evening.  What about the emergency vet in Poulsbo, a few miles down the highway?  No, she said, if it was alive they’d just put it in a box and wait to give it to the shelter in the morning, and she didn’t want it to be in pain.  She’d come and get it.

“That’s a long way,” I said.  “I don’t know if it’s still alive.  I can’t feel a heartbeat. There’s that crate outside the shelter–I can drive it over and put it in there.”

“Yeah, but if it is alive I don’t want it spending the night in pain,” she said.  “I’ll drive in and get it medicated–”

“You could talk me through giving the meds.”

“No I can’t,” she said.  “Controlled substance.”

I looked down at the bundle.  The sheet might have appeared to be making very faint movement.

“Wait–I think I’m seeing respiration.  Listen, I really do not want this thing to come to in my car.  I’m going drive it over to the shelter and put it in that crate.”

“That’s fine,” she said. “Go on over and I’ll meet you there in about forty minutes.”

I started the car, and with my right hand on the bundle, slowly wheeled out of the parking lot.  I was coming back into focus myself, and suddenly aware of the possibility of a live owl in my car.  Frantic wingspan. Talons.  My car is a straight stick–continuing to keep my right hand on the bundle, I steered with my left hand, then let go of the wheel and reached through with my left hand to shift into second gear, grabbed the wheel again and got back out on the road–reached through and shifted up into third.  The shelter was about two, three miles off;  and by now I was certain, I was in fact seeing the sheeted bundle rising and falling.  Breathing.

By the time I made it to the stoplight at the casino, now the bird began to make noise–a series of staccato, rasping chirps. “Don’t do it,” I told it as I downshifted with my left hand, then grabbed the wheel and banked through the intersection.  “Do not come to before we get there.”

I turned down the narrow road that leads to the shelter, high woods on either side, with long driveways branching back into the trees.  There could be people walking dogs in the dark, or even deer and other things crossing the road–I didn’t need another collision–still, I pushed it as fast as I dared, tight in my chest hoping I could get the owl into the crate before it came back to full consciousness.  Tension pumping, I took the last curve a little too fast, hit the last straight stretch of road, angled into the gravel driveway of the shelter and coasted up to the clinic.  My headlights flashed on the crate, sitting right next to the back door.  I turned off the car, thought again and turned the headlights back on.  I reached over and picked up the bundle, one hand on each side so the wings couldn’t come away from the body, and raced over to the crate; pressed the bundle against my chest again and opened the crate with one hand, then popped the bird in, sheet and all, closed the wire grate and released the spring closure.

I let out a deep, long breath.

Walking back to the car I could feel the cold air through my damp gym clothes.  Lynne was probably still half an hour away.  I had the time now to do a quick exam, check the bird’s injuries for more information when she got here.  I fumbled through my bag and found the flashlight, turned the headlights off again.  Twisting on the flashlight and narrowing its beam I went up to the crate and opened it, reaching in to the sheet, shining the light on the owl.

The owl rose up suddenly, like Uma Thurman hit by adrenaline in Pulp Fiction, eyes open, talons coming at my bare hands just before I got the door slammed shut again.

I stepped back away, back toward my car into the rain, and spontaneously burst out laughing.

Once Lynne got there and examined the owl, incredibly, the bird was unbroken.  It turned out to be a first year, very large and well-fed, probably female, obviously good at hunting.  Except for that last ill-fated swoop in front of a fast moving truck.

She got pain meds and something for the swelling, and on my regular shift the next morning I was glad to hear the owl clacking in irritation when I opened the door on her cage.  It was a couple of days before she ate, which happens sometimes, but pretty soon her recovery moved along well and she was shifted out into the larger mews.

Yesterday, again on my regular weekly shift, as we were finishing up, Mike, the director, stood looking at the white board that lists the patients.  We had a total of five barred owls now, all having been successfully prey-tested, meaning each had proven it was well enough to hunt again by capturing and eating live mice left in the enclosure.

“Wait a minute,” said Mike, pointing to the board–“that’s the owl you brought in, isn’t it?  She’s ready to go.” He turned and looked at me.  “Do you want to release her tonight?”

Owl releases are done after dusk;  it’s better visibility for the owls, and it cuts down on the potential for harassment from local flocks of crows.

I finished what I was doing while Mike and another volunteer went to catch her, put her into the same crate I’d left her in that night, covered with a large towel.  I picked up the crate and felt movement inside, rustling, irritated.

I met a friend for coffee, to wait for the light to finish going down, which it did quickly.  This is the solstice, a good day for owls.  We get into my car, with the bird crated and covered in the back, thumping the sides irritably, and drive to where I found her, though I turn onto a slightly less busy side-road, a few tenths of a mile further back into the woods.

As if the bird knows where she is, the agitation in the crate increases.  I lift out the crate, still covered, and set it on the ground.  The scratching and thumping from inside gets more frantic.

I check the area–the light is going fast, blue gray between the dark outlines of trees, no traffic–all signs look good, so I reach down and throw back the towel.  The bird lunges forward and I try to keep my fingers clear of the grate as I fumble with the mechanism to open the door.

The owl bolts out;  she pauses at the edge, then flutters her wings and makes a short trajectory, landing in the middle of the road–where she sits for the moment, looking over her shoulder back at me.

“What are you doing?” I shout.  “Don’t do that!  Get off the road!”  We start running toward her, and the bird picks up again into a low, long flight, curving up and away, into the trees.

“Do you see her?”

“There–back there–see that branch that looks like a V?  She’s that dark lump in the middle….”

It is rapidly getting darker.  We stand there a little while longer until the owl shape is no longer visible, telling ourselves we can still see her;  then we turn and head back to the car.

Suddenly I am afraid for her.  It’s a cold night;  headlights from cars whizz by on the nearby roads, one of them the road where she was hit.  My owl is out there alone–a first-year, and she’s been hit once already.  I want to protect her.

–and then I have to ask myself, from what?

Even if Laura and I could run out into the trees and try to wave her back down, get her back into the crate–to take her where?  Back to the flight cage at the shelter?  I think of the owls in the outside mews, up on the high perches, staring out.

I drop Laura back at her car, then go a bit out of my way before heading home.

The sky is dry tonight, which this time of year is saying something.  I see a good chunk of half-moon, glowing up through a film of clouds off to the south;  I imagine the owl sitting back there in the trees, taking readings.  I wonder when she’ll get her bearings, recognize the familiar territory.

It is now so dark there’s almost no way to see anything as I roll past the release area.  The road itself is clear and empty, though dampness and woodsmoke have mixed and drift across in milky bands, my headlights sweeping through.

I feel it again, the huge openness with the young owl out there in the night, and I feel empty.  I feel small myself, and inept, just letting her go.

But what else is there?  We could try, as humans, to lock it all up and manage it–or we can let it do what it’s meant to do.

The owl is out there, and I feel empty–but this is why we do it.  This is a wild bird;  this is what she’s alive for.

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Dahlias in the City

I got a call from a friend in Seattle who had made a shift in her afternoon plans and taken her dog to Volunteer Park.  She hadn’t been there in ages and was calling to ask me if I’d ever seen the dahlia beds there–she was totally enchanted by the variety of colors and size, density and texture.

I have seen the dahlia beds at Volunteer Park, not recently but I’m sure they’re amazing.  When I think of them, though, I cannot help but think of Charlotte.

First of all, I have to make it clear that I never knew Charlotte well;  we met a couple of times and would say hello on the street when we saw one another, but she was also one of those vague, older women on Capitol Hill who may have just said hello to anyone, to cover in case she did really know them.

In the ’60s my friend Annie met Charlotte working at a dive bar on Broadway, nicknamed The Toilet.  Annie had hired on as a bartender, Charlotte was a waitress, and each had lived totally different trajectories that landed them there.

This was a straight bar in a very straight time–it was just a place where people had gone so low no one particularly cared about what anyone else was doing.  It was a small tank of people who drank too much together on a daily basis and that was enough.  Within some time and for reasons I cannot imagine, Annie and Charlotte moved in together and were a couple for somewhere around ten years.

Annie told me that in the summers, on nights when they’d closed the bar and were still too drunk to go home, they’d often head up to Volunteer Park, to the north of the museum where the trees have the air and room to grow to full height and width: Deodar Cedars, Grand Firs, Bigleaf Maples–enormous sillouettes in the dark blue summer night.  In the spirit of bad romantic fiction Annie and Charlotte would bound across the grassy space toward one another, calling out multi-syllable made-up names, Allister, Rosamunde, embracing in the middle of the field, collapsing and cackling.

By the time I met Annie this was all long behind them: she had moved into her own house and sobriety, Charlotte to a basement apartment where she watched soap operas and smoked pot.  But they still counted each other as sort of family and would occasionally get together for a meal or walk.  Annie told me that Char loved to go up to Volunteer Park in the fall to see the dahlias.  She would go to each one and stare, or when no one was watching, pet them–put her hands over the ones that look like honeycombs and gently squeeze.

When Charlotte died, her daughter couldn’t make it up to take care of the arrangements and didn’t really have the money for a burial, so Annie paid for the cremation.  Shortly after that I got a phone call:  I was invited to join Annie and another friend.  They were going to scatter the ashes and then have lunch.  I was at work and only caught up with them at the restaurant, where they told me they had just come from scattering Charlotte in the dahlia beds

“Is that legal?” I asked, and Annie said she had no idea but probably not. “And I didn’t call the Dahlia Society to find out. But it’s the only thing I could think of that Char would want.”  About this time Annie’s friend Don crossed his legs and one of them noticed he had a blob of cremains on his tasselled loafers, and I think we all hoisted our glasses or mugs to Char.

After lunch I drove up to the park myself.  The dahlia beds were fallow that time of year, but very visibly snaking across the topsoil was a fairly thick line of gunpowder gray ash.

Annie is buried now at the old cemetery next to the park.  I placed her ashes in the ground myself, in an urn that fit into the concrete liner that these things go into when they’re interred.  Hers was a much more formal upbringing and the setting is unbelievably stately and austere, but it was her choice to be buried there.  It is possible that being buried at the family plot was her own form of rebellion.

Meanwhile, a block to the south of the pillar and headstones, through the very tall trees, just beyond the conservatory and the children’s wading pool, on a warm fall afternoon the dahlias rise out of the ground on their tall stalks, swathed in their serrated emerald leaves: a mad riot of colors and shapes–some with heads like lions, others like fireworks–reds and yellows and hot oranges and brilliant pinks, creams, and purples and golds.

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Summer in the Neighborhood

 

My small beach town along one of the many jigsaw edges of Puget Sound has a little under a mile of coast line, bordered on each end by Indian land.  The census tells me we have 721 people per each of our five square miles, which the net tells me is low density;  all I know is I have gotten used to the trees and the gravel road and the reported wildlife sightings of everything from the neighbor’s cat to a known regional cougar.  Deer cross my road to get to a small stream that runs through the overgrown brush between yards.  A great blue heron has kept his home in one of my cedar trees for at least five years that I’m aware of, and my property is regularly marked by owls, pileated woodpecker, hummingbirds and songbirds, and visiting osprey–though obviously not all at the same moment.

And it is not unusual to spot eagles, wheeling high above my property in some thermal, lazily scanning beyond the land trust land, out past the houses to the water.  A native American friend looked up off my deck one afternoon and said, “A blessing.”  When I asked him what he meant, he said, “Eagles are the messengers of God.  Whenever I see one, I figure it’s a blessing.”

I knew we had an eagles’ nest in the area but wasn’t sure where, until a storm took out the large, very old tree that held it.  The neighbors whose property it was on were heartbroken: this pair had been returning for several years, raising two chicks each season.

Late this past winter I saw adult birds slowly tracking the sky above my road–two, sometimes three at a time, and I allowed myself to hope they were scouting for new real estate.  In April two I noticed two eagles circling very near my house and I did spot a huge old nest, but it looked too thin to really be in current play–more likely it was the abandoned residence of an osprey that gets regularly run out of the area by this larger crew.  

On a very windy spring day I was walking back home with my dog, and just above us at the top of our hill were two adult eagles, perfectly situated in the jet stream so that they were suspended by the air, one higher than the other, parallel and motionless, while down on our level the wind whipped through the trees.

But then no sightings for quite a while, and I heard nothing from the neighbors.  One day, though, coming up a wooded path that connects my road to the one that runs along the water, I found the body of a small sea duck, a bufflehead.  I looked up and around;  this is a fair bit away from the beach and under thick layers of very tall cedars and fir. The bufflehead didn’t fly up here to die–someone had dropped it.  A week or so later I found another similar casualty in the same area.

Around this same time someone asked me if eagles mate for life.  I wanted to ask if this person was kidding.  I had just recently gotten an e-mail from a man I dated nearly two years ago, who continued, every three or four months, to contact me with flirtatious text message.  Once back when we were actually involved he told me, with great sadness, of his struggle to get over a woman in his past, and to be fully present in his current life.  I was empathetic, until I asked him about it later and noted the description of the woman had changed.  I couldn’t help myself and I referenced her once more, some time after that, and sure enough, The One He Couldn’t Quite Let Go Of had a whole context new and different.  Now getting this e-mail, a more dedicated step than the texts, all I could figure was he must be dating someone who was scaring him, and so had moved me up the slot of the one-that-got-away. He has been thinking of me, he said.  He has realized how special our situation was.  Is he kidding?

The eagles will be a pair until for some reason they’re not.  I’m not sure they’re lesser creatures because of it.  I do know we just really love the stories we tell ourselves about wildlife purportedly demonstrating human ethics, almost as much as we love the ones about humans demonstrating genuinely ethical behavior.

In late June, I began hearing calls–I wasn’t sure if they were eagles or osprey, they didn’t sound quite right–maybe they were gulls?  That didn’t seem right either, but whatever they were, they were insistent and regular:  loud, short screams.  The next time I walked down the path I heard the calls and turned and looked up, just in time to see a huge bald eagle shooting out of the trees toward the water.  The evident peeping continued behind her, and I knew: this was Mom, on her way to get more food for the relentless, obnoxious nestlings.

I was still hearing the voices but not long after that they seemed to be in slightly different places in the local canopy.  They’d become branchers,  the ungainly adolescents of the avian world.  Even if they’re able to fly they don’t believe it, and often cry and cry for their parents through the whole ordeal of edging out the security of the nest.  A friend called around that time, bemoaning her youngest son who was a year out of high school but passively refusing to do much of anything with himself.  I tried to explain that he was just the human variant of a brancher.

By late July I began to see large, dark shapes tangling through the sky.  Not the confident wing strokes of our national symbol, these forms had a visible tension and imbalance; their landings were a mess.  I stood in the street one afternoon, watching them on a pretty good glide, when a car pulled up next to me and my neighbor called out, with all the pride of any parent, “Are you seeing the babies?  They started flying on the 15th!  We got them on video!”

I did not respond to the ex’s email and at this writing I have heard nothing for some time.  My friend’s son just left for college, and he is complaining about his roommate, but we are hoping for the best.

My neighborhood has gone quiet.  The young birds seem to have headed off, with all the daring of sixteen year olds on their first road trip.  They’ll flap around the area sampling food and interfering with other eagle’s territories, ultimately arriving at the December/January confab along the Skagit River, where huge numbers of eagles congregate every year for the salmon runs.

The osprey, though, has returned to the thin nest across the road.  He calls out sharply through the late summer air, between shredding the fish he’s carried up there with him.

I live within a block of an eagle’s nest.

Blessings on us all.

 

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Time Travel

 I just returned from a conference in Chicago.  I was there four days, at a time of year when either region–the Pacific Northwest or the Midwest–is capable of slinging any kind of weather imaginable.  Not quite sure how to pack, I went dressed for the worst, with layered shirts and boots and jeans, and a full-length faux fur that belonged to my mother.

I grew up in Northern Indiana, so Chicago is almost like visiting home.  It was my city of reference, birthplace of my grandmother and father, and my memories of it are the imprints of the big city on a small kid:  the size of the buildings, the hulking shadow of the elevated train tracks, the diesel exhaust from the busses, yellow cabs shooting around like insects.  My childhood Chicago is all about the loop: restaurants with starched white tablecloths and heavy silverware, the old Abercrombie and Fitch with my dad when it was still an “elite outfitter of sporting and excursion goods,” and of course the fourth floor of Marshall Field’s building–toys–though standing in front of them, on a break from this conference, I suddenly remembered that the escalators Up were an attraction on their very own.  My adolescent and teenaged years in the city were about field trips to the museums or to the lake;  after that, forays into Chicago for theater and light opera, a couple of big city drunks.  Then my life shifted west.  At this point, I hadn’t been in the Midwest in over ten years.

I landed in the early evening and shot out of O’Hare riding a blue line train, a smudged yellow tube loosely filled with young people and old people of varying colors, oblong windows showing only obscure darkness, sometimes just tunnel.  Then the train hit its mark and spun me out the doors and through the turnstiles and up to the level of the street, right into nighttime Chicago:  the L train rattled up ahead as I got my bearings in the canyon of tall, dirty buildings and city lights.  I dropped off my luggage at the Palmer House, and coming back out through the revolving door onto Wabash into a stiff wind I was glad for the ridiculous coat.

I walked up to where my friends were having dinner, in the happy throes of a deeply exciting telescoping feeling for me in the Loop:  at the same time I am young, and I am not young;  I am the age and coloring of the adults in my memories, and I am happy over details that would amuse a child.  Striding along with the rest of the street life I am forgotten the moment I’ve been passed by someone going the other direction, so I am free to revel in my nested memories of times and selves and images that leap out from buildings and storefronts and come up back-lit from reserves in my brain.  Left turn on Michigan, more wind off the lake.  Blade-Warrior illuminated images on the side of a structure in Millennium Park–then I’m passing the ice skating rink, with actual people on it, even on a Wednesday night in February.

Another revolving door and into a big-city restaurant, dimly-lit, animated by talk and good music.  I walk through it like I know what I’m doing, and there in a sunken dining room, tucked into a booth, are my friends I hadn’t seen in a year, well-tended by a tall handsome young waiter, the three of us now the middle-aged academic-type women with whom he will engage in humorous banter but who are clearly a seperate generation.  My friends were in no hurry, so I was able to have an excellent dinner in this sunken dining room, our conversation backed up by jazz–it is Chicago after all:  the genuine article–a true American Big City, fed on the Industrial Revolution on the backs and souls of innumerable faceless immigrants, used disposably by the steel mills and slaughter houses.

Between the three of us we represented all domestic time zones, and my friend from the east coast was getting tired.  So after tea and coffee and dessert we headed out, laughing–they’d gotten lost on their way up from the hotel, I was able to take them back directly.  My friend from Colorado is busy looking up and around–“This doesn’t seem as intense as New York,” she says, and I say it has its moments, but no, the streets and sidewalks aren’t as uniformly packed as in New York.   She looks directly up into the sky.   “You can’t see any stars here,” she says.  She does most of her work from a small cabin in the mountains.    “What does that do to people?  Don’t they know they can’t see any stars?”

We stand on the sidewalk on Monroe street, looking up and around, beginning a discussion that will periodically resurface during our time here:  What will happen to the generations of kids living in cities and suburbs and generalized community sprawl, who will not know what the raw night sky really looks like?

The flight back was smooth and uneventful.  We touched down in the soft haze of the Pacific Northwest in March and I caught a shuttle to my car.  The air is thicker with moisture, softer than the Midwest, though it was still cool here, too; wrapping the coat around my legs, I threw myself in to get out to the freeway to make the Edmonds/Kingston ferry, thirty miles north of the airport.

Zooming up the I-5 corridor to Edmonds  the sky is an inky black, but clearer, freer air.  I jumped on to the express lanes at Seneca and missed a back-up from an earlier accident on 520, blowing past it at a cool seventy miles an hour, then merging back onto the freeway at Northgate and looping off into Edmonds a few minutes later.

To get to the ferry I scoot along the outskirts of the little town then drop down a long hill, which offers a momentary, breathtaking look over the Sound, over the whole area:  varying layers of blackness–the gray shapes of high evergreens along the side of the road, barely visible dark mountains on the other side of the deeply black Sound.  I can see the eastbound ferry moving along silently at this distance, its stacked layers of lights crossing the Sound as smoothly as a giant, glowing millipede.  I shoot down the hill to the ticket booth with two minutes to spare–the man in the booth smiles and takes my pass, waves me into the first lane which is already moving for loading, and we all feed slowly into the huge hull of the large double car deck, into its sour yellow loading lights.  Travel sites and the ferry schedule advise it’s a forty-three minute drive from the airport, but I made it in about thirty-five, nailing the 8:30 sailing.

I close the door of my car and head upstairs, finding to my delight that the galley is still open.  Sweeping around it the heavy coat I get a cup of tea, but then realize I really I’m actually hungry for something like real food; the grill still has foil-wrapped burgers and paper scoop of chicken nuggets, and a small container of spicy barbecued chicken wings, which seems to beat the other options; so I get those, then head back down into my car.  I’m not yet ready to interact with people under bright lights.  In my darkened car I open the wings, get a generous padding of napkins, and watch out the darkened ferry deck at the water going by, the lights of the oncoming ferry as we pass it, gleaming on the water–the high hills ahead, in the dark covered with trees, dotted with lights.

I settle in, crossing water for half an hour, amused at this wildness that signifies that I am home:  dark hills of shadowed evergreens, and tonight a significant wind.  I make a note to remind my friend from the conference that the natural sound of wind is another thing most kids today don’t know.   The boat glides up to the landing I wipe my fingers on the serviette and sip mint tea, the small town of Kingston dwarfed by the black sky and swaying to the wind.

I think I’ve noted this before, but I think what we overlook, among so many things in the modern world, is that when zipping around in airplanes and hopping time zones, to launch right back into our regular routine is a bit perilous:  we need to allow time for our souls to return to our bodies.

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The Entities — In My Septic System

I am not normally superstitious.  I’m no longer even practicing the mainstream religion I was baptized into at birth.  But I consider myself a definitive agnostic, as I cannot believe that human beings are the highest life form in the universe, and I do a lot of study of things spiritual.  Sometimes I do feel there are larger forces at work.  And sometimes, I just see it all as one big humorous crapshoot.

Which has led me to a sort of catalogue practice of rituals and displays.  I’ve been known to put up Day of the Dead altars in October, and burn sagebrush to drive out bad energy.  I’ve left money in boxes in cathedrals or lit yahrzeit candles on the anniversaries of the deaths of loved ones, and when I lived in Texas I acquired an entire host of tall glass candles with pictures of obscure or completely hybrid saints, each with instructions printed on the side about how to light them for a variety of needs.

Recently, partly tongue in cheek and with more than a simple glance over the shoulder where you throw the salt, I caught myself creating an altar in my spare bathroom.  It’s a long story, but a friend and I were cleaning out a small rental property we own and as usual we found a bunch of junk left by the tenants.  One piece of this junk was a rusted tin thing about a foot high and wide, maybe three inches deep, which looked like the canopy piece on a Christian altar or stupa from some other spiritual display.  Who knows what it’s meant to be, but since we were about to wade back into the search for new tenants and we were also considering refinancing the building, I thought we might want a shrine to good energy for rental properties.

Considering the diceiness of the current mortgage world, as well as my and my business partner’s shifting personal fortunes, I took the metal thing home, brushed off the rust, and set it on a shelf in my second bathroom, right next to the mirrored medicine cabinet.  Around that time a letter arrived from the bank, advising us that we were nearly ‘there,’ on the re-fi, but advising us the mortgage company needed to double-check some aspects that frankly, I wished they wouldn’t double check.   So I took the letter and put it in the small opening of the little shrine–and things just sort of built up from there.

A natural was to drape the thing with my grandmother’s glow-in-the-dark rosary, then I added a Buddhist mala and to sort of balance things off.  I gave it a candle of course, and over the next few weeks,  whenever the processes dragged on or the lack of communication from the bank seemed ominous I’d be walking down the hall and catch it in my peripheral vision, and I’d veer into the bathroom to consider what more it might need, its wonders to perform.  A carved wooden bat from Shanghai, for instance; a small rubber monster that belonged to an old friend who had passed away;  mardi-gras beads–why not?  Plastic flowers.  Dried flowers.  I almost felt like I was running out of offerings.  Then one day when I got especially gripped by financial dread, I remembered something else.

A few year back, I was brought some very particular gifts from someone who had traveled to Brazil to visit a healer–never mind that she herself was completely healthy, she’s a self-avowed spiritual tourist–anyway, in the process of traveling out to wherever this healer lives, she had interacted with the regional natives.  These enterprising aborigines have apparently fired up a small side industry of selling things to those who come to see the healer.  And not just any sort of souvenirs, by the way–these, I was told, are imbued with Entities.  The healer is possessed by or channeling these entities (it varies as to which), but apparently there are enough entities to go around that they also will sort of inhabit or energize certain crafts made by the local residents.  Not every piece brought back and given to me had entities, I was told, but those that did were very strong with them.

One has to wonder–are these local Indians truly spiritually connected to the other world, or are they savvy opportunists?  Either way, I’m sure they got a fair penny out of the friend who bought this stuff for me:  a necklace of clay-colored seeds and feathers, a woven round neck piece like a medallion, an alarmingly blue feather on a cover for a ball point pen, and two pairs of brightly-colored feather earrings.  And I mean brightly colored:  orange and crimson and turquoise and bright gold.  These could only be natural in the Amazon–except this healer doesn’t live in the Amazon, but what do I know about how far the birds migrate or what could living in the central part of Brazil?  Either these are natural feathers or they’re not, but from what I was told, at least some of them are absolutely lousy with entities.

So I got out these pieces from where I had them stored and added them to the altar, which by now was catching all sorts of intent for me, in addition to the real-estate concerns.  I took the woven medallion and draped it down the front of the shrine, though it seemed to clash with the Mardi-Gras beads, and I took out one pair of the earrings to see how I might hang them or what from.    

Unfortunately, in the process, a few of the feathers fell off.  One entire dangling earring began to shed pretty seriously.

I admit it:  feathers fell into the toilet.

Well, at first I was sort of frantic.  What if these feather had entities?  Was this a decent thing to allow, or should I burn the molted earring in front of the shrine?  I decided against it, since I wasn’t entirely certain these were natural feathers and I didn’t want to end up with toxic fumes.  So I dropped the rest of them into the wicker bathroom wastebasket, but it just seemed sort of cheap:  I mean, these could be spiritually alive, crawling with entities, and there they were, with wadded tissues and chewing gum.

I picked them out of the wastebasket and decided for a burial at sea–sprinkled them back into the loo and prepared to flush them down, and then I wondered:  what do the entities think about this?  Do they care?

What is the spiritual significance of sewers, if any?  The lotus, it is specifically noted, blooms above the muck it rises out of.  I’m betting on the entities just laughing at this whole business: after all, no strings on them at this point, and I can’t imagine that anything sticks.

If I flushed I’d be releasing them into my septic system, which, if they make it past the d-box, goes out into a drainfield in a very fine part of the yard, between some huge old cedars and large rhododendrons that frankly could use some healing.

I flushed.

I imagine the entities as formless spirits, whipping through whatever mediums they’re presented with, laughing, scot-free.     

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Narrows

It should be no surprise to those who know me that I have a number of side obsessions.

A few years back I was dating a recreational scuba diver and I happened to tell him about my fondness for the fact that Puget Sound, and especially the Tacoma Narrows, is home to some of the largest of the large octopus, the Giant Pacific Octopus. Don’t ask me why, but I love thinking of them down there—in one of the deepest and coldest parts of the sound, happy and unmolested, doing whatever giant octopuses do—poking their eyeballs up to the edge of their caves, lying in wait for small human submarines to devour.

However, my gentleman then told me I was wrong: he had dived in the narrows and he’d never seen a single octopus. In fact, he said, the currents are too fast and too strong for them there—and he wouldn’t hear anything else about it.

I want to tell you, this broke my heart—and it also irritated me pretty seriously, because I had heard this information for years and I was confident it was true. But nothing was going to sway him: he was a diver, I was not, therefore he knew more than I did about this. The Narrows was too violent for octopuses, even if they held on with all eight legs, the pressures would pry them loose and flush them into the greater Sound.

I perhaps do not need to mention that this was not a long-lasting liason.

The natural world, unfortunately, cannot defend itself against human arrogance, delusion, and stupidities.

I will not reconstruct here the list of ‘facts’ we have rewritten to suit our needs, even on issues as petty my former beau’s ego needing to be expert. The truths about the natural world that we have ignored, altered, maybe even just innocently gotten wrong, it’s all pretty stunning and more than a disturbing, considering where these elaborate self-deceptions are leading.  But we continue: when anything in the natural world interferes with what we humans think we know, what we might want to do, it is so incredibly easy for us to turn the perspective just enough to reframe reality to suit ourselves.

But the natural world may win out in the end: the question may be whether or not human beings will be around to realize it.

I go to an annual New Year’s party in Seattle, and with the timing and traffic, rather than catching a ferry it’s often easier to come back to where I live by driving around, though it’s important to keep alert—the I’5 corridor between Seattle and Tacoma can be like a bad video game of drifting taillights, a dreamy world of bright red tracers. Especially late at night it’s easy forget they are attached to large torpedoes hurtling along at more than sixty miles an hour.

Then after crossing the Narrows the traffic drops off pretty fast and the highway becomes empty, the night velvety, easy to feel transported to a David Lynch movie, losing sight again of the immediate act of piloting a swiftly moving vehicle.

Still, I like the drive, especially after social gatherings. Once in the car and on the highway I can settle back into my own shell, digesting the feast as well as the unusual stimulation of groups of interesting people. My thoughts coalesce, as they were on Thanksgiving, coming onto the approach of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and for a moment I thought back to that annoying ex.  Now, a couple of years later, I can be more charitable.  Seriously, who among us doesn’t suffer from personal delusions?

Because by now, I have taken initiative and done my research. The truth about the Giant Pacific Octopus is that yes, absolutely they live in the Tacoma Narrows. They have been studied there, tagged for research there;  there are even romantic stories of huge specimens living in the ruins of the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the infamous Galloping Gertie.   At the time of construction it was the third longest suspension bridge in the world, but reportedly could be detected swaying in strong wind before it was even completed.  In November of 1940 (why, this very time of year!) the bridge ripped out after writhing in forty mile an hour winds.  It has been rebuilt, obviously, but the original wrecked span lays deep below the waters of the Narrows, listed as both an ‘artificial reef’ and reference  #92001068 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hurtling across this bridge, I consider more facts:

The water at the Narrows is over 200 feet deep.  The center span of the bridge is 187 feet above the water, and after midnight, I will be driving on that span, held up by towers rising three hundred feet above me into the night.

Aldous Huxley famously said, “Just because one ignores facts doesn’t mean they go away.“

In this season of resolutions we can hope for a world that learns to look more at what is, before trying to fit it into the expedient narrative human beings want.  On a more personal level we could consider becoming more open minded, even to one another, regardless of what it does to our own defenses.

As on Thanksgiving, something in me will jump as I cross the Narrows—thinking of the 187 foot drop to the water and the 200 feet of water below that–ice cold, ink-black–the ruins of the bridge wedged down there–

And the octopus–attuned to the pitches and strains beneath the water, living in a rhythm of tides that roll at 8.5 miles per hour, 12.5 feet per second.

They are there.

Rock on, octopuses

Happy New Year, Planet.

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December 21st, 2011

This year more than I can remember I’ve been keenly aware of why nearly every northern culture has created an almost tribal, communal celebration in this season, centered around light; and it makes further sense that many of them have been imbued with mystical or spiritual importance. The days are bright and cold, almost brassy in the decreasing sunlight; evening darkness is early, heavy, and very thorough. It is dangerously easy for the single soul to become separated and isolated, crouching around a single bright fire, staring into it. Everything feels charged with unstated importance and a quiet immediacy.

More than one friend remarks that Mercury has been retrograde, putting us into a clamorous cosmic position, but in my case, this whole year has seemed retrograde– starting with signing off on a brief but potent affair, immediately followed by learning of the serious illness of a very old friend, then the death of another friend of thirty years. There was a sinister and weird episode of parking lot insurance fraud in April which led to my insurance getting cancelled when a legitimate accident in July totaled my car. My dog lost an eye, the septic system required sudden overhaul, and just when I thought I might be able to squeak out a safe finish to the year, a bit of arson at a rental property in the city.

There are nine days left to 2011, and if these sorts of things recognize the Gregorian Calendar, I am at least considering a short bid of living like a nun if it will help.

On the other hand, the regional native American tribes consider the solstice to be the indication of the new year, so perhaps I am already there.

Tonight, out here the darkness isn’t just deep, it’s palpable.

It’s very cold, damp, but clear: the tall evergreens turn to black against the sky, a very dark ink blue, small silver stars starting to come into focus.

There are only a few hours left, and I’m happy to send them off, witness them silently burning away, cradling in myself a spirit of openness to what’s to come.

A new season, a new year.

More light.

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Presence of Mind

My work season has hit and I am finding myself really unhappy about it. I am happy about the things work affords me, but I have to trick myself into actually doing it, which essentially doubles my effort. So I take a number of small breaks.

This afternoon I intend to take the dogs on a good walk before the rain sets in tonight, but before we get started I am distracted by some projects in the yard from over the weekend. “Yard” really is not the right word for my property: rather than manicured or even scaped, this is land around my house that I’m encouraging back to a natural, wooded state. Of course I’m selective about what grows in this “natural” habitat. Weeds and blackberries and the encroaching English ivy are all torn out; salal and Oregon grape are perfectly welcome, and from there I’ve repatriated a number of the ornamental pines and rhododendrons planted by the previous owner. I’ve added a beautiful shrub rose bush, and two eucalyptus trees which are not the least bit native to the Pacific Northwest.

The yardwork is actually a necessary response to my recent septic repair, and as I am grading out topsoil and wondering about moving things out of my drainfield, my mind becomes caught up with thoughts about The Unexpected: I did not see septic repair coming at me, though I have been keeping an eye on my roof—I live alone, I am not particularly handy with home repair (though I may be better off than a lot of women) and unchecked, my mind begins to ruminate on the need to be more prepared. I was once a landscape laborer, though, and as I move a bit of gravel from the driveway to the re-set garden stairs, I think of how happy I am, directly working on things like this. The immediate, physical tasks keep me in the moment and offer very satisfying small achievements, sometimes many in a single day’s effort. As opposed to the other work we humans have fabricated for ourselves, jobs that are largely trumped up employment all based around human-created reality. Because the 9-5 did not exist, it was apparently necessary to invent it.

I wonder if at this point in my life I am becoming one of those middle-aged women who is always working in the yard—no one ever seen with her, no garden parties or evenings in these yards, just one sternly focused woman with dirt on her hands. I have never aspired to this and the thought is yet one more alarming thing I can add to the jumble in my head: future repairs and unforeseen household perils, work avoidance, impending age.

I gather the leashes, hook up the crew, and head out of the gate before things get any worse.

It is a beautiful windy afternoon. The dogs and I are ruffled by the gusts and breeze, and once we get out onto the road, dirt and compacted gravel, we find that big branches have already been downed, and we are swirled by a sharp, fresh scent of blown evergreen. I love wind, but living out in the woods, I’ve developed a new anxiety that strong weather means the power going out. It happens regularly enough and sometimes long enough that it’s becoming an effort to enjoy the natural intensity and not get dragged into worrying about whether I have enough candles, or if I’ll have the ability to make a hot cup of coffee when I get back home.

We walk down a road where the high cedars and fir give way to the cleared land of a small organic farm. They do a great business for their size, providing produce to a number of good local restaurants and several regional farmer’s markets, offering a weekly subscription service and special orders at the holidays. From the road we can see the chickens along the side of a small hill, free ranging. They are beautiful: caramel-colored chickens, large buff colored chickens, some that look like black and white checks; the sun shoots down through the cloudcover, illuminating their very red combs. Unconcerned by the wind the chickens are all comfortably pecking at things under a big-leaf maple. A section of farm fence cordons off the next area, home to perhaps fifteen or twenty heirloom turkeys. I love going past the turkeys, natty in their plumage, ridiculous and curious. They’re not entirely filled out yet, sort of young adult turkeys the size of bowling pins doing the famous turkey noises as they turn to watch me and the dogs coming along the road, some of them approaching the fence to get a better look at us.

The new-autumn wind picks up but the chickens and turkeys don’t care—a few of them lift their telescoping necks and peer into the gust. What does a turkey think, as it wanders through the grass on a windy afternoon in early October?

And with that thought I am struck by a message for the group of us—a gift from these charming, doomed birds to me. It is a beautiful autumn afternoon, wind in cool surprising drafts, sunlight on the grass and on ourselves, and it is worth everything. It is what we have. I collect the dogs and go on with my walk, on into the moment.

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The Oil Crow

So there’s this man.  He goes to restaurants and other businesses that have large kitchens and he buys up their used cooking oil—the stuff from the deep fat fryers and anything else, I suppose, and he takes it away to turn it into biofuel or something.  Modern alchemy.

One day this man goes to a Mexican restaurant that keeps their used cooking oil in big metal drums out behind the building.  But the restaurant was careless and did not cover these drums, and when the man went up to it he found two black birds—crows, or baby ravens, overwhelmed, in the oil.

I don’t know more specifics about the scene than that—I don’t know if they were struggling to keep their heads up or if it took him a minute to realize they were still alive;  had they even gone under the surface and were maybe just still twitching?

All I know is the man somehow maneuvered them out of the drum of oil and into a plastic bucket where the oil could run off of them, and then he brought the bucket to the wildlife shelter where I volunteer.

At first we weren’t sure exactly what kind of black birds they were:  they were literally soaked in oil, and it was two rounds of washing, not an easy operation, before they were clean enough to really examine.  The smaller of the two didn’t make it, largely because the other bird, in its desperation, stood on his head the whole time they were in the bucket, and the little one might have had trouble clearing the cooking oil out of his lungs.

The surviving bird was taken to a clean cage and offered a plate of grapes and crickets and soaked dog food.

Because of their shape and beaks at first we thought they might be baby ravens, but given time, the surviving bird proved to be a crow—I almost said ‘a common crow’, though I really don’t think there’s anything common about it.

Something about this story has felt like a fairy tale to me from the start.  The crows in the vat of the cooking oil—the black feathers and round eyes up through the viscous gold oil—the odd echoe  of spontaneous generation,  the crows rescued by a passer-by.

It has taken almost a month for the feathers of the surviving crow to be clean enough for him to fly again, and there’s still talk that he might get one more bath before release.
He has since been moved to a larger mew with thick branches about four feet off the ground. He can fly back and forth and can look out through the wire mesh at the outdoors, feel the winds starting to come up with the change of seasons.

This past Friday I went in to clean his cage, clear away the grapes and dog food he had left from the day before, check to see that the rat problem we’re experiencing hasn’t spread to his building, though for some reason I think he could probably defend himself against any marauders.  He’s already gone from one reality into another like a survivor from another world, and he’s come through it.

He wasn’t happy that I was there as I leaned down to clean, and was hopping madly from one large branch to the other all the way across the mew, short bursts of flying high over my head.

I kept wondering, if I knew the right question, if I asked correctly,  would he give me, what—three wishes?

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