It comes upon you suddenly

This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on Jan. 28, 2019

Joel Ye fog forest

Fog is like water, in the valley where I live.

As dusk approaches, rivulets of cold air flow down the slopes and gullies of the surrounding mountains. They pool in the flats, the horizon line where dark brush rises from snow blurring as if smudged, the softness blending up, beginning to erase the world. Leaves and twigs vanish, then treetops. Layers like organza drift in one atop the other, settling toward the ground, light sighs of cloud. They sink the riverbed into sleep. They call other things awake.

It’s a good time to go walking up to the naked knoll behind my house, the day bending toward 3 o’clock, several hours of work completed, but still an hour and a half before sunset. So a week into the new year, I leashed my dog Taiga and headed out up the snowpacked road, through a metal gate onto an unplowed Forest Service route, then a sharp turn up a snowshoe-trampled singletrack, winding between the darkening trees.

Melt clattered through clumps of chartreuse wolf lichen spackling the ponderosas, leaving rings of yellow in the snow below. The dog nosed the powder, noting the passage of every creature. She was eager to be out after a week confined to the house, recovering from a knee sprained in deep snow on this very trail. I settled into my breath, feeling my own housebound hours trickle out of my loosening bones and muscles, more animal now, finding my pace. The trail left the trees for a stretch, crossed a pure white slope where I paused to watch the mountains wrap away into the fog’s blanket, then ducked into a dark little draw and climbed the iciest stretch, 30 minutes in, near to the top now.

The phone buzzed and I fished it from my pocket—a text from a friend I hoped could dogsit during an upcoming reporting trip, something that couldn’t wait. Thumbing in my reply, I glanced up at Taiga, dragging me forward by the other arm. Her ears – little triangles of attention—aimed to the top like an arrow, suddenly swiveled towards something to my left.

I turned from the screen, then, let my hand fall. I registered a brown shape coming on. How near it was. Maybe 10 feet away. Seven. Silent. So silent. Moving with purpose. More…

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The ocean mummies

IMG_5999This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on May 3, 2018

The Atacama Desert is country that wears quiet like a skin. Stretching through the top 600 miles of Chile, it is so spare of all save earth and rock that it calls to mind bone stripped of flesh by sun, wind, teeth. It is a place that makes you understand why the painter Georgia O’Keeffe saw in pelvises and skulls the curves of desert hills. But the Atacama is more naked still than the Southwestern deserts she loved. When you think of desert, probably you think of Sonora or Chihuahua,” a Chilean biologist recently told me—the vast, brutal deserts of northern Mexico. “They are forests compared to Atacama.”

Pause and listen for a moment: Where does the sound you hear arise? In most places, it comes from life and water. Voices and the growl of cars. The burble of rain and rivers. The rustle of leaves. In the Atacama, what sound there is comes from wind. What life there is goes underground: Spiders lizards birds, finding homes in the cool dark of holes. When Rudulfo Amando Philippi, a German naturalist, made a famous expedition across this desert in the mid-19th century, he improvised by sheltering in the shadow of his mule.

But at night, the Atacama does have a song, and it comes from the sea to the west, on the other side of the mountains. More…

The Screamers of Artist Point

27999702_10155351500531463_356455228_oThis post originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on February 18, 2018

It starts quietly enough. At around 9:30 a.m., I strap snowshoes to my feet and part ways with some friends bound for a backcountry ski. While they skin over a nearby saddle, my dog Taiga and I shuff our way into the stream of snowshoers along the boundary of the Mt, Baker Ski Area, headed for Artist Point. It’s not a long hike, nor an extreme one, but the hordes jostle and slip like drunks. One guy slides on his side in slow motion down the steep hill, parallel to the trail, unsure how to get his snowshoes back under him.

“You could dig in your ski pole to self arrest,” I suggest gently. “I am!” he exclaims, continuing to slide past, his poles dragging unused across the slope.

Maybe he’s overwhelmed, I muse, continuing on.

“What happens all winter; the wind driving snow; clouds, wind, and mountains repeating—this is what always happens here,” the poet Gary Snyder wrote of this place one long-gone August, looking towards the edifice of Mount Shuksan from his post at the Crater Mountain Fire Lookout. Today, though, is the first truly sunny day of the year.

The hanging glaciers of Shuksan gleam blindingly above us. Thick snow spackles every surface, like lavishly applied frosting on a carrot cake. A short, huffing climb farther on, the ridge is all smooth, luscious rises and swooping depressions—not baked goods now, but hips and shoulders and bent knees. Cornices hang bluely from the rocky clifftops; dark conifers wink out from sculpted carapaces of white.

I walk around in my sweat-damp clothes, stunned by this vision that is at once food and flesh and neither of those things. More…

In Visibility

Polar Bear

This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on Dec. 7, 2017

On Tuesday, I texted my friend Michelle a brief video clip of a polar bear.

The bear is starving, all jutting hips and elbows, its fur sparse except for a thatch along its spine and Clydesdale tufts around its plate-sized paws. As with any bear, there is something disturbingly human about the shape of its body, about its movements and mannerisms. It staggers along on a green mat of tundra, foam dripping from its mouth. Dips its face into a rusty barrel and pulls out what appears to be a hunk of rotten meat. Sprawls on the ground, nose to earth, defeated by the visibly difficult work of breathing.

Watching the bear, I covered my mouth with one hand, suppressing tears. This perfect summary of unchecked climate change was like a knife to the kidney. Without sea ice, polar bears can’t hunt seals. And we are to blame.

“I honestly don’t think I can watch that,” Michelle replied. “I can’t get down with the voyeurism of photography generally.”

Michelle—an artist who’s been thinking a lot about polar bears and the Arctic these days—does not shy from engaging tough topics. What bothered Michelle was the lack of direct agency. The doing nothing in the face of such obvious suffering and then using the suffering to convey a message. Some key step had been skipped. More…

Unintentional treevotee

This post originally appeared at the Last Word on Nothing on November 20, 2017

Larry and treeI never meant for this to happen.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest from arid Colorado three years ago, I was one of those people who insisted on horizons.

The town where I was born is a place where the foothills of the Rockies stand like a cliffy coastline overlooking a dry sea of plains. From their height, you can watch the change of light roll through the day like surf, can see storms so far away that lightning comes without sound—a flicker on the dark edge of awareness.

Even now, if you asked me what landscape makes me feel so big and free that I might crack right in half, I would say alpine tundra—the naked, velvet crowns of our sky islands, with their pikas and marmots and ptarmigan, with their cushion plants smaller than mixing bowls but older than I’ll ever be.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I worried that all this lush and green would make me soft. My friend Ben told me that the first thing I’d notice was how nice everyone’s skin is, compared to the weathered hide that passes for such on we Coloradans. Western Oregon, after all, is a place insulated from the UV glare of the sun by a few thousand extra feet of atmosphere, by dozens of extra days of cloudcover, by air so thick with moisture that it’s practically water. Indeed, as soon as I arrived, I spent a lot less money on lotion. My blood pressure mysteriously dropped 20 points and stayed there. More…