The ritual: When science feels like elegy in advance

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This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on Aug. 31, 2017

Each morning, when the fog was thin enough to see, I went to the cliffs.

I’d park the white pickup down a grassy ATV trail. Or off the main dirt road on a pullout. Or in the turnaround at the island’s southwesternmost point, where, when the wind was up at sea, waves coming from the south and west slapped together in explosions of spray and sound that I could feel like thunder in my chest.

At most of the sites, I walked below the cliffs, tracing the strip of cobbles between their toes and the surf, watching carefully for fur seals. When asleep, the giant pinnipeds look just like wet, sea-rounded stones; it would not be hard to step on one. More than once I nearly did. The startled seal would heave its fat-rolled body up on its improbably long flippers, arc its improbably small hedgehog head forward, and roar. Startled me would levitate backwards, moving faster than I thought possible across rocks slick with algae.

At a place called High Bluffs, I walked the cliff tops, staring 600 feet down their faces. Hills rolled inland from the island’s steep margins, like their own slow ocean swell, and my pants soaked as I pushed through the waist-high grass that covered them.

Arctic foxes, dark brown with summer, sometimes watched my progress. Their ears poked above the flowers and seedheads, and they coughed out an eerie metronome of barks if I got too close to pups concealed nearby in a den. I loved them best of all, but I didn’t come for the foxes. I didn’t come for the seals, either. I came to Saint Paul for the birds. More…

The Trouble with Abundance

IMG_8731This post originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on February 1, 2017.

There are several things you’re likely to notice if you fly over Southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago on a clear day. If you’re an alpine junky like me, the first will be the snowcapped mountains that stretch seemingly without end from near the coast to the eastern horizon somewhere in Canada, their white-and-gray-tongued glaciers pouring all the way to the sea. The second is the serene sea itself, scattered with more than 1,000 islands that jut down from the state along the coast like a shattered thumb. The third thing, the thing that Southeast Alaska and British Columbia have in greater abundance than just about everywhere else on Earth, is drippy, sponge-floored old-growth temperate rainforest.

It furs the near-coast foothills, the lower toes of peaks and all those islands for miles—dark, silvered at the edges with hanging lichens and mosses, youthful with saplings, wise with centuries-old giants, boney with standing snags. It looks like the hide of something Maurice Sendak would have drawn, or of one of Jim Henson’s fantastical creatures, or of something you can’t quite imagine at all. It looks wild in the truest sense of the word. More…

River Time, River Tongue

This post appeared on Last Word on Nothing Aug. 28, 2016.

IMG_6792It was a bird of confluences. Nameless, to us. Gray as cloud belly, large as raptor, with eyes streaked over black as if with a stick of charcoal.

The first time I saw it, I stood shin deep in the narrow, clear Pitman River, steps away from the line of opaque jade water marking its union with the Upper Stikine River. The Stikine flows through a landscape sawed at the margins by endless mountain ranges, and is one of three great salmon-bearing rivers that originate in a swath of northern British Columbia known as the Sacred Headwaters. My present purposes were neither great nor sacred, though: I had splashed into the water to pee, or rinse my face, or both, but not in that order, when the bird caught my attention.

It moved while remaining nearly motionless. Its body was fixed in a soaring cross, with narrow, scythe-like wings and a long bill, and it swung in slow arcs a dozen feet above my head, out over the main current, then back. A juvenile gull maybe, or some searching ocean bird thrown improbably far inland. If silence were a creature, it would be this one. More…

The Great Horny Owl

This satirical science post, part of a series of posts and making fun of the hyperbole of shark week, that ran on The Last Word on Nothing June 28, 2016.

Owls. Little downy Ewoks. Fat and fusiform with big round eyes, legs feathered like miniature pilot pants in a stiff wind, perhaps a pair of droopy tuft ears. What is more trustworthy than droopy tuft ears? They appear as if they will take your deepest secrets to the grave. Perhaps this is why owls decorate a wide variety of hipster girl paraphernalia.

But beware, because owl tufts are not really ears. And this is where the treachery begins. Instead, owl ears are clandestine, twisted caverns, buried out of sight on either side of the bird’s sinisterly rounded skull. Worse, one is high, and one, low – an asymmetry that allows owls to triangulate on the exact location of sounds. Sounds made by things they will snab with their razor sharp talons and eviscerate with weird, hooked little nose-job beaks. Things like…YOU. More…

The Map Box

This post originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing June 10, 2016

IMG_5220I keep a wooden box on my bedside table.

It’s cheap – an old Yalumba Wine case that I found on a curb somewhere, with a hinged lid and a shred of price tag still attached. Usually, it’s stacked high with magazines half read, a thing seldom opened and often dusty. But in all of the houses where I’ve lived in two states, I’ve kept it within hands’ reach of where I sleep.

What it contains is difficult to describe.

Nominally, it’s a collection of maps. I found the first in 2007 at an Aspen, Colorado thrift store – a treasure of a place where you could pick up the castoffs of the rich with the scrapings from your pocket. Designer dresses crammed in the back of the 50-cent bin; $300 jackets for the price of a sandwich. Rifling through the shelves of the basement book room, my hands closed on a gallon ziplock so fat it couldn’t seal. Old topographical maps of the surrounding warren of peaks and redbanked creeks spilled from its mouth, along with several hand-drawn novelty maps of the same, and giant dog-eared Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps of deserts further west, all the way into Utah. More…

Flying Forests

This post appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on April 8, 2016

Flying forest headerCorvids are a wonderful genre of beast.

I was reminded of this fact not long ago when, biking back home across southeast Portland from the waterfront, a veritable river of crows began streaming overhead. Thousands of them blurred and bobbed and circled each other in a stuttering current from east to west. This current eddied over warehouses. Spilled over parking lots. Formed a recirculation hole over the freeway, then fanned into a delta and out of sight beyond the skyscrapers of downtown. Corvid biologist John Marzluff later told me that the crows were likely heading for a communal roost to settle for the night. There’s one in his home city of Seattle that’s 15,000 strong.

Besides coalescing into this sort of breathtaking “murdermuration,” as I’ve decided to call it, crows recognize their dead, understand analogies, and one species, the New Caledonian crow, even makes its own tools.

Yet while crows and ravens get most of the attention, smaller members of the corvid family like jays and nutcrackers are out in the world busily building and rebuilding forests. Not on purpose, of course, but through a behavior charmingly called “scatter hoarding,” which basically involves stashing seeds around in various places for later devourment. (The same phrase could easily describe the way I distribute books throughout my house.) More…

The day I tried to love ticks

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This post appeared in The Last Word on Nothing on February 26, 2016.

There’s a certain category of mundane but distinctly unpleasant discovery: The blueberries you just mixed in your oatmeal explode mold into your mouth at 6 a.m. You read that Donald Trump won the Nevada Republican caucuses. You roll over in bed to find a tick lodged midriff-deep in your shoulder, wiggling about with a tenacity that suggests she plans to spelunk all the way through to your lungs.

“Fortuitously, the antibiotic you take prophylactically for Lyme disease is also the one you take to treat Chlamydia,” the doctor tells me cheerfully a day later when he checks the bruised and swollen bite and gives me a prescription. I stare at him, wondering why he thinks I need this information. It’s unlikely that I’ve got Lyme. Though local incidence is going up, Oregon saw only 44 reported cases in 2014 and Washington generally gets fewer than 30 a year – with just zero to three stemming from local ticks. But the fact that odds are in my favor fails to cheer me as I pluck tick after ever-more-engorged tick from my dog over the next several days. They’re small and hide well in her fur, so unless they pop out of her ears and stroll calmly across her face (some do) I can’t seem to find them until they’re attached and on their way to becoming fat and shiny as coffee beans.

Their emergence is, of course, just as much a sign of spring as the lovely purple grass widows my friend Roger and I had been out looking for when tickmageddon started last Saturday. By tick 10, I started to wonder: Aside from their reputation for transmitting more diseases than any other blood-sucking arthropod, why shouldn’t I find a way to appreciate ticks, too – from a safe distance away? Maybe I could even learn to love them a little bit. Continue reading The day I tried to love ticks