Friday, December 26, 2008

Spying on Sycamores

Back last spring, I watched to see the first buds on a rank of sycamore trees that march down the center of Indian Hill Boulevard. Something strange happened. About half the trees turned yellow green, then darker green, then leafed out fully, leaving the other half still looking lifeless. I noticed that the leafed out group had gray, rough bark on their trunks while those still quiescent had white trunks, lightly mottled with gray and green blotches. A week went by, then the second crop of trees began to green and they fully leafed out too. At first, I conjectured that the sycamores were all the same type and there had been some kind of "beautifying" attempt to remove the gray bark from the white ones, making them slow to lift nutrients to their branches. But the seasons have turned, and I've looked at the trees every morning when I drive to work for three fourths of the year, and their trunks haven't changed. Now, I'm waiting to see if the two groups will lose their leaves at different times. Sycamore is stingy with its leaves. They turn a browny-yellow and hang on a long time. I remember, though, that last spring not a one had any leaves, so they'll go some time. A Santa Ana wind will come along to encourage them. Will they all go together when they go? I'm watching.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fall Is Finally Here

We used to get fall around Halloween, but that didn't happen this year. It's fall now in Claremont. The big elms along the street in front of Memorial Park shed yellow leaves the size of lemons, and they swirl lazily in the air as they fall on passing cars. The tulip trees had a few yellow leaves near the trunks last week, but this week all but a few leaves have turned yellow. The sweet gums, or liquidambers, turn red, orange, or yellow at what seems random. In my front yard, one is green but for one branch of yellow leaves, and the other was dark red but has lost almost all its leaves. The gum balls on its nearly bare branches dot the sky. These two are as close to being in the same environment as possible, but act quite differently every fall. There are lots of eucalyptus trees, still green and always will be. But I try not to drive under them now, because in the driest part of the year, they might drop a branch and clobber me. The wood is terribly dense and the tree has evolved this mechanism to get rid of some of its substance when water is very limited. Too bad for any person passing beneath.

Monday, August 4, 2008

News from China via Neilson

Yesterday's NYT contained a magazine-format China Olympics feature. Far more engaging than the pedestrian articles it contained was a series of 'pop quizzes' from Neilson on issues like what kind of ice cream do American's prefer? One eye-opening pop quiz asked for the country in the world with the most cell phones. It was China (suprise!). It made me wonder how well controlled the site-exploration for cell phones is. I found out myself that there is a 30 second tape delay on network news. When I was in China, one of the news shows in English I watched covered a Tibet demonstration (I found this out when I returned to the USA). In my hotel, what I saw was this: newscaster sitting in front of a map of Tibet, says, "Today in Lhasa...", then the screen goes totally blank for 2 minutes. When he resumed, there was no announcement. So TV is under tight wraps. The news has been full of the censorship of the journalists' internet connections at the Olympics newscenter and the hotels. But phones? Maybe they offer a loop hole, who knows?

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Enigma of "The Starry Night"

Van Gogh painted one of his most famous paintings, “The Starry Night,” just over a year before he died. He was interested in night long before that, though. The curator of a current show of his work has found that he hand-copied pages of night descriptions, both scientific and poetic, into his journals. In novels, he often sought out passages concerned with the night for special notes. He wrote to friends such as Gauguin and Bernard about his ideas about night, and sketched drawings on his letters. Curator Pissarro found he also owned books concentrating on the theme of night, like “What the moon saw” by Hans Christian Anderson. It’s interesting to me that this curator found the night-theme in Van Gogh’s work so many years after his death, when no one else had particularly noticed it. What might we be focusing on that no one would note until long afterward?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hawk and Cat

Yesterday, I was looking out my back window and heard a rush of wings. Next, a cat, nicely striped with a white bib of fur, jumped six feet straight up, grabbed the top of the wooden fence, and clambered onto it. Then, the hawk stooped on the cat but didn’t quite get his talons into her fur. She skittered along the top of the fence under some hanging fronds of wisteria, ducking her attacker. The hawk was not ready to give up, though. With another audible wing beat, the hawk swooped again, brushing aside wisteria, but missing the cat a second time. The cat had jumped down on the other side of the fence. On the way dodging the hawk, the cat paused to give me what sure looked like a conspiratorial grin. I am perfectly well aware that ethologists caution us against anthropomorphizing animals so I shouldn’t say she gave me a “conspiratorial grin.” Sorry, that’s what it looked like. Why else would she pause to look my way when a hawk was swooping over her? I can’t think of another excuse for it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wisdom from Jennifer Lynch and Mary Oliver

A new movie directed by Jennifer Lynch, “Surveillance,” is coming out this week. Her last film was, as they say, “a disappointment.” It was released when she was 24; now she’s 40. In an interview by Dennis Lim in the LAT on May 22, she said, “If there’s one gift I’ve been given from both my parents…it’s the idea that you make the work you want to make—the joy is in the making. Once it’s done, you let it go, and you move on.” I like the idea of the joy in the making process; it’s similar to writing where the vision and the attempt to capture it in words, either on the first try or through re-visioning it, is where the joy lies. The submission/rejection dance is the diffucult part. For the joyful experiences to continue, getting the writing published is important. I read Red Bird, a book of poetry by Mary Oliver, over the weekend. I’m not sure she struggles any longer to get her work published, now that she’s a well known poet. But if she does, I am profoundly thankful that she persists. Such a connection to natural beauty threatened, to the wisdom of nature, to people’s halting efforts to find joy in each other, is (as Master Card would say) priceless.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Following the Wandering Virginia Woolf

I just reread “A Room of One’s Own” and marveled anew at the way it feels. I have a friend whose brilliant mind skips and skitters about just like Woolf depicts here, captures for us to admire. I never know where our conversations will jump to next, and that’s what reading this essay is like. But of course, having read it before, I never had that impatience that I sometimes get with my friend, imagining there isn’t really a destination. For both Woolf and my friend, there is. The tour around Robin Hood’s barn is the best route there. You accumulate the same moss on the initial ideas that the author/friend has accumulated, and rejoice with her at your joint arrival at the final destination. You carry along the same rejection at the Bodleian Library, the same admiration of threepenny press writers who put food on their tables when women were just beginning to write for money. As a scientist, I have a problem with discursive approaches to meaning. All of my training insists that the simplest path is the most elegant, the most desirable. But now that I’m getting to the age of sage-ing, I can admit it. The wandering way can be even better.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Long, Slow Wave

A long, slow wave rolling in: does it matter if it’s in Newport or Capitola? Actually, yes, it matters a lot. My favorite spot in Newport is the back bay, where the tide rolls in with tiny wavelets, filling the muddy flats with shining blue sheets reflecting the sky, waking up the snails and the crabs, and exciting the prancing snowy egrets and the stalking avocets. In Capitola, it’s a big crest, out beyond the kelp beds, swelling above them and then beginning to break in a nicely shaped curl. Hundreds of seagull scream and circle into a thermal updraft. The wave entices the black-suited surfers to jump aboard and show their acrobatic switches and flips in and out of the breaking edge. Watching water is the only common thread.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Greened Up and Leafed Out

Now that it’s almost May, all of the slow coaches among the trees on my route have finally leafed out. Jacarandas and elms in the shade, plus a few oaks, were the tardiest. But they don’t see it that way; their time is just right to make leaves now. It wasn’t their time earlier. One tree is probably dead, it stands stark without even a swelled bud on its branch tips. My cherry has vibrant red leaves and the berries hide in them and splat on the sidewalk, where the bluebirds and crows pick at the remains. The hummingbirds love the sycamore in front, but some mornings they click so loud and long we can tell something is wrong. It’s a hawk, sitting on the other sycamore or on the ancient TV antenna, looking hungrily around for a tasty bite. When the hawk launches into the air and cruises away on patrol, the hummingbirds click far less, settle into a low volume, sound content.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Feeling Groovy Again

I heard the Simon and Garfunkle song with the refrain, “Feeling Groovy,” yesterday and it made me think about seeing and feeling. The singer greets the objects in his life as if they are friends, has time to “watch your flowers growing.” Once, when the song was new, I was connected to nature more or less that closely. Then, I began to focus on my work and ignore the natural world around me. Only recently have I tuned in again, seen the moon’s phases, the trees antics with losing and regaining leaves, the clouds in the sky. I am happy to be seeing nature again, and hope to stay connected. With the song, I’m feeling groovy.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Trees Aren't Synchronized

I am ready now for all the trees to be green. Along Indian Hill Boulevard, first the grey-trunked sycamores leafed out, leaving the white-trunked ones bare. Then, a couple of weeks later, the white-trunked ones followed suit. The big elms farther down the boulevard came out in reddish buds and got all sexy, dripping flower parts all over the sidewalks and streets. Another street I drive along on the way to work has a few trees that still have no leaves at all. Several have gone through their redbuds or white drifts of flowers and leafed out. But still the two or three bare trees remain without leaves. I wonder each morning, will I see green or will I keep hoping in vain? Are they dead or just very sleepy?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cherry Blossom Time

I’ve seen so many Japanese paintings and prints of cherry blossoms that I’m not surprised the Japanese gave the US so many cherry trees to plant in Washington, DC. The tiny blossom of the cherry tree is easy to take for granted. There’s a tree in my front yard. First, bare twigs. Next, a little swelling at nodules on the branches. The red nodules on one branch open into palest pink crepe 5-petaled blossoms. In the center of each is a crown of pistils surrounded by a starburst of taller stamens. Girls in the middle and boys (the pollen producers, for plants) around the outside. How many dances looked like that? More and more blossoms open until the tree is a cloud of light pink. This stage is the peak experience. I pick up one blossom drifting across the grass and put it on my dashboard. I look out over the green lawn with restless pink dots. I drive off into the sun. The sun shines through the flower, emphasizing the concave shaping and the crepe-like texture of each petal. I think I could never capture that image, which lives so clearly in my brain, by drawing or painting. The next day, I find one flattened so that the red sepals form triangles supporting the petals. I put that on my dashboard too. The first one is shriveled, but it still lives in my mind’s eye. The tree is now producing red leaves, first tiny, then larger. Soon there will be no flowers and the tree will flame in fresh beet-red leaves. They’ll grow tarnished and brown through the summer and drop off in late fall. I am glad to be able to see this tree year-round.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Geography of Hope

Recently, a celebration of the life and works on Wallace Stegner was held in Point Reyes Station, CA. Stegner was a Western writer, Wikipedia called him the “Dean of Western Writers.” The conference was entitled “The Geography of Hope.” That comes from Stegner’s 1960 Wilderness Letter. Here is the text: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” Does the natural world around us on the West Coast of the USA inspire you will a feeling that it’s the ‘geography of hope?”

Friday, February 29, 2008

Glories of Memoir Writing

Last weekend in LAT book review section, Susan Salter Reynolds reviewed three books in short paragraphs, each stimulating my brain in different ways around the theme of memoirs. The first review was of Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away. From her book, the reviewer selected this line, “Writing is the act of reaching across the abyss of isolation to share and reflect.” Goldberg is not talking to me about where I am, but instead inspiring me to try to go where she is.

In the next section the review of Sven Birkerts’ book, The Art of Time in Memoir, shows him excoriating the navel-gazing of memoirists. He apparently feels that only the reflective insight, revealing “what Henry James called ‘the figure in the carpet’”, sets memoir above talk show chatter. I hate to be harangued and probably will not read this book, but Reynolds’ image from James is memorable and will stick in my mind. It’s so easy to walk over a carpet, even for years, without seeing the pattern. But if you describe the room for someone else, you look more carefully and it jumps out into view. How many times I’ve seen the pattern of what happened to me only when writing about it for the second or third time!

The final review was of Julia Cameron’s The Writing Diet. I wish that review matched my experience! It said creativity, as well as falling in love, takes the appetite for food away. Not so for everyone, more’s the pity.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cold Rain in California

My students from Portland feel happy and at home right now; we’re having a bout of cold rain. It brings back a time when I came out to California for a meeting at Asilomar, in Pacific Grove, near Monterey. The meeting was held in April. It was snowy back East, and all of us going to the meeting were envisioning sunny California. Today the bicycle race, The Tour of California, just raced down the coast from Seaside (Monterey) through Big Sur to San Luis Obispo. It’s some of the most beautiful coastline in the world on a sunny day. But they had the same storm we’re having, and many riders got hypothermia and had to quit the stage race today. Not sunny California after all, sullen gray-green water, curling with dirty white foam, streaming headwinds, cold water. I wonder how rain has affected each of us, how it has shaped our feelings about West Coast living. Do you revel in it because we have so little weather? Do you hate it and get hypothermia of the spirit?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Looking at Rocks for Inspiration

We have wonderful rocks in California, and they’re more visible than in other parts of the country, particularly in the desert. I remember watching students climb a huge rounded rock at Joshua Tree National Park. The rock was the size of a two story building. It looked smooth from afar, but up close it was covered with irregularities, bumps, depressions, crumbly places, and crystal outcroppings. The students held onto and to stepped on these irregularities as they scrambled to the top. I remember how the seven students looked on top of that rock. Viewing them from some 100 feet away, it was hard to imagine that they’d climbed rather than being dropped from a helicopter MASH-style. It seems to me that the rock is a symbol of writing. It looks like a miracle, but if you begin the task, the close-up is much easier than the distant view. One sentence at a time, one step at a time. Exceptions and irregularities provide openings to progress. The story comes alive and the climber rises to the top.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The perfection of eggs

I haven’t bought eggs for over a year, but I bought some this morning. I took one out of the container and looked at it. The shape was so round, so smooth. The surface was delicate, white, not the least bit irregular. There’s not much we encounter in the natural world that’s as perfectly shaped as an egg. I recall reading a story about Michelangelo’s egg. A girl interested in art was trying to reproduce a feat she claimed Michelangelo could do; drawing an egg perfectly without lifting the pencil. It’s surprisingly hard, I remember trying a number of times during the month after I read the story. Think about perfection: where in your life do you encounter it?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tree Skeletons

I love to look at deciduous trees in winter and try to follow each large branch out to the tips. Some recurve towards the trunk, others reach out sideways for a long time and then flip up or droop. The color and texture of the bark as well as the pattern with which the branches pop out from the trunk vary with the type of tree. My village is probably one of the last places in the US with a lot of elm trees, especially along the road next to the big park in the middle of town. The grace of the branches of those elms is moving to me, and I often choose that street to drive down. I think that if it weren’t for elm blight, every main street in the Eastern part of the US would have this same beautiful pattern lacing the sky. My daughter hates the leaf-drop, and would love it if our village only planted non-deciduous trees. But to me, the lovely bones of the trees, especially silhouetted against sky, are a welcome sight.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Starry, Starry Night

One of the pleasures of living in Southern California is the close proximity of the desert. Camping overnight a Joshua Tree makes you aware of stars as you can never be inside of Los Angeles. The clear, dry sky shows vast numbers of lights, ranging from tiny twinkles that you cannot be sure exist to sparklers of red, blue, and white tint that no one could miss. The Milky Way is a lot like spilled milk on such a night, connected across the sky, but spilling out of bounds and then shrinking back to a narrower path. You can’t help thinking yourself along it, the yellow brick road in the sky. It doesn’t look like stars at all, they are too numerous, too diffuse. Constellations are easier to see than in LA, but draped with mysterious sweeps of light or smaller, dimmer stars.

The first thing a new desert camper must exclaim is “Wow, there are so many stars.” After staring up for a while, the next exclamation is “They’re moving.” Yes, and no. They are moving but what we’re seeing is the changing perspective on them as the earth rotates. You don’t notice that in LA because the sky is so big and the stars so few that you can’t stand to keep watching long enough to see them “move” at all.

Have you had an experience in which the stars suddenly come into your consciousness, camping in the desert or going out to the car and looking up?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Doctors Dealing with Death

I have been reading Final Exam by Pauline Chen. She is an eloquent surgeon who describes how medical training desensitizes a medical student (and later an intern/resident) to the pain of death, and how she recovered her touch with patients facing death by watching a few humane doctors work with their patients, and by feeling her way through some cases with dying patients. Both the barriers against feelings and the ways she has broken through those barriers resonated with me, as a double cancer survivor whose surgeons were very supportive.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New Orleans

New Orleans, the dreamscape, before, and then during Katrina. I have no images of the aftermath. Last night, I heard a very gifted poet read his surrealistic poem about the aftermath and felt touched by his grief and pain. On the way back, my friend told me of a recent trip to the destroyed part of New Orleans. She saw lines halfway up houses, where the water had submerged them. One house had “NO DOG FOUND” in big black letters on the clapboard front of the house. I can’t get that phrase out of my mind, that and the fact that it was fine to write on the clapboard where no word had ever appeared before. If you know about New Orleans post-Katrina, or can connect with the feelings of a city that has “lost” about a third of its population, use that for inspiration.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Seeing with Writing

I’ve recently read an article in the New York Times about a photographer named Lee Friedlander. An exhibition of his photographs is about to begin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was struck by a comment he made in the introduction to the exhibition, “The photographs of these places are a hint, just a blink at a piece of the real world. At most, an aphrodisiac.” I’d like to think we can write about nature that way, at our best. The whole experience slips through our grasp, but there is a wisp of the experience, a whiff of nature’s perfume, left on our fingers.