Thursday, July 23, 2009

Filing Cabinet: Fireflies

Herewith, a link to a New York Times science section article on fireflies (and a little glow of thanks to Global Swarming Honeybees, for reminding me to go back and check it out).

Every now and then you read something that adds a whole new dimension to your world, and this is one of those things.

I’ve never thought much about fireflies, except all those flashing lights can seem pretty magical and the insects themselves seem almost gentle.

Turns out a trained observer can tell one species from another by the way the bugs blink.

Moreover, it’s a mating thing. The male fireflies fly around and flash. The females remain on the ground, occasionally signaling back, carrying on a conversation with up to ten of the boys in an evening as they try to decide which one to reproduce with.

So there you have it: you're staring lazily into the summer night, but you’re really in the middle of a giant singles scene. That random flickering is really a highly evolved code. The night is talking all around you.

Illustration: KC

Monk Parakeet Eats Apple By Highway

As I biked across one of the walkways over the Prospect Expressway the other day, I saw a fabulous thing. The top of an apple tree, ripe with fruit that seemed almost close enough to pluck, were it not for the white metal grating that got in the way. Even better, a stunning flash of radiant green! A monk parakeet!

Monk parakeets are originally from South America, but they've also established a few outposts in the United States. Here in New York, colonies can be found at Greenwood Cemetery and Brooklyn College, to name two sites that I know of. (They're big talkers, I've just learned from Wikipedia—different colonies may actually develop different dialects!)

The Prospect Expressway parakeet perched next to an apple and pecked at it with its hooked beak. It gouged out one chunk. The apple fell abruptly to the ground, and from there perhaps it rolled to the highway and was run over by an SUV on its way to Coney Island.

Undeterred, the bird moved on to another apple, carving out another chunk. Wasteful, but wonderful.

I was sorry I didn't have my camera at the time, so later I came back. Since there was no bird on the second visit, I have resorted to collage.

The tree and apples shown here are the ones that I saw. The bird in my assemblage was photographed in Argentina, and wound up representing its species in this image from Wikipedia Commons (A).


As you can see, down in South America it seems they'd eat fruits that seem not unlike the Brooklyn apple (B).

I felt sad that the highway with all its rushing vehicles wasn't represented, since it provided such a contrast to the verdant scene up above, so I added a drawing of a taxi cut out from Bruce McCall's illustration on the cover of the July 20 New Yorker (C).


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Brooding at the Beach

You never know when the classics will come to mind.

Lounging by the shore last week, I watched a father with a huge smile throw open his arms to greet a small child who'd stumbled happily back from his play at the water's edge. It made me think about Odysseus, the voyager, and Penelope, awaiting his return.

Does the prospect of participating in a collective (and generally benign) reenactment of life's endless cycle of departure and reunion contribute at all to the primal allure of day at the beach?

We head off to the waves, filled with bravado or trepidation, there to find an adventure—maybe it's big swells or cold water, jellyfish or the company of unknown swimmers. Later we trudge up the sand, returning to our blankets—exhilarated? shivering? self-conscious?—and the people we’ve come with watch us come home.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rainbow at the Stoplight

P.S. Coney Island green roof.

Goshen Historic Track

Date: July 5.

Nation's oldest harness racing track (1838); racing Memorial Day and July 4 weekends.

No betting, no video screens.

A weather vane by the stables.

Buy beer, sausage and peppers, take a seat in the grandstand (1911).

The backdrop: rolling hills and a big sky.

Watch the track maintenance vehicles lumber around the track.

Contemplate patriotism.

Seems like there's always a woman riding the horse that leads lead the trotters onto the track.

My favorite piece of track apparatus: a mobile starting gate mounted on the rear of an old Cadillac.

The Caddy drives off from its parking place and the horses fall in line behind it. Horses and car set off in tandem.

The car speeds up to let the horses go on their way, folding its wings as it does so.

It reminds me of a giant dragonfly.

The horses enter the first turn.

They race past the houses on the far side of the half-mile oval.

Pass the grandstand and the cheering crowd.

Swing into the turn again.

Eventually there's a victor. Handlers steady the horse and put the blanket on.

The people associated with the winner trek across track to pose with their horse.

These three men were inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame, which is next to the track.

Watching this photo op, I contemplated how mundane even historic moments can be.

Time wanders along.

The rituals resume.

There's another race.

The beer is done.

The day goes by.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


I’ve been obsessed with roadkill this weekend—and not for the first time, as you can see from this old citynoise post.

Why now? It may have something to do with working my way through Osamu Tezuka’s remarkable six-volume graphic tale of the life of Buddha.

Much to my surprise, one of the strongest messages of Volume One is: “In nature, humans and beasts, even snakes, are all kin. Helping each other is the law of the living.”

Master Asita cries to his disciple Naradatta, “You believe that human lives are sacrosanct while animal lives are worthless?!...You must be punished for this.”

If you stop to consider how many dead animals you can find on a brief stretch of highway, you can see far we’ve come from this point of view.

Birds die when they fly low or slow, turtles die as they look for higher ground to lay their eggs, slugs and frogs die when they come out in the rain.

The kind of gruesome suffering so evident in the Buddha’s day, as well as now in many parts of the world, is often hidden from those of us living our lucky lives with weekend homes.

Riding my bike, wandering with my camera, I can see the beauty and the horror both in the dead animals in the road.

The skins and shells of crushed reptiles (snakes, turtles) often become stunning mosaics; mammals are messier. But vulnerability and fragility are everywhere.

Over and over lately I’ve seen groundhogs that seem to have died on their backs, their bodies bloated, legs in the air like a dog waiting to have its belly rubbed.

Opossums tend to end up in a pile of skin and bones that reminds me of the relics in an Eastern European ossuary. I saw three of them in a short stretch of road this weekend, their remains painted right over with a white stripe by the road crews.

I find all of this deeply moving. I feel as if someone could make a whole book of such images.

Butterfly Bush


You buy a plant called a butterfly bush, you stick it in some dirt, flowers appear, and then the butterflies really do arrive!

I've seen this trick before, but I'm still amazed.

And Now....Slug Rescue?

It rained last night, and the road was still damp under the trees, and in spots I could see it had been a bad night for slugs.

It was like a battleground—the fading evidence of a massacre, the few survivors soldiering on.

For the first time, I found myself attempting to rescue a slug or two. Picking them up, hoping I wasn’t damaging them, moving them into the grass by the side of the road.

They really are slimy. They feel quite different from those lively, writhing earthworms, which from time to time I find myself trying to relocate from drying pavements after a rain.

Do the rescues work? I have no idea.

Do the attempts go into slug or earthworm lore, like our stories of UFOs?

I once sat and watched half a dozen osprey diving over and over into a shallow tidal river, and every now and again one would pull a fish high into the air in its talons, lose control, and let it drop back to the water.

A fish that has been to the sky and returned to the sea—does it carry that mystery for the rest of its days?

For many years, I wasn't the type of person who’d admit to having a soft heart for earthworms—or even puppies or kittens, for that matter. But now that I am, I see that I am not alone.

This morning, on two disparate blogs, I discovered posts that share a kinship with this one—the first a parent's sweet photo essay about a worm-loving child, the second the tale of a failed effort at slug resuscitation by a writer who's also a snail scientist.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Days

Finally, summer.

Perfect summer.

Bright sun. Low humidity.
Blue skies.

Life went on in those glowery, showery days. The geese have grown up.

The fawns venture out on their own.

Marley returns.

Most of all, I realize, I'd missed that sound.

Leaves, rustling in a gentle breeze.

Stand in one spot.

The airscape keeps changing.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Yoga Chronicles: A Teacher's Notes

A while back, Ruthie Streiter began her class at Jaya Yoga Center by saying she’d been on the phone with a friend the other night, talking about what it took to be a good yoga teacher.

I liked this right away. It was a pleasant reminder that there are people trying to be good yoga teachers just the way I am trying to be a good yoga student. I felt in that moment all of us in the class had a common cause.

Unfolding a piece of paper, Ruthie read out a list of four key tasks for the instructor.

Sitting on my mat, I half listened and half began working feverishly to concoct an acronym by which to remember the four items. Later, of course, I could recall the acronym, but not what it stood for.

I emailed Ruthie, and she was kind enough to send me the list, which she said should be sourced to her friend, Kimberly Johnson. Here it is, partially (but I hope responsibly) paraphrased:

The Four Key Tasks for a Yoga Instructor

Instructors should help students to:
1. Connect to the breath.

2. Visualize. Visualization helps students to focus, sharpen observation skills, tap into creativity, learn how to use imagination to create and move energy and feeling, and awaken the inner senses.

Understand that there is constant change—or, in other words, to grasp the inevitable truth of impermanence. If we know that things are changing all the time, then we won’t cling or grasp as much; it’s easier to let go.
At the same time, teachers should:
4. Hold a higher vision for students even when the students don't or when it is difficult for them to keep it in perspective.

* * *

I’m not a teacher, but it occurred to me that this list might contain useful ground rules for any kind of instruction.

The ideas about breath and impermanence (1 and 3), for instance, are among the core teachings of Buddhist philosophy, and obviously these have wide applicability.

It seemed to me there was a lot to chew on in point number 4.

I'm sometimes envious of yoga teachers and therapists—who often promote enormous personal progress in the people they work with, but in ways that rarely leave their student clients feeling judged or criticized.

(It may sometimes help that students may as yet have no clue whatsoever about the ideal they are shooting for—it may take years even to know how far we are falling short!)

In both fields, I suspect, the pace of the project depends largely on the motivation of the student. What this means for the guides, I imagine, is that faithful adherence to a higher vision may require a great deal of patience.

Is there some way to integrate gentleness with higher vision if you’re in a field in which you must apply specific standards or there is some period of time in which the student must show improvement?

What if you’re a teacher who has to give a grade? Or an editor who feels the piece won’t be publishable if you don’t overhaul a sentence?

I don’t know the answers, but I’m no longer thinking about the question in quite the same way.

Above all, it was the point about visualization that hit home for me.

I’ve read about athletes envisioning a brilliant performance before the big competition, but I’d never played sports or thought that was something I could do.

As for visualizing where I wanted to be in five years, or imagining what kind of tree I might like to be, forget it.

It is very different, somehow, to be asked to behave like a tree.

If somebody asks me to stand like a gnarled old oak, I’ll give it the old college try. And if someone asks me to move like a willow, I’ll do something entirely different—especially if my eyes are closed and nobody’s looking.

This kind of visualization (through enactment, in many instances) is going on in yoga all the time. The English names for some asanas, like plank or corpse pose, already contain images.

It’s not unusual to be asked to imagine your heart as a flower or to breathe like a jellyfish or to think about grass blowing in the wind or the waves on the shore.

Much to surprise, I find myself actually building these images, experiencing them, somehow feeling that I can live them in my body.

It does feel like an act of creation—a path forged by metaphor, or simile, or analogy, or whatever it is. One begins to embody so many different things.

When she came to visit, my friend L. remarked that she’d never written so much fiction as when she was regularly taking yoga. Focus, observation, creativity, imagination, moving energy and feeling, awakened senses—it makes sense to me.