Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bombay Hook (5): The Red Shoots

A month ago, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

Well, the geese turned out to be kind of downer, as it were. But I did enjoy walking to the end of a boardwalk and surveying the vast brown marsh. As I turned back, a plant with strikingly red branches caught my eye…

Pretty, isn’t it?

Bombay Hook (4): The Woolly Bears

Last summer, in preparation for the Seagull Century, which took place in Maryland over the Columbus Day weekend, I spent many hours riding my bike along upstate country roads.

My training peaked in early fall, just as woolly bear season had begun. There’s always a time when you see them in droves.

For those who don’t know, a woolly bear is one of the few bugs routinely described as “cute.” It’s a bushy, friendly-looking caterpillar, about an inch or two long, black at either end and brown in the middle.

They curl up into a tight light ball if you pick them up, which is somehow delightful, and there’s a rumor that you can predict the winter weather based on how wide that brown stripe is (not true, says the Internet).

Before now, I’d never even thought to wonder what a woolly bear turned into (an Isabella tiger moth) or even why they were so busy crossing the roads (looking for places to hibernate, it seems).

On one of those crisp yellow-blue days of riding in the country, however, I found myself admiring the diligence of their trek across the thoroughfare, which from their perspective must seem as wide as the ocean.

That led to an idea for the blog. I began to think I could make a joke of their being the perfect image of me, making my own slow and determined march along the byways.

I would need a photograph for the post.

The next time I spotted a woolly bear, I dropped the bike to the shoulder and got out my camera. The caterpillar was just starting across the lane, alone in its sea of gray asphalt.

Setting the lens to macro, I leaned over and snapped a few close-ups. (I didn't even like the pictures, as turned out, because the caterpillar had unexpectedly cast such a dark shadow.)

My looming presence brought the woolly bear to a halt. It hesitated for a few moments, perhaps sussing out the danger, before resuming its progress forward. As a result, it was directly in the path of a tire as I stepped back to make way for an oncoming SUV.

That valiant little creature was reduced to a green smear on the pavement.

* * *

Just a caterpillar, I know, but I cried. I pedaled through much of that long ride feeling as if there were a spear lodged in my chest. There was almost no doubt my interference had led to that woolly bear’s death, and I felt awful.

Late in the day, I sat in a lawn chair and watched myself blithely crushing the mosquitoes that landed on my arm—“gone to Shiva!” as my buddies at the yoga center like to say.

It was somewhat puzzling, how involuntary manslaughter in the case of the caterpillar could leave me so filled with sorrow while outright murder in the case of the mosquitoes hardly bothered me at all.

Did I imagine I was killing the mosquitoes in self-defense? Was that why I had no sense of conscience?

I brought this vexing problem to B., who manages to be kind even when I am at my most exasperating. She got right to the point.

“You were identified with the woolly bear!” she said.


* * *

A few weeks later, on my way back from the bike ride, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

I’d seen a crab, a dead mouse, and finally a large flock of the big white geese—but they were so far away! Disappointed, I hiked one last forest trail in hopes of getting a better view.

No dice.

It was time to go home. On my way out of the woods, I glanced down at the path and saw a woolly bear. A woolly bear! I’d never put up my post about the other one—my heart wasn’t in it.

I watched as this new caterpillar munched on a blade of grass. How amazing! It chewed steadily, finally felling that stalk as if it were a tall tree.

I’d intended to leave this woolly bear alone entirely, but then I couldn’t resist. I set up my camera on the ground and hoped I could document the creature in action.

All seemed well, until I stepped back. Another hiker was coming, and the woolly bear was still on the path.

I didn’t attempt a rescue; I didn’t know where the caterpillar wanted to go.

I walked rapidly toward my car and didn’t look back. I prayed that that this woolly bear would be safe, that it would live to die another day.

I post its picture in honor of its comrade who did not make it through.

RIP, woolly bear.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bombay Hook (3): The Mouse That Died

A few weeks ago, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

Things with the geese wouldn’t turn out as I’d hoped, but I did take a short hike that led me to an exciting encounter with a crab. Afterward, I scuttled along the refuge trails in an elevated state.

The breeze seemed fresher, the sky bluer, the tall and blowing marsh grasses especially lovely. Oh, I just loved the warmth of that sun!

Gazing over the edge of the boardwalk, I found wonder yet again—in the form of a dead mouse.

It rested delicately on the soft mud, half in light, half in shadow.

The death must have been very recent. The mouse was lying on its side, its fur wet and slightly matted but otherwise undisturbed. Its eyes were open, black and surprisingly bright.

I was startled to realize how exquisite a corpse could be. Death had left a still life—a pristine, almost painterly likeness of a wild creature I’d have been lucky to notice for even a few seconds had it been alive.

It was an excellent specimen—perhaps, I think now, a white-footed mouse. Or maybe a rice rat. I didn’t even think of trying to identify it until weeks later. At the time, I was preoccupied by its demise.

Immobile as the corpse was, it was full of movement. There was a curving back, extended legs, and a long swooping tail. It was possible to imagine that the mouse had died at some routine moment in an ordinary day.

I also began to imagine that a spirit, or some hint of the mouse’s nature or qualities, was emanating from—or at least evoked in me by—its remains. Two words floated into my heart: grace and hopefulness.

So there it was: I was growing quivery with emotion at the sight of a dead mouse (or rat). Was I really such a sucker for a good-looking corpse?

On subsequent reflection, I knew there was more to it than that. After all, I’ve been flooded with similarly incongruous sentiments while staring at animals that have been flattened by cars.

Roadkill is often horrifyingly gruesome, but for me it holds a strange power to conjure adjectives that point to the ineffable essence of the deceased.

Confronting the final screaming agony of a massacred cat, I think: how expressive you were, how valiant, how fierce. (I might also imagine the tears of the driver.)

Contemplating the jumble of fur and bone that was once an opossum: how humble, how plain, how easily erased.

Photographing the mosaic of a shattered turtle: how strong, but how fragile.

(Even looking at the corpse of my own mother, the specifics faded away. All I could see was her vulnerability, her sweetness.)

It doesn’t really matter what the words are. It was the feelings that mattered.

I’ve been trying to sort out why actual corpses leave me with a sense of life’s preciousness while the prospect of death fills me with a blinding fear.

The explanation may be that by the time there is a body the worst has already happened. There’s no longer any need to worry, no need to turn away. I can let go of my vigilance and finally begin to notice what has been.

And often that is lovely.

It’s not that there isn’t grief. The sorrow may be very deep, but it’s not the kind that blots out the colors of life. The world seems to grow more intense in these moments, not less.

This is a rich place to get to, in some ways. But I worry that I will always need the finality of death to see the beauty in life. There’s a paradox there, and it’s not the one I want to live by. I want to appreciate the beauty of life in life.

That dead mouse has given me an idea.

Perhaps there’s a device I can use to awaken myself to the fullness of the moment. What if I just freeze the frame, imagining that everything and everyone in front of me has just died?

As Joni Mitchell might say: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

But you should try.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bombay Hook (2): The Crab (And Me)

A month ago, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

Bombay Hook has more than 16,000 acres, but I wasn’t feeling terribly intrigued by its fields or forests or the vast tidal marsh.

It was the geese I’d come for, and the geese only. (For the rest of this story, check out this post.)

I was resigned to hiking a few side trails before I reached the main attraction, but the effort made me irritable.

I marched glumly to an overlook and stared out at nothing. I began a sullen trek down a second path only because I am a diligent tourist with a firm sense of duty.

I was startled out of my goose fixation by a crab.

I had arrived at a small raised boardwalk that spanned one of the narrow, twisting creeks that meandered through the marsh. To the left of the boardwalk, the creek widened slightly, taking the form of a shallow pool—more like a puddle, really.

As my feet began hitting the planks, I noticed a flash of activity in the murky water below.

Tiny fish were skittering away from the boardwalk and into the pool.

Then I noticed the faint reddish outline of a claw. There was a crab down there! It was just barely visible beneath a branch that lay partially submerged across the opening to the puddle.

I felt the jolt of insight: Tiny fish scattered every time some visitor's foot thundered across the planks. The crab lay in wait, pinching its claws at them as they shot by.

Surely it was catching some of them! The crab was exploiting the humans to procure itself dinner!

Exhilarated by my acuity, I conducted a test. I stomped my sneaker on the boardwalk. Fish scattered. Case closed.

If I’d been feeling rather dull before, I now felt fully alive. I delighted in the calculation of the crab—but even more, I suspect, in own shrewdness and powers of observation.

A man and a woman strolled toward me on the boardwalk. “It’s so cool,” I said with no prompting, waving at the water. I explained to them about the crustacean lying in wait for the small fry.

They seemed unimpressed.

Maybe they don’t really care about nature, I thought. Well, so much for them.

I scuttled around the rest of the marsh trail in an elevated state. The breeze seemed fresher, the sky bluer, the blowing marsh grasses especially lovely. Oh, I just loved the warmth of that sun!

Plants and animals caught my eye. I peered at them intently. Just about anything might prove to be electrifying.

For all the loitering and looking, I was in a hurry, too. Almost as soon as I’d left that crab, I’d decided I wanted to blog about it.

What if it left before I could take its picture?

Whew! The crab was still there. If you look closely near the center of the photograph above, you may be able to detect the faint outline of a claw.

(I’m pretty sure this is a blue crab—and if the pincer is red, it’s a female.)

The crustacean had relocated. It was smack in the middle of its puddle—no longer under the branch, no longer in the path of the startled fish.

In retrospect, I can imagine I felt the faintest shadow of a doubt—if the crab had indeed set up in ambush, why would it move?

I quickly repressed the thought.

Why would I want further input? I had a story to tell, and it was all about the canny crab and clever old me.

You’d probably be reading that story now, except for my fear of looking stupid. When I finally sat down to write, I felt a familiar urge to check my facts.

Um, do crabs really eat speedy little fish?

Well, needless to say, probably not. Crabs are primarily scavengers. They prefer carrion. A Chesapeake Bay field guide specifically says they like “dead fish.”

Not live ones.

In other words, the scenario I'd so brilliantly concocted about the crab's behavior was wrong. I’d put two and two together and come up a number that didn’t exist—a fantasy.

All that happiness over nothing!

Ouch! Remember that couple who didn’t like nature? Undoubtedly they knew all about crabs. They thought I was an idiot, but they decided to be polite.

Guess what? That’s probably not true, either.

The whole episode reminded me, yet again, of how much of my life I make up.

It made me think about Buddhist teachings, which argue that much of what people label reality is simply a bunch of notions they project on the world.

When it comes to the crab, one moment of perception generates a whole chain of thoughts and feelings that bring me joy. Realize that I’ve made an error, and I create a whole new narrative that makes me feel blue.

Now what to do? As we say in therapy, is there yet another story, most likely more complex and ambiguous, that encompasses the inadequate accounts that have come before? If we tell that story—and the next and the next—do we come gradually closer to the truth of life itself?

Ladies and gentlemen, I have presented to you my third tale of the canny crab and the clever observer!

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bombay Hook (1): On Snow Geese (and Fear)

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
—Mary Oliver, “The Wild Geese”

A month ago, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

Why? I was asking myself this very question as I missed an exit and lost the signs and started over and finally got on the right country roads to the refuge.

Well, I told myself, because snow geese are handsome—white, with wings tipped in black.

Beyond that, they raise their young in the arctic tundra and fly thousands of miles to winter along the East Coast. It’s always amazing to see a bird that has come so far.

Finally, snow geese travel in huge flocks, arriving at refuges at numbers usually said to be in the tens of thousands. (The biggest number I saw for Bombay Hook was 200,000 in one season.)

At Chincoteague NWF, the place that sparked my excitement, I’d trained my binoculars on a large cluster of geese on a pond.

A moment later, the entire flock erupted—thousands and thousands of birds in the air. It was like watching a blizzard flying upward.

When I asked a ranger what might have provoked this thrilling spectacle, she shrugged. Maybe a hawk had flown over, she said. No doubt it happened all the time.

A decade later, I wanted to repeat that experience. I wanted to see it, take pictures of it, and then tell the story of how wonderful it was.

The tale I’m actually recounting, of course, is about how that didn’t happen. As much as I’d rehearsed my descriptions, real life refused to cooperate.

I drove slowly along the loop drive, the car trailing a long plume of dust. I walked a side trail or two.

Eventually I found a pond painted with snow geese, but it wasn’t like Chincoteague—they were quite far away, and there was no flying around to speak of.

On this trip, much of the action involving the snow geese would take place in the car, in my head. I had hours to drive.

It was the end of summer, the end of the bike ride, the end of the holiday weekend. And what was next?

Uncertainty, the Buddhists will tell you, is the basis of most anxiety. It is the starting point for fear.

Back inside my automotive cocoon, I began the work of constructing a narrative of my experience at Bombay Hook.

Yes, the geese were a bust, but there had also been a crab. It had startled me into noticing many small and captivating creatures along the way.

That version of events was sounded good, except for one false note. Were the geese really a bust? No, not entirely. There was a degree of pleasure just in knowing for certain that they had returned.

I’m glad the geese came back.

That sentence brought release. For a second, I felt nothing but contentment.

I confess I felt mystified at the time, since contentment isn’t like me and I didn’t see why a blur of distant geese should in itself be a big deal.

Later, however, I happened upon a quote from the scientist Rachel Carson that seemed to hint at my source of satisfaction.

“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter,” Carson wrote.

Or, as philosopher George Santayana put it in a quote I stumbled upon during a Google search, “Repetition is the only form of permanence that Nature can achieve.”

The geese were back, and all was right with the world.

* * *

I’m glad the geese came back.

The second time I said it, I felt a twinge of fear, which soon surged into a wide-eyed sensation of terror. This time, I knew why. The words went forth as an affirmation, but in their echo I heard nothing but doubt.

They may never come back again.

What is happening to the world? Are all the geese doomed?

I felt the autumnal happiness yielding to winter dread. Nothing would stay the same. Everything would get worse.

I was driving up the Jersey Turnpike, immersed in speed and concrete and taillights. The car was spewing carbon emissions. There was a global tragedy in the making, and here I was making it.

I felt as if I were flipping back and forth on a switch. Position one: everything’s fine. Position two: everything’s dying.

Peace and panic, side by side.

Of course, the peace felt like pure denial. Don’t be silly, I said to myself, you can come back and see the geese next year. Just keep driving faster. When you get home, you can order a burger. Let’s pretend nothing is happening.

Panic didn’t feel so great, either. Sometimes the knot of fear is so palpable and heavy I feel I can barely drag it around. I’m too frightened to move. I get worried I will crash the car.

When I think about it, I’m not convinced that this kind of immobilizing terror is really all about the environment. If we’re inclined to be fearful, we find places to project our fear; these fears are reasonable and unreasonable at the same time.

I’m seized apocalyptic anxieties about snow geese, but functionally I don’t imagine I’m all that different than someone who’s crippled with anxiety about an al-Qaeda attack.

* * *

I got home okay, but my internal skirmish with the geese really got to me. I was tired of being fearful and unhappy and to top it all guilty over expressing so much worry while doing so little. There had to be some kind of new framework that would negate the anxiety.

Speaking of the life cycles of humans and butterflies, Rachel Carson wrote: “It is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to its end.”

It occurred to me that all I needed to do was pull back the lens a little bit, to imagine that mass extinctions are part of some larger natural cycle.

When I investigated the snow geese, I discovered that they are far from endangered—they are in the midst of a population explosion.

They grow fat and happy feeding on winter grain in the United States. Each spring, they return to the Arctic tundra in such large and healthy numbers that they are decimating the fragile ecosystems there.

See? Self-destruction is part of the natural course of events.

No doubt humans are like that, too. We simply can’t help exploiting our niche, the global ecosystem that supports our burgeoning existence, to a point of likely destruction.

It’s just our nature. If we destroy ourselves and every other living thing on Earth, well—life will blunder on at the other planets out there.

When I imagine things this way, I feel clear-eyed, rational, and unafraid. I have a handle on the way things are. I can imagine myself in a room full of other people. They will all be scared, but I will be smug.

Okay, something about this fantasy is faintly suspicious. But do I want to give it up?

* * *

My preoccupation with the questions raised by the snow geese persisted into last weekend, when I went to see Pema Chodron, a 73-year-old Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition, at the Omega Institute.

Pema was conducting a weekend-long explication of her late mentor Chogyam Trungpa’s instructions on fearlessness, which have recently been culled into a new book, edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian, called Smile at Fear.

(Some of Pema’s teachings took place on Halloween, and she took to the stage in a witches’ hat. “Find the ugliest thing you can—and wear it,” she laughed.)

As far as I can tell, the Tibetan Buddhists always begin with the individual. Whether you’re talking about a spat with a friend or the death of a child or an environmental holocaust, the answer is always the same: start with yourself. (This refusal to adjust the tenor of the teachings to the scale of the problem can be annoying to some people.)

If you want to understand what’s going on, you’ve got to examine your own responses. That’s the route to confronting the situation. It’s looking as carefully as possible at the specifics of your experience, no matter how embarrassing they may be. It’s about accepting everything that arises.

We can always strive to be more curious than afraid, Pema likes to say.

It’s one thing to sit calmly with my history book and read about with plague, and another to sit next to a person who’s pale and sweating in a doctor’s office.

If I subdue my fear by thinking about the logic of pandemics, I’m likely to miss my fierce desire to avoid catching her disease—and my bond with everyone else who feels the same vulnerability. If I exit the scene, I may also miss out on my empathy for the sick woman and her worried family. Either way, I may have denied some part of my own convoluted humanity.

Last weekend, I listened to a climate scientist softly weeping as he talked about impending ecological devastation and the probable fate of his children. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this at Omega, and both times it was shattering. I have rarely wanted to leave a room so badly in my life.

They’re asking: how do we talk to our kids?

Contemplating this, I remembered that I’d grown up with a father who was an early prophet of energy shortages and routinely declared that soon we’d all be groveling for roots in Central Park.

(There can’t possibly be enough roots for all of us in Central Park. Will we still take the subway?)

As a child, I felt vaguely puzzled by the obligation to go to school and to college when the world was going to end and I probably wasn’t going to grow up.

Nevertheless, here I was at 50, still alive. In my youth I’d interpreted my father as angry but indifferent, and now I could imagine that he was frantic with worry. But where he was fretting about the atomic bomb or the end of oil, I was petrified by half-formed visions of ecological devastation.

And how did I cope? By coming up with doomsday scenarios that gave me some sense of having mastered the horrible situation—just like my father.

All of my inherited fancy thinking was just a clever mental trick—one more version of denial. Talk about perpetuating natural cycles! So what if we all die? True or not, it was somehow missing the point. If I had a child, I might make that child shrink from life. I would make that child cry.

The question is: How do we talk to ourselves?

* * *

By leaning into fear, I think Pema means that you have to feel it—all the sorrow, all the pain. Peace and panic don’t stand apart; they go hand in hand.

“Shambhala is a philosophy of the rainbow,” she said, or words to that effect. “A rainbow is sunshine and tears mixed together.”

My inner cynic cannot believe I am quoting that line.

Nevertheless: the idea seems to be that if you really look at loss, you will realize how much you fear it, and how completely inescapable it is. As that notion sinks in, you may spend less of your life resisting the inevitable.

At the same time, you may increasingly experience each moment of existence as precious. Rather than closing your heart, you will open it to everything and everyone. You’ve got to be brave to be sad, and brave to be happy, too.

You will pay genuine attention to the world—selfless attention, not the type that is secretly geared toward gleaning what you’ll need to get what you want. Doing this, or so I’ve been told, is what it really means to live with love.

If your heart is engaged in this stainless fashion, you will always move toward compassionate action. In every moment of existence, there is always something to do. (It says so on my yoga teacher’s T-shirt, but I’ve come to suspect this is true.)

Some people seem to know all of this intuitively. Rachel Carson, for example. She fought her own cancer at the same time she was writing Silent Spring, the book that did so much to alleviate the harm of DDT.

Carson seemed able to absorb the truth of change and death, whether personal or ecological, in ways that allowed her to blossom every day of her life. It’s people who can do this, ironically, who really change the world.

There are many others, like me, who don’t get this at all. Thousands or even millions of us are wandering the globe, seeking the healers and therapists and spiritual teachers we hope will lead us to actually appreciate our lives.

I sometimes fantasize that one day my fears will buckle into a million pieces and I will emerge as a shaft of light.

Of course, I don’t really want to be a shaft of light—I want to be a person. And anyway, I don’t think it’s like that: it’s a matter of slowly chipping away. Get scared, flee, notice that, turn back toward the fear. Do it again.

When I think of the large and migrating cloud of anxiety that arose from the mere fact of disappointing encounter with a bunch of snow geese, it doesn’t seem possible that any of my efforts will ever be enough.

But perhaps that’s not for me to worry about.

There will always be more to learn. In that sense, no matter what happens, every moment will be just like this one. As Pema said last weekend, “It’s drop by drop in the bucket of life.”