Good Air

Wildfire smoke turns the sky orange over Sea Ranch, Sonoma County, CA. (Photo via Sterling Lanier)

Today, for the first time in almost a month, the air quality meter I have become accustomed to checking every morning (and afternoon, and evening), read ‘Good’. Good! It was an almost unbelievable surprise, after weeks and weeks of ‘Unhealthy’, or the slightly less toxic ‘Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups’, and ‘Moderate’ at best. I couldn’t open my shutters–and my window–fast enough. Once before, during the Tubbs fire that burned through Santa Rosa, two hours north of here, we had a weeklong stretch where we couldn’t open any windows, but this time it has been so much worse. For three weeks, I’ve been staring out my closed window each morning like an animal in a zoo, my room a stale chamber of held breath, looking out at a world that I can’t reach. But now, at last, a reprieve.

It’s amazing what a little non-toxic air can do for your spirits. I want to hop and prance around my yard like the little cottontails who hide under our ceanothus bushes, but like those cottontails, I feel a sense of foreboding even in my excitement. There’s a part of me that’s on constant alert now, no matter how blue the sky looks, a part of me that thinks it would probably be safer to sit perfectly still in the shadow of a curved branch, not moving a whisker until I know for sure that the coast is clear. The human narrative says that I should seize the day, and take this as a chance to reflect, to be grateful for simple, elemental things like sky and air. But the more ancient part of my being, the part that is solely concerned with keeping me from dying, knows that when a single glimpse of clear sky seems like a miracle, you’re probably not out of the woods yet.

So, it’s a mix of emotions today, Good Air Day. Thankfulness, a sense of marvel, of wonder and levity. But also, weariness, heartbreak for all that has been lost and will be lost, and the 1,000-pound mental weight of knowing that we are not going to overcome a raging wildfire season to return to normal, a raging wildfire season is now normal. A few years ago I joked that Autumn should be renamed to Fire Time, All The Time, but today my shoulders drop as I realize how utterly appropriate and un-funny that really is. In California, and much of the West, it really is fire time, all the time–anytime it’s not actively raining, a fire could begin in some corner of our critically dry terrain. Every landscape is now a fire-prone landscape, even the fog-wreathed redwood coast. Last month my family embarked on a short trip to Timber Cove, a rocky oceanside hideaway in Sonoma County, in desperate need for a temporary escape from the monotony of COVID isolation. Shortly after we arrived at our rental, the landlord informed us that the stretch of coastline we had driven up only hours before was now on fire. The fire burned almost all the way down to the beach. The beach! My brain has not caught up to the reality of wildfires that burn straight down to the ocean. I pictured myself swimming out into the Pacific for safety, looking back at the land, helpless, adrift. I thought of all the animals and other creatures around the globe whose brains and instincts can’t keep up either, who are struggling to stay alive for one more generation, let alone another one after that, as they try to figure out how to manage the breakneck pace of disaster. Then today, as I looked up at the sky and saw a turkey vulture wobbling in wide circles above me, black feathered fingers splayed, I sensed that the vulture was as happy to see the ground from up high as I was to see the heights from down on the ground. I sent up a mental hello. Hello, hello, nice day, isn’t it? Let’s just hope it lasts.

Write On: Embracing Geekhood

(via Judith Browne)

I’m finding new ways to be creative as summer wears on, new ways to keep the wheels turning. Calligraphy and hand lettering are the latest entries on my list, although they’re not quite new–I remember the teeth-chattering, geeky thrill I felt one day in sixth grade, when I walked to my desk and saw a thin black calligraphy pen and blank pad of smooth art paper waiting for me. Mrs. Silva announced that we’d be spending the next few weeks learning to create the angled medieval letters I’d seen in books or on diplomas, and I could not believe my luck. It felt like a very fancy and important skill to have. I was delighted when we had extra calligraphy homework on top of our regular homework, which a) was an enthusiasm my classmates did not share, and b) was and still is extremely on-brand.

Even before that, maybe as early as preschool, I was enthralled by the sight of handwritten words. I remember watching closely when my mom made a grocery list or wrote herself a note, or when I saw my parents’ signatures, mystified by this casual magic. When it was finally my turn to learn, I was obsessed, copying the letter-shapes in my workbook with total devotion until finally I could write my name. Once I had printing down, I immediately became fixated on learning cursive, and eventually, crafting a unique signature of my own (I was heartbroken when I realized there are few opportunities for an 8-year-old girl to sign on the dotted line). I loved creating posters, signs, and science fair displays, which not only gave me a chance to showcase my block printing, but flex my layout skills as well. Any kind of task requiring diligence and precision brings out my inner A student, but when you add elements of art, beauty, and design to the pot, I’m in stone cold heaven.

This most recent foray into the world of word-drawing began just a few days ago, and I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, except it is part of a larger trend of resurging childhood interests. I signed up to audit an online paleontology course last month, which is a sophisticated grownup way of saying I think dinosaurs are really cool again. I’m amassing a pretty impressive pile of graphic novels, which is a sophisticated grownup way of saying I’ve really been enjoying picture books. And I’m pretty sure all the big, themed meals I’ve been cooking (New Mexican night! A journey to Northern Thailand! A classic American barbecue feast!) all harken back to the multicourse Victorian dinner I made for my family as a kid (with a generous amount of help from my mom), following recipes from my American Girl cookbook.

At first I figured I was regressing back to childhood because it’s comforting, my version of the security blanket we’re all looking for right now. But I think it’s also closely related to the reason I refuse to wear pants with a firm waistband or zip closure any more, unless expressly necessary: in the absence of peer pressure, when dire circumstances have made artificiality of any kind feel like an utter waste of time, all I’m left with is the stuff I genuinely like. Underneath all the socially mandated trappings of adulthood, it turns out I’m still that geeky 12-year-old homework enthusiast.

As a kid, I secretly admired the people who owned their geekdom or nerdiness rather than trying to fit in, but I was not one of those people. I lived in fear of being disliked, being made fun of. I desperately wanted to be cool, or at least cooler (which is, obviously, an inherently uncool thing to want), always feeling like I needed to be someone else, like I had to keep making adjustments to stay ahead of the curse of my authentic self. I’d proudly and happily do my calligraphy assignment, and then quietly feel ashamed for liking it; I’d raise my hand in class and be teased for knowing the right answer, spending the rest of the day in embarrassment, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut.

Scraps and shadows of that strategy have managed to follow me even well into adulthood, as I suspect they do for all grownups who were once terrified kids. But lately, for the first time since I sadly recognized that being a teacher’s pet and budding Victorian cuisine (and manners!) buff was not going to win me tons of friends my own age, I feel free to let my geek flag fly at full mast. Let the other kids say what they will. Art geek, writing geek, dinosaur geek, book geek, bird geek, food geek…line up your geek boxes, and I will proudly check them, with a clean, calligraphic flourish. I thought wearing elastic waistbands all the time was liberating, but this is next level.

Tonight, I am proud to announce to the world, I’m going to sit down at my desk, put on a Dungeons and Dragons podcast, and practice my pen strokes: first on graph paper, with a pencil, then with brush pen on smooth printer paper, moving the point silently upwards for thin lines, and pressing the brush firmly downwards with a noisy squeak for thick lines, holding it at just the right angle, over and over until my muscles remember how to draw on their own, and the art made of letters I imagine in my head appears on the paper in front of me. My own personal paradise, a reprieve from the outside world. The wheels are indeed turning, summer is slipping away, and my past is catching up with me just when I need it most.

via Mike Lewinski

You must get drunk. That’s it: your sole imperative. To immunize yourself from the backbreaking, body-bending burdens of time, you must get drunk and stay that way.

But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, your choice. But get drunk.

Charles Baudelaire, Get Drunk

Good Stuff: Mostly Bears Edition

First, a note: Weekly Roundup is now called Good Stuff. Okay? Let’s get to it! Exclamation points!!!

I found some fun, random stuff to share with you lovely folks this week! Most of it is about bears, because bears are top-notch summer role models. One of my drafts for this week’s post about summer weirdness involved a whole tangent about how I’d rather be a bear than a human lady in July and August, and even though that bit got (rightfully) cut, I stand by my wish. I have twice seen a real live bear with my own eyes in the summertime: one bear was ambling along beside a sparkling high Sierra creek, sniffing at wildflowers without a care in the world, and the other bear was eating part of a pretty decent-looking pizza from an unsecured dumpster. Not too shabby!

Brown bear, don’t care. (Photo via Elizabeth Meyers)

The grizzly bear live cam at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is going OFF right now, y’all. This is must-see TV Internet. Grizzlies filling their bellies like it’s their job (it basically is), salmon frantically leaping like their lives depend on it (they do), even a casual bald eagle or two—it’s all there. It’s a live-action nature show with no commercials, and a fine, fine virtual escape from…you know, everything. Don’t forget to check out the secondary cams too.

Continue reading “Good Stuff: Mostly Bears Edition”

Goodbye To All That

Grow, rest, repeat. (Photo: Dakota Roos)

I’m going to be honest with you friends– getting a blog post out in late July has been absolute torture for me. Not because I don’t like writing this blog, but because every summer I fall prey to a phenomenon I can only describe as “getting weird in the brain”.

Weird in the brain is hard to explain, but basically what happens is that my ability to focus or adhere to any kind of set schedule totally evaporates by mid July. What’s funny is that if I don’t write myself any kind of to-do list, oftentimes I’ll find myself busily doing all sorts of cool stuff, so clearly, it’s not that my summer brain hates activity. What it hates is being told what to do. If I ask it to go left, it takes off to the right. If I try to do something I enjoy, it tells me I don’t actually enjoy that thing anymore after all. There’s no distinct rhyme or reason to it, but it seems to impact my ability to do creative work most of all. I’ve chatted with other creatives about this, and it seems to be a fairly common thing, which is comforting. Still, we all handle it differently.

I get really down on myself when my brain gets summer-weird, telling myself all kinds of mean stuff about how I’m not measuring up, not doing the things I should/would/could be doing if I were a different, more focused person—that I’m failing at that most beloved American pastime, being productive. I can go for weeks in the summer, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, wracked with anxiety that I’m not doing life right, I’m not succeeding as a creative person. I’m not exaggerating. It is truly exhausting, not to mention a bad way to nurture the creative self. This is supposed to be fun, right?

Continue reading “Goodbye To All That”

Excuse Me, What?

“Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I’ve been drafting a blog post over the last week or so, trying to say something about something, trying to get a handle on the bigness and weirdness of life at this moment. At first, I felt inspired by all the time I’ve been spending in the kitchen, so I wrote about how food and culture intersect, how food is a great way to dive into a culture that’s different from yours. Then I changed track completely, and started writing about the comfort of water, oceans and lakes and rivers, and how we’re currently learning about the healing power of nature in deep new ways. Still, none of it felt like an honest reflection of what I’m thinking about right now, because what I’m really thinking about right now is: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON??

There are times when we can see the threads of life moving elegantly back and forth, making a pattern we can understand. Then, there are times like this month, when the threads are all tied in a giant, gnarly knot with old gum and bits of pet hair in it.

Like this, but way, WAY worse. (Photo via Manuel Sardo)
Continue reading “Excuse Me, What?”

Weekly Roundup: Diversity Outdoors Edition

Photo: Justin Dream

What’s this? A weekly roundup on a Wednesday? Yes, friends. Sometimes, when the world hands you centuries of systemic racism, schedules get thrown to the wind. I did some reading and researching after I wrote last week’s post about the invisibility of POC in mainstream nature writing and the outdoors, and I found all kinds of good stuff to share with you. Follow these links, and you will find new understanding, helpful resources, and dare I say it, hope for a better future. Click and share liberally.

This Outside piece by Latria Graham, “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us.” is required reading for anyone who loves spending time in nature, or who has ever seen, interacted with, or even heard of the concept of nature. Everyone should read it, is what I’m saying. Born and raised in the South, Graham writes beautifully about her family’s farm and her own love of the outdoors, while providing powerful insight into how lack of access and representation create and perpetuate the idea that Black people just aren’t that into nature–the “no reason” I alluded to in my own piece. Graham’s article was originally published back in 2018, and it feels even more relevant now.

Continue reading “Weekly Roundup: Diversity Outdoors Edition”

No Reason

Photo: Nikhila Kulkarni

Last week, I felt my country crack open. Not along a new fault line, along an old one– the oldest one of all, in fact. And now, as we have lived through days and days of tremors, I am tired. I. Am. Tired. Not from this most recent version of these events, but from the reverberations of institutional racism and ignorance that have echoed through my body my entire life. 

Today I am remembering the time I drove through Yosemite with a friend, and remarked on how there wasn’t a single person of color in any of the crowds that stood marveling at the granite expanse of Olmstead Point, the glacial waters of Tenaya Lake, the broad refuge of Tuolumne Meadows. “Does that matter?”, she asked, “I mean, we’re just out in nature. Just because people aren’t here doesn’t mean it’s for a reason.” No reason. No lack of access. No absence of outreach, no failure of inclusion. No subtle suggestion that white people value nature more than people of color do, that they deserve it more, that they are it’s rightful protectors. No no, nothing like that. A coincidence!

This, I have come to understand, is what many white people think of the inequalities that are present in our outdoor spaces, if they notice them at all. They see no source, no history, no pattern–no reason. Maybe Black people just don’t like hiking–no reason! Maybe Mexican-Americans just couldn’t make it to the lake today–no reason! Maybe one hundred percent of the great American nature writers are white just because–no reason!

Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Diné/Navajo), aka Monument Valley (Photo: Cayetano Gil)

I remember my old boyfriend, who balked when I said I didn’t like how Edward Abbey spoke about Navajo people in his books–as though they were mute, ignorant lumps, pushing sheep around blindly across the desert, an aberration in a majestic Southwestern landscape. “Maybe that’s just how people thought back then,” he replied, irritated by another example of me ‘always looking for the negative’. And that’s where his examination ended, with how those people thought back then. No reason to follow their thoughts to their actions, no reason to trace those beliefs to the official government policies that dehumanized, removed, or aimed to outright exterminate those faceless sheepherders. No reason to think twice about a white writer implying that the very people who had inhabited his beloved Southwest since time immemorial were undeserving of the land, unable to properly utilize or “appreciate” it, the way white people could. No reason to let obvious racism get in the way of enjoying some great nature writing. No reason for us to argue. No reason, just me again, negative, noticing, always noticing, who knows why–no reason. 

Weekly Roundup: Bird Edition

via Boston Public Library/Unsplash

Hi guys! Happy Friday! For your weekend enjoyment, here’s a quick list of links related to this week’s topic: BIRDS, BIRDS, BIRDS. Click, read, listen, and share.

Merlin, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird identification app, is my favorite app of all time. Not just my favorite nature app, mind you, my favorite app period. It’s unbelievably easy to use, gratifying, and super fun (especially the birdsong recordings). Plus, when you successfully ID a bird, that info is shared with the lab, which helps them track and better understand bird populations around the globe. Important stuff, people!

While you’re at it, check out some of the Cornell Lab’s live bird cams, and see how the other half lives (if the other half is birds). I watched a Bermuda petrel chick sleep for five minutes this morning and my serenity levels went through the roof. Staring at another person for five straight minutes while they sleep might be kind of creepy, but with birds it’s totally encouraged.

Continue reading “Weekly Roundup: Bird Edition”

All Together Now

Lately when I wake up, I can hear birds outside my window. And not just one or two birds, but a whole song-shower that rings through the entire neighborhood. I still hear the usual leaf blowers too (can you really say you live in the suburbs if you don’t wake up to a leaf blower?), but the rattle and roar of cars is mostly missing.

An America Robin perches on a brach
Oh, were you not up yet? (Robert Thiemann/Unsplash)

When my family first moved to this area about 20 years ago, it was remarkably quiet–a little too quiet, as far as College Era me was concerned. I was put off by the eerie void of human sounds, with only the wind, leaves, and birds announcing themselves. But now, the empty rolling hills that used to surround us have been developed, covered with waves of houses, divided by roadways that are predictably packed. At some point during the last year, I stood in our backyard and just listened to the traffic, feeling small, and helpless, and sad. As I listened, it hit me that the quiet I had once found creepy was well and truly gone forever—unless there’s some kind of giant catastrophe or something, I thought.

Well.

Continue reading “All Together Now”