On Friday's bicycle ride home, two gray, skinny coyotes stood beside each other, twins drawn out from the pack, and watched me from within a bushy outlet leading to, of course, a gated electrical transformer. Ah, wilderness.
These two could not have been alone, because unless he's solitary, a paired-off coyote has a family. So I did not pursue my curiosity. I've only seen lone coyotes in the past (at least up close) and so, in this case, I briefly entertained the idea of turning around and seeing what I could get myself into. But I know better than to approach wild animals. I could end up on the side of the road, ground up like a Manwich.
Strange to see something living and something eyeing me as potential Halloween candy. Most animals I encounter in Southern California appear in corpse form...well, mammal-wise...I suppose birds and bugs trump the dead ones. I trip over morning roadkill on walks; on the way to work, I see dead opossums and raccoons, I ride by murders of crows picking apart the remnants of some fattened rodent, a squirrel or a rat--by that point you can never tell. The night before last, a crow went into a low circular dive and tried to clip my ear; I think my being the only person walking outside made for an easy target, but he missed. A small brown bird slammed into me once, but I was wearing a sky-blue shirt that day, and he appeared as confused as I was when I felt that erroneous punch in the shoulder.
Yeah, and spiders continue to invade my apartment way past summer; they're welcome to hang out if they stay off the bed and away from my cereal. Mostly they just perambulate around the ceiling of the bathroom and walk gingerly across the living room floor. The balcony is a mess of webs one day, but all that construction disappears on its own, and the gnawing grasshoppers that like to get into my plants always go away the day after an arachnid invasion.
The largest black darkling beetle didn't bother to do a headstand when I neared it on Saturday, a short hike over the ridge, a trail so wet last year it has sprouted a crease of green grass where rainwater made a deep rivulet last spring. The leaves are changing very slowly this year, refusing to die. One sycamore had a single yellow leaf; all the rest remained green. So I killed them in that photograph.
Dusk wells up nostalgia; nostalgia, that false sense of a glistening past: the cool air and clouds of soft gray wool, the occasional puddle and all the fallen leaves swept off driveways into the street; strings of plastic pumpkin lights instead of carved jack-o-lanterns; I'm unfamiliar yet reminded, and some bluish patches beyond the cloudy sky have tiny stars still there from before, and every day they move. I don't like the shadows cast by street lights; or maybe I do. I just don't like the lamps themselves. Cars go by, one after another, but I think people are only going through the motions of running errands; nothing they need is all that immediate. They could walk, too.
And I would like to walk at this time of night more often, but this time of night will never come again. Every moment presents the next ridge of an ever unfolding fan; the view back is equally obscured by such creases, making memory equivocal, the past subjective and only unyeilding in its ambiguity. I wonder if to walk at night on this sad hillside 50 years ago made any sense at all. Where would one walk to? How many sheep would bleat as one passed? Did the birds then, confused as they are now, cry out to each other checking the time? Verifying day from night was easier, maybe; this was a pasture, and I don't know the old geography. I suppose the fog had meaning. A drunken ranch hand would know its significance; he couldn't drive back from the town on the oceanside; he would have to sleep it off in his truck. At this hour, the taverns over by the beach channeled all the revelers and tired laborers up and down a solitary highway; the paths out here had yet to be paved.
From the "what the __?" file, a report that throws a little bleach onto the dark infection that is Wal-Mart. What sounds at first like enlightened corporate positioning leaves the almondy aftertaste of cynical marketing; otherwise why would we need to know? One would hope that civic responsibility comes with the territory of owning 10 percent of the retail market and controlling 2 percent of the American GDP. But that's the whole thing: being civil has never been profitable. Squashing small-town life and using cheap foreign labor to subvert all competition is the way to "win." Only the threat of lawsuits and visible protest compels the behemoth to shift. Because people who shop at Wal-Mart aren't worried about where things come from--they're worried about how much things cost and how many more things they can buy--the Davids in this Bibilical myth are competitive small business owners, eco-conscious rabble rousers and unionized hippies. We're gonna sell organic cotton shirts at Sam's Club. That should shut them up.
When the early autumn puddles dried here in southern California I remembered the calls for action to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the levees broke seven weeks ago in the other LA. Katrina even got the attention of those citizens previously (seemingly) inoculated to the facts: that gobs of money, for some reason, had flowed middle-eastward, clear across the globe, instead of toward an American community many suits had predicted would need it most if a natural disaster were to strike on target. It struck, and the cash that had not been spent helped create one big soggy septic tank of mankind meets destiny in the Big Easy.
In the Big Messy, meanwhile, since that's where the money--if not the water--has flowed, flooding is taking place on purpose. And, coincidentally, the ACE is in charge. This could be the bayou of southern Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi, but we have a city there, and people don't want to live in reed houses in America, much. It's ironic that what leads our politicians to feel umbrage at Saddam's ecological foibles does not extend to our own proclivity to channel nature as we see fit. Although the development of the largest river in North America began centuries ago, even a massive overflow of its banks a dozen years back didn't get the attention of civic planners south of St. Louis. If it did, it didn't extend to the federal level enough to raise the bar in those lower level river states to move people out of harm's way. So here we go again, rebuilding after the floods, draining water that, after all, is supposed to be there, and putting people on "dry" ground that doesn't stay that way. Maybe the Iraqis should count themselves lucky we dislike their former leader so much that we're doing the right thing.
Between the thunder overhead and the rain popping off the balcony, drowning potted plants and the minor earthquake almost masked by my perpetually stomping (downstairs) neighbors, it might be easy to forget that I left town for nearly three weeks and have only recently returned. It may be time for a mid-life crisis and a permanent departure from this uncivilized and insouciant place where every time lightning flickers, teenaged girls scream as if they're watching fireworks. Resting after a long weekend of city living is impossible. Smack! It would be domestic violence if I knew them, but since I don't, I can only be accused of hateful thoughts and unrequited loathing.
Human intrusions of an unnatural nature in conflict with the weather or the earth's machinations bring out the best of my bilious loner persona. When at Yellowstone awaiting Old Faithful to gradually wind up and erupt, the crowd could not sit still; some parents contained their children, most let them run loose between the cold mock-wooden plastic benches untethered, unfettered, undisciplined. Older folks, and national park visitors are mostly older folks and German tourists, spoke loudly of the days when they could still hear. And cell phones rang and car horns bleated like the elk on the other side of the caldera; competed with the crows that cawed in echoic condemnation of our being there at all. The kids--bored, waiting for the production to begin, for the crowning event and the whole purpose of coming to this bizarre place--could not sit still. I could, and so reduced to solitary middle-aged crank, did my best to fuss with camera, distract myself with alternating thoughts of self-annihalation and mass homicide until, after a couple practice belches, the geyser lifted out of its sulphuric pit with a soft hiss and, because the sun had set and twilight had settled over us, evaporated into a steam cloud before it could rise as high as I think it can get, for roughly 20 seconds silenced the crowd by being unexpectedly benign and imperfect; not the awe-inspiring icon documented on postage stamps and PBS documentaries, but a quiet moment of the Earth sighing, and I along with it, as everyone packed up and left, drove away to go to their hotels to turn on the TV.
I missed the expanse before it collapsed, and in my 4,200-mile round trips, I find the historical wonder of old prophets corrupted: The flow of rivers through the plains altered beyond Whitman's recognition; the shapes of forests, even their makeup, long changed since Powell explored the great West; lands fenced in, squared off, gutted and culled. Every year the main street of small towns gets to look more like the one I passed through 800 miles back, billboards like shutters and bright corporate logos behind them. All that was once wild--even with man upon it--for unimaginable millennia, is gone. A square of national park is not wilderness. It is tourist haven. I'm glad for these spaces, but they are sad reminders of what is forever lost.
And John Muir would not call "wilderness" the U-shaped valleys filled with homes that took two minutes to erect; he advertised the furthest rim of the Great Basin, the Range of Light, saved it in an exponential leap of conservationist faith. But in doing so he made all else seem second-rate and therefore exploitable. I love the slick gray California ridgeline, the steep peeks that alternate between smooth glass and broken shards. The sun cannot imitate itself, and every day there is some new shadow, some new pathway for the light to follow. Last winter saw a lot more weather than usual; even in May the white wooly coat of so many storms had barely tattered on the Sierra's back. The summer was hot, very, and so autumn gives us golden aspens and glowing foothills, with their steep stony overseers bald of snow looking frankly dark and satisfied with power. These mountains are impossible not to respect and beatify. Their scale and sheer intimidation invite allusions to old myth, while relatively new legends of exploitation (Gold! and Timber!) have become intrinsic to our culture. Mountainsides remain in the form of protected federal land, long ago picked over for their minerals and subsurface resources. The ancient cathedral forests of the Shoshone and Washoe disappeared in a few short mining years; the giant woods of the Lake Tahoe basin exist as logs in underground, abandoned Nevada silver mines. Now sticks of lodgepole pines, a poor replacement, give people the illusion of nature when, in fact, what we have sesquicentennially is a substitute, weed trees that took advantage of the scoured landscape.
We have to call some place home. I feel like a guest still, after 15 years of living here in California. But I feel like a guest everywhere else as well. I think we are all guests of a kind; some of us have the decency to leave the room clean when we leave. Some of us steal towels and tear up the sheets. Earth as bedraggled hotel. Needs a few billionaire investors for a facelift. Will never be the place it was, but we could at least return its dignity.
A cold front crawls toward the state, stirring up a thin soup of slow clouds on the horizon at 3 a.m., with ominous flashes that pop from south to north and back again like a line of '40s newspaper photographers. Above, the outstretched arm of our Milky Way adds its own speckled stripe to the already glittering black sky. But when will it start to rain? The temperature, thankfully, has dropped 15 degrees from yesterday and should drop another 15 by tomorrow. New snow on the distant mountains, too distant to know that by sight, may stay the winter--a welcome guest. Looking to the east, soybean fields already deconstructed by sturdy combines look like a striped brown rug on the floor of the earth. The sky at dawn is a wall with faded paint, crumbling white and gray, in need of a fresh coat. The wind continues, though; an endless white noise combs through the trees.
Yesterday, big--way-too-big--suburban houses built on this backdrop of farm country made me lean toward hating my fellow man; luckily they are impermanent, no matter how much destruction and stupidity they represent, the McMansions and their owners, too, will be whisked away some day, either by violent storm or by drifting, casual, indifferent weather. Ah. Just now the first crack of thunder.
It's windy, and it's hot. The huge thudding hogs leave the slop near the barn and seek shelter beneath metal semi-circles held to the ground with spikes. Green combines harvesting soybeans stir up dust miles down the gravel road. It lands here, everywhere, sticks to window screens and plates. The farm dogs bark at the wind and the doors knock back and forth against their frames. Somehow the 100-year-old glass holds together. There are cats, too, but half of them are missing; the ducks, turkeys, geese and chickens seem to have allied in the coop, a treaty against a common enemy. Why is it 90 degrees in October? Where is the mud, and why all the dirt? The sheep kick up ground dry as stale crackers, bleating curiosity; like elderly cranks, they wander around the pen speaking their strange language of dependency and argument. And the trees have broken into brittle pieces, future firewood, stacked into heavy piles; and even fallen, their leaves remain green. Though it's autumn, the orange and red maple groves and deep merlot sumac bushes one expects beyond the golden corn, around homes and on the hills, hasn't appeared. It's the middle of July without the lemonade. Yes, sir. Strange weather we're havin'.
The collective child in our heads
gains exit through our fingertips,
wildly developing an illicit web
of quiet rage.
Wrapped inside such warm cocoons,
we sleep awake,
trapped within this cyber stage
content, alone, "communicating,"
distracted from our age.
And yet the welcoming refrains
create abstract online alliances;
these encounters, so unlikely,
so remote, in any case,
are like the stars we seem to think
we could carve right from the sky:
a thousand light years from our eyes.