West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Monday, February 26, 2007

More snow. And vultures.

This time it’s my own driveway I get to shovel. It’s not nearly so pleasant here, though. The driveway, like nearly everything else in the apartment, was cheaply made a long time ago and scarcely maintained since. It has a certain amount, as we say in the business, of topographic variation. And then there are the vultures.

I’d never given much thought to vultures before I came to live here. I’d see them every once in a while lifting from something ghastly at the side of the road, or circling high up on thermals above the town. Now I spend a lot of time thinking about them, because upwards of 65 of them roost all winter in the trees behind this house.

They first showed up early last spring, a few days after an elderly neighbor passed away. It sounds like something out of magic realism: three days after Rosamunda’s death, the vultures came to roost in the trees behind Pilar’s house. They stared down at her with dark intelligent eyes and muttered among themselves like shipwrecked sailors. And I don’t mean to make light of the woman’s death. What I mean is to point out the unsettling coincidence. If it were magic realism, the vultures would be some sort of portent of worse things to come. They certainly felt like a bad omen in the long emptiness of last spring, after Matt’s departure. As it’s turned out, they’re just a nuisance. Thus far.

When they first came, my car was parked in the driveway under the overhanging spruce boughs. Overnight, it was whitewashed and reeking. I spent three hours with a hose and a scrub brush, getting it clean. That night the vultures left again. I parked in the street for a month to stay out from under the trees. A late snowstorm and a town parking ban forced me back into the driveway one night, and that very night the flock came back. This time, as well as a reeking coat of whitewash, they left several small rib-bones (squirrel, I rather hoped) entangled in the windshield wipers.

The situation hasn’t really improved since then. I park on the street whenever I can. The flock has grown. When I come home late at night, I can hear them in the trees, rattling their feathers and shifting among the branches. When I work at home on a sunny day, I can see the shadows of their wheeling flight crossing the blinds as they leave in the morning and again at evening as they return. They cover the back lawn with their filth and feathers and bits of unspeakable far-gone meat. As the snow melts, a charnel stink rises out of the back lawn. After I shovel the driveway here, at least the part under the trees, I feel like I should sterilize my shovel.

I was talking to my mother a few days ago, about some troubles I’ve had with a friend. She (my mother) told me something very important: not everything in life has a lesson attached. Sometimes, for no reason, life hands you—and here I paraphrase; my mother doesn’t talk this way—a shit sandwich. Maybe the vultures are another example. There’s no reason for the vultures to pick these particular trees, this particular house. Shoveling rancid vulture snow isn’t my personal penance for some past sin; it’s just what I need to do in order to keep the driveway clean, and so I shovel it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A taxonomy of snow shovels

A few years ago, I lived in a house with a long, steep driveway. At the top there was space for five or six cars, and a retaining wall on one side. It cost $90 a pop to get the whole thing plowed. Being graduate students, my housemates and I decided we’d shovel instead. After all, how many big snowstorms does Connecticut get in a winter? When I lived there, it seemed like at least one every week. It took a solid hour to get the standard 4-6 inches off that driveway, and when one storm dropped a foot overnight, I spent three hours out there. I’d grown up shoveling snow, but never quite on such a scale. It was there that I developed my taxonomy of snow shovels.

There are really only two kinds: a plow shovel and a scoop shovel. (Occasionally one finds a hybrid, but the hybrids are always inferior.) A plow shovel is the deep-bellied variety, usually made of plastic and often with a crook in the handle. It’s best for light dustings of 2-3 inches. You push it across the surface of the driveway like a snowplow, pushing a mound of snow to the far side. A scoop shovel is the lighter, nearly flat variety, usually made of metal, with a straight handle. It requires a more active technique, where you lift up a load of snow and toss it to the far side of the driveway. Or over the retaining wall, if you are so unfortunate as to have a retaining wall. If there’s more than four inches on the ground, a scoop shovel is preferable—if you try to use the plow shovel, especially if the snow is wet, you end up with an impenetrable moraine about halfway across the driveway and you have to attack it with scoop shovels anyway.

I came to be very proficient with both types of shovels, but I always preferred the scoop shovel. On that long driveway, I developed a rhythm, and even, if I might say so, a style. I’d shovel from one side to the other, flip the shovel into the other hand without even thinking, and go back across. The tiny lines of snow left behind—even the best shoveler can’t get it all—would form a neat herringbone pattern, checkered with my footprints.

When I’m shoveling snow, it’s almost like meditation. I can forget about everything except the work at hand. So I was overjoyed to wake up this morning to a bright white landscape of maple branches stacked with snow. I’m house-sitting and dog-sitting for a friend who’s out of town. Her driveway’s just long enough that shoveling provides a pleasant break from reality, but not so long or steep that it feels like a chore.

There are a lot of things I would like to not think about right now. Even barring the usual horrors of the modern world that I generally block out to stay sane, it’s been a rough week. This week I had to go through applications for a summer program I’ll be running in Costa Rica. There were eighty applications for twelve spots, and it was heartbreaking to turn some of those kids away. Also, my research is not going well right now. I’m learning how to program, and I’ve gotten to a point where I think I know what I’m doing, only to find that the machine thinks it should be doing something quite unrelated. I spent a fruitless couple of hours this morning poring over eight lines of code. And an analysis I’ve been working on for the past six weeks, on data I’ve collected over three years, revealed that there’s essentially no structure in my data set. An ideal data set would show up in this sort of plot as several discrete little clusters of points. Mine looks more like something from Jackson Pollock. The trouble with almost all ecological data is the difficulty of separating signal from noise. In my case, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any signal there at all.

The minute I got out there on the driveway, in the bright glare of morning, all my data analysis worries vanished. It was just me and the snow and the scoop shovel; white snow ahead and black driveway behind. There’s something wonderful about work that’s so repetitive it becomes automatic, work where the progress is visible, work that stays done when you turn your back on it. That’s what I loved about carpentry. When I was laying floorboards or framing a doorway, I knew that my work would probably outlive me. I don’t think I can say that for any of the work I do these days. Who knows? Unless I can find some meaning in my Jackson Pollock data set, I might end up going back to carpentry after all.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Christmas Ferns

Several people have asked if I’m going to post any of my poems. I have a strange reluctance to share them with the great anonymous society of the web—but then, almost everybody who reads this site is a friend of mine. Without further ado:

Christmas Ferns

In a beech wood at twilight, late fall.
Hoarding their secrets in the red leaves.
Feathers, vertebrae, ladders of scales,
strands of flippers that slit the light,
going from green to gunmetal as day fades.
I saw one in winter, snow-outlined,
a ribcage. They carry names
that have nothing to do with their quiet life.
I could say Christmas ferns, Polystichum acrostichoides;
I could describe fronds and pinnae, rhizome scales, sporangia.
There are words for every part of them
except their shining presence among the leaves;
there are words that weave and do not weave
the web of the way things are.

I want to jot down a few words about the genesis of the poem. I have mixed feelings about this, as well. Any work of art, whether visual, musical, verbal, etc., should stand on its own without burdensome explications. Sometimes the de-mystification of an artifact is almost a despoiling—it robs the reader (viewer, listener, etc.) of the chance to bring his or her own experiences and interpretation of the work. But I’ve found that I often have a deeper enjoyment of art when I understand something of the context where it arose. Hence the metadata, if you will:

Most of my poems are crabbed together in the margins of notebooks over the course of months and sometimes years. This is one of the few that came to me almost whole. It was a Saturday afternoon in late October 2004, and I had been grading student’s lab reports on photosynthesis since early morning. I needed a break, so I walked out in the forest behind the house where I lived at the time. I was thinking about the utter impossibility of really communicating anything with words. What slippery little beasts they are. I noticed the Christmas ferns growing in the leaves, more un-knowable even than other human lives. I thought about the time I’d seen one by the Trail in wet snow, so startlingly skeletal against the still-brown backdrop of leaves. Metaphors can give us a kind of comprehension, but what is the veiled shape behind their hinting? When I was in college, I had a chemistry professor who likened our understanding of molecules to a blind man examining an elephant. For things too large or too small, you can perceive only bits and pieces, and put the rest together by guesswork. It often seems to me that everything, eventually, falls in the category of the un-knowable if you follow it far enough.

I should record one more detail, a slightly mundane one, which I hope will not take the magic out of the poem. The last few lines were loosely inspired by the conclusion of a student’s lab report: “the experimental and control setups both did and did not have effects on both groups of plants.” In case any of my students are reading this, don’t ever write like that! The rest of the lab report, written in a similarly circumspect and informationless style, was a chore to wade through. But I am oddly, obscurely grateful for that one sentence.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Chop wood, carry water

I’m not much for Zen—I have too much fondness for the world’s rough-and-tumble perpetuity to ever wish myself above it all—but there are some great koans. Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. And it’s true; no matter how great or terrible the event, the necessary details of life continue in the background. Nothing particularly great or terrible has happened to me lately, which I suppose I should count as a blessing. I have been thinking, though, about how much the details of life have changed since the Zen masters set that one down. Who chops wood any more? Who carries water? Most of the world, probably, but not here in the Land of Plenty. The modern American version of the koan would probably substitute drive to work, pay your taxes.

I’ve just finished reading Baron Wormser’s beautiful memoir, The Road Washes Out in Spring. It’s about the years he spent raising a family in a tiny cabin in the Maine woods, with no electricity and no running water. I was struck by how similar it was to my own childhood. We had electricity (in three rooms of the sprawling downstairs) and running water (after my sister was born—my mother drew the line at carrying water to wash out diapers). But we did grow much of our own food, and we heated with wood. As Wormser eloquently describes, heating with wood is a kind of meditation in itself. It anchors you to the place where you come from. When you burn a log, you’ve already handled it seven or eight times: felling the tree and lopping off the branches, hauling it out, cutting it to length, splitting, stacking. In the backwaters where I grew up, wood heat was still common enough that a household would be judged on the merits of its woodpile.

Even if you bought cordwood, there was still work. The first winter after my parents divorced, my mother lived with the three of us daughters in a poorly-insulated little house that went through five cords in a winter. She bought 4-ft lengths—slightly cheaper than the pre-cut wood—and every day after school, my older sister and I would saw the logs into thirds so they could fit into the stove. We’d stay at the sawhorses until dark, telling stories and joking and chucking sawdust at each other when the jokes got too bad. I suppose I could look back at this episode as evidence of some Dickensian, uphill-both-ways, barefoot-in-the-snow, terrible childhood. But instead I treasure those memories.

Today I live in a house with an oil furnace in the basement, like most people in this part of the world. I’ve never liked oil heat. You don’t have to think about where it comes from. Every month or so a giant truck fills up your tank; you nudge a little lever on the thermostat, and presto, your house warms up. I guess the convenience is what appeals to most people, but to me, it seems like a loss—one more part of our connection to the earth gone missing. You don’t have to think about the giant swamps of the Carboniferous Era, all the eons that that carbon lay buried beneath the earth, all the work of extracting and refining and shipping. It’s really weird, when you think about it, that the vast majority of us here in the Northeast depend on fossil carbon mined on the other side of the world to heat our houses.

And one thing about wood—you can count on it. You do your work, splitting and stacking and hauling, and you light the fire, and you get warm. Not so with oil. This morning when I woke up, the morning of my 28th birthday, it was six degrees outside and 45 degrees in the apartment. I could see my breath. Some time during the night, the furnace broke. My first thought, when I rolled out of bed, was “time to light the fire.” But when I came fully awake, awake enough to poke around in the basement checking the breakers and the emergency override switches, I realized that there was nothing I could do, short of calling the landlord.

Sometimes I hate how dependent I am on technology I don’t understand; on long, untenable supply chains; on oil. Sometimes I’d like to just move to a little cabin in the woods, and have nothing around me that I can’t repair with my own two hands. Of course, if I ever did, I’d end up bemoaning the loss of my academic life, my career, my chance to reach the wider world and make a difference in more lives than just my own.

A minor change: in the time since I began writing this update, something great has happened to me. I won the Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest. I am still wavering between elation and denial—I have to re-read the email several times a day to convince myself that I really won. It’s a huge honor. In mid-March I’ll be reading one of my poems on the same stage as Adam Zagajewski. It just takes my breath away.