Monday, April 27, 2020

Nature as Antidote During Quarantine

            About the time I started hearing of the new Coronavirus, it had not rained in Northern California in thirty-eight days.  It was the driest February since record-keeping began, and since we had endured three straight Octobers of devastating wildfires in our state, Californians were very hopeful for a wet March. By the time we got our wish in early March, Nature was busy doing what it does every Spring: rebirth. The hills turned a dazzling green, wildflowers came up in culverts and between the grape vines in the vineyards, and hummingbirds dove down to partake. Nubile green shoots that would soon be freesia or daffodils poked through the soil, and the narcissus and hyacinths were in full flower beckoning to be sniffed. The fruit trees were budding, and cascades of sunny yellow puff balls were already spilling from the Acacia.  Passing beneath, you could hear the hum of the bees taking advantage. Little did any of us know that two weeks into the month, a pandemic would be raging around the globe.  
      On March 19th, all non-essential businesses in California, including the flower shop where I worked, were ordered to close and we were told to shelter in place. I felt extremely fortunate to have a space with a garden and a backyard where I hole up, a place I had made a haven over the thirty years I have lived here. 
            If there is one thing I have learned from this crisis, it is that the environment truly does thrive when humans step back. Photos from Nasa show our own for probably the first time in over a century, planet not enshrouded in smog.  And while there were no dolphins in the Venice canals as one doctored photograph proclaimed, I have definitely seen a resurgence of wildlife in my own vicinity.  Right by a road that is usually lined with bumper to bumper traffic, I stopped to watch a Tom turkey, his face electric blue with excitement, doing a mating dance for three undecided hens, fanning his impressive tail feathers and strutting hopefully back and forth in front of them. The first week of the shelter at home order, Californians were so desperate to be in the outdoors, that we descended upon beach and forest in multitudes, making it impossible to keep a distance of six feet from others of our species. A few days later, all state parks were closed, and soon, to rein in the disobedient, their parking lots too.  
            I think many humans are starved for a connection with Nature. We are clumsy at feeding this need, trampling the very wildflowers we longed to see in a desert super bloom, grabbing onto tortoises while snorkeling, harming them in our need for contact, taking selfies with bear and moose and other creatures that are wild and do not play by our rules.  We see beautiful rocks and petroglyphs on cliffs in Utah and want to take a chip home. We marvel at groves of Aspen in Colorado, and carve our names in their bark. The signs seen in many of our most wild places read “Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photos. Kill nothing but time.” And yet our sheer numbers and lack of a true understanding that when we visit wild places, we are visitors in the home of other species, species equally as important as we bipeds. Maybe this time-out for humans will teach us that we are only one part of life on this shared planet, not the main event. 
            This shelter-at-home period has forced me to slow down and see all of this play out in the microcosm of my back yard, to notice more. I witness the day to day changes in the plants and creatures there, the intensifying color on the house finches, the lilting, descending notes of the golden-crowned sparrows. As one flower fades, another is just starting. Yesterday, I hung string on the fenceposts for the birds to use as nesting material and was ridiculously thrilled to see a bird fly by today with a piece in its beak. Connection. Cooperation. A future.
       Time has become fuzzy and like many, I have to think hard to recall what date it is or when something took place. The only constant is the season. Some have pointed out the irony that Spring is in its full glory when so many are sick and dying, when the words apocalypse and Armageddon are heard frequently on the news. But I am not of the April-is-the-cruelest-month camp. In a time of so many harsh realities and the anxiety of having very little control beyond handwashing and social distancing, I find tremendous comfort in the ongoingness of Nature. In this period of giant unknowns, with our understanding of the virus changing daily, there is solace in the fact that, undisturbed and left to its own devices, the natural world continues, even flourishes. It can manifest in something as small as a weed growing from a crack in a city sidewalk, or as recognizable as a Cherry Blossom tree snowing petals. The Oriels are back now, their dazzling yellow bringing me to tears of delight watching them cautiously dine at the jelly feeder.  There is reassurance in being able to count on something, to witness the world outside as it continues, carrying out its seasonal rituals of life and death as it has done for over 130 million years. The natural world can be an antidote to panic, if we are only able to appreciate that humans are a part of all the wonder, but certainly not the only part that matters.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Perseid Perspective 2019

For those who are lucky enough to be in a place where stars are visible: It is the month of the Perseid Meteor Showers. I look forward to this event every August, and also the Geminid meteor shower in December. But in August, the night is warm and I can linger longer, which is when the magic happens.

 They peak the 12th, but that is nearing the full moon, so not as good for viewing. Now until the 9th you will see so many shooting stars, especially if you can look up after 10 or even 11. I have a ritual every August where I lay with my back against the warm pavement and look up, vowing not to go to bed until I see one. And of course, I make wishes. But more: I marvel. My entire perspective changes as I think about our planet and our place in the solar system and how insignificant we humans are in the vastness of this Big Picture. There is an odd comfort in that, and certainly: wonder. 
  Sometimes I see several right away, sometimes it takes a good while. But it’s the most remarkable feeling as your eyes gradually adjust to the darkness and you realize you are seeing thousands if stars that you could not see five minutes earlier, as if by quieting down and looking skyward you are rewarded with more and more stars revealing themselves. There is something really grounding too about looking up at that glorious firmament. For me, it puts my place in the grand scheme of things into perspective and makes me marvel and calms me. So….LOOK UP, and be transported! 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Nature Crystallized In The Backyard

It is August in California, the "dog days of summer," very different here in Sonoma from those of my Midwestern childhood. Instead of window-rattling thunderstorms and the threat of tornadoes, cities around me are battling early and devastating wildfires, with a similar magnitude that Sonoma and Napa counties faced last October. The new normal, these colossal floods, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires are called, but how can we help but see these events as a message from our beleaguered planet? 

To try and counter the upset and sorrow these global changes make me feel, I have tried to create a haven in my own backyard over the past two decades, and summer is certainly the most sensual time of year to appreciate that. When I reach across a tomato plant to pick some Juliets or Sungolds, the tiny hairs on each vine brush my arm and send up a scent that is instant-Summer. The lavender, humming with bees and the pots of Basil too give off a perfume that will always remind me of the heat of the season. A blue hammock sways mysteriously, even when there is no wind, as if visited by a relaxing ghost. I juice limes and fill the ice cube tray with their juice. Limeade. 

 I feed the birds and, more importantly, have many basins of water that are hubs of activity. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to watch the cycles of their lives, from courtship to mating to nesting to the mussy fledglings learning how to eat and fly. This year, I have seen many baby Towhees and Finches and Nuthatches and Bushtits and Swallows and even two juvenile Hummingbirds and an Oriel survive those precarious early weeks out of the nest, now confident and exploring freely. I fill the birdbaths and the bees hover around me, waiting. 

Then too, there are the occasional surprises  A mother skunk and two babies took up residence under a storage shed. The dogs have been skunked in the past and it is a pernicious smell that resists all the ways that are said to eradicate it, and takes months and months to disappear. So I am hopeful these new residents will mosey. They do not like light or noise, so each night, the dogs safely inside, I shine a flashlight at them looking for grubs wherever the soil is watered. At first they scurried away, but now they look up at me, perhaps recognizing a softie when they see one, and continue eating. I am about to try a radio under the shed or motion sensitive lights, never ever poison. Not for the rats that live in the woodpile and eat the fallen birdseed. This is where the skunks could be helpful as they eat small rodents.  Clearly, not all the smells are delightful. Case in point: a mole died somehow and when I discovered it, I placed it in the greens bin, not knowing that the following two days it would be one hundred degrees. Today, a vulture appeared near the bin on the fence posts if summoned. The bird was drawn to the carrion scent from miles away, a remarkable sense of smell.

My place is small enough that I can know every tree and vine and flower and bird and critter intimately.There is the fig tree that bears fruit lightly in July and heavily in October. The Pomegranate whose fruits are labor-intensive to juice but beautiful as decoration, or food for the birds when they fall the to ground and split open, revealing their glossy jewels. Volunteer Sunflowers from the bird seed that does not make it into a beak and happens to fall near a drip line. Honeysuckle and Trumpetvine that threaten to pull down fences in their will to climb. Some of the summer harvests are small but revered: the Padron Peppers that I sauté with slices of garlic and sea salta and olive oil, mostly mild but every once in a while, a zinger. A rose called Fragrant Cloud that fills the whole room with deliciousness. Soon, it will grow cool and the flowers will go to seed and I will not be able to see the things in front of me at nine o'clock at night as the day cools and every living thing gets a second wind. But for now, I have the bounty of Summer for a little while longer.

New Poem


Always better to focus on
Blue dolphins & Bushbabies,
Secret gardens & girl spies- she too
a girl spy, at the banister last night,
her breath catching on the word

August: its shimmering, vaselined 
heat-ghosts hovering 
above car hoods &
empty sidewalks. 

Better to draw the dusty curtains, retreat
to the one air-conditioned room
in the house, her parents’ room.

Here, the hours pass elsewhere.
the cicadas’ cries swell in fury or
lust, then
subside.  Crescendo, 
then dwindle.
-The rhythm of battles, 
& ballads, 
not unlike
the sounds competing 
from the rooms below.

Soon the clang-clang of
the ice-cream man.
She will close her book & stumble dazed
out into the stupefying heat, towards
Banana Bombpops, or better:
She sucks the good stuff out, leaves
the cone behind.

The cicadas leave their empty shells
on the trees &
the girl will gently
pluck one off, place it on her shoulder
where it clings, as if 
still containing life,
but weightless. 
She will make her way back into the house,
to the table with sweating glasses & grey vegetables,
and meatloaf.
The table where everyone pretends
that the sounds she heard last night
were never made at all.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

New Poem

Vernal Study

Past the Rattlesnake grass &
Wild Pea,
the waft of Chamomile crushed
Through the canary corridor 
of Scotch Broom, stopped
stock-still to watch
in the path ahead,
A flight of Swallows, busy
at a mud puddle.
One thousand pellets of mud carried by beak
to create a nest equals
one thousand trips between
this puddle
and the underside of that bridge.
Fortunate observer,
so quiet I can hear the air
being mussed by their wings.

And farther along, the trickery of fields
allowed to go fallow-
to become inviting havens 
for rabbit warren and clutch of eggs,
only to be mown down by the indifferent thresher,
bees still working the flowers of the uprooted
Wild Radish.

Dizzying change, Spring.
The fleeting voluptuary
of the Bearded Iris, their feather-boa throats inside peachy
heads. And like a favored, satin camisole 
they fray at the edges, & fade
to mauve.

Too, the colony of nests
under the bridge will crumble.
The new birds already able to soar,
to sip from the water’s surface
no obligation to stop.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Say Cheese!

I grew up in the Midwest and as a girl, was afraid of strong flavors. To me, cheese was bright orange Kraft American slices, each pressed against its own raft of wax paper, ready to be melted in some margarine between two slices of Wonder bread, (with the crusts cut off, because I swore the crusts tasted different.) Or cheese was Wishbone Blue Cheese Salad Dressing, with was my father's favorite, though I would not go near the stuff. On my on wedge of iceberg lettuce, I preferred Wishbone French, which, looking back, might have been some variation on catchup mixed with oil and vinegar and sugar. Or cheese was Cheese Whiz in a can, shaken then squirted on girlfriends' fingers at slumber parties, or directly into each others' mouths, or else used to draw happy faces on Ritz crackers.  College exposed me to fondue and runny, hot brie baked in foil,  but I never really appreciated the wonders of cheese until I spent a year in Paris.

I showed up at Bernadette's door, a total stranger that a waitressing friend in Berkeley had told me to call as a last resort, and she kindly showed me to her daughter's former room and said I could stay as long as I needed. Those first weeks, having never been to Europe before and knowing no one, I did what most lonely Expats do: I took the Metro to Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, or I went to old French movies with no subtitles to try and improve my French. I also explored Bernadette's kitchen while she was at work. My first Cheese Faux Pas was to put her lovely little plate of cheeses protected by its glass dome into the refrigerator, thinking she had left it out by mistake. When she got home from work, she saw what I had done, and held out the plate in front of me as if it was evidence of a terrible crime. Mais non, mais non, mais non, she said wagging a finger at me, Jamais dans le frigo! 

She explained to me that the flavor of cheese could only bloom when room temperature. She told me the famous quote by Charles de Gaulle, How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese? After the cheeses had warmed up a bit and recovered from their trauma, she sat me down for my first lesson, slicing a fresh baguette and starting me on my journey towards real cheese appreciation. Some of the cheeses she put on a small slice of baguette, and some she proffered straight up. She spoke very little English and I was trying to speak only French while there, but I was pretty sure when she passed me a taste of camembert and urged me to smell it, she said a good camembert should smell like God's feet. This was the first time I appreciated how a flavor could be strong and delicious at the same time.

My second cheese faux pas occurred because I had rapidly become something of a camembert junkie. Soon after Bernadette's lesson, I ventured out to shyly navigate the cheese stalls at the street markets, wanting to treat her to some of the cheeses I knew she liked. The venders at first ignored me as regulars stepped right in front of me. After about ten minutes of this, I grew braver, and the vendors took my order, teasing me in French. I laughed, though I think I only understood about half of their humor at that stage. When I got back to Bernadette's kitchen, I arranged small wedges of the new cheeses on her platter,  always "one soft cheese, one hard cheese, a blue and a goat cheese," as I had learned, and awaited her delight upon returning home. But then I got hungry. Full disclosure: I did not like the rind of the camembert nearly as much as the delicious, soft interior, so in true scoffing-at-the-crust-of-Wonder-Bread fashion, I slyly worked the knife inside the triangle, leaving the pointed end in front sagging for lack of support. When Bernadette returned home, I sat her down in the kitchen and with a Ta-Da, lifted the dome off the cheeses I had purchased. She immediately honed in on the hollowed out camembert and threw her hands up in the air, scolding tu ne respect pas le fromage! And it was true, I had not respected the cheese, and vowed in that moment to have the entire experience, rind and all, if that was how the French did it.

I was making real progress in my cheese education, until the night of my third and probably not final faux pas. I had made some friends by this stage in my stay, and wanted to introduce mes amis to Bernadette, so asked her for a restaurant suggestion that was "typically French and really good," perhaps a redundancy. After a wonderful meal at a place that our little trio of expats never would have found without the help of a local, I pushed my plate aside and exclaimed that I was extremely full but might be persuaded to have dessert. Right about then our waiter showed up wheeling a silver cart and on top, about a dozen types of cheese. With great respect, he gestured to each one, as if introducing us to a dignitary, and told us its name, whether it originated from cow or goat or sheep. He told us the region it had come from, and described in succinctly whether it was strong or mild or medium. When he had finished I laughed and asked if he had anything that involved chocolate. I sensed a blunder. Bernadette rolled her eyes at the waiter, then calmly chose her little portions of three cheeses, as if I had not spoken. The waiter made his way around to each of us, and, cheeks burning, I asked him humbly what he would recommend.

I learned that night that cheese aids in the digestion of the big meal one has just eaten, and that the  average French citizen eats fifty-seven pounds of cheese a year! But part of me thinks that the cheese course is also there as a way to preserve that other great French tradition: the art of conversation and lingering with friends over a delicious meal.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

New Poem


Ashes to ashes, they
fall from the sky-
coat the car hood, the inside of
the nostrils. Dry & oily at once.

Contained in each ember, each powdery grey flake or
black shard-
a story, a life.

The motorboat & the bassinette,
the hot pulp of pumpkins simmering in the garden,
the pop of their exploding seeds.

The fire consumes it all-
not just the wall marked
with the child’s height every Passover, but the ingredients in the pantry,
& the pans used to
make the meals.
How many framed photos of lovers at sunset? How many trophies and blue ribbons? The wooden rocking chairs and heirloom desks:
And not only the two fig trees gone,
 but the hammock strung between them.

The books loosen as they heat up, opening like an accordion.
The fire gobbles enough Christmas tree ornaments to festoon
a forest, when the forest was still standing.
Lost are guitars and pianos-
the French Horns emitting a drawn out moan
as they melt.
And the oil paint on
the art work bubbles then ignites.

With each breath, the intake of stories, histories.
We breathe in all that was lost, all that lived there:
frog/coyote/deer/possum/rat/mouse/fox/mountain lion/skunk/horse/sheep/cow/goat/snake/lizard/raccoon
all that
could not outrun the flames.
And the singed birds, unable to navigate their way
through walls of smoke,
falling from the skies
like dropped handkerchiefs.
Ashes to ashes/dust to dust.
But there, on the hill, the orange light
that I took for more fire
was not flame, but butterflies.
in the thousands.
& not
descending, but rising
in a great, living plume-
as if fueled
by their  own beauty,
exultant in their own survival.