Archive for August, 2009


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When this whole thing started, I didn’t know an acorn woodpecker from a pileated one, or a house finch from a chickadee. I have indoor cats, and a window-mounted bird feeder seemed a great amusement for them: low cost, fun for all, no one gets hurt.

It was a huge hit, with cats and birds alike. Birds, though, are not the neatest diners in the world, and a good portion of the seed was scattered to the deck below. This is when the squirrels moved in, scrabbling nervously across the redwood planks to vacuum up the fallen bounty. The cats loved this too, and I judged it an added bonus till the squirrels began pole-vaulting onto the feeder, knocking it—seeds and all—off the glass.

My counter was a bowl, set on the deck, filled with cracked corn and peanuts in the shell—loot the bag of ‘critter delight’ promised would distract them from the birdseed. It did. It also delighted birds too bulky or too heavy for the window feeder—2 kinds of jays, woodpeckers, and massive band-tailed pigeons. I felt bad for the squirrels, crowded out in turn by new invaders.

The next salvo was a wire basket filled with suet cakes: molded blocks of shredded beef fat mixed with bits of insects, nuts, or fruits that are completely vile, unless you happen to have wings. It was an overnight sensation: the jays and other pushy birds took to it like magic.

By this point, cats, squirrels, and various assorted feathered friends were all ecstatic. I was less so, with my morning routine expanded by the frequent need to restock everything. These weren’t even birds I really liked, if truth be told.

The solution, of course, was yet another feeder: this time for hummingbirds, which I dearly love. Now when I’m out at dawn wrangling a greasy mass of suet into its cage, or topping off the squirrels’ trove, I listen for insistent tiny wings. They buzz right by my ear, bold and iridescent, and I smile.

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 11/19/09 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)


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One ridge away

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The first day, it eats 3000 acres, rejoicing over hills and into canyons. The forest belches slabs of orange smoke, which float south raining ash. One ridge from my house, fire leaps and sings and multiplies.

That afternoon, I drive north to a meeting through air that’s hot and cracked around the edges. Red trucks caravan south on highway 17, Cal Fire troops from every corner bound for the inferno. I give each a broad thumbs-up, streaming tears of gratitude. Help is on the way, I tell my mountains silently: they are coming.

My tears recall the first anniversary of 9-11. I passed a firehouse that morning, and saw uniformed firemen standing at attention. Their engines made a sleek red row, noses to the street. I stopped at a market and bought armfuls of red, white, and blue flowers, drove back, and thrust them wordlessly at the men. We all hugged and cried, remembering prodigious courage, loss, and struggle.

Those who fight this day, on the Lockheed fire and others, are largely unsung heroes. On my deck, I listen to aircraft crisscrossing the ridge, and try to apprehend the smoke, fatigue, and heat the fire crews endure. I can go inside, where iced green tea awaits. They cannot escape so easily, nor would they wish to—these are truly men, and women, to match mountains. They will not quit till fire has been brought to ground, starved and soaked and chopped into submission.

Wind drives the blaze southwest, away from me and toward other houses. I am relieved, but not light-hearted: those other people, animals, and trees are all my neighbors. In the mountains—and, it could be said, in all of life, we are all one ridge away from devastation, and what spares one may destroy another. We take for granted the thin line that shields us as we go about our lives, oblivious and free. Next time you see a firefighter, or your personal variety of hero, take one true and simple moment to say: thank you.

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 10/22/09 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

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I am too soft to be a gardener. I don’t mean I’m out of shape, or scared of dirt under my nails. What I balk at is the killing. Gardening by nature invites life, celebrating bounty and diversity. What could be more nurturing than planting seeds? It turns out there’s a flip side, as with so many things.

You’ve studied the seed catalogs and received your choices, or maybe you stashed some seeds from last year’s harvest—the melon that made your knees go liquid, the tomato everyone was begging for. You nestle each seed in the bed, prepared with rich organic soil and a good dose of compost. You water them devotedly, waiting anxiously for germination. The first few days are carefree, but around the time they should be sprouting you begin to fret and hover. No excuse is too small to go outside and check for miniscule green shoots: is today the day? Is now the very hour? When you find it isn’t, you slink inside certain they are doomed, for you have watered them too much—or perhaps too little.

At last you do see signs of life, tiny fearless tips of green cresting the surface, and it feels like party time: they’re alive! I didn’t kill them after all—or at least not yet. For soon you will kill them, some of them anyway, and quite deliberately.

My carrots came up right on schedule, frilly little shoots that embodied the idea of green. I was so proud you’d think I’d made the seeds myself, or worked some major magic in their birthing. Everything was perfect, and everyone was happy, for about 10 days. Thin when shoots are 1-2” tall, the seed packet said. Soon enough, I had to admit it was time.

Carrots, you may know, don’t like to be disturbed once rooted, so it’s typical to start from seed instead of transplants. The seeds are tiny, and they won’t all germinate, so you plant more seeds—and closer together—than there’s room for. At some point, then, you will be forced to choose: which will live, and which will die?

I scan the rows of seedlings for some sign to tell the weak ones from the strong, but there is absolutely nothing. In the end it’s pure geography: each plant needs its proper space, so I just cull enough to ease the crowding. Instead of tossing them aside, though, I plant each uprooted seedling elsewhere in the bed. I know they probably won’t take, but at least I’ve tried to save them. And now I’ve got a new excuse to hover.

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The male flies overhead, hoarse cries fracturing the air into a thousand brittle shards. I can’t see the female, but I know she is there: somewhere behind the redrock face, in some likely nook or alcove, there has to be a nest. He wheels and dives, does a perfect barrel roll, then soars again. Silent now because his mouth is full, he dips toward her hiding spot to deliver tasty gifts. Moments later she rises to my field of view, gorgeous feathers glinting in the afternoon sun. She is too fast, though—gone before the image has a chance to register. They are teasing me, this mated pair—it’s as if they know I desperately want a photograph of wings stretched wide against red cliffs, and so take turns frustrating my attempts. Just an hour of sweet light left, they might be thinking: let’s keep her guessing and she’ll run out of sky or patience. They might be right—it’s been a long day of hiking and shooting, and my memory card is nearly full. I’m looking forward to a shower, a meal, and an ice-cold Dead Horse Ale.

Meanwhile, between futile bursts of effort to get the shot I want, I contemplate the rock before me. It’s classic Colorado Plateau geometry, fins and flutes and raggedy cliffs rising from the arid earth, dotted with stubborn junipers that grip and twine their way into the rock. These unflinching trees are survivors, some centuries old, and have learned to thrive on the little offered here. I love their shapes, their twisted bark, the confounding green in this place of otherwise unleavened earth tones. The headstrong hue is nearly as conspicuous as the raven’s call against the desert silence.

I know a woman, call her Kate, who is a raven singer. She merely has to sit in some wild spot, think of glossy blue-black wings, and they appear—one after the other, a full baker’s dozen sometimes. She offers them no food, no enticement other than her presence, yet they flock to her like bees to luscious nectar. I have seen it, and still not believed. I could use her now, though, to charm these devilish birds into my lens.

The ravens keep up their antics, reminding me of stories about their behavior and intelligence. They use rocks, sticks, and other tools to crack nuts or extract food from crevices, and often work in teams to steal food from other birds or carnivores. They are playful, fast, and wary, and like coyote, they are tricksters, subject of abundant myth and lore.

In our society, ravens are associated with death because they are scavengers, and are often seen as evil or unclean. This view is not the prevailing one, however. Folklore in the Pacific Northwest honors raven for stealing sunlight from its jealous guardian, bringing life and order. Celtic and Alaskan creation myths describe raven’s role in the birth of mankind. And raven is the messenger of Odin, greatest of the gods in Norse mythology. In some cultures, raven is a shapeshifter, able to become or mimic other animals. Teachings among native Southwest peoples say that raven carries messages from the spirit realm, showing us the way to bring light from darkness. Zuni legends associate raven with magic and transformation, and view the bird as a guide to understanding our shadow selves.

Watching them cavort against the surreal blue sky, I’m not interested in the dream world or my darker self—I’m focused on the now, on catching one or both birds before the sun dips too far down and the light is lost. A little sorcery just might help beguile them, I think, and I picture the shot I’m seeking. I send the image out as a silent plea, feeling more than a bit silly to be broadcasting my desire into the wind. Thank goodness I’m alone out here—no one besides the ravens to know what I’ve resorted to. It seems to make no difference, as the birds keep right on doing what they please.

At last my camera finds the male in the right spot, wings reaching for the high clouds overhead and poised perfectly against the bright red rock. I fire off several frames, hoping one will be in focus, hoping one will show the spirit of these birds and of this place. Hoping one will somehow bring the beauty of this untamed spot to those who do not know it, and somehow convey the urgency of saving it–for these amazing birds, for all the other creatures that depend on its stark mercy, and for ourselves.

Back in Moab, I go through the day’s images. Most are ordinary, fins and canyons like so many I’ve seen before, and I hit ‘delete’ more times than I’d care to admit. A few have promise; those I keep for later editing. Finally there are the raven shots, at the tail end of the memory card—most are grossly out of focus, or poorly framed, with a wingtip, one whole wing, or a wedge-shaped tail left only to imagination. Some show the bird well but the background has no punch. Some, despite good framing, crisp focus, and sufficient background, just don’t tug at me. All these join their mediocre cousins in the digital ether. The next to last, though, is different. This is the one I waited that long hour for, the one that is my constant lesson.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned hundreds of times, yet relearn every time I go out in the wilderness: patience is essential in the wild places, especially if one wants lose the self and enter the natural world without presumption. Each time, I go through the same process, shedding layers of stress and care with every step. On this spring afternoon, watching two black birds fly overhead becomes the switching point. Liberated from humanity’s concerns, I feel renewed connection to the true and vital energy of the earth. The wind picks up, blowing through the sandstone fins and tousling my hair. I stretch my arms out, fingers wide, and imagine they are shiny wings, black feathers glinting in the quickly fading sun. I feel as if I could take off, soar over these red rocks and scrubby junipers, and merge with this forbidding landscape. Perhaps raven has worked some magic on me after all.

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Common raven, says the tag on the plush toy I bought at the Joshua Tree National Park visitor center. Anything but common, these beautiful birds are social and highly intelligent. Like us, they are toolmakers, adept at finding creative solutions to novel challenges, and highly adaptable.

Another trait we share is playfulness. One chilly morning, a pair of ravens and I had the Keys View vista to ourselves—no one else was foolhardy enough to brave the icy predawn wind. My reason? Shooting photos of the sunrise. The ravens—well, they were there to surf. Squinting and blinking as they took off into the wind, once aloft they sailed effortlessly, banking and rolling with each shifting gust. When the current ran its course, they’d alight on a rock until the next draft called them upward. They had no agenda other than the feel of wind in their feathers, and considered it great sport.

As I paid for the little stuffed raven, the park ranger ringing up the sale told me their population has increased 800% in recent years, due to park visitors feeding them and to predation on baby desert tortoises. This is definitely a good news, bad news situation: I am delighted to hear that ravens are doing well, for I love these intelligent and gorgeous birds. But at the same time I am dismayed that people are feeding them—wildlife needs true independence to remain wild, and ravens are no exception. There’s something undignified and tragic about raven, of all birds, accepting handouts from the likes of us and learning to depend on them. And of course there are nutritional concerns: it’s bad enough that we poison ourselves with excess fat, salt, and sugar—do we really need to make the animals sick too? The issue of the baby tortoises is another thorny point—the desert tortoise is endangered, reproduces slowly, and plays its own important role in the ecosystem. I surely don’t want them to perish.

One recent October afternoon I saw a couple tossing corn chips to a pair of ravens in Yosemite. They were enjoying the birds’ eagerness and apparent fondness for Doritos. I asked them to stop, explaining that it hurt the birds in the long run because it made them lazy, and less able to find their own food. What will they do in winter, when there is no one to throw them scraps or junk food? The woman stared at me as if I had 3 heads, and the man just laughed. It was pretty clear he thought I should mind my own business, not understanding that I was doing just that: wildlife is everyone’s business, and its welfare should be too. Are we really so selfish that we aren’t willing to place a common good (not to mention decency) above a few moments of individual gratification? I’m not sure I want to know the answer, because all too often it seems entirely predictable.

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Turning down my thermostat was no problem. Changing bad old bulbs to compact fluorescents, a no-brainer. Using cloth napkins at home and in my lunch box just makes sense. Even doing laundry with cold water is no real sacrifice. All these actions benefit the planet, and my pocketbook, without the slightest ripple in my stream of consciousness.

When I eat at my favorite restaurant, though, my green resolve breaks down at the paper napkin dispenser. I know I should take just one, but my wont for years has been to grab a handful—they are small, and thin, the food is likely to be messy, the table might need wiping, something could spill, and so on. Any that I don’t use, I’ll take home and use for picnics, in the car, my purse, or whatever—these are the things I tell myself as my hand reaches out against my will and pulls napkin upon napkin from the holder. An alien creature unresponsive to the greener angels of my nature, it clutches the illicit bounty heedlessly as I set my tray down on the table.

Americans each use roughly two thousand paper napkins every year—most made from virgin wood pulp with huge inputs of water, energy, and chemicals. The paper industry, which uses almost half of the industrial wood harvest, is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. As if that wasn’t bad enough, those handy disposables end up in landfills, taking up space and releasing methane into our fragile air. I know all these things, and still I sin.

The problems facing us are so huge, I think, so overwhelming—overfishing and acidification of the oceans, demolition of the rainforests, melting polar ice and glaciers, vanishing species at every turn, and unrelenting human population growth. What can one person really do? Isn’t it all just hopeless? Why even try?

The redwood trees around my house, and the few proud forests that have not yet fallen to our reckless, ravenous demand, are all the answer I need. Their rustling branches tell me any hope, however frail, must be sustained. Next time I eat out, I promise them, I will control that grasping hand and take fewer napkins—or maybe, if I’m really living right, I’ll bring a cloth one in my purse and take not even one. One napkin at a time, I must believe, we can create the change our planet sorely needs.

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Bent down with stethoscope against the patient’s chest, he listened for what seemed like a week, or maybe two. His eyebrows gave the only sign of something happening, randomly twitching up, now down, while every other muscle in his body appeared petrified. Finally, he stood up, pulled the scope from his ears, and pronounced his verdict. “Aortic stenosis, with a gradient of 52 mm Hg.” Our small herd of white-coated residents and students murmured admiringly, knowing we were in the presence of a true master. Most of us also knew we were witnessing the end of an era.

This cardiology attending was so skilled in evaluating heart murmurs, and so accurate in estimating their severity, that we almost didn’t need an echocardiogram. He’d been trained before there were echoes, when the only diagnostic tools were an ECG, a stethoscope and a thoughtful pair of ears. There were others like him—surgeons who could touch a hand to a patient’s belly and know at once whether surgery was needed, neurologists who could read the complex story of a patient’s presentation like a child’s primer, internists who could tell precisely how much fluid had accumulated in a patient’s chest by tapping on the thorax and noting subtle changes in the pitch—all of the same generation. We, however, were deep in the grasp of high technology: echocardiograms, nuclear medicine, CT scans, ultrasound, MRI, and more.

We could never hope to duplicate the expertise of these older physicians, and that brought a certain sadness as their skills became devalued. At the same time, we found them quaint and perhaps a bit old-fashioned: charming, impressive, and fascinating but still bound for extinction. Why spend 30 minutes listening to someone’s heart when you can get an echo and have all the answers, objective and preserved forever? Why bother learning to percuss a chest, or palpate an abdomen, when you can get an ultrasound, or a CT scan, ultra-fast and all-knowing.

No one would dispute that high-tech imaging brings many benefits. But there’s a downside in addition to its high cost: we are losing our ability, and our desire, to diagnose disease without it. Only a few fringe types know how to spin wool these days, and fewer actually do it. The rest of us just order a new sweater online, happy to be free of what we view as drudgery. So it has been in medicine for the past 30 years, and there’s no indication it will stop anytime soon.

I celebrate the advances medicine has made in recent decades, but I also mourn the loss of connection. That beautiful sweater tells me nothing about the wool, the sheep, the land that formed it. And that CT scan’s many shades of grey say nothing about the person living in the images, the pain, emotion, or meaning behind the pixels.

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 9/14/09 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

In addition, it was published in the December 2009 print and online editions of Diagnostic Imaging magazine.

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