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Archive for January, 2010

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Every year about this time, my friends tell me I need to move to town. Ceaseless rain and untamed wind have brought down trees and power lines, and saturated soil is sliding into streets all through the mountains. Getting home from work becomes a game of musical chairs, with road closures changing by the minute and few, if any, signs posted to alert drivers of the obstacles. When things are really bad, my trip home expands to twice or even 3 times normal length, requiring navigation through a maze of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th choice detours.

Once I get there, it’s an even bet whether I’ll have power. It goes out frequently in winter, but most times it’s back on before I really miss it. I have food, candles, hot water, and other necessities on hand. TV and the internet? A break from the chatter every now and then feels heaven-sent, if not downright miraculous.

I know I should get a generator, but I’m loath to spoil the song of this forest I’m so privileged to live in. When the power’s out, the night is magnified and full. Its darkness and its smallest sounds no longer clouded by our civilized assumptions, it feels ample, satisfying, and restorative. Frogs and crickets, owls and possums, mice and lizards all contribute to the chorus.

Listen: you can hear the rain against the skylights, gentle but insistent tapping telling me it’s not yet spring. And if you close your eyes and clear your mind, you can hear the redwoods swaying in their winter dance as wind weaves through their branches. Listen, and you’ll hear the sound of the world as few of us do these days, the sound of seasons in their rightful place.

Move to town? I don’t think so, thanks. I’ll pass on that generator too, at least for now: I’d rather hear the lullaby the rain is singing.

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Last summer, while you were out playing, I was in the kitchen. Many weekends found me chopping, slicing, canning, drying, and freezing berries, stone fruit, tomatoes, basil, garlic, and more. All manner of bounty from local farms and my own garden now lines my pantry and freezer, neat and jeweled rows of summer sitting silent in the dark. They wait, their patience generous and infinite, for discovery, as I pass them over for another.

A friend asked why I went to so much trouble—why not just buy canned tomatoes, or frozen peaches, whenever you need them? And who bothers to cook anything from scratch anymore? Surely it would be cheaper, and so much less complicated, to buy what I need when I need it. There isn’t one good answer. Rather, there are many: supporting local farmers, eating fresher food, being able to control what’s really in that can. The lure of self-sufficiency is in there too, as well as pride that comes with mastering new skills. Respecting the cycle of the seasons, yet being able to enjoy a slice of summer in midwinter free of guilt: think of it as tivo-ing your food! This is how we all lived, not so very long ago.

Why do I bother? This cold, grey winter day is the truest reason of them all: as water for pasta comes to a boil, I pull a jar of pesto, alluring, secretive, and precious as emeralds, from the freezer and inhale its magical aroma. Long-imprisoned genies explode from the bottle, and fill my soul with summer: bright sweet basil, rich and savory garlic, toasted pine nuts, pure young olive oil, and aged Parmesan. Sun, warmth, and heart’s delight are born anew, here in my kitchen—at least for tonight. Add a few sundried tomatoes, and it becomes a regal feast. Don’t worry, I made plenty—and I’ll share.

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 2/5/2010 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

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[This was written after an August visit to Chaco Canyon….but my trip last month for winter solstice photography called it to mind again. Amazing place, in so many ways.]

It means rain that isn’t really rain, not yet–but coming on to it, in that half a promise, half a threat kind of way. You see it just at the horizon, mazy threads of vapor fingering the land, evaporating at the final moment. There it was, at vision’s far soft edge, as B and I walked in the long light of late summer afternoon. We’d hiked the cliff trail overlooking Pueblo Bonito, and found a silent patch of slickrock to ponder the Anasazi mystery in the stones and mortar far below. Where did they come from, and why choose this canyon over all the others? How many generations to understand the cycle of moon, sun, and seasons, and align their buildings to it? How hard to leave this place, and start again? How did they know it was time? What did they take away, what leave behind? We know so little, and we understand much less.

I wonder why they built so many kivas, huddled each to each like naked, unroofed eggs, and try to imagine the place in high ceremony, brimful with women, children, birds, and dogs, with shamans, drummers, and dancers. The press of noise and color seems impossible, now, where only globemallow, four-wing saltbush, and the occasional whiptail lizard or bull snake prevail. But I sense the symmetry of the construction, the harmony of nested rooms strung together in a pattern that is pleasing even if the meaning is long lost.

B takes in the angle of the sun, and decides it’s time to start back. We stride along the canyon rim, briefly losing the unmarked trail but pick it up again beside a knee-high prince’s plume. Its yellow blooms droop with new-formed seeds. Neither of us feels the need to speak, our tandem footfalls dialogue enough.

At mid-day the light was loud and flat, lacking shadows to entice the eye or lure the lens, and everywhere there was the sound of people and their infinite distractions from the self. Now we find ourselves alone, chasing dusk from room to room. My fingers trail atop a low curved wall, and I wonder at the tiny divots in the sandstone. “Rain,” says B—just as water shaped so much of this landscape. No doubt it shaped the builders and their fate as well—and lack of it became the shape of their new destiny.

We move on, seeking that perfect light more ephemeral than love, or happiness. I round a corner, and find an intact mano and metate, the smooth stones forever mated by long years of grinding. A few minutes later, we meet up in a hidden room that’s been replastered—an attempt to recreate the way this village looked long centuries ago. The ceiling’s tight with silvery wood beams, and the walls are thick, rich, and enigmatic. A small square window high in the outer wall gives onto heart-rending O’Keeffe sky. My hands caress the plaster, which feels like heaven. I could live in this room, I whisper to myself.

The light is going quickly now, and we aim our lenses up at jagged walls, down through lines of doorways, and high again to cobalt sky. The French call this ‘the blue hour,’ a name I love for both its meaning and its resonance. On our way out, there are red rocks, sandstone glowing as nowhere but here. And amazing, sun-streaked clouds: pale orange billows, greyish murky streaks, and wispy, tantalizing virga, tinged with sunset radiance. The land is mute, dry, and patient. We smell moisture hanging in the air, and question whether it will really rain. Virga shimmers on the horizon, a haunting promise or a shrouded threat: we won’t discover which, not this night.

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Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

–As You Like It, II. i. 12

I’m 20+ miles outside the Inyo County town of Big Pine, itself about 15 miles from Bishop, past the Eastern Sierra into the White Mountains, about to make a personal, long-overdue hajj. I’ve come to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to hike the 4-mile loop to the ancient Methuselah Grove and photograph the trees—you know the ones, I’m sure. You’ve seen the pictures of bizarre twisted limbs, set starkly against vivid cobalt skies, weathered spiky wood with precious little greenery in sight, clinging somehow to a rocky perch that seems completely alien. Perhaps you’ve wondered why they look that way, or maybe how—or whether–they could possibly still be alive. The answers turn out be more complicated, and more interesting, than you might think.

The trail takes off from the Schulman Visitors’ Center, reached by a long, steep, and very snaky road marked by one terrifying dropoff after another. It’s a crisp early October day, and there’s a dusting of fine snow in spots, delivered a few days ago by the first storm of the season. The air is unbelievable: cold and thin, of course, but infused with something unexpected, a scent of mystery and spirit of defiance. After gathering my gear, lunch, and water, I head into the forest. Not 50 yards in, I am lost, solidly entranced by root and limb and bough.

At first I speak to them like they were children, or skittish horses. I place my palm flat against the complex bark, petting their gnarled flanks as if to comfort them. No, I tell them, I can’t take your picture, not today. Maybe next time, I say soothingly, though in truth I have no defined plan to return. There are so many, at every turn, I just can’t photograph them all. Somehow I have a notion that the ones I pass by might feel neglected, and I am compelled to explain, assuage, apologize. I feel terrible and shamed, as if I’ve failed to bring enough snacks for everyone and been called out by the teacher. The trees stand silent, twisty and reproachful.

Then I think about it, and realize how truly absurd this is, on so many levels: these trees are the oldest living things on earth, many over 4500 years old, and I a mere half-century. The Great Basin bristlecone pine, one of three closely related cousins (Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine and foxtail pine are the others), is famous for its longevity. These very trees were alive in the time of pharaohs, the great flood of the Old Testament, Socrates and Homer, and the empires of Genghis Khan, Alexander the great, and all the Caesars. Who, indeed, am I to offer solace to these ancient ones—or to impute emotion to them? I am a mayfly to them, my short and hurried life buzzing by unnoticed.

Later, it feels more like seeking—an osmosis of wisdom I hope to entice from their skin to mine. Tell me how it is you have survived these long millennia, I ask them. Tell me of the things you’ve seen, the things you’ve heard, the things you’ve dreamed. Tell me what secrets the wind has carried here from every unknown place, and what enigmas you’ve discovered as your roots went seeking in the earth. I think of all the human history their lives have spanned, and I am filled with questions. But I release them in the wind, irrelevant and transitory in the timeframe of these trees. What matters here, in the thin chill air at 10,000 feet above sea level, is pure survival. This environment is extreme, with few species that exist here full-time, but the bristlecones have used extremity to their advantage.

The brutal cold keeps bark beetles from reproducing in great numbers. Dry air and scant precipitation inhibit fungi that seek to rot hard-earned earlywood and latewood. Slow growth produces very narrow rings, with large amounts of small-celled winterwood. Heartwood so densely packed gives no space for flame to catch and bloom, and there is no undergrowth for it to feed on in the first place; poor soil offers few nutrients to other plants that might make a home in this isolated place. Scarce oxygen at these heights also deters fire, as does the trees’ wide spacing. Harsh, violent winds beat back less hardy competitors, while the bristlecone sapling, once upright, contorts and conforms itself to embrace the icy blasts.

Bristlecones are also masters of efficiency—a mere 3-5% of a tree’s needles are replaced each year, compared to 25% or more for other conifers, requiring far less energy. Older needles are tougher, and so better at surviving drought than younger, moister ones, a huge plus in this arid, windblown latitude. They grow slowly, these old ones—one inch in diameter per century where conditions are particularly cruel. An odd tidbit worth pondering is that bristlecone pines that grow in easier conditions, where there is more moisture or the soil is less impoverished, live less than half as long as those sited in the least favorable spots. Such, indeed, may be the uses of adversity: the easy life we hold as our ideal, full of comfort and indulgence, may not end the richest.

About an hour in, I reach the famous grove—thought to be over 4700 years old, Methuselah is not identified ‘in order to protect it’, says the brochure I picked up at the trailhead. I find this unspeakably sad, mostly because I recognize its truth: there are those who would despoil it if they knew its name. What is it about our species that compels us to destroy the things we don’t understand, to mark our presence in their flesh, or kill them and stash their relics on our mantels? Is it envy, fear, avarice, or some other impulse that drives destruction in place of inquiry and learning? I am disappointed, but in truth every tree in the grove is more amazing than the next—and it matters not a bit that one might be a few years older than another. Each one is Methuselah, at heart a concept rather than a label. Again I find myself unmoored, tiny, and insignificant, in a landscape where the word ‘unique’ has lost all meaning. My camera, my awe, my appreciation are not enough and it cuts me deeply: how can I possibly know these complex creatures in a few short hours, let alone do them any sort of justice? I try anyway, shooting frame after frame, hoping for just one good inspiration.

One of the most interesting things about the bristlecones is that, though they are immensely old, they do not age—or more properly, they do not senesce. That is to say they are not prone to the various degenerations we and other creatures endure as we get older, such as grey hair, stiff joints, diminished reproductive capacity, and so on. Scientists have studied them extensively, and found that even very old bristlecone pines produce new growth at the same rate as young saplings. What is more, their telomeres, the ‘end caps’ of each chromosome, do not get markedly shorter as they age—unlike ours, and those of nearly every other living thing. Telomere shortening is thought to limit the number of times a cell can reproduce itself, which requires copying its DNA precisely. An end to cell reproduction eventually means death. Could the bristlecones, at least in theory, be immortal? In fact, they do not die of their own accord; they must be killed.

Another odd thing about these trees is that, though they live at high altitudes where the atmosphere is thin and solar radiation levels high, they do not suffer from genetic mutations—no damage to their DNA that could send errors down the generations till the code becomes unreadable, or one too many misplaced letters spell disaster.

But what makes these trees so famous, and so picturesque, is wind training combined with ‘sectored architecture’. Every bristlecone is composed of semi-independent sectors, each with its own root, water transport system, and sapwood. Death of a root, whether from exposure, disease, or injury, cuts off nourishment to the sapwood in its sector, which then dies off. Large amounts of pitch deposited during this process preserve wood against heart rot and reduce water loss. Instead of falling away and leaving a blank void, the dead segments stay in place amid the living, their dense golden wood shining like lanterns amid spare green boughs. Remaining sectors, roots intact, continue growing. The gnarled, contorted trunks and asymmetric limbs that adorn postcards, calendars, and T-shirts are the result.

Despite these many adaptations, the ancient bristlecones face an uncertain future. Like many other species, they are threatened by global climate change. The chill that keeps bark beetles at bay is fading, and warming could also allow fungi to proliferate. This small alteration in the system may be all it takes to tip the balance. Like the polar bears, bristlecones are already at the limits of their habitat, with no higher or colder haven left on earth. As I complete my hike, I find myself talking to the trees again, this time apologizing for our carelessness and vowing that we will make things right again. I want these ancient ones to live on, clinging to their inhospitable slopes and forming to the wind’s desires. I want to know they will be here to witness more of history, and impart their hard-won wisdom to future generations—both conifer and human. Who knows what might be learned, to the benefit of all? I take another breath of that enchanted air, filling my lungs with infinite scent, and head toward the car. I will return, I promise them, and honor each and every one.

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