Saturday, May 30, 2015

Take This With A Grain Of Basalt

I think everyone should be required to learn the geological history of their particular patch of the planet. It helps drill home the notion that life did not begin on the day of one's own birth, and that, by corollary, we should not keep thinking we are so special. This is important. When we, as a group, begin thinking we are so special, we make decisions we might regret later.

I've been working on my own education. And what I've discovered is how many spectacular ways you could be dead right now if you'd started out 150 million years ago in Oregon, assuming the old age didn't get you first. Oh sure, you'd have to contend with earthquakes and volcanoes just about anywhere, eventually, and certainly here, but we've had catastrophes other places can only dream about.

For starters, you'd have been screwed almost everywhere in Oregon 150 million years ago unless you could tread water for a very long time. There really wasn't anything to plant a flag on. There were bunches of coral reefs and volcanic islands dotting the vast sea, happy and tropical, with no aspirations whatsoever to be welded to the landscape, whilst the Americas and Europe and Africa were jammed up and hunkering nearby. But once the Americas got the notion to make a break for it, it was Westward Ho at ramming speed. The islands, meanwhile, were moseying east, all unawares, and then, suddenly--like over the course of sixty million years--they were mashed into the continent. A bunch of them are currently mountains in the northeast corner of the state, and the rest are currently mountains in the southwest corner of the state. The ocean used to lap up against Idaho. Now, we get to have the shoreline, and Idaho has potatoes and white people.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the ocean floor had no choice but to dive under the continent, after scraping off its volcanoes--for which we are grateful, because it is ever so fun to find fossil seashells at 9000 feet--until it got deep enough to melt something fierce, and ralph up brand new volcanoes. A lot of the landscape just sort of accumulated between the other bits, as shallow seas grew ever shallower and eventually dried up. This is normal everyday stuff you might encounter in any state, and if it killed you, it would not kill you spectacularly. But then! Boy Howdy!

Lava! But so much lava that it flowed so thick and stayed so hot that it pushed all the way across the state, traveling at about three miles per hour. So sure, you could outwalk it, if we ignore for the moment that the 3mph is an average speed, and that it was probably a lot zippier at first, and that you probably can't walk 600 miles at a whack. But let's say you keep up a good pace: that crap is going all the way to the ocean, and there you are, not only drowned, but cooked in steamy hot water like a chicken nugget. And if that particular flow didn't get you, there were lots more. This went on for three million years, and you probably didn't.

Say you rode out those three million years on a stratovolcano and finally thought it was safe to head
down to the valleys. Feeling lucky? Surprise! Floods. And floods that Noah had no chance of riding out, no matter who he thought he had in his corner. 300-foot-tall walls of water coming through at 65 mph over and over for two thousand years. You're toast. Grab your little dinghy and kiss it goodbye.

But if you've made it this far, hang the hell on. Any day now we're going to shear off and head up to Alaska. It's going to be a bumpy flight.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Knowledge In Retrograde

The Great Pootini

The other day my friend Dale made an announcement on Facebook. He said "nobody needs to know what I think about 'Mercury in retrograde.'" He typed it emphatically, you could just tell.  It's not always easy to judge these things in the digital world, but I believe he was taking a tone.

Dale and I are compatible spirits. We're not entirely alike of course. He tends toward melancholy, and I toward alcoholy. But I thought it was likely that if nobody needed to know what he thinks about Mercury in retrograde, maybe nobody needed to know what I think about it either. Which means I have to go look it up again so that I remember what I think about it. I try to keep a tidy house in my head and that means I maintain a running fire sale on thoughts that I haven't used in a few years.

So I looked it up. If a planet is in retrograde, it means it looks like it's going backwards from the vantage point of us on Earth. It's not going backwards. It's going the same direction as it always has. It's just an illusion brought about because the planets take different amounts of time to orbit the sun and they do a little leap-frogging. Shepherds who spent one heck of a lot of time under the stars noticed that the planets seemed to go astray every so often and, not having a clear grip on what was actually going on, began to read a lot into it. Maybe they fell into some hard times and squinted up at the planet backing up and thought: huh. We should probably be more cautious whenever that happens. And a whole network of observations and associations built up around these things and got passed down. It's like thinking your team loses when you forget to wear your lucky shirt, only bigger, inasmuch as it involves everybody and the whole solar system and all.

Thousands of years later when we're sophisticated enough to land a golf cart on a particular plain on Mars, people still figure the shepherds were probably on to something.

So I don't have the particulars, but you're supposed to approach decisions in your own life in specific ways whenever it looks kind of like the planets are going to backwards even though they're not. Like, right now Mercury is in retrograde. It's in retrograde an average of three times a year, so you have to stay on top of it. When Mercury is in retrograde, you might need to plan more carefully. With proper knowledge of your star charts, you would know when to plan for more spontaneity, say. And everyone isn't affected the same way. It depends on when you, personally, first presented your slimy self to the outside air. If you're a November baby, you might have to conduct yourself in a whole different way from a spring hatchling.

Which means my parents changed everything for me when they had me induced two weeks early. The effect that Mercury has on me as it trundles predictably around the sun but appears to be going backwards might be entirely different than it could have been, all because of parental fatigue and a  Pitocin drip.

If I do want to know what it is I should be doing, or doing differently, as a result of these celestial illusions, there's an astrologer in the neighborhood I can consult. Scoff if you will, but she's got powers. She gets bigger every time she approaches me and smaller when she leaves. Swear to Jupiter.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Very Pretty

The jury will remain forever out on the question of whether or not I would have been a good mommy, because I'm not a mommy. My own take on it is that I would have been a really good mommy, depending upon the decade that judged me, and whether my children died or not. That's probably what it comes down to.

Because I would have had all the big, uncomplicated love. I'm sure of that. It came through unfiltered from my mom. She had the big love and surrounded me with it whether I deserved it or not, and as much as I vexed her as a teenager, I never had a doubt about her love. She's been gone over thirty years, and it's still around me, like permanent swim-floaties in the sea of life.

Camp Margo
So I would have loved my babies a whole lot, but at a certain point, I know I would have been all "really? Can't you do that by yourself?" and "sure. Go out and play kickball in the street and see that you get home before the streetlights come on." Because I'm not a person who is interested in being needed all the time. Some people like that sort of thing, but it makes me want to run away. This would have made me Mother Of The Year in the 1950s, and eligible for parole in ten years, today.

I'm that way in my garden. I have put in all sorts of plants that probably don't belong there, things that would be as big as Volkswagens in their native territory, but wouldn't fill a Radio Flyer here in the best of circumstances. And I never give them the best of circumstances. I give them a chance, and then it's all a matter of their own ambition and the vagaries of climate. "Here you go," I say. "You've got dirt covering all your original roots. Go for it. If you die, you die."
Still Camp Margo

But then there's our lemon tree. Picked that sucker up at least 25 years ago and put it in a pot. It's incredibly talented at not dying. It was supposed to be hardy down to 20 degrees F, and it is. That doesn't mean it's happy that cold. We've basically bonsai'd it through sheer neglect. We watched it soldier through a decade of winters on our patio; for most of them it held onto its increasingly morose, cracked leaves, and dropped them every spring, before starting afresh. And then one year it eked out a fragrant flower and a little green lemon-bud, about a half hour before winter. And this is what it has done since. It flowers more or less anytime, with no regard for day length like a sensible plant, and each flower motivates toward full lemonhood in about a year. We got our first edible lemon only about twenty years in, but the plant itself will not die. The pot is inconveniently constricted at its neck, and every time it occurs to me to try to re-pot it, something else like a dental procedure presents itself as more fun. It's got its original soil--looks as rich as ground cigarette filters.

Margo of Camp Margo
A couple years ago the little trouper had multiple lemons going by late October, and we were so smitten by its sheer pluck we sent it to Camp Margo. Camp Margo is where all the good plants go in the winter. It's like Palm Springs for rich, winter-weary Oregonians. Margo stows it in her greenhouse and gives it love and attention and probably fertilizer and generally spoils it rotten, and then she returns it in April with lemons waggling from it and just a touch of reproach about the leaf-buds.

They can reproach me all they want. You can't count on your kids bearing fruit, either, but if you can keep them alive, that should be good enough.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Rise Of Mr. Happy

There was a time when we thought Mr. Happy would never rise up, would remain just a withered stump of a thing. But we were wrong. Mr. Happy is standing up straight and proud and pink, a little disheveled around the dark curls at his base, but still a sturdy spike of glory. He's magnificent. One look at him and you can tell he doesn't belong here. You can hike all summer long around here and not run into another ten-foot-tall tower of flowers. The other way to tell is to remember how many days Dave had to wrap him in a blanket with a light bulb for heat and read "Charlotte's Web" to him last winter. It ain't natch'l.

So I'm not getting away with anything here. If I was planning to get an official certification as a Backyard Habitat, Mr. Happy would put the lie to it. It would be like trying to shoplift a refrigerator under my overcoat. People can tell.

I've only recently become aware why someone would want to have a certified backyard habitat. Rules aren't stringent. Someone needs to come by and see that at least five percent of your vegetation is native to the area. Five percent. Why would anyone want to have a garden with just the same straggly stuff you could see in the local woods anyway? Glad you asked.

It's a little lesson in evolution. Every living thing is trying to get along. Get along in life, that is, and not necessarily with each other. Definitely not with each other. It's eat or get eaten. You have a plant that wants to eat sunlight, and a raft of caterpillars that want to eat the plant, the plant is going to have an opinion. And it's going to back up its opinion with some chemical defenses. And sooner or later some branch of the butterfly family tree is going to do an end run around those defenses, and that's where the eggs are going to be deposited. If the emerging caterpillars manage to chew the plants all up, then they've screwed themselves too. But if the birds pick off most of the caterpillars, leaving just enough of them to keep the butterfly franchise going, everyone makes out. What you are witnessing in a natural landscape is the truce that remains after everyone's done duking it out.

This balance the plants and insects are achieving as they dance through time together can get to be pretty precise. Many butterflies are adapted to one host plant only. You start carting them out and replacing them with pretty flowers that evolved somewhere far away, you'll find your insect population at a complete loss. You strip-mine the Midwest with Roundup so you can replace the native milkweeds with corn and soybeans, you'll crash the monarch butterflies. They don't have thousands of years to come up with a new plan.

This is not good news for the birds that are counting on the insect hatch to feed their own young, like
our chickadee friends, the Windowsons. It takes a whole lot of grubs to raise a baby Windowson. They're hauling them in so fast it looks like Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz doing an episode in a sausage factory. Visualize an endless chain of links pouring into the birdhouse. Your pretty new garden does not provide enough little green sausages for the bird population.

Fortunately for you, you don't remember when there were ten times as many birds. Or ten times that many. That was in your mom's era, or your grandma's--might as well have been the Cretaceous. So you're free to enjoy your exotic flowers. I know I do.

But I'm still keeping my favorite invasive species, Tater Cat, indoors, and when Mr. Happy finally shrivels up--he can't last forever--I'll think about slipping in a nice local flowering currant.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

No Tits For You!

It was Birdathon Day and I was up in time to hear the dawn crack. The team was gathered by the bird van, hard by a woodsy urban park. I had my plan in place. At the stroke of seven, I hollered "SCRUB JAY! HOUSE FINCH! CHICKADEE!" and relaxed. My work here was done. Time to let the experts take over.

The van was something. It was a brand-new rented wonder with only a few miles on it. In retrospect, it looked a little like the vehicle that transports people to the pokey, and the BIRDATHON magnet on the back was just a little soothing ruse, like when you tell the kids that you're taking Buster Dog to the farm. But all twelve of us jammed into it just fine along with our lunches and binoculars and three spotting scopes. We were going for 100 species, and we were ready to roll.

We knocked off about thirty species in the park; tacked on a few more in a rest area; and had 69 in the bank by 10:30. This was easy!

It got harder.

Especially since this year our intrepid leaders Sarah and Max took us down the Willamette Valley, for a change, to sparrow territory, and we never got near the coast. At the coast, birds fly right out of the field guide and onto our checkoff lists in alphabetical order. There would be no seabirds for us today, but there were plenty of ducks and long-legged jobs that make a living poking their faces in the mud, not that I'm judging. We eked out a few more at every stop. Just when we thought we couldn't get any harrier, we did. But it was getting hot. Stupid hot, for Oregon, for May. By the time it was a hundred and fifty in the shade, all the sensible nesting birds had gone home to make sure their eggs weren't getting poached. Ha ha! That's a little bonus double-entendre bird humor for you, there.

Our intrepid leaders are as ethical as they are skilled, and they declined to count my Imaginary Woodcock, my Western Eastern Phoebe, or my Least Sanitary Pigeon, and they similarly failed to ink in the massive emu we all saw glowering behind a fence ("that's livestock"), which should by itself have counted for ten species plus a hadrosaur. I personally spotted the Lazuli Bunting I was hoping for, which buoyed me greatly, although it's possible I called it a bluebird, out loud.

But we were still missing many likely candidates. Sparrows were sparse. With time running out we were still nine shy of our goal of one hundred.

Well, shoot, it's just an arbitrary number anyway. It's only an accident of nature that we humans evolved ten fingers before the invention of the table saw. So we want things in groups of ten. Still, although I'd never call us Angry Birders, we hurtled home fired up and ready to bird hard to the end. With one last swing through the urban park in fading daylight, we failed to scrape the missing bushtits and nuthatches out of the trees, but scored an owl, a wren, and the briefest of hawks, and finished the day with 98. That's close. That's real close.

And, especially after the can of giant cashews made its fourth trip around the van, we were all starting to round up.

If you want to see the Honor Roll of my sponsors for this year's Birdathon, click here. And although I made my fundraising goal and then some, it's not too late to drop some change in the bucket!

Photo by Max Smith's camera even though Max is in it

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Duck And Plover

I have a modest goal for myself in this year's Birdathon. As a group we will almost certainly find over a hundred species of birds in twelve hours. I am hoping to find one of them. Before anyone else.

I'm not good at this. The most common visitor to my seed feeder is the house finch. I should be getting purple finches too, but I have yet to pick one out for certain, even though they're close by and stay-putty. There's a lot of variability in the house finch. Some are redder, some are more orangey. Some have a lot of color, some not so much. Here's what birders tell me: the house finch is reddish, but the purple finch looks like he's been dipped in raspberry sauce. "You'll know the purple finch when you see him," they say.

That's really similar to what someone once told me about having an orgasm. And they were right. So I'm guessing I haven't yet seen a purple finch.

Anyway, no sooner have I spotted a distant movement in the trees than half the people in my birding van will have hollered out its Christian name and lineage. Holding my own in a Birdathon van is like trying to impress the Nobel Prize Committee wearing a swimsuit, heels, and a sash, only without the pretty part. I don't have what it takes.

It's not fair. But I have a plan.

Once, at a party, the host had us play a game he called "Misspent Youth." He had a recording of theme songs of TV shows and other tidbits from the '50s and '60s. He'd cue them up and we'd try to name that tune as fast as we could. I knew them all but I never got the words out of my mouth on time. So I thought of some shows he hadn't played yet, concentrated on the opening chords, and prepared to hurl those titles in the first nanosecond. I had "Get Smart" and "My Three Sons" in my brain on a short fuse, and I was ready to fire. But I got too excited when they came on, and couldn't get my tongue unfurled. It looked like I was going to come in last, and then, out of nowhere, a tune came up, everyone looked puzzled, and I bellowed "THE DUCK AND COVER SONG!" The skunk was off.

Nailed the "Go You Chicken Fat Go" song soon after, just for extra credit. I'm not proud of either one of them but you have to take your victories as they come.

So I'm going to pick out a few big easy birds that we'll get in the first half hour (great blue heron, American crow, turkey vulture) and have them ready to launch like pebbles in a slingshot.  I'll bag my bird and sit back the rest of the day and watch the freaks do their thing. Also, I'm bringing cookies.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Canadians Are Coming! The Canadians Are Coming!

We've been pretty excited over here. We had Canadians coming! The real deal, authentic Canadians from Toronto, which is in Canadia somewhere. Holy hockey sticks! I thought I should probably bone up. You know, find out who their prime minister is now, and check to see that it is a prime minister and not a premier, and see if any of that needed capitalizing. You never know. They heave in extraneous "u's" and they might be fussy about the capital letters, too. And I thought I should probably review the provinces so I'd be wieldy with the geography. I know the west coast ones okay. There's British Columbia, Alberta, Snatchcatchistan, Masticola, or the other way around, Ontario (we have a similar lake and I'm very solid on that one), and
then a bunch of auxiliary eastern stuff that gets all jammed up just like our eastern states, like Prince Edward In A Can and Quahog. Plus some territories. They're huge but sort of nebulous and I probably don't need to define them too strenuously; it's the kind of area that gets hyphens for boundaries and can be generally referred to as "up there." That would be the area they stash their First Nation peoples and move them around so they don't get in the way of their oil.

But what to do to make our visiting Canadians feel at  home? It would be so hard to tell if we got it wrong. We could make a grievous hospitality error and they'd just go all, you know, wry on us. They're all gifted comedians but tend to subtlety, and really, enough stuff gets past me already. I did some checking around and decided that local moose rentals are out of my budget. At some point I realized Canadians like to make light of Americans, and we have two of those right here in this house, so that should work for entertainment.

These particular Canadians like food and birds and we've got gobs of both of those. Problem. Because I'm all the time writing about birds this and birds that, people think I know my birds, and I most certainly do not. I LIKE birds a lot but I'm not going to remember one from one day to the next, in exactly the same way I don't remember the people I meet. One of the things I like about birds is they don't get all bent out of shape about it.

Then I figured out that inviting Canadians here to see birds could work just as well as inviting people over for dinner if I'm cooking. All I have to do is get started cooking and my friends will quickly see that I'm in over my head, and they'll start taking over the pans and knives and whatnot, and dinner will be terrific, and I'll do the dishes afterwards. So I know where our birds are, and my friends will know who they are, and all I have to do is pop them out of the car and sweep my arm out to the great outdoors and say "hit it." Everyone will be happy.

Everyone was. Especially because I was able to provide all the birds I'd promised: the dipper, the bittern, the harlequin duck. All but the murres. Figures they'd skip the family reunion.

I don't need them. I gots friends.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Naked Gardening Day!

Word on the street was last Saturday was Naked Gardening Day. I didn't miss it so much as I suspected it wouldn't miss me. I don't have a problem with naked. I can get naked at the drop of a hat and a few other things. Whenever I have my Naked In Public dreams, I always feel just fine about it until I get to wherever I'm going and discover that nobody else got the memo. Then it's kind of embarrassing. This is a progressive neighborhood, but I don't know if it could provide the critical mass you need if you're going to feel peachy about naked gardening.

Besides, I don't want to start having to store sunscreen in a tank. And these days, the only place on me that the sun don't shine is the acreage just south of where my tits used to be. I could scan a photo of me being both naked in public and twenty-three, and a lot of you would probably like it just fine, but there'd be hell to pay with my dermatologist.

I saw some of the photographs that are being displayed on the Naked Gardening Day websites. That's a bunch of attractive people right there. They ain't gardening. Clearly there are furrows to be plowed and seed to be sown, but they're just dancing in a circle like new-age fairies, tra-la! None of them has more than one or two things on them that are at all dangly. They don't have to worry about lopping off the bingo wings  or inadvertently pruning a neck wattle.

No, there they are, posing with watering cans in a way that never gets anything watered. Gardening is about a lot more than being young and picturesque with a watering can. There are a lot of positions one might routinely get into that the neighbors might consider too much information. Squatting in the asparagus patch has a certain appeal on a personal level, but nobody wants to watch me pull out an obstreperous rootball naked. I don't even know what's going to happen. I got a hold of a small, unauthorized holly tree the other day that wouldn't let go. I chopped it down to a ten-inch stump so as to get better gription on it, got back on my heels, and yanked as hard as I could. What I thought would happen was the tree would suddenly come loose from the soil and I'd go backwards ass over teakettle. Ha ha! Always a crowd favorite.

What actually happened was the stump snapped off at the roots and I plunged it into my solar plexus with all the conviction of someone committing hara kiri. It's the kind of event that's too embarrassing to bring to the emergency room. I'd rather just bleed out. Throw "naked" in on top of that scene and we have a real situation.

The good news is, the neighbors would probably take up a collection. The bad news is, they'd call it a "hedge fund."

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Sharp As A Blunt Tack


Most of us liked old folks well enough when we were kids; they seemed interested in us, and sometimes they had candy (antique candy, but hey), and sometimes they'd refer to some mythical childhood of theirs. But they seemed like a different tribe altogether. Theoretically, we knew we'd get old too. But the transitions were impossible to imagine. Their skin didn't even fit properly anymore. How can one be so inattentive as to let something like that happen? How do you go from having a neck to wearing a neck (draped, cowl-like)?

But of course it happens day by day. And the transitions aren't easy. Grown-up people in their mid-thirties who seem otherwise levelheaded occupy themselves plucking out gray hairs one by one, scouting their mirrors as avidly as a sniper.

It gets worse later. If a woman is fortunate enough to plow on through to the far side of menopause, stuff starts happening in a hurry. Everything goes to pot at once, after the first horrifying salvo from the neck region. Short-armed women learn to disdain the selfie. No one who takes the time to crouch over a mirror placed on the floor ever agrees to be "on top" again. It's not an easy transition. And then, suddenly, the whole apparatus of attractiveness has gone so far off the rails that you realize, with relief, that for the first time since you hit double digits, you just don't give a flying shit anymore. In fact, even if your ass starts to fall, you ignore it until it starts banging against the back of your thighs. Then you dust it with powdered sugar and roll it up and duct-tape it to your waist just to make the slappy noise go away. Done.

But then there's another transition.

Great-Aunt Caroline
You've heard it before: yep, she's a hundred years old and still sharp as a tack. I had great-aunts at least that age of whom that was said. I couldn't vouch for them: they didn't have that much to say. They just sat all hunched up in their dresses and hats and lace hankies, clutching their little purses. I took it on faith that they were sharp as a tack, and presumed that genetic blessing would be mine.

Then I read somewhere that the incidence of cognitive decline among people in their nineties is 100%. That's high. I didn't want to believe it.

But I'm thirty years away from that decade, and things have started to slide already. You think you have control, but you don't. I notice it especially when I'm around interesting young people. I start to tell a funny story and realize I've told it before, except when I don't. I get a great quip all ready to go in the middle of someone else's sentence and prepare to launch it when it's my turn, but five words in I've forgotten what we're talking about. I miss the off-ramp on the freeway because some other part of me decides I'm going to the mountain instead. I lather, rinse, and repeat because I can't remember if I lathered and rinsed a minute ago.

So what you read is that we seniors are merely developing a different kind of intelligence, one in
Great-Aunt Gertrude
which trivial information is cast aside, and we are able to pull our life experiences together into some kind of superior, holistic perspective that is unavailable to the callow young. This is the sort of interpretation of age and deterioration that you get when Baby Boomers are writing the script. Not that a fine holistic perspective isn't just what you need when you ponder trivia like what your car keys are doing in the vegetable crisper. We may have gained a little by losing our vanity, but let's face it: we're not what we were.

And I realize. Those hundred-year-old people aren't sharp as a tack. They're just responding appropriately, their shoes are sensible, and they're not drooling. I've adjusted my aspirations. On my hundredth birthday, I'm going to dust myself with powdered sugar and put virtual duct-tape over my mouth and a twinkle in my eye. I don't care if I know what's going on as long as I can still fake it.