Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Possible World

So the road into Denali does not climb Denali, or protrude into Denali, or scatter humans all over Denali. It's a 92-mile narrow dusty ribbon that does its best to not ruin the place. We're the intruders here, but the road instructs us well back, peasants attending royalty.

Dawn is sly on the shoulders of the mountains and then spills color into the valleys. Not just color: all the colors. Every color you ever needed. The whole box.

The big mountain itself is the tallest, from base to summit, in the world. Alaska is relatively new, as land masses go. Most of it is formed from whatever gets scraped off the Pacific plate as it dives under North America. Bits of this and that are jammed together and crumple up along their edges, nowhere more enthusiastically than in the Alaska Range. And that's still rising.

Wildlife? Sure. The Dall sheep showed up clearly, but far away, against a dun mountainside. Grizzly bears revealed themselves to good binoculars and loped effortlessly over enough acreage to make it clear that binocular distance is best. Moose tramped by, observed by a grizzly. Wolves eluded us, but wolf territory sprawled for miles in the braided-river valleys, and the possibility of wolf turns out to be so nearly the same thing as the reality of wolf that I was hardly bereft.

And then, there, unmistakable, was my caribou, way off in the distance. Not the caribou I had anticipated; I've seen the pictures, and so I know caribou are supposed to arrange themselves in long picturesque strings on the tundra against a snowy backdrop. The one in front is supposed to fling his antlers back in a splendid yet saucy posture, with the rest trailing behind in admiration.

This was just the one guy, but he was the one in front. I've seen ungulates before. Lots. Deers and elks and mooses and goats and antelopes and sheeps and what have you. But this one took the ungulation cake. If you can maintain that much majesty on nothing but lichens and tundra scuzz, you've got nothing left to prove. If I'd seen a whole string of them I might never have come to, and that's a fact.

Toward dusk we and several dozen of our closest relatives happened on a much more intimate scene, when a moose grunted irritably across the road, with two admirers in tentative pursuit. Adolescents they were, their antlers the moose equivalent of a boy's first mustache, and now and then they scraped their heads at each other half-heartedly, wondering if they were doing it right. A chesty man nearby boomed out that he'd seen a massive bull moose hanging out in the woods and that he'd probably come out soon, because--cue the nasty, knowing chuckle--"he isn't about to let her get away." Suddenly I longed for a more distant sighting, with no narration, and maybe--what the hell--one bull moose partisan choking on his Budweiser.

Sightings are nice. But it's the realm of possibility that floats the heart: wolf and caribou and bear and moose and marmot and pika possibility. It's the gratitude and humility that comes with a glimpse of how the world was and how it should be, a world in which we are clever, vulnerable, insignificant creatures of the margins. And beyond any individual miracle of an animal that might cross our path, it is the vastness and the perfection and the beauty of their rightful home that I want to gather with my eyes and decant into my soul, to sip from for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018



A while back, our friends and treasures K.C. and Scott got the word that they'd won the Denali road lottery, which meant they could drive their personal vehicle into Denali Park for one day, after the regular shuttle-bus season ended. And they thought we might like to join them.

This sort of thing takes some (but not all) of the sting out of them pulling up stakes thirty years ago and leaving us behind. Their stint as our neighbors was doomed to end eventually anyway, unless they could figure out a way to shovel half an arkful of critters into a 40x50 foot lot in Portland. And even then they'd have had to buy up the rest of the houses on their side of the street to accomplish the trout pond and the sturgeon pond and the emu pen and the wine grapes. Scott had a bulldozer (yes, in his back yard) and no doubt was already scheming such a thing, but instead they left for the country, sheltered the hell out of an astonishing array of animals--most of them not destined for the plate--while holding down full-time jobs, and then sold the whole shootin' match and moved to Alaska with a mere dog and a mere cat.

This is what you do when you are thus inclined and the opportunity arises: you leave your menagerie behind and go to a state where the menagerie takes care of itself, and you try to get a respectful peek at it as often as you respectfully can.

Denali! Well sure we would come. Alaska is practically right next door. To Canada, anyway. We hopped into a plane and met them in Fairbanks, where they'd just come in from a polar bear excursion, as one does, and off we went.

Denali was once Mt. McKinley and is now Denali again, although Trump has threatened to re-McKinley it, because Obama, so stay tuned. The big mountain, which had been around a long time before anybody called it anything, had been Denali until a gold prospector in 1896 decided to piss off some silver prospectors by calling it McKinley after the president who championed the gold standard. By 1917 the federal government officially renamed the mountain McKinley, as a consolation prize for his having been assassinated. McKinley was, irrelevantly, from Ohio, and so in recent years the Ohio delegation blocked attempts to snatch back the Denali name, but a few years ago Obama made it happen anyway, because he is an elitist who hates Ohioans.

All of which makes Denali even sexier than it had been.

I did not have an image in my head of the trip into Denali. I rather thought it might wind around and around and terminate fairly high up the mountain, which is what we do with mountain roads in these parts, and because the thing is over 20,000 feet high, I worried a little that we'd be parked on the road all woozy and unable to get out of the way of rampaging caribou, should the need arise. But then again it would have been worth it to see the caribou, which would be a Life Mammal for me. There was the possibility of spotting much wildlife, including several that would also be new to me, such as the wolf and the Dall sheep.

We got an early start and motored to the park entrance in the dark, and right away a few Life Ptarmigans were spotted, apparently, but I don't like to count skitterings on the shoulder that I have to take someone else's word for. Still, it was auspicious, and we pulled up to the entrance and waited for the go-ahead from the rangers, and then the road purled out ahead of us for miles, all prospect and promise, like the beginning of a long, good friendship.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

God's Pants: Change Is Coming


"Did you splat?" I asked Dave, as we sat on the front porch behind a wisteria veil, pulling in the last of the day, our beers kindled by the setting sun.

"No." Splat. Splat splat splat. "Did you splat?"

No. We were forced to stand up and investigate, and there, at our front walk, splatting was confirmed to be happening, all over the place, great fat fatty splats of water right out of the sky, like God's trousers were leaking nickels. They spanked dust puffs out of the garden soil; they astonished the pavement.

Serious, world-class, double-wide, fattycake raindrops in the setting sun can cheer a body up like nobody's business. "There's got to be a tremendous rainbow," I said. "To the tower!"

Because the tower is closer to the sky.

This would be the same tower we hied to when our neighbor Gayle saw us out in the yard a few years ago and hollered out her back door "You all better get inside! There's a huge storm coming! They said on the radio everybody needs to get inside!"

And so we got inside and went instantly to the tower where we could, indeed, see a huge and energetic storm rolling our way, all pink and gray and whippy and momentous, and with very little hesitation we decided to get even closer to it by climbing out the window and crawling out onto the roof, where Gayle spotted us and commenced hollering again. What she meant was get in the house, not on the house. What she meant was get to the basement and crawl under a workbench in the duck-and-cover position and quiver and get ourselves right with the Lord, until the all-clear signal was given. We stayed on the roof. It was grand.

This time we settled for staying inside, since it was in fact already raining, with the setting sun slicing underneath, and sure enough there was a tremendous rainbow, a real humdinger, the kind of sturdy rainbow that dives straight into the ground in the vicinity of a pot of gold. Like, right over there.

But we know better than to go looking for a pot of gold. It's like chasing sandhill cranes. Sandhill cranes come hootling out of the sky and drift to the ground with a tilt and a bounce on their clackety stilts and then they stand around gorgeously in a herd. And so you sidle toward them all stealthy like you're chasing wabbits, and without them moving a gangly leg bone they melt away from you at the same rate you're approaching them. You never get closer to a herd of sandhill cranes. They like to keep their beauty for each other.

So. Pot of gold, the exact same way. It's all right. If I did find a pot of gold I'd just trade it in for more rain.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

I Hear That Train A-Comin'

My personal physical plant had been popping along like a Swiss watch for a long time, and then, the other night, just before dawn, I awoke to a Disturbance In The Force. I returned to sleep with the expectation that whatever it was would have resolved by morning. But by the time I got up, nothing had changed. There was still a Disturbance In The Force. In fact, I could pinpoint its location.

A key element was missing from my morning ablutions.

An hour later, even after coffee, it was still missing.

By noon, I wouldn't have been surprised if a porcupine crawled out of my butt trailing a string of horse chestnuts. Relieved, yes, but not surprised. But it was not to be.

I must pause in this report out of a sense of delicacy. This might surprise you. I am well enough known for my regard for the subject of digestive output that complete strangers have sent me photos and articles about poop. But here's the thing. I may monitor it, and report on it, and crow about spectacular individual achievements, and Dave and I may maintain a lexicon of descriptors that we use regularly, as it were, but the actual performance of my daily opus is very private. I don't want you there. I don't even want Dave there, and fortunately, Dave doesn't want Dave there either, or he'd totally be there, trying to get a rise out of me. For all my interest and curiosity, my Key Element is deeply personal.

Yes, I am the one waiting you out in the next stall over, hoping you'll flush so I can blast out a boomer.

And so I return to the matter at hand, bleakly but obliquely.


The train arrives at the station every morning, right on time. Everyone is on the platform, cheering and waving handkerchiefs. The engine pulls up with its cars, two, three, occasionally more, all in a measured pace, a triumph of civilization.

Until the day it doesn't. On the platform, we peer into the distance and check our watches. There is mumbling. The phone in the stationmaster's office rings once, and the rumors begin. There has been an incident. A derailment possibly; one or more cars are on fire. There's smoke in the distance. It's still as death, and getting warmer, with not a breeze to be found. We wait on the platform, trading a word here and there at first, and then trailing off, and one by one we curl up on the benches, silent with dread.

A day passes. Passengers from the tragic event begin to lurch toward us on foot, lugging their sorry suitcases, one by one, or in small groups, damp and dispirited. Then a few more. We begin to sit up on the benches, craning into the distance, scanning for survivors. Another day passes. Reunions occur in spotty bunches on the platform and, relieved, the crowd thins. Is everyone accounted for?

The tracks have been cleared. We who remain put an ear to the empty rails and hear the distant rumble of an approaching train. The wind kicks up. It's coming at last.

You probably heard all about it. It was all over the papers.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Multi-Level Marmoting

I love those fun little internet games. Like when you take your first pet's name and the street you grew up on, and it's your stripper name. I'm Duffy Buchanan--kind of a working man's stripper, I think. Good thing we didn't have a daughter in 1990. She'd have had to work the pole as Larry Twenty-Ninth.

Got a new one for you: take your first name, your favorite vegetable, and your favorite mammal, and you've got your Internet Huckster name. Wouldn't you buy something from Murr Yam Marmot? No? How about David Avocado Wolfe?

He's doing quite well, thank you, peddling horseshit plus marketing to willing marks. He says chemtrails are real. He hawks apricot pits for tumors because of a compound in them that might fight cancer if it didn't dump cyanide in your system first. He claims academic credentials that don't exist. He's a raw-food proponent but first came on my radar as a promoter of anti-vaccine memes. Because that's what we need now.

Gotta state up front, I come from a rah-rah vaccine family. I was swept into the doctor's office a few seconds after the Salk vaccine came out; I was two, so I don't remember it, but it wouldn't surprise me if Dad camped outside the building to be first in line. I do remember the later sugar-cube vaccine and the time I asked "What is polio?" and my sister Margaret burst into tears of joy because I didn't know. Polio ruined her health from age six on and she finally died of it ten years ago. Polio was eradicated in the United States by 1979. It's possible it will be eradicated worldwide soon.

Want to freak out some kid crying over an injection? Show 'em your smallpox vaccination scar. That's a doozy. If you're younger than 45 you don't have one. We spanked that disease, we did. My smallpox scar looks a lot like the scar from a huge chicken pox blister on my ankle. I didn't feel sick with chicken pox, just itchy, and I went to camp with it and promptly infected the whole place. Did worse with measles, second time around: I still sometimes get the nightmare I had when my fever was up around two thousand. I don't remember the mumps. I was a month old.

Well, anyway, the first time I saw an anti-vax meme I didn't trust it. Poor spelling, of course, and oh my! Photos of pathetically sick children! Babies hooked up to tubes! Were these children adversely affected by vaccines? Snopes smacked that down in seconds. Turns out it's pretty easy to come up with pictures of sick children.

I like my science the old-fashioned way. Design studies to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Crunch epidemiological data. Publish in peer-reviewed journals where your results can be challenged or replicated by other educated people in your field.

But Science can't be trusted, you see. Big Pharma wants babies to be vaccinated against everything because they're raking in the bucks. Ah, no. In fact vaccines do keep people from getting nice and sick, and they are dramatically less profitable to Big Pharma than other drugs. One reason is the good old government buys most of it and has negotiated the price way down. (It could do that for almost any drug or procedure if we didn't have a health care system run by insurance companies, but that's another story.)

Yes, precisely because scientists have long since discredited the supposed link between vaccination and autism, this proves science cannot be trusted. You can take David Avocado "Mushrooms Come From Outer Space" Wolfe's claims to the bank, but feel free to ignore the scientists, who are clearly just out for money. And while you're visiting his site, go ahead and shell out $297 for the Zapper, which "delivers positive and negative offset square wave electromagnetic waveforms throughout the body."

We can't get enough of conspiracy theories. They make our brains light up. In conspiracy-world, a study linking vaccines to autism is not withdrawn because it was fraudulent, but because it was repressed. It's good to be skeptical. But don't forget to apply your skepticism to the memes you're helping go viral, too. Because critical thinking is the only vaccine for that virus.

By the way, Donald Trump is also an out and proud anti-vaxxer, too, but that doesn't mean the position has no merit. Wait a minute, it pretty much does.

And there's this, too. There are a lot of reasons people might create an anti-vax meme and promote it. They might have something to sell. But they might be Russian trolls, too. Not only are they apparently active in trying to undermine public health here, but they are interested in creating as much confusion and division in our population as possible--about anything. And even more, they are interested in stoking distrust in our institutions, especially government and the press and science. The less confidence we have in those, the more easily we can be controlled.

Doctors don't care about your baby. Global warming is a hoax. Taxes are theft. All politicians are the same, so why bother voting?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Xeric-Sum Game

You can tell the fellow gardeners. They don't admire the garden generally. They're specific.

Hi! You've got some great structure going on here.

Thanks! You should've seen it in May. Leaves and everything.

What's that thing over there?

There? You mean the dead stuff?

No. The deadish stuff.

The tall deadish stuff just behind the dead stuff?

No, I mean the scrubby deadish stuff just between the tall deadish stuff and the stuff that isn't dead yet.

Oh yeah! That stuff's great. I mean, the nearly dead stuff is a real champ too. I think it might still have a taproot that's hit a pocket of gardener's tears and it's really hanging on.

You know, I had something a little like it, but I watered it in April, and again in late June, and damned if it wasn't squawking for more as soon as August rolled around. Total princess. I don't need that kind of pressure.

Right? I really like the ones like the Bleeding Hearts that bloom in the spring and then die back completely. You can go all the way to the next spring thinking they're still alive. Hey, do you know about this one? It's my new crush. It looks dead right out of the nursery! A real time-saver.

I got one last year! They're cool. Just going to let you know, though, that when it really does die, there's nothing more pathetic-looking on the planet.

Oh rats. I had high hopes.

That's a nice big healthy green thing over there. Pokeweed?

Yup. I'm going to have to hit it with Roundup, I think.

The little maples are nice.

Thanks! They don't need much water at all. In fact the more you water them, the faster the verticillium wilt spreads. I've lost about a third of the limbs on this one and I'm pretty sure the coral-bark is next. It's seeding like crazy. They tend to do that when they know their number is up.

Yeah. Good for the birds, though. You should see them on my dead cascara! I've never had so many woodpeckers.

Aw! I wish I had a big dead tree. None of my dead trees ever got big enough to interest the woodpeckers. Oh, by the way, I totally recommend this little guy here. Sumbitch rises from the ashes every year like clockwork. I'm getting it to where it doesn't lose its leaves until early July, and then it goes out flaming. It'd be gorgeous against the blue salvias if I could get it to hold out that long.

You can't go wrong with the salvias. I'm all over them. My sister in California has one the size of a Volkswagen just blooming its fool head off. Dry, dry, dry! Sucker dies outright if you even sprinkle it. I'm not kidding. Shrivels up like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Ha. That's nothing. I had a hosta plumb blow up the other day. There was a puff of smoke and slug snarge rained down for hours.

That's nothing! I had one native snowberry next to a bed of verbenas and it up and murdered the whole family.

We lean on the wall for a few moments, absently crinkling leaves into powder.

"Don't forget to vote," we said in unison.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Quit Following Me, I'm Not Going Anywhere

My computer worries about me a little. So every now and then it will pop up and say "The website you are trying to infiltrate may contain third-party pansy pox. Do you want to continue anyway?" And I guess I say "Sure, why not" enough times that now it only offers bulletins sporadically.

Didn't have a thing to say, for instance, about the thing you click on to find out what your Medieval Warlord name is, which is obviously super cool and which you can get just by typing in your mother's maiden name, your first pet, and the last eight digits of your Social Security number. (It was dumb, though. I had to put in every pet I ever had plus my anniversary before it came up with something Nordic. All hail Canute the Credulous!)

I don't really go online much. Not much more than five or ten hours a day all told, and a lot of those hours I would probably have wasted digging for earwax. So I don't know all the stuff that's out there. I am comfortable enough with Facebook. Facebook is where all the baby boomers went to find out if the guy in high school was still really cute, and then stuck around when he wasn't, because it was sort of reassuring. Also, it's a place to go if you like to see complete sentences. But the rest of the social media thingies are a mystery. I did get a Twitter account because evidently nobody will read your books if you don't have a bunch of people following your every chirp, but it was incomprehensibly boring and I ignore it. I'm trying to pretend I never joined LinkedIn because I have no interest in finding a job. I don't know what Snapchat and Instagram are and have no curiosity about them at all.

But then my computer started with new warnings. Not popup ones, either--actual emails someone took the time to write, just for me. At first the emails suggested I might be interested in something called Quora. Then it kept coming up with names of friends of mine who like Quora, and started wheedling. Wouldn't I like to join them? Not really. It's probably some social medium where you can share smeary photos of the left-most portion of your dinner, fork-side, with ironic captions containing only the initial letters of a sentence, not to exceed twelve characters.

So I ignored all these obvious attempts to grab my attention. My attention deficits are working in my favor these days.

Still came the increasingly earnest messages about the desirability of Quora, and then they started in with the warnings. "Sally Spankmeister followed you on Quora," they said. "Frank Fuddleton followed you on Quora," they said. Day after day.

But I've never been anywhere near Quora. I don't even have the passport. And note the past tense. These people are not following me on Quora: there's no opportunity to whip around and catch them at it. No. They followed me. They stalked me. Without my knowledge. Or is being on Quora like being on methadone? Maybe I have to go to Quora with a big stick and start peeking behind the hedges. But I know what would happen then:

"Welcome to Quora. Gotcha!"

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Liberals Are Coming! The Liberals Are Coming!

In a meeting with evangelical leaders, Mr. Trump said that if the GOP loses, "they will overturn everything that we've done and they'll do it quickly and violently, and violently. There's violence." He liberally means us liberals. And that scares me a lot. I don't even like to skoosh a bug. But I guess I'm going to have to get up to speed in a hurry.

It's weird, because it's exactly what we thought would happen if Trump didn't win his election: his followers would shoot us all in our beds, and we wouldn't be able to do anything about it except come up with universal health care.

We do have a few antifa folks with rocks in their pockets but they scare us too, because every time they show up, there's a bunch of Nazis around. Sending them up against the pistol-packin' patriot boys with their flag suits and Kevlar is like making a little barefoot Palestinian kid square off against the Israeli Army.

We got nothing. We could throw tomatoes and eggplants, but that would be wasteful. And we're not going to scare anybody with a well-arugulated militia.

Besides, if we have to get violent to run these assholes out of town, then we're going to have to get organized, and that's not our best thing. First we're going to have to find our old plowshares and beat them into swords. And that's not easy. Maybe it would have been at one time, but we aren't plowing anymore, because what with the destruction of the soil structure and the scarcity of water it's more sustainable to plant cover crops and layer compost. Almost all the remaining plowshares have been welded into garden art.

And then if we did round up those plowshares, we'd have to find someone to beat them into swords, and other than a few random hippie blacksmiths in period costume and a drum circle, we're short on talent.

We can't even manage a fertilizer bomb. Not with the run-off and the toxic algae blooms.

Sure, we get upset, but the basic problem is we're peacemakers at heart, and it's an uphill battle. I mean, we're dealing with the kind of people who did all they could to keep the black man from rising, but then when he takes a knee, that wasn't right either, so it's not like we're going to make them happy. They'll get pissed off over anything. The prospect of having to share a country with colored people gets them going in a way that the mere destruction of the planet or billionaires stealing them blind simply doesn't. Massive flooding, hurricanes, drought, extinction? Kid stuff compared with being forced to bake a cake for queers.

There we'll be, chanting at the standoff, facing assault rifles, and until they start making bullet-proof poster board we won't even be able to protect ourselves.

Liberals violent? We can get snarky, but now that there's a marijuana glut you can get three-dollar bud at the dispensary. Our biggest gripe is finding snack food that isn't made by Nestle.

But don't be fooled. You don't want to get us really angry. We won't hold back. We'll go after your grammar and spelling every time. We've been stockpiling your extraneous apostrophes and we're going to pack them all into one giant nail-bomb of a polemic and it's going to sting, babies, it's going to sting. You might have to look up some stuff, but it's going to sting.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

To Arms!

I'm not proud of this.

Several times a night, I wake up and can't figure out what to do with my arms. This is in spite of the fact that they have been part of my basic equipment for as long as I can remember. I have gone to sleep something like 23,000 times and it's still an issue. Anyone would think I could have worked it out by now, but I haven't.

I will wake up on my side with one arm crunched under me and my fist under my pillow, and the other fist crunched up under my chin. I am a giant mantis. One or both hands might feel achy or strained. I stretch out the topmost arm to get the kinks out and unfurl it along the mattress, but then it's insufficient as a buttress and I start to slump.

So I roll over onto my stomach, my preferred sleeping position, and elaborately re-punch my pillow so as to support my forehead while excavating a breathing pocket. Arms meet over my head, under the pillow. This is a delicate adjustment and I can spend several minutes getting it right. I am trying to avoid the situation where I dream about being underwater too long and finally jolt awake gasping because my face is solidly pressed into the mattress. So far, I am old enough to jolt awake and move, and not so old that I can't, but that time's coming.

My mother, I believe, put me face down to sleep when I was an infant. People get all worked up about that sort of thing now, but this was during the post-war baby boom and there wasn't such a big fuss about keeping any one baby alive. Evidently I was resourceful enough or round enough to survive and I have been a stomach-sleeper since forever, which was in 1953.

But it's a pity, because the only way to sleep without your arms getting in the way is to sleep on your back, which I can't seem to do.

Arms are important, of course, but mainly it's the wiggly bits at the ends that seal the deal on most transactions, drawing, or jar-opening, or the like, and the arms just get you a bit of reach (no offense to Thalidomide-Americans). The rest of the time they dangle from your shoulders and swing weirdly. Imagine how befuddled your standard gazelle would be, bounding across the plain, and watching our front legs flopping around like that.

Your arms aren't really supposed to be doing anything when you're asleep, and if they are, nobody wants to hear about it. But for most of us there are not a lot of options for how they're hooked up to the anatomy. Your shoulders aren't necessarily where you want them while you're sleeping but they're not deflatable.

Nothing like this is a problem for my cat Tater, who occasionally sleeps right next to me. For a fifteen-pound mammal, she can really pin down a blanket. I've never seen her look at all uncomfortable. I don't know exactly what is inside her fuzzy packaging, but I do know it is well past al dente.

For me, though, it gets fussy. I can get one arm all unrolled and spread out and I move it an inch up or an inch down until the humors feel unrestricted again, but by that time I need to find the cool spot. If nothing gets worked out in a hurry there's a danger I will wake up enough to imagine solutions, such as arms that retract like hoses when you're not using them, or a pit drilled into the mattress to accommodate a face rest with a drool bucket underneath, or a suspended shoulder-hammock made of butterfly wings, and if I think about it long enough to realize these solutions don't really make sense, then I'm really really awake, and vulnerable to remembering who's President.

Wish Mom had put me on my back.