Friday, May 30, 2014

Xylotheque: "Song of the Redwood Tree"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Song of the Redwood Tree" first appeared in South Dakota Review in 2011.

Excerpt from “Song of the Redwood Tree”

We look and look, but we do not see the trees. There is no place to stand to see an entire redwood. For hours we crane our necks, peering into the sky where the trees disappear from sight. We circle their behemoth trunks, stupefied. We are underwater. The light on the forest floor is murky, greenish, yet freighted with clarity. There is levity to our steps on the spongy duff. We are walking on the ocean floor. “The forest canopy is the earth’s secret ocean,” writes Richard Preston in The Wild Trees. Hundreds of feet above us, the trees collect fog from the air. Their canopies are like root systems reaching into the sky. They seem as distant as the stars from where we stand in our green-tinged seafloor environment. The trees reach into the earth and into heaven, drinking, drinking. We are blind to the work of the roots under our feet, to the slow constant pull, to the enormous suck, the seep of water upward, unceasing for centuries.

“You really can’t tell much about what’s happening in a forest from the ground,” says noted redwood expert Steve Sillett in 2009 National Geographic documentary titled Climbing Redwood Giants. So true. From the ground, we do not see the life that teems within the canopies hundreds of feet above us; we never glimpse, for example, the salamanders that live their whole lives in trees without once touching the ground. We do not see the epiphytes, fifty-plus species of mites, copepods, earthworms, bumblebees, huckleberries, lichens, voles, rhododendrons, currant and elderberry bushes, or the bonsai groves of California laurel, western hemlock, Douglas fir, tan oak, Sitka spruce, and buckthorn that perch atop the sprawling canopies that are like land masses held aloft in the sky. The canopies of the world’s forests, I learn, contain half of nature’s species. The scientists who rappel themselves into the trees, scaling redwood trunks like the faces of sheer cliffs, go into this undiscovered country. And they see.

Science has other ways of seeing. Researchers peer at the redwoods through microscopes, poring over cellulose, lichens, the structure of shrimp found snarled in trees hundreds of feet above sea level. They fly over the forests in twin-engine planes, using LIDAR, light detection and ranging, to create highly detailed maps of the topography of redwood forests, determining the heights of the tallest trees from the air. Dendrochronologists squint at great slabs of redwood cross sections, peering at the rings, counting, seeking out minute differences in annual growth. All of these are ways of seeing. And all ways glimpse only pieces of the whole.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Keeping a Field Notebook

In “Why Keep a Field Notebook?” biologist Erick Greene describes an assignment that he required his students to complete over a semester:

I asked my students to pick one “thing” and observe it carefully over the entire semester. The “thing” they chose could be anything from a single plant, one place, a beaver dam, their garden, a bird feeder, and so on. They had to record their observations at least once a week in a field notebook.

What is the purpose of a field notebook? Greene lists several functions that it can serve:

These notebooks tend to capture the beauty and wonder of the natural world and help to hone the observational skills of the authors. They typically combine field sketching and painting with keen observation. . . . Another value of field notebooks is their ability to serve as an incredibly fertile incubator for your ideas and observations. By jotting down interesting observations, questions, and miscellaneous ideas, your field notebook can serve as a powerful catalyst for new experiments and projects.

I would argue that field notebooks can be just as valuable to writers as they are to scientists. I have kept a journal of one sort or another for most of my life, and for the past three years, I’ve worked in a large sketchbook that has become a field notebook of sorts, containing illustrations and observations of the natural world. I often take my notebook into my own backyard and make notations about the garden. I also regularly visit nearby ponds and favorite trees.

This spring, I asked students in my “writing about nature and ecology” class to keep a field notebook for the duration of the semester. They were to pick a single outdoor location and to visit that location once a week to observe it, recording their observations in writing and illustrations. For the first assigned reading of the semester, I handed out Greene’s essay to help get them thinking about their notebooks.

In the beginning of this project I had planned to take my classes on an excursion into “the field”—a nearby park—but in late January on the day I selected for this trip the temperature was barely in the teens, so I improvised. If I could not bring my students to nature, I would bring nature to my students. I collected a box full of nature artifacts—pinecones, seed pods, branches, leaves, needles—and spent time observing and drawing these objects in class. I wanted to get my students drawing—especially the ones who didn’t consider themselves artists—because drawing something forces you to truly observe it, to notice it in its detail, its spectacular complexity. It takes a long time to see and then to render all the veins in a leaf. Even though I am far from being an artist (with just one semester of high school art training), I have found that drawing something not only helps me to see it and to remember it, but it also helps me to write about it. I can describe in words what I’ve drawn much more accurately than what I’ve merely observed.

What kinds of things did I want to see in a field notebook? Many students had no idea where to begin. I told them they could list data like the date and time, the temperature and weather conditions, observations of plant or animal life, but they could also write down questions that came to mind, their thoughts and reactions, descriptions based on sensory data, metaphors and poem fragments—basically, anything they wanted. The point was to go to the same place once a week and write.

I pointed out to my students that Greene offers two principles for keeping a field notebook:

First, you will forget things far faster than you expect—most people think they will remember details of their observations and studies for longer and better than they actually do; and second, you will not know at the beginning of a study all the things that might be important or interesting—for this reason, it is a great idea to record more information than you think you might need.

In other words, I told my students, record everything—even if it seems obvious or irrelevant. I write all kinds of nonsense in my field notebook. And yet, as my collection of observations, data, and questions grows, I not only become more engaged with my subjects of study, but I also begin to see central themes emerging in my thinking. Are there certain things I draw again and again? Are there certain questions that seem to come up over and over? Do images from one week to the next echo one another? Do they contradict one another? What is the creative work that my subconscious mind is trying to do? The notebook is a place for me to put down this nascent writing, these fragments, without any expectation of creating a polished, finished piece of work.
Some students enjoyed the assignment, and others didn’t. Some wrote lengthy entries while others made telegraphic notes limited to temperature and time of day. Some made intricate illustrations while others drew little to nothing. Some included photos. One student, Vanessa, even did watercolor illustrations. With her permission, I am including an image of some of her work below.

For the last reading of the semester, I passed out “Landscape and Narrative” by Barry Lopez. I asked my students to think about their field notebooks in relation to Lopez’s idea of “interior” landscape and “exterior” landscape. Lopez writes:

I think of two landscapes—one outside the self, the other within. The external landscape is the one we see—not only the line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but also its plants and animals in season, its weather, its geology, the record of its climate and evolution. . . . The second landscape I think of as an interior one, a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape. . . . The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.

Before turning in their field notebooks at the end of the semester, my students wrote a brief reflection on the contents on their notebooks. I asked them to think about the following questions: What kind of “landscape” dominated in their notebooks? Did they write more about the exterior world, or about themselves? Did they see any parallels between the exterior landscape that they observed and their interior landscape?

Students had a range of responses to these questions, just as they had a range of approaches to keeping field notebooks. Some students focused on the physical world, on observation, not venturing at all into the interior landscape, while others wrote freely about the feelings that were conjured by the natural world around them, even to the extent that the exterior landscape was sometimes obscured, barely present in their writings. Some shifted over the course of the project, beginning with notations about the external landscape but slowly adding more of their internal landscape as the weeks went on. In one notable case, a student started the semester making notations about plant and animal life, writing down the exact number of birds and squirrels that he saw on each excursion, but by the end of the semester he was writing intensely personal poetry about his connections to the natural world. He went from tallying ducks to looking at nature as a manifestation of divinity.

Yet even students who did not make a strong connection between the internal and the external benefited from the exercise. One student, Liam, described his experiences in his reflection:

Over the course of the semester, I chose to observe a small clearing snuggled between the river in the back of Stanley Park and a trail that runs through the park. This spot is filled with large rocks and is very peaceful, as the rocks create natural seats to enjoy the calm movement of the river. Beginning in early February, the spot was covered in snow and the river was completely frozen. Almost three months later, the river was flowing and the bushes were beginning to bloom. It was beautiful being able to see the changes in the landscape as the weather got nicer. I’ve come to realize that I most enjoyed being able to see wildlife in and around the river. I never quite observed this about myself before the field journal, but there’s something I seriously love about seeing animals in their natural habitats, just living. It makes me realize that humans are simply animals, and although our way of living is much more complex, at the end of the day, we simply want to survive, just like the squirrels, geese, ducks, and one fish that I saw at the spot. This was my first experience keeping a field notebook, and to say I enjoyed it would be an understatement. I’ve always loved observing nature, but taking time to write about what I’m witnessing actually makes the moments timeless. I didn’t really write about myself a lot in the notebook itself, but I certainly think I grew as a person by having the opportunity to observe such a peaceful natural landscape.

Another student, Brendan, chose to observe the same tree every week. At the end of the semester, he wrote:

I am actually going to miss this tree. It seemed awkward at first, but as the semester went on, though it seemed like I was running out of things to say about the tree, I was growing in the way I felt about it. I can’t wait to come back next year in the fall and revisit the tree. I can see it with all of its leaves and the way they change colors.

Jeff was a student who had never before excelled at writing, but keeping a field notebook changed his perspective. He wrote:

I have never enjoyed writing but this experience has begun to change my opinion. I enjoy being out in nature but never wrote about my experiences in the moment. During the first semester I never slowed down and observed nature around me. This assignment forced me to keep in touch with nature and immerse myself in it. I really enjoyed this writing, being able to write whatever was on my mind and what I observed. There were no requirements that would restrict my thought and writing. I liked how it took me away from all my other work and left me alone with nature. With a lot of other assignments and work, having to relax and write about nature was not a burden. When I am home I spend a lot of time with nature and I believe from now on I will bring a field notebook along with me.

I have dozens of such responses from students. Here is one final reflection, written by Cathleen:

I liked keeping this field notebook. I realized, however, that people and scientists who do this regularly really have to be committed.  It was hard to make sure I got there once a week and sometimes it was longer or I had to go twice in one week. I also found it difficult observing one single spot because for many weeks not much changed. Watching winter turn to spring was interesting but it was very gradual and sometimes I found it hard to discuss what was new every week because I felt like I was repeating myself. I learned that nature is extremely subtle. When I was forced to really look for changes I realized they felt like they kind of happened without even being visible to the naked eye. Like, one day it was winter, and the next it was spring. But so much still somehow happens in between. I also learned that keeping this field notebook was a great way to have an excuse to sit and relax. It was peaceful and nice, even in the cold. I liked this notebook because it was very different than the other assignments in the class, but I think it got across the theme of the class more than any other assignment could. It made you stop and actually observe nature through your own eyes, not just read about it in someone else’s words.

Throughout the semester, I worked on the field notebook assignment along with my students, trekking each week to observe the same white oak in temperatures that ranged from the teens to the eighties. One week the wind chill was so extreme that I drove to the location and made my notations inside the car with the engine running. Some weeks, I wrote only about the external landscape, while others I delved into the internal as well. Every week, I drew. And now, some of my notes from those weeks are working themselves into a new essay I’m finishing. And others will sit dormant for a little longer. And some will never make it out of the notebook. That’s just the nature of a field notebook.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Xylotheque: "Lithodendron"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Lithodendron" first appeared in Blue Mesa Review in 2012.

Excerpt from “Lithodendron”

We come on one of the coldest days of the year. A steady wind pierces our clothing, and the overcast sky, bruised a faint gray and yellow, threatens rain. We are kept company by a raven that sits on a lone post and periodically rasps out a cry. The few other people who have come today are quiet and reverent, moving silently with heads bent to the wind. Wearing fleece jackets, windbreakers, and hiking boots, they move alone or in pairs. Our party of three seems excessive. There are no children besides my daughter, who is not quite five.

We have come to a forest that is a desert, a desert that is a forest. Vegetation maps identify this part of Arizona as “barren land” because greenery covers less than 5 percent of the surface. Shrubs, sparse grasses, lone stunted junipers, yucca, and prickly-pear cactuses stud the landscape here and there, but I have to seek them out. They are subtle, never accosting the eye. Petrified Forest National Park is a land of barrenness: cracked mud, dust, clay, multihued strata. In places the landscape seems rusted, and this is not so far from the truth. Oxidation produces reds, pinks, oranges. In other places, the strata are blue, gray, black. This land of arroyos, washes, canyons, mesas, and plateaus has been sculpted by erosion, picked clean by time.

The eye does not at first recognize the trees in this forest. They litter the ground in great broken slabs like ancient columns that have fallen to ruin. They have been literally turned to stone: petrified. What is a stone tree? Is it mineral or vegetable? They rest in heaps upon the desert floor like great bones sucked dry by the centuries. For millennia they were pressed between the strata of the earth, like botanical specimens preserved in the pages of a book. They are long-embedded splinters that have been exuded by the earth’s skin, which here is parched and scaly like a reptile’s. Or they are the blanched ribs of time itself, lying broken in an ascetic landscape. They are landmarks in time. The landscape itself seems broken, in a state of final ruin, and yet all landscapes are broken. All are in continuous states of creation and destruction. On this December day the land is just a single iteration of itself. It was never more complete. It was never fixed. 

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Xylotheque: "Navel Country"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Navel Country," which appeared in Colorado Review in 2013, was the last essay in the collection that I wrote. It is a memoir about my grandfather, about growing up in the Inland Empire, about orange trees and memory, about landscape and nostalgia.

Excerpt from “Navel Country”

Summiting, I look down. My eyes find the straight line of Palmyrita, now flanked by warehouses and a tech park. I search the land for groves and finally spot the eight acres still being farmed by an elderly widow; the block of green is nearly lost in the sprawl of houses and the rectangular white roofs of warehouses, a new patchwork overlaying the land. I look a little farther, toward the base of Blue Mountain, where the family groves used to be. Here, there is nothing at all, just leveled dirt. The developers have razed the trees but put nothing in their place. The project was halted when the economy went sour, the developers running out of resources or vision, running out of some essential quality necessary to effect a transformation. What is here is emptiness, waiting to be overwritten, waiting for the next iteration of progress, the next conquest.

I try to think of a way to tell my daughter what this place looked like when I was a child: all those verdant nubs of trees tucked up against the hills, tidy as machine stitching, nature perfected. I want to redeem my grandfather and the land that made him. Before I can say anything, my daughter speaks. “California feels like home because we’ve moved so many times we always live somewhere different, but California always stays the same.” This is her second trip up Sugarloaf so she has a reference point, a sense of continuity. “I can see why you would feel that way,” I tell her. I don’t say the rest out loud: You have the disease of nostalgia, too, I fear. You will someday think back to your childhood when you mistook your own innocence for an innocence of the world, when you mistook the simplicity of a child’s life for universal simplicity, your own happiness for universal happiness, when you mistook the long yawn of time that makes up childhood for permanence. Or worse, you’ll believe that you just missed out on something. And you did. And so did I. And so did we all. Even Grandpa.

Because when my grandfather arrived in California in 1922, even then people said the glory days were already past. I imagine the one perfect day—sometime in 1895 or perhaps 1905, when North and Tibbets were dead but my family was not yet on the scene—and it went by completely unnoticed. There was nothing remarkable about it, just a sun-drenched day with blossoms clustering tightly to the trees, their fragrance heavy in the air, and the Riversiders going about their business, driving their wagons up and down Victoria, men irrigating their groves, women buying eggs, and no one even suspecting that they had reached the pinnacle of their glory, that tomorrow and the day after and the day after the glory would slip a little further into the past, and even though more groves would be planted and more houses would be built, forever after there would be that sense of nostalgia, that sense that something beautiful and pure had slipped away. I see those Riversiders on their one perfect day, and they don’t know it’s perfect, and they have no one to tell them: This is it. You’re living the dream. Don’t let it go by unnoticed. Put a border around it and paste it to an orange crate. Hold on to it, however you can.

And then I picture myself as a sixteen-year-old girl, painting standpipes on a summer day that feels like it stretches forever, and I want to say the same things to her. I want to put a border around her. And does some future version of myself capture me here, today, at the top of a peak flanked by my young children, looking down on a vanished landscape, and does that future self long to put a border around this moment, render it as landscape? How many layers deep can nostalgia accrue? What is this palimpsest of the self? There is no extracting the self from landscape. We are the landscape, for it is our creation.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.