Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Man vs. Nature in Orange County

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
-- William Wordsworth, Lines Written in Early Spring

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam

I am on vacation here in Southern California, an escapee from the cold and stormy May weather at home. Staying in the South Bay has been a revelation. Since I'm close to coastal Orange County, I've spent several days exploring beach towns south of L.A.: Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Corona del Mar, Laguna Beach. While it might appear that I've had nothing more on my mind than a determination to eat my way through all the gelato shops within a hundred-mile radius, my brain hasn't been entirely idle.

The skies are blue, the waves are pounding and picturesque, and the sunshine is wonderfully clarifying, but there is still a mystery I can't wrap my mind around. What's brought this to a head is some close encounters with nature that I've had over the last few days, but I've been thinking about it for some time. The question is basically this: Is nature essentially sound and are human beings the problem, or is nature brutal and unfeeling and is human civilization an improvement over the vagaries of a dog-eat-dog universe?

I realize philosophers, theologians, and poets (among others) have pondered this question for centuries, and it's unlikely I can solve it in a few days spent idling by the ocean. Joseph Campbell said that the entire reason mythology came into being was that humans needed to make sense of a world in which "eat or be eaten" was the harsh and unalterable essence of things. That perfect cheeseburger I had last night at In-N-Out Burger was an illustration of that rule in action; the cattle I saw running from the noise of the train as I made my way westward last week elicited a stab of sympathy from me, but it didn't stop me from enjoying the cheeseburger.

Sometimes when I hear people talk about unwinding in the beauty of nature, I wonder if they are looking at the same thing I am. I know what it is to be awed; this afternoon, I was on a boat surrounded by a large pod of dolphins -- I'm talking hundreds of dolphins, swimming with their characteristic grace out toward open sea and slicing through the water underneath the boat in what looked like play. The prototypical dolphin for me has always been Flipper, a good-natured and kindly creature who was loyal and helpful to his human friends when he wasn't teasing them with his antics.

Recently, Flipper's image took a serious hit for me when I read about how dolphins sometimes attack porpoises by ramming them until they die of internal injuries. There are also instances of attacks on their own young as well as attacks on humans. I thought about this while watching the dolphins leap around the boat. Of course, we haven't treated dolphins that well either. How many of them have died unnecessarily in nets when fishermen who weren't even interested in dolphins as prey caught them indiscriminately along with the rest of their haul?

Do you want to know what I was thinking while out on that boat, watching the dolphins frolic and enjoying the feeling of the waves rolling under my feet? I was thinking how glad I was of the human ingenuity that created the boat I was on. The waters off Southern California are picture postcard beautiful when you're looking at them from the deck of a boat, but I couldn't help but think of all the predator and prey scenarios playing out underneath that beguiling surface.

Not that things are that much better on land. Take the grizzly bear I saw in Yellowstone on my first visit to the park several years ago. Spotting that bear was the highlight of my trip and the beginning of a special interest I've taken in grizzlies since then. But what was the bear doing when I saw it? Well, actually, it was feeding on a baby elk. Of course, human sprawl has hemmed the bears in so much that they, fearsome claws and all, are the beleaguered ones. I remember being horrified to hear the way some people in Idaho talked about the bears as if they were vermin. But how would I feel if I were a settler in pioneer days -- when bears were plentiful -- whose child had been killed by a bear? I feel sure I wouldn't be tacking pictures of grizzlies up on my refrigerator with magnets.

Yesterday I took a long walk near sunset in an ecological reserve renowned for its birds. At first, most of the birds were too far away for me to see them well. Ironically, the best part of the walk came near the end, when I was following a trail right next to Highway 1. A startling flash of snowy white on my left turned out to be an egret, standing in the shallows at the edge of the marsh. He tolerated my presence for half a minute or so before flying off. When I came upon him again several minutes later, picking his way through the reeds at water's edge, it was like a gift to be given a second look at such a beautiful bird.

The sight was breathtaking. At the same time, I have to admit to a few seconds of uneasiness when I noticed a group of shore birds flying toward me. Uneasiness as in, "Am I about to experience a re-enactment of The Birds?" I recently read that ravens and crows can recognize faces and apparently don't forget grudges -- not that I've given the birds of Orange County any reason to be mad at me in particular. Yet there I was, walking next to a highway that hemmed in the reserve that is there to protect the birds, in the presence of oil or gas wells jugging away in the background, pulling the fuel out of the earth that powers the machines of the humans who were whizzing by a few yards away.

My own rental car was in the reserve's parking lot, where any sharp-eyed bird could easily pick it out. If the birds did decide to take their frustrations out on someone, I would have been an easy target, and instead of enjoying a pensive walk might have ended up fending off beaks and claws.

Despite all of these dark thoughts, I admit to enjoying the beauty of pelicans in flight, the colors of butterfly wings, the streamlined grace of dolphins, the power and grandeur of the grizzly bear, and many other things I've been fortunate to see. One thing I can say about all of the aforementioned is that they have never lied to me, or stolen from me, or broken my heart to suit themselves. Maybe that's one reason, despite nature's harshness, that it continues to be so compelling. It is something wholly other than human and open for our contemplation when we get a little tired of the human scene.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Watercolor Sunday

For just another lazy Sunday, this was a pretty nice one. I may never figure out why a gray sky in May doesn't bother me the same way an identical sky would in January. It wasn't even warm today; it was cold enough to require a heavy sweatshirt or a jacket. It's also been alarming to hear about the flooding all these storms have caused along the Mississippi and the fact that so many people are in danger of losing their homes.

We're lucky. Around here, the main effect I've noticed from the rain is how lushly green everything is. It's a treat just to rest your eyes on the spring leaves or the neatly mown grass in someone's yard. That alone is probably one thing that makes the spring rain different from the winter rain -- all that green is evidence of life running riot, shooting through branches and twigs until it bursts out the ends in a luxuriance of leaves and pushes up through the dirt in an extravagant carpet of grass.

Most of the trees have finished their flowering (which takes place in April), though I've seen dogwoods and a few others that still have blossoms. I always enjoy the show of color during that first flowering, when the redbuds and the weeping cherries are so delicately beautiful you can hardly believe it. This year, I'm entranced by all of this May greenery and am wondering why I used to find it a little anticlimactic after the more varied palette of early spring.

I went to Starbucks this afternoon for my half-price Frappuccino and some reading, which seemed the perfect activity for a rainy afternoon. Instead, I found myself at a window seat, keeping an eye on the rain and watching other people as they came and went. There was a cheerfulness in the air, an absence of urgency, and something zen about the whole enterprise. Even though I sat for two hours with my chin propped in my hand, looking out the window, I was not a bit sad. I was like a house cat who has found the perfect perch. Whatever the human equivalent of purring is, that's what I was doing.

I went for a walk afterwards and felt like I had stepped into a watercolor painting; it was a little bit like that part in Mary Poppins where Mary, Bert, Jane, and Michael pop into the painting on the sidewalk for a whimsical jaunt. Because I was in absolutely no hurry to go anywhere or do anything, I had time to notice all sorts of little things; a curved white bridge in someone's garden; a yellow door in a gray stone house; a robin alight on a metal chair presiding like a throne on a front lawn (something like The Anecdote of the Jar: "The jar was round upon the ground / And tall and of a port in air. / It took dominion everywhere."); a tree where not the flowers but the leaves were pink.

If someone were to say it doesn't sound like I accomplished much today, I would say that's not true. I did the dishes and spent five minutes mopping the floors after dinner. What else do you want? Why spoil a perfectly beautiful afternoon with too much productivity? If you were to say it doesn't seem like you're thinking too hard about your dissertation, I would say it's true that I wasn't thinking hard about it, but it occurred to me just now that the whole afternoon unfolded like a meditative walk in a labyrinth. No stress and no hurry, just looking, sipping, and meandering. No concern about where to go and no real possibility of taking a wrong turn.

If it were possible to put this afternoon in a bottle, I would save it for the next time I'm feeling cranky or irritable, then spray some lightly behind my ears. It would come out smelling like violets and rain; the label would feature pink roses awash in raindrops and mist. If it had a soundtrack, it would be a combination of Mozart and light jazz with a little Randy Newman thrown in. And it would taste like chocolate caramels with a touch of sea salt, the soft kind of caramel that swirls when you sink your teeth into it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Mystery of Chapter 3

I dreamed last night about rainbows -- or at least, two ends of one. I was distracted in the dream by some drama I can't remember, and suddenly I looked up to see a faint glimmer of watery color off at the distant horizon. Following it with my eye, I saw the bare suggestion of the entire arc across a vast expanse of sky. The two ends were the most distinct part, and there appeared to be a rainbow within a rainbow. I'm not sure what I felt other than a mild frustration at not being able to see the whole thing more completely.

It may be all the stormy weather we've had recently that suggested this image to my sleeping brain. I remember looking at the sky the other day and thinking conditions seemed right for a rainbow, though all I saw were some scraps of clouds. When I lived in Florida as a little girl, I saw a lot of vivid rainbows; I remember one in particular that I happened to see through the rear window of our family car when we were returning home from the grocery store one evening. It was enormous and very bright, and something about the fact that it was behind us, boldly transforming a rainy sky into something breathtaking behind our backs, has made me remember it all this time.

I remember watching the vision slowly fade and feeling very wistful. That's when my mother told me about the pot of gold you would find if you could only get to the end of the rainbow before it disappeared. That story filled me with the pure and intense yearning you only feel for things that are slightly out of reach. Sometime soon after that I found a picture book featuring a group of children who were chasing the rainbow in pursuit of that very same gold. It had lovely illustrations of the ever elusive rainbow and the plucky children, always arriving a little too late.

Years later, I see a similarity between this emotion and the plight of the unfortunates in Dante's Purgatorio who spend their days contemplating ripe, glistening fruit and sparkling water that have been strategically placed just outside their grasp. (These people were being punished for gluttony, according to Dante. If Purgatory turns out to be real, the tree that blocks my path will most likely dangle Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs and Chocolate Ecstasy ice cream cones.)

Come to think of it, this pursuit of the rainbow is also very similar to the story of the Holy Grail, which appears as a sudden, piercingly sweet vision of loveliness floating above the heads of the court at Camelot. It glides about provocatively before disappearing as suddenly as it came, leaving everyone dazed and creating a delicious unrest among the knights, who are now filled with an overpowering longing to seek it to the ends of the earth.

I'm getting ready to work on the third chapter of my dissertation, which deals in part with the Grail Quest as a labyrinthine journey. Dante will be in there, too. Since finishing my proposal in December, I've left the dissertation strictly alone, waiting for the right opening to find my way back in. In the last week or two, I've noticed my energy for the project returning. For some reason, Chapter 3 has seemed daunting, and the whole idea of the labyrinth in the Middle Ages almost too weighty and complex to think about. That's actually a little strange considering how I love the Grail story and am intrigued by Dante's geography. Certainly writing Chapters 1 and 2 depleted my resources, but in all the months since finishing I haven't felt the slightest urge to jump into Chapter 3 -- none at all until now.

It could be that something is slightly off in the way I approached the first two chapters, and I have gotten off the path a little. It could also be that there is something in this chapter that is too difficult tackle head on. I've been approaching this as an intellectual problem when it is of course more than that (every dissertation is, I think). That could be the reason for dreaming about rainbows on the eve of picking things up again.

Ordinarily I don't like to talk about what I'm working on while I'm doing it, so this kind of self revelation is unusual. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to write a dissertation (an idea that probably occurs to very few people, actually), now you know the truth: scholars are often just as clueless as everyone else.

On the other hand, it could be a lot of fun to unravel The Mystery of Chapter 3. If I were writing a Nancy Drew book, that's what I would call this. Maybe Nancy Drew (another favorite from my childhood) is a good model for the duration of the effort. As I recall, she always got her answers, and didn't stop until she did.