April, 2009 Archive

Cedar Waxwings

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

On the way to class on a gray chill Thursday afternoon overloaded with the lesson plan in my head and the computer:

  • to complete discussion of last paragraphs of Thoreau’s “Sounds”– the negative formula divesting the saunterer of worldly encumbrances: “No yard but unfenced nature reaching up to your very sills, A young forest growing up under your meadows.”  The irony of 600,000 people a year visiting Walden today, the edge of the  pond “restored” with rebar grid and imported rocks, sand and tree plantings. My afternoon there in the rain, in 2003, swimming in my underpants.
  • moving on to “Solitude””its insistence on the refusal to grieve”for the lost younger brother and the lost beloved, the only two people Thoreau was really close to”and the insistence on the cockerel’s joyful exuberance felt even by the “misanthrope and most melancholy man,” except for the one hour of “a slight insanity in my mood,”  after which “every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”  The desire to dwell not in a neighborhood but rather “most near to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction.”  The conclusion of that most transcendent chapter, the cry for a drug to repair the rent that tears us from our essence: “What is the pill which will keep us well, serene, contented?” And the answer””a draught of undiluted morning air.”

As I approached the English building I was distracted by a gaggle of bird calls overhead. In the flat backlight I couldn’t make out their shape”were they starlings or grackles?  One bunch was rustling in the top leaves of the holly trees alongside the door, while another was spinning cartwheels just above it, and several individuals dashed toward Eucalyptus trees back by the Plant Conservatory.  Then the group overhead descended to the hollies, the group in the trees blasted together to the Eucs and different individuals shot up and down over the building.  I noticed the birds in the tree were gobbling the red holly berries. Now it registered: a migrating flock of Cedar Waxwings  drunk on fermented fruit.  I had seen such a flock seven or eight years ago on the sycamores where Via Carta crosses Brizzolara Creek, but they were sitting at rest, illuminated by the morning sun, their chamois-smooth bodies glowing, their graceful crests  and eye masks on stately display.

I begged them to stay  for another ten minutes.  As the students assembled in the classroom, I googled “Cedar Waxwing Drunk” and put up this webpage on the screen.

After the’d all arrived, I led them through the long corridor of building 10 and out the door on a sixty second hike. The party was still in full swing.

“Walking” Poly Mountain

Saturday, April 18th, 2009


The sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that it lavishes on cities, and perchance, as it has never set before…where there is but a solitary marsh hawk to have his wings gilded by it


¦ and there is some little black-veined brook in the midst ¦ We walked in so pure and bright a light,


gilding the ¦ grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright–


I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of elysium,


and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman, driving us home at evening.

April 16 7:15 pm


Sun dropping toward mist on the horizon.  Temperature dropping as the sleeping bag warms. Bits of remaining light in the needlegrass awns. An hour and a half since I departed from the class down in the oak grove and its words still echo”the words of Thoreau’s essay  “Walking” and his chapter, “Sounds,” along with our improvisations upon them.

The longing for the wild and the new, the demand for fresh and expansive experience, the unfamiliar, the virgin. The westward march and its ultimate demise with humanity’s dark dominion”the “End of Nature” in anthropogenic climate disruption. The sound of silence in the snap of sumac twigs too heavy to support their own growth.

Sounds now of the invisible traffic on Cuesta Pass and my stomach growling. A meadow lark.  A cow’s moo. A haunting ullulation across the valley. What is that familiar call”like a loon’s, but no loons here. Perhaps not a bird?  I struggle to find the memory, fail,  surrender to another diminution of capacity.  Shifting my gear to support my shoulder recalls previous sleepouts and the line “My pillow is my boot,” which I put on Tuesday’s reading quiz.  And the preceding stanza:

The silence of the valley
Breaks with a coyote’s sound
That’s followed by responses
From all the hills around.

Hello! it’s coyotes.

The sun dips under the cloud bank behind Hollister Peak.


I told students I hadnt planned on camping tonight, but rereading “Walking” seduced me again with its invitation to saunter, to wander a creek or scramble up a mountain with no plan or destination, to sleep where I felt tired. The sensation of freedom at 6:00 p.m. Thursday, the end of my week’s classes compounded with such a walk enabled “a fair return to my senses.”

Ironically, so does the camera and computer. The viewfinder provides concentration, the monitor focus, the harddrive memory. The pictures of sunset I just took recall those I took six years ago from a spot close by after another April class on Thoreau and just last week placed in a slideshow to accompany the first movement of Beethoven’s pastoral symphony.

Would William or Henry David or Ralph Waldo allow for technology to be the agent of this return to the senses? Not if Nature is the Wild or the “not-human.”  But also, yes,

the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and … all that we behold
From this green earth;… all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive

Thoreau exults, “Man and his affairs¦I am pleased to see how little  space they occupy in the landscape.”  But as Dylan observed as we sat in the deep  grass above campus, yes if you look north, but not if you look south, at the city and the freeway extending to L.A.

Now against the background of  darkened peaks and glowing sky emerges a panoply of orange lights: the state prison.


The History of Peas

Monday, April 13th, 2009

It started with the financial meltdown last September. I hired Chris to help me take down the ziggurat I’d constructed 7 years ago at the top of the hill and use the railroad ties to enlarge the vegetable beds. They were soon filled with spinach, chard, kale and lettuce and I began hankering  for more territory to plant.

In early November I went up Stenner Creek Road with Lucas and loaded our Subaru, Jade, with serpentinite boulders I found abandoned at a turnout.  I dug up a dozen heavy carex clumps in front of the house and transplanted them to make a little retaining wall, spaded and levelled the adobe clay in an irregular eight by five foot patch that might catch a little winter sun, laid out a new path around part of it connecting the brick walk to the top trail, surrounded it with the boulders, and worked in leftover compost.

I decided to plant sugar snap peas since, like the leaf crops, peas would grow in winter on our north-facing, shaded slope.  Peas also enrich the soil  and grow large plants in small patches of ground.  Like tomatos, their expansive vines provide something to watch and fiddle with, and they yield an ongoing harvest of food that’s good raw or cooked, both the pods and the little treasures inside.

I couldn’t find organic sugar snap pea seeds anywhere in town in November, but New Frontiers put in a special order.  The packet was embellished with an an enticing illustration and invitation:

Once torn open it also offered information about the history and culture of the fruit.


I’ve always been a little intimidated by gardening, partly because I could never compete with my neighbors, Stan and Peter, back in the seventies, but also because of the patience required by its slow rhythm and its uncertainty of outcome.  With both anticipation and fear, I patted the little off-white marbles into the holes I’d punched with my fingers every two inches into the dampened soil.  After just a week of watering  the seedlings came up juicy and vigorous and curled their tendrils around the fence marking the row.  I’d gotten the thumbs up from the Great Outdoors, confirmed every morning as I watched their progress in the golden light of sunrise.



Easter Week 2009

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

My assigned twenty minutes of Ecolog is overdue.  I sit behind the pea patch in front of the house, the breeze riffling newly transplanted tomatos and cooling the back of my neck damp with sweat from digging and mixing soil.  Lots of that’s been going on this weekend, starting with buying three-foot seedlings at Cal Poly’s “Tomato Mania” Friday morning and putting them into the ground while Chris restored one section of the drip irrigation system I ripped out when the native shrubs no longer needed water five years ago. Now its required for the vegetables.

Saturday I bought three varieties of basil seedlings at the farmer’s market and sweet pepper, cucumber and summer squash seedlings at Home Depot. Jan transplanted flowers at Claire’s mobile home this morning during the Easter Egg Hunt,


and for the last two hours I dug in yesterday’s purchases.

Then there were the hikes: Tuesday with the Ecolit class into Poly Canyon, Wednesday with the Cal Poly Land class, guided by geologist Scott Johnson


the light and the green overwhelming after Tuesday’s rain.  Up to Felsman Loop on Bishops Peak with Lucas before his nap on Thursday, and up on the ridge between Los Osos Valley and Clark valley on Good Friday afternoon, botanizing with Matt, Hunter, Jen and Bridey,


And yesterday into Froom Canyon with Jan.


The force of April, that pierces “the draught of March… to the roote”and “through the green fuse drives the flower”  drives me like lust to dig in the dirt and wander the earth.  Writing down this  desire is as old as poetry, which I rediscover like Spring with students as we read Solomon and Vergil and Marlow and Shakespeare, and as we listen to the raunchy flute and entwining voices of sixteenth century airs.