Walking Back in Time

In December, Rob and I joined 30 or so other folks on a week-long trip to the Galapagos Islands.  We went to several of the “younger islands,” bits of rock whose ages range from 0.7 million years old to 1.5 million.  Those dates reflect the length of time the island’s surface has been above the water line.  Most of the islands were formed by volcanoes, although at least one, Baltra, came to be due to geologic lift.

I came curious as to whether Darwin’s dangerous idea would be obvious still–whether one could get a sense of the forces that shape evolution, sense the power of environmental and ecological pressures to drive natural selection.  And you know what?  I think you can.  Granted, maybe not in a way that stands up to scientifically rigorous review–but you can definitely grok it.

Part of what I saw clearly was the way in which systems become more complex over time.  Or, to put it in the converse, how simple those systems are at the outset.

Here’re a few pictures from Bartolome, one of the youngest of the islands:

Galapagos Islands

If you google Bartolome Island, this is the kind of image you’ll see.  It’s taken from a viewing station pretty high up, and looks out onto a place where there’s vegetation at the edge of an old caldera.  If you come expecting more bursts of green scattered here and there, then the other 99% of the island will come as something of a shock.  Most of it looks like this:

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And this:

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That silvery scrub in the middle picture was the prevailing visible life on the island.  I think we saw one lava lizard.  No birds, no tortoises, no iguana, no feral anything.

Our tour guides said that the astronaut Buzz Aldrin had visited and described this landscape as the closest thing on earth that he’d seen to the moon.

For me, it’s the furthest back that I’ve walked in time.  It became so amazingly clear that this place, except at the water line, lacked a soil rich enough to support many sorts of plants, and therefore also many sorts of critters.  As you can see, there’s very little in the way of an ecosystem here.  And that’s not the case on all the islands.  Some are wildly diverse, as Darwin discovered.  For him, moving from one island to another allowed him to develop ideas about speciation.  For me, it became a chance to wander back and forth through time.

Chris McCaw

In NYC this week for work, and doing a little gallery visiting on the side.  I’ve just discovered Chris McCaw.  He’s been working in this particular style for a while, but I didn’t know about it.  Of course, I love it–he’s dealing with time, the nature of light, the particularities of what cameras and lenses can do, referencing the history of photography.  All at once.  And the pictures themselves are weirdly great.  What’s not to love?!

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Here’s the backstory:  McCaw is interested in recording time, as marked by the movement of the sun, and rendering it with a sense of directness and immediacy.  So, he uses gelatin coated paper AS THE NEGATIVE.  The intensity of the sun literally burns the paper, leaving solarization effects, wacky color shifts, singe marks.

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So so cool.

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His work has got me thinking about Marco Breuer, on the one hand, and Sharon Harper, on the other.  And that’s pretty great, because I’d never before had a sense of connection between those two.  Now, I’m thinking about assorted ways to play six degrees of Kevin Bacon photographically.  Let’s say:  Thomas Joshua Cooper to Mario Testino, ready set go!  (okay, that one might be absurd, but isn’t that part of the fun??)

Morning Star

Venus has been illuminating my mornings this past month.  I’m not crazy about being up in the wee-est of wee hours, but insomnia is certainly made more pleasant by watching the arc that planet traces.  From my pillow, I spy the first gleam at the horizon seemingly due east, and watch her rise and shift, upward and to the southeast, reaching high in the night sky before being obscured by dawn’s broader light.

Morning stars are no doubt an ordinary miracle to folks who pay better attention to the sky than I.  But when it comes to careful late-night looking, I’m a newbie.  My sense of the sky has been shaped almost entirely by scout camp and Greek mythology, rather than by astronomical knowledge.

Which may be why watching Venus has me so undone.  Night after night, from the safety of my bed, I feel myself hurtling east, racing toward the next day.  Venus shines like a brilliant nun or can, bright against the dark sea of sky, helping me gauge how far I’ve travelled.  Charting her progress, I know what I nearly always forget:  that I’m the one who is dashing, scrambling, hurtling through space, rotating 500 miles/hr most days, and spinning 3,000 mph more.  In the time it takes for Venus to disappear from view, I’ve traversed 5,000 miles or more.

And in that dizzying dash, I find I’ve also left behind one of the most hallowed myths of America.  No more “go west, young man,” for me.  Nope.  I understand now that the future’s not there.  It’s to the east, a faint orange glow pierced by Venus’s unequivocal promise:  tomorrow is nigh.

Summer Work

So if you’ve followed this blog since its inception, a scant seven months ago, then you know my husband and I had been planning to move on or about Solstice.  Well, we are finally in!  Not quite settled, but the ratio of cardboard boxes to visible floor is definitely heading in the right direction.

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Far more importantly, though, I started the garden this spring at the new house.  Fortunately, the new house is just a mile and a half from the old house, so it wasn’t too hard to maintain during the ten weeks between first seeds and the actual move date.  And because this year has been so much better, weather-wise, than last year, I’ve been able to delight in the outdoor work and reap some delicious rewards for it.

Perhaps my favorite crop this year is the wheat. Red, hard, winter.  I’ve never had enough space to grow things like wheat before, but I’ve wanted to be part of a grow-out for a while, so this move was the perfect opportunity.  And it’s beautiful!

Although the wheat still has a ways to go before it becomes the base of bread, a lot of the veggies are harvestable right now, including (at last!) the peas. And we have a ton.  Last January, I ordered golden pea pods and two kinds of shelling peas.  Okay, so I ordered a third kind — a sweet heirloom called Tom Thumb that you grow in pots indoors — but it turns out that cats like those pea shoots, and so we won’t be having any this year. Perhaps in some psychic anticipation of my Tom Thumb debacle-to-come, one of the seed companies kindly sent me several experimental seed varieties, including one of peas.  Naturally, I couldn’t resist planting an experimental mystery.  “Experimental pea 712″ has turned out to be the most tendril-dense variety I’ve ever grown.  Maybe that I’ve ever seen.  And the other varieties did well this year, too, so for the next few weeks, we’ll be devising sundry ways to sneak peas into every meal.

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DSC_0050-e1279397583459-200x300What I’m really struck by today, though, is that much of the work I’ll need to do this week is hot & steamy, not because of the mid-summer mugginess, but rather because it is getting food ready for winter.  Peas may be the platonic ideal of a summer food, but since we have so many and since they are a delight in winter, I’ll be spending some time in the next week steaming and blanching them.   Just as I perused catalogs last January, and dreamt of summer, this week I’ll blanch the peas, so that come winter, we’ll be able to eat them and taste summer.  This time-shifting regarding summer and winter reminds me of a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, in which one of the many narrator’s describes being out of synch with her environment — “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter” (l. 18).

But here’s the thing:  I definitely don’t feel out of synch.  To the contrary, I’m beginning to think that in order to be rooted in this place, tied to the life of the plants that surround us, I need to shift in time just as often as I need to resist the impulse to do so.  I remember learning that one hemisphere of the brain is responsible for enabling you to dwell in the moment, the other to anticipate and to recall.  For a while, I had assumed that being really grounded, being truly in time, meant strictly being in the moment, and that maybe my meditating task was to let an entire hemisphere grow quiet.  Now, though, I am thinking that the peas are telling me something quite different:  that the oscillation between being in the moment and being sensible of the work that needs to be done for another moment is not simply a regrettable by-product of our culture’s pesky commitment to post-industrial capitalism.  Rather, it’s basic — a holdover of our shift to agrarianism, and likely more basic than that — a nascent capacity in our forebears that was reinforced every time someone didn’t have to struggle to secure a good dinner.

Critical Timing; or, Of Fish and Flowering

This past week was one in which the return to life in this corner of the universe was early.  I’m trying super-hard not to panic about such things; maybe it’s just a weather-ish fluctuation.  It has been a beautiful, warm, dry spring — the antithesis of last year’s waterlogged start to summer.  But I can’t help thinking that this balminess is evidence of dire climate change.  But how to know?  I’m trying to pay better attention, hoping that at the very least, doing so will help me get a better sense of what I am and am not seeing.

High on the list of recent seeings were flowers and fish.  Low, unfortunately, were bees.

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We’ve got a Hawthorn tree in our yard that is normally in full flower in the June-teens.  That’s late for Hawthorns in general, but right on schedule for ours and for this area.  This year, in keeping with its nickname, it commenced awesomeness on May 24, was at its peak around May 29/30, and has already noticeably faded.  Folks who’ve glanced at my recent folio, A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees, know that one of the things I most love about this tree is the week when it’s in flower because the bees cannot resist it.  The tree/bee dyad hums for days, a whirring that is visual and auditory as the bees shake free what they need.  But this year, while there were plenty of the teeny flies that also contribute to that stunning event, there were practically no bees.  Maybe the tree was too early for them?  I haven’t seen many yet.  Or maybe a sign of something more serious?

fish-lad-overview-300x200A quite un-dire event that took place Memorial Day weekend was a celebration at the fish ladder in Damariscotta, just a wee bit south of us.  The fish ladder there has been used by alewives to return from the sea to Damariscotta Lake for centuries, at least, in order to spawn.

Over the past few years, local citizens have worked to make it more amenable to their fishy needs — for increased human presence had altered the landscape and waterscape in ways that made it very hard for the fish to get back to their spawning grounds.  The people have spent a tremendous amount of money and effort building a ladder that the fish will be comfortable using.  And their work is paying off.  Twenty times as many fish climbed the ladder this year as did five years ago.  That means more potential spawn, a stronger alewife stock, and all the benefits that come with re-calibrating an ecosystem back toward its more normative state.  Of course, we can’t undo the changes — and this cement and re-bar laden fish ladder is quite unlike earlier versions.  But the generosity of people who opened their backyards to people to see the ladder, and who let the renovations happen there is encouraging to me.

fish-ladder-2-closeup1-245x300Because the fish run had peaked a week earlier, we saw a modest number of fish compared to the zenith, but it was still impressive.  It turns out that the peak didn’t coincide with the fish festival dates because the fish were also early — lured by the warm and sunny conditions this May.  Their early arrival means a different disruption to the system, with consequences we can’t yet fully know.

Since I was six, I’ve been linked to a school — either as a student or a teacher, or sometimes both.  And so for all of my memory, the annual rhythm has been academic, a year that goes from September to December, then January to May, then June to August.  It’s been a reassuring cycle, one largely in accord with other rhythms, most especially the arrival of new freshmen, the departure of graduating seniors, the appreciation by all of the summer hiatus.  Now, paying attention to these shifts that creatures enact in response to the larger forces, I’ve been working to imagine what it would be like to be more fully in accord with the cycles — and the digressions from such fixed rhythms — that shape the physical world.  It might not demand huge adjustments, but I’m guessing that, in fact, it will….