Thursday, August 23, 2018

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

This post title comes from Tennyson's long narrative poem In Memoriam, written over a period of seventeen years in honor of his friend "A H. H." (Arthur Henry Hallam). I've used the line often to describe the general Darwinian state of things in the wild, and to acknowledge the way things work in the world. As when the cat catches a mouse or a bird, or a hawk makes lunch of a squirrel.

But on Saturday, the 18th of this month, it hit much closer to home than usual, and somewhat ironically, when our well-loved cat Emma was killed by what appears to have been one of the local barred owls.  She squirted out the back door, as she often does, early in the morning when I let Arlo out for his constitutional. And then she coyly penned herself under the patio table so that I couldn't easily get her to take her in. So, when Arlo and I went indoors, I left the screen door ajar so that she could get back in when she got hungry. But she never made it.

A bit later, when everyone was up, we went looking for her. Too late. Instead of feeding her breakfast, we had to bury her, and never have I been felt more guilty or been so overwhelmed with sadness about how nature works. I have not, however, felt bitterness toward the owl, precisely because I've spent so many years of my life appreciating the natural world.

I posted a warning on the local neighborhood forum, advising small-pet owners to be vigilant about keeping watch on their "fur people" as many neighbors like to call them. Collin County, where we live in North Texas, is rapidly paving over what used to pass for paradise in this part of the world, costing habitat loss and territorial disturbances for bobcats, coyotes, opossums, raptors, and other native denizens of the prairie. Our town's official motto is "Unique By Nature," which causes many of us to snort ruefully whenever a city official uses it to promote the area. Noise, concrete, and strip malls are replacing the quiet town and open spaces that drew many of us here, and we're all suffering the effects.

In the end, the remaining wild animals have to find sustenance where they may, and sometimes those meals show up conveniently in what otherwise seem like safe havens for the domesticated animals we humans keep as companions. We've often seen the owls swooping from our trees and the top of the house after prey (and heard them courting noisily outside our windows during spring nights); but Emma was not a small cat, and she usually perched on a table under an umbrella, or under the table itself during evening and pre-dawn outings. Although I always kept an eye on her whereabouts when she was out, I became a bit too complacent about potential danger at exactly the wrong time.

Emma came to us later in her life than our previous cats had done.  We were in dire need of a mouser, and her former person was marrying someone who couldn't live with an indoor cat due to allergies, so we took her in. She took a while to adjust to two noisy dogs and living with different people. She was about eleven years old when we got her (about the same as the dogs, actually), and settling in took some time. But she managed to tame the boys enough to allow them all to occupy the same space, and when Woody died, Emma and Arlo settled into a quiet companionship.

As our house became her house, and as she gradually earned the freedom of the back yard, she became the companion cat of my old age. We spent hours in the garden together after I retired, with and without the dog, and in the evenings all four of us would enjoy one another's company as the Beloved Spouse and I relaxed with a glass of wine or beer after long days at the lectern. By the time her male human retired, Emma had become a continuing source of amusement and pleasure.


We will miss her enormously, and am thus grateful that her antics encouraged me to collect hours of video footage, so that I can relive such classic moments as "Emma and the Fireflies" (at least two episodes), and "Emma and the Great Mouse Hunt," and "Emma and the Flying Mouse." I took video of her rolling on one of the back patios a couple of weeks ago, just because it was cute. She certainly seemed to enjoy her life, and both my daughter and Emma's former "mom" describe her situation here as "cat utopia."

As stricken as I've been by her death, I also quickly realized that at my age I can't really spend as much time mourning as some folks might consider seemly. I decided to adopt sooner rather than later, and the story of that experience will follow soon. The effort is still in process, and I'm hoping for a completely happy ending before I describe it for all two or three of you who still read this blog.

In the meantime, I'm going to spend some time reading what Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about both ageing and her cat Pard (who is a black and white Tuxedo; Emma was the first grey one I'd seen except for the one on Carl Lawson's Daydreams poster, which hangs in the stairwell outside our bedroom) in No Time To Spare. I miss both her and Emma, and my world is poorer for their loss.

Image notes: Until this summer, Emma's favorite morning perch was the railing on the front porch. I used this photo on the neighborhood forum when she spent most of a day away from home--one of only two occasions she ever left the yard. The second photo, of Arlo and Emma last autumn in the back yard, illustrates a pretty typical moment between the two of them. The metal lawn chairs, which came from my grandmother's back yard, have since been repainted. Emma also liked to perch near where mice were known to come and go, and she's probably eyeing one here. The final shot shows her in a typical expository pose.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Y'all Gonna Be Here When I Wake Up?

While negotiating my monthly deluge of digital magazines around the cusp of the month, I often save the quarterly Smith Journal to read when I've got time to savor it at leisure. One of those literate compendia of oddities to which I'm mildly addicted (like Cabinet), it comes less frequently than the monthlies--and even less so than The New Yorker, which I now get weekly--and thus requires slow perusal.

I quickly noticed (perhaps because I'm lately attuned to such things) the abundance of articles about dead stuff in this issue. There's so much of it, that a disclaimer of sorts appears on the editorial page:
You could chalk it up to living through these 'uncertain times'--the political turmoil, the 24-hour news cycle, the unseasonable weather harbinging certain environmental collapse. But flicking through the ink-smudged proofs as we corral this thing into something approximating a magazine, I don't think that's quite it. Death, as the platitudes tell us, is an integral part of life; the other side of a coin tossed in the air. Coming to some kind of terms with the fact that we're all headed for the grave seems like a good use of our time on this side of the soil.
Indeed. Just last week I was awaiting my latest flirtation with (I hoped) temporary oblivion (general anesthesia), the single scariest event I've faced since the last time I was under the knife nine years ago. This time it was to correct an artefact of the last one, experienced about a year later when I tripped on a garden hose and landed flat on my torso, tearing a small hole in the incision from the valve job. Said tear gradually grew larger over the ensuing years until my GP's PA, my cardio guy, and my swell new surgeon all decided it was time to repair it. So last Wednesday I underwent robotic surgery to do a bit of boro work on my gut.

The Robot's name was Da Vinci. My surgeon, unlike my art history students, was until recently unaware that Leonardo was the artist's use-name. Da Vinci really means "bastard son of a guy from Vinci," which I never tire of telling anyone who will listen, including my rather affable young anaesthesiologist. (When she came in to meet me, I blurted out, "A chick anaesthesiologist! How very cool!")

In the run-up to the surgery, which required a CT scan (of which I now own a CD copy of the images--although not as nicely colored as the illustration above), I had plenty of time for musing about the eventual outcome. My main concern was that I am totally unprepared, from both a legal perspective (no will, no advance directive) and in the sense of what the Swedes call "death cleaning." A few months ago I bought the Kindle version of Margareta Magnusson's The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, in hopes that it would give me some strategies for getting things sorted out now that we've got time for sorting. I don't really want to de-clutter so much as to catalogue, since one woman's clutter is another's Owls Head. But I do want to get a handle on the collections (inspired by the likes of Joseph Cornell, Rosamond Purcell, and Sibella Court), although I'm not sure if I'll get around to doing anything with them except arranging small, artfully-contrived museum exhibits around the house.

Small tremors of terror began to well up into my psyche to the tune of "what if I die under the robotic knife and I leave all this shit for Esther and Ethan and Rod to clean up?"

Instead of actually doing anything about it, though, I took the time to chill out, sit back, and update my Pinterest boards--which are a visual version of my garage (only much tidier and much, much prettier).

In the end, however, I did not die (at least I haven't yet). I did repeat the question I stole from Mal Reynolds in the "Out of Gas" episode of Firefly, to the amusement of no one but by daughter and my husband, and which provides the title for this post. Back in 2009, as I was being wheeled in for valve replacement surgery, I said the very same thing to them, although more spontaneously. Only that time, the nurse who was taking care of me was a Firefly fan and knew the dialogue every bit as well as we did. The last thing I remember as I lost consciousness was the bed's shaking with her laughter as she guided me down the hallway.

My jokes are all old and well worn, even if they have found fresh audiences. I shouldn't have to dig them up again. Documentation and cataloguing of the archives is still to be done, however, and now I won't be able to put it off once the healing is finished. That may take a bit, because although my plumbing seems to be working again, I'm sore and tired and every now and then feel like somebody's going at me with a hot poker. I've got to wear an abdominal binder for a few weeks, and I won't be able to do the full range of Qigong practices I'd followed faithfully during the last three months for at least another three.

The good news is that by week 4 (according to a vast cache of online literature about healing from ventral hernia repair) I should be able to play tennis.

Which will make my Beloved Spouse happy indeed, since I never could before.


Image credit: The arterial figure, shown frontally with the internal organs indicated in opaque watercolours. An undated and unsigned copy, probably 15th or early 16th-century. Tashrīḥ-i badan-i insān (MS P 19) (The Anatomy of the Human Body)
تشريح بدن انسان by Manṣūr ibn Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Yūsuf Ibn Ilyās (fl. ca. 1390). MS P 19, fol. 18a. Image at NLM. Available through a Creative Commons license at the Brooklyn College Library.

Note: This is another bit of an art history joke. I used to amuse my students with illuminated manuscripts featuring odd drawings and drolleries of all types. Some of my favorite were from a genre I called "anatomical squats," used to illustrate innumerable ailments in Medieval Arabic medical MSS.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day 2018: Doing More, And Less

Volunteer wild gladioli, the bee bath, and a broken pot as a snake refuge
Every year I try to post on Earth Day and reflect on what we've been doing to try to improve the state of the planet on a very local level. And I always wonder if we'll ever do anything really significant.

Some concerned folk may wonder how much more we can do to lower our carbon footprints and help change things, especially given the current political climate. So far I'm really doing all I have the psychic energy for, even though it's still not nearly enough.  And since much of the news just seems to get worse, one really does tend to wonder if small gestures can help at all.

Despite all my grousing on this platform, though, I really do think they can. And, as the years go by, I seem to be noticing that more people are tuning in, becoming aware of at least some of the problems. Even the local barbecue joint has started sourcing their meat from sustainable and humane farms, and packaging their takeout food in compressed cardboard and paper: not bad for a Texas-grown business that prides itself on maintaining tradition.

In the news this week is plastic. This is to some extent because the Earth Day people are focusing on eliminating plastic pollution as the central theme this year. It's actually difficult to remember a world before plastic became a problem. Once upon a time it was tin cans and paper on the roadway that got folks riled up about messing with Texas and got the anti-litter campaigns started. Some of us may recall the famous scene in The Graduate, where Mr. McGuire pulls Benjamin aside and offers him one word of advice ("Plastics!"), which then sounded preposterous. Really? Plastics were the future? (Thought she who wanted a Greek-patterned set of Melmac as a wedding gift in 1968. And probably a set of Tupperware, too.) But those were the days before ubiquitous plastic packaging, bubble wrap, blister packs, and bottled water.

Throwaway plastics have become the symbol of an impending dystopic future. Shredded plastic bags float out from shrubs, trees, and fences along highways, and blow about like sad, limp balloons through the air; plastic water bottles show up everywhere (including along my back fence, where people who walk through the alley behind the house toss them); and gyres of plastic garbage the size of islands collect in the oceans. David Mastio of USA Today (apparently I wasn't the only one to connect The Graduate scene to this topic) and several science-related organizations blame this on Asian countries and untidy fishermen; Mastio suggests that we not feel guilty about our part in the mess and points out that a large proportions of medical advances have been facilitated by plastics. But those aren't the plastics that get tossed into rivers, streams, and oceans. And I've seen enough gulls flying around over landfills to know that we do indeed have something to do with the presence of plastic trash in the oceans.

So there's plenty of guilt to go around. It's not just fishing buoys and lines and tsunami-transported trash that fill the piles. A trip to the local park pond indicates that people still think nothing of tossing their plastic food containers when they're finished with them, or stuffing them haphazardly into open trash bins that allow the ultra light-weight containers to blow about or get scattered by foraging wildlife. It shouldn't be that difficult for us to stop buying water in plastic bottles.  We could also boycott polystyrene cups and give up plastic straws.

For some time now, efforts to upcycle plastic bags and bottles have produced reusable tote bags with store logos on them. But just the other day I stopped in at a grocery store I used to frequent (before the appearance of Trader Joe's in the neighborhood). The clerk was amazed by my recycled-plastic-water-bottle wine bag, and by the fact that everything I bought besides wine fit into two canvas totes. The guy behind me bought about ten (doubled) plastic bags worth of food and other stuff, so it's clear that not everyone's a convert.  But it's really easy to avoid some of the plastic crap by using alternatives: mesh bags for produce, stainless steel water bottles, glass and ceramic fridge and freezer storage containers.

Locating alternatives to plastics has become a minor obsession in this family. With the exception of storage containers for the garage and closets to keep out mice and silverfish (nothing else seems to work), we try really hard to avoid bringing any plastics home. The apparently unavoidable ketchup bottle or yogurt tub goes into the recycle bin. But I could even remedy this necessity by making my own ketchup and yogurt, or buying Bulgarian yogurt in glass jars; at some point I probably will. And we have managed to reduce the setting out of blue recycle bins to once or twice a month, and the big green trash bins to less than once a month.  Mostly what gets recycled now is paper and wine bottles, a we've been trying not to accumulate much throwaway trash at all. If we could get Costco to stop over-packaging so many of the staples we buy, we might be able to become like those folks whose monthly non-recyclable debris can fit in a mayonnaise jar.

The reduction in trash goes hand in hand with a reduction in buying. This has engendered a bit of a political labeling paradox in our house. We're not particularly progressive, since we're not all that fond of progress for its own sake (except in social equality and fairness), and I've become especially conservative when it comes to my innate materialism. I still buy stuff, but--except for food--it's mostly "pre-owned." Or when it's new, like the big quilt I bought yesterday, it's to make something old last longer--like the chair I bought the quilt to cover. Were I a better person, I'd have used my stash of old fabrics to make a quilt, but I still haven't managed to learn to manage my time better. The quilt-making will follow planned mending of existing quilts and blankets, and cushion recovering, and the repurposing of various objects to use in the garden.

Our best effort this year has been to eliminate food waste. The smaller fridge has been wonderful for keeping us both aware of what needs using up, and we've had little except pits, skins, seeds, and coffee grounds to pitch into the compost bin. Even the skins and coffee grounds we often use for augmenting garden plantings. In the last year, only one or two things in the fridge have gone off before they were eaten, and at some point I'm wondering where our compost is going to come from, since we mulch our grass and rake leaves into litter piles to make soil.

The big purge will come this summer, when we rid the garage of what we've been stuffing in there so as not to feel like hoarders in the house. What can be recycled or repurposed will be, and as much as possible of we can't use or don't want will be donated. The plan is to eliminate what we don't use and to use the space for more creative endeavors. Beloved Spouse wants to learn about Japanese joinery and accomplish his own repairs on the house, and I want to get back to painting and potting (both plants and ceramics).  And so, perhaps, by the next Earth Day, we'll have found more, and more effective, ways of lightening our footprints, carbon and otherwise.

For anyone who's still trying to figure out where to start, the New York Times is featuring a good series on "A Year of Living Better," with sound advice on How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. The Earth Day network site has a nifty calculator for determining how much plastic you consume, and I'm going to use it to increase our own awareness.

And in case you need reminding about who really got this whole effort started, look back at Rachel Carson's three-part series for the New Yorker, "Silent Spring," which began running in the June 16, 1962 issue.

Happy Earth Day, Folks. We've spent a good chunk of the day working in the garden, fixing things, tidying up, and hanging out with the animal people. So far it's been a good day, and I wish the same to you.

Image information: The bees have taken over the old copper birdbath, and are busy swarming amongst the voluptuous blossoms on the wild gladiolus volunteers that increase yearly. They started out as "found" plants under a shrub, and I've just let them take over. We're working on building habitat for pollinators, including solitary bees, bumble bees, and butterflies. Some mornings are just glorious in the garden.