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places with baby

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through the window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

–Victor Frankl

Image credit: Cherry blossom with plane. Chris Steele-Perkins, 2001
Two-tailed swallowtail

Caterpillars are plenty good at what they do. It’s not hard to imagine a mature caterpillar eating leaves through the summer, laying a bunch of eggs that will turn into more caterpillars, and when autumn comes, calling that a life.

In other words, it would be easy for caterpillars to “quit while they’re ahead.” But they don’t. Instead of reproducing, a day comes when the successful caterpillar– a rubbery, shuffling, sixteen-legged worm– sheds its skin and turns into an enigmatic container. A Russian nesting doll, to open and emerge through time.

Inside the caterpillar’s chrysalis there is no caterpillar. Digestive enzymes flood the interior, annihilating the structures of the caterpillar, and almost nothing survives. Nothing, that is, except a number of “imaginal discs.” These are essentially seeds, seeds of organs which the caterpillar unwittingly carried around, oblivious to the fact that they would one day take over. It’s not terribly different from the insects that are hijacked by parasitic wasp eggs, turning into what some writers have called “zombie slaves.” When the caterpillar has fully deliquesced into a protein-rich soup, these seeds are able to grow, and begin arranging the nutrients gathered by the caterpillar into an entirely different type of organism.

It is extremely difficult to explain the life cycle of butterflies, or any other such organism undergoing “full metamorphosis,” in terms of linear evolution. An immobile chrysalis is subject to new dangers than a caterpillar is; it requires new strategies and energy expenditures. The creature that emerges is more vulnerable yet. Each phase change adds exponents of vulnerabilities. How could such blind leaps of anatomical development have ever made any single caterpillar more likely to survive?

This we know: because there are butterflies, instead of insects that are born and die as caterpillars, flowers get pollinated. Diverse biomes of flower-filled prairies, meadows, and forests came into being. For fulfilling this role, butterflies resemble salmon. Salmon, which self-destruct after breeding, sacrificing their muscular bodies to the place they were born. Even if a redd requires only a few miles of swimming upstream (compared to other spawning beds, to which salmon travel over a thousand miles upstream without eating), after salmon breed they will remain there, treading water until they rot into pieces. All kinds of aquatic animals, aerial animals, and even terrestrial plants benefit. The faraway ocean gives back to the headwater stream.

It would be even harder to explain the life cycle of butterflies in terms of altruism than it would evolution. Here, then, is one evolutionary theory: at some point in the past, a virus may have transferred genetics from a flying, butterfly-like organism to a crawling, caterpillar-like organism. Both strategies were useful at different times of the season. The hybrid of both survived. Maybe because it helped create a more energy-rich environment, where life in general could flourish.

This, to me, illuminates certain dimensions to the mystery of life. To what extent is natural selection competitive, and to what extent is it cooperative? Sometimes, is it adaptive to limit the power of the individual, to accept some handicap, or die early, or behave irrationally, as this makes that lifeform of service to the broader community of life– the community which in turn sustains the species…?

My soapbox: humans like to believe that we are “self-determining.” We also live in a culture that enshrines competitive selection and personal freedom. How far do we really expect self-interest take us? And what will we do once we get there? (A t-shirt recently observed– in all caps, over a bald eagle patterned with the American flag, “Sorry! I can’t hear you over the sound of my freedom.”) I am one of the skeptics: ours is not an environment that prioritizes life.

Three miles up Cache Creek, a decade of regeneration in the 1988 Clover-Mist burn.

December, 2009
August, 2019

When he knocked on my front door the curtains were open. He could look straight through my house to where I was working in the kitchen, and looking up, I could see him. Nobody can force you to answer the door, but it takes a cold shoulder to refuse a personal contact.

He wanted to know what I thought about the problems of the world. “Can you be more specific,” I asked. I’d been reading about the Holocaust, and otherwise thinking of all the things that, historically, were worse than now. The man looked put on the spot. Speaking in front of others didn’t come naturally to him.

“Oh, you know all the wars, and people not talking to each other respectfully.”

“Hm. Well, I wouldn’t want to oversimplify it. I think it’s very complicated.”

“Have you ever thought it could be Satan,” he asked.

The man was in his late 40s. He wore a black cowboy hat with a band of silver. He had a dark mustache, black leather jacket, black tie, red shirt. Unfortunately for him, he looked the nearly innocuous, slightly theatrical way that I would cast Satan in an indie film. His companion, at least ten years older and much stouter with a mustache of grey, stood two steps down on the sidewalk and seemed desperate to distract himself with something else to look at.

I paused. He continued. Without Satan, it would be heaven on earth–just as it was heaven on earth before Satan. Things will get better, though, it says that in the scripture. And then he said at least one thing that I considered totally daffy: “Without Satan, we would live forever.”

I didn’t invite the men inside. On our respective sides of my threshold, we stood in different worlds. Our words had different meanings. Yet that created no animosity between us. To the contrary, I felt sympathetic. I know people who no sooner shed their religion than they gleefully begin mocking the believers. I’ve never believed and I have no score to settle. I have, however, tried to broach some of the same questions– what I consider the hardest questions– questions of life and disappointment and what you see when you look forward. It can take, I think, uncommon courage. And in this case, that courage was inseparable from a naive tale of infallibility. That these men live in this little town (or even better, one of the rural communities that revolve around this little town), dress like cowboys, sit talking together on Saturday mornings before pushing back their chairs and resolving to hit the streets to reach people who don’t otherwise allow themselves to be reached, all this I admired. Before they left, I was given a brochure (“Who really controls the world?”) and a vague commitment that came with a breath of relief: “Maybe we can come back next week and talk about what you read.” I think they initially pegged me as one of the mockers, and by the end, had no idea what to think.

The brochure is unsubstantial, with portentous watercolors and unconvincing quotations. “It is impossible for God to lie.” I want to tell the men that, when you read other works of fiction, you learn that any time a character tells you something about themselves, you should assume the opposite is true. “I am the light and truth” becomes “I am evasion and fantasy.” I also have no need to lead the men on or try to convince them of something. As far as belief goes, I’m a million miles away; still I can believe in what they’re doing: trying to talk (even if those were all leading questions), offering a sympathetic ear (even if it’s motivated by the salvation of souls, and their own redemption). Even that ‘naive tale of infallibility.’ I’m still trying to imagine what it would look like to go without.

Always more to learn:

Common alpine
Half-moon hairstreak
Edith’s checkerspot
Wood nymph
Phoebus Apollo
Western white
Aphrodite fritillary

“The first problem with making a sound decision in terms of the environment is to figure out what’s worth doing.” –Paul Stern

The last album I listened to before learning that David Berman died was “Starlite Walker,” his first with Silver Jews, 1994. I listen to very little music, but I listen to him often enough, so the coincidence was significant but not freaky. More to the point, I don’t often listen to any music as closely as I did that day. Now his name is a rock in my throat and I hate that he’s gone.

“I just got back from a dream attack/ That took me by surprise/ And in there I met a lady/ And her name was Shady Sides/ And she said/ It’s been evening all day long/ It’s been evening all day long/ And how can something so old/ Be so wrong?/ Sin and gravity/ Drag me down to sleep/ Like trains across the sea/ Trains across the sea…”

In all but the most exceptional songwriting, lyrics pale as text. Do these words contain anything worth elaborating? Sung, they’re the voice of one of our generation’s most gifted spiritual guides: navigator of the modern environment which, for an engaged mind, is impossible to accept– let alone love– at face value.

Berman dazzled with the written word as well as the tune. The first book of poetry I ever bought was his: Actual Air, from 1999. I thought about this the other day, listening to Starlite Walker, not knowing that the singer was dead, had died just one day earlier. We were driving south through the Shields Valley and were almost home again after ten days away. In my mind, that long, high, treeless landscape belongs to Montana’s recent poet laureate Michael Earl Craig (and before him, Ivan Doig) who works its folds as a ferrier. I took instantly to the words of Earl Craig, and while he might not have been directly influenced by Berman, his style belongs to the same lineage, and one prepared me for the other. I was making that connection for the first time.

Now I’m reading Actual Air again and finding so much there. 

“There were no new ways to understand the world,/ only new days to set our understandings against.”

When I write that Berman (passively) died, that’s not entirely accurate. He (actively) killed himself. In reporting the news, some people have written that depression pervades his work. Now this appears irrefutable, but I never read him that way. The corporate architecture on the cover of his book, his rollicking ditty “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed”—these I took to be games played by a mind running circles around an inexhaustible set of conditions. It’s all very bleak, of course—very bleak—but when you’re healthy, and especially when you’re talented and ambitious, that’s a motivator in itself. But as Berman—whose work in his twenties was precocious and prescient—warned on American Water, “People be careful not to crest too soon.”

About five years ago I started checking Berman’s website, “Menthol Mountains.” At that time, there was a sequence of posts each comprised of reams of links to academic articles. The range of subjects was dizzying; the background of the page was (and still is) a delirious mirror world of stock market numbers. It was like looking into a hyperfunctional mind on the fritz.

“Half-hours on earth/ What are they worth/ I don’t know…”

There’s no good way to conclude a eulogy for someone you never knew, or thought you knew only in an anonymous, fandom way. I’ll just say that, in my mind, his early death doesn’t shadow his accomplishments. He will forever be brave; he fought a good fight on a level that most of us will never fathom; he was only one man but he challenged a world that needs to be changed.

Shields Valley, 8/8/2019.
“Get a load of this fucking view/ It’s the best in the west” –David Berman