I am no fan of perfection. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having standards, but when you define your standard as “perfection,” I think you run into trouble. One problem with “perfection” is that this concept is often presented as an attainable condition. It puts the idea into our little monkey brains that at some discernable point in the future, with a lot of effort, our lives will no longer be messy and confusing.
Take gravestones, for example. This week was the anniversary of the death of my grandfather. I marked the event with a walk through Westport Cemetery. My grandfather doesn’t have a gravestone. When he died, his ashes were scattered over a pond just south of the Hershey plant. So were his wife’s. So were his son’s. When I was younger, on the anniversary of his death, I would get profoundly sad because there was no gravestone to put flowers on. But as I walked through this cemetery, I changed my mind.
Cemeteries are the epitome of “perfection.” They are orderly. There are square family plots marked off from their neighbors, complete with cement curbs. Each family plot is divided into rectangles for graves. Each grave is marked with a standardized marker and contains a rectangular coffin. It’s a methodical grid of boxes within boxes, zones within zones - gated communities for the afterlife. Or cubicles of the damned. Either way.
Most of the plots at Westport are arranged around a married couple. Often, there is a monolith in the middle of the gravesite with a family name on it, flanked by two individual gravestones for the patriarch and matriarch, then perhaps some smaller markers for the progeny.
On many of the markers, time has worn away the names of individuals and has left behind only the familial role each had played in life: Husband. Wife. Son. Daughter.
Cemeteries are not for the dead; they are to comfort the living. Thus, I find this arrangement telling. People visiting here want to believe that Husband and Wife are there in the ground, resting together for eternity in a state of harmonious perfection.
As I was leaving the cemetery, a dapper raven landed nearby. It was because of him that I saw the hidden grave marker of two young "lovers" that I had overlooked before. Make of that what you will.
First, Master Raven was compelled to sing and dance for Alma, who had died in 1907 when she was 41.
Then, it was a melancholy little tune for the Jankowskis over by the fence.
When he was done with his ritual, he flew away, and I walked along the fence to go back to the car. That’s when I found this gravestone that I’d overlooked before.
When I saw the gravestone for the Native American remains, I wondered at the logic behind interring Native American bones side-by-side with the bones of the very people who displaced the Native Americans in the first place. I was particularly struck by the inscription on the gravestone. It reads, NATIVE AMERICAN REMAINS (MALE & FEMALE) Reburied on Jan. 31, 2004. By emphasizing that the remains are male and female, I couldn’t help but think that this was meant to mirror the picture-perfect Husband - Wife arrangement of the rest of the cemetery. Never mind that these two Native American individuals probably didn’t even know each other - the living felt that they deserved to rest here in harmonious perfection right alongside the everlasting remains of Husband and Wife.
Humans are imperfect. We lie and are often cowards. We cheat and hurt the ones we love. All the time. And we fail. Constantly. My grandfather was about as far from perfect as you can get. He was a hard drinker. He smoked a lot of cigarettes, too, and sometimes he wasn’t very nice to horses. He wasn’t a good father to his children even though he adored them, and I have reason to believe that he wasn’t always faithful to his wife even though he clearly loved her with devotion. Yet I loved this far-from-perfect human as much as it’s possible for one human being to love another. Because if you refuse to love any human who is imperfect, then you will never love. And if you expect love itself to be perfect, then you’re in for a huge disappointment. Love is a painful, chaotic, complicated thing. It is merciless. It comes in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, and it’s rarely predictable. It is fond of ambush, and there is no earthly way that Husband and Wife got out of it unscathed, regardless of how romantic their entombment might appear to those of us who remain behind.
I used to take comfort in the thought that when I died, my ashes could be scattered over the pond where my grandfather’s ashes were scattered. Today the pond has been cemented over, and an industrial complex has been built up in its place. You know, the sort of establishment where you can rent forklifts and storage units. Fortunately, in my maturity, I have come to realize that there might be better places on earth to scatter my meager remains than in the shadow of the old Hershey plant. And now, I’m very glad there isn’t a gravestone out there that implies that my grandfather was something other than what he was. I think the gravestone of Husband and Wife should read like this:
Here rests Husband and Wife.
She was a notorious flirt.
He had a gambling problem.
But they loved and were loved anyway.
The yin and yang of collinsia heterophylla.
Purple Chinese houses
Standing in a row,
Centers bright aglow,
Ordered high to low.
Purple Chinese houses.
Dancing in the breeze,
Waving at the trees,
Flirting with the bees.
Now, if I do say so myself, this would have been a pretty neat post all on its own, without any further comment from me. Problem is, the photo doesn’t depict collinsia heterophylla. It’s a beauty, but it’s no blue-eyed Mary. Nor is it purple Chinese houses.
I know this because I follow an exceptional NorCal blog called Redheaded Blackbelt, and Kym over there has been photographing real, actual collinsia heterophylla. In fact, her photographs inspired this post, which I had intended to put up yesterday. Instead, when I reviewed the photos over at her place, I realized that I didn’t have the same flower. So I went with my post on Why The Gulf Is Oil instead.
Imagine my surprise to discover this morning that the Redheaded Blackbelt herself had linked to my blog as one that she thought was kind of nifty.
Well, I think that’s nifty. Thanks for the shout-out, Kym.
Incidentally, in the time between now and whenever someone out there is able to identify the flower in my photo, I’m going to call this beauty a blue-haired Jenny. Take that, blue-eyed Mary!
The Norse have a fairy tale called Why The Sea Is Salt which is about a magic mill that can grind out anything its master desires. (The Koreans have a similar legend.) In the Norse tale, the mill switches from master to master, grinding out chaos as much as it grinds out riches. Sort of like a Norwegian version of a shriveled, cursed monkey paw. Above is an old etching from the fairy tale. It depicts the deal that the original owner of the mill made with the devil in exchange for the mill, which is behind the door. I think the dude trades a ham for it. Anyway, here’s what happens - straight from the mouths of Peter C. Asbjornsen and Jorgen E. Moe, Andrew Lang Collection. (There are some umlauts in there, but I don’t know how to do umlauts. I don’t even know how to spell it. Umluats, that is. Not it. It, I have dialed.)
After a long, long time there came a skipper who wished to see the mill. He asked if it could make salt. “Yes, it can make salt,” said he who owned it, and when the skipper heard that, he wished with all his might and main to have the mill, no matter what it cost. He thought that if he had it he would not have to sail far away over the perilous sea for his cargo of salt. At first, the owner would not hear of parting with the mill, but the skipper begged and prayed, and at last the man sold it to him for many, many thousands. When the skipper had the mill he did not stay long, for he was afraid the man would change his mind, and he had no time to ask how he was to stop it grinding, but went on board his ship as fast as he could.
When he had gone a little way out to sea he took the mill on deck. “Grind salt, and grind both quickly and well,” said the skipper.
So the mill began to grind salt, till it spouted out like water, and when the skipper had the ship filled he wanted to stop the mill, but whichsoever way he turned it, and howsoever he tried, it went on grinding, and the heap of salt grew higher and higher, until at last the ship sank.
There lies the mill at the bottom of the sea, and still, day by day, it grinds on: and that is why the sea is salt.
Or the gulf is oil. That's what happens when you make a deal with the devil. Just sayin.
An osprey overlooking his fishing grounds at the mouth of Big River. Yellow eyes, banded face, six-foot wingspan, talons like a Klingon Bat'leth... Isn’t he handsome? In medieval times, people believed that the osprey was such a formidable hunter, that the fish in the sea would turn belly-up and surrender when he flew overhead. I can see why.
From Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Act 4, Scene 5:
I think he'll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.
Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to notice the osprey’s astounding skills as a fisher and a hunter. In Bolivia, certain tribes ritualistically implant osprey bones under their skin in order to imbue themselves with the osprey’s hunting and fishing prowess.
In fact, the osprey is built for fishing, complete with talons uniquely adapted to this task. Consider this amazing shot by wildlife photographer Graham Owen:
Not only is the talon’s surface rough for a better grip, but the osprey’s toes are “double jointed” in a way that sets it apart from all other raptors. Most raptors can only hold their prey with three of their toes forward, and their one “opposable” toe back. Conversely, all of the osprey’s toes are “opposable” - the osprey can move or arrange his talons in whichever way best suits his fishing. The only other bird that can do this with its talons is the owl. This toe arrangement also allows the osprey to fly through the air with a fish positioned in his talons “head first” – allowing the fish to behave like a rudder in-flight. Glaven.
Ospreys nest according to convenience, and man-made perches are just as sweet as natural ones sometimes. Harbor buoys, channel markers, chimneys, telephone poles, cell-phone towers... It doesn’t matter to the osprey. Same with nesting materials. Sticks and branches, to be sure. But also fishing nets and bicycle tires.
The above photo by Eva Casey is of an osprey nesting on a sign in the Florida Everglades. A nest is typically maintained and enhanced year after year by the same pair of birds. Not that they mate for life; ospreys will separate after the mating season and go their respective ways for migration. But the same two tend to gravitate back to the same nest, year after year, giving them a reputation for familial fidelity.
Which is perhaps why, according to Greek myth, it's an osprey who enacts revenge on the princess Scylla when she "betrays" her father. There are lots of different representations of Scylla, but I’m telling her story like this: Scylla, the princess of Megara, is offered a gold necklace by King Minos of Crete if she'll help him betray and kill her father, Nisus. King Nisus of Megara has a lock of purple hair on his head that grants him invincibility in battle. Minos convinces Scylla to cut this lock of hair from her father’s head so that Minos may take over the city - which Scylla does, not for the necklace, but because she has fallen in love with Minos. However, once Scylla cuts the lock of purple hair and has it delivered to Minos - thereby allowing Minos to sack the city and kill Scylla’s father - Minos decides that he is disgusted by Scylla’s lack of familial fidelity, and he sails away on his boat, leaving the princess crying on the shore. Scylla, despondent, swims out after Minos’ boat. However, the gods have turned Scylla’s father into an osprey, and the giant raptor flies out over the sea and attacks and drowns Scylla. According to some versions of the myth, Scylla then turns into a horrible sea monster.
First, had I known that purple hair gives you immortality, I might have chosen that color for my hair over blue. Not necessarily, though. Immortality doesn’t exactly come problem-free. Second, I can only guess what Scylla’s father did to her to make her want to sell out so quickly to a jackass like Minos. I mean, that guy’s a douche of the first order. Here’s a man who uses his wealth and power to seduce a young, gullible girl - and even gets her to betray her father’s kingdom. Then, once she has thoroughly succumbed to his charms, he dumps her for being too disloyal to the people he had previously convinced her to betray. Then he stands by while an osprey drowns her. Serious douche. The sea monster part is cool, though.
Some osprey nests - which can weigh half-a-ton and can be very difficult to build - have been in use for decades. That we know of. Since ospreys only live up to 25 years, this means that generations of ospreys inherit and use the same nest, possibly giving the impression that ospreys are immortal. This is perhaps why the quality of immortality is seen in tandem with ospreys in all kinds of legends. Not only is King Nisus’ immortality returned to him by an osprey, but in William Butler Yeats' epic poem, The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), Yeats chooses an osprey to represent the immortal character of Sorrow. The poem follows the exploits of the mythic warrior, Oisin. According to legend, the incomparably-handsome Oisin was a great fighter, an even better lover, and the best poet of all time. Upon reading some of Oisin’s poetry, the fairy princess Niamh fell madly in love with him and persuaded him to join her in the immortal islands where they would forever hunt, dance, and feast.
Niamh, trying to convince Oisin to remain with her on the immortal islands:
But never, never on our graves,
Heaped beside the glimmering waves,
Shall fall the leaves of damask roses.
For neither Death nor Change comes near us,
And all listless hours fear us,
And we fear no dawning morrow,
Nor the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.
Oisin joined Niamh in the immortal islands, and they had hundreds of years of bliss. However, one day, Oisin was walking along the shore and found a spear, which made him long for his warrior comrades back in the land of the living. Niamh lent him her enchanted horse so that he could go back to visit the world of mortals, but she warned him that he could not dismount and touch the earth or else he would return to mortality himself. Once back in the land of the living, Oisin, still a young man, found his warrior companions dead, his old home in ruins, and the beloved pagan faith of Ireland displaced by the harsh and unforgiving Christianity of St. Patrick.
Niamh warned him:
Shake loose the reins: you slaves of God.
He rules you with an iron rod,
He holds you with an iron bond,
Each one woven to the other,
Each one woven to his brother
Like bubbles in a frozen pond;
But we in a lonely land abide
Unchainable as the dim tide,
With hearts that know nor law nor rule,
And hands that hold no wearisome tool,
Folded in love that fears no morrow,
Nor the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.
Saddened by the loss of the old religion to the new, Oisin decides to return to Niamh, but on his way back he stops to help some men lift a bag of sand into a wagon. As he bends over from the back of his horse to help, the saddle girth breaks and he falls to the ground, becoming a three-hundred-year-old pile of dust in an instant.
See. I told you that immortality comes with its own set of problems. The moral here is, as with ospreys to fish, there's always a catch.
Have a cat?
I hadn't thought
Jonny's comment on my last post made me think about the politics of hostage-taking among mice, although he neglected to elaborate on how the cat factored into things:
"Oh, the torment of capture, always wondering if the Mice will trade human prisoners or, as in this case, political favors."
Careful, Lucky Mouse. The cat is an unknown, as are his aspirations, political or otherwise. I suggest blackmail.
I think I know how she feels. Or at least, I think I know how she feels up until this moment. At this moment, she feels the exhilarating rush of escaping her doom, which is a feeling I can only wish for. But her feelings up until this moment... Well...
This is a benevolent mouse trap, comparatively speaking. It’s not a snap trap or a glue trap; it’s a humane trap – the catch and release kind. But it doesn’t matter to the mouse in terms of her panic. This little mouse, terrified and damned as she undoubtedly feels, could have it a lot worse. But how could she know? How could she know that, in mere hours, her cell door will be unlocked by some unseen force which - instead of killing her - will set her free? The glare of the flashlight and the jostling of the trap in my pocket as I walked down the hill must have seemed like mouse Armageddon to her, and as she simultaneously nibbled the bait and defecated in panic, she must have felt certain that her fate was at hand.
How to know? When every sign points to disaster of the highest order, how does the mouse have any confidence that it will all work out in the end? In this instance, the Matrix is benign. But is it always benign? Or is the Matrix indifferent? This time, the mouse gets a fresh start down the hill over at Barbara and Matt’s place. Because I don’t like Barbara and Matt, and if anyone deserves to be harassed by a mouse that’s too clever by half, it’s them. But the Matrix doesn’t always hate Barbara and Matt. Sometimes it hates the mouse more. And it's impossible to know which it's going to be. Which is unbearable. Lucky mouse. This time.
I was out on the Mendocino headlands, and I took some pictures of this gopher who was pulling dandelion leaves down into his hole.
It’s hard to imagine the degree of havoc these tiny little creatures wreak, but it’s fair to say that the cliffs along the entire coast of California would have had a far different topography if gophers hadn’t been around. Carl Spackler gets it.
Oh, yes. They're cute...
... But Spackler understands that no matter how cute these varmints are, varmints are varmints. And the only good varmint is a dead varmint, I think. Ironic, considering Spackler’s destiny with Nirvana...
"So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, 'Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.' And he says, 'Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.' So I got that goin' for me. Which is nice."
And down he goes.
“In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher.'”
And up he comes again.
“I have to laugh, because I've out-finessed even myself. My enemy, my foe, is an animal. In order to conquer the animal, I have to learn to think like an animal. And, whenever possible, to look like one.”
Spackler has the look-like-an-animal part of this equation dialed. But I'm not so sure he has a good grasp on thinking like a gopher. I mean, gophers have a deeply-complex psychology, but I don't think they fantasize about winning the Master's...
So I'm thinking that maybe Spackler should just let that gopher play through.
Happy father's day to all of you dads out there. My wish for you is that none of your children turn out like Spaulding Smails.
I like feeling small. The depth of the Pacific or a big sky filled with stars or a giant redwood... The internet... These things make me feel insignificant, and that’s just fine. There’s something comforting to me about understanding first-hand my relative puniness compared to the vastness of the universe. I like the perspective.
Perspective is one of the main reasons I like this piece by Carl Sagan:
I have often wondered the same thing. Images like the one below of the Cone Nebula from the Hubble Telescope show us corners of space too vast and distant for our monkey brains to even begin to grasp...
Yet these images from the outlying ends of the universe look remarkably like Lennart Nilsson's photographs of the inside of the human body. Take the one below - a child's aortic arch.
So the inside of the human body looks like outer space. Or outer space looks like the inside of the human body. Many of us know that there’s a lot of unidentifiable “dark matter” out there in space, but few of us realize that the molecules that make up our corporeal selves are themselves made up of vast quantities of unidentified nothingness - the vast amounts of space that exist between the electrons whirling in orbits around protons. Humans, too, are mostly “dark matter.” We are made up of a million solar systems along with all of the vast, lonely space in between.
Just as the universe can have no end in bigness, smallness is just as unlimited. Those protons and neutrons are made of something smaller still, and so on into infinity. Which makes it easy for me to imagine that everything is a potential host to countless universes - universes who may or may not be aware that their very existence hangs on the whims of our existence. And our existence, in turn, hangs on the whim of something that may or may not be aware of us.
I was out jogging on the beach, and as I ran over the piles of kelp, I stirred up flies. Three barn swallows followed me on my jog, swooping to within inches of my legs to hunt the flies, scooping up the bounty of food created by my run. I was happy for the swallows, and the swallows were clearly happy for themselves. I was even happy to be responsible for stirring up the meal.
When the original domestic homesteads around here fell into ruin, their rosebushes survived and went feral. You find them here and there among the redwoods, continuing their unlikely domestic existence in their wild surroundings. In the sixties, Karma Issacson must have harvested a cutting of one of these original rosebushes and planted it next to her hippie cabin - the one I live in now, and the one that Karma built by hand from the ground up with salvaged redwood.
James Joyce gives Molly Bloom a song to sing about a lost lover from her youth:
Shall I wear a white rose, shall I wear a red?
Will he look for garlands? What shall wreathe my head?
Will a riband charm him fair upon my breast?
Scarce I can remember how he loves me best.
Shall I wear a white rose, shall I wear a red?
Will he look for garlands? What shall wreathe my head?
Karma's rose bush was in severe decline when I moved in. According to my landlord, it hadn't bloomed for many, many years.
Molly Bloom sings:
I must look my fairest when tomorrow's here;
He will come to claim me! Shall I still be dear?
I must look my brightest on that happy day,
As his fancy drew me when so far away,
When so far away.
I don't know why this rosebush decided to bloom this summer after all of these years, but I'm glad it did. Today I live in the place where Karma spent her youth, and here I spend what remains of my own.
Molly Bloom sings:
I shall need no roses if his heart be true
Not a single wreathlet, red or white or blue.
In tomorrow's twilight, when my soul's at rest,
Then I need not ask him how he loves me best.
Shall I wear a white rose, shall I wear a red?
Will he look for garlands? What shall wreathe my head?
From "Shall I Wear A White Rose?"
James Joyce closes Ulysses with one of the most famous soliloquies of all time. He gives this profound moment to Molly Bloom:
"...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. "
May Karma's rosebush keep blooming. Happy Bloomsday.
I don’t know what kind of snail this is. I asked one of my neighbors what they were called, and she said, “Escargot.”
One of the most fascinating things about these snails is that they have a symbiotic relationship with these miniscule little spiders who build webs around the shells of the snail.
I would rather be a spider than a snail, generally speaking. But I'm uncertain as to whether or not I would rather be this spider than this snail in this situation. To me, it looks as if the snail is the one in charge of the destinies of both. And I'm big on being in charge of the destinies, so I'm thinking that in this instance, I'd rather be the snail. However, the Tao tells me that nothing is in charge of anything, and that the snail doesn't control its destiny any more than the spider does. Which makes me want to be the spider because, you know, free transportation.
The first one of these I ever saw was on the bottom of my boot after I had stepped on it. Needless to say, it was not as pretty as this one.
This is the second one of these I ever saw. I’m posting her picture to commemorate the tragic and gruesome death of her brother. Or her lover. Jeese. I don’t know which is worse. Would it make me too much of a dork to admit I cried over accidentally squashing that damn snail? Probably. But what else is the cold anonymity of the internet good for?
This is Jughandle Creek Farm. It’s right across Highway 1 from Jughandle State Park. And it is NOT a commune.
At least, according to the caretaker, who just moved here from Arizona, and who seemed particularly focused on crushing any rumors of hippies, tie dye, or free love associated with this establishment. In the interest of continuity, we’ll call him Dennis.
Jendocino: So I read that this place is one of the oldest known communes in Mendocino County...
Dennis: No, no, nope. Not a commune.
J: I’m confused; didn’t you host a big conference for The Commune Project and the Mendocino Institute?
D: Yep. Big success.
J: But you yourself are not a commune.
D: See, in the early 60’s, some environmentalists pooled their money and started buying up property along this section of Jughandle Creek because they wanted to preserve it. These are young people we’re talking about, and they didn’t have many resources, so they lived together in the farmhouse. Some of them built the cabins you see, and lots of them lived in tents. They were industrious, too. Had to be. They supported the entire community on the farm here by establishing a dairy and one of the first organic gardens in the area.
J: So, hippies.
D: No, no. They were industrious.
J: So industrious environmentalists who bought property together, lived together, worked together, and developed the land together.
J: But not a commune.
Today the Jughandle Creek Farm calls itself a nature retreat with youth-hostel style accommodations. They work closely with youth on coastal restoration projects and they raise lots of native plants for the state parks.
Overnight guests stay in rooms in the farmhouse and are welcome to use the farmhouse kitchen to cook and prepare food harvested from the garden - just so long as they put in an hour or two of work in the garden, too.
The sign above reads, “Share the work, share the harvest.”
“Jughandle Earthworks.” A Jughandle door handle.
They have tent camping here for about twelve bucks. Beautiful campsites with the beach and the Jughandle State Park right across the road. Or, for $35 you can stay in one of the rustic hippie cabins on site like the one pictured above.
For the same price you can get a room in the farmhouse (interior pictured here). Either way, you have to share a bathroom, share the chores, and make your own bed. But don’t worry; it’s not a commune or anything.
Jughandle Creek Farm: Gateway to Ecological Staircase and Reserve; Training Site for Restoration and Monitoring; Nursery for Native Plant Restoration Projects; Nature Education Center for Schools and Youth Groups; Historic Farm; Inexpensive Overnight Facility for Nature Lovers; Retreat for Family Groups and Agencies; Music Gatherings and Benefits; Nature Day Camp; Community Forum Meeting Place; Wedding Site; Not A Commune.
Maybe an autonomous collective?