A Note to Old Friends

January 22nd, 2013 | Meera

Hello, stalwart readers.

When I set up The Science Essayist in 2009, I saw it as an experimental space—a place to test, quietly and without fanfare, approaches to writing and making discoveries about the world that were new to me and that I wasn’t at all sure would work. For the most part I’ve never made any great effort to publicize this site, although at times I have considered it an extension of my heart and mind. I have simply counted myself extraordinarily lucky each time a stranger or two—some of whom later became very dear to me—stumbled upon it and decided to stick around.

Keeping my nose down in this way suited the extreme—and, I now understand—ironically vainglorious—aversion to self-publicity I’ve harbored for most of my life. But over the past few years I did discover a large and tremendously varied universe of experiments far more advanced than my own, conducted by knowledgable and talented people engaged in a deep conversation about the role of science in society. Together they form a community writing about life, research, meaning, and the complex relationships between humans and the natural world.

Again, I hovered at the outer fringes of this passionate group: wanting to take up hands with it and join in its shared investigations, but held back by something I once would have called shyness and now simply want to name a bad habit.

But the past few months have wrought many changes to this lone wolf self, this strange habitual brain of mine, and when Madhusudhan Katti, who writes beautifully on birds and biology at Reconciliation Ecology, invited me to join the new Coyot.es Network, I found myself saying yes almost despite myself. Coyot.es was founded a few months ago by Chris Clarke, a natural history writer whose work marries the personal with the political better than I would ever have thought possible. It’s a new network, still growing, that’s bringing together bloggers who are all interested in biodiversity, the environment, and the living landscape. I’m very honored to be part of it.

This site, and everything on it, will remain here—but from now on new posts will be published at my Coyot.es blog, Dispersal Range, instead. I hope not only that you’ll make your way over and keep reading, but also that you’ll wander around and get to know the other fine writers and naturalists who are part of the collective.

Besides Chris and Madhu, they currently include the excellently named Toad in the Hole (written by Ron, who is a much more serious birder than I am and also happens to live in Berkeley!) and Slow Water Movement, a totally engrossing Vermont-based project documenting the paths water takes through the landscape. It’s time for this little blog to grow up, get over its shyness, and embrace some wonderfully smart, inspired, and thoughtful company.

Almost Two

Made of This

July 29th, 2012 | Meera

Friends:

It seems like a light year since I sat in front of my old apartment window in Hyde Park and typed my last post to let you know I was soon going to be spending the field season in Alaska. While I was gone, Ross emptied out that apartment into boxes and turned his key in its lock for the last time. The boxes now sit in a pod in some dark warehouse—where exactly, I cannot say—waiting for California and yet another first day.

It seems like two light years since I put my nose to the curved window of a helicopter that climbed, banked, and turned from a half-dismantled field site that had once been my home entire. The creek where we drew water and which we had crossed dozens of times flashed briefly in the rising—but was the signal land, or go away? From above, the place looked too small to have contained all of our summer’s living.

Somehow, oddly, it seems longest of all since I released two of my four-person crew from brief, late hugs, ran through the security area, and crossed the tarmac of Bethel’s tiny airport. I was almost the final seated passenger on the plane that would start my journey back to Chicago, where I am now bound for yet another last day.

I say light years because all this feels more like distance than time.

Tent, Day 3

As I go along I’ll tell you more—much more, I hope—about this summer’s living, which was sometimes easy and sometimes hard and always good. For the present there is just one small thing I wanted to talk to you about, because it has been on my mind as I have returned to this paved and chattering city.

After I left Alaska I wrote in an email that I was grateful to have had “nine weeks’ worth of that other life I’m always seeking: the one where the world is not something you are in but something you are of.” At the time I don’t know if I had more than an intuitive sense of what I intended. But since then I have been unfolding things a little in my mind and thinking about what it is I mean by being “of the world.”

The city is very much alive, and I try to be aware of as much of it as I can. Since I’ve been back I’ve been hearing my favorite kind of crackling in the trees every evening, a very welcome sound (as far as I know there are no singing insects in Alaska). Cooper’s hawks and great blue herons wheel overhead on my early morning runs through the cemetery near the place where I have rented a temporary room. Rabbits buoy over green lawns, and when I walk out to the lake after a day at the museum the air is thick with gulls.

In some ways, especially toward the end of the season, the wildlife at our field site (here it is, very approximately, on a map) was actually a little quieter—less teeming—than Chicago’s. What made me feel more present in that world had nothing to do with the abundance of life; it had something to do with using and being used by it.

It’s true that much of the wildlife in the city lives intertwined with the artifacts of human existence—true that sitting for lunch on a bench means being besieged by pigeons and squirrels impatient to brawl over your leavings. But what this usually feels like to me is the edges of two kingdoms touching: one human, one other. Both feel vast and systematic, in contact but fundamentally separate.

Things were different in the wilderness. There our human kingdom was small, and as light-footed as possible. There is no doubt we were a considerable disruption on the landscape, but the things that lived around us quickly grew used to our presence. And though they didn’t depend on us in the way that most house sparrows depend on urban infrastructure, they did begin to take advantage of us—just as they took advantage of each other. And we took advantage of them, as well.

Allen Creek Camp 2012

I’ll tell you what I mean.

There were two red foxes that made a habit of passing through our campsite of an evening, crossing the water west of our tents to hunt for hare or ptarmigan or vole or to steal an egg or two from a nest. When they did, we would see them using our tracks: those long, trampled-down paths we’d made either this season or in one of the previous two at Allen Creek.

For us the trails were unconsciously made. They snaked between various tents, or between camp and the muddy spot on the bank where we dipped buckets into water. For the foxes, they were conveniently flattened walkways over rutted, undulating terrain. One night I looked up from my journal, half-aware of a whimbrel crying foul behind my tent, and saw a canny hunter trotting directly past my door, catch in his mouth, following a short section of the path Kristine must have made between her tent and the weatherport.

Tree swallows—many miles from the nearest grove—nested in our camp. Lacking high branches, they would use our laundry lines and the tops of our tents as convenient places from which to display, calling out in their astonishing liquid voices and stopping at first one nylon roof, then another. They copulated on a great many of our tents and lines, as well. When later they began nesting in earnest, I left a pile of willow ptarmigan feathers I had been collecting next to our storage tent, and one by one they disappeared with a flick of a bill and a wave of a tail.

swallows by jake

This photo of our swallow pair was taken by Jacob Francis Jung, the kindest, gentlest extremely tall person I know. Jake is soon to become a doctor on the basis of his Bristle-thighed curlew research, but he’s also getting some excellent wildlife photography under his belt.

The ptarmigan were our closest and dearest of neighbors. One male in particular was always shooting up and barking right in front of the windows through which we looked as we ate and read and planned the day. The “Camp Ptarmigan” seemed to grow especially accustomed to us. He once fell asleep not six feet away from me after having greedily eaten his fill of overwintered berries, the red comb above his eye drooping gently in repose as I watched. Once he hopped on top of a snow-covered cooler where we were storing meat and cheese and bread and sat there preening for a long time, as if it were a hummock he’d decided belonged to him. Later a small pile of purple crap remained behind.

As for us, if we were careful not to spook anyone, well-trodden moose trails made for wonderfully easy walking through the otherwise dense masses of shrubs that lined either side of the creek or drainages. If we spotted a raven, a short-eared owl, a harrier, or a golden eagle flying low above a curlew territory we were observing, always we would turn an extra-careful eye and ear toward it; the presence of a predator sometimes called up our birds from hidden places on the ground to scold and mob.

If we found a long-tailed jaeger nest, we would monitor the area around it very carefully, because this using each other applied in all directions. We had reason to believe that curlews, for instance, took advantage of fierce jaeger nest defense behavior to protect their own incubating eggs, as if hiding behind the coattails of a bully.

Certainly at least one ptarmigan couple did this: dive-bombed by a pair of screeching jaegers, David flushed a quiet brown female nesting very close by. We checked on the nest later in the season. Unlike many others, it had not been depredated. A whirl of chicks rushed through the grasses.

7.22.12 Telolecithal

The shells of abandoned beaver lodges stippled the drainages that criss-crossed our study area. For weeks we tried to figure out where a pair of red foxes were keeping the kits we hoped they had—fancying from what we had seen that they were tucked inside a simple snow den. But later, scanning the horizon for curlews, I saw a smart, fiery shape atop the broken branches of an old lodge. When I pointed and Jake peered through the scope, he shouted “Kits!” And I yelped, “No way!”

But way, for these glorious tricksters had taken over what was built by one species and become, as water receded, an incredibly safe, hidden, warm, dry hall for housing another. Two brown babies with dense puppy coats tumbled underneath their parent on the beaver mound.

So we were happily used. And happily used others. And saw how everyone around us did the same, when they could—when they were not otherwise fleeing from or pursuing each other.

It was a single, beautifully selfish world, and this, friends, was one way I knew that we were not just in it but of it. I am laughing right now to say it, but it is true: sweet dreams are made of this.

7.20.12 Crepuscular

*******


In case you are interested, I am sharing and annotating Alaska photos very slowly, here.

While I was gone, the lovely DeLene Beeland (who just became a mother! Hooray!) wrote a review of my book which, as I told her, made me cry. This isn’t hard, as many things make me cry, but nevertheless: it is a great gift to be read with such care. The funny thing—or is it just the ordinary, inevitable thing?—is that I already feel like a different person from the one who wrote Mountainfit. All my thanks to DeLene.

Full of Food

April 29th, 2012 | Meera

Alaska, wrote John Muir, is full of food for man and beast, body and soul, though few are seeking it as yet. Were one-tenth part of the attractions this country has to offer made known to the world, thousands would come every year, and not a few of them would stay and make homes.

He wrote: How truly wild it is, and how joyously one’s heart responds to the welcome it gives.

Friends, I found myself hungry in body and soul last year, so I went north. And this year I am still hungry, so I am going north again.

Between tomorrow and mid-July, I’ll be working in the wilderness of far western Alaska, serving as a field volunteer on a Fish and Wildlife Service project. There will be four of us, two scientists and two volunteers, camping out on the vast montane tundra, studying the breeding habits of the rare, secretive, and by all accounts beguiling shorebird known—charmingly—as the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis).

I wish I could post updates from the field like I did last summer, but unfortunately we’ll be entirely offline and out of cellphone access, so I’ll do my best to take notes and tell you a little bit when I get back about whether John Muir was right. (Spoiler: I’m pretty sure he was.)

BTCU with EJ leg flag

In the meantime, all my love, all my thanks for being so supportive of these excursions, and if we haven’t already talked about all this hunger business, my book Mountainfit will tell you everything you need to know. If you are new to The Science Essayist and aren’t quite sure whether you like my writing enough to spend five dollars on it, this review from doctoral candidate Sienna Latham—who studies the history of science and is one of the wonderful people who backed my Kickstarter project to get the book written—might give you a sense of what it’s like.

Be safe, friends. I’ll talk to you soon.