Monday, August 20, 2012

I found this overly adjective-fied sestina I wrote about my time at Canyonlands, and stargazing on top of Whale Rock late at night.

Also, I will be helping out with two blogs for school. The Office of Sustainability at the U of U:

and the Colorado Plateau chapter of IDA:

So look out for some cool stuff. 

We three are ruthless on the ascending hunt
 Dragging blistered feet upwards towards the glow
 and towards the place where full merges with empty
 where the hollow air seethes as the wind whips.
 Up here long-gone voices echo and hiss,
 at the horizon in the desert, where death fades to life.

 Hiking in the yawning dark is lively –
 each step and groping hand is a hunt
 for stability amongst the hissing
 ghosts of prickly pear and the glowing
 evening primrose.  Eyes gape and lashes whip
 through sand blasts, but nerves love the emptiness.

 This is the steep section, where fear empties
 and muscles rumble like a drowsy train brought to life.
 The “strenuous” climb, where hearts whip
 in time with the scattering scorpions, silently hunting.
 Here is the vertical boulder, that glows
 as it stretches and touches the heavens with a hiss.

 A faded midget rattler hiss-hisses
 as it coils through juniper branches now dead and empty,
 as if to say, “Yes, starlight burns, but the glow
 of these rocks cools. Savior of life.”
 We do not understand, but we are hunters
 of gods and spirits, and our pulses speed their whips.

 To climb this rock we must ignore the whip
 of the red rock breeze, the tempting hiss
 of the coiled rattler and slow our hunting
 to push over the final crest.  The empty
 summit is silent, nothing lives
 here but and loneliness and the stars that glow.

 But even as we watch and breathe the glowing sky
 our rocky ground cools and wind whips
 at our feet like a stream, a bed come to life.
 So we lay down, cradled under hissing
 clouds that weaken into empty space.
 Above, Scorpio crawls across the sky, hunting.

We whisper that Orion will always hunt, and that summer will change the sky.
But it is here in this constant cool space that we belong, whipped
back to the Earth with a sweet hiss.  Here we are grounded, and radiantly alive.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

My Natural Autobiography


When I was four years old, I was certain that my stuffed orange cat, Ralph, and I shared a house on Pluto. The house was small because I was small, and it was painted in every color I could imagine – including the colors I was sure existed beyond human sight. At the time, my favorite color was clear. Looking back, I am still not quite sure how to understand this – was I obsessed with windows, or with what lay outside of them?
So some walls in our extraterrestrial house were clear. But the most important fact of life on Pluto was that Ralph and I could fly. We could not fly on the grounds of Pluto but as soon as we entered our rainbow home we lifted off the ground. All I remember of the out-of-doors is that everything was purple. I knew Pluto was cold, and purple seemed perfect for this icy environment.
I was insistent that my parents and I take a family vacation to my other house. I even planned the date – we would go on Easter (but we would eat all our chocolate first, because there wasn’t any on Pluto). My parents, having previously experienced my childhood ability to loudly fall apart, suffered some amount of panic at the thought of appeasing me. My mother utilized a creative solution that I unexpectedly accepted: we would all visit Pluto in our dreams. So on Easter night of 1991 I, Ralph, and my parents took a somnolent journey to a distant place, a place that in my heart I knew very well.

I suppose that I must have chosen Pluto for my secret second home because I thought that had be the farthest anyone could go. I had a wild imagination and was especially fascinated by outer space. I had the opportunity to visit some of Earth’s most beautiful places – my father planned and took us on elaborate summer road trips to national parks for most of my childhood. But I was still preoccupied with travelling to the very edge of our solar system.
Now I know more about Pluto and have decided to move my vacation home to somewhere more hospitable. Pluto is essentially a ball of ice with warm coloring. It is comparatively tiny, tinier even than our Moon. Pluto has five of its own moons, smaller bodies orbiting its small body, all far away from our shared sun. It is much too cold for any of us and has an atmosphere we couldn’t breathe, mostly nitrogen and methane. Recently it was delisted as a planet – it is one of many small objects in the area, and it has not cleared its orbital path of debris. It was named for the god of the underworld, and might not be an entirely pleasant place to live.
This cold, distant, misshapen piece of ice that is over three billion miles from the sun is the place to which I wanted to escape, and in my mind it was my landscape.

Now I am uprooted. What happens when home ceases to be the place where you grew up? If asked where I am from, I will still answer with “northern Virginia” or “the DC area”, but I don’t know if that is my place. I have learned other places better and only recently begun to appreciate the seemingly mundane and familiar. But I am filled with questions I don’t know how to ask, each with innumerable answers.
I have some very clear memories of growing up in what I now know as the tidal basin of the Potomac watershed. One of my earliest memories that I recall distinctly is standing in my front yard on a summer evening, thinking to myself over and over, “I am five. I am five.” I told myself I wanted to sear that moment into my memory forever – if I ever thought back on it I would know how old I was and I would know what my surroundings looked like. Today I have what is probably an embellished image in my mind: a hazy sunset coming to an end and casting deep red lighting over the ground as an indigo sky rose above, the neighbor’s wilting cherry tree with its fruits swaying slightly in the humid breeze, a sprinkler jetting methodically somewhere behind me, the smell of wet, freshly-cut grass, and our black lab barking at me through the door. I was five. I was five, and twenty years later I know that place as a fleeting glimpse of childhood, one sturdy root amongst a confusing forest of recollections.
I knew my own place within this landscape, but I didn’t bother to learn much about the place itself as I was growing up. I recall the natural surroundings through the eyes of young naiveté – the path through the woods by what I now know to be the Gulf Branch tributary of the Potomac River was simply called The Old Path. It was old because I walked on it almost every weekend with my parents and eventually my younger brother and I couldn’t imagine it ever not being there. The Old Path led us up to a meadow that appears in my memory as a huge swath of green. I now understand that it was a lot of Kentucky bluegrass, bracken fern, and ragweed. An old man lived just down the hill in a shack where he cared for rabbits. It was only much later that I realized he most likely used to be a Nazi. At the time, he was just the caretaker of the woods, a mythical figure who lived in the trees with the animals.
As much as I loved my modest view of the land around me while I was young, I was still looking up. I went to Space Camp, but I also went to an outdoors camp in the Shenandoahs. At some point in my imagination timeline, Ralph and I moved to the Moon. Our house there wasn’t as fancy and colorful as its more distant counterpart, but I blame the Arlington Planetarium for planting the idea by telling me the story of a young girl and her orange tabby cat launching in a shuttle and landing on the dark side of the Moon. Aliens became my number one fear and I was fairly certain an abduction was imminent. I was enthralled and repelled by the vastness of what was above my head. I don’t think I knew where I was, and I only knew where I wanted to be as fanciful, remote places.

Vermont. The first place in which I truly felt like one part of a larger ecosystem, a part that was grounded on this Earth, came after college. In Vermont, I learned of the trees. I learned the trees, I identified them, I mapped their history by watching the forest, I felt them talking. The trees here were different than the ones in northern Virginia – there were more pines and firs, they seemed taller, I felt like I lived in a canopy of protective leaves. When I taught people about the very old Norway pine it seemed as if I was making a formal introduction, like we had to earn our meeting with this ancient, wise being.  I could tell visitors that the species was essentially unchanged throughout its evolutionary history. This was met with silent appreciation and not a little fear. I often spent my roving time just sitting and leaning against a tree by a pond or a mountain’s edge, finally feeling entirely welcomed somewhere. I could name things, and with names came authority and reverence. Vermont was brief for me, only three and half months, but in some ways I knew the managed forest in Woodstock better than I knew my own childhood.
Nighttime in Vermont was a different landscape. I recall the full moon, shining as a beacon above the mountain at the ski resort where I was living. White-tailed deer jumped out from behind the foliage. Farms quieted down, the people showing respect for the silent darkness of the hills and glens. One night on my way back to my ski condo I ran over an animal with my car. I believe it was a Virginia opossum. I felt shaky, suddenly woken, but I tried to put it behind me for the night. On the next day’s drive into work a pair of dead, yellow eyes stared at me from the road, perfectly positioned to witness incoming drivers. Opossums had always seemed unappealing to me, and were not native to this landscape. But all I daydreamed of for some time were the yellow eyes, the same color as the moon. Night now brought me death.
The Island in the Sky. “Can you imagine running this river in a boat shaped like a cigar, with one arm and almost no food?” “If you lived then, you’d want the calories – 3,000 of them from a pound of pinion nuts.” “A long time ago something mysterious happened here, and geologists are still debating it today.” “Picture green in front of you – picture this land before it was overgrazed and so altered.” “There is a world beneath your feet where the scorpions make their families and lives.” “Cryptobiotic means hidden life - you are not alone.” I learned and shared the canyon country through words and poetry. Here I knew plants, I knew animals big and small, and I knew invisible life that took years to mature. I knew the rocks, if only fleetingly, and in the dry desert wind they seemed to sing.  When I passed a young male bighorn sheep out in the backcountry, I recognized and interpreted his activity as a part of the landscape. As I sat in red rock dirt looking towards the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, I felt I could sink into the land and stretch my roots like a parched juniper tree.
I spent a night on top of Whale Rock, lying on my back and feeling myself drift upwards, dissolving into the primordial carbon of the thousands of stars surrounding me in a dome. Oil drilling sites cast faint glows from below, like little dirty pearls on a black ocean floor. In the night breeze I could still smell the pinion-juniper woodland. From somewhere near me came the faint scratching sounds of a kangaroo rat foraging and burrowing. A friend told me the story of Cassiopeia, the boastful, desperate queen, and land reached out and touched sky.

I keep spiraling back to roots. The maples and oaks of the Green Mountain State, the twisted, self-pruning trees of the high desert, the leathery beauty of what I now know as magnolias along the central Atlantic coast. They coil themselves into the ground, never moving from one place unless forced. I have not been forced, but I have pulled my own roots out to be carried away on a wind many times by now. Where is home?
One summer after returning from my adventures of learning new places, I considered the question. I considered the fact that my parents lived in a very old house that only looked new, and that there was a whole basement full of many people’s memories. This was a world I had never thought to explore. It was ordinary, it should have been familiar, it was dusty and smelled of mildew. I felt like I was missing a lot of pieces. Downstairs was a timeworn workshop mainly filled with boxes of broken computer parts and old, rusty tools. Amongst the circuit breakers and worn-out appliances I found boxes of old photographs of my parents in school, a grandfather I barely knew, myself as a child. I found dioramas I had made in elementary school, still miraculously held together with Sculpey and glue. Of the most interest to me was a large manila file of medical records from my childhood. Although I only vaguely remembered the years when I was unable to walk down stairs, when I was afraid of even the quietest loud noise, and when I had a fear of heights that only showed itself sometimes, apparently all these things were connected. They were connected through the occupational therapists that gave me crayons, red balls, and large, foam toys and observed me playing, then spent page after page describing me in detail. This house that I had forgotten simply because it had been home for so long told the stories obscured by time.
That same summer I reread favorite books from childhood, spent time amongst the azaleas in the backyard, turned on the old computer and found documents in which I simply wrote about things I liked for endless, unformatted paragraphs, and went through closets of old clothes from decades ago in the basement. I’ve discovered the history of the Potomac and especially the Gulf Branch areas - I’ve read about the old stone quarries, the horse trails, and the natives who used to live there. I tried to know the place of home, and that journey was finally beginning.
I also found my rock collection from the second grade, where I wrote that amethyst looked like stars.

There is a continuing memory from when I was young, one that I cannot place temporally but that I simply know happened many times. I love red in the cold. I used to walk around Roberts Lane with my father in autumn. In those days, northern Virginia actually began to cool down in October, and in November you might need your puffy, purple coat. I’d stomp through red leaf piles, laden with the droppings of oak trees. Later, my dog Taylor would snort and snuffle his way into the center of those same piles, rolling around and destroying the neighbors’ efforts at keeping their precious landscaping pristine. There was also a book, the name of which I’ve forgotten, filled with poetry about children playing through each of the seasons and all of their variations. In fall there were paintings of trees with maroon bark, children circling them with their arms. Red in the cold is memory. Red is a fallen oak leaf in a chilly Virginia afternoon, Navajo Sandstone against powdery snow in Utah, icy maple bark ready for tapping in Vermont. My roots are the russet color of clay soil.

“So where are we in all of that?” a woman asked me as I held up an artist’s rendition of the Milky Way. In Bryce Canyon I spiraled back to looking up. I pointed to the approximate location of our solar system and tried to explain why we always see the Milky Way as a straight line in one part of the sky, barely comprehending the answer myself. We’re on an arm of a spiral, and everything is moving, hurtling through space at amazing speeds. We’re on Earth, one astronomical unit from Sol. We’re in North America, currently tilted towards warmth. We’re in the American southwest, wetter and hotter than it’s ever been. I’m in a parking lot, looking for home.
When viewing Saturn through a telescope for the first time, almost every visitor inevitably said something along the lines of, “It looks like you just stuck a photograph in there! It’s too perfect.” When viewing Mars the disappointed exclamation was, “Oh, it’s just a little orange blob.” One young boy asked me to point the scope towards Pluto. I warned him that it would probably be unimpressive and look like most of the stars he could see with his naked eye. But he still wanted to look, and I knew that want. So I told the GPS to aim towards Pluto, and we found it – a tiny, yellowish point of light that looked like its starry neighbors (and may or may not have been Pluto, it’s difficult to find). The boy smiled and offered a shy thanks. I stared at a place I’d travelled in a dreamscape and tried to pinpoint a tiny, colorful house where my cat friend would be waiting for me.

I still have questions. I am displaced, but I inhabit many places. Some part of me will always be walking amongst the tall, emerald trees of the East Coast, whether they are cedar and maple groves of Vermont or the blushing dogwoods of the Potomac. Whenever I travel back I explore the basement and find new childhood relics. I am carrying a heavy piece of the desert, maybe sandstone or limestone, where potholes and bristlecones and bighorns have taken something and held it tightly. I live in Salt Lake City now, but I don’t feel that it’s my place yet. One day it will join the list, but the roots are fresh and small. And I still look up.
I look up to look down. There is a tree that grows in the sky, a group of stars that look like a Christmas tree. It’s part of the constellation Andromeda. Maybe part of me is up there, chained with the princess. But in my dreams I have seen an endlessly spiraling juniper planted in the desert with roots that stretch through the center of the Earth and back up into the atmosphere. I believe my place is somewhere where deserts and forests and homes touch the sky. There is a very large home, and there are very small homes. I’ve been uprooted and that is simultaneously exciting and confusing. I exist on the reddening horizon, the in-between, a line that changes with every move I make.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Mirror

I'm trying to pick the most descriptive example of what is going on with this group of about fifteen of us up here in Centennial Valley, Montana. We're writing with Terry Tempest Williams is the simplest way to put it, but it's not simple. A few days ago we went to a stream side, were given mirrors, and told to write with the only rule being that we must turn the mirror on ourselves eventually. We talk frequently about big changes and the probably inevitable collapse of a failed system in a country that is barely hanging on, so here is what came out.

What happens when the world turns upside down? Plants grow from the sky, flower first. But now the sky is a looming pool of water, serene - only briefly disrupted by gentle whitecaps passing by. What if we reached up and touched an ocean?

And then if we were to catch a fleeting light? If a bit of our star could be shone onto those secret, dark places? Will they grow as their world flips and this secondhand light enshrines them? Or perhaps they will shrink away, keeping their secrets hidden.

Will we remember, one day, heliography? Will we know how our ancestors communicated with glass and light? When there is nothing left, we will delight in things that glimmer and flame.

How do we reflect ourselves when the world turns upside down? Will I turn too or will I be stuck wading through the sky? I am glad right now to have blue eyes. Up close I see the sky-ocean in them and a halo of golden sunlight encircling the center. There are waves, grey lines reaching towards each other, carrying messages through the blue. But when I bring the mirror close my pupils shrink, saying don't light me yet - I'm not quite ready.

When will we see readiness in ourselves?

Now I'm trying to write the big essay - my natural autobiography. No idea how this is going to turn out.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

To the Moon

I am already halfway through my time here and I do not want to leave. I am finally much more comfortable with the telescopes, the sky, and the park and now it is almost time to go.

Last night I operated Thor, our gigantic deep space telescope, until about 12:30. Setup intimidated me but luckily I got a full walkthrough and managed not to break anything. Sky Commander, an old, basic GPS system that tells you what coordinates the scope is pointed at was out of batteries, so I got to spend the evening constantly finding M57 by eye, going off the fact that it is “in between those two dim stars below Vega.” Fun. The full moon makes distant viewing difficult, but I could still show people the Ring Nebula, and terrify them with stories of our sun’s death. Even if it’s a blur, it is pretty impressive to realize you’re seeing photons that have travelled at least 6,000 light years, only to be captured and absorbed by your eye.

In more astronomy news, on Wednesday I travelled to Cedar Breaks with Jim and Helen, two astro VIPs in their 70s who have been doing this for years. I have basically been Jim’s apprentice and he has taught me everything I know. They’ve moved to Cedar Breaks for a few weeks and I will seriously miss their guidance and calm. On Wednesday night we went there to help with a special event. A group of travel writers was passing through the area. We provided them with some solar viewing, joined them for a catered dinner from Cedar Breaks lodge and a talk from the executive director of the IDA, and then threw a star party. I got the easy scope – a big Dobsonian that stayed trained on the moon all night. It is always cool to see craters up really close. Here is a tip: do not ask a telescope operator to “show me the American flag on the moon!” 1) They’ve been asked that question 100 times already 2) They can’t, but they can show you the region of the landing, and why can’t you just be satisfied with that and 3) It is still kind of disturbing to me that America acts like it conquered and owns the moon.

But sunset there was gorgeous, the smoke filling my view from several fires was less gorgeous, and Point Supreme is cold at night.

I’ve also been doing plenty of solar viewing. I’ve been running Jim’s scope with a white light filter and am hoping now that he’s gone I can do something similar that I’ll understand. The white light filter allows you to easily view sunspots (and blow people’s minds when you tell them they’re usually much bigger than Earth). Jim (and now…someone else?) ran a Celestron solar scope with a hydrogen alpha filter, making the sun appear bright red. Yesterday morning we actually saw an enormous flare. They come and go so quickly that it’s a lucky event. Usually you see prominences, and no matter how many times you tell people what they’re seeing is called a prominence they will still say, “Cool, I saw a solar flare!” 

And apparently tomorrow I’m taking a scope out to the rim on my own and enjoying the full moon with visitors.

On Friday Ranger Don organized a hike through Willis Creek in Grand Staircase Escalante NM. It was Don, me, Jim, Kate, and Brittnei. And it was me and my car that got us there. The road to the trailhead is a somewhat difficult 4WD road, that should probably just be titled Let’s Find Out if Subarus are Really “Outdoorsy.” We made it with no casualties, many big bumps, and one dusty car. Willis Creek is a hike through a narrows, so you’re usually standing in just a little bit of water. Everything is drying up around here, so there was not much of the creek left. It’s also a pseudo-slot canyon: not narrow enough to fit the technical definition, but similar in appearance. Being in between tall, cool rocks on a day that was in the 90s was definitely nice. Afterwards, Don bought us lunch and Jim bought us ice cream and I ate every bite.

That night we had a potluck at the house of a couple of rangers who live in town. I made spicy brownies, ate a pile of enchiladas and chips, and gulped down a couple of frozen margaritas. There were impressions done of people that come into the park and loudly blame “the government” for all their problems. I played with their sick-but-recovering great dane, and then we sat outside and watched a movie about robots punching each other. So basically, great day.

Today I made my way down and up the Navajo/Peekaboo combination loop. It was tough, but I am impressed by how I have already adapted to the dry air and altitude. Now walking up hill is just difficult for me in the way it normally is, instead being difficult in that I feel like I can’t breathe. Yesterday’s humidity was 5%. We await the coming monsoons.

I will sign off with my favorite conversation of recent days. It was an astronomy night, I was talking to people in line as they waited to look at Saturn. A little boy asked me, “Can we see any black holes?” I explained, “No, we actually can’t see black holes – that’s why they’re called black, no light can escape them so there’s nothing for us to see.” He replied hopefully, “Can I see something like a black hole?” And I informed him, “Well, there are such things as white holes. We won’t see any here tonight but with special equipment we can see them, in a way.” He got really excited and bouncy and yelled, “I HAVE TO GO GOOGLE THAT RIGHT NOW!”

(Things only went a little bit downhill after that when someone told me they never knew that the southern and northern hemispheres see some different stars).

Monday, June 25, 2012

Dark Rangers!

In the past few days I have hiked in the back and frontcountry in a canyon that is not a canyon, spotted three rattlesnakes (fortunately, all going away from me), looked at a galaxy over 20,000,000 light years away, and set up, run, and taken down a telescope on my own.

Because I am still very much learning what I'm doing, it looks like I'll be running one of the easier scopes the park has, affectionately nicknamed Slartibartfast. Every scope is named after Douglas Adams characters. I suggested Deep Thought for the next time they get a new one. Slarti has GoTo software, so once you align it (which is a difficult process that still takes me awhile - you basically tell the scope where it is in reference to other things) it should be able to follow whatever object you put it on all night. I'm probably going to be mostly be doing Saturn, because it's easy to find and everybody always wants to see it. Although two nights ago I eventually got bored and moved it to Mars (which people expect to look more impressive than it actually does, but you can see the icecap!) and then M80, just to switch things up. Many deep sky objects have what's called a Messier number, named after an astronomer who found and catalogued many of them. I know a few, but I need to learn the basic list better.

I've also seen the ISS fly over several times, as well as observed multiple iridium flares from satellites. I had the following conversation with a visitor: Him: "I've seen several bright objects move in steady lines across the sky. They are white, they're note planes. What are they?" Me: "Those are satellites." Him: "No, I don't think they are. They move fast." Me: "Well, satellites appear to us to be moving pretty fast." Him: "But they're moving." Me: "...yes." Him: "Satellites don't move!" Me: "Actually, generally, they orbit the Earth." Him: "What?! I always assumed they just stayed in one spot in space, not moving."  At least he learned something.

Most importantly, I get to use a laser pointer to point into the sky. Major life goal = accomplished.

On my off days, I've been hiking as many trails as I can. But surprise, I am kind of lazy. I got invited to Zion yesterday with a couple of the interns but was definitely still asleep when they texted to say they were leaving. Whoops? I would have slowed everyone down, anyway - I think I may finally be adjusted to the elevation when it's time to leave. Today I went to Tower Bridge, which is not too difficult, but a lovely trail through some fascinating rock formations. Unfortunately, the loveliness was somewhat compromised because at the actual bridge there was a family that felt they had to yell everything they wanted to say. They weren't even arguing, it was just like, "WHAT'S FOR DINNER?!?!?!?!" I wanted to sit and be calm for awhile, but there was no way to be calm with that going on. People have very different expectations in their national parks.

Yesterday I attempted to hike the Swamp Canyon/Sheep's Creek Loop, but failed rather spectacularly. The map says "Good route-finding skills a must," and that is not an exaggeration. I thought I had those, if only pertaining to hiking, but apparently not. I definitely did not make a loop. I turned around when I realized that I had no idea where I was on my map. The trail was supposed to be 4.3 miles with about 800 feet of elevation change. According to my GPS watch that can tell me exactly where I was, how far I went, and how far up I went, I was somewhere on the park's long backcountry trail, hiked 5.5 miles, and lost/gained 1500 feet of elevation. Whatever, I just got more exercise. I also briefly got off the trail,  that was a fun adventure.  My favorite trail so far has been to the Hat Shop, a bundle of hoodoos that I guess sometimes sort of look like they're wearing hats. It is also part of the longer backcountry trail, which basically means no one else will be on it. I like my solitude in the desert. It is definitely a strenuous climb back up that I had to take very slowly, but the views are magnificent and it is in a part of the canyon that you don't see from really anywhere else.

In park news, we have a family of pronghorn (fun fact, pronghorn are more closely related to giraffes than deer). I've seen multiple fawns, and of course wildlife jams of cars stacked up around the meadows to take pictures. Sadly, one baby died, and another baby and a mother now have broken legs from being hit by speeding cars. National parks have speed limits for very good reasons, and I would appreciate it if people would stop tailgating me when I'm obeying them because I actually care about wildlife. The worse park news is that a climbing ranger in Mount Rainier recently died; all the parks put their flags at half staff when that happens.

I also get to work in the VC sometimes. I've been given practically no training for it, and I think it's just assumed that since I've already worked in parks I know the basics. Swearing in junior rangers is still my favorite thing. I love seeing kids excited about being here. We have a dark sky junior ranger program that for some reason is not really being promoted, but I also get really excited about kids caring about dark skies. Bryce really promotes dark skies, which I, of course, think is awesome. My theory is  - of course we need to take care of our home, the planet, but isn't it important to at least understand our larger home? I'm trying to live with less light - I think it will eventually be important that we all do so, and we all become as comfortable with darkness as our ancestors were.

My current goals for the rest of my three weeks:

1) Get much more comfortable using telescopes.

2) Learn how to set up solar scopes by myself. Because I will have to. Soon.

3) Don't get hantavirus (prevalent at Bryce).

4) Don't get the bubonic plague (also prevalent at Bryce)

5) Stop being too lazy to get up and go on the Fairyland Loop.

6) Listen to some Utah prairie dogs talking (an endangered species that only lives here and has a really amazing system of communication).

7) Don't break anything worth  thousands of dollars.

And I will conclude with my favorite overheard quote of the day, spoken by someone with what I think was a German accent: "Since I've been in America, I've discovered I love this food...bacon. I must eat it everyday."

Saturday, March 31, 2012


I just finished typing up a reading response to a chapter from The Language of Landscape by Anne Whiston Spirn. (Fun Saturday night, I know, but I had actual fun last night and it's about to be final projects time). I got to be a giant dork and combine my studying of Old English and German and the excessive number of times I have been to DisneyWorld with my environmental interests. And I actually think I like how this response came out:

    Anne Whiston Spirn shows us that we cannot separate ourselves from the land around us, even through something that seems as manmade as language. In today’s ever-changing vernacular, humans continue to try to widen the gulf between themselves and nature, but there will always be a bridge. We can read stories in rocks and trees just as we can read them on paper. When we build landscapes we try to perfect what was already there, as we might edit writing. But as Spirn states, too many of us now read the landscape in a piecemeal fashion, understanding only parts, not seeing the connection to the whole. She gives many examples of reading and misreading the land, and there a few that especially stood out to me.
            Spirn gives us a brief linguistic history lesson that particularly interested me, having studied Old English, Middle English, and German. She points out that in Germanic languages the root words for “to dwell”, “to build”, “to be”, as well as “to stay” are related. In modern High German, bauen means to build, dwell, building, and – though the definition is disappearing – to cherish. “To be” in the first-person form is bin, “to stay” is bleiben. These all most likely share an old Germanic root. Old English shows us this connection – “to dwell” was buan. The people that spoke this ancient language and its descendants (in many ways, German is more closely related to Old English than is Modern English) saw connections where we no longer can. When one dwelled in a place, one stayed in that place, one protected it as a dwelling, as home. One existed with the land. We do not have the words for this anymore.
            Even more fascinating and significant to Spirn’s point is Old English’s use of kennings. A kenning is a figure of speech, often one or more compound nouns, used frequently in ways that we no longer use such poetic language. My favorite word I learned in Old English was one of many words for “the sea”: hwæl-weg, literally “whale-way.” It is at once both a way, a place for human travel, and the dwelling of whales. The animal and the human are joined here, and the poet recognized that the sea is many things, not something we can easily contain within one meaning, and that it contains life of its own. Another similar term used was swan-rad, “swan-road”. Again, there is a connection between human and non-human. “The dawn” is referred to in Beowulf as heofones wynne, or “joy of the sky.” Human emotion is placed in a natural setting, the connections are made obvious through language. Although these phrases were first used in literature, we do not have the equivalent today. Poets may coin terms, but they do not gain a place within our language. I do not believe, either, that they show us that while we write the landscape, the landscape writes us as well. Our storylines are intertwined.
            I believe this is what Spirn wants to convey. We are at once authors and subjects of the landscape. Whenever we believe we have complete control over natural forces, we are inevitably taught a lesson. But whenever we try to live apart from the land, our own health suffers. Spirn also provides us with the example of “The Land”, an attraction at DisneyWorld. I have visited DisneyWorld myself many times with my family, and over the years my perceptions of it, and especially this exhibit, have changed. Visitors board boats and ride through greenhouses depicting several different advances in growing techniques. As Spirn mentions, hydroponics are featured prominently. The concept of growing a plant without soil is scientifically fascinating, and I do believe such achievements of human experimentation are, in general, positive. However, there is a disturbing element, as well. While hydroponic gardening is truly helpful for people living in places without soil, have we already given up on the soil that does exist? Or given up working with and eating the plants that grow in deserts? Do we believe that in the future we will have depleted the Earth’s resources so fully? At the end of the ride, visitors view video clips of various farmers around the world. Many depict big machines mining rows of crops, and while some faces are shown, the human-land element seems to have been lost. Unfortunately, this ride may truly show what our relationship with the land has become today: plants hang upside down on metal racks and agricultural laborers drive huge machines, barely seeing the ground beneath them. As Spirn would say, they have lost the language to see it - there are too many cluttered sentence fragments in the way. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

a tanka on radiation.

Nevada Test Site

In this dry wasteland:
Scientists build stars.
This fusion is not in space.
It seeps into Earth, twinkling.