Syrphid Flies

Posted in Uncategorized on August 8, 2012 by Ben Kessler

Hover fly, courtesy of the Cornell U. Cooperative Extension

Summertime’s full in the fields and woods of Nelson County, Virginia.  Here in the lee of the Blue Ridge the chickory flowers blue in the day and the datura fills the evening air with the scent of heady nectar.  Tomatoes are ripe, cucumbers fit to burst.  The wild persimmons and pawpaws are loaded down with a fall harvest to give us all bellyaches from too much sweet fruit.  It’s been an abundant year in every respect.

I was out in the garden the other day, attempting to get some weeding done, and harvest the bolting cilantro while I was at it.  In my better moments, I like to take a moment to sit with the plants I’m about to obliterate in the name of gardening or cookery.  Every weed in the yarden probably has a better handle on the local ecology than I dot.  Several times I’ve been about to yank out some presumably offensive uninvited annual when my better self stops me, says, “wait a moment and pay attention,” and some unexpected observation convinces me to just let the dang thing be for a while.  The goldenrod and fleabane I allowed to grow fed a generation of butterflies and beautiful, jewel-colored bees, and the amaranth ended up drawing all the deer to it the time they bucked the fence, leaving my collards and potatoes unmolested.  There’s a wisdom in the weeds, if you take the time to meet them at their level.

Anyway, I went out to pull a bunch of these tangled, anonymous vegetables so my kale could get a little more light.  As I bent down to shear off a clump of fragrantly blooming cilantro, something fast and bright caught my eye.  A flying insect, about the size of my thumbnail, was hovering intensely above a cilantro umbel.  I’d seen these little bugs, striped black and yellow like imitation bees and with a face that seems to be all eyeball, zipping around flower gardens all over, but I’d rarely paid them much mind.  I knew that they were popularly called hover flies, due to their uncanny ability to perfectly maintain their position between ground and sky, and were properly called syrphid flies, from a mistaken appropriation from the Greek (surphos: gnat) some time in the murky primordial days of taxonomic biology, but that was about it.

Fascinated, I sat down, garden tasks momentarily forgotten, and observed this little creature.  He or possibly she made an even circuit of ten or so flowers at the same height on the blooming stem.  At one point a larger hover fly of a different species blundered into the territory.  A flurry of agitated buzzing and aerial acrobatics followed, which left the larger animal fleeing to a higher elevation.  Each hover fly seemed to maintain a vigorously defended set of territories on the cilantro plants in the patch.  I wondered if the territories remained the same throughout the day, or if different ages, sexes, or species took over at different hours.  (I returned a little before dusk to find the hoverflies entirely absent and a whole new cast of moths enacting similar political negotiations.)  The adults were clearly nectar feeders, but what did the young eat?  Hover flies are proper flies (order Diptera) so that means maggots.  Did they lay their eggs in rotting meat like houseflies, or in the soil like the brightly colored stilt-legged flies?  Why were they colored so like bees if they behaved so unlike them?  At rest, a hover fly looks a little like a stinging wasp or bee, but their flight is so distinctive it’s difficult to confuse them.  All the more so for sight-hunting predators like robber flies, crab spiders, and the aptly named flycatcher birds.  How many generations did it take for the presumably drab ur-hover-fly to develop the distinctive livery of a stinging insect?  Which came first, the hover fly or the wasp?  Prehistory was staring me in the face, speaking loudly in an unintelligible gibberish.

My tight focus on the world of a single flower stalk wavered and shifted.  Movement on an elderberry leaf several feet away caught my attention.  A katydid, massive to my eye, stretched its leg as it munched its way along.  Bumblebees meandered between compound clover flowers in the lawn.  Ants followed one another along chemical trails through the jungle of grass and plantain.  A whole universe of little lives opened up across the yard.  One flower stalk to one yard to one forest to one valley to one watershed to one mountain range to one continent to one planet- the hugeness of the scale and the fineness of the detail is too much for my mammalian brain to fully comprehend.

Anyway, I couldn’t very well pull that cilantro- too many other lives depended upon it for me to justify extracting it for the sole purpose of experimental chutney.

Some further notes on syrphid flies:

While the adults are primarily nectar feeders, the maggots of some 110 of known hover fly species are voracious predators.  Eggs are laid at the base of plants frequented by aphids, that tiny, parthenogenetic pest creature, honeydew cow for the ants, and famous food of the ladybug larva.  Upon hatching, the maggots squidge up the stalk, feeling their way to their prey via unknown means (the maggots are totally blind and lacking much of the sensory apparatus of the adult fly).  If you find yourself wrestling with aphids in the garden, and ladybugs and lacewings don’t seem to be doing enough, consider planting more compound flowers around the borders of your garden to attract hover flies.

Other syrphids, the large hairy drone flies, lay their eggs in soupy corpse-muck and other offal.  Their maggots are equipped with a four-inch(!) long ‘snorkel’ which allows them to breathe while fully submerged.


It’s About Time

Posted in Uncategorized on May 30, 2012 by Ben Kessler

Graphic from the Long Now Foundation

The phrase “think global, act local” has fallen a touch out of favor in these days of press-derided social justice activists and brutal police repression, but the sentiment remains popular and well-understood.  We consider it a mark of profound ignorance if one cannot, say, identify the location of Afghanistan on a world map.  On the other hand, most of us haven’t the faintest clue what happened right where we’re standing more than twenty years ago, much less a hundred, never mind a thousand, and forget about a million years ago because that’s just preposterous.  And yet, the mundane occurrences of the place where we are over the whole multi-billion-year history of ‘here’ have a much greater effect on our real lives than the trials and tribulations of moneyed bosses and armed serfs half a world away.

This seems to be a cultural, rather than a human, blind-spot.  The sense of deep time that most human societies on the planet, past and present, recognize and mark in story, art, calendar, and language has been lost to the children of the West.  The ancestors of the European languages spoken by settled conquerors the world over experienced a series of catastrophic invasions and culture-breaking occupations of their own home landscapes when the Roman legions came screaming up the Italian peninsula, burning and looting everything they could get their hands on. Roman primary source accounts of the invasions, like Caesar Julius’ own Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, offer glimpses of cultures as similar to those of Native America and unconquered Polynesia as they are different from our own today. Their experiences were passed down the generations, remembered in echoes until the present day. We, in our turn, will continue to echo these old stories and wounds to our own grandchildren. What the Romans encountered in the wildlands of Europe was a radically different sense of time than the brief, linear march of state-approved history as familiar and invisible to generals and enlisted men alike as water to a fish.

The Celtic tribes of old Europe, like the Apache tribes of the southwestern deserts, like the Aborigine tribes of Australia- like every other place-based people in the world- maintained a finite and bounded sense of geographical place, and a remarkably deep sense of time.

To use an American analogue, the Navajo Nation is bounded by four holy mountains, located at each of the cardinal directions. The earth goes on beyond there, of course.  In the old days the Navajo made extensive use of abalone-shell for jewelry and ceremony. Abalones live in the kelp forests off the California coast, half a continent away.  Trading networks connected the California coast to the Mississippi River, through a thousand little lands, each called ‘The Navel of the Earth’ in the local tongue.  Our homes are very important to us, they’re the centers of our little universe; might as well build a land ethic around that.  The land goes on beyond the edge of the world, but it’s other folks’ business to tend to that bit of it.  There’s a tremendous degree of trust and faith in the goodwill of one’s neighbors implicit in that arrangement.  The Navajo belong to the Dine’tah (“Homeland of the People”) between the mountains, but they belong to a history that stretches from the beginning of time to the recycling of all things.  Small landscape, big timescape.

How long is ‘now’? One day? One hour? One second? Try this, just for the hell of it: For as long as you can stand to do it, pretend that your definition of ‘now’ is one whole order of magnitude larger than it ‘actually’ is. If you think that ‘now’ is less than one second long, imagine that an entire hour is one contiguous moment. If you tend to think of your life in terms of days, consider your whole week as an undivided unit of time. How far into the future do you feel comfortable including in ‘now’? Will the sun rise tomorrow? Will photosynthesis still occur in a week? Will gravity continue to attract bodies in a vacuum a month from today? Will a remotely controlled drone aircraft firebomb a family member within the decade? Will hummingbirds still like red flowers after your grandchildren have grown old? What if your whole life was one single undivided process?

The Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace, the rules of order for the government of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, and inspiration for Benjamin Franklin’s quaint notion of checks and balances between the three branches of American government, stipulates that no action may be taken by the decision-making body of sachems (“peace-chiefs”) until the ramifications of that action are predicted, modeled, and studied at least as far as the seventh generation out. Seven generations seems like a long time, but in the context of the culture it’s just an official codifying of a mindset generally held, at least when the Great Law was put together some 2,000 years ago. Everyone thought that far ahead, not just sages on mountaintops. What sort of society do you think might result from a bunch of people who think long and carefully about the effects of their own actions on others? It says a lot about how much the old Haudenosaunee cared about one another and about the land that they would take the time to muddle these things through. It also speaks volumes about their practicality.  What happens in 140 years will one day be somebody’s problem; better to deal with it now than put it off until later.  A living sense of deep time is itself a powerful peace-keeping technology.

Try it: How will what you are doing today affect people seven generations down the line? What will persist of what you threw ‘away’? What will the spaces you maintain look like in 140 years? How did you affect other people’s lives today, and how will their experiences be passed on to their children? What of who you are do you wish to endure after you’re dead? What can you let go of and allow to decay?

This is your real effect on the world. Humans are very small creatures. We are not like redwood forests, which can alter whole weather patterns, or volcanoes, which can change soil chemistry for eons. Our reach, globally speaking, is limited. Humans are also short-lived animals. We can expect a little less than a century of life, of which two to five decades are spent learning the ropes. What we do have is a marvelous intergenerational communication system, called ‘storytelling’ (whether it lives in a textbook or an oral epic, a story is a story) and an ancient series of partnerships with longer-lived and generally more powerful organisms. You and I are little; we can dig little holes, we can build little cities that last a thousand years and then crumble into mud. But we can carry little acorns from place to place, and little acorns become big oak trees, big oak trees make more oak trees; a few little humans can help an old-growth forest get started. Old growth forests change weather patterns. This is the time-scale at which enduring global action takes place. If we intend to think globally, we must include a global time-scale as part of that thought-experiment.

We’re activists at this level all the time, it’s just that nobody thinks about it. Because nobody thinks about it, mostly we’re activists for doing things like putting horrible poisons into the water that will give our grandchildren pain and grief when they lose their own children early. We call this delayed pain-making ‘driving a car’ and consider it terribly necessary. How is engine oil made? We can also be activists for other, less guilt-ridden affairs of the future. We can own our shit, so to speak, and begin making amends for the pains we are leaving our children right now. We can even do things today that will actually make the places our great-great-great-great-grandchildren live in even nicer. What do you love to do? How can you do it in such a way that the beneficial effects cascade down the generations?

Take a walk through your neighborhood. How big will the sapling trees be in fifty years? What will county maintenance budgets be like? Will lawnmower fuel rise in cost? What foods will your family eat when you are old?  What will this climate be like in a thousand years? What will this society be like in a thousand years? What will this landscape be like in a thousand years? How old can the plants you see get?  What does old-growth Ailanthus or privet look like?  What animals might live there?  How long would it take a lawn to succeed into meadow, into thicket, into forest, into old-growth?  How long will these buildings last?  With maintenance?  Without?  Who will live here when you are dead?  What do you want to give back to this place- the place that has housed you, fed you, raised you, watered you, given you beauty, given you dreams- while your body is still strong and your mind sharp?

To hell with thinking global. Your reach is as long as your arms: about three feet. You can see with your own eyes the place that will bear the brunt of your life’s work. Use those eyes to learn how that place changes over the lifetime you spend observing within it. Apply that learning to an envisioning of the landscape over the coming years.  Think millennial, act right now.

Black Cherries

Posted in Uncategorized on May 24, 2012 by Ben Kessler

When my neighbor LC passed away, he left a son, a motorcycle, a tangled will, and a small collection of very fine old fruit trees. Fleeing the wrath of avaricious relatives, LC’s wife by all laws of nature paused to tell me, hoeing a potato bed out of the lawn, that I should take as many cherries as I liked. Then she gave me a dog and left, but that’s another story.

In the late afternoon, then, with the sun slanting goldenrod over the warm grass and every winged insect in the hollow buzzing with the life of a rainshower and a cloudbreak, I strolled up the empty drive carrying a bucket. Strange to see the compound of ramshackle garages and shacks left derelict. Open doors, hinges askew, gaping onto rickety beds and belongings half-assembled, half-abandoned. The only sounds the murmur of the towhees and the clack of falling catalpa pods onto corrugated tin. This was a place for fires, and sitting around on cinderblocks and plastic patio chairs drinking unspeakable beverages and telling jokes until the stars outnumbered the fireflies. Many dog prints in the mud.

They’re a lot more like the Bushmen than you might think,” my landlord said, in that disingenuous way of his. Coming from anyone else, that might sound a little demeaning, but Joe’s been out to the back of beyond in Botswana, and he has friends there on the ground, Naro people he really looks up to. “The most striking thing about them- and there are a lot of striking things-” someone else, talking about the Bushmen, “is the wave of good feeling that precedes them wherever they go. You know how when you’re out in the woods sometimes you’ll feel a wave of tension or edginess, and when you look around you realize there’s a Cooper’s hawk or a bobcat staring at you? Instead, you’ll be out in the bush, and suddenly you’ll get this warm fuzzy feeling all over, and then sure enough one of these guys comes walking around the corner with a big grin on his face. It’s incredible.” What comes of living in rustic straits, I guess; you learn that kindness gets you farther than being grabby.

I remember one evening, LC paused on the riding mower and both of us watching mayflies trying to lay eggs on the hood of my car. “I look around at all this,” he says to me, “and I thank God for the gift of being alive another day.” There’s a Mohawk morning song I heard that goes pretty much the same way. Everyone’s carrying some vital piece of the whole holy puzzle, and nobody needs all of it because we’ve all got some of it, enough of it. I’ve got a little sliver of heart-of-the-world knowing, and you’ve got some too.

The cherry tree, despite numerous near-catastrophes with motorcycles and motorcyclists over the years, sprawled many-trunked and stately at the center of the yard. The cherries were so dark I didn’t see them at first, mistaking them for shadows in the leaves. “Dark as nightfall and sweet as kisses.” Don’t remember who told me that about them, might not even have been the same cherry-tree. You get different cherries every year from the same tree, different water every time you dip your cup in the creek; every word spoken is spoken for the first time. I gathered a mess of cherries today, and will likely do the same again tomorrow. Some I’ll eat fresh, some I’ll dry, some I’ll give to the other neighbors.

When the bush cherries in my yard are older, I’ll bake those into pies.  And in the fall the persimmon tree will have persimmon fruit on it, and in the wintertime the meadow will have died back to stubble.  Every year, brand new cherries.


Posted in Uncategorized on February 8, 2012 by Ben Kessler

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but I shall be content if it is judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it.” – Thucydides

Tidying up some odds and ends on this mungy day, I came across some old journals of mine.  Most of the writing was of the quality you’d expect from old journals, but there were a couple of interesting little stories glimmering among the wailing and gnashing of teeth.  In the interest of getting to know your narrator a little better, and not desiring to waste a good word, here are some highlights from the historical record, along with some pages from my old sketchbooks:

August 24th, 2005: I was in the water the other night, in the pool under-water between blue and blue and blue, naked like from-the-womb naked. Had I enough breath and enough night I would have stayed there for years, under the unclothed legs bobbing above and over the grate at the bottom of the deep end. Just the water and the not-a-kid-any-more in the water. Then I surfaced and the summer ended and I cleaned up the empty glasses on the table and the summer ended…

Summer started two years ago with a jump and a splash, and later drying off, Ross said that, well, it’s really summer now. The other night coming out of the blue and blue and blue and seeing the steam rise off the surface, backlit by the moon, sucking in handfuls of breath summer ended, and we got out of the pool. Now it’s time to write the epilogue-that’s-not-an-epilogue to the summer-that’s-not-a-summer. Dry off and say: well.

December 23rd, 2005: The gas generator only ran from nine in the morning to nine at night, so as to save fuel. Late at night, then, once everything was shut down, or just before it, I’d go down to the water’s edge, out on the dock, to collect plankton for the captive fish. The way we did it was to tie a dive-light to one of the pilings and leave it there for an hour or so, then come back with a bucket and scoop up the churning mass of annelids, chaetegnaths, fish larvae, and sundry other miniscule nightmare beasts. Squirt them out of eye-droppers into the fish tanks bright and early next morning.

Anyway, walking out to the dock in the hazy blackness of the tropical nighttime, I’d see pulsing witch-lights in the water. Near the shore the lapping waves’d hurl bioluminescent protozoa at the pilings and the sand, the water emitting greeny flashes that left a pink after-image floating inside my eyeballs. Farther out in the lagoon drifting grey patches heralded foot-wide jellyfish, come up from the deeps to drift about the shallow reefs like bag-ladies in a shopping mall. Down at the end of the pier hung an old gas lantern that barley illuminated the hammock hanging below it and the rough planking of the pier itself. The rushing water below was an even neon black. This was the territory of Roy, the night-watchman.

Roy slept during the day, stretched out in his hammock against a perfect blue tropical horizon. Every night he’d rise and make endless circuits of the island, dodging ghosts and the crocodile.  By the time I’d be getting to the dock to do my fishing, Roy’d be long gone, shuffling through the mangroves on the south end or loitering around the latrines, waiting for the supernatural. The sea was dark and it was scary at that hour, the dimly flashing water and that pathetic little gas-light only making it more so. The stars must have been amazing too, all the equatorial ones I’d never likely read about, but I never had my eyes on anything but my precarious footing and the shivering patch of black just in front of my face. So I’d bucket my evening’s catch, haul up the winking halogen dive-light, and hot foot it back to the lab. During the day the pier was Roy’s, but at night the whole island belonged to the ghost.

A few years back a researcher hanged herself from the lintel of one of the cabins. The staff found her the next day, gently swaying in a westerly breeze, eyes gazing flat on the limitless expanse of the Atlantic. Since then she’s stuck around, frightening the bejeezus out of anyone who strolls anywhere after dark. Henk the Dutchman claimed to have seen her on numerous occasions, but Henk also had a very strange sense of humor and had been in the sun far too long. Ellen, model of wrought-iron Aussie tenacity, was lodging in the ghost’s old cabin- still is; she and Henk are there until January at the earliest. I doubt she believes in ghosts.

Sometimes at night, out on the dock or walking the trails, I’d hear a rustling in the brush or catch a glimpse of a shadow that wasn’t quite a shadow. For a small island it was awfully big when you couldn’t see it. The ghost, the dead scientist, was almost an excuse of ours for the fearful dark of our ignorance of the atoll, lit up in scattered witch-lights under the ever-lapping sea. It wasn’t the ghost that came to me at night and played her spidery fingers over my face, it was my fear of the island itself, and of the foreign deeps.

February 19th, 2006: I don’t know how to write about washing dishes without sounding like I’m complaining. I wouldn’t say that I like doing the dishes, but I enjoy it. I’m not complaining.  Every time somebody cooks, I wash the dishes. I realize I mention washing dishes an awful lot, and I guess that’s because it’s a thing I’ve gotten attached to, that I define myself by. If I ever stopped scrubbing, well I don’t know who I’d be.

When the party’s over and I turn down the lights so it feels like I’m in a Tom Waits song, and the stereo’s playing something old and blue, maybe even Tom Waits, I get down to it and clean ’em all. Look at what everybody left on their plates- one time I cooked asparagus and beans and stuff, and someone had only eaten the tips, and left the bodies of both all over the plate, a bunch of damn quadriplegic vegetables. I scrub off the plates and rinse out the cups, always the cups last, turn them upside-down on the counter. At the end there’s a little city of everybody’s dinner forgotten on the shore of the sink. Then the next day I get up groggy and put it away, or someone else puts it away, and I’ve already misremembered who had what or if they ate it all, and who left early and why, and who said what, and who was there, and why I got left with the damn dishes again.

Tonight as I was cleaning up, Adrienne cut up a mango and left me a piece in exchange for my washing the knife and the cutting board. Every time I wash the dishes, and I’m not complaining because that’s what I do. You give me a bit of mango, and that’s what you do. I’m not complaining about that either, because I like mangos. I guess I’m dependable; that’s certainly what I say I am, and that’s what gets me bits of mango. Who I am is mostly what I say I am, a little bit the thing inside me, and a little bit the thing inside you. We’re all a series of concepts discussed. We’re all a collection of discrete objects. We’re all in this together. We’re all us. Something like that.

May 27th, 2006: Earlier today I was walking into town and I remembered the one time I ever smoked alone. It must have been February, middle of the night and blustery snowing cold whipped this way and that by the wind. I had a sorry butt of a cigar left over from some party earlier in the winter stashed deep in my coat-pocket, saving it for just this sort of a moment. I waded out into the thrashing lamp-lit whiteness to the little patio at the other end of the concert hall and lit up the bedraggled cigar with the cheap purple lighter I’d picked up years before when I bought cigarettes for Sara because she wasn’t eighteen yet and I was, just. Feeling perfectly miserable, but with the satisfaction that I’d done perfectly miserable perfectly, I smoked and coughed my way through that dead old cigar, head down and collar up to keep the storm out. Then I saw through my sunglasses again and walked the rest of the way into town and forgot to buy milk.

It’s not quite warm-summer-nights yet up here, but the bugs are out, and if there were frogs I could strain to hear them over the traffic noises. Maryland’s got frogs to chirp me to sleep in the mist-muggy middle-of-the-nights, turn off the yellow desk-lamp and clatter the paintbrushes clean. Slide to sleep with an eye cracked for the moon and the fireflies, head soft on the pillow, knees soft in the sheets. Don’t much want to go back though; don’t want to feel nothing about nobody until I hit that soft sand bottom, a year ago in the Gulf of Mexico, Noctiluca whirring lime yellow into my kicking feet. In Maryland: the rafts of fireflies, glittering like candles on the river, bobbing smaller and smaller to the sea; memory receding with the tide.

January 7th, 2007: I think of language as a whirling torrent of words, rushing through the air in front of me. Single, brightly colored words shiver like minnows through clouds of doggerel and occasional linked phrases, mating in the flow. I’m standing there and my hands shoot out, plucking at fragments of sense and anchoring them into place, breakwaters in the rushing tide of gibberish. And that’s sometimes the way I speak, and always the way I write, grasping at whirring dragonfly-fish before they melt away into the tumult…

Christmas eve I was out at Connor’s again. His family was out of town, and I’d been hired to feed the cats. It was a balmy evening, so I took a stroll down through the fields and liminal woods nearby to the spring. Again, I heard the bird-wake before I saw it, alarm calls and small clouds of bluebirds erupting up out of the tall grass before some unseen predator. Stock-still, I watched as a fox trotted onto the trail, bounding now and again after a careless denizen of the field. Slowly, carefully, making a tremendous racket, I followed the creature as far as the center of a fallow field before it grew tired enough of me to scamper off into the woods. At that point I noticed the sky, and the smell of the earth, and the sound of distant Canada geese, and the dying light in blue and orange, and the fact that it was Christmas eve, and the shadows of deer in the forest, and everything. In the tiny scope of a few words, I can’t express that feeling of everything all at once, very fast and loud and soft as moss, gentle as meltwater. It was Christmas eve, the night before the story’s birth of our savior in all this mess. Whose grassy tresses we cling to through thick and thin, who lifts us up in heaving clay to better see whose cloud-scattered rain-giving sky, who is the oceans and the wind and every pumping vacuole in every cell of every stem, whose happenstance we are and in whose grace we cannot help but go. The birth-day of the halo ’round the sunward limn of this, our turning world.

March 10th, 2007: Last night, driving into the City to get food for the trip, I was looking out the cramped backseat window at the row of buildings across the river, towers of lights like the tree-synchronious fireflies of Malaysia. I saw the windowlight reflected in the muddy nighttime black-green water and knew other river memories of another night when the moon was low and hazy. Leaning on the stern-rail of the barge, the thrum and churn of the engine wash casting widening V’s downstream to frame the sky, we talked about not smoking cigarettes and the glow of distant bodies. Later it was dark, the springwater cool and musty, peepers and treefrogs calling dawn down to the rolling purple world. And the sun came, and the river dried to matte green rumbling silt, and in my mind the banks still roll away past sagging willow and glass tower. The half-recounted fog of moonlight on the barge-wake awoke in me a little piece of someone else, staring out the narrow backseat window at the river reaching backwards to the headwaters of a past. The ears of my ears and the eyes of my eyes, and all that, opening…

Well, I’ll take some pinch of this history with me to another shore, and be the river through the river-watching pilot’s eyes. Rafts of fireflies in a humid summer field; the moon suffused in a haze; a jetty thrashed by storm-chased waves; the glow from the city over silhouetted trees; now this: the black river reflecting towers of yellow lights.

July 6th, 2009: I see a colony of manroot vines growing over the BART tracks as I bicycle to work most mornings.  They are tearing the concrete to pieces.  Every spring the thick roots, as big around as your waist, sprout vigorous tendrils that race upwards to the light, seeking any chink in bark or cement.  Come summertime, the spiny fruit is thick on the vine and the leaves are browning for the summer drought.  They have been here since the bay was dry prairie, grazed by creatures that, from a distance, looked almost like elk.  They have seen the small, beautiful people crushed into the mist of songs from which they were sung.  They have seen the forests hewn into park benches.  They have seen the rapid transit system, and they have seen the bridges, and they have seen the tenements, and they have seen the gunfights, and they have seen the roads.  They are growing over the BART tracks; in the shadow of the mountain, the manroot is growing over the BART tracks.  Every morning I see these plants and I remember a little more.

When I sleep I hear bŭbŭm ‘cham, the wind-lessening, wind-singing trees speaking in tall voices in the green-dark places of the world.  In the Yuba, in the cold fish-bright water, I remember floating below the moonlight in a Maryland swimming pool.  It was the last night, and I was the last in the water, under the water, naked in the moon.  I close my eyes, and forget about the poker players, and the walls, and the road noise, and I can hear far-off the sound of shell beads clinking together, so soft, so gentle, like water.

Birds in the Bush

Posted in Uncategorized on February 8, 2012 by Ben Kessler

Juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk by yours truly

I’ve been noticing a ferocious abundance of hawks lately.  Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s mostly, though I’ve heard the cries and seen pairs of circling red-tailed and broad-winged Buteos almost daily.  I wonder if this recent predatory incursion into my field of vision has more to do with the turning of the season or with the development of my own sensitivity to the goings-on of the woodland world.  The passerines (that’s song-birds to the rest of us, the perching birds from crows to titmice that populate the order Passeriformes) have been preoccupied with each other lately, belting out lewd odes and territorial calls to arms from sunup to sundown.  So distracted, the amorous robins and bellicose sparrows are easy pickings for the circling keen-eyed Accipiters.

The other day I was riding with someone out of D.C. when a Cooper’s hawk jinked right in front of our windshield, and then into an alley between two row-houses.  “Whoa!” I exclaimed, “did you see that?”  “See what?” my friend asked, momentarily oblivious.  It gave me pause- I’m not so far removed from being a city person myself to wonder, what am I missing that’s in front of my face right now?

A crash in the bamboo thicket heralded the arrival of a young sharp-shinned hawk, stricken junco in talon, to her habitual perch, three meters away from my own resting place halfway up an ash tree.  Stifling a sneeze, I leveled out my breathing and heartbeat, and strove to become as still and invisible as possible.  (Have you ever tried to make yourself calm when you’re really excited about something?  How on earth were you able to do it?)  The hawk craned her face in my direction, peering at me through one eye and then another, peeping uncertainly.  Not at all convinced that I was simply an unusually shaped tree-limb, she worried at the junco briefly, glanced again in my direction, and exited the bamboo for a more secure perch.  The ground under the bent bamboo-stem was speckled with old blood, ragged feathers, and the remnants of droppings scoured by rain.

There’s homework to be done here: I’m not at all certain that “she” was a she, nor am I comfortable asserting that the junco I saw was, in fact, a junco.  How often does this particular bird come to this particular place?  Where in her territory does it lie?  Where’d she catch the junco (or whoever it was) and how’d she get the jump on him?  Does she have a partner or is she running solo?  For every one fact or facet of the living world I think I have figured out, twenty more erupt from the undergrowth and scatter before I can get a good look at them.

Straight Line People

Posted in Uncategorized on January 22, 2012 by Ben Kessler

Mohenjo DaroMohenjo Daro, Sindh, Pakistan

“The Yoruba associate line with civilization: ‘ This country has become civilized,’ literally means in Yoruba, ‘this earth has lines upon its face.'” – Clifford Geertz, Art as a Cultural System

Why do we build square houses?  Individuals acquainted with hands-on construction may attest to the relative ease of joining a snug frame when the corner angles are kept to a common 90 degrees, as compared to the math and carpentry involved in building timber-framed ovals, triangles, and non-Euclidean monstrosities.  Trees make for exemplary home construction materials; the linear shapes found in trunks and limbs coupled with the sturdy indigestibility of lignin lend wood a singular suitability for constructions designed to be load-bearing and permanent.  Nearly every building we see is characterized by echoes of the linear design vocabulary required by wood-framing.  Even when more malleable substances like plastic, concrete, or steel are used to provide support and structure, the shapes- rectangles, squares, the odd vaulted ceiling- remain consistent with older forms.  Even within superficially novel contemporary architectural creations (the ones designed for practicality rather than spectacle, at least) the interior landscape remains one of linear corridors, rectangular rooms, and square cubicles and closets.  The engineering supports the conventions of linear architecture, but where did the conventions come from?

The architecture of people who spend their lives around trees, and pay notice to this fact, is very different from our own contemporary ‘squares and lines’ design vocabulary.  Rectangular buildings are common to nearly all wood-using cultures, but- and here’s the kicker- most of the time nobody lived in ’em.  The exceptions to this convention are raised structures inhabited by necessity in places of regular flooding, such as the stilt houses built by people living along the Amazon, Missouri, and Mekong rivers, and by parallel convention, as in the marae of Maori country; stable support for a rectangular structure is much easier and more reliable than rigging up stilts for a round house.  Where timber-framing and right angles do occur with remarkable consistency across cultures is in communal feasting-halls and in structures built to house the equipment of male mystery societies.  Sleeping structures, whether made of boughs or mammoth bones, cob or stone, tend to be circular in form.  As a mad Dutch architect friend of mine put it to me, “would you rather live in a womb or a phallus?”

Experiments in intentionally designing womb-like indoor gathering spaces have been undertaken from Arcosanti to Mumbai.  Mark Lakeman, sometime hetman of City Repair tells a story about the construction of an ovate women’s space in a Portland, OR neighborhood.  Strange synchronicities dogged the building of the space, and once finished visitors reported feelings of deep and powerful compassion, even before the space was furnished.  Throughout the construction, the builders experienced intense dreams of Olympian goddesses, the Virgin Mary, Kali, the pre-Indo-European Earth Mother, and other notable personages exemplary of feminine prowess.  All this just from hammering some bits of wood together in a circle.

So how did permanence, maleness, and the structural possibility of a second floor come to outweigh psychological comfort when it came to the construction of our home-buildings?  What would happen if a tree stove in the roof of your house?  Who would build you a new sleeping place?  Why did the dwellers of Mohenjo Daro and Ur forsake their grandmothers’ round houses and line their family compounds straight-edged along the avenues when the city walls engulfed their villages?  When were the round sod houses of rural Scots and Danes abandoned for stone cottages, and what else was happening in these places at the time?  If you wanted to build a garden shed, what shape would it be?  What does the shape of Wyoming have to do with the shape of English sheep enclosures?  Where does the Christian god dwell; where does the Earth Mother dwell?  Which is more noble, a skyscraper or a bungalow; why?  In Yoruba country, who built the first cinder-block structure?  Find the common thread linking these puzzles: it is one of the core stories of our people.

The Tzutujil Mayan village of Santiago Atitlán did without doors from its founding several thousand years ago until the early 1980’s.  Martín Prechtel, refugee shaman and raconteur, tells the story of the coming of doors to the village in Secrets of the Talking Jaguar (I think).  After millennia of relative security and stability, theft, domestic violence, and other social ills erupted overnight.  Without doors, anyone may visit at any time; there is no border between one’s public and private life.  One cannot, in a fit of anguish or rage, shut the rest of the world out and allow the self’s shadow free reign.  Without doors, when you’re hurting, everyone knows it and out of that everyone, someone’s bound to come help.  When obstructions are placed to the flow of loving attention throughout the village, fear and anger breed unchecked.  In climate-controlled apartment buildings, how emotionally close do neighbors tend to be?  Why do you choose to live in a house with doors?  Or central heating:

“Manteled chimneys, built into the walls, were a feature in every part of [Castle Coucy].  As distinct from a hole in the roof, these chimneys were a technological advance of the 11th century that by warming individual rooms, brought lords and ladies out of the common hall where all had once eaten together and gathered for warmth, and separated owners from their retainers.  No other invention brought more progress in comfort and refinement, although at the cost of a widening social gulf.” – Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Much of what shapes our lives remains invisible so long as we do not look at it.  What else constitutes the pattern language of the built environment?


Posted in Uncategorized on December 7, 2011 by Ben Kessler


Fragment of a mural of Tlaloc from the city of Teotihuacán.  Photo by Hélène de Fays

Rain’s been falling for two days.  Soft grey clouds hold the warmth of another Indian summer close to the earth.  Ground ivy and chickweed cling to the ground in a riot of verdure.  It’s good tea weather.

Weather patterns remain one of the many natural processes that resist accurate description and prediction by the most detailed scientific methods of the day.  Winds and clouds are, we are told, too mathematically chaotic to ken.  It’s that story about the butterfly and the hurricane.

The name of the Nahua high spirit of rain, Tlaloc, means ‘the one who covers the valleys’, i.e. the dense stratus clouds that lie low on the land when rainy weather comes.  It’s worth noting that Tlaloc is not responsible for or symbolic of rainy weather; Tlaloc is rainy weather.  We can choose to relate to powerful inhuman natural forces as blind, dumb, unfeeling phenomena absent of spirit or intelligent agency (“dense stratus clouds”) or as species of mysterious personhood.  Material accuracy may not be the only criterion in the comparative value of worldviews.  How does it feel to walk through a rainy day?  (Wet.)  How does it feel to walk within a god?

In Maid^ country, when kadiki ‘kitdom (kadiki– can you hear the sound of rain in it?) go outside without an umbrella for a little while.  The rain washes sins and bad luck right out of you if you let it fall on your head.  All our food comes from the union of rain and soil- no plants grow without both, no animals grow without plants.  Mushrooms good for food, good for medicine, good for holding the forest together, good for enriching the soil, good for the eyes spring up in hours when the raindrops hit the duff.  Groundwater that feeds springs and wells, grain fields and orchards, that drips and flows to hollow out grand caves and erect stalagmites and flowstone falls first from the sky.  Rain and fog ease the overland passage of Atlantic eels in their cross-continental journeys.  Ponds, vernal pools, puddles are filled with cloud-water, then frogspawn and baby salamanders.  There are few feelings quite so satisfying as walking into a warm, bright home with hot stew steaming on the stove and good company all around after a long day in the mud and rain.  The wetter the air, the warmer the hearth.

Rain isn’t the only natural force that does nice things for us, but it’s here right now.  Let the droplets dapple your brow.  What do you smell?  What sounds can you hear?  Any differences in how your senses are functioning compared to dry weather?  Where are the birds?  How do the little plants that grow around the base of the trees look?  How does the rain taste?  What symbols, images, or feelings come up for you when you stand in the rain?