If You Can’t Stand the Heat …

The tomatoes throwing a party in July for their rambunctious friends.

Sisyphus had it easy. All he had to do was push a boulder up a hill, over and over and over again.

I empathize with Sisyphus, although for me it’s not a boulder I’m doomed to fight, but a mudslide of misplaced horticultural enthusiasm. Each spring I start out standing, proud to plant anything I see, until I wind up weeding in a sweat down upon my knees. Gardening is a humbling pursuit.

The truth is nobody outgrows Mother Nature. She says “Grow” and it groweth. I nurture little seeds, feed them the best nutrients, plant them out in beautifully blended soil, water them faithfully, and then sit back and watch the slaughter. Because I eschew pesticides, I have no shortage of wormy bugs chowing down on the greenery. Not to mention the squirrels digging up the seedlings the minute they get settled in. And, of course, the rabbits. Feh.

Yet, in spite of all the pushback, the plants themselves don’t seem as discouraged as I would be in their roots. Somehow, once the garden gets going, roundabout June, it keeps accelerating until it hits some kind of jungle overdrive, rocketing high, wide and plentiful, as if it had only one season in which to say it all.

Well. This is nice up to a point, until the Sisyphian nature of Nature begins to tilt the game board. By late summer, unless we’ve been scorched by drought, I usually find myself in a different sort of battle, trying to rein in the madness. Anyone who’s tried to hack their way through a blackberry thicket in mid-July knows what I’m talking about. A suit of chainmail might protect you from the thorns and stinging flies, but it’s no picnic being steamed in your own sweat.

That’s where I am now. If it’s not global warming, it’s close enough for me. We’re not even through May and I’m already feeling August. Hah hah. Who needs a boulder?

Hot Foot

Dumb bunny?

So did you hear the latest extinction news? According to the most recent United Nations study on biodiversity there has been a “catastrophic decline” in wild animal species worldwide in just the last fifty years. At the same time, the loss of ecosystems worldwide has radically diminished the number of amphibians, marine mammals and coral reefs.

This can’t be good for humans. But at this point I wonder if the humans driving the planet into extinction overdrive are capable of putting on the brakes. It’s not like this is the first time overwhelming evidence has shown the folly of our behavior and the high cost of all our cheap disposable production. And, as Dylan once put it, “the hour is getting late.” There may one day be nobody left on Earth but us and the cows. And of course the chickens. We’ll be well and truly clucked.

I used to get very upset about this prospect, twenty, thirty years ago. I’d shake my head and wonder what was wrong with us that we couldn’t see what a mess we were making of this gorgeous planet. Lately I’ve been trying to envision a future that doesn’t require pixie dust or guns or gas masks in order for the human race to continue. So far, the best I can imagine is that, when the Blue Ridge becomes beachfront property, and the last honeybee has gone the way of the dodo, there may still be a few humans scratching out a meager existence in a cave somewhere. And if they can hang on for a millennium or two, maybe the oceans will recede and we’ll get another shot at this civilization thing.

Or, alternatively, we’re toast, and rabbits will inherit the earth. They weren’t my first pick in the survival lottery, but as a gardener I’ve been humbled by their relentless persistence. They’re fast running, fast breeding, and they’ll eat anything. Plus, they’re fine with living underground, which will no doubt be helpful once the ozone shield is gone and the surface of the planet becomes a hotplate.

So, there’s the future for our great-grandchildren. Living in caves, eating rabbit if they’re lucky. I don’t know if they’ll be happy kids. But they won’t know there was any other life, since there won’t be any electricity or other nifty technology to amuse them. Hopefully they’ll still have the moon and the stars to enjoy.

Unless we manage to muck up that neighborhood too. I’d sooner eat rabbit.

Walking the Invisible Bridge

It’s only logical to believe in Mr. Spock.

What did you know, and when did you know it?

The catchphrase, forever associated with the Watergate scandal, hinges on the culturally accepted definition of knowledge as a body of facts. These days, facts, it seems, mean different things to different people. Opinion masquerades as fact, and sentiment obscures the hard edge of reality. But when truth itself becomes a matter of opinion we’ve sailed too far from the shore. Lately the news feed has me feeling seasick.

For me, reality is best endured with a touch of whimsy and chaser of mad romance. I need the comfort of music, literature, and films. Of course I don’t believe we can teach the whole world to sing in perfect harmony with just one song, or one book. Yet every now and then a film comes along that moves the global ball a little closer to the goal.

I’m not talking about important great films of days gone by like “On the Waterfront” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Nor do I care to weigh in on the blockbusters of more recent times such as “The Godfather” series or the “Star Wars” saga, though each of those has had a profound effect on our country at least.

I’m partial to films that shed light on the complexities of modern life. One such film came out late last year that dealt with the challenges of living with autism. Directed by Ben Lewin, “Please Stand By” tells the story of a young woman with autism who runs away from her caregiver to enter a Star Trek writing competition. It’s not easy even for a relatively stable person to write something original, and then to muster the courage to do whatever it takes to get that work critiqued. Dakota Fanning plays the autistic writer, and she’s fantastic in the role of a fragile-seeming woman who discovers her own inner strength in the pursuit of her dream. The cast also includes the gifted Toni Collette as the caregiver, and the always droll Patton Oswalt in a small but essential role as a police officer who understands Klingon.

That’s how you know.

When a writer, in this case Michael Golamco, isn’t afraid to leaven the drama with a touch of, you know, silliness, then I dare to hope that things won’t end in tears. And that’s what I look for in a satisfying film. If I want tears there’s the daily news.

Sometimes it’s important to take a breath of hope. A spoonful of fantasy makes the bitter pills go down.

May Tricks

Superb blooming California flannel bush

Have we ever had a lovelier spring?

Probably. But for some reason, this year’s crop of beauty seems over the top, even by today’s standards. Sometimes I think we’ve been spoiled by all the digital manipulation of images into expecting nothing less than perfection from Reality. And, if the rising rate of devastating storms, floods, fires and other unnatural disasters world wide is any indication, Reality is not amused.

Just a few short weeks ago news outlets around the globe devoted a small portion of their precious air time to note the 50th annual celebration of Earth Day. Each year I try to tell myself that things are getting better. But then, I’m a great fan of fiction.

The truth is, Earth is heating up faster than ever, and all the recycling in the world won’t make a dent unless we can somehow put the brakes on our reckless consumption and toxic habits.

Easier said than done. Much easier to turn the page, find another channel, listen to some breezy music and assume things will somehow get better, because they always have in the past.

But really? The past, the real past, has been going on so much longer than humans have existed. Our measly 10,000 years or so of civilized behavior barely registers in the Big Picture. Of course, it’s hard for us to live our little lives, taking care of our families and burnishing our sense of our own importance in the scheme of things, while trying to bear in mind that we may not be the most marvelous creatures in the universe.

Those would be the Avengers.

Or not. How are we to know? All we can do is look around at the world in which we find ourselves and try to make some sense of it. Humans are born with a sense of narrative. We think of our lives as stories, with beginnings, middles and ends. But maybe that’s just another illusion.

Every spring the illusion of renewal and hope opens in the theater of my mind. Flowers bloom, bees hum, birds gotta fly, etc., and for a little while the very air seems filled with hope. Until you turn on the news and learn of the latest catastrophe.

Here and now, with our gadgets and conveniences, and our 24-7 diversion cycle, it’s too easy to forget the work that needs to be done in the Big Yard. I don’t want to live a simulated life. No Matrix for me. There’s trouble right here on planet Earth, but if we all pull together and stop fighting over petty stuff like kids on the playground, we’ve got a chance to keep this planet blooming for another millennium or two. What do you say guys?


With Every Beat of My Heart

In the “Pulse” exhibit heartbeats can be seen in wave form.

I had reservations about going to see the “Pulse” exhibit at the Hirshhorn. When I heard that visitors were expected to allow their fingerprints to be scanned in and projected large for all the world to see, I felt that modern knee-jerk cringe. Aren’t we all supposed to be concerned about our privacy, especially in view of the massive data breaches that have come to light?

I wasn’t always so uptight. But paranoia grows like mildew, out of sight until it’s everywhere.
Yet from the moment I stepped into the curving darkened gallery where Mexican artist Rafael-Lozano Hemmer’s works are on display, I was mesmerized by the drama and energy in the room. Lights were flashing on the ceiling. Images were constantly scrolling on the wall. Voices filled with hushed delight bubbled in the air.

I stuck my index finger in the first print reader without a qualm, and was immediately shocked to hear my own heart, pounding loud and clear. At the same time, an image of my fingerprint, taller than I am, appeared on the wall, taking its place in the interactive fingerprint stream moving implacably along the wall. Instagrammers huddled in the shadows trying to take it all in.

We are all programmed at a very young age to recognize visual art. We’re taught to look for it on walls, static and quiet. But it’s rare to find art that makes the invisible visible. At the Pulse “Tank,” a shallow pool on the floor in the center of the exhibit, visitors may place a hand on a sensor, which transmits their pulse to the pool, causing ripples of light to be projected onto the wall. When two people on opposite sides of the pool project their pulses at the same time, a rhythmic pattern dances on the wall.

This shared rhythm is at the heart of the exhibit. The pulse which beats below the surface of all life is out of sight most of the time, and too quiet to hear beneath the cacophony of modern human “civilization.” In Hemmer’s “Pulse Room” you can grip a pair of sensors to light one of the many ceiling bulbs which flash on and off, beating audibly in time with your heart. Your own little heartbeat’s star turn only lasts a minute or so, until the next person in line steps up and lends a beat. But your light doesn’t disappear right away. It moves down the line, joining the hundreds of other lights beating in the darkness, until it’s time for you to go.

Sort of like life right? We are all here such a short time, part of the ever-shifting cosmic drum circle.

The truth is, I am you and you are me and we are all replaceable and irreplaceable. Life is not about grabbing and holding and hording. It’s about passing on. It’s about waving into the universe.

Hello Universe. Earth sends its love.

The Strong Silent Type

Muir Woods

I’ve never found it easy to keep my mouth shut.

However, in the past decade or so, as public social platforms have become a virtual mosh pit for wide-eyed optimists and gun-toting vigilantes alike, my urge to, ahem, air my views has been tempered by the sheer god-awfulness of what passes for reality these days. I mean, really? Aristophanes himself would have been aghast by the “cloud cuckoo land” which passes for normal in the current millennium.

So lately I’ve been trying to distance myself from the fray. But it’s not as easy at it once was to get away from it all. And maybe now isn’t the time. Now more than ever it’s time to look after this planet, and perhaps move to higher ground.

Sorry, fiction fans, I don’t believe the answer lies in outer space. At least not any time soon. If we can’t keep from wrecking this amazing planet we’ve got no business heading out to trash another one.

Okay. That’s the rant. Moving on.

About a year ago a weighty novel came out to much fanfare. Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” was compared to Melville’s masterpiece “Moby Dick” in terms of its cultural significance and literary merit. When I learned that the author wove multiple story lines all sharing a common theme of trees, I was intrigued and determined to read it. I mean, I love trees. I love reading. I’m a fan of fiction. What could go wrong?

Well. It’s an amazing book. I’m glad I read it. But I wouldn’t read it again. It’s too painful. Too real. And it’s not at all like “Moby Dick” unless you’re measuring by length. “The Overstory” is not as funny or lyrical, or just plain wondrous. But what makes it like Melville’s staggering work of genius is the compelling brilliance of the story, which weaves history, science and the heartbreaking paradox of humanity into a sobering cautionary tale for our times.

The mind-blowing science at the heart of the plot centers on the relatively recent studies documenting how trees communicate with each other. Modern skeptics may scoff, but the evidence is overwhelming. Trees have their own “heartbeats.” They can live hundreds, even thousands of years.

Short-lived humans, who value speed above thoughtfulness, have long taken trees for granted, slaying them by the millions every year. We humans are so easily distracted by noisemakers. Yet we once admired the strong silent type. John Wayne, not known for his environmental stand, earned the respect of generations by following his own rule, “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”

As another Earth Day approaches politicians will make new promises. I wish I could believe them. But it’s been almost 50 years since the first Earth Day. The ocean is rising faster every year, while the forests are silently vanishing.

It’s a pity we can’t hear the trees. But if you read “The Overstory,” you may be convinced. The planet is fighting back.

Happy Earth Day, indeed.