Yellowstone Opens the Doors of Perception

While I was sauntering through woods I mused how quickly the intensity of first impressions fade to extinction. How the frisson of a new place or a face we want to sustain with its original freshness never burns so brightly afterwards, like the turning down of a dimmer switch except the hand that turns it is unconscious.

I was in the backwoods of Montana last week at dawn. I was told to drive past the last ranch on a gravel track to where it peters out at the edge of a lodgepole pine forest that girdles a snow-capped mountain. Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is outside the Park and a better place for the only big beast on my list that I hadn’t seen inside. I followed the directions of a local man to signs posted for grizzly habitat.

I left the car to tramp into a dew-soaked meadow where there were wild forget-me-nots, bluebells and lupines in bloom, and crouching among the sagebrush there was a kind of golden sunflower. A Painted Lady flitted around, confused by the choice of flowers to suck for nectar. There was a powerful fragrance of pine resin breathing out of the trees, and it involuntarily triggered a memory flash of another forest walk long ago. The place was so silent only the ringing in my ears kept me from mental numbness. I stood soaking in the scene and scent for several minutes before starting along a forest trail used by riders in the fall who come to hunt elk and mule deer.

This is not a prologue to a terrifying bear story. Sorry! It was the hope of seeing one of those old men of the woods that brought me there, and I was alert because without rummaging in my backpack I wasn’t sure if in the dark cabin to avoid disturbing my wife I might have brought a can of hair spray instead of bear spray.

Ecstatic absorption in a scene obliterates other thoughts and pushes away anxieties, if only for a few minutes. I remember I had the sense of being naturally high before, not always on nature. It is a mysterious emotion of pure being the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart called is-ness, and the best word to capture my feelings for the object is love. As for the bears, I never saw or heard them, and yet wouldn’t exchange that lone stroll in the woods for lying longer in bed. But those feelings are becoming strangers as the days pass. The images, fragrance and silence faded as soon as I started back along the path to the ordinary day.

It’s tempting to wish to live permanently on the heights of exaggerated sensibility, to continue to enjoy the fullness of being in the woods, a new home, a new lover, and all those other special moments that are fleeting. But our minds quickly shut down inputs from our senses, which I suppose protects us from too much distraction in the business of normal life, or even from going mad.  Maybe that’s what T.S. Eliot meant by, “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Most of the time we look and do not see; we listen and do not hear; we breath and do not smell. That’s my experience. My brain diminishes the world, casting aside unnecessary details I only notice when they are fresh, making it less extraordinary and the experience of being alive less astonishing. Familiar stimuli quickly slip from the mind into a chasm of unconsciousness. The aroma of barbecue fades before the end of the meal, the stale smell of tobacco smoke is not so offensive by the end of the taxi-cab journey. I don’t notice dust on my bookshelf unless a visiting mother-in-law holds up an accusing finger she wiped across its surface. It takes concentrated effort to focus on the same object for long. I mostly achieved it when I was scanning specimens for rare cell types under a microscope, and when I used to draw and paint and had to scrutinize the subject for the finest details.

When the dimmer switch is turned down and our senses are no longer in rapt attention, the mind draws in on itself to internal thoughts and memories. I don’t think it is only introverts who will admit this. l can walk a familiar path without much consciousness of my surroundings, and am sometimes so absorbed in thought (including plans for the next blogpost) that if my dog didn’t steer me away with her leash I could walk into a tree or lamppost.

I wonder if my dog lives a much more sensate, much less introspective life than I do. Both predator and prey animals must remain alert to their environment to capture nuances that help them find food and to survive. Humans are relatively liberated from this urgency because we learned to provide more security for ourselves by controlling our environment and sharing responsibility.

Perhaps early hominids engaged the sensory world more acutely and more like animals, but it seems likely that big differences in natural sensibility exist between modern people. I doubt if this territory has gotten much attention from researchers because it is subjective, but I think artists like van Gogh and poets like Blake had this gift.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

The author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, experimented with mescaline from the peyote cactus and with LSD to induce psychedelic experiences for mimicking the experiences that inspired William Blake’s art. He wrote about the intensity of visions and red-hot poker plants in his book The Doors of Perception, which became a handbook for early hippies. But drugs provide an artificial and forced escape without the fullness of an experience that comes free from nature and empties the mind for liberated senses to fill. Coming out of the internal cavern spontaneously to experience a “high” in the woods was so much more rewarding for being rare, taken by surprise, and not bent under pharmacology.

Next Post: Eunuch Dog on Stilts




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Fences, Neighbors and Owls

A pair of new neighbors moved into our woodlot this spring. We hear them calling on and off during the day while they are resting until they fly off for night work. They repeatedly chatter to each other: “Hoo, hoo, who cooks for you?”

Owl pellets

I am curious about their diet. Scratching in the ground cover under their favorite tree, I looked for pellets regurgitated from indigestible food. I found several about an inch or two long and floated them in a bowl of water until they were soft for tearing to shreds between sharp points. The solid matter settled to the bottom of the bowl for identification, first by naked eye and then with the low-power lens of a dissecting microscope. I hoped there wouldn’t be evidence of small birds in their diet because we had two broods of bluebirds fledging from one nestbox and also a family of titmice from another box that might be tempting tidbits.

They were mostly eating insects. There was a jumble of legs up to the size of large cricket’s, as well as the hard chitinous protein of beetle elytra. I found the skull and femur of a vole. No feathers. Phew!

Jumble of undigested material

They often roost in a hackberry tree like a romantic pair perched side-by-side. To make our yard their base for months in springtime surely means they have family plans, or even a hidden brood. I guessed they had a nest in an old maple tree whose heartwood was rotted out to form an entrance hole nearly 20 feet up. The sticks and limp greenery poking out of the hole confirmed something was living there, but they never showed themselves.

Considering how most wildlife scoot off at first sight of us, regarding humans as arch-enemies or super-predators, owls are remarkably trusting. I can walk to within seven paces without disturbing them any more than rotating their heads through 180° to watch me go. But I make concessions to win their trust, meaning I saunter past looking nonchalantly and avoiding abrupt motion. I pretend not to notice them and never look them in the eye as a hunter does.

It is a moving experience to build a friendly relationship with a wild and beautiful creature. People rarely come into conflict with owls and they are beneficial for farmers and gardeners. People love them and we are introduced to the wise bird in story books and cartoons at early ages. But it wasn’t always so. In folk-lore they were depicted in a superstitious light and as harbingers of death, probably because they are beasts of the night.

Owls have few friends apart from us. Prey animals loathe them, of course, but so do other birds in our yard, regarding them in the same way as they do red-shouldered hawks. It’s an injustice when they haven’t committed crime against their feathered relatives. Whenever there is a tremendous cacophony of mocking birds, titmice, and blue jays outside I know the owls are in for a mobbing, and soon enough a murder of crows arrives to accuse our friends, who look like two thieves crossed on a horizontal branch. “Murder” is an apt collective noun for crows, whose bills are as sharp as spear points.  Shouting to scare them away is wasted effort. Crows are so smart they know the difference between a man carrying a gun and empty hands. Owls are not dumb and know when to retire from the bullies into dense cover.

Barred owl in our persimmon tree

As night workers, owls have eyes and ears for perceiving objects too faint for us to see and too slight to hear. I guess they long to open their pupils at the end of day after they were stopped down like camera lenses in daylight, and if birds have any sense of time I expect they look forward to when the yard falls quiet in the gloaming.

I remembered another amazing adaptation for their nightly patrols when I found a flight feather where they were preening. It was barred white and brown for camouflage (they were Barred Owls), but I was more interested in the leading edge because the vane was brushed into a delicate comb. Uniquely in owls, it reduces turbulence from air passing over the feather to muffle sound and perhaps even raise the pitch above the threshold for prey to hear. It “comes with gossamer softness,” wrote a birder with a poetic heart.

Since this post is about neighbors I was recalling some years ago when I had a row with the man next door after I erected a fence along our property line. He didn’t want it in his line of sight and didn’t know it was for good cause, because “good fences make good neighbors.” Our owls, like Mr. X, are no respecters of fences, but we are getting along with them and welcome their trespassing.

Next Post: Hail Yellowstone



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Salute to a Cup-of-Tea

Tea has become a generic name for hot beverages.  Originally brewed from Camellia sinensis, “teas” have been made in the past from wild plants when the genuine article was not available, and now many tea-drinkers prefer the dried leaves or petals, even roots and berries, of other plants wrapped in a porous paper bag. There is a kinship of “teas,” but it is based on the shared process of infusion and never on taste. To an aficionado, only real tea holds its flavor over time and the fruitiness of others soon turns to old hay. Nevertheless, they all garner reputations for promoting health.

A pot of steaming tea in a brown betty warming inside its knitted cozy is as much a British emblem as a bull-dog or a commemorative royal wedding mug, but it has become a rare sight. Still regarded as the national drink, Britain was not the country that introduced it to Europe from China, though the one that took tea drinking to its heart.

According to legend, a Chinese Emperor tasted the first cup of Cha nearly five thousand years ago, starting a tradition that led to an honored drink requiring special etiquette and ceremony for serving it. Tea didn’t arrive in Britain until the 17th Century, along with other novelties brought home from tropical lands by plant collectors, including coffee, chocolate, ginseng, and tobacco. Never again have we been so grateful to botanists or have they had such an impact on history.

The Portuguese wife of King Charles II popularized tea drinking in England. It was served at coffee houses like the Garraway in London where the proprietor proclaimed its health benefits “against the Stone and Gravel, cleaning the kidneys and uriters (sic)”. Fashionable society tasted it, doctors prescribed it, and devotees guzzled it. Samuel Johnson drank up to sixteen cups at a sitting, almost one cup for each of his medical problems.

A luxury item and social status identifier at first, working class people aspired to join the fashion. Their first tastes were often from reused leaves strained in the kitchens of toffs they worked for, or leafy-looking products said to be adulterated by charlatans with sheep dung. The bosses complained when their workers took tea breaks, and the preacher John Wesley condemned it as a mental stimulant, although temperance movements hoped tea shops and cafes would keep folk away from pubs and inns.

Tea was on its way to become the number one beverage, not only in the British Isles and Ireland but in the world. It became popular in India after the British East India Company started tea estates in Assam, which has a favorable climate. Hot tea probably saved lives from water-borne diseases because it is made with vigorously boiling water. Somewhat paradoxically, it helps to cool the body in hot weather, and experimental studies show it drops core body heat more than ice-cold drinks or sucking ice cubes. Perhaps the physiological explanation is that blood warmed by a hot drink ascends in the internal carotid arteries to the brain where the thermoregulatory center “thinks” the body is too hot. Or maybe sensors in the gut are the messengers. In any case, the hypothalamus triggers sweating and a flush of blood to the skin to create a cooling effect by the latent heat of evaporation and thermal radiation, respectively. However, don’t count on hot drinks in hot and humid climates when sweat drips off the body instead of evaporating.

The name “Lipton” is synonymous with tea and the company’s yellow packages have been familiar sights on pantry shelves for more than a century. Thomas Lipton (later Sir Thomas), who grew up in a Glasgow tenement in the Victorian Age, was a savvy businessman and made a fortune in the grocery trade by age 40. He had a razor mind for cut-throat competition and an unerring instinct for publicity, even running pigs through the streets to his shop to prove the freshness of his bacon. He knew that tea was too expensive for most households at 30 ¢ per pound when weekly incomes were averaging $10 per week. He aimed to reach mass markets by under-cutting middlemen and using salubrious slogans to advertise his products as “direct from tea garden to tea pot.”

At a time when coffee plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were being wiped out by a fungus, he discreetly paused on a voyage advertised to Australia to visit Colombo where idle estates were in fire-sales. They were ideal for growing tea, so he dug in his deep pockets to buy thousands of acres of rich farmland. His enterprise became wildly successful after crops were exported for sale at known-down prices at home. He also revolutionized the way tea was sold. Instead of wooden chests from which grocers weighed customers’ orders on scales, he manufactured premeasured packages of standard products in yellow wrappers covered with company promotions. Tea had its home in Ceylon, and Lipton was its by-word.

The first tea bag for making individual cuppas over a century ago was not another brainwave of Lipton, but he quickly realized the handy little bags and shorter infusion times would catch on. They have consigned a lot of tea-pots to decorative shelves in kitchens after giving daily service for much longer than a century, but convenience has its price.

A friend returning some years ago from tea plantations in Sri Lanka (no longer owned by Lipton) told me the best of the harvest was hived off to sell as loose tea at premium prices while the rest, including dust at the bottom of bins and leaf stalks, was swept into containers for tea bags. If you care about the difference, open a tea bag beside a pile of loose tea and after noting the difference with your eyes and nose compare flavors in your palate.

Does any other beverage boast as many champions and snobs, or has any created professional tea-tasters? But the difference between real tea and pale substitutes should not be a storm in a tea cup because, just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, taste is in the synapses of the front lobe.

Next Post: An Owl Prowl

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Enemy of the People

This post began as a gentle experiment at home to compare drinking water. It wasn’t a test of impurities but more like a whiskey- or tea-tasting party at which connoisseurs pronounce which sample has the best flavor.

We took samples from the kitchen faucet, two brands of bottled water, water filtered in a jug (Brita), and from the refrigerator (MWF filter, General Electric). They were equilibrated in identical vessels and reached the same temperature in an hour. We took turns to be the tester (observer) and the tested, offering samples in random order to avoid bias from knowing the source.  After the first round our roles were reversed, and then we repeated the experiment for two more rounds. It wasn’t long before we reached the same conclusion.

Bottled water along with refrigerator water tasted best. Water filtered in a jug tasted as bad, or possibly worse, than straight out of the faucet. In my opinion, none of them was as tasty as water drawn from our well in the Allegheny Mountains, which is raw, unchlorinated, and only passed through a simple string filter. It gives excellent results with chemical tests, as it ought from rain falling at high elevations onto limestone far from West Virginia’s mines.

The experiment changed our drinking habits. Brita filters are out. Refrigerator filters are in. I discourage bottles because they aren’t environmentally friendly, but can’t give them up completely. It’s hard to explain the difference in taste between filters because there are no comparative data from the same lab. Both manufacturers claim their filters remove heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic) as well as some drugs and man-made pollutants. Both of them say they reduce chlorine (GE removes “97%”), but I’m suspicious that Brita water tastes the same as from the faucet, perhaps implying chlorine or chlorinated compounds cause the difference. I also wonder if filtration removes beneficial solutes like fluoride along with chlorine/ chlorides, which would not be good news for kids’ teeth in the absence of fluoride supplements.

The experiment provoked a fit of musing. Water is something we take for granted because it is almost ubiquitous, covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, over 2% of which is fresh. We never expect kitchen faucets or showers will run dry.  And so I was stunned to hear at a public meeting a senior official from the Department of Environmental Quality lament the Potomac aquifer supplying water to James City County and neighboring countries will be exhausted by the middle of this century at current rates of depletion. Levels of fossil water have fallen by 200 feet and rain adds <<1 inch per year. How could I be ignorant of so important a fact, and why are local planners in a mad dash to grow this region’s population?

The prospect of coming water shortages is a paradox for a region of great rivers and wetlands where the annual rainfall approaches 40 inches. The audience was told we might switch to river water, recycle more water, and import water, but no option is rosy or cheap. Perhaps that’s why water is called the “new oil,” which I previously assumed meant only parched parts of the world. Water conservation is of course part of the solution, but whose supply will be drawn down first or inflated in price? Probably not those with the influence money buys. The papermill at West Point draws 20 million gallons per day from the aquifer, four times the volume used by the county and much of it for bleaching paper. Where it is drawn from source by industry and private well-owners it is free because billing applies only to water treatment and delivery.

The other half of the story is about the purity of what we drink. Why should citizens go to the trouble and expense of extra testing when we pay for what flows out of our faucets? Trust in the authorities to safeguard public health was misplaced in the past, and is being eroded again.

Up to Victorian times, cholera epidemics were blamed on bad air (“miasma”). Untreated human waste was dumped into the River Thames which flowed through London like a meandering sewer, and the air was so fetid in 1858 that it was called the “Great Stink.” Dr. John Snow died that year of a stroke an unsung hero at 45 years old. It wasn’t until 2013 that the medical journal that published his brief obituary issued an apology for ignoring this savior of public health, who is now called the first epidemiologist.

Four years earlier he deduced the source of a cholera epidemic was the community water pump on Broad Street in Soho and had its handle removed. His dot maps proved a connection between where people collected water and they fell ill, and he noticed men at a local brewery never contracted the disease because they drank beer from water that was boiled for malting. His theory was excoriated by leading medical men, so Snow was in that ever good company of scorned pioneers.

The playwright Ibsen probably knew the story when he penned The Enemy of the People nearly thirty years later. His fictitious Dr. Stockmann suspected the health spa in his town was contaminated, but its salubrious reputation filled the coffers. Officials denied it caused cholera outbreaks, and his former allies at the newspaper sided with the politicians. In standing alone he paid a heavy price.

These stories have modern resonances, although the new threats are from chemical pollution because bacterial contamination is cured by chlorination. A switch in the water supply exposed citizens in Flint MI to lead, carcinogens from coal ash spilled into wells in Belmont NC, and the oil MCHM overflowing into the Elk River contaminated the public water supply for Charleston WV.

When we experimented with water samples at home we were solely interested in taste, which is a comparatively trivial concern. Despite the ubiquity of this essence of life, the public has few choices for sourcing their drinking water and trust it doesn’t harbor invisible hazards. A faithful public watchdog, Dr. Stockmann was unjustly called an enemy of the people for casting doubt on his town’s supply, but it was those who tarred him who really deserved the label, along with anyone who calls for rolling back the Clean Water Act in the name of “jobs,” which I suspect is disingenuous cover for personal profit.

Next Post: A Cup of Tea


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Drain the Swamp

Drain the Swamp! It’s the refrain of a U.S. President who prefers time on the barren grass of golf courses to life’s abundance in natural wetland. Calling somewhere a swamp is never a compliment, and it’s not a pretty phrase as a  metaphor. It brings to mind a miasma, a malarious bog, a wasteland. That’s how George, the first president, regarded the Great Dismal Swamp when he surveyed it in the 1760s, and William Byrd II before him described it as a “miserable morass.” George was a land speculator who hoped that draining the swamp would create arable land to sell at a handsome profit as prime farmland in the growing colonies. He wasted his investment.

Lake Drummond

I was thinking about the Dismal as I prepared to return this week for a kayaking trip to the vast area straddling the Virginia-North Carolina border. It’s a swamp, not a marsh, because, while both are wetlands, the first is forested while marshes are vegetated with reeds, sedges or saltmarsh grasses. Both are very productive biologically, and plants put down roots into moist, deep humus to provide habitat for countless wildlife species. In George’s day, the Dismal Swamp provided food and shelter for over two hundred species of resident birds or migrants on the Atlantic flyway, and there were plenty of snakes, alligators, panthers, otters, and bears. Many of those species still thrive there today in a reduced but still vast area of over 100,000 acres centered around Lake Drummond in what is now protected as a National Wildlife Refuge. Birders and naturalists are swamp-huggers.

This is neither the first nor the last time this blogger will be a contrarian. I love swamps, not just for the animals and plants they harbor, but for their hydrology, resistance to erosion, and pure freshwater. I admit they are forbidding places in the summer when clouds of insects circle you hungrily for a bite, ticks crawl over your socks for a longer meal, and water moccasins with lily mouths slither around your waders in tea-colored water. But as tormentors’ tormentors they have been friends and allies to people who lived in the swamp.

After the Dismal was occupied by Native Americans, refugee slaves moved in after escaping from plantations. They were called maroons, from the Spanish and French word marron meaning chestnut (brown), and lived on higher patches of land called hummocks deep in the swamp where they hid from bounty hunters who dreaded leaving the main tracks. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a story about the former slave Dred in the Dismal Swamp who preached revolution and ventured outside to rescue enslaved African-Americans. Life as free men and women was a happier existence in the bog than what they were used to.

Anyone who visits the Dismal goes knowingly with a definite purpose in mind. A young white man headed there in 1894 because of its dreary reputation and intent on never returning. Instead, he found a salvation and came out alive.

That was Robert Frost down on his luck and still unpublished. According to the latest biography by William & Mary Professor Henry Hart, he had presented a few days earlier a leather-bound collection of his poems to his sweetheart, Elinor White, but she shut the book and the door on him (there was a happy ending because they later married). Frost, like Tennyson, had a family history of mental illness and when he was jilted fell into a deep melancholy and left Boston in the dead of winter. He took a steamer from New York to Norfolk from where he plodded through the country for ten miles to the swamp only clad in light clothes and not even carrying a knapsack. He was rescued from throwing his life away by a chance meeting with a group of jolly boatmen carrying a jug of grog. It made all the difference. He hints at this dark episode in his life in Kitty Hawk, a long poem composed at the end of life.

Washington DC was never a swamp like the Dismal, and only had a tidal river coursing nearby. Trump’s metaphor doesn’t ring true, although we understand his meaning. His slogan to drain the swamp is also likely to ring hollow because there is more to love and cherish in those rich habitats that to loathe and cull. Like George, he will probably find swamps have allies and advocates, and are more resilient than he imagined.

Next Post: Tap water

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