James Robert Wallace (1938-2016)
Many thanks to my dear friend Michael Bailey for sending this poem my way a few weeks ago. It has become such a part of my consciousness that I thought I’d share it here.
I’ve wasted my time this morning, and I’m deeply ashamed.
I went to bed last night thinking about my dad.
About that little river we used to fish — Butte Creek —
near Lake Almanor. Water lulled me to sleep.
In my dream, it was all I could do not to get up
and move around. But when I woke early this morning
I went to the telephone instead. Even though
the river was flowing down there in the valley,
in the meadows, moving through ditch clover.
Fir trees stood on both sides of the meadows. And I was there.
A kid sitting on a timber trestle, looking down.
Watching my dad drink from his cupped hands.
Then he said, “This water’s so good.
I wish I could give my mother some of this water.”
My father still loved her, though she was dead
and he’d been away from her for a long time.
He had to wait some more years
until he could go where she was. But he loved
this country where he found himself. The West.
For thirty years it had him around the heart,
and then it let him go. He went to sleep one night
in a town in northern California
and didn’t wake up. What could be simpler?
I wish my own life, and death, could be so simple.
So that when I woke on a fine morning like this,
after being somewhere I wanted to be all night,
somewhere important, I could move most naturally
and without thinking about it, to my desk.
Say I did that, in the simple way I’ve described.
From bed to desk back to childhood.
From there it’s not so far to the trestle.
And from the trestle I could look down
and see my dad when I needed to see him.
My dad drinking that cold water. My sweet father.
The river, its meadows, and firs, and the trestle.
That. Where I once stood.
I wish I could do that
without having to plead with myself for it.
And feel sick of myself
for getting involved in lesser things.
I know it’s time I changed my life.
This life — the one with its complications
and phone calls — is unbecoming,
and a waste of time.
I want to plunge my hands in clear water. The way
he did. Again and then again.
Steve Mandel, Proboscis Monkey
I had the pleasure of meeting with a bunch of scientists and theologians and biblical scholars in Washington DC last week. We were invited there by the Museum of the Bible and tasked with brainstorming a national traveling exhibit on science and the Bible. One of the recurring themes of our conversation was human distinctiveness. What is it exactly that makes us different from other animals?
It’s a fun topic, I guess, but upon coming home and getting back into the swing of things, it struck me that we work pretty hard to draw that line. Yes, there’s that whole divine image thing in Genesis, and I get that. But the way we go about this question seems a little feverish and worried. It’s like MAN WE HAD BETTER come up with some scientifically-verifiable trait that separates us from the general run of God’s critters.
Not that there’s no such trait. I’m not saying there is or there isn’t. I’m just asking: Why is the thought of including us among them so offensive and embarrassing?
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.” — Job 12.7-8
“There is not an animal that lives on the Earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but forms part of communities like you… they all shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” — Quran 6.38
“Man, do not pride yourself on your superiority to the animals, for they are without sin, while you, with all your greatness, you defile the earth wherever you appear and leave an ignoble trail behind you.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Artist’s conception of sunset on Proxima b. Its sun, Proxima Centauri, orbits the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri (the faint pair). Proxima Centauri is the closest star to us (after the Sun of course). Image credit: European Southern Observatory
Doug Pagitt has revived his podcast and given it a catchy new title: Tick Talk Take with Doug Pagitt. On Monday we had a conversation about two recent discoveries: the dark matter galaxy Dragonfly 44 and the exoplanet Proxima b. Dragonfly 44 is unusual in that it’s so large—about the size of the Milky Way—yet composed almost entirely of dark matter. Proxima b is a big deal not because it’s an earthlike planet orbiting another star—we already know of a number of these—but because it’s an earthlike planet orbiting THE STAR NEXT DOOR.
I had a lot of fun with this podcast. Doug is curious and quick and easy to talk to. We cover not only these cool space topics, but science itself: its conservatism, its amazing capacity to be right over time, and its perennial struggle for funding. Doug also asks: Do working scientists embrace their popularizers? And what do astrophysicists DO, anyway?
Here’s the podcast.
Not a ruby-throated, but close enough. John James Audubon, Mango Hummingbird, Detail of Plate 184 of Birds of America. Click image for a nice high-resolution version of the whole thing
OUTER SPACE is still out there I suppose, but my personal cosmos has really contracted since Dad died. These days my thoughts are on the birds in our yard. Last Thursday marked three months since I’ve seen Dad or heard him speak or hugged him. The birds help.
I want to call him every time I see something noteworthy. He was an always-ready audience. He loved hearing about the never-ending mockingbird-versus-crow battles, and the Cooper’s hawk, and the barred owl right there on the fence in broad daylight. He would listen. He would ask questions. He would tell me a bird story of his own.
If I could talk to him today this is what I would tell him.
Two days ago I was in our glassed-in back porch drinking coffee and watching the show. It was a surprisingly cool morning. Two or three chipmunks were foraging for safflower seeds, birds were at the feeders, and, up the hill at the treeline, about 12 feet above the ground, two bonehead squirrels were somehow balanced at the tips of long holly branches. I don’t know how they were doing it. They looked too heavy for those thin branches and I was waiting for them to slip and bust it on the grass, but they didn’t. They were really working on something, I couldn’t tell what.
The squirrels had been doing their weird balancing act for about ten minutes when they vanished immediately and simultaneously. At the same instant the chipmunks scattered and the birds exploded off the feeders. Before this bizarre yard-wide disappearing act could even register, an adult red-shouldered hawk banked close around the porch and over the house. The hawk’s back was to me as it turned and I was granted a perfectly clear (if brief) view of its fully outspread wings and tail from above — a rare sight. The porch’s sliding door to the yard was open but I heard nothing at all as the hawk sliced the air about eight feet from where I sat.
Kristen and I were at the kitchen table. We had just walked home from the bus stop. I was doing some work and she was finishing up her purple popsicle. The glass doors that open to our porch and back yard were behind me but she had a clear view out through them. A curious look crossed her face. She said, Dad, what kind of bird is yellow? I turned around quickly but alas: no yellow bird. It had flown away just as she was asking the question. I went outside and looked around: no yellow bird. Was it little like a finch or big like a thrasher? I asked. Little, she said. Goldfinch, I said.
Later I was passing through our bedroom and I saw a brilliant yellow blur just outside our bay window. I went out front and scanned the trees: again no soap. Still I will count it as my first goldfinch sighting of the season, and earlier than usual. These are migratory critters, and Atlanta is on the southern end of their range. They’ll be around until spring. Seeing them in August is extra-fine because they’ve not yet lost their summer incandescence. By November their feathers will have faded considerably.
The goldfinch was a reminder of the passage of time. Dad loved the fall.
Every time I go to Intown Ace for screws or birdseed or light bulbs I think to myself, Paul, just do it. Commit. Take a step off the cliff and buy a hummingbird feeder already.
For over a year I resisted. I’d tell myself to just spend the $15 and get it over with, but I never did it. It was some kind of weird control game or something. Maybe some psychologist out there can tell me what that was about.
Anyway, about three weeks ago I walked into the store, turned left, entered Bird Nerd Central, grabbed a bright red hummer feeder, and paid for it and everything. I got a large one, two cups, because that’s what commitment looks like.
I took it home and called Mom. I asked her what the water-to-sugar ratio should be. She told me and added: They don’t take very much. You may not want to put too much out there. Maybe one cup to start. But I was in free fall. Screw that, I thought, and filled that sucker all the way up, hung it on the shepherd’s hook in our back yard, and waited.
And BAZINGA! Within 24 hours there was a near-constant stream of ruby-throated hummingbirds hovering about the feeder. I was shocked at how many there were, often two or three at a time. Pretty much all day long, filling up their tiny tanks. They burned through the two cups in ten days.
Curtis is a friend of mine who cares about stuff like this. So I called him up to tell him about the goldfinch. I also mentioned the hummers and he said, Yeah, they’re getting ready for their trip to Belize. I thought he was kidding, but no. They’re really about to go. In fact, they’re already going. In a few weeks they will have disappeared from Georgia until March.
Turns out I bought my feeder just in time for the Great Sugar Intake of 2016. They really are filling their tanks. Most of the little buzzers will go along the Texas coast and into Mexico and down into southern Central America, but it is believed that some of them ACTUALLY FLY ACROSS THE GULF OF MEXICO. Whether or not they do this, however, they certainly could do it: it was recently discovered that a fully-loaded red-throat can go 1200 miles NONSTOP.
Also: they migrate alone, not in charms, which means first-timers don’t follow adults. How does a fresh hummer know when to leave? It’s not certain, but maybe it’s the shortening of the days. How a few minutes less sunlight per day triggers a solitary hummingbird’s instinct to fly more than a thousand miles around the Gulf of Mexico — when that bird has never, not even once, left the neighborhood — is beyond me. And how do they know where to go without others to follow? I don’t know. I’m not sure if anyone does.
All of this migration business was news to me, and I wonder if Dad knew about it. I’m thinking maybe he did.