Judy and I were at a convention of the nation’s top environmentalists. We were all in one big room. Before the meeting started, one of us went out in the hallway and discovered a troop of about ten poor whites, “trailer trash” types, who had been sent to kill us. None of them was holding a weapon at the moment—they’d laid them down while discussing how to do the job—so the guy who found them was able to round them up and march them into the big room. They were a mix of men and women, mostly men, and they all looked malnourished and poverty-stricken. Each one was carrying a copy of a letter that had been written in 1978 by the CEO of a major corporation. He’d originally sent it to one of the environmentalists present, threatening him with death for having stopped his company’s production of DDT. The CEO was finally making good on his 34-year-old threat, except that now he wanted to do away with all of us. Judy and I were chosen to read the letter out loud to the assembly. The letter was so badly written, though—incomplete sentences, mangled syntax—that we had to keep asking each other what the poor fellow seemed to be trying to say.
Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category
A few years ago Arlene Levin-Rowe, the lab manager for Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who is studying the language and cognitive abilities of the African grey parrot, contacted Judy to see if she could recommend someone to make a film about the lab’s primary subject, Alex. Judy did have a recommendation for Arlene, a local fledgling filmmaker named Emily Wick. Judy ended up mentoring Emily on the film, and last night, I got to see the final hour-long version. I was impressed. It’s quite well done. The film is going to be available on DVD in early September, and if you want to see the trailer, you can find it here.
I recently returned from two weeks away from home—one week on the road and another in the woods. I spent a good deal of my time in the woods just sitting on the bank of a river staring at the water. I got a lot out of it. It never bored me. It sounds strange to hear people talk about the delights and miracles of technology, when they do not even begin to compare with what you can find in a river bed. I’m going to take another month off before starting the last draft of Street Song. In the meantime, I intend to post here a little more often than I usually do.
Since finishing the second draft I’ve been feeling a bit shell-shocked. I’ve been bouncing off the walls some. I’m finally coming out of it, though, and getting ready to leave for an extended trip to the woods. This is my last post until I return in early August. I’m going to take another month off after that before turning my attention to what you see below: my research material—books, some of my notes, and my first two drafts. The essential material, though, is in my heart.
Last night my wife Judy Irving screened a 34 minute rough cut of her work-in-progress, Pelican Dreams, for the local chapter of the Audubon Society. She also showed 15 minutes of assemblies (rough sequences) that she threw together in the four days just prior to the screening. So many people showed up that they had to put out more chairs. The film is not being made for “birders,” per se. And it’s not a scientific-type documentary. Pelican Dreams attempts to capture the wonder of these birds. It’s really being made for any human being who loves the natural world. The audience understood that and responded warmly. There was a good feeling in the room.
Judy expects to be finished in around two years—around the same time that I foresee my book being finished. After completion there will be distribution issues—we hope! So yes; both projects still have a long road ahead of them. But eventually the wait will be over and they’ll be ready to go.
I had a vivid experience last Monday that has yet to leave my mind. Last weekend a sudden opportunity came up for Judy to do a film shoot for Pelican Dreams, her new documentary. She had to go to Ventura in Southern California, and I offered to share the driving. I dropped her off at the dock (she was to spend two days on a boat) and then I drove to Sierra Madre, which is the town just east of Pasadena. A friend had kindly offered to let me use her cabin for the two days I was to spend waiting for Judy to return to shore.
Sierra Madre is right up against the San Gabriel Mountains, and in the San Gabriel Valley there is an enormous parrot flock. There are thousands of them, mostly red-fronted Amazons. It has to be the largest wild parrot flock in the United States. I was told that I would probably see some of them in Sierra Madre, and I did, very early the first morning. Typically, I heard them first, then saw them in the distance in silhouette. Fifteen minutes later I saw three or four about a block away. They were in the sun, which lit up their beautiful green backs and wings as they flew from tree to tree. Throughout my two-day stay in Sierra Madre I would occasionally hear them, but I didn’t seek them out. As much as I love wild parrots, my main concern right now is my new book. I was focused on my work.
Monday morning, I got in the car and headed back to Ventura to pick up Judy. I was driving down 210 in the right lane when I looked to my right and saw at car-top level a red-fronted amazon flying in tandem with me. I watched him for a few seconds, and just before I reached the Pasadena city limits sign, he flew up and over the freeway and disappeared.
Judy and I just got back from eight days on Santa Barbara Island, a one-mile-square island 38 miles off the coast of Southern California that is part of Channel Islands National Park. There is nothing on the island save for its plant and animal life and a bunk house. Water has to be shipped to the island. The residence depends on solar panels for electricity. Because of its distance from the mainland and the difficulty in actually getting onto the island (we had to spend an extra day due to rough seas), it receives few visitors. There is a significant native plant restoration project on Santa Barbara. It’s one of only two sites in the United States where the brown pelican nests. The National Park Service takes us out there as volunteer caretakers—the island has been subject to vandalism when left unattended—and we’ve been the only people on the island when we’re there. Our only contact with other humans is through the park radio system.
The day after we arrived, I walked up one of the island’s two peaks to sit in the grass, feel the stillness and listen to the sounds, all of which come from nature: the chirping of birds, the barking of sea lions, the buzzing of insects, the crashing of waves on the island cliffs, and the wind in the grass. After sitting for a while I became aware of another sound, a high hum in the background, which I believed was my nervous system, all jacked-up from city living. I was curious if the sound would lessen after being on the island for a week. On the next-to-last-day of our stay, I went back to my spot to check it out, and the humming had indeed subsided—considerably.
While on the island, I got a lot of work done on Street Song. Before leaving San Francisco, I made a list of the steps I need to take to finish the book. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to see them. There is still a ways to go, but the end is in sight. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling the last few months. I intend to stay home for awhile now and really get down to it.
As I wrote in my recent series on the Three Fundamental Views of Existence, the materialist/scientific view and the creator god view have very little awareness of the third view, which I’m provisionally calling the pantheistic view. Science deals with it most often in fields that deal with the mind. This is primarily because Buddhism has developed some very sophisticated ideas about the mind, and some scientists seem to feel obliged to respond to them.
I recently read an interview with Shimon Edelman, a professor of psychology who has a book out called The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life. My attention was drawn to this particular exchange.
You talk about the default human mind as constantly wandering in order to avoid the present moment, what you call “the tyranny of the here and now.” What about practices like Buddhist meditation, which aim to quiet the mind into a state of contentment?
That’s a really good question. I set out to write the book because I wanted to find out why I was restless in situations where I supposedly should have been perfectly content. You know, literally sitting on a mountaintop, seeing the countryside, I would still feel restless. And I think I found a kind of answer. To put it very bluntly, if you are successful in following the Buddhist precepts, you cease to be human. In fact, I think one can find support for this view in the Buddhist sources themselves. If you succeed to cease desiring, you are no longer human. Of course, the Buddha himself supposedly remained enmeshed with humanity to teach others. But if you do succeed in obtaining the state that you’re supposed to obtain, then you’re no longer human. And that kind of invalidates the questions because a psychology would need to be developed for understanding those kinds of minds—they are not regular human minds.
I find his answer revealing. First of all, the guy’s understanding of Buddhism is poor. Buddhism would say that the reason he feels restless sitting on a mountain top is because he hasn’t disciplined his ego, which is inherently restless. Buddhism—all true religion actually—says that there are two levels to human nature, the higher and lower. (Suzuki Roshi called it big mind and small mind.) The lower nature is the one with all the restless biological drives. Unfortunately, that’s the only side to our nature that out-and-out materialists recognize: our lower nature. The higher nature, which we don’t see much of these days, is also our better nature, and it is very much a part of what makes us human. But science can’t measure it, so it doesn’t recognize its existence. This is where science consistently fails. It oversteps its bounds by insisting on being the explainer of everything. But science and scientists are reliable only when dealing with the limited confines of the material plane. Scientists are human beings, and as human beings they have an obligation to seek out their higher natures. To do that, they have to go beyond their field. Science cannot deal with this kind of issue.
You can find the entire interview by clicking here.
I intend to write something someday about a crazy idea I have about physics—a crazy idea that I happen to think is true.
One other thing, I’m leaving Tuesday for Santa Barbara Island and staying a week. I’ll have limited access to the Internet during that time. If anybody has a comment that demands a response, I may not be able to get to it for awhile.
This is a photograph of the only point of entry to the island—Landing Cove. Near the lower right hand corner is the dock, which has a crane to lift supplies off the boat. In the upper left are the bunkhouse, the solar panel battery storage house and work space, and the island plant nursery. You have to carry all your food, clothing and supplies up a steep path that goes to the right of the dock back into a canyon and then works its way back left to the bunkhouse. It’s a hard haul. The 100-foot boat that took us out to the island was able to back into the dock area without problem. Our supplies were then craned up to the dock. But the sea was rough on the day we had to leave. They couldn’t bring a big boat that close to shore. So they lowered a zodiac (a small motor-powered skiff) into the ocean, which came to pick us up. We had to hand our stuff down an eight foot ladder while the driver ran the nose of the skiff against the ladder to keep it (somewhat) stationary. It was hairy, a little scary. But the guy knew what he was doing, and we made it without incident. (Thank you, Dwight.)
It’s a funny thing to me that next weekend Judy and are going to Manhattan. We’ll be going from one island with a population of 2 to another with a population in the millions. And then in early February, we’re going back to Santa Barbara Island for a week. I’ve been doing some good work on the book there.
I first had the opportunity to go to Santa Barbara Island three years ago. The island is 38 miles off the coast of Los Angeles (a four hour boat ride) and part of Channel Islands National Park. It’s about 1.8 miles long with 640 acres. There are no beaches, just steep cliffs, some of which are over 600 feet high. There are no trees, no water, no stores. Just a single bunkhouse, which uses propane and solar energy. The bunkhouse serves as shelter for the island’s caretakers and for those working to restore the island’s native habitat. When Judy and I went there three years ago as volunteer caretakers, we were completely cut off from civilization. Our sole interaction with other human beings was over the radio each morning when we had to send in the morning weather report. I loved it! Every sight and sound was natural: wind, sun, the barking of sea lions, the island grasses, flowers, pelicans, hawks, meadowlarks.
We had the opportunity to go again this year and I was looking forward to the peace and quiet. But the very first night, at 2:00 am, we were awakened by a helicopter hovering very low and shining a large spotlight. It flew over the bunkhouse three times before finally disappearing. What the hell was that? we both wondered. The helicopter returned the next morning, and it was huge. We wondered if they were searching for drug smugglers or something. It turned out that a 26-foot boat had driven into the island in the middle of the night, and the helicopter had been sent out to rescue the three fishermen on board. The next day, as the only people on the scene, the park service radioed us, asking us to look for the wreckage and to take photographs from the cliffs above. We hiked along the cliffs, picking our way through the prickly pear cactus and the cholla (another nasty cactus plant) until we found it. Taking photographs of the wreckage and radioing in reports took up three of our days there. I’m not complaining. I had a fantastic time. But it’s strange how difficult it is to escape the doings of human beings. Our machines take us everywhere now and the people running the machines are often foolish and oblivious. Foolish and oblivious enough to drive a large boat into an island in the middle of the night.