The Hidden Life of Trees

October 29, 2017

How do trees see humans? As clear-cutting maniacs bent on driving native forests to extinction? Or, as angels of mercy, quenching forest fires, watering thirsty roots, and planting future generations?

Questions like these have an undeniably odd quality – do trees even ‘see’ humans? – but the fact that they seems worthy of consideration is testimony to the power of Peter Wohlleben‘s little book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. One short chapter after another explores the lives of trees from all sorts of unexpected angles: their feelings, how they band together in mutual defense, how they compete, how they raise their young, why they hold on to/lose their branches and leaves, what dictates their growth and death, and how human behavior shapes their lives.

Wohlleben does not regard trees as humans-made-of-wood, but he does not shy away from using descriptive language that positions trees in a web of relationships similar to ours. One of my favorite chapters, “Street Kids”, begins,

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Note to self: some references on Right Speech and The Eight-fold Path

Another note to self: you talk too much. Work on that.

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The Sixth Extinction

September 27, 2017

How do I say this?

Elizabeth Kolbert is a national treasure. I had arrived at that conclusion from reading her numerous magazine articles and interviews, but I knew I was really on to something when I mentioned my feelings to a daughter who replied, almost reflexively, “Oh my God, yes!” It turns out that there’s almost nothing as affirming as finding out that some idea you reached on your own is also held by your super-intelligent children. I may be old, but I can still have good ideas! (It helps to ‘share a brain’ with your child.)

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Immigration Fairy Tale

September 13, 2017

My wife is a book shark. She needs to read constantly to survive, and so she (we!) take precautions to make sure there is always an unread book nearby just in case, when she finishes her current read, she still feels that gnawing hunger…

To my surprise, something like this hit me last week. We were spending a week at the coast avoiding hot weather and wildfire smoke as best we could when I unexpectedly finished the only book I had brought with me. Suddenly I felt the hunger so I had to comb through our shelf of “beach books” to find something to keep me occupied. That’s where I found Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford’s first novel from 2009 (Kirkus review).

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I’m too scatter-brained about money. Thinking ahead to retirement, I worry “will there be enough?” I studiously refrain from major purchases, but I’m profligate when it comes to the smaller expenses, $20 lunches, $80 concert and play tickets, $60 dinners (for two).

It wasn’t always this way. Early in my College teaching career I would watch carefully for the emails from the College Bookstore announcing one-day end-of-semester sales. My shopping tastes were simple: a quick peak at the software rack, scan the clothing on sale (my drawers and closet are filled with cheap t-shirts and not-so-cheap sweatshirts sporting the College’s name in various designs, and my family hasn’t been spared either), and then step over to the book bins. Clothing wears out so I still shop the Bookstore sales, but I’ve noticed that I no longer glance at software, and the “$5 or less” book pile seems less appealing too. Here are two book reports from my “sales” period.

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July 27, 2017

Sometimes your friends strike gold again and again. Burl Whitman has done it with a second poem in as many days: Wallowa.

I don’t fish, but the imagery of sticks, mountain stream, uncaught fish, and sun overhead, all touch deep places. The clincher lies at the end. My sabbatical, most likely my last, started back in June. First project: a book on molecular modeling co-written with a long-time collaborator. Ideas, lots of them, float around, but so far I haven’t been able to write more than a couple of pages, all crap. I feel like that guy standing hip-deep in snow-frozen water, casting his line, only to see it snarl up in the brush behind him, and to watch helplessly as the bait drops from his hook. Lost.

The year is racing by… Write. Write!


A wallowa is a Native American fish trap
the Nez Perce built from sticks,
like wicker fences set crosswise in the river.
They used them to herd bull and rainbow trout
into the shallows where they clubbed and gaffed them.

I spent this morning on the Minam river
at one of their old fishing spots.
I teased the river for hours with my fly line.
All I got was bone cold feet
from the mountain runoff.

On the way back to camp
I startled a bull elk in the trees
exploding the stillness
in a thud of hooves
and cracking branches.
The sun walked down the mountain
faster than I could get back across
the valley for eggs and bacon,
home made bread, jam and coffee.

Later I sat in the hot sun
warming my feet and trying to write
but in the end I just sat there
staring at the morning
with its buzzing quiet ways.
Maybe I could build
a wallowa for herding ideas,
fragments, chum and by-catch
into the shallows where my
gaff is sharp and my club is ready.
But I know the majority of the poetry fish
will swim through as they should
as though there were
no sticks in the river at all.

A total eclipse of the Sun will pass through Oregon next month. What did our ancestors think when the Sun vanished and the darkness came? Was this the end of their world? The end of love? A poem, Running Deer, from Burl Whitman dedicated to his wife, who is part Native American …

Running Deer

a moon-dark sun
ringed in Indian light
peace pipe direct

wild huckleberries
chiaroscuro necklaces
made from the seeds of days
you thread together

to remind us
of where we and love
come from

I Am a Cat

July 5, 2017

I fell in love with San Francisco, and with Northern California generally, while a postdoc at Berkeley in the early 80’s. It was a tumultuous period in my life. Adding to the usual hassles of new job, new home, there had been a recent death in the family, and my marriage was on the rocks. Quickly settling down to professional responsibilities just wasn’t in the cards. For several months, a daily battle was fought between the lab and the Bay, a battle the latter often won, particularly if the sun was already breaking through the clouds by early morning. This pattern couldn’t continue forever, aided by my research mentor’s gentle prodding, I eventually returned to steady work, but the allures of walking through San Francisco, hiking the Marin headlands, and driving Highway 1 towards Mendocino and Big Sur, have stayed with me.

Fortunately for me, my wife, a Berkeley grad, and my younger daughter, currently a Berkeley grad student, are more than willing to join me in SF adventures. This explains why I was able to lead them over to the Japan Center in October 2015 and the Kinokuniya bookstore, and why no one protested when I made my way to the cashier with two books, one of which was I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume.

The book’s cover advertises everything that might be said about it, “Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature.” Here are two reviews, Kirkus Review and a compilation of Goodreads reader reviews.

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June 28, 2017

I don’t recall when our family made its first trip to Astoria, Oregon, but I can still bring to mind the glum, puzzled expressions on the faces of my sweatshirt-clad daughters as they emerged from our new, white Previa van. Each face seemed to ask, “Dad, why did you bring us here? What is there to do in this cold, gray, dismal place?” Thinking back to the rundown Astoria of the early 90’s that greeted us, I can’t say what exactly had motivated the trip, but I’m guessing that, as the fearless instigator of many family car journeys, I had probably gleaned from the nightly 11 o’clock weather forecasts that Astoria was 1) located on the mouth of the Columbia, and 2) a city of some importance and worthy of a visit. Had I paid closer attention, either to a proper map, or a weather almanac, or preferably both, I might have saved our family from making a potentially disastrous trip. Little did I know then that many others had come to this spot before me, driven by a similar mixture of adventure and curiosity, and they had suffered for it.

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Growing the Garden

June 24, 2017

The Portland Japanese Garden re-opened in April after completing a year-long major construction project that permanently altered the Garden’s entrance, facilities, and footprint on the West Hills overlooking downtown. I was in San Francisco at the time of the opening, but I have visited the garden several times since then.

There is a new look and feel, but what I treasured about the old entrance remains – the traditional gate, the flat stones underfoot, the carved ones by the path, and the shaded hillside ascent. The Garden at the top has been preserved intact. The only real challenge to my memories is a brief one at the top of the hill: the new approach to the main gate now appears like a wide, tree-lined avenue. It will grow on me.

Fortunately for all Garden lovers, the Oregonian has created a lengthy photo history of the Garden: The fascinating history of the Portland Japanese Garden (Oregonian, 2 Apr 2017). There is also a lovely C-SPAN video interview with current Garden director, Steve Bloom.