Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Lightning Forest Chapter Thirty-One: The Lunchtime Naturalist

      Aldo Leopold praised the virtues of fence rows and roadsides. The unmowed and neglected weedy borders are shreds of pristine history. Sandwiched between asphalt highways and cultivated fields, sensitive plants that take years to bloom have a chance to survive and even prosper. Of course, as shreds, they are susceptible to oversight and oblivion.
      Then there is  the other artifact of landscape engineering: the retention pond or ditch. There is nothing pristine about a ditch. Where the fence row is untouched, the retention pond is completely manufactured. A product of completely new landscape, the fertile layers of earth are subverted and layered with hardpan or scrabble shipped in from distant pits. The whole point of the ditch is to facilitate the removal and control of water away from buildings and residential areas. Retention ponds are the remnants of drained wetlands. There are the fingerprints of ecological crimes. Retention ponds are not supposed to exist. Nothing in the surrounding landscape supports the notion. But once manufactured, they tend to remain untouched, left to recreate.
      The best of retention ponds retain their muddy borders and culvert connections to natural water sources. Cattails take hold in the muck. Pickerel weed prospers. Blue flag and yellow canna lilies attract insects who, in turn, attract redwing blackbirds. Bacopa flourishes in the warm shallows creating a heavenly tangle for white peacock butterflies. Pipes and culverts become underground highways for fish, invertebrates, and frogs to migrate and hunt. Though far from pristine, they trend back toward the natural refuge. Given enough time and neglect, they become less retention and more pond. They become Nature wiped clean and restored, nascent spaces blooming with new life, newly interpreted from the rules of organic construction. There is no doubt that there is a ceiling to the ditch’s success. Surrounded by a manufactured environment, the context limits the possibilities, the diversity, and the quantity of life.
      The perfectly circular retention pond outside my place of work is edged with a concrete wall that stands a couple of feet above the water’s surface. For long tedious hours, I sit in front of my computer, looking at numbers, drawing conclusions, answering phone calls. Email, instant messaging, cell phones, and land-line phones all conspire to over-communicate and create a culture of remote efficiency. My eyes water in the fluorescent air.
      I look out the window as a brief rain shower finishes its burst. A low metal crash-guard fence rings the pond, a few feet longer in diameter than the concrete wall. The sparse ground surrounding the enclosure is on the same level as the top of the wall, giving the pond the feel of a sinkhole. A labyrinth of culverts leads eventually, I suppose, to a swampy area. But the concrete wall is not conducive to nature. Its alkaline flavor repels mosses and liverworts. The smooth precipice allows creatures to drop in, but not to get out. Those that prefer to slide on weedy mud into the shallows have nothing here to attract them.  The asphalt parking lot surrounding the circular pond presents an inhospitable plain with no oasis. Any animal or seed looking to find water would have to navigate this infertile, overheated slab and avoid cars and trucks. Speaking of traffic, a busy highway passes half a block away. Gasoline, oil, and exhaust particulates accumulate on the water surface in a rainbow sherbet swirl. Trash has no outlet. Chunks of styrofoam are blown to the edge. Cups and cans hover just beneath the surface. Plastic bags float like jellyfish on a becalmed sea. A suspicious yellow froth bubbles up. A knapsack sits tantalizingly underneath the surface near the middle of the pond. Does it contain a frustrated student’s homework? Or evidence for an unsolved murder? At the very center of the pond is an aerating fountain nozzle that doesn’t work. Because of the multiple culverts that lead from pond to pond, by the time it reaches this circular dead-end, there is no water flow. The water stagnates. A couple of twenty year-old water oaks are growing near the edge. The overhanging branches provide the only shade in the otherwise sweltering summers. By all measures, this pond isn’t Walden. It is constructed, cut-off, and orphaned from the natural world. The age of the oaks suggests that this pond has been here for at least a decade, if not much longer. But the pond doesn’t seem to be making any progress towards erasing its manufactured birth. Given the industrial setting, it seems unlikely that it will ever make a nice spot for a picnic.
      A computer program falls apart under my fingers and I recreate it. This is my job for forty hours a week. A program is a series of rules translated into the active memory of the computer.  This runtime environment is a tabula rasa, the monitor is an interpretation, a carefully constructed image the programmer wants you to see. Everything is an interpretation. Languages, codes, binaries. Like writing, programming is all-engrossing. It takes everything you can give. My brain is consumed in the details and routines. Hours fly by. I program in my dreams. Programming burns time. The more I create, the less I exist in Creation. I am, as Thoreau put it, improving the means to an unimproved end.
      The precocious boy Jesus was reprimanded by religious leaders for making new sparrows out of clay. Up they flew toward the sun, brown-capped and shaking the mud from their feathers. Even two millennia ago, it was improper for creation to continue beyond that first holy week of the world. Creation is vulgar. It is a dirty, bloody business. Even in the gentle hands of Jesus, it seemed a sacrilege. Yet continue it did. Were the new sparrows an abomination, would they turn into demons? And who among us doesn’t believe life is precocious and a miracle?
      One morning as I was pulling into the parking lot, I noticed a large animal laying on the concrete edge of the retention pond. I quickly parked and walked over. Using one of the oaks as a screen, I approached close to the pond before sticking my head around the trunk. An otter! She was grooming in the sun, using her paws and mouth to spread waterproof oils into her fur. Her face was all whiskers, a patch of white on her throat, tiny folds for ears. Her rivulet body turned and twisted like water, unlike any other animal, as she reached for her tail. Riverine flesh. Her eyes were small and intense. I sat down on the crash-guard, dumbfounded. An otter, here of all places, in this fouled, thick, retention pond. A silk waterfall, she flowed off the concrete into the pond without a splash. I watched her pass as methane bubbles from the algal mat on the bottom trailed behind. She popped her head straight up out of the water and looked around. Back under again. She prowled the shady areas. She circled with a thrust and shot out half-way across the pond. There must be fish in the dark polluted water.
      For almost an hour I watched her explore and hunt in her private lake. I was late for work. My boss was calling my cell phone. Then the otter finally saw me. She approached me and backed off, again and again, each time with a bubbly-wet, huffing squeak. She rose up, half-way out of the water to get a better look. Her expression of charmed curiosity alternated with disgust and abhorrence. She couldn’t look away, she couldn’t swim off, she couldn’t tolerate staying. Bold and playful, otters will often approach swimmers in spring run or circle canoes on a river. They toy with turtles and pick on ducks. Their intelligence is geared toward zest. But this otter, in the most human of habitats, seemed shocked and angered at a human’s presence.
      I was hooked, not on otters although I love them, but on the pond. I started taking my lunch breaks there and going for short walks to burn off stress. I started leaving my programs in the middle of their ‘while loops.’ I keep a list of animals I’ve seen at this stagnant, polluted pond over the years. Great blue herons, tri-colors, little blues, three kinds of egrets, three kinds of turtles, a bittern, moorhen, a snipe, a shrike, a bluegill, osprey, and on and on. A carp fans a saucer in the sand for a nest. A handful of dragonfly species dip and drop their eggs. The gorgeous orchid-pink male roseate skimmer cruises a linear route back and forth along the ditch edge. I watched a great purple hairstreak lay eggs on the mistletoe that grows in profusion on the water oaks, while the bright metallic blue wings of the male shine in the sun as he hovers nearby. I wait for the hooded mergansers to arrive every winter. Wood storks stand mute like solemn bishops at a poisoned Sea of Galilee. Their sharp black and white vestments ruffle in the breeze.  Over thirty birds. Three mammals. Forty insects.
      The retention pond starts as a blank. Nature is an obsessed programmer and fills the ditch with indulgent rules and routines. Its while loop never terminates. Clay sparrows. Clay otters. Clay butterflies. More clay sparrows. The program complicates. But the ditch will never turn into a vibrant, natural oasis until the human world disappears under a wave of its own hubris or some unspeakable catastrophe.  Nothing really needs or breeds in the oily waters. But here it is anyway. It supports whatever it supports. It is both an abomination and a promise.

      No matter what we destroy in our hearts, a dark aquifer of corrugated culverts and concrete pipes works its way back to some lost primal river.

      I heard that in a few months the company is leveling the entire campus and rebuilding the headquarters. The retention pond will be drained, filled with dirt, and topped with something more productive to the bottom line. It is a smart move. This is prime real estate and the structures are old and don’t take advantage of the retail traffic. No one will stand here and cry when they destroy it. No one will chain themselves to the side in protest. Only a few animals will die. The storks will find another vicarage. The fish will slip out the back culvert to safety. Some turtles will be buried. The otter will leave when the first heavy machine shows up. Life intrudes, life retreats.
      Some among us go in search of the wild in the most remote of places, looking for solitude and insight in the vast unspoiled landscape. I myself look for truth in the remote Florida scrub. We all know wildness lies in the heart of every man, woman, and child. It is there, a light, whether you love it or not. But you don’t have to learn how to portage, cook swamp cabbage, or dig a Dakota Hole. You don’t have to scrape out a patch of beans or pray endlessly on a yearlong sabbatical. I won’t deny the lessons you learn while laying awake, alone a hundred miles from civilization during a mountaintop thunderstorm. I won’t pretend that I don’t dream of a silent canoe run along a Minnesota lake. But your soul is not forged on vacation. The most important epiphanies and habits are those that you weave from regular life. What do you see on your way to the mailbox? What do you discover when there is no mountain or towering redwood? What will make you fall to your knees on your lunchbreak?  Ask yourself, what will stop you dumb on your commute?

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