Saturday, April 22, 2006

The shadow of the wild

I was delighted this afternoon to stumble upon one of my favorite phenomena - the suburban wilderness. Walking back to the library after a dubious lunch of fish n'chips, I noticed a trail off the sidewalk which leads down to the drainage canal. There, nestled amongst the bamboo and poison oak, I found a sodden mattress with the usual assortment of plastic bags, aged foam containers, and a sock slung over a low branch.

An itenerate camp, for sure, not so unusual in northern California. Next to the mattress lay two girlie calendars, the two page spreads wide open. An archaeologist friend of mine who has widely traversed the eastern sierras and high desert has also come across this archetype. He calls these seasonal occupation sites "Masturbation stations."

On their own, stockpiles of pornography are a common cultural feature of the American woods. As kids wandering around in the piney woods of Georgia, we'd frequently come across piles of dirty magazines. These magazines were either damp or torn, or both. We regarded them with the full spectrum of adolescent fervor: fear, lust, guilt, and sometimes a deep need to horde. How these magazines end up here is a perennial mystery.

But what makes this site so interesting, so epic, is the alchemical blend of the soft focus girlie mags and the Holy Bible. Mattress, sin, redemption. What is at work here is more than just a place to crash for the night, but a way-station where someone periodically engages in his personal taboo. If nature really can reflect back our "ecological selves," as some psychologists say, then the American woods play the role of our "shadow selves," the dank hollows where we keep the parts of ourselves, and our society, that we disown. As this bamboo nest exhibits, the structures of our mind are part of the material record, just out of sight from the swept paths we walk everyday.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


No rain for three days now - could this be the end of the wet season? Did the jet stream finally take the hint and drag itself up north so it can pester the Canadians? It won't take long for the hills to dry out around here. This dog track will turn to cement. I can spend all summer long following the tracks of the deer, turkey, skunks and mice that occurred after this last rain. Mud - the original time capsule.
I had the opportunity to see a more impressive time capsule in Managua, Nicaragua. Over six thousand years old, these ancient footprints were left by a small family of humans traipsing across a muddy lake shore. The prints were then perfectly preserved by a convenient layer of volcanic ash and discovered in the late 19th century by utility workers.

The ancient folks of Nicaragua had down pact that slogan "Take only photos, leave only footprints." And that's not Jesus's footprints along side them, by the way, but those of a domestic dog.
Dog, God, whatever. Either way, we're in good company.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Ode to Spring

It is the end of the rainy season here in northern California. Although I am primed for the sun, I must pay my respects to the fungal kingdom for all its hard work these last five months.

O Fungus
Without you
we would be swimming in our own poop.

This little specimen is a cup fungus of some sort, maybe Otidea Alutacea, maybe not. Fungi are steadfastly mysterious when it comes to identification. Partially this has to do with the absurd lack of funds for mycology; there is not a single academic post for Mushroom Studies in the United States, even though only a small percentage of species have been given scientific names. Most of the other academic mycologists secure their funding by investigating ways to kill fungi on genetically-altered corn, which as we know, is crucial to the big picture of paving the world in corn products.

Then there is the mysterious, shape-shifting nature of fungi itself, which makes plain how arbitrary the concept of "species" really is. Fungi also perform helpful tasks for the ecosystem-at-large like detoxifying soil that has been radioactively contaminated.

In short, mushrooms are smarter than the average pile of poop. They are also sexy. Otherwise, how does this little cup mushroom manage to fruit in a pile of wood chips looking like it could inspire a Georgia O'Keefe painting?
So, thank you Fungus Kingdom. Good work.

Now maybe it will stop raining so I can get on with my life.