Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta

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This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.

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Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at: http://delta.blogs.ca.gov/files/2016/10/Full_Paper_Camfield.pdf

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.

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Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.

On Writing: Please Pass the Small Potatoes

small potatoes

Sorry, a P.S. about my writing routine. Again, it’s complicated. After leaving my job of 17 years, I left a familiar, productive routine behind. Interestingly, my body fell apart, maladies of all sorts. I’ve been working through the physical issues and trying to find a rhythm that works as I focus on creative writing.

I’ve tried all sorts of tricks to build a new, productive routine. I swear that has been the hardest part of retirement. Having regular deadlines, publishing several times a week is real and gratifying. Typing away on stuff people don’t care about and will probably never see is discouraging. Although, I think I’m getting closer to a “regular” way of working, it’s not yet firmly established and what others might think about the result nags at me.

But it’s getting better– I’m more productive, less inclined to think about what others might think about my work. I’m more willing to sit at the keyboard actually compose, rather that following Internet click bait down ridiculous rabbit holes, wasting time. These days I’m more inclined to do online research that is actually useful to the projects I’m working on. My novel is approaching critical mass, past the halfway mark and chugging toward the first-draft finish line. My poetry collection is awaiting editing, my magazine article is coming together and will be filed next week.

In part, I’m disciplining myself to work. It’s hard at first to stick to a new routine. But, I had a favorite editor years ago who gave me a shove down the road of self-motivation. He admonished me for turning in my freelance newspaper stories late (I had a house full of little kids, fell down the stairs, my husband went on a 3-week drunk, my car got towed and it was a week before Christmas.)

I explained to him there were extenuating circumstances that caused me to miss my deadline. He nodded, said the story was good, asked about photo choices, layout and timing. It was a productive exchange. I thanked him, made it to the newsroom door.

As I put my hand on the door handle and trip the latch, he stood up, shouted at me across the newsroom and shook his finger: “Kate Campbell! You do your work!” Every reporter turned to look at me clutching the door handle, but not clicking the release. Caught in the spotlight, what could I say? Nothing, except . . . . “Got it!”

It’s one of my grown kids’ favorite stories because they also got it, a lesson learned when they were small.

Don’t know where this new writing energy is coming from, but today I’ll take a second helping. Please pass the small potatoes, those tiny triumphs that eventually add up to full meal and real progress!

Laughing Tomatoes

This post was published on the “Word Garden” site in 2011 with the support and permission of Francisco Alarcon. He passed away Jan. 15, 2016, but his generosity and love remain. It’s reposted to honor his spirit and courage.
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I recently bought my grandniece Sofia a copy of Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems, by California poet Francisco Alarcon. She loves poetry and playing with words. Francisco’s poems delighted her and she couldn’t wait to share them at school in El Cerrito.

Francisco’s beautiful children’s book is written in English and Spanish and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. (Children’s Book Press, 1997) I heard Francisco read from the collection a few months ago at the Sacramento Poetry Center and was charmed. Sofia’s mother is Mexican-American, and Spanish and English are spoken interchangeably at home. At school it’s English, but with her 4-year-old energy, she giggles and leaps languages and continents with ease. Her joy in language and life is totally international, which brings us to today — International Children’s Day — June 1.

Time to get your silly on! Sofia will, Francisco does. Today’s observance is celebrated throughout the world with speeches on children’s rights and well being, children’s TV programs, parties, various actions involving or dedicated to children, families going out, singing, dancing — doing all the things my Grandniece Sophia loves, including laughing like tomatoes. Here is Francisco’s poem, along with some shots from my friend — Acclaimed Dominican Republic photographer and artist Julian Rodriquez:

Laughing Tomatoes

One year birthday

with flavor

laughing
they change

in our backyard

we plant
tomatoes

the happiest
of all
vegetables

with joy
they grow round

to red

Boy in hat

turning
their wire-framed
bushes

Two kids, New York 1972

into
Christmas trees
in spring

–Francisco Alarcon

What makes International Children’s Day special to me is the hope it spreads for the future of children, the builders of tomorrow, especially those children growing up in the world’s troubled places.

A new study by the United Nations on Violence Against Children is the first comprehensive, global look at all forms of violence against children. The central message of the study is that no violence against children is justifiable. The study reveals that in every region, in stark contradiction to states’ human rights obligations and children’s developmental needs, much violence against children remains legal, state-authorized and socially approved violence continues.

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The Study aims to mark a definitive global turning point: an end to the justification of violence against children, whether accepted as ‘tradition’ or disguised as ‘discipline’. Find the study at http://www.unviolencestudy.org/

2 Julies

Francisco X. Alarcón (born in Los Angeles, in 1954) is the author of eleven volumes of poetry. His most recent book of bilingual poetry for children, Animal Poems of the Iguazú (Children’s Book Press 2008), was selected as a Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association, and as an Américas Awards Commended Title by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs.

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His previous bilingual book titled Poems to Dream Together (Lee & Low Books 2005) was awarded the 2006 Jane Addams Honor Book Award. He has been awarded the Pura Belpré Honor Award by the American Library Association a number of times. He has been a finalist nominated for Poet Laureate of California on two occasions. He teaches at the University of California, Davis.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Julian Rodriguez moved to New York in 1964 where he studied at Germain School of Photography. He worked for many years as a studio photographer and later did architectural and construction photography. He says his subject preference is people, especially children, because they’re the most spontaneous. After spending most of his life in the USA, Julian returned to his island home a few years ago where he continues his photography, as well as woodworking and painting.

Changing the Subject: It’s Art and It’s Arduous

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Reading an advance copy of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, by essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts, who directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the literary journal AGNI. The book from Graywolf is due for release Oct. 6.

It’s offers an erudite meander around the social and cultural implications of the digital age. In the collection’s opening essay, “On or About,” Birkerts suggests that, in a world with too much information and suspect filters, we should safeguard our inner selves from the onslaught by turning from the “full embrace of our networks and reconnect to the one-on-one circuitry of art.” He says, “Art serves the soul not least by demanding and creating attention.”

While the essay winds over some well-worn trails of the obvious or subjective, the essay contained a kernel of insight that’s helpful to me as a novelist. I’ve written one book. It took me four or five years to finish it and self-publish. There are many reasons I chose to focus my creative attention on this one, long narrative project, but, as is probably the case with many writers who finish a first novel, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a sustained piece of prose, wanted to experience the process and decide if there was any hope I could master the form. I needed to assess if ultimately I could create art in that medium and then continue to produce long-form fiction. My self-answer remains equivocal.

Relating a moment of epiphany, Birkerts put his finger on one of my deepest fears — “Works of art are feats of concentration.” And then a moment later he added the thought, “Imagination is the instrument of concentration.” My fear is about how deeply I have to imagine to concentrate a long story, how disorienting it is to go in and out of the fictive dream to function in daily life. My second novel has been stalled at the half-way point for several years, can’t get it to go, have lost the spark and can’t release into the level of concentration needed to reach completion. On some level, I fear the blurring of my inside/outside life. As a beginning novelist, I’m afraid of  “going down in the diving bell,” as teacher/writer Alan Heathcock, author of the story collection Volt, also from Graywolf, recently described in an online post about the act of immersing fully into his writing.

I recognized my fear of going deep in Birkert’s insightful comment, understand the implications for reader engagement, and that helps me understand this block. I know from reading novelist John Steinbeck’s A Life in Letters that after the fevered writing of Grapes of Wrath, he was sick in bed for weeks and in a letter to his editor Pascal Covici, said “I think I worked myself past the danger point on that book.”

I’m not pretending my freshman efforts equal the concentration of literary masters. But, I do know what it feels like to be fully immersed in the process of creation, to follow the imagination into disturbing places and attempt to capture and shape the experience. For me, there’s this illustration: a difficult, disturbing piece of writing from my novel Adrift in the Sound:

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An after-work crowd, mostly men in dark work clothes, stuffed the Twisted Owl, where a haze of blue smoke hovered above the bar. Lizette looked for Fisher, scanning faces in the bar mirror, hoping she’d find him sitting in tonight with the house band.

She took her time pushing to the bar, consciously breathing through her mouth, guarding her nose against the smell of sweat and wet wool. She knew the longer it took to get a pitcher of beer and find a place to squeeze in, the longer she’d be warm. She wanted to stake out a spot to hear the band, maybe talk to Fisher about the Dogs, get his advice on how to get back into the house, brushing a memory wisp of Rocket aside like a tendril.

She bought a pitcher, the barkeep tossing her a “what’s up” nod, and pulled out of the body press. She staked out a table, setting two glasses next to the pitcher as bait. It wasn’t long before a barrel-chested young guy sat down, probably a dock worker on his way home. Marvin Gaye blasted “Let’s Get It On” from the juke box, but loud laughter and pool clatter made it hard to hear him. She poured a glass of beer, handed it to him as he lounged in the spindly wooden chair. She tried to follow what he was saying, smile at the right times, but felt out of sync.

She undid a button on her flannel shirt and bent over to dig in her bag, knowing the man’s gaze would follow down her chest. She sat up, leaned back, grinned. He touched her thigh, signed her to dance. He clutched her to him, smelling of axel grease and BO. She gagged and warbled softly against his shoulder, feeling his hands slipping below her waistband. She moved in closer, wrapping her thin frame onto his body. She started sweating from the contact, feeling sure she’d have a warm place to sleep tonight. Peeking over his shoulder, she saw a man watching them. It took a second but she placed him. The counter clerk at the Pequod who shooed her for panhandling. He caught her eye and smiled, pushed toward her in the crowd.

Then a tall, bearded man cut in, easing the chubby guy out. He squeezed her roughly to him, making it hard for her to breathe. Pressed against his chest, she couldn’t read his face, but didn’t like the feel of him, rough and hard edged. She was suffocating, his big hand on her ass, ramming her pelvis against his groin. She could feel the lump of his cock and tried to pull away, but he held her around the waist and jammed her head harder against his shoulder, almost lifting her from the floor. Lizette struggled, but the man had her arms pinned in a wrestler’s hug. She started screaming and a big commotion broke out by the tavern’s front door. Her voice got mixed into the anxious sounds and drowned out by the jukebox.

She heard snatches of angry yelling, Shot! Fucker’s are shot! The crowd rushed the door. The man turned her loose and moved with the crowd. She slipped to the side wall and threaded her way to the window, angling a spot that looked onto the street. A man was lying on the ground, his legs twisted, blood from his gut running thin across the rain wet sidewalk. Another man staggered to the window, leaning against the glass where she stood and laid his hand on the pane, blood leaking through his fingers, smearing the window. Lizette turned and pushed back to her table, got her bag and headed for the rear door, pausing for an instant to catch her breath. The knob turned. The door swung out. She looked over her shoulder and up and down the alley to make sure it was clear. She stepped outside, deciding on the long way to the next street to avoid the crowd on the corner. She heard sirens in the distance. The buildings felt close and slimy, boarded up windows and doors looking blindly into the darkness. She moved toward the streetlight at the end, rain sprinkling in the glow.

He shoved her into a doorway from behind, black overcoat, humped like a whale, breathing the smell of hot fish guts onto the back of her neck. He ripped her loose jeans down. She screamed Help! He pulled her sideways and hit her open-handed, full force on the side of her face. Stunned, she shook it off and put her arms up. A bone crack, then a jab to her side took her breath away. Flattened against a metal door, hips pulled out, an unholy fire exploded inside her. Sirens coming closer. Then cold and greasy moss on the pavement against her cheek. She puked scrambled eggs and hash browns. Before she blacked out, she saw a dog lapping vomit and then felt it licking her bare thighs, its tongue warm and comforting.

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Planting Palms and Poetry – W.S. Merwin Forest Honors

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In reverence, poet W.S. Merwin began planting trees nearly 40 years ago on land surrounding his home in Maui. He created and cultivated an 18-acre palm tree botanical garden, that has become one of the largest and most important collections of palms in the world.

The collection includes more than 2,740 individual palm trees, representing more than 480 taxonomic species and more than 125 unique genera, and featuring nearly 900 different horticultural varieties, the Merwin Palms and the land on which they live have been called Hawaii’s Walden Pond.

The plantation has become The Merwin Conservancy, which preserves the palm collection and the land from future development. The conservancy allows for scientific and botanical study of the palm species.

Merwin’s home on the property has been preserved as a place where art and nature intersect.  Many of the most famous poems and literary works authored by Merwin were written there. The Poet’s Home is now offered to poets, artists and authors as a retreat center.

Appointed United States Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2010, William Stanley Merwin has a career that has spanned six decades. A poet, translator, gardener and environmental activist, he is one of the most widely read and honored poets in America.

Awards include the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Lilly Prize and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry and Present Company, which closely followed it, earned him the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress.

Now, in recognition of his botanical accomplishments, Merwin will be among 13 distinguished honorees at the 2015 Arbor Day Award ceremony on April 25 in Lincoln Nebraska.

Arbor Day is an annual observance that celebrates the role of trees in our lives and promotes tree planting and care. As a formal holiday, it was first observed in 1872, but tree planting festivals are as old as civilization.

Merwin will receive the Good Steward Award recognizing the value of the botanical garden he created. The Arbor Day Foundation said the impact of Merwin’s work reflects the values of wilderness, the stillness of nature, and our personal connection to the natural world.

Merwin Rain in Trees Cover

 From: “THE RAIN IN THE TREES”

W.S. Merwin, 1993

PLACE

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

Merwin Conservancy

Text © 1988 by W.S. Merwin. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author. All rights reserved.

Information on the Arbor Day awards are online at https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/.

The work of the Merwin Conservancy is online at www.merwinconservancy.org.

Saving the World — One Rose Bush at a Time

IMG_7596Stuff happens – and stuff happens in the garden. But, these things can’t be talked about with neighbors who notice my mail box tilts drunkenly or who remark that the new people across the street should mow their lawn more frequently, especially now that it’s getting warmer. Walking alone in my garden with coffee cup in hand, the night dew still slickening the leaves, I pause at a new plant at another struggling to survive. I notice fungus on my rose bushes and fret about the future of mankind.

It’s the weekend. I can think about whatever I want. Right?

OK. So I’m told that, not tomorrow or the next day, but in the future, say 65 million years from now, we may not be here. I peer at the roses, the fungus exhaling millions of spores as I stand mute in my ignorance and bathrobe, and wonder if this is the beginning of the end, wonder if this is proof that we’re all doomed. The world is ending, not in a cataclysm, but in the stealthy creep of must and mildew, pathogens will rule the world.

Silly? I’m not alone in this concern, as dramatic as it sounds. Writer Elizabeth Kolbert has written The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, an epic, riveting story of our species that reads like a scientific thriller–only scarier because it talks about now and and what may happen in the future.

What I got from the article she published in The New Yorker is that pathogens, specifically, fungi are attacking various life forms and killing them – frogs, bats and California oak trees.

Of the numerous species that have ever existed on earth, scientists say more than 99 percent have disappeared. But, extinction, which is seen as bad and preventable, causes a lot of argument and finger pointing, not to mention investment of tax dollars to prevent it.

I worry these attempts are futile, even silly. Are we homo sapiens merely putting our fingers in the evolutionary dike and pretending we can make a difference in the history of the universe? Is global warming the single cause of our demise? Are we all doomed? I study my roses for the answer.

Throughout the 18th century, the prevailing view was that species were fixed they exist and always will if human will just stop annihilating them. Charles Darwin believed extinction happened slowly, but he was wrong. In Kolbert’s article, she noted that researchers have found that during the past half billion years, there have been at least 20 mass extinctions. Five of these—the so-called Big Five—were so devastating that they’re usually put in their own category. Keep in mind, I’m talking Earth time, which spans about 4.5 billion years.

Kilbert notes the fifth extinction, the end-Cretaceous event, occurred a mere 65 million years ago. The event exterminated not just the dinosaurs, but 75 percent of all species on earth. Once a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions of years for life to recover, and when it does it’s generally with a new cast of characters.

In this way, mass extinctions have played a big role in evolution’s course. It’s hard to say when the current extinction event—sometimes called the sixth extinction— began, but we’re in it. Scientists speculate that its opening phase started about fifty thousand years ago, when the first humans migrated across Australia and America.

If current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone. For example, researchers first noticed something odd was happening to amphibians. The main culprit in the wavelike series of amphibian population crashes it turns out is a chytrid fungus, known as Bd. At this point, Bd appears to be unstoppable and its killing effect is spreading.

In 2007, biologist Al Hicks, of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the National Wildlife Health Center, started looking at mysterious bat deaths in the U.S. Many of the dead bats were discovered with a white substance on their nose, which was cultured and found to be an unidentified fungus. In California, millions of native oak trees have died from the fungus-like Phytophthora ramorum, a photo of how destructive it can be is show here.

 

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Sonoma County California tree deaths from P. ramorum infection. Photo courtesy: http://www.suddenoakdeath.org/

 

Just in the last century, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have changed by as much as they normally do in a hundred-thousand-year glacial cycle. In the end, the most deadly aspect of human activity may simply be the pace of change itself, moving too fast for life as we know it to catch up.

One of the maddening puzzles of mass extinction is why, at certain junctures, the resourcefulness of life seems to falter. If we’re getting ahead of ourselves, pathogens jump into the breach. Today Fungi account for about 30 percent of emerging plant diseases. These microscopic maladies are the bane of gardeners and farmers who watch in dismay as plants wilt and succumb to these microscopic killers. Fungal diseases radically alter natural ecosystems, as well as food and our environment.

A recent report in Science Daily noted that fungus, including chestnut blight fungus, which eliminated nearly 100 percent of native chestnut trees throughout eastern American forests during the last century, and at the same time Phytophthora cinnamomi fungus is threatening native forests throughout Australia.

And, in human time, fungal pathogens have been around for a long time, sometimes changing the course of history. For example, potato blight was responsible for the epidemic leading to the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and the largest immigration event in U.S. history. More recently, stem rust disease of wheat, first identified in Uganda in 1998, is threatening crops in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

If more fungus is creeping across our landscapes, if it is occurring more frequently, what’s going on? Is it climate change or sun spots? Is it signs the Sixth Extinction is accelerating and the end of life as we know it is near? What’s going on? Should we worry?

“It’s the next annihilation of vast numbers of species and it is happening now, and we, the human race, are its cause,” explains Dr. Richard Leakey, the world’s most famous paleoanthropologist and co-author of the 1995 book The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. He says every year between 17,000 and 100,000 species vanish from our planet.

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume the number is 50,000 a year,” Leakey says. “Whatever way you look at it, we’re destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet, or even a shower of vast heavenly bodies.”

The statistics he has assembled are staggering. Fifty per cent of the Earth’s species will have vanished inside the next 100 years; mankind is using almost half the energy available to sustain life on the planet, and this figure will only grow as our population leaps from 5.7 billion to 10 billion inside the next half-century.

A dramatic and overwhelming mass extinction threatens the entire complex fabric of life on Earth, Leakey said, including the species responsible for it: Homo sapiens, that all life as we know it is destined to vanish.

Oh, boy. That’s a lot to worry about as I contemplate my garden. Do you think my neighbors want to hear one peep about the end of the world out of me? Like I said, I worry and wonder, study the underside of leaves in my garden and don’t care one way or another about how often my neighbors mow their lawns.

But, all this talk about the nature of pathogens is raising startling new questions in my peanut brain. I wonder about the role of fundamental scientific research and how the study of evolution plays into our understanding of emerging disease. I get another cup of coffee.

Then there’s this: Associated Press reported last year that coffee farmers and harvesters in Central and South America have been hit by Roya, or “coffee rust,” a fast-spreading fungus that infects the leaves of coffee plants. Roya has caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, and threatened the livelihoods of more than half a million farm families from Mexico to Peru.

This is a bad situation and an example of what worries me. In particular, I’m concerned about how specific new species occur when a subset of a fungal population shifts to a new host. Another example? Fungus is now attacking frogs and bats. All of this is just too much to contemplate. When a neighbor passing by my garden asks how I’m doing, I say “fine” and hope they don’t notice the mildew on my roses.

ST LYNN'S Coffee for Roses Cover

Great website for gardeners: http://coffeeforroses.com/

 

Waltzing With Birdie

Uncle Doug was a bachelor. He wore thick, black-rimmed glasses that greatly magnified his watery blue eyes. At 35, he was short, bald and chubby. After World War II was over and his typing stint at Fort Benning, Ga., ended, Uncle Doug came back home to San Francisco. A year later, he and my grandmother used the GI bill to buy a bungalow way up on the hill in Noe Valley. The three-bedroom house, with a tunnel entrance seemed like it was built on stilts, a promontory to the only world I knew – the Mission district down below, the neon Dutch Boy paint sign waving mechanically in the Potrero Districts, and ships, like tiny logs, anchored in the bay beyond.

My mother and father moved the four of us kids into the house’s cavernous basement when my father’s drinking led to the bank’s foreclosure on our tract house in Pacifica. Upstairs, Uncle Doug, Great Aunt Eva and my grandmother slept in the three small bedrooms, huddled together at the end of the long hall. Sunshine flooded in through three big skylights, which eased the despair.

Uncle Doug collected girlie pictures and pasted them into loose-leaf binders like recipes in a homemade cookbook. He kept them on his bureau with all the stats – bust measurements, age, height, weight, other magazines they’d appeared in. Before going to work in the afternoon, Uncle Doug would pace the floor of his bedroom listening to baseball games, calling the plays out loud before they were made. He had a record player and sometimes sang along with Frank Sinatra when the Giants weren’t at bat.

My grandmother said Uncle Doug had “shell shock” from his experience in the war. That was what made him so odd, she said. That was what made him talk to himself and pace like a big cat. My mother rolled her eyes and held her tongue whenever the shell-shock theory was presented. She leaned toward the brain-damaged-at-birth notion.

Sometimes Uncle Doug would go to the basement. There was an old, black upright piano in the back corner, shoved against the cement foundation wall. Our beds were arranged there too. He’d beat the keys, pound out hymns and sing in his thin tenor voice about the love of Christ. My mother would usually take us kids down the street to the park until the music died.

Uncle Doug loved to dance. He went folk dancing on his days off. He’d wear a plaid shirt and tie with a frayed tweed sport jacket. He had high blood pressure and anemia, which he tried to cure by eating raw liver. He picked the ear wax from his ears with a bobby pin and ate it. He smelled like the inside of an old shipping trunk. He never missed a day sorting mail. He turned over his paycheck to my grandmother without discussion.

Everyday payday, my grandmother would add things up and tell him how short we were. She’d go through the bills, figuring how much we could get away with not paying each month. Because we did have a car, we carried paper shopping bags with rags wrapped around the handles when we walked to the grocery store. The rags kept the weight of the food from cutting into our hands when we walked back up the hill. Sometimes Uncle Doug would take my bag and carry it for a while, adding the weight to his own load.

I never heard my uncle complain. He hugged us kids and tickled us, grabbing our legs just under the knee cap and wiggling them back and forth giving us what we called “shinnie, shinnies.” Once he took the four of us children to the Fun House at Playland-at-the-beach. Another time he took us to a roller-skating rink. One time we went with him to watch the Fourth of July fireworks through the fog at Marina Green. He spaded the garden when asked and carried my great aunt to the living room so my grandmother could change her bedding. Then he’d gently carry her back to bed again.

Sometime in 1958, when I was 10, my grandmother began to get phone calls from a bill collector. She’d argue and cry and hang up the phone. She and my mother would go in the kitchen and close the door. We could hear their agitated tones over the sound of the radio. Once I heard my mother say, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard! Is Doug out of his mind?”

Then I overheard my mother talking to a friend. She said Uncle Doug had signed a contract for Arthur Murray dancing lessons. They wanted the $1,500 right away, and Grandma had finally borrowed the money on the house to make the bill collector go away. My mother said they took advantage of Doug, that he wasn’t bright enough to understand what he had done.

Uncle Doug wasn’t home much after that. Once in a while he’d spend an hour with us kids. He showed us how to rumba and cha cha. I tripped over his brown wing tips trying to waltz. He had rubber footsteps he’d lay out for us to follow on the living room floor. He’d play Frank Sinatra records so we could dance. He bought a black tuxedo with a blue cummerbund. He started to smell like Old Spice and White Shoulders.

One day I found his collection of girlie pictures in the garbage can in the basement. Ants were crawling all over the women’s bare breasts. They got on my fingers and marched around my wrists. I shook them off. I closed the lid.

Not long after that Uncle Doug brought Birdie home to meet us. They were ballroom dancing partners, he said. Birdie showed up with false teeth, a lot of rouge and a powder-blue chiffon dress with a fake fur stole. Uncle Doug’s cummerbund matched the blue in her dress exactly. He put his arm around Birdie when they sat on Grandmother’s burgundy chesterfield. My grandmother flinched when Uncle Doug called Birdie “Mama.”

My mother said Birdie was as Okie as the day was long. Killed her first husband with greasy Southern cooking. My mother said the poor man died of a heart attack while they were in the act. To no one in particular, my mother pointed out that Birdie had six grown kids. My grandmother said Birdie didn’t have the brains God gave a parakeet. Birdie ran a mangle and folded sheets in a commercial laundry. Uncle Doug said he loved her.

They were married at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in 1960. The reception was held at my grandmother’s house. We served a buffet of boiled ham and potato salad in the dining room. Then they sprinkled cornmeal on the basement floor and we kids sat on the wooden steps and watched as Birdie and Doug waltzed and tangoed on the open space near the washing machine. My mother said the marriage would never last. My grandmother said Birdie was old enough to be his mother, that she’d die first and Doug would come back home.

Uncle Doug and Birdie bought a singlewide house trailer in a park in Santa Rosa. For years Uncle Doug took the Greyhound bus to San Francisco to sort mail at the post office at night. He bought Birdie a new washer and dryer. They made payments on a refrigerator-freezer combination from Montgomery Ward.

A few years ago I drove up to tell him my mother had died. He’s retired now. He has a deep scar on his cheek where they took out a cyst. His magnified eyes are dim and he has dandruff and gout. He asked me if he was mentioned in my mother’s will. I said no. He asked if I wanted to hear some Frank Sinatra. I asked if he and Birdie still danced. He said yes.

First appeared: San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Punch Dec. 11 1994