Stories of tiny marks in the snow


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“I found something,” one of my team members said, on a chilly gray January day in a Douglas fir and Western redcedar forest west of Snoqualmie Pass. Interstate 90 roared by less than 200 yards away, but might as well have been in another world.

“Come take a look,” she said, and I followed her over the rough, snow covered terrain to a fallen fir trunk. Tucked right next to it, telling a story of movement and negotiation across a landscape, were a pair of the neatest, tidiest bobcat tracks you could expect in snow at least two days old, that had melted out a bit and also been rained on. Which was to say, while they weren’t quite as crisp and clear as the sketches and photographs in our field guides, enough details were discernable to differentiate a bobcat from a coyote, and excite all of us on the team about what we’d found.

I’ve written about my interest in tracking before, but what was notable about this particular experience was its context: the first field trip of my second winter as a team lead for the Community Wildlife Monitoring Project, a volunteer-driven initiative to collect data associated with the crossing structures that enable wildlife to get across Interstate 90 safely. While the crossings themselves have cameras to document their use–including some pretty dramatic events involving mountain lions, fishers, and even a moose–a key element of the project is understanding how animals navigate the landscape on either side of the freeway, how they interact with the freeway itself, and their movements to and away from the crossings. Cameras aren’t really feasible for this, which is where tracking–sometimes described as “the oldest science”–comes in.

Tracking elicits some romantic notions, informed by American Western films and scenes like this one from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which I have to admit is more than a little responsible for my own interest. It suggests a preternatural awareness on the tracker’s part: of the landscape, of animals and people moving through it, of intuitive insight bordering on clairvoyance for where something came from and where it went. The truth is, though, it relies on a set of skills that anyone can develop, a willingness to be wrong, and a great deal of patience.

I’m curious about lives other than my own. I’ve always been into reading, fiction as well as nonfiction, and I think that’s why: that curiosity that facilitates insight without intrusion. Reading isn’t a passive activity, but it’s an engagement with a static object that inspires imagination.

Tracking, I think, is similar. Learning to read marks on a landscape left by animals–and people!–turns what might appear to be a disorderly wilderness into signs that can be reconstructed into a story. In fact storytelling is encouraged by the trackers I’ve studied with, a re-assembly of those marks of passage into a sequence of events that can sometimes, in turn, reveal more marks previously unnoticed.

In this case, the bobcat’s travel along a fallen tree trunk bare of snow had left dirt on its paws, so that when it crossed the snow again we found little brown smudges in spots where the snow had taken little impression of the cat’s feet. I marveled at how light this being’s step must have been; so light that, eventually, we lost the trail and were unable to find it again. So we do not know how this story ended, any more than we know how it began; yet, for awhile, we were able to read it, and imagine the bobcat walking through the snowy woods in January, less than two hundred yards from the roaring freeway.

The purpose of this project is to benefit wildlife, who are negatively impacted–often literally, if I might be permitted a particularly tasteless pun–by human activity and human infrastructure. I-90 is a literal barrier, a roaring and deadly river that hampers movement, and thereby all of the things that animals do that necessitate that movement: finding food, finding shelter, finding mates, reproducing. Research shows that mountain lions on the Olympic Peninsula, for example, are becoming genetically isolated due to the all but insurmountable barrier of I-5. Meanwhile, I-90 through Snoqualmie Pass features multiple crossings, most of them going under the freeway where culverts have been replaced with overpasses, enabling animals to cross without literal risk to life and limb. One major benefit to humans as well ought to be obvious here: hitting a deer with your car isn’t going to be a good day for you, either.

But another is simply this: tracking creates a kind of knowledge and understanding of other lives that live among ours, often without our realizing it. When I hear about people afraid to go hiking because they might get attacked by a mountain lion (you’re far more likely to get into a car crash on the way to the trailhead) or wondering why urban wildlife can’t be relocated elsewhere (move coyotes out of the city and other coyotes will move in) or thinking that bear or elk is the perfect selfie accompaniment (being attacked by either is incredibly unlikely but that’s a really great way to up your odds) I often think that what’s going on here is a failure of recognition.

That recognition, and the understanding it facilitates, is why really skilled trackers can look at what appears to be a disordered landscape and read all sorts of stories in it. I’m only at the beginning of this journey, barely past the alphabet and into reading complete sentences with laborious piecing together of syllables and sounds. But I think it’s important: not only to recognize the places and stories of these living beings in the landscape we inhabit, but also our own.

Pair of bobcat tracks side by side in the snow, with a right-angled ruler for scale. A 3x5 index card labels the photograph: Denny Creek, January 14 2023, observation 3.

I finally read House of Leaves


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I have to-read piles, plural. To-read shelves, to-read boxes, to-read heaps of books that create miniature fortresses around the house and obstacle courses for cats. Perhaps you can relate: the activities of collecting books and actually reading them are distinct. For that matter, collecting books for my personal enjoyment is a distinct activity from my job as a professional librarian, which these days doesn’t involve books very much anyway. 

This is why Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves sat in a pile in my house for, no kidding, ten years before I finally read it. Once I did, I had the distinct feeling that I’d waited too long. Not because I loved it–which is not to say that I hated it, either. But the book would’ve made more of an impression on me if I’d read it when it first came out. It’s not clear to me if this is because some of the devices it uses are no longer as innovative as they once were, or because I’m just older and more jaded as a reader. Quite possibly both.

The book’s labyrinthine structure–literally, with its chained and nested footnotes, text crammed into columns and boxes or spread out into a few words or characters on the page, looping spirals and dead ends–is appealing. Sometimes frustrating, too, but that’s the nature of labyrinths. And, as with the mythical Labyrinth of Knossos, once you’re in, you can’t help seeking the Minotaur.

There’s also a lack of efficiency in this structure, and I can’t decide whether that’s deliberate or merely indicates that this is Danielewski’s first novel. Both can be true; but I admit that knowing the latter, I awarded him more patience as a reader than I might have otherwise. Certainly something had to keep me going through Johnny Truant’s logorrhea and the spiraling loops of satirical academic citations. Alas, the former wears thin quicker than one might hope and as for the latter, as a sometime academic I’ll just say that academia satirizes itself far more effectively. (If not necessarily deliberately.) The chapter of putative quotations from various famous scholars and pop-culture figures felt especially self-indulgent; I had to remind myself that social media didn’t exist yet when this book was written.

Then there’s the book’s core incident itself. I read a number of reader reviews of House of Leaves–mostly because reading this book seems to have been such a profound experience for so many people, and that it wasn’t for me made me wonder what I was missing–and their discussion of Navidson’s house, documented in the Navidson Record (which itself, per Johnny Truant’s close reading of Zampano’s exhaustive study, does not exist) tends to fall into one of two distinct categories. The first describes it as the most interesting and gripping thing happening in the book (this is true); the second points out that it’s not the real story, and in fact didn’t happen at all.

That second is where I run into problems as a reader. Not that fiction-within-fiction isn’t a clever idea–after all, the whole thing is fiction! None of it really happened!–nor is it impossible to make a dream, hallucination, or otherwise obviously fictitious series of events even inside the world of the story interesting. Lewis Carroll and G.K. Chesterton are two famous examples of authors who did exactly this, but “I woke up and it was all a dream” is notoriously difficult to pull off. It’s certainly not impossible, Neil Gaiman has defined much of his career doing it, but it’s a high bar to clear. For me, where House of Leaves doesn’t entirely succeed is that the enclosing narrative that spirals around the events of the Navidson Record is far less compelling. I don’t have to like Johnny Truant, or even relate to him, but I do need to find him interesting. And while I did find it fulfilling to eventually learn something of what was going on with him, boy howdy was it a slog to get there. Possibly I’ve known too many people like Johnny in real life–I promise you, taking refuge from pain in sex and drugs isn’t as unusual or edgy as one might think, for all that it’s very understandable. And if Johnny’s representation of events is just as fake as Zampano’s account of the Navidson Record, that’s a bit too much confabulation for a book to sustain. Particularly one as long as this one is.

Ultimately I was seeking a story that was as innovative as the structure used to tell it, but much of the time I felt like the author used up his inventiveness on the latter and didn’t have a whole lot left for the former. That the device of the house seems to be what resonates most with readers–even those who understand that what they’re reading is a meta-narrative–strikes me as indicative of the issue here. Take, for instance, the character of Navidson himself. As the story unfolds, we learn of a key event in his life involving a photograph the notability of which is mostly brought home to the reader by comparing it to another photograph, Kevin Carter’s “The Struggling Girl.” Perhaps this is meant to be a clue to the reader of the illusory nature of Navidson’s entire existence, even within the context of the story. Instead, it felt like a cheat: a moment of pathos bought by reference rather than earned by narrative. No wonder the book is so full of citations, though the Carter photograph is real: and, far more accessible to a curious reader in 2023 than it was in 2000. Indeed, the illusory or concrete nature of the references in House of Leaves are far easier to discover today, when any citation is just a Google search away, than they would have been twenty years ago.

But this sort of thing is why Navidson, and the other characters too, come across as rather thin and trope-y, rather than fully fledged and interesting people. One could argue that that’s deliberate, or at least an indication that Danielewski didn’t think characterization was all that important. I actually think that’s valid: people read novels for all sorts of reasons, and if I find the characters in House of Leaves uninteresting and unconvincing, that says something about what I’m looking for as a reader as much as it says something about the book I’m reading. More to the point, though, one of the things that makes the characters uninteresting is how stereotypical they are: Johnny Truant with his traumatic past that he medicates with drugs, alcohol, and improbable quantities of sex; Navidson who distances himself from his important relationships via his camera; Karen whose chief personality trait seems to be emotional neediness (though one comes to understand where it comes from); the children whose acting-out responses to the chaos around them conveniently take them off the page for most of the book. Even Johnny’s institutionalized mother reads like a stereotype, albeit a smotheringly unsettling one.

This thinness of characterization is especially noticeable among the book’s women, few of whom have any real impact on the story as a whole. Most present and influential are Karen, Navidson’s partner, and Pelafina, Johnny’s mother, both of them made largely ineffectual by circumstance, and one of them fictional even within the book’s universe. We never learn the name of Johnny’s primary lust object (though he does, eventually); the others are nonentities, though one does rise to the level of plot contrivance. This distance between Johnny and the women he has sex with is probably intentional, since distance is the book’s primary thematic element. It also gets repetitive.

It is enjoyable how House of Leaves puts common horror tropes to the service of a larger story. On the other hand, it’s arguable that any novel ought to be able to do that without explicitly pointing out to the reader how clever it’s being. Perhaps the constant obfuscation is part of the point, mirroring the characters’ constant blundering into dead ends, encounters with their deepest internal fears, and eventual descent (sometimes literal) into madness. This, in turn, is perhaps why so many readers have complained of the heavy lifting involved (not least of the book itself, which in physical form weighs in at over 700 pages) in reading it. For me, the book’s sheer length, mostly due to Johnny Truant’s verbosity and some poems and ersatz quotations that felt more like padding than content, interrupted the immersive experience elicited not only by the stronger portions of the text but also by the sometime novelty of the text’s arrangement. Someone on Goodreads described it as a 400 page book posing as a 700 page book, which is kind of neat given the core story’s premise, and I think that’s just about right. There’s a difference between making the reader work for the story’s fulfillment, and making your story long because you didn’t have time to make it short, to paraphrase Blaise Pascal.

I don’t think it changed my life, and I’m ambivalent about having finished it.

My favorite HoL summary.

This is all too unsettling, let’s have waffles instead.

Published: “Woman of the River,” Asimov’s


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If you’re a subscriber to Asimov’s Science Fiction, you’ll get to read my latest story for them, “Woman of the River,” in the January/February issue. You’ll need to subscribe to read it, or else pick up a print copy at a bookstore or newsstand, but if you want to learn more of what it’s about before making that kind of commitment you can read the essay I wrote about it for the Asimov’s blog:

Four years ago at a bardic contest, my friend Jim wrote a poem about the river. What river? Any river, and all rivers, though references to a heron on the shore and the life cycle of salmon situate the poem in the Pacific Northwest where we both live. “A river is a verb,” the poem concludes, with certain implications for life, the flow of time, and grammar.

For me, the river of Jim’s poem was the Duwamish, which takes its name from the people who historically—and also today—live within its watershed, and from whose chief at the time of white settlement the city of Seattle takes its name. The river used to wind back and forth across the wide valley between West Seattle, where I live, and Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Colonization, industrialization, and World War II turned it into a straight and narrow waterway, while two of its three tributaries disappeared…

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Waiting for the Wheel


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The first episode of Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga just dropped. Some of my friends have already seen the special theater screenings. In spite of myself, I’m a bit excited.

The first book, The Eye of the World, came out when I was still in high school, though I didn’t read it until sometime later. But I remember that cover on that thick hardcover book at the library where I worked as a shelver, compelling enough that I can still clearly recall the sight over thirty years later. Why I didn’t pick it up then, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s that while I do enjoy epic fantasy, the style of cover art on the books’ original publications has never really appealed to me. This is mostly a matter of personal taste–though later, as I both read my way through the series and met fellow fans (some of whom I’m friends with to this day) on proto-social-media-network Usenet, the cover art for The Wheel of Time became a running joke. Not only was it not very good, but the characters depicted often barely resembled their physical descriptions in the text. (We won’t even get into how the cover of Lord of Chaos could’ve easily gotten it misshelved in the Romance section. I’ve got nothing against romance but that’s not what’s going on in that novel. Mostly.)

Once I finally got into the series, though, there was a lot about it that I enjoyed. I like adventure fiction as well as epic fantasy, and Wheel of Time has plenty of both (though the slow pace of the later novels is also a long-standing running joke among the same group of friends. If you’ve never read them, fair warning: there’s one infamous chapter the POV character spends taking a bath). The deliberate callouts to Lord of the Rings in the early chapters of the first novel were fun, as were the references to things that were obviously of Earth–those seem pretty cheesy now, but you’ve got to remember that Google didn’t exist yet. They felt like little Easter eggs that one could feel mildly clever about noticing. The cyclical nature of the story’s world, of the magic, of time itself was very compelling to someone who had just discovered Buddhism, as was a fictional setting where reincarnation was an undeniably real and accepted part of existence. And I loved many of the characters, particularly Nynaeve and Moiraine, who combined inborn talent, skill, and determination in ways that I found especially appealing.

The series took so long to come to its conclusion that I listened to the last few books while commuting to my academic job a good twenty years after I read the first. By then, my relationship to the books and the story they told had shifted. Much as I suspect we’re meant to, I started to question whether the White Tower was really such a great place (of course, by then it was reminding me of academia, which I’ve somehow managed to retain some idealism about but which has structural and cultural problems of its own). The skewing and at times outright reversal of gendered allocations of power in comparison to our own world began to seem dated and simplistic. And my personal taste in fiction was shifting in decidedly weirder directions. A few years after the last book came out, I got the audiobook of The Eye of the World from the library and tried a listen. Sad to say, it didn’t work for me.

But I was intrigued when I heard Amazon Prime was working on a series, especially once I heard of Rosamund Pike’s casting; she has a seriousness about her that seemed perfect for Moiraine. And I liked what I saw in the trailers: a world that looked different than I’d imagined when reading the books, and yet still somehow looking right. Though Amazon Prime’s reasons for choosing to adapt the show are as mercenary as anything else that Amazon does, they have some big fans involved in the production, and it shows. It’s interesting to me that I’m excited for this show, even though the books don’t really work for me anymore. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, or curiosity about someone else’s take on a story that I’m familiar with.

If I’m honest, though, I think on some level I’m hoping for the show to bring to life some of the magic that the books no longer hold for me. If my own waking dream that occurs when reading is no longer vivid, I’m more than happy to experience someone else’s, and what I’ve seen so far looks promising: beautiful landscapes, mysterious cities, monstrous armies, and women with fantastic powers. The emphasis on Moiraine in the trailers is an element that I particularly appreciate. Though she is not the story’s protagonist, in many ways she is a principal lens through which to experience it: chronologically one of the first to learn that the Dragon has been reborn with all that that entails, her heroic quest is among the longest and exacts the highest cost. And she was one of my favorite characters from the very beginning, when she rides into Emond’s Field and upends everyone’s lives: one of Robert Jordan’s better ideas being to enshrine Gandalfian powers in a diminutive woman whose seemingly indeterminate age is a drawback as often as an advantage.

A lot of the books I grew up reading have gotten adaptations: Lord of the Rings, Dune, Narnia, even Earthsea (though I prefer not to think about that one because it was so bad). The people making these shows likely grew up reading the same books; they’re also stories whose visual adaptations needed either to be animated, or to wait until special effects technology had reached the point that it could be convincing. (Lord of the Rings still looks pretty good.) Though ironically, the magic itself of the Wheel of Time is often not visible, though its effects can be and often are. From the trailers it looks like the show has decided to change that, which is an approach I can’t fault for this particular story. (My favorite approach so far is what they did on The Magicians.) Perhaps it’s because I read so many of these books when I was younger, or perhaps it’s because the visual medium has always, for me, tapped into my younger sense of myself, but I find that I enjoy movie and TV adaptations on a different level than I enjoyed reading their source material. I’m probably never going to read the Wheel of Time novels again, but I’m looking forward to the show.

Though I’d also love it if some studio out there did justice to Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, which of all my childhood fantasies is probably the one that resonated with and influenced me the most. I can see Timothee Chalamet as Taran, can’t you?

Tracking life


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I’ve been to the Oregon Dunes three times now, twice as part of a wildlife tracking program and once on my own. Every time, I’m reminded that this place was an inspiration for Frank Herbert’s Dune–at the top of my mind with the latest film adaptation coming out this week. (Though, my second visit was during the wildfires of late summer 2020, and between the smoke and the strong winds, the vibe was more Mad Max than Arrakis. Especially since where I go is near a dune buggy area, so every so often you hear engine noise but don’t see anything. Kind of eerie.)

My most recent visit was for Wilderness Awareness School’s Tracking Intensive program. If you’re interested in animal tracks and trailing, the Dunes is a great place to do it. A friend and I followed a deer trail for close to a mile before we lost it in the forest that runs between the dunes and the sea. In groups we examined tracks left by coyotes, bears, raccoons, bobcats, and gray foxes…as well as crows and ravens, deer mice, and yes, worms (well, larvae, anyway).

Bear tracks in sand

I’ve been doing this nature-connection stuff for awhile now, and I always come back to tracking. Non-domestic animals are understandably wary of humans; indeed, when they lose their wariness, that’s often when problems arise. (If you ever really want to listen to me rant, show me a video of someone’s garbage getting raided by a bear.) Tracking is a great way to learn who’s around and their behaviors without being too intrusive. It’s also frustratingly difficult to do in much of the Pacific Northwest, especially west of the Cascades where most of the terrain is heavily vegetated (or concrete–one reason it’s fun to go snow tracking in Seattle on the rare occasions that it snows). I put up some trail cameras on the acreage my husband and I own, and realized how much I’d been missing because the wildlife makes considerable use of existing gravel roadways. Coyotes and cervids like convenience just as much as humans do.

The sand of the Dunes is perfect for holding tracks long enough to make for an interesting day of tracking and trailing. On this last trip, we got just enough rain every night to firm up the sand a little, without packing it so hard that it wouldn’t take impressions. With a few safety tips in mind–don’t go near the dune with all the dead trees sticking out of it, stay away from the dune buggy area, and use landmarks and maybe a compass to keep your bearings–there’s no need to remain on the marked trail, and lots of interesting things to investigate by going off of it.

I often joke that the Lord of the Rings film adaptation trilogy is responsible for two of my hobbies. One is Hardanger fiddle (which plays the Rohan theme in The Two Towers and Return of the King), and tracking is the other, inspired by this scene:

Now that I’ve studied tracking, I know how possible Aragorn’s reading and interpretation is (though I still have a few questions), though I’m nowhere near practiced enough to read the fate of Merry and Pippin in some trampled grass, especially with a battle raging all around and over it (that’s one of my questions). It’s a great scene, though, with Aragorn having just given the hobbits up for lost when he spies something in the grass that gives him pause. Tracking often has unexpected moments like this, though I’ve never trailed a pack of orcs who’ve kidnapped my friends. But I have had the experience of spotting a perfect bobcat track right in the middle of the trail that I’m hiking, or walking past a tree with bear claw-marks marching up and down both sides, or puzzling over stippling in beach sand that looks like tire tracks until I come across the little sand crabs making them. These signs of life, left at some point in time before I came across them, serve as remarkable reminders of who else lives in this world.

They have practical utility, too. This winter I plan to be volunteering with Conservation Northwest’s wildlife tracking project, which among other things has helped site the crossings that deer, elk, coyotes, bears, and more use to get across freeways without risking being struck by traffic. Animals don’t choose their routes at random; when we first bought our land we consulted with a forester about all sorts of things from sustainable harvesting to inventorying tree species, and one key piece of advice was to site our hiking trails where the animals were already going. While I have followed elk trails straight up mountainsides, it’s generally true that animals, like humans (who are also animals) will choose the easiest ways to get somewhere. And they’ll use the same routes over and over. One of my projects over the next several months is to map those trails on my own land. Part of that is to help me decide where to expand trails for human use, but also, I want to know where the other beings who live there go, and when, and why.

Gray fox tracks, Oregon Dunes

When I watched Dune, the sheer size and scope of everything really made it feel like an alien world. But the Oregon Dunes feel like that too, especially surrounded by the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest. Climbing up the trail out of the Eel Creek campground onto the sand is like stepping into another world. The shift into rolling sands, distant tree islands, and the water-collecting deflation zones is that sudden. Wander off the marked trail and you might not see any other people for hours. Go at the right time of day and you might spot scurrying deer mice (not as cute as the muad’dib from Arrakis, with their enormous ears) or the elusive gray fox. But more likely you’ll find tracks–of mice, gray foxes, coyotes, bobcats, bears, and more. Imagining how they experience a place as strange as the Dunes is as close as any of us will ever get to living on an alien world, of being inside the mind of an intelligence not our own.

When I first read Dune many years ago, it was for the same reason that I read a lot of science fiction–for the sheer uncanniness of the experience, the way that sending my mind on vacation in another reality could help me make sense of my own, of the uncanny fact that we exist at all. But Earth is full of amazing places and astounding intelligences and uncanny experiences of its own, and the Oregon Dunes provide all three.

It’s hard to be true to yourself when you have no idea who you are


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That was my chief takeaway from watching The Green Knight, which I finally did last weekend. There was a particular friend I wanted to see it with, and we’re still not keen on movie theaters, so on Saturday night we settled in with streaming and popcorn. No one I know who’s seen it has failed to have an opinion about this movie, and almost all of those opinions were either wildly positive or acidly negative; I was intrigued.

It certainly looks good. I wasn’t surprised to learn that director David Lowery was deliberately calling back to the Arthuriana and fantasy movies of the 1980s, which could be both suffused with brilliant color and vivid imagery, and also be deeply weird and unsettling. (Return to Oz, anyone?) I half expected the synthesizers from the Ladyhawke soundtrack to take over at some point. Understand: this would not have been a negative.

Then there’s the storyline, which doesn’t quite hew exactly to that of the poem but is in its own way just as weird. We can argue about whether the medieval mindset was really all that different from the modern one–personally I think humankind has always been prone to irrationality and resting our judgments on the slender reeds of half-formed impressions and emotional responses–but there’s something about the stories from those days, some willingness to leave things unexplained. The edges of what was unknown were a lot closer back then. Giants, talking foxes and headless saints? Who knows what’s out there?

But I do think it was an interesting choice to make Gawain young and untested–and apparently disinterested in maturing or in testing himself until Arthur and Guinevere, in their own respective ways, call out the lack. He’s primed to step forward when the other Knights of the Round Table exhibit aggressive disinterest in answering the Green Knight’s challenge. Talk about awkward silences, man: the best warriors in the world, and not one of them’s up for a bit of the beheading game. And after the Green Knight’s picked up his head and galloped out of Camelot, Gawain does what a lot of us would probably do when faced with an unpleasant but seemingly far distant appointment: tries his best to ignore it.

This post was originally titled “Gawain, Disney princess,” but that’s not quite right. The thing about Disney princesses is that they know what they want, at least well enough to sing showstopper songs about it. Gawain hasn’t got a song. Hell, he hasn’t even got a sword. Arthur has evidently given some thought to who’ll inherit his throne, but idle thought seems to be all he’s given it; certainly Gawain hasn’t been prepared to govern in even the most superficial of senses. The Christmas feast at the beginning of the movie shows a Camelot past its peak: none of the Knights of the Round Table so much as stir to answer the Green Knight’s challenge, and Arthur and Guinivere are well north of middle age. And later, when Gawain leaves for his adventure, it’s clear that the world beyond Camelot’s walls hasn’t been doing so well.

It’s not at all evident that facing the Green Knight will prepare him, either. The Green Knight reminded me, more than once, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, probably deliberately given that the director cited it as an inspiration. (Those chapter title cards!) Barry Keoghan all but reprises the role of the peasant who questions Arthur’s right to be king and complains of oppression when Arthur tries to shut him up. Gawain’s retrieval of Saint Winifred’s skull is probably no stronger a basis for a system of government than is receiving Excalibur from a strange woman in a pond. Ultimately, Gawain’s own vision of what his life will become if he turns aside from the Green Knight’s challenge and rides home to inherit Arthur’s throne indicates his awareness of falling well short of any kind of ideal.

That resonated for me, as a former Gifted Kid who only recently has begun to make my peace with the notion that I’ll never live up to some vaguely defined potential. When reviewers have talked about modernizing the story, I think this might be what they mean: we look to old myths like this to tell us how to make something of our lives, because in the tangled forest of the everyday it’s difficult to make out any sort of clear path. How many of us have longed for an adventure to pluck us out of our days? Although Patel’s Gawain is more like Bilbo Baggins than an adventure-seeking knight–one gets the sense that he’d have been more than happy to stay living with his mother and sleeping with Essel if the Green Knight hadn’t come along. (Given his mother’s apparent role in that, one gets the impression that she’s been waiting for him to move out of the house for awhile now.)

I’m no medievalist but I wonder how modern this take really is–as though people centuries ago weren’t given to self-doubts and aimlessness of their own. On the other hand what happens on the screen is as weird as anything I ever read from that era, with the sense of an obscured logic that might not be obvious to an observer but that makes sense to itself. Both of the friends I watched it with pointed out that after a certain point, the entire movie could be a hallucination. Personally, having spent many days in the woods with minimal gear and even less food, I found myself relating to Gawain’s predicament, mushrooms or no mushrooms. (I’ve never encountered any giants, though, even though Sasquatch supposedly roams the woods where I routinely hike and camp. Something in us wants there to be something mysterious and inexplicable out there, even as it stands in for all our fears.)

I’ve also seen the film criticized for aimlessness or lacking focus, but if that’s not true to its protagonist for most of his journey, I don’t know what is. When asked why he’s on this quest at all, Gawain replies that it’s for honor–but Dev Patel’s delivery indicates that Gawain has only the vaguest idea of what that is. I don’t mean that he’s an intrinsically dishonorable character, but that he has no internal compass whatsoever. Though stories like this are usually in some sense about someone finding himself, Lowery is way more concerned with his protagonist’s interiority than we see in most fantasy movies–even Lord of the Rings, impressive achievement though it is, often struggled with this. Even then, it’s only close to the very end, with death seemingly imminent, that he finally reckons with himself.

For all that this last portion of the film is arguably the most different from its source material, I don’t think the difference is all that substantial. After all, in the poem, Gawain not only accepts the gift of the green girdle, he never reveals to the Green Knight that he has it. When he wears it back home to Camelot, it is, in a way, an emblem of his failure. When the other Knights of the Round Table take on green girdles of their own, it’s a reminder that they, too, have fallen short of the chivalric ideal.

And Gawain of the film? Lowery leaves us to guess. The Green Knight might well let him live, just as he does in the poem. Or he might cut off his head–and Gawain, without the magical sash, is unlikely to then pick up his head and ride back to Camelot with it. As the lady of the castle in the film points out, in a thematic speech that has been read by some as nihilistic, ultimately it doesn’t matter. The green will have us all eventually.

But until then? The Green Knight suggests that we have both more and less control over that than we might suppose. The Gawain of the film avoids the question of life and death by avoiding adventure, until he’s pushed into it by a mother who’s clearly concerned about whether he’s sensible enough to pour water out of a boot (considering how much of the movie he spends a) wet and b) without boots, she has some basis for concern). He might have stayed in bed. He might have sat there like the rest of Arthur’s knights, never answering the Green Knight’s challenge. He might not have sought out the Green Chapel. He might have gone home, neck and girdle intact, and lived out the future he saw for himself until it became unbearable. He does not. He arrives, as one review I read observes, at courage by way of self-doubt. Which is how a lot of us get there…if we do.

And once he does, he has a question for the Green Knight, before the final blow falls: “Is this all there is?” The Knight, seeming puzzled, replies, “What else should there be?” It’s a riddle in exchange for a riddle, and calls to my mind a response commonly made by a character who we’ll see soon in another literary adaptation for the screen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. When asked by the newly dead if that’s all they get, Death replies: You get what everyone gets. You get a lifetime.

One year or fifty, that’s what Gawain gets.

And so do we.

Nature as balm, nature as itself


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Bluff view at sunset, Thurston County, WA, September 2021

A few weeks ago I trucked down to some acreage my husband and I own to go camping with a small and socially distanced selection of friends. The long-term plan is to live there, but navigating the planning and permitting is a great way to develop some sympathy for the people who claim that the main purpose of government is to obstruct. (Put it this way, we once got an answer from the county permitting office that was, in totality, this: “It depends.” Thanks, y’all.) So in the meantime, we go camping.

I’ve been reading Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. It’s a lovely book, though I repeatedly find myself thinking that of course it’s easier to find solace in nature when you can take your kayak somewhere remote and spend hours floating on the water while snow falls on you. I don’t mean to take away from the insights Moore draws from that, or from swimming across a river or hiking in the mountains, but what I keep coming back to when I read things like this is how difficult it is to find solace in nature when so many of us live in places where nature is massively disrupted.

Duwamish Waterway Park, March 2021

On the other hand, six months ago I stood on the shore of an urban river and watched a blue heron fishing while jet planes periodically roared overhead, and I’m currently volunteering for an urban coyote tracking project that involves searching for sign in the greenbelt areas near my neighborhood. (Been finding a lot of it, too.) Coyotes have lived in Seattle for at least seventy years and they’re definitely still around, even though it’s been a few years since I’ve seen one. My back deck has played host to Bewick’s wrens, dark-eyed juncos, house sparrows, hummingbirds, and house finches. I’ve been hearing spotted towhees lately, and Northern flickers. Black-capped chickadees are always around and never shut up.

Sparrow, Lincoln Park, West Seattle, early spring 2021

A year ago I didn’t know any of those birds. Naming a thing in nature isn’t enough to know it, but it’s not a bad way of getting started. More to the point, there is something soothing about watching non-human lives going about their business, with their own concerns. Getting outdoors has always been one of the ways I found respite. In college I would take long walks in the woods near campus, occasionally finding myself clear on the other side of town. I’ve camped my way up and down the Pacific Northwest coast a few times now. And the privilege of having a place to go to get outdoors and spend that time only with people of my choosing is one that I’m profoundly grateful for.

Ira Spring Trail to Mason Lake, July 2011

Yet I’m always reminded of the profound sense of escapism in the American relationship to nature, wilderness, and the outdoors. For most of us, the outdoors is a curated experience of landscaped parks and hiking trails maintained through hours of volunteer labor. I’m as prone to it as anyone–one of the reasons I go hiking is to escape from people, which is why I increasingly hike less popular or less accessible trails, or go very early in the morning or even at night to avoid the crowds. There’s nothing wrong with seeking nature as an escape–we all need pressure valves and this happens to be one for a lot of people–but it also highlights what strikes me as a particularly American way of seeing nature as something separate from us, something out there that we go to when we want it but that otherwise is truly not concerned with us. And that’s just the kind of attitude that ultimately threatens our own survival and thriving, because our habit of externalizing the cost of our way of life will eventually make our way of life impossible.

One of the few books I’ve read so far that really seems to understand this is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, a remarkable meditation that occurs at the intersection of science and spirituality. Kimmerer’s understanding of our inextricable interdependence with the natural world, which is not separate from us no matter how much we try to make it so, is one that I rarely see articulated so well. Perhaps paradoxically, one of the ways she does this is by recognizing that other living beings have their own lives and ways of being; they do not exist at our pleasure, solely to serve us, and they do not disappear when our attention is elsewhere.

When I began studying wildlife tracking, it was with the idea of coming to better understand what was going on in the non-human world when I wasn’t watching. Tracking combined with game cameras on the land I tend shows indirectly the effect of my and other humans’ presences there: when we’re gone, deer, elk, bobcat, and other wildlife come into the spaces that we use when we are there, pursuing their own existences. While I enjoy the (sometimes adorable, sometimes funny, always intriguing) images on my cameras, or lose myself in the analysis of a trail I’ve found, such things are also a reminder that these beings aren’t here for me, and that in fact my presence affects their lives. Will they still come around when we’re living there? How do we keep them from getting so comfortable with our presence that we actually endanger them? Many of the conflicts between humans and wildlife are the result of wildlife becoming habituated to humans, especially once they start seeing us as a source of food. A bear raiding your garbage can is likely to end up dead sooner or later.

Bobcat, Duvall, WA, February 2021

People can and do derive all sorts of things from nature, from physical sustenance to medicine to physical and mental health to so much more. Everything in our lives either is or once was derived from our interactions with the natural world. When I go into the woods or the mountains to find solitude, quiet, and peace, I have to remember that I’m not really escaping–I’m going back to where we all started from. And really, no matter how many walls and doors and windows we put between ourselves and that place, we’ve never really left. We can’t. We’d do well to remember that.

Elk cow and calf, Thurston County, WA, September 2021

As the pandemic drags on, reminding us in its own way that we aren’t at all separate from nature–there’s nothing more natural than a virus using another organism to replicate itself, and COVID is unusually good at doing just that–if there’s any reassurance I gain from going out in nature, it’s the reminder that other lives are still going on.

I wonder if they notice our crisis at all. And how and whether they respond to it, whether they notice or not.

Oregon Dunes beach trail, September 2020

“Normal” is a useless descriptor


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The semester started at my university last week.

Last year I was on sabbatical and, as I’ve written previously, spent most of it completing what is now known as the Immersion Program at Wilderness Awareness School. It was a great way to spend a pandemic: mostly outdoors in the woods, with a small-ish group of like-minded individuals, learning all sorts of things about myself and about living in the world beyond my walls. I won’t lie: wearing masks all year sucked, not least because I realized how much of my sense of connection to others depends on facial expression. Masks have just been reinstated as the norm where I live, though in my part of Seattle people never really stopped wearing them. (This really varies depending on neighborhood, I’ve observed.)

It’s said that normal is what you get used to. So far, I haven’t gotten used to this–I’m still waiting for when it’s no longer a social or governmental expectation. I wonder if it’s the same for kids, some young enough that all they remember is wearing masks. Maybe we’ll know, someday.

Earlier this summer, when the vaccination rate seemed to be making headway and before Delta became the dominant strain, it felt a little bit like I’d sort of…missed the pandemic, by just taking myself out into nature and leaning into my learning and experiences there, with the luxurious privilege of mostly not having to think about it. I was returning just as it seemed as though things were getting back to normal. I had mixed feelings about that, because our pre-COVID “normal” wasn’t great for a lot of people, and COVID itself highlighted some of the ways that that was so. (If you ever doubted that a lot of Americans like to shit on anyone whose job it is to serve others, underpaying them and expecting them to take whatever abuse we dish out, the last two years ought to have shattered whatever illusions you have left. No wonder healthcare workers, teachers, and restaurant workers are quitting in droves.) But at least it seemed like we could relax. Not have to think about it anymore. Maybe normal is what you can afford not to think about.

But I had that feeling you get in horror movies, the false denouement where everyone thinks that everything’s fine, and then the monster comes roaring back for the real boss fight. And here we are: so many things are safer if you’re vaccinated than they were last year. And yet hospitals are full, case numbers are spiking, and a few weeks before school started the word came down that everyone would be wearing masks indoors and at large outdoor gatherings at least through September. Teaching a class with a mask on is definitely a strange experience. (But, speaking from experience, it’s better than teaching online.) 

It’s made returning to my workplace even more surreal. The transition from the woods back to the working world was strange and difficult, if not exactly rough, but during the summer I was mostly working from home and when I did go to campus it was largely empty. I would sit out on one of the lawns eating my lunch and listening to the birds. I might see a groundskeeper, or someone from IT ferrying equipment across campus on a golf cart, or maybe professor in shorts and sandals. If it wasn’t exactly like being back in the woods, at least it was outdoors, in a green space, surrounded by nature.

But now we’re “back to normal.” Classes are in session. The dining hall is open. So is the library. Students have moved back into dorms. Opening convocation was held in person.

And…the passing periods between classes are longer, to allow time for classrooms to be cleaned and sanitized. Dining hall meals are served to go, with disposable tableware, even though many choose to sit at the tables as they always did. (I eat outside. The weather’s nice, and once it’s not…I spent most of last year outdoors.) Students in the library sit alone rather than congregating at large tables. I close my office door when I’m there, where I used to leave it open. Dorm move-in was on a staggered schedule. Everyone wore masks to opening convocation, and many of us watched a livestream rather than sit in the auditorium with everyone else. The university maintains a case count updated every week. 96 percent of the campus is vaccinated. It’s…fine, but it doesn’t feel normal, and I’m not sure whether that’s because it really isn’t, because I don’t want it to be, or because I’m well into middle age and have a harder time with change.

If there’s a commonality to the wildly divergent responses to the pandemic over the last two years, I think it’s that a lot of us have a hard time with change. None of us quite know what to make of the uncertainty of it all, including the people who insist that COVID-19 doesn’t exist. A lot of this comes out as hostility or anger; to my relief, I haven’t seen much that on my campus, though one hears things. A lot comes out as magical thinking, leaping the gaps between what we know and what we think will work. And a lot comes from the knowledge that we don’t really know what normal is anymore. Is it the way things were? Is it the way things are now? Most everyone I encounter still thinks of the COVID-19 pandemic as something temporary, that’ll blow over eventually…but as two weeks became more, became months, became years, and as we stumble toward something that maybe looks a little bit like early March 2019, it’s harder and harder to say what’s normal, at this point.

This can’t be normal, though. Not while ICUs are bursting at the seams. 

But where does it end? Or does it? Are we still talking about how COVID-19 made us rethink how our society functions? Are we taking this opportunity to make changes? Or are we just returning to our old course as quickly as possible, like a river when the floodwaters recede?

A flood alters the landscape, even if the river does return to its former banks. Life might eventually look a lot like it did before, for better or for worse.

But the marks will be there.

Of course I remember where I was, but that’s beside the point



I woke up this morning both remembering and not remembering what day it was. Twenty years ago I was awakened by a phone call; the person who called me is the one who sleeps next to me now. That closeness, from phone call to shared bed, occurred by increments. When I think about 9/11, I think about the closing of distances.

There is a surreality of being a very great distance from such an intentional disaster, while still living in the same country. Seattle is over 2800 miles from New York; it’s about the same distance from Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., is where I was born. Now I live under the SeaTac flight path. Mostly what I remember about that day is the lack of planes. And the bomb threat against the Muslim community center in my neighborhood. I remember that.

It’s different for those who were there, or who were directly affected, and it’s their stories that I keep making room for in my own psyche. Remembering where I was feels like an attempt at connection, to at least psychically cross that vast distance and establish some commonality with those who directly experienced the attacks, or who tried to mitigate them, or were unjustly blamed for them. But if there’s commonality to be found, I think it’s in the aftermath, in how our country as a whole changed, or else just allowed certain aspects that were always with us to come to the forefront. In many ways, where we are now is a result of that day, and in many ways, for the worse.

Certainly we are more fragmented. The notion that the whole country pulled together that day isn’t really true–it might be more accurate to say that 9/11 exposed the deep fractures within us. It’s such a big country, with such a terrifyingly violent history. Perhaps unity was always a fiction. And now, in a time of pandemic in which too many still disbelieve, in a time of entrenched hyperpartisanship, I wonder whether the distances between us are all too far to travel.

9/11 didn’t do that. But it widened the gaps.