Nature’s gifts

 

Sand crabThe waves deliver gifts. In the last week, my beachcombing has turned up limpet shells, whelks, pieces of sand dollars (does that make them sand quarters?), a thick shard of striped pottery, a white rock with a clear dark blue center, and a giant sand crab – well, giant for a sand crab, that is. Sand crabs are also known as mole crabs or sand fleas and typically they are insect like in size, but this one was a mounter: a good two inches, about 50 percent as big as their usual top range. Since the females are the larger gender – in some Emerita species, the male is so small he spends his life clinging to his woman’s legs – my find was female. She was at the end of her apparently long life, motionless, on her back – though there was some movement when I touched her gently, maybe a lingering reflex, maybe just the ghost in the carapace. With her one horn, she looked like a crustacean unicorn. I found the Emerita in her natural habitat, what Wikipedia calls “the swash zone.” Coincidentally, the swash zone is also my natural habitat. I take her home to show my son, then we put her back in the zone, where the water slowly rolls her back into its multitude.In her illuminating 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about growing up with a “view of a world full of gifts scattered at your feet.” The botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation draws upon the ideas of the American philosopher Lewis Hyde in The Gift. This 1979 book was also an influence on the early, utopian thinkers of the internet — the creators of open-source coding, creative commons, shareware, etc., before the concept of sharing turned into just another Silicon Valley profit scheme. The gift economy that Hyde champions offers an alternative to capitalism: “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.” This was also how Kimmerer saw the world as a child who instinctively tended the wild strawberry plants that grew in the fields, so she could enjoy their fruit every summer. Braiding Sweetgrass is a remarkable account of how the way we frame our relationship to the earth can change that relationship: “The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.”

Of course, the American history of the relationship to the land has been a classic story of colonizing: of conquest and depletion, not “respect and reciprocity,” as Kimmerer and Hyde envision. Even our greatest nature writers – Thoreau, Muir, Olson — have described the land as empty – “virgin” — before European settlers came, when of course we know it was populated by millions of humans. In his climate-change opus The End of Nature, Bill McKibben himself defines nature as “the world apart from man,” a definition he traces back to “the European exploration of the New World.” This separation of human from nature is the epistemological root of our ontological problem and is intimately connected to our entrenchment in industrial capitalism. As Vandana Shiva writes in Ecofeminism, “The reductionist world-view, the industrial revolution and the capitalist economy are the philosophical, technological and economic components of the same process.” If this is what “nature” is – the non-human other to which we have been historically subject, and which we have therefore in turn tried to subject – then good riddance to it. I want Kimmerer’s nature, a gift economy of mutual responsibility and reciprocity. A world of strawberries.

On Saturday, I arrive at the tide pools for a -0.5 tide. But it’s windy and the sun has already slipped around the cliff of Point Fermin, so I seek shelter behind a rock. It’s not a great vantage point but nonetheless, I’m quickly rewarded for finally making the ten-minute walk that took me two weeks. A wave washes up a jetty finger below me and I see something strange in it. It’s clear but solid, a translucent, well, blob. More swash zone swag! The tide pushes the blob up the rocks and it turns purple, blue, and green as it moves through light and water. There’s a slight ripple in its flesh but mostly its blubber is smooth, except for a large, bulbous protuberance at one end. I quickly decide it’s some sort of jellyfish, but fortunately, without the tentacles. Like the sand crab, its time has also passed. Still, well aware of the stinging potential of even a dead jellyfish, I don’t touch it until it has washed up on the rocks. Because it seems to be a partial corpse, I can’t say for sure what it is. Possibly a Velella velella, aka a by-the-wind sailor: I’ve seen these in the ocean before, scores of them, powered by their own personal sails. But this has no sail. It could be the body of a moon jellyfish, or, more scarily, a Portugese man of war. In fact, that’s what it most resembles: the upper polyp of this scarily painful creature, which is not a jellyfish at all but a siphonophore, or a colony of different critters.

I leave whatever it is where I find it. This is the nature of gifts: As Kimmerer says about the strawberries, “they belong to themselves.”

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The Rock Hall course corrects

After decades of snubbing female artists and increasingly ignoring artists of color, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made an impressive course correction yesterday. Of 16 nominated acts announced, seven (43.75 percent) are solo female artists or all-female acts. If you count the number of individual performers nominated – ie, the five members of the Go-Go’s plus Mary J. Blige, Kate Bush, Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner and Carole King – women account for almost a quarter (24.44%) of all nominees. Admittedly, that’s still not parity, but it’s a great deal better than the 7.63% of total individuals inducted since the hall was founded in 1986, or the 3.45% of the class of 2020 that was female: Her name was Whitney Houston. Turner and King, if inducted, would become the second and third women to be inducted into the hall twice (they were previously inducted with their former male romantic and artistic partners). It’s about time.

Tina Turner

The hall has also reversed its slide away from being an institution that began with almost half non-white artists to one that, in the class of 2020, had less than 15 percent people of color. Almost a third (31.11%) of this year’s individuals nominated are non-white; if you count by act rather than individual, more than two-thirds (68.75%) of the acts include POC.

Even if it’s not the all-female ballot I suggested in 2019, this is still probably the highest percentage of female acts ever nominated to the hall. There were a few years when the hall inducted a slate that was around a quarter female: 28.57% in 1999, 25.93% in 1996, 24% in 1995. Interestingly, the ‘90s were a time of high visibility and activism for female musicians; possibly the hall’s choices reflected that feminist consciousness. And that era’s sheroes – Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, TLC, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Hole, L7 –are becoming eligible for nomination themselves. Queen Latifah is past due. There are no female rappers in the Rock Hall.

Numbers tell an important story, and the extremity of the figures that I have been crunching for the last decade, in articles for Salon, Goodreads, and Billboard, got people’s attention. Even the hosts of The View were spouting my statistics last nomination round, and an amazing army of podcasters, bloggers, and social media activists took the fight to a level of erudition and specificity that left me in the dust.

But this year’s nominees are not just a relief quantitatively; qualitatively, it’s a pretty damn good list. The diversity of styles – hip-hop, punk, metal, pop, new wave, hard rock, soft rock, medium rock – show that the committee has taken to heart Ice Cube’s induction speech of 2016, in which he said rock’n’roll is not a style, “it’s a spirit.” Beyond the stellar female choices, the committee finally acknowledged rock’s global role by nominating the late Nigerian Afrobeat artivist Fela Kuti. (Though sadly, they left Kraftwerk – arguably the hall’s biggest repeated snub – out this year.) After years of controversy over whether hip-hop acts should be included, they nominated Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Rage Against the Machine, and Blige. (Kiss this, Gene Simmons.) And they played to us old punks with the New York Dolls, thank you. Yes, there are still too many dudes-with-guitar acts – five. Those groups’ multiple members throw off the individual nominee count, skewing it white and male. But I understand they appeal to their own demographics, so let the metal fans have their Iron Maiden. Or their Rage. But not both.

It took 15 years of being eligible for the Go-Go’s to be nominated to the Rock Hall. The Foo Fighters were nominated the first year they were eligible.

After all, what’s good about this ballot is its expansive embrace of popular musical culture. To me, that’s what rock’n’roll was, at its best. I know the music – like most American culture — harbors a hideous history of racial and gender appropriation. Elvis was King but Big Mama Thornton has still never been nominated to the rock hall. But I also know there was an integration that happened at the Moondog dance parties, at studios such as Stax, on regional radio and even on the charts that offered an aural vision of a different kind of united states. One we need more than ever today. In Eric Lott’s words, there is love and theft. So for once, the nomination announcement made me not want to give up on rock and its Cleveland institution. Now let’s finish the job: As Janet Jackson said in 2019, “Induct more women.”

The complete list of 2021 nominees:

  • Mary J. Blige
  • Kate Bush
  • Devo
  • Foo Fighters
  • The Go-Go’s
  • Iron Maiden
  • JAY-Z
  • Chaka Khan
  • Carole King
  • Fela Kuti
  • LL Cool J
  • New York Dolls
  • Rage Against the Machine
  • Todd Rundgren
  • Tina Turner
  • Dionne Warwick

Research assistance provided by Schuyler Vanderveen and Yemayá Williams.

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We need the middle

A poem.


Bruce said it

Of course

Even though it’s a Jeep ad

Whose map of America leaves out the UP

Again

We need the middle

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To the Lighthouse

Angels Gate Lighthouse. Photo by Heidi Tinsman

I like to experience the sea from multiple planes. Diving in, I visit a hidden world, where humans are guests and the life forms more fantastic the deeper one plunges. Swimming on the surface, my view is the point where water meets air, which I share with paddling birds, frolicking dolphins and the occasional curious pinniped. Standing on a paddleboard, I can gaze down into the ocean and watch those same creatures as they dive underneath me, or I can look far to the horizon to where the cerulean earth bends out of sight. Sitting in a kayak, I’m on the water but not in it, at sea level but dry. By kayak, I can cover more miles more quickly than by other routes. Saturday, I paddled to the lighthouse.

As my friend Heidi and I pulled our boats into San Pedro Bay at the Cabrillo Beach boat ramp, an osprey wheeled overhead. I took it as an auspicious sign, pun intended. These brown and white hunters are my favorite birds primarily because, like me, they love the water. There’s one, and sometimes two, that hang out near the ramp, perhaps hoping for catch dropped by fishermen. They also like to patrol the inner curve of the outer beach, right outside my windows. I love to watch them hover in place, their wings cupping the air, meaty legs aimed toward potential prey – treading air like we tread water. Their dive is quick and sudden; its force can take them all the way below the surface. Sometimes I see them fly by with fish dangling from their talons, bringing home the bacon, so to speak. This is another thing I like about osprey; they are pescatarians. They basically just eat fish, sometimes a frog or eel that maybe they mistook for a trout. So even though this osprey is circling over a flock of coots and scooters, unlike an eagle, it’s not hunting other birds; it wants what they want – fish.

There’s a slight chop on the water, so we’re unsure how far we should go. We head toward the Lane Victory, the merchant marine vessel docked at the entrance to the main channel into the port. Just off the pilings, a sea lion is repeatedly jumping in circles through the water, like a cat chasing its tail.

There’s no wind or current and the waves are harmless, so we decide to cross the bay to the harbor entrance. “To the lighthouse!” we two feminist professors exclaim, and giggle at our literary joke.

Angels Gate Light has marked the entrance to the City of Angels for 113 years. Perched on the end of the rock jetty that protects Los Angeles Harbor, it’s an elegant black and white building that was refurbished several years ago. On this day, after the rains have rinsed the air, it seems to positively gleam against the blue sky and water. Also known as the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse, its light and horn keep the giant cargo ships from running into the jetty. For them, it marks the entrance to the port; for Heidi and me, it’s the exit to the open sea.

We paddle past the lighthouse into the Pacific, just for a look. The waves are still big out here. To our left the ocean is a parking lot of cargo ships waiting for a port berth. COVID infections and restrictions have slowed the unloading process on the docks, and record numbers of ships have been left waiting. A couple weeks ago 55 of these giant container ships had to navigate 17-foot waves. Please politicians, give essential workers their vaccines.

Staring straight south it’s nothing but blue on blue. There’s something about looking out on the ocean from the edge of land that opens a person up – especially after months of limited mobility, of sheltering in place, of lockdown. The options are endless here; it’s the “sea of possibilities,” as Patti Smith sang on the song called “Land.”

Then a fishing boat comes racing in from the ocean, passing too close and too fast. Behind us, a majestic wooden ship, the Zapata II, has all its sails flying and is coming up remarkably quick. I paddle back to the lighthouse to get out of the way, but the wakes from the two vessels merge around me and suddenly I’m pitching up and down, waves breaking over my bow, feeling like a very small vessel in a very busy urban port.

Back in the bay and, literally, even keeled, we take one last look around before retracing our, er, steps. The view from the kayak is like being in the bottom of a landscape painting. To the east, the mountains are dressed in a thick layer of snow. The white triangular arches of the new Gerald Desmond Bridge that connects Los Angeles to Long Beach are architectural echoes of Big Bear. Below them the red and white cranes of the loading docks also reach to the sky. We’re sitting in the ocean, looking up at snow-covered mountains and the engineering marvels of one of the world’s busiest ports.

I love LA.

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Pep Rally Cover Story

I also neglected to post that my “This Is Not a Pep Rally” blog became a cover story for Random Lengths, part of their excellent coverage of BLM protests in San Pedro.

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Cougar Town

I neglected to post the article I wrote about the mountain lions of Los Angeles for LMU Magazine. Here it is!

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The tide is low

Alex and I are at the tide pools. According to the Surfline app, it’s almost low tide. Our assignment today is to practice awareness – one of the essential values we gain from nature, according to Sigurd Olson, the 20th century naturalist of Minnesota’s boundary waters. We are focusing on the micro, not the macro – the trees, not the forest, or rather the tide pool, not the ocean. We are trying to see beyond abstract first impressions, the concrete details beneath the surface.

It’s a bit hard to concentrate. We may be in nature, but we are definitely not away from it all. It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, a day of sunny calm amid a week of winter storms, and I haven’t been around this many people for a pandemic minute. Families are swarming the rocks; the only thing ensuring social distancing is the six-foot-wide tide pool Alex and I are hunkered next to. Alex is my dog: a wiry brown terrier we adopted from the Harbor shelter, full name Alexander Hamilton (my son, Cole Hamilton – really his name – named him). “Hammy” has grown up on these rocks and is deft at getting around on them, when he’s not lying in my lap and nibbling on a piece of kelp. Who knew dogs eat kelp?

“I found a limpet! I found a limpet!” The five-year-olds are better at this than I am. They scurry across the rocks exclaiming their treasures. Alex eyes them warily then looks up at me, brown eyes big with sympathy.

I chose to hone in on a tide pool today after the sea smashed my first plan: to observe it from a paddleboard. I couldn’t get my big fiberboard Naish past the surf break; every sixth wave crashed too far out, and I almost wound up somersaulting though the surf with my board and paddle. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so already wet, I swam around for a half hour, semi searching the ocean floor for the favorite water bottle the wave snatched. A few hours later, I’m back, awaiting low tide.

What I see in my pool:

  • Pinkish purple lichen-like coral: a forest of tiny aquatic bonsai, rooted on a rock. (I look it up later: coral weed.)
  • Putrid-green seaweed; tastes like chicken, Alex says.
  • Vivid green sea grass, spread like mermaid hair.
  • Bigger – two-foot-long – trunks of dark green kelp; the sequoia of the tide pool. (Feather boa kelp.)
  • Dozens of snail shells on the opposite shore. (Periwinkle.) Most seem to be empty but a few move quickly: homes purloined by hermit crabs. Why are they called hermits when I always see them in clusters?
  • Yellow foam bubbles cling to the top of the vegetation. Natural or industrial pollution?
  • I see limpets!
  • Some of the rocks are psychedelic in their multitude of colors: yellow, pink, green, white, painted with lichen of varying shades and textures.
  • Peering deeper, I see a lavender shell – a whelk?

You have to look up sometimes too. Just 20 feet away, a bird is hunting the shore’s edge. It walks in long strides on stilt legs and dips its equally long beak into the water, pulling up a tiny shore crab, whose eight legs wave in the air. Gray with a white chest, it’s a willet, or a plover, or some kind of shore bird. It could be a Monty Python character, straight out of the department of silly walks. I look it up later; first guess was right, a willet.

I look down one last time and realize there is a fish right below me, probably there the whole time. It’s camouflaged black and green on the pond’s bottom, like a mud guppy. It’s small, maybe two inches, and darts into thin water when I bring my finger close. (A sculpin.)

Instead of getting lower, the tide is coming in, a steady stream back into my pool now, whose rocks and limpets will be underwater again in a few hours. Clouds cover the sun and it’s getting cold – winter is back. Alex is restless. He’s already gotten up once, searched for some fresher greenery, then shoved my pen aside with his nose and crawled back into my lap, as if to say, “Focus on this.” We call it a day. Back home I thumb through the pictures in my new guides and try to identify everything I wrote down in my journal. So much to see, so much to learn.

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