Life is Complicated

Photo of a checkerspot butterflyLife is complicated. Soft summer days beckon and seem to hold the promise of simplicity and ease. A trip to the beach or to the mountains, or a day spent in the shade of a four hundred yer old oak or in a canoe paddling down a gentle river lulls the mind into an idyllic tranquility. Nature seems perfect peaceful and serene. But this is an illusion.

You could be, for example, a checkerspot butterfly. What a carefree life, fluttering through the paintbrush and tidy tips, the wild parsnips and owl;s clover. But if you were a checkerspot, you would be studied and  followed, photographed and mapped more than any other butterfly of Earth. Your life would not be your own. And the reason for this is that there are so few of you. You are almost extinct. As a matter of fact, during dry years or droughts you seem to have vanished completely. But you persist, if only in a few places. Your life is not easy.

You live in a few choice spots in the chaotic jumble of rocks that have been twisted and turned, compressed and exploded, thrust up and dropped down to form the Coast Range and Bay Area. For the moment, cosmically speaking, this heap of rubble has come to rest in such a way that here and there along the ridges on either side of a valley now named for one of Earth’s abundant minerals–silicon–there are outcroppings of a rock known as serpentine.

Serpentine, composed primarily of the namesake mineral of the valley, is a beautiful rock. It comes in greens like jade, shot through with ripples of white. It is soft–if a rock can be– and soapy in texture. It is a rock people notice. It is a rock you would need if you were a checkerspot.

In areas where serpentine abounds, it weathers and provides a soil that is a little different from the soil found in surrounding areas. It is nutrient poor. Some flowers and grasses find this serpentine soil a little hard to take. But some plants love it. And those that do grow wildly and bloom in the spring making a scene that looks lik a painting from Paradise. And it is these plants that you would rely on for your bread and butter if you were a checkerspot.

Checkerspot larva feed on the small plantain and owl’s clover found growing on serpentine soils. The brief blooms in the spring of the serpentine plants coincide exactly with the short nectar-eating life of the checkerspot butterfly. Serpentine plants and checkerspots have a partnership that cannot be easily altered.

In spring it is not hard to see where serpentine stops at the bottom of a ridge or the crest of a hill. Abruptly a glorious scene of blooming flowers changes to one that is less lush, one in which grass predominates. Where the serpentine ends it is like leaving Paradise to return to Earth again, albeit a beautiful Earth. Recently, though, something has changed in the serpentine areas surrounding our valley. Earth is creeping into Paradise. The plants and grasses that rarely ventured in to the lean serpentine soils are encroaching, crowding out the plants that once thrived and rose to the serpentine challenge. Your neighborhood would be shrinking if you were a checkerspot.

What’s going on here? And what’s to be done? Unlikely answers have been found to both of these questions. In a word the answers ar “Cars” and “Cows”. But the connections are complex enough that they lay to rest forever the notion of simplicity in nature.

The answer to why the serpentine is now able to support plants that never grew there before lies in the emissions of exhaust gases from thousands and thousands of cars. The nitrogen compounds belched out of a hundred thousand tailpipes have created air that we can sometimes see, and these gases are not totally gone even when we cannot see them. This nitrogen has to go somewhere. It drifts with the breeze and blows with the wind that funnels down the valley to work on the mountains where serpentine soils lie benignly beneath. The nitrogen is deposited, little by little. And as surely as gardeners see changes in their plants from the nitrogen fertilizer they carefully apply, the serpentine soils are nourished. Plants and grasses that would not survive in the lean soil before, now gain a foothold and soon thrive. The owl’s clover and plantain, the tidy tips and wild parsnips, small plants used to living frugally in meager soils, are edged out and overwhelmed by more robust vegetation, foodstuffs that would be foreign to you if you were a checkerspot.

And this is where the cows come in. If just enough cattle are allowed to graze on serpentine lands, the intruders are kept in check. The intruding grasses are large and preferred by cattle. But if there are too many cattle, they will eat even the smaller less vigorous native plants, the ones the checkerspots rely on. Just enough cows, the plants and checkerspots that live on these plants continue to flourish. Too many cows, no plants at all and no checkerspots.

But checkerspots are survivors, reappearing and hanging on when once they were thought gone. Somehow in some incomprehensible way, they have claimed media attention. They are giving life their best shot. Hanging in the balance against unforeseen and unknown odds, enduring complications and complexities, they may represent for us more than a vanishing species. Life is never simple.

 

Yellow Belly Suit

The newt has a yellow belly. It’s not something you see very often. The newt saves its showy under parts to flash at would-be predators to scare the bejeezus out of them. Newts are toxic to many animals who might otherwise find them a tasty bite-sized morsel. When a newt rears up on its front legs and arches its back showing itself off in a most vulnerable position, it is best for the stalker to look elsewhere for lunch–and most of them know that.

I am curious, as a member of the greater animal kingdom that includes newts and ringneck snakes that flash brilliant warnings, as well as tree frogs and walking sticks that blend seamlessly into the landscape, about where we humans fit in. Not limited to simply parading around in nothing but our skin, the ability to change our outward appearance with the clothes we wear carries with it the burden of understanding the messages they send.

Just over a decade ago, when Opera San Jose began to charm locals with their accessible, affordable, brilliant performances, I attended my first opera, La Boheme, at the intimate Montgomery Theater. There, on the smallest of stages, the whole gamut of the human experience was played out. Poverty and plenty, mirth and despair, jubilation and loneliness were compressed into a few hours and couple of hundred square feet,. In the love affairs of Rudolfo and Mimi, Marcello and Musetta each of us in the audience could see vignettes of ourselves. Art was indeed imitating life superbly.

Not to be ignored in this brilliant reflection of us was the staging itself. The setting for each scene was bathed in light. Blue for the chill of the room occupied by the starving and struggling young artists, rose for the scenes of the party. And the costumes! Who does not respond to the drab tatters of the poor, the rich wine-colored velvet of the flirt, the long gray wool coat that must be sold to buy medicine for the dying Mimi? Our true colors were being paraded in front of our eyes by the larger-than-life figures that lived on the stage, blatantly exaggerated in a way that was both compelling and obvious. And we all loved it.

Last week I once again had another chance to see this lovely gem performed by the beloved Opera San Jose at the Montgomery–the last chance before they move to their new home at the Fox next year. This time, through an exchange of our usual Thursday night tickets, I attended my first opening night performance.

By tradition, opera opening nights are grand events. They reverse the usual role of the theater in our lives. On opening night, life imitates art–occasionally superbly.

This is the night that theatergoers show their true colors. A few men, and even one woman, brought out the tuxedos tucked away in their closets. (Th only noticeable difference was that the men’s all had long pants.) Black predominated on both sides of the gender line but served as a perfect background to exclamation points of color. There were bright cummerbunds and bow ties, grand dresses in rich hues, and shiny bugle beads in myriad colors sparkling among the somber shades. Others chose less strident attire, sporting rich brocades, deep velvets and satins, tasteful business suits and sensible shoes.

And then there were those of us whose attire was designed to blend in and not stand out as being too unworthy of such a gala event, hoping to pass muster with a tolerable imitation of glitz, or elegance, or understatement.

The beautiful monarch butterfly populates most of the country. It is known to nearly everyone and treasured by many. The word “butterfly” conjures a monarch look-alike in many minds. Like an actor in a play, it is a larger than life model of what the word butterfly means. It is the essence of butterfly. But it, like the newt, sends a message with its bright beauty. It too is toxic and nasty to those creatures that normally feed on butterflies.

Like those who normally attend opening nights, monarchs have their imitators. The viceroy can easily be mistaken for a monarch. It is slightly smaller, has slightly different markings and wings, but it is close enough in appearance to a monarch that it fools many. The purpose of this adaptation is to fool would-be predators, to send a message of false warning, to trade on the reputation of the monarch. And it seems to work–at least most of the time.

On opening night, among the crowd of people I didn’t know, I seized the only clues I had to learn something about them. I admired the beautiful rich colors in the brocade coat of the woman sitting in front of me. I stared at the woman across the aisle in the tight, short, low-cut shiny purple sheath. Was this a form of warning like the monarch’s or just an imitation like the viceroy’s? I smiled at the striped red and white socks sported by the gentleman next to me in a tuxedo. I felt a kinship with those whose attire was similar to mine. And on the stage the actors flung their cloaks, donned their berets of top hats, and revealed their lace petticoats.

Clothes may not make the man or woman, but there seems to be ample evidence that appearance counts for something. Just what that “something” is seems less clear. We are many centuries from the time when humans wore skins for warmth alone. Maybe there never was such a time. Even in countries where clothing is not needed for warmth, bodies have been decorated in one way or another.

What am I to do when faced with looking into my closet for something to wear to opening night at the opera, or to the grocery store, or to work, or to have lunch with a friend?

How lucky we are to be freed from the shackles of the newt that must always wear his brilliant belly.

 

Contrasts

Somewhere between the vast frozen wilderness of the Antarctic and the steaming rain forests of the equator, between the unyielding heat of deserts and the frigid heights of towering mountains, most life finds a niche. But it is at the boundaries that it takes shape most clearly. Living things that cross these boundaries, like a gnarled and stunted tree hanging out of a rock above the timberline, a deer running wildly down an urban street, a child wasted by famine, jar the mind with their incongruity, their stark reality, or their horror. It is easy to imagine that in an earlier time all was harmonious; if only human actions had not upset things, all would be right with the world. But such an idyllic situation is an invention of the human mind.

Life has never been easy. What has changed is the amount of information now available to each of us. What is one to do with so much information, to so much exposure to life’s hard realities? People’s reactions vary widely. There are those who embrace the world and attempt to encompass all its beauty and relieve all its suffering. These are the ones who are passionate in pursuit of a universal solution or truth. At the other extreme there are those who close their eyes to both the beauty and the horror of the world by cloaking themselves within a protective and supportive group of friends and relatives. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, our actions determined, at least in part, by our temperaments. But it is clear these harsh realities imply will not go away.

Investing in the stock market seems to be as distant from these life-and-death dramas as it is possible to be, but investing in the market may provide a good model for investing in life. In both much depends on one’s style. In the marketplace diversification has long been a tool that has helped investors endure its fluctuations. Those who are conservative seek moderate gains with minimum risks. Others prefer a more flamboyant style; they go for the gold no matter what the consequences. During the market’s recent wild ride, conservative investors have gained less–but often have lost less–than those who have tried to strike it rich.

And so it is with life itself. Dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas provides a reasonable level of assurance that a bit of food or scrap of clothing will help someone somewhere. Chaining oneself to an old-growth redwood tree may or may not save that tree but is more likely to draw attention to the fate of the tree than the dollar-in-the-kettle does to the fate of the poor or the homeless. But both are investments in life.

Investments can be made for long-range or short-range goals, and everything in between. Saving the planet or just the rain forest or the elephants, eliminating AIDS or starvation are long-term items that may take more than a lifetime. But helping a neighbor, or even oneself when times are tough, or planting a garden or a tree may have a more immediate pay off. Each has its place in defining the outlines of life.

The market provides a dizzying array of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, money market funds, futures, and savings accounts–investments that may help assure a stable financial future. Life offers far more opportunities. One can invest in education by teaching a skill to the teenager down the block or by endowing a university chair. One can invest in health and human services by saying. “Hello, how are you?” and meaning it, by buying from a local merchant instead of a distant mega-store, or by devoting one’s life to the poor, sick, and hungry. One can invest in the arts by attending the local high school play or by underwriting a community co9ncert or art show. And one can invest in the environment by turning off an unused light or by lobbying businesses to employ best practices. The world offers thousands of choices.

Each of us has only a limited amount of time, talent, and money. how amazing and confusing it is to have the freedom to make so many choices. Sometimes these choices are at odds with each other. The Mexican farmer who raises poppies in a remote valley on marginal land to support his family has little connection to the heroin the poppies become that kills a young man in new York City. Someone seeking to help the farmer can show him how to increase his yields by using pesticides so he can provide more food for his family. The poison may cause the drinking water in a village downstream to make people sick. The increased yield of the farmer’s poppy crop will allow him to buy food and medicine for his children but will help create more heroin addicts in New York. Those in new York wishing to keep heroin from young people may seek to have the farm fields in Mexico sprayed with herbicide to kill the poppies being produced there.

Investing is not always easy. A star sparkles on the dark velvet of the evening sky. A shrill coyote call pierces the silence. A homeless Afghani woman in a brilliant maroon and blue robe crouches in front of a white tent on a barren plane with a spectacular range of mountains looming in the distance. The world reveals itself in contrasts. Contrasts will always mark the edges of life. It is the breadth of the middle ground we can shape. How wide is the niche for life? Is there room for tigers and microbes, redwoods and skyscrapers, symphonies and silence, waterfalls and dams? The stark beauties we see in the images that define life’s boundaries make us ache to extend its borders.

photo of ants

Ants

Occasional clearings in the tall redwoods along the ridge trail provided glimpses of the Valley below. The path through the woods paralleled Skyline Boulevard where it runs along the ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains that separates Santa Clara County from Santa Cruz County. Commuters and bicycles whizzed along Skyline’s concrete ribbon about a city block or two from the path. Although noise of civilization intruded on the silence of the forest, no visible evidence of the thoroughfare could be seen through the impenetrable undergrowth. On the other side of the path, breaks in the trees revealed the Santa Clara Valley providing a clear reminder of the closeness of the hustle and bustle I live with daily–a stark contrast to the stillness and peace of the forest.

Down there cars crawled along freeways like ants on a mission. Tall buildings grouped together to add an aerial dimension to the grid on which houses and roads were laid out. The cars scurried back and forth to centers of commerce, fanning out in all directions, some going farther than others. At last at the fringe where the grid met a mountain or gave way to hills only a few stray cars ventured forth.

I wandered off the path a few feet in a a place where the tall trees had shaded out enough of the undergrowth to clear the forest floor. A mound lay ahead between me and the road. A gentle swelling of the earth almost a yard high at the center seemed unusual in the otherwise flat forest floor. I approached and started seeing movement. The mound was alive. Like a mirror image of the valley below, ants–hundreds of thousands of ants–were scurrying around over and into this mound. More than ten feet across, this was a metropolis that rivaled any I knew.

In the center there were ants everywhere, disappearing into tunnels and surfacing up from the earth. I wondered how may more there were down below. Did some of them always stay down there? What do ants use for girders and struts to keep the weight of this earthen construction from collapsing and crushing them? And how do they feed such a population concentrated in such a small space?

I stood, a respectful distance away. A few ants, hundreds really, were out beyond the mound searching the forest floor. They darted here and there, traveling out beyond where I stood. Was it their job to go out as far as they had to, to bring home provender to the city dwellers/ Were they considered the lucky ones by the others because they got to see the world? Were these ants better off or worse than the ones that lived in small colonies? Were they richer or poorer? Did they live longer? What caused so many of them to gather in this particular spot?

A Harley roared by. I returned to the trail musing on this tale of two cities, their similarities and differences. Sitting on a rock, I gazed back at the Valley that stretched out to the Bay.

Worms

The spade cut into dirt that in summer was rock hard. But it had softened a little after months of rainy, drippy, fog-filled days. I lifted out a chunk of compacted earth and turned it over revealing long taproots of weeds now pointing skyward. As I crumbled it apart with my gloved hand, a giant earthworm fell free and back into the hole.

Another shovelful of dirt revealed more earthworms. Some big and fat, pink or gray, almost five inches long; some tiny, like bright coral wire twisted into switchbacks making their length impossible to determine. How did these damp creatures shining with moisture stay so clean crawling through dirt? And how did they stay moist through a summer so dry it turned the earth to stone? In this compacted earth were worms–many worms–living in dirt but looking cleaner than the most fastidious among us.

I took all these worms as a good sign. I was digging a new garden bed in an area that had long held only weeds and a path leading out into the wild. Earthworms indicate healthy soil–or at least that’s what I have come to believe. But how did they manage, these soft-bodied creatures, to get through this dirt that was so hard it took a fair amount of effort for me to break it apart? As each clod broke off in my gloved hand, worms appeared. (I have always been a little squeamish about these slimy creatures and only recently have I been willing to pick one up even with a glove on.)

I began to take notice. I started watching for them, noticing different kinds, looking at their movements, trying to figure out what pleases them and what does not. I found I had more questions than answers. They seemed to move forward never satisfied with being left where I found them. Or were they backing up? Their pointy ends tested the ground. Were they looking for an opening? Their bodies rippled along behind them, first long and thin, then short and fat as they flowed forth after I had so abruptly revealed them. They wiggled and stretched and finally disappeared back down into the soil. Had this hard packed earth swallowed them or were they swallowing it?

When they fall, do they all land right side up like a cat? I watched to see if they tried to turn over, if they spiraled around from their head to their tail trying to right themselves.  As worm after worm, large and small, fell, I watched. And not once did I see any indication of turning over. Do worms know which way is up? So many questions! I was sure I would find answers.

But then it became clear. There was really only one question that mattered and the answer was not so easy. Why do I care?

Remembering December 7

Painting by Roger Shimomura

Crossing the Delaware by Roger Shimomura*

My grandmother kept a diary. Every day for as long as I knew her, she jotted down the weather and a half a dozen lines about her day and her life. On the cover of her journal was the legend “Five-year Diary”. Five years were compressed into a book no larger than the thickness of a couple of Reader’s Digests. There was a tab closure and a key lock in case she wanted privacy, but she never felt the need. Each dated page was divided into five horizontal segments, one for each year. A sensible woman wouldn’t want her thoughts to get away from her.

At the same time my grandmother was chronicling her days, so was Roger Shimomura’s grandmother a half a world–or a world and a half–away. She was born in Japan about the same time my grandmother was born in Pawnee City, Nebraska. But there the similarities stop. Maybe.

Mr. Shimomura’s grandmother was trained as a nurse. She served in a war the Japanese fought against the Russians. Eventually she became a “photo bride” for a man who had traveled to the united States to seek his fortune. She traveled to America, married, and settled in Seattle. She became a citizen. She had a son who grew up to become a pharmacist. She became a grandmother. Life seemed good.

My grandmother married young. She worked hard on a homestead in Nebraska while her husband worked part-time as a carpenter. She had four children–one every two years. When the youngest was two, disaster struck. Her husband fell off the roof of a barn he was building and died. Life became hard.

Eventually her children married. She became a grandmother. She had a steady job. Family and friends surrounded her. At last life was good.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and life changed for both women. But mostly it changed for Toku Machida, the wife, mother, grandmother, American, from Seattle. One hundred twenty thousand U. S. citizens suddenly become the “enemy”. Toku, her husband, her, son, her grandson, her family were among them.

Within two months of Pearl Harbor, my father left our family to fight the enemy. My mother and I moved in with my two grandmothers and a great aunt. I was a year old. In Iowa there was only a little terror. Air raid sirens sounded occasionally and we turned out all the lights. But life went on as usual.

In Seattle things were different. Normal households–those like mine, those occupied by the “enemy”–were relocated, first to makeshift enclosures like fair grounds or race tracks, and then to more permanent camps like Camp Minidoka in a remote and desolate part of southern Idaho. It was there that Toku Machida and her family, including Roger Shimomura, then a year old, moved. But–and this is amazing–life went on as usual. Only a different language separates the thoughts penned by Toku Machida and my grandmother.

Where are the women now, who are or will become grandmothers, who live a half a world–or a world and a half–apart that are recording the same story for their grandchildren? Perhaps someday some of those grandchildren–like Mr. Shimomura–will tell their grandmother’s story for others. And perhaps some of will listen.

Roger Shimomura is an artist. You can see his interpretation of his grandmother’s diary, An American Diary: Paintings and Prints by Roger Shimomura at the San Jose Museum of Art.


* Used with the kind permission of Roger Shimomura, University Distinguished Professor of Art Emeritus, The University of Kansas. The painting is in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Mr. Shimomura also notes that his grandmother’s married name was Toku Shimomura, Machida being her maiden name.