On gardening, neighbors and going to war


My neighbor Dan is a bit of a mushroom expert. He tells me this one from my yard is in the genus parasola, which includes the “ink caps.” Pioneers supposedly used them as a source of ink when they came West. He says he has a family diary from 1850 written in mushroom ink.

Parasola appears for only a few hours before it melts.


The Epicureans gardened so they could come to understand death as integral to life. I think I am learning from gardening about living with other bodies versus constantly going to war.

Dan has lived here 30 years so he has good neighborhood lore. He tells me it was Mickie, Howard’s first wife, not Faith, his last, who planted the white calla lilies and pink peonies that bring us such spring bounty.


It is too much bounty, though. We are trying to dig up some of the big, old spreading plants to make room for other stuff. How do we do this in a way that’s not going to war against flowers? I see a calla leaf unfolding from a patch of dirt where I recently dug up a big plant, sifting carefully through the soil for any rhizomes hiding out. Ugh! I walk over and yank it out, just for the pleasure, even though I know the pale, warty rhizome somewhere down there will just send up another shoot.


My first harvest of walking onions.

When I decided to garden I approached it like everything else I have ever done — as an intellectual pursuit. I read a bunch of books and took courses — organic master gardener and permaculture design, thanks to the influence of the tremendous Kaia Sand. I knew a lot, theoretically. Then I confronted a bare patch of soil. I had no idea what to actually DO, in the world, with my body. This paralyzed me for some time.

Now I am learning. Slowly. Growing things is something one does under the influence of, well, everything. All the forces that flow through this spot — soil life, rain, sun of course, winter winds that whip up the Columbia Gorge, kids passing through to the school, the squirrel in the strawberry patch nibbling berries (can you spot it?), the deceased ancestors Howard and Mickie, the neighbors.


Look. Here is today’s harvest of joi choi and daikon radish. Other mouths have already feasted here. How, tell me, does some root-eating creature wandering around in the dark figure out the daikon is there?


At first when I pull out the root I recoil. This is not how a daikon is supposed to look. Then I cut it up and realize most of it is edible — and how much daikon can two girls eat? I planted it mostly so its big white root would bust up the soil and the spreading tops would crowd weeds out. Both things happened beautifully, so why not share some with root weevils, or whatever?

But the pull toward war is always there. It is more difficult, perhaps, or more subtle, to observe the forces already in motion and find a way to move with them. This is a basic tenet of permaculture, and obvious to the exalted reader. Out in the world, in the dirt, I swing back and forth.

The neighbors, who have been growing things for much longer, give me advice. That is one of the great things about gardening in front of the house. I feel like I am engaged in a public act. I don’t know if people comment on each others’ lawns, but this garden taking shape invites all kinds of input. The other day someone on a bike shouted out as she whirled past. Dan tells me my broccoli is too close and that I will regret planting sweet fennel because it will spread everywhere (more going to war).

Dan and also Mark from across the street admonish us to water our poor ubileen pear every day even though it’s raining. We planted it too shallow and it fell over, so we had to transplant in the midst of leafing.


Even Quincy looks worried about it. But notice the watering bucket. I’m listening.



Kamilo Point

[This is an expanded re-post of an earlier piece.]

Few tourists visit Kamilo, which means “swirling currents” in Hawaiian. The only way to get to this beach is to drive five miles on a fading track over lava, rock, and sand. We asked if we could go there with Noni Sanford, a local artist I read about in a book on ocean trash.

We arranged to meet her and Ron, her husband, beside the road at Wai‘ōhinu Park near Hawaii’s southernmost point. Noni gave precise orders. Rent a four-wheel-drive, two-door Jeep, and do NOT tell the rental company where you plan to go.

We drive through early morning mists, ticking off mile markers on the map. At the park, Noni and Ron stand dwarfed by their Unimog, a bright orange truck with huge tires. I learn later that Mercedes first built this machine for driving around war-ruined Germany. [i]

We approach each other, four strangers. Noni has a grey braid that hangs all the way to her waist, high cheek bones and dark eyes outlined with black liner. Ron is tall and fair, with the sun- and wind-burned look of a person who spends a lot of time outdoors. Noni opens her arms. “I’m sick,” I warn, leaning away. “I woke up with a sore throat.” She rolls her eyes, pulls me to her.

It takes an hour to go the five miles, Noni at the wheel of our green Jeep, moving at a crawl behind Ron, tires grinding over boulders, across ditches and drop-offs. I sit crammed in the back with two scientists in Hawaii for the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference. We grasp the seats, try not to fall into each other’s laps when the Jeep tilts sideways on a rock or tips vertical into a pit. But we make it. Noni nicknames the truck Greeny Guy. We all cheer for it.

At Kamilo, black lava spills right to the seething water. Native naupaka shrubs and low heliotrope grip thin stretches of sandy soil. Mauna Loa, earth’s largest volcano, looms dark in the northwest. An eruption in 1868 spewed the molten rock that streams dark across this beach.

We pick our way over the broken flows. A misstep and jagged edges cut into skin. Ron clocks the wind with his handheld meter: 40 miles an hour. We can’t hear one another speak unless we stand quite close. The wind tears the sound from our mouths and flings it down the beach. It throws stinging sand and salt at our skin. Hats, even tied, don’t stay on. Sunglasses and camera lenses fog with salt spray. The sun beats down.

Noni entered the world near this place. Her father, also an artist, made carvings with driftwood they collected from this beach. When she came back here as an adult, what she saw shocked her.

She leads us forward toward the water. My feet begin to slip. Beneath us is no longer only the wicked-looking lava. The tides have tossed up a whole cosmos: tree trunks, coconut shells, coral, car tires, barrels — and plastic. Bright colored plastic of every shape and size shifts and slides beneath our feet.

In high places I get vertigo. Instinct pulls me to my hands and knees as close to the ground as possible. A similar thing happens here — wind, sun, rock, water. I squat and look straight down at the plastic ground. I dig into it with my fingers, burrowing toward — what — solid earth?


This fails. I composed it as if it made sense. Grammar comes packing order, but look, the mind, even in the instant, struggles to understand, which means “to be in the midst.” I make a list:

Styrofoam, large chunks, like boulders across the beach

plastic wedge heels for platform shoes, oddly common — I see four of them

broken bottles, green glass and blue

fishing floats, all shapes and sizes, with characters in Japanese and Korean

Febreze bottle “ Eliminates odor and freshens the air. Spring + renewal scent.”

Epson printer cartridge, barely hanging together

motorcycle helmet, purple lining encrusted with barnacles, sitting next to a brown hard hat

So many plastic bottles they would be impossible to list. Some look new, like they just came from the store, most weathered, many with Japanese characters.

some small brown and black plastic bottles Noni says come from Japan and are old – 1950s

bottle caps — so common they fade into backdrop

brown toy dog with blue collar, missing its tail

blue, black and white striped basketball

motor oil bottle

cigarette pack

brand new tennis shoe

another motorcycle helmet

hiking boot

foam sheet with flip-flop shape cut out

black bottle with Japanese characters, in English: Antisepsis Remove Bacilli, The Blanch Water

two pink combs adorned with flowers

black combs, several

three umbrella handles (Noni collects these)

perhaps a dozen disposable lighters

glass bottle with brown liquid inside

three golf balls

a blob that Noni identifies as the remains of a superball

one jack

globs of whitish wax

partly incinerated twisted hunks

a chunk of tiny reflective yellow beads Ron says are melted and used for road markings

Two round chewing gum containers with Japanese characters. One in English says “Xylicube Lime mint” the other “Fruits Gum”

plastic structure for the heel of a shoe, which forms an A so I keep it

brown plastic shell Ron says is half an octopus trap

scrap of Astroturf


Noni has disappeared down the beach. Ron seems worried. We pull our eyes away from the debris — it’s kaleidoscopic, mesmerizing — and gather around him in a little windblown clot. He tells us he’s going to take the truck and go look, but then she appears, first her head coming over a rise, and then the rest of her, the bag she made out of an old tshirt slung over her shoulder. She shows us her find: a perfect white shard that says GOD.


Kamilo sits at an exit point for a vast gyre that circles the North Pacific. Winds and the spinning planet set in motion currents that travel around Earth’s oceans. Five gyres circle each basin: North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and Indian. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer, calls them the planet’s greatest features after the continents and the ocean itself. “The gyres form continuous loops, like a snake biting its tail, but they are composed of distinct currents, like the vertebrae in that snake’s backbone.”[ii]

The currents move more water than all the planet’s rivers. Ancient sailors traveled them like highways. Nineteenth century adventurers used drifting bottles to plot their shapes. Twentieth century lab tests and satellites confirmed their maps. The currents stir the oceans, bathing the northern coasts with warmth, carrying salt, people, fish, and the endless multiform drifters that make the ocean a living broth. These are the tracks the Laysan albatross follows to sniff out its catch. [iii]

Kamilo has always been a delivery point. The first Hawaiians kept watch here for giant pine and fir trees carried from the West Coast of North America, from Oregon, where I live, in a house built sixty years ago from old-growth Douglas fir. The Hawaiians used the timber not for houses, but canoes, one hundred feet long. This gave them military power. Ebbesmeyer calls the trees that washed ashore “the keys to wealth and war.”[iv]

Today the same currents pick up debris from every nation touching this water — Japan, China, Canada, the U.S., Mexico. Some of it washes up here, twenty-four hundred miles from the closest continent.

Noni makes art out of what she finds at Kamilo: a chandelier of toothbrushes, a balloon lamp from disposable lighters, a necklace of roller balls from deodorant sticks.

Jen finds a bent hypodermic needle. We seal it inside a plastic bottle and set it back on the sand. We keep very little — only what we can squeeze into the Jeep and then into luggage later.

Ron drives the Unimog over lava right to the water and hooks a massive tangle of fishing net, line and rope to the back. He hauls it up above the tide line. They bought the truck for this purpose. Fishing gear — lost or tossed off boats — tangles in giant snarls that roll along with the currents. The ghost nets continue to fish, snaring turtles, birds — whatever drifts too close.

The Hawaii Wildlife Fund organizes regular beach clean ups here. Its web site says volunteers remove about twenty tons of plastic a year.[v] Things are much better now, Noni tells me. When they first came down 15 years ago, they found a wall of debris piled several feet deep.

But no one collects the fragments. No one could. It would be like gathering up the sand off the beach. Colored bits drift in sheltered crevices and pool in depressions in the lava. Jen crouches and fills a liter bottle with tiny chips. I lie on my side near a small, protected shelf and watch the waves wash in, bright shards swirling in the water. Some stay behind, shining on the black lava; some tumble back out with the waves.

[ii] Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession With Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 157

[iv] Flotsametrics, 186-207

5/17/13: “You Find What You’re Looking For”

Plastic I collect on my daily walk


Daim candy wrapper

BAHAMA BO’S “You Find What You’re Looking For” PIÑA COLADA COOL & REFRESHING LIP BALM THAT TASTES GREAT Distributed by Worthy’s Inc. Electic, AL 36024



dog bone doggie bag holder end

Stamina-Rx® Maximum Sexual Stimulant KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN

2/$1 Cheetos® BRAND MADE WITH REAL CHEESE! Crunchy Flamin’ Hot® BRAND FLAVOR


The Ring, part 2

In 1865 another chemist presented Kekule’s discovery to the Chemical Society in Paris. At the time, chemists debated the existence of atoms; they had no inkling of electrons. They knew particles came together into molecules, and that the shapes of molecules mattered to the resulting material, but how and why fueled fierce controversy.[i]

Wet reactions in the lab had long ago revealed the composition of benzene—six parts carbon to six hydrogen. But this did nothing to explain its strange reactions. Kekule had been led by a previous vision of dancing figures to the idea of valence—that atoms of certain types always bond to the same number of other atoms: hydrogen to one, oxygen to two, carbon to four. He dealt with benzene by imagining alternating single and double bonds between the carbons, but that left two bonds extra. Inspired by his vision, he connected them to form a circle.[ii]

benzene wikimedia.svg

Kekule had found the key to a new world of molecules; the revelation launched a thousand chemists in search of plunder.

Benzene, like all organic molecules, depends on the special properties of carbon: It links easily to itself and other atoms, but once connected, its bonds remain relatively stable. It takes shape easily but also holds its shape — the essence of plasticity. This makes carbon ideal for forming and the reforming complex molecules living beings require — and for building new molecules in the laboratory.

Already a few lucky experimenters had grown rich off accidental products from derivatives of benzene. Kekule’s vision gave chemists the power to predict exactly how the molecule would act. Atoms left the world of ideas, of philosophic speculation, and became a set of parts to be manipulated into useful structures. No more feeling around in the dark. Chemists could finally “see” what they were doing.[iii]

But Kekule’s ring did not explain all the mysteries of benzene. It remained more stable than its shape could account for. He missed an important feature of his vision — the snake was alive, it whirled in constant motion.

In the 1930s, Linus Pauling proposed a new idea: the electrons that form the bonds never appear in a single place but shift constantly among the carbons, causing the molecule to oscillate. The ring shape in constant motion gives benzene its stability. It never takes a single form, flashing on and off like a ghost among all of its potential states. Pauling called this resonance, from the Latin word for echo.[iv]

The benzene ring vibrates in the cells of every living being: plant, animal, human and their fossilized and liquefied remains—coal and oil. Ripped and scraped out of earth, coal fueled the smoking factories; benzene split from coal fueled the labs, giving rise to entirely new species of molecules.

Chemists bolted these creatures together, and out of their test tubes came dyes, drugs, pesticides, explosives — and something else, a new material. It could be melted and molded, transformed by heat and pressure into an object — any object — millions of identical objects — impervious to flame, corrosion, electricity, water, or any other force. Its first trademark symbol: infinity.[v]

[i] Tami I. Spector, “Nanoaesthetics: From the Molecular to the Machine,”Representations, Vol. 117, No. 1 (Winter 2012), pp. 1-29 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2012.117.1.1, Image and Reality, 1-205

[ii] Image and Reality, 196, “Nanoaesthetics,” 3-4

[iii] Image and Reality, 211, 297

[iv] Istvan Hargittai, Judging Edward Teller: A Closer Look at one of the Most Influential Scientists of the Twentieth Century (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010), 114-115.

[v] Jeffrey L. Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 1, 31-62

The Ring, part 1

The Ring

1862. August Kekule, struggling to write his textbook on chemistry, dozed off in front of the fire. “The atoms fluttered before my eyes … everything in motion, twisting and turning like snakes. But look, what was that? One of the snakes had seized its own tail, and the figure whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke …”[i]

Kekule had seen the ring-shape of benzene. The substance had long baffled chemists. It remained stable, combining with few other substances, and when it did react it behaved unlike anything else. Kekule’s vision, one chemist wrote later, made sense of existing events and threw a flood of light into the future.[ii]


Who would not desire such a vision? To see, to understand, and know precisely how to act to bring the bloody child safely through the gap.

Kekule did not publish his discovery for some years. In the intervening time, at age thirty-two, he married Stephanie, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the director of the gas factory in Ghent, Belgium, where he taught. Chemists needed a regular supply of gas, so we can presume that this way Stephanie and August got to know each other.[iii]

One of his students described him: “He had a casual, merry, even boisterous personality. He told stories in the most captivating way … The air-bath for reactions in sealed tubes was located on a platform in the lab. Whereas we all stood on a stool or chair to reach the thermometer column in order to record temperatures, the boss scorned such boring methods, performing an acrobatic leap from his lab bench to the platform …”[iv]

A year after they married, Stephanie gave birth to a son. She died ten days later of puerperal fever, probably from the dirty hands of her doctor. She suffered. The infection invades uterus and abdomen, causing the belly to swell like a monstrous pregnancy and become so painful that it seemed “to excite the most unspeakable terror,” wrote one doctor. “I think I have seen women who appeared to be awe-struck with the dreadful force of their distress.”[v]

Some physicians tried to point out that many fewer women died when doctors washed their hands before delivering babies — especially if the doctor had just been touching a cadaver. The medical establishment scoffed at the idea that doctors could contaminate women. The same physician who had seen the faces of so many suffering protested that doctors could not carry the infection because doctors were gentlemen, and “a gentleman’s hands are clean.”[vi]


Stephanie here falls into silence—the gap—nothing.

[i] Image and Reality, 194.

August, Kekule speech Berlin City Hall, 1890, in“August Kekule and the Birth of the Structural Theory of Organic Chemistry in 1858,” trans. O. Theodor Benfey Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 35, No. 1, January 1958.

[ii] Edvard Hjelt, quoted in Alan J. Rocke, Image and Reality: Kekule, Kopp, and the Scientific Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)

[iii] Image and Reality, 193

[iv] Image and Reality, 203-204

[v] Irvine Loudon, Death in Childbirth: An International Study of Maternal Care and Maternal Mortality 1800-1950, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 56

Charles Meigs, Females and Their Diseases (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1848), 596.

[vi] Dorothy Wertz and Richard Wertz, Lying In: A History of Childbirth in America, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989)

Charles Meigs, On the Nature, Signs and Treatment of Childbed Fever (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1854), 104.

So easy to hate on

the turf grass that dominates the surburban ecosystem of North America. And I do, especially when it comes up where I don’t want. But, still, it’s hard not to respect the root I pulled up with this sprout (which actually was even longer, I broke it off — ensuring a new sprout of course).


It’s just doing what it evolved to do. We (or Faith and Harold, who preceded me on this land) are the ones who put it here.


Plastic I collect on my daily walkP1000406


LEGO purple and grey

bottle cap

market pantry Mixed Fruit NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR Fruit-Flavored Snacks


white fragment

black fragment

white fragment with grooves and Garden Grove, CA

pink curler clip




Fleeting spring things

I learned that metabolism comes from the Greek word for change. Things must transform constantly in order to stay alive, which means “remain.”

Here are some fleeting spring things whirled up from the cellular flow we are.

Tiny, and perfect.


Stages of poppy




Below are nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the roots of a lupine I dug up. The bacteria convert nitrogen in the air into a form the plant can use to make cells; in return the bacteria get sugars the plant converts from sun energy the bacteria can’t access. Tight, right? People get nitrogen from plants to feed their cells


About half the nitrogen in the human body comes from factories. Farmers put the nitrogen on their fields to make plants grow big and fast, then we eat it. But a lot — maybe most — of the nitrogen farmers use never gets into crops. It runs off and wreaks havoc on water systems — consider the Jersey-sized dead zone that sometimes blooms out of the mouth of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. Very ugly.

Some people have started to notice that humans have messed up nitrogen flows the way we have carbon flows — the other “inconvenient truth.” Here’s an urgent-feeling video about it with some doomsday guitar chords. And here’s a lupine about to bloom.