“Radical, before it meant a person who advocates strong political reform, meant getting to the root of things, the origin. It comes from the Latin radix, radicis, meaning radish, a root vegetable.” —BK Loren
These meditative essays range in subject from a transcendental encounter with a pack of coyotes to the irony of a neighbor’s claim that nature “has gone out of vogue”; from a mother’s slow deterioration from Parkinson’s disease to the unexpected way the Loma Prieta earthquake eroded the author’s depression by offering her a sense of her small place in our wild and worthwhile world.
Award-winning writer and naturalist BK Loren takes an empathetic and gentle approach to the intricacies of human relationships and the nature of consciousness. Fear of death and time, cooperation born of clashing viewpoints, the beauty of tradition even when it’s destructive, a love of language, a sense of loss amid the fast-paced materialistic world—through each of these subjects and more, Loren peels back the layers of her own life, revealing what it means to be a human being in these often inhumane times.
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TRENDS OF NATURE
A friend of mine says coyotes are passé. He says they've gone the way of the whale. "The whale," he says, "was the first one to make a big splash." He laughs when he says this.
"What was it before whales?" I ask.
"Happy faces. I think it went happy faces, whales, coyotes. But that nature stuff, it's all passé now."
"Yeah. Now, it's angels."
* * *
We were in a desert canyon, and it was the dead of summer, so no one pitched a tent. We, six of us, or so, slept along the banks of a river, most of us lying on top of our sleeping bags. It's one of the simplest, most exhilarating things to do: sleep under the naked sky without a tent, without a sleeping bag, without clothes, if possible. You can feel the stars on your skin. It jump-starts something wild in you, like sticking your finger into a live socket and connecting up with nature. After all, you breathe differently out here. Certain things slow down (your heart rate, the noise in your head), while other things speed up (your awareness, your ability to laugh).
So maybe it was because of how good it feels when there's nothing between you and the sky, but when my eyes peeled open that morning, everything seemed like a hallucination. My friends were sleeping on shore, as they should have been, and the sun was rising, as it does. But there was no separation between earth and sky. What I mean is this: The world felt like an organism, and I was a cell moving through the riparian veins of some single living creature too huge to name. Over there were my friends, buddies on the molecular level, I assumed.
The sky was the color of the inside of a vein: red clouds on the eastern horizon bleeding into white, moving like liquid. The sun pulsed like a huge heart, and everything moved slowly, like lava.
That's when I saw them. In that light, they looked like ghosts. Their legs were longer, skinnier than I'd imagined. The crisp outlines of their scrawny bodies blurred in my sight. There were three of them. Coyotes. Their gait was silent, as if they were not even touching the earth. I might not have believed they existed, except I could see them breathing. I could hear their breath, a certain rhythm almost like panting, but less desperate, more quiet.
It takes a while for the brain to file information straight from nature. You don't expect it. No matter how many times you go out into the woods, you don't expect to see wild animals this close to you. At first, they loped. Then they crouched and lowered their heads, sniffing toward my sleeping friends. I should warn everyone, I thought. One coyote wouldn't have posed too much of a threat, but three might have come up with a way to slow human population growth in their canyon. But I was not recognizing this sight as "reality." I felt as if my dreams had seeped out of my brain and their images were pouring into my waking life: This was an illusion.
I remained motionless. And the light of the morning changed from soft reds to a brilliant dome of blue burned through by a hot dime of white sun.
The coyotes vanished as the day began. It was as if they knew I was on the verge of believing they were real, so they teased my tenuous grasp of reality and disappeared. Suddenly, one coyote stopped and looked up. They all stood at attention for a second, then ran. The way they ran made me certain I'd been hallucinating because I couldn't track them. There was nothing tricky about it. They didn't take some wild and hidden path. They just vanished. I can't tell you where they went. If they had gone up the sides of the canyon, as I thought, why wasn't I able to see them as they loped away? It was as if they entered the walls of the canyon, the way the dead baseball players in Field of Dreams entered the cornfields — except, better. A lot better.
Eventually, my friends woke up, and while it was great to be outdoors, there was nothing dreamlike about the day. We ate breakfast the way river runners eat breakfast: eggs, milk, coffee, hash browns, pancakes, French toast, syrup, orange juice, tortilla chips, salsa, beans, et cetera. We didn't scrimp. We celebrated and indulged. After all, this was nature. This was home. It would be weeks before we saw the inside of an office building or a shopping mall.
Everyone is allowed to be in any mood they want in a place like this, and I was quiet that morning. I couldn't shake the image of the coyotes, but for some reason, I didn't want to tell my friends about them. I still felt like some particulate matter floating inside a monstrous creature. I don't know why the coyotes affected me this way; they just did. I kept repeating the word lope to myself. My tongue leaned from the l into the oohh then fell softly onto the pah of the p. Lope. It sounded like coyotes to me, the way their thin legs moved, the way their paws stopped with a pah on the soft earth. Lope. Lope.
That's how I paddled my kayak that morning. My shoulder was loose and relaxed. My paddle tilled the water softly. The river was calm, class 2 all day. And I was a coyote. Or, more accurately, I was a human with the arrogance to believe that for a few hours before noon on that day, I moved with some sort of animal grace. Truth was, I couldn't get their beauty out of my mind. They moved like every perfection I'd ever strived to attain. Yet they were anything but perfect. They just were.
Like anything wild.
* * *
After the river trip ended and I returned home to Taos, a pack of coyotes began trotting by my home at twilight. My windowsill was level with the ground, no screen attached, so the coyotes would stick their heads inside, sniff curiously, then continue into the night. My roommate would squirt them with water to scare them away, but I enjoyed their visits. When I was alone in the house, I just greeted them and wished them a prosperous hunt.
When I landed a job in Northern California, I bid the pack and their new spring pups farewell and moved on.
I entered another time zone upon my arrival on the West Coast. I'd picked Santa Cruz because I'd heard it was a "laid-back town." When I lived Taos, businesses, even banks, closed on whim. If you wanted the day off, you didn't call in sick; you called up your fellow employees, and you all took a few days off. Customers would return another day. The weather, an ephemeral thing, was beautiful. That took precedence.
This wasn't the way in California. It turns out, laid-back referred to a style of dress, not a way of life. Coffee was essential to survival. Putting in fifty hours a week, I was a slacker.
Add this to the commute. I couldn't afford a place "close in," so I drove forty miles to work each morning, along with thousands of other ants. The colony gathered just after dawn, and by seven, we were head-to-butt in line, gassing our cars and SUVs into the Silicon Valley, where we'd spend the day in smaller colonies working fast and hard, talking faster and harder, before returning home via the same frantic route to enjoy whatever thin slice of evening remained.
A month of this, and I was spent. I decided to start my commute before dawn to avoid traffic. I didn't drive fast. I sauntered. I pondered the redwoods ensconced in ocean mist making the forest look two-dimensional — black-and-white, shadowed. When the sun poured over the hills and the fog lifted, the whole place turned to a labyrinth of red spires draped with green.
But at least once a week I overslept, skipped breakfast, slammed down coffee, jockeyed my way over the hill, and sprinted to my eight o'clock class, tests and essays flying from my briefcase and my students already in their seats awaiting my presence. My wimpish ability to adopt a California pace set my circadian rhythms to twitching like chiggers beneath my skin. I was living in a blur of a world that passed by so fast I couldn't wrap my fingers around anything certain, and I'd grown addicted to the adrenaline rush that accompanied this pace. My car was an extension of myself, and I never thought twice about it until my car and I, speeding over Highway 17, killed a coyote.
She was the first coyote I'd seen in California. And in the split second when I first saw her, I remembered the ghostlike grace of the pack I'd seen by the river. Though I'd seen scores of other animals in the wild, coyotes always seemed to me as if they'd risen straight out of the earth, like phantoms. But this one was not an apparition, not a hallucination. My eyes connected with hers, and there was no time to move my foot from gas pedal to brake. She emerged from behind the concrete highway divider, looked through my windshield, lost, sniffing toward me, and my car barreled into her.
Still alive, she tumbled over the hood and into the steady stream of traffic behind me. Several other cars struck her before she landed on the shoulder of the highway. I watched this through my rearview mirror as I tried to change lanes and cut my way to the side of the road. Traffic never slowed.
Sometimes when I tell this story, I talk about how I immediately parked my car and walked to the coyote's side. I explain the fear I felt as I approached a wounded animal, something I'd been told was dangerous. I tell the story of how her eyes turned toward me, how I could hear her breath, fast and shallow, like small wings.
I say, "I wondered if she was smelling me the way animals smell, the way they take in information through air, if she could smell her own death on me as I stood there, watching her die."
But the gap between the story I tell and what actually happened is equal to the gap between who I wanted to be and who I'd become.
I did stop. The next morning.
Night haunted me. All the possibilities of what I would have seen and felt if I'd watched her die and known I had killed her played like a film in my head. But the thing that got to me most was that the reason I was feeling anything at all was pure ego. This was the coyote I killed. I was on my way to work. I didn't stop. I could have stopped. I made myself sick.
What about the scores of coyotes — and other animals — I'd seen strewn along roadsides before? Why did it take my direct participation in a death to push me to the point of change? Why, in that moment, did I decide to move closer to my work and start riding a bicycle everywhere? Why didn't the years of carnage I'd seen have any real effect on me?
For weeks afterward, I felt caught. Not caught doing something wrong, but caught doing something I had not chosen to do. Peer pressure: simple as that. When I saw the spark of brown eyes framed by clumps of blondish-gray fur, the ears cocked like a quizzical pup's, the graceful stride, the familiar lope, it was like retrieving a huge part of myself. For a split second, I remembered who I was. And then I saw myself driving fast, cutting people off, flipping that middle finger proudly, as if the marks of good character were summed up in a fast car, quick driving reflexes, and making a forty-minute drive in under thirty. So when the coyote emerged, I couldn't stop. I killed her.
* * *
The next morning I left before dawn. I drove slowly. When I reached the coyote's body, I stopped. I wish I could say I was overcome with guilt, or anger, or fear. Any emotion would have been good. But I wasn't overcome with anything. For the first time in my life I felt what it meant to be numb. It began in the marrow of my bones and radiated outward. It wasn't that I felt nothing. I felt everything at once and everything became a wall of emptiness that separated me from who I'd planned to be.
* * *
It took a while to find a place to live closer to work. Until then, I watched the coyote's body decompose as I drove over the hill every morning. First it stiffened, then bloated. Then parasites and scavengers devoured her muscles, and her blond-gray fur was blown away by wind.
* * *
When I run along the paved trails carved through City Open Space, I think of the Nacirema, a "North American group living in the territory between Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles." They were a "culture characterized by a highly developed market economy which evolved in a rich natural habitat," and "the Nacirema considered it of primary importance to completely remake the environment of the lands they occupied." No natural place was sacred until it was transformed. Trees were okay, as long as they didn't grow in their native settings. Where there was desert, the Nacirema brought in water and created lakes and models of oceans. In time, they say, the Nacirema might have sought to alter the stars and sun. They worshipped unnatural light.
So I figure the Nacirema must have paved these Open Space trails, and I'm grateful for the little bit of nature they allow in my city. They're wonderful for a quick jog. Mornings, I sprint past the tennis courts, picnic tables, and barbecues, then I turn eastward and travel alongside a water canal that I pretend is a natural river. Here, I've seen cormorants, kestrels, a variety of hawks and chickadees. The place brims with life.
Recently, however, the houses along this stretch have begun breeding at an unreasonable rate. The oversized embryos develop each time I see them. First, there are the pine poles flagged with red surveyor's tape, a housing developer's announcement of estrus. Once these are up, you know the land will be fucked. Next, the wooden skeletons form, followed by the foilcovered, fatty layer of insulation. Then the hammers begin palpitating, echoing an off-beat rhythm through the empty air.
Sometimes, to avoid watching this unrestrained propagation, I look only at my feet as I run. I concentrate on my breathing. I put on blinders.
That's how I was running that afternoon. There was no reason to look up. But for some reason, I did. I looked up in that way you do when you know you're about to run into something — a pole, another person, a wild animal.
I gasped, and that banal utterance "Oh my god" slipped through my lips. By now, I was familiar with every curve and outline of a coyote. But I didn't expect to find one here, and I don't think he expected to find himself here, either. It was a young male. He stood about five feet in front of me, right in the middle of the path. I didn't know what to do. I just stared. The coyote just stared. Then he shifted his gaze from one side to the other.
My eyes followed his. To the north, those houses were breeding like humans. To the south, the city was installing a golf course.
I know a wild animal is wild and anything suggesting otherwise is a fairy tale. When the gates of Eden finally swung open, the animals made a firm decision. They fled, never again to befriend the creature responsible for destroying paradise. But what I saw in that animal's eyes was not wildness, or at least, not as we've come to know it. I took a step toward the coyote. He didn't move, but shifted his eyes again. Then he looked back at me and tilted his head. One of us had to move, and I think he wanted it to be him. But he didn't know where to go.
I'm reading all of this into the languageless space between the coyote and me, of course. But what else can explain that he compromised with me? As I passed, he sidestepped just enough to let me by. He never snarled, or even lowered his head. My heart pounded — with exhilaration? Fear? I don't know.
I ran backwards for a while so I could watch what he would do next. He stayed in that spot for as long as I watched. Then my path rounded a bend.
When I returned a few minutes later, he was gone. Crusty snow blanketed a nearby ravine, and I saw his tracks, but not where they led. I didn't want to see where they led. I wanted him to live out his life there. I hoped no one would ever find him. I hoped his small space would remain wild.
Recently the "proliferation" of coyotes in our area has made headlines. Coyotes have been sighted on bicycle trails and walking paths. According to news sources, they've become a problem.
Yesterday morning from my kitchen window I watched a pack return from their hunt. They ran across the field in a cloud of dust, then dropped behind the berm near the horse stables. The horses raised their heads and scattered for a moment, the contrails of their breath rising in the morning air. Then they went back to grazing.
When I first moved to this neighborhood, I spoke to a woman who said she was feeding coyotes in her backyard. I suggested this might not be a good idea.
"But they have puppies," she said. Her husband was the man who told me coyotes are "passé."
"We see coyotes so often now, they're really overexposed," he said. "The hot trend today is angels."
I took his statement to mean that the popular trend of nature as commodity has descended; the thing today is angels — beautiful, ethereal beings who grant quick miracles. They hover above the earth, are not born of soil, and come from a place more "heavenly" than ours.
I try to conjure the image of an angel and a place more beautiful than earth. But I see them again, the ghostlike outlines of those graceful coyotes loping by the river where I lay perfectly naked beneath the round sky before dawn.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Animal, Mineral, Radical"
Copyright © 2013 BK Loren.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Trends of Nature,
The Shifting Light of Shadows,
Of Straw Dogs and Canines: A Meditation on Place,
Snapshots of My Redneck Brother, and Other Undeveloped Negatives,
The Evolution of Hunger,
This Little Piggy Stayed Home,
Plate Tectonics and Other Underground Theories of Loss,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this book of essays as slowly as I could to continue the conversation with BK Loren's mind and heart. I love this book. I've read "Margie's Discount" and "Trends of Nature" more than once. They shake me up with their greatness. I knew when, in the introduction, I read: "what saved me were my daily excursions into nature. I don't mean wilderness. I mean the small patches of nature available to almost everyone, no matter how mannered and procured the land may be. A tree in a planned park is still a tree, and sky will always be sky." I knew I had found a sister on this earth. I will read any essay BK Loren ever writes!