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Fall 1994, Volume 11.3

Essay

 

Robert B. Smith

A Mad Hatter's Refuge: Nocturnal Observations of an Urban Natural Historian


Robert B. Smith (Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley) is Provost at Weber State University. After pursuing interests in the synthesis of organic natural products, unconventional approaches to science education, sociology and epistemology of science, and academic culture and strategy, he has recently turned to nature and literature. His articles and essays have appeared in the J
ournal of Chemical Education, Journal of College Science Teaching, Metropolitan Universities, and Weber Studies. Read other essays in Weber Studies by Robert B. Smith:  Vol. 9.1Vol. 18.1Vol. 22.1.

 

The furious Chihuahua, bug-eyed and pointy-eared, yapped into the night whenever agitated by the breeze. An instant companion when I discovered her, she elicited my empathy when the spring rains left her disheveled and relieved my anxiety when the dry summer air renewed her robust health. Through months of buffeting by wind and rain, the beast kept her integrity, continuing to yelp as the wind whistled through the fragile fall foliage.

But whenever a sharp gust momentarily lifted the top of her head—calling to mind a familiar Monty Python animation—I was abruptly brought back to reality. This was, after all, merely a strikingly realistic shadow-picture silhouetted against the evening sky by five contiguous branches of the hawthorn tree above my hot tub. Still, the illusion persisted into the winter, when defoliation stripped the poor creature's flesh, but left just enough skeletal structure to provide the recognizable outline of a canine skull.

Fantasy it may have been, but the experience linked me with the natural surroundings of my back yard, a reminder that however much we humans domesticate and distort the natural world to our own ends, both we and our manufactured environment remain part of nature. Too often I forget this point and, like most city-dwellers in our terminally urbanized nation, fall prey to the impoverishing assumption that to recapture a sense of nature, I must escape from home. I have nothing against fleeing to nearby mountains, remote deserts, or faraway islands—I've done it many times as a way to distance myself from the artificiality of daily urban life. But for most of us such excursions are necessarily too infrequent to sustain a continual awareness of the natural phenomena on which our lives depend. Certainly, the city's hustle and bustle, its noise and crowds obscure such ties; but there is a time when the tumult dies down. It happens every night.

This idea crystallized for me during closely juxtaposed readings of two classics: The Outermost House, Henry Beston's chronicle of a year lived on Cape Cod, and Loren Eiseley's exploration of humans and nature, The Immense Journey. Each characterized a decisive aspect of contemporary human behavior—aversion to night ("…today's civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night….") (Beston 132) and denigration of the familiar ("We rush to and fro like Mad Hatters upon our peculiar errands, all the time imagining our surroundings to be dull and ourselves quite ordinary creatures.") (Eiseley 163-64).

Coincidentally, I was already acquainting myself with both Ogden nights and a familiar tree-rimmed yard by soaking briefly in an open-air hot tub each evening before retiring. I had found this decadent practice demonstrably effective as a stress management tool, but perhaps a remnant Calvinist conscience demanded still further justification. So, capitulating to my work ethic, I was using the few minutes in the tub each night to examine systematically whatever surrounded my comfortable perch.

For a year I recorded my observations, driven largely by simple curiosity about what a passive observer might see, hear, smell, feel, and learn by focusing on a familiar setting from an unfamiliar point of view. Somehow, my curiosity about the world had survived grade school, to be reinforced by later research training. Then, toward the end of a brief scientific career, I began to concentrate on getting into the minds of earlier generations and reconstructing their ways of looking at the world. The cover of darkness proved a marvelous vehicle for pursuing that agenda. By year's end the sky, the weather, the changing landscape, even neighborhood animal life had become much more than dim backdrops outside the range of porch lights or abstract conditions periodically addressed by television reporters. They were now integral parts of my existence.

Observe with me sample glimpses of each of these environmental features—fauna, flora, weather, sky. Start with animal life. Given the prevalence of domestic pets, this might seem the most unlikely source of inspiration for an urban naturalist. The error of that assumption dawned on me suddenly one memorable midsummer night.

The previous evening had been cool enough to warrant raising the tub's thermostat slightly, and the first of Cassiopeia's stars had peeked through a cleft between tall trees to the northeast. But I missed the message of these portents that an annual milestone approached. Consequently, the crickets were upon me without warning, abruptly surrounding me with their deafening chorus. By their second nightly performance, competing with 24th of July holiday fireworks, it seemed as if they had never been away. Night after night for three months the cricket choir sang on.

Their anthem was hypnotically monotonous, but I never found it boring. The subtleties in their multipart harmony were always informative. The key is knowing that the pitch, or frequency, of a cricket's sawing depends wholly on the temperature of the air immediately around it. A folk formula says count the number of chirps in fourteen seconds and add forty to arrive at the Fahrenheit temperature. Coerced by the exact temperatures of their individual stations scattered about the yard, crickets buzz at their own discrete pitches. Their frequencies are similar enough, however, that like a jazz combo their instruments pass in and out of synchrony, cyclically reinforcing each other in unison, fading into a babble of mutually interfering solo passages, then reuniting as one voice.

I began to understand how crickets attained legendary status in Mormon country. I was hearing only a normal resident population, nothing like the historic infestations that have brought occasional misery to Utah farms and towns. But the ability of my modest troupe to monopolize attention every evening gave me a hint of the terror a major horde could have generated, as they ate their way through the settlers' food supply. In those days before massive chemical retaliation came into vogue, only the equally voracious appetites of a local seagull colony could overcome the crickets. No wonder salvation by seagull is among the best known pioneer stories; that distinguished bird, thriving far from any ocean, is venerated here only a bit less fervently than cows in India. Even an urbanite can feel comforted in their presence.

A steady rain in mid-September finally gave the crickets an evening off, but the next night they were back, determined as ever, if noticeably slower in the wake of the storm. They celebrated the first official autumn evening by presenting a special performance of antiphonal choirs. Apparently an unusual twofold differentiation of temperatures around the yard produced two frequencies, different enough to prevent total fusion. A ten-degree rise in temperature the next night, however, quickly brought them back into synchrony.

The cricket chorus greeted October with undiminished gusto, uncharacteristically loud and brisk for so late in the year. This was their way of interpreting a balmy, summer-like evening as the precursor of the season's first approaching cold front. The front passed dryly by, driving the temperature swiftly down toward the forties, breaking up the choir and leaving only a few hardy souls out and about, feebly chirping at a pace so slow I could clearly make out the individual clacks of their song. I suspected they were packing it in for the winter. But no, as soon as the nights again warmed into the sixties, the inveterate little suckers were back in force and volume. After a wet weather front later the same week silenced the crickets once more, they were slower to recover. First a lone musician tested the night air, playing his comb so slowly, it seemed he might quit in the middle of a scratch. Then, somewhere in the background, another apparently found a warm spot and began singing away at a lazy tempo.

Like Beethoven reluctantly wrapping up a symphony, the crickets couldn't bear to close the season. The concert hall management tried to shut them down by repeatedly bringing in cold fronts, but the horde simply retreated, regrouped, and reappeared when the temperature rebounded. They weren't about to fall for nature's pest control measures. As October faded, their last uprising was instigated by paired soloists on opposite sides of the yard—feeble, soft, and slow, but active nonetheless. After two nights, their sturdy example emboldened the rest, and the cricket choir was soon back to summer form, enjoying their last fling, as if Indian summer would last forever.

A Halloween storm finally brought their act to an end. Although a couple of stragglers toughed out the rain that night, singing on during breaks in the downpour, the cold snap that followed sealed their annual doom. Now I await the arrival of each year's new cricket generation both as a sort of reunion and as a seasonal turning point that's music to my ear.

Other milestones were rewarding to the eye, even in semidarkness, as I gazed about my urban landscape. The first minute signs of spring appeared in a garden strip at the foot of the yard, where emerging shoots from subterranean bulbs turned the flower bed's smooth surface jagged and stubbly. Then the apple tree sprouted leaves, the strawberry patch came to life, a thin layer of chartreuse bishop's hood bleached the ground under the hawthorn, and plum blossoms obscured the eastern sky over the porch roof. In the glare of nearby yard lights, the newly-mown lawn terrace was smooth as a golf green. Nightly for a week, the foliage thickened on the apple, maple, and hawthorn trees. Silhouettes of tulips appeared in the strawberry patch. The tall pine in the next yard bade farewell, its annual winter appearance ended as the sprouting leaves of a growing, juvenile maple closed a curtain between us.

The apple tree looked distinctly downcast in the wake of a late April cold snap, but its spirits soon were lifted by the blooming of the dogwoods; in the dim light reflected from cloud cover, it seemed that George Bush's thousand points of light had come to pow-wow in my yard. In time, a dense eruption of yellow tulips in the strawberry patch replaced darker-colored comrades, and the May moon whitewashed the bishop's hood against a background of lily of the valley. Now the perennials began differentiating in height, taller species leaving their shorter neighbors behind, rising to cut off my view of the street for a season. Irises surged to waist height and began to bloom; in the dim light I was sure I saw ranks of terra cotta soldiers, resurrected from the Qin tomb of central China to patrol my yard.

The complementary autumn drama was worth waiting for. And wait I did, indeed. A week into October not a single yellow leaf was visible anywhere in the yard. Historically, one particular maple had served each year as an arboreal leading indicator, invariably showing its first touch of color on the first of October, give or take a day. But this year there was still no sign of yellow on the maples three weeks into the month. Hope rose on the twenty-first, when the bottom half of a dogwood began to shade into yellow; for several nights it dropped a leaf here, a leaf there from its yellow-brown stock, performing a striptease that gradually reopened the view of the neighborhood across the street. Finally, the brightening November moon caught the easterly row of maples in their reluctant accommodation to necessity. Their crowns of gold contrasted with the dark sky, accentuating the similarly ruddy brilliance of Mars rising behind them.

I had barely adjusted to the spreading golden tapestry, when a day of rain stripped the cap from one tree, transforming its magnificence overnight to the skeletal desolation of winter. But the next night's full moon in a silver-blue sky found the largest maple's gold cap intact above a wall of red pyracantha berries. Gradually, the golden frosting melted and spilled down the sides of the tree, while the topmost leaves began to drop. This was less a striptease than steady, delicate consumption of the flesh of a gigantic goldfish, whose skeleton slowly emerged as the feast proceeded.

The pace picked up, and the yard began to take on the littered look that the shedding maples give it each year. Patches of sky above the Wasatch Front's ridgeline and specks of light from neighboring yards multiplied as the yard's deciduous boundaries thinned all about, until finally the pine tree reappeared through the skeleton of the young maple that had hidden it all summer. Then one night a north wind lashed the neighborhood, transforming the leafy ground surface from mere litter to virtual pavement. In the glare of a neighbor's floodlight individual dry leaves bounded through his back yard like small animals fleeing some oncoming terror. A scene from "Bambi" returned from somewhere deep among my childhood memories.

Thanksgiving week was marked by a "second coming" scene that reintroduced me to the fir tree, another neighboring landmark obscured all summer beyond the dense maples. As creampuff clouds glided in from the west, the full moon rose behind the fir's tall, black, pointed silhouette, surrounding it with a brilliant halo of silver that permeated the eastern sky from ridgeline halfway to the zenith.

Finally, a week before Christmas the hawthorn shed its last leaves and bade the radiant, cloudy sky to shine through, welcoming onstage the last member of the winter cast, our Arizona spruce. The three towering giants—pine, fir, spruce—were unobtrusive on clear nights. But when a layer of cloud reflected the glow of the city, tracing their bulky outlines sharply, the trio seemed to step forward. Then, depending on my mood, they became welcome guardians or hooded inquisitors.

Either role could be evoked by extreme weather. I came to appreciate weather as the most immediate aspect of our earthly environment. Objects in the sky are remote, animals keep their distance, and the surrounding landscape is beyond our reach, unless we make an effort to go to it. But wind, rain, snow, chill, and heat come to us without our bidding, communicating their presence through direct contact, usually innocuous, sometimes annoying, occasionally fatal.

Because of that inescapable immediacy, weather is one thing in life we all share without regard to race, religion, gender, national origin, or economic status. Yet despite our proverbial preoccupation with the weather, we habitually insulate ourselves from it, especially in our cities. Perhaps a remnant of fundamental fear in the face of atmospheric forces lingers from ancient times, giving weather a mythic status that is reinforced whenever a destructive storm shows us evidence of nature's power. We perceive weather as an overwhelming, uncontrollable force—wholly other and independent of human influence, legally an "act of God"—especially in the dark of night.

But as I braved the elements directly night after night, the myth gradually collapsed. Its demise was abetted, no doubt, by the relative safety of my perch, which taught me a graphic lesson in the utilitarian virtues of the fetal environment. Nevertheless, I came to appreciate weather as less a monolithic power than the surprisingly predictable outcome of an exquisitely delicate balance of forces.

For example, the balance between condensation and evaporation of moisture is mysteriously tenuous everywhere, but especially so over a desert. The ides of March brought patchy clouds from the north bearing long streamers of falling snow. Rather than reach out and touch me, however, the flakes simply evanesced somewhere in the lower atmosphere, a reminder of the desert's timeless, taunting challenge to water-dependent animal life.

Where desert abuts a precipitous mountain chain like the Wasatch Front, moisture balance becomes still more complicated. Clouds often appeared and disappeared with seeming impetuosity, as if they were playing peekaboo with me. Amid a disappointingly mild January storm broken clouds rolled in from the west, disintegrating as I stared at their approach; but whenever I looked away, they sneakily tried to cover the sky. Later in the week, they returned as a fleet of puffballs invading my clear sky from the southwest. As they cruised overhead almost purposefully, I could only liken them to the school of golden rays that had reconnoitered our small boat in a mangrove-rimmed lagoon on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, silently gliding back and forth in perfectly triangular formation just under the water's surface. Here, each puff seemed a solid object in the sky, until it suddenly dissipated on colliding with an unseen barrier above the Wasatch cliffs.

Cloud formations I found engrossing, but snow was closer to home, and it had the endearing habit of forcing familiar objects to undergo identity transformations. A large ceramic pot beside me became a Lilliputian volcanic cone, expanding with each successive pearly "ash" fall. When the weight of accumulating snow exceeded its cohesive strength, blobs dropped off the ends of yew boughs, leaving the branches looking like bony finger tips ghoulishly stripped of their flesh, reaching out and dangling limply over the yard. On the western horizon the moon hung low in the sky, framed by a maple skeleton, and a jagged, flattened shadow of a branch radiated back through the thick steam rising from the warm surface around me. I felt under siege in surreal terrain.

Winter Solstice brought the year's most bizarre snowfall. To the strains of an eerie, celebratory performance by the Paul Winter Consort on public radio, I had joined the family outdoors, as if on New Year's Eve, to applaud the exact moment winter officially began. As the temperature stole steadily downward through single digits toward zero, the evening weather report had proclaimed the sky clear. Overhead, I could indeed see the moon, Mars, and the bright winter star Capella, but at the same time the calm air seemed thick with something like a freezing fog. Later, from the tub I found horizontal visibility almost nil, and a cloud of tiny snow crystals plummeted steadily around me. This had to be a snowstorm. But if not from an overcast sky, where did it originate?

Then I recalled the previous evening. As in the familiar carol, all had been calm and bright; the stars were strikingly brilliant, back in their familiar formations after a week of unremittingly snowy nights. Yet as I gazed toward downtown, street lights just blocks away seemed unusually blurred—symptom of a high wind whipping up snow powder as it emerged from nearby Ogden Canyon.

Canyon winds are an almost daily feature along the Wasatch Front, but once in a while after a major storm passes through they get a bit out of hand. Pressure builds up on the high Wyoming plateaus to the east, reinforcing the counterclockwise airflow at the trailing northern edge of the storm. At first, this condition just strengthens winds down the canyons, but as it intensifies, the invisible tempest can rage over the top of the ridge itself, raising long snow plumes that glisten under the piercing winter sun. At their most intense the storm backwash and pressure imbalance send biting gales down the west face of the ridge, now steady, now pulsating—blasts bent on dislodging anything not firmly anchored. Such winds remind me of a similar display of power on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where I had seen the cloudless backwash of a hurricane, passing through the Virgin Islands far to the north, whip up sea waves that totally removed the beach at Anse Chastenet overnight. I could appreciate the local myth that snow never melts in Wyoming—the flakes just grind each other into nothingness through constant battering in the wind.

The Solstice gale must have been blowing with medium forcenot strong enough to descend the face of the Front, but still able to crest the ridge and raise a miles-long plume of snow powder, which, when it traveled far enough from the ridge to escape the wind's buffeting, quietly descended on my neighborhood. The gentle fallout from that steady, far-flung blast contrasted dramatically with the sporadic gusts that sometimes peeled away from summer canyon winds and gyrated over my yard. Each burst would animate the maples, whipping them about as if they were giant pompons cheering some cosmic event. Lacking foliage in the winter, they barely wobbled in the face of the strongest wind; but given a full complement of leaves, the response seemed disproportionate to the cause. From ground level the howling wind and madly waving tree limbs gave me the impression that the earth was about to fly apart. I expected a major limb to come crashing down at any moment and found myself slumping farther into the tub in misguided hopes of finding better protection.

But if I managed to disregard the foreground menace and gaze past the trees to the dark sky beyond, the contrasting serenity of the stars and perhaps a crescent moon hanging in their usual places was literally awesome. Even a modest patch of changeless sky seemed able to enfold earthly phenomena, however violent, and diminish their importance, much as the view from a high-flying airplane minimizes events and structures at ground level.

During my year as urban naturalist I became aware of the environmental art of James Turrell, who has been called the most important spiritual artist working in America—"spiritual" in the sense of manipulating ordinary elements, such as an unframed window and room lighting, in ways that evoke intensely emotional experiences for viewers. One of his works, "Meeting"—the title doubtless drawn from his Quaker upbringing—consists of nothing more than a rectangular hole in the roof of a New York City school above a carefully proportioned and equipped room, bare but for a few benches and colored lights. Observers simply sit and stare through this aperture, watching the gradual changes in a patch of sky at sunset. They react in varying degrees: some merely appreciate an unusual touch of beauty; others experience a feeling of transcendence. But as time passes, and the effects of the changing spectacle slowly accumulate, most sense that Turrell carefully designed this setting to inspire humility and awareness of nature's grandeur.

The opening to the sky above my hot tub was not so thoughtfully crafted. I had no choice about the preexisting frame-workhouse and trees set in place a half-century earlier—and its living edges, susceptible to seasonal and atmospheric alterations, bordered a far more complex rectangle. But the portrait so framed had the same power as Turrell's patch of sky to rouse a sense of splendor and dignity. Dark skies inevitably captured my wandering attention and focused it upward. One freezing October evening I found myself involuntarily humming Don McLean's "Vincent" and thinking I had begun, as well as a sane mind could, to understand Van Gogh's inspiration before that "starry, starry night."

Like "Meeting," my urban window on the sky disclosed an environment constantly changing on assorted scales in time and space. Clear nights exposed a predictable sameness in the deep, starry backdrop. Equally predictable changes in stars and moon occurred in annual or monthly cycles. Planets like Mars and Jupiter wandered among the stars in less regular but still calculable patterns. Closer at hand and less foreseeable, but following familiar patterns that unfolded at a stately pace, were the comings and goings of the clouds. Progressively less regular and more rapid were the distant, orbiting pinpoints of artificial satellites, the sporadic flights of planes in and out of Salt Lake International Airport nearby, and the momentary flashes of meteors.

Artificial or natural, distant or proximate, the heavenly company sustained my interest throughout the year. Whoever might turn up in the cast on any given night, the drama invariably invited my escape from immediate earthly concerns to matters on a grander scale. Never was that summons more apparent than on one night in late October, when the approaching cold of winter haunted my thoughts at two levels. A funeral for a close colleague and friend, prematurely killed by a drunken driver, had already sullied an unseasonably warm day. My summer stellar guardian, Vega, was poised to drop below the western horizon, pulling the constellation Lyra with it in a gesture that seemed curiously appropriate for an occasion of mourning. To the east their wintertime replacements, led by the Pleiades, were coasting upward past the maples into clear view. As luminous symbols of inevitable passing, they overshadowed the celestial cycle's perennial promise of restoration and renewal. Against the cold finality of death, the night air's balminess seemed counterfeit. And I fell captive to my linear heritage; momentarily, the arrow of time prevailed.

The cumulative effect of repeated exposure to the sky made the stars, especially the constellations, seem more like companions in the night than mere objects. When my first acquaintances of January reappeared toward year's end, they progressed from companion status to that of close, if inanimate, friends. More than any other aspect of my year, this skywatching began to dissolve the alienation from night that Beston lamented. As I learned to associate the proper classical names with the passing parade of heavenly features that now twinkled before my own eyes, I began to sense a connection, too, with the ancient observers who first named them, even while I continued to wonder at those ancestors' fertile imaginations.

One spring night as I tracked a southbound satellite toward an opening above the eastern horizon, I was delighted to discover Corona Borealis on the rise. This is a small constellation my children had appropriated from the dark mountain sky over our Southern California summer cabin and had turned into a sort of family souvenir. The week they discovered it, we had been microscopically examining small earthbound creatures, and they recognized its stellar arc as the shape of an arachnid abdomen. Thus, it will forever be known as "Spiderbutt" in our family. From May through July, until it began the fading descent into the light-bathed west and my attention span expired, Spiderbutt stimulated nightly, nostalgic images of a much younger family and its irreverent vacation explorations.

Polaris—the North Star—the unique visual anchor to which my eye returned repeatedly amid the changing scene, nestled throughout the year in a notch between branches near the tip of the hawthorn, discernable as if through a gunsight. As the year wore on, it became the centerpiece of the most striking revelation I received from my nights of observing.

All my life I had perceived the stars passing overhead each night like a giant piano roll simply scrolling from east to west across the sky. But evidence that celestial motion is not so linear appeared as the Big Dipper rose on its handle in the northeast, glacially turning upside-down for its passage overhead, as if tethered by its bowl-end to Polaris. Similarly, the Milky Way, extending along a north-south axis through Cygnus and Cassiopeia when I first spotted it in August, stretched from east to west by November. Intellectually, I knew the earth rotates, and that rotation must be mirrored in the daily and annual paths of the stars across the sky. I had often seen the sort of time-exposure photographs that turn up in National Geographic, dramatizing the point with circles or arcs of light in the sky. But that celestial rotation was abstract, not yet part of my concrete experience.

After I saw Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper simultaneously on opposite sides of Polaris, exchanging places every six months, a barrier to understanding collapsed. The Little Dipper carried out the most convincing demonstration; rotating about Polaris at the end of its handle, it wheeled out counterclockwise from behind the hawthorn, over the top, and back into obscurity. After a year of staring at the sky, I finally realized, having seen it directly with my own eyes, that the northern stars really do appear to rotate around an axial point in the universe marked by Polaris.

This realization freed me from the march of time; the idea of a universe operating in cycles rather than a linear progression now made sense. A feeling of personal discovery overcame me, and I felt like a Babylonian working this out for the first time. I was part of the universe, connected now through a gut feeling of the sort produced by today's high-tech progeny of the roller-coaster, but experienced on a cosmically grandiose, excruciatingly slow time scale.

As I pondered the gulf between intellectual and visceral knowledge, I began to realize how well Beston's diagnosis of alienation from nature fit me. I had approached the sky from a wholly modern, intellectualized viewpoint, and found the more imaginative, instinctive outlook of the ancients sneaking up on me. Night's darkness filtered out enough of the superficial details of civilization to reunite me with nature's essence. My ordinary back yard reminded me that those details are themselves inseparable from nature.

The year ended viciously cold, clear, and snowpacked—not at all as it had begun. A rare "blue" moon rising through the eastern maples cast an intricate web of shadows onto the undulating terraces of undisturbed snow that cascaded from the back wall to the street. The snow itself no longer sparkled as a sea of crystalline flakes, but had metamorphosed to a slick surface that accentuated the crisp shadow lines. The moon slipped behind the porch roof, and as I sat in the tub on the border between light and shadow, dense steam rising all about, that boundary materialized as a vertical curtain. I leaned back, hidden in the dark, the city's silvery landscape spread out before me, feeling secure amid my three evergreen protectors. The ghost of the Chihuahua, hovering among the bare hawthorn branches, promised the return of familiar friends in the spring. I was satisfied the new year was opening on a proper note. The timeless cycles would continue.

 

NOTE

This essay won First Prize in the Personal Essay class of the 34th Annual Utah Original Writing Competition (1992).

 

WORKS CITED

Beston, Henry. The Outermost House: A Year in the Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.

Eiseley, Loren. The Immense Journey. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1959.

 

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