“Beauty–and I am now quoting Roger Scruton–‘can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling.’ But beauty is rarely identified as inherent to sticks, thorns, goatheads, or roadside weeds. We are trained to value large over small, green over brown, lush over sere, smooth over rough, pristine over altered. In movies like Mad Max, the post-apocalyptic landscape is always the desert; in Lawrence of Arabia, the desert brings out Lawrence’s best qualities but also his worst. I think one reason we call an abandoned lot ugly (if we call it anything at all) is that it is not green, not finalized. Tentative things bother us. Make up your mind, dirt: what are you? Except if it were green, it would be neither lot nor abandoned; it already would be a park or somebody’s house or a Weyerhauser tree farm or halfway through escrow or stuck in court or in some way already assimilated into the expected productivity of modern life…
I prefer terms like “blended nature,” which is to say, nature that is native and non-native, blood related and adopted, attractive and past its sell-by date. I have come to prefer ugly nature best: at least it’s not going anywhere. Nobody can take it away from me, nobody can ruin it or lock it up or break my heart by just not caring. If my desert were more Edenic, it would have been built out long ago…
In England, a phrase for brownfields and forgotten bits is ‘accidental countryside.’…
Yet as I write these words, an oriole is building a nest in the thatched beard of an untrimmed palm tree, and it is letting me watch. As I write these words, a kind of bat called a pipistrelle, small and quick, celebrates sunset and moonrise. As I write these words, water waits in a stream. As I write these words, marsh hawk. As I write these words, mule deer. As I write these words, quartz, obsidian, chert. As I write these words, owl’s clover, chicory, lupine, globe gilia, marigold, evening snow.
As I write these words, music and laughter.
As I write these words, hidden nature, ugly nature, abandoned nature, holy nature.
As I write these words, I have been walking a long time, but I am finally arriving, and it feels good to be home.”
–Charles Hood, I Heart Ugly Nature, from his collection of essays, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature
“The trip paid off in other ways. When I left, I had given up ever being able to finish a manuscript, a poetry book called The Xopilote Cantos. The title connects a Central American word for vulture with an allusion to Ezra Pound and the desert photographer Richard Misrach. Of course I had a journal with me on that drive; a journal is as essential as binoculars. The brain works however it works, and during that trip, when I saw stars on a moonless night reflect back at me out of a resevoir’s obsidian surface, the expereince unlocked language and thoughts that completely transformed the end of the book. (I pulled over every fifteen minutes to write things down, then sped on, racing to make up time.) On that long drive I also got to think a lot about how and why some marriages flourish and others don’t, about where I wanted to be in five years, and what I was going to do to recalibrate my teaching in the semesters to come.
Couldn’t those insights have come at home, eating oatmeal and reading the Sunday paper? Probably not. The dislocation of time and scenery helped, the isolation and intense duration of nonstop thinking, they factored in–and besides, rustic bunting. Do you know how good that is for an American bird list? Church bells were ringing, let me tell you.
One area of psychology collects all of this under something called theory of flow. Flow blends expertise with opportunity in ways often found while listing. As summarized by Joachim Krueger, ‘In a state of flow, a person is engaged in a challenging task, working away, making progress, while being fully absorbed. Activity and lack of self-consciousness are the key elements of flow.’ He summarizes the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who asserts that flow happens when ‘a person (1) is engaged in a doable task, (2) is able to focus, (3) has a clear goal, (4) receives immediate feedback, (5) moves without worrying, (6) has a sense of control, (7) has suspended the sense of self, and (8) has temporarily lost a sense of time.'”
–Charles Hood, The Lure of the List, from his collection of essays, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature
“Luckily for us, Charles Darwin did believe in sentences and paragraphs as well as taking notes, hence his delightful book Voyage of the Beagle. Sea Journeys seem to make people write more. After Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s notebooks generally only filled up when he was aboard a ship or taking a long trip. In 1857 he went to the Levant, traveling second class to save money and recording everything from prices to conversation at dinner to the patter of the guides at the main sites. ‘Here is a stone Christ leaned against, and here is the English Hotel,’ his guide explained. ‘That arch is where Christ was shown to the people, right by the window where is the best coffee in Jerusalem.’
During his darkest bipolar days, Melville sought out graveyards and stony fields, leper colonies and funeral processions. After one especially bad night he said he felt ‘utterly used up,’ as if ‘broken on the wheel.’ Yet even then, irony was a a steady railing. Outside Istanbul he noted Roman cemeteries being farmed as ad hoc garden plots. Of Constantine’s fallen legions, he said they had been ‘sowed in corruption and raised in potatoes.’…
Here’s why journals mattered to those grand old American idealists and still matter to me. Our brains are really good at being idea factories, but journals make us smarter by letting us remember how smart we already are. My theory is that we have tidal waves of insight all day long–in fact, I think most of us have a thousand ideas per hour–but if we don’t write things down, all those quirky thoughts and clever phrases rush immediately back out to sea, leaving behind a mudflat inhabited only by stunned fish and perplexed regret.”
–Charles Hood, Nature Journals for Fun and Profit, from his collection of essays, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature
“…13…Yet I must say, when it comes to starlings they are snappy looking birds, aren’t they? Just considered objectively, they are worth appreciating for their plumage and their willingness to make a living even in the middle of our very busy cities.
14. Because the thing is, I live when I live, and while I can yearn for the passenger pigeon or the truly stupendous and entirely extinct Carolina parakeet, that won’t help me get through the day. I have to love what the day allows me to love, and my days include–for better or worse but they do–plumped-up little balls of starling-ness in the morning sunshine on the tops of my neighbor’s Italian (I think?) cypress, and when the light catches them, oh how they shine.
…47. There are four hundred species of monkey in the world, and another four hundred species of parrot. Some of the parrot species we have already wiped out, permanently and inexorably. Some we have saved. Some live in our cities. Maybe in each lifetime we get no more nature than we deserve, and in that case, shame on our fathers before us. But it is not too late: We can make better choices now, a minute from now, in ten minutes. We can always make better choices. It is not too late.
48. Camille Dungy: ‘Ask me if I speak for the snail and I will tell you/ I speak for the snail.’
49. If the insidious message of capitalism is You’re alone; you’re not good enough; be worried, be fearful, then the default message from a parrot flock is, Dress loud, make noise, and tell everybody to meet at the silk-floss tree–Mom’s not home and ain’t nobody gonna call the cops.
50. At night my dreams flare red and green, and each day when I wake up, I look out the window and there it is again, brighter, more saturated: a tree, a flower, a squirrel, a cloud, the shadows of leaves applauding against the driveway, the one dandelion I forgot to weed, the subtle jostle that could be a passing box truck or train or a very minor earthquake or maybe just the dome of the globe inhaling to fill itself with light, ready for another day of crescendo and shine.”
–Charles Hood, Fifty Dreams for Forty Monkeys, from his collection of essays, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature
“The poets I studied in college, the so-called War Poets who wrote from the desolate trenches of the War to End All Wars, the Great War, the long horror show that we now call World War I, those writers had a deep appreciation for skylarks. This bird is all over British poetry, from Wordsworth’s ‘etherial minister’ to Shelley’s ‘blithe spirit.’ It’s even hidden among Ted Hughes’s crows. In actual fact, the skylark is a streaky finch not all that different from any other little brown job. If you saw one scratching around in the weeds, it would not catch your eye–just another sparrow, boring and invisible. but if you’re living in the mud and terror of a wet trench, and if your view of nature is whatever slit of sky you can make out past the parapets, then a bird with a magic voice and the lively habit of going straight up to sing from on-high–skylarking, to use the correct verb–is going to seem like a vision sent by the angels. Of course you’re going to write about it.”
–Charles Hood, Divorce Insurance, from his collection of essays, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature
“During my own version of a gentleman’s Grand Tour [of Natural History Museums], I have tried to connect most of the NHM dots. That includes the Smithsonian, the Field Museum in Chicago, American NHM in New York, Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia, Iziko in Cape Town, Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, NHM London, and NHM LA. If taxidermy is art, these are its most vaulted cathedrals. ART: wow, such a big claim for anything, let alone a stuffed hippopotamus standing in plastic mud. Yet these scenes meet most definitions. (1) Display of virtuoso skill/craft. (2) Composition: balance: rule of thirds. (3) Worthy of a repeat visit, prolonged study. (4) Inspires new work and hence helps to extend the cultural conversation. (5) Makes viewers–some of them, some of the time–uncomfortable. Francis Bacon believed that ‘the job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.’ (6) Departures: we can escape the quotidian when we are doing dioramas attentively. Critic Peter Schjeldahl was asked, ‘What is art for?’ He answered, ‘Vacations from myself.’ (7) Also: ‘To delight and instruct,’ per Horace. (8) If there are small, dull, unambitious diorama scenes, so what. There are loads of utterly mundane, snore-fest landscapes and baskets of Dutch fruit and proforma altar pieces filling the walls in the world’s art museums, and that fact does not lessen the power or value of the best art, the real art. (9) Damien Hirst’s tiger shark in formaldehyde is a diorama waiting to happen. (10) Just as it is naive to say of a Jackson Pollock abstraction, ‘My kid could have done that,’ the NHM diorama itself manipulates perspective in a way no camera lens can achieve. You can buy Nikon’s most expensive lens–$16,000 won’t even cover the tab–and even so, these are still not scenes you will ever photograph on safari in Kenya.”
–Charles Hood, Love and Sex in Natural History Dioramas, from his collection of essays, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature
“It’s hard to be happy in the world. Nature is one way to fill the ballast tanks back up. Not the only way of course, but one way, one very reliable way.
Some theories of aesthetics say full pleasure has to come from dark and light mixed together. Shakespeare knows when to have a moment of comedy or wordplay lighten the mood, before going back to eating babies and maiming eyes. So should the boat catch fire now, or a squid’s giant tentacle slither over the railing and drag away one of the minor characters?
I vote no.
The darkness is out there, but let’s hold off on experiencing it, thinking about it, admitting that we are all just sinners in the hands of an angry god, at least until we get back to dock.
Besides all the whales, this has been a good birdy day…
A lull in sightings allows me a chance to turn and survey a full circle of horizon. It blurs and shakes, since I am tired and it’s time to clean my lenses, but inside the Zeiss glass is a world of infinite texture and crenellation. Water is never static, never plain; it heaves and rolls; it shimmies, jostles, allegros, and collapses; it teases the horizon, promising distance yet never revealing a clean edge. Up close, there is a nervous chaos that excites us but excludes us: the scale of motion is planetary, not human. And the answer to the question, What color is the sea? is another question shot right back: What color isn’t it?…
Prompted by those morbid revelations, cetacean researchers came up with a away to age bowhead whales by measuring the lens of the eye, and if the methodology is correct, they have found whales who are 135, 172, and even 211 years old. Are all the whales out there in their hundreds? If the data are correct, each of these measured animals lived through the worst of the whaling eras, historic and modern. What wounds and memories they must carry inside their bodies, their hearts, their troubled, chthonic souls…
Even so, we go on, each of us. Sitting in the late slant sun on the back of a boat, salt lipped, slit eyed, gull lifted, I finally can hear what the water has been trying to tell me all day, and that is that none of us should be in mourning, or at least not for long, but instead should use the last of the light to write a thank-you note to the gods. There are indeed such animals as whales (we did not kill them all)–thank you. And that there is a color the Romans knew, glaucous, and it is not blue, not gray, not green, but all of those at once, and while we may no longer have a word for that hue, it is out there, and water can be that color, and today I saw it, so thank you. We crossed a wall of baitfish, and birds circled the boat like ecstatic confetti, and I don’t even know what kind they were, but thank you. Good friends wait for me on land, and the simple pleasures of hot baths and warm beds. Thank you. Somewhere inside the cloud chamber that is my camera waits a perfect picture of a dolphin. If I wake up tonight and stand at the hotel window, no matter how late it is, I will hear the distant sea lions talking to each to each. If I listen just a bit longer, I might hear a great horned owl. I do believe I deserve to be happy, but it still stuns me to be this happy. If I want to go back out tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and even the day after that, there will be a boat ready to do that, and if not a boat, then a kayak or just a piece of the shore where I can sit and look and write and think. If the blue whales migrate away, then the gray whales will fill in their places, and when they finally get done with California and go off to Alaska, something else will be here instead, maybe an orca, maybe a beaked whale, maybe the first right whale in a hundred years, or maybe some new and marvelous creature never spoken of before in the history of science. I am sorry if I am blinking like such a newbie. I never thought I would get this far, to be honest, to be allowed to see and feel so much. Whatever holy stick magicked this day into existence, and whatever rod drove us forward and herded the clouds in the sky and beat out such an exact and perfect tempo–
–Charles Hood, Landscape with Unicorns and Barnacles, from his collection of essays, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature